In The Topeka School, Lerner uses the fractured narrative technique that he has used in his other novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. His use of his own life experiences as a foundation for meditations on the intersections between fiction and fact is a technique that I’ve had to grow accustomed to, and the ways that he uses it to track cultural narrative threads feels more useful the deeper I get into his prose.
That depth might also be because he’s getting better at connecting the fiction he produces with larger cultural issues outside himself, connections that are very apparent in this novel. This novel doesn’t ever feel self-indulgent (and that’s a critique I’m too quick to attach to a text), and the social implications are part of the reason why.
- The Topeka School actually exists, and formed a key part of Lerner’s childhood. The contrast between it – a center developed to help people recover from trauma and better understand themselves – could be played off in contrast to a Topeka that has bred the Westboro Baptist Church.
- Lerner’s novel does not simply work the binary – thoughtful development of who we are = good, grifters posing as bomb-throwing religious fundamentalists = bad – though. He layers the two world-view together, showing how they combine to encompass all aspects of a specific cultural moment, and uses several points of view to illuminate how these worlds intersect.
- The threads that this novel plucks speak clearly to some of our current cultural issues. In particular, the narrator who is a champion debater plays the debate game in the traditional way – in-depth knowledge of a subject used to produce compelling arguments while also crushing counter-arguments posed by the opposing side.
- The new style is called The Spread (I’m guessing that Lerner adds the capitalization, if indeed this is a term in the debate world). In it, the debater spews as many arguments as they can, adopting a beats-per-minute approach in the hope that the opponent simply cannot address all the arguments proposed in the time allotted, thus losing by technicality.
- Of course, this style aligns horribly efficiently with the way that argument works on social media, an argumentative style that I often see on Twitter – ‘research’ becomes finding a video by who-knows-who that supports your point, creating a hit-and-skip-off-the-surface style that keeps always adding new, barely-related points to a discussion rather than pursuing one specific train of thought until a satisfactory conclusion can be arrived at.
- Yep, it’s the opposite of Platonic, which may or may not be the point. It’s clearly effective in a sense – expertise becomes completely devalued, and the idea of research-by-google gains value that is completely out of proportion to what that ‘research’ provides in addressing real problems.
- Lerner makes clear what’s at stake by this shift to The Spread in his last narrative view, one in which a young couple participates in an anti-ICE protest in Brooklyn, and he finishes the novel with the narrator telling us how perhaps the only way to combat The Spread is with our bodies.
Lerner’s work is both subtle and not, sophisticated and graceful while being sledgehammer clear. I still have not read his poetry – so many poets to read, some of whom I should probably talk about on here – but his novels manage to be thoughtful, intellectual, and page-turning, with characters that even though (or perhaps because?) they are very close to life are ones that I care about. The fractured narrative – holding up a mirror so closely to reality that the reflection itself is distorting – allows me as a reader to see my own experiences and how they are distorted in ways that have impacts far beyond the fun house.
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…
Tade Thompson’s first novel in this trilogy features an alien psychic/cellular invasion, sensitives, healing domes, the Nigerian secret service, the zenosphere, and dreams that invade the biological world. Yep, that’s a lot, and it’s pretty amazing.
- I won’t spoil this for you, but the alien invasion is unlike any I’ve read about. In that sense the novel feels almost Dhalgrenesque, as the narrative goes through multiple entry points, and loops back in on itself. Unlike in Delany’s novel, however, Thompson also provides readers with locators, often chronological. I never felt lost, like I constantly did (intentionally I’m guessing) in Dhalgren.
- The other obvious reference is Pat Cadigan, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she served as a reader (or in some other capacity) in Thompson’s acknowledgments. This novel moves in that same mindsphere that Cadigan explores, although it expands far beyond where she went.
- Kaaro, our protagonist, is an interesting cat – he was recruited by the Nigerian secret service to help them better understand the alien invader, one that we find out has landed three times already, with catastrophic results. He can use his powers to disrupt and even cause other people to hurt themselves, so in a sense they serve as a superpower.
- They don’t really feel like that, however,
- Thompson’s use/creation of the zenosphere is compelling. The alien presence (one that has its own backstory, which we learn bits about later in the novel) opens new potential for humanity in ways that are often thought of in cyberspace as digitally-based. This one is completely biological, and thus both far different (it requires special brain capabilities that might or might not be centered in the redone structure of the brain itself) and very similar (most humans who travel in the zenosphere use avatars, which can have sex) to those now-standard mindscapes popularized by The Matrix.
Needless to say I am greatly looking forward to the rest of the series. Novels like this posit alternatives to the way we live now (with apologies to Evelyn Waugh) that hopefully can lead us to better futures.
I picked up Your Duck is my Duck based on a recommendation from a best-of 2018 list, and I’m glad I did. Eisenberg’s stories aren’t the sort I usually read – they’re full of rich, spoiled people who aren’t always aware of how horrible they are, and in general her work is not all that kind to homo sapiens sapiens. I flew through these though, in that way that makes me have to intentionally slow down, and that alone speaks to my enjoyment.
- These stories aren’t really all that concerned with class, and while they show the rich in a fairly awful light they’re not satires out of New Yorker, stories designed to help confirm the image we already have of just how terrible rich people are.
- Instead, thematically they’re much more concerned with time. A typical narrator’s overview reads like this:
But seriously, wasn’t that the whole point of the past? The point of the past is that it’s immutable (p.42)
- This is a narrator who hints at the ways that time bends, but not in a Matthew McConnaughey in True Detective way. Time in this configuration sashays and flirts around and is just sort of naughty, promising us all kinds of delights and then slamming the door as we try to re-imagine them from our past.
- Another from the story “Recalculating”:
The day, so fresh and glistening, seemed to contain every summer that had ever been and to promise more, endless more. (206)
- Her stories are full of these little hints, all spoken in a narrative voice that is distinctive, fun, and deadly…
- And in its virtual hands time becomes a strange creature, one that certain of those among us with a shamanistic bent can read and perhaps even ride…just never control.
- The narrator is also consistent, speaking in a voice that feels both innocent and lively and enthusiastic as well as winking at the characters for us (and probably at us as well, for being, well, dumb).
- Finally, I’m not sure I’ve read a story as light and airy and depressing as “Merge,” which functions as a sort of mini-novella in the middle of the collection. I won’t go into too many details, but one character evaluation will probably tell you all you need to know – the investment banker who is convicted of fraud and seems at best a deadbeat dad is not the least likable character.
- The story also features a return to the primordial ooze, as Cordis, a wastrel son who his dad (the banker) may or may not want killed, ends up in a dream watching his dead shoot a homo heidelbergensis (a particularly fearsome potential ancestor of ours) in the head.
- Again, not my usual cup of tea, but man I enjoyed this collection…
Homesick for Another World is a collection of Otessa Moshfegh’s short stories, and it works differently than her novels. Novels reward those who are patient, both writers and readers, the observer who identifies details and winnows important observations from those that do not contribute to the text’s mission. Short stories tend to be far more of an exercise in immediate gratification. In particular, short story characters can tend to be more outrageous since there is no time to develop them.
- Moshfegh does not cotton to this strategy – even in this format her characters don’t reveal much of themselves, and only sometimes.
- This approach makes them even less sympathetic in some ways, and forced me as a reader to do some work. Rather than pile characters into those categories that I often resort to – I like them, I don’t like them, I like them sometimes – I had to look more carefully at the brutalizations that they both inflicted and endured.
- I also had to look at the validity of my own reactions – is this a way to read fiction, as a judgment on characters? I try not to do that even in real life, so my guess is no…
- Her approach to these characters also meant that the narrative voice often felt arrogant in ways that I did not feel comfortable with. That discomfort is good – arrogance among the brutally unaware is a feature not a bug, I think…
- I also found myself reading for redemption, which I would argue is a common way for audiences in the US in particular to read. We want happy endings, and if the character is not a good person we want them to at least admit that they are indeed not a good person.
- This does not happen in Moshfegh’s work.
- So, are these arrogant, irredeemable characters worth reading about? Yes, absolutely, although I am struggling with the why. There are probably two reasons that are compelling…
- From a metafictional perspective, this type of character (and they run a wide range of genders) works to subvert what we expect in fiction, and Moshfegh offers a much wider variety than say Bukowski, whose characters all seem to be some version of himself.
- Character portraits of folks who are not historically evil but simply not very aware of the damage that they do are way harder to pull off and damaging to the general lack of self-consciousness and intentionality that we often think of as a critical element in fiction.
- We all want to be Emma, in some ways, capable of both growth and recognizing the need to grow. There are no Emmas in what Moshfegh is doing…
- Finally, the last three stories in this collection (yes, I’m a rules-follower and read them in order) were different – nostalgic in the title of the collection sense, rife with a sense of alienation that in my mind helps to establish the narrator’s credibility as a reliable source of all these types of personalities. Moshfegh’s ability to write in so many voices is uncanny, and kept me wondering what the hell was coming next…
- In that sense, this collection fits snugly with Eileen, a novel in which I kept waiting for the character to do something horrible, a tension that is never paid off directly but instead contributes to the general sense of daily horror that comes from this sense of having no reason to keep going forward (and yet we keep going forward anyway).
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).
I re-read The Plot Against America for a class I’m teaching (original post is here), and I’m a little surprised by how different my reaction is to it this time. Of course, I’m now reading it after the first open gathering of Nazis I can remember in the United States since Skokie in 1977. Full disclosure on that, by the way – a friend of mine’s dad perhaps went to not-so-peacefully demonstrate and maybe punch a Nazi. I’m pretty sure he succeeded.
- This is an interesting twist on genre, one that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time: it’s an autobiography used to make an alternate history more personal. One of the flaws of alternate histories is that authors face a dilemma – do I rewrite the personal history of well-known historical figures, or do I invent fictional personas to allow me to make this a story and not an alternate history textbook? Folks have taken all kinds of different approaches of course, but Roth’s decision to rewrite his own history into this narrative gives the novel a intense, adolescent-boy perspective that feels very on the ground.
- From a craft perspective, I’m still in a little bit of shock that Roth tells what happens before he finishes the autobiographical part of the novel. I’m guessing that holding us as readers in suspense until the end was too much, and made the autobiographical portion more important than the larger chronology.
- The picture isn’t of or in the novel, of course, but it does feature the man who defeated FDR and ushered this in, Charles Lindbergh. I don’t think I’ll forget finding out that Lindbergh, who I always viewed as an American hero, turned out to be a fascist sympathizer. Not quite Santa-is-not-real, but still not fun.
- Roth’s ending doesn’t feel as contrived on this read, either – Nazis capturing the Lindbergh baby and holding him ransom (although not presented in the novel as anything but, perhaps, the fever nightmare of Roth’s Aunt Evelyn) while Lindbergh won the election based on his masculinity and his ability to keep the US out of WWII feels way more real now.
- What truly struck me on my re-read, though, was that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I didn’t feel that way the first time, as I was trying to see if Roth was worth all the hype. I’m still not sure about that, but this novel and American Pastoral if nothing else made me rethink what I believe I know about fairly recent American history.
- Unfortunately, I know the motivating force for the page-turning frenzy this time: when I first read this the Charlottesville Nazi rally was still a month away, and Heather Heyer was still alive, and I couldn’t imagine a US president saying that there are very fine people on both sides, that a proto-fascist, homunculean piece of shit would be anywhere near a sitting president, let alone writing immigration policy speeches.
- Setting this novel in the time of WWII also let Roth avoid the problem of having to understand social media and its effects on our elections, an avoidance that I don’t blame him for undertaking.
As if life isn’t short enough, I’m almost done with my re-read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Toll the Hounds is book number eight…
- I often think of fantasy as an attempt to rewrite origins and ideals. Tolkien, for instance, wants to go back and rethink history from a time when kings could perhaps be convinced to be virtuous, the Good King imagined as a starting point from which our own culture can derive in a more just and humane way, one that cleaves closer to an image of a just and good godhead.
- A Song of Ice and Fire, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, attempts to revisit European culture by rethinking our relationship with the natural world. It starts at the Enlightenment, which is pretty bold on Martin’s part but not out of character…
- The MOBTF views this rewrite differently, which isn’t surprising. First, I think that Erikson and Esselmont’s universe starts its rewrite from the place in which humans create cultures, of any and all sorts. They’re not interested in only doing part of human history – instead, they often take us back to our Cromag roots. Talk about having large huevos…
- Secondly, their revisit looks at what we think of when we think of first principles. I’ve written an article on this look in terms of war (and whether or not it can be just, a cultural construction if there ever was one I think), but I always think of it as the MOBTF creates its incredibly complicated and sort of irreverent pantheon of gods.
- Authors definitely have obsessions. Tolkien feels very Catholic in his obsession with suffering, and Martin’s obsession with food highlights his fears that we are destroying the natural world. Erikson’s obsession seems to be with domiciles, whether for travelers or for of the common city variety. We do not see much in the way of farm houses (they’re occasionally destroyed as they sit in the path of war) but we do see lots of city apartments and mansions (and even a palace or two).
- My guess is that this has to do with the one first principle that they try to examine, which is the place of love alongside all the pain and misery and war and casual death. Erikson in particular isn’t sappy – he has children both do and suffer some horrific things – but he does occasionally portray a scene in which a stable family manages some peace and love.
- He also spends a lot of time on city life (which I think lends to the Dickens vibe I get from this series). I think I could write reams on this, but I’ll save it for my next post on a piece of non-fiction based in Detroit…
I’ve waited to blog on this film, because, well, it’s von Trier, which means that usually after watching one of his films I want to curl up in a fetal position for a few hours and sob, quietly, to myself. If you’re wondering about that, I’d say check out Melancholia and Dancer in the Dark, films that for von Trier are relatively accessible, and tell me if you don’t feel the same way.
That was not the case with this one, and I’m not exactly sure why. Thoughts below:
- So, Jack builds a house. Or tries, several times. He’s a talented architect who also happens to be a serial killer with zero empathy for his fellow humans (or animals, for that matter). We saw the director’s cut, but I can’t imagine how the theatrical release is different, since this film felt like it very little wasted space.
- It’s also a film that speaks to a lot of different texts, and serves as a meditation, and asks us to imagine how we’re culpable in atrocities, and asks us why we are silent, and argues that pretending that the presence of art makes us transcend our physical, animal hard wiring, and asks us to think about the big concepts of religion (heaven and hell, physical and spiritual), and, well, I’m sure you get it…
- One short blog post clearly is not going to suffice for an examination of it…
- What stuck with me the most, perhaps, is Jack’s descent into ever-increasing layers of horrific behavior. At every point along the way he invites us (through both his actions, his reflections on those actions, and the conversation he has with his own personal Virgil as von Trier makes his not-very-subtle point) to step away, pretty much telling us that the next thing he will do will be even more terrible than the last. von Trier’s point is that only rare individuals among us actually do step away, and sometimes we even try to call that impulse (to observe the horrific spectacle) art.
- Jack, throughout, is both oblivious to the pain and terror he causes *and* willing to call us, the audience, out on our own depravity. His actions are pretty open for a serial killer, and von Trier even plays them for comedy, with a Benny Hill-like speeded-up camera that observes Jack carry a body up and down the stairs of an apartment building, or has Jack encourage his victim to scream (and he even screams himself), knowing that no one will help them.
- Every time I thought okay, that’s as nasty as we can get, von Trier made sure to take us one step further…by the end of the film Jack is deliberately recreating Nazi execution methods, even while the police finally start breaking down the door of his horror chamber. They, of course, are only there because Jack has left a stolen police car, with the siren running, immediately outside his lair.
- I haven’t spoken about his horror chamber, but von Trier makes clear that Jack has no qualms about evidence of his crimes piling up. Jack isn’t a member of a crime family, trying to get rid of evidence. Instead, he builds a small house that consists solely of the corpses of those he has killed.
- And that house covers the entrance to hell, an entrance that Jack’s own Virgil leads him through.
- In this film von Trier is ridiculously not subtle, especially in the context of all of his other films, which are often subtle to the point of obtuseness. As odd as this seems, I wonder if this is von Trier commenting on the rising tide of anti-empathy that has engulfed the US with the rise of Trump, various South American countries like Venezuela, and of course most of western and central Europe.
- And the fact that Jack never gets made to answer for his crimes (with the eventual fact that the criminal gets his deserved fate, thus justifying our own bloodlust in watching these films in the first place) is simply yet another way that von Trier sees us as inculcated in all of the atrocities committed in art as well as in reality.
- Early in the film Jack’s internal monologue invokes the idea of catharsis (I think) as a justification for our own fascination with bloody and horrific spectacles. Jack for his part doesn’t buy this theory – he speaks in much more fundamental terms of heaven and hell, first principles that don’t allow us to use art as an insulating layer that keeps us from acknowledging our own depravity.
- von Trier can take this approach (I think of this film as a meditation and reflection, on both his own complicity and ours) *because* his career has been built on his willingness to push all kinds of edges, in both craft and theme. His films comment relentlessly on these borders, and he has constantly toyed with what it means to be an artist (or to be called one), so he has earned this right.
- I actually felt sort of exhilarated at the end, and I’m not sure I’m all that happy about my own immediate reaction.