My Joy Williams immersion continues, this time with The Visiting Privilege. Two thumbs up, way up…
- This is a collection of short stories from all over the place, so there is no set theme to them. That said, some of the usual Williams themes emerge – the gentle suffering of animals, the blurring of past, present, and future in the minds of characters if not the chronology of the narrative, the unexpected appearance of high art references (usually literary), and the refusal to have conversations end on winning notes.
- The gentle suffering of animals is not something I’d think of as part of her fiction if I hadn’t read her non-fiction. She talks bleakly about how badly we treat both animals and the landscape, but that theme never becomes dominant. I never get the feeling that Williams is preaching at me – instead, I think that I’m sharing her despair at our blind, unconscious destruction of the natural world.
- The blurring of time for her characters is a feature that often makes me laugh. Her characters sound almost Buddhist at times, with conversations about time that show it folding and looping and doing all kinds of funky non-linear things.
- The high art references always come in situations that I don’t expect, once again knocking me off my feet a bit as a reader. I wonder if Williams simply refuses to believe that life without literature (and art) is the way that most of us in the USA live…
- I particularly love how her conversations among characters often end. Rather than finishing with some sort of beautiful proverb or triumphant note, they usually simply end with a bland proverb or observation that actually isn’t all that relevant to the depth of what was just discussed. I have a half dozen examples marked, all of which I’m too lazy to look up, but she does this constantly, and I find it relentlessly beautiful because she manages to make the idea that conversations always have to be directed and have some sort of powerful meaning on its head in a way that yes actually moves what the writer is doing forward.
- She also willingly messes with our sense of the normal. She’s writing from the perspective of the white middle class, but the edginess and fear that are a daily part of this lifestyle are always just below the surface in ways that don’t so much explode as bubble up, oddly and with consequences that most often affect those around her characters instead of them directly.
- I think what her fiction does in this context is make what feels normal odd. Freud’s word is uncanny, but that label implies horror, and the only horror in Williams’s fiction is the blase attitude her characters take towards what feel to me like horrific breaches of propriety.
Nope, I haven’t made any road trips lately…instead, we finished watching Atlanta, the series on F/X. No one, of course speaks for all black experience in these United States, but it’s nice to have someone speaking for at least part of it, in a way that doesn’t step away from stereotypes (I see you The Cosby Show) or glory in them (this guy comes to mind) but instead examines them in an attempt to speak to real, lived experience.
I’m completely unworthy to comment on a series that I think is brilliant, but here are some thoughts:
- It’s especially useful, I think, that F/X made this a series rather than a onetime show or a film. As someone who grew up when teevee sucked – it’s hard to explain just how important Seinfeld was, for instance, as it gleefully exploded every convention that teevee required us to believe in, because teevee has gone so far beyond what Seinfeld ridiculed now – I get giddy thinking about how many truly interesting shows are on now. Part of the reason for the prevalence of series is this desire to capture eyeballs in a saturated landscape, but they are also much better at telling stories than previous visual media, and Atlanta takes advantage of the format.
- In doing that (taking advantage of the format), the series does a lot fascinating things. There are four or five episodes in the middle of Season 2, for instance that barely feature Glover at all. That might be because he was off filming Star Wars (ick), or doing any of a number of other projects, but man, those episodes were powerful and both logically connected to the series and outside of it enough to show that there is no rigid devotion to a narrative that starts to feel forced pretty quickly (think Cheers, think M*A*S*H, think any of the great shows of the past).
- And don’t allow me to confuse the series’s desire to talk about lived experience with ignoring race and ethnicity – this show is saturated with a discussion about the construct of race even though it doesn’t call itself by some cute name that makes this connection obvious. As much as we might want to think that it’s a simple story of a young man trying to support his family – which it is – it’s mostly about a young man trying to make his way in a world that at best socializes white people to think he’s lazy and at worst, well, we know the answer to that…
- There’s far more to be said, but I’d suggest watching it and not reading a white guy talking about it…
Acceptance is the third novel of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and if the reviews on Goodreads are any clue reaction to it was decidedly mixed. I loved what it does, even if the ways in which I was occasionally confused left me scratching my head a bit.
- This novel is a naturalist’s dream. Vandermeer clearly knows the Southern Reach area (somewhere on the Gulf coast at the crook of Florida) well, and he evokes its wildness in ways that are metaphorically immersive (if that’s a thing). It’s not the sort of area that evokes the type of rugged men in the wilderness stories that lots of naturalists love, but it is the type of natural area that screams wilderness that doesn’t need humans.
- My guess is that’s part of the reason that Vandermeer sets the trilogy here. In an interview that I can’t find again Vandermeer says that he sets the trilogy in the Southern Reach because he knows it intimately, having lived there for a number of years, but I’m guessing that he was inspired by the landscape as well.
- No plot spoilers here – as I think we expected, the island becomes the focus of the planet’s resistance. The twist this time is the lightkeeper’s story, which makes the novel more contemporary (the description of the blue collar life of the area is sympathetic and engaging) and to integrate humans into what happens in Area X.
- The remolding of individuals as animals feels hopeful to me, which is probably sort of goofy and points to my general curmudgeonliness. The fact that our molecules get absorbed into the ecosystem is just part of the natural order (if we’ll let it function), and the ways in which Vandermeer bases this third novel on that acceptance with a slight reward for those who get it feels like a beautiful thing.
- I enjoy this sub-genre of scifi alot, even if I’m not sure what to call it. It’s sort of eco-criticism, it’s sort of dystopic, it’s definitely hard science fiction but it’s also definitely not set in space. The ending is ambiguous, but I’m pretty sure that the novel posits that Area X is the planet’s most dramatic response to humans trashing it, rather than an alien invasion of some sort, and in my more pessimistic moments I can’t help but wonder if it’s not some sort of cosmic retribution.
In order to be fully versed in what I plan to have as a series of podcasts this summer, I have been reading some of the research on Millenials. Twenge was recommended to me by someone who has several clients who are millenials, and that person thought that Twenge’s conclusions were supported by what they have seen. My thoughts are below:
- Twenge’s research method and her writing are a bit different. She bases the book (this is the second edition, and it’s had a chapter added) on some pretty interesting surveys done for dozens of years now on high school and college students. She and her grad students have compiled lots of these studies and have gone back through the questions they asked, enabling her to make some fairly broad statements with at least the backing of several surveys that have not changed the questions they have asked, enabling a solid set of responses.
- She also uses google’s word search features in interesting ways, looking to see the prevalence of key phrases in fiction over the years.
- She then pull anecdotal evidence from her classes, the classes of friends, her kids, and her kid’s friends, topped off with a heavy dose of pop culture.
- The anecdotes and pop culture bugged me occasionally because of their, well, anecdotal nature, but they also made her writing very lively. She’s funny as shit as well, and takes a fairly Gen X approach to kids these days.
- I kept wanting to know where she stands on this generation, and I kept feeling frustrated because I felt she wasn’t sympathetic enough. I also kept trying to check myself, because lots of what she has identified – again at fairly high levels – is spot on and very useful, and of course can’t be applied to everyone. She does note thought that she finds generational differences compelling because of the similarity of the culture that kids are raised in, whether that culture be pop or parenting.
- A clear limitation that I’m not sure she acknowledges enough are the disparities in income, ethnicity, and gender. She tries throughout, but the book does read as a snapshot of a very specific class, race, and gender perspective.
- She also has no problem noting where she thinks Generation Me is far beyond its predecessors, especially in the acceptance of LGBTQ folks.
- She finishes with a set of advice that she offers employers – my guess is that this is a solid consulting business for her.
- In combination with Malcolm Harris’s Kids These Days and danah boyd’s work for Microsoft, there is a solid body of research out there about this generation. I’m not sure where the whole ‘we know we are being observed factor comes in’…
This novel happens in a world torn apart by geological instability, with surface upheavals nearly wiping out all life at irregular intervals, and humanity desperately trying to find ways to survive. That doesn’t mean that this is a Star Trek prime directive type of world with all of us working together because we are human, goshdangit. Power gets incremented into social structures in familiar but horrifying ways.
- As is clear from the overview, this novel resonated with me mostly due to the way it describes how power becomes institutionalized. No one is obviously evil – instead, folks like the guardians are simply doing what they were trained to do. They might even believe that their actions are world-saving, although we seem far beyond that…
- It builds a world that had me looking for reference points that simply weren’t there. After I stopped looking the enormity of what Jemisin is doing became clearer – she’s interested in power, especially as it manifests itself socially, and she’s utilized the structures inherent in the world to look at how connections with the primal forces of our geology have the potential to shape how we relate with each other.
- The sell-by date on the planet also neatly contrasts with the Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, life-will-find-a-way happy dance. Yeah, maybe, but only if the enormous power that resides in the molten rock that exists just below us as we hurtle through the deathly cold of space says sure, for a while…
- I also tagged this as ‘gestalt’ because of the ways that the oregenes function. They can essentially draw upon the energy inherent in rock (and the environment around them) to do all sorts of stuff, and their function in this novel is purportedly to prevent the types of geological upheaval that will wipe out life. The utilization of this kind of mind power functions differently than the obsession with magery and sorcery that becomes an easy out in a lot of fantasy, and Jemisin is doing some interesting stuff. I look forward to the rest of the series…
In addition to the deep diving I’m doing for my second read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I read the second novel in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Authority. I’m enjoying this series a lot…and, as always, thoughts:
- The gradual dissolution of government authority, with the increased anxiety felt by Control, is a nice subversion of the scientists losing control of the project trope that often runs through science fiction. There is no control, at all, and the fact that the government tries to impose it even though the scientists there (who are trying to be team players) are telling them that there is no such thing neatly tweaks a tired theme.
- I’m glad to see the biologist back, and particularly glad that she escaped. Here’s hoping that the dive into the portal at the end is as cool as it sounds.
- The idea that an ecological disaster is underplayed by authority fits the standard sort of pr by crisis approach, I think. It’s the sort of vague, tepid, ultimately ridiculous response that stands in for our own response to climate change. When our kids are underwater we will probably grow very concerned and write stern letters to the people in charge.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy, and, having read this, I am excited about the rest. This novel reads like a fever dream in a sense, with an emotionally repressed narrator who is a biologist, and who narrates the entire novel in the first person. We have no idea if she’s reliable or not, although the only details I question are who shot first in the murder she commits (in the novel it’s self-defense).
- The title speaks to annihilation of self that happens as the various expeditions of humans penetrate Area X, a location that felt both Pacific NW and Gulf Coast (it’s Gulf Coast, as Vandermeer demonstrates by thanking the folks at St. Mark’s National Seashore in Florida). This area that seems to be some sort of biological infestation (perhaps extraterrestrial, perhaps not) is slowly expanding, and humans are trying to stop this expansion, but no group that enters the territory emerges unscathed.
- Several amazing passages – the first:
The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?
While this is an interesting thought in and of itself, I found it particularly useful in the context of the novel. The maps are all drawn up from natural contours – narrative description serves as our way to understand Area X from a human perspective, one that grows increasingly confused as the narrator proceeds (her husband, for instance, might or might not have disappeared to an island north, an island that is outside the boundaries of Area X, or isn’t).
- The second focuses on the words written on the walls of what the narrator calls The Tower (it is called a Tunnel by the other members of her expedition, and that feels more like I what I think of when I think of tunnels based on the description). They are written by what she calls the Crawler, which is some sort of shimmery powerful being that has incorporated parts of much of this area, including the former lighthouse keeper. A sample:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner… The narrator posits that these words serve as some sort of “core,
irreplaceable substance” that creates The Tower, although – fittingly in this novel – she has no idea how that process works (passage on p. 159)
My guess here is that this indecipherable creature goes beyond some sort of scripter but serves as a means of coalescing all known grammar and languages in a larger sense in one structure that humans can recognize. The fact that the party has different names for it – tunnel and tower, two seemingly incompatible labels – argues for this view.
- Another set of words in The Tower:
That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated shall walk the world in a bliss of not-knowing” – as close as this novel gets to invoking zombies…
- And the final set, reminding us of the title:
“Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?” (306)
The annihilation is of self, of course, but it’s also of notions like identity, ethnocentrism, and perhaps human dominance of the natural world.