In reading for the essay I’m writing on Kentucky Route Zero I have been trying to pick up everything I can from literary the genres that the developers Cardboard Computer pull from. That includes Child of God, by Cormac McCarthy, although I cannot imagine two more dissimilar narratives. Thoughts:
- The most straightforward approach to thinking of this novel is to consider it a meditation on living life without love of any sort. That approach works to explain Lester Ballard.
- It skips, however, the reasons why Lester is like this. We get a bit of his backstory, but why he is driven out of town is a story that we don’t get.
- That gap, I think, allows us as readers to fill in our own backstory, and thereby read Lester as we want to read him. Depraved, evil, barely human, either made that way from the womb or gradually transformed into such because of those who raised him – either way, he’s a cipher, someone we can paint our own worldly perspective on.
- The landscape also serves as a sort of cipher. It’s set in Tennessee, and while I think of east Tennessee in particular as beautiful, Smoky Mountain-dominated set of valleys and rivers and ledges and hardwood trees, a reader can clearly view it instead as a harsh landscape that takes a toll on its inhabitants. Again, the approach is yours.
- Thinking of Lester as being on a journey seems ridiculously hippieish (and it is). The journey is one of depravity and anti-socialness to an extreme, showing the gradual breakdown of someone who simply cannot play well with others.
- So, then, why does McCarthy write this shit? George Saunders in an interview said that he writes in order to show that the world is a cruel place and that he finds worth in understanding how people understand and deal with that cruelty, but I never get the sense that McCarthy gives a shit about that.
- Is it redemption? Uh, no. No one in this novel, or hell, nearly any novel of his besides maybe The Road gets any sort of redemption. Lester dies as miserably as he lived, and we as readers don’t even get the benefit of learning some sort of moral lesson – treat people right or they become monsters, or something like that.
- Is it a sociological/ethnographic study? If so, I’m not sure what we can learn, except that some people can only relate to dead people, after they have fucked them. I’m hoping that’s a small demographic.
- And yet the novel made me laugh a couple of times, and I had trouble putting it down. I’m not sure what that says about me…
And of course James Franco made it into a movie…
I’m digging reading George Saunders’s stuff, and Tenth of December is no exception. Some thoughts:
- Although these stories will not be classified as dystopias, they take place in a USA that is clearly degraded from where we were (at some point, mythically perhaps). This group of stories is perhaps not quite as dramatically set fifteen minutes in the future, but it still takes place in a country that has seen many of its current trends – especially the separation of the one percenters, and the disturbing attempts by those of us who aren’t to kiss the one percenters’ collective asses – speed up.
- The title story is actually sort of touching, despite its background. A middle-aged person dying from cancer (slowly, with very little dignity, as befits Trump’s USA), decides to commit suicide and actually gets redemption from saving a young boy from freezing to death. Saunders allows him to die in the middle of a warm living room, surrounded by the boy’s single mom who is thanking him and trying to bring him back.
- “Home,” a story about a vet who returns home to lots of people thanking him for his service and to his crazy family’s attempts to stay in their home, felt about as real to me as any of the other returning vet stories. The vet tells us at the end that we need to take responsibility for our actions that caused him to pursue this path, and that complicated algorithm feels very much like a way to think responsibility, consequences, and war.
- None of these stories felt like they had the same wild energy as CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, his first collection of short stories, but felt more along the lines of what I expect from a narrative. They definitely were not Hemingwayesque, as he feared his prose was when he first started writing, but they met narrative expectations more clearly. I admired the chaos and vision of the first set a lot, so there are pluses and minuses to this change.
- I admire the fact that he writes short stories. Too often I think fiction writers feel they have to write novels. These short stories feel perfect, and clearly identify the way in which (as a friend who is a screenwriter told me) good writing wrings all of the emotion out of an image or scene.
I have been wanting to read Saunders for a long time, and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline made me wonder what I had been waiting for. Some thoughts:
- A colleague at another university made a joke about Pynchon novels, something about no one ever finishing them. The joke confused me – this person is a fellow academic (and someone who I assume reads a lot), and I couldn’t help but think, well, shit, I have finished several Pynchon novels. I guess the desire for clear moral lessons and the ability to determine who is the great American novelist wins out?
- His chapter about his career was fascinating, because he talks about how trying to write like Hemingway crushed him. He sucked as a writer, couldn’t get anything published, and the process felt miserable. When he turned to the style of writing in this collection, he said he felt liberated, and that writing was fun, and that he had ideas. These are all good things.
- The fascination with theme parks as a representation of American culture is inspired, and the types of theme parks he creates, in which working class heroes barely hang on by performing increasingly degrading labor in these insane places.
- His protagonists know that increasingly things are going bad, but they have enough innate goodness and belief in the American dream that they keep blaming themselves for the problems in their lives.
- Outside, the larger culture blames others – the novella features a character who has mutated and is labelled as Flawed, and he is constantly persecuted, put into slavery, and made to realize that he is not the master of his own destiny.
- I thoroughly enjoyed this collection…
Emma Cline’s The Girls veers from hippie-punching to anxiety about Others to the desire of bystanders to consider themselves capable (and culpable) in an interesting, quick read. Some thoughts:
- As much as hippie punching can be, I get tired of the constant need to write out anything good that happened in the sixties and focus on the evils…of course, that’s not exactly what this novel does, but it is the context that I often read rewrites of the sixties in…
- That said, Cline does several things that are particularly interesting in here…
- From a sheer craft perspective, Cline has a knack for odd verbs (or descriptors) that disrupted my attempts to read this novel in a generic fashion. Just when I would begin thinking, oh, here we go, we get the standard alienated teen hates the world but learns something in the end novel, Cline would use a verb that gave a glimpse of a whole different world lurking beyond the edge of the Helter-Skelterish approach to this Manson look-alike family.
- The perspective provided by the older woman looking back on her teenage self took an interesting twist because it comes from the bystander who is caught up in a teenage obsession with someone beside the charismatic Manson wannabe. While the narrator feels his charisma and ability to be a savior for the others on the Farm (or the Ranch?), she is in love with one of his women.
- Some of the passages that felt most effective to me were the ones in which she looks back on her younger self and realizes some of the ways in which girls are forced to define themselves through their attractiveness (and attempts to attract) boys. The Goodreads entry for the novel has a bunch of great cited passages, but this effect builds in ways that the novel reads as much as a warning to young girls as it does a look at the identity-build of Evie (and the girls on the Farm).
- The bystander approach enables Cline to do some interesting things from a narrative point of view. Rather than be clued in to how broken the object of the narrator’s affection is, we get this gradually revealed to us as the narrator (Evie) tells the story.
- I think that what I found really useful is the way that this sort of approach made me think about the process of being a reader. I kept finding myself leaving behind chunks of my assumptions as I proceeded – at first I was sort of off-put because this felt like another of the deranged lesbian genre, but I gradually saw that Evie’s obsession with Susan was just that, a teenage girl’s obsession with someone who at first looks cooler than Jesus.
My Name is Lucy Barton is the second Elizabeth Strout novel I have read, all in the last six weeks. It’s different in content and narrative perspective from Olive Kitteridge but similar in tone. As always, some thoughts:
- Both of these texts move through narrative timelines in willfully chaotic ways. I hope that what Strout is doing is allowing her female narrator (and her omniscient one) control over story-telling linearity. In both cases (and this is clearly a tougher case to make in OK with its third-person narration) I felt as if the story was being told in a way that gradually lets us as readers know what the narrator really wanted us to know.
- Barton centers her narrative on the now-published author (in the world of the novel) named Lucy Barton. This is purportedly a memoir of sorts, from Barton’s perspective, so Strout is doing one of those cool Jedi mind tricks where she creates an author who is the narrator who is not really the narrator who may or may not be the author.
- Barton’s story is one of a two-parent family that is dirt poor and abusive (and scarred by the poverty and the abuse). The story zips around in time, as the narrator is in the hospital for a bit (we are not exactly sure why – the reason might be something from her childhood or it might not, it might be abuse by her husband or it might not). Her mother spends time with her, and they have talks that feel as if Barton is a very small child again.
- These talks give us a sense of just how much Barton struggles to get her own voice into the world. Creative writing seems to be something that she was driven to do, and by the time we are inserted into her life she has had some success, but she has had to make this place while maintaining her own self-image as a meek, humble, not-worth-much person.
- While this novels uses narrative devices that occasionally strike me as being too precious, in this context they felt entirely appropriate, even necessary. Strout is subtly portraying the difficulties posed in growing up poor, even with both parents around, and she identifies a crack (or two) and the scars left by poverty. The crack lies in the American dream of equal opportunity, and despite the fact that Barton sort of makes it (and in a much different way than say Sister Carrie), in the persons of her sister and brother we see how perilous that journey is…1 in 3 is not good.
- There is probably much more to say about this, but I will leave that for future posts…
I’m working on an analysis of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series – a dangerous activity since I haven’t finished it yet – and I’m starting to work from the theory that fantasy offers us a chance to rewrite our cultural origin stories. This approach comes from the idea that
- fiction of the apocalypse offers a chance to rewrite our future, minus all the messy stuff that got wiped out in the actual apocalypse and offering us a chance for our chastened, humbled selves to rethink our future along lines more in approach with what we should believe (insert your belief system here); or
- science fiction offers us a chance to write our futures by including all that messy stuff, but adding some sort of paradigm-shifting scientific discovery or technological breakthrough that forces (or enables) us to rethink key assumptions about that future (Gibson’s the-moment-when-it-all-changed)
This approach comes from reading Jessica Hurley’s beautiful article on Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. She argues vociferously for Whitehead’s novel as a corrective to the euphoria about America as a post-racial nation after Obama’s election, and she characterizes Whitehead’s novel as one in which history’s sheer weight crashes down the barriers that we erect to keep it out (this barrier being our history as a slave nation). As she puts it, novels like Whitehead’s enable us to “recover lost histories” and to show how “those disavowed histories manifest themselves in the present and make themselves visible on the surface” – 319.
This helped me think about ways in which Erikson (and Esslemont, although I haven’t read his novels yet) might be critiquing fantasy. I had originally worked from the perspective of identity, and while there’s plenty of identity work going on in this series what I’m particularly interested in right now is how they are critiquing fantasy’s approach to war.
So the argument goes like this, I think…
- the fantasy template that they’re critiquing is from LOTR, of course, and all the thousands of novels afterwards that have gazillions of noble elves, irascible but lovable dwarves, and evil orcs, balrogs, etc.
- this does not include Donaldson, Delaney, et al, and is more directed at those who skipped the Silmarillion, the appendices to LOTR, and so on…Tolkien was a WWI vet, and I don’t think he glamorizes war necessarily, as the glowing sword folks often meet grisly ends in the non-LOTR parts of his world.
- that series rewrites our origin stories about war as a grinding but necessary evil, something that heroes do reluctantly and with no sense of joy but only sorrow and need.
- these same heroes often triumph through sheer will, power, and a magic sword that is attached to some sort of prophesy or other nearly magical power.
(NOTE: for all the admiration I have for Martin, and for what he is trying to do to upend fantasy conventions, I think that he also attempts this recreation – my guess is that ASOIAF reimagines our origin myths about the Enlightenment, especially in terms of accumulating wisdom instead of knowledge)
- we want these heroes – John Snow and maybe Danerys Targaryen in ASOIAF, for instance – and their modern incarnations are Rambo and that sort…
- i’m not trying to ignore all the political arguments and the masculinity issues on display here, as instead I’m looking at another way in which these texts “manifest themselves in the present and makes themselves visible on the surface” in Hurley’s words…
- MBOTF questions the re-imagination in general, and it does in a bunch of ways – war, religion, social structures, and more…
- my first attempt at this will be looking at modes of combat, and the current novel has a couple of distinct markers – we get to see a couple of different takes…
- Brys Benedict’s thoughts: (Dust of Dreams 137) “Soldiers lived difficult lives, Brys well knew. Friends lost in horrible, sudden ways. scars hardening over the years, ambitions crushed and dreams set aside. The world of possibilities diminished and betrayals threatened from every shadow. a soldier must place his or her trust in the one who commands, and by extension in that which the commander serves in turn. in the case of these Bonehunters, Brys understood that they and their Adjunct had been betrayed by their empire’s ruler. They were adrift, and it was all Tavore could do to hold the army together; that they had launched an invasion of Lether was in itself extraordinary. Division and brigades – in his own kingdom’s history- had mutinied in response to commands nowhere near as extreme. For this reason alone, Brys held the Adjunct in true respect, and he was convinced that she possessed some hidden quality, a secret virtue, that her soldiers well recognized and responded to-and Brys wondered if he would come to see it for himself, perhaps this very night”
- Another, more obvious in its implications: (Dust of Dreams 88) “Mortal Sword Krughava reminded Tanakalian of his childhood. She could have stridden out from any of a dozen tales of legend he had listened to curled up beneath skins and furs, all those breathtaking adventures of great heroes pure of heart, bold and stalwart, who always knew who deserved the sharp end of their sword, and who only ever erred in their faith in others-until such time, at the tale’s dramatic climax, when the truth of betrayal and whatnot was revealed, and punishment soundly delivered.”
- The third example comes from the point of view of the warrior priest Tanakalian, wondering at the camaraderie developed by the Malazans: “He understood the necessity for propriety, and the burden of tradition that ensured meaning to all that they did – and all that they were – but he had spent time on the command ship of the Adjunct, in the company of Malazans. They displayed an ease in shared hardship that had at first shocked the Shield Anvil, until he comprehended the value of such behavior. There could be no challenging the discipline of the Bonehunters when battle was summoned. But the force that truly held them together was found in the camaraderie they displayed during those interminably long periods of inactivity, such as all armies were forced to endure. Indeed, Tanakalian had come to delight in their brash lack of decorum, their open irreverence and their strange penchant for revelling in the absurd. (Dust of Dreams 75)
- through a sort of ignored enforcement of military formality, one in which enlisted soldiers grumbled and pranked and spoke freely to officers, determining the best course of action by consensus or by compelling argument rather than sheer power of command. I wonder if Whiskeyjack and Dujek Onearm fit this mode as well…
- all of this speaks to a new model army, one that I think aligns better with modern notions of war than those of the past, at least as we idealize and rewrite that past.
- but my point is that it’s more realistic. I have read some of Bernard Cornwell’s Arthur novels, and I would have never have guessed of the prevalence of the shield wall without reading it. Two sides locked in fierce pushing combat, trying to protect each other, as someone else who I can’t find put it unable to whip out their cool combo moves on each other. It’s as incapable of creating the flashing glorious battle figure as is the idea of charging machine gun nests – moments of individual heroism that are to be celebrated, of course, but no one can overcome the machine gun’s bullets through sheer force of will.
- The Romans, right, conquered through team work and protecting each other…
All this is enough for a start, methinks…
I finished Cole’s most recently republished novel last week, and I wrote a bit about it in an earlier post on the fetishization of service, but I have a couple more notes…
- Cole is acutely aware of both artistic and literary traditions, and knows that he is in conversation with the Achebes of the world. I wonder who else he considers himself speaking with? Does he speak with Nnedi Okorafor (fantasy writer whose novel Who Fears Death? rocked?) Or is he a part of the bourgeoise European artistic tradition that he knows well as an arts scholar? Or is photography his jumping off point?
- The novel struck me as in its attempt to paint realistic portraits (I’m guessing) of Nigerian society. Cole spends very little time examining colonialism’s roots, and lots of time painting snapshots of dysfunction – children thieves who demand extortion money, upper class stories of break-ins and murders, the vast amount of anxiety and fear that the country lives in, finding itself perhaps in fundamentalist movements like Boko Haram.
- He has said in an essay in The Atlantic that he does not write to provide solutions or to speak clearly in his fiction:
I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn’t have a point.
Nonetheless, this essay is written as a further explanation of his tweets about what he calls the ‘white savior industrial complex,’and I think that EDISTDFTT is part of his effort to take on the responsibility of identifying solutions for his own country, especially as his narrator struggles between going back to the U.S. or returning to the country of his childhood, Nigeria.
- The novel is also an attempt to identify positions from which intellectuals can act, much as it tries to identify ways in which action makes sense. His narrator, early on, tries to ride a public bus, despite his family’s fears, and he does even though he wonders about the risks.