A Brief History of Seven Killings is the first Marlon James novel I’ve read, and it won’t be the last. It features multiple points of view as it wends its way through the attempt to kill Bob Marley (because he was thought to favor the socialist-leaning PNP in the upcoming election) in 1976 and then revisits the story of the subsequent rise of Jamaican drug lords in the crack days of New York in the 1980s.
- In the “Acknowledgements” section James identifies both Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Marguerite Duras’s The North China Lover as models for what he essentially thought was a huge mess of “anecdotes” and other “source materials.” I haven’t read Duras, but the multiple viewpoints of As I Lay Dying (as well as the invocation of different dialects) felt like the perfect starting point for ABHOSK.
- The viewpoint that seems closest to James is Nina Burgess, a Jamaican women who works her way to the States in as honest a fashion as she can. She has multiple names throughout the novel as she assumes identities, and she gets to finish the novel by getting a call from someone who I think is her mom (although I’m not sure of that by any means).
- She’s closest, I’m guessing, because she works multiple jobs after becoming the lover of a white American mechanical engineer who worked in Jamaica for a company mining bauxite. She ends up as a nurse, and I’m guessing that James is honoring that work in a fashion.
- She also has a tremendously complicated relationship with her home country, one which at the end has her being chastised by a young Jamaican woman sitting with her husband (who is in a coma after a gang war), imbibing the food and culture of Jamaica in a restaurant close to her home in Queens, throwing up that food after hearing of Josey Wales’s horrible death, ending with that mysterious phone call.
- I’m guessing James feels similarly.
- The folks who run Jamaica politically are rarely seen – instead, James presents the viewpoint of those who run sections of the various ghettos. One man, Papa-Lo, gets killed as he tries to bring peace; another man, Josie Wales, gets killed after his attempts to bring order fall apart when he murders everyone in a crack house. Both, I think, had gotten tired of the constant ways that their efforts failed.
- There is a lot more to talk about here, of course – a couple of white folks show up, a couple of characters are gay, the weirdness of Lester Bangs and all those Rolling Stone writers also appears as they become entranced by reggae and then find out that the scene that produces it is a brutal one.
- And the Singer (Marley, in the only way he’s referenced in the novel), gets lionized and idealized in a way that, as the Rolling Stone writer says as he’s being “corrected” about the story he’s publishing in The New Yorker, makes me “think even more highly of the fucker.”
- As we piece together our sense of American identity through the vast, often nearly indecipherable melange of immigrant voices – and their reasons for coming here – novels like this one will help us better understand the promise and perils of moving to the United States and trying to make connections here.
- Although the dialect may be off-putting, this was an amazing read, one that I am guessing will live in my mind for a while.
I was directed to Schweitzer’s collection of reviews, essays, and presentations while researching an article on the Malazan world and just war theory, and I thought I’d talk about it below:
- At times this collection was frustrating. He writes off any sort of literary theory that comes after the New Critics, and he dismisses it in what I always find the laziest way – it’s too hard, it’s not well-written, it eliminates the author, and so on. There are many reasons to find fault with the deconstructionists, Foucauldians, and the rest who revolutionized the way that literary criticism works, but these are not the ways to do so.
- He also diminishes a lot of the underlying issues of race and gender that mark these texts, in ways that seem very Gernsbackian.
- Even then, however, the reasons why I think I enjoyed this become clear, as one of the essays in this collection directly critiques Gernsback’s contributions to the field because of Gernsback’s well-known multiple faults…and he does this compellingly and disruptively (critiquing Gernsback can still draw fire from true scifi fanatics).
- Those critiques aside, I plowed through this and enjoyed a lot of it. I understand, I think, that he’s a writer who is too busy writing stories, etc, a publisher who is keeping generic short fiction alive, an editor who works with and encourages a lot of other writers, an agent who makes sure that we still have access to older texts, and a collector who wears out estate sales in order to find hidden gems that need to be preserved to spend a lot of time digesting contemporary theory.
- Taking the time to work through the potential benefits these theories offer by providing different types of lenses probably isn’t in the cards…
- His memory is amazing, nearly wikipedian in its breadth *and* depth. The number of texts that he refers to is mind-boggling, and I’m saying that as someone who spends way too much time reading myself.
- I’m also fascinated by the patterns he draws – he not only reads pulp and/or genre fiction, but he digests it, sees patterns between both stories by the same author and between that author and others.
- Finally, he’s definitely not only interested in texts from the genre. He casually mentions Marquez, Kafka, and McCarthy, drawing interesting parallels, and he has clearly read a lot of the high canon and thought seriously about it…
When I first read The Circle, it was 2014 and although Gamergate and worse had happened I refused to believe that social media and the alpha tech primadonnas could extend influence much beyond the confines of the diggerati. Re-reading it after the 2016 election reminds me that I’m a moron…
- Frustration with the cult of the tech alpha male in our culture seems to wax and wane, but Eggers clearly is more than frustrated. The three-headed monster that created the Circle neatly identifies what I think passes for the three sides of the tech alpha male – a sort of blind optimism about the perfectibility of humans (through technology, often developed by the alpha male’s company), financial smarts and a sort of willful ignorance about the dangers of monopoly capitalism, and sheer technical virtuosity.
- The fact that they’re all white guys is of course perfect.
- Eggers skips right over the usual binary – techno-optimism vs. techno-pessimism – and portrays those who want to uphold values like privacy as doomed. Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer gets particularly rough treatment…
- It’s hard not to read this as a sort of political thriller, one that ends badly.
- This novel ain’t subtle, all the way down to Stenton (financial guy) and his love of the voracious shark that eats the world and covers it in fecal material that is simply grey ash. The fact that the shark is transparent is another nice touch.
- I’m guessing that Eggers thinks this conversation is too important to be subtle about.
- The way that most of us so quickly immerse ourselves in the intensely anxious world of social media approval-seeking frightens me for the future, and makes Eggers’s vision particularly relevant.
- At the same time, Mae is so relentlessly caught up in the social prestige of being a bigwig at the Circle that I hope when she wakes up in twenty years that there is still a world.
- Every time I think Goodreads will offer me interesting conversation about a novel, I’m wrong. One of these days I will stop being surprised.
For a class I’m teaching I re-read Fight Club (for probably the fourth time), and since I have yet to blog about it now seemed like the perfect time. Thoughts…
- The components of masculinity that Pahlaniuk identifies are fascinating. He is of course satirizing the New Age Men’s movement, but the ways that he pulls this off show a construction of masculine identity that contorts the usual binaries…
- For instance, lots of this novel focuses on the unnamed narrator trying to understand his own feelings in a world in which he thinks he’s being asked to have them. The attending support groups, finding jobs that are seemingly intentionally emasculating (mostly because of where he fits on the corporate food chain), and even the selling of human fat-based designer soaps all make us think that this narrator is raging against what many in the old-school masculine camp would call the feminization of the US (which, by the way, is not a thing). That raging leads to his own destruction, though, and not in a poetic Richard Wright-sort of way.
- Having set up that binary, Pahlaniuk beautifully yanks the rug out from under oppressed white men everywhere by having them (us) pummel each other in dirty basements and think that that’s a good thing, rather than the product of intense insomnia brought on at least partially by an inability to reconcile oneself to the shit that one must do to earn a living.
- Which, lest we forget, is in our narrator’s case to be the point person on deciding on just how many people have to die for a manufacturer to admit a mistake in a production process…
- Another binary that he gleefully pulls apart is the observation/action conundrum. Masculinity equals action, right? In FC, however, observation and action blend and morph together, as shit happens:
- the steroids that Big Bob used when he lifted (active) have now caused him to be dying of cancer (the ultimate in passivity);
- Tyler’s job as a projectionist (passive) becomes active when he inserts scenes from porn films in the kid movies he shows;
- and many more…
- Of course, this novel is also saturated in identity, but when we start to believe our own bullshit the train runs off its rails, as Project Mayhem becomes a thing that even Tyler (or the unnamed narrator) can’t control.
- The supposed masculine love of being able to thrive in chaos results in the entire support group coming to rescue our narrator from himself as buildings collapse around them.
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.
I have not read Sharp Objects (I did read Gone Girl), but wow, Gillian Flynn is dark. We watched SO immediately after watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (review coming I swear), and it’s good to see the influence of Southern Gothic on new texts as Netflix and HBO look for ways to spend their money.
- The dreaminess of the camera movements, and the cinematography, is impressive. I occasionally found myself wondering how something that moved so slowly kept my attention so well (it did).
- Others have commented in reviews about the horror of watching men leer at a rape scene enacted by children in a recreation of a supposed Yankee war crime (Calhoun Day). The name alone shows what I’m guessing is Flynn’s offbeat sense of humor, since it reminds us of John C. Calhoun, the quintessential Southern aggressive defender of slavery (and thus white masculinity), and its revisiting of history is fairly fucking horrific in its painting of the Civil War as the War of Yankee Aggression and Imperialism.
- This scene though neatly fits the sweaty, sensuous, obsessive, and just plain wrong ways in which women, especially in places like rural Missouri, try to assert power.
- And that surprise both sets up more of the series and got me, I will admit.
- Interesting that a newspaper editor is a hero…it’s about time eh?
- I also can’t get over the amount of alcohol consumed, by nearly everyone. Camille’s at least honest in her alcoholism (for the most part).
- Her Otherness is made very clear visually in ways other than lots of drinking – she’s always fully covered in black (she has to cover her scars as well, those she’s given herself as she’s self-mutilator), she wears almost no make-up. and she seems to have no interest in driving a cool car even though as a crime reporter who comes from money she could probably afford one.
- The series also talks fairly directly about class and race. The Preakers are ridiculously wealthy because they own the hog rendering plant, and the series makes clear connections between the violence we instill on animals (and the cleaning up we do so that we don’t have to get our hands dirty) and the violence that emerges from us murderous monkeys.
- The cost becomes especially clear visually as we watch Patricia Clarkson (who plays Camille’s mom, Adora) verbally destroy her daughter (and others) constantly as she maintains her high social status. Clarkson is amazing in this, by the way (not that Amy Adams isn’t).
- There’s a lot more going on here – Camille routinely passes out or uses sex as a way to hide her pain, the father (and Camille’s stepfather) is about as passive and ridiculous a southern gentleman as one could imagine, the privileged children are almost caricatures in their awfulness, and the youngest daughter who Camille sort of saves (not a spoiler, don’t worry) is a study in learning from her mom…
- Not really a spoiler, but read this bullet point at your own risk: the solution is interesting because it’s sort of passive in a way that fits Camillle’s character (and previous solutions to her own problems). As we find out later in the mystery ending, it doesn’t really solve the problem…although a more active solution might well have torpedoed what we think is justice…
I’m from north-central Ohio, and now live within spitting distance of Akron, so Ohio felt frighteningly close at times. Having just read it after a re-read of The Corrections, it also felt like a much different take on the midwest. Further thoughts below:
- Football culture is a thing – even today I still love the game even though I know what it does the people who play it, and how it warps our senses of justice and manliness. Markley’s depiction of just how much football dominates Ohio high schools is spot-on.
- He also I think captures the effects of what feels like a misplaced legacy (and anger). Ohio went solidly for Trump in 2016 despite the firewall provided by minorities, and in 2018 it was one of the few states to not participate in the blue wave. Even the lone Democrat to win a state-wide race, Sherrod Brown, did so because he taps into blue-collar anger and distrust.
- The fact that that anger and distrust is directed at minorities, immigrants, and liberal politicians says as much about race as it does about the ability of the companies that moved the jobs out of the country in order to make their stockholders happy to dodge responsibility.
- That said, Markley is not necessarily writing a social realist novel (as I expected after the first chapter, and I think the reason I put the novel down the first time I picked it up). The characters who potentially have something to offer the world leave the fictional town of New Canaan, with one exception, and their returns are short, alcohol-soaked, and generally destructive either to themselves or to the town.
- The generational divide is clear, especially since none of the characters we follow are older than 28. Markley took a chance and tried different perspectives, including a rape victim who gets revenge and an adjunct professor who claims her own sexuality (and who discovered it in high school without of course being able to come out). These differences in perspective don’t necessarily make the novel less realistic, but the way that this town seems to fling its best and brightest far outside the confines of their school district borders feels like a far different kind of realism.
- And warning – this novel gets dark by the end…very very dark…not that there’s anything wrong with that.