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 met with college friends in State College for a weekend dedicated to basketball and, uh, sophisticated adult beverages, and found a new favorite bar: Zeno’s Pub. It’s not just me who thinks so, either…
The clock reads “Ready for a Reading, the friendly beer for modern people.” If you know what this means please tell me, because I have no idea.
I got a bit giddy when I heard the music, as the song being played was by the Black Angels. The bartender engaged when I made some weird little noise of recognition, and when I mentioned that I found out about them through Spotify (which isn’t cool I’m guessing), she affirmed my nerdiness by noting that she saw them with the Black Keys. She had no idea who the Black Keys were.
Are they fascist-lite too?
In case you were wondering, PA has a Pantera tribute band. I had no idea this was a thing.
Vintage posters speak to a different age, one with fewer mortal sins…
I’m not sure how many times I’ve read Ecotopia, but every time I do I want to go live there…
- Bad stuff out of the way first – this is written in the mid-70s, and has all the systemic racism and sexism one would expect from the hippies, who were perhaps not as enlightened as they imagined themselves to be. It’s also very hetero, with sort of an implicit belief that being gay will not be a thing once we figure out the problems we have caused with the natural world.
- All of these are definitely problems, and they fit Callenbach’s hippieish, Jerry Rubin style “revolution.”
- That said, it’s also a non-stop look at possible ways to work ourselves out of the looming ecological disaster that we find ourselves facing. It creates a very Jeffersonian view of the ways we interact with the world – small farms and craftsmen, decentralized towns rather than large cities, and family units that are more flexible and larger and in which people take care of themselves.
- By non-stop I mean that Callenbach doesn’t spend much time developing characters. The reporter from the US who goes back to Ecotopia is a barely fleshed-out amalgam of all the hard-bitten reporter stereotypes, and his love interests – even the Ecotopia one – are not all that developed.
- Instead, Callenbach uses Weston (the reporter) as an excuse to wander around the nation of Ecotopia, finding out all of the ways that its citizens have addressed the environmental challenges they face (spoiler alert: there are a lot). We see solar power systems, water saving, careful selection and planning of tree harvests, and harmonious production of food. He doesn’t leave much out.
- Callenbach centers Ecotopia on the stable-state system, one which as the argument goes is obsessed with balance rather than competition. This theory has evolved since 1976, but Callenbach used it as a founding principle of Ecotopia, one that guided all decisions in the culture.
- Two examples stand out. In the first, Callenbach portrays Ecotopia as a place in which scientific research is conducted solely outside of huge government- and corporation-funded research labs. Instead, scientists form small bands determined to solve immediate problems, in essence blurring the line I think between what we call technology and science.
- His argument is that this type of scientific research is far more conducive to solving social problems than making a profit or being turned to military use (not that there’s no military in Ecotopia – they constantly fear invasion by the US). Stable-state science means that problems are addressed with both a more immediate focus and a long-term awareness of the potential problems that solutions might bring.
- The other example is taxes. Callenbach argues that for capitalism to function as part of a stable state organizations and businesses must be properly taxed, and those who are taxed must believe that the money will be used for purposes that have clear benefits. Both taxes and government expenditures are completely transparent in this culture.
- The cultural conditioning that he foresees also feels very Oregonian (or Pacific NW-based perhaps). The games that folks play, the ways in which they freely disagree with each other, the emotional intensity of their relationships – all of these are very non-midwestern (at the least) and would require a lot of education and training (and re-training).
- There’s lots more of course, some of which I don’t agree with. But the intentionality of living in Ecotopia, the focus on relationship building, seems to me to be a far better way of creating an equitable society than our current material possession obsessed culture.
So much to read, and so little time – I finally got to Nalo Hopkinson’s Midnight Robber (2000), and I wish I’d read it earlier…
- Part of the reason that I wish I had read this earlier is because I’m now wondering what some of the mainstream fantasy writers – Martin in particular – are/were reading, and if they’ve read this. Martin’s efforts to locate ASOIAF outside of Europe (and England) might be spurred by someone like Hopkinson.
- As for the text itself, MR blends Caribbean folk tales with sci-fi in ways that even as I think back on the reading felt both dislocating (in the best possible way) and intensely familiar. She moves the diaspora to the stars, and in doing so somehow manages in one novel to discuss race, colonialism, labor, our relationship with the natural world, and the impetus behind technological development. Yep, sci-fi ftw!
- She is also not afraid to tackle big subjects. The protagonist, Tan-Tan (who becomes the Midnight Robber, a thief in the tradition of Robin Hood and I’m sure a Caribbean antecedent that I’m too dumb to know about) is raped repeatedly by her father, at the ages of fifteen and sixteen. Hopkinson allows us see Tan-Tan’s thoughts as she struggles with her feelings for her father and her feelings for the baby who is the result of these rapes. Part of what drives her is a desire for justice for other people, and the Midnight Robber becomes far more than someone who steals from the rich and gives to the poor – she rights social wrongs at a micro-level, and those wrongs including bullying and an unequal distribution of resources within individual communities.
- The implications of technology invoked here are Feenbergian. This novel is sci-fi – it happens on other planets, and includes a nanny state AI that essentially keeps order (infants are given an implant that grows connections in the brain that make it part of the adult’s anatomy) and gravity wells to other planets. But like sci-fi that matters (fuck you Star Wars!) it looks intensely at what our relationship with technology means to our daily lives *and* our larger relationships, looking for places where we can reconfigure that relationship.
- It doesn’t do so however in a global, interplanetary war sort of way. Tan-Tan wants to save the world, but as the Midnight Robber she doesn’t involve herself in ideological conflicts – she does what she thinks is right, and even though she makes some mistakes along the way she constantly looks for places where she can make daily life more humane and less degrading, including ways to keep human in the face of our technology.
- The idea that technology degrades us is sorta hipppiesh, but my guess is that Hopkinson has enough trippiness in her that she wouldn’t turn away from that…
- Finally, I wish Hopkinson had delved more into the labor issues that she raises. There is a sub-culture on Tan-Tan’s home world that rejects the AI and chooses to do labor (that labor takes the main form of operating pedicabs, which are taken by the rich as a signifier of status). The sub-culture fits into the plot of the novel (barely), but its possibilities in a tech-rich world are pretty interesting.
- The need for physical labor as an essential quality of what it means to be human is invoked in the world that Tan-Tan and her father flee to, but its presence in that world is strictly by necessity. Perhaps her other novels (which are now on my must-read list) will take on these issues…
Trail of Lightning is the first book in Roanhorse’s Sixth World series, and I will read more as they appear. Roanhorse is Native American and re-envisions the border between the supernatural and natural worlds in a fascinating way, and I had trouble putting it down. Thoughts:
- The climate apocalypse has happened (it’s called the “Big Water”), and the Dine nation has survived, even if barely. There are no direct descriptions, but the fact that the Navajo live in the high desert was probably a distinct advantage.
- The protagonist is Maggie Hoskins, and I liked her as much for her attempts to deal with the damage she has suffered as for her ability to deal damage. Her damage comes from her identity – she’s not Harry Potter, with his orphan status both oppressing him and providing him the means to take on the oppressor, nor is she Buffy (although her kickassery and her sarcasm brought her to mind several times) with her culturally accepted blonde good looks providing the platform from which she shows that young women can be bad asses.
- Instead, Hoskins has to deal with what’s left of the natural world that has been the Dine’s ancestral home, what that’s done to her people (who seem to have been splintered and who have built a huge wall for protection), and the ways that her people’s pantheon has suddenly become flesh (of a sort).
- And these hits damage her in ways that affect how she interacts with her fellow humans (and superhumans). She’s a killer by clan, and that identity is not some cool sort of ninja or assassin thing but instead something that she to come to grips with in a way that allows her to return to her community.
- In initially finding this series I read a review by Katharine Coldiron on Medium, and her description of Roanhorse’s “generosity” as a Native American writer felt particularly compelling. Roanhorse does just enough explaining of her culture to allow me to feel the I had at least begun to understand the rudiments of her culture in ways that she doesn’t owe me as a straight white guy.
- I do however know a little bit about the area she’s from, and her descriptions kept evoking it in ways that felt almost painful. That region is simultaneously painstakingly desolate and beautiful and fragile and unforgiving; Trail of Lightning used all of those characteristics in creating this world.
Jemisin’s fiction (@nkjemisin) constantly amazes me – it can be incredibly subtle and also inexorably direct and clear; it can be wildly imaginative and yet also pay homage to its sources straightforwardly; it can be maddeningly obtuse and frighteningly transparent. The Kingdom of Gods, the third and final novel in the Inheritance trilogy, lives up to all of these prosal characteristics, and like every other novel of hers that I’ve read I had trouble putting it down.
- This series (much like the other series of hers that I have read, the Broken Earth series) is chock full of discussions of identity and essential natures. Jemisin is way too smart to offer us easy answers to these questions, and her usage of Sieh as a first-person narrator in this novel fits that pattern.
- Sieh is a trickster god, an honored tradition in many pantheons. In the first novel of the series we see a lot of Sieh, and he’s pretty repellent, a childish purely libidinal creature with the powers of a god.
- That changes in this book, mostly because of the love he has for two mortals. Sieh talks about being true to his own nature, but he is able to transform by the end of the novel (no spoiler alert because I won’t say how).
- Jemisin doesn’t make that change an easy one. In fact, it requires enormous sacrifices on Sieh’s part, and because we are in a first-person narration we get Sieh’s not always completely self-aware understanding of how and why he is changing.
- From my perspective this approach to the essential nature of identity is a compelling one, especially in a fictional genre that tends to deal in often overblown archetypes. Jemisin’s insistence that we have no essential nature makes more sense when presented in this context, I think, because rather than assume that there are unchangeable parts of ourselves what we see are the ways in which cultural training in combination with our own reactions, strategies, and hard-wiring make certain combinations of actions seem inevitable, and thus natural.
- This approach is an incredibly complicated one to pull off, and I found myself looking constantly for markers that helped me locate my own reading experience. I wanted desperately to make the gods Greek, a fallback based upon my own training in the canon and the fluid sexuality of many of her characters. That approach is limited, but I think it sort of helped.
- I then kept thinking of trickster characters, especially the ones that I know from southwestern religious structures. Jemisin’s focusing this novel on Sieh as trickster nicely sets up this discussion of essential natures, especially since it follows other novels in which she has a mortal become a founding god because the essence of a founding god has been located in her.
- Yien, that god, transforms the one who was hidden in her, a comment perhaps upon Harry Potter and embedded wizards and such.
- Sieh, though, is forced to grow up, and that process changes him utterly in ways that trickster gods should not adhere to – he becomes interested more in stability than chaos, and becomes an actual change agent in ways fit neatly with these ideas of how identity changes.
- All of this is done while simultaneously exploiting the generic obsession with stable characters. Wow…
If someone had described Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to me I don’t think I would have read it. I picked it up blindly, mostly because I wanted to read more magical realism (I have pretty much only read Rushdie, Marquez, and Borges). Even so, the first hundred pages should have turned me off – Toru Okada, the protagonist, spends most of it emotionally detached, halfheartedly looking for a missing cat while flirting detachedly from a teenager who lives in the neighborhood, all the while hanging around his apartment all day. The narrative doesn’t exactly careen forward from this point, but events get increasingly weird and increasingly intense, until Okada starts flipping relatively easily between parallel universes. Even the wrap-up felt unsettling and odd, as it was unexpected but also unexpectedly not a denouement as I think of them.
- The wind-up bird is the link between a whole bunch of wild stories. I guess it’s mostly noted for its annoying screech.
- Everyone who Okada meets comes back to play a part in the novel. Everyone.
- His wife (Kumiko) leaves him but we’re never sure why, and she reappears at a couple of points, one of which convinces Okada that he must save her. Despite beating someone to death in her hotel room, he can’t.
- His brother-in-law gets beaten into a coma (a man who hates Okada and who Okada hates back), but he doesn’t really, at least in the plane of existence that we are all on.
- Wells figure prominently, as Okada spends several days in the bottom of one, and Lt. Miyami, who was captured by Soviets in Manchuria during WWII, was left in one to die (he escaped).
- Okada is marked with a blue stain on his cheek that marks him as someone who can relieve people of inner turmoil and anxiety by touching them. Nutmeg (a rich woman who befriends him) has the same mark, and has been performing this task. In trying to get Kumiko back, he somehow becomes unable to do this anymore. What they were doing felt a bit like what sin-eaters in the middle ages did, especially in Ireland.
- Okada and Nutmeg have a conversation about meta-fiction at one point that is fascinating and I think either shows Murakami’s sense of humor or his willingness to stare right at the fourth wall and say “I see you.”
- I know that folks often say that they read to learn about other cultures. I always feel that this is an impossible task – in my mind knowing other cultures intimately is impossible (hell, I don’t think I know my own), and assuming that we pick up a book and are immediately experts in Japan is sort of foolish.
- That said, this book seems determined to be as anti-stereotypical Japanese as possible. Big lumps of it describe Japanese war crimes in Manchuria, for instance. It talks specifically about the military codes of Japanese soldiers and how stupid they were. Okada is dreamy, unemployed, more worried about cats than people, and not all that worried about cats – all characteristics that go against stereotypes of the Japanese as hard-working sarariman who will die at their desks rather than disappoint their company (and thus their country). I enjoyed this defiance, but it also made me realize how completely I had bought into the stereotype.
- Everyone will be happy to know that the cat is okay.