Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is like nothing I have ever read. It is not (even though I spent the first half of my reading experience trying to make it so) about the immigrant experience, the migrant experience, or even the African experience (directly anyway) – its narrators immerse themselves in the entire body and soul of a young woman who was sexually abused and beaten as a child, and who has evolved an elaborate set of defense mechanisms to cope.
- My quick overview limits – in an almost generic sense – the ways in which this novel might be perceived. It does not read like the haunted memories of a woman trying to keep her sanity. Instead, with only two exceptions chapters are told from the point of view of the gods and goddesses who ride her, and who enable her to survive, and they are living, breathing characters (often to their chagrin, as they sometimes endlessly lament)…
- Emezi in the essay at the end of the novel describes it as “metaphysical,” so they (their preferred pronouns are they, their, theirs) are asking us to treat these big questions from a religious and spiritual standpoint, in addition to the psychological one.
- The borders – between body and soul, between religious identities, between genders – that we usually imagine are solid (if not rigid) do not exist in this novel, and Emezi clearly wants to examine them. They describe their work as existing in a liminal space, and those types of spaces are rife with conflicts, power, and energy.
- The use of many different embodiments of human personas in the form of a pantheon of all kinds of gods had me engaged (and possibly even immersed). There are no hints until about two-thirds of the way through the novel just what these various forms are, but there is lots of conversation of how they mean to both protect and annihilate Ada, the main (human) character.
- And the two extremes are not that far apart…
- As Ada deals with her own trauma, and jousts with the spirits inhabiting her, I never wondered about what parts of her were human. I am curious about that now – why did I so easily buy that these were gods inhabiting her body, mostly Nigerian or Yoruban? Was I imagining this novel was simply one of possession? Admittedly, that alone would be pretty cool…
- Finally, Emezi’s willingness to experiment is frightening in its precocity. This could have gone very wrong, and the fact that they also work in video and other art forms, according to the Internet goddesses at Wikipedia made me wonder if Emezi was simply too full of ideas to execute any of them.
- Answer – nope. They’re definitely talented enough to pull this off – it is one of the rare novels that I couldn’t wait to finish but which also didn’t find me rushing through and having to re-read because I had become impatient.
The Mountain surprised me. We saw it recently at @nightlightakron, and on the surface I expected it to be an expose of the horrors of psychiatry in the 1940s and 50s, a worthy enough subject but one that has been done (and enables us to pretend that we are so much more civilized now). Instead, it was a bunch of films in one. I’ll try to characterize them here…
- Its color scheme invoked camouflage – characters tried to fit into horribly unnatural settings, hiding as much as possible despite the insane brightness of the often all-white interior.
- Spoiler alert – hiding is not possible, even for a once-renowned lobotomist who has now been proven to be a quack.
- The film abruptly transitions from interior to exterior spaces (and back), with almost no focus on the liminal space crossed. We see an inordinate number of doors opening and closing, but the transition happens with no muss or fuss.
- My guess is that the film argues that these spaces are really one and the same, and that the distinctions that we make are useless (until they’re not, when the young lovers see the mountain).
- The inability to communicate dominates. Tye Sheridan is almost mute, and Jeff Goldblum’s doctor is best when he’s drunk.
- Inarticulation is a theme – the one long rant we get is from a drunk Frenchman (who seems to make a living as a hypnotist, and we know that he knows that what he does is bullshit and his clients are morons) – and the rant is almost incoherent, as he tries to make a spit-flecked, alcohol-fueled argument for the uselessness of love.
- Typical of the film, after suffering through this rant Sheridan’s character then does the only act in the film that shows evidence of love, as he essentially gets himself diagnosed as needing a lobotomy – and gets one – in order to be one with the only person he has made a connection with (who gets lobotomized at the instance of her father, the drunk Frenchman).
- The fact that we are given a character to sympathize with, even if he doesn’t make sympathizing with him easy, works against our common notions of film viewership, and even, perhaps, what makes us sympathetic to each other.
- I kept hoping that he’s going to punch someone (anyone), but unfortunately he does not.
- It’s not an easy film in any sense of the word – but it has stuck with me for a long time…
Tommy Orange’s There There feels drenched in the violence that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of Europeans, and that immersion feels icky to someone like me who has benefited from white privilege.
That’s how it should be.
More thoughts below:
- This novel feels related in a familial way to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, in both the brutality of the narrative and its multiple-perspective form. One of the key differences is that Orange does not try to recreate language patterns like James does, and he can pull this off since his narrators are not often first-person.
- Another key difference is the mini-essay that Orange begins There There with, a meditation of sorts on the Indian head from US-issued coins. I’m assuming that the essay is as close to Orange’s voice as we will get, and it is apologetic (to the reader at least) for the material that it covers while also setting out clearly what the novel hopes to accomplish. The directness of this felt refreshing, especially since Orange argues that the best way to communicate the disruption and violence that the Indian community is subjected to is through a disrupted narrative, and yet he wants readers to not be discouraged from reading it by his approach.
- The storyline kept me reading as much as did the narrative approach. It clearly builds to a climax that is both tragic and seemingly inevitable. It also points to the smallness of the circle that is the Native American community after generations of degradation at the hands of white America, as at the powwow this convergence leads to long-separated family members suddenly recognizing each other, often in uncomfortable ways.
- Orange makes transparent his desire to broaden the perspective of what we think of as the Indian experience, introducing his audience to both the “Urban Indian” and the Native American who looks white. In this sense passing becomes a strange phenomenon – a couple of his characters are enrolled members of tribes, and yet they look white enough to find trouble in being accepted into the native community. Passing as white is not something that they desire.
- The references in this are polyglot in all the best ways. The novel’s title comes from a Gertrude Stein diss of Oakland – “there is no there there,” but it also could be a way that we try to comfort children through language. The novel itself references Plath and Stein, and also Erdrich and Alexie, but Orange is comfortable enough with pop culture to include films and music, including Native American rap…
- Orange’s interest in sound is clearly portrayed in this novel, both in the rhythm of his dialogues and the power in the powwow as well.
- As with many of these novels, it feels most clearly the absence or lack – Orange early on describes cities as doubly-fraught-with-tragedy spaces for Native Americans, since they both represent a place that is difficult to survive in and a landscape that used to be far different before whites arrived. The lack is a powerful metaphor, and one that dovetails jarringly with the fascination that canonical Western texts have with wide open spaces as lacking civilization (and thus better proving grounds for masculinity or for reclaiming some lost utopian primitive space).
- Read it. The novel makes the occasional difficulty in identifying which character is which well worth the trouble.
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).
Contemporary sci-fi is hard to keep up with, and I’ve not tried to read the latest and greatest in any dutiful sense for a few years. This means that I often miss great series, and the Kovacs trilogy by Richard K Morgan is one.
Broken Angels takes place in a much different space than does Altered Carbon, and is a scifi war novel, leaping away from Altered Carbon’s cyberpunk, hard-boiled world. It’s also way darker and grimmer, and fits Morgan’s world view as expressed in a couple of interviews (here and here).
Other thoughts below:
- Morgan definitely has something to say about extropianism, and he’s not a fan. The tech utopians who believe in it feel a very specific brand of willfully blind to me, and seem to believe that they can write out the potential for uber-fascism that is its foundation and create a future world that is completely rational and free (and a meritocracy to boot).
- In contrast, the world of this series posits a highly-layered, incredibly un-egalitarian system in which those who can attain virtual immortality due so in order to accumulate so much wealth that they can treat the rest of the world as their playground.
- That response makes sense, of course – in a chaotic world in which some are always oppressing the majority (and paths leading one out of the downtrodden masses often involve doing hideous work for the elite) one sure way to protect your children is to accumulate inordinate (and insane) amounts of wealth. If you can stay alive forever by simply resleeving after your body wears out, why would you not want to be able to protect yourself through wealth even more fiercely?
- He also explores the effects of trauma (and hyper-trauma) on the process of constantly putting people into new bodies – in this series entire methods have been developed to try to heal the trauma of someone who was put through physical extremes in a previous body, methods that range from intense empathy to psychosurgery.
- Re-sleeving doesn’t eliminate the trauma, a concept that I’m not sure the extropians have considered.
- Morgan stomps on the fascination with military hardware that dominates lots of cyberpunk and/or science fiction military worlds. Kovacs at one point kills over a hundred soldiers (who themselves are witnessing a horrendous execution by torture) because he hijacks their own hardware and decides that they have to die. He clearly feels no remorse over this – he just kills them all, the logical extension of having all this power.
- Cyberpunk grew into a genre that scifi military folks geek over (something we see a bit in the Star Wars fandom), and Morgan is reclaiming it as a more Gibsonian landscape, one in which layers of oppression are resisted, albeit with costs to the resistors.
- Morgan also argues that technological advances will always be configured in power. The example that comes to mind most clearly from this series is the nano-organism that Kovacs’s team finds deployed in the area of the Martian technology that they are trying to use as a way of becoming rich. The nano-organism quickly develops the capacity to survive nearly anything the squad can throw at it, and they have no option but to escape it.
- It can, however, be shut down with the simple insertion of a backdoor code. Its creators can turn off this incredibly powerful machine/biological entity with a simple key. Without that key it is unstoppable.
- Machine Learning and AI are clearly our best bad plans.
- Oh yeah, did I mention that there’s lots of alien technology, far in advance of human? And that soldiers’ DNA is spliced with wolves to help instill in them a desire to be part of a pack? Or that he sees world-building species as coming solely from predators (it’s harder to survive as a species as a predator, so it takes more intelligence as well as ruthlessness). Morgan’s extrapolations are fascinating, and in and of themselves make this series a powerful read.
The Shape of Water burst on the scene shortly before the re-issue of Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, but Ingalls beat del Toro to the story by 35 years as this novel features a housewife in a marriage that seems stagnant who falls for a sensitive male of another species. Water is definitely involved.
- Making the protagonist Mrs. Caliban is just one of the many brilliant moves in this novel. Ingalls calls attention directly to gender roles and expectations with the title, and by positioning the canon’s wimpiest monster opposite Larry (the monster in this novel) being someone who can kill – he does so out of self-defense, and does so brutally – reverses Prospero’s cultural dominance in favor of a monster who actually becomes the sort of ideal partner that Dorothy wishes she had.
- While Prospero tames Caliban, demonstrating masculine and English superiority over all types of Others, Dorothy falls in love in an almost traditional way with her monster. Their relationship is not one of master-servant (a trope for marriage that seems to fall apart while we watch among Dorothy’s social circle) but rather a contemporary good marriage, with a true partnership between equals rather than a series of passive-aggressive territory contests of the sort that middle class marriages degenerate into in the world of this novel.
- Larry seems more perplexed by the insanity of Dorothy’s world than she does by his. Of course we get to see her world and not his, but the ever-shifting alliances of marriages in Dorothy’s circle are hard to fathom, and become almost labyrinth-like. There simply are no good marriages, as men cheat, women cheat, and the ideal of the American household falls completely apart.
- The larger context that Ingalls works from is suburbia, and her portrayal of it makes middle-class citizens of the USA seem more savage than poor Larry…
- And by the way, this novel contains inter-species sex…don’t say you weren’t warned.
My quick tour of Lucia Berlin’s prose is complete as I have now finished A Manual for Cleaning Women, and I’m struck (again) by the intense clarity and pain that she invokes solely through language. My thoughts follow…
- Every single story is amazing, and can stand on its own. One of the most fascinating parts of her work in my mind though is how seemingly seamlessly (although not unjarringly) she moves through a whole series of approaches that should feel annoyingly crafty and calculated – telling the same story through a different narrative lens, revisiting scenes (a narrative device she will use in Evening in Paradise as well) and adding characters, leading us as readers to believe (against all evidence) that this time the story will end well (only to be gut-punched again at the end).
- Spoiler – these devices all work. I’m not sure I’ve read fiction that had me verged on the edge of tears so often…
- Part of the way she accomplishes this is through the casual ways she moves through class, ethnic, and gender lines. These stories move from remote mining towns in New Mexico and fishing villages off the coast of Chiapas (I think) to the hoipolloi of Santiago and El Paso to the ghettos of Oakland.
- Her narrators move with her, along those same usual suspect lines, with gender and class predominating – stories get told from the perspective of a white male civil rights attorney who defends a reasonable facsimile of Berlin as well as a teenage girlfriend of a drug-runner who has snuck across the US border from Mexico, with a whole range of voices in between.
- The voices form a chorus in the best Greek tradition, even as they speak from their own reality.
- They also stomp all over the border between classes, as Berlin herself worked in a wide range of jobs and can speak coherently and movingly about a dozen of them.
- I’m not going to try to write about each story – I hope to get thoughts down about them all later – but I can’t help but think about the ways in which her language grounds me in human experience that somehow doesn’t ignore subjectivity. I usually prefer reading prose (I’m better at reading poetry that is unstinting) that while acutely aware of the misery around us is either surreal or farcical enough to feel sort of light (I’m thinking of folks like George Saunders and Karen Russell, both of whom I love as writers as well). Her prose is never light; even when she’s funny the humor is thoroughly entombed in a graveyard.
- It’s not that her prose can’t be beautiful in any number of ways that we often think of as literary aesthetical gorgeousness – it’s just that she is hyper-empathetic and constantly aware of the sheer fuckery that most people go through as they try to combat what often seem to be intensely difficult mountains to climb.
- In Berlin’s world the panopticon is as fiercely internal as external – cultural forces and biologies combine to create pressures that crush all of us, albeit sometimes in subtle ways.