I have been in awe of Louise Erdrich’s fiction since I read The Plague of Doves. Future Home of the Living God confirms in my mind that she’s one of the greatest novelists in the United States. She of course doesn’t need my approval, but the variety of voices she brings to the task of novel writing is astounding, and helps us I think better understand who we are as our society grows increasingly diverse.
- This novel starts in an almost slapstick fashion, with our narrator energetically and sort of chaotically seeking out her “real” mom. It quickly changes tone, as the environment starts to go more quickly into collapse and evolution starts running backwards. As the cool kids say, shit gets real.
- Cedar (the narrator) might want to find out her roots, but as the novel reveals those roots are more complicated than she has imagined, and the reservation is not some sort of pristine Dances with Wolves prelapsarian wilderness but is instead as multicultural as the rest of the country.
- Hell, several of the tribe members have converted to Catholicism (albeit in a very interesting way, complete with a vengeful saint who feels as much product of the material world as more typical Catholic saint). Like much of the rest of the United States in this novel they are becoming increasingly fundamentalist as the world falls apart.
- Double hell, her step-father is a version of Proust, only way better.
- Their definition of fundamentalism, however, is pretty different, and definitely not totalitarian.
- The ways in which clearly no one fully understands what’s going on with the world is a smart feature. Too often dystopian novels try to explain to us what happened, setting up a sort of narrator-explaining vibe that makes the novel feel more like a rant and less like an exercise in building a world of hellish consequences.
- The movement back and forth between Minneapolis and the reservation in North Dakota also neatly sets up a whole bunch of unexpected turns. This definitely was not a sort of Thunderheart, run-to-the-reservation-for-safety scenario. Despite the fact that they are more fully developed as humans than the rest of the nation, the members of the Ojibwe nation can no better protect the pregnant protagonist than can her erstwhile boyfriend (who admittedly is tortured to reveal her location).
- The fact that so much of the background in this novel is set by rumor is a beautiful thing. The assumption that dystopia means complete oppression, with romantic midnight runs through barbed wire and lots of neo-Nazi punching, seems a tad overdone, and Erdrich does not fall into that trap.
- Erdrich always lots of heartbreaking vignettes to her novels, and in this one the scene that made me gasp described a bunch of tribe members as they saw what they realized might be their last snowfall. It wasn’t their last snowfall because they were dying – it was the last snowfall to ever be recorded in North Dakota. Yikes.
More Erdrich novels please…
Sally Rooney’s Normal People felt like anything but, and I’m guessing that that’s at least part of the point. She tells the story of two on-again, off-again lovers from the west side of Ireland, young people who grew up together, went to college together, and develop a passive-agressive relationship that is both infuriating and compelling.
I have thoughts:
- I do not fully understand the geographical and cultural differences of the regions of Ireland, but the west’s reputation for pastoral beauty and economic wasteland seems to still be a thing. Connell is from the working class, and he knows Marianne because his mom (who is an amazing character) cleans her family’s house. They go to the same high school, where they have very different experiences.
- They of course fall for each other, but not in any way we might expect.
- They also both go to Dublin for college, and end up at Trinity (upper-crust, which Connell can only afford via scholarship). This journey is traumatic for Connell, and he’s not helped by his lack of social skills, brilliance at literature – having no job prospects when he gets done – and obsession with Marianne.
- They both circle each other, thinking that they are just fuck buddies when it is clear that they need each other in ways that might be fundamentally unhealthy but are nonetheless real.
- Marianne’s relationships are destructive as hell, and Connell manages to attract someone who seems like an honest-to-goodness good person (don’t worry, he drives her away).
- The self-marginalization of class is tricky here – Connell clearly sees no way forward of his own (and he might just be a dreamy kid who can’t see himself in a business environment), while Marianne is wandering through Dublin spending her family’s money, getting decent scores on her exams, but again not having much sense of a future. Her family is incredibly abusive, as her brother definitely threatens her and might actually hit her, and she seems to have internalized that violence.
- The dialogue is brilliant for its understatedness. They both sort of laconically go back and forth in what feels like a simulation of respectfulness – there is never any anger or even passion, as instead they constantly stop their conversations just short of the point where they might actually say something important.
- The title at first felt ironic, but now I think it’s more illusory and wistful. These two want to be normal people (I think epitomized by Connell’s mom), but they just can’t manage it.
- I’m pretty sure they even think they can save each other, but Rooney doesn’t give them that at the end…
I will read Rooney again, mostly because her dialogue feels absolutely spot-on for two teenagers who are desperately trying to hide what they feel are the demons that make them not-so-normal. For what it’s worth, they mostly fail at that…
Nell Zink’s Doxology is a longitudinal study of punk rockers from lower Manhattan in the 80s who manage to coax out fairly middle class lives while trying to be true to the indie ethic that dominated that scene. I spent some time in memory lane while reading this one, but it is far more Franzenian social realism than it is High Fidelity or Bright Lights Big City.
- Pam and Daniel are an idealized couple, but even my awareness of that didn’t make them less likable. They mesh in interesting and fun ways, and they share a world view without either one crushing the vision (and emotional freedom) of the other.
- Zink’s command of dialogue, especially between these two, led to some very funny exchanges of the sort that show the sort of mutual respect and understanding that I hope everyone finds in their relationships (whatever shape those take).
- Joe is fascinating – he’s this child of nature who treads lightly through the world until he mysteriously becomes a mega-star, until a girlfriend (who loves him in her own sort of selfish way) shoots him with heroin one time and watches him die out of sheer incompetence.
- That girlfriend then becomes a professional grieving rock star widow, and while I think we’re supposed to hate her even Zink’s narrator can’t do that…
- Speaking of the narrator, this one is wise and funny and an astute observer of the indie music scene. Jes’ sayin’.
- Pam’s relationship with her parents is interesting, as she essentially runs away and doesn’t contact them for years until she and Daniel decide they need to get Flora out of New York after 9/11. Flora then moves in with her grandparents and becomes a child of two cities, New York and Manhattan, and knits the two families back together even while she goes her own way.
- This novel is definitely centered on something that’s not very punk rock – child-rearing. My guess is that that centering device, along with the title, speaks to the not-very-monolithic nature of the indie music movement, just as Joe’s becoming a star in EDM (rather than as a punk or post-punk musician) is another perspective on the branches that grew from that scene…
- My reference to Franzen is not an accident. I guess that Franzen was one of Zink’s early adopters, and his advocacy helped get her published.
- This novel felt Franzenian in its longitudinal study approach, but what felt different was the competence of the characters, and their abilities to dig themselves out of holes in ways that Franzen’s characters never seem able to do.
I think Doxology is pretty brilliant, and I enjoyed the recreation of the music scene in lower Manhattan at a time when some pretty amazing bands were playing there. The narrative move to post-9/11 New York lent some gravity to the novel in a way that helped it leap from a self-indulgent reminiscence of the underground-yet-sorta-privileged music scene to the weirdness that resulted from an attack on our own soil. Even for people who knew the damage our benevolent and not-so-benevolent imperialism has done (and continues to do), 9/11 caused us to rethink our own attitudes, and to reconsider our place in the world.
I’m pretty certain that we’ve taken the wrong lessons from it, but that’s a post for another day.
Black Leopard Red Wolf is the second novel I’ve read by Marlon James, and in it he crosses genres into fantasy, a land that I often think of as being inhabited by the sorts of true believers who resent those not approved by the Tolkien groupies. That’s not so true, as writers like Samuel R. Delany and Stephen Donaldson attacked the generic boundaries early in its incarnation as popular fiction, and BLRW continues the exploration that those two began.
- It took me longer than I expected to get into this novel. I’ve been excited to read it since I finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the sort of casual way that James introduces us to his characters felt haphazard, and the various plot threads felt way too spread apart.
- By the end, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put it down.
- The narrative point of view is fairly amazing. We spend much of the novel inside Black Wolf’s head, a pretty unusual point-of-view from a fantasy novel perspective. At times he becomes so embroiled in his own rage and lust for revenge (his mantra is “fuck the gods”, if you are curious about his motivations) that he acts in ways that we could consider not all that heroic, especially if your definition of heroism includes piety.
- Curiously, James never apologizes for Tracker’s bloody ways, even in the ways that the novel ends. He doesn’t magically transform (although his motivations for revenge, the vampire killing a bunch of children whom the Tracker was a father-figure too, feel pretty primal and in some ways justified) into some sort of redemptive figure.
- In fact, Tracker does not even get the kill (you knew the evil folks were gonna die, right?).
- Black Wolf is a tracker (and he’s known in the novel as Tracker, not Black Wolf, in case Black Panther fans get too worked up), an archetype that does not constitute any previous fantasy hero’s identity as far as I can recall. For instance, Aragorn was often called the best tracker of his age, but that characteristic simply helped us understand how different he was from previous kings, establishing his worthiness.
- The general ways that James uses archetypes from African mythology is fascinating and really cool, and I am working on another project that attempts to map these figures onto to the deeply nordic base of most fantasy fiction.
- The setting is also intense – deep forests, ancient cities, sort of standard in interesting ways.
- I will need to figure out the boy who would have been king at some other time. Suffice it to say that patrilineage, matrilineage, and the increasingly chaotic nature of government by nobility is a backdrop to what is coming next.
- The novel also sets the next stage, with the appearance of the inhuman white scientists, and the god-killer figure warning Tracker that an entirely different threat is coming, soon. The threat looks suspiciously like colonialism.
I am looking forward to the rest of the series…
Lila Savage’s Say Say Say immerses us as readers in two very tightly-delimited spaces, and she does so in a way that illuminates and heightens the intensity of both those spaces and our own worlds. If this is Savage’s debut novel, her future looks pretty bright…
- Both spaces we are immersed in are domestic – the protagonist, Ella, is a home health care worker who works with the elderly, and we spend time in the apartment where she lives with her partner Alix in a happy marriage. We spend even more time in the house of Bryn and Jill, so much so that Ella gets nostalgic for the ways that the dust motes hit the afternoon light after her job ends when Jill is moved to a residential care facility.
- We are also immersed in the world of home health care, particularly as we see what Ella does while working with Jill. The title is the product of Jill’s dementia, as she often repeats herself three times – say! say! say! is the way Savage characterizes this speech pattern in the novel – although it also provides a sense of the novel’s tone.
- Ella could be sort of Disneyesque – she feels like a lightweight in a lot of ways, but my guess is that that’s just the way she tries to understand her world, as Jill’s case, with its unstoppable plunge towards the ending that we all face coloring every scene.
- Bryn’s grief is horrific. He’s a retired carpenter, and he’s the one who hired Ella (she’s experienced at this, but Jill is a particularly trying case), but he flits in and out of scenes almost like a fly or bee. He doesn’t know what to do with the sheer exhaustion of his life, and he’s constantly grateful to Ella for the amount of time she’s there, even if she’s being paid.
- In a sense grief boomerangs from Bryn to Ella (and perhaps back), as they try to prevent Jill from hurting either herself or the house, and Ella gains brief glimpses into just how badly this hurts Bryn to watch the woman he has shared his life turn into something he doesn’t recognize.
- And there is no redemption or transformation – Ella doesn’t use this experience to paint more effectively or more fiercely (she’s an on-again, off-again artist), and Bryn doesn’t find happiness ever after – it all just is.
- There’s a lot going on here with the sudden immersion of a paid stranger into families, the dispersal of work that used to be done by a family or a community and that is now handled through a monetary exchange, and so on. The gig economy for the win…
- We also see Jill’s world in the only way we can in novelistic form – through those who observe her.
- I’m tempted to compare this to Butler, Moshfegh,Emezi, Eisenberg, or Berlin, all women who write intensively and unforgivingly about domesticity and mental health, and the comparison is fair, although Savage is much less interested in the point of the view of the patient than she is those who watch the decline.
- And, like all these authors, Savage is capable of achingly beautiful prose. A couple of quick examples:
Jill no longer carried herself with the burdensome knowledge of continual assessment womanhood so often brings. (35)
Was Ella naturally kind and gentle, or had the culture made her so, worn her down like beach glass, pushed her to her knees, forever eager to please? (68)
Their roles were stripped genderless through a wildfire of loss, standing stark where lush growth might have hidden predators, there was only charred and shivering sufferer and co-sufferer, lover and beloved. (69)
The strength it must have taken to contain that suffering, so that only the edges showed, so that a stranger’s glance wouldn’t exactly read them but might snag on something ambiguously raw in his bearing or his voice, it amazed Ella. It also put her in the peculiar position of being able to let the whisper of it fall into the background when she didn’t have the energy for empathy. (91)
It was love as anticipation of loss, it was love as shared burden of pain and embarrassment. It was pain transformed into gratitude, for without the ache, a stained tablecloth was merely flawed, merely unlovely, but the ache was like a caress on her grandmother’s wrinkled cheek, a comb straightening the crooked part. (153)
There are many more.
Despite my love of sci-fi and fantasy, I’m starting to think that I have a thing for novels that simultaneously inhabit and explode the limits women find themselves bound by…
The Just City is part of her Thessaly trilogy, and the first novel I have read by her since Among Others. It’s the story of Athena’s attempt to see if Plato’s idea of the just city (taken from The Republic) would work in actuality. It sort of does, and sort of doesn’t, but I’ll let you read to find out.
Jo Walton’s first book, Among Others, featured a young girl who could talk with faeries. My review is here, and I’m not all that proud of it, but posterity is posterity after all.
I thought much more highly of this book, even if it’s not necessarily my cup of tea. My thoughts are below:
- The novel proper features three points of view – Simmea, Maia, and Apollo in mortal form. Simmea is the daughter of Egyptian farmers, purchased from slavers for the purpose of populating the just city at the age of ten. Maia was transported from Victorian England, mostly because she expressed an admiration for both Athena and Plato. Apollo has discovered that mortals understand some things, like agape, better than he does, and so he takes mortal form in order to better know what he is missing.
- The island that she chooses to locate the city on is Atlantis, chosen by Athena because it will disappear into the sea in a few millennia and thus not leave awkward-to-explain ruins behind.
- The only violence we see in the novel happens before the island is founded. Walton clearly believes that at a minimum the just city provides a way to resolve differences peacefully. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a goddess who can destroy any ships that might get near.
- Sokrates shows up, and is his usual irritating self, but her portrayal of him is very sympathetic, and what he adds to the city is a necessary voice that asks questions that need asked. He’s both funny (especially when he mocks Plato) and empathetic, which are qualities that I hope the original Sokrates had.
- The two downfalls of the city are probably the ones that an astute reader of The Republic might guess – agape and slavery. Walton complicates the slavery issue by having a time traveling Athena bring “workers,” robots from about our time (rather than human slaves as existed in The Republic), but Sokrates helps discover that they have a language and some sentience, and the city has to account for them.
- Agape is just as hard, as The Republic assumes a breeding program designed at making sure that all children are raised communally, and that they all love the city itself. Apollo is the one who blows this, mostly, but Walton clearly sees agape (versus eros) as something that Plato did not account for.
- There’s a lot more great stuff going on in here, but I will save further reviews for the next two novels.
I will not be able to do justice to Berlant’s Cruel Optimism for a number of reasons, so this post serves mostly to document key elements and a couple of my reactions to them. Suffice it to say that Berlant’s argument tries to understand the frantic nature of contemporary story-telling, and it attempts this understanding in a profound, brilliant, and human way.
- She analyzes texts that are located in the world of art, and takes a cultural studies approach of sorts, to argue that the socio-economic promise of the 1980s is unmaintainable and some of our best art responds to the insecurities generated from this reality.
- Thus the title, eh? Cruel Optimism is the sort that happens when what we are optimistic about stuff that cannot happen.
- She focuses on the ways that we are constantly in a state of hyper-tension between the wealth we have and the desires we have to live lives of meaning and the inevitability and impossibility of reconciling these two norms.
- She argues that we feel all of this before we understand it cognitively, and those feelings become traumatic, although not in the ways that we usually think of that word, as an opposite of chronic.
- In fact, in her definition trauma becomes chronic, in ways that are immensely uncomfortable…