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…
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.
I picked up Your Duck is my Duck based on a recommendation from a best-of 2018 list, and I’m glad I did. Eisenberg’s stories aren’t the sort I usually read – they’re full of rich, spoiled people who aren’t always aware of how horrible they are, and in general her work is not all that kind to homo sapiens sapiens. I flew through these though, in that way that makes me have to intentionally slow down, and that alone speaks to my enjoyment.
- These stories aren’t really all that concerned with class, and while they show the rich in a fairly awful light they’re not satires out of New Yorker, stories designed to help confirm the image we already have of just how terrible rich people are.
- Instead, thematically they’re much more concerned with time. A typical narrator’s overview reads like this:
But seriously, wasn’t that the whole point of the past? The point of the past is that it’s immutable (p.42)
- This is a narrator who hints at the ways that time bends, but not in a Matthew McConnaughey in True Detective way. Time in this configuration sashays and flirts around and is just sort of naughty, promising us all kinds of delights and then slamming the door as we try to re-imagine them from our past.
- Another from the story “Recalculating”:
The day, so fresh and glistening, seemed to contain every summer that had ever been and to promise more, endless more. (206)
- Her stories are full of these little hints, all spoken in a narrative voice that is distinctive, fun, and deadly…
- And in its virtual hands time becomes a strange creature, one that certain of those among us with a shamanistic bent can read and perhaps even ride…just never control.
- The narrator is also consistent, speaking in a voice that feels both innocent and lively and enthusiastic as well as winking at the characters for us (and probably at us as well, for being, well, dumb).
- Finally, I’m not sure I’ve read a story as light and airy and depressing as “Merge,” which functions as a sort of mini-novella in the middle of the collection. I won’t go into too many details, but one character evaluation will probably tell you all you need to know – the investment banker who is convicted of fraud and seems at best a deadbeat dad is not the least likable character.
- The story also features a return to the primordial ooze, as Cordis, a wastrel son who his dad (the banker) may or may not want killed, ends up in a dream watching his dead shoot a homo heidelbergensis (a particularly fearsome potential ancestor of ours) in the head.
- Again, not my usual cup of tea, but man I enjoyed this collection…
Whitehead’s novel about his avatar Jonny Appleseed strikes me as a sorrow-filled yet full of resilience look at the issues of growing up gay on the reservation. More thoughts below…
- The heroes of this novel are the women. Men rarely provide support for Jonny, but the women in his life – ranging from his kokum to his mom – are there, even while they fight through their own issues.
- Whitehead’s use of the journey back to the reservation to attend a funeral provides another perspective on the path that Tommy Orange said he wanted to document in There There. Orange argues in There There that culturally in the US we prefer to imagine Native Americans on the reservation, away from those “polluting” influences of the big city, locking them in a nostalgic view of the American West that helps us atone for the sins of pursuing manifest destiny.
- Jonny Appleseed pretty straightforwardedly does the opposite of this, showing the narrator moving away from the reservation in order to find alliances as he struggles with the consequences of being gay in a society that hates gay people. He does not leave his ethnic identity behind – as the spoon boy in The Matrix says “that would be impossible” – but he finds some affirmation in the city (Winnipeg) that the men on the reservation cannot or will not give him.
- The narrator tells us through his grandmother of the concept of the second skin, which I guess is something that some Native American tribes acknowledge. There are issues with this, but my guess is that in some ways it makes members of the tribe who are LGBTQ+ feel less alien.
- I am gradually starting to become aware of just how many identification labels Native Americans have – in this book I was introduced to NDN and Nate. NDN makes a lot of sense, and my best guess about Nate is that is connected to Native Americans who live in the city.
- For a peak at the joyful space that is often found in Urban Dictionary, check out this entry for Nate.
- I love the buffalo on the cover – its red and white makes it look skinned, but it’s also embroidered, complicating a symbol that is often connected with masculinity (and hyper-masculinity1 at that).
- Finally, Whitehead’s appropriation of the Johnny Appleseed figure calls attention to just how problematic Appleseed is as a figure in US history, representing as he does a pastoral, uncomplicated, idealized version of the European settler, one goofy enough to wear an iron pot on his head and yet savvy enough to own property on the border.
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).
I’ve not read enough of McEwan’s work, something I’ll try to remedy after reading Machines Like Me. This is ostensibly a robot novel, and it has a lot to say about identity and the ways we look at our historical moment. More thoughts below:
- I’m currently reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, and it’s making me rethink how I think of historical fiction, and history in texts in general. In Machines Like Me, McEwan creates a novel that I think might well be called ahistorical, as he intensely winds the narrative up in historical events that are actually sort of the opposite of what actually happened.
- I had to keep looking up events to make sure that I remembered history correctly. For instance, in this version of the Falklands War, The Exocet missiles do far more damage to British ships than they actually did, and the British navy turns around and heads home rather than risk more losses. Thatcher is weakened politically, and starts a long decline that results in her resignation, a wee bit different than actual human events.
- Even the artificial people are a result of this novelistic approach – a breakthrough happens because Alan Turing (yep, that one) refuses the chemical castration that he actually took to reduce his sentence in real life, does his jail time, and comes out on the other side to become an entrepreneur whose genius combines with the work of a couple of Stanford labs to produce actual robots that are marketed to the general public.
- I won’t talk about it here, but the alternative history that McEwan creates fits neatly with the arguments in Berlant’s book, ones I hope to address in this blog before too long.
- McEwan hints at his narrator’s approach to history in this passage (one that neatly , in which the narrator listens to his girlfriend complain about her graduate work in history:
It was no longer proper to assume that anything at all had ever happened in the past. There were only historical documents to consider, and changing scholarly approaches to them, and our own shifting relationship to those approaches, all of which were determined by ideological context, by relations to power and wealth, to race, class, gender and sexual orientation (35)
- McEwan’s narrator both shows a familiarity with the work of historians, especially academic ones, and rejects them as being too politicized, neatly lining up with his view early in the novel that our technology is apolitical and ahistorical. He will probably change that opinion by the end of the novel.
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.