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.
Emily Barton’s The Book of Esther invokes a steampunk, alternative history version of 1942 Khazar (full disclosure – I didn’t know that Khazar was a real place). This is the first novel of Barton’s that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.
- Barton’s world is intense – the people of Khazar (we mostly see them through Esther’s eyes) have long known that the Germans are coming, mostly because of the streams of refugees that keep appearing, and have tried to prepare, but they are a buffer between the Germans and the Rus, and have tried to balance their relations for centuries.
- The state is Jewish, and rabbis are persons of great respect and political power. Nonetheless, this alternative version of WWII is causing upheaval in their society, and the religious leaders are losing that power.
- She calls forth all sorts of mythical and non-mythical creatures – werewolves, golems, kabbalists, heretics, steppe horseman warriors, and other fantastical folks.
- Creating golems helps them keep the initial German push from their walls, although the novel ends with the Germans about to try again.
- The polyglot nature of the nation seems like a direct extrapolation from the region’s medieval origins.
- The clash of a culture marked by intense religious fundamentalist with modern (in a steampunk way at least) military might causes the rise of Esther, who defies the restrictions against her and with a little luck and a lot of chutzpah takes her own place in line to become queen.
Dreams and Shadows is actually Cargill’s first novel, I guess. I’ve read Sea of Rust, which is darker than even this novel, one that features murderous dwarf fairies and an all-out battle in downtown Austin, Texas.
- Urban fantasy gets a bad rap, but I enjoyed this. Cargill weaves in several different traditions (we see djinns and Coyote, both of whom have major roles), and the idea that the entire supernatural world shares that realm felt natural.
- The novel intersperses an academic text (not really) explaining some of the features of fairy land with chapters that go back and forth between the two main characters, both of whom are human children who have interacted with the fairy world at a young age.
- The ascent of the human Colby doesn’t follow the usual patterns – he doesn’t have to follow some sort of elaborate ritual, and he doesn’t suddenly discover that he’s a wizard – instead, the djinn who gives him the power warns him that he will not be happy with the results.
- The setting in Austin is also cool – it’s not an ancient city, and the near-proximity of hill country makes the closeness of a wild area real.
Cargill’s novel, although far different than Sea of Rust, was an enjoyable read, tinged with far more sadness at the way that this sort of power divides people than joy at the power.
American Spy takes us on a journey through the stories we heard about the CIA from the 70s and 80s, tales of destabilization and violence and ideological fanaticism. This sort of content fits the general pattern of spy novels, which aren’t my thing, but I couldn’t put it down because of all the other issues Wilkinson raises…
- The narrator is an African-American woman who can speak French and whose father rose high in the NYPD. She’s trying to navigate the expectations put on her by her father (lift her fellow people, etc.) with her own distrust of what the CIA is trying to do in developing nations.
- She doesn’t necessarily work for the CIA – she is actually an FBI agent who is feeling frustrated with the Bureau, mostly because her boss slow walks her progress (and holds her to a ridiculous double standard), and thus when someone in the CIA offers her a project to help depose the president of Burkina Faso (Thomas Sankara, a real-life figure) she jumps on it.
- The illegal nature of this sort of activity is made clear, as she thinks she has her agency’s permission, only to find out that the project actually has no official connections to the US Government.
- The novel is written as a diary to her two children, who it turns out are Sankara’s sons. She was sent to Africa to seduce him, and didn’t succeed until she felt completely ambivalent about her mission. She has sex with him shortly before he was assassinated, by his former comrade who had been bought off by the CIA.
- What the CIA did in Africa in the 70s and 80s is hard to stomach…
- A serious theme throughout is the idea of passing. A couple of the characters discuss Larsen’s novel, and throughout the narrator talks about the difficulties of being a member of law enforcement while also being a member of a group brutalized and oppressed by those same forces.
- Multiple characters pass, in multiple ways. The performative nature of survival has rarely been described so compellingly.
Wilkinson’s novel reminded me of the bad old days of the CIA, when destabilization – killing in the name of anti-communism – and making no distinction between communists and their motives – in fact blurring those distinctions intentionally, a campaign of disinformation that blows away the clumsy efforts of the trumpkins – brought about the kinds of pain and misery that are only gradually being revealed. It is worth the read for a lot of reasons, but the different look at that decade and the ways that various characters try to pass made it incredibly enjoyable.
Tade Thompson’s first novel in this trilogy features an alien psychic/cellular invasion, sensitives, healing domes, the Nigerian secret service, the zenosphere, and dreams that invade the biological world. Yep, that’s a lot, and it’s pretty amazing.
- I won’t spoil this for you, but the alien invasion is unlike any I’ve read about. In that sense the novel feels almost Dhalgrenesque, as the narrative goes through multiple entry points, and loops back in on itself. Unlike in Delany’s novel, however, Thompson also provides readers with locators, often chronological. I never felt lost, like I constantly did (intentionally I’m guessing) in Dhalgren.
- The other obvious reference is Pat Cadigan, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she served as a reader (or in some other capacity) in Thompson’s acknowledgments. This novel moves in that same mindsphere that Cadigan explores, although it expands far beyond where she went.
- Kaaro, our protagonist, is an interesting cat – he was recruited by the Nigerian secret service to help them better understand the alien invader, one that we find out has landed three times already, with catastrophic results. He can use his powers to disrupt and even cause other people to hurt themselves, so in a sense they serve as a superpower.
- They don’t really feel like that, however,
- Thompson’s use/creation of the zenosphere is compelling. The alien presence (one that has its own backstory, which we learn bits about later in the novel) opens new potential for humanity in ways that are often thought of in cyberspace as digitally-based. This one is completely biological, and thus both far different (it requires special brain capabilities that might or might not be centered in the redone structure of the brain itself) and very similar (most humans who travel in the zenosphere use avatars, which can have sex) to those now-standard mindscapes popularized by The Matrix.
Needless to say I am greatly looking forward to the rest of the series. Novels like this posit alternatives to the way we live now (with apologies to Evelyn Waugh) that hopefully can lead us to better futures.