My re-read of Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series continues. At points I’m so overwhelmed by the enormity of the creation that I get a bit starstruck – I’m pretty sure that I have very little critical distance, with my occasional frustration when Erikson gets preachy. Still…
- Tehol Beddict and Bugg are wonderful characters, and the work they do (Beddict in bringing down the economy in order to redistribute wealth to those who have screwed by the system, Bugg (Mael) in his support role for Tehol while playing the long game in the war with the Crippled God is spectacular. I am most fascinated though by how damned consistently funny they are. Their dialogue is a never-ending series of moments in which Tehol feels like a complete moron and Bugg is the long-suffering servant, and yet all the while Tehol is working his magic.
- Brys Beddict’s death still makes me sad.
- Rhulad’s growing insanity fits neatly with the Crippled God’s own mental instability. The premise that his horror is caused by a group of mages who try to add an alien power to defeat their enemies and muck up the process is unlike anything I’ve seen in fantasy.
- I also don’t always know what to do with the epigraphs to each chapter. Ranging from poems to epistolary sections of historical texts, their connection is not always clear, and often make me think way harder than I’m used to doing in fantasy novels.
- The heart of the novel remains the Malazan army, this time the 14th, and with Dujek dead, the Adjunct’s rise (and threat to the Emperor) to challenge Rhulad and Lether (at the end) feels quixotic to the extreme.
- I’m not sure I’ve ever had as profitable a second read of a series as I have had of this one.
- If only Martin could be as prolific as Erikson – maybe he should have played ASOIAF with a friend before sitting down to write…
- And at times I struggle with what I feel are the almost overwhelming sorrows that this series provokes. The intensity of the suffering feels more powerful, I think, because there is very little to hate as all are simply striving to survive in a world that is constantly being less inhabitable. Even Raraku has become an ocean rather than a desert – at least as a desert there were tribes who survived in it, but as an ocean it only holds ghosts (hi Hedge!)
On my re-read of Midnight Tides I had, well, a few questions/thoughts…
- At what point does authorial point of view become intrusive? The ideas that Erikson puts into dialogue seems to increasingly match what I’m guessing is Erikson’s personal point of view as the series progresses. In Midnight Tides Tehol becomes what feels like the author’s mouthpiece, with several conversations about the nature of power that feel very much like what the author wants to say.
- Don’t get me wrong – they’re very funny, and Tehol is both brilliant and self-deprecating about his own physical prowess. I also don’t mind his take – it’s a fairly generic dismantling of greed as a motivating force in a culture, one that’s hard to disagree with.
- Still, I’m wondering about the ways in which this authorial
- Plus, since Erikson says very clearly that he wants the entire series to be a postmodern critique of fantasy, there are multiple authorial voices happening throughout the series. One of the joys of TMBOTF is just how many voices Erikson utilizes, and how many different cultures he portrays. I’m guessing Esslemont deserves credit for that as well, although his Malazan novels tend to be far more limited in scope.
- I also was reminded of the ways that the Malazan series uses lots of voices in a way that feels more like Tolkien than a lot of the other postmodern fantasy out there (I’m thinking of Glen Cook and Joe Abercrombie in particular). George Martin features a lot of voices as well, and a ton of characters, and much like Erikson Martin doesn’t seem all that concerned with making sure we can keep track of who’s who.
- Erikson takes that unconcern with being able to track characters to a new level, though, as he adds in the additional feature of having aliases and multiple names for the same character.
- I wonder if there’s something to be said here for the idea of narrative disruption. For some reason I keep reading all of these novels – in fact, I often can’t put them down and have to stop myself from skimming. Usually in fantasy that desire for speed comes from wanting to know what happens (yep, I haven’t gotten any further than that in all these years), but in my first read of TMBOTF I kept reading even though I was at times not exactly sure what was happening.
- During my re-read I was much clearer about what was going on, for what that’s worth.
- My point here is that the vastness of this universe points I think to the unknowability of this world. Erikson doesn’t populate it with fully-drawn races emerging from Britain’s past – instead, he makes the history of the planet bend all around itself, sometimes making it seem terran and other times incredibly alien. No legends appear from the dust, awakening uncanny ticklings of supposedly tribal memories – this world feels like evolution has gone wrong, with the first race being a sort of velociraptor that evolves amazing technologies, only to fall at the hands of a couple of alien invasions.
- And we never know for sure where humans came from, but the hint is that they developed from the T’Lan Imass in a way that felt shall we say evolutionary?
What to say about a writer who dares rework Homer? Madeline Miller does just that in The Song of Achilles, and, uh, she’s got huevos is all I can say. Thoughts below:
- She uses Patroclus as first-person narrator, even after he dies (!). That enables her to use the narrator’s tone (humble, self-effacing, insecure) to make what seems like a relationship that makes little sense – Achilles is the greatest warrior of his time, and Patroclus is a nobody who has been exiled from his home, so why exactly does Achilles for him?
- Their love becomes easily the best relationship in the story, with only Odysseus and Penelope coming close.
- Miller makes a point of noting that Odysseus’s love and respect for his wife was abnormal, so Achilles and Patroclus are even more revolutionary.
- I doubt I will ever get a good explanation of this, but ten years at ten casualties a day is a lot of dead Greeks and Trojans.
- I know, I know, we don’t read Homer for depictions of military conflicts.
- That said, the power of the hero in ancient Greek culture is fascinating, and Miller’s focus on the tragic part of heroism (we get a litany at one point that includes Herakles killing his wife and family as part of the typical fate of Greek heroes) – a bit different than the always-triumphant heroes of the US.
- I also found her depictions of the gods and goddesses compelling. Greek gods were best propitiated; calling attention to yourself was risking humiliation and worse, as the gods were certain to reinforce the hierarchy of mortal/immortal, and brutally.
- This conception of the supernatural always felt to me to be spot-on, and always made me realize what a radical Jesus and the Buddha are. In my mind, the capricious qualities of life favor a view of the divine that seems at best indifferent and at worst outright hostile. To be able to conceive the divine in terms of what now seems clearly to be the best of being human takes a special sort of disruption.
- Miller is a high school teacher, and I’m guessing she at least partially has that audience in mind as she writes, but I would have trouble assigning this to a high school class. She’s accurate in her portrayal, but the prevalence of sexual violence is very high in here, and would have multiple trigger warnings.
- Achilles and Patroclus have the most clearly loving and mutually satisfying sexual relationship, which would probably make some heads explode.
The Corpse Rat King is an interesting take on the hero’s journey. I have no idea whether Battersby has even heard of the hero’s journey or Joseph Campbell, but his hero mimics the journey that Campbell describes in interesting ways…
- The narrator is Marius don Hellespont, and his class standing enables Battersby to make this a story about class as much as it is anything else. I’m guessing that Hellespont’s journey to find the dead a new king invokes several class levelers (the narrator gets left on an island, made homeless, forced to pose as a eunuch and to become a prostitute, among a whole series of situations) because part of Hellespont’s world-building involves a medieval world that also, I think, provides a look at how structures of rich and poor develop.
- He’s not critiquing capitalism in this necessarily, but by depicting a rich man’s son who is so desperate for a world that feels more real than what he grew up in that he becomes a con man, Battersby satirizes the collection of wealth as a means in and of itself.
- The boon that he brings back to the world of the dead, then, is of course the king, but I don’t think that the dead necessarily felt the need to be ordered about. Instead, the king seems to a stand-in for the state of death itself, an ontological metaphor that grants them a sort of peace that they don’t otherwise seem to have.
- The granting of community status to the dead feels righteous somehow, in a vaguely non-threatening way. We all will be there after all…
There seems to be a gradually increasing amount of fiction coming from American veterans who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. While Vietnam produced some amazing work (see O’Brien, Tim, among many others), the most recent series of prolonged *conflicts* that we in the USA have engaged in hasn’t produced a lot yet. What it has produced, however, has been pretty amazing (mostly Philip Klay Redeployment, but there are several others), and Ackerman’s fiction meets that standard. I haven’t read Green on Blue (yet), but Dark at the Crossing was moving and intense.
- Ackerman includes only a couple of native-born American characters, and we see one in particular only in a flashback, through Haris’s eyes. This isn’t the sort of prose that sees Syria through an American lens specifically. As an American Marine, of course, Ackerman can’t completely escape that perspective, but he makes an honest effort that is still based on experience in the area as a reporter following his discharge from the Marine corps.
- The questions of identity that arise are powerful, as Haris feels American even though he is a native-born Iraqi. He worked with American soldiers (I think they were Army, and were definitely special forces), and developed an affinity and longing for going to the US as a result. He turns this longing into a move to the US, but seeing his sister grow up and leave the house (as the result of a marriage to a UAE prince) releases him from his familial duty.
- He never clearly explains his reasons for coming back to Syria. He wants to fight the Assad regime, but the idealistic rebels whom he wanted to join (and who were recruiting him) have been pretty much either driven out of Aleppo or killed. His desire to fight, though, doesn’t seem to make much sense in this context as he was not a soldier when he translated.
- Ackerman even offers him the opportunity to do grunt research work, through Amir, a job that fits with his (as the cool kids like to say) skill set. He keeps wanting to cross the border, though, still wanting to fight even though he will need to fight for Daesh.
- My guess is that Ackerman believes his desire to fight comes from his feelings that he betrayed the American soldiers he translated for (he did, but because he didn’t realize who the actual IED builder was, thinking that he was protecting a pre-teen boy rather than setting the Americans up for an ambush). If so, the complexities that Ackerman locates in one character spoke compellingly to me about a far more complex picture of the Arab world – especially the interconnections between ethnicities – then we in the developed nations usually have.
- Haris’s relationships with the platoon he translated for are complex. He admires the soldiers for their calm heads under fire and their attempts to bond with him, but he hates the casual, brutal torture they inflict in order to get information that they need. His betrayal of them haunts him – at one point Daphne tells Haris that she sees a lot of one former American soldier in him, as well as his other more local influences, and he doesn’t disagree.
- Some of what Haris reacts to is also a counter-reaction. For instance, he sees that his mission in life is to take care of his sister, who has emigrated with him. He works at menial jobs to make sure that he can support her, and he does this because his own father deserted the family while in Iraq.
- Finally, the figure of Jamil is also one that Ackerman places emphasis on. Haris meets Jamil on multiple occasions, and as a refugee child who has been forced to help a group of young children survive, Jamil claims space in Haris’s head. The fact that Jamil becomes enamored with one of the Daesh fighters and joins Daesh ends the novel, but Jamil also retains enough of a sense of loyalty or friendship to Haris and Daphne that he makes sure that Amir gets the book that Daphne took with her on her return to Aleppo back after her murder. He has even updated it, including information that will help Amir in his work documenting the horrors of the civil war.
- And finally for real, Daphne also carries a lot of narrative meaning. She is torn by grief for the loss of her daughter, killed as she was by what seems like friendly fire, and while she still talks about the revolution against Assad as if it is a real thing she is so haunted by guilt and pain that she becomes monomaniacly focused on going back to look for her. Her position as a educated, cosmopolitan, modern Arab women seems also like a loss, as the new Syria does not seem to have a place for her.
- Ackerman has been compared to Hemingway, and I’m not a big fan of Hemingway so I didn’t see it. I admire what Ackerman is doing here, and this book will haunt me too, I’m guessing.
- I read it on the heels of reading Junger’s Tribe, and I had trouble separating the two texts at times. Tribe is optimistic as hell, but Ackerman’s novel points to what I think is the dark side of tribes having a special, unifying purpose – even Daesh, who I associate with fanaticism, are seen as pretty normal until the crazy ‘special, unifying purpose’ comes out and drives them to murder and robbery. The assumption that I made is that the novel would portray Assad’s troops as cynical and apathetic to anything but getting paid, but Ackerman has the two sides blur at the end of the novel in a way that shows that they both have their own reasons for doing what they do. It’s not a pretty picture.
- As with any discussion of the Arab world I feel completely overwhelmed by the complications. I am often drawn by the intentionality of those who live there, and I admire those who try to forge something that I as a left-leaning Westerner can recognize. What they are trying to accomplish seems nearly impossible to me, though, and I find myself in a miasm of confusion and loss that I can’t penetrate.
Junger’s Tribe had me reading quickly and holding my breath, hopeful that maybe he had discovered some fundamental truth that we have been missing. I’ve backed off from that a bit after giving his premise some thought, I’m of the mind that perhaps the answers he offers are too idealistic for where we are now. Not that he actually offers answers…
- As a well-known war correspondent (and producer of the film Restrepo, which if you haven’t seen it you should), Junger has spent a lot of time traveling to war zones. In this book, he makes an argument based on these experiences, one that comes perilously close to a grand global theory and that also does a bit of idealizing of pre-modern cultures.
- That said, the arguments he makes are powerful ones, and they feel intuitively like they address big issues. He speaks especially coherently about young people and their integration into adulthood, describing how difficult that is in modern society.
- His big argument is that one of the main glues to any society is a sense of shared purpose. He feels that modern society does not allow us to feel this, and he has a lot of evidence.
- Finally, before this becomes too much of a book report, he talks about the ways in which we as a culture send incredibly awkward mixed messages, vilifying someone like Bob Bergdahl while letting the financiers who created the disaster of 2007-8 not only go unpunished but also reward themselves handsomely.
- There are many pieces to this that I want to believe, and I think I’ll keep working it around in my head, but I am leery of any grand narrative that relies too much on what feels like not-very-complicated looks at our evolutionary history.
My Joy Williams immersion continues, this time with The Visiting Privilege. Two thumbs up, way up…
- This is a collection of short stories from all over the place, so there is no set theme to them. That said, some of the usual Williams themes emerge – the gentle suffering of animals, the blurring of past, present, and future in the minds of characters if not the chronology of the narrative, the unexpected appearance of high art references (usually literary), and the refusal to have conversations end on winning notes.
- The gentle suffering of animals is not something I’d think of as part of her fiction if I hadn’t read her non-fiction. She talks bleakly about how badly we treat both animals and the landscape, but that theme never becomes dominant. I never get the feeling that Williams is preaching at me – instead, I think that I’m sharing her despair at our blind, unconscious destruction of the natural world.
- The blurring of time for her characters is a feature that often makes me laugh. Her characters sound almost Buddhist at times, with conversations about time that show it folding and looping and doing all kinds of funky non-linear things.
- The high art references always come in situations that I don’t expect, once again knocking me off my feet a bit as a reader. I wonder if Williams simply refuses to believe that life without literature (and art) is the way that most of us in the USA live…
- I particularly love how her conversations among characters often end. Rather than finishing with some sort of beautiful proverb or triumphant note, they usually simply end with a bland proverb or observation that actually isn’t all that relevant to the depth of what was just discussed. I have a half dozen examples marked, all of which I’m too lazy to look up, but she does this constantly, and I find it relentlessly beautiful because she manages to make the idea that conversations always have to be directed and have some sort of powerful meaning on its head in a way that yes actually moves what the writer is doing forward.
- She also willingly messes with our sense of the normal. She’s writing from the perspective of the white middle class, but the edginess and fear that are a daily part of this lifestyle are always just below the surface in ways that don’t so much explode as bubble up, oddly and with consequences that most often affect those around her characters instead of them directly.
- I think what her fiction does in this context is make what feels normal odd. Freud’s word is uncanny, but that label implies horror, and the only horror in Williams’s fiction is the blase attitude her characters take towards what feel to me like horrific breaches of propriety.