Okay, so I’m reading backwards in Moshfegh’s catalogue, and Eileen is the next on the list. Thoughts:
- Plot-wise, this novel proceeds along a very straightforward chronology, allowing us to see into Eileen’s head as a first-person narrator.
- The odd piece chronologically is Eileen’s constant hints at what happens in the future, how she disappears, how she wishes she could reach out to folks from her past (but can’t for unspecified reasons).
- Her story is an unhappy one – loveless marriage with a dad who is essentially forced out of the police force as he becomes increasingly erratic with his drinking, early death of a not-exactly-ideal mom, younger sister who is ditches the family early…and Eileen, at the time of the story, is a twenty-four year old who works at a juvenile correction facility as an administrative assistant and who is supposed to take care of that same dad who doesn’t do much more than sit in a freezing cold house, drink, and accuse Eileen of bad behavior.
- Not that he’s all that wrong, as she doesn’t cook, clean, or take care of him beyond buying him liquor…
- Much like the narrator in Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eileen is a pretty horrible person. From a readerly perspective, I kept expecting her to become a serial killer, or at least some sort of criminal.
- The fact that she doesn’t shows a trope that I think Moshfegh is fascinated with: the idea of what makes a monster.
- We easily, I think, obsess over what goes into the making of monsters in several genres of fiction (and non-fiction), and Moshfegh plays with that expectation. Even the hints that Eileen gives us from her future self suggest that something really bad is going to happen.
- And then it doesn’t, at least not exactly – the really bad stuff comes from someone else, and it’s a situation that we never get resolved. We could even see Eileen redeem herself, by turning in the bad person or murdering her or something. Instead, Eileen leaves that person in her car, out cold on a narcotic that Eileen gave her, while Eileen walks to a nearby bus station and starts her new life.
- Throughout we are given hints that Eileen is going to make some huge break, and when the break comes it is big but it’s not monstrous, despite where I think we were being led.
- So Eileen occupies that liminal space, the border between menace to society and zit on society’s ass, and it’s a space that shouldn’t have kept my attention as a reader.
- And yet I couldn’t stop turning the pages…
Social realism, as I tend to think of it, has been under challenge since I think Dreiser published Sister Carrie in 1900, but there are challenges and then there are challenges, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018) is one of those. Texts that try to represent lived experience in a way that makes it meaningful have always felt to me like the most powerful reads – even as my head fills with scifi and fantasy – and I still occasionally jones for Zola as well as Dreiser and his comrades from the US like Steinbeck and Dos Passos.
Perhaps the link to those texts is that they are all produced by men, and tend to try to chart grand social movements by looking intimately at the lives of people caught in struggles to survive these crushing social forces. Even Bukowski, I think, does this – despite the textual evidence, perhaps, I want to believe that Bukowski is trying to show someone who lives intentionally on the margins, making what can be seen as a grand social statement of refusal and (non) denial.
Along comes Moshfegh, then, and boom go my expectations. Thoughts below:
- The narrator spends a year trying to just sleep (hibernate, I guess). She’s had some trauma, and had genuinely unloving parents, but she doesn’t use them as excuses – she simply wants to re-calibrate her own origins, make herself into as much of a blank slate as she can.
- She’s an anti-hero, I guess, in that she is about as unlikeable as is possible. She’s got model beauty, and she uses that beauty in the worst imaginable ways; she comes from wealth, and she doesn’t necessarily flaunt it but makes very clear that she doesn’t want to deal with anyone much below her own social class except perfunctorily; and she lives in NYC and never goes out to do anything.
- Herein lies where Moshfegh blows through one of the expectations of social realism, I think, as there is no socially redeeming value to this narrator at all.
- She treats her one friend ridiculously badly. She finds the craziest, most corrupt psychiatrist possible, and lies repeatedly to get more drugs. She uses those drugs to hibernate, constantly popping a whole cornucopia of pharmaceuticals to completely escape responsibilities of any sort. There are no paeans to the bar as a scene of social refuge from the horrors of the contemporary world, and her apartment becomes a literal prison as she tries to hibernate, so we can’t imagine the home space as some sort of sanctuary.
- Even work, where Moshfegh could perhaps attempt to leaven some type of social critique, is a place that only matches her own disconnect. She works briefly at an art gallery as the receptionist/greeter, a job that she finally loses despite her beauty and perfect assholish attitude by sleeping every day on the job. She leaves after taking a shit in the middle of an art work.
- The art world is not seen through a pretty lens here either, thanks to the narrator. The artistic creations that sell lots of money are facile, accidental, and show no connection to the conversation about art that they should be a part of. We can’t find a refuge in the great art works of the past, though, as even visits to the Met make art look bad.
- This is all seen through the eyes of the narrator, which makes me find either her or art (or maybe both) disturbing, immoral, and exploitative.
- I’m not sure what Moshfegh’s ultimate point is, of course. I know that I read through this way too quickly – although I found her language so powerful that I worked hard not to skim because I didn’t want to miss any of her fascinating phrasing – and I’m not necessarily proud of myself for getting caught in the narrative flow.
- There are no redeeming social critiques (or even hints thereof), so the empathetic joy that I sometimes feel when seeing that I’m not alone in my world view could not have been my reasoning, and I was fairly certain that Moshfegh would let none of us off the hook with some sort of high-faluting’ redemption.
- The narrator obsessively watches all the worst films of the 80s, repeatedly, on her VCR, so I wasn’t looking for name-drops of cool pop culture, like maybe Brett Easton Ellis or Thomas McInerny would have given us.
- My guess is that the dream of anesthetization and the mostly horrible people she meets made me keep reading? I’m really not sure…
- SPOILERS LURK AFTER THIS BULLET.
- Throughout, I was worried that Mossfegh would eventually try to make this character redeeming. Part of the problem with the film version of Barfly (and maybe even the novel, which I read a while ago) is that Mickey Rourke makes the protagonist sort of likeable and maybe even charming, and that charm somewhat serves to redeem him.
- No fears of that here – just when it seems like her final plan – one that involves an artist whom she pretty much hates and four months of constant blackouts, punctuated every three days by food, nominal exercise, and water – has sort of made her appreciate the world a bit more, she ends the novel by imagining her best friend having to leap from the burning Twin Towers, caught there on 9/11.
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.