Monday, December 25, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 10

Not so sure if there's any point posting anything on Christmas day, but here are some of the last books of 2006. I'll have some year-end thoughts later this week.
  1. Seven Types of Ambiguity by Elliot Perlman - on a Friday afternoon nearly ten years after they last saw one another, unemployed teacher Simon kidnaps the young son of his ex-girlfriend Anna. The boy is soon recovered and returned home, unharmed, but the kidnapping causes an upheaval in the lives of a large group of people, some of whom--Simon and Anna, Simon's psychiatrist and his daughter, Anna's husband and his business associate, a young prostitute in love with Simon--emerge in this novel to narrate the events preceding and following Simon's reckless, inexplicable act. Seven Types of Ambiguity bills itself as a Rashomon-ian synthesis of conflicting perspectives, but there are two major problems with this description. The first is that the seven characters--who come from different social backgrounds, have different levels of formal education, are of different ages and genders--all speak in the same voice, one that is entirely unbelievable even for those of them who aren't supposed to be stupid or uneducated. The narratives are meant to be, for the most part, spoken utterances, journal entries, or conversations, and people simply don't talk the way these characters talk (Perlman also has an unfortunate tendency to write "as you know..." dialogue and to dumb his characters down in order to convey information to the reader--Anna's husband, a stock broker, has to have it explained to him, in small words and with a great deal of repetition, that health insurance companies will make more money out of privatized, HMO-style medical care than they do from socialized medicine). The second problem is that the seven narratives never contradict one another. They operate as distinct puzzle pieces - put them all together and you get a clear enough picture of what happened - but at no point does one narrative give us a different perspective on information from a previous narrative. Different characters may have incomplete information, but when two characters recall the same event, their recollections are almost identical (which creates an unfortunate problem of repetition).

    I think if I'd had these flaws described to me before I read the book, I would have been put off it completely. Which would have been a shame, because despite--and perhaps even because--of these stylistic problems, Seven Types of Ambiguity is an exhilarating, intense read. For all that the narrative voice is unbelievable as a real person's voice, it is compelling, and Perlman keeps sprinkling hints about upcoming plot developments that make putting the book down quite a challenge. Perlman's subject is the human tendency to tell ourselves stories about our lives, and the trauma that ensues when these easily digested narratives are stripped away to reveal the more complicated, more painful reality underlying them. What keeps the novel going is Perlman's ability to keep just the right distance from his characters. We understand why they would cling to lies about their lives even when those lies are painful, but we are never tempted to believe those lies ourselves. The result might have been a cold, clinical novel, but is instead warmly human--all of Perlman's characters are pitiable, and by the story's end we can't help but hope that they will find a way to reconcile reality with a story they can live with.

  2. Blindsight by Peter Watts - it's actually quite impressive that Peter Watts's Blindsight--a sort of demented Rendezvous with Rama--is as riveting as it is, seeing as by most of the stricter definitions of the word, the novel doesn't actually have a plot. Our heroes--a motley crew of genetically and cybernetically altered individuals, who include a person who has carved their mind up into four distinct personalities in order to make better use of its processing time, a scientist whose sensory organs have been replaced by scientific equipment which allows him to see, taste and smell lab results, and a vampire, as well as our narrator, a professional observer and interpreter--arrive at an alien artifact lurking menacingly at the edge of the solar system. There follows a series of increasingly nasty and ill-advised attempts to study it which essentially amount to poking something very scary with a sharp stick. The inevitable ensues, although not before our heroes deduce the novel's Big, Neat Idea, a revelation about the nature of intelligent life in the universe. As the novel's coda reveals, however, whether or not our brave heroes defeat the invading alien horde is of very little significance in the grand scheme of things. The real menace to humanity was lurking back on Earth, and although the above-mentioned revelation ties into the nature of this menace, it is a useless insight. By the time anyone from the ship arrives on Earth to tell their tale, the whole mess will be over.

    Ultimately, Blindsight is not much more than a delivery system for Watts's Big, Neat Idea, as well as a host of smaller, only slightly less-neat ideas that shore up his world-building and explore facets of his central conceit--ideas about the gap between perception and reality, about the ways in which the brain tricks itself into constructing a model of reality that might be only dimly related to what's actually out there, and the ways in which that sophisticated system of self-delusion can go catastrophically wrong. This isn't actually a bad thing. The sheer tonnage of cool ideas is enough to carry the novel over the finish line (especially in its second half, when Watts lays off the technical jargon), but Watts has the presence of mind to use his characters as walking, talking illustrations of his concepts in such a way as to make us care for them. The novel's narrator, Siri Keeton, prides himself on his objectivity, but as we, and ultimately, he, learn, he is in fact the most unreliable narrator imaginable. Siri's veneer of detachment, his faith in his own inhumanity, are stripped away through contact with something genuinely inhuman and fundamentally detached. Siri isn't exactly a sympathetic character, but his slow progress towards acknowledging and embracing his humanity, even as the rest of his race loses it, is, if nothing else, utterly fascinating. (Watts has made Blindsight available online through a Creative Commons License.)

  3. Lucifer, Volume 2: Children and Monsters and Volume 3: A Dalliance With the Damned by Mike Carey et al - when I first wrote about Carey's Sandman spinoff, I remarked that it was, perhaps inevitably, derivative of Neil Gaiman's work. I still think Carey is working hard to replicate Gaiman's tone, but as his story gets its legs under it this quality has become less objectionable. I liked Sandman, after all, and Carey is doing a good job of playing around in Gaiman's universe, replicating many of the qualities that made that series such a great success, most notably a palpable sense of breadth to the story's world. Like Gaiman, Carey frequently veers away from the story's ostensible protagonist to develop minor characters into major players. Children and Monsters revisits 12 year old Elaine Belloc and explores the source of her tremendous powers, as well as her infatuation with Lucifer. A Dalliance With the Damned introduces Christopher Rudd, a soul condemned to eternal torment who is made the plaything of a demon and uses his wits and determination to become a duke of hell. I can only assume that these characters will have greater roles to play as the story progresses and Lucifer's plan comes closer to fruition, and I look forward to spending more time with them.

    Unfortunately, Lucifer himself remains a cypher. He can be described in a few words--arrogant and selfish--and he seems to be putting together a grand design that starts with creating his own universe, but that's about all we know about him. Sandman's main character was similarly faintly sketched, but this was a reflection of the character's own lack of self-awareness--the readers didn't know Dream very well because he didn't know himself at all (on a conscious level, that is. On an unconscious level, he understood himself perfectly, didn't like himself very much, and set out to do something about it). The story was aimless because Dream didn't have a consciously stated goal. Lucifer has a plan, and that plan paradoxically serves to distance him from the readers and hollow out his story--so long as we don't care about Lucifer as a person, there's very little reason for us to root for him or care if he achieves his dimly-defined goals. Meanwhile, the more interesting minor characters are made subservient to this less-interesting major storyline, thus flattening out the entire series. All of which is not to say that I won't be continuing with Lucifer, but I suspect that sub-Sandman is about as good as it's going to get.

  4. From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell - I've had problems with Moore in the past--most of the stuff of his that I've read I've found preachy (Promethea), self-consciously clever (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), or just too much of its own time (Watchmen)--but as it turns out, From Hell truly is his masterpiece. Most of what I've read by Moore operates on two levels--as a work of genre and as a commentary on that genre--and From Hell is the first instance in which I've felt that the two levels have meshed instead of interfering with one another. Probably this is due to the choice of subject matter, since, as Moore points out in the novel's afterword, the story of Jack the Ripper has never truly been about the actual murderer but about the myth that emerged, that was erected, around him even as he was still killing. In that sense, the real Ripper can never be found because he never existed in the first place, and Moore therefore chooses to turn his version of the Ripper (for whom he chooses the most sensational suspect and motivations, and whose identity is revealed to the readers even before the murders are committed) into something metaphysical, an integral part of London history whose brutal actions bring him closer and closer to a sick sort of apotheosis.

    Moore comes dangerously close, in my opinion, to glorifying the Ripper, or at the very least bleaching his actions of their moral component--if the Ripper was never a man and always a story, a necessary part of our culture and folklore, then he can't, in himself, be said to be evil. It's a good thing, therefore, that From Hell goes into a great deal of detail about the wretched lives of the Ripper's victims, and makes certain to point out that before they were victimized by a ruthless killer, they had spent decades being victimized by an entire social order which held them in contempt for being poor, uneducated, and without options. There are numerous sub-plots to the novel, some of them only tangentially related to the Ripper's story, which also help create a panoramic view of London in a single moment that has come to be associated with the last century and its atrocities. Moore works pretty hard to connect the Ripper murders to the 20th century's greater crimes--at the moment of his conception, Adolf Hitler's mother dreams of a deluge of blood drowning Whitechapel, and in his guise as a respectable member of society, the Ripper is responsible for bringing to the British Museum a cursed sarcophagus colloquially connected with the first World War. To be honest, I think Moore is belaboring his point, and is perhaps as guilty as the Ripperologists he lampoons of being star-struck by his subject. That said, there's no denying that From Hell is a stunning accomplishment, and that the presentiment of doom that it works so hard to instill in its readers is not easily shaken off.

8 comments:

Steerpike said...

Now is not the time for a reading roundup. It is that time of the year for your best of/worst of and whatever other original categories you come up with, I, and many others surely are anxiously waiting.

Niall said...

Alternatively, it's time for Abigail to post whatever she feels like posting.

Anonymous said...

Niall: I had a feeling that my previous comment might seem somewhat rude but all I meant to say is that Abigail's look at last year's books was the best end of year posts I happened to read and I'm eagerly waiting for the new ones. Of course Abigail can post whatever she wants and I really love her reading roundups as well.

Anonymous said...

I refuse to believe you were able to read "From Hell", nevermind "Lucifer", in less then a week (!!!). And I KNOW it'e less then a week because I gave it to you!:)

Seriously now, I don't think you give the work the kind of critique it deseves. For starts, where's the "hats off" to the artist and the hard, hard, work he and Moor put into the historically accurate art of London? Where's the bit about the Occult and how much of occult history is in the work? To say that once you finish reading you're hunted by London is nice. But there's much more to say then that.

Now, I know that "comics and Abigail don't always mix". BUT if you're able to write at great detail about television shows I expect you to put as much effort into a work that took several years to accumplish.

Just because it's a comic doesn't mean you can spend less time thinking about it and writing about it. Even if it's not one of your great passions as a reader.

Best:

Hagay

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hagay,

It's certainly true that I should have made some mention of Eddie Campbell's artwork in From Hell, which goes a long way towards creating the pervasive ambience I speak of in my write-up - I'm planning to correct this oversight in my year-end roundup. While the depth of Moore's research and his and Campbell's commitment to verisimilitude are both impressive, I don't feel that they are germane to a discussion of the work's quality as a piece of fiction - does the accuracy of Campbell's drawings affect the reader's emotional response to the novel? The occult is your hobby, not mine.

I'm sorry that my review of From Hell doesn't say the things you'd like it to say, but there's a very simple solution to this problem. You have a blog of your own, and if you feel that there's more to be said about this novel, I invite you to say it yourself. Alternatively, I direct you to Niall's comment above.

Anonymous said...

Hey there,

Y'know, there are OTHER things to say to someone who usually appreciates your writng then "I write what I feel like and so can you." I did not say "Write what I think". I was pointing out that the work deservs a little more time and work then what you gave it.

"Does the accuracy of Campbell's drawings affect the reader's emotional response to the novel?"

Yes. This is why it's a comic, the art matters.

I rarely argue with you about "Battlestar Galactica" or other things about which you know much more then me. Try to consider I may have a valid point here.

But again, this is just my comment. We disagree about other things as well, so why not this?:)

Best:

Hagay

Anonymous said...

From Hell isn't a novel. It's a graphic novel. You have to consider the graphic component because it's helping tell the story. It's not separate from the story. Just sayin'.

JeffV

Abigail Nussbaum said...

If you've read the previous comments, Jeff, you will have seen that I've already conceded this point.

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