Saturday, June 30, 2007

Recent Reading Roundup 12

Most of my reading over the last few months has been for reviews, which has left this blog rather silent on the book front. The following is a selection of some of my non-review reading.
  1. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld - Lee, the protagonist of Sittenfeld's apparently semi-autobiographical debut, is a not-too-bright, not-too-talented, not-too-special middle class, Midwestern girl who somehow manages to finagle a scholarship to a prestigious East coast prep school. This is a familiar premise, but unlike most school story protagonists, Lee has very little to recommend her. Her primary motivation throughout her four years at Gault Academy is to fit in, but the harder she works at achieving this goal the more isolated she becomes. Lee is so terrified of being different, and of being singled out for that difference, that she forgets to be anything at all. She is so focused on popularity as an abstract concept that she doesn't even notice the people around her, who might have become her friends if she'd given them, and their unique personalities, a moment's thought.

    Sittenfeld's portrait of Lee is unflinching, at times hitting uncomfortably close to home, but it goes on for too long and is ultimately repetitive. The novel is actually a series of linked stories, each one of which paints another facet of Lee's shallow self-involvement. Taken together, the stories' effect is overwhelming, and towards the end of the novel there is a sense that Sittenfeld is checking items off a list of boarding school crimes: Lee is befriended by a strange, affectionate girl, and then snubs her for fear of being tarred with the freak brush; when her parents drive a long way to see her, Lee is so embarrassed by their very existence that she spends the entire weekend of their visit desperately ensuring that none of her schoolmates clap eyes on them; when a friendly townie makes romantic overtures towards her, Lee is initially flattered, but later ignores him when he approaches her in front of other students. At the beginning of Prep, our disgust with Lee's behavior is mingled with pity. We want to shake some sense into her, explain that high school is a tiny, insignificant world, and that grinding herself into the ground for the sake of being popular there isn't worth it. By the end of the novel, Lee has committed so many offenses against basic decency that we just want her to go away, and can't help but suspect that she is never going to grow up--that she will spend the rest of her life a mousy, shallow person who doesn't understand why no one wants to be around her.

  2. The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories by Michel Faber - In the foreword to this collection--basically a bunch of outtakes, B-sides and afterthoughts to Faber's gargantuan and extremely enjoyable Victorian pastiche The Crimson Petal and the White--Faber claims that the stories are self-contained and can be enjoyed by someone who hasn't read Crimson Petal. He's right in the sense that only a few of the stories require familiarity with the novel's plot, but I find it hard to believe that readers who haven't been initiated into the Crimson Petal universe will care about their protagonists. Most of the pieces in The Apple are quite flimsy--a few glances at Sugar's life before she meets William, which mostly read like scenes cut from the novel for repeating what was already there, and a few vignettes about minor characters that don't really stand on their own. There's a glimpse of William 15 years after the novel's end, but it doesn't tell us anything we couldn't have guessed from the novel's ending.

    The only truly worthy piece in the collection is, as Faber himself points out in his foreword, the concluding story, "A Mighty Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing." It explores the consequences, both good and bad, that Sugar's choice at the end of Crimson Petal has on a now grown-up Sophie, in the context of the Suffragette movement in the early 20th century. This story, more than any of the others, doesn't stand on its own--one has to know what the roots of Sophie's inner turmoil are before the story can be decoded--but perversely enough it is the only piece in the collection that feels like a creation in its own right. It is a secondary universe spun off from the novel's, peopled with new and mostly unfamiliar characters whom we would like to know better. One hopes that with The Apple, Faber has finally gotten The Crimson Petal and the White out of his system, or, alternatively, that he will expand on "A Might Horde of Women in Very Big Hats, Advancing" and write a Crimson Petal: The Next Generation novel. Either way, I'd like to see him producing new works in new settings, not ancillary material.

  3. Freedom & Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull - Brust and Bull's epistolary Victorian pastiche, apparently a great favorite in SF and fantasy circles in spite of the fact that it doesn't belong to either genre, starts off very strong but ultimately amounts to a cross between a poor man's An Instance of the Fingerpost and a poor man's 1610: A Sundial in a Grave. The protagonists are four cousins--James, Richard, Susan and Kitty--who work together to investigate the circumstances by which James finds himself injured, deathly ill, and with no memory of the last two months of his life. The conspiracy they uncover encompasses both the Chartist movement (Friedrich Engels makes a guest appearance) and pagan blood sacrifices, which sounds like a hell of a lot fun, and for a while is. There's a good balance in the first half of book between thrilling investigation and pursuit, political discussions, and relationship drama--of particular appeal are the fraught, loving-yet-adversarial relationship between James and Richard, and the burgeoning romance between Susan and James.

    Unfortunately, about halfway into the novel, that romance comes to fruition, and promptly eats both the novel's plot and James's brain. He starts the novel a slightly sinister character, deceitful and manipulative even towards the people he loves, and so consumed by despair at the failure of the Chartist movement that he becomes bitter and mean. It's all a little Mal Reynolds-ish, which is by no means a bad thing, but try to imagine Mal Reynolds redeemed by love, Mal Reynolds focussed one hundred percent on his girlfriend, Mal Reynolds going on for pages about how fantastic said girlfriend is and letting her call most of his shots, and you'll get a pretty good sense of how annoying the second half of Freedom & Necessity is. By the end of the novel, the smart, sharp characters who first made it so appealing are nowhere to be found. James, and Susan as well by that point, are so drippy and lovey-dovey that one can barely stand them, and the political aspect of the novel is not simply sublimated but folded into their romance--James and Susan ending up together is somehow a victory for socialism. Freedom & Necessity is a master class in how not to write a romance--and perhaps an indication that we're lucky Joss Whedon never had time to resolve the tension between Mal and Inara.

  4. Eifelheim by Michael F. Flynn - Flynn is the author of a very fine novelette on this year's Hugo ballot, "Dawn, Sunset, and the Colours of the Earth." He also wrote "The Clapping Hands of God", a novelette nominated for the 2005 Hugo which has lingered in my mind for several years. Add to that a Hugo nomination for Eifelheim, and you get a novel that I was very interested in reading. (Like Peter Watts, Flynn has made his novel available online under a Creative Commons License. Link leads to PDF file.) The main plot strand in Eifelheim takes place in a German village of the same name, in the middle of the 14th century. In spite of the terrible turmoil of this period--for one thing, the Black Death is just around the corner--the villagers of Eifelheim live a quiet, well-ordered existence, at least until a spaceship crash-lands in the woods. Obviously, at this point most readers would expect Flynn to cue the torches and pitchforks, and he has a lot of fun subverting these expectations, and describing the tentative, yet ultimately strong and fruitful, coexistence that develops between humans and aliens, and the ways in which the aliens are quickly subsumed into the village's social matrix.

    This is not to say that Eifelheim is a My Friend the Alien story. There are plenty of villagers who fear the aliens and make trouble for them, and the aliens themselves have a social structure that is rigid and at times quite cruel. Caught in the middle is Father Dietrich, the village priest and an amateur philosopher whose efforts to make sense of the upheaval to his image of the world, as well as to explain and possibly spread his personal morality and, yes, religion, to the aliens make up the bulk of the novel. The relationship between Dietrich and the aliens is fascinating, but at times one feels that Flynn is stacking the deck too high in the humans' favor. Not only are the aliens unfamiliar with compassion and charity, but the village they land in just happens to be the embodiment of the chivalrous ideal, complete with a genuinely noble, compassionate lord and fiercely loyal serfs (all the while, reports coming from outside the village describe a society in disarray, plagued by persecution, lawlessness, and unspeakable cruelty). Nevertheless, the genuine friendship that develops between humans and aliens (and between humans and humans) is touching, especially towards the end of the novel when Flynn goes the Doomsday Book route. An unfortunate, and ultimately unnecessary modern-day plot strand notwithstanding, Eifelheim is a very fine novel. It's certainly an interesting contrast to Blindsight, and I'll be very interested to see which one of these extremely different, flawed yet worthy novels garners more votes in the Hugo race.

  5. On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan - I think Ian McEwan may very well be the only writer currently working in the English language whose prose is more limpid, more beautifully transparent, more elegant and precise than M. John Harrison's. His latest novel--not much more than a novella, really--is intensely focussed on a single time and place, describing them with the kind of clarity that puts us in the room. In this case, the room is a hotel room off the titular beach, the time is an evening in 1962, and the occasion is the wedding night of Edward and Florence, two shy young people whose love for one another may not be sufficient to overcome their own insecurities and unspoken expectations from marriage. Edward is equally keen and nervous about the upcoming consummation. Florence is in terror of it. That's really all there is--an unbearably excruciating shag and its consequences for people who don't have the words to express what they want, and don't want, from sex (McEwan also travels back in time, describing Edward and Florence's childhoods and their courtship, and illuminating the ways in which their personal image of marriage developed, and how completely independent it is of the person they end up marrying).

    It would have been easy for On Chesil Beach to patronize its characters and invite its readers to do the same--those poor folks in 1962, with their unsatisfying sex lives, aren't we lucky to live in a more open, more permissive time. Instead, McEwan makes Edward and Florence's predicament universal (perhaps because Florence's sexual hang-up is the only one our society still can't accept--she doesn't want any). The intensity and immediacy of his prose puts us in their place and lets us understand that, as the novel's opening lines point out, talking about sex "is never easy." My only problem with On Chesil Beach is that its ending focuses on the wrong character. It follows Edward in the years and decades following his disastrous wedding night, but abandons Florence. We never get to find out what her issue with sex actually was--was she, as the novel strongly suggests but never confirms, molested by her father? Was she simply in a virginal panic? Or was she simply not a very sexual person?--or whether she ever found a way to have an open, meaningful relationship. It's a flaw that keeps On Chesil Beach from the top tier of McEwan's work, but it is still an exceptionally well-crafted, beautiful and fascinating novel.

  6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl - This is yet another school story, and makes for an interesting accompaniment to Sittenfeld's Prep. The protagonist of Pessl's novel, Blue van Meer, is everything Sittenfeld's Lee is not--smart, opinionated, individualistic, and, although admittedly quite shy, at least not so driven by that shyness that she forgets to be herself. Following the death of her mother, Blue and her eccentric, domineering political scientist father bounce from one university town to another for most of her childhood, but when Blue insists on spending her entire senior year of high school in one place, they move to Stockton, North Carolina. At the St. Gallway school, Blue is inexplicably absorbed into an exclusive cadre of popular and attractive students, a group ruled over by a beautiful and magnetic teacher, Hannah Schneider. Special Topics in Calamity Physics is structured like a mystery--Blue starts the narrative by telling us that Hannah dies, and leading up to that death are a myriad of weird and mysterious occurrences. As a mystery, however, Special Topic falls flat. It takes Pessl 400 pages to get to Hannah's death, another hundred pages for Blue to decide to investigate that death, at which point the solution is more or less dropped in her lap by a total stranger.

    Apart from the mystery, what's left in Special Topics is Blue's coming of age story, and while this aspect of the novel is more successful than the mystery, it is still problematic. Blue's narrative voice is erudite, sometimes to a degree that beggars belief. She annotates and references sources both fictional and real (one wonders why Pessl didn't go whole hog and litter the novel with footnotes), and her only approach to life seems to be intellectual. This has a distancing effect on the reader. Blue seems less like a person and more like a performance, which makes it harder to care when she falls under Hannah's spell, when the other kids in the group alternately befriend and shun her, when she finally makes some effort to come out from under her father's thumb, and when the calamities she endures wear away at her shyness and turn her into a genuine badass. There is a predictable progression to the plot of a school novel, as illustrated in the preceding sentence, and unless the author can make us care about their protagonist, that predictability will overwhelm the story, as it does in Special Topics (a more successful example of using an erudite tone to convey a teenage protagonist's confusion and innocence can be found in Frank Portman's King Dork). Fortunately, Special Topics deviates enough from the school story to be at least somewhat appealing, mostly when it comes to Blue's father, whose almost total, and disturbingly affectionate, domination of her opinions and worldview makes for the novel's most interesting character arc. There's a sense that Pessl feels the same--the novel is ultimately about Blue making peace with her father even as she gains her independence from him--and one wishes that she had cut out the noise drowning out this more interesting story.

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