Sunday, September 16, 2007

Recent Reading Roundup 13

Lots of high-profile books on my reading list for the last few months, as well as a few that are older and less renowned. Here are some thoughts on the bunch, which has ended up encompassing some of the best and worst reads of the year.
  1. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson - Anderson's YA novel about slavery and the American revolution has received ebullient and ecstatic praise from sources far more prominent and noteworthy than myself, and I had been reading it for a while and enjoying myself without quite feeling that the fuss had been justified until somewhere around the halfway point, when I suddenly realized that my heart was breaking. The title character and his mother are slaves in the house of a natural philosopher in Boston, who is conducting an experiment to see how Africans respond to a European education--whether their 'natural predilection' for savagery can be taught out of them. The first half of the novel is mainly concerned with Octavian's slow realization of his status and limited options, and the second half with his ineffectual attempts to escape both (in the course of which he ends up being drafted into the revolutionary army). There's a sequel in the works, and the title suggests that some events of moment are in the offing, but ultimately plot isn't the most compelling reason to read Anderson's masterful novel.

    What Octavian Nothing does best is convey the crushing misery of Octavian's existence--not because he's mistreated (compared to other slaves and indeed other free people in that era, his lot in life is quite comfortable) but because through his education he comes to understand just how much of life he is going to miss out on because of his race, and to fully comprehend his helplessness in the face of the vast mechanism of the state. This is a wrenching, infuriating novel, and whether it's through descriptions of Octavian's mother being flogged for insolence, or her despair when British slaves are freed only months after she refuses a humiliating proposition from a British noble, or the shamefaced admission of Octavian's supposed benefactor that the ultimate purpose of his studies is to prove that Africans are inherently inferior to white men, you can't help but shake with rage while reading it. Anderson also weaves descriptions of the mess and confusion that accompanied the American revolution throughout Octavian's story, and stresses the primal importance of capitalist ideas even this early in the nation's history, with patriots rallying for 'liberty and property' (said property often including human beings). I was reminded of Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger (which I wrote about here), which touched on very similar subjects, although to a certain extent I think Anderson is the better writer--the prose in Octavian Nothing is rich and dense, and a very good simulation of 18th century writing.

  2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy - I doubt I'm the only one to make this my first foray into McCarthy's bibliography, given the hype and media frenzy surrounding this slim post-apocalyptic fable. I'd already read and heard so much about The Road before picking it up (including, in my corner of the blogosphere, much discussion on the question of whether it should be read as SF and whether mainstream reviewers denying this connection were engaging in garden-variety snobbism, as well as a tempest in a teapot over its alleged exclusion from this year's Arthur C. Clarke shortlist) that I feared my mind had already been made up, and in certain respects I think it was--I certainly knew the plot, what little of it there is, and had already been informed about some of the more memorable set pieces (including, yes, that particular culinary decision). As a result, I find that I can't really trust my response to The Road. I liked it very much--it's moving, well-written, and, within the confines of its bleak hopelessness, extremely tense in its descriptions of the protagonist and his young son's daily struggles for survival in a blasted, lifeless and increasingly lightless landscape. The two of them repeatedly teeter on the brink of devastation--when they encounter cannibals, when their belongings are stolen, or when they simply run out of food--and pull back just far enough to survive while still making it clear to the reader that their days are numbered.

    The transcendent reading experience that some of The Road's earlier readers reported, however, seems to be beyond me, and I half-suspect that this is because too much of my reaction had been determined before I even turned the first page--I was expecting to be blown away and therefore couldn't be. (On the Clarke issue, I certainly agree that The Road belonged on the shortlist--but then, one of the nominated novels is so horrible that just about any science fiction novel published in the UK in 2006 could legitimately have taken its place. However, quite apart from the fact McCarthy's publishers declined, or neglected, to submit the novel for consideration, I think that regardless of The Road's presence on the shortlist the award should have gone, as it did, to Nova Swing, so the question of McCarthy's nomination really isn't that important.)

  3. The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley - Amazon has been plugging this novel, a travel narrative with a light dusting of story in which the narrator, his eccentric, missionary, proto-feminist aunt and her High Church minister friend run around Turkey and other spots in the Middle East in the early fifties, for several years, claiming that it goes well with Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm. It does not. Oh, there's a faint attempt at the kind of British social satire which probably went out of style about forty years ago (or, to be more charitable, which might appeal to readers who are English, Anglican, or upper class--none of which I am), especially in the novel's final fifty pages, after the narrator returns to England. But there's none of the bite, or the genuinely funny satire, that characterized Cold Comfort Farm. In fact, Macauley's barbs seem primarily directed at people who are never given a chance to defend themselves, within the book or (at the time the novel was written) without it. The level of condescension towards the local Turks the narrator and his companions encounter--almost none of whom are differentiated by name, appearance or occupation, as opposed to the myriad ex-pats, and the one or two Westernized, urban Turks, who accompany the travelers--is simply staggering, and while there are some indications that Macauley is aware of her prejudices (she occasionally makes fun of the aunt and the priest for theirs) she ultimately depicts Turkish society as backwards, superstitious, ignorant, and misogynistic (that last one may not be entirely off the mark, but Macauley's opinion of the state of women's rights in early fifties Britain is so hopelessly rose-tinted that it all but cancels out this valid criticism).

    The offensive cultural imperialism is interspersed with descriptions of the narrator's crisis of faith--brought on, we are told, by an adulterous relationship--which is so rooted in Christian definitions of faith and worship, and 1950s notions of morality and propriety, that I was incapable of empathizing with it (and Macauley certainly didn't work hard to get me to do so, assuming that her readers would be on the same page as her characters). At the very end of the novel, there's a tragic twist that comes out of absolutely nowhere, and which seems to be suggesting that homosexuals are better off dead. I have no idea whether The Towers of Trebizond is a bad novel, or whether it was simply written for someone so completely unlike myself that I could never hope to understand it, much less enjoy it. Either way, the result is the same.

  4. Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas and Old New York by Edith Wharton - Wharton was an exceptionally prolific author, with more than a dozen novels (though some of them are so short we'd call them novellas) and several dozen short stories in print over the course of her career. After sampling some of her short stories, I thought I'd sample her longer short work, with each of these collections comprising four stories. Like Wharton's novels, most of these stories deal with the tension between an individual's desires and personal morality, and old New York society's demand for conformity, and its communal sense of propriety. Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas is the less successful of the two collections--there's a sense that the three stories not mentioned in the title were slapped on as a way to pad the volume and bolster the more famous, but much shorter, title story.

    The first two stories in the collection, "Sanctuary" and "The Touchstone", solve the question of propriety vs. morality through a woman's self-abnegation. In the former, a penniless young man sells deeply personal love letters he received from a famous writer only a few years after her death, exposing her most intimate thoughts and feelings to a ravenous public. This allows him to marry, but he is wracked with guilt and self-loathing. Finally, he hurls his actions in his wife's face, wanting to debase her along with himself, but she forgives him, arguing that his guilt is an indication that he is finally worthy of the writer's love--this somehow validates not only the woman's posthumous humiliation, but also her life. In "Sanctuary", a young woman discovers that her fiancé made his fortune by cutting his profligate brother's widow and young child out of his will, and instead of throwing him off decides to marry him anyway because, and I'm not kidding here, she wants to make sure that his future children aren't brought up to be as unthinkingly selfish as he is. Twenty years later, her son is faced with a similar temptation, and she has to wait and see whether his father's nature or her moral nurturing will carry the day. Self-abnegation features quite heavily in Wharton's writing, but these mawkish tales bely her talent and acidic intelligence. I far prefer Wharton's version of self-sacrifice in works like The House of Mirth, whose protagonist is capable of one great act of selflessness, which dooms her, but not the many tiny ones that might have enabled her to live a good life, or in The Age of Innocence, in which the protagonist gives up his happiness for the sake of propriety only to learn, many years later, that this choice has so calcified his intellect and deeper feelings that he can no longer embrace that happiness when it is freely offered to him.

    Which is why the other stories in Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas are more successful. The title story is set in Paris, and is a fascinating portrait of Americans creating for themselves a sort of enclave in that city, and of the few brave souls who venture outside it. Their fate--in this case, the protagonist, and the former lover for whom he hopes to secure permission for a divorce--is a tragic one, as their puritanical morality and simplicity is crushed beneath the complexity governing ancient European aristocratic families. But the best story, to my mind, is "Bunner Sisters", an early and atypical work revolving around two impoverished spinster sisters, who eke out a modest, proscribed existence running a millinery store. When an eligible man appears on the younger sister's horizon, the older one instinctively makes way for someone she has come to view as a daughter. It's at this point that Wharton adds a twist on the familiar tale of passion stifled by self-sacrifice, when she reveals that, rather than securing her sister's happiness, the older sister has doomed her to misery with an untrustworthy man, and ultimately destroyed their idyllic existence. "Bunner Sisters" is brutal and unflinching, a depiction of economic and spiritual poverty from which the only escape is death.

    Old New York was originally published in its present form, with each of the four stories within describing New York society in a single decade of the 19th century, from the 40s to the 70s. The first story, "False Dawn", was a little twee for my tastes--it describes a young man sent to Europe on a Grand Tour, who is commissioned by his father to buy Old Masters paintings, which are at that point the height of fashion. The son, instead, develops an affection for religious painting and returns with a collection that reflects his own taste but is pooh-poohed by polite society, and is promptly disinherited and ostracized (which struck me as a little much). He spends the rest of his life hoping that someone will come along to view the pictures and understand their worth, but what he gets instead is a change of fashion. More impressive are "The Old Maid", about a woman who adopts her cousin's illegitimate child and spends the next few decades warring with her cousin for control of the girl, with neither one of them certain that they have the right or the capability to steer her safely through society and its rocky shoals, and "New Year's Day", about a woman so desperate to assure her dying husband that he can still provide for her that she takes a lover whom she can bilk for money. Both stories examine the corrosive effect of sacrificing oneself to an ideal or for the sake of another person, while still positing situations in which such a sacrifice is necessary. The last story, "The Spark", is once again twee, but it has the distinction of being the first instance I can recall in which Wharton acknowledges the Civil War in her writing, when she describes how a young man's wartime experiences change him so thoroughly that New York society finds him completely inscrutable, and dismisses him as a simpleton.

  5. The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston - this is the first in a series of novels (there are by now two sequels) which take place in the Fourlands, an island on which sentient races--humans, winged-yet-flightless Awians and wolfish Rhydanne--battle against man-eating insects. The series has gotten a lot of positive responses, and for the life of me I can't figure out why. As far as I can tell, there's nothing here but a respectably New Weird-esque aesthetic, a Miéville-ian piling of weirdness upon grotesquery upon weirdness. The protagonist is an Awian-Rhydanne hybrid, the product of rape, a former drug dealer and current drug addict, whose ability to fly has earned him a spot among the Emperor's Circle--the best and most capable warriors in the war against the insects, who have been made immortal. In his drug trips, he travels to a parallel, and even stranger, world, and there discovers the source of the insect plague and possibly a way to beat them. Unfortunately, Swainston has nothing to offer beyond this inventiveness. She lacks Miéville's ability with action scenes and humor. There's about 200 pages-worth of plot in this 400-page novel, and that not particularly clever or exciting. The characters are thinly drawn, and even the ones we spend a lot of time with don't achieve much more than a second dimension, and their society is equally thinly sketched.

    Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist discovers that his mentor fathered an illegitimate child, and is scandalized to the point of repudiating the man, but nothing we've seen of the character or of the society he lives in believably justifies this response--it's as though Swainston expected us to take medieval notions of chastity and the importance of primogeniture for granted, though why she'd do so given that in her imaginary world women hold property, govern estates, and fight alongside men I have no idea. Later she recounts the protagonist's greatest crime--the borderline rape of a female Rhydanne. Once again there's a sense that Swainston is leaving the bulk of the work to the readers. She recites all the required misogynistic buzzwords--he has to possess her, how dare she deny him, she really wants it, etc.--but the result is hollow, the performance of a rape rather than the actual thing (it has none of the horrible sting of a similar revelation about a major character in Miéville's Perdido Street Station, for example) and ultimately it is hard to escape the conclusion that Swainston is trying to accrue transgressive cachet by having her protagonist do something just wrong enough for the readers to dislike him without actually turning against him. The result, however, is to make her seem gutless.

  6. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel - another highly-touted entry, and this time the praise is more than justified. This is a nonlinear memoir about Bechdel's relationship with her father, a distant, demanding perfectionist who was also, unbeknownst to her, a closeted homosexual. Not long after Bechdel came out to her parents (and learned about her father's orientation), he died in what might very well have been a suicide. Bechdel moves back and forth through her childhood and her parents' courtship and early marriage, charting her adolescence and developing sense of self and sexual identity alongside her father and mother's increasing disintegration under the weight of the lie they'd both chosen to live with. Throughout the story, Bechdel weaves in literary references--everything from the myth of Daedalus and Orpheus through Henry James and Oscar Wilde and culminating with Ulysses--in an attempt to impose a narrative on her father's life and her relationship with him, ultimately coming to the conclusion that not only is such an imposition impossible, but that she doesn't, and will never, know her father well enough to reach such definitive conclusions about his life and motivations. Fun Home is about the gap between father and daughter--a gap which might never have been bridged even if he had survived.

    My one criticism against Fun Home--though this is really more of an observation--is that I don't see how it benefits from the graphic format. Bechdel's drawings are clean and compelling, but they don't add much to the story. Fun Home is dominated almost entirely by Bechdel's narrative voice. Unlike other graphic memoirs, I can't see what the drawings' purpose is--they are not, as in Craig Thompson's Blankets or David B.'s Epileptic, aesthetically remarkable, and unlike Art Spiegleman's artwork in MAUS, they don't bring the audience closer to the horror being described in her narrative, or add an additional, unspoken level to her interpretation, as Spiegelman's troubling choice to represent nationalities as various animals does. I don't think Fun Home would have been any better as a prose narrative, but neither would it have been very different. As I said, this is more of an observation than a criticism. Bechdel is a cartoonist, and and it makes sense for her to work in that medium regardless of the story she's telling. She doesn't need to justify her choice any more than a prose writer needs to justify the choice not to use pictures in their work, and certainly there is never sense in Fun Home, as I sometimes got from Marjanne Satrapi's Persepolis, that the graphic format is being used to bulk up a narrative too slim to sustain itself unaided.

3 comments:

Muse of Ire said...

Abigail --

I've been reading your blog for a while now and always enjoy what you have to say.

I don't know whether you're aware that "The Old Maid" was also made into a pretty good movie with Bette Davis (as the unwed mother) and Miriam Hopkins (as the adopting cousin). Although I like the story, I find it tragic and wrong that the mother completely abnegates herself as a person to keep her daughter from suspecting how much she loves her.

Robin said...

"much discussion on the question of whether it should be read as SF and whether mainstream reviewers denying this connection were engaging in garden-variety snobbism"

Abigail,

Having recently read The Road and having a similar conversation with a friend, I found the above statement interesting. I'd never heard of The Road when I picked it up, and after reading it I would never put it in the SF genre. I'm an SF fan and I really don't understand how people think that The Road qualifies as SF. This isn't snobbery, it is genuine puzzlement. Perhaps I have an extremely narrow view of SF (although I don't require aliens or flying saucers to make it SF), but I do think that there needs to be an "other-worldly" (for lack of a better word) or extreme future feel to a book to qualify it for SF. This was simply a piece of literary fiction set in a post-apocalyptic universe. But it was definitely our own universe. It seems that classifying this as SciFi would be no different than classifying Tom Clancy as SciFi. Most of the things that happen in either author's worlds have never happened in our world, but they *could* and both authors imagine the aftermath of those events.

Anyway, my two cents. I enjoy your blog greatly, especially your thoughts on various genre TV.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Robin,

As I said, there's been a lot of discussion on this issue. If you followed the link in the sentence you quote, you'll have seen that even within genre circles there are those who believe that The Road shouldn't be classed as SF. For myself, I think that the strong tradition of post-apocalyptic fiction within SF - which dates back to Walter M. Miller's seminal A Canticle for Leibowitz and probably even further back - gives the genre a certain degree of ownership over this kind of story.

Your definition of SF isn't necessarily one I'd use - I tend to think of science fiction as literature that is concerned with the future - but I think it can certainly be argued that, though it takes place in our world, The Road presents a version of it that is so altered that the term 'otherworldly' suits it perfectly.

On the other hand, I think the argument can be made that The Road isn't concerned with SFnal tropes and plotlines in their own right, but uses them as scaffolding on which to mount a story about the endurance of the human spirit (although, on the other, other hand, it's worth noting that plenty of SF novels do the same).

This is an issue that can and has been debated quite furiously, not just with regards to The Road. What infuriates so many genre fans, however, is that many reviewers, when claiming that this or any other SFnal novel from a mainstream author isn't SF, are speaking not from a serious examination of the work in question but from a knee-jerk animosity towards genre, from the assumption that all genre is pulpy crap, and that therefore work from the pen of a lauded mainstream author can't, by definition, be genre.

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