Thursday, June 12, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 16

It's been quiet here, I know, and in the near future the only thing I've got planned, and that tentatively, is a piece about the first half of Battlestar Galactica's fourth season once that wraps up this weekend. But for now, have some books.
  1. Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger - I don't read nonfiction, I don't care about football, and I have a great deal of trouble translating verbal descriptions of physical actions, such as football games, into mental images. So by all rights I should have given Bissinger's book, well-regarded and influential though it is, a wide berth. I'm very glad I didn't. In 1988, Bissinger spent a year in Odessa, Texas, following its high school football team and the town's all-consuming obsession with its fortunes. The picture he paints is both grand and tragic. Odessa, seen through his eyes, is a town that both worships its young football players and sacrifices them--their education, their health, their very futures--in order to bolster its own floundering self-image. A town whose deep-seated racial prejudices are overcome only on the football field. It's a disturbing and ugly picture, but at the same time Bissinger manages to bring across the appeal of both the game and the town's infatuation with its team. Most of all, he manages to make us fall in love with the players on the 1988 team, and hope against hope that they manage to survive their ordeal--not only that they triumph on the football field, but that they learn to live, and have something to live for and a decent chance at a good life, once the season is over.

  2. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead - I picked this book up after reading Micole's effusive reactions to it last year, in which she praised it for being a shrewd and insightful allegory of race relations in the US. This is clearly true, but as a genre reader I was struck first and foremost by the assuredness of Whitehead's worldbuilding in The Intuitionist, which takes place in a world in which elevator design, maintenance, and inspection, are a prestigious and exclusive field. There isn't a note out of place in Whitehead's construction of this world, and he effortlessly combines the real-world history of elevator manufacture with an alternate history in which elevator inspectors wear fancy uniforms and drive special cars, in which colleges are dedicated to the discipline's study, and deep and lasting schisms are formed over philosophical differences in inspectors' approaches. At the core of Whitehead's success at this endeavor is his accurate observation that elevators are what makes modern cities possible, and cities, in turn, are where civilization happens and is transformed.

    Which brings us to The Intuitionist's actual topic, race. Its protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, is the first black female elevator inspector, and if that weren't enough she follows the intuitionist approach towards elevator maintenance--a controversial philosophy that eschews mundane observation for a holistic sensing of the elevator's state, which has been slowly gaining traction within the elevator community, and which is dealt a crippling blow when an elevator crashes soon after Lila Mae inspects it. She immediately finds herself at the center of a political maelstrom in which race and the internal politics of the elevator inspectors' guild are inextricably linked, with different factions eager to scapegoat or exploit her. The Intuitionist stumbles a little towards its end, when Lila Mae's own investigations take a turn into the wholly philosophical that finally manages to overwhelm Whitehead's worldbuilding, but up until that point it is a stunning novel, beautifully written and conceived and chock full of ideas about race, politics, and the modern world, and in spite of this minor flaw it is one of the finest novels I've read this year.

  3. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8, Vol. I: The Long Way Home by Joss Whedon and Georges Jeanty - once the idea was floated, it seemed perfectly natural to extend Joss Whedon's Buffy into the comics medium. Whedon has been writing a successful run of X-Men, after all, and Buffy, with its wide, lovingly detailed universe, myriad recurring characters and institutions, its emphasis on continuity and well-defined plot arcs, had a comics sensibility even when it was still a television show. And, after all, working in comics frees Whedon from the tyranny of network executives, and from so many of the factors that affect and restrict a television writer's choices--actor availability, paltry effects budgets, the restrictive structure of the American television season and the constant threat of cancellation. So I was reasonably hopeful about season 8, in spite of the at best limited success I've had with comics in the past, but though I can't point to anything that's actually wrong with its first volume (which encompasses the season's first plot arc, establishing Buffy and the gang's current locations and statuses and introducing several new villains, as well as a standalone story) it just doesn't feel like Buffy.

    The absence of the actors hit me a great deal harder than I expected (it probably didn't help that Jeanty's artwork is competent at best, and at its weakest when he tries to draw facial expressions), but really what's bothering me is the absence of all those restrictions I just listed. I've gotten used to Buffy being served up in a certain structure (and in a certain setting, though obviously any story that followed the end of the show was going to have to be set somewhere unfamiliar), and the comics-friendly one that Whedon is serving up, in which the overarching plot slams into the reader on the first page and never lets up, needs to be a hell of a lot more compelling to make up for the absence of the less plot-oriented standalone episodes that used to characterize the beginning of a Buffy season. Instead, it feels almost perfunctory--the glimpses we got of Buffy's post-"Chosen" life in the corners of Angel's fifth season broadened into more or less what we'd imagined, but not lively or clever enough to make me curious about this new incarnation of the show. Given that this is a complete reboot of the story, I'm willing to give the season another chance, but right now my personal Buffy cannon still stops at the end of season 7.

  4. The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas - this was recommended to me as a more intelligent version of the story told in Steven Hall's The Raw Shark Texts (which I reviewed in my roundup of the Clarke award nominees and found pleasant but profoundly unimpressive). There's no question that Thomas's novel is better than Hall's, and a more intelligent exploration of its core concept--the idea that human consciousness is sharable, a metaphysical plane to which humans can travel and, once there, use to manipulate the real world--but it's still not very good. The protagonist is Ariel Manto, a doctoral candidate whose topic is 19th century thought experiments, and whose thesis advisor has gone missing. When a copy of an obscure and presumed lost work--the title text--that touches on her subject falls into her hands, Ariel discovers that it describes a method of traveling into the 'troposphere,' the aforementioned realm of shared consciousness, and that it can be used to possess others and even travel in time. Unfortunately, though The End of Mr. Y is strong in its mundane aspects, most particularly its depiction of the self-loathing, knowledge-hungry Ariel (some of the novel's most compelling scenes involve Ariel talking about books she's read and the connections she draws between different disciplines, and if the book as a whole weren't so disappointing, I might have included The End of Mr. Y in my brainy books list), its fantastic elements are awkward, and the thriller plot that emerges once Ariel begins her forays into the troposphere is contrived.

    For all of the imagination Thomas pours into the troposphere--the way it appears to Ariel, the way she navigates it, the creatures she discovers there and her process of learning to understand both them and it--it never feels like more than an elaborate video game, and as such it is utterly familiar from so many other novels in which the protagonist travels to a meta-realm that appears as a literalized metaphor (when Ariel has the option of surfing another creature's mind, for example, she sees them as an apartment of a shopfront). The only points at which The End of Mr. Y is actually surprising is when Thomas focuses on Ariel herself, who has apparently survived a hellish childhood and young adulthood (though Thomas is refreshingly cryptic on this topic and resists the urge to tell a sob story) and developed some unusual coping mechanisms as a result, most prominently the ability not to care about any of the traditional hallmarks of adulthood, such as regular meals or a heated flat. Buried beneath Thomas's third-hand fantasy plot, there's an interesting naturalistic novel trying to claw its way out, about a damaged young woman making her own, idiosyncratic, place in the world, and it's a great shame that it never manages to fully take flight. Thomas's fantasy setting allows her to give Ariel a happy, but ultimately weightless, ending by allowing her to find a back door out of reality, but I would have liked to see Ariel come to some sort of understanding with the real world. I think that would have made for a more interesting novel.

  5. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris - Ferris's extremely well-received first novel starts out slow and shapeless as it describes a typical workday (any workday and all of them) at an ad agency in the late nineties. Told in the first person plural, its protagonist is an amorphous blob made up of the agency's workers, each of whom comes into focus in turn to tell some silly or insignificant story--a juicy piece of gossip, a tense confrontation with the office manager, an elaborate prank--in order to make their day go by faster. At first, as I said, this plotless description of time-wasting is a bit of a slog, but it quickly builds momentum and becomes a painfully accurate portrait of office life--the stultifying periods of dead time, the painstakingly detailed time-wasting rituals, the weighty question of where, and with whom, to lunch, the insular and almost intimate community one forms with people one hardly knows and probably wouldn't choose to associate with, and most of all the knowledge that huge portions of one's life are being spent doing something at best tolerable. Though the novel does have something resembling a plot--the company is struggling and laying off workers, one of whom may be planning violent retaliation; one of the executives is ill, and another is the subject of a vicious harassment campaign--Then We Came to the End is most powerful in its plotless moments, in its uncomfortably accurate recreation of the office mentality and the compromises we make with it. Like far too many workdays, it is made up of insignificant moments that somehow, almost tragically, build up into an overwhelming whole.

  6. The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente - like Then We Came to the End, Valente's novel starts out slow and not particularly engaging, and builds up steam, finally becoming almost impossible to put down. And there the similarities end. Valente's novel (the first in a doulogy--the second half, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, is already on my Amazon wish list) starts by telling the story of a mysterious orphan in the sultan's palace, cursed with dark rings around her eyes which contain, as she reveals to the only child brave enough to confront her, tales tattooed in impossibly small text. She begins to tell one, as a character in an Arabian Nights pastiche should, but then the protagonist of that story encounters another who tells another story, and within that story another one begins to unfold, recursing almost endlessly and, inevitably, tying into one another. What finally emerges is an intricate and well thought out mythology with some very definite themes--the restrictive roles of women in fairy tales (several stories revolve around girls sold or stolen into marriage or slavery) and the marginalization of those who are different (many of the characters are monsters, and as a result usually disowned by their parents and disdained by their communities)--which finally crescendos with the triumph of the disenfranchised and exploited, who sail off into the sunset together (though given the existence of a second volume, and the hints that the girl's stories have their parallels in the sultan's palace, the story is clearly far from over). Valente's prose is not as fine as I'd wish, and too often she aims for the yarn-spinner's compelling and unmistakably human voice and ends up with nothing more than purple wordiness, but her elaborate construction more than makes up for this deficiency, and I almost can't wait to get my hands on the concluding volume in order to find out how the story ends.

7 comments:

iainjclark said...

I read the first Buffy trade paperback at the weekend and I agree that it's not as engaging as it could be. Whedon's witty dialogue normally carries his comics work, notably Astonishing X-Men, through its sometimes pedestrian plots, and that's true here too - both the wit and the pedestrian plotting.

I've heard that the writers who tackle other arcs this "season" (Brian K Vaughan immediately, later Drew Goddard) ironically do a better job of capturing the feel of the TV show than Whedon himself. To be fair to the series creator, he's clearly trying to embed Buffy into a different medium and do more than slavishly copy the TV show, but I've read plenty of mainstream comics (Bendis' "Alias" for one) that focus on dialogue and character far more than this, and do a better job of blending the fantastic and the mundane. I can't help but feel that Buffy of all things would have benefitted from a little more mundanity to anchor the wilder material.

David Moles said...

Looks like your Intuitionist links are pointing to Friday Night Lights.

Raz Greenberg said...

I highly recommend giving "No Future for You" a chance. This one is indeed something that the TV incarnations of the Buffyverse didn't go deep into - telling the story from Faith's point of view. I always thought Faith was one of the most interesting character to emerge from the show, and that they didn't use her enough. For a long time, many fans said that they would like to see a "Faith" spin-off, and maybe now it will happen in comics. "No Future for You" proves that the potential is certainly there.
On a related note, "Fray", which was written by Whedon when "Buffy" was still running, is another interesting comics version of the Buffyverse, now set in the distant future. Not amazingly sohpisticated, but very fun. Also recommended, especially if you plan on keeping on with the current "Season 8" (it's supposed to connect with "Fray" in the coming arc).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Iain:

I can't help but feel that Buffy of all things would have benefitted from a little more mundanity to anchor the wilder material.

Well, that's what made the high-school-as-hell metaphor work so well, after all, and even in the show's later season, which moved away from the almost allegorical approach of the high school years, the show was grounded by its mundane aspects. I can see ways for it to work without them, but that hasn't happened so far - hopefully in the next volume.

David:

Thanks. Fixed.

Raz:

I was never a rabid Faith fan. I liked her as a minor character - her relationship with the Mayor was both fascinating and heartbreaking - and towards the end of the show when she was used as more than an antagonist, but I'm not sure I'd like to see her headline her own series or comic run. I guess I'll see how that works in No Future For You.

I read Fray a few years ago and liked it. As you say, not great, but a good addition to the show's canon.

Ted said...

Regarding Friday Night Lights: I haven't read the book, but I highly recommend the television series of the same name (and I say this as someone who has no interest in football whatsoever). It's one of the best shows I've seen from a broadcast network in years; some excellent writing and absolutely terrific acting.

Stephen said...

Re: Buffy: I agree more mundanity would help.

I liked volume two a bit better than volume one -- only a bit, but better. It's worth remembering that nearly every Buffy season had its weakest episodes near the beginning; and that the only Joss-written episodes that were not superlative were the season openers. So maybe it'll get better.

I agree the lack of actors hurt a lot. And not every writer is equally good at every medium.

But I guess I'd say that while my personal Buffy cannon also stops at Season 7, Season 8 makes a damn fine drash on it.

SF

Ilana said...

My personal "Buffy" canon stops at the end of season 5! Sounds like I'll be avoiding this comic...

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