Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Recent Reading Roundup 21

2009 started with a bit of a reading slump, from which I've only recently started to come out, which is why there's been a bit of silence on the recent reading roundup front. The recent arrival of an Amazon order will probably help with that, but in the meanwhile here are some of the books I did manage to read in the first months of the year.
  1. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway - I was expecting to get a blog post out of Harkaway's much-discussed debut, but instead I ended it completely uncertain of my feelings. I still can't decide whether the novel is wonderful, or just a whole lot of wankery, or a whole lot of wonderful wankery. Harkaway's story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which the laws of the physics have been overturned, and most of the planet is a nightmare realm in which reality is fluid and disconnected from reason. The ragged remnants of humanity huddle behind the protection of the Jorgmund Pipe, a massive construction that sprays FOX, a reality-affirming agent, and creates a livable zone within the Pipe's confines. But now the Pipe is on fire, and the narrator and his friends, a crew of soldiers-turned-mercenaries and all-around badasses, have been recruited to put it out. If this all sounds rather fuzzy and nonsensical, then I'm describing it right--The Gone-Away World achieves its effect not through plot but through Harkaway's narrative voice, a relentless barrage of Neal-Stephenson-on-acid style verbiage, piling digression over digression, never failing to introduce even the most minor character by climbing half a dozen generations up their family tree or even the most obvious concept by reaching all the way back into the Paleozoic to explain its development (at one point Harkaway explains the original use of canaries in mine shafts), and always happy to geek out over all things laddish, loud, or cool. Plus ninjas. Lots and lots of ninjas.

    Happily, Harkaway has enough talent and chutzpah to pull this insanity off, and even at its silliest and most pointlessly digressive The Gone-Away World is never less than a hell of a lot of fun. But it's not at all clear to me that it's anything more than fun. There's nothing wrong, of course, with writing a stylish, frenetic, high-concept adventure, but so much effort has been put into The Gone-Away World that it's hard to believe that the novel doesn't aspire to more that that. Harkaway's constant circling around the issue of power and its abuse by those who possess it suggests that the novel is more than a bold performance, his attempt to say something meaningful about weighty matters, but I don't think manages to do so. What points or lessons can be discerned through the fog of Harkaway's narrative voice are somewhat on the obvious side--power corrupts, following orders is not an excuse, don't start a nuclear war--and the novel's humanistic climax, in which the characters reject the protection of the Pipe and prepare to build a brave new world with the denizens of the unreal world beyond it, feels like a betrayal of its earlier segments, which went to great effort to stress the Pipe's necessity and danger that the unreality outside it posed to regular humans, and which aren't contravened by the ending so much as they are simply ignored by it. Despite which, I enjoyed The Gone-Away World as more than a mindless, fun romp--there is some genuine cleverness here, and some moments of real emotion and insight--which leaves me wondering whether its style is in itself enough to give the novel substance, a question on which I go back and forth, so far with no conclusion in sight.

  2. The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett - There's a hell of a lot going on in this historical novel, set in Scotland during the early childhood of Mary Queen of Scots and revolving around the warring English and French efforts to secure her hand in marriage and thus ownership of her country, but I suspect that for most of its readers the novel rises and falls with its main character, Francis Crawford of Lymond. And for me, The Game of Kings fell. I find Dunnett's method of building and illuminating her character very offputting, relying as it does so heavily on blatant manipulation. In the first half of the novel, Lymond is made out to be not simply a rogue but a blackhearted villain, whose crimes in the past--betraying Scotland to the English and in so doing bringing about the death of his sister--are compounded by his actions in present--robbery, kidnapping, seduction, double-dealing and betrayal. Even if I hadn't been aware that Dunnett had written five more novels starring Lymond I suspect I would have realized that she was going too far, and that her only possible object in so doing had to be to make Lymond seem even more long-suffering and put upon when it was finally revealed, in the novel's second half, that he was innocent of the treason ascribed to him and that his unwillingness to proclaim that innocence stemmed from a deep-seated guilt at his complicity, however unwilling and beyond his power to prevent, in his sister's death, which led him to alienate his friends and family in the hopes that they would punish rather than embrace him. I resent this too obvious tugging at my affections, but more than that, I resent being asked to feel sorry for a character who clearly feels more than sufficiently sorry for himself.

    I think that for all his self-pity and Dunnett's obvious woobification of him I might still have been able to tolerate Lymond if I found him or the reactions to him more believable, but Dunnett uses a technique (which also occurs in Dorothy L. Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey novels, and annoyed me equally there) in which she establishes Lymond's personality and dysfunction by having all of the novel's other characters talk about him constantly, not with the prurient fascination one might expect from people who, like all of us, love gossip and good villain to hate, but with genuine insight. Real people simply do not spend that much time trying to understand another person's inner workings. I can almost accept this attitude coming from Lymond's mother, but not from the two women who become infatuated with him or the young man who becomes his disciple. The only character whose behavior towards Lymond strikes me as believable is his brother, who pursues Lymond relentlessly and mercilessly, long past the point where it becomes clear to anyone thinking clearly that there's more to the story of his crimes than meets the eye--his, at least, is a human reaction to Lymond's actions.

    It occurs to me that you can write a swashbuckling adventure, and you can write a character drama about an anti-hero who does terrible things for completely screwed up reasons but still remains believably human, but that it's very rare for novels to manage both (for some reason television has a better track record with this combination). Lymond should be completely screwed up--on top of his guilt and the effects of alienation from his nation and family, he spent several years languishing in a slave galley, and had to do terrible things to escape it and return to Scotland--but in Dunnett's hands he's merely attractively screwed up, his dysfunction simply another method of securing the reader's affections. All told, The Game of Kings gives off the definite whiff of an author who is far too infatuated with her main character to make him a real person (see, again, Peter Wimsey), and this left me feeling far too uncomfortable to go any further with the Lymond novels.

  3. God is Dead by Ron Currie Jr. - Currie's novel in stories, which imagines the repercussions after God, having taken the form of a young woman in a Sudanese refugee camp, is killed by a janjaweed gang, received rapturous praise from Victoria Hoyle in Strange Horizons and on several occasions afterwards, but I find myself less enthusiastic. Currie is a good, if unostentatious, writer, and achieves much with a quietly turned phrase (though on occasion he goes over the top, such as when Colin Powell visits the refugee camp shortly before God's death and starts speaking like his own caricature--"Ain't that a bitch, huh? I get the job because I'm black, and my boss won't talk to me because I'm black"). Some of the quieter pieces here are quite affecting, such as "The Bridge," in which a young girl's certainty about the shape her future is going to take and her ability to control it is contrasted with the first intimation that something fundamental has changed in the world, and "Indian Summer," in which, in the wake of civic breakdown, a group of young survivors huddle together in the home of one their members' parents and make a suicide pact. But Currie starts to lose me when he begins to imagine the world that rises out of the old world's ashes, not so much because his speculation isn't believable (it isn't, but this hardly feels like the point) but because it becomes more and more difficult to imagine the connective tissue between his world and ours, to picture the skipped steps that lead, for example, to a war between Evolutionary Psychologists and Postmodern Anthropologists, or an entire nation deciding to use nanite technology to erase all their unpleasant memories. By its end, God is Dead feels less like a novel about the effects of God's death and more like Currie indulging his taste for the weird in any direction that catches his fancy.

  4. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - In a word, stunning. I actually don't consider myself much of a Lahiri fan, since I tend to get bored by the sameness of her stories and the narrowness of her focus. The same details seem to recur endlessly in her stories with only slight variations--a Bengali couple immigrating to the US in the 70s, the father a scientist or engineer, the mother a homemaker, their marriage arranged but nonetheless respectfully affectionate, a slow climb up the social ladder culminating in a house in the suburbs but always oriented towards the motherland in its rituals, in the friends the parents make, and in their connection to the family they left behind, the story told in the present day in which the couple's Americanized children are struggling with their own identity. In Unaccustomed Earth, however, she's reached a whole new level with her prose--already quite remarkable in Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake--which is so supple and delicate that it completely short-circuits my objections to the predictability of her plots. With a few breathtaking sentences, she creates wholly believable characters, people who may not be anyone special and whose problems and feelings are shared by many others, but whose undeniable humanity makes them utterly fascinating and completely sympathetic. Standout stories include the title piece, in which a father and his grown up daughter deal with their grief over their wife and mother's death, and the shapelessness of their lives in the wake of that death, "Hell-Heaven," in which the young narrator observes her mother's unrequited love for a young friend of the family, and "Going Ashore," the last in a trio of stories about the characters Hema and Kaushik (though I was less impressed with the first two stories), which effortlessly weaves together the characters' meeting and parting and real-world events such as the 2006 tsunami, but really, there's hardly a false note to be found in any of these stories.

  5. A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham - I've been a big fan of Abraham's short stories for about as long as I've been avoiding his fantastically well-received epic fantasy quartet The Long Price. Having finally gotten around to reading the first installment, I'm not sure that I shouldn't have stuck with the short stories. A Shadow in Summer, which revolves around a conspiracy to destabilize a flourishing city-state by killing its andat, a concept-made-flesh controlled by a magician (here called poet), who is the source of its economic supremacy as an exporter of wool and fabric, is well done, and its emphasis on economics and trade as the driving forces in an epic fantasy is refreshing (and, as in Abraham's Hugo nominated story "The Cambist and Lord Iron", very lucidly explained). I also liked the fact that the story was driven as much by raw emotion and hurt feelings as it was by delicate political maneuvering: the former trainee poet Otah wants to live a life of obscurity but can't stop wondering about the opportunities he walked away from and the world outside his city; his lover Liat is self-centered and ambitious, and when she's used as a pawn in the ploy to kill the poet and thus free the andat she has trouble seeing beyond her own hurt feelings and need for comfort and validation; her employer Amat learns of the plan to destroy her city and of the complicity of her own employer in it, and vows revenge more in retribution for the terror she suffered while fleeing the conspirators than for the sake of justice.

    Much as I enjoyed both of these aspects of the novel, they're not so well handled that I understand the praise lavished on it (especially when one considers that China Miéville has done much better work with both of them). In particular, I can't help but note similar problems with the characterization in A Shadow in Summer as I found in The Game of Kings. Though Abraham writes much better characters than Dunnett and isn't trying to make martyrs of any of them, he still achieves characterization more through talking than action. A great deal of the novel is given over to the characters musing about their angst and problems, perfectly articulating their issues in a way that struck me as wholly unbelievable. Many conversations--most especially those between the andat and the poet's young apprentice--also double as infodumps for Abraham's character work, and once again it strains credulity that people would spend so much time thinking and talking about other people (though again, Abraham does a better job than Dunnett, and in this particular example there is a much better explanation for the two characters' fascination with the poet--the andat wants to manipulate him into giving him his freedom; the apprentice wants to learn from his mistakes so that when the time comes he will have an easier time controlling the andat--than in The Game of Kings). I can't help but feel that A Shadow in Summer is considered remarkable for an epic fantasy or in comparison with other epic fantasy novels, whereas when I compare it to other fantasy novels, or to other character dramas which seek to illuminate their characters' inner conflicts and dysfunctions, it comes off enjoyable but shallow.

  6. The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien - Another novel-in-stories, this fictionalized autobiography blends fact and fiction to create a multifaceted, at times self-contradictory portrait of O'Brien's time in Vietnam. In one story, "Speaking of Courage," one of O'Brien's teammates returns home after the war still struggling with a failure of nerve which led to a mutual friend's death. Following that piece is "Notes," in which O'Brien discusses the genesis of the story and the real man who inspired it and eventually took his own life, but then in "In the Field," O'Brien himself takes responsibility for the death of the friend in question. Similarly, in "The Man I Killed," "Ambush," and "Style," O'Brien both does and does not claim to have killed a Viet Cong soldier with a grenade. These metafictional games aside, it took me a while to get into The Things They Carried, both because the individual stories are a little thin, and because I don't share the American fascination with Vietnam (I usually just find myself wondering what the Vietnamese make of the fetishization of the war in American popular culture). As I got deeper into the collection, however, and as an image began to form of the men O'Brien served with, it became clear that O'Brien was trying to do more than write about his buddies or about the senselessness of a war from which some of them never returned and by which all of them were damaged. The heart of the collection, I think, is the story "How to Tell a True War Story," which ultimately concludes that you can't, that any time you make a story out of the events of a war you've lost some fragment of the truth along the way. It's this metafictional quality--as well as the vividness of the portraits O'Brien paints of the men in his company--that I found most compelling about The Things They Carried, and which enables it to make a meaningful statement about Vietnam and war in general.

4 comments:

Martin said...

I agree with your conclusion so I think you are wrong to talk of "these metafictional games" since, rather than being games, these are the whole point.

I'm not sure if you have read The Sorrow Of War by Bao Ninh but it is a similar sort of fictionalized autobiography but from the Vietnamese perspective.

Nic said...

Lymond should be completely screwed up [snip] but in Dunnett's hands he's merely attractively screwed up, his dysfunction simply another method of securing the reader's affectionsI've read (and adored) the whole series, but even after six books I still have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Lymond; like most brooding/'screwed-up' guys, in fiction and in real life, I found him tediously self-obsessed, a lot of the time. ("being asked to feel sorry for a character who clearly feels more than sufficiently sorry for himself" is an excellent way of putting it!) His dysfunction, though, does become much more serious and damaging as the series goes on, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that events expose it to a greater degree; the later books also throw up a number of characters who can match or come close to him. Despite Lymond, there's more than enough going on in the books to compensate for me, but I suspect not for you. :-)

I'm very much looking forward to reading the new Lahiri collection; I loved Interpreter of Maladies, and enjoyed The Namesake.

ecbatan said...

I haven't said anything about Lymond yet in part because it's silly to say "Well I loved the books so you should too" ... and you are essentially correct about Dunnett's creation of him -- she does seem to be rather too fond of him, and he is implausibly attractively screwed up.

In many ways that didn't matter to me when I discovered the books in my late teens ... also, there's lots more to like in the books. But if that characteristic annoys you I don't think the series is going to get any better.

All that said, many readers (though not me) recommend starting with book 2 or book 3. I think this recommendation is largely based on Dunnett's prose improving, though, not on any particular change in Lymond himself.

I will say that my favorite book is the fifth, THE RINGED CASTLE, partly because of a secondary main character (for that book), Richard Chancellor. And of course by not continuing you miss the spectacular chase scene in the second book ... ah, shut up Rich!

Ilana said...

I'm not one of those female readers dying to boff Lymond, but I do think that the books are masterpieces, and that "Pawn in Frankincense" is one of the most absorbing and devastating books ever written.

In fact my only issue is with the sixth book, which has too many of the tropes of a romance novel.

Your mileage clearly varies...

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