Sunday, July 28, 2013

Recent Reading Roundup 34

I'm not sure why, but the floodgates appear to have opened. After more than a year of struggling with my reading, I've found myself doing nothing but. I'm not that interested in examining the situation for fear of scaring my resuscitated bibliophilia away, but I will note that this year's Tournament of Books seems to have done well by me--I've read four of the participating novels (three of which are covered here), and though I have reservations about all of them, it's certainly an eclectic and interesting selection. Onward to the reviews.
  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn - On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne's wife Amy disappears in what appears to be a home invasion.  Nick's chronicle of the days following Amy's disappearance, in which a media circus develops around the case, alternates with Amy's diary entries describing the history of her and Nick's relationship.  As both narratives progress, it becomes clear that Nick has been keeping secrets from both the readers and the police--an affair with a younger woman, financial difficulties, problems in the marriage with Amy--and Amy's diary entries grow less romantic and more fearful as she approaches the day of her disappearance.  Gone Girl is a novel with a twist, which, given that it's probably the most successful and widely-discussed thriller of the last year, was pretty hard to stay ignorant of before I picked the book up (in fact, knowing the twist is the main reason I decided to read Gone Girl, since otherwise a thriller about a man who appears to have murdered his wife would be pretty far outside of my interests).

    To my surprise, however, I found that knowing the twist made the first half of the novel, in which readers are meant to be bamboozled into suspecting Nick, a lot more fun.  Knowing that both of the narratives in this segment of the book are unreliable made it a sort of puzzle, as I tried to work out where the truth lay in the gap between Nick and Amy's increasingly conflicting accounts of their marriage.  The book actually loses a lot of energy in its second half, when the twist is revealed and that sort of active participation in the story fades away, making it easier to notice its flaws: that Flynn's plot only hangs together because the usually intelligent and calculating Amy suddenly becomes stupid and irrational just when the plot needs her to be; that the novel's descriptions of the economic deterioration of Nick's midwestern home town, or of the way the media, led by a Nancy Grace analogue, gleefully spins a narrative of his guilt, don't really connect to the central mystery plot or the examination the breakdown of Nick and Amy's marriage; and that towards the story's end, Amy engages in some stereotypical Bad Girl behavior (false rape accusations, stealing sperm) whose straight-faced, unexamined presentation left me feeling rather uncomfortable.

    Despite these flaws, Gone Girl is a tense, involving read, one that I gulped down and enjoyed immensely.  For that reason as well as several others, I was reminded while reading it of another massively successful, much-discussed potboiler, Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin.  Like Gone Girl, Kevin is an epistolary novel that revolves around a heavily publicized crime, and has a twist that everyone probably knows by now.  More importantly, Gone Girl and We Need to Talk About Kevin both seem to be using their propulsive plots to do the same thing--launch a discussion of a social institution (motherhood in Kevin, marriage in Gone Girl) that women are expected to desire and enjoy, and of the ways in which that expectation can warp and damage them.  They both also undermine that discussion in exactly the same way--by making one of their main characters a sociopath.  Gone Girl piles high the reasons for the implosion of Nick and Amy's marriage--Nick's immaturity and self-absorption, Amy's impossibly high expectations, financial difficulties, meddling parents, Nick and Amy's mutual belief that they need to assume a cool, carefree persona to please one another, and their disappointment when the other stops putting in the effort to maintain that facade.  But the more we get to know Amy, the clearer it becomes that she is incapable of love, and that even if none of these problems existed, she and Nick would still have a sham of a marriage.  Where Gone Girl improves on Kevin, however, is in not taking itself nearly as seriously as Shriver's novel, which aspires to a political significance that it can't really achieve.  Gone Girl, in contrast, is consciously shlocky, which not only makes the problems of its plot easier to swallow, but also suggests that the best way to read the novel might be as a very dark satire, in which Nick and Amy become trapped by the narrative that has been spun around them, forced to perform the perfect, effortlessly happy, Hollywood rom-com marriage for the cameras while behind closed doors the only thing keeping them together is mutually assured destruction.  If Gone Girl does have anything to say about the institution of marriage, it is this deeply cynical conclusion, that the only way to achieve this romantic fantasy is to be insane.

  • Seraphina by Rachel Hartman - It's hard to know where to start discussing Hartman's debut, a busy, wide-ranging story with more characters, plot strands, and worldbuilding details than such a relatively short novel should be able to support.  So perhaps I'll start with the dragons.  Hartman's dragons are coolly logical creatures who, when they're not amassing hoards of gold coins or devouring human flesh, enjoy math and philosophy, and neither understand nor approve of emotions.  They can also take human form, which is how the titular heroine came to be conceived.  Considered an abomination by both races--to dragons because she represents her mother's succumbing to the emotion of love, and to humans because despite a peace that has lasted decades, the dominant religion of the novel's world still teaches that dragons are soulless, inferior beings--Seraphina has spent her life hiding what she is and coping with the unpredictable effects of her mixed heritage, such as psychic contact with people she's never met, or inherited memories from her mother that overwhelm her at inconvenient times.  Despite which, and the danger of being discovered and executed, Seraphina, who is also a gifted musician, takes a position as assistant choirmaster to the royal court, where hiding her heritage presents not only practical but emotional difficulties.  Is Seraphina a bad person for lying to her new friends?  Can she ever trust someone completely?  What about the observant captain of the guard Kiggs, whose attraction to Seraphina is repeatedly hamstrung by his conviction that she is lying about something?

    You would think that all this would be quite enough for any author to be getting on with, but the difficulties and emotional toll of passing for human make up only one of the novel's plot strands.  In others, Seraphina helps to prepare for a visit of the dragon king marking the anniversary of peace treaty between dragons and humans, and to investigate an assassination plot spearheaded by warmongers on both side; she discovers the existence of other dragon/human hybrids, and learns more about her dragon powers and ancestry; she deepens and repairs her relationships with her human father and dragon uncle, both of whom still carry the wounds left by her mother's transgression and death; and she gives us a guided tour of her world, its politics, history, religion, geography, and culture.  The ease with which Hartman weaves together these plot strands and subplots into a narrative that never feels overstuffed, and whose pace never slackens, reminded me of the early Harry Potter books (though Seraphina is pitched at an older audience).  And like those books, the result is a world that feels fully lived in and real, and some ways more interesting in its own right than the story used to illustrate it.

    Just as interesting as what Hartman does with her premise is what she doesn't do with it, the YA clichés she doesn't indulge in.  Seraphina is special, but not precocious; burdened, but not angsty.  Being skilled or special, in this novel, isn't an excuse for the narrative (or the other characters) to treat you like a special snowflake, but for the people in charge to give you more work--though her musical talent is frequently commented upon, most of Serpahina's work as assistant choirmaster is logistical, and involves wrangling musicians, arranging performances, and placating her ornery boss; when her hybrid superpowers are discovered, they too are wondered at only briefly before Seraphina is conscripted to help keep the peace.  Seraphina's matter-of-factness reflects both her and the narrative's recognition that though her experiences are transformative, and will affect the rest of her life, neither they nor she are the most important part of the story she's living through.  It's a recognition that is also reflected in the refreshingly undramatic resolution of the novel's romance, in which Seraphina and Kiggs recognize that they can't be together because what's going on around them is more important, but also promise not to give up on each other.  Even the novel's most resonant theme, Seraphina's passing and the self-doubt it breeds in her, are treated with a bracing practicality that doesn't obscure how difficult it has been for her to live with the constant threat of exposure.  Though I found the resolution of this strand a little too neat--Seraphina's friends are perhaps too quickly and uniformly willing to accept that she is something they've been taught to hate and fear--that resolution doesn't undermine the work Hartman does throughout the novel to put us in Seraphina's headspace, and I suspect that the novel's sequels will complicate the seeming ease with which Seraphina's secret has been accepted.  For that reason, as well as the chance to spend more time in this wonderfully detailed and realized world, I'm looking forward to what Hartman does next.

  • Zero History by William Gibson - I had made up my mind to pass on the third volume in Gibson's Bigend trilogy, but coming across a copy of it in a used bookstore convinced me to give it a try.  I wish I could say that it turned out to be a fortuitous find, but my suspicions about Zero History proved correct.  Despite some cosmetic alterations, it is more or less a retread of the previous books in the trilogy, full of meditations about consumer culture in the post-9/11 world delivered by disaffected jet-setters who always know the exact brand name of all the objects they use, own, and see (a car isn't simply a Toyota, it's a Toyota Hilux, and always referred to by that full name).  This was new and unusual in Pattern Recognition, and overdone in Spook Country.  In Zero History it's pretty much unbearable--not to mention that the trilogy's "the future is now" slant on technology, which felt like a revelation in 2003, is practically old hat in 2013.

    Gibson's focus this time around is on clothing, as Spook Country heroine Hollis Henry is dispatched by PR wunderkind Hubertus Bigend to find the maker of a super-exclusive, highly secretive, high-end brand of jeans, so that Bigend can commercialize and market it.  Meanwhile, former drug addict Milgrim, another Spook Country character who is now working for Bigend, is sent to do a little industrial espionage on designers of military clothing, on the grounds that these styles influence commercial streetwear.  There are some interesting ideas here--though Gibson loses me on the connection between military and street fashion when he illustrates it through a character who wears a particularly utilitarian bra and claims that it was designed by the IDF; we are now at least two decades past the point where any reasonable person could still believe that all Israeli women are Mossad commandos who can strip an Uzi in their sleep, and as a former woman in the IDF I can assure you that I, and all my fellow female soldiers, bought our bras in the lingerie store like normal people--but they end up drowned out by an action plot that reiterates the previous two books even more than Gibson's fondness for dropping brand names.

    Where Zero History deviates from its two predecessors is in finally coming out against Bigend, who here is presented as almost a devil, and his attempts to monetize the jeans that Hollis is looking for an act of corruption that she must protect their designer from.  Which ends up rubbing me the wrong way.  Pattern Recognition and Spook Country were filled with an appreciation for objects that transcended their love of brands, an appreciation rooted in how well those objects had been designed and made, how perfectly they fit their purpose.  When Zero History fetishizes Hollis's mysterious jeans, it does so not simply because they're well made, but because they're exclusive, and it treats Hollis's efforts to keep them that way as almost a holy quest.  There are a lot of things wrong with the global fashion industry--its reliance on cheap, near-captive labor and poor working conditions, its perpetuation of distorted body images, the damage it does to the environment--but I don't think that the near-universal availability of cheap clothing is one of them.  To valorize an object because it is exclusive, and available only to those in the know (and, implicitly, those who are rich enough to drop everything and fly to Australia on a moment's notice when the designer announces a release there) doesn't strike me as the blow against evil that Gibson clearly intends me to see it as, no matter how problematic the commercialized, homogenized alternative is.

  • This is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz - Díaz's second collection, and his follow-up to the Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, doesn't break new ground.  Once again, the focus is on the lives of first and second-generation Dominican immigrants to the US, and once again, the narrator is Díaz's alter-ego Yunior, a smartass with good grades and a bad attitude who can never get far enough away from the country he was born in or the neighborhood he grew up in.  As the title suggests, the topic of most of the stories here, as it was in Yunior's strand in Oscar Wao, is his inability to remain faithful, and the way that his infidelity destroys one relationship after another.

    Though Yunior's Dominican background and his family history play a role, as they did in Oscar Wao, in his behavior, Díaz isn't interested in making excuses, and indeed the point of the stories isn't to assign blame--Yunior is always willing to admit to being a fuckup.  What the stories in This is How You Lose Her try to do instead is get at Yunior's humanity, painting a portrait of a man who knows that he's the one destroying his own happiness, but still wants to be loved and forgiven, and is still heartbroken when the relationships he betrays actually do break down.  (Reading between the lines, Yunior comes off like the male equivalent of the romance heroine who doesn't know who she is without a man; he can't stop himself from cheating, but he doesn't know what to do without a woman in his life.)  Keeping all this running is, of coure, Díaz's narrative voice, a sing-song, fast-flowing blend of English, Spanish, and slang that is still, after two collection and a novel, stunning in its immediacy and vitality.  It makes the slight repetitiveness of the ideas in This is How You Lose Her--and in Díaz's career--seem worthwhile, but still I wish that Díaz would do something different--that, as promised, he'll expand his apocalypse-in-the-DR story "Monstro," from the New Yorker's science fiction issue a few years back, into a novel, and use that remarkable voice to tell us stories we haven't yet heard.

  • Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple - Told through email exchanges, newsletters, magazine articles, and the connective tissue of its teenage narrator's reminiscences, Where'd You Go, Bernadette describes the events leading up to the disappearance of Seattle housewife Bernadette Fox.  A pioneer of green architecture and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, Bernadette built only two houses before flaming out spectacularly and retreating to the suburbs of Seattle.  As the book opens fifteen years later, Bernadette is a shut-in, living in a dilapidated mansion she'd intended but never got around to renovating with her Microsoft genius husband and their precocious daughter Bee, who is just on the cusp of working out how abnormal her life and parents are.  Most of the comedy in the novel's early chapters comes from Bernadette's snobbish disdain for her mundane neighbors, and their part-curious, part-scandalized fascination with her, a madwoman who lives on the hill and never participates in the school bake sales.  These chapters, with their skewering of suburban small-mindedness and groupthink, have a whiff of Nicola Barker about them, but there's a dark undertone to them that Semple won't quite acknowledge.

    As Dan Hartland writes in his review, the narrative castigates Bernadette for her misanthropy, and her neighbors for being judgmental (and, since this is ultimately a benevolent comic novel rather than a satirical one, allows them to outgrow it) but it has nothing to say about her privilege.  One of Bernadette's methods for avoiding the world is to hire a personal assistant in India who handles shopping, household repair, travel arrangements, and even doctor's prescriptions for $30 a week.  This assistant is later revealed to be an identity thief who nearly clears out Bernadette's bank accounts, which absolves both her and us from having to wonder about the kind of person who sees nothing wrong with paying so little for so much work while sprinkling her emails with thoughtlessly privileged proclamations about her and her assistant's relative quality of life.  Instead, the only criticism that is expressed towards Bernadette is over her choice to give up her creative work--if you do not create, a former teacher tells her, you will become a menace to society--and if Where'd You Go, Bernadette has a message underpinning its social humor it is this examination of how to be a brilliant, creative person while dealing with the frustrating realities of a world that won't always let you do the work you were meant to do (one of the book's more interesting and subtle touches is that as she discovers her own genius--for investigating her parents' lives--the previously happy-go-lucky Bee starts to exhibit some of her mother's impatience and misanthropy).  The fact that some geniuses are never given the opportunity to exercise their creativity because they lack Bernadette's privilege is never discussed, and that, along with the slight sentimentality of the novel's resolution, undercuts what is otherwise a sharp, witty story about what it means to be special, and the obligations--to yourself and to others--that come with it.

  • The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - The premise of Johnson's novel--a bildungsroman set in North Korea--put me off as soon as I heard it, and its winning the Pulitzer prize (an award whose previous winners include Memories of a Geisha) wasn't an enticement either.  It was the repeated and consistent praise from the judges of this year's Tournament of Books (which Johnson went on to win) that finally persuaded me to give the book a try, and though what I found certainly justifies the tournament judges' praise, it also confirms my doubts about the novel's project.  Beautifully written and expertly plotted, the novel follows Jun Do, the titular orphan master's son, as he alternately rises and falls through the strata of North Korean society, going from lowly army grunt to professional kidnapper to spy to envoy the US to prisoner to the inner circle of Kim Jong Il.  What he's searching for is an identity he can bear to call his own in a nation that doesn't give its citizens the option of living a righteous life.  At the same time, his story is repeatedly being appropriated--as propaganda, as patriotic, anti-American lies to keep himself and his colleagues out of prison, as a cover to fool his American hosts into taking him seriously, and as a means of rescuing the people he cares about from Kim's clutches.  The malleability of story and identity lie at the heart of the novel, as do their twin uses as instruments of both oppression and liberation (by the end of the novel, Jun Do is modeling himself on Rick from Casablanca, and like him, sacrificing himself so that the woman he loves can escape oppression).  So it could be said that Johnson's use of North Korea is purely symbolic (as indicated by protagonist's punning name), a backdrop of oppression against which to set his story of an individual finding freedom through reinvention.  But The Orphan Master's Son is also painstakingly researched and detailed.  Though I can't speak to its accuracy, there is an obvious sense that Johnson isn't merely writing a parable, but trying to give his readers as complete a picture of life in North Korea as he can.

    Which, paradoxically, is why I finished the novel feeling uncomfortable at the fact that Johnson is speaking for people who have been denied their own voices, and has been rewarded for it.  As a corrective, I followed the book up with Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, an oral history based on Demick's interviews with North Korean defectors.  Nic Clarke, who called my attention to the book, has already written eloquently about its power, so I'll just add that as a counterpoint to Johnson's novel, the testimonies of Demick's interviewees make for powerful reading, and helped to crystallize some of my problems with the novel.  Even taking into account the selection bias that affects the book's subjects--these are the people who had the courage, the strength of will, and sometimes though not always the resources to leave their home--I was struck, while reading their accounts, by a vitality and a will to better their lives that is missing from almost all the characters--including, sometimes, the lead--in Johnson's novel.  Even before they gave up on North Korea, Demick's interviewees were working hard to survive, even if doing so meant rejecting, in action if not in word, the dogma they'd grown up with.  They start businesses, read illicit literature, and try to contact their relatives in the South.  Their minds are free, even if their lives aren't.

    In contrast, the prevailing tone among most of the North Koreans Jun Do meets is one of fatalism.  They survive by not acting, and by parroting the newspeak of the day, agreeing that up is down and black is white in order to survive--as when Jun Do steals the uniform of a high ranking official who visits his prison and escapes despite looking nothing like the man, because everyone he meets is too afraid to challenge him.  This is obviously in service of Johnson's project, which mimics the absurdist fiction of Soviet writers, who tried to put the insanity of living under a totalitarian regime into words by taking it to its illogical extremes.  But unlike those writers, Johnson isn't writing about his own country; whether or not he intended it, one of the results of his choice to write a North Korea in which everyone but the hero simply accepts things as they are is that it echoes a tendency of Western writers to treat foreigners as if their strange culture makes them less human, less likely to strive for better things and to use all their intelligence and ingenuity to achieve that goal.  The Orphan Master's Son is an excellent piece of literature, but I can't be entirely happy at its success.

  • Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi - Oyeyemi's most recent novel (which is the first of her works that I've read) is possibly a novel in stories, and definitely a novel about stories, and about the way that they both shape and are shaped by reality.  Mr. Fox, an author in the pre-war US, is visited by his muse Mary Foxe--who may or may not be a figment of his imagination--who complains about his penchant for killing women in his fiction.  The two--or rather versions of them--then star in a sequence of stories, in which Mary tries to show Mr. Fox the error of his ways (or just to punish him for them) while he tries to get his wayward muse under control.  Meanwhile, in the framing story, Mr. Fox's wife Daphne believes that her husband is having an affair, but is Mary Daphne's competition, or an inspiration to take up her own creative work?

    Most of the stories in Mr. Fox take fairy tales as their starting point, in particular the title work, a variant on Bluebeard in which the storyteller is the intended wife and victim, who is able to turn the tables on her future husband and murderer by telling his story and revealing him for what he is.  One of Oyeyemi's focal points is the prevalence of wife murder in fiction (and in real life), the way that the husband, so often the hero in the traditional romantic narrative, can become its monster; but she is also treating that murder as something more symbolic, the murder of ambitions and talent, as one partner (usually the wife) sublimates their creative drive to please the other, sometimes without even realizing that they've done so.  That slipperiness, the shift between symbolic and actual murder, between good husband and bad, between fairy tale and modern fiction, is reflected in the stories that make up Mr. Fox, as Oyeyemi and her two storytellers/protagonists riff and extemporize on the title fairy tale in a way that makes shifting roles the central idea of the novel.  Authors become characters, animals become human, loving husbands become murderers,  supportive wives become consumed with their own work--and vice versa.  The result is a rich stew of allusions, references and parallels that chime against each other and come down not to an answer but a set of questions: can Mr. Fox be a good husband and stop killing women, both as an author and in real life?  Can Mary Foxe trust him instead of seeing him only as a monster?  Can Daphne Fox be a wife who is the equal of her husband, and an author in her own right?  What they also come down to, however, is a love story--with a particular screwball tone that suits the framing story's 30s setting very well--between three people who despite their shifting roles in it still emerge from the novel as vivid characters.  Both thought-provoking and delightful, I'm sure that Mr. Fox won't be the last of Oyeyemi's books that I will read.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: Big Mama Stories by Eleanor Arnason

My review of Eleanor Arnason's new collection Big Mama Stories appears today at Strange Horizons.  I've been a fan of Arnason's short fiction for more than a decade, since reading "Knapsack Poems"--still, to my mind, one of the finest short stories in the field--so a chance to review more of her stories seemed too good to pass up.  In Big Mama Stories, Arnason tries to invent a folk figure for the technological age, and the result, as I write in the review, feels like a cross between Brer Rabbit and Doctor Who--which is to say, utterly delightful.