- Wonders Will Never Cease by Robert Irwin - Part literary fantasy, part historical fiction, Irwin's novel takes as its subject Anthony Woodville, a 15th century knight, courtier, and scholar whose sister Elizabeth's marriage to king Edward IV destabilized the tentative peace achieved after the initial York victory in the Wars of the Roses, and set in motion a chain of events that left both sides in the dispute decimated. I've written in the past about the different approaches that historical novelists have taken to this period, and more generally, about the way that the choice of genre, tone, and even literary style can affect our view of history. Irwin's approach--which is only semi-serious--is to ask what history actually is. His characters exist in a moment where the very idea of history, and of how we narrativize it, is still being codified. In one scene, Anthony is shocked by the thought that people in the past dressed or spoke differently than him, or had access to less sophisticated weapons or ships. A running subplot involves an abbot who is trying to work out the age of the world through the simple expedient of working backwards through the known events of the past (he ends up concluding that there are too many centuries and eliminates the sixth through ninth from his timeline). The difference between legend and actual events is impossible to discern, and sometimes nonexistent. Characters talk of King Arthur and his knights as if they really existed, but at the same time, one scholar wonders whether Charlemagne could have been a real person, since surely no single man could have achieved all the feats ascribed to him.
It's a slippage that is often reinforced for blatantly political reasons. In order to obscure the roots of his reign in treason and usurpation, Edward tries to model his court on the fictional Camelot, staging tournaments and sending his courtiers on quests. His advisers grumble that such fantasies have no place in this "modern" age, but at the same time they ignore the frequent encroachment of magic and wonder into their world. Anthony begins the novel by dying at the Battle of Towton, only to come back to life because there are so many dead that the afterlife has overlooked him. For the rest of his story, the supernatural dogs his steps, whether it's the ghosts of the dead, or figures out of the heroic deeds invented about him by Edward's agents in order to cement the Woodvilles' legitimacy. The narrative of the novel is frequently interrupted by stories, told by the characters or to them. By the end of the novel, the fiction that has been built up around Anthony--that he is a virginal, virtuous knight who has even seen the Holy Grail--is so powerful that it steps into the world as its own entity, whose first act is to chastise the real Anthony for being an ordinary, sinful human.
In its handling of Anthony, Wonders Will Never Cease is reminiscent of Hillary Mantel's humanizing, deliberately modern historical novels. Like Mantel's Cromwell, Irwin's Anthony is defined by his ambivalence, his willingness to learn about the world and consider different points of view, and his detachment from more florid, dogmatic figures like Edward, or his chief constable and avid torturer Tiptoft. But its frequent forays into symbol-laden Arthurian pastiches (which reminded me very much of the novels of John Crowley) mean that this realism is constantly, and clearly deliberately, being undercut. The result is a heady, dense mixture, by no means a quick or straightforward read. It can be easy to get lost in the weeds of the novel's frequent detours into stories-within-stories, or its near-invisible transitions between realism and allegory. But whenever one is in danger of being permanently disoriented, the force of history reappears and carries Anthony, and us, along with it. In its final moments, as Anthony approaches a date with destiny that will transform him into a character in other people's narratives, the project of Wonders Will Never Cease becomes clear--to convince us of a thing that is almost impossible for most of us to believe, that history is real, and that we are a part of it.
- Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng - I found myself, in the opening chapters of Ng's recent novel, being reminded strongly of HBO's mega-successful Big Little Lies, which I watched a few weeks before reading the book. Like that series (itself based on a novel by Liane Moriarty), Little Fires Everywhere starts with a lower-class single mother moving to an affluent, orderly community, allegedly in order to send their child to a better school, but really because of the still-simmering secrets of their past. Both stories start with a shocking crime, which the narrative then flashes back from in order to explain the background and events leading up to. And both involve the community being split over a dispute in which the personalities and social class of the people on either side make as much of a difference as the facts of the case. (Somewhat unsurprisingly, the rights to Little Fires Everywhere have been purchased by Reese Witherspoon, who produced Big Little Lies.) It's perhaps because of this familiarity that I found Little Fires Everywhere a little underwhelming, or perhaps because consuming several stories of a similar type (see also USA's The Sinner last year) drives home the fundamental limitation of all of them--that the secrets these narratives tease are rarely as salacious or as shocking as the buildup to them always tries to promise. "Idyllic town with dark currents running beneath the surface" is a classic for a reason, but one of the effects of its having been repeated so many times is that we've seen most of the likely variations on it, and few of them are likely to surprise us.
What's left, then, is the execution, the characters, and the issues underpinning it all, and on all of these counts Ng is accomplished though, again, not terribly thrilling. The heart of the novel is the conflict between its two mothers, well-off Shaker Heights doyenne Elena Richardson (almost always referred to as "Mrs. Richardson" by the narrative)--whose house will burn down in the novel's opening chapter, setting up the narrative's climax--and itinerant artist Mia Warren. When Mia and her quiet teenage daughter Pearl rent the Richardsons' second house, the two families end up in constant contact with each other, with Pearl entranced by the blithe, privileged Richardson children's confidence and normalcy, while they in turn find in Mia a figure who gives them permission to be imperfect and make mistakes, as they don't feel comfortable doing around their mother. Some of the best scenes of Little Fires Everywhere are the ones where the characters are allowed to simply be, as opposed to moving the novel more deliberately towards its promised destructive ending--when Mia works on her abstract photographs, or when the youngest Richardson child, the misfit Izzy, seethes over injustices that she can sense, but can't articulate or productively respond to. As the novel's plot heats up, however, it becomes, somewhat predictably for this kind of story, more mechanical and more contrived. Mia's mysterious backstory is dumped on us in two chapters that suddenly yank the narrative away from the novel's carefully naturalistic progression through time. A laboriously set up gun-on-the-mantelpiece, one character using another's name while procuring an abortion, goes off in exactly the manner and time we expect. It's all leading up to an ending that is a great deal less interesting than simply letting the characters continue with their ordinary lives might have been.
Underlying it all is the issue of race and how it intersects with class, which Ng approaches in subtle, oblique ways. Mia and Pearl's relative poverty colors how the rest of the community, and particularly Mrs. Richardson, perceives their behavior, particularly when it comes to sex and motherhood. This coincides with the legal case that divides the community, in which a Chinese immigrant tries to regain custody of the baby she abandoned, who is in the process of being adopted by an affluent Shaker Heights couple. The community--one of the US's first planned cities, where Ng herself grew up--prides itself on its progressivism and inclusiveness, but is unwilling to admit how deeply these values are rooted in affluence and the expectation of it. When the baby's mother is accused of unfitness, the accusation always ends up hinging on her poverty, and the idea that Shaker Heights parents have options and support systems that a woman like her doesn't is always present, but rarely acknowledged by people like Mrs. Richardson. Repeatedly challenged by the case, by Mia and Pearl's very existence, and by hints that her own family is not as perfect as she believes, Mrs. Richardson crumbles, finally using her wealth and power as a weapon against those whose "badness" is really just a lack of options. It's a powerful moment, but once again it feels as if Ng doesn't trust it. She ends the novel instead on several contrivances (including one with a gaping plot hole) that reinforce my impression that Little Fires Everywhere, like Big Little Lies and other stories like them, is more interesting for its parts than its whole.
- Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi - The early chapters of Makumbi's epic are very much what a reader might expect upon being told that the book they're about to read is "the great X novel", where X is a country in Africa--in this case Uganda. Set in 1750, they are a richly detailed, vividly described portrait of the life of a provincial governor in the Buganda kingdom, focusing on the customs and social orders that govern his life, and on the events that overturn it despite his best efforts to follow what he sees as the correct, moral path. The influence of Things Fall Apart is strongly felt, albeit with some notable and clearly deliberate alterations. The hero of these chapters, Kintu Kidda (a name that has a rich significance in Ugandan folklore and tradition, signifying the first man) is, unlike the hero of Achebe's seminal work, a kind, thoughtful man, whose adherence to tradition is tempered by his nuanced understanding of human nature. In one particularly charming scene, Kintu and the other married men of his family sit with his soon-to-be-married son to have a frank discussion of marital relations, which focuses as much on the need to be open and responsive to the needs of one's partner as it does on dirty jokes. Nevertheless, Kintu's life is on a collision course with tragedy. When he accidentally kills his adopted son, a member of the Tutsi minority, Kintu is too overcome by shock and guilt to admit his responsibility and give the boy proper funeral rites. Cursed by the boy's biological father, he quickly watches his family fall apart, and dies in the knowledge that future generations will carry the curse forward.
It's at this point that Kintu changes radically from the novel we might have expected it to be. Instead of proceeding forward through time to reveal how each subsequent generation of Kintu's descendants faced the curse in their turn, it instead jumps forwards 250 years, to 2004, and visits with four members of the present-day family. Kanani is a joyless missionary for a dying Christian sect, who spends his days trying to spread the word by pretending to have committed horrific crimes which have now been washed away by god's forgiveness, and his nights ignoring the dysfunction in his own family, his twin children's all-consuming relationship and his grandson's disaffection. Miisi is a former academic who returned to Uganda after years of exile in Britain during Idi Amin's rule, and is now trying to make amends for his absence by raising his grandchildren, most of whose parents have been felled by war or AIDS. Isaac is a self-made man, hardened by a loveless, impoverished childhood, who is riddled with indecision over whether to test himself and his young son for HIV. And Suubi wafts through life as if she has no past, having suppressed the memory of her abandonment as a child and convinced herself that her adoptive parents were her real ones. All are haunted by the recurring motifs of the curse: twins, one of whom tries to overpower the other; people of Tutsi heritage; and the presentiment of murder or suicide.
As Aaron Bady writes in his introduction, one of the interesting (and, again, clearly deliberate) choices that Makumbi makes in Kintu is the decision not to discuss colonialism or European influence in Uganda. These forces are present in the background, and their impact has clearly shaped the lives of the modern characters--most notably in the case of Kanani and Miisi, both adherents of Western systems of thought, which they regard with varying degrees of ambivalence. But the project of Kintu--both the novel and its characters--is moving forward from an ugly past. Isaac, for example, must come to terms with being the product of rape and with the abandonment of his mother, while Suubi must face up to the past she has suppressed, including a twin who died at birth and whose ghost haunts her. For all of them, the project of the novel is to redefine themselves and come up with a stronger, more grounded identity, which they do by both embracing their heritage and position as part of a family, and discarding the past that weighs them down. That duality defines Kintu, a novel that is both aware of itself as part of a tradition of "African" novels oriented at Western audiences, with particular expected tropes, and trying to reinvent those novels for a Ugandan audience. So we get the multifaceted portrait of modern Ugandan society, the mingling of realism and folklore, the references to crushing poverty, government corruption, and AIDS. But we also get nuances of Ugandan society--naming conventions, for example, or slippery definitions of familial relationships--that a reader from outside the culture might find difficult to parse. Perhaps deliberately, Kintu thus ends more with a question mark than with a definitive statement, offering the chance of a different, better future, but not yet certain what that future looks like.
- Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan - It's been seven years since Egan published the magnificent, heart-rending A Visit From the Good Squad, but even after all that time, a follow-up to that novel was sure to send me running to the bookstore. Manhattan Beach turns out to be a great deal more conventional than that earlier, time-hopping novel. It's an absorbing read, but lacks Goon Squad's force and clear intent. Set in early 40s New York as the American war machine begins to work in earnest, churning out materiel and soldiers for the European and Asian theaters and upending the lives of the people left back home, Manhattan Beach focuses on two such individuals. Nineteen-year-old Anna Kerrigan is a technical worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard who dreams of becoming a diver, repairing ships and clearing obstacles under water. Dexter Styles is a gangster with one leg out of the life, married to a respectable banker's daughter and slowly moving his business interests towards the legal end, but still with strong ties to the families that helped him on his way up. Tying the two together is Anna's father, Eddie, who disappeared five years ago after taking clandestine work for Dexter--a fact of which Anna and her family are unaware, assuming that Eddie abandoned them.
Manhattan Beach is at its best when it explores little- or under-discussed aspects of this time and place in history: the wartime work of women in places like the Navy Yard; the rigors and challenges of diving; the life of merchant marine sailors and the dangers they faced while transporting supplies for the war through U-boat infested waters; the hierarchy of Depression-era shipyard work, and the way the mobbed-up unions controlled it; perhaps most importantly, the way that New York of the early 20th century was still primarily a port city, defined by its rivers, harbors, waterways, and the people who knew their secrets. It's no surprise to come to Egan's acknowledgments and find several pages of personal and documentary resources she drew on during what must have been more than a decade's work on this book. But these elements don't tie together into a particularly engaging narrative. The overarching theme of the book is escape and reinvention. The war allows Anna to slip out of her old life and become a completely new person several times over. But when Dexter, inspired by the atmosphere of change and reinvention around him, tries to go completely legitimate, he finds that not just his mob connections, but his respectable ones, resist this transformation. This is a little too grand and amorphous a concept to give the novel much of a shape, however, or at least it is in Egan's handling of it. As a result, Manhattan Beach feels more like a bunch of things that happen than a complete novel--far less so, in fact, than the superficially more bitty and aimless Goon Squad.
- The Tiger's Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera - Rivera's debut novel is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world, where the Hokkaran empire rules over several disparate nations, imposing both its military rule and its cultural norms. To the north of the empire lies the magical Wall of Flowers, beyond which the four demon generals lie in wait, periodically sending out their minions to harass humans, often infecting them with "blackblood", which turns its victims into bloodthirsty fiends and for which there is no cure. It's a very familiar setting, and but for its cultural inspirations one might easily call it derivative. But what sets The Tiger's Daughter apart is less its premise and more what Rivera does with it, and with what style. Though its narrative ranges back and forth across the empire, the framing story of The Tiger's Daughter is that Shizuka, the young, troubled empress, has received a long letter from Shefali, her childhood friend--and eventually, lover--in which Shefali describes how their lives have been intertwined since birth, and even before that, as their own mothers were legendary warriors who fought side by side against the demon generals.
The style Rivera uses in The Tiger's Daughter reminded me of Sofia Samatar's The Winged Histories, and even more than that, of Kai Ashante Wilson's Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. The language is rich, emotional, focused on the small details of character interaction, even in the midst of great drama or intense action. More importantly, the focus of Shefali's letter is on the shifting currents in the friendship between her and Shizuka, as well as their relationships with their mothers, or their growing awareness of how Hokkaran cultural hegemony has warped the empire's other nations. Shefali's people, the Qorin, are clearly based on Mongolian steppe tribes, nomadic people with a great love of horses and the open sky, whom the Japanese-inflected Hokkarans deride as barbarians. This frustrates Shefali, who sees her people's culture as beautiful and sophisticated (and who also keenly observes how other Hokkaran protectorates, such as the Korean-inspired Xian-Lai, have been warped by being forced to accept Hokkaran conventions, for example outlawing same-sex relationships). Her narrative therefore becomes not just a story of her coming of age and sexual awakening, but of her growing political awareness. In the present, meanwhile, we get to see how Shizuka's dreams of creating a better, more just world have met with only limited success. She's wrested control of the empire from her cruel, racist uncle, but the heartbreak of having been separated from Shefali--due to a tragedy that the latter's letter builds up to--has kept her from becoming the leader and hero her people deserve.
The Tiger's Daughter is not a mild or soft-spoken novel. Every emotion is pitched to the rafters, whether it's Shizuka's arrogance, or Shefali's passion, or the two women's pain at being separated. This suits the story Rivera is telling (as well as, one imagines, her project of writing an epic, heroic romance whose lovers are both women). But for me, at least, it's a style that outstays its welcome, and especially when one considers that this is only the first volume in a trilogy. It finally becomes difficult not to notice the fatal flaw in its premise: if, as we eventually learn, Shefali and Shizuka have been separated for years, why is the topic of Shefali's letter the years they spent together rather than her adventures during their separation? More importantly, it becomes difficult to accept the novel's insistence that it is depicting a romance for the ages rather than a love story between two over-dramatic teenage girls, who might not be entirely good for one another. I found myself much more interested in the politics of the world than in the novel's two heroines, which given that their voices and personalities are what give the novel its flavor ended up feeling like a fatal disconnect. At a shorter length--not unlike Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, or the similar chapters in The Winged Histories--I might have loved The Tiger's Daughter, but given that it is a hefty volume in its own right that only begins to tell its story, my enthusiasm for it can only be described as qualified.
- Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim - Lim's slim novel starts in a very familiar way: two teenage boys in late 20th century middle America, social outcasts for their nerdy demeanor and interests (and also, in this case, for being Asian), bond over a shared love of comics and all things geeky. The only thing setting this iteration apart is the insistence of Lim's narrative voice, which flows from one incident to another in a rush that carries the reader irresistibly along with it. Upon the chapter change, however, everything gets turned upside down. Now we're in the present, and our protagonists are a group of friends, Dave, Muriel and Frank (sometimes joined by a nameless narrator who may be one of the boys from the first chapter, now grown up). Dave is a disappointed artist, Muriel works at a hospital, and Frank is a political ghost writer, but in their down time they are a superhero team known as Team Chaos. But this, too, is to suggest a familiar format that Dear Cyborgs immediately bucks. The insistent narrative voice is still present, and its focus is not on superheroics but on the utterly mundane, as it follows the characters' trivial reminiscences, dreams, and the lives of the people they've met. Even when Frank is sent in pursuit of a supervillain, Ms. Mistleto, she spends most of their time together talking to him, telling him her life story and trying to explain why she's turned to anti-social behavior. Stories unfold within stories, fact is confused for fiction and reality for dreams. The only thing keeping us afloat through all this is Lim's rigorous control of his narrative voice, which manages to make even the most mundane tale feel compelling, and to carry us along to the book's end.
It might sound glib or pretentious to say that Dear Cyborgs is about modern living, but this is both true and a great deal more exciting than you might expect. Running through all the nested stories in this volume is the question of how to create meaning when you're just a tiny component of a system that is, at its deepest levels, exploitative and corrosive. The superhero premise reminds us of the fantasies of agency that pop culture is rife with, but even these heroic, powerful characters are struggling with the question of how, and whether, to resist. Is it possible to create art, for example, that changes the world, or will it inevitably be co-opted by capitalism? The book repeatedly features artist characters who destroy their own work rather than allow it to be taken out of their control, or sold to a market that values it as nothing more than an object. More interestingly, it suggests that protest--the Zuccotti Park protests of 2011 are repeatedly referenced--is in itself a form of art, of performance, and just as vulnerable to commodification, and to losing its meaning through this process. This discussion is interspersed with reminiscences of real artists, and real activists (many of them Asian-American) who tried to solve this conundrum, with varying degrees of success though never completely.
The combination of exaggerated social realism, SFnal elements, and an arch, comedic tone reminded me strongly of the short stories of George Saunders, but Lim is an angrier writer, his ultimate conclusions more desperate even though they're cloaked in humor. The conclusion that many of the characters reach is that the only ethical choice left, when all other forms of protest have been exhausted, defeated, or co-opted, is to become "parasites", participating in society only minimally. But this is a solution that Dear Cyborgs refutes simply by existing. It is too vivid, too loud, too exhilarating to be, ultimately, a novel preaching withdrawal from the world. If it can't offer a solution to the problems it identifies, it is at least vitally insistent in how it defines them.
- Pachinko by Min Jin Lee - This multigenerational historical melodrama touches on a corner of history that I--and, I suspect, much of its target audience--knew very little about before picking up the book, the lives of Korean immigrants in Japan before and after WWII. When Japan annexes Korea and begins hollowing out its economy and social structures in the early 20th century, peasants like boarding-house owners Hoonie and Yangjin are left scrambling for survival. Their daughter, Sunja, is seduced by a married Korean-Japanese mobster and left pregnant, and the only option before her is to marry a passing missionary, Baek Isak, and go with him to Osaka. In the years and decades that follow, the Baek family--Isak's brother and sister-in-law, Sunja's sons, and various in-laws and grandchildren--struggles first with survival during the harsh times of the 30s and 40s, and then with the evolving but insistent Japanese prejudices against Koreans throughout the 20th century. Sunja's son Noa is constantly aware of the need to embody the "good" Korean, excelling at school despite significant financial and social challenges, but constantly haunted by his heritage. His brother Mozasu goes into the pachinko business, surrendering not only to a Korean stereotype but to relentless rumors that he is mobbed-up. Mozasu's son Solomon is set on a trajectory to "transcend" his background, growing up in cosmopolitan luxury, isolated not just from Japanese prejudices but from the reality of life for most Korean-Japanese.
It's a fascinating bit of history, and Lee finds some compelling angles on it. A chapter in which Solomon--who despite being second generation Japanese-born isn't a Japanese citizen--has to obtain a foreigner's identification card on his fourteenth birthday, to the distress of his loving Japanese stepmother, does an excellent job of outlining the mundane challenges of his existence. The dimly-felt influence of the post-war Korean split pops up in intriguing ways--Solomon's Korean-American girlfriend is frustrated when Japanese people ask her whether she is north or south Korean, since to her there is no difference from such a vast geographical and generational remove. As a story, however, Pachinko is alternately stolid and overwrought. Both the frequency with which the novel lobs tragedies at the Baek family--car accidents, HIV infections, the atomic bombing of Nagasaki--and the resignation with which they endure these hardships end up feeling calculated, even manipulative. For some of the characters, this resignation works--most of all Sunja, whose long, tumultuous life leaves her with many unanswerable questions about guilt, suffering, and endurance. But Sunja is off-page for much of the novel, and the other characters feel less like people trying to navigate complicated challenges and political realities, and more like mouthpieces for whatever insight the current chapter has into Korean-Japanese relations. Pachinko ends up feeling less like a story, or even a meditation on migration and statelessness, and more like a drawn-out historical soap opera. It's interesting, but not very engaging.
Monday, April 02, 2018
Recent Reading Roundup 46
The first reading roundup of 2018 covers an eclectic bunch of books, some of which I really liked and others I found pretty meh. It veers back and forth between rather experimental fare and stuff that sits squarely in the mainstream of literary fiction. It's not the best possible start to the year, but it's a solid one, and one that reminds me that being adventurous in my reading usually pays off.