Recent Reading Roundup 56

The "recent" in the title is a bit deceptive—having switched over to running mid-length reviews as their own posts (an experiment which I think has been a resounding success), this post selects books from the last six months of reading, books I had something to say about, but not at a length that justified its own post. Later this week, I'm leaving on a holiday where I expect to do a lot more reading, so this feels like a good opportunity to clear the decks—and leave space for more reviews.

  • Moon Witch Spider King by Marlon James - the first volume in James's Dark Star trilogy, Black Leopard Red Wolf, was meandering, clotted, powerful yet frequently overbearing. It's not surprising to find the same qualities in its follow-up volume, but going into it I had assumed that the reading experience would be smoother, simply because I knew what to expect. Instead, I found myself having a very similar experience to the one I had reading the previous book, feeling incredibly impressed by the skill and verve with which James constructs his vivid, expansive African fantasy world, and the dark, constantly unfolding narrative he places within it. While also being frustrated by how hard he expects the reader to work to follow the convolutions of that plot, and to put up with the novel's ornery, oppositional narrator.

    As promised, Moon Witch Spider King retells the events of the previous novel from the point of view of the witch Sogolon, the Gandalf figure who puts together the fellowship that, in the first novel, sets off in search of a kidnapped child. But James starts this novel nearly two hundred years earlier—the better, Sogolon explains, for us to understand her story in its full context, and particularly her animosity towards Tracker, the first book's narrator. We follow Sogolon from childhood, as she bounces from one abusive caretaker to another, becomes embroiled in palace intrigue, discovers her magical powers, forms a family with a shapeshifting lion-man, and runs afoul of a powerful demon. As he did in the previous book, James excels at constructing a fantasy world that feels at once suffused with magical strangeness—those shapeshifting lions, Sogolon's powers, the mutated children who act as the demon's magical enforcers—and utterly mundane. The locations he constructs are socially, economically, and politically complex, full of people who consider themselves modern and rational, even as they incorporate things like endlessly-reincarnating demons or vampire children into their schemes for power. That grounded quality is also reflected in Sogolon's awareness of how little her powers actually mean in a world where being a nameless orphan girl still matters more than anything else. A great deal of her oppositional behavior comes down to her realization that the great and good who involve her in their plans will not actually change anything for people like her.

    For all of James's linguistic flourishes or the byzantine complexity of his worldbuilding, what makes Moon Witch Spider King a tough read is that, like its predecessor, it's told to us by a narrator who resents being dragged into this story (even as she repeatedly turns down opportunities to step out of it) and resents most of the other people in it, constantly calling attention to their faults while remaining blind to her own. In this, and in many other respects, Sogolon is more like the Tracker than she'd care to admit, and one of the most saddening aspects of the novel is watching the opportunities for understanding between them pass by, neither one willing to let go of their certainty in their rightness for long enough to see the other's point of view. As I wrote in my review of Black Leopard Red Wolf, I suspect I won't understand James's project with this trilogy (including which side I'm supposed to take amongst its point of view characters) until it's finished. But I can only hope that before that happens, he will leave a little space in this story for compassion and understanding.

  • In the Serpent's Wake by Rachel Hartman - the sequel to Hartman's wonderful, heartwarming Tess of the Road sees that novel's heroine setting sail aboard a science vessel bound for the antarctic in search of the mythical world serpent. Tess's previous quest for another one of these creatures led to it being killed by the scientists she reported it to, so her presence on this mission is both a way of expiating her guilt for that death and an attempt to prevent history from repeating itself. In general, Tess has a lot she wants to accomplish on this voyage, much of it having to do with guilt and amends. In the previous volume, she was able to put some distance—literal as well as figurative—between herself and her history of sexual abuse and familial neglect, and now that she's laid her demons to rest, she's convinced that she'll be able to help others do the same. She wants to help her friend Pathka achieve his spiritual quest, to give the lapsed priest Jacomo space to either find his faith or the courage to strike a new path, and to make up for the harm she did to rival explorer Spira when she was at her worst.

    Almost as soon as she embarks on her journey, however, Tess is faced with increasingly complicated questions of guilt and culpability. Like a lot of recent YA fantasies, In the Serpent's Wake is set in a fantasized island chain during an age of sail, which allows Hartman to tackle issues of colonialism, resource extraction, and cultural genocide. Tess quickly learns that the islands on the expedition's path south—where much the logistical support for the expedition, and some of the scientists they'll be consulting, are located—have been seized from their inhabitants with a familiar array of paternalistic and racist excuses. The expedition head, Marga, is aware of these injustices but able to handwave them away, partly out of sheer pragmatism—she can't afford to alienate the colonial governors and military officers who control access to her areas of study—and partly because of her self-image as a pioneering woman who has defied gender norms to get where she is, which can't accommodate the idea that she is also the beneficiary of entrenched power.

    As she's done in previous novels in the Goredd series, Hartman develops a complex mythology and culture for her setting that is a pleasure to discover. Tess encounters various local peoples on the islands, each with their own attitudes towards their culture, their landscape, and the colonizers who have arrived to mar it, as a well as a complex history of inter-tribal conflict that predates colonization. Tess, with what is partly colonial arrogance, and partly her unshakable belief that it is down to her to repair centuries of damage, wades into this morass, sometimes making things worse, but slowly working her way towards greater independence for the tribes. That such a straightforward solution to colonialism and exploitation even exists, much less in a form that can be midwifed by an overzealous teenager, is perhaps a little pat, but Hartman is careful to remind us of the different currents of privilege and exploitation that run through her setting: in Marga's slow realization of how much evil she's countenanced; in a brief but powerful scene in which Marga's maid leaves her position because the colonies offer her the opportunity to be a mistress instead of a servant; and most of all, in Tess's growing understanding of how unequal she is to the enormity of the task, and how she nevertheless has to do her part in it. In the Serpent's Wake is a less inward-focused novel than its predecessor, challenging its heroine to use her newfound wellness to help others, without forgetting that emotional healing is rarely a straight line.

  • Peaces by Helen Oyeyemi - I approached this latest novel by Oyeyemi with a bit of trepidation. Though I've enjoyed a lot of her work, and generally consider her to be an incomparable writer, most of her recent writing has left me cold (or, in the case of Boy, Snow, Bird, made a sudden lurch towards transphobia in its final pages that I still haven't figured out what to do with). Happily, Peaces finds me back in alignment with Oyeyemi's interests. It's a deceptively lighthearted novel, and one that departs from some of her perennial concerns (for one thing, I believe this is the first of her novels to have a male protagonist). But like her best work, it has a lot of heart, which gives weight to the quirky humor and flights of surrealist imagination that make her one of the most unusual writers working today.

    Otto and Xavier are a couple on their "non-honeymoon honeymoon", which they are spending on a sleeper train, The Lucky Day, which comes complete with a spa car, a gallery car, a mail car, and all sorts of other strange excesses. As well as their pet mongoose, the couple bring with them on the journey a considerable amount of emotional baggage, mostly having to do with their past relationships, and feeding into the question of whether either one of them is capable of making a relationship work long-term. Also on the train is its owner, the mysterious theremin player Ava, who has been living aboard for years as the condition of an inheritance. In conversations with Otto and Xavier, Ava and her traveling companions elaborate on the history of the train, Ava's apprenticeship with a renowned musician, and most of all, the bizarre situation between her and the musician's son Prem, who was disinherited in her favor. Despite spending years around each other, Ava has never been able to perceive Prem, leading to him playing elaborate pranks on her, clearly rooted in his hurt and rage at being unpersoned. The more we learn of this story, the more it seems as if Prem is also Otto and Xavier's former partners, a demon lover who shows up again and again to tempt everyone on the train to their destruction.

    The result is a sort of cross between screwball comedy and Agatha Christie-esque mystery, but with Oyeyemi's inimitable irreverent touch—in one scene, Otto and Xavier finish reading a trove of documents that lay out Ava and Prem's tangled history, and instead of trying to piece together a mystery, embark on a literary criticism of the documents, and really of the entire book that contains them, debating whether the people around them are fully human characters or stand-ins for certain ideas. At the heart of the story is the challenge of sustaining love over a long period of time. Ava and her lover Allegra have been stuck together on the train for years, and it's no longer clear whether it's love or obligation that is keeping them together. Prem looms, in different guises, as a romantic figure in the lives of almost everyone in the story, but in himself he might just be a little pathetic, driven by frustration at having his humanity denied. Even the mongoose finds a partner, and then has to choose between her and his owners. As for Otto and Xavier, they get an ending that might bind them together forever, or leave them stuck with each other whether they like it or not. As in much of Oyeyemi's writing, this is a conclusion that we're probably meant to feel a little confused by, but what came before is so funny and romantic that it's hard to complain.

  • Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes - When I wrote about Melchor's Hurricane Season in 2020, I praised the brilliance of her writing, a sweeping, stream of consciousness tight third person whose sentences flowed for pages at a time. But I also commented on the novel's brutality, its unflinching, detailed depictions of not only physical violence, but hatred and bigotry, which made it a punishing read. Two years later, it was admiration for Melchor as a writer that lingered more than the violence of her subject matter, so I picked up the similarly praised Paradais (like its predecessor, it was longlisted for the International Booker prize). This was perhaps a mistake. Paradais is no less brutal and ugly than Hurricane Season, and somehow manages to feature even less of a glimmer of redemption.

    Like Hurricane Season, Paradais is told in a tight third person, this time fixed on the perspective of Polo, a teenager from a poor suburb who is employed as a gardener in the titular neighborhood, a wealthy gated community. Polo was pushed into the job by his mother, herself a lifelong domestic worker, after he blew his chances at school and his best friend and cousin Milton, with whom he used to commit minor crimes, was forced to work for the local drug cartel. His frustration at his circumstances—which also include having to accommodate and financially support his pregnant cousin Zorayda—is rooted primarily in the fact that he no longer has the money to buy liquor, a need that verges on self-medication. It's this need that drives him into a utilitarian friendship with Franco, a teenager from the gated community. Like Polo, Franco is a wastrel and high school dropout—though, being rich, the consequences of his mistakes fall more lightly on him, and Polo muses that his family will eventually "buy him a future". Franco plies Polo with alcohol in exchange for a listening ear to his obsessive, porn-inspired fantasies about his older, married neighbor, Marián de Maroño. Though Polo is secretly contemptuous of Franco's infatuation, he nevertheless humors the other boy's increasingly violent musings—partly to keep the alcohol flowing, and partly because he sees nothing wrong with how they dehumanize Marián. This eventually blossoms into a plan of action, with Polo sleepwalking his way into participating in a horrific crime.

    Melchor's subject continues to be the violence that runs through Mexican society, and how it both expresses itself and is fueled by classism and misogyny. Polo's neighborhood is run by the cartels, whose soldiers commit horrific violence against the locals. But violence of a different sort also abounds in the gated community, in the residents' casual assumption that Polo is at their beck and call, in his boss's routine exploitation of him for unpaid extra work, in his mother's insistence that he has to tolerate this treatment, because a job is a job, and maybe even in the very concept of the neighborhood, which allows the middle classes to wall themselves off from the violence that that is a fact of life for the less affluent. And yet Polo is not merely a product of this system, but someone who feels uniquely lacking in empathy. When Milton tries to explain to him the horror of what he's had to do for the cartels, all Polo hears is that his cousin now has access to the money and freedom that he lacks. When he thinks about Zorayda, his only feelings are contempt for her sexual behavior and disgust at her pregnancy, even as it eventually becomes clear that her baby is probably his. When Franco lays out the plan for the crime, Polo justifies it to himself by saying that all he wants is to rob the Maroños, and anything Franco does is not his fault. 

    By locking us into Polo's perspective, Melchor assaults us with an endless stream of self-pity, self-justification, misogyny, and, eventually, the gruesome depictions of crimes that Polo continues to insist are not his fault, because it was all Franco's idea. In the end, it's hard to know what message she wants us to take away from the novel—unless it's simply to rub our noses in the horrific reality she's depicting. Though Paradais is no less brilliantly written than Hurricane Season, I am writing this review in part as a reminder to myself, not to be further seduced by that brilliance.

  • Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead - After two novels that delved into some of the worst abuses perpetrated against African-Americans, it's not surprising that Whitehead has turned his attention to a lighter topic. Harlem Shuffle is ostensibly a heist story, but it avoids the easy triumphalism of that genre just as much as it eschews the grimness of The Underground Railroad or The Nickel Boys. Like its protagonist, it is neither one thing nor the other. Raymond Carney is the proud owner of a furniture store in mid-20th-century Harlem, selling sofas and dinette sets to upwardly mobile black families who would be chased out of the city's white-owned businesses. Carney is upwardly mobile himself, a self-made man with a night school college degree who has put great distance between himself and his tenement childhood and criminal father, and who dreams of even better things for his young family. But he's also got a shady side. Not all of his "lightly used" merchandise has legitimate provenance, and he sometimes functions as a middleman for Harlem thieves looking to offload robbery spoils, chiefly jewelry, at white businesses. He operates in a grey zone, paying protection to both mobsters and the police, passing messages for criminals here and tipping off the cops there, while maintaining a facade of innocence.

    Harlem Shuffle takes place over three sweltering New York summers between 1959 and 1964, in which, even as his legitimate business thrives and expands, Carney—sometimes through having been swept up in events, sometimes at his own instigation—ends up involved in a crime that threatens to tip over the delicate balance between his two sides, and shatter his carefully constructed life. Whitehead is typically excellent at setting up and arriving at the climaxes of these crime stories, sometimes starting at the end and then circling back in a way that can't help but keep the reader at the edge of their seat. He also excels at capturing the voices and personalities of the people involved—an aging bruiser with a code; Carney's ne'er-do-well cousin, who keeps roping him into dangerous schemes; a wealthy white drug addict eager for revenge at his cold family. But the point of these stories is not the crime so much as the light it sheds on both Carney and his changing environment. Each crime gives Carney a glimpse at the systems that govern his world—a mobster with his finger on the pulse of the neighborhood; a respected black banker who takes kickbacks in exchange for ushering the likes of Carney into the ranks of Harlem's elite; the cops whose decision, to look away from or exacerbate violence, is governed by interdepartmental politics; and behind it all, the wealthy white families and corporations, who make money off Harlem while they can, but who can also sweep entire streets away when it's more profitable to do so, displacing the people who live and work there.

    Like most heist stories, Harlem Shuffle is underpinned by the class struggle (which is here also the race struggle). To the crooks and working class people he grew up with, Carney has fully ascended out of their sphere (and is thus, in some ways, contemptible). But to his wife's parents, who are firmly ensconced in the black community's upper echelons, he's an embarrassment, a shop owner without a prestigious education, too common, too dark-skinned, and too crooked. (To white society, of course, these gradations are invisible, as when Carney's struggles to convince a prestigious furniture company to let him carry their wares are hampered by recent riots over the murder of a black teenager by the police.) That duality is also embodied in Harlem itself, which at the beginning of the novel is burning off the last fumes of the Renaissance, and by its end has been fully embroiled in both the civil rights struggle, and the descent into urban blight and epidemics of crime and drug addiction. Just as the periodic explosions of violence of this period are a way of expressing defiance against the dehumanization of an entire community, for Carney, the crimes he commits are a way of asserting his humanity in the face of people, black and white, who keep insisting that they have him pegged, and that he is fully in their power. 

    In most heist stories, this kind of defiance can end in one of two ways—with a triumph that takes their protagonist out of the class war entirely, or, as in the recently-concluded Better Call Saul, with moral dissolution. Whitehead, however, ends the novel in just as noncommittal a way as he started it. For Carney, and for his community, the future holds mingled triumph and tragedy, a straight arc of upward mobility, but also a world of greater wealth from which they will always be excluded, and the possibility that the wrong word to the wrong person, or simply being at the wrong place in the wrong time, can bring it all crashing down. It's an ending that feels both true and satisfying, without ignoring the precariousness of all that its characters have and will still achieve.

  • Jackdaw by Tade Thompson - In a short (but extremely successful) career, Thompson has already covered a wide gamut of genres and modes—neo-cyberpunk with the Wormwood trilogy, space adventure with Far From the Light of Heaven, horror with the Molly Southbourne books. And yet even with that quality well-established, I don't think any of Thompson's fans will be prepared for what he does with his latest, the short novel Jackdaw. It might be horror, but of a much more literary, experimental bent than his previous forays in the genre. It might be a Martin Amis-esque picaresque, a ribald, frequently scatological tale of a middle class man's dissolution. It might be autofiction, though, as the following discussion will make clear, I sincerely hope not. Either way, it's a complete departure for Thompson, and while I think his fans will come away from it feeling (as I did) a tad confused, it's also terribly exciting to see an author who could easily have remained in more easily-categorized realms (where he has been producing top-notch, award-winning work) doing something that is so hard to put a label on.

    Jackdaw is narrated by Tade Thompson, a London psychiatrist with a young family and a burgeoning career as a science fiction author. As the novel begins, Tade is commissioned to write a work of fiction about the painter Francis Bacon, an important figure in 20th century art and something of an enfant terrible, known for his substance abuse, sado-masochism, and tempestuous homosexual liaisons. As Tade learns about Bacon, he is particularly intrigued by one of his models, Henrietta Moraes, and by his former nanny Jessie Lightfoot, who remained Bacon's caretaker well into his adulthood. Both women begin appearing to Tade, triggering uncontrollable and obsessive bouts of arousal and masturbation. This premise might have made for a more traditional horror story about haunting and possession, but Thompson does not commit to anything so straightforward. As Tade delves into his "research" into Bacon, which is really a comprehensive attempt to mimic his vices—trying to channel Bacon's spirit through Yoruba witchcraft, gambling, engaging a dominatrix to humiliate and hurt him, having sexual encounters with men—Bacon himself recedes from the novel, until it becomes clear that he, and the spirits of the two women, are more of a pretext for Tade's self-destruction. (In fact, if there's a critique I can make of Jackdaw, it's that it doesn't do enough with Bacon's art, which has a disturbing, hallucinatory quality that would have lent itself very well to horror fiction.)

    At the same time, Jackdaw is also a grotesquely comedic novel about modern middle class life, as Tade's colleagues and supervisors attempt, in their repressed British way, to address the fact that he's walking around with giant erections and jerking off in the hospital bathrooms. Or as his wife Elise tries to find ways to accommodate or even just comprehend her husband's increasingly erratic behavior, without shattering their comfortable life. Thompson intersperses these chapters with Tade's musings about his childhood in Nigeria, which include descriptions of domestic violence, rampant crime, and government corruption. The lack of distance between author and narrator makes these passages uncomfortable to read—there's something a bit prurient about them, not the confiding tone one usually finds in memoirs. This is only complicated when, late in the novel, Elise reads some of what Tade has been writing, which includes a long, harrowing chapter about her experiences with female genital mutilation, and points out that, as he well knows, nothing like this has ever happened to her. It raises the possibility that this whole part of the novel is a parody of memoirs of squalor and violence in African settings. And yet we know that these things do happen, and can't be entirely dismissed.

    As Jackdaw approaches its end, Tade grows increasingly unmoored from reality. And then, the whole thing crashes to a halt in a way that is simultaneously a relief—it holds out the possibility that Tade can get his life back—and vaguely dissatisfying. It might have made more sense, to readers steeped in horror reading protocols, if Tade had been consumed by his madness (or by Francis Bacon's ghost). Instead, we're left with the disquieting possibility that one can simply drop out of sanity and then come back to it, back to a life of taxes and dinner parties and work rotas. It's an ending that reinforces Jackdaw's refusal to commit to a mode, and makes it, paradoxically, the most disturbing work of horror Thompson has produced.

  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara - a copy of Yanagihara's 2015 opus has been sitting in my TBR pile almost since its publication, and one of the reasons it's taken me so long to get to it is the literary firestorm it provoked. Even without having read the novel, it was easy to pick up on how divisive it was, with some readers embracing it while others decried it as melodramatic misery porn. A Little Life is the tale of a decades-long friendship between four college roommates: Willem, an aspiring actor; Malcolm, an architecture student; JB, a self-absorbed artist; and Jude, a polymath law student whose past is shrouded in mystery, and who quickly becomes the focus of the novel. Even as the other men have their own career and relationship setbacks and opportunities, the narrative keeps reiterating that his problems are of a different caliber.

    Slowly, over the course of hundreds of pages, Yanagihara reveals Jude's background of abandonment, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse. More importantly, she delves into his damaged psychology, his conviction that his experiences have made him disgusting both within and without (the last and cruelest blow dealt by his abusers has left Jude with lifelong disability and chronic pain, and as the years pass the novel charts his deteriorating physical condition in excruciating detail). Unable to confide in his friends, Jude turns to self-harm and other unhealthy coping strategies, even as he outwardly embodies a success story, rising to the peak of his profession and amassing wealth and property.

    One reason that I think A Little Life aroused such harsh reactions is that, despite its difficult subject matter, it is propulsively readable. I kept comparing it to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, another doorstopper about a damaged young man in a New York that is—from day one in Tartt's case; eventually in Yanagihara's—a playground for rich, successful creatives. Like that book, A Little Life is a feat of storytelling, a perfect distillation of the middle class novel of character and relationship. It makes gripping stuff out of the four friends' career and family travails, delving into each of their personalities with sensitivity and detail, establishing a broad cast of characters around them, and exploring interesting arenas such as the law or the art world. But where The Goldfinch was a story of coming of age, as A Little Life's focus narrows onto Jude it becomes clear that it has no such consolation on offer. The book becomes a repetition of the same cycle. Jude's self-destruction, which was previously kept on an even keel, reaches a now low—a particularly harmful incident of self-harm, an abusive relationship, a suicide attempt. His friends rally around him and help him to recover. Good things happen in his life—his mentor adopts him, he embarks on a new relationship with someone he can trust, his health improves. And then his mental health deteriorates again, under the pressure of his conviction that he doesn't deserve the good in his life, that if his loved ones knew the truth about him, they would reject him in disgust.

    We're not used to these two forms existing together. A novel like The Goldfinch is constantly hinting at a redemption just around the corner. Like Jude, its hero is too terrified of being "found out" to process his trauma and grow past it, but we know that he eventually will (even if that growth turns out to be unconvincing). A Little Life uses that same style—which is fundamentally a fun, entertaining one—to tell the story of a man who can't, or won't, take that step. Who is in some ways so strong and capable that he's able to go through life carrying a burden of mingled pride and shame, where a weaker person might have crumbled, and then asked for help. While I can see how readers found that punishing to read about, I also think it may be truer than a lot of the narratives of healing that our culture is so fond of.

    Late in the book, as we learn more details about Jude's childhood abuse, it becomes clear that Yanagihara—whose first novel was heavy with Nabokov references—is doing the same thing here. Her central question with A Little Life seems to have been, what if instead of dying conveniently shortly after the events of Lolita, Dolores Haze lived on for years and decades, carrying her damage and trauma, terrified of what people would think of her if they learned what she'd done and had done to her? (Also, what if Dolores was a man, which changes the valence of the story in a way that I don't think either the book or its critics have engaged with.) For all the melodramatic turns of plot Yanagihara posits—there does come a point where the misfortunes she piles on Jude's head can make your eyes roll—I think the essence of the answer she offers is worth engaging with. In a culture that often treats trauma as the launching point for a good story, it feels worth saying that although healing is always possible, sometimes it doesn't happen.

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