Recent Reading Roundup 58

2023 is proving to be a whirlwind reading year—by the end of this month, I will probably have read as many books in six months as I do in most years. One reason for this is that I'm being sent a lot more review copies lately (all but one of the books discussed in this post were read as NetGalley ARCs), which produces an impulse to not only read but discuss, and thus become part of the cutting edge of conversation. Happily, quality seems to be keeping up with quantity. Though I have reservations about most of these books, I enjoyed reading all of them, and I can already tell that some of them will be among my favorite books of the year.

  • The Sleeping Car Porter by Suzette Mayr - There's something of a throwback quality to Mayr's novel, winner of last year's Giller prize. The tight third person narration, the dreamy, sensual quality of the prose, the focus on physical sensation, all put one in mind of early modernist novels. That impression is only intensified by the novel's premise, which follows the titular porter, Baxter, on a long, strange train trip across Canada some time in the 1920s. The novel is broken up by the trip's days and the train's rigorous schedule. But more granularly, it is structured around the constant demands of Baxter's job. We follow him as he makes up and breaks down sleeping compartments, cleans the common areas, replaces soiled linen and towels, fetches food and liquor and glasses of water, polishes shoes, retrieves the ladder that allows passengers access to and from the upper bunks, and generally is just at everyone's beck and call. It's a relentless, endless onslaught of demands, one that requires of Baxter that he tamp down his humanity, focusing only on the next task and the one after it, never showing a hint of annoyance or fatigue. Through its cracks, however, we gain a growing impression of Baxter as a person: his anxiety about losing his job by angering the wrong passenger, his love of science fiction, his dreams of becoming a dentist. Most of all, his gayness, which he has acted upon only infrequently, in furtive encounters, and whose dangers he is constantly aware of—his first lover, a fellow porter, was arrested after a liaison, while Baxter escaped.

    Working as train porters was, famously, a path to empowerment and financial stability for many black men in the early 20th century. Mayr is very good at capturing the opportunities the job offered—it has allowed Baxter to amass a sizable portion of his dental school tuition, and his fellow porters are supporting families and moving into the middle class. But she also documents, in excruciating, infuriating detail, the humiliating exploitativeness of Baxter's working conditions. He's expected to pay for his meals while working, which cuts into his salary (he thus depends wholly on passengers' tips, making his relations with them even more strained and unequal). Any passenger complaint can earn him a demerit with no possibility of appeal, and if he earns too many he will be fired. Most crucially for this novel, he's expected to be on call nonstop, with no time or even space to sleep except for minutes-long catnaps. His narrative is therefore hazy with sleep deprivation, the passengers' increasing querulousness intercut with visions that may be hallucinations, and may be ghosts.

    Over the course of the journey from Montreal to Vancouver, Baxter grows more detached from reality, increasingly unable to tell dreaming and real life apart. Not helping matters are the passengers, who move in and out of Baxter's field of vision like demanding infants, consumed with their own dramas—a woman jilted by her fiancé; a grandmother delivering an orphaned child to her new guardians; a medium who is plying her trade with every bereaved person on the train—to which they expect Baxter to be both a witness and a mindless prop. While some are able to grasp his humanity—one of them bothers to learn his name, another seems genuinely interested in a romantic connection—it's only rarely that Baxter gets to express his own desires and preferences. The discovery of a pornographic postcard depicting two men at the beginning of the journey places an extra strain on Baxter's impassivity, dredging up forbidden desires at exactly the time and place where they put him in the most danger. These various forms of self-denial and self-alienation contribute to the dread one feels while reading The Sleeping Car Porter, our constant awareness of the precariousness of Baxter's situation, of the ease with which his dreams (or even his life) could be snatched away from him. But Mayr's project with the novel is something more benevolent. Without sugarcoating the difficulty of Baxter's situation, she holds out hope that he will be one of the men for whom the porter job was a ladder to success. More importantly, that he will find the human connection he so desperately longs for.

  • The Ten Percent Thief by Lavanya Lakshminarayan - Originally published in South Asia in 2020, under the title Analog/Virtual, Lakshminarayan's debut is a cyberpunk dystopia about the class struggle. Set in Apex City, on the ruins of what was once Bangalore, the society depicted in the novel defines itself as a "meritocracy". Citizens are graded according to their usefulness, productivity, and social approval. The top twenty percent live in luxury, the middle seventy live well but mostly in the virtual world, while the bottom ten, dubbed "Analogs", are corralled in their own quarter, denied access to the city's virtual systems (as well as basic utilities), and subject to punishments that include being harvested for organs. The novel is told in twenty mostly-distinct stories, though some characters recur, and a running throughline is the build-up to a violent uprising of the have-nots.

    There is, at points, a certain creakiness to Lakshminarayan's worldbuilding. The difference between the twenty and seventy percent, for example, feels more informed than concrete. The descriptions of Apex City's cherished values, and how they twist the people who seek to advance in its system, can sometimes feel like they belong less in cyberpunk than YA dystopia (two modes that turn out to be closer on the dial than I had realized). In one chapter, a former Analog who has clawed his way into the seventy percent is informed that his professional advancement will stall unless he can convince his colleagues that he likes the same superhero movies they do; in another, an Analog piano prodigy competes with players who use virtual aids, whose music is note-perfect but sterile. Both chapters feel as if they're courting a Black Mirror-style sense of smug superiority. In addition, the book suffers from a bit of tonal whiplash. One of the best chapters charts the development of the latest killer app, which allows people to replace their faces with emojis, but it has a strongly satirical tone that doesn't match anything else in the novel. Another chapter describes the military wing of the Analog resistance as if they were the Fremen from Dune, all glorious self-sacrifice in the face of the degenerate elite.

    At its best, however, The Ten Percent Thief makes Apex City feel lived in, and its ideas about how the meritocratic system would play out are thoughtful and disquieting. The former Analog with incorrect pop culture tastes purchases a device that rewires his brain to love the things he's supposed to by triggering his pain and pleasure centers, like a high-tech, self-inflicted form of conversion therapy. Later in the novel, a more sophisticated version of this technology implants itself in the subconscious of a twenty percenter whose relationship has been judged a threat to her upward mobility, subtly decreasing her happiness with her partner in ways that are insidious and terrifying. One of the most effective chapters follows a woman on the verge of being kicked out of the seventy percent, after depression following the death of her mother impacts her productivity. As the story begins, she is placed on a probationary program whose real purpose is to push her out the door by forcing her to perform Analog activities, such as leaving the house to shop for food. The story captures both the heroine's disgust at the Analog lifestyle, and the way that Apex City has been constructed to discourage and even punish it, creating a feedback loop that reinforces the heroine's "unworthiness" to live among her class.

    What ties the different stories in The Ten Percent Thief together is how they illustrate the illusion of merit as a system of control. The corporation that runs Apex City defines merit through both productivity as an employee and consumption as a customer. It's the allure of superiority—and the fear of sliding into sub-human status—that persuades citizens to destroy themselves in pursuit of both. The novel excels at conveying the fact that no one in Apex City is safe. No matter how far you rise, it's always possible for the city's algorithms to designate you as unproductive and dispose of you—as illustrated quite effectively in the chapter set in the city's retirement home, where residents are expected to "mentor" corporate projects, and quietly euthanized if their usefulness fades. Climbing out of the ten percent, though allegedly possible, is designed to be a laborious, physically and psychologically grueling process. In the face of this impeccably constructed, extremely claustrophobic system, the subplot about the revolt of the underclass can't help but feel unconvincing, if not beside the point. But then, the novel itself might be aware of this—one chapter sees an older Analog arguing to a young revolutionary that even if they manage to topple the meritocratic system, they will simply find another way to oppress some people and elevate others. The fact that The Ten Percent Thief ends without revealing whether this prophecy comes true is, perhaps, the most telling statement that this impressive, disturbing novel could have made on the matter.

  • Titanium Noir by Nick Harkaway - For fifteen years, Harkaway has been writing energetic, science fiction-inflected, pitch-perfect riffs on some of the most laddish subgenres and literary modes of the 20th century—the gonzo drug novel in The Gone-Away World, the James Bond spy story in Angelmaker, the tale of post-colonial dissipation in Tigerman. It's a bit surprising that it's taken him this long to get to the noir detective genre, the ultimate in hyper-masculine, hyper-stylized writing. But it's also probably a good thing, because with four previous novels under his belt, Harkaway has honed his craft to a point (and whittled away some of his more annoying literary tics). At a mere 265 pages, Titanium Noir is not only the most svelte of his novels, it's also the slickest and most effectively written, capturing the noir voice perfectly and sliding effortlessly to its destination. 

    Our gumshoe is Cal Sounder, a consultant who is brought in to advise the police on cases that involve Titans, the ultra-rich who have been granted access to rejuvenating, life-extending treatments. There have been many science fiction novels with a similar premise (most obviously, Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon, which also operates in the noir mode, though perhaps not as energetically as Harkaway). In Titanium Noir, however, Harkaway offers an original twist on it. The treatments not only make people younger, but bigger—after one course, you're about a the size of a professional basketball player; after four, you need reinforced floors, and can cause major organ damage by laughing in people's faces. The treatments also make Titans rapacious and belligerent, eager for sex or a fight, and prone to amnesia about their old lives. All of which feels out of character for the murder victim Cal has just been called in on, a mild-mannered scientist who received a single treatment decades ago for undisclosed services to the ruling Tonfamecasca family, and has spent his extra time investigating a conspiracy that may have got him killed, and which Cal now has to disentangle.

    Harkaway's control of the noir voice is exceptional. Cal is hard-bitten, cynical, twisted up by heartbreak—still pining for Athena Tonfamecasca, whose first treatment has placed her, as he believes, permanently out of his reach—and still possessed of that last tiny bit of decency and belief in justice without which no noir detective is complete. The mystery is expertly constructed and paced, doling out revelations in a way that makes sense while still keeping readers on their toes. And there are some thrilling set pieces, chiefly a visit to a Titan nightclub, where Cal is challenged to a cage fight with bigger, stronger opponents that he must win through guile and sheer bloody-mindedness. To that, add the profound strangeness of the Titans, from a crimelord whose failed treatment caused him to grow sideways but not up, to Athena's father, the Tonfamecasca patriarch Stefan, who looms like a mythical monster, effectively a different species from everyone around him, and with a corresponding indifference to the fate, wishes, and lives of those who are literally beneath him.

    It's all so impressively pulled off that it takes a while to realize how little Harkaway is actually saying with it. "The rich are literally inhuman" is a solid—if, again, not particularly novel—SFnal premise, but Titanium Noir goes nowhere with it once it has been established. On the contrary, the mystery's conclusion is surprisingly soft on the Titans, eventually revealing that Stefan is actually an OK guy, and wearing away at Cal's ideological objection to their existence. And then, of course, there's the woman issue. In all his novels, Harkaway has clearly been aware that the genres he's working in treat women as prizes, objects, or afterthoughts, but his approach to addressing this issue has mostly been to overcompensate wildly and unconvincingly. Titanium Noir is no exception—its solution involves one woman taking vengeance on a past abuser, and another pulling strings to arrange the world to her liking, but this supposed Girl Power conclusion feels skin deep. The actual women never get to be real characters in the novel, and remain objects—of lust, affection, or obsession—all the way to the last page. The result, like the other Harkaway novels I've read, is a hell of a lot of fun and like nothing that any other writer is producing, but with very little beneath the surface.

  • Y/N by Esther Yi - "A hyper-realistic literary novel about BTS Army" sounds like a joke—perhaps a rather mean, condescending one—but the first shock of Yi's bizarre, impossible-to-categorize debut is how quickly it places you in its heroine's headspace. The narrator, a nameless Korean-American woman living in Berlin, is dragged to a performance by the world's preeminent Korean boy band (referred to by the narrative as "the pack of boys") and falls in instant, obsessive love with their youngest, most mercurial member, Moon. She breaks up with her boyfriend, travels to Korea, and dedicates her life to finding Moon, even as he parts ways with the band and disappears from public life. Her quest is interspersed with excerpts from a self-insert fanfic she has written—whose heroine is referred to only as Y/N, short for "your name"—in which she and Moon are a regular couple living in Korea. 

    It's a premise that's ripe for mockery, and there is some of this in Y/N's earlier chapters—from the narrator's boyfriend, who can't understand why she'd prefer an unattainable fantasy to him, and from a psychiatrist who specializes in curing women like the narrator, who tries to explain to her the difference between actual love and fandom, insisting that what she can offer Moon is thin and lacking in any nourishment. But Y/N isn't, ultimately, a novel of psychological realism. In its flat, affectless narrative voice, and the effortless erudition of all of its characters—who all speak and sound the same, and are equally ready to deliver pithy musings on the nature of love and reality—it reminded me very strongly of Tom McCarthy's magnificent 2005 novel Remainder. Like that novel, what Y/N is interested in—what its narrator is striving towards and willing to sacrifice the rest of her life to gain—is the immediacy of pure, undiluted experience. The narrator knows that her love for Moon is irrational, but she's also disgusted by the compromises and mundanities of rational, real love. She imagines that with Moon, she could transcend her fleshy humanity and become something else, an embodiment of the pure idea of love. This is also reflected in her fanfic, in which Moon is "discovered" and recruited into the band, with the heroine of the story within the story letting him go so that they can meet again as fan and fannish object, a purer connection, she believes, than their ordinary relationship.

    This may all sound high-flying and philosophical, but the truth is that Y/N is exceedingly (and yet very drily) funny. Its depiction of the band is a pitch-perfect parody of how pop culture juggernauts try to justify their stratospheric popularity by pretending a profundity they don't actually possess. It's full of surreal touches such as a Seoul building being doused with organ-melting disinfectant to get rid of a cicada infestation, or the pyramidal Polygon Plaza where the pack of boys have their headquarters. The people the narrator meets on her journey, such as the artist O, who accosts her on the street and demands to examine the dirt on her shoe, are at once larger than life and winningly human. At the same time, this is also a very sad novel, about a woman who has been so disappointed by life's possibilities for connection—a disappointment, the novel hints, which may be rooted in alienation from both her American and Korean identities—that she prefers to annihilate herself on the altar of fandom. That sadness comes to the fore in the novel's final segment, in which the narrator finally meets Moon and discovers, to her shock and dismay, an actual person, who has already found the love he needed to complete himself with someone who sees his humanity. It's a touch of realism that one wouldn't have expected in a novel so committed to its strangeness as Y/N, but it works perfectly, and leaves you feeling both heartbroken and exhilarated.

  • Walking Practice by Dolki Min, English translation by Victoria Caudle - The nameless narrator of Min's debut novel, originally self-published in Korea in 2017, is an alien who crash-landed on Earth more than a decade ago. With their supplies exhausted and all other sources of nourishment on the planet having proved inadequate, they survive by setting up anonymous sexual encounters, presenting themselves as a comely woman or hunky man, and devouring their partners in the moment of sexual climax. If you're around my age and have a similar reading profile, that description probably put you very strongly in mind of Michel Faber's 2000 novel of gender horror, Under the Skin. But though the similarity between the two books persists almost to Walking Practice's last page, Min's slant on this premise is very much their own—and not just because, fittingly for a novel published in the 2010s, this alien predator scouts their victims not by picking up hitchhikers, but by trolling hookup apps. 

    Under the Skin was a bleak novel, steeped in its heroine's desolation and self-loathing. Walking Practice is sometimes an anxious one—the narrator is run off their feet trying to make each of their appointments, and much of the novel's action is concerned with the logistics of moving back and forth across the Korean city where the story takes place, navigating subways, searching for addresses, climbing stairs, all made more difficult by the narrator's instability on two feet (in their natural form they have three). But it is also surprisingly exuberant. The narrator is rather boastful of the system they've come up with in order to survive—their ability to navigate as a human; the logistics they've worked out to track down victims, kill them cleanly, and efficiently dismember them for future consumption; the attractive human bodies they're able to twist their own alien form into. They have a deep appreciation for their conquests, on both a carnal and gustatory level. For as much as surviving on Earth is a constant effort for them, for all their complaints, and despite knowing that if they were ever found out they'd be killed instantly, they are clearly having a lot of fun.

    That sense of fun is only intensified (and also made stranger) by the novel's mirroring of so many familiar Sex and the City-style tropes. The narrator obsesses about their looks (and laments that years among humans have altered their beauty standards so that their natural form now looks ugly to them), feels guilty when they gorge on food, and is shocked when one of their hookups is revealed to be much heavier in real life than on her profile (and then further shocked when she turns out to be very good in bed). But the pratfall-style humor of such stories—whose heroine is always on the verge of total personal collapse—is both literalized and made stranger by the narrator's own physicality, which is at the center of Walking Practice's storytelling. We keep getting hints about their true form, revealing yet another appendage, orifice, or sensory organ in a place where we wouldn't expect them. When they assume human form, it's always in a provisional way—a bus accelerating too fast can cause them to let slip a tentacle, rushing for a train can leave them scrambling to get all their facial features facing the right way, and after a long walk they need to check that their toes haven't melted together. So that even before you get to the sex and murder scenes, Walking Practice is full of squishy, slurpy, gross detail. So much so that it's almost a shock to realize that, for all their obsession with bodies—their own, their conquests', their prey's—what the narrator, like the most predictable romcom heroine, actually wants is a real connection. Even if they end up eating them afterwards.

    Walking Practice is an undeniably queer novel. In one passage, the narrator muses that there are a myriad visual and behavioral cues that humans use to distinguish gender, and that they are constantly getting them subtly wrong. It's also very aware of the social consequences of performing gender or sexuality "incorrectly"—arriving at what is supposed to be a gay hookup, the narrator is instead waylaid by teenage boys, who beat them to a pulp. But does this mean that all of Walking Practice—in which, just to reiterate, the narrator kills and eats their sexual partners—should be read as a queer allegory? Is the narrator's fear that if their true form were ever revealed, they'd be publicly executed meant as a metaphor for gay-bashing? It certainly seems possible, and I have to admit that this makes me a bit uncomfortable—at the very least, it feels as there's been a whole conversation about queer villains in anglophone spaces in the last decade that Min has either missed or chosen to ignore. So I'm choosing to focus less on that, and more on the novel's conclusion, in which the narrator's mingled desires—for connection, for escape, and for the fulfillment of all their bodily urges—are granted in a way that is entirely unexpected, and which may spell their destruction. It's an exhilarating ending to a novel that is never entirely what you think it's going to be, and which, despite my reservations, is one of the most delightful books I've read this year.


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