Recent Reading Roundup 59

As the year approaches its end, I've ensconced myself in my reading nook to avoid thinking too hard about everything happening outside of it. This batch of reviews—once again, comprising mostly 2023 publications, including some of the most intriguing and anticipated books of the year—covers books read over the last few months. 

  • Girlfriend on Mars by Deborah Willis - Kevin, a sad-sack aspiring screenwriter turned professional film extra, is dismayed when his girlfriend of fourteen years, Amber, announces that she's joined a reality show competition for one of two spots on a mission to colonize Mars. A former gymnast and evangelical who is at loose ends in life—she has a master's degree in environmental science but her only employment options are with companies she considers unethical, and she and Kevin make a living growing quasi-legal marijuana, of which they partake liberally—Amber sees the show, and Mars, as a chance to not only find meaning, but to make a new world without the failures, compromises, and impurities of this one. Participating in the show is also a way for Amber to address her dissatisfaction in her relationship with Kevin, whose lack of ambition and direction in life she finds increasingly grating, without officially breaking up with him. If she wins the show, she'll be taking a one-way trip to another planet. But since the odds of her winning are so low, there's no need to have an awkward conversation.

    It's a premise that conjures associations of a quirky romcom, and the earlier parts of Girlfriend on Mars are appropriately heightened and humorous, from Amber's seemingly endless, only slightly embarrassed litany of all the times she was unfaithful to Kevin, to Kevin's squirming humiliation as he watches, along with the rest of the world, as Amber falls in televised love with a handsome, supportive, emotionally intelligent Israeli doctor. The reality TV parody is similarly sharp. The show's contestants—who include a YA novelist, a chess champion, and a thief—are assigned tasks like completing a caber toss on a visit to Scotland to show their determination, or trekking through an underground cave system because the New Zealand tourist board want their money's worth. The parody is complemented by a ruthless skewering of socially conscious hipsters like Kevin and Amber, who furiously debate whether it's worse to drink almond milk (because of the immense ecological cost of almond groves, plus it's full of sugar which is a drug) or goat milk (because keeping animals for their milk is slavery). By the time Kevin's romantic alternative Bronwyn, a white, dreadlocked astrologist, shows up, we think we know the shape this story is going to take.

    It's an increasing—and increasingly satisfying—surprise, then, when Girlfriend on Mars repeatedly goes in much darker directions, taking its premise seriously and to its logical, tragic conclusion. The more we get to know Amber, the more we realize that her idealism is actually masking profound sadness and dissatisfaction with the world. The dream of being able to walk away from humanity's myriad failures, of creating a "perfect" world from scratch on another planet, carries her forward even as it becomes clear that the mission is a PR stunt, and that its tech billionaire funder (a character with the fooling-no-one name Geoff Task) views it primarily as a means of promoting his social network and selling Mars-themed nutritional supplements. Kevin, too, sinks further into depression and agoraphobia as Amber gets closer to her goal, not because of heartbreak but out of disgust at world that worships Task and views the mission as a meaningful response to climate change (though on this point, the novel arguably goes too far—it's ultimately not believable that no one besides Kevin grasps that the mission, as designed, is a guaranteed death sentence). What Girlfriend on Mars turns out to be is a dark but extremely timely tale of climate anxiety. Both Amber's escape, and Kevin's turn inward, are the reactions of young people who look at the world and see no hope for the future. The central question isn't whether these characters can colonize Mars, save the world, or find love, but whether they can save themselves from despair.

  • Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah - Friday Black, Adjei-Brenyah's debut collection, quickly established itself as a classic of the form. Its stories were a pitch-perfect blend of political and social realism with just-around-the-corner speculation, told with jet-black humor and a keen awareness of the centrality of racism in American culture. His follow-up novel feels, for better and worse, like an expansion of one of those stories. In the near future it imagines, the (mostly privatized) American prison system has come up with a novel moneymaking venture, recruiting prisoners into a death match league that is part Hunger Games, part WWF, which has quickly become America's most popular sport.

    Adjei-Brenyah's most impressive achievement in Chain-Gang All-Stars is the meticulousness with which he constructs the CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment) program, from elements both familiar—much of the money generated by the program comes from a 24/7 broadcast that follows the prisoners on their down time, creating a reality TV-like obsession with their lives and relationships—and SFnal—subdermal implants that magnetically lock the prisoners' hands together, restrict their movements to a certain perimeter, and even enforce silence with threats of electric shocks. Absurdist details like a wheel of fortune with which newcomers to the program select a weapon for their inaugural match, which can be as useful as a wrench or as pointless as a spoon (the few who survive can earn "blood points" for subsequent wins with which to buy weapons, armor, and amenities) sit side by side with bleakly plausible ones, such as a promotional appearance at a farmer's market where hardened criminals, now celebrities, hawk ice cream and artisanal cheese. High camp touches such as fighters giving their weapons monikers like Hass Omaha and LoveGuile recall the theatrical origins of the premise while situating it in a horrifying reality. The novel even steps outside the arena when it follows a woman who has been introduced to the sport by her husband, who becomes obsessed with the soap opera of a particular "chain"—as groups of fighters imprisoned in a particular private prison system are known—and whose marriage is revitalized by this newfound shared interest.

    At the same time, Adjei-Brenyah is upfront and unapologetic about the fact that Chain-Gang All-Stars is an anti-carceral polemic. The story is littered with footnotes that elaborate on the real-life injustices of the American prison system, of which the novel's reality is often but a minor enhancement. Some chapters dwell on present day abuses such as violence by prison guards, the prevalence of people of color among CAPE participants, or a harrowing glimpse of the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. There is no sentimentality here about the kinds of people who end up joining CAPE. While one or two are innocent, and quite a few are victims of circumstances, over-prosecution, and a myriad failures of the welfare and education systems, there are also prisoners in the program who have committed horrific, inexcusable crimes. An activist against CAPE even muses that she does not want her incarcerated father to be released. But—beyond the irony of locking people away for one kind of murder and then lionizing them for committing another—the novel is clear that the abuses and cruelty of even the existing system can't be justified, a point which it makes with bracing directness.

    What this all adds up to, however, is that Chain-Gang All-Stars ends up feeling more like an act of worldbuilding than a story. There is a plot to the novel, focusing on a particular chain and its members—leader Loretta Thurwar, her lover Hamara "Hurricane Staxxx" Stacker, their lingering grief over the unexplained death of the chain's previous leader Sunset Harkless (violence between chain members is expected and encouraged, but Sunset had imposed a more benevolent rule, which his death threatens to shatter), and the discovery, by Thurwar, who is on the verge of completing her three-year stint and earning freedom, that a rules change will compel her to fight Staxxx. But these are all fairly shopworn plot points, and Adjei-Brenyah's creative energies seem to have been directed somewhere other than breathing life and individuality into them. 

    There's a curiously inert quality to Chain-Gang All-Stars, which ends up feeling more like a series of expository scenes than a novel. To an extent, this may be deliberate—imprisonment is an inherently static condition, and a plot that gave its characters too much agency might have undercut the novel's message—but the result is that, despite the feats of invention and the real-life resonances that make Chain-Gang All-Stars so special, it is seldom gripping. The question of whether Thurwar and Staxx will be able to hold on to their humanity in a dehumanizing system, allegedly the crux of the novel, ends up fading besides Adjei-Brenyah's focus on that system. That's perhaps as it should be given the novel's laudable, controversial aims, but it makes Chain-Gang All-Stars something to admire rather than love.

  • Summer Fishing in Lapland by Juhani Karila, translated by Lola Rogers - In its opening paragraphs, Karila's novel—originally published in Finland in 2019 as Fishing for the Little Pike—establishes two things. This is a story that is deeply rooted in nature and the wilderness, and it's a story that is entirely unsentimental about both of those things. Nature, in this novel, is muggy and swampy, full of mud that sucks at your boots, branches that whip at your face, sticky sap and other gross substances, and most of all, insects that try to devour you the second you step foot outside. The setting is Vuopio, a remote, unremarkable village in East Lapland—the sort of place you'd describe as a wide space in the road, except there isn't much of a road—in high summer. Former local girl Elina has returned to her parents' farmhouse with a mission. Every year, Elina must venture to a nearby pond—really more of a puddle, made murky and muddy with summer evaporation—to fish for a pike. If she fails to retrieve the fish, an unspecified calamity will occur.

    Unraveling the reasons for this quest, as well as the history of Elina's family, their tangled relationships with other townspeople who have been nursing decades-old grudges, secrets, and misunderstandings, and Elina's doomed romance with local firebrand Jousia, is the business of most of the novel. Along the way we learn that as much as it is rooted in nature, Summer Fishing in Lapland is also embedded in the fantastic. Along with curses and witches, the world of the novel's Lapland is overrun with fantasy creatures, some of whom are benign pests, and others deathly dangerous. All of Vuopio's inhabitants take the presence of supernatural in stride, or rather with resigned annoyance. They know not to make pets of frakus, who look cute and seem loyal, but will eventually turn on their masters. They're unfussed when a fishing trip on the river is interrupted by ghouls who try to drag them underwater. And on throng nights, when creatures even more fantastical and bizarre, with body parts cobbled together from different animals, parade in the streets and make a mess of the town, they lock their doors and draw the curtains. Elina's return threatens to overturn this delicate equilibrium, as she makes deals with ghosts and angers dangerous, malevolent creatures, all while attempting to allay a curse whose origins she won't explain.

    But as the novel quickly makes clear, the balance of nature was upended long ago. The effects of climate change are felt throughout Summer Fishing in Lapland—Elina works for the forestry services, and observes that trees in the south are coming into bloom far earlier than they should; Vuopio's residents complain about increasingly hot summers. It eventually becomes clear that the fantastical is, similarly, being affected by the changing climate. Like the polar bears who have overrun Siberian towns following the erosion of their living space, the novel's fantasy creatures are responding to the destabilization and destruction of their habitats. Some of them have changed their behavior; others have gone extinct; all seem to be interacting with humans more regularly and viciously, not so much in a desire for revenge but as a natural consequence of being thrown together instead of keeping to separate spheres. The presence of a guard post at the Finn-Lapp border, advising travelers that they are venturing outside the protection of the law, suggests that this breakdown of the natural order is well-known, and that, like so many other effects of climate change, the official response has been to do nothing, and leave people (and creatures) to fend for themselves.

    The story told in Summer Fishing in Lapland is lively and humorous, and tends towards the resolution of its various crises. Generations-old feuds are laid to rest, ancient accusations are revealed to have been false, Elina makes peace with Jousia and begins the process of lifting the curse she's been under. But in the background, the novel constantly reminds us that things are, in fact, unraveling. The various creatures Elina interacts with muse that humans will set the whole world on fire, will fly off into the stars while leaving the other denizens of Earth to live in the mess they've made. Or perhaps the whole world will become a swamp, everything beautiful and serene overrun with muck and mosquitoes. The result is an eco-fable that rejects any hint of tweeness or sentimentality. Our heroine may have staved off her personal doom, the novel's ending reminds us, but a greater calamity is still coming.

  • He Who Drowned the World by Shelley Parker-Chan - The follow-up to Parker-Chan's excellent debut She Who Became the Sun, a fantasized fictionalization of the overthrow of the Mongol rule of China and rise to power of the first Ming emperor, continues very much in the vein of the previous novel. Peasant girl turned gender-bending monk turned rebel general Zhu Chongba—now styling herself Zhu Yuanzhang—continues her press towards the Mongol capital, her rise fueled both by a keen strategic mind and an unwavering belief in her own destiny. Unlike the previous volume, however, Zhu takes a step back in the second half of her story, ceding center stage to two other characters from the first novel. Eunuch general Ouyang, whose decades-long quest for revenge came to fruition in the previous novel when he destroyed the Mongol family who had killed his father and brothers, is on his way to the capital, planning to complete his revenge by killing the emperor. Wang Baoxiang, the last surviving member of the same family, also makes his way to the capital, allegedly to take up an administrative post, but really to set in motion a clandestine plan to claim the throne for himself. 

    The three characters end up in shifting configurations of alliance and enmity as the race for the throne nears its climax. But the shift in protagonist duty also changes the novel's tone. Zhu's matter-of-fact narrative voice, which regards with equal equanimity the magnitude of the task she has set herself and the overwhelming odds she frequently finds herself facing—and then disarming with increasingly involved and entertaining schemes—gives way to the high melodrama of Ouyang and Baoxiang's stories. Both men are tormented by the roles they played in the betrayal and death of Esen, Baoxiang's brother and Ouyang's best friend (with whom he was also in love), and have resolved on their current courses of action as a form of self-destruction. Ouyang intends to die as soon as he kills the emperor, while Baoxiang conceives of his plan as a form of psychic suicide, destroying everything good about himself in the hope of drowning out his guilt. The result is clearly rooted in the Chinese historical soap operas that have inspired this entire duology, but even readers less embedded in that genre will appreciate the effectiveness of Parker-Chan's character work. Without ignoring either character's overwrought self-pity, or the horrific acts they commit in pursuit of their goals, they make you feel how trapped both men are by pain and guilt.

    As in She Who Became the Sun, the key to this retelling of the story is gender, both the damage caused by rigid gender roles, and the opportunities offered by queering gender and sexuality. At the root of Ouyang and Baoxiang's emotional turmoil is both men's failure to embody perfect masculinity—the one because of his mutilation; the other because of his scholarly interests and flamboyant personal style—and the hostility and violence they've encountered in response. Even characters who embody gender perfectly, however, are frustrated by the results. A new point of view character, Madame Zhang, plays the demure, self-abnegating wife while cannily advancing the careers of a succession of male partners, only to have them discard her once the power she secured for them is in their hands. Relationships often defy clear-cut definitions. Despite not being attracted to men, Baoxiang decides to play up to the public perception of him by seducing the emperor's son, and discovers an unexpectedly meaningful bond; Ouyang and Zhu briefly forge a powerful, albeit nonsexual, intimacy. In the end, however, most characters in the novel are defeated by social expectations, by their own self-loathing at being unable to live up to them, and by a system designed to benefit only a select few. Only Zhu, who fully integrated her fluid gender identity in the previous book, is able to nimbly evade the traps of gender that constrain every other character, playing up her femininity in one moment, her masculinity in another, in a way that maximizes her power and opportunities. 

    Most of these ideas about gender and queerness, however, were explored already in the previous volume. If He Who Drowned the World adds something on the thematic front, it might be the debate between Zhu and her wife Ma Xiuying over where to draw the line in her ruthless pursuit of power. The various factions in the novel are stunningly cavalier about violence and collateral damage—Baoxiang betrays those who trust him to their deaths, Ouyang is utterly indifferent to the death and suffering of his soldiers, Zhu's strategizing allows for everything from the sacrifice of allies to arson in a crowded city, and that's before you even get to the villains. Ma and Zhu spend much of the novel discussing the necessity of these choices. Is it possible to go too far in pursuit of one's destiny? Is it possible to hold back in an all-or-nothing conflict? Ultimately, however, this debate is unconvincing. It allows for satisfying conclusions to Ouyang and Baoxiang's stories, but only because we always knew that they weren't going to be the winners in this particular game of thrones. Zhu, whose story is about rejecting the path laid out for her, was nevertheless always aiming to take over the system, not change it, and the suggestion at the end of the novel that she might do so feels rather flimsy (especially if you read about the character's historical inspiration). Happily, Parker-Chan remains a skilled and effective storyteller, and despite this wobble at the end, both the plot and characters make He Who Drowned the World an engrossing read, and a worthy conclusion to the previous volume.

  • All's Well by Mona Awad - Like Awad's previous novel, 2019's Bunny, All's Well is a story about witchcraft on a college campus. This time around, however, the heroine and unwitting spellcaster isn't a student making her first, uncertain forays into adulthood, but a member of the faculty. Miranda Fitch is a former Shakespearean actress whose career was cut short by an injury, the subsequent failed treatment of which has left her with debilitating chronic pain. Now employed as a teacher in a small college's neglected theater department, and the director of its annual play, Miranda's life is increasingly blighted by pain. Her marriage has broken down, and her friends grow fatigued with her inability to participate in even the most mundane activities. She self-medicates with painkillers and alcohol, which leave her only barely functional, to the growing disdain of her colleagues and students. Both factors end up contributing to a rebellion among the department's students—led by the entitled Briana, whose parents' contributions invariably secure her the lead role despite her lack of talent—over Miranda's choice to stage All's Well That Ends Well instead of the students' choice of Macbeth

    With her career and health spiraling, Miranda is approached by three mysterious men—referred to as the Weird Brethren—who offer to teach her the "trick" of transferring her pain to another person. A newly revitalized Miranda is then able to wrest back control of the play, replacing Briana with her own choice of lead, the mousy, insecure Ellie, while enjoying a new lease on life that includes romancing the department's set designer and leading the students in grueling, days-long rehearsals. Miranda's newfound energy—and the sudden illness that afflicts many people around her—terrifies her colleagues and friends, especially as it rises to a manic, fevered pitch alongside preparations for the play, resulting in her experiencing vivid hallucinations, becoming impervious to pain or injury, and occasionally levitating.

    Like Bunny, All's Well achieves its disorienting, frequently quite funny effect by marrying the horror novel and the campus novel. But instead of calling back to books like The Secret History, the shift in the protagonist's age and position means that this book's antecedents are tales of dysfunctional professors like Wonder Boys or The Lecturer's Tale—novels in which a drug-addled, immature protagonist who has lived their life in an academic bubble tears that comfortable existence down because of their inability to own up to their mistakes. Miranda's chronic pain, however, infuses that premise—and her frustrating, frequently cringe-inducing behavior—with a very different significance. She's drug-addled because it's the only way she can make her existence even marginally bearable. She lies to her colleagues and supervisors because she knows, from bitter experience, just how minutely she has to calibrate the presentation of her pain—too dismissive and they'll assume she's faking; too demonstrative and they'll recoil in disgust. And she furiously hangs on to a job she can no longer perform because without it, she will almost certainly die.

    The novel makes it clear that Miranda's narcissism, and her eventual monstrousness as she afflicts more and more people, are not purely a result of living with pain. She chooses All's Well That Ends Well as the year's play not only because she empathizes with the play's problematic, hard to like heroine, but because that was the performance that won her the most accolades in her career as an actress (and first attracted the man who became her husband). She projects herself on Ellie, trying to live vicariously through the younger woman, while repeatedly confusing her new boyfriend with her ex-husband. But even as Miranda's grip on sanity loosens—and as the novel's Macbeth parallels become clearer—it is also impossible to forget that all the people who are now drawn to her vitality were repelled by her when she was in agony. Her self-absorption and eagerness to relive her youth might not simply be an expression of an actor's narcissism, but a desire to return to a time in her life when she did not know how conditional and fragile her loved ones' affection actually was.

    Long before it establishes the contours of its supernatural horror, All's Well steeps us in the horror of life for the chronically ill. It introduces us to doctors and physical therapists whose attitude, as Miranda "fails" to improve, goes from concern to indifference to hostility to outright abuse. To colleagues who keep trying to catch her out in a lie about her condition. And to friends who, for all that they try to be supportive (and for all that Miranda depends on them) can't stop themselves from asking whether the pain might just be in her head. The novel never lets you forget how horrific Miranda's actions are, but nevertheless there's a dark satisfaction to be had when a character for whom her pain had previously been merely an academic idea is suddenly forced to experience the reality of it. It makes it easier to understand Miranda's frenzy as she struggles not to admit the reality of what she's doing, and perhaps for that reason the novel's conciliatory ending, in which Miranda manages to come to some accommodation with her pain, rings a little false. Still, it's the darkness, rather than the consolation, that lingers when All's Well's last page is turned—the minute depiction of how the chronically ill are dehumanized, and the knowledge that most of us are only a bit of bad luck away from the same dehumanization.

  • Mad Sisters of Esi by Tashan Mehta - Indian author Mehta's second novel is that quintessential fantasy artifact, the novel about stories and storytelling. It's a form that I tend to find a bit wearying—at its worst it can be overly sentimental and navel-gazey—but its handling here is refreshingly unromantic. In Mad Sisters of Esi, the power of storytelling is also the literal power of worldbuilding, of remaking and reshaping worlds, sometimes right under the feet of the people who live in them. The story is appropriately awed—and in some cases, terrified—by this power. 

    The novel begins in the Whale of Babel, a gargantuan creature whose belly contains chambers that are entire worlds, each with their own ecosystem and wonders to discover. Two sisters, Laleh and Myung, have spent their lives exploring the whale, having been charged with this task by their and its creator, Great Wisa, whom they know of but have never met. But Myung is restless, frustrated by the absence of other people within the whale. When she leaves, Laleh is bereft, and consumed with the goal of reuniting with her other half. Many years later, Myung, now a seasoned explorer and travel writer in the Black Sea, the archipelago that exists outside the whale, arrives on the island of Ojda, the core of the Museum of Collective Memory, a mind palace where legends, diaries, maps, and folklore are stored for all inhabitants of the black sea to explore. Ojda is maintained by the Kilta clan, whose ancestress, Mad Magali, created the island and the museum in the hopes of luring back her own lost sister—who, the various academics and folklorists who have studied and compared the legends stored in the museum have concluded, is actually Wisa. Myung's arrival spurs Magali—whose ghost, along with the ghosts of many of her descendants, continues to haunt the island—to finally tell the story of her and Wisa's girlhood, of the rupture that separated them, of the whale's creation, and eventually, of Laleh and Myung's origins. This story takes place on the island of Esi, whose inhabitants are known for their "craft", the ability to shape the world and each other, but who are also plagued by the Festival of Madness, which occurs every hundred years and whose actual contours and events are shrouded in mystery.

    If this all sounds convoluted, the novel makes it even more so. Like last year's The Spear Cuts Through Water—with which it shares more than a few similarities—Mad Sisters of Esi is a novel whose "how" is more interesting, and more essential to its core project, than its "what". Its stories cut into and interrupt each other, breaking one tale's rhythm to suddenly plunge into another. When Myung arrives on Ojda, she encounters its caretaker Blajine, the last scion of the Kilta clan, who is run ragged by having to outsmart the "awakened" island's attacks—which often involve reforming itself around her into new and lethal configurations—and despondent with loneliness and the weight of her (ghostly) family's expectations. We think we're about to read a story of burgeoning friendship in the shadow of generations-long familial trauma. But no sooner has the two women's relationship begun to establish itself, than the ghost of Magali suddenly interrupts the proceedings to tell her own story. Important plot points are mentioned, dropped, and then brought back up chapters later—when we first meet Jinn, Magali's future husband, we're told that he and Magali have been in a fight for several years; it's only later, in dribs and drabs, that we learn the reason for the fight was that Jinn stopped telling Magali the stories he learned from his great-grandmother, that he stopped doing this because his mother forbade him, that she did so because the stories were about the Festival of Madness and its causes, and that there is a profound taboo on Esi on discussing the festival, one that often erupts into violence as the day itself approaches. Terms like "craft", "alchemy", "worldbuilding", and, of course, "madness" are bandied about by characters in ways that make it clear their meaning is markedly different from the one we'd use, but without any indication of what that meaning might be until very late into the story. Characters with Second Sight see ghostly figures from the past or the future who reveal new facets of the story out of order. Intense, close-up descriptions of fecund natural scenery war with our awareness that the novel's setting is fundamentally malleable, that nothing we're reading about is as "real" as we'd expect.

    The result is a challenging read, one whose tics are sometimes overbearing—the frequent use of footnotes and scholarly articles pontificating on the myths of Ojda and Esi, for example, is rather unconvincing. But at its best, Mad Sisters of Esi rewards the effort that it demands from its readers. There are moments when its crosscutting between past and future is both delightful—when a story set in the deep past is interrupted by one of Myung's diary entries, in which she observes, with her Second Sight, the ghosts of the very characters we were just reading about reenacting a crucial moment—and an effective articulation of how this history is both an ancient past, and an immediate and aching now. In that now, what we encounter is a simple but moving family story, about adopted sisters coming together into a new family, and then being torn apart by their warring desires to stay home and explore the world, to unleash their immense power to shape the universe to their liking, and their knowledge that once they do so, they'll be left alone in the world they've created. It's a dilemma that grounds the novel's freewheeling construction of its world and nested layers of storytelling. One that is all the more effective because the novel—quite deliberately, I think—never fully resolves it, making us feel the allure of both options, and their costs. Despite the characters' desperation to unravel, and perhaps return to, the past that has shaped them, what Mad Sisters of Esi ultimately concludes is that they need to move forward, forging new relationships and building new worlds.


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