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24. NW by Zadie Smith

-So the thing about NW is that it is probably Smith's most personal novel since White Teeth. You really feel it in your gut, that this is Smith's life that she is bleeding onto the page. This is her agonies of childhood, her collegiate doubts, her romantic questionings, her maternal worries, distilled and represented as tightly as she can manage.

It is an uncomfortable experience. I will tell you that up front. It is a story about a London that is as multifariously multicultural as that shown in White Teeth or The Autograph Man, but it is not as joyously multicultural. For 22 year old Zadie Smith, intersections of cultures were sites of tension, but also opportunities for growth, causes for celebration. For 36 year old Zadie Smith, they are traps one is not sure they ought to try to wriggle out of. And that's not even the half of it. The true discomfort of NW is the intensity of the emotional connections that Smith forges between the reader and her four protagonists. There is no remove, no irony, no separation between these characters' deepest thoughts and the text that appears on the page.

Smith pulls out every trick she knows to achieve this effect. Modernist techniques like Woolfian or Joycian Stream of Consciousness share pages with scene descriptions that reminded me of Hardy's lush Post-Romanticism, while Post-Modern perspective shifts and documentary storytelling a la Pynchon or DeLillo sits next to conventionalized novel of manners narrations. I think in addition to being her most personal novel and her most uncomfortable novel, it is also her most baffling novel. I wrote of On Beauty that Smith was demanding your engagement, your participation. Smith demands something more of her readers here: She demands that you stay on your toes, keep your wits about you. This is her most suspenseful novel, the one with the most surprising plot twists. In a weird way, though it probably has the smallest amount of visible PLOT of any of her books, it might be the novel most dependent on plot.

-It's a story about Northwest London, the poor and working class and middle class districts full of immigrants and yearners, as seen through the eyes of four (well, three and a half. Smith goes as close as she can to the internal thoughts of three of the protags, then keeps a cautious distance from the fourth.) people who grew up in the Caldwell council estate (which I gather is British for 'housing project'). Leah is a white girl whose best friend from childhood is the black Keisha, who changes her name to Natalie at university to help pursue a career as a barrister. In addition to telling the stories of their sometimes intertwined lives in exacting detail, Smith tells the stories of their former classmate Nathan who has become homeless, a desperate wannabe 'player', and Felix, a working mechanic on a trajectory out of Caldwell when tragedy alters the course of his life.

Each story is told differently. Leah's narrative unfolds over weeks, Felix's over a couple of days, Natalie's over decades, Nathan's in an evening. I think Natalie's is probably the most successful, and others I've spoken to have agreed, but its success lies in an alignment between the empathy of the reader and the emotional state of the character- for a person whose empathy is aligned differently, I would expect a very different sensation. I know people who would like Leah's story best, and I know people who would like Felix's best. [If I compared the four protags to the four children from the Passover seder, Nathan would be the child who doesn't know how to ask. I know people whose empathy would be aligned with him, but they wouldn't read the book. This is one of the things Smith wrestles with in NW, as the overall metanarrative confronts the inequality of outcomes for these four strivers who came from the same beginning, more or less. Some people approach the world in different ways, and communicating those gaps is one of the tasks of the great novelist. But some people aren't even in the conversation, and the question becomes what responsibility, what moral obligation, the author has toward the child who doesn't even know how to ask.]

In sum, if you have admired or enjoyed Smith's other novels, you ought to give this one a try, but be aware that it is a more complicated and dangerous treat.
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19) Zone One by Colson Whitehead

I'd been anticipating this novel tremendously since I'd first heard it was coming out. I had it on pre-order months before it came out. Then it came out, I started reading, and... ten months later, I finished it.

I cannot come to you with as enthusiastic a review as I'd hoped. It's a very strange book that works by its own internal logic. I did really like it. But I had to move my head into its headspace in order to read, and I found that process to be very slow going.

Zone One is Colson Whitehead's zombie novel. If you're at all familiar with Whitehead's other work, stylistic novels on the boundary between Modernism and Post-Modernism like John Henry Days and The Intuitionist, this might surprise you. But hell, every literary novelist worth his salt is following Chabon and McCarthy into the genre ghetto these days, so it's not really all that surprising, though one review that went viral when the novel first came out compared a literary novelist writing a zombie novel to "an intellectual dating a porn star." As a lover of genre fiction, a lover of postmodernism, and a lover of mashups, I was looking forward to seeing how Whitehead would achieve his synthesis.

Zone One is the story of the "season of encouraging dispatches", a period of time where the survivors of the zombie apocalypse, struggling with Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder (PASD) and still unsure where their next meal will come from, gather together under the banner of a new government in Buffalo and try to fight back and reclaim the world for humanity. Calling themselves the "pheenies" as the representatives of the American Phoenix, risen from the ashes with good old fashioned American try-hardness and gumption and hope as their only assets, they launch a major offensive in 'Zone One', the lower Manhattan region from the Battery up to Canal Street. They build a wall across the island at Canal Street and go street to street clearing out bodies and 'stragglers'- infected people who stay in one place and don't attack, unlike the true zombies that are actually offensive threats.

Whitehead's writing is beautifully delicate, full of his classic wry metaphors. Time is distorted and distended beyond recognition in his prose, which nests flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks, sometimes all within one paragraph, so that the novel's slow movement forward through the three days of present time are constantly disrupted with journeys back to the time before, both into life before the zombies came and into the stories of how Mark Spitz, the protagonist, and his compatriots survived the Apocalypse.It was this that caught me up. The distortion of time made the novel sometimes difficult to follow and difficult to get into a reading flow for. I found it lacking the constant movement that keeps a zombie novel ticking. I'd frequently read five or ten pages in a sitting, enjoy the setting and Whitehead's clever, pop culture tinged humor and genuinely like the characters, and not feel any urge to continue or even find it a struggle to motivate myself to continue.

By the time I'd finished, I did enjoy it, and I moved through the second half of the novel a lot faster than the first half. But there's something hard to explain about the novel that was hard to negotiate for me as a reader. In reflecting on it now, I think negotiation is the right word. Whitehead has a story here that he wants to tell in a certain way, and I as a reader have expectations of both a zombie novel and a Whitehead novel, and I had to enter into a negotiation with the text to find a way forward we could both find agreeable.

At its core, this is a story about a new kind of loss and memory. It's about dealing with loss on a scale that seems newly comprehensible in the wake of the 20th century. When the Black Plague struck Europe, it was just as disastrous as Whitehead's zombie plague, but the difference was that existence was often much more local back then. You barely knew anyone outside your village: if everyone in your village was wiped out, everything you'd ever known was gone, that hundred or two people that were your universe. But with the flattened world, with the information technologies that Whitehead litters through the novel as zombified relics, a catastrophe like this is global and feels global. Suddenly Mark Spitz is reduced to his urb, suddenly Zone 1 is all of his existence and anything beyond is Buffalo, a vague pheenie rumor of a better place. How do you deal with knowing that your whole known world is lost, when your whole known world is billions of people?



20) The Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Seriously, this was the most interesting fantasy novel I've read in years. I'd been anticipating it since I read "Where Virtue Lives", a short story by Ahmed featuring the same characters which serves as an excellent prologue to the novel. The book is set in a fantasyland medieval Arabia, where ghuls and other creatures from Arabic folklore wage battle against mages and demon hunters and dervishes as people around them struggle to live ordinary lives.

It's hard to avoid the comparisons to Tolkien, because everyone's in quest of the great non-Tolkienian fantasy, but this really feels like fantasy that's barely aware of Tolkien. It borrows particularly from Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser and takes inspiration from other early 'sword and sorcery' type fantasy novels, with exciting fantasy cities and characters of strong independence and individuality forming hesitant bonds of friendship to band together against a dangerous world. But its lack of anything even remotely resembling Norse mythology makes it feel like its own thing at a deep level.

It's possible Ahmed could have written women better. He is constrained by the quasi-Arabic world he is writing, which has clear ideas of women's roles (which are not the same as women's roles in the present-day Arabic world, nor the same as medieval Western civilization, but they are in their fashion constraining), and he does write two really interesting female characters (plus a third we don't see much of), but they are interesting because they defy expectations, not because they're interesting within their context, especially Zamia. There is admittedly a nice trope inversion in Zamia shyly pursuing Raseed while he tries to resist.

But together the trio of Zamia, Raseed, and Adoulla are the best kind of ass-kicking, monster-killing badasses. And I want as many of their adventures together as possible, which is awesome because this is a fantasy series, so I get sequels!
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17 Mind Storm by K.M. Ruiz

This is really good cyberpunky post-apocalyptic action-adventure with psionics. It is loaded with gee whiz, basically. I discovered it in the Yuletide suggestions post, but I'm not sure it'd make a good Yuletide fandom. It'd make a great rpg setting, though. Perhaps a Gamma World mod. It's sufficiently gonzo, though it also has some Shadowrunny things going on.

The story begins with a little Mad Max- a team of government agents moves across an irradiated desert wasteland on a secret mission to track down a rogue. After just enough time to introduce us to our heroes, we're given an explosive fight scene in fallen LA that throws open the door to startling revelations. And while the combat slows down from there as we move into the intrigues and preparations of the middle part of the book, the pace never slows down. There is a continuous stream of new faces, new alliances, new pieces of information. And there is a gorgeous plan driving the story, an interlocking plot of great intricacy designed to look to its participants like utter chaos.

I am eagerly looking forward to future books in the series. This one was certainly a lot of fun, and it left plenty of questions open for the sequels.

And note that this book is eligible for Best Novel in the 2012 Hugo Awards.


18 John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead

I've been stalled on Whitehead's Zone One for about a month now, but I plowed through this with a vengeance. Actually, that's not quite true. I read it eagerly for a while, got sidetracked into a bit of a Nick Hornby kick, then returned and plowed through it with a vengeance. That's important to note because when I returned to John Henry Days from the airy wit of Hornby the density of Whitehead's writing was a bit of a shock to the system.

Whitehead writes heavy, overloaded prose that I admire the hell out of. He stays just on the edges of his characters' minds so that all you can see of them is the shadows and echoes cast off. There is always a remoteness to Whitehead's writing: in John Henry Days, the main character is known only by his first initial for the entire novel. His first name is implied once or twice, but never stated, and even when he tells someone what it is on the final page, the reader isn't let in on the 'secret'.

But what impressed me about John Henry Days is that despite sharing this remoteness with The Intuitionist and especially Apex Hides the Hurt, this time around Whitehead's emotional narratives go so much further. I became invested in J. I became invested in Pamela. I became invested in their relationship. I wanted them to get together. I wanted J. to leave the business, delete himself from the List, teach Pamela how to bury her father and I don't know, live happy hipster lives in Brooklyn? Of course this novel was heading for a horrible ending, but I was invested enough in it to be devastated by that ending even though I knew it was inevitable. Which is the core, I think, of the John Henry legend that the novel dances around. Was John Henry's death inevitable and if it was inevitable, why?
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13. Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

After two promising but ultimately disappointing books by Reed, this is at last the book I was looking for when I started making my way through his work. A discursive, ranty, elusive tour of 1920s Harlem from the perspective of a '60s radical Black, it tells the story of an outbreak of Jes' Grew in New Orleans and its frantic attempt to make its way to New York City and reshape the American cultural landscape, as The Wallflower Order tries to stop it from making everybody want to dance.

What is Jes' Grew?

An epidemic is sweeping the nation. You have probably not heard about it because powers that be find it in their best interests to keep you in the dark. People you know may have even detected inklings of its presence, but kept quiet, hoping that ignoring it would make it disappear. Nothing could be further from the truth. This epidemic is called jes’ grew, and you might have it already.

Symptoms of jes’ grew include: mediocrity intolerance, chronic questioning of authority, and uncontrollable shaking of the hips and ass. As of this writing, medical science remains baffled. They can not point to a viral or bacterial pathogen responsible for the disease. Some unorthodox researchers have suggested that it may be neither, and that jes’ grew may be caused by something else entirely. So far, however, no papers have been published in any major medical journals on the subject.


Jes Grew is Jazz, it is ragtime, it is the Harlem Renaissance, it's the cakewalk and it's the Charleston. It's rock 'n roll and the blues, bebop and hoodoo and voodoo. It's that which makes you want to dance uncontrollably. When I read Reed's The Last Days of Lousiana Red, I thought it was a stand-in for 'that which is authentically African in the African-American experience', but it's a much more richly envisioned and much more complicated life force in Mumbo Jumbo.

Mumbo Jumbo has 5 pages of bibliography at the end and is lovingly illustrated with dozens of archival photographs from American history. It's full of snippets of American life, chopped up and reassembled with incredible artistry to tell a story that bops to a powerful groove. It steals lovingly from Burroughs and Joyce but stays true to its own vision, claiming them for the legend of Jes' Grew.

Ask the man who, deprived of an electronic guitar, picked up a washboard and started to play it. The Rhyming Fool who sits in Re-mote Mississippi and talks "crazy" for hours. The dazzling parodying punning mischievous pre-Joycean style-play of your Cakewalking your Calinda your Minstrelsy give-and-take of the ultra-absurd. Ask the people who put wax paper over combs and breathe through them. In other words, Nathan, I am saying Open-Up-To-Right-Here and then you will have something coming from your own experience that the whole world will admire and need.

But as I think this review shows, I can really do no better to recommend this novel than to quote passages from it. Its style advertises it better than anything I can say about it. Mumbo Jumbo just drips with joy and fury.

tags: a: reed ishmael, african-american, postmodernist
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10) Reckless Eyeballing by Ishmael Reed

I want to recommend this book with as many warnings as possible. This book is sexist, racist, anti-semitic, homophobic, ethnocentric, classist, colorist, and probably a few other -ists as well. It's got a rape, a lynching, a sexual assault, a blood libel, a murder, police brutality. And that's the point. This book is designed as a provocation. Reed throws so many -isms at you as a sort of reductio ad absurdum about intersectionality of oppression. You're still trying to think in terms of a hierarchy of oppressions, Reed says. Your brain wants to say "Oh, racism is worse than anti-semitism. More horrible things have been done in the same of racism." or vice versa. Or whatever. But your brain is wrong. You can't compare this stuff, and trying to do that plays into the hands of people who are more interested in power than justice. Trying to construct a calculus of privilege will only lead to madness.

In a Tom Wolfeian 1980s New York, playwrights vie for the attention of the downtown theater scene. A white feminist playwright has written a play rehabilitating Eva Braun. A black male playwright works with first a Jewish male director, then a black female director, then a white female producer, on an all-female play about the aftermath of a 1960s lynching and who might be to blame. Reed calls a lot of attention to the eyeballing part of his title, the role of constantly changing perception in shaping this world, but I think 'reckless' may be the more important part of the title, the key to his linkage with Wolfe, the key to understanding his characters' behavior. The story is manic, crude, mostly out of control, highly confusing. It's also pretty damn funny, and pretty damn thought-provoking. I enjoyed it a good deal and I enjoyed having conversations about it with people. But... all of my warnings stand. Go into this book with your eyes wide open about what you're stepping into.


tags: a: reed ishmael, african-american, postmodernist, satire
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8)American Desert by Percival Everett

It's a strange and goofy sort of novel. It's a sort of academic satire about a suicidal English professor (Everett loves writing funhouse mirror versions of himself) who is decapitated in a car accident and then comes back to life after his head is sewn back on. American society, driven by media frenzies and government conspiracies, does not know how to respond to this mystifying Lazarus, Ted Street.

I enjoyed it, but I did not enjoy it as much as I've enjoyed Everett's other novels. Two of the blurb-writers on the back of the book called his writing here 'savage', but compared to The Water Cure this was tame, and even compared to Erasure the humor lacks bite. In some ways that's a virtue, because this is a black comedy full of a surprising amount of heart and human decency. But I wanted the satire to be a little fiercer, more aggressive.

The final scene is phenomenal, though. A brilliant piece of imagery that I shall not spoil, but almost makes the whole thing worth it.



tags: a: everett percival, african-american, postmodernist
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7)Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie

Oh man, I've been reading this book on and off since last September and finally finished it. And am somewhat sad that I won't be able to spend any more time with Saleem Sinai and his family. Midnight's Children is incredibly immersive and I think it's my favorite book of the 57 I've read for [livejournal.com profile] 50books_poc thus far. This book doesn't really demand a review so much as it demands critical essays, but I'm always unsure if this is the appropriate venue for that sort of spoiler-rich dissection. I'll try to keep it somewhat vague.

Midnight's Children is a magical realist exploration of the history of India since independence in 1948. It's narrated by Saleem Sinai, who was born at midnight on the day of Independence and therefore grows up as India grows up. (Being an extremely self-conscious narrator, Saleem actually dissects and classifies the types of correlation, metaphoric and actual, between his life and India's.) Saleem, like Tristram Shandy, is not born until more than 50 pages into the book. He inhabits an India full of mysteries informed by the Ramayana and the Arabian Nights. And his narrative voice and position in society recall one of the first books I read for this challenge, G. V. Desani's manic 1950s satire All About H. Hatterr, with its helter-skelter command of the English language and unsteady position trapped between British rule and Indian self-rule. Midnight's Children is a book that inhabits both Eastern and Western traditions simultaneously, as modern India itself does.

The references to Tristram Shandy don't end with Saleem's birth. The significance of Saleem's nose recalls poor Walter Shandy and his Theories. Saleem's castration recalls Uncle Toby's wartime injuries. The resemblances continue. Rushdie fills the novel with an incredible density of ideas and allusions and references, a density which sometimes overwhelmed me but usually enchanted me. Of course, as I wrote about Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man recently, the problem with dense post-modern novels is that if you miss the references, you can sail right by and not realize what you're missing. I'm sure that an Easterner reading the novel would have an utterly different experience than I did. An almost entirely parallel set of allusions would be driving their access to the novel's themes. I wonder if the density and two-headedness of the novel can inspire a sort of critical laziness in the reader. It would certainly be possible for me to play spot-the-western-canon-reference and never spend a moment thinking about just how non-Western the novel is.

Because in many ways, this is an incredibly Indian novel and it does things with language and storytelling that I can't fathom seeing from a writer only steeped in the Western tradition. Its nonlinearities speak of an incomparably old oral folk tradition as much as they speak of a modern, urban lifestyle of fast-paced change and uncertainty. In one of my favorite lines, Saleem says "Everything has shape... there is no escaping from form." As with Marquez and Eco and Pynchon, the novel's form speaks eloquently about a way forward for Indian literature, without rejection of Western thought or modernity, but also without rejection of millennia of imposing history. Midnight, in the novel, is about standing on that precipice, straddling the day before and the day after. But Rushdie cleverly undermines his narrator's premise by demonstrating again and again that we are all living lives as Midnight's children, a perpetual existence perched between yesterday and tomorrow. That this is what makes Saleem special and unique is also what makes all of us special and unique. Our uncertainty becomes our raison d'etre.

All told, a magnificent literary experience.

tags: a: rushdie salman, postmodernist, indian
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3. The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

I'm at a loss about how to review a book like this, truly. I think I might try some variant on what I've seen some folk on the internet call The Snowflake Method, beginning with a simple observation and just pulling back and out again and again until I'm exhausted. (Back, after having finished my review... This got long. I don't ordinarily like to put things I've written under lj-cuts, because that seems to go against my urge to be heard and listened to, but if people ask I may agree to put this under a cut)

The simple observation: This is an extraordinarily beautiful, complicated, and difficult to understand book that is disguised as something middlebrow.

And the more I came to believe this observation, the more the reviews of this book began to make sense to me. Because the reviews are stunningly scathing, and the quick google search I did turned up, in addition to the reviews, a conversation about Smith's apparent growing frustration that critics did not seem to appreciate the book. And because my first reaction, over the first hundred pages or so, was "This is interesting, and I'm enjoying some of it, but why is Zadie Smith trying to write Philip Roth? There's something false here."

The first turning point was tiny. Alex-Li Tandem, the half-Jewish and half-Chinese protagonist, is talking to his best friend Adam, a pot-smoking kabbalist running a video store. And Adam mentions 'omphalos', the Greek word for navel whose symbolic meanings (origin, self-contemplation, motherhood, among others) are at the core of James Joyce's Ulysses. It's the first of several keywords that pointed me toward Ulysses as a partial key to unlocking the novel. Others that turn up later are Alex's book draft Jewishness and Goyishness- a funhouse mirror version of Stephen's meditative quip "Jewgreek is Greekjew", and ultimately an alphabetic tour of the liquor cabinet that begins with a visit to Stephen's beloved absinthe.

What is Ulysses about and what does it have to do with this novel? That's why this review is going to be so damned long. The easiest way to explain Joyce's novel is to say that Ulysses is a novel about an everyman named Leopold Bloom experiencing everything. This is not a particularly effective way to describe the novel, but it's a useful beginning because it points to the problem of using it as the key to another novel. Using Ulysses as your guide to reading The Autograph Man is like using a kaleidoscope to perform an astronomy experiment.

But that's not enough. I've spent literally hundreds of hours of my life wrestling with Ulysses, more than I've spent with any other book except the Bible, but I know enough to detect other Modernist ur-texts buried beneath The Autograph Man. Eliot's The Wasteland has a role, (In one of the sly chapter headings, never explicated, Smith writes "Eliot was goyish".) Virginia Woolf comes up again and again. Kafka's fiendish mind blurs some of the later chapters. All of this is in some sense straightforward, with an acknowledgment of debt followed by subtle inclusions of borrowed material. But the more lenses Smith provides you to try to read her novel, the clearer it becomes that this is not purely a linear narrative.

And that's important because nobody expected a linear narrative from Smith. Her debut novel, White Teeth is impressively multi. Multifaceted, multigenerational, multicultural, multithreaded. And a lot of the critics' frustration with The Autograph Man, I think, is that on its face it's a lot less ambitious of a novel. But you burrow in a little bit and what you find is a novel that's a lot more important. White Teeth is about politics and identity, the face that you display for the world. The Autograph Man is about death and love and hope, the things we search for inside ourselves. Like Ulysses, it's not immune to exploration of the meaning of ethnicity and identity and culture, but that's just at the surface of a novel that, as it dives into dreams and faith, becomes much more.

Alex-Li Tandem is a mess in this novel, arrested in development in much the same way Stephen Dedalus is. His father's death looms impossibly large over the story, like Stephen's mother's death does. He feels responsible, as Stephen does. He feels like he missed his chance to get close to his father. But Alex has a weapon Stephen didn't. Alex-Li Tandem is Jewish, and he can say Kaddish for his father.

This doesn't make sense. Li-Jin Tandem was not Jewish and did not approve of Alex being Bar Mitzvahed, and anyway, Alex is barely religious at all and has been drifting away from Judaism the more intense his study of the difference between Jewishness and goyishness becomes. (Again, like Stephen, though also like Bloom, but I should acknowledge here that Smith inverts part of this dynamic because in Ulysses Stephen's drift away from 'Jewishness' toward 'Greekness' is at least partially about his homosexual feelings for Buck Mulligan, while in The Autograph Man homosexuality is identified via Joseph's extreme closetedness with 'Jewishness') But... where was I before that parenthetical? I have so much to say about this novel it's downright distracting. Oh, right. Despite the fact that Kaddish seems like it ought to be the wrong response, it is the force of nature that impels the story forward. It is the ability to share a community. As the Rabbi explains toward the end, Kaddish is about you speaking and everyone responding to your needs. Ulysses is at its core the story of three outsiders navigating their aloneness. The Autograph Man is about building connections so you aren't so alone.

If I may, Ulysses is about the experience of living the events of June 16, 1904. The Autograph Man is about the joyously freeing experience of reading about those events, sharing in the community of us readers who have found a home in Joyceiana. (Joyceiana should not be understood too literally. One need not read Ulysses to be part of my 'us', the post-modern reader, the person whose intellectual life comes not from the text but from the conversation about the text. If you write fanfic, you're part of my us. If you remix videos or music. If quoting movies is an important part of how you express yourself. If you can't read a book without talking your friends' ears off about it.)

And ha, Alex and his cronies in the field of autograph collection spend the whole book telling each other that it's a profession, not a vocation, but the book gives lie to their mantra. We read and we write and we tell stories in a million different ways about other peoples' stories because we are compelled to, because it's the only way we can make sense of the world around us and we need desperately to make sense of it.

Okay, I think I've said enough in prologue to start actually talking about the book. Alex-Li Tandem is the son of a Chinese-British doctor named Li-Jin Tan who changed his name to Tandem when he immigrated to Britain, and a British Jew from Poland named Sarah. Hybridization, like in White Teeth is the essential method that forms Smith's characters. These also include: Esther and Adam Jacobs, Black Jews from Harlem who came to London because of the English health care system when they couldn't afford a pacemaker for Esther, Honey, an African-American call girl infamously caught with a famous actor, Kitty Alexander, an Italian-Russian who became a famous actress in America by changing her name and pretending to be Chinese, Mark Rubinfine, who becomes a Rabbi despite his obvious ineptitude for the job, and numerous others.

Alex lost his father to a concealed brain tumor when he was a young teenager, in a traumatic event told very funnily and poignantly in the prologue. This event binds together a group of boys who witnessed it. Alex, Adam, Mark, and Joseph become a clan bound together by the death of Alex's father and the ensuing quest for spiritual meaning they all embark on separately and together.

A lot of the reviews I've seen have expressed doubt that a person as reckless and thoughtless as Alex could get a community of people to keep helping him after all he's done to them. This ignores not only the bond I mentioned in the last paragraph, but also the reality that we often tolerate a lot in our friends and family we wouldn't from others. And it's obvious what Alex offers his friends, anyway: Love, intelligence, and potential. And potential is not something meaningless, it's a very real thing which many people gravitate toward even when it means immediate pain, even when they know that before we reap the reward they're going to have to deal with a broken person.

But reading the reviews of this book were maddening. James Wood spends several paragraphs complaining about Jewishness and Goyishness, bemoaning this is an obscene homage to Lenny Bruce. "Alas, Smith’s characters are all much involved with the divisions between what is Jewish and what is goyish. They sit around saying things like: ‘There was a black Jew’ (of Sammy Davis Jr). It is an obsession which seems essentially inauthentic, and which marks the novel precisely as one not written by a Jew... And should a serious novel – if this is what The Autograph Man is – proceed from, and then only lazily confirm, the shallow binarisms of Lenny Bruce? Despite its Judaic theological literacy, the novel’s Jewishness is so dominated by Bruce’s taxonomic vulgarity that it often seems no more than crude externality."

He completely ignores the Joyce connection, which traces backward to St. Paul and forward to Jacques Derrida, this distinction that for Wood is just a stupid, ironic game but for a lot of people encapsulates a world where opposites are constantly coming into collision, where the beautiful and the vulgar are not at odds so much as they are two windows into the same vision. It seems to me that Wood is the one too focused on irony, while Smith knows that irony is Jewish and sincerity is goyish and that makes them the same thing. Crude externality? Alex's obsession with naming things as Jewish or Goyish is beautifully kabbalistic, in the true sense of Kabbalah instead of the mummery Rabbi Berg sells to Madonna. Alex and Adam know, like Bruce and like centuries of Jews before them, that one of God's first gifts to mankind was the ability to name things (cf. Genesis 2:20).

And that's why I reached a grudging reconciliation with Smith's choice, in the first half of the book, to put the Tetragrammaton, in both English and Hebrew forms, in her chapter headings. This initially put me ill at ease, because I take the Third Commandment pretty seriously. I take God's name very seriously and I handle it with care because names can hold tremendous power, and I don't like seeing the name of God thrown around secularly and catholically. But I did reach, as I said, grudging reconciliation, because every time I saw it the same butterflies hit my stomach, but I saw the more I read that Smith understands the butterflies and was using the Tetragrammaton precisely because it's the most powerful word she knows. Because it represents an interface between the divine and the human.

Naming things matters. Language matters, and Wood's distaste for Smith's pop-culture intensive 'hysterical realist' style (That label is from his review of White Teeth, but in this review he writes "The Autograph Man may indeed be the nearest that a contemporary British writer has come to sounding like a contemporary American; the result is disturbingly mutant.") reflects a disconnect between Wood's aestheticism and the kind of language that is genuinely required to tell stories about the world we live in. In The Autograph Man, Smith takes obvious inspiration from all the people Wood identifies, David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers, but her story is old-fashioned because it's also built on Kabbalah and Zen, ancient traditions for understanding language and the world around us whose relevance has not waned at all as the attention span of our information-driven culture has shortened.

I should say something about Zen, because a powerful transition happens near the midway point of the book when Smith moves from a London suburb to New York and begins theming her story with Zen motifs instead of kabbalistic ones. These are I assume meant to represent the two traditions Alex inherited from his parents, and almost certainly also to broaden the Jewgreek tradition that some have criticized in a post-colonialist sense as failing to accommodate the contrasts of the non-Western world.

It's beautiful, flowing language. I can't say as much about the significance of it as I can about the Kabbalah, and a growing part of me wonders if the reason so many people seem to have bounced off this book is because there is no handholding on the pop-cultural references. There are two approaches to the growing hypertextuality of the novel form. One approach is to fill a novel with irrelevant facts so that they're close at hand when they need to be consulted, in effect making the novel itself hypertextual. The other is to rely on the fact that readers are becoming hypertextual themselves and assume that when they don't get something, they'll go to Wikipedia.

Rather than infodump to guide readers through the nuances of some obscure fact required to understand the plot, Smith just demands her reader get her obscure references. This is more Joyce than Foster Wallace, though Smith's story at least can be read, unsatisfactorily, without getting the references. I know a good deal about Jewish mysticism and was able to deeply appreciate just how much effort she put into making that work realistically. I know just enough about Zen doctrine to recognize how much of that part of the story was slipping past me.

But I could keep talking about this book for a long time without reaching exhaustion, and I've already written a longer review than for any other book I've reviewed for this community, so I shall say no more than that I'm grateful that there's still On Beauty waiting for me to read.
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
42. The Water Cure by Percival Everett

Um... I don't know what to say.

Every single day I picked up this book to read it, I had to make a decision about my mental state. "Should I read this, or should I read something that won't hurt so damn much?" More often than not, I ended up reading. I can't explain the compulsion that drew me on. I'm usually not a masochistic reader, but Everett somehow hooked me here.

This is a horrendous book. It's an inside glimpse at a mind that has snapped. Ishmael Kidder is the divorced father of an 11 year old girl who was raped and murdered. When the police release their number one suspect for lack of evidence, he kidnaps the man, duct tapes him to a board in his basement, and tortures him. The entire book consists of his torture. There is nothing else here.

Or maybe there is. Everett is a very sophisticated writer and he takes his complete lack of plot in a thousand different directions. It's a critique of the irresponsibility and brutality of the Bush administration's anti-terror doctrine. It's a look at what fatherhood means. It's a look at why we search for meaning.

But mostly it's a horrendous book, a powerful, hair-raising, monstrous book that I couldn't put down. I'd recommend you stay away.

tags: a: everett percival, african-american, postmodernist
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40. Wounded by Percival Everett

I wrote 3 rave reviews of Percival Everett novels a few weeks ago. [livejournal.com profile] zahrawithaz pointed me in the direction of Wounded with the dubious recommendation, "I loved Everett's Wounded, though I hated its ending." I flew through it and now... hm... I think the recommendation is well-stated. It's likely necessary to consider the two things separately: the book and its ending.

I loved the book. It's a story about an unlikely tribe that forms on a horse farm in Wyoming- a black horse trainer, John, his ex-con uncle Gus, his white cowgirl girlfriend Morgan, his college roommate's gay son David, their loyal dog Zoe, their 3 legged baby coyote, their untamed mule, and a couple of magnificent horses. All of them have demons and the story is largely concerned with how families do and don't share with each other, the things they hide and the things they tell. How people who have been hurt learn how to fall in love. It's a beautiful story.

John is perfect, and broken. He is a cowboy, in a word. It's a great set of eyes for Everett to use to narrate the story, because John feels all the weight of the world on his shoulders, feels responsible for everybody's shortcomings, and this lets Everett scan far and wide without losing any focus at all. The novel is short and reads fast. It's tight as hell, not a wasted word in sight, and yet somehow feels airy and spacious like the wide open plains John patrols on his horse.

But lurking underneath is another story, a story about tragedy and life as a minority, and in this story John and his clan are part of a larger clan, isolated by the white patriarchal culture of the west and yet brought together by nothing more than their shared isolation. And this story is the one that results in the book's ending, which is a very, very difficult ending to deal with. I wouldn't say that I hated it. I'm profoundly disturbed by it. Scared. Sad. Uncomfortable. But also thought-provoked, because if you can separate out all the emotional responses that it produces, it's a brilliant reappropriation of the Wild West ethos of John Wayne movies. Even when Percival Everett reaches straight for your heart and pulls as hard as he can, he never stops being the clever smartass who wrote I Am Not Sidney Poitier.


I don't know... maybe you'll like it, maybe you'll hate it. You can't know until you give it a try, I think.

41. The Automatic Detective by A. Lee Martinez

If you like slightly campy pulp stories, this will be a treat. Set in a present day noir city called Empire, a city that cheerfully persists in absurd art-deco pulpiness despite the requisite onslaught of evil mad scientists, disproportionate ecological disasters, and killer robots, it tells the story of one of those killer robots: A bot named Mack Megaton who turned on his evil master and is currently driving a cab to pay the considerable electric bill that
keeps him running.

When I say present day noir city, mind, I means something different from the way most authors mean it. Most contemporary noir authors take the noir feel, the so-called "hardboiled" style, and try to use it to tell stories set in a more realistic present day. Martinez has placed Empire in the middle of a non-pulp world, a bizarre outlier where sentient robots patrol alongside biological citizens and jazz has never been supplanted by rock and roll. It is stubbornly and delightfully preposterous, and it makes a great setting.

Martinez does all the little world building things right. I first spotted his eye for worldbuilding detail when I noticed that Mack never 'sees' or 'hears' anything, but 'scans' or 'detects' instead. The narrative voice is sharp and charming and the sense that you're spending time in a truly alien reality never goes away, and never gets tiresome. The detective plot is well-executed and all of the characters are lively and dynamic. I really can't praise this novel enough, for what it is. And I can't praise it enough for resisting the urge that a lot of slumming noir SF writers get to try to transcend the genre somehow. Martinez knows what his novel is and what it isn't.

tags: a: everett percival, a: martinez a. lee, african-american, postmodernist, western, mexican-american, sf/fantasy,
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
I'm officially in love with Percival Everett, I think.

It started when I learned that he'd written a book called A History of the African American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told To Percival Everett and James Kincaid. My sense of humor is too cocked for me to not be drawn to such a long and ridiculous title. Benjamin Rosenbaum's similarly titled "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes', by Benjamin Rosenbaum" is among my favorite short stories, after all.

While I waited for that to arrive on Amazon, I picked another of his books up at the library.

35) I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett.

The title, in addition to being a strikingly on-the-nose sentiment, is possibly a spoof on Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, as the novel is also concerned in some sense with the evolving cultural mores of today's youth culture. The novel's title character is named Not Sidney Poitier, a curious moniker his mentally ill mother assigned to him for no clear reason we're ever given. It turns out that as he grows up, he begins to closely resemble his non-namesake, and Everett has Not Sidney endure a series of adventures that more or less directly parody famous Poitier movies.

The novel begins Shandyan, with a very funny and very peculiar narration of the narrator's birth. It ends Borgesian, with the lines between Not Sidney and Sidney blurring in almost ecstatic ways. And on almost any other book I was writing up for this community I would hesitate to make those comparisons, because I'm growing wary of making naive comparisons to white authors on this community, wary of slotting them into a paradigm where they're considered second class citizens. But among the questions Everett seems to be asking, particularly in a central passage where Not Sidney experiences Not Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, is what makes a particular narrative "white" or "black". What separates Dick from Delany, what separates Baldwin from Hemingway, what separates Sidney Poitier from Not Sidney Poitier, and what separates Not Sidney Poitier from billionaire Ted Turner, who has a hysterical turn here as Not Sidney's eccentric adoptive father figure. So it's vitally important that Everett run his novel up against Tristram Shandy and David Copperfield and The Metamorphosis, in addition to the narratives of Frederick Douglass and Sidney Poitier and the rest of his "black narratives". The result of this mishmash is a literature of suffering and hope, joyously combined.

36)Erasure by Percival Everett

All three novels of Everett's that I've read feature some form of self-insertion. In I Am Not Sidney Poitier, Percival Everett is a Morehouse professor who teaches a course on the Philosophy of Nonsense and offers Not Sidney all manner of entirely unhelpful and nonsensical advice. In A History of the African American People, Everett is a Berkeley professor contracted by Strom Thurmond to help set his thoughts down on paper. In Erasure, Thelonious Ellison (a name which in a way is the same as Not Sidney) is a middle class novelist and teacher who has just published a novel that parodies the post-modern literary establishment and is recognizably similar to Everett's Glyph in form and content.

Ellison takes a leave of absence from his teaching job at Berkeley after his sister is shot and he is left to care for his Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. In the interim, he sits down and writes a parody of one of the "ghetto novels" that has become so popular lately as epitomized by Push. Everett sets down 60 pages of the novel within the novel, an ebonics-laden tale of violence and drugs titled My Pafology.

The novel poses fascinating questions about authenticity as "My Pafology", retitled "Fuck", becomes a best-seller and wins the National Book Award. Everett is brutal and funny as he mocks Oprah, the literary establishment, liberal guilt, and our desire to find a fiction that somehow communicates the truth of human suffering.

37) A History of the African American People (Proposed) by Strom Thurmond as Told To Percival Everett and James Kincaid by Percival Everett (and James Kincaid? I'm honestly not sure what Kincaid's contributions were, which is part of the point)

An epistolary narrative tracing the development of the titular historical memoir, from its conception in the blurry mind of a Thurmond aide through its development by a desperate Simon and Schuster editor and the bewildered ghostwriting undertaken by the team of Everett and Kincaid, writers in the Berkeley English department, one white and one black.

Unlike a lot of such parody novels, Everett doesn't supply you with any sort of anchoring character. Everyone you meet is just as poorly adjusted to society. They let their perversions, their foibles, their weaknesses drive them. Thurmond's aide misrepresents his relationship with his boss. The editor abuses his position of authority to make sexual advances on his assistant. Kincaid is obnoxiously overcareful to avoid offending his black colleague, while Everett abuses this deference for amusement and personal benefit.

And somehow, amid a cast of misshapen lunatics, serious thoughts begin to emerge about the nature of history and narrative, about the way we read the world around us. Somehow, misguided as he is, Strom Thurmond's insistence that he is more responsible for the history of the African-American people than anyone begins to teach us how to ask the right questions about who writes history and how they interpret it. The book shows when and how to question the historical canon, when and how to embrace minority opinions, asks whether it's ever necessary to decide on a definitive answer. And I have no idea how Everett does this. It's magic, how he finds form in his chaos.
[identity profile] seekingferret.livejournal.com
I'm on a bit of a post-modernism kick. These books are both very, very funny and very, very different.

33. The Last Days of Louisana Red by Ishmael Reed is an abstruse and yet very nasty piece of fiction. At its surface level, it's about a black family in Berkeley navigating the turmoil of the '60s. The four children of a divorced businessman find different paths to adulthood: ultimately, the story ends in over the top tragedy for three of them. Beneath this surface layer, there are metanarratives about white-black relations, male-female relations, what it means to be authentically black in America, the function and evolution of drama, and an assortment of other topics. The titular Louisana Red becomes, in Reed's hands, a powerful metaphor for black rage.

Reed throws around a lot of offensive language. There are a number of misogynistic rants that I found stomach-churning, and as a Jew I was thrown out of the book for a moment by one of his anti-semitic screeds, where the narrator labels the Jews "Pyramid Rock Toters" and accuses them of oppressing the blacks. I paused, closed the book, and debated whether I was willing to endure potentially more of the same, and eventually decided to continue. I'm still not sure this was the right decision. Reed's undeniably a gifted writer who has something to say. I'm just not sure I'm equipped to hear it.


34. Don Dimaio of La Plata by Robert Arellano (sometimes Roberto Arellano)

A mashup of Don Quixote and the story of corrupt former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, and it's even stranger than that sounds. Important characters in the novel include a cocaine-addicted gibbon on the lam and a talking toupee that navigates the astral plane.

The novel is full of sex, drugs, vulgarity, violence, abuse, and it's saved from all of that by a powerful sense of whimsy. Each section of the novel's narrative about Don "Pally" Dimaio, mayor of La Plata, is preceded by a punning reinterpretation of a passage from the Quixote. Sancho Panza becomes Pancho Sanchez, Dimaio's policeman chauffeur and bodyguard. The windmill turns into a a billboard that a cocaine-addled Dimaio insists is full of " 'ginas ". Dulcinella becomes a porn star named Dolly Dellabutta that Dimaio fantasizes about. It turns the whole affair deeply silly, and had me giggling hysterically through the whole thing.

Frankly, though, the book is worth it for the beautiful cover alone.

a: reed ishmael, a: arellano robert,
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30) Charisma by Steven Barnes

Um... Not too much to say about it. Competent genre fic, but not a book I'd rave about. I wish there were more substance to the romance between Renny and Vivian, I suppose. It felt impossibly inconsequential, like a sketch of a romance more than the real thing, and especially felt thin compared to the complicated and confusing relationship between Vivian and Otis.

The main children characters were relatively well-written for the trope of 'precociously adult children', but that's really all there is to recommend the book, unless you're the type who reads this sort of book regardless of its quality, like I sometimes am.


31) White Teeth by Zadie Smith

On the other hand, this was fantastic. Deep, subtle, and consistently hilarious. Smith's wit and imagination saved this book, I think, from becoming like a billion others it resembles.

White Teeth tracks the lives of three families in North London from the 1970s through the 1990s, dealing with immigration, assimilation, identity, religion, technology, family, and a host of other issues. And when I say a host of other issues, I mean it literally. There is a massive quantity of ideas crammed into this novel and a surprising number of them resurface in the dense, complicated, and dramatic concluding section.

The first family is Archie Jones and his wife Clara, a white middle aged Englishman who marries a toothless Jamaican teenager in a quest to reinvent himself and find direction in his life. It's an obvious mismatch, but Smith plays it with beautiful ambiguity, leaving the possibility of happiness open without hiding any of the reasons why happiness is an elusive goal.

Then we meet Archie Bengali former Army mate, Samad Iqbal, who has immigrated to Archie's neighborhood from Bangladesh with his equally young wife (Samad and Alsana were betrothed before she was born) in search of a new chance in the new world and finds instead a job as a waiter in a Bengali restaurant.

And then we advance time, slowly, and watch as their children grow up, become entangled and disentangled and struggle through the chaos and uncertainty of the '70s, '80s, and '90s, constantly moving toward a final confrontation when everything will be laid on the table.

None of these characters feel like stick figures. They're all given moments where Smith accords them respect, explains their motivations and their world view, and makes you sympathize with them. And then she moves them around expertly like chess pieces in the service of both elaborate and breathtaking jokes as well as deeper, more serious moments of truth.

This was the book, and Zadie Smith the author, that led to the coining of the term 'hysterical realism' to describe a movement in modern literature that encompasses Pynchon and DeLillo and Rushdie and Wallace and Smith. I like this movement, even if I recognize the coinage to be disparaging.

Can anybody recommend other 'hysterical realist'/maximalist authors of color?


tags: a:smith zadie, a:barnes steven, postmodernist, sff, bangladesh, british, jamaica, african-american
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21)Dhalgren by Samuel Delany

Reviewing Dhalgren seems an impossible challenge. Instead, I'll fling some scattershot critical commentary.

Scattershot Critical Commentary Follows )
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15) The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley

I discovered David Bradley and learned of his The Chaneysville Incident from his introduction to William Kelley's A Different Drummer, which I thought was tremendously insightful.

It's illuminating to view Bradley as influenced by Kelley (and of course, the other authors Bradley cites both in that introduction and throughout The Chaneysville Incident, like Ellison and DuBois). But Kelley and Bradley have both figured out ways to communicate complicated ideas about race and identity through new techniques and, more importantly, new spins on old techniques. In short, I am starting to see what African-American post-modernism is supposed to look like.

I mean, I've never pretended to understand white American post-modernism, or white European post-modernism. I just know that I can identify when it works for me and when it doesn't. Bradley's novel is achingly similar to other books I've read (Richard Powers keeps coming to mind, if that means something to anyone), and yet it is unlike any other I've come across. It has understandings of storytelling and its significance that will continue to lend power to my reading as I move on past into other literary worlds. That, I think, is one of the main purposes of literary post-modernism. By exposing the plumbing of the world of language, the post-modernists show readers and fellow writers how we go about the process of interacting with text. Inherent in the conception is confronting the born and bred prejudices of the reader.

Confronting the prejudices of the reader is something Bradley does far more literally than other post-modernists. Consider one early chapter, where the African-American narrator confesses to his white girlfriend that he once raped a white girl. The dynamics of the situation, the moral confusion, the transparent feelings of guilt and shame and pride and fear and love that swirl around and constantly imbalance each other... it is employed with a subtlety that confronts the reader with his assumptions about race. But this confession is a rapid flash back in time, juxtaposed against a present moment whose tense confrontation between two black men both illuminates and is illuminated by the old confession. Bradley is confronting both the reader's literary expectations and his social prejudices simultaneously. Bradley follows it up in the next chapter with a Br'er Rabbit-type retelling of the story of an attempted lynching. The serious matched with the tragicomic to devastating result.

Bradley's main character is a cleverly-drawn academic historian, a typical main character for a post-modern novel. The character's obsession with the little details of history enable Bradley to set up his own small, personal story against the vaster, more complicated stories of American history. Tidbits about Henry Ford and Robert E. Lee serve multiple purposes- they contextualize, grounding the story in a larger drama. They suggest that that larger drama is constantly interacting with millions of smaller dramas in ways that are too complicated to easily understand. They provide a break from the narrative, making it less relentlessly linear, more natural. They develop thematic ideas about the American concept of 'progress' and the nonlinearity that really inhabits that concept. They contrast to the folk stories of the main character's mentor Uncle Jack. And they develop an understanding of the main character and what his interests are, what grabs his attention and why.

Ultimately, the narrator's blend of microhistory and macrohistory leads him to the novel's central quest, the attempt to understand the life of the narrator's father and the way all of the novel's characters navigate history's nightmares (Joyce's Stephen says "History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake," and it cannot be a coincidence that the narrator suffers literally from nightmares that he cannot wake up from). It is a quest he cannot succeed in, because History simply doesn't work in a way that allows the kind of answer he needs. So instead he turns, as Bradley himself does, to storytelling. The novel's final story is powerful and filled with constant surprises. It is a worthy conclusion to a powerful novel.

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