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Everyone wants a reputation, with the possible exception of people who already have one. It's probably somewhat gauche to start off a review on this tack--books should after all be discussed on their own terms, not on the terms of their predecessors--but David Mitchell's reputation can't be avoided. It's hard to imagine anyone, except perhaps deaf Tibetan monks, picking up Black Swan Green without having at least heard of Cloud Atlas, and it's equally hard to imagine Mitchell being unaware of this fact. Indeed, there's a hint of willful refusal about the whole enterprise; as too many people have been too eager to observer, this time out Mitchell has written a book that, on the face of it, couldn't be further away from the panoramas of his previous work. To be blunt, Black Swan Green looks like just one story: a single character in a single village for a single year.

Furthermore, Mitchell has willingly 'fessed up to the book's autobiographical elements, as if they weren't fairly obvious to begin with, joking in interviews that he's written his first novel fourth. All the signs are there, at any rate. Like Mitchell (we have been led to assume), Jason Taylor grows up in a Worcestershire village ("not the arsehole of the world, but it's got a damn good view of it", 82), in shadow of the cold war (he imagines MIGs roaring over the Malvern Hills), reading Le Guin and Wyndham (and Stephen Donaldson, but we won't hold that against him), watching Tomorrow's World, contributing pseudonymous poetry to the parish magazine, and suffering from a debilitating stammer. And yet: in his career to date, Mitchell has so conspicuously avoided writing in anything that might be taken for his own voice that it's hard to take Black Swan Green at face value.

And indeed (as the excessive caveating above might have suggested), the first-glance traditionalism doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Black Swan Green is as carefully constructed, as much an act of literary ventriloquism, as any of Mitchell's other books. There are thirteen chapters, and they do only cover a year and a month in the life of thirteen year-old Jason. Yet, it turns out, they're not chapters so much as short stories. Some of them have even been previously published, albeit in slightly different forms. Each is discrete, and focuses on a different aspect of Jason's life--his stammer, his relatives, initiation into a local gang, the end of year disco--with some assembly required to discern the full shape of the year. For example, in the first story Jason breaks an expensive watch he inherited from his grandfather; it's not until two-thirds of the way through the book that we learn that he's been diligently searching for a replacement. It wasn't relevant to the intervening stories, so it wasn't mentioned. The restlessness of narrative gaze gives the book a slightly relentless quality. "There's no such thing as something!" exclaims one character, "because everything's already turning into something else!" (120). Particularly when coupled with the first-person, diary-style storytelling, this sort of fixup approach seems fitting, a way of capturing the constant turmoil of early adolescence, when last month may as well be ancient history, a different life.

Even so, and however neatly Mitchell has adapted the form to this particular story, it's clear that at heart it's another variation of the approach he's demonstrated he's most comfortable with. In all his books, Mitchell seems to feel the need to set himself limits--and most of the time the need to then explain those limits to the reader. While Black Swan Green isn't as tightly nestled around a single theme as Cloud Atlas, tending instead more towards the diffuseness of Ghostwritten, it certainly has its moments of brazen didacticism. One crucial central story, 'Solarium', sees Jason visiting Madame Eva van Outrve de Crommelynck, an old woman who appreciates his poetry, challenges him to reach further, and in the process appears for all the world to be explaining to us how to read the book. She argues for limits, berating Jason: "You imagine blank verse is a liberation, but no. Discard rhyme, you discard a parachute" (183). Mitchell gets away with that, just, but then:
"Anyone can be truthful."

"About superficialities, Jason, yes, is easy. About pain, no, is not. So you want a double life. One Jason Taylor who seeks approval of hairy barbarians. Another Jason Taylor is Eliot Bolivar, who seeks approval of the literary world."

"Is that so impossible?"

"If you wish to be a versifier," she whirlpooled her wine, "very possible. If you are a true artist," she schwurked wine round her mouth, "absolutely never. If you are not truthful to the world about who and what you are, your art will stink of falseness."

I had no answer for that. (195)
There you are: the dilemma on a plate. Half a million copies of Cloud Atlas and a Richard and Judy Book of the Year Award attest that Mitchell has been popular, and with Black Swan Green he will probably be so again (for whatever else you want to say about it, it's as compulsively readable as any of his other books; this is a writer who knows how to spin a yarn). But has he been truthful, and if not does it matter? After each of his books we have been asking where David Mitchell is--who he is--but Black Swan Green puts the question unavoidably front and centre.

To begin to find answers, we have to return to Jason, because it's with Jason that the book stands or falls. Unlike, say, The Accidental's Astrid Smart, he is not meant to be an original. He is instead everything thirteen-year-old English boys in books like this are meant to be: lower middle-class, nervous around girls, close enough to believing in himself that he can get there by the end of the story. He starts out as a mid-rank boy at school, not so popular we can't empathise with him, but not so low down that he has nowhere to fall. And he has a way with words, although he's still learning how to fit them to the world. The text is dotted with phrases that are trying just a little too hard--"the sky was turning to outer space" (20), for example, or "something silent smashed without being dropped" (143)--and which stand out all the more because the rest of the writing around them is determinedly informal, full of colloquial dialogue, the occasional arch authorial nudge towards history yet to happen, slang, and brand names. The latter, in fact, seem a false note at first, evidence that, like Jason, Mitchell is trying too hard. There seems to be an excess of detail. Jason doesn't eat crisps, he eats Monster Munch; and he doesn't eat chocolates, or Roses, but Cadbury's Roses. Every song on the radio is titled, every make of car is named.

But this is all part of a pattern. Look at the things that happen to Jason. He has an eventful year, but in all the expected ways. There are visits from his relatives. His immediate family is ok--none of them have much time for him, dealing with business (dad), mid-life (mum) or late-adolescent (big sister) crises of their own, but none of them are bad people--but his cousins are an odious lot, and bring out the worst in all concerned. There are confrontations with the village bullies and their lackeys, and teachers at school--all the recognisable types of English teenage life are here, in fact. There are encounters with local gypsies, and with prejudice. And, given that this is 1982, Mrs Thatcher and the Falklands war are lurking in the background. Most of the stories are brilliantly told--lively, nuanced, affecting, from the intoxicating freedom of Jason's personal odyssey of 'Bridlepath' to the intricate awkwardnesses reflected in 'Souvenirs'. But, eventually, almost everything ends as it should: the bullies get their just desserts, while Jason gets the respect of the people who matter, and his first kiss into the bargain. It's hard to be downcast about the few bitter notes in the closing cadences when the book's very last words are "it's not the end" (371). So apt, so true; we never stop coming of age.

A neat book so far, then. The last thing we need to know upsets the applecart. We need to know about Jason's imaginary companions: the wild cards, the chaos looking over his shoulder. Maggot, Unborn Twin, and most especially Hangman, are (occasionally) the voices of Jason's better angels, and (more commonly) his demons personified. Hangman is his nemesis, his stammer brought to cruel life. "Pike lips, broken nose, rhino cheeks, red eyes 'cause he never sleeps" (31), Hangman strikes with a mocking unpredictability, blocking the dreaded N- or S-words at the worst possible moments. If Jason is quick and lucky, he'll be able to think ahead, pick another word, but it's a constant balancing act: a fight to keep the secret, preserve his reputation, maintain control. If Mitchell actually is anything like Jason, small wonder that his books are so meticulously assembled.

Hangman is introduced on page 3, and explained in the second story. Maggot and Unborn Twin are there from the start, as well, but aren't explained until almost the end of the book, more or less when we learn how the story is really being told. It's not quite what we thought. What appears to be Jason's diary, written as he goes, is in fact a collection of compositions, mostly made long after the fact. At this point, everything slots into place: Black Swan Green, as told by Jason, is an act of self-mythologisation, an attempt to rationalise the year once it has been (mostly) lived. Hence the insertion of Maggot and Unborn Twin into events predating their birth; hence the exaggerated naturalism of the prose, the plotting and description that seem precise almost to the point of being parodic. It's all because this is a book in which writing something down gives you control over it. Jason's stammer forces him to learn how to use words to save himself; at one crucial, ecstatic moment he realises that "Words made it. Just words" (339). And, we realise, that's as true for David Mitchell as it is for Jason.

This is not a departure. Cloud Atlas, in the end, was not so much a book about the world as a book about how the world is described by different fictional forms. A book about the stories we tell ourselves, or about how we distort the world when we make a story out of it, reduce it to words on a page. That's why its components had to be so clearly genre works: because genres are codified approaches to making the world storyable, and they survive only as long as they are doing something right, telling us something useful. They are always under tension, on the edge of ossification. And Mitchell seems to have set himself the challenge of revamping the established codes, finding the truths buried within them--perhaps because, these days, you can't help but be aware of the way stories are told. That's why Mitchell's go to such length to explain what they're about; because otherwise they will be hopelessly naive. The ultimate goal, possibly, is to write a book that succeeds because of its self-awareness: to write what we might call a modern genre novel.

Black Swan Green, I think, is an attempt to write such a book by treating a category, 'semi-autobiographical first novels', as a genre. To take the cliches, and make them into tropes; to wring them into new configurations. But the balance is off. There is something about knowing this--about knowing that Mitchell's use of his own experiences is a pragmatic choice, to lend weight to an overfamiliar landscape--that conflicts with the transparency of Jason's voice. The miracle is that the book still works as well as it does, for, despite their secondhand nature, the characters and situations that fill these pages ring only occasionally hollow. Jason himself is convincing, and the truths Mitchell unearths from his day-to-day life shine freshly in the daylight. Even the coldness, in the end, is worth it, because the book does what it was designed to do. It tells a story; it makes you care; and along the way it explains what Mitchell does without ever giving away who he is.

Here I am, says the author, standing in front of us, in plain sight. We know his reputation; we're waiting for the trick. This is what I'm about, he says, smiling, and then--

Other reviews:
Nell Freudenberger in The New York Times
M. John Harrison in the TLS
David Hellman in the San Francisco Chronicle
[livejournal.com profile] peake here
Laura Miller at Salon
Adam Phillips in The Observer
Steven Poole in The Guardian
Ali Smith in The Telegraph
Scarlett Thomas in The Independent
Daniel Zelewski in The New Yorker
Lee Rourke at Ready Steady Book
And more
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About a quarter of the way into Ali Smith's lively tale of a disrupted family holiday and its aftermath, we learn exactly what it is that the mother, Eve Smart, does for a living. She writes 'autobiotruefictinterviews', books that take ordinary people who died young and tell their story as though they had lived on. They are marketed as Genuine Articles. They are also fashionable, attracting considerable attention (there is talk of one being chosen by Richard and Judy for their book club) and almost-unanimously favourable press notices. The dissenting voice is given to The Independent, where a reviewer says of the most recent title, which focuses on a German-born woman, secretly Jewish but outwardly a good Nazi mother:
"When will writers and readers finally stop hanging around mendacious glorified stories of a war which may as well by now have happened planets away from this one? Smart's Genuine Articles are a prime example of our shameful attraction to anything that lets us feel both fake-guilty and morally justified. No more of this murky self-indulgence. We need stories about now, not more peddled old nonsense about then." (82)
It's a viewpoint that resonates interestingly with one of the novel's epigraphs (Smith is greedy, and offers five, from sources as diverse as Austen and Chaplin):
Between the experience of living a normal life at this moment on the planet and the public narratives being offered to give a sense to that life, the empty space, the gap, is enormous.
-- John Berger, 2002
Smith, I suspect, does not intend us to read Berger's statement ironically, because The Accidental, deserved Booker-nominee and Whitbread Best Novel-winner, can be seen as an attempt to redress the balance.

So. There is, as mentioned, a family, and aside from Eve it consists (in order of increasing interestingness and decreasing age) of Michael, a middle-aged English professor horribly aware of just how cliched his crises are; late-teen Magnus, who had a hand in a prank that led in part to the suicide of a classmate, and who is now stricken by depression as a result; and cusp-teen Astrid, whose internal monologue is one of the most vigorously exploratory voices I've encountered in ages, and whose opinion of her mother's books is almost as critical as that of The Independent ("Personally Astrid thinks there would be a lot more usefulness in finding out about things that were happening now rather than people who died i.e. more than half a century ago", 23). Smith's short stories showcase a magpie fascination with tone and structure, so it's not much of a surprise that The Accidental is similarly restless. The narrative is ironically broken up into 'The Beginning', 'The Middle', and 'The End', none of which mean what they say, and in each section each family member takes a turn in the spotlight. The dynamism and fundamental directness of Smiths' writing remains constant throughout, but each voice is individualised.

Much of their distinctness comes from their differing ages, and their differing responses to the passage of time. The children are Young, the adults Old; and the older the character, the more controlled their internal monologue, and the more trapped. Astrid's story, for example, is almost stream-of-consciousness, while at one point Michael wakes up and find his thoughts (literally) trapped into an overwrought sonnet sequence ("Amber, walking/through the world, lit the world, took the world, made it/and after her everything in it faded", 165). Astrid is aware that her family "are all more part of the old century than she is" (11); she goes to the trouble of working out that she's 25 per cent new, compared to Magnus' 17 and her parents' even smaller proportions. She ties herself in knots trying to work out the impossibility of beginnings and endings, not yet having fully worked out that the world isn't a story. She films dawns with her video camera--she captures change--while by contrast Eve is more interested in snapshots, in saving individual moments. Both Eve and Michael are acutely aware of their age, particularly in a culture that venerates youth, Eve fearing she's past-it at 42, Michael comparing himself (vainly, but unfairly) with Keats, dead at 26. For Magnus, meanwhile, there is a sense that his present is stuck in his past. He sees his past self as a hologram--another form of imaging, to go with Eve's photos and Astrid's videos; all of them are, at points, fascinated by the fact that their images are time-fixed relics, and that the people and things in them do not know what is going to happen next--and is half-convinced that it's haunting him. It represents a problem, an equation, an inconsistency in the world that needs to be solved before he can move on.

It's the summer of 2003. The four of them are on holiday near Norfolk, when one day in waltzes the fifth character: Amber, the enigma. She takes a role in each narrative, playing confidante for some and object of devotion for others. Each member of the family assumes she's someone else's business: Astrid and Michael thinks she's there to be interviewed for Eve's next book, Eve thinks she's one of Michael's student conquests, while Magnus at first thinks she's an angel and later doesn't really care. The only things we know about Amber and Amber's life are what Amber herself tells us--she gets a chance to speak directly to the reader between each section of the book--and there are good reasons to think that she's playing with us:
They shot the king in Memphis, which delayed the Academy Awards telecast for two whole days. He had a dream, he held these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal and would one day sit down together at the table of brotherhood. They shot the other brother at the Ambassador Hotel. RIGHTEOUS BROS it said in lights, above the hotel car park. Meanwhile my father was the matchmaker and my mother could fly using only her umbrella. When I was a child I ran the Grand National on my horse. They didn't know I was a girl until I fainted and they unbuttoned my jockey shirt. But anything was possible. We had a flying floating car. We stopped the rail disaster by waving our petticoats at the train my father was innocent in prison, my mother made ends meet. I sold flowers in Covent Garden. A posh geezer taught me how to speak proper and took me to the races, designed by Cecil Beaton, though they dubbed my voice in the end because the singing wasn't good enough.

But my father was Alfie, my mother was Isadora. I was unnaturally psychic in my teens, I made a boy fall off his bike and I burned down a whole school. My mother was crazy; she was in love with God. There I was at the altar about to marry someone else when my boyfriend hammered on the church glass at the back and we eloped together on a bus. My mother was furious. She'd slept with him too. The devil got me pregnant and a satanic sect made me go through with it. Then I fell in with a couple of outlaws and did me some talking to the sun. I said I didn't like the way he got things done. (104)
By the time Amber declares that "I was born free, I've had the time of my life and for all we know I'm going to live forever" (105), we are primed. We know the game; we see the lyrics and stories and history out of which she is pretending her life. She self-mythologises an order of magnitude more than any normal person, and in so doing creates a mythological ambiguity about herself. "It is as if she can actually read Astrid's mind" (116), we are told, and for a second we think, well, why not? Each member of the family marvels at her luminous and extraordinary knowledge. Amber's real story is so hidden behind all the others that make up the late twentieth century that she almost seems to have no past: she has emerged fully-formed into a life of constant immediacy. For Amber, Astrid's video camera is no better than the surveillance cameras in a supermarket car park--both capture facsimiles, not the real thing. For Amber, unlike any of the other characters, age is irrelevant and now is eternal. She wears a stopped watch.

The Accidental, then, is perhaps Smith's idea of how a public narrative for our time might be constructed. At points it certainly seems to have the urgency of argument. Amber is not going to explain herself, so we have to have at least four other peoples' best guesses to have a hope of understanding her; she is, like the modern world, too multifaceted to be seen entire by any one person. Everyone is, as Eve speculates towards the end of the book, on a different road, on a different map entirely, and each map is only an approximation of reality. Everything is subjective. What Smith adds to this, and what makes The Accidental special, is the vivid impression of how the now of the book relates to its before and after. Many writers convey a sense of place, a sense of the physicality of an environment; Smith moves up a dimension, and gives us a sense of time. Despite the section titles, The Accidental is anything but linear. 'The middle', in particular, darts back and forth, showing us either side and before and after and every angle of a particular family meal. Similarly the prologue masterfully pins down a single moment, a single evening in 1968, by looking at it through the long lens of everything else since.

Is there a danger here of ephemerality? If you fix your story squarely in time because you know the next day will be different, and would cause things to turn out a different way, are you consigning your work to speedy oblivion? Ian McEwan's Saturday, after all, already seems outdated. But if anything, it seems to me that here the opposite is the case. Smith allows herself a bit more than a single day, and captures her chosen moments so perfectly that they seem necessarily to have been real. If the effect of The Accidental is fleeting, if it's something we've seen before, it is so in the manner of a firework: a brief bright flash of beauty that lingers in the mind. It is not an attempt at explanation, but rather a portrait, and in that is perhaps more honest than anything with pretensions to eternity. Smith is saying this is the way it is, and what you take from it is up to you. If that sounds familiar, maybe it should:
[T]his is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books "slipstream."
-- Bruce Sterling, 1989
I realise that since 1989 the definition of 'slipstream' has, well, slipped, and that ultimately the term has been deprecated, but substitute "late twentieth" with "early twenty-first", and this old rhetoric fits The Accidental like a glove. Reading it you feel balanced precariously on a summit, in a moment, paused, but ready to topple back into the flow of time after the slightest nudge. Of course, a book that argues that the experience of the present is subjective is tacitly admitting that any public narrative, including itself, is only going to be true for some people some of the time. That, finally, is why Ali Smith's novel is so thoroughly and exuberantly a story about now. Between the mystery of Amber and the way the characters' thoughts chafe at their stories, it is indeed very strange, and in addition quite special--if, naturally, you are a person of a certain sensibility.

[Other reviews linked from here.]
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2004 was always going to be a hard act to follow: among other books, last year we got Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, River of Gods, Cloud Atlas and Air. Even taking that into account, however, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that 2005 was a thoroughly unexceptional year, even slightly disappointing, for sf. That's not to say that there wasn't a fair spread of good and interesting work published, but not very much had that special something.

some statistics )

older books )

2005 books )

recommendations )

the summer isles )

looking forward )
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Because of the circumstances under which it was initially recommended to me, I very nearly never read this book. That would have been a shame. And in the end, to be perfectly honest, one of the reasons I read it at all was simply so that I would be able to say that I had. Moreover, I was more than half-minded not to write about it, based on the suspicion that any discussion that followed would rapidly become tiring and unproductive. But not writing about it would be to do the book a disservice, so here I am; and if you've never trusted any other recommendation you've seen of it, please trust mine. Whatever issues I bring up below, bear in mind that if you have any interest in how society discusses and assigns value to writing I would still say this book is worth reading.

How to Suppress Women's Writing is a short book by Joanna Russ, about 150 pages, first published in 1983. It is part historical study, part feminist critique, part literary survey, and part polemic. It takes as its starting point the obvious fact that writing by women is under-represented in popular and literary canons, and then outlines mechanisms by which this is achieved. Occasionally writing by other cultural minorities is also considered. You can read the prologue and the first chapter here. Laid out baldly, the list of mechanisms looks daft:

- She didn't write it
- She wrote it, but she had help
- She wrote it but she shouldn't have
- She wrote it, but look what she wrote about
- She wrote it but she only wrote one of it
- She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist (but it isn't really art)
- She wrote it, but she's an anomaly

Some of them don't look any less daft in context, but Russ doesn't, for the most part, suggest that these mechanisms are conscious--
In the case of women writers and other 'wrong' groups practicing art, the techniques of containment, belittlement, and sheer denial are sometimes so very illogical (and so very prevalent) that it's hard not to believe there's a conscious conspiracy going on--how could anyone argue so idiotically and not be aware of it? Yet it's equally easy to insist that silliness like that must be a matter of ignorance--how could anyone aware of such idiocy not stop, if for no other reason than sheer embarrassment? And if the theory of conscious conspiracy won't do (with some exceptions, chiefly where money is involved), while the theory of total ignorance won't do either, what's going on? (17)
--rather that they are unconscious, inherent in the established framework of literary study. They propagate when people do not question their context or the context of ideas presented to them. This is a (relentlessly) negative view of humanity, but it does force you to sit up and think about your own complicity in the works that society has wrought.

In general, Russ writes acutely, honestly and entertainingly about these problems. But she can also be extremely frustrating; the most common experience I had while reading How to Suppress Women's Writing was one of saying "yes, but ..." For instance, immediately after the passage above she continues:
(There is a third theory, in which each supposed case of sexism, racism or class disadvantage becomes a matter of personal enmity here or chance there or some other motive somewhere else. Such a theory is part of the problem, not its explanation. It amounts simply to the denial that there is a problem.) (17-18)
Yes, but ... this is a substantial simplification, and that makes me uneasy. Several times, Russ makes it clear that How to Suppress Women's Writing is not intended as a definitive statement, that she has had neither the time or the resources to achieve that and encourages others to pick up where she leaves off, which is fair enough; and yet, and yet. Because the thing is, a given case of sexism, racism or class disadvantage does not become a matter of personal enmity, or chance, or some other motive, it almost certainly is a matter of personal enmity, or chance, or some other motive. It is both an individual case and part of a pattern, and while--as Russ correctly points out--to concentrate only on individual details is to miss the forest for the trees, to consider only the forest seems to me equally problematic.

At other points, she undermines excellent insights with less-than-perfect metaphors:
In everybody's present historical situation, there can be, I believe, no single center of value and hence no absolute standards. That does not mean that assignment of values must be arbitrary or self-serving (like my students, whose defense of their poetry is "I felt it"). It does mean that for the linear hierarchy of good and bad it becomes necessary to substitute a multitude of centers of value, each with its own periphery, some closer to each other, some farther apart.

[...]

There used to be an odd, popular, and erroneous idea that the sun revolved around the earth.

This has been replaced by an even odder, equally popular, and equally erroneous idea that the earth goes around the sun.

In fact, the moon and the earth revolve around a common center, and this commonly-centred pair revolves with the sun around another common center, except that you must figure in all the solar planets here, so things get complicated. (120-21)
You can see what she's trying to do, and I'm sympathetic to it, but the problem is that as soon as you start thinking about her metaphor in terms of why, it breaks down. The reason a heliocentric view was (eventually) adopted is that it is more accurate than geocentrism. The reason we have not adopted a more general view of cosmology for our day-to-day lives, although we know that it is true, is because it is not particularly more useful to do so. Heliocentrism is good enough for most purposes, and I don't think that's an implication that Russ wanted there.

My biggest reservation about the book, though, is in what it says about reviewing and criticism, or more accurately in what it leaves me as a reviewer able to say: sometimes, it doesn't seem to leave me very much at all. That is to a certain extent to be expected. This is primarily a piece of political writing, one that draws attention to patterns that anyone thinking about fiction should be aware of; it is probably not intended to be taken as a literal model for criticism. And yet ...

Chapter 7 deals with 'she wrote it, but she only wrote one of it': the idea that, say, Jane Eyre is the only book by Charlotte Bronte in the literary canon because it's the only book she wrote that's worth reading. I had a number of problems with this. First, it is an argument directed at people who believe that 'the canon' is in some way definitive, whereas I take it to be a starting point. Secondly, it should be obvious that representative cherry-picking is not something that afflicts only women writers. Russ is well aware of this, and so it turns out that the first few pages of the chapter are misdirection before she gets to the real thrust of her argument:
One might argue--and justly--that many male writers are also represented by only one book or one group of poems. I would answer first that the damage done the women is greater because the women constitute so few of the total in anthologies, classes, curricula, and reading lists at any level of education. Moreover, the real mischief of the myth of the isolated achievement, as it is applied to the "wrong" writers, is that the criteria of selection are in themselves loaded and so often lead to the choice of whatever in the writer's work will reinforce the stereotypical notion of what women can write or should write. (65)
This makes sense; I buy it. It doesn't distill into a soundbite as neat as 'she wrote it, but she only wrote one of it,' however, which is a bit unfortunate for a book that is most often referenced by its soundbites. And what do you do if you believe that the soundbite is true? If you've read most or everything by a writer, but are of the opinion that only one or two of the works are genuinely memorable?

I also had problems working out what Russ actually thinks about "women's writing" as a category. In the above quote she appears to be against the idea that it is a category with unique content. This view comes up at other points as well: one of the variants of "she didn't write it" that she examines is "the man inside her wrote it", deriding the idea that "human or personal complexity is reduced to two sets of characteristics, one male, one female." (22) And yet at other times, she seems quite strongly attached to the idea that there are things only women's writing says, going so far as to argue that men misunderstand women's art, and therefore undervalue it, because they are ignorant of women's experience. This seems slightly contradictory, and leads into another restriction on what I can say:
If women's experience is defined as inferior to, less important than, or "narrower" than men's experience, women's writing is automatically denigrated.

If women's experience is simply not seen, the effect will be the same.

She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes she wrote it, but it's unintelligible/badly constructed/thin/spasmodic/uninteresting, etc, a statement by no means identical with she wrote it, but I can't understand it (in which case the failure might be with the reader). (48)
There's a variant of the accessibility debate to be had here--is it desireable that a work contain the information necessary to make it comprehensible?--but I'm more than willing to accept that works can be misinterpreted by readers outside their context. But this seems to go further, arguing that because I am a man I can never be a part of the work's context, and that the only valid criticism of a book that I don't like that is by a woman is "I can't understand it."

This somewhat kneecaps criticism. For instance, I have read two particularly strong science fiction novels by women that were published this year, by Justina Robson and Tricia Sullivan. Can I say that I think the Robson is the more successful? What do you think of my opinion if I further tell you that the Sullivan is the more overtly feminist? How about if I say that a couple of the stories in Holly Phillips' collection In The Palace of Repose do, in fact, seem to me a little thin? The problem is that although every statement that means "I can't understand this" can be written as a more face-saving "this is badly constructed", not every "this is badly constructed" means "I can't understand this." Because fiction by women is going to be just like fiction by men: flawed. The solution, of course, is to write reviews grounded in specific criticisms that allow the reader to judge for themselves whether the conclusions drawn are valid; but this still requires a certain trust in the reviewer, rather than prejudging their suitability on the basis of gender.

As I said before this long litany of nitpicks, I think How to Suppress Women's Writing is worth reading. In a weird way, the fact that I've nitpicked is meant as a recommendation; it is such an argumentative book that you want to argue back, which is as good a way as any of testing how well your own positions stand up. The best way to avoid unconscious prejudice is to be conscious, and for the most part Russ does an excellent job of demonstrating how and why her list of suppressive mechanisms work (how relevant they are twenty-two years after the book was published is up to the individual reader to decide; for myself, some of them seem more prevalent than others). What's missing, perhaps, is a sense of the possible. This is a book that says 'this must be done.' It even ends with a direct challenge: "I've been trying to finish this monster for thirteen ms pages and it won't. Clearly it's not finished. You finish it." (132) But the book doesn't seem terribly confident that this can ever really be done. I'd like to be a little less pessimistic than that.
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Early in 2005, in one of those literary world teacup-storms, Ali Smith and Toby Litt were castigated for saying, in the introduction to a collection they'd jointly edited, that "On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking - as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell." This was followed by a clarification: it wasn't the subjects that disappointed, so much as the approaches used. "We found it hard to understand why writers with nothing to lose but time and the cost of postage were so unadventurous." Later in the year, Smith's novel The Accidental was shortlisted for the Booker prize. [livejournal.com profile] nuttyxander and others kept enthusing about it, so I bought myself a copy, but haven't quite found the time to read it yet. Fortunately, in one of those serendipitous moments that make Christmas worth it after all, [livejournal.com profile] hawleygriffen sent me Smith's 2003 collection The Whole Story and Other Stories.

Having more-or-less devoured it in the space of 48 hours, I think I have a slightly better understanding of where her criticisms of other women writers might be coming from. This is not an unadventurous book, and not a quiet one, either. It exults. There are stories about the everyday world (a visit to an art gallery), about the bizarre (seeing Death at a railway station, falling in love with a tree), even one ghost story (a Scottish pipe band of ghosts, in fact); what binds them together is the energy and verve with which they are told. Smith's prose fizzes--informal, naturalistic, striking, free-associational, finding beauty in unexpected places--but what strikes you most of all is the delight she takes in (re)creating a world made of stories.

'The Universal Story', which opens the collection, could be a mission statement. The title is ironic; if you hadn't guessed from the contradictory overall title of the book, the opening lines make it pretty clear:
There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.

Well, no, okay, it wasn't always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.

Though, to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words:

There was once a woman who lived by a cemetery. Every morning when she woke up she looked out of her back window and saw--

Actually, no. There was once a woman who lived by--no, in--a second-hand bookshop. (1)
Every act of storytelling is an act of exclusion. The bookshop, once we get to it, turns out to be the real centre of this story, or at least a moment in the life of the bookshop does. But it's not the whole story or the universal story; it can't be. The bookshop owner, a man buying a 1974 edition of The Great Gatsby, the book itself, a fly sitting on the book, and the woman the man is buying the book for all take a turn in the spotlight, Smith showing us how every participant in a moment came to be there.

The woman the man is buying the book for is an artist (his sister, in fact), given to making boats out of unusual materials, such as flowers. Noodling around for a new project, she hits on the idea of making a similarly ephemeral boat out of copies of The Great Gatsby. For the artist, the reasons for that particular choice are obvious (So we beat on, she'd said. Boats against the current. Borne back ceaselessly into the past. Get it? (10)); for Smith's story, the reason seems to be an argument about the partialness of stories. Gatsby is a Great American Novel ... but it is no more universal--cannot be more universal--than any other story. None of the stories in 'The Universal Story' quite begin or end, but that's the point: every story we know or tell is made from the loose ends of the stories we don't.

For Smith, acknowledging that is important. It's not as explicit in most of the other stories in the collection, but it informs all of them. It's in the juxtaposition of bookshop customers in 'Gothic'; it's in a story like 'The Book Club', with its ramble through the corridors of memory. It's in the narrator of 'Erosive', whose first action is to ask, "What do you need to know about me for this story?" (115) And it's in the viewpoints Smith uses, which, when they're not first-person, are dizzyingly omniscient, swinging (in, for example, 'Paradise') with complete control from a wide-angle view of a Scottish town to the individual stories of three sisters who live in it, and back out again. And somehow, amid all the pyrotechnics, Smith still creates people you care about and events you remember.

There are several stories, for example, couched as dialogues between lovers. The characters are stripped of all identifying features: there is only a 'you' and an 'I'. Half-way through each of these stories, everything flips, and the you becomes the I, and the I becomes the you. What captivates is the way these stories are portrayals of the limits of intimacy and trust in relationships. The protagonists test their boundaries, and test each other. My favourite of these stories is the most romantic (although perhaps it doesn't seem so at first glance), 'Believe Me':
I am, I said. Don't you believe me?

You're not having an affair, you said behind me.

Actually, no, you're right, I said. I'm not having an affair. It's not an affair, it's much more than an affair. Actually I'm married to a man you've never met with whom I have three children you don't know about.

Ah, you said. (137)
The resolution of the story is note-perfect. But what really strikes me about it (and the other similar stories) is how their form strengthens their impact. One obvious thing is how it affects reader-identification; the absence of gender markers in most of them means that often, it's impossible to tell whether you're reading about a man and a woman, or two women, or two men. So we impose our own preconceptions, and that's always fun. But more than that, I find the way it's couched--'you said'--powerful. 'Believe Me' is a memory I've forgotten but want to remember.

Some of Smith's experiments, inevitably, fail and, of course, some of them won't work for everyone. I had to laugh at the 'review consensus' stated on this page: "Fairly impressed, if not always clear as to what she's up to"--although perhaps the most intriguing comment quoted there is the one by Liz Jensen, from a review in the Independent (no link):
But will you have read any stories? Not stories where things happen, not stories with beginnings and middles and all that palaver. You will have read Writing, much funny, some poignant, all of it deeply, militantly unusual; a series of surreal, loosely connected fragments which somehow manage to inspire delight as well as irritation.
Perhaps she's right; perhaps these aren't really stories. But reading The Whole Story and Other Stories, you get a clear sense of why Smith might be frustrated with work that doesn't take risks, or with too many stories that know only their own existence. Her own writing is constantly exploring, constantly finding new things to say and ways to say it. In 'The Heat of the Story', three women, mostly drunk, go to Midnight Mass, get thrown out, and tell each other stories in the cold of the early morning. 'This is true, I swear it,' they say. And it is; they all are, for certain values of 'true'. But the game can never end. Perhaps, at the end of this book, you won't have read any stories, but you'll have a better sense of the shape of the world. And that, in itself, is a satisfying thing.
She starts walking, anywhere, she doesn't know where.

The street is deserted, except for a man coming towards her on the other side of the road. He is out walking two small Jack Russell dogs in the dark at three o'clock on Christmas morning.

There's a story in that, she thinks as they pass each other by.

It's too dark to see his face. Merry Christmas, love, he calls across the road to her. Have a good one.

The words are full of thaw.

Merry Christmas, she tells him back. All the best. (192-3)
Other reviews:
Rachel Cusk in the Guardian.
Julie Myerson in the Telegraph.
Ann Cummins in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Interview by Jeannette Winterson: here.
Other interviews: here and here.
Another story: here.
EDIT: Christmas story here.
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I think I am jealous of anyone who was reading science fiction before 1976. [1]

I'm jealous because I wish I could have read the stories in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever without a legend leaning over my shoulder. It would have meant I could have read most of them twice: once before knowing that James Tiptree Jnr was Alice Sheldon, and once after. As it is, only the second reading was available to me. And I'm jealous because I want that moment of realisation. I want to know how I would react. Whether I would be Robert Silverberg, egg-on-face after insisting that Tiptree's writing was 'ineluctably masculine', or whether I would have been more agnostic. As it is, I can't ever know.

And I want to know because some of these stories are without question some of the most important--the most worth thinking about--in the science fiction canon. Oh, some of them have undeniably dated. The central image to which 'A Momentary Taste of Being' builds, for example, is striking, but it's also absurd; it's hard to read it with a modern eye, and impossible to imagine a modern writer carrying the same idea off with a straight face, except possibly at a much shorter length. But for the most part, even the ways in which the stories have dated are interesting. You can see science fiction changing before your eyes, as you read, from the pulps to the new wave. The conflict is almost literal in stories like 'And So On, And So On', and 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' but the threads are there throughout, even in the devastating critique of exogamy embedded in 'And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side.'

Of course, this is not primarily science fiction about science fiction. In fact, the extent to which Tiptree used classic sf ideas was a surprise to me. I bought the reissued Her Smoke Rose Up Forever at the end of 2004 and had, until recently, only read four stories from it, and they hadn't been representative. (I wasn't going so slowly because I didn't want to read the book, but because I was reluctant to have read the book. Either the stories couldn't possibly live up to the hype (although just about every time I read one it turned out to be very good), or they would, and then I wouldn't have the book to look forward to any more.) They were, for want of a better phrase, respectable science fiction. Stories like 'The Women Men Don't See', 'The Screwfly Solution', 'The Last Flight of Doctor Ain'--set in the world, focusing on human reactions in the more-or-less here and now.

Half the stories in this collection, though, while not as outright bizarre as 'A Momentary Taste of Being', are about as brazenly science fictional as you could ask for. I think I was most surprised by the number of stories with an almost Stapledonian perspective, skipping across time like stones across water; and though 'She Waits For All Men Born' didn't do a lot for me, I suspect the final, vivd images of 'The Man Who Walked Home' and 'Her Smoke Rose Up Forever' (the future folding down into the present) will be with me for a while yet. And there are stories told completely from an alien perspective, too: 'Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death' with its excitable, oblivious narrator, hurtling towards his end; and, more succesfully, 'We Who Stole The Dream', which flirts with parable and allegory without ever committing to either.

And the intensity of them! Tiptree tells her stories with a force, with a ruthless conviction that leaves much contemporary short sf looking distinctly anemic. Perhaps Lucius Shepard can match her in this regard, but perhaps he also has less range. Tiptree's themes--biology and society, intelligence and instinct, men and women--recur, but her visions are extravagant. And somehow, for all that most of the stories end with death, or decline, or loss, it is not, finally, a bleak collection. There is that feeling you seem to get only from science fiction, that humanity is a small part of a vast and uncaring universe, but that the passion of life is what makes it worth living, on its own terms. The extraordinary penultimate story, 'Slow Music', captures this best: at the end, we are told, 'mortal grief fought invading transcendence.' Tiptree makes the words more than dramatic rhetoric.

Best and worst stories? The weakest are the ones that are obviously the work of a beginner--'The Last Flight of Doctor Ain', ambitious beyond its means--or have lost their context, and therefore their relevance. 'A Momentary Taste of Being' is one of these, as mentioned, as is the overlong and overmanipulative 'With Delicate Mad Hands'; they are stories whose anger is directed at targets already mostly demolished. The strongest are, by and large, the ones that everyone already knows. There's the familiar, pitiable, unconsciously prejudiced viewpoint of the narrator in 'The Women Men Don't See', which serves as the most economic articulation of some of Tiptree's central arguments. There's the intense cynicism of 'The Screwfly Solution', and the firecracker writing (and unexpected poignancy) of 'The Girl Who Was Plugged In'. But even beyond the award winners there are important stories. 'And I Awoke And Found Me Here On The Cold Hill's Side' is chilling in its simplicity, manifold in its implications; 'Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled Of Light!' is harrowing. To complain too much, or to argue that these are the favourites everyone should have, just seems mean.

And there's probably my favourite story in the collection, 'Houston, Houston, Do You Read?' in which three astronauts are cast from Then into the Future, where they encounter a woman-only world (men having been killed in a plague). Elsewhere, [livejournal.com profile] immortalradical said that:
The society developed by the women in 'Houston, Houston' is fascistic, sterile and myopic, yes. It has become obsessed both with purity and the Greater Good, and is not particularly interested in individual identity, exploration or new knowledge except in so far as it contributes to that Greater Good. When something turns up that is perceived to throw a spanner in the works of that unity and purity, it is treated with initial fascination, its useful sperm characteristics taken and assimilated, and the individuals concerned exterminated.

The fact that our narrator, having seen his friends degraded, dehumanised and manipulated, and having realised that there is no free place in such a society for him, willingly goes along with his murder is hardly an argument in favour of that society.

Let it be noted he liked the story, for demonstrating that women and men are as bad as each other. And admittedly, individual reactions to a story like this will vary; it's a mark of how skillfully Tiptree asks questions about gender and power. But to me, his reading seems a little lazy, and almost offensively wrongheaded. The society in 'Houston, Houston' is not obsessed with purity or the Greater Good; and I'm not claiming it as a utopia, but it's certainly not fascistic. It is, simply, a society that works tolerably well but that has no place for men--more, in fact: it is a society to which men are inimical. The astronauts are not perceived to throw a spanner in the works; they do throw a spanner in the works, just by existing. The women of 'Houston, Houston' do not need men to love, or for anything else. They don't hate men, either, and they certainly don't fear them. In fact, they're not missing much of anything. (Is there a reason they should, do you think?) There are some hints that their society is less vital and expansionist than it would otherwise be, but those are not inherently bad things, and their world is also clearly less conflict-riven world than our own (although part of that is likely to be simply that the population is much smaller than ours currently is). But the presence of men would inevitably destroy the society that has been created in their absence, and something worse would take its place.

The strength and the tragedy of the story, for me, then, is in just how comprehensively irrelevant men are, and that the narrator--clearly the most balanced of the astronauts, despite the unreliability of his perspective--has the self-awareness to realise the damage his life would cause and, while lamenting, face up to the consequences of it. It's not a question of refusing to recognise difference; it's that coexistence is not possible without one or other party being shackled. Is that a bleak view of the relationship between the sexes? Hell yes. In 'Houston, Houston', men and women are literally aliens to each other. Do I believe in it? No, and I don't think Tiptree did either. But to assume the premise makes for an extraordinarily powerful and provocative story.

As are many of the rest. It's unfair to compare a retrospective like Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (Michael Swanwick's introduction calls it 'a partial corrective') to most other collections I've read. The stories here are the pick of just twelve extraordinary years. But I'll say this: if you haven't read these stories, you need to--if only to argue with them.

[1] And there’s a moment of perspective for you. I had unconsciously assumed that, as it would today, the news of Tiptree’s identity had flashed around the sf community in the space of a day. But of course, no: we’re talking letters and fanzines, not the internet. 'Everything But The Signature Is Me', in Meet Me At Infinity, is compiled from letters between November 1976 and 1977; in his introduction to Her Smoke Rose Up Forever Clute uses 1977 (because it was the '77 Worldcon where it was hot news?); in In The Chinks of the World Machine Lefanu uses 1976.
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It’s a truism that in the science fiction community the borders between fan and writer and critic and editor are relatively fluid. And so, curious about the borders, and about the roles I'm probably not going to play, I found myself reading Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller, an unusual, amiable little writing manual masquerading as a memoir. Or possibly it’s the other way around.

It is, in part, the story of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Clarion is the most prestigious and well-known workshop in the sf field: a six-week summer academy at Michigan State University (Lucius Shepard apparently called it a boot camp) for aspiring writers. Alumni include a significant proportion of the most lauded writers in the modern field: Kim Stanley Robinson, Kelly Link, Bruce Sterling, Octavia Butler, and many more. The format is simple. Each week for the first four weeks there’s a different writer in residence (for the last fortnight there’s a two-writer tag team). Every morning there are group critique sessions; every afternoon and evening there is writing, and individual conferences with the instructors, and socialising.

Wilhelm and her husband, Damon Knight, were the anchor team for those final two weeks for the best part of three of the four decades for which Clarion has been existence. And so Storyteller explains how the workshop started, how it struggled, how the two of them got involved, and what they taught, enlivened by anecdotes. At the risk of alienating a fairly large chunk of the people reading this, I’ve always been a little sceptical about the cult of the storyteller--Writers are special flowers and writing is a mystical, magical process!--that workshops seem to encourage. Too, the whole enterprise feels semi-mythological; there have been other incarnations (Clarion West; Clarion South, in Australia) but to date, no European spinoff has been successful, so the stories that filter out have a faraway feel to them. On the other hand, perhaps there’s an element of jealousy--if not specifically for the writing aspect, for the element of community that seems to go with it, and the implausibility of ever being able to take that much time off work in one go (or of being able to find sufficient money to make it feasible). But Clarion doesn't seem to be particularly a bastion of privilege, so it must be possible to go if you’re prepared to give up enough. (When they do something similar for critics, you know I'll be there.)

If I wanted to criticise, I could point to the strange sense of cosiness that permeates the book. Few of the anecdotes have names attached; they just happened to nameless students, adding to the general air of clubbiness (insiders, of course, will know who she’s talking about … right?). But you can see why Wilhelm does it--naming names would make the bluntness of the lessons sting that much harder, possibly even seem vindictive, and since the other main element of the book is too dispense writerly wisdom, it would be a counterproductive thing to do.

With the wisdom comes the other easy criticism: that Clarion teaches conformity; that it teaches how to produce saleable fiction, not art; that it’s responsible for too much mediocrity in the short fiction market. Of course that’s a false criticism too, because art can’t be taught, because editors will buy what they will. And moreover (as Wilhelm and Knight realised early on) some things about fiction surely can be taught. What Clarion really teaches, perhaps, is how to break into the market; how to display the basic competence that will earn the trust that allows a writer to experiment. And while it’s easy (as a layman) to quibble with some of the advice, to debate whether stories really have to follow all the rules, some of the other injunctions are beautifully acute. Some are specific to science fiction; most are surely generally applicable. My favourite observation is the definition of style: ‘how each writer solves individual problems of translating nonverbal material into verbal material’.

Most importantly, what is impossible to deny is that Clarion works. And in the end, the book works too. It gets under all my defenses. It’s a slice of history, a picture of the community, a piece of the conversation. And more than that, it engenders respect: for Wilhelm’s perceptiveness, and her compassion, but most of all her commitment to honesty. There is excessive candour in these pages, from years before John Clute formalised the sentiment. Somewhere (I didn’t note the page, for once; I was too engrossed in the reading, which should tell you something in itself) Wilhelm observes that anecdotes don’t make a story. Her own book just about proves that that rule is no more set in stone than any of the others.
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A little over two years ago, a brilliant short story by Kevin Brockmeier, called 'The Brief History of the Dead', appeared in the New Yorker. The story is at once a tour of the city of the dead and a dramatisation of how we give life to those we remember. Both the layout of the city and its population are in flux over time. They live as shadows, their life apparently dependent on who is left in the real world to think of them; when the last person to remember you dies, you leave the city, moving on to some other unknown place. Through the story, Brockmeier builds up a collage out of striking details and an everyday sensibility--this is not heaven, but something more mundane. And the situation is set against some unknown catastrophe occurring in our world: at first the city is flooded with newly dead, but later, and more affectingly, the population dwindles.

The story got a reasonable amount of notice, from both inside and outside the genre. It got reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection, and Warner Bros. quickly snapped up the film rights. The first of those events was not terribly surprising; the latter was a bit surprising, because 'The Brief History of the Dead', as memorable as it is, is not a story that would seem to lend itself to adaptation for film. Things become slightly clearer, however, when you discover that the story is the first chapter of a slightly less brilliant, but still notable, novel with the same title, due to be published next February, and that the novel introduces an additional plot strand: the last days of possibly the last human alive.

The human in question is Laura Byrd, and her last days are spent in Antarctica. She made the trip for business, not pleasure; the Coca-Cola Corporation sent a small team of people to look into the possibility of using polar ice in the manufacture of their drinks. Along with Laura, ostensibly the wildlife specialist, they sent Michael Puckett, as a polar specialist, and Robert Joyce, as a soft drink specialist. In the middle of their trip, however, they lose contact with the outside world; and in the face of dwindling supplies, Puckett and Joyce decide to make a trip to a nearby scientific research outpost to ask for help. After several weeks, they haven't returned, and Laura is starting to be faced with the prospect of making the same journey herself, alone. There are elements of satire here, notably in the portrayal of the Coca-Cola Corporation. Fresh Antarctic water is the least outrageous of the marketing schemes we learn about; it transpires that one of the reasons they're investigating the option at all is because there have been bioterrorism scars about contaminated water supplies, and that to capitalise this Coca-Cola has been employing good-looking men and women to strike up conversation with people drinking water in bars and restaurants, and ask them, "Wouldn't you feel safer drinking a Coke?"

But for the most part this is a quiet, understated novel. The Brief History of the Dead alternates between chapters focusing on Laura's progress, and chapters further exploring the city and its inhabitants. In Laura's chapters, we gradually learn that we are somewhere in the middle of this century, and that a probably-man-made pandemic is killing or has killed everyone else on the planet. In the city's chapters--and they are the city's chapters, because few of the characters we meet in them appear twice--we gradually see all the people from Laura's life, everyone she remembers, mixing and mingling. It's the ultimate in small world syndrome, full of the snap of connections recognised or forged. The novel's great strength is the way both threads are driven by memory, examining both what we choose to remember (the good or the bad) and how we remember it (consciously, or involuntarily; in this regard, and in some others, it makes an interesting comparison with Umberto Eco's Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana) In the cold emptiness of Antarctica, Laura has little to do but remember, and in the city, everyone is soon only too aware that they exist at all because Laura is still alive, and that sooner or later that is going to change. They are, as one character notes, a city of insomniacs; people waiting to dream.

As a result, it has to be said, the city is more interesting than Laura, whose eventual fate is never in doubt. This may be a personal quirk. Certainly John Murray seem to think so; my proof copy declares that 'the remarkable story of Laura Byrd's final days will be one of the most talked about novels of 2006', and only barely mentions the city or its many and varied inhabitants. But the Antarctica she travels across feels flat and generic--or to put it another way, Kevin Brockmeier doesn't have Kim Stanley Robinson's gift for conveying a sense of place; for all its flaws, Antarctica remains the definitive portrait of the continent in my mind--while the city and its inhabitants are endlessly fascinating.

We get glimpses of the people Laura has known--old school friends, lovers, or just people that she passed on the street every day--during her journey, but it's in the city that we get to know them. Puckett and Joyce are there, for instance; so is a retired journalist who decides to set up the city's only newspaper. Most of the book's most moving passages examine the inhabitants of the city coming to terms with their situation. They have lost the people that Laura never met; and forging new connections is a tentative, hesitant process, because their entire existence demonstrates, in a way that we normally choose to forget, that we can never know all of someone else's stories. The flipside of connection, after all, is isolation. So perhaps it's not fair to consider the two strands separately. Laura gives life to the city; she is large, and contains multitudes. But in a way, Laura is the shadow, and it is her memories that are truly alive.

Vellum

Sep. 15th, 2005 08:14 pm
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My travel reading over the past week has been Hal Duncan's debut novel, Vellum. It's a book which has been attracting a fairly significant amount of attention in the sf world, and it's also getting a big marketing push from Pan Macmillan (the proof copies, from a limited run of 600, are things of beauty). You can read a very short extract here, and a slightly more substantial one here.

Vellum is a tale of War in Heaven. The vellum itself, we are told, is the substrate of existence, on which our own world is but a scratch. The story of Vellum encompasses a good number of these worlds and a good number of characters. It's a swirling, nonlinear, hopscotch of a plot that it would be a nightmare, or a fool's errand, to try to describe. One character suggests that it would be too much to ask for cohesion, and that the best you can hope for is comprehensiveness. So far, so Big Fat Epic (indeed, this is Book One of Two). What sets Vellum apart is the ambition of Duncan's project, and the verve and confidence of his writing; he has described it as 'a superhero comic strip about the war in heaven, written by James Joyce, drawn by Picasso and soundtracked by The Stooges'.

The quality of the writing is easy to demonstrate. Duncan writes fluidly, and often strikingly:
'He sings of the vast void and of seeds, of shatterings and scatterings and gatherings, of seeds of earth and air and sea and flickerings of flecks, the flash, the flux of fire' (242)
He recreates a range of times and spaces--the trenches of the Somme, a dusty trailer-town in the American midwest, a pulpy alternate world not a million miles from Sky Captain's world of tomorrow--and populates them with iconic, almost aggressively cool, images. He gets under the skin of his characters, and demonstrates an acute understanding of human nature. Indeed, with such a sprawl of settings, it's the characters that hold this book together. Most of them are (whether they realise it or not) unkin, more than human, with the ability to see the nature of reality, and the power to shape and define it; but they are also, in Duncan's hands, people.

The overall project, it seems to me, is also easy to describe, but almost impossible to assess until the followup, Ink, arrives next year. What I think Duncan is trying to do is present a Grand Unified Theory of Story. The vellum is 'the media of reality itself, the blank page on which everything is written, on which anything could be written' (42). The worlds of Vellum are written worlds, storied worlds, and the characters of Vellum are characters we know. Phreedom Messenger is Anna is Inanna is Ishtar; Seamus Finnigan is Shamash is Prometheus is Sammael. Jack Carter is Jerry Cornelius is Jumping Jack Flash is ... you get the idea (one of the most impressive aspects of the novel is the way Duncan unwinds his characters as events progress, revealing their archetypes and antecedents). Their stories are ancient, and provide Vellum with much of its substance. Sumerian myths are remixed with works by Virgil and Aeschylus--and more than that, are remixed with everything and anything Duncan can think of: there are references to Moorcock (obviously) and Bradbury, Lovecraft and Joyce, and many more. In the vellum, every tale ever told, from every genre ever considered, is equally true, and equally mutable.
--Everything's real, said Jack. Everything is true; nothing is permitted.

-- I thought, that's a quote. I thought, I recognise it, but I couldn't place it and it didn't sound quite right. (24)
There's a question here about whether the novel ever becomes more than the sum of its parts--echoes of stories are not, after all, the same thing as stories--but that doesn't stop Duncan using this baseline to make wider points about the artificiality of categorisation, whether by gender or by race or by sexuality or by anything else. To be bad in this book is to divide, to discriminate, to separate--or to try to remake the world into a single narrative. The world can only be understood as the world.

But it's in this area, in its larger construction, that I think the book starts to run into trouble. For one thing, Vellum is so big and messy that it is also patchy. Sometimes it feels bloated; sometimes repetitive. For another, at least for me, by the end of the book the most striking thing about the vellum is not that it feels big; it's that it feels small. Part of this is simply the fact that the conceits involved are so vast and hyperbolic--an ultimate war, on infinite worlds, between gods--that we become desensitised. Duncan clearly knows this is a risk; one character, travelling across the vellum, confides that
'I am getting rather blase about the scale of things here in the vellum, I fear; it's all rather gauche and grandiose for my liking, like the arms-race conversations of children when they degenerate to the level of infinity-times-infinity and infinity-squared and infinity-to-the-power-of-infinity, so there!' (423)
But I think there are other parts to the problem, and that they're more fundamental.

Every world of the vellum is recognisable as a version of Earth. More or less distorted, it's true--the world's inhabitants may have wings or tails, for example--but still identifiable. The reason for this is that reality, in Vellum, is a human-created thing. This is a novel about the unlimited reach of human imagination; the God of Gods may be the Author (which is why, incidentally, I might argue that it's not New Weird (if that term still has any meaning at all). It doesn't trust its fantasy enough, doesn't give it enough independent existence). But in fact, the more I read of the book the more limited the vellum seemed. I kept thinking of the prologue of Stephen Baxter's novel Time:
In the afterglow of the Big Bang, humans spread in waves across the universe, sprawling and brawling and breeding and dying and evolving. There were wars, there was love, there was life and death. Minds flowed together in great rivers of consciousness, or shattered in sparkling droplets. There was immortality to be had, of a sort, a continuity of identity through replication and confluence across billions upon billons of years.

Everywhere they found life.

Nowhere did they find mind - save what they brought with them or created - no other against which human advancement could be tested. (5)
Time is the first in a loose series of stories, known as the Manifold sequence, that feature the same characters in different worlds. Baxter's reason for this is practical more than thematic--he wants a theoretical playground in which he can alter one variable, namely the answer to the Fermi paradox, and then generate a story--and his portrayal of infinity and eternity is just as much a word-built illusion as Duncan's. But the emptiness that so haunts Time is also there in Vellum; and because it is unacknowledged, it diminishes the novel. Something as vast as Duncan tells us the vellum is should not be bounded by human concerns, or should at least be capable of imagining outside them, but that never seems to be the case. If you like, it's a question of infinities--a question which Duncan is clearly aware of, since he describes it in the novel. Human imagination may be infinite, but the universe can contain an infinite amount of thinking beings; aleph-one, rather than aleph-null.

If this paradox is meant to be obvious, if it's meant to be a dissonance at the heart of the novel, then I tip my hat to the author. But it didn't seem that way to me; indeed, it felt uncomfortably parochial. And I worry, too, that it may be an unavoidable consequence of the book's style. Vellum cries out for a genuine glimpse of the infinite, some sense of perspective; but the tightly focused, frequently shifting (modernist) viewpoints that Duncan writes in never allow that scaling-out to take place. I said it was difficult to assess Vellum at this stage, and that seems true to me; but I can't help thinking that where it wants to be vast, and contain multitudes, it instead is oddly empty, and tells only part of the story.

Other takes:
[livejournal.com profile] peake, here.
[livejournal.com profile] kellyshaw, here.
Cheryl Morgan, here.
Lawrence Osborn, here.
John Clute, here.

UPDATE: Matt Cheney's review of From the Files of the Time Rangers by Richard Bowes makes an interesting comparison with some of what I said above:
Epic stories of time travel, particularly ones that try to roam through various parallel universes, are doomed to failure almost from the outset, because in trying to capture so much they highlight all that is, inevitably, left out. I couldn't help but wonder while reading From the Files of the Time Rangers, for instance, why the characters were so focused on the United States, why their world was one essentially created by Europe, why the few references to the Middle East were all of threat and strife, why Africa and South America seemed to lie outside the timestream. These thoughts are unfair to use as criticisms, because a writer can only write so much, and the secret of art is to produce a panorama from a keyhole.

Perhaps failure is the wrong word -- certainly, doom is. Rather, the success of an epic time travel story lies in its ability to make us feel the vast universe beyond us, and that success shows itself in small moments, tiny seconds when the depth of the past seems to open wide, and all the chances of an infinity of beginnings appear, against all odds, to be comprehensible. Such moments occur more than once in From the Files of the Time Rangers, and they are worth savoring.
It's exactly those glimpses of infinity that I think are missing from Vellum.
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Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham's latest novel, is another one of those mainstream-writers-does-sf books. Not dissimilar in structure to Cloud Atlas, it's made of three stories: one set in 1850, one in the present or very near future, and one in about 2150. The same three characters--or at least the same three souls--crop up in each: Catherine, a woman; Lucas, a boy; and Simon, a man. Each takes a turn as the viewpoint. And as with his previous novel, The Hours, a Literary Figure--Walt Whitman, this time--links the three stories.

There was an interesting and, I think, perceptive review by Michel Faber in the Guardian earlier this month:
Is Specimen Days a novel, or three novellas loosely threaded together? This is just one of the many genre disputes in which this book can become ensnared. The opening story tackles historical fiction, the second takes on the detective thriller genre, the third is science fiction. To many critics in Cunningham's native America, this represents a three-stage journey from the sublime to the ridiculous. "Science fiction will never be Literature with a capital L," the New York Times has loftily declared (apropos of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake), and Specimen Days is encountering similar flak.

[...]

Granted, Specimen Days declines in quality as it goes along. "In the Machine" is a pitch-perfect fusion of gothic melodrama, psychological realism and the mysterious spark that enlivens unforced visions. "The Children's Crusade" builds to a potent ending, but its marriage of profound compassion and cop-show clichés is unstable. "Like Beauty" handles Catareen's alienness with marvellous empathy but is bogged down by the usual demerits of mainstream science fiction: creaky expository monologues about how the future came to be, cringe-making references to people taking a "dermaslough" or hydraulicking their pods, and worship of concepts at the expense of narrative credibility. The wisecracking Luke seems derived from a Hollywood buddy movie, reciting impossibly adult repartee, and the somewhat kitsch finale fails to do justice to the book's overarching ambition.

And yet, while reading "Like Beauty" I was conscious that, had I read it in a sci-fi anthology when I was 15, I would have been awestruck by it, moved beyond tears, changed for ever. Today, I'm sufficiently sophisticated to notice the author wrestling with his material, struggling to beat it into a shape that looks natural, straining to make its hokeyness transcendent. If the aim of reading good books is to be transported, it would be better if we never developed this jaundiced analytical eye, but sadly we do. And perhaps the fiction Cunningham is attempting here is pitched at a reader who doesn't exist: an adolescent who can leap straight from Star Wars to Henry James, or an adult steeped in Woolf and Whitman who nevertheless retains a childlike capacity to be moved by X-Men 2.
It's particularly interesting to compare this review to Paul Witcover's review for SF Weekly, which declares that the book 'builds to a conclusion of mythic proportions, deeply poignant, mysterious, full of hope and longing amid devastation and despair, like Whitman's poetry, like America itself.' How unusual to see the newspaper reviewer criticising 'the usual demerits of mainstream science fiction' while the sf-mag reviewer hails the book as 'a masterpiece'.

Personally, I agree more with Faber than with Witcover--I think the sf is frankly shoddy, and I don't know that even 15-year-old-me would have enjoyed it much--but I'd probably go even further. Faber notes that Cunningham's characters are 'grieved by life's unaccountable refusal to measure up to ideals'; what stuck in my craw about the book was that it seemed to be suggesting that the failure of world is not unaccountable. Rather, that it is industrialisation and progress that have poisoned the well, and that the solution should be, in some unspecified fashion, to go back. Given that, and the fact that the central novella, 'The Children's Crusade', makes so much of terrorism as a symptom of our dystopian present, there is a temptation to read the book as a simplistic overreaction to 9/11. That may be unkind to Cunningham, however. Mostly, I just found it bizarre--and disappointing, because the first two stories are well worth reading.

There's also an interview with Cunningham here. Interesting quote:
"The more I write, the more I also feel that in this vast and dangerous world, one story just isn't enough the way it was for Austen or Eliot. So in my last two books I've told three stories; in the next there'll be even more". It keeps multiplying? "It does. I think I'll have to keep going until every sentence is a different story and then I'll have to stop," he laughs.

Saturday

Jul. 22nd, 2005 06:36 pm
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There is a moment, in the first thirty pages or so of Saturday, where possibility hangs in the air. Waking before dawn, Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, sees a flaming ball moving across the London skyline. Because this is 2003, and in particular that famous February Saturday of the anti-war protests, he jumps to an obvious and disquieting conclusion about the ball's nature and cause. But on the news there is nothing; and there is an hypernatural clarity to Perowne's vision that suggests, for a few moments, that it might not be real at all. That it might be a dream, or something else.

The moment collapses, of course. It must: Ian McEwan's novel is not about the uncertainty of the world, it's about the reality of the world, and how that reality impacts on our lives. On the other hand, the moment is deliberate, and important, because it has a consequence. When Henry discovers that the flaming aircraft, though real, was only a freight plane that had suffered an electrical failure, he cringes inwardly. He's embarrassed, as much as anything because the world caught him out, tricked him into engaging in flights of fancy. Henry is a staunch rationalist, a dedicated materialist. He doesn't have much time for dreams--'that this should be real,' he thinks, 'is a richer possibility' (p2). One of the most impressive aspects of the novel is how thoroughly Henry's beliefs colour his perceptions (in that he is interestingly reminiscent of, though less extreme than, Frank Vanderwal, the evolutionary biologist in Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain).

In fact, he has little time for art in general. His daughter Daisy, an up-and-coming poet, is shocked at his lack of literary appreciation, and feeds him books in an attempt to compensate. To Henry, however, they all seem trivial, claiming to present truths that are obvious to any observant soul. Not to mention that 'the times are strange enough. Why make things up?' (p66) (Of course his most vehement disapproval is reserved for magic realists, who Daisy studied in her final year at university: 'What were authors of reputation doing--grown men and women of the twentieth century--granting supernatural powers to their characters?' (p67)) No, as far as Henry is concerned, the reality he sees every day in the operating theatre has shown him more of life and humanity than a dozen literatures ever could.

The irony in this is obvious, because McEwan's latest novel is exactly about the abilities and limitations of literature as a means of examining the state of the world. To do this while being set on a single day, and being about a single man, it is deliberately and consciously designed. It has to be; as Henry notes, real life is not as convenient as fiction. The sense of artifice in Saturday is strong. Time stretches ('a second can be a long time in introspection', p80). Every incident in Henry's day has a significance beyond itself. Even his family is contrived, too good to be true--ridiculously privileged, absurdly talented (in addition to his own career, and Daisy's, Henry's son, Theo, is a young star of the Blues scene), and possessed, of course, of differing opinions on the looming matter of Iraq. When the climax of the novel occurs, his only thought to begin with is 'of course. It makes sense. Nearly all the elements of his day are assembled.' (p206)

Because of these things--the narrow focus, and Henry's refusal to imagine outside his own experience--there is a strong sense that a shadow hangs over the book. Everything happens in a political context; yet in one sense, it is not a strongly political novel. Henry himself is overwhelmingly ambivalent on the matter of Iraq. He's not for war but, having treated an escapee from Saddam's regime, he is not 'for peace and torture', either. When debating with his consultant anaesthetist, Jay Strauss, a genial American, Henry assumes the position of Dove; when arguing with his daughter, he finds himself becoming a Hawk. The book rehearses the familiar arguments, but never offers a firm opinion of its own. It comes close only once. Early in the day Henry has a confrontation with Baxter, an angry, unwell, unstable man; later in the day, Baxter seeks revenge. Henry muses that 'he used or misused his authority to avoid one crisis, and his actions have steered him into another, far worse. The responsibility is his' (p211). It's surely not reading too much into this to see elements of the West's responsibility in creating Saddam Hussein's regime, but at the same time the parallels are inexact, and there is plenty of room to argue that Henry is not responsible.

Perhaps, instead of being a political novel, it's a novel about engagement with politics, or a novel about political awakening. For Theo, the perilous state of the world is normal. It's what was all around him when he came of age; white noise. For Daisy, questions of right and wrong are clear and unaccountably ignored by the men running the world. Henry's own musings on global affairs are prompted by the march, and by occasional reappearances of his downed freight plane on tv screens; despite the fact that he is not deliberately engaged with the issues of the day, he cannot avoid them. And if the fantastic never makes the appearance that the opening pages suggest, however fleetingly, that it might, the appearance of the unexpected is certainly crucial to the book. Henry and his family are confronted with terror and it is, in a sense, imagination--though not Henry's--that saves the day. And it is, we suspect, a good thing that in the closing pages we start to see the neurosurgeon accept speculation as a natural part of his thoughts.

Saturday is an intriguing book. It is unarguably a novel of its time--whether it will still be as exciting in ten or even five years is very much up for debate--but within its own ambitions, it is largely a success. And yet, a day after turning the final page, I'm sitting here slightly uncertain about what the point of it all was. It wants to argue, I think, that fiction can be a tool for debate, a theatre for argument, a mirror to reflect current events. These are not things I disagree with. But there is a lingering suspicion in my mind that it is too comfortable; too unchallenging; not bold enough. The phrase that I heard China Mieville coin a couple of years ago--'premium middlebrow'--is circling this review. Is Saturday truly a good book?

Ask me in six months.

Other reviews:
[livejournal.com profile] peake here and here (which also points to this, very political, reading).
Tim Adams in The Observer.
Peter Kemp in The Sunday Times.
Caroline Moore in The Telegraph.
Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times.
Allen Barra at Salon.
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Or, what I read on my holiday, by Niall Harrison (aged 25 and one day).

I hadn't planned to read Eco on my holiday; ok, so I prefer my fiction challenging, but my one previous encounter with Eco, The Name of the Rose, was sufficiently intellectually daunting that I wouldn't normally consider him for a relaxing read (especially since I was only going for a few days). I'd planned to re-read Kim Stanley Robinson's beautiful and moving novel of utopia, Pacific Edge, something I've been looking for an excuse to return to for months, and a perfect vacation novel if ever there was one. But as fate had it, my flight was delayed, and browsing the WH Smith's bookshop at Gatwick's North Terminal I discovered a two-for-twenty deal on trade paperback editions. I ended up coming away not just with The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, but also Ian McEwan's Saturday; I only had time on the trip for the former, but it was time well-spent.

The novel starts with confusion. With a man, waking in hospital after an unspecified incident, who remembers fragments of something, but not his own name. His doctor doesn't immediately tell him--he wants to test the man's memory, work out the limits of his remembering--but soon enough we learn that the man is Yambo, husband of Paola, a sixty-something antiquarian book dealer who lives in Milan. The nature of his problem becomes clear, too: he has lost his episodic memory--lost everything related to him, all knowledge of his family and friends, lost the story of his life. All he has left is his semantic memory, the things he has learnt; the things he has read in books. The stories of others.

And since he's lived in and around books for the biggest part of his life, that's a lot of stories. It affects his behaviour; he has vast knowledge, and no experience. Yambo remembers words, but not sensations. He knows what others have said about the feeling of sun on skin, but he can't remember what it's like for himself. Everything he sees triggers connections. Half the time he talks in quotations and cliches, from literature high and low, new and old. In the absence of his own identity he becomes an archetype of the Protagonist, speculating what his story is and how he fits into it. His young assistant at his bookshop, for instance--what is his relationship to her? Surely not just an employer. Is he a mentor? A father-figure? A lover?

Before the incident, Yambo was fascinated by fog, as a device in fiction; now he can't remember why, and now he is lost in it himself. He tells his wife that he feels like a stuck record. He can learn everything new, but has no sense of his past; and, he tells her, 'you can only anticipate the future if you can call the past to mind.' So to rediscover himself he travels back to the place he grew up, to relive his youth as much as possible, by revisiting the stories he consumed then in the hope that he can blur the mental boundary between those narratives and his own. And sometimes, it works, or almost does. This is what he calls the luminous flame: something inside, like a tremor, like a revelation, like something outside his experience touching him (like, he says, the 2D beings in Edwin Abbot's flatland being confronted with a third dimension). But Paola is worried when, to entertain his grandchildren, he starts telling the stories as though they'd happened to him:
"If you're doing that to entertain the kids," she said, "that's one thing, but if not, then you're identifying too much with what you're reading, which is to say you're borrowing other people's memory. Are you clear about the distance between you and these stories?"

"Come on," I said, "I may be an amnesiac, but I'm not crazy. I do it for the kids!"

"Let's hope so," she said. "But you came to Solara to rediscover yourself, because you felt oppressed by an encyclopaedia full of Homer, Manzoni and Flaubert, and now you've entered the encyclopaedia of pulp literature. It's not a step forward."

"Yes it is," I replied, "first of all because Stevenson isn't pulp literature, and second because it's not my fault if the guy I'm trying to rediscover devoured pulp literature, and, finally, you're the very one, with that business about Clarabelle's treasure, who sent me here."

It's hard not to see the long middle section of the book, which consists almost entirely of reminiscence, as somewhat self-indulgent. There's a strong suspicion that Eco is, as much as anything, taking the chance to relive more than a few childhood memories of his own. But it's forgiveable, as are the points at which the momentum sags slightly, because the exploration of Yambo's personal and Italy's cultural history, all mixed up together, whether congruous to Eco's or not, is so often fascinating and vivid. The book-dealer's quest to recapture his youth is familiar and yet new; he sits, reading old school reports and newspapers, listening to old songs, trying to recreate a time past through patching together pieces of a culture gone, and imagining how ten-year-old him might have reacted. That many of his formative experiences in narrative turn out to be from pulpy adventure stories, or comic books, or similar sources, is strangely appropriate (and the consideration of those in their historical context is at times slightly reminiscent of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, albeit with a significant extra distance between the reader and the experience).

And this is where the book plays its trump card. The cover claims that this is an 'illustrated novel', and does so accurately. The text is decorated with pictures: book and album covers, magazine pictures, stamps, propaganda posters. Even a doodle of a melancholy-looking Napoleon, from the author's own hand. The cover gives some idea:



It is not in any sense a graphic novel; the pictures are not essential to the story, and they do not convey necessary information that is not in the text. But they do convey more information, enhancing the text, and bringing an extra level of richness to the proceedings that makes Yambo's quest more sympathetic and more comprehensible. Perhaps this is something Yambo himself instinctively understands--it's the idea that a picture can never be captured in words--and perhaps it's why he turns to images and sounds to help him understand the words cluttering his mind.

One image above all comes to obsess him, because it is more completely lost than any other: the image of his first love, Lila Saba, the girl who, it seems, dominated his thoughts and life for a good three of his teenage years, and possibly was a subconscious influence for far longer than that. The intensity of the search for a trace of Lila, and the revelations it brings, triggers a second, more serious incident, and in the final section of the book Yambo's situation reverses dramatically. No longer is he a mind trapped in the present, with no sense of the past. He becomes, fallen into a coma, or a dream, or maybe already dead, a mind with perfect recall, able to explore and understand the mysteries introduced by his earlier researches, one by one--including finally, he hopes, the memory of Lila.

Compared to The Name of the Rose, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona is easy going; as I said, good holiday material. Oh, there's still a strong vein of philosophical enquiry: questions about the interaction of high and low culture, about how memory informs our understanding of who we are. And about how children read and learn--how they distinguish between reality and fantasy; how they can internalise and deepen stories they are told, making them something more than they originally were. And there is still a sense of artifice to Eco's writing, a feeling that this story and these characters are no more than (in Yambo's term) paper memories, built specifically for this exploration of these ideas.

But there is also a stronger sense, even when Eco is at his most indulgent and digressive, that there is a story here that needs to be told (sometimes the digressions are stories unto themselves). It's the impetus that keeps you turning the pages in a good book, you want to find out what happens next, and it doesn't matter that here everything is out of order, fragmented and unclear. You want to find out how the pieces fit together. The style, too, is more transparent than that of Rose, because here Eco can let himself use a more relaxed tone, and he does so with considerable charm. It is, I suspect, even without having read any of his other novels, not Eco's best book. If nothing else, it does falter slightly towards the end, when Yambo's story turns out to be more familiar than we might have hoped. The obsession of first love is a well-trod path, and I don't know that this adds anything new; but if this book says anything about stories, it says that none of them are new. This is a case where you should let yourself enjoy the familiar.

Other reviews:
Robert Alter at Slate.
David Horspool in the Sunday Times.
Thomas Mallon in the New York Times.
Stephanie Merritt in The Observer.
Ian Sansom in the Guardian
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The Grand Conversation is a chapbook, published by Aqueduct Press, that collects four essays by L. Timmel Duchamp on aspects of feminism, sf, and feminist sf. It was recommended by [livejournal.com profile] oursin. The book is the first of a series to be published by Aqueduct, called conversation pieces, and I recommend it; subsequent issues are primarily fiction-based, showcasing writers such as Nicola Griffith and Eleanor Arnason, so are likely to be differently but equally worth your time.

Read more... )
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Trash Sex Magic is Jennifer Stevenson's first novel. I finished it earlier this week, and have been mulling it over since then. My opinion of it is taking time to settle. In part, that's because it's a tricky book to describe.

It's not long, but it's very busy, sometimes to the point of being crowded; the cast is large, and they do a lot. The central characters are Raedawn Somershoe and her mother, Gelia, living in a trailer on the banks of the Fox creek Around them are a constellation of relatives and neighbours. As the novel opens, a large tree has been felled by the property developers setting up shop across the road, initiating a conflict that for a while simmers, and towards the end of the novel boils over.

It's fantasy, of the sort where magic is wild and unexplained, yet accepted as part of everyday life. If it was a less brash and zesty book, it might be tempting to describe it as magic realism. The magic comes from nature, from changing seasons--there's an air of folklore about the book, of the stories in which an injustice is done to the land and must be set right--and also, per the title, from sex. Both Rae and her mother are powerful witches, and astonishingly beautiful, and they express their power through sex. There is almost nobody in their community that at least one of them, and possibly both of them, have not slept with at some point; and their couplings punctuate the book, sometimes intense, sometimes casual, often healthy or healing. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the sex magic and the nature magic are, in fact, the same thing: the tree that was cut down was lover to both Gelia and Rae, we learn, and in his absence something is out of balance.

Although there is a great deal of incident, there is little plot in the traditional sense. Events are driven by encounters and conversations. The community and the property developers are in conflict, but there's no sense that either side is really planning their next move. The situation evolves organically. Subplots proliferate, and not neatly, which suits the book but is often less than satisfying. A number of the characters feel thinly drawn, more pawns than players. At least as many, though, are vivid, particularly the ragged twins Mink and Ink, Alexander (a construction worker), and of course Rae and her mother. At one point towards the end of the novel Alexander muses of the Somershoes that "Both of these women were too big. Too big to hold in your mind at one time--how could they be friends, or live in the same house? His head hurt trying to imagine it." (291) It's an accurate description.

There are two aspects of the book in particular that I cannot make up my mind about. The first is Rae herself. She is a bold, alluring young woman by any standard, very much in charge of her life and her sexuality. But her sexuality also defines her. Everything she does, she does by choice, but what she chooses to do is often to heal men through sex. And if, as we come to suspect, her lover is to be replaced, and a new tree grows, by extension she will heal the world. This should feel huge, and triumphant, and sometimes it does; but sometimes it seems oddly passive (it just happens rather than being Rae's choice; I'm not sure I ever got a clear sense of what Rae wants for herself alone, or whether there is any such thing at all) and sometimes strangely limited, that the only way Rae can help the world is through sex. This could be a deliberate comment on Stevenson's part--for the most part she is admirably non-judgemental about her characters, but perhaps Rae is meant to be trapped by her sexual nature?--but I'm not sure it feels like it.

The second aspect is related to the somewhat haphazard feel the whole affair carries. Trash Sex Magic is an appealingly messy book, but the flipside of that is that at times it is patchy. Some chapters seemed dull or overly cliche (the property developers never become much more than bad guys), but then there will be paragraphs or pages of astonishing writing, full of original imagery and beautiful insights into human nature and relationships. More often than not, these sections are precipitated by some magical incident, and this is where my frustration comes in. On the Small Beer website there's an interview with Stevenson, one quote from which probably explains why:
I felt that in fiction, magic ought to be treated with more respect, and not as a game whose rules must have "internal consistency"--a fantasy lit-crit phrase that drove me nuts for years--but as an extension of the mysterious and marvelous and very real natural world.
I have an instant adverse reaction to this sort of statement; it is not how I think. Certainly the natural world is mysterious and marvelous, but I don't believe it is--as I think Stevenson is suggesting--fundamentally inexplicable. And more importantly, I'm not convinced that that god, or nature, moving in mysterious ways makes for good fiction. Asking the reader to infer meaning is one thing--a feeling of uncertainty, that there are things we don't or can't know, is compelling--but there needs to be (or I need) a sense that there is something to be inferred. Sometimes Trash Sex Magic achieves that, but sometimes it doesn't, and I think that's because it's ever so slightly on the wrong side of the fine line between careful deployment of strangeness, and arbitrary incident.

These reservations aside, there is a great deal to like. The material Stevenson deals with could easily have become fey or twee, but she tells it with passion and power; and though on some levels the central conflict is undeniably cliche, it is told in a raw and exciting manner. There are books it's almost as much fun to disagree with as it might be to agree with; and this is one of them.

Other reviews:
Jessa Crispin at Bookslut.
Sherwood Smith at the SF Site.
Wes Unruh at Green Man Review.
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Today, an experiment. Or as the Blues Brothers might put it:

It's 406 miles to Glasgow. I've got a proof copy of Accelerando, a full day of travel ahead, I'm a geek, and thanks to my futurephone I can post to the internet whenever I finish one of the stories.

Hit it!

P.S. If anyone could explain to me what Vin Diesel is doing on the cover of the UK edition, that'd be grand. All told, I think I prefer the US cover.

P.P.S. I think 'This is the kind of science fiction that scares normal people' is an even better blurb than 'This book was super-awesome super-good'.
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Gwyneth Jone's novel Life, published by Aqueduct Press, was this year's winner of the Philip K Dick Award, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tiptree Jr. Award. It's a major novel, a barely-sf, barely-near-future speculation about the interactions between society, biology and gender. It's also a study of science, and of one scientist in particular--Anna Senoz--from her days as a student to the point at which her discoveries are on the brink of causing a social, as well as a scientific revolution.

Reviews:
-- A.M. Dellamonica at Sci-fi Weekly.
-- David Soyka at the SF site.
-- Cheryl Morgan at Emerald City.

Other links:
-- A brief interview with Gwyneth Jones
-- A longer summary of a panel at Wiscon about the book.

Here, [livejournal.com profile] despotliz and I discuss the book.

with spoilers, inevitably )
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TV: OK, so I caved and downloaded 'Dalek'. My need to be part of the consensus fandom experience is too strong. And, well, it was ok. Chris Ecclestone's performance was excellent, the story was tight (if a bit too obviously concerned with addressing all the common jokes about the Daleks: the pepperpot, the plunger, the stairs, etc), and the direction was lightyears more effective than in most of the previous episodes. My problems with the episode basically come down to the fact that I find Daleks inherently ludicrous, no matter how many people they kill; the fact that the setup was pure by-the-numbers; and the fact that the shape of the plot was strongly reminiscent of a particular episode of Angel. I mean, it wasn't quite an alley at the end, and you could argue that the Dalek possibly has a slightly less annoying voice, and it wasn't written by Tim Minear, but other than that ... you know where I'm going with this, right? Still: it was basically a decent piece of television. That sounds like damning with faint praise, but the point is that it shows potential; if they'd come out of the gate with episodes like this, I might have thought the hype had a point.

Film: The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was not, contrary to certain reports, crap. I quite enjoyed it, to be honest. If you're as over-familiar with the radio series as I am then it definitely takes a while to get used to the new cast, but by and large most of the performances are good, and the film's heart is in the right place. Martin Freeman, Alan Rickman and Bill Nighy in particular are excellent, and the only real weak link is Mos Def who never quite seems right (though I wasn't entirely convinced by Fry as the Guide, either). Narratively it's quite different to previous incarnations--as it would have to be, to work. I didn't mind the insertion of a more conventional emotional arc, though it does some damage to Trillian's characterisation in particular. In general, I do think they edited most of the dialogue a bit more than was necessary. Where I give the film big points is in the visuals. The Vogons are outstanding (and Vogsphere in particular has a very Gilliam-esque feel to it), the improbability drive is perfectly rendered (the knitting!), and the trip to Magrathea's factory floor is jaw-droppingly wonderful. Oh, and Neil Hannon is absolutely the perfect singer for the Dolphin Song.

Book: The Portrait of Mrs Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford, read for an OUSFG discussion this coming Wednesday. A curious book, this: the story of a painter in 1890s New York, commissioned to paint the portrait of a women he may never see. Instead, he has to discern her likeness from conversation alone; from the stories she tells. Ford's deceptively simple prose is used to good effect to tell an atmospheric tale about the relationship between creation and obsession. Much of the book has a surreal, slightly hallucinatory quality to it; echoes of Greek myth haunt this New York, and the fantastic lurks in Mrs Charbuque's speeches. There is a slight feeling of self-indulgence about the whole enterprise, though, and I haven't really decided what I think about the ending yet. Worth reading, however.

Music: I have fallen head over heels for the Eels' latest album, Blinking Lights and Other Revelations. Yes, it's a double album so yes, it's baggy in places, and simply by virtue of its size it takes a long time to get to grips with; but I wouldn't begrudge a minute of it. The album picks up where Daisies of the Galaxy left off. Many of the best moments come from the slight cognitive dissonance induced by the contrast between Mark Everett's gruff vocals and the sparklingly beautiful melodies he crafts, from the delicate lament of 'If You See Natalie' to the shuffle of 'Railroad Man' and the bouncy pop of 'Old Shit/New Shit'. Lyrically the songs are as sharp and observant as ever, although it has to be said that some of the titles--'Theme For A Pretty Girl That Makes You Believe God Exists'--are a bit laboured. The surprise, though, is that in amongst the pessimism there are moments of genuine sincerity and hope; the final track finds Everett concluding that 'I have some regrets, but if I had to do it all again/Well, it's something I'd like to do.' It's almost enough to give you warm fuzzies inside. Try this: One of the tracks that's really got under my skin, 'Blinking Lights (For Me)'.

(Other albums getting a lot of play at the moment include: Ambulance Ltd by Ambulance Ltd (think Doves, but with a bit of New York swagger instead of Northern melancholy); Songs For Silverman by Ben Folds (good, and I'll probably write more about it after the gig at the end of the month); and Natalie Imbruglia's latest offering. Yeah, Counting Down The Days is pure Richard-Curtis-movie-soundtrack music but, be honest, who hasn't wanted to pretend they live in a Richard Curtis movie now and then?)
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In most of my spare time last week I was rereading and working on a review of River of Gods, for Foundation. During this period I was, well ... 'tediously obsessed' would not be too strong a way of putting it. However, I thought the following conversation with [livejournal.com profile] immortalradical might be of interest to those who've read the book, as a little light (!) bank holiday reading, and he agreed, so here it is. It started with me quoting a particular passage:
How Thomas Lull knows he is un-American: he hates cars but loves trains, Indian trains, big trains like a nation on the move. He is content with the contradiction that they are at once hierarchical and democratic, a temporary community brought together for a time; vital while it lasts, burning away like early mist when the terminus is reached. All journey is pilgrimage and India is a pilgrim nation. Rivers, grand trunk roads, trains; these are sacred things across all India's many nations. For thousands of years people have been flowing over this vast diamond of land. All is riverrun, meeting, a brief journey together, then dissolution.

Western thought rebels against this. Western thought is car thought. Freedom of movement. Self-direction. Individual choice and expression and sex on the back seat. The great car society. Throughout literature and music, trains have been engines of fate, drawing the individual blindly, inexorably towards death. Trains ran through the double gates of Auschwitz, right up to the shower sheds. India has no such understanding of trains. It is not where the unseen engine is taking you; it is what you see from the window, what you say to your fellow travellers for you all go together. Death is a vast, crowded terminus of half-heard announcements and onward connections on new lines, new journeys. Changing trains. (p200)

NH: I think that, right there, is the aesthetic of this novel. Indian vs. Western; community vs. individual; interaction and experience and change as emergent properties of the world.

DH: This was actually one of my mild problems with the novel: that distinction (Indian as community, Western as individual) seems to me horribly simplistic and even facile. It works OK, but can never quite escape the fact that it doesn't quite convince. Fortunately, the other good things in the book mitigate this slightly artificial opposition.

NH: Well, it works for me because it's never stated that baldly in the novel proper. And I think I stated it the wrong way around; really it's 'community vs individual' and then umpteen variations on that theme, only one of which is Indian vs. Western.

DH: Perhaps. 'Indian versus Western' as a variation on 'community versus individual' is still a little simplistic, though. What I like about the rest of the novel is the way in which it defies such reductive distinctions. It may even be that you're imposing that opposition on the text, whereas in fact what's there is a much more complex debate about a much more nebulous concept--identity.

oh, there's more. With spoilers. )

He's a smart man, that Mr Hartland, and will undoubtedly be pleased to hear that I've ordered A Passage to India from Amazon. His original review (from which it seems I inadvertently stole an entire phrase) is here. I should also say that many of my thoughts on the book were shaped by [livejournal.com profile] greengolux' review at The Alien Online.
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Well, not that lazy; I have done a full 900 words for Vector, after all. But rather than think up another 900 for here, I'm going to do that thing of borrowing other peoples' words and commenting on them instead. It's what blogs were made for, after all, right?
No matter how dark the tapestry God weaves for us, there's always a thread of grace.
Now, you might ask what a historical novel--the story of Jewish refugees in Northern Italy in the last years of World War II--is doing in Vector at all. The answer is that it gets in because it's by Mary Doria Russell, whose first novel The Sparrow was one of the most highly-praised sf novels of the 1990s (and a book of some personal significance). The books share a sort of fundamental moral honesty--a willingness to look at both the very good and the very bad in humanity; to take what you might expect to be simple situations and make them complex; to ask questions, in the case of A Thread of Grace, about the limits of human kindness. The prologue (which is actually fairly atypical of the book) is excerpted here.

And now I'll hand over to Laura Miller at Salon:
From this description, or to anyone familiar with Russell's previous novel, "The Sparrow" -- the story of a Jesuit mission to another planet -- "A Thread of Grace" might sound like a philosophical novel in which the characters think a lot about right, wrong and the nature of faith. Instead, the book is a veritable symphony of action, deploying about a dozen characters (all solidly delineated), in a nonstop string of escapes, ambushes, ruses, sabotages, sorties, disguises, coded communications and rescues.
This is true--A Thread of Grace is a much broader novel, with a much larger cast, even warranting a dramatis personae list--but it doesn't mean the book sacrifices depth. It's just that these are characters who (through necessity, as much as anything else) demonstrate their morals with deeds more than words.

Malena Watrous in the San Francisco Chronicle relates an interesting anecdote:
According to Russell, there's an Italian saying that goes: "'If you can help, you must help.'' And many of those who help in this novel pay the price. Objecting to the insinuation of movies like "Life is Beautiful" that the plucky and courageous were more likely to survive the Holocaust, Russell wanted to show what so many actual survivors insist: that it was luck, not heroism, that got them through the war. So she had her son flip a coin to determine the fate of each character.
I didn't read this until after I'd finished the book, but it rings true. There's a real sense of peril in the novel's second half; nobody is safe.

Stevie Davies in The Guardian:
The most moving characters are 14-year-old Claudette Blum and her Jewish scholar-father, Albert, crossing the Alps, she in an adolescent tantrum, he bottling his ire at her antics. The tragicomic pair are treated with tender wit. Russell's simple style is able to morph into a language of intimacy, comedy, punchy action, and sheer sublimity. Like the bare parataxis of the Old Testament, giving the sense that things "came to pass", unaccountably but incontrovertibly, this style lends dignity to ordinariness.
I agree with this; Claudette's story is the most emotionally fullsome of all the arcs in the book, and contains uplifting, heartwarming moments as well as tragedy. I think that overall, however, Renzo Leoni, who initially seems to be a simply drawn roguish hero, eventually acquires greater depth than any of the other characters.

I liked this book a great deal, although not quite as much as The Sparrow. I think at least part of the reason for that is that A Thread of Grace stands firmly in the shadow of history. The Sparrow, though immensely moving, was in some ways a fairly abstract moral debate--there was no exact historical precedent, but many parallels. For this novel, on the other hand, it's impossible to ignore the specifics of the context, and it's hard, at least for me, to separate the sobering effect that has from the internal successes of the novel. Mind you, perhaps that's how it should be.
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Each of us has a private Austen


So begins Karen Joy Fowler's novel about, yes, a Jane Austen book club. It's a novel that received generally rapturous reviews on its publication in the US and a slightly cooler response (and a much nastier cover) over here. Karen Joy Fowler has been on my read-more list for some time, and this book was the one that achieved a critical mass of recommendations. I'm not up to serious thought tonight, so this is definitely notes on, rather than a review.

rambling, plus quiz! who is my private Austen? )

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