The OF Blog: June 2013

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

This is where I have pretensions of having a mid-year "Best of 2013" list

Since the time is now ripe for people to repeat themselves all over again and write up short lists of what new releases they have enjoyed through the (not quite) halfway point of the year, I thought perhaps I could do something similar but without worrying overmuch about what people think about the books I have selected (after all, one might need to have heard of some of these titles before weighing in, n'est ce pas?).  I'm not doing a Top 5, 10, or 20-style list, but instead just a note of works that I consider to be exceptional.  I'll leave it up to the hoi polloi to classify these by genre:

1.  Sinan Antoon, The Corpse Washer - Review later, but damn if I weren't moved by this short novel.

2.  Chimamanda Adichie, Americanah - Review later, but this will not leave you feeling indifferent.

3.  William Gass, Middle C - Still haven't been able to organize my thoughts to write a coherent review.

4.  Karen Joy Fowler, We are all Completely Beside Ourselves - a definite must-read.

5.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur - Much better than LotR in terms of writing achievement.

6.  José Ovejero, La invención del amor - Possible review later.  2013 Premio Alfaguara winner.

7.  Nihad Sirees, The Silence and the Roar - might take a second read for its full effect to kick in.

8.  Kate Atkinson, Life After Life - Might get around to reviewing this one day.

9.  Helene Wecker, The Golem and the Jinni - Might review this later as well.

10.  Ron Currie, Jr., Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles - Clever yet honest.  An intriguing combination in a metanarrative.

11.  Ismail Kadare, The Fall of the Stone City - Kadare still mining gold from a rich vein of tragic history.

12.  Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being - Touching.  Already wrote a short review.

13.  Jim Gavin, Middle Man - One of the two best short story collections read this year.

14.  Jamaica Kincaid, See Now Then - Been too long since a Kincaid story.  Already reviewed.

15.  Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar - Interesting set of interconnected stories.  Already reviewed.

16.  Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove - Another of the top collections released this year.  Already reviewed.

17.  (At this point I should note that positions below #1 are very fluid and might change with further consideration)  George Saunders, Tenth of December:  Stories - Moving.  Already reviewed.

18.  Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Debating still whether or not this is "good" or "mediocre" Gaiman.

19.  Thomas Maltman, Little Wolves - Maybe the best werewolf novel of 2013 that I've finished to date?

20.  Yoko Ogawa, Revenge - Very good story collection.  Did intend to review it, but haven't yet.

21.  Ildefonso Falcones, La reina descalza - Third historical novel of his, third that I (mostly) liked.

OK, which of these have you heard about before this post?  That's the important question, not whether or not you liked any on this list.

Monday, June 24, 2013

"If death is a postman"

I just started reading the English translation of Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon's The Corpse Washer (which was published in the US this month) when I read this passage:

I can almost hear death saying:  "I am what I am and haven't changed at all.  I am but a postman."

If death is a postman, then I receive his letters every day.  I am the one who opens carefully the bloodied and torn envelopes.  I am the one who washes them, who removes the stamps of death and dries and perfumes them, mumbling what I don't entirely believe in.  Then I wrap them carefully in white so they may reach their final reader – the grave.

But the letters are piling up, Father!  Tenfold more than what you used to see in the span of a week now pass before me in a day or two.  If you were alive, Father, would you say that that is fate and God's will?  I wish you were here so I could leave Mother with you and escape without feeling guilty.  You were heavily armed with faith, and that made your heart a castle.  My heart, by contrast, is an abandoned house whose windows are shattered and doors unhinged.  Ghosts play inside it, and the winds wail. (p. 3)

This novel, set primarily in 2003 Iraq, promises to be haunting for me, if this passage is any indication.  Not too many Anglo-American fictions these days are as direct and as poetic simultaneously as this quote.  Hopefully I'll find The Corpse Washer to be excellent; it certainly is off to a good start.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fall of Arthur

'Now never again     from northern wars
shall Arthur enter     this island realm,
nor Lancelot du Lake    love remembering
to thy tryst return!     Time is changing;
the West waning,     a wind rising
in the waxing East.     The world falters.
New tides are running     in the narrow waters.'

– from Canto II, lines 144-150 (p. 32)

For nearly a millennium, ever since the fanciful writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth gained a wide audience and inspired generations of poets and prose writers to write about the Round Table, the betrayal of Mordred, the Holy Grail, the legend of King Arthur has fascinated listeners and readers alike.  No matter the medium selected for the story, the tale entrances readers who already know the basics by rote.  Its themes and tragic elements mixed with romance are not just the stuff of which dreams are made, but they are more "real" to us than even ground upon which we trod or the air which we breathe. 

I have been a fan of "The Matter of Britain" for nearly three decades now.  I have read Arthur's story in many forms, ranging from Tennyson's The Idylls of the King to Jack Whyte's Camulod Chronicles.  Each storyteller, great and lowly alike, have explored facets of the legends that most fascinated them, often with good results.  Therefore it was with great interest that I look forward to reading the incomplete poem that J.R.R. Tolkien left behind on the downfall of Arthur and his kingdom.  Although the unfinished poem runs only just over 950 lines divided over four complete cantos and a partial fifth, there certainly is much to admire about the poem.

Tolkien decided that alliterative verse, traditionally used in pre-Norman conquest England and other Germanic-speaking lands, best suited the tale he wanted to tell.  He stripped away most of the courtly romance, focusing instead on the final, tragic part of the Arthurian legends:  the news of Guenevere's tryst and Mordred's betrayal.  The action begins in media res, with Arthur returning from his "Eastern campaign" to surprise Mordred and his Saxon allies:

Arthur eastward     in arms purposed
his war to wage     on the wild marches,
over seas sailing     to Saxon lands,
from the Roman realm     ruin defending.
Thus the tides of time     to turn backward
and the heathen to humble,     his hope urged him,
that with harrying ships     they should hunt no more
on the shining shores     and shallow waters
of South Britain,     booty seeking.

– from Canto I, lines 1-9 (p. 17)

There is a sonorous quality to good alliterative verse, the way that "war" and "wage" rise and then on the second half-verse (the spaces denote a caesura or breath break) it descends to "wild."  There is no rhyme nor set metre, but instead a dependence upon a rhythm set by the rise and fall of words whose first syllables alliterate.  It is not a poetic form often seen in Modern English and there is a portion of the book devoted to explaining how to read this.  Being somewhat familiar with alliterative verse, primarily through some translations of Beowulf, it was easy for me to settle into the rhythm of the poem.

Rhythm is very important here in The Fall of Arthur, as Tolkien attempts to capture a bleaker, more urgent movement of forces.  Arthur here is more the hero of an edda than the king in background of the medieval romances.  He is driven, relentless in his purpose.  Time is changing, all is under assault.  This mood might remind some of the tone present in his fantasy writings and there certainly are thematic similarities, such as the passage quoted at the beginning of this review.  The west wanes, the world falters, new tides are running.  Here the struggle against the forces of Mordor finds its immediate predecessor, as The Fall of Arthur was composed sometime between 1933-1937 according to internal evidence.  And yet here are other connotations present:  the Celtic west falling before the Saxon east, the world of the Britons changing irrevocably.  Tolkien does an excellent job of foreshadowing that calamity throughout The Fall of Arthur.  Doom certainly is more present here, with religious imagery used to underscore the differences between hero and heathen:

Foes before them,     flames behind them,
ever east and onward    eager rode they,
and folk fled them     as the face of God,
till earth was empty,     and no eyes saw them,
and no ears heard them     in the endless hills,
save bird and beast     baleful haunting
the lonely lands.

–  from Canto I, lines 61-67 (p. 19)

The overall effect is a melding of the later accruals of Arthurian myth (Lancelot, however, is relegated to a relatively minor role and Gawain instead rises in importance) with the style and imagery present in Beowulf.  In some respects, The Fall of Arthur feels like a "lost" work of the 10th century that has been translated into modern English; the metaphors and imagery can apply equally to the invasions of the 5th and late 9th centuries.  It is little wonder, then, that one of Tolkien's fellow academics, R.W. Chambers, wrote to him in December 1934 saying:

"It is very great indeed... really heroic, quite apart from its value in showing how the Beowulf metre can be used in modern English."..."You simply must finish it." (p. 10)

But yet like so much of his superior work (The Lord of the Rings I consider to be one of his lesser achievements as a writer), The Fall of Arthur tragically was left undone.  If it were complete and published during the author's lifetime, it easily could have cemented Tolkien's legacy as a writer.  Instead, he is now primarily known for a lesser-accomplished work that influenced over two generations of pulp writers to write fictions that are bereft of the soul of the original masters.  But for those who do love Arthurian tales and who do have some knowledge of the various poetic and prose compositions over the past millennium, The Fall of Arthur will certainly be a work well worth reading.  For those who are not as familiar with these works, Christopher Tolkien has provided three long essays on the poem's origins, its connections to his father's fantasy writings, and how the poem evolved during various drafts.  In addition, Tolkien's 1938 BBC radio lecture on "Anglo-Saxon Verse" is provided as a coda to the work.  Some will find these essays to enhance the work, others might find them to be less useful due to their own prior knowledge of the subject.  Regardless, The Fall of Arthur, incomplete as it is, I consider to be Tolkien's best composition and it is a shame that it was left unfinished during the final 30+ years of the author's life.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

So I've been contemplating "retirement" lately...

And no, before you begin to think it'd be akin to this pathetic search for attention that I parodied nearly three years ago, it's not a "retirement" from blogging/reviewing all together.  Rather, I have been thinking for the past several weeks (I first heard the news on Twitter) on Nick Mamatas' decision to "retire" from writing SF/F/H.  In particular, this passage from his recent FAQ post regarding the retirement has resonated with me:

The Readercon sexual harassment debacle was one, as was overhearing disgusting pig commentary about the event at Worldcon later that same year. Naturally, last week's SFWA sexism controversy is proof to me that I should just stay away. In addition to sexist culture and patriarchy and all the politicized rhetoric used to explain such phenomena, it all rather hints to me that SF is basically full of people in a state of emotional arrest. You know, social simpletons. I don't want to write for these people.

 If I add the time that I was a moderator/Admin of wotmania's Other Fantasy section (October 2001 to the site's shutdown in 2009) to the nearly nine years since I started this blog, I have been inundated with "genre" matters for nearly a dozen of my adult years (or almost a third of my lifetime).  While I've seen some interesting movements arise (New Weird and Steampunk as "hot" topics; the growing profile of non-Anglophone writers), more and more I just see the seedy underbelly of the so-called "genre community" bared like a mangy dog rolling in its filth and expecting passing humans to rub its belly and pat it on the head.   Rarely does a month (week?) go by without some "controversy" raring its putrid head:  sexist old farts, racist twits, and so forth.  But what annoys me most is how jejune the arguments are on most sides.  Even those "progressivists" with whom I should share more sympathy too often come across as offering little more than a rebuke of dimwits who long ago should have been shunted aside in favor of new paradigms of storytelling.  I get the message that so many members/fans of X, Y, and Z are full of offensive crap.  I just want better reasons to read your writings.

And that's what I am not really seeing here.  Doubtless some of it is due to some "blind spots" of my own choosing and some of it due to a relative lack of visibility for alt-SF/F (I'm actually surprised that such terminology, to my meager knowledge, has not been applied to those recent stories that buck older "mainstream" SF/F/H).  All I know is that I can barely stomach the thought of reading any SF or fantasy right now (I've been hot/cold with horror for two decades now) and perhaps instead of enduring yet another iteration of old fart says dumb stuff and various "FAIL" .gifs are made in response, I should just delete the few remaining "genre" links in my blogroll, stop following 2/3 or more of the 500+ people I follow on Twitter, and just instead read something, anything other than SF/F for a year or more until this "burnout" I feel is gone.  I'm hesitant to do this and likely won't in full, but the past year or more has certainly sapped most of my enjoyment of speculative fictions.

Feel free to guess the number of hours/days/weeks/months before I change my mind :P

Saturday, June 15, 2013

The things that draw more hits: May 30-June 13

Not that I'm all that surprised by this, but here are the stats for 7 out of the past 8 blog posts (not counting this one or the one I made almost 24 hours ago), according to Google.  The top-listed post is an almost desultory commentary on four other people's posts on epic fantasy, the other six being reviews that might actually be of some use to some people.  Let's see the numbers (should note that I linked to all of these on Twitter and that I did nothing further for any nor anything less for any as well), shall we?

Personal reactions to several recent attempts...  11 Comments  323 Views  Posted:  6/12/13

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84                                      0 Comments    51 Views  Posted:  6/9/13

Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale                    0 Comments    79 Views  Posted:  6/3/13

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane                               0 Comments    42 Views  Posted:  6/2/13

Kjersti Skomsvold, The Faster I Walk...             0 Comments    59 Views  Posted:  6/1/13

Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur              0 Comments   107 Views Posted:  5/30/13

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night              0 Comments     63 Views Posted:  5/27/13

It's a good thing that I'm not all that interested these days in hit counts (although to be honest, those review view numbers are not reflective of the hundreds of daily views of the home page, which would probably mean that 2-3 times those amounts at least are the likely read numbers), although it is amusing to see that posts that require less thought and effort get more views.

Tempted to post a picture of a fennec and/or squirrel to see if the hit count would be even greater....

Ah, what the hell:

Friday, June 14, 2013

I'm stressed, possibly depressed, and my reading/reviewing has suffered

I am going to try to keep this short and relatively vague:  I haven't felt so much stress while working a job since I was taking prescribed medication that unfortunately caused one of those rare but severe adverse reactions of becoming extremely aggressive and hyper-alert.  I am currently working an extremely demanding job that I must keep during the summer break and it involves a lot of times where self-restraint has to be strong, lest I give in to the temptation of responding violently to being kicked, slapped, scratched, pinched, or spit upon by the residents for whom I provide services.  In comparison, reading fictions means less and less:  their struggles feel less vital, almost pointless to read.

So I've been reading less and less and enjoying even fewer activities.  Last weekend's trip to Vicksburg, Mississippi (which I chronicled here) was a very welcome break.  Knowing that I'm taking a couple of days off in mid-July and then might be able to leave the job at the beginning of August when the school year begins at times provides the only grips for my sanity after some spells.  So while I had planned on reviewing a lot of books this month in order to compensate for fewer posts during the spring due to working two jobs, it looks like I'll be writing only a few posts here and there when energy permits it.  But maybe I'll be stronger for this; I know I'm doing better than I did several years ago during the last spell of stress-and-medication-induced depression.

Now if only I could see more frolicking squirrels.  Those creatures make me think very happy thoughts.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Personal reactions to several recent attempts to create "essential epic fantasy" lists

As I've grown older, I've become somewhat more reluctant to join in anything that smacks of "genre community."  I have stayed out of recent discussions of recent snafus and dimwitted social commentaries regarding gender, race, class, etc. in large part because they are so repetitive in their genesis/retort/sniping that it seems to have become more an elaborate dance of several OCD people than anything substantially new or different.  Although I have not yet announced a "retirement" from anything "genre community" related (like Nick Mamatas did in regards to writing SF/F/H fiction), I typically feel relegated to the sidelines where those who (in)voluntarily are watching a vicious cockfight stare with a mixture of morbid fascination and acute revulsion.

So I should have been excited to see something positive emerge from online discussions (well, belated excitement, as I was on vacation this past weekend to Vicksburg and missed the initial discussions) regarding "essential epic fantasies."  It seems that there was a Twitter-initiated round of lists done by four people, three of whom I follow on Twitter and the fourth I have no ill feelings, along with an alt-list by another writer/blogger I follow on Twitter.  I note my personal feelings for the list makers here in order to make clear that this is nothing personal in regards to them, but frankly those lists were problematic at best.

The first problem I had with these lists were with the ways that the list makers chose to define "essential."  It may be the pedantic literature/history teacher in me, but any "essential" literary list should be, y'know, essential for a substantial body of readers.  Cherry-picking a few classics of (mostly) Western literature and then presenting them on a relatively equal footing with the likes of Brandon Sanderson, Jacqueline Carey, David Eddings, and others of their ilk is rather asinine, to be honest.  For these comparisons to work, especially for those who are not enamored with the idea of "epic fantasy" being an ancient literary mode, there has to be more connections than surface-level similarities.  It might seem easy to include a work such as The Epic of Gilgamesh due to its ancient roots and stories involving Sumerian myths, but the purpose of that narrative (namely that within the stories are embedded elements of Sumerian religious belief) differs wildly than a pedestrian work (OK, "pedestrian" may be considered mild by some) by David Eddings.  There just are not any real solid connections made between the selections, which in turn makes these lists feel less "essential" and more like "OK, I like some rather crappy works, but in order to give my list a patina of respectability and to prove that epic fantasy can be more than the wasteland of the lesser-talented writers, I'm going to include a few world's classics that influenced writers several chains up the "love and theft" line from the Sandersons and Brooks of the world, regardless of whether or not it makes sense to mention these two groups in a single pairing."  If these lists were more humbly entitled "epic fantasy favorites," it might be less attention-grabbing but also more appropriate.  The books on the lists for the most part are very underwhelming, with generally only a few works written in the past 130 years that arguably should be read by well-educated readers.

Beyond the need for a better, more sound rationale for having such an "essential" set of lists in the first place, these lists (as is often the case with list generators) demonstrate the deficiencies in the list creator's own reading.  This is not a pejorative in the sense that I am saying they are under-read (virtually everyone will have large reading gaps due to linguistic and cultural reasons), but a note regarding the futility of creating a comprehensive list by one's self.  In reading through the lists, I found myself thinking of works that contain elements of epic mode that were not discussed.  The below-listed are works that are culturally significant for large parts of the world's population:

Orlando Furioso
The Lusiads (Os Lusíadas)
Don Quixote
The Thousand and One Nights
The Epic of Sundiata
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
The Kalavala
The Norse Eddas
Leaves of Grass
Gerusalemme Conquista (Jerusalem Conquered)
Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
Absalom, Absalom!
Tales of Genji
La vida es sueño (Life is a Dream)
The Ramayana
With Fire and Sword
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Even these are a tiny fraction of the memorable songs/dramas/poems/prose that are romances/use epic mode/phrases/imagery.  But most come from other traditions than Protestant-tinted Anglo-Saxon sources.  Some of the concerns differ from what Anglophones may be accustomed to, but each is much more "essential" when it comes to (inter)national literary traditions than any list of 1970s-2013 works will likely ever approach.

Considering that it is an almost Sisyphean task to devise a list of 10-50 "essentials" of the "epic fantasy" mode ("epic fantasy" being in scare quotes due to questions regarding its uniformity of form), what should be done beyond dropping "essential" from the title?  Perhaps there should be more reflection on the implied form of "epic fantasy" itself?  What value does that term possess today outside of its (pejorative) connotation of being the realm of barely pubescent youth, mostly Westerners in cultural traditions, who view it as the literary equivalent of the bombastic music of 1970s hard rock musicians such as Led Zeppelin (n.b.  I actually enjoy Zeppelin's music despite their shortcomings in the lyrics and treatment of women departments)?  That is the question that perhaps should be addressed more fully before setting out to write out lists that are questionable in their contents and in their cultural value, at least for those who did not grow up enamored with pulp fictions.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

Of course it's all just a hypothesis, Aomame told herself as she walked.  But it's the most compelling hypothesis I can produce at the moment.  I'll have to act according to this one, I suppose, until a more compelling hypothesis comes along.  Otherwise, I could end up being thrown to the ground somewhere.  If only for that reason, I'd better give an appropriate name to this new situation in which I find myself.  There's a need, too, for a special name in order to distinguish between this present world and the former world in which the police carried old-fashioned revolvers.  Even cats and dogs need names.  A newly changed world must need one, too.

1Q84 – that's what I'll call this new world, Aomame decided.

Q is for "question mark."  A world that bears a question.

Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.

Like it or not, I'm here now, in the year 1Q84.  The 1984 that I knew no longer exists.  It's 1Q84 now.  The air has changed, the scene has changed.  I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can.  Like an animal released into a new forest.  In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them. (pp. 158-159 e-book edition, Ch. 9)

I first read Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 soon after its US release in late October 2011.  At the time, I found it difficult to summarize my thoughts on this sprawling book (it is nearly a thousand pages in hardcover and just over 1200 e-book pages on my iPad), as it covered so many things, some that I thought were done excellently, others that I thought were underdeveloped, and a few that just flat-out baffled me.  So I eschewed writing a formal review then, thinking that a re-read might provide a clearer picture of the story (stories?) being told.  Now that this novel is up for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, it was a good time to re-read the book and see if my initial impressions had changed.

1Q84 is the most "speculative" of the shortlisted books.  It transpires in 1984 Japan and then in a place, pointedly noted as being non-parallel, of two moons, Little People, and a story that seems to travel through a semi-permeable membrane that separates the two worlds.  It is the story of a former child member of a religious cult-turned-assassin of abusive men, Aomame, and her search after twenty years for a man, Tengo, who once shared a mysterious moment with her when they were ten.  There are events such as a mysterious pregnancy, an Exxon Tiger billboard, and an unusual murder-mystery that make 1Q84 one of the most visible weird fictions to be released in the past five years.

The novel is divided into three chronological sections that span roughly the Spring through Autumn of 1984.  There are alternating chapters presented in limited third-person PoV that focus on Aomame and Tengo's experiences in both the "real" world and in the world of 1Q84.  Murakami makes copious use of literary and cultural symbols to make symbolic and (mostly) literal connections between the worlds.  One particular reference that may be more obscure to Anglo-American reasons is the "town of cats."  Seen from Tengo's perspective, the alternate world is not Aomame's "1Q84" but instead a place that reminds him strongly of pre-World War II writer Hagiwara Sakutarō's "Town of Cats" (readers wanting to read this story can find it in the anthology The Weird, which incidentally lists Murakami as being influenced by his work.  That note coincidentally was written some months before the US publication of 1Q84).  For Tengo, this "cat town" world was a strange, alienating place in which the "Little People," who are mentioned in the novel Air Chrysalis that he has ghostwritten for a 17 year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, lurk behind a series of mysteries.  

There is certainly an aura of menace in the novel's last third, as Aomame and Tengo come closer to identifying the mysteries that have invaded their lives.  Murakami ambitiously attempts to meld a weird, metatextual setting with elements taken from thrillers and for most of the time, this unusual pairing succeeds.  The slower, more contemplative pace of the first two parts gives way to a quicker-tempo, more action-packed final section.  Although not all of the mysteries are explained (if anything, explanation in a story such as 1Q84 would serve to dampen its appeal), there certainly is a nice tying-together of several symbolic objects within the course of Aomame and Tengo's eventual reunion.  Yet it is almost too little, too late, as there are some lengthy longeurs in the middle chapters that almost derail the novel.

1Q84 is one of those "too much" novels, at least for sections lasting sometimes longer than a hundred pages.  There are too many interesting and quirky characters for each individual one to have the impact that similar characters had in some of Murakami's earlier work.  There are a plethora of mysterious objects whose symbolic purpose in regards to the plot remain to be deciphered, perhaps too many for the narrative to handle adequately.  The pasts of both Aomame and Tengo are intriguing, but sometimes too much backstory had to be introduced for it to be as effective as it otherwise could have been.

Yet despite this sense that there is a surfeit of things that in moderation would made for great narrative elements, 1Q84 is a very good work.  Although at times it labors under the weight of its massive narrative, ultimately the reading experience belies that earlier sense that it is at times bloated and turgid.  Murakami manages to strike a precarious balance between exposition and leaving tantalizing mysteries for the readers to puzzle out at their leisure.  Although it is not quite at the level of his best-known works, 1Q84 is one of the better 2011 releases and its inclusion on the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize shortlist does not stick out like a sore thumb.  If this is damning with faint praise, there are a whole host of fictions that could wish to be so damned.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Sjón, From the Mouth of the Whale

One interesting trend that I've noticed when (re)reading the ten finalists for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize is the large number of non-standard narratives.  In the books already reviewed, one can see a first-person plural point of view (Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic), a multi-level literary forgery/fictional family tale (Arthur Phillips' The Tragedy of Arthur), and a narrator who may or may not be suffering from dementia (Kjersti Skomsvold's The Faster I am the Smaller I Am).  Even the other work already reviewed, Kevin Barry's City of Bohane, utilizes character dialectic speech in a fashion not often seen in contemporary novels.  Therefore, it was little surprise to see that Icelandic novelist Sjón's novel, From the Mouth of the Whale, adds to the diversity of the shortlist's narrative styles with its mixture of the historical and the feverish, quasi-fantastical worldview of early 17th century Iceland.

From the Mouth of the Whale moves back and forth in time, from the exile of Jónas Pálmason to his recollections of his education, exorcism of a walking corpse, and the massacre of visiting Basque whalers.  Told in first-person point of view, From the Mouth of the Whale derives much of its narrative power from its deceptively unreliable narrator.  In using "unreliable" to describing Jónas, it is not to denote that he is being purposely deceptive, but rather that Sjón is exploring a worldview that would be remotely alien to us, as "science" and "magic" were not seen in the 1630s Iceland as being true/false opposing entities but rather as complementary disciplines between which Jónas maneuvers during his life.  Take for instance this scene about a quarter into the novel:

"That's the sort of nonsense that landed us here in the first place."

What she says is true, though she should know better than to call it nonsense; it would be more correct to say that it was my intellectual gifts that marooned us here.  Or rather, exiled me here; it was her decision to make them row her over to share my fate.  Poor woman.  But it is probably the lesser of two evils to be the wife of Jónas and share a barren rock with him than to live among strangers.  Or so I gathered form the way people spoke to her on the mainland.  The saddest thing for me is that her loyalty is misplaced.  I have done this woman nothing but harm.  She was opposed to my heeding the summons of Wizard-Láfi Thórdarson, alias the specialist and poet Thórólfur, when he asked me to go out west with him and exorcise the troublesome ghost.  For that was the beginning of my misfortunes.  That is how we came to lose everything.  How did our paths cross?  It was during the eclipse of the sun, if I remember right.  I do not dare ask her; women think men ought to remember that sort of thing.  Last time she was scolding me for my madcap ideas, I asked her why she had come back to me if not to take up the thread where we left off when I had to crawl alone into hiding due to the persecution by the Nightwolf and Sheriff Ari of myself Jónas the Learned and my son Reverend Pálmi.  Indeed, why was she here if not to assist me in my investigations into the workings of the universe?  For that is how it used to be.  Now it is as if my enemies have given her the task of "bringing me to my senses," as more than one, indeed several, of my tormentors call it.  Yet that is not fair, for when I hinted as much the other day, she responded:

"If anyone knows there's no chance of bringing you to your senses by now, Jónas Pálmason, it's me." (pp. 76-77)
For most of the novel, Sjón adroitly mixes this combination of science and superstition to create a vividly-drawn 17th century Iceland that is fascinating.  Of particular interest are the stories of Jónas's exorcism (in which it is difficult to discern if he is lucid or experiencing a hallucination) and of the tragedy of the Basque whalers who suffered a horrific fate at the hands of the locals.  Sjón manages to narrate these stories with aplomb, as Jónas's recollections of each smoothly transition from the literary present back to these events and then forward again in time without there being a noticeable change in tone.  It is a narration of an extraordinary life combined with a cultural history of a true BFE backwater, with each informing the other, ultimately leading to a tale that insidiously grabs the unsuspecting reader's attention until she is quickly reading the pages.

Yet there are some flaws here.  Jónas's character, fascinating as it is for much of the novel, sometimes disappears too much into the narration, particularly later in the novel.  The carefully-maintained balance between the real and irreal breaks down toward the end as well, making for a more difficult discernment of the narrator's lucid thoughts compared to what appear to be flights of fancy.  Normally this would not be a major criticism, but it does destroy the tone established for the majority of the novel.  From the Mouth of the Whale is not a bad novel; for the most part I did enjoy reading it.  But it is a flawed novel and compared to the other nine finalists for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Prize, it, along with two others, are noticeably weaker in terms of structure and execution.  It is a novel worth reading, but it is not as good as the majority of the ones on this strong shortlist.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

It may sound trite, but language is the linchpin upon which all elements of a story depend for their structure.  Without appropriate language, even the most elegantly-plotted tales can end up as flat as a soda bottle left open for a week before anyone sips from it.  Language is intricately tied up in prose, yet it inhabits more media than just prose.  The musicality of the words, the lilt and tilt of phrases, these can make the reader think of music or poetry even when the words are printed and there is no discernible rhyme nor line pattern.  Great language makes even the most clichéd works enjoyable to read because there is something beautiful being told that entrances us.  Our oldest recorded stories depended heavily upon the spoken language and its tones and rhythms to aid the stories being told; many listeners knew the basics, but a skilled troubadour added nuances of voice and inflection to the tale that made all things new again.

The basic premise of Irish writer Kevin Barry's debut novel, City of Bohane, should be familiar to those who've read many (or any?) stories of love triangles and of the romances of gangsters.  The plot of a feared/respected gang leader and his quarter-century hold on the fictional western Irish city of Bohane seeming to slip due to the intrusion of a new rival gang, not to mention this "Fancy's" apprehensions regarding his beautiful wife, is a solidly-constructed tale but it is nothing special by itself.  These sorts of tales, whether you read (or watched) The Gangs of New York or other stories of its ilk, are commonplace in recent literature.

Yet City of Bohane mostly transcends these generic elements.  This is one of the most evocative, "beautiful" novels that have been published in recent years.  Barry has such an ear for dialogue that his reproduction of working-class Hibernian English feels alive, full of vitality and teeming with imminent violence.  Take for instance this passage from the beginning chapter:

Whatever's wrong with us is coming in off that river.  No argument:  the taint of badness on the city's air is a taint off that river.  This is the Bohane river we're talking about.  A blackwater surge, malevolent, it roars in off the Big Nothin' wastes and the city was spawned by it and was named for it:  city of Bohane.

He walked the docks and breathed in the sweet badness of the river.  It was past midnight on the Bohane front.  There was an evenness to his footfall, a slow calm rhythm of leather on stone, and the dockside lamps burned in the night-time a green haze, the light of a sad dream.  The water's roar for Harnett was as the rushing of his own blood and as he passed the merchant yards the guard dogs strung out a sequence of howls all along the front.  See the dogs:  their hackles heaped, their yellow eyes livid.  We could tell he coming by the howling of the dogs. (p. 9 e-book edition)
Barry does an excellent job establishing the decrepitude of Bohane.  Despite it being mentioned on a few occasions that the action transpires in the year 2053, there is no sense of the "future" in this setting:  no phones, no social media, nothing that would made the reader think of 21st century bourgeois society.  Instead, there is a focus on intimate human relations, from how people dress to conform to certain social types (at times, the gangs of Bohane come perilously close to being a bunch of dandies on the prowl, although this certainly is not a defect of the story) to how people walk and talk.  This last element in particular showcases Barry's talents as a writer, as his dialogues are simultaneously hilarious, threatening, and possess a verisimilitude that very few fiction writers ever manage to achieve.  Below is a sample taken from near the end of Ch. 6, as to secondary characters, Fucker and Wolfie, are gabbing in a pub:

Fucker sat on his hands and bit his bottom lip. Wolfie, more the diplomat of the pair, changed tack.

'You'd be a fella who'd take a turn 'round Smoketown the odd time, sir?'

'Now,' said the spud-ater, 'we are talkin' decen' cuts o' turkey.'

'An' what'd have an interest for you cross the footbridge, sir?'

The old-timer's eyes sparkled.

'I'd lick a dream off the belly of a skinny hoor as quick as you'd look at me.'

Wolfie nodded soberly, as though appreciative of the spud-ater's delicate tastes.

'Draw a bead and you'll have your pick o' the skinnies,' he said.  'Could have a season o' picks.'

'A season?'

'Cozy aul' winter for ya,' said Fucker.  'Buried to the maker's name in skinnies and far gone off the suck of a dream-pipe, y'check me?'

The old tout sighed as temptation hovered.

'Oh man an' boy I been a martyr to the poppy dream...'

'An' soon as you done with the dream-pipe,' Fucker teased some more, 'there'd be as much herb as you can lung an ' ale to folly.' (p. 46 e-book edition)
 The tone is that of two friends, or at least two friendly pub acquaintances, shooting the bull.  This feels very naturalistic, but this frequently is not an easy thing to accomplish in fiction.  Yet here and throughout the narrative the characters' voices are distinct yet they contribute greatly toward creating a vivid landscape upon which the action unfolds.  This quality cannot be overstated here as there are times where the plot is relatively weak and it is mostly due to the strongly-drawn characters and their distinctive points-of-views that the action is as memorable as it can be.

Unfortunately, the beautiful, lush language and the well-drawn characters can only carry a story so far.  While the concluding part of City of Bohane is not "weak" per se, it is not as strongly-developed as the other sections of the novel and the conclusion feels as though the narrative engine ran out of gas making the last turn, as it sputters and wheezes its way to a denouement that is merely adequate.  Perhaps this is the flipside to Barry's accomplishments with narrative and characters:  the reader may find herself wishing at the end that its power could have been sustained for just a couple scenes longer.  As it stands, City of Bohane is a very good novel with memorable prose that finds those elements ultimately betrayed by a plot that just cannot sustain the energy of its first three-quarters. 

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Kjersti Skomsvold, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am

It's getting dark, I'm trying to concentrate on something useful, and the only thing that matters now is to figure out what my last words will be.  "The probability that we're going to die is smaller than ε, if ε equals a microscopically small quantity," I told Epsilon.  It wasn't like me to say something like that.  I wish I'd said something different.

I want to say something meaningul, make my last words rhyme, so I lay awake the whole night trying to think up something appropriate.  I know I'll never get out of bed again.  But then morning comes and I feel so hungry.

Epilson says that, statistically speaking, a given person will probably die in bed.

Maybe I should get up now. (p. 12)

Death is one of life's great mysteries.  We, even those who long for it, never quite can grasp it as being anything much more than the absence of life.  It is the exclamation point for some, for others it merely is a period or even a question mark to punctuate their lives.  It looms large for some of us, while for others, it is a distant cloud on the horizon, one that seems forever far from our daily routines.  But yet it still lurks out there, wherever "there" might be.  Will death find us content and happy with our lives, with children gathered around us, marking a life well-lived?  Or will it discover a broken, despairing soul, fretting over things not accomplished, achievements never done?  Who will find our corpses and what will be remembered about us?  Will there be a monument to our deeds or are we doomed to oblivion?  And when found, will the body be laid to rest quickly, or will it take days, weeks, or even years before our remains are encountered by others?

In Norwegian writer Kjersti A. Skomsvold's debut novel, The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am, the elderly Mathea finds herself obsessing over these details.  She is lost to memory, it seems, as the past converges with the present so seamlessly that it is wonderfully difficult to decipher at first which is which.  She muses on her life with her statistician husband "Epilson," pondering the improbabilities that make up each life.  She is childless and nearly friendless and these developments disturb her, but her narrative is more than just the sum of her fears:

I can be a lot of fun.  I remember a joke I once made up:  "Have you heard about the man who was so thin his pajamas just had one stripe?"  I asked Epsilon.  "Yes," Epsilon said.  "Impossible," I said, "I just made him up."  "No, I'm sure I've heard of him before, Mathea," Epsilon said.  "Oh, yeah, you're right," I said.  "Come to think of it, I remember a whole article about him in that senior citizens' magazine Over Sixty."  Typical, you think up a good joke and it turns out you've heard it before.  But I laugh anyway, and I tell Epsilon that I'm the funniest person I know.  "You don't know anyone besides me," he says.  "But still," I say.

How sad it is for the world to have missed out on lively Mathea.  But it's sadder for me.  So I'm sad for a moment, but then I decide to bury a time capsule.  I push back the covers, haul my legs out of bed, and put my feet into Epsilon's worn felt slippers.  Then I walk into the kitchen and look under the sink.  Back behind the buckets and rags is an old cardboard box that used to hold bottles of detergent.  Epsilon always buys in bulk, I have no idea why.  The box says "Bulk," and I guess that'll have to be my legacy.  I plop it on the kitchen table and think about it a while.  Finally, though, I decide it won't work.  I need to bury something meaningful.  I know what I have to do. (pp. 32-33)
Skomsvold has created in Mathea a sympathetic character whose musings reflect so many of our own fears and reflections.  She has said in the past that the idea for The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am was conceived when she was bedridden following an illness.  The thoughts that occurred to her as she laid in the bed was the genesis for Mathea's own cyclical thoughts on life, death, disappointment, and frustrated hope.  There is a quality to the prose that makes it difficult to tell when the author's experience leaves off and the character's fictional thoughts begins.  Mathea's struggle to make sense of her life in the midst of her impending death (or so it seems to her at the time) resonates with readers because she voices concerns that many of us have tried to bury underneath the minutiae of our quotidian lives.  William Faulkner once remarked in Requiem for a Nun that "the past is never dead.  It's not even past."  In Mathea, we see evidence for this, as she recollects little moments shared with her husband, as well as events from her childhood that still affect her in the present.  These recalled episodes are poignant, touching artifacts of a life that later had etched into it fear, loss, and anxiety.  They could be snippets from our parents' lives or from a neighbor down the street.  They feel "real" because Skomsvold never takes the reader out of Mathea's viewpoint.  We do not see if she is senile or sane, demented or brutally honest with her thoughts and actions.  One moment flows into another, the past swirling like an eddy in the current of time, occasionally spilling over into the present.  This is what Skomsvold apparently wanted to explore in her novel and if so, she did an outstanding job in capturing a narrative voice that is at once distinctive and yet universal in tone and rhetoric.  The Faster I Walk the Smaller I Am is a quiet, understated story at first but by novel's end it has become one of those rare works of fiction that move us to think of the ways in which we are akin to Mathea in her waning days.  That is the hallmark of a great novel and this debut certainly deserves to be read and re-read as we pass through our own Shakespearean "ages of man."

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