August 17, 2013 § 2 Comments
Just finished: St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell.
Reading next: Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline.
Right near the beginning of the first story in Karen Russell’s first book, there’s a short sentence like a litmus test:
The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker.
How’s that grab you? Out of context, at the basic level of language, I would say that it’s lovely: rhythm, assonance, the particular sound and sense of place and time that it evokes, the spice of unusual word choice and the use of the adjective “gentle” as a verb. Beautiful.
There are complicating factors, however. There’s that “has.” We’re in present-perfect tense, and the story as a whole is in the present tense. And there’s the fact that the story is narrated by a twelve-year-old. The twelve-year-old is not, apparently, any kind of savant, or genius, or literature aficionado. The twelve-year-old is a twelve-year-old, in a swamp.
So whether or how you can justify to yourself a twelve-year-old’s usage of the sentence “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” will go a long way to determining whether you can appreciate, or even tolerate, the stories in this collection. Many of them are concerned with and narrated by twelve-year-olds and others on the verge of adolescence, in the present tense. The situations in which they find themselves are brilliantly imagined and otherworldly, partaking of the “new weird” or new fabulist blending of genres. There are underwater ghosts and a sleepaway camp for those with unusual sleep disorders and a minotaur on something like the Oregon Trail and the titular home for the children of werewolves. And yet it’s hard to focus on any of that when the stories are perversely in the present tense, and narrated by twelve-year-olds who compose thoughts and/or sentences such as “The thunder has gentled to a soft nicker” but who are not, by all accounts, graduates of well-regarded MFA programs.
July 10, 2009 § Leave a comment
Finished a while ago: The Empire of Ice Cream, by Jeffrey Ford.
Jeffrey Ford is another of those “new fabulists” or whatever you want to call them: he writes good, weird stuff. He’s more of a straightforward fantasy writer than someone like Kelly Link, but he’s also doing really interesting things both within and between genres. This is a solid story collection, a thoroughly enjoyable read. My favorite stories were the title story (a great story about synesthesia which made me wonder why I have never read any other stories about synesthesia), “Botch Town” (actually a novella, and a great one, something like a blend of Stephen King’s “The Body” and Bradbury’s Green Town stories, but creepier), and “The Green Word” (which I happened to read right before seeing Hellboy II; the awesome Elemental in that movie is very reminiscent of this story).
But the story that’s going to stick with me the most is probably “The Weight of Words,” which is an utterly ingenious satire on advertising. A savant named Albert Secmatte has cracked the pseudo-mathematical code by which language functions, enabling him to manipulate words in such a way that hidden messages can be smuggled in plain sight into any kind of missive. Inevitably, a powerful businessman places his faith in Secmatte, who begins to write feel-good flyers encouraging people to enjoy life, be kind to others, etc., hiding advertising messages therein. These messages prove utterly irresistible; even the narrator, who assists Secmatte in his endeavor, finds himself smoking the brand of cigarettes Secmatte is writing copy for. All of this is set in motion by another, more personal, kind of advertising: the narrator’s desire to win back his wife, who’s left him for another man. He takes as his payment for assisting Secmatte a letter which contains the wordsmith’s wooing magic.
The advertisements here are effective, we are led to believe, because of Secmatte’s powerful word-equations. But they’re also effective because they are unavoidable, unobtrusive, and associated with powerful messages: subliminal advertising doesn’t work, but this story’s found a way to imagine that it does. And of course, advertising is always trying to be subliminal: always trying to make us forget it’s advertising, and always trying to be noticed without making us think too much about the negative aspects of what it’s selling.
I find this story so interesting because the nightmarish scenario it posits is not a nightmare at all: it’s more or less the current state of affairs in the real world. We all think we’re immune to advertising; we all think there’s too much of it; we all think ads are crass, exploitative, manipulating fears and lusts and unhealthy urges. (Okay, maybe not all of us; but most, at least.) And yet it continues to work, continues to function, continues to do exactly what it wants to even when it’s in our plain sight. It wraps itself in pretty pictures and pleasing phrases and somehow it works.
You should read the story yourself, but I think the key to the satire — the critique — imbedded in the story is the letters to the narrator’s wife. Advertising is always trying to be about love, and yet it never understands it.
November 24, 2008 § Leave a comment
Just finished: City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer.
Reading next: Redburn, by Herman Melville. (Really, this time.)
It’s oddly fitting that I should read Melville after finishing City of Saints and Madmen. The book is influenced by Moby-Dick — I mean, the name of the fictional city is Ambergris — but, then, so are a lot of books. What’s different here is how this book gave me some sense of how contemporary readers of Moby-Dick must have felt. In a very different way than Melville’s masterpiece, VanderMeer’s book is overstuffed, messy, encyclopedic, cryptic, digressive, formally and typographically adventurous, ambiguously narrated, obsessive about strange central metaphors and images. In MD the central mystery and metaphor is the whale; here, it’s fungus (and also, perhaps, squid). What you end up thinking is, Where the hell did that come from? It’s out of left field in the best way.
Labels and genres are beside the point here; this is interstitial/new fabulist/new weird/insert-buzzword-here fiction. It is closest to fantasy in that it creates a world and populates it with a history, a mythology, a cast of characters; it’s also part of the charming subgenre of steampunk, for which I’ll admit I’m kind of a nerdlinger sucker. What I was most impressed with, though, was the way that the book becomes about the subject of writing history; this is historiographical fiction of the highest order.
VanderMeer makes some obvious nods toward Nabokov, as well, and the unreliable narrator is the order of the day. However, that’s not exactly groundbreaking. What’s really interesting here is how the book is structured: there are four novellas followed by an “AppendiX” as long as the novellas put together, made up of bits and pieces shedding light on the writing of the novellas and the book as a whole. Bibliography, genealogy, glossary, periodical, souvenir, bureaucratic memo: all are put to the service of literature.
Through it all, there’s an emphasis on the difficulty (impossibility?) of getting history right: of telling the story properly. For instance, the second novella is “The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek.” There we learn that the primary source on Ambergris’s founding is the journal of one Samuel Tonsure, whose identity is more or less unknown. Tonsure kept an apparently secret and frank journal, but also wrote a hagiographic history of the town’s founder, Cappan John Manzikert. And we also learn that there are rumors that the secret journal is a forgery. And Shriek is disgruntled about writing this guidebook/history for the general public anyway, and subverts the form by filling his text with digressive footnotes that overwhelm the body of the text with detail and equivocation and axe-grinding against rival historians whom he considers crackpots (and vice versa). Alternate readings of events and the evidence they leave behind are everywhere in this book, and presentation is key, as we find out that works written in the third person are supposed to be autobiography, and even (maybe especially) bureaucrats, doctors, and bibliographers tell their “narratives” with hidden agendas, from the skewed perspective of the present.
As someone who deals with manuscripts and contemporary printed accounts, the creation of a fictional universe with an intentionally imprecise and unknowable history — one with the wires of its own creation exposed — is really interesting to me. We in the world of archives and special collections libraries are always extolling the importance of students (and faculty, for that matter) learning the importance of “primary sources”: those original documents that can shed light on history from contemporary perspectives. We often don’t get into the complexity of this importance: along with the assumed value of primary sources as verifications of secondary accounts presented as “facts,” those sources also serve as important muddiers of waters that were presumed clear. They’re messy, they almost always contain incomplete or inaccurate or irrelevant information, and they are dependent on the interpretation of flawed human beings who are prone to jumping to the conclusions they want to find based on the evidence they happen to see.
What’s coolest about this book, I think — and a lot of it’s cool: indigenous fungus-beings bent on revenge, squid-worship, ekphrastic descriptions of scary paintings, a legendary Wagnerian composer-politician, encoded stories within stories — what’s coolest, though, is the way that VanderMeer represents the messiness and deep, deep complexity of history, and the way it’s entangled with the creation of narrative. Behind everything in this book there’s the uneasiness of the city-dwellers at the history within their midst: these “mushroom dwellers,” these “gray caps,” whose city was destroyed by colonizers. Who live on their streets, who collect their trash, who seem to infiltrate people’s houses and snatch citizens away into their underground world. History is all around the people of Ambergris, layer upon layer of it; it seems impossible to ever reach the heart of the truth of how things happened.