On the Nickering of Thunder

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.

Subliminal Sentences

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.

Stories Above, Stories Within, Stories Beside

May 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Finished a while ago: Atmospheric Disturbances.

Just finished: Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link.

Reading next: The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño, and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute, by Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop.

So I’m very behind, which is a shame, because Atmospheric Disturbances is a really interesting novel, and I unabashedly adore Kelly Link’s stories.  Allow me to point out just a few of the many fascinating things in these books.

First, the Galchen.  I had read before, but completely forgotten, that the author’s father is used as a character in this book; the knowledge that Tzvi Gal-Chen was a real person, a real meteorologist, and not just a clever metafictional author-reference, makes the book come alive in surprising ways.  The book would be orders of magnitude less touching, compelling, and human were it not for its metafictional tricks, its games with narration and a blend of truth and fiction: a convincing and damn near conclusive refutation of those who decry metafiction and all experimental tactics as cold, unfeeling, antagonistic to the reader.  The combination of the story of Leo — Galchen portrays his monomania brilliantly while never quite eliminating the possibility that he’s on to something in thinking his wife “disappeared” and replaced by a simulacrum — the story of our reading of Leo — is this an allegory of marriage, a new fabulist mystery, a fictional memoir of madness? — and the story of Galchen eulogizing Gal-Chen, weaving her memories of her father into this fabulous tale — is quite magical.

And the way that Leo takes these crazy leaps of faith based on cryptic readings of dry scientific papers and Rorschachian interpretations of a meteorological graph!  And the droll, sometimes clinical, sometimes mystical chapter titles!  And the trip to Patagonia, the Jungian unconscious of Argentina!

Then there’s Kelly Link, who is awesome in completely irrefutable and empirically proven ways. Pretty Monsters is a short story collection for a major publisher, Viking, and as such reprints some of the stories from her earlier small-press collections, including what might very well be my favorite short story of this decade, “Magic for Beginners.”  (Or is it a novella?  Aah, whatever it is, it’s the best of that.)  Seriously, if you don’t love this story I can’t have anything to do with you: you will not like me, I will not like you, I will argue with you constantly in unpleasant and unfriendly ways.

Link’s a master at the ambiguously nested narrative.  In “Magic for Beginners,” we’re told right off the bat about the pirate-TV show The Library, and told that the story we’re being told is itself an episode of The Library.  This episode ends up being largely concerned with a group of teenage friends obsessed with the pirate-TV show The Library.  One of the very many brilliant things about this story is how it is a story about a TV show which does things that can only be done in literature, with the written word: if one were to actually try to adapt The Library for the screen, it would be impossibly confusing, expensive, and unsuccessful.  And yet it is irresistable in its ekphrastic descriptions in this story.  It’s the best thing about literature, the most underrated thing: it is utterly unrestrained by the million restraints of performed art, by casting, effects budgets, production companies.  It can do anything, given the right combination of reader and writer.  It can create impossible works of whatsoever form of art and describe them in whatever words, at whatever level of tantalizing detail, it chooses.  (Link, by the way, is great at this variation of detail, of the “granularity,” if you will, of her descriptions: the monster in the excellent story “Monster” is a good example of a terrifyingly sparse description.)

So we care a lot about Jeremy and his friends, and his mother and eccentric Stephen-King-ish father, in ways we wouldn’t if they were framing devices in an episode of The Library.  While you often forget while you reading that it’s framed as an episode, it is fascinating to read this whole story as an episode: a strange new episode of your favorite cult show, in which the fantastic world and characters you’ve become fans of are suddenly thrust into contact with the “real” world, in which the “death” or “life” of those other characters is in agonizing doubt (in multiple ways) but you are asked to pay attention to new characters, characters like you.  A little slice of reality TV.  So, yes: a realistic, naturalistic story about our filmed world, our fictionalized reality.

Link does stories-within-stories very well, but there are also stories side by side: sibling stories, like “Pretty Monsters.”  You can argue for this as another nested narrative, but it seemed to me that as you read it, the stories are on the same plane, even when it becomes clear that a character in one of the narratives is reading the other story.  (But she’s also not: the story here is far too short to be a book; we either have a synopsis of the book, or excerpts from it, or an alternate version of it.)  I am still wrapping my mind around this story, which I loved.  And yet the ending bothered me.  Stories shift their shapes; a story is a kind of pretty monster, utterly true, utterly false, attractive and terrifying; and when the fictional girl “L” acknowledges that there is “no stupid girl named Lee” in the story she was just reading, this is a matter of irony — we affirm the reality of the fictional Lee, Clementine, L and C, just as Jeremy tried to confirm the reality of the fictional Fox in “Magic for Beginners.”  But dammit, the metanarrative here did not deepen or complicate my understanding of the work; I cared too much about the twin narratives for it to work as a frame or conclusion.

Basically, what I am saying is that I really want Kelly Link to stretch out, to restrain or at least delay her ambiguity reflex, and to write a novel.  I’d love to see what happens in a Kelly Link novel.  Things could get wild.

City of Historians and Liars

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.

The Murakami Book and What to Call It

August 19, 2008 § 3 Comments

Now reading: The Raw Shark Texts.

A cat is one of the three main characters in this book. The main characters have trouble knowing themselves, much less connecting to someone else. We’re acquainted with something called the Un-Space Exploration Committee. To confirm all suspicions, the epigram to Part Three is a Murakami quote. Yes: we are dealing with a Murakami Book here.

There’s no satisfying name for this genre yet, and perhaps there never should be, since part of the whole point of the genre is that it is willing to use any number of genres to tell complex stories that can get at cultural mores, philosophical underpinnings, the individual and the relationship, and both pleasurable and terrifying aspects of dream-logic. The desire for a name does seem to be increasing: there are those calling this kind of thing “New Fabulist Fiction.” The hoary old nomenclature, I guess, is “metaphysical detective story.” But that’s both too narrow and too broad, since anything could be a metaphysical detective story.

I tend to think of Haruki Murakami as the godfather or founder of this non-school of like minds, although I’ve no idea if that’s accurate or not. Mostly I just read him first, and he’s better than most of the others I’ve read, and seems to be a giant influence. He does seem to be sui generis, though: I can’t really trace some of the most Murakamian characteristics of Murakami to any other author. (I mean, Chandler’s all over Hard-Boiled Wonderland, sure, but who the hell else would pair that idiosyncratic world with the End of the World?) But I may just not be well read enough. Kelly Link’s a prototypical New Fabulist, if that’s what we’re calling them (which I don’t think we should, because who were the Fabulists?) (And while I’m on the subject of Link, Magic for Beginners probably should’ve been on that embarrassingly personal list last post. Jeepers, what a book.)

The last book in Murakami-thrall that I read was David Mitchell’s Number 9 Dream. It was something of a disappointment. Hall’s book is far, far better, and takes its Murakami influence in an interesting new direction. It’s great to see a talented author mining the Murakami-weirdness-vein, a mile deep but fairly narrow (by which I mean, when you see something that’s Murakami-weird, you know it, and it goes to the bone, but it doesn’t happen all that often. Mr Nobody in this book? Murakami-weird.) He’s doing his own things with it, too, which is awesome: using the effect, and something of the style, but not slavishly imitating. So much of Number 9 Dream seemed that way to me: more of a pastiche than a creative use of source material.

Anyway, you could say New Fabulism is just another name for Fancy Genre Writing. You could say it is just another name for non-realism. (Murakami, especially, would be sure to disagree with that, I think: a lot of his writing is realism, and he’s translated some of the biggies, like Carver and Fitzgerald, although Fitzgerald’s a lot weirder than everyone seems to think. Remember the billboard in Great Gatsby?) I think the key to this kind of writing might be its insistence on the “real world,” or some recognizable version thereof, as a place where weird shit happens. It is a kind of alternate realism, maybe. Dream realism. Deep realism. (I’d love to see DFW tackle a novel like this, although a lot of the stories in Oblivion could be construed this way, actually.) It seems to be about layers of meaning, in a way that builds upon high-postmodernism but actually moves past it, for once. And about the ways in which fantasy worlds are a part of the real world: we’ve made them such, and many occupy them much more fully than the “real” world.

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