Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Roberto Bolaño's 2666: The Part About Amalfitano (tr. by Natasha Wimmer)

(Blogger's note: this is Part 2 of a [probably] five-part post about Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Click here to read Part 1, if you haven't already) 

This entry is where it's going to be a bit absurd to be devoting a post to each of the five parts, as "The Part About Amalfitano" is a whopping 68 pages long, but Roberto Bolaño packed a lot into those 68 pages of 2666.

We learn right away a thing or two about our hero, that Oscar Amalfitano (a Chilean professor with an Italian name to go with the mysterious German writer with the Italian name) whom the Critics snubbed but whose help and company they accepted in northern Mexico as the closest thing they were going to get to a Native Companion in the David Foster Wallace sense: that he has a daughter, and that the weird book of poems about geometry that was hanging from the clothesline at his house was there for rather more interesting reasons than we might have suspected. Also, he has an entertainingly eccentric ex-wife. And he might be a semi-closeted gay man with a lot of internalized self-loathing about that. Which the Critics kind of suspected, but for the wrong reasons.

First, the daughter. Rosa, by the time the Critics come to Santa Teresa, is a teenaged girl who has been raised almost exclusively by her father, who seems to have done a creditable job in that she has grown up into a competent and capable young woman with a healthy social life and a bottomless well of patience to draw on as she gets sucked more and more into the role of housekeeper in her father's book-infested household. Her mother left when she was just a baby, came back once when she was about ten years old, and both times left her without saying good-bye. She has a half-brother, her mother's little son by some man other than Amalfitano, somewhere in the world, probably Europe, whom she seems unlikely ever to meet. And also, because her mother was Spanish, Rosa has a European passport, while her father's is South American, meaning when they travel together they have to go through separate lines at airports' Customs and Immigration areas, resulting in a few slightly traumatic scenes in both of their pasts. Rosa is also, of course, just the right age to be targeted by the serial killer whose existence was only hinted at in "The Part About the Critics" but is started to emerge as a full-blown matter for concern in "The Part About Amalfitano." Gosh, I can't imagine why...

The geometry/poetry book is a tome that turned up in one of Amalfitano's many boxes of books when he moved from Barcelona, where he'd held a faculty position on a contract that ran out right around the time he met an appealing woman professor from the university in Santa Teresa and let her recruit him. He can't account for its existence in his collection at all, has never been to Santiago de Compostela, let alone to its bookstore whose label is on its cover, knows next to nothing about the poet who wrote it, one Rafael Dieste, who was an actual person and not a Bolaño creation. As I'll discuss in a moment, Amalfitano, with Bolaño's help, might be obscuring a more personal connection to this poet from us, but for the moment we must simply accept that he has no idea why he owns a copy of Testamento Geometrico (not a real book, but similar to a maybe-real book*). He has no intention of actually reading it, nor can he persuade Rosa to give it a try, so he does what any self-respecting Chilean-sea-bass-out-of-water would do, he uses it to recreate a Marcel Duchamp "Readymade"**, in which a geometry textbook was hung from a clothesline and exposed to the elements. Amalfitano decides to do the same with his unwanted poetry book, and expresses hopes that the book, full of idealizations about abstractions about the world, will learn something about the real world, or perhaps that the wind riffling its pages will learn something about geometry, and thus about the artificial structures it blows around and through in cities like Santa Teresa.

As for the poet, Dieste, while the dates of Dieste's actual life don't really match up, I can't stop thinking about the possibility that Dieste could be the poet with whom Amalfitano's wild thing of a wife, Lola, becomes obsessed to the point of ditching her husband and baby daughter to go off and hatch a screwball plan to break The Poet out of a Spanish mental hospital and begin an itinerant lifestyle with him in France and have his baby. Despite The Poet being gay. Now, since I know nothing at all about Rafael Dieste, I don't know if he was gay or if he spent time in a mental hospital -- it doesn't seem, from a few minutes googling, that either was true of him, but I kept running into articles in Galician and my straight up Spanish is terrible, so I'm not prepared to make a firm statement about what I found. HOWEVER...

If Dieste and The Poet are the same person, that would be one reason right there for Amalfitano to have a subconscious hostility toward Dieste's book, of a kind that would let him justify mistreating it as an homage to Duchamp***. His wife's obsession with The Poet ruined his family, after all.

BUT... 

Amalfitano may have a hand in all this himself. For while Lola insists that she met The Poet long ago and even had a one-night-stand with him at a party hosted by "the gay philosopher" with whom The Poet then lived (and which the philosopher and two other friends allegedly watched), Amalfitano's version of the backstory to her obsession is very different: she had never heard of The Poet before Amalfitano introduced her to The Poet's work. Lola is a free spirit, to say the least, and very liberal with her embroideries on the truth, and is perfectly capable not only of appropriating another's story as her own but on embellishing the hell out of it, which then brings up the question: since the alleged sexual encounter with The Poet can't actually have happened with Lola, could it have actually been Amalfitano's story originally? One of which he is deeply ashamed, as his extensive internal dialogue (we'll get to that) with himself, laden as it is with expressions of internalized homophobia, strongly suggests?

Did I mention there's a lot packed into these 68 pages? There's a lot.

But so, some more about Lola. We get her whole back story before we've learned anything, really, about Amalfitano or his daughter, via a series of rambling and unfiltered letters she sent to Amalfitano during her rampages through Spain and France. She is a deeply unreliable narrator so it's impossible to tell what, if anything, is true, but these letters are some of the most entertaining storytelling in all of 2666. Lola has no shame, nor much sense of self-regard; she doesn't mind looking filthy or being used as a prostitute or sleeping rough in a cemetary, will tell any lie she needs to in order to achieve a goal and comes up with some whoppers. I would read a whole novel about Lola. But I'll take what I can get.

Later on, after Lola has sashayed into the sunset and Rosa has grown into a teenager, Amalfitano has developed some odd habits that may well grow out of his internal issues with regards to The Poet, whether or not The Poet is Dieste: he's started making strange geometric doodles in which he tries to visually map the relationshps between various philosophers and other famous thinkers, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Jacques Lacan and Doris Lessing and including both Harold and Allan Bloom. And he's started hearing a voice in his head that claims to be his long-dead grandfather, but later admits merely to being his father. And his head-father is obsessed boxing (which will be a big part of the next book "The Part About Fate") with the idea that all Chileans are homosexuals (except dad mostly says "faggot" because dads gotta dad) and that he, Amalfitano probably is one, too, and dad's feelings about that possible fact are conflicted. Twice in this section someone muses about the idea that madness is contagious; with these aural hallucinations it seems that Amalfitano has either caught it from his wife, or might have been the Patient Zero in this relationship. This section, after all, starts with him asking himself a few rhetorical questions about why the hell he's even in Santa Teresa.

Meanwhile and elsewhere in Santa Teresa, they keep finding dead bodies of teenaged girls and young women in vacant lots near the edge of the desert, because 2666 gotta 2666. And while Rosa is mature for her age and very capable, she sure tends to get home late a lot...

One last bit of interest, here, though it may be nothing. We get to see a bit of the true relationship between Amalfitano and the son of the Dean of the university, Miguel Antonio Guerra -- a rather unpleasant young man with a habit of going to rough clubs in the city and pretending to be gay, the better to pick fights, and whom the Critics in "The Part About the Critics" at first suspected of being Amalfitano's highly inappropriate paramour. Guerra seems intended to be an early red herring candidate for being The Killer in that he is the only person we've encountered for who actively seeks out violence and goes armed.****

And... I still don't know what to make of Amalfitano's Part-ending dream in which Boris Yeltsin "the last of the Communist philosphers" (would Yeltsin, who presided over the fire sale of state assets to a bunch of would-be oligarchs that allowed them to become actual oligarchs, agree to this title, I wonder?) reveals to him the true economic formula of our times, which is apparently "supply+demand+magic" where magic is probably actually just advertising, or, as Amalfitano reckons magic to be "epic and also sex and Dionysian mists and play," which sounds like advertising to me and now I'm thinking once again about one of my favorite films of all time, based on a novel by one of my favorite writers, the blisteringly awesome Generation P***** (which, actually, prominently features one Boris Yeltsin in its phantasmagoria) and I can think of no better way to end this post and this section of 2666 than by embedding the film in its entirety here, just to be stupid, but really, you should just fire up YouTube on an actual television and bask in its glory properly (I got to see it on the big screen and chat with its director for a bit afterwards because once upon a time I got to do awesome things like go to the Toronto International Film Festival). Go forth and marvel at the film that predicted Deep Fakes by more than a decade, my lovelies!

And then watch this space for more 2666, coming very soon.

*As in it's hard to tell. One can google Dieste's Nuevo Tratado del Paralelismo, and get a few hits that even show a charmingly worn copy in a photograph, complete with a table of contents, but since most of the sites that link to it are actually dedicated to 2666, I'm not sure if it's a real book either. I mean, I myself own a hoodie that celebrates my "visit" to Oakland, CA's entirely fictional Telegraph Records from Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, after all. But clearly, Rafael Dieste sounds like an interesting man and an interesting poet I look forward to learning more about someday.

**Kind of a spiritual ancestor to Yoko Ono's "Instructions" maybe?

***Who, by the way, entitled his work exposing a geometry book to the elements the Unhappy Readymade, and by the way, Duchamp didn't actually do this to a book but told his sister to do it. She did, and later made a painting of the book after it had been exposed. Only this painting of the original project survives now.

****Of course, I think we've already had a glimpse of the person who will be determined is the most likely suspect in the killings, in another bar, in "The Part About the Critics", where Espinoza drinks alone the day they've dropped off Liz. All Espinoza notices about him is that he is very tall, tall like Archimboldi is said to be just exceedingly ridiculously tall, but this man seems too young to be Archimboldi. Is this [REDACTED]? As usual, I don't effing remember if this is a dot that gets connected or not.

*****Based on Victor Pelevin's terrific and criminally underappreicated novel Homo Zapiens. It's a very faithful adapatation.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Chris Farnell's FERMI'S PROGRESS Quartet

Imagine a cool, well-appointed, fairly advanced-compared-to-what-we-have-now spaceship. Something like, say, the good old Starship Enterprise, its five year mission to explore strange new worlds etc., etc. Only with a much, much smaller crew. And that crew consists of Arnold Schwarzenegger's and Danny DeVito's characters from Ivan Reitman's Twins (1988), a billionaire (yeah, this isn't the Star Trek universe's post scarcity economy, nor is it that far into the future; Donald Trump is still something about which our heroes are embarrassed) and a subcontinental Indian trans woman who is a hell of an engineer. There will be a bit more crew as we go, but to start up, that's it.

Sounds like a bit of a good time but nothing like a good time that we haven't already had before over the last fifty years or so. It must be a pretty good time since we've been having it and coming back to it for fifty years or so, but still. Ho, hum.

Except this groovy spaceship, built by a somewhat deranged supergenius completely on the sly in the late 1970s but only brought to life and readied for its maiden voyage twenty minutes into our future, is powered by something even worse than nuclear bombs, something nobody really understands that well but does, in fact, give humanity the hope, and the reality, of faster-than-light travel. Except that part about nobody understanding it that well? Not the mad scientist who originally built it, and not the trans woman engineer, whose name is Rajita, and oh no, there's nobody else to consult about it because...

Because as soon as its engine is fired up for the very first time, it completely destroys not our good old planet Earth but also its entire solar system. Right on its first test run, which was supposed to be a quick trip to another nearby system with a few potentially habitable exoplanets that humanity could some day spread out to and colonize let's go make a quick jaunt and see if they're really going to be suitable for that except NO. Well, yes, but no. No more need to find additional homes for humanity because there's no more humanity. Or elephants. Or mosquitos. Or cockroaches, Or coronaviruses. Or rocks. Or water. Or atoms. 

Nothing left to save except four human beings who were heading out on a little shakedown cruise.

And no, this is not a spoiler; it's the entire premise of this quartet of novellas, as the jacket copy says. What if the Enterprise was a giant unstoppable genocide machine but instead of a steady and capable Archer/Pike/Kirk/Picard/Sisko/Janeway/Georgiu/Saru/Killy, there's twin brothers Samson (Schwarzenegger, the twin who got shot up with the supersoldier serum, the top notch education, the optimal nutrition program, etc.) and Connor (Devito, the Control) (Oh, and both of them are the biological sons of the mad scientist, who was a barely-reconstructed Nazi and thus obsessed with genetics and might have left booby traps on the ship that can only be disarmed by people who share his DNA), the aforementioned Rajita, and Liz Gordon, the billionaire tech sis who rounded up this crew and provided the impetus to take the Fermi out of orbital mothballs and see what it could do. They don't know each other all that well -- even the brothers are barely acquainted, as they weren't raised together because Connor was the Control, yannow -- were not selected for optimal compatibility or skill sets or psychological fitness to go out into deep space and certainly weren't in any way prepared to deal with the fact that, oopsie daisy, they just killed billions and billions of humans, exterminated, possibly, all of the other life in the universe and also wrecked any chance of a resupply on food, water, oxygen, coffee, clean underwear...

So yeah, these stories have as dark an undertone as you could ask for right from the get go. And what author Chris Farnell has decided to do with them makes them even darker, but also occasionally strangely breezy and even fun -- and that's despite, not because of, the quippiness of a lot of the dialogue. Always with the wise cracks and the odd pop culture reference, these four. But wait! There's more!

The first novella, Dyson's Fear (brillant title), is also structurally the most interesting, as it jumps about through time, playing out events before and after the Fermi's fatal launch. Each chapter is located in time relative to that launch, so some things are described as taking place several hundred days "before you die" and others up to 32 days "after you died" -- when the crew of the Fermi arrive in that solar system they'd planned to peek in on. Only our data on it was way out of date because even the speed of light isn't that fast on the scale of galaxies, amirite? 

What they find is not a star and its orbiting planets and assorted debris, but a Dyson sphere - an artificial structure that completely encompasses the star, capturing all of that star's energy and diverting it to some dedicated purpose quite alien to whatever the star might think its purpose is. Usually as we imagine it, it's a kind of mega-habitat, which turns out to be the case here as the Fermi slows down and docks with it, with Samson, Connor and Gordon forming humanity's first ever away team. A very, very flawed away team. They have entertaining and engaging adventures within the sphere, seeking out new life and new civilizations that fortunately have already invented the Universal Translator, but meanwhile, back on the Fermi Rajita has company in the form of a robot avatar of the artificial intelligence that created and runs the Dyson sphere and together they discover that umm hurry up guys get back on the ship because it's going to power up again and do the same thing it did to our good old solar system really damned soon!

And so as the second novella, Descartesmageddon, starts up, the crew has grown by one as the robot avatar of the Dyson sphere, which calls itself World, has uploaded as much of its solar system-sized mind into the robot to survive the destruction of its grand creation, and everybody now has two unbelievably-scaled acts of accidental genocide on their consciences. On World's wise advice, they've set course for a completely empty bit of space so they can't accidentally destroy another entire system, but of course that goes wrong and they find themselves in orbit around a fascinating, richly described and downright bizarre new planet they are now an existential threat to, but need to visit because they're running out of food and oh, look, this one is at the tail end of a zombie apocalypse! As they take up orbit, Rajita reveals that after the scrapes the away team got into last time, she's turned the Fermi's bank of 3D printers to making guns, and after a bleakly entertaining discussion about the morality of going into the arms dealing racket (it's all they've got to trade for food) as their second foray into first contact, down they go.

What happens planetside is exciting, challenging and poses even more of an ethical/philosophical head-scratcher than Dyson's Fear did, for the zombies on this hellish-looking world aren't your typical shamblers moaning for braaaaaaains; they're Cartesian zombies. And aliens. They're Cartesian zombie aliens. But, just like the good old zombie plagues of a thousand movies and novels before it, the zombie state is contagious. And jumps the species gap. Or does it?

This adventure leaves lasting impacts on the crew and its group cohesion, as Rajita in particular winds up bonding with a group of natives on this latest world in a way that suggests her neurodivergence has clicked with other individuals in a way she hasn't before, giving Descartesmageddon an emotional resonance that the previous novella lacked and that we don't see again really in the rest of the series. But that's all star systems blown up under the bridge. Or something.

With yet another systemicide under their belts and some new passengers, if not yet crewmates, in tow, the Fermi's next port of call is one of the most unusual alien worlds I've encountered in fiction; the civilization the crew meets are all in some way involved, as the title Planet of the Apiaries indicates, in beekeeping. But not in the way you're thinking, cute in their outfits and screen-hats frolicking with screens full of honeycombs in their backyards; these bees are gigantic, and they don't make honey, they make starship fuel. Which the Fermi needs if its to continue on its destructive way (it's established early on in the series that stopping the Fermi would be even worse than letting it rampage through the universe). Oh, and these aliens? Communicate via body language or dance (like bees!) and their names all denote some kind of idiosyncratic hand position or gesture. Love it!*

The narrative that results here is an intricate Rube-Goldberg plot of escapes that use all three dimensions and then pit the crew against a new kind of alien that, even more than the Cartesian zombies of the previous world, turns our friends' neurological weaknesses against them, which allows the introduction of entire new characters that have always been there but the crew -- and we -- forgot them, or never noticed them, or never noticed that we'd forgotten them, because aliens can hijack our own neurological weaknesses now. Do these novellas keep getting better? They keep getting better, and this one ends on an existential/philosophical cliffhanger that manages to make the progress of a star system-destroying ship even more of an ethical dilemma than it already was, but also gives our crew a purpose they've been starting to lack as we start into The Phone Job.

The Phone Job starts us off by passing through several new systems that offer tantalizing delights that any space Stephen Maturin would be screaming in frustration not to get to explore -- right before they are annihilated, maintaining the series' incredibly dark tone even as we see the crew have found a new diversion in the form of tossing a rubber ball and letting it progress through the entire torus of their ship before returning to the thrower, who just has to turn 180 degrees to catch their own throw. I mean, how would you take your mind off things? Watch TV? And know that every person involved in the making of that show is dead and so are all the other things you're seeing on the screen and even that city they're in and even that country, that continent, that entire planet, that entire solar system? I'd probably mostly throw a ball around, too.

Except Liz Gordon, Gordon gotta Gordon, and even though the World has near-infinite processing power and knowledge and hasn't been able to find the source of the revelation that ended Planet of the Apiaries (which, by the way, came via goofball Connor's insight, because he's only dumb compared to Samson, remember), Gordon thinks she can find what the World cannot, namely the bit of computer code they have to change to stop their never-ending death parade. Preferably before she has to open their last tin of coffee.

And then the Fermi brings them all to the most inhabited system yet, and it's one where Liz soon feels right at home: the headquarters of the Greater Galactic Commercial Network. That's right, there finally is an interstellar empire, and it's captialist AF, baby!

And the GGCN possesses technology that can maybe put a stop to the Fermi's interstellar murder spree! But capitalism, so Gordon and goofball Connor, natural enemies as they've proven to be, have to team up to bilk -- err, trade -- to get that technology. You'd think they'd have a pat hand with their monopoly on faster-than-light travel but not with those two playing it...

While, as with the rest of the novellas in the series, everything comes together in the end (Farnell is very good with complicated-yet-tight plots), and we do get something like closure, I'm also delighted to discover that at some point in the future we're going to get more Progress out of Fermi.

See what I did there? Eh? Eh?

*Really, this world is kind of an inside-out version of Clark Thomas Carleton's wonderful Antasy trilogy, in which humans have evolved into tiny, tiny beings perfectly sized to ride insects like warhorses, share anthills with various ant species, use locusts as planes in their air force, and adopt many of their domesticated arthopod pals' other traits just to survive. It's the coolest idea for a fantasy series, maybe ever (and no, it's not just Dune with Literal Insects, although of course it is a lot Dune with Literal Insects)! The third volume of which just dropped late last month and I'll be buzzing about very, very soon.

 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Roberto Bolaño's 2666: THE PART ABOUT THE CRITICS (tr by Natasha Wimmer)

There's a really neat passage very early on in this first of the five volumes that make up Roberto Bolaño's posthumous doorstop novel, 2666, which has next to nothing to do with the plot or any other developments within the volume or the novel as a whole, but gives an early hint of at least one reason why so many people outright revere Roberto Bolaño as rendered by Natasha Wimmer in English:
The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned around (drops), swallowed up by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.*
This passage is especially exquisite in John Lee's note perfect narration of the audio edition of "The Part About the Critics" -- his onomontopaeic rendering of the (drops) is goddamned art. But more about Lee in a bit.

I have a weird history with 2666. When an American edition was announced back in 2008, I pre-ordered it in a sweaty fever of excitement, ready to see if it would give me the kind of cramp from carrying it around that Infinite Jest did back in my 20s. I reckoned not, since I'd switched from foot-commuting with an overstuffed backpack of books and whatnot (seriously, if EDC was a thing in the 90s, I'd have been its queen. It was ridiculous, the shit I had in my backpack every day) to bike commuting, with the heavy stuff in panniers. But when it arrived, I had gotten distracted by... something. This was before I'd started this blog, before I was on GoodReads; metrics and tracking data not available, so I don't remember what it was that distracted me, but I'm sure it was very shiny.

So I didn't actually pick it up to read until it was kind of too late for me to do so, as in, I didn't start reading it until the chronic pain that has come to warp everything about my entire life started warping my life and making things like holding a giant 900+ page book and turning its pages an exercise in agony (but hey, it could have been worse. I could have waited for the trade paperback. Can't do those even a little bit, trade paperbacks). But the buzz about it was still strong, and the first section, "The Part About the Critics", had such a strong whiff of my very favorite book, probably of all time, Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (the first ebook I ever bought despite owning a first edition hardcover, because I wanted to spare further wear and tear on that hardcover more than I wanted not to spend ten bucks on a book I already owned) that I gritted my teeth and soldiered on for a while, but found myself interspersing this painful-but-fascinating experience with other books as has always been my bad habit, but soon I was finishing whole other novels in between bouts with the behemoth, and then whole series of novels, and then...

I know I eventually read the whole thing, but it was a horrible slog, and not necessarily because of anything inherent to the novel itself. I didn't remember things, didn't want to page physically back to find what I was missing, and eventually that kind of thing spoiled my enjoyment almost as much as the screeching pain in my hands, wrists, elbows, shoulders etc. did.

Fast foward many years. It's 2021. I'm watching the 2 Month Review podcast while enjoying the hell out of Vernon Subutex, and one of the guests is professional translator Katie Whittimore, who at that time was, I think, just wrapping up her translation of the Bolaño-esque Last Words on Earth, and I thought, hey, it's high time I gave 2666 another try. And I had an Audible credit burning in my pocket. And I figured, what the hell.

Then the kids at 2 Month Review decided that 2666 was going to be the next big honkin' book they tackle, and books like this are always fun to read with pals, so here I am, giving it another go and this time I'm loving it entirely. Amazing what a lack of physical discomfort can do. Plus, the thought of having other people to talk to about it (which was lacking in my 2008-or-so life). Anyway, the gang's first episode of their season devoted to 2666 dropped this week (and Katie is a full-time co-host for it!). Give it a watch or a listen. The discussion went to some very weird places.

But so, "The Part About the Critics", which is the first of the five "books" that comprise 2666. Ahem.

As I mentioned, this first part gives strong Foucault's Pendulum vibes, in that it chiefly concerns a circle of four literary academics/critics who are all obsessed with the output and career of a mysterious German author (with an Italianate surname), Benno von Archimboldi. We have the Frenchman, Jean-Claude Pelletier, the Spaniard Manuel Espinoza, the Englishwoman (and only woman in the club) Liz Norton, and the Italian Piero Morini (I think I wrote a novel like this when I was 11. I remember bugging my mom to come up with good names for a Frenchman and a Spaniard and an Italian and a German, but they were traveling by ship and about to encounter pirates). They hop from conference to conference all over Europe in that enviable-seeming way that European intellectuals seem always to be doing, become, essentially, the Mean Group of German Literature (but of course don't see themselves that way), get overly entangled (sometimes literally) in each other's lives while still actually hardly knowing each other outside the sphere of their mutal obsession (while thinking they know each other very well indeed and not just because both Pelletier and Espinoza wind up having overlapping love affairs with Norton), and go on odd little side quests trying to learn more about their famously reclusive and mysterious literary hero.

There is a famous passage in the first half of this volume, in which a story-within-a-story (within a story) that is sort of kind of about Archimboldi but is really mostly about a Frisian woman's adventures in 1920s Argentina. It is all told in one extraordinarily run-on sentence that takes up almost six pages in my first edition hardcover. Everybody talks about it; it's a pretty wild thing and quite a shaggy dog story that really kind of thematically prefigures a decent amount of what's to come in 2666. It is, however, a whole 'nother degree of remarkable in the audio book edition, and not just because it takes up a full 15 minutes of narration at regular speed. Once again, John Lee is perfection in rendering it, but here he benefits from the hand of an unknown production lackey whose job it was to edit out the inevitable flubs and coughs and misreadings that are part of every audio book narrator's raw performed recording, because that person (or people) also has to edit out any breath sounds. Which is something nobody ever notices or remarks on in ordinary audio books, of course, but in the Blackstone Audio/John Lee English language edition of 2666 this passage reaches new heights of sheer uncanniness, for while Lee of course pauses very briefly between clauses, there is nary a breath sound or even enough of a pause for a breath to be taken for the whole 15 minutes.

I know this because I was already deeply interested in how this passage would be handled when I first sat down with this audio book, and then I played it back again many, many times in sheer awe, not so much of the technical achievement or apparent stamina of John Lee so much as the overall over-the-top ridiculousness of the final effect.

I have to wonder, though, if people for whom this audio edition is their first read through of 2666 even notice this bit? Does it even register as a pages-long sentence if prior meta-knowledge hasn't prepared one for such a sentence? Or does it just flit by with the rest of the narration? Let me know in the comments if you are such a one.

Anyway... back to the text.

I'm a very different person in 2021 than I was in 2008-ish. Back then I identified, of course, with Liz, though only sort of in that she's the token girl. I dreamed of someday being something like her, though I never have made it to visit even one bit of Europe, let alone all of them. I've had overlapping lovers who were also friends, etc. etc. I'm a book nerd who's shy on academic credentials (much is made of how Liz is the only one of the Critics who isn't a full professor, hasn't written a dissertation or earned a PhD yet. Eyeroll). I've been the trained attack poodle who eviscerated a verbal opponent on my hind legs whom my peers praised more for doing it at all than for how well I did it. I've definitely had my bona fides to participate in a conversation evaluated on my fuckability instead of my actual qualifications. Etc.

But now I'm partially disabled, and so my focus has shifted irrevocably to Morini, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair (not due to the disease so much as a result of a car accident that took place prior to the events of the novel)  and seems rather an asexual ascetic of a person in contrast to the sexcapades of his friends. My disability antenna vibrate hard in every scene that includes him; I find quickly that he doesn't have an electric wheelchair, for instance -- his friends are often depicted as pushing him around places -- but he gets around almost miraculously well on his own, never encountering accessibility issues and, to my constant awe, never experiencing hand cramps or anything like the agonies I've experienced the few times I've had to use a manual wheelchair.* But presumably 1) His hands and arms are not messed up like mine are and are indoubtedly in better "shape" from doing this activity all the time and 2) Doing it all the time has given him callouses and whatnot that I lack. 

Also, his condition is deteriorating and he is frequently ailing when the other three call him on the phone**, but apart from the perfunctory half-acknowledgment whenever he honestly answers their automatic "how are you"s, the other three aren't terribly interested in how he actually is and rush to dump their latest findings about Archimboldi, literary gossip, and gossip about each other into his increasingly frail lap. Ha and also rumph. And perhaps emblematically and standing in for all three for a moment when it happens, Liz doesn't even see Morini as a man (even as a whole 'nother person, perhaps?) until a hypnagogic episode late in the story has her thinking she saw him standing in a corridor, some distance away from his chair.

Of course, to a degree Morini is partially responsible for this, as when he is temporarily struck blind for a bit but doesn't tell anyone...

He also winds up being left behind when Pelletier, Espinoza and Norton decide to hare off to Mexico to follow up on an account of Archimboldi having surfaced in Mexico City with the intention of proceeding to a fictional town based on Ciudad Juarez, Santa Theresa, on the U.S. border -- where, as Morini discovers in some extracurricular reading, some 100 people have disappeared and been found murdered. The area is home to lots of maquilas (and in the good old 2020s would now, if it actually existed, be a place where a lot of people who came to the U.S. border seeking political asylum get diverted and left in limbo, so it's easy for people to get lost and a prime hunting ground for, that's right, a serial killer. Or maybe more than one? There are over 100 victims).

(A lot more)

Nor is this the only hint of foreboding we get before the Mexico trip. On the ramp-up to this jaunt, we've had some shocking developments, including the appearance of possible additional rivals for Norton's affections in the persons of her brutish ex-husband and of of a much younger secondary school teacher and it is perhaps partly these that trigger a suprising burst of violence on the part of Pelletier and Espinoza, not against the husband or the teacher, but against a cab driver with whom they have what seems like a small disagreement but then it spirals wildly out of control until the cab driver crudely insults Norton. The critics demand he stop the cab, and when he demands payment, Pelletier and Espinoza deliver a playground beatdown that goes way too far. This sours the friends' relationships for quite some time, to the point where later on Morini up and disappears from the hotel they're all staying at for yet another conference, and stays incommunicado for several days and isn't terribly interested in telling everybody how he spent his time.

And then there's one Edwin Johns. On an earlier London trip, the group visited an art gallery whereat this very unusual artist had a show. His art is plenty interesting in its own right, but then the last piece turns out to be arresting as hell, "an ellipsis of self-portraits" containing at its center a mummified human hand. It turns out to be Johns' human hand, the one with which he paints. He cut it off deliberately, took it to a taxidermist to be preserved, and incorporated it into that work. Johns, becomes a secondary object of the Critics' fascination because of course he does (a factor in "The Part About the Critics" is that sooner or later all four of them come to realize that there just isn't enough known about Archimboldi to make him a suitable subject for the kind of all-consuming obsession to which they're all longing to surrender; he's never going to be enough by himself), and so we are treated to a side trip when the three male Critics travel to Switzerland pretty much expressly to meet Johns so they can ask him why he did it. They are not satisfied with his answer "To make money" but in this day and age I think this is a perfectly acceptable one. Artists' works get more valuable after they're dead because then there comes to be a finite number of them; the source is for ever gone. Somebody else makes the millions that their work sells for.

How else can a living artist see that kind of financial windfall? Johns has found a way to shut down his art factory forever (unless he trains himself to paint with his other hand, or his left foot or with a paintbrush in his mouth like several disabled artists do, etc) without having to, you know, die. Except maybe he needed to get a bit more famous first...

Anyway, if you can't tell, I'm as interested in Johns as in Archimboldi, and it's driving me crazy that I can't remember if we get more Johns in 2666 or not. Of course, Liz , who missed the trip to Switzerland to meet the man himself, is unaccountably drawn to another -- or possibly the same? -- exhibit when she returns to London after bailing on Pelletier and Espinoza in Mexico, and learns one last bizarre fact about him but... is there more?

But so, "The Part About the Critics" was not my favorite back in the day, and time has only brought me to dislike the titular critics more (while leaving my love for Casaubon, Diotallevi and Jacopo Belbo largely intact). I'm ready to move on and spend some time with poor Amalfitano, who is one of the many people the critics have snubbed, taken for granted, and regarded as in every way lesser than, even though he, unlike they, has actually lived a life. And had a wife. And raised a child, as we'll see pretty soon in "The Part About Amalfitano."

Stay tuned, true believers.

*I've only had to do this so far when I'm required to be in constant motion around a large space like when I'm running an event, or when I'm shopping in a large store with brutal concrete floors that doesn't have motorized carts for the handicapped; otherwise I do all right with a cane. So far. Thank goodness for my rheumatologist and my Humira prescription.

**Which they do with incredible frequency. In the days when this was still a land-line-only proposition. Presumably with long distance charges for international calls. Yet blithely they phone around even more profligately than they hop plains to go to symposia or just to visit each other. And not all of them are Baby Boomers so this is all weird and unlrelateable but hey, one of the reasons I read so much is so I can experience as many other lives as possible in the short span of my own. Especially since my physical space is so restricted now.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Manuela Draeger's ELEVEN SOOTY DREAMS (tr by J.T. Mahany)

"If the Party had been warned," Maryama Adougaï ventured, they could have saved us from outside!" "The Party no longer exists," Imayo Özberg remarked... "Maybe it existed in the past, but today it's not even in basement thirty-six, it simply no longer exists."
I've read me a few literary apocalypses in my day, visited me a few dying earths, watched me a few attempts to save our world through various means, but rarely have I felt it as viscerally as I did in the surreal but succinct Eleven Sooty Dreams.

While "Manuela Draeger"* gives us plenty of glimpses of an actual lifeless world of a quality that we might expect of a Stephen Baxter if not a J.G. Ballard (to name two of my favorite literary destroyers of worlds), it's not those images that got me. Sure, they're plenty poignant, but Eleven Sooty Dreams has much worse to offer in its 140 pages. 

Because Eleven Sooty Dreams is, above all else, an experience of genocide, writ small if no less total, in the form of eleven children being burned alive by their people's ethnic and/or political enemies.

Eleven Sooty Dreams offers us this horror in the form of a "post exotic" novel - a sub-genre of literary fiction I'm still wrapping my head around but that here, at least, seems to present itself as a story drawing on the conventions and images of all cultures and none (though I can almost imagine it taking place in the Beszel of China Mieville's The City & The City; especially as I surveyed the wonderful array of just-bizarre-enough proper nouns), so readers everywhere are on precisely the same footing as we explore a culture that is just foreign enough to us to give us the slight distance and breathing room necessary to appreciate the novel as art and as fiction, but still recognizable -- without appropriating the cultural, historical or symbolic baggage of any actual society that has existed in our world, at least not until the very end when some real world nations and historical figures are briefly mentioned.

Eleven children, the latest generation of an ethnic and political minority trapped in an almost completely destroyed city and a world that has been reduced to a series of concentration camps and ravaged ecosystems, have undertaken a daring mission. They sneak into a building under cover of a pride parade, hoping to steal some ammunition that can help their people rise up against oppression this time, instead of just marching with banners and slogans. Alas; another faction is enacting a plot to burn that same building to the ground under cover of that same parade.

This is not a spoiler, by the way; it's the entire premise of the book, spelled out in the jacket copy.

The sooty dreams of the title, then, are those of these children as their consciousness and bodies burn and warp and fuse in a timeless, blazing moment.

But this isn't just 140 pages of describing their agony; rather it explores the memories they all have in common, having grown up together in a semi- communal creche/school under the tutelage of one Granny Holgolde, an elder stateswoman of their movement who has charged herself with inspiring the next generation to cherish and fight for the ideals of a socialist movement understood as the dying remains of the long-lost Second Soviet Union (wherever and whenever that was). That she does so chiefly through stories of a perpetually reincarnated and peripatetic elephant named Marta Ashkarot, in which the humans she meets morph into "strange cormorants" when they die, is the chief source of the novel's surrealism.

Chief, but not only. Remember, these kids' consciousnesses are merging. "My memories are yours," and variations thereon, is an often-repeated refrain as hallucinatory accounts of, say, how the narrators' own parents met and each removed the other's mandatory placard that exhorted perfect strangers to murder these useless ethnic minority scum**, how the elephant named Marta Ashkarot spends some time being human and thinks it's weird to use hands instead of her trunk to manipulate things while she watches the natural world die off, how this one weird old soldier conducted their classes whenever their regular teacher got murdered by the state, how a girl who went out one day to fetch water wound up having a moving colloquy with the corpse of her little brother where it was tangled up in barbed wire...

All in all, quite possibly the strangest and saddest of the many strange and sad things I've read since I reviewed Stevan Allred's The Alehouse at the End of the World for Skiffy and Fanty. Eleven Sooty Dreams feels almost like a companion volume, or even a prequel, to that slab of weird. Which I was not expecting, least of all from a Russo-French author and the good folks at Open Letter Books. You just never know what those kids are going to come out with next.

Don't ever let them go on an ammunition raid.

*A heteronym of Antoine Volodine, about whom more in a future post.

**The narrator's mother's placard, for instance, reads "This woman is still alive. Isn't there something abnormal about this?"

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Amor Towles' THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY

Toward the ending of Amor Towles' latest, The Lincoln Highway a character pauses to look at a wall full of photographs, an elegaic moment he commemorates with these thoughts:

...the funny thing about a picuture is that while it knows everything that's happened up until the moment it's been taken, it knows absotively nothing about what will happen next. And yet, once the picture has been framed and hung on a wall, what you see when you look at it closely are all the things that were about to happen. All the un-things. The things that were unanticipated. And unintended. And irreversible.

Reading historical fiction, of which The Lincoln Highway is almost a platonic ur-example, is a lot like that. The characters and their world are perfectly established within the text and the reader comes to know everything that's happened within it, but after the last page is read, one can't but wonder what happened to them all next. Knowing, as the characters didn't, what history had in store for their world, right up to the present day.

As I started on my way through The Lincoln Highway, I kind of found myself wanting to hate it, but not quite being able to. A weird reading experience, to say the last, but of course it wasn't really the story or the characters I was wanting to hate (with a few unambiguous exceptions), but how history unfolded afterwards, for the better and for the worse -- and how rather more people than I would have originally thought are so upset that the worse happened (even if they themselves came through it just fine) that they'd rather the better hadn't happened either (even if they, too, have benefitted from it).

People read historical fiction for a couple of different reasons. A lot are for a kind of romance; the past becomes an impossible-to-reach kind of place where people dress and talk and eat and act differently and we're delighted to be tourists in that so-different world for a while. We might be encountering historical figures we've come to idolize and get directly to watch them doing the deeds that made them famous. Or we might see them through the eyes of an imaginary ordinary schmoe whose less famous deeds affect or are affected by those of the Great. Or we might enjoy the kind of plots we enjoy from other genres stitched onto historical events, witness the great popularity of things like murder mysteries set in Norman England (see especially Howard of Warwick, who does exactly this and makes them funny to boot), or high fantasy set in sort of France or Byzantium (hello, Guy Gavriel Kay), or that whole wild genre we call Weird Westerns. Or...

Or we might wish to visit the scenes of our own actual sort-of-remembered youths, in which romance threatens to yield to nostalgia. 

We're living through another period in which nostalgia has been weaponized to turn people against one another in the name of making things like they were in the good old days, which only about half of us seem willing to remember that the good old days (in this case, the early 1950s in the United States of America) were only really good for the people on the top of the socio-political heap. Not so great if you were poor, a person of color, disabled, LGBTQ+, neuro-divergent, etc. But look, I get it -- for the people who had it good in the 1950s, there were probably more people who had it better than any other humans in history before or since. There were good union jobs that let a person support a family on just one income. Public education had higher standards and everybody pulled together to see that they at least came close to meeting them. Ladies still wore pretty dresses and men wore suits and stylish hats and cars were big and luxurious and made out of real steel and real leather and stuff was built to last. Yada yada. 

But still, only some people got to enjoy that, and when everybody else started acting like they'd actually bought into that old American chestnut that anybody could have it if they only worked hard and behaved, well, the people on top, instead of trying to find a way to extend that good life to more people, they started squandering the resources that would have been required to achieve that on keeping everybody else down and out by whatever means necessary. And when everybody else wouldn't just meekly say, okay sir, sorry, I'll go back to my hovel and starve now -- things got nasty, and have been getting nastier ever since.

Point being, nostalgia for the 1950s is pretty toxic in this endless plague year of 2020 And Some Months, and if you don't think so, you're probably part of the problem, and I really wish you'd go get vaccinated before you catch this stupid virus and die or give it to someone else and they die. And maybe consider that if you just realize that "Black Lives Matter" doesn't mean that other lives don't, but that people want you to realize that black lives matter, too. In adition to, rather than instead of, as it were.

But I digress.

But so, then, why did I even pick up a historical novel set in the very time and place that all of this weaponized nostalgia points to as those good old days, then? Well, two things: the author and the title.

I really liked Towles' earlier work, A Gentleman in Moscow, I've many friends who've told me that Rules of Civility is every bit as good... and I hear Amor Towles' name mentioned in the same breath as my beloved E.L. Doctorow more and more, it seems. So I'm inclined to have a look at anything else with his name on it that crosses my path. Meanwhile, this new book of his is named for the Lincoln Highway, aka US Highway 30, which passes a mere 20 miles north of the town where I grew up and whose length (disguised most of the way as Interstate 80*) I have traveled from sea to shining sea my own self. Plus, if you're a fan of that great but incomplete old HBO drama, Carnivale, you've spent some time on that good old Lincoln Highway in your imagination already. Not as sexy as Route 66, but a lot more important in that boring, utilitarian, sound and unflashy way -- kind of like the president it was named for.

Plus, as the early course of the plot sets us up to believe, this road trip novel suggests it's going to take us west, right through all of the Wyoming towns in which I've spent most of my life in one way or another -- the trail of postcards left by the first abandoning character (lots of abandoning happens in this book), for instance, includes stops in Cheyenne, Rawlins and Rock Springs on the way to sunny California. So, I mean, of course I was going to read this.

But I had my suspicions. And for a long time, it felt like my suspicions were right. Because even though the young heroes of The Lincoln Highway are down and out at story's beginning -- Emmet Watson was just granted compassionate early release from a reform school after his dad died, leaving no one else to care for Emmet's eight-year-old brother, Billy, and the two young rogues who stowed away on Emmet's ride back to his family's failed Nebraska farm, Duchess and Wooly -- are all able bodied, good-looking, intelligent young white men (and boy) of the type that had to make pretty much a deliberate effort to fail in the USA of the 1950s, even if two of them are semi-orphaned and one is slightly neuro-divergent.

But, thank goodness, as the journey proceeds, we meet some characters with some melanin, but even there it's a tiny bit problematic in that they are Paragons of Respectability By White Standards**. Chief among these is Ulysses, a big burly black man who saves little Billy from an attack, who is not only a war veteran but a man who was happily married with a child on the way until he joined the army to go fight in World War II -- against his wife's wishes. She didn't understand, or didn't care, about the social pressures that came to bear on able-bodied men (even ones with deferred jobs like he had) to not just serve but Serve. When he came home, having survived the war, his family was gone, and he's been searching for them ever since. There is a very touching moment as Billy, during their ripening acquaintance, insists to Ulysses that he must have been named for the Greek hero and not the Civil War general/U.S. President, and that Billy thinks maybe Ulysses is Great Ulysses reborn and is thus destined to regain his family after ten years of wandering (of course this Ulysses has been wandering for just over nine years when we meet him). Ulysses cries and lets himself begin to hope again after Billy tells him the very abridged version of the Odyssey that is in his prized possession, a compendium of heroes real and imaginary, from Achilles to Zorro, with -- and while this book already seems like the most 1950s object ever, it proves to be even more so when the charming detail is shared that there is no entry for the letter Y apart from "You", with blank space for a boy*** to write down his own adventures when he has them someday.

But so, see, this just reeks of little white savior crap, right? And this is never really addressed or redeemed except that it kind of is just by the sheer quality of this goddamned book. The Lincoln Highway is a beautiful read, with wonderful scenes both funny and tragic and poignant and, it's got one more quality that I found way more refreshing than I should have (an indictment more of my general choices as far as what I read than of anything else, I reckon): its primary hero, Emmet, is actually heroic. Not in the sense of saving damsels in distress or foiling deadly plots or capturing bad guys, but in the sense of having a strong moral compass that he actually obeys throughout, a strict code that he actually adheres to, but without a trace of toxic masculinity. He has high standards for himself and his behavior and subjects his decision making to rigorous scrutiny, having learned well by observing the failings of his parents from an early age even before he made the mistake that sent him to reform school far away and then received an even more thorough-going moral instruction that he took to heart BUT GET THIS, he doesn't get judgmental of others who don't live up to his standards. Nor does he lose his temper unless truly extremely and very deliberately provoked. At times he has the impulse to yield to fury for less -- many times, frankly, because while Billy is just precocious and trusting and thus a handful, Duchess and Wooly are, in their different ways, still rogues(though as the story proceeds we kind of see that maybe Emmet has rubbed off on them a little bit), rogues whose very existence throws monkey wrenches into Emmet's and Billy's plans almost before they're laid and whose quirks and caprices keep on creating obstacles to the Watson brothers' progress through the story -- but he checks himself, explains his reasoning, and moves on to solving a problem rather than spending time casting blame or seeking to punish anyone.

I think the last hero like Emmet that I've encountered was maybe Captain John Carter of Mars (and yes, I know, he was a Confederate captain, but that's before he became John Carter of Mars). Kind of refreshing, is what I'm saying.

But see where this is still dangerous? I'm afraid that The Lincoln Highway could be a very dangerous book, with all the charm and musicality of prose of, say, Doctorow's Ragtime but without its notes of social criticism. It's a deeply pleasurable read if you can shut off that little nag of social conscience that I hope most of *my* readers have at any rate.

But maybe I'm the asshole for assuming that it's going to be weaponized? Are the alt-right types even reading contemporary U.S. fiction that isn't being flogged to them on extremist podcasts and OAN? All the places I see reviewing this book so far are outlets that are not beloved of that crowd -- NPR, the New York Times, etc. So maybe I'm worrying about nothing and should just shut up and enjoy the book and let other people enjoy it. BUT, I am extremely online, so I see stuff exactly like this getting corrupted all the time, so yeah, I guess what I've got to do is hope they don't find this. And that Amor Towles isn't one of those guys? Which... he kind of could be? Because I have a feeling all of his fiction is like this, maybe?

Maybe I should just delete this blog post, which got way more political than mine usually do. I guess you should all be glad I don't read a lot of historical fiction set in 20th century America.

Don't worry. I'll be bombarding you with Roberto Bolaño soon.

*Though hey, in Wyoming there are stretches where the Interstate diverges from the old highway because a bunch of landowners strong-armed the government into re-routing it so they, instead of other people, could collect the compensation even though the route they forced the interstate to take was already known to be much less safe, more prone to closures in bad weather, all around just worse, and that stretch of the Interstate is one of the deadliest in the country and I really wonder how many of their fellow human beings' blood is on that compensation money those landowners got... just a few years after the events in this novel, actually...

***And, even more cringe, the closest thing we get to a villain of color is a side character who has light skin and freckles (and this is mentioned more than once to make sure we notice) and can thus be understood as of mixed race and I'm still cringing a little bit at that choice.

***Think many girls were given a book like this back then? My knee-jerk thought is of course not, but come on, the 1950s were no more definable only by the stereotypes about them than our times should be to people in the future, if there are any! Ha ha!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

Audr Ava Olafsdottir's BUTTERFLIES IN NOVEMBER (tr. by Brian Fitzgibbon)

 Rarely have I found a protagonist so unrelatable, a plight so enviable, an audio book narrator so unpleasant, but still wanted to finish the whole book because even so I was enjoying the hell out of just the idea of it and curious as to how it would end, even though I already knew that how it would end was in recipes.

(This is not a spoiler because this is announced very early in the text)

Audr Ava Olafsdottir's Butterflies in November made for one of the prickliest audio book experiences I've had to date, for all that I admire the perfect fitness of narrator Angele Masters for portraying the story's narrator-protagonist, an unnamed* youngish woman who embarks on an off-season picaresque along Iceland's ring road with an unlikely companion. 

Unnamed is a professional translator, fluent in 11 languages besides her native Icelandic and is very particular about words and word choices to the exclusion of much else, and so has recently found herself dumped both by her husband of four years (who has just gotten another woman pregnant and has decided he'd rather have a family with her than keep having arguments with Unnamed in which Unnamed quotes entire paragraphs from manuscripts she's working on even though they have little or nothing to do with the point of contention) and her not-terribly-secret lover (who seems to have just found their relationship kind of pointless but keeps showing up in this story anyway for Reasons) in the same day. Which would send your typical chick lit** protagonist into spirals of self-doubt if not outright self-hatred as she tries to figure out what's wrong with her, but Unnamed is not a chick lit protagonist. Whatever she is, it's not that.

Unnamed is no sooner partially settled into a new studio apartment (she still has to shelve her half of the books that are pretty much all she kept from her marriage) than her pregnant best friend has an accident on her new front steps that isn't itself so bad but winds up revealing that her pregnancy is going to be much more complicated than originally thought. The father of her unborn twins no longer on scene and the father of her fascinatingly odd four-year-old son, Tumi long gone, there is no one to care for the boy while Unnamed's friend (who gets a name, and it seems to be the same as the author's: Audr***, but I'm not sure if that's significant) is confined to the hospital until her twins are born. Except, of course, for Unnamed. 

But Unnamed has been telling people that, even though it's November in Iceland, she's planning a road trip to get a fresh start on her new life as a single woman and whatnot. And she's told this to so many people, so many times, that she's convinced herself it's what she actually wants.

Fine, Audr says. Take him with you. He's the easiest kid, he's no trouble at all, he'll teach you something. He'll change you. Audr actually says this, that Tumi will change Unnamed, like that's an end in itself.

Ah, but I mentioned that Tumi is a fascinatingly odd child. He is almost completely deaf and sports a gigantic hearing aid and a speech impediment. His vision isn't so great, either, so he also sports coke bottle glasses. He reads lips pretty well but mostly communicates with people in sign languages. Meaning Unnamed has a chance to add another language to her collection.

I mean, I would say yes, too.

To sweeten the deal, Unnamed manages to win not one but two lotteries right before the pair is to set off. She's won a movable summer bungalow, to be installed at a site of her later choosing, from a private lottery, and she's won a huge cash jackpot in the Icelandic national library -- using numbers that Tumi helped her to choose. She's now one of the richest people in Iceland! But her reaction to these windfalls is mostly to take them in their stride; it now means that she can put a huge stash of cash in her little car's glovebox and not have to worry about any emergency purchases she might have to make on their way. Sleeping bags, warm clothes, goldfish and a bowl... You know, quirky Icelandic things.

And at last they set off, going counter-clockwise and against the natural flow of life and traffic on Iceland's famous ring road (which I just enjoyed a virtual visual trip along in Brendan Walter's enjoyable 2018 film Spell). The relationshp between Unnamed and Tumi becomes a comfortable one as she learns to communicate with him and to meet his small needs, mostly for "Milk" as he frequently demands from strangers they meet along the way. They meet strange men, some of whom Unnamed has sex with. Unnamed muses to herself with astonishing frequency about the inherent failings of womanhood (not a feminist icon in the making, Unnamed). Various animals die. The pair wind up unintentionally semi-stalking a male Estonian choir and their accompanying female stripper, on a performance tour of rural Iceland. Tumi gets lost a lot and inappropriately refers to a few men as Daddy. They are not always the ones Unnamed sleeps with. There's not as much stuff about languages and words as I was led to expect. A lot of weird phrases pop up that I'm not sure originate with Olafsdottir or Fitzgibbon -- stuff like Unnamed noticing amidst a melange of smells the odor of things that have been removed from their customary settings? Angele Masters sounds strident and clipped and exactly how I think Unnamed would sound if she were British, except Unnamed isn't British and while frequently I hear non-British characters narrated by British audio book narrators and it just slips below my consciousness as I listen, with Butterflies in November I can't not notice it and it bugs me but I keep listening long past when I usually stop because the narrator is bugging me.

Did I like the novel? To be honest, good question.

*Why does it seem like half of the novels I've read lately have unnamed protagonists? It makes writing about my reading so unnecessarily awkward.

**Is this still a thing, by the way?

***One obnoxious fact about listening to audio books is that you don't often find out how names are being spelled in the text without consulting dozens of book reviews and promotional sites in the hopes that someone else has shared it, or actually hunting down some direct sample text and guys, just be glad I'm jumping through the painful hoops to produce this text at all.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Meredith Westgate's THE SHIMMERING STATE

 Like Paul Scott's classic Raj Quartet of decades past, this novel ought to have started with a thesis sentence that gave us a bit of a warning what was in store for us, like "This is the story of a rape." In Scott's novel, the actual, physical rape of a young woman is meant to illustrate in microcosm what the British had done to India; in Meredith Westgate's debut novel, The Shimmering State, there may or may not have been an actual physical rape, but there is most certainly a rape of a consciousness. The crime occurs after pages and pages depict a powerful older male film producer type -- the story takes place in a near-future Los Angeles -- taking choice after choice away from a young ballerina, Sophie, who is on the brink of making it big but who is still entirely vulnerable to the machinations of guys like him, who can destroy careers with a word -- or psyches with a dose of a hot new club drug that he's been evangelizing through all those same pages that he's been enjoying Sophie's discomfort at his attentions. The threat has loomed large from the very beginning. He's sure she'll enjoy it. Why does she keep saying no? The pressure that mounts is exquisitely awful; we know he's going to slip her a dose, it's just a question of when...

Whether or not he actually got into her pants after dosing her is therefore a moot point. 

Anyway, The Shimmering State is the story of a rape and what happened afterwards.

It's also the story of a young man, Lucien, who has allowed first his famous artist mother to subsume his identity in the usual way - dominating his life, though in a kindly way, and overshadowing his own artistic efforts to the point that even after her death his work is getting included in shows because he's his mother's son - and then lets his grandmother more literally subsume him when he swipes a couple of her experimental new Alzheimer drugs (the same ones used recreationally by the film producer*), meant to revive her mind with somehow curated versions of her own chemically stored memories.

Lucien, I should be clear, is not the rapist.

Sophie and Lucien, we find, knew each other slightly in the before times -- before Lucien started tripping on his grandmother's memories, and before the producer slipped Sophie a mickey composed of a thrill killer's memories -- before meeting again in a rehabilitiation clinic that treats bad cases by more or less stripping all of their memories and then carefully reintroducing only the ones the patients want or need to keep to be functioning, happy humans again. Despite their erasures, Lucien and Sophie feel drawn to each other and experience what might amount to the body remembering what the mind cannot. 

The story of how each of them wound up at the rehab clinic unfolds gradually, interspersed with servings of that of their progress through this weird therapy and a few episodes from the life of the clinic's head, who experiences a personal tragedy in the middle of it all that seems like it might put her at risk of joining her patients. This therapist, one Dr. Angela Sloan, looms toward the novel's end as a monster potentially worse than any villainous psychiatrist since Ursula LeGuine gave us Dr. Haber in The Lathe of Heaven. Her position doesn't quite give her the power to alter reality itself, but the control her position gives her over the most intimate details of her patients' very memories is terrifying even before she succumbs to the temptation to abuse it when someone very close to her, with whom she has made a myriad of mistakes, comes within that power. Her story thus combines elements of both Lucien's and Sophie's and should, perhaps, have been developed more to become a true third narrative rather than a mere occasional commentary on the other two. It is brought mostly to a satisfactory conclusion within the small space it occupies, at least. This may be Westgate's first novel, but she knows better than to leave plot threads dangling.

More importantly, she also knows the art of sharing intense experiences and hard-hitting emotional truths in truly lovely prose. A natural disaster interrupts our characters' progress late in the novel and gets the following terribly vivid description that gives our very homes an air of waiting menace:

What does a mudslide sound like? Movement. But what is silence, untethered? A forest holds a cracking thunder; a hillside neighborhood, its wealth in weght. What are the latent sounds of an area, in stillness, that might be released in motion? Closets of clothing, dressers packed full; giant televeisions made to appear weightless, hovering on steel brackets; cabinets stocked with spices in glass jars; refrigerators full of produce and cold meats. We live in silence that could suffocate us. Crushed under all that we own.

Or this, in which a breakthrough on Sophie's part brings back as much pain as hope:

The memory is so clear, the red Solo cup in her hand, the smell of Casey's house. She knows it is progress to conjure a memory all on her own. But, of course, it's the one that just might break her heart.

Yeah, it broke mine. 

Don't snooze on this book, or this author, friends. There are pitfalls ahead of her and this novel is going to be hard to match or surpass, but if she finds herself up to the task of trying, Meredith Westgate might be a name to keep looking for when finding new things to read for some time to come.

*Your humble blogger being the Gene Wolfe dork she is, of course this drug seems like a 21st century version of the Analeptic derived from the Alzabo in The Book of the New Sun, though at least here there's no need for a dead body or the consumption along with the drug of that dead body's brain.