Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ford Madox Ford's SOME DO NOT

The first volume of Ford Madox Ford's brilliant tetrology later called Parade's End*, Some Do Not is the story of a deeply rational man living in deeply irrational times and the consequences of his irrational clinging to outmoded standards for proper conduct far more than it is, as generally marketed, that of a love triangle.**

Christopher Tietjens, youngest son of "the" Tietjens, a family who originally came over with William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution, is an unprepossessing figure of a man, fair, doughy, of a "good old family" but otherwise of no real consequence except for that some freak of heredity has left him a mathematical genius. As the novel opens, he is wrestling with the issue of whether it would be correct of him to accede to fudging some numbers for the government that employs him to be a brilliant but pliable mathematician. Which "Chrissie" is not, even when it is in his very best interests possible to be so.

For this is also a guy married to a seriously beautiful woman, the gorgeous and careless Sylvia, who was already pregnant when she jumped his bones in a railway carriage and thereby convinced him to throw in his lot with her for good or ill. When a child is born not quite enough months after the wedding, he claims it anyway and fiercely refuses to care that it might not be his, because that is not rational and it would create unseemly drama were he to do otherwise (and, actually, he loves the boy). Avoiding drama is his highest priority, making him a deeply relate-able figure for this reader.

And so later on when a bored Sylvia, who would, thank you very much, have preferred a row over the child's parentage as a sign that the man she married actually gave a damn about her and their life together, not only cuckholds him but runs off to France with a guy, he is so drama- and gossip-phobic that he lets it be generally believed that he is the cheater and Sylvia recovering from her being so very ill-used on the Continent. Better, he reasons, that the Public thinks him as just another philandering jerk like all the other philandering jerks out there, than for that same Public to regard his wife as a whore.

This pattern of behavior is very much his stock-in-trade, even though it never comes out well (his careless generosity with his inheritance, for example, earns him far more hatred than gratitude; far better, it would seem, if he'd just blown it on whores and coke women and the ponies like a proper entitled douchebalrog). The seeds thus planted bear wicked mutant fruit and flower; once the Public thinks of him as just another philandering idiot, everybody's ready to believe the worst of him in every encounter. Whether it's being caught comforting his best friend's mistress in a train cabin not unlike the one in which Sylvia thrust herself into his life, or driving a young woman home through the fog and having their horse and cart smashed up by an idiot in a motorcar, circumstances always conspire to make Chrissie look like a jackass.

All of this would be drama -- and comedy, for sometimes the piling on of woes and misunderstandings evokes the work of P.G. Wodehouse -- enough, but there's oh so much more going on. Such as the young woman he was driving home when her horse got nearly killed by a car, one Valentine Wannop, whose name gossip has linked with Chrissie's already because Chrissie's father was close friends with Valentine's and has basically supported Valentine and her novelist mother since Professor Wannop died (so naturally some of the gossip is that Valentine could be Chrissie's half-sister). The plot here reminds me a lot of that of Robertson Davies' Leaven of Malice, in which false and malicious rumors of a young woman's engagement have similar results; towards the end of Some Do Not Valentine compares their situation to having been caught in a vice and forced together. It's an apt comparison. But there is, apparently one thing you must never, ever put in a trap vice, and that is Christopher Tietjens, a Good Soldier even before he becomes one.

Where Some Do Not excels the most is in its little scenes -- conversations between Chrissie and Sylvia (who actually is in love with her husband), exquisitely uncomfortable breakfast parties, slow and thoughtful interludes in mid-golf game, philological arguments in a horse-drawn cart -- where the dialogue only tells a tiny bit of what is going on. The plot developments are extraordinarily subtle, revolving around things like bounced checks and the way Sylvia does or does not walk into a room.*** And the simple, ordinary prose style is glorious; if Ford Madox Ford isn't one of your literary heroes, it's gotta just be because you haven't read him.

I haven't even come to the fascinating sub-plots: the stories of Chrissie's best friend and semi-toady MacMaster and Mr. and Mrs. Duchemin; the faint background struggles over the inheritance of the Tietjens' estate since a combination of death and desultoriness bump Chrissie from youngest son to heir (once his father has died) and thus render his own-not-his-own son the heir's heir even though he's not really a Tietjens -- and a Roman Catholic to boot, like his mama, and like the original owners of the Tietjens' estate of Groby before the Glorious Revolution led to some good Protestant Dutchmen taking over the place; Sylvia's own entire life apart from her husband. Trust me: it's all fantastic, though.

Oh, and then there's the Great War.

World War I is really just a backdrop for this first novel in the quartet, but what little of it there is, explodes the plot to an extraordinary degree: Some Do Not and, presumably, its sequels, may call it "shell shock" as that was the contemporary term but what is really being dealt with is, not post-traumatic stress disorder, but traumatic brain injury, giving the whole work a chilling present-day resonance that makes me think Parade's End might be a wonderful candidate for another modern high school update the way Emma became Clueless and The Taming of the Shrew became 10 Things I Hate About You. Say, high school and the years right after, to accommodate Chrissie's going to war.

Which is to say that this book, these books, are truly timeless.

And they're on all those best ___ novels of ____ period or category or whatever for a reason.

*Yes, yes, recently adapted as a television miniseries by HBO, but I found said adaptation a disappointment about which I decline to speak further.

**Which the fact that this very phrase makes me vomit in my mind and yet I love this book to pieces should tell you something right there about marketing and how people who have only skimmed a book cock up trying to describe it to others. Hurl.

***And while we're on the subject of Sylvia, whom I suspect was maybe sort of intended as the villain of the piece but is actually the character who most captured my sympathies, Ford Madox Ford writes women extraordinarily well. By the middle of the novel, the reader understands perfectly everything that Sylvia does and feels she might have done much the same; by novel's end Valentine has gone from annoying diversion with LOVE INTEREST in neon over her head to a person whose struggles feel as real and well-realized as any heroine's ever have.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S BATTLE

In many ways the highest-stakes Sharpe novel so far, Sharpe's Battle is one of the most intense and compulsively readable of Richard Sharpe's adventures in King George III's armies. This is largely again due to the quality of our man's foes; in this book he has two principle adversaries, with a third sort of lurking in the shadows.

Guy Loup, aka El Lobo, aka the Wolf, is a French brigadier whose mission is to engage the partisan guerillas of Spain head on and match them brutality for brutality -- and then some. As the novel opens, he has just committed war crimes on a scale we moderns don't usually associate with the early 19th century, and who but our man Sharpe comes across the carnage? What Sharpe finds provokes him into committing a war crime of his own, but of course the wrongness of Sharpe's action is dwarfed by what Loup has done. Still, there are to be consequences, consequences that loom ominously over the rest of the novel as Sharpe and Loup hunt each other around the Spanish/Portuguese border.

Assisting the Wolf and causing trouble in her own right is the bizarre and fascinating Dona Juanita de Elia, a virago if ever there was one, dressing in the uniforms she collects each time she sleeps with someone from a new regiment, riding astride like a man, a passionate hunter, and a French agent who has lately infiltrated (by which I mean "hooked up with the commander even unto promising to marry him") the Real Compania de Irlandesa, the (fictional) Irish component of the exiled and imprisoned King of Spain's Household Guard. Whom the Spanish government has foisted onto the British Army in order to "help" but who are pretty much useless in the way of so much of the Spanish military seems to come off as useless in these novels, even though none of these men are Spanish. Which uselessness prompts many, including the Iron Duke himself, to conclude betrays the Compania's true nature as some kind of secret French weapon, or at least a deception of some kind. At any rate, they're not to be trusted.

Of course it falls to Sharpe to try lick them into shape, and of course he has trouble doing it, and not only because he's A. Made a formidable new enemy in Loup and B. Got in Dona Juanita a French agent making trouble in the ranks. Because the actual rank and file of the Compania are pretty decent men who just want to do their duty and beat Napoleon, just like anyone else, so of course Sharpe, whose real mission is to make them go away and stop trying to "help", winds up losing his heart to them just in time for everything to go to hell outside the besieged Almeida (which, we may recall, Sharpe blew up a significant portion of at the end of Sharpe's Gold).

Really, what makes this book so refreshing is that it's to the Compania and not another tart-of-the-month that Sharpe loses his heart this time around (he and Dona Juanita experience hate at first sight, also a refreshing change). And that the grim irony of so many of Britain's military hopes are pinned on soldiers from a nation that resents the British and periodically tries to throw off their yoke, is finally addressed (and Sharpe's best friend, Sergeant Harper, and best protector, Major Hogan, are themselves Irish, so it's high time). Its these elements that keep this book from being just another iteration of the same old formula, even as of course events build to the predictable climax of yet another famous grand scale battle on which the fate of Europe depends.

And another, more personal, battle as well, which is the best worst, or possibly the worst best, swordfight ever. You'll understand what I mean when I get to it. Yowza!

Saturday, October 26, 2013

FUNGI - An anthology edited by Orrin Grey & Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The only way I could be more of a target audience for an anthology would be if somebody published one with the theme of insects (preferably if it was not all horror, y'all). If there's one category of life form I find almost as fascinating as insects, it's Fungi. Mushrooms, molds, mildews, stuff that's a little bit of both, do slime molds still count in this category? I'm not as up to date on my taxonomy as I could be. But I know the fungi have their own kingdom now!*

Their place in the life cycle, their vital role in breaking down dead matter into its constituent bits for reuse by other life forms and, very likely, their even more vital role in holding together the vast internal hydraulic system that some scientists refer to as land life's "Hypersea", their astonishing variety and range (the largest and oldest organism currently alive is a fungus, for instance) make fungi really quite fascinating, and quite stimulating to a certain kind of imagination. Like that of a speculative fiction writer or fourteen.

The Fungi anthology collects a range of speculative fiction of a range and variety almost as astonishing as that of the kingdom it riffs on. A few authors are happy to just play new iterations of cosmic horror/inimical alien themes introduced by sub-genre granddaddies William Hope Hodgson and H.P. Lovecraft, but some have truly bizarre new tunes to play on the hyphal strings of their mushroom banjos. As it were.

It's really hard to choose stand-outs to highlight here, and I suspect that every reader will latch on to different ones. Some might like the very first body-horror flavored "Hyphae" by John Langan, in which a decrepit old hermit's truly epic case of athlete's foot is only the beginning of the yuckiness; others will start having weird and creepy nightmares from Kris Reisz' "Pilgrims of Parthen", which discloses that some magic mushroom trips have greater consequences than others. Then there's quite possibly the weirdest weird western written, maybe ever, Andrew Penn Romine's "Last Bloom on the Sage" which depicts a train robbery-cum-political kidnapping against a backdrop of a western U.S. utterly transformed by a wholesale takeover of the ecosystem by various fungi, including some sentient, ambulatory fungi who have to be treated as equals by, if not venerated as somehow greater than, humans. And Richard Gavin's witchy, pagan romp "Goatsbride", a sort of revenge tale in which the ergot madness of early America is explained as a semi-deliberate act subtle of bio-terrorism.

I do have some favorites, though. And, oddly for all that I'm a total genre fiction fan, my favorites are perhaps the least weird, the least fantastic of them all: memoirist Jane Hertenstein's "Wild Mushrooms" is a possibly fictionalized, possibly non-fiction account of one family's obsession with mushroom hunting; Lisa M. Bradley's "The Pearl in the Oyster and the Oyster Under Glass" takes the idea of bio-remediation** and all the hope and promise it embodies and runs with it as it tells the story of the ursine-in-spirit loner Art and his efforts to restore at least small parts of his planet; Lavie Tidhar's "White Hands" is a nifty salute to Jorge Luis Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings -- call it the fungal edition.

Every time I come across a collection like this, I get to wondering why I don't read more short fiction than I do, and can't account for it aside from just not having made a special effort to do so. I've come up with a new idea for changing all of that, and that is why there is now a content tag for this blog "bedtime stories." Short fiction and anthologies are perfect for reading before bed, if you're the type of person who likes to do that, and even more perfect if you are also the type of person who has accidentally stayed up way too late engrossed in a novel.

Therefore, expect more explorations of this kind, here. But first, go grab Fungi and have some fungal fun. You'll probably like different stories than I did; you really owe it to yourself to find out!

*Actually, I think slime molds do, too, but I'm too lazy to look it up right now and this is SO not a science blog. Except when it is. Ish.

**Using organisms -- usually micro-organisms, bio-engineered or naturally occurring -- and subtly tweaked natural processes to reclaim polluted or damaged land and seascapes.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


I am fairly certain that Jack Womack is not now nor ever has been a twelve-year-old girl, but Random Acts of Senseless Violence could not be used as evidence to prove this. Indeed, it is the finest literary drag act -- not just in gender, but also in generational drag, actually* -- that I have seen since Gene Wolfe's Pandora by Holly Hollander. And really, in terms of the genius of the narrative voice, these two novels are comparable.

But whereas Wolfe's protagonist-narrator confounds and misleads and imposes her own perceptions on the reader, Womack's Lola Hart feels like an fairly trustworthy and rational guide to her disintegrating world, down whose socio-economic rungs she and her privileged bourgeois-bohemian family plunge even as the rest of society comes apart in a near-future Manhattan that surely feels more plausible now than it did in the 1990s when this book was first published. This even as she herself degenerates, as I'll discuss some more below.

The reader is meant to assume the role of Lola's diary, whom Lola addresses as Anne, thus evoking thoughts of Anne Frank, who addressed her own diary as Kitty and treated it as a person much the way Lola does here; in fact Random Acts of Senseless Violence could, weirdly enough, be thought of as the offspring of Diary of a Young Girl and A Clockwork Orange, as much as it can a punk Pandora by Holly Hollander horrifying as that thought might seem. This is because while the early pages and the general premise seem to be more or less setting up our heroine as a victim the way Anne Frank was a victim, this is not a narrative of hope and perseverance through adversity. Rather, it's a sort of precursor to Breaking Bad in that we are watching a good character degenerate right along with her society; the violent acts to come are mostly going be perpetuated by, rather than on, Lola. That she is left with little choice is abundantly clear. Lola is still a victim, but not a blameless one.

But then again, maybe if Anne Frank met up with some toughs like Lola's friends in the slummy new neighborhood to which Lola's family is forced to move, Anne might have wound up going on the odd Nazi-beatin' rampage and going out in a blaze of gory (no, that is not a typo) instead of dying of Typhus in a concentration camp? Who knows?

At any rate, watching Lola transform from bright, friendly private school student to slang-slinging little thug is horrifying and fascinating and feels woefully inevitable once she's adjusted to her new surroundings. It's also horrifyingly plausible, given how prescient the novel's near-future setting turns out to have been; I had to remind myself often that this book was written before 9/11, before the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis, before the Occupy movement and the latest national debt brinksmanship and federal government shutdown. Like John Brunner before him, Jack Womack has a scary crystal ball sitting in front of him -- only his prophecies have yet to manifest as self-denying ones.

But this isn't just a descent into the titular violence; Lola is on the verge of womanhood with all of the issues that can bring, including those of sexuality and potential homosexuality; Lola spends a fair amount of the novel wrestling with these issues and her sexual attraction to some of her girl friends, giving us just the odd glimpse into the rest of society's doings -- Presidential assassinations, Army mobilizations in urban areas, recoinage, minor stuff like that -- as a mere backdrop to her struggles. As any tweenage girl might, when confiding in her diary. The reader thus struggles between annoyance at and sympathy for her self-absorption as the reader tries to see around Lola to the world beyond in all its decay and violence.

Which is, of course, the point.

The result is, like a John Brunner novel, anything but a comfortable read, but it's a powerful one, and not one to be missed, deadhead.

*Regarding this, see the below Twitter exchange between the author and I (the day I'm not thrilled to pieces when an author I admire engages me on Twitter, I'll know I'm done with the internet):

 So what he's saying, in his pleasantly modest way, is that he's actually just a freaking genius. Which I totally believe.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Alastair Reynolds' ON THE STEEL BREEZE

Caveat lector: I'm not sure I can be wholly rational just yet in discussing On the Steel Breeze, Alastair Reynolds' astonishing sequel to last year's Blue Remembered Earth. I'm still coming down from the high. And the tension. And the intensity. And the tiny soupçon of disappointment that one element of this dense yet sprawling, intricate yet straightforward, staggering hunk of novel didn't get quite as much "screen time" as I would have liked, but which I feel safe in expecting will get a lot more play in the next volume of Poseidon's Children oh please I hope Mr. Reynolds thank you sir.

As such.

Where Blue Remembered Earth introduced us to Poseidon's Children's First Family of Space, the Akinyas, and their sort-of-deceased (it's complicated) matriarch Eunice, and then sent Eunice's grandchildren traipsing all around the solar system on a high stakes treasure hunt, On the Steel Breeze sends us in two directions as we follow the triple life of Eunice's great-grandaughter Chiku Akinya, daughter of Sunday of Blue Remembered Earth's cosmic punchline. Faced before the novel's narrative begins with a decision she decided she refused to make -- whether to hare off alone after great-grandma's missing spaceship, the Winter Queen, to join the crew of millions aboard an early wave of generational starships setting to colonize a promising exoplanet that just also happens to offer the most tantalizing mystery ever to tease a Kepler-ish space telescope, or to stay home and live a sort-of-ordinary life standing for the Family on Earth -- Chiku has had herself not only cloned twice over, but paid to have the three clones neurally linked via implants and other cyberpunk hoodoo so that they can routinely swap memories and all three of them share in their triple adventures.*

So right away this novel sings with tension as it threatens to split off into three stories, but really we only get two. Chiku Yellow (they designate themselves by colors)'s path keeps her mostly confined to Earth until circumstances force her to start roving around the solar system a little bit like her mother and Uncle Geoffrey had to in the prior book; Chiku Green is off to ride the inside of a re-engineered comet like a high-tech Whorl (c.f. Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun) heading for a planet named Crucible, roughly half of which is covered by an artificial structure/design carved right into the substance of the planet, which humans have named the Mandala, and upon which there are to be cities and other facilities already there and waiting, built by self-assembling giant robots that were sent ahead at a much faster speed than the pokey asteroid arks, for the tens of millions of humans caravaning through interstellar space to their exciting new home.

But of course, the plot has quite a lot to say about that, and it's a doozy, involving artificial intelligences that have sort of accidentally arisen out of the 31st century's giant super-internet (I'm oversimplifying, but also trying to avoid spoilers) and are stone paranoid about being discovered and exterminated, the prior novel's panspermian-versus-machines-and-robots culture wars, the desperate race to develop new technologies on the fly (as in the generational ships' engineers developed engines that let them speed up to 13% of light speed but nobody bothered to figure out how to slow them back down at journey's end until they'd all been on their way for quite a while. Trust me, this thinking makes sense within this weird range of cultures Reynolds has imagined for this far-future anthropocene), political coups and counter-coups within and among the rag tag fleet caravan of generational "holoships", and Akinya family dynamics..

Plus the powers that are already there at Crucible. Something made that Mandala, you guys. And it's attracted attention before. Dude.


Elephants. As in descendants of the herd the Panspermians were raising in secret on the Moon in Blue Remembered Earth (Elephants on the Moon, you guys! And now elephants on an interstellar spaceship? What next, a shark in a spacesuit? Well, close...) But this is where my tiny soupçon of disappointment comes in because while we get the joyous image and idea of elephants traveling on a spaceship alongside humans, and are teased with the idea of David Brin-style "uplifted" elephants that have the potential to just basically become another sentient race out in space, it's just bare glimpses of them that we get in On the Steel Breeze. This is understandable with everything else that's going on, to a point, but like I said, a bit disappointing. BUT, there is hope. As in hints that an uplifted elephant, a Tantor to use the phrase they themselves prefer, to distinguish them from the ordinary elephants that are also along for the ride, might at last become something besides cargo, however unusual and precious; might be a full-fledged point of view-ish character in the next novel. Or at least a supporting one like, say, a Remontoire. And that would be glorious indeed. So the soupçon of disappointment really just enriches the flavor of the overall recipe. Marmalade ain't marmalade without that bitter orange peel...

And really, I'm just scratching the surface here. There is all of this, and all the atmospherics, the grand sweep and sense of awe at the vast scale of the universe that we always expect from Alastair Reynolds -- plus, I'm delighted to say, some of his best characterizations yet. In the various Chikus, we get fully developed, flawed and 100% relate-able women who bear extraordinary burdens, sometimes falter under them, sometimes heave them up and hurl them at their foes like champs, and are always, always believable, even when dealing with the unbelievable. I've liked a lot of Reynolds' characters before, but this is the first time I really and truly cared and empathized, so that as events came to a head in the novel's last fifth or so I started referring to this novel as On the Steel Stroke because I was so stressed and distressed by what the Chikus Three were dealing with.

You will be, too.

And now, I think I need to go have a lie down.

*This is the first of many things in this novel to just give me the shivers. The good kind. The envious kind. The I wish I could do that right now kind. Just think of it! Who wouldn't want to get to experience each possibility that branches off from a major life decision like that? Not only would it take the sting out of tough life changing decisions -- ok, one of me marries this guy and one of me stays single... or one of me goes off and teaches English abroad and the other stays here and does the community work I've been doing... or one of me stays in college and gets that probably useless PhD in Classics and the other goes out and gets a damn job... whatever it is, you could try it. This would be a way to have it all, people. The good and the bad. See? Shivers.

Friday, October 18, 2013


Wow, wow, wowee. Every once in a while I come across a book that makes me just a tiny bit paranoid even as it makes me a lot glad, because I get the distinct impression that either the book was written just for me or, at the very least, that somehow the author has been keeping careful track of every grievance or pet peeve I've expressed about a genre and made sure absolutely none of that appeared in his or her novel.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is an example of the latter, a fantasy novel that partakes of so few of the tropes and tendencies that make me roll my eyes at the genre as to feel like the perfect antidote to them and to feel like the freshest thing around as a result. Which is to say its pseudo-medievality is Eastern (more specifically, Middle Eastern) rather than Western, drawing inspiration from the myths and legends of Persia and the Arab nations rather than those of the European well that has been drawn from so much as to be damned close to bone dry.

But it doesn't stop there. Saladin Ahmed was not content merely to write the Thousand and Second Arabian Nights tale, though that would have been welcome all the same. No, Ahmed went for something fresher and more interesting yet: his hero, far from being the standard obscure Orphan Who Is Secretly The Most Important Kid Like Ever, is an old man, the last of his kind with a lifetime of regrets centering mostly on all the pleasures of a normal life he sacrificed on the altar of being a hero, a fighter of ghuls, a saver of children. This is again in itself no lightning bolt of originality, but compared to the OWISTMIKLE, the hero at the end of his career, called up for one last quest, is relatively so little used as to feel extraordinarily fresh, especially when combined with a setting that is also relatively unused. And Adoulla is delightful to read, fat and funny and a bit harumphy (really, almost a male version of Aughra from The Dark Crystal)*, constantly needling his dour and devout young trainee/companion Raseed about his lack of humor and his bitterly doctrinaire outlook and his piety, and patiently trying to guide his other companion, the fierce and teenaged zoomorph Zamia, into some kind of civilized adulthood.**

It's not easy being Adoulla. And that, dear readers, is even before the plot of this novel turns him into, it almost seems, Job. Seriously, there are moments when the events that befall this guy will break your heart, if you still  have one.

So this book had my enthusiastic attention right away as it invited me to visit the city of Dhamasawaat and have a cup of fancily fragrant tea with Adoulla, amazed as ever to find that he's survived his most recent battle and ready to hang up his stack of scripture-based ghul-banishers -- until he learns of the grisly murder of much of the family of the woman he should have married when they were young (except his calling prevented this, of course), and by the hands/teeth/claws/powers of a particularly terrible ghul. The kind he's given up any chance of a normal life to fight. Well, damn. It's pretty much no fantasy novelist ever who is really going to let a guy like Adoulla actually enjoy a well-earned retirement, no? Who would want to read that? I mean, besides me, just to see what it would be like?***

But wait, there's more! Because Adoulla has other friends, a pair of magician/alchemists, an old married couple he's known since they were all young and squinty-eyed like Raseed and Zamia, and they are also awesome, especially the wife, Litaz, who is the fantastically powerful, confident and capable kind of ass-kicking female character that makes me hope her author is planning on writing a book all about her someday? Please Mr. Ahmed?

All this against a backdrop of multiple, fully realized cultures, political intrigue and, yes, dire magical threats to the realm, if not the very world. In other words, it has everything I like about fantasy and nothing I don't.

Really, I'm kind of ashamed it took me this look to get to this one, but hey, I'm a busy lady, you know?

*Which I cannot be alone in having wished could have gotten a movie all her own? Right?

**Really, one of the very most refreshing things about this novel is how it's the grizzled old hero who is tolerant and open-minded and his young companions who are hidebound and doctrinaire. This is frequently the case in life, but how often do we see it in art, eh?

***But, you know, I'm getting to be something of an old fart myself. I'm not alone in this, though, so I wonder, am I alone in kind of wanting to see what Retirement Fantasy might be like as a new sub-genre?

Friday, October 11, 2013


It's quite a challenge, taking a trope as concrete and action-oriented as superheroes and setting them to work in an intellectual, abstract, intangible arena like language and usage. It takes a brave writer to try.

Tony Noland is nothing if not brave.

Disclosure time: Noland is one of my earliest Twitter friends, whose flash fiction and blog I've been enjoying for years. I therefore had a fairly high level of expectations for Verbosity's Vengeance, his first published novel. Especially since it's basically a superhero novel for language nerds. I mean, come on!

But like I said, that's a pretty conceptually difficult thing to pull off well.

It's also kind of a difficult thing to read. The language and syntax nudnik (of which I am one) has to evolve the ability to shut down that nudnik tendency if she is to enjoy much modern fiction because, let's be honest, few writers are really careful enough not to commit the odd hilarious sin now and then, usually involving misplaced modifiers or pronoun agreement gaffes.* Letting those distract one too much spoils the pleasure of reading fiction.


It's really, really, really hard to shut down the nudnik tendency when grammar and usage are the very stuff of the story, as is the case here. Our hero The Grammarian (whose mundane identity has him dealing in rare and antique books and manuscripts! How can we not love this guy, Cliff Janeway with superpowers?) battles supervillain Professor Verbosity via innate powers and gadgets that turn grammatical constructions and sentence structure into weapons that work in the physical world; an early fight scene has Verbosity all but defeating the Grammarian via an exceptionally baroque and lengthy sentence of such weight (made literal by his gadget) that the Grammarian is pinned down helplessly while desperately parsing the sentence for any errors he can turn to his advantage.

The experience of reading a fight scene like that is painfully meta, the nudnik reader as helpless as the Grammarian in her struggle to sink into that happy reading trance and enjoy the scene. One can't ignore -- or enjoy -- the language when one's attention is constantly being drawn to that language's status as language. Had this not been the work of a friend in whom I have a lot of faith, I might have stopped after that first fight scene. But I really wanted to see if Noland could overcome this handicap of his own making.

Mostly, he does, by means of some clever and entertaining conceits. Like that whenever our hero uses his powers, which are derived from the language centers of his brain, whether its for attack, defense, or healing his often considerable wounds, his intelligence plummets.

There is also the fun to be had of a good round of Guess the Villain. We don't know who Professor Verbosity is; he could be pretty much anyone else the Grammarian meets in his mundane life. Is it the brilliant, pretty scientist? Is it the brash, successful businessman? Is it the pushy salesman the businessman seems hell-bent on planting in the Grammarian's bookstore? Each has qualities that might do well for a supervillain; each has an intense-bordering-on-creepy interest in his alter-ego. If one of them is the villain, do they know the Grammarian is also one Alex I. Graham, former video game tycoon and current book dealer? Do they suspect? And when will Professor Verbosity strike next?

Verbosity's Vengeance, in other words, winds up being a fun read (with a bit of an entertaining twist toward the end that really made me smile) once the reader's brain powers through the meta-weirdness. It has some first novel problems including a few instances of dialogue disguised as exposition, but it rewards the minor effort required to get past these. I look forward to more of this brainy hero's adventures.

*And publishing houses, let's face it, have been skimping on editing for years now, throwing the task to any old part-timer who didn't look busy enough that day, it seems like. And indie writers don't always have the financial resources (or, sometimes, the humility) to hire a good freelance editor. This is, therefore, increasingly a big, big problem for your basic nudnik reader of 21st century fiction. Ow.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Doris Lessing's THE FIFTH CHILD

Reading less like a full novel than an actual, allegory-heavy sketch or precis for one, The Fifth Child may not have been the best choice for my first reading of speculative-fictioneer-in-disguise and Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.

The story of an old-fashioned couple living against the grain of their times (the swinging 60s and early 70s) by buying an enormous Victorian house and planning to have as many children as possible, The Fifth Child is told in an abstract third person omniscient narrative style in which the modern rule of "show, don't tell" is not so much broken as completely ignored. There are very few actual scenes and little dialogue; everything is skimmed through, summarized, at least until the birth of the titular child, the monstrous Ben.

Ben is a hard character to read for most of this very short novel, in that one is constantly trying to read between the lines and diagnose him. Is he somewhere along the autism spectrum? Is he genetically damaged somehow? Finally the narrative reveals that he's meant as some kind of genetic throwback, a chance freak with mostly Neanderthal or other early hominid traits, powerfully built, powerfully hungry, full of rage and incomprehension and inability to cope with the mid-century world of extreme suburban London and an out-of-step large family in their grand hotel of a house.

At any rate, his arrival upsets everything. Before he's even reached his terrible twos he's a puppy and kitty killer and David and Harriet's extended family, heretofore known to gather en masse and at length at the big house for holidays, start drifting away even before the nuclear family itself starts breaking down.

As it explores this theme of extreme alienation from one's offspring, The Fifth Child thus felt, after I had so recently subjected myself to, been awed by, and weirdly enjoyed The Flame Alphabet, a lesser companion volume to that book. I'm not sure if that means Ben Marcus is a better writer than Lessing, since I've only read one book from each writer, but if pressed, at this point I would have to rank Marcus much higher in my esteem.

As I said, this novel felt more like an abstract for a much longer one, and thus was somewhat unsatisfying. Dramatic events are robbed of their power by being presented after the fact and second hand; conversations are summarized rather than shared; even internal states are alluded to more than explored. Perhaps I was simply in the mood for more of a big sprawling social novel like most people would have written; perhaps this compactness is Lessing's genius and I am simply not equipped to appreciate it. I don't have the answer right now. I'm going to give her another chance. Suggestions on what to read to actually appreciate her are welcome; I've never been disappointed by a Nobel laureate before, you guys. It feels weird.

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Travel writing is really time travel writing, an attempt to capture place and time in a form that can be shared with those of us who weren't there, who  never can be there, who missed our chance. That this has always been the case is the chief, melancholy lesson to be learned from Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue*, a collection of essays from Paul Bowles' extensive travels through the "non-Christian" world as it was in the mid-20th century.

In most cases, Bowles got there before globalization, before electricity and modern communications and other technology changed local lives forever in Sri Lanka (still called Ceylon when he was there), North Africa, South America*, the Middle East. Or he was there just as the changes were starting, as in southern India when he observes a pair of government officials pulling up at  his hotel with a keyring on which is the only existing key to the box that turns on the hotel's electricity, which is on only for the duration of the officials' lunch before it is shut off again. Which lunch Bowles declines to observe because he has rushed up to his room to enjoy 15 minutes with the fan on because southern India is really, really stiflingly hot and breezeless, even near the sea.

But of course it's in North Africa, where his most famous fiction is set, that Bowles is most interesting, and most aware of his secret status as a time traveler, or at least a person in some way at war with time as he tries to capture the feel of a place:
"...Writing about any part of Africa is a little like trying to draw a picture of a roller coaster in motion. You can say: It was thus and so, or, it is becoming this or that, but you risk making a misstatement if you say categorically that anything is, because likely as not you will open tomorrow's newspaper to discover that it has changed."
Hardly only North Africa, am I right? Hardly just in the 1960s, am I right? Plus ça change...

The best part of the collection is Bowles' musical mission through Morocco, "The Rif, To Music" in which he recounts his efforts, along with a few very interesting friends, to capture the unique music of several tribes before it gets contaminated by globalism. A sample of what he captured can be found here. There's more at the Libary of Congress' website, I think, but the government shutdown has made that impossible to verify. I shall be seeking it out, though!

Also notable is "Baptism of Solitude", in which Bowles confronts the immense silence of the Sahara desert, and which has left me with a tremendous longing to watch again Werner Herzog's extraordinary Fata Morgana, which thank goodness I own:

Now you probably want to as well, no?

I have a biography of Bowles on tap for later this winter, and plan to investigate his own musical compositions soon as well. Fascinating, fascinating man. But if one is really interested in this guy, on whom the character of Tom Frost in the film adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (if not the book, exactly; it's been so long since I read that I can't remember if Tom Frost is explicitly named in the book) is based, this essay collection highlighting his strange love for the discomforts and inconveniences of travel, his pursuit of music and his awe at the variety his world still had to offer, is an indispensable read.

*The title is drawn from some wacky lines of poet Edward Lear's, meant to evoke the sense of genuine difference and novelty which travelers, if not tourists, usually seek when going abroad.

**Wherein he teaches us that "All Parrots Speak" and if that essay doesn't charm your socks off, you probably weren't wearing any.