Things Go Bad For Me When I Read After Things Went Bad

After Things Went Bad: Three Tales of the Near Future by Renee Harrell is the evidence of my learning curve with my new eReading thingy. I’ve had it since Christmas, just kind of poking at it, reading random articles or books people I know have written, and only shelling out for stuff I really wanted and was on sale or something. But then I found free stuff on Amazon! Look! Free stuff! And the library! More free stuff! Overdrive! I hate you! 

When I was in the 9th grade, my English teacher in our creative writing unit – jeez, what an idea: creative writing unit – bade us write a story about how we all were to wake up and find ourselves transformed into animals. (Presumably she was making reference to Kafka, and drinking heavily.) We all chose different animals – I believe I wrote about becoming a quail, a choice you are free to psychoanalyze – but every single last one of us ended our tales with waking up in bed the next day, human. And then, after we had all decided our animal adventures were just a dream, we would find a feather or some evidence of our transmogrification. DUN DUN DUN END OF STORY.

When I go to compare these stories to that 9th grade class’s herd-like output, I do not mean it to sound as cruel as it does. These are not badly written, in the sense that the sentences flow and the prose isn’t clunky or embarrassing. But they don’t ever go anywhere, ending in one of those lamely obvious twist/cliches. It’s entirely possible that I’m all spoilt after reading After the Apocalypse earlier this year, which is a collection of short stories unified by their apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic settings just like this. I thought that was just grand. 

The titular story is the best of the three stories here, taking place in a blasted America with one of those viscous, lonesome girls as its protagonist. There were some nice observational touches, but then it ends long before the story is over. I think I’m supposed to be shocked by the ending, but let me tell you, the choice made by the girl in the end is a mainstay of post-apocalit, and you better bring me something more than OMG HINTED CANNIBALISM. Just about every wasteland book I’ve read mentions cannibalism, if it isn’t shoving your teeth right in the gore. So, I remain unshocked.

“At Home on Winterbury Circle,” the second story, really isn’t worth mentioning; more a situation than a conflict. An old woman is kept company by her ad-spewing digital assistant while watching through split blinds as roving gangs of teens murder people in the street. I give you three guesses how this ends. The third, “Mister Tinker,” is more interesting, but mostly because information central to the robot’s nature is withheld. A man and his robot go to the circus, which is a fun set-up, I admit. But then the revelation about the robot is delivered in a DUNDUNDUN I found irritating. And like the first tale, the story just ends before that information can be examined any further. Situations, not stories. 

So, thank you free/cheap ebooks, but I should probably show some restraint and read reviews or something before I download all the things. The writing here is solid, so maybe the “author” – really a husband/wife team – is just unsuited to writing short fiction. Likely someone who was less obsessed with post-apocalyptic fiction would not read these as cliche as I did, but then I wonder why someone like that would ever pick this up. I’m swinging on the end of the long tail here, and I should probably make a knot and start climbing up.

Blueprints of the Afterlife. No, Seriously.

It’s possible I’ll append the original review to this here new shiny one I’m writing, but that may not happen. The future’s not written, right? It’s something I can affect? Well, we’ll see either way.

I seriously don’t mean to disappear up my own reviewing asshole, but the first attempt I made to review I was in this just painfully emotional place, and it embarrasses me, because that’s not really what this book is about. Blueprints of the Afterlife is – and I don’t mean this statement to be reductive – just a mordantly funny genre exercise that’s got its cool philosophical fingerprints around the throat of popular culture, futurism, and the American tendency towards apocalypse. The plot is…nothing that can be encapsulated with ease, more a series of very interrelated vignettes that stack themselves up into a, what?, Venn diagram? Something squishier? Our societal and metafictional guts? Then it knocks them all down and starts over again. 

It’s coughcough years into the future – more than 50 but less than 150 – a futuristic period that seems to be a fallow area for science fiction writers at the moment. Even my main man William Gibson who used to write in this period has decamped to closer futures (i.e. the Bigend trilogy). On the other side, there’s a ton of dudes (mostly dudes) writing in the far-future post-human expanses of space and ti-ee-eye-eee-ime. Some of this is the post-post-apocalyptic bent of this novel – this is not a survivalist’s manifesto, one of those musings about the order of society in crisis and whatnot, not the Individual’s Search for Meaning in an Age of Fucked Up Shit – but about our tendency to imagine Fucked Up Shit as a future in the first place. 

But then also a ton of other stuff. The science fictional ideas/commentary/whatever of this book are tossed off with a frequency and casualness that belie their fucking awesomeness, and there are at least a half dozen ideas here that could warrant their own freaking novel. I don’t mean to imply that Boudinot is giving anything short shrift here though – these ideas are all of a piece, and they fit together like one of those boxes of shapes you get from the Science Museum, and there’s 20 little flashcards of the way those shapes might make a larger pattern, and you flip over the card and go! Put it together! Now take it apart! Go! Make a different shape! Go go go! 

This review is turning into the same godamn mess my first one was, only different. Which is perfect in a way. If you split a hologram in half, you get two perfect holograms, like an earthworm, but more technological. I can’t even pretend to understand how that works – both the hologram and the earthworm. The central metaphor here is blueprints, those imaginings of the future written on a scaled, engineered map which may or may not give rise to the fact of buildings, in whose habitable spaces we may, or may not, live out our lives. It’s just..it’s just the godamn shit to read when you’re a cracked and leaking emotional disaster – as I was when I read this, not to make it about you– this elegant, beautifully written puzzle that contemplated the ends beyond the ends, or the middles beyond the middles, or all permutations of continuation and cease. Which, fuck yeah. 

And in the spirit of fuck yeah, I’m going to post the original review, but I’m not proud of it, and it (as I said before) kinda embarrasses me. Not because my emotional vulnerability is an embarrassment, but because I don’t think it does this book justice. The earlier review was dealing with the hard edge of grief, the emotions I feel as I can see the end coming. That’s not what this book is about, and I don’t want to mischaracterize. This is 50 to 150 years past that fucked up shit, which is just one of the reasons I loved it so. The end is still coming, but I’m still in the middle of the middle, still. 

—–

Original review:

I don’t even mean to be like one of those cryptic facebook updates that people drop when they are looking for attention, but emotionally I am in no place to review this. Which might be the perfect place to be emotionally to review this? My beloved grandmother is dying. I read this fast like fever in the car to and from emotional upheavals that I haven’t even begun to sort into something resembling sense. 

So yeah, this is one of those reviews. Be warned. 

I picked this up because of Josh’s tumescent review. And because – I can be honest about my shallowness – this is just a fantastic cover. After I finished my read, I popped back onto Goodreads to reread Josh’s review with knowing eyes. I was bolted to the floor when I saw he references Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in the first few sentences. 

Before I left for my visit with Grandma who is dying, on a slow Saturday, my husband pulled me down onto the couch and made me watch that film. Not all. In sections as I ran the dishwasher or packed that forgotten thing or talking on the phone to a distraught family member, imagining the family ugliness that is inevitable once she’s gone. We’re all considering the end, mapping out alternate futures of the end and after her end. I’ve had my problems with von Trier in the past that aren’t worth getting into, but Melancholia was a series of images that burned me quietly, this end of the world that is both metaphor and fact. Science fiction stories can be a lot of different things, but the ones that get me scrying my own overturned guts are the ones about our personal universes as alien planets, the hard gravities of our emotions and what we tell ourselves are our emotions. The way Melancholia ran this apocalypse through a series of family connections, bright loosely connected images, the hovering close-ups and near-static tableaus – ah ah ah ah. 

I spent the weekend trying to be present, trying to feel Grandma’s lips when I kiss her, or her hands in mine, watching my step-mom write a list on a napkin. Presence is a difficult thing, and I’m no Taoist; my mind does not let things run as they are. My mind chews on the future. I prognosticate, therefore I am. There’s a certain philosophical aridity that appeals to my presence-avoiding mind in these pages, though I admit I have close to zero interest or background in straight philosophy. Arid is maybe the wrong word. As is philosophy.

Folklore of the future? 

I’m not sure that this plot can be spoiled, dealing as it does with a roving glacier of various time periods, persons, non-persons, and battling visions of the future. Sad as I am, superimposed as I am between present and future, this story, this collection of elegant, funny, wigged out, careful sentences washed me over and washed over me. I could read this forever. This could go on and on, but it ends. If I were less emotional and messy, I could catalog the influences and hat-tips, from the obvious PKD and Gibson, to the more muted Star Wars and UKL. When I talked about this with my husband, he asked what it would be like to be someone other than George Orr in The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel, someone changed subtly or largely in someone else’s sleep. It will be hours before I know she’s gone – this is the way of things; the phone-tree is long and branching – and in those hours will she continue as if that end hadn’t happened? Will she be gone in those hours? There’s questions like that everywhere here.

This book probably deserves a less sloppy reader, one that isn’t leaking at the seams. My dad did all the sodoku puzzles from the last two weeks of the paper; I read this. I was fully absorbed in the intellectual puzzle of end-times and the after-end, a game of futures. I can’t unbind my emotions from the end of it all, the end of her all. But the blueprints lay down blue and bloodless. They make me think. They make me wonder – in that old school awestruck sense. And I know that absolutely none of this makes sense, which is why it is such a comfort. 

Red: We Mate for Life and Suss out Clues, Just Like Scooby Doo

I’ve been re-watching Deadwood recently, because I have come across a couple of alt-history alt-West alt-magic-whatever books that have been really interesting to me. I’m no big fan of the straight Western – I was recently talking to a friend about the remake of True Grit, and admitted I had never seen the original, and he was like, well, it’s been nice knowing you. But I like that I have never seen a John Wayne movie, and I’m going to keep it that way – but weird, reordered takes on the American West? I’m all there. The West is where we Americans store our weird ideas about individualism and crap. It’s where we run after the Civil War to try to pretend that civilization is less than civilized, but better than the alternative of brutal, hand-to-mouth living. Or something. 

Anyway, Red by Jordan Summers has some Western ornament – a scorched planet after a third world war, some compelling description of dead, fragile forests that crack to powder as you run through, the United States broken into a loose confederation of territories with a sort of U.N.ish military that polices the boundaries between this dome-city and that. Our main character, Red, is part of this police force, out shooting at Unknowns, who are people who are not citizens of whatever territory, crossing wastelands to get to the still-poor, but livable areas left in the world. Hello, Arizona, how little have you have changed! Can I see your papers?

But this is backstory, not something we’re going to explore. Okay. Red goes to Arizona after some murrrderrrs that look like animal attacks, but Red’s spidey sense tingles, and she is going to get to the bottom of this. She shows up in [town name, something that sounds like Urea in my mind], and starts into some seriously Scooby Doo police work. Much as I love Scooby Doo, it makes me really sad when adult fictions follow the Scooby Doo protocol of meeting the villain first, only we don’t know it’s the villain, because we’re eight. I’m not eight anymore, so, thanks for being Captain Obvious about who the villain was. She meets the town sheriff, who is amazingly hot and makes her heart flip and stuff, but he has seeekrets, namely that he is a werewolf. And although it is obvious to him that the murders are caused by a werewolf and must have been perpetrated by someone he knows, he spends more time trying to cover up the other werewolf murders and managing his near-constant erection than spending any time trying to figure out the “mystery” of who killed them. Okay, hoss. That’s some good police work. 

Oh, which brings me to another thing. This is written in that third person pov character thing for the romantic leads, where we are privy to their head-thoughts and also descriptions of their clothes and relative desirableness, except for the killer-cam, which is written in the first person. The killer-cam parts of the book (except for when the killer narrates his motivations – that was crazy ham-fisted) were entirely the best written parts of this book. The book starts with a first person murder, which is tactile and seriously gross, centered in the body, upsetting. Summers, in these sections, really has a groove for the twisted, in a way that makes me hope she goes for body-horror in some later series. Body horror can get seriously boring – hello, Cronenberg – but the ways in which bodies, um, embody desire and revulsion, this can be some interesting stuff. The way the killer idolizes and then turns against his love interest, laid against the main characters’ biologically determined sexual obsession/compulsion, this could have been some interesting shit. Alas, for naught. Even though this book is trying to play hide-the-football with Red’s genetic legacy, I think we all know from the first page that she’s somehow part-wolf or whatever, so stop playing coy. 

And speaking of genetic legacy, that’s something that is dealt with funny in this book. So, there was a third world war that scorched the planet, during which some government or another sought to create super soldiers, Others, people whose DNA had been mixed with animals so that they ended up with vampires and werewolves and stuff. Okay, my disbelief is being suspending here. However, even though this is understood to be something that happened – oh, hai, the gov’t created werewolves – it is also understood to be secret, like no one knows it happened. Like, what? You can’t have it both ways. There’s this bad dude, a guy who is running for Senator (?? but there isn’t a national government? What office is he running for??) who is running on an anti-Other platform, and this is like someone running on an anti-chupacabra platform – oh noes! the Mexican goat-sucker! 

Certainly some people believe in el chupacabra (or ghosts, or space aliens, or…), and maybe if some politician used the chupacabra as some race-baiting tactic – Mexican goat-suckers are taking our jobs! Traffic stops for Mexican goat-suckers! – but the Senator’s rhetoric is entirely Triumph of the Will pure-blood stuff, and therefore makes no sense. If people do not believe in werewolves, then they are not worried about werewolf racial mixing. I’m not saying that people couldn’t work up a nice head of racism should werewolves turn out out to be real, I’m just saying they’ll probably confine their racist energies to people who actually exist when in the ballot box. And, speaking of, isn’t there an entire enormous problem of undocumented immigration going on here, embodied in the Unknowns? I could see him running on an anti-Unknown platform, at least how they are defined in this book, but the author drops them as a concern in a very, very frustrating manner. 

Which brings me to another thing. This book pretends to some measure of science fictionality – that these Others have been created by scientists using wolf DNA to make better soldier – but, and I don’t mean to be a dick here – the way the wolf behavior is presented is seriously lame, Romantic, half-googled crap. At one point, when Red figures out that there are werewolves, she thinks to herself, well, wolves have a hierarchy of dominance! Points, Daphne, for having a thought, but people have a hierarchy of dominance too! And does she do any research to back up this wild thought of maybe wolves would have specific social/biological ways of acting out their hierarchies? No. (This is despite the fact that she has some kind of digital assistant who is less useful than your average smart phone. Pretty much the assistant chimes in to alert Red when she’s getting all sexually aroused by hero dude, usually in socially awkward times. I wanted to smash that thing with a hammer until it was plastic grit. Siri, get me a hammer.) 

So okay, this is marginally science fantasy, not science fiction. That’s fine. But if we’re not using the wolf as a template for behavior, and instead using a Romantic/romantic notion of wolves which allows us to make up any damn thing about wolves and play out Romantic/romantic fantasy, why do we have to go for that stupid-ass mate-for-life garbage? The whole concept of life-long pair bonding is bullshit. Bullshit! No animal mates for life. And a woman can be marked in some unbreakable biological bond FOR ALL TIME by some teeth in her back? Fuck you, that’s horrible. Red’s nearly raped and “marked” by the bad guy, but the Romantic lead, while having consensual sex with her, marks her as well, even though she is unaware of the whole concept of marking, and for sure never said that was okay. So, by consenting to sex, she consents to her perpetual sexual ownership, something that can only be broken by the death of one of the partners? There’s a battered women’s shelter down the block full of women whose partners thought things like this. 

I don’t know. I feel like I’ve been uncharitable in this review, because much of my disappointment is based on my own misconceptions of what this book was going to be about when I came into it. I thought this was an post-apocalypse Western – and it is briefly, I guess – but it’s pretty straightforward paranormal romance with dome cities and digital assistants. Disappointing to me, but occasionally interesting to read. Could have been worse.

My Engine Summer: Lost Utopias

This book lit up all the parts of my brain that love Ursula K. Le Guin. The story takes place in a far-future American landscape, long after the end of modern life, so long that the world is green and pastoral, its people living out their lives in small, knitted communities, their concerns more of the soul than the rat race. It’s not dissimilar from the people and places in City of Illusions  or Always Coming Home, and much of my reading pleasures converged here: the Road, crumbling and cracking under the thrust of the roots of new trees, the skeletons of bridges both dangerous and beautiful, a generation from falling to orange dust, the quiet nosings into the past (our present) with a kind of wonder and dismay. 

The image of the mobius recurs in this novel, the strip of paper twisted and then bound so that if you trace your finger, there is no end. Perfect, because this book ends in such a way you must, you absolutely must loop back around and read the beginning with fresh eyes, with the knowledge you have picked up along the way. It kills, this reversal, absolutely slays. It’s morose and sad and hopeful all in the same. Jesus. 

This is the thing I noticed when I read this book: we’ve lost our taste for utopias. Because even in all of the sadness and grieving in this book, there is a very earnest attempt to imagine livable societies, societies that work, societies that are decent. I went just now and looked up all the publication dates for the books I just mentioned, and they are solidly all before the turn of the millennium. You could, probably without much thought, rattle off a dozen dystopias – which, why the hell doesn’t spellcheck recognize this word? – but utopias? We don’t even try anymore. 

The utopias here aren’t perfect, and by needs any (good) story has to find the fracture in the societal system and widen it, but, I guess I’m just wistful for writers, and readers, trying to find hope in these apocalyptic ashes. The best of us is as important as the worst of us. Which is not to say that I didn’t smile bitchily about a lot of the assumptions about human nature here. There’s a chasteness about human sexuality I found puzzling – the main character is a boy between the ages of 14 and 17 through this novel, half-chasing a girl who makes choices he can’t, or won’t – and I couldn’t figure out how far their relationship went, in concrete, carnal terms, which seems an notable lacuna. Seems chivalrous in a way I find politely repellent. 

Crowley walks you through three societies, and a fourth in the oblique: the warren-bound Truth Speakers, the people of Dr Boots’s List, and the avvengers. The Truth Speakers are the soul of this book, and as you as reader pass through the others, you see it. Truth speaking is never defined, but emerges in the edges of the narrative, a felt truth. It’s both beautiful and hopelessly naive, the way these things are, and absolutely cut with how truth won’t get you happiness necessarily, and right living is maybe only understood in its absence. 

The sad thing is most of the way through this review, I haven’t even talked about what I wanted to talk about when I was reading: all the groaning puns and funny translations of modern terms – Nu Yeork – one of which informs the title here. Or the long winter spent by the protagonist under the effect of a drug that induces hibernation, or the alien plants harvested and smoked, or the rings on Mbaba’s toes. This is a book for the experiencing of it, all these long sentences and these repeated refrains, like a song. The best of us is as important as the worst of us, and so are the rest of us, in the middle. Hot damn.

The Reapers are the Angels

I think there is something like an inverse square rule at work here between one’s familiarity with Southern Gothic (or Western/Appalachian morality tales more broadly) and enjoyment of The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell. Or maybe it’s a bell curve, but I think there is a relationship. My knowledge of these things is limited – I had a shattering, eye-opening affair with Flannery O’Connor in my youth, and read The Road along with every other housewife on the planet, hit some of the short fictions, but I can only cast my eyes down and mumble when it comes to Faulkner, Welty, anything else by McCarthy, et freaking cetera. 

So I know the genre exists, and I can nod my head when the tropes come up – the Faulknerian idiot man-child, the Old Testament vengeance, clannish hillfolk, the echoing Southern plantation with its fragile social/racial politics, the land, the land, the la-an-and – but I’m not so familiar that I kept tying the string to the push-pins in a hundred other fictions. And this seems to be the sticking point for more genre-versed readers; the line between allusive and derivative is thin and personal. I don’t know how this would read to someone who was slate-blank – and, by the by, just because this has a young adult protagonist does not mean it is a young adult novel at all; the sensibility is seriously wrong for that – but I’m guessing much at work here would perplex. So, bell curve. Maybe. 

I’m using genre in its little-g sense – this isn’t a Genre exercise – despite the zombies. The novel opens with Temple, a teenager who has only known a wasted, apocalyptic America, trailing her feet in the water on her lonely island. She watches the minnows play in the water like light themselves, like the trout in the stream that close McCarthy’s own American end times. Then a jawless animated corpse washes up on the beach (whose head she caves with a rock she leaves as marker, his body bumping in the surf) and Temple knows it’s time to move on or be overrun. She swims ashore and begins moving through a series of communities and the wild. 

This is why I say it isn’t genre: if you want to start nit-picking about how roads would be broken to crumble, or kudzu would have finally strangled every living thing without 25 years of human intervention, or no car would ever work, then you are in the wrong novel. This is a book that starts with, “God is a slick god. Temple knows. She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe.” We are solidly on metaphysical terrain here – do not look for science in your fiction lest you disappoint yourself for no good reason. This is the South of St Flannery of the Knife. The moral’s gonna hurt, and it might not even be a moral. 

Temple herself is a fearsome creature, the inheritor of the character of generations of knowing, savage girls born onto dirt farms to absent mamas and even more absent fathers: the girl from True Grit, Ree from Winter’s Bone (whom I only know from the movie, of course), or even Katniss Everdeen. She’s comfortable, almost easy with the dead (if she could ever be said to be easy). She has a naturalist’s respect for their ethical simplicity. The living are always more the puzzle, and after an incident in an itchy, confining survivor community, she becomes locked into a vengeance plot with a taciturn, honor-bound old cuss. She runs, and Lord, can she run. 

The man is old enough to remember the world that was, before the dead crawled out of their graves to put the modern world down. As someone who was raised mostly parentless, feral, living in drains, I wouldn’t have expected Temple to be so morally central – all these honorable and ethical knowings passing between her and the man, their truths in short, truth-felt lines to one another – but then I need to take my own advice about the metaphysical terrain. Temple is what is left when the lights go out on our civilization. She doesn’t need to be taught the theology of the American landscape – that is inherent, and inheritable, in the end. She’s like a child of the Reconstruction come forward, or likely she never left. 

Though not written in dialect – and thank God for that – there are the dialectic cadences that worked for me, and a stripped down punctuation I thought was apt. The lack of quotation marks was especially cool, and made the care taken toward dialogue more noticeable – if you can’t just throw quotes around it, you make sure it’s easy to tell who is speaking. Again, I could probably just gesture to McCarthy, so derivative or allusive – that’s your call. I really enjoyed this, even though it’s occasionally overheated, it’s sentences portentous and overmuch. But I’m a sucker for that long slow pan of the American heart and soul, the road and train and feet on the pavement. Amen. The End.

Unholy Ghosts, Hecklers and Critics, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Critical Process

I am here today, friends, to talk about author behavior. And also this book. But because of the recent, sometimes ugly, and wholly passionate conversation going on here on Goodreads and the bookish Internets in general about the relationship between authors and readers and reviewers, I came to read this book. I don’t want to get too far down into this rabbit hole, but even dividing writers from reviewers from readers is a little weird. Of course writers are readers too, and sometimes reviewers. (This is leaving aside the strange species of author who does not read, which must exist.) Of course reviewers are readers. (Except for the strange animal who does not read but reviews anyway. Which is not to say I have any problem with DNF reviews, just that I’ve seen at least one example of the kind of reviewer who starts into a book with a critical stance in mind, and then deep-sixes the book when it fails to conform to that vision.) Of course reviewers are writers too, though I certainly understand that writing a largely unedited essay while sitting on the back porch is quantitatively different than writing, editing, and publishing a novel. Of course it’s all a messy mess of varying personalities and aesthetics.

I guess what I’m trying to say that so much of this fighting comes down to warring ideas about the place of criticism layered onto the strange posture of identity and Internet identity. I had this really interesting conversation with my friend Emily yesterday about the movie “Heckler”. A couple people had recommended it to me because, honestly I don’t know why. Because they said it made them not hate Jamie Kennedy as much as they had before. It’s a documentary by Mr. Kennedy about hecklers in comedy shows. I watched about half of it before I lost my crap and had to turn it off. So much of it sent me up the freaking wall – the way hecklers were equated with the entire critical enterprise, the way negative was equated with some sort of jealousy, the fact that more than one person said “Until you have made a movie, you can’t say anything about making movies.” I reject that with both hands and a foot up your ass. I’ve been reading, watching movies, consuming fiction in all of its forms since I before could form a godamn sentence. And sure, there have been times when I have gotten my hate on in a serious way about books/movies/whatever, my negative assessments aren’t coming from some some lonely pit of jealousy and despair. Oh how I wish I had produced this piece of art I hate!

Which is when I realized I was taking it personally.

I, as a critic, am not exempt from criticism. It’s a form of writing, in its own weird way, and Emily was absolutely right when she pointed out the performance of the heckler, and that of the critic, are going to be assessed in some ways by the power of the performance. The heckler seeks to disrupt, to pull attention – any performer does. Some people seek to go as bloodlessly academic in their reviews as possible – and mazel tov to you – but every single time the top lists are brought up, people bemoan how those who do don’t get the attention they deserve, etc. I had to really really resist putting scare quotes on that last phrase – none of us deserve anything for what we write, from authors down to the unwashed reviewers. Sure, it’s a crying shame when a writer bleeds out and no one notices – reviewer or author. It’s a crying shame when intelligent writing is trampled over to get to some godamn thing full of .gifs and misspellings up the ass. But there’s no A for effort. I can sit looking at this cursor for hours, pouring out my soul, and that and about two bucks will get me a cup of coffee. I don’t deserve anything. No writer does, not critics, not authors, not nobody.

But people use the term “popularity contest” like it’s a bad thing, when ultimately, it is what it is. A popularity contest measures popularity, and acting like a popularity contest should be a meritocracy does a disservice to both merit and popularity. Because what it comes down to is that Goodreads is a Frankenstein’s monster of social network and critical platform, and if it bugs you that the top reviews are all of severely popular books in genres you despise and don’t credit, then the problem is you. People like stuff I hate all day every day, in forms I hate, for reasons I hate. All day. That doesn’t make them wrong, or me right. It doesn’t make my aesthetic judgement any better. It just makes it sometimes at odds with what a large group of people think. And I don’t get a gold star for being some kind of iconoclast, because I’m pretty sure I’m not; I’m just an individual who doesn’t reside exactly in the golden mean. Which pretty much everyone is – average taste is a mathematical concept, not an identity.

Anyway. Fuck. What was I talking about before I slipped into ranting? Oh yeah. Heckler. One of the things that super bugged me about Heckler was the section which dealt with all the racist shit comics say on stage. Like when Michael Richards freaked and screamed the n-bomb a hundred times (when reacting to a heckler, interestingly) whenever that was. Or the scads of ethnic jokes clipped in the documentary. When those audiences reacted negatively, they weren’t heckling for its own sake, because they were “jealous” of Kennedy’s “popularity” – it was because he just said some racist ass shit. Maybe it’s an aesthetic judgement to find racist ass shit unfunny, and react to said racist ass shit negatively, but I don’t actually think so. That’s a question of identity and worldview. That’s an articulatable position – your comedy is racist, and therefore unfunny – which is a step above “your shit is just unfunny to me because of taste” on the critical hierarchy. Taste can’t be argued. Whether your shit is racist or not, and whether that makes it unfunny or not, that can. That’s the difference between heckling and the critical process, motherfucker.

I’m not so far gone that I can’t see that there is a world of overlap between heckling – or as I think we might call it on teh interntetz here, trolling – and the critical process. All writers – critics and authors – are writing as hard as they can, trying to reach as many as they can. I’ve seen this happen a couple of times recently, where someone comes onto a review and says “this review sucks” and than get all miffy when they’re called out on it – what the hell are you trying to accomplish? “This review sucks” is nothing but a statement of taste. Same as “this book sucks” if you don’t back it up with something other than your subjective taste, or you don’t articulate your subjective taste. Both statements of suckitude are valid, I think, but I’m not personally going to credit criticism of any form that can’t back itself up. The book sucks, the review sucks, for reasons. Maybe those reasons are weird and person to you – say it out loud. Articulate those reasons or go home. I disagree because I liked it – I disagree because I didn’t like it – those are bland statements, not opinions. Or maybe they are opinions, but they aren’t interesting ones. They are not discussable, disappearing into the black box of subjective taste, the non-overlapping magisteria of readerly pleasure or disgust. I guess what I’m looking for in criticism is an opening for conversation, and pointing out something sucks is just saying stuff to be heard. There’s no listen. There’s no opportunity for listen.

So. Whatever. I feel like I’m so far from the point I wanted to make that it’s notable even for me. I’ve been watching the various controversies unfold on Goodreads and elsewhere with an almost obsessive fervor. If you haven’t been following too closely, a site which I will not name came online month or two ago, which published the private information of several Goodreads reviewers, in some cases down to where these reviewers lunched. While they themselves hid under anonymity. This site was unhappy with negative reviews, referring to these reviewers as bullies, and hoped to give them a “taste of their own medicine” by, what, having them killed by Internet loonies? Jesus Christ. They scrubbed their site of the most offensive and possibly legally actionable content just in time to have their bullshit published on HuffPo, after which HuffPo delivered the absolute weakest apology for their total lack of journalistic due diligence. Anyway, point being, in all of this, I saw post after post by an author who was smart, well spoken, and angry about how these reviewers were being treated. Who was funny and witty and cool. That author, my friends, was Stacia Kane. (And, for the record, there are a bunch of writers I noticed speaking intelligently during this mess – Foz Meadows, John Scalzi, and a couple others I can’t think of right now.)

I do maintain a probably-not shelf on Goodreads, which is mostly for weird shit that I won’t read just because it’s weird, and I don’t want it on my to-read. In most of all this shouting about authors and reviewers, the books in question by authors-behaving-badly would have gone unread by me anyway, just because of my total lack of interest in the subject or genre. So probably-not-ing them has no meaning. But I decided to turn the frown upside down and read something by an author-behaving-goodly. If Ms Kane’s book was half as smart and funny as her posts, it’s not like I could go wrong. And I dabble in urban fantasy, so it’s not like it’s a stretch, even if my reading interests tend more strongly in other directions.

So, yeah, this book was fun as hell. It’s an alternate history where there was a ghostocalypse in 1997 – something about how the murderous undead appear and tried to kill everyone? And succeeded with, like 2/3 of the population of the Earth? But not, like, zombies or whatever? I admit, the backstory is a little hazy, but that’s not the godamn point. You’re thrown into the story with Chess Putnam, who is some kind of Church-licensed ghostbuster, but also a total addict and fuckup. The plot is Scooby Doo all the way, in the best way, where there are three plots – one relating to Church business, and another two dealing with various dealers that Chess is in deep with in one way or another – that start converging into a giant clusterfuck of epic proportions.

God, I loved watching this unfold. The book is not surprising, really; this isn’t going to blow your post-modernist skirt up or give you shit about the meaning of life, but it is going to knock about and snort speed and talk in a street dialect that manages to be fucking cool without being racist. I usually get all tense and pissy about dialect, because it tends to be used racistly – I have christened this an acceptable adverb – subtly telling the reader that certain characters (usually the brown ones) are stupid or ignorant. The dialect here was more street talk, used by anyone on the corner, and the fact that Chess speaks in more standard English was more a function of her half-status on the street – her feet in two worlds – than her betterment of anyone. That’s how you use dialect. Amen.

And man, I loves me the fuckups. I feel like they are relatively rare out there in urban fantasy, and even more so in romance. I feel like every time I crack a book about werewolves or steamships or vampires or whatever genre stuff, I find these virginal ingenues who can’t find their sexuality with both hands and a flashlight. Who never dream of being bad until they find that one guy who unlocks their honey-oven with his manroot, and then ye gads! sex kitten emerges. But only, like, because of love and whatnot. Chess is not this, and it felt fresh as the nicotine hitting the blood on that first hard inhale. You kinda want to puke because it’s so dirty and transgressive, but you also want to do it again. Rarr. And speaking of rarrr, there’s a dude here, one of those muscle-buses that I’m on record as making fun of – though I would not kick Jericho Barrons out of bed for eating crackers – who totally worked for me. Big, ugly, nasty enforcer for a drug dealer who can, like, read and stuff. Because literacy is sexy, baby.

Though, the fuckup protagonist is a little more common in detective or Noir stories – probably Harry Dresden falls into this a little, though he irritates me greatly – so it’s not like Chess is wholly unusual. I don’t have a ton of background in urban fantasy series, which is probably a saving grace for my enjoyment, when I get right down to it. I kept holding Chess and her world up to the characters and places I do know – Mac & Fever, Ward’s vamps, Dresden, Sookie, Kitty the Werewolf – measuring them in relation to one another. This is on solid genre ground, and probably the more versed in the genre you are, the more similarities might bug you. But it is on solid ground.

So, I don’t know. What’s the point of reviewing, ultimately? I don’t mean that rhetorically – I’m asking with my bowl out. I’m not in this game to get people to read shit I like if they’re not going to like it. I don’t want that to happen. I don’t actually believe in the “constructive review” – I’m not arrogant enough to think that my shit-talk or praise is going to influence – or should influence – how someone writes. Presumably they have people they trust for beta readers, and it’s not like whatever I read isn’t a done deal anyway. I’m not here to sell books or sink them, not that I think that I could anyway. I’ve had a lot of somewhat bullshit existential twisting about what it is I’m doing here on Goodreads – wondering what the point of it all is – and even though I keep deciding not to review anything anymore, I keep coming back. Reading is a sullen art, and I like saying it out loud, I guess. Maybe that’s all it is. Maybe that’s all the critical process ever is.

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