Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower: The Opera

Maybe two months ago, I became aware of a musical version of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower which was being staged at the O’Shaughnessy theater on the St. Kate’s campus in St. Paul. I pretty much blacked out and bought tickets on the spot, figuring I’d find a way to the Twin Cities for the show somehow. That show was last night. What an altogether moving staging.

I feel like Parable of the Sower has been popping up again and again for me. I write a series for B&N SciFi and Fantasy about the Nebula awards, reading through the nominated books and trying to handicap who’s going to win. A book I read for that series recently reminded me of Parable — reminded me that Butler took home the Nebula for both Parable of the Sower AND its sequel Parable of the Talents. I wrote a listicle about religiously motivated missions to the stars, and included Parable of the Talents, because of Lauren’s Earthseed. (The never-published third in that series, Parable of the Trickster, which takes place on the alien planet, would have been a better fit … but of course it was never published.)

I read both books years ago. Reading through the plot summaries to jog my memory bolted me down, ran a wire up my nerves: the camps for reeducation, the separation of families from their children (often permanently), President Jarret’s Make America Great Again rhetoric as he perpetrates the most inhuman cruelties. Butler was a godamn prophet, and it’s a cold feeling to read her warning while the dystopia is in full swing.

The opera version is fully aware of the icy inevitability of Butler’s classic, but wraps up the narrative in a warm call-and-response, in a call to arms. The staging was less like a traditional stage play — I’m fairly sure if I had no familiarity with the text, I would have been at sea. Instead, the character beats of the novel are jumping off points to explore the various ideas — and characters — in song.

This didn’t really register for me when I read the novel because it isn’t my lived experience (an altogether precious way of saying I’m white), but the opera centers the religious dialogue between Lauren and her father — which of course is centered in the church in Black America. Much of the first section — in the walled neighborhood before the walls are breached — is staged like a pulpit and pews. Her father preaches, and then Lauren responds. From him: “God don’t never change.” From her: “God is change.” The music touches gospel, the rhetorical style of Black preachers, old spirituals.

Oh, but another thing: the chorus. I don’t necessarily see this that often in either film or theater, because it is weird and old school, but: Parable of the Sower kinda had a Greek chorus. The chorus in Greek theater kinda functioned as a social superego, like an intrusive narrator who interjected on the events of the play, or ran the gloss, or gave you whatfor.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet

You can find choruses in Shakespeare, real minimally, but that was almost half a millennium ago, which, even factoring his long shadow, was a long ass time ago. In Parable of the Sower, there are three people noted in the liner notes called “The Talents”: two singers, Helga Davis and Kenita Miller, and one of the writers, Toshi Reagon. I’m going to go ahead and presume that “talents” refers to the sequel — The Parable of the Talents. (There’s a pause here where I go to brush up on Jesus’ parable, and find that it’s one of the messy contested ones where different gospels have different takes, which is altogether perfect.)

The talents in the play are a modern take on the chorus, especially when Toshi Reagon — folksinger, writer, singer, musician — cut in. Near the end of the first act she broke through the music just to talk to us, to tell us about her vision of Butler’s vision and her place in the world. At the end she called us to action. It takes as voice as strong as Octavia’s own to sing her story, and Toshi Reagon has it.

Book Review: Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

History is weird, right? I mean, our lives and actions pass through this lens of the now, and then are magically transmuted into then, and rendered both complete and imperfect, all by the passage of immaterial time. Complete because it is over and done; imperfect because it’s not-whole, artefacted, metonymous. One of the oddest sensations I can think of is that overpowering feeling of “No, no, this can’t have happened this way; there must be a way of wishing this away,” when I screw something up. Not just kind of screw up, but screw up in that soul-rending way; the regretful way. Yeah, yeah, I know one shouldn’t wallow in regret, and we learn best from our mistakes, and all that cheerful shit, but sometimes being confronted by the sheer thickness of my own skull can be mortifying enough to wish for time travel. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, may you live long enough to plumb the depths of your own thoughtlessness. I mean this in the best possible way. 

My grandfather suffered from senior dementia in the last decade of his life, and we first knew something was wrong when he began telling stories about WWII. He was doctor attached to the Marine Raiders in the South Pacific, and due to his temperament and generation, he never much talked about the things he saw during the war. But before the stories vanished into the cruel forgetting of senility, they shook loose and came pouring out of him. We learned about several brushes with death, the insanity and shelling, the bad times and panic. We also learned about good things: the Australian doctor he befriended; the times he spent at the other doctor’s farm which reminded him of the Iowa farming community where he was raised. He said he loved Australia so much that he would have moved the family there after the war, had his elderly father not been living and in need of care. I never knew this, and it kind of blew my mind: how many times he nearly died; how if the wheel had been spun differently, my grandma would have been a widow with a war baby, or if he had lived and they had moved, there’d be an Australian not-Ceridwen, the daughter of my father but not my mother. 

I know, I know, this sort of musing is somewhere near the pinnacle of self-involvement, a personal strong anthropic principle. But I think this sort of thinking can be found in the unconscious assumptions that underpin all manner of historiographies. Is history long or short? Does it cycle, pulse, or is it flat like ticker tape? Are we at the end of days, or the beginning, or is that the wrong answer to the wrong questions? I’m fascinated by how many religions have a get-me-out-of-history lesson as their central idea: the Hindus and Buddhists are both trying to get out of the cycle of rebirth, but they disagree as to methods; the eschatological Christians viewing the world as a giant Rube-Goldberg-like device: if we can just move these people here and those people there, then Christ will return and end history. What’s up with this? I mean, sure, life sucks, except for when it’s insanely cool. Why do we make historical suicide sacred? But I’ve pined for the screw-up changing time-machine, so I guess I get it. 

So, wait, what the heck am I talking about? I haven’t even started talking about The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m so completely suffused with love and admiration for this book that I feel and dreamy and half-lit. (I mean that both in the inebriated sense and the illuminated sense.) Several people recommended this book to me after I freaked out about how awesome plague narratives were. While this book peripherally deals with the Black Plague, in that the story is a thought experiment that resets history when the 14th Century plague wipes out almost all of the population of Europe, instead of only (only) the 30-50% most historians estimate. Did you know that the population of Europe, didn’t rebound to pre-plague levels until well into the 1800s? This is in the real world, not the world of the book. Although, man, I feel mind-blown enough to see that both histories are constructed, our internalized values of historiography subtly or not so subtly influencing what we accept as real, as fact, or as important. Do you know what I mean? 

I’ve been reading a fair amount of alternate history, authors re-spinning the wheel to different results: what if? what if? I haven’t quite figured out what all this messing with history is about in contemporary lit, but I bet it’s related to magical realism in some way. Magical realism has often re-told personal, familial, and national histories with the metaphors made manifest; the alternate history folks seem to be doing something similar, sort of. I haven’t figured it out yet. (Hey, let me know if you have any ideas.) Sometimes this spinning is comic, sometimes an excuse for some ass-kicking. How do events inform ideas? If there was no European history, it if bled out into ruins and bleached bones, who would Galileo be? Are we going to go down the ugly road of European superiority, and claim that medicine, technology, electricity, modernity, all the shit by which we measure progress, could only be developed by Christians/Europeans? Spin the wheel again: who makes contact with the New World? 

So, okay, this sounds super boring I bet. This sounds like a droning history class. Then the so-and-sos did this, then they did that. This is not how this book is. It’s grounded in character, written in really lovely language, moving and real and determined not to fall for the easy answers. It’s a frame narrative, using the form that Boccaccio developed in the 14th C to tell his own story of plague and history: the Decameron. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this particular frame before, which is kind of interesting, because once you say it out loud, it seems too obvious: it follows the same collection of souls who are reincarnated together in the 700 hundred years since the plague.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the whole concept of reincarnation makes me itchy. I mean, gah, how can be be understood to be ourselves when we’re someone else? Also, I hate the whole idea that we’re here to “learn something” in each life, plunked into a hierarchy of being that strikes me as insanely arbitrary. No, strike that, arbitrary would be better. Men above women; human above animal; the rich above the poor. But, don’t listen to me. Pretty much the Buddha has already articulated all these ideas to better and more poetic effect. This is the way I would put it: fuck your dharma. (That’s one for embroidering on a pillow, I tell you what.) Dharma is playing the shitty hand you’ve been dealt with a smile, because them’s the rules. And what bastard made those rules? Don’t ask! Does a dog have Buddha nature? Well, you get to find out. (Or like the character in the book who has my same problem with dharma: tiger nature.)

That’s why this book is so awesome: it is discomforted by its own frame narrative. “Oh Gods, I’m so sorry,” it says, as it reincarnates an African eunuch into a Hawaiian girl. There are no ridiculous birthmarks that endure from incarnation to incarnation; the names don’t start with the same letter; none of that cheating literary bullshit. Robinson rolls the threads of continuity between one character and the next using, and I know this is avant garde, compelling characterization and culturally specific signifiers. Hard to believe, I know. There’s other awesomeness as well: a sensitivity to women’s history, poetry written for the novel that Robinson need not be embarrassed by, unlike many novelists who dabble in poetry, and remarkable restraint when it comes to exposition. 

I’ll complain a bit, just to let you know I haven’t been paid off or something: the section that deals with the peoples of the New World is totally weak. I was kind of obsessed with the history of Native America for a while, and one of the reasons we have this idea of indigenous Americans chilling in the empty forest passing the peace pipe around is that Old World diseases wiped out as much as 90% of the population of North America before the people of the interior even knew the anglos were coming. Talk about your plague narratives. There was enormous upheaval going on, before whitey showed up to pass around beads and smallpox blankets, and the groups that we like to think of as static from time immemorial were either the remnants of larger groups who synthesized based on similar languages, like the Catawba, or wholly remade by the introduction of new technologies, like the Lakota/Dakota/Sioux. But whatever, I have an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the histories of the Muslim and Chinese worlds, so I’ll let Robinson slide on his rosy portrait of the decimated and traumatized cultures that peopled this fair continent in the century after Contact. But measles lacks ideology; I don’t care who passed it who the New World first. 

I’m trying to figure out how to wrap up; a regular problem for me. I’m no good at plot, as I’ve been told before. Maybe because of this, I like when novels are open-ended. There’s nothing wrong with a puzzle-box: the plots that snick and fold into the origami of meaning. But novelists that capture the zig-zag-whatever of the way my life is actually lived, without being boring or lazy, are often my favorites. So there’s this, from about halfway through the novel, when the reincarnated group, the jati, have just been cut down uselessly by an outbreak of plague. They sit, huddled and demoralized, waiting for their next incarnations:

“Looking back down the vale of the ages at the endless recurrence of their reincarnation, before they were forced to drink their vial of forgetting and all became obscure to them again, they could see no pattern at all to their efforts; if the gods had a plan, or even a set of procedures, if the long train of transmigrations was supposed to add up to anything, if it was not just mindless repetition, time itself nothing but a succession of chaoses, no one could discern it; and the story of their transmigrations, rather than being a narrative without death, as the first experiences of reincarnation perhaps seemed to suggest, had become a veritable charnel house. Why read on? Why pick up their book from the far wall where it had been thrown away in disgust and pain, and read on? Why submit to such cruelty, such bad karma, such bad plotting?

The reason is simple: these things happened. They happened countless times, just like this. The oceans are salt with our tears. No one can deny that these things happened.”


Kim Stanley Robinson, Years of Rice and Salt

I can’t deny it, mired in my own chaoses, subject to the bad plotting of my own life and unrelenting happenstance. I happen, and I continue to happen in this seemingly random way; a way that occasionally, just occasionally points to greater meaning even while it dissolves on closer inspection. I’m not one for big philosophies; I don’t have an overarching theory of history and the world that can account for our cosmic obscurity balanced against individual self-importance. Neither does Robinson, bless his soul. 

Writing Sex into the Classics

This was originally written a couple years ago after reading two erotic updates of English literature classics, which seemed an inevitable outgrowth of the monster mash-ups that became something of a fad after the surprise success of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I was reminded of its existence when I ran across a Northanger Abbey with sex writing mash-up recently. I haven’t gone back to see if my little theory about Austen and sex writing works at all, but I do applaud the mash-up writer for taking on one of my favorite Austen heroes. He was just the kind of gentle and mansplainy that I would expect.

A quick disclaimer: this isn’t really a “review”. That’s generally true when I’m writing “reviews”, but I felt squeamish reading through it for spelling errors and the like. This is a complete and total overreaction and overthink of some very silly stuff, and I just want to be clear that I’m aware of that. If you really give a shit about whether you’ll like a smut version of “Daisy Miller” by Henry James, or the continuing erotic adventures of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, I will repeat this quote attributed to so many people as to be a mysterious aphorism: people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like. I mean, seriously. 

I get why contemporary writers do pulp retellings of 19th Century literature. So much of what gives the original stories juice is the unspoken or the alluded, all that subterranean emotion thrumming through the stories like blood. The thing I remember most from Wuthering Heights, for example, is Cathy running out into the moors, tearing all her clothes off, and becoming a werewolf. And before you get on me, yes, of course I know this didn’t happen. But the image is what my mind makes of all the subtext, all this howling and brutality and half-creatures. While Wuthering Heights is an absolute hatecast, there’s a lot of ambiguity there, a closed mouth about certain things which isn’t so much coy as withholding. I can see the instinct to nail it down, to make it be one thing and not all the others. So of course it’s dumb and painful that Stephenie Meyer, in Eclipse, remakes this story of blood and revenge into a doddering middle class non-problem, but she absolutely gets the werewolf right. She makes it one thing and not the others.

Conversely, let us consider Austen, who probably has the largest body of retellings of her works. (Interestingly, these mash-ups tend to be either horror or romance; maybe it’s the embodied angle of both genres? Or, wait, there are some mysteries, which I tend not to read, so this theory is more about my predilections than anything. Carry on.) Unlike the Brontës, Austen is very rarely, and only under the most dire of circumstances, a Romantic — heed my capital letter, friends — even while her stories are intensely domestic. It has been observed that no two men speak to one another without a woman present in all of her novels, as she has the concision of the documentarian. She has never seen two men speak without a woman (herself) present, and she’s hard-headed enough to stick to the things she’s seen, rather than the things she can imagine.

She’s got a mercantile bent, so much so that one almost despairs ever meeting the principles of Sense and Sensibility when one picks it up, given the reems of description of everyone’s financial state. Observe:

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present lady, three daughters. The son, a steady, respectable young man, was amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large, and half of which devolved on him on his coming of age. By his own marriage, likewise, which happened soon afterwards, he added to his wealth. To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune, independent of what might arise to them from their father’s inheriting that property, could be but small. Their mother had nothing, and their father only seven thousand pounds in his own disposal; for the remaining moiety of his first wife’s fortune was also secured to her child, and he had only a life interest in it.”

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Zzzzzzz. 

Look, I love Austen like the catty, introverted cousin I hang on the wall with while at family functions, drinking — which is to say: a lot — but this is some bloodless stuff. Much as the mistaken asshole plot from Pride and Prejudice has become a mainstay of romance novels, Austen herself would not particularly care for the high emotions of such a thing, especially if the principles failed to take into account or straight up flaunted social/economic/racial divides. Which happens often in romance novels because the driving considerations of a match are emotional; love trumps all incompatibilities. Education heals all, to Austen, or possibly one’s good nature, or manners, or all three, but then only provisionally, and only for the narrowest of slices of society. Maybe. Money is most definitely very large factor. 

So I can see why people want to sex her up. Austen doesn’t give us much to go on, in terms of physicality: Elizabeth has “fine eyes” and Darcy, honestly I don’t know if he is short or tall or blond or what. Elizabeth even pokes at the Romantic sensibility right before she gets her own moral/economic slapdown at Pemberley, so awed by her would-be lover’s stuff and things she doesn’t “know herself”:

“My dear, dear aunt,” she rapturously cried, “what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.” [all sic, because Austen can’t spell, bless her heart]

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

What are men, indeed, Elizabeth? The romance novel heroine might protest in much the same way: no, of course I do not love Slade, who is either wealthy or secretly wealthy. But her revelation that she loves him would never come at observing Slade’s tangible wealth; that would be too bald, strangely. Indeed the opposite is more often true: the romantic heroine’s lack of care for his wealth is the test that paradoxically provides her worthiness. She is no golddigger. She does not consider such hard, true, palpable things as money in her calculations of her happiness, except insofar as her poverty is a virtue. There are roughly one million romance novels that pair the noble poor woman with a dickish billionaire, running a redemption arc for the wealthy while both volorizing poverty and slyly denigrating the poor. The worthy poor get a hand out; the rest of you lot are probably getting what you deserve.

In some ways, adding sex to Austen balances the scale. All scandals, my dad once told me, have to do with either sex or money. Austen’s scandals tend to be about money. Though sex occasionally factors, money is always the prime mover, that thing that bends passions and taints the tentative beginnings. Austen is no Victorian: This isn’t because she’s squeamish or a prude. The bone fide sex scandals in her novels do not result in redemptive death for the woman; neither Lydia Bennet nor the Bertram sister from Mansfield Park get consumption and die as punishment. The consequences of their actions flow naturally, and are not there as moral instruction (which is actually astonishing, considering.) But latter day stories featuring Elizabeth and Darcy often find them, post nuptials, engaging in all the hard passions denied the satirist, because Austen’s aim is not moralizing but satirizing.

The latter day erotic retelling aligns Austen to more post-War middle class American sensibilities: you can talk about money, but only as a metric for plucky self-determination, or for virtue-signaling purposes. Virtue is rewarded, often materially, in the narrative, which is something that often doesn’t happen in Austen. Elinor Dashwood and her beau are quite impoverished, in the end, as are Fanny and Edmund. And sex in a certain species of boilerplate romance novel — the kind you find on the spinning rack — is weirdly morally pure. I once spend a wedding shower in the company of born again Christian in-laws, who regaled me with their sexual exploits in terms far too explicit for this humble humanist. Sex in the confines is exalted, apparently. It makes sense, theologically: emotions are more important that fact, faith more important than works, at least in ground game American evangelical Christianity, which I think has tangible impact on the morality of your average romance novel. Fuck all you want; you’re married.

This sainted carnality is well more important in the contemporary erotic retelling than Austen’s uneasy broodings about education and morality, the subtle differences between good breeding and good manners, with all the attendant, antique and oft unpleasant implications of such concepts. I like Austen because I do not agree with her in many things (insofar as anyone can “agree” with a society 200 years distant) but I adore how serious, subtle, and nuanced her considerations are. Austen’s creatures do something more interesting than fucking, but I get how people want to see the fucking as an outgrowth of the more interesting, how they want to see it flat and straight. How fucking simplifies all the problems brought up by Austen, makes them cleanly dirty.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to these two fictions: Daisy Miller: The Wild and Wanton Edition by Gabrielle Vigot and Henry Miller (snort), and The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray by Mitzi Szerto. Both of the original works are fictions with thick erotic subtexts, something near satire, almost didactic, definitely a hard examination of the author’s social milieu. It might be unfair to compare these two latter day appendage fictions: wild & wanton Daisy Miller is a mash-up, stitching sex writing into James’s short story, while Wilde Passions is a continuation, imagining the later day travails of the immortal Dorian Gray. I think it works in the way that Pride & Prejudice & Zombies sits uneasily yet surely with its inferior prequel: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. These are all fictions tied to the trajectories of larger gravities, unable to be considered as separate works by even the most New Critical of folk. 

So. Wild & wanton Daisy Miller is probably easier to consider, what with its brevity and large chunks of the original text. I can see why it’s attractive just to stitch fuck sequences into 19th century lit — like porn, you don’t have to mess around with actual plot, etc — but such an enterprise becomes stylistically dodgy when dealing with an author as distinctive as Henry James. I have never read the original Daisy Miller, and I could tell, down to the sentence, where the graft occurred. But the early sex sequences were honestly adorable, with Daisy and Winterbourne enacting fantasy and reverie at the edges of James’s work. This dreamy, half-imagined fuckery seemed right in line with James’s aesthetic, with a brooding, half-real cast to it. It was only as the story unspooled that things got dumb. I guess what bothers me about the new Daisy Miller is that Winterbourne wins in the end, and that dude should fucking get it. Not that he gets it in James’s version, exactly, but he sure doesn’t get the girl. Wait, let’s back up.

Definite spoilers ahead. 

In James’s version of Daisy Miller, a boring cipherous New Englander named Winterbourne meets the lush and lusty daughter of American industrialists in Geneva. They have a boring and cipherous semi-courtship, until they decamp singly to Italy. She falls in with Italians (gasp!), with whom she is either having sex, or having the socially disastrous appearance of sex. (Same/same.) Winterbourne is a dick and a bro about the whole thing; Daisy delivers some speeches about freedom (O, America); then she dies because sluts always die of the fever. The story reads as this weird superimposition of New York Belle Epoque morality, where the girl gets it because she’s a slut and/or the wrong class (same/same), and a criticism of that, because the industrialist son who oversees this tragedy is a drag and a buzzkill. (Should we be outside? Should you even be talking to me? Omg, this is all soooo informal; that’s hot but I’m scared.) You want to fling yourself at Italian men at the end, because godamn is society cold and cruel. 

In the lush & lusty version, Daisy delivers her speeches, and instead of Winterbourne magically not be the worst (which he’s pretty much been in all the Henry James parts of the story) he discovers his love for her and rescues her from fucking Italians. (I mean “fucking” to mean “having sex with”, not as an intensifier, to be clear.) They make out and she’s cured of the Roman Fever, the end. Oh, also, her mom has a lot of buttsecks with the butler. I don’t really have a problem with that either, other than the usual squeamishness about, like, fucking the staff. But, you know, this is fine work if you can get it.

Winterbourne and Daisy getting together is the kind of end that makes me feel icky in my tummy. Sure, in the original, Winterbourne is an officious dick and Daisy a sheltered fool, but their ugly ends (while completely incommensurate) taught me something about rigid, boring, horrid class systems based on the finest of gradations. While I’m fine with Daisy surviving the usual Romantic illness that overtakes all fallen women since Victoria took the throne (at least), I am mos def not okay with Winterbourne being treated like some kind of romantic hero. Fuuuuck that guy; he is the embodiment of mediocre conventionality. Team Daisy. 

This seems an altogether different kind of American social message to have Winterbourne win out against his girl fucking Italians. Instead of some quaint 19th century examination of the grasping newly middle class tripping over its inborn lusts in front of the more second generation moneyed asshole, we have the second generation moneyed asshole being redeemed by the quaint notion of love erasing all impediments, even the bone-deep character ones. Daisy opens her legs and her heart, and Winterbourne is tugged dickward towards his inevitable romantic emanation. (I love you. Daisy, and your fucking of Italians in the square is simply performance to my voyeurism. What happiness, etc.) It’s a petty, priapic kind of love, one where romantic love brutally wins over literally everything else.

Everyone forgets that Romeo and Juliet were the exact same damn thing, and that their thwarted romance had nothing to do with class or race or anything. It is the narcissism of small differences: that the more similar two people are, the more they are likely to focus on the points of divergence, sometimes to animosity. (Which explains things like, say, the conflict in Northern Ireland, which to outsiders looks like an pointless ginger fight.) R & J would have cemented a dynasty had they had text messaging, and I gotta say, that’s not a play I want to see. It would be gross to watch two rich, white assholes get together, and it’s a damn good thing they died. So too, in the updated Daisy Miller. Daisy survives Winterbourne’s bourgie morality so they can canoodle, pretty much destroying all actual criticism of James’s social milieu. I really haven’t got a lot of time for this, but then I also admit I’m a vicious crank. Someone has got to die to prove the situation serious. All the unintended consequences to the shifts in Daisy make it kind of a bummer.

I also admit I’ve entirely overthought just about everything. Lighten up! It’s just a bit of fun! And look, I know. And I did have some fun, mostly because of the dizzying whiplash of stewing in James’s page-long sentences, and then being treated to rapid fire anal sex scenes. There’s something charming about how silly the whole prospect is, which is why I undertook this at all. Brontës and Austen make sense to me to graft in some love and zombies, but James? Is there, like, wild & wanton versions of Melville? Ethan Frome? They’re both stories with thick erotic subtexts, and even some unrequited love! (If only that big white Dick would put out, sigh.) It takes stones to take on James with a project this goofy, and I do earnestly applaud the effort. You’d never get me to set my prose style against James’; no fucking way.

And so, to move on after far too much ado, a quick google unearthed for me the latter day adventures of Dorian Gray. Unlike Miss Daisy, Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray is not a mash-up, but a continuation. Szereto rewrites the very end of Dorian Gray (the only novel Wilde ever wrote), rescuing Dorian from death by his own hand, and recounting the plot of Wilde’s novel though flashback and reference. Dorian bottoms through the next century or so, moving from various literary and/or exotic locales: Paris in the beginning, where he runs with Hemingway and the Fitzgeralds (though why they are never named confuses me); on to Marrakesh, where he enacts an ooky Orientalism; then to South America, where he tempts the faithful, and finally ending in New Orleans in an unconvincing redemption of sorts. With vampires.

While the wild & wanton “Daisy Miller” feels like a goof or a lark — hey, let’s stitch some fuckery into Henry James! That’s hi-larious! — I get the distinct impression that Wilde Passions is rather serious. Wilde Passions is not simple stroke material, but an earnest grappling with the ambiguous messages of Dorian Gray. This is odd, really, because Wilde, as you may be aware, was one of the funniest dudes ever, and the shift in tone is notable. I scanned a little of the original Dorian Gray, and shit, yo, is that man droll. At least Wilde Passions doesn’t have the source material cheek to jowl with the continuation, because that would be ruinous. As it stands, the different tone is not distracting, and trying to write like Oscar Wilde, one of the great comic writers, is probably doomed anyway.

So, I guess what I want to talk about is the erotic, and sex writing more generally. Sex writing is one of those things that is more variegated that it would appear from the snickering. It’s probably harder to pull off than a fight scene, which I would say is damned difficult to do well, because even just the writer’s choices for body terminology can turn a reader off. I know I have the words I cannot take seriously in a sexual context, which is not the same for “arm” or “leg” or “knife”. The verb “to lave” doesn’t get much play beyond sex writing, and feels both clinical and euphemistic to me. I’d much prefer cunts and cocks to honey pots and manroots, but I know many readers of sex writing, almost ironically, find these terms far too aggressive or smutty or something. 

It seems to me we’ve ceded sex writing to romance novels, and I don’t mean this to be an indictment of romance novels, but an indictment of literary fiction. Most of the best sex writing I’ve read has been in a romance novel, because that’s where sex writing occurs most often. But romance novels generally present a very, very narrow slice of the stunning variety of human sexuality. I’m not just talking about kinks or whatnot, I’m talking about how it’s generally middle class white women knocking boots with middle class white men, all between the ages of 25-35. The sex is going to be good, mind-blowing even, and no one has tired, married sex to get it over with. I’m not saying romance novels should start depicting that, necessary, though some older, less white folk would be greatly appreciated. I get that they’re wish fulfillment narratives. But it’s notable to me, for example, how many people shit the bed over the tampon scene in Fifty Shades of Grey, wherein dude removes her tampon before banging her, when, right now, literally thousands of people are having sex on the rag. Tens of thousands. It’s such a mundane, everyday detail to freak out over. Romance novel sex is often weirdly prissy.

But it’s dreadfully hard to find sex in literary fiction, and when you do, it’s often just painfully bad. The British literary magazine Literary Review does a Bad Sex in Fiction prize every year, and the esteemed and prized writers who make the list make one wince. From Ben Okri, a Booker prize winner, and the Bad Sex in Fiction winner for 2014:

“Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her. He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.”

 I mean, really. This is what sex would be like on Monty Python, the bombs bursting on air and all that. I can think of some really cringy sex scenes from literary novels, with this just terrible mix of platitudes and overwrought metaphors. And this is of course when there is any sex writing at all, this vital component of many relationships simply elided. 

The sex — and there is a lot of it — in Wilde Passions cuts a weird middle distance. It’s not explicit enough to be stroke material — it’s not erotica — but then it’s too omnipresent to be truly literary. Dorian enacts just a host of transgressions in his quest for hedonistic sensuality and fading youthful beauty, like he does in Wilde’s novel. He ruins a Marrakeshi prostitute boy with shame and drink; he seduces a monk, which leads to the monk’s suicide. He brutalizes and murders women in New Orleans. But, here’s the thing: I just kinda didn’t get why.

Wilde somewhat famously added a preface to Dorian Gray after Victorian critics got all up in arms about its “sham morality”. You’re just writing smut with the lamest of censures tacked on the end, they said, to which Wilde replied: all art is quite useless. Morality or immorality has no place in the process of creating beauty. Art is a not a tool — it should not have a use — or it is not art. I can’t say I agree, but then I also understand where he’s coming from, and why he’s putting it so starkly. He goes to explore a life decoupled from consequence, driven by an amoral worldview, and then a bunch of howling censors accuse him of corrupting babies. Fuck you, I’m not making tools for your morality. Make them your damn self. 

Continuing on Gray’s amoral quest, after removing what you could even consider a moral, is an interesting experiment, honestly, but I have some reservations about how successful this is. His transgressions are all sexual in nature, and I begin to weary of the fuckery. Why can we not change up his violations of the social contract with, say, a Ponzi scheme or selling cancer cures made of chicken bones? I guess what I’m saying is it seems a failure of imagination to cast all his amorality in terms of the bedroom. He even killed a dude directly in Wilde’s tale. Sure, you could argue that it’s the culture around Dorian which casts his homosexual sex acts as villainous, but, as a first person narrative, that doesn’t really work. He’s pretty gleeful about the ways he ruins people through buggery, and, ultimately, it reads a little like, omg, the homosexual agenda! I don’t think that’s the intent, not at all, but it can be read out of the text pretty easily. 

But, my disquiet aside, Szereto is clearly grappling with something here, something real. And let’s put my disquiet back into it: Wilde Passions invoked for me the same brutal, chilly eroticism of mid-century fiction by women — stuff like The Story of O and Ice by Anna Kavan — and that shit frays me. She takes this odd, amoral remnant from the most squeamish of times, Victoriana, and then runs him like a VHS tape on fast forward. Wilde Passions ends somewhere in Anne Rice’s vampire eroticism, all kudzu and rot, which would be relevant 20 years ago but feels weirdly antique now. All of it feels antique: the Fitzgeralds, the Orientalism, the Thomas Mann inflected monastery, New Orleans before Katrina. Hell, maybe this takes place after Katrina, but that wouldn’t rightly be the point.

On some level, Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, and the ways it doesn’t work are indictments of the form. The erotic in literature is built partially on shame, and shame is a sad, lonely, and conservative beast, more worried about body parts than injustice, more worried about degradation than violation. So Dorian’s burgeoning, transformative love for a girl he both brutalized and terrorized is part and parcel of the romantic narrative: love is redemptive, and requires no agency in its actors. You will be an ideal person whether you like it or not. You are simply a player in someone else’s story. Once again, love brutally wins over literally everything else, only this time, you’re not supposed to see that as a good thing. God help us all.

It’s intensely clever the way Szereto removes the Victorian “moral”, weak though it is, and then runs Gray’s amoral sensation seeking through changing literary erotic landscapes. She then ends with a modern “moral”, which looks just a weak as the Victorian. You rarely notice how blinkered the idea that romantic love is a moral agent, but boy can you see it here. Wilde Passions was a very pleasant surprise for me, an essay on sex writing and morality which is deeply considered. Who knew?

Book Review: Perfunctory Affection by Kim Harrison

Sometimes I feel out of step with other readers. I thought THE DRAFTER and its sequel were both excellent novels. The mid-apocalyptic Detroit setting was well detailed. The characters' backstories came out organically as the reader's understanding of the world deepened (and the reader's experience mirrored the protagonist's confusion, at least in the first one.) Also, drafting was just a cool concept, and spy drafters even better. Alas, I felt like those things were absent in PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION. The setting is an indistinct college town in Anywhere, USA, and the mechanics of the magic at play here are rote. Worse, I didn't feel much from or about the characters either.  

PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION starts in medias res as a woman, Meg, barrels down a road in her car, castigating herself for trusting various people. She gets into an accident (which reminds her, briefly, of an older accident that ended in blood on the road) after a man jumps in front of her car. They argue, then we jump back 3 days, and begin following Meg through her day. First stop is to her psychiatrist, who appears to be helping her through social anxiety and agoraphobia, stemming from the death of her mother and a brutal car accident. Meg is put on a new highly experimental drug called Fitrecepon (hint: anagram solvers are a thing) and then sent out into the world. Meg is to keep a diary and watch for paranoia and changes in diet and sleep patterns.

Which is where I run into my first set of problems. From here, Meg goes out and spontaneously makes friends with a visiting professor (Meg is an art teacher, apparently), at which point they become joined at the hip and spend the entire weekend together with escalating intimacy. I think Meg's weird toad-eating and subservience to her new friend Haley is right in line with her dismal self esteem and her fervent desire to overcome her anxiety. I think she also would be hungry for a drug to be a magic bullet, which is how she treats it, even after Dr. Jillium's warnings. But Dr. Jillium should have her license revoked for how she handles a highly experimental drug (which is apparently not even in trials, it's so experimental, which is not how any of that works.)

My mother's best friend has cancer, and last month they decided to try a new chemo drug on her. She went into the office and was hooked up to the rig, where they pushed a few secondary drugs first. Then they hung the bag with the drug in it. Jay watched the drug run down the tube to her hand, and the moment the drug hit her bloodstream, she went into anaphylactic shock. They had to do the whole Pulp Fiction epi pen to the heart thing right there as her husband watched on in horror. This and other terrible side effects of, really, any drug are always possibilities; ask me about how contrast dye makes my body break out in hives! When Meg blows off keeping a diary of the effects of the drug, that should have been the end of it, right there, day one.

The opening bit also blows any sense of creeping dread we may feel. Haley, Haley's roommate, Meg's boyfriend, Austen: they are all under suspicion by the reader, which made me read a lot closer for tells and slip-ups by the characters. Of course Haley and her friend-boy are not to be trusted; we have that knowledge from the first. Meg's escalating paranoia about Jillium and Austen reads exactly like a side effect, which no one seems to see but the reader. That all is not right with Meg's sense of what is real and what isn't is telegraphed so loudly that I had the twist figured well before it hit. While I don't think that's a bad thing in all instances -- sometimes the tension between what the reader knows and the characters do can be a cool effect -- in this case it made me skim a bit until I could get to where Meg catches up.

I don't want to land too hard here. This may come off as a bitchy thing to say, though I don't mean it that way, but PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION is readable as hell, and I was halfway through before my brain started screaming about Dr. Jillium. The novel moves along at such a fast clip that I didn't have any time to start nitpicking, and even when I started, I was compelled to read to the end. I am not in any way a completist, and abandon at least half the books I start. Meg's genuine rush at overcoming some of her anxiety is well rendered, and I think in general her mental illness is dealt with sensitively (though I'm a little unsure about that ending.)

So, on the balance PERFUNCTORY AFFECTION was a nice read on a Sunday, but I just didn't think it was up to the quality of THE DRAFTER, which of course no one read because the world is deeply unfair. The cover is also aces.


I received my copy from Netgalley.

We go a-viking: The Long Ships

Original review, posted April 2012

So, this isn’t entirely a drunk book review, but it’s also not entirely sober. As such, I know I’m not going to bother checking my references and making sure I’m not making stuff up, so fair warning. 

Which is the thing. The Long Ships was written by a Swede (or possibly a Norwegian or a Dane) in the run-up to the second world war, drawing on his fiercely academic background in Old German/English/Norse semi-oral histories, stuff like the Icelandic Sagas, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. Unlike certain crunchy Oxford dons I can think of, Bengtsson has a super sly sense of humor. He’s not trying to build an Anglo-Saxon mythology that works with his Christian ret-con. Seriously, why I am being so coy here? What I am trying to say is that Bengtsson and J.R.R. Tolkien were both writing at the same time, using the same source materials as their guide posts, but they came home with some seriously different narratives. That Bengtsson is in the dust bin of history, and Tolkien is wherever he is with his name recognition, I can’t say what that means. Something. 

Whatever, moving on. 

So, The Long Ships? I’m again not going to look this up, but I think that Michael Chabon in the introduction called this the “last Victorian novel”. Which is, like, super overheated blurb-fodder, but I get what he was at. There’s something un-psychological un-Modern here. These characters are all recognizably human, and they certainly have their thoughts and motivations, but there’s something charmingly without hand-wringing and deeper purpose in terms of The Psyche here. People are what they are, and things happen, and sometimes these things have anything to do with each other, but mostly they don’t. Plot isn’t discovery; it’s shit that happens. 

Which, can we talk about narrator for a minute? I’ve been reading myself some Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I loves how snide they are. The Beowulf narrator can’t help, when he’s introducing some dude he hates, but warn us that the dude he hates is going to slip on banana peels in the third act and die or worse. He’s gonna get it! But watch him be a jackass now so you can savor it when the banana peels rear up under his heels. The narrator here isn’t as entirely intrusive, but he’s going to let you know that while Orm is rowing as a galley slave, that Orm will get out of it in the end, and it’ll make a good story, don’t worry. And it totally does. This is all good story. 

So, wait, plot? Orm Somethingson leaves his home to go a-viking, gets screwed almost immediately, and in a series of reversals of fortune, ends up as a soldier in Muslim Spain. They he bails and heads back to England/Ireland/Scandinavia, where some stuff happens, mostly involving the Christianization of that area. The first section – and, apparently, this was published as two discrete novels back in the day – is much more rip-roaring, trotting all over Europe, meeting up with Jews and Muslims and Christians, holding turn of the first millennium convos about how god(s) work, getting laid, and plundering booty. Which, fuck yeah. It’s like what Skye O’Malley would have been if that didn’t suck rocks. And donkey balls. Almost literally. 

Book two, or the second section, this was tougher sledding for me. Orm converts to Christianity, and although his conversion is super funny – he’s part of a Viking mission that has England by the short and curlies, and the English king is this total cowardly dork, and I’m not going into it more, because, boring for you – the parts where Orm bolts down in Scandowhereveria and has some babies and fights with his neighbors….zzzzz. Or not entirely zzzzz, but it lacks that broad-stroke of the first section, and as an early second millennium reader, I give Christian converts the stink eye. There’s no fanatic like a convert, as my mother likes to say, though that’s not exactly what happens here. Orm isn’t above beating the holy spirit into folk, which is funny, and his theology, when it runs at odds with the priests’, is sweetly pragmatic. But then we go a-viking again! Boo-yah! There’s not lot of danger here, in the sense that the narrator is warning you that everything will turn out all right, and then it does! Squee! Go Orm and all of his descendants!

And now, off topic. Again, according to sources I am not looking up, Bengtsson refused to let the Nazis publish his books under their occupation (must have been Sweden?) and use them as propaganda. Which, interestingly, nor did Tolkien allow the Allies to use Middle Earth as a propaganda tool.* (Which I’m also not looking up, but I’m fairly sure it’s true. Jesus, can you imagine how effective propaganda based on his sort of Teutonic Christianity would have been? Shudder.) I mean, we probably would have forgiven Tolkien in hindsight, should he engage in propaganda for the winning (and non-Nazi, in all fairness) side, but, interestingly, I think Bengtsson’s work is less suited to propaganda. Orm is living in a much more pluralistic society than Middle Earth, regardless of the varying versions of Western Christian societies that peopled that realm: Rohan, Gondor, The Shire. (Which can be read as Anglo-Saxons, Renaissance Italians, and the bucolic English.) Orm’s latent paganism is all over everything he does, even when embraces the True Faith and all that. Orm abides. Dude. 

An interesting book, and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I’m not going to say it wasn’t trying at times. I’m still not through worrying the idea that this is a Victorian novel, because I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but I’m not sure how to articulate why. Certainly this is no psychological journey, Freud’s grubby hand-prints all over the action and its meaning. But it’s not sentimental either, which I think you can see heaped in huge flowering beds all over (some) Victorian novels. There’s no moral to the story. No coda. No gloss. So I think I’m going to call bullshit on this being a Victorian novel. I can’t say this is Modernist or post-Modernist or anything else though, which makes it incredibly cool and weird. 

Also, there’s a lot of beards. If you like beards, this is for you. Beardo.

 

*Update, Jan 2015:

Not long after I wrote this, I realized my little tossed off comment about Tolkien and WWII propaganda cannot be true: Lord of the Rings wasn’t published into the early 1950s, though of course it was written during the War, and most certainly drew upon JRRT’s experiences in the previous world war. (What exactly that influence is, you may quibble amongst yourselves.  For sure the Dead Marshes, at the very least, are a WWI reference, as is much of the relationship between Sam and Frodo.)

In the interest of fact-checking previous drunken me’s assertions — I know I must have read somewhere about how Tolkien managed the political application of his Middle Earth, as far as he was able — I googled “Tolkien propaganda”. I got a lot of stuff in German and some other blather. Not looking too closely, I clicked on a link called “Tolkien, his Dwarves, and the Jews”. I’m reading through, getting more and more worried by the antisemitic tone of this thing, when I realize I’m on a white supremacist message board. Ye gads! What the actual fuck!? Get me out of here!!!1!

After nuking my browser and clearing any and all fucking cookies, I can’t quote exactly what these shitheels were saying, but suffice it to say it’s not good. They quote Tolkien saying that the dwarves were modeled after Jews, which surprises the white supremacist. Don’t the dwarves have honor and stuff? And Jews obviously do not, etc, gag. If indeed Tolkien modeled dwarves after Jews — which I don’t find hard to believe, shitty source notwithstanding — then there are a number of troubling implications of this equation.

I’ll try not to get too nerdy here, but let’s just realize how far down the nerd hole we are already. So, basically, Middle Earth is a religious cosmology — we won’t say allegory — in which the main deity, Eru Ilúvatar, creates the races of Elves and Men. The race of Dwarves is created by a demi-god — a sort of Hephaestian character — called Aulë. As such, they’re lesser order beings, imperfect copies of perfect creations. Like Ents or Orcs, who were also created by beings other than Eru Ilúvatar, they struggle with sterility and a bent towards beastliness, tending back to the non-sentient animism of their origin. Eru Ilúvatar eventually gives the Dwarves sapience, but this doesn’t really overturn their origins. Which is why the equation of Dwarves with the Jews is…let’s just use the bullshit term “problematic”.

I’m losing my point here, and mostly I’m just freaking out at Tolkien being used by violent racists to bolster their cause. Oh, I know what my point was! It’s one of those old hoary chestnuts of criticism that “you can’t judge literature from the past with the sensibilities of the present argle bargle”. To which I say, bullshit. I can do anything I want, motherfucker, and if what I want to do is decide that Tolkien’s “races” are treading dangerously close to racial biological determinism and its attendant social violence, then I can do that in the privacy of my own home. And I mos def have both the textual and extra-textual evidence to back that up. It’s not like I’m making shit up; even the white supremacists see it.

But! This determination is a slightly different thing than using Tolkien — or any other writer — and his (admittedly historically determined) blindspots and straight up prejudices as propaganda in perpetuating such diseased worldviews. There is a lot I love about Tolkien, from his shitty poetry to his linguistic ardor for English and a half a dozen other dead languages, but this 1) doesn’t make me blind to his failings and 2) doesn’t mean if I love the baby I need to drink the bathwater. After the LotR movies came out, a bunch of the actors, of myriad political inclinations, came out with various “Tolkien said this or that about politics” statements. To which I say, who gives a shit? I don’t base my political opinions on what my racist great-uncle said about the War, or Jews, or whatever — and dude said plenty, I assure you, and it was all awful — and I’m not going to base my opinions on someone else’s great-uncle either, even if I love his poetry. The personal is the political, sure, but not the other way around.

 

Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

There my be something about the experience of writing in Ireland that drives writers into exile. For every Yeats who holes up in a castle in County Sligo at the end of his days, there’s a Joyce or Beckett or Shaw or Wilde who leaves Ireland and doesn’t so much not look back as look back with love and pride and revulsion and irritation, look back compulsively and minutely. (Although, arguably, Yeats didn’t really live in Ireland either. He lived in a magical place called Yeatsland.) The Irelands of these writers are mirages of the retreating horizon, full of equal measures of hate and longing. Like the bragging protagonist in “Playboy of the Western World,” Irish writers conjure and murder their Irish father again and again, but the joke’s on them when Ireland continues to plug along in its Irish way, spitting out more exile-artists from the fertile ground of lost and sublimated languages, religion, peat smoke, and god knows what all. 

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is not just Irish, but the kind of Irish that has an unpronounceable Irish name with the little thingy over some of the vowels. When she looks back, she doesn’t turn into a pillar of salt, Ireland does. She nukes it to a hard uninhabitable crust of ash and loss, and then catalogs its innards with the fine and almost-loving hands of an anthropologist scrying meaning from a collection of everyday objects and unfinished lives. Set in an ecologically devastated future, The Bray House is the first-person account of a Swedish academic, Robin, who organizes a expedition to return to Ireland and excavate one house out of the nuclear wasteland that is now Ireland. (When I said Ní Dhuibhne nuked Ireland, I wasn’t being funny; a series of nuclear accidents some time before the events of the book utterly destroyed the British Isles.)

It seems very rare to me that writers create truly horrible, unlikeable characters. Now that I say that, I realize that statement needs some clarification. There are plenty of unlikeable sorts in lit, but they’re usually shot through with some kind of redemptive humanity, some moment where they stand below the prostitute’s window and realize she’s a better person, and has been all along. (Having read Lolita, I understand that HH can bring the serious lulz.) I can see why authors wouldn’t want to do this. Not because they shy from the unlikeable and dishonest, but because who really wants to bring a creature like that into being, think like them, craft words they’d use? Blech. It was bad enough listening to Robin spin her entirely untrustworthy narrative of what happened on the expedition, what things she lost and found, what the events meant. I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to craft her voice, construct her guts and her lies. 

I don’t care much about plot, and I get the impression that the author didn’t either, but someone told her she should. This is too bad, because there are some things that happen that felt unnecessary or overly metaphoric, simply for the sake of having some events. The ending shows a restraint that many authors can’t muster though, although I won’t say too much more for fear of spoilers. The part that absolutely killed me was the little anthropological whaling section in the middle, written in dry academicese, that details the contents of the house they excavated, divines the characters of its inhabitants, and conjures the culture of Ireland in the moments before it vanished. It’s like the cast of the lovers from Pompeii, encased in ash and burned away, found later when archaeologists poured plaster into the voids. Robin isn’t a plaster person; she’s worse than this. She’s real and talking back at us from the void. It’s not a plaster Ireland, it’s sadder than this. 

When Americans annihilate our home country in fiction, we get Jerry Bruckheimer to direct, pack the White House with gasoline and a timer, and hire Charleton Heston and Will Smith to pose heroically in the foreground. It’s not a conflagration so much as a cook-out, a chance for neighbors to gab while the neighbor’s house burns to the ground. Such a pity! I envy the way the Irish return to their Irelands, a concrete and shifting mirage of conditional statements: might have been, was possible once, could be soon. As a nation of immigrants, we Americans are always arriving, finding new Americas when we cast off the old. Ireland is written by a nation of artists in exile, who keep trying to set the plaster while the dust shifts.

Wrong Ways Down: True Thing

Writing fictions from a dude’s point of view after a long series of books written from the woman’s is a very difficult thing to pull off. The most famous example is probably Midnight Sun, which was to be Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightwritten from the point of view of vampire love interest Edward Cullen. Twelve chapters in, someone leaked the manuscript, and Meyer quit writing it, saying, “If I tried to write Midnight Sun now, in my current frame of mind, James would probably win and all the Cullens would die, which wouldn’t dovetail too well with the original story.” (Honestly, I think this alt-history Twilight sounds amazing, but ymmv.) Like when writing a sequel, the writer is constrained by a timeline of events that are inviolate (or fucking should be, George Lucas), and cannot strike out in new territory (such as murdering all the Cullens, or having Anakin meet his step-brother Owen for like 15 minutes even though Owen said out loud that he’s had a much longer and more fractious relationship than talking to Anakin once after Anakin committed genocide). (Not that I’m bitter.)

So it was something of a surprise to me that I enjoyed Wrong Ways Down as much as did. Wrong Ways Down by Stacia Kane is from the point of view of Terrible, sometimes partner and sometimes love interest of Chess Putnam, who is the principle of five (and counting) books in the Downside Ghost series. The series takes place in an alt-history where murderous ghosts rose up and killed roughly half the population of the planet in 1997. I could get into the exact backstory, but it’s not necessary, given that the books themselves aren’t too fussed about history. Chess is a junkie with a respectable job; Terrible works for her dealer as a knee-breaker; they both inhabit the wrong side of town called Downside.

Wrong Ways Down occurs somewhen between the first book in the second, and is written mostly in the Downside patois Kane invented for the neighborhood. Being the other reasons this book could fail, or could fail to hook readers. I myself like the street lingo of Downside because it manages to run a local idiom without being racist or relying too heavily on eye dialect. But I know this kind of stylistic choice can be difficult for people. I was just recently reading a book that spelled the word blood “blud”, which made me snort a little. Like spelling magic “magick” or fairy “fairie” (with apologies to Spenser), these are stylistic choices that can rankle readers inordinately. The occasional snort aside, I do not think these choices are errors. I, personally, think flipping out about punctuation choices in, say, The Road, is pedantry, but then I also know that the heart wants what it wants. Sometimes it wants capital letters, I guess.

But all this sort of positioning shit aside, the real reason I liked Wrong Ways Down was that it didn’t diminish Terrible, relegating him to a bit player or an appendage in his own story, nor did it put all kinds of psychosis in his head, because sociopaths are rrrrrromantic. There are a lot of dude-perspective fictions — like Midnight Sun, or that short story by Moning from Barrons’ point of view, or Walking Disaster — which run the thought processes of their heroes like serial killers. Admittedly, a lot of these dudes looked like serial killers from the woman’s point of view, but as the old saw goes, better to remain silent and be thought a serial killer than to speak out and remove all doubt.

We know Terrible is a leg-breaker and enforcer — this is not a surprise — just like we know Chess is a fuckup and a junkie. How does he rationalize his own cruelty? What does he get out of violence? What does he think about Chess’s addictions? What does he do when he’s aloneWrong Ways Down addresses these sorts of questions, which I find incredibly satisfying. Much more satisfying than serial killer sociopaths growling about how the love interest lady is MINE ALL MINE and obsessing in the most rote way possible. I do not want hair-smelling scenes; gross. Sure, there’s something inert about fictions between this thing and that, which are constrained and cannot truly surprise. But sometimes the interstitial can be an exploration, a character study, a story from someone you thought you knew but didn’t. I thought Wrong Ways Down was pretty fucking deft, true thing.

Built Ford Tough: Brave New World

I have this little theory — a “little theory” being one of those half-assed ideas one has that won’t stand up to scrutiny — that a person can have either a Macbeth English major or a Hamlet English major. I myself had theMacbeth kind, having read the Scottish play three times for various classes during undergrad, and never once Hamlet. (In fact, I have never read Hamlet, though I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.) That Macbeth was the thing when I was in school says something about the pulse of that moment in time. Maybe it’s too histrionic to see something in my profs choosing the Macbeths and their overreaching pas de deux over Hamlet’s leaderly meltdown during the Clinton era, but then again, maybe not.This little theory falls apart once I factor in the twice-read Tempest or King Lear— it’s silly to decant ones formative Shakespeare into two plays, and then roshambo — but like all little theories, I do cleave to it inordinately.

To stretch this little theory a bit, I see this kind of small theoretical split in a bunch of sub-genres: The Yearling or Old Yeller, in the dead animal department; Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide, in ye 70s British humor department; and for the purposes of this essay, 1984 or Brave New World in your classic dystopia department. People tend to have read one or the other, and if both are read, the one you encountered earliest is the one you prefer. I had a 1984 childhood, finishing that book on a bus back from a school trip to Quebec, and feeling that bullet right in my brain. [spoiler alert] It’s entirely possible that I would feel the same way about Brave New World if I’d read it at the time — the adolescent brain being what it is — but I didn’t. Instead, Huxley’s classic had to contend with dreary old me, a me that couldn’t ever get a leg over. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many facets of Brave New World, but just that much of my enjoyment was at arm’s length — ironic, critical, or historical — and not in the moment of narrative. It was worth reading to be read, and not in the reading of it. Ah, my lost youth.

I was honestly surprised at how science fictional the opening was. There’s a whole lot of technobabble and der blinken lights, mouthpiece characters yammering on about how the axlotl tanks work and embryonic division and sleep hypnosis and the like. I feel like — and this could be certainly another “little theory”, but bear with me — contemporary literary fiction tends to avoid hard science trappings, lest one get genre cooties all over one’s magnum opus (cf. The Road, Zone One, et al.) Huxley’s got no squeamishness about that, and his future has the hard patina of 30s futurism, all aeronautics and chemistry. I was recently regaling a friend about Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”, and its elucidation of the semiotic phantom of  “American streamline Moderne” that gets the story’s narrator so twitterpated. Which, whoa.

The future of the past is a detritus we all live with — in our nostalgia and anxiety dreams — and it’s odd to see such an early one, such an embryonic one: 1932, before the Great War that informed 1984, before any of the other condensed catastrophes of the world we inhabit now. I found the way Huxley is taking aim at American consumerism — the social engineers are called “Fords”, and there are a variety of almost funny jokes about this — and Soviet authoritarianism — Lenina is our almost heroine — just touching. I can’t imagine a contemporary writer cutting these two things together; they’ve been too solidly set as a dialectic in the interregnum. Plus, none of these things mean the same anymore anyway. I mean, the first Stalinist purges had just happened a few years before Brave New World, but these early purges didn’t involve arrest and death like they would later, starting with the Great Purge of 1936. They were ideological litmus tests, sure, but Stalin had not yet begun to dream of the gulag and all the other nightmares that have since been associated with (at least) Soviet communist. And Ford had not yet begun collaborating with the fucking Nazis, because the Brownshirts were still just vigilante skinheads. Anyway.

The part that made me lose my shit was when our cheerful fordians spend a weekend in the “human reservation” somewhere in the American southwest, probably Arizona, which is peopled with folk who look a lot like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. Americans certainly have a kinky view of the native peoples of North America: in historical contexts, there’s this spiritual largess afforded conquered people, and in modern ones, an irritation that aboriginal Americans continue to exist. Why do you still keep making claims to shit we legit conquered you for, noble savage? It’s not dissimilar to a British view of colonial artifacts: certainly the Greeks cannot be trusted to caretake the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. Huxley’s description of the reservation hews to this, with an irritation towards pagan “superstition” and general backwardsness, married to a strange in-the-reverse satire of sterile “progress”.

The story of John the Savage — the Englishman born in the reservation — ends up being this completely bananas expression of an inherent Englishness. Though born into the community, he somehow has problems with the language and never quite fits in. (Though, admittedly, some of this is his mom being the town drunk and whore, if you’ll excuse the expression.) I’ve known a lot of children of immigrants, and they know English as well as I; it’s their first language too. He’s given the collected works of Shakespeare at some point, and, like Frankenstein’s monster lurking at the edges of English society, somehow manages to divine the history of Christianity, all the trappings of traditional gender roles, and Romantic love. Which he then hews to when confronted by fordian society, like British culture is something that can be activated by a book, regardless of where you were raised. At least given the right blood quantum, to filch nomenclature from the American reservation.

It’s a trip watching John freak out when the woman he’s decided to courtly love propositions him sexually: omg, good girls don’t even do that!! Casual sex is super bad for you!! I get the impression I’m supposed to agree, and put in context of the fordian society which constantly describes women as “pneumatic” I kinda do, but I really don’t. It’s a false binary: harsh traditionalism or completely freewheeling sluttery. I’m not even going to go into all the feminist virgin/whore stuff, and you are welcome to fill it in yourself. Suffice it to say when John meets his inevitable end [uh, spoiler, except not really, because we can all see where this is going] in a welter of OH DO YOU SEE, I couldn’t do much more than laugh cynically. I was happy just to be done with all the fucking speachifying that typifies the end, good Lord.

I’m just going to note here, briefly, that the racial categories in the fordian society are completely fucked. While there are moments when I felt this was meant satirically, there are at least as many, if not more, where I felt it was not. Emphatically.

So. Strange New World is a trip, and I recommend a pass at it if you’re into the history of science fiction or the social satire, or where those two things connect, but I’ve gotta say it’s not aging too well. While I appreciate the ways Huxley anticipated the soporific effects of media on labor — and, weirdly, the horror of the paparazzi — his satire is bound by the rules of the day, as all satire is. That’s the sad thing about satire, which bites best when it’s specific, situated, in the moment, but then the moment moves on and it’s left as a relic, a joke that has to be explained to get the punchline. Same goes for horror and comedy, which says something about all of them.

Dearly, Departed

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

 

Now, I admit my upbringing was in some ways unorthodox (and in other ways completely not), but this was a favorite aphorism of my mother’s. It comes from the climax of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by St Flannery O’Connor. The Misfit has just murdered an entire family while they were on a road trip, ending in the death of the grandma. She’s a horrible old bitty who doesn’t deserve to be gunned down on the side of the road, but maybe it’s also not the biggest tragedy ever either. But, you know, violence is cathartic and purifying, at least in St Flannery’s brutal theologies, so the horrid grandma has a humanistic epiphany at the barrel of a gun. Baptism by drowning, the last moments as your lungs constrict and your eyelids flash and flutter, reborn as your best self right before you die.

 

I think of this quote every time I encounter something that has all this incredible potential — this heat of possibility — and then it spins out into something more dreary and obvious. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel has a shitton of potential, for me anyway, being as it is a steampunk zombie novel. Steampunk is maybe more problematic for me, in that I have undertaken its perusal because of my husband’s interests more than my own, but I am all over zombies all day. Both zombie and steampunk narratives often deal in social stratification, though obviously to very different ends. Smooshing them together could be fruitful in examining a rigidly class based society, but I know well enough not to expect such a thing, especially after Deck Z.

 

Occasionally this novel hits a mild frisson of this cultural examination, but mostly it opts for the spunky heroine and glaring infodumps over, like, insight. I was okay with the spunky heroine — she is a creature too ubiquitous to truly criticize — but the infodumps killed me. Apparently (and I use this adverb when I’m being an asshole), peak oil and maybe a nuclear devastation and probably the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone lead to everyone heading south to central America, where some folk recreated the Victorians, and some other folk did not. I just…this was one of many situations where the explanations for the universe killed me, even if the universe did not. I’m going to accept your fictional world if you don’t overexplain, because the minute you do, I’m like, hold the phone. No, no, no. The world-building needed to be shot every day of its life.

 

This aside, Habel did get into some interesting stuff about the ways the lower classes are used against themselves, and as fodder for border warfare as a stand in for class warfare. The set up is that there is a border skirmish between the Vickies and the Punks, and a zombie outbreak has been bubbling in this DMZ, alternately used as biological warfare and “shock and awe”. The zombies in this universe go rabid, but after a time they resettle with their former personalities intact. The zombie soldiers were well realized, suffering both from the trauma of warfare, and from the guilt of their actions while rabid.

 

“Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

The problem is sartorial, in the end. Steampunk, maybe at its most basic, must dress a certain way to be steampunk. There will be corsets and umbrellas and bustles, and there must be the cruel social architecture to justify such a costume (cf. the museum exhibit Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.) Habel does a fair amount of pushback against the social stratification — more than the usual, well, duh, of course a rigidly stratified society is unfair kind you see in steampunk — but I think trips over the skirts of gender politics. Her heroines are the usual spunky middle class ladies who behave almost entirely like modern girls, but there’s all this hand-waving to gender norms that just couldn’t produce such a creature. They put on the clothes, but it didn’t do more than touch their skin.

 

I’ve been burbling along with all my socioeconomic whatnot, and I feel like I should say I totally get that this is a steampunk romance zombie novel written for teens. My bitch isn’t that this book isn’t more than it is. It is what it is, and moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the turns and twists. All this aside, my real problem is the romance between a living girl and a walking decomposing corpse. (Admittedly, these zombies are more desiccated than rotting; still.) Habel honestly gave it the college try, and their courtship — taking place, as it does, like Pyramus and Thisbe, through a wall — was honestly sweet. But it’s like the ultimate catfish to find out that dude’s a corpse who doesn’t have the requisite blood flow to, you know.

 

Tons of women lost their damn minds over Edward Cullen’s cold, lifeless body, so I think there’s probably something to say about the sexualization of undead flesh, especially in teen fiction. (Warm Bodies tried too; ugh.) There could be something here, probably, about love and sexual desire and the death wish in adolescence, etc, but I felt like Habel was too busy selling it as not-gross and self-evidently kinda racist to think this pairing might be squicky. I guess I’m not buying it on those terms, and I can’t get past my shudder at the thought of making out with cold, blue lips. Maybe this could have been twisted in such a way to turn my revulsion back on me, but it wasn’t. I’d pay good money to see such a thing though.

 

And then shoot it every day of its life.

 

So that you would know it was a lady.

 

My Nebula Predictions (2014)

I managed to pull this stunt off last year where I accurately predicted which book would be awarded the Nebula in the novel category. I’m not sure I can do it again, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike last year, I haven’t actually read all of the books on the list (though I’ve hit samples of all of them), but handicapping who will win the award isn’t about my preferences as a reader. I think it’s a dead heat between Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. When I started writing this, I predicted a Gaiman win, but in the process of writing, I think I’ve changed my mind.

I almost just went with Ancillary Justice for the win — the novel just won the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and a whole raft of other awards — but I flinched when I learned it was a debut novel. Very few debut novels have won the Nebula, though there is some recent precedent with 2010’s Windup Girl. Nebula voters are professional writers, and I think there’s a preference for writers who have paid their dues, so to speak. (A joke, you see, because you don’t actually have to be a member of SFWA to be nominated. Bad joke.)  Ancillary Justice really has Nebula written all over it. It’s solidly science fiction, but isn’t wanking about tech too much, letting the reader experience the futuristic dislocations as the character does. It’s got the right mix of conceptually interesting science fictional ornament, with dazzling near fantastic explorations of culture to charm the New Wavers and the fantasists. It’s a strong novel with a broad appeal to very different kinds of science fiction readers. Plus it’s fun and cool.

I adored A Stranger in Olondria, which set off all the heart fireworks I have for Ursula K Le Guin. If I had a vote, this would be mine. But this is also a debut novel, again. Nebula voters also seem to have a clear preference for science fiction over straight fantasy, unless your name is actually Le Guin or Bujold. (Which goes back to the debut author thing, somewhat circularly, because both Le Guin and Bujold were well established writers of both sf & f when their fantasy novels won. ) The other fantasy novels that have won are set contemporary, like American Gods, or Among Others. This will become a refrain of sorts in this essay, but as much as I loved Olondria, I just don’t think it has broad enough appeal to the more science fictionally minded of the voters.

Two of the nominees are historical fiction of a sort: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni, which is set in turn of the 20th Century New York, and Hild by Nicola Griffith, which is about a 7th C British abbess. I enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, partially because I have some unhealthy obsessions about the Gilded Age and the rise of labor movements and the like — ask me about the Panic of 1893 and I will bore. you. to. death. — but that’s ultimately a boutique interest. Fair or not, I also think The Golem and The Jinni will be dismissed by some as “just a romance.” My two cents: the inclusion of romantic elements is less worrisome to me than the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.

I haven’t read Hild, so I went rolling through reviews to get a feel for reader response, and this line in an io9 review struck me as ominous for its chances: “Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.” Now I happen to think that’s really neat — a twisting of the genre conventions — but I think it’s going to result in readers wondering how this story is fantasy at all. Either way, I think historical fantasy is a long shot to win the Nebula. Historical science fiction, sure, like Blackout/All Clear which won in 2011, but not fantasy. Again, the bias towards science fiction novels is clear when you look through the past winners. Throw in historical fiction as well, and I think a fair number of readers are going to nod off.

The question of how the novel fits into the science fiction genre dogs We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. Set in contemporary America, with a set up that, while unusual, is not unheard of, the book more explores the intersections of scientific theory, culture, and the family. I would argue that it is science fictional, in that it’s fiction about science, but not everyone is going to agree. The familiar is sometimes the most alien thing we know. That I feel compelled to make this argument means Fowler’s book is likely too much of an edge case to win. It is a really lovely novel, by a well established writer in clear control of her craft, just not science fictional enough.

There are two more space opera-ish jaunts like Ancillary JusticeFire With Fire by Charles E Gannon and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. Fire with Fire is kinda cozy in a way: conventionally plotted, with a Golden Age sensibility from prose style to its philosophical concerns. That will invoke a lot of nostalgia for many voters. But, as I’ve said before, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a coalition government, and I don’t think Fire with Fire will resonate for people who prefer fantasy. It’s conventionality is also a mark against it; Fire with Fire feels like a period piece, which is weird considering it’s set in the future.

When I went to order The Red: First Light, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t stocked in my library. This lead me to the revelation that The Red: First Light is an indie title. I didn’t even know you could do that! While I don’t think there’s a real war going on between indie and traditionally published writers — Tor.com, for example, posted a glowing review of The Red: First Light — but the SFWA membership leans heavily to the traditionally published, and a lot of writers know each other from their professional ties under the same imprint. (And it should be observed that Nagata started out traditionally published.) I’m bullshitting here a little, because I haven’t read The Red: First Light. That it isn’t even stocked in my (very good public) library makes me think it’s pretty well screwed though.

I’m sure there’s some complicated formula which would account for The Red: First Light’s indie status versus the debut novel status of Ancillary Justice, but then when you throw in yet another science fiction novel set in the future with space ships and a lot of military/politics like Fire With Fire, the math gets too complicated. Part of the problem here is that there are too many novels that I think fit into the same broad sub-genre, and I think it’s going to diffuse the voters that are inclined towards that sub-genre in the first place. In other words, it’s going to split the vote. (People haven’t been throwing awards at either Nagata’s or Gannon’s novels though, so I’m thinking they don’t stand a chance, just that they’ll draw away from Ancillary Justice.)

Maybe that gives Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not so closely matched with other nominated novels, a leg up. (And I’m not trying to imply that the writers of SFWA are all huddling in their narrow sub-genres or something, but the heart wants what it wants.) Even though Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy, it’s the kind of fantasy that Nebula voters seem to embrace: set in the here and now, but with a fantastic twist on the everyday that disrupts the readers perceptions. Gaiman is clearly at the height of his powers as a craftsman of words, and his prose is tight as a drum. Like Among Others, which won two years ago, it’s also got a nostalgic component, as the main character reminisces upon his childhood with a dewy sense of wonder. There’s also a lot of fan service to readers and nerds, like long descriptions of the main character reading and panegyrics to the wonders of literature.

I actually found this fan service somewhat tiresome in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it calculated, but there was definitely a part of me that thought, how easy it is to make your readers (who are, after all, by definition readers) love your main character by having him perform obeisances to the act of reading. The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s protagonist is also an artist of some stripe — writer, maybe — and I think all the ruminating on art and memory and storytelling is going to play to voters who are artists themselves. Writers writing about writing is always a good bet when writers vote on writing awards.

I’ll be clear: I don’t think Gaiman is pandering, even though I’m making fun a little here. The themes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, including Gaiman’s tendency to insert characters who are artist-observers, are right in line with the themes he’s been exploring his entire writing career. I think Ocean at the End of the Lane sits quite merrily with Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery) and Coraline (which won the Nebula for the novella) in a triangulation of the themes of violence and childhood and memory and matriculation, traversing the uneasy border that separates us grown ups from our childhoods. This has heretofore been a winning mix of themes for Gaiman.

I think my real reticence to call it for Gaiman comes from the slight what the fuck angle to what all happens in Ocean at the End of the Lane. The crisis of the novel is real…let’s say metaphorical, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what exactly that all meant. I’m assuming someone with a more writerly perspective might appreciate this more than I did, but it’s entirely possible that the opposite is true. (Or both; whatever.) The fact that this novel reiterates common themes to Gaiman’s work is also a strike against it: Ocean is sleepy, safe, and treading familiar ground.

Ancillary Justice, by contrast feels energetic and ambitious. Even if it has the occasional first-writer misstep, the book feels like a leap into the black. No, of course Leckie isn’t reinventing the wheel here — nerds more exacting than I can create the list of antecedents (like the Culture novels) — but she is inventing her wheel, and it’s just a kick to be along for the ride. Nor was Ocean nominated at all for the Hugo, which indicates there isn’t this critical whiteheat around it like Ancillary Justice. Given that voting closed last month, maybe that’s not quite a factor, but I do think it’s an indicator.

So, anyway, there you have it. I’m predicting Ancillary Justice for the win. I won’t be a bit surprised if Gaiman wins, just to hedge a little.

Now I’ll have to start reading the novels up for the Hugo.

 

Just kidding, we all know Wheel of Time is a cincher.