Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

This was originally written in July 2011.

When I was a kid, I played a lot with other neighborhood kids, and it was all politics and skinned knees. My best friend was a girl called Alicia, and it was was a yawning difference in age between us, two whole years. We made friends when I was running a lemonade stand more or less set up by my parents. I had a cigar box full of change, and a pitcher of lemonade, and she swindled me out of the lemonade and into friendship. We played a lot of Spaceman, and various forms of tag, and played her father’s records. We had to be really careful with these, cleaning the black plastic with some kind of solution and a fuzz-covered block made for the purpose. We wore out a couple of Prince albums, the needle wearing down the grooves that transferred shape into sound vibrations. I can still do a pretty good Prince-y AHohAH, the signature trill in a lot of his songs. We cut up magazines and had projects, like one where she was building this huge eye out of all the eyes she could find in ads. Once I was in a dentist’s office, and I surreptitiously pulled out this whole page image of an eye and brought it to her, like an offering. Stealing that image made me feel like a criminal, and it thrilled me, because I’ve always been a bit of straight edge. I was never, ever, the ringleader. I was too weak for that. 

I was the kind of kid who was pushed by bullies until Alicia noticed and sent a group of girls to kick the shit out of the bully bothering me. No 4th grade bully boy wants to own up to getting razed by a bunch of girls, so the year went well for me after that. But she didn’t coddle me at all. She set to making me tough, but off-handedly, simply because she was tough and wanted people to challenge her. She would make me wrestle her – we’d used her Dad’s big waterbed which heaved and sloshed, and it’s a wonder we never popped it – and try to pin each other down. There were no spoken rules, but by tacit consent we didn’t pull hair, or bite, or kick, or choke. It was mass and motivation, and all about the angles, trying to pin her legs with mine, learning to break a handgrip on my arm with a sideways movement through where her fingers touched, the weak part of a hold. She mostly won. She was a good winner. She’d just get up, and say good game, and then we would scrounge for change and head to Kenny’s.

Kenny’s was a corner market that was dingy and owner operated. He both did and didn’t like us, because he suspected we were shoplifters – though we weren’t – but we were there all time. He kindly acquiesced to the kid folklore that if you got a Tootsie Pop wrapper that had an Indian shooting a star on it, in entirety, with nothing cut off, then you got a free sucker. Getting a wrapper like that was like Christmas. We never had any money, because we were so young as to be allowance-less, but Alicia developed all kinds of schemes to make money, so we could go and consider whether to get the Strawberry or Grape Crush, or the Tahitian Treat. We (tried to) sell rocks, or stuff we’d found next to the trash, or pictures we’d drawn. Once, a very stoned hippy bought a picture of a flower off of us for $5. Five whole dollars! Bear in mind this was very early-80s, and we were kids, so this was an unthinkable amount of money. We were sick on Pixie Stix for a week. 

Are you bored yet? Hoping I’ll get to my point? It’s possible you are not, but after over 100 pages of this sort of thing, it would weary. Then imagine you are reading this a hundred years hence, where all of my casual references to products and people and cultural stuff has been rendered alien and opaque. Hell, even now, it’s likely a bunch of you whippersnappers have no idea what a record is. (It’s a giant CD. And get off my lawn.) I think people have been saying this is Miéville’s first foray into hard science fiction, or space opera, or more just standard alien v. humans style sf, and that is true to an extent, but I believe the primary mode of this book is memoir. Don’t let the aliens distract you, this is an individual telling her life, in the way that people tell their lives. Which is to say confusingly, with emphasis on details that are meaningless to others, or have only sense in retrospect, or the retroactive understanding is bullshit. 

As a mode of writing science fiction, memoir is frakking brilliant, because nostalgia is largely the purview of fantasy, to largely ugly results. I’m quoting myself here but: nostalgia is memory without shame, and even fantasy series that don’t mean to — A Song of Ice and Fire, cough — the pining for outmoded and awful social systems gets baked into the proceedings, because the pageantry, dress, and material culture is presumed to arise from the shit precepts of the culture at large. To put it more simply: Gosh, but those costumes are sweet, let’s assume they arise from whatever fucking bullshit I assume went on in history because I can’t imagine a past different from the present.

But, here’s the interesting part, for me, I think there’s a nostalgic component to science fiction as well, though it is ancillary, residing in the reader, or the writer, and not the text. At least not exactly. If you are a science fiction nerd, likely you have been one from youth, scarfing down both Golden Age classics and media trash without much differentiation, dreaming the way children do, playing let’s pretend with space ships and adventure, which mirrors our own desire for the adulthood ahead, and trains us on a mode of telling that future. Often we age out of the silliest of science fiction’s offerings – though maybe silly is too strong a word – maybe I mean formative? Just try reading something like Asimov’s Foundation series as a hardened genre reader, not having read it as a kid, and you will see what I mean. You will not like it. It will not blow your mind. You will see how it influenced later writers, and you might appreciate the ideas, but you will think it is hamstring by horrible characters and a sort of naiveté. 

For the record, I freaking love Foundation. It did blow my mind, unformed as it was, and the reading of that series was an education in science fiction. The first three books are loosely connected, dealing with the same idea, psychohistory, a sort of science-based prognosticating tool, a meta-psychology of culture, and how something like that could be used, and then subverted. Those first books were written all together, an album of books riffing on the same theme. Then later, when Asimov was in his dotage, he decided it would be a great idea to resolve all of his various universes together – and dude wrote 500+ books, so this is no small task. Then come the later Foundation books, where R. Daneel Oligraw shows up from the Robot series, and some folk from the Empire series, and likely people from series I never read and couldn’t identify, ’cause I’ve only read a dozen or so books by Asimov. It was a nuclear disaster of galactic proportions, and spent a lot of my nostalgic coin for the series. Those books straight up pissed me off, because they fucked with my childhood reading. Because, even with science fiction, nostalgia is the coin of the realm, even though it’s regulated to a grey market. Maybe it is for all genre fiction. 

Anyway, so now that I’ve had this huge digression, onto why memoir is bloody perfect for a sfnal work: it makes that nostalgia manifest. It resides the nostalgia in a character telling her past, in the confusing, unsettling, almost solipsistic way of the autobiographer, not infodumping you about how culture works because an enculturated person, a situated person, with her own limited view, with her own limited knowledge, can’t even see where the story is opaque, hard to grasp, alien. This is not to say, as a reader, I found the first over 100 pages anything but tough sledding. That was work to read that, hard work, and likely many people will throw this book down in frustration, and that is completely fair. But holy hell, once the gears caught, once all the terminology and references to the children’s folklore of an imagined culture, and the slow understanding by the memoirist, of how the whole show works, or doesn’t, and then shit gets dire and pear-shaped, that’s when I loved this book. The last two thirds tear along, all of that boring anecdote resolving into action and stakes, and I loved every minute of the way it unfolded.

Which is not to say I don’t call bullshit on some of the ideas presented here. The central story has to do with Language, something spoken by an alien culture living with a group of humans (mostly) in the titular Embassytown. Language is this strange, antediluvian language, where the speakers can’t lie, can’t even conceive of lie. I don’t even want to get into it more than that, so sorry. It’s too hard to explain without a page of anecdotes, like an early life story, and that’s what Miéville does. I call bullshit on a lot of the ways Language functions, but I don’t know that that matters to my enjoyment of this book, in the end. I was trained up as a reader on all kinds of science fictions that I think have flawed premises, like psychohistory. But let’s pretend. Let’s play this out. Let’s take this as a given, and see where this goes. 

Memoir’s aims are similar, I think, let’s take my life and make it make sense. I don’t think Avice is intended to be a damaged narrator or anything, except insofar as we are all damaged narrators. I honestly can’t remember if when I stole that picture I was with Alicia or not, though I have the vague sense that I was, but I can’t even figure where we were other than a doctor’s office, and that doesn’t make any sense. I went to the doctor’s with my folks, not 8-year-old friends. But I wrote that bit of the story above with a decisiveness I don’t feel. So maybe the stuff I’m calling bullshit about how Language is exactly that. Avice is bullshitting herself & us, but not because she’s damaged or floaking, but because we all bullshit ourselves into being. 

Embassytown is a science fictional study in nostalgia, though I don’t want to imply that it’s all soft-focus and dreamy; more the kind of nostalgia where you can only understand what you’ve lost once you lose it. You didn’t even dread losing it – whatever “it” is, your childhood, that person – at the time because you never understood it. Though I get the sense this book is being pushed for a general audience, I don’t think it will appeal for people who aren’t pretty solid scifi nerds, with our dim rememberings of the spacecraft flying out of our youth. As one of those, it was a great freaking read.

Crying Shames: Reader’s Block by David Markson

Godamn it. I wanted to love this so hard, but it just fell flat for me. Fuck.

I wanted to tear up and roll around in Wittgenstein’s Mistress for the rest of my life. Everything about it did it for me – the post-apocalyptic locale, the odd, glancing humor, the damaged narrator, the throat-strangling sadness. You guys! I found my post-Modernist writer! A writer who can kick the shit out of me in about 200 pages, while being experimental and allusive and just plain fun? Jeesh, that’s not something you run across every day, no sir. In Autobiography of Red, Carson talks about the Gertrude Steinian piece of meat, left in the middle of the Modernist trapeze to stink and rot, a heart that isn’t so much beating as writhing. That was Wittgenstein’s Mistress for me: Steinian meat in a box of scraps, at the end of the world, with a bunch of cartons of books in the basement. It made me freak out so bad I ordered a used copy of Reader’s Block because my libs didn’t have it, nor any other Markson. Shame.

But, no. In terms of the feel of the prose and the choppy, Twittery sentences, Reader’s Block is very similar to Wittgenstein’s Mistress: all these gossipy anecdotes and listing, personal stories of the art-set instead of the art of the art-set, fuckery about voice and who and what blah blah. If that’s what you’re into with Markson, then this is going to be cool. But I loved the fuck out of Wittgenstein’s Mistress for its central coathanger of sadness, this quick charcoal sketch of a woman at the end of all things who tears up and rearranges the artifacts of culture and then rolls around in them for the rest of her life. I can’t get on with this Reader construct, writing a non-novel with a character called Protagonist who might live by the graveyard. The graveyard’s got no ghost, yo. More importantly, it’s got no meat. Shame, it’s a godamn shame. I wanted to love this so hard.

Ice by Anna Kavan

I woke up (on that June 2nd) from a very vivid dream. In my dream, two people were having an intense conversation in a meadow in the woods. One of these people was just your average girl. The other person was fantastically beautiful, sparkly, and a vampire. They were discussing the difficulties inherent in the facts that A) they were falling in love with each other while B) the vampire was particularly attracted to the scent of her blood, and was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately.

Stephenie Meyer, from her Twilight FAQ

I don’t think I’m going to rate Ice by Anna Kavin, as I don’t think I can say I liked it – like is such a degraded term – but I also feel a fiercely uncomfortable kinship with its dead-eyed wonder. I think if I’d read this 20 years ago, I would have gone one of two ways. Either I’d dismiss it as plotless mind-fuckery – using, no doubt, a brilliant metaphor involving an emperor’s sartorial stylings or lack thereof – or I’d enact that uncomfortable bullshit of pretending to understand something I didn’t get. Maybe I’m not giving younger me enough credit, and I’m not trying to humble-brag that I get this now by trashing my younger self. I believe Ice is ultimately un-get-able, probably intentionally so (not that that factors for me, entirely), but in a way that speaks to several of my personal obsessions: the housewife in fiction, post-apocalyptic landscapes, the harder to describe slipperiness of mid-century female writers. Ice, for me, reads as a daughter of Story of O, fraught with the eroticism of landscape and decay, the brutalization of half-sketched girl through the eyes of half-sketched men, written by a woman who, like Pauline Réage, ran her identity like artwork itself. 

Nameless characters in a post-apocalyptic dream state enact a chilly, brutal love triangle.* There is a man, and another man – sometimes a warden, sometimes a husband – and they tug-of-war over the image of a sylph-like girl who is described dismissively by her hair color and her victimhood. She cowers, there. Her wrists become bruised. Her mother was cruel and taught her submission. The man – who is the main character – alternately murders her and tries to rescue her from the other man, sometimes at once. Locations bleed from one to the next; walls of ice rear up or cower themselves, in the distance; concrete details of flat-letting and luncheons dissolve into war and radiation. The girl is trussed and murdered a thousand times, or she isn’t, and everywhere she is half out-of-sight, a mirage in a damp-smelling room or a field of trees lit by moonlight and her bare, frozen feet are blue against the snow. Or the warden’s eyes are blue like a gem whose name the narrator can’t recall. Ice is infuriating until it poleaxes you, like the dream I had last night of a bunch of gossipy chatter at a picnic with a bunch of friends that did a focus-in, dolly-out on a creature, made of smoke, who sought possession of me and mine and I ran until I was screaming and my husband woke me up, telling me I was shouting in my sleep. Exactly like that. 

Like with Story of O, I’m maybe more interested in Kavan’s fascinating biography than I am with the text itself. Born to ex-pat Britons in France, people who are primarily referred to as cold, she was a heroine addict through most of her adult life. This is often described as medicinal, as she suffered from what we would pigeonhole as depression, and she herself was unrepentant about her addictions. She burned all her correspondences and most of her diaries near the end of her life, saying, “I was about to become the world’s best-kept secret; one that would never be told. What a thrilling enigma for posterity I should be.” And how, woman. Way to rock the fuck out of self-as-art. I can see thousands of sophomore-level papers about ice-as-addiction or ice-as-domestic-panic, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly, but they would also hugely fail. Ice might be the artifact of biography, but wrestling this bear down with life details won’t do. We shall not be going to the lighthouse today. 

“For now she need not think of anybody. She could be herself, by herself. And that was what now she often felt the need of – to think; well not even to think. To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others… and this self having shed its attachments was free for the strangest adventures.”

To the LighthouseVirginia Woolf

I read this up at the cabin, in snatches, like something stolen. In the category of post-apocalyptic post-Modern meta-mind-fuckery I’ve read at the cabin, I’m going to give the award to Wittgenstein’s Mistress, but it’s probably not wise to conflate the two. When my friend Alexis showed up with her daughter so we could enact our own lighthouse-not-going with the kids, we walked over the harsh geology of the north shore and shit-talked books and people. She’d read the back-flap of Ice, which likened Kavan to a raft of female authors, for no discernible reason other than they had lady-parts, and then named a raft of people she influenced, all male. Sure, it’s just blurb-craft bullshit, but it is also A Thing, this melting fulcrum of the pen spurting out its translations between the genders and influence and anxiety and all manner of Bloomian bullshit. 

Bullshit, she said, and pointed to the land, this mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon. 


I am losing my coherence, the way I do. But I started with Stephenie Meyer talking about Bella Swann, that girl in the gloaming imagined by a woman asleep, the day before her kids were to start swimming lessons which would give her the brief stolen moments to write her dream of a girl being fought over like a bone by boyish monsters, her blood in the snow, her warm chastity, his chilly skin like a wall of ice. Sometimes when we dream, women dream of being killed by men. You can collapse the narrative of Ice with fractal precision into its opening and closing lines: “I was alone” and then, “The weight of the gun in my pocket was reassuring.” The rest is geometry, and the angles cut. 

*Though I admit my use of the term love triangle is primarily a troll – let’s see how many people run up in the defense of the seriousness of the literary qualities of this book – I’m somewhat douchily trying to enact the gendered ways we approach literature of all stripes. Love triangle is a dismissive term – oh, sigh, another girl thinks she’s average-special enough for a ream of hot guys to love her to the point of annihilation, which is, here, absolutely the fucking point, or not, who knows what the point it? There is no spoon. Do or do not. Both, motherfucker. None.

Wittgenstein’s Mistress

“In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.” 

There’s an old saw, deployed in freshman (or maybe more properly sophomore) English classes about first lines. They set the tone, or gesture to the plot. They are a sign pointing off to the castle. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” One rich man (and, in truth, several) will marry in the course of the novel. So here in Wittgenstein’s Mistress we have a woman, in an world empty of people (and, eventually, we learn of all living creatures) writing her life as a signal to whomever might be there, which is, also eventually, no one. These street-messages were written before, when she was still searching, and when she was, coincidentally, mad with her aloneness. So many years have passed that the woman who looks back out from the mirror – a mirror she once signed, in lipstick, with a name that keeps changing, because she would only and ever be the person looking back from the glass – the woman who looks back from her from the mirror is her mother. 

She burns a house to the ground, and lives in its double. She worries, rightly, that the burned down thing that once was a house is still called a house by her. There is no one else to call it a house, or a ruin, or anything at all. 

Speaking aloud is a form of madness. 

It’s dangerously easy to fall into the single-sentence paragraph style of this book, which, to be frank, irritated the fuck out of me at first. I sat on my porch, in the midst of my life, half-managing the political machinations of several neighborhood kids and my own as they shot each other with Nerf guns and played princess, often at the same time. (Medicis would understand, but with poison.) 

Don’t make every thought a paragraph.

But then I went to the cabin. 

Where certainly not every thought is a paragraph, in truth, something more like all thoughts do not collect into paragraph drifts of connectives. There was a grouse in the grass, and she and the grass were almost the same thing, but she was eating out the grass and craning her neck to watch me even though I only moved to smoke the cigarette I was stealing. My daughter ran up and caught me smoking and the grouse vanished like a magic trick, not even exploding off into flight, but shifting to become more like grass in the moment it took me to address me daughter and turn back. Who was I stealing the smoke from? 

I think this novel would be a brilliant Twitter feed, or a tumblr with the Impact font of the lolcat:

In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street

I think this novel predicts the solitary madness of social media.

I don’t expect linearity or conclusion from the single-line status updates of my avatared friends, even this word adrift to mean a collection of real friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and people I don’t even like. If they were all gone, I might gossip about people who were all gone, all gone so long their fame left a collection of single-sentence anecdotes about them. I would continue my updating of my status into the great ugly void of an empty world, which would only be ugly because it was a void of people to speak my madness too, not because it wasn’t beautiful. There would still be grouse-like grass I could steal a smoke from, though never an interrupting daughter, which is where the sadness comes in. 

Last lines are their own riddle, in all truth. 

“Someone is living on this beach.” 

Dead Inside: Do Not Enter: Notes from the Zombie Apocalypse

Recently, I said some stuff about the epistolary novel being dead on arrival, which has more or less been proved true with this book. In a ba-dump-tss kind of way. I hedged that the epistolary novel has been hanging on in Gothic-slash-horror longer than in straight up fiction, so I get to revel in my rightness, as usual. The confirmation bias rules. 

  Dead Inside: Do Not Enter: Notes from the Zombie Apocalypsewas crowdsourced by the folks at Lost Zombies. It seems to be a more specific kickstarter for a zombie movie, pulling together shaky hand-held found-footage stuff from the zombie apocalypse (which, you may know, is occurring now) and running it into a sort of narrative. There’s a timeline and a frame narrative here: a backpack stuffed with all of these notes from the zombie apocalypse taken off of a 10 year old girl who had been bitten and put down. I pretty much hate the editorial timeline, which runs the usual American panic about quarantine camps in a way that is both unlikely and annoying to me. 

I just spent more time than was wise checking the history of quarantine/isolation and in modern times, there is very little history of anything but the isolation of specific individuals while contagious, let alone huge whack camps of sick people set up, filled, and turned into zombies in days. Seriously, bureaucracy is an issue, and always has been. (I highly recommend checking out the case study of the historical Typhoid Mary. Why, yes, I have just linked to Wikipedia. You can shut up, Internet.) Especially when the illness is widespread and easily contagious. But whatever, Americans, have your panic about the gumment. It’s not that I think you’re wrong, exactly, except for how you’re wrong exactly. You know? 

But the notes from the apocalypse here are wonderful. Or, um, not wonderful, but a good mixture of heart-breaking and funny and mean. Not long ago I read Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers, which is his reaction to 9/11 in the days and weeks following the event. The thing that was so surprising to me, ten years since the Towers fell, were the stories about people being thoughtless, callous dicks. Seriously, Art, why are you freaking out so much? I mean, two planes have just vaporized two of the largest buildings in the world in an ugly symbol of cultural warfare, but you need to get ahold of yourself, man. We run our narratives from when the whole cataclysm crashed over us. 

I mean, how often do I relate that, when my sister called me when the first plane hit, from an office in Midtown, totally losing her shit, I was stupidly blase? It has to be an accident or something, like that time in the 40s when that little bi-plane hit the Empire State. There were hundreds of people on that plane! She yelled. The horror cracked a little, but I still didn’t get it until I got sucked into the CNNmageddon, the second plane, the falling, the ten years down the road where we’ve elided our shitty, less than empathetic responses. I don’t know what note I would have written at the time, but it might not have been awesome. 

Morwenna called about some plane crash not far from where she works. She’s okay but freaked out. You should probably call her when you get a sec. And you’re out of dog food, btw.

So the occasional mean-spirited “I never loved you and I’m glad you are now one of them” notes felt true, if ugly, an artifact of our sometimes crappy instincts in trauma. I mean, trauma isn’t exactly ennobling. 

they weren’t bitten, I just told you that so it would be easier for you to leave them.

HELP Fuck you!

There are sad notes and funny notes and notes about typography.

there r three of them inside. if you kill one take a tab. tab one is pulled, with the note: things got bad. tabs four and five are drawn in in another color
CLOSED ZOMBIES. Are you fucking kidding me? Warning about zombies in comic sans? What is wrong with comic sans? I blame all of this on comic sans

This is solidly a half-hour book, something you should put down fast with a bullet in its brain before it turns. These sort of found-objects collage things rely on you, the reader, to fill in gaps and create narrative, the way the social animal in us does, and I can entirely see being in the wrong mood for this, thinking too hard about specific instances, and generally having this frame narrative not hold together. But I really enjoyed the whole existential Marco Polo that went on, people scrawling notes to one another as the end of the world went down. My favorite in the collection is this:

I'm hiding in the attic you fuckers if you could read this you could get my ass

The worst thing about zombies is that they are illiterate, my friends. Boo yah.

Railsea and Earthsea

One of the reasons I didn’t get to Railseauntil now is that Moby Dickis all over this story, and obviously so. I haven’t ever read Moby Dick, and reading a book without having read the obvious intertexts can be a problem. For example, I know I read The Club Dumas but I was so at sea with all the Dumas-lore that almost none of it stuck. Apparently, seeing a bunch of Three Musketeers movies and having the gist of buddies fighting Cardinal Fang wasn’t enough for me to dig the intertextual story. (But I liked the movie! I know I am a philistine.) But I think Moby Dick, like Frankenstein, is a different situation, in the sense that both of those stories have achieved a level of saturation (at the very least in the States) that you can dig the nods and winks when they come up even if you haven’t read it. They’ve been ground down and seeded into our story-listening DNA. They are molecular at this point.

Hell, even last weekend I was watching The Wrath of Khan– I know; philistine – and Khan in his last scenes spits out the lines, “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” I thought to myself, that is from either Moby Dick or one of the Shakespeare revenge plays. And behold! It is from Moby Dick. (It is somewhat hilarious to consider that Kirk was the Big White Dick in that movie. Ba dump tss.) The crew of the Pequod comes up rather a lot on Trek, the show dealing as it does with explorers and frontiers and the occasional philosophical madness. Alfre Woodard calls Picard Ahab when he’s raging about the Borg in First Contact. He takes her point, and ruefully quotes some lines to her, after which she admits with some embarrassment that she’s never read it. Reference five, Alfre! It’s okay we’ve never read it. It’s in our bones. 

Not that the Moby Dick intertext turned out to be this super huge thing anyway, I say never having read it. Sham ap Soorap is an orphan child-on-the-cusp-of-manhood who is sent off with a moling train as a doctor’s assistant. He appears at the first blood-soaked and swaying on his feet, this powerful image of a bloody boy about to drop. But the story then reverses, chugging, letting you know the half-comfortable events that lead up to this half-uncomfortable image. Railsea is a train-world, where the ocean is stripped and tied with rails in snarls and parallels, all these tracks onto which to lay the story down. The earth of the railsea is a scary place, roiling with all manner of underground monsters: worms, moles, bugs, digger owls. (Like Un Lun Dun, Railsea includes line drawings done by Miéville himself. I toss my underpants on the stage.) It’s a place of reversals and islands and debris, and Sham picks his way through the mess on the ground and underground, and sky and upsky. It seems like a layered world, discrete, with its tracks and isolines, but while the tracks may run linear, the trains on them do not. Oh dear, this is the kind of thing that gets me very hot. 

Railsea has one of those chatty narrators that you sometimes find in young adult literature, like the narrator from The Hobbit but less so. I don’t mean a strong first person voice, like Avice from Embassytown, but a straight up capital-N narrator. My husband and I spent some time talking narrator when I sorted this out about Railsea, and I realized I pretty much only can stand these sort of narrators in young adult fictions. “Name me one chatty narrator in adult fiction,” I said to my man. “Tom Robbins,” he said. I groaned. I admit I loooooved Tom and his narrators before the age of about 25, but after that, no. It’s not even an issue of quality, or my becoming all wise or something, it’s just that all that aggressive meta-narrator stuff aimed at my fully formed personality makes me freak out. I see what you’re doing, so don’t tell me what you’re doing while you’re doing it. But stuff aimed at the unformed? That for some reason doesn’t bug me. I admit my biases are deeply unfair. 

Here’s the thing. I was rolling along in this story, very much enjoying all the usual Miéville touches and flourishes: the weirdness, the half-dashes at local beliefs, the scrubby, bloody rawness. (I admit, I do miss his profanity in this young adult world, but I can forego cussing for other good things.) Then I had the revelation. You guys, this is on some level a riff on A Wizard of Earthsea. How did I not see that before: earthsea, railsea? Omigod, and when Sham and company sail right off the end of the world, on that one impossible track that stretches over the great impossible void, I was breathing right into a bag. Le Guin’s archipelago is the geography of my heart, and while Miéville takes that geography and runs it to a slightly different locale…I’m still breathing into a bag here. My heart, it burns. 

Both of these stories – Railsea, Earthsea – hinge so strongly on their endings and their denouements that I don’t even feel like I can talk about it, even under cover of spoiler. You’d see the terminus of those tracks before you felt the rails, which is part of the point of the thing called story, head out of the window like a dog in the artificial wind. Adventure stories for the young chattily run us from one place to another, confronting impossible and possible monsters, meeting and losing people, learning the tracks of regret and lost opportunities, one’s life narrowing to a single impossible track over the great impossible void. The great thing is that there are seas, whole seas, earthseas beyond the void, and the tracks never run where you expect. Nothing does, even if you knew the shape of Ahab’s philosophy and metaphor-spearing expectations. A railsea does not mean, but be. And 

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.




The Zombie Night Before Christmas

Sure, we all hate monster mash-ups of the classics at this point. We’ve gotten jaded since the idea of the monster/classic mash-up first arrived on the scene with Pride and Prejudice and Zombieswith its great cover, hilarious study guide, and boring and dumb everything else. Our opinion faltered when we were confronted by a long string of cash-ins, from sea monsters to robots, hastily and messily stitched into anything and everything in the worst, most mercenary way. Fuck you marketing assholes for teasing us so. These books have always and ever been impulse gift books, the kind of thing squealed about after unwrapping – thank you for knowing I give a shit about classics and/or monsters – and then read on the toilet and dumped at the used bookstore. 

However, The Zombie Night Before Christmas is a cut above your usual monster/classic mash-up. For one, being a pretty short little poem, it doesn’t wear out its welcome. I cannot imagine wading through Anna Kareninaa second time just for android bits, and the concept of changing the roach into cats in The Metamorphosissends me into a rage. But whatever many lines of couplets which might have been plagiarized anyway? Sure. The art is good – really very cromulent – and my only complaint here is that there could be more of it. There are several pages where the slightly tweaked lines stand sadly alone, and a page or two more of the funny, bloody art would be cool. 

But the neatest part? So many of these mash-ups are just a half-assed pun – Android Karenina, Jane Slayre– more concerned with an attractive title and cover than creating anything but the most sopping of bullshit within the covers. But, according to the flap, “H. Parker Kelley was a curious child who wanted to know how Santa was able to bring gifts to children for hundreds of years without aging or dying.” Right before Netflix went down for the entirety of Christmas – I see how all you assholes have the day off, and are on the Netflix hard – my husband and I searched for Xmas movies. Being Netflix, much of what was available on streaming was Finnish horror films about Krampus, who, if you did not grow up Scandinavian, is like evil Santa, the stick to Saint Nicolas’ carrot.

An immortal semi-deity who can see when you’ve been naughty and nice is a scary ass thing, when you get right down to it, a sort of God-lite moral agent. While Coca-Cola, Disney, and the entire American mercantile machine has defanged the Victorian Santa who had no qualms about shoving naughty children into sacks and leaving switches in stockings, his scary, home-invasion sensibility still remains under the treacle and sugar plums. Which is why this book kinda rules. It rules more because it was a gift from someone who knows my proclivites, which maybe isn’t hard given all the shatting about zombies I do on the Internets, but the wrapped gift of one’s obsessions is a joy in any season. But even more so on Christmas Eve, the paper stripped to reveal the perfect book at the perfect moment. 

Thank you, Stephanie. You rule.

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

Yesterday, I had a birthday party for my Christmas-born daughter. She received an embarrassment of princess accouterments:  crowns, jewels, plastic sparkle shoes, dolls, et&c and whathaveyou. Last week, when I picked her up from my dad’s house, she and my step-mom, Chris, were snuggled together on the couch, watching Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”. It was the end of the movie when I came in, right before the transformation, and Chris put up her hand, apologized, and said she couldn’t talk until the inevitable magic had been transacted. We watched: monster into man, teapot into Angela Lansbury. Chris flicked her fingers under her eyes in the way that means “I’m not crying” but she was. One of the girl’s gifts yesterday was a Belle doll. Another was a sparkle pony with a hair brush. The girl took the brush from the horse and combed the princess’s hair. After work today, I took out the over-sized Disney Princess activity book we received yesterday. We found the page with Belle and the Beast, and first thing, she blacked out all the eyes. This may sound creepy, and it is I guess, but this is the first thing most kids her age will do. I took down this book and began reading.

An antidote, but not exactly. The Bloody Chamberis the kind of collection that gets described as a “feminist reimagining”, which is accurate on some levels, but I think can imply that Carter is enacting a series of simple reversals: women as aggressors, boys locked in towers. There are reversals, but not the ones you expect or for which you have prepared. They have a sameness to them that doesn’t lend to the gulping down I did, yet again, but it works, in its own way. I started with the stories that deal with Beauty & her Beast, as they were foremost on my mind: “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and “The Tiger’s Bride”. This is not a collection that is a novel in disguise; they are short stories whole and complete. This is more like an album, in a sense that will most likely be lost sometime soon: a collection of pieces that riff on a theme. The Lyon tale is almost traditional in its telling: the father, the rose, the pact with the beast, the forgetting and return, the transformation that has you flicking your eyes with all of the wish-fulfillment, bright and romantic. But then comes “The Tiger Bride”, which inverts a central metaphor disturbingly, rising to a climax that made all of my hair stand on end. I don’t mean this metaphorically – even knowing the end, which I did, my body responded with the uncanny mammalian reaction that can mean several things at once: fear, pleasure, pain. Ah. Oh God. I am covered in fur.

There’s something hot-house about the prose. It’s fragile, breakable, spun from glass. It’s intentionally unreal, like Rappaccini’s Daughter who was raised on poison; beautiful, deadly. These are not stories that aspire to airless heroic beauty – although you many gasp from the lace and blood and satin – they also have a earthy, almost obscene sensibility. “The Snow Child” is a dagger of a tale, epigrammatic. It strips the fairy tale down to its Oedipal basics, almost strips out the story from the story, and you’re left with blood on snow and a rended black wing.

I think one of the failures of many modern fairy tales is that they take place in la-la land, long ago and far away, in the faux-medieval forest. With notable exceptions, such as “The Werewolf”, Carter’s stories occur in identifiable times and places. “The Lady of the House of Love” – simply one of my favorite short stories EVER – interrogates Progress and Rationalism & investigates horror in the age of the machine gun. In the year before the first world war, a young Englishman – a rational virgin – peddles into a Romanian town filled with ghosts and the last, inbred vampire daughter of Nosferatu. About his bicycle:

“To ride a bicycle is in itself some protection against superstitious fears, since the bicycle is the product of pure reason applied to motion…Voltaire himself might have invented the bicycle, since it contributes so much to man’s welfare and nothing at all to its bane. Beneficial to the health, it emits no harmful fumes and permits only decorous speeds. How can a bicycle ever be an implement of harm?” (p97)

Maybe you can see where this is going. The vampire speaks to personal, domestic fears, and how those fears intersect with larger, societal moralities. (Ftw, Stephenie Meyer.) The vampire is also the symbol of the aristocracy: inbred, parasitic, but with a strange intimacy. The boy rides in on his bicycle, and only sees the vampire in the most rational terms: what wonders a sanatorium will do! And the boy, well-meaning, blind, & sweet as he is, doesn’t realize that his bike is the symbol of the devastation to come, that the greatest force for democracy has been the machine gun. We ceased to fear the aristocrat when we realized he could only kill us one at a time, family by family; we could kill each other so much faster and more efficiently once decadent individualism was subsumed into a machine. The vampire may be inhuman, but inhumanity has finer gradations like anything else, and the trenches are a scarier monster altogether, or scary precisely because they aren’t a monster.

There’s more going on in this story, much more, but that’s what I’ve got for now. I mentioned one of Carter’s wolf stories, three of which end the book. A scant two pages long, “The Werewolf” is a mastery of narrative voice: Carter creates a place, then she relates a folklore, then she tells a story in that folklore. The story is about girls and crones, the old woman stripped and stoned to death, the young woman who prospers from a folklore that will turn her out once she crosses the dangerous boundary into age. “The Company of Wolves” doesn’t work as well as the other two. Carter falls into lecturing for the first half, but by the end has worked into glorious perversity: Grandma’s bones wrapped in her own clothes, her hair unburned in the fireplace layered over with the girl’s discarded, burning clothes, the girl and the wolf in a house surrounded by baying wolves, consummating and consuming. In the 80s, Neil Jordan & Angela Carter turned these wolf stories into a movie, which is a fiasco, but a really compelling fiasco. Cheesy sets, a poorly done framing device, almost perversely miscast: Angela Lansbury (again!) is the wrong kind of old woman for Carter’s tales; Stephen Rea is cool, but he makes a really shitty huntsman/wolf. But I can see why they did it; Carter’s stories have a concreteness to them, a vision.

As often as these stories get soaked in bleach by Disney and repackaged for sale, the fairy tales themselves have an essential danger that can’t be scrubbed out. You can wash the blood off the floor, but it catches inevitably in the drain. (As a side-note, I think this is why Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” doesn’t work & mostly bored my kids: they strayed waaaaaay too far from the central motifs. No spoiled princess, no pact that ends with the girl having to share her bed with a reptile, no violence integral to the story – in many versions, the frog becomes a man after the girl has thrown him against the wall in disgust and anger. There was violence in the Disney movie, but it was parenthetical, and banter is a poor substitute for real conflict.) Fairy tales also get re-purposed by children, with no parental intervention: Beauty’s eyes blacked out, doll and beast submitting to the same brushing. Carter’s stories aren’t definitive, but then no fairy story is, related from mouth to mouth, like a kiss or contagion, the kind of thing thing that raises the hair on your arms even while you snuggle in the intimacy of motherhood. Sweet dreams, kids.


As much as I like the new Penguin editions with their flash art on the cover, listed above, I am positively freaking out about the Folio Society’s new illustrated edition of The Bloody Chamber. Christmas is coming up again; think of me.

In the Shadow of No Towers: The Personal is the Political

Somewhere on the shelf where I store all the family photo albums, the high school year books, a stuffing of letters and other ephemera, is a copy of the New Yorker published on September 24, 2001. I find it whenever I’m digging around looking for some artifact of my family’s life, and never know what to do with it but slip it back into the jumble. I can’t throw it out.

It came in the mail nearly two weeks late, the entire publishing machine run to an absolute standstill as we wept in our living rooms in front of a 24 hours news cycle that broke to gossip and conjecture, half watched while we called and called and called, hoping this time I would get through to my sister who I last heard right after the first plane on the lower east side and before the second. Marco. Polo. I wrote emails on emails to this person and that, forwarded messages, called moms. Pete was supposed to be in the station just below the towers that day, but due to a series of choices and accidents, was 15 minutes late. My sister walked out on the Brooklyn Bridge as the ash fell. Some of her Jewish co-workers, upon seeing the buildings fall, fell to the floor screaming. It’s happening again. Oh no no no.

[the famous cover of the first post-9/11 New Yorker, which was black on black with an image of the towers. The black of the towers was different from the the black of the background only by a shiny film]

Art Spiegelman created this image. He’s been affecting my long slow digestion of that event from before I even knew he was. The first of the periodicals coming in was the beginning of the return to normalcy – that most American of coinage, put forth first by the President Warren G. Harding, an embarrassing failure who had the good sense to die in office. I was hungry in those days for something with editing, something not just reiteration and conjecture, and that first New Yorker was a sign we might be able to start doing something other than crying and freaking out. And speaking of tears, the periodical I was really waiting for was The Onion, which, as you may already know, is a satirical humor site. What could possibly be funny in all of this? After a quick google so I could write this review, I scrolled through the edition I read first and only two weeks after 9/11. Irony wasn’t dead, but it was crying its eyes out.

[How have we spent the last two weeks?
1. Crying
2. Staring at hands.
3. Feeling guilty about renting video.
4. Calling loved one.
5. Thinking about donating blood.
6. Watching TV for nine hours, finally getting up, going to the corner store for Cheez Doodles, eating Cheez Doodles, realizing Cheez Doodles aren’t helping, throwing Cheez Doodles away.]

In the Shadow of No Towerswas written in the weeks and months after 9/11, not so much a critical examination as a reaction in the wobbling search for meaning in the first normalcy after that event. Spiegelman is best known for his graphic novel Maus, which, if you’ve only read one graphic novel, this is probably the one. I read it at 15 or 16, probably because it was assigned in class, but maybe because it was ambient at the time. Maustells the story of the Holocaust in the medium of the paneled comic, but what I remember most is the the ways Spiegelman wrote himself into the narrative, worried about his father and mother, Holocaust survivors, their stories and feelings, the audacity of telling a story as serious as the Holocaust in a format called comics.

I’ve lost much of the story in the intervening decades – godamn it, decades – but I know it’s brilliant, using both the latent didacticism and implicit spectacle of the comics medium to both instruct and – and I am aware how loaded this word is – entertain. Little Artie drawing himself as a mouse, at the knee of his father who then speech balloons a narrative so awful that it makes irony cry. The political cartoon is a longstanding form – hundreds of years – but it was mostly a single panel – a caricature, a punchline – not a moving vaudeville of the brutal slap-stick of how the political intersects with the personal. To make the political cartoon move, that’s a stroke of genius.

I mention Maus because it’s probably not possible to come at In the Shadow of No Towerswithout knowing who Art Spiegelman is and what he has written. This is Art Spiegelman’s story of 9/11, raw and only barely filtered. He deliberately echoes Mausat points, his cartoons of himself morphing into the mouse-self of his story of the Holocaust. That Spiegelman is a Jew, and the child of Holocaust survivors himself is a vital part of how he reacts to this event. My father always said the smell of the smoke in the camps was indescribable. Now I understand what he meant. That he is a New Yorker is another; the revelation that he is not a rootless cosmopolitan, like he always fancied himself to be. He’d learned to keep his bags packed from his parents, but in the event, he realized he had more invested than he thought in that most cityest of cities. I understand now why some Jews did not leave leave Berlin, even after Kristallnacht. 

I read it today on the couch while my daughter played Barbies and bugged me. “That book is for kids,” she said, gesturing to the over-large board book format.

“No,” I said. “It really isn’t.”

“If it has pictures, it’s for kids,” she retorted, decisively. Five is a very certain age.

The sparse panels of this sparse book were intended to be a weekly output, but the ways of trauma and its aftermath would not run on a timetable. Weeks would pass, and Spielgelman would smoke a thousand cigarettes and watch a thousand hours of the news cycle and the images and their attendant words would be unwritten. Nothing runs linearly in this book, it’s just or essentially a series of narrative snapshots, the kind that are absolutely and completely impossible years after the event. There’s a moment somewhere where he talks about reading Philip K. Dick in the aftermath, and I totally felt what he was about, the feeling I had of alternate history at the time. This cannot be so. When Spiegelman would write himself as the mouse character from Maus, this doubly, triply third person, even while the I is all over this book, I don’t even have a verb to contain this clause.

This book ends more in gesture than in conclusion, a final essay on the comic form as developed in the days when Hearst and Pulitzer went after each other in the Sunday Special. It made sense to me how this ended in backward-looking cataloging of the form, made so uneasy by all these events we humans keep enacting on one another. I’ve been waffling on how to assign a star rating – certainly, this isn’t perfect by any stretch, but as an imperfect reflection of a time that has been digested down to a sleek narrative that we’re not going to talk about – it’s perfect. It’s perfect because it’s so decidedly personal, the kind of personal that gets where it is coming from, and has no idea where it’s going.

On 9/11/01 time stopped. On 9/12/01 clocks began to tick again. But everyone knew it was the ticking of a giant time bomb

The other shoe has yet to drop.