A Feast of Creatures: I Get My Anglo-Saxon On.

Oh man, A Feast of Creatures: Anglo-Saxon Riddle-Songsis so cool. An exegesis of the Exetor Book – one of the four surviving major manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon poetry – the other three being the Vercelli Book, the Junius Manuscript, and Beowulf. The ninety-odd poems that survive from that manuscript – and the object itself shows signs of surviving at least one fire, being used as a cutting board, and storing gold leaf sheets like an unimportant cabinet – are all riddlic poems – word games that use their lines to catch the creatures of meaning and being. The poem-smiths themselves have all been hammered into anonymity, a name here and there with no referent. Sometimes the riddles themselves are unsolvable, the millennium between their inception and our reception an unbreachable gap. Oh em gee, it makes me want to crawl under the table and freak out for an hour. Unsolvable tenth century Anglo-Saxon riddles!!!1!!

Craig Williamson is one of those scholarly dreamboats who steers his craft with a poet’s oar, but balanced with a nerdy, exacting taxonomy that keeps his prose from spinning out into fancy. (Like you do.) He drops more names than a telephone book, but only if the telephone book were full of Classical and Medieval scholars, poets, and translators. (He does have a tumescence for Whitman that I can’t entirely embrace, but we’ll chalk that to age difference. I may to his December.) I am not disparaging Williamson here – translation and interpretation is a tricky business – the source material fixed in unknowable history – the target reader a moving bullseye that is best hit with the steadying arms of those who have tried before. Reading his list of the varying translations of a single riddle-poem was like reading a sudoku puzzle where this word changed and that, but the equations strove to the same sum. My eyes turned into little hearts. 

The book is split into three sections: an opening of headings and footings that both set and sink these poems, the poems themselves, and then a section of individual gloss on the riddles, one by one. The opening is less an argument or a logic chain, that sets to strangle meaning out of these words, but more a string of related insights that bead up like breath on glass. Apparently, Williamson published a translation in the late-70s, though that was more concerned with translation, the text broken by gloss on gloss. Kinda made me think about how Post-Modernism moves easily from Classicism, with its historically broken, rended texts broken even more by the footnote; meaning this elusive thing in a sea of contextualization. Dag, yo. 

Undoubtedly Tolkien knew of these riddlic poems when he wrote The Hobbit – Bilbo’s riddle match against Gollum where he wins the Ring of Power – but from what I can tell with my deep understanding of having read one book, those were more Latin riddle-poems stripped of their titles. The Latin riddle-poem is titled by the thing it riddles, and then the poet shows off how clever he is in an almost-epigram. (And, believe me, I love the epigram, so I’m not complaining.) The Anglo-Saxon riddle-poem is much more personal than this. The poet takes on the persona of the thing, the creature, and tells the tale of how the inkhorn and the lost twin live in the same house, eat the same food. It both collapses the Self and the Other, and sets them vibrating like a plucked string of being. When Williamson talks of Grendel himself as a riddle-poem – how this monster is in the same mead-hall, at the same feast, with the same needs as the baleful Beowulf, growling from the edge of the heart-fire, “Say who I am.” Good lord, blew my mind. (And another mind-blow happened with a riddle-poem of the cross that Christ was nailed to and its metaphorical accountings, but I am not getting into theology here on the Internets. But still, it moved.) 

But, I don’t want this to sound like not-fun, with my talk of monsters and Christ-nailed trees. The Anglo-Saxons were some bawdy folk, and even though (because) these writers were mostly monks or priests, there’s a ton of obscenity if you’re into that sort of thing. (And I am.) Most of the obscene riddles are double entendres, with a naïve meaning, and a more that’s what she said interpretation, so the riddle riddles the solver: how dirty is your mind? I clutch my pearl necklace in horror that you thought the term pearl necklace meant anything but pearl necklace! Check this:

I am the hard punch and pull of power,
Bold thrusting out, keen coming in,
Serving my lord. I burrow beneath
A belly, tunneling a tight road.
My lord hurries and heaves from behind
With a catch of cloth. Sometimes he drags me
Hot from a hole, sometimes shoves me
Down the snug road. The southern thruster
Urges me on. Say who I am.

Cough cough, right? I’m going to assume you booksters are of the dirty mind, so I’ll note that the more parent-safe interpretation is something like a belt or a cinch. If you can’t think of the dirty reading, I can’t help you, friend. Good luck with that. 

Howl’s Moving Castle

I’ve never read Diana Wynne Jones before. I know! 

Another ride to the cabin, another audiobook. I’ve discovered the young adult section, which is better suited to listening while driving. The length coincides with the time it takes to drive up and back, and it’s just lighter thematically so I won’t concentrate too hard and drive off the road. The reader for the audiobook had an accent that bugged me at first, but I eventually got over it because I liked how she said the word “logs”. Plus, you just get used to accents after a while. I loved the way she read Howl with one of those drawling, lazy-sounding Welsh accents that I wish I could imitate but can’t. 

This is the story of an eldest sister – my favorite kind, for purely selfish reasons – who is cursed by a witch to become an old woman. Sophie sets out not to make her fortune – she knows, the way the bookish young do, that the eldest sister is doomed to be a cautionary tale in the stories of younger sisters. The story trades in the parallelisms and structures of a fairy tale, but loosely so – for example, she meets three creatures on the road on the way to Howl’s castle – a man, a scarecrow, and a dog – and while you expect certain things from these interactions – here comes the clobbering plot – the actualities end up being…stranger than the expectations. 

Sophie ends up in the employ of the wizard Howl – roughly; it is more that she pushes her way in and refuses to leave – and the story is mostly the domestic happenings of Howl and Sophie’s families and familiars. The characters all continue the theme of expectations not conforming to reality – Howl is a clothes horse and shirker, in addition to being a competent and feared wizard; Calcifer is a fire demon, and also something sweeter and lightly tragic. Sophie’s sisters enact a plot that owes something to The Importance of Being Earnest with its doubling and trebling of Letties and mistaken identities, which I found charming and not horrifyingly sit-com-like. (And probably without a gay subtext, but I didn’t give it much thought.) 

I wasn’t enamored of the ending, which takes all these sprawling threads that have been weaving in and out around each other without much urgency and ties them in a slip knock and ends. I complained to Richard about this a little, and he quoted a nursery rhyme at me:

Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine woman upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bell on her toes,
Ahhh! There she goes! 

My parents always went with the more traditional ending line of, “and she will have music wherever she goes”, but his folks would recite this while giving a horsey ride to the child on their laps, at the end of which the seat would be rescinded and the child dumped onto the floor. (But, you know, in a nice way – the kid knowing this was coming and grinning madly before the end.) And when the bridge bended, the story was ended! I take his meaning: this story is more about the journey than the destination, and grumbling too loudly about endings doesn’t really credit the ongoingness of the story, even at the supposed end. 

Lastly, I was hugely fond of old-yet-young Sophie. I went to a wedding of some youngens this weekend – people a dozen or more years my junior – and was struck by how earnest these young people were, how incredibly serious. I don’t mean they are joyless or anything – and they seem a very happy couple – just that they are so serious about their adulthoods. There was this conversation at one point about subjects not fit for young adult book reviews, and the groom expounded some opinions that made most of us smug marrieds, including some eavesdropping women, laugh until we almost barfed. He looked a little abashed, but earnestly so, and will not be softening his youthful opinion, I’m sure, until he has any experience at all to measure against his carefully theoretical knowledge. 

I remember being like this – not in terms of opinions held, because lol – but believing things in this manner, believing in the inevitability of narratives, the trajectory of story. I mean, I’m probably still believing things like this, and my folks are busy laughing themselves sick about some opinion I’ve espoused about being older. So Sophie in her old skin because she’s bought the line about eldest sisters not amounting to anything, because she is squandering her youth on being responsible in a way that serves no one but an ideal, that was lovely. And it gave me licence to steal some glasses from the reception, because you’re only young once, even if you aren’t that young anymore. And being not that young anymore is liberating as all get out. 

A Monster Calls: The Qualities of Horror

I came late to horror – I think, though I can’t be sure, I only started reading horror after I had children. Most of my horror experiences as a young person involve my friend Amy (this is not her real name) who had just an alarming childhood, characterized by abuses no one, no one should have to endure, let alone children. She loved horror, and metal – really anything that screamed. We’d watch Hellraiser, or the Evils Dead, or whatever other pulp gore-fest, and I would cover my face, go to the bathroom every ten minutes to hide, and then have nightmares like crazy. Amy would howl with laughter. She knew monsters much, much scarier than whatever pin-faced Deadite. Her monsters, I wouldn’t ever want to meet them. 

Conor is being visited by a monster, the kind he laughs at: a green man in a yew tree who tells three tales, demanding a fourth from Conor at the end of the telling. The art here is perfect, reminding me strongly of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark – one of my few, memorable forays into kiddie horror as a kid. You can see the other monster stalking his life, the one that makes him immune to your more average monsters like walking trees. But that monster is more a game of hide the birdie; Conor’s mother is dying of cancer. I wasn’t completely on board with the beginning of this story: the way the cancer was never named, the the way the trajectory of the story seemed overly determined – Scheherazade by way of things that bump in the night.

But, something changes partway through the book, and I think it was intentional, this overly constructed start. I snuggled in to fairy tales – even though they were more Grimm and less Disney – confident that these tellings would impart morals and revelations without the requisite pain of true understanding, of confronting the real monster which is more unnamed than the cancer. There was a moment, after Conor does something so awful, so unforgivable, blaming his monsters and I closed my eyes and wished it undone the way he does. This is just a story. This is just a story. Oh, no, no no it isn’t. No no no. The ending is several sharp kicks to the gut, the foot hovering for that last strike of the clock. 

Blueprints of the Afterlife. No, Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original review:

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

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

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

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

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

Folklore of the future? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Engine Summer: Lost Utopias

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reapers are the Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scraping at the Skin: A Review of Palimpsest

There are whole cities of me who could have hated Palimpsestby Catherynne Valente, or been indifferent, or been casually affectionate, and then left the next morning – or even just as it ended – and then called four days later and been polite but firm that it was over. Books can be – they are – often like lovers. We hold them in our hands – or if the lights are off and we cannot see – they whisper in our ears, and it raises gooseflesh all over our bodies. Sometimes our teeth clank, or they are too rough, or not rough enough. Sometimes they fill us up. Sometimes the same lover is all of those things: teeth-clanking, giggling, shuttering, and perfect – but you met them on the wrong day, in the wrong mood, and its fumbling and awful. I met this book on the right day, the right days, and I loved it. 

I don’t listen to audio books that often. My mind makes sounds when I read, and when other people are making the sounds, my mind is left to wander like a horse that has pulled its picket. But I found myself on a ride north with no other adult to talk to, with this book sounding out in my ears, my restless mind penned into watching the road and the landscape. This is a novel of cities – of a city, Palimpsest – a sexually transmitted city. A contagious city, a city that enters into the body like a drug, and leaves its absence as surely as any withdrawal. 

Four people – Sei, Ludovico, November and Oleg, each from their own countries – enter into Palimpsest through their own lovers and madnesses – and are bound by a frog goddess through lines of experience and string. There’s something Narnian about it, but only as a departure point – the wardrobe full of mother’s furs wearing its subtext as text. The language is aggressively adjectival and allusive, the plot not so much action as experience and the uncovering of memory. Even the sections that take place in the cities I can point to on a map – Rome, New York, Kyoto – had the too-vivid feeling of a fairy tale, or a dream. The characters are strange, bejeweled creatures who cannot live in this world. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t dream in black and white. That I do, or should, is one of the strangest things people tell me with credulity, so I understand these bee-loud almost-people. 

There’s a place in me that grows weary of the adjective, that prefers the unornamented. That place was out the window – the nodding scrub and twisted near-spring branches of the landscape was the stage this city grew onto. It was perfect. Palimpsest can only be returned to for the characters by sex with strangers – strangers who have the maps of neighborhoods tattooed on their skin by their own entrances and addictions. It’s somewhere between erotic and disgusting the way it works, all this flesh and skin, and the leap to ecstasy and alarm that finds them once again in Palimpsest. 

I’ve been with the same person for sixteen years, we finally counted out one of the evenings this week, and I still dream of sex with others, usually the dream-faceless, but occasionally, with upset, someone I know. Invariably, as I feel and move, I remember within the dream who I am, whom I have made my bed and life and children with, and I panic in the dream. The dreams don’t spin to nightmare often, but it is disquieting to be someone else, to be somewhere else, in a city of dreams, and then wake up – but not often truly wake – and remember who I am. When I have nightmares where I fall and fall I often wake with the sensation that I have hit the bed. Or I run from monsters until I wake up with a charley horse and clutch my leg and writhe. That’s this book. 

I had to switch to paper after the rides north and back were completed – my house is loud and busy, and audio has no place in that – and I would fall into naps and dream the city, Palimpsest. However often my waking brain would bother itself with one too many description of smell or sound or touch, it would curl around those descriptions and play them out. For a city predicated on the vellum of monks stripped layer by layer and rewritten, leaving the trails on the skin on the eye, it was perfect. 

One last thing: this book is an intertext with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Though that story was referenced here, it was written after, and September and her Green Wind – good God – what a thing. I’m just shivering with what Valente did with children’s stories and retrospective adulthood and the stories we tell and are told and all of those devices, those devices that whir in our brains like damp clockwork, like maps to ourselves and others. I kept thinking of Autobiography of Red, where Anne Carson spoke of the magic of the adjective that reorders the noun, the place, and Valente’s heavy adjectives do just that. Perfect for these bones, for this skin, for this grey brain. I put out my hands to touch. Lover, come to bed.

O is Just Another Word For Nothing Left to Lose

“Who I am finally, if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part which has never betrayed itself in public by any thought, word, or deed, but communicates through subterranean depths of the imaginary with dreams as old as the world itself?”
-Dominique Aury (All quotes attributed to Aury were pulled from this article.)

In her late 40s, worried about her lover’s devotion, Dominique Aury, whom I have seen described as “nun-like” in more than one place (though this could be a single source echoing out into the chattering set) penned the opening of The Story of O. She and her lover, the writer Jean Paulhan, had had one of those conversations that is the staple of romantic comedies and op-ed pieces penned by misogynists: can a woman write erotica? It seems quaint now to ask this this way – women are overwhelmingly the producers of sex writing in romance novels and related narratives of the domestic. But, of course, the real question is whether a woman could write erotica like a man, the man in this case being Marquis de Sade.

Without preamble or explanation, O is taken by her lover to a chateau in the Paris suburb of Roissy. She is stripped, costumed, beaten, and violated, tied up in dungeons, used. Strictly speaking, this is consentual, though as the narrative continues, the question of consent becomes murky, to put it mildly. The only words she utters, and those only late in this sequence, are “I love you.” Her internal monologue is not one of pleasure or of pain – there are no descriptions of shattering orgasms or deeply felt soul-twinning pleasure – a mainstay of sex writing now – nor is there much commentary about the physical pain O is enduring – we are told of her screams, but not the feelings that cause them, either emotional or physical. Indeed, despite the very clear concrete picture of how exactly O is laid out, strung up, and entered – there is very little description of the sex act itself – though I assume some of this is the coy translation I was reading, that insisted on using the term “belly” in place of more common phrases for the female sex. (I assume. I can’t read French.) The eroticism is strange, of the mind, dissociated, and theological – a submission of the godly sort.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

John Donne, from Holy Sonnets: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”

As such, I think it could be successfully argued that O is a form of ventriloquism, acting out the masculine erotic in female terms…but then I say stuff like that, I start balking at terminology for gender, and for the expression of desire in gendered terms. Without getting into a bunch of shit about why men and women are different, and if that is essential or learned or blahblahblah, in this one case, with this one story, which is a seduction between a man who admires de Sade and a woman who desires that man…O is almost a pronoun – a third person feminine “I” – or possibly “eye”, if you want to get cute like the academics do and talk about dis/ease and the male gaze – which you could without much resistance to the penetrating insight, pun intended. Roissy is written with 18th Century Gothic furniture – the dungeons and stone floors, the anachronistic clothing – carefully detailed – the fire in the grate that O tends. This is the Sadeian playset, and the O is set in the middle of it and beset. O is the great emptiness of female desire which provokes while accepting. Provokes by accepting.

‘I wrote it alone, for him, to interest him, to please him, to occupy him. I wasn’t young, nor particularly pretty. I needed something which might interest a man like him.’ (Pressed as to why she wrote in pencil, she replied mischievously: ‘So as not to stain the sheets.’) -Dominique Aury

I love this person, this Aury who became pseudonymous, her seductions public but veiled. Her pencil, like the Woolfian Manx cat, this joke about the phallic pen and its untidy eruptions of ink. There’s something here that eludes, that isn’t spoken, a lack of commentary on a lack of narrative. These few forays I’ve taken into the feminine literary erotic – into which category I would put Wifey & The Ravishing of Lol Stein – just baffle me, but baffle me with the horror of recognition. And I see O in so many fictions, now that I have met her. Stephenie Meyer, imagining the tableau that became Twilight: the image of a woman and a man in the gloaming, a man who “was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately”. (Citation here) It’s not nihilism, exactly, but still a strange negation, striding out onto the prison of the stage and enacting male fantasies through a woman’s mind, or a woman’s fantasies through a man’s eyes, or the strange silence when one reads the other.

Many people did not believe O could have been written by a woman.

[…]I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

In the next section, O returns to her life as a photographer, and is given by her lover to another man, Sir Stephen, an Englishman who is a brotherly cousin to her lover. I don’t have much background in French lit, but I am aware of the characterization of the French in English literature as oversexed and irrational. I am willing to bet this Sir Stephen is one of a species of the French construction of the English – a blue-eyed titled imperialist who does not profess to love O, who uses her exclusively “as he would a boy”.

The narrative, such as it is, begins to falter in this section, the fantasy of Roissy and its strictures stitched messily to the more modern word of apartments and the work day – the playset uncomfortably expanding to include daily life – the wardrobe amended to include only those things dictated by her lover, her camera framing a model of exotic Russian poverty, her dress up over her head and her body commented on in the rudest of terms by her lover and his near-brother. She becomes a sort of erotic intercessor for the men – the creation of one, given to the other. We begin to see O balk – she will not masturbate for Sir Stephen – not give him this image of her pleasure? – so he pins her to the couch and stops up her mouth with his cock. Never once is O said to climax, or to flinch but in the most autonomic of ways.

Sexual power and privilege in “Story of O” are rigid, systematic, almost metaphysically encoded — O is like a supplicant joining a religious order. But what seems most out of sync with our time isStory of O‘s utter lack of that therapeutic quality that pervades so much contemporary porn: that remarkable insistence that this stuff is good for you, bringing with it self-knowledge, autonomy and the ability to love. –Molly Weatherfield

The final section finds O deposited again in a Roissy-like chateau, this time run and peopled almost exclusively by women. Her sumbission begins to be written on her body – chains bound to her belly, as this translation so coyly puts it, brands marking her as Sir Stephen’s burned into her flesh. The men for whom she has submitted all of this time begin to recede, no longer using her in the ways she has been used; supplicant, novice, intercessor. They begin to demand she seek out other women to people Roissy – the exotic model, her very underage sister. The fantasy is its own bait, just to misquote Donne again; once it is conjured, it can be discarded, but each invocation is a escalation.
The ending of O is abrupt. As my husband pointed out, all seductions have to end, and the end is not really that – at which point I imagined Aury and her lover, over the next decades, smiling together with knowing that she was the one who wrote this for him. She didn’t come out as the writer until after his death, though there is a wonderful anecdote about his funeral:

Jacqueline Paulhan didn’t find out Dominique was the author until the day of her father-in-law’s burial. ‘There was a very big bouquet of flowers with no name attached,’ she told me. ‘I was standing next to Dominique Aury, whom of course I knew well, and I remarked, “I suppose they must be from Pauline Reage.” Dominique turned to me and said, “Mais Jacqueline, Pauline Reage, c’est moi.”‘

Oh, c’est moi. C’est moi!
The abruptness is odd, conditional: O is abandoned by her lover to Roissy again, or she decides to die, which her lover permits. It is not clear whether the lover is the original one, or Sir Stephen. She had been completely negated, so much so there is no finality to the ending, no closure, to use pop teminology that I hate. She does not understand herself, or misunderstand herself; she is not. The story – or lack of story, as there is no causality here, really – simply ends.
I think I’m going to play chicken with this one, and leave it unrated. I can’t talk about simple enjoyment with this one – like I haven’t been able to with all of the literary erotic penned – or penciled – by women that I’ve read. This isn’t sexy, in the strictest sense – not something that fires my libido – but I can’t deny its naked eroticism – eroticism that is impossible and disembodied in a way, even as it orchestrates the furniture and clothing, blocks the players, writes the limited dialogue. It feels like an expert act of misdirection.
So, I just let my husband read this, and he, after pointing out a few odd phrasings that I have since corrected, noted that this is incredibly impersonal for one of my reviews – this is not about me, or my reactions, or my desires. True. We’ve been talking about it for a half hour – he has just been called off by our son, because our daughter is crying, and I am here, interstitial. There’s something so intimate about this story – so specific – that I don’t feel my way to myself – and if and where I do – it is no business of yours. He dared me – my lover of decades – to write a seduction of him. What do I imagine turns him on? This made me blink – and blink – imagining Aury writing with her pencil in the cool, dark sheets. This book is an incredible act of daring, of bravery, and of the terror that underpins bravery – Aury holding her lover in her mind with such specificity that he wanted her to broadcast this to the world. Jesus. Can you imagine? It almost folds in on itself – the lovers watching each other watching each other. I can’t even imagine conjuring someone like O, what that would take. And once conjured, I can’t imagine letting her die, and I can’t see it going any other way.
(And just fyi, the kindle edition of Story of O is absolute shit. Go paper or not at all.)

God’s War: Merciless Badasses Kick It

I have so deleted so many openings of this review. Objectively, if there is such a thing, God’s War by Kameron Hurley is probably a three-star outing – there’s an ugly, badly handled time transition about a quarter of the way through the book, and the central mystery is maybe less mysterious and more perfunctory than it could be – but whoo boy, what a world. And more importantly, what a girl. Nyxnessa is a failed bel dame, which on this dusty, war torn planet is something like a Bene Gesserit crossed with Han Solo, but more badass than the sum of her parts, and that is saying something. She burns with her whiskey-fueled near-honor, getting by with something more terrible than will. And will is a pretty terrible thing in my book. This is a sticky, bloody little smash-and-grab that rang my bells in just the right ways.

So, can we talk world-building for a minute? I usually make the ward against evil when world-building is invoked, because the term can be code for infodumps up the ass and a coy, heraldic sense of history. Lo! You remember, Bob, how this rock, which is called Tdfkdhkasjja in the old tongue, was the site for the Blahblahblah of K’thizzle. But, when you get down to it, genre exercises that take place on other planets have to let you know the parameters of their cultures, have to set them up and knock them down, and this does so, with feeling. The smart way to go is to drop the reader in the middle of confusing terms and brutal realities, and then assume your readers have access to wikis that will explain what a bakkie is, and if they don’t, then for sure they can figure it out. Go, smart readers, go. The language here is stylistic genre, not afraid to cuss or drop a bunch of undefined terms on you, letting you catch up. The planet in question has been colonized by post-Muslim societies – I say post-Muslim because there’s a lot of ornament from other religions – like the prayer wheels I associate most strongly with Tibetan Buddhism. 

The world itself is Dune-ish, unsuited to humans to begin with, but then even more so because of the holy war that’s been raging for who knows how long. Nyx is the brutal daughter of this environment, a scriptured place where the men have been killed for so long, and so thoroughly that these patrifocal cultures have had to come to terms with almost entirely female populations – at least in the two cultures that are at the center of the conflict. All of the central players in this story are on the outs with their cultures in one way or another: too gay, not enough gay, orthodox, believers, non-believers, alien, and so on. 

In another mood, this might have felt like the usual suspects school of character development, a Venn diagram of needs and aversions, one overlapping the other – too schematic. I guess even in the right mood it is, because I’m saying this out loud and believe it, but I didn’t really care as the story was unfolding. Nyx is such a towering badass, such a bitch, that I was wide eyed watching her cut a swath in the most profane, bloody and personal of ways. She’s so shuddering and intimate in her brutality – there was this moment when she freaks, and calls her – for lack of a better word – love interest, and orders him to read to her – she’s functionally illiterate – and it twisted my insides. If she’s scared and doubting, and she’s the scariest, undoubtingest thing ever, then I have cause to fear. Whoo boy. 

Did I say love interest? That is not what I meant. She’s certainly got a strange watchfulness with her relationship with Rhys, an orthodox man who out-classes her in most ways, his straight, dark-skinned, controlled body and mind in contrast with her sloppy, heterodox brutality. It’s godamn sexy to watch them hate each other, need each other, read to each other over their flaws and weaknesses, strengths and wills. As a smash-and-grab, this plot moves over acres of land, into palaces and out into the desert, through disparate cultures, and the way their bodies are read and changed, their sexualities coded and re-coded – hot damn, this is some interesting stuff. This is a world full of people who tape up their knuckles and brawl, and the brawling is like sex and death, and as important as both. 

This claims to be the first in a series, and even though the ending is downbeat and uncompleted – almost frustrating as it shakes the central characters loose like water off a shaking dog’s back – I see how you are setting it up for the next – I find it almost impossible to imagine coming back to this place, and I mean that in the best way. I don’t want completeness from a character like Nyx. I don’t want her to sort it out and find peace. I want to keep imagining her cutting this bright, bloody path across the world, drunk and high, tumbling with boxer girls, pining. She’s la belle dame sans merci and amen to that. 

(I received an ARC from NetGalley.com)