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) 

Seraphina, or The Uses of the Paranormal in Fiction

Rarr. Totally lost my review for Seraphina by Rachel Hartman due to computer problems, and now I’m really ticked off. I’m going to go review something I don’t care about as much, and then I’ll be back when the pissedoffedness has dwindled.

Okay, I’m back. I think I started off by writing about what kinds of young adult novels work for me, adult reader. Like most genres, it is legion, running from your baldest of wish fulfillment exercises, to post-apocalit and sff more generally, to romance, to topic-driven Public Service Announcement like fare. I know I wrote something about how I don’t really like young adult in more contemporary settings, especially if there seems to be some sort of message or topic – though you can blow a giant Melina Marchetta shaped hole in that statement. Now that I’ve had some time to process, my disinterest in young adult fictions in realistic, contemporary settings isn’t specific to young adult. I don’t really want to read about a character’s round robin of affairs and mid-life crises that you can sometime find in grown-up books, just as I don’t want to read about sexting and the effect of parental divorce in something for teens. 

I may sound a little dismissive, but I don’t really intend that. My interests bend to the fantastic in fiction for a number of reasons, the most easy to explain being the fantastic – and I mean this in the little-f sense; like, not just elves and stuff – can twist the reader’s perceptions, throwing in a gravitational mass that affects the usual order of one’s personal constellations. To start out with a bad example: Twilight without vampires is a boring tale of a stalker and the woman who loves him. I mean, arguably, it still is that story, but the stakes are higher and the metaphors more disturbingly theological. Or to switch to grown-up books, what does something like The Road read like if transported into a contemporary setting? The wasted America that is the setting for that novel is an emotional reality for the boy and his son, not strictly plausible, but a place to work out the father-son dynamic in a way that isn’t possible in a more domestic setting with sippy cups and play dates. To mix my metaphors, the fantastic red-shifts the everyday into something that must be re-calibrated or recolored to see its meaning. 

Of course, this red-shift isn’t always successful, and I must have a perverse need to undermine my own argument by using one of the more derided examples of YA out there, one whose pleasures are described as guilty even by its defenders. But I’m simply trying to note where my interests, as a reader, lie, and why. The fantastic can be a place for writers to camouflage authorial insert or blatant wish fulfillment – the parameters of the universe of the book bending inexorably to the needs of the protagonist/authorial-proxy/reader-proxy. This conflation of the protagonist and reader may work more often in young adult, as the creation, management and fulfillment of wishes is an important part of learning who you are. I can see why such universes would resonate – I would like the universe to bend to my will as much as the next girl – but I get a little squirmy when it’s too blatant. When the fantastic shift works, it captures the heightened emotional reality of life though the impossible and the unlikely. My often roiling internal state owes nothing to strict reality. 

Oh Gawd! I remember how my review started before! (I swear, this review is turning out be remember that one time I wrote a review that was no doubt AWESOME but it got eaten by my computer; alas.) I mentioned this scene in the b-grade horror film Ginger Snaps – which is about a pair of near-pubescent sisters, one of whom is bitten by a werewolf at the start of the movie. Her changes are looked upon with distress by her younger sister – staying out too late, hanging out with a different, more jerkish crowd, expressing an interest in sex that didn’t exist before. The younger sister goes to the school nurse early in the film and lays out the changes – she’s growing hair on weird parts of her body! – and is met with a politely condescending speech about how she, too, will go through the changes of puberty, and is given an embarrassing pamphlet. I love this scene because it gestures to the obvious way the metaphor of lycanthropy is being used – this movie is about puberty, both the physical and mental changes – but the dismissal of the profundity of those changes by an authority figure is both enraging, and not just a little bit funny. Puberty, while you’re going through it, is the end of the freaking world, and the metaphor of the werewolf is a better capture of the feelings of that time than the bloodless facts. 

So, finally – sheesh – I can start talking about this book. I’ve mentioned a couple of monsters that show up in fictions of the adolescent – werewolves, vampires – but the monster, the metaphor here is dragons. I’m too lazy to do an exhaustive search of the dragon in literature, and will instead rely on my limited experience, but the dragon doesn’t lend itself to tidy summation. Like werewolves, they are often understood to have divided motivations – fiercely intelligent, but with a bestial nature that humans like to evade. (See the dragons in A Wizard of Earthsea, Grendel, or The Hobbit) They tend toward inhuman scheming and their murderousness is almost droll – we kill to live, they say, why do you pretend you don’t, ape? 

Seraphina lives in world where humans and dragons were at war forty years before, and the peace, such as it is, is fragile. Seraphina has come to her near adulthood in a place where her divided allegiances are not just uncomfortable, but dangerous, and the way she guards her body and her self, even with people she aches to connect with, is so vividly true. She’s a talented girl, her talents as much the result of practice as they are of some innate competence – which is my favorite kind of talent – the earned one. There’s a lot about music in this novel, which works beautifully in the ways emotions can be expressed in the non-verbal, especially when the verbal is impossible. 

The plot of the book is court intrigue murder mystery – a prince of the realm is found sans head in a way that points to the involvement of dragons. If this had been the focus of the book, emotionally, I would have been politely bored, the way I am with court intrigue. But the bald facts of the plot are mechanical, and you watch that architecture unfold through the strange parallax of Seraphina’s bisected vision. But this isn’t the world bending to her; this the world seen through her, and it’s wonderful. 

I don’t want to get too far into it for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I loved so so many of the secondary characters. There’s a girl, a friend, whose laughing ease is in sharp contrast with Seraphina’s discomfort, but she is not cut down or diminished simply because she is not like the protagonist. She has a moment, late in the book, overcome with grief and weeping, and she pulls her head up, and says, I’m doing this now so I don’t have to do this later, and you want to reach out and hold her, and you understand her matter-of-fact-ness in grief. That’s a character moment a less generous author would not have given to a girl other than the heroine. 

There’s a boy, a friend, who shares affinities with, and is angered by Seraphina in equal measures – who understands as far as he can, but is hamstrung by Phina’s dissembling. He is not there to make her look good, or make her look bad, but has his own credible motivations, and life outside of Seraphina’s existence. The worst of young adult fictions – of any fictions – cast the opposite gender friend as a prop, as an extension, and it’s so beautiful to see one who is a character in his own right. 

And family – there is an uncle here who is such a fascinating creature, though again, I don’t want to get into it too far for fear of spoilers. I do have some reservations about the way Seraphina’s father was portrayed – his reservations and near-absence felt…tidy, or possibly convenient – though the trajectory of her relationship with the uncle in many ways stands in for the paternal relationship in a way that made emotional sense, even if it didn’t exactly make concrete sense. And the absence/presence of the mother…the way that relationship was expressed through the fantastic – Seraphina’s mother died in childbirth, but her memories were encoded in an emotional mechanism – that completely worked for me. 

I’m running out of steam, which is too bad, because there are plenty of other things to note about this world – the sweetness of Seraphina and one of her friends talking imaginary philosophers, like you do when you’re sort of showing off your first year of college, but showing off in a way that’s incredibly important at the time; the system of saints in this culture, and the way those saints are used and understood; the strange near-dragons who literally stuff themselves on the edges of this world, a mystery that no one is watching; the sly humor that is throughout this book, such a happy thing to find in capital-f Fantasy stories, because so often they are so dead serious that they invite ridicule. 

Such a good book. Such a smart book. Such a good metaphor for the experience of growing up, my discomfort and unease, but also my blinding moments of connection and ultimately prosaic, but completely shattering revelations. I wish that I could have read this at 17, and that’s high praise, even though I sometimes make fun of 17 year old me now. On some level, she’s reading this anyway, because it’s not like my younger self is a completely vanished creature, but someone there just behind my eyes. The best young adult books call her forth and respect her. Oh man. 

(I received an ARC from netgalley.com, and I have been friends with Rachel Hartman on Goodreads for while now, for full disclosure. Neither NetGalley nor Rachel offered me cookies or anything for a good review, and all opinions are decidedly my own.)

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

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

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

Which is when I realized I was taking it personally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next book 

In the Garden of Lost Children: A Review of Frankenstein

I first read Frankenstein in a British Survey class when I was nineteen. I’d just hacked my way through the 17th and 18th Centuries, bolting down huge chunks of the raw meat of “Paradise Lost,” the Romantic poets, and early novels. It was perfect time to read Frankenstein, as all of her source material was still digesting in my brain. It was also perfect because Shelly herself was nineteen when she wrote this. This precipitated a sort of pre-life crisis for me. Here’s this book, this amazing, flawed book, formulated while she chilled with the original Vampire Lestat and the luminous, otherworldly Bysshe Shelley during maybe the most famous rainy day in the history of novel creation. The problems of technology, divinity, education and creation that she made manifest in the awesome and awful hulk of the Creature keep reanimating and lumbering through all kinds of fiction, and while the later movies almost uniformly get everything wrong, the trope of the Mad Scientist and his Flawed Creation have been thoroughly set as a modern archetype. What the hell was I doing [edited for content] and [edited for language]? Why didn’t I have dreamy, Romantic boyfriend?

I decided to read this again because of my backyard conversations with a friend who has children the same age as my own. I’ve inadvertently traumatized my boy with Frankenstein’s monster, which is too bad, because I could really get behind a zombie phobia. Talking about this with my friend, I unwittingly unleashed an amazing depth of knowledge and love of Frankenstein from him, and he spoke articulately and at length about Frankenstein, its themes and conclusions. My memory of this book was almost gone: the creature hoping  from ice to ice in the arctic and his education with the deLaceys were the only things that had any solidity anymore. He urged me to read it again, using a parental lens this time. It’s different when you have kids, says he.

So, okay, I thought, how hard could it be? It’s only 200ish pages long and I’ve read it before. Then comes the massive clusterfuck of book-loss, reading Twilight and the total incongruity of reading Gothic on the back porch while late summer in Minnesota stretches out its finery of grass, the drone of cicadas, and one perfect day after another. I was reading the copy of Frankenstein that I used in class, and I kept having this unsettling sensation of my younger self: her little notes in the margins alluding to knowledge that is only theoretical to me now, her strange penchant for underlining passages in a series of increasingly distracting pen colors, culminating in hot pink for the last couple of chapters. Dammit, Younger Ceridwen, you need to sort some crap out.

So, I feel like I know what YC would say about this book. She’d go on about theology, myth, and technology, a reading Shelly made explicit in her sub-title of “a Modern Prometheus.” Frankenstein is Promethean in that he has stolen the gift of life from God(s). The creature himself is often surrounded by the fire, a deliberate marking of him as Promethean as well. He finds fire in his early, John Lockian period living off of nuts and berries in the wilderness; when the creature’s attempt at education and society with the deLacey’s goes wrong, he burns down their house, and at the very end, he describes the pyre on the ice that will be his funeral fire. Frankenstein is both stealer of technologies (the flame) and God himself, making the creature either Man (as the recipient of Prometheus’s gifts) or Promethean in turn. It’s a complicated metaphor, one that works in an uneasy quantum uncertainty of either both things at once or a fissionable synthesis. And one, that for the most part, leapfrogs over Christianity into the earthier moralities of Greek mythology and the Hebrew Yahweh. Yes, yes, there’s a ton of talk about “Paradise Lost,” but Milton’s work, while avowedly Christian, doesn’t much concern itself with Man, Jesus, or the divine sacrifice. It’s all about creation, the creation of beings that are not Man, and their Fall. I was actually irritated when Frankenstein invoked Jesus near the end, when in a last ditch attempt to get someone to help him hunt down the creature, he goes to a local magistrate. The magistrate thinks he’s nuts, and kindly tells him so. Frankenstein yells, “Man…how ignorant art thou in thy principle of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say.” My pink pen in the margin says, “Jesus?” I hate when writers use JC as a tack-on (see also: the later Matrix movies.) Although, wait, it’s altogether likely Shelly was putting his words into Frankenstein’s mouth to show what a messianic twit he was. Then that’s okay.

Which brings me to another thing. This book is written in the style my mother not-so-affectionately refers to as “the epistolary nightmare.” It opens with a ship captain writing his sister about his heroic attempts to sail to the North Pole, and also about his serious longings for some bromance in his life: if only there were some hep cat to talk to and share his manly feelings! (YC also notes that the sister of the captain, the recipient of his letters, has the same initials as Shelly herself: MWS.) Frankenstein appears, the embodiment of Captain Walton’s pining for a tragic, ruined, beautiful hunk of burning manhood. The letters then shift to Walton writing Frankenstein’s narratives in the first person, which then shift again in places to the creature narrating his life and feelings in the first person.

I suspect that Shelley is doing this mostly because it’s a Gothic convention, used by early novels to lend a sort of verisimilitude to the proceedings. (This is like the “based on a true story” that gets glossed onto horror films, whether they are true or not.) I don’t think Shelley intends her narrator to be a damaged narrator; I don’t get that vibe at all. So I end up feeling really weird about the whole thing, because Walton has this big beautiful boy-crush on Frankenstein, but everything Frankenstein says about what he does makes me hate him. I truly and perfectly hate this man. It’s one of those resounding, continuing ironies of the world that Frankenstein’s creature is referred to popularly as “Frankenstein,” because, of course, the creator is the monster, not the creation. (Parenthetically, I’d like to point out that one of the first things Yahweh tells Adam to do in the garden is give names to all the creatures. (Hyper-parenthetically, I now have the Dylan song in my head.) Frankenstein manages to screw this up as well; the creature remains nameless for the entirety of his existence.)

So, okay, this is all stuff that the younger me would love to talk about, and I’m sure she could give you some better Classical references and actual quotes from Milton, instead of just magical hand waving and allusions to things I can’t quite remember. I couldn’t currently Milton my way out of a wet paper bag. Of something and its loss…Sing Muse? Older me thinks this is all great, and fun, and is probably the stuff Shelley was consciously going for in her book. However, my friend is right, reading this as a parent, I walk away with some really different stuff. I undertook to have me some kids, and the great swooning insanity that overtakes Frankenstein in his quest to create the monster felt very true to the somewhat selfish, unconscious biological fever that underpins my otherwise conscious decision to procreate. I can give you all kinds of reasons why I decided to have kids, but ultimately, they all fail. I did because I did. The reasons are written in the children themselves, but I, of course, didn’t know that until I brought them to be.

Family relationships are all over this book: the captain writing his sister, the complicated relations of the Frankenstein family, Frankenstein’s relationship with his cousin/sister/wife, the deLacey bother and sister, their blind father, the Turkish fiancée. But in all of this, Frankenstein never refers to the creature as his son, nor the creature to him as his father. This is an amazing lacuna, on par with the fact that while we see Captain Walton’s letters to his sister, we never actually hear from her. But Frankenstein’s creation is a sort of changling, a fairy creature born out of the inferno of Frankenstein’s mind. He even behaves like a brownie, when being unwittingly educated by the deLaceys, chopping their wood for them while lurking on the outskirts of their hearth-fire.

I’ve been reading At the Bottom of the Garden, which, although I’m not done, has spent the first part of the book talking about fairy stories as related to children, women and men. With all due respect to Prof. Tolkien, I think his assertion that fairy tales have been relegated to the nursery in modern times is full of shit. The nursery is where, historically, the shit has gone down: the intersection of men and women, in very concrete carnal terms, the strange, liminal period of pregnancy, the danger and expectation of birth, the poopy, funny project of raising children into people, into society. The stories are warnings and portents about all the things that can go horribly wrong: the baby who is still-born, making the mother a not-mother, the child who is born wrong, screaming with colic or god knows what, the horrible sensation, almost completely unspoken of in polite company, that this person I’ve brought into being is not mine, is unlovably weird. My grammar has almost completely broken down, but I’m going to leave it. I suffered from a mercifully brief bout of the baby blues, but I still recall the feeling, as I lay down on the bed next to my daughter after changing her pants for the hundredth time that day, that nothing would ever be right again, that I was unequal to the task of raising her. I looked at the ceiling and felt her move in the the irregularity that characterizes the movements of infants, and thought, this is not me thinking this. This is where fairies are born, in the desperate moments of desperate parents, undone by the creatures they have brought into being.

Frankenstein’s great sin, in my estimation, is in his turning away from the creature when he first brings it into being. I’m struggling as to how to talk about this without betraying the privacy of close friends, but I have the honor of friendship with a child with Down Syndrome. I don’t think I’m going to tell her story, or the story of her parents, because it’s not my place. But it’s one thing to talk about my early desperation in my relationship with my daughter, but I’ve never had a child born into a community of the socially damaged, the stigmatized by sight. I’ve never had to confront what it means to have a child others point at and whisper about, one that will always, no matter how strong the safety net, be outside the hearth fires in some ways. My friend’s trajectory toward accepting her daughter, all of her, was not linear – this was not a Hallmark card, but a life – but it was the exact opposite of Frankenstein’s for his creature.

The creature is horrible to look upon. Everywhere he goes people heap curses on him and drive him out with stones. He eventually goes to his creator, his absent father, and begs for a mate, a community that that will nourish and love him. Frankenstein agrees, for a time, until he doesn’t. YC notes this, from when Frankenstein decides to stop the Bride of Frankenstein project:

“I had resolved in my own mind, that to create another like the fiend I had first made would be an act of the basest and most atrocious selfishness; and I banished from my mind every thought that would lead to a different conclusion.”

YC notes: really? Here’s Frankenstein, at the cusp of his own wedding, denying his child the succor of community, as he has all along. What Frankenstein says here is exactly backwards: the creation of the creature was selfish, yes, while furnishing him with a community would not have been. The plot of the book is irritating as all get out, to me, because it’s closer to psychomyth and fairy tale than it is to reality. Walton wishes for a man-friend and poof! He appears. Frankenstein suspects the creature of killing his brother and poof! There’s the creature silhouetted on the mountain. But imagine the creature to be a child, an abandoned child, and the whole thing gets horribly sicker and weirder. Stigma has long been a theological term: the mark of God’s unmercy written on the body of the damned, their sins made manifest in their perceived ugliness, their damage. This can be mitigated by the beauty of parental hopefulness and the wild, unknowable potential of all children. The manifestation of our biology in all of its forms, even the strange ones, may not always be a gift, but it isn’t always a curse. Frankenstein makes it a curse. The creature deserves a helluva lot more than the callous selfishness evinced by Frankenstein, because the changeling of the damaged is still a child, and worthy, like all of us, of love.