Archive for March, 2012

March 26, 2012

Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw

My co-columnist and friend Aadisht is taking a break from the Left of Cool column, and so from April I will be writing it every week. For now, here is last weekend’s column.

 

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Five siblings gather at their father’s deathbed. As the oldest son, a parson, deals with the last rites and some alarming revelations about their father’s past, the youngest son and son-in-law wrangle with each other over the will. The two youngest daughters must resign themselves to the fact that they can no longer live in the ancestral home. They must also cope with smaller dowries than they had hoped for, coupled with the added social stigma of a father whose fortune was made in (and whose title paid for by) Trade. The world which these characters inhabit is an elegant, civilised one, but it’s also one in which those around you are quite willing to eat you alive. Because Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw differs from most works that invoke the nineteenth century in one rather important particular. All of her characters are dragons.

Fans of the author’s previous work will be familiar with Walton’s propensity to play with the mixing of genres. In Farthing she fused a traditional country house murder mystery with an alternate-historical universe in which Britain had continued its policy to appeasement. Tooth and Claw draws heavily on the concerns of the Victorian novel, but because it is fantasy, it is able to do something more; it literalizes these concerns, and makes them far more concrete.

The book’s title comes from Tennyson’s In Memoriam, where he describes nature as “red in tooth and claw”. The inherent savagery of nature is an idea that is easy to associate with the Victorians (this is after all the age of Darwin, and the survival of the fittest in the animal world). But there’s also the savagery of Victorian society – in putting ruthless, cold-blooded creatures into this extremely civilised setting, it’s hard to miss the underlying idea that Victorian society was an equally bloodthirsty place.

For fans of the Victorians (and of Austen, who is not Victorian but forms a part of this story’s influences) the greatest pleasure afforded by Tooth and Claw is the manner in which tropes of nineteenth century fiction translate to Walton’s fantasy universe. The legal quibbles would fit well into something like Dickens’ Bleak House (although unlike Bleak House, and with far greater excuse, Tooth and Claw contains no incidents of spontaneous combustion). The role of women in this dragon-centric world also has some striking parallels to nineteenth-century fiction. Rules of etiquette around proper conduct are transmuted into social mores around flying, hunting and (in the absence of elaborate dresses) hats. There’s the issue of female virtue; a primary preoccupation of novels where too much perceived proximity to a man, however unwanted on the woman’s side, might lead to social ruin (see the plot of nearly every Regency period romance ever written). Walton is able to invent dragon biology and so creates a situation in which fallen virtue is made concrete and visible. In this universe, female dragons begin life with golden scales. It is only after they have their first romantic or sexual encounter that they “blush” and begin to turn to the shade of red or pink that they will sport for the rest of their adult lives. Selendra, a young female dragon, is pursued by the local parson (a sleazier Mr Collins) and by blushing over a dragon she refuses to marry, faces the prospect of ruin. Her brother has as his mistress another fallen woman, the scion of a great family who is – another trope of Victorian fiction, the orphan returned to her rightful position – triumphant at the end. This is perhaps the one unconvincing subplot; society’s willingness to forget her dubious past simply doesn’t work as well when her scales are visibly pink. A book in which everything implied is made literal may find it hard to adequately depict hypocrisy.

Given the preponderance in recent years for literary mash-ups that bring together classic literature and all manner of supernatural creature, it’s surprising that there haven’t been any dragon-centric attempts. If Walton has shown us anything, it’s that dragons make most things better.

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March 22, 2012

On The Hunger Games as dystopia, and so forth

Wednesday’s Indian Express carries this piece on The Hunger Games by me. I have felt quite lukewarm towards the series from the beginning – I love the potential for political revolution that this setting offers, and I love Katniss herself, but I’ve also been very frustrated by how little the story does with the potential it has. I think the first book is the best in the series, yet it lets me down in many ways. It chooses to neglect the political history of this world in favour of the characters, yet even for the characters things are made too easy. Katniss never really has to face the possibility of killing someone she likes, for example; the book disposes of or saves everyone in the arena with whom she might have that kind of connection. In my Indian Express piece, therefore, my major complaint is that the books are too safe. A version of that piece is below.

 

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This month sees the release of the first of a series of movies to be made from Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful Hunger Games trilogy. These books are set in a far-future America in which twelve districts are forced each year to send two ‘tributes’, children above the age of eleven, to the city of Panem. Here the children battle for survival in a gruesome televised competition that ends when only one tribute is left alive. In The Hunger Games, the first of the trilogy, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence in the film) volunteers to be the female tribute from her district in order to protect her younger sister from the same fate. She is joined by Peeta, a boy from her district for whom she may have warmer feelings than she has realised. The bulk of the story focuses on Katniss’ experiences in the arena, forging and breaking alliances, coming to terms with the fact that she may have to kill a friend, and putting on a good show for the audience.

The Hunger Games is the most prominent of a number of dystopic novels aimed at young adults that have been released in recent years. It’s always a little ridiculous to come up with grand, overarching theories about trends in fiction – I defy anyone to come up with a watertight explanation for vampire romances – but it is tempting to consider what might be behind this recent flood of grim, post-apocalyptic future fictions.

The dystopian novel is not particularly new (see 1984) and if the dystopian young adult novel is, that is more likely because Young Adult (or YA) fiction has only comparatively recently emerged as a publishing category. What is new, or at least constantly changing, is the specific form that these dystopias take at different points of time. Most of the books in the genre are or draw from science fiction, and science fiction has historically reflected the concerns of its contemporary society.

So what are the concerns that create these fictional worlds? The Hunger Games gives us very little information about the events that turned present day North America into the world of the books, though we know that “rebellions” of some sort were involved. There are hints that global warming triggered the enormous changes in the world – an earlier generation of books would have nuclear holocaust in this role. Climate change appears over and over again in this genre – it is the motivating factor behind Saci Lloyd’s two Carbon Diaries books, as well as Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road. Yet the process that led to the creation of this world is never the focus of The Hunger Games as it is of so many of these books. Instead, the series takes as its central conflict another feature of many dystopian novels; the totalitarian state.

In Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies books and Ally Condie’s Matched, the government exerts an abnormal degree of control over the bodies of its citizens; Westerfeld’s teenage characters are made to undergo mandatory plastic surgery, while Condie’s have their partners chosen for them by the government. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (an earlier novel, published in 1993) depicts a society in which all emotions are suppressed by the use of pills. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother has as its villain a surveillance state.

The seat of power in the Hunger Games universe is called Panem, from the Latin “Panem et Circenses”, or “bread and circuses”. It is clear from this that the real purpose of the games in the trilogy is as a form of distraction – the people want food, the government give them spectator sports. Hunger versus games. It’s impossible in this context not to mention Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale, in which, again, the spectacle of children killing each other is used as a means of state control. The Hunger Games is frequently dismissed as being derivative of Battle Royale, though  apparently Collins had not previously read the book.

Yet, as with the hints of almost apocalyptic climate change, the reality television aspect of the games often seems mere furnishing. The Hunger Games chooses instead to focus almost entirely on the struggle of its protagonists to retain their sense of self in the face of a state that tries to treat them as pawns.  Katniss thinks, “I want to do something, right here, right now, to shame them, to make them accountable, to show the Capitol that whatever they do or force us to do there is a part of every tribute they can’t own. That Rue was more than a piece in their Games. And so am I.”

It cannot surprise anyone that so many teenaged readers should be drawn to books about young people asserting their individuality in the face of authority. In a way, the trilogy’s willingness to ignore all the political fodder that the genre makes available renders the books toothless and rather too safe. But it also taps into a story that is universal and never stale.

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This evening (a few hours after that Indian Express piece was published) I watched the Hunger Games movie at a special screening. I doubt I’ll get around to thinking things out and doing a proper review, but preliminary thoughts are on twitter and recorded here for posterity (sorry, posterity).

Edit: Abigail Nussbaum has a fine post here that both gets at some of the things I liked about the movie and explains my problems with the book (at least, what I said above about it being too safe)

March 9, 2012

Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection

Written for last weekend’s Left of Cool column.The Manual of Detection was an absolute joy to read – clever, and playful, and beautifully written. I have just discovered (though lurking at his twitter profile) that the author is a fan of Flann O’Brien, and this makes a lot of sense to me – there’s a similarity in that they both have this exuberant, comical voice. And bicycles, obviously.

 

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Books about books are probably the most self-indulgent form of literature there is, and it is probably the duty of all persons with consciences to condemn them for this. It’s not a new idea (and hasn’t been since at least Don Quixote), yet some of us continue to love these books anyway.

Jedediah Berry’s The Manual of Detection is a detective story about detective stories. But it’s many other things as well.

There’s a city (and though no name is mentioned, it’s seems appropriate for the genre to assume that it is New York) that is all seedy bars, thugs, nameless crimes and beautiful, inscrutable women. This is the world of Travis Siwart, a detective who made his reputation with such cases as The Oldest Murdered Man and The Three Deaths of Colonel Baker.

There’s another city, though; the one that is inhabited by Mr Charles Unwin. For twenty years Unwin has been a clerk in an office; he rides a bicycle to work, carries an umbrella, and is entirely preoccupied by routine.

These two men, who have never met, are connected by the huge investigative organisation known as The Agency. The Agency employs Siwart for his skills as a detective, and Unwin to record his cases for posterity. If Siwart’s cases are considered classics of the genre (and they are incredibly intriguing – in one, a villain manages to steal an entire day in November) this is at least in part due to Unwin’s accounts of them. But Siwart goes missing, appearing in Unwin’s dreams to ask his help. An unwilling Unwin is promoted to Siwart’s position and he takes as his first case Siwart’s disappearance, hoping to thus win back his old job and return things to normal. Down the mean streets of Siwart’s New York this unlikely detective must go, then, armed only with his umbrella and a copy of that useful handbook for detectives, The Manual of Detection.

To have a book within a book and to give both books the same title is an act of cruelty to the hapless reviewer, who is forced to explain at every point to which book she refers. But Berry’s real world novel The Manual of Detection (MoD 1) bases a good deal of its structure on the fictional Manual of Detection (MoD 2) – it bears the same number of chapters with the same titles, and each chapter opens with a quote from the same section of the book’s meta-text. Some editions of the book even look physically identical to the manual described.

Yet the novel’s worth does not stem only from this central conceit. It is incredibly funny, for one thing, with much of the humour derived from the complete mismatch between Unwin and the classic noir thriller world he is forced to enter. In one brilliant scene he follows a lead to a bar named The Forty Winks where he must order a drink (he can think of nothing but a root beer) and play a game of poker (he does not know the rules) for information. Yet for all his seeming unfitness for his new position the reader never quite forgets that Unwin has made Siwart – he is the faithful recorder, the Watson to Siwart’s Holmes.

Unwin is seemingly surrounded by people who fall asleep at the drop of a hat – his new assistant, Emily, is among them. The city is full of somnambulists, and the novel slips easily between waking life and dream, and from dreams to dreams within dreams, allowing Berry to indulge in all manner of surreal play.

Books within books, crimes within crimes, dreams within dreams. It’s tempting to see The Manual of Detection as an earlier (2010), cleverer Inception. Yet the high comic tone is what really stuck with me. For all its wild, glorious imagery of carnivals and Kafkaesque bureaucracies, Berry’s book really works because even the image of Mr Unwin on a bicycle clutching his umbrella is elevated into something special.

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March 3, 2012

Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan (ed.), The Obliterary Journal

A version of this appeared in today’s Indian Express.

 

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“Obliterate Literature!” proclaims an anthropomorphised danger sign in the foreword to The Obliterary Journal. In comic format, a Mayan glyph, a Chinese seal script character and the abovementioned sign (warning of nearby ionizing radiation) argue for the eradication of literature that relies too heavily on text. They are crushed by an army of alphabets, but manage to squeak out one last message of defiance.

If The Obliterary Journal doesn’t quite do away with words entirely, the twenty pieces of which the book is composed do generally manage to relegate them to the background. Some pieces contain no words at all – notably Vidhyun Sabhaney’s “Gurk”. “Dhool Ghoul”, by Rashmi Ruth Devadasan and B. Anitha, is a collection of alarming images – skulls (complete with long, plaited hair, mallipoo and pottu) and blood-stained roses. Amitabh Kumar’s story uses a symbol for its title. “Kovai Gay Story” by Bharat Murthy only incorporates words in its framing narrative. Even in the comparatively straightforward exerpt from Yukichi Yamamatsu’s Stupid Guy Goes to India, the narrator’s incomprehension of the languages around him is depicted in speech bubbles filled with meaningless symbols.

Somdutt Sarkar shifts the focus from letters to numbers with his illustrated riddles from Bhaskaracharya’s Lilavati; if you notice the words at all, it’s to wonder why the English translations take up so much more space than the original Sanskrit versions.

It’s fascinating to see the extent to which The Obliterary Journal exists outside its own pages. This is a printed book, and therefore words and pictures are the most it can do. But both the cover and the table of contents are presented in the form of signs painted on physical walls by S. Venkataraman and photographed for the book. A large proportion of the book consists of pictures of street art – such as Tammo Schuringa and Paul Faber’s “Exerpts from Shaved Ice & Wild Buses: Street Art from Suriname”. There are all sorts of unlikely motifs here – Bollywood actors and international politicians jostle for space next to Bob Marley and Wailers, Che and the golden gate bridge. Zen Marie’s “Autoraj” is another collection of photographs documenting a project that exists far more in public space than it does within the confines of this book.

And then there’s “The Nayagarh Incident”. In 1947 the Princely State of Nayagarh was witness to an alien invasion. Of course, the nation was going through other significant events in 1947, and this incident passed almost unnoticed (though events in Roswell, New Mexico only a few weeks later would become the staple of conspiracies for decades afterwards). The only real record we have of the Nayagarh Incident consists of a series of unlikely looking creatures in the traditional talapatra chitra art of the area. Sri Pachanana Moharana’s amazing palm leaf etchings of robots really exist – the journal only contains photographs of this remarkable art.

Another section is dedicated to the Hand Painted Type project started by Hanif Kureishi, and focuses on archiving the various typefaces produced by roadside painters. If this section is text-heavy, it is so in a way that renders the text (or what it says) irrelevant, turning alphabets into convenient shapes. “Danger Taxi Book Post” collects photographs of hand-lettering. The authorship of “Twenty-Three from the One Gross” is credited to an inanimate object, “durrrrk mixer grinder serial no. 30277XM03”. It is soon clear that these short “stories” (ranging from a couple of words to a paragraph) are randomly generated. What meaning there is, then, is in Malavika P.C’s art.

What we have, then, is a strange mixture. The Obliterary Journal features a number of quite conventional (though usually excellent) graphic pieces – such as Amruta Patil’s “Atlantis”, Roney Devassia’s “Karuna Bhavanam”, Orijit Sen’s almost wordless “Emerald Apsara” and the promising extract from Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj’s Hyderabad Graphic Novel. But it also functions as a record of a number of forms of literature that cannot by definition be contained within a printed book – reminding us of them, but also setting itself up to fail at depicting them. Which makes the whole enterprise (depending on where you stand) either spectacularly ill-conceived or utterly wonderful.

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March 2, 2012

February Reading

A monthly record of things that I have read.

 

Stella Gibbons, Starlight: Still trying to wrap my head around the fact that Gibbons wrote a book about demonic possession and exorcism. I thought Starlight was excellent, and wrote about it here.

Miranda Neville, The Dangerous Viscount: I’m not sure why I read this except that it’s part of the same series as The Amorous Education of Celia Seaton (of which I wasn’t particularly a fan). This was interesting though – something of a reversal of roles as the female character is not only the more sexually experienced in the relationship, but also the one who first seduces her eventual partner as part of a bet, while the hero gets a makeover. Much of this is undone by the revelation that it’s actually not about her, but a childhood rivalry between the hero and his male cousin, but oh well.

Rick Riordan, The Son of Neptune: The second in a series titled Heroes of Olympus, a sequel of sorts to the Percy Jackson books. The books in this series feel rather more substantial than the first set – also rather more multicultural, as if Riordan had decided in the interim that this was something that needed working on. There’s nothing world-changing about any of this, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of the books in both series so far.

Stephanie Laurens, The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae: It feels like (and probably is) every few months I obtain, read, and moan about obtaining and reading a new Stephanie Laurens book. Big, interconnected series are dangerous – they’re responsible for the majority of my Regency romance reading. Having said which, The Capture of the Earl of Glencrae is a bit better than some of her earlier work simply because it doesn’t have exactly the same plot as most of her other books.

Sarra Manning, Nine Uses for an Ex-Boyfriend: I’ll be posting soon about a particular aspect of this book. For the rest, I didn’t think Nine Uses…was as overwhelmingly great as You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, but Manning is a fine writer. I am a bit worried by this surnames-as-first-names tendency she has developed (Vaughn in Unsticky I could tolerate, but “Wilson”?) but I will continue to read her anyway.

Edmund Crispin, Swan Song: Consistently funny, and with the most convoluted solution I’ve seen in a long time. The Gervase Fen books have been my default light reading for the first part of this year – once I’ve reread Holy Disorders I’ll have to find something similar for the rest of the year.

Margery Allingham, Look to the Lady: The first Campion mystery I’d ever read, on the recommendation of a friend. I enjoyed it enough to seek out more books in the series –advice as to reading order (and whether there are books I should choose to leave out or should particularly read) is welcome.

Aimee Ferris, Will Work for Prom Dress: Exactly what it looks like it is. Teenage girl, high school, best friend, college scholarships, two potential partners. Utterly fluffy. My overwhelming feeling was one of great meh – there’s nothing particularly wrong with the book, but I can’t imagine ever wanting to read it again.

Ann & Jeff Vandermeer, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals: Reviewed here.

Priyadarshini Narendra, Two Chalet School Girls in India: Review forthcoming. I found this fascinating partly because it’s a fill-in written decades after the original series, partly because I wanted to see how Narendra negotiated sounding like Brent-Dyer while writing about India (I assume from her name that she is Indian or of Indian origin) in a reasonably inoffensive way.  The result is a rather strange mix of both extremes – not the best thing I’ve read, but most of the ridiculous bits were authentically EBD.

Jedediah Berry, The Manual of Detection: I’ve written a bit about this for this week’s column, which I’ll post on the blog (and link to here) when I can. But The Manual of Detection is so clever. I just beamed my way through it.

Georgette Heyer, Venetia:I hadn’t reread this in years. This time, though, I found myself wondering if it was actually Heyer’s finest novel. This will probably also turn into a separate blog post.

Rakesh Khanna & Rashmi Ruth Devadasan ed., The Obliterary Journal: Reviewed for The Indian Express, will link when it’s up.

Gail Carriger, Timeless: A very satisfying end to a series I’ve enjoyed greatly over the past couple of years. I do have quibbles with it – it’s a very character-based set of books (often at the expense of what could have been some fascinating supernatural-colonial-steampunk worldbuilding) which is not in itself a bad thing, yet it shies away from depicting difficult emotional moments, even when it gives its characters plenty of them. It’s all very well to have a ridiculous comedy of manners at surface level, but we keep getting hints of something vaster and more meaningful, and Carriger seems content to leave it at that.

Jo Walton, Tooth and Claw: I like Walton’s habit of mixing up genres – see Farthing, where she manages an alt-historical Nazi country house murder mystery. Tooth and Claw is your basic 19th Century novel – family disputes and wills and dowry and fathers who may have bought a title, but everyone knows that their fortune was made in trade. Except that all the characters are dragons. Will probably be writing about this book for a future LoC column, but for the moment, I thought it was great fun.