June 19, 2016

Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

The world might be ending. There’s … an alien invasion, or something? They’re called Immortals; and there are pillars of blue light and a mysterious, beautiful boy and a girl with a very special destiny? Her name is Satchel, all her male friends are called Finn.

You’re not supposed to care too much about the whole world-might-be-ending plot, though. Because the teenagers who do not have special destinies or particularly storyable lives are the focus of this book, and they have long accepted that “the indie kids” are going to have the occasional world-saving adventure and that’s their thing, and everyone else may as well devote their energies to the ordinary life struggles over which they have some (though not much) hope of gaining control. For Mikey, those struggles include his probably-unrequited feelings for his friend Henna, the difficulties of being thrust occasionally into the spotlight by a parent who is also a politician, his own mental health, the attractive new kid with whom Henna is spending far too much time.

These concerns are minor compared to those of the indie kids, but they are on the whole treated well. I love that, for example, the book’s emotional climax is a moment between Mikey and his best friend–friendship here is urgent and important and central. Mikey and Mel’s protectiveness of each other and of their younger sister is great, and Mikey’s anxiety (though the sessions with his psychiatrist are necessarily a bit basic) feels well done. I’m less impressed by the treatment of Mel’s anorexia: less because of any direct treatment of it (that’s all fine, the characters are on the whole great about it) than because Ness doesn’t seem to mind contributing to a larger fat shaming culture elsewhere in the book. (In a throwaway line early on, Mikey is working at a restaurant part time and “putting extra slices of cheesy toast on a plate for the really, really fat family at table two”; everyone in the place seems to be eating ridiculous quantities of all-you-can-eat cheesy toast [surely that's not a real thing, America], but still the “really, really fat” are associated with excess.) Meanwhile, there is the slight worry of larger affairs impinging upon this set of concerns (will the indie kids blow up the school, or the world end, before this group of friends can graduate?)

Basically, it’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, but with YA. That might sound delightful or cringeworthy (for me, I think it’s mostly the latter) but much depends on whether it’s a one-note joke or something fundamental to the structure of the book and how it conceives of fiction. Possibly even more than The Ghosts of Heaven Ness’s book requires you to have some knowledge of its intertexts–a solid grounding in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is useful, as is being familiar enough with the tropes that you can do a quiet “hah” when they pop up here. Each chapter is headed with a short summary of current events in the larger cosmic battle, the contrast between these dramatic events and the relatively mundane lives of our characters is frequently hilarious.

There’s something funny to be said about the ways in which other works of YA (precisely the sorts that this book is spoofing) also position their characters as oppressed underdogs or unlikely heroes. On several counts, Mikey is exactly the sort of person likely to be a hero in fiction–he’s a (we’re told) intelligent, not-fat, middle-class white kid, he doesn’t think he’s particularly attractive but other characters tell us he is, and like every other YA hero ever (I’m exaggerating, but hey) he thinks of himself as shut out of things–both the world-saving shenanigans that are going on elsewhere in the book, and the more immediate dynamics of his particular group of friends. (Of course, Mikey will discover that it’s his own preoccupation with the situation around Henna that has shut him out of some of these dynamics–he’s completely failed to notice, as the rest of the group has, that a close friend is now in a relationship.)

 

The thing is, though, the world might be ending.

 

I mentioned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern earlier in this post, and it’s been a decade or so since I read or watched the play so I may be about to say something very ignorant. But the reframing of the narrative to these sidelined characters in that play does interesting things in part because it works both at the levels of narrative (Hamlet!), and of real world power (whose decisions are indicative of power, and who gets caught up in the machinations of more powerful people?).

Questions of power and narrative come into play in interesting ways in the context of YA (and I’m going to make some sweeping generalisations about the genre, but then I’m writing about a book that also necessarily stereotypes the genre, so I absolve myself). There’s much that is ridiculous and unrealistic (in different ways to how vampires and alien invasions are unrealistic) about plucky individual teenagers saving the world, but these books make sense in the context of an audience of teenagers–i.e. people who have ethics and concerns and politics of their own, but lack the power to control their own lives. In some ways, The Rest of Us Just Live Here is the realistic counternarrative that acknowledges that most of us lack the power to thwart alien invasions, or even just protect our friends and families from hurt.

But in the process, it also manages to imply that simply not paying attention to huge, worldchanging things that are happening around one is a feasible, even desirable, response. Even at the end of the book, when Mikey and his friends have talked to some indie kids and figured out that they’re actual people with their own concerns and personalities, the implication is still that they have their lives and the normal kids have theirs. We can’t all be special and superpowered, so we’re absolved of the responsibility to participate in these huge events.

One reason this is uncomfortable is that in fiction the special superpowered kids may be the attractive, white, thin, popular Americans with funny names, but in the world the people who aren’t afforded the privilege of looking away … aren’t. I rolled my eyes a bit when I first read this review which compares the indie kids to third world refugees; it seemed to me to be missing the point. But the “point” of the book, or what there is of it, seems to require you to confine it to the world of fiction, where nothing has particular consequences and the emotional lives of a small group of privileged teenagers can have the same weight as the lives of billions of people (and all the other living things on the planet). The Rest Of Us Just Live Here wants you to think it’s so clever and funny with mockery of tropes; it does not want you to examine it too closely. No wonder our characters seem so unconcerned about this week’s apocalypse; it’s not like it means anything.

And the other reason for my discomfort is simply the reinforcement of a dynamic in which, in order to have responsibility one must have power, and to have power one must be a superpowered individual. By which I mean that there’s never any suggestion that collective action of any sort is possible, that the indie kids could work with the other kids (or even with each other–all they seem to do is fall in love with Satchel and die) or that the regular kids without powers could work together in any way. And it’s frustrating because one of the things that Ness does well is to create a sense of community in his characters–there are, for example, really lovely sections in which Mikey and his friends instinctively and unobtrusively accommodate each other’s particular illnesses and vulnerabilities. But then there’s Mikey’s best friend Jared (named after Jared Shurin, which was an amusing and distracting thing to know), who is a descendant of a god of cats and secretly bears an indie kid name. Unlike the others, Jared does have power, or at least the means to access it, and has simply opted out of the indie kid lifestyle. At the end of the book he does embrace his powers to make things better/save lives, but he does so at the cost of this sense of community–he will be turned into a god and thus cut off from his friends.

I enjoyed reading The Rest Of Us Just Live Here, and it’s nice to be reading a Carnegie-shortlisted Ness book that isn’t emotionally draining, but beyond that, I’m underwhelmed.

June 17, 2016

Marcus Sedgwick, The Ghosts Of Heaven

I took The Ghosts of Heaven at its word. The four novellas that comprise the book are, in their published form, arranged chronologically: a prehistoric story, then one set in early modern England, another in early twentieth century America and the final piece set centuries into the future. The author claims that you can read these novellas in any order, that there are “twenty-four possible combinations” in which “the story will work”. (There was a time when I’d have been able to do the maths to confirm this, but I’ll take Sedgwick at his word.) I wanted to test this so went 2, 4, 3, 1 and I don’t think this hindered my enjoyment of the book, but … I’ll come to that.

In the book’s order, then: in “Whispers in the Dark” a young woman in an unidentified prehistoric society longs to be chosen to make magic marks on the walls in a cave to ensure her people’s success in the hunt. She is not chosen, but is pondering the power of the spiral shape and on the verge of inventing writing when disaster strikes. The old man and his apprentice responsible for making the marks have failed, the tribe is slaughtered by a rival tribe.  In “The Witch in the Water” a minister has arrived in a village to replace its dead vicar, and sees devilry everywhere. Appalled to discover the villagers dancing (in a spiral) at a funeral he soon traces the source of evil to an innocent young woman, aided by the willingness of other villagers who are sexually attracted to her, jealous of her or simply scared enough to denounce her. “The Easiest Room in Hell” features Charles Dexter, a poet and a patient in an asylum in Long Island who befriends his naive new doctor and the doctor’s small adopted daughter and for various reasons is terrified of climbing up the spiral staircase at the centre of the building. “The Song of Destiny” features a spaceship carrying hundreds of bodies in suspended animation on their way to an inhabitable planet. Keir Bowman is one of ten sentinels who check the status of the ship yearly–but when he wakes after ten years of sleep he finds certain irregularities that suggest the ship is haunted.

It’s obvious from this summary that these all have very different settings, and it’s probably also obvious that some of them are very clearly pastiches of existing works or genres. To me, this was clearest in the third and fourth stories–”The Easiest Room in Hell”  with its asylum setting and its Things Under The Water would be recognisable as a Lovecraft tribute even if it hadn’t gone and named a major character after one of the author’s most recognisable works; and “Keir Bowman” is equally clearly a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey (in which Keir Dullea plays David Bowman). The first two stories were less obviously linked to existing works for me–they could be any/every witchhunt/prehistory narrative I’ve ever read (they felt familiar, in several ways), or they could be clear references to a reader more immersed in those bodies of literature than me. (Lucy suggested that the first section might be linked to The Clan Of the Cave Bear and I’m not sure she was wrong.) I’m not sure that the intertexts add a great deal to a reading of the book, even assuming its readers have access to them–I only “caught” two references, and I’ve discussed the book with other, widely read and quite nerdy, adults who missed them. What the format does do, though, is provide a spread of styles–beyond obvious differences in shape (the first section is in verse, the third section is a first-person log of events, the second and fourth sections have third-person narrators, but while the earlier narrator appears omniscient the later one is confined in the main to Bowman’s perspective) these are all completely different stories.

Which is both great for showcasing Sedgwick’s range and bad for creating any real sense of cohesion. I said above that the order in which the stories are read made very little difference, and I don’t think that’s so much the result of brilliant, complex trickery as it is of these stories reading as four separate novellas with some themes in common. Too often the spirals are the only obvious link, so that the text has to lay extra stress on pointing out when they’re there–as when Bowman, thinking of the forward movement of his toroidal spaceship, reflects that he is spiralling through space. As a symbol the spirals themselves feel rather underwhelming to me–the book goes into some detail explaining why spirals are interesting, the golden ratio, the fibonacci sequence and (thus) the fibonacci spiral, helixes in our DNA, and yet (perhaps my mind is unreceptive to the wonder and terror of maths?) I’m rather left with a sense of “spirals are everywhere … and?” If there is a fruitful link between the stories, for me, it’s not the spirals themselves but the reactions of the characters to them–each of these main characters is hyper-aware of the hugeness and unknowability of the universe around them; each feels an awe that verges on terror (and in some cases descends entirely into terror), each is compelled towards knowledge nonetheless. Sedgwick’s choice of intertexts, as far as I recognise them, works well here–Lovecraft’s body of work as well as 2001 are both full of the wonder and terror of the vastness of space and time. In each case knowledge and oblivion are closely linked–three of the novellas end with a death. As for Bowman, perhaps he is dead–or perhaps he has dreamed all these novellas during his ten-year nights. Or we accept the ending the novella gives us, in which he arrives on a possibly-inhabitable planet and meets a young woman, much like the woman of that first, prehistoric, novella, who thinks in verse–we’ve circled round to the beginning of the text, except not quite. (Perhaps that’s a spiral too.) It’s possible to think of the whole as a single narrative across deep time, whose protagonist is the human race and our relationship to knowledge. But for that, I suspect, you should read it in chronological order. (Certainly the references between the individual novellas seem to assume that you will do so, Sedgwick’s twenty-four combinations notwithstanding.)

I’m not sure what about the book marks it out as particularly for children or young adults–none of the main characters are children by the standards of the worlds in which they live, and the things in which it expects its readers to take interest (pulp horror writers, maths) don’t seem particularly restricted by age. I’m quite sure that I would have been thrilled by exactly those elements of the book as a teenager, but I don’t know that the category “children’s literature” (insofar as it’s a meaningful category at all) should simply include everything any child anywhere is willing to read.

I’m also aware that my relative lack of enthusiasm for it now is a function of having, in the years since my teenagehood, read several books about space and time and maths and knowing and horror that do more with those things. It seems a strange thing to think about a book as intertextual as this one, but I suspect The Ghosts of Heaven is most successful when read by a naive reader. For a jaded one (me), it evokes grand, ambitious, huge ideas and then seems content not to do them justice.

June 7, 2016

Nick Lake, There Will Be Lies

“Lies” appear to be a theme with this year’s Carnegie shortlist– so far we’ve had The Lie Tree, Lies We Tell Ourselves, and now, unfortunately, There Will Be Lies.

(I frequently feel like a killjoy, both on the internet and in real world conversations about children’s books. Presumably, since this book made it to the shortlist of a major award, there are people who read and liked it; luckily, in my regular group of Carnegie readers, this week the consensus  seemed to be that the book was exactly as bad as I’d thought it was. This feeling, of not being a small, grumpy voice well-actuallying in the wilderness, is rather intoxicating.)

Shelby is nearly eighteen, homeschooled, deaf, and living with her mother Shaylene in Arizona. She has broached the subject of going to university a few times, mostly to be shut down. College is dangerous, the world is dangerous, men are dangerous; Shelby is best off at home, with her mother, without much contact with the outside world beyond weekly trips to the library and what time she can steal for herself on the internet. Clearly something’s very wrong.

Something is wrong, though it takes a while before we know what that something is. The book is structured around the “lies” (two of them, and then a truth, Shelby is told) in the title, and the plot moves forward as Shelby  meets these revelations. When she is hit by a car and has to be hospitalised, so that the hospital now has her mother’s details on record, Shaylene hurriedly takes her daughter and the two women leave town. We watch Shelby ‘learn’ that her father is alive and evil and that her mother’s running away from him; then that her father is dead and her mother’s a notorious killer; then, finally, that Shaylene is not her mother at all, but kidnapped Shelby from a hospital where she was undergoing treatment for burns after an accident. Shaylene is arrested, and Shelby is reunited with her birth family.

All of which might make for a decent thriller. Might, not does, because the narrative hurtles forward as if a series of revelations were the only way that movement was possible: and then and then and then. There’s a lot of plot and very little done with it. The short section towards the end in which Shelby is attempting to adjust and find common ground with her new family is well observed (and comes closer to having actual characters than anything the book has done so far), but that’s about it.

Unfortunately, the not-very-impressive thriller plot is not all there is to Lake’s book. The mysterious hot boy who Shelby meets at the library each week is in fact Coyote in disguise; he’s here to warn and protect Shelby, taking her into “the Dreaming” where she is to fulfil a mysterious quest, save a child, kill a crone and thus save the world.

I have none of the knowledge that I’d need to discuss the specifics of Lake’s use of Native American myths–but I found Debbie Reese’s analysis of the book, here, very useful. What I can talk about are the larger structuring assumptions inherent in this kind of use of myth.

What we have is a narrative in which the main character, coded as white throughout the book, finds herself on a quest accompanied by a mythological figure from a culture that is not her own, but who has made her wellbeing his responsibility. Even assuming that time works differently for mythological beings, Shelby seems like a strange priority for Coyote to have. For much of the quest narrative it’s not clear to Shelby what the quest is, or why she, of all people, should be undertaking this hero’s journey, but the fundamental right of a random white girl to be at the centre of this story is not something that is ever questioned, either by Shelby herself or by the text.

The “child”, most relatively experienced readers will soon figure out, is Shelby herself; the “crone” is Shaylene; the world is not ending, only Shelby’s world (but that’s the same thing, suggests Coyote, inaccurately). There’s the potential here to weasel out of the implications of the book’s use of myth, and claim that this is all taking place in Shelby’s subconscious, so that the blame for anything that may seem poorly researched, or cobbled together (see Reese’s post) can be displaced onto the character. But none of that explains what work the myths are doing here–since the Crone and Child story eventually devolves into a castle-moat-witch scenario that is equal parts European fairytale and video game, it’s hard to see what Lake wants to add to the book with this bit of careless appropriation. Perhaps the point is to create a closer link to the landscape? (Lake clearly thinks Arizona is very pretty.) Whatever it is, it does not work.

With all this, though, the thing I found most unpleasant about the book was Shelby’s deeply-felt disgust at her mother’s fat body. That Shaylene wears “pajama jeans” is so horrifying to her daughter that our attention must be drawn to it several times, including on the first page; she keeps having to “haul” herself around rather than, you know, move (there’s a charming moment a few pages in when Shelby explains that her mother’s not very active but that hey, you-the-reader will have figured that out because she’s told you Shaylene’s fat); her ass ripples in her (yep) pajama jeans; she’s sweaty so that “her hand is clammy around mine, slippery but strong, like being held by a squid”. Later, Shaylene meets, and has sex with a man who has the audacity to also be overweight: “And then an image flashes in my mind of Luke’s double chin and I think UGH again, UGH X 10,000″

 

Ugh x 100,000.

June 5, 2016

Of Interest (5 June, 2016)

I suppose I could have organised this week’s Sunday Reading links by theme, but nah.

 

Two important things by Sara Ahmed this week. First, a piece on her recent resignation from Goldsmiths, sexual harrassment, institutions and the archive. Then from a couple of days earlier, this, on progressive racism and racism as a structuring force in progressive movements.

[Reading the two pieces together is instructive; particularly when Ahmed says, in the piece on progressive racism, “The response to a challenge of diversity of the University takes the form of a statement of how the university promotes diversity.  Indeed, diversity as a form of good practice (One World Week, Black History Month) is used as evidence that there is not a problem with a lack of diversity.” Goldsmiths’ response to the incidents that led to Ahmed’s resignation almost appears to have been written to this guideline; it’s remarkable.]

 

Hannah Black on the workings of “identity politics”.

Carmen Maria Machado watches a stranger maybe write a novel.

Scott Long on the meaning (and elevation, and not) of marriage.

At Strange Horizons, Portia Subran, Kevin Jared Hosein and Brent Ryan Bellamy discuss the works of Nalo Hopkinson.

Muhammad Ali watches Rocky II with Roger Ebert.

I’ll be glad when Game of Thrones thinkpiece season is at an end, but this piece by Lili Loofbourow says some great things about the narrative incoherence of the show when it strays from family drama. [I squeaked with joy at 'we extend these incidents conspiratorial credit ("what happened to Hodor was terribly sad and clearly brilliant — we'll find out why soon").']

Iona Sharma on learning Gaelic and re-learning Hindi. Via about half the people I know (how weird and great to see someone you know in one context being ‘discovered’ by people you know in a different context.)

Camalita Naicker on passing as Indian in India, Africa in the Indian imaginary, and shared forgotten histories.

And while on the subject of anti-African (and anti-black) racism in India, a news story on multiple recent instances of mob violence and another on a forgotten African past in India.

Snigdha Poonam’s great (and terrifying) story on children in Kota IIT-preparation institutes killing themselves. (Avoid the comments unless painfully misguided how-not-to-feel-suicidal advice particularly amuses you.)

Most people have by now read this statement by the woman who was raped by Brock Turner, but it’s powerful and direct and horrifying. (Trigger warning for some graphic, detailed descriptions.)

Siddharth Varadarajan on the aftermath of the Gulberg society massacre.

 

June 1, 2016

May Reading

This month’s reading was awards-shortlist dominated (only two things on it weren’t on a shortlist I was shadowing, and then one of them actually won a completely different award), and largely underwhelming. I complained on twitter that I feel rather like that moment in Mad Max: Fury Road when Immortan Joe drives past, looks upon the violence, and sneers “mediocre”. On the other hand, new Helen Oyeyemi!

 

Sarah Crossan, One: A Carnegie shortlisted book. I’ve written about it here; it’s alright, I suppose. I wish there was more heft to it, but when don’t I wish this?

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves: Another from the Carnegie shortlist. I’ve written about this here; it’s a much more accomplished book, but its strengths can’t outweigh my distaste for some of its most fundamental premises.

Helen Oyeyemi, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours: I’m still working through my feelings about this book. I linked in an earlier post to Nina Allan and Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s reactions to this collection of short stories, and I can sort of see what isn’t working for them, but I also keep wanting to yell “but that’s the  point!”, and haven’t articulated for myself why it is the point. But I think the stories are too wry to truly be whimsical, as Bee suggests they are; and I think there’s a … noncommital (?) tone that feels essential to me. As I say, I’m working through these thoughts, but it feels like exactly the collection I’d have expected/wanted it to be. I suspect I’m going to be in a minority there, though.

Nick Lake, There Will Be Lies: The best thing about this (Carnegie shortlisted) book was going to my reading book and discovering that everyone else liked it about as much as I did. I’ll be writing more about it, when I’ve collected my thoughts; at the moment all I have is NOPE.

Mathangi Subramanian, Dear Mrs. Naidu: Look, a book I liked! I’ll be writing more about this; it has just won a South Asia Book Award and is about friendship and activism and community and feeds my desire for more good middle-grade fiction.

Jenny Valentine, Fire Colour One: I’ve written about this at some length here. It’s probably one of the stronger books on this Carnegie shortlist that I’ve read so far. Unfortunately, all that means is that it’s pretty average.

Hannah Rothschild, The Improbability of Love: I decided to join the final stages of a friend’s Bailey’s prize book group, mainly as an excuse to read The Portable Veblen (which I’m currently reading). The Improbability of Love was a surprisingly quick read, and I’d absolutely watch the very highly stylised film, but as a book I’m not a huge fan. It begins with an exaggerated comic tone (presumably why it was shortlisted for, and eventually won, the Bollinger-Wodehouse prize), and perhaps wisely realises it’s unable to sustain such a thing and slips back into a more mundane register–which is fair enough, and the thought of reading over 400 pages in the earlier style is rather horrifying. But then the huge cast of characters introduced in that introductory chapter just wanders around disconsolately for most of the rest of the book until called upon to appear at the climactic scene. They don’t work as characters; they might work as hilarious exaggerated stereotypes (not a form of humour I find particularly funny, but still a thing that can work) but the book has moved into a lower-key sort of satire where they no longer fit. A lonely, murderous Russian billionaire named Vladimir is the worst sufferer here, but he’s not the only one. What does work is the deliciously improbable and ludicrously French voice of the titular painting itself, which takes you on a mini tour of the important figures of eighteenth century France. Only because it’s in small doses, spread out through the rest of the text, though; I suspect 400 pages of this too might be intolerable. What really matters, though, is that there now exists a pig named “The Improbability of Love”, which is an excellent name for a beast.

May 29, 2016

Of Interest (29 May, 2016)

 

 

Names:

Kat Chow on outdated terms, identity, and being “Oriental”.

Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd on caste, language, and adding that “Shepherd” to his name.

Kennetta Hammond Perry (whose book I still haven’t read, and need to) on Black Britons and Britishness.

 

Clothes:

Tyler McBrien on the significance of Julius Malema’s sartorial choices.

Fabiola Jean-Louis’s paper gowns, and the history of race in America.

Despite its title, this interview with Yuna doesn’t go particularly deeply into questions of fashion, race or wearing the scarf, but the pictures more than make up for it.  (#CoatsICovet)

 

Books & films &c.:

Sukruti Anah Staneley on Wingstar, Tinkle’s superhero from Mizoram.

This interview with Álvaro Enrigue about/around Sudden Death is so great.

Vajra Chandrasekera on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” and Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom.

Genuinely the only piece of commentary on Game of Thrones that you need to read. Sorry, all other thinkpieces.

 

May 26, 2016

Jenny Valentine, Fire Colour One

fc1 kleinI rarely say this, but: I think I may honestly be too old to properly enjoy Fire Colour One.

Valentine’s book opens where its story ends, in the gardens of a house in (we don’t know this yet) England, where protagonist Iris has started a huge fire in honour of her father, whose funeral it is. The backstory is filled in gradually–Iris, her mother Hannah and her stepfather Lowell have been living in America, where the two adults are actors and models and Iris herself mooches about, starts fires, and has only one friend, Thurston. A combination of financial difficulties and Iris’s arsonous habits means that the three of them have moved back to England–where Iris’s biological father, Ernest, is dying. It turns out that Hannah’s stories about Ernest have been less than true–he didn’t abandon his daughter, he wants a relationship with Iris, and — this is important — he’s a millionaire who lives in a country mansion and collects famous art.

[Possible/definite spoilers.] Art is obviously important to Fire Colour One–the book is named after Yves Klein’s fc1 (used to illustrate this post because I like it better than the cover; sorry, cover artist). Thurston loves Klein, who “brought art out of the airless studio and back to life”; and who died tragically young. Both Thurston and Iris engage in forms of performance art–Iris describes her firestarting tendencies in artistic terms, and Thurston arranges public spectacles– we’re told about a mock funeral procession involving pigment bombs, a hearse and loud music, and we see him create a sort of shrine to Iris on a sidewalk, so that strangers come by and (assuming the girl in the picture is dead) pay their respects to it–they are somewhat startled to see the living Iris appear. Ernest, it turns out, is a talented artist who also happens to enjoy its performative aspects–the conclusion of the book, in which Ernest manages, from beyond the grave, to thwart Hannah and hand over his vast fortune to Iris, is as much a work of art as any of Ernest’s paintings.

There’s a lot to like about Fire Colour One. Its prose is genuinely good and willing to do more than just tell a story; though it needs to be a little infodumpy to tell the reader about Klein (I knew nothing about him other than that Klein blue was a thing), it doesn’t over-signal its constant return to the subject of art; Iris’s habit of starting fires is cause for concern to the adults around her (apart from Ernest, whose priorities are a bit dubious, really) but the book treats it as merely a part of who she is and never risks turning it into an Issue.

But then there’s Iris-and-Thurston and Iris-and-Ernest.

“I’m glad you know a little about art,” says Ernest, “and the great man”. Iris has just finished telling him (and us) what she knows about Yves Klein. “I know what Thurston taught me,” she shrugs. A shared love of art is what brings Iris and Ernest and Iris and Thurston together, but both relationships seem to take the form of the older, better-informed man “teaching” Iris. I can’t remember a moment when Iris has something to teach these characters–even her explanations of why she starts fires seem to chime with things they’ve already heard before, so that her experience is one of being understood, rather than helping them to understand. At the end of the book we discover that Thurston and Ernest have been speaking, have formed a friendship (bonding over art and Iris, presumably), and one of Ernest’s final acts (apart from the big art thing, and the big tricking Hannah out of the money thing) has been to return Iris’s lost friend to her; to restore Thurston and Iris’s relationship. That relationship may be a romantic one or a very intense platonic one, but the whole thing has for me some of the implications of fathers of the bride handing over their daughters to new designated male protectors.

I don’t think this is merely an unfortunate gender dynamic that has crept into the book, though; I think it’s fundamental to both relationships. I suggest at the beginning of this post that I may be too old to fully appreciate this book, and one of the reasons for that is Thurston. Thurston is a Vonnegut fan–of course he is. Thurston makes art. Thurston is skinny and beautiful and romantically poor. Thurston is full of information about certain sorts of artists and writers, and he loves to share this information with his younger female friend. He’s a slightly cooler version of the time in your teens when you had a crush on the guy who was obsessed with Jack Kerouac. Perhaps a reader in their teens could access some of that attraction; could have it underlay the book. (As an adult, I found myself thinking instead of Thora Birch and Wes Bentley mooching around glumly in American Beauty; I don’t think the book intended this to be as funny to me as it was.) But though I’m thankfully immune at my age to the specific charms of earnest teenage boys who Know About Art, I’m not immune to the larger desire to be approved of by men who know (or think they know, or can make me think they know) more than me. It’s a powerful thing, and it’s a specifically gendered thing.

And Fire Colour One ensures that we know that Iris has the approval and attention and adoration of these two men. Early in the book, when Iris is hurt and upset by Thurston’s fake shrine prank, he explains that the whole point is “You think people don’t see you [...] You think you’re forgettable” and “How come you can’t see how much you’re loved?” Ernest, too, has made his lost daughter the centre of his life even in her absence, and he too demonstrates this through a sort of art installation that has taken over a decade to prepare, and that becomes the climactic, closing scene of the book:

Ernest had laid traps and my mother stumbled right into them. There was something beneath the surface of every painting, written in zinc white, so it would show up under ultra-violet and stop my mother and Lowell dead in their tracks. Their world was about to end, and Thurston had made sure they had an audience. Better than my fire, better than any revenge I could ever have thought of, more than twelve years in the making, a message from Ernest for them and one for me too. Hannah checked every one, running from room to room by the end of it, followed by a stream of witnesses, hysterical, apocalyptic, catastrophic.

The same word on each of the forty-seven canvasses that filled the house. Bigger and bigger each time until it took up the whole space, waiting patiently, screaming out beneath layers of paint.

IRIS.

As I was reading the book I described it to friends as essentially a fantasy about being loved, and this is precisely what it is–about being loved by people whose love is worth something (arty men, within the book’s frame of reference; important men in general),being loved huge, demonstrable, spent-twelve-years-making-the-art-to-prove-it amounts. It’s a little bit ridiculous if it’s not a fantasy you share.

One doesn’t, of course, crave love from lesser beings. One aspect of Fire Colour One that is hard to reconcile with the rest of the book is its presentation of Iris’s mother and stepfather, for whom Iris has nothing but contempt. Which isn’t that surprising–for a teenage girl whose hobbies include Meaningful Conversation About Art and Burning Things to despise adults who seem shallow and interested only in clothes and careers makes sense. But Fire Colour One would have you believe that Lowell and Hannah are exactly as shallow, grasping, and unintelligent as Iris thinks.  If I compared Iris and Thurston to characters in American Beauty, Lowell and Hannah, as parents, seem to come straight out of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. But they become irredeemably bad, rather than comically evil, early on in the book, when rather than protecting their daughter from an attempted rape by the son of a potential employer, they disbelieve and blame her for defending herself.

About halfway through the book some reason is given for Hannah’s grasping nature (by now Lowell has largely slipped out of the plot; he never particularly mattered). We’re told that when Hannah and Ernest met she was starving and homeless and beautiful and he was rich and unable to talk to attractive women except to babble about art and show off his expensive possessions. He asked her to stay; she did.

But by this point Hannah is already irredeemable, and it’s not in the book’s interest to redeem her; to make her in any way sympathetic would undercut the triumph of Ernest’s final victory over her (“[her] world was about to end”). Hannah’s grasping nature, her insistence on the monetary value of Ernest’s art; these aren’t presented to us as the natural reactions of someone who has been poor and desperate, but of someone who Is. Just. Bad.

I don’t know, though. Telling the story of their first meeting, Ernest explains that it was outside an antiques shop, that he’d fallen and hit his head and talked to her about how each of the wine glasses in the window was worth a couple of hundred pounds. “I could live on that for a month,” Hannah says. When Hannah has moved in with Ernest, he buys the wine glasses, and Hannah drops one on the kitchen floor.

“She did it on purpose,” he told me, “because they were hers now, because she could.”

May 22, 2016

Of Interest (22 May, 2016)

Unsorted, but (unsurprisingly) mostly about empire and activism and books:

 

Shoaib Daniyal on the Hindu Right’s targeting of Akbar as a national symbol. I have my reservations about this piece (and rolling my eyes at “a Hindu Pakistan”) but mostly, yes.

All trees are the most superlative tree, but this is a pleasing map of superlative trees.

Charlotte Cooper on fat, the (UK, but also applicable elsewhere) left, and class.

Reading Claudia Rankine reading Adrienne Rich is a good thing.

Kavita Bhanot on Vedanta’s sponsorship of the London Jaipur Literature Festival, and more broadly, what the JLF does and means.

I have tried and failed to watch (sober) this alphabetical-order edit of The Wizard of Oz, but here it is for anyone unwise enough to wish to attempt it. (Via Debbie Reese on Twitter.)

Yasmeen Ismail on her I’m A Girl.

Abigail Nussbaum on Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories.

I’m (pleasantly? maybe?) surprised this piece on drone operator PTSD and child soldiers by Laurie Calhoun doesn’t reference Ender’s Game.

Ntina Tzouvala on Eye in the Sky, drones, and the law.

I’d never seen these clips of Janelle Monáe interviewing Nichelle Nichols but look (and look)! (If there’s a longer version available anywhere, please let me know!)

Via Sandeep Parmar, this interview (by Fred Johnson) with Forrest Gander.

Catherine Baker on the geo/politics of this year’s Eurovision.

Jaymee Goh on Southeast Asian steampunk, editing The Sea Is Ours, space, worldbuilding, #OwnVoices. Several things; it’s a good paper!

Frank B. Wilderson III on Afro-pessimism is v. good, and I want to come back to it.

 

 

May 20, 2016

about a girl who gets away

A little over a year ago I was at a seminar on Helen Oyeyemi’s work, and wrote the conference report below for Foundation (and there’s a version of it here). Boy, Snow, Bird had been published a few months before and I’d read it quite recently, but otherwise hadn’t read the author since Mr. Fox a few years before. Which is why, though the report creates a nice, easy framework through which to read Oyeyemi’s work, it’s one I’m reluctant to use, when it’s so far removed from the texts themselves (and I’m unwilling to turn everything into a nail for a particular critical hammer in any case). But I’m reading the author’s new collection, What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, at the moment, and keep wanting to come back to this and play with it.

Anyway, as flawed as it is, it is here. Things it’s currently bouncing off productively in my head: Benjanun Sriduangkaew on the collection here; Aaron Bady here; and a forthcoming Nina Allan review that I’ll link to when it’s up (edit: here).

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Helen Oyeyemi is the author of five novels and two plays, is British and of Nigerian descent, and has been on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists list. Each of her novels contains fantastic or supernatural elements; White is for Witching is a haunted house story, The Icarus Girl centres its protagonist’s relationship with a ghostly double, Mr Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird are both rooted in fairy tales, while The Opposite House is the story of a goddess. She has, predictably, been claimed (and I want to think about the implications of that word) at various points for fantasy, horror, the gothic, literary fiction, postcolonial fiction, magical realism. What is less understandable is the lack of critical material that has thus far been produced around her work.

Which is why the Helen Oyeyemi symposium at Teeside University in February was so very welcome. Organisers Sarah Ilott and Chloe Buckley are the editors of a forthcoming collection of essays on Oyeyemi’s work. Most of the presenters were working on chapters for this collection; as a result the symposium became in part a space where people could test out ideas. There were fewer conclusions than papers, yet this added to a general sense of the symposium as a single conversation, the subject of which was something like: what, exactly, is Oyeyemi doing? During the welcome address Dr Ilott insisted that she did not wish to impose a master narrative upon Oyeyemi’s work; that reluctance was to become something of a theme as the day progressed.

The symposium opened with a panel on “Race, racism and postcolonialism”. Dave Gunning (of the University of Birmingham) presented a paper titled “Locating Racial Harm”. Oyeyemi, Gunning claimed, has responded to a discomfort over being always read through a framework of postcolonialism, or as a Black British author, by consistently nuancing and problematising race. An ongoing tension he locates within her work is that between individual identity, “the urge to autonomy that can characterise adolescence” (Gunning was not the last speaker to point out that Oyeyemi’s protagonists are usually young people) and its uneasy relationship with history—a tension that is palpable through White is for Witching in particular.

David Punter (University of Bristol) presented a paper titled “Witches, fox fairies, foreign bodies”. This too was concerned with the notion of individual identity when in so much of Oyeyemi’s work the self is rendered violent and strange, twins and doubles and other iterations of the same self are menacing, the subject (and subjectivity) are displaced. Punter, however, is interested in the effects of this as narrative. White is for Witching is in part the story of Miri, who has developed the eating disorder pica, which causes her to ingest materials like chalk from which she cannot derive nourishment and so are both inside and apart from her. But selfhood is so fraught in these narratives that at times it appears to be no more than this concatenation of foreign bodies; scraps of other myths, other narratives, Frankensteined together. Punter and Gunning both, then, were working around questions of agency and narrative (or historical, which is a subset of narrative) authority, of the self as subject vs the subjective self, and how these come together in Oyeyemi’s work.

Chloe Buckley’s paper “The burden of representation and the gothic child” opened the next set of papers on “The Gothic”. In gothic fiction the child figure often functions as a repository for adult desires, particularly for stability and futurity. Buckley reads Oyeyemi’s child protagonists in this context, as burdened by identities and expectations placed upon them, but also irreducible to empty vessels. Sarah Ilott’s paper, “(De)constructing national borders” brought together acts of (physical) consumption and racial and national identity construction, demonstrating the ways in which the bodies of protagonists (Ilott focused on White is for Witching and The Icarus Girl) become sites of domination, conflict and control. Anita Harris (University Kebangsaan, Malaysia)’s “Vampires, monsters and consuming the other” tied together both of the previous papers on the panel, in addressing parenting, gender, consumption and monstrousness, and making a useful comparison with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, which is signalled as an intertext in The Opposite House.

It’s probably clear from all this that the first two panels often felt as if they were in conversation with each other, as well as among themselves. One particularly interesting idea that arose from the discussion afterwards was the public narrative that has been placed upon Oyeyemi herself, as a celebrated young, Black, British writer and whether we might usefully read her work in this context as well.

The final session, on “Revision, rewriting and metafiction”, focused on Oyeyemi’s use of fairy tale, in particular in Mr Fox and Boy, Snow, Bird. Jo Ormond(Lancaster University)’s “Retelling fairy tales” read Oyeyemi’s work in the context of other recent fairy tale adaptations, which humanise their villains and present them as sympathetic subjects of trauma. Yet “it’s obscene to make such things reasonable,” as Oyeyemi reminds us in Mr Fox, and so the author must negotiate the space between humanising and excusing while, like Angela Carter before her, challenging narratives of how victims should behave. In a paper titled “Gender, race and history”, Helen Cousins (Newman University, Birmingham) discussed beauty as a shaping force in female identity, linking Boy, Snow Bird to “The Juniper Tree” and making connections between Oyeyemi, Angela Carter and Barbara Comyns. But while these were both interesting papers, they lacked some of what had made the earlier sessions so exhilarating. Perhaps it was that they seemed more closed-down; we have frameworks in place (haunted eternally by the spectre of Angela Carter) for talking about fairy tales, and so there was less space for the open-endedness and uncertainty that made the earlier discussions so full of possibility. (Or perhaps it was because we had all just had lunch.)

It’s not always clear where this uncertainty comes from. In an interview with Niall Harrison in 2013 Oyeyemi explained that she wanted to “make room within the gothic genre for stories that make some of its themes explicit”, and if these books are difficult (and they often are), they are rarely obscure about what it is that they are doing.

And yet. To be “got” in The Icarus Girl is to be attacked, and possibly possessed. Through the symposium the larger narrative of these books that emerged was that of a body of work deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a larger narrative.

“Please to tell a story about a girl who gets away,” says Miri in White is for Witching. This isn’t it.

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I stammered finishing the story, because of Miranda’s gaze, her eyes like swords. We were nose to nose.
‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘That was just the thing.’
‘The girl doesn’t get away. It’s not a story about her getting away. She was born free.’
‘The soucouyant gets away, though. Doesn’t she count as a girl?’
I drew back. ‘No she doesn’t,’ I said. She is a monster. She dies.’

 

May 19, 2016

Robin Talley, Lies We Tell Ourselves

LiesLies We Tell Ourselves has by far the best opening sentence of the books from this year’s Carnegie shortlist that I’ve read so far: The white people are waiting for us.

As Sarah and her companions prepare to walk into their new school, they face an indistinguishable mob, shouting things that can’t be made out, merely a “dull roar”. The crowd gets closer but is still “the white people”; but now the words can be heard. There’s “go back to Africa,” and there are the slurs and the threats.

It is tremendously effective writing because it takes a long history of racist tropes, faceless black and brown mobs yelling incomprehensibly, pawing at white protagonists, and it turns them around and weaponises them. We recognise (because centuries of books and art are there to remind us) the horror of this mob, this faceless mass. Except that this section needs to be brutal (because the history of racism is brutal; because this mob is brutal) so we must have the slurs as well. Suddenly you’re hit by a solid wall of the n word. It might be necessary for what the chapter is trying to do, and I’ve never had that particular word thrown at me by a shouting mob, but if I hadn’t committed to reading this book for the award I might have stopped reading. I began to suspect that perhaps Talley’s book was assuming an audience that needed to know what having racist slurs yelled at them felt like. I still don’t know if that was unfair.

The plot: it’s 1959 in a fictional US town in Virginia, and a group of black children is to be integrated into a previously all-white school. Sarah Dunbar is one; she’s in her final year of school, is a brilliant student and singer, and plans to go to university. Linda Hairston, daughter of a prominent local racist and violent abuser, is one of the students most vocally opposed to integration–in part because her father’s arguments make sense to her, and in part because placating him is the safe thing to do. The narrative is divided between these two characters, as Sarah attempts to survive her school year, Linda comes up against her own racism, and both girls struggle to come to terms with their attraction towards one another.

This splitting of the narrative across the two voices may not have been a great idea. Sarah’s story works, on the whole; Talley captures some of the paranoia of being on guard all the time, the constant threat of violence, and the anger. But then we have Linda’s narrative, and the very structure of the book suggests that these two stories should have equal weight, that Sarah’s tale of quite literally trying to survive is worthy of the same amount of space as Linda’s harrowing story of having to rethink her racism. There’s an attempt to level things out a bit by emphasising Linda’s difficult situation (her father); but Mr Hairston is either an extenuating circumstance, or a result of a structural sexism that surely affects both girls (in the circumstances it’s interesting that Talley dramatises the threat of sexual assault to the black girls but never has it result in anything very concrete). To have these two (at first) opposing voices sets the book up as a sort of dialogue, and positions the disagreement (“disagreement”!) as in some way reasonable; “well obviously racism is bad, but there are arguments to be heard on both sides”. I was taken aback, when looking for reviews online, to find a review by a (presumably) teenage reader which came to the conclusion “I’m not siding with either”. [I wonder, also, if the dynamic Dani Gurira describes here is playing out in this narrative as well.]

Having made that criticism, it may seem contradictory to then complain that Linda’s racism doesn’t seem reasonable enough. Racism may not make sense (whatever that may mean), but it generally seems to generate its own logic, at least enough for people to buy into it. A different book might have had its protagonist come up against her own beliefs over and over; last year’s winner, Tanya Landman’s Buffalo Soldier, achieves something similar, though its later sections disappointed me. Linda never seems convinced by her own arguments–and perhaps that’s because they’re her father’s arguments, but then what are Linda’s thoughts? What is it like to believe this stuff? It’s interesting to me that the one moment in the book where racial difference is felt is in that opening sequence, and suggests that the book is either unable or unwilling to make its racist characters feel … racist.

In that remarkable opening chapter is a scene where Sarah, forced to face the crowd, squares her shoulders and walks forward reciting Psalm 23. It’s a beautiful moment; I love its acknowledgement of faith as a powerful factor in its characters’s lives, as well as a political force in the civil rights movement, and I love that my mind leapt to Bree Newsome reciting Psalm 27 last year. It was disappointing, then, to have Christianity all but disappear from the narrative, only resurfacing each time the girls wanted to berate themselves for their attraction to one another. This, too, felt to me like a missed opportunity to attempt to get into other heads and other mindsets or at least to treat those other heads and mindsets as significantly different to one’s own.

The school year continues [spoilers here]: the girls are forced to work together on a project and find themselves appreciating one another’s gifts more and more; Sarah berates Linda for being racist when she’s so clever; Linda is horrified that the other children in her school are being so barbaric (she didn’t mean hit them, just structurally discriminate against them at every level); Sarah and Linda accidentally kiss; Linda attempts to appease her father by way of a public barb about Sarah’s friend Chuck dating a white girl; a mob attacks him and he nearly dies; Linda is sad about nearly causing her friend’s friend’s death; the two girls decide to move to Washington and drive off into the sunset. It’s a happy ending!

It’s a happy ending if you’re reading from Linda’s perspective, anyway. Faced with the horrifying reality of racism through her guilt at (oops!) nearly causing a death, she’s forgiven, redeemed, able to escape her horrible father, and start a new life with the girl she likes. Perhaps Sarah also feels lucky to be able to get away and travel to another city with the girl who played a major role in her friend’s near death and who persists in insisting that Sarah herself is merely an exceptional member of her race. Perhaps Sarah is a lot more forgiving than I am.

One of the people with whom I discussed the book said that she found the use of “white people” throughout jarring, and again, targeted at comforting a white audience (there there, no one’s denying your personhood). I don’t have enough historical context to know what more likely contemporary alternatives would have been, so can’t speak to that, but I was surprised by the author’s note, in which she claims that people she speaks to about the book tend to ask “Was desegregation really that bad?”, which to me feels indicative of an audience that can afford not to be too aware of this history. (But I’m not American, I don’t know to what extent this history is available–to black communities as well as white ones.)  Lies We Tell Ourselves feels a fundamentally safe book that gives its audience just so much but no more racial violence and a reassuring redemption arc. If, as I say, you’re reading from Linda’s perspective.