Archive for ‘Left of Cool’

November 11, 2015

JiHyeon Lee, Pool

Because water stories. Column here, or below.

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JiHyeon Lee’s picture book Pool begins with a young boy by a swimming pool, empty and inviting. He’s about to get in, we assume, when a crowd of other people rush into his (and our) sight. They’re mostly adults, all bigger than him, armed with rubber rings and toys and all looking a lot less serious than our protagonist does. Hell is other people with beach balls. A page later the pool is packed, so full of people and floatation aids that we can barely see the tiny spots of blue water between them. And so our protagonist dives underwater instead, and that is where everything gets exciting.

Sound changes under water, as do movement, and colour, and even time. Immediately once the boy has entered the water he’s cut off from the world above (now a riot of feet and flippers at the top of the page) and in a dreamlike space which seems to work in different ways to the world he’s left behind. This new world has one other human inhabitant; a girl who has had the same idea as him. The boy’s skin and clothes, on the surface the same greys and creams as everyone else, take on new and rich colours; the girl wears a red swimsuit.

Suddenly the children are free, exploring a glorious, improbable underwater world. Shoals of brightly coloured fish with beaklike noses flit birdlike through an underwater forest; tiny creatures with long, tpool3ubelike noses sniff curiously at the intruders. There are friendly sea serpents peeping out of the holes in coral formations, sharklike creatures with huge, prehistoric grins but apparently benign intentions, giant sea slugs, and fish that appear designed to be ridiculous. The range of real world ocean life can often be so weird and wonderful that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that these creatures (a mobile feather boa, a goofy-faced yellow creature with both fur and fins) aren’t based on real things; particularly when a trio of narwhals shows up. Perhaps that’s the point though—our imaginations allow us to have the real and the fantastic simultaneously. We can have dragons and dinosaurs and iguanas all at the same time, should we so choose.

It’s not this diverse underwater menagerie that makes Pool special, however, but how it handles sound and space. In the early pages, there’s often nothing on the page but the boy and his corner of the pool in a vast white plane. Underwater the children have all the space they want; the three-spread sequence in which they meet a huge whale iPool2n particular gives a strong sense of size and scope and wonder. Above, as the pool fills with people, so does the page, till it is covered to the very edges and visually busy. (There’s often something a little disgusting about bodies en masse; in crowds we are reduced to the sweaty meatsacks that we really are. Lee manages to keep her crowds human and distinct, though I wish she hadn’t chosen to depict most of the offending pool-goers as fat.) Pool is a book entirely without words, but manages its depictions of space to make those silences sometimes plangent and echoing (the empty pool, the vast space around it) and sometimes intimate (the underwater world, so safely cocooned against the world above). The colours are delicate, the lines are pencil; it’s a very quiet book.

With an escort of strange creatures, the children swim back to the surface. The crowd has exited the pool as a group (perhaps someone saw a shark); the boy and girl take their goggles and swimming caps off and smile at each other for the first time. Their skin and clothes retain the vivid colour they acquired down below; they have been transformed.

And just as we think the crowd who stayed up on the surface have been utterly discarded by the book, a child in a rubber ring turns around to stare at the weird pink and yellow fish that have appeared in the pool. The children have brought back with them some of the wonder of the deep.

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October 27, 2015

Uday Prakash, The Girl With the Golden Parasol (trans. Jason Grunebaum)

This, for the weekend’s column, is shorter than I’d have liked it to be–there’s so much in Prakash’s book to work with that I could have gone on for at least a few more thousand words. I’d love, as well, to be able to link to Grunebaum’s introduction to the piece, which suggests (among other things) that Prakash’s novel grew more political in the telling, as the serialised version gathered letters from who identified with the caste politics of the story, and that the author decided that this simply couldn’t be a love story. Which raises all sorts of implications for the abrupt, filmi ending, which has the lovers safely and happily speeding away on a train, even as Rahul has nightmares that seem much more grounded in the book’s (real) world.

I want to talk about this book and Bollywood (fascinating!), and this book and gender (uncomfortable!), and the fact that Prakash ties global and racial and sexual and economic inequalities up with caste under the heading “Brahminism”, and I want to do a much more detailed reading of it in the context of the subsequent campus novel tradition, and I want to read it alongside Half Girlfriend at length and less dismissively of the genre than I have been here (though I’m glad I was, here). In an earlier piece about another Prakash book I wrote that the author “lays claim to the whole world“; the sheer scope of his imagined (political, philosophical, literary) universe makes it hard to write about but in that book, as well as here, this is the thing I admire the most. The result is rich and flawed and messy and brilliant and a better reader could probably talk about it for a lot longer than me.

In the absence of those unwritten pieces, have this profile of the author instead. And some of his own words, on the returning of his Sahitya Akademi award.

And my column, I guess.

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A boy named Rahul and a girl named Anjali meet on a university campus and fall in love. But while their friends (even a girl who has a crush on Rahul) are admirably supportive, there are obstacles to their coming together. This is unsurprising, for a book which opens with “the bare backside of Madhuri Dixit, the same one Salman Khan had aimed at and hit with the pebble from his slingshot”, and whose lead characters carry those names. Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol (Peelee Chhatri Wali Ladki) is often in conversation with Bollywood; in plot as well as tone. Occasionally Rahul will go off into a daydream that suggests a well-placed song sequence; more worryingly, his ideas about wooing women seem derived from films—including Shah Rukh Khan in Darr. Late in the novel Prakash drives the point home, for any reader who had somehow missed it: “So this was the reality after all? Did Bollywood commercial cinema represent the most authentic and credible expression of the reality of our day and age …?”

Rahul is of a lower caste, one of the only non-Brahmins in the university’s Hindi department (to which he has transferred from Anthropology in order to better gaze besottedly at Anjali). Anjali’s father is a local politician, his position upheld in part by the local goons whose assault on Rahul’s Manipuri friend Sapam Tomba led to Sapam’s suicide. Rahul is involved in a student movement to organise and fight back against these goons, who form a worrying nexus with the university administration, politicians and local police. So far so filmi, but there’s far too much going on here to centre the love plot. Rahul’s political ideals, disillusionment with the system, with “Hindu Raj”, with capitalism and global structures of power take up at least as much of the book, and of his mind, as his romance with Anjali. And there’s no glib love conquers all message; when they finally consummate the relationship Rahul is very aware of the ways in which power, class, and caste (if not gender) are in operation.

The university campus setting is crucial here, and not only because it’s an appropriate setting for a romance plot. In few other situations would the earnestness of the characters work. Here we have students who read Che Guevara for inspiration and adopt Junoon songs as appropriate revolutionary chants (one of the few flaws in Jason Grunebaum’s fantastic translation is that the direct connection to familiar song lyrics is lost), and the spectre of Rahul’s uncle Kinnu Da, who occasionally swoops into the narrative to educate us further and refer to Foucault. But the local politics of the university campus have much wider implications, we’re reminded; with references to police brutality elsewhere, corruption, capital, caste. Sapam Tomba’s brother has been killed and he cannot go home (“they’ll say I am a PLA member and shoot me”); when Sapam kills himself shortly afterwards, Rahul hallucinates the brothers’ corpses walking side by side.

In Indian-English literature, of course, the campus novel has another set of connotations. In its original Hindi publication Prakash’s book precedes the rise of that particular genre; it was published in 2001 (Chetan Bhagat’s Five Point Someone came out in 2004). In any case despite the hapless male protagonist and romance plot, it’s hard to see these as the same sorts of books, or even about the same sorts of people. Rahul and his friends inhabit a wide-ranging, multilingual imaginary where anything from Hazari Prasad Dwivedi to Jan Otčenášek to the movie Critters is available for them to draw upon. It’s a separate world from that of your average campus protagonist, and a difference that can’t be dismissed as the elitism of the English speaking world.

It’s a difference that was visible again earlier this week, when Bhagat dismissed the returning of Sahitya Akademi awards by various writers (Prakash among them) as a form of posturing, and his supporters hurried to assure the world that no one had heard of these people anyway. In Prakash’s works, it seems perfectly reasonable to mention Nirala, Alka Saraogi, Italo Calvino, whether the audience has read them or not. In that other world it’s a matter of pride not to know of Uday Prakash.

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October 18, 2015

Various Marses

Water on Mars, and so this.

 

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“ … since Mars is older than our earth, with scarcely a quarter of the superficial area and remoter from the sun, it necessarily follows that it is not only more distant from time’s beginning but nearer its end,” explains H.G. Wells, at the beginning of The War of the Worlds.

silent planetEarly science fiction makes much of Mars’s age, of its supposed greater proximity to its ending than our own. Its fabled canals become the waterways and irrigation systems of a dead or dying people, elaborate civilisations that the books in question talk about with a sort of yearning regret—because they are dying, because they are unreachable, because they were never real, because it’s the turn of the century and everything anyway feels like the end of the world. Occasionally, in the midst of all the fantasy adventure of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books, we’re reminded that the world is ending—in A Princess of Mars the atmosphere is kept breathable via machinery that fails, after its (earthly) human hero John Carter kills the operator in self defense. With only days left to live the red Martians prepare themselves for doom, and only Carter’s fortunate intervention may (since the book ends inconclusively, though all is made clear in the sequels) save them. C.S. Lewis has another well-populated society in his Out of the Silent Planet, in which the canals of Mars are really only giant rifts in the surface of the planet that open into lower, warmer valleys with plenty of water and vegetation and three sentient races of aliens living in harmony. Yet we learn towards the end of the book that the surface of the planet was once populated, that there was a golden age of beautiful, winged beings living on those vast red expanses. This is Fallen Mars much as Earth, for Lewis, is fallen, but it’s also postapocalyptic Mars.

And then there are Leigh Brackett’s Mars stories, which are gorgeous in their own right but gain extra weight by unashamedly placing themselves in this tradition—decadence and doom and adventure—and I think they might just be my favourite.seakings

Mars was my first dying Earth. My first encounter with that particular sub-genre of science fiction (surely having a revival at the moment, though I’m not sure anyone has explicitly connected this wave to those earlier ones), but also my first encounter with the larger concept. I sometimes worry about my own tendency to respond to our actual dying planet with doom and nostalgia, and I wonder how much my tastes in genre fiction have to do with that. Later science fiction, working with more information, treats Mars as a real place, subject to actual science, and I find myself not caring very much. Is there something a bit exploitative (and a lot colonialist) about treating real places as places to project your own desires and emotions? Yes.

And watching The Martian, the movie based on Andy Weir’s novel, I find myself again not caring very much. Matt Damon’s Watney is stranded on Mars due to a tragic error—the only man on the planet, his chances of survival are low to non-existent. Yet there’s no real facing or waiting for the end here—only potatoes and problem-solving and a brilliant, upbeat soundtrack. Perhaps the book, which I haven’t read, is more interior, but there’s no indication that this is ever the sort of story that The Martian wants to be. Which is fair enough, and it’s not as if we’re short on narratives of characters waiting for the end.

It may, possibly, mean that the only great recent Mars story that is also a powerful story of loss and hopelessness may be an xkcd strip about the poor little Mars rover Spirit, stranded on a desolate planet and unable to contact home.

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October 14, 2015

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Mr. Quin

For Christie’s 125th birth anniversary, a column and a bunch of generalisations about detectives and absolutely no Identifying With Mr Satterthwaite at all.

 

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I suspect I’ve been reading Agatha Christie all my life. In the case of most other authors, my first encounter with their work is something I actually remember; but while presumably I read my first Christie novel at some point, I  don’t know which, or when, or even whether I liked it. As an adult, I’ve made my way through the vast bulk of the Christie canon and I do know what I like—I know which stories (and which series) I will visit over and over again because I enjoy them and find them comforting. I know which ones I will not revisit because they unsettle me (Christie is not normally the author to whom I turn when I want to be unsettled, as skilfully as she may achieve that effect), which ones I will not revisit because I just don’t enjoy them, which ones I might revisit only to check that I didn’t hallucinate them (Passenger to Frankfurt). I’ve fluctuated between being a Poirot loyalist and a Marple loyalist, all the while knowing that one could be both and neither. But to  ‘celebrate’ the author’s birth anniversary a few days ago I found myself rereading the Mr Quin stories.

QuinI’ve generalised wildly about detective fiction here before, so feel I can safely do it again: the detective story is fundamentally comforting. However much violence and bloodshed and psychological harm they may contain, the structure is that of a puzzle that is solvable—by you, the reader, if we’re going by the rules of fair play; by the characters themselves if this is not the case. There are clues, and they only need to be pieced together. There is only one solution that fits all the facts. Of course, it’s easy to generalise about the whole of a genre and detective stories have been undermining all of this for as long as they’ve existed. (Terry Pratchett’s police/detective Sam Vimes has a wonderful rant on the “insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience” that clues assume.) Christie’s own detectives challenge those notions—in Poirot’s disdain for physically hunting for footprints, or Marple’s apparent belief that likenesses between people are somehow infallible markers of character. And yet even these are only alternative methods towards solving a world that is, fundamentally, solvable.

And then there are Mr Satterthwaite, and Mr Harley Quin. Satterthwaite is an observer of human nature, we’re told (often by Quin); a rich, elderly man, interested in art, never in a romantic relationship and often aware of, and worried by the knowledge that his experience of life has been at a remove. But it’s precisely this detachment that makes him an able agent for Quin, a mysterious dark figure bearing a puzzling resemblance to a Commedia dell’arte character, who shows up on occasion when a crime has been committed and hints to Satterthwaite about what has happened and who has done it. Not a figment of Satterthwaite’s imagination, since other people see and recognise him, it’s clear that there’s something not quite real about him, even in the stories where his appearances and disappearances might have a rational explanation. Occasionally his supernatural nature is openly acknowledged—at more than one point he is said to speak for the dead.

The Mr. Quin books are detective stories, but crucially, they are also ghost stories. There is a crime, there is a solution, there is the sense at the end that we have grasped What Really Happened, but we’re also reminded over and over that none of this would have been possible without the supernatural intervention of Mr Harley Quin. It’s a yoking together of two genres that should not work together (and yet of course they do, so many ghost stories are stories of unsolved crimes); truth and justice are attainable, in this world, but only through a sort of divine intervention.

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September 15, 2015

The Borrowers, Mary Norton

Have a version of a recent column.

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I’ve been thinking about apocalypses a lot recently. Or perhaps not. I’ve been thinking about climate change, about worlds that end and worlds that change and the ways in which we might imagine them, and trying to work out what it is that I want from fiction that tries to tackle these things. What I don’t want seems clear: books where these huge things are relegated to background noise as if they weren’t fundamental to how we exist materially and emotionally in the world. What I want are several things at once, the sort of range that is beyond the scope of a single text. I want possible futures that could serve as horrifying warnings, and possible futures in which humans alter the ways in which we live in radical, beautiful ways; and I want the quiet, deep sadness of acceptance that the world we love is about to be lost forever. The world (or the publishing industry) seems willing to throw up several horrifying warnings (and endless stories of young white people finding love in hopeless places) but too little of the other things, and they are the ones I really crave.

I found something of what I’m looking for in a 1950s children’s book that can in no way be said to be about apocalypses, or even climate change, at all. Mary Norton’s The Borrowers is a book about tiny, human-shaped people who live under the floorboards (and in other secluded places) in human houses, and who subsist on what they can “borrow” from the humans in whose homes they live. The story (once you get past the multiple frame narratives) opens in an old country house, once inhabited by a big family and staff, as well as several families of borrowers: the Overmantels, the Harpsichords, the Rain-Barrels, the Linen-Presses, the Bell-Pulls, the Hon. John Studdingtons (this family live behind a portrait), the list goes on. But time has gone by and most of the humans have moved out, and so too have the Borrowers. At the beginning of this book, then, the only borrowers left in the house are the small family of the Clocks—teenaged Arrietty and her mother and father, Homily and Pod.borrowers3

We’re seeing all this from Arrietty’s perspective, and all she can really tell is that the humans are slowly leaving. The (human) reader may ask if it was a war that did it or general social change—as far as the Borrowers are concerned, their major resource is drying up. Because that’s what humans (“human-beans”, appropriately a sort of vegetable) are to them; it’s why taking from them is “borrowing” rather than “stealing”. (“Human beans are for Borrowers”, explains Arrietty to the young human boy whom she befriends.) We (presumably) human readers are immersed in the Borrower perspective–if we can’t quite distance ourselves enough to think of ourselves as a mere resource, it’s easy to see this vast, increasingly empty, increasingly run-down house and imagine our own extinction. If the humans are dying out—and the reader can easily imagine this huge, lonely boy to be the last of us—what are the Borrowers to live on? But it’s more than that, more than a mere depletion of resources. It’s the empty house that used to be filled with people–we’re asked, over and over, to imagine a world emptied of the creatures, human and borrower, that once filled it.

This is not to claim The Borrowers as a piece of apocalyptic fiction—or to turn it into a clumsy allegory for our own times and situation. But Arrietty and her parents’s whole understanding of the world and their place in it is unsustainable and they know it—at some level they have already accepted their own ending.

The humans are not (yet) facing extinction, as it turns out. The boy speaks of “railways stations and football matches and … India and China and the British Commonwealth. He told her about the July sales.” There are billions of us–and what if it’s the other way around, and Arrietty and her parents are the only Borrowers left? In later books we’ll learn that this is not the case, that other Borrowers still live in exile, but their numbers have dwindled. Mrs May, through whose voice we first hear of them, thinks they may no longer exist. The Borrowers is suffused with this sense of an ending, and while we’re never explicitly asked to grieve, I think this may be the source of much of its power.

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September 1, 2015

Nikesh Shukla, Meatspace

This isn’t really a column about Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, which I read many months ago and quite enjoyed (or about the Anouk ad, which features two queer women who look and sound nothing like me). It might be about naming in the present and the future–about the half-assed but (to me) vaguely endearing thing Jupiter Ascending did by having a white, blonde space!cop called Gemma Chatterjee and a black space!cop (Nikki Amuka-Bird, who was astonishingly, unfairly beautiful throughout) called Diomika Tsing.* Or the thing Arthur C. Clarke does in Rendezvous with Rama with the information, just thrown in there, that Norton’s full name is William Tsien Norton. These names work as quick signifiers (but then they assume that you will notice what they’re doing, and I don’t know if Shukla can make that assumption) for the sort of future, or in Jupiter Ascending‘s case the sort of genocidal multicultural galactic capitalist empire, that this is.

And I’m pretty sure it’s a column about Sofia Samatar’s fantastic tweets about authenticity some weeks ago.

And possibly about who has the right to write inauthentically? I don’t know. Anyway.

 

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I don’t know what to make of Kitab Balasubramanyam.

Kitab is the social-media-obsessed protagonist of Nikesh Shukla’s Meatspace, a book that is, depending on my mood, either a smart, and often moving satire of the way we live now or daddish panicking about social media taking over our lives. But my mixed feelings about the book are pretty slight, when compared to my mixed feelings about Kitab himself.

Kitab Balasubramanyam has a brother named Aziz (Balasubramanyam?), and a father who notes that it’s nice that Kitab and his Indian cousins all speak the language of the internet so that “you don’t have to pretend you know Gujarati anymore”.

The paper in which this column is to be published is read in the main by people who will be well aware that Kitab Balasubramanyam is an unusual name. When, early in the book, the character meets, apparently, the only other Kitab Balasubramanyam in the world, the real surprise is that there are two of them. (Were I to hunt down every Aishwarya Subramanian in the world I’d probably collapse from exhaustion somewhere in the middle of Chennai.)

Implied context and assumptions about what audiences (and authors) know are central to my Kitab-confusion. As an Indian reader in the genres I read, I’m all too familiar with books by British or American authors who haven’t done their research (or who have decided that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom constitutes research); when the Indian character shows up I’m often already bracing myself to laugh or cringe. Nine times out of ten I’d assume that the improbable Mr Balasubramanyam was the result of similar ‘research’; half-knowledge of friends’ names and experiences cobbled together. That I don’t make that assumption in this case is entirely due to the fact that Shukla is of Indian origin himself. Perhaps that’s unfair and I should grant him the same right to ignorance as any British author (it is possible that I have been overthinking this).

And yet, and yet, and yet. Kitab Balasubramanyam is unlikely, but he’s not impossible.

Earlier this year an advertisement for the clothing brand Anouk, featuring two young women in a relationship, went viral. Amidst the several conversations that immediately sprang up were those who questioned the authenticity of one character’s speaking Tamil over the phone to her parents—no one spoke Tamil like that. I found myself bristling each time (some of these critics weren’t even Tamil speakers)—my own Tamil is significantly worse, but then I’m a very inauthentic Indian (and Tamil person, and probably several other things) myself. I have the sort of roving accent that comes of a lot of moving around, a lot of code-switching, and an excess of self-consciousness. Demanding authenticity from characters in literature, film, or even advertising is a dangerous path to tread because it can only ever mean deciding that certain people/identities are inauthentic, or impossible, or unreal. Less (?) seriously, it means distilling characters down to their most obvious traits, making them the most average they can possibly be. I’d say it was the equivalent of populating entire universes with people called John Smith, except that we know the John Smiths of the world are the least likely to have their identities policed. But think of every western TV series you’ve ever watched with the one Indian guy either in I.T., or a doctor, named Ravi or Raj.

If all of this seems like it’s drifted rather far from the book in question, I’m going to claim that it has not. Because of its subject, Meatspace is very strongly about identities, real and projected, and implied audiences. I don’t know if I want to claim that the naming of the main character is part of a cunning strategy; maybe Shukla just wanted to write about a character whose complex family history could lead to his having that name without the need to justify his existence to his audience; maybe he just didn’t care. Either way, I think I prefer Kitab Balasubramanyam to Ravi from I.T.

 

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I’m … less convinced, shall we say, about the movie’s choice to have an elephant-headed alien space cop called “Nesh”, but friends who have seen Sense8 tell me this isn’t the most hilaribad invocation of Ganesha in the Wachowskis’s oeuvre (or even in said oeuvre in 2015) so hey.

June 17, 2015

Sarah Hall, The Wolf Border

From a recent column, and also a very loosely sketched outline of several things I’ve been thinking about recently. Also relevant, possibly: Adam Roberts on the “strange pastoral” of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach books, and pretty much anything that contains the word “anthropocene”. I’ve decided, basically, that The Wolf Border is absolutely a book about climate change.

There’s a Lionel Shriver review of The Wolf Border, here,  in which she is a bit unimpressed at Hall’s choice to have Rachel keep the baby she isn’t sure she wants. And I absolutely get that in the context of women’s ongoing struggle for reproductive rights we could all do with seeing more fictional abortions. But then that choice against certainty, against decisive action (or decisive feeling) is fundamental to my reading of this book. I don’t know how I can advocate for the continued assertion of women’s rights to our bodies and control over our reproductive selves and also the necessity of fiction that imagines women (and men, and everyone) not in control of our bodies and surroundings (in ways different from the ways in which we already socially lack that control), or choosing to give up the sorts of control we do have and here we are anyway.

 

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badgerOne of my favourite facts about Britain is that its largest remaining native carnivore is the badger. This is not to disparage badgers or their abilities (a simple internet search will lead to several stories of badger aggression*) but it’s hard to imagine them as a threat—the lasting image for me, at least, is of the fussy character in a dressing gown in The Wind in the Willows. It would probably be unfair to blame Kenneth Grahame entirely for the domestication of the British landscape, in imagination or reality, but he does rather leave one with an impression of it as populated by the animal world’s equivalent of elderly men in slippers.

More intimidating predators are still a possibility, through multiple rewilding projects taking place across Europe. Already there are plans to reintroduce lynxes, as well as wolves, though within protected territories.

It’s with the rewilding of wolves that Sarah Hall’s most recent novel, The Wolf Border, is concerned. Its protagonist, Rachel Caine, has been working on a reservation in Idaho for years, but returns to her native Cumbria to participate in a project to reintroduce the grey wolf to a private estate, in the face of local opposition to the project. The estate in question belongs to the Earl of Annerdale (the name echoes the rewilding projects in Ennerdale in England and Alladale in Scotland), whom Rachel immediately dislikes. She is shown to have good reason—the project is tied up in larger political concerns and the Earl’s interest is (predictably) hardly altruistic. Yet he, and the world he represents, fade into the background for most of the book, which is in the main about Rachel herself; her family, her pregnancy, her relationship with this landscape that is familiar from her childhood and that she has not seen for years.

Set in a world where last year’s Scottish referendum resulted in a victory for the “yes” side, The Wolf Border is also speculative fiction of a sort. The political and ecological differences between this world and our own are not particularly big ones; if Annerdale isn’t quite where the book says it is this is a divergence from reality no greater than most realist fiction, and if the Scottish referendum didn’t go as the book says it did, for (presumably) most of the book’s genesis it was still possible. Yet there’s something else The Wolf Border is doing, something that to me feels inherently speculative.Wolf Border

At one point in the book, Rachel invokes the Chernobyl disaster, which had occurred when she was ten years old.

“They told us not to go outside if it was raining. Where I come from, it’s always raining. We had exercises in school for nuclear disasters afterwards. This bell would ring and you’d have to duck under the desk and count to one hundred. […] They’ve only just stopped testing the lambs before sending them to the market.”

Her companion recalls being in school when Mount St Helens erupted and he and his brother “[stayed] under the bed for three days […] There was black shit on everything.” Whether it’s the ravages that humans have wrought on the world, or nature itself, the “dark old republic” whose past and future Rachel imagines, we have never truly been safe.

So much of The Wolf Border is about discomfort, about plunging into discomfort even when one doesn’t have to. Rachel’s pregnancy, about which she is ambivalent but which she chooses not to terminate. Landscape and bodies and borders are mutable; and the sheer physicality of Hall’s prose insists that we engage with them as such.

And if I, however unfairly, blame the domestication of the British landscape on Kenneth Grahame’s anthropomorphic animals, part of the work of rewilding it must also belong to literature. It is becoming harder to pretend that we’re safe in the world, that hiding under desks or beds will shield us. We must live unsafe in the world and one of literature’s tasks for the near future must be the speculative work of imagining ourselves no longer at ease.

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*A good place to do this is in a university library where the person working at the next computer can look over and see you googling “badger attack” and lose all respect for you forever.

June 3, 2015

John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish, All Yesterdays

I really enjoyed this book and then I wrote this column and then this story came out.

(Pictures screenshotted from the kindle version–how great is that manatee?)

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Watching the trailer for the rather abysmal-looking Jurassic World we all agreed that the only thing that might have redeemed it for us was for the dinosaurs to have had feathers. Naturally they did not.

I have let my knowledge of dinosaurs slip over the last couple of decades—at eight or nine I knew about as much as popular science would let me. I’d heard the theory that they might have had feathers, though I suspect my interest had waned before more concrete evidence was found. (I think I had also heard that Brontosauruses weren’t real, but can’t have been very convinced; when they were reinstated this year I was genuinely happy for them).Screenshot_2015-06-03-00-16-07

Part of the appeal of dinosaurs is that our knowledge about them has changed so much over time—even just over my own lifetime. I’m not sure it’s possible any longer to capture the sheer mystery and wonder of that first revelation a couple of centuries ago that at some point giant beasts had walked (or swum) the world, but we’ve had something else: we’ve seen our knowledge growing and changing, old mysteries solved (or at least provided with believable solutions) and new ones arriving to take their place.

In culture, however, dinosaurs have remained oddly static.

It’s at the level of popular culture that John Conway, C. M. Kosemen and Darren Naish’s All Yesterdays (featuring skeletal diagrams by Scott Hartman) is particularly fascinating. The authors’ point (Conway and Kosemen are paleoartists) is simple enough: that there is a certain amount of knowledge that we can gather from fossils, and that knowledge is mainly concerned with the musculoskeletal system—what goes on top of it—the integument—is not always as obvious, even as we continue to learn more about it. Popular images of dinosaurs tend to be the shapes of their skeletons with skin over the top. But as we know from the animals that we study in the present, nature isn’t always that obvious. All Yesterdays concerns itself not with what we know, but with the range of possibilities that might fit within the facts that we have. And so we have Plesiosaurs that camouflage themselves among coral, Leaellynasaura adorably covered with fluff and given a flagpole-like tail, semaphoring Carnotaurus, Protoceratops climbing trees because in our world lots of animals that are not specifically adapted for particular behaviours indulge in them anyway. This is also the reason that the authors are able to imagine dinosaurs playing, resting, coexisting with hostile species, having interspecies sex (the book is meticulously illustrated).

Screenshot_2015-06-03-00-20-19This project (speculating about the possibilities of bodies within certain fixed parameters) is one that is familiar to science fiction fans, though it’s usually directed at the future, rather than the past. In a later section, titled “All Todays”, the book does take us into the future. It imagines far-future scientists, studying the remains of what is our present and coming to conclusions of their own that are a little bit off—car crushing, predatory hippos, graceful, antelope-like cows, bipedal toads and vicious cats that crept into human homes before finishing off their inhabitants.

As convinced as I am of Kosemen and Conway’s points (and as approving as I am of fluffy dinosaurs) I can’t imagine real scientists adopting these images—an openness to possibility is probably a good thing for a scientist, but so is sticking to relatively solid fact. But it’s not to scientists that the authors are addressing themselves—they’re responding to popular imagery. This is clearest when they depict a peaceful, sleeping Tyrannosaurus or a Tenontosaurus which is, incredibly, not being torn apart by predators.

And if this book is addressing popular images of dinosaurs, it’s also addressing those of us who produce and consume those images. It’s okay to demand feathered dinosaurs from our terrible blockbuster movies. In fiction at least we can build ourselves a fluffier, less gray-green past.

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May 22, 2015

Jillian and Mariko Tamaki, This One Summer

From a recent column.

 

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There’s a particular kind of light I associate with memories of childhood—a sort of mellow golden glow that is probably the result of the time of day one would spend out (after school and a certain amount of lounging about; before it got dark) and the latitudes at which that childhood was spent. It’s both a personal association and a general one—it’s at the root of that one Instagram filter that everything seems to use, so that it’s suspiciously easy to make anything seem immediately pregnant with yearning.this one summer 2

I mention this because in This One Summer Jillian Tamaki seems to go out of her way not to use that shortcut. The result of a collaboration between Tamaki (art) and her cousin Mariko Tamaki (words), this graphic novel is the story of two girls on the cusp of teenagehood and one summer holiday. It’s illustrated entirely in indigo and white (the kindle edition, in which I originally read it, ruins the effect by making it merely black and white); if it’s softer than pure black and white, the cool colour scheme denies any unearned nostalgia and creates the effect of something much more detached. This does not at all mean the same thing as emotionally distant, as we learn, but it does easily fit the content of the book. Because none of the events that happen in This One Summer happen to Rose, our preteen protagonist, or her “summer cottage friend” Windy and yet Rose in particular is transformed by them.

Rose has spent every summer since she was five with her family at the cottage on Awago Beach, spending most of her time with Windy, who lives nearby. Things are different this year—Rose’s mother has, in recent months, become closed-off and hard to live with; her parents are fighting, partly as a result of this; all their daughter really knows is that her mother wants or wanted to have another child. Rose has become interested in boys and has a crush on the older teenager who works in the local shop and who appears to have impregnated his girlfriend.

this one summer 1The Tamakis’ earlier, brilliant, graphic novel Skim also took for its subject sensitive young characters who come face to face with questions of sexuality, gender and mental health. This One Summer feels different in tone to me precisely because its characters are at one further remove—to some extent Skim’s title character is also an outsider and observer, but Rose and Windy’s trying to piece together the two interwoven stories are in territory they have no way to navigate. Sex is new—Rose is terrified and intrigued, Windy is still mostly grossed out. It’s too easy for Rose, with a crush on an older boy, to assume that the older girls he’s interested in are “sluts”, just as it’s too easy for her to blame her mother for the situation at home. To this adult reader, at least, those moments are both familiar and uncomfortable—and such a reader is to some extent assumed. Though this is a book about young adults, and accessible to young adults, something about the framing and the narration (perhaps it’s just that summer holidays are always in the past, perhaps it’s the frailty of these adults) allow you to assume a much older Rose telling the story.

The two stories (those of Rose’s mother and the pregnant teenaged girl Jenny) come together finally in what might be a little too pat a way. But Rose seems to need that structure—all along this has been a quest for answers. It doesn’t matter that the reader probably worked out at least part of what was bothering the adult characters. This One Summer captures better than most things just how inexplicable the journey into adulthood is.

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May 15, 2015

Insufficiently radical crayons

Although that title makes it seem as if I’m blaming the crayons for the grossly unequal power structures they inhabit, which is clearly unfair. Anyway, here is a column about Daywalt and Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit, which is not about crayons quitting, but about their bodies and labour (identical, in this scenario) being exploited until they die.

 

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Crayons give you power. This is something of which Harold, the protagonist of Crockett Johnson’s 1955 book Harold and the Purple Crayon, is well aware. Harold is able to create around himself the world he wants to see, simply by drawing it. His purple crayon brings whatever it draws to life, be it the moon, a tree, or his own house. Art is powerful and Harold can make art and so there is no limit to what he can do.

We’re not told whether the crayon feels quite the same way.

pink dinosaurThe protagonist of Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers’s The Day the Crayons Quit does know how his crayons feel about his use of them, in some detail. Duncan finds a stack of letters from the various colours in his box of crayons, each of them telling him of their grievances. The Red Crayon is convinced that it works harder than any of the others, and that it gets a particularly raw deal on holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day. The Purple Crayon has no objections to a life spent drawing dragons and grapes, but does request that Duncan colour inside the lines rather than wasting its labour outside them. Grey would like to make less elephants, Pink would like less gender stereotyping (the only reason it has been used at all is that Duncan’s sister borrowed it once), Peach has been stripped by Duncan of its paper wrapping and feels that its modesty has been outraged. Black would prefer a starring role sometimes rather than being always relegated to the outlines; white isn’t sure why it is being used at all, and Beige’s major complaint appears to be that it is boring, which is hardly Duncan’s fault. Only Green, Yellow and Orange seem to be happy, and the latter two are in the middle of a longstanding argument. All of these letters are written in the colours of their own crayons, and accompanied by the illustrations invoked in them; large grey mammals, Santa riding a fire engine, pink monsters and beige wheat.

But then there’s the letter from Blue, and it is terrifying. Blue is Duncan’s favourite colour, and has been for some years now. He uses it to draw water and clouds and sky. Red may complain that it is overworked, Grey may complain about having to fill in vast areas of elephant-skin, but it’s obvious to the reader that they have a less hard time of it than Blue. Blue is too exhausted even to stand up; it is a mere stub of a thing. Blue doesn’t have much time left.

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Because The Day the Crayons Quit is a misleading title. The crayons can’t quit in this world, even if (after Orange and Yellow put aside their differences) they unionised. This isn’t a story of taking back power, it’s one in which the powerless beg their master to reduce their suffering (or, in Green’s case, suck up to him. Green’s a collaborator). Should Duncan choose to ignore the letters, what can the crayons do? The more he uses them, the closer their lives come to ending. They recognise where the power in this relationship lies. Even Blue, who ends its letter begging for a break opens it by pandering to Duncan’s feelings, and telling him how much it has enjoyed their collaborations. The fact that the letters are written in crayon takes on a new significance—surely for a crayon this is akin to writing in blood?purpdrag

“Poor” Duncan, we’re told, “wanted his crayons to be happy”, and so he does accede to their requests; the picture at the end of the book features orange whales, pink dinosaurs and a green sea. But what of Blue’s insistence that he needs a break? Well, he’s been spared the sea and sky, but in this picture the land is blue, a bus is blue, a hippo is blue. Duncan may be merciful … but he may not. We’re left to wonder how much of Blue is left, whether he even survived this final picture.

Duncan’s teacher gives him a gold star for creativity.

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