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Eat Joy

May 17, 2022

The last of many things my mother-in-law taught me is to specify where mourners should go for a non-religious memorial. She wanted her ashes scattered at Truman Lake in Missouri, where she spent a lot of time fishing. Yes, we made the “sleeps with the fishes” joke…we also told our stories about her and remembered, together, some of the days we shared with her.

She taught me how to make a version of chili that I thought was better than my own mother’s, and cornbread dressing that I thought was almost as good, with hard-boiled eggs chopped up in it instead of raw eggs mixed in to cook. I like to make her “baby plum” cake, from a recipe of her mother’s that calls for baby food plums in the batter, and her cole slaw, which is better than anyone’s.

One time after we’d had a long day of travel, my mother-in-law, whose name was Martha, welcomed us with a big pot of soup that was unlike anything else I’d ever tasted. It was made with cabbage, ground beef, beef broth, bell pepper, onion, grated cheddar, salt and pepper, and cumin. It’s hard to clean up but marvelous to taste.

Between Martha’s death in February and her memorial, this past weekend, I’ve been reading Eat Joy, edited by Natalie Eve Garrett, with sections on “growing pains,” “loss,” “healing,” and “homecoming.” Each essay is by a writer, telling a story about what a certain food means to them, and then there’s a recipe. It’s a good way to remember someone.

My favorite essay is by Claire Messud, about her mother. She quotes her mother as saying, late in life, that “there’s so much of life to get through, once you realize that your dreams won’t come true.” I think that’s something many of us learn from our mothers, that our lives won’t necessarily have a shape, like fictional lives do—that we may be cut off before we reach our big goals, so it’s important to find meaning and pleasure in each day.

Messud’s recipe is for the brownies her mother made. My recipe for the cabbage and beef soup is written in Martha’s beautiful cursive on a sheet of paper from a “Farm&Home Savings” notepad. Mira Jacob’s recipe is for the chai she would make with her mother giving advice like “I always warm the milk separately.” Jacobs says she adds sugar because her mother “disapproves of people adding their own sugar individually (‘Joyless,’ she will say, and she will be right.)”

Do you have recipes that make you remember particular people?

Companion Piece

May 11, 2022
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Ali Smith’s newest novel, Companion Piece, wasn’t as much company as I’d hoped. It tells some stories but calls them into question. It raises some questions and doesn’t take its readers very far thinking about answers. Its answers are as unsatisfying as the way it lays out its announced subject, “a meeting between some terrifying aspects of imagination and reality.”

Rather than terrifying, I found most aspects of the collision of imagination and reality irritating, especially the subplot in which the first-person narrator lets an entire family of people she doesn’t know (the Pelfs) into her house in the middle of a pandemic. They say the thing that so many people think and don’t say about Covid-19, which is “we all know each other so no precautions necessary,” as if you can’t catch it from anyone you know. It’s an especially irritating subplot because Sand keeps letting the Pelfs stay in her house, finally even leaving the house herself and going to live her father’s life with his dog in his empty house while he’s in the hospital. But I wouldn’t be so irritated if Smith hadn’t made the characters so real. Towards the end, she takes care to undercut their reality by making Sand admit that “I’m hallucinating Pelfs. I’m inventing the opposite of isolation precisely so that I won’t mind isolation.”

And there are some really good parts in this novel. There’s a detailed explication of an e.e. cummings poem which is printed in its entirety in the text of the chapter. During the process of explicating the poem, the narrator, Sand, gives a nicely succinct explanations of why we refer to the “speaker” of a poem. When her friend says “the poems’ speaker….You mean the poet. Or is there another person meant to be speaking too?” Sand replies “I mean the person who’s there inside your head when you read the poem, when the human thing you can hear through its strangeness, and the meanings you do recognize, even through the fog of the strangeness, all hit your eye and your mind.”

There’s a story about necromancy, about how we long to raise our dead loved ones during a pandemic: “In the story a woman is looking for her own dead child. She is so desperate to find him that she crosses the country from side to side raising the spirits of all the dead and gone children to see if any of them is her boy.”

Sand’s story is interlaced with the story of a medieval girl who is a personification or a vision but who Sand insists is “a person.” I like the way their stories dovetail, but I don’t like the way we don’t get to find out what happens or even why the two should be connected. In a novel that purports to be about companionship, I think there could be a little more connection between characters, especially ones linked mostly by the coincidental fact that they both live in times of plague. There’s a forced feeling about the connection the novelist is trying to make between Sand, who paints the words of poems over the top of the other words so that they can’t be read but are there, and the girl from an earlier age who long ago “went the way of all girls.”

The conversation Sand has with her unconscious father in the hospital is also weighted with a significance that seems forced. Smith was probably writing this novel for company while she was alone and imagining her words reaching someone else, but the way the words come across is more as a lecture on the topic of finding companionship in literature:
“in a poem from a thousand years ago, some of the first written-down poetry in English, there’s a couple of lines where there’s maybe a curlew. The poem’s about a person who’s miles from land, they’ve been at sea in a boat for a long long time, and it’s a sort of prayer about our aloneness and our surviving. All the seasons pass through it, or the poem’s speaker passes in the boat through all the seasons with nothing for company but the sea and the life of the sea. Except dad, and this is what I love about it, actually that speaker isn’t alone at all, because I’m reading or hearing the poem, or you are, if it’s you reading it. A conversation with someone or something that’s silent is still a conversation.”

Smith is at her best when she’s using Sand to pontificate, especially on the topic of immigration:
“What we watched was politicians arguing with each other while people drowned in the narrow patch of sea between here and the rest of Europe. The politicians were making themselves huge, as bloated as barrage balloons, possibly because they wanted to suggest the people in the water were comparatively negligible, too small even to be real people, so that the argument would shift from being about people’s lives and deaths and become instead about which of the barrage balloon politicians would win an argument.”

I love the topicality and experimentalism of Smith’s seasonal novels, especially Summer, but I found her techniques less effective in Companion Piece.

The Candy House

May 5, 2022

Reading Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House was fun at first, but in the end it just made me tired. A Visit from the Goon Squad, to which this novel is related, was a revelation, and sometimes that means it’s hard for an author to keep revealing things important or interesting enough to get readers going again, years down the road, but that’s not the problem here. The problem might be the structural idea, the one the title refers to; in an era when people profess surprise at finding out that the U.S. supreme court is now partisan, that it’s hard to get unbiased news in an era when a couple of multimillionaires own the major news outlets, and that the former president who keeps blustering that he is not a crook actually is one, the search for an illusory “candy house” already feels like something from the past. Who gets starry-eyed about new technology ideas or believes that any kind of social media can bring us closer together anymore?

Each new chapter in The Candy House is from point of view of a supporting character from a previous chapter (and many of them are also from the previous novel). There are good bits in The Candy House, nice little corners to nibble on. As a person who doesn’t curse, I identified with the part where a character says “that is fucked up…forcing out the profanity as part of his disguise. He was known not to curse; his mother…had heaped such withering scorn on the repetive dullness and infantile content of profanity that she’d managed to annul its transgressive power.”

I mightily enjoyed the conversation about how, in the future, we can “upload an animal’s perceptions…using brain sensors” and whether that might mean we’re “crossing a line by breaching the mind of another sentient creature” which brings us “back to the problem of free will….If God is omnipotent, does that make us puppets? And if we are puppets, are we better off knowing that or not?” which produces the exclamation “to hell with God….I’m worried about the Internet.”

There’s a character named Alfred who seems to be right out of The Catcher in the Rye, as he suspects almost everyone of being “phony.” Far from finding Alfred ridiculous, however, I identified with him, as his antics remind me of things I did as a teenager. Alfred sometimes has the urge to scream in public, just to see how everyone around him will react. I sometimes had the urge to yell “Hi, Max!” out of car windows, riding around my hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri (where very few people are named “Max”). I also liked to play a game called “dead body” which involved me lying on a curb or in a parking lot pretending to be dead, and then as soon as anyone noticed, my friends would drive up, load my “body” into their car, and drive off…it was a quiet town and a more innocent age. I also ran an imaginary person for student council, which caused one of my friends to lecture me about how I’d “made a farce of the whole election,” to my delight. This last one is a bit like what Alfred does when he takes his dachshund to an elementary school on enrollment day and tries to enroll her in pre-K: “she’s really smart,” he said. “She just learns differently.” The ladies at the enrollment desk don’t react as Alfred hoped, however. They start looking around for a camera and “at the discovery that Alfred had no hidden camera with him to record the absurd encounter—that they’d just wasted twenty minutes humoring a dolt, with no prospect of YouTube fame—the ladies tossed him out on his ass. Thus Alfred’s awakening to our Self-Surveillance Era.”

The most interesting character in the book is Lincoln, who calls himself a “counter” and calls most people “typicals.” He has lots of fascinating perspectives, including that
“quantifiability doesn’t make human life any less remarkable, or even (this is counterintuitive, I know) less mysterious—any more than identifying the rhyme scheme in a poem devalues the poem itself. The opposite!
Mysteries that are destroyed by measurement were never truly mysterious; only our ignorance made them seem so. They are like whodunits after you know who did it.”

The heart of the matter, as in A Visit From the Goon Squad, is music and how it affects civilization. The daughter of a music producer, Lou Kline, says that when music sharing began “we contemplated a nationwide billboard campaign to remind people of that eternal law, Nothing is free! Only children expect otherwise, even as myths and fairy tales warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house! It was only a matter of time before someone made them pay for what they thought they were getting for free. Why could nobody see this?”

The two futuristic inventions explored in The Candy House are the Mandala Cube, where a person can upload their thoughts and memories, and Mondrian, a network of “bafflers and proxies that helped people to elude their online identities.” If you’re not already aware of this growing divide, the novel will lay it out for you and then you can join EFF and find out more about what’s actually happening.

By the time I got to the chapter entitled “Lulu the Spy, 2032,” I was growing tired of what seemed to be, increasingly, preachy point-of-view switching, and a long chapter told in aphorisms organized in columns did not make me want to read on. I put the book down multiple times during this section, mostly at revelations like this one: “If you were a child who loved the moon, looking at the moon will remind you of childhood.”

Even worse is the epistolary chapter. Benny Salazer is one of the writers; sending a message to four people, he admits that he is
“conniving once again to bump Scotty’s reputation, along with…my own and that of everyone else over 60 striving for cultural relevance in a world that sees to happen in a nonexistent ‘place’ that we can’t even find unless our kids (or grandkids!) show it to us. The only route to relevance at our age is through tongue-in-cheek nostalgia, but that is not—let me be very clear—our ultimate ambition. Tongue-in-cheek nostalgia is merely the portal, the candy house, if you will, through which we hope to lure in a new generation and bewitch them.”
One sign of the novel’s increasing preachiness is the repetition of its title drop.

It’s possible that one point of The Candy House is how difficult it is to get very interested in the lives of characters you meet briefly and from only one point of view. If you’ve never experienced any kind of social media, it’s possible you don’t know this, but you don’t have to read an entire novel to be convinced of it.

The Gate to Women’s Country

May 1, 2022

Sheri S. Tepper is a science fiction writer new to me. I heard about her novel The Gate To Women’s Country, published in 1988, when I was at the conference where I gave my paper on science fiction communities formed in reaction to the threat of disease and death in novels by women—one of the other papers in the session focused on Tepper’s novels.

I started with The Gate to Women’s Country because it seems like the most self-consciously women’s novel. Appearing throughout the novel is text from a play called Iphigenia at Ilium, a version of The Trojan Women, rewritten by the women of the town where the main character lives, Marthatown.

Stavia is the main character of the novel, which is set in a post-apocalyptic future, generations after nuclear weapons were used on earth. She lives in Marthatown, which is in “women’s country” and she has a brother and a son who went through the “warrior’s gate” to live with the Marthatown garrison. The men who live in Marthatown are servitors.

As Stavia grows up and learns more about her country, including by traveling to other towns in women’s country, readers get a bigger picture of her society and realize that all is not as it seems. The “warriors” are not the fathers of the boys who are sent to learn about their way of life; the so-called “servitors” are the fathers. The women are breeding humans in an attempt to reinforce good characteristics and eliminate bad ones. Most of this seems utopian, and yet there’s a bit of an authoritarian undercurrent to the women’s meddling; they view anything that’s not strictly gendered and heterosexual as an aberration, something to be bred out of their genetic lines.

We see the authoritarianism early on, but we think it’s just maternal concern for a wayward teenage daughter. Stavia’s mother Morgot, a councilwoman for Marthatown, reminds Stavia’s seventeen-year-old sister Myra that she can’t participate in carnival, when the warriors come into the town to see their mothers and have assignations with willing women, unless she has a checkup at the medical center and gets a stamp indicating that she is free to participate. When Myra says “the rules are stupid,” Margot tells her “if you go onto the street, you’ll be picked up and taken to detention, and they’ll probably assign you to a supervised labor team to clean the assignation houses.” Then she tells Stavia that Myra is “all mixed up between what her body wants to do and all the romantic, dramatic notions Barten had helped her work up for herself. Deathless love. Undying promises.” In Myra’s case, the forced birth control that would be part of her “checkup” seems to be a good thing, so readers aren’t likely to think critically about it.

Although the first chapter is from a mature Stavia’s point of view, the main narrative describes the world from young Stavia’s point of view and continues to reveal more about the structures of power as she grows up and is gradually introduced to its secrets (while other women like Myra are not).

Stavia’s young crush, a warrior named Chernon, complains to her that the garrison’s library is full of “romances….Tales of battle. Sagas. Designs for armor. Hygiene. Maintenance of garrison property….Nothing about medicine, or engineering, or management.” Stavia points out “those are women’s studies” and that it’s forbidden to provide books to warriors. In Chernon’s case, older warriors have primed him to ask for books by telling him their conspiracy theories, right before he is old enough (at fifteen) to choose to go back through the gate and receive a broader education.

Readers get a look at the countryside surrounding Marthatown when Morgot takes Stavia with her on a trip to settle a trade agreement about grain supplies for Marthatown. First they see a “bleak desolation” and Morgot explains how it was created by “evil weapons,” nuclear bombs. Then she tells Stavia not to let the fire blaze up so they won’t attract any attention, and when Stavia asks why she tells her that there are a few bandits who roam the countryside, “men who won’t return to Women’s Country because it’s considered dishonorable but who can’t stand the discipline of the garrison either. They’re mad at everyone, but maybe a little angrier at women than at anyone else. And they feel guilty for leaving their garrisons, which makes a dangerous combination.”

When Stavia completes her medical training, she is assigned to an exploration team charged with finding botanical specimens and spying out some land south of Women’s Country to see if the desolations have shrunk and if there are any signs of human occupation. There are humans living there, a community of old men who call themselves “Elders” and their inbred offspring, supplemented by a few captured women. When Stavia is captured, her mother and their “servitor” Joshua come to rescue her.

Eventually Stavia learns all the secrets of Women’s Country and takes a place on the council, alongside her mother. She knows the truth about why the Marthastown garrison marched off to war and were killed, although readers are told that “there had been many who knew the truth, but the truth had not been spoken. A myth was spoken instead. In time, what was spoken became the truth.”

This is a novel by a master story-teller, compelling in its plot and pacing, and mostly satisfying in its vision of a post-apocalyptic society led by an educated elite, formed in opposition to the idea that the use of force is the only way to settle conflict.

Crowbones

April 27, 2022

I thought I had reviewed Anne Bishop’s novels but couldn’t find them at first. Finally I looked through my archives and found this review of the series, starting with Lake Silence.

Perhaps when I’m no longer working I’ll have time to figure out a better way to look up previous reviews. Right now I use google and type in the title, author, and name of the blog, but since net neutrality is gone that has worked less well. (Insert ominous rumbling about Musk buying Twitter and how increasingly easy it would be for what is happening in Russia with news to happen here.)

Anyway, Crowbones is the latest in Bishop’s “world of the Others” series, and it’s not as good as the previous ones. She seems to be going through the motions, creating a new scary character, the “Crowbones,” and then trying to get us worked up about what might happen with this character in a world where she’s already created the scariest characters imaginable. Like in the fifteenth season of Supernatural, it’s hard to get too worried about whether the team will save the world after the fifth Armageddon has come and gone.

As this story begins, a human is dead, the Crowbones has knocked on Vicki’s door, and the “Others” suspect something is afoot, because they’ve sealed off the town so no human can leave. When the humans ask when the roads will be open, one of the Elementals replies “when the enemy is dead.” So it’s a kind of locked-room mystery.

The mysterious “Others” are getting so familiar—and so helpful to Vicki—that it’s –increasingly difficult to remember how dangerous they can be. For example, after one death, Vicki says:
“I think there was a poem about fog coming in on little cat feet, but I’m here to tell you it doesn’t. Fog comes in on clompy pony hooves, looking for a carrot in payment for hiding a crime scene until the authorities—meaning Grimshaw—need to see the body and collect evidence.
I don’t know how the pony got into the kitchen without Julian noticing him, but I figured Fog could go wherever he wanted, being about as stoppable as the Sanguinati, who could slip through any kind of crack when they were in their smoke form.”

There’s also a kind of reveling in authoritarianism that is starting to give me the wrong kind of chills about this book. Whenever any human is impolite to another, there’s a gleeful anticipation of the way the “Others” are going to teach that person some manners. The police chief is especially prone to this kind of thinking:
“Using pliers to pull out his own toenails wouldn’t be as painful as listening to this college admin’s evasions and justifications and blah blah freaking blah as the woman tried to deny that his query was legitimate and she should give him the information he’d asked for….he lost his last shred of patience, so Grimshaw said ‘Ma’am, I will say this once more. This is a murder investigation….Either you provide me with this information in the next five minutes or I’m going to hang up the phone, and the next people who are going to ask you for that information will be standing in your office, will have Sanguinati as their last name, and will be much less polite. Do you understand me now?
Bleating and tears. And an odd refusal to believe.”

As a bonus, Bishop throws in a little anti-intellectual humor. Because there’s not enough of that around these days. The main character, Vicki, has put out a display of books for her hotel guests and she says that “my academic guests had a condescending ‘it’s not lit’rature, so I can’t bother with it’ look on their faces,” adding that “Jenna McKay more than made up for the academic fart-faces by looking through the selection of books with undiluted glee.”

The series has gone from revenge fantasy to revenge porn, and I’m through with it.

In the Grand Scheme of Things

April 25, 2022

It’s been a hard couple of weeks at work, the past two weeks–what’s been happening has very solidly reinforced my conviction that my decision to quit my job is the only available course of action. And so I’ve been thinking about Maggie Smith’s poem “In the Grand Scheme of Things,” a poem I first read in December, when I got a copy of her volume Goldenrod as a gift, with this poem included:

In the Grand Scheme of Things

It sounds like someone wound up the wrens
and let them go, let them chatter across your lawn

like cheap toys, and from here an airplane
seems to fly only from one tree to another, barely

chalking a line between them. We say the naked eye
as if the eye could be clothed, as if it isn’t the world

that refuses to undress unless we turn our backs.
It shows us what it chooses, nothing more,

and it’s not waxing pastoral. There is too much
now at stake. The skeletal rattle you hear

at the window could be only the hellion roses
in the wind, their thorns etching the glass,

but it could be bones. The country we call ours
isn’t, and it’s full of them. Every year you dig

that goddamn rose bush from the bed, spoon it
from soil like a tumor, and every year it grows back

thick and wild. We say in the grand scheme of things
as if there were one. We say that’s not how

the world works as if the world works.

I think the line that this poem pivots on is “there is too much/now at stake.” Isn’t that true almost everywhere you look?

It’s true for me at work, where the students who are striking do not include me in their email list of striking students but I am not allowed to ask them whether they are on strike. If I advertise walk-in hours and don’t include a shift where the student is on strike and then that student decides to come to work, I am accused of “retaliation,” even though I immediately turn around and advertise those additional walk-in hours. It’s an impossible situation.

It’s true in politics, of course, with politicians lying more unabashedly than ever before. This week’s example, just to grab from the headlines, is Kevin McCarthy saying he never told the former president to resign, even though there’s an audio recording proving that he did.

It’s true about how we learn from history, with teachers who only have time to teach to the test or are forbidden to mention specific subjects, and textbooks that have been carefully bowdlerized.

It’s even true about making plans. How can we buy airplane tickets or invite friends and family to any kind of gathering or use public transportation without knowing what will happen with virus rates and staffing shortages and mask mandates and the continuing erosion of public civility?

The last two lines of the poem make me think about how we know what we think we know. Although I have two graduate degrees, the undergraduates who work for me are claiming to know more about my subject than I do. The politicians elected to represent me are trying to seize power for their own murky aims. And the world I’m now being told is safer to venture out into is still writhing in paroxysms of grief and anger and loss.

The Stress of Her Regard

April 21, 2022

A friend of mine gave me a fantasy novel by Tim Powers, The Stress of Her Regard, because it’s about what would happen if the most famous Romantic poets were actually tangled up with creatures like vampires, supernatural creatures who were trying to inspire them, beguile them, and become them.

John Keats is here, along with Mary and Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Polidori. There’s even a cameo appearance by the fifteenth-century poet Villon. Byron has the most heroic role and Percy Shelley the most outre. The main character of the novel is Michael Crawford, a doctor, whose role is to investigate and explain the mechanics of the magic to the other human characters. Powers mixes his version of vampire myth with other legends and stories from folklore. The monsters are explained as descendants of Lilith and Nephilim and appear in various forms as storms, stone columns, and even “a mad-faced, eyeless giant.”

The novel would be an entirely adorable fanfiction if the myth-mixing wasn’t quite so all-inclusive. In this version, even Mary Shelley’s grief over her dead babies and her writing of Frankenstein must move to the side, as infant death and monster stories are entirely explained by supernatural forces, rather than human frailty or invention. In fact, none of the Romantic poets are capable of invention; their writing is made possible only through the vampiric spirits possessing them. Byron tells Crawford, at one point, that “these creatures aren’t especially good visually, but they are purely matches in a powder keg when it comes to language. I wonder how many of the world’s great writers have owed their gift to the…ultimately disastrous attentions of the Nephilim.”

There’s a bit of nineteenth-century flavor to the way the tale is told, although there are plenty of anachronisms, especially in the dialogue. (Keats, for example, asks at one point “”How the hell much do you expect me to believe?”) Shelley explains that it’s difficult for the creatures to maintain a human form and that they “relapse into something else…rocky or reptilian…after any length of time.” He calls the spirit his “twin” and also a succubus and a lamia. Polidori calls the spirits “muses” and hopes that they’ll make him into a great writer like the Romantic poets he admires.

The magic has been laid over the top of an otherwise familiar story, the story of what happened that summer on the shore of Lake Geneva. We know that Shelley drowned, but we keep reading to find out what kind of supernatural struggle was involved, in this version. I kept waiting to find out how Powers would deal with the significance of Percy Shelley’s heart, which famously didn’t burn–and he does deal with it, but it’s disappointing, because for some reason Powers just can’t give Mary Shelley any agency in his version of the tale.

The overlapping of myth, legend, and folklore extend even to an explanation of the origin of the Christian Eucharist and the inclusion of a story about necromancy. Byron explains, at one point, that “you can even restore life to a freshly perished corpse, if the sun hasn’t yet shone on it; vampires’ victims never truly die, of course, but if you do this right you get the resurrection without the vampirehood—the person is still a normal, mortal human, revived from death just this once.” And yet, when the characters try it, it doesn’t work out quite that way. As is so often the case, attempted necromancy veers over from tragedy into comedy when Percy Shelley, with his dead child in his arms, thinks that “there was no curse more horrible than, “May your daughter die and be made into a puppet which finds disfavor before an audience of Austrian soldiers.”

I’m probably making this all sound like more fun than it is. The book is long, ponderous and weighty, 427 pages of explanations about why the monsters exist and how they might be killed. More than halfway through the novel, Shelley stops to explain that “if someone dies after being bitten by a vampire and nobody…kills the body in the right way, he comes back, he digs his way out of his grave and comes back. Though it’s hardly him anymore….Eggshells is all humans are to these things—the bite carries their…what, eggs, spores…and in the ground the spores replace the organic stuff of their dead host with their stonier substance, like the primeval fish and plants you can find petrified in rocks.”

Percy Shelley is finally heroic in disavowing his spirit, a twin sister, while Byron is portrayed as reluctant to cast his spirit off lest he never be able to write again. But he eventually does it, manfully.

If you already like some of the characters—the Romantic poets—you might like reading Powers’ version of their story, if only for the the way excerpts from their writing introduce each chapter, like a quotation from Clark Ashton Smith’s Sphinx and Medusa introduces the title phrase, the Medusa who “turns/On the lost world the stress of her regard.”

Mysteries

April 18, 2022

A mix of rain and snow is falling outside, and I can’t stop feeling on the verge of tears, although I keep telling myself that’s kind of silly because I wasn’t in daily contact with my former student and friend Jeremiah, who just died. He graduated from Kenyon in 1995, where he played the timpani, among many other activities he lent his considerable talents to. My thoughts are already heading towards the symphony rehearsal tonight, when we’re practicing Mozart’s Requiem and I will think of him.

I spent much of the weekend reading mysteries that I’d checked out of the library in anticipation of a weekend without anywhere to go or anyone to see. On the 7-day shelf I found the new J.D. Robb, Abandoned in Death, and the new Janet Evanovitch, Game On. They were entertaining, as usual; I’ve now read all 28 of Evanovitch’s Stephanie Plum mysteries and all 54 of Robb’s Eve Dallas mysteries.

I love the idea of Easter, that there was one human who was resurrected and came back to life without anything being wrong–although there was still a price, as he didn’t come back to his loved ones to live with them but ascended into heaven. I hate how lonely Easter weekend can be for people who don’t live near to family. I hate that Jeremiah died on Easter and I can’t bring him back.

The urge to necromancy is the saddest urge there is. To want to bring someone back to life is understandable, but to try is at best comic and at worst evil. Here we are, and we can’t know anything about the mysteries of what lies beyond death.

Sea of Tranquility

April 15, 2022

Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Sea of Tranquility, is a literary novel that uses science fiction tropes. This makes it less fun than traditional science fiction, more interested in getting at what motivates humans and less in where they might go and what they can do once they’re motivated. This is not to say that it’s not lovely and moving; it is. As a science fiction reader, though, I’m left wanting more.

Because I bought my copy at a local bookstore, I got it signed, with an extra chapter in the back, and with a set of three postcards! The postcards are to send to other readers of the book, as they say “I survived the last book tour on earth,” Welcome to Night City,” and “Oklahoma City Airship Terminal.” What a great idea; I hadn’t heard of other promotional postcards to advertise a book since I sent out postcards in advance of the publication of Postcard Poems.

As is her habit now, St. John Mandel weaves three different stories together, and like David Mitchell, she brings back characters from previous books, as if her fictional worlds overlap. The three main characters in this one are new to us: an early 20th-century nobleman named Edwin, a 22nd-century writer named Olive (based on the author herself), and a 23rd-century time traveling detective named Gaspery, who discovers links between himself and the other two.

Edwin’s journey begins with his overpowering urge to say what he thinks about British colonialism at the family dinner table. What he says reminds me of what River Song says in Serenity: “we meddle. People don’t like to be meddled with.” In reply to his father’s argument that “we have brought nothing but civilization to these people—” Edwin says “and yet one can’t help but notice…that on balance, they rather seem to prefer their own. Their own civilization, that is.”

Olive’s journey takes place just before a new pandemic, in a universe that has experienced a few since Covid-19. We learn that “November 2203” was the “early days of the SARS Twelve pandemic” and that when a time traveler lands in 2007, he is uncomfortable to see that people “were shaking hands, which… seemed like a bizarre thing to do in flu season, and kissing one another on the cheek. These people have no direct experience of pandemics, he reminded himself. None of them were old enough to remember the winter of 1918-1919; Ebola was a few years out and would mostly be confined to the other side of the Atlantic; Covid-19 would not arrive for another thirteen years.”

Olive is on Earth for a book tour, away from her husband and daughter who are living where she has lived all her life, on the second moon colony. The book is entitled Marienbad, and she says “it’s about a pandemic,” which indicates that the book is like Station Eleven and Olive’s experience is at least somewhat similar to Emily St. John Mandel’s own. The bonus chapter at the end of my copy is from the fictional Marienbad, with its refrain “we knew it was coming,” meaning the pandemic. Olive’s sections are full of hope, from the time traveler who saves her from dying in the pandemic that’s starting during her book tour, to the librarian who reveals that the library where she works has a “ten-thousand-year lease” and that “the lease is renewable.”

Gaspery’s journey is from ignorance to what could be despair except that he continually fends it off. Told by his smarter sister, who works at the Time Institute, that “moments from different centuries are bleeding into one another,” Gaspery grasps the conclusion that he might be living in a simulation (like a novel) but refuses to let that keep him from enjoying it: “How do you investigate reality? My hunger is a simulation, I told myself, but I wanted a cheeseburger. Cheeseburgers are a simulation. Beef is a simulation. (Actually, that was literally true. Killing an animal for food would get you arrested both on Earth and in the colonies.)”

However, the way the stories are interspersed makes it clear that the power of love or optimism or whatever won’t be enough to triumph absolutely over the circumstances of human existence. During their pandemic (which Olive wouldn’t even be experiencing except for Gaspery’s intervention), Olive’s husband says he doesn’t know why it’s “so much more tiring than normal meetings” to have to meet virtually and Olive says it’s “because it isn’t real” to which he replies “maybe you’re right. Turns out reality is more important than we thought.”

Olive remembers her mother saying that “as a species, we have a desire to believe that we’re living at the climax of the story. It’s a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we’re uniquely important, that we’re living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it’s ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world.” Olive tells her audience that it’s always the end of the world, that the end is “a continuous and never-ending process.”

Gaspery doesn’t obey the rules of time travel which are (as always, in science fiction) to attempt to leave events unaltered by the presence of the time traveler. So he’s not a fatalist. And yet he says “this is what the Time Institute never understood: if definitive proof emerges that we’re living in a simulation, the correct response to that news will be So what. A life lived in a simulation is still a life.”

Gaspery’s perception of the glitch he’s been investigating is that it revolves around him, the fact that he has created an anomaly by being present in the same moment from different timelines. The meaning of the scene we keep hearing about from different characters–the violin player in the station and the “whooshing” sound that turns out to be an airship—turns out to be something that only Gaspery has all the facts to interpret. But that doesn’t prevent the scene from having meaning for other characters.

Like any human, Gaspery wants to believe he’s uniquely important. He lives a long life, and at the end of it, his perception that commuters in the airship terminal near where he lives move “with inhuman speed” seems like a perception that any person might feel if they’re lucky enough to grow old.

The ending falls a bit flat for me. As a science fiction reader, I’d like to know more about the commuters at the Oklahoma City Airship Terminal whose “ships carry them up into the early morning, to jobs in Los Angeles, Nairobi, Edinburgh, Beijing.” What I get from St. John Mandel’s novel is that “their souls” are “moving fast through the morning sky.” It’s lovely and moving, but couldn’t there have been a few more details in this simulation of reality, this novel?

The Damage Done

April 11, 2022

The poems in Susana H. Case’s volume The Damage Done form a layered Case study focusing on the investigation into the death of a fashion model named Janey by agents of the FBI working in the Counter Intelligence Program that began with J. Edgar Hoover in 1956. As a preface to the volume states, this program was an attempt to destroy the reputations of movements like the Black Panther Party and anti-Vietnam War activists. The events that led to Janey’s murder are drawn from the history of the FBI in the 1960s and 1970s.

As a kind of omniscient investigator, Case layers her volume with 43 poems concerning the culture, politics, pressures, and individual choices that led to Janey’s death and may lead to readers’ indictment of her society and their own.

The question at the heart of the narrative is who killed Janey, or how she died; at the beginning of the volume, a tow truck operator finds her body in a car. Her story is told in flashbacks, views from those who knew her, those who are investigating her death, and letters from the poet.

Telling the story in poems gives it a depth that facts or fiction alone could not; even our thoughts about the car Janey’s body is found in, a “type 34 lipstick-red Karmann Ghia,” are influenced by a poem signed by the poet herself in which she tells the car that “there’s so much lust for you,/so much larceny in my heart,” as if the car could itself be part of the motive for the murder.

We get a lot of looks at Janey before we see anything from her point of view. The detective who identifies her says “she’s skinny” several poems before we see in a flashback that “all she’s had for days” is “black coffee, water,/sugarless gum” and she’s so anorexic that she’s begun to grow lanugo over her ribs.

One of the best—and the most revealing—poems is #23, “The Fed Likes a Well-Ordered Universe.” The point of view is scathing, from “he loves/the convenience of how the bitch died/at just the right time; she was a sin bucket,/deserver of grief” to “success means bending the law.”

In one flashback, we see the “snap decisions” that led to Janey’s death and how the Fed is

“thinking
this snitch, given the chance
to save himself, will turn faster
than a corpse in the tropics,
will spill out their links to the lethal raid
on the Panthers”

Different styles of poems and different points of view converge. One of the most interesting poems is #22, “Dear Jimi Hendrix,” because it’s a cento, a poem made up of lines from other poems—or in this case, lyrics to Hendrix songs. Ostensibly, the styles and perspectives converge on Janey’s death and the mystery of how it happened.

Ostensibly, Janey’s story is about the sixties. But this story has implications for today. If poem #14, “Dear So-Called Bad Apples,” weren’t in the middle of Janey’s story, readers might think that “the Fed/who steps back into shadow, know the dead can’t/speak” is a story from today’s world. And it is. After so many like George Floyd, Daunte Wright, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, and Ahmaud Arbery, it’s clear that lines like “Hey, when you’re a black man, just walking down the street is political stuff” is not nearly dated enough.

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