I can’t resist a satire, so when I read about Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on someone’s blog (wish I could remember whose—was it yours?) and saw it called satiric, I had to read it.
The main action of the novel takes place on one day—Thanksgiving Day—at the super bowl football game in Dallas, Texas. The eight remaining men of Bravo Squad, temporarily back from the Iraq war, have been declared heroes, and so they have been given leave and are now being taken to the super bowl and being paraded as heroes at half-time.
I like the representation of the way Billy hears only individual words, some of them in a Texas accent, when he’s in a crowd, like in the hotel lobby before they set off for the football stadium—these words are spread out unevenly across half a page:
“terrorist, freedom, evil, nina leven, nina leven, nina leven, troops, currj…”
The story of what the Bravos did in battle, a confusing memory for the protagonist, Billy, is being considered for a big movie deal:
“It is a heroic tale, not without tragedy. A tale of heroism ennobled by tragedy. Movies about Iraq have ‘underperformed’ at the box office, and that’s a problem, according to Albert, but not Bravo’s problem. The war might be up to its ass in moral ambiguity, but Brave’s triumph busts through all that. The Bravo story is a rescue story, with all the potent psychology of the rescue plot. People respond deeply to such stories, Albert has told them. Everyone worries, everyone feels at least a little bit doomed basically all the time, even the richest, most successful, most secure among us live in perpetually anxious states of barely hanging on. Desperation’s just part of being human, so when relief comes in whatever form, as knights in shining armor, say, or digitized eagles swooping down on the flaming slopes of Mordor, or the U.S. cavalry charging out of yonder blue, that’s a powerful trigger in the human psyche. Validation, redemption, life snatched from the jaws of death, all very powerful stuff. Powerful. ‘What you guys did out there,’ Albert has assured them, ‘that’s the happiest possible result of the human condition. It gives us hope, we’re allowed to feel hopeful about our lives. There’s not a person on the planet who wouldn’t pay to see that movie.’”
However, as Billy’s confused memories of having survived the battle remind us, hope is not what the humans who were actually present got from the experience. “The Fox footage shows him firing with one hand and working on Shroom with the other, but he doesn’t remember that.”
Billy is still trying to make sense of the experience of the battle and the loss of his friend who died, but the traditional Christians he’s met aren’t helping at all, especially “Pastor Rick,” who keeps texting him aphorisms.
The people they meet at the super bowl mostly respond to them in aphorisms, too, until Billy’s sergeant, Dime, loses his patience and tells one of them “We like violence, we like going lethal! I mean, isn’t that what you’re paying us for? To take the fight to American’s enemies and send them straight to hell?”
The satire, of course, is not simply about the war. It’s about the nation that sends these boys off to war. As Billy’s sister says, “everybody around here’s such a major conservative till they get sick, get screwed over by their insurance company, their job goes over to China or whatever, then they’re like, ‘Ooooooh, what happened? I thought America was just the greatest country ever and I’m such a good person, why is all this terrible shit happening to me?”
The halftime show is a culmination of all the ridiculousness Billy has seen on this day: “ it is a rat-bite fever dream of soldiers, marching bands, blizzards of bodies bumping and grinding, whoofs of fireworks, multiple drum lines cranking go-team-go. Destiny’s Child! Drill grunts! Toy soldiers and sexytime all mashed together into one big inspirational stew. How many dozens of times has Bravo watched Crack’s Conan DVDs, many dozens, they knew every line by heart, and out of all the streamings and veerings of his over-amped brain Billy flashes on the palace orgy scene, James Earl Jones as the snake king slurping and licking and humping in glassy-eyed bliss. It creeps him, the overlay of that sludgy sex scene on what he sees before him now, the complete and utter weirdness of the half-time show and the fact that everybody seems okay with it.”
At the end of the day, the Bravos get into a limo and prepare to be sent back to the war. Billy’s last action is to put on his seat belt, hearing “that snick like the final lock of a vast and complex system.” There may or may not eventually be a movie about their battle, but they probably will not live to see it.
It’s a dark satire, full of situations and people that most Americans will recognize. You might even see yourself.
The second book in a series is sometimes just more story following the same characters or situation, and in both these cases—Randy Henderson’s Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free and Stephanie Saulter’s Binary—that’s pleasant, because it’s a good story.
Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free is the sequel to Finn Fancy Necromancy. This time Finn and Dawn are in love, and Finn has decided to use the Kin Finder his father invented to find true love for other people. His first client is Sal, the Bigfoot.
There are a few fun new things in this sequel; I especially like the explanation of a “burabura” which is one of a “race of objects that had come alive….possessed by a sprite-like Fey spirit from the Other Realm who was too weak to bond with a true living being. Thankfully, it took at least a hundred years in most cases for an object to gain the kind of spiritual resonance that allowed possession, and modern societies rarely kept objects around for more than a decade or two at most. I didn’t even want to imagine gangs of animated New Kids on the Block action figures running rampant in the streets.”
I also really enjoyed the explanation that
“thaumaturges once had a booming business in inventing clever magical interrogation devices. Once such devices were no longer needed or as popular due to truth spells and ethics and such, many of them ended up being reimagined for commercial use….the most successful adaptations were toys and board games. Mouse Trap was based on an interrogation device, of course, but so were Mr. Mouth, Don’t Break the Ice, and Hungry Hungry Hippos.
But one of the most effective and insidious devices was reportedly turned into the See ‘n Say. Its use as a magical brainwashing device apparently had something to do with mixing up the pictures and the sounds and forcing the victim to play them constantly Clockwork Orange style, until they accepted their torturer’s new reality. To this day, there are believed to be sleeper agents out there ready to do whatever “The Farmer” tells them if triggered with a bit of magic and the correct phrase, such as The Cow says…Oink Oink Oink!”
When Finn has to talk to a vampire, he is startled by his banshee scream doorbell, and then thinks about how much
“vampires love practical jokes….They played them on anyone….
The practical jokes that vampires played on each other, however, could be deadly to anyone caught in the crossfire. Being both immortal and virtually indestructible, a battle of practical jokes between two vampires could escalate over years, even centuries, to insane extremes. And with so much time on their hands, they were not above setting up jokes that took months, years, even decades to come to fruition, which made it difficult to end a battle since a joke whose foundations were laid decades ago might not bear fruit until years after a truce was called, triggering a response and starting the whole process over again.
Parking meters. Junk mail. Daylight Savings Time. All rumored to have begun as a vampire’s practical joke. It’s said one ancient vampire was responsible for both the invention of toilets, and of fireworks, just so that centuries later he could do the first cherry bomb in the toilet joke.”
Since Finn’s second story ends with not only a wedding but also a mysterious note from his missing-since-the-end-of-the-first-novel grandfather, it’s clear that there will be a third part of the story.
Binary is the sequel to Gemsigns, and it focuses on Herran, who has “a brain that speaks binary as well as human.” It’s also the story of Gwen and Rhys, Aryel’s younger foster brother and sister, who have surprising abilities of their own.
Three-quarters of the way through, I thought I had guessed who the third novel, Regeneration, would focus on, but then this novel went ahead and revealed her secrets, as well as the rest of the secrets Aryel has been keeping. Now I’m not sure who the third novel will focus on, but I’m anxious to find out more about the secrets of regeneration, as you can all well imagine.
I searched out a copy of Lizard Radio, by Pat Schmatz, after it won the Tiptree Award, along with Eugene Fischer’s The New Mother. It’s an absorbing little book with a great opening sentence—“I do not believe”—but I never did figure out exactly what the title refers to.
The main character, Kivali Kerwin, is fifteen years old, was adopted by a woman named Sheila who found her in a t-shirt with a lizard on it and who gave her the middle name of “Sauria.” Along with her acquaintance Korm, she encourages the girl to think of herself as a lizard and try to tune in on the outer space frequency of the alien lizard race who must have brought her to earth. It’s mostly a joke, you see, except that everything in this alternate reality world is deadly serious.
Like “vaping.” Sometimes people in this world just disappear. Kivali says “benders and samers, defectives and defiants and violents, that’s who vapes” but then she sees it happen on her first night at the place Sheila has brought her to, one of the “camps” that everyone in this society has to go to between the ages of 15 and 17. Not having the special skills necessary for other camps, Kivali goes to crop camp, where they help to raise food. Evidently, “before they started the camp system, lots of teens vaped….SayFree Gov called it a growing epidemic and set out to cure it, first with the strict bender regs and then with the camps.”
The camp director says
“With a cert from this camp, your chances of ever landing in Blight are less than three percent. You’ll enter the adult world ready for further education or a fulfilling career in agriculture.
The regs are strict here. I suggest that you comply and let us make this a good experience for you. If you leave here certless, you’ll face consequences that your MaDa cannot fix. If you are of age, you’ll go directly to Blight. If not, you will be relocated to fosters who can prepare you for a RepeaterCamp.”
“Blight” is where non-conforming former citizens of this country get sent: “SayFree Gov took a whole city, surrounded it with a biosensor fence, and chucked all the problem people in there.”
One of the purposes of camp is for the teens to “meet the opposite sex under controlled conditions and form unions. SayFree Radio is always talking about how stable camp-formed couples are, and how they either beat the low fertility rates or provide stable homes for adopted Blight babies.”
The words are part of the fun of this story. The teens eat in a structure called the “Mealio.” Kivali sees a person across a campfire and says “he’s a midrange bender” which we come to find out means he identifies strongly with neither male or female, but has been assigned male. Kivali herself, we find out, is a midrange bender who has been assigned female. Her new friend Sully says they’re a “bunch of burby kids dropped in the middle of agriculture,” meaning “from the suburbs.”
When her new acquaintance Rasta criticizes the bender Kivali saw across the campfire, saying “he didn’t even try to hide it” and “he screams bender,” her new friend Sully defends him (and Kivali in the process) by asking “what if everyone suddenly started telling you that you’re a boy and you have to act like one?” Then she tells a story:
“My little cousin was born a he, and now she’s a beautiful she. They tested her up before Grade One and she scored in the midthirties. Girl for sure. Transition complete by Grade Three, and she passed through PDGT in about six weeks. Easy for her. That guy last night is probably around fifty. I saw some of those midrangers in my cousin’s cohort. They have it rough.”
It turns out that a “samer” is someone who falls in love with someone of the same gender, and Kivali doesn’t want to be one—“it’s bad enough being a bender. I won’t be a samer, too. I just won’t.”
In her (required) weekly sessions with the camp director, who she calls “Machete,” Kivali thinks about being a leader or a follower, either having to follow the “regs” or making them change those “regs.” The camp director tells her that she should be a leader, someone who can know the truth but commits to telling only carefully selected bits of the truth to others. Kivali, of course, can’t commit to being one or the other, or to selecting from the whole truth. She finds out that the drug they’ve been given orally in camp is implanted when the campers graduate, unless they agree to take on a government position of authority. The implant “suppresses aggression, violence. Eases anxiety.” Rasta’s father tells Kivali “if you take it, things are easier,” which is ironic, because it was Rasta who taught her to refuse it.
It’s hard to know what the mysticism about Kivali hearing “lizard radio” is supposed to mean, in this novel. To the extent that it’s explained, she has been taught to enter into a trance and hears it there. The purpose of her trances under this kind of oppressive government control is not clear to me, however. What happens to Kivali and Sheila at the end of the story may not be entirely clear, but they are making their own way on the outside, no longer part of “SayFree” but finding their own freedom.
I would be pleased to mail my copy of Lizard Radio to anyone in the world who would like to talk about it with me in more depth, either on your own blog, or by email. If you’re interested, leave your name and how to contact you in the comments, and if there’s more than one person interested, I’ll pick a comment by number, at random.
Because I can’t resist anything with the name “Eleanor” on it, I picked up Jason Gurley’s new novel Eleanor from the mystery shelf at the public library. I had to read it all in order to figure out what the mystery is about—an unsatisfying mix of realism with an extremely individualistic mysticism.
Basically, Eleanor the grandmother drowns herself in the ocean while pregnant, her daughter Agnes has twin girls named Eleanor and Esmerelda, and Esmerelda dies at the age of six in a car crash that Eleanor and Agnes survive, and then granddaughter Eleanor—the character we care about and follow through the first half of the book—gets literally pulled into her dead relatives’ version of purgatory and her parents’ dream worlds.
The first time it happens, it’s when Eleanor walks through a doorway leaving the high school cafeteria: “at the very last moment, she feels something subtle and strange, as if she is made of metal and some magnetic force is tugging her toward it. The tiny hairs on her arms and neck lift up. There is a sharp smell; the air sizzles. Before she has a moment to truly consider any of this, she steps through the doorway—is, frankly, almost yanked through it—and then Eleanor is no longer in the cafeteria, no longer in her high school, no longer even in Oregon at all.”
Eleanor’s dead twin, who calls herself Mea but remembers being Esmerelda, brings Eleanor to the place she is, called “the rift” and tells her it’s “so we can set things right.” It’s not clear what this means for a long while. Is it so the parents can live in their separate dream worlds, undamaged by the knowledge that one of the twins has died? At one point, it seems that our heroine Eleanor has died, but then grandmother Eleanor becomes the ocean and declares that she “will see my family restored.” To do this, she goes into her daughter’s dream world and makes her feel better, while Eleanor and Esmerelda become dinosaurs and swim out to sea together, where they see “the reset” and then the book ends almost where it began, except that grandmother Eleanor comes back from her swim, rather than drowning in the ocean.
I felt rather silly for getting invested at all in the life of Eleanor the granddaughter, especially because of Eleanor’s poor boyfriend, who is left with some kind of vague psychic message about where Eleanor has gone. Maybe he’ll eventually meet her “again” in the reset world, but it’s really unsatisfying to be left free to imagine that they will still meet and have enough in common to feel the same bond. It’s also not clear whether Eleanor’s aunt Gerry will get her dead sons back in the reset world. Is this a world in which no one Eleanor cared about can ever die? If so, is it a dream? Does anything in this fiction matter?
My advice would be not to let it. Leave the book on the shelf.
Browsing through the new volumes of poetry at the college library (because it’s national poetry month), I pulled out How To Be Drawn, by Terrance Hayes, and was immediately drawn in.
The first poem, “What It Look Like,” goes from talking about music to made-up words with amusements like “a bandanna is a useful handkerchief,/but a handkerchief is a useless-ass bandanna” along the way to my favorite part:
“my motto is Never mistake what it looks like
for what it is else you end up like that Negro
Othello. (Was Othello a Negro?) Don’t you lie
about who you are sometimes and then realize
the lie is true?”
Sometimes I leaf through volumes by black poets and think well, these poems are not written for me, which is fine. Hayes’ poems can speak to almost everyone, though, especially ones like “Black Confederate Ghost Story” in which the speaker invites “African-American apparitions hung,/burned or drowned before anyone alive was born” to “please make a mortifying midnight appearance/before the handyman standing on my porch/this morning.” He says “the handyman’s/insistence that there were brigades of black/Confederates is as oxymoronic as terms like/ ‘civil war,’ ‘free slave.’” The ending is particularly wonderful:
“Attention, apparitions: this is a solicitation
very much like a prayer. Your presence is requested
tonight when this man is polishing his civil war relics
and singing ‘Good Ol’ Rebel Soldier’ to himself.
Hello sliding chairs. Hello, vicious whispering shadows.
I’m a reasonable man, but I want to be as inexplicable
As something hanging a dozen feet in the air.”
Another poem that invites me in and shows me the world from a new point of view is “Antebellum House Party,” in which we “make the servant in the corner unobjectionable/Furniture” so that when “Boss calls/For sugar” then “the furniture bears it sweetly.” At the end, we’re told that “The best furniture/Can stand so quietly in a room that the room appears empty.”
Some of the poems have little or nothing to do with race or other important topics, but zero in on funny situations like giving “Instructions for a Séance with Vladimirs” after Vladimir Mayakovsky (a Russian poet I know mostly because a local Kenyon acquaintance translated some of his poems and I got the book for Walker one Christmas). This is a long poem with many sections, and it builds as it goes; I like this bit especially:
“CREATE AN EXCLUSIVE BELIEVERS-ONLY INVITATION LIST
Invite as many open-minded Vladimirs as possible, for they are like magnets attracting the Vladimirs who are dead. Vladimirs with eighties-style haircuts will attract top-hat Vladimirs. Vladimir the plumber will attract Vladimir the swimmer. Change your name to Vladimir.
What you want is a Vladimir brigade. A mirror of the living reflecting the dead and vice versa. In the towering dusk, groaning and brushing Vladimirs. To overcome the cold one must conjure the supernatural world.”
Occasionally a line or two from a poem made me giggle and want to read the rest more carefully, like this question from “The Rose Has Teeth”:
“What would a mother feel if her child sang
‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’
The poem that puts this author’s whimsical-seeming humor together with his musings on race, perhaps my favorite in the volume, is “We Should Make a Documentary About Spades.” It announces its agenda in the second stanza: “We should explore/The origins of a derogatory word like spades as well as the word/For feeling alone in polite company.” Then it goes on to ask the important questions, like “Who do you suppose/Would win if Booker T and MLK were matched against Du Bois/And Malcolm X in a game of Spades?” And it makes the hard observations, like “Renege is akin to the word for the shame/You feel watching someone else’s humiliation.” Finally it ends with the “you” the speaker has been arguing against getting the last word: “You say there are no enemies/in Spades.”
This is an eye-opening volume by a poet who knows how to draw all kinds of readers in and let them see more than they might have been able to before, on their own.
On Friday I had to go by the library, and couldn’t resist the latest J.D. Robb mystery, Brotherhood in Death, and the latest Janet Evanovich, Tricky Twenty-Two, from the 7-day loan shelf.
I read both books and enjoyed them–nothing much wrong with either long-running series–except that poor Janet has gone several books beyond ridiculous with not having Stephanie Plum choose between Ranger and Morelli. She keeps trying to spin it out, but it is just done, as her mercifully brief and lame bit of explanation about Ranger shows:
“He was an amazing lover and friend but his journey was ultimately solitary. He had things in his past that were shaping his future. I didn’t know what they were but I knew they couldn’t be ignored.”
If that was representative of the kind of writing in this book, I wouldn’t be checking it out.
I think that, like Ranger, the reason I keep wanting to follow what Stephanie is doing is to see how her car is going to get destroyed this time. That certainly isn’t a disappointment in this latest book.
It was sunny and in the seventies this weekend, just right for reading outside. How was your weekend? Did you read anything new, or anything new from an old series?
Today the sun was shining on the road I was driving down, tiny green leaves of spring on either side, and all of the sudden I felt like I had skin again. I felt that everything was no longer on the surface, that total strangers couldn’t look at me anymore and be able to tell that I was bereft and drifting in the wake of my mother’s sudden death. All of the sudden, I was moving forward instead of just going through the motions.
I had been reading Wyatt Prunty’s new volume of poems entitled Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise and I wonder if the way I had to stop and think about his poem “What Kind” had anything to do with my emergence.
Personalize it, if you must. Somewhere
Love’s gone off for a weekend in the mountains
Or to the beach; love’s driving somewhere other
Than your little life, watching and welcoming fan
Of yourself, to what was always coming anyway—
Something like expensive fixtures hanging from
High ceilings with a light so generalized
You are your old self even as you’re not,
Reiterative to the end, not scared exactly,
Just slowing as you feel someone familiar
Taking your side in things, cooling you down
On things, and by that making you
Think of tomorrow more fondly than before.
I could always count on my mother to take my side in things. But today I got a little help from someone at work, and I guess it made me think that tomorrow I might get some more, and eventually that could add up to something. Maybe it’s “what was always coming anyway” but now it feels more deliberate, something that can be personalized but doesn’t have to be in order to be accepted.
And Pippin is one year old now. She never met him, but he lounges on her furniture like it’s his.