Let’s take it as a given that I’m going to be hard on anyone who tries to write an adult novel imitating the plot of my favorite children’s book, Harriet the Spy. It’s like someone coming along and trying to “update” the recipe for my favorite comfort food. (No, I don’t want bacon or truffles or anything else in my macaroni and cheese, thank you.) So I’m holding Kerry Clare to an almost impossibly high standard for her novel Mitzi Bytes, and it’s no wonder she falls short.
“Mitzi Bytes” is a name made up by Clare’s protagonist, Sarah, wife of a computer programmer and mother to two little girls, one in kindergarten and the other in second grade. Sarah has been writing her blog under this pseudonym for fifteen years and has achieved some success, with a couple of books developed from her blog writing and ad revenue from her site. The blog began as an online journal-type dating tell-all site and morphed into a mommy blog. As the novel begins, someone has connected Sarah with her online persona and is threatening to expose her.
If you know Harriet the Spy, you can see that Clare has set up some interesting observations about a woman’s public identity in the age of online journaling, a worthy successor to Louise Fitzhugh’s exploration of the role of honesty in the formation of a child’s identity. And yet Fitzhugh manages universality in a way that Clare does not.
It’s not for lack of trying. The parts of Clare’s book I like best are about motherhood and identity, especially how the former can erase some of the latter. For example, when Sarah’s husband asks her if there’s “anything I need to know?” on a day she’s upset, she knows that “what he was asking her was if tonight was the night he had to leave work on time because she had her book club, if she wanted any groceries picked up on his way home, and if there was something else she needed him to remember. These were practical things. He was certainly not inquiring as to the status of the depths of her soul, the reason for her fear and dread, about her strange mood this morning. He didn’t want to know any of that.”
Sarah thinks that her relationship with her readers online is that “we’re all just figments of one another’s imaginations.” I don’t agree with this, but then I’ve never gone by a pseudonym or shied away from consummating my online relationships by meeting in real life. There is a section in which Sarah talks to younger people about a “a blog….Like Tumblr….blogs were for old people.” The young people—her students—tell her that “online you can be who you really are.” When Sarah says “I wonder about the consequences, though…of these divided selves. If we don’t all get a little scrambled by the whole thing,” one of the students points out that “it’s like I have a hundred parts of me anyway, never mind on the Internet.”
When the friend who has told everyone Sarah’s online name finally confronts her in person, she asks “what is the point of what you’re doing?” and Sarah thinks “she’d asked herself the same question many times, and she’d never been able to come to a satisfying answer. And whenever she got close, it was always different from what she’d answered before. Her blog was a record, a place where she worked out what she thought of things, where she reflected on the world around her, which was not the same as being a reflection of it.” The friend doesn’t like the way her life is reflected by the mirror Sarah holds up to it. In fact, as other people confront Sarah, we see that they believe she has written about them, when in fact she has not–they’re applying what she’s said about someone else to themselves.
Sarah, as Mitzi, finally articulates something important about why her writing is important to her: “It’s a virtue, I think, having an open mind. It’s not waffling or flip-flopping, but instead it’s the gift of perspective, which is a far more complicated gift than obliviousness is.” And for Sarah, as for many other writers throughout history, writing is a way of defining her perspective. (Rohan–who alerted me to the existence of this novel—has more thoughts about identity in her review.)
What’s sad about the end of Sarah’s story is that she is content to let her husband validate her identity when he says “I need you….you’re everything. This whole life—you’re the centre. You made it for me, the kind of life I never could have imagined for myself. And without you, none of it means anything.” How lovely, I thought. He’s not going to be saying that any more when their little girls have graduated from college and left home. Then Sarah is either going to have to move into the center of something else, or she’s going to become one of those fussy former home-makers who bustle around the house with a set of holiday decorations for almost every month, demanding that the adult children come home for Easter, Memorial Day, and the Fourth of July (in African-American families, maybe it’s Juneteenth; in British or Canadian families, perhaps spring bank holiday and Orangeman’s Day).
At the end of the novel, Sarah becomes a journalist (like blogging, sadly, a dying endeavor).
The part of this novel that I like least is Clare’s strange idea of homage, naming Sarah’s two friends Janie (a chemist) and Beth-Ellen, who “tended to be underestimated.” There’s also a throw-away line about how her husband’s sister calls him “Sport” and an overly-contrived scene of Sarah hiding in a dumbwaiter. Like I said, though, mine is an impossibly high standard. It’s not a bad novel; it’s just that it’s not a masterpiece.
This is it. Already. The best book of 2017.
Jenny enticed me, saying that this book is “a weird, weird book. It reminded me a little of Nick Harkaway with the quills retracted (does that metaphor work? do porcupines retract their quills ever?).”
The metaphor does work, because when I looked it up (at National Geographic),
I found out that porcupine quills “detach easily when touched.” They can’t pull them in, but if you get too close, you’re involved.*
I got so involved. From the first image from the main character’s dream (“tomatoes that hung heavy on thorn-laden vines, juicy, icy blue”) and the initial description of her party for her husband’s work group (to view his appearance on “the Pscience! network, one of those half-dozen cable channels that broadcast sensationalist science and nature programs twenty-four hours a day, an endless procession of flashy animated renderings of Jovian orbiters, and experts on supernatural phenomena, and lions tearing out the throats of their prey”), my intellect was pleasurably engaged in what I thought of, at the time, as sorting out the fascinating details about this world of the future from the main character’s descriptions of “a certain subtle wrongness” about her life.
The novel has a first layer, which starts with the description of a world that has a “Pscience! network,” and then the rest of the story builds layers of structure on top, to gradually reveal a new perspective, visible only from the height of the superstructure.
I love the way Palmer reveals information about the characters; these are the kinds of people I know best—smart, driven, and more concerned with ideas and the life of the mind than anything else. Even the main character, Rebecca–whose roles include wife (of a physicist), mother, and part-time employee (of an online dating service)—is more interested in ideas than anyone around gives her credit for (not that I identify with that or anything). She asks the deceptively simple questions, like “what is history made up of, if not people’s lives and stories and memories?”
And I love the way my image of this world gets built up. At first it’s funny and weird:
“If you had never watched that much television, then you might wonder how it was that the President of the United States had found the time to record a video introduction to every program that appeared on every one of the hundreds of available channels—not just a generic twenty-second speech that gave his imprimatur to the program about to commence, but a short monologue that always seemed to be tailored to the program’s subject matter, linking it to some larger political or spiritual meaning. But keen-eyed viewers knew that the President repeated himself: he almost always delivered one of a finite number of canned speeches, perhaps tweaking a word or two in a halfhearted effort at personalization.”
Later in the novel, though, we find out that “these days it was hard to even have a conversation without the President butting in,” which he does on a phone call between Rebecca and her father because “things had gotten really bad in the Dakotas: a member of one or another secessionist faction had actually assassinated North Dakota’s lieutenant governor, which made it lot harder to pretend that these guys were just a bunch of wackos that could be dismissed as crackpots or handled with drones….So for the past couple of weeks the President had been showing up everywhere, on a major PR offensive.”
When I read a novel for the first time I turn down a corner of the page anywhere I find something interesting that I will want to think more about, and usually those are the quotations I write about here. My copy of Version Control, however, has the corner of the page turned down on almost every page; it’s not selection, it’s just the record of my enthusiasm. I had to go back to select a few that I want to share here so you get a feeling for how lovely the thinking and writing are:
“In Dad’s day, when you graduated from a four-year school, you magically found a forty-hour-a-week job that let you take on a mortgage if you wanted. But the paths to success were not so well marked out for Rebecca’s generation, and so with diplomas in hand they returned to their old bedrooms for a period that was part extended adolescence, part premature senescence. The period did not have a name, because to name it would be to acknowledge its existence, which would in turn lead to an admission of failure—of the promise of higher education, or of methods of parenting, or of such vague concepts as the System or the American Dream.”
There is a lot about identity in the internet age, much of it said by characters who are not as smart and self-aware as some of the others—for the arch, ironic tone, but also to create occasional moments of insight, for the character and the reader:
“When you’re meeting people online, you’re not totally out there at first….you message each other for a little while. Then you can…switch over to IMing, which is like talking in person, except you can edit yourself: if you find yourself about to say something stupid, you can just delete it and say something better.”
The plot of the novel revolves around time travel, but that’s not the whole point of it, and I find that anytime I try to give an example of something really great about how the “causality violation device” works–the one that Rebecca’s husband Philip has dedicated his life to building and testing—it doesn’t convey the idea well at all, because the idea is expertly woven through all 495 pages. The best I can do for you is to quote a sarcastically short explanation given at one point by Philip’s post-doc Alicia, one of the most dedicated and driven members of his team:
“First of all, time travel is real: you just have to believe. Second, when we get that machine working, I’m going to be the first one to use it, because you know what I’m sick and tired of? Reliable birth control and the right to vote. Just absolutely fed up.
Old times were great, weren’t they? You got an apron and a bunch of squalling kids hanging on your legs, your husband just died from some damn disease hasn’t even been discovered yet, you bit into a boiled turkey drumstick and it pulls out two of your front teeth.
Then your mother says, ‘I warned you: this is what happens to a woman when she turns twenty-three.’
Seriously, to hell with time travel.
I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
That gives you a taste of how complicated the idea of time travel is in this novel, without which passages like this don’t work as well:
“She was sitting on the couch, watching this time travel movie. It was about the time of the civil rights movement: you know, there are these black maids scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets and white women not even noticing they exist, except when they want something from them….** The kind of movie you watch so you can get good and pissed off and talk to the screen, you know? ….”Oh, if that white woman talked to me like that it’d be her first and last time. I’d snatch that apron off and slap her like she’d lost God’s love….See why it’s a time travel movie? The time machine isn’t in the movie, on the screen: it’s in your head. You watch a movie like that and you get to imagine yourself going back in time so you can trash-talk a bunch of dumbasses.”
In addition to all this good stuff, you get momentary delights like descriptions of the best tattoo ever and the future of clothes shopping. Oh, and biting analysis of where we might be headed with the relationship between technology and power.
This is a novel that everyone I know should read. Eventually I’m going to insist, so you might as well get started now.
*I don’t want Nick Harkaway to retract anything, ever.
**could he be any more explicitly referring to The Help?
Ron found a copy of P.J. O’Rourke’s new collection of essays How the Hell Did This Happen? The Election of 2016 at an airport bookstore, and we’ve been reading through it to distract ourselves from the increasing gravity of the political situation.
This past week marked the tenth Saturday that I’ve taken part in a weekly demonstration on the public square—the one with the statue of the Union soldier, the one where our farmer’s market is held every Saturday morning from May to October, and the one where the Freshwater supporters used to demonstrate (a few of them are still there, trying to harass us about their religion through a bullhorn).
Our purpose, as recently reported in the local small-town newspaper, is threefold: we demonstrate to try to get the attention of our local congressional representative, Mr. Bob Gibbs, we inform ourselves and each other about what congress is doing each day, and we support local candidates for office (although the requirement that the candidate be able to live without income for a year has been discouraging to several otherwise willing public servants).
Every week when it’s time to make my sign, I think about what I believe. This is new to me–the routine and the clarity of it, anyway. What do I believe so much that I am willing to alienate some of my neighbors by carrying my thoughts on it around in front of me for half an hour? Slogan-writing does lend itself to simplification.
And there’s the main problem I have with politics today—the simplification. People I know voted for our 45th president because they thought he would cut through the complications on issues like immigration and health care. They thought it would be enough if they voted in support of their deeply-held beliefs, like that women shouldn’t have access to birth control or safe abortion. They have not been forced to consider the complications, the up-close human consequences of such rigid thought.
And don’t think I’m not irritated with the other side, too. It galls me to demonstrate with people whose views on immigration currently consist of a “let them all in” attitude. It’s not enough to “resist.” Sooner or later, someone is going to have to compromise.
Although the sign I carried this past Saturday says “Support Public Schools,” I’ve never supported them uncritically. I’ve attended school board meetings to register my objections, several times against the dress code (wearing most of the proscribed articles of clothing) and Ron and I have never been angrier with the local public schools than when we were sitting in the bleachers at our child’s high school graduation and heard that his “senior class gift” was a security camera. There are lots of things wrong with public education in this town, and in this country, and people like me sometimes feel that we can’t make any impression on the bureaucracy…which is true when we don’t invest enough of our time and energy.
Since a small town is one of the only places in America today where people have to get along, often for years, even when they think differently about major issues, I disagree with writers like John Pavlovitz, about “losing” friends over the 2016 presidential election. I can’t afford to lose any of my friends or acquaintances. I’m feeling an urgent need to make more friends and influence more people.
I thought maybe reading P.J. O’Rourke, known as a political conservative, would be a good way to get some insight into how to mend more of the bridges that need mending in this country. And he does give me some insight into conservative thinking. For instance, he says “the Democrats are determined to elect “the first ____ American president.” African-American, Woman, Native American, Latino, Gay. They’ve checked off No. 1 and are determined to go down the list in order of historical victimhood.”
Like so many liberals, though, he is full of snark. And, of course, I enjoy that. Our new president, he says
“is under the illusion that he’s thirty-five times richer than he is. He thinks childhood vaccination caused the movie Rain Man. He believes Obama was born to the queen of Sheba in Karjackistan and raised by Islamacist wolves in the remote forests of Harvard Law School.”
There’s little continuity between the essays in How the Hell Did This Happen? because, as the author notes, “in the 2016 presidential campaign, as far as I can tell, one thing didn’t lead to another. The campaign was a series of singularities….I would have preferred to write a book about the course of actions taken during this election campaign and how that course of actions led to certain results. But there was no discernable course.”
In the chapter about John Kasich, governor of Ohio, O’Rourke notes that “the conflicts in the Buckeye State mirror America’s: intransigent labor subjecting greedy management to extortion, indignant blacks clashing with angry white trash about who can behave more antisocially, illegal immigrants taking jobs away from illiterate nativists who won’t get a job, Tea Party crackpots vying with liberal dingbats for space on Internet wacko sites, and the dirty poor dumping on the filthy rich slinging muck at the grubbing-to-get-by middle class. But they all get along with Kasich.” I don’t find this last statement to be true, personally, but I guess a majority of Ohioans do, since they elected him.
In the process of eviscerating everybody, O’Rourke suggests what he believes are needed reforms for our broken political system. One of the suggestions I agree with is that young people should vote in primaries. O’Rourke believes that “Nobody votes in primaries. In 2012, when the entire country was supposedly full of the political hots and bothers, just 15.9 percent of the electorate cast a primary vote. We don’t know how old these primary-voting nobodies are, but I’m guessing their average age is dead.
Brain-dead, for certain.
Therefore I’m asking you young people to make an enormous sacrifice. I’m asking you to find a presidential primary and vote in it.”
I especially enjoyed O’Rourke’s answer to the idiotic “border wall” proposal. He says
“We don’t need a wall on our border; we need gates with turnstiles and ticket-takers. The right way to limit immigration (and make people in foreign countries pay for it) is to charge admission to the United States.
Disneyland costs $100 a day. There are at least 12 million illegal immigrants in America. By my calculation we’re leaving $438 billion a year on the table. And America has many more attractions than Disneyland….Plus, think what we could bring in from the food, toy, and souvenir concessions.”
He lists a number of even more outlandish proposals after that, including “Don’t Make America the World’s Policeman; Make America the World’s Private Security Guard. And bill the world for it.”
O’Rourke asks one of the questions I keep wanting to ask, about the age of presidential candidates:. “What are these people doing running for president at my age? I’m a few months younger than Hillary and a year younger than Donald. During the campaign I had flown from Boston to Chicago. That’s all I’d done. I drove to Boston, got on a plane, flew to Chicago, and took a cab to my hotel. I was exhausted.”
In a more serious moment, he says that the mistake we made about the election “was not ‘living in a bicoastal bubble’ or ‘failure to comprehend white working-class discontents’ or ‘excessive reliance on faulty polling data.’ The mistake was not watching The Apprentice….Trump played the boss you wish you had. Not the boss you wish you had at work. He’s the boss you wish you had after work, when you’re having drinks with your coworkers and telling hilarious stories….But there’s another side to this character. From time to time on the show ‘Trump’ drops the fuss and bluster and holds forth with his business philosophy.”
This seems to me the most serious and important—albeit expressed comically—comment he makes in this whole collection.
Did you know (as I recently found out) that there’s a television in every doctor’s waiting room and in many public areas like YMCA gyms and they’re playing Fox News all day long? Who sits in those waiting rooms and goes to those gyms? Who watches television instead of reading newspapers? My neighbors.
O’Rourke says that reading books (or blogs, I guess) makes us the elite. And, he says,
“The world is a smaller place. Did the elites think this would make everyone get along? Try it with your kids. Put them in a small place, such as the backseat of your car. Now take them to see the world. Take them to, for example, Yellowstone Park from say, Boca Raton. How are your kids getting along?”
O’Rourke gives his version of the answers to our national catastrophe, and I don’t agree with many of them, but what I do like about this book is the way he puts his finger on the main problem with our country right now—we have not been paying attention.
Well, now more of us are. Are you?
I don’t know why–because I’m certainly not good at remembering and acknowledging where I’ve read about a book–but sometimes when I’ve posted an enthusiastic review of some author’s first book, I’m a little surprised to find a second book by that author out in the bookstore, with no advance word or offer of a review copy from the publisher. I feel like I’ve done some of the work for that publisher (in this case, HarperCollins), so the least they could do is keep me informed.
Anyway. I walked into a bookstore the other day and found a copy of Kevin Wilson’s new novel Perfect Little World. (His previous novel is The Family Fang.) And boy is this new one right up my alley! The other day, I heard some twenty-somethings talking about how inaccessible the “American dream” of owning their own house seems, and wondered why more of them don’t at least consider doing what Ron and I did in our early twenties, which was share a house with a friend. Now that our kids are grown, we’re considering doing it again, eventually. It’s not a new idea even in our lifetime.
The idea of the novel Perfect Little World is to raise children communally, by arranging for ten sets of parents with new babies sharing a (custom-built) housing complex and trying to make it feel like a family, with rules to encourage each set of parents to become as attached to and responsible for the other children as for their own.
The character who comes up with this idea, in the novel, is a child psychologist raised by two child psychologists. His name is Preston Grind, and he was “the initial subject of what became known as the Constant Friction Method of Child Rearing….they sought to create a world where baby Preston would exist in what they called ‘a state of constant friction’ in order to make him more adaptable, more capable of handling whatever challenge might present itself.” For example, “instead of being swaddled and kept warm in a crib, Preston would randomly be removed from his bed at various times during the night and placed on the floor, the temperature adjusted to make sleep uncomfortable.”
Wilson’s characteristic ironic tone is created by juxtaposing the description of Preston’s upbringing with the information that his parents were frequently asked to serve as witnesses in the child abuse trials of those who had used their method of child rearing, “defending the actions of the parents as the truest expression of parental love, to prepare the child for a world that was not a ‘fairy tale’ and might not always produce a happy ending.” I think the author’s point of view is probably a little closer to that of the child psychologist L. R. Knost, who says “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.”
The action of the novel follows the story of Izzy, a single mother, and her son Cap, who is being brought up communally in an experiment that Preston—Dr. Grimes–got funding to try out. Cap is one of ten babies born at about the same time, so Izzy has nine other parents to help her raise him.
The experiment is called The Infinite Family Project, and the rules are designed by Dr. Grind, with the input of the participants and several postdocs who are helping out. For instance:
“There had been discussion about how the babies would be fed from the moment the families had gathered at the complex. When they first arrived, mothers breast-fed their own baby or pumped so that the father or another parent or caregiver could handle the duty. After two months of this system, Dr. Grind offered the suggestions of a milk-banking scenario, where all then mothers banked milk, which could be used for any of the babies, to create an even more communal style of parenting….Finally, after careful consideration, everyone having their own vote, including Dr. Grind and the postdocs, they decided that they would keep using the current system, that if they were not available to feed their child, they would pump and store that milk in the bank and it would be reserved for their own child.”
This scenario seems quite utopian to me, with its assumption that each mother has no trouble breastfeeding and pumping enough milk to store for any eventuality.
The novel’s primary assumption is that it’s hard for parents to give up the idea that they should be the “whole world” to their babies. I should think that, like Izzy, many people would be relieved to have others to share in things like night feedings and terrors, especially during the first few years. The descriptions of Izzy, though, indicate that “her past life, all those years of living without, of removing emotion from her makeup, had prepared her for this new situation. She tried so hard to dismiss her desire to be Cap’s entire world, telling herself again and again, with increasing forcefulness, that it would not change anything. Instead, she would open her heart to the world and hope that good came from it, even if there was the recurring stab of regret.”
Communal cooking is one of the best things about the complex. Izzy enjoys cooking, and the descriptions of the food she makes for the babies and other adults is wonderful, like the deviled eggs which “were to be pickled in beet juice so each egg turned the brightest shade of purple and was flavored with that vegetal tang, then topped with candied bacon.”
Communal parenting gets harder when the parents have to agree on things like whether the children can have pets, and how to explain the death of a pet fish. Part of the difficulty, of course, is that since these children are all about the same age, a couple of them are necessarily developmentally ahead in terms of understanding the finality and universality of death. The parents are not told which ones understand and which don’t, so they have to treat the children alike, in terms of age group, rather than in terms of their individual emerging understandings.
The parents go farther with the communal living idea than Dr. Grind intends, acting on the sexual tension they feel at the complex. “Everything here is so calculated…” one of them says. “Emotions don’t matter. It’s what’s best for the kids, for the family. Everything is an experiment; whether Dr. Grind admits it or not, he’s kind of making it up as he goes along, right? So why can’t we experiment, too?”
As the children get older, the parents’ shifting allegiances and emotions affect the way they live together. When Dr. Grind says to Izzy “we think that any deviating from what we’re supposed to feel makes us a bad person,” it’s clear that life can never be so clear-cut, no matter how well-laid the plan. As the Infinite Family grows, Dr. Grind wonders, “as the project continued, how many other people would come on board, how else the world he had created would start to slowly transform into something beyond his control. It was, he knew from experience, not unlike a real family, the ways you accepted the uncertainty and kept your heart open for whatever might follow.”
By the time the children are seven years old, they have begun to demand a voice in their unconventional family, further widening some of the existing fractures between the adults, and at that point, Dr. Grind’s funding runs out. He and Izzy decide to form a nuclear family with her son. Izzy thinks that “when the world fell apart around you….you held on to the person you loved, the one who would be there in the aftermath, and you built a new home.”
So the novel starts with an interesting and somewhat unconventional idea, and ends conventionally, which I found something of a disappointment. The working-out of the communal-living arrangement was interesting though, and kept me turning the pages, even as it became increasingly obvious that these characters could not change their thinking to match their circumstances, that their collective imagination about what a family can be remains limited to picking the best parts from how they were, themselves, raised.
What do you think? Are you now, or have you ever considered, sharing a house with people who aren’t related to you? Do you have experience sharing a house with extended family?
A friend recommended that I read I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells, because in it, necromancy doesn’t pay. It also has a very interesting teen protagonist and a plot that makes it a real page-turner.
The protagonist, whose name is John Wayne Cleaver, narrates this novel. He thinks he might be named after John Wayne Gacy, “who killed thirty-three people in Chicago,” and since his father’s name is Sam he also sees himself as the Son of Sam, “a serial killer in New York.” He believes that he is “named after two serial killers and a murder weapon.”
John continually struggles to be a good person, although he admits “I’d been fascinated—I tried not to use the word ‘obsessed’—with serial killers for a long time, but it wasn’t until my Jeffrey Dahmer report in the last week of middle school that Mom and my teachers got worried enough to put me into therapy.”
John’s mother and aunt work as morticians, and they allow him to hang out with them and sometimes help with autopsies, which is how a mystery is revealed to him. As bodies begin to come in with parts missing, John assumes there’s a serial killer in town. When he finds out what it actually is—a demon keeping himself alive with body parts he takes from his victims—John resolves to bring him to justice.
Being “good,” however, poses problems for John. When he calls the police, the demon kills them (and takes a spare body part). So it’s up to John to kill the “monster,” except, as he thinks:
“That was what I was afraid of, right? That I’d kill somebody? Well, what if the somebody I killed was a demon? Wouldn’t that be okay?
No, it wouldn’t. I controlled myself for a reason—the things I used to think about, the things I built that wall to prevent, were wrong. Killing was wrong. I wouldn’t do it.
But if I didn’t do it, Mr. Crowley would, again and again.”
John is afraid that killing the monster will turn him into a monster, but he decides that what he will have to do is “let the monster out” from inside of himself.
The result is that John begins to lose control. At one point he calls a person “it,” which alarms him because “calling human beings ‘it’ was a common trait of serial killers—they didn’t think of other people as human, only as objects, because that made them easier to torture and kill. It was hard to hurt ‘him’ or ‘her,’ but ‘it’ was easy. ‘It’ didn’t have any feelings. ‘It didn’t have any rights. ‘It’ was just a thing, and you could do whatever you wanted with ‘it.’”
At the end of the story, however, John saves himself, his mother, and his entire town. The way he does it and why is what makes this book a page-turner, so I’m not going to reveal it here because this is a good book, and you should read it–you’ll be glad you did, as glad as I am that my friend recommended it.
A Closed and Common Orbit, by Becky Chambers, is the kind of sequel that follows two characters from the first book, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. So it can be read on its own– although if you do read it, it’s hard to believe you wouldn’t then want to pick up the first one.
The two characters are Pepper, the mysterious tech expert, and the character formerly known as Lovelace, the ship’s AI who has been illegally transferred into a body “kit” by a human she loved but no longer remembers.
The chapters alternate between the story of how Pepper got to the point when she met the AI and the AI’s story. Occasionally there are technical specifications and emails, which elucidate and enlarge parts of the story, and they culminate with an illustration of something that the person who raised Pepper said to her when they looked up how to conduct a funeral: “Just because someone goes away doesn’t mean you stop loving them.”
The universe of these books continues to be detailed and fascinating, as when the AI, who has named herself “Sidra,” follows Pepper and her friend Blue onto an underwater train car labeled “Human” and asks
“why don’t different species sit together?”….Segregated transit cars didn’t mesh with what she’d read of the Port’s famed egalitarianism.
“Different species,” Blue said, “different butts.” He nodded toward the rows of high-backed, rounded seats, unsuitable for Aandrisk tails or Harmagian carts.
Or when Pepper explains why an interactive video game is important:
“This was the very first kids’ sim to have an Exodan and a Martian not just occupying the same ship, but being friends. Having adventures, working as a team, all that fuzzy stuff. That may not seem like a big deal today, but forty standards ago, that was huge. A whole generation of kids grew up with this, and I shit you not, about ten standards later, you start seeing a big shift in Diaspora politics. I’m not saying this sim is solely responsible for Exodans and Solans not hating each other any more, but Big Bug was definitely a contributing factor in helping us start moving past all that old Earth bullshit.”
Sidra, as an AI who is newly experiencing life as a human, often provides a close look at the world she is living on:
“She watched as a group of Aeluon children blew handfuls of glitter over each other, dancing excitedly but making no sound at all. She watched as a massive Quelin—an exile, judging by the harsh branding stamped along her shell—apologised profusely for getting one of her segmented legs stuck in some decorative fabric draped around a vendor’s booth. She watched service drones flying drinks and food orders back and forth, back and forth. She wondered if the drones were intelligent. She wondered how much they were aware of.
And Sidra’s friend Tak, a tattoo artist, provides context for some of what Sidra has read:
“Just about every species mods themselves somehow. Quelin brand their shells. Harmagians shove jewellery through their tendrils. My species and yours have both been tattooing for millennia.”
There is a plot, which develops in parallel, from the story of “Jane 23,” which is how Pepper was designated on her home planet, and from the story of how Sidra adapts to life in her body “kit.”
There’s some social commentary:
“The easiest way to stare reality in the face and not utterly lose your shit is to believe that you have control over it. If you believe you have control, then people who aren’t like you…well, they’ve got to be somewhere lower, right? Every species does this. Does it again and again and again. Doesn’t matter if they do it to themselves, or another species, or someone they created.”
Most of all, there’s lots of character development. Near the end, Sidra the AI—who has learned how to store enough memory to keep herself sane, how to lie, and how to discover her own purpose (rather than her originally programmed one)– says to Tak the Aeluon:
“Al of you do this. Every organic sapient I’ve ever talked to, every book I’ve read, every piece of art I’ve studied. You are all desperate for purpose, even though you don’t have one.”
It’s a wonderful book, a worthy successor and a good independent story. If you liked the first one, you should read it. And if you haven’t read the first one yet, there’s no time like the present.
I’m always sad when I have to say goodbye to one of my (adult) children, and the moment we left Eleanor at the Albuquerque airport was no exception. I stepped onto the plane, found my seat, and opened up the book she’d lent me to read on the way home, George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo. Then I read it and wept, all the way to Chicago.
This is a sad, sad book. By now you probably know what it’s about, right? It’s about spirits who can’t go on, but linger on earth, in what Tibetans have traditionally called the “bardo.” I wondered if I would catch a whiff of necromancy, but mostly the smell is more like regret.
There’s a big cast of characters, so it took me a couple of chapters to understand what was going on, but after that it’s apparent why there are so many voices, and who they are. The scope of the commentary is one of the pleasures of the novel. I especially enjoyed (and Eleanor agreed with me when I mentioned this) the sections in which wildly conflicting contemporary accounts are given about whether the moon was full on a certain night in 1862, and what color Abraham Lincoln’s eyes might have been (hazel, green, gray, or blue, it seems).
Contemporary accounts of the death of Lincoln’s son Willie differ in the amount of blame they assign to his parents, for going ahead with the party they had planned on the night he died, but comments like this one, attributed to “Selected Civil War Letters of Edwine Willow,” are also included in the selection Saunders provides:
“The terror and consternation of the Presidential couple may be imagined by anyone who has ever loved a child, and suffered that dread intimation common to all parents, that Fate may not hold that life in as high a regard, and may dispose of it at will.”
There is an ironic tone to the chapters in which these kinds of selections appear, provided by the juxtaposition of the various quotations. For example, several selections after the quotation above appear these two:
“Wild shrieks rang out.
Sloane, op. cit.
One fellow stood in perfect happiness, orange-trousered, blue coat flung open, feasting in-place as he stood at the serving table like some magnificent Ambrussi, finally found the home of his dreams.
Wickett, op. cit.”
The story, told by the spirits of those who do not seem to realize they are departed (referring to their coffins as “sick-boxes” and longing to finish actions they were unable to complete before dying) centers on the novelty of Lincoln’s visits to his son’s tomb, where Willie’s spirit sees him with his “mouth at the worm’s ear” and thinks “how I wished him to say it to me.” The “worm,” of course, is his own body.
The two main spirits that try to help Willie are reinvigorated by their purpose, even to the extent of realizing how much time has passed since their own deaths:
“I felt arising within me a body of startling new knowledge. The gentleman? Was Mr. Lincoln. Mr. Lincoln was President. How could it be? How could it not be? And yet I knew with all my heart that Mr. Taylor was President.
roger bevins iii
That Mr. Polk occupied that esteemed office.
….On the day of the beam, Polk had been President. But now, I knew (with a dazzling clarity) that Polk had been succeeded by Taylor, and Taylor by Fillmore, and Fillmore by Pierce—
After which, Pierce had been succeded by Buchanan, and Buchanan by—
roger bevins iii
The spirits of former slaves tell their terrible (and, by now, well-rehearsed) stories:
“One day, we were taken out of Washington, to the country, for the fireworks. Falling ill, I stumbled upon the trail, and could not get up, and the sun burning down brightly, how I writhed upon the—
How you ‘writhed upon the trail, and yet no one came.’
How I writhed upon the trail, and yet no one came. Until finally, the youngest East child, Reginald, passed, and inquired, Elson, are you ill? And I said that I was, very much so. And he said he would send someone back for me at once.
But no one came. Mr. East did not come, Mrs. East did not come, none of the other East children came, not even Mr. Chasterly, our brutal smirking overseer, ever came.
I believe Reginald may have, in all the excitement about the fireworks, forgotten.
Forgotten about me.
Who had known him since his birth.
And lying there it—
Lying there it occurred to you ‘with the force of revelation.’
Lying there it occurred to me with the force of revelation, that I (Elson Farwell, best boy, fondest son of my mother) had been sorely tricked, and (colorful rockets now bursting overhead, into such shapes as Old Glory, and a walking chicken, and a green-gold Comet, as if to celebrate the Joke being played upon me, each new explosion eliciting fresh cries of delight from those fat, spoiled East children) I regretted every moment of conciliation and smiling and convivial waiting, and longed with all my heart (there in the dappled tree-moonshade, that, in my final moments, became allshade) that my health might be restored to me, if just for one hour, so that I might correct my grand error, and enstrip myself of all cowering and false-talk and preening diction, and rise up even yet and stride back to those always-happy Easts and club and knife and rend and destroy them and tear down that tent and burn down that house, and thus secure for myself—
‘A certain modicum of humanity, for only a beast—‘
A certain modicum of humanity, yes, for only a beast would endure what I had endured without objection; and not even a beast would conspire to put on the manners of its masters and hope thereby to be rewarded.
But it was too late.
It is too late.”
There is a moment when Lincoln, the desperate father, wishes to perform an act of necromancy:
“Mr. Lincoln tried to get the sick-form to rise. By making his mind quiet and then opening it up to whatever might exist that he did not know about that might be able to let the (make the) sick-form rise.
Feeling foolish, not truly believing such a thing was even—
Still, it is a vast world and anything might happen.
He stared down at the sick-form, at one finger upon one hand, waiting for the slightest—
Please please please.
That is superstition.
Will not do.
And yet, of course, readers feel the impetus, his desperate wish, the wrongness of what he wishes for and the depth of sadness that impels it.
The spirits, in the course of their efforts to help Willie–which are not untinged by the interest of bystanders at a disaster—actually go into Lincoln, connecting them briefly to life again and connecting him to their longings to have their lives back again:
“He was an open book. An opening book. That had just been opened up somewhat wider. By sorrow. And—by us. By all of us, black and white, who had so recently mass-inhabited him. He had not, it seemed, gone unaffected by that event. Not at all. It had made him sad. Sadder. We had. All of us, white and black, had made him sadder, with our sadness.”
At the end of the story, most of the spirits are finally departing this world, although not without leaving readers with their fondness for the everyday details they will miss, and that we should notice:
“Loon-call in the dark; calf-cramp in the spring; neck-rub in the parlor; milk-sip at end of day.”
Beautiful in its sadness, this is a novel that will make you feel what it might be like to be someone else—lots of someones, over and over–until the only regret that you can feel is not making the most of your own time on earth, even when your next moment consists of limping tiredly off of an airplane to greet the gray light of morning in the place you’ve chosen to live.