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84K

December 5, 2018

84K, by Claire North, is one of the most marvelous works of fiction I’ve read in the last few years. It was brought to my attention by Jenny at Reading the End, who often finds and recommends new books I want to read.

84K is a dystopian satire about corporate culture run wild, with an anti-hero whose actions are almost entirely ineffectual and a supporting cast of mostly-unheard citizens who keep trying to figure out how to effectively rebel against the corporation who now owns their government and, effectively, their selves.

It’s not until about a quarter of the way through the book that you realize that the fictional “patty line,” clearly understood to mean jail, is literally referring to people who process the burgers that free citizens buy and eat. This satire, it’s not subtle.

It’s not about the far future, either. My congressional representative recently said, in a public debate, that the employees of a local company that donated thousands of dollars to his campaign had done it voluntarily; that “it was the workers’ decision.” It was no such thing. The owner of the company is a Republican, and anyone who wants to keep his job donates as she encourages him to. In 84K, the character who calls himself Theo Miller attends a training weekend for his job and says
“the weekend was voluntary.
If you did not attend you would be docked one week’s pay and a note put on your file—‘BBA.’ No one knew what BBA stood for, but the last woman to have these fated letters added had been given a job at a morgue, showing family members the corpses of their loved ones.”

Although 84K is set in a dystopian future-Britain, the way the corporate-owned government came into power sounds astonishingly like what is currently happening in the United States:
“…they abolished human rights. The government insisted it was necessary to counter terrorism….When they shut down the newspapers for printing stories of corruption and dirty deals, he’d signed the petitions.
When they’d closed the universities for spreading warnings of impending social and economic calamity, he’d thought about attending the rallies, but then decided against it because work would probably frown on these things, and there were people there who took your photo and posted your face online—saboteurs and enemies of the people—and besides, it rained a lot that month and he just needed a morning off….
When it became legal compulsory to carry ID, £300 for the certified ID card, £500 fine if caught without it, he knew he was observing an injustice that send thousands of innocent people to the patty line, too skint to buy, too skint to pay for being too skint to buy. When it became impossible to vote without the ID, he knew he lived in a tyranny, but by then he wasn’t sure what there was left to do in protest. He’d be okay. If he kept his head down. He’d be fine.”

Not only are there a lot of people in this country who are keeping their heads down, there are already laws about homelessness that entail fines for anyone sleeping on the street. If you ask what’s the point, because clearly the homeless person can’t pay, you will eventually figure out that the point is, as it is in the novel, to criminalize poverty.

Theo endures an “hour-and-forty-minute commute on the train, head down and body swaying in carriages where once there had been seats before the train company judged them inefficient.” Have you been on an urban commuter train lately? Or bought tickets to stand up for the duration of a concert?

When Theo gets to his job, every day, he figures out how much a life is worth.
“There was a case he worked, once, a boy, seven, was run over by three teenagers. They hit him, then rolled over him four more times, laughing, and he died. They filmed the whole thing….
But the teenagers had money, and the boy was autistic and assessed as being unlikely to contribute very much to society. Then it turned out his mother was an immigrant anyway so it wasn’t like the boy was even a citizen just a scrounger on the nanny state….
How much had the boys paid?
He thought….if he closed his eyes…maybe £35,000 each? Maybe a little more, because they’d also damaged a neighbor’s car, and it was a Volvo.”

At certain points, when Theo is thinking about how the world works, the prose starts to reflect the stops and starts of how he has incorporated what he has been told all his life:
“At college his meals are cooked for him six days a week. Room cleaned. Shoes polished. He goes to the library and someone else puts the books away if he forgets. At the weekend he has money for drink, or can walk by the river without a care in the world, or take a bicycle out into the countryside and let the sunlight wash away the work, and when he returns to his soft bed
he is better
can work better, do what he needs to do, better, and one day
if he works hard enough, earning through his labours
one day maybe someone else will turn down the duvet in the corner of his bed and someone else will press the smell of cleanliness into his fresh-washed clothes and he need not scrub at dishes and argue with the water company and stand in line for the bus that never comes because these things are fundamentally
not the things he is best at
he can give
so much more to the world
so much more
if he’s just given the opportunity to do it.”

In fact, Theo learns, he is living in a “slave state. There aren’t any chains on our feet or beatings on our backs because there don’t need to be. Cos if you don’t play along with what the Company wants, you die. You die cos you can’t pay for the doctor to treat you. You die cos the police won’t come without insurance. Cos the fire brigade doesn’t cover your area, cos you can’t get a job, cos you can’t buy the food, cos the water stopped, cos there was no light at night and if that’s not slavery….”

At one point, Theo thinks he can expose the Company, that he has proof that will bring them down. He has video of “Company Police shooting runaways….maps of the mass graves behind the prisons, the records of how many people died cos the hospital wouldn’t let them in….” Then he realizes that “of course, Everyone knows. I’ve known. I send people to die, and I knew it. I’ve always known. No one ever says it. We stop before the hard things. We never finish saying anything that might matter at all.”

As another character says, “Everyone knows, but no one looks. We don’t look because if we look it makes us evil because we aren’t doing something about it, or it makes us sad because we can’t do anything about it, or it proves that we’re monsters when we always thought we were righteous….”

There’s an internet meme I keep thinking about: “IF YOU EVER WONDERED WHAT YOU WOULD HAVE DONE DURING 1930’S GERMANY OR THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT; CONGRATULATIONS: YOU ARE DOING IT NOW.”

So what are you doing? I’m sick of hearing that people I know are “tired of talking about politics” and “don’t have time to get involved.” If more of us don’t speak up and take action, we’ll be living in the world predicted by Martin Niemoller’s famous Holocaust poem:

First they came for the Communists
And I did not speak out
47156229_2432534133429244_4434022604579274752_nBecause I was not a Communist
Then they came for the Socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me

 

 

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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

November 27, 2018

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, by Hank Green, is about fame and about what kinds of things people will do to get attention and approbation on Twitter. It’s also the story of how a ten-foot-tall humanoid statue suddenly appeared in every city on our planet, and how we figured out that this was the work of aliens.

In her post about An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Kathy at Bermuda Onion includes a photo of the display at the 2018 Book Expo, a ten-foot-tall model of a statue.

The main character of the novel is a young artist named April May. She discovers the first statue on a street in New York City and thinks it’s a work of art. She calls her friend Andy and they make a video about the statue, which they call “Carl,” a name that sticks when the video goes viral. This is how she announces his arrival in that video:
“He arrived sometime before 3 am today, guarding the Chipotle Mexican Grill next door to the Gramercy Theatre like an ancient warrior of an unknown civilization. His icy stare is somehow comforting, it’s like, look, none of us has our lives figured out…not even this ten-foot-tall metal warrior.”
From the first appearance, however, we know that something more is up. April says “I wanted people to wake up and spend a few moments looking at the exceptional amazement of human creation. Hilarious in hindsight.”

April is in love with Maya, who seems to be more intelligent and articulate than April herself:
“Maya was the most effective talker I knew. It was like she wrote essays in her brain and then recited them verbatim. She once explained to me that she thought this was part of being Black in America.
‘Every black person who spends time with a lot of white people eventually ends up being asked to speak for every black person,’ she told me one night after it was too late to still be talking, ‘and I hate that. It’s really stupid. And everyone gets to respond to that idiocy however they want. But my anxiety eventually made me extremely careful about everything I said, because of course I don’t represent capital-B Black People, but if people think I do, then I still feel a responsibility to try to do it well.”

As April’s fame takes off, the story begins to fill with puzzles. The first one is a typo on a Wikipedia page (there are a few pages of “spot the typo”). The next ones are like video games, but they happen in the dreams of anyone who has ever been in the presence of a Carl or another person who has. People who solve the puzzles in the dreams get to go on to the next level.

As her fame increases, April learns how to do TV interviews. She says that she’d “thought about what I’d say if I someday got a soapbox. That income equality is out of hand. That all people are pretty damn similar so it would be great if we stopped hating each other. That prison sentences for nonviolent crimes are dumb and that drug addiction is a health problem, not a crime problem.” When she does get her chance, she finds out that “the real trick is to know exactly the one point you absolutely 100 percent need to get across and also know when to shut your mouth.”

The best parts of the story are the parts where April learns about what it means to be famous and Hank gets to pontificate on the subject, using April as his mouthpiece:
“Most attributes a person has are, at least in some way, defined by them. They are good at soccer, they are funny, they know a lot about the history of Rome, they have blond hair. Some of these things are things that person worked for, some are just things that they happen to have, but they are all characteristics of the person.
Fame is not this way.
Imagine if you looked different to every person who saw you. Not, like, some people thought you were more or less attractive, but one person thinks you’re a sixty-five-year-old cowboy from Wyoming complete with boots and hat and leathery skin, and the next person sees an eleven-year-old girl wearing a baseball uniform. You have no control over this, and what you look like has nothing to do with the life you have lived or even your genome. You have no idea what each person sees when they look at you.
That’s what fame is like.”

April’s fame grows in equal and opposite measure to the fame of her rival Peter Petrawicki, who believes that the Carls are a threat. His fear-mongering hinders the efforts of the group April, Andy, and Maya have set up to share information about the game in the dream so humans all over the world can share the knowledge necessary to progress in the game. The anti-Carl actions of Peter’s group, The Defenders, gives Hank an example for talking about “what happens when groups of passionate believers start to define themselves in opposition to others:
1. A Simple message seems obvious to a large population, and those people can’t understand what the opposition could possibly be thinking. They never or almost never engage with someone who holds those different beliefs, and if they do, it’s in the context of the discussion, not in the context of, like, also being a human.
2. The vast majority of those people nod appreciatively and then change the channel and watch NCIS and eat the tacos that they made. It’s their own recipe. They’ve developed it over years, and they like it better than any taco you could get at even a super fancy restaurant. They go to bed at 10:30 and worry a bit about whether their son is adjusting well to college.
3. A very small percentage get really riled up. They’re angry, but they’re mostly worried or even scared and want to cause some kind of action. They call their representatives and do a little organizing. They’re usually motivated not just by agreement in the message but by a hatred of the people trying to fight the message.
4. A tiny percentage of that percentage just go way the fuck overboard. They get so frightened and angry that they need to make something happen. How? Well, that’s simple, right? You eliminate the people who are actively trying to destroy the world. If we’re all really unlucky, and if there are enough of them, those people find each other and they confirm and exacerbate their own extremism.”

The ending of April’s story is, predictably, open-ended. She thinks that if she solves the dream-puzzle the “grand prize” will be “some gift only the Carls can bestow.” What happens to her makes Andy say that “we are each individuals, but the far greater thing is what we are together, and if that isn’t protected and cherished, we are headed to a bad place.”

Well, as they say on the TV show The Good Place, this is the bad place. What we are together has reached a low point in the U.S., the U.K., and Brazil. It’s going to take more than reading fiction to find a way to pull us out, no matter how good the ideas are.

The Rules of Magic

November 19, 2018

If you’re looking for a modern-day grimoire, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman, isn’t it. Some of the “rules” are disappointingly mundane: no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic, no walking in the moonlight. Others are oddly specific: do not drink milk after a thunderstorm, always leave out seed for the birds when the first snow falls, wash your hair with rosemary, drink lavender tea when you cannot sleep. A couple are quite general: harm no one, remember that what you give will be returned to you threefold. The biggest ones are rules gleaned from experience or a child’s rebellion against the experiences of a previous generation: fall in love whenever you can, never fall in love, or know that the only remedy for love is to love more.

There is an actual grimoire in this novel, “a treasured text of magic…imbued with magical power. Writing itself was a magical act in which imagination altered reality and gave form to power. To this end, the book was the most powerful element of all. If it wasn’t yours and you dared to touch it, your hand would likely burn for weeks…”

The Rules of Magic consist mostly of benign Wiccan guidelines, along with vague warnings against “dark magic” involving ingredients like the heart of a dove or a person’s tooth. The main character, Franny, keeps a notebook to remember all the harmless suggestions and herb lore passed down in her family:
“Star tulip to understand dreams, bee balm for a restful sleep, black mustard seed to repel nightmares, remedies that used essential oils of almond or apricot or myrrh from thorn trees in the desert. Two eggs, which must never be eaten, set under a bed to clean a tainted atmosphere. Vinegar as a cleansing bath. Garlic, salt and rosemary, the ancient spell to cast away evil.
For women who wanted a child, mistletoe was to be strung over their beds. If that had no effect, they must tie nine knots in a strong rope, then burn the rope and eat the ashes and soon enough they would conceive. Blue must be worn for protection. Moonstones were useful in connecting with the living, topaz to contact the dead. Copper, sacred to Venus, will call a man to you, and black tourmaline will eliminate jealousy. When it came to love, you must always be careful. If you dropped something belonging to the man you loved into a candle flame, then added pine needles and marigold flowers, he would arrive on your doorstep by morning, so you would do well to be certain you wanted him there. The most basic and reliable love potion was made from anise, rosemary, honey, and cloves boiled for nine hours on the back burner of the old stove. It had always cost $9.99 and was therefore called Love Potion Number Nine, which worked best on the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month.”

The Rules of Magic is a prequel to Practical Magic, which was made into a movie with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in the 1990’s. It tells the story of the girls’ grandfather Vincent and his sisters Franny and Jet, along with the rebellions and rules that affect their lives. I found much of the plot frustrating; there seems to be no good reason why their parents forbid Jet’s love for a particular boy, no real reason for Franny to decide that she can’t ever fall in love, and no rules for Vincent, who gets to do whatever he wants, at least up until the draft begins for the Vietnam war.

Jet can read other peoples’ thoughts, which seems to be as realistically portrayed as is possible, since she resists revealing what she knows:
“What am I thinking right now?”
“Franny,” Jet demurred. “Thoughts should be private things. I do my best not to listen in.”
“Seriously. Tell me. What am I thinking right now?”
Jet paused….”You’re thinking we’re not like other people.”
“Well, I’ve always thought that.” Franny laughed, relieved that was all her sister had picked up. “That’s nothing new.”
Later, when Jet went out into the garden, she stood beneath the lilacs with their dusky heart-shaped leaves. Everything smelled like mint and regret.
I wish we were like other people.
That was what Franny had been thinking.
Oh, how I wish we could fall in love.

The origin of a rule can always be traced back to an experience in the family’s past. When Franny asks why a particular relationship is secret, her aunt says “why is anything a secret? People want to protect themselves from the past. Not that it works.” Their family is special, the children are told over and over. “They were…all descendants of a witch-finder and a witch, and therein lay the very heart of the curse’s beginnings, for they were fated to try their best to deny who they were and to refute their true selves.”

It’s a good story, but I don’t believe in curses and think we make our own fate. Too much of that kind of talk sends my mind straight to an image of Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein, comedically tossing himself back and forth upon a pillow shouting “destiny, destiny, no escaping that for me!”

Dear Evan Hansen

November 13, 2018

Growing up as the daughter of a theater professor and director, I’ve seen a lot of musicals in this country, Canada, and London, but I’ve listened to the soundtracks of a lot more.

For years I’ve listened to the soundtrack of Next to Normal, and then last weekend I got to see a very small-scale production of it at Kenyon–there were surprises, as there always are. The best one was the scene with the “rock star” psychiatrist in which he says some of his lines normally and wails others on a rising note in an almost eardrum-shattering falsetto. The most fun one was seeing one of my students do a quite realistic job of playing the stoner boyfriend, Henry. The least surprising revelation was how much sadder it is to see the show than to listen to the music. I was telling Walker and Ariel, who went with me, that he knows a woman, a friend of mine, who has had electroshock therapy in the last few years. Filling in the lost memories is hardest for her husband, I said, and Walker pointed out that one of the things the musical makes you realize is that mental illness is hard for everyone but hardest on the ill person. It’s not a contest, and if it were, it’s the kind you don’t want to win.

Dear Evan Hansen is another musical about mental illness with a soundtrack I’ve listened to and probably won’t be able to see on stage anytime soon. So when I noticed that the creators of the musical had written a novel, I picked it up to know more of the story.

The title comes from the letters Evan’s psychiatrist wants him to write himself every day about how “today is going to be an amazing day, and here’s why.” When Connor Murphy, a guy he barely knows, takes one of these letters out of a school printer and refuses to give it back because it mentions his sister Zoe and so he thinks it’s all about him, the action of the play is precipitated. Connor’s subsequent suicide and his parents’ discovery of the letter addressed to Evan make its last question poignant: “would anybody even notice if I disappeared tomorrow?”

The answer of the musical is yes, which is why I love musicals. In real life, it seems like the answer is often less positive. People come and go; we don’t always make much of a mark in the world. Evan makes his mark by lying about being Connor’s friend. He doesn’t really mean to lie, at first, and he does it with the best of intentions—to make Connor’s parents and sister feel a little better. As we often point out with evil acts, however, the ends do not justify the means. The feel-good middle part of the musical is based on a lie, so all the good Evan does with his new prominence at school and on social media, where he co-founds “The Connor Project,” is ephemeral.

As with all dreams, however, “The Connor Project” takes on a life of its own, and its effects go beyond those that its co-founders intended. Even working with a co-founder is a new experience for Evan, and imagining what it might have been like to be friends with Connor leads him to become better friends with a family acquaintance, Jared, and with his crush, Connor’s sister Zoe.

Onstage, Connor is gone after the first few scenes. In the novel, however, he gets a few ghostly point-of-view chapters in which he reacts to what is being said about him after his death. Luckily, these chapters are short and don’t give away much of the plot, so they don’t turn comic and they serve to make Evan’s actions more understandable, as they underline how lonely he and Connor both were and how one of them can “save” the other—even if Connor didn’t literally find Evan lying on the ground after falling out of a tree, as Evan claims, the claim itself helps Evan find a way to keep living after the fall from the tree, which no one else realizes was a suicide attempt. Connor’s ghost, listening to Evan tell a story about Connor finding him on the ground under the tree, says “the spirit of what he was saying, how he was saying it—in some weird way, it felt true.”

The other transformation that happens in the novel and onstage is that Evan finds out that it’s not all about him, something Connor didn’t live long enough to do. With his mother, a single parent doing her best, Evan finally stops reacting as if “she’s still trying to tweak me just a little bit more to her liking” and sees that she’s always been on his side. The novel has a speech about how she’s tried to be there for Evan. The musical, as far as I can tell, has a climactic song about a truck.

It’s an interesting novel, a quick read and a good reminder, at this point in the semester when everyone feels overloaded, that as the characters sing in Into the Woods, “while we’re seeing our side, maybe we forgot that they are not alone; no one is alone.” We all go through the day thinking it’s about us, when a little more imagination might clue us in about how what we’re doing looks through someone else’s eyes, or the eyes of their friends and family… my comments on a student’s paper… the way able-bodied people race impatiently around as I haltingly try to get through the heavy doors into a college building… that woman in the Kroger parking lot wearing a MAGA hat and a scowl who would probably like to be able to buy whatever she wants without worrying about the total, as I can. We pull our coats around us and hurry to get in out of the damp cold of a November Ohio dusk. In our cars, though, parked head to head, we both play music. I play the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack and wonder what song is making her open and close her mouth behind her windshield.

 

 

It Takes Death to Reach a Star

November 9, 2018

I received a copy of It Takes Death to Reach a Star, by Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington, in an August giveaway from TLC Book Tours. The authors considerately signed it and wrote “we all have demons,” a thought that was uppermost in my mind on Wednesday, the day after the U.S. midterm elections, when I got dressed to go out among the people who’d voted for local conspirators in fascism like Mr. Bob Gibbs. I put on a piece of Supernatural fan jewelry, an anti-demon-possession symbol stamped onto a pendant.

Although I said I was going to try to make fewer jokes about the political situation in this country after the 2016 election, I’m left with this mostly-unspoken one about demon possession in the wake of the mid-term elections. Every single candidate I worked for and supported with my contributions lost. Every single one. Harbaugh. Cordray. Sutton. Valentine. Tate. Space.

Looks like I’ll still be standing on the town square for a frozen half hour every Saturday this winter. Maybe I can think of the frigid earthside setting of It Takes Death to Reach a Star:
“Long ago, it was a vast, sprawling gulag-turned-mining community called Norilsk. Between World War III and the New Black Death, nearly nine billion people around the world lost their lives. Those who were left fled their homes and cities in search of someplace safer. For many, this barren hellhole was it. The conflict hadn’t fully destroyed the city, and the New Black Death struggled to take hold in the brutal Siberian climate.”

The earthside setting is where the humans who survived the New Black Death are living; they’ve renamed it Etyom and themselves Robusts. There are also genetically engineered humans called Graciles who live eight kilometers above Etyom on platforms they call, informally, lillipads.

The story follows the adventures of Mila, a Robust, and Demitri, a Gracile. Demitri hears a voice in his head, and he keeps this a secret because he assumes it’s a fault in his genetic engineering. In fact, however, it turns out to be a demon. Demitri calls it Vedmak and struggles to keep it under control.

There’s a third kind of creature in this future, called the Creed. They are “fully autonomous androids perfected just before World War III ended. They were meant to be the soldiers to end it all—that is until the NBD (New Black Death) did it for us.”

There are some irritating bits, as you might expect if you’ve ever read a novel that has been co-written. Demitri is a hipster who thinks that the music he plays on an antique turntable has “warm tones that can only be reproduced by a vinyl record.” His mission is revealed to him by collected “relics from the old world” which include Van Gogh’s self-portrait and a placard with the quotation “It takes death to reach a star.” Mila is the kind of stubborn heroine who can’t leave one life unsaved even when it costs her a mission upon which other lives depend. A little Robust girl they rescue, Husniya, turns out to have a voice in her head named “Margarida” and she can hear the voice in Demitri’s head too.

Mila and Demitri discover a plot originated by the Leader of the Graciles and manage to foil it. It consists of a strange mix of science and magic. Demitri discovers that Vedmak is
“proof of other dimensions—purgatory, Hell, whatever you want to call it. I did the scan on Husniya’s and my DNA. I found the protein responsible for our connection, for the entanglement. The Leader only needs to recreate the protein and generate enough to study the interaction of the subatomic particles. He’ll figure out how to manipulate another dimension. Now he just needs a powerful enough supercollider.”

I found the ending disappointing because after the conflict is resolved, Vedmak succeeds in taking over Demitri and disappears into the frozen waste, a la Frankenstein’s monster. It’s all set up for a sequel, which I won’t be reading.

46067693_10215913359219943_3410713158447267840_nI am grateful, though, for the post-apocalyptic image of desperate and frozen people. It almost makes Ohio in November seem not so bad. Almost.

 

 

Weave a Circle Round

November 5, 2018

There’s no way I could resist reading Kari Maaren’s new Weave A Circle Round, a fantasy novel with a title taken from the poem “Kubla Khan.” It begins like a standard young adult novel; there’s a teenaged girl named Freddy whose parents get divorced, she has a younger sister she protects and they acquire a stepbrother she resents, and she has friend trouble as she begins high school. Then some odd people move in next door, an unpredictable woman who goes by the name of Cuerva Lachance and a 14-year-old boy named Josiah. The first third of the novel comes to an end when Josiah and Freddy walk out the back door of his house and into the past.

Suddenly we’ve been dumped into what feels like a different book. Freddy and Josiah travel in time together for the middle third of the novel, and we find out more about who they are. At the first place they land, “in a Scandinavian forest twelve hundred years before the date of her birth,” Freddy finds out that Cuerva Lachance is called Loki and Josiah looks exactly like Heimdallr. They have no control over their time jumps, but they keep being called to places where the one who follows the rules, Josiah, and the one who makes impossible things happen, Cuerva Lachance, meet up with a human they call “Three” who has to choose between them, deciding whether rules or impossibilities will be in the ascendant during that time period.

Freddy and Josiah even go to the future, where life is “a series of pointless battles in an ancient, crumbling cityscape.” A turning point comes in the past when Freddy witnesses a storyteller named Mika telling a story that sounds like it might be the origin story for Josiah and Cuerva Lachance. Then, one time jump later, they knock on the door of a Three who turns out to be Samuel Coleridge and Josiah tells the housekeeper they’re from Porlock:
“Mr. Coleridge is working and cannot be disturbed” said the woman.
Freddy bobbed her head. “I was told it couldn’t wait, miss,” she said.
Freddy tells Coleridge the story of their travels:
“It wasn’t what they normally did with the Threes. Some of them could handle the idea of time travel, but many couldn’t. Josiah would make up some story: he was generally his own twin brother, and Freddy was his guest. If everybody thought he was a god, Freddy became a god, too. If everybody thought he was foreign, Freddy was from his country. Some of the Threes had seen Cuerva Lachance travel in time, and those ones got an edited version of the truth. None of them got the whole truth, or none of them had until now. She didn’t care. Until now, they had been flitting aimlessly back and forth through time. Josiah said this was because of the rules, but she was tired of following the rules. Whose rules were they, anyway?”

The last third of the novel brings together the seemingly disparate story lines and shows the importance of stories, from myths and flyting to Romantic poetry and finally to modern Dungeons & Dragons games. We find out who the Three is in Freddy’s time. And we see Freddy experience so many impossible things that she starts seeing the world differently:
“When Cuerva Lachance materialized in the bedroom immediately afterwards, Freddy barely twitched. She felt an odd sense of loss. Sure, she had once reasoned away a marble rolling uphill, but at least then she had thought of impossible things as, well, impossible. With Cuerva Lachance, the impossible happened all the time. It made it hard to see anything as fundamentally real.”

The house, which has been fancifully described thoughout, gets out of control, with spider plants and chairs attacking Freddy, who is unmoved:
“’Oh, and now the piano’s going to eat me, too?’ It was creeping through the chairs, crouched on its rollers, like a very bulky tiger hunting in the grass….
Freddy shoved three or four slavering chairs aside and slammed her hands down on the keys of the piano. All she could think of to play was ‘Chopsticks,’ but she played it as vengefully as she could. She could even almost hear it over the roaring of the organ. ‘There,’ Freddy screamed at the piano and the organ and anything or anyone else who may have been listening. ‘You want music? Here’s some music for you. Everybody’s playing music now! Shut up!
The piano looked at her sheepishly without eyes and slunk off into a corner.”

In the end, Josiah finally closes his eyes, signifying that all the rules have been suspended, and both time and reality go wrong, resulting in that most wrong of wrong things, necromancy:
“Now Freddy could remember the funeral going wrong. At the burial, skeletons had danced up out of the graves. Freddy’s mother had clambered from the coffin to join them.”

In order to solve the crisis, Freddy has to figure out how stories and rules work together:
“Wave a circle round him thrice…the man in the poem wasn’t random at all. He was the poet. And he could imagine the hell out of the pleasure-dome, but he also had to be controlled.”
She and her siblings manage to work out their relationship and the fate of the world.

This is a bigger novel than you think it’s going to be when you start, which makes it a good fall book. It’s a book that makes me think about what Bilbo says to his nephew about going out the door: “it’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

 

Forever and a Day

October 30, 2018

Forever and a Day is a new James Bond novel by Anthony Horowitz, and I got an advance copy of it from HarperCollins. It’s a prequel to Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. As they also did with Horowitz’s previous Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, Fleming’s estate provided Horowitz with a bit of Ian Fleming’s original material and Horowitz includes it as a brief story told in a casino about a previous adventure Bond had in that same casino, before he became 007.

Horowitz’ Bond chooses the number 007 in this novel, because the agent designated as 007 has just been killed. Bond says to M “I think it sends out a message. You can take one of us down but it changes nothing. We’ll come back the same and as strong as ever.”

The writing in Forever and a Day evokes the excesses of the way Bond novels are usually translated to the screen. Here’s a description of this novel’s “Bond girl,” an older woman who goes by the name “Sixtine:”
“Bond liked the way she looked—her bare arms, the curve of her neck and the glittering gold choker with its single diamond nestling in the cavern of her throat. The black silk seemed to flow around her hips and breasts. She was wearing classic stilettos, black satin decorated with rhinestones.”
Sixtine turns out to be the influence behind James Bond’s often-stated preference for martinis “shaken, not stirred.”

The excesses of the writing reach a peak with a description of a minor functionary on the bad guys’ team, who is:
“smiling pleasantly although the dark hair swept back over his forehead, the narrow eyes and aquiline nose had the effect of making him look both distant and disdainful. His grey suit provided an unappealing background for a burgundy tie stamped with a chintzy diamond motif. As he moved forward, there was something oily about his motion. His handshake was weak, unenthusiastic.”
It’s almost as if readers are sophisticated and discerning enough to notice the same level of detail as a professional spy.

The main bad guy is literally a big bad; you can tell he is evil because he is massively overweight:
“The actual physicality of the man—the amount of space he occupied—was breathtaking. It seemed incredible that he could move, that somewhere inside this explosion of flesh there was an actual, working skeleton. He was dressed in the same three-piece suit that he had worn at La Caravelle but it now seemed to Bond that the heavily buttoned waistcoat and belt had a secondary purpose: they were holding all the monstrous parts together. He had taken his time as he crossed the warehouse, wheezing with the effort and using a shooting stick to support himself. When he was facing Bond, he unfolded it and sat down, the leather seat vanishing into the soft, obscene curves of his buttocks.”
He is so big that he gets stuck trying to climb up a ladder on a sinking ship, where Bond and Sixtine leave him to drown. After all, he’s repulsive.

The auxiliary bad guy is American and talks a bit like a modern-day Republican:
“We are coming to the belief that we can solve all the problems in the world and, as we become ever more powerful, with ever greater weapons, we don’t see what’s happening. We don’t see that we risk becoming monsters….What the United States of American needs is a wake-up call, or what you might think of as an injection of common sense….drug addiction is going to become the driving force of the twentieth century. People are going to get ill. People are going to need treatment. People are going to turn to crime. That’s the future whichever way you look at it—but maybe it can become a force for good. This is the thought that has occurred to me. If America becomes more inward-looking, if it is made to look after its own, then maybe it will re-examine its position in the world and as a result the world will become a better place.”
He is explaining his plan to get everyone in the U.S. addicted to heroin.

Surprise! James Bond foils this evil plan.

It was fun to read something in which good and evil are clearly delineated and then soundly defeated in these last few weeks of pre-midterm-election America, when working towards good seems complicated and like it might lead to mixed results. This book comes out in the U.S. on election day, when we may need a little British agent action to restore our equilibrium.

 

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