Reading Diary: long and short, or, God and sex

28191591Black Leopard, Red Wolf, by Marlon James (out in Feb): This outrageously good-looking book is also outrageously long: well over 600 pages in proof. It is also only the first in a projected trilogy, entitled Dark Star, focusing on African mythology. Neil Gaiman’s puffed it as an African Tolkien with flashes of Angela Carter, which actually doesn’t seem too far off. It focuses on a mercenary known only as Tracker, whose prodigious gift for finding and following scent is mostly used to hunt down debtors and shiftless husbands until he is recruited to find a missing boy who might just be the rightful heir to the throne of the kingdom. James frames most of the narrative as a story told under interrogation, presumably to keep us in suspense about how Tracker comes to be imprisoned as a result of his quest, but for long stretches of time it’s easy to forget about that. Chronological leaps, a profusion of characters, and the aforementioned sheer length of the book meant that for a fair fraction of its pages–maybe a fifth to a quarter–I was reasonably confused about what was happening and whose side we ought to be on. Luckily, I think that’s exactly the reaction James intends; he wants people to need to read Black Leopard, Red Wolf over and over again. And for all that it’s baggy, it’s also intense and immersive; I read it over four days and could barely stand having to do other things like sleep and go to work. The book is rich in brilliant imagery–a city built in the trunks and branches of enormous baobab trees; a fish the size of an island; murderous spirits who walk on the ceiling–and much of that is imagery that white readers won’t be automatically familiar with. James also does Tolkien one better by making (gasp!) explicit sex, and explicit queerness, part of his world. Black Leopard won’t be for everyone, but it’s an incredible experience.

51zSm5C7lWL._SX326_BO1204203200_The Hook, by Raffaella Barker: Books like The Hook fascinate me because they are clearly the products of skilled professionals, and yet they would be virtually unpublishable if anyone tried to sell them to an editor tomorrow. The Hook was first published in 1996 and there must have been something in the water in English literature in the ’80s and ’90s, because those decades are full of books like this, where–it seems–the author is just telling us a story. How crazy that sounds now! How crazy that it sounds crazy! It’s not that The Hook has no plot; au contraire; the minute we meet eighteen-year-old Christy and learn that her mother’s just died, she’s dropped out of sixth form, her father’s bought a trout farm in the countryside, and she’s met a man named Mick at a bar, we know bad things are afoot. Maybe it’s just that Barker appears to be writing without an agenda. She does tell a story about a young woman being led astray by an older man who is not all he says he is, and let down by the people who ought to be protecting her, but it’s hardly #MeToo territory. There is nothing in the narrating voice that forces us to see the novel’s events in a political light or even in the light of wider society. I can’t decide whether that makes it incredibly subtle and delicate in a way that publishing is missing out on now, or whether The Hook simply has…well…no hook. Or maybe a bit of both. Has anyone else read Barker? What do you think?

original_400_600Quarantine, by Jim Crace: Crace is an atheist, but this book–maybe the one for which he’s best known–reimagines the experience of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, during which, according to biblical authority, he was tempted by the devil but rejected his advances. In Crace’s version, Jesus isn’t in the same place on his life trajectory: he’s a much younger man, almost a boy (and he never goes by the name Christ, being referred to by the narrating voice always as “Jesus”). The “devil” is a man named Musa, a merchant, wife-beater, and, later, a violent rapist, whose near-fatal fever is unwittingly cured by Jesus on his first night in the desert. The caves of quarantine are not as deserted as he would like; others are in them, seeking other things. Aphas, an old man, wants a cure for his cancer; Shim wants the enlightenment that he believes he’s entitled to; Marta wants to get pregnant; Miri and Musa are there simply because the caravan in which they were traveling left them behind. Throughout the novel, characters wrestle with what they want. Crace shows us that desire is often better left unfulfilled: one of the primary questions of the book is whether everyone would have been better off if Musa had not been miraculously cured. And yet Crace’s vision doesn’t seem so bleak, at least not to me. Jesus doesn’t survive his forty-day fast–no one could–but Musa seems to see him at the end of the book. In a sort of Schrodinger’s resurrection, Jesus is neither clearly living nor clearly dead, and it’s suggested that Musa’s inveterate storytelling habit becomes the catalyst for the New Testament narrative that we know now. Meanwhile, Marta and Miri’s friendship and eventual emancipation is, for me, the most Christian element of the book: two people finding comfort, acceptance, and courage in each other’s presence. It’s a gorgeous piece of work.

the-dreamers-9781471173561_lgThe Dreamers, by Karen Thompson Walker (out in Feb): This is exactly the sort of science fiction that will receive extremely positive mainstream press attention and high sales; like Station Eleven, another of that kind, it deals with the fall-out of a world-changing event, not so much with the nature or provenance of that event itself. In a small college town in California, students start falling asleep. They’re not in a coma–they’re just sleeping–but nothing will wake them up. Brain scans reveal that they’re dreaming, and not only that, but they’re dreaming more vividly, with more intense cerebral activity, than any normal person. Thomspon Walker follows several point-of-view characters (a few more than she needs to, although she keeps an omniscient narrator throughout, so that pesky problem of differentiating voice doesn’t arise): an isolated freshman named Mei; the idealistic and unusual boy she falls in love with, Matthew; one of her professors, who left his wife for another man decades ago; another college student, Rebecca, who becomes pregnant just before succumbing to sleep; a young couple, Annie and Ben, and their newborn baby, Grace; and two little girls whose father is a doomsday prepper. On the whole, I agree with other assessments I’ve seen of The Dreamers around the Internet: the style is lovely and languid, there’s a bit too much fetishizing of babies and breeding, and everything that’s written about Rebecca’s situation reads painfully like an anti-abortion manifesto. I’d quite like to read The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers, which deals with similar issues and won the Clarke Award in 2012; The Dreamers, meanwhile, is diverting and interesting while you’re reading it, but has faded fairly quickly from my memory.

51FE8d3qeHL._SX287_BO1204203200_The English Gentleman’s Mistress, by Douglas Sutherland: This was published in the late ’80s by Debrett’s (yes, that Debrett’s), and constitutes a sort of tongue-in-cheek nature guide to that most peculiar inhabitant of high society, the gentleman’s mistress. In many ways, it’s funny and charming and contains some cracking anecdotes, including one meant to illustrate the difference between Frenchmen and Englishmen, in which one Frenchman casually informs another that he is sleeping with the latter’s wife, only to be met with “Oh yes? Tell me, is she any good at it these days?” In many other ways, it’s a startling reminder that the late 1980s were as rampant with gross sexism as the late 1880s: women are referred to as mares, for instance, with all of the sexual value judgments that the word implies, and this is clearly not a world in which any sensible woman would prefer having a career to being “kept”. A weird, often enjoyable, often really distressing little volume. I’m glad I have it, if only for self-educational purposes.

27220616Devotion, by Ros Barber: In the near future, just after the death of Richard Dawkins, moves are afoot to reclassify religious fundamentalism as a form of mental illness. In this climate, Dr Finlay Logan must assess the sanity of April Smith, a ninteen-year-old woman who has committed a religiously motivated act of mass murder. Logan himself is struggling to come to terms with the death of his daughter Flora in a skydiving accident; his grief is threatening to destroy his marriage, as his wife–Flora’s stepmother–is increasingly stymied by his inability to communicate his pain. Meanwhile, in the course of investigating April’s condition, Logan comes across a charismatic researcher named Gabrielle Salmon, who offers both him and April the chance to undergo a procedure that, she claims, will allow them to experience direct contact with the divine.

The ideas in Devotion are in many ways more compelling than the characters whose actions are meant to express those ideas: Logan is frustrating, selfish and self-pitying, while the event that drove April to murder is at best predictable, at worst a reduction of female pain to an inevitable origin in sexual trauma. I’m also uncertain about Barber’s portrayal of faith. She writes about it in a way that seems to see only three options: crazed, God-talks-to-me fundamentalism, pure atheism, and a kind of “spiritual-but-not-religious” state that manifests in a vague, fuzzy feeling of one-ness with all life. There are many other ways of experiencing what is generally referred to as the divine–there is an enormous distinction between “religious faith” and “religious fundamentalism”–and it would have been refreshing to see some more acknowledgment of that; it’s still so rare in mainstream literary fiction. Devotion is absolutely worth reading, though, even if it only goes halfway, and I’m slightly surprised that it was never on the Clarke Award shortlist.

9781783526215Don’t Hold My Head Down, by Lucy-Anne Holmes (out in Feb): The subtitle should make it pretty clear why I was interested in this. Holmes hit her mid-thirties and became aware–after a disappointing wank to Internet porn–that she wasn’t having nearly as good sex as she wanted. So she made a list (slow sex! A bit of kink! Maybe some bum stuff! Full-body orgasms!) and set off to see what she could find out about how to bang better. It’s a fun read, certainly, but much of it feels (and I accept that it’s very easy to criticize) a bit…basic? Not in terms of the sex she has–Holmes does more stuff in the name of let’s-see-what-this-is-like than I ever have–but in terms of the tone and the attitude, which is all a bit jolly-awkward-Bridget-Jones-falling-into-a-mud-puddle-whoopsy-I’m-such-a-silly-tit. There is a lot of caps lock. There are many exclamation points. A writer can’t help the person that they are, but I was hoping for something that I’d be able to connect to on an emotional level a bit more. Instead I found myself repeatedly thinking “for Christ’s sake, woman”, not helped by the fact that Holmes meets a man halfway through the book and ends up entering a serious relationship with him, eventually having a baby. Perhaps that’s meant to be a happy ending, but it did rather close off some avenues of exploration. Maybe I’ll have to write my own version of this book.

7B0DFC0F19-347A-4F63-B619-6C84B99E8F6F7DImg400John Henry Days, by Colson Whitehead: Before this I’d only read The Underground Railroad, but Whitehead’s reputation preceded him: he’s versatile and has a permanently active, connection-making mind that’s on full show in John Henry Days. John Henry is an American folk hero, although he probably did really live, in some form or another, a steeldriver on the C&O railroad. Faced with the prospect of losing his job to an automated steam drill, he’s said to have challenged the drill to a contest, and won, before dropping dead of exhaustion. Using this semi-historical, semi-mythological event as a thematic focal point, Whitehead riffs on the value of work, particularly on the value of work done by undervalued bodies (brown ones and/or female ones, predominantly), in late-capitalist America. His other protagonist, J. Sutter, is a black journalist who is on a junketeering streak: for months, he’s been at a PR event every day or night. His latest assignment is the official unveiling of the new John Henry postage stamp, and the John Henry Days festival, in the town of Talcott, West Virginia. Whitehead is so exuberantly creative, both with language (which he uses in the manner of an extremely skilled and show-off-y chef wielding a very sharp knife) and with the scope of his ambition (chapters range from the recounting of a violent Rolling Stones concert to the story of the first musician to put the folk ballad on paper), that sometimes the book feels unfocused. But who gives a shit when there’s this much going on?

Thoughts on this batch of reading: So much God stuff! So much sex stuff! An extremely long book and several pretty short ones! Also, I love how excited I’ve been by reading the paperbacks that I chose for myself in Crouch End a few weeks ago (in this batch, that was The HookQuarantineDevotion, and John Henry Days).

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17 thoughts on “Reading Diary: long and short, or, God and sex

    • Yes, it’s the only other one of his I’ve read! I liked it a lot, but Quarantine was slightly clearer, if that makes sense – one of the major points about Harvest is its determined lack of historical or geographical concreteness – so the former worked a bit better for me.

  1. Goodness, what an eclectic mix you’ve been reading! I look forward to reading the Marlon James, and will certainly avoid The English Gentleman’s Mistress. As for the Don’t Hold My Head Down, the comparison to Bridget Jones made me break out in hives instantly…

  2. I’ve been intrigued by the Marlon James for some time but the Tolkien + Carter comparison makes me wonder if this is one for me. I read A Perfect Life by Raffaella Barker a long time ago and thought it was pretty poor, IIRC, but it’s a really interesting point about how books today have to be more ‘hooky’ – I think this is a loss, overall. I didn’t get the same anti-abortion vibes from The Dreamers, but I agree that it’s not a book that will stay with me.

    • Eh, I don’t know if I would have made the Tolkien/Carter comparisons myself. They’re interesting things to measure James’s achievements against, but he doesn’t remind me of either, really.

  3. I think I’d like to read the Marlon James, and I’ve got Devotion and The Marlowe Papers still on my shelves. I read Quarantine when it first came out, but didn’t get it then! I must read more Crace though. Some great reading there.

  4. James sure does love writing very long books. I still haven’t read Seven Killings – which one first? And on that, I still haven’t read Underground Railroad – which one first?

    • Ooh. Seven Killings is (just about) shorter, but written in patois; Black Leopard is huge but the language is a bit more straightforward. Of the two Whiteheads, I’d say The Underground Railroad first, then John Henry Days; a lot of his preoccupations become clear if you read them that way round (or at least they did for me).

      • Honestly, it’s not so much that I’ve read a few books twice that length… it’s more that I can pull dozens of books that length off the shelves without trying. It feels to me like 600 pages is about par for a run-of-the-mill fantasy novel – my copy of the second volume in Abercrombie’s trilogy is about 600 pages for instance, and that feels pretty lightweight as a story. 800, 900 pages is very normal for single volume of a meatier story, and anything under 400 or so feels more like a novella. It’s something where there’s just such a stark cultural difference between the two different readerships – one that feels 600 pages is ridiculously long for an entire novel, and one that feels it’s on the light side even as one volume in a small trilogy. No wonder it’s so difficult for readers on either side to cross over. Literary folk must be amazed by how keen genre fans are on reading, and their willingness to engage with things like plots, characters, themes, etc… whereas I know I’m not alone as a genre fan in not understanding how literary folk can be satisfied with their little amuse bouche delicacies, which feel like little poems that barely finish their introductory sketches of one or two characters before they run out of pages… I think maybe an entirely different mindset is required.

        [Fun fact, because i’ve just re-learned it again myself: Robert Jordan was once commissioned to write a short story to tie-in with his main story, The Wheel of Time (over 10,000 pages, around 4.5 million words). His first draft of his short story was over 100,000 words. Once he’d managed to hack it down to a breezy 30k for the short story anthology, he then re-published the big version as a novel. But as I recall, a lot of fans felt cheated by being offered a ‘novel’ so short…]

        Anyway, not trying to put one tradition over the other. Just… cultural differences!

      • I knew a little about this, in an anecdotal sort of way, but that Robert Jordan story really drives it home. I wonder if the difference is that epic fantasy in particular is really interested in creating a whole world, with multiple different stories, whereas for most literary novelists—laying aside things like sub-plots—there’s only one *story* per world that each of their books create. (Although I don’t love the distinction between “literary” and “genre” anyway, mostly because some of my favourite stuff is crossover or slipstream-y. I concede the usefulness of the terms for broad categorisation, but often I’m told that a person “doesn’t read fantasy” in the same breath as they say they like, e.g., Neil Gaiman or Diana Gabaldon, both of whom write fantasy on the literary end of the spectrum, in my eyes.)

      • Having multiple stories is certainly part of it. Not all fantasy – even epic fantasy – is the full, MPOV, polyphonic stuff that a George RR Martin or a Robin Hobb puts out, of course, but even stories that are relatively straightforward are expected to have many supporting characters, all to some extended well-rounded characters with their own development arcs – many literary novels are almost obsessively focused on a single character, but that would seem very strange in SF&F.
        But also, what’s actually meant by “story” seems to be different – I read people talking about the “plot” of literary novels, and to me they read like short stories – depictions of a passing state of affairs, or of a state followed by a change – whereas fantasy stories demand individual development and multiple interpersonal conflicts, depicted in lifelike detail. Genre just demands… MORE.

        So to take an example that I happened to look at when thinking about page counts before: Hobb’s Liveship Traders. It’s three volumes, each around the 800-900 page mark, telling a single story. It is, admittedly, slow-moving, at least at first – it takes 50 pages just to introduce all the characters – but it would be hard to write it much shorter than it is. Hobb is writing about family dynamics, so there’s a family – and each member has to be at least marginally independent and to have their own arcs and interests. She’s writing about the nature of female roles and how women can respond in different ways to patriarchy, so she needs to have about half a dozen women to follow. Then she needs antagonists and love interests and the like, and for them to be taken seriously they need their own narrative weight as well. She’s writing about the importance and nature of cultural identity, so there have to be people from different cultures, and she’s writing about nationbuilding and the development of order out of chaos, so that requires its own cast of characters and its own plot, or plots (because the theme is exemplified in two different cultures at different stages of the process) – so you’ve got these political plots, the personal plots about how the protagonists come of age and to a new understanding of their lives, and the interpersonal plots as the characters resolve their incompatible interests and desires. Then all of that story has to be embedded within a complex and ancient world, with plots about the world itself changing, and the rediscovery of ancient things, and in order to have a totally lateral viewpoint on those plots there have to be some viewpoint characters who are sea-serpents, so then you have to have the plot of their personal development and how that interacts with what’s going on with the humans… and then again, this all has to be embedded within the ongoing cycle of novels, so there’s a character imported from another series and there’s their development and how everyone sees them (so that we get a different perspective from the one we see in the ‘main’ novels (9 novels following one man’s life and political career from birth to old ages)). When you take all these plots, characters and themes, all interwoven, taking place over several years of action, of COURSE it takes over 2000 pages! The payoff, of course, is that it’s able to produce more emotional power and resonance, and more lingering interest in the reader, who has had to invest considerably just to follow what’s happening.
        From a genre point of view, however, if you strip out most of this content so that you can have a streamlined story of one or two central characters, it feels thin and solipsistic – you feel the lack of that depth and grounding, and the loneliness of not really understanding everything from the perspective of everybody else around the protagonists. Thinking of a literary book I liked, for example, Billy Liar – we follow Billy over a couple of days as he interacts with his various girlfriends and family members and comes to some decisions about his life. It’s great. But there was a part of me that wanted it to be a fantasy novel, because in a fantasy novel we’d then have just as much material about each of those girlfriends, and how they see the situation, and each of his family members… whereas instead in the book as it is, all we see is through Billy’s eyes, and that feels so incomplete! [of course, if it were a fantasy novel, it would also cover a decade rather than just a weekend or so…]

        So to look at that Jordan story, for instance: when Jordan tried to write a short story, he ended up writing a story that alternates the perspectives of two different characters. And for those characters to be interestingly independent, they’re introduced long before they actually meet each other, so they each have entirely unrelated plots, and their own supporting characters and backstories. And the action takes place in two different cities plus some time travelling between them; and the characters have to establish themselves and their contexts, meet one another, contest with one another, find common ground, and each resolve their individual plot demands. No wonder it’s not a 5k piece!

        Then again, don’t get me wrong: everything Jordan wrote probably SHOULD have been a quarter the length it was. There are legitimate reasons why fantasy encourages high word counts, but many authors have abused that charity through laziness and greed!

        —————-

        Regarding the distinction: I agree in general that there isn’t a clear line in terms of content. And if you want to piss off a SF&F fan until steam is coming out of their ears, just bring up the fact that as soon as an author is critically acclaimed, they get moved out of the SF&F section and into the “literary” or “general” section. Sometimes it seems like half the non-genre shelves in Waterstones are just genre novels (and usually the better-selling half to boot*). And if you want to make our heads explode, just talk about Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro and similar authors, who insist vociferously that they “don’t write science fiction”, they write serious novels…

        …but I think that there is a distinction to be made, between FANDOMS. Genre fans generally aren’t literary fans, and vice versa – although individuals might like a range of books, the collective fandom has its own culture, its traditions, its assumptions, its prejudices, and most people come from one side or the other.

        I agree that between actual books, the gap is much smaller. And indeed, a lot of non-genre classics feel a lot more like genre fiction than like literary fiction. Last year I read “The Count of Monte Cristo”, and this year I read “Pride and Prejudice”, and both to me feel like they have a comfortable place within The Genre, even despite their sad lack of dragons. (Monte Cristo is basically proto-fantasy). It’s probably why it feels so natural to some people to have something like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, while the idea of, I don’t know “The Stranger and Zombies” would be a bizarre thought…

        *as in the joke that says that a “genre” writer is just someone who actually writes for a living, rather than doing it as a hobby. There’s a fun anecdote about some author, I can’t remember which off hand, stranded at an event with literary writers, who keep asking him what his job is – where does he teach? No no, he explains, people actually PAY him to write!

      • (come to think of it, those ‘cultural differences’ may go a long way to explaining my own commenting and reviewing style… (he says, having just hacked a review down to only 7,000 words…))

      • This is something I’ve noticed in genre reviewers! A much keener interest in haggling over details of interpretation. I love reading it because it appeals to my academic tendencies, and I try to write such detailed criticism myself (although time constraints mean it’s often impossible, so I have to strike the happy medium of sufficient analysis in fewer words.)

      • In my own case, I’d love to claim the defence of genre differences, but mostly it’s just poor writing, poor discipline and laziness…

        More generally, I think often one issue is that genre novels just HAVE more details to haggle over, what with being longer and in general denser. It’s easier to write an essay about a novel than about a haiku. And if it takes you longer to read, you have more time to have thoughts digest. And probably have fewer books to review at a time…

        To an outsider, it also feels like a lot of the difference is enthusiasm – people who read genre fiction tend to really, really enjoy reading genre fiction, so want to talk about it. Whereas a lot of people who read and review literary fiction seem to want to talk about how they read literary fiction, but don’t seem to really CARE about the specific works of fiction they’ve read. Their reviews very often feel, to me, to be at arm’s reach, uncommitted. But of course, that’s just how it seems to an outsider – again, cultural differences may be at play here.

        [I think you write well about books – although I must admit I often find myself overwhelmed, since you read so much and I’m aware of the context of so little…]

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