Reading Diary: Mar. 25-Apr. 7

51vgjyqjsil-_sx324_bo1204203200_It took me a long time to read Pat Cadigan’s novel Synners: three and a half days, which is half a week and a timespan in which I can usually dispatch two books. It’s been a while since I read something that forced me to work out its rules as I went along, and the mental stretch felt good, although possibly also ill-timed; by the end of April, I won’t have had a weekend to myself for over two months, and for an introvert in a customer-facing job, that doesn’t put my brain in a happy place. Still, the unmerciful in-your-face-ness of cyberpunk is something I find quite charming. Cadigan’s novel is set in a future LA, a city where big business, entertainment and media conglomerates are even more obsessed with capturing the consumer’s attention than they are now. Into this maelstrom of competing adverts, music videos, and immersive games, Cadigan introduces a technology called sockets, which allow humans direct neural contact not only with the Web (which, fyi, didn’t exist at the time she wrote the novel), but with each other’s brains. The implications, both for business and for things like, you know, human rights and privacy, are huge and not altogether positive. The novel’s final fifth is a huge set piece in which our heroes and heroines – a team of misfit hackers and makers – try to stop the global Internet from having, basically, a stroke. It’s a very exciting book, and incredibly prescient; it was 1992 when it won the Clarke Award, and, as other people have noted, apart from the curious lack of mobile phones, Cadigan’s vision of future tech is not terribly far off where we are now (although I don’t think music videos are quite the cultural force in our world that they are in Synners. It was clearly written when MTV was more of a thing.)

Its major problem is that sense of disorientation. I wouldn’t give this to anyone who was a novice science fiction reader; it asks a lot of you from the very beginning, jumping point-of-view character each chapter for the first five or six chapters while also throwing tech-speak at you with both hands. (There are slightly too many characters, I think, and Cadigan opens with a chapter focalised through someone who turns out to be not very important, which is sort of representative.) The big set piece at the end is hard to visualise, too; it takes place inside various systems, consoles, programs and augmented-reality environments, as well as the “real” world, and the action can get hard to follow. What Cadigan does do very well, however, is achieving emotional roundedness for her characters. Sam, a seventeen-year-old hacker who has emancipated from her parents, has some wonderful moments: pragmatic, with an agile mind, an insouciant attitude, and a crush on someone too old for her, she makes a believable smart teenager. Gina Aiesi, whose lover, Mark, is the reason for the net-wide stroke, is given an incredibly engaging emotional arc—the need to decide between having her own life and sticking around for someone who has never been there for her—and a characteristic rage that prevents her from being a passive figure. In a novel that sees the melding of human and machine as virtually inevitable, the fact that I came to care deeply for the humans in the pages says a lot about Cadigan’s skill as a writer.

overstorybritproof

The proof cover is nicer than the finished cover, IMO.

Richard Powers is fast making his way into my favourite writers of all time (a permanently shifting category that at the moment includes A.S. Byatt, Sarah Hall, and William Thackeray). The Overstory, his latest book, is maybe his most ambitious yet: it seeks, essentially, to instill in its reader a sense of sympathy and identification with trees. That Powers actually manages it is confirmation that he is one of the most skilled writers currently working that I can think of.

The Overstory starts with a section called Roots, divided into six separate strands that introduce us to our main characters. They range from Nick Hoel, whose family farm houses virtually the only chestnut in America to be spared the blight that kills other specimens, to Douglas Pavlicek, a Vietnam vet whose life is saved by a banyan tree, to Olivia Vandergriff, a feckless college girl who experiences a short period of death (shower, light switch, poorly wired house) and emerges back into life convinced that she has been chosen by mysterious entities to help save the California redwoods. There is also Neelay, a paraplegic video game designer; Adam, an academic psychologist; Patricia, a botanist disgraced by her assertion that trees form communities; and Dorothy and Ray, a couple constantly on the brink of disaster. Over the course of the book, these characters will (mostly) become intertwined with each other’s lives, and with trees: studying them, living in them, trying to protect them, listening to them.

The reason it works so well, I think, is partly because Powers takes his time to establish the stories of each character, and partly because his writing about geological time, and about the biological miracle of plant life, is so stunningly beautiful. It is easy to love and feel for the people in this book, but it is also impossible to come away from it without the understanding that they – and, by extension, you – are the least significant parts of a story that has been going on for a much, much longer time, of which they – and you – can only ever be a tiny fraction. The Overstory doesn’t preach about environmentalism, but it does lay out facts, and those facts reach for you. It has made me reconsider, once again, whether I can in good conscience choose to have children. It is an astonishingly well-written, empathetic, heart-rending, blink-inducing book, and I recommend it without reservation.

51hqy7tubclJodi Taylor is, I think, the nearest anyone has yet come to being the obvious successor to Jasper Fforde. Instead of rootling through the backstage area of literature, however, her protagonists jump into the past; her Chronicles of St Mary’s is basically The Eyre Affair for historians. Taylor’s writing isn’t quite as nimble as Fforde’s was at the start of his series: you can generally see the jokes coming from a mile away, although one or two of them are a delightful surprise. In this first volume, we’re introduced to our heroine, Madeleine Maxwell (more often referred to as Max), who embodies a lot of the badass-tough-girl tropes that genre fiction is often guilty of endorsing, but manages also to be sympathetic. Mostly, Taylor achieves this by juxtaposing Max’s relentless up-for-it-ness with another set of tropes: the hopeless klutz. But she has a sense of humour, and it’s not difficult to see why her friends like her, so the reader is pretty much along for the ride.

The plot of Just One Damned Thing After Another can best be summed up by that title; there are at least three natural ends to this novel, and it might have made more sense if Taylor had chosen the first or the second. The main action centers around a jump to the Cretaceous period; St Mary’s is a historical research institute whose employees “investigate historical events in contemporary time.” (They’re instructed not to call it time travel. It’s time travel.) Taylor takes my personal favourite way out of the science-y bit of all this: she acknowledges it before refusing to engage (Max asks how it all works, and is met with stony looks and a sarcastic “Really?” from a tech). It’s as good a strategy as any, and better than either pretending the reader doesn’t know how bonkers time travel is, or going full metal technobabble and over-explaining. The Cretaceous jump is meant to be a simple observe-and-report mission, but Max’s partner betrays her, leading to the discovery of a plot from the future to monetise St Mary’s’ activities and develop a chrono-tourism trade. The rest of it is buddy-adventure with a big old beating heart, a bit of romance (and a surprisingly good sex scene), and a delightful cliffhanger at the end. Great fun, and you don’t have to check your whole brain at the door.

61s7thv4z7lThe next book on the Women’s Prize longlist for me was Sight, by Jessie Greengrass, a novel which I’d been anticipating, since Greengrass was shortlisted for the Young Writer of the Year Award back in 2016. If Sight hasn’t quite made me a rabid fan, it’s at least made me understand that shortlisting. Greengrass is at ease with language, and her sentences reflect that ease; she’s never uncomfortable or dull to read.

Where Sight is open to criticism is in its relentlessly autobiographical-seeming and narrow focus. I’m wary of saying this, especially because it is a book about motherhood, pregnancy, daughterhood, and grief: all subjects that women seemingly cannot write about without being asked if they too have experienced such things as their characters experience. But the choice of person and narrative style in Sight pushes us towards such an interpretation: it’s an extremely tightly focalised first person throughout, except for sections on the history of medicine (Röntgen, Freud, and John and William Hunter are of main interest, for their relevance to the protagonist’s physical and mental state throughout the book). Insofar as it has a plot, Sight is focused on the protagonist’s choice (or not) to have her first child, but we know from flashes back and forward that she has a daughter, so her agony of indecision is not especially suspenseful for the reader. What we’re left with, essentially, is a collection of meditations on the body and on grief, but the protagonist’s voice so rarely makes connections between her own experience and anything in the wider world—she doesn’t seem to have a job, for example, or any friends except for her partner; there’s no discussion of how societal pressure might be affecting her decision-making about children—that it reads more like disconnected autofiction. This is absolutely a matter of taste, but the trend towards fiction writing that might have been better off as memoir is not one that I feel very positively about, so although Greengrass is a skillful and thoughtful writer, I’d feel obscurely frustrated if Sight made the shortlist.

33229395The Guardian’s books site wrote a piece not long ago about “up lit”, and cited titles like The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, Joanna Cannon’s first novel, as examples. Naomi then tweeted about how inaccurate she found this: neither Cannon’s work, she said, nor some of the other examples (Eleanor Oliphant, for instance), are particularly cheery or uplifting, they’re just marketed that way. Opening Three Things About Elsie, I was dubious (look at the cover, for Christ’s sake); closing it, I was in agreement with Naomi. It is not a jolly, Jonas Jonasson-type romp about picturesque elderly people getting into scrapes. It is a book about dementia, and terrible loneliness, as well as about the pasts that people choose to forget. Its ending is, in a strange sort of way, uplifting, but I suspect there will still be readers who are less uplifted than distressed by it.

This means I liked it a great deal more than I was expecting to. The plot is, in many ways, the weakest thing about it: it revolves around eighty-four-year-old Florence’s belief that she has spotted a menacing figure from her past, one Ronnie Butler, in the nursing home where she now lives. His attempts to discredit her are made easier by the fact that paranoia is the one symptom of dementia everyone knows. As Florence remembers more and more about the past, the coincidental connections with staff and other residents of the care home start to seem a little too good to be true, and the comments made in dialogue about the effect of even an insignificant person’s life on those around them are rather heavy-handed. Where Three Things About Elsie absolutely shines, however, is in Cannon’s slow revelation of the huge gap between how someone believes they are perceiving the world, and how the world perceives them. Florence’s narration initially makes her seem a crotchety, but basically sound, old lady. As the book progresses, other peoples’ reactions to her make it clearer to us that she is fairly far gone (which makes it easier for Ronnie to cast doubt on the legitimacy of her allegations), and also that she is painfully lonely: she daydreams about inviting the carers, or the man in the corner shop, round for tea and cake; she stockpiles shortbread for visitors who never drop by. That’s a state of mind we need to be reading more about in fiction, and for my money, Cannon writes about it more effectively and movingly than Gail Honeyman in Eleanor Oliphant, a book touted as being all about loneliness.

Thoughts on this fortnight’s reading: That I’ve read at all, in between a flying visit to Dorset, preparations to move north of the river, and an Easter weekend hen do, feels vaguely miraculous.

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I wrote this when I was sixteen and it’s held up okay

In my junior year of high school, we had to write a different sort of essay every month. The categories of essay–process, descriptive, narrative, and so on–were determined by our textbook, which was so profoundly uninteresting that I have forgotten its name. The theory was that eventually we would have a set of personal essays, one or two of which might be used for our college applications the next year. (US college applications require at least one personal essay, which generally prompts a lot of adolescent soul-searching/panic.) This was one I wrote in November; it is optimistically saved, in my computer, as “college essay 2” (I didn’t capitalize the titles of computer files back then. I think I thought it made me somehow, obscurely, cooler.)

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since (The Great Gatsby)

I’m no F. Scott Fitzgerald (thank God). I’m no Nick Caraway either, but we do have something in common, Nick and I. He, of course, is well out of his “more vulnerable years” by the time he sets forth his father’s advice, and I have a feeling I’ve only just started in on mine. But both of us have listened to our fathers dispensing what paternal wisdom they would. Whether it is the best advice I have ever received remains in doubt; whether my father’s pronouncement even qualifies as advice, for that matter, is a question I will not attempt to answer. I do know that, like Nick Caraway, I have been “turning it over” ever since, and I may never stop.

At some point in everyone’s life, death makes a real and tangible appearance. It doesn’t necessarily happen the first time someone you know dies—dozens of great-aunts and second cousins were six feet under before I recognized death as a part of my world, the real, actual world—but make no mistake, it happens eventually. It happened to me the summer I turned sixteen, under circumstances that are irrelevant to the trajectory of this essay. Suffice to say that, at the time, I walked through the world as if everything had been turned one hundred and eighty degrees to the right. Such profound disorientation is as painful as it is sudden, and it does not go away, and there is no one—there is literally no one—to whom you can communicate all of this. Bits and pieces of it slip out, of course, but they constitute a mere twenty percent of the iceberg of grief and sorrow and rage and incomprehension that lies in your path, that you cannot get over, that you have to live on alone.

By this I am not asking for your sympathy; I am not asking for your pity. I am only trying to set up the story.

At the end of the summer my parents and I were talking about the death, which had defined the past three months of our lives. My father the atheist, who had had a couple of beers, was expounding upon his view of the afterlife. It sounded to me like something Emerson might say after partaking of magic mushrooms, and I told him so. He chuckled indulgently, which is what he does when I’m rude, then became very serious and leaned forward suddenly. “Eleanor Mary,” he said, “we live for other people. We do not live for ourselves.”

It has been nearly five months since he said this, and still I am trying to figure out what he meant by it.

To live for someone else.

There are many ways to take this. To live for someone else could mean to always put them first. To listen to them cry. To be, as a character from the excellent movie Waitress puts it, “whatever you need me to be.” But then what are you, except a repository for someone else’s needs and neuroses? What can you be when you leave yourself out of the equation? No. I am not convinced.

Other people; other people. Who do you live for? I wonder this sometimes. At my age it’s harder to tell. When you’re forty you can say, “I live for my wife, my husband, my daughter, my son. I live for my mother”; you can even say “I live for my dog,” if that’s what you’ve got. There’s nothing wrong with living for your dog. When you’re sixteen, what do you have? What belongs to you? Whom do you love? Who loves you?

Your parents, sure. The love of your parents is like a given in a geometry problem. It’s your base, your jumping-off point, but after the first few sentences, it doesn’t enter into your proof. You only use it as a place to start from.

You live for your friends, of course, if you have them. But your friends are young and selfish people, just like you, and they are fallible, just like you, and you will let each other down. It won’t be the end of the world when it happens, but it will happen.

Who are you living for? Who needs you here?

Somehow you know who needs you. I know who needs me. Family is a mathematical constant, friends are deeply flawed, but you prop each other up. You love each other. You live for each other.

If I die tomorrow, someone will suffer terribly. My death tomorrow would cause other people to go through days of such crushing grayness, such bleak internal landscapes, as no human being should be required to go through. The people who love me aren’t perfect, but I am good enough for them, and they are good enough for me, and in this way life goes on.

A few months after the death, a good friend and I were talking about it. We were in her car, it was late at night, and we couldn’t see each other’s faces. Finally she said, “You know one good thing now.”

“No,” I said. “What?”

“You know,” she said, “that you will never do this. You will never hurt anyone this way, because you know what it’s like. And I know that I will never do this to you, I will never hurt you this way, because this can’t happen twice.”

I am sixteen years old and selfish and I live to gratify my own wishes. This is all true. But if that were all, I wouldn’t make it, not for very long. I live for my mother, a part of whom would die if I did. I live for my father, despite—partly because of—his Emersonian declarations. I live for my brother, who is still young and utterly sincere in a way that hurts to witness. I live for my friends and their laughter and the darkening sky; I live for rural midnights on long dirt roads; I live for rooftops and rosemary and learning how to cook.

I live for the dead boy, because he cannot, anymore; and I live for myself, because, thank God, I can.

The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L'Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.

The year after I wrote this, I met these people. Then I went to uni and I met L’Auberge Anglaise. I am more grateful to all of you than I can say; you know who you are.