Abbott puts her protagonist in a nice situation here: simultaneously covering up a bad thing that’s happened (or, rather, protecting the cover-up he’s already done) while trying to find out what actually led to said bad thing that happened. It’s a neat double-bind. And the language she uses is nice, too, and fitting for that protagonist as a Hollywood flack; it’s a lighter, flashier version of Mickey Spillane hard-boiled, all sparkle and no weight behind it.
One of the points where arguments converge, and also incidentally something like a classic villain’s speech, even though it’s not delivered by the worst character, nor is it delivered to the best. But it gets at the problem Bacigalupi’s playing with, a version of the role of technology in preserving or opposing nature, and by situating it within this minor confrontation the book’s perspective remains equivocal, uncertain. The Windup Girl is much more interested in underlining and extrapolating the errors of the past — our present — than it is in solving its own world’s problems.
In contrast to Kraken, this is full-on speculative fiction, an extrapolation of environmental and large-scale social collapse, and there are a lot of moving parts to the background. It’s actually very elegant that Bacigalupi orders them by color: the Green Headbands of Malay Islamists, the white shirts of the Thai government officials, the yellow-card ethnic Chinese refugees. He shifts the colors here — the black batons of the white shirts — fittingly for the impurity of each group’s moral status; in much the same way, he weaves through a small allegory of environmental niche and habitat in the way he frames each main characters’ insecurities.
And this is the subject that moves Jonas from petty lies to grand fictions, the story of his father’s flight to America. It is, in this telling, a great story; it’s also a story that I’d already read, in the New Yorker, when Mengestu was featured in their 20 under 40 issue this summer. Mengestu’s story was, I thought, the best of that series, and it was the father’s story as related by the son, straight through, several chapters of this book stitched together. In the novel’s version, though, the story is interrupted, interspersed with chapters about Jonas — his marriage falling apart, his visit in the present-day to his mother, recently widowed. And while the story might reach a little further thematically, with two hundred pages of Jonas preceding it to set the stage, and fifty pages interleaved developing things further, the excerpt’s focus and singlemindedness made for a more direct and unequivocal story.
Especially when the book is framed, more or less directly, as an outgrowth of the lying-to-please. Jonas discovers, teaching part-time at a prep school, that by dangling bits of stories that seem to reveal something personal, historical, explanatory, he commands the attention of his students; lying, his best talent, not only saves him from conflict in real life, but engages his students professionally — a new dimension on his defining skill. He begins with small untruths about himself; he finishes with a long story about his father’s journey from Ethiopia to America, which, when pressed by the headmaster, he admits is almost entirely fiction. The headmaster praises him for encouraging students to think about the wider world.
This is the root of the book — a justification for untruth, the reason for a marriage falling apart. It’s a different set of circumstances than normal, for an end-of-marriage narrative, in that the reasons don’t lie in infidelity or competition or whatever else, but are inherent in the characters, seeded in the narrator’s case by his parents, delivered without an explicit x-leads-to-y roadmap. He lies, which dooms the relationship, because he wants things to stay as they are. That doesn’t mean, though, that over the bulk of the book that his tendency to lie, to avoid honesty to save confrontation, doesn’t leach into all of the stories he tells; it doesn’t make his narration, however affecting when at its best, any less dubious.
But of course, despite the richness of the themes and the language, the detail of the setting, this book comes down to a final, violent clash between good and evil, with a hero and his ragtag band of comrades ranged against the treachery of a villain. There’s a chapters-long action sequence. There’s a short denouement. And the predictability and comfort of the structure works to enable all the other stuff, but also works against it, leaving the means of the plot in doubt but never the structure or the outcome. This is a difficult balance: Scarlett Thomas, who’s very similar in some ways to Mieville in her relationship to convention (while coming at many things from the opposite direction, kicking against things he embraces) did her best to frustrate similar expectations in Our Tragic Universe; the result was interesting, but I’d much rather have Kraken with me when trapped on a bus.
The religious speculation here, in a novel set in a London lorded over by many gods, with overlapping worshippers and competing belief systems, is an example of the way genre can work to incorporate, delineate, even illumine a knot of ideas: the hypotheticals that get taken as a given in the imagined world set up boundaries for a thought experiment, and it’s a benefit of the form that the writer gets to perform that thought experiment. That said, it’s an indication of Mieville’s control that he can seed his speculations on religion throughout the book, but when he gets to the point of pulling threads together for a dramatic climax, the speculations he’s followed are not just a digression or even a thematic overlay, but wind up being central to the resolution of the plot. This is a thing genre allows; it takes a strong practitioner of his genre to capitalize.
“You hear all the time, Billy told Dane — and how good it was for him to be telling Dane something — about the influence of pulp science fiction on real science. It is an admission both shamefaced and proud that some large proportion of scientists claim inspiration from variously crude visionary blatherings they loved when young. Satellite specialists cite Arthur Clarke, biologists are drawn to the field by the neuro- and nanotech visions of entertainers. Above all, Roddenberry’s leaden space-pioneering meant a demographic bulge of young physicists attempting to replicate replicators, tricorders, phasers and transporter rooms.”—China Mieville, Kraken | Del Rey 06.29.10
Another thing about Mieville is his investment in the city — London in particular, but the idea of the city, a heterogeneous shifting not-quite-mixture like a pousse cafe or an oilslick — as setting and metaphor. Obviously, the sheer force of will that creates the city in Perdido Street Station is something impressive, but following The City & The City Mieville has a different authority with a contemporary setting, situating the incredible within something more-or-less realist. Which gives Kraken a heavier anchor than earlier novels.
"Stampy" is followed in the next sentence by "benthic." A few lines later, Billy the hero finds himself "standing by the lack," that is, the space where a stolen object used to be. By the end of the chapter, "a twirl of rubbishy wind was gusting around some klaggy-looking squirrel on a rooftop." I don’t mean to imply that Mieville isn’t assisted by working more or less in sci-fi, the deeper end of genre fiction where an invented language or at least lexicon is encouraged (see A Clockwork Orange, or more recently Adam Langer). But even in the face of genre’s tolerance for overwriting (or experimentation!) the effects — in tone and mood, in economy of expression — that Mieville gets are impressive. And he’s (mostly) using standard English; and I’m just talking about diction, here.
Of course, the exertion of the style means that the language and the wash of images it creates take center stage: simply by not conforming to the conventions of the realist novel, the language adds complication. And by the time the main character reaches the outskirts of Rome (which is of course the time when his internal monologues climax, and we understand the relationship between the personal and historical catastrophes that have brought him to his current moment, running away under an assumed name, all unfortunately rather predictable) all of the shocking and visceral moments, the increasingly horrific images of warfare, whether committed by the Nazis or the Croatian Ustachis in the ’90s, bleed together, their impact blanketed by the effects of the prose.
Zone is written completely in a single-sentence rush, with no terminal punctuation except for the breaks between chapters and the occasional excerpt from something else. It takes place wholly in the mind of its protagonist, a series of reminiscences as he takes a train from Milan to Rome, and ponders over his life in war and espionage. And it’s pretty good, with a textual trick that at least makes sense for the onrush of the character’s thoughts, but it does beg the question of why this book gets translated — like poetry, this sort of highly-crafted language-dependent near-prose-poem must be incredible in the French, for a French reader; how much of the novel’s intangibles get lost in moving it (kicking and screaming) into English?
This is the kind of muddying, or fuzziness, that Your Republic does. The notion that a spy becomes his cover, the way an actor becomes his role? Not exactly a striking analogy, but perfectly fine, an acceptable commonplace. The notion of continuity makes it specific, applicable to the situation. But that’s followed with stranger analogy of Dorian Gray — which follows the metaphor a little bit too far, warps and changes it, so that neither version of Ki-yong’s alienation quite coheres.
This is not to say that Your Republic isn’t more interesting than accomplished. The prose is clunky, in a way that isn’t clear whether it’s the author’s or translator’s fault; the tension of the novel’s one-day conceit gets bled away by three mostly-separate plots, Ki-yong’s, his wife’s, and his daughter’s, interspersed with Ki-yong’s nostalgia; the conclusion is anticlimactic. But one of the things that gets conveyed is the epic fuzziness of North Korean thought — not only in this version of history, but also in the ongoing contradictions that make up the Juche Ideology.
There are a couple of points that Edward Docx makes here, of varying degrees of accuracy: he points out that Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown are not particularly good at what they do; he posits a distinction between literary and genre fiction based on constraint (“even good genre (not Larsson or Brown) is by definition a constrained form of writing. There are conventions and these limit the material.”); he follows that by asserting that these constraints make writing and reading easier (“a significant percentage of the thinking and imagining has been taken out of the exercise”); and finally asserts that we (who comprises “we” remains undefined — novelists? Guardian readers?) owe it to the excellence of the English language to make sure pleasure-readers pay attention to literary fiction.
Honestly, it’s kind of a muddle to begin with an argument about relative merits within a genre and end with (I think) a recommendation for better marketing. And I’m relatively sure that Docx’s notion is not that Stieg Larsson succeeds because of his marketing, at least not initially — let’s not forget that the first of his books was nowhere near as boring or incompetent as the final one. But setting up John Grisham or Robert Harris as high examples of genre, or setting poor Lee Child up as a straw man, albeit with his own words, ignores two important things. The first, obviously, is that there is excellent writing done in genre fiction, that uses the constraints of convention in useful ways, and is often able to get more mileage from a story because of manipulating or frustrating convention; viewing it as a crutch, a shortcut, or an excuse to avoid thinking is a difficult position to hold when faced with Pelecanos or Tafoya, or even Ross MacDonald. The second, from the other direction, is that very few literary novelists eschew convention: the jump from Christopher Brookmyre to Jonathan Lethem is a difference in degree rather than kind; the distance from Donna Tartt to Tana French is merely one of atmosphere and emphasis. And a novel about a spy is no less rule-bound than one about an adulterer.
The setup is interesting: Ki-yong is a North Korean sleeper agent, secure in his belief that his masters have forgotten about him after purging his controller years ago, suddenly activated. Kim (the writer, not the main character, although they share a name) doesn’t clarify whether Ki-yong is loyal or not, willing to follow his orders or just scared of their implications; but the retrospective bits, where Ki-yong arrives in and begins to adjust to the South, are an interesting thought-experiment.
This whole short short story — Dennis Tafoya’s “Under the Imperial” — is made up of the kind of stuff that’s been left out of something like Moonlight Mile: it’s not the geography or the super-specific local stuff like the Drake’s cupcakes or the clear description of the streets in the island between Ridge Ave and Kelly Drive. It’s the specificity of voice and character, the preference for viewpoint over action; it’s the way that a small theme (in this case, the moment of potential, which is something Tafoya seems to come back to often) encapsulates both character backstory and plot work.
Joseph Mackin, a reviewer and now a novelist, in the New York Journal of Books, on the role of the reviewer and his or her relationship to books reviewed. While it’s easy enough to nitpick (his choice not to consider, or even mention, the author’s and reviewer’s relationship in the marketplace), good reviewing (especially now) deserves a good-faith defense.
The A-story here is something else entirely, and it’s pretty clear which role this book belongs in. It’s a screenplay in narrative, a revisiting of characters with as much history (together, with the reader) as can be shorthanded into exposition and establishing shots; it’s a sequel with sequel logic and plotting. And it shows, more than anything else, in the low stakes of the plot and its resolution: the hero gets manipulated, and then manipulated again, but then his problems are wiped away by a deus ex machina, outside of his control and independent of his exertion and far from his imagination, even. And that makes a moment like this one — where this weird Twilight note sits up against a topical gay-marriage bit and another compact touching little bit sketching the sociology of a dog park — easier to identify as the tonic note rather than an off tone or a grace note.