February Reading

The goal this year (well one of the goals, it’s not like it’s my only aim in life) is to reduce the number of books on my shelves that I haven’t read. Clearly this means I have to read more books than I buy, and so far I’m on the credit side. This year I’ve only bought three books, all at my buddy Tom’s independent bookstore Phinney Books: Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Neuromancer (which I already read twenty years ago, so it doesn’t count against me).

This all applies only to physical books. I’ve bought six e-books in 2015:

(It only just occurred to me now that, since Priest and Allan are partners, two of these purchases contribute to their household income.) E-books don’t stare at me accusingly from the bookshelves, so no matter how eager I am to get to some of these they might have to wait a while.

I did read a different Christopher Priest novel this month though: The Prestige. As a longtime fan of both Priest and the film version of the book, I suspected that I would find a way to be disappointed by this one, and I was right. prestigeTold mostly through the journals of two dueling magicians in the late Victorian age, with a framing device of a meeting between two of their descendents, the novel feels strangely arid. Priest’s books always have a certain reserve, but in the Dream Archipelago books that reserve reacts against the lush setting and passionate characters to create a powerful tension. In The Prestige the reserve feels sterile — the Victorian age is barely evoked and the relationships as portrayed feel arbitrary. It doesn’t help that it was the source material for a truly compelling film, with vivid performances and some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen.

The book’s last scenes are creepy and unsettling in a very satisfying way, though. In keeping with the structure of a magic trick (I can’t count the number of times my son and I have quoted the movie’s “Every magic trick consists of three parts…” speech at each other, pronouncing three as free in our crappiest Michael Caine impersonations) both book and film lead you to believe you’re experiencing one sort of story only to reveal a sort of surprise genre-shift in the last act. What’s interesting is that the book turns towards horror while the film swerves into science fiction.

Next up are a pair of books with a common subject but diverging approaches: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Andy Weir’s The Martian. red_marsI enjoyed Red Mars. Some of the characterization feels old-fashioned and maybe even a bit square (along with the names — Americans born in the 1990s with names like Frank, Phyllis and Gene? Really?) but the intrigues and challenges the colonists face are involving, and the intent to portray as realistically as possible humanity’s first interplanetary colonization is necessary and noble. Robinson really commits to his project here, and there’s enough narrative force to keep me interested in the prospect of reading the later two books of the trilogy.

The Martian succeeds in spite of itself. The characters are bland, the dialogue juvenile, and the protrayal of the Martian setting almost entirely non-existent. Really the story of how it got published (blog posts to e-book to national bestseller to upcoming film) feels like a major part of its charm. But I will say the climax is marvelous, a seat-of-the-pants can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong rescue attempt that’s compelling even though you’re pretty sure the guy’s going to get out all right. Also in its favor: my son, who’s more of a hard-science enthusiast than me, really loved it. But I don’t have a lot more to say about it.

I started David Grann’s The Lost City of Z but found it a bit thin, surprising given a) all the positive reviews it received, and b) the subject matter of lost civilizations and disappeared explorers. Grann’s weirdly dismissive summary of the Victorian Age was what finally led me to put the book down for good — I guess between this and The Prestige, poor depictions of the Victorian Age had me in a bit of a huff this month.

I burned through Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This was a breakout novel in 2013 about a woman who continually relives her life — honestly you’ve probably read about it everywhere else. life_after_lifeAgain and again while reading it I was reminded, in tone and feel, of William Boyd’s 2002 book Any Human Heart; and like that book it’s full of novelistic pleasures. The variations on Ursula’s early life are fluently done — they never feel onerously repetitive, and Atkinson finds ways to deepen our familiarity with the characters on each run-through, each time observing different events in Ursula’s life, or following events from a different character’s point of view. In particular the portrayal of Ursula’s marriage to Derek Oliphant, in one of her more harrowing lives, is fantastic. Derek-as-sudden-monster maybe feels a bit overdone — do we have to have him dump the poorly poached egg on Ursula’s head? — but the marriage is quickly, skillfully sketched and feels like a whole novel’s worth of story.

In the afterword, Atkinson states that “if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English…not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.” It’s a telling statement — the book is laced with clichés of Englishness, bluebells and buttercups and the Blitz, etc. Often it feels a bit derivative, as if Ursula were reliving scenes not from her own life but from various English novels. Here, for instance, is a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach:

Mr. Winton — Archibald — had set up his easel on the sand and was attempting to render a seascape in watery marine smears of blue and green…He thought he might try to put some figures in his painting, it would give a bit of life and “movement,” something his night-school teacher (he took an art class) had encouraged him to introduce into his work.

And here’s a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room:

Charles Steele in the Panama hat suspended his paint-brush…He struck the canvas a hasty violet-black dab. For the landscape needed it. It was too pale — greys flowing into lavenders, and one star or a white gull suspended just so — too pale as usual. The critics would say it was too pale, for he was an unknown man exhibiting obscurely, a favourite with his landladies’ children, wearing a cross on his watch chain, and much gratified if his landladies liked his pictures — which they often did.

The echoes begin to haunt the reader the way Ursula’s past lives haunt her, a literary déja vu. There’s also a bit of business about killing-Hitler-before-it’s-too-late that feels like a distraction — though it’s lovely to read that Ursula lives on Elisabethstrasse when she’s in Munich, a rather short street in the Schwabing neighborhood that we crossed all the time when we lived there.

Last was M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart. Like a lot of Harrison’s work, it’s a little opaque and obsessed with the fallenness of the world around us, its disrepair and dismal scuzz. course_of_the_heartHere, though, that fallenness serves the purpose of highlighting the Gnostic impulse at the heart of the story. The characters, having briefly accessed a higher (or at any rate, other) realm in a brief rite in their college days, suffer from the echoes of this act through the rest of their lives — echoes both supernatural and psychological. The narrator’s friends Lucas and Pam remain haunted, uncertain people, adrift amid the squalor of 1980s Northern England, while the narrator himself seems to escape the consequences until, well, he doesn’t.

I’d been eager to read this novel ever since I first encountered excerpts of it in Harrison’s story collection Things That Never Happen, and it didn’t disappoint. Harrison’s books have been a consistent joy in my reading life for the past two years — and I still have Viriconium out there waiting for me, equally promising and threatening, like the Pleroma in The Course of the Heart. Wonderful.

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November Reading

A pretty typical reading month here, with some SF and some English Lit.

Some months seem like they go on forever — it feels like several months ago that I read Acceptance, the third and final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a solid ending to the series. VanderMeer maintains the story’s integrity throughout, providing enough sense of the source and scope of the Area X anomaly to satisfy the reader without waving his authorial arms around.

The trilogy could be about anything — write an intelligent-sounding sentence and it would probably sound like a viable thematic statement. acceptance“The unknowable future and the way it transforms how we see the past” — I just made that up on the fly but it seems credible and I could probably back it up with something from the text. This is not me faulting the trilogy for thematic nebulousness. A really good novel, a novel with depth, should be “about” a lot of things. VanderMeer touches on the shortcomings of the scientific method, the chasm between modern masculine vs. feminine approaches to the world, the limits of knowability, and human dissociation from nature. It’s possible I’m just riffing here but honestly all of this gets a look-in at some point.

The story itself loses some of its horror and intensity, however. Annihilation was a fleet, terrifying beast of a book, a truly unsettling reading experience. The second book, Authority, was different, a portrayal of men and women trying to get a handle on horror using the frankly inadequate tools of systems analysis and project management; and the streak of satire served as a really effective counterpoint to the disorienting immediacy of the first book. Acceptance, though, suffers a bit from loose-end-itis; its strongest line is the story of Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper in pre-anomaly Area X who had previously been a minor off-stage character. The material about previously-explored characters — the psychologist/director, the biologist/Ghost Bird, Control — occasionally feels like it’s marking time. And VanderMeer’s style, crisp and evocative in the first two books, has started to calcify a bit by the time we reach Acceptance. What was vivid and haunting in Annihilation has hardened into mannerism; but VanderMeer is testing the limits of his talent here, almost certainly growing it in the process. No shame in that.

From the unsettling shores of Area X to some unsettling islands: I read a few stories from a collection of Christopher Priest’s “Dream Archipelago” stories. dream-archipelagoOf the six stories, I’d read three of them previously in the collection An Infinite Summer. The three new ones were all strong entries. The shortest and least satisfying was “The Equatorial Moment,” a vignette of military jet crews experiencing the time vortex that looms over the islands. The other two revisited two horror-infused elements of Priest’s The Islanders, with the return of the repulsive insect species known as the thryme in “The Cremation” and a journey back to the tower-haunted island of Seevl in “The Miraculous Cairn.” In each tale, the horror element serves to charge an intriguing story of sexual misunderstanding. Great, great additions to Priest’s ongoing project.

Next was the first volume of Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge, Early Visions: 1772-1804. coleridgeColeridge has long been one of my cultural heroes, a troubled visionary whose poetic gifts were betrayed by his own internal weather. I would have liked a deeper dive into the fantasy/supernatural poetry here (most of Coleridge’s signature poems were written in the years covered by this volume, before he turned to criticism and the Biographia Literaria). Really only the conversational poems such as “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode” get what feels like a thorough treatment, while the more outré stuff like “Kubla Khan” and the Ancient Mariner get slighted — along with the incredibly influential “Christabel,” though possibly that will get more space in the second volume once it’s finally published in 1820.

In any case, I reckon Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner get plenty of attention elsewhere — John Livingston Lowes’s 1927 study The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination is a maniacally comprehensive and entertaining investigation into the reading and experiences that influenced those two poems. Holmes, meanwhile, does a fine job of portraying Coleridge the man in all his dreamy, mercurial imperfections.

Titus Andronicus is considered the least of Shakespeare’s plays, tituswidely derided for the almost Grand Guignol graphic violence: amid the rape and the murder and feeding of kids to their parents there are at least three hands chopped off (the image here is of Livinia, post-handectomy and -tonguectomy, from a 2006 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). I read it because I flipped open my Oxford Shakespeare and came across the “Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves/And set them upright at their dear friends’ door” speech from Aaron, the moor who serves as the villain. Nothing else in the play really matches that speech’s outlandish malevolence, but it’s still a fun read. Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry for Titus Andronicus mentions a 1970 Finnish TV adaptation:

In 1970, Finnish TV channel Yle TV1 screened an adaptation of the play written and directed by Jukka Sipilä, starring Leo Lastumäki as Titus, Iris-Lilja Lassila as Tamora, Eugene Holman as Aaron and Maija Leino as Lavinia.

Eugene Holman! I’m assuming there weren’t two black Eugene Holmans in Finland in 1970, so presumably this is the same Eugene Holman who spent a few days introducing us American students to the Finnish language back in 1987. It’s hard to imagine the mild-mannered linguist taking on the role. Anyway, small world.

I read a few entries from a Penguin collection of Borges essays orlando(“Literary Pleasure” in particular was good) and the first fifty pages of Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones (which I lost interest in — I didn’t buy the Stone Age setting at all). And I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I’ve been meaning to read it for years; I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a sort of Bloomsbury/Highlander mash-up. So I was surprised to find it disappointing — the tone is too arch and the style too clotty for real pleasure in reading, at least until it reaches Woolf’s own era when her natural fluency of perception and detail returns. There’s a great moment of cognitive dissonance in this section:

Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying — but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.

What a lovely description of the SFnal impulse, and a great way to end the month’s reading.

Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago

An Infinite Summer was a fortuitous find at Twice Sold Tales. I knew there were collections of Christopher Priest’s stories floating around, of course, but I hadn’t got around to pursuing them, despite how much I admired his earlier books The Space Machine and A Dream of Wessex. Reading An Infinite Summer quickly led me to Priest’s 2011 novel The Islanders, just released last month in the US by Titan Books; I’ve been half-living in the Dream Archipelago ever since.

infinite-summerThere are five stories in the collection. “An Infinite Summer” and “Palely Loitering” both explore time travel. The title story follows a young man cast out of his own era in Edwardian England just when his dreams of happiness are about to be fulfilled, while “Palely Loitering” is a novella about a curiously retro future. Both of these stories are excellent and enjoyable; but the real attractions here are the three other pieces, all set in the Dream Archipelago.

A vast, world-girdling chain of tens of thousands of islands on a sort of shadow-Earth, bracketed by two warring nations at one pole and an icy, battle-scarred wasteland at the other, the Dream Archipelago is a conception Priest has been revisiting since the ’70s. As with most of his work, it’s a milieu that doesn’t quite claim a tight niche in fantasy or science fiction or slipstream or horror, though there are certainly elements of each.

One of the main things that distinguishes the Dream Archipelago from much modern SF and fantasy is its reluctance to engage in worldbuilding. It seems strange to claim that a book like The Islanders, expressly conceived as the exploration of an imaginary world, has disregarded the worldbuilding convention that so many genre readers crave. But for Priest a setting portrayed so coherently, adhering to a dogma that demands such close attention to internal consistency, would be airless and artless.

For example, we see him mirror contemporary technology throughout the stories — there are cars and planes and radio, and by the time he writes The Islanders there are drones and the internet and email and DNA profiling. But there are also anachronisms: writers who spill ink from inkjars and smoke cheroots, miniaturized surveillance bots. And there are lacunae: unknown regions, blank spots on the map (or, as Priest avers: “No maps are allowed. Not even to me.“).

The concept of a modern age of air travel and instant communication that still permits unexplored regions seems inconsistent; but like any great artist Priest will always sacrifice the consistent for the evocative. It is dream logic for a dream archipelago, and like dreams it may be inconsistent but also incredibly haunting.

So we get a piece of intense body horror like “Whores,” or an eerie tale of obsession like “The Watched,” or a lovely study of moral choice like “The Negation.” As Priest points out in his brief, charming introduction:

The Dream Archipelago is more an idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill and St Tropez thrown in for good measure. I should like to issue a small warning here (knowing, as I do, what the stories are about): each story in the Dream Archipelago is entirely self-contained.

This is true, as far as it goes: any of these stories, and for that matter The Islanders, could be enjoyed without reading any of the others. But one of the many pleasures of reading The Islanders is the elliptical references to those earlier stories. While it’s a bit disappointing to find only passing mention of the island of Tumo or further exploration of the Qataari, for example (both featured in “The Watched”), Priest sketches in some historical context for the horrifying events of “Whores” and provides a melancholy resolution to “The Negation.”

islandersWritten in Priest’s usual lucid, measured style, The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer of selected islands, with longer stories interspersed throughout. The gazetteer entries allude to quirks of geography or custom, while the stories explore the mysteries and injustices and horrors of the islands, and the effects of the endless war in which the islanders do their best to stay neutral.

There are through-lines, of course, connecting threads woven through the novel: the dreaded thryme of Aubrac Grande, an insect species that inflicts a horrible, lingering death on anyone it infects; the unravelling of the mystery surrounding a performer’s murder on the remote island of Goorn; the intertwining lives and loves of artists like Dryd Bathurst and Jordenn Yo and writers like Chaster Kammeston and Moylita Kaine. There is a tale of intrigue as a woman working for a covert mapping agency on Meequa seeks to learn the fate of her lover on the mysterious neighboring island of Tremm. And there is a marvellously eerie novella, an expert blend of psychological horror and Cthulhuesque weirdness, set on the isles of Goorn and Seevl.

It’s these intrigues and unresolvable weirdnesses that prevent the world of the Dream Archipelago from collapsing to a mere analogue of our own world, and that make a persuasive case for uncertainty and mystery in a hyperconnected, Google-mapped age.

Stray observations:

  • The garish and surreal cover of my 1979 US edition of An Infinite Summer (see above) surely must have made Priest shudder, but it’s actually an accurate representation of elements from two unrelated stories in the collection.
  • Priest has a lovely essay on his site about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Guardian review of The Islanders, pointing out that she probably didn’t recognize that the character of the writer Moylita Kaine was in fact drawn from his brief acquaintance with Le Guin herself. He also mentions that Kaine’s novel The Affirmation (a title that Priest recycled for one of his other novels featuring the Dream Archipelago) as described in “The Negation,” is modelled on The Magus by John Fowles. The Magus is also clearly the inspiration for “The Watched” — it’s no surprise to learn that it’s one of Priest’s favorite books.
  • Halfway through writing this I realized I was listening to the soundtrack of The Prestige (which we re-watched last week). Must be Christopher Priest month here in the Smith household.

“A wicked thing to do” – Priest on Tidhar

Christopher Priest is not a fan of Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century:

English prose can be subtle, exciting, descriptive, rhythmic, mood-inducing, beautiful, shocking. Good prose is a required art, and to scatter short sentences in undigested lumps throughout a novel is a wicked thing to do.

Then he really goes in for the kill, calling Tidhar out on particulars:

A fug of smoke cannot ‘crescendo’; the word ‘oblivion’ means the state of being forgotten or disregarded, and is not a synonym for ‘annihilation’; similarly, there is no such word as ‘obliviating’; air does not condense out of mouths in cold weather, but breath does (Tidhar gets this right later, so he knows the difference); someone who has a hole blown out of his head is described as ‘very dead’, which is presumably much more dead than just dead; ‘”We don’t age,” the Old Man said’, which suggests he must have been born old; colours don’t ‘leech’ away.

violent-century-lavie-tidharI might disagree with Priest on “very dead,” depending on the context — its nonsensicality is kind of its point, and it can be used in a jocular spirit (I’d also like to point out to Priest himself that his own phrase “a hole blown out of his head” isn’t really correct, either idiomatically or conceptually). And I don’t mind it when an author doesn’t follow standard dialogue punctuation. Priest seems a bit fuddy-duddyish here — if it’s good enough for Joyce and McCarthy, it’s good enough for me.

Still, it’s a great review, and it did sort of confirm my own impression of Tidhar’s book. I might read it at some point, but it was already low on my list.

By the way, it’s interesting that Priest mentions “recent Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan” — Nolan’s film of Priest’s own novel The Prestige is fantastic (as Priest has pointed out in the past), a real masterpiece, incredibly subtle and assured in its plot and pacing.