A.S. King – Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 

verdietz__spanJust a while ago, I read a Young Adult novel that seems to be the positive mirror of this. It was Jennifer Brown’s Hate List. Both novels deal with a tragedy, specifically a girl losing a boy to death and how it affects their lives. The relationship was big. Both happen to be outcasts in a Nowheresville. Relationships with the family is rocky and there is a sexually-active, supposedly hot chick that’s evil involved.

The difference is in how Hate List is darker, but more sympathetic whereas King’s book has more shocking content on the surface but less of the empathy which is truly disturbing. Therefore, at the bottom there isn’t much horror or insight. King lays out at the beginning who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nowhere in the novel do they get a chance to prove otherwise and we don’t get any view of their inner world. Dad figure swings from bad to good, and it’s actually nice to see a parental figure being allowed to be flawed but not a complete asshole. Sadly, this is where the good characterization ends.

I’m all for novels like this. Teenagers need books like these which deal with drugs, sex and death. They experience these things at this age and sometimes what they need isn’t the perspective of an adult, but a lot of perspectives similar to theirs. Books like this mention the important subject, but they offer such a narrow perspective. Perhaps for those for whom death and alcoholism ring close, this book can be some kind of an emotional outlet. For the rest of us, though, it’s too close-minded.

My issue is not with the content and not even that it’s quite wacky, moving away from the gritty-realism authors like this try to imitate. I can take the octagonal treehouse and teenagers burning shit down. I can even take the enigmatic, hot outcast male. Where’s the life in them, though?

Charlie isn’t as bad as Green’s females, but we still get a character with zero personal issues that we’re supposed to adore. He’s a dream boy – wild, untamed, skinny, always doing things, putting a tough exterior but is actually romantic and with some emotional issues. Of course, the romantic side and the emotional baggage is never let out – because men with emotions aren’t sexy. For some reason, too, love interests in these novels are always skinny and this is passed off as if it’s against the beauty ideal.

Eventually he goes to the dark side to be with ‘cool people’. King’s version of the Evil Cool isn’t jocks and football junkies for a change, but a bunch of druggies and a rocker girl. As for her, she happens to have a lot of sex and is nasty to people. Why she’s nasty to people, we never understand. Her sexual nature is also often painted hostile and morally low, but I’m not sure why besides the fact it’s ‘conformist’ – unlike Charlie who is really cool and builds treehouses.

She’s so nasty that she ruins everyone’s lives. I’m sure there are people like this, but if only King gave us a little insight into why she does what she does. Jenny ends up being nothing more than a plot device and someone we could hate. Besides breaking up between the main character and her lover, she has no role.

Many characters in this novel fit a scary template in fiction – characters whose main purpose is that we’ll have something to hate. Such characters contain some qualities that nearly everyone will claim as bad – cruelty, sadism, lack of empathy. On top of that the authors will put something else to make them uncool, like being stupid or doing too many drugs or being too conserative, or maybe just racist. We’ll be expected to really detest this character and hope for their downfall.

The problem is, we often feel this way in real life towards people because it’s all we’ve been exposed to. Sometimes hating people is justified, but what’s wrong is hating them while denying their humanity. Once we draw a too distinct line between us and the evil, we override the purpose of morality. Morality then is not decided by deeds or virtues, but by people. ‘A is just because of X’ becomes ‘A is just because B is unjust’. That type of morality leaves no room for redemption, and so no room for admitting when we’re wrong (since we can’t be – the other side must be wrong!). Once we adopt such a morality, nothing prevents us from becoming what we hate.

Sadly this is what King has to offer us. Jenny and the others remain an enigma – assholes without character. If only King would’ve developed further, maybe she could’ve conjured something more horrifying, more haunting. Evil is at its scariest when we realize we can do it, too. That’s why pictures of serial killers are so frightening. We look at them and see flesh and blood just like us.

Plot doesn’t matter much in novels like these since the psychological development of the character is important. King is better than Brown in creating a main character. The writing is utilitarian and doesn’t add much, but there’s a toughness to the writing, an edge that lets Vera be more than an outcast. She’s a tough person who bottles it all until it comes back out. While King is not the peak of minimalism, she lets just enough edge to let this psyche be expressed in the prose.

It would’ve been better if she didn’t need a big event for the story to revolve on. Considering how Vera has enough depth to carry a story on her own – not much, but just enough – big explosions were unnecessary. All we needed was to see these characters go about their lives, how their worldviews and personalities – Vera’s detachment, will to be responsible and for escapism and Charlie’s adventurous spirit – collide, stray, collide again and eventually fall apart. She does it quite successfully throughout the novel. The relationship is convincing enough with how the characters relate and then go separate ways when puberty hits.

Scattered throughout the novels are other perspectives – the pagoda, the father. King doesn’t have the writing ability to give these a new tone. Don’t look at the heading and you’ll find the father and the daughter are speaking in the same internal voice. Still, it’s a refreshing addition that almost gets close to adding empathy to this story. Sadly, these are tidbits, not a choice of method that re-frames the whole novel. Most likely a young author will be inspired by this but will accidentally credit As I Lay Dying.

It’s quick and to the point, but mostly it’s an insulting collection of stereotypes. We all could use books, like music, that offer us catharsis but this is not a song that will carry on to future years. It’s more like your first local show, where the mere presence of sound and emotion is enough to inspire you to keep digging. You won’t remember precise details about that band, and the same goes for this book.

1.5 rocker girls out of 5

Margaret Atwood – Wilderness Tips

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At its worst, Wilderness Tips suffers from Atwood’s most common flaw. Although she’s blessed with intelligence that never gets in the way of her stories, there is always a little too much distance between the reader and the characters. That’s an odd complaint, considering the book’s genre. Compare it to Raymond Carver, and Atwood has better characters yet doesn’t create as much sympathy.

It’s odd. It should be the opposite. The close look at people in all their glorious flaws should make us feel closer to them. Atwood isn’t shy of the first person narrative. Yet it’s the same case with every Atwood book – its emotional impact is always a little low compared to the intellectual side of things. Then again, there are some brilliant stories here and it’s a prime example of how realist fiction should be done. So Atwood couldn’t get around her tiny flaw here, but it doesn’t matter when everything else is so brilliant.

Short story collections can be hard to review. They’re not music albums. They’re often written over a long span of times. They tend to contain experiments and snippets. For many authors, short story collections are B-Sides & Rarities – odd pieces of prose that are interesting for the die-hard fan, but don’t go anywhere and don’t really ‘conclude’.

The latter part is important. Even if you’re a great short story writer, why are all of these stories packed together? In music albums, you often have an overarching sound connecting it all. Great albums also have good sequencing, with songs sounding better in their place in the tracklist. Wilderness Tips isn’t so good that it starts with a bangs and concludes, but it’s a masterwork of a genre. That alone is enough to make it feel like a complete work, instead of just assorted prose for the diehards.

‘Realism’ is an annoying word to use when discussing fiction. It’s also necessary, which makes it more annoying. No one actually has any access to what reality is. It’s the Map and Territory situation. You perceive parts of reality, but never all of it. So how can humans write something ‘realistic’ when they only perceive a very tiny part of reality? Keep in mind that fiction deals with the most unstable aspect with reality – humans, their relationship and how they experience the world.

Some opt for a dry, ‘nothing ever happens’ style to inform the reader it’s realistic. That’s basically a cop-out for people who aren’t imaginative enough or too insecure. The ideal technique for realistic fiction is to steal stories directly from reality itself, and always be aware every story has as many sides as it has characters. I don’t know how many of these stories are based on true cases, but Atwood’s portrayal of relationships has always been brilliant. Here, she’s in top form.

I wish I had Atwood to help with me with relationships. She never slides into strawmen or caricatures. Her men and women aren’t heroes and villains, but flawed people. Sometimes their flaws make them easy to manipulate or abuse. Sometimes their flaws lead them to abuse or be terrible to others. With great understanding comes great pessimism, though. All over these stories is disenchantment and cynicism towards the idea of romance and sexuality.

It’s not so much that Atwood is a rowdy feminist out to castrate men. Women can a lot of flak too. Many of them are attracted to married men and work on starting an affair. The crucial thing Atwood focuses on is that every relationship has two participants. It’s never one person doing things to the other. Affairs aren’t just sluts seducing innocent men, or men being pigs. Both sides choose to do it.

Some relationships are abusive, though. Some people are assholes and only them are to blame for what they do to others. In these stories we see what pessimism is truly like. The assholes are never evil caricatures, rapists in the dark or hot young gaslighters. It’s easy to understand why they do it and that includes the backstabber in “Uncles”. What’s more horrifying than the act itself is their humanity. Atwood knows evil people don’t come from outerspace, kill people for the fuck of it and get blasted by dudes with sixpacks. What drove them to that behavior can also drive her or me or you or anyone of us.

The best story here is perhaps the aforementioned “Uncles”. While Atwood’s feminism and exploration of women’s position in society isn’t huge here – women are the main characters mainly because Atwood is a woman – that story explores it brilliantly. Again, it’s about showing the two sides of things. This time it’s about the relationship with a beautiful, perfect person who’s used to approval. I’ve met those. Women who are pretty can have it very easy in life, especially if they develop a few skills. Their good looks already means people are nicer to them.

People are jealous of you when you’re successful. The jealousy is even harsher when your luck is obvious. Everyone is successful mostly because of luck, but the Beautiful People’s type of luck is so obvious it’s excruciating. We also all know that our love for the Beautiful People is what gives them their success. We’re to blame. One way to deal with jealousy is to demonize the successful, disregard their successes or assume their feelings aren’t worthwhile. They’re so successful, so who cares if we humiliate them? It mirrors things I’ve seen in real life.

There’s also enough variety in tone and prose style to prevent this from becoming variations on a style. The hard realism and theme of relationships allow Atwood to experiment with story structures and styles without causing any disconnection between the stories. It’s the most versatile I’ve seen Atwood yet. Some stories have a more poetic, somber tone to them. Others like “Hairball” have jumpy prose that’s unlike anything she’s written. Sometimes she apes Carver completely with hard, dry prose. The tone is always appropriate for the stories, too. This variety helps to reinforce the realism. People experience reality differently. If all your stories are written in the same way, you’re too narrow for reality.

Wilderness Tips is an excellent short story collection. The only flaw is the slightly disappointing closer (“Hack Wednesday”) and the distance Atwood can’t rid of. Still, at its best this is how realist fiction should be. The events are exciting. There’s always a feeling of uneasiness and unstability which define reality. People are flawed human beings, sometimes weak or evil or talented but they’re always human. The stories also conclude more than they just end hanging in the middle of things. No one writes prose like Carver, but this is where I’ll direct people if they want to understand realist fiction.

3.5 tips out of 5

Ransom Riggs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The world has its outcasts. They often have unique talents, like creating fire out of nothing or transforming David Bowie’s music into worthwhile. This gives them power. Emma can burn you down, and Marilyn Manson has sold a lot of records. Power makes people to react to you in funny ways. Some hate you just because you’re weird, others because you’re a danger. Some follow you, either because they’re afraid or they think you’re some sort of badass God.

How the outcast manages their situation is a question for many authors to answer. After all, not all powers are the same. The hatred people have for Justin Bieber is vastly different than the hatred people have for Manson. People hated Manson because he ruined kids, told them God isn’t real and that they should remain weird. As for Justin Bieber, people hated him because girls loved him. How does this work I don’t know – maybe they were simply jealous. The X-Men series is supposed to be an exploration of this question. It’s about two factions with two different views on their position. Riggs’ novel features almost direct copies of these factions.

Now, the common platitude of “everything’s been done before!” will rear its head if you’re inexperienced in literature. That’s not how originality works. Copy a template, fine. Just fill it with different materials. For a while, Riggs is successful at that. His characters, in a way, live up to their ‘peculiar’ title. Their powers are small, often coming off as genetic defects. The levitating girl doesn’t control her levitation. She’s like a balloon and has to wear weighted shoes so she won’t slip off. The invisible person takes advantage of that, but it’s a radically different life when people can’t see you.

For a while, Riggs is interested by what being an outcast is like. Our hero is thrown into that position and everyone around him calls him mentally ill. They either feel sorry for him or reject him. He’s too confused in that position, so all he can do is shoot everyone including himself. His only solid connection is with his grandfather who’s an outcast like him. He can only connect to peculiar children like him.

There’s an interesting parable here to mental illness. Look at subreddits like Sanctioned Suicide. Many mentally ill people can only connect deeply to people in the same boat as theirs. Pro-ana communities develop their own culture and jargon. We’re so quick to judge them. X-Men was meant to parallel the struggles of LGBT people, but mental illness is different. Even with social acceptance, anorexia and suicidal thoughts and self-harm are weights people carry. Even with social acceptance, peculiar people are a minority. No amount of acceptance will give the floating girl the ability to control her power.

Too bad all these ideas are blended with a dull mix of genres. If Riggs wanted to write a multicolored story, hopping from genre to genre for fun then fine. It never feels like this. He never throws the story convincingly into the elements. There’s some conviction when he dabbles in horror. The spooky monster remains shrouded in mystery for a while, and even pushed aside for some pages. Focusing on the uncertainity of the spooky monster makes the horror aspect more convincing. Unknown things are pretty scary.

All mysteries dissolve when a character just spits out exposition. In fact, no information is actually discovered or figured out. People just hand over the answers to the questions when it’s time to advance the plot. It’s like a Game Master telling you the background and name and disposition of every NPC. The knowledge descending on your character makes it stronger, but also makes the game more boring.

The bad guys want to take over the world and subjugate humanity. That’s fine, since a lot of people in real life actually did that. Why, though? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Caligula were real people. They had philosophies, personalities, and inner lives. They didn’t laugh maniacally when they ordered massacres but saw their vision of their bright future taking shape. The villains may view themselves as right, but we never get the philosophy behind their desire for power. The reason they want power isn’t because power is attractive, but because that makes them evil and useful antagonists.

Their disease infects all other characters, too. Very few characters have unique reactions or talk style. Some are silly quirks that can’t be taken seriously. The two rapper dudes are straight out of a horrible John Green novel. The natives of an island talk with broken English because that’s how people in the sticks must talk like. Others fare a little better, but Enoch’s cynicism is never elaborated upon.

He’s a great potential wasted. His power is to put actual hearts in material and make it kind-of alive. That’s the sort of power that leads one to view the value of life differently. He can bring back people from the dead but only halfway. He uses hearts as tools. Enoch often slides into a cynical, detached speech. Even among the peculiars he’s an outcast. Yet Riggs never expands on that. What is his philosophy? To which kids he relate to more, to which less? What kind of things did he do besides building a miniature army?

The protagonist is the worst insult to character development. Again, there are seeds of something worthwhile – a little cynicism, insecurity and pessimistic worldview that might lead to something. It plays instead like a side-quest in a cheap RPG game. Person meets dying man, dying man leaves some clues and person goes on to explore these clues to discover a bigger mystery. Video game protagonists are rarely well-written since it’s the player doing all the acting. Fifty pages or so into the novel, Jacob loses all personality and follows clues. He’s sometimes not sure whether he can do something, but the only drive for his decision is the reader’s desire to know more. There’s even a silly romance there that doesn’t pretend to be profound. Green mined the trope of weird girl loving a skinny dude who’s sure he’s ugly (despite skinny people being all over magazines), but Riggs merely puts a few make-out scenes. It’s too boring to be creeped out by the fact the girl is actually 80 years old or so.

The last pages of the book are a long-winded action scene. This is too sad to talk about, because it makes the book seem entirely worthless when it isn’t. The idea of a loop is quite brilliant. These kids may live long but they haven’t matured a bit, and here you have a chance to mediate about time. Riggs occasionally paints a pretty picture in his prose. The few paragraphs about the bombs and reset have enough to suffice for a short story. Why does he fill the last pages with chasing the bad guy, shooting people and a cliffhanger that relies on reading the rest of the trilogy?

Riggs’ prose is easy and pleasant enough. It’s fast, sometimes slides into introspection but never too much. That makes a decent story bearable. It’s not offensively boring, just kind of ‘there’. If Riggs did something wild with his ideas and failed, fine. He barely tries since it concludes in info dumps and shoot-outs. The photographs are actually real, which is cool but doesn’t add anything. Riggs intergates them by saying “here’s a photograph” and showing them. It’s like illustrations, only pictures instead. Maybe if Riggs tried to write a single short story surrounding them, he’ll have a safer but wider space to work his ideas.

It’s not a terrible book but not a great one, either. Maybe, as a distraction, it’s good enough. There are good ideas that may stick around and the prose is pleasant. Life is too short for distractions, though. If you like X-Men or stories about hidden strange worlds just beneath our own you might enjoy this. It’s too inoffensive for me to tell you to avoid, but also too unremarkable to offer it to anyone.

2 photographs out of 5

Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas

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Is this really the person who wrote The Wasp Factory?

You can feel it’s the same mind for a while. Banks’ world is weird and unstable enough. The basics of it are simple at heart, focusing more on cool ideas rather than an abundance of details. Often, there are bits of madness that bring the world to life like the small tribe arc. The prose is worse than stiff though. It’s so invasive it literally turns a rollicking adventure with great characters into the word ‘kilometer’ placed between references to violence.

the story isn’t a dull travelogue with Banks showing off his worldbuilding skills. Banks uses the smart technique of showing bits and pieces, emphasizing the size of the world rather than just writing an encyclopedia. The structure is a simple one. Man goes on a mission, things go wrong and he has to solve the problems. Each problem is different and each setting is different. Even without character development the novel could give you a good time.

The prose is closer to the horrifying George Martin prose. Saying it’s better doesn’t say much. While Banks isn’t as offensive (and the story is overall better), it’s hard to ignore how crippling the writing is. The third-person omniscient writing is so detached. The epilogue features some dry history about the world. That section is more interesting since such writing fits when you look at things from a distance.

The story is an adventure. Why does Banks tell it like it’s a history book? It sucks out all the excitement and it’s more offensive when the story is very close to being fun.

The distance ruins any character development Banks was attempting. They never become psychological or grand-mythic, but even a little personality injects life. There’s something about Horza being a badass, Wubslin being an obsessed engineer and the drone being unpleasant to everyone. I’m not sure what it says about the novel when only a drone has unique reactions to things.

How characters react to the world around them is too generic. One is a little more apathetic. Another is more confident. There are no quirks, no special modifiers to these reactions. Unimaginative authors should at least be capable of repetitive archetypes. Banks’ characters don’t even qualify as that. If one character had a trait where they’d swear more than everyone, they’ll be more lifelike than everyone else.

Banks also has a weird obsession with exactness. The world ‘kilometer’ repeats itself often. The exact measures and structures of everything will haunt you in your sleep. Not only Banks is into writing history books, he also enjoys writing instructions manuals on how to build a ship.

Now, such manuals have no room for exciting or beautiful prose. Their purpose is to give the exact details. How exact can you be with fiction? Banks forgets something crucial. All these ships and planets aren’t actually real. Describing their exact size doesn’t make then any more so.

We don’t experience the world in measuring units. First of all, we perceive things as ‘big’ or ‘small’, as ‘long’ or ‘short’. Fiction is human thought and it should connect our thoughts. You use descriptions to make the reader understand what it feels like to witness the destruction. Some authors use a pile of details for this, but the good ones never gain their strength from being exact. Shopping list as a writing technique is about creating a variety of images.

The writing isn’t shopping-list style. It simply relies on being very exact. All it does is making you either feel confused (Because the exactness doesn’t give a proper image of what it feels like) or sucking out the life out of the prose. I’m not sure which is worse and it often happens at the same time.

The epilogue is perhaps the best part of the novel. Although it’s dry history, the prose works there. Maybe Banks is more interested in huge stories thna small adventures. After all, this series became huge. Sadly he was too scared to write a full book in this style and instead we get this dry adventure.

If you’re into shenanigans about traveling in outer space, explosions and weird cultures there’s fun to be had here. It’s buried under layers of dull prose. Nothing about is offensively bad. I never got the urge to put it down but I never got much of one to pick it up. Make of that what you will.

2 kilometers out of 5

Haruki Murakami – A Wild Sheep Chase

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Murakami created a unique niche in literature. He’s been called un-Japanese, but there’s something distinctive about him that separates him from his influence. He borrowed Western literature’s tough, rugged nature. Carver doesn’t just loom over his literature. You can feel him sitting behind Murakami as he writes. His novels also contain a fantastical nature that’s uncommon in Western fantasy – the bizarre, surreal events are far more similar to anime.

It’s a long road to such a distinctive, versatile style. Murakami kept his first novels from being translated worldwide because he found them the work of an inexperienced author who wasn’t ready. The result is the bizarre situations where A Wild Sheep Chase – the last of the trilogy – is the only one published worldwide. Based on Murakami’s words, it should’ve remained unavailable.

It’s far from a bad book, but it screams ‘inexperience’. There are first novels which show their authors’ age – think Fight Club and Less Than Zero in their minimalism – but they also have a firm grip on their style. Ellis’ novel was skeletal, but he had a small enough aim that fit. Moreover, he knew exactly what he was making. Murakami doesn’t. He mostly tries to get away from Carver’s influence while paying him tribute.

The two styles Murakami tries to play with here are opposites. Carver deals with the ordinary, with the so mundane that his stories and characters blur togehter. His writing reflects that with how straightforward it is, but the result is something not resembling storytelling but poetry. He creates an intimacy with his situation because of how direct he is. Anything strange is the opposite of his literature.

Murakami’s fantasy aims for the bizarre. In contrast to the worldbuilding-obsessed West, the world in the novel is one where anything can happen. The key to doing this right is to make sure the bizarre events appear in rhythm, and have different levels of weirdness. You’ll get things that seem ludicrous but somehow possible like a girl with an extremely attractive ears. Then you’d get something that’s out of place in a realist novel – like a shadow organization controlling everything. At last something completely fantastical happens, like a spirit sheep.

Just because these two styles are opposite doesn’t mean they can be merged. Murakami did it later, but here he can’t. He doesn’t really try. The novel jumps from one style to another. Whenever it settles into one, it tries to make the best of it. It never tries to find the connection between the two.

The result feels dishonest and self-centered. Adding something a new element to a familiar style isn’t enough. If the new element doesn’t affect how the style works, then what have you done? Moreover, Murakami doesn’t so much tell a story as he exercises his style. Showing off what the writing can do is nice, but that’s not a story and you need to be a great author (and a lot less pages) to make a stylistic exercise work.

When he imitates Carver, he does nothing but makes me glad I’m reading something like Carver. I have pretty much all of Carver’s bibliography on my shelf and some followers who took his style to new directions (like the aforementioned Easton Ellis). Why would I want to read a copy? Worse, it’s often a caricature. The nameless protagonist is apathetic towards everything. It’s not just the writing, but he describes all his interactions with apathy and treats them like they don’t mean anything.

Easton Ellis tried to do this, but he explored a specific lifestyle. The apathy was contrasted with the hardcore partying. When Ellis wrote this, he wrote with full conviction – the writing so apathetic he crammed many events into one sentence but the events themselves were both ridiculous and not very different from each other. Apathy in this novel doesn’t mean anything. The protagonist feels alone, but why? What does it say about loneliness? What his journey have to do with loneliness?

As for the fantastical part, it’s cowardly. As an attempt to revamp the hardboiled pulp detective thing, it’s unconvincing. The mystery isn’t exactly related to crime, but the protagonist doesn’t actually try to solve it. Rather, answers drop on him from the sky. Twice his girlfriend provides a quest arrow. Her ability ends up a little meaningless. It may have something to do with how our protagonist needs her, needs anyone because his loneliness is suffocating but you don’t see it. Loneliness is there, but its effect isn’t showing.

Although the protagonist moves from place to place, every situation is the same. Paragraphs full of apathetic writings about eating and drinking and occasionally having sex are the result. Unlike the master minimalists, Murakami is bad at choosing what details to include. When Ellis piled them on, it was because the abundance was meaningful. Carver simply stripped everything that didn’t matter. What our protagonists eats exactly, what is in the room exactly isn’t important. There’s no reason for an RPG-like description of a room once the protagonist enters. Describe the couch when it comes important.

What carries the novel is the seeds of Murakami’s potential. He may not know what to do exactly with these two styles, but their combination is intriguing. The story is bizarre enough, and while the writing is inexperienced it’s not horrible. The unnecessary details occasionally appear but not too much. If the events don’t gel together very well, they’re at least memorable on their own – a completely ordinary girl with extremely attractive ears? A professor obsessed with sheep? These type of ideas are things Murakami would later work with in his short stories with better results.

One lone highlight is when our protagonist stares at an office building. His describes what goes on, what each person does but he can never understand what the purpose of the office actually is. It’s either a statement about how uniform, dull and caging office work is or an expression of the protagonist’s loneliness and inability to connect. If Carver wrote this scene, he’d mine it for a brilliant short story.

Compared to other works by Murakami, it’s much worse. It shows its age and Murakami’s youth, but also his potential. If I read this without knowing about his later works, I could easily imagine him making something fantastic like Hard-Boiled Wonderland. There’s a unique mind at work who chooses his influence rather than throw everything. He just didn’t find an idea to express here.

2.5 wild sheep out of 5

Eshkol Nevo – Neuland

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Israelis love to escape, or maybe they just need to. It’s a country constantly under the threat of war. The fear of an attack is always upon us whenever we go outside. Even if we don’t consciously think something might happen, it’s in the back of the head. The news is constantly informing us about who died and who got injured. While everyone else in the Western world is having sex at the age of 18, we’re learning how to use a gun.

The desire to escape is all over the country. Not everyone actually experiences the army, but they’re well aware of it (and aware they were completely useless). Nevo isn’t any different. Addressing this escapism can be a recipe for a great Israeli novel. It won’t be good just in the traditional sense, but also provide insight into the Israeli psyche. Every country needs literature that can define it. Nevo takes the idea of escape a little too far though. He doesn’t explore the idea so much as trying himself to escape into his own book.

Bad things happen, so? There’s a reason schizophrenia, depression and discriminated sexual orientation are among the top reasons for suicide. Nevo’s main problem is that, while he can write about terrible things happening he cannot write inner troubles. How events affect us is what’s truly important. Read stories of people who’ve been through horrors. The transformation, their new point of view is what’s so harrowing. Read Dylan Kebold’s mom article. The horror is in her inner struggles, how the Columbine Massacre made her question everything.

People die and everything is falling apart in this novel. One person commits suicide and the other suffers from PTSD. In order for our main characters to question, to struggle with something, they first need a personality. Unless there is a personality that reacts to the events, all there is generic sadness. People get sad over dysfunctional relationship and death, but that’s it? It can’t be that simple. I’ve read hundreds of stories of people who lost others to suicide and each one is more harrowing as the previous one.

It can’t be that easy, but Nevo wants it to be so easy. His main characters are both sex bombs, people who don’t actually struggle with anything. Dori is an idealist who never has an oppurtunity to doubt his idealism. Women fall for him, students adore him and his relationship with his wife is rocky. Nevo solves this conflict by dismissing her as a career-freak who doesn’t know what’s really important. As for Inbar, she’s also a sex bomb who wants the travel the world and see stuff. If you’ve been to Israel, you met these type of people – aimless, directionless, always horny and thinking that weed is profound.

What does it say about an author who pushes aside a PTSD victim and a suicide in order to focus on these two perfect people? It’s as if Nevo epitomizes what’s wrong with the world. We’re all so focused on the pretty and perfect people we forget the Nobodies. I thought literature and art in general meant to give voices to the weird, the strange and the surprising. There’s nothing gripping about this couple. Nothing about them is startling or odd. They’re exceptionally normal. Sure, they get sad over stuff but that’s it.

Later in the novel a paradise is introduced. Besides admitting that it’s not a utopia and that they’re still working on it, it’s as bad as it sounds. If you needed any other proof Nevo wants to escape, this is it. It’s a world where the mentally wounded (who are all happy there with no evidence of their ‘wounds’) can gather and heal themselves. It’s a self-sustaining community with no conflict and all peace. Why? I don’t know. It doesn’t reveal any flaw in the original Zionist plan. There is no philosophy that drives this utopia besides being nice to each other. It’s a cute idea that’s very hard to put in practice.

The utopia is also rigidly against violence. Why? Violence is an integral part of human nature. The utopia does feature sport games, which are an extension of violence. We enjoy competition and the adrenaline of hitting and being hit. A good civilization finds a productive way to use this drive. It’s ironic Nevo sings praise of sexuality while dismissing violence. Anyone can pick up a sword, but sexuality is also a world of losers and winners, where the Beautiful People are having fun while everyone else is cast out. If anything, violent games are more fair than romantic love.

Nevo’s vision of South America is your typical Israeli bullshit. There’s some poverty, but life is mostly peaceful and fun. The occasional view of the dangers is quickly swept aside. South America is mostly a place for new adventures and new perspective. If I were a SouthAmerican, I’d be offended. These countries don’t exist to provide Western people a new sense of purpose, to cure their emptiness. They’re countries with their unique histories and cultures and issues. Israel has a strong Leftist/Social Justice movement. I’m surprised no one called out Nevo about how South America isn’t an amusement park or a psychotherapist.

The prose is also horrid. Nevo rambles with no style or rhythm. There isn’t a word for this type of prose. It’s not a sign of uniqueness but a lack of focus. Nevo just spills a lot of words, going in and out of character heads. He puts no quotation marks around dialogues. That might make sense in minimalist novels but not in a gushing prose like this one. He also likes to ‘switch’ points of view. It’s the third-person-limited which is really third-person-omniscient and doesn’t add anything.

We even get long backstories about side characters. There’s that washy-washy thing about how our current couple re-create the secret and forbidden love of their grandparents. It’s kind of epic, but looks silly in a serious novel such as this. What does it have to do with the Israelis’ desire to escape?

I have read an interesting article about the symbolism and meaning. The novel isn’t without purpose. Nevo just took it too close to heart. Instead of examining the Israeli psych and its darkness, our desire to escape he just wrote an escapist yarn for himself. It sold a lot of copies, but that’s because Israelis will escape anywhere – to South America, to Game of Thrones, to the dream of getting rich off SmartPhone apps and to crap novels like this. If this is how one of our most acclaimed novelists write, we’ve got a bigger problem than the conflict with the Palestinians.

1 blue pill out of 5

Orson Scott Card – Speaker for the Dead

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Scott Card still puzzles me. Here, he’s beyond the power of editors. The writing is more dense, with more inner monologues and more pointless words. Nothing about it is terrible, but it does reek of an inexperienced author who can’t edit himself.

Authors who can’t edit themselves will let their worldview seep into the novel. If they lack critical thinking. then expect all the Good Guys to hold their opinion and all the Bad Guys to disagree with them. The novel won’t raise questions or confront the difficulty of its subject matter. At best, it will give the illusion of realism using cheap techniques like ‘surprise deaths’.

Where’s the bigotry, though? I mean, Scott Card is a homophobe and very strictly religious. This only goes to show you how bizarre and full of contradiction the human mind are. Religion and homophobia are, justifiably, close-minded dogmatic ideas. They’re about limiting our options, and won’t be held by people who try to think deeply.

Card broke the stereotype on Ender’s Game, and here he continues. In fact, if you didn’t know his background you wouldn’t guess Card holds such views.

It’s ironic I’m judging Card like this, in a review of a novel where judgment is a big theme. The religious theme of forgiveness is here, and just like in the previous novel Card doesn’t take the easy way out. He’s always looking at a subject from both sides, always willing to accept both the good and the bad involved. The best moment is the actual ‘speaking’.

Evil doesn’t exist in the real world. Everyone is convinced they’re right. We need morality and to mark some actions as wrong, but we must be wary of branding people as just ‘sick assholes’ and be done with it. It’s important to understand why they do what they do. This way we won’t go down that path, and we will be able to prevent it.

Murder is considered one of the most horrible things you can do, and Card uses it cleverly to make us question what is evil. From the viewpoint of an organism that doesn’t really die when they’re killed, there’s no such thing as murder. So when they do the same to you, can you really brand them as evil? They sure they were doing you good, bringing you to your next life.

His desire to understand people, the idea that we should see people as people through their flaws reflects in the characters. They’re all flawed humans, doing what they think is best. Some of them are crueler than others, but each has a reason for what they do. Some Card clearly disagrees with, like the religious zealotry of Quim or the Bishop. They never slide into the unlikeable. They never become wrenches in the gears of the plot that the heroes have to get rid of. Like everyone else, they have a worldview of their own that they adjust as they learn new things. Card never converts them to their side, but lets them learn like people do.

It sounds fun and deep, but it never goes as deep as it should. The biggest challenge is to take a true scumbag, a person who disregarded everyone else and make them sympathetic. Not every cruel person is a tragic case and could be redeemed. Some people do use their power for pleasure while hurting others. Some people are so extreme in their views they cannot be changes. He confronted the reality of inevitable violence in Ender’s Game, but here he’s hesitant. The novel has a bigger plot, a wider scope and states its subject matter more clearly. Yet it doesn’t match what came before for depth. Despite the simple plot, Ender’s Game did go much further.

The story itself is great though. The writing is more dense and a little more rambling. The easy flow of Ender’s Game is gone and Card has no stylistic quirks, but it’s readable. It also helps Card tends to ramble on the novel’s focus, its characters. The prose is otherwise is easy to read. Plain utilitarianism has its place, especially when everything surrounding it is good enough.

For a very famous series, its structure is vastly different than stereotypical sci-fi. Science fiction is burdened with the stigma that it’s all technobabble, silly worldbuilding and too much exposition. I even talked to some people who think sci-fi is all about new technologies.

Speaker for the Dead is a character-driven novel where gadgets take a secondary place. The best sci-fi comes up with meaningful technologies or aliens. They don’t ask how a new technology can function, but how it will affect society. The effect of technology is more central. It doesn’t bore us with how space travel works, but we constantly see how the lack of aging affects relationships. How the big computer network functions doesn’t matter. What does is that it creates a new ‘currency’, a new way to hold power without weapons. The new biology is also a symbol of such ideas. The whole ‘third life’ thing creates a situation in which killing is different, where ‘symbiosis’ is taken to the next level. Card is more concerned how such a difference in biology breeds different cultures, how they clash rather than the plain mechanics of it.

It’s also a perfect example of how a sequel should be. Books in a series should be separated for a specific reason. When we say a sequel should ‘stand on its own’, we don’t mean that it should be accessible for those who didn’t read the predecessors. ‘Stands on its own’ means the sequel is a work with its own unique qualities. It has its own style, themes and structure that separates it. A sequel shouldn’t just show us what happens next but offer something new. Speaker is different in many ways – prose, structure, characters, atmosphere – than Ender’s Game, and all that justifies its existence.

The flaws are negligible. It doesn’t scale the heights of Ender’s Game because it’s not as willing to face the darkness and it rambles more. These prevent it from being a masterpiece, but it’s still a great sci-fi story. It’s a story of ideas and characters, using setting, technology and aliens to raise questions instead of spitting technobabble. Whatever views Card holds, his story is multi-layered and doesn’t preach dogma but encourages understanding the unfamiliar. Hopefully, the good stuff doesn’t stop here.

4 dysfunctional families out of 5