Michael Faber, The Book of Strange New Things (2014)

November 5th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

“I was going to say something,” he said.

“So say it,” she said.

He was quiet, keeping his eyes on the road.  In the darkness of the city’s outskirts, there was nothing to see except the tail-lights of other cars in the distance, the endless unfurling roll of tarmac, the giant utilitarian fixtures of the motorway.

“God may be disappointed in me for even thinking it,” he said.

“Well,” she sighed, “He knows already, so you may as well tell me.”

He glanced at her face, to judge what mood she was in as she said this, but the top half of her head, including her eyes, was veiled in a shadow cast by the edge of the windscreen.  The bottom half of her face was lunar bright.  The sight of her cheek, lips and chin – so intimately familiar to him, so much a part of life as he had known it – made him feel a sharp grief at the thought of losing her. (p. 3)

Michael Faber’s latest novel, The Book of Strange New Things, can be construed in several fashions.  It is a story of faith and its loss.  It is a tale of humanity wetting its bed.  It is an extended break-up letter.  It is a commentary on multinational capitalism and imperialist rhetoric.  It is each of these things and something more and less than the sum of its parts.

The Book of Strange New Things is set in a near-future Earth where technology has advanced enough that people can be transported light-years away.  Recently, contact has been made with sentient beings on a planet named Oasis (through a naming contest, of course).  After the usual mercenary crew has made the initial outposts, there comes the second of the three Exploration G’s:  God.  The natives have become intrigued by the Bible introduced to them by a previous missionary and they request a replacement missionary to teach them more about this “book of strange new things.”  It is an interesting take on the usual gold-god-glory trinity in that the native initiate much of this religious diffusion and it is one of several places where Faber takes great pains to avoid falling into the trap of viewing the Oasisian natives as infantile children.  Despite this, however, there are still some problematic elements when it comes to the interactions between the natives and the second missionary sent to them, Peter.

Peter and his wife Bea are an English missionary couple when the story commences.  Peter has volunteered to travel to Oasis at the behest of the UNIC corporation, even though this means he and Bea will be separated for decades, if not for the rest of their lives.  Peter’s faith is shown in great detail, not only in the words he speaks or writes back to Bea in lengthy passages he jokingly calls epistles, but also in how he struggles to reconcile what he experiences with what he believes.  Having an earnestly devout person can be a difficult task, and Faber does an excellent job in developing Peter’s character.  Yet oddly, Peter at times feels less like a person conflicted over his love for the Gospel and his love for his wife and more like a cipher, someone who exists merely to present an argument.  This is most prevalent in his interactions with the natives, as his thoughts are so bland, so devoid of humanity at times, that those passages feel more like a simulacrum speaking than an actual human being.

However, the novel mostly succeeds due to the strength of the letters Peter and Bea send to each other.  Bea’s in particular are very effective, as they narrate a years-long decline in human civilization during the interim of Peter’s voyage and his sojourn on Oasis.  Weather calamities, governmental collapses, riots, garbage piling high in the streets – these are the things that Bea experiences and their cumulative effect is to erode her faith in God.  The slowly unfolding nature of these horrors adds a nice contrast to what Peter witnesses on Oasis and his “seeing” his wife succumb to a loss of faith greatly damages his as well.  The final quarter of the book deals with this increasing self-doubt and it is here where Faber’s effort to establish Peter as an earnest individual bears the greatest fruit.

Despite this, however, there were a few concerns.  Even though Faber did go to some length to avoid presenting the Peter-Oasisians as an analogue to earlier missionaries to non-European lands, there were a few times where it felt as though the same, tired comparisons (especially in regards to child-like faith) poked their ugly heads through the narrative.  However, these structural weaknesses are masked by the power of the Peter-Bea letters, as those achingly realistic epistles provided the driving force for the novel and made it a mostly enjoyable read.

Will Self, Shark (2014)

November 4th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

DAY – TUBE – WORK – DINNER – WORK – TUBE – ARMCHAIR – TV – SLEEP – TUBE – WORK.  HOW MUCH MORE CAN YOU TAKE?  ONE IN TEN GOES MAD, ONE IN FIVE CRACKS UP… and this mantra stayed with him – although, after much repetition, it dawned on him:  this ability of capitalism to so accurately identify its own symptoms was itself… part of the doctor-created disease. – The house opposite stares back at Busner through its own…glaucoma tulle, and he considers its solidly fanciful form:  the three-sided bay windows on the ground and first floors separated by chunky pilasters…plinths, really – crying out for the honour of aldermen’s busts or hippogryphs – supporting half the vertical section of a tower which, at roof level, is surmounted by three quarters of a turret, the back of which is buried in the roof tiles.  The whole façade has been recently painted an unbecoming colour – somewhere between off-white and pale yellow – that suggests to him the strong likelihood of an institution yet to come into being that will… one day be ubiquitous. (p. 6)

Will Self’s latest novel, Shark, is a sort of sideways sequel to his 2012 Booker Prize-nominated Umbrella.  Like that earlier novel, Self utilizes certain modernist techniques, such as stream-of-consciousness narrative that condenses a complex multi-narrator story into a single paragraph running hundreds of pages, in order to strip away certain literary conventions that place distance between reader and fictitious event.  It is not an easy style for readers to parse, but Self manages to make his narrators’ voices clear and distinct, leading to a story that details the horrors of the second half of the 20th century with a similar level of bite (sorry for the pun) that Umbrella possesses.

Dr, Zack Busner, he of the 1971 LSD experiment that semi-restored Audrey Dearth in Umbrella, again is one of the narrative voices in Shark.  Here in Shark, we see him before he makes his decision to experiment with using LSD on Audrey.  We learn how he came to change as a doctor and a person, particularly in his outlook on mental illness.  During his sojourn in Concept House, which acts as a sort of concrete test for his theory that sane/insane is more an issue of societal psychosis than something that can be classified according to clinical assessment, he encounters a man, Claude Everude (a fitting surname), whose behavior is so out of bounds socially that it forces him to reassess his views on mental illness and the treatment of people afflicted with it.

Yet there is more to Shark than seeing Busner at an earlier point in his career.  Everude himself is a fascinating character, one who may or may not have been involved in one of the more infamous events in World War II.  His fleeting moments of lucidity make for an interesting contrast with his episodes of “mad” behavior.  In him can be seen a symbol of how societal traumas, in particular war-time PTSD, can affect individuals.  Certainly Claude’s experience on the USS Indianapolis and having to swim in shark-infested waters, somehow surviving when most of his fellow sailors died, serves as a metaphor for what transpires in Concept House.

Unlike Umbrella, which had only three (or rather two of Busner at different points of his career, along with Audrey) PoV narrators, Shark shifts between multiple characters at Concept House, each with his or her own issues of identity.  In a very real sense, each of these characters, including Busner, are adrift in a shark-infested sea, trying to stay alive at any cost, even that of their sanity.  Self does an excellent job of building up this collective sense of horror at the things each character has witnessed, utilizing direct emotional language in a fashion similar to Joyce’s in Ulysses.  While there might be occasional lapses in narrative flow, for the most part each word, each descriptive passage, is designed to convey this sense of mounting horror that the characters have.

Shark was a more challenging read than Umbrella, yet its non-concluding conclusion was even more satisfying than its predecessor.  The characters are dynamic and their thoughts, insane as many of them might be, are vividly present for the reader to consider.  The result is a brilliant novel, one that merits multiple re-reads in the future in order to glean even more from it.  Highly recommended.

2014 National Book Award winner for Young People’s Literature: Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming

November 3rd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

There are white men working at the printing press
beside Daddy, their fingers blackened
with ink so that at the end of the day, palms up
it’s hard to tell who is white and who is not, still
they call my grandfather Gunnar,
even though he’s a foreman
and is supposed to be called
Mr. Irby.
But he looks the white men in the eye
sees the way so many of them can’t understand
a colored man
telling them what they need to do.
This is new.  Too fast for them.
The South is changing.

Sometimes they don’t listen.
Sometimes they walk away.
At the end of the day, the newspaper is printed,
the machines are shut down and each man
punches a clock and leaves but

only Colored folks
come home to Nicholtown.

Here, you can’t look right or left or up or down
without seeing brown people.
Colored Town.  Brown Town.  Even a few mean words
to say where we live.

My grandmother tells us
it’s the way of the South.  Colored folks used to stay
where they were told that they belonged.  But
times are changing.
And people are itching to go where they want.

This evening, though,
I am happy to belong
to Nicholtown.

– “at the end of the day,” (pp. 53-54)

Jacqueline Woodson’s National Book Award-nominated Brown Girl Dreaming is an autobiography of her life growing up in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York City during the eventful 1960s.  Instead of writing a more traditional prose memoir, Woodson recasts memories of her childhood in a series of poems that cover a wide variety of issues, from racism to food, from family bonds and parental disunity.  This choice of utilizing poetry instead of prose allows Woodson to describe in great detail certain memories of her childhood with great economy of words.

Brown Girl Dreaming is divided into five parts, each of which chronicles key moments in Woodson’s childhood.  Some of the earlier poems, such as “second daughter’s second day on earth,” use historical events, like the planning of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, as a backdrop to her life and the expectations that have been placed on her by others.  Others, like “a girl named jack,” concentrate on the more intimate issues of self-identity, such as the argument between Woodson’s parents over what name she should have.  Identity is an issue that Woodson revisits several times over the course of this collection and for the majority of the poems dedicated to exploring these questions of self-identity, she manages to create vividly-described passages in which the doubt and uncertainty which plagued her at times come to the fore and are presented well.

In later sections, particularly in the shift from Ohio to South Carolina (and later to New York City), Woodson focuses more on differences and how diverse perspectives affected the younger her.  Of particular interest was the poem “training,” in which a cousin, Dorothy, voices the apprehension that many in the civil rights movement had regarding nonviolence:

But Lord, Cousin Dorothy says.  Everyone has a line.
When I’m walking
up to that lunch counter and taking my seat,
I pray to God, don’t let
anybody spit on me.  I can be Sweet Dorothy
seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day
as long as nobody crosses that line.  Because if they do,
this nonviolent movement

is over! (pp. 76-77)

If there is a major flaw to Brown Girl Dreaming, it might be that it is too full of images and scenes from Woodson’s past.  This is not to say that individual poems are poor or even mediocre, no.  Instead, there are times that it felt as though a similarly-themed poem was presented too close to another, weakening the effect that either might have had if they were separated by a greater space.  Also, there were some poems that seemed to be lacking on a technical level, as though a metaphor could have been added or dropped, or perhaps a descriptive scene could have been shortened to make for a more effective poem.  Yet in saying this, I am hard pressed to think of specific examples; this is more of a general sense of the collection as a whole rather than individual lines or poems.  Again, this is not to say that the poems as a whole were mediocre, but rather that there were times where the effect was less than what Woodson seemed to desire to achieve.

Despite these occasionally flat poems, on the whole Brown Girl Dreaming is a moving story of the author’s early life and how her and her family’s experiences in the 1960s helped shape her as a woman of color.  It is a good poetry collection, but not a great one; the power lies more with the story unfolding within the poems rather than in the poems themselves.  Nevertheless, it is a collection well worth reading and it is a worthy nominee for the 2014 National Book Awards for Young People’s Literature.

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