Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

My 2018 review (lightly edited) followed by thoughts this time around:  This is my fourth time through this masterpiece, the first since 2012. It's a set of three interconnected novellas.

The first is flat out one of the best things ever written. A man, referred to as Number 5, returns home from prison and recalls his life before prison being raised by his father who was a mad scientist/brothel owner/former slave trader who performs experiments on him. It's set in a city, Port-Mimizon, modeled on New Orleans on one half of a set of twin planets, Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix, that have been colonized by humans (specifically from France) some generations before. It is beautiful, heartbreaking and absolutely brutal in its depiction of human capability for cruelty. But it's way subtler and more enjoyable than that description would indicate. While I haven't read Proust, the opening is famously modeled on the opening of Swann's Way, and the writing is some of my favorite anywhere. Themes of memory, slavery, colonialism, identity, pedagogy, robotics and genocide are all at play here. Despite all of that, play is a key word because there's a lot of subtle punning around Wolfe's name and shots taken at Academics. Wolfe doesn't forget that he has to tell a good story to carry all that weight and doesn’t slip into didacticism. Even his exposition here is handled gracefully.

The second novella purports to be written by an anthropologist who is a minor, if significant, character in the first section and a prisoner in the third. It's the most confusing part of the book. It reads like a bumbling colonial anthropologist recounting a myth of the people who were native to the other half of the twin planets. This is complicated by the fact that the identity of the author is ambiguous (though I think he can be identified after reading all three novellas). There's a lot to parse out here and I'm not sure I fully understand it, but I was able to enjoy it immensely. The themes from the first section are at play here as well, but from another angle.

The third novella reveals the extent of the cruelty, evil and absurdity of the government of the planet from the first section. It is reminiscent of Kafka. It takes the form of a series of interviews of and conducted by the anthropologist, his prison diary and his diary of his trip where he gathered the material for the second novella seen through the eyes of a government official who reads/listens to them out of order because the labels have fallen off. Here more of the extent of the slavery (including sexual slavery) becomes clear and the horror of the situation is brought home. It ties up the three novellas thematically.

I love this type of storytelling, learning about a place through very different perspectives and genres. Wolfe has a subtle touch and there's a lot to consider. I've been meaning to reread this for a while and was prompted to finally do so because The Gene Wolfe Literary Podcast is doing a close reading and discussion of it all fall.

2019 re-read:

I stand by most of what I wrote about this last year. I think some of my trouble with the second section was that trying to overcomplicate it. This is tempting with Wolfe, because he packs so much into every story. This time around, though, I think I have a better grasp of what happens in that section.

I even more fully stand by the first novella. The Cerberus of the title is a three headed dog that guards the main character’s home, which is a mad scientist’s den housed in the depths of a brothel. It was only on the fourth reread last year that I realized that if Cerberus was guarding it, it must be hell. The house, and by extension the city of Port-Mimizon and the whole society on Sainte Croix and Sainte Anne, is hell. Slavery still exists. It’s not explicitly said, but at least some of the women in the brothel have to be slaves. Number Five’s father is performing genetic experiments and the “failures” are sold in the slave market.

Taken as a whole, the book is incredibly effective at showing how hellish colonialism is for the the colonized; it is equally effective in showing how it turns the colonizers into monsters. There is a lot more going on in the stories than just that, but this is what stood out to me this time.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It can be confusing on a first read (especially the second part), but rewards the effort that it takes to sort through. And, despite that description, and despite its bleakness, it manages to be entertaining. It belongs on the shelf with things like Pale Fire, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: An Afterward and Cloud Atlas; that is, works made up of parts that function on their own, but, when taken together, add up to something more. This is firmly in my reread every year list for the time being.


Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A Lost Lady by Willa Cather

I was assigned My Antonia for a class in undergrad (between 20 and 25 years ago), but I didn’t read it. A couple of years ago I did, and it really blew me away. After a reread last year, I consider it a masterpiece. I went on to read five more Cather novels, including this one. My Mortal Enemy was the other that I liked nearly as well as My Antonia, but I’ve liked all of them, with the exception of the ending of O, Pioneers, in which I didn’t completely buy Alexandra’s choice to forgive Frank. Or rather, not that she forgave him, but some of the reasoning and some of what she said to him just felt strange, and I was not sure what Cather intended.

Some of that same sense of not fully understanding what Cather was getting at troubled me here as well in the early parts of the novella. This is the story of a society lady, Marian Forrester told primarily through the eyes of Niel Herbert, a young boy who grows up thinking of her as a paragon of virtue and womanhood and is very distressed when she commits adultery and later falls into bad company after her husband’s death. Niel’s ire is mainly focused on Ivy Peters, a lawyer who comes from a lower class and becomes a particularly crass type of capitalist in adulthood.

For the first two thirds or so of A Lost Lady I thought it might join O Pioneers near the bottom of Cather’s novels for me. Cather seems to always be concerned with class to some extent or another in her books, but the way the book talked about it and the way the point of view characters talked about Mrs. Forrester didn’t sit well with me. In the other books I’ve read, her attitude seemed to be very practical; you should work hard and make sure that you’re able to live comfortably. Here the point of view characters seemed to buy into class as reflective of character in a way that felt wrong. This isn’t the first of her books to talk about the main female character through the eyes of a male. It was near the end of the book before I realized the extent of its irony, and the extent to which it is a repudiation of Niel Herbert’s point of view. I still need to think more about Cather’s view of class, but her attitude toward women’s place in society is clear.

Cather is a writer I’ve come to really love. If I prefer My Antonia and My Mortal Enemy to this, it is a testament to those books and no slight towards this one.


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand is my favorite author discovery of the year. Starting with Wylding Hall last spring I read five of her novels and they were all somewhere on the spectrum of good to great. After reading this collection, it’s clear that she is as good at shorter length as she is at the longer. The novels were a variety of genres, and she proved equal to all of them. These stories (two novellas and six short stories) vary, but not quite so much. They could be all be loosely called literary horror/fantasy/magical realism. They sit would sit comfortably on the same shelf as the stories of Kelly Link, Lucius Shepard, Caitlin Kiernan, Carmen Maria Machado, Jeff Vandermeer, Michael Swanwick and even Gene Wolfe. The afterward revealed that she loves Wolfe and WH Auden, which would have sold me on her if I was not already all in. These stories meet Wolfe’s criteria for good stories; they are enjoyable on the first read, but (unless I’m seriously mistaken) will yield greater insight upon rereading.

The first novella has one of the best titles I’ve come across recently: Cleopatra Brimstone. The name is both a fictional (I think) species of butterfly and an alter ego of sorts adopted by the main character. I’ve read enough Elizabeth Hand to recognize a couple of her main hallmarks: trauma and a post-punk bohemia. Jane, a retiring but brilliant entomology student, is assaulted and withdraws from school for a time. She has connections in London and moves there for a while. She begins to volunteer at a local zoo working with butterflies and comes into contact with that punk bohemia. I don’t want to spoil the ways in which it turns into a horror story, as I was surprised by it myself. It’s a bleak story, and a beautiful one.

The next story, A Pavane for the Prince of the Air, is perhaps the least fantastical on a first reading. It is a beautiful story about community and grieving death. This one lingers in the mind long after reading it.

The Least Trumps, a novella, is, I think, one of two stories by Hand I’ve read before in a collection about a decade ago. In it a reclusive tattoo artist (who lives on an island within an island) discovers a pack of tarot cards owned or created by and mentioned in a series of fantasy novels she grew up on. Again, the ways it moves into fantasy are worth discovering without being spoiled. It is one of the standouts in the collection for me.

In the story Wonderwall Hand immerses the reader in that punk bohemian milieu that she excels so well at. The magical realist (and I think that’s probably the best term for this story) flourishes here really make the story. Seeing genre flourishes added to someone who genuinely understands punk really works. Hand does something similar in the Cass Neary books, though with noir rather than fantasy.

The final stories are grouped together as The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations. In the afterward she attributes these stories (and the novels Generation Loss and Mortal Love) to a correspondence with a friend. She said she sees this friend seldomly in person; the stories carry the motif of distant friendships through some reimaginings of elements of myth. They are very good.

In the first, Kronia, named for an ancient Athenian festival honoring Cronos, the narrator moves through a fractured timeline. She narrates how she met her friend and how often they spent time together and the timelines switch throughout. It’s a bit confusing at first, but once I figured out what’s happening found it clever and entertaining.

In Calypso in Berlin, Calypso, nymph of ancient myth, continues to live into the present day and is an artist. She lives in isolation but eventually moves to Berlin. This is a spectacular story; a subversion of the standard artist/muse trope. It’s a beautiful meditation on art and an incredibly effective horror story. An absolutely chilling last line. Perfection.

Echo is a blending of the myth of Echo and Narcissus with a sort of post-apocalyptic communications breakdown. This is the one that most needs a reread to get its full effect. Still, the emotion of not being able to connect with a loved one over distance really carries the day.

Finally, The Saffron Gatherers is concerned with art and a long distance couple that is considering moving to San Francisco. I don’t want to talk too much about it so as not to spoil the way it plays out.

All in all, this is an amazing collection. Hand is a master at prose, at characterization and bringing genre effects to bear onto a variety of literary styles. The Least Trumps, Calypso in Berlin and maybe Cleopatra Brimstone were the real standouts, but there’s not a bad story in the bunch. Her themes of working through trauma via art (even though that doesn’t always work) and the beauty in the bleakness of the world, present in nearly all of her work I’ve read were well realized here. I’m sure I will return to these stories many times.

Canon Worthy

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

This was the only still-in-print Octavia Butler novel I hadn’t read before.* I had put this off a bit, because The Parable of the Sower, to which this is a sequel, was probably my least favorite among her books. It is more didactic than anything else she wrote and the ideology overwhelmed the rest of the work for me, even though I didn’t find that ideology objectionable. I’m happy to say that, while Parable of the Talents, is still very interested in the Earth Seed ideology, it is powerful enough of a story and work of art and of sociology that it isn’t wrecked by that focus. It is one of the most prescient science fiction works I’ve ever read. And simultaneously one of the scariest and most hopeful ones.

The most remarked on thing about this book, in the age of Trump, is that in 1998 it posited a religious presidential candidate, named Jarret, in a postapocalyptic America (circa 2030) whose campaign slogan was “Help us make America great again.” He appealed to Christian America (both in the general sense, and in that he named his denomination that). When his more extremist supporters did things like burning nonbelievers alive, taking children away from their parents to be raised by Christians, and starting up reeducation camps (which included raping the inmates even as they tried to turn them away from their sins), he condemned “the burnings, but [did] so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear.” The world that Butler portrays is much worse than where we actually find ourselves. Also, Trump is in no way a believable Christian, whereas Jarret is in full on televangelist mode. Still the parallels are stunning.

One of the things Butler is so smart about, as an online acquaintance put it in relation to Kindred, is how easy it is to ignore suffering when it is not your own, or that of those close to you. In Parable of the Talents that is extended to the idea that idealogues (in this case Christians but it is true of other groups as well**) are often unwilling to admit the cruelty of the more extremist adherents of their ideology is even happening, let alone in their name.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of convincing someone to leave an ideology without replacing it with another that functions in the same way. Think of ex-conservative Christians who become secular leftists, or of someone taking the leap from one religion to another. These things happen all the time. I’m skeptical of ideologies, whether religious, political, economic, identity-based, or philosophical, that, explicitly or implicitly, claim to explain everything. Things happen for more than one reason, and I’m wary of anyone who seems too certain. This is not to say that these ideologies can’t give some genuine insight or truths. For instance, while I’m agnostic, I can squint at the Christian doctrine of original sin and say, “There is definitely something deeply broken in humanity.” I’m not a socialist (though I’m much closer to that than I once was), but I can look at discussion of income inequality and say, “If you keep privileging the wealthy, eventually something in the political order will break.” This is as good a place as any to admit that skepticism toward ideology is in itself an ideology, and I’m stuck with that paradox. Still, if, like me, someone was an adherent of an ideology for years, it’s very tempting on exit to move into another that offers similar certainty. Science Fiction is a genre well-suited to this theme. The answer here (and in the last scifi book I read that dealt with this, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny) seems to be no. Indeed, the Parable books seem to be Butler's attempt to give the world an ideological alternative to religion, particularly in its more fundamentalist forms.

The story of the book is that of the rise of the secular religion Earth Seed, whose main tenets are, “God is change” and “Earth Seed's [humanity’s] destiny is to take root in the stars.” Because God (the only constant) is change, it can be shaped. Rather than Heaven, you have the heavens. There is no personal God here. But Butler recognizes the need for community and a purpose. This isn’t quite existentialism, though it’s pretty close. Shaping God, in Earth Seed’s terms is not too far off from creating meaning. It would be easy to see it as another iteration of the argument between secular humanism and Christianity and other religions. That is quite right either, though it is close to that. By providing a purpose (education and building towards going to space) and community it functions in the way that more traditional religion does.

The book is very much concerned with ideology, but is much more successful than its predecessor at not allowing the book to become a gospel tract of sorts. It is still more didactic than most of Butler’s work, but the structure of the novel works to counter that somewhat. The story is that of the experiences of Lauren Oya Olamina, the founder of Earth Seed, her brother Mark, a preacher in the Christian America Church founded by President Jarret,  her daughter Asha Vere who was taken from Olamina as a baby by Christian America and raised by strangers and the rise of the Earth Seed religion. The structure of the book consists of the journals of Olamina, narration decades later by her daughter who has discovered her identity, her brother Mark, and a few chapters of a book written by her husband. Olamina and Mark were driven from their home as children and both have been through a lot of trauma. Mark turned to the church. Olamina created an Earth Seed community that puts a lot of her ideology into practice, Acorn. That community is smashed and turned into a reeducation camp by Christian America and some truly horrific things happen to the inhabitants. There is enough of a story as the three main narrators eventually meet again, and Earth Seed becomes a major social force and the extremist president and his more radical followers fall out of favor. Asha Vere is somewhere on the atheist/agnostic spectrum and is bitter towards her mother and toward Earth Seed. Vere’s skepticism and the rotating narration helps counteract the tendency to turn the novel into a sermon.

Like all Butler’s work there is beauty and brutality. Despite the didacticism, I am very sad to have not gotten a third book, which I might not have predicted after the first volume. It is worth reading for its prescience and insight into the current political climate. It is a blunt repudiation of religious fundamentalism. But it’s also a fascinating study of ideology, and an argument that we need better education and should be trying to get to space. Earth Seed is an interesting take on a secular religion. The closest I can get to explaining my own ideology is to triangulate between an Existentialism tempered by the understanding that people’s range of choice and freedom is limited and variable, whatever Wendell Berry, Robinson Jeffers, and Annie Dillard are on about and a heavy dose of skepticism or at least lack of certainty. Earth Seed is not that, but not too far off on the first two counts. It is very certain, though. It does a good job of offering hope, both in the continued existence of humanity in the stars and in the fact that Jarret’s time ended. It was horrible while it lasted, but it was not the end point of history.

Butler remains among my favorites, and while I am more likely to return to her other works than this one, it is an excellent and thought provoking book.

Highly Recommended

*I have a .pdf of her out of print Survivor and the two posthumous stories left to read to be a completist with her.

**See the American leftists of the mid 20th Century who supported the Soviet Union under Stalin long after that was a tenable position.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

The Blunderer by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith has a particularly nasty view of, for lack of a less cliched term, human nature. In this book there are sociopaths, victims, self-aggrandizers, incredibly shrill people. Up until a quarter of the way through, I thought I had found the first Highsmith novel I would start and not finish. Highsmith’s main characters usually fall into those categories, but in this one they seemed more one note than in others. Fortunately once the machinery of the story went into motion, the book became compelling.

The book begins with a psychopath named Kimmel following his wife’s bus as she’s attempting to leave him. The first time the bus stopped, he brutally murdered her, but has set up something of an alibi. Walter Stackhouse, a handsome well to do lawyer, reads about this and intuits what happened even though the crime was attributed to a drifter. He himself is in an unhappy marriage. His wife commits suicide, but the similarities to her death and Kimmel’s wife put Stackhouse under suspicion. He is not guilty of the murder but acts more and more like he is. It all unwinds from there.

This is territory Highsmith returned to in the much better later novel A Suspension of Mercy. In both cases, it is somewhat difficult to believe that people acted in the way the protagonists did, considering they were otherwise intelligent people. But in the later book the characters were more well drawn out and the insights into human behavior were sharper. The Blunderer is good, but is probably my least favorite among the Highsmith I’ve read.

Mildly Recommended.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Stone Sky by NK Jemison

When I read The Fifth Season a couple of years ago I was blown away. It’s a masterpiece of worldbuilding; science fiction disguised as and mixed with fantasy. It’s a far future Earth wrecked by tectonic shifts on a scale we have never experienced. There is now a single continent around the equator and there are humans still, but who have long since forgotten several of the civilizations that follow ours. Technology exists, but is a weird remnant of the past for most people. Origenes (or ragas in the hateful slur used against them by “stills”) are people who can sense, and to varying degrees control or displace, tectonic activity and are feared, needed, and hated for their power. People live in communities with a rigid caste system. What government there is controls the origenes in order to prevent or at least mitigate fifth seasons, times in which the tectonic activity makes the world even more inhospitable to people than before. There are obelisks that float in the sky, repositories of a mysterious power left over from an ancient civilization that come heavily into play in the second and third books. There’s a lot more to the world, but that first book sets it all up brilliantly. It begins with a powerful origene triggering the mother of all Fifth Seasons, and whose motivation plays out over the course of the first and second books. Everyone goes into survival mode and things play out from there. The first book is so cleverly structured that it made me like second person narration, which I usually dislike.

The Stone Sky is a worthy capstone to the trilogy. Essun, the main character of the series, who, among other things, is trying to repair the Earth and stop the seasons for good while finding her estranged daugher, has an amazing arc. I don’t want to go into too much detail so as not to spoil the first novel, but suffice to say she goes from a government trained origene to an outcast hiding her power and that of her children, to climate refugee, and further. Her power grows as she learns more and more of what has been hidden for her. In the second two books as the task she has taken on becomes broader and clearer on a worldwide scale, it simultaneously becomes more personal as her daughter is also gaining power and is working to a counter purpose.

The books are very smart about class and race. It is unflinching in the depiction of the fact that years of oppression have consequences. And yet it leaves room for personal decisions as well. The origenes have had their power and decisions shaped by outside forces, and there is no getting around that. The range of choices the characters have is extremely narrow. But Jemison somehow finds a way to give them agency within that range and holds them responsible for what they do with that agency. Both society and the individuals in it are culpable for the wrecked planet. It ties ecological catastrophe and cultural repression together in a very convincing way.

But that’s not to say that the books are sermons. These themes collide on a very personal field in a compelling story. The Fifth Season is a masterpiece, and if I liked the sequels slightly less, it’s only because exploring the world comes with slightly less surprise than in the nearly perfect opening volume. The story moves along at the right pace. The prose is excellent. The created vocabulary is easily decipherable from context, and it doesn’t take long before it flows as well as the standard English. The varying tenses and persons used to differentiate which characters are being discussed is distracting at first, but absolutely justified by the ending of the trilogy. I haven’t read the competition (certainly not all of it), but I have no qualms in saying that all three are worthy of the Hugo awards they received.

Highly Recommended. (Canon Worthy for the first volume)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Billy Budd and Other Stories by Herman Melville

After I finished this year’s reread of Moby Dick, I thought it was weird that I had read it eight times and had not read anything else by him.* I’m pretty sure I was assigned Bartleby the Scrivener either in High School or College because I remember having a cheap edition of it. But if I actually read it, I had completely forgotten it. As I read (and really loved) that story in this collection, I had no memory of it at all. I am pleased, and not at all surprised to report that, based on this sample (with the possible exception of Benito Cereno, which I’m still mulling over), Melville’s other work holds up well. It includes five of the six stories collected in the Piazza Tales and replaces the other with the posthumously published title story. Like Moby Dick, I suspect I’ll need multiple rereads to get these, but in most cases I won’t mind that at all.

It took a few pages to get into Billy Budd, Sailor. Melville is not a direct writer, and here takes quite a while setting the scene and the characters in place. This is true of Moby Dick as well, of course, but my familiarity with that book offsets any (or at least most) of my frustration with the discursive path Melville takes to get to his point. In Billy Budd, that point is an ethical question about the law and intention. Budd is falsely accused and then in frustration strikes and kills his accuser. He did not intend to, and the accuser was very much in the wrong. Yet Budd had to hang for the killing. Apparently this is often posed as a legal puzzle in some law schools. It makes sense. There’s a broader application to contemporary discourse as well, I think; to what degree does intention matter? Budd didn’t mean to kill Claggart, but Claggart is dead. How much do the circumstances extenuate. It’s hard to say. Melville doesn’t make it clear either. He means for the reader to have to think about it. I liked this, but on first reading it was one of the weaker stories in the book.

In The Piazza, the narrator builds a piazza onto his house in the remote hills. The surroundings put him in a fairy tale mood and he imagines another house in a distant spot in the wilderness. Living there is a woman thinking the same of his house. It’s written in ornate language that attempts, mostly successfully, to cast a spell on the reader. It’s ambiguous whether something actually supernatural is happening, and the implication is that the rest of the Piazza Tales were spun from that same porch. It also has somewhat of a moral warning that lands somewhere between cautionary tale about living in a fantasy world and not falling prey to assuming someone else has it better. I thought it better than the title story, but it is still a little lighter than most of the book.

Bartleby the Scrivener, though, really deserves its place as a standard text. It had a surprisingly eerie tone for a story about resisting office life. The theme of resistance to the death in life that happens in bureaucratic jobs has long appealed to me, and the end to which it is put here reminded me a lot of The Moviegoer. Binx Bollings statement that “everydayness is the enemy” wouldn’t have been out of place here. The criticism of the pursuit of wealth and being tied too much to the job is expressed with the atmosphere of a horror story. Like Moby Dick, it seems to be a precursor to the existentialists of the next century. I am certain I didn’t fully grasp this story on this read through, but I do look forward to revisiting it often.

Benito Cereno was the story I wrestled with the most. One of the many things I like about Moby Dick is the diversity of the cast of characters. Every character, regardless of race, is given agency. Which is why I was taken aback when this story, written several years after Moby Dick, seems very much in line with the more racist views of the time, at least on the surface. The story deals with a whaling ship that comes across a slave ship in which the slaves are eventually revealed to have taken over and the titular captain has to pretend that all is normal for the point of view character, the captain of the whaling ship. That captain’s judgement is called into question early on. “Considering the lawlessness and loneliness of the spot, and the sort of stories, at that day, associated with those seas, Captain Delano's surprise might have deepened into some uneasiness had he not been a person of a singularly undistrustful good-nature, not liable, except on extraordinary and repeated incentives, and hardly then, to indulge in personal alarms, any way involving the imputation of malign evil in man. Whether, in view of what humanity is capable, such a trait implies, along with a benevolent heart, more than ordinary quickness and accuracy of intellectual perception, may be left to the wise to determine.” I was surprised when an English Professor friend said that he and his wife, also an English Professor, thought this was Melville’s best work. They see it as highly critical of slavery, and the narrator as unreliable. I’m not used to third person narrators being deliberately unreliable, so I didn’t initially read it that way. In that reading it indicts the reader’s perception of the leader of the slave revolt. He should be the hero of the story, but is portrayed as evil, and like Humbert Humbert, the narration is showing readers something about themselves. I fear this is reading a contemporary viewpoint back onto the text, but I’m almost willing to give Melville the benefit of the doubt based on Moby Dick. I’ll have to reread it before I make too strong a call on it.

The Encantadas were probably the best part of the book for me. The title is another name for the Galapagos islands and take the form of a series of sketches of the place. Rereading Annie Dillard recently well prepared me for these. They really ride the line between fiction and creative nonfiction essays. They are beautiful evocations of nature and the desolation of the place. These are just beautiful, and along with Bartleby, are the most essential pieces in the book.

The final story, The Bell Tower, is a proto-science fiction/feat of engineering/horror story. It’s the most straightforward storytelling I’ve yet seen from Melville, and it is very effective.

Melville’s writing in this collection demonstrates that Moby Dick was no fluke. He’s genuinely great. His style is more discursive than most contemporary writers, but the work it takes to get into his mindset is well worth it. He’s prescient in the way he approaches existential questions. His obsession with death is on display, as is his wit. I will certainly be returning to many, if not all, of these.

The stories range from recommended to canon-worthy.

*When I said that to a friend, he said, “Yeah that’s the weird part of that sentence.”

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

I think I’ll remember this year, in book terms anyway, as the year I discovered Elizabeth Hand and George Eliot.* Curious Toys is the fifth of Hand’s books I’ve read, and maybe the best. Though that is picking by degrees from a very good group. Generation Loss really blew me away, but the more I think about Wylding Hall and Waking the Moon, the more I love them. Available Dark is as tense as Generation Loss. Between those first four books Hand showed herself to be a master of genre switching: horror, fantasy, nordic noir. She can do it all. In Curious Toys she adds historical thriller to that already impressive list.

Anyone who has read any of the Cass Neary books, knows that Hand is drawn to outsider art. It’s no surprise then that she would want to write about the artist and writer Henry Darger. I’ve heard bits and pieces about him before, but this is the first time I’ve thought about him in any extended way. Darger worked a day job as a custodian at a hospital and after he died they discovered thousands of pages of a fantasy novel and hundreds of accompanying drawings and watercolors. Darger is a supporting character in this, as is Charlie Chaplin.

The main character, Pin, is a 14 year old girl who goes in disguise as a boy. Her mother has taken a job as a fortune teller at an amusement park in Chicago. She runs errands, delivers drugs for Max, an actor who does one of those acts in which he plays male and female characters by turning opposite profiles. The other main players are her mother, Francis “Fatty” Bacon an ex-cop who works at the park and Glory (Gloria Swanson), an actress she is in love with. Pin moves between the sets of the film industry which is still active in Chicago at the time and the world of the amusement park. She meets Henry Darger when they both witness what the disappearance of a child; Pin later discovers the body.

The book is set roughly 20 years after the HH Holmes murders at the 1890 world fair. Those murders loom over the proceedings as another serial killer active and some of the older cops reflect back to their experiences at the fair. It would be reductive to say this book is a cross between The Devil in the White City and carnivalesque works like Geek Love, Nights at the Circus or Swamplandia, but that is a pretty accurate accounting for the feel of the book. That’s not to say the book is derivative. Hand is far too good a writer for this to be mere copy work.

There is a darkness and bleakness in Hand’s work that I really love. This darkness is most clearly expressed in the Cass Neary books, but is on display here as well; The killer hunts young girls, poisoning them and then dressing a life size doll in their clothes. This has probably moved ahead of Generation Loss, the first Neary book, for me because that bleakness doesn’t quite reach the nihilism that characterizes Neary’s outlook. Curious Toys does not flinch from the darkness, but doesn’t entirely despair either. It is perfectly structured. There are several people who may be the killer and as each is eliminated as a possibility, the tension grows. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the ending is satisfying, but plays fair with the subject matter and attitudes of the time period. To the extent that I know the history of the time, she plays fair with that as well. The prose, as always, is excellent. I loved this book and will be rereading it, I suspect, for years to come.


*And probably as the year Moby Dick (and possibly Peace and Middlemarch as well) passed Pale Fire as my favorite novel. And the one that cemented Caitlin Kiernan, David Mitchell, William Gibson and Donna Tartt among my favorite writers. And I finally looped back around to more Austen and Karen Joy Fowler. And when I discovered Jill Lepore. I’ll remember a lot of bookish things, but Hand and Eliot are high on the list.