Monday, August 31, 2020

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

I think this book suffered for my having read it (mostly in one sitting) the day after I finished House of Leaves. That is not to say that this book is not good, it is (though I certainly liked House of Leaves more); the tonal shift between books nearly gave me whiplash. Whereas House of Leaves is dark and labyrinthine, Ellen Foster is, while having its own brand of darkness under the surface, bright and witty. After sitting with it for a week, I am able to recognize that Ellen Foster is very good, but I will need to read it again when it’s not likely to be overwhelmed by a recently finished book. 

I picked up a copy of this years ago when Walker Percy was still my favorite writer because he wrote the cover blurb. It probably didn’t help my enjoyment of the book that he compared its narrator to Holden Caulfield, which improperly set my expectations. While Ellen Foster has gone through equal trauma as Caulfield (if memory of the latter serves, greater), her voice is much less concerned with phoniness. It is as darkly funny. Her voice is closer to Huckleberry Finn or Scout, albeit with a much darker subtext. 

Ellen Foster, now living with her “new mama” narrates both her current, happier life and her traumatic experiences with her father and birth mother. The narrative technique of having a child telling the story of things they don’t fully understand is used to brilliant effect here. As she relates the abuse from her father it is absolutely gut wrenching. The same tactic is used to examine race in the south. In that it is reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn, as the reader sees Ellen realizing that she is not better and has not had a harder time in life than her best friend, a black girl named Starletta. Like Huckleberry Finn, the intent is clear from the text, but the reaction to it will likely vary from reader to reader.

All in all this is an good book, one I hope to reread with adjusted expectations and with more distance from an all-consuming book like the one I read before it.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 63/75

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

 House of Leaves is exactly in my wheelhouse, so I had high hopes going in and they were in large part met. I love fractured narratives; books that use multiple unreliable narrators and narratives that interact with each other. Examples would include Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, City or Saints and Madmen and Shreik: an Afterward by Jeff Vandermeer, Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, or any number of David Mitchell novels. I like books in which the structure mirrors the action or state of mind of the characters, a recent favorite example being The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan in which the prose gets closer to stream-of-consciousness as the narrator loses track of reality. I’ve become a horror fan over the past few years, especially the ones that lean towards mainstream literary techniques. And I’m not put off by huge novels with reputations for difficulty. The aforementioned 2666 is a favorite. I loved Underworld by Delillo, Infinite Jest by fellow footnote addict David Foster Wallace, and despite having mixed feelings about it earlier this year, Dhalgren by Samuel Delany has really stuck with me. House of Leaves fits all those bills. I’ve had a copy on the shelf for possibly a decade, possibly longer and I’ve been putting it off for some reason. I’m glad I finally got around to it. After I got my footing with the book I enjoyed it thoroughly.

It is definitely a gimmick, but one that I think works for the material. Here’s what I mean. It has at least three levels of abstraction. The main body of the text is a recap/academic treatise on a documentary that even other parts of the text say doesn’t exist. That documentary concerns the family of a Pulitzer winning photojournalist slowly discovering their house is bigger on the inside and that a shifting labyrinth of sorts opens in its depths. Like a horror version of the Tardis from Dr. Who. This includes copious footnotes, some to actual existing texts but most made up. Zapano, the man who wrote this treatise is dead. The prologue and footnotes contain a secondary novel written by Johnny Truant, who has pieced together the main narrative and the appendices from a trunk found in the dead man’s apartment containing chapters, notes and ephemera. This is written in a Gen-X bohemian mode often verging into stream of consciousness. The descent into madness of the subjects of the documentary  is paralleled by Truant’s and Zapono’s. The printed version is ostensibly the second edition of the book, the first having been released on the nascent internet. An unnamed editor has added additional material written by Truant after the book has already gained a cult following. The epilogues contain a poetry cycle,a dozen or so standalone poems and poem fragments, a complete epistolary novella written by Truant’s mother from an asylum (a heartbreaking work in its own right), prose fragments, pictures and an extensive list of quotes from widely varied sources. There are textual tricks in which the words are placed oddly on pages, sometimes one word per page, and with a complex series of “footnotes” that send the reader back and forth in the text. The reason this works and is not just academic wankery is threefold: One, it pulls off the trick of taking a joke to the point of not being funny anymore then back multiple times. Two, just when it’s lulled the reader into thinking it’s just a joke it suddenly becomes horrifying and emotional. And three, those portions of the text disorient the reader at the same moment that the characters are disoriented in the maze.

It wears its influences on its sleeve. Several footnotes are just lists of things that it could be compared to. Famous people, including Stephen King, are “interviewed” about the documentary. My favorite is that Danielewski says that Katherine Dunn, author of the excellent Geek Love, has written a fictional version of a journal that is talked about in the critical literature that has built up around the documentary but never seen. All this meta commentary and textual gimmickry is undoubtedly pretentious. But the book undercuts its pretension (or in its words, its "literary onanism") by constantly pointing out how pretentious it's being. By providing all the literary analysis one could want in its own pages it allows the reader to focus on the horror and sadness which are so entwined as to be indistinguishable.

Because ultimately this is a horror novel. One with a lot of postmodern distancing and textual tricks built in, but it is horrifying to see the protagonist of the documentary go through his harrowing experience even as Johnny Truant is experiencing his own descent into madness as he studies it. One could get completely lost in this book teasing out every little reference and code (including Morse Code!) that’s built in. Because so many possible interpretations are put out even in the text, a lot of the horror is left to the reader’s speculation, an incredibly effective approach. While I certainly plan to reread this as one reading is really not enough, I hope to avoid that madness. House of Leaves nearly completely worked for me. As a weird tale, as horror, as drug novel, as poetry collection and so on. The poem fragment that contains the phrase “house of leaves” is alone worth the price of entry. Truant’s voice, especially in the early going, can be a little grating, and I wouldn’t begrudge someone bailing because of that. But as his past comes into frame that becomes much more understandable. And, for all its textual shenanigans, once I got my footing with the book it zipped along at a very good pace. I am not quite as over the moon about it as its staunchest defenders, but it really deserves its reputation. In other words, I won’t be the guy at the party who corners you so he can discourse on it, but if you’ve also read it and want to discuss, I’d be very game.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 62/75

On a personal note, a good friend died this past week and our last interaction was him asking, in a repy to a Facebook post, if this book paid off as he'd abandoned it. I wish I’d been able to discuss it with him, and the fact that as my next book I was finally getting around to Thomas Ligotti, on whom he had mixed feelings if I remember correctly, but as a horror fan would have been amenable to discussing. You will be missed, Will.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Station Island by Seamus Heaney

I don’t know how to write about poetry. I know what works for me when I read it, and after a  bit of effort getting into it, this collection really worked! 

The centerpiece is the long title poem, which is structured in twelve parts around the pilgrimage to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory on the island that gives the poem and collection their titles. The first time I read it I was lost, but caught glimmers of what was happening. I did a little digging about the pilgrimage there and its stations and it made more sense on second pass. Heaney makes of the pilgrimage a meeting of his mind with political and literary figures of Ireland’s past, and walks away, if not a believer, with a purpose to take his place in their ranks. I don’t know enough Irish history to get every reference, but it is a powerful work and statement of purpose.

Honestly, though, as is usually the case, I liked the shorter poems more than the long. Before the big poem, there is a collection of shorter works on various themes, and after it there is a set of poems written in the voice of Mad Sweeney, a figure from Irish mythology after a return to modern Ireland. I read every poem at least twice and was moved by many of them. The standouts, for me at least, in the first section were Away From it All, Remembering Malibu, Making Strange, An Aisling in the Burren, Widgeon, and my favorite of the whole book, A Kite For Michael and Christopher. In the back half, In the Beech, The Cleric, The Scribes, Unwinding, and, especially, Sweeney Redivivus.

I had read the odd poem here and there by Heaney before, and knew that he had won the Nobel Prize, but this was my first time reading him in earnest. If these poems, and the handful from the Selected collection I read afterwards are any indication, Heaney will likely join the short list of favorites that includes WB Yeats, WH Auden, Robinson Jeffers, and Anne Porter (and provisionally Gwendolyn Brooksand Elizabeth Bishop). I am looking forward to reading further collections and dipping into the Selected Poems.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 61/75

The Lesson by Caldwell Turnbull

 Early on in The Lesson, Caldwell Turnbull deliberately positions his book at a specific place on the literary spectrum. In the novel, aliens, a species called the Ynaa, arrive and set up shop on the US Virgin Island of St. Thomas. One of the main supporting characters, Jackson, is a literature professor at the University of the Virgin Islands. In discussing the class, Turnbull mentions that mainstream literary writers and pulpier scifi writers took different tacks in approaching the knowledge that aliens were now on Earth; while the scifi writers went at it head on, the literary writers tended to have the aliens off screen and focus on what their presence did to the lives of their characters. The Lesson opens as the intersecting lives of several characters are in imminent crisis which has nothing obvious to do with the impending first contact. Then it skips to years past the contact and continues to follow the lives of those characters. So it seems like he is staking out a mainstream approach; and yet, in that he involves several alien characters, he is unwilling to abandon the scifi approach. Most of my favorite writing occupies this liminal space between genres, so this boded well for my experience of the book. It mostly delivered on that promise.

The novel opens with that college professor and his wife on the verge of divorce; he contemplates an affair with one of his MFA students, while she is in love with her female boss but unable to process it. They rent the lower half of their house to a grandmother who is raising two children. One of those kids, Derek, and Patrice, the daughter of the professor, are the closest thing to main characters as the book has. At the beginning of the book Derek and Patrice are in love with each other. Once the book jumps forward in time Derek is in Jackson’s class and working for Mera who is the Ynaa most capable of passing for human and has a key role both in the purpose the Ynaa have for being on Earth, and in trying to keep the humans satisfied even as the Ynaa perpetrate murder and are dismissive of humans. Derek, Jackson and the rest deal with both the effects of that alien presence and their own issues as the novel progresses.

The main theme is colonialism, and Turnbull handles it well; subtly but with force. The writing is strong throughout and it builds to a brutal conclusion that is well earned. The characters are believably drawn. An all around good book. I don’t usually read first contact fiction, but recently I’ve read two, this and the also good Axiom’s End. While neither pushed the subgenre higher up my priority list, I liked them both quite a bit. I liked this one a little more. I liked the combo maintream/scifi approach over the pell mell dash through the actual first contact itself.


Other Stuff 2020 13/35

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

 Writing a review of this seems pointless or mean. It’s not the kind of book that you enjoy. Didion, an excellent writer whose Slouching Toward Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays I greatly enjoyed, presents an emotionally raw journal (with a polish added to the prose) that accounts for her year of grief after her husband died. A year her daughter spends largely in the ICU.  It is a sort of secular counterpoint to CS Lewis’s A Grief Observed, to which she refers in the early going and quotes later in the book. There is no “divine vivesectionist” cruelly testing the limits of his subjects pain thresholds, but the the tone is similar. I like A Grief Observed because it let Lewis speak to his doubts in a powerful way, and I liked this as well. But if I’m being honest, today at least, it feels a little obscene or voyeuristic to look at someone else’s pain this way. It could be cathartic, I think, if I was in a different frame of mind. But I just feel sad and like I just took too much interest in some heartbreaking gossip (a tendency I admit I have at times).

I would call it Highly Recommended to put it in the terms of my rating scale, but in terms of actually recommending it to anyone, I’d have to take it on a case by case basis.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 60/75.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Bathing the Lion by Jonathan Carroll

 In  2006 I discovered Neil Gaiman and not only did I love his work that I read that year,* he introduced me to some other great writers. At the top of that list was Gene Wolfe who became my favorite writer for years. I also heard of Jonathan Carroll through him. I read three books by Carroll that year, The Land of Laughs, The Wooden Sea and Sleeping in Flame. All three were good, but I thought the latter was a masterpiece at the time. In 2010 I read The Ghost in Love and loved it as well. I’m not sure why I haven’t gone back and reread those given how much I enjoyed them at the time. Carroll was squarely in what became one of my favorite areas of fiction; the overlap between literary fiction and fantasy. I have to confess not remembering much about the books beyond how much I loved them at the time. I bought a copy of Bathing the Lion when it came out in 2013, and it sat on the shelf until now, part of the reason I decided to buy only a preselected few books this year and focus on books I own but haven’t yet read. If I don’t like this quite as much as I remember liking Sleeping in Flame, that’s more a reflection on the older book. It took me a while to get on this book’s wavelenthl, but once I did I really enjoyed it.

On the cover Gaiman says this is “as if John Updike wrote a Philip K Dick novel.” I see what he’s getting at, but I think the PKD comparison is more apt than the Updike. But if he means that there’s an attempt at the emotional heft of a mainstream literary novel mixed with the sense of displacement and crumbling reality that come at some point in nearly every PKD novel, it’s right on point. For what it’s worth, I think Carroll writes better women characters than either Updike or PKD. I would almost call this, if I can use the term in a positive manner, a bourgeois PKD novel: what might have happened if Dick hadn’t lived in hand-to-mouth poverty throughout his writing career.

If memory serves Carroll’s approach at the beginning here is similar to his other works. He takes a couple of chapters grounding the characters in their relationships and in the world. But about sixty pages in, not coincidentally when the book really started to click into place for me, things get weird. Whereas in the other Carroll books I’ve read the fantasy elements invade the “real” world, this posits an a gradual understanding that the world is not what the characters thought it was. The rugs keep getting pulled out from under them and the readers as reality is shown to be a much stranger place than the early going would indicate. I don’t want to get into specific spoilers, but it is incredibly effective.

By the end I was completely on board. Carroll’s prose is very good as is his sense of how to ground the fantasy/magical realist elements. I read some goodreads reviews that said the ending was too mushy or ambiguous, but I didn’t find that to be the case. Given the shape that reality had been twisted into by the closing chapters the ending made perfect sense, even as it unmoored the conclusion from the recognizable world. I look forward to more of Carroll’s work and to rereading (at least) Sleeping In Flame. 

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 59/75

*First time reads of Sandman, American Gods, Anansi Boys and my only read through so far of the story collection Smoke and Mirrors.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Axiom's End by Lindsay Ellis

In the age of Trump it’s easy to forget the turmoil of the Bush years. Earlier this year I read Agency by William Gibson which was, in part, an alternate history that posited, among other things, a timeline in which the Trump and Brexit votes went the other way. Alternate histories are a way of examining what happened, sometimes wishful thinking, but also a way to examine how we got where we are. All it takes is one or two events rolling a different way. Axiom’s End posits that a long lived cover up of alien presence on earth comes to light during the Bush presidency. But the table setting for that aspect of the alternate history takes place in the background. This is above all a novel that moves at a relentless pace.

The protagonist is Cora Sabino, the daughter of a notorious whistleblower/leftist conspiracy theorist/publicity hound named Nils Ortega (triangulate between Julian Assange, Alex Jones and Michael Moore). The novel opens with emails Ortega leaks showing that the US government knowingly covered up the presence of aliens on earth. Ortega is safely ensconced in Germany. Back in California Cora and her family receive a visit from their estranged father’s sister, who works for the agency hiding the alien’s presence. At this point an alien, soon known to Cora as Ampersand, shows up. Cora gets implanted with a tracker and an internal earpiece that lets her communicate with the alien, a representative of a spacefaring species who are advanced far beyond our capabilities. She becomes the de facto point of communication between humans and the species that poses both philosophical questions and existential threats. I won't’ describe the plot further to avoid spoilers.

Thematically, other than undoing the endgame of forty years of republican strategy a decade before Gibson’s book did, it seems mainly concerned with the difficulty and vital importance of communication across differences. As Cora says to Ampersand late in the novel, “You were right…about us only being able to understand each other through the prism of our own existence." While the fate of humanity in face of possible extinction raises the stakes of breaking through barriers to communication by an order of magnitude, given the political situation in which the book happens, and the nod to conspiracy theories and disinformation campaigns this theme could not be more relevant. But, the book is here to take the reader on a ride, moving so fast that the themes and the implications of the alternate history hit after the fact.

I am not familiar with Lindsay Ellis’s video work that brought her to prominence, but I will be seeking some of it out after reading this, her first novel. I’ve heard a lot of good press for it, and I have to say that I enjoyed it thoroughly. It is relentlessly paced and well written. At the very least I will be reading the sequels.


Everything Else 2020 12/35


Monday, August 10, 2020

The Best of Joe R Lansdale

 Joe R. Lansdale is decidedly not for everyone. His is a unique vision; equal parts redneck anti-racism, extreme horror/splatterpunk, deliberate provocation, tall tale humor, and rural noir. Sometimes supernatural, often not. I first heard of him after seeing that he wrote the novella, collected here, from which the movie Bubba Ho-Tep was faithfully adapted. If you’ve seen that movie, it’s tone will tell you pretty quickly whether you will like any of his work. I’ve previously read the first two novels in his Hap and Leonard rural noir mystery series and his western novel Paradise Sky. I enjoyed them, but I think something with Lansdale’s work clicked into place here. There are stories here that I love and stories that are too much for me. 

Racism is as much the core horror here as the zombies and other monsters. Like Flannery O’Connor, he is very free with the use of epithets, but unlike her, he is very much on the record as anti-racist. Still I wouldn’t begrudge anyone being put off by that. His racist characters talk like racists and I’d get it if someone didn’t want to read that. Likewise the ugly chauvinism of some characters. Or the extreme gore which often sits uncomfortably side by side with sex. He is a provocateur, but he is also trying to paint an honest picture of the horrors of the world and he understands the sources of that horror. How well that plays will vary from reader to reader and story to story. At any rate, a heavy content warning applies to nearly all of these.

The stories that really worked best for me are:

Godzilla’s Twelve Step Program- In which a giant lizard struggles to break his habits of rampaging. Hilarious and bloody.

Bubba Ho-Tep- An aging man claiming to be Elvis is in a nursing home with a black man who claims to be JFK. They must fight a supernatural mummy who dresses like a cowboy. It gets weirder from there. The movie is incredibly faithful to the story. This is so out there that it really works.

Mad Dog Summer- I confess to skipping the second half of this after realizing it was later expanded into the Edgar award winning novel The Bottoms, which I plan to read soon. I didn’t want spoilers, but reading the first half ensured that the novel moves further up in the queue.

The Big Blow- A masterful slow build of tension in Galveston Texas as the great hurricane of 1900 approaches. The boxer Jack Johnson fights a racist brought into town to kill him for his skill by the rich folks who run underground fights. This is one in which his approach to anti-racism works very well for me, more so than a couple of the others. Also one that I wouldn’t begrudge someone finding off putting on several levels.

Incident On and Off a Country Road- This is one of the most disturbing and satisfying extreme horror stories I’ve read. I didn’t see the ending coming, but it was there the whole time. Gruesome.

Not From Detroit- Death visits Detroit.

Fish Night- the best story of the bunch for me. A couple of can-opener salesmen get stranded in the desert and then something amazing happens.

There are stories that for one reason or another didn’t work quite as well for me. Too extreme on one vector or another, or they just didn’t click. Still in my ranking system I would put the collection at Highly Recommended with the heaviest of content warnings and the understanding that it will not work for a lot of people. It definitely makes me want to revisit the Hap and Leonard books I’ve read or at least push on and read some more now that I’ve got a better grasp of what he’s about. I’m a little less likely to track down the early splatterpunk books, but I will definitely be reading more of him.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 58/75

In A Lonely Place by Dorothy B Hughes

 Over the past few years I read several of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, and loved the perverse attachment to the point of view of psychopaths. She is most famous for the excellent Ripley books, of which I’ve read three, and Strangers on a Train which I also enjoyed. While Ripley’s Game is probably my favorite of hers I’ve read so far, I will never forget the shock of reading first of hers I tackled, This Sweet Sickness, which is largely from the perspective of the Platonic ideal of the man who will not take no for an answer. It seemed the prototype for so many pop culture sociopaths to come. In A Lonely Place, to my surprise, is not just the noir classic it’s reputed to be, it was also a clear model for This Sweet Sickness. If this was not one of Highsmith’s main influences, I would be incredibly surprised. This is not to take away from Highsmith’s accomplishments, which are great, but to say that this amazing novel is a remarkable precursor and does Highsmith one better so to speak.

Within the first two chapters the reader realizes that Dix Steel, introduced in the mist filled streets of LA (seriously this book reads in noir black and white), is not only a creep but a particularly brutal serial rapist and murderer called the strangler. He is staying in the abandoned apartment of an old college friend. He renews a friendship with a WWII buddy, now married, who is a detective investigating the crimes. In masterful prose, not like Hammett’s but boiled to a similar hardness, Hughes creates a tense oppressive atmosphere in service of a story that really moves. A thriller of great  power. A particularly impressive aspect of the book is that, like Highsmith, it was examining toxic masculinity before examining toxic masculinity was cool. As she inhabits Dix’s perception she undercuts his attitude viciously. It’s a satire that still burns seventy three years later. All in all a great noir that deserves its reputation.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 57/75

Typee by Herman Melville

 I went into this with trepidation. Melville has become my favorite writer over the last year or so as Moby Dick surpassed Pale Fire at the top of my list of novels and I’ve started to read other his works. His short stories are excellent and The Confidence Man really blew me away earlier this year. Given that, I was a little worried about this, his first book, part travelogue of his time spent with the indegenous people of a Polynesian island and part fictionalized account of the same. 

While Melville does things like writing black dialog phonetically and using language that would never fly today, he seemed to genuinely value people of other cultures and treat them as equals. It is dangerous to and nearly impossible not to read contemporary mores onto works of the past. It’s difficult to escape your own ideology and assumptions. Some condemnation of past writers is completely justified; but it definitely needs to be placed as much as possible in historical context. For instance, Lovecraft, for all the things that are good in his work, was incredibly racist even by the standards of his own time. I was afraid that in getting to Melville’s debut work that I would find something so egregious that I’d have to adjust my reading of him.

I’m pleased to say that while he does use words like savages, I’m comfortable chalking that up to his being of the time in which he lived. While he didn’t have the language of post-colonialism, he definitely understood that the bulk of blame for problems between native populations and Europeans is properly placed on the latter. Melville returns to this idea several times throughout the course of the book, but this example from chapter four is representative: “It may be asserted without fear of contradictions that in all the cases of outrages committed by Polynesians, Europeans have at some time or other been the aggressors, and that the cruel and bloodthirsty disposition of some of the islanders is mainly to be ascribed to the influence of such examples.”

Once I was relieved on that front, I did mostly enjoy the book. Near the beginning, Melville and a friend jumped ship trying to get away from an overbearing captain and ended up living among the Typee, reputed to be cannibals, as a honored guest/prisoner. The book is enjoyable and I can understand why people in the 1840s made it a bestseller. That said, it suffers greatly in comparison to Moby Dick, The Confidence Man or most of the Piazza Stories. I’m glad I read it, but, unlike that later work, I am unlikely to read it multiple times.

Recommended (mainly to Melville completists)

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 56/75

Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Course of the Heart by M John Harrison

I’ve read M John Harrison’s 2002 novel Light three times and to the extent that I understand it, I love it. In it, a mysterious creature called the Shrander haunts the main characters only to be revealed toward the end. That is a fantastic book but as the Shranders says to one of the main characters, "I don't want you to understand it Ed, I want you to surf it." That lets the reader off the hook as well. It is a fantastic ride. The characters in The Course of the Heart, published a decade earlier, are also haunted, sometimes literally, as a result of some sort of rite they performed while they were in college. I don’t have to completely understand it on this read to know it is as good as Light.

I picked up a copy of this at a used bookstore sometime in the past year on the strength of my love for Light and finally read it after reading Elizabeth Hand’s excellent short story The Boy in the Tree. That story was, in part, a riff on Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and was expanded into a novel. This book was apparently also expanded from a Harrison story that was riffing on Machen’s novella. The original Great God Pan starts with a rite that happens off camera, so to speak, the specific horror of which is not revealed, and then obliquely, until the end of the book. While The Course of the Heart takes a similar tack in obscuring the initial rite, a second rite resembles the one in Machen’s story and doesn’t sugar coat the horror of it. Machen’s character is uneasy with the rite, as is the narrator of Harrison’s book, but Harrison pins him to the wall and makes his actions more obviously unconscionable. There is a horror hidden in the subtext here, but it’s also explicit. The timeline of The Course of the Heart is over 20 years and eventually the unnamed narrator makes peace with himself, but it is an uneasy peace. The other characters build a unique edifice to hide their own complicity which the narrator co-opts.

The narrator and his friends Pam Stuyvesant and Lucas Medlar are Cambridge students who get mixed up with a magician who wants to break through to the Pleroma, what the gnostics (or certain of them, anyway) saw as the pure realm of spirit. The specifics of the rite are elided but the results haunt the students into middle age and beyond. Stuyvesant and Medlar marry and keep sporadic contact with the narrator over years. They are pursued throughout life by personalized horrors. To keep them at bay, they recreate a history of the middle ages, with a memoir of a fictional (within the text) man as their guide that posits a realm of the Heart, or Coeur, that functions as a sort of gnostic/pagan analogue of the Kingdom of Heaven brought to earth. It is religious in nature, but also erotic, but it is more than either. If they make a narrative of the kingdom of the heart, that area where the Pleroma and the quotidian world overlap. they may be able to keep their sanity. That elaborately constructed narrative also shields them, and the narrator from their complicity in the trauma of others. The horror here is both literal and imaginary and it takes much work on their parts to build their defense against it. 

As with Light, I am certain that I did not get everything out of this on first pass and that rereads will be necessary. However, Light did prepare me a bit for his style and concerns. Harrison is a master prose writer, and the book is worth reading on that level alone. A literary horror novel of the very first order. As profoundly disturbing as it is beautiful. This will decidedly not be for everyone, but I loved it and look forward to rereading next year.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 55/75


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Railsea by China Mieville

Railsea by China Mieville was a delight both to my inner 12 year old who loves alternate (or possibly far future) worlds full of junk to salvage and monsters AND to my middle aged self who reads Moby Dick every year. To be fair my middle aged self also loves junk-filled alternate worlds, but you take my point.

The world here is a desert, and the Railsea is a complex web of train tracks. It is just above land through which massive Godzilla sized monsters burrow and cause mayhem. There are “islands” or continents which those monsters can’t penetrate and on which people live safely. The highlands extend into an upper atmosphere that is poisoned. Commerce takes place on the Railsea, with trains taking the place of boats. Giant moles (or moldywarpes) are hunted for their meat and various other extracts. The protagonist Sham is a doctor's assistant on a moling train. The captain of Sham's train is on a quest to capture a specific moldywarpe, “the color of aging teeth.” She is not the only captain seeking a similar beast. Others hunt a giant centipede or weasel. They call their quarry their philosophies. So, while this is on one level a loving tribute to Moby Dick, it is also a very funny meta-joke at its expense. It also has some very smart things to say about what happens when people get overly caught up in their ideologies to the point that people suffer.

That said, all the philosophizing and meta commentary is implied by the action. This is a book that doesn't stop moving once the action starts. Funny and thought provoking without being didactic or slowing down. One of the most fun things I've read this year. Mieville continues to climb my list of favorite authors.

Highly Recommended

Library Books, Rereads, Etc 2020 11/35