Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

I've been a fan of David Mitchell since I first read Cloud Atlas in 2009. I know that his structural gimmicks don't work for everyone, but they work entirely for me. I love mosaic books in which shorter works interact with each other; Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris books, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, etc. Nearly all of Mitchell's books work that way, and they work with each other. The novels interact in ways that, if they work for you, really enhance the reading experience, and if they don't, smack of fan service. It all really works for me. 

The various strands of Utopia Avenue form a more straightforward story than Mitchell usually employs. The book is structured around the discography of the titular band, going through the albums side by side, song by song, with each chapter consisting of the time in which the song was written with the song's writer as the perspective character. The band has three primary songwriters, one woman and two men, keys, bassist, and guitarist respectively, though both the drummer and manager get a writing credit on a song. The weird connections come through references to Mitchell's previous books.

Jasper de Zoet, the guitarist for Utopia Avenue is the descendant of the protagonist of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and he is carrying a traveler around in his head that has tormented him since his youth. This strand is in that genre of horror that doubles as an exploration of mental health issues and carries the novel into territory that overlaps with Thousand Autumns, The Bone Clocks and Slade House.

This might or might not work for someone who hadn't read Mitchell before, but I found it enchanting, and the ending incredibly moving. Mitchell's prose is always excellent. There are several of his books I like more, but this was very good indeed.

Highly Recommended

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley

This is my seventh book (and sixth novel) by Walter Mosley, who has cemented himself on my favorite authors list. This is up there for me a little ahead of the first couple of his Leonid McGill books. Those are heart of darkness style noir as PI McGill tries to redeem himself and go into (relatively) legitimate business as he solves cases. Another Mosley novel I loved, The Man In My Basement wasn't a crime novel per se, but in the deeply weird (but not supernatural) scenario of that book, among other things, a black man must make heads or tails of white man's bizarre idea of how to rid himself of guilt. In all of those books, class and race form much of the backdrop against which the ethical dilemmas take place. In Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, that backdrop is even bleaker and starker and the ethical questions are asked more explicitly.

It's a mosaic of interrelated stories about Socrates Fortlow, a man in his late fifties who spent over half his life in prison. Originally from Indiana, he is attempting to rebuild his life in the Watts neighborhood in LA. He begins in abject poverty that gradually becomes marginally less abject over the course of the book. Socrates has no illusions about his own guilt. He was guilty of the rape and murders that put him in jail and does not pretend he was not. Like his namesake, he asks questions of those around him. The main ethical point seems to be that he can't undo what he did, but he can, within the limits of his situation attempt to do good. This takes many forms over the course of the book, but the main one is trying to keep a younger man from falling into the same pattern he did. 

I think a lot about the degree to which individual choice and societal pressure act on a person; in existentialist (specifically De Beauvoir's) terms, how much is a person an object and how much a subject. I don't know to what degree Mosley was thinking in those terms, but he certainly was thinking about that problem as he wrote Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. This is no treacly, leave-the-world-better-than-you-found-it existentialism light, though. Fortlow is firmly bound by his status as a black ex-con trying to make it through post prison life. Mosley doesn't flinch from the bleak implications of that status. But in Fortlow's insistence on trying to find ways to do good in that context, a more authentic version of the make-the-changes-you-can-in-the-context-you're-in trope emerges.

The book works perfectly as a compelling group of interrelated stories and as philosophical rumination on guilt and redemption. The ethical discussions are not preachy; rather they apply the Socratic method to the question of how to live in a context that makes the question seem absurd. The stories could stand on their own, or at least most of them could, but they truly make a compelling and unified whole. A stellar book. In a group of three with Circe by Madeline Miller and Mortal Love by Elizabeth Hand as the best things I've read for the first time this year.

Canon Worthy