Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Review: Sandman Slim

Sandman Slim Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I find I have accidentally stumbled into a run of a genre I didn’t know existed: the hardboiled theological quasi-horror fantasy novel. There’s Ian Tregellis’s Something More than Night and Brian Evenson’s Last Days, and there’s this. All three are surprisingly good – especially the Evenson – and I wonder how such a niche came to be. Something in the zeitgeist, I guess.

As with those others, I doubt I’d have picked this up if I’d known how much it depended on a conventional heaven-and-hell conception of the universe. As with those others, though, I couldn’t have counted on Kadrey’s skill to overcome such a flat background and provide an innovative and compelling take on fantasy and the hardboiled. (To be fair, Evenson is in a different class, but Tregellis and Kadrey are plenty of fun as well.)

Our protagonist, Stark, is a magician, a guy who simply has a knack for picking up power. He’s cocky, and he rubs the rest of his circle the wrong way, prompting them to banish him to hell. A decade later, after he’s survived everything the demons and fallen angels throw his way in the gladiator pits of hell, he escapes and sets out to kill the ex-friends who sent him there.

That’s an over-the-top premise, again, one I wouldn’t ordinarily trust, but Kadrey finds the perfect mix of fantasy, humor, and the hardboiled. To take an early example, Stark tracks down one enemy and, in a swoop, slices off his head. The wound isn’t fatal, though, and he keeps the head around for a while, taunting it and getting information from it. Sometimes he gives the head-in-the-closet a drag on his cigarette, sometimes he subjects it to a stream of television infomercials. And the banter is always great – Kadrey does dialogue in a big way.

There are other shots of humor here, too, including an ongoing bit about Stark’s inability to understand how the internet has emerged in the decade he’s been away, and another about his propensity for burning through whatever clothes he happens to be wearing.

Side by side with that surprisingly consistent comedy, Kadrey commits to the genre. He passes up many opportunities to get sentimental or saccharine. Stark really is “Sandman Slim,” a bogeyman of the hell-crowd. There aren’t easy answers or happy-ever-afters. He’s a creature of hell, and hell is trying to break through, and none of that is finally a joke. As he deals with it all, though, Stark never gives into convention, never plays the assigned part. It’s a hardboiled trope, but it’s one that only the good writers can manage.

Without spoiling the end, I have to acknowledge – again, it seems – my frustration with the final chapter or so. Kadrey and/or his editors must have seen he was onto something good, so he’s added a chunk that invites and sets up the sequel, eventually, says, a series of sequels. This one is plenty of fun, and I’m on board for more Kadrey, but I find it irritating that this strong novel has to be distorted in the service of what feels like marketing.

This is certainly a lot of fun, though, and I will be looking for more from Kadrey – maybe even, sigh, the next Sandman Slim.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: Exit West

Exit West Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad has gotten a lot of deserved attention for the way it takes an historical metaphor – the underground railroad – and makes it real. Mohsin Hamid does the same thing here, and he does it with a strategy rooted even more fully in the fabulous mode. This is a good and a powerful novel, one that deserves to stand next to Whitehead’s, and one that raises many of the same questions in a transnational context.

The essential premise here is that there is a “door” to the West from the violence-riddled Middle East. That’s a common metaphor as in “close the door to future immigrants,” but it becomes literal here: throughout a city consumed by war and terror, doors begin to open up that allow refugees instant departure to Australia, Europe and, eventually, the United States.

If that sounds too sci-fi, it isn’t. It’s as everyday as the sometimes dingy, sometimes spectacular railroad in Whitehead’s book. There are many such doors, most guarded by the triumphant revolutionaries, but a few accessible through the black market. Once they open, though, they don’t really permit return. Those who leave, leave. They lose the worries that consume them and find fresh ones.

Hamid handles all of it with real delicacy, and it’s hard to believe the novel is as short and compelling as it is. There is something fabulous in the way he handles it all, and he has a gift for drawing complicated pictures with a few, quick lines. This feels like a fable in its absence of detail. From its near fairy-tale opening to its frequent change of scene, it gives us whole scenes from a handful of images.

None of it would work without Hamid’s deep skill. The scene where Saeed says farewell to his father has an emotional density that’s hard to describe – two decent people are trying to say the right thing to each other. Each knows his sacrifice will cost the other, yet he also knows he has to make it. The result is moving as well as fleeting. It’s the hard nugget of detail that gives form to the larger fable around it.

The relationship between Saaed and Nadia is wonderful as well. We open with an almost traditional boy-meets-girl scene, but everything eventually gets inflected by the weight of religion, tradition, gender roles, and Western culture. It would be so easy for Hamid to lose the weave of it all and give into cliché or sell at least one character short. Instead, he retains the same quick-sketch mode that serves him so well. Nothing is easy, and no one is to blame. These decent people are just caught in a world vastly larger than their private one.

I’m giving real thought to teaching this the next time I get to do a Contemporary American literature class. I think there’s a question about whether it’s American or postcolonial, but it speaks so interestingly to The Underground Railroad, and it’s such a powerful novel in its own right, that I think I may go for it.

I’ve heard only a little about Hamid, but, on the strength of this, I want to keep going. There’s so much skill here concentrated into so small and efficient a story, that I certainly find myself wanting more.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: Starship Grifters

Starship Grifters Starship Grifters by Robert Kroese
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When we first meet Rex Nihilo, he’s annoying. Over time, he becomes really annoying.

Imagine a cross between Han Solo and Donald Trump. He’s a narcissist with a hyper drive and a loyal sidekick robot, a space grifter who shoots into hyperspace first and never asks questions, or at least never listens to the answers.

There’s some fun to start, and I’ll give Kroese credit for the occasional guffaw, but you see in the first several pages what you’re going to get, and you don’t get any more than that. In fact, it might be that you get less since the best invention of the book comes in the opening pages. We learn there that our narrator is a robot that’s mostly sentient. When she begins to think too much like a real human – when she triggers a built-in warning that she might be crossing an artificial intelligence boundary – her system shuts down and she has to re-boot.

That’s a funny concept, and it has real promise. Kroese’s failure to do much more with it beyond his early gag is a symptom of what keeps this from being anything more than an easy spoof. I waited for our narrator to have additional system hiccups, but she never does. Instead, she too often drifts off into making declarations in the vein of “Rex is never as smart as he thinks he is.” She’s set up to be a wonderfully unreliable narrator, but she becomes just another neutral lens most of the time.

On top of that, the further we go, the more the story gets driven by the vapor trails of Star Wars. They wind up with a resistance group headquartered on a small moon. They have to blow up a giant space ship. There’s a princess our “hero” flirts with. There are Mad Magazine style send-ups of it all, but it becomes almost fan fiction at a point when it would be nice to have it strike out on its own.

There’s a “twist” at the end when [SPOILER] the uninhabited planet turns out to be peopled with all the things Rex thought he was inventing. It’s really the home of our hero and his robot, and they’ve been sent on a mission they never comprehended. Funny as such a gimmick might have been if it weren’t so telegraphed, it’s yet one more disappointment. Rex hasn’t survived because he’s a bumbling, entitled narcissist. It’s because he was set-up to survive by powerful forces.

In other words, he’s the worst sort of entitled narcissist because his entitlement is hard-wired into the plot.

I’m not making the mistake of taking this too seriously. It’s a gag-filled story and, yes, it got me laughing every few pages. That’s not a high enough ratio to redeem this, but it is a constant reminder of what it is. This is not Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe; it isn’t ultimately asking any questions. It’s just trying – probably too hard – to make you laugh.

View all my reviews

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Review: News of the World

News of the World News of the World by Paulette Jiles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s no formula for great fiction, but I think I want it to do two things at once: tell a good story and wrestle with a worthwhile idea. A lot of almost-good work does one or the other of those, and a lot of less good fails at both.

This is a really good book, one that grew on me until I found myself admiring it very much. For starters, it has a good story. Captain Kidd is an aging veteran of multiple American wars when he gets drafted to return a Native American captive to her family hundreds of miles away. Johanna is only 10, and she no longer remembers her family or her native language. The two have to ride through post-Civil-War Texas, confronting natural and human threats at every turn. At that level alone, it’s a compelling story – and the shootout on the mountain with the three men who want Johanna as a child whore is nail-biting in its intensity.

But this is also a reflection on the idea of what it means to be an American. Johanna’s first language is not English but German. The country they journey through is not quite the United States; it’s a Texas trying to sort out it larger allegiance. And the people they meet are uncertain how to identify as part of a larger community. I’m going to assume that Jiles has read Benedict Anderson’s famous Imagined Communities in which he proposes that it takes a sense of the “news,” a sense that some stories concern “us” and some concern “others,” to create the concept of a nation.

In that light, Kidd’s occupation as a reader of news – he’s a 19th century aggregator in the spirit of Huffpost or Yahoo News – makes him an applied Andersonian. He’s set on giving his audiences an awareness of the boundaries of their own communities. He does so as an entertainer, but also as someone aware that he is part of a process by which a jagged collection of peoples will come together after the war that has so recently divided them.

In the way of great fiction, then, this book balances both the thrill of something happening with ideas that give those happenings weight. Like Laila Lailami’s The Moor’s Account and Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, this is a book that imagines an America before it has coalesced into the nation we know. Its story entertains because it shows our protagonists at risk in a changing world. Its ideas amplify those crises by reminding us that we, as Americans today, are the result of the decisions the people of their world were making. And, it gives life to the excellent but dry thinking of someone like Anderson, taking his idea of the Imagined Community and showing us a community in the act of imagining itself.

I’m not going to say this is as effective as A Mercy. I do think Jiles blinks a bit at the end when, for understandable reasons, she falls in love with her characters and gives them endings different from what the tendency of the story would have offered. Also, this does start a bit slowly with too much exposition and an adventure that, while looming, doesn’t pick up its gravitational force for a while. Still, there’s a lot to admire here, and I’m torn only between liking it very much and flat-out loving it.

In any case, I certainly recommend it.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Review: Last Days

Last Days Last Days by Brian Evenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Be careful before you pick this book up. It is as violent and nihilistic as anything I’ve ever read. It opens with a man reflecting on how he recently had his hand chopped off with a cleaver, and then it gets only darker and bloodier. It’s unsettling in what is has to say and in how it says it. It will either give you nightmares from what it says or give you nightmares for what your not reacting to it says about you. If I’d had a clearer understanding of what this was about, I would never have picked it up.

It’s also an extraordinary novel, maybe even a masterpiece, so I’m glad I did.

I gather I’m late to the Brian Evenson party. At least that’s the impression I get from the solid appreciation by Peter Straub that serves as the afterword to the edition I read. Apparently quite a few people already admire what Evenson’s doing. All the better, I suppose; this is so radical and disturbing that I’m comforted to feel I’m not quite alone in my admiration.

As far as I’m concerned, this comes as close as anything I can imagine to capturing the spirit of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, arguably the first great hardboiled work of literature. (Of course, after reading this, I feel as if my imagination is fairly limited.) In that one, our Continental Op is a man determined to find justice in a world too flawed to provide it. As a consequence, he embarks on a killing spree that renders him “blood simple” (the source of the title of the excellent Coen Brothers’ film). He’ll get justice even if it means murdering everyone in the town on Personville.

Evenson’s Klein is not so much after justice as theological certainty. That puts him on the same footing as many other protagonists – I think most memorably of Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit from “A Good Man is Hard to Find” – but he’s perhaps more driven than any others. He’s taken for a prophet by a group of believers so avid that they mutilate themselves, that they take the number of amputated limbs as the measure of believer’s holiness. Over time (and I can’t quite call this a spoiler) he comes to think he may in fact be a prophet, that he might even be the messiah of this twisted world.

There’s something lurid in his theology, something unsubtle and technicolor, but it serves as the residue of something like real faith. Eventually two groups want to crucify him, one as the messiah and one as the thief by his side. Either way, there’s a yawning chasm at the heart of the novel: what would it mean to know God well enough not to doubt, what would it mean to understand Biblical structure so fully that, when thy right hand offends thee, you go ahead and lop it off with a cleaver. Absent such certainty, but in a world where some profess to feel it, we’re left with the choice of accepting the faith of others’ or believing in nothing. Or, as Klein eventually does, in bringing about a kind of Last Days that harrow what we see of the world.

All of that is fairly subtle in a novel that is decidedly unsubtle. The first signs of it, though, are in the simple excellence of Evenson’s narration. He puts us thigh deep into the story by the end of the first paragraph, and he never compromises his aesthetic vision. He never explains; he presents everything through a red, anaesthetizing mist. We experience one dehumanizing moment after another, but the narrative only gradually pulls away from what we recognize as human experience.

And that aesthetic vision reflects a moral one. In lesser hands, I’d have a hard time admiring a protagonist who laments the fact that he’s no longer human. In the hands of one who, somehow, skillfully [SPOILER] takes us to a point where our protagonist murders more than a dozen people while brandishing the decapitated head of their leader, I’m down with it. Klein really has become less than – or, disturbing thought, more than – human.

That’s a sight that’s full of the horror I have to acknowledge, but it’s also one that supersedes horror and goes where only the most deadened hardboiled or noir can go: to an inquiry into the nature of first principles that seems entirely fresh.

View all my reviews

Review: The Sirens of Titan

The Sirens of Titan The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a Vonnegut phase in high school and into my early college years, and I remain grateful to him for showing me that literature can make you think even as it makes you laugh. I loved him for four or five years, then I felt I’d outgrown him. It’s only in the last four or five years (leaving a good 25 in between) that I’ve come back to him in a more measured way.

I think the best Vonnegut really is as good as his partisans say, as good as I thought it was when I first encountered it in the Reagan years. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse Five, and, of course, Cat’s Cradle are all substantial works that hold up. They take elements of science fiction, combine them with a cynicism that can only be the product of an even deeper idealism, and give us some of the most memorable critiques of American life from the last 50 years.

Sirens of Titan isn’t quite up to that level. It’s Vonnegut feeling his way toward his more successful work. He senses there’s an intellectual freedom in a science fiction mode, but he gets mildly trapped in it here. The idea, for instance, of Rumfoord as a cosmic intelligence capable of seeing past and future is an intriguing spin on the idea of a god, but it also becomes a bit self-defeating. Rumfoord moves the events of Constant’s life forward, but it isn’t clear why. He seems to want to teach humanity a lesson – and Constant’s conclusion that our purpose is to love another isn’t a bad distillation, even if it sounds trite in my paraphrase. In the end, though, he himself is confused and moving on. It’s solid and intriguing, moving in some ways, but it also implies an anxiety from the still-learning Vonnegut.

Much of what is striking in the novel gets refined in later ones. We have, for instance, the rudiments of a religion that comes across more impressively in Cat’s Cradle. We also have a riff on the use of impediments to arrive at true equality; an idea he does a lot more with in “Harrison Bergeron” and that feels tacked on here. And we have disaffected rich men, unsure how to account for their great fortune, who get crystallized in Eliot Rosewater.

The one great contribution here, I think, is the Tralfamadorans. Yes, they come back in Slaughterhouse Five, but they’re here in fully realized form. It’s a brilliant idea: life forms so different from ours who direct humans toward great accomplishments that serve as trivial ‘text messages’ from across the universe. What is the Great Wall of China but, in effect, a post it note from the inter-stellar UPS driver saying he’ll be back soon with the package.

Definitely read this one. It’s not a bad place to start with Vonnegut if you know you’ll go on, and it’s a great way to echo the pleasures of the more mature novels if you’ve read them. Either way, commit to reading other Vonnegut as well. As striking as this is, it’s only a glimpse at what was to come.

View all my reviews

Monday, September 25, 2017

Review: Sourdough

Sourdough Sourdough by Robin Sloan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

On the evidence of two novels, Robin Sloan does “cozy conspiracy theory” novels. Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore was about a mystery sitting inside a city and waiting for someone to solve it, and this one is similar: our protagonist inherits a sourdough starter that is somehow sentient. It isn’t clear where the starter comes from nor what it ultimately wants, but there’s a perpetual sense that the pieces will somehow come together.

[Spoiler alert:] They don’t come together all that well. We discover at the end that the starter has a semi-conscious plan to take over everything, which is a fun idea, but it doesn’t square with the tone of what’s come before. There’s a sweetness in the dough; it produces loaves with faces that either look stolidly out or, as the baking progresses, smile warmly. And it’s a lot of fun that the dough enjoys music. It also loses the most interesting intellectual element: the idea that there’s the possibility of marrying the power of technology – represented here by robot arms – with the art of simple living.

So, if I were being ruthless here I’d have to hold the disappointment of the end against this. A bit like Penumbra, this one feels as if the rules change a bit at the end. Each is a fabulous concept (and I mean “fabulous” both in root sense and as praise) but Sloan doesn’t entirely sustain it.

Another part of me, though, says I should get over it. Maybe someone else would be less taken by a library that’s deeply connected to a decades-old mystery. And maybe someone else would be less pleased by an intelligent sourdough starter. As it happens, I’ve worked in libraries, and I have a sourdough starter in the fridge that’s given me close to fifty loaves and has lasted 14 months.

If there’s a trivial quality to some of what Sloan does – I can’t for instance, entirely overlook the privileged nature of her protagonist who inherits this wonder without questioning her worthiness – it’s a trivial aesthetic I share. There’s a joy to the ideas here, an inventiveness that carries a bit of wonder into our everyday world.

I wish I liked the tone more, and I wish she’d shown more narrative control, but, if there’s anything to the old saying that the proof is in the pudding, I’ll admit that this is pretty good sourdough. When I concentrate only on the joyful conspiracy theory at the heart of this, it makes me happy. Taken for what this is, fun escapism, it’s just the recipe.

View all my reviews