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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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Friday, September 15, 2017

Review: Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Dinner at the Center of the Earth Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So, nu, how do we find peace in the Middle East?

One answer, at least as Nathan Englander imagines it in this generally masterful novel, is Ariel Sharon’s. “The General,” as we meet him here, never backed down. With him it was always about killing a dozen of them for every one of ours. When the PLO killed a mother and her children in a cross-border raid, he leveled an entire village.

With him, it is always go forward, but there is an end – at least as Ruth, his long-time aide, believes. She sees him readying a “peace bomb,” a plan to produce a lasting peace that would grow out of the military mercilessness to which he gave his life.

But, as is the case for most of the present-tense of this novel, he has given only half his life to that strategy. As in real life, the General suffers a debilitating stroke and remains barely alive. In his half-life, he relives much of the always-attacking nature of his life. At times, Englander’s prose is incandescent here. The scene where the General relives a moment when he and a radioman were blown into the air by a bomb is worth the whole of the novel. It’s horrible, gorgeous, and mystical. And unforgettable.

As it turns out, then, there’s no way to unleash anything like a peace bomb, no way to redeem the violence of the last generation. The most evocative sign of that stasis – aside from the General’s own “limbo” – is Ruth’s son, a guard assigned to look after Prisoner Z. If there’s a point-of-view character who earns my sympathy, it’s the guard. He spends his life pursuing the “request,” really an order, the General made of him. He looks after a man who is no longer a real person, waiting for an end that cannot come. (SPOILER: For me at least, his giving Z the means to kill himself is a hugely satisfying end point. It suggests a middle ground more appealing than the dinner of the title.) The guard simply waits, smoking his life away in the service of the never finished plans of his parents’ generation.

The other significant answer for how to find peace in this novel comes from Prisoner Z, whom, we learn, exceeded the parameters of his secret mission in an attempt to make peace with a Palestinian. The details get a bit blurry, but they turn on his being willing to trust someone, to try to make a human rather than a military connection.

That road fails as well, and he spends the rest of his life as a non-person, underground. It’s one more dimension in which the failures of the last generation limit the prospects of peace in this one.

There is a third approach to something like peace, and it’s where the title comes from. Shira and her Architect love each other across battle lines, and they are willing to seek a middle ground, a theoretically impossible one.

[SPOILER:] As beautiful as the final scene is, where the two of them enjoy a white-cloth meal in a tunnel beneath the battlefield, it comes without quite the build-up of the other possibilities. For most of the novel, Englander is brilliant in the way he bounces backward and forward in time, creating a welcome thriller feel in the way the different chapters of Z’s plot eventually come together.

Shira is a part of that story – though we don’t know it for a long time – but her romance seems to come to the fore too late for full satisfaction. I wish Englander had given us more glimpses of her early so that her love wouldn’t seem quite so out-of-the-blue at the end. I suspect there are scenes I didn’t recognize as hers early on, but it’s the one place I wish Englander had given more. (I’m also not a fan of Z’s Jewish mother – she’s stereotyped in ways that feel a bit lazy for such a gifted writer.)

All in all, this is a powerful look at the grip the last generation still has on today’s Israel. Englander is one of our absolute best short story writers. Here – after a good but not great first novel in The Ministry of Special Cases (also about a prisoner lost in the bureaucracy of a state) – he’s taken another step toward writing the great novel that seems like it’s coming from him.


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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The premise here was enough to get me: it’s a cross between the caper story (think Oceans 11) and swords and sorcery fantasy. We get glimpses of kings and all sorts of magic, but then we also get the coarse language and perspective of the lower classes. Locke Lamora is, at root, a con man, and the concept is a promising one. How would a cunning low-life fare in a world that we expect to be governed by decaying codes of chivalry and guilds.

There’s a fundamental problem, though. Con-games are only fun if both sides are sharp. If I’m not making myself clear, watch The Sting (or Oceans 11) again. It’s deeply satisfying to find characters who are smarter than we are and who then run into characters who might be smarter still. Confidence games are conflicts of wit, so it’s important to see wit flashing.

And there isn’t a lot of wit here. Locke is our hero because he is our hero. He rarely outsmarts anyone or seems even to have a particularly astute insight. He’s a master of disguise, but much of the story seems contrived to give him chances to utilize that skill.

[SPOILER] In what may be the climax of the first half of the novel – a half that moves far too slowly – Locke masquerades as the Grey King in order to accomplish an obscure errand the King has with the first bandit king. Somehow, it comes as a surprise to Locke that he’s been set up to be killed in the King’s place. Huh? I can’t think of anything more obvious. Of course that’s why the King has recruited him for the mission. I find it impossible to believe that someone fooled that easily could elsewhere be the “thorn of Camorr,” the great secret wit who fleeces everyone.

There’s also a clumsy narrative structure. We get long chunks of backstory, glimpses of Locke and the Gentlemen Bastards as they’re learning to be the great confidence men they become. After a while, it comes to feel as if we get an interruption in the story just so we can go back in time to get the childhood lesson that will allow our heroes to rescue themselves from whatever fix they’re in. It’s all too convenient, too unplanned. Instead of the pleasure of feeling caught in the story that a solid writer has seen for us at a distance, it feels as if we’re going through this with someone who trusts himself to come up with an invention that will move the story forward again.

One last complaint before a final good word. There’s also a disappointing capacity for emotional response. This is, in general a light-hearted story, one that ultimately embraces a ‘cozy’ vision of the universe as a place governed by fundamental decency. In the midst of it, we get some horrific violence, such as when a likeable woman is killed and stuffed in a vat of horse urine. It happens, we hear how outraged Locke is, and then it’s gone. There has to be violence in stories like this, but Lynch just can’t make it work side-by-side with the fundamental light-heartedness of the scenario.

To be fair, though, Lynch does supplement this good premise with a jaunty, colorful style of sentence. I laughed at almost every “godsdamned” that someone said, and I enjoyed the profane language set alongside the basic mysticism.

I’m in a funny place right now, deep into my own writing, and I find I can’t give my full attention to really good writing. This isn’t good writing, but it’s just the level of work I can handle at this point, so I was glad to find it and willing to see it through to the end.


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