Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The small Ohio town where I grew up was a stop on the Underground Railroad. One of my neighbors lived in a house supposedly old enough to have been part of the actual network, and I remember climbing into a rocky little space that – if it had been there 120 years before – might have been where some slaves hid for a time.

I think of that space and it gives me the illusion of a connection to that overwhelming experience, but I know it’s only an imagined connection. The slaves who fled the unspeakable horrors of the plantations endured things far worse than what the metaphor of “underground railroad” suggests, but that’s what we call it.

The central power of this novel is that it takes that metaphor and makes it real. It’s no longer just a way of describing people who came together desperately to fight slavery; it’s an actual railroad, a set of tunnels dug deeply and impossibly by hands we never see.

That vision alone makes this one striking and memorable. When Cora first gets away from the plantation and finds her way to a station, it feels like the end of a terrible nightmare. She’s saved by the anonymous and staggering work of others. It promises her a way north, and it obligates her to do her part for others who come after. It’s all there, dug in stone and soil.

But this novel is much more than just a metaphor made real, more even than an inspired marriage of the runaway slave narrative and the magic realism method. It’s also about the limits of the collective work of salvation. The bitter truth is that slavery so deeply marks its victims (and, in ways less deserving of sympathy, its victimizers) that there is no real escape. In the closing pages, [SPOILER] when Cora limps down a dismal track along a discovered line of the railroad, the grand promise of the original vision is gone. She’s survived and escaped, but so many others have not.

We get a glimpse in Indiana of what a genuine post-slave community might look like, but the world is too intolerant, too violent to let it stand.

We have, in other words, metaphors to name an experience larger than any one of us, but beneath them lies a suffering that challenges everyone telling story to make fresh. Whitehead does that, and Cora’s dreams have real and rare power in the face of the horrors she has endured. In his imaginative manner, he does it better than Octavia Butler or Samuel R. Delany (to name two skilled writers who’ve used fantasy or science fiction to probe the experience of slavery). He does it so well, in fact, that I thought at times I was reading the even better still A Mercy by Toni Morrison.

The wonder that comes with the vision of the railroad makes fresh what it meant to resist slavery and its supporters. The collapse of so much of that wonder makes the awfulness of that history come down with new weight as well.


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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Who owns our dreams? That’s the implicit question underlying the whole Sandman series, but, to my persistent irritation, Neil Gaiman has always seemed to blink in the face of it. He’s asking a deeply human, deeply personal question, but he’s allowed much of the series so far to deal in cosmologies. Sometimes that’s been the generally satisfying cosmology of Morpheus and his siblings. Other times it’s been the less rewarding appropriation of extinct mythologies.

Here, for the first time in my experience, Gaiman gets it right. He gets it brilliantly and beautifully right in the way he stares at the deep question of what it means to claim a dream. That carries with it the question of how we understand creativity (and possibly creation itself) and also how we, as humans, need others for our own completion.

Somewhere in the Dreaming there lies a tiny island, a skerry, first brought into the quasi-real by Morpheus for Alianora, a beautiful girl who needed (or simply asked for) a space she could populate with the sorts of comforting childhood fantasies that live in places like Oz or Narnia. What began as her place, though, passed on to others after she died. One young girl after another found her way to the tiny place and added to it. It became a kind of communal dream, a place open to a select few – one at a time – who peopled it in their dreaming and may have only dimly remembered it in their waking. In other words, Alianora did not own her dreams any more than the others who came after her. In an unacknowledged Jungian sense, there was a collective unconscious – or perhaps collective semi-consciousness – that tied a handful of strangers into a genealogy of demiurges.

Our main protagonist, Barbie, is the last of those dreamers, and, without knowing it, she’s the victim of the Cuckoo, a creature whose impulse is to worm her way into the nest of another and kick out the legitimate offspring. The Cuckoo has taken control over most of the skerry, claiming its dreaming for herself at the expense of its existence. She believes that destroying it will free her to fly elsewhere, to dream in new ways or, more sinisterly, to supplant the dreams of others elsewhere.

Our story spans the dreaming and the waking, and Gaiman handles that juggling act with much more finesse than he has in earlier volumes. Barbie has a coterie of friends – all women, though one of those is a former man transitioning – who live in a small apartment building together. When Barbie gets summoned back to the skerry, to serve as the dreamer (and bearer of an ancient dream/real artifact) who can overcome the Cuckoo, her friends split up, one to protect her helpless sleeping self and the others to venture into the dreaming through the power of the moon and in opposition to Morpheus’s decree. (And what a beautiful stroke of creativity to assign the moon a kind of backdoor status to dreaming. It fits in a fresh and mythical way.)

In the end, [SPOILER] our heroes fail. The Cuckoo has an irresistible hypnotic power, and she forces Barbie to break the artifact, which summons Morpheus who’s pledged to destroy the skerry in such a case. He explains the facts of dreaming, and he gathers the wonders of the generations from Alianora to Barbie, taking in their quirky dreams and converting them back to the sand that gives dreams to others. If that suggests at first that all dreams belong to Morpheus, though, there is a compelling sense that he merely directs their flow, a flow that he acknowledges is greater than himself. (Gaiman has hinted at this in earlier volumes but never to the poetic effect of the conclusion here.) As dust, these rich imaginings are recycled into the seeds of others’ dreams to come.

Even more striking, it becomes clear that Barbie herself is a kind of dream. She is, as the story tells us, recently divorced from Ken. We also see, in the moments after Barbie arrives on the skerry, a Mattel Barbie doll on which she dreamed as child. Someone has infused her with the dimensions of a real girl, and that someone seems equal parts Neil Gaiman and a generic little girl humming to herself before her private “Dream House.”

In the introduction to this volume, Samuel R. Delany talks of Gaiman’s capacity for infusing the everyday with mythic qualities. In the earlier volumes, I’d disagree and say he’s doing the opposite: what else is happening when a demon like Azazel or a cat deity out of Egypt gets coopted for a kind of Demonic Celebrity Apprentice? Those stories bleed the mythic from myths and give us gods and demons as human-sized characters.

Here, though, as Delany says so strikingly, Gaiman takes the toys of childhood and raises them to the status of archetypes. Barbie’s dreamworld quest alongside animated stuffed animals feels eerily familiar, a twist on the adventures we all know from Alice or Dorothy, but it feels new as well. It’s as if he’s re-opened a door that only our most expert dreamers have managed before.

All of this works because it insistently reminds us of the degree to which our deepest wonder comes not from our private dreaming, but from our attempting to claim someone else’s dreams only to discover ourselves in some new place. We are all, in one degree or another, cuckoos who insinuate ourselves into others’ creations, and as such we simply follow our nature (as Morpheus explains the Cuckoo is indeed doing through her impulse to destruction) when we take the wondrous and claim it for ourselves.

In another context, the change from one illustrator to another would really irritate me. (Especially because I think Colleen Doran is so perfectly suited to the material that I find the other five wanting in comparison.) Here, though, it amplifies the sense that we depend on others for the beginnings of our dreaming and for taking what we dream someplace beyond our private imagining.

In the end, this volume gives us what the others have so far only vaguely gestured toward: Morpheus alone can navigate the twisted paths of the dreaming, but the place belongs – in its fragmented and directionless fashion – to all of us.


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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists

The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m starting to run out of excuses for not loving Neil Gaiman – as so many have told me I would and as I fully expected. (I wouldn’t have bought the first eight volumes of The Sandman if I didn’t expect to love it the way so many others do.)

I was disappointed in volume three because I found it a series of disconnected, one-off stories. This time, there is a full arc: Morpheus comes into possession of hell, and he has to decide which of several claimants he wants to give it to.

There’s cleverness throughout this – Gaiman is always clever – but I sometimes get the feeling it’s cleverness for the sake of cleverness. I enjoy seeing the gods from different pantheons come together (it’s especially fun to get a Thor who is the anti-Marvel version – a buffoon who eats and sexes himself into near stupor), but after a while I get frustrated that there’s no cosmology that underlies their shared space. Odin can be powerful in one sense – he is still the all-father – but in another he is just a guy standing alongside Egyptian or Miltonic figures. The importance of each seems to rise and fall with the attention Gaiman wants to pay rather than with anything intrinsic to the story.

That becomes especially clear at the end. (I hesitate to call it a climax because, as I often complain about stories crafted into single-issue comic episodes, there’s not all that much to build up to it. When that chapter comes, it feels almost like a new start to the story we’ve been reading.) When the demon Azazel threatens to destroy Nada, Morpheus has a showdown with him. It’s all on Morpheus’s terms, though – which feel like all on Gaiman’s terms in the sense that he’s after the splendor of the moment rather than pay-off for the story he’s been building up – and the final conflict falls flat in many ways. It starts, and then it’s over.

All that said, there do remain some touches I deeply admire. Two of those comes at the very end. First, while the Azazel showdown leaves me wanting, the concept of it brings me back. It really is beautiful to consider the demon as trapped somehow in dream. By giving vent to his own desires, he ventures into the space of pure dream, pure creation, and that renders him a plaything in Morpheus’s hands. I want Morpheus to be more of a stable hero, and I want Gaiman either to step entirely outside the story or more directly into it. Still, Morpheus as the story-maker of the story – Morpheus as Gaiman – is compelling at the end.

And, at the very end, Gaimain gets off one of those moments that really moves me, that makes me frustrated that I only like this rather than love it. That’s because I love the idea of Nada reborn as an infant without memory. It’s a beautiful instant, one that gives me hope that I’ll finally be able to click with what Gaiman is doing.

On to volume five with an open mind…


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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: Hidden River

Hidden River Hidden River by Adrian McKinty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This one isn’t great art, but, oh, is it a lot of fun.

Check your skepticism at the door if you feel like giving this a shot. It turns on several hard-to-believe coincidences – something that ordinarily bothers me a great deal. [SPOILER] To start with, what are the odds that our hero would escape injury so often, that he’d never be suspected in the range of killings and set-ups he’s behind, that he’d get hired at the one environmental group that he wanted to investigate in the first place, that he’d find two guys loyal to him to the death, or that no one would ever bother to ask him what happened to John once he returned to Ireland without him.

Those are, in most cases, the sorts of holes I’d feel a truck driving through. They’d distract me to the point of not caring about anything else.

Oddly, though, McKinty pulls off the opposite trick here. I find myself – for reasons I can’t fully identify –drawn to the character and the situation. Alex is a Jewish cop in the middle of Belfast’s Catholic/Protestant wars. He’s a too-good-for-his-own-good cop, and he’s a heroin addict. He has a mysterious history from the end of his police career, and now he’s a wit’s end.

It’s fun to get McKinty’s hardboiled take on Belfast – I read his The Cold, Cold Ground which I liked at least as much and admired more – and then it’s fun to see him grapple with the different world of Denver. He has a tone and a way with character that grips you – or grips me at least.

It’s fun as well to feel him manipulating you throughout. In this case, he’s even somewhat clumsy. [SPOILER: I knew from early on that Amber was the real threat.] But so what? Most of the fun is in seeing the oh-so-clever Alex get confused in the midst of his sex-and-heroin lust.

I don’t want to lean too heavily on this because I suspect my enjoyment of it would come tumbling down if I worried too much about things like how it morphs from a confession from someone who seems already dead (in classic noir-like feel) to a feel-good self-transformation instead. Or about how seriously to take the Hindu theology thread that runs throughout, even giving the novel its name.

No, bottom line, this is a guilty pleasure that I can recommend to others only with mixed feelings. But I promise you that I’ll be snatching up the next McKinty I come across, and I bet it will make it from the to-read pile into my hands pretty quickly.


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Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country

The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The good news is that I remain intrigued by the possibilities of The Sandman as I finish volume three of the collected works. I thought I knew where it was headed, then discovered I was wrong, and now am still curious about where it’s going. Almost a third of the way through the series, I still have the positive sense that it could turn into almost anything.

The less good news is that I liked where I thought it was going more than I like where it has gone to this point. I loved the first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, because it was such a fresh take on the comic genre. It had the form of a superhero book, giving us a different kind of hero who was caught up in an intriguing story of revenge and perpetual reinvention. I enjoyed the second volume because I thought it was reloading for another multi-issue narrative in which Morpheus deals with an anomaly in his universe.

This volume, though, is a grab bag. Instead of giving us an extended story arc, this one gives one striking issue after another. It’s fun to see Morpheus invite the lords of fairy to see a production of the still-living Will Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it’s intriguing to see the story of how a seductive death helps a woman disfigured into invulnerability eventually kill herself.

Each of those stories is its own, though. We’ve lost the continuity of the series. On the one hand I admire that a lot. These are, in effect, short stories, and it takes enormous skill to tell a new one every issue. And I enjoy most of these.

But, again, it isn’t quite what I expected. I’ll keep reading these one-offs for a while, but I signed up because I thought I’d get to see Morpheus dive into an extended, novel-like experience. I still think that might be coming and, if I know it is, I think I’ll come back and revise my estimate of these interesting stand-alones upward.


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Monday, March 13, 2017

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five

Slaughterhouse-Five Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I think of despair, I think of mutism. That is, I associate the deepest loss of faith with the inability to use words at all. Hemingway’s power derives mostly from the sense he gives that silence is so close at hand. It’s not just that he’s efficient with his language; it’s that each word carries a heavy emotional cost since the temptation to turn inward is so strong.

In this novel, one of the candidates to be his masterpiece, Vonnegut is playing a slightly different game. Words come easily. When someone dies, the phrase is right at hand, “And so it goes…” Ask our narrator a question, and he’s got a glib answer. There’s always something to say, and the words themselves are as cheap as the paperbacks Kilgore Trout writes and releases to the world. No one seems inclined toward silence. We talk because it’s what we do.

Yet despair is here, and it manifests itself in a pressure against narrative rather than language. Vonnegut, as the character of the narrator here, has no trouble spinning out a goofy premise like Tralfamadore or explaining the didactic point of a Trout novel, but he never lets us forget the effort it takes to tell a straightforward story. That’s because stories, as such, pretend to make sense of a world that he despairs of making sensible.

We see that assertion most clearly in the first chapter, when our narrator describes how he’s failed to write anything directly about his experiences in Dresden. When Mary O’Hare gets angry at him for preparing to write a novel about World War II, she angrily explains it’s because the stories always get it wrong. “Wars are fought by children,” she explains. And our narrator, acknowledging she’s right, agrees to call his book “The Children’s Crusade.” He doesn’t want to write a war novel, but he wants to try to tell a story – a senseless story of a devastating bombing raid by our own country that had no strategic value – so he has to write a novel about the war.

And the novel he writes goes on to fight with itself throughout. Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time because of the trauma he’s experienced, and that expresses itself most clearly in the way it breaks Vonnegut’s narrative. There is none of the conventional consolation that story/plot/narrative brings. We know early on that Billy will die in an assassination. We know he’ll be kidnapped by Tralfamadorans. We know that the universe will end when the Tralfamadorans screw up a test of their advanced rocketry. And we know that U.S. bombers will obliterate a German city called Dresden while a group of American P.O.W.s survive the onslaught in an underground slaughterhouse.

We see the same assault on conventional narrative in the comic book existentialism of the Tralfamadorans. Since they experience all time as happening simultaneously, nothing is ever a surprise. They urge you to cling to beautiful moments, knowing full well that they cannot control what will happen any more easily than they can control what’s already happened. There’s no surprise in their lives, only the capacity to choose what they focus on.

And we see it in the quick descriptions of Trout’s novels. They never seem to tell conventional stories either. They aren’t about plots where one thing happens after another. They’re about concepts that make you go “Hmmm.”

Vonnegut was hugely important to me as a high school kid. I read and re-read everything he’d written by the middle 1980s, and he helped me fall in love with literature as something that can expand my ideas in addition to my experience. I didn’t like this one that much in those years, though. I resented its frequent sloppiness, and I thought – despite what I understood to be its critical acclaim – it was a kind of phone-it-in effort after Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and Mother Night. (It does reference important characters from each of those earlier ones.)

Coming back to this after more than 25 years, though, I see its sloppy storytelling as its most articulate feature. I believe Vonnegut when he says it took him more than a quarter century to write about Dresden. His experience made no sense, and trying to make sense of it though story would have been a betrayal of the horrors he saw and that others saw alongside him. Instead, he finds a way here to mock his own effort as a way to counter the despair that tried to keep him from telling that story at all.

If you’ve never read Vonnegut, I still recommend starting with Cat’s Cradle or one of the other early novels (other than Player Piano which is playing a different game). Once you’ve got a handle on Vonnegut’s tone and universe, though, give this one a shot. I see now what I didn’t see then – this is literature at a high level. It is, to paraphrase Ezra Pound, news that has stayed news.


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Saturday, March 11, 2017

Review: Babel-17

Babel-17 Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reading this book is a little like going back and playing one of those early home video games, something like the first generation of Castle Wolfenstein. There’s something to it, something you know you sensed when you played the game way back when, but you can also clearly see how the technology limited the final effect.

This one has a fabulous premise: the “bad guys” develop a language that corrupts its speakers. It functions less like a human language and more like Fortran or Basic – languages that direct a machine to do a thing without giving it the vocabulary to comprehend itself. Without that sense of self – without the concept of “I” – it isn’t possible to resist the codes one’s programmed to do. In the world of the novel, it turns its speakers into sleeper double-agents, people who aren’t aware of their own duplicity.

I can give that kind of a summary largely because of what I learn in the final pages of the novel, when one of the characters – having been reprogrammed of deprogrammed – explains the phenomenon to everyone else. Otherwise, this is a hard-to-follow story. We get a lot of quick cuts, a lot of characters introduced by pronouns rather than given names, and a lot of action committed by characters under the control of other wills.

Much of the story moves forward through dialogue, often a clunky narrative technology but especially so here. How, I ask, can we contemplate the power of language when we are so trapped in conversation. There are “technologies” that might work better – stream-of-consciousness, multiple narrators, deliberate fragmentation – but Delaney tends to stay with a conventional approach here. He does push against it a little – we get some attempts at weird-angle limited omniscient third person and he opens each chapter with long, allusive quotes from Marilyn Hacker’s poetry – but, ultimately, he doesn’t seem to have the tools to get his fabulous question across.

I don’t think he’s alone. I’m cooler on his contemporary Philip K. Dick than most, and there was a lot of other high concept, overly pedantic sci-fi in those era. It was common for sci-fi to come across as cold, peopled with characters who seem props for ideas rather than characters in their own right. In some ways, the original Star Trek had the same problems: big ideas without quite the special effects to pull them off. It took Star Wars (on screen) and Dune (in print) to begin to develop that technology, and now we have Guardians of the Galaxy (on screen) and Neal Stephenson (in print, when he’s on his game).

There’s certainly something here, and I also acknowledge I read this too quickly to get everything from it. I suspect I’d have been in awe of it if I stumbled onto it as a 13-year-old in 1978. I don’t mean to say I’d have gotten all the bio-linguistic points it raised, merely that I think I’d have sense it even then as pushing toward something it couldn’t quite yet say.

I have the chance to hear Delaney a few weeks from now, and I’m keeping an open mind. I’m blaming him here for a limited technology, but it’s just as possible I’m not bringing all the reading tools to this that I should.


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Friday, March 10, 2017

Review: A Little Life

A Little Life A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A central hallmark of genre fiction is that it takes some fundamental aspect of its reality as a given. In fantasy, we get magic, and we aren’t usually invited to question why it’s there, only what it’s doing in any particular instance. In mystery we get an impulse toward solution. Our detective may have a motive, but ultimately the world of the novel depends upon the axiom that we want to understand the unknown. And romance takes it as foundational that people love one another and will endure a great deal to arrive at that love.

A Little Life is not genre fiction, but it gives us a concept of friendship that is as central (and unexplained) as gravity. The four friends at the heart of this grow from young adults into successful actors, architects, artists, and lawyers. They endure emotional and personal setbacks, get married, develop professional relationships, and reveal one another’s hidden pasts to each other. But no matter how complicated their lives get, they remain tied to each other.

That’s an affirming notion, but it starts to wear thin 400 or so pages into this massive work. Jude is an appealing but deeply scarred man. He needs his friends, and they’re there for him. Always. Really. Always. The closest is Willem, an actor who becomes a major star, a man whose face is on Times Square billboards and who goes on location to exotic locales. Willem has girlfriends and, presumably, a circle of colleagues who matter to him, but he’ll always drop everything to help Jude. And then suddenly, that becomes literal as the two become lovers with little to anticipate that major shift. Even as lovers, though, theirs is less a romance than a friendship taken to its ultimate stage. Even as it becomes sex-free, it remains an extension of this mysterious quality called “friendship.”

There’s real power here in many places. Jude endures far more than anyone should have to, and he slowly peels back the awful abuse he suffered as a child. He’s haunted in ways that can never be dismissed, and the intensity of his self-loathing comes through in the many (did I say many) scenes in which he either cuts himself or imagines cutting himself. Yanagihara often writes with grace, and Jude’s suffering emerges as incandescent. Even as he’s surrounded by his friends – an ideal cast of them, including an always-there-for-him-doctor, a brilliant legal mentor who actually adopts him, and a landlord/neighbor who becomes a regular guardian – he can never dismiss the shadow of his horrifying childhood.

In a way that becomes increasingly troubling, though, the novel never seems to confront history outside its insular space. We never hear, for instance, of the political backdrop, of technological changes, or of pop culture touchstones. This is a book that spans more than 40 years, but it’s never clear which 40 years those are. In one tiny detail, Brother Luke, on the run with Jude when Jude is only nine, makes sure to take his computer whenever he leaves the hotel room. But then, thirty years later, Willem’s agent is concerned that his coming out as gay will hurt his movie career. (A newspaper article even calls Willem the highest profile actor to date to admit to being in a homosexual relationship.) I’ve tried to triangulate those dates, but I can’t make them fit: Child molester religious brothers on the run could not have had portable computers – ones that context implies would have internet access – until at least the early 21st century. From the other end, though, it’s already a handful of years since an actor like Ian McKellin (another “serious” actor who doesn’t typically play romantic leads) can come out without trouble. How then do we squeeze thirty years in between 2001 and 2015?

And that’s not just a petty concern either. This book depends upon history to give it depth, but it gestures only vaguely toward that history. The same impulse that fetishizes friendship, that so greedily (and, to be fair, gratefully) takes friends as the necessary bodies in orbit about the self, can lead to a kind of narcissism, a sense that nothing beyond the self matters. The absence of historical setting is one thing, but so are the interests of the others around them. J.B. is a purportedly gifted artist, someone they all know will go on to do great things. He does, producing at least five major shows of his work…each of which consists of large-scale paintings of the original group of friends. (And, tellingly, each exhibition pares down its subjects; the second-to-last is only Willem and Jude, recast as archetypal friends Frog and Toad from the Arnold Lobel stories. The last is called simply “Jude Alone.”) Malcolm is a gifted architect, supposedly doing great things around the world, but the only work we ever get described are the apartments and homes he designs for Willem and Jude. Andy is a deeply gifted doctor. He can heal burned skin, treat advanced infections, even amputate limbs. But his own work is so secondary that, though I might have missed it, we never even learn what his specialty is. Even Richard, who comes along later, announces that he owns three or four buildings in New York, but still seems always to be next door to Jude when Jude needs him. My point is that, for all their supposed success, we don’t see any of these people achieve anything that isn’t directly related to our central protagonists.

Put differently, this is a New York novel, but it’s a New York novel in the way Seinfeld was a New York show. It presents a New York that you can make your own, a vast city that provides you with niches where you see only the same small circle of people and you can craft your life around your preferences. To its credit, Seinfeld acknowledged that irony; love it or hate it, the notorious final episode was an indictment of the show (and of us, its viewers) for taking other people so lightly and with such detached amusement. This novel is more like Friends in that regard; it’s more a story that never feels it has to interrogate the privilege at the heart of its New York experience.

I don’t want to dismiss the whole of this too lightly. There’s no question that it explores Jude’s pain and need to self-harm in ways that go beyond what mass market fiction has done. There’s a bravery in Yanagihara’s exploration of this physical and emotional pain, and there’s a power too. (I wouldn’t finish a 700 page novel if I didn’t find something compelling in it.) And Yanagihara has the capacity to articulate rare emotions – and complex rationalizations – that challenge in interesting ways. There are many places I paused over his thoughtful summary of a character’s seemingly strange decisions.

But I can’t forgive this book entirely for its inability to challenge its own premises. For as long as it is – for all the detail we get about their dinner parties, the layout of their homes, the roster of the friends at this or that moment in the story – we hear almost nothing about the most crucial moment in their lives: the time when they first came together in college. That would mean defining the term at the heart of this, and there doesn’t seem room to do that.

So I end with my opening complaint. This is ultimately a “friendship novel,” one so wedded to its own generic premises that it never has to explain them. Tolkien has magic and Jackie Collins has love and sex; everything forms around those axioms. Yanagihara has a lot to say about suffering and about growing old, but he doesn’t show here the capacity to step even farther back and examine the premises that allow him to make those explorations.




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Saturday, March 4, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve heard from some veteran Sandman people that the series really gets going with this, volume two. For what it’s worth, on a first reading, I prefer volume one. The joy of sheer discovery there, of finding such a new vocabulary for thinking about what a traditional comic book can be like, is exhilarating. Here, interesting and haunting as it is throughout, I see Gaiman relying on some of his own tropes. I still enjoyed this a lot – and volume three is sitting by my bed waiting for me to finish up my reactions here – but I find it (for now at least) a notch below the first.

Still, there are moments here that really work. Sister death, a goth beauty, is a terrific invention (as is the hermaphroditic Desire at the end), and some of the panels with her still haunt me days later. It’s almost a throwaway, but the one where she takes the life of an infant – in a SIDS like death – is haunting. The taken soul lets out a complaint, “But it was so short,” and then we see a stricken mother realizing what’s happened. It’s a huge story told in two quick moments.

More broadly, I find the Rose story intriguing. She’s a “vortex,” a character who causes dreaming to become communal rather than individual, and, as such, she’s a threat to the “controlled chaos” of the realm of dreams. I find I like that more in concept than in execution here, though. In the stretch where we see dreaming unraveling – when the oddball denizens of Rose’s boarding house slide into one another’s dreams – it feels to me as if Gaiman is working a bit too hard. I feel a collision of clich├ęs more than what I think the effect should be: the frightening discovery that we cannot protect our most private (and therefore most vulnerable) aspects from each other. (As an FWIW, that’s precisely the horror that Darl represents in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying.)

I don’t characterize that as failure. I don’t think it’s even quite the wrong note. It’s just the right note played a little out of tune.

To a lesser degree I feel the same way about some of Gaiman’s intriguing indulgences. It’s entertaining to see Morpheus agree to meet once a century with an Englishman who’s decided he doesn’t want to die. The episode is clever and compelling, but it also feels like an interruption of the larger story. It feels like Gaiman claiming for himself the power of Morpheus. “In place of your regularly scheduled dream, I am presenting you with this.” So, yeah, it’s intriguing and probably worth doing. It also feels like an indulgence, like an author who’s so intoxicated with the new space he’s opened up that he can break with the pattern he’s implied from previous issues.

I like the way this one wraps up. Morpheus’s conversations with Desire suggest what must be the next chapter – who is Rose’s grandfather and what does that mean for our understanding of the endless as a whole. So, I’m not at all down on this series. I just feel, after the explosive joy of the first volume, that I’m settling into what promises to be a good stretch of episodes after this.


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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

They Eat Puppies, Don't They? They Eat Puppies, Don't They? by Christopher Buckley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes literature turns out to have prognostication powers. Don DeLillo’s Mao II is one of the great post 9/11 novels, yet it’s written before the event. And few books made better sense of the dreamy, detached-from-reality mood of the Reagan presidency than Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, also written before Reagan’s ascent to office.

To a lesser degree, and with less literary merit than those others, Buckley’s novel anticipates our current moment of fake news and the alternative facts crisis. This one tells the story of a public relations flak for a defense contracting company who gets charged with trying to whip up anti-China hysteria in order to secure funding for an unknown massive new project. He begins his project by asserting – entirely without fact – that China is behind a recent health scare for the Dalai Lama.

And then the plan spirals out of control. It turns out the Dalai Lama is indeed quite ill, but it serves various conflicting interests to claim that China really did go after him. We get different factions of China’s governing council who accuse and counter-accuse in order to jostle for authority. We get CIA spooks who foment and then undermine the rumors all in the service of their different agendas.

When this book is at its best, it’s a whirlwind of almost plausible stories that conflict with one another. We’re never allowed to forget that the central claim of the competing stories is fundamentally false, but we’re also brought to see that such a truth hardly matters after a while. Once the story begins to circulate, it has a real-world gravity. It’s a lie that has traction, an alternative fact that causes things to happen in the real world.

This one is probably a notch weaker than Buckley’s Thank You For Smoking, but it shares the same sharp humor and deep-seeded concern with the nature of, for lack of a better word, bullshit in the heart of our culture. That one takes more joy in the outrageousness of the lies in play, but both deal with the fundamental observation that we’re shielded from being able to make thoughtful policy by the power of the bullshit around us.

I’m never quite sure of Buckley’s politics. Since he’s the son of 1960s and 1970s Number One Conservative William F., it’s hard to imagine him as a progressive (unless he’s living out a serious Oedipal experience). At the same time, he isn’t pushing for hardline matters either. He seems to see much military spending as wasteful, yet he also seems to have respect for good government. There’s no knee-jerk impulse to decry all government as too much government.

In the end, the message is mostly hopeful. Beneath the cynicism of his characters lies a real hope that we might someday get to a point where we can distinguish the lies of the unprincipled from the truths we ought to be weighing.

At this historical moment, that’s a progressive political claim. In the bigger picture, though, it seems a more philosophical – more politically neutral – notion. You don’t have to be a Social Democrat to believe that good government depends upon access to the truth. That insight, thoughtful and comic as we get it here, is timely today and, given that it’s more than four years old now, eerily prescient.


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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes

The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit it. I have been hard on Neil Gaiman. I’ve read just a couple of his – Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane – and I’ve liked them but. There’s always been something that kept me from joining the cult of Gaiman, something that, while I enjoyed what I was reading, made me assert (in truth) that I’m a bigger fan of his wife, rock star Amanda Palmer.

But this is where it all started, and it’s where friends have insisted I had to go before I could render a legitimate verdict on the guy.

And while I am not quite ready to declare The Sandman a masterpiece, I am certainly intrigued. It’s striking in its story, in its art, and in its tone. It’s familiar and original – uncanny in the way Freud described the term, and in the same essay he considered the original Sandman episode from E.T.A. Hoffman – and I had a hard time putting it down. This is really something. It may well turn out to be a masterpiece.

Reputation has Gaiman as one of the foundational graphic novelists that came in the wake of Maus – alongside Allan Moore and Frank Miller – and I can already see it here. What’s particularly intriguing, though, is that this isn’t beginning as a graphic novel in the sense of a larger, structured narrative. Instead, it has the shape and feel of a comic series. Each episode stands on its own in the midst of the larger story, but each is still complete in itself. I can imagine being one of those kids who waited each month to snatch up the latest issue. Even reading it all these years later at night before bed, I found myself wondering during the day what would happen next.

I don’t mean that as any sort of complaint. Graphic novels have the feel of films (which is probably why Miller and Moore have had more luck with their books being filmed) but there’s something beguiling in the wait-til-next-issue texture of this. Eisner, Spiegelman and their followers invented a new art form. Gaiman adapted an old one into a new kind of art. (Or at least that what it feels like this early into things.)

I’ll cut this review short by my wordy standards because, even though it’s getting late, I want to read the next chapter. And, of course, that’s the ultimate thumbs up.


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