Monday, December 30, 2013

Margaret Atwood, MaddAddam

Was ever the end of the world so calming?

Except for the last few chapters of MaddAddam, the novel with which Margaret Atwood concludes her trilogy of the same name, this novel occurs within striking distance temporally of the events in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. This makes the three of them much more of a piece than they might have been, with many of the same characters recurring, so it's helpful if you remember what happened with the earlier novels.

Honestly, I don't think there's any point to reading this novel if you don't read the others first. There are a few pages of "The story so far" at the beginning of MaddAddam, but it's barely enough of a reminder for those who've read the other novels. Too many mysteries, if this is your entry point to the trilogy: you'll enjoy it, but it won't have the weight or the warmth that left me appreciating this novel so very much.

Probably the key line for me was Toby's speculation about whether Pilar (who died in an earlier novel) ever believed what she said about whether we can speak to the dead. In the end, Toby recognizes, it doesn't really matter:
however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void. (p.154)
MaddAddam, more than Oryx and Crake or Year of the Flood, is a novel about literature, which will of course delight the SF Atwood-naysayers no end. (No, it won't. They'll hate it.)

From the Six Cent Press
Or at least, it seems in some lights to be about literature, to the point that I started wondering how much there is in common between Graham Greene and Zeb, since Atwood herself has some things in common with Toby. Really, though, this is a novel about community, and about how community can survive the extinguishing of that community's light. Given that this particular community might be the last human community (maybe, who can tell, no spoilers here), Atwood's exploring whether human extinction is really the end of the human: and what the end of this particular iteration of human culture might look like, from after the collapse.

It's cheerful, that's the maddest thing about this novel: it's funny, to the point that I laughed out loud, no lie, at the exchanges between Toby and her Craker audiences. Atwood only gives us Toby's side of the story, but she gives us exactly enough that we can imagine how the Crakers are responding, because of how Toby gets dragged off-track from her stories. They want to sing, they have questions, sometime they start crying: it's like what happens when I tell stories around here!

My favourite part, as it will be for many readers as shallow as I am, was the mythology that has to develop around the powerful spirit Fuck, after someone influential swears in front of the Crakers:
He could be in many places at once. If you were in trouble and you called to him--Oh Fuck!--he would always be there, just when you needed him. And as soon as you said his name, you would feel better. (p.164)
I know, not that funny here, but in context, and with the extra gravy that Atwood loads into the scene, it's brilliant.

For me, MaddAddam was a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to this trilogy. Was it the best novel, or the most enjoyable? Not sure, but I don't care. Loved it.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

M.T. Anderson, Feed

Outside my comfort zone: M.T. Anderson's Feed is hardcore YA dystopian fiction, with a strong cult following. I'm more of a dabbler with this kind of thing (cults, YA fiction, even dystopias), but it's a very powerful book.
From Dig Boston

Still, I didn't really enjoy Feed the way I wanted to, so let me speculate a bit about why not.

For some reason, this decade-old novel seems to have inspired more than the usual number of YouTube reviews and English-class film trailers. The use of video, both to express your own thoughts and to imagine a way to represent someone else's, doesn't feel normal to me, doesn't come naturally. In other words, I'm a consumer of this kind of technology, of most kinds really, not a producer, and this means that I'm uncomfortably aligned with Feed's generally despicable characters even more firmly than is usual with a dystopian novel.

And this feels a little bit like a cheat. I'm not offended or anything, because honestly, we all deserve to be pushed unwillingly into alignment with villains more often than we are. You're no hero, especially if you think you might be. Still, if one doesn't make much use of the technologies being challenged, because one isn't a fan even of their pre-dystopian versions, then the purpose of the compelled alignment is a little suspect for me. Yes, it should strengthen my resolve, but I don't like feeling nagged.

Anderson playing Twister, alone
I know, too, that I shouldn't need to be happy while reading a novel, to be coddled, but I kept carping silently but disruptively to myself during the reading of Feed. The characters are mostly a bit dim or unpleasant, with the brighter ones you might self-importantly like to identify with either hiding their lights under bushels or acting out arrogantly. The environmental devastation is more intense than the represented technology should be able to handle (boiling lakes, smog-driven skin lesions deep enough that people's teeth are exposed through the cheeks, no trees…), but apparently the society either isn't yet admitting collapse or is managing.

So, you know. The positive reviews out there all make proleptic fun of me for my inability to sing the body electric for Feed, and yeah, maybe I could've forced a different response, but instead I just admire the book. Its target market loves Feed, and it doesn't need me anyway.

(Here's a link to a very good review: shorter and more insightful than mine, and also positive rather than whinging.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

JB MacKinnon, The Once and Future World

It was already on the top of my reading list, but this clinched it for me:

Like I wasn't going to read a book subtitled Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, but when you're busy, a kick can be useful.

Unfortunately for everyone around me, I've been consumed by The Once and Future World: unfortunately, I say, because when I'm consumed by well-researched environmental non-fiction, it means that I'm a fountain of unusual and off-putting facts, and MacKinnon's book is stuffed with them. More later on that, but let me assure you right away that this book stands apart from eco-catalogues like Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder (which I really enjoyed) or focused works like Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating (also loved), no matter how well-meaning and well-written.

It's a prologue to a movement, this book, and I'm saying right now, the day after finishing it for the first time, that it'll be the backbone to my annual course next year bringing together literature and environment: more activist this year than last, and next year, who knows, we might end up hitting the barricades.

As MacKinnon puts it, we're living through "alterations to the pattern of nature [that] are less the 'environmental challenges' we speak of today than they are breaches of the space-time continuum" (p.63). Humans are cataclysmic, like glaciers two miles thick, or killer asteroids, not "environmental challenges." As a small example, the winning bouquet at a 1925 British flower fair contained 22 marsh helleborine orchids: which were already known to exist only in a single three-hectare bog. It's tempting to obsess about climate change and peak oil and the carbon economy, but we've always been wilfully ignorant.
Via the Guardian

One of the crucial chapters has to do with incidents where humans have stepped in to replace the activities of a depleted nature, like the orchards in China where the bees no longer live. Humans pollinate these pear trees by hand now now, with rudimentary Goldberg devices involving feathers, cigarette filters, and chopsticks, but the startling thing is that the humans have turned out to be more efficient than the bees, as well as economically more productive (in the sense that human pollinators get paid, and spend their money in local businesses).

Very clearly, there can be an economic benefit to blowing up nature, maybe even a lasting benefit. There's no point pretending otherwise. Purely material human interests can in some cases be best served by a denuded and shattered but still functioning nature.

This is where revolution needs to come from, and the economists behind the study MacKinnon cites move to reject this purely economic analysis. Economics, the economists say, are inadequate to capture our relations with the rest of nature.

MacKinnon's vision of rewilding is thoughtful and brilliant, and I'd love to be able to say, years from now, that his was one of the key statements that helped us find our way.

(Side note: Any press is good press, I suppose, but NPR's Robert Krulwich has blogged the HELL out of The Once and Future World, swiping a half-dozen of MacKinnon's chapters for separate blog posts. At a certain point, it becomes inadequate to give the standard little acknowledgements to the author, doesn't it? I'm really pleased that Krulwich seems so enamoured of this book, but dude. Leave something for new readers!)

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

P.D. James, The Children of Men

Start with the movie Children of Men, because it's fantastic and terrible and all the rest of it: it'll probably inspire you to think about these themes, in the sense of keeping from sleeping soundly, and then you'll want to read P.D. James' cut-crystal bowl of a novel The Children of Men.

They tell different stories, make no mistake. Watching the movie will have next to no effect on your ability to predict just what'll happen next in the novel, but that's no criticism of either. As paired visions, it's hard to think of an original/adaptation pair diverging this widely that are both so very, very good.

The Children of Men is my last first read for next term's extinction fiction course, which we'll cover second: 25 years since the last human child was born, but somehow it'll be the happier of the two novels we read in our "Hope in the Dark" module:
Pleasure need not be less keen because there will be centuries of springs to come, their blossom unseen by human eyes, the walls will crumble, the trees die and rot, the gardens revert to weeds and grass, because all beauty will outlive the human intelligence which records, enjoys and celebrates it. (p.9)
This is a society, a civilization, a species living without hope, and as such it has gone irrevocably mad. Its members veer from celebrating the transitory signs of life (the birth of kittens, especially) and the symbols of motherhood (an intense, wide vogue for pushing dolls in prams), to the very worst kinds of crimes, committed in a state of horror at the inconsequentiality even of those actions from which ought to trigger against the sinner the most absolute of consequences.

But in the 1990s, when P.D. James was writing this novel, most Western nations were all a-flutter at the consequences of declining birth rates: the challenge of financing pensions for an ever-larger sector of society, a lack of applicants for entry-level jobs, a surfeit of qualified managers, all of which indicated a coming need for (drink your gin, quickly!) immigration from the (good lord, no!) brown countries.

It's tempting, therefore, to read the novel parable-style. We might reflect on how societies can demonize their youth, for example, or on what happens when older workers don't ever leave their jobs. More compellingly, we should reflect on the novel's worries about faith, since England is led by a man whose first name is Xan (unless I'm crazy, which is distinctly possible, to read this as a coded "Christian"), but also because the novel's title is drawn from Psalm 90, which Anglicans generally use as part of the Burial Service:
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made, * thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.
    Thou turnest man to destruction; * again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men.
    For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday, when it is past, * and as a watch in the night. (link)
The Children of Men works really well as a parable, and for multiple themes religious and political, too, so it's not purely an abstract novel. But as with every good parable, nothing good comes from reading the novel only as parable. You've got to luxuriate with the characters wherever they find their pleasures, fear with them, hope with them; you've got to take on their world's existential real; you've got to forget that these are written words and let them absorb you.

And in these characters' despair, in the dark you'll share with them, we're going to look for some hope. It's there: sometimes, you have to prize not the lost vase, but the surviving shards.

(And if you're really keen, maybe read the movie's script. Such oddness, to me, that a movie can exist in paper form, though of course it doesn't really.)

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nevil Shute, On the Beach

My pettiness knows no bounds: sometimes you can't help bleeding just to know you're alive, as the Goo Goo Dolls once sang, but my own courting of risk is generally limited to choosing to teach books I've never read before. Prufrock: kind of my idol.

From cool blog Existential Ennui
With that in mind, my January course on human extinction includes two books I've never read before (so very daring!), and I've just finished the older of the two, Nevil Shute's still-remarkable 1957 novel On the Beach. Many years ago, I pulled this book off my parents' shelves, but replaced it on the cover-driven assumption that it was really a romance novel; errors can have such a long half-life, that you're lucky ever to be there when they decay, to pick up the gem that's left behind.

Does it make sense to warn of spoilers for a 50-year-old book, and its Pulitzer-winning comparator since made into a successful Hollywood movie, i.e. The Road? If so: here be spoilers.

Previously, this blog awarded the title of Bleakest Novel Ever to Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but Shute's future here is distinctly darker than McCarthy's. Whereas McCarthy's largely lifeless world is populated still, albeit by humans shambling about and persisting cockroach-style, but without the insect's native elegance, Shute's world really does end.

McCarthy leaves us shattered, probably irredeemable, but alive; Shute kills us off, every single one of us, slowly. As one character muses, close to the end:
The human race was to be wiped out and the world made clean again for wiser occupants without undue delay. Well, probably that made sense. (p.269)
Shute's novel is therefore utterly without hope -- and yet it's not nearly as bleak as McCarthy's.

The Road depicts a world where social niceties have been torn away. Many of these niceties vanished early, in the immediate aftermath of whatever inexplicable catastrophe has befallen Earth, but by the time depicted in the novel, human society has devolved into isolationism and cannibalism: all we have left to eat is each other, really, and many of us are doing exactly that. Survival seems, against the odds, to remain possible, if only individual people can live long enough for the undoing of whatever it was that happened, but during this interminable interregnum, it's a world and a social order none of us would want to belong to, and a species we'd want to disavow as our own.

So what about On the Beach, this lovely, painful book that withholds from us even the shards of hope that McCarthy's sadistic The Road gives its readers?

In the face of certain extinction, which comes slowly but inescapably to Australia in the form of drifting radioactive fallout from nuclear annihilation of the Northern Hemisphere, society continues almost uninterrupted. In the time before the novel, there seem to have been riots, and rampaging, and all the acting out that you'd expect from utter despair, but by the time depicted in the novel itself, society has resumed. People have gone back to work, mostly; students are attending universities in larger numbers than ever; gardening shops keep selling out of plants and seeds and fertilizer and fenceposts.

There is no hope in the world of On the Beach, none at all, but unlike in McCarthy's vision, our response isn't to reject social connections and obligations, but to insist upon them until the end, and both to honour them and to treasure them.

To take just one small example, the real trick is to make sure the port and the brandy don't run out before the end, and yet that we don't end leave too much of it unappreciated. Appreciation: the great lesson of On the Beach.

Torres del Paine, Chile
It turns out, you see, that it can be wisest after all to go gently into that dark night. When the night is dark enough, then going gently is something like a prayer of thanks for the days we'd enjoyed so much before the final dusk we knew had to come eventually anyway. We live in a world of shocking beauty, intense relationships, and unknowable possibilities, and it broke my heart to have Shute show me we don't have to surrender any of our interior world for a little thing like planetary extinction.

Broke. My. Heart.

And yet somehow left it stronger. I'm so looking forward to teaching the novel, and talking through it with my reliably insightful students!

(Someone else's incredibly long and thorough review plus summary is available here, if you'd like a commentary with actual details.)

Monday, December 02, 2013

Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow

NGO soccer, Tanzania
This book is at the same time both entirely and not at all, you must understand, about soccer, which may help to explain how like the game itself, Soccer in Sun and Shadow is a masterwork of splendid, glorious bullshit.

No longer a beautiful game, nevertheless soccer's history overflows with memories of beauty, of inexplicable goals, inconceivable saves, and irrepressible young men refusing to share the ball even with their teammates, and in this book, Eduardo Galeano revives this lost beauty in a quixotic attempt to shame those responsible for the crime.

Because if you trust Galeano, as you must, you will know that not so very long ago, only a few generations, soccer was a game of sustained attacks, of dribbling a ball through a sea of flailing opponents, of men rising into myth and the air to cannon a header fit to crush a nation's soul. Now? Players forced into robotic systems, owners corrupt enough to make Enron look like the Salvation Army, organizing bodies that lack the Mafia's common decency: and yet Galeano, like so many others, watched all 64 games of the most recent World Cup, because it remains soccer, and yet may be revived.

Via here
Indeed the once-beautiful game does continue to revive and then to die, one unpredictable moment at a time, and it's somewhere near here that I part ways from the book club.

See, nobody liked this book. It's a bunch of fragments, they said, not a bouquet or a puzzle or a box of chocolates, it's an interminable exercise in random soccer details masquerading as a book. You put the book down for too long, and you're probably not going to pick it up again. Maybe you like where you're at, while reading it, but just once lose your page, and you'll never figure out where you'd gotten to.

In my view, Soccer in Sun and Shadow takes the form of a match: of an ideal, long-ago match, from before FIFA first sat its giant buttocks on soccer's chest and began squeezing the joy from the game's lungs. This book is full of shining moments, studded with separate tiny reminiscences of historic and historically beautiful goals and saves, buried in a book-long narrative so gradually overwhelming that you don't even notice until near injury time that somehow, somehow, fucking Uruguay (URUGUAY, the shame of it, only imagine) has scored their sixth goal, and you're never coming back from this.

The narrative, really, is about the subordination of South American football, its transformation from a game of joy and daring and risk, to a cog in the European monopoly-capitalist machine that pretends, obscenely, to the name of football. Galeano builds this narrative by recounting, through fragments not always connected to the main story, the history of the World Cups. By the book's end, you should be ready to rise up against Blatter and Havelange and the money men, or ready to admit your utter lack of soul.
From the movie Pele

Of course, I don't really watch soccer. I can't stand the parade of catastrophic faux-injuries: bad theatre, even at its best, like trying to watch The Marriage of Figaro while on one corner of the stage there's a small-town revival of Cats or Grease or something. Galeano's book, though, has me thinking that maybe I should be watching for the gems anyway, and ignoring the rest of it on faith that it'll mean something in the end, and that the narrative, unbeknownst to me, will work out.

In sum, this is a brilliant, brilliant book, and I hope never to read a better book on sports, for fear of losing what remains of my grip on what I weakly persist in thinking of as my professional interest in literature.

----------------------------------------------------
Need a little more persuasion? Try listening to Galeano reading excerpts from the book.

Want a more coherent review? Try this one at ESPN, complete with interview with the author.

Incidentally, I'm alternately gratified and horrified that when I went googling for reviews that I could bash this one against, I saw that Amazon has filed this angry, celebratory, finely serious book under, of all things, HUMOR. Great to see hard evidence that Amazon's business model is utterly doomed, and that its algorithms are failing ever more all the time to approach the singularity via ecommerce.