The OF Blog

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.  Characters who don't follow this code become unlikeable.  Critics who criticize a character's unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted.  They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.

Why is likability even a question?  Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable?  Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn't behave in a way the reader finds palatable.  Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that "this 'liking' business has two components:  moral approval and affection."  We need characters to be lovable while they do right. ("Not Here to Make Friends," p. 70, iPad iBooks e-edition)

I have been following Roxane Gay on Twitter ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, An Untamed State, back in June.  It is a different experience witnessing a writer and cultural critic holding forth on a variety of issues "in real time" before sitting down and reading her debut collection of thirty-eight essays, Bad Feminist.  Many of the issues raised in her essays I first experienced in truncated form on Twitter, but in both media, what immediately becomes apparent is Gay's wit and honesty.

The essays that appear in Bad Feminist are culled from columns that have appeared in the past few years at places such as The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Salon, among others.  Grouped into five categories ("Me," "Gender & Sexuality," "Race & Entertainment," "Politics, Gender & Race," and "Back to Me"), Bad Feminist's essays explore a variety of topics, ranging from the personal to cultural flash points such as the depiction of blacks in American cinema ("Surviving Django" and "Beyond the Struggle Narrative").  In these essays, Gay is not a polished, aloof critic.  Instead, she allows her virtues and flaws to be on full display, showing an individual who is deeply engaged with her subject matter, sometimes to the point of self-conscious subjectivity.  This, however, is not a flaw but a feature in her essays, one that makes Bad Feminist an absorbing read.

One shining example can be found in "What We Hunger For."  Starting as an admission that she cannot critique The Hunger Games effectively due to her fannish attachment to it, Gay proceeds to write a passionate essay that touches upon a traumatic time in her life (a gang rape in middle school) before proceeding to tie this in to the question of "darkness" in contemporary YA fiction:

In June 2011, Meghan Cox wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations.  She wrote,

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.  There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader – or one who seeks out depravity – will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds. 

She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction, but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre and the countless titles that aren't grounded in damage, brutality, or loss.  More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers. (p. 115)

The remainder of "What We Hunger For" discusses this desire for sanitizing YA literature, making it somehow "safer" for readers and how it is a misleading goal in light of those young readers, much more than what one might presume, who find solace and strength in these accounts of others battling difficulties and horrendous moments in order to come out on the other side.  Gay argues her point persuasively, using personal experience to flesh out her points without ever denigrating those who believe otherwise.  This ties in directly to the next essay, "The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion," in which Gay explores her unease about the notions that lie behind the usage of the label "Trigger Warning."  She is compassionate toward those who have suffered traumatic flashbacks, but she nonetheless sees an issue of not feeling protected, not feeling safe, when such warnings are issued.  It is a view with which I have a deep sympathy for, as what she says on it jibes with my experiences:

This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings:  there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done.  A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger.

I don't know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary.  When I see trigger warnings, I don't feel safe.  I don't feel protected.  Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (p. 122)

An interesting feature of Gay's essays is that while she sets up interesting discussion matters, she rarely, if ever, concludes them with strong, assertive stances.  Instead, these pieces feel like conversation starters, presenting a topic through a deeply personal lens (albeit one that is informed with critical theory as well as knowledge of pop kitsch), but leaving enough "space" for the reader to leave his or her comment as an appendix.  Several times, I felt like I wanted to write a response, to ask a question or inquire about the source material, and this sucked me further into Gay's essays than if they had been polished, academic affairs.  Their structure betrays their original purpose as columns, many of which would have been online and have featured a Comments section.  Some might not like this, but for myself, this works wonderfully because it allows the reader space to draw her own conclusions about the topics raised.

The breezy nature of these essays might not appeal to everyone, but for the most part, Gay displays a sharp, introspective mind that is constantly asking questions about the world and its peoples.  The topics are engaging and while there might be a perceived dearth of firm conclusions, this actually ties into her opening and concluding sections, in which Gay explains why she has labeled herself as a "bad feminist."  If Montaigne's Essais were the foundation for the essay genre, Bad Feminist is an excellent example of the early 21st permutation of that form.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Ceremony of Innocence: The OF Blog Turns 10

On August 25, 2004, I began this blog as an extension of the now-defunct wotmania's Other Fantasy section.  Originally I intended to make only occasional posts of interviews and other content originating on that site, but after three years and barely any posts (I think there were only 1-2 posts/month done by myself and my former co-mods at OF), I decided to try my hand at reviewing current fantasy fiction, despite having not grown up as a primarily SF/F-reading fan.  For a while, this was sufficient, as there were quite a few interesting works released in the wake of the past decade's New Weird moment and I hadn't had to deal with arguments about cover art related to hoods and chainmail yet.

But people change as they age.  When I founded The OF Blog as OF Blog of the Fallen (a reference to Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series),  I had just turned 30 the month before and I was planning on going back to college in order to work as a therapist instead of a public school teacher.  As I write this now, having turned 40 and suffering from several pains that the intervening years have inflicted upon me, it is hard to believe that a quarter of my life has been devoted to maintaining this site.  I have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of blogs start up and fail during this time.  I've seen forums like wotmania go under, with successor sites failing to capture any of the energy and creativity of those early years of the 21st century.  I was blogging before Facebook and Twitter rose to dominate the then-nascent "social media."  I remember using MSN Messenger to keep in touch with friends and loved ones.  So much is dust, now.

I had contemplated making a series of posts reflecting the changes that had occurred here, but I became more and more depressed in glancing through the archives.  I saw glimpses of the arguments of the day:  should a blog's focus be on current or overlooked works?  Should we worry about the influence that publishers might have on us by sending us review copies?  Are posts depicting "book porn" or cover art frivolous, detracting from a blog's "true" purpose?

How strange those arguments back then, 5-7 years ago, compared to those of today!  This weekend, I was re-reading some of William Butler Yeats' poetry when I encountered these lines from "The Second Coming":

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Reflecting back, I feel as though this "ceremony of innocence," this writing about books and poems and stories real and imagined, as though all of this were just dandelion puffs floating away under the force of a cold wind.  Today, I review as many books as ever (I just finished my 100th review for 2014), but there is little discussion about specific books here or anywhere else these days.  Oh, there are discussions that have books as a tangent, discussions about authors and their socio-political views, some of which are perhaps worthy debates, but there really aren't places to discuss these specific stories.  If I'm lucky, there might be a couple of comments left here in a given month or maybe a handful of retweets on Twitter or Likes on Facebook, but there really isn't any conversation about literature that appeals to me.

In their place are discussions of matters that make me uncomfortable to discuss.  Not because I often disagree with the main ideas introduced by people I follow, because I don't, but rather because the way these ideas are presented are sometimes too strident for my academic-trained perspective.  It is a good thing to see a wider variety of people writing stories that touch upon their personal experiences, but sometimes I just want more of a discussion of those stories and less a denunciation of those who likely aren't going to listen to their views in the first place.  I am far from the best in a whole host of areas, but I seem to be lacking in the conviction that so many others have in their views being not just correct, but "right" ones.

It's hard being a dinosaur who has outlived his era.  I don't want to see if my words spark any lightning; I am failing to rage against the dying of the light.  There are days where I just want to retire to this little corner and write secretly, none reading my words, about a wide range of works.  I don't want to think about whether or not Author X or Critic Y has said something non-progressive about Topic Z.  At times, the arguments about identities, whether they be that of groups or of literary genres such as SF/F, divide without expanding the discussion to encompass a diversity of opinions.   I care, but there's also a frustration that I'm not aware of enough discussion of excellent books that exist in a variety of genres due to this focus on authors at the expense of analyzing their works.  With so many people being labeled as fools or worse, I wonder if those epithets could be applied to me for just being unready to commit at the drop of a hat to a cause or a position. 

Then again, there are still worlds to visit and to describe.  Maybe what's best is not to focus so much on matters outside of the realm of literature but to continue to accentuate what is enjoyable and delightful about the act of reading, about the power of poetry, about the music embedded in magical prose.  This is something that I fear I often fail to capture in my posts, but perhaps I am mistaken.  I shall endeavor to presume so and try to trudge on.  The OF Blog may now be 10 and it may no longer be oriented toward SF/F, but it is still a place of expression and hopefully a newer perspective will emerge that will make this a place where others can find discussions that they haven't discovered elsewhere.  In the meantime, I'll probably retire to being a voice crying in the wilderness, as surely some revelation is at hand.  But it's alright, ma, it's life and life only...

Rachel Pollack, The Child Eater

After dinner he was looking out of the window while he dried the dishes, and he noticed a pair of squirrels in the backyard.  There was nothing strange about them.  The place was full of squirrels, and chipmunks, and occasionally deer, but these were a grey and a red, like in the game, and they didn't dart back and forth, they just stood on their hind legs, facing each other, as if they were having a conversation.  'I'll be right back,' Jack said, and put down the towel.

Outside he didn't know what to do, so he just stood there and watched them.  It startled him when they appeared to watch him back.  They turned to stand side by side, and then they looked up at him.  Though he knew it was crazy to think these actual squirrels could have anything to do with the game, and almost as crazy to talk to them, he said, 'I'm sorry I can't seem to win.  To get you out of the maze.'  The squirrels looked at him.  'I'll keep trying.'  Then, feeling really dumb, and ashamed, as if he'd let down his dad in some way, he went back inside and finished drying the dishes. (pp. 19-20)

Rachel Pollack's latest novel, The Child Eater, is her first novel-length fiction since 2002.  It is an interesting novel in that it contains elements in common with portal fantasies, most especially a force that threatens two worlds, without there ever being an actual crossing over from one world to another.  It is a story of two boys, separated by time and dimensional space, who depend nonetheless on each other in order to defeat the eponymous "child eater" who has been terrorizing both worlds.

Pollack, in alternating chapters, focuses on the lives of two young boys, the wizard-to-be Matyas and a prescient boy on Earth named Simon Wisdom.  Utilizing elements from tarot, including the Tarot of Eternity, to construct her tale, Pollack weaves together Matyas and Simon's lives to create a fascinating tale of ambition and redemption.  The reader is first introduced to Matyas and we see him struggle to be admitted into training by the wizards.  We see his burning ambition, his desire to become powerful and famous.  In contrast, Simon is the product of a father who wishes to be normal and a mother who seems to be otherworldly.  At the time of the story, she has been gone for a decade, presumed dead.  Simon turns out to be prescient, able to read minds and to foretell the immediate future.  This alarms his father and Simon is urged to suppress these talents, despite Simon being well-liked and admired by his peers.

Yet one day, similar to what happened to his father Jack, Simon begins to see an odd squirrel pair, a grey and a red (uncertain if this is the American Red or the more commonly-known Eurasian Red Squirrel), and he has visions associated with suffering and the desire for release.  Meanwhile, Matyas finds himself drawing perilously close to a powerful wizard who has managed to hide his name from discovery, allowing him to indiscriminately prey upon young children and consume their souls.  Pollack does a good job in developing these parallel stories, as there were only a few rare occasions where one story would lag or become too focused on scene development at the expense of character growth.

The plot progresses steadily between these two stories, as Matyas and Simon each discover on their own clues toward the resolution of the mysteries confronting them (ultimately the Child Eater).  Pollack's use of tarot terminology at first was confusing to me, but after a few occurrences, the mysticism associated with tarot decks made better sense.  By novel's end, there is a resonance between Matyas and Simon's stories that goes beyond the similarities of their struggles.  Yet for me, the most fascinating thing about Pollack's novel is her choice of using squirrels as a medium between the two worlds that Matyas and Simon inhabit.  This is not merely because of my long-standing references to my favorite rodents, but because there truly is a surprising depth to the mystery surrounding these appearances by the grey and red squirrel that is not resolved until the concluding chapters.

The Child Eater is a hard novel to evaluate, because Pollack does several things well, but nothing is ever really outstanding.  The prose is adequate to the task, but there is little that is memorable about the dialogue or what the two protagonists reflect upon.  The characterizations are fine, yet ultimately the two act in familiar fashion for those familiar with tales of young protagonists battling a threatening evil.  Ultimately, if it were not for the squirrels, The Child Eater would be your typical run-of-the-mill portal fantasy, albeit a well-told one.  But there are those intriguing, mysterious squirrels and they helped me engage enough with the story until their mystery was also explained, making this tale an enjoyable experience.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Corrine Duyvis, Otherbound

In the world of the Dunelands, Amara was sleeping.

Striding through the Walgreens aisles, Nolan wished he could do the same—just curl up in bed, shut his eyes, see nothing but the insides of his eyelids.

No: see nothing but the insides of Amara’s eyelids. He hadn’t seen his own in years.

If he hurried, he could buy the notebooks and get home before Amara woke up. He stopped by the office supplies, adjusted his backpack, and hunted the shelves for the right kind: hard-backed, easy to stack, and with thick enough paper that his ink wouldn’t bleed through when his pen paused at the same spot too long.

“Can I help you find anything?” A perky salesclerk appeared to his right.

Nolan offered a smile. Not quite his teacher-smile, but close—he didn’t visit stores often enough to have a sales- clerk-smile. All these fluorescent lights and shoppers made him uneasy. If something happened in Amara’s world, he had nowhere here to hide. At least his school had bathrooms. Sometimes he even got to use a teacher’s office. When the disabled kid said he felt a seizure coming, teachers listened, if only out of fear that Dad would threaten to sue them again. (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

The first fantasies I remember reading, C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, were portal fantasies.  There was something about being a young child and being whisked away to a different world, with different rules, customs, and beings.  Oh to escape the tedium of fourth grade (on a very different note, Judy Blume was a godsend about that age) and the now-petty worries of pre-adolescence.  No parents, no bossy adults, nothing but the freedom to explore and to have adventures.  Yes, there is something very enticing about portal fantasies.

But what about those who in our too-real lives who do not have this freedom of movement?  Would there be perhaps an even greater appeal to go somewhere else, be someone else, be in a place where your real-world difference is mitigated or at least not castigated as it is here?  As a child, my interest in portal fantasies was selfish; I dreamed of places suitable for the likes of me.  As an adult, however, with decades of experience with children limited here due to their physical appearance and presumed capabilities, I have come to see the greater appeal that portal fantasies and their escapist qualities have for those who have viewed differently because of their ethnic origin, physical appearance, or socio-sexual attachments.  Therefore, when I read Dutch writer Corrine Duyvis's first YA novel, Otherbound, I was reminded at several points that there are children of all sorts and shapes who dream of traveling to somewhere magical, being the hero or heroine in a tale of their own.

Otherbound's premise is relatively straightforward:  a Nahua-descended American boy, Nolan, has discovered that whenever he has seizures, he enters into the mind of a young servant, Amara.  The opening chapter immediately makes it clear that this will not be a standard tale of a hero/heroine from afar entering through the portal to save the world in the fashion of great white hopes of countless tales.  Duyvis is very careful to avoid the tropes of that field:  communication, empathy, and cooperation are the core traits here.

The narrative does contain some touchstones for readers, especially in there being a nefarious enemy that threatens Amara's world of the Dunelands.  But what Duyvis does with this is establish that Amara is a very independent girl whose life, difficult as it is, is hers and hers alone to live.  We see, through her/Nolan's eyes her lovers, her bucking up against restrictive social confines, all things that have traditionally been muted or left out of most portal fantasies.  In addition, Nolan is not just an occasional escapee to another world; his often-difficult life is shown in great detail.  He is a tough yet sensitive individual, one who refuses to be defined by his two disabilities (he has had a foot amputated in addition to his seizures).  The two, after Amara recovers from the initial shock of realizing that she has been observed her entire life by Nolan, figure out a way to work together to defeat the evil threat.  There is no portal hero taking charge from the natives; Amara and Nolan's cooperation shows them to be equal in determination and in agency.

Duyvis narrates this tale with a clarity that is impressive for a debut novel.  The scenes flow together nicely and while certain elements may be overly familiar to certain readers, for those middle grades readers, say 10-13, the reading experience may prove to be magical.  Otherbound is also notable for its mixing in of "non-traditional" elements (non-binary gender, same-sex orientation, non-Caucasian protagonists, disabled individuals) in a fashion that feels organic and integral to the narrative without being too noticeable for being anything other than elements in a well-told tale.

Lily King, Euphoria

She rolled a pencil beneath her palm on the table and then she looked up at me.  'Helen and I were lovers,' she said.

'Ah.'  This explained a few things.

She laughed at my 'ah' and told me they had met during Nell's first anthropology class with Boas.  Helen, a decade older, was his graduate assistant.  Their connection was instant and though Helen was married with a house in White Plains, she stayed in the city many nights a week.  She had encouraged Nell to go and study the Kirakira, but wrote her angry letters accusing Nell of abandoning her.  They she surprised her by meeting the boat in Marseille with the news that she had left her husband.

'But you had met Fen.'

'I had met Men.  And it was awful.  Before Helen, I would have said that the desire to possess others is more male than female in our culture, but I think temperament comes into it.'  She tapped the pencil on our Grid.

'Was she bread to you?'

She shook her head slowly.  'People are always wine to me, never bread.'

'Maybe that's why you don't want to possess them.' (pp. 159-160, iPad iBooks e-edition)

When I began classes at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I had the vague notion that I might complete a minor in Anthropology.  Although I lacked a couple of classes of completing that by the time I graduated in 1996, I did enjoy the three classes that I did take in the field, especially the Cultural Anthropology class.  Of particular interest to me as a cultural historian trainee was the value and perils of ethnologies, or the studies of particular cultural groups.  One name that was repeatedly brought up was Margaret Mead and her pioneering work in New Guinea.  Even then, she was a very controversial character.  Her monographs on sexuality in New Guinea caused a firestorm of debate in early 20th century Anglo-American culture, where birth control could not be sent in the mail and the Comstock Laws were in full effect.  What is known of her own life, her loves and passions, were also equally the stuff of legend and disdain, even into the present time. 

In her first historical novel, acclaimed novelist Lily King takes a pivotal time in Mead's personal and professional lives, an expedition in early 1930s New Guinea with her second and future third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson (Fen and Bankson in the novel), and she fictionalizes accounts of that fateful expedition in order to highlight not just the tensions between the characters, but also between the three's Western perspectives and the cultural practices of the villagers they have been observing.  Mead/Nell's interactions are the driving force of King's narrative and the convoluted dynamics of their relationships makes for an intriguing, sometimes fascinating read, even for those who are somewhat familiar with Mead's personal life.

Euphoria is told via Bankson's PoV, punctuated with entries from Nell's journals.  It is an effective storytelling mode, as it allows for a contrast of the deeply personal with the more antiseptic, clinical approach associated with observation journals.  As the story shifts between these two poles, the reader manages to get a clearer impression of what is truly transpiring than if either one of the two narrative modes had dominated.  Yet there are times where there is a bit of a bleed-over, as Bankson's account of Nell's initial pregnancy during the expedition takes on an odd mixture of theoretical views of sex with personal disappointment of the lack of fruitfulness in his own relations with her:

I walked down the men's road.  A cluster of pigs were muscling each other for a scrap of food beneath one of the houses and making a racket.  There was very little light in the sky, but whether it was sunrise or dusk, I wasn't sure anymore.  I had been spun around by them.  I was seven hours away from my work, and had been for who knew how many days.  Nell was pregnant.  She and Fen had made a baby.  When I was with them it was easy to convince myself that she hadn't fully made her choice yet.  She played her part in that.  Her eyes burned into mine when I had an idea she liked.  She followed every word I said; she referred back.  When I had written down Martin's name on the graph she'd passed her finger over the letters.  I felt in some ways we'd had some sort of sex, sex of the mind, sex of ideas, sex of words, hundreds and thousands of words, while Fen slept or shat or disappeared.  But his kind of sex with her produced a baby.  Mine was useless. (p. 161)

The plot depends more upon character interactions than upon external events to drive the narrative.  The tension between the three anthropologists simmers before threatening to explode, making for a quick read for the majority of the time.  Yet there is more than just character tension developing within the narrative.  Nell's journals, focused more on the people through which the three move, refers back to the historical Mead's accounts of her time in New Guinea, replete with the then-shocking revelations about sexual relations and family-kinship connections.  Those brief entries serve as a counterpoint to Bankson's narrative, creating a multi-layered tale that works equally as a fictionalization of a key moment in a historical figure's life and as a social commentary on how Mead's views themselves perhaps have been superseded by subsequent ethnological research.  Although there are a few places where Euphoria perhaps plays up the romantic tensions a bit too much, weakening the overall narrative in the process, on the whole it is a very solid effort, one that will encourage its readers to learn just a little bit more about the extraordinary anthropologist who inspired it.

Niall Williams, History of the Rain

I know what that's like too, when the last thing you feel is the pinch in your arm and this might hurt just a little and you're off into the wherever depending on the length and breadth of your imagination.  My father has a whole section of his library just for this.  Here's Thomas Traherne (1637-74), poet, mystic, entering Paradise (Book 1,569, The Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey, Faber & Faber, London):  "The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped nor was ever sown...the dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold.  The Gates were at first the end of the world.  The green trees, when I saw them first through the gates, transported and ravished me... The men!  O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem!  Immortal Cherubims!  And the young men glittering and sparkling angels; and maids, strange and seraphic pieces of life and beauty!  Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were moving jewels.'

Paradise has actual gates? (pp. 31-32)

Forget Marx's observation that religion was the opiate of the masses.  For bibliophiles, the act of reading serves as a pallative, giving voice to our pains and providing, sometimes, a numbing agent for those pinpricks of the soul.  In Niall Williams' 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, History of the Rain, he explores the ways in which literature, both composed and collected, can communicate those awful little family secrets that mere conversations fail to do.  It is an interesting approach to the staid family history genre, albeit one that depends in part upon the reader's familiarity with the books referenced.

Nineteen-year-old Ruthie Swain is an invalid, confined now to her family's County Clare home, replete with thatched roof and lack of certain modern amenities.  Desperate to understand her family's history, especially that of her late father, a poet, Ruthie turns to his vast library of books in a search to understand not just the man her father was, but just how these thousands of volumes shaped him.  As she reads and narrates her thoughts on her family and their literary influences, the diary-like tone of certain passages gives way to amusing anecdotes grounded in the literature she is perusing:

That's how I see it anyway.  That's how I see it when I ask Mam 'How did you first meet Dad?' and each time she tells me the story of Not Meeting, of Passing by, and how it seems to me God was giving them every chance not to meet, and the singular nature of their characters will mean their stories will run parallel and never do a Flannery O'Connor.  Never converge. (p. 180)

Over the course of a few hundred pages, Ruthie discusses the known facts of her parents' lives, of her father's existence as a failed poet and even worse farmer; of her mother's exasperation in dealing with him; of the impossibly high standards that her father, Virgil, holds himself to; of how her twin brother Aeney drowns and how that affected her father and his attempts to write publishable poetry.  But most importantly, there is within the family notes and the scribbled margins of her father's books a reference to a poem, "History of the Rain," that might hold clues to understanding just how Ruthie's father came to be the enigma that he was for her.

Williams rarely tells the Swain family's history in linear fashion.  Instead, he favors a more elliptical approach, in which the volumes that Ruthie mentions contains clues to not just what happened in her parents' lives and why they were reluctant to share those moments with her, but also why her father tried his level best to become a poet.  This quest to understand familial past is not original, far from it, but Williams' use of literary references to a wide range of authors spanning the globe imbues the narrative with a secondary layer that enlivens it, making it feel fresher for its more universal approach to discussing the personal.

However, there are times where the dependence upon the literary perhaps goes too deep into the well.  Ruthie's copious references to literary works at times felt a bit too much, as though she were not a fully-fleshed human but instead a literary quote generator that could spout a phrase suitable for any and all emotional moods.  However, these moments thankfully are few in number and on the whole, Williams manages to integrate well the personal family history narrative with the use of literary references as a means of exploring the human condition.  As the narrative unfolds, Ruthie arrives at the conclusion that there is a price to becoming different from others, a toll exacted for those poetic souls who seek to go so deep into this earth that they are transformed by this search for understanding.  It is perhaps a little trite, but in light of the journey that Ruthie has narrated, it is a fitting one.  History of the Rain works best if viewed as a bibliophile's relation of human thought to the real world, connecting our sorrows with those narrated by others.  It may not be a perfect novel, but it is a very human tale, one that I enjoyed reading.


Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Something was happening inside Dorrigo Evans as he watched.  Here were three hundred men watching three men destroying a man whom they knew, and yet they did nothing.  And they would continue to watch and they would continue to do nothing.  Somehow, they had assented to what was happening, they were keeping time with the drumming, and Dorrigo was first among them, the one who had arrived too late and done too little and now somehow agreed with what was happening.  He did not understand how this had come to be, only that it had.

For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god.  It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal.  For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. (pp. 352-353 iPad iBooks e-edition)

As a young child, I was fascinated with the two World Wars.  I have two distinct memories related to this.  My father, a Vietnam War veteran, very occasionally would talk about what he experienced in that latter war, namely witnessing the torturing of a Viet Cong prisoner by Korean soldiers.  The other thing he would recollect was how a history professor of his had been in the Bataan Death March and how his harrowing stories of slave labor and brutal mistreatment by the Japanese affected him decades later.  These stories have shaped my images of warfare, especially in relation to PoWs, as being an excruciating series of terrors punctuated with witnesses (if not direct experience) of torture and depraved behavior.

In his 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Australian writer Richard Flanagan follows the lives of a group of Australian PoWs and their Japanese captors as they are charged with building the infamous Burma Railway.  This railroad, known also as the Death Railway for the tens of thousands of forced laborers' deaths during its construction, and its construction has been described in many novels and movies, mostly famously in Pierre Boulle's The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Boulle's account of the PoWs' experiences during the building of the infamous Bridge 277, however, does not accurately describe the sufferings experienced by the PoWs.  In contrast, Flanagan's novel devotes much of its space to covering these depravities in substantial detail.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, named after a haiku by a 17th century Japanese poet, is divided into five parts that chronicle the lives of several soldiers, most especially that of Dorrigo Evans, over the course of the twentieth century to the dawn of the twenty-first.  At first, the action is slow in developing, as the prewar lives of Evans and other PoV characters only barely hints at the transformations to occur after their capture and forced labor on the Burma Railway.  It is in the final three parts of the novel where the gradually building tension in the soldiers' lives blows up in spectacular ways.  As Evans, a medical doctor, is placed in charge of a thousand man detail, he daily has to confront the awful decisions of survival and death that he is forced to make.  He witnesses several brutal beatings, such as that quoted above, and these dehumanizing experiences change him and others around him, including some of his captors.

Flanagan asks a lot of his readers.  Not only are these sufferings outlined in sometimes graphic detail (the discovery of a man who had just died from amoebic dysentery being but one example), but just when it would seem that the Japanese and Korean soldiers had been built up to be cruel, inhuman monsters, he turns around and has several chapters in the crucial middle section told from their perspectives.  This, however, serves to create a larger dynamic here, that of how violence shapes lives.  In the final two sections, following the end of fighting, Flanagan shows these now ex-soldiers and how they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings.  The results are not always pretty, as denials and self-exculpations for what has transpired abound.  Violence continues to haunt these men, even as some struggle to justify their actions in order to prevent themselves from being condemned.

As noted above, The Narrow Road to the Deep North starts very slowly.  Although the character development established there eventually pays dividends, it was a very sluggish first couple of sections and it was not until nearly 200 pages into the novel that the story truly comes into its own.  However, the second half of the novel is so powerful in its treatment of violence and how these soldiers try to cope with what is happening to and around them that it more than makes up for the slow pace of the beginning sections.  Flanagan's prose is chilling at times, especially in his depictions of the punishments inflicted on the soldiers.  Even more than this, it is how he turns these graphic portrayals around and makes of them a commentary on the human condition that makes The Narrow Road to the Deep North a worthy nominee for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

 
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