Jeff VanderMeer is a fandom favorite as well as a critical darling. His work is in the Library of America, he’s won a World Fantasy award and he’s been nominated for a Nebula and another World Fantasy Award. VanderMeer is hailed as one of the best writers of the New Weird, along with China Miéville and K.J. Bishop. In fact, they kind of invented it. The movement blends horror with speculative fiction in a frequently very Lovecraftian way. According to Wikipedia, the movement ended in 2005. Not so, if you count his latest book Annihilation, the first of the Southern Reach trilogy. In a smart publishing deal, the entire trilogy will be released this year (May and September, respectively), recalling the serial novels of yore that helped create a wide readership for popular fiction. This reader is very happy with that decision.
Annihilation introduces us to Area X, a mysterious place where strange things happen. The unofficial official story is that an accident at a government testing site created Area X. A shadowy government agency, The Southern Reach, has been sending teams in to explore and document the area. Many of these expeditions have never returned, but those who do return radically changed. The expedition that we are privy to is composed of four women, known only as the psychologist (the leader of the expedition), the biologist (our narrator), the anthropologist, and the surveyor, who has military training. All of the women were specially selected, and have undergone rigorous training that has taught them everything and nothing about what they might encounter in Area X. Armed with few basic supplies and no advanced tech (and no tampons because women don’t get their periods anymore, apparently), the women cross the “border” into the unknown.
As expected, few things are what they seem in Area X and the group as such quickly disintegrates. This is hinted at on the first page, creating in large part a sense of dread in the reader that is more or less sustained throughout the rest of the novel. The dread is two-fold: we know something bad is going to happen, but there’s also the sense that there is something deeply unnatural about this place. There are several instances of the uncanny, felt by both the narrator and the reader on different levels. The reader feels the narrator’s experience of the uncanny, but the reader is granted their own experience as the realization dawns that we don’t really know who our narrator is and we therefor cannot trust her. Unreliable narrators are one of my favorite things in fiction and VanderMeer does it quite well.
It also exposes one of the narratives chief flaws. The narrator is a biologist with interpersonal issues, so her detached tone makes sense but by the time revelation occurs (and it does, to a degree), the reader is still too distant from her emotionally for it to carry much weight. We are detached from her because she is detached from herself and from the world around her, even as she is pulled deep into its mystery. It’s typical of the Lovecraftian brand of horror to privilege the world/cosmos and its unknowns over finely drawn human beings, but VanderMeer goes out of his way to include a back story to explain some of the narrator’s motivations and to try and give her emotional weight as a character. It was an odd tension for me, and added to my disappointment with the revelation and ending of the novel.
The book has a solid arc and a definitive ending that makes it feel as if it were a stand-alone while maintaing a high level of curiosity in the reader to ensure they buy the next book. Some, very few, of the questions raised by Area X were answered, while some were only hinted at. It felt much like the early seasons of Lost, in more ways than just tone, pacing and mystery. There are several similarities, but this is mostly straight Lovecraftian horror. It is a slow-building creep-show with glimpses of the uncanny, encounters with the sublime, and a high sense of dread. It’s exactly the kind of horror I love.
Look out for Authority, the second book of the Southern Reach trilogy on May 6th 2014 from FSG Originals.
Just a quick note to say that this blog is undergoing a bit of a redesign over the course of the next few days. Nothing too major, just a few tweaks here and there. Please excuse weird things happening in the mean time.
Paranormal-themed fiction is out of my general reading purview, but I came across Jaye Wells’ Dirty Magic on a list somewhere, and decided to get it from my library. I’m glad I did.
In Dirty Magic, beat cop Kate Prospero polices The Cauldron, an inner-city shit hole that plays host to potion addicts, their cookers (think Meth), and the three covens who control all of it. When a victim response call goes horribly wrong, Kate realizes there’s a new and deadly dirty potion on the street. Kate is a reformed cooker herself and plays it straight when it comes to magic; she doesn’t use it at all. While tracking down leads on the new potion, Kate becomes part of a special task force that could be her ticket off the beat, if she plays her cards right. Too bad her ex-boyfriend and coven mate is one of those cards. As Kate and the team get closer to the truth of the new dirty magic, she will have to confront her past and reconsider the vow she made to never do magic again. How much is she willing to compromise herself and her principals for in the name of justice?
This is NOT a paranormal romance novel, as I had thought it would be. I’m so little read in the paranormal-anything genre that I have no other books to compare this one to. But I can say that this is like NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, etc. (all shows with which I am quite familiar), but with magic. Wells herself has said that the idea for this came after watching the TV show The Wire. She also did quite a bit of research into cop life, which helps it sound a little more authentic. The book is highly readable, though there was quite a bit of straight explication at the beginning. The prose was otherwise straightforward and totally readable.
Kate is likewise a fully fleshed-out and sympathetic character. She is complex, and much of the internal drama is her having to balance her personal wants, needs, and principles against the wants and needs of those around her. She’s not a mary-sue, so she frequently messes up, with consequences. But Kate is tough and she always figures something out. I really appreciated that there was only the merest hint of romance in this novel–there are way more important things happening than what’s going on with Kate’s sex-life. It’s mentioned, of course, but it’s not the focus. Also not the focus is the sexism Kate faces working as a beat cop. It’s there, but it Wells doesn’t belabor the fact that it exists. Much more focus is given to the prejudice Kate faces as an Adept, a person capable of using magic, from the Mundanes around her who can’t.
Quite a bit of page space is given to addiction to magic or dirty potions, which are an obvious metaphors for drugs. I liked the use of the term “cooking” for dirty potion makers, because it highlights the connection to cooking drugs like Meth every single time; it kept me in mind of Breaking Bad. Fortunately, Wells doesn’t become preachy when talking about potion addiction. In fact, she goes in the opposite direction; soundbites. Her commentary on inner-city life, potion addiction and the Big Magic corporations that drive it sounds much more like media soundbites than actual critical commentary, even as she tries to show what addiction looks like from multiple angles.
But I don’t fault her for that. Ultimately this is light, snappy paranormal cop fiction and as such, it’s pretty good stuff. Wells used her clean magic to hook this reader, and I eagerly await the next installment in what promises to be a good series.
On the heels of figuring out my reading funk, my library hold of Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds finally came in and I rushed to jump on the Wending wagon of awesomeness.
Blackbirds introduces us to Miriam Black, a Girl with Issues living the roadie lifestyle. Number one issue: being able to see how people die. Number two issue: the firm belief that “Fate gets what Fate wants.” Things are trucking along fine for Miriam until she meets Louis, and sees herself somehow involved in his death. She gets about as far away from him as possible and in the process runs into issue number three: Ashley Gaynes. These three circle each other throughout the novel, bringing Miriam closer to a fate she doesn’t understand and wants desperately to prevent. But fate gets what fate wants.
For the most part, the novel moves the reader along at a nice snappy pace. The interview interludes stick out the most because while they give necessary background, they ultimately go nowhere and do not connect to the main plot thread at all. We have no idea when or where the interview takes place, so these interludes seem random. It feels like Wendig couldn’t figure out any other way to include important backstory, so he just stuck these in whenever he wanted to slow the plot/pace down a bit. This is the novel’s biggest flaw.
There’s also a few perspective shifts that can be quite jarring, mainly because there are so few. While the novel generally follows Miriam’s perspective of events, it’s important to note that it’s the author’s voice we are actually hearing. He doesn’t get close enough to Miriam to let her tell her own story. But where Bacigalupi fails in this respect (see previous post), Wendig does not. There is a lot of violence and some sex in this novel, but I never felt that he exploits Miriam the way Bacigalupi does with Emiko in The Windup Girl. I also deeply and sincerely appreciate that Wending does not rape Miriam in order to give her even more issues and that he gives her a fairly intense sexuality but does not punish her for it narratively. In this respect, Blackbirds was an excellent novel for me to read coming off such a reading funk. It showed me that a male author can write a female character who is a total badass with issues without making rape a necessary aspect of her character. Thank you, Chuck Wendig.
Wendig has fairly significant cult following, at least from what I’ve seen on the Great Interwebs. He’s a great blogger (all the 25 things posts are well worth reading) and a pretty prolific author as well. All the chatter and hype about the Miriam Black series set my expectations pretty high, but I was slightly underwhelmed by Blackbirds. It was a good story, but I’m not sure Miriam is compelling enough for me to want to come back to her. I would like to see how she got this ability, since it was only hinted at in the backstory. And I’m slightly curious to see what she’ll do with the new rules of it. Well, shit, maybe I’ll just have to put Mockingbird on my library hold list now.
Why do I read? I’ve never seriously asked myself this question. It’s always been something I just did. I did it because I was bored or because it was fun, because I liked to. Unlike Wendy Lesser, I’m not sure I can get a book-length answer to this question out of myself (but I will of course read hers). But I’ve recently had reason to ask myself this question and attempt to parse out a serious answer. I’ve come to a crisis in my reading habits. As a kid, I read because I wanted to. While in college as an English major (and then graduate English student), I read because I had to. I mentally separated the books I read for class and the books I read for fun; I thought critically about the former, but rarely the latter. I frequently enjoyed the books I read for school, but the distinction was necessary for me and it worked well for over a decade.
That clearly drawn line between what I read critically and what I read for fun has disappeared since leaving academia. I can’t help but read critically what I used to read for fun now, and it’s ruining my ability to simply enjoy a book.
I can no longer overlook sexism or racism or colonialism (to name just a few –isms) in the kind of books that I used to just escape into. The natural trick of compartmentalization allowed me to place the books I read for class in a mental box clearly labeled “Use your brain” and the books I read for fun in a box labeled “Turn critical brain off.” Since I wasn’t reading specifically for any –isms or –ists or post-whatevers with the book in the second box, I didn’t have to pay attention to any problematic elements and I could unequivocally label books like George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire “fun” and “really great” (which in several respects, they are). It also helped that I had worked in various bookstores for several years and had been trained to do so.
Leaving academia has broken down both boxes and all I am left with is the black hole of “Books to Read.” The merging of critical and fun reading has left me with a sense of betrayal so great that it has been over a month since I have read a book, any book. I haven’t experienced such a lull in a very long time.
Yet I have only betrayed myself. When I created those mental boxes and blithely sorted my reading habits into them, I betrayed myself by putting on a set of blinders that allowed me to ignore what I didn’t want to see in a given category. And what I didn’t want to see was that the books I read for fun had all of the same problems as the books I read critically. There is no utopia of reading where the problems of the real world don’t exist.
This was made glaringly obvious to me when I went to read Paolo Bacigalupi’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel, The Wind-up Girl. I’d read his two young adult novels and loved them; they are prime examples of teen dystopia done right. I was so exited to have finally found a used copy at my favorite bookstore. The Windup Girl starts off well-enough; the prose is a bit purple and a bit wordy, but I could deal with that. It was only the opening chapter, after all. The setting is foreign, but described well enough to immerse the reader. I glossed over the italicized, foreign words whose only function is usually to add a further layer of exotic realism, but which generally only alienates the reader. I was a bit bored with it, but I trucked along, waiting for the titular wind-up girl to make her appearance.
And boy did she ever. In general, I dislike rapes of female characters in books unless there’s a damn good reason for it to happen that is utterly germane to the story, and only then if it’s done in such a way that clearly shows the effects and consequences of rape for the victim and preferably the rapist. In other words, depictions of rape cannot in any way condone rape. Too often, rape or threat of rape in genre fiction is used as mere wallpaper for some sort of “historically-accurate” depiction of a medieval fantasy world (or futuristic alien society) as a way for a male character to grow personally because of this horrible thing that happened to someone else (see any given superhero comic book), or to provide a quick tragic background for a female character with issues (because rape or sexual abuse are the only tragic issues a woman can have, right?). But I have a real problem when we meet a female character just so that we can be witnesses to her rape, and especially when it’s described in the pornographic and loving detail of the male gaze (wikipedia that if you need to).
Emiko, the wind-up girl, is trotted out and given her own chapter just so that we can watch her be raped in order to understand that even though she’s a diminutive, Japanese-made sex-bot, built to be entirely subservient, she doesn’t really like what she is or what they do to her. In the course of her public rape by another female character wielding a jade cock in a men’s sex-club, her body betrays her mind and she has an orgasm, arched-back, nipples hard and all. We are given to understand that just because she comes doesn’t mean she likes being raped. I know that, victims of rape have always known that (even though they have been repeatedly been told otherwise), science knows that (now), and Bacigalupi certainly knows that.
But here’s the problem with what Bacigalupi does in this scene. The novel itself is already fairly Orientalist (and outright racist, according to some Thai readers) in its depiction of a future Thailand, which is known in the West primarily for its sex-trade. Emiko is likewise very stereotypically depicted. She’s a Japanese female with smooth, porcelain skin (due to her purposefully tiny pores, we are told over and over, though they also cause her to literally over-heat) who is diminutive, subservient, and a sexual object of Oriental/fetishistic fascination that simultaneously repulses other characters and stokes their desire.
As with the rest of the novel, the build-up to this scene is told from a close 3rd person perspective; it is Emiko’s voice we hear. She tells us that she doesn’t like or want what happens to her, that she feels humiliated by it, that she hates what she was made to be but can do nothing to change her response to it. She believes she is merely the product of her DNA and has no agency or power whatsoever. As readers, we are supposed to feel what she feels, to identify with her. We are supposed to see her rape as she sees it: as horrible and humiliating. Yet we can’t because when it comes to the rape itself, Bacigalupi wants us to enjoy it as much as the men in the book do, as spectacle:
Kannika indulges them with a building rhythm. The men sweat and watch and shout for more for the price of their admission. More men are holding her down, hands on her ankles and wrists, freeing Kannika for her abuse. Emiko writhes, her body shaking and jerking, twitching in the ways that the windups do, in the ways that Kannika excels at bringing out. The men laugh and comment on the freakish movements, the stutter-stop motions, flash-bulb strange. (38)
Just as the men are holding her down literally, we the readers are also holding her down with our gaze. Bacigalupi has forced us to do so by focusing solely on the external action of the scene and Emiko’s body, essentially taking away her voice. The scene continues, becoming even more focused on the audience and on Emiko’s body, and is told in even more pornographic detail:
Kannika’s fingers join the jade between Emiko’s legs, play at Emiko’s core. Emiko’s shame builds. Again she turns her face aside. Men are gathered around close, staring. More crowd behind, straining for a glimpse. Emiko moans. Kannika laughs, low and knowing. She says something to the men and increases her tempo. Her fingers play at Emiko’s folds. Emiko moans again as her body betrays her. She cries out. Arches. Her body performs just as it was designed—just as the scientists with their test tubes intended. She cannot control it no matter how much she despises it. The scientists will not allow her even this small disobedience. She comes.
The audience roars approval, laughing at the bizarre convulsions that orgasms wrings from her DNA. (38)
The description of this portion of the rape is told explicitly for the male gaze, which is partially what makes it pornographic. Use of words like “play,” (used twice) “core,” “moan” (also used twice) and “folds” are meant to excite, not terrify or condemn. Subsequently, Emiko’s shame and attempt to hide her face is only meant to excite the audience (and readers) even more. Her self-loathing is there at the mention of the scientists and their test tubes, but it is Bacigalupi’s voice, not Emiko’s, that tells us that she cannot control her response to rape no matter how much she despises it. It’s the narrative equivalent of a man telling a woman that she secretly wanted to be raped. The author’s voice and the reader’s gaze, which in this case is the male gaze, have eclipsed Emiko completely—she already had no agency and now she has no voice.
The argument that Bacigalupi is somehow critically commenting on this treatment of Emiko because she later overcomes what has been coded into her DNA (apparently her submissive, eager to please nature comes from Labrador DNA; he actually un-ironically says she is a dog) and finally gains some agency at the end of the novel is bullshit. As seen in the above passages, there is no narrative space for critical commentary; Bacigalupi takes that away when he negates Emiko’s voice in favor of the male gaze and by making his readers voyeuristically complicit in the rape through use of pornographic language meant to titillate and excite. Furthermore, indulging in a given thing in order to critique it is not actually critiquing it (for an excellent example of how this works, see Foz Meadows’ take-down of a Penny Arcade comic strip.
This kind of close reading was my bread and butter for over 10 years. And it broke my heart when it found its way into my so-called fun reading. I stopped reading The Windup Girl at the break immediately after this scene and I have been unable to pick it up except to do this close reading since. I’m not sure I can go back to it. But here is my dilemma; should I read things I don’t like in order to critically engage with them? Or is it okay to not read stuff that I don’t like?
You see I’m worried about another set of blinders now, the kind that allows me to automatically disengage with stuff that makes me uncomfortable or that I find problematic. I’m worried that in my reading habits, I’m starting to read only to confirm my worldview instead of challenge it, which goes against everything I’ve been trained to do. I’m worried about why I read.
There is a crossroads where reading critically and reading for pleasure meet, where they touch and can co-exist comfortably. Or perhaps it’s the end of a fork in the road, where the two paths become one. For the longest time, my goal in life was to write about literature in the tone of the academy, to critique it as my job and source of income (there would have been some teaching in there somewhere too). Had I gone that route, would reading for pleasure and reading for fun have remained separate, always running parallel to one another? I have no way to know.
What I do know is that I am on a single, wide road now, and that somehow I have to balance the critical with the fun. Or perhaps stop trying to separate them from one another in the first place. Am I really trying to tell myself that I didn’t have fun writing papers about the books I read in class or that literature professors don’t have fun engaging critically with what they read? I have been more engaged with two pages of text that made me feel icky, slimy and gross than I have by the last half-dozen books I have read. I haven’t been this nagged, this hounded by a book since I left school. The book bothered me, but it was only when I picked up the framework of the academy that I could articulate why. I also haven’t felt this good about my brain as I have writing this post in over a year; I’m clearly having fun here.
Ultimately, my dilemma is a false one, contrived entirely out of misplaced angst over why and how I read. There is a definite mentality found in academia that supports this false dilemma, which deserves its own consideration. But for right now, as I’ve written and thought through this post I’ve remembered that reading critically is fun for me, and realized that my little boxes were entirely arbitrary. Does this mean that I’ll pick up The Windup Girl again? The book was fairly boring, repetitive, and poorly executed anyway, so probably not, unless someone pays me to do it. There are only so many books one can read in a lifetime, and some are just more worthy than others (even if they did win a Hugo and a Nebula). Yet part of me wants to, just so I can dismantle it with the critical methods I spent most of my adult life learning. I don’t have to be in a university office to write a feminist critique, or to do close reading. All I need is a text and my brain. The answer to why I read is the same now as it was when I was seven: I read because I want to. This is the only answer that really matters.
Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl. Night Shade Books: San Francisco, 2009.