Readings: The Vanished Birds, Trust

These are both books where the story is fractured among narrators who lead wildly different lives in different worlds. The narrators have very different voices and different understandings of the world; their readings of it are contradictory, even adversarial. Both stories are indirectly warped by the considerable gravity of a singular, intense, and unusual connection between two people that runs through most of the book and determines events.

In The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez, that relationship is between Nia, the self-assured captain, and Ahro, the magical orphan boy with Gully Foyle teleportation powers. Nia and Ahro learn to trust each other even though trust does not come naturally or easily to either of them. The book is most fundamentally about this connection, and to explore it, the book cheerfully explodes most of the tropes it sets up. The original Firefly-ish crew, the first found family, quickly abandons ship when asked to take unreasonable risks; the second found-family crew disintegrates in betrayal and violence. The special boy’s special powers—as in The Stars My Destination—represent a freedom beyond all constraint, which prove wonderfully useless for heroic purposes: he is captured, dehumanized, dissected while still alive, converted into an industrial asset, and put to work powering corporate innovations in cheap space travel. There is no heroic rescue, either, only a lifetime of exploitation. The book mildly relents in allowing a final escape at the very end so that Ahro might, perhaps, die in Nia’s arms. I resented this final reunion at first, because it seemed like a sop to that very sentimentality that the book spends so much energy in demolishing, being altogether too close to the stock twee space opera ending of flying off into the sunset, the core of the found family still intact.

But then I thought, perhaps it would have been too grim, to let them die apart. The story does, after all, describe a galaxy very recognizable in its ugliness, where the third world is now many worlds kept poor and indebted by capital, harvested of their resources. Nia is a minor agent of capital just as Ahro is an asset, neither of them ever having much say or even thought in the matter: their lives are simply overtaken by powers and events. This is a story against heroism and complacency, but it does not deny the power or value of human connection, even if that connection is most often tenuous or fleeting. The value of relationships is determined by the persistence of those who relate: neither Nia nor Ahro gives up on the other despite having every reason to despair, and so perhaps it is only right that they get to meet once more in the ruins of their lives.

Such a final meeting is explicitly denied in Trust by Domenico Starnone, translated by Jhumpa Lahiri, a denial toward which the whole book builds and seems inevitable only in retrospect (I was expecting a confrontation of some sort.) The core relationship here that between Pietro and Teresa. Where Nia and Ahro had a straightforwardly mother-son relationship that developed in strength over the years and whose consistency holds them together while they are apart, the relationship between Pietro and Teresa is more treacherous, more fluid. They begin as teacher and student, then lovers in their twenties, and finally, keepers of each other’s most terrible secrets. As ex-lovers with marriages and lovers and lives of their own, they remain uneasy correspondents, entering into what they call—Pietro and Teresa each accuse the other of coming up with the idea—an ethical marriage, a connection made purely of mutually assured destruction.

Pietro, deeply insecure despite his talents (like Ahro, he is singularly blessed, though his power is the uncanny charisma with which he seduces everyone he encounters) and successes in life, struggles to think of himself as a good person in his own right: does he do the right thing only because he fears that Teresa will punish him by revealing his secret to the world if he strays? Is he good only because he fears to be revealed as contemptible? In this way he does not cheat on his wife or abandon his children, nor does he become politically corrupt or make enemies in society, and so this book, too, explodes the tropes of its genre. Pietro still lives in unacknowledged terror of Teresa his whole life, even though, she tells us airily, she has long since forgotten those old secrets. Even at the end, as a lionized old man, he cannot bring himself to face her a final time at a ceremony in which she is to give a speech in his honour. Even in their seventies, he fears what she might say, how even nearing the ends of their long full lives, she might (and here, offhandedly, she seems to suggest to us that she still could, that she still really might) retroactively undo him with a word.

Readings: Point Omega, Experimental Film

Two books organized around films: in Don Delillo’s Point Omega the film in question is Hitchcock’s Psycho, as experienced through an art installation that apparently did exist, Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, which plays the film in extreme slow motion, two frames per second, so that the entire film lasts a full day. It being a literary novel, the fascinating frame story of the possibly aspirational murderer watching the film is rudely interrupted by a long dry visit to the desert, where an aspiring filmmaker attempts to persuade an ageing neocon intellectual to unburden himself of any secret guilts he may harbour over having supported America’s post-9/11 invasions both as a writer and as a kind of consultant to the military, a maker of useful fictions. The old man feels no guilt, secure in a cocoon of pretentious bullshit, until his beloved daughter (the daughter is a cipher and manic pixie, whose purpose is to be the sole object of her father’s uncritical adoration and the vaguely erotic yearnings of both the narrator-filmmaker and the Psycho-watching psycho) vanishes suddenly, and he is brought low by personal grief where culpability for atrocity could not reach. This is a short book that still manages to make its meat taste a little belaboured—though not as much as the dead horse that was The Silence—but the Psycho-obsessed exoskeleton is fascinating as a reading of Gordon’s installation. The desert bullshit sessions are interesting in the sense that any asshole old man’s ranting is interesting if you listen to it in slow motion, in the way it constantly betrays and subverts itself; the pointed reversal of de Chardin’s omega point to gesture in a vaguely Ligottian direction is the best of it.

In Experimental Film by Gemma Files, the (fictional) films in question are the works of an early twentieth century filmmaker named Iris Whitcomb, a series of short films iterating through increasingly symbolic dramatizations of a Wendish folktale. It being a horror novel, of course the folktale and the malevolent figure at its heart are real, and the plot devolves at the end into a race against time to stop it from getting out &c., which was rather disappointing because all the rest of the book is deeply fascinating—the narrator’s chronic pains in body and motherhood, her spiky, difficult relationship with Canadian film as an industry and a history, her slightly grimy ambitions, and the dynamic with her own mother, all wonderfully realized. For some reason, in both books I particularly enjoyed reading characters watching and reacting to films, probably much more so than I would enjoy watching those films myself. There is a great fascination in watching a watcher—something DeLillo’s Psycho-watcher does almost as much as he watches the film, observing and commenting on every other viewer who comes by. There’s an art installation that must be negotiated in Experimental Film, too: the narrator has to run the gauntlet of an entirely dark, claustrophobic space where the only cues are auditory, but the sensory deprivation, as one of the tortures that DeLillo’s neocon uncle romanticizes at length, forces a crossover between the art installation itself and the hallucinatory disruptions that might equally come from the narrator’s migraines or her hauntings.

Readings: Outline, The Silence

So far this year I’ve read more literary fiction than genre. This will probably shortly cease to be true, so the end of January is about the last chance to say that. I am of course even more poorly read in litfic than I am in genre, so this is me cheerfully blundering into quite well-known semi-recent books having never heard of them before.

The Silence by Don DeLillo: this was my first DeLillo, and I think fairly obviously that was a mistake. It’s beautifully written, in a heavily stylized, theatrical way—people declaim at each other in extended paragraphs, nobody talks like a normal person, there is a great deal of (intentional) uncertainty about what exactly is happening, except that it is obviously some sort of shallow apocalypse discernible only when all the phones and screens &c. suddenly go dead, which is indeed what the apocalypse will look like when it finally reaches the living rooms of upper-class New York. The living room in question here includes a most relatable uncle who just wants to watch the cricket and begins grumpily imagining/hallucinating/fantasizing the game in the absence of broadcast. As a story about apocalypse and human disconnection, this is a hat so old that it’s entirely worn through, like a tiktok joke that has already passed through the long and short intestines of twitter and facebook and has now reached the sphincter of being an anonymous whatsapp forward. Perhaps this is what late style is, and if so, my takeaway is that I should instead go back and find the early style.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline is a novel in stories, with a frame story thicker than most—I love this as a structure, and have in fact written one in it (my still-untitled second novel, at present tentatively scheduled for 2024)—and I was startled, on googling this book, to discover that many critics at the time represented this as a groundbreaking, form-busting innovation for some reason. (The reason appears to be that Cusk was previously known for highly interior, confessional novels, and after a cancellation for being too open about motherhood and its travails, opted to write a novel in which the narrator’s interior is entirely implicit, only hinted at in the echoes of the stories she listens to. Which is a wonderful comeback, but that’s not the same thing.) Cusk herself gave interviews declaring that character was dead now, and so on, which at least is straightforward book promo. But I enjoy a good novel in stories, and this is a very good one, fast-moving and yet delving deep into some lusciously developed characters. And I must remember, when my book comes out, that declaring things dead is good press.

Readings: Ring and Song for the Unraveling of the World

Prompted by being reminded of the wonderfully terrifying film, I read its original source, Koji Suzuki’s 1991 novel Ring, for the first time, in the translation by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley. The book is quite different from the film in many ways, but I watched Ringu in perhaps 1999, at a friend’s house—I still remember how jumpy I was going home later that night—and while memory has faded most of the details of the latter, I remember the film as a more straightforward ghost story, with the climax focusing heavily on Sadako as a figure of fear, coming out of the screen to chase Hiroyuki Sanada around the room.

The book is unsettling in its own way, but more complicatedly so; that now-iconic climactic scene is absent, for instance, and there is a great deal more focus on virality and infection than haunting per se, which only increases with the next novel, Spiral. The fusion of a vengeful psychic with a mutant smallpox virus reflects the genrefeel of the novels, which is in parts as much sfnal/medical thriller as horror, not to mention murder mystery, especially in the early chapter where Asakawa writes down the details of the first four teen victims on cards as a plot recap/part of the investigative process of revisiting information.

(In sff this is decried as rank asyouknowbobbery but it’s been a useful device in crime: I associate it most strongly with Jeffery Deaver because it was used so prominently in the Lincoln Rhyme novels, but I feel like it’s been around for ages. I most recently saw it, I think, in Roseanna by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated by Lois Roth, and that’s from 1965 (same year as Dune!) where one investigator sums up the case for the other in writing partway through the book, helpfully rehashing all the details for the reader along the way.)

Another notable difference between Ring the novel and Ringu the film is in the contents of the cursed videotape itself. As a film-within-a-film, it’s much shorter and more eerie. In the book, it’s quite a long video, going on for almost precisely 20 minutes (we know this because the book version of the Hiroyuki Sanada character breaks it down scene by scene in a neat little table) which would have been a substantial chunk of the film if they’d reproduced it in full—about a fifth of it.

Brian Evenson’s 2019 short story collection Song for the Unraveling of the World is in this post because (a) I read it recently and (b) it’s bookended by two stories that evoked Ring for me (more the film than the book, since I read this one before reading Suzuki—and actually, the Evenson collection features several stories about films and filmmaking, and the monstrousnesses thereof.) The last story in the collection, “Lather of Flies,” is about a cursed film, if of a slightly different type: here, the cult filmmaker is the spider in the web gathering unwary film students to feed on them. I didn’t particularly like this story. Evenson is very hit or miss for me, especially in his more elaborately plotted stories. As with “Lather of Flies,” I often just find them overdone. But when an Evenson story does land for me, it lands very powerfully, and it’s usually the shorter stories with a vivid core image—for example, one of my favourite Evenson stories is the titular story from A Collapse of Horses, for this very specific image:

Imagine this: Walking through the countryside one day, you come across a paddock. Lying there on their sides, in the dust, unnaturally still, are four horses. All four are prone, with no horses standing. They do not breathe and do not, as far as you can see, move. They are, to all appearances, dead. And yet, on the edge of the paddock, not twenty yards distant, a man fills their trough with water.

In Song for the Unraveling of the World, for me the very first story, “No Matter Which Way We Turned,” was by far the strongest and most unsettling, for all that it is also probably the shortest—less than five hundred words, I estimate, which means this quote is about a fifth of it.

No matter which way we turned the girl, she didn’t have a face. There was hair in front and hair in the back—only saying which was the front and which was the back was impossible. […] She just kept turning in circles, walking backward and knocking into things, trying to grab things with the backs of her hands. She was a whole girl made of two half girls, but wrongly made, of two of the same halves.

The reason this story works, despite its extreme abbreviation, is because it achieves the sense of movement that any short story must have in order to feel complete, and it does this by simply positing—not even depicting, but only imagining—the opposite girl, equally wrongly made, but the other way around.

One layer of appeal in this category of horror, I feel, is less in the other-ing of the horrific figure, but in identifying with them. We each know too well how we are wrongly made, just how much of our lives has been spent stumbling and knocking into things: the claustrophobia of failure and alienation in which we are enwrapped. (An image that’s difficult to not be reminded of here: the teenage Sibilla from Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift, spinning and stopping, being wrapped in a choking sarcophagus of her own hair, uncanny, eroticized, and monstrous.)

Sadako is a thorough deconstruction of a familiar power fantasy—as seen in, e.g., Charlie from King’s Firestarter, which similarly features a girl born with extraordinary abilities and persecuted for it, but which ends on an upbeat note of righteous vengeance and holds out the hope of redemption for the world as well for Charlie. Sadako’s vengeance is unrighteous and misdirected: the man who attacked and killed her remains unharmed at the end of the book, apart from a minor embarrassment, and her targets, in increasing numbers via infection, are randomly chosen, with no end in sight to her unraveling hauntpox pandemic.

Readings: Sweet Days of Discipline, Catherine House, and Mexican Gothic

This is, of course, a “depressed young women in gothic horror houses” triptych. Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Tim Parks, is set in a mountain boarding school of the 1950s, with a narrator obsessed with the new girl, Frédérique.

Frédérique took my hands and said: “You’ve got an old woman’s hands.” Hers were cold. She looked at the backs of my hands: you could count the veins and the bones. She turned them over: they were shrivelled up. I can hardly describe how proud I was to hear what for me was a compliment. That day, on the stairs, I knew she was attracted to me. They really were an old woman’s hands, they were bony. Frédérique’s hands were broad, thick, square, like a boy’s. Both of us wore signet rings on our little fingers. You might imagine that we found physical pleasure in touching each other like this. As she touched my hand and I felt hers, cold, our contact was so anatomical that the thought of flesh or sensuality eluded us. That winter I bought myself a loose pullover and hid my body. My old woman’s hands were all the more obvious.

Sweet Days of Discipline

The book is wintry, severe in both its asceticisms and affections, and full of madness and death. Frédérique is the one who has mastered discipline as a form of unassailable contempt, for her teachers, her peers, and the world at large. Later she will commune with the dead and attempt matricide: a creature of perfect order, ticking less like a clock and more like the other thing that ticks.

Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas is set in a tiny, highly prestigious, very weird experimental university—“a postsecondary school more selective than any Ivy League”—that isolates its students from the outside world, severely restricting outside contact and banning access to mass media. It’s set in the 90s (though it’s not quite our 90s, it turns out, but a world being radically altered by the discovery of a substance called plasm, research into which is the source of Catherine House’s prestige and wealth) which also helps with the isolation, given the lack of cellphones and internet. Ines, the narrator, is using that isolation to hide from trauma and possible criminality in the outside world, but she is so profoundly depressed she can barely study enough to keep herself in school, even though her life may depend on it: she drifts in a haze of parties and sex until something happens to her roommate Baby, who Ines casually designated her new best friend on their first day. Unlike with Frédérique, whose narrator became obsessed with her on sight, Ines only becomes obsessed after the irrevocable has already happened. This book has my favourite ending of the three: after everything, it is a real wrench to hear footsteps where they shouldn’t be.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic is, like Sweet Days of Discipline, set in the 1950s, and, like Catherine House, its setting is both severely isolated and literally maddening. Noemí is there to rescue her cousin Catalina from her monstrous marriage and loathsome in-laws. The house is haunted, of course, dank and fungal, and Catalina sickened by it, her paranoias both fantastical and accurate. The contagion is the most invasive in this book: where with Frédérique it’s within her, and where in Catherine House it is hidden, mediated by plasm and invocation and secret laboratories, Noemí and Catalina are submerged in it, breathing it in, dressing for dinner with abomination.

Readings: Piranesi, All The Beautiful Sinners, and The All-Consuming World

This selection of readings has a common theme: major characters who have been brainwashed into acting against their own interests, remade into something else, something useful to a manipulative other. It seems apropos, given that this is life as we collectively live it. In these books, though, the brainwashing and the manipulation are intensely interpersonal rather than the apparatuses of mass social indoctrination. In Cassandra Khaw’s The All-Consuming World, this is a transformation is engineered and sustained with chemistry and conditioning, which is to say, love in everything but love. Maya may be a pit of bottomless rage and violence but she’s in love with two people at once—the one who pushes her buttons and the one she thinks she doesn’t deserve—and helpless before either of them. This is a book of jagged edges, with an off-kilter style. It’s a heist, but it ends before a heist would. It’s a last stand but it ends at the threshold of climactic violence. And it’s a love triangle that gets resolved as part of someone else’s plot, which seems unsatisfying at first, but it also feels like a fittingly unceremonious end for a master manipulator, to be simply shunted aside by a more effective one playing for bigger stakes.

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi lives in a quiet, almost-deserted, perhaps-endless house with a sea in it. A journalist is gaslit to the point of total amnesia by his target, and transformed into a native informant of a world uninhabitable by anyone who wants to keep their self intact. The mystery gets a little too filled in, perhaps, by the neatness of the ending; this is one book where I wanted the mysteries of world and identity to remain unresolved. As we return to the mundane, the dreamlike beauty of the unending house fades, but there is a last-minute return of the otherworldly, too, as if it were a horror film trading in just a slightly different flavour of dread, where we see that there are not two worlds, but only one. Like Piranesi, we too are creatures of forgetting, or worse, never knowing about the world’s other face, the one which sees us as we are.

Both of those are violent remoldings of the self, but in All The Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones it’s even more primal than perverted desire or the dreadful secrets of being, which is to say, this is a book about monstrous parenting. Not only is Amos stolen as a child by a serial killer and brought up to be one, but he is renamed and reraced to better fit into his terrible parent’s vision. The near-complete erasure of who he once was is more total than that of even Piranesi, who at least gets to come back. Piranesi becomes innocent through his remaking, by scraping away most of his self and learning empathy by taking care of the long dead. Amos’s rebellion, ultimately, happens in the same way, in his need to rescue and return his father-kidnapper’s long-dead child victims. He can’t help but see them as alive, even as he hauls their corpses through the narrative, because that would mean it was still not too late. Of course, it is.

Readings: My Sweet Girl & Crossmatch

I read a lot of crime but I’d not particularly paid attention to Sri Lankan crime fiction until recently. I’m not sure what could be said to constitute it, really, in English-language novels—there’s that Ondaatje novel I haven’t read, maybe Shehan Karunatilaka? Meanwhile, googling this unfortunate question has led me to a white British writer who visited Sri Lanka in 2015 and promptly decided to write a colonial murder mystery series set in 1930s Ceylon and is now some eight books deep into this … thing. I shall do them the great and unearned courtesy of not speaking of this further.

Carmel Miranda’s Crossmatch is the most recent Gratiaen Prize winner—Visakesa Chandrasekaram (whose science fiction novel I must write about sometime) read a poem by Ahnaf Jazeem at the online ceremony, which I appreciated. I don’t generally read in that Gratiaen-y space (being somewhat removed from Sri Lankan literary culture) but I was intrigued that this seemed to be a straight-up genre novel. And in fact it’s two mysteries at once: the first, which works reasonably well, where a medical student, through a combination of happenstance and curiosity, uncovers a very middle-class conspiracy of black market organ trafficking; and the second a rather off-the-shelf scaffolding of confused parentage and overly foreshadowed secret baby swapping, which it could have rather done without. The strength of the book is in the fascinating window into med student life in Colombo, and in its willingness to be precise about the damaged human body. I wish it had leaned more into the body horror that it might have aspired to, and less into the soap opera of whose child is which.

As an entertaining counterpoint, the question of whose-child-is-which is also the main engine of Amanda Jayatissa’s My Sweet Girl , but here, at least, is a story with a clearer grasp of its own nature, which is to say, the book is not shy about its horror, with doppelgangers, creepy children, infinitely creepier adults, the dual terrors of orphanage and adoption, a classic Mohini haunting and a gothic mad attic wife situation to boot. The orphanage setting in particular is beautifully ominous, and I enjoyed the code-switching between San Francisco and Ratmalana Englishes. The adult narrator is delightfully awful, just a huge dick and in no way an ingénue, and for me this compensates for the mystery being not all that mysterious. If I wanted something more from this one, it was for a slower, denser prose that spent more time on its many horrors. But ultimately, what this is is a slasher, and it’s paced like one. Having recently attended the Stephen Graham Jones school of Final Girl appreciation, I enjoyed the one we got here quite a lot, even after having seen it coming.

Readings: The Space Between Worlds, My Heart Is A Chainsaw, Minor Detail

I have not had the brain to write full-length essays or reviews but I have been reading a lot this year, so I thought I’d try writing about books briefly (and therefore, one hopes, posting a little more frequently.)

I didn’t expect Micaiah Johnson’s The Space Between Worlds to turn into a parallel worlds soap opera when I started it, but I suppose that is the nature of parallel worlds: evil twins and doppelgangers for everyone! I enjoyed this. The multiverse felt vast, but the individual worlds feel small and claustrophobically contained. The damaged narrator oblivious to being loved is a trope I’m fond of, and there are, conveniently, just enough moving parts between all available worlds for a neat resolution.

My Heart is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones is, of course, great. An SGJ binge this year has recalibrated my hitherto meh feelings on the slasher as a genre and made me want to go back and fill in the vast gaps in my viewing of the canon (I’ve seen, like, some Friday the 13ths and an Elm Street or two …? Nobody tell SGJ.) This one does feel like familiar ground, in that it’s basically The Last Final Girl as seen through Demon Theory, but without that screenplay-ish narrative device, which probably makes it more accessible to people who are not big nerds (I loved the screenplayish thing obv.) But Chainsaw also feels more polished and much more accessible to the slasher newbie, since the narrator’s homework assignments are a neat way of filling in the lore for those of us who have not done our own homework.

Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail is brief, lovely, and devastating. As you might expect, it’s incredibly good at the details, and the shift in style between the two halves works wonderfully: the first half is the crime of the past, recounted in an almost fable-like fashion, and the second half is about the crime that is the present, which its nervous, boundary-crossing narrator manages to almost make sound normal for a while, so much so that the ending doesn’t feel predictable (in the sense of dull), even though it is (in the sense of inevitable and narratively necessary.) It’s not surprising, but it is painful, and perhaps even sudden, which ought to have been impossible.