No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Friday, June 20, 2014

2014/19: Tigerman -- Nick Harkaway

He shouted ‘Stop!’ the way people do when something utterly awful is happening and will continue to happen whatever they say. There was no expectation that it would change anything, but it must be said. The human throat could not keep it inside. People said it to bombs and hurricanes and tsunamis and wildfires. The Sergeant had seen video footage, in 2001, of a woman standing on the street bellowing it at the Twin Towers. It never made any difference, and no one expected it to. It was the soul’s voice, in hell. [loc. 835]

Mancreu, a former British colony in the Arabian Sea which has earned the dubious privilege of being the first 'UNO-WHO Interventional Sacrifice Zone, a place so wretchedly polluted that it must be sterilised by fire'. The island is plagued by Discharge Clouds -- spawned by mutant bacteria and toxic waste -- that transform everything they touch, not necessarily for the better. The island's days are numbered; the inhabitants are Leaving (always capitalised) one by one; and in the bay, a 'strange zone of legal limbo' has drawn a mass of unaffiliated shipping, from casinos to floating torture facilities, known as the Black Fleet.

Britain's sole remaining representative in Mancreu is Lester Ferris, better-known as 'the Sergeant'. The Sergeant's job is to do nothing, and be seen to be doing it. His amiable oversight and laissez-faire attitude takes a hit when his friend Shola is gunned down in the bar. The Sergeant is determined -- with the help of his 'kid partner', known only as 'the boy' -- to bring Shola's murderers to justice. The boy is a comics fan, and perhaps it's simply his constant talk of superheroes and cultural icons that sparks the invention of Tigerman.

you were chosen by the tiger[...]! There is no justice, there’s just us! When it is necessary ...’ The boy waved his arms again, now in a gesture which was either movie kung fu or the tricky business of changing costumes in a phone box. ‘When it is necessary: Tigerman!’ [loc. 1366]

Tigerman's adventures (far from heroic) uncover some truly nasty business that's conducted on the island: but his encounter with Bad Jack, who's initially presented as a malicious supernatural being but turns out to be horribly real, is perhaps the most damaging.

It was interesting to read this novel with The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay still fresh in my mind. The comics / fandom culture of Tigerman is eighty years on from that of Kavalier and Clay, and thus more familiar to me: Harkaway peppers his novel with genre references (Hitch-Hiker's Guide, Captain America, Blade Runner, Space Invaders) and scenes that could come straight out of a comic. But there's deeper darker stuff going on here too: one of the themes this novel shares with Kavalier and Clay is that of the father. The Sergeant, having seen what becomes of refugees, would like to adopt the boy, but isn't sure whether the boy has living parents with a better claim. The relationship between the two -- weary soldier and exuberant child -- twists and morphs through the core of the novel.

Possibly that all sounds rather grim. Tigerman is also extremely funny, even when the humour is black as night: and when the boy's riffing on popular culture, there's a deceptively innocent enthusiasm that sparks from the page.
If Pippa Middleton and Megan Fox had announced their intention to marry during a live theatrical production of 50 Shades of Grey starring Benedict Cumberbatch, and then taken off their clothes to reveal their bodies tattooed with the text of the eighth Harry Potter novel, they might just have approached this level of frenzy. But probably not, the boy said, because not everyone liked Benedict Cumberbatch. If you asked the boy, personally, he would say that Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes possessed fractionally more win, although no one could replace Basil Rathbone because he was entirely the godhead. [loc. 4457]

2014/18: Indexing -- Seanan McGuire

Everyone thinks of them in terms of poisoned apples and glass coffins, and forgets that they represent girls who walked into dark forests and remade them into their own reflections. Worse, they forget that we’re still remaking those reflections. The whole “woodland creatures” thing is a relatively recent addition to the tale, borrowed from Disney and internalized by so many children that it has actually modified the narrative itself. Even as the narrative drives us, so do we drive it. [loc. 3473]

The premise of Indexing is simple. Narrative is a powerful force that enforces fairy-tale archetypes by playing out the stories over and over again. Anyone can be shaped into a character from a story: memetic incursions can mould a child into a Wicked Stepsister or a Goldilocks. The ATI Management Bureau is dedicated to tracking and containing the incursions, and it uses the Aarne-Thompson classification system to categorise the stories as they manifest.

So: our narrator, Henrietta Marchen (known as Henry), is a seven-oh-nine -- Snow White, and also the daughter of a Sleeping Beauty -- and looks the part. White skin, red lips, black hair: "like a modern-day interpretation of Death," she says wryly, in a nod to Gaiman's Sandman. She has never tasted an apple.

Henry's team members are Jeff, a shoemaker's elf who likes to keep busy; Sloane, a Wicked Stepsister who likes to be a glorious bitch; and Andy, who isn't on the ATI spectrum at all, but who discovered the Bureau after an uncontrolled four-ten (Sleeping Beauty) caused the death of his brother. Together they fight crime subvert the power of story.

Indexing was originally published as a Kindle Serial, and there's an episodic feel to early chapters: first a Snow White incursion, then a Pied Piper, then a Goldilocks ... However, the overall story arc of Indexing encompasses the whole book, and the denouement brings all the stories together in unexpected ways. I was especially taken by the Snow White / Rose Red subplot, which involves Henry's identical twin brother Gerry, and with the Cheshire Cat. (Psychotropic claws, naturally.)

Indexing is entertaining -- occasionally laugh-out-loud funny -- but it's also an interesting take on metafiction and the ways in which stories are shaped and warped by the culture in which they're told. I especially liked Sloane's determination to recast her own story: "Maybe some kid was already dreaming up a Cinderella remix with guerilla fighters in place of stepsisters, and she could tap into that sweet vein of potential story." [loc. 4555]

2014/17: The Golem and the Djinni -- Helene Wecker

"Everyone else walks differently at night than during the day. Have you noticed?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. “As though they’re fighting off sleep, or running away from it, even if they’re wide awake.”
“But not you,” he said. “You were lost, but you were walking as though the sun was high overhead.” [loc. 3320]

New York, 1899: a city that welcomes the huddled masses yearning to be free. Among the influx of immigrants are two exiles whose relationship with freedom is more complex than most.

The Djinni is a creature of fire and magic who has been imprisoned in a metal flask for the last millennium. Freed from the flask by a Syrian tinsmith -- though still bound in human form -- he adopts the name Ahmad and the profession of metal-worker: but this does not delight his mercurial spirit.

The Golem was created to be the perfect wife, but her husband died on the ship that was to bring them to their new life. Discovered by a kindly old Rabbi who suggests that she name herself Chava, she becomes a baker: this employment allows her to fulfil her primary function, which is to respond to the wishes of others.

Both pass for human, and both find partners: the Golem marries the Rabbi's idealistic nephew Michael, while the Djinni delights in seducing a young socialite who yearns for adventure. But the most important relationship each has is with the other. Neither needs to sleep, so they take long nocturnal walks together, debating theology and philosophy. The Djinni is tormented by his inability to recall the circumstances surrounding his capture, and by the magic that constrains him to his human form. The Golem is acutely aware of the danger she presents to others: she yearns for a master, finding freedom too terrifying a prospect.

Wecker presents a large cast of viewpoint characters, though the Golem and the Djinni remain the focus throughout. There's Saleh, a prosperous doctor in the old country until he encountered a very real case of possession, who's now a homeless ice-cream seller and can't look anyone in the eyes; there's the delightful Maryam Faddoul, who runs the coffeehouse that's the hub of Syrian social life in New York; there's the adventurous young heiress Sophia Winston, who is not the first woman to fall under the Djinni's spell; and there is the mysterious Joseph Schall, whose past holds secrets pertaining to both the Golem and the Djinni.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal: it reminded me, in places, of Helprin's A Winter's Tale. The two protagonists are a study in contrasts: male and female, fire and earth, liberty and duty, old world and new. They also share a well-founded distrust of (and fascination with) the humans they encounter: and both are bound by the need to conceal their true natures.

2014/16: The 10PM Question -- Kate De Goldi

“You’ve got to admire the technical skill,” said Uncle George, looking down at it too. “The precision really is magnificent. And then, it’s render unto Caesar—” “Okay, okay,” said Frankie. The Fat Controller had left a perfectly cleaned rat kidney and one complete rat eyeball. Her best work yet, Frankie noted with one part of his mind, even as he shuddered at the revoltingness of it. The kidney was a deep red-black, tiny and delicate as a semi-precious stone. It had the look of something licked to a high polish. [loc. 1593]

Set in a small South Island town in New Zealand, The 10PM Question is the story of 12-year-old Frankie. Frankie lives with his mother, his Uncle George, his older sister Gordana, and the Fat Controller (who is the family cat). He spends his time worrying: whether the batteries in the smoke alarm need changing; whether he really does have 'excessive female hormones' as his sister suggests; 'whether blowing a sustained forte passage on the trombone might accidentally trigger a brain haemorrhage'; whether his maths ability is on par for his age. But underneath it all, he is determinedly not worrying about the most important thing: why his mother Francie hasn't left the house for years. Every night at 10 p.m. Frankie goes into his mother's bedroom and asks her about his latest anxiety. Some of her answers are insightful; some are simply amusing.

Into Frankie's small, anxious world bursts new girl Sydney, a blithe extrovert who is curious about Frankie's home life. Sydney's approach to life makes Frankie question his own: and Sydney's questions frame Frankie as a person with answers, which helps to balance his own world view. And, as it turns out, Frankie isn't the only one with a problem parent.

This was an unexpectedly lovely read: some gorgeous lyrical writing, some extremely funny scenes, and an utterly credible protagonist. Frankie's 12 going on 50: his mind leaps from topic to topic in that disconnected way of pre-teens, but underlying it all there's a grinding sense of his burden of responsibility. The 10PM Question deals sensitively with mental health issues and doesn't pretend there are easy answers. (I was so glad the novel didn't end with a miraculous recovery or cure for Francie!) I'll look out for more by De Goldi.

2014/15: Soon I Will be Invincible -- Austin Grossman

When life gives you lemons you squeeze them, hard. Make invisible ink. Make an acid poison. Fling it in their eyes. [loc. 693]

Doctor Impossible, victim of a freak science accident, has tried to conquer the world twelve times and counting. At the start of the novel, he is incarcerated in a ridiculously high-security prison, reflecting on his achievements to date and fine-tuning his latest plan for world domination (and invincibility).

Meanwhile, the Champions -- a semi-retired bunch of media-savvy superheroes -- are welcoming a new recruit, Fatale. Terribly injured in a random accident, Fatale was recreated as a cyborg by a mysterious company called Protheon. She dreams about assembler code and wonders why she hasn't heard from Protheon in a while.

Doctor Impossible's latest plan for world domination is as grandiose as ever: but the Champions have another problem. Who killed Corefire, the mightiest of them all? And has Lily -- a woman of glass from the 35th century, once Doctor Impossible's lover -- truly switched sides?

I enjoyed this novel on a number of levels. It's an entertaining riff on superhero tropes (the supervillain island lair, the convoluted origin stories, the improbable science, the overprotective parents); there are sly references to real-world comics canon (Doctor Impossible's therapist is 'Steve, a sad-eyed Rogerian' [loc. 179]); Doctor Impossible himself is the uber-nerd, the sullen teenager eating lunch in the corner on his own, the revenge fantasy of everyone who's ever been shunned by the popular kids. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of Soon I Will Be Invincible is that all the superpowered characters, heroes or villains, have mental health issues. (Though not all of these are what they first appear: Damsel's not bulimic, she's half-alien.) Grossman explores the notion that great power can stem from damage, that it can be a survival mechanism. 'There's a fine line between a superpower and a chronic medical condition.' [loc. 2085]

It's become a cliche to focus on the people behind the masks, but Grossman never loses sight of the human stories that underlie the larger-than-life, technicolour conflicts of heroes and villains. The Champions regularly slip up and use real names, rather than coded identities: Fatale nurses a helpless crush on Blackwolf: Doctor Impossible still wonders whether he ever really had a chance with his old schoolmate Erika.

There are some flaws in this book, and in its content. The characters' voices -- apart from Fatale and Doctor Impossible, dual narrators -- aren't especially distinct: at times they feel two-dimensional. There's a lot of backstory that's hinted at just enough to distract. And, content-wise, there are way too many typos. Unfortunately, it's the kind of book (or I'm the kind of reader) where you look for a pattern, a coded message, in the omitted letters.

No message found: so I'll stick with the metaphor of heroes as survivors.

When you can't bear something but it goes on anyway, the person who survives isn't you anymore; you've changed and become someone else, a new person, the one who did bear it after all.[loc. 1938]

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

2014/14: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay -- Michael Chabon

In later years, holding forth to an interviewer or to an audience of aging fans at a comic book convention, Sam Clay liked to declare, apropos of his and Joe Kavalier's greatest creation, that back when he was a boy, sealed and hog-tied inside the airtight vessel known as Brooklyn, New York, he had been haunted by dreams of Harry Houdini. "To me, Clark Kent in a phone booth and Houdini in a packing crate, they were one and the same thing... It was never just a question of escape. It was also a question of transformation." [p. 1]

I've owned this novel, in paperback, since about 2003. When I first tried to read it, I couldn't connect: I neither knew nor cared about the early years of the American comics industry, or the superhero phenomenon, or the Comics Code.

Fast-forward a decade or so, past Iron Man and Avengers and the Coursera Comic Books and Graphic Novels course and the mainstreaming of comics culture ... and suddenly, yes, the time is right for me to read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Sam Clay is a first-generation New Yorker, fascinated by comics and by science, scraping a living as an illustrator for a novelty products company. One October night in 1939, his cousin Josef Kavalier turns up: Joe's come from Prague, fleeing the rise of Nazism. A student of magic and escapology, Joe's own escape to America riffs on the story of the Golem of Prague. And when he and Sam get together and start talking about comics, they quickly come up with the idea of a superhero of their own: the Escapist.

The Escapist, 'Champion of Freedom', is reminiscent of Captain America, of Batman, of the Scarlet Pimpernel: he's violently anti-fascist (why, yes, he does punch Hitler) and works with the League of the Golden Chain to free the oppressed and imprisoned. In parallel, Joe uses his (paltry) earnings from the comic to fund travel for refugee Jewish children. His aim is to bring his young brother to America, but this ends tragically, and Joe enlists with the hope of fighting Nazis hand-to-hand. This does not work out as he planned.

Meanwhile, Sam (increasingly successful as a comics artist) is wrestling with relationships of his own. He's gay (illegal at the time) and his sexuality blossoms in a brief, glorious affair with the star of the Escapist radio series and movie, but ultimately Sam opts for the safety of marriage. Though it's not actually as simple as that.

A theme that permeates The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is father-son relationships. Chabon's response to Wertham's Comics Code -- which suggests that superheroes such as Batman have paedophilic relationships with their teenage sidekicks -- is that Robin, Bucky etc are looking not for sex but for father-figures. Joe and Sam both have complex relationships with their fathers; Joe's relationship with his own son (who he didn't know existed for many years) triggers resolution and reunites the eponymous pair.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a sprawling novel that eventually resolves all its characters and themes. It's occasionally very funny; more often, sad. I'm glad I didn't attempt to power through it before I was ready: I'm glad I still owned my copy when the time was right to read it.