My latest book review, for the website Contemporary Japanese Literature, is of Keigo Higashino’s problematic mystery novel, Under the Midnight Sun. Click the cover to read my critique.
Colin Dayan does a rare thing at the crossroads of humanism and animalism by treating each as a reflection of the other. She engages the malleability of either tropism, stepping over the stalemated kings of corporeal and moral rights—which too often shunt their pawns to better enjoy the sound of their own echoes—and into a philosophical realm for which all life partakes equally of vulnerability. Such a project will not sit well with some readers. Neither is it meant to, for the uneasiness brought to life, and death, across the book’s 208 pages is a necessary encounter. In this respect, Dayan is the closest we have to a torchbearer of Vicki Hearne, whose classic Adam’s Task: Calling Animals by Name comes readily and repeatedly to mind as I read this worthy successor.
In her introduction, too, Dayan sidesteps convention by doing very little of the encapsulations to which academics are encouraged to accede. Rather, she sets up a fledged narrative through a call to action that is harder than it looks. In asking us to do nothing more than sit on the equals sign of the equation between Self and Other she is so artfully devising, she invites a “radical change in perspective: not only in how we see the world but also in how we read a story” (p. xiii). And so, while for her this is a book of tales, it is also a tale unto itself, an entity whose parts share ligaments with too many of our own to pass off as intellectual navel-gazing.
On the surface of Dayan’s theory-planet, dogs would seem to occupy a range of metaphorical terrains. They are, by virtue of variation, at once bridges between opposing states of sentience and being, bearers of revelation, personal property, “non-human persons,” and, in the most sweeping of Hearne-isms, language incarnate. Closer inspection, however, reveals these as more than cloak-and-dagger tricks of a talented wordsmith, but instead as markers of lived realities. For this reason, Dayan is far more interested in the “oscillation between the categories that bind” (p. xiv) than in the binding of oscillation into categories, and in destabilization of human positionality as the capstone of a worldview pyramid. She outs the project of judgment as one of collective privilege, reveals the empathetic precedent of ethical action, and the power of “mutual discomfort” (p. 110) to bring all into a truer sense of community.
From this emerges a tripartite concerto for canine soloists fronting an orchestra of conundrums. Part I, “Like a Dog,” is that concerto’s Allegro, and as such sifts passionately yet accessibly through autobiographical recollections of dogs living and non. “We are living in a time of extinctions,” she observes (p. 2), a central point she takes care to reiterate in the book’s EPK, and one which points to the harsh truths unraveling therefrom. And not only a time of extinctions, but of killings sanctioned by a society bent on devaluing dogs and other animals to the status of criminals.
Dayan reminds a missing piece in recent national conversations around police brutality: treatment of racialized humans as animals walks hand in hand with treatment of animals as racialized humans, and allows an indulgence of taboos normally relegated to the annals of private exploitation. And so, a discussion of pit bulls banned from low-income housing in New York City, for instance, not only discloses the absurdity of fears around specified breeds, but also sobers us to the sheer publicity of blatant discriminations and our acceptance of their ubiquity. While most, I think, can see that racial typing often revolves around the animalization of designated groups of human beings, forgotten is the humanization of designated species of animals. Which is why Dayan recognizes the all-too-common shootings of pit bulls as a national habit or, more viscerally, “a ritual that reminds citizens of the reach of lawful predation” (p. 9). It is with these dynamics in mind that she thinks back to the earliest dogs in her life, the necessity of their warm-blooded bodies against her own. An especially poignant discovery of a childhood photograph reminds her of a dog she never remembered, and whose anchorage draws light through the prism of this book as a magnet would iron filings.
In continued service of my musical analogy, I would characterize Part II, “When Law Comes to Visit,” as the central Largo. For while its rhythms might seem more furious and jagged, its carefully measured effect suggests the ponderousness of that very time signature. Here dogs unfold as sociopolitical animals, each subject to fatal blows of the law. Hypocrisies abound in such stories as that of Floyd Boudreaux, a breeder of American pit bull terriers who was erroneously accused of being a dog fighting kingpin and, once deemed as such, had to suffer the extermination of his entire line. By such acts, the warmongering tendencies of the state become a primary network in which worthiness of life comes to be determined (only the moral elite can kill dogs without being deemed cruel). Regardless of the motivations, be they financial or political, the fact is that the law legitimizes imagined threats and sanctifies animal exterminations through illusions of compassion (Boudreaux’s dogs were being done a favor, as the script goes, by being removed from danger to others and themselves). Pit bulls in this regard suffer the particular brunt of an historical amnesia in the United States, and have become the unfortunate collateral of stigmatization.
Part III, “Pariah Dogs,” is the concluding Vivace. In it, Dayan explores the expendability and vitality in kind of cinematic dogs, who on the one hand serve as mascots of loss, while on the other burst with so much awareness of things that it is all we can do to match their levels of understanding. “The fullness of a dog’s loyalty or commitment,” Dayan avers, “can be understood only as counter to the merely intellectual acceptance of a doctrine” (p. 159), and as such the dog comes to embody an unattainable state, so that “to position oneself in this way, even if tenuously, both inside and outside a human background, is to let our bond with dogs count for something momentous” (p. 162). So yes, Dayan has invited us to sit alongside her, with dogs, at the edge of life, but also to contemplate what happens when those same dogs are pushed off that edge. And where would they exist in our memories if not for brave writers like her to document their receding gaze with such honest fortitude?
And because the bricks of such a book might topple without the mortar of its personal experiences, I can’t help but end with one of my own, remembering a dog I met on the streets of Beijing who responded to constant harassment from local shop owners with a heaving sigh. I think of this image when Dayan writes, “Dogs have infinite patience” (p. 144), reading into those darkly set eyes nothing less than that very patience, which sees through my camera lens and into the heart of the one cradling it like the relic it will one day become.
In his 2013 monograph, The Wind from Vulture Peak: The Buddhification of Japanese Waka in the Heian Period, Stephen D. Miller takes readers on a cordial walk through a transition in Japan’s flourishing Heian period (794-1185), when poetry of the imperial court, known as waka, welcomed Buddhist concepts into its folds. Miller’s central argument—that, approaching and inclusive of the twelfth century, Japanese wordsmiths incorporated conspicuous Buddhist principles into the composition of their waka—may be easy to understand in theory, but requires just the sort of meticulous analysis Miller brings to his interpretations of said poetry, and the social cycles of which it came to be a part, to see with clarity.
While noble poet Fujiwara no Shunzei (1114-1204) is, in existing scholarship, upheld as a pioneer of this devotional sea change, Miller finds him representing a “culmination” of interdisciplinary motivations dating back as far as the Nara period (710-784). The uniqueness of waka as a venue for such a turn lies in the fact that it was (stereo)typically associated with love (or, more often, lack thereof), seasonal aesthetics, and nature, and that it seems as unlikely a conduit as any for the soteriological—that is, salvation-oriented—thrust of Buddhist doctrine. The eternity of enlightenment beckons in stark contrast to the fleeting secularism of orthodox waka. At the same time, Miller goes to great lengths to, in his words, “look carefully at the kinds of poems Japanese poets considered Buddhist—or compiled in such ways as to become Buddhist—as a means of elucidating how the Japanese came to regard the waka as holding salvific power” (p. 4). The em-dashed point is an important one, as it affirms the power of narrative infused into poetry by the very act of compilation, by which new interrelationships may be teased from the very suggestion of their correlation.
When continental Buddhism was introduced to Japan in 538, it existed apart from any sort of poetic tradition on the archipelago, and would not combine with it until five centuries later. It was only gradually that worlds of religious and courtly life expanded as two lungs in the same poetic chest. Yet religious poems, Miller avers, have spiritual and social origins, and as such must be taken in their wider contexts, whenever known. Even in absence of clear evidence, the sequencing of poems may reveal just as much about the intentions behind their creation. Poetry thus becomes something of a divine force in and of itself, at once ecumenical in its regard for earthly things and doctrinally specific to its intended audience. Indeed, if spiritual development can be a vehicle for poetry, so can poetry be a vehicle for spiritual development.
All of the above is easily grasped from Miller’s robust introduction, the meatiest of the book’s courses. What follows it is a deep reading of the Buddhist poems, translated in collaboration with poet Patrick Donnelly, from five major imperial anthologies. In chapter two, Miller explores the notion of what defines Buddhist poetry, and makes a clear distinction between that which can be called overtly Buddhist (shakkyō-ka) and that worthier of the euphemism “Buddhistic.” The last of his anthologies of interest is therefore most significant, for it is the first to contain a book dedicated entirely to shakkyō-ka. Miller cites a constellation of factors behind this evolution, notably the increasing overlap between certain Buddhist institutions and the imperial court itself, and in the use of poetry by monks and their acolytes as an active tool of devotion.
Chapter three holds a magnifying glass to the Shūishū of 1005-1007, in which Buddhist-inflected versification reads with less religiosity than later counterparts, even as it retains a salvific tinge. Still, what these poems may lack in contemplation they make up for in their combination of the social (read: material) and the unsocial (read: abstract), resulting in what Miller calls “religio-literary artifact[s]” (p. 119). One of my favorite exchanges (pp. 96-97), in fact, appears in the same Shūishū, wherein Ōnakatomi no Yoshinobu sends the following elegiac poem to an anonymous nun:
the “I” who grieves
thought I was the only one
to put on black—
but did you too
give your back
to a world of hurt?
Her reply switches out some of Yoshinobu’s spice for her own:
“to put on black”
may seem different—
but believe me:
we wear that color
Though the above exchange might seem vague in comparison to future developments in Buddhist poetry, Miller validates the foundational nature of their appearance in the Shūishū.
The Goshūishū is the subject of chapter 4, where the term shakkyō-ka warrants formal application, due to the nineteen poems’ sub-categorical designation as such in the 1086 anthology. Miller again sets the stage by connecting the collection to a number of social and political catalysts, not least of all the rising importance of mappō (the Latter Days of the Law), a period in which the teachings of the historical Buddha were seen to be under threat by human perversion. The Goshūishū further distinguishes itself by engaging sūtras, as opposed to the social gleanings prevalent in the Shūishū. Even these seem preparatory for the larger hit of Buddhist poetry in the Kin’yōshū of 1127 and subsequent drop in the Shikashū (ca. 1151), both the subjects of chapter 5. That the relevant poems in the Kin’yōshū are not explicitly tagged as Buddhist, relegated instead to a miscellany at the end, lends them a certain mystical quality.
All of these sentiments and more come to a head in the Senzaishū of 1187, the backdrop of which shimmers in all its turbulence and uncertainty in chapter 6 before yielding its poetic morsels in chapter 7, in which Miller unpacks the shakkyō-ka therefrom. In this case, blatantly scriptural examples are more prevalent, and play out in chronological order.
Historical rigor aside, Vulture Peak offers an inimitable reading experience in the form of its delectable translations. Miller and Donnelly, as they do in life, make a formidable team, and the combination of their forces allows an indulgence rarely attainable in the translation of classical Japanese poetry. Their efforts won them the 2015-2016 Japan-US Friendship Commission Prize, and deservedly so. (So enjoyable are their renderings that even those with little to no interest in the stratagems of academic writing would do well to have this book on their shelves if they should profess any interest in poetic form.) In light of their accomplishment, holding theirs against any number of other eminent translations feels like parsing diamonds from cubic zirconia: to most they are equally captivating, but upon further inspection by trained eyes reveal different balances of occlusion and preciousness. Take, for instance, the following poem by Sei Shōnagon (of Pillow Book fame) from the Senzaishū:
having come this far
to find the real
do you think I’d run
back to the sad world
and toss away the blessing
dew on this lotus
Compare this to R. Keller Kimbrough’s version, as it appears in his book Preachers, Poets, Women, and the Way: Izumi Shikibu and the Buddhist Literature of Medieval Japan:
Beckon as you may,
the dew has come to rest
upon the lotus.
So how could I return
to this world of sorrow?
It would not be fair to say that one is “better” than the other, as this would discount the mental energies expended in the creation of either, but the sheer embodiment of the former sets it apart. It is no longer just a translation, but a viable poetic entity in and of itself, circulating its own life force, beyond the constraints of time. And it’s not only the poems but Miller’s pacing of them, both visually and philosophically, throughout the book that reveals a compiler’s instinct in himself.
For these very reasons, one needn’t identify as Buddhist or even be interested in Buddhism as a way of life in order to appreciate the subtlety of his analytical timeline. For while his chosen waka might very well be read as embodying the Buddhist michi or “way,” they also are a path unto themselves, molecules that exist only to be digested through the mind and squeezed into single neutrons by the heart’s tender beating. Words are forgotten only so that they might be remembered, each a stepping-stone toward detachment, as best expressed in the following poem by Priest Kenshō:
when I ladled the valley water—
spent a thousand years
becoming my friends—
only my reflection?
And who are we if not Kenshō, scooping up the universe in a cup, only to watch it evaporate into the empty air like so much breath?
In her 2016 novel, All the Birds in the Sky, Charlie Jane Anders explores relationships between humans, nature, and machines, along with the allegiances and deceptions dotting their radar screens. Toward unwrapping the narrative candies hidden within this grab bag, Anders lures us into the worlds of two very different, yet complementary, child protagonists. Patricia Delfine—described at one point as both an “antisocial weirdo” and someone with “unlimited gentleness for people when they needed it”—is a solitary girl whose attempts at saving a wounded bird awaken magical abilities she never knew she had. This encounter allows not only Patricia the discovery of a gift; it allows Anders the indulgence of wordcraft, as when Patricia cradles her charge in a plastic bucket:
Rays of the afternoon sun came at the bucket horizontally, bathing the bird in red light so it looked radioactive.
Not unlike the light through said bucket, Anders imbues nearly every page with color. Her attention to atmospheric integrity ensures that a certain degree of adhesion keeps the reader attached to even the most mundane scenes (of which there are but few). The prodigious Laurence Armstead, for his part, is developing an interest in computers and coding. His first achievement is a wrist-worn time machine that jumps forward all of two seconds, allowing him to briefly “leave reality behind and reappear for the aftermath.” A small comfort for an insular soul.
In middle school, Patricia feels the call of witch-hood. Her mutation, if you will, tugs her by the heart into a relationship no crystal ball could have foreseen when she runs into Laurence at school—literally—and breaks his time machine. In the process, she cracks open an eternity of possible futures. Patricia is intrigued by Laurence because he can actually affect the physical world around him with his machines, leaving her feeling helpless to do anything with the kinesis locked inside her.
Meanwhile, an assassin by the Biblically inflected name of Theodolphus Rose has had a vision of a man and woman inciting a war between science and magic. A pariah among his own kind for killing children, he has no compunctions posing as Patricia and Laurence’s guidance counselor in a morbid quest for peace. Where Laurence controls nature, Patricia must serve it, and the oil and water of their end goals stands to challenge every character at the molecular level, so that Rose must wage war within himself in order to achieve his own. Variations in abilities between the two protagonists reveal the destructive potential of their combination, as a budding romance threatens to activate much more than hormonal explosions.
Within this triangle, hero(in)es and nemeses comingle in familiar ways, even as they detour off well-worn paths of expectation. While Patricia is for all intents a witch, going so far as to treat the new family kitten as her familiar (sort of), she must grapple with the surety of being an outsider in a layperson’s world. The difficulties of self-imagining make Patricia a primary target of Rose’s schemes. He confides full knowledge of her inherency and assures her that Laurence must die by her hand if the world is to be saved from certain doom.
The narrative sky spread before the reader from this point onward grows to be about as populated as the book’s cover, which only hints at the many inspirations seeping into Anders’s timely fable. “I actually ended up not thinking of it so much as a genre mash-up,” she tells me in an e-mail interview:
“That was the idea early on, but the more I worked on it, the more I thought of it as a relationship story in which magic and science represent two different ways of looking at the world. A lot of the absurdism drew on Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. The biggest influence, however, was probably Doris Lessing, whose 1960s and 1970s novels combine some really biting examinations of human nature and relationships with bold uses of speculative ideas.”
The author’s jigsaw solution to this trove of witting and unwitting influence was to focus on characters, letting the world of the novel reveal itself through them. The matter-of-factness with which she depicts the story’s fantasy elements—magical and technological alike—is one of its fluent charms, and was of utmost importance to get just right:
“I was determined to make the magic feel grounded, like something with its own history and logic, which could exist in our world. Something that felt real to the characters, not something to be winked about. And the science had to be ‘mad science,’ but still connected to real science enough to feel plausible. So I spent a lot of time thinking about the history of magic in my world, and also talking to scientists about the various bits of science in the story.”
To that end, Anders went to great lengths—if not also widths and depths—to ensure that even those things we already know about humanity may be just as confounding. When, for instance, Laurence has an internal dialogue about whether to believe Patricia’s admissions of witchcraft, he concludes that, in a world in which the slam of puberty is universal, something like witchcraft might not be so farfetched after all.
As fate works its twisted smile into the foreground, life drives a wedge between Patricia and Laurence, and that wedge bears the name of Rose. Our erstwhile counselor has convinced the boy’s parents that he needs military school, and his relocation to that very place breeds some of Laurence’s most artful discontent. These developments get us into the novel’s most fantastical element of all: the fact that no one in any position of authority is willing to hear the children’s side of the story. This, too, points to fabulist inclinations:
“To some extent, this was just how the story made sense to me. I saw this as a story of two people who are misunderstood as children, and then grow into their respective abilities and find where they really belong. A big part of the structure of the book, with childhood followed by adulthood, was to show how the ‘coming of age’ story never really ends. And I wanted to capture that thing where you spend your childhood thinking that once you’re an adult, you can be around other people like yourself and find the place where you belong, and everything will be perfect—but once you’re a grown-up, even if you get to be surrounded by people who understand you, you still have huge problems. So I guess their childhoods needed to put them through some real darkness—and that darkness also forces them to come into their power and discover their abilities. And I guess a lot of the absurdism in the book comes from looking at the ugly side of human nature—a few people have compared the childhood sections to Roald Dahl, and I definitely think he was an influence.”
As Patricia herself tells Laurence years later, “My life plan involves never understanding my parents,” and from this we glean that lack of communication goes both ways. The effect is such that she must look beyond social hierarchies into intimate simulacra thereof. When we meet up with our couple-in-denial as adults, she is living as a hippie in San Francisco, working odd jobs to make ends meet. (A magic academy degree, it seems, is about as useful as a Bachelor’s to those less enchanted.) Happening to meet Laurence at a party, she encounters a man with something of a superhero complex, one who strives toward singularity of humans and machines. Patricia is jealous of Laurence for flaunting his talents, while she must hide her own, discreetly healing the sick and cursing criminals as she does away from the prying eyes of her colleagues.
Patricia is the reader’s link to an even grander vision of the story, by which one can see that gentrification is killing nature, and that magic is manifesting itself as a natural defense against unwanted intervention. Which makes the spark between our lovelorn duo all the more manic. It’s clear they need each other more than ever, even if it means ending humanity. In one amusing sequence, Laurence accidentally sends an associate’s girlfriend into another dimension and must rely on Patricia’s magic to mend his error. “Probably the most frustrating aspect,” says Anders of such scenes, “was trying to get the tone right—the humor was way too much in parts of the book, and I had to keep dialing it back so the characters could come across. The most gratifying thing was when I felt like I succeeded—after like 30 rewrites on a particular scene—in making the humor serve the characters rather than the other way around. Not that I’m claiming I nailed that all the way through, but I at least groped my way to an understanding of how I wanted that to work.”
But it really does work, because humor functions in the novel as a salve against trauma. It’s with this in mind that one can hardly reach the end of All the Birds in the Sky without feeling moved by its crazy-beautiful optimism. “I definitely wanted the novel to end with an optimistic feeling,” Anders admits. She goes on:
“Especially after all that darkness and those moments of absurdism. I never want to lecture the reader, or force-feed a particular idea or theme to anyone, but at the same time, I am a big believer in intentionality—so I thought endlessly about the meeting of magic and science, and what those things say about nature and technology. My biggest hope for the ending was that it would feel earned, but my second biggest hope was that this could be one of those books that leaves people with something to think about. Not answers, but questions. I hoped.”
That said, Anders has provided a simple yet profound answer to one of those lingering questions: It’s not that love is the greatest magic, but that the greatest magic is love.
China Miéville may be a pioneer among writers of the New Weird, but his latest, This Census-Taker, recasts the genre as more of the Old Familiar. Miéville’s oddities, intricate as they are, would be nothing without their consensus origins, and these he draws from a well of mythological tropism as dry as it is deep. In this instance, however, we cannot attribute askew narrative moments to weirdness for its own sake, tending as they do to the novella’s central theme.
About that theme there can be no mistake as the first sentences jump into your retinas: “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. The boy was I.” Said boy, anonymous and writing now as an adult, insists his father killed his mother. Or was it the other way around? At first he can’t be sure and must piece together the flow of events barely consummated in order to convince the stunned townsfolk of his witness. Though his interruption may wound their drab landscape — a rural outpost, likewise unnamed — he paints the town as a place un-locatable on any maps but the ones readers unfurl with hands of expectation. As if torn from the pages of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, it’s a place that loses touch with security the higher it is off the ground. Wherever and whenever it exists, it is a postwar bastion of antebellum ways, whispering magic through its abundance of “weather-watchers and hermits and witches,” and where electricity is a luxury relegated to occasional use of generators.
The boy unloads his shock before strangers, thus lighting a fuse that burns to a dud. This is, I think, what Miéville wants. The point of this story is to have none. Not that he fails to mark his narrative trail with landmarks along the way, each of which facilitates informed conclusions about denouement. We know the boy is an “uphiller,” a derogatory term used by those below in reference to those who live above; that his home is a desolate one, nestled in hilly rock, where his main contacts are with the local feral animal population; and that his mother’s death has permanently stained his domestic comfort zone, despite the father’s best efforts to wipe its horrors away. In light of the murder, imagined though it might be, we must therefore take the inside flap’s press language, which promises “a poignant and riveting exploration of memory and identity,” with caution. Memory is vital to its telling, but would wither in the absence of trauma. It is not an exploration but a reconstruction of memory, riveting only in the sense of fastening together disparate pasts into a coherent mental overlay.
Of his memory we have so little that it ceases to matter. He remembers his mother as a beautiful, if weather-beaten, caregiver who allowed her son to figure out much of life on his own. But the current of his recollection is shored up by memories of father, whose reputable problem-solving meets the needs of his customers by means of a mystery craft. The meticulousness of his work says much about his lack thereof in childrearing. The boy is rarely alone with his father, more often watching, concealed by horror, as the paternal figure kills a dog from the local hills, if for no other reason than the thrill of it — thereby revealing a binary theme of animality that is intimately linked with the mother’s disappearance. Patriarchal control of the family sphere is part and parcel of pastoralism, and while theirs isn’t an agrarian economy, an abundance of wildlife — some innocuous, some threatening — nevertheless creeps in on all sides like a gang of potential fatalities in the flesh.
Physical elements achieve symbolic realism in the story. A derelict bridge, for one, runs through the center of the town and weighs not transport but squatter dwellings overrun by orphaned children. The trees, for another, constitute a living, architectural force that shapes the town as much as its everyday activities. Yet the most vital aspect of the boy’s life is the dump-hole into which his father drops their trash and, presumably, the occasional prey. When the eponymous census-taker arrives at last to take stock of the father’s past, to know where everyone stands in the wake of an alluded war, he asks to see the hole in question. He spelunks into it, emerges with no explanation of its depths, and adopts the boy as his intern. Miéville’s commitment to ambiguity is in solidarity with his protagonist’s own. His victim narrative matters above all as a navigation of the past, putting enough boards over the hole in his personal cave to avoid joining the pile of corpses his father has left behind.
That Miéville falls into the common authorial trap of (animal) killing for mere sake of human character development could be a detriment in other contexts but here deems the narrator worthy of his impressions. Trauma memories are filed differently from other memories in the brain, their access as much a question of kind as degree. Over time, these memories become an ongoing mechanism of survival. And so, expressive violence indicates the father’s own traumas, remainders of the elusive war. Which is why, in an effort to feel connected to nature again, the narrator’s memories of mother find her gardening and cooking, and those of his father in the delivery of animal fatalities, because the boy yearns for some connection to the landscape never otherwise encouraged.
The narrator’s occasional switch between first and second person indicates a corporeal disconnect. In order to combat fear of embodiment, he turns trauma into a tool. Census-taking is an ideal vocation for such a one. It requires categorization by letters and numbers, each person fitting neatly into an indexical spectrum of judgment. It gives him the illusion of control — writing, after all, under guard in a modern city — over his mortality. Where his father has cultivated loss into an abscess of violence, the grown boy protects the emptiness within, an emptiness born of pacifism, at all costs. The novella’s title — note This, not The — is therefore more than accusatory, even if it is a direct quote from an angered father losing his emotional battles, for one may further interpret the title as a self-referencing mechanism on the narrator’s part, a way of seeing the ending in the beginning. Intrigue thus proliferates around the novella’s inarticulate center, not unlike that persistent hole: the core truth he cannot ever grasp by purchase of remembrance. The reason we are not gifted with its secrets is because they are not ours to own.
Distinguishing autobiographical bleed-through on any author’s fictional canvas can be a tricky business. In the case of Patricia Ward, it’s impossible to ignore. Her first novel, The Bullet Collection, followed two sisters through war-torn Beirut, where Ward herself grew up during a period of civil unrest. Her second, Skinner Luce, a full-fledged SFF parable, operates within a likeminded trauma spectrum. Here’s a story where alienation is a precondition for individual growth, a form of resignation echoed in the experiences of a writer who fled certain death in her teens, since which time she has lived and worked in the United States.
Ward’s alter ego is Lucy, one of many “servs” acting as go-betweens for an alien race, the seemingly immortal Nafikh, and the human beings oblivious to their visitations. The Nafikh seek out Earth as humans do Las Vegas—which is to say, as an excuse for uninhibited recreation. The Nafikh try their best to blend in, to varying degrees of success. Veterans manage to hold their human form, while newbies are prone to violent unraveling. In either case, servs must be present to ensure the safety of everyone involved. It’s an enslaved existence for Lucy, whose every assignment might be her last. The parallels to modern trafficking ring that much more loudly for Ward’s insight into the pain Lucy endures daily.
Said pain is not only emotional. It’s also physical, as servs are animated by the Source, an internal combustion engine that could extinguish itself at any moment, and which fills Lucy’s body with chronic torment that can only be alleviated by drugs. The pain fluctuates depending on circumstance, is more intense when close to another serv and most so in the presence of Nafikh. Serv overseers, on the other hand, are granted regular access to painkillers, as befitting their station, while Lucy, being lower on the Service food chain, makes do with alcohol.
The Nafikh travel to earth by means of Gates, favoring the winter months that presumably mirror their home climate. Most Nafikh cannot tolerate being around humans without causing at least some collateral damage, but are too addicted to Earth’s mortal taste to stop anytime soon. Hence, the terrifying irony of the serv’s existence: Lucy wants nothing more than to escape her cage, even as the Nafikh take perverse pleasure in locking themselves inside it. Servs are expendable, and Lucy must count the days until her quota has been filled, her only mantra being to get out of every situation alive so that she can get that much closer to independence.
One complication makes her unique among servs: she was raised by a human family. Whereas servs typically keep close quarters among their own kind, Lucy spends her formative years for all as human until a late coming of age into Service splits her loyalties down the middle. She has tried her best to live a “normal” life among humans, but with no certain place among either species she has hit an identity crisis at the novel’s beginning when transitioning a newly arrived serv, whom her corrupt overseer plans to sell on the black market. Lucy thinks back to her own arrival, which she is glad to have been too young to remember. The infant in her care is minimally communicative and maximally frightened, and she wonders how much this dynamic will change as the new serv matures.
Lucy’s deviant behavior as a teenager once plugged her into the foster home circuit, but through it all she has maintained an amicable relationship with her mother. Along the way she meets Julian, a serv who sees through her right away and briefly wins her heart. Through him she learns to enjoy her status, even as it assails her by its secrecy. She then allies herself with Theo, another resourceful serv, who bought Julian out from Service into freedom. Lucy is excited about the prospect of joining Julian and Theo in the fullness of their image, if only to escape the farce she’s been living. But a schism between the two men provokes existential hardship. Where Julian sees the Nafikh as their godly creators, Theo is convinced that all servs were once were Nafikh and that they might share more than they let on. Their very Source indicates Nafikh origins, a fact Julian has harnessed to combat their “mortal incarceration” by procuring surplus Source to keep them from aging. At once tempted and repelled by this vampirism, Lucy continues as is.
Now that Lucy and Julian are no longer together, the excitement of those days having eroded the shell of her existence, she resents him for being able to afford his own relief, leaving her ill-equipped to support his radical cause. But neither can she pour her empathy into new arrivals, who fill her with disgust. When her latest charge awakens, she cleans and feeds him, saddened by the fact that he is already addicted to the narcotics that ease his hurting. When she sees a picture in the paper of the same boy dead in a junkyard just days later, her flickering suspicions of Julian and his gang grow into an inferno. And when Lucy is questioned by a sympathetic homicide detective who may or may not understand who she really is, her life goes through its own unraveling, starting her on an unforgettable quest for self.
In a 2016 guest post for SF Signal, Ward admits that the traumas of a past she thought were behind her have resurfaced in her creative endeavors. To be sure, we can intuit hints of what must have been a precarious childhood for both author and protagonist, as when Lucy visits home on Christmas Eve, only to receive from her mother a family photo album utterly lacking in chronology, thus presenting her life as a series of unconnected pieces. Even more salient are the coping mechanisms Lucy must manufacture within if she is to maintain any semblance of sanity without. “This is her forte: shutting down, waiting things out,” Ward writes, confirming the mindset of a perpetual victim.
Neither can we ignore the novel’s parallels with modern politics. Does it mean nothing that “servs” sounds like “Serbs,” recalling Bosnian wars of the late 1990s? Is Lucy’s daily grind really so different from our own? Are similarities to the recent Syrian refugee crises coincidental? In answering such questions, we validate the novel’s timely exploration of pandemic abuse. All of which nourishes a bittersweet ending that leaves Lucy beholden to the same system. She clings to hatred throughout the novel, but comes to see it as a useless trap of indifference. She is a leaf on a tree that’s resigned to autumn’s arrival. Still, something leads her to believe the Nafikh care, for she knows her tormenters are also slaves, if only to themselves.
Reading through this novel the first time, I felt like Ward was too often focusing on unnecessary details. For example, after a bloody altercation, she writes, “The splatter on the wall is thick. It has brain in it. Wallpaper can’t be cleaned. It’ll have to be replaced, and it’s such a job, removing the old, patching the plaster. It’ll cost, unless she does it,” when the first sentence alone would have sufficed. Events should be driven by action, I thought, not exposition. But after revisiting a few choice passages, I began to see these fixations as defense mechanisms of a mind seeking points of distraction from persistent horrors. In having to remind myself that Lucy, as a serv, was in constant pain, I realized I knew nothing of what it was like. That said, this novel demonstrates one of the most appropriate uses of the present tense I’ve encountered in a long while, adding as it does to the immediacy of Lucy’s truth-seeking.
Deceptions toward the end may spoil the fun for some, but for me made the story more realistic. And this is the book’s real social value: it makes us more uncomfortable the more we invest in it, because life for a refugee is no different. Ward has proven that finding oneself is only half the battle. The rest is keeping that self once in grasp.
(This review originally appeared in the now-defunct SF Signal, and is archived here.)
To a growing list of South African science/speculative fictionists (think Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz), one must add Fred Strydom, his novel The Raft being one of the most unnerving dystopian tales to emerge in recent memory. Memory is indeed paramount in Strydom’s feature debut, most of which takes place after Day Zero, when a mysterious, piercing whine reset the entire Earth to mental zero in what one character calls “baptism by amnesia.” Since then, humankind has had to rebuild itself amid waves of intermittent recall and cerebral puzzle-piecing.
The novel awakens on a beach through the eyes of its narrator, Kayle Jenner, who has managed to regain enough semblance of self to know his son Andy has gone missing and that he must find the boy at all costs if he is ever to feel whole again. The island he calls home — or which is, more accurately, dubbed home for his sake — confirms an unusual brand of apocalypse, one not of environmental but mental obliteration. Survivors have broken off into communes ruled by a dictatorial regime that calls itself The Body, whose role is to ensure that no one remembers too much of former days. Armed with quasi-communist ideals, the island’s overseers go to questionable lengths to ensure that none of its inhabitants is sullied by the taint of possession.
Kayle’s emotional palette is a spectrum of doubt, hope, and possibility. He holds on to dreams and nightmares alike as the only bastions of true selfhood. Assaulted by names and faces which should mean something to him but only seem to mock him behind closed eyes, he fears even these will be taken away while undergoing compulsory interrogations, during which members of The Body grill him on notions of God, power, and the nature of reality. The nominal goal of these “interviews” is to disconnect him from the hierarchical and materialistic tendencies that once pulled the globe into a spiral of moral depravity. As outlined in their ideological handbook, The Age of Self Primary, of which expository pericopes dot the novel, it was an immoral age done great service by Day Zero, a wrinkle in time rightly ironed out by catastrophe and firmed by the starch of psychological reinforcement. Kayle fails to see it this way, but with no foreseeable exit it’s all he can do to avoid projecting his fear on to a cosmos where every star becomes the wink of a derisive eye.
Details of pre-dystopian life are scarce but adequate enough to imagine one possible future for ourselves. Compulsory advertisements burned into bread by smart toasters, palm-reading screens that open and start cars, and whisper-quiet transports give glimpses of the conveniences left behind for the new primitivism. Much of the novel’s drama, however, turns the gestures of relatively organic technologies into life-altering changes, and by these Kayle will stumble across the truth of what his world has become. But it is the commune, for him “a place of bareness,” where personal demons are given room to roam. The description could hardly be more accurate. On the commune, free will is as intangible as the lives the island’s inhabitants struggle to remember, and salvation withered beyond ornament.
The novel’s titular raft is one of three reserved for the island’s wrongdoers, who are drugged, strapped to its floating planks, and forced to endure the mood swings of an unforgiving sea for days on end. When Kayle finds himself so punished for an “indiscretion” better withheld for the reader’s discovery, his journey toward finding the cause behind Day Zero and the whereabouts of his son carries him to landscapes at once forgiving and hostile.
By writing almost entirely in the first person, Strydom has dared break a strident rule of the debut novelist. To be sure, nearly all of his characters, regardless of age or background, speak with a likeminded vocabulary and cadence, while the few who don’t must rely on blatant verbal ticks — witness the inexplicable stutter of Kayle’s later accomplice — to differentiate themselves. Then again, this has the added effect of emphasizing the fact that everyone has been degaussed to some base mode of communication, and that The Body’s brainwashing has been effective.
There is, furthermore, a slew of flavor text to wade through, and similes are as frequent as the crack of a bat at a baseball game. Thankfully, Strydom’s are so lovely that one can enjoy the creativity of his writing without getting too bogged down in indulgent wordplay. One might further interpret his metaphorical twists as attempts on Kayle’s part to assert connections in a broken world (here is an author who values the scope of possibility as much as the possibility of scope). That Strydom’s educational background is in visual media will therefore come as no surprise. He writes like a filmmaker. His gifts for atmosphere are downright videographic, and at times his descriptions of places, in especial light of the island theme, feel like something out of Robyn and Rand Miller’s Myst series. He employs another cinematic and, given the novel’s conceit, rather ironic device: that of perfect recollection, as characters share conversations and letters verbatim when recounting personal stories. But Strydom’s love for those stories, and for the characters telling them, trumps any minor quibbles, leaving us with a destination more than worth the travel required to get there.
(This review originally appeared on the now-defunct SF Signal, and is archived here.)
How to Write About Music isn’t a manual. It’s a crystal ball worthy of any aspiring music writer’s gaze. It doesn’t hold your hand from concept to copy, but arranges tools you’ll need to get there on your terms.
The essays are excerpted from magazines, books, blogs, and the prestigious 33 1/3 series, of which this volume is a part. Lack of familiarity with the series is all the more reason anyone who gives a wit about the craft should have it in hand. The table of contents reads like a musical composition in its own right. Each themed chapter reflects a rhythmic structure of essays preceded by an introduction and advice from industry leaders and followed by writing prompts to get your utensils moving. In addition to these are interludes, dubbed “The Go-Betweens,” offering advice on salient issues such as networking, information sources, and critical essentials. Within the latter I note a common theme of empathy, which might well be the most important quality to cultivate as a writer of any persuasion. Witness my own review of a Jordi Savall concert I attended in 2015, for which I balanced aversion to the performed with empathy for the performer.
To the list of writerly necessaries, I add my own: be fearless. There have been instances, especially when writing about a live concert, during which I felt conflicted about my reactions. Unlike an album, one doesn’t have the luxury of playing such an event over and over, digesting it for however long feels necessary before textually fixing its place in time. But as music writer Paul Griffiths once told me, “Sometimes your job is to confirm what the audience already knows.” It has indeed been my experience, assuming I’ve been open to what was happening on stage, that my readers—at least those who come forward—have tended to share my assessments. Have confidence in that. Your readers are likely to feel just as uncomfortable with a gushing review of a patently horrible concert than a haterly review of a stellar one.
Effective music criticism is not merely that which tries to convince you to experience the art in question but that which allows you understand why anyone else would. In this regard, Lou Reed’s piece on Kanye West’s Yeezus is emblematic. It may not turn you into a follower, and it may not even strengthen an existing fan’s respect, but it may just convince you to throw caution to the Westerly wind and take it for what it is. Reed does, of course, treat Yeezus as a musical object, but does so by situating it culturally and socially. A superb piece by Alex Ross on Radiohead in the “Artist Profile” chapter displays likeminded attention to detail in providing context for the band, as well as context for the context. It helps, too, that the anecdotal bits Ross includes are vivid, often humorous, and always relevant. Descriptive turns of phrase, used well, can provide the same function. A case in point is John Jeremiah Sullivan, who in his protracted musings on Axl Rose says so much about the Guns N’ Roses frontman with so little: “With the wasp-man sunglasses and the braids and the goatee, he reminds one of the monster in Predator, or of that monster’s wife on its home planet.” Another favorite in this vein is the article by Lindsay Zoladz on feminist punk outfit Pussy Riot’s visit to the Brooklyn Museum, of which the last line is classic characterization: “By the end of the week, I can’t decide if I’ve been in the presence of a group of real-life superheroes, or just getting to know a couple of down-to-earth Clark Kents.” Only a fan could have written this.
Everyone who ingests this volume will, I think, absorb more of one particular piece over the rest. For me, “Metal Machine Music: Composing With Machines” is the finest morsel. With his starkly metaphorical yet simpatico language, Brian Morton describes an internal landscape of technology and plugs the reader into it like a thirsty chip. Other notables abound throughout How to Write About Music. Highlights in the “Track-By-Track” section include a free dive into the antics of Taylor Swift by the prodigious Tavi Gevinson (only 17 when she wrote it) and Mary Gaitskill’s endearing love letter to B-Movie’s “Nowhere Girl.” A standout in the personal essay section is James Wood’s piece on Keith Moon. Even my label of expertise, ECM Records, gets due props in Rick Moody’s “On Celestial Music,” in which he cites Arvo Pärt’s Tabula rasa as a turning point in his engagement with so-called “serious” music. So-called alternative forms of expression are also given space to roam, and of them a snippet of the graphic novel on Black Flag by Marty Davis is fabulous.
Refreshing about this book is the variety of contradictory perspectives. Notice, for example, in the “Artist Interview” section that some advocate learning as little as possible about the artist in question while others encourage knowing everything inside and out (then forgetting it). This allows one to be adaptable to conversational turns. In the same section, Paul Morley notes that to write about music is to make myth, saying, “the best music writing generates great, billowing lies, elaborates the effective fantasy of great music, rather than confirming facts and meekly agreeing with dates, descriptions and existing classification.” On point, to be sure. Music writing is not a seeking of truth but a confirmation of its malleability. The axiom bears out repeatedly in the art of the interview, of which the book has more fine examples. Thomas Sayers Ellis’s conversation with Bootsy Collins is instructive. Before reading it, one need only look at the structure. Ellis’s short, occasionally single-word, sentences in bold, and long, rambling paragraphs from Collins reveal an interviewer who listens, sympathizes, and provokes. He merely shoots the cue ball and provides the carom for every pocketed ball thereafter.
Nearest to my practitioner’s heart is the section on blogs, the chosen authors of which confirm the combined importance of the internet and social media as bastions of where music criticism is headed. As an avid blogger with nearly a million words to his credit, I can only say: Don’t treat the blog as an erasable format. Though I will occasionally go back to old blog posts to fix grammatical or factual errors, I never radically alter content. A blog is a record of your evolution as a thinker. But because opinions can and do change, whenever my relationship to an album has dramatically deviated from first impressions, I do a “second look” review rather than rewriting the original.
If anything unifies this book, it is passion. The key is that its writers (and editors!) are passionate about what they love and about what they don’t. Charles Aaron’s essay on a failed performance by Hole, for example, describes the alluring car crash that is the widowed Courtney Love in such graphic detail that one yearns to have been there. That’s the power of great writing. Yet nowhere is passion so frontloaded as in the “Cultural Criticism” chapter, where one encounters a chunk of the 33 1/3 bestseller Let’s Talk About Love. Carl Wilson’s paean to Céline Dion is essential reading for anyone wanting to get into the business. To that end, the editors have kindly included a proposal section for those wanting to pitch book ideas during the publisher’s much-anticipated open calls.
In the end, one must remember that this book is geared toward writers of rock music. That said, its lessons will be enlightening for a classical and jazz critic such as myself. Whereas albums in those genres are somehow more immediate, popular albums require a longer period of gestation than I am used to. How to Write About Music, for its part, contains a technical analysis by Owen Pallett of Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” an insightful disclosure of technique as politic that revels in thick description. Such are the kinds of inner workings that only intimate knowledge can elucidate.
Hence a final point of continuity these writers touch upon but don’t feel the need to explicitly state: integrity applies not only to those who write music, but also to those who write about it. The eureka factor comes in being honest about one’s feels. For example, in his scrumptious piece on J Dilla’s Donuts, excerpted from the 33 1/3 volume of the same name, Jordan Ferguson describes the album as “really weird.” It’s not a phrase that would hold up in any academic court of law, but which nevertheless pulses with life. It is an unfiltered reaction, a bottle of good old tap water in a world of purified substitutes. Sometimes, one needs to drink directly from the faucet.