Right on. If you enjoyed it, I would highly recommend his collections A Collapse of Horses, Windeye, and The Wavering Knife. There was something about this collection as a whole that felt… all of the stories felt kind of rushed? Like when you listen to a punk song that’s 45 seconds long and you know they gotta hit verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus and end… I dunno. I thoroughly enjoyed the stories you mention but the tempo or pacing on a lot was peculiar to me.
I finished The Tyrant from Seth Dickinson and I think it lives up to my expectations. It’s really the second half of book two and rounds off a ton of the threads opened up in The Monster with a satisfying set up for book four, the finale. My main takeaway, however, is that Seth knows a ton about boats and loves to talk about them.
THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT
(thematic spoilers throughout but I keep it mostly general- more specific plot-related spoilers are blurred. also very long sorry.)
This completely enraptured me - I read it in 5 days (and then took weeks to write this due to bad brain) which is a feat I haven’t accomplished in possibly a decade. Dickinson’s plotting is just incredible. The narrative is constantly churning into new and unpredictable configurations and the fact that once the novel kicks into gear the first primary conflict is about monetary policy of all things and remains utterly gripping is the product of inspired writing.
I don’t usually gravitate to such plot-heavy books, they can sometimes be light and immemorable in retrospect and while The Traitor possesses that sugary narrative* - it is so irresistible, impossible to stop reading it also has a question throbbing like a sickening heart at the core of the novel. It’s in the title, it sits marinating in the heart of every clever stratagem tangled through its pages. Baru is a traitor. She will betray anything for her cause. The key question: What destruction, what ruin can a person wreak in service of an ideal? And hanging afterwards in the air, waiting to descend like a suffocating smoke: what will be left of them when they have wrought it?
The theme of betrayal is obviously brought to apotheosis at the end of the novel but an enormous part of the success of the betrayal narrative is that Dickinson ensures Baru betrays not only Aurdwynn but the reader. Her conversation with Apparitor makes it clear where her ultimate goal lies but as it recedes in the narrative we are taken up with the knife-edge whirlwind of rebellion and romance and in one beautiful, touching moment of hard-won fulfillment with Tain Hu I found myself doubting that fateful conversation.I went back to it several times because I could not help but hope things might end happily. To see treachery coming and hope against it anyhow is a remarkable effect to achieve in a novel.
Baru’s final betrayal is heart-rending, and I think it situates the novel in a really interesting relationship with genre. The Traitor refuses to stay just an exciting and forgettable novel because by the end it sickened me. Baru becomes revolting: completely understandable but horrifying all the same. This project of alienation by Dickinson elevates the novel - and it’s fascinating because it is so often that fiction is striving to do the exact opposite to affect its readers deeply: it wants to connect, to resonate. But by writing a genre novel, particularly a low fantasy novel where the expectation is plot and dirt and grime and a heroic-if-compromised protagonist and then to defy it by alienating us completely from what we have taken to be the hero of a trilogy radically transforms the meaning of the novel. Specifically low fantasy - the magic has been plucked out of this setting, it is just a medieval age, filled with disease and cold. It flirts with the ‘grimdark’ but then deftly sidesteps the stereotypical pitfalls of that subgenre as well: the overwhelming (thematic and textual) brutality of it is not for its own sake but situated specifically within the violence of empire.
And this is utterly a book about imperialism, it’s almost on the nose how exact the account of the Masquerade conquering Taranoke is a historical one, with names changed. It’s abundantly clear from the outset that the attitude of the book is that the project of empire is deeply evil but it develops that idea in unusual ways, and Baru’s own ideology is inchoate. She is trying to ~change it from within~ which, whew, but by the end of the book it’s clear her attitude is vengeful, her aim is not reform but annihilation, and she thinks the master’s tools are the only ones awful enough to do it. However we can also see that she does enjoy power: this is what her brain was built for, what she was specifically shaped into being. But that enjoyment, that self-centredness exists exemplified in her characteristic inability to account for others’ capacity to act. She confesses her fundamental fear is not that her home will be destroyed but that the world cannot be controlled, or that she is incapable of controlling it. So her idealism, her desperate insistence that all this carnage and ruin is for Taranoke has to reckon with that deeper fear. My fear upon first reading was that idealism must continue to disintegrate as Baru is confronted with the fact that the Taranoke of her childhood no longer exists, annihilated by Empire and furthermore lost in the way that all childhood homes are lost when seen again with the uglier perspicacity of adulthood. With her sole ideal decaying would she become a loose weapon? So fundamentally has she rid herself of her own values that she is at risk of becoming something an empire can wield, or descending into a total nihilism. Which makes Tain Hu’s final play so important: “It was no lie.” Her loyalty, her belief in the existence of truth - of a human - within the ruthlessness that Baru has become instils a seed of that same faith in Baru. The necessity not just of saving Taranoke, “that will not be enough now,” but of obliterating empire.
Baru’s evil is complicated. There is something easier to accept about total nihilism - I can live beside it, breath with it, I know it: if you despise the world, if you despise yourself within it, that fury has a purity to it. Burn everything down. But the refusal to embrace a villain gone utterly evil, gone over entirely to destruction is another mark of maturity within the genre. Baru is nightmare, machine-savant, her control complete but for the body performing its own limp act of treachery by erasing half her world - but she is human. Her repeated refusal to use her body as coin is a gesture at this remaining humanity. Even when it would bring clear advantage her refusal of the boy at the Elided Keep is a parallel to the test Unuxecome and Tain Hu gave her at Welthony harbour. In refusing to personally execute the Imperial Naval Captain she displays she is not a true sociopath. Here her love for women is the line she will not cross, the single note of conflict and want remaining in her which makes her simultaneously so compelling and so revolting. She is no Sauron, no Star Wars Emperor, she is someone who loves. And this is the sting of reality. That bad people are not cut from an evil cloth whole and perfect, but are made. Curdling a pure fury with one note of love sickens it massively - the roaring void gone putrid.
It actually took me a few rereads of the final chapter to imagine any future for Baru, to be anything other than revolted at Baru’s treachery. How could such a fundamentally broken vessel ever be redeemed? And alternatively what further depravity could she possibly sink to? But upon reflection I can see there is room to explore her future, even if that does not include redemption. I’m biased - a redemption arc is a narrative I am deeply attached to and so I naturally interpret a lot of texts towards this conclusion. But there are other stories, and I suspect Baru’s will hurt all the way and I will be glued to it.
Some final notes - I think it’s definitely worth thinking about how behaviourism and eugenics are presented in the novel, an immediate criticism is that though they are depicted exclusively as evil tools of an empire they are also depicted as effective in a way that is less complicated than the reality. But the novel touches on these concepts lightly and there might be more to think about as I read on. The way the novel conceals the ideology of the ruling council until its ultimate pages is interesting as well. An acknowledgment that the whys given by the ruling class are largely irrelevant to the reality of subjugation? But the project of “causal closure” echoes interestingly with Baru’s fear of loss of control - and this is the avenue that will really be fascinating to develop. What does it mean for the Masquerade’s ideal to align so closely with Baru’s methodology? She is relying on her causal mastery to overturn a project of causal mastery. And what happens when it is inevitably proved impossible for both Baru and the Masquerade?
*I don’t want to disparage plot-centric fiction or reading just for enjoyment at all! They’re really valuable things! I just have a specific set of neuroses that make it difficult for me to read that way.
I just started reading through The Penguin Book of Prose Poetry.
Poetry in general is something I can either get into or not depending on my mood, so nothing has really captured me yet except Patricia Lockwood’s Rape Joke (obviously CW for sexual assault). I find it hard to talk about sexual assault in fiction, doubly so when it’s biographical or presented that way, but the poem is a really good and multidimensional look at someone working through trauma.
Replying sputnik’s review of Fall or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson, because I knew someone else had written about it previously.
Contextually, I should note that for various real life complications reasons, I bought Fall back in 2019 when it came out, and have only just had the time to read it in the last week. [It’s only the second book I’ve had the time/energy to read this year, which is extremely depressing.]
I’m going to write my thoughts as a sort of response to sputnik:
Like them, I much preferred the first third of the book [and the intercalated later sections also in “meatworld”, as the “‘real world’” gets tagged] to much of the sections in “bitworld”, the simulated reality. But what struck me when reading Fall in general was how thematically repetitive it felt, with respect to Stephenson’s oeuvre.
His fans obviously recognise by now that there’s things he likes to write about: social and cultural changes due to technology, ancient mythologies and religions, metaphysics [especially if he can have it turn out to be relevant to the plot somehow], puns and injokes to tech or sf/f audiences.
Fall obvious does all these things, but the way in which it does them - and the conversations it wants to have with the reader - feel much less “fresh” than they once did.
Once again, Stephenson wants to set a “simulated” reality in a mythical construction, or a metaphor [see The Diamond Age’s Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer; or the whole Lord of the Rings stuff with Cryptonomicon], once again he expresses the same concern about the “reality of reality” that he spends chapters on in Anathem and The Fall and Rise of D.O.D.O and even REAMDE to some extent.
Once again, he devotes a large chunk of time to talking about how awful the internet is, given that 90% of it is junk informational malware, designed to get attention [and distort its observer’s view of consensus reality].
And this is fine, people read Stephenson because he has certain interests… but at this point, the level of repetitious self-referentialism starts to pall a bit. There’s not much that I detect as a genuinely new take on things in the novel - the near-future “Ameristan” section is the best section in the entire novel, but it’s also really just an extension of the concept that most of a future Internet will be full of agents trying to destroy misinformation from Anathem applied to the kind of fragmented future America he used as a setting in Snow Crash.
One thing I am surprised by is how few reviewers have noticed the fairly explicit Gnosticism in the novel, however: reviews tend to mention Paradise Lost, which is obviously an influence on the bitworld sections; but the general construction of the entire novel and the relationship between meat and bit worlds is very clearly drawing more from Gnostic than conventionally Christian models of Genesis (and Stephenson can’t resist some of the more painfully obvious pun/references in making this clear). One of the more interesting wrinkles here is where he departs from both Gnostic and conventional Christianity in terms of the assignment of “good” and “evil”.
Overall, I think it was worth reading - and trudging through some of the more redundant parts of the bitworld sequence, until the better LoTR style adventure it evolves into emerges - but anyone who’s read most of his previous books is going to notice a lot of repetition here, and an almost desperate urge to tie together all of his previous works that makes the entire thing feel like a “last novel”.
I finished The Devil All The Time last week and I just had to sit with it for a while. It’s a tough one to talk about without spoiling but I absolutely loved it. There was something beautiful about the closure the main character got in the end of the book. Then when looking for peoples reviews and to see if there was any writing on it I found that there is a Netflix film coming out next week with a hell of a cast which i’m now really excited for.
Now i’m trying to get through Lord of the Rings. I just finished an extended edition binge and thought theres no better time.
The Wide Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies by John Langan. He’s also written a full length cosmic horror novel called The Fisherman which I enjoyed.
This is a collection of short horror stories, a lot of them trying unique takes on classic horror tropes. I particularly liked Technicolor which is a take on Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death from the point of view of a college professor giving a lecture on the subject. Mother of Stone, a more straight forward haunted object investigation story, is also quite good.
Love love love Mother of Stone and lived for years by a house that had a decaying saint statue in an overgrown/abandoned garden that made me think of the Mother every time I walked my dog by it.
Coincidentally i made a headless wooden sculpture years ago. My mom kept it in her garden without incident.
Ive always liked scary stories with an investigation/mystery format. House of Dead Leaves is a bit like that, but has its own weird experimental thing going on as well.
If we’re talking about horror - On a whim I grabbed a 2018 horror anthology off the write-off shelf at work. It’s one of the Ellen Datlow edited ones, and I understand she’s fairly well-reputed, and I’ve read through a bunch of it, a couple of hundred pages, all the while getting next to nothing. I haven’t really been a huge reader of horror so I thought perhaps it might just be a genre of fiction that I can’t get into… It’s strange though, because horror cinema has become so intriguing and compelling to me that I will seek it out - actively going against my nature as someone who is easily and deeply terrified by horror movies. I’m appreciative of the genre’s possibilities but it seems to me that they are fundamentally different in prose. None of the stories here were scary. A slew of monsters and cannibals and zombies and no matter how grotesque the description I read on, unconcerned. You just cannot conjure viscerality and shock in the same way as a film can.
I tried to think back to any books that had genuinely scared me and I’m not sure the two I can think of would qualify as horror: John Darnielle’s Wolf In White Van, and Danielewski’s House of Leaves. The environment of fear in these books is much more existential, almost completely in the case of the former, which is something I think prose does excel at. A book can deal with symbols, can deal with reality in a way a film cannot. Words adhere to meaning in a fundamentally more slippery way than an image does, I think. I can write something (for a trite example) like “fear called my name,” but I can’t film the concept of fear speaking. There’s a passage in the introductory essay to Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red which illuminates this a little:
What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning “placed on top,” “added,” “appended,” “imported,” “foreign.” Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.
She goes on to talk about what happens when we undo those latches, when a river can be ‘root silver,’ when a planet is ‘middle night stuck’ and killings are ‘cream black’ - and this is for me the potential of prose for horror.
An author can terrify by beginning to pick at the seams of a slippery reality and unhinge us from the place we thought we were. A film is tied to a physicality, image situates us to an extent - which of course has its own unique power of viscerality but prose is uncoupled from this obligation and can leave us dangling in a void. I’m sure there are people writing this kind of horror fiction but I was disappointed not to find it in this anthology.
An interesting side-note is that there are monster stories very much in the tropey vein of the horror fiction in this anthology that I do find scary: creepypasta. Quality varies wildly of course but I think the context of these stories is crucial for understanding their capacity to scare - reading a reddit post is very different to reading a printed and bound book. Even though I’m fully aware that they are just horror stories posted online there is something about the insistence on the pretension of reality that gives the stories a sense of genuine threat. There is a plausibility to reading a wild story on a social media website, posted by a real person; I do it every day. They also often go out of their way to try and extend the threat into the reader’s (online) world - Smile Dog is an archetypal example of what has been termed elsewhere the ‘cognitohazard,’ something capable of harming you just by sight or by knowledge of it. Such elements didn’t feature at all in the anthology I read, perhaps because the writers rightly thought it would be cheesy to have their monster turn to face the (metaphorical) camera on the final page and say, “and now I am coming for you!” Creepypasta might be more capable of getting away with this kind of thing as a fresher, younger subgenre.
All of which is perhaps to completely disprove my earlier point about the relative strengths and weaknesses of prose for horror and simply describe the fact that “scariness” is extremely contextual and subjective. Anyway hopefully someone who’s more of a horror fiction expert will come and yell at me about my gross misconceptions of the genre and tell me all the amazing novels I haven’t read because I’m a fool.
I’ve always gravitated towards cosmic horror/wierd fiction/Lovecraftian because challenging the nature of reality is the cornerstone of the genre.
There’s been an upswing of it lately, or maybe Ive just recently discovered some great authors.
Also, i keep misremembering House of Leaves as House of Dead Leaves.
I’m reading now a few things, and will append my thoughts.
First is The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Chabon, and I am struck within the first hundred pages by a kind of outsized disinterest in the question of Indigenous Alaskans. Chabon’s characters throw around language and perspectives that are heavily prejudiced; that, I think, is not so bad on its own in a work of fiction–I believe it’s Chabon’s attempt to portray with siege mentalities and how they can blind you to intersectionality. But! At least within this first portion, very little effort is made to grapple with the complexity of reality as it conflicts with the cynical thought-terminating-cliches that the characters repeatedly deal in (i.e. every Arab in the Holy Land hates Jews and wants to push them into the sea, to the point that Chabon deliberately describes every single possible political affiliation in the Arab world–from Islamists, to socialists, to pan-Arab modernists–coming together to do so). It reads to me as a kind of lazy writing. If Chabon is only interested in writing about questions of interiority, great–but to couch those questions of interiority in sketched perceptions of the greater gentile world without even room for question is lazy (in terms of not taking the time or effort to grapple with them) to the point of maybe being damaging (i.e. characters being constantly casually prejudicial because prejudice and cynicism are “realistic”). It further seems to me, and I will tread lightly here, that in creating the setting of Sitka, Chabon has been able to write about the question of a uniquely, distinctly Jewish place on earth (a la Israel) without having to further grapple with the thorny questions that surround any meditation on Israel itself. References are occasionally made to conflicts between Jews (almost exclusively Orthodox Jews, a weird kind of punching bag for the modern bumper crop of reform Jewish authors) and the Indigenous Tlingit people, but not at the scale of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In creating Sitka, Chabon, I feel, believes he has the ability to write about Jews relating to other Jews in a place defined by its meaning to a kind of aspirational pan-Judaism (but very much rooted in western perspectives on Jewishness), without feeling that he has to write about interactions between Jews and Gentiles on anything other than kind of a vague, “the outside world has never and will never understand us” kind of way (specifically in re the plot point about Sitka reverting to US control).
Capital Vol. 1 by Marx is still very much in the “algebraic proofs” phase. It’s hardly stimulating reading but every few paragraphs Marx will reach a conclusion; one that I’ll usually have to read a few times over to really understand, and slightly shock me. I raised the question to myself the other night–does an avowed communist have to read Capital if the point of the book is to radicalize? I have never loved reading theory, so I may just be looking for an early out.
Stoner by John Williams is so far a fast, entertaining, sometimes quietly brilliant read of whose ideology I am deeply suspicious. I am not very far in and am so far thinking that its positioning of the eponymous Stoner as a kind of interior-life St. Sebastian is rooted in philosophical principles that are both deeply post-modern and deeply Christian. If that is the case, I ask myself–why keep reading this book? It has been established to me time and time again that writers can write great lines, paragraphs, chapters, books in the service of pernicious or wrongheaded ideas. Am I sealing myself in an echo chamber by only reading writers whose work matches my own perspectives? Am I opening myself up to ideological fifth columns by reading well-written books whose ideologies champion servile subjugation to bourgeois mediocrity saved only by a kind of brilliant interior life?
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake is a book that I would very much like to like. I have been told before by professors and friends and family members that my own writing is often dense; that my love of language is self-evident; that it behooves me to kill my darlings. As someone who suspects, too-nervily, that my writing veers very close to Peake’s, I find myself continuously frustrated by the almost parodically-baroque caracoles and Klein bottles that he continuously inserts into his writing. I am told by summarists and Wikipediae that the Gormenghast trilogy will slip slowly into epic, gothic narratives. I am thus far stymied by motes of dust dancing in beams of light and the smell of must, incessant, on every page.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty blessed me with this line, so superb in its stupidity and brokenness, that I cannot stop thinking about it, now nearly a month on: “Later that evening, while Dr. Klein was injecting Regan with fifty milligrams of Sparine to assure her tranquility on the journey to Dayton, Ohio, Kinderman stood brooding in his office with the palms of his hands pressed flat atop his desk as he pored over fragments of baffling data with no other light in the room but the narrow beam of an ancient desk lamp flaring brightly on a clutter of scattered reports.” Tag yourself. I’m “Dayton, Ohio.”
I encourage you to stick with Stoner and Titus Groan–they are two of my favorites. With regards to Peake and the Gormenghast trilogy, the Wikipedia page and general summaries are all kind of misleading and fail to adequately convey what reading those books are about. There is a larger narrative but the real beauty of the books, I find, are in the dust motes and details.
Thanks for the recommendations! Stoner I intend to finish for sure; Titus Groan may demand a fresh start when I have closed out some of the littler distractions in my life.
Side note, but does anyone have any advice for e-reading outside the Amazon ecosystem? I’ve been using the Internet Archive’s library function for a little while now, but I find that the digitized epubs are really messed up, and that the scans are clunky, take forever to load, and frequently lose my place. Plus, its interaction with Adobe Digital Editions is herky-jerky to the point of being nightmarish. I was able to read some short anthologies via the online reader, but I feel that for something like Titus Groan a more ergonomic avenue is necessary.
I am reading Capital on Digital Editions, for example, and the conversion of a PDF into Digital Editions own format leaves huge margins that make the text painfully small to read, but zooming in to make the text bigger than causes the program to interpret my swipes and taps as invitations to move around a single page, rather than to the next.
I’m about to start Capital myself once I finish my current books and I’ve heard a lot of recommendations for David Harvey’s Reading Capital, a series of free lectures that goes chapter by chapter across all three volumes; maybe this can be helpful to you, especially through the more theoretical portions of the book.
Titus Groan can be a groan when you start it but I promise it builds and the second book, Gormenghast is really incredible. (I know saying you got to read a full book to be rewarded by the sequel is not the best sell but I promise they are both great.)
The app Libby is really great and there are generally a lot of resources and support for e-reading by libraries.
I’ve never got to the Yiddish Policeman’s Union but that’s unfortunate - what I have read of Chabon’s work has always seemed deeply interested in untangling the impacts of the world upon individual humanity, though I suppose that could lend itself to a blinkered portrayal of political issues. From what I understand he’s fairly unequivocally anti-occupation.
Re: Titus Groan I can say that I found Peake’s prose worth it in the end, there are some transportive passages especially towards the climax of the novel, though I also very definitely have a weakness for that variety of indulgent, adjective-laden writing. If we’re being completely honest the only reason I got through it in less than say, a month, was because I got trapped without phone reception on a boat with my family who started wanting to litigate transphobia and systemic racism in every other discussion. I also haven’t actually gone on to read the next two books though I did learn some great words. “Spilth” “recrudescent” “welkin”
Weirdly, i found myself rereading Wolf in White Van at the same time as starting House of Leaves last summer. I definitely agree that they have a similar quality of symbolic, emotional immersion, but whereas House of Leaves evoked the uncanny in a way i haven’t felt in a novel in many years (and that totally scared the pants off me), Wolf was just… I think, for me, it’s the most genuine and heartfelt portrayal of the inscrutability of a certain sort of depression; this terrifying combination of complete, powerful certainty and utter meaninglessness.
Sadly I never finished House of Leaves because it belonged to an ex partner with whom i broke up halfway through reading it; feels a bit weird to start it again now!
Soooo now I’m reading the Communist Manifesto, Memories Dreams Reflections by Carl Jung, and Roadside Picnic. About to head out to the park with a bag full o’ books in fact. Concentration hasn’t been great during the pandemic (I’ve read maybe 1 or 2 books total in the past 6 months lol) but I’ll get some air at least.
Something that I should qualify–maybe such that I failed to make it before–is that YPU is still spinning up its wheels, and still has plenty of room left in it for twists in terms of representation and exteriority. Maybe part of the problem is that Chabon is, in the earliest scenes of the novel, leaning so heavily into a James Ellroy-esque tough-boy hard-boiled schtick–such that to continue it throughout the course of the entire book would be untenable. I am more than prepared to be surprised.