Book Reviews

Work Lingo and Writing

Jeff VanderMeer • June 26th, 2011 • Book Reviews

The current issue of Harper’s has some great stuff in it, including an excerpt from Mark Kingwell’s introduction to The Wage Slave’s Glossary by Joshua Glenn, out next month from Biblioasis. Kingwell’s intro codifies certain things I believe about the world in general, particularly the idea of “collective delusions” that we almost all buy into, perhaps so the world won’t seem so scary or perhaps because it’s necessary to have a functioning society. Money clearly is becoming ever more of a collective delusion, especially in a dysfunctional U.S. system. There are also delusions that come over us temporarily like viruses, infected the majority and leaving the minority out in the cold: believe or you suck, basically. Luckily, these tend to be temporary or contained to certain subcultures or communities.

Kingwell talks about a number of delusions we buy into with regard to the workplace, chief among them the sanctity of work itself. A short excerpt:

The routine collection of credentials, promotions, and employee-of-the-month honors in exchange for company loyalty masks a deeper existential conundrum–which is precisely what it is meant to do. Consider: It is an axium of status anxiety that the competition for position has no end—save, temporarily, when a scapegoat is found. The scapegoat reaffirms everyone’s status, however uneven, because he is beneath all. Hence many work narratives are miniature blame-quests. We come together as a company to fix guilt on one of our number, who is then publicly shamed and expelled. Jones filed a report filled with errors! Smith placed an absurdly large order and the company is taking a bath! This makes us all feel better and enhances our sense of mission, even if it produces nothing other than its own spectacle.

Sounds like a few places I worked at before I became a full-time writer, one of which I wrote about in my novelette “The Situation,” which you can read here. (What’s the collective delusion of writers, you might ask? That this crazy career is sustainable indefinitely and that the right words matter…and sometimes buying into those delusions is enough.)

Interestingly he also name-checks three office novels: Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, and Ed Park’s Personal Days. Kingwell calls all three hilarious, but believes their humor is a sign of doom, not liberation. “Indeed, the laughs render the facts more palatable by mixing diversion into the scene of domination—a willing capitulation, consumed under the false sign of resistance.” That’s a pretty sick reading of the uses of satire, but point taken. Perhaps it takes a horror writer with the sensibilities of Kafka to make satire a tertiary purpose, since I find Thomas Ligotti’s office stories not a capitulation but a clear embodiment of doom in which humor occurs almost as part of a natural process, like steam off of the head of a just-benched football player in winter.

References to philosopher Harry Frankfurt and his use of the term “bullshit” satisfy on a very gleeful level. In the workplace, bullshit can be defined as “Jargon, slogans, euphemisms, and terms of art” used as weapons. Bullshit is an evasion of normativity that “produces a kind of ordure, a dissemination of garbage, the scattering of shit. This is why, Frankfurt argue, bullshit is far more threatening, and politically evil, than lying.” The bullshitter doesn’t oppose truth–s/he ignores it entirely. (Cue: footage of certain political candidates, bloggers on the internet, etc.)

The victory of work bullshit is that, in addition to having no regard for the truth, it passes itself off as innocuous or even beneficial. Especially in clever hands, the controlling elements of work are repackaged as liberatory, counter-cultural, subversive: you’re a skatepunk rebel because you work seventy hours a week beta-testing videogames. This, we might say, is meta-bullshit.

In writing, bullshit, meta and otherwise, manifests as cliches in its most basic form, but complex forms of writing-related bullshit manifest as precepts that wound a story before it is finished, an inability to closely observe and report on the details of the world, and, well, too many other ways to list here.

You could read Kingwell’s introduction as a discourse on corrupted narrative—like a story with no center that is nonetheless told in a clever or convincing way, the equivalent of the worst type of escapist fiction. If everything human-made around us, including our stories, once existed as an idea or thought from someone’s imagination, then Kingwell’s saying we need to be better storytellers, better dreamers, at both the micro and the macro level. Waking up like the guy in the first Matrix movie to find you’re just a pod dangling among a million other generic pods can be depressing, but at least it’s real…maybe. Or it might just be superior CGI. Perhaps bullshit has no hidden core. Perhaps collective delusions are the point.

A Hidden Gem: Richard A. Kirk’s The Lost Machine

Jeff VanderMeer • June 11th, 2011 • Book Reviews

In a wasteland ravaged by plague, Lumsden Moss steps out of a decaying prison. Armed with a satchel of yellowed notebooks containing the fragile memories of five murdered children, he is determined to track down and confront their killer. Lumsden, accompanied by a stranger, begins a long journey to the vast City of Steps where he is forced to confront the horrors of the past and present.

Richard A. Kirk is best known as a rather mind-blowing artist whose commissioned work has accompanied the fiction of masters like Clive Barker and Caitlin R. Kiernan. His art demonstrates a knowledge of the Grotesque wedded to his own unique aesthetic. That aesthetic is texturally complex and uses precision of detail to create marvelously outlandish art. Kirk strikes me as the kind of creator whose devotion to discipline provides structure within which he can unleash a wild imagination. The composition of his images often evokes a misleading sense of stillness. Action has either just occurred or is about to occur. But these images aren’t actually static—the movement is simply occuring at the micro-level as a form of acute seeing. As part of this intensity of vision, the environment around the subject matter is rendered in as complex a way—a living way—as the people or creatures foregrounded.

The fiction of Kirk, as exemplified by his first book The Lost Machine, shares many of these virtues, translated craft-wise for the demands of text.

The protagonist Lumsden Moss, a former school teacher, outlives a prison and sets out on a quest to track down the person he believes really committed the crimes. Along the way, he encounters an odd man named Irridis. Irridis has a halo of floating glass around his head—a deadly halo that functions as a weapon.

On their journey to the city where Moss believes he will pick up the trail, they bond despite Irridis’ sometime merciless qualities. A scene in which they are attacked by feral boys is rendered in a clear-eyed, economic way that exemplifies Kirk’s overall approach. When one boy fires at Irridis “Moss watched with horror as a plume of dust exploded up from Irridis’s shoulder. Incredibly, the shot did not seem to faze him….The glass objects whirled in a circle around his covered head like a deadly crown…The boys raced off down the the trail, but Moss heard the ripping of sticks as Irridis’ glass disks flew after them. Within seconds the disks returned and resumed their positions. Speechless, Moss could only stare down the empty, quiet trail.”

A lesser writer, lacking the necessary discipline, would have shown Irridis’s attack on the boys. Instead, Kirk evokes the “empty, quiet trail” to show they’ve been killed, and then cuts to these sentences: “Moss could not bring himself to look at the boy’s face. Leaving Irridis in the clearing, he carried the child to the beach and buried him.” The action itself is unimportant: what matters is how it came to occur and what happens after.

On a more macro level, the economy of the text impresses, in that Kirk isn’t afraid to skip days here and there in the journey to get to the important points. There are few wasted words here, and as a result the text holds the reader’s attention much more easily. This is especially important because at the novella length each exchange between Moss and Irridis must carry weight and establish character. In an odd way, there’s a luminous quality to their journey created by what’s been left out.

Similarly, Kirk brings his artist’s eye to The Lost Machine. Details have clarity because he knows better than to clutter up the text with more than the one or two compelling images that matter, before moving on to the next scene. For example, in the prison Moss comes across a dead fellow inmate: “Mr. Box had arranged the songbirds’ eggshells in a mandala pattern on the flor…Dead now, he sat in the passage with his back to his cell door, head bowed to his spread fingers where the latin names of innumerable songbirds were written in ballpoint pen. The eggshells crunched beneath Moss’s boots. Even though Mr. Box was in no condition to lecture him, Moss felt shame redden his ears.”

As their quest moves to the city of their destination, pleasing complications occur, as when Moss visits his sister, nicknamed Strange Buttons, to get “buttons” as offerings to three other sisters who may have information about the real murderer. What are the buttons? “They were indeed button-shaped but comprised of a spiral arrangement of seeds…In the center of each was a dehydrated spider with its legs folded inward. The spiders were stitched to the buttons with the same red thread she used for her labels.” The purpose of these buttons is as interesting as the description, and just one of the ways in which Kirk brings freshness to weird fiction. These scenes evoke pleasant, non-derivative echoes of a Decadent literature updated to the modern era.

Another delight for the reader is Kirk’s Gene Wolfe-ish approach to the milieu, which is possibly a post-collapse (or fantasy) Earth in which some people are called witches but there are also mechanical men. Folk cures side-by-side with science. In one great description Kirk writes, “At dawn, moss saw three women dropping loads of crumbling asbestos into the sea…On the strand the hulking remains of a great ship loomed in the fog, covered in the oxyacetylene scribbles of the shipbreaker’s dissection.” Such details might be thought to rest uneasily with talk of the supernatural and even with the rotting walls of the Kafkaesque prison Moss emerged from, but through some alchemy of the prose it all fits together to create a unique setting.

The unique resolution of Moss’s quest carries emotional resonance in part because of the tension at the level of craft between Kirk’s imagination and his restraint—the careful composition of Moss’s character throughout The Lost Machine wedded to original imagery and situations. It’s on the whole a masterful performance, even if there’s a predictability to one particular plot element. The novella is highly recommended and I am looking forward to Kirk’s future fiction with great anticipation. He’s definitely bringing a fresh voice to weird fiction.

Also including five illustrations by Kirk and featuring an introduction by Mike Mignola.

New York Times Book Review: Latest SF/F Review Column

Jeff VanderMeer • June 3rd, 2011 • Book Reviews

My latest column for the NYTBR is online and in the print edition on Sunday, their summer reading issue.

This time I covered the following:

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes – “Beukes’s energetic noir phantasmagoria, the winner of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award, crackles with original ideas.”

Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine- “Valentine’s novel has the stylized quality of books by Angela Carter like The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, and it displays similar pyrotechnics.”

Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle- “Ever since his classic first novel, A Fine and Private Place, Beagle has displayed a talent not just for writing fantasy but for documenting the frailties and bittersweet qualities of human relationships.”

Among Others by Jo Walton- “It’s a brave act to write a novel that is in ­essence all aftermath, but Walton succeeds admirably. Her novel is a wonder and a joy.”

I don’t just review books I like for this column, but in this case I recommend all four titles. I’ll be writing on the Amazon book blog about the column and these authors next week.

Reviews and Features: Mieville’s Embassytown, Stacey Levine, John Scalzi, and More

Jeff VanderMeer • May 21st, 2011 • Book Reviews

A few links to features, interviews, and reviews of mine posted recently.

—A short review of Pascal Girard’s study in high school reunion embarrassment, Reunion. This is a graphic novel in the cringe-inducing mode of Ricky Gervais.

—A fun interview with John Scalzi about his new novel Fuzzy Nation that allows me to ask the immortal question “Why Fuzzy, why now?”

—An interview with one of my favorite short story writers Stacey Levine about her new collection The Girl With Brown Fur. Including Moonbounce.

—A review of China Mieville’s Embassytown is now up on the B&N Review site and also, oddly enough, the Christian Science Monitor. I thought a lot of it was brilliant, but a third of it was just moving people around the board in a not-well-thought-out way. I don’t like to talk in reviews about how an alternate version of a novel might have played out, but (1) keeping the past-present structure throughout, (2) not killing off a main human and a main alien character and replacing them with pale substitutes we don’t care about, and (3) making the viewpoint narrator’s function more central to the action of the last third would have fixed it all. That said, it’s got more cool ideas on one page than most SF novels have in 300, it’s incredibly imaginative, and the writing is top-notch. I’d rather have read this novel despite the flaws than any number of others.

The Silent Land by Graham Joyce: Brilliant Novel

Jeff VanderMeer • April 22nd, 2011 • Book Reviews

I reviewed Graham Joyce’s Shirley Jackson Award-nominated The Silent Land: A novelrecently for The Washington Post. I thought it was a brilliant book, especially considering that two characters have to carry the whole thing. It’s also, from a writer’s perspective, an amazing example of control, and of writing skill, all in the service of the characters and the emotional resonance of the novel. Few writers have the chops to pull off what Joyce has pulled off, and I’ll be using chapters from The Silent Land in future workshops as examples of various writing techniques.

Here’s an excerpt from the review:

In Graham Joyce’s brave and ultimately heartbreaking new novel, “The Silent Land,” a young married couple trapped in a deserted Alpine village must come to terms with strange events that test the strength of their relationship. In its melding of the bizarre and the personal, this tour de force invites comparison to the work of Haruki Murakami and Ian McEwan.

West Coast Book Haul: Lisa Goldstein to Nick Mamatas, Angela Carter to Banksy

Jeff VanderMeer • March 21st, 2011 • Book Reviews

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As you might imagine, even though we tried hard we wound up acquiring more books while out on the West Coast. Two favorite authors, both picked up at the Tachyon home offices in San Fran (they have a laser gun now and really interesting process flows on post-it notes). The Goldstein doesn’t come out until June—it looks really interesting.

Michael Blumlein
The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein

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The FOGCon book room, expertly run by Keyan Bowes, had many wonderful dealer tables, but the one that I must confess made my heart flutter a little was PM Press. They’ve got marvelous lines of left-wing nonfiction and, more recently, fiction that includes a lot of edgy or surreal SF/fantasy. I didn’t mean to bring home a cockroach killer, but who the heck could pass up such a fine-looking William Morris bio?! On the right is Crucified Dreams, which looks to be a very cool dark noir/horror antho, from Tachyon.

Crucified Dreams edited by Joe R. Lansdale
William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary

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Four Views of Fantastical/SFnal Fiction in 2010: Locus Online Best-of Lists

Jeff VanderMeer • February 18th, 2011 • Book Reviews, Uncategorized

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Last year, I did a comprehensive overview of genre books for Locus Online. This time, in the context of writing a SF/Fantasy column for the NYTBR, reviewing for LAT, WaPo, and B&N Review, along with being the major contributor to the Amazon top 10, I didn’t particularly like the feeling of being semi-ubiquitous. So I suggested to the marvelous Mark Kelly that I just do a list of the best fantasy and that getting at least three other views with a bias, respectively, toward SF, YA, and, finally, heroic fantasy would be a good idea.

The result is great, I think, because it means more and different books get additional attention. Here, then, are the full best-of lists posted on Locus. They’re also a useful counterpoint to and/or reinforcement of the Locus recommended list. To buy and the full-on articles, click the four header links, although I’ve provided buying links for my list just cause I’m an Amazon associate.

Fantasy in 2010, A Baker’s Dozen – Jeff VanderMeer
Best Novel of the Year (3-way tie):

The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz(Dalkey Archive Press)
The Narrator by Michael Cisco
(Civil Coping Mechanisms)
Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord
(Small Beer Press)

Ten More of the Best:
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman(Tor)
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
and The Broken Kingdoms by NK Jemisin(Orbit)
Kill the Dead by Richard Kadrey(Eos)
The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich(Two Dollar Radio)
The Gaslight Dogs by Karin Lowachee(Orbit)
The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers by Thomas Mullen(Random House)
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor(DAW )
The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer(St. Martin’s)
Birdbrain by Johanna Sinisalo(Peter Owen)
A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter by Peter Straub(Pegasus)

Heroic Fantasy–Larry Nolen
1. Carlos Gardini, Tríptico de Trinidad (Bibliopolis, Spain)
2. N.K. Jemisin, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (Orbit)
3. George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois (eds.), Warriors (Tor)
4. Paul Kearney, Corvus (Solaris)
5. Andrzej Sapkowski, La Dama del Lago, volumen 2 (Alamut, Spain)
6. Ian Cameron Esslemont, Stonewielder (Transworld, UK)
7. Jonathan Strahan and Lou Anders (eds.), Swords & Dark Magic (Harper Voyager)
8. Adrian Tchaikovsky, Salute the Dark (Pyr; Tor UK)
9. Brandon Sanderson, The Way of Kings (Tor)

Top 10–Gwenda Bond (with an emphasis on YA, although not exclusively)1. White Cat by Holly Black (Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books)
2. Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi (Little, Brown)
3. Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves (Simon Pulse)
4. Clockwork Angel by Cassandra Clare (Simon & Schuster/McElderry Books)
5. Fever Crumb by Philip Reeve (Scholastic)
6. Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes (Little, Brown)
7. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
8. What I Didn’t See and Other Stories by Karen Joy Fowler (Small Beer Press)
9. The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook (Berkley)
10. Blackout and All Clear by Connie Willis (Ballantine Spectra)

Top 10 SF Novels – Adam Roberts (in alpha order)Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (Angry Robot)
Project Itoh, Harmony (Haikasoru)
Tom McCarthy, C (Jonathan Cape; Knopf)
Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House (Gollancz; Pyr)
Hannu Rajaniemi The Quantum Thief (Gollancz)
Francis Spufford Red Plenty (Faber)
Tricia Sullivan, Lightborn (Orbit)
Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe (Canongate; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Jean-Christophe Valtat, Aurorama (Melville)
Charles Yu, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe (Corvus; Pantheon)

Five Unique Books: Ducornet, Agus, Appanah, Chapman, Kang

Jeff VanderMeer • February 2nd, 2011 • Book Reviews, Uncategorized

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Five rather intriguing and unique books have entered the house the past few days, and I’d like to put some special emphasis on them. I haven’t read them yet, but have sampled all of them.

Netsukeby Rikki Ducornet—One of our iconic surrealists, Ducornet has gone very dark this time, with a tale of a psychologist who “seduces both patients and strangers,” in a feat of very deep characterization. A strange and unusual book.

From the Land of the Moonby Milena Agus—Set in Sardinia, this is another treasure from Europa editions by the looks of it. A young woman reflecting on the life of her grandmother, telling a sweeping story that’s charming and painful. A short novel but a grand scope.

The Last Brother: A Novelby Nathana Appanah—Set during World War II on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, this novel, from a sampling, is both devastating and beautifully written. The book follows the life of nine-year-old Raj who is put in a prison camp and meets a Jewish refugee named David. The novel focuses on Raj’s life in the camp and the two boys’ attempts to escape.

Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imaginationby Minsoo Kang—A wonderful short story writer, Kang has turned his hand to nothing less than a history of automata that looks absolutely fascinating. There are chapters on Alexandria, Masahiro Mori, Vaucanson, Borelli, Kempelen, Capek, Metropolis, and more. (I’m honored that my “Dradin, In Love” is mentioned on page 46.)

Your Presence Is Requested at Suvanto: A Novelby Maile Chapman—I’ve read Chapman’s short stories and they’re brillliant, especially the one we reprinted in Best American Fantasy. This first novel made a Guardian list of best first novels while being criminally under-appreciated here. Junot Diaz says it best: “Maile Chapman is one of my favorite writers and in [her novel] she has given us an eerie gift…It is a superb hallucinatory piercing, an ominous dispatch from that Gothic frontier of the Female Body.” The novel’s set in a convalescent hospital in Finland and the writing, again from a sampling, is brilliant. Compared also to early McEwan and Highsmith.

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Three Bloggers Blogging: Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer

Jeff VanderMeer • February 1st, 2011 • Book Reviews

This is the fourth in a series of reviews done by myself, Larry Nolen, and Paul Smith. Each of us (along with the occasional guest reviewer) reads and reviews the book selected independently of the others’ opinions. Larry and Paul’s reviews may be found at the respective links above, along with a summary post on Amazon’s book blog. Next up: the work of Eric Basso.

Gerry Alanguilan’s Elmer, first published by Komikero in the Philippines, was finally picked up by SLG in North America last year. The four-book comic now collected as a graphic novel tells the story of a family of chickens and their interactions with human beings in the aftermath of chickens everywhere mysteriously becoming intelligent. Thankfully, Alanguilan doesn’t waste time trying to explain why chickens have become intelligent. Instead, he employs a structure that follows chicken Jake Gallo’s quest years later to understand his father, Elmer, and also to understand the horrors and mercies of the past. Elmer’s left behind a diary, and Jake reads through it, Alanguilan using flashback sequences to devastating effect, their power in part due to the contrast with the scenes set in the relative normalcy of the present.

There are many moments of pathos in Elmer, scenes that will stick with me for a long time, but perhaps the one that got to me the most also explains why Elmer is so effective in presenting seriously and with great skill an idea that in summary seems destined for humor. Jake’s sick mother, from her bed, recounts what those first moments of sentience were like: “It was as if someone turned on a light. Like waking up from a long sleep and you don’t remember who you are, where you were…and what time or day it was. I couldn’t really remember anything. Except that I was hungry. As if I was always hungry. I wanted to eat. It was a desire that seemed to completely consume me. Then the screaming began…”

This leads to one of the great page-turns in recent comics history, when she realizes she’s in a poultry kill line.

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This style used by Alanguilan is so important to Elmer. It is detailed but clean, never cluttered. It allows the text to support a realism in the art that makes the reader move past any doubt about the seriousness of the intent. This style also allows Alanguilan to give his chicken characters personality without reducing them to caricatures. The faces are expressive while still being specifically chicken-like. Some readers will want to read parallels to real-life bigotry and real-life events, and I think this is secondarily Alanguilan’s purpose. But the primary challenge he faced was to tell a story about chickens that become intelligent, and it’s from the foundation of making the reader believe in that story that any other effects are at all possible. In other words, Elmer can become metaphorical only after it’s become real.

Elmer is also solidly about family. All the great art in the world wouldn’t matter if Alanguilan didn’t keep the spotlight firmly on this family of chickens and their bond to human allies. Son Jake is a good kid, the father is admirable if at times distant, the rest all have their quirks, their foibles, the things that make them distinctive. You genuinely care about these people, and you worry terribly about what they go through. A real depth of feeling comes through on the pages, a sense of the author knowing these characters very well. To accomplish this in the short span of a relatively slim graphic novel is nearly miraculous and speaks to the level of the creator’s skill.

I have to admit that I teared up a few times reading and re-reading Elmer, something that almost never happens to me.

Note my prior post about the limited edition version of Elmer that the creator so kindly sent to me.

Eric Basso’s in the House

Jeff VanderMeer • January 28th, 2011 • Book Reviews

Over the next two or three months, I’ll be reading most of these books by surrealist/gothic/weirdlit writer Eric Basso. Joining me in posting reviews will be Larry Nolen, Paul Charles Smith, and Matthew Pridham. If you want to read along, order some of them (we’re especially focusing on the fiction, nonfiction, and plays), post about them, and I’ll crosslink on the Amazon book blog.

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