Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

Blackbirds, by Chuck Wendig

Fair warning, I disliked everything about this novel except for the original premise, which could have been written into a wonderful story if the author hadn't been obsessed with violence and grime and sadism and filth and blood and pain. But now I'll explain why.

None of those things are inherently interesting in themselves. Obsession with all of them together turned what could have been a fascinating Cassandra story into a boring and incredibly repetitive recitation of signifiers. I'm not even sure what he thinks these things signify, but I'm going to suggest that the idea is reality, grit, truth, being down to earth. Maybe that's not it. I honestly don't get why someone thinks being filthy (actual dirt, actual old dried blood and crust) makes a person more interesting than being clean. I do know this is a guy thing generally. They can keep it.

The core of the story itself really is fascinating. Miriam can tell with a touch when and how someone is going to die. Cool, right? But what does she do with that? Nothing. She is busy suffering, bouncing from place to place, stealing from people whose deaths she predicts then witnesses, tormented by this knowledge and by how helpless she is to do anything to change it, right up until the end of the book, where she discovers she can actually save someone if she's willing to kill someone else in their place.

It's a fantasy novel because there is no explanation for these rules. In science fiction, there would be something given to explain this, even if it's pseudoscience or futuristic to the point of magic. Here we get nothing. The closest we get is learning through backstory that Miriam had a rough life growing up with an awful controlling mother, rebelled by having sex with a boy, got pregnant, then suffered even more from that because he committed suicide when she rebuffed him, and then when his mother beat her with a snow shovel, she lost the baby. Okay. All bad things, but that still doesn't explain why she got this Cassandra death power.

Miriam's meaningless wanderings lead her to hitchhiking and filthy dive bars, where she can get beat up and risk her life and show off her impossible fighting skills, until she gets tangled up with an abusive asshole thief who stole from drug dealers. Great. This sort of thing is stock for a certain kind of men's fantasy novels and I don't know why. Is this what they would do in her place? Do they like imagining a woman being tough and getting beat up? Do they imagine this is the coolest, toughest thing in the world, because if a man did this, he'd just be another guy, but a woman doing it makes it even more dangerous and more intense?

Again, I really don't know. All I know is that reading this endless repetition of dirt, blood, bruises, alcohol, coffee, cigarettes, pain, bodily functions, and the occasional cheeseburger, feels like the book was written by an AI loaded with a specific set of fetishes. The story could have been wonderful if it hadn't been buried under all this obsessive nonsense.

It's not just men who write this sort of thing. I remembered some truly terrible novels that play on some of the same things, about a vampire hunter. I can't think of the name off hand but there's this same sense of a particular set of fetishes getting dragged out over and over and over. When you don't share those fetishes, they are boring and embarrassing. I suppose if you do share them, they at least distract from the lack of storytelling.

One of my old favorite books is C.J. Cherryh's Rimrunners, which features a down on her luck space Marine stranded on a space station. She keeps very clean on space station restroom soap, unlike Miriam Black, and she's in this situation for a vital story reason, not because she thinks it's fun. Things get violent and scary and Cherryh tends to hit all of the same black eye, broken rib, tough guy notes, but the difference is: it's for a specific plot-driven reason, not because it's fun for the author. That comes through very clearly. And Yeager turns things around on her own timetable, for her own purposes, while Black has no purpose in anything she does, which makes all the violence feel completely gratuitous.

Here's another genre comparison: all those terrible books on "faerie." The same problem happens there as in Blackbirds. Instead of telling a good story, a surprising number of authors (and therefore presumably readers) just hit a prescribed set of indicators about these faerie courts. They never actually tell a good story about this material, and since those signifiers mean nothing to me, it feels like a cardboard recitation. Maybe there's some ur-faerie text that you have to read to be interested in this stuff, but I can't imagine being motivated to find it when every single faerie book is so unrelentingly bad.

This is what it's like. Sit in a restaurant with two friends who have a long shared experience that you don't have. Get them to tell you about that one time when they went on a trip to Kansas together. They're always referring to it, so now you can get the whole story. They will devolve into just saying single words or phrases to each other and then dissolving into laughter. "The pool!" Gales of laughter. "The slide!" More laughter. Then they'll say together: "The buffet!" And they'll laugh until they cry, while you sit there with a polite half smile and alphabetize the sugar packets until you can pay the check and leave.

Did you get anything out of that Kansas story they told? No? They did. They had a blast. You probably just felt alienated. But that's because they didn't actually tell a story. They just hit a bunch of signifiers that mean a lot to them and nothing to anyone else.

That's how all that seelie and unseelie court nonsense reads in faerie books, like one person signaling another and saying, "This is our stuff." That's how this book felt. All I can think when I read yet another meaningless chapter about yet another disgusting motel room and coffee and whiskey and sudden violence is: "I guess that's what he thinks is cool." None of that repetitive nonsense tells a story AT ALL. It adds nothing about character, since she was established on page one. It doesn't even further the plot. The entire book was like this, with a few scraps of story here and there that could have been condensed into a literal short story without losing anything.

This is not to say the same thing doesn't happen with literary fiction, because it absolutely does, which is one reason I'm not a big fan of a lot of literary fiction. Miserable well-off people making each other miserable. Hurray. One more sighing unfaithful pre-divorce miserable white couple in one more great big exhausting house in the suburbs with one more broken down lawn mower/car/child/line of communication that signifies the banal repetition and aging of what was once young and exciting. WE GET IT. Or worse, another literary novel about an aging professor who falls for a young female student, oh lord. No.

What I love to see is someone telling a cracking good story and putting their own misery or fetishes off to the side. Don't just indicate to your audience or wave flags they will recognize, but live through the characters in their worlds. Otherwise it all feels like cheap button-pushing.

There was someone who used to read her autobiographical work to an audience and always included a passage where a beloved housepet died. It made me so angry to the point of walking out (I did) because it was so cheap and manipulative. And that's exactly the point. When your own animals die, it's the very worst thing in the entire world. But using that to yank your audience's chain should be beneath all of us. That's how I feel about all of this whiskey and cigarettes and black eyes and truck stops and coffee kind of writing. It's all cheap signifiers when that space could have been used for so much more.

I really hope I the next book I read doesn't do this sort of thing!

Monday, May 28, 2018

13 Reasons Why -- Jay Asher

This is an odd book structurally because of the dual storylines. It's not so much flashback as paired narrative, as we follow Clay in the present listening to Hannah in the past narrating stories about events in the even further past, all of them about people who hurt her in ways that led to her suicide.

It's also an odd book because Clay makes Hannah's story all about himself in a way that he's not made aware of at all. I was struck by this all throughout the novel, that both halves of the story make everything that happens to Hannah all about Clay, but Clay never wakes up or grows up enough to realize that this story is NOT about him. It's really not. In fact, I would say Hannah's message to Clay is to stop making everything about himself, but he doesn't get that, either, and at the end decides he's going to be the savior for another disaffected girl and save her from herself. That's the message he gets: this other girl's story is also all about him.

Everyone is self-centered, but this takes things to the next level. It's so unselfconscious all throughout that I wonder whether it's a meta-commentary on selfishness, but I don't think so. It's possible the author perfectly replicated teenage self-absorption without commenting on it. Hannah certainly comments on it all throughout, pointing out all of the people who couldn't be bothered stepping outside themselves to treat her as a person, but Clay misses that point every time.

Hannah: Nobody thinks of me as a person.
Clay: Did I do that? Oh God, I did, didn't I. I'm so guilty of that. I feel terrible. If only I had done xyz to save poor Hannah, whom I loved, from those other jerks. I'm such a jerk too. How could I be such a jerk? [beats self up for six more pages]

I would like to see a more evolved Clay think instead: That must have been terrible for Hannah.

He did get there to a certain extent eventually, but made that about himself as well, since he decided to save Skye more or less to prevent ever feeling that guilty again. As a character arc, this was pretty non-existent and covers the distance from 100% self-absorption to 97% self-absorption. I was not impressed with Clay from beginning to end and found him to be a navel-gazer almost entirely without empathy for others to the point where he's almost a sociopath.

Hannah suffers from a lot of awful treatment, as well as severe depression, but her character more than anything is about long term solutions to short term problems. The bullying and slandering she endures would slide off the back of anyone without severe depression. She actually lists things like a boy stealing her poem, and someone spreading a rumor about her. They are very small events, I think deliberately on the part of the author, because the point is that these events do not in any way merit suicide. Hanna would not decide it's the end of the world if she had any support structure or healthy coping mechanisms. So Hannah is also a character without much of an arc. She seems to put all of her self-worth in the hands of a lot of juvenile assholes, a terrible decision, obviously, and then accepts their treatment of her as a fair representation of the world. I'm also not sure what pure sparkling bubble she was living in before where nobody was ever a jerk, such that it's a complete shock to her here.

Hannah's character was written mainly to argue against suicide, so in a lot of ways she makes all these mistakes for the benefit of readers who can then see what not to do. Reach out to others, don't take the short term for the long term, ask for help explicitly, talk to parents, call the hotlines, and so on. Hannah models what not to do. I wish I could feel like Clay also models what not to do, but he's not presented that way, even though his thought processes are absurdly self-involved. Instead, he's presented as normal, even good, innocent, justified, and explicable.

Neither character felt fully realized to me. Neither followed much of an arc. The book itself hung on the tension of Clay finding out who had done what to Hannah, which also felt strange to me since their school was such a hotbed of gossip. How did all of these things stay secret? But for the audience, it was incredibly tense.

I really liked the way that Clay had to use an old-fashioned Walkman to listen, and had to follow the map around town to see all of the different locations. That gave the novel an excellent structure and raised the stakes for Clay as he was on a timetable not of his own making. It also gave us a good reason to explore all of these different locations and gave each one of them intense meaning.

I can't think of a better term than manpain for putting Clay through all of these emotionally wrenching moments. It bothered me a lot that this story about a young woman's extreme emotional and physical suffering was told through transmuting it into a young man's emotional suffering.

This reminded me of a horrible habit I've seen in some shows, notable Battlestar Galactica and its prequel Caprica, of setting up women being raped offscreen but showing us the suffering of the men who love them, prioritizing and literally foreground that suffering. The women's pain is used as a secondary source for the men's pain, which is set up to be much more interesting or important. I truly hate that and so when this whole book followed that same pattern, it was infuriating and felt like a betrayal of Hannah's own story. This book is all about Clay taking Hannah's pain and making it about himself.

The ending especially undercut the value of Hannah herself as it was set up as Clay learning something from Hannah's death and going out to save another girl from herself. That also gives Clay too much credit. Was there anything he could have done to save Hannah? Maybe he could have gone after those assholes who were tormenting her. Maybe he could have stood up for her in public. He thinks his biggest fault was leaving her alone at a party when she asked to be left alone, but that's absurd. Again, he makes it all about his own experience.

In the end I hated Clay for being a self-absorbed clueless dope who hijacked Hannah's suffering for himself and never got the message at all that the secret to life and friends and keeping others from suicide, if possible, is to stop being so goddamn self-absorbed.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Shannon Hale: Book of a Thousand Days

            In this young adult novel, Shannon Hale tells the classic princess in a tower story first by setting it in a version of medieval Mongolia, and then by inverting everything about it. The princess, Saren, is a beautiful but terrified, traumatized, and probably mentally ill daughter of gentry, completely unable even to comb her own hair. The real star of the story is Dashti, a “mucker” girl, a nomadic herder who was put out of her clan along with her mother when times got tough, who then after her mother died, gave up her freedom to get a place working for the gentry, Saren’s father. In other words, the story is about one character who has everything except capability, and one who has nothing but capability. The two get bricked into a tower together for seven years by Saren’s father when Saren refuses to marry a nightmarish and animalistic lord, Lord Khasar, having formed an attachment to another lord, Khan Tegus, whom she met when they were both children and, crucially, has not seen since.
            Our heroine, Dashti, is appealing from the very beginning because when she is bricked into the tower, she is delighted to be practically on vacation, with all the food in the world provided, and only one spoiled and helpless girl to look after. She has led an incredibly hard life so far, going hungry, working to exhaustion, living on practically nothing, but she had the benefit Saren did not of a mother who loved her. Dashti’s mother also taught her the healing songs that get Dashti her job with the gentry in the first place. Unlike Saren, who does not know what to do with herself, Dashti is able to fill her days with cooking, cleaning, caring for the princess, singing, drawing, and writing in her diary. When Khan Tegus comes to visit, Saren insists that Dashti pretend to be her and speak with him through their tiny window, such that Tegus and Dashti actually end up falling in love without ever seeing each other.
            I was interested in reading this novel as part of the series of books about transformative spaces that I’ve been covering this semester. Getting bricked into the tower does not really transform either girl, however. I’m reminded of Joss Whedon’s complaint about the lack of character arc with many heroes, which I can’t find online (it was in a Firefly DVD commentary track, if I remember correctly) but I would paraphrase it this way: “He’s a brave and heroic man who under pressure is…brave and heroic!” Dashti remains the pragmatic one who eventually figures a way out of the tower, when the monstrous lord threatens to burn them out of it. Saren remains terrified and hopeless and incapable, even afraid of leaving the tower and facing the blue sky when she is freed. I find it very interesting that Saren’s one piece of strength lies in refusing Lord Khasar and making Dashti take her place in speaking with Khan Tegus. In other words, she adamantly opposes any interaction with these potential suitors, even when she does nothing else.
            There is major character development, but it doesn’t come from the tower. The two girls make their way to the city where Khan Tegus is the lord and get work in the kitchens there. Saren eventually gets some sense smacked into her by the no nonsense kitchen staff and learns to do some work, earning herself some self-respect, while Dashti’s healing skills take her to Khan Tegus himself when he is injured. Although Dashti tells Khan Tegus she is a mucker maid, he soon realizes from her voice that she is the person he fell in love with in the tower, upon which Saren insists that Dashti lie and say she is actually Saren.
            Complications ensue, but finally Dashti manages to defeat the evil Lord Khasar, takes her own identity again, and marries Khan Tegus. It’s a fairy tale ending but Dashti gets there through extreme physical danger, personal bravery, and a tremendous life-threatening conflict between her duty to obedience to Saren as gentry versus her obedience to the laws. Ultimately the two girls exchange their places in the world, a deeply satisfying conclusion given Dashti’s constant fight for survival and Saren’s weedy, spineless nature that made me want to slap her for about nine tenths of the novel.
            I wondered throughout: could this novel have played out purely in the tower? Once someone is locked in a tower, escape looms pretty large on the narrative landscape. I don’t think there’s a way to tell a compelling tower story without escape being on the horizon somewhere, any more than you can tell a good generation ship story without having the ship land somewhere eventually. I keep coming back to The Count of Monte Cristo and his imprisonment, and of course The Shawshank Redemption, another terrific story of unjust imprisonment and escape. It’s an archetypal story, really, one which must always end in true justice being served, like in The Walls Around Us. Again and again I keep trying to think of ways for the story to play out just inside the tower. It’s nagging at me! Shouldn’t escape be the end of the story? Shouldn’t the people locked in the tower only be able to escape by overcoming whatever internal obstacles are embodied by their external obstacles?
            What is the connection between the gothic novel’s scary houses and these stories of imprisonment and escape? I will have to explore this much more in my essay semester. I wrote my dissertation on the stories written as inspiration for medieval anchoresses who walled themselves into tiny cells, come to think of it. As a committed claustrophobe who can get a panic attack from a sports bra, I might be opening a disturbing can of worms here. Is there any other kind, though? Who puts worms in cans? Speaking of claustrophobic situations.
            Ultimately, Book of a Thousand Days is about transformation through sympathy and empathy with another. Dashti can’t escape her own caste upbringing without learning to see the gentry as real people, not the exalted magical beings she imagines them to be at the beginning. Saren can’t escape her own learned helplessness until she sees the work of regular people as something that anyone can do, instead of something that is part of the workers’ nature. Both girls have to come to grips with Lord Khasar’s actual animal nature, as well as Khan Tegus’s real responsibilities to the laws of the land. In the end it’s Dashti who saves them physically, but it’s Saren who figures out a loophole in the laws and customs that allows Dashti to escape execution for presumption of rank.
            I find this an incredibly satisfying novel, but it’s not really about the two girls being locked into a tower. It’s about two girls who are locked into their strict social roles and have to free themselves from those.

Terry Pratchett: The Shepherd's Crown

            This is the final novel in a shorter series set within Pratchett’s larger Discworld fantasy series. These novels focus on a young witch named Tiffany Aching who starts out as a child, just discovering her magical power, and end with Tiffany finally taking full control of her power and owning her place in the world.
            I wanted to study this novel despite its weaknesses because Tiffany’s story is built on houses. Her story really begins with the death of her grandmother, a shepherd and unacknowledged witch who lived up on the downs in a shepherd’s hut. Granny Aching’s hut is burned after her death, leaving only the axles and wheels and a pot-belled iron stove. For her education, Tiffany leaves her parents’ home and goes to study with other witches, living in their houses and working for them. But this novel begins with Tiffany’s mentor, Granny Weatherwax, also dying, and leaving her house—and the associated work of taking care of the villagers around it—to Tiffany.
            Splitting her time between Granny Weatherwax’s workload and Tiffany’s home workload overwhelms and exhausts Tiffany, so a great deal of the novel involves her running back and forth and trying to be everywhere at once. The ending has Tiffany finally choosing and deciding to give away Granny Weatherwax’s house and going back up to the downs where her own Granny Aching lived, building herself a new shepherd’s hut using Granny Aching’s old hut’s wheels, and settling down there.
            What is a house? In this world, a witch’s house isn’t just a place to live. It carries a weight of obligation to all the people around it. It’s a job and a responsibility. Granny Weatherwax’s house includes her bees, her garden, and even her old boots, so that someone stepping into Granny’s place really is trying to fill her shoes. Granny’s place is also a tremendous honor, since she’s the de facto leader of all the witches. By willing her house and her position to Tiffany, Granny Weatherwax also gives Tiffany a tremendous compliment.
            This book is the last chapter we’re ever going to get in the Discworld series, since the author died even before its publication. The conclusion feels especially portentous because of it. Tiffany unites her two divergent strands of history by coming back home and taking over the location that has always belonged to her grandmother, who is actually buried right there. By building her own shepherd’s hut, Tiffany refuses to live in anyone else’s house, even the house of the most powerful witch, even when that house comes with great respect.
            I’m still thinking a lot about houses in fiction, houses that make us into who we are, houses that confine, protect, express, and tie down. I can’t think of another instance in fiction where someone rejects a house they were given. I’m sure my own circumstances, and the book I’m working on right now, are affecting how I see houses in general, but it’s interesting to think about how difficult it must be to look a gift house in the mouth. We don’t inherit houses as a rule, these days. People die and their houses are sold, so that we aren’t pulled into that cycle of tradition and obligation. Instead, we go out and choose the house we want to live in. Houses are choices embodied. As a renter, it’s easy (and extremely fun) to look at an available house and imagine myself living there, mentally arrange all of my furniture around the place, consider the direction of sunlight and the logistics of groceries and snow plowing. But it’s almost like trying on clothes in a store. If it doesn’t fit, no big deal. A renter isn’t committed. Apartments are the same, a space that by definition is impermanent. A motel room can be perfectly suitable for overnight, but it would be impossible to imagine living there happily long term.
            As someone slightly obsessed with houses, I’ve read a lot lately about the “tiny house” movement: hand made mobile, self-contained homes on wheels. What a bizarre but fascinating movement! The aesthetic appeal is clear, with the custom woodwork and design features, and of course Tiffany’s shepherd hut is well represented in the tiny house movement, where actual shepherd’s huts like hers appear. The other main point of appeal is that these houses are on wheels and movable. Someone can own a house, but without the dictates of land and the limitations of location. These houses are built on trailers to get around local ordinances about minimum size for permanent housing, but also so that the owners can take them on the road. Looking at the interiors is an exercise in mentally getting rid of accumulated stuff, something that always leads me to think: “This would be great if it were ten times the size and built on an actual foundation, with bookshelves, storage space, plumbing, electricity, cable internet, a washer, a dryer, and a yard.” In other words, an actual house. I admire these exquisitely designed and compact living spaces, and then remember a) I moved in a 26 foot truck the last time (though I asked for 22—they were out), which is much bigger than any tiny house, an insuperable mathematical difficulty to be sure, and b) I’m incredibly claustrophobic. Tiny houses sell the dream of having only the essentials, living a compact and low impact life, being frugal and careful and minimalist. Nothing makes me more aware of my maximalist tendencies.
            Tiny houses are dollhouses for people. They’re miniaturized and idealized versions of real places to live, and as such, more of a way of thinking about our lives than realistic places to live. Fiction works the same way, especially this kind of fiction, set in a fantasy world. And within fiction, fictional houses express the shape of the world as it fits around us. The gothic novel sees the world fitting around us in terrifying ways, constricting, endangering, or confining us. These fantasy novels see the world fitting around us in ways that express obligation and responsibility, as well as history and tradition. What is a house? For this novel, a house carries all of that, including expectation and plans for the future. I’m very glad that Tiffany Aching finally got a house of her own, after bouncing from place to place for six novels, but I’m also glad that it’s on wheels.