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There’s been a notably high number of dystopian novels being published in recent years and it feels like this reflects a widespread anxiety. Novels such as “Station Eleven”, “The Country of Ice Cream Star”, “The Power” and “Hazards of Time Travel” have all taken very different approaches to creating scarily convincing counter-realities to our present landscape, especially in regards to misogynistic attitudes towards women. It’s always interesting to see how new dystopian fiction tries to create an urgent, radical dialogue with society today. The presumption being: if we don’t pay attention to what’s happening around us this nightmarish landscape might come sooner than we think. In the case of “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Atwood has famously said the novel contains nothing which hasn’t already happened in the world.

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel “Leila” deals directly with issues of the caste system in India which has such a far-reaching, complex history and continues to incite horrific instances of violence. The novel takes the divisions between castes to the extreme where physical walls are erected to separate communities from each other, shore in resources for members of “elite” castes and strive towards a “purity” of race and social status. This is filtered through the perspective of Shalini who mourns the disappearance of her daughter Leila when she was suddenly lost after Shalini was seized and taken to a government-sanctioned reform camp. For years she’s secretly schemed how to find her daughter again amidst an aggressively conservative and strict system. Finally her plans might be carried out. We follow her journey as she puts her plot into action and recalls the horrific events which led to this dire situation.

I feel like some of the references in the novel were definitely lost on me because I have such a slim understanding of how the caste system works in India. There’s such a profusion of subcastes and subtleties to the way religion and social status play into how classifications of caste dictate the position of individuals in society that I sometimes felt disorientated and confused. I don’t think that mattered though because what carried me through the story was Shalini’s plight, the urgent concerns of motherhood and the egregious violence inflicted upon her mind and body. I felt the impact of her struggle and Akbar renders scenes of trauma with skilled clarity. Shalini was living quite a comfortable existence in a liberal lifestyle though she was aware that regressive attitudes and mob-like violence inflicted by a puritanical group called the Repeaters were increasing. But all this felt quite removed from her life until it reaches her doorstep and when it does it’s really effective.

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What’s particularly interesting about Akbar’s narrative is that, though Shalini is a very sympathetic character, it gradually becomes apparent that she has her own prejudices and ignorance about the suffering of members of different castes. At the same time, she’s just an ordinary woman whose primary concern is for the welfare of her daughter. But, when the political landscape changes and a woman named Sapna who used to be Shalini’s nanny has acquired a very different social position, Shalini is forced to consider what mental walls she maintained against others. While this shift might feel overstated at points, it’s nonetheless effective in creating a multifaceted story which is as riveting in its mystery as it is in prompting readers to consider how we might all possess forms of  blindness to the suffering of people who are different from us. Akbar’s writing also has a beautiful fluidity which is a pleasure to read. He formerly worked as a journalist and it’s striking how his concern for investigating social issues has now translated into fiction.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPrayaag Akbar
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It’s a common trope in Young Adult novels to feature a teenage protagonist in a dystopian future who is penalized for fighting against an oppressive system. That’s exactly the story Joyce Carol Oates writes in her new novel HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL. However, this is not a Young Adult novel. Oates is certainly familiar with the form and nature of YA fiction having written several books in this genre. It’d be natural to assume that she’s utilizing her expertise in this form and is also making a departure from her typically realistic fiction to branch into feminist dystopian fiction. There is a cycle of novels in this form particularly prevalent in literature today (as described by Alexandra Alter in a recent New York Times article ‘How Feminist Dystopian Fiction is Channeling Women’s Anger and Anxiety’ in which she cites Oates’s novel.) But the journey and outcome of Oates’s highly unusual new novel is much more startling and darkly subversive than any tale that could be categorized as Young Adult. Instead, HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL engages with ideas of behavioural psychology and Cold War politics to form an utterly unique commentary on society today. It also incorporates many autobiographical elements which surprisingly might make it one of Oates’s most personal and reflective novels yet.

The year is NAS-23 in the 16th Federal District, Eastern-Atlantic States. To put this in perspective, this novel actually takes place only a few years in the future. History proceeding the 9/11 attacks has been erased and dates in the North American States (NAS) begin from this point. In this newly reconstituted country which has absorbed the territories of Mexico and Canada, free speech and private thoughts are tightly controlled by the government. People are segmented into official racial categories determined by skin colour. Adriane Strohl is a curious and intelligent high school student who has been recognized as the class valedictorian and she’s invited to give a speech to the student body. She takes this opportunity to ask general questions which the government doesn’t like to be asked. As a consequence she’s punished by being designated an EI (Exiled Individual) and transported back through time to Zone 9. Here it is the year 1959 and she’s required to attend a university in Wisconsin “to train yourself in a socially useful profession.” She is equipped only with a new name (Mary Ellen Enright) and a list of instructions which prohibit her from leaving the area, developing intimate relationships or speaking about the future. Adriane knows that any deviation will result in her being “Deleted” – an example of what being deleted entails is vividly and terrifyingly portrayed in an opening section. From this point, she sets out to navigate this tricky and unfamiliar landscape of the past.

According to Greg Johnson’s biography of Oates, INVISIBLE WRITER, the author was also a valedictorian given the dubious honour of making a speech to the student body. Like Adriane, Oates was terrified about making this speech. It’s interesting how Oates’ own apparent fears and preoccupations manifest throughout the entire novel. In effect, Adriane is transported back in time to live through Joyce Carol Oates’ own university years in a region analogous to Syracuse University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison where the author earned her graduate and post-graduate degrees. Like Oates, Adriane/Mary Ellen finds it necessary to earn her keep while she’s a student by working gruelling hours in a part time job in a library for a pitiful amount of money. Some of Oates’s fiction, most notably MARYA: A LIFE and I’LL TAKE YOU THERE, revolve around periods of adolescent experience which are very similar to Oates’ own. HAZARDS OF TIME TRAVEL is a novel that seems to borrow more freely from her autobiographical experience. As such, I believe the author uses her own past as a metafictional device to creatively explore issues concerning memory, guilt, free will, psychology and history.

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At university Adriane is plagued by feelings of loneliness and she becomes fixated with an assistant professor of psychology named Ira Wolfman. Not only does she feel a romantic desire towards him, but he is also revealed to be an Exiled Individual from the future serving out a punishment. At one point, Wolfman calls into question the validity of their surroundings: “’Exile’? ‘Teletransportation’? ‘Zone Nine’? None of this is real, Adriane. It’s a construct.” This introduces dilemmas poised somewhere between the metaphysical issues raised in the films Blade Runner and The Matrix. Are these characters only imagining that they’re from the future? If they’ve been exiled to the past are they really being monitored? Is their “rehabilitation” really a part of a larger design? Adding to these sinister questions are those raised by Adriane’s classes on B.F. Skinner and his morally dubious behaviouralist experiments. The novel begins with the epigram from Skinner “A self is simply a device for representing a functionally unified system of responses.” Are Adriane’s choices and decisions ultimately the result of her environment and the government she lives under? How much agency does she have to enact change in her surroundings and determine her own future? These questions pile on top of each other over the course of the story and build into a fever of paranoia and uncertainty so that the novel’s conclusion (which would be considered positive in any other circumstance) feels incredibly sinister and horrific.

The many issues this novel raises over the course of the story powerfully coalesce to reflect anxieties and fears about the current political climate in America today. It also allows Oates opportunities for more playful commentary about the direction our culture is taking. In NAS-23 there are no democrats or republicans; there is just the Patriot Party. Voting is performed by placing a smiling emoji next to the candidate of choice. But Oates also pokes fun of some antiquated aspects of culture from the 50s and 60s. Adriane observes how agonizing it is wearing hair curlers to bed. Paper feels horribly inadequate to her as a reading device. Adriane’s unique point of view also casts new light on the Red Scare and threat of nuclear war which coloured this time period. By considering a period of personal and political upheaval in US history through this form of speculative fiction, Oates prompts us to question what are the real threats to the country as well as deeper anxieties about how our society is evolving. At one point Adriane/Mary Ellen states “time turns back upon itself. You believe that you are making progress, but it is an illusion. Yet, this is progress of a kind.” Given our proximity in time to NAS-23, Oates appears to be postulating how we need to step back before leaping forward.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I think some of the greatest feminist dystopian fiction includes Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”, Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve”, Sandra Newman’s "The Country of Ice Cream Star" and Naomi Alderman’s “The Power”. They don’t just speculate about terrifying ways that humanity can go wrong for women, but also powerfully comment upon the continued subjugation of women today. Lidia Yuknavitch has created an utterly original and wildly imaginative take on this narrative in her new novel “The Book of Joan”. This novel takes readers to the near-future 2049 when a series of cataclysmic events have reduced our planet to a “dirt ball” around which orbits a slipshod repurposed satellite. Upon this resides the mutant elite of humankind who survive on the scarce resources they can suck out of the decimated planet Earth. This will most certainly be the end of the human race as these mutants’ genitals have dropped off or sealed up and people’s skin has turned so (ugly) white they are nearly transparent. They are led by a powerful former self-help guru Jean de Men who organizes trials and executions of “offending” citizens as entertainment. But there is a resistance to this tyranny in the form of a strike branding artist Christine who tattoos poetry on the grafted skin covering her body. She mythologizes the story of Joan who created chaos across the planet and was ritually burned like her 15th century French-warrior namesake. The ensuing conflict is not only a mesmerizing and grisly adventure but makes striking observations about gender, genetics and the meaning of story-telling.

So I couldn’t help thinking that Yuknavitch was speaking directly about today when Christine comments: “We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power. Our existence makes my eyes hurt.” It’s difficult not to read this as a reference to the current American president. It’s interesting how she engages with the way that popularity and power intermingle and the compromises and resolutions such a leader must make to either maintain their image as a beloved celebrity or flagrantly abuse their power to ensure the general population falls into line. This is shown differently in both of the figures of Jean de Men and Joan. Notably, she does so not just in these characters’ actions but in the way their bodies are radically transformed and mutate as they utilize previously untapped elements from both nature and technology.

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It’s difficult in dystopian fiction to maintain a balance between explaining the conditions of an imagined future reality and developing characters that readers can really connect with. There were sections of this novel which flew over my head. Yuknavitch ambitiously builds this distorted future by playing upon many elements of philosophy and science such as subatomic physics. She also hints at bands of rebels and subservient robots. To fully flesh out this future would have taken thousands of pages, yet there could have been ways to briefly round out her fantastical reality to help me fully picture it. Unfortunately, I couldn’t always clearly see it so parts of the novel felt too chaotic to me. But she makes up for it with some fantastic characters whose very bodies carry the scars of what they’ve gone through. There is Christine’s gay friend Trinculo who affectionately and relentlessly spouts antiquated bawdy insults at her. There’s also the love affair between Joan and Leone who is a Vietnamese-French girl that fights alongside her in battles across the world.

One of the most striking things in this novel is the way that poetry and verse becomes an adornment that symbolizes privilege. Christine emphasizes that tattooing text is an art and since their group of mutant beings keep grafting on layers of skin it’s like parchment which they carry with them everywhere. She emphatically holds onto the importance of storytelling because “To have a story was to have a self.” The difficulty with real historical tales like that of Joan of Arc is that her story can be shaped into whatever its tellers need it to be. She could be portrayed as a saint or a heretic. Yuknavitch poses the question “What if, for once in history, a woman’s story could be untethered from what we need it to be in order to feel better about ourselves?” In the character of Joan she creates a woman that untethers herself from the script which is assigned to her and becomes fiercely individual – someone that can only be defined by what she loves. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Last year I read Louise Erdrich’s novel “LaRose”. It's the first book I’ve read by Erdrich. One of the things I found fascinating about it was the mixture of styles she uses and how one story line is quite fantastical/surreal where a pair of characters are continually chased by a decapitated head. So I was interested to find out how she would write about a future-set dystopian landscape in her new novel “Future Home of the Living God” where evolution reverses. People and animals start giving birth to more primitive beings so it’s like nature is winding back to some earlier genetic code. What follows is a suspenseful tale of society’s breakdown where pregnant women are sequestered as the rogue government desperately tries to discover why the next generation has this primitive condition. Readers will naturally liken this story to “The Handmaid’s Tale” for the way it explores through one woman’s perspective the way women’s bodies are controlled and used by a fascist regime. It definitely has those elements, but it reminded me more of Megan Hunter’s recent post-apocalyptic literary novel “The End We Start From” for the way it explores the meaning of family in a time of crisis. Erdrich succeeds on giving a compellingly new take on these issues as well as raising intriguing questions about faith, nationality, race and biology.

The story is told from the perspective of Cedar, a woman in her early thirties who is pregnant and writes this account to her unborn child (even though she fears her child could be born as a being too primitive to be able to read/understand it.) Cedar was raised by a white couple who adopted her and decides to go meet her birth mother for the first time in order to know if there are any genetic conditions that she and her unborn baby should know about. Since her birth mother is a Native American who lives on a reservation this also gives her an opportunity explore the heritage she’s had little contact with. Soon after, news starts coming in about women giving birth to primitive beings. With the central government’s collapse, society fragments into different factions and Cedar goes into survivalist mode. It also becomes necessary for her to go into hiding because all pregnant women are being seized by officials. Tension steadily builds over the course of the story – not only because Cedar fears being captured, but because the reader wonders what the baby will be born like as her pregnancy progresses.

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It felt confusing at some points of the story as I didn’t quite understand who was in charge of the country amidst the crisis, why women were being so forcibly corralled and what was happening in larger society. But Erdrich eludes having to create a laboriously detailed picture of the broader scenario she’s created by telling it all through Cedar’s limited second-person narrative. Cedar herself understands little of what’s going on, the internet and phones have stopped working and she’s only desperately trying to survive/give birth to her baby. It’s commented that “The first thing that happens at the end of the world is that we don't know what is happening.” So, while this story gets a bit unwieldy in some parts as it feels like the author could have gone into a lot more detail, the bulk of the narrative is a meditative account on Cedar’s part as she contemplates the meaning of motherhood and heritage.

Cedar also naturally considers the meaning of what's happening and broader issues concerning the development of human history. The story provokes an interesting look at the state of our current world as society struggles with issues of over-population, depletion of resources and large-scale environmental disaster. It's been said by some scientists that our intelligence as humans might have given us a temporary evolutionary advantage to become top of the food chain, but this could be a short-term aberration because in the long run its more primitive species which have the ability to survive over millennia: `'Dinosaurs lasted so much longer than we have, or probably will, yet their brains were so little. Meaning that stupidity is a good strategy for survival? Our level of intelligence could be a maladaptation, a wrong turn, an aberration.” So that evolution winds backward in this story might be a way of nature correcting our unfettered domination of the planet. Cedar contemplates how faith and artistic expression figure into our survival as a species and at one point surmises “I think we have survived because we love beauty and because we find each other beautiful. I think it may be our strongest quality.” The story creates a space in which to thoughtfully consider all these issues and how the choices we make will impact future generations.

A newspaper has previously remarked that “Erdrich is the poet laureate of the contemporary Native American experience.” This story also fascinatingly engages with issues of a reservation and how society's fragmentation allows the Native Americans on this reservation to reclaim land that originally belonged to their ancestors. So the novel also makes a wry social commentary on how such regression might allow an opportunity to correct the wrongs of past generations. Cedar herself grapples with feelings about her heritage and where she fits in society. Her journey through the oppressive circumstances of this story gives an interesting perspective on the propensity for violence within our species: “I know this: there is nothing that one human being will not do to another. We need a god who sides with the wretched.” This is a suspenseful, thought-provoking novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLouise Erdrich
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When I’m aware that a book was written as part of a series I usually only like to read them in the order that they were published. This is the case whether or not the series of books have clear character/situation cross-overs or only have thematic links. I worry about missing hidden meanings or references which link them up – plus the geeky side of me thinks things should only be read in order. There have been recent publications by Kate Atkinson and Jane Smiley which I’ve really wanted to read, but avoided because they are part of a series and I want to read the first books before reading these new ones. Unfortunately, the amount of reading time required to consume these series in total means I keep delaying starting any of them. This is also why I didn’t read Marilynn Robinson’s “Lila” when it first came out – since it’s the third book in a series in which I’ve only read “Gilead.” I still think “Lila” is one of the best books I’ve read this year which makes me glad I didn’t keep putting it off. So I’ve also taken a punt with reading “Death is a Welcome Guest” which is the second book in the Plague Times trilogy by Louise Welsh. The first book in the series “A Lovely Way to Burn” came out last year, but I never got around to reading it. I may have missed some things by reading this book first. But, from what I can tell, this dystopian novel about a plague which hits modern-day UK stands well on its own.

The novel follows Magnus, an up-and-coming comedian who has just received a big break opening for a more famous performer at the O2 arena. After his opening night he tentatively engages in a night of drunken debauchery despite having witnessed a tragic and worrying death earlier that day. Through a terrible misunderstanding, Magnus winds up in prison. While he’s incarcerated all hell breaks loose outside. When he finally emerges back into the world with the help of his mysterious cellmate Jeb, they find a plague evocatively known as "the sweats" has swept the nation sending society into chaos. Much like some other plague-centred dystopian novels and films I’ve read/seen the first half of the story is primarily made up of a series of desperate chases as the characters try to adjust to and find a place within this radically transformed landscape. The second half follows the burgeoning formations of a new community in an isolated location and presents a series of moral conundrums as the survivors grapple to form a cohesive plan for the future. This seems to be a natural format, but it’s one where I often find the thrill of the first half to be the best part. I found this to be true with the movie 20 Days Later and I feel it’s true for “Death is a Welcome Guest” as well. Magnus and Jeb’s flight through a ravaged city filled with decaying corpses that takes them through London Underground tunnels and high-class hotels is well executed and effectively tense. But the second half becomes overtly ponderous. It’s not that I don’t find the sociological dilemmas which arise in a highly pressurized situation interesting. There’s just something about it which feels too contrived. In the case of this novel, Welsh explores issues of capital punishment, religion and suicide wrapped in a murder-mystery set on a grand country estate.

The most effective and haunting story-line of this book is Magnus’ painful memories of his cousin Hugh’s suicide. The lingering feelings of despair and resentment he holds over this loss casts an interesting colour on the events which come after the onset of the plague. Unfortunately, the social issues begin to dominate the story and take precedence over the characters’ development. Interestingly, this review by Jane Jakeman in The Independent came to the opposite conclusion. Overall, I felt it’s well written and I was sufficiently intrigued to follow the story all the way to the end. However, it doesn’t have the innovative power or focus of another recent plague novel “Station Eleven.” I wonder if the other two books in the Plague Times trilogy reflect back on the themes of “Death is a Welcome Guest” or form any satisfying narrative links between them. I’m intrigued, but I’m not sure I’m sufficiently motivated to read them to find out.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLouise Welsh
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“The Country of Ice Cream Star” is written from the point of view of a 15 year old girl whose name is taken from a Friendly’s restaurant sign and set in a dystopian future where everyone is afflicted with a disease which the narrator refers to as posies. This affliction causes them to die around the age of 20. To be presented with a civilization of children makes me wonder how influenced author Sandra Newman was by “Lord of the Flies” – especially because at one point a character named Piglet appears. Ice Cream lives with children similar to herself and they call themselves Sengles. They inhabit a rural area in what was Massachusetts by hunting, stealing and “parlaying” mostly peaceably with neighbouring tribes. She feels that she “Ain’t be the hero of my mind. Ain’t even normal made.” Yet, motivated by the illness of her beloved brother Driver, she’s drawn into a quest to find a cure for her people’s terminal disease which eventually finds her raised to a deified status in New York City which is now called C. de las Marias and run by a new sect of Christianity. She becomes an instrumental part of a war which has been raging for some eighty years and destroyed much of civilization.  

To be honest, if I hadn’t agreed to be on the shadow jury for the Baileys Prize I would have given up reading “The Country of Ice Cream Star” about 100 pages into it. But I’m so glad I stuck with it and read to the end of this long novel. This is a very challenging read that inspires and frustrates in equal measure. It’s difficult not just for the unique voice of the narrator who speaks in a new kind of lyrical dialect which Newman says in an interview with Foyles that she “developed from African-American English.” It also features numerous fast-paced battle scenes. Action like this is difficult enough to capture in more standard kinds of fiction because a certain rhythm must be achieved in the narrative to effectively convey detail alongside key events. On top of all this action is a complicated new-world order that has an intricate social structure and political make-up. There is also a large cast of characters, most of whom I found difficult to keep track of because their names are more often like nick names than traditional names. Combining all these factors meant I often felt disorientated right up until the end. I was fascinated, but confused.

What really drew me along and kept me with it, was the assured power of Ice Cream’s voice. It’s playful, poetic and impressively consistent for such a long novel. Where I think this novel shines the most are in more private moments where she becomes more contemplative. Because they die so young, it’s necessary for the children to become sexually mature as soon as they go through puberty. She chillingly remarks at one point: “Be almost old. Ain’t like to get no enfant when I be sixteen or seventeen. They never going to know me. I can die before they talking words.” The pressure to continue the race so swiftly has created a fascinatingly compressed form of passion where the dynamics of love are more intensely felt. Speaking of her most intense affair: “Ain’t words for what this be. Be something make all honor small. No life nor honesty remain, and every strangeness, every stopping pain, become bellesse. We speaking words like love, like you, that ain’t mean nothing. Words waste in air. Nor ain’t knowledge of this losten hour, is gold you cannot see. Cannot find out what it been. Yet this blind thing be more real than life.” It’s a relatable kind of feeling when language breaks down because of the heat of the emotion that’s being experienced.

Newman captures so well how there is no time for fooling with tender kisses in times of war. Coupling is feverish and necessary, but there are also feelings seeping out the sides: “Can see his face exhilarate and need. Feel how his kiss will be, and how we struggle on the floor, our knifen-fist of loving war. Yo, tears come vicious to my eyes. Be like a death somehow, be like my love itself go weep.” It’s entirely appropriate that metaphors of sex are mixed with death because in this world the two are so closely paired together. Here she perfectly encapsulates the raw reality of a teenage sensibility in a world gone mad: “We cling together with no words, until our scary silence be another nakedness. Is loving with no fight, is helpless. Every touch be words insane – and be the only truthful words I known. Be like a perfect name.”

One of the narrator's favourite salvaged food-stuffs was also one of my most-loved childhood meals

One of the narrator's favourite salvaged food-stuffs was also one of my most-loved childhood meals

Curiously, standard English as we know it is a foreign language to Ice Cream. To her: “sleeper English. Some words comprehend, but nothing weave into a sentence meaning.” She feels as alienated by the English which has survived from the past as many of us are in the act of reading this novel. I wonder if this is making a commentary on the experience of different races living within Western society who have their own dialect and often find themselves separated from mainstream culture because of this. In quite a subtly powerful way this novel is very much about race. The surviving population of America is black with a scattering of white people who are referred to as roos. One of the most fantastically realized character, the insidious Anselm who is a high-ranking apostle in C. de las Marias remarks: “There are feelings about white people here. You could call it superstition, or you might just say it’s prejudice. Anyhow, it’s been a long and thorny history.” At another point it’s stated: “‘You don’t understand how whites are regarded here,’ Pedro say in teaching voice. ‘In our Bible, they’re described as hell’s offspring, a race of giant scorpions.’” The schism of race relations in America is still very much alive even in this future when the native white population has died out. Still invaders (in this case white Russians) come to dominate the black population by tricking them into taking up arms or becoming sexually enslaved in a way which eerily mixes elements of colonial history.

Clearly, this is a novel much more sophisticated and intelligent than any book jacket summary could convey. I wonder if this is part of the reason why this novel hasn’t been more widely read. Also, the basic elements which make up “The Country of Ice Cream Star” add up to sound like any of the slew of dystopian young-adult novels that currently saturate the market. This is most definitely a literary novel with fantastic ambition. It’s assuredly led by a confident and complex narrator unlike any that has been written before. This is a character willing to travel into the darkest places of life and do what is necessary to save the brother she loves. She ominously vows “If evil can save Driver; I will love all filth.” This novel gets very grimy and uncomfortable in the realisation of what a war run by teenagers would look like. Yet it also provides revelation in Ice Cream’s subtly of feeling and her comically irreverent take on the dominant establishment.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSandra Newman
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What does looking at a family tree tell us? We see ourselves linked by blood lines to a group of names, but usually there is little else to connect us to lives from the distant past other than an assemblage of faded photographs, a few heirlooms and a smattering of oral history. Rather than treat a family tree as a certainty, Sara Taylor does something quite extraordinary in her novel “The Shore” whereby she presents a family’s history as if the outcome of a family line was not the inevitability we see so neatly graphed out at the beginning of this book. The author jumbles all the pieces of one sprawling family tree up together like a jigsaw puzzle and delivers two centuries worth of tales about individuals leaping backwards and forwards in time. This effect says something much more meaningful about the will of the individual and the meaning of family connections than a straightforward linear novel could ever say. This is a family saga like none other I’ve read before.

As much as this novel is about family it is also about the land and the way in which the environment is shaped and reborn with every succeeding generation. An isolated small group of islands off the coast of Virginia is the base from which the stories of each character branch out from and round back to. It’s fascinating to see how the perilous course of the family blood line also follows the near destitution of the island itself as the economic circumstances change over time. In one memorable scene a boy watches as the community’s church is floated across the river after it is sold off by the fading population. When first confronted with the family tree at the beginning of the novel you’re aware that there are two distinct branches of the tree stemming from a single fascinating matriarch named Medora. The conflicted identity of this fiercely independent woman reverberates down through the generations. One line lives under perilous and desperate circumstances while another is more firmly established and prosperous. This is a family that is comprised of con artists, rapists, murderers, drug sellers and witch doctors. It’s high drama. Their stories make for an enthralling and emotionally compelling read.

As well as giving the reader a fascinating variety of lively stories, the novel makes larger meaningful statements about the plight of women. There is a great deal of sexism and violence exhibited by the men in this novel especially among the economically disadvantaged members of the family. It’s noted that it seems to be a tragic inevitability of a male’s development that “something happens in the gap between boy and man to turn all that sweetness bitter. You wonder if it’s a necessary hardening, like a tree’s shedding of leaves as winter approaches.” Certainly not all the male characters in this novel are villains and there is a balanced, complex view of both sex and sexuality here. But many female characters’ suffering is perpetrated by men who seek to dominant them. 

One generation of the family ferments apples to produce brandy in defiance of Prohibition laws.

One generation of the family ferments apples to produce brandy in defiance of Prohibition laws.

One of the most troubled and tragic characters named Ellie soberly remarks of her dangerous partner at one point: “He hates me and he wants me and he hates that he wants me.” As beset by some of the female characters become by their circumstances and the men they are with there is a knowledge gained from the next generation of women who take dramatic measures to ensure they aren’t entrapped by the same sexism that their mothers experienced. This effect is mirrored in both the start and end of the family line in a way which says something quite tragic about the persistent state whereby men will always try to control women despite the progression of society. Yet it also says something hopeful about the resilience and ingenuity with which bloodlines survive through the willpower of women.

Most of the stories which comprise this novel are firmly fixed in the nitty-gritty of life concerning work, love and establishing a family. But some of the tales dip into the fantastic so one woman is haunted by the spectres of ghostly boys that both threaten and support her. In another tale we learn about a secret talent of the family line for controlling and altering the weather. Sometimes the style feels like Charlotte Bronte and other times it’s reminiscent of a more modern sensibility like what's found in David Mitchell's writing. The narrative voice varies more wildly as some chapters stay inside a character’s uniquely-voiced point of view while other chapters are narrated from a more even-handed impersonal distance. I didn’t feel this was always successful particularly in a chapter told in the second person which had some very effective passages but became quite confused. Part of me wishes Taylor maintained a constant narrative style throughout the novel as it would seem less chaotic and make it easier to follow. However, part of the fun of this book is trying to locate who you are following now based on the date given and names around the characters involved. A reader’s participation is required. The book ends with an entirely new style of narration and takes the story into a whole other kind of genre that adds a level of poignancy when looking back on that initial family tree.

I’ve read a couple of fascinating dystopian novels published recently: “Station Eleven” and “Not Forgetting the Whale.” Both use a dark forecast of the future to say something meaningful about the present in unique ways and not necessarily in a political fashion, as most dystopian fiction tends to do. This is true with “The Chimes” as well, but it is an extraordinarily different kind of novel. It presents a recognizable, but distorted version of London at some point after a catastrophic event. Familiar streets and landmarks still exist but many names have been recast with phonetically-spelled playful names such as Batter Sea, Dog Isle, Mill Wall or South Walk Bridge.  It’s a time when the written word has been outlawed with communication occurring primarily through music. New memories cannot be created and the minds of ordinary citizens are perpetually wiped clean by a daily musical ritual. All experience has been distilled to the resounding tradition of OneStory. The result is a nightmarish world where creativity and personality has been squashed into a monotonous constant.

Once you become familiar with the world-view of “The Chimes” the plot is fairly straightforward. A young man named Simon Wythern arrives in London without any concrete knowledge of where he’s come from or what he should do apart from a vague mission set by his mother to locate a woman who runs a market stall. He survives in the city by joining a gang who scavenge through the tunnels of London to find materials to trade. Leading the roving pact is a semi-blind young man named Lucien who takes Simon into his confidence. Together they set out to uncover the truth about the authoritative system which rules over them and discover how to utilize Simon’s natural gift for recovering memories. The language in the novel is as jarringly new as Eimear McBride's “A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing” and set in a London as fantastical as Susanna Clarke's masterful “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.” So it takes some time to become accustomed to the rhythm of reading “The Chimes’” narrative. However, the rewards are well worth the effort as it makes the experience more thrillingly immersive. It’s like your way of thinking has been temporarily reprogrammed to see this alternative reality that Smaill has created. The result is that you might view the real world from a new perspective. I found it affected both my dreams and the way I thought about my own memories.

"Between river and city, between water and air. There are letters of white code painted across it that speak in letters I cannot read. ENTRY TO THE TRAITOR'S GATE, they say."

"Between river and city, between water and air. There are letters of white code painted across it that speak in letters I cannot read. ENTRY TO THE TRAITOR'S GATE, they say."

The novel prompts many questions about our relationship with memory and the past. The only sure way the characters can remember an incident is when they transfer their memories into physical objects. This isn’t so different from the way in which we hoard photographs, letters or objects as touchstones which mentally transport us back to people and places of the past. But there is also body memory. This is formed more from habit or connection between body and place. So which memories are important enough to keep? This issue is raised in the narrative: “What is it that tells you to make a memory? I can't say. Something that sits raised and raw against the skin of the day. Something that presses you.” Certain experiences trigger something inside us which we intuitively know is fundamental to letting us grow and adapt better to the world we live in. Memories of these experiences have practical use. But other memories are based in emotion and subject to creative distortion. “The Chimes” also prompts the question of whether the memories we hoard and cling to like the characters in this novel really amount to anything more than tattered relics?

There is also the issue of collective memories – the stories which are told and retold which help us to define ourselves as a culture. At one point two characters have this conversation:

“'What do you think made certain memories important?'

'Those that were bigger than single stories. That told people something about themselves in this time, about where they were and why.'”

This is when the personal transforms into the emblematic because one person’s story says something crucial about where our civilization came from and where it’s going. Details might change with each telling, but the kernel of an idea remains. The novel also raises more philosophical questions about human nature such as: are memories the things which define identity or are there inherent characteristics within each of us that make us individual? There is nothing overtly epistemological about this novel’s story, but these issues hover lightly in the background due to the way the story is set up.

I noted down a short glossary of musical terms to help better understand reading The Chimes

I noted down a short glossary of musical terms to help better understand reading The Chimes

Finding deeper meaning in novels doesn’t amount to much if you aren’t engaged with the characters in the story and “The Chimes” has a fascinating variety of personalities. Pact member Clare is a compellingly tough self-harming individual. An eccentric old woman named Mary offers surprising insights. The most crucial relationship in the book is between Simon and Lucien. The meaning of their connection changes over the course of their journey and develops into something touchingly romantic. This is handled with great care. I commend the way that the issue of their love affair isn’t to do with the fact that they are two young men, but that they are people from radically different socio-economic backgrounds. Through feeling invested in their relationship, I was also drawn more into the trajectory of the story and made me desperate to know how it all ends. The climax of the novel takes the reader somewhere unexpected with a satisfying twist.

I don’t think there are any fully formed conclusions the reader is meant to take away from travelling through this totalitarian version of the future. But I think “The Chimes” does present a caution about imposing strict homogeneous rules about the arts. The beauty of art is found in the strength of individual voices; dictating that every voice must strictly adhere to certain structures for that expression to have meaning is inimical to art. It’s admirable that this author’s first novel creates an alternate world which is so fully formed and substantial. This is an example of a writer who is drawing upon her strengths to create a new novel form with its own structure and rules. Smaill utilizes her background in music and violin performance as well as her finely-honed poetic voice to create a cohesive language with which to tell her story. I have no musical training or technical knowledge of the subject, yet by the end of the book I not only understood the musical terms through which the characters communicate but felt like I could almost hear the sounds of their world. To have such an impact on the way a reader thinks makes “The Chimes” an impressive accomplishment. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnna Smaill
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Why are we fascinated by our own destruction? There have always been tales of dystopia where civilization is levelled out with only a few lucky survivors left with the mission of rebuilding it. It feels that there has been a proliferation of these stories recently represented in films and literature. Part of it is to do with fear about the environment, political instability, biological warfare and the fragility of the world economy – all valid concerns! It’d be idealistic to consider that by fictionally playing out these potential horrors it will have a galvanizing effect to motivate us to prevent their happening. Maybe sometimes they do. I think they more likely work as good entertainment because it stirs within us that instinctual physiological reaction where the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and drives us to a state of survivalist excitement. We all want to believe that we would be clever and lucky enough to overcome the adversities which can bring civilization to its knees. Most tales that imagine civilization’s downfall are inspired by our society’s failings. However, “Station Eleven” - which envisions a particularly nasty strain of a flu virus causing global calamity - differs from these other tales in a crucial way. The focus is not exclusively on society’s shortcomings, but our own personal loss of self and consequent loss of what’s most important to us in life.

The story begins in a Canadian theatre where a famous actor named Arthur is performing as King Lear on stage and suffers a heart attack mid-show. From this evening forward, society crumbles at an alarmingly fast rate as a virus ravages through and decimates the majority of the world’s population. This is no spoiler. Amidst the action of this specific scene the authorial voice makes us bluntly aware of what’s to come and the limited lifespan of the peripheral characters as we’re reading about them. The rest of the novel follows a select few individuals throughout the oncoming calamity – particularly Kirsten who was a girl acting alongside Arthur on stage and grows into a tough survivor who travels between camps of survivors in the far future with a group of Shakespearian actors and musicians. “Station Eleven” shifts back and forth between the past and twenty years after this event to make connections to do with the character’s relationships and how memories are imprinted, changed over time or lost. The author is clever in the way she gradually releases information and keeps the reader guessing what the fate of her major characters will be and how their stories interconnect. The novel gives equal weight to the development of Arthur’s pre-apocalypse story (a man not even personally affected by the virus) as it does to the heart-racing spread of the killer flu and the struggle for survival.

In focusing on the rise of a celebrity, Emily St John Mandel shows how the underlying meaning of the novel isn’t so much about the possibilities for disastrous failings in our society but the way we lose touch with ourselves. Arthur’s drive to succeed causes him to lose connections to the people who have been most dear to him in life and he even begins to delude himself about his own motivations. Arthur goes through a series of marriages and wonders at one point “Did he actually date those women because he liked them, or was his career in the back of his mind the whole time? The question is unexpectedly haunting.” His ambitions meld with his personal intentions and he feels that he loses touch with his essential self. He asks himself: “Did this happen to all actors, this blurring of borders between performance and life?” When he meets up with his oldest friend during the height of his career his friend Clark observes “He was performing” rather than communicating with him on a genuine level. The loss of personal values and the people most important to him are tantamount to the end of Arthur’s world. The survivors of the population-destroying virus are, in a sense, the survivors of this one man’s fractured identity. Having made both positive and negative effects upon them, they scramble to unite and understand the past through the fog of memory.

Still from a 2007 production of  King Lear   directed by James Lapine at the Public Theater in NYC where three little girls portrayed early versions Lear's daughters. A version of this production is fictionalized in Station Eleven. Photo by Michal Daniel.

Still from a 2007 production of King Lear  directed by James Lapine at the Public Theater in NYC where three little girls portrayed early versions Lear's daughters. A version of this production is fictionalized in Station Eleven. Photo by Michal Daniel.

This has a subtle, cumulative effect over the course of the novel which builds to a poignancy not often found in most disaster narratives. Added to this are parallels drawn between the characters’ lives and two other different examples of artistically rendered realities. One example this novel’s continuous references back to the play of King Lear which is Shakespeare’s great parable about how our great accomplishments in life can be decimated by greed, arrogance and delusions of self-importance. The other is based on the novel’s title “Station Eleven” which is a comic book created by a character named Miranda about a group of survivors who scramble to live on a man-made exoplanet which has slipped through a worm hole. Copies of this comic disappear and resurface throughout so that this more fantastical story adds a cryptic under-layer to the apocalypse occurring in the primary story of this novel.

The only trouble I had with this novel is that the story of Arthur’s rise to fame isn’t especially compelling. It takes some time to develop real relevancy alongside the grander narrative about the aftermath of the virus. But once I learned more about Arthur’s wives and the people closest to them it became a very important part of the story – both for the larger point the book makes and drawing connections between the characters in pre and post apocalyptic times. There is also a slightly cringe-worthy scene set in London where a cab driver delivers a dubious line of cockney dialogue. But I only felt this way because I’ve lived in London so long myself and it came across more like a cultural stereotype. However, overall this novel is compelling and impressively told.

“Station Eleven” is an adventurous read as well as a highly-poignant one. There are multiple arresting glimpses of apocalyptic horrors and moving existential moments of solitude. It extends the meaning of Jean-Paul Sartre’s great aphorism by positing the chilling question “If hell is other people, what is a world with almost no people in it?” The disappearance of others happens quite literally over the course of this novel’s dramatic story, but also applies to the individual’s personal reality when he/she becomes alienated from everyone who means the most to them. It makes you reassess the things and people in your life that you may take for granted – which is always a useful reality check.


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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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A plague of sleeplessness descends over the majority of the population in this eerie dystopian novel by Kenneth Calhoun. Nobody understands why this suddenly happens although there is speculation that includes a wide range of wild conspiracies. Without the rejuvenating assistance of sleep the majority of population lose all reason and now “the unguarded gate in their heads was now propped wide open to suggestion and persuasion.” Only a handful of people are still able to sleep without assistance. The book follows these few as they navigate the deteriorating social landscape and search for their loved ones lost to the agonizing spell of sleeplessness.

The thriller aspect of “Black Moon” is essentially like a zombie novel. The few unaffected must stagger around pretending to be sleep-deprived in order to avoid detection. If they get caught asleep they are attacked by the perpetually awake masses as they are jealously enraged by the sight of those resting peacefully. There are some creepily brutal scenes involving things like a woman trapped in a tree with a circling angry mob, a man undergoing brain surgery by half-crazed doctors and a truckload of captive sheep being driven by a man with a perpetual erection who is slowly going insane. Yet, unlike a horror genre novel, this book deals with the real-world mysterious interplay between consciousness and unconsciousness.

More than the physical threats of the perpetually awake masses or the body breaking down from lack of rest is the nightmarish terror of losing ones mind and all the fear and unrestrained carnal rage rising to the surface causing people to act totally irrationally. Personality is inverted until each person becomes “the opposite of all that he had been.” Like voices from a Samuel Beckett play, the perpetually awake prattle on and on expressing every core emotion that flits through their head and mixing memories of the past with the present so that time is condensed down to one unfathomable point in reality. This babbling is nonsensical but also lyrical and highlights surprisingly bizarre connections underlying the force of people’s most base motivations.

sleeplessness.jpg

In one section a couple named Adam and Jorie who have been experiencing sleep deprivation for almost a week continuously lose and find their infant baby. The gripping horror of what must be happening in reality to the child as the couple stagger confusedly through their days is intense. Although, the hallucinatory nature of the narrative as it follows the couple’s interaction with the child keeps you guessing if the child was lost some time ago or if it is even real. When following a character who has stopped sleeping the author changes the style of writing to reflect their increasingly fragmented psychological state. This had a bewitching effect on me as if I was losing grasp of reality too and made the story feel intensely real.

“Black Moon” makes you think about what importance your dream life has with your conscious life. But it doesn't linger ponderously on these questions – merely summons them up in the natural course of the story as the characters struggle to connect with each other and find a solution to the epidemic. This reminded me quite a lot of Jose Saramago novel “Blindness” about a sudden unexplained epidemic where the majority of the population goes blind (seeing white instead of black) and only the central character maintains her vision. These frameworks strip the construct of society down to its elements so that it must be rebuilt upon principles of cooperation or be torn apart by selfishness. It makes for a chilling, unsettling but altogether absorbing read.

See a playlist of songs about sleeping and insomnia that the author created here: http://www.largeheartedboy.com/blog/archive/2014/03/book_notes_kenn_1.html

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKenneth Calhoun