The Outline Trilogy

And now for something completely different: the Outline trilogy (or the Faye trilogy, if you prefer) by Rachel Cusk.

Cusk’s novelistic trilogy concluded last year with Kudos and has received tremendous praise on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s generally acknowledged that Cusk has created something genuinely new with these books.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy: something genuinely new. Photo: lithub.com.

Many reviewers have described the trilogy novels as belonging to the “autofiction” category popularized by Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard. I think that’s wrong—to me, the books come closer to what one might term “negative literature,” in that they strip away many of the traditional lineaments of the novel, such as plot and dialogue.

Yet describing her books as negative literature doesn’t capture Cusk’s achievement, either. It’s not what Cusk leaves out that’s important, but rather the seemingly random conversations and observations she puts in.

I think Cusk has created a new kind of stream-of-consciousness for the age of Trump and Brexit (the latter of which Kudos observes in passing). It’s no one person’s interior thoughts portrayed here, jumbled together throughout the day, but rather an observer’s—Faye’s—registering of others’ diverse thoughts and observations, alongside and largely in place of her own.

The effect is remarkably lifelike, far more so than Knausgaard’s autofiction. (I had some minor difficulty making it through the first book in his series, but found each of Cusk’s books to be brisk, engaging reads.) Outline, Transit and Kudos have collectively been termed cool and cruel books. They are definitely cool; there is a built-in distance in these recorded observations. I’m not sure the books should be termed cruel, though.

What they are is relentlessly honest. If they are cruel, then they are reflecting life itself.

Four of the Year’s Best Books

This post is intended as a brief personal supplement to all of the 2018 “best books” compilations out there—you won’t find many surprises, as the four books below will likely appear on most of those lists. I’ve restricted myself to fiction because it’s my primary interest, and also because I believe it does a better job of capturing the essence of things than non-fiction can.

None of these four titles directly tackles the strange and dangerous time we’re in. But all of them, The Witch Elm possibly excepted, reflect some aspect of our topsy-turvy present. Actually, The Witch Elm does as well, thanks to the hallucinatory aspects of key parts of its story. Tana French’s latest mystery rises to the level of “literary fiction” (as does most of her previous work) and appears on the New York Times 100 Notable Books list.

Here, then, are four very different books from 2018 that will provide you with enjoyable reading and resonate after you’ve finished them.

Gary Shteyngart's Lake Success. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.
Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.

Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success provides the most direct take on present-day America. The novel, Shteyngart’s fourth, sends his protagonist, Barry Cohen, a rogue hedge-fund manager, on a bus tour of our discombobulated country. There is plenty of sharp social satire, as we’ve come to expect from this writer, particularly aimed at the moneyed class but sparing no one. Barry is a protagonist in the picaresque American road-trip literary tradition but he is also an oblivious, self-centered bungler acting out a privileged midlife crisis. He carries six very expensive wristwatches (Cohen, like his author, is a watch nerd) and a rock of crack cocaine (obtained after chatting with a Baltimore drug dealer) on his journey. I recommend Lake Success for its sharp observations of wide-ranging American inequalities and absurdities.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Photo: Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Photo: Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times.

If alienation is your thing, Ottessa Moshfegh is your writer. And who isn’t alienated these days?

Like Lake Success, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is darkly comic. But it is less satiric and more absurdist, and also quite a bit darker.

The unnamed narrator, an unhappy woman in her mid-20s who lives on the Upper East Side, resolves to sleep for a year. She is able to do this because both her parents have died, and the cash from her inheritance enables her to buy her apartment and remain free from work worries, at least for a while. (She has a job in an art gallery but loses it for sleeping in a storage closet during lunchtime.) She is also aided and abetted by a loony therapist (“Dr. Tuttle”) who prescribes staggering quantities of sleep-inducing drugs.

The year is 2000, and our narrator believes that “…when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” She proceeds to embark on her year-long sleep, waking each day for 2- or 3-hour periods to eat and/or watch TV before diving back under the covers. She is periodically visited by her quasi-friend Riva, a former roommate from college. Riva is big on self-help books and frequently dispenses advice which the narrator ignores.

Underneath her escape into sleep, the narrator is interested in art (“I wanted to be an artist but I had no talent,” she says). At the end of her long sleep, she finds herself at the Met in September 2001, mesmerized by a painting which she reaches out and touches. 9/11 is just around the corner.

I recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation for its unique (if disturbing) voice and its strong, solipsistic focus amid the chaotic daily world.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company.

Richard Powers’s The Overstory presents another unique perspective, this one somewhat more hopeful. Rather than retreating inward, Powers reaches outward to encompass an entire, hiding-in-plain-sight civilization that parallels our own: trees.

As Barbara Kingsolver writes in her Times review of The Overstory, “Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees—to name one example—with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.”

People want to read about people, of course, and Powers accommodates with a wide cast of characters, all of whom have lives that intersect with trees in some way. This sounds formulaic; it’s really not. Nor is it anthropomorphic, as Kingsolver is, deliberately, in the paragraph above—Powers gives trees their due as amazing but horribly abused creatures, but he does so in the service of a compelling human story. In the process, he reveals how closely bound the fates of trees and humans actually are. Given today’s existential threats (climate change, nuclear winter), this could be viewed as an expansion of pessimism—two species in peril rather than one. But I find the implicit threat is offset by the incredible richness, in every sense, that trees convey. I recommend The Overstory as a mind-expanding way to see the wider world anew.

The Witch Elm, by Tana French. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.
The Witch Elm, by Tana French. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.

Tana French’s The Witch Elm is nominally a mystery, the first stand-alone novel outside her popular Dublin Murder Squad series. As a mystery, it’s first-rate—some of the story’s surprises will take your breath away. But this book has more than murder on its mind. The Witch Elm is actually a meditation on randomness and personal fate, and I recommend it both as a gripping read and a reminder to feel grateful for each day disaster doesn’t strike.

Time Out

If you’re the sort of person who believes in moral truths such as murder should be punished, disadvantaged people should be offered a hand and lies should be unmasked (and a majority of Americans still hold these beliefs), then you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. The ongoing dismantling of American values is a hard thing to witness every day. It’s no wonder that people sometimes turn away, seeking whatever relief they can find elsewhere.

Hobbies are one way to take some time out. In my case, quite literally—I’ve developed a new appreciation of the nuances of horology.

Some time back, I was superficially into watches, primarily as a status thing I must admit. Rolex, Omega and Tag Heuer seemed like essential business accessories. Now, I have a renewed appreciation for the art of watchmaking itself and status is no longer a consideration per se. I’m glad to have outgrown my former shallowness.

The Seiko SARB035—incredible value for money.
The Seiko SARB035—incredible value for money. Photo: Pinterest.com.

The person most responsible for my renewed and deepened interest in fine watches is the novelist Gary Shteyngart. His most recent book, Lake Success, features a protagonist (hedge fund manager Barry Cohen) who is a WIS (Watch Idiot Savant). The novel is quite good in its own right, by the way; it’s made the annual New York Times 100 Notable Books list.

Thus inspired, I proceeded to bring myself up to speed on the current state of the watch industry. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Rolex is the only high-end watch most people know. They think it is either the ne plus ultra (not true) or gaudy, overpriced crap (also not true).
  • Since the quartz crisis of the eighties and early nineties, the Swiss watch industry has largely recovered. Most WIS people prefer mechanical movements on aesthetic grounds, though they remain less accurate than quartz.
  • One company—Seiko—makes very high quality watches at every price point, from $100 or so to $50,000-plus (via the Grand Seiko line).

If you’d like to explore for yourself, check out Hodinkee, Worn and Wound and A Blog to Watch (Shteyngart occasionally writes for Hodinkee). You’ll rapidly pick up nuances along with fundamentals: the very wide range of brands, including some small Kickstarter-launched companies; the technical aspects of fine watchmaking; the rich history behind the storied names. There are many, many video reviews out there (check The Urban Gentry channel on YouTube), along with various helpful forums (try Watchuseek).

I wound up (pun intended) refurbishing a couple of vintage Tag Heuers and buying a range of Seikos at various price points. My favorite watch so far is the Seiko SARB035, the cream-dial beauty in the photo above. It, along with its black-dial sibling the SARB033, have recently been discontinued, so their prices have edged past $500 and are still rising. But they could cost two or three times that amount and still represent tremendous value—see the numerous reviews (for example, here and here) comparing them to Rolex or Grand Seiko models to see what I mean.

My SARB035 was purchased to mark a milestone. I’ve owned a Rolex Explorer II in the past, and it is not unreasonable to compare the Seiko to the Rolex, despite the wide divergence in their price points. As for future milestones, I’d like to mark them with a Nomos, probably a Rolex again, and (ultimately) a Grand Seiko model. But that’s off in the future. For now, my little foray into horology has enabled me to temporarily escape the horrors of the news cycle. But only temporarily.

Whatever outside interest you can find to distract yourself, go for it—everyone needs a break now and then. But be sure to come back. You’re going to be needed.

The Incendiaries: a Glowing Debut

R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.

R. O. Kwon's The Incendiaries is a superb debut novel.
R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is a superb debut novel.

I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.

The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.

Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.

The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.

An Unhappy Fourth

Two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times sum up the miserable state of the country as another July 4 has come and gone. The first, published on July 3, is headed “America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?” It describes the post-Civil War Amendments to the Constitution, with particular emphasis on the 14th Amendment, which includes these lines:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Simple, straightforward, but of course still unfulfilled. Yet the promise is there, clearly evident in the words “any person.” Unfortunately, as the Times notes, the promise is receding even further as the Supreme Court continues to tilt right.

Langston Hughes, photographed by Carl Van Vechten. Source: Wikipedia.
Langston Hughes, photographed by Carl Van Vechten. Source: Wikipedia.

The second piece, published by columnist Roger Cohen today, is headed “America Never Was, Yet Will Be.” The line is from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” and it too deals with a promise that remains unfulfilled. A deep, magnificent promise that was once resonantly symbolized by our Statue of Liberty. A promise still alive for many around the world, even in our current dark times, even if it can never be realized under Trump’s appalling administration.

In his poem, Hughes addresses America’s downtrodden, still plentiful today. Such people are the spiritual ancestors (I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart) of many of Trump’s current supporters, and those supporters remain fooled, too distracted by “fake news” to see the truth and act accordingly.

Here is “Let America Be America Again” in its entirety:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. The poem’s full text was taken from Poets.org.

Love Poem

How does one cope with today’s endless stream of poisonous news? People have wide-ranging methods, none of which completely suffice. They console or goad one another on Facebook. They distract themselves with a binge-worthy streaming series or a good book. They (quite reasonably) decide to get drunk or high on occasion.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker tells himself, and us, that life is actually getting better in his new book, Enlightenment Now.

I decided to post this love poem, a bit belatedly after Valentine’s Day. The poem originally appeared in Antiphon’s Issue 21 last year.

New York's High Line. Photo: jharchitecture.
New York’s High Line. Photo: jharchitecture.

 

 

 

 

 

“High”

Sometimes I wish I were still back
in the city, astonished to find her
standing tremulous outside the door of
my fifth floor walk-up, radiating belief
and determination. Yes and yes and yes

and yes again, as a sudden cascade of
comprehension sweeps my wits away.
I feel my soft defenses dissolve
in a quickly rising light that seems to come
from everywhere as we embrace

and exchange our silent vows. The glow
envelops us and cushions us and lifts us up
to float on a stream of bodily joy
down the narrow stairwell to the streets below.

And now the city’s raucous throb drifts
outside as we walk hand-in-hand within our cloud
along the crowded sidewalk, awash in reflected
traffic lights, illuminated windows and the shimmer
of a thousand strangers’ eyes, who recognize us

and yet do not. We breathe in and leap up,
far above New York, to a night sky High Line
where our bodies feel free
to stroll forever
weightless and without pain.
We are amazed how time has flown.
We would do anything to fly again.

—Thomas Pletcher

Should Fiction Get Its Facts Straight?

This may be an aesthetic question, or perhaps it’s a question of craft. Maybe it’s both. Put simply, the question is: how important is it for a fiction writer to get the facts straight—particularly the technical facts?

As someone now writing fiction who has previously worked in technology, I probably have a special interest in the question. For me, flubbing a bit of technical description brings the narrative to a crashing halt. It also undermines the writer’s credibility to some degree, depending on the writer’s overall talent and the power of his or her narrative. (The same would be true, I believe, if a writer botched the terminology or tools of medicine or law.)

Granted, writers have a built-in license to modify anything in the interest of the story, so I should be clear: I’m speaking about inadvertent mistakes when describing technology in the course of the narrative.

Fortune Smiles—an exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.
An exceptional collection with a few technical bobbles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I should also note that I’m not referring to the kind of genre fiction where facts already seem secondary. For example, I’m not speaking of a fantasy novel like The Book of Joan, where technology in general is lazily glossed over—the author doesn’t regard specifics or plausibility as important and her readers likely don’t, either.

The writer who raised this question of technical accuracy for me most recently is instead an extremely talented generalist, who has won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. I’m speaking of Adam Johnson, and specifically of the story “Dark Meadow” from the National Book Award-winning collection Fortune Smiles.

“Dark Meadow” is a compelling and disturbing tale of a pedophile (“made,” not “born”; his own abuse as a child contributed to his sexual development) who is trying hard to purge his urges. The narrator (who was nicknamed “Dark Meadow” by his molester) works out of his home as a kind of jack-of-all-trades computer technician; people hire him to repair, troubleshoot and secure their systems. But in the meantime Dark Meadow himself has disconnected the internet in his own house, and is whittling down his collection of child pornography photos to almost nothing—he crops pictures so that only a pair of eyes, a hand, or some other non-sexual detail is all that remains. And before the story has finished he will dismantle his computer completely and destroy its hard drive.

The technical errors in Dark Meadow’s narrative could be viewed as minor—for one thing, a solid majority of readers probably won’t be aware of them at all. And even for those who are, the errors ultimately don’t wreck the story; Johnson’s work is too well-wrought in every other respect for that. Still, the errors are troubling.

Here’s an example: “I stopped using Tor, eDonkey and Fetch.” These are three different kinds of technology that don’t plausibly fit together for a child pornagraphy addict. Tor, which provides a degree of online anonymity, yes; though Tails would have been a more appropriate choice. eDonkey and Fetch, no. eDonkey is a file-sharing network but would have been risky to use; Fetch is an old Mac FTP client (though it’s since been updated) that dates all the way back to the 80s and would have been riskier still. Plus, the name itself seems dated. Several lines later, Dark Meadow references his “Fetch Dropbox,” conflating the FTP program with the popular online storage service. (You can set up Fetch to link to Dropbox, which I suppose is what Johnson means here. But Dropbox is not particularly secure either, unless you provide your own encryption.)

As I said, these are small errors. But, with a writer of Johnson’s stature, they bother me. “Dark Meadow” was published in Tin House in issue 60 (Summer 2014); apparently no one at the literary magazine had the technical chops to question these usages. And when the story was incorporated into the Fortune Smiles collection published the following year by Random House, no one there seemed to offer any suggestions, either. Did Johnson himself ask for technical guidance at any point? He’s based at Stanford, so nearby expertise is certainly plentiful.

To answer my own question, then: yes, writers should get their facts straight. And given the ubiquitous role technology plays in life today, that goes double for tech references.

A Nod to Empathy

I’ve just published a poem, “Transient,” in Poetry Quarterly (issue #30, Summer 2017, running a bit behind schedule). Because the magazine is behind a paywall, you would need to purchase a rather expensive printed copy or else subscribe to the online version to read it. That being the case, and because the poem is about empathy, a quality sorely needed today, I’ll reproduce it here.

—Thomas Pletcher

Poetry Quarterly, Issue 30, Summer 2017.
The Poetry Quarterly logo. My poem “Transient” in Issue 30 is a nod to empathy.

“Transient”

A damaged person on the floor,
filthy, scuffed, like the station itself.
Above the person hulks a cop, hand
on holster. The cop smirks and says, get up.
Get up scumbag and move the hell out.
His victim tries to stand but slumps back down,
a person in transit who needs to rest awhile.
No vagrants in the terminal
the cop says. Port Authority badge.
I remember this the only way I can,
hazily, since I
was drinking myself.
All this many years ago, when
the city’s days were dim and grim.
What was wrong with that person?
Couldn’t he/she rise?
Has karma messed that cop up by now?
I walk over and see the dull badge
has no name, only a number. Meanwhile,
the individual moans.
We need some help here, I say.
Some help my ass the cop says.
He kicks the prone figure once, then leaves.
I bend down to check:
that numb stare could yet be anyone’s.
Yours. Mine.

Two Takes on Sin

Society’s conception of sin continues to evolve over time. Religious instruction we may have received as children might not match up with our conception of what’s thought sinful today. In addition, the categories of sin have expanded to include the institutional and the national, among others, in addition to the personal. And sin’s contextual setting is generally secular.

Despite this fluidity, two recent novels tackle subjects that qualify as sinful from almost anyone’s vantage point. The multiple-award-winning (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize) novel  The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead tackles America’s original sins of slavery and genocide (violence and theft perpetrated against Native Americans appears as a thread throughout the book). This year’s buzz-generating novel, My Absolute Darling by debut author Gabriel Tallent, is focused on the personal: child sexual abuse and incest. The two novels are quite different but both are intensely gripping reads.

The Underground Railroad provides an extraordinary and unforgettable journey.
The Underground Railroad provides an extraordinary and unforgettable journey. Photo: Amazon.com.

Let’s begin with The Underground Railroad. Whitehead has done a number of extraordinary things with this book. First, he has done a phenomenal job of describing the experience of slavery and the pervasive, lasting damage it caused. The novel’s primary heroine, Cora, is completely believable in her fluctuating fear and courage, hesitation and anger. Cora is pinpointed within her biological (her grandmother Ajarry and her mother Mabel are nicely delineated) and geographical (Cora starts her journey on a vicious plantation in Georgia and travels the railroad from there) settings, so she seems very tangible and real, as do her antagonists. One of these, the “slave catcher” Ridgeway, reminds me of of the judge in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian in his flamboyantly malevolent behavior and philosophizing. Among its other sterling qualities, The Underground Railroad is a real page-turner. It’s a hell of a story.

The story is even richer for its ingenious sci-fi twist: the underground railroad is a literal railroad, complete with tracks and actual trains traveling unseen through hidden tunnels laboriously carved out beneath the earth. The stations are hidden under the homes and barns of abolitionist sympathizers deep in the South. This literal railroad is handled with subtlety and actually seems quite believable in context. Its operators run enormous risks, and some of them pay dearly. The Underground Railroad presents a unique and unforgettable view of the horrors of slavery, and its lessons pack unfortunate relevance in today’s America. The fact that the novel is also a fabulous read only adds to its achievement.

The case for My Absolute Darling is not quite so convincing. It too is a stunning read, but in an entirely different and more claustrophobic way. It was published quite recently and hasn’t garnered any awards yet, but it has received extraordinarily extravagant, not to say hyperbolic, praise. Stephen King has already hailed the book as a “masterpiece”; this strikes me as a bit premature.

My Absolute Darling is painful to read and difficult to put down.
My Absolute Darling is painful to read and difficult to put down. Photo: Amazon.com.

The core of the book concerns the struggles of 14-year-old “Turtle” Alveston to survive the depredations, sexual and otherwise, of her charismatic but dangerously out of control father, Martin. The Alvestons (Martin’s wife has already died under sketchy circumstances) live alone, in a remote setting nearly off the grid outside Mendocino. Martin is a survivalist as well, and browbeats his daughter on a regular basis to master the necessary skills. Between that and the incest, it’s small wonder that Turtle struggles in every  way at school and is a conspicuous outcast.

It has to be acknowledged that the book is exceptionally well-written. Tallent’s mother Elizabeth (one of his two mothers; he was raised by lesbians) is a well-regarded writer in her own right, having published stories and essays in The New Yorker and many other publications. So writing runs in the family. And Gabriel was brought up in the area where the book is set, which contributes to its sense of authenticity. His writing on Northern California flora, and the distinctions to be drawn between various firearms, is incredibly detailed and adds another layer of verisimilitude. Furthermore, Tallent’s depiction of Jacob, a high school boy who starts to draw Turtle out and eventually draw her toward the outside world, is marvelously done. Jacob’s sophisticated banter and essential innocence ring completely true.

Yet there is an ugliness in the book that revolves around its subject matter. Tallent has stated, in interview after interview, that he wanted to handle the sexual abuse of a teenage girl by her father gingerly without any hint of exploitation. He probably does this as well as it can be done but the subject stands regardless and continues to radiate its own unhealthy attraction for the reader.

I want to give Gabriel Tallent the benefit of the doubt, simply because this book is so well written. But the book’s denouement gives me pause: it is written in such a sweeping cinematic style that it is as though the writer were simply transcribing the scene from the film that is sure to come. My Absolute Darling is going to transform Gabriel Tallent’s life and make him famous (well, as famous as a writer can be these days) and wealthy. Did he set out to achieve this? You might reply that the book is so masterfully done it doesn’t really matter. But if Tallent chose to depict Turtle’s sufferings simply to draw readers in, wouldn’t that be a kind of sin in itself?

Irrelevant Fantasy

In the Guardian recently, fantasy author “Robin Hobb” (real name Margaret Ogden) is quoted as saying, “Fantasy has become something you don’t have to be embarrassed about.”

I strongly disagree—I think readers and writers of fantasy alike should be highly embarrassed, and that includes writers as popular as Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin and as feckless as Lidia Yuknavitch, whose very poorly written The Book of Joan is briefly reviewed below.

The Book of Joan—preposterous and poorly written. Cover: Amazon.com
The Book of Joan—preposterous and poorly written. Cover: Amazon.com

Fantasy fans should be embarrassed because what they do has no bearing on reality, be it the reality described by astrophysics or the inner life of the mind. There is only the sketchiest, most tangential connection to real world concerns and problems. Fantasy enthusiasts are estranged from these concerns and problems, or hiding from them. They are children playing games of make-believe. They are fleeing adult responsibilities, including the responsibility to strive to make some sort of sense of the world.

I realize there are people who enjoy the genre, and these folks will obviously disagree quite strongly with what I’m asserting here. But consider: we as human beings have not yet gained the abilities to fully understand the universe we inhabit. Why waste time creating imaginary worlds that invariably pale in comparison to the mysteries of our own? It strikes me as an abdication of sorts, like a child turning his back on other children and retreating to a corner to play by himself.

I suspect deep psychic pain may make fantasy attractive for some people, as the genre offers a way to escape from the known world without the extreme of actually, physically quitting it. This is likely so in Yuknavitch’s case; the author apparently had a deeply traumatic childhood and the world limned in The Book of Joan features supernaturally strong women as a probable consequence. I can understand and respect this. But I can’t respect the way it’s done.

The following critique relates to The Book of Joan and extends to fantasy in general.

  • It’s intellectually lazy. Read this description of the scenario Yuknavitch sets up: “CIEL was built from redesigned remnants from old space stations and science extensions of former astro and military industrial complexes. We who live here number in the thousands, from what used to be hundreds of countries. Every single one of us was a member of a former ruling class. Earth’s the dying clod beneath us. We siphon and drain resources through invisible technological umbilical cords. Skylines. That almost sounds lyrical.” CIEL and skylines are key to the core plot of the book, yet we are supposed to take them on faith. Redesigned remnants and invisible technological umbilical cords. OK, got it.
  • It’s badly written. A sample: “‘Okay! You have my attention,’ I yell. The walls echo back at me. ‘What the fuck was that?’ My voice merely ricochets around. I walk closer to the wall. I put my hands against it; solid matter. ‘Nyx?’ Nothing. Just the vanishing points in the cave where light gives way to shadow.
    Then it’s Nyx’s voice: ‘Please take care to move slowly; you are not exactly among the living.’
    What the fuck does that mean? Not exactly among the living?”
  • It’s pointless. Various attempts have been made to link this … novel of a reimagined Joan of Arc to today’s controversies and dangers. All of these attempts are nonsense. The book has no bearing on today whatsoever. It’s pure escapism, for those who can buy into its lazy premises and tolerate its clumsy narrative and preposterous (yet clichéd) plot.

I really don’t mean to single out The Book of Joan for special abuse; for all I know, it may be one of the better recent fantasy novels. I think HBO’s Game of Thrones adaptation has all of the flaws found in Yuknavitch’s novel and then some. It’s every bit as irrelevant and yet it is wildly popular. In a similar vein, Donald Trump is completely unqualified for any sort of leadership role and yet he is President.

There are other, better ways to stretch your fictional boundaries, if that’s what you feel impelled to do. Science fiction? For sure. Speculative fiction? Absolutely. But fantasy? Sorry, no.