A phenomenal short story collection by a writer whom I have admired and read with respect and admiration since I first encountered him. Randall Kenan died a couple of days ago, after publishing a new book of stories that I have not read yet. But reviewing this book feels like a way to find some solace in his passing. Randall’s writing was exquisite; the world of his stories is beautiful; the last story in this volume is a transcendent piece of short fiction. He was a child of eastern North Carolina, as I am. As a writer he reminded me of Toni Morrison and Faulkner, though Faulkner is someone of whom I am not so fond any more. Maybe also of Nordan in the way his writing blends reality and extra-reality. He will be greatly missed. But his work will always be with us.
This is one of the essential books in the world of gender fluidity, published long before the current discussions of transgender issues, carving out a space unique to itself, a pure piece of fury at times, a heartwrenching search for the truth about one person’s self. The range between man and woman is a spectrum, not a pole of opposites. The story that Feinberg tells begins in the 50s and carries itself forward into the ensuing decades as protagonist Jess Goldberg makes her decision to live as a man. The decision proves to be earthshaking. This is the way bars felt in the sixties and later, whether they catered to men or women or the space between. A time when a woman could be “she” and “he” in the same day, switching back and forth as often as conversation or circumstance dictated. (The same was true of men but that’s not what this book is about.) The writing is straight out of the furnace of Feinberg’s being, and there are only a few books I have ever read that accomplish that feat.
Picked this one because someone recommended it and really, at this point, desperate for stuff to watch. Roommate is very picky but did not veto. I spent the first hour counting the tropes and predicting the next line of dialog, with a pretty good average. You always know what’s coming next in this kind of movie. The men have something to prove in every scene. They’re mavericks, they don’t take orders, do things their way, blah blah blah. We’d all be better off if somebody could figure out how to make a good movie about men who play by the rules. But that’s not really the American image. Giggled at Matt Damon’s accent, howled at Christian Bales’s. For a while all I could do was watch them make the accents and be pleased with themselves because they nailed it. The smugness of celebrity. The actress playing Bales’s wife was great because I had never seen her before, mostly. She had nothing to do but wifey stuff except for the wild driving scene which was her Moment. Everything was stock and cardboard. Nevertheless I finally slid into the story when the evil corporate type did what evil corporate types always do. My reaction was so predictable. But it was pleasant enough. Once the story kicked in, the acting no longer appeared so thin. Nice to watch Ray McKinnon but how couldn’t somebody figure out how to do a different turn with the wise old redneck? Roommate said, I wish that guy (Damon) would stop chewing gum so hard. Her only comment. Would not give it any stars. Roommate played Hay Day while she watched, and I thought about what to do with the book I’m working on, and the movie did what it did, and it ended with some tears, of course, and a heartwarming boy on a bicycle. We have now made so many movies (as a people; I haven’t made any myself) that they all recycle the same old stuff because there’s no choice. Especially this kind of movie, which depends on famous faces to carry it. Famous faces are so tired. The only way this movie could have been more mediocre was if Tom Cruise had played the race driver, which was the plan. This movie belongs to the category Wall of White Men Who Do It All. Unmake this film if possible, and the world will be less crappy.
This book is not at all well known but fascinated me when I ran across it, in the course of doing research for a novel about New Orleans. It is the published journal of a woman who lived in the city in the years after she was ruined by marrying a man who already had a wife, unbeknownst to her. She realizes that she is lost to polite society and makes a compromise that she finds liveable: she becomes the mistress of a married man who buys a house for her. She sets about living in her house and creating a life for herself. Gardening, attending church, hearing sermons in which women who live as she does are condemned, but nevertheless continuing to attend church because her beliefs were important to her. Her journaling is readable and moving for its revelation of her quiet courage. She realizes that she has compromised herself but understands that she has little other option. Her love for her protector is marred by his eventual lack of interest. When he breaks off their relationship and attempts to reclaim the house, she sues him to prove that the house was given to her as a gift, wins her lawsuit, and eventually leaves New Orleans to live in California. The whole story is poignant, and her strength of character quietly underlies the diary entries. I give the book four stars because of the importance of this woman’s story. She is a kind of woman who is not often represented in the fiction of the time except in terms of her destruction, her fall. Madaline never accepts that her morality is identifiable with the ostracism which she suffers. Neither does she pretend that she is perfect, or create a victim of herself. She is a study in strength and resilience.
A lot of what worked for me in Red Mars becomes utterly tedious in Green Mars: the endless travel over the surface and the descriptions of the landscape. In the middle of the book during the long Maya section I nearly despaired and put it down. I do admire the exhaustive ambition of the book, the need to create an absolutely believable century of Martian development. But I don’t admire it so much that I wanted to read the same passages over and over again: they traveled across Mars in rovers and saw many, many things. This kind of writing occupies a good third of the novel, and I think I am being somewhat conservative in the estimate. The character writing is about the same as in the first novel, a bit flat and dry, and as the cast of characters proliferates it becomes noticeably more difficult to care enough to keep them all in the head. So I focused on Maya, Nadia, and Sax, who are the actual stars of the novel. So much happens to them in the course of the book that sheer accumulation of events should bring about some sense of change in them. But they remain essentially the same monotones; Nadia and Sax are interesting but in exactly the same way as in Red Mars. Perhaps Sax is the figure who goes through the most changes, given what happens to him at the hands of one of the First Hundred. This is not to say that the character writing is bad, but it is simply workmanlike. The voices of the characters in dialog are all the same. The book follows the same arc as Red Mars, a great deal of travel and visiting of sites on Mars while the unrest of the Martians leads to revolution. You can feel it coming three hundred pages away. But the book is relentless in insisting that all three hundred of those pages are necessary. I can’t help but feel that a more artful writing could have made this book much shorter and much different from the first volume, but it’s hard to argue with the book’s success. I am going to take a good long break and read something else before I tackle Blue Mars. Otherwise I am certain to dislike it.
There is an element of this book that is fantastic, the journey over Mars. Robinson writes so concretely and minutely of the travels of the First Hundred colonists – a select few of them, of course – that the planet becomes tangible. It is a remarkable achievement to make such an alien voyage into a palpable experience. The writing pours forward, discussing the names of places, the geological features, the elevations, the rocks, the dust (called fines), all this while moving the characters and the story, the whole process so effortless on the page. Yet it is certain that this feat cost time and effort and study, since none of this information could be described as intuitive. The same applies to the journey to Mars in the colony ship and the establishment of the colony. One of the best passages of the book introduces us to Nadia, who is the passionate builder and implementer of the colony, easily the most vivid of the characters in my opinion. This is what the book gets right, and it’s transcendent. But the people in the book are generally dull or typical or both, and attempts to draw someone more vividly, like Maya, the head of the Russian colonists, descend into questionable stuff. Robinson is not very good with character. He is good enough with it that the people are differentiated, but his description of their selves, their depths, is so clinical that it grays out their features. He is devoted to scientists and has little interest in anyone else. Business people get short shrift and art is depicted as something that scientists are occasionally very good at. This is entirely fair as a choice, but it dulls the world and the work considerably. Nevertheless, this is a monumental work. It is also one of the most readable books I have encountered in some time.
I am trying to be more cautious with five-star reviews, but in the case of Tristram Shandy the rating is inevitable. This is the novel I think of when I read that someone in the modern realm has written an experimental novel or a groundbreaking novel – because Laurence Sterne wrote this book so long ago and basically made experimentation in fiction obsolete. His work predicts much of what would be called innovative and avant garde in later writers. He tells his story in nearly every way that a story can be told, and his novel is self-conscious, his narrator/writer very aware of the novel that is being written. It is the story of the birth of Tristram, the naming of Tristram, the family of Tristram, all at once. Unlike novels that sweep through an entire life in narrative waves, this book is discursive, and in some ways static: we think Tristram birth will be the beginning of a saga, but instead the narrative lingers on the moment of the birth, the past of the father and uncle, the disdain of the mother, the lunacy of the world, the history of wars in Europe – there is so much in the book that a mere cataloging of its contents does it nothing like justice. It is a timeless work simply by virtue of the fact of Sterne’s writing, which hovers over the story and points here and there at this oddity, this insight, that bit of story, that motif – all written with such beauty and grace. All of it, too, hilarious. There is nothing inapproachable, bombastic, or pretentious about this novel. Well, maybe there is bombast. Of the best sort. Always there is the narrator, Tristram, who promises that he will live an extraordinary life after his birth; and we can imagine that he did, indeed, keep that promise.
When I read these stories now, they remind me of Laura Ingalls Wilder; they’re all written about earnest, kind, unhappy, lost people, and the refrains in all of them are the same: finding people with whom one belongs, finding a spiritual joy that awakens real power. This makes the stories sound overtly religious, and they are, but in a quiet way, and the strength of them lies in the echoes of loneliness in the characters. Henderson writes about people who have lost their home, which was a marvelous and magical place; and they have lost each other, mostly. She is one of the few writers in science fiction or fantasy who created aliens among us in such a bright, benevolent way. Not here to conquer or to exploit, only here by accident (though perhaps a divine accident). When I read them as a child I was thunderstruck by the possibility that there were really the People somewhere; unlike some of her fans, who apparently convinced themselves of the literality of the stories, I knew it was fiction I was reading, but it was nevertheless heartening to imagine I could fly or plait twitters. These are perfect young adult stories, also for people who don’t like more than a necessary dose of unpleasantness. Even on reading them again now (I am in the midst of them) I am struck by the artful writing and the perseverance of the writer, who did as she pleased and became something of a phenomenon. It was a real wonder in the 60s to find them as they appeared and became anthologized, reading and learning more about the People a little at a time. Read all at once they have a slightly saccharine quality. But the nostalgia they evoke is enough for me. Much like Anne of Green Gables and books of that ilk, where there is never really any question that things will work out well in the end. Everybody needs stories like that from time to time. Especially in 2020.
Philip Dick’s novels have permeated our culture through the many movie and television adaptations of his work; this particular novel, though, is the one that I think about most often, even though the film version of it was not such a big moment for many people, nothing like Blade Runner or Minority Report. The novel tells a surreal, twisted story of a man whose life inverts on itself, an undercover cop whose identity is secret even to his superiors, and who is asked to observe surveillance footage of himself in his undercover role. This is one of those ideas that strikes true from the first moment, a brilliant concept that Dick elaborates in a way that is more personal than other books. At least I think this is true. The idea hit home with him and called up some of his best work. He wrote a lot of books and stories and it’s easy to identify the stronger ones because their ideas engaged him more completely and drew out his best sentences. And this is one of the very best, though it is not always named among his finest. The man who watches himself portray a criminal and in the end becomes suspicious of himself, separates himself from the version he is observing, and questions the reality of the background world. A hint of the quantum idea that the act of observation changes the observed, and in this case, the observed is the observer, only in another context; the whole thing spirals in the mind. The writing is some of Dick’s finest, even though there are cruder moments in the sentences, indicative of the speed with which he wrote. Includes an essay by Dick at the end of my copy of the book, a sobering reflection on the way he lived his life, the way drugs ate him up.