Monday, August 25, 2014

Suburban Decay and the Zombie Insurgency

Shana Festa, Time of Death: Induction

Nursing student Emma Rossi thinks her world’s been turned upside down when she loses her first patient. But that’s nothing: when that patient awakens and attacks others, it’s the beginning of South Florida Armageddon. Soon Emma, her husband Jake, and dog Daphne find themselves manning the barricades against advancing hordes of rotting flesh. Turns out, the zombie invasion smells really, really bad in Gulf Coast humidity.

In reviewing this book, I must immediately acknowledge: it isn’t for me. I’m not Shana Festa’s target audience. I’m the analytical Puritan focused on issues like zombie epidemiology. C’mon, folks, this ain’t Captain Tripps moving silently on sneeze vapors; since zombies are loud, violent, and must physically contact victims to spread contagion, wouldn’t infection move according to geometric patterns? I’m constantly three pages behind Festa, scrutinizing something she wrote previously.

Festa, rather, lavishes in sensory detail and psychological dislocation. Her story, like the best Zombie Apocalypse fiction, invests normal situations with dark implications. Emma’s transition from nurse and suburban wife to guerrilla insurgent reveals the lingering savagery repressed under society’s learned limitations. Festa combines chase horror, family drama, military action, and gallows comedy into a remarkably engaging, stomach-churning tale… for the correct audience.

Following a brief explanatory prologue and some snapshots of domestic bliss, Festa plunges readers into a world bereft of common expectations. Emma, our first-person narrator, and her family face a zombie epidemic that coincidentally hits during a hurricane, meaning literary critics can butter their bread with Festa’s symbolism. Humanity, apparently taking nature’s cue, turns on itself, eating that which it has created. The Rossis abandon everything they know and run.

One suspects Festa injects herself into the story. Emma lives in Festa’s Florida hometown, is training for Festa’s job (registered nurse), and even has Festa’s dog. As Emma flees into Cape Coral’s spaghetti-like suburban streets, struggling to survive both weather and humanity’s devolutionary turn, her fears quickly become our fears. Who hasn’t gotten lost amid cul-de-sacs, wondering whether humanity will die finding its way out of our interchangeable built environment?

The popularity of zombie fiction isn’t as straightforward as Clinton-era vampire mania. I’ve often wondered why zombies enthrall America’s current imagination. Shana Festa clarifies it: we fear we’ve become undead ourselves, shambling through lives we didn’t create, reduced to creatures of mere appetite. We must resist, but one touch spreads the contagion. No wonder zombie mania has, ahem, heated up just as global warming has become imminent and inarguable.

How blatant Festa meant that message, we could debate. Surely it cannot be coincidental that one of her most horrifically affecting images features the Rossis crashing into a car sporting a “Baby On Board” placard. Investigating further, they find a zombie mama consuming her own infant. Festa’s best images, rife with sensory detail, feature such violent disruptions of ordinariness. Zombies don’t just kill; they shatter our market-tested illusions of stability.

I wish Festa had lingered over certain concepts longer. Early chapters imply the Stephen King School of Domestic Horror, the aesthetic that family and community have potential for shocking dread. Y’know, how Jack Torrance terrorizes his family, or how Margaret White’s controlling intolerance nurtures Carrie’s resentment. We get something similar here when an infection begins with the youngest daughter, then eats its way backward up the family tree.

However, by the one-third mark, Festa largely abandons this premise, favoring the survivors’ resistance movement over the initial upheaval. She doesn’t treat it badly, just briefly. Though critics disparage Stephen King’s wordiness, admit it, his domestic dramas wouldn’t feel nearly so horrifying if he didn’t linger over the details. Herein, protagonist Emma shoots her best friend, while a previously polite, bookish teen turns carnivorous, but once they’re over, they’re over.

But that’s my priggishly analytical side intruding again. Festa’s best work—and it’s remarkably good—happens in the present, not in maundering reminiscence nor impending dread. In her longest section, survivors re-enact the Siege of Rorke’s Drift in a suburban big-box discount store. Festa details the indignity of life without amenities, privacy, or imminent rescue, so thoroughly, I can imagine serving “toilet duty” while the soulless clamor outside the walls.

Shana Festa rewards active, engaged readers, but not over-analytical ones. She favors moments of shock and revulsion over creeping Lovecraftian dread, reflecting her extreme brevity: the story itself barely cracks 160 pages. Dedicated readers could devour this book in one rainy Saturday, but Festa’s grim, episodic, often surprisingly funny images will linger longer. She doesn’t transform popular zombie literature, but she certainly advances it.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The Bloody Flower of Ancient China

Gao Jianqun, Tongwan City

Sometime in the early 5th Century CE, a Xiongnu chieftain named Liu Bobo declared his people a nation, crowned himself king, and cultivated a reputation for remarkable cruelty. As much legend as history, Liu Bobo, who changed his family name to Helian in his glory, spread fear abroad, conquered China, and destroyed anyone who crossed him. But his fame exceeded his person; Helian Bobo’s real accomplishments were lost to history.

Chinese novelist Gao Jianqun’s historical epics self-consciously channel the stylings of medieval romances, but infused with strong praises of individualism and liberty. Though highly regarded in China, with multiple awards and valuable state subsidies, his works remain largely unheralded internationally. This, apparently his first novel translated into English, could reverse Gao’s global neglect; it’ll certainly challenge readers eager for literature that resists hip Caucasian commercializing sameness.

Gao crafts a complex, generational epic combining historical facts regarding Helian Bobo, where facts survive, with ancestral mythology and new speculation. Whereas history recalls Bobo’s cruelty, exceptional amid an era when warfare and savagery were common, Gao charts Bobo’s arc of transition. How, he asks, did one man become so violent that, in times when brutality was commonplace, his extremes became noteworthy? Gao’s answer is complicated.

A gentle child known for his easy tears, Liu Bobo arose from nomadic herdsmen lacking a homeland. When ancient enemies sacked Bobo’s community and slaughtered his parents, Bobo began a years-long trek through shattered Sixteen Kingdoms China, a period of constant warfare, political instability, and lawlessness. Desperate to recover the boyhood stability he lost  in one brutal night, Bobo becomes general, then warlord, then king of all he surveys.

The Xiongnu, believed by some (including Gao) to be cousins of the European Huns, were China’s longstanding enemy; China built their Wall to contain the Xiongnu. Herein, Gao, or perhaps translator Eric Mu, use the terms Xiongnu and Hun interchangeably. Claiming descent from both a Han princess and Xia warriors, the Xiongnu kingdom arose quickly, conquered broadly, and collapsed overnight. Six years after Bobo’s death, the Xiongnu were no more.

Unsatisfied with legends of unmatched cruelty, Gao creates a wholly original narrative of Bobo’s transformation. Born soft-hearted, loving animals and women, his era quickly hardened him when he needed to fight to survive. Gao’s Bobo becomes a general when Chang’an’s emperor, the truest Chinese ruler, invests him with power. But when Chang’an betrays him, Bobo’s learned penchant for vengeance impels him to attack his former benefactors.

Gao’s narrative rejects linear, immersive storytelling favored in creative writing classes. No “willing suspension of disbelief” for him. Frequent philosophical discursions, hops into 21st Century speculation, and broad historical context, keep readers aware of Gao’s consciously created prose. He’ll readily stop whatever story you’ve grown invested in to jaunt merrily down some historical cow path. Gao doesn’t let readers vanish into his narrative, instead constantly reminding us: we’re consuming art.

To achieve this effect, Gao liberally mingles fictional narrative, with its love of sensory detail, dialog, and action, with exposition techniques cribbed from nonfiction. Here, he’ll immerse us in Bobo’s difficult emotional journey, creating the illusion of being there alongside our doomed anti-hero; next, he’ll jerk the narrative away, lecturing bookishly on medieval Chinese history. Though ultimately fictional, Gao’s story ultimately isn’t what Western readers would call “a novel.”

Thus, Gao has two audiences. Chinese readers, and those familiar with Chinese tradition, will recognize elements of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms and other ancient literature. Western audiences, to embrace Gao, will require greater openness to new experience, and must not expect this tale to resemble familiar paperback techniques. Western readers, like world travelers, should prepare themselves for intellectual heft, historic discursion, and some level of artistic alienation.

Maria Tatar notes scientific research that proves readers have difficulty with more intellectually complex novels. It wasn’t just you; that consciously intricate reading you did in college really was difficult to keep focused on. Gao challenges readers, disdains fitting into marketable categories, and creates a novel profoundly, inarguably foreign. Not everyone will appreciate his Gordian prose; airport readers and bedtime aesthetes will find themselves easily distracted.

For the right audience, Gao’s story resists market-driven sameness that has so badly muddled Western reading. His story is daring, difficult, and anything but safe, leading readers into truly distant lands. Gao’s Bobo is familiar enough that we share his journey, but foreign enough to threaten our cozy expectations. And the brutality ringing down the halls of Bobo’s mythological fortress, Tongwan, is shocking partly because it’s so real.

Friday, August 15, 2014

We Are All Ferguson, Missouri, Now

P.J. O'Rourke
In my younger, more conservative days, I took most of my political cues from libertarian humorist P.J. O’Rourke. He has a knack for breaking complicated civic issues into bite-sized nuggets, while tagging True Believers’ already existent preconceptions. In this passage from his 1991 classic Parliament of Whores, O’Rourke critiques an anti-drug speech, televised directly from the Oval Office, by then-president George H.W. Bush:
If hysteria is no good, how about racism? Read the following sentences:
Crack is ruining America’s inner cities.

Crack is killing policemen, overburdening courts and filling jails beyond capacity.

Crack is devastating thousands of families.

Crack is putting the lives and well-being of our children at risk.
Now delete the words “crack is” and insert the words “niggers are.” Isn’t this the secret message of the drug-free America campaign?
Many journalists have spilled much ink over crack prohibition’s implicitly racial consequences. African Americans generally prefer crack’s cheap, intense hit, though a crack high lasts only about fifteen minutes. White Americans prefer snorting powdered blow, which costs way more, lasts far longer, and causes flashes of psychosis. But until the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, convictions for crack cocaine received sentences literally 100 times worse than powder cocaine convictions.

Officials in Ferguson, Missouri, have been less than forthcoming about the circumstances leading to Michael Brown’s death on August 9th, 2014. One fact appears clear, however: police initially stopped Brown and his companions for walking in the street. Incident reports haven’t been published, and at this writing, the reporting officer’s name, with other relevant details, remains hidden behind official secrecy. But nobody disputes that police initially busted Brown for… jaywalking.

Ian Haney López
To my middle-class white mentality, the idea that a routine traffic stop could escalate to multiple shots fired, including at least one striking Brown in the back, beggars the imagination. Slightly. Unfortunately, if you follow history and current events, what happened in Ferguson, though appalling, is entirely consistent with America’s unexpressed values. We’ve long found ways to normalize society and protect our status quo, regardless of costs to acceptable casualties.

In his book Dog Whistle Politics, Ian Haney López includes a telling scene. In 1968, Richard Nixon, a noted racial moderate, came within inches of losing the Presidency. Third party candidate and arch-segregationist George Wallace, a former NAACP darling himself before he discovered race-baiting’s electoral payoff, threatened to usurp the entire Solid South. Between Hubert Humphrey’s liberalism and Wallace’s reactionism, Nixon looked too accommodating.

So in October 1968, Nixon began hammering on “law and order,” a seemingly neutral topic voters could embrace across party lines. Squelching crime seems desirable. But Southern segregationists had used “law and order” since the 1950s as a shibboleth redefining civil rights protestors, whose actions were literally illegal, as mere criminals, not justice advocates. Coupled with sudden opposition to “forced busing,” Nixon peeled off enough racist votes to win.

Though rule of law attracts broad bipartisan support, enforcement of law has chilling effects. America’s prison population today equals one percent of our adult population, the largest ratio of imprisoned citizens of any nation anywhere, ever, in recorded history. For African American males of prime working age, that number exceeds ten percent. At an age when white Americans are building careers and connections, black American men are disproportionately, ahem, hardening.

New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani congratulated himself for reducing his city’s legendary crime statistics by instituting a “broken windows” policing policy. This meant dedicating precious police resources to low-level crimes before lawlessness could escalate. But in practice, NYPD heavy-handedly busted blacks in Harlem and Bed-Stuy for fiddling offenses. Giuliani’s handpicked successor, Michael Bloomberg, amplified this with his notorious “stop and frisk” policy that treated brown people as suspects a priori.

Matt Taibbi
Journalist Matt Taibbi writes that laws exist which white Americans largely know nothing about. Thanks to selective enforcement, African Americans can literally go to jail for loitering, poor parallel parking, or falling asleep at bus stops. Courts, Taibbi writes, have punted cases involving high-level political corruption and financial malfeasance, meaning almost nobody’s paid for the 2007 financial meltdown. But blacks face jail for loitering in front of their own houses.

Michael Brown was stopped for a paltry civil infraction, and died. In a town nearly two-thirds black, the overwhelmingly white police force has a documented history of racial profiling and lopsided justice. It seems likely Michael Brown’s stop was a form of social control meant to keep poor blacks in their place. While I never advocate violence, resisting such naked injustice is both righteous and overdue.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Why Do Children Lie About Reading?

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 39
Maria Tatar, Enchanted Hunters: The Power of Stories in Childhood

Maria Tatar, a professor of German who has worked heavily in German-language fairy tales, became curious about the phenomenon of “bedtime stories.” The idea of reading children into sleepiness makes little sense; she writes: “Nothing keeps you awake like a good story.” How, then, do children consume stories? Given access to books, kids read voraciously, tell one another stories, play make-believe, and enact impromptu plays. Stories are endemic to childhood.

Children find themselves pulled between conflicting forces, the eat-your-spinach wholesome reading grown-ups demand, and the deep, sensory experiences of stories they actually seek. As Tatar notes, children read with great aplomb, disappearing into books because they love the experience. And “experience” certainly describes it: kids embrace books that create rich sensory detail and muscular action. Children have opportunities to enjoy reading as grown-ups, with jobs and mortgages and responsibilities, cannot.

Presumably, the reading experience, which elides unnecessary content, feels more real and intense than ordinary life, with its long, inactive stretches of workaday banality. Children, who lack lived experiences, become seasoned through their stories. Because reading lets us experience a range of pleasures—different identities, different time periods, different nations—we absorb it deeply, particularly when we don’t have conflicting ideas or pressures attempting to limit and control our thoughts.

Knowing this, Tatar’s overview of pre-Twentieth Century “children’s literature” is downright chilling. In Tatar’s telling, adult scholars once sought to stifle children’s curiosity, numb their desire for experience, and reduce kids to mere moral instruments. Not for nothing did teachers foist “primers” on kids, a learning apparatus first devised for monastic devotion. The enthusiasm, joy, and wonder we associate with childhood, teachers once unabashedly strove to squelch.

Tatar lavishes praise upon writers like JM Barrie, of Peter Pan fame, or Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll, grown-ups who didn’t have children of their own. Freed from responsibility for children’s moral upbringing, they immerse themselves in what it means to be young. Carroll’s colorful, nigh-psychedelic otherworld, and Barrie’s adventurous utopia, transcend age, era, and nation. No wonder their Victorian fairy stories retain massive, imitative popularity generations later.

Consider the “literature” adults insist children should consume. From the highly moralistic parables in elementary schoolrooms, to the belletristic art writing favored in high school and college courses, it’s hard to imagine writing more incisively designed to alienate avid readers. Twenty-some years removed from 11th Grade English, I’ve finally begun appreciating Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s true accomplishments; but reading because we’re “supposed to” generates a dry, joyless experience.

No wonder authors frequently dismissed as “young adult” writers, like JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins, have dedicated adult audiences. Their immersive storytelling is essentially bilingual, having both the sensory, theatrical content children love (and adults too, if we’re honest), and the subtlety and nuance adults seek. Seven-year-olds, seventeen-year-olds, and seventy-year-old can all lose themselves in Harry Potter, while having unique, sophisticated experiences appropriate to their age range.

Yet, in perhaps Tatar’s most telling passages, children feel openly guilty about reading. Besides her own students, Tatar cites influential sources, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Robin Williams, on this duality: making and consuming stories is children’s greatest joy, but we mock “introverts,” “addicts,” and “bookworms” for reading. Some never outgrow this. Tatar quotes Oprah Winfrey recounting her mother berating her for “think[ing] you’re better than the other kids.”

No wonder adults shift reading energies onto other tasks. From work addiction to family responsibility to even just reading books they “ought to” read, adults divert their attention to putatively useful purposes. Yet Tatar notes adults read to children, at least partly, to recapture that intense “theatre for the imagination” they remember from childhood. I suggest grown-ups read paperback romances and spy thrillers (essentially grown-up fairy tales) for similar purpose.

Tatar recaptures the way we read during our childhood, seeking sophisticated experience and sensory richness, not intellectual heft. Whether society steals it (as I believe) or our psyches cannot generate images internally anymore (as Tatar implies), we adults lose this pleasure in reading, and spend years of adulthood second-guessing ourselves. We intellectually seek meaningful themes and critical complexity, while longing to simply vanish into somebody’s lavishly felt story.

Stories, Tatar declares, create the experience of childhood. Between the sensory pleasure of Wonderland, and the complex experiences kids only have vicariously, childhood remains the unique domain of stories. And while Tatar doesn’t craft a writing guide for children’s literature, nor a discursus on adulthood reading, her message lies behind every grown-up’s reading experience. We spend adulthood seeking to rediscover that wonderful, magical story.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Slow-Burning Fantasy and the Non-Start Story

Robin Hobb, Fool's Assassin: Book One of the Fitz and the Fool Trilogy

FitzChivalry Farseer, former king’s assassin and royal advisor, has retired to anonymity, posing as a yeoman farmer. But palace intrigue draws him back in. A cadre of pale-skinned cutthroats and an impossible soul-capturing curse reveal treachery deep within Buckkeep Castle. Ageless and lethal, Fitz resumes the one occupation he’s truly mastered, drawing blood to defend his king. But these events portend the return of Fitz’s supposedly long-lost confidant, Fool.

Hobb’s publisher calls this the start of a new trilogy, but be aware: it’s Hobb’s seventh novel featuring FitzChivalry Farseer, and her fifteenth set in the Six Duchies. I didn’t understand this, initially. Hobb generously provides newcomers with a brief orientation, probably useful to seasoned readers too, as her last Farseer novel debuted eleven years ago. This novel isn’t freestanding, but it’s sufficiently independent for momentary purposes.

Therefore, your response indubitably depends on your expectations. Hobb’s publicity professionals compare her to George RR Martin, a fairly merited analogy, but perhaps too spot-on: her opening scene musters foreboding that would’ve seemed ominous before the Red Wedding blew up the Internet. Now it just seems really, really long. Readers who followed this story from its 1995 debut called it pathbreaking. Us neophytes will find it over-familiar and derivative.

We’ll also find it wordy and digressive. Hobb’s first two chapters promise drama: strangers invade Fitz’s festival, slaying a messenger, burgling his royal artifacts, and disappearing unmarked. Ooh, auspicious. But Hobb halts the action mid-chapter, suddenly announcing: “But over the next few days…” Not even a line break. Chapter Three commences three years later. Something Red Wedding-ish almost happens, then Hobb immediately dissipates all tension. It never quite returns.

Stylistically, Hobb is surely her own worst enemy. She makes weird choices that slow reading way down, taking readers out of the moment. At key moments, she displaces action or exposition with small talk that, presumably, reveals key character traits, but drains all momentum. Conversations take several pages and serve no purpose. Hobb seemingly deflects energy from her narrative, holding audiences’ attention in limbo indefinitely.

Story elements constantly remind me I’m reading prose, not sharing an experience. The lack of historicity: Hobb, through her first-person narrator Fitz, describes clothing from the Renaissance, late medieval metalsmithing technology, an apparently Dutch Colonial manor house, and remarkably modern record-keeping practices. The languages: Fitz speaks with Americanisms and present day argot. Hobb’s setting doesn’t just lack place and time, she actively avoids having any recognizable domain.

Even character names draw attention to Hobb’s strange authorial choices. She mostly uses characternyms: King Dutiful, Lady Patience, royal advisor Steady. (These characternyms are frequently ironic.) Then she drops them irregularly, giving certain characters made-up-sounding names like Kettricken and Burrich. And Fitz’s pseudonym in retirement is Tom, with his wife Molly. It’s almost like Hobb wants us to pay attention to her typography rather than her storytelling.

(One characternym bears especial notice. FitzChivalry earned his name as his father Chivalry’s illegitimate son. The Anglo-Norman patronymic “Fitz” means son of, but herein, it means bastard of. So whenever Fitz’s wife Molly, his daughter Nettle, his housemen, his king, various friends, honored kinsmen, and others address him as “Fitz,” they’re calling him “Bastard.” Imagine if everyone you loved called you “Shitstreak,” and you answered to it. That’s Hobb’s approach.)

I have difficulty commenting upon Hobb’s story, because I’d read five pages, set the book down, and start making excuses not to resume reading. In a book pushing 700 pages, such fitful reading makes slow progress, but Hobb gives so little to hang my attention on, besides the physical fact of her prose, that I didn’t want to read. Her story lacks tension, her characters lack interest, and nothing happens.

Apologies to Hobb’s fans, who are legion. Many friends talked up Hobb to me, expounding her glamourless, austere narratives. This, they claim, reflects what life would really resemble in a magically imbued feudal kingdom. Hobb eschews either Tolkein’s Christian idealism or William Morris’ Romantic assurance. I imagine this seemed revolutionary in 1995. Two decades on, when distrust and moral uncertainty are widespread in fantasy, it just feels ordinary.

This novel chugs and wheezes for hundreds of pages, like an engine failing to turn over, never gaining traction, never rolling forward. I kept expecting something to arrest my attention, because I wanted to understand why my friends celebrate Hobb’s storytelling. But finally, exhausted, I set the book aside and hadn’t touched it three days later. I realized, that may be all you need to know about this novel.