Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reality—For Sale, Cheap!

salem, Black Hole Butterfly

In a lawless future Manhattan, PI Rook Black traces a scientist’s murder to a secretive Chinatown underground of supertechnology, art, and crocodile wrestling. There he finds brewing war between Gasland, the organized muscle behind petroleum, and the Naranja Empire, whose solar-powered tech is reshaping society. The enemies square off over control of Shakespeare, whose prose constantly re-creates reality around us. Rook Black is a pawn in their operation.

In tone and technique, salem’s debut novel resembles classics from William Gibson and Pat Cadigan. The collision between human nature, with its dogged continuity from age to age, and our built environment, which refuses to stand still, feels almost exactly like the Reagan-era “future shock” novels I grew up reading, though rather than distrusting computers, the disquieting technology has reached a higher order. Confoundingly, this doesn’t go nearly far enough.

salem writes in slow, cerebral tones, a languorous prose poem of butterflies, Buddha, quantum mechanics, and sulfur matches. Rook Black is a gripping character, both soberly analytical and deeply sensual. His struggle to track Jack the Butterfly, who sells black-market reality to Chinese criminals, defies retelling. This isn’t some paperback potboiler you fall asleep under; you immerse yourself in salem’s lush prose, absorbing Rook Black’s struggle to understand the inexplicable.

This novel thrums with compressed energy so tight, you can practically hear the orchestral score beneath its silent prose. (salem’s career began writing unproduced screenplays.) Secrets come dribbling out, not predictable, but certainly reliable. salem’s language hides secrets: for instance, the Naranja Empire. Naranja, Spanish for “orange.” Significant? Yes, but the reasons why prove as elusive as the pseudo-reality Jack the Butterfly sells under the table.

But this same storytelling proves this novel’s greatest weakness. salem positions this novel as a sci-fi mystery, much like Cadigan or Jonathan Lethem wrote twenty years ago. But pages and pages pass without dialog, possibly salem’s Achilles heel. Though rich with introspective tone, the characters—a cast of thousands—don’t interact much. Mysteries require people to talk, to divulge secrets. We get scads of soul-searching, but precious little action.

salem’s reliance on darkness, rain, and an unchangingly bleak backdrop channels Alex Proyas’ 1998 sleeper classic Dark City, and when I realized that, problems set in. I began seeing echoes of the Wachowskis, Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, and even Star Trek’s holodeck, stories and storytellers who cast doubt upon reality. This familiarity, this reliance on mass-media tropes we’ve already overanalyzed, takes readers outside salem’s profoundly immersive narrative.

Science fiction, more than any other genre except perhaps spy thrillers, is innately tied to the time when it was written. Our concepts of the future, our understanding of technological potential, changes regularly. Networked computers, which terrified Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, seem ordinary now. Rocket ships, far from recapturing the glamour of Spanish exploration, have less personality than dump trucks. Skiffy, generally, doesn’t date well.

But rather than address our era’s relationship with technology, salem revisits Mulder and Scully’s conspiracy theorizing. Though Rook Black gradually uncovers massive secrets, which salem reveals with grace and aplomb, they have a texture of unrelenting familiarity. salem, I came to realize, is an excellent prose stylist; but this narrative is a massive portmanteau of late-1990s stereotypes so comfy, one suspects salem has made a nest in another decade.

This is a novel of ideas. Rich, lushly deconstructed ideas, ripe with potential to demonstrate psychological profundity and social impact. salem’s characters unpack implications to make William Gibson look comparatively unambitious, expounded in language balanced on the cusp between Raymond Chandler and Allen Ginsberg. It’s both a throwback to my paperback youth, and a bold experiment. Stylistically and conceptually, I’ve seen little like this in the last twenty years.

This isn’t a novel of characters. Though salem has many characters with interesting motivations and enigmatic backstories, they don’t so much interact as collide, and each remains so bound by their respective situations, they prove slow to change, resistant to each other even under duress. Because they scarcely interact, their ideas get propounded, but only intermittently tested and refined. salem proffers profound viewpoint characters, but they interact only sporadically.

Thus, how readers receive this novel depends on what expectations they bring into the experience. I found plenty to enjoy, particularly how it recalls the science fiction that corresponded with my dawning maturity. Yet salem’s admittedly ambitious story never gains traction, partly because it gives little place to hang my attention. We have the rudiments of an excellent novel here. It just doesn’t go far enough.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Savage, Honest Dreamer

Melanie Lamaga, The Evolution of Reptilian Handbags: and Other Stories

I had read difficulty reading this book, in the best way possible. Lamaga’s fiction, a dreamscape of shifting lands and towering, beanstalk people, uses fantastic images and superhuman characters to pierce her readers’ expectations. Her surreal, André Breton-ish prose revels in keeping readers constantly back-footed and surprised. Reading her short stories resembles that moment when, awakening abruptly from a semi-nightmare, your flesh doesn’t feel like your own.

Lamaga’s debut collection compiles ten stories, written over a decade and change, the longest running sixty pages, the shortest, three. She uses familiar settings in an unfamiliar way: an Iowa horse farm becomes an unlikely refuge against laser-guided war, for instance, or the act of stripping away flooring reveals the primordial soup beneath civilization. Many stories are less sequences of events, than puzzles whose solutions arise from their readers’ psyche.

Stories range from slice-of-life vignette, to apparent free association, to out-and-out fantasy. Lamaga doesn’t link stories by tone or content; but they do share one theme, transcendence. A desperate office worker’s trials become her zen koan, and she becomes a Buddha. A suburban teenager abjures so many trappings that she becomes gossamer, drifting away on a train’s wake. A banker steps off a pier into the waiting arms of nothingness.

Or characters resist transcendence when it’s offered. “Waking the Dreamer” features a rich sybarite’s obsession with a Sleeping Beauty. But when his infatuation awakens her, she reveals hidden wrath that eradicates mere human fixations. Our nameless narrator realizes that “The snake did not deceive Eve—Eve was the snake.” Except his description, when Beauty unveils her true nature, reflects a completely different figure from Paradise Lost.

In “The Seduction of Forgotten Things,” a disaffected daughter dyes her hair purple, wanders city streets at night, and discovers the beating urban heart her parents forgot. When she meets a half-savage drifter, they form a naturalist family together. But when sudden illness threatens their unborn child, her wild-man husband returns them to her genteel origins, where she discovers she’s maybe tamed him too well. She’s become his greatest burden.

The title story jumps, comic book-like, around a world where metaphor has died. When somebody falls into a trance, there’s a chance they’ll break some bones. When a tsunami of trash crests on society, people drown on plastics and fumes they previously, heedlessly discarded. All the monsters and predators of myth linger in a dark, twisting canyon, waiting for our metaphor-free dreams to awaken them to our new, literal world.

Human dreams often reveal our dissatisfaction at civilized stability. How often have your dreams involved savage nature invading our world? Like me, you’ve probably fled waves, literal waves, of refuse returning to reprimand our profligate ways. You’ve probably wandered rain-slick streets where fishboys leap, glistening, from sewer grates. Lamaga billboards these dreams, these pre-human visions of savage, invasive nature, letting us bask in her radiant glow of terrified familiarity.

Probably most difficult for me, “Mr. Happy the Sharpshooter” spotlights an experience I share with many men. Young Frank Happy’s autocratic father used words and fists to expunge anything he considered “weak” (read here “feminine”) from his gentle, open-hearted son. Imaginative and playful, yet eager to please Dad, Frank tears himself in twain, the hardened, buck-hunting Korean War veteran everyone sees, and the sad-eyed artist behind the mirror.

Except, for Frank, this cleft isn’t metaphorical. Shuffling through life, broken-souled and desperate for approval, he discovers very late that there’s another Frank Happy, a top-rated children’s TV host. Everything our Frank lost, that Frank gained. Whenever fate flipped a coin, that other Frank won. Dad loved that other Frank, just for being Frank. So our Frank grabs a sniper rifle and goes hunting the life he should’ve had.

Lamaga’s storytelling—sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, always humane—eschews the limitations of reason and wakefulness, plunging us into the visceral ordeals everybody shares nightly. Replacing sentiment with sense, told in a range of languid, unhurried voices, she creates a hypnotic sub-reality into which we don’t climb, but fall. We drift in her stories like a slow-moving river, like an afternoon nap, like a womb.

When you begin reading, do me one favor: disregard the back-cover synopsis. Its one-sentence descriptions of selected stories don’t accurately reflect the stories, misleading readers to seek the wrong cues. Lamaga’s stories resist brief distillation. Like the dreams she channels, Lamaga’s stories deserve our full immersion, experiencing them as they unfold in full horror and grandeur. They eat you whole, and afterward, you thank them for it.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Lost in the Amazon

Discussions surrounding the now-notorious throwdown between French-owned Hachette Book Group and have reached a possibly unprecedented impasse: they’re simultaneously very silly, and almost completely opaque. Everyone assumes it’s somehow related to profit sharing on e-book sales, but both sides are vague and secretive. That hasn’t stopped every mass media figure from having some half-informed opinion, as demonstrated by this abject foolishness:

Malcolm Gladwell
Beyond the fact that this display is simply beneath Malcolm Gladwell’s dignity, it proves the public face of this corporate dispute has devolved into juvenile theatrics. I encountered this video through Gladwell’s New Yorker blog, blurring the lines between individual and communal: did Gladwell share this, or did one of America’s most celebrated mass-market glossy magazines take sides in a conflict so abstruse, informed commentators can’t assure us it’s even happening in English?

Since fully half of Americans never crack another book after leaving school, this debate seems potentially futile. In today’s tough economic climate, many wage earners might answer Gladwell and Cavett by shrugging. Though Amazon currently controls half of America’s book commerce, working Americans’ lives move more broadly over who retails their socks, bananas, and motor oil. If Amazon stalls Hachette book shipment over a month, hell, buy it someplace else.

But this has significant economic implications. Hachette, which owns Hyperion and Little, Brown & Co., is one of only five media conglomerates which dominate two-thirds of American publishing. Other conglomerates include German-owned Bertelsmann, which controls Penguin, Doubleday, and Random House; Simon & Schuster, owned by CBS; and HarperCollins, part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Penguin’s 2012 merger with Random House narrowed an already dangerously cramped global information pipeline.

While five corporations create the preponderance of American information content, one company, Amazon, sells fully half that content. This represents another narrowing: in 1999, Naomi Klein complained that three companies—Borders Group, Barnes & Noble, and WalMart—had cornered American book sales. Two mall chains, Waldenbooks and B. Dalton, were owned by Borders and BN, respectively. Both mall chains, and Borders altogether, no longer exist.

Amazon’s market might has become so immense, it’s even ventured into content production. I’ve reviewed several books published by Amazon-owned imprints, from good authors like Tyler Dilts and SG Redling, and mediocre ones like Vincent Zandri and Barbra Annino. Nobody begrudges Amazon’s desire to broaden publishing opportunities. But if they want to monopolize the supply chain, that dances perilously close to BN’s sick-making 1998 attempt to purchase book distributor Ingram.

No company should have such power.

Economists proclaim the 3-30 Rule: when three operators control thirty percent of any market, that market is no longer free. We see that today elsewhere: ConAgra, Smithfield, and Cargill control half of American grocery manufacture. CitiGroup, Goldman, and Wells Fargo control banking. A handful of companies have become so massive that their very presence distorts market forces. Amazon and the Big Five Publishers have joined those “illustrious” ranks.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos
Therefore, turf war between Amazon and Hachette, whatever the proximal justification, isn’t distant. These corporations are struggling to determine who controls access to information. And not just any information. In today’s digital world, “information” is common as dirt; bloggers create content faster than anyone can read it. (Don’t look at me that way.) No, this battle concerns access to information screened for relevance, organized by our generation’s best minds, and presented clearly and conveniently.

Powerful Americans still read books. Business magnates, elected officials, and artists read. Behavioral economists have tracked positive correlation between willingness to read for fun and personal development, and one’s likelihood to advance, economically and socially, in this world. Therefore, when market consolidation allows one vendor to stymie access to one manufacturer, it literally narrows our nation’s overall cultural creation ability. Unchecked, Amazon’s feud with Hachette could partially suffocate economic efficiency.

Prognosticators proclaimed Internet commerce would doom independent booksellers, but indies thrive in urban markets large enough to support them. Some, like Denver’s Tattered Cover, have become legitimate tourist destinations. People who love books seek out indie booksellers, because indies share their love of books. They’re also great places to meet fellow book lovers. Indies sell books as culture; national chains sell books as content. And Internet retailers can sell content cheaper.

I like Amazon. I shop there, and my reviews kick potential buyers to Amazon’s pages. That makes this folderol more frustrating, because it’s beneath two global economic powerhouses. Surely Amazon and Hachette have enough shared dignity to resolve their conflicts without diminishing America’s already-diminished intellectual market. And if not, that’s why America still has McKinley-era Antitrust laws.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Wrong Reinvention at the Wrong Time

Josh Linkner, The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation

I had a grim feeling about this book when, at the end of his introduction, Linkner wrote: “It’s time to architect your own future.” From the philosophical to the economic to the grammatical, so much is wrong with that line, I can’t even encompass it. Yet because Linkner reuses this ungrammatical cliché, and others similarly vacuous, this quote became emblematic of this entire book. And reading it, frankly, hurt.

Linkner’s litany of bromides, jargon, and cherry-picked anecdotes might make sense in an absolute vacuum. If you’ve never read anything else about business and economics, Linkner sounds persuasive. But I have read, and Linkner doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Start with this: Linkner does everything short of directly quoting Clayton Christensen, the Harvard Business School professor who pioneered Disruptive Innovation theory, without ever citing him. Linkner’s best ideas are pirated.

Historian Jill Lepore, of Harvard and The New Yorker, writes that Disruptive Innovation, despite moddish popularity, has little backing evidence unless observers meticulously screen their evidence. It’s also proven functionally worthless for economic predictions: in my favorite moment from Lepore, Christensen in 2005 predicts the iPhone will crater because it doesn’t meet any measurable need. Linkner suffers similar field blindness so often, listing examples risks descending into parody.

Consider: Linkner asserts that Kmart lost its commercial relevance by inertia, descending into bankruptcy in 2002. That’s true. But by Linkner’s own standards, what happened in 2002 doesn’t matter in 2014. Corporate restructuring, strategic fat-trimming, a mutually beneficial merger with Sears, and several racy new TV ads have returned Kmart to prominence, and revenues, it hasn’t seen since Reagan’s first term. Linkner’s castigations are outdated, making him seem oblivious.

Similarly, Linkner blames Borders Books & Music’s collapse on a failure to keep abreast of cultural trends. But Naomi Klein wrote in 1999 that Borders was already systemically underpaying workers, building outlets faster than revenue growth, and edging into marginal markets, all in an attempt to outpace their biggest competitor, Barnes & Noble. Well, BN won that horserace. Linkner’s analysis would only make sense if Borders was America’s only book superstore chain.

Dedicated readers will notice that I selected these examples from Linkner’s early pages. Simply put, I stopped taking notes. Linkner says so much, so wrong, so often, that memorializing it started to feel mean. Believe me, I could’ve gotten much, much more brutal. But this is a book review, not a scholarly paper; two examples will suffice.

Linkner’s press agent pitched me this book partly through Linkner’s involvement with efforts to revitalize his native Detroit. Periodically, Linkner mentions ways Detroit, once considered America’s most failed city, is currently revitalizing itself. One wonders if Linkner reads newspapers. Detroit, which grew rapidly on expectations of money that never materialized, has been immune to economic boom cycles for about three decades, and is currently bleeding about ten-thousand residents per year.

Where, then, is this “reinvention”? Certainly not in the auto industry, which Linkner diplomatically mentions as infrequently as possible. Henry Ford’s assembly line was a workers’ nightmare that required record high wages to forestall massive walkouts (cf. Matthew B. Crawford). And most of the “disruptive reinventions” Linkner cites began after Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy filing, too recently to draw meaningful longitudinal conclusions. As flaccid examples accumulate, the pattern feels painfully self-serving.

Throughout, Linkner repeats the word “reinvention” with onanistic fixation, until it becomes banal. Reinvention, in Linkner’s world, becomes something you do constantly, regardless of market circumstances or economic limitations. It became painful to read, because in reality, you cannot constantly reinvent yourself. Eventually you must assume your mature structural role, and eventually die. Constant, internally motivated change, without regard for environmental constraints, is the operant philosophy of cancer cells.

Linkner describes himself as a serial capitalist. He recounts founding multiple companies, building their market strength, then selling them and reinvesting the proceeds in further start-ups. Now a venture capitalist, he subsidizes others who do likewise. Nice work if you can get it. But because only massively capitalized mega-corporations can purchase already extant companies outright, this makes Linkner culpable in today’s concentrated wealth and narrow market efficiency. One Percent ho!

Perhaps you’ve noticed my reuse of descriptors like “painful” and “hurt.” Linkner wants to pierce your preconceptions and lay bare your aching mistakes. But that’s not the pain I felt. Between his make-do grammar, flimsy arguments, and recycled thesis, Linkner enflamed this ex-English teacher’s longstanding sore points. I didn’t so much want to review this book as grade it. I’ve seen freshmen put more thought and research into their work.

Monday, July 14, 2014

When the Prairie Sleeps, the Mystery Creeps

C.J. Box, Shots Fired: Stories from Joe Pickett Country

Somebody’s bound to say it somewhere, so let me say it first: it’s difficult to read this book without comparing it to Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories, the collection which gave us the original “Brokeback Mountain.” Assuming you’ve read Proulx, obviously. And if you haven’t, please do, because putting these two together provides a remarkable view of the wide, arid, hardworking domain America largely derides as “flyover country.”

Proulx, a Wyoming transplant, and Box, a native, both create languid, laconic characters whose actions deliver eloquent messages that mere words couldn’t convey. Their concise snapshots reveal a people whose lives have become integrated with the landscape, giving them a permanence transcending generations. But where Proulx’s literary approach conveys Wyomingites’ diverse struggles often in stolid silence, Box, a crime novelist, observes his protagonists through the lens of violence.

Box’s very earthy, hardworking, and concise English doesn’t eliminate poetry; often, it heightens stylistic power. Describing the North Platte River, Box writes, “the current gripped the flat-bottomed McKenzie boat and spun it like a cigarette butt in a flushed toilet.” Anyone who’s seen fishing boats in shallow water recognizes that surprising yet apt simile. Likewise, Box says so-and-so’s “face was round, like a hubcap.” He uses that one twice.

This approach, free of self-conscious ornamentation, is merely the surface layer of how Box’s characters think. Too busy with work, family, and survival to be “pretty,” they distribute words with Protestant thrift, and base their metaphors on common, workaday images. Yet their often unforeseen poetry doesn’t just make us see their objects anew; it forces us to acknowledge them as deep thinkers, though they may lack fancy East Coast credentials.

Four stories feature Box’s recurrent protagonist, game warden Joe Pickett. (Non-hunters may not realize game wardens are sworn law officers with arrest authority.) Pickett’s innate feel for Wyoming’s diverse ecology, and the humans who make their living off it, recalls dime novel tropes of Indians standing outside white society, yet still maintaining certain justice. Besides Proulx, I also recalled Zane Grey’s highly moral Westerns while reading Box.

Six other stories venture outside Box’s previous bibliography, while remaining around his Wyoming heart. (Okay, “Le Sauvage Noble” is set in South Dakota and Paris, France. Allow some latitude.) The most powerful stories in the collection feature some collision between the stable Wyoming equilibrium and outside forces which would remake the prairie in their image. Box’s stories manage the constant tapdance between down-home continuity and worldly disruption.

My favorite tale, “The Master Falconer,” features a naturalist and former soldier on society’s fringes. When a powerful Saudi plutocrat attempts to buy his loyalty, believing everybody is for sale, our hero finds himself imprisoned by overwhelming pressures. His understanding of the land and people lets him construct a sophisticated noose from the Saudi’s own rope. Remarkably, this is one of only two stories where nobody dies, though several people crawl away bloodied.

Other stories span the range of Western life, turning on ways people hurt, diminish, or steal power from others. “Dull Knife” describes a hard collision between modern Indian and White societies. Casual racism won’t surprise most readers who’ve lived near the Rez, but the flippant bigotry inherent in friendly White condescension remains shocking. “The End of Jim and Ezra” flips eras, depicting the brutality that drove early American expansionism.

Not everything works equally. “Every Day Is a Good Day on the River” billboards its impending conflict so blatantly, I wonder how these characters didn’t realize they’re trapped in a suspense thriller. Box took the easy option here. But that’s one weak story among ten. I’d forgive much worse for “Blood Knot,” a flash story with no physical violence, but deep insights into how people chisel away each other’s humanity.

Box’s stories resemble Proulx’s observations of ordinary people, pushed by austere circumstances into moments of chilling hostility. Mystery fans may prefer comparing Box to Craig “Longmire” Johnson, but beyond the Wyoming setting, the comparison rings hollow. Longmire channels classic Westerns and heroic myths, Box prefers a cold-eyed look at how people cling to society’s margins today. Box’s arid Wyoming prairie symbolizes his characters’ inner brokenness.

Don’t let my high-minded analysis deter you, though. Box creates high-energy adventures that test characters to destruction, revealing their secrets not through turgid discourse, but through action and moments of bleak, inescapable honesty. I can think of no greater praise a weary night-shift laborer can bestow upon this collection, than that I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish that last story.