Friday, September 28, 2012

A Conversation With Society's Unremembered Side

Natasha Trethewey, Thrall: Poems

In her latest collection, poet Natasha Trethewey explicitly calls herself black, but engages in elaborate dialogs with her white father. This dichotomy drives much of her prior work, and she continues to explore what may be America’s most important question in the Twenty-First Century: when you have more than one heritage, how do you decide which one you are? Just as important, how do you decide which one you are not?

Modern sociology asserts that race has less to do with skin color, and more to do with how society treats us. Trethewey delves into that with questions about, for instance, how people made patronizing assumptions about a black mother walking a fair-skinned daughter, or the unstated assumptions of Monticello tour guides. These assumptions start to permeate our lives, sometimes against our will:

I did not know then the subtext
     of our story, that my father could imagine
Jefferson’s words made flesh in my flesh—

the improvement of the blacks in body
     and mind, in the first instance of their mixture
with the whites
—or that my father could believe

he’d made me better.

(“Enlightenment”)

Trethewey follows two parallel tracks in this exploration. Many of her poems draw their inspiration from classic art on themes of race and admixture. The above quote, for instance, begins with Jefferson’s official portrait, hanging at Monticello, and transitions to the present, when father and daughter visit the historic site. Not all the poems so forthrightly address how the past impacts the present; you may have to tease it out, but it’s still there:

Emblematic in paint, a signifier of the body’s lacuna,
     the black leg is at once a grafted narrative,
a redacted line of text, and in this scene a dark stocking
     pulled above the knee...

                    ...One man always
     low, in a grave or on the ground, the other
up high, closer to heaven; one man always diseased,
     the other a body in service, plundered.

(“Miracle of the Black Leg”)

Thus a recurrent theme of religious art, thankfully now abandoned—the dead negro’s leg transplanted onto a sick white man, like the dark body were an old Studebaker in a salvage lot—speaks to the present, when we still treat some people as resources to enrich others. Though Trethewey’s current commentary is largely implicit, such grim acknowledgments linger under much of her verse, a darkly ironic wink from poet to audience.

Trethewey’s artistic unpacking moves from medieval altarpieces, as above, through post-Renaissance artists like Diego Velazquez and his slave, Juan de Pareja, to a relative modern like George Fuller. (Trethewey does not reproduce the art here; Google Images is good for that.) Her ekphrastic examinations don’t much comment on themes of race, though. She prefers to let the work itself reveal the artists’ unacknowledged assumptions.

But art is a form of memory, and memory builds the heart of identity. Trethewey refuses to get mired in the past; instead, she always uses the past to comment on the present. Because we inherit a mixed society, born of mingled heritages, we always exist outside ourselves, commenting. Trethewey embodies that in a specific way, since she considers herself black, but her only surviving parent is white.

Perhaps, for Trethewey, art serves as the frame story for the conversation with her father that moves throughout this collection. Sometimes she literally speaks with her father; other times her father serves as shorthand for the less obvious half of her bloodline. Yet where such discussion could turn bitter (consider Amiri Baraka’s poems about his white first wife), Trethewey maintains both an affection and a closeness that channels Elizabeth Bishop:

To see a flash of silver—
     pale undersides of the maple leaves
catching light—quick movement
     at the edge of thought,
          is to be pulled back
to that morning, to the river it flashes still:
               a single fish
breaking the water’s surface...

(“On Happiness”)

Trethewey indulges a few of the contrivances that have become almost mandatory in current poetry: irregular left margins, sometimes sawtoothed or gently scalloped, sometimes jagged as lightning; in-line lacunae in place of punctuation. But she eschews the virtuosic flourishes that confound wider audiences. Trethewey’s verse is remarkably lucid and forthright, without losing the insight we associate with the word “poetry.”

This collection asks hard questions, and provides no facile answers. But Trethewey’s words stick with us because we ourselves are mixed—perhaps not in such obvious and literal ways, but nevertheless. Her verse causes profound, moving disquiet because we can look at it and recognize ourselves.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Walls of Thebes, Men of Troy, American Soldiers On the Wire

Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, The Watch: A Novel

In the wake of a deadly attack on an American outpost near Kandahar, a young peasant woman waits on the wire, demanding her right to bury her brother. She has no weapons, no strategic advantage, and no legs; but she refuses to back down. As the rules of engagement crumble, and one unarmed woman holds an American emplacement hostage, cracks emerge in the GI Joes’ psyche, and good Americans question a war with no definition of victory.

I wanted to like Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s mythological take on America’s Afghan war, and much of the time I did. By recasting the Antigone story in terms of the ongoing conflict, he spotlights the sweeping classical heroism soldiers aspire to, and the depths to which heroes fall. But then Roy-Bhattacharya will do something—misuse military terminology, mangle a cultural reference, something—to put himself between me and the story he wants to tell.

Though the author borrows the story outline from Antigone, readers need not know the ancient Greek tragedy to understand events. Roy-Bhattacharya includes sufficient details, quotes, and allusions to keep readers abreast. Not just to Sophocles’ play, either, but to Greek history, myth, Homeric epics, and more. After all, more than one philosopher has written that every war has been an attempt to recapture the glory the Achaeans glimpsed on the walls of Troy.

But instead of merely retelling the ancient story, Roy-Bhattacharya bridges the gap between the ancient and the modern. The 2,500-year-old story comes to us through the eyes of seven protagonists, each of whom brings unique, compelling perspectives. More important, each of them brings their own blinders. Logic-choppers call this the “fundamental attribution error,” meaning I exist within my own body, looking at the world through my eyes, not yours.

Storytellers, by contrast, call this the Rashomon technique, after Akira Kurosawa's famous film. Because everyone sees something different, a different slice of the pie, a confluence of events only visible because one happens to look at the right time, everyone has a different story. Thus a sequence of events that covers about three days becomes epic in scope as we try to reconcile seven divergent viewpoints.

But the main narrative spills backward and forward in time. The American soldiers, trapped in their M*A*S*H-like compound, undermanned and isolated from command, start slipping into dreamlike states, putting the distant past and the unfolding present on the same frayed nerve endings. We see the unique histories and unhealed hurts that make the Afghan Antigone so moving to the soldiers in the present.

This convergence of techniques—classical allusion, non-linear storytelling, casual grasp on the present—is common in literature often classed as “postmodern.” But don’t be alarmed: far from the opaque inscrutability often associated with that term, Roy-Bhattacharya presents us with the best of innovative storytelling. His narrative pushes the bounds of conventional prose, but does so in a way that respects the audience on the other end of the communication spectrum.

Unfortunately, Roy-Bhattacharya gives with one hand and takes with the other. He goes to great lengths in his efforts to recreate the psychological effects of wartime alienation. He does remarkable research into the lingering consequences of living in a war zone, and his insights come across in his story. But he does far less thorough research into what actually makes people, and the Army, what they are, and that keeps pushing me out of the moment.

Roy-Bhattacharya’s individual soldiers have great individuality, but his Army is a stereotyped mess. He slurs together American and Commonwealth lingos in jarring ways. Particularly when an American soldier, with a particularly American speech idiom, suddenly drops a term that sounds inarguably British, I’m reminded, like it or not, that I’m reading a novel, not witnessing events as they unfold.

Likewise, Roy-Bhattacharya, born in India but resident in New York, reduces broad swaths of America to clichés. Louisiana, to him, equals New Orleans or Cajun Country, even if the character lives in Baton Rouge. If a character is from Maine, he is perforce a lobsterman. Especially when the latter doesn’t prove to advance our understanding of the character’s situation, it leaves greasy authorial fingerprints.

Roy-Bhattacharya attempts something bold, expanding post-colonial literature to emphasize how even the colonists have been colonized by their milieu. I like what he tried here. But then, by trapping his characters in Hollywood boilerplates, he winds up perpetuating the problem he tries to expose. This is a good enough book, but it suffers for its author’s place in his own exposé.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Todd Akin and the Enchanted Uterus

Senate Challenger
Todd Akin (R-MO)
I find it easy to comprehend Todd Akin’s clumsy comments about rape and abortion this past August. The most excoriated passage in that interview, the claim about “legitimate rape,” was not meant, I think, to call some rapes illegitimate. Akin simply meant that old canard that, if abortion bans include a rape exemption, some women will cry rape to subvert the law. While I abhor such unreconstructed views, they at least accord with a certain subset of American conservatism.

However, beneath this patronizing attitude toward women lies an even stranger thought pattern that may say something about an entire ideology in American politics. His claim that a woman’s reproductive system can distinguish rape semen from love semen, much mocked by liberal talking heads, is actually a very important signifier. It goes right to the heart of why some men fear women, and what lengths they’ll travel to keep women under their control.

In fairness, it seems likely Akin, and the purblind doctor who advised him on this point of medical pseud-fact, have some footing in reality. Biological conception really is impeded in situations of bodily or psychological stress. While this does not make rape conception impossible, it does make it less likely, as a fraction of encounters, than non-forcible sex. Akin simply took this kernel of medical knowledge and ran it to absurd lengths to justify an opinion he already had.

This warped and unintentionally comedic episode of pseudoscience matters, in the larger sense, not because of Todd Akin’s magical thinking, but because Akin’s thinking probably represents a segment of the male population. Men’s widespread distrust of women has engendered (ha!) much heated debate through the years. But Akin reveals that men distrust women, at least in part, because some of us fear women have superior powers we men don’t share.

We know, in a very fundamental sense, this is true. Women can, after all, give birth. Women control the access to men’s ability to ensure a genetic posterity. If men do not want to resort to violence, women have the complete ability to exclude us from the preservation of the human race. Much psychiatric literature has pored over men and our inherent “womb envy,” and how our biological limitations lead to inappropriate fear-based behaviors.

Incumbent Senator
Claire McCaskill (D-MO)
In attributing powers of discernment to a woman’s uterus, Akin simply slaps that fear on a billboard for all the world to see. He announces that he sees women as different, as The Other, based on the fact that he thinks they can shut off access to biology, and men cannot. But in so doing, he also attributes to them powers that we can only see as magical, as supernatural. Women can shut down the future, because women have super powers.

That means Akin, and whatever male constituency he represents, fears women because he believes women are better than men. He believes they possess a nature that is not only different, but superior, arguably superhuman. In such an environment, men can only press their advantage and maintain an edge by the application of our one superior ability, brute physical strength. Only if we can use force to keep women out of clinics can we gain control of human posterity.

Psychologists will attest that rape itself is not about sex, but about power. The rapist, believing himself somehow stripped of vitality and made less of a man, will strike out at the one identifiable trait that makes women identifiably different, and distinctly powerful. We can see the same behavior playing out in men who would compound this violence by denying women the ability to make choices about their own reproduction. It’s not about sex, or birth; it’s about power.

Nobody seeks to take power away from people they consider lesser than themselves. We only take power from people who could potentially harm or destroy us. As the late historian Howard Zinn observed in A People's History of the United States, American racism was engineered to keep blacks, Indians, and poor whites at each other’s throats, so they could not band together against their real shared oppressors, the rich whites.

Todd Akin reveals exactly that mentality toward women. Because Akin, and men like him, feel powerless against women’s perceived superiority, they must take power by force. This attitude only makes sense if Akin thinks women have power over him. Lopsided power is always a tool of those who believe themselves powerless, who cannot afford the luxury of magnanimity. Akin fears women because he fears innate male weakness.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A Stick of Dynamite to Blast You Out Of Mediocrity

Alex Cornell (editor), Breakthrough!: Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination

I particularly like that Alex Cornell, a graphic designer himself, does not focus primarily on famous creative individuals in crafting this guide on overcoming the impediments to creativity. Of his ninety selected authors, only three—Douglas Rushkoff, Alexi Murdoch, and Daniel Dennett—count as even slightly well known. Even they have a primarily narrow, self-selecting audience.

Most of the creative professionals Cornell chooses are workaday creators, with a preponderance of designers and web professionals. These people have to create, in a regular and reliable way, if they want to get paid. These are not celebrities who can trade on their names to leverage years-long sabbaticals when the ideas dry up; this is creativity as a blue-collar enterprise, the way most of us experience it.

This slim book claims to offer “90 proven strategies,” but if you read it as a how-to, you’ll get frustrated in a hurry. The contributors’ essays run very short, most only a page or two, some barely longer than a Tweet. The main body of the text runs only 155 pages, and is so brief, you can flip through it as needed for inspiration. Some essays describe the techniques the authors use to break creative block; others speculate on ways you can break your blocks.

But I doubt even Cornell expects you to merely follow these prescriptions. All the newest research reveals that “creativity” is a complex melding of mental processes, always, changing, and always unique to the individual. If you find your creativity growing stagnant, the best way to fix that is to surprise yourself and try something new. These essays give you ideas how to do that, but more important, they provide new ways of seeing an age-old problem.

Some of the advice is good: reframe the problem. Get away from it for a while so you can see it with fresh eyes. Keep a running portfolio of successes (yours and others’) to delve into when you need to shake up the sediment. Get something on the page, screen, or design table, because having raw material you can refine or discard is better than having nothing. When all else fails, get some exercise.

Some of the advice is jokey, and suggests the authors were winking at Cornell. Hitchhike to Mexico? Check into an expensive hotel? I’m pretty sure you’re not meant to take these very seriously, and the authors mean to rattle your cage. But surely Cornell knew that too, so I wonder why he put them into a book for which he expects truly blocked creative professionals to pay their scarce money.

Some of the advice is downright bad. Several writers suggest pouring a glass of wine or popping a beer. I cannot recommend highly enough against alcohol or drugs for creative professionals. Drunken minds produce many ideas, but remember or record few. As for drugs, study your history: amphetamines made WB Yeats and Philip K Dick immensely productive, but led both into irretrievable death spirals.

Let me offer a few quotes I think embody some of the best suggestions in the book. These are not necessarily the sexiest, though you’ll find those easily, since the book designer has an eye for good pull quotes. (The book itself is a masterwork of “less is more” design, as much fun to look at and hold as to read.) Herewith some very worthy nuggets:

Creative block is the result of too much thinking.
—Camm Rowland

I am a proponent of practicing multiple disciplines.
—Shaun Inman

Try pen and paper. It forces you to focus on the basics, on simple solutions.
—Marc Johns

The more mistakes you make, the more you learn, the more you grow as an artist and person.
—Tim Navis

Today increasingly merciless capitalist competition demands that an artist be primarily an entrepreneur.
—Ulrich Schnauss

Creativity requires conditioning, intellectual skills, discipline and preparation.
—Nice Collective

If you’re stuck in the middle of the design, it probably means that you’re not asking enough questions.
—Robert Andersen

Learning can be a great way to generate new ideas and to make sure you don’t overuse old ones.
—Deru

Take notes, constantly.
—Aaron Koblin

The era of the romantic artist, alone in a garrett with a candle and a notebook, sketch pad, or staff paper is gone. Today’s media-saturated society cannot stomach the self-indulgent showmanship that artists once cultivated. As an artist today, you have a responsibility to create with professionalism and purpose. That, more than anything, is the lesson this book teaches, if readers are willing to learn.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Verse of a Fantastic Mind and Time

Ursula K. LeGuin, Finding My Elegy: New and Selected Poems

Poets approaching their winter years have two choices. Like Walt Whitman, they can cast their eye to how scholars remember them after they die. Try reading later editions of Leaves of Grass, and note how opaque his work has become compared to earlier editions. Or they can keep the living audience in view, trusting that knowing readers will keep good writing alive. Ursula LeGuin has done the latter, and I love her for it.

Best known for her award-winning science fiction and fantasy, LeGuin has also kept many irons in the fire: she’s also an esteemed translator, critic, and essayist. Her poetry also proves a remarkable reward, offering glimpses into one of our time’s greatest minds. And considering the range of time covered in this collection, from 1960 to 2012, we get to see her evolution over the course of a productive, unconventional career.

The first half of this collection selects highlights from LeGuin’s prior collections. The table of contents cites thirteen collections, a remarkable number number for someone not known as a poet. Many respected poets have not been so prolific, perhaps because she writes full-time, and does not teach. Perhaps more important, because she writes for a paying audience and not for the tenure committee, her poetry is remarkably lucid:

So still so sunny and so Sunday
what’s done needs to be quiet:
a white butterfly
by the red fuses of the fuchsias.

(“Morning Service”)

Some of LeGuin’s earliest poetry utilizes the same fantastic imagery that informs her famed speculative fiction. Minstrels and maenads, nymphs and sun gods. But she does not linger on these tropes, and largely writes them out remarkably early. LeGuin writes poetry separately from her fiction. However, in some important ways, her writing spheres do overlap, particularly in her refusal to stand still and act predictably.

I particularly like her willingness to craft formal verse, which academic poetry decries, without resting on her forms. I can say, as I said about Aaron Poochigian, that LeGuin takes conventional forms and makes them her own. She writes sonnets, quatrains, and terza rima, but in ways that serve her, not in ways that conform. Some of her forms are surprising, like villanelles with four-syllable lines, or innovative ad hoc forms:

The mind is still. The gallant books of lies
are never quite enough.
Ideas are a whirl of mazy flies
     over the pigs’ trough.

Words are my matter. I have chipped one stone
for thirty years and still it is not done,
that image of the thing I cannot see.
I cannot finish it or set it free,
     transformed to energy.

(“The Mind Is Still”)

The second half of this collection pulls together previously uncollected poems, most of them quite short, like snapshots of a moment in the mind’s eye. She continues experimenting with tradition, taking the familiar and pushing its parameters to make it new, at once somehow comforting and unsettling. Italian octavos and ghazals and rare Indian forms jump out like old friends who have somehow reinvented themselves:

I never thought of a cold dragon
till I saw one dragging     its slow body
down the wide wadi     it had gouged
out of a mountain,     saw the bluish spatter
of icy water     from its mouth.

(“Mendenhall Glacier”)

This one uses Anglo-Saxon lacunae, emphasizing the line structure, pushing the rhyme from the line break into the middle in a way that seems accidental before you realize it’s there. She also pushes oblique rhyme about as far as I’ve ever seen anybody do so (“gouged/mountain”), forcing us to reconsider what makes words rhyme, and why we should consider such contrivances desirable.

Some of LeGuin’s new verses address the kind of topics we expect from poets at her age, particularly the difficulties of venerability: fleeting memory, flagging strength, the loss of friends. But she offers far less than we’ve grown accustomed to in a time when poetry increasingly resembles diary entries. The tenor of LeGuin’s new poetry is not one of loss, ending, and death; even in her age, her poetry still bespeaks continuation.

Good artists know the baker does not bake the bread he wants to eat. That’s why, say, Bruce Springsteen remains vital and innovative into his sixties. No one would blame Ursula LeGuin if she collected the musings of a great mind winding down; but no one would have felt much else, either. LeGuin cares enough to keep crafting at the peak of her skill, and that makes this collection great.

Monday, September 17, 2012

An Ancient Myth For Modern Times

Jay Kristoff, Stormdancer

Steampunk usually celebrates the potential inherent in rudimentary technology, but has long struggled with the ways coal-fired industry strangles the society that gives it life. You can see that in the recurrent theme of the zeppelin that crashes across savage frontiers, forcing refined moderns to fend for themselves. Australian novelist Jay Kristoff finds a new angle on that popular dichotomy by inserting Japanese myth into his tense, exciting debut.

The Shima Islands suffer under the twin bootheels of the Lotus Guild and an infantile Shōgun. When rumor of a wild griffin, thought long extinct, reaches the smoky capital, the Shōgun orders huntmaster Kitsune Masaru and his apprentice daughter to fetch it from the untamed north. But taming a Thunder Tiger proves no easy task, and young Kitsune Yukiko finds herself stranded in the primal forest with a mythic beast that thinks her the source of the land’s suffering.

Kristoff provides few real surprises in the story: it so completely reuses steampunk standards and Joseph Campbell’s mythic journey that you could chart it on graph paper. But you could say the same about artists from JRR Tolkien and George Lucas to JK Rowling and James Cameron. Kristoff succeeds, where he does, for the same reason those other creators do, that he presents the classic components of ancient myth as freshly as sunrise.

Shima has grown rich and mighty on its innovative industry, but suffers for its advances. The great machines burn fuel refined from blood lotus, a plant that yields not just factory juice, but textile fibers, medicinal roots, and narcotic sap. But lotus also kills the soil it grows on, and its fumes befoul the air. City dwellers require gas masks to step outdoors, and the seas are so filthy that harbormasters periodically set the tides alight to keep the seas navigable.

If you think the allegory sounds a little too on-the-nose, I won’t disagree.

The Lotus Guild keeps the factories running, its faceless minions encased in steam-driven armor as their refineries pump out fuel for the empire. Even the Shōgun fears displeasing the Lotusmen. But the Guild maintains its iron grip by elevating itself to a religion, burning heretics and believers in the old myths. They build, but strangle, the empire behind their fascist mantra, “The Lotus Must Bloom.” Somewhere Frank Herbert smirks into his beard.

But in distant Iishi, stranded with what may be the last Thunder Tiger, young civilized Yukiko gradually sheds the forced lessons of urban life. The northern mountains remain untouched by industry, though it’s only a matter of time. But the trees shelter creatures of myth, the mighty Thunder Tigers and dreadful Oni giants, and a band of outlaw renegades who teach Yukiko the truth behind her heritage, forcing her to confront a frightening destiny.

In the classic myths, civilization provides stability, but also mediocrity. From Homer to Jesus to Zane Gray to Avatar, the hero must wander in the wilderness, unlearning years of comfortable ordinariness, before the true heroic identity emerges. So it is with Yukiko, who must learn to trust the impossible before she can confront the forest’s primal savagery. In so doing, she learns that the nature she once suppressed gives her opportunities denied to lesser people.

Yukiko learns that the Iishi mountains are not just primordial and untamed. They are the womb of earth, and the gateway between the lands of the living and the dead. But in standing fast against Hell’s invading army, she learns the division is less clear than it seems. Smog-choked Shima may have a pulse, but it lacks the kind of visceral life she finds among the undead monsters and principled outlaws who populate the forest.

But the mythic hero must also bring her lessons back to the world she once abandoned. So Yukiko and her Thunder Tiger board a zeppelin back to the smoggy city she’s learned to hate. If she wants to save her father from the Shōgun and liberate her people from the Lotusmen, she must re-cross the border between life and death. And because life-in-death is no life at all, she can only return life to Shima by killing that which imprisons life.

Kristoff’s telling drifts more than once into heavy-handed allegory, and his implications for his contemporary audience leave little to the imagination. Yet that same quality gives his story a modern urgency that transcends his classic setting. Like Homer or Tolkien before him, Kristoff uses ancient trappings to tell his audience a story that is, at root, all about us.

Friday, September 7, 2012

How Not To Write Mystery In One Easy Step

Vincent Zandri, The Innocent (Keeper Marconi, Book One)

So I’m reading Vincent Zandri’s first mystery novel, first published in 1999 and now making its mass market debut, and I can’t say why it doesn’t sit well with me. Sure, Zandri’s first-person narrator talks like Al Pacino, and his story has the familiarity of a bedtime story, but so what? If I hated every derivative novel to cross my desk, I’d run out of anything to read in a hurry. Then suddenly, and way too early in the book, it hits me.

In the spring of 1997, the story goes, convicted cop killer Eduard Vasquez stages a daring daylight escape from upstate New York’s Green Haven maximum security prison. Jack “Keeper” Marconi, warden of said monkey house, knows his job and his life’s work are on the line, and goes off the radar. The conspiracies and cover-ups he finds shake his faith in the criminal justice system he has worked in for nearly thirty years.

I persevered through Marconi’s wiseacre narration, self-consciously reminiscent of Robert Mitchum’s noir heyday. I refused to feel put off by the cops, so blatantly borrowed from the Raymond Chandler milieu that even Marconi feels the need to comment on it. I did everything I could to not let the obvious borrowings put me off the book, and read it as a genre fan would. After all, genre fiction tends to repeat past successes to give readers what they want.

Readers want a hard-bitten hero with a history, so Zandri writes a narrator who was a teen starting his corrections career when he was taken hostage at Attica (“Attica! Attica!”). They want a character wrapped in mourning, so Zandri gives Marconi a drinking problem to compensate for his wife’s violent death. They want a character with a hard fight he might not win, so Zandri forces Marconi to battle the shoddiest police work since the Coen brothers’ Fargo.

But around page sixty, Zandri introduces a new ensemble character, a state bull who carries a Glock. New York State police have carried Glocks since 1989, yet Marconi complains about how all the cops carry Glocks “now” (remember, this is 1997), though he refuses to bend to the trend. And he launches into a description of Glocks that is not only factually inaccurate, but repeats specific inaccuracies spoken by Bruce Willis in Die Hard 2.

That, I’m sorry, was one borrowing too many, too early. Though I tried to keep reading, I could no longer ignore the lack of story elements originating with Zandri himself. You could practically make a drinking game from spotting bits stolen from action films and noir classics. This obsessive mentioning makes readers do the hard work of creating characters and situations, which should be the author’s responsibility.

Some years ago, I sat in on a Q&A with mystery author Alex Kava. She described the painstaking process of cultivating relationships with local homicide investigators, whom she later mined for knowledge, a process she also details in her excellent novel One False Move. Though such first-person research requires a massive investment of time and energy, it has paid off in helping make Kava one of America’s best-selling female mystery novelists.

Instead of making such a personal investment, Zandri trades on our ability to recognize his trail of stereotypes and in-group nods. You don’t so much read this novel as assemble it like a jigsaw puzzle. Now, don’t misunderstand me: I don’t want authors to lead me through the story by the hand like a slow child. But instead of making me into an active reader, Zandri goes to the other extreme, practically making me write his book for him.

I suspect someone like Maxwell Perkins could coach Vincent Zandri into crafting a winning thriller. What I see here suggests Zandri at least has the enthusiasm that genre writing takes. But Perkins would have started by asking Zandri to go through his manuscript, finding any nugget with a visible pedigree, and killing it. Until he does, Zandri will keep producing work that fobs his authorial job off on you and me.

This is my third experience with Amazon.com’s recent publishing ventures, after Blues Highway Blues and Containment. Though the latter had a worthwhile payoff, all three books could have benefited from an aggressive editor. All three were previously self-published in print or digital form, and selected for reprint by customer enthusiasm. They do not inspire much hope in a publishing model that bypasses the slush pile. The old ways survive for a reason.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A South African Cop Hits the World Stage

Deon Meyer, Seven Days

Inspector Benny Griessel is tapped to solve the murder of pretty young attorney Hanneke Sloet. Unfortunately, the case has yielded no physical evidence, and the trail went cold months ago. But the case has new urgency, in the form of an anonymous sniper, who is shooting random police, and announces he will shoot one per day until Sloet’s killer is found. Now the case has two fronts, conflicting clues, and a deadline Griessel may not be able to meet.

This strange, risk-taking South African mystery, first published last year in Afrikaans... but let’s pause there for a moment. Despite having generated countless international headlines a generation ago for its apartheid policies, most people in the Northern Hemisphere still don’t know much about South Africa. It remains terra incognita, and as such, just the sort of place readers like me would glom onto, for the opportunity to discover something new about the world.

As Deon Meyer depicts it, South Africa remains a nation riven by deep divides. Although apartheid was officially dismantled between 1990 and 1994, skin color remains a shorthand code for privilege and authority in Meyer’s land, and most people need to savvy two or three languages just to make it through the day. Everyone pretends to aspire to equality, but being white and speaking English still open doors of economic opportunity.

I can’t blame Meyer for not pushing that storytelling prospect as far as he could. After all, I’m his secondary audience. He wrote this book for his fellow Afrikaners, immersing the story in the kind of details they live with every day, not those which differ from my life. Yet in reading, I felt a pervasive ordinariness. Change the proper nouns, and you could set this story in upstate New York, Cumbria, or any other area overcome by forced diversity and working class malaise.

Captain Benny Griessel enjoys the privileges of a white Afrikaner, yet cannot free himself from punishing rounds of guilt and self-recrimination. He has had a swift ride up Cape Town’s ladder of police authority, and enjoys remarkable respect and power, despite being relatively young. Yet he holds himself responsible for everything. At the beginning of this novel, he is only a few months removed from nearly destroying himself at the bottom of a bottle.

Griessel suffers because he blames himself for everything. Not just stuff that actually is his own fault, like drinking his family away, but stuff over which he has no power. He attempts a fumbling romance with a washed-up singer and fellow recovering alcoholic, but he blames himself for her every setback and relapse. Many of his guilt soliloquies make little sense. Meyer, in narrating this story, doesn’t seem to regard Griessel’s relentless self-flagellation even worthy of commentary.

Is it perhaps a cultural thing? If so, it’s the closest Meyer comes to what I hoped to find in this story. Griessel holds himself responsible when the sniper evidently changes his MO, catching the police constantly on the back foot. He blames himself when the chain of command makes unreasonable demands for quick resolution. He blames himself when press blowback hits his superiors in the face. Griessel practically blames himself for everything but the tide.

Then, the investigation bifurcates in a way that deserves more comment. Griessel hurries to figure who killed Hanneke Sloet, a quest that circles the upper echelons of lingering white power. Much of the inquiry deals with “Black Economic Empowerment,” a government scheme to level the economic field, but which makes Black wealth into a form of white patronage. Meanwhile, the constables whom the sniper keeps bringing down are overwhelmingly black.

Even within the national police force, the races evidently communicate with each other primarily in tones of inherited guilt, punctuated by brief bursts of Afrikaans vulgarities. Anyone who has traveled through Compton, East London, or South Detroit will find the communication styles remarkably familiar. Old resentments don’t go away just because the laws change. And when power flows from the top, those at the bottom learn not to wait too long.

Time and again, I felt like something remarkable lingered beneath this story’s ordinary surface. Maybe the fault lies with me, because I wanted something more exotic, and Meyer is writing about his familiar world. The uninspiring result has a quotidian Hill Street Blues predictability, and I find myself moving limply from chapter to chapter, propelled by the occasional glimpses of surprise. The product isn’t bad. I just wish Griessel’s world didn’t feel so blandly familiar.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Does Anyone Sit On the Throne in the Eternal Kingdom?

Tad Williams, The Dirty Streets of Heaven

The promo material accompanying Tad Williams’ first Urban Fantasy claims that “you’ve never read anything like The Dirty Streets of Heaven.” I most certainly have. Thomas Sniegoski and Vicki Pettersson run the same Judeo-Christian themes that drive Williams, and his style—a lumpy blend of ethereal fantasia and Dashiell Hammett noir—channels writers from Laurel K Hamilton to Jim Butcher to Seanan McGuire. Williams should be above this.

Doloriel, a lesser angel, walks the earth as Bobby Dollar. He exists to advocate for the souls of the newly deceased at the throne of judgment. But he has grown bored with his job, assuaging the monotony by bouncing through a string of sexual encounters and drunken nights. But he arrives at one judgment seat to find the soul missing. Suddenly a nexus of transcendent fury surrounds him as Heaven and Hell approach the brink of war over this breach of eternity.

Bobby Dollar is an interesting character, couched in interesting circumstances. Williams plays him against a complex ensemble: cynical angels, optimistic demons, humans who have pierced the veil and lived to regret it. He also stages this troupe against a background of evocative California decay. But then Williams turns around and saddles them with an ordinary story that will only surprise readers who have never cracked an Urban Fantasy before.

When the Eternal Forces discover the missing souls, a political brouhaha ensues that makes the Reykjavik Accords look like a street scuffle. Such an act should be completely impossible. But then a major demon who coincidentally lives in Bobby Dollar’s neighborhood thinks Bobby has an important artifact which would upset the balance of power. Bobby has no idea what the artifact might be, but he knows many supernaturals would kill him for it.

Despite his angelic status, Bobby lives in a world of moral compromise, devoid of certainties. He has never met God, and cannot vouch for any religion. Eternal life has come to mean doing what he’s told, imbued with no truth or meaning. The powers of Hell may live in eternal, transcendent torment, but at least they know why. Bobby Dollar knows nothing. But as facts unfold, he comes to one startling realization: someone other than God may hold power in Heaven.

I like this concept. I can even understand where it comes from. With the recent controversies surrounding abuses in church, and religious institutions dragging their heels in social change and justice, instead of taking the lead, it’s hard to wonder who’s in charge. Surely not the God of reformers like Jeremiah, Jesus, and Mohammed. All of them spoke out against corruption and injustice. Where are their sentiments now?

People want God to be bold. Even atheists I know say they want the God they don’t believe in to be muscular, take bold stands, and fight the debased forces of this world. Many Americans don’t know that most Christian denominations opposed the 2003 Iraq war, because pastors feared to say so from the pulpits. Instead of a spirit of courage, American religion is dominated by fear and conformity. Religious people are too timid to follow the example of their prophets and messiahs.

English poet William Blake suggested that the Church had become dominated by a spirit of fear that he identified with Satan. Though outspokenly Christian, Blake wrote that “Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion,” an aphorism that could describe Tad Williams’ grim eternity. (Though he avoids aligning with any one religion, his world is clearly Judeo-Christian.) Bobby Dollar engages in sensuality bordering on divine mutiny.

Williams reflects this in his depictions of Heaven and Hell. One of his demons explains that her memory goes back hundreds of years, through Satan’s tortures and eons of suffering, back to her human life, where abuse and violence led her to act out in destruction. The denizens of Heaven, though, have no memory going back far. Their eternity in God’s fields is blissful, but bland. Williams dares us to ask which is worse.

I just wish more of these hard questions made it into the book.

Notwithstanding his complex philosophical implications, Williams doesn’t take the story nearly as far as his premise. His bog-standard noir story consists of fistfights, car chases, and sexual encounters so anti-romantic that they make me shrivel when I should feel aroused. At over 400 pages, this book has space to do more and better; and I know Williams has more in him. This book just doesn’t go where it’s needed.