Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Palestine on the Hudson

Najla Said, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family

It’s tough for girls growing up amid America’s images of lithe blonde perfection; girls from non-white backgrounds have it even tougher. So imagine how hard it must be if your father is a world-famous spokesperson for one of Earth’s most reviled ethnic groups. Najla Said’s father, Palestinian-American professor Edward Said, changed the intellectual landscape with his classic, Orientalism. But that made life only harder for his daughter.

Already celebrated for her elaborate autobiographical one-woman show, having toured theatres and schools internationally with her tale of divided childhood, Najla Said now expands that story for readers beyond the stage. She proves a remarkably bold storyteller, blunt in her desire to expose the false face she spent years building. But unlike recent “confessional” memoirs, often lurid in their disclosures, Said keeps her story both personal and touchingly humane.

Growing up in Manhattan, Najla knew she didn’t fit in with the “society girls” at her prep school. Nobody else’s dad got regularly interviewed by Ted Koppel. Despite her parents’ pride in their Lebanese-Palestinian heritage, she knew more about Jewish culture than her own. Yet she took these differences for granted, as children do, desperate for life to be normal. But the older she got, the more “normal” became a slippery target.

Said’s memoir of growing up in her father’s long shadow highlights the perils of minority life in modern plural society. She sought her unique identity, separate from her father’s magisterial writing, but could not separate herself from the intellectual, heavily Jewish milieu in which she grew. While her father defended his people’s rights against Israeli and Arab infractions on the nightly news, she sought a cause of her own.

As the Palestinian intifada and Lebanon’s civil war colored global perceptions, Said took marked steps to separate herself from her heritage. She longed for the inclusion of MTV and shopping, and joined her Jewish schoolmates in celebrating World War II heroism. But she couldn’t stop being descended from a long line of Arab Christians. The gap in her heritage began manifesting in strange ways, including a long-simmering battle with anorexia.

Readers must not mistake this memoir for a continuation of Said’s father’s work. Far from his famous academic dissections and literary rhetoric, Najla unpacks private concerns. She tells her story, not pretending to speak for an entire people. Thus, her prose is often episodic, sometimes choppy, but mercifully free of thesis statements and perorations. Said proves George Bernard Shaw’s claim, that only the completely personal can be truly universal.

Attending Princeton as Edward Said’s only daughter proved a strange new minefield. Everyone expected some genius, some spokesperson for a dispossessed people in the halls of academic prestige—and she just wanted to be an undergraduate. The conflicting forces taking pieces of her spirit left her wondering who she was under the layers of learned response. Sadly, no answers were forthcoming.

As adulthood loomed, and Said’s father became ill with the slow cancer that ultimately ended his life, Said discovered she couldn’t sustain the duality that dominated her life. She couldn’t keep her American upbringing in one pocket, and her Arab heritage in another. Especially after 9/11 polarized American discourse, and temporarily made certain racist expressions acceptable again, she had to find some way to reconcile her two halves.

Easier said than done.

But theatre provided the opportunity she desperately needed. She found a company of similar American-born Arabs who simply wanted the opportunity to tell their strange, conflicting stories. Here, she didn’t have to remain eternally eloquent, or be judged as her father’s daughter. Her story became one among a chorus of voices, at a time when curiosity and interest in Middle Eastern peoples reached an all-time high.

Said’s performances have made her a minor star, but not because of some accident of birth. She shows, through simply telling her story, that the personal struggles we all face have their mirror across culture, and race, and class. She has persuaded people, especially young women, that they needn’t face their struggles alone. And she had proven to diverse global audiences that her heritage is an object of beauty.

Najla Said may not be a famous name, not like Edward Said. But in some ways, she’s proven herself her father’s truest heir. While he wrote about vast cultural forces that conspired to create gulfs between peoples, she writes about ordinary experiences that build bridges between individuals. We can’t ignore the heritage of our births, she says. But we can become the architects of our futures.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Twilight of the Godlings

Jason M. Hough, The Darwin Elevator

The Space Elevator rises 40,000 kilometers above Darwin, Australia, humanity’s last city. Its strange alien technology lets humans farm the reaches of space, though nobody understands how it arrived, or why. And nobody understands why its coming corresponded with SUBS, a plague that turns infected humans into ravenous zombies. The Elevator’s Aura protects the city, while Earth beyond has fallen. But something worse may be coming.

Purists may grouse that Jason Hough’s debut novel doesn’t break new ground. The fetish for originality, beloved by writing textbooks, colors many readers’ awareness. But Hough shines new light on science fiction fundamentals, and uses them to bolster a complex, braided narrative. The result resembles the paperbacks I grew up reading thirty years ago, brought laughing and exulting into the Twenty-First Century, where we need such straightforward excitement.

Skyler Luiken lives on the surface and commands a crew of rare “immunes,” people who can breathe beyond the Aura without becoming plague carriers. He commands a salvage crew who haven’t turned a profit in months. A mysterious benefactor contracts Skyler to retrieve stored data that may unlock humanity’s redemption. To find it, he merely needs to venture through the dragon’s teeth, risking his entire crew’s life in the process.

Neil Platz got rich when the aliens planted the Darwin Space Elevator on his property. Only he knows that it wasn’t coincidence. Now in deep orbit, Platz and his chief researcher, Tania Sharma, have a drop-dead deadline. The Builders are returning, their purposes seem less than benign, and humanity’s twilight may be imminent. Here’s hoping human technology has the power to fend off this strange alien twilight.

Russell Blackfield controls the strait between Earth and orbit. The Elevator needs him to replenish their air and water; Darwin needs him to disburse orbital agriculture and manufactures. He’s parlayed this power into a feudal domain. If humanity dies, Blackfield will die last, a godling guarding the road to heaven. But when he discovers Neil Platz’s deal with Skyler Luiken, his ambition shifts, and Earth goes to war with orbit.

As the title implies, this novel posits humanity at evolution’s bottleneck. Anonymous aliens, yclept “Builders” by survivors, force humanity to weed its line. The human race may be as low as one million. But reading, we wonder whether we’ve made defensible evolutionary choices. The learned, pretty, and most important, rich live on the Darwin Elevator. Poor and unconnected, but crafty, groundlings eke out livings, but die in random subhuman attacks.

Arthur C. Clarke’s influence animates this book, which Hough obliquely acknowledges. It even has monoliths, folks! This novel brims with sidelong nods to prior science fiction, because Hough borrows liberally from the genre’s high points. But don’t assume he justs recycles formulae; Hough approaches classic narrative components with brio, telling a story that feels familiar to old genre hands, yet repeatedly hits us with brisk, unexpected slants.

Hough’s characters dare us to trust somebody, but laugh when we dare pick a side. His world brims with antiheroes, concealing vendettas behind bureaucratic handshakes. Seemingly noble pioneers have deeply buried secrets, and not everybody earns the comeuppance they receive. Skyler Luiken seems downright heroic because he doesn’t conceal his motivations: on a dying Earth, he just wants to make a living. Very Mal Reynolds.

Every time we think surely, now, Hough cannot push events any higher, he finds new ways to escalate. Skyler has a particular knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Each chapter we think, surely Hough cannot punish our heroes any more, or reward Blackfield’s ignominy. But rest assured, at nearly 500 pages, Hough has generous opportunities to push characters to new depths and make his readers cringe.

I grew up reading books like this, paperbacks populated by oversized personalities, shifting loyalties, and surprise revelations. Heroes prove themselves by decisive actions, salted with judicious violence; villains marinate in their own venality until they prove their own undoing. Say what you like about John W. Campbell and Alfred Bester, but my Golden Age of Science Fiction was the 1980s, when SF was popular, but still boldly countercultural.

Hough writes in that beloved sci-fi format, the trilogy, and while this novel has a satisfying conclusion, it asks tantalizing questions for future volumes. Del Rey so loves this series that it’s launching the whole trilogy this summer: three novels in three months. Who can blame them? In a crowded, noisy genre, Hough claims territory that deserves our attention. It’s enough to revive my flagging faith in science fiction.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Hell Beneath the Utopian Dome

Maureen McGowan, Compliance (The Dust Chronicles)

Young Glory, a teenager who can kill strangers telepathically, knows the bitter secret that the government would conceal from the domed city of Haven: the outside world isn’t so bad. The Dust that nearly obliterated humanity has dissipated, and with caution, the air is safe. Haven’s constant push through media, school, and every aspect of tightly controlled culture, is a lie. But breaking the silence could merit Glory her death.

Maureen McGowan’s second dystopian thriller covers similar ground as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, while telling an entirely separate story. McGowan focuses not on how the hierarchy exploits massive poverty, but on how the leadership preserves its feudal privilege by cultivating fear and ignorance. It’s essentially a primer in how bloated post-industrial civilization must court fascism to prevent sweeping social chaos.

Glory studies to become a Compliance Officer, a paramilitary enforcer charged with weeding out Deviants. In her technologically disrupted world, Deviants are rogue mutants whose advanced physical and mental capabilities threaten Haven’s bureaucratic stability. But while training to root out Deviants, Glory also runs secret night missions smuggling Deviants out of the city, while trying to conceal her own Deviant superpower from her commanders.

Readers will undoubtedly recognize McGowan’s historic parallels. Glory serves as a sort of teenage Raoul Wallenberg, using her official standing to subvert the regime that employs her. But the Resistance she assists begins proffering orders Glory finds unethical. When an enigmatic government functionary reveals that not everything Glory knows about the city is necessarily true, she begins questioning her already divided loyalties. Sound familiar?

War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.

But McGowan doesn’t just exploit the obvious historic themes. She populates Glory’s world with a collusion between immense wealth and a government that maintains the status quo. Citizens can’t speak truth when media, government, and every available source of information recycles the same set of preapproved lies. Even when reality apparently contradicts the official story, the familiar lie has sticking power. Koch Brothers, anyone?

Critic Richard Mathews claims that the best fiction written for youth is only truly comprehensible to adults. By this, he means that while youth may feel deeply the truths underlying books like this one, and understand that this says something about the world they live in. But only adults have enough knowledge, enough experience, enough accumulated wisdom to explain exactly why these books speak to us. And speak this does.

Books like this, The Hunger Games, and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road bespeak a broad gap between the life adults promise to children—hard work will pay off in material rewards later, we can trust authority figures to do right, grown-ups promises are worth the air it takes to speak them—and the reality they see around themselves daily. It must seem to teens that adults lie for practice. As a former teacher, I’m not sure they’re wrong.

McGowan explicitly presents education, or schooling at any rate, as a tool for indoctrination and for squelching the imagination. She depicts one eager student answering a classroom question: “Deviants are different and difference is dangerous.” My fellow public school graduates will recognize the underlying ethos in this statement, as overworked teachers and mocking peers colluded (consciously or not) to silence ambitious or nonconforming students.

Despite their youth, McGowan’s target audience aren’t ignorant. They know their teachers preach a gospel of studiousness and bookish accomplishment, but they face a world where schoolroom performance has less and less to do with their careers. Ain’t no poor kids gonna become hedge fund managers. And with the increasing digitization of white-collar work, college has become a tedious holding pattern, not a key to success.

American society pays homage to values like democracy, capitalism, and initiative, but youth can see this has devolved into lip service. They’re forced to choose between two political parties who agree on too many crucial issues, and care little for society’s poorest. The people working the longest hours are not the people driving the biggest cars. Too often, material success depends your personal network; shade-tree mechanics, not learned geniuses, run the world.

Works like this matter, not just because youth find them entertaining, but because rebellious characters like Glory or Katniss empower readers to resist the blatant lies around them. The essential conservatism of canonical literature classes encourage students to keep quiet and honor the past. McGowan, Collins, and Young enable teens, and adult readers with stifled rebellious youth in their hearts, to believe their ideals have real-world merit.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Jo Nesbø's Global Crime and Crimefighting Network

Jo Nesbø, The Bat: The First Inspector Harry Hole Novel

When Australian police find a beautiful Norwegian expat’s body on a secluded coast, Oslo detective Harry Hole (HOO-leh) joins the Sydney police investigation. But he finds himself stymied by bureaucratic intransigence and Sydney’s carnivalesque gay community. When his prodding uncovers a years-long serial murder spree, Harry sacrifices his sanity and goes off the rails to bring his target down.

Jo Nesbø’s procedurals have earned high praise in his native Norway since his 1997 debut, but his work has dribbled into international markets, completely out of sequence. Nesbø’s English-language publisher calls this “The First Harry Hole Thriller,” and it reflects its dated 1997 setting—we keep forgetting about the scarcity of cell phones or the early, sluggish Web. This gives it a naive quality almost like Agatha Christie.

The story roughly breaks into two halves. In the first, Harry’s local contact, a Europeanized Aboriginal named Andrew Kensington, seems downright uninterested in the case. Andrew drags Harry into a succession of strange meetings, introducing him to a panoply of eccentric characters and colorful personalities. Harry repeatedly complains about Andrew’s seeming wild hairs. But a darkly sophisticated pattern starts to emerge.

As Harry pushes his one lead, one brutal encounter upends everything that came before, forcing Harry, suddenly alone, to track a killer who has taken a sudden interest in Harry. When the killer targets a woman Harry’s taken a shine to, Harry must make an impossible choice: risk the woman he loves or risk losing his quarry. He quickly learns that everything he knows about criminology is flat wrong.

Nesbø distinguishes this thriller from the seemingly limitless interchangeable paperback mysteries with his laser-like focus on character. From the beginning, Harry shows a casual attitude toward procedure, playing his investigation by ear, openly chafing at rules and limitations. His finely-honed intuition leads him to remarkable moments of insight. His Columbo-like gift for “just one more question” repeatedly unlocks the right evidence at the right moment.

But Harry offsets his finely honed investigative discernment with a self-destructive streak like the broad side of a barn. If he feels stymied in the first half, it’s because he’s trying to accommodate official channels. He starts winning against his enemy only when he puts himself in situations that could easily kill him. Criminal scum fears and respects Harry because he’s mere inches removed from becoming one of them.

Not that Harry wants to implode. He tries to do well, follow rules, make friends, and even court a woman. But he sabotages himself so thoroughly, we suspect he’s doing it on purpose. The woman he loves is also a material witness, so their relationship skirts the law, especially when the killer spots her as Harry’s greatest weakness. When the rules impede his investigation, he chooses results over process.

Harry plays the perpetual outsider, asking questions that seem obvious to his colleagues. His unique perspective unblocks longstanding stalemates because he doesn’t share others’ blinders. Important clues lie in Aboriginal myths that the Australian characters have grown bored hearing, but which Harry encounters for the first time. He talks to people he doesn’t know others ignore, and focuses on details others see as mere background.

Which perhaps explains why international readers have embraced Nesbø over the last eight years or so. Though we recognize and understand how Nesbø fits neatly into the genre that gave us Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, he doesn’t share our English-speaking literary expectations; he tells a story for his own native Scandinavian culture. We know what kind of story he’s telling, yet it remains exhilaratingly foreign.

Nesbø’s episodic style takes some getting used to. His very short chapters combine copious dialog and Harry’s internal speculations into an atmosphere unlike typical American or British detective thrillers. Nesbø often introduces characters and details that appear tangential, not just at first, but for many chapters afterward. Only tenacious readers will realize how tightly constructed Nesbø’s prose actually is.

Because at root, Nesbø tells a different kind of story. Neither a mental puzzle nor a jaded procedural, Nesbø would rather witness what kind of person makes a life wrangling lawbreakers. Who would choose to plug the gap between honest citizens and the criminal subculture? Somebody, ultimately, who belongs to both worlds, and thus to neither.

Harry Hole makes an intriguing character, and the parallel between his personal disintegration and his investigative success is a real eye-opener. Longtime Nesbø readers will welcome this addition to his translated canon. New fans will find this a good place to begin Harry’s story.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Blake Shelton—Country Assassin



Blake Shelton with his wife, Miranda Lambert
Nothing gets a bigger guaranteed reaction from the twenty-somethings working graveyards at the factory than when Blake Shelton’s bombastic “Boys ’Round Here” comes on the radio. Its muscular, bluesy guitar lick and slightly syncopated percussion make for an appealing intro that, while secure in its country roots, has unmistakable crossover appeal. Some workers cheer this track on radio like it’s a live show.

Until Shelton’s voice kicks in with its hip-hop chip-chop studio trickery on “red-red-red-redneck.” This accurately predicts everything that will come after, particularly Shelton’s strange half-spoken country rap that, despite his drawling baritone, resembles nothing so much as Third Eye Blind circa 1997. Perhaps, considering hip-hop’s two decade supremacy in a dwindling music market, Shelton and his creative crew thought twanging up a rap would buy him some cultural relevancy.

Instead, Shelton makes himself—and all radio-friendly country music with him—look desperate. Even before Shelton starts in on his braggadocio-laced lyrics, he’s already proclaimed creative bankruptcy, taking all his cues from modern urban music while proclaiming how he’s “keeping it country.” He wants it both ways: he wants attention from mass audiences, particularly young listeners with disposable income, but he wants to identify with the country niche.

These lyrics celebrate an entirely external view of “country.” He name-checks honky-tonkin’, working the land, country girls, and prayer. Country boys also reject city emblems, like listening to the Beatles and doing the Dougie. But it’s impossible to miss the highlighted, and disgusting, country hallmark: “chew tobacco chew tobacco chew tobacco spit.” Shelton, an avowed non-smoker, has repeatedly used tobacco as a symbol of rural authenticity in his songs.

To hell with taste and character; we spent our money on red Solo cups
The video tragicomically highlights Shelton’s lack of country cred. In simultaneously embracing and rejecting everything urban, we get a jacked truck with bouncy shocks; a barn dance with a DJ spinning twin vinyl; and a squadron of honkies who, apparently, do do the Dougie. But the apotheosis is the farmhouse party with the cow and pig off the porch for girls to pet. Anyone who’s lived near livestock knows you don’t want that smell at a party.

Importantly, Shelton recorded this song after recording the title track for the 2011 Footloose remake, a recording virtually indistinguishable from Kenny Loggins’ original. This track made an explicit confession that country music had become broadly indistinguishable from other pop forms. Only afterward did he feel any need to double down on his perceived country authenticity. Perhaps Shelton realized he’d alienated longstanding country fans like me.

Shelton’s early tracks, like “Some Beach” and “Ol’ Red,” were unmistakably country. I didn’t care for them, but nobody died and made me tastemaker. His masculine but weary growl recalled classic voices like Merle Haggard, and he stuck to common themes of blue-collar life and shared experience that have long motivated country heavyweights. In those terms, his early runaway success makes perfect sense.

But since he’s breathed the rare air of crossover superstardom once reserved for luminaries like Garth Brooks and Hank Junior, Shelton finds himself in an impossible position. He has to maintain his market share—which, as Brooks discovered twenty years ago, means diluting his sound for a broad audience. But he has also gotten increasingly defensive of his country credentials, which he asserts by escalating his weenie-swinging backwoods legitimacy.

Besides “Boys ’Round Here,” Shelton has cut tracks like “Kiss My Country Ass,” which invites anyone who doesn’t share his taste to, well, pucker up. Both songs name-drop Hank Junior’s “Country Boy Can Survive,” though Shelton gives no sign he could skin a buck or run a trotline. He claims, in “KMCA,” that “there's a whole lotta high-class people out there that's lookin' down on me,” so he responds by looking down right back.

Nothing says "Country" like standing barefoot in the river in a $1500 designer dress
It’s hard to determine how much of this chest-thumping bravado belongs to Shelton himself, since he doesn’t write his own songs. But his recent corpus is characterized by counter-elitism, bullying, and swagger. Hank Williams never needed to ballyhoo his country authenticity; neither did Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline. They made music they loved, and anyone who didn’t share that love, was free to leave quietly.

“Boys ’Round Here” isn’t a song. It’s a frontal assault on the idea that different people have different tastes. As music, it’s execrable, pandering to crossover audiences like a drunken Tenderloin panhandler. As a social statement, it contradicts itself, boasting of its country cred while straining to sound as Top-40 as possible. When the novelty wears off, hopefully it will return to the dark hole it came from.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Slow Horror That Is Love

Courtney Eldridge, Ghost Time

Thea loves her boyfriend, Cam, so thoroughly that we know tragedy is coming. But nobody expects his complete disappearance. As police and FBI begin combing after Cam, Thea’s high school life, already precarious, comes undone. And that’s even before she discovers massive graffiti in her own handwriting, and intimate videos of moments that never happened. The impossible quickly becomes commonplace.

Courtney Eldridge’s first novel for teens brims with psychological depth and moments of quiet horror. It also reeks of smug self-conscious artistry and author-centric “experimental” literature. Eldridge can, in a single paragraph, hit readers with a sucker punch of Shirley Jackson-esque evil, then laugh it off with a timid grin. I cannot recall easily the last time I’ve simultaneously loved and hated a novel as much as this one.

After Cam vanishes, leaving no trace, Thea’s life unstitches dramatically. Cam’s website starts featuring pictures Thea, a gifted artist, only imagined in her head, and videos of sexual encounters she only fantasized. She clearly hears the voice of a teenaged girl mute since birth. Ruminations she wrote in her diary get spraypainted, in her handwriting, on school buses. Suddenly she finds her inner life splashed across national headline news.

Thea tells her story with dark urgency. She’s decorated her life with images of 1970’s punk bands and nihilism, yet believes in true love. She can swing between heartbeats from loving Cam absolutely and blaming him for the impossible stew her life has become. She reveals a rich mindscape, colored by chilling encounters with teenage society’s dark side, even as she seems blind to her own contradictions.

As Thea unfolds her story forward and backward simultaneously, she reveals little nuggets suggesting she doesn’t know herself nearly as well as she thinks. Little moments from the past have parallels in the present, implying Cam has a manipulative side verging on abusive. But Thea has scripted her dark postmodern romance so tightly that she misses her own clues. She’s the epitome of the unreliable narrator.

She’s also one of the best examples I’ve seen recently of perfect self-destruction. By her own admission, she so completely expects others to hurt her that, to assert control, she hurts herself worse, first. We’ve all known girls like that (guys, too, but culture accepts such demonstrative seppuku more in girls). Even when life goes her way, she expects imminent disappointment, and lives like a ticking bomb.

Thea’s frustrated romance and perforated reality make a strange intersection, Nicholas Sparks meets Dark City. But that’s good. Anyone who’s ever fallen in love knows those feelings make you see your world in new ways. Separated from its Valentine’s Day trappings, love is scary, upending everything we think we know. Except, for Thea, this upending isn’t mere metaphor; her old assurances are literally gone.

This makes a promising premise. Sadly, instead of grabbing us and shaking us vigorously, Eldridge unfolds this story so slowly that her 400 pages seem much longer. Thea, as first-person narrator, packs her story with so many discursions and flashbacks that her telling often takes longer than the events. Her casual, unstructured voice litters the story with false starts and weird verbal tics that lose potency on the printed page.

Eldridge also doesn’t bother with such niceties as quotation marks or paragraph breaks. Huge blocks of dialog take place with minimal indication who’s talking, or when we switch between voices. We reread passages several times to follow the dialog, which slows our reading, deflating otherwise tight scenes. I get that Eldridge wants us feeling as confused, desperate, and helpless  as Thea. I get that. This felt revolutionary when Chuck Palahniuk and Roddy Doyle first did it, but the novelty has worn off.

On top of everything else, Eldridge doesn’t even properly conclude this book. She ends abruptly on some massive revelations and a huge plot twist for her heroine, and then, SCREE-EECH! Seems the publisher neglected to mention, anywhere on the review edition, that this is the beginning of a trilogy. I had to check the author’s website to understand her abrupt, confusing, unsatisfying end, which confuses more than it clarifies.

I kept wanting to like this book. Eldridge gives me plenty to enjoy: smart characters, a complex situation, ambiguous relationships, all the textures of great psychological thrillers. But she also keeps putting herself between me and her story. Whenever I got invested, she found some way to remind me I was reading a story. I’ll probably read the next volume, but only in spite of the author.

Monday, July 15, 2013

X-Men, G-Men, X-Files, Gee Whiz!

Marcus Sakey, Brilliance

Agent Nick Cooper (don’t call him “Nick”) cannot lose a fistfight. He sees your plans before they crease your brain. This makes him the best agent Equitable Services has, a supergenius keeping other supergeniuses in line. So Cooper’s a deep cover natural, tracking John Smith, supergenius terrorist. But only after he puts life, family, and nation on the line does Cooper discover he’s facing a bigger enemy than anyone realizes.

Marcus Sakey’s sci-fi thriller uses story tropes we’ve all seen before—genetic superpowers, rogue g-men, misguided freedom fighters, America in jeopardy from within. But he remixes these common components in meaningful ways, creating a story that feels intimately familiar, yet new enough to keep readers hooked. It’s fun to watch his characters crack by inches, desperately trying to stay one step ahead of inevitability.

Cooper is one of the Brilliant, the Gifted, the Abnorms, the Twists. Around 1980, a tiny number of savants were born to ordinary parents. They became mathematicians, artists, engineers, swindlers, athletes, leaders, millionaires. Some became terrorists. Less than one percent of the population, they nevertheless wield such skill that they unbalance society. The masses fear such geniuses, and the state takes extraordinary measures to condition and control them.

Sakey proposes a world transformed by its genius minority: superior technology, advanced art, immense wealth and productivity. But it’s also a two-tiered society, in which ordinary people cannot rise to the peaks of accomplishment anymore. They respond by tearing down the Gifted, forcing them into “academies” where teachers use operant conditioning to render pupils docile, unambitious, and weak. Charles Xavier would blanche.

Where psychology doesn’t shackle the Brilliants, the government’s Equitable Services steps in. Cooper is one of the True Believers, a Brilliant who dedicates his gifts to preserving order and the system. He believes with such fervor that we know, early on, he’s doomed to see his beliefs dashed. The question, then, is not “what,” it’s “how?”

The domestic insurgency doesn’t share Cooper’s dedication. In an alternate world that never endured 9/11, New York is unprepared for an attack on Wall Street. Equitable Services believes it’s at war with the Abnorms (Cooper apparently has unrestricted license to kill), a metaphor the Abnorms accept with discomforting aplomb. Whenever one side raises the ante, the other side responds in kind. Nobody wants to appear weak.

Cooper, as our first-person narrator, relays this with remarkable eye for detail. He clearly relishes his job, believing he’s doing God’s work, right up to the moment he doesn’t. And because he’s done such a bold job explaining the Abnorm world around him, his description of his own dawning realization brings readers through his difficult journey with him.

Observant readers cannot help but notice Sakey’s real-world parallels. Indoctrinated youth, made to depend on authority, which the state will eagerly provide. Government agents tasked to enforce rules over which they have no authority, for reasons bathed in official secrecy. Domestic enemies hunted because their mere presence makes the majority feel threatened, and a state that would rather maintain than assuage that fear. Sound familiar at all?

But in Sakey’s symbolism, as in real life, truth rejects simple definitions. Everyone believes they’re serving the greater good, even if doing so costs innocent lives. More than once, in pursuit of a quarry he increasingly doesn’t understand, Cooper must choose between the people before him, and society’s peace and preservation. As one character intones, “Truth or power.” You can’t have both.

Stories like this, of the banded masses stifling the greatness inherent in an unappreciated minority, have enjoyed great popularity through the years. Philosophers like Nietzsche and Ayn Rand have buttered their bread with the proposition that a minority are born great, but dragged down by humanity. In less extreme terms, franchises like X-Men and Ender’s Game investigate the struggle between individual greatness and collective necessity.

Surprisingly, Sakey rejects this in practice. Cooper tries to fight the forces threatening humanity alone, yet every step finds him surrounded by aides and companions whose distinct skills smooth his way. It’s debatable how much Cooper even realizes others help him at each step, as he believes in his own self-reliance. Yet if he pays attention he’d realize how much he needs his role in society.

Sakey tells an energetic, gritty story that doesn’t let readers slide. His complex characters and fraught situations ask for moral judgments that are much harder to actually render. But if we struggle, Cooper struggles beside us. Sometimes, having no easy answer is the best answer possible.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Poor Side of Paradise

Kristiana Kahakauwila, This Is Paradise: Stories

When the last story in Kristiana Kahakauwila’s debut collection described a rancher coming to grips with his sexuality, I had the same thought you probably did: “Brokeback Mountain!” Just as Annie Proulx’s collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories ended with that classic novella, Kahakauwila caps her book with a similar (but not identical) long story. Kahakauwila clearly aims to be Hawai’i’s Annie Proulx.

It’s a noble goal, one she mostly accomplishes. Hawai’i has a flavor distinct from Wyoming, more diverse, less laconic, but a character uniquely Hawaiian nonetheless, and Kahakauwila brings it out. Early stories wobble slightly as she apparently attempts to please too broad an audience, but she finds her feet, and depicts not only contemporary Hawai’i’s complex culture, but the different strata within that culture.

Like most Native Hawaiians, Kahakauwila was born elsewhere. In racially stratified Hawai’i, Natives live at the very bottom, and few can afford the islands’ astronomical prices. Most leave for better work and affordable housing elsewhere. But like Irish expats or Rastafaris longing for homeland, Kahakauwila returned and lived in her homeland for some time. She just couldn’t stay.

These six stories reflect Kahakauwila’s struggles with insidership and identity. Her homeland’s most prosperous residents were overwhelmingly born elsewhere, and those born locally often must leave “paradise” to gain marketable skills; too many never return. Pidgin, the islands’ distinctive musical patois, is a proud identity marker, but also a badge of poverty. Unlike Indians, Native Hawaiians don’t even have reservations to call their own.

“Wanle,” the story of a mixed-race Maui woman’s strained relationship with her own people, probably plays this most explicitly. The title character wants revenge for her father, a cockfighter who challenged his subculture’s leadership and paid with his life. But Wanle also romances “The Indian,” a Native American philosopher who tries to guide her out of that life. Wanle can’t be herself and her father at the same time.

“The Road to Hana” features a couple driving to one of Maui’s most fabled ancient sites. He’s white, but was born in Honolulu; she’s Native, but born in Nevada. Their complex, committedly non-confrontational banter conceals a subtext of feud over which gets to call themselves “real” Hawaiian. Their conflict boils over when they rescue a stray “poi dog,” only to discover it’s filthy with fleas.

Kahakauwila’s title story features a panoply of voices, self-identified only as “we,” the women of Waikiki. Hotel maids, hard-bitten surfers, professional women, the unseen people whose sacrifices make the legendary tourist paradise possible. A naive white woman’s attempts to fit in lead only to catastrophe, forcing the locals to re-evaluate what makes them insiders, and why they keep certain people out.

This creates a strange dynamic, where powerlessness becomes a badge of honor, and we belong to our people because outsiders have made us foreigners on our homeland. Such stories comprise a major share of contemporary American literature. Whether Cormac McCarthy’s tales of Western alienation or Sherman Alexie’s reservation life epics, American literature today is primarily a story of division between power and identity.

Each story uses its own terms to investigate the same basic questions from new angles: what makes somebody “really” Hawaiian? Who stayed truest to themselves, those who remained in Hawai’i, or those who left? What does “local” citizenship mean in a state where the best land and best jobs belong to off-island corporations? What price do locals pay for their long-held cynicism, the only tool that keeps them together?

And perhaps most important, what language do you use to write a book like this? The working-class Hawaiians populating Kahakauwila’s stories speak Pidgin, a creole of every language that ever did business in Hawai’i. It has its own grammar and vocabulary, often incomprehensible to outsiders, with audible traces of English, Japanese, Portuguese, and Hawaiian, among many influences.

Other writers have attempted poetry and prose in Pidgin—Lois-Ann Yamanaka comes to mind. Always, authors must decide whether to go whole-hog with Pidgin’s musical insularity, or strip it down for English-speaking audiences. Kahakauwila chooses the bilingual route, writing dialog in Pidgin and exposition in English. She’s chosen an outsider audience for her stories of insidership, and thus serves as her own translator.

Mark Twain said every American town should have a novelist to record the distinct and unique language of each place. Kristiana Kahakauwila, an outsider in her homeland, highlights that language, in that arrangement, is almost an afterthought. Every place deserves its own novelist to record the exclusive patterns of thought which only language makes visible.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Unfrozen Edwardian Lawyer

Stephen P. Kiernan, The Curiosity: A Novel

Media critic George Gerbner, late dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, noted that, the more television a person watched, the more likely that person would distrust science and scientists. Scientists are often portrayed as robotic and unengaged, with flat affect and no compunctions about using human subjects. Professor Gerbner would have had a field day with this book.

When a research vessel uncovers a man trapped inside an Arctic iceberg, Erastus Carthage of the Lazarus Project sees a chance to prove his theories of latency and scientific resurrection. Dr. Kate Philo sees a man who needs nursed back to the living world. Journalist Daniel Dixon sees dollar signs. But judge Jeremiah Rice, perfectly preserved since 1906, sees a strange world, terrible losses, and ways the human heart stays true over centuries.

We have to start this book by jettisoning everything we know about science. You watch PBS. You took Biology 101 in college. You know human tissue cannot survive freezing. Author Stephen Kiernan makes an end run around everything you know by simply inventing his own rococo science, which might make sense in a Hammer Studios B-movie. Kiernan’s faux science doesn’t pass the smell test.

It’s easy to say “ignore the science,” but not only does Kiernan spend multiple long chapters on it, he keeps reiterating it. Important plot points turn on finer points that would make Richard Dawkins blanch. This becomes especially pointed in later chapters, when revelations about scientific fallibility bring characters against their own mortality. Kiernan’s epigrams about the limits of science ring hollow when readers have been screaming “baloney!” for 400 pages.

Kiernan populates this rococo narrative with characters right out of central casting. Jaded sexist reporter Dixon does a remarkable job meeting deadlines, considering how much time he spends ogling Dr. Kate’s butt. Kate remains unmoved, however, busily trying to restore humanity to Carthage’s monomaniacal empire. Of course a woman would have that responsibility, since everyone knows chicks have feewings.

Even supporting characters never vary from their characterizations. We have the Lackey, the Stoner, the Limey, Doctor House, and an interchangeable legion of creepy Christian protesters. Maybe Kiernan wanted to make a statement about how people slot themselves into dogmatic life roles and stop asking important questions. But it feels like a fire sale at the Cliché Store.

Judge Rice’s fumbling attempts to accommodate 21st Century mores have some redeeming moments. His forays into technology permit gentle humor. He discovers a love of the Grateful Dead on iPod, and his first encounter with big-business baseball merits a chuckle. But his tone resembles a Sunday School scold, and his stilted dialog demands to be enunciated by a drunk Gary Oldman. It gets wearying.

These characters speak like they’re reading a script. A haughty scientist proclaims: “I expect us to replace God.” A religious nut literally plugs her ears rather than listen to reason. These aren’t people having conversations, these are straw men finely tuned to raise viewers’ hackles on the evening news. Every asshole has one redeeming trait in real life, but Kiernan never bothers to unpack anybody beyond the stereotypical level.

Though this is Kiernan’s first novel, it’s not his first book. He’s a journalist, having written two books on mass movements and the technological society. A journalist, folks! Somebody trained to observe minute details, unpack conflicting narratives, and tell not only his subjects’ stories, but the stories behind their stories. There’s no excuse for such ham-handed storytelling from somebody who’s had such a take-no-prisoners apprenticeship.

Kiernan handles English well. He shifts among four conflicting narrators gracefully, and paces his language so readers never stumble over his storytelling. Sadly, this only emphasizes how awkward his story is. Stereotyped characters, forced situations, five-act structure: Kiernan is clearly writing a movie. When Judge Rice learns important life lessons plagiarized from Tim McGraw songs, you can practically hear the soundtrack violins.

Moral lessons abound, about scientific overreach, the value of life, and maintaining our humanity in a technological society. And they fail to move me, because they come from characters so unvarying in their predictability that they feel like authorial sock puppets. I kept waiting for the characters to have one authentic moment, separate from the role Kiernan needed them to play.

But Kiernan isn’t telling their story, they’re telling his. Everything happens to serve Kiernan’s point. And as a result, everything feels contrived. We never have a chance to agree, because Kiernan brooks no contradictory viewpoints. Maybe he needed a scientist co-author to offset his humanity.

Monday, July 8, 2013

From the Coldest Reaches of the Heart

Howard Norman, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place

Howard Norman knew he wanted to write early, but didn’t actually enter the business until fairly late. On the road to becoming his mature self, he suffered several important setbacks that laid the foundation of his later work. Now he recounts these stories in five short essays, ranging from Michigan to Vermont to northern Manitoba. But he does so in a way that frustratingly keeps readers at arm’s length.

Five times, Norman sets a good stage. In his first essay, he begins the transition to manhood, linking a strange sexual initiation with the first time he confronted his deadbeat dad. Later, he writes about the struggle a white Jewish folklorist encountered trying to transcribe the Inuit myths that would populate his earliest novels. His final essays address his attempts to create an artistic life in today’s fragmented world.

Yes, five times Norman sets a good stage. Then five times, he stumbles around it, desperately trying to find a through-line. With each essay, Norman starts off strong, and I feel a swelling heart, like I have something profound to look forward to. Most readers will agree that Norman is a good writer, with an eye for apropos detail. But he inevitably loses that initial momentum, vanishing in the haze of his own highly constructed memoir.

This isn’t helped by Norman’s overwhelming awareness of himself as an artist. In the first three essays, he repeatedly correlates, say, young Paris Keller’s lack of sexual compunctions, or an Inuit shaman’s increasingly aggressive curses, with his fumbling writing apprenticeship. His final two essays, set after his writing career began, name-drop confidences shared with David Mamet and Rita Dove, interviews with NPR, and his wife, poet Jane Shore.

Norman intersperses what could have been tight, muscular essays with sudden philosophic diversions, allusions to psychoanalysis and literary theory, and non sequitur quotes from Auden or Keats. He saps the energy from his prose, leaving us narratives that unfold with a complete lack of haste. I can’t discount the possibility that somebody prefers this languid pace, but I wonder: who?

I see similar artistic fingerprints when Norman tells his story nonsequentially. Events that happen successively get told pages apart; effect precedes cause. Sometimes he declares the payoff before telling the actual story, as when he announces that the woman he loves will die before recounting the affair. This gives Norman leeway to intrude his ruminations, but I kept thinking: Joseph Conrad did it better a century ago in Nostromo.

Throughout, Norman keeps using distancing language to hold the story at arm’s length, as though he doesn’t want to invest too deeply. His first essay culminates in a confrontation with his father—and then stops. No context, no fallout, nothing. Surely publically challenging his father created ripples beyond one conversation. I’m left to wonder whether this really happened, or if this confrontation represents the way Norman wished the story played out.

Likewise, in the final essay, about when a poet housesitting his DC address killed her son, then herself, Norman keeps referring to the poet as Reetika Vazirani, always like that, full name. Never by her first name or her surname, always the full name, like he’s talking about a figure in the news. He shows greater intimacy with a nature photographer whose friendship lasted a week, over a decade ago.

These and other examples show Norman not permitting himself to feel deeply about his narratives. While I don’t doubt these events actually happened (at least in their core), he describes them in a tone only slightly less dispassionate than a police report. This feels especially disappointing in light of his solid, engaging premises. He seemingly wants to explore the underbelly of his experience, but doesn’t want to join us there.

Such willful dissociation and conscious artistry remind me, time and again, that Norman stands between his audience and his narrative. Unlike, say, Anaïs Nin or Frank McCourt, Norman does not invite me to participate in his experiences. Rather, he invites me to marvel at him, the author; he, not his story, matters. Maintaining that gulf makes sense if Norman is writing primarily for the tenure committee.

The end product isn’t bad, as such. It’s just cold. Norman purports to revisit the crucibles that forged the most formative moments in his life, then once we’re in, he turns down the fire. It’s frustrating, because I keep feeling like we’re getting close to something important, something true and unique to him, then with the reckoning upon us, Norman inevitably flinches.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Tehran Tea and the Slow-Blooming Rose

Shoreh Aghdashloo, The Alley of Love and Yellow Jasmines

Shoreh Aghdashloo became a celebrity at the unlikely age of fifty-one, when her supporting role in House of Sand and Fog netted her an Independent Spirit award and an Oscar nomination. But while English-speaking audiences found her an enlightening surprise, she’d spent years cultivating her reputation among Iranian exiles in theatre, film, and world affairs. Her global prominence represented a breakthrough for Middle Easterners everywhere.

Born in the Shah’s Iran, young Shoreh Vaziri inherited a strange hybrid world. Though widely secular and westernized (Aghdashloo reminisces about watching American movies in elaborate cinemas), Tehran remained a markedly Islamic city. Her name came from the poet Hafez, but she spent her evenings in crowded nightclubs, dancing to top European and American hits. This split identity helped forge a young woman’s modern, innovative ambitions.

But her conservative parents wanted a prestigious button-down life for her. They considered no job short of a doctor worthy of their eldest child and only daughter, and would brook no headstrong artistic goofs. When Gone With the Wind made Shoreh dream of acting, they drew a firm line. Sure, they permitted her teenage flirtation with runway modelling, considering it harmless recreation, but they demanded she plan her adult career.

When she was only nineteen, an ambitious young painter with government connections won Shoreh’s heart. But more than that, Aydin Aghdashloo offered her the freedom to choose her own path. So not long after they wed, she auditioned for an avant-garde theatre company, and rose to overnight stardom. Shoreh quickly became the toast of Tehran’s high culture circuit, and it wasn’t long before Iran’s burgeoning cinema industry came knocking.

Sometimes, what Aghdashloo doesn’t say about Iran reveals as much as what she says. She briefly calls the Shah “fascist,” and recalls horror stories of his repressive secret police, the SAVAK, but later calls herself a monarchist and recounts standing for the Shah against the Islamists. Politics makes strange bedfellows. Likewise, she mentions that most Shah-era middle class Iranians could afford live-in servants, eliding what that says about urban poverty or stark class divides.

The Ayatollahs behind Iran’s 1979 revolution openly distrusted actors; many actors were broken by harsh interrogations without justification. But Aydin felt he could do more good for his people remaining in Iran. So despite her professed continuing love, Shoreh left him, her family, everything she owned, and everything she loved, pursuing the safety of life outside Iran. She says she’ll never return until her people are free.

British refugee life brought new problems. Aghdashloo had no English, few prospects, and Thatcher’s Britain was a constant minefield. She sold her smuggled heirlooms to earn a political science degree, but made a remarkable discovery: many Farsi-speaking exiles worldwide remembered her abridged movie career. Iranians flocked to see her in a successful string of politically engaged plays that let her tour major cities worldwide.

Expat theatre kept Aghdashloo’s name vibrant, and her Farsi-speaking fans proved remarkably loyal, but theatrical success didn’t translate into financial stability. She subsidized her career with several jobs, including a flower shop that bled money, waiting for fame to pay for itself. That happened around when she met her second husband, Iranian-born playwright Houshang Touzie. She quickly became an actress, TV and radio commentator, and theatre troup co-owner. After years in Farsi arts, English speakers began to notice her.

Aghdashloo’s prose, inflected with occasional Britishisms and academic silver-dollar words, reflects the famous accent she brings to her English language roles. At once politely formal and surprisingly intimate, reading her story resembles hearing personal anecdotes from some hero you’ve long admired, but only just met. It’s easy to imagine her reading this book in her distinctively deep purr, perhaps over Persian tea.

Despite her fame in the last decade, Aghdashloo spends little time on her highly public English-speaking career. Perhaps she assumes these years, appearing in such diverse titles as 24 and The Lake House, and winning an Emmy for HBO’s House of Saddam, have been sufficiently documented in the popular press. She’d rather focus on the decades of personal and political struggle that made her late-blooming success possible.

Aghdashloo tells a remarkable story, not just for what she says, but what she leaves implicit. Her book rewards reading between the lines. While some might chide Aghdashloo for what she omits, she invites smart readers to unpack her story in both directions. She’s spent years defining herself as a multidimensional woman of world affairs. Now she shares the long, slow road to her supposed overnight success.