Superabundance, by Heinz Helle

Superabundance, by Heinz HelleA deeply philosophical, hopeful little novel about fear, attention, community, morality, perception, and the nature and/or existence of consciousness. As sparse as Don DeLillo, but descriptive in a vague, matter of fact manner. God I loved this book.

Heinz HelleThe unnamed protagonist in Superabundance states the obvious in an alien way. Not just alien as in, not from around here alien, but alien to the point that it seems like this character may only recently have become human, and may not yet be aware of the fact. It begins as a look at the lives of Americans in New York City from an outsider’s perspective. The protagonist overanalyzing everything around him, social norms and situations, the nature of his work, how basic and repetitive life truly is, etc, and progresses from there into an existential question about the human condition and the nature of control.

It somewhat reminded me of The Stranger by Camus, mostly in the way that the protagonist seems simultaneously cripplingly self-centered, self-unaware, but also hyper aware of everything around him, the world swimming past him that he’s drowning in. There’s a telling moment where he feels the need to apologize to everyone and everything for his nature. He is powerless to change who he is. His attention is continually drawn in by everything except what he wants/feels he should be attentive toward. He is realizing how little control he actually possesses. He fears his libido, fears that he may not stay loyal, fears that he can see his relationship deteriorating before his eyes, fears that he may not be conscious, fears that he may be all too conscious.

“I don’t think you even know what love is, she says, running her fingernail across the fitted sheet and looking at the books on the floor beside the bed, and I look at her fingernail, then at the books, and I think, of course I don’t know what love is, and I say: Of course I know what love is.”

I was particularly impressed by the subtlety Helle exercised in illustrating this slow deterioration of a relationship. Little things, eventually snowballing into something insurmountable. No real starting point, nothing to point to and say “This is where it all went wrong”, just a gradual decline from a seed that had no inception. An inevitability of two people being who they are. It’s a powerful statement on materialism in the philosophical definition of the word.

The last few scenes in the novel may be my favorite scenes in any book ever. Its delicious, strangely hopeful celebration of the majesty, glory, and variety of life present in humanity makes me want to embrace the next person I see and scream “We are the same, you and I! We are the same!”

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

This is another one of those classics of SF literature that I have somehow missed reading over the years. Had I been more of an active reader in the nineties, I’m sure I would’ve come to it much sooner. Thankfully, I finally got there, and Hyperion was not what I expected, in the best way possible. It’s most often compared to Dune, The Book of the New Sun, or other great works of Science Fantasy. Obviously, coming into the novel my expectations were high, and I knew the most basic gist of the plot: a pilgrimage across a world to meet an unimaginable being. What I got was partly what I anticipated, but in a very left-field form, which was such a refreshing subversion of my what I thought I was getting myself into. It delivered on what I thought it was, but in a way I never imagined, and it was fantastic.

Dan SimmonsInstead of straight-forward narrative momentum, Hyperion is almost entirely the backstories of these pilgrims. It’s heavily character based, and the only book I can honestly say is 100% both a novel, and a story collection. These stories are more technically novellas, because of their length, but you get what I’m saying. Each story genuinely adds to the forward narrative, by going backward. It’s really quite breathtaking to see this done so well. I’ve read other collections that are also novels, but they’re always more one or the other. This is equally both.

Each tale feels like a slightly different genre married to science fiction, and the interstitial sections weave them together tightly. Only one of them fell slightly flat for me. Mostly because it was more akin to cyberpunk than anything else, and I have a real love/hate affair with cyberpunk. I tend to judge the genre entirely too harshly at times, mostly because if I have any sort of professional knowledge, it’s in the Information Technology arena, and I have a difficult time suspending my disbelief about the realities of virtual worlds in regards to how they’re represented in cyberpunk. That’s a topic for another day.

Hyperion has that indescribable, almost lovecraftian terror, dread and brooding present throughout, and one tale in particular left me unbearably heartbroken. There’s honestly only one thing I can objectively complain about here, and it’s more endemic to the genre during the time period this was written in than anything else: the way the narrator spends an inordinate amount of time describing women’s bodies, broken down into parts, particularly breasts and nipples. It’s just kind of eye-roll pervy, but it’s my only real gripe. Thankfully, it’s not quite at a Haruki Murakami level, and this doesn’t much happen anymore in the really well written stuff of the genre, but I’m more embarrassed for the author than anything else, award winning fiction like this is fairly written in stone for future generations to examine.

I was torn whether or not to dig straight into The Fall of Hyperion after finishing this, but ultimately I decided not to just yet. I want to let this percolate and grow in my mind, but mostly I’m one of those anti-bingeing types that prefers to spread great stories out over a long period of time, to elongate my enjoyment of them, and better unpack their themes. I think it’s time for a non-genre novel, and then I’ll dig back in when the time is right. That being said, I can’t wait to come back to the world of Hyperion, and see what new terrors await these fantastic characters.

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

The Intuitionist, by Colson Whitehead

The time period is difficult to pin down. The location is difficult to pin down. Maybe New York, maybe Boston or Chicago? 1950s, 1960s? There are clues pepered here and there but the whole thing has a timeless, every city quality to it. I love that it’s never explicitly stated. This world is exactly like ours, except that elevators are a big, big deal. Their creation has shaped the form and structure of cities; buildings with arrangements of floors vertically stacked ad infinitum up into the sky, a concept itself only possible as a result of reliable, mechanical elevation. Those elevators highly utilized only because they are safe, safe only because of the skilled elevator inspectors laying down the law regarding their maintenance, and upkeep.

Colson WhiteheadAll of this is true in our world as well, but here it’s more than just a technicality, it’s elemental as a foundation of their entire modern society; an alternate Americana. Elevators and elevator inspectors are given the same level of awe that airplanes and pilots once had in our version of America. Just as the airplane compressed our world’s surface horizontally, elevators compressed theirs vertically, bringing the unrealized potential of the sky down to earth.

Elevators aren’t just a large aspect of the literal plot of the novel, but used as a metaphor for the ongoing racial struggle of black Americans, among other things. It’s handled elegantly, and I don’t want to touch on it all that much for fear of spoiling the experience. Suffice it to say there are several layers to this elevator-as-metaphor aspect, and they have a unique dialogue with one another.

Two warring factions in the Department of Elevator Inspectors in a bustling metropolis vie for dominance: The Empiricists, who go by the book and rigorously check every structural and mechanical detail; and the Intuitionists, whose observational methods involve meditation and instinct. The Intuitionist conjures a parallel universe in which latent ironies in matters of morality, politics, and race come to light.

Almost every corner of the novel mirrors, and folds on itself. The narrative is broken into two sections: Down, and Up: a fall from grace, and a rise from the ashes. A literal crashing down of one elevator, and a possible rising of another, perfected model; a “black box”. The dual and dueling, mirrored approaches to elevator inspection, Empiricism and Intuitionism. The former being the familiar method of visually inspecting, and testing components to ensure their reliability, checking them against tolerances and allowances. The latter embodying what you might call a holistic approach; feeling and communicating mentally, or spiritually with the elevator in an effort to understand what issues may be affecting it. The concept of intuitionism is where a lot of the surreal comedy of the novel stems. Can you imagine a sillier approach to checking a mechanical system? It’s all very Pynchonesque.

This book is an exemplary illustration of the power speculative fiction wields as a form of literature. Because of course, intuiting what ails an elevator is completely ridiculous in the real world, but it’s oddly endearing in an America slightly off from our own. Empiricists don’t respect Intuitionists, but they can’t argue with their results, which statistically, are ever so slightly more effective. It’s a slap in the face for those living a life guided by rules and measurements, when “feeling” a system merits slightly better results than doing your best to follow the rigid structure you are in trying to impose on the world. Couple this with the double standards governing white America and black America, men and women, and it becomes poetic. This is used to show that there is always more than one way to approach any topic, any reality that you can interact with. That only using our eyes, can sometimes blind us in other ways, to other things. Reality is what we make it, and limiting ourselves to just one sense can be a dangerous practice indeed. You have to be able to fathom change before you can start to affect it.

The Intuitionist reminded me, in an odd way, of Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I am unsure if it’s the somewhat similar setting, similar themes of an underclass breaking upward into America proper, or the general mystery aspect of the narrative. Both were published in 1999, maybe there’s a similar cultural background at play? Whatever the reason, I find them comparable novels.

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

This short novel thoroughly creeped me the hell out. It’s been a few years since I’ve read anything that maintains this level of unease throughout. It’s not intended to be outright scary, instead it maintains an eerie tone (think VanderMeer’s Annihilation) and punctuates it with some genuine goosebump moments that snuck up on me. The narrative plays the POV characters’ relationship woes (something we can relate to) against a supernatural backdrop (something we cannot). Juxtaposing the relatable with the unrelatable works so well here, and serves to pull the unrelatable closer until it feels solid, foundational, and within the realm of possibility.

This narrative tactic also got me heavily invested in the characters and their troubled relationship; rooting for them to find a way out of their situation together; to come out the other side a more entwined, singular team. They’re two people who in a misguided attempt to navigate up out of a downwardly spiraling situation, inadvertently ensnare themselves into another, accelerated, more deadly one. I love the way that these events escalated, and built on one another. The way that they dealt with that escalation also felt incredibly like actual human behavior.

Julie and James settle into a house in a small town outside the city where they met. The move—prompted by James’s penchant for gambling, his inability to keep his impulses in check—is quick and seamless; both Julie and James are happy to leave behind their usual haunts and start afresh. But this house, which sits between ocean and forest, has plans for the unsuspecting couple. As Julie and James try to settle into their home and their relationship, the house and its surrounding terrain become the locus of increasingly strange happenings. The architecture—claustrophobic, riddled with hidden rooms within rooms—becomes unrecognizable, decaying before their eyes. Stains are animated on the wall—contracting, expanding—and map themselves onto Julie’s body in the form of bruises; mold spores taint the water that James pours from the sink. Together the couple embark on a panicked search for the source of their mutual torment, a journey that mires them in the history of their peculiar neighbors and the mysterious residents who lived in the house before Julia and James.

Written in creepy, potent prose, The Grip of It is an enthralling, psychologically intense novel that deals in questions of home: how we make it and how it in turn makes us, mapping itself onto bodies and the relationships we cherish.

Jac JemcThe story found its way to a terrific resolution. I imagine it’s difficult to end a haunted house novel in a way that is satisfying to the reader, but doesn’t undercut the creepy tone — that built it in the first place — with too much clarity. Do you completely explain the haunting and lose all the mystery, or do you leave it entirely unknown by ending in an ambiguous manner? The finale of The Grip of It finds that perfect middle point between these two extremes, balancing resolution/irresolution to both fulfill my deeply rooted desire for closure as a reader, and keep the eeriness fully at play.

We’ve all got that old lizard brain resting below our rational one, nearly all that it understands is fear, and it love a good poking. Logically, I know none of these supernatural events are real or even remotely possible, but my lizard brain doesn’t care about logic, it likes being afraid. It wallows in the macabre, and thrives in the unknown terrors that might lurk in the shadows residing just at the periphery of my vision. I mostly read this right before going to bed, and I found myself double checking silhouettes in my bedroom as I lay there, imagining how the strange sensation of seeing my wife’s face, but not recognizing her, would feel; finding patterns where none exist, and missing patterns previously obvious. The whole affair put me on edge.

The prose is clean, the chapters short, and the pacing tight. You could even read it in a single sitting if you wanted, and it’s engaging enough that the decision to do so might end up outside your control. It might just happen, you looking at the clock afterward and wondering where the time disappeared to.

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas

Finishing this magnificent novel was a bittersweet affair. Sweet because it was a powerful joy to read; experiencing what a writer that possesses such a mastery of her craft can do with words, continually in awe at the bravery of this story, and how she approached it. Bitter because I’ve lived with her character Joan Ashby these past couple weeks, judged her a little unfairly at times, learned as she did, gotten to know her well as she grew and adapted, and now we are forced to part ways because the book is done. She’s such an interesting creation, and I want to keep her around a little longer. Most especially, I want to read the rest of her stories, and novels that she wrote during her life inside of this book. I’d be 100% okay if Wolas chose to write and publish them eventually.

Cherise WolasThis is Cherise Wolas’ debut as a novelist, but it is so well formed you would never think it her first published novel. It has none of the usual shortcomings that early efforts often do. I’m thinking she has always written. She is obviously very practiced, and a remarkably skilled storyteller to have put together something this comprehensive. If this book doesn’t get shortlisted for several big awards next year, I’d be shocked at the injustice. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if it wins more than a few of them.

Her prose is beautiful and flowing, and her characters contain multitudes, especially Ashby as we get to see her create her own characters (some of them writers as well) and bring them to life with flowing prose. Wolas’ ability to write as herself, as her characters, and as her characters’ characters is just breathtaking. The subtle shifts in style as the novel dips into and back out of Ashby’s writing, were handled with grace, and they added some postmodern flair to the whole thing. It’s like a novel that contains a short story collection, and reminds me of reading both at the same time, breaking up the main story with little miniature ones that interject here and there, never taking away from the momentum. It just works.

My favorite part of this is seeing how Ashby learns about herself, and deals with events in her own life through her fiction; through the characters that take on some of the traits of those around her; never directly putting her own life, events, and acquaintances directly into her work, but borrowing bits here and there and reconfiguring them into new dramatic events and characters. It’s refreshing to see the creative process stripped bare and represented accurately like this. Everything is a remix of our influences, and our lives, blown apart and amalgamated. In the latter half of the book, we even start to get a small glimpse into one possible future direction for Ashby, through the fiction that she creates. It’s subtly done and I love it. We see her working things out, coming to terms with traumatic events, and coming out the other side, all part of her process of creation and renewal.

Read this novel. It’s out August 29th from Flatiron Books in the US, and Sept 7th via The Borough Press in the UK.