Reality Hunger, by David Shields

Reality Hunger, by David Shields

You’ll usually find this in the literary criticism section of a book shop, and having now read it, I can’t exactly argue with that placing, but I can say that it would also be right at home in many other sections: cultural anthropology, sociology, memoir, philosophy, history, poetry, or even general fiction (if I’m feeling particularly objective). It’s a lot of things in one, which means that the book itself fully embodies the crux of its own argument, to get all postmodern on you, which simply put is: the distinction between fiction and non-fiction is not as black and white as we think. Or written another way, and quoting directly from the book: “Writing is writing. Every act of composition is an act of fiction.”

I picked this book up and put it back down several times before eventually breaking down and buying it. I kept bumping into it at my favorite used bookshop, thumbing through it and reading little bits here and there, finding myself confused by the format — was it a book of quotes or a book of random thoughts? — eventually judging it too odd and putting it back on the shelf. The next time I came back, it would be gone (of course!), and I found myself missing it, getting what I would consider the opposite of buyer’s remorse, wishing that I had taken it home with me when I had the chance. Eventually, of course, another copy would show up on the shelves and I would start the whole process over again. Eventually that Chip Kidd cover won me over and I took it home.

This is basically the postmodern literary equivalent of building a song out of samples. I was about halfway through before I realized that a huge chunk of this book is sourced from elsewhere, remixed, modified, recombined, and used interstitially between genuine writing done by Shields himself to tie this whole crazy opus together. It’s brilliant and absurd and since it’s sourced from hundreds of different people, it speaks in a lot of contradictory absolutes about art, writing, reality, “reality”, memory, copyright, fiction, identity, persona, subjectivity, the nature of creativity, etc. It contains a lot of things I agree with, a lot that I don’t, and a lot that I’m not so sure about anymore.

David ShieldsWhatever it is, it’s deeply misunderstood. Read a few reviews and you’ll find people who hate it with a passion or ecstatically adore it. You won’t find too many in the middle. Which honestly, is the exact kind of reaction you want something to evoke in others. Otherwise, it’s just mediocre right? Anyway, I think those people with intense opinions on it are thinking way too literally, and might benefit from the practice of trying to hold two opposing opinions in their heads at the same time, and mulling them over. I think what this book really is, is a jumping off point to start a conversation about what is real, what is fake, and why ultimately, maybe it really doesn’t matter that much, and maybe we should stop classifying things and let art be art. Let journalism handle facts, and let both our non-fiction and fiction pieces of art just be.. pieces of art. Maybe we don’t need to worry about which box to put things in anymore. Maybe the process of telling a “true” story injects it with fiction anyway. Or maybe none of that too. Or maybe — and this is more realistic here — just some of it. Pick and choose, etc.

It would be a mistake to read this quickly, which is easy to do since it’s so short, and presented in little bite size chunks. There’s just too much going on here to rush through it. It’s a genuine book of ideas. I had to take a lot of breaks — short and long — to give myself time to process the concepts. I took a lot of notes to organize my thoughts; trying to get to the bottom of what I was feeling about what was being said. If I came across something that really got my thinking, I threw the book down and went for a walk to mull it over a little. Or maybe I would just put it down for a few days, read something else, and come back to it when I was really interested again in the questions it was posing; when the ideas were pulling me back in.

Paraphrasing, of course, but some of those questions were: What sort of responsibility should a memoirist have to literal facts? Can we actually trust our memory enough to state anything we remember as fact? How much truth is there in fiction? How much fiction do we allow in non-fiction? If fiction uses lies to tell the truth, can memoir be just another literary genre, soaked in the author’s subjective experience, but the truth of that experience used only as a means to illustrate something more important? If the point of memoir is that more important bit, does it actually have to be married to truth at all? Just what is being “created” in creative non-fiction? Who owns ideas? Do we necessarily always need Form and Story and Narrative and the other usual pieces of storytelling? Is the space between truth and fiction actually more interesting anyway?

I don’t really have a conclusion on this. Like I said earlier, the book is a jumping off point, and I’m still kind of lost in all of the ideas it presented. If you’re interested in any of those questions, I’d suggest you check it out, it’s really quite bizarre, and I think you’ll enjoy it a lot.

My Struggle Book 1, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle, Book 1

 

Memoirs are fascinating to me, because we know how truly fallible memory is. It is demonstrably unreliable. It’s completely insane that eyewitnesses and line-ups are such a fundamental part of our criminal justice system. But the cool thing about memoirs is that it really doesn’t matter if it’s a legitimate telling of events or not. I think that David Shields said it best in his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto: “Memoir is a genre in need of an informed readership. It’s a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting. Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade him or her that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.”

This is literature, it’s a story, it has characters, etc but for Knausgård it’s all about form: “For several years I had tried to write about my father, but had gotten nowhere, probably because the subject was too close to my life, and thus not so easy to force into another form, which of course is a prerequisite for literature. That is its sole law: everything has to submit to form. If any of literature’s other elements are stronger than form, such as style, plot, theme, if any of these overtake form, the result suffers. That is why writers with a strong style often write bad books. That is also why writers with strong themes so often write bad books. Strong themes and styles have to be broken down before literature can come into being. It is this breaking down that is called ‘writing.’ Writing is more about destroying than creating.”

The characters have the same names as real people, and the story is based around Knausgård’s recollection of events, however accurate/inaccurate they may be, but these events, and this story was broken down and rebuilt to serve the form of literature. And it is really, really good stuff. It took about 20-30 pages until the prose clicked for me, and then it became difficult to put down. I found myself coming back to it again and again, “Oh, I’ll just read another page or two while I’m waiting for such-and-such.”

Karl Ove KnausgaardI think it’s something to do with the method that Knausgård uses to jump around in his story. He’ll write toward an event, we know what the event is, we know that it’s important. And then the Karl Ove ‘character’ in the story will think back to something, and we’re instantly back with him, experiencing a different event. We eventually forget that we’re in the past-past, and that’s right when he goes back to just before that event that’s coming up. The story progresses with some forward trajectory, but skips right over the event, to 20 years later, and he describes the room in which he’s sitting writing his second novel. Its marvelous.

The story itself is simple, brutally honest, and relatable. It’s also very foreign for me, having known very little about life in Norway until this small glimpse has expanded my knowledge slightly. It’s the first thing I’ve read that I would count as both literature, and a comfortable, easy read.

Iain M. Banks (Modern Masters of Science Fiction), by Paul Kincaid

Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Iain M. Banks, by Paul Kincaid

A concise yet comprehensive literary analysis on the works of the late Iain Banks. Kincaid’s writing functions primarily through illustrating and deconstructing the thematic lineage and interplay between Banks’ novels published with and without the M, but also delves into the deeper political and societal backdrop in which Banks’ wrote and lived. The bits of history that Kincaid feels influenced Banks are particularly illuminating for myself, someone who knows little of Scottish or UK life, especially concerning the 70s and 80s.

Iain M. BanksNot as obviously praising of Banks’ writing as Simone Caroti’s The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks: A Critical Introduction, and in a lot of ways it does feel like a response to it. Caroti called for a need to examine Banks’ entire catalog of writing, not just the M or non-M work as had previously been done. Kincaid’s book takes exactly this approach, but with an emphasis on his science fiction work. It is also a much more balanced examination of the strengths and weaknesses at play in the novels. That being said, the rabid Banks fan inside of me enjoyed Caroti’s book quite a bit more because it more closely aligned with my own reading and interpretation of Banks; which is of course an admittedly subjective, masturbatory reason.

Caroti’s book started a new conversation; addressing the ways in which Banks had been grossly ignored, misunderstood, and misinterpreted in literary circles and criticism over the years. It posited a much better interpretation of Banks’ work than had previously existed. I’m please to see that it appears Caroti’s contribution had it’s desired effect, because this continuation of the conversation seems to have benefited greatly from it. Gone are the misreadings and general sloppy analogies in the pre-Caroti analyses. Of course, as a result, Kincaid is much more objective and more in line with a standard literary analysis, which is more intellectually pleasing, but it remains thoughtful to the corrections and additions that Caroti made previously.

Paul KincaidThe bulk of this analysis deals with Banks’ writing chronologically, but also takes into account the order in which the novels were written, rewritten and released. Since so many of them — the Culture novels specifically — were written very early and then reworked later in Banks’ career before being published, this method helps to trace the evolution of themes and thoughts throughout the novels as they changed and adapted. There are quite a few biographical details and quotes interspersed throughout, which I always welcome, especially considering that there is still no extant proper biography on Banks. The book then comes to a close with an illuminating interview between Banks and Jude Roberts, who received her P.h.d. on The Culture series.

This book is something I’ve been waiting a long, long time for, and I am extremely pleased that Kincaid has not only continued the conversation on Banks’ work and legacy that Caroti jump started, but also added so much to it in the process. This is a fantastic addition to the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series and I look forward to seeing where we go from here. Personally, I feel that Banks’ work needs to endure the test of time, and welcome future writings on him as a subject.

Paul’s book is available to purchase from the University of Illinois Press, and will be released on May 30th, 2017.

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer

Borne, by Jeff VanderMeer

VanderMeer’s writing is engaging, difficult, and worth the effort required to read. It takes me a little longer to finish his novels than I feel like it should. It’s the kind of writing that makes me a better reader. It’s challenging and uncomfortable. Something about his prose makes me have to go back and reread sentences to make sure I understood what was being said. It reminds me of William Gibson’s writing in that way. Of course, VanderMeer and Gibson write in entirely different styles, but I have to do the same thing with Gibson novels as well. I kind of love it. There is a lot going on in each sentence, and I feel that it gives his novels tremendous reread value.

Onto Borne specifically. First off, whoever designed this cover is brilliant. Not only is it gorgeous, and visually hard to pin down, perfectly describing the character of Borne itself, but there is also a glossy spot coat image printed across it that is entirely hidden until the light hits it just so. I’ll leave the mystery of exactly what is revealed in the light intact for you to discover when you see it in person. But it is a story element, and it’s very clever. Little touches like this really sell me on having physical copies of books over digital. Bravo FSG.

All of the VanderMeer story staples are here in full force: Ruinous ecology, strange bioluminescent life, forgotten memories, a misplaced sense of self-identity, life that might not be human, animals that (maybe) used to be human, a hint of something much larger happening on the periphery, a creepy company meddling in things they shouldn’t, and a perfect mix of mystery and resolution in the story. All told through beautiful prose that itself lends an eerie literary landscape for the rich characters to inhabit.

The most obvious comparison here is VanderMeer’s Area X/Southern Reach trilogy, being his most recent work. I can guarantee that if you enjoyed those novels, you’re very much going to enjoy Borne. Maybe even more so. I could even make a case that it is entirely possible, and doesn’t take all that much head canon, to connect Borne to the Southern Reach novels. I’m really looking forward to the publication date to see what fellow readers think here.

Jeff VanderMeerUnlike the Southern Reach trilogy — one story broken into three parts — Borne is a complete story in and of itself. It’s also a literary universe I would not at all mind returning to in the future. The story is told in a first person narrative, and the reader is acknowledged to exist. So it’s got that slightly post-modern thing going on. There are only a handful of characters, only one of which I found slightly underdeveloped, and they’re all unique. Nobody is one dimensional here. The story itself deals with themes of nature versus nurture, self identity, parenting, childhood, survival and the different forms that love can take. It’s violent, disturbing, endearing and quite a feat of imagination. At some points it felt so vivid and alive that it somehow became visually stunning. This is of course not a common description of a written work, but it absolutely applies here.

Jeff VanderMeer is a literary author, writing almost exclusively speculative fiction. He’s at the center of that illusive Venn diagram containing Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Literary Fiction, and belongs in whatever section of your bookshelf Octavia Butler, Adam Johnson, Ursula Le Guin, Dexter Palmer and Gene Wolfe inhabit.

Borne comes out April 25th, 2017 from MCD/FSG books.

“Am I a person?” Borne asked me.
“Yes, you are a person,” I told him. “But like a person, you can be a weapon, too.”

In Borne, a young woman named Rachel survives as a scavenger in a ruined city half destroyed by drought and conflict. The city is dangerous, littered with discarded experiments from the Company―a biotech firm now derelict―and punished by the unpredictable predations of a giant bear. Rachel ekes out an existence in the shelter of a run-down sanctuary she shares with her partner, Wick, who deals his own homegrown psychoactive biotech.

One day, Rachel finds Borne during a scavenging mission and takes him home. Borne as salvage is little more than a green lump―plant or animal?―but exudes a strange charisma. Borne reminds Rachel of the marine life from the island nation of her birth, now lost to rising seas. There is an attachment she resents: in this world any weakness can kill you. Yet, against her instincts―and definitely against Wick’s wishes―Rachel keeps Borne. She cannot help herself. Borne, learning to speak, learning about the world, is fun to be with, and in a world so broken that innocence is a precious thing. For Borne makes Rachel see beauty in the desolation around her. She begins to feel a protectiveness she can ill afford.

“He was born, but I had borne him.

But as Borne grows, he begins to threaten the balance of power in the city and to put the security of her sanctuary with Wick at risk. For the Company, it seems, may not be truly dead, and new enemies are creeping in. What Borne will lay bare to Rachel as he changes is how precarious her existence has been, and how dependent on subterfuge and secrets. In the aftermath, nothing may ever be the same.

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016, Edited by John Joseph Adams and Karen Joy Fowler

The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016For those who are interested in the best that Science Fiction and Fantasy has to offer as a literary form. This is an equal mix of F and SF stories, and John Joseph Adams truly understands the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is refreshing. In Fantasy the impossible happens. In Science Fiction the impossible but theoretically plausible happens. The stories started out a little rough but quickly got into some AAA level stuff about a quarter of the way in, including a few new personal all-time favorite short stories from any genre.

It’s wonderful to see this published along side The Best American Short Stories. I’ll be picking this yearly collection up every year, and so should you.
Standout stories: Interesting Facts, No Placeholder for You My Love, The Duniazát, Things You Can Buy for a Penny, and Three Bodies at Mitanni.

Individual story reviews:

Meet Me in Iram, by Sofia Samatar: F, 2/5
Narratively unique but otherwise not particularly interesting.

The Game of Smash and Recovery, By Kelly Link: SF, 3/5
Enjoyed this one. I like it when authors write outside of their usual genre like this. It’s dedicated to Iain M. Banks at the end, which automatically made me rethink it as a Culture story, which it isn’t. But it very easily could exist in that universe.

Interesting Facts, by Adam Johnson: F, 5/5
A new all-time favorite. Heartbreaking and human, with mind-blowing prose that literally changes the way you read the story AS you’re reading it. Fantastic fantasy.

Planet Lion, by Catherynne M. Valente: SF, 2/5
Alien lion analogs act out some soap opera drama when they come in contact with advanced colonist tech. A real eye-roller, with a neat tech concept near the end that is its only redeeming quality.

The Apartment Dweller’s Bestiary, by Kij Johnson: F, 1/5
20 very short non-stories written in second person about imaginary creatures in apartments, often detailing whether or not “your” boyfriend or girlfriend likes or gets along with them.

By Degrees of Dilatory Time, by S.L. Huang: SF, 4/5
I liked this one. Near future transhumanistic tale about adaptation and the process of healing being more than a physical one.

The Mushroom Queen, by Liz Ziemska F, 4/5
Creepy little fantasy story. Reminded me a lot of Jeff VanderMeer, but that might just be the Mushrooms talking.

Daydreamer by Proxy, by Dexter Palmer: SF, 3/5
Short little comedy about what seems like the worst place to work.

Tea Time, by Rachel Swirsky: F, 2/5
Great writing for literally being a piece of fan fiction.

Headshot, by Julian Mortimer Smith: SF, 4/5
Realistic near future democracy concepts. Very thought provoking.

The Duniazát, by Salmon Rushdie: F, 5/5
Fantastical alternate mythical history. Beautiful prose.

No Placeholder for You, My Love, by Nick Wolven: SF, 5/5
Fucking hell, that was brutally good. An SF romance/tragedy mixed in with Simulacron 3. Fantastic writing, and a compelling story.

The Thirteen Mercies, by Maria Dahvana Headley: F, 4/5
Great writing. I want to know more about this world. Brutally grimdark fantasy that’s just one click off our world.

Lightning Jack’s Last Ride, by Dave Bailey: SF, 4/5
Loved the way this one was written. Feels like a story straight out of the prohibition era, transported to the slight future.

Things You Can Buy for a Penny, by Will Kaufman: F, 5/5
Such a perfect cautionary fairytale. I wanted to hate this one when I started it, but it very quickly won me over and became another high peak in this collection.

Rat Catcher’s Yellows, by Charlie Jane Anders: SF, 4/5
An almost perfect little SF story.

The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History, by Sam J. Miller: F, 3/5
Solid oral history of a paranormal event that took place during a police raid on a gay bar during the late sixties.

Three Bodies at Mitanni, by Seth Dickenson: SF, 6/5
This story exemplarily embodies everything about what SF can accomplish as a literary form. An absolutely fantastic cerebral, philosophical, moral human story.

Ambiguity Machines: An Examination, by Vandanna Singh: F, 2/5
It was okay. The stories within the story were fun.

The Great Silence, by Ted Chiang: SF, 2/5
Really surprised that this wasn’t better. Ted Chiang almost never disappoints, but this one kind of left me wanting.