Exit West, by Mohsin Hamid: The World Made Flat

Exit West, by Mohsin HamidMohsin Hamid has created something wonderful with this endearing, and perfectly formed short novel. What an evocative and striking way to discuss refugees, ideological war, tribalism, and love. This book broke through my exterior barriers and nurtured something tender inside of me. It seems for the most part, people are really the same, and we all want the same things regardless of where we come from: security, companionship, and the means to better ourselves. The things we’ve lived through, our experiences, coalesce and form us into who we are, shaping the basis of what we might become.

“We are all migrants through time.”

Windows and doors feature heavily in Exit West. The dangers of the ongoing war between the militants and the government in our protagonists’ unnamed middle eastern country, enter through windows. As the war grows more serious, every glass pane holds within it the potential to become lacerating shrapnel. The ongoing fighting perverts everything into something it was never intended to be. Windows into shrapnel. Streets into battlegrounds. Characters are killed accidentally through the glass windshields of their cars by misguided munitions. Windows are boarded up, taped up, or obscured for security, limiting the light available indoors.

Doors are where the magical aspect of the story comes into play. Most of the time doors operate as normal, allowing passage from one room to another, from outside to inside, or inside to out. But sometimes, at seemingly random and unpredictable moments, certain doors have started leading elsewhere, to adjacent doors in other lands. Offering a means of escape from local dangers, and passage to the relative safety and wealth of the West. Doors like these are opening up all over the world, and just as the relative size of the world was flattened and reduced dramatically with the invention of the internet, these doors literally fold and flatten the space between the Eastern and Western, Southern and Northern corners of the world. The myriad ways in which this change impacts the societies in the novel was the most interesting aspect of the story for me.

As the effective distance between continents diminishes, the realities of the world that were once far away from the wealthy and fortunate, were once nebulous and ethereal to them, are made vividly real and close. Travel, particularly meeting and interacting with those unlike ourselves, is said to be one of the best ways to overcome existing prejudices and preconceived notions about those from human tribes different from our own. With these doors that have started connecting us, everyone, everywhere has now come into contact with several individuals unlike themselves. Millions begin fleeing from the poorer nations to the richer ones, and this starts to cause a rapid change and instability among the natives of the richer lands.

“Location, location, location, the realtors say. Geography is destiny, respond the historians.”

This change is met with a variety of responses: fear, compassion, intrigue, curiosity, hope, etc. What Exit West does so well is give a glimpse into the daily realities of refugees fleeing from war torn countries, the sorts of terrors they can be running from, the sort of hope they often subside on. It broke my heart, and I think will go a long way toward making me a better, more compassionate person.

In addition to the wonderful social commentary, Exit West is also a love story of the highest caliber, a magically real fairy tale, unafraid to shy away from the realities of love, loss, and the changes quickened or postponed by devastating circumstances. The relationship between Saeed and Nadia grows and expands as the narrative progresses. They are one thing to each other in the beginning and another thing entirely by the end. They meet as students of higher education in their country of origin, and I found it interesting to compare and contrast their story with that of a western couple meeting for the first time at a college in America. In a lot of ways, the extreme situations they find themselves in, possibly hold them together for longer than would be ideal had they been born into different circumstances.

As someone who has never had a similar experience, I found the ways in which Nadia was able to insulate and protect herself in a culture she felt somewhat apart from, particularly interesting. The ways in which a system sometimes inadvertently makes available tools with which we can protect ourselves from that system is a fascinating area to examine. I think it speaks toward the ingenuity of humans to utilize everything that is available to us to better our prospects and secure the future we desire.

“He knew how little it took to make a man into meat: the wrong blow, the wrong gunshot, the wrong flick of a blade, turn of a car, presence of a microorganism in a handshake, a cough. He was aware that alone a person is almost nothing.”

All of my friends who have previously read Exit West specifically mentioned to me that the ending crushed them, brought them to tears or reduced them into a weeping, bumbling mess. It didn’t have that effect on me at all. Instead, I found it unbelievably beautiful, and I sat in contemplative awe, marveling at how perfect the ending was, that the author had pulled it off so elegantly. How in retrospect it was the only possible real ending, and the one I hoped the book would arrive at. It was an evocative, emotionally satisfying scene to finish the story.

To me, Exit West is overall, a hopeful novel, but it touches on deadly serious themes and the brutalities of human existence. I found it moving and beautifully expressed. It is a book that I plan on revisiting many times throughout my life.

The Gone World, by Tom Sweterlitsch

The Gone World, Tom SweterlitschSometimes the best way to experience a novel is going in completely blind. I found The Gone World at my local library bookshop and had no idea what I was getting myself into, in the best way. Reading it split my head clean open. From the first page to the last, I was enthralled. After finishing the novel, it left me in this kind of fugue state that I haven’t been able to escape. It completely blindsided me. Usually I dislike the phrase “compulsively readable” but it definitely applies here. I couldn’t put it down, I had to know what was going on in this story.

The Gone World is a bit of a genre-bender, so I’m going to back up and talk about genre a little. Several years ago the visual artist Ward Shelley created a piece chronicling the history of science fiction. He began with the roots of the genre: Fear and Wonder, Speculation and Observation, and traced them down through Philosophy and Cultural Criticism all the way to our current moment, marking notable works along the way. Forgive my oversimplification of this magnificent piece of art (you really should check it out for yourself, it’s quite a thing), but there’s a moment along the visual line where a branch occurs, Science and eventually Science Fiction coming through The Enlightenment, the Gothic Novel and eventually Horror following from the Counter-Enlightenment/Anti-Rational thread. These disparate lineages, one born of Fear, the other of Wonder, branch out into genres and sub-genres, staying mostly separate. What The Gone World does so expertly is marry the pre-horror Gothic novel “fear” back together with Science Fiction’s “wonder” in perfectly equal measure.

War Shelley's History of Science Fiction

Usually I’ve found Science fiction suspense thrillers to be a little ham fisted. There’s often a solid idea but the execution is clumsy, or the SF aspects are merely genre tropes. Sometimes the mystery is a little too obvious, or the characters are as translucent as the paper in a cheap paperback. Worst of all is when the story gets bogged down by the science and it becomes more of a textbook than a novel. This isn’t to say that I’m not a fan of “hard” sci-fi, but story and character need to come first. The Gone World doesn’t succumb to any of these traps. It works surprisingly well as both science fiction and a modern mainstream suspense thriller. The SF aspects help the story to avoid the tropes of suspense thrillers and vice versa, each genre serving to make up for the possible shortcomings of the other.

“The totality of human endeavor is nothing when set against the stars.”

Tom SweterlitschThe Gone World’s prologue begins with a hell of a hook. I haven’t been hooked like this in the first few pages of a novel in a long time. This is a disturbing and unique take on time travel and alternate worlds that’s unlike anything I’ve read. Think the horrific existential dread of Lovecraft or Robert Chambers, that so obviously inspired the first season of True Detective, filtered through Arthur C. Clarke’s grand ideas, all told as an incredibly tight mainstream suspense thriller with a terrific protagonist. Throw in a dash of Minority Report, and a pinch of the complexity of Primer and you’ve got a good idea what you’re getting yourself into. Mysteries in mysteries in mysteries, and they all resolve pretty well.

Neill BlomkampI little googling revealed that both of Tom Sweterlitsch’s novels have been optioned for film adaptations, and that The Gone World is set to be written/directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium). In addition to this, Sweterlitsch co-wrote several of those incredible Oats Studios short films that Blomkamp directed last year. If you haven’t seen them yet, check them out. They’re terrific. It’s been recently announced that Blomkamp’s next film will be a direct sequel to the original Robocop, which makes me worried his adaptation of The Gone World may be on the back burner for now. Only time will tell.

The Gone World gut-punched my head over and over again, which is enough to solidify my interest in everything that Sweterlitsch does from here on out.

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Ted Chiang’s name continually comes up in lists of great short stories. He’s never written a novel, but his short fiction has won nearly every SF award that exists. 4 Nebulas, 4 Hugos, John W. Campbell, Locus, and on and on. He’s greatly admired among authors and almost entirely unknown by most readers. I’ve heard him referenced as an inspiration by several authors that I enjoy reading. Specifically Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham (who collectively write the Expanse series under the pseudonym James S. A. Corey cite him as “the best SF writer”. I figured I should probably do myself a service and check this collection out.

After reading it, I have to agree that his writing is mind-blowing. High concept science fiction that is grounded heavily in the real world. A writer of ideas. Every single story is incredibly unique, tonally diverse and powerful in different ways. If the quality among these 8 stories wasn’t at such a consistently high level, I’d say that Chiang was merely a ghostwriting team, comprised of 8 different authors, all exceptionally talented, each with different interests, politics and prose styles. Every story genuinely feels like it could be penned by a different author. I’ve never come across a creative powerhouse like this guy. He impressed the hell out of me with every sentence.

Ted Chiang“My message to you is this: pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”

Tower of Babylon: 5/5
Killer story. The Old Testament cosmology was especially fun to hear described–passing beyond the moon, sun and stars, etc. A telling of the construction and journey up the tower of Babylon, and what lies beyond the vault of heaven. Blew my mind right open. Seriously creative. I get why it won all kinds of awards.

Understand: 5/5
Again, with the unique approach to storytelling. While reading this one, I started realizing how some of these concepts have clearly influenced other stories. Most obviously, the movie Limitless and the Max Barry novel Lexicon. I particularly liked how the language and vocabulary of the story evolves as the protagonist’s intelligence and recall increases.

Division By Zero: 4/5
An examination of loss of belief, mental illness, suicide and math. What happens when everything you’ve worked for in your life, every kind of order that you’ve relied on, is suddenly incorrect?

Story of Your Life: 6/5
Stop what you’re doing now and read this. This is the absolute best short story I have ever read. Chiang’s grasp on the English language is deeply integrated into the story itself, causality, and omniscience. It’s insanely good. This was the basis for the Denis Villeneuve film Arrival.

Seventy-Two Letters: 3/5
Interesting concepts, but storywise it was a little boring. The power of language to shape action and perception. Reminded me a lot of early 50s Asimov. All conceptual, not much character development.

The Evolution of Human Science: 3/5
Interesting and extremely short little tale about a scientific understanding breaking down between regular humans and meta-humans. Conceptually cool, but too short to really be that interesting.

Hell is the Absence of God: 5/5
The moral of the story? God is a maniacal motherfucker who doesn’t give a shit about humans, and you should love him unconditionally. This one was a real brain twister. I loved it.

Liking What You See: A Documentary: 5/5
Advertisers, elective localized brain damage, culture jamming, politics, coming of age, concepts of beauty, love, relationships. This was terrific and heavily subversive.

Growth, by A. J. Smith

This novel was really something special, definitely a new favorite and a book that I’ll be coming back to often in the future. It’s undeniably clever, darkly humorous, and highly self-aware. It’s cerebral and incredibly well written. It rewards the reader, and sends them down and through a rabbit hole of literature. I found myself torn between wanting to read it slowly, savoring the prose and unique deconstruction of language, and wanting to quickly arrive at the resolution because the story was so engaging. I ended up reading the first half over three or four days, and slamming the second half all in one sitting.

Growth’s main character Bburke is a relatively uneducated fellow, living a simple life, rooted in the present. His primary pursuits are his artistic passion toward landscaping, and consuming a comically large but sadly plausible quantity of cheap beer. He’s never learned how to properly probe the depths of his lack of self-awareness. Ambrose Bierce’s highly cynical early twentieth century lexical masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary, said it best when it defined Education as: “That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.” The question is: To which camp does Bburke belong? Is he wise or foolish?

Sometimes blissful ignorance may be preferable to a better understanding, especially when that better understanding holds the power to make us painfully aware of the sad state of our affairs. Enter S.A. and Dickie T, Bburke’s “well-read” recently higher educated hired helpers at his landscaping company. Bburke is about to receive an education of sorts, whether he’d like to or not.

I loved the unique structure used to frame the story. Different literary forms and styles are stacked and layered, like a cake that at first glance has six layers, but on closer inspection actually contains three sublayers inside each macro one. Hopping from style to style kept things fresh, but throughout all of this was a taut narrative thread, tightly connecting events and creating a barreling momentum. The result was a highly engaging, fun, character based tale that never sacrificed quality prose or form in pursuit of being fun or engaging.

It’s safe to say this is a book written for book lovers. Those familiar with the works of Camus, David Foster Wallace, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain and others will be pleasantly surprised. A lot of the main story revolved around the ways in which steeping oneself in literature can change a person, for better and worse. Reading a book is often said to be like having a conversation with the author, and Growth utilized a fun, postmodern take on that saying to illustrate the method in which Bburke internalizes what he reads. He is a non-traditional learner, and he reads in unconventional ways. Have I mentioned how fun this novel is yet? It’s very fun.

Growth actively comments on itself throughout. This is a living breathing thing. The narrator calls out obvious macguffins in the plot and marks future ones as such, the legitimacy of thin characters is called into question, and Bburke himself occasionally seems right on the cusp of realizing that he might exist only as a character in a novel. I’m a sucker for anything that continues in-line with that terrific Cervantes tradition.

The way that Dickie T and S.A.’s dialogue was handled is so perfect. They read like two halves of the same theoretical person, and their banter felt straight out of a DeLillo or DFW novel. Since they are the two characters who are readers, it seems most likely that S.A and Dickie T are familiar with those writers, wish they existed in their novels, and choose to speak as if they do. So much is revealed about them just through the form of their banter. Basically, they’ve read some books, and they think oh so highly of themselves for it. Writing their dialogue, and only their dialogue in this style shows fantastic restraint on Smith’s part. The form itself served the characters and story.

I’m not particularly well-read when it comes to the classics, but I could see Growth rewarding those who are. I wouldn’t say being well-read is a prerequisite for enjoying it, but I think there’s another layer of entertainment available to those who are. I think this works on many different levels for many different readers. Be forewarned though, it will instill in you a desire to revisit some classics, or maybe even approach them for the first time. There are definitely a few more books on my TBR because of this one.

I don’t want to say any more or comment on any vital story points, because I think this is probably best experienced with unspoiled eyes. Check it out, it’s fantastic.

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!”