Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Some good reads. The Locus Award winners have been announced.
Michael Chabon won for Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I thought it was ok - fun - a bit of a disappointment after Kavalier and Clay. What did you think? OK, I’ll write a short review to finish this post out. Now, on down the list.
Terry Pratchett, Making Money. Very funny, as usual, but sort of by-the-numbers.
I haven’t read Miéville’s Un Lun Dun or Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box. (Put them on the to-read list.)
Cory Doctorow’s “After The Siege” is magnificent. It’s a harrowing tale. It will definitely give you that ghastly, crazy, infowar siege of neverland feeling. I listened to it as a podcast, read by the author himself. I see that someone else has re-recorded it. Throw it on the iPod.
“Witch’s Headstone”, by Neil Gaiman. Haven’t read it.
“A Small Room in Koboldtown”, by Michael Swanwick. You can download it as a free PDF. (And a podcast.) I guess I’m a bit surprised it won. It’s a funny genre mash-up. Hardboiled detective fiction, locked-room murder mystery, meets ... well, I’ll quote the first paragraph:
That Winter, Will le Fey held down a job working for a haint politician named Salem Toussaint. Chiefly, his function was to run errands while looking conspicuously solid. He fetched tax forms for the alderman’s constituents, delivered stacks of documents to trollish functionaries, fixed l&i violations, presented boxes of candied John-the-Conqueror root to retiring secretaries, absent-mindedly dropped slim envelopes containing twenty-dollar bills on desks. When somebody important died, he brought a white goat to the back door of the Fane of Darkness to be sacrificed to the Nameless One. When somebody else’s son was drafted or went to prison, he hammered a nail in the nkisi nkonde that Toussaint kept in the office to ensure his safe return. He canvassed voters in haint neighborhoods like Ginny Gall, Beluthahatchie, and Diddy-Wah-Diddy, where the bars were smoky, the music was good, and it was dangerous to smile at the whores. He negotiated the labyrinthine bureaucracies of City Hall. Not everything he did was strictly legal, but none of it was actually criminal. Salem Toussaint didn’t trust him enough for that.
Here’s a good sentence: “Salem Toussaint stood in the doorway, eyes rolled up in his head so far that only the whites showed. He held up a hand and in a hollow voice said, ‘One of my constituents is in trouble.’”
Haints and boggles plugged into the usual Raymond Chandler, Ross McDonald slots. I don’t mean to grumble, especially about a writer as original and talented and eminently award-deserving as Swanwick (thanks for introducing me to his stuff, Henry). But maybe awards should be reserved for bolder stuff. I feel like we’ve been seeing the genre mash-up game played - and well - for a while now. But this one is fun. Definitely worth a read.
Skip past a bunch of stuff I haven’t read (although I did flip through Barry Malzberg’s Breakfast In The Ruins, without acquiring any special opinion about it, one way or the other.) The true winner this year is Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. It’s a wordless graphic novel. You can see sample pages at the author’s site. The art is beautiful. It’s an immigrant tale. The description at the author’s site will do:
A man leaves his wife and child in an impoverished town, seeking better prospects in an unknown country on the other side of a vast ocean. He eventually finds himself in a bewildering city of foreign customs, peculiar animals, curious floating objects and indecipherable languages. With nothing more than a suitcase and a handful of currency, the immigrant must find a place to live, food to eat and some kind of gainful employment. He is helped along the way by sympathetic strangers, each carrying their own unspoken history: stories of struggle and survival in a world of incomprehensible violence, upheaval and hope.
Except, as far as I could tell, the town wasn’t so much impoverished as threatened by giant dragons. The author’s great achievement is in the evocation of the immigrant’s urgent anxiety, in an environment in which every symbol, every building, every artifact, every plant and animal, is unlike anything he has seen before. The author achieves this the hard way: by making every symbol, every building, every artifact, every plant and animal unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
Now, back to Chabon. A while back I meant to write a review and I collected a bunch of quotes. I made sure that none of them are plot-spoilers, alone or in unison. So read with impunity.
Nineteen fourty-eight: Strange times to be a Jew. In August the defense of Jerusalem collapsed and the outnumbered Jews of the three-month-old republic of Israel were routed, massacred, and driven into the sea.
You’ve probably heard already what the plot is. Jews in Alaska, where many of them end up after they are kicked out of Europe, Russia, Israel, elsewhere. (Apparently there is some actual historical basis this - some proposal that never went anywhere.) The outer story frame is: ‘the Reversion’ is coming, the Jewish lease is up, and they have to leave again. But the hero has a murder to solve in the meantime.
Landsman is a tough guy, in his way, given to the taking of wild chances. He has been called hard-boiled and foolhardy, a momzer, a crazy son of a bitch. He has faced down shtarkers and psychopaths, has been shot at, beaten frozen, burned. He has pursued suspects between the flashing walls of urban firefights and deep into bear country. Heights, crowds, snakes, burning houses, dogs schooled to hate the smell of a policeman, he has shrugged them all off or functioned in spite of them. But when he finds himself in lightness or confined spaces, something in the animal core of Meyer Landsman convulses. No one but his ex-wife knows it, but Detective Meyer Landsman is afraid of the dark.
This is fun but maybe a bit too cute. The tough-guy hero with the ‘snakes, why’d it have to be snakes?’ weakness. This is, in a way, Chabon’s problem. He does a very commendable job, wringing real human character out of his characters, but he just can’t do that much with them, given the genre constraints he has submitted to - because he wants to have fun writing hard-boiled Alaskan Jew dialogue. He wants the hero to wander around for about three days without sleep, getting in trouble with his superiors, knocking on doors he probably shouldn’t and, once or twice, getting hit on the head. Maybe a soft-hearted dame will help him out of a scrape. It’s hardboiled.
He turns, and Brennan’s there, that large-headed man, hatless and coatless, necktie blown over his shoulder, a penny in his left loafer, bankrupt in the right. Patches on the elbows of his tweed jacket, its color a practical shade of gravy stain. His cheek could use a shave and his pate a fresh coat of wax. Maybe things didn’t go so well for Dennis Brennan out in the big time.
“Look at the head on the sheygets, the thing has its own atmosphere,” Landsman says. “Thing has ice caps.”
“Indeed the man has a very big head.”
“Every time I see it, I feel sorry for necks.”
“Maybe I should get my hands around his. Give it some support.”
Brennan puts up his larval white fingers and blinks his little eyes, the color of skimmed milk. He works up a practiced rueful smile, but Landsman notes that he kept a good four feet of Ben Maymon Street between him and Berko.
“A need to repeat the rash threats of yore does not, I assure you, exist, Detective Shemets,” the reporter says in his swift and preposterous Yiddish. “Evergreen and ripe with the sap of their original violence they remain.”
Brennan studied German in college and learned his Yiddish from some pompous old German at the Institute, and he talks, somebody once remarked, “like a sausage recipe with footnotes."
Just one more bit.
This is how Berko once explained to Landsman the sacred gang knows as the Chasids of Verbov: They started out, back in the Ukraine, black hats like all the other black hats, scorning and keeping their distance from the trash and hoo-hah of the secular world, inside their imaginary ghetto wall of ritual and faith. Then the entire sect was burned in the fires of the Destruction, down to a hard, dense core of something blacker than any hat. What was left of the ninth Verbover rebbe emerged from those fires with eleven disciples and, among his family, only the sixth of his eight daughters. He rose into the air like a scarred scrap of paper and blew to this narrow strip between the Baranof Mountains and the end of the world. And here he found a way to remake the old-style black-hat detachment. He carried its logic to its logical end, the way evil geniuses do in cheap novels. He built a criminal empire that profited on the meaningless tohubohu beyond the theoretical walls, on beings so flawed, corrupted, and hopeless of redemption that only cosmic courtesy led the Verbovers even to consider them human at all.
“The way evil geniuses do in cheap novels.” The trouble is: Chabon is writing a novel like that. That’s why this character is like this. But, unlike Kavalier and Clay, in which the comic book story becomes a clever commentary on itself, here it just feels like a slip. Characters in genre fiction should not notice that their lives are strangely like the lives of characters in genre fiction unless it’s some kind of joke on the genre. Which it really isn’t, in this case.
But again, it’s tremendous fun. Because then you get to describe the evil genius.
Rabbi Heskel Shpilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top. A millionaire could cover a Rolls-Royce with the fine black silk-and-velvet expanse of the rebbe’s frock coat and trousers. It would require the brain strength of the eighteen greatest sages in history to reason through the arguments against and in favor of classifying the rebbe’s massive bottom as either a creature of the deep, a man-made structure, or an unavoidable act of God. If he stands up, or if he sits down, it doesn’t make any difference in what you see.
“I suggest we dispense with the pleasantries,” the rebbe says.
His voice comes pitched high, droll, the voice of the well-proportioned, scholarly man he must have been once. Landsman has heard that it’s a glandular disorder. He has heard that the Verbover rebbe, for all his bulk, maintains the diet of a martyr, broth and roots and a daily crust of bread. But Landsman prefers to see the man as distended with the gas of violence and corruption. His belly filled with bones and shoes and the hearts of men, half digested in the acid of his Law.
I’m a Mervyn Peake fan, so I really can’t help loving the crazy description. Still, I think Chabon can do better overall. The literary whole feels like less than the sum of the stylish parts.