Space Opera Again but This Time with Less Excitement: Use of Weapons

UseofWeaponsI am not sure what to make of Iain M. Banks’ work. I loved The Player of Games and while I enjoyed Consider Phlebas I found the initial learning curve a little steep. Use of Weapons  is Banks’ third full novel set in the Culture universe and I had the chance to read it over the last few weeks. The fact that it took a few weeks rather than a few days to read should be signal enough that I found this novel less than absolutely enthralling. It might be that the central theme of Player of Games, game-playing in various forms,  is really what hooked me whereas the central theme of Use of Weapons, the place of war and violence in several characters’ lives, was somewhat less appealing. I am not quite sure what to make of this difference in reaction. One thing does stand out to me, and that is that Banks certainly does not rest on his laurels and simply reproduce similar plots/themes/motifs. Use of Weapons stands apart from the other two Culture novels I have read.

Perhaps part of my ambivalent reaction stems from the narrative structure which tells two story-lines. The first concerns the attempt by Diziet Sma, a Special Circumstances agent,  recruiting Zakalwe to do some of the Culture’s dirty work in a cluster of planets on the brink of all-out war. Zakalwe, a hardened mercenary who works for cash more than glory or prestige, accepts the job and finds himself embroiled in a seething and ever-changing world of cut-throat politics and bouts of intense physical action. The second story-line concerns Zakalwe’s past. He is enigmatic in that he comes from a world outside of the Culture’s reach but has long been a mercenary for the Culture. However, the trick is that Banks tells all of Zakalwe’s backstory in a reverse chronology of sorts, moving backwards into his earlier life. These chapters are numbered differently and are placed in between chapters of the chronologically forward moving narrative of his work on Voerenhutz. I found this structure confusing throughout as Zakalwe’s backstory is never clearly dated so that I found myself constantly trying to construct a straightforward history of his past. I’m guessing this was Banks’ intent as there are some pretty significant moments late on in Use of Weapons that hinge on understanding Zakalwe’s past. Looking back at it now, a few days after finishing the novel, I can appreciate the intricate structure and the narrative work it does. However, I’m not sure that it worked as much in the moment.

Where I think Use of Weapons really stands out to me is the way that slyly critiques our own culture. In one section, Banks suggests that Sma has visited Earth with her critiquing the use of electric chairs in a country that prevents “cruel and unusual punishments.” Overall, the entire novel itself critiques war by showing the Culture and the local oppressors using it as a means to various ends with no real regard for the human bodies involved. I think a subplot throughout the three Culture novels I have read is whether the Culture itself is good or bad as they seem variously benign and benevolent or cruel, cold, and extremely calculating (especially in the scene where Zakalwe is extracted from a war he has just managed to turn towards his side against all odds in order for a kind of deus ex machina move to keep the system’s political honchos happy). Zakalwe is a weapon throughout the novel and he ruminates on his status as such. Sometimes he seems to accept and revel in it while at other times he seems deeply disturbed by it, perhaps even ruined by the violence he has enacted on others.

Overall I would say that Use of Weapons is a very good book. I’m not sure why I couldn’t get into it, but it certainly places above Consider Phlebas for me because of its narrative sophistication and the complex thinking it does on war, violence, and morality.

I would recommend Use of Weapons for sci-fi fans, but stand by my assertion that it is probably best to start with Player of Games if you haven’t encountered Banks’ work before.

Banks, Iain M. Use of Weapons. 1990. London, Orbit Books, 2011. Print.

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Postcolonial Tragedy: Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?

can-you-hear-the-nightbird-call-by-anita-rau-badamiI read Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? for a course that I am TAing. I was not sure what to expect, but found myself blown away by Badami’s writing. The material is very explosive and she nimbly moves across three different characters and narratives to weave together an amazing story about violence, displacement, immigration, and trauma. The novel, set in India after partition and Vancouver, deals with the fallout from the British carving up of the subcontinent into a Muslim majority Pakistan and a Hindu majority India. The problem with these rather arbitrary lines is that they left Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in many areas without a home and massive amounts of violence ensued. Badami’s novel is particularly interested in the plight of Punjab, a rich fertile region that had a strong sense of identity before conquest by British imperial forces in the mid 19th century. It has since been divided up between various countries and turned into a bloody battleground. The novel also takes up the Sikh fight for a homeland against Indira Ghandi’s India, culminating in the Air India bombing of 1985.

Part of my amazement stems from Badami’s ability to keep the narrative engaging despite the heaviness of the material that she is dealing with. It can be easy to be overwhelmed by historical atrocity, yet Badami does not allow this happen even as she gives a few shocking moments that are quite hard to read.There is a humanity to the novel that is enjoyable yet also extremely plausible. The three main characters – Bibi-ji, a Sikh woman who stole her sister’s husband, Leela, an educated Hindu woman who escapes Bangalore by marrying Balu, a chemistry professor who is working in Canada, and Nimmo, a Sikh woman who may or may not be Bibi-ji’s niece – are textured and complicated. I felt myself completely drawn into their world and the tensions they experience.

At the same time, I am not quite sure what to do with the novel as Canada appears in a far from illustrious light. I have my own conflicted relationship with the country, but the history that Badami narrates puts paid to the sense that multiculturalism is anything but a kind of benign racist indifference. The Air India bombing of 1985 in which all 329 people on board the plane were killed, including 268 Canadians, making it, in the words of Stephen Harper, the worst mass murder in Canadian history. Of course, Harper`s words came in 2010, 25 after the bombing. This is the problem. It took nearly 20 years for Canadian officials to recognize the bombing as a Canadian tragedy! Brian Mulrooney, Prime Minister in 1985, actually called the Indian prime minister to send his condolences despite the fact that the people on the plane were primarily Canadian citizens. For reasons that are highly suspect, Mulrooney and his aides saw the victims as Indian despite their Canadian passport. And here`s where multiculturalism loses much of its lustre: for although it recognizes other (non-white) cultures as valuable, they are always only other cultures, or not Canadian. Although it is easy to condemn the Sikh bombers of Air India Flight 182, Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? makes an easy condemnation much more difficult as it details the long and complicated history of violence between Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus in India. This violence also traveled into Canada as the bombers were Canadian, asking questions about how CSIS, the RCMP, and the Canadian government were caught so unaware.

I highly recommend this book for fans of Canadian literature because it asks difficult questions of Canada.

Badami, Anita Rau. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2007. Print.

 

Tragedy and Young Boys: The Round House

lo_res_bks_photo_louise_erdrich_-_the_round_house_hcI finished Louise Erdrich’s The Round House a few days ago but couldn’t get around to writing the review because of festive events. I really liked this novel and read it in a few long sessions because Erdrich has a clear sense of how to build suspense and keep readers turning the pages. I should say that this is impressive given that her narrative roughly follows a murder mystery plot, a style of plot that I have not necessarily been on board with this year. The Round House is narrated by Joe, a 13 year old Ojibwe boy on a North Dakota reservation, and it follows the massive fallout from the brutal assault and rape of his mother on the reserve. I will try not to spoil the plot as I think everyone should go out and read this book because it is easily in the top 10 books I read this year. Joe’s father is a Native judge, and he takes the case quite personally, leading Joe to also band together with his friends’ in their own attempt to solve the crime. What makes the crime so heinous is that the criminal has carefully planned it so that any justice is going to be difficult to achieve. Erdrich highlights how Native tribes in the US have a very difficult time operating their own judicial systems because of the legal quagmire that surrounds their rights and sovereignty. The crime, depending on where it occurred, would have to be tried before a tribal court, the county court, or the federal court because parts of the federal government still lay claim to native people as wards of state.

What makes The Round House so good, for me anyways, is the way that Erdrich digs deep into the violence of rape and the fallout that occurs, but she also does not let this kind of trauma freeze readers into emotional paralysis. Like Joe, we are left trying to grapple with a mother who enters into a catatonic state while all of his friends are just beginning to enter puberty in an eventful summer on the reservation. Joe is caught between two worlds: the adult one of his parents and the youth of his friends with no easy way to reconcile them. This tension drives the narrative alongside Joe’s quest to find the killer.

Yet The Round House is also about the everyday lives of the Ojibwe on their North Dakota reservation. We come to know how the social world of the place and the important role that the Round House plays in keeping Ojibwe traditions alive. Even though Joe’s world is shattered by the violence done to his mother, he is still a thirteen year old boy and Erdrich illustrates how this event forces him to mature. She also throws in a fair bit of humor (including some hilarious dirty scenes where two old Ojibwe exchange what I can only guess are tall tales about their past sexual lives). Erdrich carefully balances the novel with poetic description, narrative plotting, and witty dialogue so that The Round House  is a very readable book where it easily could have been a very difficult one. This is not say that The Round House does not offer challenges, but rather that it does not sink into the quicksand of heavy-handed pathos. Erdrich asks difficult questions concerning justice for North America’s indigenous peoples but she also delights in the vibrant world we live in.

I highly recommend this book for all readers.

Erdrich, Louise. The Round House. New York: Harper, 2012. Print.

Slow Like a Snail, But Is It Good?: Canada

4I am not sure what to think of Richard Ford’s 2012 novel Canada. It is a big novel, clocking in at 418 pages, but it moves incredibly slowly. On the first page, Dell Parsons, the narrator, announces the two key plot events in the whole book:

“First, I’ll tell you about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first” (3).

That is the first paragraph of the novel and it sets up what should be a gripping and exciting novel. What follows is certainly not gripping, but much slower and seemingly inevitable. A friend of mine reviewed the novel here and she called it plodding. I have to agree with this assessment because Dell’s eventual narration of these two events takes up basically 400 pages. Seriously, it takes that long! The opening paragraph could have been the start of a great short story, but instead it opens up a slow-moving, deeply philosophical and somewhat unexciting novel. In a way, it seems like Ford is trying to say violence happens in an ordinary, everyday manner, and that things happen to us in our childhood over which we have no control.

Part of my frustration with the novel is the way the jacket description of the novel sets up fall expectations. It promises an exciting novel full of violence and “cataclysm” but Canada simply doesn’t bear this out. It also more or less gives a way any surprises that the novel might offer up. Ford is careful in the first paragraph not to name those involved with the murders, but the jacket blurb reads: “[Dell’s] search for grace and peace only moves him nearer a harrowing and murderous collision with Remlinger, an elemental force of darkness.” Okay, so we all know to look out for Remlinger now … great. But for me the most problematic aspect of this blurb is that it makes this claim: “in this brilliant novel, set largely in Saskatchewan, Richard Ford has created a true masterwork.” I am not going to argue with the second part of that claim, but the first part is completely wrong. When Dell doesn’t arrive in Canada until page 213 of a 418 page book, you cannot claim that the book is set largely in Saskatchewan. Less than half of it is actually set in Canada, so that claim is ridiculous (not taking into account that most of the novel is about Americans and America with Canada a convenient escape from troubles in the US).

What I did find interesting and troubling was the way that Ford used Saskatchewan’s landscape. It becomes a barren, desolate prairie that weighs heavily on all of the characters. It creates existential thoughts, it crushes souls, and it makes you feel lonely. Okay, I get it – big spaces makes humans feel small. The funny thing is that this is a very old trope in Canadian literature, but here it gets airtime like its a new, revolutionary thought. In 1973, literary critic Laurie Ricou wrote a book about precisely this feeling – that the vastness of the prairie weighs heavily on humans – called Vertical Man/ Horizontal World. It is a bit odd to read new American literature and find it recycling old Canadian tropes. I also was not happy with the way that Charlie Quarters, the novel’s Metis character, is represented as a shifty, unreliable, and morally suspect person. Why did he have to be Metis to be this way? I’m sorry, maybe I’m being too politically sensitive here, but this kind of representation simply reinforces stereotypes of indigenous people as unreliable, lazy, and morally suspect.

Overall, I did enjoy moments of the story and at times even liked the slowness of the pace. I think that Ford may have been experimenting with a different form of narration whereby he tells you upfront what will happen and then carefully works to fully craft the emotional complexity of that world. I`m not sure it always works (I know that Dells`parents are going to rob a bank, you don`t have to tell it to me again!), but I also don`t think this is a terrible novel.

I would recommend this novel to fans of Ford`s work and to those who are interested in seeing the big, bad Prairies and how they will ruin you (Saskatchewan is a very desolate place in this novel).

Ford, Richard. Canada. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2012. Print.

A Difficult Read: The Conservationist

downloadNadine Gordimer’s 1974 novel The Conservationist may have won the Booker Prize, but that does not make it an easy read. In fact, I get the sense that it won the award precisely because it is a difficult book. Difficult from both a methodological standpoint and from its themes and motifs. The novel centres on Mehring, a rich South African industrialist, who has purchased a farm out in the country to provide himself a place to seduce his mistress. However, he quickly becomes attached to the place and its beauty and spends more and more time here. The farm is operated by blacks and is near a black settlement, or more properly what the novel calls a “location,” and there is a palpable tension throughout that is bred by apartheid. As Mehring reflects on his life, it becomes more and more clear that his personal life is in shambles, he deludes himself about the very questionable politics of South Africa under apartheid, and remains willfully ignorant of the general humanity of anyone other than himself. Published 20 years before apartheid officially ended, Gordimer’s novel very clearly intends to unsettle any convenient or self-serving notions about justice in South Africa.

From a narrative standpoint, the novel is also quite difficult because Gordimer uses a roving narration that is by turns third-person limited (rotating between a few different characters) and first person (mostly of Mehring’s thoughts). The narrative almost moves fluidly between the present in which Mehring visits his farm and his past where his relationships to his wife, his mistress, his potentially gay son, and the farm’s workers, are explored. It is almost like stream-of-consciousness writing, but not quite that intense. What I think this roving point of view does is continually show us how blind Mehring is not only to his own privileged position as a wealthy white male South African, but it also shows us how others alternatively buy into his self-image and reject it. I’m thinking particularly of his relationship with Jacobus, his black overseer who runs the farm. On the one hand, Jacobus admires Mehring for his Mercedes, his actions, and his lifestyle but, on the other hand, there is also a sense that Jacobus knows Mehring does not possess the land. Mehring’s name may be on the deed, but he has very little claim to the land itself unlike Jacobus and his companions who work in it everyday. When there is a catastrophic flood, Jacobus is unable to get a hold of Mehring and the farm begins to shift subtly as the blacks believe they are on their own again. Of course, Mehring comes back when the roads are fixed, but there is a subtle shift in the relationship as both Jacobus and his fellow workers seem to see through Mehring.

One thing that really intrigued me about the novel was the relationship to land in it. Mehring delights in losing himself in his third pasture, laying amidst the grasses in different seasons. But this seems like a false calm because buried nearby is an anonymous black corpse that mysteriously turned up one day. The landscape seems to allow Mehring to escape the turbulent politics of apartheid, but not quite either as the flood disrupts his sense of pastoral innocence, revealing the partially-decomposed corpse again. This also makes me wonder who the conservationist of the title is: is it Mehring who wants to preserve a nostalgic and romanticized farm? Or is it the blacks who work in the land and can lay claim on it? Is it an ironic sense of conservation whereby Mehring is trying to keep alive a flawed and dying system of justice? I have no answers to these questions, but I find them intriguing nonetheless.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in South Africa, but be forewarned that it is a difficult read.

Gordimer, Nadine. The Conservationist. London: Penguin Books, 1974. Print.

Heavy with History and Violence: Beloved

downloadToni Morrison’s Beloved is a heavy read. It is thick with the history of slavery in the United States and Morrison does not shy away from the physical, emotional, and psychological damage that it wreaks on those caught up in it. I suppose I expected something lighter like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but that’s probably because it’s been a while since I last read Morrison’s The Bluest EyeBeloved does not revel in violence, like McCarthy’s Blood Meridian seems to, but it does not shy away from it either. The novel centres on Sethe, a young slave woman who manages to escape slavery in the south by fleeing to her mother-in-law in Ohio along with her three children all while being nine months pregnant. Although Sethe has escaped slavery, it continues to make her life a living hell in the form of ghosts, her absent husband who may or may not have been hung for trying to escape, and, most of all, in the traumatic consequences of the reappearance of her former owners. When the narrative starts, 18 years on from Sethe’s escape, she lives in 124, her mother-in-law’s house, with her daughter Denver as Baby Suggs, the in-law, has died while her two sons have abandoned her to go fight in the Civil War.

One of the things that I begrudgingly liked about Beloved was how it refused a quick reading. I found it very difficult to plow through the text, not just because of the narrative voice which moves across time and space quite fluidly but more so because of the heaviness of the material. It is one thing to recognize slavery as a bad thing in an abstract sense, but it is quite another to realize the depths of depravity and evil that went along with it. On some level, I think the human brain tends to downplay potential evil even if it is confronted with the realization of that potential quite regularly (think Vietnam, Rwanda, and most recently the shootings in Nigeria). Perhaps we all have some ingrained form of optimism about the human race. What makes Beloved a great novel is that Morrison refuses to let us have this naivete yet she does not leave us here but suggests ways out of this painful knowledge.

I am always hesitant to say that novels capture a zeitgeist or help to explain historical events, partly because that can become an onerous burden on the author but also because it tends to refuse fiction its unique ability as fiction. However, Beloved really does shed light on the fractious and divisive racial politics that animate the US. The widespread celebration of Obama’s presidential election victory is, in some ways, an attempt to get beyond the history that Morrison so eloquently narrates. And yet, it is also impossible to escape this history. The novel’s final chapter repeats a refrain of “It was not a story to pass on,” self-reflexively labeling the whole novel as a kind of forbidden story. And yet, it is a necessary story because it lays out in no uncertain terms how destructive racism and slavery were. Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize the year after it was published while Morrison won the Nobel Prize in 1993. These accolades are well-deserved and have helped to reassure me that prizes are not always political, that sometimes merit does win out.

I highly recommend Beloved for anyone who reads. It is difficult, heart-breaking, but it is also powerful and deeply insightful.

Morrison, Toni. BelovedNew York: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.

Huge, Violent, and Biblical: Blood Meridian

blood-meridian-novelHaving only read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road prior to this book, I was not expecting what I got. Where The Road is notable for its sparse language, so cut-down it’s almost hard to read at times, Blood Meridian is full of flowing, poetic, even over-blown prose. For your pleasure, here are three examples I picked out at random:

“They rode in a narrow enfilade along a trail strewn with the dry round turds of goats and they rode with their faces averted form the rock wall and the bakeoven air which it rebated, the slant black shapes of the mounted men stenciled across the stone with a definition austere and implacable like shapes capable of violating their covenant with the flesh that authored them and continuing autonomous across the naked rock without reference to sun or man or god.” (145)

“The riders pushed between them [a train of mules] and the rock and methodically rode them from the escarpment, the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites and all its forms grouping below and racing in the stone arroyos like the imbreachment of some ultimate alchemic work decocted from out the secret dark of the earth’s heart, the fleeing stag of the ancients fugitive on the mountainside and bright and quick in the dry path of the storm channels and shaping out the sockets in the rock and hurrying from ledge to ledge down the slop shimmering and deft as eels” (203-04)

“The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay. Even the cretin acted in good faith according to his parts. For it was required of no man to give more than he possessed nor was any man’s share compared to another’s. Only each was called upon to empty out his heart into the common and one did not. Can you tell me who that one was?” (319)

There you have it. Three samples that give you a taste of what Blood Meridian is. It is a novel with an epic scope: a troop of low-lifes, bandits, and thieves are hired by the Mexican government to hunt down and scalp Apaches. The novel is based on actual events, some of which are so ludicrous (like the second quoted piece above) as to beggar belief. While the first two excerpts show some exceptionally long sentences, the third gives a better representation of McCarthy’s style. This is a world unto itself and, once entered, it is hard to leave. At the same time, Blood Meridian is incredibly violent, like ultra-violence (a la A Clockwork Orange) violent. If you have seen the Coen brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, then take that as a starting point and multiply it by 10. The borderlands in the 1850s were no fun place and McCarthy has no qualms showing the frontier life to be far from what Hollywood or romantic authors portrayed it. There’s also a strong strain of the Bible throughout, not just in the judge’s speeches (the third excerpt is one) but also in the events themselves. The novel continually comes back to the question of morals and humanity’s purpose. The protagonist, the kid, is a young teenager when he joins up with the judge and Glanton’s gang. He is quickly initiated into a world of bloodshed and violence. At times, McCarthy’s novel borders on the pornographic with all of its violence, but this is part and parcel of the world he crafts (I’m not justifying this violence, I don’t want to get into that). Blood Meridian is what it is. In terms of American literature, it is a pretty important moment in terms of American exceptionalism and the frontier mythology, but I’m not sure this makes it essential reading.

If you can stomach the violence, Blood Meridian is worth the read, but be warned if you cannot.

McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian. 1985. New York: Vintage Editions, 1997. Print.