Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Worlds within worlds within words | The Golden Age

To say that I loved reading The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz would be an understatement. This is the book I've been waiting for: that fantastic experience that caught me off guard and absolutely enchanted me. When I talk about wanting books that challenge and surprise me, I'm talking about this. I'm talking about a book as beautiful, as confusing, and as magical as The Golden Age.

Layers and layers of stories
I know this isn't a book for everyone. I know it's a book that has frustrated some readers with its digression, its stories within stories within stories, with its disconnect, and even with its distinct storytelling style. But it's a novel that appealed to the fantasy-lover within me (and in one particular story, even to my personal sci-fi lover), a novel with a lyrical and light writing style, and wondrous ideas. The novel's structure reminded me of everything I love about stories - the way they digress, the way they fit around each other, and the way they tie back together (or don't).

The back of the book would describe the novel as a "travelogue". I found myself thinking of it more as a very descriptive story. The narrator relates to us what he saw and encountered on the unnamed island in a style that one Goodreads reviewer criticized for being all "tell" and no "show". But given the focus of the book on storytelling and language and words, I was not surprised by this telling. Ajvaz creates a lovely miniature world before the reader and hands it off gently. I felt like Ajvaz was sharing something with me, sitting next to me, smirking as I tried to find my bearings in his multi-layered world.

I can easily divide the book into two parts. The first focuses more on straight-up descriptions of the island - a few anecdotes and references, but it's mostly Ajvaz building the island and its world. The second (which does have a small overlap with the world-building) is more storytelling itself. Ajvaz's focus on language melts away into stories that twist around and rise up from the depths of each other. To a certain degree, this writing style reminded me of the wonderful World's End (Volume 8 of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman), in that it houses many levels of stories within stories and is told in a similarly magical tone.

If I had to level any complaints against this beautiful book, I would have to admit that the ending is abrupt. It's bad enough that I didn't want the book to end at all, but like any book of this kind, there can be no true cut-off. Ajvaz himself, in referencing the internal stories, admits that stories can go on forever and ever. You can always go deeper. You can always find another story that relates. You can always keep the magic going.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

SAFL #11: The Golden Age

I'll be posting more about this one in a couple of days, but even after several days of thinking about it and writing about it, I'm still amazed by how incredible this novel is. Heavily focused on the magic of words and stories, The Golden Age by Michal Ajvaz has that fantastic quality that makes it the very definition of SAFL.

The Golden Age seems to begin in a somewhat standard fashion - the narrator tells us of a wonderful and exotic island. Soon, though, fantasy elements make their way into the story and internal tales begin to twist and turn around each other, eventually overtaking the original narrative. This makes for fairy-tale like stories that contain within them enough fantasy (and even science fiction, in one substory) to transform the novel into something utterly magical and beautiful.

There are many lovely and quote-worthy sentences in the book (see here), but this one has to be my favorite:
I have noticed that a lot of literary critics are bothered by the mixing of genres; indeed, some of them are so easily offended in this regard that they experience distress when faced with trifles like the use in a passage of fiction of concepts of theory (as if there were some fundamental difference between stories of people, animals, plants and objects on the one hand and stories of concepts of the other). -p. 187

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Literature as a social critique

Over at Words and Peace, a short prompt about a "Dickens or a Zola for our time" from a couple weeks ago, coinciding with the first Zola novel I've read in over two years, has gotten the wheels in my head turning over that question and trying to figure out what it is about Zola (and to a certain extent, Dickens) that I cannot seem to find in modern novels. In my response to that post, I recommended a few recent novels that seemed to capture a fairly good picture of modern society. But each novel aims its gaze at an entirely different section of the US and its incredibly diverse and varied population. Furthermore, I could not immediately think of a good non-US-centric novel that does the same. I suggested (in my obscenely long comment - my sincerest apologies for that) that perhaps literature today focuses less on the larger society as a whole, but more on the individual character. "Literary" novels of our era tend to be more character-based and don't set their sites as high as portraying the current social dynamic.

While I haven't read enough Dickens to be a reliable authority, I'm currently reading my sixth Zola novel and have spent many years reading about the man and his writing. In my mind, Zola is a writer unlike any other - he is a project-writer, an idealist, a sharp-eyed observer who sometimes can't hold his tongue. When he writes about alcoholism in L'Assommoir, there's a hint of his judgmental side filtering through. When he writes about strikes and poor worker conditions in Germinal, there is a persistent sense of humanity and truth emanating from the pages. His writing feels as relevant today as it must have in the 19th century, quick little dashes of truth that resonate to this very day.

In the Rougon-Macquart cycle, Zola sought to capture an entire society - a whole era - by chronicling the lives of these families. In "Les Quatre Evangiles" (his final works), Zola hoped to display French values and morals: Fruitfulness, LaborTruth, and Justice. Zola died before he could see Truth published (and it was thus unedited upon posthumous publication) and before the completion of Justice, leaving the series incomplete. Les Quatre Evangiles echoes the Rougon-Macquart cycle in that each book is a stand-alone novel, but all center around a single family - the Froment family.  Taken together, these two series (and, I presume, Zola's Les Trois Villes, which I have yet to read) paint a fascinating portrait of Zola's France. From all angles. Zola gives us wealth and poverty, struggle and ease, love and hate. I have yet to read all of Zola's novels (it's one of the only literary goals I've ever set myself), but Zola's ambition and scope are hard to refute.

So back to the original question: where are authors like this today? Where are the books that seek to tell this story in our modern age? Can one single author even attempt a project of this magnitude? I struggled to come up with even three individual examples of social critique (and one of them is "ironic"), but the fact is that if I look at the hundreds of books I've read in the past few years, very few novels would qualify, and fewer still that are good. I've read plenty of books that try to describe other, "exotic" cultures (often resulting in gross generalizations and poor writing). I've read many books that present a character in a painful and emotional state and then allow us to follow him/her. I've read fantasy and sci-fi novels that have used their alternate realities to deeply explore their mirror societies.

But no contemporary social critique like Zola. I'm starting to think it's impossible. An author would have to be devoted to writing a multitude of very different books and producing an output akin to James Patterson's. Publishers would have to be willing to support individual novels that would have varying levels of success. And the author would have to work very hard to uncover the many cores of modern society. Even in a smaller country than the U.S., this is no simple task. I'm not sure many modern writers would want to take that on. And I'm not sure many modern readers would necessarily appreciate such an important and perhaps challenging project either.

As for myself, I'll be making a point to search for a few more novels of this kind. The three that I could come up with were books that I greatly enjoyed for their social critique (American Rust, The Barbarian Nurseries, and to a lesser degree Fathermucker). With a bit more Zola in my system, I'm eager to find further titles that qualify. While perhaps no single writer can take up Zola's mantle, many individual novels (from across the globe) could ultimately serve the same purpose. I intend to find them.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Quote of the day

You probably won't miss anything important if you skip the next couple of chapters, but you could miss the encounter that holds the key to the entire text. -p.275
Michal Ajvaz's The Golden Age (tr. Andrew Oakland) is one of the most bizarre and wondrous books I've read in several months. I'll discuss it more once I finish reading it, but this quote exemplifies so much of what I'm enjoying in this novel. Ajvaz takes the reader on so many strange tangents that at some point you just get lost and enjoy the ride, but the search for the "key" is still there. The bigger story is still there... somewhere. And I personally cannot wait to find it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

SAFL #8-10: A few classics

When I think of potential Science and Fantasy Literature candidates, there are a few that are so clearly classics - cornerstones - of the genre. These are books I'm nervous to go into too much depth about in part because they've been done by people much more qualified than myself, but also because it's been so long since I've read them that sometimes the finer details escape me.

But the fact that each of these classics managed to completely blow me away is not something I've forgotten.

SAFL #8: On the sci-fi end, we've got Ursula K. Le Guin's stupendous The Left Hand of Darkness. This is a book that challenged my typical understanding of sci-fi. A book so wonderfully written, so fully complete and so diverse, The Left Hand of Darkness cannot fail to surprise and enchant readers. Le Guin is an excellent storyteller, creating realistic and interesting characters, raising fascinating social questions and preferring a more subtle, quiet form of writing to the bombastic style that characterizes many pulp sci-fi books. A classic in its genre, and a wonderful work of literature overall.

SAFL #9: On the fantasy end, I find myself returning to some of those old-school kids classics. In this case, the book is Michael Ende's wondrous The Neverending Story. The first book I ever properly summarized and reviewed in my then-new review notebook, it was also one of few books that managed to keep its status in my memory years later. A rich, fantastic book, The Neverending Story is as much about the magic of literature and stories as it is about its main characters. This is one I'll often return to in bits and pieces (by opening a random page and reading short passages) and one that will likely never leave my memory for long. A beautiful, magical story.

SAFL #10: Finally, we have a book that can certainly be counted as one of the high-water marks of science fiction... but one that I sometimes think blurs the lines between sci-fi and fantasy. Frank Herbert's Dune is intelligent, fascinating and shines in its focus on world-building. While it comes from an earlier age of sci-fi, it never feels trite, instead remaining as interesting and entertaining to readers today as it must have been years ago.  Dune is a book partially marred by disappointing sequels and by its occasionally dry style, but it creates one of the finest worlds in science fiction, strong central characters, and an incredibly well-written, good story.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Disappointment months later | The Princess, the King and the Anarchist

A few months ago, Michelle of Pieces fame posted about Robert Pagani's The Princess, the King and the Anarchist and the differences of opinions she and her book club members faced. Having enjoyed the book, Michelle was surprised at how much her fellow members hated the book. In the comments, I joined Michelle in suggesting that the book was playful - having read the first fifteen or so pages in a bookstore several months earlier (I decided not to buy it due to an unreasonably high price for such a slim book), I had been struck by the charm of Pagani's writing. I promised Michelle I would let her know of my final assessment of the book, once I got around to reading the whole thing.

Well. Now I've gotten around to finishing it, and I feel I owe Michelle my opinion (unlike my thoughts on Brodeck, which I promised years ago and never repaid - and it was incredible). The thing is, though, I'm now falling on the side of the other book club members - something about my experience with The Princess, the King and the Anarchist this time just did not sit well. At all.

It's a short book, a book that dips in and out of a single day lightly and easily. This is perhaps Pagani's greatest strength - he wastes no time building anything. It's as though he's handed me some kind of short, black-and-white film that flickers and jumps scenes abruptly. The story is three-pronged, told from the third-person points-of-view of the princess, the king and the anarchist. Their voices, however, remain fairly similar and can easily blend into one another (particularly between the two men). And here's the kicker - this time, the charm was missing.

Sitting on the floor of the bookstore several months ago, I found myself enchanted by the writing. It was clean, it was simple and it immediately drew me in. The characters seemed like they were living in a fairy tale, seemed to occupy a strange world between the realms of historical fiction and fable. Which is, I suppose, what Pagani was going for. But upon picking it up several months later, having forgotten the difference of opinion surrounding the book, I felt cheated and empty. The writing had lost its sparkle, the characters were merely insufferable, and the ending all-around confusing and even somewhat upsetting.

To put it simply, I was disappointed. Truly and sincerely disappointed. Characterization felt thin, the writing felt like it was trying too hard, and the storytelling was confusing, vague and incoherent (which are all kind of aspects of the same problem, I realize, but this is the best description I can come up with). It's not worthless by any means - the writing at times is fairly magical - but it just seemed to fade away somewhere in the middle. Only the short length kept me going at the same pace. While I know this happens to many readers (frequently), I have to wonder if things would have turned out differently had I remained on that bookstore floor for just an hour more, or had taken the book home with me. Would the magic have remained? Would I too have found the book to be playful and gently mocking, or would I feel as frustrated as I do now? Alas, life does not proceed in parallel. I was disappointed, end of story.

Down and up in a single day

If I ever needed proof that books - literature - was capable of inherently influencing the moods of readers, I need look no further than my experiences today. I began the day with the final parts of The Last of the Just by AndrĂ© Schwarz-Bart, a book that had by no means been cheerful thus far. But somehow in its final pages, the book managed to turn even more grim, and ended on a particularly painful note. The effect was powerful, and when I set the book aside I found myself quite deeply depressed.

This happens, of course, and I shouldn't have been too surprised. After a while, as I went about my day, the pure ache of the book refused to leave me. I went to my bookshelves, hoping to find another book that would take care of the funk. But every book on hand seemed too depressing, too serious, too heavy to take my mind off Schwarz-Bart's surprisingly disturbing story. They all seemed as though they would merely enhance the mood. It wasn't until several hours later that I remembered that I had just checked Fathermucker out of the library the other day and that the book was still somewhere in my bag, promising silly jokes and light-hearted jabs at our modern world.

I've been wanting to read Fathermucker since reading the hook of a first chapter Harper posted to their Scribd account a couple months ago. The book proved to be slightly less light than it gives the impression of being (actually telling an interesting story and raising some very interesting points about society), but was exactly the kind of amusing and entertaining fare I needed to clear my head (also, the second book I've read in recent months that's referenced Sufjan Stevens... which I find somewhat strange). As I finished reading it, I felt relieved of the heaviness The Last of the Just had set on me, but pondering other issues like parenthood and Asberger's. Proof that sometimes we all need a bit of a break from the "serious" stuff... even if what we end up reading isn't actually less meaningful.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Controversy on a fantasy frontier

I consider Patricia C. Wrede's The Enchanted Forest Chronicles to be one of the funniest kids fantasy series I've ever had the pleasure of reading, so when I came across her recent young adult fantasy book Thirteenth Child at the library, I checked it out. The book itself is pleasant and rather unique in its approach - Wrede's sets her story in the American frontier and builds magic systems that play on older fantasy tropes as well as creating newer ones. A major theme in the book is the importance of different magic styles and traditions - while the majority of magic is European, main character Eff finds herself applying different magics and thus saving the day.

But when I went online to read a bit more about the book (a habit I really ought to be breaking), I learned that there was significant controversy surrounding this simple book when it was published. Apparently, many readers took fault with the fact that at no point in the story does Wrede mention American Indians; in fact, it seems as though she has consciously removed them from her fictionalized world. It was only after reading about the drama that it even occurred to me that Thirteenth Child had lacked mention of American Indians - the omission seems to fit (in my mind) with many other not-so-subtle changes Wrede makes in her world.

It does beg the question: is it okay? Many, many readers have expressed outrage at this "racism", have dubbed Wrede's choice as inexcusable, and have attempted to minimize the book's exposure. But is it justified? Coming straight out of the book, I'm not sure the criticism fair. Wrede has written an alternate history fantasy, meaning it's all made-up. Yes, there are a few references to American Founding Fathers and Lewis and Clarke and others, but the names of the regions, the timing of major historical events (like wars, for example), animals, the presence of magic and many other cultural differences make it very obvious that Thirteenth Child is fantasy fiction. It is not meant to reflect our real world to the letter. And with the nice way Wrede touches on racism and the exclusion of non-European traditions in "modern" society, I find myself less and less inclined to charging Wrede with inappropriate world-building. I'm curious as to what others think of this matter.