Saturday, October 29, 2022

Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Empty World, by D. E. Stevenson

Old Non-Bestseller Review: The Empty World, by D. E. Stevenson

by Rich Horton

I rarely review the same author twice in a row, but after I published my review of D. E. Stevenson's Rochester's Wife, David Pringle told me that she had written an SF novel. This is The Empty World, published in the UK in 1936. (The US edition from 1939 was retitled A World in Spell.) I went looking for a copy, and learned quickly that it's not easy to find and quite expensive. There were a couple of reprints, large size paperback, in 2001 and 2009, but they can't have had large print runs (perhaps they were even POD) and they run between $30 and $100. The American edition can be had for $120 and up, and true UK first editions start at about $200. All too rich for me! But there is a Kindle edition for a very reasonable price, and I figured I'd read that instead.

I noted in my review of Rochester's Wife that while it was not a wholly successful book it was still an engaging read -- and I noted also that Stevenson's fans were unanimous in suggesting that she wrote many other better books. The Empty World was not mentioned, and I suspect it's been less widely read, and that it really was never reprinted until the editions I mentioned from this century, so it was probably hard to find. I imagine it may not have been a success on first appearance, and perhaps Stevenson herself was not satisfied with it. And, indeed, it too is not really a particularly good book -- yet it is also an engaging read. Stevenson simply had that storyteller's touch. 

The story opens with Jane Forrest, a successful writer of historical novels, about 30 years old, boarding an aeroplane to return to London after a lecture tour of the US. The year is 1973. The plane carries 13 (!) passengers, with 9 crewmembers. Jane is accompanied by her assistant Maisie. Other passengers include Sir Richard Barton, the actress Iris Bright and her assistant Alice, Iris's manager Mr. Haviland, a couple of elderly sisters, and a few more; and the key crew members are the pilots David Fenemore and Thomas Day. There's probably not much point speculating on the economics of that sort of air travel; or on the (skimpy) details of the future of 1973. (By coincidence, 1973 was the year D. E. Stevenson would die.)

As the plane is over the Atlantic, there is a terrific storm, and Fenemore manages to bring the plane to a great altitude to evade it. Sir Richard has made friends with Jane, and he tells her of the predictions of the crackpot scientist Dr. Boddington that a comet was passing by the Earth and its electrical interaction with the atmosphere would result in the death of all animal life. While he's sure Boddington's predictions are crazy, the reader is not surprised when the crew reports that they can get no response from calls for help on the radio, and the reader is also not surprised when they land near Glasgow and find everything eerily empty -- no people, no birds, no animals, not even any insects. Fortunately tinned food has survived! At first the plan is to stick together, but it's soon clear that a good portion of the survivors are terrible people -- all these folks are men, and they soon reveal that they have plans for the few young women among the survivors (Jane, Maise, Iris, and Alice.) 

Sir Richard proposes to take a few people to his estate to establish some minimal society, but the thuggish elements resist that, wanting their "fair share" of the women. David Fenemore, his copilot, and Alice take an aeroplane and head for the continent to look for survivors. But Jane is kidnapped while the others escape to Sir Richard's place. Jane bravely manages to play the kidnappers against each other -- and when David Fenemore returns and it's clear the bad guys will kill him, Jane pretends to play along to give David a chance to escape. Then she bravely manages her own escape ...

This sets up the first conflict -- both the broad one, of Sir Richard managing to establish his tiny society while resisting the violence of the thuggish element; and the narrow one, of Jane and David overcoming David's disgust at his feeling that Jane had been dishonorable in arranging for him to get away while she was in the hands of the bad guys. But that is (mostly) resolved fairly quickly (and conveniently, at times) and soon the people at Sir Richard's estate are growing crops (without insects etc? Don't ask such unfair questions!) and beginning to pair off. Still, less than a dozen people are hardly enough to restore human civilization (especially after the tinned food runs out!) So there is a final episode -- a realization that in fact one other group survived, under the direction of Dr. Boddington. Alas, when they discover the Boddington enclave, they learn quickly that he is setting up a rather horrific technocratic/eugenic society ...

I've been a bit dismissive of the silliness of the science in this story -- and seriously, it's dreadful. The effect of the comet on the Earth is ridiculous. It's slightly reminiscent of W. E. B. DuBois' "The Comet", which is an outstanding short story that uses fairly silly science involving a comet encounter to establish an emptied out city with just two survivors. Likewise Stevenson uses silly silence involving a comet encounter to establish an empty world with just a hundred or so survivors. I'd say it's easier to get away with this at 5000 words than 60,000 or so -- still, let's allow Stevenson that one device. A further issue is the follow on effects of the death of all animal life from insects on up -- this would be far more devastating than Stevenson allows. Likewise Stevenson's paper thin extrapolation of the nature of life in 1973 is annoying. In then end, though -- these issues distract any SF reader, but aren't necessarily fatal to the actual story Stevenson is telling.

Here she fares somewhat better. Part of it is her storytelling facility, that I've mentioned before. She does make the reader want to keep reading. And there are some exciting episodes -- Jane's escape is quite well done, for instance. The introduction of Dr. Boddington's creepy attempt at a scientific utopia is pretty interesting. For all that, the novel still doesn't really work. The various romances are thin; and even the primary one, Jane's with David Fenemore, complicated by David's anger at her and by Jane's interest in the older Sir Richard, doesn't really strike home well enough. But more than that the issue is the villains. I'm coming to the conclusion that perhaps Stevenson just doesn't do villains well. The group of thuggish bad guys in the initial airplane are quite crudely depicted, and there is an overlay of classist prejudice to all that. Dr. Boddington, also, is a caricature mad scientist. Set against that, she does a fairly good job describing the society Boddington attempts to establish; and its faults. (Though there is just a hint that maybe she thinks eugenics "done right" could work, though there's an implied acknowledgement that it won't ever be done right.) 

So -- two D. E. Stevenson novels, and two flops! What to do? Don't worry -- I'm reasonably convinced that I just picked the wrong two to read first. Rochester's Wife is a misstep -- every prolific writer has some of those, and I think in The Empty World she was trying something different, something not in her wheelhouse. And even in these books, I can see that she truly can tell a story, and though I didn't think either one quite worked, I enjoyed reading them. I have a couple more Stevenson novels on hand, including the highly praised Miss Buncle's Book, and I'll get to them sometime! 

Monday, October 24, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: Rochester's Wife, by D. E. Stevenson

Rochester's Wife, by D. E. Stevenson

a review by Rich Horton

Dorothy Emily Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1892. She was first cousin once removed to Robert Louis Stevenson, so she came by her writing chops (if you want to assume there's a genetic component!) honestly. That said, her parents seem to have disapproved of her interest in writing, and they would not let her attend college. She married James Reid Peploe, an officer in the British Army, in 1916. She began publishing with a book of poems in 1915, and her first novel was serialized in 1923. She hit her stride in the 1930s, especially with the very popular Mrs. Tim books (about a British Army wife -- based of course on her own life) and the likewise popular Miss Buncle books. She was very popular, publishing in the end some 40 novels. She died in 1973. In the past decade plus many of her books have returned to print -- some from Persephone Books, and many more from one of my favorite imprints, the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint of Dean Street Books, curated by Scott Thompson of the excellent Furrowed Middlebrow blog, which focuses on British women writers of the early to middle 20th Century. 

I have over the past couple of years found about four of her books used, and have intended to read them for a while, prompted by Scott's enthusiasm, and likewise by recommendations from Jo Walton. I finally grabbed the latest book of hers I found (at an estate sale a week or so back) -- Rochester's Wife. This was published in 1940, but my edition is an Ace reprint from about 1980 (based on the price ($1.95) and on the Ursula Le Guin editions advertised in the back of the book!) The cover to this Ace reprint is execrable, as you can see -- it is true that there is scend of a game of tennis in the book, but there is no way that those people resemble this novel's characters in the least. 

As with many of Stevenson's books this can be called a "light romance". The main characters are Kit Stone, who is in his late 20s, and was trained as a doctor with the goal of taking over his father's practice. But his father died early, and the practice had to be sold. Kit's rather older brother took his half of the inheritance and set up as a stockbroker, but Kit, restless, decided to travel the world for a few years. Now back in England, he agrees to a trial period working for an older doctor in a London suburb, Minfield, where Kit's brother's partner Jack Rochester lives. 

Kit's new boss, Dr. Peabody, lives with his 30ish daughter Ethel, who keeps house; and his grandson Jem, whose mother decided to leave him with her father while she and her husband manage a tea farm in Ceylon. They are soon joined by Dr. Peabody's other daughter, Dolly, who has been sent home by her Navy husband because she is pregnant. There are tensions, mainly due to Ethel, who immediately manifests a dislike of Kit, and who clearly does not get on with her sister at all. But Kit settles in; impressing his new mentor with his skill. He also makes a great friend of Jem. Then he is called to the Rochester house to treat their housemaid, and the instant he sees Jack's wife Mardie, he falls desperately in love. 

That sets up the fundamental arc of the novel. It soon becomes clear that the Rochester marriage is troubled -- because Jack is undergoing what I'd call a nervous breakdown. Kit (and Dr. Peabody) decide that he is dangerously insane -- paranoid -- and I have to say that I found Stevenson's treatment of mental illness rather off. Kit tries to keep from getting too involved with Mardie, but it's hopeless, while Mardie, though attracted to Kit, remains loyal to her husband and tries to control his moods. It all comes to a head when Rochester disappears. This is an issue for Kit's brother -- to have a partner act so irresponsibly is bad for business! -- but of course much more so for Mardie, who has to give up her house and move back to her home in Scotland. As for Kit, he tries hard to find Jack Rochester, all the while aware that his love for Mardie is hopeless ...

The resolution, I have to say, is a thudding disappointment, the author essentially taking an implausibly easy and convenient way out. I think the novel ultimately a failure, marred by its bothersome treatment of mental illness and by its botched ending. But there is a lot to like -- Jem is a delightful character, and much of the day to day action, and the treatment of the main characters, is very nicely done. On the evidence of this novel, Stevenson was an effective storyteller, and had a nice light hand with her characters. This book didn't work, but a quick check showed me that Stevenson's fans seem to share my view -- this was not the right Stevenson book with which to start! I'll be reading more of her work -- I have an old copy of Miss Buncle's Book, for example, which seems quite highly regarded.

A couple more minor points. The book is set in 1938 or more likely 1939 (one character saw Snow White "several months earlier" and it went into wide release in February 1938.) A prominent character is a Navy wife -- and yet there is no presentiment of her husband's likely fraught responsibilities, and indeed she is shown, months later, frolicking on the beach in Bermuda. Another character (not seen) lives in Ceylon; and at the end of the movie Ethel departs for India (with her "great friend" Olive -- I don't think Stevenson meant this but it's intriguing to wonder if Ethel is a lesbian.) (Indeed, I felt Ethel was a missed opportunity -- she's portrayed as mostly rather an unmotivated shrew, her dislike for Mardie never explained, her dislike for Dolly maybe resulting from her interest in Dolly's husband? A better back story for Ethel, a fuller characterization, would have been nice.) Anyway -- we know now that the near future for all these characters is going to be a struggle -- and the novel as written is entirely unaware of this. Granted, Stevenson was writing in 1938 or 1939, and perhaps understandably couldn't foresee the future, but it does resonate oddly in our minds. Always I remember Philip Larkin's great poem "MCMXIV" -- "never such innocence again". 

Sunday, October 23, 2022

New Bestseller Review: Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel

a review by Rich Horton

Emily St. John Mandel's first big splash was Station Eleven (2014), a novel about a pandemic (and its aftermath, 20 years later.) Which makes it SF, to be sure, and unlike some writers from the so-called "mainstream," Mandel made no effort to deny that. (Indeed, others of her novels have to some extent been crime fiction.) I loved Station Eleven, and I liked (and sometimes loved) the TV series made from it (which has significant changes to the novel, for understandable reasons, but the result is that it's a different story, and not quite as good.) I thought Station Eleven should have gotten at least a Hugo nomination, but, hey, it was the 2015 Hugos! It did win the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Her followup, The Glass House (2020), was more a of a crime novel. Sea of Tranquility appeared in 2022, and was written during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Intriguingly, and perhaps a bit oddly, just as Station Eleven gained additional notoriety as being a pandemic novel, Mandel, during the real pandemic, chose to write yet another pandemic novel! It's also an SF novel, engaging much more directly with SFnal ideas that Station Eleven, and with a much wider and wilder variety of ideas. To add to the complications, Sea of Tranquility is also, in a way, a sequel -- or at least significantly related to -- The Glass Hotel. (Mandel seems to be entering David Mitchell territory in a way, especially as apparently The Glass Hotel refers to the Georgia Flu from Station Eleven!)

I won't bury the lede any more. What did I think? Sea of Tranquility is very enjoyable novel qua novel. Mandel is truly a wonderful storyteller, somebody you want to read. But as SF? For an experienced SF reader -- well, at least for me! -- I found the SF aspects weak. There are lots of cool ideas, but they don't all hang together, and some make no particular sense. A term I like to use -- I think I'm the only one -- is "through-composed". That is, has the author thought through the implications of their extrapolations? Do the various aspects make sense together? Do the ideas even work -- that is, are they scientifically plausible? I think for many writers -- particularly, I suspect, those not fully imbued in genre conventions, but, honestly, plenty of full-on SF writers too -- these questions don't matter much. Some might just say, "Are these ideas cool?" Some might say, "I just wanted to set up a setting for my novel." And some -- and Mandel may fit this category -- might say, "Sure, some of these extrapolations may not work, but what I really want is to explore my central idea, or my characters." I can forgive all these approaches, especially the latter, but they are still weaknesses, and often weaknesses that could be fixed.

So, what's going on in the book? It's set in four time frames. It opens in 1912, with Edwin St. John St. Andrews, a "remittance man" -- exiled from his noble English family to Canada for his excessively radical views -- wandering aimlessly across the country to Vancouver island, where, near the village of Caiette (familiar, I understand, to readers of The Glass Hotel) he experiences something very strange in the woods, and encounters an unusual "priest" named Roberts. (Edwin's middle name, St. John, is the same as Mandel's, and indeed he is apparently at least a bit based on one of Mandel's ancestors.)

Then, in 2020, Mirella Kessler (also familiar to readers of The Glass Hotel) is looking for news about her former friend Vincent, and attends a performance by Vincent's brother Paul, a composer, in which he shows a multimedia piece including a video by his sister, which shows a scene near Caiette in the 1990s that is strikingly similar (the reader sees -- Mirella of course doesn't understand) to what Edwin saw in 1912. Mirella also meets a man named Roberts who is also interested in Paul Smith's video -- and, strangely, Mirella recognizes Roberts from a traumatic encounter in her childhood. (The very earliest stages of COVID are mentioned in this segment as well.)

By now, most SF readers will have guessed that Roberts is a time traveller. Which is true, but in different ways with different implications than we might imagine. Next we go to 2203, and "the last book tour on Earth". Olive Llewellyn is a writer from a Moon colony. She is touring Earth in support of the movie version of her book Marienbad, which had been a huge bestseller a few years before. Marienbad is about a plague. (The conclusion that many of Olive's experiences on her book tour directly echo Mandel's experiences in discussing her huge bestseller about a plague, Station Eleven, are unavoidable.) As Olive's tour continues, rumors of a new plague originating in Australia arise ... The segment ends with Olive giving an interview to a man named Gaspery-Jacques Roberts -- a curious coincidence as a character in Marienbad was also named Gaspery-Jacques. And Roberts asks Olive a particular question -- about a scene in Marienbad which mentions a strange experience in an airship terminal in Oklahoma ... a vision that very much resembles that seen by Edwin in 1912, and by Vincent Smith in her video. 

Then to 2401. Now Gaspery is the main character. We learn that in fact he was named after the character in Marienbad, and in fact that he grew up in the same Moon colony where Olive grew up -- on the same street, even, though in the centuries since Olive's childhood that neighborhood has changed -- their particular colony is now the "Night Colony", as their dome lighting has failed. Gaspery makes his way to the more successful Colony One on the Moon, and, after a failed marriage and a fairly aimless succession of jobs, he begs his brilliant sister Zoe to help him get a job for the Time Institute -- a job investigating, via time travel, some anomalous historical occurrences -- indeed, one anomaly is the strange visions shared by Edwin, Vincent, and Olive.

I've not mentioned the fundamental reason this "anomaly" is being investigated, and I think I'll leave it for readers of the novel to discover, It's another science fictional idea, a fairly familiar one, but it's the SF idea that is really most central to this novel's theme. In that sense, it's the one idea that works. And it resolves in a fairly moving way. Despite this novel being set in four time frames, with four main characters, it resolves to being a novel about one character, Gaspery-Jacques Roberts, and his quite unusual life. And its also about that last idea, and what it really means for the characters involved. And on these terms it's quite successful. Gaspary's eventual conclusion seems true -- honest and moving. It's also true that the plot machinations to get him there are rather creaky. But Mandel's ability as a storyteller finesses a lot of that.

Still -- an SF reader is going to ask a lot of questions. Questions like: "Why are the hotels Olive stays at in 2203, a future with a completely fractured US and Canada, with Moon colonies (and planned colonies in the outer planets, and in Alpha Centauri's system), still called Marriot or La Quinta?" Questions like: "How do they get to Alpha Centauri in a reasonable time?" Questions like: "How do the Moon colonies really work?" Questions like: "How many people live on the Moon in 2203? And in that case, do the plague casualty numbers add up?" And so on. I don't think the future Mandel depicts makes much sense, and that bothers me. But, I admit, perhaps that doesn't really matter so much to her aim in the novel.

Bottom line -- I'll quote John Kessel, who suggested that this is very bad science fiction; but not necessarily a bad novel. I agree. 

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Old Non-Bestseller Review: Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself

Old Non-Bestseller Review: Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself

by Rich Horton

This book was published anonymously in 1924. The actual author was Sir Henry Howarth Bashford (1880-1961), who had a fairly successful career as a doctor -- he was reputedly King George VI's official doctor (in some sense, perhaps only ceremonial) and he published medical articles in the Lancet. He wrote fiction on the side, in a variety of genres: romances, thrillers, regional novels, ghost stories; as well as non-fiction on such subjects as the history of the British Navy and fishing. These books, published under his own name, are now forgotten (and copies are very hard to find.) And his anonymously published novel, which was a sort of cult secret for over 40 years from its publication, now stands as a minor classic of satire; listed among the best comic novels of all time by such an authority as Michael Dirda.

What happened? Augustus Carp, Esq., went through two printings in the UK, and also had an American edition, in 1924, so it wasn't a failure, but that was it until 1966, when Anthony Burgess, a rabid admirer of the book, convinced his publisher to reissue it. It has been reprinted several times by a few publishers since then, including, in 1988, a very nice boxed edition from the Folio Society. I found a used copy of that edition and, knowing nothing of the book, bought it on impulse. The book has an introduction by John Letts and illustrations by David Eccles. (Incidentally, the first edition was also illustrated by "Robin", an illustrator for Punch, whose real name was Marjorie Blood, and who later became a nun, an action that surely would have drawn the utmost condemnation from Augustus Carp.)

The full title of the novel is Augustus Carp, Esq., by Himself, Being the Autobiography of a Very Good Man. The book tells of his life from birth until his marriage. Augustus' father, also named Augustus, is a civil servant, and a prominent member of the congregation of the Church of St. James-the-Less. That is, until he is forced to move his membership successively to the Church of St. James-the-Lesser-Still, then St. James-the-Least-of-All, and finally to St. Nicholas, Newington Butts. The senior Carp is described by his son as "somewhat under the average height ... inclined to corpulence ... possessor of an exceptionally large and well-modelled nose ... massive ears ..." The son evidently inherited these characteristics, as well as his father's name. The choice of name is described in this lovely passage: "I shall name him Augustus," said my father, "after myself." "Or tin?" suggested my mother's mother. "Why not call him tin, after the saint?" "How do you mean, tin?" said my father, "Augus-tin," said Mrs. Emily Smith. But my father shook his head. "No, it shall be tus. Tus is better than tin."

Augustus undergoes a difficult childhood, due to his parents' devotion to various instructive books on the raising of children, and also to the depredations of one of his nanny's children and the other boy's toy cannon. In addition, Augustus has a dodgy digestion, and somehow his eating habits never improve it. He goes to a private school, and somehow his virtuous insistence on reporting the sins of his schoolmates makes him less than popular. He considers becoming a clergyman despite the "financially inadequate" rewards of that position, but unfortunately "to be ordained presupposed an examination, and I had been seriously handicapped in this particular respect by a proven disability, probably hereditary in origin, to demonstrate my culture in so confined a form." So Augustus must find a position, and he does, at a purveyor of religious texts, after blackmailing the owner.

And so the book continues: Augustus and his father are confronted with the horribly successful attempt of another family to donate a lectern to the church, precipitating a failed lawsuit and their move to St. Nicholas. Augustus manages to receive a promotion at work by discovering his supervisor drunk. He joins such associations as the Peckham Branch of the Non-Smoker's League, the Society for the Prevention of Strong Drink Traffic, and the Anti-Dramatic and Saltatory Union. He achieves, as a friend puts it, "the full flower of his Southern Metropolitian Xtian manhood." And he makes the courageous attempt to rescue the beautiful actress Miss Moonbeam from her sinful career -- only, alas, to be defeated by the innocent consumption of Portugalade. 

This short novel achieves, in portraying Augustus Carp in his own voice as a person thoroughly unaware of his actual nature -- a profoundly unpleasant man, a perfect "monster of priggishness" as Letts puts it his introduction -- a beautifully balanced satire of religious excess, of a certain kind of masculine insensitivity, of lower middle class British life at a certain period. (And as with all the best satire, the satire of a particular sort of person has a universal applicability.) Bashford's prose is the key -- convolutedly justifying all Augustus' pretensions with always just the right unconciously deflating phrase. Augustus is a complete bore, but the book is not in the least boring, especially at its short length. Extended any longer, it would have overstayed its welcome. At all accounts, Bashford was never this good in his other fiction -- perhaps the comfort of anonymity allowed him free reign to gamble? (Letts suggests that Bashford published the book anonymously in part because he was reacting to some aspects of his childhood, and didn't want to offend his family; or perhaps that he felt such satire unbecoming in a man who had attained some conventional respect in his medical career.) 

I read this book just after reading John Kennedy Toole's comic masterwork A Confederacy of Dunces, and I was struck by some superficial similarities. Both novels are satirical works about a fat man with digestive issues, a man determinedly unaware of how the rest of the world perceives him. Toole's Ignatius J. Reilly seems, somehow, more innocent, and also more intelligent (if just as misguided) as Augustus Carp. But it was curious to read about them back to back.

At any rate, Augustus Carp, Esq., is a very very funny book. I haven't quoted it as widely as I might -- passages such as Augustus' mother finally escaping his orbit; or the whole encounter with Miss Moonbeam, or the descriptions of the tracts Augustus sells at his job, simply need to be read to appreciate. It wholly deserves the reputation it seems to have finally established -- a minor satirical classic of the early 20th Century. Dirda compared it with Cold Comfort Farm, I've suggested A Confederacy of Dunces. I confess I think both those books superior to Augustus Carp (perhaps because on occasion this book seems to punch down just a bit) ... but that said, this book is still fully worth reading. 

Saturday, October 8, 2022

Old Bestseller Review: A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole

a review by Rich Horton

Many years ago I read John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, and I loved it. But I recently realized that I hardly remembered it! So I decided to read it again.

The novel's backstory is rather famous. John Kennedy Toole (1937-1969), a native of New Orleans, graduate of Tulane with a Master's from Columbia. He spent time teaching at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette; and also at Hunter College in New York, while he worked on a Ph. D. at Columbia (he never completed this degree.) He was drafted into the Army and posted to Puerto Rico, where he began working on A Confederacy of Dunces. After his discharge he finished it. He revised it several times with the advice of the legendary editor Robert Gottlieb, but Gottlieb eventually passed. Increasingly mentally ill, Toole committed suicide at the age of 31. His mother (who, one imagines, perhaps unfairly, was not always a benign influence on him) remained convinced of his genius, and eventually barged into the office of the great Louisiana novelist (and SF writer!) Walker Percy. Percy, in his introduction, recounts his fear that the novel would be the usual horrid thing; and his growing disappointment that it was good enough he had to keep reading, succeeded by shock as he realized it was actually quite remarkable. He eventually managed to convince LSU Press to publish it -- it appeared in 1980, was a critical success, eventually a bestseller, and it won the Pulitzer. (Only two other writers have won a posthumous Pulitzer in Fiction, and the other two were also distinctly Southern writers: James Agee, from Tennessee, and William Faulkner, from Mississippi (make of that what you will.)) The Neon Bible, a novel Toole wrote when he was 16, heavily influenced by Flannery O'Connor (speaking of Southern writers), was later published.

Ignatius J. Reilly is the antihero, though in reality the novel is an ensemble work (and pretty much everyone is more "anti" than "hero".) But Ignatius is the fulcrum. He is a fat man of about 30, well educated but unwilling to work, discontented with everything about the modern world (he is fond of advocating a return to the monarchy.) He lives at home with his mother, his father having died long before. Ignatius spends his time writing either long philosophical screeds, combative letters to his one time fellow student/sworn enemy/almost girlfriend Myrna Minkoff, or accounts of his everyday travails on Big Chief notepads. He drinks Dr. Nut (a then popular New Orleans soft drink), eats too much, and complains constantly about his troublesome pyloric valve. His favorite recreation is the movies, where he likes to yell at the screen protesting the obscenity he sees (which is a joke given that Reilly's favorite actress appears to be Doris Day, whose movies were so "clean" she was called "America's Oldest Virgin".) One day Ignatius attracts the unwelcome attention of a hapless policeman named Angelo Mancuso, and, distressed, he and his mother venture into the Night of Joy, a sleazy nightclub, after her work, and she ends up drunk and wrecks the car as well as a nearby building. And then Ignatius is forced to find a job.

His jobs are disasters of course -- the first is with Levy's Pants, a nearly moribund clothes factory. Ignatius' job is to file the records, which he does by burning them. He also incites the (largely black) factory workers into protesting their conditions. After losing his job there, he more or less at random finds a position at Paradise Vendors, pushing a hot dog cart (though eating most of the product.) 

But the other characters are busy too. The owner of Levy Pants is trying to find a way to get rid of the place, but his wife has taken up the cause of the aging Miss Trixie, who really wants to retire. The office manager, Mr. Gonzalez, is afraid of offending anyone. Ignatius writes a vicious letter to one of Levy's customers, who sues in response, which may at last serve as his business' mercy killing. The proprietor of the Night of Joy is selling pornographic pictures of herself to high school kids, while unwillingly allowing one of her employees to start a striptease act. The Night of Joy also hires a black man, Burma Jones, at much less than what he calls "minimal wage" -- a job he needs to avoid being jailed as a "vagran". Mrs. Reilly makes friends with Patrolman Mancuso's aunt, who quickly divines that Ignatius is the source of all her problems, and urges Mrs. Reilly to have him committed, while also trying to set her up with the old man who Patrolman Mancuso arrested in lieu of Ignatius. And Mancuso's career proceeds from bad to worse -- forced to wear outlandish costumes and wait in cold bathrooms hoping to arrest suspicious characters ...

There's more than that going on, and not much point in me detailing it -- I've probably already written too much! The novel is extremely funny throughout. Is it offensive? Well, objectively, Ignatius' views and rants are offensive, though in an oddly innocent way. Most of the other characters are just as, to use a tired phrase, politically incorrect. Even Myrna Minkoff, Ignatius' Jewish social justice warrior frenemy, is wackily off base. Probably the only scene that descends to lazy cliché is a gay party that Ignatius stumbles into -- I found that also quite funny, but was uneasily never sure that the gay scene described ever existed anywhere besides Toole's imagination. 

It's clear that Ignatius is too disconnected from reality to ever succeed in this time -- but also clear that he's just crazy enough to stumble through life never knowing how much trouble he's causing, and never knowing how close to disaster he hews. He's also in a cockeyed way intelligent enough to fascinate, intelligent enough to hold our interest. It's a weird ride, and an inimitable book. It's really great fun to read. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Review: The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne

The Actual Star, by Monica Byrne

a review by Rich Horton

The Actual Star is Monica Byrne's second novel, appearing in 2021, 7 years after her first, the Otherwise Award winning The Girl in the Road. And the seven years of work shows -- in a good way! This book is wildly ambitious and mostly successful. It depicts Mayan society of a thousand years ago convincingly, and depicts an utterly fascinating post-climate catastrophe future a millennium from now intriguingly. There's a present day thread as well -- and it's well done too but to be fair in some ways that's easier.

The novel's structure, as I hinted above, revolves around three threads -- one a millennium ago as Mayan society is collapsing -- or, at least, its traditional structure is changing. Another is set in the present day, as Leah Oliveri, a 19 year old girl from Minnesota decides to visit her (dead, and never part of her life) father's home, Belize. And the third is set a thousand years in the future, with a radically different future social organization under threat due to conflict between a free thinking "sophist" and a conservative "scroop" about what people should be allowed to think, and about what change might be possible to a society founded on principles aimed at living lightly on the land in the wake of climate disaster. 

There is another, not quite as obvious, structural aspect. The novel features no fewer than four sets of twins. And in each case those twins represent paired qualities, not necessarily the same pairs. The Mayan section, set in 1012, focuses on Ajul, the King to be, and Ixul, his fierce and ambitious sister. Their parents have disappeared, presumably capture and/or killed by enemies; and their coronation approaches. Their kingdom is declining (this is the period when the Mayan civilization collapsed, or at least radically altered in structure.) It is an open and scandalous secret that they are incestuous lovers. The action is set primarily on the day of their coronation, and concerns their younger sister Ket's initiation into bloodletting, which is said to facilitate access to Xibalba, an Underworld or perhaps parallel realm; and her interactions with a strange black jaguar; and also the preparation for the coronation, which will include traditional human sacrifice; and then the shocking events at the ceremony.

In the year 2012, Leah Oliveri decides to travel to Belize. Once there she visits a famous cave; guided at first by Xander. The cave itself has a number of well-preserved skeletal remains, some of which we soon gather may be those of Ajul or Ixul or perhaps their victims. Leah is fascinated by the cave, and immediately determines to visit the cave as often as possible, and to find a way to stay in Belize. She meets Xander again, and his estranged twin Javier, who is also a guide; and some other locals. She is attracted to both Xander and Javier, who have radically different personalities -- she sleeps with both, and hears Xander's goal to study abroad (he is a brilliant autodidact) ... all the while plotting to travel deep into the cave despite the rules against that.

And in 3012, Niloux de Cayo makes an assertion that violates some of her future societies core beliefs: she is skeptical about the "disappearances" that have been witnessed over the past millennium, beginning with the disappearance of St. Leah Oliveri from a cave in Belize. Leah's lovers, the Consort Twins, Xander and Javier, then found Laviaja -- something of a religion, something of a political, social and economic way; and this way of living has come to dominate life after the climate catastrophes of the early third millennium. As an SF reader, this was the most fascinating part of the book to me: people live nomadic lives, staying no more than 9 days in any place. They do not accumulate possessions. They do not form long term relationships. They do not raise their blood children. All this is buttressed by some impressive technology, and by radical body modifications (for one thing, everyone is a hermaphrodite.) As a reaction to the depredations humans made to the natural world, they live extremely lightly on the Earth -- though the fact that there are only some 8,000,000 living humans certainly helps that lightness! Niloux's assertion prompts two reactions -- a group who see in her an inspiration for more openness, more flexibility, in their society; and a group who (paradoxically violently) oppose any change, any risk of change, to a society that seems to have served people -- and the Earth -- very well for centuries. This second group is led by Tanaaj de Cayo -- as her name indicates, born in the same area as Niloux -- and it becomes clear that Niloux and Tanaaj are bound for a confrontation at the Jubilee that will be held in Belize, 1000 years after St. Leah's disappearance. 

The book moves nimbly between the three threads. Ajul and Ixul's story is historical fiction, with an overlay of fantasy (in the sense that what we now regard is magical things are truly believed -- and perceived -- by people of that time.) Leah's story is contemporary realistic fiction, about an American tourist becoming entranced with a different culture -- very well and honest depicted. And Niloux and Tanaaj inhabit a truly intriguing future, with neat technology, and a wonderfully thought out future society, with radically different economics, gender organization, social organization, habits of work and entertainment. These ideas are fascinating -- and also invite argument, in the way the best speculative fiction does. (For example -- how did a society of 8,000,000 people who do not stay in any one place for any period of time create the remarkable technology they rely on?)

The novel is long, but reads compellingly. It is very well written -- one of very few recent SF novels that did not have me reaching for my blue pencil. It is not perfect -- I think the climactic events are perhaps a tad convenient -- one character in particular is let off rather easily, to my mind. The ending is ambiguous, but I ended up sold on it. The structure is well-maintained but at times there is a bit of strain, a sense that one section may have dithered a bit to maintain pace with the others, perhaps -- but never in a truly harmful way. I was reminded a bit of Ursula Le Guin's Always Coming Home, and of John Crowley's Engine Summer, and the author (in conversation) acknowledges the influence of Le Guin (especially The Dispossessed) and of Kim Stanley Robinson (pervasively, I suspect, but especially the Mars Trilogy.) 

This is a tremendously ambitious novel, that reaches for the (actual!) stars and achieves most of its goals. It has not been ignored, but it surely deserves more notice. This is the kind of SF we need now, I think -- SF that does not by any means abandon the goal of entertainment, SF that shows real attention to craft, to prose and structure; and most of all, SF that excitingly thinks about the future, and about the past, and about how we live, how we should live, how we might live.