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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 6.16.2017
Book from: Personal collection

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.

Swing Time is a dense, simmering novel of ideas, with markedly artful prose: flowing, full of rhythmic momentum, and patterned after the book’s title, swinging smoothly and slyly back and forth in time. The narrator uses these swerves in time in order to conceal or displace acute moments of shame or pain; Smith uses them in order to more thickly layer themes and symmetries. I found the rhythmic flow intoxicating, and it was the main reason I finished the book at all since, two chapters in, I was otherwise so turned off that I considered quitting.

I had two difficulties with the novel. First, the narrator’s voice has a bitter, narrow chippiness to it. Though I’m often keen on unsympathetic protagonists, I object to that particular flavor of bitchiness. This narrator is pretty virtuosically passive-aggressive, a defining flaw that’s pathetic at best.

Second, reading Swing Time made me realize that I find it hard to enjoy narratives about female rivalry. It’s been such a blessedly absent force in my life that I felt acutely uncomfortable, even impatient, being asked to dwell on it at length: “IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY” (This realization resulted in me revising my plans to read the Neapolitan Trilogy.)

Still, the book is so rich that even as some fraction of my reading attention was always squirming impatiently, there was also always something new and prickly-interesting to be considered – an insight of character, an angst-inflected vision of ’80’s or ’90’s London, the surreal juxtapositions of Western influence amid village life in West Africa (young men wearing wristwatches with no batteries…).

Probably the most vivid element of the book to me were the sharp specificities of feeling and observation that the narrator relates as a person of mixed race. When encountering other black women, for example, but especially those with mixed families, she continually notes skin tone, facial features, the race of each parent. All these behaviors are deeply familiar to me as a mostly acculturated first-gen immigrant kid (though not of mixed race), sharing that underlying unease of “where do I fit in” and “am I _____ enough.” The moment that I remember as the book’s most heartbreaking is when the narrator sees her white father’s children from an earlier marriage to a white woman, and realize that they look like they have everything to do with her father; and her – nothing.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2017
Book from: Personal collection – grateful thanks to C. for this gift!

Something is rotten at Crook, the decaying English manor house that is the setting for McGrath’s exuberantly spooky novel. Fledge, the butler, is getting intimate with the mistress. Fledge’s wife is getting intimate with the claret. Sidney Giblet, the master’s prospective son-in-law, has disappeared. And the master himself – the one-time gentleman naturalist Sir Hugo Coal – is watching it all in a state of helpless fury, since he is paralyzed in a wheelchair, unable to move or speak.

The Grotesque is simultaneously a whodunnit and pageturner (though from the start it’s insisted that we believe that it was, in fact, the butler), and a thorny psychological thicket of doubles, shape-shifting, adultery, and madness. It made me think of a sniggering, Gothic cousin of Brideshead Revisited, as they share the snarled-up Roman Catholic British aristos, the homoeroticism, the acute class anxiety, and the character of an impish, loyal, dark-haired daughter. “Grand Guignol edition of Wodehouse” also covers it rather well, especially when it comes to names – Sidney Giblet you’ve seen already, and the local village is called “Pock-on-the-Fling.”

The book’s not even 200 pages long, but every page is thick with wordplay (Sir Hugo, for example, puns on his entrapment within the “grottos” of both his own skull and the nook under the stairs where his wheelchair is often left – I had forgotten that “grotesque” comes from “grotto”) and psychological feints. The narrative dodges back and forth across time – a structure that Sir Hugo claims to be a function of his increasingly unreliable wits, but of course also results in the juiciest revelations being put off for last.

I enjoyed the heck out of this elegant mess, and read the first half especially with slightly unhealthy speed. I had to do a bit of thinking about why I didn’t utterly love it, and I think it comes down to the style: I crave continually surprising language, which in Gothics tends to translate to “really florid.” McGrath’s writing is very fine, with physical descriptions of characters being especially sharp and memorable, but for me, the imagery only rarely and the language never hits the heights of the sublime. This might be a constraint of character, as Sir Hugo prides himself on his cold-blooded propriety of thought; I’d have to read more McGrath to see whether his style has broader range.

The freshest and most lastingly troubling element of this book for me was the thematic stuff around ontological confusion, with Sir Hugo’s background as a gentleman naturalist, and his morbid embrace of the physical facts of reproduction and decay, providing fertile grounds for elaboration on this sense of “the grotesque.” The grotesque is also “a 16th-century decorative style in which parts of human, animal, and plant forms are distorted and mixed.” Sir Hugo, the paralyzed would-be paleontologist, is neither animal nor vegetable nor mineral: described as involuntarily grunting like a pig, and “a vegetable,” and “ossified,” he eventually converges with the looming figure of his beloved dinosaur fossil, which by the end of the novel has grown to be lichen-infested due to neglect and damp. Sir Hugo’s neurologist dismisses him as “ontologically dead” – internally, Sir Hugo shoots back that “I was, I believe, the most ontologically alive person in that room.”

All these uneasy mutations and meltings of category are artistically impressive, but also simply, humanly sad. The most cutting scene of the book for me was the one in which Sir Hugo reflects on how quickly his household writes him off after his accident. Setting aside the fair question of whether Sir Hugo, bastard that he is, might deserve much of what happened to him, this is really sharp, sad writing about the emotional reality of human disability and decline: “In fact, it was one of the most striking aspects of that first stage of my vegetal existence, the experience of seeing my family’s reactions shift from grief and compassion to acceptance and apparent indifference in a remarkably short period of time. Thus, I notice, are the dead forgotten; thus are persons in my state rendered tolerable… Our kinship with the grotesque is something to be shunned; it requires an act of rejection, of brisk alienation, and here the doctors were most cooperative, for they permitted Harriet and the rest of them to reject my persisting humanity by means of a gobbledygook that carried the imprimatur of – science! … [S]cience proposes, this is how I had lived, but science also disposes, and now I find myself frozen, stuck fast, like a fly in a web, in the grid of a medical taxonomy. My identity was now neuropathological. I was no longer a man, I was an instance of a disease…” This furious sorrow struck me as some of the only genuine emotion in a narrative otherwise composed mainly of self-absorption and guilty half-truths.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.22.2012
Book from: Personal collection

I know the universe loves me because there’s a new comic called The New Deadwardians, and it’s about vampires, zombies, and class conflicts in alternate Edwardian England. I saw the first issue (from March of this year; there are to be 8 issues total) still hanging around in a comic store, picked it up, read it as soon as I got home, and wished I had bought the rest.

The cover art gives away the punchline, though the first issue never says it outright: the English aristocracy have embraced vampirism – “the cure” – in order to escape the zombified lower classes. (It’s not clear yet what’s happened to the rest of the world.) As Twilight literalized class (and race) conflict via Bella’s choice between sleek, chilly, uber-white vampires vs. rough-n-tumble, blue-collar, Native American werewolves, so Deadwardians does with poker-faced pish-posh vampires vs. sloppy Cockney zombies. Caught in between are living servants, police officers, and other members of the working class, who also appear distantly as angry unionists demonstrating against the military zoning of London. The undead – and presumably some living survivors – have been pushed back beyond “Zone B,” and hence are referred to as Zone-B’s. Har de har. I also winced at the use of “Deadwardian” in the comic itself – it’s too cutesy to be believable in-universe. Luckily, it’s the only false note struck in this issue.

The protagonist is George Suttle, a vampirized detective afflicted with some degree of existential angst, and a pruny mum who should appeal to fans of Maggie Smith as the dowager duchess in Downton Abbey. The end of the issue sees Suttle confronted with a puzzling mystery: the murder of an already undead man.

Most of the issue is devoted to building up atmosphere and setting. Artist I. N. J. Culbard and colorist Patricia Mulvihill work gorgeously together in the ligne clair/clear-line style, with smooth inking and planes of muted color that emphasize the setting’s eerie placidity and the script’s deliberate, brooding pace. A scene of Suttle walking into his almost entirely deserted office building, its many untenanted desks draped over with white sheets, and numerous shots of meticulously rendered architecture looming over sparse inhabitants, recall the trademark scenes of deserted London streets that opened 28 Days Later – this is just a century earlier.

Gloomy atmosphere, sociopolitical satire, a burgeoning mystery, immersive art: I’m hooked. I can’t wait to see what Abnett and Culbard do with the rest of the series; I’m particularly excited to see how hard they’ll play the alternate history angle. The Edwardian era was characterized by both great economic disparity, and increasing social mobility and political activism – I can’t imagine the latter two will do very well against an immortal and literally parasitic upper class…

You can see a free 6-page preview of The New Deadwardians and a brief interview with Culbard here (source: L. A. Times – did you know they covered comics? I didn’t).

Go to:
Dan Abnett: bio and works reviewed

 

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Date read: 8.1.11
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

This is one of my most treasured finds from Readercon, picked up from the fantastic Somewhere in Time Books: Tanith Lee‘s 1988 limited-edition novella, with illustrations by Tom Canty. From the title and pastel cover I expected a tale of genteel swashbuckling, possibly YA; should have remembered that Lee never goes in for gentility. Elegance, yes – Lee is manically elegant – but never gentility.

Madame Two Swords starts in a familiar place for Lee: a sensitive, fearful, recently orphaned young woman in an early 20th-century alternate France is treated cruelly by both circumstances and humanity; her only spiritual sustainment comes from a book of poetry discovered in a secondhand shop:

“The blue cloth binding was quite pristine under its dust. It was a slender book, without lettering. I opened it out of curiosity.”

“The book was my talisman. Other girls wore crosses or medallions.”

The narrator is unemployed and evicted, and finds herself in dire straits, chased from one end of the socioeconomic spectrum to the other: too middle-class for hard labor, too unskilled to be a seamstress, too unwilling to accede to customers’ advances to be a waitress in the seedier cafés. At the extremity of her despair – enter Madame Two Swords, a black-eyed old woman of terrifying intensity, in whose museum-like house the narrator comes to some strange realizations.

In this France, the Revolution was sparked by the poet-demagogue Lucien de Ceppays in the city of Troies. This Revolution culminated in the execution of the original revolutionaries, including de Ceppays, by the fickle mob, and the occupation of France by a fearful British monarchy. Inhabitants now speak “Frenish” as often as French, and labor in a depressed economy overseen by a puppet government. The narrator’s talisman-book is, of course, a volume of de Ceppays’ work, and contains besides a haunting watercolor portrait of him. The story quickly sees her devotion to his image and memory moving beyond girlish fantasy.

The final supernatural twist, when it comes, is powerful in effect, in large part because of the supreme delicacy with which Lee constructs the fleeting image central to the revelation. There’s an also-delicate but definite touch of gender-bending, which I wish I could discuss in more detail without being spoilery, but suffice it to say that I liked how Lee addressed its implications, a lot. This is a story that makes use of deeply Gothic-Romantic tropes (duh, Tanith Lee) yet resists being just romantic; it’s fierce and intelligent and ultimately insists on the dignity of all of its characters.

And so my love affair with Tanith Lee continues! If you like Revolutionary France and cross-lingual puns and intelligent Gothic fantasy, if you love Tanith Lee and beautiful books, you might consider treating yourself to a copy of Madame Two Swords.

Two more photos (can’t help showing it off!) under the cut:
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Date read: 1.24.11
Book from: University library
Reviewer: Emera

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Penguin Ink EditionsPenguin Ink editions, when will you stop being awesome? Cover art by Thomas Ott.

Shirley Jackson is the queen of opening lines:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the capstone in my mini Jackson-marathon of January; for some reason I’ve decided to review it first. It was her last novel, and contains almost all the Jackson trademarks: persecutory villagers, a haunted (not literally, in this case) house, thinly veiled wickedness and brutality, a split psyche, embodied here in sisters light and dark. Jonathan Lethem’s excellent introduction in the Penguin Ink edition situates these usefully in Jackson’s own life as the formerly shy wife of a university professor isolated in small-town New England, and in her sad decline as she succumbed to agoraphobia in her later years.

Merricat Blackwood. Oh, Merricat. She’s a typical Jackson heroine in that she’s determinedly childish and presexual; it’s hard not to read her relationship with the Blackwood house (like that other great Jackson house, Hill House) as an attempt to return to the womb. I also had a hard time remembering that she’s supposed to be 18, and not 12 or 13. A capricious, spiteful witch-child, she delights in hiding, in secrecy, in burying and nailing charms around the family estate, repeatedly drawing lines of protection around her and Constance and the house. (When interloping cousin Charles appears, Merricat hates him almost more for resembling her and Constance’s father than for his obvious mercenary aims; she strenuously rejects any masculine influence from their domain.) Her black cat Jonas follows her everywhere, and they “talk” to each other fluently. She loves thinking about the deaths of others: of her family, scandalously and mysteriously poisoned six years ago; of the villagers who hate them and blame fearful, fragile Constance for the murder. Above all, she’s monstrously selfish, a sort of funnel constantly drawing off Constance’s maternal attentions and lovingly described cooking.

Like any good trickster character, she’s both hateful and seductive. I couldn’t not identify with her flighty witchery – a good chunk of my childhood in a nutshell – all the while that I was increasingly repulsed by her emotional stranglehold on Constance. The violence in the book crescendoes shortly before the end, but the ugliness goes on from there, quietly, as Merricat proceeds to get exactly what she wants; it left me feeling more disturbed by a book than I have for a long while. At the same time, I couldn’t help remembering how much fun Merricat was, her wicked humor and her mocking embrace of dysfunction. Lethem’s introduction highlights Jackson’s talent for slyly “instill[ing] a sense of collusion in her readers,” reflecting “the strange fluidity of guilt as it passes from one person to another.” You can’t get much better at that than Merricat Blackwood.

Go to:
Shirley Jackson: bio and works reviewed

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