Philadelphia Inquirer // The “Southern Reach” trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer

September 26, 2014


Genre is usually the least interesting way to describe a book. The novels we consider timeless – and I’m talking Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter and Beloved here, people – always defy our rigid categories in exciting and unexpected ways. The volumes that make up Jeff VanderMeer’s thrilling Southern Reach trilogy employ elements of different genres, such as science fiction and the espionage thriller and even horror. In VanderMeer’s hands, those ingredients combine to form some inventive and remarkable fiction.

The first volume, Annihilation, appeared in February, and its sequel, Authority, turned up in the spring. Now, with the publication of the final volume, Acceptance, we have the conclusion of an incredible series. A secretive government program known as the Southern Reach has assumed responsibility for exploring and researching a mysterious geographical – or is that temporal? – zone known as Area X.:

Area X, before the ill-defined Event that locked it behind the border thirty years ago and made it subject to so many inexplicable occurrences, had been part of a wilderness that lay adjacent to a military base.

The scientists know very little about this place, and we readers know even less. VanderMeer does a masterful job of allowing us to figure things out on our own. The region has fallen prey to some alternation by an unknown force, perhaps a natural disaster or alien occupation. The official, public story is that some sort of accident at the nearby military base has rendered the land unlivable:

The government’s version of events emphasized a localized environmental catastrophe stemming from experimental military research. This story leaked into the public sphere over a period of several months so that, like the proverbial frog in a hot pot, people found the news entering their consciousness gradually as part of the general daily noise of media oversaturation about ongoing ecological devastation.

Whatever caused the change, the laws of nature seem to work differently inside Area X. Teams have been sent in to study the area, but those that manage to return are transformed in strange mental, emotional, and perhaps physical ways. Our story begins with what is thought to be the 12th expedition into the once-normal coastal region.

Annihilation features a team of scientists known only by their roles, such as anthropologist or psychologist. Our narrator is the biologist, whose personal connection with a member of the previous, doomed expedition complicates matters even further:

We were scientists, trained to observe natural phenomena and the results of human activity. We had not been trained to encounter what appeared to be the uncanny. In unusual situations there can be a comfort in the presence of even someone you think might be your enemy. Now we had come close to the edges of something unprecedented, and less than a week into our mission we had lost not just the linguist at the border but our anthropologist and our psychologist.

The next volume, Acceptance, doesn’t follow the linear trajectory of the plot but picks up the story of a man known as Control back at the Southern Reach. Acceptance takes another unexpected peripatetic turn, and it works wonderfully. Any further plot summary risks trespassing into the realm of spoilers. Suffice it to say there are plenty of surprises waiting and some positively baffling moments. I mean that in the very best way.

The trilogy works a little bit like a mystery. We move rapidly through its pages with the expectation of some great revelation at the end. The most impressive thing about this series, however, is the manner in which VanderMeer presents – and withholds – information we seek. We get answers to our questions, but those answers only make things more complicated. The more we learn, the more there is to know. By the time the final page flips over, much too soon, we might actually know less than when we started.

When “the mind expects a certain range of possibilities,” the biologist tells us in Annihilation, “any explanation that falls outside of that expectation can surprise.” VanderMeer’s series works the same way. It expands the range of narrative possibilities. In splicing the DNA of other genres into a literary novel of ideas, Annihilation and Authority and Acceptance join some of our most indelible books in asking us to rethink what we consider “literary” fiction. The Southern Reach trilogy is derived from an intensely febrile – and, I dare say, genius – imagination. It also happens to be great fun to read.

Philadelphia Inquirer // The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

September 23, 2014

My review of this wonderful novel ran online on 9/23/14.

In The Bone Clocks, English novelist David Mitchell once again transports readers across time and space. The six novella-length sections are set from 1984 to 2043 and span the globe, setting us down in such far-flung locations as the Swiss Alps and Shanghai, remote Iceland, and the Australian Outback. One does not read a David Mitchell novel as much as climb aboard, grab on tightly, and get carried aloft on a magic carpet ride.

The international approach makes Mitchell one of our foremost novelists of this age of globalism, and it has served him extremely well in the past. Two of his novels – number9dream and Cloud Atlas – have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and it’s entirely safe to consider the later one of the true and rare masterpieces of recent literature. Further, his underappreciated The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, set at a Dutch trading post in 18th century Japan, is even more daring and, I think, even stronger in many ways.

At the center of The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, an Englishwoman who hears strange voices in her head, which she calls the Radio People. Her younger brother Jacko goes missing, and his absence creates a void that affects the goings-on in each of the subsequent overlapping storylines. The plot unfurls slowly and with a kind of literary precision one doesn’t encounter all that often.

Although this is a marvelously and painstakingly crafted book, it’s Mitchell’s all-too-human characters that keep the pages turning. These people – and its easy to forget that they’re characters and mere constructs on paper – are often awful to each other and to themselves.

Hugo Lamb is an economics and politics major at Cambridge whose early-1990s pursuit of profit takes a tragic toll on one of his so-called friends. Yet he remains sympathetic. The almost-washed-up novelist Crispin Hershey takes unimaginably brutal revenge on a critic who trashed his latest book. (Don’t get any ideas, Mr. Mitchell – I loved this novel.) A lot of deliciously bad decision-making goes on.

One of the most riveting characters is an English war correspondent, home from the Middle East for a wedding, who is forced to choose between his job and his family. “I don’t knock a peaceful and well-functioning society,” he tells us. “I enjoy it, for a few days, weeks, even. But I know that, after a couple of months, a well-ordered life tastes like a flat, non-alcoholic lager.” Mitchell makes us feel the weight of all of these tough choices. He has also sprinkled in a bit more humor this time around, which he uses to keep the growing tensions more or less in check until they finally explode.

The Bone Clocks is at heart a mystery: There are strange, seemingly out-of-body happenings neither the characters nor the reader fully understand. The elements of what we might consider fantasy or even science-fiction literature – which, again, Mitchell has previously used to tremendous effect – call to mind the transmigration of souls in Yukio Mishima’s landmark Sea of Fertility tetralogy more than, say, The Lord of the Rings or Dune. Even if those otherworldly strains feel a tiny bit shoehorned in at times, they make for some unexpected and enjoyable turns of the plot.

The Bone Clocks will feel comfortingly familiar in some ways to admirers of Mitchell’s previous time-traveling and genre-bending novels. It’s a joy to witness the workings of a singular creative voice at the peak of his powers.

New York Times Book Review // Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell

July 26, 2014

My review of Lisa O’Donnell’s terrific new novel is published in the 7/27/14 issue of the New York Times Book Review.

Lisa O’Donnell’s dazzling new novel transports us to small-town Scotland and into the increasingly volatile mind of an 11-year-old boy. Michael Murray, who narrates the book, lives with his parents and grandmother in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. As in most small towns, everybody seems to know everybody else’s business. Here gossip is something more than a spectator sport.

O’Donnell won the prestigious Commonwealth Book Prize last year with “The Death of Bees,” a first novel that deftly balanced the morbid with the mundane, a talent that remains on full display here. “Closed Doors” begins in early 1982, the time of Margaret Thatcher’s reign and of Britain’s undeclared war over some other remote islands. Like Roddy Doyle’s “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha” and “Black Swan Green,” by David Mitchell, O’Donnell’s novel effectively evokes the carefree joys of adolescence as well as all of its terrors, real and imagined.

When Michael’s mother comes home crying one night, the rest of the family attempts to shield him from the awful truth of what has happened, telling him that a flasher has harassed her in the local park. Michael doesn’t understand what that means: “In the morning I am full of questions. Granny folds laundry and Da looks tired. I ask him about flashing. He doesn’t want to tell me. Neither does Granny. They want me to disappear with my soccer ball, but I don’t. My ma has been flashed at and I want to know what it means. She’s in the hospital with a sore face and a limp. She fell hard because of this flasher. I have a right to know what’s going on and why I’m to tell everyone she fell on the stairs.”

O’Donnell perfectly navigates the distance between what Michael understands and what her readers do. The boy soon overhears some conversations he’s not meant to and comes to suspect that his mother was subjected to something much worse than the bad behavior of an exhibitionist. Since, out of anxiety or humiliation, she has refused to go to the police, the neighbors assume she’s been battered by her husband. Although Michael knows it’s not true, he’s forbidden to tell anyone.

The whirlpool of secrets within secrets and lies within lies comes close to tearing Michael’s family apart, especially after the attacker strikes again and more of the awful truth emerges. Had the Murrays gone to the police in the first place, they might have saved a neighbor from harm. Michael, pulled in many directions at once, carries the burden of witnessing his mother’s anxiety attacks, hearing his parents arguing and protecting what remains of his family’s reputation — all while dealing with the ordinary challenges that go with turning 12 and starting to take an interest in girls. His confusion is palpable, even tragic. “It’s terrible to know too many things about people,” he realizes. “It makes you feel like a liar because you have to act like you know nothing at all when the truth is you know everything there is to know.”

O’Donnell’s great talent is most apparent in her depiction of the gap between Michael’s thoughts and his actions. He gets in fights and acts up at school, but never comes to see that throwing tantrums is his response to the tensions he can’t deal with at home. It’s not revealing too much to say that O’Donnell wraps up “Closed Doors” in a way that feels both unpredictable and inevitable. It’s a fitting end to a moving story that stakes a lasting, and disturbing, emotional claim on her readers.

Philadelphia Inquirer // All At Once by C.K. Williams

June 29, 2014

My review ran in the Inquirer on 6/29/14.

C.K. Williams stands out as one of the most active – and lauded – poets in contemporary American letters. Born in 1936 in Newark, N.J., he has published 20 or so collections of poems, a critical study of Walt Whitman, two books of essays, a memoir, some translations, and a number of children’s stories. Along the way he has won nearly every poetry prize out there, including the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Ruth Lilly poetry prize. His latest collection, All at Once, defies easy categorization.

All at Once is most likely to reward readers who don’t get hung up on superficial definitions of what constitutes a poem. The book is divided into three sections of what appear on the surface to be autobiographical prose poems. Because there are no line breaks, many of these resemble some of Baudelaire’s prose works or, every so often, Nietzschean aphorisms. What Williams has written here definitely are poems, but they’re also simultaneously mini-memoirs or even flash fiction. It ultimately doesn’t matter how we define them.

Generally speaking, the first section of this triptych deals with meditations on the poet’s life and his physical and domestic worlds, the second with his marriage to a woman named Catherine, and the third tends toward witty observations about the everyday world we all inhabit.

Sex and death get a great deal of attention throughout. In the case of the former, maybe it gets too much attention. More on that in a moment. The strongest parts of the book are those that look mortality in the eye, as in “Shock”:

“And I thought, This is how it is when someone dies, someone you love, how you stand still in your mind, your heart, you can’t move, nothing can move, and then, as time rushes over you like the wild wind of the veldt, you come to yourself, though something within you is still fleeing, still rushing forever away, you just don’t know what it is, in time’s tempestuous wind it’s gone, like the light in the eyes of a fawn, the light of life that doesn’t easily go out but does.”

From “Wind”:

“There’s something disconsolate about them – the desiccated leaves of autumn always appear to have found the place to which they’ve been destined, but these don’t seem to grasp what’s happened to them: they lie on the ground at awkward angles, like things wounded that haven’t completely given in to death and don’t know yet they must.”

The similes often pop from the page. In “Silence,” a heron paces “like an old-time librarian” and a few lines later sits awkwardly in a tree “like a still Adam’s-appled adolescent.” The regression from old age to youth is fascinating.

Some poems – “Old” and “Child’s Mind” and “Temptation” – may very well stand among the most rewarding of Williams’ tremendous career. My personal favorite is probably “Cattle,” about the “need to rest from the exertion of existing.”

If the occasional poem here comes across as a bit self-indulgent, so be it. Williams has earned that right. Many contain simple, sometimes mundane, observations about the little embarrassments and victories of daily life. To that extent, reading All at Once is a bit like reading the Facebook page of someone extremely insightful and clever, and occasionally someone lacking in discretion about his personal life. I’m not apt to continue reading any poem that begins, “Maybe it’s just my age, but sometimes these days when I’m making love to Catherine it feels as though . . . .”

Every poem here is artfully formed, of course, even if many mimic the spontaneity of social-media status updates. “Flexible Tubing” begins:

“To take my mind off the fact that I’m waiting for my doctor to call to let me know if I have lung cancer or not – Christ! – when the plumber comes today to run new water lines into the apartment we’ve rented and I’ve been renovating, I spend the day working with him, nine till five, ten minutes for lunch, exhausting, absorbing; I need the distraction.”

The only thing missing here is an Instagram pic of their sandwiches.

And here’s a particularly short one called “Apollo or Dionysus” verbatim and in its entirety: “Which? Quick! Which? Too late . . . Too late again.” I can’t help thinking that would have made a tremendous tweet.

We live in an age when every thought – however tedious or inconsequential or personal – finds public expression online. And it’s little wonder that our greatest artists would incorporate this newfound sensibility into their writing. A decade ago, perhaps Williams’ observations in All at Once might have taken a different shape, but he’s such a keen observer of our world – of our rhythms and our rhetorics. Given all of the chameleonic things he has achieved, perhaps it should come as no surprise to see Williams reinvent himself yet again as our elder statesman of TMI-overload and still continue to demonstrate why he’s considered a national treasure.