Microviews Vol. 61: A Bookcase of Curiosities

on Thursday, January 21, 2021
Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar
Back in 2013, Ayad Akhtar found himself at the centre of quite the political shitstorm. Conservative pundits were up in arms about his Pulitzer Prize winning play, Disgraced, in which one its characters, a Muslim, admitted to having felt a "blush of pride" when the planes hit the towers. That one line was tinder for the close-minded right wingers who gleefully missed the entire point and came at him with proverbial pitchforks. The question of what it means to be Muslim in post-911 America also lies at the heart of Homeland Elegies, though Akhtar revisits it in an altogether different way. The novel, inasmuch as it is one, is a perfectly-executed book of autofiction. Akhtar draws on moments of his own life (with which some readers will be familiar) and seamlessly inserts invented characters and events that flesh out the complicated relationship he has with the country in which he was born but that has since made him "other". So seamless are these insertions, that it took for me to look up a key person in the story to realise he only existed on the page. Akhtar is unrelenting in his self-examination, demonstrating remarkable courage and insight while grappling with feelings of belonging, anger, grief and hope. In so doing, he lays bear the structural and institutional racism that has always existed but that has ramped up to breaking point under Trump's disastrous presidency. That he does so concurrently with an underlying thread of filial investigation - he is as much coming to terms with his father's failings as he is his country's and his own - serves to add a layer of humanity and warmth that (I hope) breaks down the wall of otherness to some readers. Structured episodically in linked narrative essays - elegies, really - that come together to make an astonishing whole, Homeland Elegies is truly a book for our time, one that everyone should read.

Tell Me Lies by JP Pomare
It's easy to dismiss me as some kind of wanky literary snob. God knows I give enough ammunition. So it might come as some surprise that I love myself a good thriller and, when it comes to finding the best ones, JP Pomare has fast become my go-to. That guy knows how to plot. Tell Me Lies started off as a audio short. It was never intended to appear in book form. Alas, the commercial gods demand what the commercial gods demand and so, following the stellar success of the excellent In The Clearing, and to satiate the salivating masses anxiously awaiting The Last Guests, we have something that is, to paraphrase Britney, not a novella but not yet a novel. It starts off unassuming enough - psychologist Margot Scott sees a bunch of clients, including a new kid referred to her by an old colleague. The kid is witty and charming and very, very handsome. He's also inappropriately flirty. It all seems a bit harmless until BAM a molotov cocktail is thrown through her window. Could it be one of her clients? Could it be him? And what is the dark secret Margot is desperate to hide? Kicked into high gear, Tell Me Lies is a ripper thriller, full of unexpected twists, thorny moral quandries and deft psychological mindfuckery. And that last page... Whoah...

Three-Fifths by John Vercher
Speaking of genre fiction, here's one that really hit me in the feels. Hand sold to me by a bookseller friend who is rarely effusive about books and usually leans towards the more traditionally literary end of the fictional spectrum, I bought it without so much as reading the blurb. Three Fifths is a crime novel of sorts. It is also a moving family drama, a story of friendship gone awry and, most importantly, a disturbing snapshot of contemporary America. Bobby works a dead-end job at a local diner. His best friend turns up one day, fresh out of jail. They have not seen one another in three years and, it's fair to say, Aaron is a changed man. Once a scrawny, comic-book loving geek, he in now a buff, tattooed neo-Nazi. A minor altercation with a couple of black kids quickly escalates, and ends with Aaron smashing one of them in the face with a brick, ultimately killing him. It is violent and shocking and, for Bobby, utterly terrifying. Because, other than being made complicit in a terrible crime, Bobby has a much bigger problem. Though he presents as white, his father is black. While the fallout from the crime remains central to the story, it is the examination of racial identity that really lies at the heart of this book. The whole thing careens out of control, towards an horrific, inevitable end. It's ugly and heart-rending. But holy crap it's good. Talk about putting yourself on the map with your debut!

Hole's Live Through This by Anwyn Crawford
For all the notoriety that surrounds her, it's easy to forget quite how incredible Courtney Love really is. Sure, she's been eclipsed in the collective cultural memory by her husband, and is often spitefully (and wrongly) blamed for his death, but one listen to 1994's Live Through This and you will be left in no doubt that she is a superstar in her own right, capable of writing a tune that could kick the arse of pretty much anything Kurt ever did. Hell, even he thought so! Anwyn Crawford's brilliant cultural history of Hole's masterpiece is a must, not only for fans of the band, but anyone even vaguely interested in a musical movement that came to define a decade. Through personal reflection, interview, critical analysis and sharp observation of the cultural milieu, Crawford takes you deep inside the multiplicity of forces that came together in a perfect storm to create what remains one of my favourite albums of all time. Plus, it got me listening to Live Through This on repeat, with a new appreciation, maybe even an understanding, of one of the most complex, controversial and downright impressive figures in the history of contemporary music. Couldn't possibly ask for more than that!

A Country for Dying by Abdellah Taïa
A spot of bookshop serendipity landed this gem in my hands after a very obscure customer order came to naught, leaving it languishing on a shelf in bayside Melbourne. Well, thanks random shitty customer who doesn't respect small indie bookstores! Your dickery is my windfall. Okay, maybe not the most easy or pleasant winfall I've ever had, but I'm still pretty glad I got it. In A Country For Dying, Abdellah Taïa explores the seedy underside of Parisian life through two Arab prostitutes, Zahira and Zannouba, as they make sense of, and find dignity and agency in their lives. Zahira is in the twilight of her career and submits to ever-greater degradations. Little does she know that her former lover Allal has followed her from Morocco with murderous intent. Zannouba, formerly a gay Iranian revolutionary, battles with her identity as she prepares for gender confirmation surgery. Their stories unfurl in an almost Scheherezade-like fashion, with multiple time slips, fables, reminiscences and diversions. It can all be a bit disorientating at times, but you best let it envelope you. Taïa is constructing a tapestry of contemporary immigrant life, one in which the dream of refuge becomes a waking nightmare. Which isn't to say the story is lost to horror. The hope and decency with which he imbues Zahira and Zannouba - not to mention pockets of humour - lifts the novel above the bleak misery of its premise, and transforms it into something deeply moving.

Visible Men: The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr

on Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Like many avid readers, I spent much of 2020 in a slump, barely able to concentrate on anything even remotely demanding. Every now and then I hit upon a book that stoked the reading flame but those moments were few and far between. To that end, The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr was always going to be a litmus test of sorts - had I regained the presence of mind to commit to a 450-page, deeply literary book of big ideas with a large cast of characters, multiple time shifts and a complex storyline? That question, it turns out, is not easy to answer.

To get one thing out of the way first, I'll say this: while it may be a debut, The Prophets is, I'm quite convinced, a masterpiece. I'm not just throwing the term around. It's Toni Morrison/James Baldwin level masterpiece, with echoes of more contemporary greats like Colson Whitehead, and an added overlay of brilliantly-realised gay romance. Having said that, I couldn't quite give myself over to it - a fault that no doubt lies squarely with me and not the book.

The Prophets is historical fiction at its very best; a striking and fresh take on the slave narrative, the like of which I've not read before. At its heart lies the love story between Samuel and Isiah, two young slaves who work the cotton fields of the Elizabeth Plantation (or Empty, as it's known to the slaves). They find solace from the gruelling work and soul-crushing unfairness of their lives in one another's arms. Theirs is a raw, passionate kind of love, played out each night in the so-called Fucking Place. It sustains them, and brings us, as readers, a sense of respite from the relentless injustice heaped upon them. Robert Jones Jr is unflinching in his description of sex and yet, much like Garth Greenwell, it never seems gratuitous. Rather, it functions as a kind of lifeblood to the narrative itself; there is propulsive energy driving a sense of hope. The ultimate expression of otherwise unattainable freedom.

Samuel and Isiah's relationship is something of an open secret. Numerous people have seen them, and come to understand why they have yet to sire future generations of slaves, as is expected by the plantation's owner, Paul Halifax. Paul fancies himself a magnanimous owner; he aspires to treat his slaves better than his father did. But he is beholden to the prevailing mores and, really, any gestures toward decency are acts of self-delusion. Just like those before him, he rapes the women, resorts to extreme corporal punishment (albeit through proxies to keep his hands clean) and trades slaves he deems unproductive with little care for their established familial or communal bonds. He is thoroughly detestable but is not the catalyst for disater. That honour goes to Paul's son, Timothy, who learns of Samuel and Isiah's secret and sees in it a chance to satiate his own desires away from his parents' gaze. From the first time he invites Isiah to his room to sit for a portrait, a new sense of foreboding insinuates its way into an already very tense narrative. It will not end well. And it doesn't.

There are many things that set The Prophets apart from the pack. Robert Jones Jr writes achingly good prose. Every sentence radiates beauty, even when he is describing the most horrific events. He is also daring with form. The Prophets communes with spirits and ancestors as much as it exists in the historical present. There are voices, much like a greek chorus, that pipe up from time to time with etheral premonitions and commentary. Jones takes us to Africa in the time before centuries-old kingdoms are decimated by missionaries and slavers, where history informs our understanding of the deep bonds between those living on the plantation, not to mention a different perspective on sexuality and gender. Perhaps what stood out most to me was the generosity with which Jones writes and inhabits his characters. There are many, many people we get to know, and all seem important and necessary. Jones portrays them with depth, curiosity, humanity and a fullness I would usually expect to only be found in the central characters of a book, let alone one this big. He writes men well. He writes women well. Irrespective of any markers of identity, he writes as if he respects them as people with a story to tell. There are no easy moral signposts, either. Seemingly good people do bad things, and vice versa. Even viewed within its context, you will be challenged by much of what you read. Which isn't to say the book does not positively bristle with moral indignation and righteous anger. Jones has the fiery clarity of, well, a prophet. What he has to say is, often, incendiary, consuming injustice in the flames of his ire.

The Prophets may take as its waypoints aspects with which many readers will be familiar, but it builds on them in surprising and engaging ways. It is epic and ambitious, finely-wrought and devastating. It just might be one of the great American novels of the 21st century. If only I'd been in the headspace to properly appreciate it.


on Wednesday, January 6, 2021
Let's face it. The Nobel Prize is, more often than not, a curse. When JM Coetzee - probably my favourite living author - won in 2003, it took him a couple of novels to recover. Not that Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year were terrible books, but they certainly were unremarkable by Coetzee's standards. I'd also argue that Summertime and The Childhood of Jesus, whilst steps in the right direction, were no great shakes eaither. It wasn't until The Schooldays of Jesus that he was back on form. And that was 2016. His Nobel was celebrating its bar mitzvah. Coetzee is not alone. Many other authors are either squashed into slience, or fart out works decidedly unworthy of their newfound status. Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Patrick Modiano, Peter Handke (here's hoping)... Oh, and stop kidding yourself. You only pretended to like Dylan's last two albums (*fight me*). Which brings me to Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel laureate. A bit over three years after he won, and six after his last (and weakest) novel, we get Klara and the Sun.

For those trying to avoid spoiler's in the lead-up to Klara's March release, I'll give you the potted summary first: it's good. Very good. Fans of Never Let Me Go will find themselves in familiar territory, though this is a more complex and meditative work of speculative fiction. Though I think I still preferred Never Let Me Go (I say think because I'm still kind of processing Klara), I can confidently say that Ishiguro has bucked the Nobel curse. Sure, it's no Remains of the Day or An Artist of the Floating World but it's a thoroughly enjoyable, consistently intriguing read that had me contemplating some very big, uncomfortable questions.

From hereon in, beware. There will be minor spoilers. That said, I'll try to keep it a little vague, if only because I couldn't hope to capture all the novel has to offer. Also, I don't want to ruin the experience of watching its many, many ethical dimensions play out on the page. Still, don't say I didn't warn you.

Klara is an Artificial Friend (AF), advanced robot technology created to serve as a companion to lonely (or spoiled) children. AFs are both trend and necessity. When the novel opens, we meet Klara in the front window of a store, where she stands on display with fellow AF Rosa, observing the world, taking in the sun, and hoping to be picked out by a passing child. After some weeks, the two are taken from the window to make way for the newer B3 models that have just arrived. Klara and Rosa have been superceded, and are relegated to the back room bargain bin. Eventually Rosa is sold and Klara is alone. Enter Josie, a shy and sickly child who instantly falls for Klara. Her mother wants a B3, but Josie won't be swayed.

As soon as Josie brings Klara home, we get the sense that things are amiss. The reader, like Klara, is dropped into an unsettling world of shifting perceptual planes, a cruel and dangerous social strata system, and a family tenuously held together by what feels, more than anything else, like existential dread. Of course it's hard to know whether to trust Klara's narration - she is, after all, a robot learning to be part of a family.

Still, there are enough objective markers to know something is not right. The house is kept by an overly officious robot, Melania Housekeeper (yeah, I laughed). Josie's best friend, Rick, who has not been "lifted" (it takes a while to work out what that means) is ridiculed and bullied at an "interaction meeting" with other children. Mother regularly schleps Josie to the city to sit for a portrait with the very creepy Mr Capaldi. Each time he focuses on a single body part, and she is never allowed to see how it is progressing. There's also a downright bizarre outing to Morgan's Falls, where Mother has Klara perform a number of what, at first, we take as demeaning tasks but that come to have a much more sinister, tragic meaning. Klara, too, develops some pretty intense obsessions: with the sun, with a nearby barn and, most importantly, with a machine that spews Pollution through its three funnels.

Underpinning all of these things, and the story as a whole, is Josie's failing health. She is not just sick. She is dying, as did her sister before her. When Klara's purpose is finally revealed by Mother, it is as profound as it is horrific. Sure, there wasn't quite the cataclysmic gut-punch of Never Let Me Go, but that hardly seemed the point. Ishiguro renders the twist intentionally unremarkable; the signs are there for the reader to see and what is revealed feels like the final piece of a smartly constructed puzzle. It doesn't force us to reconsider all we've read but, rather, to engage with Ishiguro's central theme: the human essence.

Much like Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun asks what it means to be human. This time, however, Ishiguro goes one step further and asks not only whether life has intrinsic value, but whether there really is such a thing as individuality. Does a person truly exist as an irreplaceable, irreducible individual or is that merely a sentimental construct that we take upon ourselves and then ascribe to those we love? In doing so Ishiguro touches on many of the cornerstones of our existential awareness: family, friendhsip, religion (particularly God, as represented by Klara's belief in the Sun), love and, of course, death. Klara, in a perpetual state of received revelation, is a useful avatar, all the more so because of her inherent unreliability. She is honest and forthright, but necessarily naive. It's kind of great and fun, but to a certain extent, is also the novel's greatest weakness - I found myself thoroughly confused a number of times and, to be honest, there are a few things I still don't get, even after having chewed it over for a couple of days.

Klara and the Sun also lacks the tightness of Never Let Me Go. For a novel so jam-packed with fantastic, genuinely original ideas it felt a little wooly at its edges. There are minor subplots that struck me as underdeveloped and unexplored (the AF resistance movement springs to mind here). There also lulls; they are few and far between but their presence was very much noticed. Maybe it is the novel's reliance on set pieces that caused the connective tissue to visibly strain. Not that it greatly mattered. Sure, I felt as if I was limping through some parts, but it always came good. Indeed, the closing section is one of the most moving things I've read in a long time.

Stripped of use, immobile and with failing circuitry that cast her memories into doubt, Klara is found in an AF junkyard by the manager who first sold her to Josie. They discuss the purpose and worth of her existence and decide that it was good. She fared better than Rosa. But to what end? She exists, an individual, in perpetuity. Forgotten and discarded in a world that might be wholly populated by successive generations of Artificial Friends. Perhaps these ideas of life, of individuality and worth, are all lies we tell ourselves when we reach the end. Because, really, what other choice do we have?