genre-bending

Readings: Lavie Tidhar

manliesI could tell you that A Man Lies Dreaming by Lavie Tidhar is a pulpy and visceral alternate history noir revenge fantasy, but no blurb can adequately describe what this book is. You can’t talk about it without spoilers, and I pity the person who had to do the blurb on the inside cover. It is vague and it’s vague on purpose. A bitter private detective is living in a world where Hitler’s party is no more, Germany is taken over by Communists, and Nazis are fleeing to England. In another world and time, a man in Auschwitz is dreaming of the world where a bitter private detective is living in a world where Hitler’s party is no more, and Nazis are fleeing to England. With me so far? The man dreaming happens to be a former writer of shund, which in prewar Yiddish theatre was considered to be cheap melodrama, trashy and vulgar. And so the world he dreams of is narrated in the manner of shund, with all the viscerality and vulgarity that it implies.

Perhaps A Man Lies Dreaming can best be described in its own words:

But to answer your question, to write of this Holocaust is to shout and scream, to tear and spit, let words fall like bloodied rain on the page; not with cold detachment but with fire and pain, in the language of shund, the language of shit and piss and puke, of pulp, a language of torrid covers and lurid emotions, of fantasy: this is an alien planet, Levi. This is Planet Auschwitz.

This pulpy quality might trick the reader into thinking that this is merely a noir/alternate history one reads in an afternoon and forgets the next day. This particular illusion is dispelled quickly as one gets deeper into the novel and sees layers and layers of symbolism within. It is worth reading the historical note at the end to get the full picture of how well-researched and intricate this novel is.

I find it both difficult and easy to recommend it. It is difficult because A Man Lies Dreaming is not a light book. It has plenty of R- and X-rated stuff inside. It is easy because it’s one of the most intense books I’ve read (at one point I told my friend that if I didn’t finish it in two days, my head would probably explode), and it will stay with me for a long time.

It’s been a solid week of amazing historical genre-bending fiction so far, which makes the task of choosing my next book victim quite difficult. The bar is really high.

 

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‘It’s always early summer in Wink’: American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

AmericanElsewhereIt’s always comforting to compare a new thing to something already familiar. This is why, about 20 pages into American Elsewhere, I thought ‘This is like Eureka, but terrifying. It’s like they hired Stephen King to write scripts for them.’ A coworker told me she thought of it as the novelization of Welcome to Night Vale.

We like to think that we are looking for originality in fiction. But I think what we actually look for is original familiarity, or familiar originality. We want something that is not entirely unknown, but unknown enough to jolt us. Thankfully, there are centuries and centuries of stories, and making connections is not difficult. I think saying that a work reminds you of some other work is not a criticism, especially if it reminds you of something that genuinely stayed with you. And I can say that this novel reminds me of Eureka, but it is NOT Eureka. It’s also NOT Bradbury (though there are tones of Bradbury in there), or Danielewski (there are odd houses, never-ending hallways), or King. It is Robert Jackson Bennett, and he is very, very good.

The story, in short: an ex-cop Mona finds out that she inherited a house that belonged to her mother. The house is located in Wink, New Mexico, a town so remote that it doesn’t seem to be on any maps. But that’s not the only weird thing about it. Or rather, it’s not even the weirdest thing about this town…

I am a sucker for ‘nice little town where spooky things are happening’ theme. Same with ‘uncomprehending stranger in a strange town’ theme. Both of those allow for some nicely done exposition and create a situation where a creepy town seems that much creepier precisely because its residents treat odd things as either normal or as things that have to be put up with because that’s the status quo. They know there are weird things going on, and try their best to steer the newcomer away from them (‘You know not to go out at night, right?’). It’s perfection tainted on the inside.

It is a fairly big book, and yet I finished it in just a couple of sittings, thanks to Bennett’s skill as a writer and specifically as a horror writer. I started it before bed one night. That was a foolish mistake, because three hours later I was still awake, stuck in the vicious ‘one more chapter’ loop. I was also kind of reluctant to go to sleep because it meant turning off the lights. American Elsewhere terrified me (and I mean that as a compliment). The last time I was this terrified was when I read Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes. 

In sum, American Elsewhere in unsettling, excellently paced, well-plotted, and full of great characters. I imagine it only improves on rereading.

Plus, there is an abandoned government science laboratory in it.

‘Our bodies lead separate lives’: Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux

therouxStrange Bodies is a hard book to review. I loved it, which presents a problem right from the start. I always have trouble reviewing books I love. It’s also fairly genre-bendy and has, for lack of a better description, bits of philosophy sprinkled throughout. I’ll do my  best, and if my best turns out to be terrible, all you need to know is that this book is great and you should read it.

Nicholas Slopen is by all accounts dead. And yet he stumbles into his ex-girlfriend’s shop and gives her a memory stick that contains his story. Written after his death.

Nicholas’s story begins when he is approached about some letters purported to belong to Samuel Johnson. Nicholas is a Johnson scholar and should thus be able to give his opinion on whether the letters are real. They seem authentic, and yet it soon becomes obvious that they are forgeries… (let’s pretend like I am narrating some true crime show)… or are they? The letters are written by Jack, a savant who thinks that he is Johnson. And here’s the kicker: he speaks like Johnson, he writes like Johnson… is he, perhaps, Johnson?

If you are a reader of genre, the mystery of Nicholas and Jack’s existence is not a mystery to you. It is rather hard to spoil this book, seeing how even though what Nicholas is is not revealed directly for a long while, the reader can guess the answer quite easily. There is a twist at the end, and that is easy to keep under wraps, but the idea that you can have consciousness transplanted into a new body permeates the novel.

The book full of strange bodies other than the new Nicholas and Jake. Among them are Vera, who says she is Jake’s sister; Bykov, the voice of reason and somewhat menacing dour Russian bodyguard in one; and Ron Harbottle, Nicholas’ hero and mentor. They are all very much alive and full of their own personalities. This cast is one of the best ingredients of the novel and makes up for some problems with the world-building and the vaguely-described mechanism of consciousness transfer. Consciousness is recreated via the Malevin Procedure (amusingly called ‘secret Soviet technology’ in the promo materials for the book), which involves the mapping of linguistic patterns. Samuel Johnson is therefore an obvious candidate for this operation due to abundance of writings. Distilling your mind from your written works does not seem like a particularly original idea. In fact, it sounds sort of outdated and reductionist. But if you are a book lover who treats every book as a glimpse into its creator’s brain, the idea becomes seductive and sort of cool. I read the second book f Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle soon after finishing Strange Bodies, and he seemed like a great candidate too, because My Struggle is hyper-realistic and incredibly detailed. It seemed like a look into Knausgaard’s mind. 

Strange Bodies is thus part fiction, part philosophy. I am not talking about Ayn Rand-type clue bat-style literature, or heavy-handed Soviet propaganda masquerading as fiction. Strange Bodies is similar to The Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. The Tale was also philosophical, mixing Buddhism and reflections on time. Strange Bodies mixes in Soviet Cosmism, the Whorfian hypothesis, and ideas about consciousness and the nature of self.

Strange Bodies hit all the right notes for me with its variety of characters, its reflections on parenting and being in love with your children, and its occasional very spot-on observations about human mind. In fact,  soon after starting Strange Bodies, I jokingly mentioned to someone that it was my brain in book form (so there we go, transfer of consciousness achieved sans ‘secret Soviet tech’!). I already said it reminded me of The Tale for the Time Being, but what it really reminded me of is Bulgakov’s works. And that is the most direct path to my heart any book can take.

Other bloggers have attempted to review this fascinating book, with much greater degree of success. For example, read Larry Nolen’s astute and smart review, or Liviu Suciu’s review at Fantasy Book Critic.