alternate history

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.


Short story Sunday, January 10th

I want to read more short fiction this year, and with that, I am resurrecting a series of posts that used to exist here for a brief second: Short Story Sunday. I am not going to write reviews of short stories. It is too easy to make your review seemingly longer than the story itself, and I am not looking to write long criticisms and dissect every paragraph. I’m just going to note a few really excellent short stories read that week, with links included if such exist. I have a lot of anthologies and collections that I bought and never read (or didn’t read completely), and there are a lot of digital magazines that publish great things.

If you ever sit around and think about where stories come from, or if you are suffering from a certain lack of inspiration, read Neil Gaiman’s introductions to his short story collections, Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors. I like him a great deal as a short form writer, more than I like him as a novelist, and he has an enchanting and wonderful way of portraying magic as hard work and vice versa.

I have read 10 short stories this week, and here are the the best of them (I am going to collapse the New Year long weekend into this week, since I missed the boat for 1/4):

Even In This Skin by A. C. Wise (Shimmer # 28, November 2015) – gorgeous story, with a gender-fluid component. I would very much like to read more things by A. C. Wise.

The next two are somewhat of a set, in that they are by the same author and are both alternate versions of queer history. The Heat Of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History by Sam J. Miller (Uncanny #2, January/February 2015) is a fantastical version of the Stonewall riots. Angel, Monster, Man (Nightmare #40, January 2016) is Miller’s short fiction take on the AIDS epidemic.

The Virgin Played Bass by Maria Dahvana Headley (Uncanny #8, January-February 2016). This one is a little longer, novelette-length. Headley is pure magic, and she combines seemingly unrelated parts of storytelling tradition in a way that is occasionally dark, or funny, but always incredibly vivid and brilliant. Her writing is just as good in novel form. I just finished her Queen of Kings and enjoyed it a lot.

On the horrors of old age: My Real Children by Jo Walton

A few days ago I tweeted this: ‘I’m on page 156 of this book, and I still don’t know how I feel about it’. The book in question was My Real Children by Jo Walton.

myrealchidlrenTruth is, I finished it, and I still don’t know how I feel. It is by Jo Walton, so I liked it (because I like her writing style), and yet I didn’t. My Real Children is the most political book by Walton I’ve read. It is true that all novels are political, but I feel that in My Real Children this combination is heavily skewed to the political rather than the novel side. There is a way to skillfully work politics into fiction (and Walton has done it before), but, unfortunately, in My Real Children, the message took over the medium. I agree with its message, and yet I did not like the way in which the message was presented. It did not read like a novel.

It is by no means a terrible book. The characters are very well-done. Walton is a skilled writer and hooks you with the first few pages, so you want to sit down and find out what happens next. The first chapter lured me in because it seemed to ask: ‘what is it like to age and lose your memory? is it like living in different realities?’

Patricia Cowan is very old and confused. She remembers living two separate lives, with two separate families and children. Pat seems like an ultimate unreliable narrator: ‘her brain could not be trusted’. We get both her biographies in full, and herein lies the problem. There is no unreliable narrator. Patricia’s lives are reported as if on a biography channel or in a history book. The stories go on in a rather dull and linear manner that seem at best plain and at worst too predictable. Her lives are also where the book’s political messages lie. My Real Children is feminist/LGBT/human rights sci-fi at its most outraged. One Pat lives married to Mark, ‘this terrible smug man’, who demands she bears children even as it endangers her life. Another Pat struggles for acceptance of her relationship with a woman: ‘I hate it when people won’t acknowledge my family as real’. There is also alternate history, with things happening in slightly different way than in our world. But whereas Walton was brilliant at alternate history in Small Change books (Farthing and its two sequels), here her lists of events seem tiresome and therefore not as memorable or important.

But the main theme in My Real Children is aging, and how terrifying it is to lose your ability to care for yourself, to lose your memory and your connection to other people. Both Pats are scared of losing their mental faculties and becoming entirely dependent on families, and they fight old age and dementia the best they can (as opposed to becoming ‘resigned to being old and sort of mummifying in it’). As I get older, I find that I am drawn to the exploration of aging in fiction and older characters. It made me a little sad that I did not enjoy this book as much as I had wanted to.

My Real Children is a sad book by itself, and its sadness is amplified by the book’s end being simultaneously its beginning. Pat is old and confused when we first meet her. The rest is history. Or rather, histories.