Starting a dystopian book club with your child

Is this a good idea?!?! Yes!

My son, J., was a strong early reader and got bored with me reading to him way too early (my opinion, not his), so we began reading the same book tandem-style years ago. That’s how we read the entire Harry Potter series together, and we’ve since moved on to joint-read a lot of graphic novels (he often recommends ones for me to read) and mainly science fiction books (I usually recommend these).

He’s officially a tween now at 11.5, and some if not most of the books we’ve been reading are definitely from the TEEN shelves. One reason for that: it’s hard to find great sci-fi for middle grades (though it’s possible I just don’t know where to look). Tor.com published this essay about the lack of speculative fiction in the Newberry Award line-up over the years, and I agree. It seems like great fantasy books (which my daughter is into) are easier to come by for this age group than sci-fi (I’m thinking of The Girl Who Drank The Moon, Saavy, My Diary From The Edge of the World). But my son, for whatever reason, is into apocalypses, not dragons and magic. So when reading these books alongside J., I make sure to check in about the violence, romance, etc., and we discuss. Briefly. But brief discussions count!

Also, some context: I also grew up in a house where my parents didn’t care what I read (I mean this in the best way possible!). We kids were turned loose in the library and made our way through the stacks all on our own, without parent recommendation or guidance. So I grew up reading everything and loving all genres of books. 5th grade, when I was my son’s age, I discovered Stephen King. I spent the next few years dwelling in horror and whatever you want to call the V.C. Andrews books, before re-emerging into the light with large Russian novels for some reason. While I would not be super excited to have my son read Stephen King now, at his age…I mean, I turned out all right. Gave me nightmares, still gives me nightmares, but whatever. Anyhow, all this to say, just because The Hunger Games is about kids killing kids, and that sounds awful, it still can be a great book to read with your child, if both you and your child are ready for it. 

Here’s a list of what we’ve been reading, in case you’re interested in starting up your own dystopian (and occasionally fantasy) book club for two.

The House of the Scorpion and its sequel The Lord of Opium, Nancy Farmer: the first book in this 2-book series is one of my son’s favorite books ever (“I just love her writing,” J. said). Sure, the novels deal with poppies, opium, and the drug trade (good time to have that conversation about addiction!), but the books also take place in a richly imagined future, dealing with some of the same cloning ethics that Never Let Me Go also dipped into. Also features a great, imperfect, headstrong, and complex boy hero. (By the way, I’m not saying to read Never Let Me Go with your tween. Please don’t.). J.’s rating: House of Scorpion, 5/5; The Lord of Opium: 5/5

Scythe and Thunderhead, Neal Shusterman: these are my favorite books that we’ve read together. Scythe has some pretty heavy themes and disturbing violence (the mass gleanings, man, those are hard for even me to read). But I think the books, at the same time, handle death and killing so respectfully–compared with, for instance, Star Wars violence, where you can shoot up dozen bad guys and it’s no big deal. The books brings up all these huge issues which have been great to talk about with J., such as, would you want to live forever? Would you want to be a Scythe? What kind of Scythe would you be? There’s also an interesting AI character, The Thunderhead, kind of a uber-Siri, who is trying to keep the world running smoothly but bad humans are getting in the way. I found Scythe by checking out the Printz Honor books (award for teen books by the ALA). J.’s rating: Scythe: 4.5/5; Thunderhead: 4.5/5 

Pure (and the two follow-up books Burn and Fuse), Julianna Baggott: I was super excited about Pure, as it was on the beloved 100 Notable Books of the Year for the New York Times. When does a teen sci-fi book get to be on that list!?! It’s a well-written and deeply moving series set against the backdrop of a nuclear bombed out world. J.’s rating: Pure 4/5; Burn 4/5; Fuse 3.5/5

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card: combines computer games, boarding school, bullying, outer space, aliens, and war! J.’s rating: 4.5/5

Divergent (and its sequel Insurgent), Veronica Roth: My son thought Divergent (book 1) was even better than The Hunger Games (and he really liked Hunger Games). I like that the series takes place in Chicago–go Midwest! There’s a strong female lead, score one for the team!, though the romance is kind of heavy (good time to have that conversation too). I would recommend skipping the third book in the series, Allegiant — the (controversial?) ending is bleak. Really bleak. Really, really bleak/sad. I’m all for depressing books but this felt like way too much and didn’t seem to fit the tone of the series. After this VERY WRONG THING happened, I ended up summarizing the rest of the book for J. and told him he might want to stop reading (he did). J.’s rating: Divergent 4/5; Insurgent 4/5; Allegiant, 3/5;  

The Hunger Games (and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins: this was my second read through the series, Jasper’s first. They are enjoyably intense page turners that get political and revolutionary toward the end, though the Katniss, Peeta, Gale love triangle is——I’m just tired of love triangles. Let’s add some polyamory into teen books, please! J.’s rating: The Hunger Games 4.5/5; Catching Fire 4/5; Mockingjay 4/5

Graphic novels

  • Nimona (2015 National Book Award finalist), J.’s rating 4.5/5; 
  • Spill Zone (by Scott Westerfeldter of Uglies fame, another series I want to read with my son) (I remember quite a lot of the F word used in Spill Zone, another opportunity for yet another conversation with J. about language), J’s rating 4/5;
  • The Lottery graphic novel (yes! a graphic novel! illustrated by Shirley Jackson’s grandson! It gave me the chills watching J. interact with Shirley Jackson for the first time), J’s rating 4/5.

Future books

  • The Thief
  • Arena (found this on the 2017 Alex Award list, an ALA award given to adult books that are of interest to teen readers–I’m not sure how these books will go over with J. but I’d like to try).

Books which didn’t work out for the club

  • Feed, by M.T. Anderson: this book has one of the best opening lines (“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”) I love this book. Anderson also went to my MFA program a few years before me, which is really (too?) exciting for me. But the language was overly stylized for J. and he stopped reading after a few pages. Darn.
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding: not exactly sci-fi but I think of it as a possible inspiration for The Hunger Games. My son refused to read it after encountering this sentence in the first paragraph: “All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat.” Okay, yes, that is a weird sentence. What were you thinking, William Golding?! But darn.  
  • Wizard of Earthsea: J. made it half-way through before losing interest. I love Ursula LeGuin deeply, but this book is not my favorite of hers. It is so serious and somber and almost flat. Maybe not the best suggestion on my part (I was hoping we would make it to future books in the Earthsea series, like The Tombs of Atuan, which I think is much better). 

Can a TV show or movie improve on a great book?

The Handmaid's Tale: book vs the show

(Publication news: a new portal story in The Sun (perhaps my last portal story for awhile - I am finally taking a break from them!); and a teen anti-hero fantasy story in the November issue of Cicada)

I've been thinking about this question lately--about this impulse we have, to turn really good books into TV shows or movies--as I'm rereading The Handmaid's Tale after flying through the Hulu series. The TV show was good, the acting really good. But the book is so, so, so much better.

My main qualm with the TV show is the impulse to simplify June/Offred's character into someone who hates Gilead with all her heart and is also a hero in making. June, in the TV show, protested the government takeover with other women at first. She dropped the stone that she was supposed to use to kill Janine. She struts with the handmaids in a visual display of (perhaps misguided) power. She seems a little special, maybe a little extraordinary. While in the book, she is much more complacent (and more complicit?) and complex (Atwood has described the character as "an ordinary, more-or-less cowardly woman (rather than a heroine.)" June/Offred hates the Commander but also seems to have pity for him or claims to. She doesn't imagine herself saving anybody. She simply wants to stay alive. Her daughter is a distant memory, not an actual child she can save. Sometimes she even seems to buy into Gilead's guarantee of safety and security for women. It's not like things were perfect before power was seized. "Now we walk along the same street, in red pairs, and no man shouts obscenities at us, speaks to us, touches us. No one whistles. There is more than one kind of freedom, said Aunt Lydia. Freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don’t underrate it."

June's complacency seems in reaction to, and contrasts from, the political feminism of her mother, which is not applauded or found effective in the novel.

In the book, I was shocked to find June/Offred praying, maybe untraditionally, but it's still a prayer to God, the same God that Gilead's powerful is praying to (though June doesn't think God intended what is going on: "I wish I knew what You were up to. But whatever it is, help me to get through it, please. Though maybe it’s not Your doing; I don’t believe for an instant that what’s going on out there is what You meant.") Note that June/Offred's daughter does not appear in her prayers. And the book has additional layers of complexity from the narrative frame: June is very conscious that her story is a reconstruction, and she admits she it is impossible to capture the actual event as it was: "It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many." Occasionally she tells us a detail, then revises her story, saying that's not really what she did, or what happened.

Round-up of some things

leg, meds, books

New publications: a story on Terraform; then there's this cool accompanying piece putting the story in context; also I don't think I mentioned my Lightspeed story about portals (I still love portals!); and an accompanying interview; and my creative non-fiction experiment "A List of My Utopias" is reprinted in the fall Utne Reader.

Writing on antidepressants update: for my depression I have moved on from Lexapro to....Prozac (read initial write-up here). I did get up the courage to ask my new psychiatrist what about Wellbutrin (Lev Grossman's anti-depressant of choice), though I realize that probably is one of the worst reasons to think a drug is good for you (because you like the author). But due to my past history with eating disorders, Wellbutrin is countraindicted for me, says my psychiatrist, which means....no. I was bummed, as Lev Grossman doesn't take Prozac, and Prozac does not exactly have a great reputation in the media--in my mind, it is kind of the poster child of anti-depressant overuse or the numbing effect you hear stories about. But it is also supposed to be the most activating (I love this use of the word) of the SSRI's. So far, after ditching Lexapro and taking a week of very low dose Prozac, I've noticed it's harder to fall asleep at night, but at the same time I am no longer falling asleep at the computer while I write. Whoo-hoo! Or needing 2-3 crazy long naps during the day!! This is a very exciting development. Lexapro works great for a lot of people, my psychiatrist explained, but other people experience sedation/drowsiness as a side effect, and I happened to be one of those folks.

As with Lexapro, there is still a kind of muting of strong emotions with Prozac. I don't find this necessarily an awful thing, as my personal life is a bit crazy right now, and staying calm or unbothered helps keep my depression from spiraling downward. Though I do miss having this urgent need to process and write about the shitty stuff that happens in my life. Before meds, after some huge family blow-up, I'd race to the computer and just plow out pages of pure grit and emotion that would usually end up being very dark but also very interesting to me. I find it a lot harder to channel that emotion now or to even want to record my crazy last week for a future story idea. On the good side, that distance is helping keep me functional. And also it's easier to imagine writing about something other than myself. Downside: those emotions are what fueled my writing for the past few years. Maybe it will just require some extra effort. Suicidal ideation: even on meds, I'm still struggling with this, though to a slightly lesser degree. My therapist thinks a higher dosage might help. But higher dosages worry me, as already I'm aware of that distancing/muting effect. What's helped this week is trying to clear my mind of all the repetitive thoughts and worry and negative stuff, and forcing myself instead to think of 1 small thing I want to do that will happen in the next few hours. For example, I want to work on revising a story I am almost done with. Or, I want to use my arm bike and watch Stranger Things this evening. I want to bake an apple cake with my son! Etc. Then I tell myself I am going to be here until I do that thing, because that thing sounds nice. And I just really focus on how that one thing is going to happen and I want it to happen. Once that thing happens, I pick the next small thing. Then, repeat. Still an experiment in progress.  

Reading: Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song. An amazing book and ideal for insomaniacs as it is very long (1,000+ pages) and not available as an audiobook. So I would never have the time to read it were it not for my sleepless nights. But man, the ending is so beautiful, and also so bleak. The book is a masterpiece in its ability to make every one of its characters human and relatable, including Gary Gilmore, the convict who murdered two people and ended up being executed by the state of Utah. Also Lincoln in the Bardo. An almost perfect book. Daring, heartfelt, moving, funny...and the audio book rocks. Also my kids have insisted I read the Mighty Jack series as well as all three Zita the Spacegirl graphic novels (all of these books by Ben Hatke). I really loved the first Mighty Jack, where a boy gives away his mom's car in exchange for some magical seeds. He does this because his assumedly autistic sister speaks about the seeds. That's a great set-up for a story.  

Trying To Find Meaning In An Accident

It’s been 2.5 weeks since I slid a few feet down a mountain, broke my ankle and the tibia and fibula bones in my leg, got helicoptered out, and had a surgery called Open Reduction and International Fixation, meaning I now have a rod and several screws in my leg and will get stopped whenever I go through metal detector (I think that last detail is kind of cool, at least in theory. At least my kids think it's cool). I have spent most of my post-accident time staring at a lot of things. The lake outside my hospital room in the Adirondacks (Saranac Lake). The bright blue bruising on my thigh and big toe. The weird swollen transformation of my left leg. The mountains I wasn't climbing. The photos my husband took of the people who helped rescue me and also the photo of me flying through the air on a harness up toward the helicopter. I thought I would also get a lot of reading and writing done. Or at least I could get caught up on email. But apparently you can't read or write on OxyCodone. At least I couldn't. 

Now that I am no longer in constant pain, and I'm off prescription pain killers (yes! because that was scary), it seems a good time to ease back into writing. But my brain is frustratingly resistant to this plan. I wonder why. Self defense? Denial? An absorption of bad habits (I did a lot of googling in the hospital so why not just keep googling away the mornings)? Laziness? Tiredness? Inertia? Self-pity? Disinterest? I’m hoping to ignore all of the unhelpful  signals I'm sending myself right now (don’t write don’t write don’t write) (instead of writing, sleep! Stare out the window! Make granola! Buy weird things on Amazon! Do yoga! Sleep! Watch your leg!) and instead force myself to sit in this now uncomfortable desk chair and do the work. My plan: write 140 characters for Twitter. Write a few blog posts. Do some critique-free journaling about details of the accident. Respond to some writing related emails. Find a way to sit comfortably with my leg elevated. Send out a few stories to journals/magazines. Then start on a children’s story. Then get back to the monster project I was working on (before the “vacation”) about the end of the world.  

Thoughts about my accident and writing: I fell several feet coming down from Algonquin in the Adirondacks at a steep part of the trail. I must have landed in the worst way possible because several feet is not that far to fall. I don’t remember falling, but I remember suddenly being on my back, and a man -- Tim, who I like to think of as my guardian stranger--rushed over and said, “Are you okay?” and “Oh God,” and “You are really hurt. You have a bad injury.” and “Are you hiking alone?” I looked at my leg and saw something was very wrong with it, it was twisted at an odd terrible angle, so I closed my eyes and didn’t open them again for a long time. Tim called for my husband. “Your wife is hurt,” he shouted. “Come quickly!” My husband must have started running, as Tim added, “Not that quick,” worried there would be another fall. Tim held onto my left hand. With my right hand, I gripped my husband's arm and left nail marks in his skin as they tried to straighten out and stabilize my leg. My daughter's stuffed animal lamb was used as a cushion. Tim covered me with his rain coat. People stopped by along the trail and asked how they could help. I was hysterical for a while. Time slowed. My daughter held my hand and touched my face. I needed both of my hands held at all times. Somehow that grounded me. I was shaking and my teeth were chattering though I wasn't cold. My husband tried to distract me by reading Castle of Llyr, which unfortunately is my least favorite Chronicles of Pyrdian book. I asked my husband to shoot me. We didn't have a gun, of course. All we had was Advil. Somehow our cell phones worked. A younger couple had called 911 and was connected with DEC dispatch, and was told a helicopter was being sent with some rangers, resulting in the longest 2.5 hours of my life, The rescue helicopter arrived, hovered over us, then flew off, then circled back again, hovered, and flew off. The helicopter blades created a tremendous noise and its wind shook the trees. The fly-bys were because the pilot had to burn fuel before evacuating me from the mountain. Something about the warmer weather. I closed my eyes and pretended the helicopter was never going to come, that this was my new reality, lying in the middle of the trail with my destroyed leg. When I opened my eyes, a ranger was next to me, preparing the harness. I assumed I would be getting pain meds. I assumed I would be taken up in some kind of cot-like stretcher. But no pain meds, and no stretcher. At some point my husband was busy preparing to move me, while my daughter was helping radio the helicopter, which meant no one was holding my hand. The feeling left my panicked. I began opening and closing my hand, and when Tim saw this, he held onto me. The ranger said, "Grab onto this here, but don't touch that," pointing to the contraption that would be hooked into the wire lowering down from the helicopter.  I didn't totally understand but then that might have been the point of the situation, a lack of recognizable logic and sense.   

Slow pacing in a Hitchcock film!?!

Yes.

(side note: I have a new portal story up at Lightspeed as well as an author interview)

We have the occasional family movie night over here, which started as a way for me to keep sane while my husband was in a long distance master's program which required him to be gone anywhere from 4 days to 2 weeks every other weekend. But it ended up being pretty fun watching movies with the kids so we kept the tradition going. We all take turns choosing the film, meaning our movie watching history is quite varied, encompassing Spy Kids, Irving Berlin's Easter Parade, Big Hero 6, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Singin' in the Rain. 

This past weekend was my turn to pick, and I decided it was time to introduce Hitchcock to my kids. My dad is a huge movie buff--he also collects and sells 16mm film and fixes projectors--so I grew up in a house dripping in movie history. My dad's approach to movies certainly shaped my approach to reading: he loves movies unabashedly, with little regard to genre labels. Mystery, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, literary, classics, whatever. So in addition to watching The Blob as a kid (ah, that movie theater scene with the air vents!), and The Attack of the 70-Foot-Women, and Them!, and some movie about brains from outer space, and a whole lot of Twilight Zones, and The Godfather, Hitchcock was thrown into my childhood at some point, and I have fond memories of watching Rope, and Rear Window, and North by Northwest as a kid. (I do not have fond memories of watching Psycho, as I am forever terrified of hotel bathtubs with shower curtains.) 

So I've made a point to expose my kids to older movies as well. My daughter giggled all through "Make 'Em Laugh" from Singin' in the Rain, and we all found Errol Flynn's 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood to be very, very exciting, though the sound quality sucked. I was a little surprised about cocaine's appearance in Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, but, you know, that just kick started the discussion about drugs and addiction that every parent has to have at some point (but did I really want to have that discussion when my daughter was 5? Thanks a lot, Charlie Chaplin).

For Hitchcock, I started off by showing my kids this spectacular preview to North by Northwest:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRfmTpmIUwo

My 10-year-old son thought Hitchcock was hilarious. My daughter, now 7, got excited about the action scenes. 

North by Northwest went over great. I mean, it's not the perfect kid's film using today's definition of "kid film." The drinking scene needed some explanation (Cary Grant's character Roger Thornhill is forced to drink too much bourbon then he's forced to drive his car in an attempt to kill him). And some of the, what to call it, romantic (?) dialogue between Roger and Eve Kendall was waaaaaaay over the top (Roger: The moment I meet an attractive woman, I have to start pretending I have no desire to make love to her. / Eve: What makes you think you have to conceal it? / Roger: She might find the idea objectionable./ Eve: Then again, she might not.) But I'll take that kind of stuff to the choppy, non-stop frantic energy of today's current films that are marketed to children. Kids, it's assumed, are unable to or unwilling to linger.

Writing, antidepressants, and depression

My therapist has been bringing up anti-depressants every few months since I started seeing her in December 2015. The first time, I said there was no way I was going to take medication. My response was like a reflex. Where does such a reflex come from? Partly, I think I wanted to love my brain as it was. I wanted to think my brain was normal and good and, on the days when my brain did not treat me kindly, that I could wrestle it back into shape using behavior modifications, exercise, and my writing. My depression has never been the debilitating, can't get out of bed sort. It's chronic and low grade with occasional dips into major depression mixed with suicidal ideation. It's not pleasant, but most of the time I can appear functional, and sometimes my brain will start doing some weird warped thinking that I can put into a story.

The second time my therapist brought up antidepressants, I said I'd think about it, and I thought about it for a few days, and then I said again, no way! I love my brain! And, to be honest, I had become very interested in writing about, and through, the low points of my depression. I felt like I was being given an opportunity to explore this weird dark murky awful landscape as a writer, and the writing I did while in such a place was dark, murky, weird, but also interesting to me.

Then recently I had a Very Bad Weekend, where my suicidal ideation ratcheted up a step, and it freaked me out a little, and also I was spending so much energy trying to answer the question "Do I want to be here anymore?" that I was having trouble doing anything else for a few days other than surviving and writing. (An awful complex fact: I think the writing I did during this time is actually pretty fascinating, and weird, and dark. I'm hoping to turn it into a creative non-fiction piece. So I don't think my depression ever ruined my writing, though it did narrow the focus of my writing to me me me me me.) At my next appointment, my therapist brought up medication again, citing some reasonable evidence based data: that meds + therapy have been shown to be more effective than meds or therapy on their own. That I have been working very hard at therapy for 1.5 years and maybe it was time to try something a little different. She mentioned the possibility that maybe I didn't have to go through so much suffering in order to write or to live my life. She doesn't believe that artists need to be depressed in order to be good deep artists. Sometimes freeing one's self from depression can actually help one's art, she said. I said okay, yeah, I'll think about it, and this time, I did actually do some thinking and some questioning.  

Here's what I thought about. How useful was my suffering or my depression? And who was it useful to? Was it useful to my writing? What kind of writer would I be without my depression, and without access to that very deep dark hole of a place in which I fell from to time? Would taking meds mean I was agreeing that my brain wasn't normal? Was I just buying into society's idea of a normal brain? What if my husband liked me better on meds? What if I liked myself better on medication? Was I participating in the over-medicating of American society if I started taking anti-depressants? What would meds do my writing? And, of course, there was the question, how much did I want to be here? 

I had no idea the answers to any of these questions, so I started reading about writers and medication, or at least googling about it. I found some essays on line.

Depression sketches

I have chronic low-grade depression (dysthymia, a word I will never be able to spell without looking it up) with some episodes of major depression. I also have a son with Asperger's/Autism and a complicated marriage. So I'm in a lot of therapy now and have been for the past few years. Couples, individual, parent therapy to help my son, plus, as an extra bonus these past 8 months, physical therapy and gait retraining for a stubborn running injury. Upside: I can put therapists, and being in therapy, in all of my stories! As I know a lot about it now. Downside: it takes up a lot of time and I'd rather be writing (or showering). In couples therapy recently, I began doodling to calm me down, as couples counseling is as relaxing as someone looking into your eyes, and holding your hand, and pulling off your fingernails one by one, but also because I like doodling. Here's me, on a relatively okay day, making a neat orderly picture while I talked with my husband and therapist. 

Then I had a bad week. My depression flared up. Here's me at couples counseling, 2 weeks later, when I was stuck in one of those low points.

These two drawings are comforting to me for several reasons. I've often written through, and about, my depression, but I hadn't drawn through it before. It's nice to know that something as invisible as functional depression (well, invisible to other people at least) can come out in a sketch. Visual proof, perhaps. Also, I see these two drawings as a reminder that at some point my mood will inevitably improve. I was once able to draw neat boxes; then I was unable to draw neat boxes for a while; but now, at this moment, I am able to draw neat boxes again. The second drawing allows me to see my depressed self at a distance as well, which I find fascinating (I tried taking a photo of myself in a very depressed state once, because I wanted to see what I looked like. I guess I'm glad I did that, in case I have to describe someone who looks unbearably sad, but it's a hard photo to look at. This drawing is easier for me to stomach). I see in that second sketch someone--okay, I see me--trying very hard to bring some kind of recognizable order to the chaos that was my mind at that moment. I appreciate and admire that some part of my mind was trying very hard to draw some recognizable shapes, even if the depressed part of my mind immediately went in afterwards and began to scribble methodically all over those shapes. (That is actually a great summary of conversations between my non-depressed and depressed parts of myself: the little non-depressed part of my mind trying to stay hopeful while the depressed part of my mind easily overwhelms it by releasing a vitriolic storm). 

And then, in the upper middle of the drawing, I swear I drew a portal for myself. Not consciously but I can't help seeing it there now. I've been obsessed in my writing about portals for so long, and I love that some part of my mind was trying to create one for me, a dark tunnel out of the mess of myself through which I could go.  

Another book for the Slow Paced Genre Realism category

The Leftovers!

I forgot an essential book for the “slow-paced genre realism” category I recently made up: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I discovered the novel after watching the first episode of the excellent TV series. (The beginning of The Leftovers pilot, by the way, contains what may be the best three minutes in television I’ve seen. Please watch if it you haven’t! Overall The Leftovers an amazing job of depicting the complexity of parents and parenthood and this three minute intro is no exception).

https://youtu.be/x7qDbpnPHpY

The premise of The Leftovers: 2% of the world population has disappeared (about 140 million people). Though we get a sense of the chaos that happened immediately after "the departure" as it's called (and that chaos certainly has apocalyptic tones), what is brilliant about both the book and the TV series is that the story really begins 3 years after the departure, when things have kind of returned enough to normal to resemble literary realistic fiction. The world still works. People have jobs. The infrastructure is functional. Yet everyone is affected--haunted?--by the disappearances and are dealing with their grief in their own way. Nobody understands why it happened: was it the Rapture? If so, why were non-Christians taken along with Christians? And why were bad people taken as well as good people? What does it say about someone if they were left behind? And where did the people who are gone go? Did they go to a better place? A worse place? Did they just disappear? 

Those questions are never answered, by the way, which I think is great. The answers might be the preoccupation of a different version of the novel, one more formulaically genre-ish, but this book's concern is the way people deal with their grief, and how people move on, or don't.

The Leftovers strikes me as “post-apocalypse light." In most post-apocalyptic fiction that I've read, enough of the world’s population disappears to disrupt normal day-to-day functioning. The planet becomes a scary wasteland, and the story concerns itself with how people survive and eventually rebuild. They're like adventure novels. In The Leftovers, only enough of the population is missing for practically everyone to be affected in some way. Most people saw someone disappear or they are related to someone who disappeared. But more than enough people are left that life can continue on seemingly unaffected on the surface. Everything is still functional in theory--there is electricity, cars, jobs, grocery stores, food. It's the grief and the doubts that are crippling: why were certain people taken and why were certain people left behind? It's really a novel about grief and all the ways that we can lose people. 

The book is slow and beautiful and subtle and devastating but also somewhat hopeful at the end. It also contains one of my favorite passages about motherhood. This passage rips my heart out by its teeth, so I'm going to include it below. 

In Which I Make Up a Categorization Called “Slow-paced Genre Realism”

(What I'm reading now: Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones; about to start Madeleine Thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which is such an awesome title; and reading the YA urban fantasy My Diary from the Edge of the World, Jodi Lynn Anderson, to my daughter)

I had a great time this past month savoring Version Control by Dexter Palmer. It clocks in at a little over 18 hours as an audio book, but once I settled into the story, I found the slow pacing to be really wonderful. I wonder if we can create a sub-genre in science fiction or fantasy of slow-paced genre novels (or slow-paced genre realism?). Think a little Alice Munro or Karl Ove Knausgard transported into a genre setting. Into such a categorization, I'd throw some of my favorite books: The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, as well as Molly Gloss's Dazzle of the Day and Wild Life. Ah, and how about the beloved The Wall by Marlen Haushofer? My Real Children by Jo Walton? And then there is this one book I read 20 years ago, which I can not locate, no matter how many creative Google searches I do, about a regular California community and a regular woman, maybe a mother, who is just essentially living in an almost boring way--and then, in what's maybe the last two chapters, there is a nuclear holocaust. But that is such a small part of the book, maybe even an afterthought... 

I'll stop my list now. But I do admire the authors who write this way. I think it takes some courage to straddle the line, not just in style but in plotting, between genre and realistic fiction as they do, as genre readers may find such fiction slow, and literary readers may wonder why there has to be aliens in the story.

My love for slow sci-fi and fantasy doesn't mean I avoid or despise meaningful plot-driven  genre books. The Underground Airlines comes to mind, a page turner, but also fascinating in its alternate history of the U.S., but also a dark mirror to who we are now. In more traditional genre books though, I find myself drawn to the minor characters who are left behind in quests, who don't save anybody or become involved in intrigue or do anything spectacular--who are simply living their ordinary lives against an interesting fantastical backdrop, and often I wish the story was about them rather than the hero. 

I came across an essay of Dexter Palmer's on Strange Horizons: "On Alan Moore's Jerusalem." It's a lovely essay, written with the same generosity, thoughtfulness, and curiosity that I found in Version Control. The essay's opening captures some of what I've been thinking about lately concerning writing, readership, and readers' responses to a work--in particular, what seems like people's impulse to judge, rather than a movement to first try and understand. To equate quality with whether or not they liked the book, not allowing that it's possible for a book to be successful and, at the same time, for them not to like it. Rather than thinking of work we don't like as a failure, there is the possibility that maybe it's us: that we are uninterested in reading the work in the way the author intended, or that maybe we just don't like that sort of writing.