(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. (How does one identify a successful versus an unsuccessful book then? Is it by first determining what the author was attempting to do, and then considering was the author able to achieve that? Or maybe it would help to simply acknowledge, before we judge, our reader biases: I don’t like fiction that leaves me depressed, etc.) Part of my feelings about this is personal: I write slow fiction, and that includes slow genre fiction. Right now I’m drawn to stories in which nothing substantial happens on the surface, other than the reader is given a window to a character’s life for a little while. I realize these sorts of stories aren’t for everyone. But the fact that a story isn’t for anyone does not, by default, mean 2 stars. Anyhow, here’s the Palmer’s essay opening:
All novels are exercises in empathy for their readers; all of a novel’s readers are performers of its possible meanings. Each novel gives hints of the kind of person it wants its reader to temporarily become in order to enjoy it to the fullest. We don’t read eighteenth-century fiction with the same ear as we do fiction from the twenty-first, or science fiction with the same ear as literary fiction about the daily lives of New Yorkers. If we are skilled readers, we quickly pick up on the hints the text throws out and we shift our expectations. If not, or if the conventions of the work are unfamiliar to us, then perhaps we find ourselves left out in the cold, or saying, “I really wanted to like this book. But.”
This is certainly not to say that all novels are inherently good, and that a displeased reader is always one who has failed the text, but to say that when a reader bounces off a novel, we should ask if the problem lies with the author’s failure of craft, or with the reader’s inattention, improper expectations, or inexperience, or whether it’s caused by some other reason altogether. With a work whose critical reputation is well established over decades or centuries, this is easy: one-star Amazon reviews of Moby-Dick are mocked for a reason. But with a work of expansive scope and ambition that’s still only months old, the question is harder. Here is the opening of the New York Times’ review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, dated May 28, 1922:
“A few intuitive, sensitive visionaries may comprehend ‘Ulysses,’ James Joyce’s new and mammoth volume, without a course of training or instruction, but the average intelligent reader will gain little or nothing from it—even from careful perusal, one might properly say study, of it—save bewilderment and a sense of disgust. It should be companioned with a key and a glossary like the Berlitz books. Then the attentive and diligent reader would eventually get some comprehension of Mr. Joyce’s message.”
That sounds like the beginning of a hatchet job, the sort of review we’d smugly laugh at now that ninety-odd years have passed, but two paragraphs later Collins calls Ulysses “the most important contribution that has been made to fictional literature in the twentieth century.” Collins isn’t hedging his bets here: he knows, even in these early days, that he is in the presence of genius. And yet he freely expresses an ambivalence about the nature of that genius.
In the following paragraph, I also found this idea fascinating: that micro-realism and micro-description has a place in genre fiction, but not in realistic fiction. I don’t know if I agree with this–perhaps My Struggle would be the book I would hold up as an example where the point of the book is in the minutiae of detail. Where it’s not the detail itself but the lens through which the detail is seen that’s important: every character or narrator does not see a tree identically. (Bolding below is mine.)
Whether Moore’s attention to detail is an asset or a liability in the first part of the novel, it clearly becomes an asset in the second part, when the dominant mode changes from realism to a mix of young-adult fantasy mixed with metaphysical speculation. In this section we get an extended journey into the afterlife world of Mansoul, occasioned by a near-death experience brought on when Michael Warren chokes on a cough drop at the age of three. There is a strong influence in these chapters from Edwin Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, as well as the children’s adventure stories of Enid Blyton, and it’s here that the cosmogony of this novel is revealed: essentially, though humans perceive themselves as moving dynamically through three dimensions as they age, they are in fact static four-dimensional objects, and their belief in their own free will is a necessary illusion. If one might think that many parts of the first section of the novel would be better rendered as a comic rather than as a text, here Moore breaks free of the two-dimensional limits of the page, using prose to describe extra-dimensional objects that would be impossible to visualize otherwise, and that benefit from extended detail, being wholly imaginary. (One might also say that the problem here is that Moore writes realist fiction in the same style as he writes genre fiction, as if Northampton’s sights and sounds will be as unfamiliar to the reader as those of Mansoul.)
Love this too…the idea of intentionally creating a work for which an ideal reader does not exist. To have that be the point of the work.
But an optimistic reading, the one I tend toward, is that it’s a suggestion that the scope of Jerusalem is such that its ideal reader of this text may not and may never exist, and creating a work with such a scope was Moore’s ultimate aim. Nearly every reader who encounters this work and sticks with it will find his or her empathy for art tested, in one way or another: this is the achievement of a work that’s so remarkably versatile and all-encompassing in its genres and styles. Whether the book constantly tickles one’s pleasure centers (and I freely confess that it did not for me) is, in the instance of this book, almost irrelevant. The novel is aiming for greater things than pleasure, not least of which is the illusion of fully preserving a place, in all its detail, in four dimensions. (Alma, talking of her work, just a few pages from the novel’s end: “I’ve saved the Boroughs [ … ] the way that you save ships in bottles. It’s the only plan that works. Sooner or later all the people and the places that we loved are finished, and the only way to keep them safe is art. That’s what art’s for. It rescues everything from time.”) (1259)
Anyhow, read the essay! I’m curious about Jerusalem now, it’s officially on my reading list, but so are about 500 other books (sigh…).