Books, books, books

May 7, 2009

Sorry to deprive you all of my minute by minute revelations. I had a special visitor in town last week and then was fighting an ear infection. Here are the books I returned to the library Wednesday:

1. The Keep by Jennifer Egan

At this stage of American literature, the notion that any reader could be made to care about any story set in a creative-writing workshop is preposterous, but against all odds, Egan makes it happen.

Forgive the long-ish setup:

Danny is making his way into a Gothic castle that may be located “in Austria, Germany or the Czech Republic” (no one seems to know for sure), where he’s been summoned by his cousin Howie, who’s in the process of turning the place into a specialty hotel.

The invitation is convenient for Danny, who’s on the lam from a brush with the mob in New York, though his history with his cousin is troubling. As children, Howie and Danny shared a world of their own, defined by a fantasy game they invented called Terminal Zeus, but as a teenager Danny sacrifices the bond; when Howie turns into a Dungeons and Dragons nerd, Danny opts to join the “normal” pack. The price of his passage is conniving in a sadistic trick that leaves Howie lost for three days in a system of caves, a “traumatic experience” that puts him on the road to drugs, delinquency and reform school, while Danny (despite his horrendous burden of guilt) peaks early as a high school soccer star.

Some 20 years later, the tables are turned. Howie has retired with a fortune from bond trading and morphed into a charismatic quasi guru, while Danny has failed in all his enterprises, including the construction of a stable identity for himself.

The “metanarrative” twist is that the above story is being written by Ray, some guy in a prison writing workshop, and not until the end do we find out how the two stories dovetail. Unfortunately, I spent the whole book thinking Ray was Danny — I’m dense like that with names in books — so maybe some of the ending’s punch was lost on me. And then there’s a second ending, which Bookslut could have done without.

I did manage to catch the shades of John Fowler’s The Magus, which I might reread — something about an ex-girlfriend, a blue film and a Greek island that’s more metaphor than place. I’m sure J.J. Abrams took notes.

Anyway, while reading The Keep I was overcome with that too familiar feeling of late that people close to me are animatronic Chuck E Cheese bears. Which is to say: blew my effing mind, bro.

2. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.”

Charlie Jane Anders of io9 counts that as one of the great first sentences in science fiction. The Wachowski brothers must have liked it enough. Funny that in both cases — Ender’s Game and The Matrix — the “one” being referred to is a kwisatz haderach-like fusion of masculine and feminine*.

If you’ve read this blog religiously you know the concept of Ender’s Game already:

In order to develop a secure defense against a hostile alien race’s next attack, government agencies breed child geniuses and train them as soldiers. A brilliant young boy, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin lives with his kind but distant parents, his sadistic brother Peter, and the person he loves more than anyone else, his sister Valentine. Peter and Valentine were candidates for the soldier-training program but didn’t make the cut—young Ender is the Wiggin drafted to the orbiting Battle School for rigorous military training.

You also know the twist ending and that I think Card’s characterization of Valentine is weak.

The book suffers a bit from the Good Will Hunting problem, meaning Card has to think up convincing ways to show us the Wiggins siblings are in fact super geniuses. Like the way Ender hacks the Battle School’s login system, which sounds borderline clever at best. When the rhetorical brilliance of Valentine and Peter becomes important to the story, Card resorts to wholesale telling, not showing.

On the plus side, Card’s introduction to the 1992 edition implies he would give teenagers the vote.

*10 points if you can explain the link before I explain it to you. Hint: think psychoanalytically.

3. Dawn by Octavia Butler

The Xenogenesis trilogy (“Dawn,” “Adulthood Rites,” and “Imago”) is Butler’s masterpiece. The Oankali, a nomadic alien species, have engineered themselves into genetic dead ends. They have refreshed themselves many times in the past through cross-planetary interbreeding. Now they are looking to take the best traits from humans by combining our genetic material with theirs, using an advanced race of tentacled breeder-beings called “ooloi.” (They have a special love for our cancer genes, which they find creative.) From the Oankali point of view, humans, taken alone, are disastrously hierarchical and domineering; the new blend will be less fierce and less individualistic. When they arrive on Earth, humans have barely survived mutual destruction.

In other words, humans have nuked themselves and the Oankali are the only thing keeping the few survivors alive.

Tyler Cowen (writer of the above) claims that on “learning that human beings are to become more like plants, [the reader] nonetheless feels an impending nausea” and “root[s] desperately for the humans who prefer to die out rather than merge.”

Uh, whatever. I’ve moved on to Adulthood Rites, the second book in the trilogy, and I really don’t give a crap about the human resisters. Maybe its Butler’s sometimes hacky use of adverbs. Maybe I’m bad at imagining how ugly the Oankali are supposed to be – covered with wormy tentacles and such.

I can appreciate she is trying to get me “to think what it’s like to have all of society arrayed against you” but for me the historical realism of her slave plantation – time travel story Kindred was more successful at making that point.

I’ll finish the series but I can tell it’s gonna be like Star Trek: Deep Space 9 — in one Ferengi ear and out the other.


2 Responses to “Books, books, books”

  1. Jerk Stinkle Says:

    does special visitor in town mean you were having your period? gimme a call sometime.

  2. […] Toward the whole Ender-Neo-masculinity thing May 14, 2009 My super-geeky cousin Roya is threatening to flip her shit has probably flipped her shit twice and is threatening to flip it a third time if I don’t acknowledge her attempt to claim the 10-point Ender/Neo Prize. […]

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