Review – Kuang, “The Poppy War”

R.F. Kuang, “The Poppy War” (2018) (read aloud by Emily Woo Zeller) – Man… this is just discouraging. I don’t really have a lot to say about this that I didn’t have to say about the similarly wildly-hyped “Black Sun,” except, if anything, this is even weaker and more rote. Once again, we’re promised a new take on fantasy, inspired by a global setting, not the usual post-Tolkien Europe-based world-building, and changes in perspective that come with both that and from authorship by a woman of color. Once again, we get paint by numbers cliches borrowed from Harry Potter, shonen anime, and the maybe, what… five? Six? Other strains that go in to contemporary big ticket narrative entertainment media. And once again, the speculative fiction industry has piled honors and money at the author’s feet.

The idea here is that the main character, Rin, a put-upon foster child in a rural province of a secondary world society based on China during its pre-1949 century of humiliation, studies real hard and gets to go to hogwarts I MEAN battle school I MEAN, the academy, whatever it’s called, for special military children. People are mean to her because she’s poor. The instructors are harsh beyond what seems necessary or advisable even for a military academy. But, lo and behold, Rin is the special child, the only one who can do the kind of shamanism that can keep the kind-of-Japanese at bay when they attack again. Presumably, in the sequels, she battles going crazy (shaman magic makes you crazy) and the stand-in westerners. 

Look. I shouldn’t have to keep repeating this, but I will. I would love to see a big fantasy epic based on Chinese history. Same with Mesoamerican history, same with African or Polynesian history- really, anywhere. If these epics were written by women of color or other people historically marginalized within publishing, so much the better (Kuang belongs to other demographics, like Georgetown and Oxbridge graduates, that aren’t so marginalized, and it’d maybe be nice to get some diversity on that axis, too, but the point stands). The reason I would like to see these things is because I think that good writing can accomplish that double-miracle- the exploration of difference, many-fold ways of thinking and living, alongside the recognition of human concordance across differences. Sometimes, a triple miracle- those things, plus entertainment! 

“The Poppy War” fails on all these counts. The closest thing for a justification for its existence, outside of the balance sheets of its publisher, is what I think of as the Clayton Powell principle. Asked about the illegal small-time numbers gambling game that was everywhere in his Harlem district (and was beginning to be violently taken over by Italian and Jewish gangsters, after generations of being run reasonably peaceably by black and Hispanic operators, often women), Congressman Adam Clayton Powell said, “I’m against the numbers in any form, but until the numbers are eradicated from Harlem, I want the black man to have the same chance to run the numbers as the Italian.” So, yeah- if we’re doing this chintzy, bloated, overrated, same-same hero’s journey bullshit over and over again, then yes, women of color like Kuang, Rebecca Roanhorse, and N.K. Jemisin deserve the same chance to see their work wildly overblown as boring white dude hacks like Patrick Rothfuss have. 

But what a missed opportunity! Rothfuss didn’t promise as much, or more to the point, waste as much as the supposed deliverers of the field from “white farm boys going on quests” have. A fantasy novel based on the dynamics of Chinese history is a really fucking good idea! I was looking forward to this! I had some forewarning it was a little trite from people I trust, but other people I trust (a little less if I’m being honest) spoke quite highly of “The Poppy War.” 

But what’s the goddamned point of it’s the same old shit, with somewhat different personal names and aesthetic details in the scenery? Especially when those aesthetic differences are indifferently conveyed and aren’t in an audiovisual medium to begin with? It’s like someone slapped a reskin on a well-known video game and declared it not just a whole new game, but a subversion of all previous games in the genre, a step forward both for game design and, in some way, social justice. And it works, over and over again! People fall for it!

“The Poppy War” in particular was possibly the most predictable single book I ever read. Every character is who they seem to be, if not to the other characters — they can’t see that Rin is special, generally, or that the crazy old herbal medicine teacher actually knows shamanism — but to any reader over the age of eight. Every turn of the story you can see coming well ahead of time, including the setups for the inevitable bloated sequels. 

This would be less of a problem if the premise delivered more, if Kuang successfully immersed us in another world, a world dissimilar to those in which we usually find ourselves as readers. Fantasy plots don’t need to be scintillatingly original. But the world and atmosphere of “The Poppy War” was so familiar it felt like going to the office (honestly, NBC-The-Office worship is a disease, but it feels like less like going to work and probably has more real world-building than most Hugo candidates for best novel in the last five years). You can’t just have everyone eating rice flour dumplings instead of beef stew and call it a subversion of Eurocentric genre tropes. Put upon decaying kingdom, sure. Long-dead magic arises despite skepticism of decadent ruling elite, you bet. And always, always, the magic one proving themselves. No one thinks different, no one talks different, nothing is really arranged, socially, politically, economically, all that different than in the “white boy” Tolkien-deriviative fantasies with which this book shares shelf space. 

A friend of mine likes to say that a lot of the problems in contemporary genre fiction stem from meritocrats – and most contemporary big name writers come, at the very least, from decent universities, and often enroll in highly competitive and expensive workshops to hone their craft and make industry connections – staging endless vindications for versions of themselves, the lonely striver revealed as being as special as authors generally imagine themselves to be. My addendum: a really different world, and certainly the different consciousness you would see in a genuinely different world, like those built by Tolkien, Le Guin, Butler, Herbert, et al, would interfere with the clarity of this vision… to say nothing of taking much more time and effort, if nothing else reading weird old shit when a tired grad student would rather be streaming (speaking as a grad student whose career failures probably had something to do with preferring reading weird old shit, I know whereof I speak). To the extent smart people I know like this book, it seems they like it for a somewhat depressing reason: they’ve enlisted in an online war with SFF enthusiasts who embrace what a friend calls “toxic-posi vibes,” “hopepunk” types who smilingly try to ruin the careers of anyone less posi than themselves. That means that “The Poppy War,” which is unrelentingly grim, humorless, free of the quips, squee moments, and familial sentimentality we’ve picked up from Joss Whedon et al, is on their side in the pointless series of cafeteria brawls that is speculative fiction social media. 

A dispiriting spectacle all around! Somewhere in the stacks, or online, there’s probably someone who’s written actually good, new scifi or fantasy based on historical China. I feel confused by the situation we see in contemporary SFF, even though the basic dynamics are as clear and sleazy as in any of our decaying institutions, and I guess the confusion stems from that. Good writing doesn’t cost that much more than bad. So why don’t they take a good writer out of their slush pile and elevate them? That probably comes down to some kind of sleazy bullshit surrounding workshops and who you know, too. Still! **

Review – Kuang, “The Poppy War”

Review – Russell, “A Renegade History of the United States”

Yeah, I’ve used this before. I’ve read shitty books before!

Thaddeus Russell, “A Renegade History of the United States” (2010) – We’ve burnt through hyperbole like fossil fuels, and it too creates an obnoxious smog: this is the worst, that’s the best ever, etc etc. That said, on careful consideration, I am pretty sure this is the single worst work of history I’ve ever read, certainly the worst work of history by a historian serious people have praised to me. One of the smarter people in my grad program had “Big Bad Thad” (as she informed he was nicknamed) Russell as an undergrad instructor. She disagreed with his politics — back then, near when this book came out, more or less down-the-middle libertarianism, strolling down history’s lane to its rendezvous with Trumpism — but thought he was a good instructor and that his book sounded interesting.

Well, I could kind of see the instructor thing. Russell’s out of the academy now, a podcaster, looks like he’s backed by someone’s money, and given that he’s tight now with “Moldbug” Yarvin, it’s probably Peter Thiel’s money. He’s trying to be some kind of “intellectual dark web” don, sitting his high table with “race realists,” various reactionary mystics, and other purveyors of the “renegade” and forbidden. I haven’t listened, but there’s certainly a tone in this book of his — conversational, imaginative, committed — I could see getting across to both podcast audiences and undergrads.

In that year of years 2010, Russell published this history that purports to tell the history of the United States from the perspectives of “renegades.” This isn’t any Howard Zinn stuff, though, or a retelling of slave rebellions and labor uprisings. Russell, as it happens, did write an earlier book on the labor movement- specifically, about how Jimmy Hoffa was actually a great labor leader, more or less because was a crook. “A Renegade History of the United States” is about, more or less, how laws regulating various pleasurable activities rose and fell over the course of US history, specifically from the point of view of the “renegades” who did not allow “reformers” – here understood as a straight up pejorative – who would regulate them to do so easily.

Would it be possible to write a good history from this perspective? Good histories have been written from worse ideas, or anyway, readable and informative histories, histories that reflect some kind of thought worth having. There’s definitely a lot of historical material in the political battles over assorted recreational activities in American history, and you can probably do a good synoptic history of that, too- I bet someone has. But that’s not quite what Russell did here. In attempting to tell this story as the story of American history, he is trying to advance various deeply stupid and tendentious ideas, where the stupidity and tendentiousness involved reenforce each other in such ways that you probably couldn’t get anything like a good work of history out of Russell’s project. 

The bullshit begins in the presentation. You don’t want to be a dweeb, do you? A bluenose, all offended at the raunchy pleasures of the poor? Do you want to be like John Adams, the fattest and least glamorous of the founding fathers, who Russell depicts for us walking through Philadelphia circa 1787 and wrinkling his nose at all the wonderful sin Russell details- the taverns, the brothels, the streets full of glorious, dirty, interracial life? You don’t want to be like the right or the left, right, with their self-righteous insistence on their moral values? You’re smarter than that- importantly, you’re cooler than that. You’re a renegade. 

Don’t buy it. Never buy it. Because if you have a brain in your head, you know what’s next, the same kind of come on that untold generations of hucksters and missionaries have been using forever. That inevitable “therefore…” To the extent Russell has a claim on anything other than a line of shit that can hook undergrads and “intellectual dark web” habitues (I wonder if he cried when that stupid Times article about the IDW didn’t mention him…), it’s a slightly more adept shell game than many libertarian ideologues… back then, at least, I think he’s gotten less subtle as time has gone on. Accepting his positive vision is comparatively unimportant, and mostly an easy ask- after all, Prohibition was a bad idea, a lot of regulators of public behavior were bigots or petty tyrants, etc. But the idea is to slide in his negative vision with the positive vision: that anyone who has politics beyond “let me smoke weed and/or pollute this river in peace” is a nasty regulator type, an enemy, and moreover, an enemy sans any pathos, almost sans humanity. 

And that regulator type extends to just about anyone pressing for any kind of power, regardless of the power differentials involved. It’s not just John Adams and J. Edgar Hoover. As elsewhere in this book, tendentiousness and sloppiness reinforce each other. So the abolitionists were just out to ruin everyone’s good time on the plantation (the opening riff of The Rolling Stones’ slave-rape anthem “Brown Sugar” kept coming to my mind unbidden in that section- though at least the Stones were talented) and the civil rights movement was the same but with ghettos, largely through the device of defining both movements through decontextualized moral exhortations by some of the preachers involved. He extends that game to just flat out ignoring any movements for suffrage, including the extension of the suffrage to poor people, who presumably could have used the vote to stop the busybodies from telling them not to be drunk all the time? 

I tried to get at this in one of my birthday lectures (I should have read this book for that- I didn’t realize quite what it was at the time), but there is a sort of countercultural take on American history that holds that the American past was not just more free than its present – this is common enough, mostly with conservatives, and has been almost since the country’s founding – but also weirder, funkier, looser. Russell also despises the counterculture, because it was anti-consumerist and consumerism is one of the pleasures he goes to bat for, but he gets at the mood of this school of thought, and really, it was always about mood more than anything. Russell wants to get across the idea that everyone was just getting down, drinking and fucking and spending money, in the taverns, men and women and white and black having a true, unforced equality in the absence of formal rules or even serious discussion about the matter. Anyone who brings up power or organization or anything like that, it’s like a record scratch ending the party. “Aww man, who invited this square?!” 

It’s stupid, but it’s not an altogether uninfluential vision of history. That Russell manages to export this vision, always questionable, to goddamn slave plantations… whatever else it is, this book represents what happens when tendentious assholes with stupid ideas they’re trying to get over on suckers walk through the doors opened by scholars with naive ideas about structure and power. Like a completely open internet forum, it gets taken over by racists and creeps. 

All of this, with the sloppy argumentation and sourcing of an undergraduate term paper and a tone by turns smug, revelatory (he really thinks he did good spadework here, but relied largely on other secondary sources), and faux-outraged by the depredations on freedom by the political types of the world. I can do evil, and I can even do stupid if it’s interesting enough, but every aspect of this that’s morally and politically bankrupt hooks into some aspect of the book that is stupid and sloppy. It’s no good saying I’m not a bluenose, because you automatically are to Russell or anyone who takes him seriously if you object to anything they say, but frankly, after this, I kind of want to be. No more whiskey and squalor for you fucks, because we know what the likes of Russell and his masters will use the nth-generation copy of a copy of a bad understanding of what that looked like to convince people that black people don’t really need to vote. Especially when you consider Russell defends possibly the least compelling set of pleasures imaginable, i.e. those preferred by American blockheads – bashing your own brain in with booze, sex with equally gross and poorly-bathed people, spending money on shit you don’t need and that doesn’t generally work as advertised – the spiteful position is awfully tempting.  

Russell is pals these days with Yarvin and other open racists and homophobes (had both Red Scare gals, individually! He’s definitely the type of older Xer know-nothing who goes gooey eyed over nothings like them) now, but still postures as though he’s the defender of the little guy against. Generally, the trash bigots he has on are the kind who like to pretend they want what’s best for those lesser types (invariably, the opposite of what said types fight and struggled for, historically). I haven’t bothered to listen to his podcast, but I feel I can almost see through some shitty version of The Force that he got “redpilled” by people like me not immediately giving him all of the awards for his book on pleasure (though he got serious historians, like Alan Brinkley and Nancy Cott, to blurb it, along with historical trailblazers like the guy who wrote “The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History”). Who could be against pleasure, and a book defending it? Who wants to be a dweeb? Globalists with agendas, that’s who! Well, honestly, I’d be down to play the villain if this pathetic charade is what needs heroes to save it. ‘

Review – Russell, “A Renegade History of the United States”

Review – Shields, “And So It Goes”

Charles Shields, “And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life” (2011) (read aloud by Fred Berman) – Poking around the goodreads review of this book, I saw someone make a good point: you can’t object to the fact that a middlebrow hack wrote this biography, in a classic middlebrow hack way, because Kurt Vonnegut was, by his own admission, a middlebrow hack. Moreover, Vonnegut was a man who wanted to be loved, showered with affection and awards, even more than he eventually came to be after he lived to become one of the most beloved figures in American literature towards the end of his life, for being that middlebrow hack.

I think this goodreads person raises a good point, but I disagree with it. Being a middlebrow hack — the dude wrote a lengthy essay about how John Lennon’s “Imagine” is the “song of the [twentieth] century,” which, when you consider it’s a puling sentimental plea for a pretty dystopian-seeming utopia written by a man with an extensive record of violence, does make some sense but not in the way Shields wants it to — Shields can’t see the miracle in front of him. Kurt Vonnegut, with every temptation of his times and of his own character and circumstances, produced some of the best American literature of the century. The middlebrow hack – by his own self-hating description – who couldn’t break out of Saturday Evening Review for years is one of the greats- and I’m pretty sure his biographer, here, just is not. 

His work is both respected and genuinely loved- Vonnegut’s the only good writer I used to see name-checked regularly in online dating profiles, when I was looking at them more. It deals with the biggest, heaviest themes of literature in an accessible, humorous style. Vonnegut was sufficiently experimental with form and narrative that he gets slotted into the “postmodernist” box, but not being a pedant or intentionally obscure – he always prized clarity in writing – that assignment really doesn’t stick, as far as I’m concerned. His many imperfections as a writer became signatures of personal style. His imperfections as a man, which Shields lovingly details here, did not lead to him being posthumously “cancelled” – he is, arguably, the only one of the big straight white male writers of the American midcentury who has entered the 2020s with his reputation more or less intact. Some of that is probably down to his presentation of self, but, and maybe I’m being romantic here, I really do think the quality of his writing has done a lot to keep it alive. 

Shields doesn’t talk much about that. It’s clear from the outset that this is, indeed, “a life,” as publishers often subtitle tedious biographies. That is, it traces the subject’s parentage, childhood, education, publishing career, marriage(s), affair(s), friendships (especially with other famous people), children, grudges, decline, etc. To the extent such books pay attention to the books the author wrote (“a life”-style biographies are especially common for writers, but not unknown for actors, painters, even politicians), it’s to figure out some very basic themes that tie back with the author’s points about the subject’s psychology. Any reference to literature outside of the subjects’ work usually only happens in the context of the subjects’ publishing relationships- and publishers and editors tend to document themselves well, write a lot of letters, et al, so relations between authors and publishers and editors feature a lot in such biographies. 

That’s more or less the model this biography follows. We learn a lot about Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s upbringing in the bosom of a wealthy and cultured German-American family in Indianapolis, which curdled pretty early on as the family’s fortunes declined. Vonnegut’s mother killed herself, and his domineering older brother insisted that Kurt ignore his inclinations towards writing to become a physical scientist, like him. Shields depicts young Kurt Jr as sensitive and humorous, swinging between easy successes and baffling failures. Plenty of grist for the psychologizing mill, here. 

Probably the most interesting thing about all of this is a glimpse at the pre-1941 German-American milieu, back before the two world wars ground German identity in this country into kitschy dust. The Vonneguts identified their German-ness with education, culture, success, humanism, contributions to the civic spaces in which they lived, and so did a lot of German-Americans. There was almost an idea they were better Americans than the Anglos, with their yahoo-ism and crooked institutions. World War One was a massive blow to this community, with laws passed against the teaching of German, imprisonment of German cultural and political leaders, even a ghastly massacre of German dog breeds. There was less febrile backlash with World War Two, but arguably, something worse happened- many German-Americans, the Vonneguts included, were skeptical about the war. This was understandable, given what had happened in World War One, but turned out to be wrong… and then the enemy in the next war that they were wrong about turned out to be committing some of the worst atrocities in history in the name of the supremacy of Germans. Not, as they say, a good luck. The German-Americans had a deal — a full, undisputed embrace of postwar white normalcy — and they took it. 

Whether or not he embraced isolationism as a college cut up at Cornell — he did, and was no fan of FDR, either — Vonnegut still joined the army after dropping out of Cornell. This, of course, proved to be one of the pivotal events of his life. It solidified his hatred of authority and his pessimism regarding humanity, and witnessing the firebombing of Dresden provided the basis for, arguably, his greatest and most successful novel, “Slaughterhouse-Five.” Like a lot of dudes who came back to the States after seeing some shit overseas, he wanted two fundamentally incompatible things: he wanted calm and prosperity, complete with its conventional accouterments of wife, kids, house; and he wanted to not deal with bullshit, he wanted to do something with the perspective he gained, to tell and live the truth. 

This doesn’t excuse, or necessarily even make sympathetic, the kind of things Vonnegut and others like him (his friend Norman Mailer went even more off the rails) did in response to this dynamic, primarily treating families they started in the first postwar flush of normalcy-seeking shoddily. Vonnegut came to treat his drive to be a great writer not just as though it was his sole motivator, but that it should be his family’s, as well- and his first wife, Jane, went along with it, uprooting her life to move around with him, cooking and cleaning and raising his kids as he left a good job as a General Electric PR flack (secured by his brother, the genius scientist) and decamped them to Cape Cod, pecking out stories, plays, eventually novels. This is where Shields’ seemingly endless resource of publisher gossip comes in. Does it shock you, dear reader, to find out that Kurt Vonnegut was something of a primmo donno, that he wasn’t the most reliable producer of drafts, that he was foolish with money? Well, if it does, you’ll have a shit ton of fun with this book. Same goes for the idea that Vonnegut, especially left on his own when he takes a teaching job at the Iowa Writers Workshop, was something of a philanderer, and not that nice to either his wife or his mistresses, seeing them basically as adjuncts to his becoming. When they became inconvenient, like Jane did once she became a god-bothering Christian and there weren’t that many kids in the house anymore and he had money besides, he tended to leave them aside. 

As it happens, I do think stuff like that belongs in a Vonnegut biography. I think it can be useful to relate a writer’s personal life to his output, in a variety of ways. It doesn’t deserve the proportion of “And So It Goes” that it gets, at the expense of analysis that Shields clearly isn’t interested in, and probably hasn’t got the chops for- doesn’t claim to. Beyond that, it’s just not that interesting. Moreover, I don’t think Shields has the degree of insight he thinks he has, even as he admits only meeting Vonnegut twice before he died and never really interviewing the guy. You don’t need that much in the ways of interviews to get that Vonnegut was a lifelong melancholic depression sufferer, who also experienced hard blows like a mother and sister committing suicide and, you know, surving a terrible war atrocity. Being a depression sufferer doesn’t make the behaviors that depression can encourage any better- it doesn’t make the people the depressed person harms any less harmed. Vonnegut didn’t always tell the truth about himself, but he seldom hid that he was a depressed, often petty (he was always mad he didn’t win enough literary awards), somewhat lecherous, not generally pleasant man. 

Shields does some “artist compelled by demons” stuff here but doesn’t get at what actually made Vonnegut special. Nowadays, when someone describes something as “touching” it sounds like ad copy for the Hallmark channel, and when some calls something “relatable” it’s a joke about how bizarre the world has become (something Vonnegut would have gotten, even if he was arguably lucky to die before the internet became what it became). But even when his characters were getting “unstuck in time,” evolving into seal-people, flying to Traflamadore, freezing the world with Ice-9, etc., they were embedded in human dilemmas and realities that we need, but often fail, to touch, that we can relate to but seldom have related to us by official culture. Vonnegut both got the mire of existence in which we live, and could envision other realities, other ways of being- which got his novels slotted into scifi pulp publishing for most of his early career. Speaking of dilemmas, he honored the scifi writers – his saintlike Kilgore Trout was based on Theodore Sturgeon – but did not want to be one, for basically petty reasons- money, esteem. 

Shields is almost troublingly – dare I say “touchingly”? – blind to almost all of this. He gets that people came to like Vonnegut. He gets that Vonnegut’s writing discussed various themes and issues before many other major writers took them on. He places Vonnegut in the context of the social changes we associate with the sixties and the decades thereafter, which is relevant enough, even if most of what Vonnegut had in common with his hippie readers was a certain fecklessness. He points to parallels between characters in Vonnegut’s novels and people Vonnegut knew, situations in novels and situations in Vonnegut’s lifes, of varying levels of picayunity. And that’s about it, as far as actually understanding Vonnegut’s books go. 

Less than being annoyed by this, I’m baffled. In what world is Vonnegut’s middle-aged philandering and drinking more interesting than trying to understand the thought-world that created his work? It is not “hot goss” that writers show up at Iowa unprepared to teach in any meaningful sense and to buy time and make contacts for other projects. It’s not that interesting that Vonnegut’s kids had kind of lousy times, in part because of their feckless, sometimes harsh dad. So why write this? Is it just a souvenir for fans? I guess it’s my own fault for not looking harder for a more analytical biography- as Vonnegut would recognize, people often make their own issues, even if they are, at the same time, “overdetermined” (to use the kind of word Vonnegut never would). Oh, well. **

Review – Shields, “And So It Goes”

Review – Awad, “All’s Well”

Mona Awad, “All’s Well” (2021) (read aloud by Sophie Amoss) – Chronic pain! I think it’s a pretty common subject for books, but mostly self-help and those popular medical books that waft sadness and desperation when you see piles of them in undiscriminating used bookstores. Fewer novels about it, but I’m sure there are examples other than “All’s Well.” I don’t have chronic pain (I get headaches a few times a week, sometimes, but that’s it), but this one seemed to get the impression across pretty well, the way it can render the world both unreal and hyper-real, dreadful cycles of hope and disillusionment, helped along in this instance by the tones of the reader.

Miranda has chronic pain due, in her telling, to falling off stage while performing one of the bard’s less-loved plays, “All’s Well That Ends Well.” She was a reasonably successful theater actress before that! I didn’t know that was really a thing, I figured they were all angling for movies/tv (or, like my dissertation advisor, waiting until he found a book on US diplomatic history to be inspired to decide in early middle age to become a highly successful diplomatic historian?), but I guess not. Anyway, we run into Miranda years after this, after her life has more or less collapsed. Her leg, back, and hips in constant pain, she can’t act, and she takes a job teaching drama at a small New England liberal arts college, where drama is an afterthought of an underfunded English department. Her husband left her after, from his perspective, his lively, interested wife transformed into a bed-ridden hag obsessed with her own pain. It’s an unfair characterization — mine, his, hers — but there’s few things in this world less fair than the physics of nerve endings. She doesn’t like her coworkers, she doesn’t like her students, and they’re all just sort of stuck with each other, much like Miranda is stuck with pain, according to the carousel of doctors, therapists, and chiropractors that make Miranda feel worse, emotionally and sometimes physically.

Near the beginning of the book, Miranda makes a stand: she is going to have her students put on “All’s Well That Ends Well.” Revisiting the site of the trauma? She doesn’t say, exactly- it just has ritual importance for her. The kids don’t want it. They want witches, swords, and blood- they want MacBeth. I don’t know chronic pain. I do know academic underemployment- I know what it’s like to have something between a status job (without the compensation of the kind of pay that comes with status) and a service job (without the compensation of knowing camaraderie between workers that often comes with service jobs). Outsiders usually don’t get the differences between fellows, adjuncts, rankings of professors- they’re all just “professor” to them. But trust me, the students can feel out when you’re low-ranking, underpaid, overworked, and especially if they’re rich kids used to, umm, a certain degree of service, they will push on the ones in whom they can detect the servility of the department. So between that dynamic, and the tossed-together half-friendships, too desultory to even call frenemy relationships, among low-rankers in academic departments that Awad shows Miranda having… that stuff struck real. 

The point is, it looks like a hot, rich girl student who does drama and gets lead roles despite sucking at acting (according to Miranda, not an entirely reliable narrator) is gonna lead a student rebellion, backed by her program-funding parents, to force Miranda to let them do MacBeth. What’s a woman to do? Hit up the bar! In one of those overpriced vaguely-Celtic pubs you see in bougie towns, three strange men approach her, feed her wholesome drinks, and start doing weird shit in these vaguely psychedelic performance set pieces, and making vague offers. 

This was a pretty good book, mostly in terms of Awad’s strong summoning of difficult feelings of decay. But I gotta say- you’re gonna do a Faust thing? The Faust has gotta sign. Miranda doesn’t sign, really. She just sort of slides into letting the three men remake her life. They fund her “All’s Well” production. More than that, they give her something like a superpower- with a touch, she can transfer her pain to others. She zaps the queen bee drama student lady so bad that the only role she’s fit for, when she comes back, mad with pain and vengeance, is the role of the ailing French king in “All’s Well.” She zaps the most patronizing of her therapists. She eventually zaps one of the other department folk! Alas, one she liked better. And she gets better and better! She becomes a dynamo, an inspirational director who gets to do as much sex as she wants with the hot college handyman/prop-master.

She eventually gets —too— better. She runs those drama students ragged! She freaks people out with her insane enthusiasm! The coworker she zaps doesn’t come back to work! It appears that the three strange men had some hidden fees, and her ability to tell reality from dream is part of that fee. The performance of “All’s Well” the kids put on becomes a kind of “theater of cruelty” and, honestly, the book sort of falls apart towards the end. Awad is better with the real, and its unreal aspects, than she is with the surreal. Maybe that’s just my prejudices- I don’t think many people do surrealism that well. In any event, this was a decent read, and I think some of the readers of this might enjoy it even more than I did. ****

Review – Awad, “All’s Well”

Review – Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature”

Cintra Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature” (2004) – This was a big, delightful surprise. This book came on my radar when I was looking into Montgomery McFate, the founder of the Human Terrain Project, a Pentagon effort to put social scientists into the field to support counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a bloody farce, as most things in those wars were. The media blitz around McFate as the program spun up added insult to injury, with a lot of emphasis on her credentials as a Bay Area punk in the eighties, raised on a houseboat by beatniks, theory geek, affecting punk style into her middle-aged aughts… one of the puff pieces brought up that a character based on her features in this novel by her friend Cintra Wilson, who upon googling turned out to be a sort of op-ed writer/style critic/general writing person. So when I decided I would write about Gen X literature for this year’s birthday lecture, I thought, perfect- a bridge between Gen X literary cynicism and support for our imperial wars, probably a piece of shit in literary terms, too. Maybe there’d be a cameo from John Dolan, aka the War Nerd, who in a very strange convergence dated McFate back when!

Well, “Colors Insulting to Nature” is none of that. The closest comparison I can make is to “A Confederacy of Dunces,” and that’s high praise. It’s a little too cute and self-aware (and, let’s be real, less relatable to me- you’ll see why) for it to quite scale the pedestal Dunces sits on for me, but it was a surprisingly great read. The story of the Normal family (you can see why I might have been rolling my eyes going in), particularly Liza Normal, and its efforts to make good with the one god that they can adhere to: fame, being on tv. Living on an arc between Las Vegas and Marin County north of San Francisco, the Normals are uniquely ill-equipped for their mission, lacking pretty much everything you would want for pre-ironic, mass-media late twentieth century fame other than one thing: “the tenacity of the cockroach,” as that one book called it. 

The book opens with Peppy Normal driving Liza, maybe age eleven or thirteen, to a hopeless audition for a commercial. Maybe I’ve been doing too much generational reading — which is ironic because a lot of the point in my lecture is about how generational analysis sucks — but I feel like in a book by a millennial author, the audition would be about how hard Liza tried to meet an impossible standard, and then either she fails (due to some certified injustice, maybe) or succeeds to find that success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Wilson does not do that. Liza’s audition is a train wreck, partially due to lack of talent, but mostly because the Normals are possessed with a very specific idea of fame, beauty, and glamor, an extraordinarily tacky pastiche of better-forgotten post-fifties over-sexed fashions and phrasings, so that little Liza makes some profoundly uncomfortable performances without even knowing it.

I dwell on this audition scene to show that this novel is about the subject of so many great works of humor: miscommunication. In this case, the Normals don’t want to communicate anything so prosaic as ideas, or even desires. They have visions in their heads, differing but converging in some key areas, of glory, light, love, the limelight dream (agoraphobic older brother Ned even makes Liza an actual limelight at one point, not an easy technical feat). Perhaps the most important structural prop in Liza’s dreamscape comes from an almost forgotten subgenre of movies about street youth whose natural talent and authenticity propel them to fame by just doing what they do- perhaps the only well-known artifact of this wave of media is the musical actually called “Fame.” Needless to say, their peculiar aesthetics would be hard to get across in any event. But based as they are in a “dinner theater” in Marin County, they have a singular incapacity to instantiate their visions. The harder either mother or daughter try, the more humiliatingly they fail, and the more they only attract dregs drawn by similarly deeply sincere but inane visions to their productions.

There’s a lot more incident in this book than I could cover here. The future Montgomery McFate comes up during Liza’s terrible time in high school, as Lorna, the reliable friend who introduces her to punk rock. Punk does form something like an alternative to the world of chintz and glitz, and, for a subculture that was still pretty oppositional back then, something like a stable platform of values (and a way to rebel against Peppy). But Liza can’t quite rid herself of the fame dream- that she could get revenge in some spectacular way (arguably punk’s most fundamental dream), or when that fails, an LSD-and-TV inspired dream of ultimate purity and cleanliness, where her shining whiteness (not directly racialized, but not not racialized, if that makes sense) can’t help but draw in worshipping masses.

The San Francisco portions of the book keeps up the pace of amusing incident and is also of some historical use in the bargain, I’d argue. We sometimes act like “the sixties” (metonym: hippies) kind of shifted into “the eighties” (metonym: yuppies) and “the seventies” (metonym: disco? Pet rocks?) was sort of the stomp on the clutch and yank of the e-brake that facilitated a sudden and complete transformation. But of course, it wasn’t quite that way. It wasn’t just aging acid casualties trying to hold on to some dream of counterculture, deep into the eighties, certainly not in the Bay Area. Probably my favorite section is where Liza and Lorna fall in (for the classic reason- cheap rent) with a group of the sort of DnD players your psychologist warned you about, the kind who take a lot of acid and genuinely think they’re elves. This was before nerddom — many of the subcultures I grew up with as relatively discrete categories, and which are now dissolving into the internet — gelled, and confused ex-football players looking for meaning could actually think learning Sindarin and growing their hair was a good way to get laid. The elf house gets into a three-way conflict with some techno-music alien enthusiasts and some gothy wannabe vampires. This is funny enough on its own, made funnier by the historical dynamic- we know, Wilson would have known almost twenty years ago, that these lifestyles aren’t avant-garde, they’re jokes, and soon they’ll be seen as reasonably wholesome hobbies. But only the goths on this tableau have even the slightest capacity for irony. The ex-jock elf leader keeps telling Liza she hasn’t had the vision that would allow her to be true otherkin. She has her own vision during a three-way drug-addled subculture melee in Golden Gate park, and goes back to pursuing fame.

Irony plays an interesting role, here. Wilson, who makes occasional asides to the reader, relates Liza’s failures but never entirely dismisses her vision. Her ludicrous TV dreams are no better or worse than what animates most of us, Wilson insists. Still and all, what saves Liza — and, eventually, Peppy — is irony and queers. Queer people, mostly trans women and gay men, hovered all around the story and the creative efforts of both Liza and Poppy. They provide a certain degree of sympathy — and once the Normals’ productions become ridiculous enough (to a certain extent due to mother-daughter rivalry), a certain amount of buzz, an unwanted and ambivalent form of fame for two women who desire mainstream appreciation, but something. It’s a desperate last resort that Liza starts writing queer erotic fan fiction. In this pre-internet time, you could make money doing that! This is what saves her and her mom in the end, that and a well-timed move away from overly-pretentious California and onto the self-aware, take it or leave it Las Vegas of the mid-1990s.

I’ve known people who thought Gen X basically invented irony, and that irony, essentially, invalidates history. Wilson doesn’t go that far. But it provides a sort of, err, fairy godfather, if you will, a role similar to that of kismet in the Arabian nights, that will allow one with enough persistence and luck to survive and even thrive. It’s not quite happily ever after for Liza (it might be for Lorna, who drives off east with her fiancée- and unless John Dolan was ever a tattoo artist, I’m not sure there’s a cameo there). It’s close enough. These endings are always weak points for these misprision novels, but like Confederacy of Dunces, the ending here, while not the best part of the book, does what it needs to do. All in all, a very pleasant surprise of a book, and I think a good and fun source for insight into the end of the twentieth century in the US. ****’

Review – Wilson, “Colors Insulting to Nature”

Review – Macdonald, “The Drowning Pool”

Ross Macdonald, “The Drowning Pool” (1950) – This is not a novel about the band responsible for that “let the bodies hit the floor” song, but a quick wiki browse indicates that they took the name for their band from the movie adaptation of this book starring Paul Newman! Very recent postwar disgust is the prevailing theme of this one. Southern California might be booming economically, but society has yet to gel into any real shape, crooks and grifters can be found on every level, and sunshine and cheap glitz can’t cover the rot. Private eye Lew Archer is hired by a sexy dame to investigate some poison pen letters she’s been getting. The dame lives in what should be an idyllic valley, but of course, even idylls are a cheap come-on in the land of dreams.

Crime novels can be hard without giving too much away! The dame won’t tell Lew much. Honestly, I might not have taken the case were I him, but he’s curious and horny. There’s conflict between the old idyllic farming town and the new oil money in the valley, some unfortunate (and kind of Freud-by-numbers, including the homophobia you get in even left-leaning crime fiction of this period) family psychodynamics, and drifters with sinister agendas and mouths full of lies. A big bad of sorts emerges about halfway through, and some murders. At one point Lew has to escape people torturing him with hydrotherapy (has anyone had a good experience with that? The only references to it I’ve seen are here and in “Thief,” and it wasn’t happy in the latter either) by doing one of my all-time favorite types of escape, filling a room with high windows up with water and floating to the windows (it doesn’t work that well but still). Would the physics of that work at all? Anyway, this is a tightly written and enjoyable little book. ****’

Review – Macdonald, “The Drowning Pool”

Review – Muir, “Gideon the Ninth”

Tamsyn Muir, “Gideon the Ninth” (2019) (read aloud by Moira Quirk) – People love this book! It’s about Gideon Nave, who lives on a planet that sucks in a solar system that sucks and both are ruled by necromancers. Every planet has its own kind – martial necromancers, sexy necromancers, brainy necromancers, etc., you know how contemporary scifi likes to sort things into houses and so on based on one or two traits – and the Ninth, Gideon’s, is run by the gothiest necromancers. You might think all necromancers are pretty goth, what with the reanimating skeletons and all, but the Ninth is extra goth, all about decay, darkness, stuff being old, repentance, etc.

Gideon doesn’t fit in that well, because she’s big, bluff, lively, and rebellious. She eventually makes a path for herself as a swordswoman. She’s also the only one of two people her age on her planet due to a ghastly accident near her birth. The other is Harrow. Harrow is the heir to the noble house who runs the place. She’s petite, delicate, and a manipulator, and as into necromantic magic as Gideon is into swords. They don’t get along. But they’re forced to go to the First planet, where the necromantic empire got its start, to get into a competition with all the other houses/planets. One (1) necromancer and one (1) swordsman from each planet are to compete to become, like, extra-special vaguely-immortal necromancers, and fight by the side of the necromancer emperor himself!

Here’s the deal: this is a plot and a setup perfectly balanced to produce a neutral starting opinion in me, basically because elements that interest me (science fantasy! Swords!) get canceled out by elements that don’t (goth stuff! Oft-repeated plot elements and tropes from contemporary series-based speculative fiction!). Similarly, the ecstatic reception this book has received from many friends- on the one hand, they’re smart people whose opinions I respect, on the other, I know my own particular tastes differ. So… I come with a very open mind, and in the end, it was the quality of the writing, from structure down to syntax, that decided it. 

Aaaaand… that quality, while I could tell it would be just the thing to keep others more favorably inclined on the hook, was not the kind that I like. First, the book is surprisingly slow-moving for a popular bestseller about people with swords and magic fighting each other. After a pretty bravura opening, matters slow to a crawl when Gideon and Harrow get to the First planet. It’s a pretty funny twist, that they bring all these necromancy freaks and swordfighters to a big palace for a contest, but the Emperor’s flunkies don’t actually know what the contest is! And so, you get a long drawn out middle of everyone trying to figure shit out. You get leisurely introduced to all the weirdos from the assorted planet/houses, who of course have millennia of lore and rivalries and stereotypes about each other, not the worst worldbuilding but also the sort of stuff that will be familiar to anyone who has read contemporary SFF, living as it does under the shadow of Hogwarts. Not only do these weirdos need to banter, occasionally duel, get romantically obsessed with each other, etc., but they need to not just solve a mystery, but solve the mystery of what the mystery is! Too slow, and the stakes too abstract, for me. 

Then there’s the dialogue and humor. Here, I worry most about stepping on the toes of friends. I didn’t like it. Despite existing in a millennia-old undead empire presumably light-years from Earth, Gideon still thinks in memes and internet jokes. Honestly, the anachronism involved doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is that Muir follows this into having most characters talk in a sort of early-2000s internet forum argot, a wordy idiom of exaggeration and affected cynicism. She wrings a lot of mileage from the contrast of aristocratic high diction and puns and/or a Boing Boing reader’s idea of “naughtiness.” Harrow and Gideon, for instance, repeatedly threaten each other in… not exactly “flowery” language, a “fuckwaffle” isn’t a flower, but you know, like, very wordy threats with a lot of silly words thrown in. Sometimes more than one, in a string! Think the way your freshman year dorm-mates who misquoted Monty Python would talk if they had all the time they wanted to come up with the most needlessly elaborate lines possible and deliver them with as much mustard as they could muster. It doesn’t help I listened to this as an audiobook!

Basically, this is a book for goths, or anyway, goths in the way goth-dom has taken shape in the last… well, here, I don’t know enough to say. I understand that the goth subculture was always big on irony and camp. This scans from my memories of youth. I do also vaguely get the idea that they – not just goths, either, but other youth subcultures at the time too, like metalheads, punks, to a certain extent nerds, hippies, and so on – used to take the whole subcultural thing more seriously, thought their customs, outfits, music, tropes etc. really were superior and would fight, or at least argue, the point. I’m not sure if that changed, or if I was just projecting- back when it mattered (i.e. adolescence), I was pretty violently opposed to subculture as a concept. It’s hard to project myself back there. Why did I care? 

Anyway! The points where this book rubbed against me seem to be points that either wouldn’t bother or would positively delight the contemporary, un-self-serious goth with a job and responsibilities. Moreover, the joy they could take from how dark, decadent, and skeleton-y (animated skeletons appear to do all the work, and being me, I wanted to know more about them, and think they’d probably have a better book in them, all amusing skeleton hi-jinks) would probably get them over rough patches, like the slow pace. If Muir has one strength, it’s atmospherics: even (especially?) with all the quipping, stuff does feel quite gothic. I’m glad they have something they can enjoy! This isn’t bad but it is definitively “not for me.” ***

Review – Muir, “Gideon the Ninth”

Review – Schuyler, “Black No More”

George Schuyler, “Black No More: Being An Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940” (1931) – I’ve probably harped on this before in this space, but I never agreed with the nice-internet-people nostrum that satire is only satire if it “punches up,” that is, only targets people above the socioeconomic scale, vis-a-vis the author (and I guess the reader, too?). I’m not a strict prescriptivist, I don’t think we need to stick with the classical definitions of things… but I think it is a bad redefinition, the kind that trades in thousands of years of thought on something for a momentary comfort, or an edge in online arguments. This attempted redefinition only has any currency because we’ve decided that being funny is somehow sacred, in the same way that courage was once considered and still is by some, that it’s the sort of virtue you can’t apply to an enemy and see them as a real “bad guy.”Anyone is perfectly saying that they –don’t like– satire that “punches down,” against the downtrodden. I usually don’t, especially not with satire of contemporary societies! But I think it really doesn’t cut ice to say that somehow satire isn’t satire because it does something you don’t like. That’s part of the conceit of the genre, from Juvenal’s day on down – it is a mirror, it takes in society as a whole. Don’t like it? Blame light, blame glass, blame yourself for looking and being the way you are.

Well… “Black No More” is a satire in the old mold, all right. The satirical conceit is like any other conceit: it’s not literally true, like any artist the satirist makes their choices of what to depict and how. But if the satirist is smart, they can make it seem as natural as the reflection you see (and, generally, loathe, one way or another) in glass or water. George Schuyler was a Harlem Renaissance guy who grew to hate the Harlem Renaissance. Child of a black military family who knew poverty and prison before becoming a writer, Schuyler gadded about the literary scene for some time, doing journalism, travel writing, criticism, and occasional fiction. This is technically scifi- it’s about a scientist (a black scientist, if anyone’s keeping track) who invents a process for rendering black people into white people, flawlessly and cheaply. Schuyler handwaves a lot of the science (which goes along with his ideas on race more generally- more anon) away, and soon enough, new white people are taking the US by storm. 

On the one hand, Schuyler was a “race isn’t real” guy. He insists that, for instance, that differences in facial structure and accent wouldn’t give the game away for black people turned white (though I also think he has the process involve some kind of facial/bodily reconstruction? He’s vague). On the other, he has the US come close to collapse once it becomes clear that its black population is going to shrink almost to nothing. Without race, the whole culture starts to lose its grip, and massive upheavals occur in politics and society. 

We see this mostly through the person of Max Disher, a charismatic and morally flexible young black insurance agent in Harlem at the beginning of the story. When he hears of the black-no-more process, he immediately takes it, because he wants nicer things and also is obsessed with a white lady who rejected him a gin joint. Max immediately becomes a success in the white world by joining a KKK-like organization and leading it against the threat of crypto-black people. Among other things, the process is not genetic, and the offspring of ex-black people come out as black as they would otherwise (the doctor who invented the process promises that he will have special infant clinics that can “fix” that). As luck would have it, the racist group’s leader’s daughter is the mean white lady of his dreams, and he gets married to her as he grows the organization. 

As you can probably tell, the plot isn’t the point here, really. The point is Schuyler’s look, as acidic as it is panoramic, of American society and its hypocrisy around race. Schuyler depicts white racists, like Max’s new father-in-law, as stupid. But Schuyler depicts black “race leaders,” including very obvious parodies of W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and Schuyler’s employer at the time, NAACP head Walter White, as utter frauds, pompous boobs living off the credulous. He shows them as willing to sell every notional value out immediately for white approval or for simple living expenses, mostly via trying to insist that black people stay black rather than de-racinating themselves. Of course, this is also what Disher’s new racist friends want. As tensions rise and white society falls on itself, trying to find a new scapegoat and mostly landing on “ex-blacks,” the movement Disher helped start finds itself in a position to take national power… only to find that racial purity, backed by anything like a “rigorous” understanding of race, doesn’t really work, either. In the end, everyone gets what’s coming to them, mostly violently. 

So Schuyler doesn’t think race matters… but it’s also at the center of the society he depicts, the identity and needs of every character, and the whole story he tells. This doesn’t make him a hypocrite, necessarily. It sort of does make him a satirist of the old school- where would Juvenal be if he lived in the supposedly clean Rome of the early Republic, what would Thackeray have to do with himself in a society less grotesquely unfair than early Victorian Britain? This does get into one of the weaknesses of satire as a genre: that its most common topic is hypocrisy, the distance between professed value and observed deeds. The more inflated the sense of virtue and the more obviously dirty the deeds beneath them, the more entertaining pricking hypocrisy with pins can be. 

Pretty much any period, given how people are, can be a good target for hypocrisy-baiting… but I’m not sure that applies to all times and places equally. Sometimes, the pretense of virtue wears thin, and it’s pretty obvious that the emperor has no clothes. Pointing it out isn’t that funny. By the time Schuyler was writing, the pretenses of white American society were pretty thin indeed. Scientific racism no longer held the stranglehold on anthropological thought it once did (though it was still a major intellectual force), the general skepticism of the Roaring 20s and the reaction to the Depression that came after was in the air… so Schuyler really has three main targets. There’s the ignorant “booboisie” (H.L. Mencken was a great publisher and booster of Schuyler, and they shared a lot of misanthropic attitudes- some called Schuyler “The Black Mencken”), mostly of the South, insisting that segregation was necessary for civilization. That’s pretty easy to lampoon. Then there’s black “race leaders.” I wouldn’t say Schuyler was “punching down” here, even if I thought such was the instant DQ some of the internet thinks it is. People like Du Bois probably had more power than a scribbler like Schuyler. I would say that, whatever their flaws, the black leadership of this class at the time was actually pretty smart, and the idea they were useless, feckless boobs really doesn’t wash- Schuyler couldn’t see the future, but he was awfully sure about the present, and the future has a tendency to knock people like that down a peg. 

Above all, though, Schuyler’s target was people in general. People are stupid, greedy, concuspient, and inevitably bring about their own doom in what can only be called parodies of tragedy. We’re back at the familiar territory, why this book belongs in “Readings on the Right,” even though Schuyler had yet to break with the NAACP and go all the way to the arms of the as-yet-unfounded National Review, as he would later do, by this point. Even though race is bullshit, it’s definitional and will collapse society if it’s taken away because people are bullshit. Race is about what we deserve- it just sucks that George Schuyler, who sucks less, has to be inconvenienced by it, and listen to other people talk about it (some of his more well-known critical essays were about how it’s wrong to classify writers by race). We know where this goes. Trying to improve things is pointless, usually perverse, almost always involves improving things for (and worse, forcing interactions with) lame, stupid people, so, most misanthropes wind up opposed, to one degree of violence or another, to attempts at liberation or amelioration. You’d figure more people would think that, if people are as lousy as all that, that you should make power arrangements as equitable as possible so no one can lord it over you (roughly my position, on bad days), but it seldom seems to work out like that, with your freestanding public cynics. 

This is one of the reasons why satire can be real iffy as a genre. As Clint Eastwood once put it, “we all got it coming, kid” – we are all, in some sense, hypocrites worthy of ridicule, or in some way or another shown up by the world around us. This applies to most of our ideas and social institutions as well. But that doesn’t mean just any “snarking” (to use a hideous newish word) does the job, or justifies a book. Among other things, it helps to either have interesting imagery (Juvenal, Ishmael Reed- the latter a big fan of Schuyler’s) or a plot (Confederacy of Dunces, Arrested Development) if you’re going to do longform satire, and Schuyler hasn’t really got either going for him. It’s funny in places and he clearly has some writing chops, but it also feels more like a phoned-in rant turned into a novel than anything else. ***

Review – Schuyler, “Black No More”

Review – Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms”

Gerard Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East” (2014) (read aloud by Michael Page) – Readers can have a little bit of orientalism… as a treat! That’s not entirely fair, in one direction or another- either something in Said’s towering labyrinth of what is and isn’t culpable essentializing doesn’t apply to this book, or else, I should be slamming it harder. Gerard Russell is a British ex-diplomat, journalist, and currently a kind of PR/lobbying guy (apparently helping the United Arab Emirates in its PR war against rival tiny Gulf oil tyranny Qatar?). He follows – somewhat self-consciously – in a long tradition of western, especially British, official and semi-official travelers in the Middle East who want to get to know the “real” culture of the area. Often, these travelers become partisans of one or another cause, most famously T.E. Lawrence and his fight for a united Arab kingdom, liberated from the Turks in WWI. The record of such figures is mixed, both geopolitically and intellectually.

Russell, working in an era where the British still have some pull in the region but are definitely not the big fish anymore, has a couple of dogs in the fight, and they’re not awful ones, as far as it goes. He thinks people should see the people of the Middle East as responding to historical circumstances, not some essential drive to conflict, sectarianism, whatever. And he’s a sympathizer with its small religions, which is what this book is about. As he points out in the introduction, despite the Middle East’s reputation as a monolithic bloc of Muslims, there is in fact greater religious diversity in the region than in most places, and much of it comes from religious groups that well pre-date not just Islam, but Christianity and in some cases even rival Judaism’s hoary agedness. Various religious scholars and enthusiasts have scrapped and squinted the harsh soil of European monoculture to find pre-monotheistic religious holdovers in isolated parts of the continent, but in the Middle East, there are full blown remnants of such religions in plain view, simple sociological fact. 

In the grand old British orientalist tradition, Russell roots for these because they’re cool and different. Well… there’s a reason people liked (like?!) orientalism so much, and not just do put down and dehumanize “the other.” The religions Russell discusses are interesting and different! He finds opportunities to spend time with and discuss the beliefs of Mandaeans, Copts, Kalasha, Druze, Samaritans, Yazidis, and Zoroastrians. From our perspective, it is hard not to see many of these religions as “throwbacks,” though at least one, the Druze, do seem to post-date the rise of Islam in the region. All of them are either defined by, or retain features of, religious traditions that aren’t seen much today. In some cases, there is a direct, if somewhat obscurely documented, line between pre-monotheistic religion and these marginal religions of the region, such as among the Kalasha (essentially, Afghan Hindus) and the Mandaeans (who probably keep old Babylonian beliefs, especially surrounding astrology, alive). Others represent “paths not taken” by the mainstream monotheistic religions: the influences of Gnosticism and Greek philosophy (especially Pythagoras and Neo-Platonism) in the Druze and Yazidi faiths, the early draft of dualistic monotheism in Zoroastrianism, the dwindling pre-Temple-destruction Judaism of the Samaritans. The Copts of Egypt are a bit of an odd man out, being devout Christians and hence part of a large religious body, and Russell makes what seem like bigger reaches than usual in ascribing some Coptic beliefs and practices to the Pharaonic past. A Christian-dominated Egypt is enough of an anachronism for me without connecting it to people who worshiped animal-headed gods, but maybe if I knew Egypt better, it’d make more sense. 

In general, you want to be careful with claims of advanced antiquity. In a lot of cases, they reflect myth-making more than anything else. But Russell isn’t completely off-base here, and the Middle East is hardly alone in having enclaves dedicated to what seem like other historical paths. Even if these religions aren’t as old as some scholars and adherents claim, there is clearly deep, involved, and obscure history here. Given the harsh politics of the region over the centuries, many of these religious communities grew clannish and secretive, and don’t just give over their histories or holy texts to anybody, even with their communities. Russell makes no claim of being a theologian or scholar of religions- he just likes cool stuff and wants a more diverse world. 

He also admires their underdog quality. These religions have held on through many ups and downs, but are under severe threat now from multiple vectors of homogenization. The most obvious and spectacular of these is the rise of militant fundamentalist Islam. The Shia clerics who rule Iran do not love their Zoroastrian minority, but their persecutions pale next to those put on by those inspired by the oil-money funded revival of Salafist, Wahabbist, and other militant Sunni movements. ISIS nearly destroyed the Yazidi, who they regard as devil-worshippers, when they rolled through their homes in the mountains of Syria and Iraq, and less spectacular but equally discouraging persecutions of minority religious trends run throughout the Sunni world, from Sufis in North Africa to Ahmadis in Pakistan. The closest there is to a rationale for Assad’s side in the Syrian Civil War is that he slaughters based on opposition to his rule, less on the basis of sectarian identity, and Syria is home to many religious minorities that would stand to be exiled or massacred en masse if the opposition (after Assad killed what there was of a non-Salafist Arab Syrian opposition, those “moderate rebels” the CIA sought for in vain) won. Russell mostly stays out of the Syria situation, to his credit. 

There’s the push factor of persecution, but there’s also the pull factor of the world outside. Many of these religious traditions emphasize education and cooperation with secular rules (insofar as said rules aren’t too badly oppressive), so many Copts, Druze, Zoroastrians and others have found economic and social success in places where they migrated to. Russell doesn’t end “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms” in Beirut or Baghdad, but in Dearborn, Michigan, home to the largest concentration of people of Middle Eastern descent in the US, and a place where people of many of the faiths Russell describes found refuge. You can find more Mandaeans in Worcester, Massachusetts, than you can in many of their traditional villages in the marsh country of Iraq these days, and my part of Massachusetts has seen chain-migration of Copts, many of whom open up pizza restaurants. People from most of these religions (Kalasha tend to stick to their valleys and Samaritans to a few towns in what’s now Israel/Palestine) have also found traction in Britain, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere. In those places, they face the classic immigrant dilemma: the benefits of assimilation versus losing their culture. The blessed indifference most Westerners have towards their beliefs (also a double-edged sword, often lumping them into a generic “Middle Eastern” off-white category and assuming they’re all Muslim, hence suspect- those Coptic pizza places often have BIG displays of crosses and saint icons, and I don’t think that’s down to piety alone) can also infect their children and themselves. Russell emphasizes these aren’t easy religions- the Copts have more fasting days than normal days on their characters, and many of these faiths have difficult rules to follow, expressed in obscure holy texts and oral traditions. Especially when the faith itself, its beliefs and practices, define your community, it seems hard to try to soften or “modernize” them to make them easier… 

In any event! These religions have survived quite a lot, as Russell tells us. He also tells us a lot of interesting facts about them, and tells the stories of how he came to know these people. This is more journalism or travel writing than religious studies. Truth be told, I kind of prefer it that way, at least as far as recreational readability (well, listenability in this case) goes. Russell has both a certain amount of humility before the depth of this topic, and a willingness to speculate that might be a little “iffy” but does make for interesting reading. ****

Review – Russell, “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms”

Review – Piercy, “Woman on the Edge of Time”

Marge Piercy, “Woman on the Edge of Time” (1976) – Damn… this fucking ruled. A classic of seventies feminist science fiction, “Woman on the Edge of Time” advances multiple visions of the future with daring only rivaled by its vision of its present, the hungover, pessimistic seventies. Consuela Ramos, a middle-aged Chicana woman, starts seeing visions around the second time she is committed by the state to an insane asylum. These visions, however much Connie is annoyed by them at first, are unusually consistent: a person named Luciente, unfailingly polite and positive, telling her about a future, the year 2137. Eventually, Luciente is able to pull Connie’s consciousness into something that is either that future, or a very convincing vision thereof.

Piercy, a major feminist poet of her day as well as a novelist, is unsubtle without being at all cliche- people often conflate the two, but they don’t deserve to be put together. The contrast between Luciente’s future in the village of Mattapoisett (on Buzzard’s Bay in Massachusetts, not far from Piercy makes her home) and Connie’s present in the asylum might seem like obvious contrasts, but Piercy makes it about more than “good versus bad” or even “free versus oppressive.” It really is life versus death, or human versus machine. The asylum claims to heal, but really just warehouses the poor, sick, and obstreperous until they’re finally utterly disposable, either dead or drooling, passive zombies. Mattapoisett is the product of a successful revolution. The inhabited parts of the world, after decades of ecological catastrophe, now live in confederations of small communities that practice socialist economics, small-scale democratic governance, and generally a lot of “person-centered” culture. 

Here’s the deal: the world Luciente presents to Connie is a good deal more hippie-dippy than I’d both think realistic, or even prefer, for a near-utopia. I don’t fetishize smallness, I certainly don’t fetishize nature, and it sounds like these people go to a lot — A LOT — of meetings, for everything from figuring out land use to interpersonal conflict. I’m more of a “fully automated luxury gay space communism” guy. Connie, even once she gets over the disbelief in what she’s seeing, is a little skeptical, too. Everyone has to work on farms? No flying cars? What kind of future is this?? 

Well, two things. First, Piercy is smart enough to not make it too hippie-dippy. It’s not a full utopia. There is conflict, and the people aren’t always great at dealing with it. Yes, people work on farms- but with profit and rent removed, everyone in general has more leisure time, and most people do other stuff, too, including advanced science, art, etc. Specialization is, in general, less of a thing in this future (again, not totally to my taste, but it’s not as dystopian as some back to the land fantasies). And there is technology- people have what amount to Apple watches, there’s advanced biotech, etc., and, eventually, you see something like flying scooters. That leads to the second thing- Piercy’s sheer power of description, and the wholeness of her vision, make you believe it, and if not necessarily want that future — at least not as much as I’d want Banks’ Culture future — you can see it as a thing of beauty, both reflective of its own time (and how!) and with meaning for ours, and for times to come. You come to know the inhabitants of Mattapoisett, see how they live, work, love, raise children, and die, and there’s a weight to it, a realness even in spite of the utopianism, that you don’t get with just any hippie bullshit. Among other things, I think it’s pretty important a woman wrote this- there’s sexual liberation aplenty, but the real kind, not the stylized sexual assault that countercultural men were often after. 

I said that Piercy realizes her time as fully as she does Mattapoisett in 2137. She does- its grit, its grime, its exhaustion, its hopelessness, the many, interlocking ways it can beat people down, the way people learn to accept, even love, their oppressions (and oppressors). Connie isn’t, in any meaningful sense, crazy. She has had just enough hope — hope for education, hope for love, hope for societal progress — that when those hopes were dashed, by family, money, and bad luck, she had few places to turn. If she were more beaten down, she wouldn’t be where she is (she needs to pretend to be more beaten down for plot reasons later in the book). She’s not a plaster saint. She’s cantankerous, and she did something hard to forgive: after the love of her life died, she got drunk and depressed and hurt her little daughter. She paid endlessly for that, but still feels the guilt. Part of her attachment to the ghost of Luciente is seeing her daughter in this future-person. 

Like I said- not subtle, but never cliche, and always powerful. Fuck subtle. The man comes for Connie’s head. A group of hotshot doctors (another point of divergence between me and the viewpoint of this book is I’m slightly more pro-psychiatry- but hell, it was the seventies) are cutting open the heads of “violent” patients like Connie and putting hormonal control switches in there. As her own day on the table comes closer, Luciente’s future starts to fade out. It becomes harder and harder for Connie to see. A few times she slips into another future, a cyberpunk avant-la-lettre (William Gibson honors Marge Piercy as a godmother of his genre) hellscape of destroyed nature, inscribed gender roles, and corporate control. If Mattapoisett is going to survive, not only will its inhabitants and the rest of the post-revolutionary future have to fight for it- so will Connie, in her own time. Maybe that’s what seals why I can admire this future, so far in many ways from my own aesthetic- the people earned it through organization, solidarity, courage, the will to fight and risk all… and it is never a certain accomplishment. 

This is a singularly beautiful, intriguing, and readable book. But… if I’m going to be as honest as the future Piercy wanted for us, as honest as Piercy is herself here… I did the thing I always wind up doing when I read a second wave feminist author, and upon googling, found Piercy signed off on some bullshit anti-trans public letter. All of the commentary I saw on this was profoundly disappointed. You might see it coming from JK Rowling or Mary Daly or whoever. But among other things… all the Mattapoisett people use gender neutral pronouns! All children have three mothers, some of whom can be men, and are grown in vats before being implanted in one of them! Connie witnesses a man breastfeed! At first, she’s repulsed by the whole setup, she has fairly essentialist ideas, but she rejects them by the end, sees the beauty of it! What gives, Marge?! Anyway, I’m not about to “cancel” Marge Piercy or decide I don’t like — love is the right word — this book. It’s not about “separating art from artist.” It’s about appreciating both as what they are, and aren’t. Both are profoundly human, here, for better and for worse. *****

Review – Piercy, “Woman on the Edge of Time”