Tag Archives: elastic realism

The Age of Miracles

theageofmiracles

cover image via Goodreads

“Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different — unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.” — Karen Thompson Walker

I would be hard pressed to name a better book among my recent reads than Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. When I finished it, my breath was caught behind a giant lump in my throat and I was for once thankful that the Josh Duhamel lookalike seated next to me on the plane I happened to be on was oblivious to what I was doing or whether I was, in fact, trying not to cry. (And that’s not a spoiler, because what makes me cry is a perfect ending: a story that knows when it’s told and ends in just the right way, with the right words.)

The Age of Miracles is the story of twelve-year-old Julia. She plays soccer, along with her best friend Hanna, and the last time that Hanna slept over at Julia’s house before a soccer game, the world started to end. That morning, before the soccer game, scientists announced on television that the rotation of the earth on its axis had begun to slow, perceptibly, and that just as there was no known cause, there was as yet no known solution.

And what comes after that? A beautifully-written, keenly observed story about growing up: the friendships that fall apart, the first loves, the loss, and the countless disappointments, against the backdrop of an impending catastrophe, in some ways not that different from the changing, uncertain world you and I grew up in.

“It was that time of life: talents were rising to the surface, weaknesses were beginning to show through, we were finding out what kinds of people we would be. Some would turn out beautiful, some funny, some shy. Some would be smart, others smarter. The chubby ones would likely always be chubby. The beloved, I sensed, would be beloved for life. And I worried that loneliness might work that way, too.”

There are so many examples of Karen Thompson Walker’s prose that I could share with you to try to incite you to read this book, but I’d be cheating you of the distinct pleasure of discovering it as you read, and a collection of quotes doth not a blog post make (generally speaking). Just…read this book. If there were some hallmarks of the first novel, if the foreshadowing felt, at times, a little heavy-handed, I ended up forgiving it.

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Neverwhere

cover image via goodreads

When I was a young child, I had pretty distinctive “likes” and “dislikes” when it came to reading. I was fond of thinking of myself as an avid reader, but I refused to read (unless required) any books that had boys as main characters (too boring, according to me, then). I also refused to read any books that used overly dialectal dialogue (especially if that dialect was in any way backwoods-y). Also, not being myself a fan of being dirty, I didn’t really like to read stories where the characters were dirty and their dirtiness was a matter of description or discussion. No, I preferred stories starring female protagonists who were perennially clean (or I never heard otherwise) and spoke the Queen’s English.

Happily, my reading horizons have broadened, although to this day, I believe dialect is something quite easily overdone and very easy to get wrong. But I can now read books with male protagonists without getting bored, and while descriptions of filth might still induce a flinch or two, I can usually soldier through them. So it is a bit of a strange coincidence that when I tell you how I loved reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, for all its descriptions of filth and malodorousness, that the adjective that first comes to mind is “sparkling”.

I remember when I was young being a little surprised, on visiting the coast, that where the land ends and the ocean begins — something that appears so solid and well-defined on paper — shifts and moves around in real life. In my imagination it made for an intriguing between-space. Gaiman’s book reminded me a little of that daydream, because Neverwhere is about the cracks, and the things and people that fall through them.

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young man living in London, who stops to play the Good Samaritan to a girl bleeding on the sidewalk and finds his life suddenly turned upside down. Suddenly, it is as though he never existed. In Neverwhere, there is a London Above, where the “normal” people live “normal” lives not seeing the people who have fallen through the cracks to London Below. London Below, where Richard finds himself, is a dangerous place filled with strange people who can  understand animals’ speech. (There are also a great many smells.) And in London Below, Richard’s adventures will require him to be very brave indeed.

If the great story were not enough reason to read Neverwhere, Gaiman’s prose sparkles:

“Metaphors failed him, then. He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.”

And it is rich with literary allusion:

“There was hysteria in there, certainly, but there was also the exhaustion of someone who had managed, somehow, to believe several dozen impossible things in the last twenty-four hours, without ever getting a proper breakfast.”

To me, Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller, and in Neverwhere he has crafted (with an almost Dickensian facility for nomenclature) a modern fairy tale, full of heroes and villains and people who fall somewhere in between.

The Brontes Went to Woolworths

Cover image from Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

The Brontes Went to Woolworths, a book by Rachel Ferguson, is one of the strangest novels I’ve read in some time. The Carne family – a widow and three daughters – occupy center stage in this novel, and they were great fun – highly imaginative, theatrical, and personable. But I confess that I felt a bit of the slowcoach as far the Carnes were concerned: forever left behind.

The basic premise of the novel is that the Carnes tend to embellish their lives with imagination; sometimes they “adopt” real people and make them into elaborate personalities that figure in the Carnes’ daily lives. What might happen if you actually met in person someone for whom you had already designated space in your life, whom you felt you already knew?

Spending time with the Carnes is a little like spending time with your most fun, most imaginative, and most energetic friend: someone who appreciates nonsense as much (or more, even) than you, whose conversation you adore, and whose flights of fancy may leave you a little in awe. It was like that with the Carne sisters. Admiring their intelligence, their conversation (with its liberal sprinklings of literary references), I liked them instantly. But, inevitably, as the story progressed, I felt a bit like I might in real life with such a friend: I am too conservative or too inhibited, or perhaps my imagination is too tightly tethered to reality to be either a full participant or an equal contributor to any flight of fancy.

The story is as much about the Carnes’ lives as it is about the lives that they touch – their governesses, for instance. In the closing chapters, the governess (the second governess, which I don’t think gives too much away) believes she has caught on to their “games” and makes an attempt to join in that falls flat, greeted as it was with a certain amount of bemusement by the Carnes.

And thus it was that I found myself relating, not to Deirdre, Katrine, or Sheil Carne, but rather the governess, particularly in that final moment. I can recall all too well being that person – carried away by the moment, perhaps, where I said something, thinking it would be well-received, and that painful knowledge afterward that it didn’t fit. The governess’s pacing in her room that night, reliving the awkward moment, did not help dispel the feeling of relating more to her than to them.

Still, I thought the novel was entertaining and lark-like. I read the majority of this book while on vacation this weekend, a vacation in which a great many things went wrong (stories for another night!). The Carnes go on vacation in this book, about which it is said:

Even a holiday that is going to be a successful one should never be preceded by irritating and exhausting details. One should simply walk out of the house into a car, and be driven, coolly, to the station. And when one arrived, a maid would have unpacked.

Indeed. On that point the Carnes and I definitely agree.

Mind Your Zs and Qs

In spite of a pretty fervent dislike of the idea of book groups, I recently decided to participate in one. In February, each of us read a different “elastic realism” book, and then we all got together to talk about the different books we read. It was great fun. My elastic realism choice was China Miéville’s The City and the City, which is essentially a murder mystery set in two fictitious cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma.

These two cities occupy the same geographical space, but are very separate and distinct places: to live in Besźel is to speak Besź, to see only Besźel, and to unsee and unhear everything and everyone living in Ul Qoma, who might be passing by on the street. Besź people dress differently than Ul Qomans, they have different postures, they walk differently, and they speak different languages. The separation between the cities is maintained by this strict code of unseeing, and for those who violate? Breach is watching, and waiting.

For a Besź citizen to visit an Ul Qoman neighbor – who might even live in the same apartment building – he would have to travel to the center of Besźel, seeing only Besź people and buildings and speaking only Besź, all the way to Copula Hall, the only official border crossing between the cities. After passing through the border into Ul Qoma, he would return over many of the same streets, differently named, seeing only Ul Qoman people, all the way back to perhaps the same building he was in before leaving Besźel to visit his neighbor. Of course, such a visit would be highly unlikely, given the tension between the two cities.

While reading this book, I found myself driving home from work and trying to “unsee” someone passing on the street, because the whole idea was so curious to me. (It didn’t really work out. The amount of thought that went into the process served rather to cement the image in my mind.) (I also found myself thinking how great it was that there were Zs and Qs on practically every page!)

When a body is found, disfigured and abandoned, on an estate in the outer reaches of Besźel, the investigating officer, Tyador, can’t find a single lead in Besźel. One day an anonymous phone call leads the investigation to Ul Qoma, and Tyador must cross into Ul Qoma to assist their police. What begins as a murder investigation soon becomes an investigation into the urban myths surrounding the beginnings of Besźel and Ul Qoma, and into the places that fall between the city and the city.

One of the things I love most about fantasy and science fiction is that it gives us a way of examining parts of our world outside the boundaries of what’s accepted and taken for granted, so expertly described in this article from the Guardian.

So, in the whole of my reading of Mr. Miéville’s book, I was thinking about what he was trying to say. I always think readers’ guides at the backs of book are kind of dorky – like you’re being told what to think about something. But I skimmed through the readers’ guide for this book to see if there were any clues, and the interviewer asked Mr. Miéville whether or not he intended the novel as an allegory. And, essentially, Miéville said no.

But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think it must be, at least partly, about the power we give to others – whether governments, or invisible cities living in the interstice, the space between; and also why we do – whether out of fear, or from an innate need for order, we sacrifice freedom.

The wonderful and generous leader of our book group, who I greatly admire, gets to interview Mr. Miéville about his new book (Embassytown, coming out in May), and she said she would ask him about this allegory question.

In the meantime, I’m still pondering.