Wednesday, July 21, 2010

teen girllit special: abdel-fattah, tamaki

#66 Does My Head Look Big In This?, Randa Abdel-Fattah

I probably pounced a little too eagerly on this book because the Internet is always telling me how good it is. It is in principle an excellent story, about a teenage Aussie-Palestinian girl who chooses to wear the hijab to her high school one day, and deals with the consequences of this choice. Along the way, friends are made and lost, issues of race and religion are confronted and resolved, and the protagonist's liberal, loving family are presented at the centre of a broad spectrum of minority Muslim culture, one that ranges from the conservative response to alienation to the frantically assimilationist.

The really interesting stories in this novel exist at those ends of the spectrum in my opinion, but their screen time is considerably diminished as the amazing adventures of our heroine, Amal, take up the bulk of the story and the whole of the point of view. There's a nice edge of the LOLarious Asian diaspora comedy that some TV shows in Britain do so well, but in spite of their setup and Amal's adolescent Facebookese snark, it hardly ever bites. Amal herself is so full of sweetness and light and generally gung-ho, the complexities of being a Muslim woman in the West take on the general cast of a slightly tedious romantic comedy (although without the kissing, since Amal is not paying - cough - mere lip-service to Islamic values of modesty).

Reading it in light of the astounding jackassery currently on display in the Western world with regards to the burqa as a political and politicised garment, it seems like a story more necessary than ever. Perhaps its aggressive cleaving to the middle path and its eagerness to identify Amal as just another teenager - clothes! make-up! boys! grades! - are aimed at presenting the hijab and its wearers just like 'everyone else.' Is that what a woman of colour in the West really is? Just like you, without 'you' being, in any way, just like her? Maybe. As someone who lives in an environment where the othering of the hijab/burqa (or the ghoonghat/headscarf) are often accompanied by their normalising through a kind of invisibility - one that intersects with class and religion as much as with gender - this narrative is a little too alien, both in its sorrows and comforts, to be wholly absorbing. Abdel-Fattah's determinedly cheery blandness does not help.

#67 Skim, Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki

Possibly the best book I've reviewed here all year so far. A stunning graphic novel about Skim - Kimberley Keiko Cameron, Asian-Canadian, fat, talented, in love with an impossible lover - and her coming of age. Describing the printed word with words gives you some purchase; describing a graphic novel as good as this one seems about as impossible as trying to suggest to someone exactly why a great film is great. The sketch-style, grayscale art works beautifully in gathering together the quietness and wonder of Skim's inner life: the text is a superb, spare, mostly interior monologue. Skim herself is a lovely window into a dreaded old enemy: the changing self that is always finding the world too small to hold it. It is a world where we eventually learn that humour and compassion can transform yearning, rather than bury or kill it; a world where we learn what it means to belong, and if we are lucky, to love belonging. Rich and strange, and even more salvaging of the moral and intellectual integrity of the teenage girl as that other great work of visual art, Mean Girls.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

mitchell: the thousand autumns of jacob de zoet

#65 The Thousand Autums of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell

I like David Mitchell. I had a crush on him earlier this decade, when I read number9dream and Ghostwritten in quick succession, and thought we were going to be together forever. I'm afraid Cloud Atlas ended that feeling for me. Others who had never read him before retconned the whole trajectory of his talent to present Cloud Atlas as some sort of postmodern coup, a turning point in the Mitchell bildung. True, it was an unprecedentedly broad showcase for his talent for writing up crack pastiche in a style that was - and continues to be - so richly layered and aphoristic. As ever, you could almost imagine the face in his adorable author photo smiling delightedly as he went TYPE TYPE TYPE at his window.

In spite of this cheering image, I thought it was relatively frivolous and joyless. So yes, he flexed his talent, without actually displaying any commensurate growth or depth in his ideas. This is not an absolute evil. Plenty of writers have charmed us by writing what is essentially the same book - in spirit, if not in the letter (unless you are Jeffrey Archer, in which case you just change the names and throw them across the Atlantic) - over and over again. And Mitchell is such an inventive writer that that it's difficult to imagine him ever running out of stories. His is a great pulp imagination, attuned to all kinds of breathtaking derring-do across genres, whether he's writing an Age of Sail story, or a Yakuza thriller, or fingernail-shattering SF dystopia. In his stories, there's always a man with a gun ready to walk into the room, per the Raymond Chandler prescription. The longer Cloud Atlas grew, though, the more it muzzled the reader's instinct to devour it, the more it hopefully invited us to seek the pleasure of a sustained intellectual proposition. In my opinion, it wasn't worth it. I didn't think there was more to the analyses than you would write on an undergraduate literature exam; I was mildly jealous that in the real world, critics were apparently paid for writing exam answers.

I came, therefore, to The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in an attitude of some disenchantment. But, in the manner of the ex-girlfriend with a sense of humour*, I was also hoping to be proved wrong.

I was not proved wrong. As I am trying to separate my feelings about the critical halo around him from the book itself, let me first say what I liked about the book. It is beautifully written. I think I'm ready to go back on my contention that in the literary dance-off between Mitchell and that other popular, well-liked pulp-transmogrifier Michael Chabon, Chabon would win for stylistic virtuosity: actually, in so many passages of this book, Mitchell writes with a creative felicity that is almost peerless. He is leaping about barefoot while Chabon is tap-dancing in soft shoes. He has written before about Japan with respect, affection and familiarity, as well as wonder: his awesome capacity to fold sensory experience into a story - as he did with contemporary Tokyo in number9dream - is well-matched by his ability to do the same with secondary, academic experience. He writes with a cool, glinting eye on the decaying effect of racial and intellectual arrogance on a human being through pages and pages of stories of bookkeeping, power-jockeying at dinner tables, and diplomatic blind-alleying. It is as fine an account of the stutifying corruption and petty evil of European colonial clarkdom as I suppose anyone has produced.

Is it worth reading for this alone? Maybe. I'll see if I can think of more positives as I go along, but that's about it for now, really. His transmogrifying capabilities have not taken him any closer to the aesthetic or moral concerns of postmodernism; his pastiche is less and less reminiscent of other authors, and more of Hollywood. He has been compared, in the innocent past, to Ridley Scott and Sergio Leone (here is that fly-by little interview, c. 2000 - and spoiler warnings for number9dream). Alas, as Ridley Scott is emblematic of imaginative stasis, so also Jacob de Zoet makes frequent and shocking descents into hackery.

-- spoilers begin here -- (highlight to read)

+ A scarred Oriental lady. Even Bollywood stopped doing that in the 1970s. Heh.
+ Daring samurai rescues in mountainous forests? Noble samurai deaths? Wise old crones? Thanks, these are narrative tropes non-Japanese people are totally unfamiliar with.
+ 'All your base are belong to us' syntax for the Dutch-speaking Japanese? And Jacob is somehow charmingly fluent once he learns to speak their language? White men must be magic. Gosh, I hope one pines for me when the Orient inevitably enslaves me in its impenetrable religio-sexual psychotic way.
+ Which is to say: Shinto sex slavery? SHINTO SEX SLAVERY? WHAT?

It's not (just) about the time or the place or the race. It's about the story. I get it. It's about this dystopian body-horror paradigm that you're transplanting into this sub-plot. There's a lot of complex stuff going on beneath the surface. The situation delineates a loved, and lovable female character who is possibly one of the finest literary heroines we are likely to find in highbrow English fiction this year. But there is a limit to literary apologism. It's not 'like Japanese anime,' as pronounced by James Wood. It's just cheap and foolish exoticisation, and it reads like it. What were you thinking, David Mitchell? What?

-- spoilers mostly end here --

It's the same dispiriting pattern of two of every three set pieces turning out to be gorgeously embellished hollow vessels. To Mitchell's dubious credit, this is just as true of some of the Dutch points of view as the Japanese. The emotional climax of the book is accompanied by the chanting of the 23rd psalm from the Bible. Have you seen a more creatively impoverished trick in the book? I'm not sure I have. I'm not sure the Mitchell of a decade ago would have been capable of writing something so tearfully boring (an assessment which has nothing to do with the Psalm, a piece of poetic genius that does not deserve to be tarred with this accusation).

Then, in his sudden hurry to wind the book up in a sixteenth of the space he has taken to set it out, he descends into Mr Nice Guy bathos, trying in vain to produce an epilogue that suffuses the whole history with melancholy, and succeeding only in inducing an eyeroll. In this Mitchell is reminiscent of some of the failures of young geniuses (hi, Zadie Smith) to grapple successfully with the big structural asks of the postmodern epic. Nonetheless, Zadie Smith is someone who has already made a significant contribution to our understanding of just what such an epic might constitute. I'm afraid Mitchell has a lot of ground to cover after this book if future critics are going to ask the same questions of him.

And for the ordinary lover of pulp, admirer of style, hankerer after narrative, once-Mitchell-fan -- no dice. Maybe very few dice. Maybe one die and a half. This is so surprisingly pedestrian, it hurts. The ghosts of Scott and Leone are vanished. I can almost see Tobey Maguire in the Edward Zwick adaptation. I'm almost ready to read Chabon's Wonder Boys to make up for awarding the dance-off elsewhere.

* - exactly like I am in real life.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

harvey, mead: modern vampire romance novels

#63 My Love Lies Bleeding, Alyxandra Harvey
#64 Vampire Academy, Richelle Mead

It is one of my life's ambitions to write a romance novel, because I can never find one that I like. Perhaps one of the reasons is that romance is so inexorably bound up in the origins of the novel itself, that modern genre conventions interact far more fluidly with romance than they do, for example, with a murder mystery. Margaret Atwood writes science fiction but disavows the genre; mayhem occurs. But Jeanette Winterson or Kiran Nagarkar can write great love stories without the question of genre ever really coming up. 'Mr Ondaatje, do you acknowledge the influence of Nora Roberts on the story you chose to tell in The English Patient?'

Personally, there are many things I do not want about the genre romances I read off and on. Most of all, it's the heroes and their attendant frou frou. This vitiates the 'paranormal' romance for me almost instantly. Vampires? I am bored to tears. Dracula languishes yet in the dry part of my shoe closet. Aristocrat vampires? Instant conflict with bourgeois attachment to social democracy. Immortal, ever-youthful vampires? I can't be tolerant of every kink in the world. Unusually and artistically pale vampires? I hope I am never swayed in personal judgment by the colour of someone's skin, but hey guy, take a Fefol now and then. Vampires with - and this is a particular feature of the modern paranormal romance - extremely large families full of interesting siblings, parent figures and faithful retainers? What are they, the Jolie-Pitts? Get this hyperfertility out of my face!

Anyway. As a great avoider of the disagreeable, the reason I know even so much about the modern vampire romance novel is not that I gobbled Twilight down when it came out (I read half of the first book; then I went out to gather me rosebuds while I may, grateful that the prospect of certain immortality was never to face me). It is that I read not one but TWO modern vampire romance novels yesterday! And, um, the day before. I was bored; they were around. Imperialism has been committed for less compelling reasons.

So now I will tell you about them in brief.

In My Love Lies Bleeding by Alyxandra Harvey, 16-year-old Lucy, the product of a goofy hippie home where her parents are always going to peacenik demonstrations and meditation camps at ashrams, is best friends with Solange, the youngest and only female product of the Drake clan of vampires. Solange has seven extremely hot older brothers, the youngest of whom, Nicholas, is Lucy's quippiest, most bothersome, most evocative of confusing sexual attraction frenemy ever. Solange is under attack from the royal court of vampire queen Lady Natasha; the Drakes have come under fire from anti-vamp vigilante assassins for no fault of their own. Somebody's gonna get hurt real bad, right? RIGHT. People fight; people make out; the bad guys are eventually vanquished. Solange finds a cute boyfriend. I am done telling you this story, because details are for nerds, but I actually enjoyed it! Surprise! Harvey has a knack for writing overblown angst and ridiculous made-up details about royal courts and vampire genealogy while giving it all an amicable sidelong look; she writes without sardonism but with a goofy, hi-octane style that clearly indicates OMG SHENANIGANS! Which, if you are a doubter in adolescent teenmance and vampires, is a state of mind you can go along with. It's not a cliche-free, klutz-neutral style, but as I was prepared to coast along on the froth, it was enjoyable. It was even oddly -- adorable. Sometimes.

In Vampire Academy, the author Richelle Mead also tells a story about two girls, one vampire (royal) and one half-vampire, her best friend (preponderance of best friendship MAJOR feature in vampire romance novels), and the social lives of vampire teenagers in the cloistered, festering atmosphere of -- VAMPIRE ACADEMY. (It has a name, it's just nicer to call it that). This is a srsbzness teen drama, where vampire history and customs are taken as seriously as what to wear to high school dances. I admit it: I yawned. I admit it even more: now that I'm done with the first book, I want to read the others. This is like all the times my roommates made me watch Grey's Anatomy marathons. You could clearly understand all the disagreeable discourse going on within and around and during it, but the addiction of narrative - however clumsy, however strained, however predictable - propelled you through it nonetheless. Mead goes for efficiency in style and a breakneck speed of plot that fills you in on relevant histories as you go along in medium-sized infodumps. Her dialogue, aiming for wit, always at least makes it to snark. The worldbuilding ... is not more or less committed to logic than Harry Potter.

Both novels make earnest attempts at creating Strong Female Characters. The intention appears largely blameless. Unlike Twilight, the female protagonists of both books strive at all times to kick ass, take names, and be excellent to each other, without nasty boy stuff overwhelming the importance of their own bonds. Vampire Academy works in a particularly strong sex-positive message (although it is too inconsistent to be fully successful). Having said that, this overarching commitment to the Strong Female Character is not convincingly benign. In the struggle to be Strong and I suspect some manner of textual role models, it feels too much like watching a literary version of fancy dress. This, of course, is exactly the problem your average bad genre romance has with the male characters. This is not to say that the heroines of those novels are well-written because they are supposed to be Girls Next Door (they're not), but it's a cruel indicator of how literary stereotypes can just as easily trap a female character to the straitjacket of gender expectations - be desirable, be socially aggressive, be fertile, be able to kick your attackers in the nuts ten times out of ten - when the magic wand of wish-fulfillment is trained back on ourselves. That's the damned-if-you-do/don't condition of sexism. The answer is not to prescribe against writing or reading a certain type of character: perhaps it's just to recognise the extraordinary agility one needs to write fiction in which people - male or female - can be something more than participants in a narrative masquerade.