Meanings form spontaneously at the points of confluence

The Girl With All the Gifts
by M R Carey

This book was picked by my book club, otherwise I doubt I would have read it, but I’m glad I did. It’s also going to be very difficult to write about without spoilers.

Melanie lives in a small locked cell. Each day she is strapped to a wheelchair by soldiers and wheeled to a classroom. She loves to learn. She loves her fellow classmates, though it’s difficult to make friends when you can’t turn your head to look at each other. Most of all she loves Miss Justineau, her favourite teacher. But why is she here, living like this?

And that’s where I will leave the synopsis for now, but I’ll put a spoiler warning below so that I can explain a little more for those who have read the book/watched the film/don’t mind spoilers.

“Melanie lets these facts run together in her mind. Their possible meanings form spontaneously at the points of confluence.”

It’s definitely an easy, compelling read. I liked Melanie, who is both very smart and also naive. She is for the most part very self-aware, except for the one key aspect of herself that should have been obvious to her long before the reader figures it out. But she’s not the only good character. Miss Justineau and Dr Caldwell have a fundamental difference of opinion but are forced to work together in close quarters, leading both women to at least try to question their own point of view. And the story is interesting as well as thrilling.

Continue reading “Meanings form spontaneously at the points of confluence”

What language will the future speak?

Parasites Like Us

Parasites Like Us
by Adam Johnson

I found this book slow to start but by the end it had a real effect on me – by which I mean I couldn’t stop thinking about it to the extent that I had nightmares! But it is the story of an apocalyptic adventure, so that’s probably a good sign. I think. It’s also a comedy – a very dark one.

The story is narrated by Hank Hannah, an anthropologist at a small university in South Dakota, moderately successful, mostly unhappy and alternately obsessed with and completely disinterested in his own work. We learn on page one that two major events are coming – he’s going to prison and some kind of major apocalyptic event is going to wipe out most humans (along with pigs and birds, apparently). However, most of the novel is about Hank’s life leading up to those events.

“The cold was a force, a pressure you felt against your eyes, and along the frosted buildings the prison lights shone sodium and shrill, casting stiff, cement-coloured halos off the corrugated roofs. The rising moon had its say too – upon open expanses, in the branches of trees, its tincture recast the night in hues of indigo, iodine and tulle.”

Hank’s area of special interest is the Clovis – people who inhabited the Americas from 11,000 to 9000 years ago. He wrote a book contending that the Clovis were responsible for mass extinctions because they over-hunted and is now half-heartedly raking through reams of data to back this up. But one of his graduate students – Eggers – is so fascinated by the subject that he has decided to live for a year as a Clovis, using only Paleolithic technology (which seems to involve being smelly and a lot of illegal hunting). Hank’s other graduate student – Trudy – has her own contentious theory about the lack of Clovis art, and is also the subject of Hank’s inappropriate crush.

There is quite a lot of scientific exposition in this book, but I couldn’t quite figure out Johnson’s attitude toward science. None of the scientists is entirely likeable and they are pretty devil-may-care with the scientific method. With the book’s overtones of dark humour, I did wonder if Johnson was mocking the scientific establishment as a whole, or just certain aspects of it, or certain types of people within it. However, the choice of Hank’s study subject was clearly carefully chosen to have parallels with the current-day story and indeed has made me curious enough to look up the Clovis. (Incidentally, the title can be read two ways – human beings as the parasites, or that parasites like to live off humans, which may give you an idea of the intellectual humour at work here.)

“To speak of the dead is to conjure them, and it would be a crime to beckon them from their graves, to prance them around in some conga line of history before vanquishing them back to the cold, as if their lives were no more than footnotes in the tale of another.”

Hank himself was also difficult to get a handle on. He has an overinflated ego and is generally selfish, but he’s also a very smart, poetic and thoughtful man who is grieving for his stepmother. He has many unattractive traits but in the end I did sort of root for him. Because he narrates the story, and because there’s lots of stuff about hunting and survival, this feels at time quite a masculine book. But it’s saved from being too masculine or at all sexist by the character of Trudy. She’s an athletic, no-nonsense, mixed-heritage woman who rejects Hank’s advances while remaining his friend. She also shows real enthusiasm for the science, certainly more so than Hank. In fact, if anything, I might argue that the women in this book are a little too perfect, but then as it’s a first-person narrative they’re all seen via Hank and he is just the type to idolise women.

“Ten thousand years from now, when people exhumed her bones, what would they know of her life, her spirit?…Would they know of her love of plants, that she longed to see Egypt…Should I have put medicine bottles and a bedpan in her grave, so the future would understand her final struggle? Should I have chiseled out her story, start to finish, in granite, and what language will the future speak?”

Once the root of the Apocalypse becomes clear, the narrative really gets going. There are sections that, as an animal lover, I found toughgoing, but on reflection I think it’s only right that those parts were a bit grim and if anything this proves that Johnson is an animal lover.

However, what really won me over to this book was this line:

“I needed to implore of her, If you leave me, what will evoke you? I should have demanded, Tell me what movie I should watch, what tune I should sing, what book should be open on my chest when I wish to fall asleep and dream of you. Tell me, dear colleagues of tomorrow, tell me that in the future these are questions no-one’s afraid to ask.”

This book was not initially published in the UK, but after Johnson’s second novel The Orphan Master’s Son won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a UK publisher picked up both this and Johnson’s collection of short stories, Emporium, which I already have waiting on my TBR. It certainly goes to prove that winning prizes does some good for authors, if it gets good-but-neglected books out there into people’s hands.

First published in the USA by Viking Penguin in 2003.
First published in the UK by Transworld in 2014.

Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

It burned through cities like fire

Year of the Flood

The Year of the Flood
by Margaret Atwood

This is the second book in Atwood’s trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake and will conclude with Maddaddam, out next week. I suspect you don’t need to have read Oryx and Crake to enjoy this book, but that said I did really love spotting all the connections before they became explicit.

The story follows two women who, separately, have lived through the “Waterless Flood”, some form of apocalypse that has left both women struggling to survive and wondering if they are the only human left alive. So far, so much like Oryx and Crake, but unlike that book’s hero, these women are not going mad and their memories are more coherent.

“In the night there are the usual noises: the faraway barking of dogs, the tittering of mice, the water-pipe notes of the crickets, the occasional grumph of a frog. The blood rushing in her ears: katoush, katoush, katoush. A heavy broom sweeping dry leaves.
‘Go to sleep,’ she says out loud. But she never sleeps well, not since she’s been alone.”

Ren is an exotic dancer trapped in the high-end sex club she worked in. Toby has created a rooftop garden on her former workplace, safely away from the prowling animals out to steal her food. Both women used to belong to God’s Gardeners, a group of outsiders who strove to heal the planet through vegetarian self-sufficiency and reuse/recycling. Pretty much hippies, but in the name of religion and at a time when the Earth depicted is far along the road to destruction, the two being linked by the fear of an imminent tipping point when human society will collapse – the Waterless Flood.

“This was the Waterless Flood the Gardeners had so often warned about. It had all the signs: it travelled through the air as if on wings, it burned through cities like fire, spreading germ-ridden mobs, terror, and butchery…It looked like total breakdown, which was why she’d needed the rifle.”

I wasn’t sure at first where I was in the timeline as compared with Oryx and Crake but it comes together, in fact more so than I had expected. Of course this means many of the issues dealt with are the same or similar, but I felt that The Year of the Flood was far more emotionally engaging. Maybe I connected better with Ren and Toby than I did with Snowman, or maybe the overall storyline cut closer to issues I care about – this book really did put the emphasis on the environmental angle rather than the bioengineering and I know I said in my review of Oryx and Crake that that could get preachy but actually it did the opposite – it made it all more real.

“It’s daybreak. The break of day. Toby turns this word over: break, broke, broken. What breaks in daylight? Is it the night? Is it the sun, cracked in two by the horizon like an egg, spilling out light?”

I think I also liked that most of the characters in this book really cared about things, rather than floating through the world. I know both types of people exist and are equally capable of good or bad but I am a carer, so I guess I empathise better with characters who care. I even forgave them all the God stuff (which was in any case heavily loaded with irony in places) because, after all, facing imminent apocalypse who knows what I’d turn to?

I found this a thrilling, wonderful read and I’m really looking forward to Maddadam and to hearing Atwood talk about all three books in Bristol next week.

Published 2009 by Bloomsbury.

Source: I bought it from Waterstones.

This is the way the world ends

Southland Tales books I–III
written by Richard Kelly
illustrated by Brett Weldele

These graphic novels are a bit of an oddity. After the belated success of the brilliant but odd Donnie Darko, writer and director Kelly went even more cerebral and complex for his next project, Southland Tales. Parts I–III are in graphic novel format, while parts IV–VI form the film Southland Tales starring The Rock, Seann William Scott, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Justin Timberlake. Confused? Wait ’til you hear the synopsis!

I’m not sure if this was intended to be the project’s format all along (as a marketing ploy) or if Kelly couldn’t fit all of his ideas for this film into a sensible length but didn’t want to just discard some on the editing room floor, instead putting the overflow into these books. To be honest, the latter is how it comes across.

Kelly’s grand idea is an end of days tale, borrowing ideas from the Book of Revelation, as well as science fiction and the politics of paranoia. The story is set in an alternative reality where the US appears to be rumbling toward disaster following a nuclear attack three years ago and the all-pervasive USIdent controls security – from software regulating internet access to the committee deciding who can cross state lines.

World-famous actor Boxer Santaros wakes up alone in the Nevada desert with no memory. He is rescued by a drifter who takes him to porn star/wannabe serious actress/psychic Krysta Now who convinces him that they are in love and were about to make a film she has written prophesying the end of the world: The Power. As Boxer begins to research his role, reality and the screenplay merge together.

Then there’s liquid karma, a mysterious substance mined from deep inside the Earth that can be used to create a wireless electricity field – the answer to the world’s energy problem. But the creators are jealously guarding their secret, and in particular their discovery that liquid karma has some very troubling effects on humans, especially when injected directly into “volunteers”.

Sound like there’s a lot going on? I’ve barely scratched the surface. Which is a problem when these are pretty slim volumes. As it happens, I watched the film Southland Tales before reading the books and I really liked it. Either film is a better medium for such a complex story and large cast or the editing process clarified the film in a manner the books could have done with. They really do look and read like a storyboard and maybe Kelly should have seriously considered making this a mini-series. Maybe he tried but with only one sleeper hit under his belt and a story that touched on a lot of the paranoia of post-911 America it wouldn’t have been easy.

There is a black sense of humour in the dialogue and characterisation that prevents this from being as heavy as it sounds. Krysta acts dumber than she is, with such lines as “Teen horniness is not a crime” but then she recites haiku on stage at the strip club where she works and explains concisely to the manager how the performance is within the terms of her contract. There are also plenty of quotations from the Bible and T S Eliot’s “The hollow men”, if that appeals.

If you liked Donnie Darko and are intrigued by a retelling of the Book of Revelation with a lot of complex ideas thrown in, then I can recommend the film. Sadly I cannot recommend these books.

Published by Graphitti Designs Inc and View Askew Productions 2006

To sleep, perchance to dream

Girlfriend in a Coma
by Douglas Coupland

This is a strange novel in many ways. It’s about the end of the world, and this is made clear from the start, and yet it doesn’t feel like a story of apocalypse. The story starts with a group of teenagers and, though it spans 20 years, the characters don’t progress much. Which is the point of the whole story.

Jared died when he was 16 years old. He was a football star with more sexual experience than all of his friends combined, then he died of leukaemia. He narrates the story of his friends’ lives. It is a story of middle-of-the-road ordinariness. Its characters exist on the brink of failure. They don’t fulfill their dreams or achieve greatness. And yet these people are somehow important in the story of the end of the world.

It’s an interesting concept, that the people who have an important role to play aren’t the statesmen or the philosphers or the rich and famous. Instead, they are the lost, lonely people who need some persuasion to see that they are lost and lonely. But it’s also frustrating because you feel that they don’t deserve to be chosen, that they should be handling the survival of the human race better. Or at least I did.

It’s well written and the characters are very very real. For most of the middle section I would recommend not reading this last thing before you go to sleep (you’ll understand when you get to that part). It’s gripping and enjoyable. However, my frustration with the emptiness of the characters overtook my enjoyment of the story at times.

Published 1998 by Flamingo
ISBN: 978-0-0065-5127-0