Review: The Minority Council

I actually had to look this up on Goodreads to remind myself of what happens in it. Kate Griffin’s Matthew Swift series is one of those where it’s not the plot that matters so much as the atmosphere, the language, the outlook on the world.

Nevertheless, for convention’s sake: The Minority Council is The One With The Drugs. Someone in London is manufacturing and selling an immensely powerful and addictive drug (called “fairy dust”, but don’t let the tweeness of the name deceive you) to the city’s magical population, and they’re well-connected enough that the Aldermen, the organisation that regulates magic in London, are turning a blind eye. Meanwhile, Something is stalking the streets sucking out the minds/souls of delinquent teenagers.

Matthew Swift, reluctant Midnight Mayor, leader of the Aldermen and protector of the city, half human sorcerer, half blue electric angels made out of the magic of the telephone system, all-round Ordinary Guy, tries to get to the bottom of things.

The driving conflict of the novel, the fourth in Griffin’s series, is between individual wellbeing and the collective good. The Aldermen, with their luxurious corporate offices in the Square Mile and the resources of an investment bank, and their name that references a tradition reaching back hundreds of years, are concerned solely with the good of the city as a whole; they believe it’s worth sacrificing individuals to preserve the status quo, the delicate balance of power that keeps the city from descending into chaos. Matthew, on the other hand, has no truck with this approach: he gets involved in things because people he knows are directly affected by them; he thinks it’s worth upsetting the status quo to protect ordinary people. He is, in fact, a champion for the ordinary people: with his charity-shop clothes and lack of any fixed address, he is the exact opposite of the established power and privilege of the Aldermen and their like.

This is a theme that’s emerged as the series has gone on: I was ambivalent about Matthew’s advocacy of the individual and the powerless in the third novel, The Neon Court, and while I still think it’s a disappointingly obvious direction to go in, I also think Griffin’s tapping into a key dynamic of city life. One of the things that’s most simultaneously invigorating and terrifying about living in a big city like London is its indifference to you. As you walk its streets, as you pile onto a crowded underground train, as you look out your window onto the city at night, you feel that you’re part of the city’s life, part of something much greater and harder to comprehend than you are. In one sense, you are vital to the city, because the city needs people to be a city. And yet, if you, specifically, did not exist, left the city, disappeared, died, the city would not care. It would not miss you. You, as an individual, do not matter.

The city is terrifying (and, at the same time, invigorating) because it threatens your subjectivity, your individuality; it is constantly threatening to subsume your you-ness into its own superabundance of life. Living in the city is like being devoured by some great organic being. This drama of subjectivity is played out in miniature in The Minority Council in the figure of Matthew: his first-person narration slides between I and we, between singular Matthew and multiple, nameless blue electric angels. Is he Matthew, individual and sovereign in his subjectivity? Or are they the blue electric angels, a mass of undifferentiated beings who care nothing for individual suffering? The dichotomy is complicated by the fact that Matthew gains much of his power as a sorcerer from the angels who inhabit his bloodstream. Similarly: is he Matthew, Ordinary Guy who can blend into the streets? Or is he the Midnight Mayor, nameless and charged with protecting the city, not its people?

The real point about these contradictions is that they’re never resolved; nor can they be, because this kind of uncertainty is a key characteristic of the city. London is full of contradictions, impossibilities existing side-by-side; it is too large, too baggy, for anything to describe. Hence the bagginess of Griffin’s prose (which gets more technically polished and, paradoxically, less effective with each novel in the series):

Here I caught the Docklands Light Railway, and headed south, towards where Canary Wharf was an arctic silver beacon, catching the clouds in its towers and lighting them from beneath.

These run-on sentences with their sprawling clauses are deliberately excessive; instead of aiming for precise description, Griffin piles on words and images in an attempt, not exactly to describe, but to circumscribe what the city is and is like. It is prose that points to a gap, that invokes instead of pinning down. It exists in a liminal state, on the border between the speakable and the unspeakable, and in doing so it reflects the liminality of living in a city, existing on the border of I and we.

I don’t want to say that it’s only speculative fiction that can push language in this way (Ann Radcliffe was doing something quite similar in the eighteenth century, for instance); it’s more that only speculative fiction is allowed to do this work at the moment, in a literary culture that values mimesis, precision and “realism” over metanarrative and magic.

(I have a feeling this is going to be my hobby horse for 2019. THIS IS THE HILL I WILL DIE ON.)

Obviously, I think metanarrative is important, and I think speculative fiction is important; it shows us things we cannot otherwise see or describe. Obviously, I continue to enjoy the Matthew Swift series while thinking that it has lost some of its power and originality. Obviously, I will read more from Kate Griffin.

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Review: Underwords: The Hidden City

I am very much not the right reader for Underwords: The Hidden City (although neither, apparently, were the nine people who have rated it on Goodreads).

The collection’s the result of a short story competition, the London Short Story Prize: winning and highly commended stories from what must have been the 2004 competition are included in the volume alongside work by more established names like Nicola Barker and Andrea Levy. All of the stories are on the theme of The Hidden City.

Except: are they? For a start, the collection’s definition of “short story” is very much the litfic one. A woman in a museum decides whether or not to help a refugee. Another woman witnesses a racist incident on a bus. A couple’s trip to see a world-class pianist play on stage helps them negotiate their stale marriage. These are largely plotless stories whose denouements turn on a single decision, on individual personal epiphany. They are, I suppose, stories that try to grapple with the mundane and make it revelatory.

Which is a fine aim, as far as it goes. Two things, though: none of these stories felt truly revelatory to me; none of them felt they really had anything original to say. Secondly, and maybe less subjectively, I’m not convinced that this kind of story, polished, personal, mimetic in the way that the literary establishment currently still values, is capable of taking on the vast multiplicity of a city like London. Its contradictions, its complexities, its vitality. A city is never mundane, no matter the state of the lives that make it up; that’s kind of the point. It is simply too big to represent mimetically, as these stories all attempt to do.

None of these stories are really about London; and as for calling it The Hidden City…well, I’m struggling to see how the “hidden” part is relevant. Underwords is, basically, a failure: not of the individual writers, but of the judges’ imaginations. There are so many other ways to describe the world than what’s showcased here.

Review: The Last Word

Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word follows an aspiring writer, Harry Johnson, who’s commissioned to write a biography of (fictional) literary giant Mamoon Azam. His publisher hopes for sensational, warts-and-all stuff; Mamoon, and particularly his wife Liana, expect something a little more…hagiographic. How will young Harry negotiate these pressures, his own desire for literary fame, and his inability to keep it in his pants?

I don’t want to write much about The Last Word because its relentless sexism infuriated me, and I’m no longer willing to give litfic writers a pass on using grossly caricatured female characters as paths to fulfilment, prizes or random sex toys for their deeply characterised male protagonists. An actual quote from the book:

My [Harry’s] mother died. I needed female attention.

JESUS, FUCK OFF.

Like, I understand that Satire is happening here, but it’s not funny and I’m bored of it.

The worst thing is, it’s all so mundane. I don’t care about yet more middle-class, entitled men being shitty to people. I’m bored of self-consciously “literary” novels that are only interested in a narrow segment of human experience – a segment that valorises patriarchal modes of authorship, artistic influence and romance (if we can call anything that anyone does in this novel “romance”, which I’m not at all sure of). It’s been done. So many times. Can we just not, any more?

Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.

2018 Roundup

Behold, from deep in the Valley of the Christmas Holidays, a roundup post…

I’m going to try and post a bit more regularly in 2019. Starting next week, that is.

My Favourite Things of 2018

Book: The Stone Sky – N.K. Jemisin. The Stone Sky made me cry in Stansted Airport. The last book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, it is not a happy book. It is not one I’ll return to for comfort or reassurance. It is just stunningly good.

TV: Doctor Who: The Tsuranga Conundrum. I’ve been really terrible at reviewing TV on the blog this year: it’s basically just been Doctor Who. But what a series of Doctor Who! Tsuranga encapsulates everything I love about it. It is hopeful, inclusive and searching, a story that asks us to reimagine what Doctor Who is and what it’s for.

Film: Jupiter AscendingYeah, the film reviewing has fallen a bit by the wayside this year, too. And I’m pretty bad at seeing films, anyway. So let’s go with Jupiter Ascending, a film from the Wachowski sisters that is absolutely bizarre, utterly gorgeous to look at and contains Eddie Redmayne.

Spreadsheet time!

  • I read 76 books in 2018 – ten short of my total of 86, dammit.
  • The longest book I read was Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth, which at 1069 pages is technically three novels in one, and probably one of my favourite books of 2018. Meanwhile, the shortest was Jorge Luis Borges’ A Universal History of Iniquity, at a slim and forgettable 105 pages. Overall, I read 30,048 pages – unsurprisingly not quite as good as last year’s 30,893 (although, not that far off…)
  • The oldest book I read in 2018 was Charles Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge, published in 1841. The average age of the books I read in 2018 was 42, down from last year’s 44. (I’m pretty sure this average is dragged down quite a lot by my annual Tolkien reread.)
  • Genre: The genre split of my reading has shifted quite a lot this year – I relied much more on the local library than I have in previous years, and the SFF section only goes so far. So: 36% of my reading was fantasy, down from 45% last year; 21% was science fiction, the same as last year. 17% was lit fic, significantly up from 9% last year, and 12% was non-fiction, again significantly up from last year’s 6%. The rest was split between historical, contemporary, crime and humour (all the annoying interchangeable categories, in other words).
  • 9% of the books I read in 2018 were re-reads – down from last year’s 11%, which is great.
  • 53% of the books I read in 2018 were by women – up from last year’s disappointing 46%.
  • And 24% of the books I read in 2018 were by authors of colour, another increase on last year’s 18%.

Review: The Golem and the Djinni

This review contains spoilers.

Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni brings together two supernatural creatures in New York City, late 19th century: Chava, a golem created as the perfect wife for a Jewish man from Poland, who promptly dies during the passage to America; and Ahmad, a djinni bound to human form who’s been shut up in an oil flask for centuries and is unwittingly released by a Syrian metalsmith.

Although they assimilate into communities that are completely separate – in fact, Wecker hints at actual animosity – their mutual loneliness, supernatural beings trying to pass as human in a city full of eyes, brings them together. It’s no great surprise when this evolves, eventually, into romance (although not before both of them have embarked on other romantic entanglements with humans). In the best traditions of romance, the novel is interested in harmonising elements of society that are at odds, bringing together worldviews that oppose each other: so while Chava is prudent, compliant, supportive of her friends and hyper-aware of the needs of those around her (literally; she’s been designed to be telepathic), Ahmad is self-involved, hedonistic and resentful of the restrictions belonging to a community places on him. Their relationship is thus ultimately about finding a middle way, about compromise: the kind of compromise that is necessary in any multicultural city, and in any romantic relationship.

So far, so schematic. But: why does The Golem and the Djinni need to be fantasy? Abigail Nussbaum asks the same question in her review of the novel for Strange Horizons:

…would the novel had [sic] been any worse, or even that different, if the cover stories concocted by its protagonists and their guardians were actually true, if Chava had been a young, naive Jewish widow newly arrived in New York City, and Ahmad a headstrong, self-absorbed Bedouin happy to take his pleasures where he could and not think about what they cost others?*

I agree with her assessment that the use of the fantastic allows Wecker to write a fairytale of New York (ha), rather than a warts-and-all representation of what life there was really like at the turn of the twentieth century; and that the novel’s epic fantasy ending does too much violence to the sepia-tinted melancholy of the rest of the tale, generating too easy a conclusion for Our Protagonists. In fact, the general trend of the novel is towards simplification: the fairytale quality of the text, charming as it is, demands clarity, a moral, a single meaning, from a novel that wants to be capable of multitudes. For instance, the novel is interested in the constriction of female lives and desires in history. It shows us several women who are at the mercy of men, who cannot be all they want to be because society prevents it. Chava herself is driven nearly to the brink of a disastrous breakdown because to pass as a respectable woman she must restrict herself to specific domestic activities. And yet, one of the key questions that drives the novel is: who will Chava end up with? And so the text itself does the violence it describes. And not with cute self-awareness, either.

I don’t think that Wecker’s sepia-tinted nostalgia is, in itself, a bad quality for a novel like this to have; it’s just that The Golem and the Djinni is muddled and unsure of its project. Its melancholy doesn’t work with the clear-cut, schematic lessons it asks us to take away. It is neither complex enough nor simple enough to work properly – ironically enough, it strives for a middle way, a compromise. Compromises hold people together, but they sabotage novels. I liked Wecker’s book, but it’s not one I’ll remember.

Doctor Who Review: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

This review contains spoilers.

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos is the last of Thirteen’s episodes, except for one at New Year, which will hopefully save us from the variously schmaltzy Christmas offerings we’ve seen for the last few years. After that, Saint Jodie won’t be back on our screens until early 2020. Doom. Dooooom. As Bridget Jones might say.

I digress. This last episode, this summing up of what the Thirteenth Doctor stands for, loops us right back to the start of the season, as the gang re-encounter Stenza bounty hunter Tzim-Sha. Tzim-Sha has set himself up as a false god after the Doctor banished him into the depths of space and time, demanding the worship of the Ux, a race with the unique (magical?) ability to manipulate the fabric of the universe with the power of their faith. To get his revenge on the Doctor, he’s planning to destroy Earth and threaten the integrity of space-time.

So the stakes are suitably high for a series finale. I’m not sure we’re ever convinced that the Earth is actually in danger, but that doesn’t really matter: like the season as a whole, this episode is interested in the personal and the intimate.

It’s a story about how we should respond to those who commit atrocities, and whether revenge is ever justified. In asking those questions, it tackles one of the moral difficulties at the heart of New Who head-on: the Doctor’s pacifist stance often means that their companions do the killing for them.

So, we have Graham, still deeply angry at Tzim-Sha’s murder of his wife Grace. Graham tells the Doctor early in the episode that he’ll kill Tzim-Sha if he gets the chance, ignoring her horrified protests. (To Bradley Cooper’s credit, we believe him.) Revenge might be his primary motivation, but he’s also got a moral argument to make: Tzim-Sha is only able to exploit the Ux and threaten the Earth because the Doctor left him alive at the beginning of the season.

Tzim-Sha makes the same point. “Don’t you pin this on me,” the Doctor cries; but the question remains open. Do some threats – some people – just need to be destroyed once and for all, to prevent them destroying others?

Inevitably, in hindsight, Graham can’t bring himself to kill Tzim-Sha when it comes down to it. But this is couched in terms of his being “the better person”: it’s a question of personal moral hygiene, not of ethics. And, certainly, we do wonder whether Tzim-Sha’s better off dead than confined eternally to a stasis chamber: is it not, in fact, the same thing? The writers this season have made a big deal about Thirteen’s refusal to kill, but the ethical underpinnings of this stance remain vague. Perhaps deliberately; I do like the ambiguity we’re left with over how complicit the Doctor actually is with Tzim-Sha’s various atrocities. Is the “curse” (Tzim-Sha’s word) of exile worse than a quick death?

Another ambiguity I’m interested in is how The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos handles religion. New Who has always had explicitly atheist tendencies; I’ve written before about how episodes like Gridlock use religious imagery in service of a secular worldview. And this episode does, after all, feature naïve believers blindly following a false deity who abuses and exploits them. “You’re the creators,” says the Doctor to the freed Ux at the end of the episode, referring to their epithet for Tzim-Sha, “look at what you can do!”

And yet. In The Tsuranga Conundrum we saw the Doctor attending a funeral, joining in with an invocation that had heavy religious, if non-denominational, overtones:

May the saints of all the stars and constellations bring you hope as they guide you out of the dark and into the light, on this voyage and the next…

Ranskoor Av Kolos ends with a speech along similar lines, delivered to the Ux by the Doctor:

Keep your faith. Travel hopefully. The universe will surprise you.

Hope is the keystone of this season, as good a word as any to sum it up: contingent, sometimes fragile, sometimes unfulfilled, but always full of potential, an opening up of possibilities, a spread of futures as numerous and wonderful as the wheeling stars. A show that aims to exclude nothing and nobody – even if, sometimes, it doesn’t quite succeed.