Not the Best but the Stuck With
It’s the end of the year and everyone is posting their best-of-the-year list and I thought I would do mine a little bit different. These aren’t so much my favorite reads but books that for one reason or another have stuck with me and I’m still thinking about days/weeks/months after I read them. And as always these aren’t books published this year, but read this year.
The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes: A pulp novel written in the early 1940s about a European refugee on the run in wartime USA. Julie Guilles the daughter of American expatriates in France flees to the USA where she’s not a legal citizen and hopes to keep a low profile fearing both the FBI and the Gestapo. Things don’t go as planned and when a former associate gets murdered on her door step, Julie takes off across country because she can’t trust anyone and has learned of the existence of a human trafficker in New Mexico that may know the whereabouts of her cousin. It’s pretty simple hard-boiled stuff, but it’s the wartime details that stuck with me because they were fresh and a bit startling. Like right now when we talk about WW2 it’s over and done, it can be reduced to a narrative, and it’s talked about in certain ways. This book was written while the end was yet to be determined, and Julie’s as afraid of ending up in a US concentration camp as a German one. There’s likely an education to be had in reading hard-boiled pulp written during and set in WW2.
Bleak Warrior by Alistair Rennie: Hey did you know I like to write fiction and sometimes it even gets published? Did you also know that Bleak Warrior has a guy in it with a dick-shaped club who ejaculates semen cold enough to kill the people he rapes by frostbite and another guy that eats pickled intestines like they’re spaghetti? What do these things have to do with each other? Well, let’s just say that sometimes when I’m working on a thing and tying myself up in knots to make it all make sense knowing there’s a book like Bleak Warrior out there fills me with hope, kind of the same way reading The Blackbirder gets me over the hump when it comes to thinking about “plot”. Both books are pulpy and trashy, but smart about it, and what they riff on is other prose not just some TV show, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Rennie’s internalized Michael Moorcock here, twisted all the dials to 11, and then smashed the control board just to see what would happen. Bleak Warrior’s a weird awful book, and while that doesn’t mean more ice-dick, it’s liberating in its embrace of all that it is.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry: I described this to friends as a post-apocalyptic version of The Wire. Set sometime in the latter half of the 21st century after various calamities have brought much of the world to its knees and thrown technology back nearly two centuries, City of Bohane deals with the gang war between factions attempting to control the titular Irish city. It’s a jargon-rich slangy violent book (which is why it’s on this list) that took a while for me to get into but when I did I found myself caught up in all the squalid dealing, back-stabbing, and betrayals set amid the occasional weirdness and flourishes. And all at half the length of a Song of Fire & Ice novel...
Definitely not for everyone, maybe even less so than Bleak Warrior, but if you think it might be up your alley, hell friend, you’re already doomed.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: I hold with the notion that society is a sea of often unexamined ideas and we’re all swimming in it largely unaware of the historical context of a lot of the mental landscape around us. Painter picks apart more than a few of those ideas in this book. Whether it’s addressing the institution of white slavery and the abuses rendered upon the Irish, or the weird fascination much of Europe had with Nordic purity and skull shape, or the way German nationalism is based on a chapter from Tacitus’s Histories, or really dozens of other things, Painter dives right in and writes about them all in an engaging and accessible style. This is a history of ideas and concepts that are largely accepted without question, and by shining a light on them and showing their seams and connections shows how much they’re a creation and not some universal truth.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: This book is a mess, but a fascinating mess. Imagine a mash-up between JG Ballard, Phillip K Dick, and Patricia Highsmith and you might get an idea of the mood of this book. Alice Stockton is a recently divorced writer who’s moved to the south of England to start her life over, only to have a nuclear reactor in France meltdown and start dropping radioactive fall out all over her region. While officials say everything is fine, Alice’s latest manuscript has been confiscated by the government and her one friend in town has been murdered by persons unknown. As she adjusts to her friend’s death, the woman’s son appears and starts taking an interest in Alice’s life.
The overall mood of this book is paranoid and sitting right on the edge of something awful, that ends up being not quite the apocalypse you thought you’d get. Yet… yet… even if it doesn’t all fit together and make sense, there’s a lot of bits of this that get under your skin, or at least my skin, as it’s a snapshot of the emergent surveillance state and maybe a commentary on 80s excess.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: I’ve only read one other contemporary Korean novel, Kim Young-Ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, and based on that book and this one I’m starting to suspect Milan Kundera was something of a huge deal in contemporary Korean Lit. HUGE. With Han Kang’s The Vegetarian I didn’t much like it on initial read, especially the early two-thirds of the book as I could only feel contempt for all the characters, but the last third remedied that and now after a few months I’m thinking back on the earlier two-thirds and seeing them in possibly a better light. The plot of The Vegetarian is a young Korean woman decides to become a vegetarian and by doing so she throws her whole world into turmoil. The first two-thirds of the book are narrated largely from the POV of her husband and brother-in-law, and they’re both awful people, but awful in different ways (that I’ll call Right Wing/Left Wing South Korean male styles). The last third is narrated from the woman’s sister, and that’s where the heart of the book was for me and its most damning elements. Ultimately at the end the moral is South Korean culture, especially for women, is so awful that the living envy the dead and the sane envy the insane.
But, the more fascinating thing was how I heard this book talked about, because no one in Korea talked about the message of the book or what it might be saying. All the commentary was on how beautiful the writing was. It was one of the weirdest silencing techniques I’d ever witnessed, like praising a N.K. Jemisin novel for the quality of its prose while centering all discussion on “prose quality” and adamantly ignoring any discussion of race suggested by her books. And this wasn’t simply that I couldn’t follow discussions on this book. My wife said the same: all public commentary on the book praised the quality of the writing and ignored anything it might have been saying. Weird.
And there you go.
Here’s a link to my month to month favorites and another to my highlights from years past.
6 responses to “Not the Best but the Stuck With”
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- May 1, 2020 -
As usual, there are too many wonderful book recommendations for me to comment on everything I want to read or find interesting, but I’d say I often find myself feeling nothing but contempt for all of the characters in the novels of a lot of Korean mainstream fiction—the little I’ve read at novel length. I think there’s specific things about how characters are constructed, stuff about their agency and about how they interact (passive or abusive seem to be the main dominant traits in certain writers’ characters), and so on, stuff that’s just very alien and grating for a certain kind of of non-Korean reader.
That said, I dig Kim Young-Ha’s other writing—especially the short fiction I’ve managed to find—and I think you would too. If you stumble upon “The Photo-Shop Murders” give it ago: the non-title story (“Whatever Happened to the Guy in the Elevator” is wonderful and I think you’d really get a kick out of it.) I haven’t read his novels (besides I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, which I didn’t care for) but I suspect the other books are a lot better.
I do think it’s the Kundera influence. But I need to read more of it to be sure.
Could be. The stuff that rubs me the wrong way seems to trace back to the beginnings of modern Korean literature, though: I see it in the classics like “A Lucky Day” and “Sonagi.”
Oh, and yeah, silencing. Then again, I wonder if it’s not just different expectations of narrative? Like, the response to this:
“Ultimately at the end the moral is South Korean culture, especially for women, is so awful that the living envy the dead and the sane envy the insane”
… would be, “Yeah, and…?” I mean, when I read PLEASE TAKE CARE OF MOM, my reaction was, “Wow, so it’s like, even loving families are horrendous and sick and abusive, and if you want to keep it together you’d best be good at rationalizing horrible relationships.” It wasn’t just misunderstanding or miscommunication: it was, “My mom was secretly nice to some people, but horrid to me… I guess that means she was nice and not horrid.” But people went on and on about how touching and beautiful it was.
(A difference in reaction that also characterizes a lot of melodrama TV shows here: what makes my (and Jihyun’s) skin crawl, a lot of people seem to see as a happy ending where Father Knows Best is once again proven true.)
I have a whole long shpiel on the effects the dearth of narrative content in general has had on Korea. And I think your complaints would reinforce that. There just aren’t that many types of stories allowed to flourish here. Granted a lot of that comes from aspects of this being an imposed monoculture with few competing narratives allowed place. So the “this is awful” message in the book felt somewhat welcomed even if Kang doesn’t offer any answer to it.
“Dearth of narrative”: though you’ll surely be preaching to the choir, I still want to hear that spiel sometime.
What I find interesting is how—if we’re going to talk about it in terms of the the range of allowed narratives—that range remains relatively narrowed (or seems to) despite all kinds of outside possible influences readily available here that ought to be broadening that range. I’m sure some of the ripple-effect work isn’t getting translated back to English, but even so… the slowness of the broadening is odd.
(I’ve halfway wished I had cable TV so I could see the supposed greater diversity one can see there, compared to the main networks here, who retread the same old-same, old mainly catering to old people.)