12 August 2021

Book shorts

Three books have recently lit up my life, each in its own way. You've probably already heard of them, but if my recommendations make the difference for you, I'd be very pleased! The three books:

  • Lydia Millet, A Children's Bible
  • Gish Jen, The Resisters
  • Francis Spufford, Light Perpetual

The first Lydia Millet novel I ever read, How the Dead Dream (which I wrote about here), astounded me with her ability to peel away the insulation provided by affluence, technology, and force of habit, that separates us from raw nature with all its implacable, unsentimental, often hazardous (to us) realities. It is possible that Millet is one of the writers who can finally penetrate our collective complacency about global warming.

If this is true, it's not because she's writing propagandistic "cause" literature. The hurricane that sets up the unfolding catastrophes in her recent novel A Children's Bible is just one of the factors in the novel's drama, although it is the factor that links her characters' objective situation with ours. In an entirely plausible but only gently implied chain of events, the novel's hurricane might be the straw that breaks the camel's back, triggering what looks like a far wider collapse of political and social structures.

In her story, the hurricane interrupts a group of families who've rented a beach house for their summer vacation. The parents occupy the mansion's bedrooms, and the children are consigned to the attic. It's those children who drive the narrative; they have to take the initiative for their own activities, and not only that, but their own well-being, because the adults are too clueless and too busy boozing to take much notice of their kids. In a remarkable commentary on generational relationships, most of the teenagers take part in a game that requires not revealing one's own parents' identity to the other kids, while seeking to unmask the other kids' parents. Just about everyone, it turns out, finds their parents too embarrassing to acknowledge.

The hurricane disrupts everything. The attic becomes uninhabitable, so the young people, already accustomed to problem-solving in the total absence of adult leadership, take shelter in a farm, only to be threatened by armed survivalists. They do get some unexpected adult allies ... but to say more would be to give too much away. The narrator, Evie, is one of the teenagers; her voice is alternately kind and mildly sardonic, but she has no special knowledge -- just an honest eye. 

A sample of the ways Jack interprets
Bible stories.
Concerning the novel's title: the narrator's younger brother loves the children's Bible he has received as a gift, interpreting its stories, parables, and miracles with a naive receptiveness and personal insights that have no connection whatever with conventional religiosity. The connections he makes between the Bible stories and science seem reasonable to me, especially given the lack of healthy intergenerational sharing. As Millet said in an interview,

My generation of adult — and those older than us who are still around — has failed, as a collective, to see ourselves as parents, even when we are parents. Real parents aren’t just producers of younger, newer beings. Producers of new life are simply breeders. Real parents are ancestors, who act out of a duty to the future of those under their care. Real parents are those who understand that the future has to be guarded, not only for their own children but for all who come after them. If we’re derelict in that duty — which we should take to be a sacred one — we may as well abandon the idea that we’re parents and admit we’re nothing more than breeders.

Millet says that she finished her novel before Greta Thunberg became famous, but I hear Thunberg in the voice of Jack, the younger brother who owns the children's Bible.

"Hey, Jack," said my father, trying to catch his eye in the rearview mirror. Summoned a smile that looked fake. And a jocular tone. "Chin up, kid. Everything's going to be OK!"

Jack switched his tablet off and flipped it over. Rested his hands on it, neatly folded together.

"That's what you always said," he said. His voice was still soft. "You're my father. But you're a liar."

Gish Jen's novel, The Resisters, takes place in the future world that Lydia Millet's novel might be foreshadowing. Not only has global warming raised the sea level to an extent that much of the world's population must live on boats and rafts, but a combination of artificial intelligence, rising authoritarianism, and geopolitical power shifts has all but eliminated equal rights and due process.

The USA has become AutoAmerica, whose global competitor is ChinRussia. The heroes of Jen's novel are among AutoAmerica's more or less permanently marginalized Surplus population -- forced to be swamp- and sea-dwellers, and not allowed to work. They subsist instead on a form of welfare, and are constantly monitored to be sure they are making the right choices. ("You always have a choice," says the ever-present voice of authority.)

The privileged class, the Netters, live on dry land, as you've no doubt anticipated. Surplus and Netters alike are overseen by Aunt Nettie, an (almost) all-knowing combination of AI and the Internet. Aunt Nettie is not so rigid that it doesn't sometimes allow exceptional Surplus inhabitants to become Netters when it's to AutoAmerica's advantage -- and this is the situation when Gwen, the daughter of a Surplus couple (a former professor and a still active lawyer), turns out to have a phenomenal pitching arm. The family surreptitiously organizes a baseball league, and Gwen's success in that supposedly secret league comes to the notice of Aunt Nettie. AutoAmerica is desperate to win the baseball Olympics competition against ChinRussia, and the authorities are perfectly willing to make a deal to recruit a star player.

Much of the human drama of The Resisters concerns the dilemmas of knowing when to resist and when to compromise. For example, issues of betrayal and reconciliation become central when the Surplus realize that the existence of the secret baseball league has been betrayed by one of Gwen's own friends. Jen has sharpened these dilemmas by making Aunt Nettie and its functionaries not totally evil, even capable of flashes of humanity and humor. Is co-optation by the authorities always a betrayal? When are bargains permissible, and when do they undermine resistance to pervasive authoritarianism?

All of these are live questions for us as we face our own dilemmas of resistance in the cause of due process and equal rights. And all too soon, we may also have to decide: who gets to live on dry land?

A successful fiction writer brings a set of characters to life. Lydia Millet's Evie and Gish Jen's Gwen were very real to me, and I'm grateful for allowing me to see the world through their eyes.

Francis Spufford created the five central characters of Light Perpetual, but also acknowledged that, because they were at the Woolworths in New Cross Road, Deptford, on November 25, 1944, when a German V2 missile made a direct hit on that store, their lives must necessarily have come to an end with all the other customers and staff killed in that tiny moment of time. 

(And for what? By the time Hitler's V2 vengeance weapons were being assembled, fueled, and crudely targeted at Allied cities such as London, his Thousand Year Reich had only six months left to live.)

At Woolworths on November 25, 168 very real people perished. Spufford gives his characters -- the schoolchildren Val, Jo, Alec, Vern, and Ben -- an alternate timeline, set in a fictional counterpart to New Cross Road. They stand for all the human possibilities abruptly cut off by that V2, whose metal nosecone must have made an appearance (as Spufford describes) for just a millisecond on its way down through the housewares department to its final impact point. But these five children were soon back at school, trying to answer a querulous headmaster's questions about the song they're singing.

I admit I was skeptical at first that the novel's central device -- accompanying five supposed victims of November 25 through the lives that the missile should have taken from them -- would feel artificial. Spufford's creativity and humane purpose soon lifted that doubt from me, as he brought each one of them to life. We revisit each of them at five-year intervals, tracing a course through the social history of postwar England. (Alec, for example, becomes a newspaper typesetter, a profession gradually eliminated by technology. Val marries a white supremacist.) Spufford succeeds in making each of them believably ordinary but also very specific, very individual, at the same time. At the end, I was sorry to say goodbye to them. Their lives were by no means equally beautiful in any sense I'd recognize, but together they shine a defiant light on the preciousness of life and the cruel randomness of war.

Why bombing unarmed civilians is always wrong.

The brutally clear Sixth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Washington Post's summary: "alarming and unsurprising."

What astronomers are learning from the huge rings around a black hole in the V404 Cygni system. Also, Einstein gets another boost from a black-hole observation.

... Then maybe you'll be in the mood for these seven Russian (and Soviet) sci-fi films. I was delighted to see Kin-dza-dza! on the list.

Is English a suitable language for poetry?

Joanne Shaw Taylor, "I've Been Loving You Too Long" ... 

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