03-29-12: Terry Bisson Remembers 'Any Day Now'
Clayton Bewley Bauer is a Kentucky kid. He grows up like a weed, hardy, smart — but not too smart — and is able to thrive in the thinnest of circumstances. He's not going to be stuck in his hometown of Owensboro forever, not when it's the late sixties and a guy like Roads swings into town. Give Clay some jazz, some drugs, a bit of poetry and that weed is going to start to turn into a wildflower. The language that Clay grows up in, the words that swirl his being into yours, his world into yours are going to change you and your vision of this world. With 'Any Day Now,' Terry Bisson brings back prose as an addictive, mind-altering substance.
Tuck into 'Any Day Now' and you'll quickly get the Beat that Bisson is writing to. Sure, he harkens back to the greats, but Bisson's spin on the bildungsroman is ultimately more original than the reader can possibly expect. First and foremost, as a reader, you're going to find prose that seems written to spec for the speed of your mind, at whatever rate your wheels may turn. Bisson tells his story in succinct spots of terse, pixilated prose that is endearing and propulsive. It's hard to stop reading, because Bisson has the chops to make reading intensely pleasurable. The stream-of-style consciousness (not a typo on my part!) skitters through Clay's life in a manner that makes readers feel as if we're getting the highly-condensed (and intensed [again, not a typo!]) version of events, the movie trailer of a life that is better than the life itself.
And what a life, given life by Clay, a nice kid who hops, skips, hitch-hikes, jumps his way to New York and "EmCee," that is Mary Claire, a dark star who exerts a gravitation force greater than even she can bear. The upshot of EmCee-meets-Clay is Clay's next journey to a commune where all is not as we know it should be. Bisson excels at creating a cast of characters who are are funny, charming, damaged, dangerous, but always fun to read about. Every turn is a turn to someone you want to be with, even if you know they're bad for you, or Clay. We all know how much we like those are bad for us, and Bisson makes this all a blast for the readers.
The secret kernel at the heart of this flowering plant is the thriller-style plot that unfolds at the edges of these rather oblivious characters' perceptions. Here's where the novel becomes really fun, as Bisson deftly manages to duck, side-step (literally) and weave around our expectations of what can happen in this world. Great things are happening outside the commune, and they might actually threaten what's happening within as well. They'll certainly threaten your ability to put down the book.
You might like to think that it is good to know your world, to know that it is stable, and that events won't diverge from the script you might want to write. But Bisson knows that the best scripts evade our expectations and create new hopes, foment new nightmares. You might go to sleep in one world and wake up in another; you might find that history has, in spite of your certainties, turned on a dime. 'Any Day Now' turns your reading world on a dime, then does so again. You will go to sleep in one world and wake up in another. Good luck. You may find that you can thrive in a world you never expected to exist.
03-28-12: Archive Reviews: Jon Courtenay Grimwood: The Arabesk Trilogy
Pashazade, Effendi, Felaheen
Editor's note: Thinking back to the beginnings of this column, I could not help but fondly remember the alternate history landscapes of Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk Trilogy — 'Pashazade,' 'Effendi,' and 'Felaheen,' which I restore to my new review archive format this week. Three for one, and now available as a single volume.
Hardcover first editions in good condition are readily available and worth buying though; they're nice. Alas, I fell off the mailing list for the author's latest work, The Assassini Trilogy. They're available from Orbit Books as trade paperbacks.
Let me note here that in my experience, Jon Courtenay Grimwood was the first writer to use the internet to premiere a "book trailer" back in 2002(?) for for 'Effendi.'
There's a certain zeitgeist that hovers over novels set in Middle Eastern cities. The places themselves, the elaborate houses and palaces, the filthy streets and loud bazaars all become characters, identities with a dialogue of street traffic, shouting vendors and reedy music. 'Pashazade: The First Arabesk' by John Courtenay Grimwood certainly makes the most of its location even though it is imaginary. El Iskandrya is the center of the still-strong Ottoman Empire in Grimwood's odd alternate history. Subject to strong influences from a Germany that won the first world war, a brash America and a refined UK and France, the city is a bazaar, a place of bargains and brokers, of deals and dreams. To El Iskansrya, Grimwood brings Zee Zee, who becomes Ashraf Bey, Pashazade, a member of the city's powerful elite. Until the aunt who brought him there is murdered and he is accused of the murder.
Grimwood never misses a chance to pump up the atmosphere and the mystery. He's not exactly a fair player as a writer. He piles the mystery of who exactly ZeeZee/Ashraf is on top of the mystery of who committed the murder and why on top of the mystery of what exactly is going on in his alternate history. In doing so, he manages to ride the line keeping the reader just a hair's breadth away from understanding exactly why the events that are so poignantly drawn are happening. As one mystery unravels, another unfolds. It's a quintessential science fiction device used effectively in a different context.
Grimwood's dense plot might get annoying if he wasn't such a great prose stylist. When he wants to drench the reader in atmosphere, break out the umbrellas. He mines Durrell's Alexandria Quartet effectively, and like Durrell, makes the setting an equal player to the people. Fortunately, he likes his characters and succeeds in making them endearing and interesting, not just violent an quirky. He under-uses his best creations, Hani, the nine year old computer genius who is still a little girl, and Zara, the woman Ashraf was meant to marry but disgraced when he rejected her. Ashraf is discovering himself as the reader discovers him. What he finds within himself is honor, and that brings him closer to the reader even as his software supplements set him apart. The proto-family unit formed by these three characters really helps carry the reader through the thick stew of the setting and plot.
Grimwood's use of science fiction devices in what is primarily a mystery plot verges on problematic. His alternate history occasionally seems a bit too similar to our own, and it fuzzes around the edges. This could be tightened up in further books (and those are already available), as could the technology. Sometimes, we see stuff that is pretty far out, and other times we see stuff that's pretty much now. Grimwood tosses it all across the ancient background of El Iskandrya, which is clearly the point. El Iskandrya is the kind of city that is always at the border of the "civilized" world, the kind of city where it is always economical for some to live a lifestyle that is only slightly removed from the Middle Ages.
Mostly though, 'Pashazade' is a hypnotic and delightful descent into a fragrant Middle East that has grown as much out of literature as out of reality. Grimwood's language is superb, and his creation is extremely unique. Few who read this novel will be able to easily describe it. It's a literary platypus, with a duck's bill, smooth glossy fur and poison glands. It will create a hermetically sealed world that readers will be able to re-visit once the book is finished. They'll be glad that this is just 'The First Arabesk'. Grimwood has created more than a nice place to visit. Readers will want to live there, every chance they can get.
Following up is hard to do. 'Effendi' builds on 'Pashazade', spinning new riffs from the best of the old. It revises and re-writes, then flat out improvises. The worlds and characters of 'Pashazade' have become an orchestra that John Courtenay Grimwood plays with ease. 'Effendi' is Grimwood's second serenade to his invented city and the world of El Iskandryia. He revisits the themes and characters that he created in the first and plays through new and stronger variations. But it's not a just a twist of the volume knob. He takes a lot of chances here, most of which pay off. 'Effendi' shows Grimwood well on his way to creating a work inspired by the Alexandria Quartet that could equal Durrell's in complexity and experimentation.
'Effendi' begins chronologically before the end of 'Pashazade'. It will be a while before the reader notices Grimwood is retelling events in that novel from different points of view. It's a strangely satisfying experience. Simultaneously, Grimwood plunges the reader into a rather nightmarish march across the Sudan, as one 'Ka' journeys towards a scenario straight out of today's headlines. Directed by the voice of an unseen Colonel, Ka and a small band of children -- from pre-teens to teenagers -- acquire guns and kills as they look for an opportunity to commit an act of terrorism on a grand scale. Back in the timeline the reader knows and loves, in El Iskandryia, Raf, Hani and Zara all must confront Raf's new position and the challenges offered by the representatives of the US, German and France. These nations all have an agenda for the free city of El Iskandryia, and it involves the characters we have come to love.
'Effendi' manages the same diffuse feel as 'Pashazade', all the while building on the world created in that novel. Readers are given a new character to enjoy as DJ Avatar, a more minor player in 'Pashazade', comes into full focus in 'Effendi'. As he did with Raf in 'Pashazade', Grimwood grows up Avatar in the course of this novel. Raf himself takes on a new level of maturity and is forced to new levels of cunning by the multi-faceted assaults on his family and his city. Serial mutilations and murders, the rise of a heavy-handed fundamentalist faction, the machinations of multinational corporations and the fate of his almost-father-in-law, Hamzah Effendi all rest in Raf's hands.
Fortunately, Grimwood is more than up to a solution for the many problems he poses, and he answers all of the questions he raises. Just when the reader thinks that Grimwood is going to leave a stone unturned, it flipped and the wriggling things underneath are brought into the hard light of his excellent prose. There are some breathtaking moments of writing in this novel, and some moments of sheer terror. The monsters are all locked up in the people however, and that makes this novel more insightful than readers might first expect it to be.
As befits the second novel in a series, Grimwood expands on the boundaries of his world and clarifies matters that were left blurry in the previous installment. He does this while performing some interesting experiments in his prose and plotting. He also gets a little bit more into the science fictional aspects of his alternate history. Now that the reader is seeing more of the "civilized" world, that technology has more of a chance to present itself. When it does, Grimwood stretches the envelope that he has created. Some readers will be distressed, but most will be pleased. I counted myself in the latter camp.
It's worthy of noting that 'Pashazade' and 'Effendi', though clearly parts of a series, do not leave the reader hanging, waiting for a resolution that does not come at the end of the novel. Instead, they leave the reader feeling satisfied with a rich tapestry of creative thought, and looking forward to more. They are the equivalent of a perfect exotic meal, full of strange surprises, unexpected flavors and unanticipated combinations. They leave you sated, not thirsting for more, but slowly, lazily, moving your brain in the direction of anticipating the next repast. There's no cliffhanging here. Just the memory of two great books and the promise of more to come.
In most books language is used to build characters. In Jon Courtenay Grimwood's 'Arabesks', language for all intents and purposes is a character. 'Felaheen' continues the story of Ashraf Bey and his niece, Hani in a world that is so densely original it reads like the densest space operas, though it never leaves solid ground. Grimwood bathes the reader in the language of an intensely Islamic and Middle Eastern world that is so sensual, you'll dump the sand from your shoes after finishing a chapter. At turns impenetrable, then as crystal clear as the water in an oasis, 'Felaheen' is another brick in a wall that will either surround readers in a wonderfully conceived world or keep them out more efficiently than translation to a dead language. If you've read the first two novels in this series, then you'll no doubt look forward to another vacation with Ashraf; if not, give first, 'Pashazade', then 'Effendi' a try. This is dense, beautifully written and utterly unique fiction. There's nobody else writing anything remotely like these books. What's more, nobody else could write anything remotely like these books. Jon Courtenay Grimwood is a true original. I hope that in between novels, his publisher puts him on a shelf with the other national treasures.
Writing books as dense as the Arabesks is a definite invitation to those who like to read and re-read their books. Had I time, I'd go back and re-read both 'Pashazade' and 'Effendi' just to enjoy the effect of Grimwood's lush prose. But I didn't, so I just plunged in to Grimwood's latest lush extravaganza. Extravagant is a key word here; Grimwood goes overboard with the Islamic and Arabic neologisms and idioms, immersing the reader in his created world with so much detail that they are at risk of losing track where they might actually be sitting while the read the books. This time around, Ashraf is once again searching for evidence of who his father truly might be while trying to determine if someone is trying to kill the man who might be his father, the Emir. It's a simple plot, but Grimwood's evocative prose surrounds the reader with so much strangeness, you might as well be reading a space opera. Interspersed with the main narrative are flashbacks of a nasrani eco-terrorist's journey into Ifriqiya's heart to find and bed the man of her dreams. Grimwood carefully keeps the reader guessing the connection until an electric wire sizzles and the reader's brain lights up like Roman candle. This happens frequently in this novel; it's one of the great pleasures of Grimwood's work.
While Grimwood's alternate history is still largely obscure, more parts of it slot into place with each passing novel. His world is so densely created that it has the grit and grain of truth. Readers will be pleased to learn much, much more about Ashraf than they have as yet. It's remarkable that Grimwood can keep revealing so much of the character to readers in each work, yet leave so much to discover. With a world that's extremely foreign and language that's peppered with so many unusual words that Grimwood must turn off his auto-speller unless he wants to see pages of underlined red, Grimwood keeps his characters extremely appealing. Ashraf Bey is truly a man of mysteries, to himself as well as the reader. The journey of discovery is pleasant and exciting. Hani is just the prototypical smart kid in funny clothing and gorgeous, elegant language. In a more mundane setting, she might be an annoyance; here she's a delight.
Readers who loved Lawrence Durrell should run, not walk to buy these novels and prepare for the time of their lives. Likewise, those who enjoyed the late George Alec Effinger's novels of Marid Audran will find these novels familiarly foreign. Those who enjoyed the desert settings and stylings of Frank Herbert's 'Dune' novels will also find Grimwood's Arabesks a revelation. While the novels are nominally described as mysteries — and the cleverly revealed plots have the prerequisite murders, hidden identities and double-crosses — their feel is more that of a travelogue. If you enjoy reading as a luxury, as a lush and sensuous experience, then Grimwood will give you more than you bargained for. If you've read the first two novels, this book is not surprisingly just as good and just as weird. Grimwood is a very strange writer who is doing something only barely comprehensible, but he does it so remarkably well that no reader can fail to recognize the presence of great talent — and great fun.
03-26-12: Matt Ruff Reveals 'The Mirage'
Smoke and Mirrors
The world you know is topsy-turvy, it has been undone, and re-arranged with maximum ironic impact. It makes perfect sense. The cradle of civilization became the cradle of representative democracy, and the United Arab States rose to pre-eminence while North America never got beyond being a collection of feudal theocracies.
Matt Ruff's 'The Mirage' begins with on November 89, 2001, when Christian fundamentalist terrorists hijack four jetliners. Two go into The Tigris & Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, a third into the Arab Defense Ministry in Riyadh, while a fourth is brought down by its passengers before it hits Mecca. Three cops — Samir (big, burly and blunt), Amal (the Mayor's daughter) and Mustafa (late on the scene) are busting an alcohol smuggler when they witness the event, and feel the world change beneath their feet.
If 'The Mirage' were not so finely written, one would be tempted to say that it was an audacious work, with a premise that teeters on the verge of jingoistic parody. But it takes only a paragraph to realize Matt Ruff is such a fine writer that he can simply immerse you in a gritty, detailed alternate reality that rings utterly true with every word. Ruff's prose carries us into and through a world that feels real. The sentences are beautifully crafted, the dialogue flows effortlessly and every word contributes to the world. If the plot were not so intriguing, 'The Mirage' would work alone as wonderfully imagined piece of literary fiction.
The novel proper begins ten years after the 11/9 event, when Amal, Mustafa and Samir are working the War on Terror. A captured "homicide bomber" reveals that his Christian sect believes the world to be a mirage, and that in the real world, America is the superpower — and he's got a New York Times dated 9/12/01 to back him up. Of course, the three cops know it to be a Photoshop job, but as they dig deeper into the world of false artifacts, they find themselves surrounded by friends who might be enemies. No matter what the world, the truth is always hazardous to your health.
Characters drive 'The Mirage,' and Ruff gives us deeply written protagonists who are compelling almost-mirrors of our world. Amal, Mustafa and Samir all have wonderfully drawn everyday problems and challenges in their family and public lives that are both familiar and exotically strange. Ruff's meticulously crafted alternate history is populated with extremely entertaining versions public figures in our world, from Saddam Hussein to Osama Bin Laden that are a hoot to read about. The thriller plot is expertly used to pull them together, and Ruff's finale is every bit the ending that the novel deserves.
The power of 'The Mirage' is the power of the mirror; it's an enchantment and a curse. Ruff's prose makes us take his world and his characters with the gravity they deserve, but in a manner that is extremely fun to read. Every detail of the world he creates is exciting and new, to the degree that our unfolding understanding of the world is a plot driver. It's important to remember, though, the title. 'The Mirage' is a vision, but the more we see this alternate reality, the more we understand about our own. The novel is a very smart mirror. Enchantment gives way to curse; we see ourselves both in the other and as the other.