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Sunday, 9 October 2016

Green Island - Shawna Yang Ryan (2016)

Green Island begins in 1949 when Taiwan came under martial law instigated by the Chinese Nationalist Party, who had fled mainland China after finally being defeated by the Communists in the Chinese Civil War. In 1986 I studied Chinese history as one of my year 12 subjects. Green Island reminded me of some of what I learned, but mostly it alerted me to what was left out of our curriculum, as if the ensuing history of what then happened in Taiwan was irrelevant. Shawna Yang Ryan has provided Western readers with an accessible account of what life was like for the Taiwanese from February 1947 onward, from the massacres that resulted from the influx of Nationalist forces, through to the SARs epidemic of the early 2000s.

Ryan’s unnamed narrator recounts the story of her family, beginning when she was born in the family home in Taipei on the night of the first massacre (up to 30,000 people ended up dying at the hands of Nationalist soldiers). Ryan, a Chinese American, lived in Taiwan for two years in order to research for the novel, exploring the island, accessing historical media and talking to people who had lived through those times. Such commitment and depth of research does give the novel an authentic tone, which is something that can be absent from historical fiction. Throughout the novel there is a great deal of familial detail, which can sometimes result in an uneven narrative pace, however this is offset by the resulting emotional connection developed over the course of Green Island. I had underestimated Ryan’s writing, believing that I was reasonably indifferent to the lives of the characters, even through their many hardships, until late in the novel when the narrator returns to Taiwan after a long absence and is placed in danger by the KMT. I felt protective of her and her partner, the idealistically naive Wei, and I realised that Shawna Yang Ryan had hooked me without me even noticing.

My interest and involvement in the novel increased once the narrator marries and subsequently moves to California where her husband lectures at Berkley University. The narrator not only has to navigate a new culture but, more importantly, she is given first-hand experience of the reach and power of the KMT, something that she could only imagine previously through the experiences of her father who had suffered through eleven years in captivity during the first decade of martial law. In California they give shelter to an escaped activist, Jia Bao, who plots with Wei to expose the evils of the KMT regime. The narrator’s relationship with the stoic Jia Bao and the danger it puts her and her family in gives the narrative an injection of tension that acts as a pay-off for some of the more prosaic sections earlier in the novel.

Although Green Island is certainly flawed, by the concluding chapters the novel had revealed itself to be much more accomplished than it had initially promised. More importantly Green Island deserves admiration for raising awareness in the West of Taiwanese history. Significantly the novel gives a voice to the multitudes of Taiwanese who suffered under the longest period of martial law (40 years) in modern history. Green Island is also an example of the importance of quality fiction. Fiction reveals histories, ideas, psychologies and foreign cultures that would be otherwise be inaccessible to readers who find the idea of reading door-stop sized history books unappealing.

Monday, 5 September 2016

The Age of Reinvention - Karine Tuil (2013, 2015 English translation)

With the publication of The Age of Reinvention French author Karine Tuil has added to the vast pile of literature that has been directly influenced by 911 and the West’s endless war on terror. The attack on the twin towers, the wars and the terrorism that have followed have had such a profound impact on culture that perhaps it is finally time to view this period as being apart from the Post-Modern era that developed since WWII. Coupled with the absolute reach of the World Wide Web and a myriad of other technological innovations surely cultural theorists can be inspired to come up with something, or are the stylistic tropes of Post Modernism really the last word in examining the current predicaments humanity finds itself in? (actually, the way forward lies in science fiction, but that’s just my opinion...) The Age of Reinvention does not offer anything new stylistically, but it does, depending on what you want from a novel, offer a relatively compelling exploration of human identity within the context of the current cultural and political climate.

At the centre of The Age of Reinvention is a love triangle between three university friends: Nina, the downtrodden goddess, the complex and brooding Samuel Baron and the French -Tunisian charmer Samir Tahar. The bulk of the narrative takes place twenty years after Nina and Samir have had an inevitable affair, which was subsequently curtailed by Samuel, who then proceeded to bind Nina to him with the worst kind of emotional blackmail. After twenty years Samuel is a failed novelist and Nina is a fashion catalogue model. In contrast Samir is now a successful lawyer living in New York and is married to the daughter of one of the richest Jews in the USA. The crucial plot device is that Samir has stolen Samuel’s life backstory, remodelling himself as a Sephardic Jew and in the process has disowned his mother and his much younger half-brother, who are both still living in poverty in the ethnic slums of Paris. When Samuel and Nina discover Tamir’s subterfuge (via the internet, of course...) they are drawn back into his life, with huge consequences for all concerned.

In an interview from last year Tuil states that “...there are novels which exist to entertain and novels which exist to ‘disturb’...” The Age of Reinvention can certainly be placed in the latter category. The curious thing about the novel is that its strengths are also its weaknesses, depending on the readers’ perspective. Tuil’s narrative style is intense and much of the action takes place in the present tense, which gives the novel an edginess that successfully conveys the desperation inherent in the protagonists' lives. Tuil delivers some fantastic lines, particularly in the first third of the novel, with some sentences covering almost half a page. These stylistic attributes drew me into the novel’s world and I felt a compulsion to read on to find out what would happen, but by the middle of the narrative Tuil’s style grew wearisome and I began to find certain aspects of the novel, such as the dialogue, to be jarring and melodramatic. Despite these flaws my enthusiasm remained undiminished; however other readers may find Tuil’s style to be overwrought and heavy-handed. There are also some quirks, such as footnotes that are used frequently to elaborate briefly on a minor character’s background, a technique I personally enjoyed, but others may find irritating. The wild swings in the fortunes of the protagonists may seem unrealistic and characterizations cliched and shallow, in particular that of Nina, who could be seen as a mere cipher for the submissive kept female, although, like the male protagonists, she does find a way to reinvent herself late in the novel.

The Age of Reinvention is a political novel, but is ultimately focused on the politics of the self rather than that of nations and the war on terror. The demands placed on an individual’s identity, ethnicity, sex and status by the forces of culture and history are Tuil’s chief obsessions here. Although the novel’s overall tone is bleak, in the end Tuil offers a glimmer of hope that the individual can ultimately be the master of their own destiny. The novel resonated with me, despite its flaws, and it provided an appropriate counterpoint to Michel Houellebeque’s controversial novel Submission (2015). I’m certain that The Age of Reinvention will not be the last word on this era’s discontents, but will it be remembered as one of its defining texts? We’ll see...

Sunday, 7 August 2016

The Book of Strange New Things - Michel Faber (2014)

I first became aware of Michel Faber when the movie adaptation of his novel Under the Skin (2000) emerged in 2013, starring the mesmerizing Scarlett Johansson as an alien lure for hapless humans. I saw the film, which was creepy and beautifully shot, and made a mental note to read the novel. Instead I bought The Book of Strange New Things, lured by its fascinating premise and beautiful cover art (yes, I have a total fetish for book covers - don’t you?). Typically however, it took me two years to get around to reading it, but I’m grateful I finally did. It turned out not to be the book I initially envisioned it to be, but in the end that turned out to not be such a bad (or strange) thing.

The Book of Strange New Things
is a curious novel. Initially the novel appears to be set up for an exploration of a weird alien culture that will react to humanity’s presence and religion in unpredictable ways. Set on the alien world of Oasis that has been relatively newly settled by a small population of humans attempting to prepare for eventual colonization in what appears to be the near future (within the next 100 years?). The unhurried narrative centres around Peter Leigh, a Christian pastor who is sent by a faceless corporation called USIC to undertake missionary work, as demanded by the Oasian natives. The aliens are quite taken by Christianity and Peter leaves behind his devoted wife, Bea, to dutifully spread the word of God. The aliens are outre enough, with faces described as looking like two human fetuses side by side, and with no discernible sensory organs to speak of. Their speech (“like fruit being thumbed into two halves”), habits and culture are inscrutable and suitably alien, as is the planet itself, which is mostly featureless except for swirling torrents of rain driven by an atmosphere that drives the humans crazy by delving into every nook and cranny. Faber certainly succeeded in creating a profound alien sense of place, however despite some beautiful descriptions of the alien world and a satisfyingly bizarre alien birth scene, the novel is essentially about humanity itself.

The Book of Strange New Things pays mere lip service to the usual science fiction tropes, instead concerning itself predominantly with relationships. Various plot arcs subtly explore interpersonal relationships, the relationship with the self, and the individuals’ relationship with God. Faber’s exploration of these relationships creates both an investment in the characters story arcs and an appropriately strange compulsion to find out how the novel will unfold. As usual I kept on trying to guess what twists could emerge as the novel progressed, but I was wrong on all counts, but in the end it didn’t matter - the very human heart of the novel was enough. Despite nothing much happening, seemingly most of the time, the novel is absorbing; managing to transcend an often sedate narrative. Undoubtedly this is due to the novel’s great psychological depth, including the aliens themselves, who struggle with the very nature of their existence.

After reading The Book of Strange New Things I happened upon an interview that crystallized just why a novel in which nothing much really happens in terms of drama, action or weird plot twists was ultimately just so absorbing. The novel that Faber initially intended turned out differently because as he began the task of writing his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The novel was profoundly influenced by his relationship with his wife as he cared for her and faced the reality of her passing. At the beginning of the interview he states that he “...wanted this to be saddest thing I’d ever written.” Faber also made clear his intention of retiring from writing, citing the passing of his wife as the demarcation point in his career and life. If it is his last novel then it a worthy farewell, representing a unique take on what it is to be human in what is, essentially, a tragic universe of inevitable loss and irreversible change. If you want a science fiction novel full of the usual tricks then this isn’t the book for you, but if you appreciate the kind of literature that explores profound themes in a subtle manner then you will be well rewarded.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter - Mario Vargas Llosa (1977, English translation 1982)

The imperiously named Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa, 1st Marquis of Vargas Llosa, is a Peruvian writer of some renown, with a prolific career both in literature and in politics. Now eighty years of age, his latest novel has recently been published - The Discreet Hero (2013, 2015) as has a collection of essays, aptly named Notes on the Death of Culture (2015). Llosa also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, among many other prizes throughout his career. I’m quite an admirer of South American writing in general, so I was looking forward to reading Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, which had been selected by my library book club group. The novel did not disappoint, proving to be a humorous farce that also featured some deft post-modern experimentation with narrative form.

Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is set in the Peruvian city of Lima in the 1950’s and is based on the author’s early life, in particular his marriage to Julia Urquidi at the age of 19 (Julia was 29). The principle protagonist, just one character among multitudes, is Marito (or Mario, as he is referred to later in the novel), an 18 year old aspiring writer who works as part of a news team at a local radio station. The much older Aunt Julia, a recent divorcee, unwittingly stirs the youthful passions of Marito and soon they are innocently romancing in secret away from the unforgiving gaze of the extended family (or so they think, of course...). The brilliantly eccentric character of Pedro Camacho, a Bolivian renowned for his ability to churn out brilliant scripts for radio serials, is employed by the radio station to improve ratings. This amazing character was actually based on a coworker of Llosa’s when he worked at a radio station, which makes me wonder just how much of Camacho’s unique idiosyncrasies are based on reality, such as asking the radio soap actors to masturbate so their voices are suitably relaxed for romantic scenes.

Like many South American writers Llosa’s style is intense, detailed and highly descriptive; there’s kind of fever-dream quality about it, although it is not as surreal as his former close friend’s writing, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Llosa famously gifted Garcia Marquez a black eye in their final encounter). The novel’s style is influenced by post-modernism, experimenting with form and meta fiction, whilst also providing entertaining light comical farce. Not only is Llosa writing about his own relationship, but also what it is like to be an aspirational writer who sees both situations and the people he meets as potential fodder for stories; essentially Llosa is writing about writing. Camacho’s role in the novel is both as an eccentric mentor for Marito and as a writer of increasingly surreal radio serials. The radio serials provide the material for every third or forth chapter, acting a counterpoint to the chapters involving Marito and Julia as they desperately attempt to be together in the face of family resistance. Toward the novel’s end their story becomes as dramatic and surreal as the serials, of which Camacho has lost control, mixing up the characters and events so much so that these chapters become like parodies of avant-garde writing. Despite Llosa’s experimentation the novel is engaging, funny and features a poignant ending. The novel is also crammed full of arcane and unusual words, so much so that I advise having a large dictionary on hand (or, yes, the internet...).

A film adaptation of Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, called Tune in Tomorrow, was released in 1990, starring a young Keanu Reeves as Mario and Barbara Hershey as Aunt Julia. The actor who undoubtedly steals the movie is the late and undeniably great Peter Falk, who plays Camacho with a brilliance that does the novel justice. I actually saw it at the time and I have to say that it makes for a great first date movie. It is worth both reading the novel and watching the film, as there is enough difference between the two to make it worthwhile and both are, in their own particular way, funny, farcical and ultimately touching in a manner that causes you to fondly recall your first love, and that is not such a bad thing.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Dark Forest - Cixin Liu (2008, English translation 2015)

The Dark Forest is Cixin Liu’s sequel to his excellent novel The Three Body Problem (2008) and is part of a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past, although in China they apparently refer to the series by the first book’s title. The Dark Forest finds humanity at the crossroads, with a complex plot that unfolds over four hundred years. Liu imagines a future in which humanity has both achieved enormous scientific progress and yet is also held back by severe constraints. As with the first book, The Dark Forest presents such a unique take on well worn science fiction tropes that its flaws are mere background problems in comparison to the novel’s epic scope.

In my review of The Three Body Problem I went to great pains to not reveal key plot concepts, so that logically means I’m also limited in what I can say about this novel. What I can say however is that the major theme of the novel is revealed, with the help of an ant, in the opening prologue, which establishes a brilliant premise that then unfolds over the course of the novel. Anyone looking for a fast moving narrative had just better read something else (Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat (1961) that’s going back a ways...). The novel frequently moves at a glacial pace, establishing the groundwork for later sudden revelations and events that do not fail to both excite and intrigue. On the whole this narrative structure works well, although it is sometimes hampered by a flat tone that stems possibly from the translator, Joel Martinson. A Chinese writer translated the first novel, which had a more poetic tone, whilst The Dark Forest’s prose can sometimes be stilted. Don’t let this put you off however, regardless of its flaws The Dark Forest is once again an extremely refreshing science fiction narrative, avoiding many of the familiar narrative signposts that feature in British or American novels.

Liu’s portrayal of humanity’s future across four centuries has fun with some treasured science fiction themes (underground cities being one), but he steers clear of outright parody, taking the future seriously enough to please the most demanding of science fiction fans. Liu’s vision of humanity’s slow crawl into space is also satisfying, particularly the manner in which it may be achieved and nature of its functioning.  There are also some surprises, such as the unlikely idea that Osama Bin Laden was a fan of Isaac Asimov’s brilliant Foundation series and therefore could be lured into cooperation by being painted as a Hari Seldon figure (I’m not making this up...). At the core of the novel is the meaning of the dark forest concept, an idea that can perhaps be easily guessed at by seasoned science fiction readers; however Liu’s final reveal at the very endgame of the novel is well worth waiting for.

Liu’s dark forest concept caused me to think long and hard about the nature of the universe, something I haven’t done for a while, and the truth is that I felt a twinge of real fear. As simplistic as it seems it is not such a big leap to apply Darwinism to the wider universe, particularly in light of recent discoveries of just how many habitable planets may be out there. Coincidentally recently whilst I was leafing through a copy of The New Scientist magazine at the library I happened upon an article about one of our planet’s most remarkable life forms, the Tarigrade (Water Bear), a microscopic creature that can survive in outer space for up to 10 days, can survive up to 10000 times more radiation than other lifeforms and can also survive extreme atmospheric pressure up to six times the pressure of Earth’s deepest point. The article highlighted a characteristic of Tarigrades that I didn’t know about before - the ability to enter a desiccated metabolic state by expelling the majority of water from their bodies and then survive undamaged for up to five years. What does this have to do with the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series? Read The Three Body Problem to find out, meanwhile I can’t wait to read the third and final book, Death’s End when it is published in September of this year.

Monday, 16 May 2016


Last week a plot based on an idea I had years ago suddenly came to life fully formed in my mind, triggered by a few simple words written on a random Facebook post, of all things. Later that night I decided that it was time to get really serious about fiction writing and so I’m going to reduce my reviews on Excelsior from two books a month to one. This will give me more time to write fiction and will also have the added benefit of encouraging me to read some of the larger books I’ve had laying around for years, such as The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955) and Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (2004). I will not have the pressure of having to read quickly enough to generate the bi-monthly reviews. 

As good as the regular writing of reviews has been for developing discipline and technique, it’s time to move on to bigger and hopefully better things. I’ve been writing some short stories, but this idea may develop into a novel and the time to start is now, otherwise I’ll still be tapping away whilst groaning under the weight of old age. Meanwhile I’m reading Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest (2008), the sequel to his excellent novel The Three Body Problem (2008). Expect the review shortly, hopefully in June.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Natural Way of Things - Charlotte Wood (2015)

Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem have only one thing in common: they have both won major awards. Cixin won the 2015 Hugo Award and it has just been announced that Wood has won the relatively new Australian award for female writers, the Stella Prize. From that common point both diverge, with Cixin’s novel standing as a brilliantly fresh take on an old science fiction theme, with quality writing and relatable characters; Wood’s novel is thematically heavy-handed, stylistically flawed and unrelentingly bleak. My dislike of this novel could mean that I’m a lone dissenter, after all the novel has garnered many positive reviews and literally just as I finished reading it the result of Stella Prize was announced; but if so I’m not afraid to be a lone voice in the wilderness because any judgement of a novel’s worth is a mixture of objectivity and subjectivity and I can’t deny the fact that I did not enjoy this novel at all.

The Natural Way of Things explores the particularly important and relevant issue of the misogyny that is an inherent feature of our patriarchal society and its sometimes close relationship with the nastier side of capitalism. The novel opens with two young women, Yolanda and Verla, who are struggling to awake fully from a drugged stupor and make sense of alien surroundings. They soon find that they are being held captive along with a group of other young women in an abandoned outback farm. Their immediate captors are two men, Boncer and Teddy, and a woman, Nancy, who seem to be in the employ of a nefarious corporate entity.The novel’s plot is not presented as a challenging mystery the reader can enjoyably try to solve, rather it is an allegory for the manner in which women can be treated by the patriarchy. Just why the women are being held captive is soon solved once they begin conferring between themselves during the rare times they are not being hounded by a stick wielding Boncer. The novel’s oppressive tone and its serious themes are not unusual in literature and can often be a successful technique to get the reader thinking, however in this case the novel’s effectiveness is hampered by Wood’s gratingly self-conscious writing style. I just could not warm to Wood’s writing and this seriously affected my interest in the plight of the women and what would eventually happen to them.

The Natural Way of Things
is a challenge to read, not because it is a brilliant and complex example of contemporary literary fiction, but because it is completely bereft of subtlety and humour. This compromises what would otherwise be the novel’s strong points, such as the friendship between Yolanda and Verla and the psychological challenges the women face as they attempt to stay alive when things don’t go as planned for the captors. Another problem is that the two male characters are basically caricatures. Boncer is like a walking talking definition of misogyny and no one is surprised that despite his confident way with a stick and propensity to bark orders he is essentially insecure. Teddy is a cliched surfer dude who practices yoga when he’s not being Boncer’s sidekick or smoking dope while complaining about the bouts of nagging his ex- girlfriend put him through. The female characters do develop over the course of the novel, however the allegorical necessity for many of them to still be hapless victims by the end the novel proved to be a serious weakness. When the ending finally arrived I threw the book down onto the vacant seat next to me on the train, hoping that I would forget to take it with me when I disembarked.

I feel almost guilty for disliking The Natural Way of Things so thoroughly, after all Charlotte Wood spent a great deal of time and effort writing it, and believe me, it is a difficult thing to actually write a novel, let alone a good one. There is no doubt that the novel explores worthy themes and I am under no illusions regarding the nature of the patriarchal society we live in, however rather than causing me to think about these issues seriously I just couldn’t get past the novel’s flaws. This was a book club read, so I’m wondering how my fellow members will react to the novel during next week’s meetings. I have a feeling that it could go the way of that other infamous prize winner, The Finkler Question, when 33 of the 35 book club attendees thoroughly disliked the novel. For a long time now I wondered whether I’d ever read another novel as completely dreadful as The Finkler Question. Finally I believe that I have and that means that The Natural Way of Things suffers the ignominy of joining The Finkler Question on this blog as being only the second book to be rated as truly and utterly reprehensible.