Monday, May 11, 2015

Station Eleven

Emily St. John Mandel skillfully weaves a compelling narrative of pre- and post-apocalyptic drama, of story within a story, and virtually a play within a play. And she does so in a language that is understated, but elegant and sometimes lyrical. Most of all, she makes the reader care about her characters, viewing all of them, even the sinister prophet in a fragmented post-apocalyptic world, with sympathy.

Once again, there is no single protagonist. It is in large part a story of Arthur Leander, a famous film actor who dies in the opening pages as he performs in a stage production of King Lear. A child actress in the play, Kirsten Raymonde, who briefly interacts with Arthur, is the focus of the post-apocalyptic scenes, which mostly take place 20 years after Leander's death.

That ill-fated performance comes literally on the eve of a flu pandemic that kills off most of the earth's human population in a period of just weeks and brings an end to civilization as we know it. Raymonde, as a young adult, becomes part of a group of musicians and actors, The Traveling Symphony, which circulates through the sparsely populated towns around the Great Lakes, performing Shakespeare and Beethoven to appreciative audiences deprived of most other forms of entertainment.

The back story of Leander, his three wives, his friend Clark and his son, Tyler, occupies a good half of the novel. These stories before and after the catastrophe are linked by characters running into each other -- the coincidences are highly improbable, but not impossible, so the author is forgiven -- and by a couple of McGuffins, especially a hand-printed graphic novel about a space station and its commander, Station Eleven and Dr. Eleven.

Kirsten is in possession of one of the few copies of the graphic novel, which was produced by Leaner's first wife, Miranda, a would-be artist who went on after her divorce to become a successful shipping executive. Station Eleven, the size of small planet, is largely covered with water, an Undersea which harbors a population of renegades who oppose Dr. Eleven and want to return to earth.

Through this fanciful, imaginative tapestry, Mandel weaves basic human emotions of love and affection, loss and regret, timidity and courage, with a force that is compelling -- I read the book in just four days -- and often moving.

J.K. Rowling once said that Harry Potter and his fellow students don't have computers and cell phones because they have magic playing the role these miraculous devices have in our lives. The magic things of civilization -- air travel, electricity, even books -- come in for their share of wonder in this novel. But the rediscovery of simple pleasures -- bread baking in the oven, catching fish in a stream, performing a play -- also become a source of happiness and fulfillment.

Ultimately, for all the devastation and deprivation in this post-apocalyptic world, the resilience of the human spirit and endurance of human emotion create an atmosphere of optimism, which survives deadly threats and unavoidable setbacks.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Windsor Faction

D.J. Taylor's novel starts with a great premise for an alternate history -- Wallis Simpson dies of appendicitis so that Edward VIII does not abdicate but stays on the throne as World War II commences -- and provides an entertaining portrait of England torn between pacifism ("defeatism") and war.

However, spoiler alert, Taylor doesn't alter history all that much. Edward is portrayed as a weak and vacillating individual whose half-hearted support for the defeatists did little in fact to change anything. Rather, the ham-handed conspiracy of the novel, involving several historical figures, ended largely as it did in real history. British intelligence monitored the conspirators closely and when Germany did invade France, abandoning all pretension of seeking peace, the conspiracy collapsed and everyone was arrested.

So as an alternate history thriller, The Windsor Faction doesn't live up to its billing. As a satire poking fun at British society and a richly detailed picture of England in 1939, however, it makes for a good read. The wit, to use a cliche, is rapier-sharp, and the dissection of motivation of the multiple narrators is surgical. From the king on down through the conspiring aristocrat, the upper-class ingenue and her more sophisticated mentor, the foppish publisher and traitorous editor of a literary journal, the laconic gadabout writer, the oily clerk in the American embassy, to the distracted intelligence agents, the middle-class proprietors of an antique shop and the thuggish prol who works there -- each character is sharply delineated, fleshed out and made more  or less sympathetic to the reader.

There is not much suspense because the characters are not a credible threat to the established order. Rather they are a marginal, quirky, misguided footnote to history, alternate or real.

The writer adopts several different points of view -- including one in first person via a diary -- so that there is no clear protagonist. Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a young woman whose fiance is killed in a tragicomic manner while her family is stationed in the British colony of Ceylon, comes closest to being the character who binds the action together. She is the first we meet and plays a key part in the denouement. But other characters get their chapters as well, including Beverley Nichols (male despite the first name), an historical character who is deployed in the novel as an amanuensis for Edward to produce a very different sort of King's Speech in that fateful December 1939.

The king's pacifist tones do little to significantly sway public opinion, however, and the authorities dispatch him ("this is not a suggestion, but an order") to the distant provinces for inspection tours to keep him out of trouble. In the meantime, the emboldened conspirators try to surreptitiously negotiate a peace treaty with Germany, but time runs out before the French invasion.

I'm not a fan of multiple narrators, no more than I am of small plate restaurants. The snippets may be tasty, but not as satisfying as a full meal. Also, the details of period brands and manners and jingles and language are sometimes too rich and inserted gratuitously in a way that interrupts the flow.

That said, Taylor is a talented and supple writer and the novel remains compelling even without a thriller's suspense.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Blood Is Dirt

Despite my reservations about the first novel in the series (Instruments of Darkness), here I am already reading another Bruce Medway mystery by Robert Wilson. It is the evocation of the West African atmosphere, and perhaps the stench of corruption that Wilson has mastered that drew me back. It's an easy read, though he may have lost me on a twist or turn or two in the convoluted plot of a double scam within a scam, preceded by a fake scam and accompanied by a fair amount of mayhem.

Nonetheless, the corruption and hypocrisy oozes out of every pore of most of these characters, with the first-person narrator (Medway), his girlfriend Heike and his partner Bagado being the notable exceptions. This plot involves a British shipbroker who ships toxic waste and colludes with a British financier to cheat an Italian oil dealer (I think) -- which predictably does not end well for many of the people involved.

There are some outlandish characters -- the shipbroker's daughter, Selina, who becomes Medway's client and is a man-eating vixen; the Nigerian chief running for president of the country who needs financing for his campaign; some small-time Russian thugs who craft their own chili vodka, and others.

The portrayal of a key "queer" character betrays more than a whiff of homophobia, so I'm not sure what planet Wilson is living on or if he is deliberately being politically incorrect. There is considerable brutality but much less of the masochism that marked the earlier book. Medway doesn't get hurt too badly nor are Heike (too much of her in this book) or Bagado (too little of him) ever at risk from the bad guys.

And there's the driving along the coast between Nigeria and Benin, the ever-present heat and threat of malaria, the exotic forests and bays and beaches of the coastal setting, the cynical lifestyles of wealthy expatriates -- the stuff, in short, of a pretty good story.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Wool

Hugh Howey's science fiction epic is a satisfying post-apocalyptic thriller that keeps the reader turning pages. His vision of a remnant of civilization confined to a silo buried 140 stories into the earth is convincingly claustrophobic. The physical restrictions are stifling and require an equally stifling society where books are banned and every individual is assigned a work category (and silo level) with the appropriately colored overalls.

In a Q&A tacked on the end of my paperback edition, Howey says his time at sea and the confinement of living on a boat gave him the insight into silo life. The interminable climbs on the spiral stairway down the length of the silo are depicted so graphically that your legs are sore. Trips from top to bottom take days, with rest stops at various levels. "Porters" are the specialists who carry every pound of food and supplies on their backs from the garden and farming levels to the top and bottom. Communication is severely restricted. There are no computers for general use and paying a porter to carry a message is expensive.

All of this is effectively ruled by IT, a satirical touch that would be hilariously funny if it were not so grimly realistic. Sham elections choose a mayor, who appoints a sheriff (with the advice and consent of the head of IT). This is the world that Juliette, a mechanic housed in the lowest reaches of the "down deep" disrupts. When the mayor, Jahns, defies the head of IT, Bernard, to choose Juliette as the new sheriff, he quickly moves to frame Juliette with one of the numerous offenses that condemns a resident to "cleaning," the euphemism for being sent out into the toxic outside world in a suit designed to fail quickly. The cleaning refers to their obligation to wipe clean the monitors that are the only view the silo's inhabitants have of the outside world. Oddly, the condemned individuals invariably comply with this requirement, even though they gain nothing by it and die almost immediately afterwards. The wool of the title, by the way, appears to refer to the material they are given to clean the monitors, though of course the expression "pull the wool over your eyes" quickly comes to mind.

There are surreptitious references to an "uprising" that occurred several generations ago, when some individuals became impatient with restrictions of silo life and rebelled. It was put down violently and it is now a capital crime to discuss it. Just how many centuries people have been living in the silo and how many uprisings there have been are all vague. The novel begins, in fact, with the wife of Juliette's predecessor as sheriff, Holston, discovering some of these historical truths still preserved on IT's servers. She loses it and demands to be sent out to "cleaning." After grieving for three years, Holston follows suit. Neither makes it up the hill surrounding the silo. They curl up and die in view of the silo monitors and the residents up top who regularly enjoy.

This is the setup, and it's not too much of a spoiler to conclude that making it over that hill or fomenting a new uprising might be part of the narrative. The cynical nature of IT's control and the origins of the silo are revelations that drive the narrative as well.

Wool is often compared to The Passage by Justin Cronin, but I actually found this to be a tighter and more readable narrative. It eschews the supernatural element that makes the earlier book fantastical, and in fact revels in the low-tech expertise of Juliette and her companions in Mechanical. Her ability to survive comes to depend on that practical knowledge.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Cairo Affair

I've blown hot and cold on Olen Steinhauer and this is the first thriller of his that I've finished. Comparisons to Le Carre are more aspirational than actual, but this book succeeds in creating an atmosphere of moral ambivalence that is quite convincing.

What attracted me to the book, bought on remainders, was the setting in Cairo -- which is where I would like to situate the second Lord Leighton adventure. There is the obligatory passage through Budapest because Steinhauer seems to really like that city (his first novel, Prague, was actually set in the Hungarian capital). Cairo itself is conveyed a little too sketchily, but the desert scenes are good. Also, interestingly, the drive along the coast into Libya was like those coastal trips of Robert Wilson's protagonist in Instruments of Darkness, giving the reader a new sense of place by bringing alive a stretch of the map.

Steinhauer's narrative here from multiple points of view means there is no single protagonist. Rather, it is like a relay race with first one, then the other character taking on that role. The author makes it clear which of these runners he finds most sympathetic, but even in that case there is some moral ambivalence. The end result, however, is somewhat less than satisfying, because none of the characters then is fully developed.

The action revolves around an American couple, a diplomat who is murdered early on and his wife. We meet Emmet Kohl again in flashbacks to their oddball honeymoon, which for some reason they decided to take in the war zone of Novi Sad. Sophie Kohl is the one thread from the beginning of the book to the end, but she shares screen time with the other characters. She improbably decides to go from Budapest, where her husband was killed, to their previous posting in Cairo to see if she can find out why he was killed. It is a premise already that requires considerable suspension of disbelief and we are never given a convincing motivation for it.

The rest of it, however -- the CIA staff in Cairo, the Egyptian secret service, the rogue operators stretching from the Balkans to the Maghreb -- is full of betrayal and twists that are indeed Le Carre-esque. Above all, the inescapable bureaucratic element of intelligence services is convincingly portrayed. The plot, based on the Arab Spring and the Libyan overthrow of Qaddafi, is quite timely.

It is, in short, an ambitious novel, reasonably well executed and well written. Le Carre it is not, but worth reading on its own merits.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Lexicon

Max Barry's neurolinguistic thriller has a ton of blurbs praising it and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. He creates a conceptual world and a great cast of characters; he keeps the narrative rattling along with suspense and a big dose of humor. For the most part, he keeps the time frame of the disjointed narrative clear enough, though by the end there are so many folds into folds as the times converge, that it's a bit confusing just which one you're following. At that point, though, it hardly matters as you just want to finish in a blur to the end.

A shadowy "organization" of so-called poets maintains a discipline of what they call persuasion, and the rest of us would call manipulation. They categorize people into "segments" that allow them to use certain nonsense words to penetrate the psychological barriers each of us sets up and leave the individual powerless to resist a command -- even if it means shooting yourself or killing others.

Emily Ruff is recruited into this organization at 16 and shows an aptitude for persuasion but lacks the discipline expected of members. The plot is driven by the conflict within her between neurolinguistic manipulation and basic emotional drives. Much of it concerns retrieval and use of a "bareword" -- a potent symbol that penetrates anyone's defenses regardless of segment.

But the story doesn't start with Emily. It starts with Wil Clarke, who is kidnapped in the Portland airport by individuals who think he has the bareword because he survived the annihilation of the entire population of Broken Hill, a dying mining town in Australia. The mysterious death of 3,000 people was attributed to use of the bareword by a person first identified as Wolf, then Woolf, marking her as a renegade poet (members of the organization are given the name of a famous poet). Wil has no idea why he is being kidnapped, no recollection of ever having been in Broken Hill, and no knowledge of anything like a bareword. However, his abductor, Tom Eliot, is convinced he is the "outlier," the only survivor of the Broken Hill massacre.

Only then does the scene switch to Emily's recruitment into the Academy, the training school for the poets. The reader soon realizes this narrative is in a time preceding the opening scene and it doesn't take too long to figure out what poet name Emily is going to get when she graduates. The narrative then alternates between the two timelines, eventually introducing timelines within those timelines.

It is, then, an extremely high-concept scifi thriller, but one that bears its concepts lightly and peopled with sympathetic characters. The villain of the piece is the leader of the poets' organization, Yeats. We know he is evil because he has "flat" eyes. It turns out he also has a simple fetish that makes him vulnerable. He is of course not sympathetic and in fact the least convincing and most two-dimensional character in the book. His motivation is unclear, though his role is less ambivalent as the narrative draws to a close. As a result of the weakness of this character, however, the denouement is something of a letdown and not up the drama Barry has created.

Much of the action takes place in Broken Hill. I've never visited that town but I did spend several weeks in Australia and wrote often about Broken Hill Proprietary, the mining company headquartered there, during its heyday. Barry apparently is Australian and has some fun portraying the pros and cons of his native country and its residents.

The notion of neurolinguistic manipulation is of course very topical in our digital age, and one of the riffs by a member of the organization regarding a project they have to feed people only news they have shown they like so that anything else seems biased is scarily close to what is actually happening.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

All the Great Prizes

I've enjoyed reading this long biography of John Hay by John Taliaferro. What intrigued me is that he began his career as private secretary to Lincoln throughout his presidency and ended it as secretary of state under Teddy Roosevelt -- what a span! When you encounter him in other biographies or histories, he pops up so often, you think there must be several people named John Hay, or father and son, or some such -- but it always the same person.

The time with Lincoln and his subsequent career as a journalist and writer who knew everyone from Mark Twain to Brett Harte were interesting. His various friendships, especially with Henry Adams (so close they built houses together on Lafayette Square that are now the Hay Adams Hotel), are also interesting. I'm abandoning the 600-page book more than halfway through, however, for a couple of reasons.

One is that as admirable as Hay was in many ways he is not a particularly sympathetic individual. He was something of a dandy, and, having married into an industrial fortune, something of a playboy. He put off entreaties of his father-in-law (the source of his fortune) to return home because of the latter's growing depression over a fatal accident on one of his railroads, so that Hay could gallivant around in Europe visiting all his wonderful friends. While he dallied, his father-in-law committed suicide. The author then relates in excruciating detail Hay's infatuations with a couple of the belles of Washington and his letters that would make an adolescent blush. Taliaferro would have us believe that these relationships, if not exactly Platonic, were not consummated, which is a stretch even for that period.

But that brings us to the second reason. Taliaferro has taken Hay mostly through the interim period between Lincoln and Roosevelt without giving much sense really of what was going on in the Gilded Age. The biography seems driven by research in Hay's correspondence and makes little effort to put his activity -- or for much of the time, his inactivity -- in the context of the times. We get glimpses and glances of social ferment as labor forces rise up against the oppression of the plutocracy, but nothing more. Hay, of course, a Republican and plutocrat, has little use for any of that while he writes his gushing letters to his current infatuation, but a true appreciation of his role in history would make such context desirable.

The long and short of it is that Hay has justifiably been forgotten, except for those elusive appearances in the lives of others. Interesting and prominent in his time, he was not a great man. He was in fact a snob and a social climber who lived by his wits and charm, with enough of each to be a zelig in American history. I have too little time to read biographies to spend it on a second-rate figure. So now I'm tackling The Last Lion, William Manchester's epic biography of Winston Churchill.