Review: Red Pill

Three years ago, I wrote of Hari Kunzru’s 2017 novel White Tears that “it relies more on affect than plot to generate meaning.” His subsequent novel, Red Pill, a text that sends its liberal protagonist spiralling into existential despair in response to the rise of fascism in the US, fits that bill even more closely, as its disorienting effects spill over beyond the page to destabilise the worldview of the presumed liberal reader.

Our unnamed narrator is a writer from New York who, struggling to find the mental space to begin his next project (a book on the construction of the self in lyric poetry), accepts a fellowship from the Deuter Center, an artists’ colony of a sort in Wannsee, that notorious suburb of Berlin. When he arrives at the Center, anticipating several months of productive solitude, he’s horrified to discover (having apparently not read the Center’s literature thoroughly) that he’ll be required to work in an open-plan office, have his IT activity surveilled by Center staff, and attend communal meals with other residents, including an insufferable neuropsychologist who insists that the self does not exist except as an epiphenomenon generated by deterministic neurochemical interactions in the body. As he plunges deeper into an emotional crisis whose seeds were sown long before his arrival at the Center, he retreats to his room, becoming fascinated by the super-violent cop drama Blue Lives and its nihilistic creator Anton. It’s an obsession that takes him across Europe: to Paris, to the extreme north of Scotland; and, finally, back to New York, on election night, the night of 9th November 2016.

The key dynamic in the novel, then, is instability: the gradual erosion of the narrator’s – and, by extension, our – ideas about the self, the importance of human rights, the very primacy of the human, in the face of ideologies like Edgar’s, which reduces human experience to biology, and like Anton’s, which posit power as the only reality. In the face of the recognition Anton gains for his blood-soaked and often racist dramas, the narrator’s profound writer’s block is significant: although he’s instinctively repelled by these ideas, he feels completely unequipped to counter them in any meaningful way, and they thus come to seem inescapable.

As a writer and liberal myself, watching country after country (Sweden, Chile, the UK) drift further and further to the right: yes. Kunzru’s nailed that sense of things slipping out of control, and of feeling powerless to do anything about it. And because his narrator is unnamed, because his precise politics remain unarticulated, because he has achieved very little career-wise and lives a largely unremarkable middle-class life, the reader is able to generalise the existential instability he’s feeling into their own life; in other words, the non-specificity of the narrator is one of the ways in which the text breaches the “fourth wall”, as it were, engendering in the reader the same sensations of dislocation and disorientation as the narrator experiences.

Another way it does this is, similarly to White Tears, by sustaining uncertainty about basic facts of the narrative. In the novel’s first half, the narrator becomes convinced on the basis of partial evidence that the Deuter Center is filming residents covertly, in their rooms, as well as conducting more overt forms of surveillance. The question of whether there is actually a hidden camera in the narrator’s room is never resolved. Would an apparently respectable and above-board research establishment really engage in such activities? Surely not, right? But then the narrator has seen footage of a naked Edgar walking across his room, clearly oblivious to the fact he’s being filmed. So…? This uncertainty disturbs our ideas of what we can expect from a narrative, just as Anton’s open avowal of his own racism disturbs the narrator’s ideas of what opinions are socially acceptable to express. Is this really happening? Is this person really saying what he’s saying? Surely not? And yet.

This sensation of dislocation seems at first glance to be highly specific to this particular historical moment, a response to unique sociopolitical conditions that include the popularisation of incoherent conspiracy theories like QAnon, the cottage-industrialisation of disinformation on social media platforms, and the deprecation of religion as a social force and moral arbiter. But a long section in the centre of the novel set in Cold War-era East Germany demonstrates that such dislocation has been experienced in other times and other places. Narrated by Monika, a cleaner at the Deuter Center, this section tells the story of her life as a young person in the underground music scene in the Communist country, as she’s forced by the Stasi into informing on her friends and acquaintances. The paranoia that this situation engenders in her is described in terms that make it feel very similar to our narrator’s sense that the basic facts of his life are shifting around him:

“all sorts of personal things went missing or were moved around in the apartment. Someone took 100 marks from the pocket of Elli’s [her housemate’s] leather jacket. Katja’s [another housemate’s] photos were left out on her bed…Who would leave a used sanitary towel by her bed? Or tear pages out of Elli’s books?”

Who would go to the logistical trouble of moving stuff around Monika’s shared apartment just to mess with her and her housemates? And yet…The section ends with another dislocation: after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Monika learns that everything that she assumed about her life in East Germany was incorrect.

The salient point about Monika’s narrative, I think, is that the destabilisation she experiences is caused directly by the machinations of an authoritarian regime; what does it say about our narrator’s present that he is experiencing those same effects? Kunzru suggests that it’s nothing good. The Deuter Center’s location near the venue of the Wannsee Conference, at which the Nazis set out their final solution, gestures at the nightmare towards which people like Anton may be steering us.

Red Pill, then, masterfully evokes the despair and dislocation, the profound sense of irrationality, that the left has been experiencing over the last six years; the feeling that we are no longer capable of understanding the world we live in or responding to it coherently. What it’s missing is any suggestion of how we move forward from here. That’s part of the point, of course; the protagonist’s powerlessness, his profound isolation, is a feature, not a bug. But his very inability to respond gestures at the shape of what our response should be. In the face of the certainty of the far right we too must be certain. We must articulate our politics, declare our truth in everything we create; we must organise, hold each other up, make the world make sense again. Only by coming together can we save ourselves.

Film Review: Star Wars – The Rise of Skywalker

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no point asking questions about the plot of The Rise of Skywalker, which sees Our Heroes racing around the galaxy in search of various MacGuffins which will eventually help them tackle the resurrected Emperor Palpatine, who’s assembled a massive secret fighting force on a remote planet.

The film just isn’t interested in considering such pressing procedural questions as, “How did Palpatine hide all those ships?” “When did Sith Lords get the ability to come back to life?” “How did the First Order not notice the traitor in their ranks?” and so on. There are a lot of these questions. The answer to all of them is *shrug*.

No, The Rise of Skywalker is, I think, best read in terms of its emotional content; as an example of what Adam Roberts calls the “visual spectacular”. In this reading, things happen because they make emotional (rather than logical) sense; they fit the meta-narrative that director J.J. Abrams is trying to tell. So: what is that meta-narrative?

I want to start with one of the scenes I found most effective; by which I mean, it damn near made me cry. Towards the end of the film, as Rey faces down the fearsome Emperor Palpatine, the Resistance faces certain destruction at the hands (cannons?) of his mega-army. Someone comes up with a daring plan: what if we just ask for help from everyone in the galaxy? Everyone who hates the First Order? And, at the last minute, the cavalry arrives, a motley fleet of thousands of ships of all kinds and sizes, led by the legendary Lando Calrissian – “That’s not a fleet,” says a First Order officer in wonderment, “That’s just…people.”

Just people. Just ordinary people who have chosen to resist tyranny. This is the sentiment at the heart of The Rise of Skywalker, maybe of all of Star Wars since Episode IV. Here I like Andrew Rilstone’s reading of the film as a place where ordinary people – like Poe’s ex-lover Zorri or the ex-Stormtrooper Jannah – get outsize roles and meaningful character development. And it’s impossible – or, at least, it was impossible, back in December when coronavirus was hardly a blip on the West’s radar and we were all still worried about climate change and American politics and Brexit – not to see in the film’s strong imperial/resistance imagery (filtered through the lens of most current pop culture) metaphors for the rise of the co-opting of the machineries of government by the alt-right; which is to say, it’s impossible to watch The Rise of Skywalker without thinking about Donald Trump. Not just because the imagery is in itself suggestive, but also because everything is about Donald Trump at the moment, meaning a lot of pop culture referencing itself, creating a cultural shorthand that means The Trump Administration. What The Rise of Skywalker is intending to suggest, clumsily, is that this is a time for ordinary people to make extraordinary decisions; to resist, in the small ways that each of us can, the rising tide of intolerance, bigotry and tyranny.

Not just that, though. The Rise of Skywalker is full of ruins – the ruins of the original trilogy, Episodes IV through VI – most notably in a magnificent scene in which we see the Death Star II fallen into a turbulent sea, rotten, dead, yet full of menace. Rey is dwarfed by it, larger in death than it was in life, as she clambers through it in search of some plot coupon or other. She and Kylo Ren, who inevitably turns up to battle her there, are like “squeaking ghosts” (Tolkien) amid this colossal wreck. And there are other fragments of the original films too: Leia herself, played by a Carrie Fisher who was dead before filming began; an aged Lando Calrissian; Luke’s old spaceship, brought up from the depths of another sea. There is in this semi-Gothic abundance of ghosts and ruins and fragments a sort of nostalgia for the (imagined) simplicity of an earlier age. In the original films there were no parents grieving for radicalised sons; no children taken by the empire to be made into soldiers; good and evil were separate, easily distinguished; to return to real-world politics, we were not fighting an enemy within. I don’t want to suggest that The Rise of Skywalker is morally ambiguous; it clearly isn’t. But it is about living in an authoritative regime in a way that the original trilogy isn’t (and the prequel trilogy is). The world of The Rise of Skywalker is weary, the realm of the ordinary, not of heroes.

Which makes the film’s assertion that, contrary to what The Last Jedi had to say, Rey is actually the scion of an important family – Palpatine’s family, no less – puzzling. Or, not puzzling, really, in the way that the various plot inconsistencies are not puzzling; just annoying, and self-contradictory. There are other anti-progressive moves on the part of the writers that are problematic for an anti-Trump reading of the film: the sidelining of Rose Tico, the only woman of colour to have a starring role in the Star Wars universe; the fact that the only significant female character apart from Rey, Leia, gives up her life to redeem her son; the ultimate redemption of Kylo Ren, mass murderer, architect of genocide, radicalised space Nazi in all but name. None of these things speak particularly of standing up to bigotry, more indeed of enabling it.

In fact, let’s talk about Kylo Ren some more. I recognise, intellectually, that Kylo’s redemption, based as it is on saving a single very important life before he dies, is unearned and insufficient to atone for the millions of lives he has canonically ruined. But Adam Driver sells Kylo as conflicted, misguided, ultimately lovable teenager so well; I may also have shed a tear at the film’s climax, when Rey and Kylo get the kiss they’ve been building up to for three films. This is, though, of a piece with The Rise of Skywalker‘s feelgood, ill-examined liberalism: ordinary people are important, thus we must give the benefit of the doubt to all people, even if they are mass murdering space Nazis (who are “ordinary” by dint of really being confused teenagers, and isn’t everyone confused and misguided and hurt some of the time? Yes, J.J., but most people don’t turn into white supremacists).

While I enjoyed The Rise of Skywalker, I wouldn’t say it’s a good film. There are great ideas, but most of them don’t go anywhere much. The writing is lazy, depending on a general cultural shorthand to generate much of its affect, which means that the conclusions the narrative comes to are muddled and contradictory. I can’t really see myself watching it again, is what I’m trying to say.

Review: A Natural History of Dragons

The first in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, A Natural History of Dragons sets up the conceit that will power the next five books. Isabella Trent is a gentlewoman in a secondary-world analogue of Regency England. Having become a famous naturalist for her study of dragons, she’s now writing her memoirs, with this first book seeing her overcome social prejudice to accompany her husband abroad on her first dangerous expedition to find out more about these evasive beasts.

Its project is similar to that of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, with which its subject matter and setting invite inevitable comparisons: it’s using fantasy – dragons – to push against mainstream forms of discourse (autobiography, natural history) that are traditionally reserved for straight white men, creating space in those discourses to tell the stories of the marginalised and of those who are invisible to the mainstream. In short, it makes the invisible (dragons; women who did early science) visible. So this is a story about a woman who does science, who’s better at writing about anatomy than emotion, who has romance but isn’t defined by it. It’s also a story that critiques the more exoticising forms of travel writing we find in history, and even today: the village where she and her husband go to find dragons to study is not quaint and rustic, its inhabitants not disarmingly friendly in a homely way. Drustanev is cold, the food is over-garlicked, the inhabitants are resentful of the party’s intrusion. This is pointed up specifically in the text, when Isabella mentions writing an early travel memoir where, as was the fashion for young ladies travelling at the time, she does exoticise the place and its people.

There are plenty of other such ripples, where the conventional ideal text (male-authored autobiography) fights with the female scientist it was never designed to contain. Isabella makes a lot of the fact that she is willing to discuss sex, in biological terms, while her readers may be scandalised at a woman so doing – despite the fact that she does it in her books on dragon anatomy.

A more interesting example is her experience of marriage. As I’ve already indicated, Isabella isn’t really a romantic figure: we see little of her marriage and home life until it becomes entangled with her career as a scientist, because she’s not terribly interested in sharing it. Although her marriage eventually turns out to have a lot of love in it (not a euphemism, although…), it is at least initially very much a social contract, assuring financial security for Isabella, while for her husband it represents a chance to have a wife with some intelligence. It’s an interesting alternative relationship paradigm for a Regency story, writing against a tradition of Regency romance – see not Austen’s actual novels, which are invariably more complex than we give them credit for, but our cultural reception of them, which casts them as romantic, airy-fairy chick lit. In particular, Brennan writes about the strangeness of the sudden intimacy between Isabella and her husband, the move from absolute social propriety to sharing their lives and their bed. It’s a nice defamiliarisation of the “romantic” trope of saving yourself for marriage.

Unfortunately, though, Brennan’s just not as good at this textual subversion as Novik is. Her Regency voice, unlike Novik’s, is an odd mix of contemporary directness and Regency formality, and comes across as stilted and artificial – rather undermining the work of writing against a patriarchal discourse when the discourse isn’t quite right. (Incidentally, this reminds me of Brennan’s Midnight Never Come, which also didn’t carry through its historical setting quite right.)

Additionally, the fact that her story is set in a secondary-world analogue containing a place that’s clearly meant to recall Regency England while not actually being it is tricky. While it does avoid some of the issues of appropriation that could spring from Isabella’s expeditions round the world (which I assume continue in the rest of the series), it also sort of defangs Brennan’s critique of Regency discourse and attitude. What the book’s trying to do and how it tries to do it don’t quite map together.

I’ve been comparing A Natural History of Dragons implicitly with Novik’s series all the time I’ve been reading it and thinking about it, which perhaps isn’t quite fair, and it might be that if I hadn’t read about Temeraire before I read about Isabella I might have enjoyed this more. I would probably read more of Brennan’s series if the books came my way – but, for me, Novik’s series does the same thing better.

Top Ten Books I’d Send To Donald Trump

So I read an article the other day about protesters sending books to the White House for Valentine’s Day, and it got me thinking.

  1. Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. A powerful warning about the corrosive effects of hate, the irreparable mutual harm that oppression does both to oppressed and oppressors. Plus, it’s written by a woman.
  2. Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor. A novel that argues, melodiously but forcefully, the blinkered folly of Anglo- and anthropocentrism, how absurd it is to think that we, personally, are the centre of the universe. Okorafor depicts Lagos, Nigeria as a vibrant, modern city; in many ways a more interesting locus for an alien invasion than the more conventional Los Angeles or New York or London.
  3. Six-Gun Snow White – Catherynne M. Valente. Another angry novel, taking two of the great American myths – the Wild West and Disney’s Aryan, prettified Snow White – and making them brutal; describing self-perpetuating cycles of abuse which the marginalised inflict upon themselves and each other in a hopeless attempt to win the approval of their oppressors. Plus, it’s short enough even for Trump’s limited attention span.
  4. Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A sharp, intersectional look at race in America; I defy anyone not to weep and rage.
  5. The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan. Maybe if Trump read this, he would actually understand how science works, and how it relates to society. (Pro tip: it’s not a hoax invented by the Chinese.) Then again, maybe not.
  6. The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers. Such a lovely, hopeful story about integration and working alongside those who are different to us. #hopenothate
  7. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell. This is a novel about the incremental value of kindness; the sheer work involved in achieving any kind of progress. Hopeful about humanity’s potential, pragmatic about its reality.
  8. Railsea – China Mieville. Another spin on a classic American myth – Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. But whereas Melville’s novel’s about conquest, Mieville’s is about the self-defeating wastefulness of rampant capitalism.
  9. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi. And yet another retelling, this one (again) of Snow White: there is nothing new under the sun. Anyway, this one also brings the toxic nature of hate to the fore, but its ending is slightly more hopeful than Valente’s version (albeit problematic).
  10. The Madwoman in the Attic – Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Essentially a 700-page feminist rant about the systematic repression inherent in women’s writing of the nineteenth century – albeit an extremely well-researched and readable one. It’s extremely aware of how systems of oppression work.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: Crucible of Gold

crucible-of-gold-the-temeraire-series-book-7-137958127The seventh novel in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, Crucible of Gold sees William Laurence recalled to the Aerial Corps for a diplomatic mission to Brazil, where the Tswana, who we met in Empire of Ivory, have taken over a key port city in pursuance of their stated intention to retrieve every Tswana slave. The city being Portuguese territory, and Portugal being central to the latest British plan against Napoleon, it is vital to win it back. Apparently Laurence, despite being generally held in contempt by everyone ever, is best placed to negotiate with the Tswana because he has met them before.

The novel from there is fairly standard Temeraire series stuff: a sea voyage, a long journey by air, a new society with dragons playing a startling and unexpected role, culture clash, gritted-teeth politeness, and a play-off between Laurence’s duty and his morality.

If Novik has any project this far into a series that’s become quite formulaic while generally retaining its delightfulness, it’s telling the stories of people who have been left behind by the “official” narrative of history. So we have the Tswana, rulers of Novik’s Africa, fighting against the slavery inflicted on their nation by the West; we have a captain in the Aerial Corps (Granby) coming out as gay; we have an unmarried female military member, Emily Roland, who is open about the fact that she regularly has sex with a black Tswana Corps captain (Demane). This is all couched in Novik’s propriety-bound Regency prose, in forms of dialogue and social interaction never designed to hold, or allow, any of these things, and observed by straitlaced Regency gentleman Laurence, as close to a cultural default as Novik can get: the radical energies of rebellion tug and swirl around a historical narrative trying desperately to exclude them.

This is also, and connectedly, a story about culture shock. As Laurence and the gang journey into the heart of the South American continent, they stumble across situations which highlight the ridiculousness of the proprieties they, and especially Laurence, still cling to. When an mutinous member of the crew sleeps with a local girl, Laurence offers her money, assuming that her chances at marriage will have been affected; she and her caretaker dragon react with incomprehension. Similarly, when the same crew member, lured by the promise of gold, steals away to live in a local village, Laurence refuses to take what he sees as payment for him from the dragon that protects the village: we can’t sell this man! Why not? the dragon asks, and we do, too, I think: he will only be hanged for mutiny if he stays with the British party, and he is, after all, willing to stay behind. In this strange land, with its radically different culture, the defaults of propriety and morality twist and shimmer and become strange: unable to contain these new realities, they lose their privileged position with regards to dictating “normality”, and become simply another set of strange customs.

None of this is very much different to what the rest of the series is doing; but it does it engagingly and enjoyably, and Novik’s Regency prose really is a joy to read. And it’s exactly the kind of book the world needs right now.