Alif the Unseen, G. Willow Wilson

Set in an unnamed city in the Persian Gulf, against the backdrop of an Arabian spring, Alif the Unseen concerns the coming-of-age of Alif, a talented underground hacker, who comes into possession of a mysterious old book which soon enough leads him into worlds unseen and dangers previously unimagined, on both sides of the reality barrier.  It’s a clever tale about the nature of stories, and of that of belief, whether it is our belief about what constitutes reality, or belief about what constitutes foreignness or the Other.

On the surface, it’s a thrilling read, with a strong plot, pleasingly high on incident; a heady mix of the exotic east, hacker culture and mythic elements.  Dialogue is snappy and unforced, even when framed as cyber chat.  There is very little exposition framed as monologues, with the exception of a regrettable set piece or two with the disappointingly voluble villain.  Wilson is exceptionally good at sensual realism, grounding the mythical and the everyday in richly observed and layered colour.  The City, with its translucent quarts walls, which turns a golden salmon colour at sunset, is vividly realised, “at a crossroads between the earthly world and the Empty Quarter, the domain of ghouls and effrit who can take the shapes of beasts”, “overrun by tourists and oil men”, smelling of salt and hot sand in the evenings.  She has a keen eye for contrasts, describing the Old Quarter as a place with “…low-slung harem balconies extended out over the street, their latticed arches reminders of a time when architectural mercies were the extent of an aristocratic woman’s public life.”) and the modern university campus as “…glass boxes designed by some French architect with a perverse sense of humor who, now that women were permitted to attend the university, apparently desired to put them on display.”  She’s good with all the senses, but it was especially smell that I noticed (Alif is described as smelling of “copper wire and rare earth elements and electricity”) how few authors pay attention to the reader’s olfactory experience.

In a book about hacking, there must of course be technology, and Wilson writes wittily about this too.  It’s always interesting to see how modern authors handle the pervasive presence of technology, and Wilson deftly blends our always-on habits into the narrative.  Alif expresses surprise at having computer access in the house of effrit, and is told: “’Brother, said the shadow, we’ve got WiFi.” 

But what makes Wilson’s book so outstanding is her insight into middle-eastern life, both on its own terms, and when interacting with the dominant western culture, and here she contributes an enlightened and open-minded perspective.  There is a scene, just over the halfway mark, where Alif is comforted by a companion when she throws her veil over his head and creates a quiet womb-like space for the two of them: “The darkness soothed Alif’s dazzled eyes.  After a moment his pupils adjusted, lessening the smarting pain in his head.  He could not have guessed the world she created for herself.  Sewn into the underside of her long outer cloak were patches of bright silk: patterned, beaded, spangled with points of light; they hung above him like a tent…”  It’s a beautiful moment in the book, when the young, impulsive, clever-but-immature Alif begins to grow up, as he learns to recognise value beyond the external.  It is of course also a pointed metaphor for how Arabian culture is viewed, or rather, not viewed – we fail too often to look beyond the veils and problematic traditionalism to appreciate a culture that has its own, different richness.

A canny use of a western character (an American university profession, referred to throughout as “the convert”) highlights these tensions further.  She seems to Alif sullen and prickly, and their relationship is characterised by a “brittle distance” they both wish to keep.  Alif’s reaction upon meeting her is telling (and also very funny): “’No. No way.  I don’t want foreigners involved in my business.  Djinn are one thing but I draw the line at Americans.’”  But when she confronts his prejudice, it is an entirely different bias that suddenly comes to the fore: “’It doesn’t matter to you what concessions we make – whether we dress respectfully, learn the language, follow all the insane rules about when to speak and how and to whom.  I even adopted your religion – adopted it, out of my own free will, thinking I was doing something noble and righteous.  But it’s not enough.  You’ll always second-guess every thought and opinion that comes out of my mouth, even when I talk about my own fucking country.’”  Surely the experience of far too many middle-eastern immigrants in western countries?  Alif begins to understand that Anglos, rather than belonging “to some other, more ethereal, way of being” were as mired in the same “anxieties of identity and displacement he suffered” from.  It is by no means an apology for the excesses of fundamentalism, but rather a measured depiction of a culture all too often obfuscated by years of negative press.  Wilson tackles it in a delightfully original way, arguing instead for a common humanity, worth exploring and prizing.

Alif the Unseen is a rollicking adventure story, but it is also a clever, thought-provoking book.  Highly recommended.

Other links: G Willow Wilson’s siteDamian G Walter’s review (which made me read Alif)

What he said

“‘But I have an admiration for all his other work, for his dexterity and resource in handling langue, for his precision, for his subtlety in conveying the image of Dublin and her people, for his accuracy in setting down speech authentically, and for his enormous humour.’

As a spontaneous appraisal of literary work, this unpremeditated pronouncement was not bad at all, Mick thought. But after all, was he not a well-read man for his age and upbringing, and fearless enough in facing books in which might lurk danger to morals? He was.”
——- Mick Shaughnessy on James Joyce, from Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archives.

The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard

I loved Terence Malick’s Tree of Life – its dreamy impressionism, the making of meaning from disparate fragments.  Ballard, in contrast, reads like Malick on acid.  Fragments invariably turn out to be bits of bone or smashed cars or giant body parts, stitched together in a repetitive narrative of distorted nightmares.  But the meaning is hard to extract.  A doctor at a mental hospital has a mental breakdown is what I think happens, but who knows.

The book is written in vignettes, little set pieces that overlap, with dense visual images, constructed from a singularly repetitive language.  How many times can you use the word junction in a sentence?  Answer: many, many times…  And for junction, read geometry, wound, pilot jacket, plane, pudenda.  A distinct preoccupation with cars and crashes and famous deaths (JFK, Monroe, Jackie Kennedy features heavily).  Flat characterisation overall, females especially – dummy set decorations, each one of them.  He has a male character reflect on a female character as an “elegant bitch”, intruding her sexuality, like all women, at the most inopportune times.  The irony of course being that not a single male character appears able to see women as anything other than highly sexualised fetish objects.

His notes on the fragmented chapters are for the most part the better reading.  Meditations on celebrity and media culture, memory and art.  On the whole though, the book is just too much experiment and too little substance.  One can’t but feel like a lab rat impatiently waiting for the bat-shit-crazy scientist to stop the experiment.

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

After a chance encounter, Roth’s long-time protagonist and fictional alter ego, Zuckerman, remembers an athletic star and all-round golden boy from his school days, a boy affectionately known as “the Swede”.  At a school reunion he meets the Swede’s brother again, and makes the shocking discovery that the man he thought was too blandly wholesome to be interesting had suffered an appalling family tragedy.  The Swede and his beauty queen wife’s angry teenage daughter Merry commits a dreadful crime which ultimately destroys her own life and shatters that of her doting parents.  The book then becomes Zuckerman’s imagined sketch of the events leading up to the tragedy and its appalling aftermath, in which the Swede tries to come to terms with Merry’s actions and his own culpability.

It is a compelling story, skilfully told, thought-provoking, touching, especially in a year of yet another school shooting.  Reviews mention the “elegiac” tone, and at its most straightforward reading it is an elegy for the American dream (trite but true).  It also mourns the immigrant’s doomed dream of assimilation, parents’ futile wishes for their children (for good lives free from suffering) as well as the dream we all share of connection with fellow humans.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims?…The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway.  It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.  That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

American Pastoral is an elegy for man’s insistence on understanding others, what Roth calls “the Swede’s disorder: the inability to draw conclusions about anything but exteriors.”  Early on Zuckerman muses over the human inability to grasp the truth about another human being, and this sad conclusion is echoed throughout the book.  Zuckerman begins to understand that he never really knew who the Swede was, and the Swede, for all his magnetic goodness, is at first puzzled by the mystery of his wayward daughter and then, brutally, destroyed by the unknowability of everyone around him.  This is beautifully portrayed along several dynamics (family, social circle, lovers) culminating in an ill-fated dinner party set-piece, where the slow burn doom of the preceding chapters at last comes to its smashing conclusion.

Y, Marjorie Celona

Marjorie Celona’s debut novel sports a jaunty letter Y as its title. It turns out to be an unfortunate choice, and not only because it inevitably reduces even the most high-minded reviewer to a snarky “why, indeed” put-down. In 2011, TIME Magazine published a list of the top ten books with one letter titles, which included such celebrated authors as Thomas Pychon (V.), John Updike (S.), Booker winner John Berger (G.) and Booker shortlisted Tom McCarthy (C). It is a handy list to keep in mind for literary drinking games, and, the subjectivity of such lists aside, it is an illustrious peer group for any aspiring novelist to find themselves among.

As a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Marjorie Celona is no doubt familiar with the stakes she raised with her novel’s title. It was a bold move, but not one that pays off. The novel is weak enough on its own terms, but in comparison to the experimental work of Python and the high modernism of McCarthy (and even the steady workmanship of Updike), Celona’s novel utterly fails to impress.

An epigraph opens the book with a pretentious riff on the many meanings of the letter Y. Forks in the road and wishbones are invoked, as well as a rather self-consciously clever-clever assertion that prior to the inclusion of the letter Y in the Roman alphabet “no one was happy.” Despite a heavy handed approach to signs and motifs, the “why” of the title is never satisfactory answered, and ends up feeling arbitrary and contrived. The whole thing smacks of a writing school exercise indulged too far – a random letter of the alphabet, a mysterious newspaper article, a dramatic social issue to reel in the book group people and a clumsy structure that hamstrings the plot from the word go.

The novel tells the parallel tales of the protagonist Shannon, a foundling discovered on the steps of a YMCA, and Yula, her hapless mother in the years leading up to her abandonment of Shannon. It is a lopsided structure, not only because the converging stories are out of sync in time (both clock and story time), but also because Yula, flaws and all, is just much more likeable than Shannon. The novel is set on Vancouver Island and Yula’s story takes place in clammy, claustrophobic woods where ancient trees throw giant shadows over everything. Neighbours live in trailers, amongst the rusted skeletons of discarded trucks. On the question of whether bad parenting is down to nature or nurture, Celona politely picks both, and between Yula’s stunted beginning and her doomed choices the melodrama ratchets up, ending with a midnight car chase and (sigh) a choice a mother should never have to make. Shannon, in turn, is almost impossible to warm to, even though Celona tries every possible sympathy-inducing ploy. Her multiple foster homes, care homes, neglect and abuse is laid on thick, presumably to explain Shannon’s later inability to trust or form meaningful connections. A mix of vulnerability – “a little Marilyn Monroe” – and grunge “a bit like Curt Kobain’s kid”, her sense of alienation and displacement intensifies as she becomes a secretive, a self-harming loner given to truancy. The predictable reunion between Shannon and Yula, when it finally arrives to link the two plot strands, feels forced and flat (perhaps π would have been a better title).
As if the overwrought plotting and the humourless delivery are not enough, Celona taste for obtrusive detail is wearying in the extreme. Again reminiscent of a writing student’s notebook, the reader has no choice but to share this ambling gaze that takes in far too much insignificant detail (the contents of cupboards are frequently listed, without contributing to an understanding of either character or motivation). Even the most transient characters are given vivid physical descriptions, from the “small plump face with a rosebud mouth” of a nurse to the heart-shaped tattoo of a diner waitress. It is like being subjected to someone’s holiday photographs – no matter the skill with which each image is portrayed, after a while one sags under the insistent sensory input.

Y is a seriously flawed novel, but not entirely pointless. There is always the chance that at your next dinner party you’ll be put on the spot to name a novel starting with the second last letter of the alphabet. Let’s drink to that.

The Panopticon, Jenny Fagan

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Picture credit: from Jenni Fagan’s blog

Fifteen year-old Anaïs Hendricks hates everything.  We first meet her on the back seat of a police car, her hands cuffed, her skirt blood-stained.  She’s known to the police and the courts as a troublemaker. She is suspected of attacking and seriously injuring a police officer.  The car delivers Anais to The Panopticon, a facility for housing troubled teenagers, which has at its centre a sinister watchtower from which inmates are observed at all times.  Other inmates stare at her from the windows.  “I don’t want tae have tae fight,” Anaïs thinks.  She doubts that she’s going to make it to sixteen.

So far, so tale-of-adolescent-anomie, you might think, but does this book have a wonderful surprise in store for you.  Jennie Fagan’s astonishingly good debut novel is a stylish and affecting combination of headlong energy and bristling truth, filled with blazing outrage at the society that fails to protect the vulnerable but are quick to ostracize the products of this failure.

Fagan is open about her own history in care, and no doubt her personal experience contributes to the novel’s searing realism, but it is not just clear-eyed accuracy that makes this such a magical read.  Written in a lively, Scottish street slang, Fagan masterfully portrays the tight-knit social structure Anaïs and her contemporaries inhabit, while also evoking an eerie sense of alienation from a world ostensibly like ours, but darkly dissimilar in deeply disturbing ways.  She skilfully threads dreams, drug trips and psychotic hallucinations through the grim reality of Anaïs’ existence with matter-of-fact directness.  Although Fagan depicts lives so fucked-up by abandonment and exploitation that social disaffection and drugs become necessary tools for survival, her tone never descends to self-pity or condescension.

Fagan’s bracing voice is a treat, and her command of her material is faultlessly self-assured, but the shimmering heart of the novel is Anaïs herself.  Damaged but undefeated, Anaïs is sassy, violent, unpredictable and altogether fascinating.  Quick to protect those around her, she has no one to protect her against her own self-destructive tendencies and as she cannot remember anything about the incident that left the police officer in a coma, her future looks increasingly bleak… Dreaming of a different life, desperate to discover her own roots, she has a terrifying suspicion that she was made in a laboratory, that her whole life is nothing but an experiment.  Paranoid, fierce, intelligent and resourceful, she will win you over before you have time to even spell out anti-social.

The Panopticon is a thoroughly satisfying read, delivering a fascinating insight into the care system, and introducing us to both a captivating leading lassie, and a deftly original author.

Other links:  Janni Fagan’s site ; Guardian review (Lucy Ellman)