Short and Bittersweet | Pick of the Novellas | Neil Williamson, Immanuel Mifsud, Jonathan Ames

I like novellas. There’s something about their in-between state which really speaks to me, and makes me feel as though I can forge a more intimate connection with them than other genres and formats on either side of the word-count spectrum.

‘Full’ novels demand a commitment and immersion by proxy. They are to be consumed across various intervals, and the stops and starts make them more of an organising principle than something to be savoured — just like the prestige (or not-so-prestige) TV series a lot of them are ending up as these days, they need to be scheduled into your day until you finally complete them, before moving on to the next one.

And while the membrane separating short stories and novellas can be quite thin at times — a couple of thousand odd words here and there can land the tale in either one category or the other — there’s still something different in the experience of either.

Short fiction has the punch of the impressionistic moment in its favour — the sketch, the instant of revelation (or put another way, epiphany — as exemplified so often in that landmark short story collection, James Joyce’s Dubliners).

The novella, on the other hand, allows for the core ideas to unspool just enough to give them breathing room — at its best, it can be the perfect, attention-grabbing marriage between ‘thought experiment and narrative.

IMG_20180506_163237I thought a lot about this particular facility of the novella as I dug into The Memoirist by Neil Williamson (NewCon Press, 2017). Set in a world where surveillance is paramount, the story focuses on Rhian Fitzgerald, a wordsmith for hire currently charged with ghost-writing the biography of Eloide Eagles, former lead singer of the subversive punk band The HitMEBritneys.

I was familiar with the Scottish writer’s short fiction prior to diving into The Memoirist, his first novella, and I found the same penchant for quirky ideas and sensitive portrayals of human beings — specifically, how they deal with situations that might feel off-kilter.

The Memoirist is also a masterwork in building up a near-future science fictional world without any recourse to crude info-dumping, all the while keeping the narrative threads working towards a fine, crystalline target.

This is also very much evident in his short fiction, and his amusing, politically sensitive story ‘Fish on Friday’, from the collection Secret Language, is one of my favourite examples of this… and a close thematic fit to The Memoirist, which offers a similarly low-key take on what would otherwise be considered technological dystopias.

While her subject — an aging punk rocker famous for her anti-surveillance stance — would slot in comfortably as the protagonist in more cookie-cutter cyber-noir stories, here Williamson has the far more laissez-faire Rhian experience that journey.

After watching a historical live performance by Eagles — in which she angrily denounces the new surveillance status quo — Rhian confesses to finding it “difficult to sympathise with her anger”.

“No one had ever been going to strip the public completely of their privacy. If anything, now, your private things were more private. There were clear lines. As long as you observed them, you were fine. So what if we all had to be on all the time these days? To pay more attention to our appearance and watch our P’s and Q’s a bit more, under the gaze of family, friends, schools, bosses, colleagues, clients […] It was all about being a better public person. A small price to pay for a safer world.”

Such a cloyingly ‘neutral’ position is a perfect vantage point through which we can be introduced to this not-so-brave, not-so-new world, and Williamson deftly calibrates both the necessary exposition and our sympathies for the protagonist.

This is a character-driven slice of cyberpunk, with a clear idea at its centre and a satisfying structure that perfectly fits the novella format.

The Memoirist takes advantage of the narrative economy offered up by the novella, operating on satisfying narrative beats that hearken back to the noir genre that’s always lying nested in any cyberpunk work worth its salt. But while the slim, ‘movie-length’ page count can give us a certain satisfaction as the mystery unfolds, the ability to depart from narrative convention without taxing the readers’ attention all that much is another advantage of the novella, I find.

IMG_20180506_163200I certainly found this to be the case with Immanuel Mifsud’s Fl-Isem Tal-Missier (u Tal-Iben) (‘In the Name of the Father (and Of the Son’)). Nestled as it is somewhere between novella and memoir — with frequent and appropriately-footnoted recourse to literary theorists like Helene Cixous — Mifsud’s landmark work of contemporary Maltese literature, now translated into several languages, packs both an emotional and intellectual punch.

“On the 21st Dec 1939 I joined the British army and was enlisted in the 2nd Battalion. The King’s Own Malta Regiment, this regiment was stationed at St. Andrews barracks and we were instructed by the NCOs of different units. The first day that I spent at the barracks I was very happy, my comrades used to teach me how I must fowled the blankits and how to mount the equipment and how to clean the Rifle.”

So Mifsud introduces us to the voice of his late father, soon after his death, and just as Mifsud has become a father himself. He plucks the entry verbatim from an old diary, and prompted by that same fount, Mifsud applies an impressive intellectual rigour to what is, clearly, also a richly emotional landscape.

Scholar, poet, prose writer… the amorphous format of the novella allows Mifsud to tap into all of his varied talents. Some of the passages in the book build precisely with the musical crescendo of a poem, but then Mifsud also dips into a rich found of contemporary philosophy and psychoanalytic theory to explore the implications of his father’s legacy on his own psyche.

It’s a profound and utterly honest work that bears revisiting, and fortunately, the novella format makes repeat readings an all the more palatable experience.

IMG_20180506_163054But the final novella I’m going to look into is so ringed with bleakness that repeat readings may not exactly be the thing you end up craving as you put it down… however, that’s not to say that Jonathan Ames’ You Were Never Really Here doesn’t encourage you to keep those pages turning… thus ensuring that you’ll likely have it done and dusted in roughly the same amount of time it’ll take you to finish its superlative film adaptation by Lynne Ramsay.

Mining a furrow of contemporary noir so dark you’d be forgiven in assuming that Ames was really just arranging the genre’s grisly puzzle pieces to get a rise from the readership (a pinprick-accuracy that is reflected in the book’s sparse style), the book finds former FBI agent and Marine, Joe, take on a case that leads him into a spiraling underworld of corruption and sexual depravity.

Though Ames certainly does get mileage out of Joe’s effectiveness at meting out calculated violence, this isn’t a book that’s dripping in machismo — which, again, gave Ramsay an excellent entry point from which to construct a tonally rich though no less harrowing thriller — but rather, in a legacy of fatherhood that’s far more toxic than anything we see explored in Mifsud’s volume.

Left to care for his sickly mother, Joe is in turn hollowed out by years of abuse at the hands of his father. His attempts to find redemption leave him stuck on a loop; he rescues girls from sex trafficking rings, but this rarely salves any of the pain left by his father — pain inflicted even by implements such as hammers. And in what becomes a clear-as-crystal illustration of the cyclical nature of abuse, hammers end up being Joe’s favourite tool of the trade because, “He was his father’s son after all.”

“Also, a hammer left very little evidence, was excellent in close quarters, and seemed to frighten everyone. It held some universal place of terror in the human mind. The unexpected sight of it raised in Joe’s hand would always momentarily paralyze his enemies, and those few seconds of paralysis were usually all he needed.”

Made up of perfectly pruned sentences that move the narrative along as if it were a film just unfolding in front of you, the adaptation feels like something of a foregone conclusion. But leaving that aside for a minute, Ames’ slim-and-grim story made me crave for more of this stuff. Because dark as it is, being able to slip into such a world in the full knowledge that the story will never drag, that its moments of violence and revelation will soon peak to a crescendo without the risk of getting lost along the way… these are the things that make me thankful for novellas.

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Eternal Frankenstein read-a-thon #11 | Scott R. Jones

In the coming weeks, I will be reviewing the new Word Horde anthology Eternal Frankenstein, edited by Ross E. Lockhart. As was the case with my read-a-thon of Swords v Cthulhu, I will be tackling the anthology story by story, and my reviewing method will be peppered with the cultural associations that each of these stories inspire. These will be presented with no excuse, apology or editorial justification.

eternal-frankenstein

Living by Scott R. Jones

Since horror and fantasy are, broadly speaking, my favourite of the classic speculative fiction categories — while a wide berth is given to the Weird and any form of intermixing — my experience with literary sci-fi falls a bit on the lean side.

That said, the sci-fi favourites I do have, I cling to very dearly indeed, dipping in for regular re-reads. Mary Shelley’s Frankestein is actually one of them. The other is William Gibson’s pioneering work of cyberpunk fiction, Neuromancer. And despite the fact that both novels were written over a century apart from each other and that, apart from their central commitment to a science fictional set of ideas, situations and concepts, could not be further apart in tone, narrative rhythm and scope, I like to think of both of them as being complementary.

Shelley addresses the limits of bodily modification and reanimation, and problematises the notion of a creature created ex nihilo, but without the embracing context of family and community. The Creature in Shelley’s text grasps at the world outside of itself to give it meaning — it feeds on what we can widely describe as ‘culture’ to legitimise itself, but all the while its aberrant bodily shape snuffs out any chance of real belonging.

It is a tale of bodies and what they mean, and how we process or fail to process their realities: be it the Creature’s own failed — but understandable — attempts at making peace with its uniquely tormented predicament, or Victor Frankenstein’s refusal to take responsibility for his engineered progeny, largely on the basis of its physical appearance and its implications.

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

Frankenstein by Bernie Wrightson

In the end, both characters are disappointed by the fact that their physical reality doesn’t match up with the abstract dreams they have: Victor’s Creature doesn’t conform to the aesthetic decorum he may have wished to achieve with his experiment — which further cements the fact that his work is an affront to God — while the Creature’s admirable self-taught attempts at becoming intellectually and emotionally sensitive are ultimately rendered moot by the limits of its body.

The innovation of Neuromancer, on the other hand, was to circumvent the body altogether in favour of an exploration of the cybernetic singularity which has since become rote not only in fiction, but in daily life too (you’re reading this online, aren’t you?). The open hostility that some of Gibson’s characters espouse for ‘meat’ (i.e., traditional biological bodily structures) are a testament to this, and seem to suggest that Frankenstein got the ball rolling, but that the future imagined in Gibson’s model is in some ways the logical conclusion of Victor Frankenstein’s experiment.

To wit, the trick to circumvent mortality is not through some messy and pathetic attempt at stitching together dead body parts and reanimating them… the trick is to embrace the possibility of downloading and replicating your consciousness in a virtual realm that edges closer and closer to our ‘real’ one.

In his contribution to Lockhart’s anthology, Scott R. Jones happily meshes together both of these key strands in sci-fi, but in a way that they don’t, in fact, cancel each other out. In the snow-capped setting that recalls both — of course — the bookending sections of Shelley’s novel, as well as pop culture artefacts like John Carpenter’s The Thing in its depiction of rugged outliers gazing suspiciously ahead at a mysterious and dangerous mission, Scott injects his version of the Creature with both anger and agency.

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

Frozen waste: The Thing (1982)

The story itself is largely composed of a monologue delivered by the same stand-in for the Creature; a military experiment gone awry and who is now on a vindictive mission to find and execute its creator, Aldo Tusk of ‘Eidolon’ — a corporation or military body of some kind which has apparently OK’d Tusk’s mission to stitch together a super-soldier.

As the ‘asset’ beings its narrative, we learn that it’s made up of various body parts made to fight in unison, and the voice of the monologue is laced with a sarcastic bitterness that the Romantically pained Creature from Shelley’s original novel would never have managed. Later on, Jones adds another twist of black humour by suggesting that the Creature’s programming includes orgasmic delight at an enemy kill. This guarantees that the story has the edge and attitude normally associated with cyberpunk, but more importantly, it also means that the Creature here is a fighter, and not a subject of pity as in Shelley’s text.

It's alive? The 'birth' scene from Paul Verhoeven's Robocop (1987)

It’s alive? The ‘birth’ scene from Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop (1987)

And in fact, it’s through cyberpunk ‘means’ that the hint of complete emancipation appears to suggest itself. While the beginnings of the asset’s career as a patchwork soldier are as abject as ever — they even recall Robocop‘s forced resurrection as a hybrid fighting for someone else’s agenda — the gleeful bite as she/it reveals just the programming has been circumvented is a joy to read.

A spirited and inspired mash-up of key strands of the sci-fi genre (at least from my admittedly limited POV) with a highly satisfying revenge kick to round things off.

Read previous: Martin, Falksen

 

 

Virtual Borders, Virtual Wars | Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Toby Kebbell (left) as Koba and Andy Serkis as Caesar in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Watching Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – an entertaining and effectively realized action-blockbuster, by all accounts – reminded me of just how much the idea of home is related to complete, all-out aggression. It is one of the key justifications for war, and if it isn’t Hollywood blockbusters that remind us of it, real-life world events will, unfortunately, persist in doing their darndest to ensure that we do not forget.

From my sheltered and privileged standpoint, obsessing over national borders instinctively feels doubly surreal, as I – like many people of my generation, and many of those living in some kind of diaspora – have made the internet their second home. Cultivating and negotiating a virtual identity has become a direct part of who we are, and the more that shapes itself into the fabric of our day-to-day life, the more it will assume the likeness of an undeniable, self-evident and near-physical ‘space’ which we may feel justified in fighting over.

Even my workspace has apes in it

Even my workspace has apes in it

Beyond the fever dreams of cyberpunk – from William Gibson to The Matrix – the web has become so ‘normal’ that it’s not far-fetched to assume that it will soon adopt other, less pleasant features of human ‘normality’ – our insistence on waging border wars being just another one of them. The ongoing debate over net neutrality is one explicit portent of the above, but I’m sure there will be many related polemics to come.

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Another thing that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – or DOTPOTA, an acronym I love – brought to mind is the panicked and often messy way in which pop culture responds to contemporary anxieties, and processes ‘universal’ themes.

To my mind, the film is great because its ‘message’ doesn’t feel like a tacked-on imposition, but part and parcel of its conceit. Of course, Matt Reeves’ continuation of the Planet of the Apes mythology reboot doesn’t really say anything new about the enduring phenomenon of border conflicts, or our stewardship of the earth. But I’d still like to think that it contributes to the discussion in its own way.

Though even the word ‘discussion’ feels wrong here – it assumes a lilting, rational conversation about carefully ironed-out topics. Because what we in fact get is far more chaotic: the necessities of crafting a crowd-pleasing blockbuster in which talking apes do battle with economically compromised humans only allows lucid allegory to slip through up to a point.

The presence of Zero Dark Thirty actor Jason Clarke is significant here.

Like DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is an action-intensive mainstream film shot with a gloomy palette that has become par for the course among blockbusters which aspire to court the critical consensus as well as the box office success that it is often assumed they would secure anyway.

(Largely blaming Christopher Nolan’s stratospherically successful Batman film The Dark Knight, critics of this pervasive aesthetic trend have taken to name-calling it ‘grimdark’.)

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

But unlike DOTPOTA, Zero Dark Thirty is about a very specific and very real event – a persistently controversial one, to boot. Katheryn Bigelow’s treatment of the steps taken to ensure the assassination of Osama Bin Laden is a fascinating watch even if you – like me – were unconvinced by its narrative thrust and troubled by its murky ethics.

Whichever way you slice it, ZDT was a brave attempt at tackling a very recent and morally, politically fraught scenario. In the end its internal contradictions forced it to devour itself, but only because Bigelow aspired to tackle her subject head-on, with as little aesthetic filters as possible.

This is where genre allegories like DOTPOTA have the upper hand. The way the message is processed is of course open to cynical interpretation: “It’s not really saying anything, they’re just re-treading secure narrative and thematic ground to ensure they make money at the box office”.

But the mere fact that it’s out there, doing its thing for a large audience who will enjoy it – or not – on the surface level to begin with feels like some kind of potential triumph.

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Final question: as more of the world goes online, as more of the world does ideological battle online and as more of our personal identity is shaped and justified by our online presence, will the web be treated by poets much in the same way as the natural world has been treated in earlier times?