Beauty is the only thing: “The Neon Demon” review

the-neon-demon-poster ✦ of five

The phrase “style over substance” is pretty well bankrupt when it comes to art. In dealing with aesthetic mediums, style and substance are inextricable—the substance of Shakespeare would be nothing without the words with which he wrought that substance, the meaning of Under the Skin would be nonexistent without its choices in cinematography, to name but two examples. The people who have no patience with a film unless it’s plain and simple in its meaning—who would strip away all artistic artifice and just get to the point already—are the worst kind of critic.

In light of all that, I don’t want to write The Neon Demon off for being slight, because its artistic elements are second to none—its cinematography and score are easily the best of 2016 thus far. However, I can’t get over the nagging feeling that those artistic elements aren’t there for anything—or rather, they’re there for something, but that something is so slight and indeed banal that the grandiosity of the manner in which director Nicolas Winding Refn chooses to convey it is almost humorously arrogant. It’s there right from the opening credits, in which the initials NWR are prominently emblazoned below every title card—The Neon Demon is a work of art, but it’s also an ego trip, one in which the director’s ambitions exceed his profundity.

Refn wants the world of his film to be a sort of Mulholland Dr. for the new decade, a nightmarish hellscape that tears down the world of fame and glamour, but he possesses neither Lynch’s sense of humor nor sense of humanity. Mulholland Dr. is certainly ambitious in its goals, but it balances this with a midnight-movie atmosphere of schlock and absurdity that restrains its director’s artistic vision from becoming an Oh-So-Serious sermon. It also absolutely depends on its cast, especially Naomi Watts and her ability to perform a gradual slide from Stepford-wife-perfect caricature to damaged, embittered wreck. The Neon Demon, on the other hand, has absolutely no sense of humor about its increasingly absurd take on the world of modeling—its overlap with Hannibal in terms of subject matter and cannibalism-as-metaphor serves only to emphasize how important the black humor of the television show is and how much it’s missed here.

Worse than that, however, is its decision to spend its entire runtime with each of the characters in a relatively static, emotionless state. Elle Fanning is a truly gifted actress, which is why it’s so painful to say that her character, the protagonist Jesse, could have been played by anyone—the same goes for Abbey Lee, who was arresting in her supporting role in Mad Max: Fury Road and is utterly wasted here. Through a self-important screenplay and what I can only assume is Refn’s direction, these two and nearly all of the other performers are trapped into giving flat line readings and static smiles for nearly two hours. A breakdown from this sterility into something more human, or the inverse, would have made this stilted quality mean something emotionally—as is it’s simply dull. A movie that’s about the damaging effects of the fashion industry can’t begin with its characters at the same point they are when they reach the end, but that’s exactly what Refn does.

The only exceptions to the above are Keanu Reeves, who breaks type as an over-the-top shitheel who runs the motel Jesse stays at and is clearly very much enjoying himself, and Jena Malone, whose smile-plastered makeup designer does indeed mirror Mulholland Dr. in her gradual unraveling. They are bright spots in an otherwise joyless exercise of smashing the audience over the head with the rather banal thematic statement “The fashion industry will chew you up and spit you out,” this metaphor eventually turning literal in unintentionally comedic fashion. (I will note that more movies should feature lovingly shot necrophilia—the obnoxious people who’d spent the entirety of my showing talking to each other walked right out of the movie.)

All this said, I can’t give the movie anything less than a three-of-five rating, because while it’s undeniably arrogant and egomaniacal to pull out all the aesthetic stops on such a slight screenplay, pull them Refn does, and it’s glorious. Nathasha Braier’s cinematography delivers everything that the movie’s title promises, bathing each frame in frozen blasts of harsh blues and reds—one early sequence turns the film into a flipbook, colored strobes against a black background recreating and obliterating the characters’ visages frame by frame, and is nothing short of jaw-dropping. This pulsing frigidity is matched by Cliff Martinez’ synthesizer score, reminiscent of It Follows‘ soundtrack—simultaneously lush and dead, rich and completely artificial, it fully commits to sonically communicating everything Refn wanted to say with his screenplay. Art direction, production design, and costuming are, naturally, second to none.

The overwhelmingly good and the disappointingly bad collide to form a whole that’s by turns compelling and vapid, repulsive in ways both intentional and unintentional. One could argue that that’s the point—the film’s very shallowness is a reflection of its thematic concerns—but where American Psycho recognizes, expertly utilizes, and ultimately undermines its narrator’s banality, The Neon Demon is fully convinced of its own deep importance. What we’re left with is a mediocre screenplay filmed with artistic perfection, populated with actresses who at times elevate their material but are often directed into a corner.

I can’t write off The Neon Demon, nor can I give it a fully negative review, because it is one of the most visually and aurally engrossing movies of 2016. I only wish those arresting qualities had been placed within an equally arresting context. As is, it’s a tale told by an egomaniac, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing—but what entrancing sound and fury.

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We dance alone: “The Lobster” review

the_lobster_poster_quad ✦ of five

There is a fine line between genuine whimsy and self-conscious attempts at oddness. For example, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, while a thoroughly enjoyable and gorgeous film, falls too close to the latter for me to truly love it—at times it is delightfully offbeat, but one can always sense the hand of the writer behind the characters’ speech. In trying so hard to break the mold, it becomes trapped in its own sort of stiffness.

At its most successful, Yorgos Lanthimos’ screenplay for The Lobster is full of the kind of whimsy that is as real as it is bizarre—its oddness is a natural consequence of the world it depicts. At its worst, the sentences begin to crack, and through these cracks we can see Lanthimos’ desire to keep his audience on the back foot, to play an escalating game with their expectations. It doesn’t by any means ruin the film, but it does take what could have been an unqualified masterpiece and wrap a tangle of barbed wire around its ankle just before it hits the finish line.

The Lobster is at its most successful during the first half of its runtime, which is the half that was pitched in its trailer—an unnamed man (Colin Farrell in a performance that somehow manages to be engaging while at the same time remaining completely one-note) has been left by his wife, and by the laws of the land must travel to a hotel where singles find new partners. He has forty-five days to complete this task, after which he will be transformed into an animal of his choosing—though he can extend his stay by hunting and capturing members of a renegade community of loners who live in the nearby forest.

This first hour of the film skewers a relatively easy target—our cultural obsession with escaping single status—but does so in increasingly funny, increasingly cruel fashion. Deadpan satire escalates into shocking levels of violence, and Lanthimos has no intention of letting the viewers escape. Shots linger, and linger, and linger, until the mood has passed from uneasy laughter to discomfort to a burning desire to turn away from the screen. This dispassionate examination of cruelty is matched by the actors’ performances, all of which are as if Siri has taken control of a number of human slaves, and by the cinematography, which takes the vibrant green of Ireland and tamps it down to a beautiful but desolate palette of greys and washed-out yellows and browns. None of what is going on is remotely subtle, but it doesn’t really have to be; at this point, Lathimos is interested not in a philosophical examination but a brutal mockery of dating culture, and he tears into his victim with flair.

Once the film switches focus from the Kafkaesque hell of the hotel to the wider world, however, this sadism loses focus and the film begins to lose its bite. Most of the second half is spent among the refugee loners in the forest, and while Lea Seydoux is a welcome (and frightening) presence as their leader, she can’t save the screenplay from falling into a muddle. Lanthimos’ depiction of the loner conclave seems to be an attempt at evenhandedness, but this sort of seeing both sides is incompatible with the broad polemic that constitutes The Lobster‘s first act. The loners are painted in strokes far too broad to be taken seriously as part of a social critique, which is what Lanthimos apparently wants his film to be; attempting to depict both sides of the equation as equally absurd cuts the legs out from under the caricature of the hotel and renders the loners’ conclave a bit of a bore to sit through at times. Depicting the wider world further dilutes the satire; taken on its own as an absurdist parable, the hotel can remain unquestioned, but when a worldwide culture that runs on the same principles surfaces it’s almost impossible to not begin asking logistical questions, which is the last thing one wants to be doing in the midst of such an enterprise.

This inferior second act aside, The Lobster is a film very much worth watching. Even as its screenplay begins to lose control of itself, the performances and camerawork remain a treat to watch, and the surreal hellscape of its first act is more than worth the price of admission. At ninety minutes, Lanthimos’ film could have been a masterpiece. At its current 118-minute runtime, it is merely a very good movie, but it’s a very good movie that no major studio would have the courage to release. That A24 continues to take risks with projects such as this is nothing short of a blessing.

The Year in Books, January-June: Nonfiction

The best of the nonfiction that I read in the first half of this year. For a broader introduction and for the best and worst of the fiction I read, see here.

22478The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes

puts on sunglasses and dons his Laurence Fishburne voice…

What if I told you that, despite existing for 100,000-250,000 years, humans were not actually conscious until roughly 3,000 years ago?

What if I told you that, if you take a closer look at ancient literature such as the Iliad and the earliest books of the Old Testament, you’ll notice none of the characters are actually capable of introspection or making decisions?

What if I told you that, until incredibly recently on an evolutionary timescale, we heard the hallucinatory “voice of the gods” every time we had to choose between one option or another, rather than weighing within ourselves what the best course of action was—because our “selves” as such did not exist?

Jaynes is a bit of a crackpot, and his hypothesis has quite a few holes in it—in fact, I spent much of this semester writing a paper on certain inconsistencies in his analysis of the Iliad. That said, his hypothesis—that humans were basically preconscious schizophrenics hallucinating decisions as divine commands due to the inability of one hemisphere of their brains to perceive the other—is compelling, disturbing, and almost certainly at least partially true, though certainly not entirely. More than that, even if he were completely wrong his book would be a joy to read. It’s a marvel of interdisciplinary studies, mixing cognitive science with philosophy, literary analysis, and anthropology in a manner that’s consistently engaging despite the volume’s rather dry title.

Like the best creation myths, Origin has the virtue of seeming completely true in the moment even if it has its flaws. And again like those myths, there’s also in all probability more than a kernel of actual truth present.

28248046Guided by the Beauty of Their Weapons: Notes on Science Fiction and Culture in the Year of Angry Dogs, Philip Sandifer

Thanks to the depredations of the Rabid Puppies, this book never stood a chance of being nominated for a Hugo for Best Related Work. It’s a pity, as no other work of nonfiction published in 2015-16 so artfully sums up the state of the SF/F community as a result of the chaos Theodore Beale/Vox Day and his cronies wreaked upon the Hugo Awards.

The titular essay is the chief reason to buy the book. Originally published on Sandifer’s blog in the immediate aftermath of the realization that the Hugos had been gamed by a group of neo-fascist dudebros, it provides a comprehensive overview of the various factions involved in the fray—Sad and Rabid Puppies, the neoreactionary movement, etc. etc.—before using their gaming of the system as a launching pad to discuss the broader problems of right-wing extremism in the SF/F community. It’s as fine a polemic as I’ve ever read, expertly researched and devastatingly styled. The good news is the rest of the collection is just as high in quality. Whether the topic is the feminist roots of Ex Machina, the shared ties of True Detective and Hannibal, the strange history of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, or the occult themes of Doctor Who, Sandifer wields a combination of erudition and enthusiasm that’s hard to resist. And lest you think the whole book is a one-sided affair, another centerpiece is a transcript of Sandifer’s sitting down with Beale/Day himself and debating literature. A fun time was most definitely not had by all.

2448580Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton

When I was in high school, the extremely right-wing history curriculum barely mentioned the Black Panther Party. When it did, it was in the context of terrorism, equating the Party to the Ku Klux Klan. While I’ve become a far more progressive person in the years since I left this kind of “education” behind, I had never bothered to re-educate myself on the Panthers. And so, when I stumbled upon a memoir by the founder of the group himself, I decided I needed to read it.

Newton’s book, part autobiography and part manifesto, is completely engrossing. His political arguments are occasionally painted in broad strokes, but are never anything less than cool, articulate, and clearly thought-out, and while I differ with him on points—the Party’s reliance on guns chief among them—he never commands anything less than respect for the manner in which he makes them. The larger part of the book, the story of his wrongful accusation of the murder of a police officer and subsequent trial, is the stuff of Hollywood courtroom drama, but Newton has too much respect for himself and for his audience to exploit the situation for a cheap emotional payoff. His relation of events is as dispassionate as his philosophical musings, and the book is much better for it.

The titular revolutionary suicide—actively sacrificing oneself for a cause—is contrasted by Newton with reactionary suicide—allowing the system to grind one’s soul into oblivion. While I can’t agree with the Panthers’ reliance on firearms, neither can I disagree with Newton’s ardent desire to die fighting for something meaningful rather than letting himself be broken on the wheel of racism. Their current image among a vast number of white Americans as a hate group is nothing short of character assassination; would that more of us would bother to read the words of their leader himself.

567590Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard

I did not know until after I had read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek that Dillard was only 29 years old when it received the Pulitzer Prize. Her authorial voice is so assured and mature that one gets the impression of a much older woman.

Then again, her subject could inject maturity into anyone’s voice. Dillard paints the Nature (with an intentional capital-N) that surrounds her home near the titular creek as an avatar of the deity in whose image it’s created—capricious and loving, cruel and beautiful, in equal measure, with no explanations given for the contradiction if they even exist. The book is a sort of naturalist’s Book of Job, the majesty of Dillard’s surroundings forming its own theodicy. These philosophical musings are balanced by the concrete detail in which she paints her universe—the anatomy and behavior of the animals that live in congress with her, the subtle intricacies of the ecology that dominates the area. It’s these tiny bits of reality that stay embedded in the reader’s head. The problem of evil as told by parasitic wasps. The shine of Tinker creek even beneath a starless sky. The horrifying fertility of praying mantises, the male continuing to thrust even after he’s been decapitated.

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a book that I honestly don’t know how to classify. It’s part memoir, part essay collection, part popular science book, part philosophical treatise, part prayer. Whatever section of the bookstore shelf it belongs on, its quality can’t be argued with. It’s probably, along with Malick’s The Tree of Life, my favorite work of religious poetry in the last hundred years.

127232On Revolution, Hannah Arendt

Like Slavoj Zizek, Arendt doesn’t make arguments so much as free-associate. Thus this book is less an argument about revolution and more a series of observations on the subject, using the American and French revolutions as its anchors as it leaps from insight to insight.

There are, however, two central points that keep recurring: 1.) the American Revolution was the first revolution to deserve the name, as it was the first to involve a group of citizenry actively trying to change the system of government under which they were ruled rather than simply exchange a bad ruler for a good one; 2.) the American revolution succeeded because it was shaped by the guiding hand of elites and intellectuals rather than the popular masses. It’s the latter that I found the most interesting, especially when taken in tandem with Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites (below), which argues that this sort of meritocratic thinking is exactly what leads to the collapse of societies. In the wake of the financial crisis, Hayes’ position would certainly seem convincing; but with the rise of Donald Trump and his white-nationalist populism, so would Arendt’s. It remains to be seen which thinker will be more applicable to the future of America. Not that I particularly welcome either outcome.

27502War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Chris Hedges

Tied with The End of the Affair and The Traitor Baru Cormorant for the bleakest read of the year so far. Hedges, a foreign correspondent who has witnessed firsthand the devastation of war-torn countries, makes the case that war is ultimately the defining force behind our culture. It’s not just war, though, but the desperate need for tribalism to tell us who we can trust and who must be exterminated. In this age of neo-fascism, it’s sadly more relevant than ever.

2638701Violence, Slavoj Zizek

Like the other Zizek books I read this year, this one is hard to summarize, his characteristic enthusiasm and free-association taking him on tangents and sub-tangents with lightning velocity. What it lacks in coherence, though, it makes up for in wit and in flashes of brilliance as its author attempts to tackle his subject. How do we define violence, how does it affect us, and what aspects of it do we fail to notice even as they insidiously warp the fabric of society?

10199960Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, Cordelia Fine

Men and women are inherently different, you say? Science has demonstrated that there are biological discrepancies that can’t be reconciled?

plops book on your desk

Have fun, son.

649031A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry Into Polytheism, John Michael Greer

The first half of the book could have been happily written by any atheist—it dismantles argument after argument for a monotheistic deity, exposing inconsistencies both in thinking and morality. However, where Greer goes from there is far more interesting. Every single one of these arguments, he demonstrates, becomes remarkably tighter if we jettison the assumption of a single God and instead turn to the titular world full of gods: a polytheistic universe. As a defense of theism it’s more compelling than any monotheistic work on the subject I’ve read, and even if I still don’t believe it it’s a fascinating book.

12121640God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, Slavoj Zizek and Boris Gunjevic

Zizek’s side, largely composed of essays that were compiled into The Puppet and the Dwarf, is utter genius, taking fundamental assumptions of Christianity and turning them on their heads with mingled wit and empathy—his insight that Dostoevsky’s “If there is no God everything is permitted” should instead be rendered “If there is a God everything is permitted” deserves an entire book of its own. Gunjevic’s contributions are less inspired but not without merit.

11623The Unabridged Journals, Sylvia Plath

As these are indeed unabridged journals, there’s quite a bit of tedious filler present—today Ted and I ate with such-and-such a person, she was wearing such-and-such a dress, etc. That said, the amounts of penetrating insight and assured prose composition on display here are not only extremely compelling but downright intimidating, especially when you consider that the stuff composed when Plath was seventeen is just as good as the stuff she wrote a few years prior to her death.

16030649Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, Christopher Hayes

As is the case with Hedges’ book, Elites is sadly more relevant than ever in the midst of the violent populism that currently engulfs America. Hayes methodically picks apart the underlying assumptions behind the belief that a meritocracy is the “fairest” system of government, demonstrates how America’s has failed, and then—most chillingly—shows how perhaps the worst consequence of our failed elites is that populist movements now show a distrust of any sort of expert knowledge. With climate change speeding up all around us, that’s a problem that could ultimately be fatal.

The Year in Books, January-June: Fiction

The first half of the year has nearly come and gone, and in that span I’ve finished ninety-four books, not counting re-reads. In the past two years of this sort of thing, I’ve reviewed the top five fiction and top five non-fiction books for each six-month period, devoting about 1,000 words to each fiction title and about two thirds of that to nonfiction. This year, however, I wanted to cover a broader swathe of territory. And so, for the fiction section of this half-a-year-in-review, I’ve devoted substantial reviews to nine titles and capsule reviews to twenty-three more. The remaining twenty-four fictional titles that I’ve read this year were either things I didn’t have a lot to say about in spite of their quality, or too mediocre to fall into either the “best” or “worst” pile.

Non-fiction review coming within a few days!

25512857Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea, Caitlín R. Kiernan

The divine is always abominable.

I would list the standouts of this collection, but there really aren’t any—the possible exception being “The Steam Dancer”, which may be the only optimistic short story Kiernan has ever written. That’s not to say there aren’t stories I hold as favorites—”The Ammonite Violin” and “Tidal Forces”, both of which I had previously read in Jonathan Strahan’s annual The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, are probably the two I hold the most affection for. Rather it’s to say that there’s such a consistency here, both in quality and in tone, that the tales for the most part blur together into one long fever dream, a hallucinatory experience that leaves the reader unsettled and unsure.

The terror of the beautiful is the best theme I can think of to tie Kiernan’s body of work together. She is a master of juxtaposition, of taking acts that are degrading and perverse and brutal and rendering them in such artful language (she is without question the foremost prose stylist in her field) that the reader is compelled to linger over the prose even as she recoils from what it signifies. Many of the collection’s stories were first published in Sirenia Digest, Kiernan’s journal of erotic fiction, and that underlying concern with transgressive sexuality—its mingled attraction and repulsion, blessing and taboo—is ever-present. Perhaps the most frightening thing about Kiernan’s work is the way she manages to take nightmarish acts (whether that nightmarishness is due to violence or sheer alien-ness) and imbue them with a terrible attraction for the reader. The old adage about a car wreck is apt.

52258The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith

I feel I stand in a desert with my hands outstretched, and you are raining down upon me… I will comb you like music caught in the heads of all the trees in the forest…

The fact that this book was published in the 1950s is staggering to me. It’s a beautifully subtle, nuanced take on the love that dare not speak its name—some readers complain that it leaves them cold, but the characters’ lack of fiery passion for much of the text is a very deliberate choice. For gay couples in this period, outward love was all but impossible to express. Everything became a code, signifiers carefully extended and received—a pair of gloves left on a counter, the briefest flash of hands clutched together, the most transient of shared gazes across a room.

And when passion does come, it is so magnificent a release that it feels transcendent. For a novel that was marketed as pulp romance at the time of its publication to carry such genuine, achingly beautiful feeling is among the rarest of gifts. I went into The Price of Salt expecting to respect it rather than enjoy it, as was the case with Annie on My Mind, another pillar of LGBT literature, last year. Instead, I found myself smiling and joyful for much of it, heartsick for other portions. Were The Price of Salt published today, it would still be an absolutely wonderful novel. Viewing it in its historical context, it’s something of a miracle.

5356476The Red Tree, Caitlín R. Kiernan

I am usually at my most brutally forthright when making shit up. That’s the paradox of me.

A fusion of Mulholland Drive and The Blair Witch Project, The Yellow Wall-Paper and House of Leaves. Alien geometries, the sheer grinding mundane terror of isolation. The prison of your house mirrors the prison of your head. “I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it because I can’t get out of it.” How much of us dies when our love dies? Is part of our brain burnt out, a cigarette mark of pink-flecked charcoal meat never again to fire its neurons? Unreliable narrator? Reliable? What the fuck kind of distinction is that, anyway? The story tells itself, and the reader has no choice but to rely upon the teller just as the teller has no choice but to rely upon her own perceptions no matter how fucked they are. You desperately want companionship but you desperately need to be left the hell alone whenever she shows up, she’s like a buzzbuzzbuzzing in your head and won’t just let it be fucking quiet. Not the quiet of isolation, the intense humming of silence that drills into your head, just eyes closed ears closed peace. There’s peace in the basement, no noises there, but you mustn’t go down because it’s bigger on the inside and the damp is everywhere, and what if she were to follow you at any rate? Claustrophobia or agoraphobia, take your pick, the tight black decomposition or the wide carnivorous sky. Your head is stopped up, there’s a vice squeezing on it, and if only you could just get out the goddamn words, but the only worlds your words can shape are your own and its mirrors. You can’t get out. You can’t get out. Nothing is coming and you can’t get out.

(Please excuse the awful cover art. Penguin deserves to be shot.)

333706The Odyssey, Homer (translated from the Greek by Robert Fagles)

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns …/driven time and again off course,once he had plundered/the hallowed heights of Troy . . .

It would be pointless and hopelessly hubris-full for me to even attempt a four-paragraph review of the Odyssey as if it were some recent bestseller, so I won’t bother.

Instead I just want to note the quality that most stood out to me upon my much-too-belated reading of the grand old thing: how cinematic it feels. The opening “We’re getting the band back together” thrill, the constant sense of momentum, the jumps in time, the changes of perspective, the grand imagery—they carry with them the lofty quality of the Iliad, but there’s a constant driving excitement present even in the bare words on the page that simply isn’t present in most of the former epic. The Iliad struggles under the weight of its historical background, so concerned with the Grim Historical Pillar that it depicts that, while there’s plenty of fun and emotion to be had, they’re buried in many places under a brick wall of solemnity.

The Odyssey, by contrast, is an adventure the whole way through without sacrificing emotional resonance or divine grandeur. It helps that (as Julian Jaynes would attribute to the breakdown of the bicameral mind’s divine hallucinations) people are people; in the Iliad it was the gods who had all the fun with things like deception and deliberation, but its sequel is chock-full of them on everyone’s behalf. It was almost inevitable that it would be made into a Coen Brothers film, really. If, as God help us is probably unavoidable, a big-screen Odyssey happens sometime in the next decade, they’d do well to remember that, as staggering an achievement as it is, it’s damn fun too.

(A postscript: between reading both this and Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths this year, Athena has become my favorite character of the ancient world. If ever I become a neopagan of some kind she’s my go-to deity.)

857042Catch-22, Joseph Heller

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

As with the book above, there isn’t much I can say about Catch-22 that hasn’t already been said. Suffice to say that few books have ever moved me so much or in so many different ways—moved me to laughter, to frustration, to horrified sadness, to absurd joy. Heller’s novel is simultaneously one of the most cynical and one of the most life-affirming texts I’ve ever read.

I can see why my first attempt at it, at the age of thirteen, didn’t succeed. It’s a novel that’s largely built around the impotent wrath it induces within the reader, and said wrath is dependent upon the grind of absurdity that goes on. And on. And on, constantly running the razor’s edge between effectiveness and tedium (see also: American Psycho). It’s too much for most pre-adolescent minds to handle, my own certainly included. The slog that is the first 400 pages makes the final few mean so much more, though. It’s the sort of release you feel as a physical sensation in your chest.

I’m never, ever reading the sequel. Even if it had gotten a mostly positive reception as opposed to the drubbing it inspired, there are some things you just don’t touch.

1013257

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

We have a name for your disease. We call it a hyper-aesthetic one. You have been encouraged to over-indulge yourself in literature; and have inflamed your organs of fancy.

I hate Charles Dickens, but I’m increasingly coming to love Dickensian fiction. My antipathy for the former is built upon three defects: his incessant moralizing, his violently purple prose, and worst of all his inability to construct a human character. Writing in nothing but caricatures is all well and good for a novella like A Christmas Carol, but stretch it out to the 900 pages of Bleak House and my patience runs tissue-thin. The genre itself, however, holds tremendous promise if executed properly. Take a cast full of eccentrics—the line between eccentrics and caricatures is thin, but it exists—give them a complex bit of business, and pile it with well-earned melodramatic twists and reversals, and it’s hard to picture a more entertaining one, in fact. Pulp Fiction is Dickensian fiction, in a sense. Harry Potter certainly is, when extrapolated to an entire series.

Throw into this mix a touch of lesbian romance? Well, that’s just irresistible.

And rest assured, it’s not nearly as smutty as the above line combined with the no-less-than-quadruple-entendre of a title suggests. This may be a Victorian pulp crime novel whose title is in part a masturbation pun, but it’s classy, by God. A Booker nominee, no less. Like Dickens, it is equal parts romp and tragedy; its central caper puts those of The Sting and Ocean’s Eleven to shame, but Waters’ display of the horrors of being a woman in the 19th century—vivid without falling into didacticism—is utterly skin-crawling. It’s one of the most successful examples of a fusion of highbrow social commentary and lowbrow adventure that I’ve read, as evidenced by its perennial popularity among both critics and the sort of people who contribute their books to Goodwill. Mr. Dickens would be proud.

51506Wittgenstein’s Mistress, David Markson

 Once, somebody asked Robert Schumann to explain the meaning of a certain piece of music he had just played on the piano. What Robert Schumann did was sit back down at the piano and play the piece of music again.

In the beginning, sometimes I left reviews on the internet.

Well, what I mean by that is not that I placed reviews atop the internet, but that I uploaded representations of reviews onto a representation of a piece of paper.

My language is frequently imprecise like that, I have found.

The apocalypse is not the concern in Markson’s novel. Rather, it is mere window-dressing for an emotional and philosophical experience of uncanny power. I am, of course, speaking in metaphor.

When I was mad—for I do know, if I know anything, that I was once quite mad—I read this book from cover to cover, tearing out each page when I had finished its reverse side and depositing it in the fire.

Van Gogh painted a fire once. Or, I should say, he painted a representation of a pile of broken glass, which was in itself a representation of a fire.

That is, I think I remember that Van Gogh painted something like that.

I thought I saw someone move, just now, but it was merely a flicker of light against one of the images on my screen. There is, of course, no one left to move.

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

(This is not a novel to be read without at least some background with literature, especially classic literature. If you have the context, however, the unnamed last woman on earth’s rambling mantra is often funny, occasionally devastating, and always unsettling. The overwhelming sense of desolation Markson generates is achieved in tandem with, not in spite of, the narrator’s frequent pauses for analyses of Greek drama and philosophical investigations in the vein of the novel’s namesake—these tangents at once reveal the desperation of the narrator’s plight and attempt to smother it. A haunting experience, to be devoured all at once if possible.)

164154A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn.

It would be easy for A Canticle for Leibowitz to slide into a mere, if very good, polemic were it in the hands of a lesser author. The premise—an apocalyptically altered Catholic church attempts to preserve civilization throughout the centuries of rebuilding—is ripe for partisanship, with this hypothetical lesser novel coming down firmly either on the side of self-righteous secularism or pandering, patronizing religious smugness. What makes Canticle a masterpiece is the way Miller weaves a tapestry of ambiguities throughout its text, considering to the fullest extent the mixed benefits and hazards of turning over the keys to human society to a sacred institution.

The three sub-novels that form the book are largely unconnected in terms of plot and character, but tonally are of a piece—equal parts gently humorous and profoundly sad, an uneasy mixture to match the book’s conflicting attitudes toward religion. Ultimately, Canticle can be viewed either as a bleak cautionary tale or a triumphant assertion of the human spirit in face of disaster; neither option is incorrect, just as Christ’s death and resurrection is simultaneously the greatest tragedy and the profoundest comedy ever put to paper. Like the best religious fiction, and for that matter the best religious texts themselves, its lack of answers is unsettling but all the more compelling for it.

18490533Radiance, Catherynne M. Valente

A tale may have exactly three beginnings: one for the audience, one for the artist, and one for the poor bastard who has to live in it.

This novel is a machine designed to push all of my buttons. A decopunk space opera centered around filmmaking, featuring a neo-noir detective as one of its protagonists and an enigmatic female auteur as its MacGuffin?

It’s science fiction, if decidedly soft on the science, but the crystalline, lilting magic of Valente’s fantasy writing remains on display. She, along with Caitlín R. Kiernan, is the best prose stylist working in the SF/F field today, her sentences rich and laden with metaphoric imagery without ever becoming overly abstract. A unique joy in Radiance, however, is how she mixes this authorial voice with a kaleidoscope of homage. The neo-noir narrative-within-a-narrative drips Chandler and Hammett without ever losing Valente’s gift for language; certain monologues joyfully ape Ray Bradbury’s mix of the comic and the ecstatic from his Death Is a Lonely Business trilogy, another fantastical romp through the land of the silver screen. References to ’30s and ’40s marketing abound, intertwining seamlessly with the language of the novel’s imagined melding of art deco and a future that includes space whales.

Had the Rabid Puppies and their wretched ilk not commandeered the Hugo Awards for the second year in a row, I’m confident that Radiance would have picked up a nomination for Best Novel. It most certainly deserved one. It’s a symbol of what’s best about speculative fiction—a simultaneous celebration of the past and yearning for the beautiful future, a confidence that we can make a better world without the smugness that says it will be easy. It’s a dazzling display by an author at the height of her powers.

3136287The Music of Chance, Paul Auster

A fusion of Kafka and Beckett—two men, entrapped by a game of cards gone sour, are forced to slave for a massive wall in the middle of a field—that should fall apart due to Auster’s sheer audacity in aping the same, but instead becomes a remarkable creation of its own. No author better captures the terrifying freedom of solitude and dire circumstances.

883217The End of the Affair, Graham Greene

The sheer disgust present here is dizzying. The unfortunate movie tie-in cover art that my copy bears (Little Free Library beggars can’t be choosers) inadvertently suggested weepy, Oscar-bait type fare, and even having read The Quiet American and The Power and the Glory I wasn’t prepared for the brutal cynicism that pervades the text. Not to be read in the midst of a divorce.

17802447Beyond the Rift, Peter Watts

The first story in this collection takes John Carpenter’s The Thing and somehow manages to make it even more horrifying than it already was. This is basically par for the course for the rest of what’s offered. And the truly scary thing is that, as Watts points out in his Afterword, most of these stories are comparatively optimistic versions of posthumanist science fiction.

25614935A Wilderness Station: Selected Stories, 1968-1994 (previously published as Selected Stories), Alice Munro

Maybe it’s something in the water—between Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, Canadian authors seem to have a gift for crystalline, understated prose. None of the stories here is a firecracker of brilliance; rather, they sneak up on you before you’ve realized what’s going on. Quiet, melancholic, gorgeous.

8694389Deathless, Catherynne M. Valente

Oh, Cath. You had me at Stalinist house elves. (And she somehow manages to balance that tone with what is otherwise a fusion of Russian folktales with the aesthetic of Hannibal. This woman must be stopped.)

 

7717708The Ammonite Violin & Others, Caitlín R. Kiernan

Each tale within a perfect, glistening ebony jewel, a fossil dug from deep within the earth that has come alive again. And they’re all hungry.

 

23444482The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Seth Dickinson

“This is the truth. You will know because it hurts.”

Yep. Yep. The dark, fantastical alternative to Fingersmith is just as impressive and infinitely more likely to make you want to throw it at the wall. (And it’s only the first in a series. Hoo boy.)

17261183The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

The best children’s series of the decade continues to inspire dread (“Okay, this one can’t possibly be as good as the last two” and awe (“Holy shit, that was as good as the last two!”) in equal measure. I am now biting my nails and hoping that the dismount is not blown with The Boy Who Lost Fairyland and The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, but even if it is we have in September one of the best female protagonists ever written (or just protagonists period, for that matter).

95558Solaris, Stanislaw Lem

Were the rest of the novel to be a complete clunker, the image of a sentient wave covering a planet would be enough to label it a classic. (And, manky translation from Polish to French to English notwithstanding, the rest of the novel is in fact mostly excellent.)

 

12187Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, Vladimir Nabokov

As good as Lolita? Nothing is, you fool. But it’s most definitely the best overlong SF/F epic about incest ever penned—GRRM eat your heart out. More than anyone else, Nabokov manages to walk a tightrope between pretension and sheer fun—as you’re reading the novel you’re baffled that he’s getting away with it, and even more baffled that you’re enjoying yourself immensely.

58027Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

The tale of a 19th-century murderess who has perhaps been falsely accused would seem to be a perfect choice for Atwood. This could actually be a weakness rather than a strength, however—it feels at times like she’s resting on her laurels, especially when compared to the immediate followup The Blind Assassin. Nevertheless, she’s incapable of writing anything bad, her clean, clear prose never anything less than a pleasure.

202769The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, Catherynne M. Valente

A 1,001 Nights for the modern age, tales within tales within tales in swirling patterns and currents. Occasionally this dizzying recursion can get out of Valente’s control, but the book is still nothing less than a marvel, especially for an author who was at the time only twenty-eight years old—assured, confident, and full of utterly gorgeous imagery and worldbuilding.

1024661In the Country of Lost Things, Paul Auster

A departure for Auster in terms of its female protagonist, this postmodern dystopia is too slight to be counted among his best work but taken on its own is a riveting little novel. It also forms an intriguing bridge between the cool, cerebral New York Trilogy and the ecstatic, personal Moon Palace, injecting the humanity of the latter into the urban hellscape of the former.

524004Elvissey, Jack Womack

What could have been an off-the-wall romp—time travelers from the future must abduct Elvis from the 1950s and bring him to an awaiting religious cult who worship him as a Messiah—is instead a bleak, terribly sad work with touches of the absurdly comic mixed in. The futurespeak exhibited here and in other Womack novels such as Random Acts of Senseless Violence is on a par with A Clockwork Orange‘s for its subtlety and thoughtfulness.

77773To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis

Willis desperately needs an editor—the book could easily be 200 pages shorter—but as opposed to the above time-travel experiment, this novel is a delightfully off-the-wall romp full of madcap energy. It’s also extraordinarily well-plotted, and manages to be endearing in spite of its preponderance of Victorian amateur spiritualists, who are the literal worst.

18310944The Sandman: Overture, Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams III

Writing a prequel to a universe he’s mostly left the door shut on since its mid-90’s completion was probably a mistake on Gaiman’s part—the mystery of an untold story is almost always better than an explanation. That said, it gave J. H. Williams an excuse to create the most beautiful comics art I’ve ever seen. Seriously. Every single page is this good.

BONUS ROUND: WORST OF THE SEASON

25109947Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

This one breaks my heart because it’s one of the best horror ideas in recent memory—Lovecraft’s monsters haunt the racist hell of the Jim Crow South. How do you possibly screw that up?

By giving it to an author who a.) isn’t black, b.) has never written a horror novel before, and c.) isn’t a good enough stylist to support his own brilliant idea.

889284The Postman, David Brin

“The Postman” was one of the best pieces of short fiction I read last year. It’d be a shame to ruin it by taking what’s already a perfect story arc and adding on 300 pages of mediocre SF that takes a hard left turn into stupid and ends with one of the worse deus ex machinas I’ve had the misfortune of reading.

760961Darwinia, Robert Charles Wilson

One of the most impressive things about Wilson’s Spin, among the best SF novels of the last two decades, was the way it had an insanely good premise and then paid that premise off in a way that wasn’t anticlimactic. Which is why it’s baffling that here, the same author could write such a dismal second half to a first half I was genuinely digging.

1020039The Books of Blood, Clive Barker

There are snatches of brilliance amid the mediocrity—”In the Hills, in the Cities” is one of the more inventive horror concepts I can remember—but on the whole this collection represents the absolute worst of the 80’s horror boom. Namely: gore in place of fear, prose that never rises above serviceable, and the occasional sophomoric attempt at philosophizing that is utterly wince-inducing.

22453035Finders Keepers, Stephen King

Whoever in the marketing department thought it would be a good idea to compare Finders Keepers to Misery deserves digestion by Sarlacc. This turgid, by-the-numbers, airplane-thriller-bad novel is just about as far away from the perfection of Misery as you can get. With Mr. Mercedes King was at least having fun, but here he seems as bored with his novel as the reader is.

7719640Absolute All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison

I just don’t like or understand superheroes. In fact, at this point it’s become an outright antipathy.

No, that word is too kind. I hate them.

Hate, hate, hate.

We’re talking “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” hatred here.

The Dark Knight is still a great movie, though.

6345193Invisible, Paul Auster

What a piece of junk.

It would be a piece of junk coming from anyone, but coming from Auster it’s just unforgivable. It’s like a newspaper caricature of him met a newspaper caricature of Philip Roth and they made a love child out of the worst parts of themselves.