Category Archives: Books


A quote:

She kinstill hear the song beyonder, but she dizzn’t surey fit’s the when she thawtit was. Detune streems differrant and pseudo the words, doshy slushpects that she’s not herein’ thereal worlds at all. She’s proverbly trancestating the inudibelle and dustant leerics into her roam lingwish, the seam way she daz with reveriething.

It’s anuntellagibble jabberish, off course, nonposed of comsense sillyballs and nutterly devader meanink, though she fonds that she injoyce the squirling museek avid.

Lucy’s dancing in the language,
Shares a marble sandwich
With a Mr. Finnegan from several headstones down
And no more how’s-your-father now.
She’s a cockeyed optimist
Who can’t resist
This final white parade.

She fonds she inJOYCE the squirling museek avid.

I absolutely love this form of wordplay, especially when it tries to be more than form, and playing and adding layers of meaning. Making a line of text multidimensional. It’s only 40 pages. I wish it was longer. My only worry is that it is not used to its full potential, but that’s what I expect specifically from Bottom’s Dream.

And yet, I’m baffled that some readers would skip this delight. She was too intent (witch)hunting for and trying her best to take offense about imaginary transmisogynistic jokes. She eventually filed the book under the “racism, sexism and transphobia” categories.

Why people who fight against prejudices have such an hard time laying down theirs?

I’ve been waiting these two since *checks own blog* well, at least since March. Today they’re both in my hands since Dalkey Archive seems to have an habit of shipping way earlier than release date. It’s also been trickier to get oversea books at a reasonable price but I managed it this time as well, so I’m happy.

This blog post is all about appearances over substance, so it should be meant to be filled with images but, since I’ve jet to join the modern age, I’m still unable to produce pictures of my own and so had to scour the internet, or more specifically twitter to get them. That also required dodging lots of explicit gay porn as apparently “dreaming” of “bottoming” is that kind of thing.

Let’s have those sexy sizes listed here. Starting from the small one, “Jerusalem” by Alan Moore. This one is a standarly shaped hardcover, I like the cover but not much the art, but at least when you look at it it’s big in a standard kind of way, not too daunting if you’re used to big books. Actual interior size is still impressive, though. It falls short of early claims of 1 million words plus, but it’s right on track to qualify for the 600k one. In fact, since it’s available in ebook format as well, I could count precisely and I have a still mind-boggling 615k. I think I’ve yet to read or even own a book this big, my personal previous maximum of books read from beginning to end have been Infinite Jest and Parallel Stories, both around the 550k mark.

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I’ve also kept an eye on reviews and this is what I’ve deduced: the book is fairly well received overall, lots of complaints about it being “overwritten” but it’s exactly the norm when paid reviewers have to write an article in record time to maximize exposure. My biggest worry was that the book wasn’t going to be very readable and be instead very esoteric, meaning that even if you put patience in reading it it would still defy comprehension (and enjoyment), making it just dull and frustrating. Instead it seems that even if it’s plenty experimental, weird and also challenging, it’s still within a certain accessibility. It’s is not a book that shoves you away for the sake of literary elitism, or obscurity for obscurity’s sake (and this might even unbelievably apply to the book below).

The more interesting:

The first is a series of walking tours of Northampton, echoing the perambulations of Leopold Bloom in “Ulysses,” undertaken by a number of various characters set in different time periods. This serves to introduce many of the ancestors of Mick and Alma Ward, other significant characters such as Marla the streetwalker and poet Ben Perrit, as well as many ghosts and angels. The history of Northampton is encoded in it’s topography and there are connections that can be drawn throughout the ages.

The middle section of the book chronicles the adventures of four-year-old Mick Warren in the afterlife during the brief time he was dead. He becomes involved with a group of kids who call themselves the Dead Dead Gang. Imagine the Little Rascals as written by a brilliant, philosophical madman with pretensions of explaining the metaphysical mechanisms of the entire universe.

Section three is by far the most challenging. While it appears disjointed at first each of these chapters not only moves the story forward but serves to tie together the many, many threads he has introduced. Mr. Moore writes from different points of view, exploring a variety of styles, some maddeningly experimental. One chapter is written in the form of an epic poem. Another is a crime noir detective story with the main character, who is not what he appears to be, investigating the connections between Northampton and William Blake. There is the script for a stage play which features the ghosts of several poets and thinkers, including Samuel Beckett, which is appropriate given the “Waiting For Godot”-like structure of the play and its meta-commentary on the entire book.

There are the chapters that appear to be overt paeans to Joyce. One is a stream of consciousness flow without punctuation, a la’ Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in “Ulysses.” Another is, without a doubt, the most difficult chapter to read and the one that is most likely to thwart those who try. Earlier in the novel Mr. Moore establishes the idea of the language of the angels: Words that sound like nonsense, but unfold within the mind of the listener to contain layers of meaning and metaphor. This entire chapter is an attempt to capture that experience, composed entirely of a made-up language. It is nonsense poetry spoken by Lucia Joyce (the daughter of James, who spent part of her life in an asylum), that gradually, as it is read, begins to reveal an internal logic and meaning.

I’ve had to decide between UK hardcover by Knockabout or the US Liverlight, in the end the local Amazon decided for me since the US version is still not available for some reason. It’s also available as three paperbacks inside a slipcase but I do my reading comfortably at home, so it’s hardcover for me.

VERY IMPORTANT: DO NOT BUY (if you can choose) the UK/Knockabout version of Jerusalem by Alan Moore, buy the US/Liveright. Page format is baaaad. The UK one is 100 pages shorter, 1174 versus 1262 of the American version, that means more text is crammed on a single page. But the worst aspect is that for some absurd reason they also decided to use huge white margins, so you have all the text into a tiny rectangle on the page, and that means it uses a super-tiny font that’s quite hard to read. The US version, looking at the scans on Amazon, seems to have completely fixed that. I REALLY do regret having bought this version to the point I’m considering sending it back so I can get the other one… (though the UK backcover has few more good quotes, whereas the American only has the funny last one)

And, since you are in a mostly fantasy themed blog, maybe you crave a map, here’s a map, taken from the mapper’s own website (and of course included inside the book flappy flaps).

If Jerusalem wanted to be the literary event of the month, if not the year, when it comes to overambitious, oversize book then it needs to reconsider that, as it is completely BLOWN AWAY by the landing of space-time bending Bottom’s Dream by Arno Schmidt, translated by eminent-professor John E. Woods. This one brings the definition of big book back to medieval terms. You aren’t going to read this one in bed or while commuting, even if it would be fun seeing one trying…

This Bottom’s sizes are an impressive: 14×10.8 inches, 1496 pages, 13 pounds. I had already seen all the images I’m linking below, and yet I was still utterly awed when I finally saw the physical book. It’s just an absurd sight, as if one has the feeling that the proportions are all wrong. It simply stands apart from everything else I’ve seen. And then you open it. It’s a thing of beauty. When you hold it you truly realize that the premium price really isn’t premium at all.

(all images have been scoured from the internet, on twitter specifically. I don’t use the original source because they have the habit of disappearing. If you check my twitter I’ve retweeted them all)

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“I have had a dream past the wit of man to say what dream it was,” says Bottom. “I have had a dream, and I wrote a Big Book about it,” Arno Schmidt might have said. Schmidt’s rare vision is a journey into many literary worlds. First and foremost it is about Edgar Allan Poe, or perhaps it is language itself that plays that lead role; and it is certainly about sex in its many Freudian disguises, but about love as well, whether fragile and unfulfilled or crude and wedded. As befits a dream upon a heath populated by elemental spirits, the shapes and figures are protean, its protagonists suddenly transformed into trees, horses, and demigods. In a single day, from one midsummer dawn to a fiery second, Dan and Franzisca, Wilma and Paul explore the labyrinths of literary creation and of their own dreams and desires.

Since its publication in 1970 Zettel’s Traum/Bottom’s Dream has been regarded as Arno Schimdt’s magnum opus, as the definitive work of a titan of postwar German literature. Readers are now invited to explore its verbally provocative landscape in an English translation by John E. Woods.

Hype seems to have preceded both Jerusalem and Bottom’s Dream. If Jerusalem was given at 1+ million words and had to settle for mere 600k, I had Bottom’s Dream given either at 2+ million or 1+ million. No idea of the actual wordcount, or even how you decide how to COUNT those words. Because those words are typographically weird to even defy a wordcount. And some hype about translation too, since I had read the translator worked on it for more than twenty years. Instead there’s in the book a two page “afterword” by the translator himself, making fun a bit of the style of the book.

For the translator, however, there was really only one strategy available, the same one most readers will at least attempt: Start to finish – damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. Well, perhaps »speed« is the wrong word, it did take me some six years (spread over twelve) of labor, an arduous task to be sure – with sporadic moments of either elation or gloom, the latter due mostly to my sense of inadequacy to the task.

Wilma is right, it does take a »fool« to enter fully into this topsy-turvy linguistic world. And so I set on my fool’s cap, and sang and danced, took pratfalls and belly flops – and occasionally, taking a deep breath, I launched into the Neith-time sky to soar with the bats. The judgement as to whether or not I succeeded in capturing at least something of the aesthetic and intellectual enjoyments of the original (that being, after all, the nirvana of every translator), lies with you, the reader.

My fool’s cap has never left my head, I’m ready. Skimming through the pages is really a pleasure because of how playful the layout is. This is a puzzle more than a book. The language used itself is amazing and even if my only way to decode it right now is merely about flavor and form over any amount of meaning (as in answering: why did he write it that way?), I still delight at this (this quote actually removes some weird characters used that I don’t even know how to reproduce with this keyboard):

pag. 213
: – » – « -. (Alone with the kid in the ficket : cave!). – : »FirSt off hold all supercilia quiet : snaring with lids & snatching with slick lips aren’t alloweD here! – Prick ope your ears : When talk turns to Your cares, Y’ immuddytely b’have ‘sif Y’ had just gobbled up ev’ry evil kno’n since the Creation : surely You overestimaiD Your crim’nall abilities.« / (And still She had not raised her beFringl’d lids ?) /

Repeat for the remaining 1500 pages with a text column 50 lines long every page (well, it’s a slimmer one, thought it essentially never breaks, even when it spirals around).

I love it so much I wish I had two copies. One just to keep there and worship as an idol, another to treat badly and scribble all over it…

This is going to be really fun.

…And after writing all this I spotted this link. So perfectly timed for this blog post!

excessively long books are a form of undemocratic dominance that impoverishes the public discourse by reducing the airtime shared among others.

We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire.

(after reading that article fully, though, I have to say it’s not as ridiculous as that quote out of context would suggest)

Here I give my personal interpretation of an argument about Malazan that is again given a different explanation, as well ramble on general considerations about what happens to very big book series that are written across many years. It’s once again converted from a forum discussion.

“GOTMism” is a term being used when the plot in “Gardens of the Moon” is not completely coherent with the story told in the rest of the series. Often readers explain these problems as “retcons” and motivate them with the gap of years between the writing of the first book in the series and the rest. Including the idea Erikson improved as a writer. I was never totally persuaded by these explanations and over time I built my own explanation that seems to me more logical and complete. One aspect, for example, is that I read “This River Awakens”, written before GotM final version, and I found prose of a quality than in my opinion substantially exceed that of GotM. So the idea of Erikson “massively improved as a writer” didn’t go quite well with the fact his first book is so absolutely excellent. Yet you still can feel a significant improvement going from GotM to the following, Deadhouse Gates. The writing does improve. The other aspect of why the retcon idea isn’t exhaustive is that events weren’t simply incoherent with how the plot was explained later on, they remained incoherent even when examined in isolation. Some stuff in GotM doesn’t make a lot of sense even when you consider just GotM as a context. So it’s not just a case that can be written of as a “change of mind” on the part of the writer.

So my explanation is different, I think the Malazan series went through different stages, as it happens with oversize, ambitious projects, and you can see those effects directly in the books.

Here I try to mix a forum post where I wrote my interpretation and explanation of what usually appears as an inconsistency, leading to some overall considerations on how the whole series is written and is shaped, and how it evolved.

(a):
Tayschrenn: Can someone remind me what is was that he did in the battle of Pale, revealed in MoI, that showed that he wasn’t actually trying to kill Malazans/Bridgeburners as previously suspected?

(b):
It’s a retcon, really. I think the excuse was that he thought the tunnels were safe but it could be classified as a GotM-ism.

That’s too much a tangle of plot for a completely satisfying explanation, but not really a retcon. The thing “mostly” makes sense, but it’s still rough and poorly executed. Lots of those characters swap positions behind the scenes and their motivations aren’t well explained.

I think I was able to give it an overall sketchy explanation in the Tor re-read, and that explanation was later confirmed by Erikson. Though I don’t remember exactly how it worked.

Tayschrenn’s position changes with the arrival of the adjunct (soon after the siege), so you see the contradiction of the character because there was an actual change of tasks. The Bridgeburners DID plan to replace Laseen on the throne with Whiskeyjack, so initially it was true that Laseen was against them and gave Tayschrenn the order to continue the purge. Those purges (that were actually triggered by Paran, indirectly) were required by Laseen to seize control, since her rule was of course not legitimate and pretty much no one in the army was loyal to her. They were all loyal to the previous emperor. Only later Laseen realized she couldn’t fight against the whole empire, and had instead to try winning their favors. She’s very paranoid, but not a fool.

It’s then Dujek that later tries to convince Wiskeyjack that Tayschrenn is not an enemy. So he might have been half lying for pragmatic reasons, or maybe it was Tayschrenn that managed to convince Dujek (who himself didn’t know of the Bridgeburners plan to replace Laseen).


My logic is Kalam’s plan was to replace Laseen with Whiskeyjack. That’s why one of the pebble was supposed to open a portal and bring over both Quick Ben and Whiskeyjack. But at that point the Bridgeburners on Genabackis side were in a deep mess with the Crippled God and Kalam too was in deep trouble and had to use both the pebbles before reaching Laseen (and Laseen wasn’t even there because she tricked Kalam). So during both MoI and DG the situation evolved so much that the plan couldn’t happen anymore.

The only tiny hook for this explanation is the very last two pages of Gardens of the Moon (and the general theme of Dune-like “plans within plans within plans” that is QB’s mantra, essentially, being always one step ahead). Go back and reread them. That plan is never mentioned again because it was just between Quick Ben and Kalam (since Whiskeyjack would never agree to send a squad to kill Laseen and claim the throne, their idea was to do everything on their own and then just toss the throne in Whiskyjack’s lap so that he couldn’t turn down the offer at that point, the empire without a ruler would be such a mess that WJ’s honor would have tied him to the throne as a sense of responsibility), and because its conditions change so much during DG that basically it only remains implicit. We only know Kalam was there to kill Laseen, and then decided not to for the reasons explained in the book. It’s only logical, but not explicitly told, that the plan couldn’t stop there. They had to have an idea about who should replace Laseen on the throne, and WJ, with the crippled leg and everything, made the perfect candidate. He was ready to become a leader instead of just a soldier.


It’s kind of weak storytelling when such an important sub-plot that drives most of the story through one book is so poorly referenced (the whole plan is implicit). But it’s a symptom of how Erikson worked: he already had the story in his mind, so it makes sense to him when he writes, but sometime he has a poor sense of what important information he didn’t pass to the reader. Scenes (and motivations) he knows happened between characters but that never directly appear in the book. That’s the actual big problem of GOTM: Erikson knows the story so well because he had it all so long in his mind that he consequently has a very poor grasp of what is there and what is missing in the actual books. What he wrote about is only a part of what he knows, and while writing he often lost track of what would be the exclusive reader’s perception. GOTM is like 30% stuff that happens in the actual book and 70% behind the scenes that is only tangentially referenced or completely missing. The rest of the series instead is built more and more directly on the stuff in the actual books (original material), and less behind the scenes (the world and history they built before the idea of the book series happened).

This does affect the quality of the book and contributes to lots of perceived problems. Including problems with characterization as you have so many characters with their own pre-existing history and yet a very quick and partial presentation that bypasses almost completely their motivations and personality (what drives 90% of other books). There’s a very perceivable lack of context. That presentation is too sparse, too weak, ultimately leading to a sense of plot moving without a clear logic. Stuff that just happens for no reason, and no emotional impact because you can’t actually engage with it.

*BUT* I don’t think this happens as just a direct consequence of Erikson suddenly becoming a better writer. I think this happens because of structural reasons on how the books are written. GotM was a book conceived to be based on a pre-existing world with its already established rich history. It was not a world built FOR a book series, it was a world converted to one. GotM moved from being a game-world to a movie script and only in its last stage it transformed into a book. A world invented for other reasons, crammed into a book. That means Erikson had to select what scenes to write about, what leave as background, and how. Some stuff is in, most of it is left out. This context changes as the series progresses, from the second book onward Erikson follows a clear outline, but the bulk of the material he works with becomes increasingly original, created and controlled specifically for the book. If GotM is an “adaptation”, as it happens when a movie is converted to a novel, the rest of the series is work conceived specifically as a book series.

The first few books are based on such a tangle of plot and behind the scenes, that are instead explicit in Erikson’s mind since it’s the bulk he worked and played on for such a long time, and the result is that lots of stuff is poorly explained or not given enough importance even if it moves important plots. As the series progresses we see progressively less pre-existing material, and so there’s also progressively less reliance on stuff that happens behind the scenes and that Erikson gives for granted even if IT IS NOT.

And that’s why, while GotM suffers because of those reasons, it also has that unique flavor of “pre-existing history” and in medias res story that the rest of the series tends to lose. You gain something but you lose something too. The story you read in the following books is the bulk of what’s needed, of what does exist. There’s less a sense of a vaster world that lives on. And of course this happens for practical reasons. When Erikson started writing he had this big world already built and established, he only had to cherry pick what to write about. A majority of scenes already existing that only had to be “adapted” on the page. But as the series progresses he relies more on original material, ideas that go directly in the writing. With a fast release pacing for every book he obviously didn’t have time for off-the-book worldbuilding, so what you read in the books becomes almost the totality of the “canon” of this fictional world. It goes all in. If GotM is a slice of a big story/world existing in Erikson’s mind, from DG onward Erikson pours all of his creativity directly on the page, there’s not anymore as much stuff that is left out.

It’s interesting because while Erikson gives up to the idea of continuosly building a world off the page and settles for just the bland illusion of it, instead GRRM, being more of an obsessive perfectionist, never gives up. But at the same time, as already discussed, he had a growing sense of frustration wasting hours of work on world-building off the page, taking away actual work on the book writing itself. And his “solution” was instead of broadening the scope (book 4 onward) to include all that side-material right into the book series. And we know the results. If Malazan gives up on some of that complexity, ASOIAF instead embraces it, and chokes on it. If Malazan “converges”, ASOIAF explodes out and we can argue whether or not Martin will ever be able to draw it all back neatly enough.

No solution is actually “better” than the other, but you can see how one has to deal with the pragmatic troubles of building a really big series.

I’ve been sleeping 3/5 hours a day this week and yesterday I decided to reply on a forum to explain my interpretation of how the magic system in the Malazan world works, especially because it’s one of those aspects where my own frame of mind seems completely different from that of the average reader. And yet I’m not merely speculating because everything I say I see it grounded in those pages. I’ve only dug it out and made it more explicit. And no, making the Malazan magic system explicit doesn’t remove the beauty and mystery as it usually happens when you over analyze these things. It flourishes.

So, two things for me to notice. The first is that somehow the more I’m exhausted the more my brain seems to kick into higher gear. The second is that I wrote this mostly to pin down my own idea for myself and I didn’t expect anyone even to read it, especially on a forum that seems antagonistic to everything I write (my fault), instead I was surprised to see that my enthusiasm for this thing managed to cross over to some other users. Maybe to see the Malazan series in a slightly different light.

I have some comments to write even about the first page(s) of Fall of Light, because it’s another case where what I read in those lines is something that no one seems to have picked up. And yet that one is very obvious…

I would have said the reverse – that Warrens are a clunky DnD type magic system, and that Erikson is too obsessed with the minutiae of how it works to give any meaning to it – worsened by the fact that his explanations are pure gibberish.

The magic system in Malazan is anti-mechanical. It’s strictly the opposite of science. You won’t grasp it if you parse it in a traditional way like a system of fixed rules in a roleplaying game. To explain the core of it I’d have to talk about philosophical concepts like “dualism” and an anthropocentric conception of reality.

The thing is: Malazan “spawns” from Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant (it’s not inspired by it, being completely different, but it’s conceptually hanging from the same branch of the same tree). Thomas Covenant is like a pre-modern version of fantasy, coming from a certain romantic tradition. That means, in the fewest words possible: the fantasy world doesn’t *exist* as external, objective reality as we assume our own world, but it’s just a “projection” of an internal mental or soul state. A mental “landscape” that turns concrete. Tangible objects and creatures you see are not simply tangible objects, but symbols. As it happens within a dream. The fantasy world is essentially like The Matrix, an artificial construction that closes around you. The writer consciously traps himself within this system he himself created, then “seals” the dome with some horizon occlusion.

Malazan moves from there, if you frame it as post-modern. It has a metalinguistic frame, observing the observation. Observing the world as an artificial creation. It’s like Covenant’s world, but moved on, looking at that world not from the inside (as Covenant, trapped within) but from the outside, like a writer, writing, observing himself writing. The main plot is hidden, because it’s a “shadow” of the text. A lot of this is even amusing wordplay, just for “fun” (see Shadowthrone and Pust, or even Lady Envy, or Kruppe a little bit, being conscious of the “meta” and rolling with it, hovering just a tiny bit above rules without completely breaking them). The magic in Malazan doesn’t make sense traditionally because it’s not a traditional mechanic. It’s not “rules of physics with a fantasy bent”. Magic in Malazan is pure meaning. Wherever meaning coalesces, magic becomes real and tangible instead of just an abstraction. Even the sedimentation of a strong emotion of a small community can potentially give birth to a small god (like the Cthulhu thing in book 5). The same as in reality we are driven by powerful symbols and meanings, that give us identity and drive. That construct our lives, creating differentiations as a linguistic system (see constructivism or even some Wittgenstein). Malazan takes this concept and makes it into something tangible instead of purely conceptual.

So, the important aspect to understand magic in Malazan is to observe how it transformed and evolved in the world. You notice how there are “old” gods and new gods. And you notice how the old gods have proprieties that are simply deduced from the societies that produced those gods. Very simple example: if the populations were sedentary or migratory. Essentially: all the gods in Malazan “behave” functionally as real gods in our own world. They are projections of cultural “meaning”. And that’s what you observe in the evolution of society within the Malazan world, the more it becomes “civilized” the more the gods become blurred, more subtle, representing more complex concepts. Gods evolve along the society that gave them birth. That, if you want to stay concrete, means that the relationship between gods and worshipers is circular. Belief shapes gods, gods have influence on believers. They use and are being used (see what Heboric does to Fener). It’s always a system of meaning, and it again comes from a fantasy world that is built as an anthropomorphic creation. A body, that Erikson SHOVES in your face when he tells you magic begins with Krul, who’s a god, who created magic with his own body. Or even with Erikson’s version of “gaia” the earth: Burn. Or the Mhybe, that is the MOST important thing within all Malazan. A woman who becomes a world. It’s only through a body that meaning can be created (witness!). Krul creates differentiations within his body, going from chaos to law. To rules. To systems (or same as the Crippled God has to enter the Deck of Dragons system in order to “play” the game, where “playing the game” is yet another metalinguistic pun, since we’re talking of a card game based on tarots). Exactly like a cultural system, or the evolution of civilization. So, as in Thomas Covenant the “fantasy world” is a body. An anthropomorphic creation. A filter, a lens you use to observe human life, through human life, through the act of writing (and act of reading as a surrogate of it, or, like, parasitic, or like a bird perched on Erikson’s shoulder observing what he’s doing with the hope of understanding some of it).

Like a linguistic system the Malazan magic has a diachronic dimension that is even more important than synchronic aspects: it’s ever-evolving.

That again means this fantasy world is built as human-sized (even when it project human fears or human struggles, that look inhuman, it’s always circular. Same as even the most inhuman species are still kind of human representations anyway). Whereas our own would is (supposedly) built on science. Rules, math. Stuff that is alien to a human dimension, that you can only try to grasp, but that is qualitatively different. (see Heboric flying with the Jade statues in book 4, those statues represent something closer to our world) Something that David Foster Wallace also writes about and defines: “the widening gap between knowledge and experience”.

Or: post-modernity. Trying to come to terms with a world that makes no “sense” anymore.

Bakker writes the same stuff, but from a different angle. So it’s like if it’s complementary and opposite to Malazan.

This is the stuff I like. If you know more of this kind I’d love to hear about it. Sadly I really haven’t found anything that comes close… (well, Evangelion, Donnie Darko, Upstream Color, Battlestar Galactica and LOST, these do certain things on the same line with their mythology, but none do it as well and, MOST OF ALL: *coherently* as Malazan)

And now I have to write about this too.

Books by N.K. Jemisin have been on my radar for a while, then last summer I read a very good review of The Fifth Season and what it said about the book was so interesting that I pre-ordered the book AND also ordered the omnibus of the previous trilogy. I read the first 30-50 pages of this one and liked it. Then, as it always happen, these go into an evergrowing pile of books to read, but I’ll go there sooner than later (relatively) because I’m really interested to read all of it.

Since then I read Jemisin blog and even hyped the book on twitter and forums because of certain things she wrote, because those certain things are *especially* what writers have to write to grab my attention.

I haven’t read it, but this is the one book coming out this year that is without a doubt MUST READ, my sixth sense says.

Jemisin first trilogy as one omnibus was released a few months ago, and I had it on my wishlist for a while, mostly because I remembered some of Larry “Blog of the fallen” reviews. And I finally bought that a month or so ago. Only read 50 or so pages, but it’s good. Good enough to see a writer that is on the right path with enough talent backing it up. I’m reading it with the awareness “it can only get better, and it will”, as an appetizer, because I know of this new trilogy coming out.

Then I read Neth review about this new trilogy, and especially Jemisin own words. There are a few things that can get my attention and make me click on “buy” button very quickly:


I had a despair moment again while writing The Fifth Season. Convinced myself that it was just too strange, too dark, too hard to write, and no one would ever want to read it. I actually called my editor and discussed whether I could just turn the trilogy into a standalone, wash my hands of the whole thing, and go cry in a corner somewhere.

Still, the Broken Earth trilogy is the, hmm, biggest thing I’ve ever written, and the scope of it is forcing me to do some things I’ve never done before.

It’s about wars that have become background noise and secrets with geologically long histories and how people love when they cannot possibly protect the people they love. I’m just saying that the setting makes phenotypical, sociological, human sense as the characters go about their business. At some point someones going to throw a mountain at someone else, and there’s some talking-statue shenanigans, but there will be motherfucking black people in it. And Asian people, and multiracial people, and queer people, and women who are built like brick houses and Mack trucks, and so on. Because I refuse to ever write a fantasy in which magic is believable but human beings aren’t.

And then I read that a part of the book is written in 2nd person, and for a reason.

So, the point is that a writer that was on my radar for a while kicked up the ambition another lever. I only wait for those kinds of things. Something that has ideas, has ambition, takes risks, goes off the beaten path, exploring. The general themes and scope of the book seem amazing, and the reviews I’ve read confirm it’s successful.

I could still read it and then be disappointed, but I doubt it.

I was then glad to see the book was nominated for the Hugo, a prize that really doesn’t say much to me and that I see as par-for-the-course of a certain establishment. But this time, instead, there was a good book. Because of those excellent premises. Even if I still haven’t personally read it, I’ve spent time reading *about* it, and in my experience that’s already enough to frame a book.

I didn’t even know the Hugo winners were going to be announced yesterday and I only found out when I scrolled my twitter. There were more than a few mentions and, since I’ve been following Jemisin too, there were her retweets as well.

I use twitter a great deal to read, but I sporadically write. This time my message was:

#HugoAward predictable as usual. But at least a good novel won. The Sandman, though, was meaningless drivel, a shadow of the former comics

I was quite sure she was going to win (check the date), for a number of reasons. And if you read comments on the forums you can see no one was really surprised she won. Quite often I can look at the list of nominations and guess who’s going to win, without having read their books. It just happens, the Hugo follows its rules. It’s a fact it’s predictable and you can frequently guess who’s going to win by just reading the nomination list. Is pointing this out controversial?

I wrote that comment on twitter, then tried to retweet the news, and my twitter client told me I couldn’t do that. I click on it and find out it was retweeted by Jemisin and I was now blocked to see her profile.

Within five minutes of having written that throwaway comment above, Jemisin decided to *block* my twitter account.

I mentioned this on the forums too and my post was quickly deleted (which annoys me). But IT IS kind of a big deal, and it’s NOT a personal kind of deal.

For me this is a very good sign of how the whole “Rabid Puppies” deal has produced a toxic community. When you poison the waters that poison spreads everywhere. It’s pervasive and indiscriminate. What happened there? I can only guess but there’s only one possibility, Jemisin saw my twitter message because I used that hashtag, interpreted my “predictable as usual” as an accusation the ballot was piloted (which was NOT my intention), so imagined I was one of the Puppies (and I’m really not, this should be very obvious too), and proceeded to block my account.

So there’s this new culture of SUSPICION that is bred from a community going toxic. I was caught in friendly fire.

It’s not a big deal that she blocked my account. I’m annoyed because I followed her for a reason. I want to read about updates, and not being able to see them on twitter is a problem, even if a small one. But it’s a big deal because it’s a sign of how these movements and counter-movements, of a fanbase taking sides to fight an entirely pointless war, is just the wrong way to deal with the whole thing. It just makes everything worse, for EVERYONE. And even if you happen to fight on the “good” side, this fight still brings the worst out of you.

Are you friend or foe? Show me your banner.

People align themselves to a group, to obtain sympathy, to be accepted, to reinforce a sense of identity, to close ranks. To establish social links. And we keep around ourselves only those like-minded, so that we never have to confront ourselves with a side we consider hostile. This is the automatic pilot of the human being. It sucks.

Congratulations. It seems in the heat of the moment you still had enough time to read my twitter message and block me for no reason at all.

P.S.
Since the blog sends trackbacks and she’s very obviously manually pruning them, it means she didn’t block me as a mistake, but did it deliberately. So I’m just left wondering what I did to earn this hostility.

Update:
I now notice that in the comments to Jemisin blog someone complained about a similar issue. It looks like me, but not me. I actually considered writing a message on her blog but decided it was better not.

Her reply:

I have a series of auto-blockers in place with currently over 100,000 people blocked. That’s been necessary given the amount of Gamergate- and white supremacist-related online harassment I experience. The auto-blockers also screen out people who could potentially be harassers — new accounts, those with fewer than 15 followers, some other factors. Trust me, it wasn’t personal.

If you tell me your Twitter handle, I can unblock you, as long as you don’t look like a Gger or bigot. :)

Though I wonder what ultimate AI the auto-blockers employ since my message above didn’t contain Jemisin name, nor the book title (nor my account is subject to those factors she lists).

I finished reading this after more than A YEAR, but that’s what happens when I read way too many books in parallel, drop them for a few months to pick them up later.

Here I only wanted to comment a particular aspect of how the series got a bit off the rails, accordingly to most(?) fans. For sure something went wrong since Martin didn’t release the following book for many years, and when he did he promised the next would be out within one year… when it didn’t come out for another six. This triggered a lot of discussions about readers’ “entitlement”, but it’s pretty obvious something went wrong regardless of what readers think.

Keeping my own glacial pace I now finished this third book, the one that the fans loved the most. For me the first has been the best book by a good margin, the second one was good but not as good, and when I started reading this third I felt quite underwhelmed. There are very good chapters even in this third book, especially Sansa, Jaime and Tyrion (in this order), but in general I couldn’t understand what in this book was supposed to push it well above the previous two. This continued up to page 700 or so (1100 total in the paperback I read).

There’s not a big convergence in the book, or a single turning point, but I agree the last 400 pages are in a different category. Instead of reaching some overall plot culmination what happens is that every major PoV reaches a turning point in its own self-contained story (there are repercussions from one to the other, but often it happens indirectly). What Martin did was about aligning these story-lines that, even if kept well separated and following their own trajectories, they all reach the highest tension is a rather quick succession. So these last 400 pages are intense because of the speed the plot picks up, because there are so many deaths, and because they are really well organized as a whole, without feeling jammed forcefully. The story has a very different intensity compared to the first half of the book.

But one aspect I noticed is that this is different from simply reaching some culmination of a plot as you would expect. This isn’t merely a good book ending, the function is different, and I think it’s this function that has then created the problems the series has with book 4 & 5. These parallel stories reach their culmination, often with well executed (if a bit trite) plot twists, but in particular to “reposition” all the major characters. I mean it’s not a plot trajectory, it’s about set-up a brand new state. In fact some of these end-of-book set-ups (what comes after the respective plot twists) are even quite bad, bordering fanfiction (because they are a bit too forced and mostly fanservice, see Jon’s “election”).

What happens is completely different from the good finales and plot twists you see at the end of book 1 and 2, that’s what I mean. The first two books have their own satisfying culminations but it was just that. In this case instead book 3 almost wipes the board clean because these major characters all end up in a novel position. It’s no more a journey, it’s a definite new beginning. Less about what is left behind and more about the blank, undiscovered state ahead. The same story continues, of course, but all the premises have been changed, all these characters have been uprooted from their familiar places and roles, and each pushed into a totally new context. Also in the other two books this was the most relevant (and effective) plot mechanic: the balance and familiarity is radically upset. But this time there are less immediate concerns and dangers, it’s not a twist that sends characters directly into action same as every previous book finale was setting up the stage for the next. This time the blank state is dominant across all the story-lines, all of them being expertly juggled to reach this coordination.

What I observed in this third book finale matches what I read about Martin’s original plan. That was about creating a few years gap, after book three, so that the story would continue with characters starting well into their new lives. It seems evident that this is how the ending of book 3 was written. The new set-ups are so radical that the attention of the reader is not on the immediate tomorrow. It’s a starting point meant to eventually build up to a different context, and that was where the fourth book was meant to pick up.

I imagine Martin went on with that plan but, because of what it required, it’s not like he could publish the third book and then start writing the next as he would usually do. He needed to painstakingly track what happened in those “hidden” years between the books. Martin said this himself, he said he figured that the amount of work plotting those years wouldn’t be that different from the amount of work actually showing them in a book. Again, I imagined he tried sticking to his plan, but all the added work to set up the new world must have meant he made little actual progress in the book writing. I imagined that months passed and he grew frustrated and at some point he gave up. He might have felt as if he needed to actually produce those pages that would go into the book itself, rather than just “worldbuilding” the hidden gap. That gap of the plot turned into a necessary gap in the production. Taking too long not being able to resume writing because he was still assembling the pieces needed. He probably got anxious about that and might have felt like he needed something to get back on track.

How do you get back on track? By going back to what you always did. I’m just imagining how things might have gone, it’s just speculation, but I think that after having struggled to write the story between the books he eventually gave up because it required way too much work. He felt the pressure of writing the book itself, and in the end the only immediate solution was to fall back to what he always did. That meant that he had to scrap the jump forward in the story and follow through with the events right after book three.

That’s my interpretation of “what went wrong”. I think that it was Martin’s own self-consciousness about taking too long that paradoxically made things worse. He felt he needed to start writing new pages, but that required building what happened in the gap, so he had to remove the gap to minimize all that work, but that consequently presented its own issues, as the plot would need to be wrestled and adapted to the new plan. The story was not structured this way, and even if some readers think Martin eventually did an excellent job, it’s still likely far from ideal. This type of mid-series re-planning might work if you can go back and adapt the whole thing, but it’s obvious to me that the third book was written for a different goal, and that going in a completely new direction still exacts a not irrelevant toll on the whole.

I imagine it as a self-feeding anxiety that made Martin sacrifice his initial plan to fix the problems he had in writing what came next, but in the end this didn’t actually help because the following two books still took a very long time, and still upset that balance in the original plan.

At first he stuck to the plan following the way, he got anxious because it was taking a too long time, so he decided to take a shortcut, only to realize the shortcut made things even worse. It’s probably the pressure he felt that was the primary cause of the delays.

We, the fans, messed it up. (Indirectly, for the most part, of course.)

Out there there might be an alternative timeline where Martin stuck to the original plan. It is likely that that version has an edge over what we got/will get.

(The removal of the timeline gap was done to deal with the tribulations that came up while writing the fourth book, meant as a solution and a fix, but it also messes up with the way book three itself is written, because book three explicitly builds toward that timeline gap. It requires it. It’s not just what comes after that is upset, but also what comes before.)

THIS IS NOT A REVIEW.

A while ago I read on twitter that this book won the Man Booker International Prize. So, as usual, I check what kind of book it is, what it is about, and the first thing I notice is that it’s REALLY short. 192 pages. Actual wordcount is 51k, meaning 130 pages in a standard format, barely qualifying as a “novel”.

On the Amazon page this book has the longest list of cover blurbs I’ve seen, all singing high praises. What was hinted about the content was also quite intriguing. The idea of metamorphosis seen as an act of rebellion. And besides, this could be a test. A “literary”, prestigious book prize given to a 130 pages book. That means EVERY LINE must be pure literary bliss. If a book is so short and the praises sung so high, then it must be dense and packed with pure awesomeness.

This is not a review because I did not read the whole book. I was only interested in cracking the code. See what it was all about. I started reading the beginning, some 30-40 pages. Then I jumped to the end and read about as much to see where it was going. That legitimated me just to write some snark on the forums: “It has the longest list of cover blurbs in history, I guess that’s because being so short it feels like free money for minimal work.”

I then produced some actual quotes to show what a book that has to be a masterpiece line by line looks like:

“Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.”

“the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis”

“The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra.”

“Her voice as it sounded over the phone, always somehow more distinct than in person, never failed to send me into a state of sexual arousal”

“Well, I was in a dream, and I was standing on my head … leaves were growing from my body, and roots were sprouting from my hands … so I dug down into the earth. On and on … I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide … ”

“Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay.”

“She was standing, motionless, in front of the fridge. The potential options all filled me with fear.”

It reads like parody to me. The fact it won the prize, and the literary establishment loves it must mean something. I do believe that part of it is BECAUSE the book is so short. There’s something. There’s a “low hanging fruit” paradigm to it, but it turns out it’s not just about size. It’s about titillating some “themes” and a certain sense of identity. It must be serviceable.

That was enough for me, but then weeks later I saw the book being discussed on SomethingAwful forums and I used the occasion to be the voice outside the chorus, deliberately against the grain, criticizing without any subtlety. Because I wanted to actually engage in a discussion with someone who loved and understood the depth, see the opposite angle. At the same time I was also going to observe myself with a critical eye, but without interfering with the “act”. I’d play the antagonizing voice. See if it was all pretense. All a game of taking sides.

I’m not going to comment on these further observations, only mention that I’m aware of all of it.


I skim read it and found the writing dreadful, characterization fake and inch-deep, and actual plot trite and mystified without a single idea that’s worth something.

And the revelation at the end of the book? Are you kidding me?

I’m convinced this book won a prize because it’s so short that they rewarded it because no one wants to work hard anymore. Paid reviewers LOVE this because you can read it in a couple of hours and it feels like FREE MONEY. It’s just a pretense of a book. An imitation of good writing and good plot. And then people love it because they love what some institution tells them to love. The book won a prize, so it must be GREAT.

If you think The Vegetarian is about mystery and mystification perhaps you should not skim read it and actually read it.

It wants to imitate that dreamlike, introspective and symbolic atmosphere. I only think it’s dreadful for what it achieves. Symbols are powerful because of what they hide. But being the actual deal here inch-deep, it’s all fluff and mystification. Japanese horror B-movies have more creativity and depth.

The title is of course misleading. It’s not about vegetarianism in ANY way, it’s not even technically correct because she starts already as more like “vegan”. But if they titled the book The Vegan then it would have been even more misleading.

So, it’s just about a very subjective mental illness. The book does a poor job with it. The motivations are fluff. It doesn’t play realistically, and the dreamlike effect is lost because the depth just isn’t there, it’s only imitation of what a million of other books do better.

There are reviewers that TRY to lift it up as a kind of metaphor of Korean culture and society. None of them explain how you could reconcile that theory with a story of very subjective mental illness that has absolutely no point of possible generalization.

It’s a sad story written with the purpose to shock, without ever earning it.

Its a commentary on the nature of how human interaction is always in someway based on consumption and exploitation, and how Korean culture is particularly built around women being consumed for the benefit of men. There is an overwhelming feminist perspective in this book you seem to be completely glazing over.

It’s a disservice to feminism. It’s exploitative. It’s hubris. It’s just a representative act. A show with no actual meaning because, as I said, it’s just imitation of an idea the writer thought would get the attention (as I suspect was the purpose of that title). I only find that manipulative in a bad, unsubtle way. It has an agenda and it’s poorly written. Those you cite as important themes are only gross generalizations. The book is unable to earnestly engage with anything.

What surprises me is that very often you find these big prizes to books that are all form and no content. That happens. But this is a special case where the form itself, the writing line by line, is itself so plain and poor. It’s explicitly bad, it’s not like you need to have a sophisticated literary sense to notice.

And it’s impossible EVEN to engage with the characters on a personal level. The woman not only is mentally ill, but she’s completely unaware of everything around her. So whereas if you were mentally ill you’d notice how people react around you, you’d be self conscious, struggle to blend in and fail (and this could be an interesting and worthwhile story to tell). But this woman doesn’t give a damn. She’s ostensibly weird around people, she makes a deliberate exhibition of it. She’s completely, utterly self-absorbed and without a trace of empathy. She’s essentially not-human, because of how cold she is to everything that surrounds her. But then the book EXPLOITS this by making everyone else around her even more implausibly WORSE. So you’d expect the “sane” people to act differently, but nope. Her husband is a piece of shit who has even less empathy and not a single redeeming quality.

That’s exploitative. It’s a carefully picked selection of the worst human beings with the sole purpose to put the protagonist under an excess of negativity, just to justify what happens to her “internally”.

But I don’t want to offend anyone tastes. I explained the motivations why I think this is dreadful. It’s not just a generalization on my part for a book “I didn’t like”. That’s a subjective, legitimate reaction. But I do think this book is objectively terrible. Those are some of the reasons, so you can make your own mind.

I’m not going to try to persuade people that this book is bad. If you like it, all the better.

P.S.
“consumption and exploitation of women for the benefit of men” as a KOREAN culture thing? REALLY?! More like an universal human thing in the last thousands of years. So she played a game on the “metaphor”, consumption = eating. “I don’t like consumption of women, so I stop eating.” Whoa! Booker Prize! This is exactly what I mean with “inch-deep”.

because the idealized Korean woman is one who is subdued and complicit in her own abuse.

Yes, I agree with that.

how she was “ideal” to her husband in her total passivity

Yep, the husband being a blatantly piece of shit, and the protagonist made into a convenient symbol. That’s what I call exploitative. The characters are just embodied concepts without any realism and respect.

how a single act of generally meaningless rebellion becomes catastrophic.

But it wasn’t *meaningless* rebellion. It’s self-inflicted pain. That’s why the title is ridiculous. It’s not like she decided to eat “healthily” and started to do something in a different way. The catastrophe is self-inflicted with minimal impact about what happens around herself. It’s more like “doom” and destiny than cause-consequence. Is suicide “meaningless rebellion”?

She’s essentially into self-harm. Being “vegetarian” is utterly misleading unless there’s really someone out there who consider being vegetarian as an act of self-harm. Is self-harm an act of rebellion? I guess it is when recovery is entirely out of the picture. And of course it’s catastrophic, the concept starts that way regardless of what’s around her. She’s trying to kill herself, but of course people around her are so bad that certainly they don’t help.

It’s a legitimately sad story used in an illegitimate exploitative way.

The total point of her passivity is to show the willingness of men to use women for themselves. If she was a more engaged character, not only would the only intellectual base of the plot dissolve, but she would not even be an effective reflection of societal expectations on women.

I still consider this exploitative, convenient (for the book theme) and quite useless as an insightful and meaningful description of society.

And it’s just a tragedy set in motion and described (and made into universal symbol), then you might as well read in a newspaper and don’t need the transformative art of fiction and a novel to do that.

a focused meditation on the predatory nature of human relationships.

On one side I considered those relationships utterly implausible, so neither the relationships nor the characters can work for me that way. It’s a twisted, convenient representation, to my eyes.

Yep, I don’t think human relationships work that way, given this context of the story. Even if you take that, it’s superficial. I don’t know how to better say it than repeating endlessly it’s exploitative.

I do see what you mean, and you do see what I mean. The difference is the angle the writer forced on the story is utterly dishonest and artificial to me, so why it turns into that story into the one I described. She wants those themes, but because the characters are so artificial it all falls apart. We interpret things differently because that angle rings false for me.

You buy into that concept and its use, I don’t.

I don’t see how the characters are implausible to you. In a patriarchal society aren’t men given the expectation that their worth can be measured by the woman they claim? In that same society aren’t fathers measured by the suitability of their daughters? Aren’t mothers measured by their dedication to their children? Aren’t wives measured by their submission to their husbands?

Plenty of marriages have ended because they became socially inconvenient for one of the partners. Plenty of men have cheated on their wives while sexually and emotionally exploiting their mistresses. Does this make these people monstrous? Probably. Does it make them implausibly monstrous? Not at all.

Yeah, let’s hammer themes into things. You certainly don’t want to use a tiny brush.

So yes, I see those things. I don’t see the hammer as the best tool to represent them.

What particularly about the husband or the brother-in-law comes off as inauthentic to you?

The brother-in-law I can’t comment because I skipped that almost entirely. The rest, also because this book is so thin, events proceed like following this one directional convenient thread. So there’s no depth also because there’s no space. The husband isn’t even in a “relationship”, they are just there as strangers because the writer put them there. Very good writers in so little space would give at least the illusion of a relationship. She doesn’t manage that.

But hey, this husband is so perceptive that he always thought his wife was alright before “turning vegetarian”. The premise already falls apart.

#####
That was the forum conversation. I didn’t want to derail it further.

One aspect I did not comment, not knowing if it was allowed or not to openly discuss the ending, is what I took as the final “revelation”. And it’s something that I see in light of other comments down that forum thread:

Being vegetarian can often be viewed as a rejection of a patriachal society.

My reaction -> “?!”

On one side you have the personal story of this woman and how the people around her react to her metamorphosis (however you interpret it), on the other is the leap of faith of pinning this scene to its universal dimension: “a challenging vision of patriarchy”, “some really complex ideas around feminism”, ” the predatory nature of male and female relations”.

The final revelation of the book is that the woman was abused by her father when she was a kid. This is where it really falls apart for me. It’s a sad book and a sad story and that’s all of it. I cannot read any universal dimension into it because I see the cause so horribly specific. It’s a pure, specific act of violence. That’s something I hinted in my comments above. Writing a novel is a process of transformation and of creation. It’s not just a report. Especially a book that takes that dreamlike angle and wants to elevate it, it needs to feed the metaphor ALIVE. Not kill it. Run with it, not stop it dead.

For me this story has no redeeming quality. I interpret it differently. That poor woman was caged, but not by society outside herself, or horrible people around her. She starts with her cage, feeds it, makes it stronger. If left alone she’d have withered anyway. She is a woman who needs help and she isn’t in any way autonomous to fight her battle about institutions that demand her to behave differently. She hurts herself, first and foremost, even if left alone. Even if her “strange behavior” had been respected. All due to the fact she’s a victim of abuse and can’t see a light out of it. How do you respond to this?

A woman that is seen as broken when autonomous. Because that’s how I take the message of the book: she’s a victim of herself. She can’t function, not as a function of a bigger system, but for herself. Her act of rebellion is against herself. An inability to find herself, recover an identity, tear apart the instrumentality to put together again the broken pieces. Reemerge as a woman instead of a tool and symbol. People around her try to help, but because they are horrible people they only manage to give her another shove. It’s a story of failure where the protagonist is not responsible of that failure, but can only see it passively to its end. Powerless. So is this feminism, really? The fetishization of a broken woman in order to exculpate and cleanse a certain literary establishment that sees itself as better than its peers and so able to separate itself from this harsh judgement?

Fake tears shed for a character turned into a convenient tool.

That a character can be exploited in such a way to turn it into some mythical symbol wielded as a nonspecific protest against society is something that has RITUAL vibes. It’s a human sacrifice. A woman had to be tortured and killed so that we grow more complacent and nothing changes.

The fact that this book KILLS its character to exploit it, a woman with no agency beside hurting herself, actualizes and perpetuates its own crime. It’s not “feminism”, it’s a ghoulish parody the same as Fifty Shades of Grey parodies kinky romance.

(and, what the fuck, Erikson’s Mhybe. Yeah. A woman everyone sees as a tool, shoved down an unavoidable path. A broken woman creates a WORLD. That’s writing as a transformative act.)