A landing spot for reviews of interesting books, films, and objects what cross my path
as well as the occasional essay on whatever's pinging the old brain pan.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Book Review: The Mirage, Matt Ruff

The Mirage begins in a world related to ours but very different. The United Arab States (UAS) is the dominate superpower in the world, and North America is divided into several nations, including The Evangelical Republic of Texas, the Rocky Mountain Independent Territories, and the Christian States of America (CSA). Israel is in Central Europe. The Gulf War was fought in the Gulf of Mexico. And on November 9, 2001, Christian fundamentalists hijacked four commercial airliners and flew two of the them into the Tigris and Euphrates World Trade Towers in Baghdad, Iraq, touching off a War on Terror which saw UAS troops invade North America, capturing the city of Denver (where the World Christian Alliance, the group claiming responsibility for 11/9, was believed to have a base) and eventually establishing a provisional government in Washington, D.C.

The novel follows Mustafa, Amal, and Samir, agents for UAS Homeland Security, as they combat terrorism in Baghdad. They keep running across references to and seeming artifacts from a "mirage world" where a North American country called The United States of America is the dominate superpower who was attacked by Muslim terrorists on 9/11/2001. At first they dismiss that world and its artifacts as Christian legend and hoax, but as time and their investigations progress, they begin to think the mirage world may be the real world.

The Mirage is set up as a thoughtful thriller, and the first half of the book, where Ruff does most of his world-building in his alternate world and all of his set-up for the mystery part of the story, is clever and compelling. But the novel falls off in the back half, when the cause of the mirage is revealed (it is in keeping with the logic of the world Ruff has built, but is somehow anti-climactic) and Mustafa, Amal, and Samir attempt to stop organized crime lord Saddam Hussein from reversing the mirage (he believes that he will be a powerful king in the "real world").

I was hoping that The Mirage would offer insight into 9/11 by making it and its context just strange enough to see clearly. And it does do a fairly effective job of making an American, Christian reader "other" to herself by aligning the narrative's sympathies with those who some Americans consciously or unconsciously make "other" themselves. But as the novel goes on, the alternate reality Ruff has built begins to feel a little cardboard, a little too clever--and in ways which are not serving the story. One begins to question the pat "flip" of our world to this alternate world, one begins to long for an in-depth exploration of how the world got to have this "mirage" configuration. Clever parallels become annoying, begin to beg for further insight. Why, for instance, should there be a Law and Order: Halal in this world? Would the progression of popular culture, the reaction to and anticipation of popular taste, interest, and opinion in a UAS really so closely mirror that of the USA we know so as to develop the same television program? In other words, why should a superpower centered in the Arab world look anything at all like a superpower centered in North America?

The answer has to do with getting this story on the page, not with any careful consideration of another culture. (If the worlds did not parallel one another, Ruff's two realities would not be close enough to one another for Mustafa and others to begin to believe in the other, "real" world. And to be fair, the explanation for the creation of the mirage does address (though indirectly) why a UAS would parallel a USA in any way.) But if one can accept the parameters under which The Mirage operates, the novel does offer a striking glimpse of the USA from outside. Perhaps the best way to approach The Mirage is to think of it as akin to an animal fable, where, instead of human foibles being made clear to human readers by giving those foibles to animals, American foibles are made clear to American readers by presenting them from a different point of view. Perhaps The Mirage works best if one thinks of it as a book which asks not "What's up with the Middle East?" but rather "What's up with America?"

A fascinating book, if an unsatisfying one. It's biggest success may be in existing, in daring (and I do mean "daring") to suggest to the American public, even if only in fiction, that the Arab world may be the injured party in our world and that what we had best look at is ourselves. And I thank Matt Ruff for writing it, even if, as a story, it doesn't really work.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Book Review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesey

(For the most part, if you know the plot of Jane Eyre, you know the plot of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, but I get a bit spoilery in my fourth paragraph for events specific to Gemma Hardy.  The whole review will completely spoil Jane Eyre for you if you do not know it.)

I'm afraid that this retelling of Jane Eyre just doesn't quite work.  Livesey's sentence-level writing is clean and impressive, and she has a knack for writing the kind of crisp prose that can effortlessly pull a reader along. And taken alone, Gemma's story serves as a decent character study.  The problem is that Gemma's story cannot be taken alone.  This is Jane Eyre, moved to Scotland in the 50s and 60s, and given some minor make-overs to make the plot plausible in the mid-twentieth century (Gemma's employer with whom she falls in love has a secret, but it does not involve a mad women stashed away in an attic--who would believe such a thing of a businessman in the late sixties?  Or if one did believe it, the whole thing could not help but be a great deal more inescapably, irrevocably dark and sinister.)  But transplanted to a world that is familiar to the modern reader, much of the plot of Jane Eyre becomes incredible.  It is hard to imagine an aunt suddenly treating her niece as less than a servant among automobiles, telephones, jumpers, and boyhood dreams of playing soccer for England.  It is difficult to see how a school could treat its pupils so poorly in days so close to our own.  It is entirely possible that such things might have happened in this setting (the nineteenth century did not have a monopoly on cruelty, after all), but fiction does not hinge on what might be possible in the real world, but on what has been made to seem possible on the page.  And Livesey fails to overcome her source material in making these Gothic-infused plot elements seem possible in the pages of her fictional world. 

Jane's transition to Gemma encounters other obstacles as well.  Mr Sinclair, the employer with whom Gemma falls in love, contains none of the mysteriousness of Mr Rochester, none of the sense of danger and intrigue wrapped up in enigmatic moods and veiled personal history.  Blackbird Hall and the Orkney islands do not ooze with atmosphere and gloom as Thornfield Hall and the moors do.  Mr Sinclair's secret is not terribly damning, and while it is believable that its revelation would make Gemma think twice about marrying him, her flight from him comes over as foolish and over-dramatic; Jane's flight from Mr Rochester and his attempt to commit bigamy through deceit (and the subsequent effect Jane may well have thought this would have on her soul) seems almost rational in comparison.  This difficulty with suspension of disbelief is not helped by the fact that Gemma and Sinclair's love for one another reads like a result of the novel's paralleling Jane Eyre rather than a natural development springing from these characters themselves.

In fact, much of The Flight of Gemma Hardy appears to exist because it must do so in order to stay true to the source to which it is indebted.  Reading the novel was a bit like going down a Jane Eyre plot point checklist.  Confrontation with bratty older cousin? Check.  Locked in a frightening room?  Check.  Sent off to a miserable boarding school?  Check.  Make friends with a doomed pupil?  Check.  Get job teaching the ward of a rich, absentee landowner?  Check.  Unwittingly help employer on the road when he returns unexpectedly?  Check.  And so on.  While Livesey does infuse her telling with new elements, while she does, in many ways, make the story her own, her changes and updates to the tale often feel uninspired; they rarely made me think about Jane Eyre in new ways or provided much insight into how the story of a girl growing up with this particular set of disadvantages changed in one hundred years.  I thought for a while that perhaps that sense of things not having changed much was the point of the novel, but if so the illustration of that fact falls flat.  Having dismissed that notion, I considered the possibility that the novel was meant to illustrate how Jane Eyre, when looked at from a distance, becomes rather silly, how it might have seemed so to its contemporary readers, just as some of its plot elements seem unbelievable when placed in a (roughly) contemporary setting today.  But, no, the book does not suggest to me, in its unfolding, in it careful retracing of the plot of Jane Eyre, any sort of critique of the original novel. 

Except, perhaps, in the end.  Finally, finally, in the last fifty-or-so pages, The Flight of Gemma Hardy departs from its strict adherence to the plot of Jane Eyre.  Upon discovering that she may have family on her father's side still living, and in the aftermath of refusing a perhaps practical but certainly passionless proposal of marriage, Gemma (unlike Jane) goes in search of that family.  And here are some of my favorite parts of the book.  Gemma finds living relatives in Iceland and learns (as Jane does not), a fair amount about her childhood before coming to live with her aunt and uncle, about her family, about, as a result, herself.  And Mr Sinclair comes to find her, rather than her going back to him.  And they do not get married (though there's a strong intimation that they will, once Gemma comes to understand herself a little better).  This is the sort of thing I was hoping the whole book would do--put a spin on the familiar story, show how Jane Eyre would be if she'd been born in the aftermath of World War II.  And in some ways I suppose it does do that, but I never really felt that the novel was fully reimagining the original story.       

I did so want to love The Flight of Gemma HardyJane Eyre is one of my favorite novels, and I thought a retelling of it had a lot of potential.  Unfortunately, Livesey doesn't quite tap into that potential--I spent much of the novel wishing she (or someone) had reimagined Jane Eyre in its original setting, taking up the story from some crucial point in the original narrative and exploring what might have happened if Jane had made different choices.  Alas.  But I do give mad props to Livesey for trying, and on the strength of her prose, I will be looking out for some of her previous novels.

This review originally appeared on my LibraryThing account.