At first I thought that The Shape of Darkness was going to be a spoof of Gothic novels. The dialogues were corny, the two main characters are exceedingly frail, and the ‘murder mystery’ storyline struck me as somewhat theatrical (or perhaps I should say more suited to a film than a book). But I was willing to read on, thinking that these exaggerations were intentional and that Laura Purcell was lampooning Victorian ghost stories…but the more I read the more the narrative seemed to try to impress upon me that it was telling a ‘serious’ story. Having now finished this novel I can safely say that it was very clichéd and unimaginative, the setting of Bath is barely rendered, the two main characters sound like the same person, and the big ‘twist’ was extremely predictable (I mean, I can think of two films—one in 1999 and one in 2001—that have a similar reveal). Also, The Shape of Darkness is yet another book that proves my least likely person is the culprit theory. Anyhow, Agnes seems to believe that she is being targeted after the very first death. Which is…okay. The plot must go on I guess.
Anyway, the story starts with Agnes a silhouette artist. She has yet to fully recover from an illness that struck her a few years prior the start of the novel. She lives in a nondescript house with her orphaned nephew and her elderly mother. Her past is ‘mysterious’ and she’s clearly suffered more than on heartbreak. Her only friend happens to be a doctor who was married to her now deceased evil sister. Her few customers start turning up dead and Agnes worries that someone is after her. Pearl is a medium who also happens to have an evil sister who forces to host seances. Pearl believes in the ghosts and there are scenes that seem to point to ‘otherworldly’ presences. Pearl is also, like Agnes, kind of sickly. The two characters in fact sound very much like the same person. They lack interiority and are mostly defined by how ‘frail’ and vulnerable they are. For quite awhile I thought that they were more or less the same age but I was surprised to discover that Pearl was 11 and Agnes in her 40s (yet they both sound like teenagers).
Agnes and Pearl end up ‘finding’ one another and Agnes convinces Pearl to help her contact her now deceased customers. We have two or three scenes in which Agnes is actually doing her job and we see Pearl doing two seances at the very beginning but after the 40% mark the narrative no longer focuses on these things.
The story takes a quite a few leaps in logic, there are a few too many convenient coincidences, the plot is dull, the characters uninspired. Although the story is set in Bath there are only a couple descriptions—a few sentences really—describing the city’s architecture. Agnes shows a surprising lack of awareness towards her norms of her time and there were a few inconsistencies. For example, a couple of pages after we are told that Agnes’ hands are swollen (possibly due to a combination of arthritis and chilblains) she does a silhouette for a customer. This requires her to use her fingers and I guarantee you that if her hands had truly been as the ‘swollen lumps’ we were told they were, she would not be able to move them very much, let alone being able to doe painstakingly controlled movements with her fingers. Instead we don’t even get a mention of her hands and fingers during this scene (we could have been told how difficult and painful it was to be using her hands when they were so swollen).
The story tries to be somewhat serious or creepy and yes, descriptions of Pearl’s father—who’s phossy jaw is rotting away—were not pleasant. But the narrative’s ‘supernatural’ undertones and ‘murder mystery’ storyline were bland and galaxies away from being remotely scary (or even atmospheric).
Here are a few examples of why I did not like the author’s writing: ‘But it cannot be, not after all of these years’, ‘her heart flutters its wings inside her chest’, the idea fills her with a sweet glow, ‘in her face are those simmering, witchy eyes’, ‘her slender trunk’ (this to describe a woman’s figure), ‘frightened whispers of her own conscience’.
Towards the end the story becomes so dramatic as to be frankly risible. There were a few scenes that were meant to inspire suspense or whatnot but they way they go down would have suited more a B movie. If you liked it, fair enough, but I for one am glad I did not have to pay for my copy (the ‘perks’ of being on NetGalley).
On paper A Lover’s Discourse is the type of book that I generally like: we have an unmanned who recounts her relationship to her unmanned ‘lover’—a man she addresses as ‘you’. Our narrator met ‘you’ after moving from China to Britain in 2016. Recently orphaned and feeling somewhat alienated by her new environment the protagonist of A Lover’s Discourse enters into a relationship with a German-Australian man. They begin living together in a houseboat, but while ‘you’ finds freedom in this kind of ‘unmoored’ lifestyle, our narrator would much rather live in an actual house or apartment. While ‘you’ earns money as a landscaper, our protagonist works on her PhD.
The structure of this novel is what initially caught my attention. The narrative is comprised of a series of dialogues in which the protagonist and her partner discuss an array of subjects: British-related issues, love, sex, nationality, identity, landscaping, architecture…sadly their conversations aren’t particularly deep or compelling. Maybe I write this because I found both characters to be different shades of obnoxious: our mc isn’t particularly passionate or interested in anything. While I should have found her efforts to understand British customs and culture, as well as trying to master the English language, to be relatable, given that I am in a similar position, I disliked profoundly the way she was portrayed. She was acerbic nag. She makes generalisation after generalisation about other countries, her own country, and about men. Not only does she repeatedly use the word ‘peasants’ to refer to the residents of her hometown, but her tone, when using this word, left a lot to be desired. She comes out with obsolete comments that make me question why she would ever want to be in a relationship, especially with man, given that she considers sex to be a violent and invasive act that she doesn’t enjoy. Her navel-gazing was far from thought-provoking. She laments her boyfriend having to work, seeming to forget that he is their sole provider as she’s busy completing this PhD she doesn’t even particularly care for (she kind of forgets about her studies once she starts her relationship with ‘you’). Her PhD actually sounded quite interesting, and I wish that it had played more of a role in the narrative. ‘You’ is a condescending man who is kind of dull. He ‘explains’ things to our narrator, and he does so in an exceedingly donnish way. Attempts are made to connect their ‘discourse’ to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and I wonder…why? These two characters didn’t strike me as the types who would care about Barthes’s writings. Bland, uninspired, and repetitive, A Lover’s Discourse was a deeply disappointing read. Thankfully it was a relatively slim book.
Well…that was disappointing. Given the hype around this collection and the comparisons to Shirley Jackson, I was prepared to read some truly unsettling tales. However, as with a lot of other contemporary authors of horror, Mariana Enríquez relies on body horror, gore, and animal violence to instil feelings of unease in her readers…and while her stories are certainly macabre, I wouldn’t call them gothic. The horror too was too splatter for me. Writing about bodily fluids, decomposing or mutilated bodies, doesn’t necessarily make your story scary. While reading these rather samey stories I merely felt a knee-jerk repulsion. Most stories are narrated by morbid and unsatisfied young women who are experience, or have experienced, something truly horrific: they loose childhood friends to haunted houses, they start seeing disturbing things such as chained “deformed” children, or they loose themselves in violent fantasies. They had more or less the same grunge-esque personality and or were aspiring to become part of their country’s counter-culture. I found their voices to be monotonous and, given all their attempts at subversiveness, surprisingly banal.
What frustrated me the most was the fact that not one of the story had a decent ending. I’m all for open endings, and I think that short stories suit ambiguous endings…but here the stories never reached their apex. Each story would have these ominous first few lines, foreshadowing the horrors to come…but then the stories seemed to cut off just when things start to get vaguely intriguing or disturbing.
Lastly, a lot of the stories relied on the appearance of “deformed” children or adults in order to unnerve its main characters…are we in the 1980s? Call me snowflake or whatever but I found the author’s obsession with deformed bodies to be rather outdated.
I should have ended things with this book as soon as I grew irritated by our narrator’s navel-gazing. But, I persevered, hoping against hope that at some point, ideally before reaching the book’s finish line, I would find what I was reading to be even remotely intriguing.
At the beginning we have a young woman who is in a car with her relatively new boyfriend. She’s thinking of ending things—by ‘things’ we are led to assume that she’s referring to said relationship with bf—and in doing so she finds herself looking back on her first meeting with Jake. Flashbacks inform us of the kind of person Jake is, their early days together, and their overall ‘dynamic’. Our protagonist—who is so remarkable that I have forgotten her name and I am too lazy to look it up—likes Jake but sometimes she doesn’t. The thoughts that pass through her head are just like ours: she’s worried about sharing her life with him, of having to commit herself to this one person, of being stuck with someone who has quirks that annoy her…as she’s weighing the pros and cons of her relationship with Jake he keeps driving. Their destination is his parents’ place. She pities him for not knowing that she’s thinking of ending things while seeming to want to take things to the next ‘level’. She inundates him with questions, and sometimes he seems weirdly unresponsive. Relationship dilemma aside, weighing on her mind is the Caller. This person keeps calling her during the night, leaving sinister messages. What truly rattles our MC is that this person is calling from her own number (cue creepy music). When this couple finally reachers Jake’s parents’ farm, things get ‘spookier’. The parents are odd, the house is ominous, and Jake is acting strange. MC doesn’t mind her business or the warnings that are thrown her way. She goes where she shouldn’t, listens in to other people’s conversations. Mystery Caller keeps calling. MC tells us she’s anxious about the whole situation yet she doesn’t even bother switching off her phone. We then have a scene in a Dairy Queen, followed by a drawn-out sequence in a high school, and, at long last, an exceedingly unsatisfying end.
The protagonist’s narration is occasionally interrupted by segments focusing on people gossiping about some violently horrific crime. Readers are meant to wonder or care who is the person these people are discussing, what they did, how they are connected to Jake and GF.
As you can tell by the tone of my review, I was not very taken by this novel. The car-drive was boring. Here we have two people having a very ‘normal’ and ‘realistically’ choppy conversation about nothing in particular. Here we have a woman who is rethinking her relationship with her boyfriend, for no reason in particular. Which, yeah, as relatable as these things are, the author seemed so intent on creating this ‘eerie’ atmosphere that I just never got into the story. That conversation that appears now and again about this unknown person who did something bad sounded so stilted and unbelievable that it had the opposite effect of scaring me. That the narrative itself smugly proclaims that what truly is terrifying is the not knowing what’s real and what isn’t did not make me realise that ‘wow, that must be why I feel so afraid! Genius!’ Reid relies on creepy figures and descriptions about maggots feasting on pigs in order to unsettle his readers. To me that isn’t the same thing as blurring the line between ‘real/unreal’.
The ending made little sense but then again that fits with the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m to blame (for keeping my nerve when reading allegedly unnerving books) but even leaving aside the ‘horror’ storyline…what are we left with? An unremarkable narrator whose mediations on the highs and love of dating & love had a deeply soporific effect on me? Not only did the ‘realness’ of her inner-monologue seemed contrived, but her reflections or assertions never truly conveyed any actual feelings on her part. Which maybe it was intentional, given the novel’s supposed twist but I still had to put up with her. And, my god, was she annoying. She kept asking Jake inane questions about his childhood. And of course, when we get to the farm, she receives a Bluebeard kind of warning…and what does she do? Se la va a cercà! I probably would have ended things with novel sooner if it hadn’t been for the fact that I listened to the audiobook version and the narrator was really good.
Hua’s stories explore, however superficially, the experiences of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the United States: the generational and cultural differences between immigrant parents and their American-born children, the struggle to assimilate into a different country, especially one which will treat you as Other, the desire to adopt new customs vs. the pull towards traditions. These were all potentially interesting avenues, sadly, none of the stories delves deeply into them. Each story follows the same formula: we have a main character who is at a turning point, and they are forced to or decide to ‘deceive’ others or themselves. With one exception, they all commit some selfish or unscrupulous act. At times they do so because of monetary reasons (“VIP Tutoring”) or because they believe they have no other options (“Accepted”) or for some obscure reasons that I personally did not find all that convincing. They usually try to excuse their behaviour, but inevitably, they are exposed as ‘frauds’. I didn’t like the fact that all of these stories unfold in the same way, so that within the very first pages I would guess the story’s inciting incident, trajectory, and conclusion. Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded as much if the characters had struck me as sympathetic or realistic, but for the most part they were rather one-dimensional, all a similar shade of self-deceiving and egotistic. Yet, even if I did not like them, I wasn’t gratified by their eventual comeuppance. The moralistic tone of these stories was really off-putting, and while I found “The Responsibility of Deceit” to be the most ‘decent’ story of the lot, I thoroughly disagree with the author’s equating a man’s closetedness to ‘deception’ (coming out can be dangerous, and chances are that it will make others treat you differently or even condemn you for your sexuality). I wasn’t take by the author’s writing style, which relied on clichés such as “asking for an apology was easier than asking for permission”. Personally, I find descriptions such as “the air was muggy, swollen as a bruise” to be overdone. While I’m sure that there is a reader for these type of stories, that reader is not me.
While browsing a charity shop I picked up this collection of short stories. What drew me the most to Home Remedies was its cover (bright pink in my edition), and while I wasn’t expecting to like every single story, I hoped that I would find a few to be memorable. Sadly, none of the stories drew me in. Wang examines some serious—and potentially compelling—themes (generational differences, dislocation and deracination, familial expectations vs. personal identity) but her stories never led anywhere interesting, they meandered without focus, loosing themselves in details or exchanges that did not really contribute to the overall storyline, only to reach anticlimactic conclusions.
The collection is divided in three sections (‘Family’, ‘Love’, ‘Time & Space’), each containing 4 stories. One would think that these stories somehow focused on the topic of the section they are in, but they don’t. Take the story ‘The Strawberry Years’, I don’t think it had anything to do with ‘Love’, and yet it was in that section (the story is a surreal ‘someone is taking over my life’ kind of thing). One would think that a father-daughter story would fit in the ‘Family’ category but no, we find it in ‘Time & Space’ instead. But this is a minor, and I recognise, ultimately superficial ‘quibble’. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if I found any of the stories interesting or affecting…but they left me cold. The author’s prose presented us with some pretty phrases, and some lucid imagery, but her characters and their experiences felt flat. Characters who belong to older generations are traditional, conservative, hard-workers. Younger characters are materialistic, lazy, opportunistic, and keen to emulate Western ways. I read Home Remedies less than a week ago and I can hardly remember any of its stories. Anyway, just because the author’s style did not really resonate with me doesn’t mean you should skip this one.
Schoolhouse Gothic, Sherry R. Truffin’s first monograph, is one of the first studies to address the role of the educational system in twentieth-century Gothic fiction. The work reveals Truffin’s in-depth understanding of the Gothic genre, its origins, methodologies and implications, focussing in particular on a branch of Gothic she terms ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’. In Schoolhouse Gothic, Truffin examines late-twentieth-century American literature by authors such as Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Joyce Carol Oates taking the form of Gothic narratives where the stones of age-old monasteries and castles are replaced by the concrete of school buildings and where classrooms and gyms function as prisons. Truffin focuses on those texts that express and exacerbate the increasingly uneasy relationship that Americans have with the academy and with the educational system as a whole. According to Truffin, ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the educational system through a Gothic lens with schools reifying old – and often outdated – traditions, and teachers and professors perpetuating an ‘epistemic violence’ that is ‘violence exerted against or through knowledge’ (26). Schools, within this strand of Gothic, provide the setting for race, gender and class inequities, which often result in physical and mental violence against students. Since Gothic is a genre that tends to explore subversive themes, often providing a conflicting view of our culture, it seems almost inevitable that it would turn its gaze to the country’s faltering educational system where high-schools and colleges form the backdrop to gun violence, economic inequalities, and racial and gender discriminations. Woven throughout Truffin’s narrative are a diverse set of theories, for example, a view of institutional buildings as places designed to control and entrap individuals that echoes Jeremy Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ and a concept of ‘epistemic violence’ stems from Michel Foucault’s notion of ‘Power/Knowledge’ in which power is simultaneously generated by and generator of knowledge). She calls upon eminent contemporary literary theorists such as Pierre Bourdieu and James A. Berlin to support her assertions about educational institutions, and references recent Gothic scholars such as Chris Baldick and David Punter when defining Gothic. Although her erudition emerges quite clearly, her arguments often seem convoluted and there is almost an excess of critical theories, which are sometimes not developed in full. Truffin repeatedly refers to the ‘academic objectivity’ that ‘blinds scholars and educators to their own prejudices’ and stresses that academy’s ‘prerogative of definition’ is extremely damaging – above all to the students who are its primary victims: are we to assume that she considers herself exempt? Her opening chapter begins with a personal account set during Truffin’s senior year of high school, when she first heard Pink Floyd’s ‘grim narrative’(2) in ‘Another Brick in the Wall’. Truffin credits this song with inspiring her to embark on her inquiry into the nature and representations of ‘shadowy educators; nightmarish schools; and traumatized students’ (2), that is, the schools and teachers that she associated with that particular song. She goes goes on to explore the ‘forbidding schools and menacing teachers’ (3) within the Gothic canon. In this introductory chapter she provides a brief definition of Gothic as a counter-Enlightenment discourse that serves as the basis of her inquiry into what she defines as ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, which is not a genre per se but rather ‘a set of representations that articulates or embodies […] “a structure of feeling”’ (5). One of the defining characteristics of the Gothic is that it is a genre preeminently concerned with the past, yet ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ depicts the contemporary Western education system, albeit using traditional Gothic motifs and conventions to do so. Daunting family mansions and old monasteries are replaced by school buildings and college campuses. Within ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ standardized education is a means of control and indoctrination, schools are the backdrop to power inequalities, a place where students are entrapped, oppressed, and transformed into ‘psychopaths, zombies, and machines’ (5). Truffin considers the teachers, students, and academic institutions within the ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ as correspondents to the Gothic tropes such as the monster, the curse, and the trap. The paranoia, violence and mental disintegration that takes place in ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ is such that students and teachers alike emerge from their school experience ‘so distorted as to become a kind monster […] no one remains unchanged by school, and no one changes for the better’ (27). Truffin uses the remainder of her introduction to establish the structure of her monograph, the texts she will analyse that focus on literature where the school is ‘the loci of the Gothic experiences’ (26), and the way in which she will approach these texts. In ‘“I’m out of your filing cabinet now”: Adolescent Angst in the Schoolhouse Gothic of Stephen King’ Truffin focuses on four narratives by Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining, Apt Pupil and Rage. Truffin identifies and addresses the similar themes explored within these stories noting that within King’s ‘rather extensive boy of Schoolhouse Gothic’ schools and their teachers are compared to ‘everything from bad parenting to rape, capitalist brainwashing, and monster-making’ (34). The schools and teachers starring in these stories are sources of ‘paranoia, violence and monstrosity’ (34). What emerges from Truffin’s approach to these texts is that the rage experienced by the students in King’s narratives is a reaction to the way that they have been abused, labelled, and misunderstood by their educators. These unequal power relationships will have deadly consequences – as revealed in Truffin’s close-analysis of these stories – as the victimized students turn against their tormentors. When discussing Toni Morrison’s Beloved Truffin makes readers aware that the novel is ‘neither set in a school building nor centrally concerned with the victimizations of students at the hands of their teachers’ arguing however that ‘all of the elements of Schoolhouse Gothic find their way into the novel’ (82). While King ‘explores the effects of subjugation and entrapment on students’, Morrison’s novel considers the ‘subjugating effects of conceptualizing human beings as subject matters’ (82). Truffin details the way in which the character of Sethe, a freed slave, is viewed as ‘less than human–as in fact, an object of study’ (82). Truffin’s analysis centers on the way in which racism and slavery are ‘legitimated and perpetuated–given a (pseudo) scientific sanction’ within Beloved. Truffin views the schoolteacher – who is the primary discipliner of the slaves – as the embodiment of post-Enlightenment scientific racism. Truffin argues that his desire to study the ‘animal’ qualities of his slaves, such as when he measures Sethe’s head, instructing his pupils list her human and animal characteristics, is an ‘epistemic violation of his slaves’. His lectures and writings are accountable for the actions of his students who assault Sethe. Sethe herself is haunted by the schoolteacher’s practices. In this chapter Truffin grimly demonstrates that Beloved’s ‘critique of the history racist oppression in America’ revolves around ‘the horrible power of the academic’ (100) where students are programmed to dissect and discard human subject matter. In her next chapter Truffin jumps from a 19th-century slave plantation to a college campus in New England during the mid-1970s. Truffin examines Joyce Carol Oates’s Beasts using the same rationale as her previous chapters, referring to the ‘monster, curse and trap’ that constitute her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’. Beasts follows Gillian, a student attending a women’s college, who is seduced by her Creative Writing professor Mr Harrow. Mr Harrow pressures Gillian into entering a sexual relationship with himself and his wife, Dorcas. Truffin describes Gillian as being enslaved by this relationship, and alongside her classmates, also implied to be fellow victims of Mr Harrow, becomes increasingly ‘jealous, paranoid, dehumanized and monstrous’ to the point of resembling ‘zombies, cadavers, dogs and […] beasts’ (107). Mr Harrow in turn exploits, humiliates and abuses his victims. Truffin observes the way in which Gillian’s college experience leads her to indulge in self-mutilation and self-flagellation and finally pushes her to kill the professor and his wife, that is, those who made her into a ‘beast’. Truffin highlights the themes and arguments she has touched upon in previous chapters, illustrating the way in which Schoolhouse Gothic narratives expose the inevitable monstrous transformation that students can experience at the hands of their teachers, who are either physically abusive or exercise ‘epistemic violence’ – wielding knowledge as a weapon – against those who are in their care. Although many sections of Schoolhouse Gothic are highly accessible, to the point of being conversational in style, there are other passages that seem unnecessarily abstruse and fall back on awkward metaphors. The volume would have also benefited from attentive editing since the index contains several errors: the entry for ‘New Criticism’, for example, directs readers to nonexistent pages. Another serious shortcoming in my opinion is the author’s failure to address her role as a scholar and academic in her critique of the academy. Early on she briefly acknowledges the positive effects that the educational system can have but in examining those texts she identifies as being ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’, she often seems critical of the academy and educational system themselves rather than critical of the way in which they are within the texts. And while her ‘monster, curse and trap’ allegory gives consistency to her analysis of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ literature this formula can be limiting since it melds together different readings and stories. Nevertheless Truffin’s Schoolhouse Gothic proposes an interesting study, and her definition of ‘Schoolhouse Gothic’ gives expression to an overlooked strand of the Gothic.
Comparing this novel to the work of Ottessa Moshfegh or Sayaka Murata seems somewhat misleading, if a bit lazy. There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job has elements that may bring to mind certain aspects of Convenience Store Woman but it has almost nothing in common with My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Still, I could have enjoyed Kikuko Tsumura’s novel if it had something interesting to say or if it was written in a particularly inventive or catchy way. Sadly, I found There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job to be an exceedingly boring story that is written in an exceedingly boring way. Some of the issues I had may be due the translation (more on that later) but for the most part Tsumura’s prose is kind of dull. Her protagonist, the classic unnamed narrator, lacks the deadpan tone of Murata’s mc, nor does she have the same upbeat voice as the lead in Temporary (a novel that explores modern workplace in an absurdist fashion). Tsumura’s book is divided in five sections, each one focusing on a different job: in the first one our mc works a surveillance job (this happened to be the only section I enjoyed), in the second one she records ads for a bus company (advertising the shops that are on the route of that bus), in the third one she has to come up with ‘fun/useful facts’ for a packet of crackers, in the third one she puts posters up, and in the final job she works at a park maintenance office. We never gain any real insight into her private life (I’m fairly sure she lives alone and her parents are still alive) and we never learn anything about her past (other than she left her job because of burnout syndrome). The jobs she are peculiar and yet they never held my interest. I liked Temporary much more because the jobs the mc does there are really weird. Yet, I think I could have tolerated reading about a relatively ordinary workplace if the dialogues or mc’s inner monologue had been amusing, as they are in Murata’s novel (which managed to make tedious tasks entertaining). Even if I where to judge Tsumura’s novel without drawing comparison to other novels, I still can’t think of anything positive to say about it. The narration lacked zest, oomph. She recounts her routine in a very prosaic way, and she offers no real insights into why ‘modern’ work culture makes her feel so uninspired. Usually when I read a translated book I don’t really notice that the prose was not originally written in the language I’m reading but here the writing had this stilted quality that made me kind of aware that I was indeed reading a translation. Certain word choices struck me as awkward. There are many instances in which the narrator’s colloquial style is interrupted by high-register and or antiquated words (such as nigh!). Maybe this was simply reflecting the original Japanese but I can’t say for sure as I’m afraid my knowledge of Japanese is abysmal. And yes, I understand that translation is not an easy chore (in the past I tried my hand at translating) but that doesn’t change that the prose There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job offers some eyebrow-raising phrases/passages.
Usually I read books of this length in two or three days but it took me five days to finish this novel (and I nearly fell asleep while reading it…which is new for me).
I won’t lie, the main reason why I picked up Crema was the f/f romance (the pretty cover also helped). Sadly, although Crema had the potential of being a sweet love story with a touch of the supernatural, the execution left a lot to be desired. The plot felt hurried and the undeveloped main characters lead to a rather uninspiring romance.
The first few pages give us some speedy exposition about Esme’s past (she can see ghosts) before we move to the ‘present’ when Esme, now a young adult, works as a barista. In the space of a few pages she meets and falls for Yara and the two go from 0 to 100 in way too fast. One moment they are checking each other out, the next they have moved in together. Neither of their personalities really came across, as each page seemed more intent on advancing the frankly predictable plot than giving some depth to its characters. The bad guys are conveniently bad 24/7, our couple has an avoidable misunderstanding before the last act, and the ghost situation gets out of hand. While the supernatural elements felt kind uninspired, I did like the design of some of the ghosts. The art in general was very pretty, although, if I had to be 100% honest I’ll admit that the way Esme is depicted is kind of…meh. All in all this was a quick and forgettable read. Maybe those who haven’t read a lot of comics or ghost-stories may find this to be more rewarding that I did.
Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book. Imagine walking into some art gallery and coming across a piece of art that just blows your mind. Later on, when you walk past it again, you actually stop and read the artist’s statement, which consists in the usual meaningless art-speak. And you look back to that work and think “this is so fucking pretentious”. That’s how I feel about Version Control which is all flash and no substance. Once I finally slogged my way through this 500+ page book I felt cheated. It had so much potential and Dexter Palmer clearly had some great ideas…sadly these were lost in the midst of inconsistent world-building, poor characterisation (the female characters are atrocious), and a surprisingly uninspiring storyline (I mean, how could you manage to make travelling be boring?). Palmer took every opportunity to satirise every single one of his characters, in what basically amounted to satire for the sake of satire, which, if you ask me, fell flat as it had nothing smart to say. I’m not sure at what point exactly I became aware of it but Palmer clearly loves taking the piss out of millennials. And he does it in a way that brought to mind those segments on Ellen where she makes fun of millennials because they don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone (quality humor, not). At first the dialogue in this novel rang true to life. There were tense or awkward pauses, character misunderstanding someone else’s choice of words, conversations could lead to nothing or suddenly escalate into arguments. But then I couldn’t help but to notice how frequently characters would just have these very long monologues in which they ranted about everything and nothing. Which, yeah, some people do go on (I am doing so right now), or end up having longwinded and heated rants…but every-single character? And that’s when I realised that the characters in this novels were like the characters in a film by Woody Allen (they all speak like Woody Allen regardless of their age/gender/personality). And that kind of killed any enjoyment I had left for this book. The rant-y to of my review reflects the many rants that are in this book.
The Story Even if the premise for Version Control reminded me of What If, a novel I didn’t particularly care for, I was intrigued by it. The story is set in the near-future (more on that later) and follows five main characters: we have Rebecca Wright, a recovering alcoholic who is now in her late thirties and works “part-time as a customer service representative for Lovability, the online dating service where, eleven years ago, she’d actually met the man who was now her husband”; Philip, said husband, who is a brilliant scientist devoted to his work on the ‘causality violation device’ (which, in a running gag, and much to the scientists’ annoyance, gets called ‘time machine’); there is Rebecca’s BFF from college, Kate, who is a superficial bimbo (more on that later); Carson, a scientist who works under Philip and is on-and-off again dating Kate; and Alicia, “the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab” who is Not Like Other Women. There are some minor recurring characters, most of whom we get to see only in certain environments (like the two security men working in the lab) so that we never really learn about them. Rebecca and Philip have lost their son, but they don’t speak of him or how he died. Philip spends most of his time working or talking about the ‘causality violation device’ (CVD) while Rebecca mopes a lot around the house thinking of how much she wants to drink. I was expecting this to be a story that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, one that would make you question whether the ‘strange’ sensation felt by Rebecca was a sign of her spiraling mental health or something of a more fantastical nature. But this wasn’t that kind of novel. And, as I previously mentioned, at first I didn’t mind. The story was more intent on creating some realistically awkward or fraught encounters between the various characters. Rebecca’s marriage is in trouble and her relationship with Philip isn’t great. She doesn’t get particularly along with Alicia while Philip gets into a heated argument with Rebecca’s dad (who is a Unitarian minister). Kate’s derisive comments about ribs and watermelons force Carson, who is black, to question whether she’s racist. Carson is also getting pretty pissed off at one of the security guards, who keeps calling him Carlton (“acting white”). No one gets along with anyone, and the story is very much about that. Palmer seems to delight in putting his characters in the most uncomfortable situations possible. Philip’s work is repeatedly made fun by the media and one snooty potential investor, Rebecca’s knows very little about anything so is frequently made to appear dumb, Kate acts like the Basic White Chick, and Alicia is openly rude to others, especially other women (but it’s okay, cause she’s driven and Not Like Other Girls). Now and again Palmer remembers to mention that some people feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with their reality, but this is a minor thread in a story that is much more concerned with ridiculing its characters and with giving really detailed descriptions or explanations about minor aspects of this ‘near future’. The main ingredients of Palmer’s story are 1) useless millenials 2) women who don’t care or don’t have what it takes to have a career 3) unfunny caricatures. He had a lot to say on a myriad of other topics, but this often came about when two characters were having a discussion or argument about this (sexism, racism, conflict between religion and science). He dedicates many passages to modern dating, seeming to lose himself in his own ‘hilarious’ vision of the future of dating (which isn’t as original as he seems to be suggesting: “the whole idea of meeting someone in a physical place, to talk to them in real time, was so twentieth century”) or in unnecessarily long digressions about automated ‘autonomous cars’ or of how in schools kids no longer need to interact with teachers but they get taught via tablet (and Palmer spends a chapter on the “Daily Pre-School-Day Diagnostic” kids have to complete each morning). We are only given a flashback into Rebecac’s life, and rather than reading about her childhood or learning more of her relationship with her parents, we read of a period in her twenties which she aptly describes as ‘Blackout Season’. We never get why she chose to study English or what future she envisioned after her completing degree, what we get instead are scenes featuring Rebecca and her college ‘friends’, all of whom are jobless or doing temporary or part-time jobs they don’t care for, and they spend their time going to bars and clubs, getting drunk and loud, flirting and sleeping with guys that are ‘no good’. After a few years one of them meets the ‘right’ kind of man and soon the girls disband their friendship group (because if a woman is ‘seriously’ dating someone she can’t keep her friends, duh). Rebecca has a few mishaps on online dating sites, meets Philip, and the two get married even if they have nothing in common or no chemistry. Their son dies, and things start going a bit sour between the two of them. And of course, eventually, the CVD does play a role in the story. As I said, or wrote, Palmer mostly writes scenes in which his characters have awkward encounters and exchanges with each other. And, while I initially liked this aspect of his narrative as I am a fan of hysterical realism, by the halfway mark I was no longer impressed by them, in fact, they struck me as forced and unfunny. Sometimes I like reading scenes that verge on the surreal (I’m very basic, I like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers) but there were moments in Version Control that were just jarring and poorly written (I’m talking about that scene with Alicia and the magazine…it wasn’t funny, it didn’t make sense, it was out-of-character, the tone was just off). The second half was very much a rehash of similar scenarios and exchanges, and the ‘wrongness’ felt by Rebecca never amounted to anything substantial. I was expecting a twist at some point or some reveal a la Black Mirror but nada. The story remains concerned with exploring boring and tired dynamics between characters that were little other than dull caricatures. What was the point in the story? An excuse for Palmer to write about ‘what ifs’ or detail minor aspects of everyday life in a future America ? Did this story require 500+ pages? Time travelling is picked up now again, but for all Philip’s & co talk about the CVD, they spent far too little time talking concretely about what would happen if their machine were to work. Instead they use a lot of scientific language that seemed more intent on confusing non-sciencey readers. Maybe I could have overlooked plot-holes and never-ending diversions if Palmer’s narrative had offered us some character interiority, but this third pov remains never delves into character motivations. Giving us a glimpse into Rebecca’s mind would have made her into a far less one-dimensional and incomprehensible character (it was frustrating not knowing why she acted the way she did). As stories about time travel go, Version Control offers nothing new.
The ‘Future’ Palmer’s near future is really unconvincing. He refers to things that in ten and twenty years will be outdated, he sticks to this running gag of the president interrupting people’s TV viewing or phone calls but we don’t know when he was elected, what kind of president he is, what America’s political landscape looks like. And Palmer seems wholly disinterred in anything remotely non-America (as in we have more or less no clue on what is going on in the rest of the world). The story takes place in ten or possibly even twenty years and yet his future feels very ‘2010’. Yes, he imagines what shopping for clothes will be like, but what he envisions has already kind of been predicted (having one’s body scanned and being given an item of clothing that will fit you without needing to step in a fitting room). But what about other things? Rebecca is an alcoholic, will the future be able to provide more effective and long-term treatments ? What about cancer? Climate change? Wait, how come Palmer totally skims over climate change? Palmer’s future offers nothing new. Futurama was far more innovative that this. And I couldn’t help but to notice that in this future one of the security guards who works at the lab was worried that he had to teach his daughter what same-sex love was….which, how likely is that? Unsurprisingly Palmer’s future struck me as very straight and gender normative. Although Palmer has no qualms about using scientific language at length, I think he glosses over his CVD machine (which is funny considering how often this machine gets mentioned) as he’s more worried with detailing all the ways in which advancements in technology will strip erode any remaining notions of privacy (but millennials being dumb aren’t concerned by that).
The Characters It’s kind of ironic that although Palmer writes about sexism (by having Alicia point out how hard it is to be treated like her other male colleagues rather than an ‘oddity’) his portrayal of female characters is kind of questionable (and in poor taste). Rebecca: she’s our main character and is defined by three things. 1) she’s Philip’s wife 2) she was mother 3) she’s an alcoholic. While Philip is allowed to have a personality (not a nice one but still) and goals, Rebecca is made into this pathetic cliché of a woman, who isn’t intelligent or empathetic, she’s isn’t a great mother nor a great daughter not even a great wife or friend. She has 0 drive and 0 interests outside of alcohol and Philip. She doesn’t confront Katy when she notices that she’s being racist, even when Katy later on asks her whether she thought that she’d said anything offensive, she’s jealous of Alicia because women can’t like other women, she doesn’t care for her job (cause married women don’t really want to work and would rather be housewives who spend their time shopping, drinking wine, and trying to stay a size S. Which..yep, Palmer has given us some great representation here. I didn’t care for Rebecca. We never know why she does the shit she does, she has no concrete history other than her ‘Blackout Season’ and her feelings for Philip just were largely MIA from the page. Katy: she’s awful. She’s dumb and superficial, is a crappy friend and person, spouts racist shit and is obsessed by the fact that she’s dating a black guy. Why waste any time on her? I really got the feeling that Palmer wanted to show how insincere female friendships were (especially if one of these friends has blonde hair). Katy is just as passionless as Rebecca. She has no interest outside of men, gossip, and alcohol. Alicia: she’s the kind of character that some (I said some not all) male authors believe to be ’empowering’. She loves what she does, she’s smart, straight-talking, tough. She takes no shit from anyone and most men in this novel are attracter to her. Women, on the other hand, hate her because they are clearly ‘intimidated’ by her. Rather than making Alicia into a likeable or sympathetic character Palmer decides to make her into a truly awful bitch who behaves appallingly and doesn’t understand why other women are not like her. She’s also reduced to who she sleeps with, rather than being allowed to be a character in her own right. Philip and Carson: these two were stereotypes of the scientific guy who doesn’t understand social etiquette. Philip spoke in this really donnish way that just never rang true (and I happen to know quite a few pedantic men). But the things Philip talks about where just…really? And why did he have to be so socially inept ? Just because you are a scientistic doesn’t mean that you could never speak of something without using scientific jargon. Other characters: caricatures. They had a static role, perhaps played a part in a running joke or something.
Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a story with more speculative elements but dio mio! The whole dynamic between Rebecca and her genius scientist husband was so cliched and boring. And Palmer’s future would have been passable if it had been rendered in more detail or if it hadn’t been so intent on making fun of millennials. And 500 pages of this? I get it women who are not like Alicia (who of course posses traditionally ‘male’ personality traits) are bimbos who are incapable of forming meaningful relationships or saying meaningful things or having interests outside of men, diets, and gossip. Ah ah. So funny.