I Don’t Want Politicians To Work Together, Actually

Something I’ve been a little curious about – I keep seeing people who want politicians to ‘work together’ more, be more ‘bipartisan’. I don’t quite understand what these people want, here, or what they seem to view politics as.

I suppose there’s a wish to ‘get things done’, and a sense that it’d happen better if sides put aside differences to compromise more. I have a few issues with this.

To speak of ‘getting things done’: well, what things, specifically? Y’know, politics being the question of what society should be – not merely a technocratic mechanism needing a supposedly ideology-free spanner twist. If both sides start softly-softly negotiation from the jump, then, hell, what even is the point in voting for one side over another? Why have parties, or elections? If I’m going to vote for an electoral representative then I want them to fight for my position as far as possible. I want them to be adversarial, to try to win. In the theory of electoral politics, it is the very difference between parties – to the extent it exists – that makes voting for one over another a meaningful democratic choice.

At the moment, two of my big gripes with British electoral politics are that: both major sides at best dismiss the left and what we stand for, quite openly; and that they already agree on far too much! This isn’t unique to the UK.

Of course, negotiation and compromise will happen in parliament – but those things aren’t the Good in themselves. They aren’t and shouldn’t be the goal. ‘Bipartisan’ doesn’t mean ‘better’. The goal is to promote your politics, and compromise is just one tactical tool in that.

And it’s important to beware the bad-faith actor, who keeps on asking you to take another step their way while backing off themselves. Do you really think the Tories or Republicans or your national equivalent are willing to work with their supposed counterparts, if only one more compromise? They’re more than willing to denounce the chumps opposite as dog-eating socialist nazi wokeists to a rabid media at any point, so how much is gained by playing their game? Negotiation has its place, but don’t kick things off with a low-ball offer to people who hate your guts!

The call for politicians to work together better under-estimates how much they’re already all in a club we aren’t. Even if you’re not a leftist like me, it should be obvious that they’re private-school toffs, landlords, and finance freaks failing upwards, whose disagreements are ramped into hysteria by a hysterical media despite being limited to the cultural sphere and some select economic details.

To be clear, those cultural questions can matter and in large part shouldn’t be questions – still, I don’t want terfs and lukewarm trans-advocates to compromise more, I want trans liberation, for example. The problem isn’t the unseemly noise of the argument, it’s the substantive issues of something that shouldn’t be a debate club for cis legislators in the first place.

But my other point there is that there is no disagreement on fundamental socio-economic questions. Neo-liberal capitalism is so entrenched within the Overton window that those calling for more agreement don’t notice that both sides are already near-totally in lockstep on the biggest questions. The disagreement there is on economics is on merely amounts and technicalities, nothing structural – ‘how much can we tax the energy companies?’, not ‘this energy market is clearly bullshit, let’s nationalise natural monopolies instead of debating how much to let oligopolies cream off the top.’

Sure, which technicality-lever gets pulled will make some difference to some people’s lives. That’s certainly not an argument for even more compromise just for the sake of it. If the few differences do matter, well, imagine if there were bigger differences! Structural ones! What if it wasn’t always about the lesser evil, damn it?

So, yeah. I don’t want politicians to work together, actually. I want choice.

Book Reviews (30)

Deadhouse Gates – Steven Erikson
Malazan #2

Incredible. Takes everything that was good about book #1, and does it again in another vast swathe of the map while more than resolving the issues of wonky character work and pace.

The scale of Malazan is, again, put in a whole new context. Aside from some connecting characters and events – and very significant, like completely changing perspective on important events from earlier, yet also brief, mentions – from book 1, now we’re in another story entirely almost: the region of Seven Cities and the desert Raraku, with its own prophecy and threat in the form of a brutal rebellion against Malazan and something ominous going on with soletaken and d’ivers.

Mappo and Icarium’s duo are just so wonderful and tragic. We get to know Fiddler, Kalam, Crokus and Apsalar much better. Duiker and Coltaine are such strong characters. The best, though, is Felisin – a noble girl fallen to absolute pits, thoroughly unlikeable yet tragic and understandable, dark without being a cheap edgy trope, coping the only way she can find. Erikson’s character work rises to the level of his worldcrafting here.

The crazed priest Iskaral Pust again showcases a flair for weird speech. Here he is, on losing a staring contest with a flying monkey-creature: “Four hours, once, I stared into one’s eyes […] a contest and one I would not lose[…]. / ‘And who, Iskaral Pust, won this… this battle of wits?’ / “Look upon him who does not waver from his cause, no matter how insipid and ultimately irrelevant, and you shall find in him the meaning of dull-witted. The bhok’aral could have stared into my eyes forever, for there was no intelligence behind them. Behind his eyes, I mean. It was proof of my superiority that I found distraction elsewhere.”

My favourite plot thread, though, was Duiker and Coltaine’s. Military conflict is a fantasy mainstay, but I haven’t seen it used this way before – Coltaine’s Malazan forces lead a massive trail of refugees away from the vicious rebellion, a vast humanitarian retreat through arid hostile territory. Erikson portrays the horrors of all this (and it gets extremely bleak) with a touch of real understanding, while weaving in enough successes and black comedy, humane moments and heroism, to maintain the impact without making it all a continuous grim slog. The ending freaking hits.

The bit on the ship in the warren felt a touch long, maybe.

Strong stuff.

SPQR – Mary Beard

A readable, illuminating overview of the first thousand years of Roman history – its beginning as an ordinary settlement, the Republic and expansion, to formal Empire and autocracy, ending with Caracalla’s making every free subject of the empire a Roman citizen.

Beard discusses Rome with interest but neither reactionary admiration or contemporary moralism, looking into the details and the grand sweep for the currents still influencing ideas of citizenship and much modern political vocabulary.

SPQR draws not only on the expected ancient writers – Tacitus, etc – and archaeology, but references much other art and culture. The discussion of the mysterious earliest phase of the settlement, where there is little direct evidence to work with, focuses on analysing what the legends of Romulus and Remus, and Aeneas, say about how later Romans understood themselves, in contrast to some other founding narratives. Beard balances the extent of the evidence, which over-represents wealthy, powerful, free males (paupers leave little archaeological record) with the attempt to get as full a picture as reasonable, swiftly addressing misunderstandings and issues of bias on the way.

Memories of Ice – Steven Erikson
Malazan #3

And now the true shape of this series might be starting to form – frick, it’s big! Perhaps a little ungainly at first – the first fifth or so is pretty heavy on exposition and lore, mainly through Silverfox. It’s all good, with that pleasingly staggering scope, but does feel a little odd.

We’re back on Genabackis, taking the fight to the Pannion Domin. The added context reflects on some of the mysteries of book #2: in that Malazan way where it’s not all spelled out, but if you remember and draw the threads together you get some satisfying ideas. Dark, arguably even more than #2 – mass cannibalism, massive corpse piles, systematic rape – with plenty of male victims too, so at least that’s a change for dark fantasy. As before, the pathos and military humour and glimmers of humanity even things out.

More Barghast, T’Lan Imass, and Tiste Andii involvement, all good to get. The goings-on with Paran could’ve been generic fantasy-hero power-up prophecy-fuel, but Erikson kept him lost enough, one hesitant guy among much more ancient and tremendously powerful figures, that he avoids becoming a boring epic protagonist. The wolf-guy and Itkovian repeat a flair for tragic heroism, while Kruppe… again, he’s Kruppe, and while some of those lines are so fun to read he can be a bit tiresome. I know he’s meant to be a little annoying, but yeah.

Book Reviews (29)

*

Inferno – Dante trans. John D Sinclair

Well, what can I say about Dante? Lmao. The first part of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, Inferno relates Dante’s journey through Hell guided by his senpai, the Roman poet Virgil.

I can’t exactly evaluate the accuracy of Sinclair’s translation. But what’s here is made accessible while preserving (at least, it seems to me) the impressive lyricism of Dante’s words. His commentary is enough to make the references to contemporary Florence, Dante’s struggles and the many other allusions clear, while being light-handed enough to not over-weigh the work itself.

The imagery is, as you might expect, striking and imaginative – but as Sinclair comments, it’s the atmosphere of realism that makes it particularly firm. The biblical narrative of a journey through hell (and on into purgatory for part two) is woven with masses of classical influences which Dante reclaims for a Christian context; while the allegory is blended so closely with the biographical context of conflicts in Florence and Dante’s painful exile that it almost stops seeming strange that someone literally on fire fancies a chat about the Guelphs.

It is a touch goofy how much Dante passes out, or gets head-pats from historical figures he admired, but it still serves his purpose in the allegory for stating his case about Florence, himself, and the state of the Church.

A literary monolith for a reason!

Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson
Malazan #1

Erikson wrote a massive world with dense lore and complex conflicts, and wanted minimal hand-holding, letting readers piece things together as they go. It’s a divisive approach, and in his (kinda self-indulgent, tbh: ‘I was ambitious, my readers aren’t dumb babies!’) preface Erikson says you’ll probably decide whether or not Malazan is for you around a third into this book.

Overall I found this first entry really good stuff, although it’s an approach with its pros and cons. Erikson comments that, while the book’s pacey plot will make you want to steam ahead, it’s helpful to make yourself slow down and take in details, and that is good advice. If you’re someone who gets a kick out of fitting together item descriptions in FromSoft games you’ll know the fun of not being given everything outright. It’s fun to theorise about the significance of Burn’s Sleep and so on. There is a sense of history, scale, and mystery that more outright exposition can dampen sometimes; and the plot is knottier, more suggestive of more than is currently obvious going on, than a style more concerned with ease of grasping would allow.

The various factions and characters involved in the magical and military sides of the Malazan Empire’s campaign for the city of Darujhistan form an intricate, many-sided story. Erikson does, actually, ease into it at first – with strong character and context intros in the prologue about Laseen’s coup, and following chapters including some conversations which, honestly, felt a bit ‘hey, remember [info drop]?’ Before the prologue itself starts, there’s a helpful and lengthy dramatis personae. Soon enough, though, we’re thrust into the strange world of Malazan alone, and that’s when the strengths and weaknesses of Erikson’s choice of style both come to the fore.

The advice to slow down a little helps to get plot and lore, but, without a little extra on-page breathing room, characterisation can slip to the wayside a little under the tide of action. Paran feels more complex as a child in the prologue and while working with Lorn than in later chapters, where without that room to step back he can slip into ‘generic badass/world-weary soldier’. Having climactic battles end with ‘a guggalug showed up and beat the drekfug!’ doesn’t mean much, and strikes a disappointing note, if I’ve got no idea what a guggalug is and such a thing had never been mentioned or foreshadowed once. Massive strikes of power between two warrens are hard to picture when I’ve been given basically nothing about their relative attributes – like two vague lasers colliding, the result arbitrarily determined by Erikson.

However, damn it’s good! When there’s room for character depth it goes nicely deep, and the prose and dialogue are generally pretty enjoyable – the weird way Kruppe talks stands out. I’m looking forward to learning and figuring out more, following more of the vast cast around, and seeing what more craziness Malazan has in store for me. I like the unique non-human races, the idea of warrens, the richness of it, the drops of hints that hit like trucks.

Book Reviews (28)

Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon

H/t The Bookchemist.

From Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (review) I had some sense of the literary psychedelia I’d get into with this much thiccer boi, but this magnificent mess is certainly its own beast. The book takes place in the last phase of WW2, involving paranormal/psychological experiments and schemes, diffuse conspiracy, and slapstick – loosely centered on the hunt for a mysterious device inside a particular V2 rocket. The tone ranges from the horrors of the period and grimmest layers of twisted psyches to the pure farce of a hot-air-balloon pie fight.

The writing itself is often stunning in its lyrical force: ‘here he is skidded out onto the Zone like a planchette on a Ouija board, and what shows up inside the empty circle in his brain might string together into a message, might not, he’ll just have to see. But he can feel a sensitive’s fingers, resting lightly but sure on his days[…]’ Yes!

Many stand-out scenes. On the light side – the adenoid, the pie fight, the tank at the party, the bomb in the bathroom, the octopus. On the darker side – Pokler’s story is a marvel of fiction in its own right, Blicero’s stuff. Jessica and Roger’s thread, a great ‘normal’ story in between.

This is one of those books where difficulty is a big topic. For the most part, it’s very readable line-by-line. If you liked the quote above, you’d probably have a good time here. The scientific and mathematical language can be more challenging, but if you google ‘integration’ (in maths) and try to view that stuff as metaphors you’re much of the way there – don’t be put off.

What is more difficult is the structure and psychedelia of it all. There are sections which are very ‘what the hell is this?’, fluid transition from reality to psychic experience to fantasy. The last part of the novel in particular draws on Tarot and Kabbalah, while critiquing literary analysis itself by basically taking the characters and dangling plot threads and breaking it all down in a meta way. You definitely don’t get a conventional plot where a complete narrative all slots together. I found the way Pynchon did it bold and successful where it could easily be pretentious crud, but if you don’t like dipping into experimental work this might not be for you yet.

I did, though, find some parts a bit much. Sometimes you have to just give up trying to understand to get through a segment, and I think there’s a limit to how far something like ‘that’s the point!’ justifies it. Sometimes it does seem weird for the sake of weird. Some points are hard to get into without outside knowledge which the book itself could’ve slipped in somehow – like the Kirghiz Light, probably a reference to atomic tests. The regular bits of song can add something – Frau Gnabb’s shanty, Major Marvy’s crew – but they can also be annoying intrusions in a written medium, where the prose is often so good. The role of paedophilia – a legitimate topic for dark art, of course, and definitely resonates post-Epstein, but fuck it gets uncomfortable and arguably over-used.

A bewildering, hilarious, chilling work of art. But try something a little shorter first, like Inherent Vice, if you’re interested. Worth a go!

Book of Night – Holly Black

An urban fantasy based in shadow-magic with a screw-up thief protagonist, the first page easily got my attention enough to try. The idea’s good fun. I knew that, straight after Gravity’s Rainbow, most other prose would feel a bit basic – and while this is a decent read, picking up well as it went along, it wasn’t fully able to live up to its promise for me.

To quote Orangutan Librarian: ‘As much as there a cool magic system and a solid plot, I simply wasn’t wowed by it. Largely this came down to the writing- which felt flat and relied on far too much telling for characterisation. This left the heroine and her love interest seeming only skin deep, which in turn left me struggling to connect with their romance. Which was a problem considering this was fundamentally a romance. Ultimately, this had the makings of a great book, but missed the mark.’

Two things hold it back for me – the narration/character can be a bit flattened from being simple and explainy, and – as much as there’s a good idea in gloaming! – patchy worldbuilding. This doesn’t feel like a world fully rocked by the revelation of real magic, aside from some cool business on the margins (fake onyx scams – good). Charlie wouldn’t know all the secrets, but… where’s a hint of government involvement? DARPA? CIA? It seems like a staggering new frontier in the world has been left to edgy goths to regulate themselves, and the new industries are on par with tattooing. That’s it?

However, there’s pretty decent action and twists in the plot, and dialogue can be fairly sharp. Like, this is entertaining. It’s a fun quick read, just not what it could be.

Book Reviews (27)

Witcher - baptism of fire

The Witcher #5-endAndrzej Sapkowski

Baptism of Fire

I really like the Fellowship-vibes in this one, with Geralt and his motley crew travelling between marauding armies. We get a range of varied characters, some clearly playing off LOTR. The dwarf Zoltan joins with Dandelion, the archer Milva, [redacted] Regis, and that other interesting guy.

Regis is great, like here to a sulky Geralt – ‘Life differs from banking because it has debts which are paid off by running up debts with others.’

As for Ciri and Mistle: man is that situation fantastically fucked up. I like how Sapkowski refrains from giving us a moral judgment here, because a lot of writers would insist on telling us it’s fucked up.

The sorceresses step up the game with some great manoeuvring and manipulation.

Some points felt a touch like exposition-excuses, and at some places – with otherwise-great Regis particularly – the philosophy went a bit overboard.

The ‘Geralt of Rivia’ ending is delicious lmao.

The Tower of the Swallow

Multiple factions hunt for Ciri, now with a touch of wild-west influence to the narrative.

Great use of multiple POV in telling/showing the story, keeping right in the action while still pacing out the players and their roles to hold and build tension.

Mixed feelings on the elf in the cave exposition dump. But the Kovir worldbuilding segment is really fun, giving it a deep sense of history and a place in an established world.

We could use some more time inside Ciri’s head. It’s changed a lot, understandably, but the vengeful disillusionment can come across a bit generic, especially without seeing the process of change from the inside.

The Lady of the Lake

This ends the main thrust of the saga.

It wasn’t as good for a while. The world-hopping is fun imagery but it doesn’t help form a tight plot, and Condwiramurs isn’t interesting. Ciri’s magic/swordplay being forgotten when someone wants to try and abuse her (and that ongoing theme in general) is an… uncomfortable contrivance.

The Aen Elle are a properly ominous bunch, though, building out what’s really going on in the wider story. And the big battle sequence is fantastic in its action, its interplay of different characters including some from much earlier in the series. The Stygga showdown is brutal.

The ending… hmm, the ending. I don’t find it very satisfying – too abrupt, too inconclusive, a bit deus ex machina. Though I can appreciate the Arthurian elements, and the twist on other material which Sapkowski gets so much out of.

Season of Storms

A prequel novel about Geralt’s time facing two conspiracies in Kerack between the stories in book one, The Last Wish, though with some flashforwards to Nimue and stuff.

This is a good story, one of the most cleanly plotted and one of the darkest at times. I appreciate the epilogue – it doesn’t change anything from LotL, but reinforces what Sapkowski is trying to achieve in a nice way.

Neat to get more of Geralt actually being a witcher and using signs.

#

So that’s the whole series read! A few thoughts overall:

The male gaze and themes of sexual violence – can be rather cloying, just too much. There are strong female characters and I can see the argument of them exploiting looks for gain, but c’mon. Geez.

The pacing is a bit weird and choppy. I think part of that is because Sapkowski was trying to subvert an ‘epic fantasy hero’ story – Geralt isn’t a hero at the centre of the world, just one guy in wider currents, like everyone. Ciri has power but not control. Everyone is dancing parts of other’s tunes without full understanding.

To focus on those wider currents, a range of viewpoints which sometimes connect more thematically than causally, to have people waste time and fail and flail about – that’s hard to plot tightly in a normal forward-driving way. It’s compelling, though, once you accept what it’s aiming for.

But it could be better executed, especially in connecting the story-characters to the novel-characters. Like, Dandelion is a rapey asshole in the first stories, then in novel #1 he’s a likeable rogue and seems tight with Yennefer? What happened? Were the characters still in flux back then, or was a period of change never really shown? Season 1 of the show does a better job getting started and e.g. putting Yennefer’s desire for fertility in context.

Worldbuilding is really nice. The details, the thought, the influences from folklore, western, lotr-fantasy, arthurian legend. Occasionally a new thing does seem to appear out of nowhere, and on a reread I might spot points where ‘damn wouldn’t [that] be useful here?’ And yeah, could use a map!

Weird how little Geralt uses signs and elixirs in most of this!

Well worth a go for some great writing, a unique blend of influences and subversions, character and world depth. Has its flaws, but what it’s trying for is worth engaging with.

Book Reviews (26)


Time of Contempt – Andrzej Sapkowski
Witcher #4

A bunch of pieces are pushed forwards – Nilfgaard and the four northern realms, Ciri and Yennefer, Geralt and Yennefer, the sorcerer’s council, the desert onwards. It feels a book of separate parts, a little disjointed even though it all fits together.

The world and character are just very enjoyable. Yennefer’s gaslight/gatekeep/girlboss energy, Geralt the spooky dude who #lifts but is lowkey an awkward sensitive himbo, Dandelion continuing to be much better than in the stories. Ciri’s note at the inn. The whole banquet sequence with its high-class sophisticated bitchy wit and my G trying to get some damn shrimp.

The world in general is strongly built, with the political machinations and detailed economic consequences and so on. There’s a good balance of defined facts and a sense of history to a sense of mystery and possibility. One weakness/strength, depending on perspective: how specific some of the terminology for armour, ranks, etc can be. It can be a good thing to send the reader to a dictionary, but it’s gotta be necessary.

The desert: I was not at all expecting that, a real shift. Intense.

The one translation issue I notice here might be ‘contempt’ – the original Polish must’ve been snappier, because it feels a bit too wet a term for people to be using all the time when they’re talking about literal razing armies and pogroms.

Worth mentioning – c/w sexual violence. Brought up a fair bit, depicted non-explicitly in one grim scene. Won’t debate the whole ‘it’s realistic’ vs ‘this is fantasy, the middle ages didn’t have elves either, you didn’t have to include that’ thing here, or the merits of that particular scene, but c/w.

The Mirror and the Light – Hilary Mantel
Cromwell #3

Mantel’s trilogy about the tumultuous career of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII comes to a close. Anne Boleyn beheaded, Jane Seymour queen, and Cromwell risen to unprecedented heights – a height before a fall.

As with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – stellar, rich prose; historical detail, intrigue, and character depth. The trilogy is an incredible window to a particular time and a key figure within it.

This took me a hella long time to read. I’ve got to say that this trilogy – and maybe this book particularly – would benefit from some tightening. I definitely enjoy its sprawl, its atmospheric prose, its reflection. If the narrative were told in the manner I’d normally expect, it would miss much of what makes it special. But by the Mass is it long. It’s simply difficult to hold tension over that span, keep a grasp on all the players and their games. The big events can lose some impact from being cushioned between all the careful manoeuvrers, adjoining stories, and mythic atmosphere.

Still, though – a beautiful account of court intrigue in all its brutal and farcical elegance, growing success bringing with it growing threats and resentments, and a suite of engaging figures trading rumors, banter, and threats. Delightful, weird details and startling twists make the familiar story of Henry and his wives a thoroughly fresh account, an immersive, heartfelt exploration of power through the lens of one man who rose dangerously close to a king.

Book Reviews (25)

book covers

Iain Banks – Transition

A great central concept – a power struggle in the Concern, an organisation working across parallel worlds whose operatives can shift their consciousness into other people in other versions of Earth – shines through more mixed execution.

I struggled to get into it at first. Maybe my own vibes were off, but it certainly can feel a bit disjointed. The story shifts rapidly between various characters, and it takes a while for a plot to start emerging.

The best character is Adrian, a London finance dickhead and former coke dealer with a very strong voice, a manipulative self-absorbed tour de force. The others tend to suffer a little from having similar, stilted voices, like they’re giving a presentation – although the Philosopher’s eerie professionalism as a torturer, and the hints at the fascistic security state of his home world, make him gripping in his own way.

Another issue with some characters is a forced preoccupation with sexuality, especially with Tem’s parts. Not to be prudish – Adrian is always evaluating/manipulating birds and it works for the character! With the others, though, I was rolling my eyes a bit. Did a discussion about the secretive agendas at the top of the Concern need to happen during a footjob?

There’s one rather forced section where it feels like Banks is trying to leaven what he must realise is very heavy exposition – ‘quanta where reality itself seethes with a continual effervescence of sub-microscopic creation and destruction’, I mean, jfc – with very detailed accounts of what the two speakers are doing with their hands. It’s like a dry lecture if the lecturer has a few strippers come on to spice it up as they drone on. Why not make the lecture less dry?

And there’s the men-writing-women meme used irl, when Tem transitions into a female body and ‘Breasts move very slightly with each pace, but constrained. Sports bra.’ PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU TEM.

Having complained a lot, I’ll repeat that the ideas are great. There are very thoughtful and disturbing sequences. The central plot is good too. This might be stronger if it lectured less and had more of the parallel-world chase sequence stuff.

Banks makes a big deal of the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, though the text itself rarely directly addresses the period’s specific significance. I don’t remember that time, so I’m not getting what he’s trying to say about that, although it probably involves that nonsense about ‘the end of history’. If you’ve read this too and you’re a bit older, any thoughts?

Bunny – Mona Awad

(h/t Sprinkled With Words)

Samantha, an outsider in a prestigious MFA program, gets pulled between her friend (ahem?) Ava and her writing cohort: a creepily saccharine clique of privileged women who call each other Bunny, hug way too much, and do an unbelievable ritual where [redacted].

It’s hard to summarise what this is without spilling all the madness of it – but it’s not a self-absorbed story about ~being a writer~ at ~university~. It’s wild and sardonic; pokes at the pretensions of that world in a way anyone who’s been there will chuckle at and anyone who hasn’t will enjoy the ride of anyway; a vulnerable account of being on the margins, levied with plenty of wit, bitterness, glimmers of warmth, and surreal brain-splatter violence.

The narration is just *salt bae gif*:

“Can I take your coat?” Cupcake offers. I turn to her. She’s looking at me so hopefully. So willing to take a coat I’m not wearing, I almost want to give her my skin.
[…]
I think she should apologize to trees. Spend a whole day on her knees in the forest, looking up at the trembling aspens and oaks and whatever other trees paper is made of with tears in her languid eyes and say, I’m fucking sorry. I’m sorry that I think I’m so goddamned interesting when it is clear that I am not interesting. Here’s what I am: I’m a boring tree murderess.
[…]
Our mothers always said to look hard at the things of this world that are owies on the eyes because they will put more colors in your inner rainbow.

The ominous shift from part 1 to part 2 is really impressive: the flip in tone, voice, names. The use of cutesy cupcakes-and-unicorns stuff to be so deeply eerie throughout Bunny feels very unique and speaks to powerful ideas. And the ending finds hope, without undercutting the book’s rejection of false positivity.

Spoiler warning: Monstrous Cute, a good interview with Awad.

Bring Up the Bodies – Hilary Mantel
Cromwell #2

Amazing stuff! This takes everything I liked about Wolf Hall and does it better.

Mantel’s account of Anne Boleyn’s fall and Jane Seymour’s unexpected rise captures the dangerous game of the Tudor court, the turbulence and absurdity of absolute monarchy. Cromwell’s character combines a touch of impishness and deep sentimentality with ruthless ambition and corruption.

Across a wide range of figures, all are memorable with strong motivations and quirks. Jane Seymour had been so unassuming in Wolf Hall that I’d barely remembered she’d have to become #3. Now she’s still humble, unobtrusive, but portrayed with dashes of character in gestures and rare words – even the way she enters through that door is so telling. How do you surprise someone with major plot points so well known they have a rhyme mnemonic? Like this.

The writing in general is stellar. Rich, without as much of the meandering that bogged me a little in Wolf Hall – dialogue, imagery, humour, threat. A perfect balance of style, implications, clarity, and period detail.

Perhaps I’m more used to Mantel’s using ‘he’ – meaning Cromwell – as the subject of sentences, but I got less mixed up with other male characters this time. She often avoids that with a slightly awkward ‘he says: he, Cromwell’ which made me wonder why not simply ‘Cromwell says’, but at least that’s clearer.

Looking forward to The Mirror and the Light.

The Trojan Horse Affair

I’ve recently listened to The Trojan Horse Affair, an unbelievable investigative podcast by two journalists with the New York Times.

It’s a really riveting account of basic questions going unasked in service of an Islamophobic narrative; malicious and willfully dense officials from petty local government up to the Cabinet; and two dogged, likeable men grappling with the nature of their own profession.

A strange letter appears on a city councillor’s desk in Birmingham, England, laying out an elaborate plot by Islamic extremists to infiltrate the city’s schools. The plot has a code name: Operation Trojan Horse. The story soon explodes in the news and kicks off a national panic. By the time it all dies down, the government has launched multiple investigations, beefed up the country’s counterterrorism policy, revamped schools and banned people from education for the rest of their lives.

To Hamza Syed, who is watching the scandal unfold in his city, the whole thing seemed … off. Because through all the official inquiries and heated speeches in Parliament, no one has ever bothered to answer a basic question: Who wrote the letter? And why? The night before Hamza is to start journalism school, he has a chance meeting in Birmingham with the reporter Brian Reed, the host of the hit podcast S-Town. Together they team up to investigate: Who wrote the Trojan Horse letter? They quickly discover that it’s a question people in power do not want them asking.

From Serial Productions and The New York Times comes The Trojan Horse Affair: a mystery in eight parts.

It’s telling that as much as Hamza and Brian uncovered had to come from a Muslim and from a US journalist. British media easily swallowed a moral panic, and largely refuses to rethink it today. It’s not the first or the last time – but it’s unique to have the Kafkaesque twists laid out so well.

The Writer’s Imaginary Camera

I found an interesting thread on r/writing about writing (rather than ‘am I allowed to write a ghost if I’m not dead’, circle-jerks about being writers but not writing, requests for emotional support), from a screenwriter trying to do a novel.

In response to:

At about 855 words per scene, your scenes are almost certainly too sparsely written for a novel. That is incredibly short for an average.

I can almost guarantee that you are doing a LOT more telling than showing and neglecting atmosphere and detail. Go through each of your scenes and flesh them out more.

He says:

???
Character enters room with another character. Characters discuss topics. Character leaves room. End of scene.
What am I supposed to do to “flesh it out more?”

I got the impression that as he wrote, he was picturing the events from a camera’s perspective. I picture scenes I’m writing from cinematic angles and such, like anyone probably would.

The issue here is execution (as others pointed out, it is possible to write in ‘dramatic POV’, like Hemingway, and pull it off), and bearing in mind the difference between screenplays and novels in how the audience or reader ends up getting it.

A screenplay will end up getting seen through the work of actors, directors, set designers, etc. A novel won’t – there’s only what’s on the page. So a prose writer might imagine a sweeping shot, a suitable soundtrack, and all the rest of it, without that actually being made available to anyone else reading.

There are also the different senses that novels can bring to bear. Smell. The physical sensations of characters. Direct, mental access. As well as the style of the prose itself. Even an unobtrusive, camera-like sort of language, which doesn’t draw attention to the words or rhythms themselves, is its own deliberate use of prose style.

Max Gladstone said some stuff about this a while back:

Just having a dim bulb epiphany about one reason journeyman writers so often spend page space having characters see things, notice things, etc, rather than just narrating what happens.

It’s cinema language, isn’t it? In film you can’t just have “she grabbed the gun from the desk and pointed it at him.” We haven’t seen the gun since it was last in frame—we “need” a shot of her *noticing* the gun, making the decision, going for it.

In a book you just *remember* the gun was there, because he put it down half a page ago and all you’ve done in the interim is read twelve lines of text—vs. a film where you’re spending a lot of circuitry watching Bogart and Gladys George, reading their body language, etc.

If you’ve grown up with cinema grammar, you internalize that rhythm, so you know: ok, what we need here is for her to *see* the gun. We need a shot of it. Because the gun doesn’t exist unless she sees it. When in prose, the gun can just… exist. […]

And also said:

I’m personally so tired of books that doesn’t care about the effects you can create WITH BOOKS, the way an even competently-made tv series cares about the effects you can create with a camera. Books that read like screenplays for the movie the author hopes someone will make […] sometimes I want to just vanish into the dream, into the movie in my mind, I get it… but even there, when I do, the vanishing comes from a mastery of prose technique. (Evocation of camera image is also prose technique!)

When I wrote about flashbacks, I said it could be heavy-handed to use words like ‘remember’ or ‘reminded’. Instead of ‘the Old Spice reminded him of his grandfather’, ‘Old Spice had been his grandfather’s brand. He’d been standing on tiptoes to see[…]’. See how that takes advantage of an immersive access to somebody’s mind, which isn’t possible through a camera perspective?

The point here is to be conscious of how we’re engaging with our own work in progress. If we’re audio/visualising, how much of that is actually on the page? And are we losing sight of the other senses and perspectives which the written – not visual – make possible for us to use?