Vision is a thing of motion, the non-stop action of imagination cast before our eyes. Kim Stanley Robinson creates visions of the future so intense with story and character that they threaten to replace the world within which we read them. His latest novel, '2312' is based on a seemingly simple premise; what will the world feel like three hundred years hence?
The trick word in that question is of course "feel." It is one thing to extrapolate technological trends, and Robinson is easily one of the best. But Robinson excels at creating characters who live inside the worlds he extrapolates, then letting their very human stories play out in his imagined worlds. '2312' offers readers a panoramic vision of the human race inhabiting the solar system, with a story and characters every bit as compelling as the environment in which the story unfolds.
'2312' runs on a wide screen and is written to the format, but Robinson starts with the story. We meet Swan Er Hong on the surface of Mercury, living dangerously as she takes in the sunrise. When she returns, she learns that her grandmother, with whom she shared some confidences, has died, and perhaps not naturally. The political alliances of the Solar System, never particularly stable, are becoming alarmingly less so. Swan is drafted to replace her grandmother as conflict creeps into the open.
'2312' is more than a far-future science fiction thriller, though it could have been written in that style. But Robinson the visionary takes a cue from John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy and structures his novel with slices of plot, prose poetry, and newspaper clippings from the future he imagines. He's a ruthless self-editor, and the literary devices he employs are every bit as compelling as the story they surround. They're also cleverly used to drive the plot forward as well. They're not just scenery.
The intensity of vision and story that Robinson brings to '2312,' is matched by the power of his prose. When he's storytelling and following his characters, he strips it down to the scene at hand and uses his skill to bring us into that scene. But he's also capable of rich, evocative descriptions that beg to be read aloud, and faux found prose poetry in which the words are as delightful as the concepts.
The stories that weave through '2312' — a romance, a thriller and a mystery — grow naturalistically from his characters and settings, but explore concepts and conflicts that we're facing right now; the costs of capitalism, the effect of human civilization on the environment it unfolds in and just what it means to be human. Robinson immerses us in his world but keeps the storyline tight.
Characters are handled in am interesting manner as well. Swan is our entry into '2312,' a literally mercurial character from the planet Mercury. She seems eminently likable, at least at first. When we meet her counterpart, Fitz Wahram, he's not quite so engaging. A native of Saturn, he's literally saturnine, a huge pear-shaped man who moves slowly and seems sort of obtuse. In the course of the novel, as the two get to know one another under less-than-felicitous circumstances, Robinson balances out our feelings with some keenly constructed set pieces.
There's no mistaking that '2312' is an ambitious novel; and upon reading it, that it lives up to its considerable ambitions. But given the number of moving parts that Robinson includes here, the literary flourishes as well as the science-fiction genre tropes, the fact that '2312' is more than the sum of its parts is the real discovery. The future is a foreign country, but a writer with the art of Kim Stanley Robinson can provide us with more than a mere travel guide. '2312' is an adventure that shows us the sights, but more importantly, more engagingly, it speaks to the soul of the future, the past and the present.
06-20-12:Peter Carey 'My Life as a Fake' Reviewed by Katie Dean
Editor's Note:Here is Katie Dean's 2003 review of Peter Carey's 'My Life as a Fake' restored to the Review Archive. I'd love to hear what M. Dean is reading now!
Peter Carey's latest novel, 'My Life as a Fake', is based on a true incident that occurred in Australia in the 1940s. A reputable modern poetry magazine, 'Angry Penguins', published what it thought was a genuine poem written by a man recently deceased. Someone purporting to be the sister of the supposed poet, Ern Malley, sent the poem to the magazine editor along with some details about the man and his life. However, it soon transpired that the poem was in fact a fake and that Ern Malley had never existed. Two ex-soldiers were behind this hoax, claiming to be registering their personal protest against literary modernism in Australia. In a further cruel twist, the editor of the magazine suffered not only wounded pride, but also found himself in court facing a charge of publishing obscenities. However, the fact that Ern Malley had never existed and that his alleged poems were no more than nonsense, did not prevent them from becoming widely read.
Peter Carey has taken this incident that made such an impression on him in his youth and woven it into a fascinating story that looks at events from the perspective of the prank's authors. Carey mixes fact and fiction, borrowing the actual lines of poetry first published in 'Angry Penguins', but the fictitious poet is renamed Bob McCorkle and the author of the ruse becomes a single man, Christopher Chubb. Carey's book is set in Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s where Chubb now resides, a social outcast and a broken man. For anyone who is already familiar with the Ern Malley incident, the first few chapters of Carey's novel may seem very familiar. However, Carey is not so much concerned with the incident itself as with some of the issues it raises.
The central idea behind Carey's novel is the way in which the creation of something inanimate, in this case a poem, can generate its own life. In the original Ern Malley incident, the fake poems generated their own followers and criticism, gaining a 'life' independent of their authors. Carey takes this idea and weaves it into the central theme for his novel. Christopher Chubb thinks he is only writing a set of fake poems in order to teach an old school fellow (David Weiss) a lesson. However, aside from the dire consequences suffered by David as editor and publisher of the fake works, Chubb finds himself haunted by a man claiming to actually be the fictitious poet, Bob McCorkle. In this sense, Carey's work self-consciously mirrors the idea of Frankenstein, the thoughtless creator goaded by his creation. Bob McCorkle is more than just a Frankenstein monster, he also becomes the central mystery in Chubb's life. Who was this man? Did he in fact exist or was he simply a figment of Chubb's guilty imagination? The reader is left to reach his or her own conclusion.
In yet another complex twist, Carey tells his story through an English poetry magazine editor, Sarah Wode-Douglass. Whilst traveling in Kuala Lumpur, Sarah meets Christopher Chubb and is shown one of Bob McCorkle's poems. This is not one of the original fakes, but a poem written by the man who has taunted Chubb, or so Chubb insists. In a twisted reflection of the original incident, Sarah, despite being aware of the original hoax, believes the poem she has been shown to be a work of genius and becomes obsessed by the desire to publish it in her magazine. In order to do so, she finds herself forced to listen to Chubb's story, eventually being drawn into his life with rather unexpected consequences.
'My Life as a Fake', like any well-written novel, offers interesting, believable characters, well-drawn settings and a compelling story. More importantly, it also offers a clever plot that will leave its readers with much to think about. Whilst this is a thoroughly enjoyable novel for anyone, it offers most to those readers familiar with the outline of the Ern Malley hoax. Carey masterfully mixes fact and fiction, parodies the original incident and draws out the real points of interest from this infamous literary hoax.
06-18-12:Peter Carey Extracts 'The Chemistry of Tears'
In present-day London, Catherine Gehrig's secret life ends without her knowledge; her co-worker at the Swinburne Museum and lover, Matthew Tindall, has died, and no-one has thought to tell her. She cannot even grieve openly. In June of 1854, Henry Branding has left his home in London and finally made it to Germany, with the goal of bringing back a mechanical duck, built by a Black Forest clockmaker, to his ailing son. It is his only hope to instill a sense of joy in his family that will bring them all back to full, loving life. Catherine is a horologist, who specializes in bringing antique clocks back to life. Henry, mad with grief, is paying to create a work of art that will simulate life. But our hearts are not machines.
Peter Carey's 'The Chemistry of Tears' is no machine either, in spite of its fascination with internal and external clockworks. Weaving together stories of intense personal revelation and fairy-tale explorations of the human heart, 'The Chemistry of Tears' manages to infuse that elusive spark of art, of life, into story. Carey's prose and his sparse, smart storytelling skill are able to peer directly into the core of what makes us both human and vulnerable. His characters come to life as they confront death, and we, his readers, are immersed in pure story and the purely human lives that we lead, outside of this story and our own stories. Carey deftly pricks us and lets us watch ourselves bleed, word by word.
For all the fierce intensity that he manages here, 'The Chemistry of Tears' is a quick and easily read novel. The cast, divided over two time streams is small. In the present, Catherine Gehrig mourns the absent-but-present Matthew with the help of her understanding supervisor, Eric Croft. He gives her an assignment that will help her take her mind off her grief, to re-construct a clockwork automaton from the mid-nineteenth century; the creature built-to-order for Henry Branding. The chapters alternate between her story and his papers, which she extracts from the crates in which the mechanism is packed. We see the machinery as it is built the first time and re-constructed in the present. Tragic human beauty unfolds its wings twice before our reading eyes.
Catherine's chapters are tense and intense, as she tries to look at the sun that was once her life, without blinding herself. Her grief has to be entirely internalized; she can speak to but one person, Eric, her boss, who knew about her feelings, and even then, only with some trepidation. The stark loneliness of her choice — she was in the affair for thirteen years, has left her entirely isolated and not entirely well. But she's a smart woman with a fascinating career, and as she begins to put together Henry's story, and his automaton, the fire burns brightly but does not consume her. Here the prose is unadorned, the raw stuff of pain, and Carey plunges us into an interior as the mind and heart collide.
Henry's chapters are written in the stiff manner of a down-on-his-luck Victorian gentleman, telling us more than he can allow himself to write plainly. His first son had died, and with him, his marriage. When his wife gives birth to a second son who also falls ill, she detaches herself, and essentially casts him out, sends him to Germany. There he finds a world that we read as part fairy tale. In these sections, Carey's prose transforms reality into an otherworldly fantasia, dominated by a Herr Stumper, a clockmaker who exercises an iron will to create the being that Catherine is re-creating in the present. The only magic involved is the alchemy of the writer.
Whipsawing back and forth between these perspectives, Carey draws us deeply into the very un-clockwork-like nature of the human heart. Catherine becomes increasingly unstable and unprofessional; Henry's despair grows closer and closer to madness. Soon, the story is so intense that we are getting chapters that combine the perspectives, as Catherine relates in rushed, furious strokes, Henry's story. The creature in the crate, the being in the forest, both slowly, beautifully come to life.
Carey's masterful prose, his careful characters, and his intricate, organic plot grip us with the fever of every life in the novel. Catherine is reading Henry's narrative, as are we, and as we read hers. The power of the reading experience, as explored in 'The Chemistry of Tears,' is magnified by the self-awareness of the characters and our own awareness of the fragility of our lives. The threads that hold us together are easily torn asunder. But it is also true that life can spring from language, that in reading a story, we experience not just the lives of the characters we read about, but our own lives as well. If there's a bit of science in the fiction of Peter Carey, it is the science of the human heart.
New to the Agony Column
09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity
08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]
Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]