Genre is a much-maligned friend to readers. While no writer or publisher wants to see a book limited to this or that audience, the thumbnail description offers readers a one or two word review, But there is a presumption in the assignment of genre by both publishers and booksellers that should, I hope, offend most readers. The presumption is that readers choose their reading by topic or subject or tone as opposed to quality. But if you enjoy reading, it really does not matter what the genre of a book is. The reading experience is impossible to duplicate.
These thoughts were occasioned by an NPR round-table discussion of 'The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' by Junot Díaz. Some of the commentators felt that they were not qualified to read the book because they understood it to have "sigh-figh," fantasy and comic book references; one had to consult her son. But read the book, just sit down and read it, and all those concerns go away. Díaz annihilates them (and genre itself) with a powerful prose voice that creates an aesthetic experience that cannot be duplicated. Díaz himself pointed out that you don;t need a degree in hobbo=its and orcs to read The Lord of the Rings. In the final analysis, 'The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' is a great book. But he's not alone in writing them, and you need not write a Pulitzer Prize-winner to provide the reader with a great and unique reading experience. Writers love to annihilate genre boundaries; or, at least, they do so on a regular basis.
We'll start this round easy, with F. Paul Wilson's 'Cold City,' (Tor ; November 27, 2012 ; $25.99), another installment in his long-running Repairman Jack series. While the series long ago came to a conclusion, in 'Nightworld,' Wilson is doing an end-run around his own timeline to give us Repairman Jack before he became Repairman Jack, and, before he became quite so conversant with the otherworldly critters that dogged him through most of the novels thus far. 'Cold City' ratchets back the clock to 1990, giving readers a 21 year-old protagonist who, having set up shop in New York City, decides to stay off the grid.
New York is not necessarily the best place to do so, but readers know in advance that Jack is pretty quick on his feet. With 'Cold City,' Wilson pleasingly turns the tables on his readers and rather than plunging us in another supernatural procedural, he puts Jack in the path of smugglers, slavers, jihadists and the Mafia. This proves to be a very pleasing turn. For all that the appeal of the series rested in part on the Wilson's secret histories and unseen conspiracies, seeing Jack become the man we know and put down more familiar nemeses is actually quite enjoyable. It's funny that readers who enjoy fiction with elements of the fantastic always want to see those elements in the work of more realistic writers, while they long to see the reverse happen for characters like Repairman Jack. Wilson pulls this off with great aplomb while dropping enough hints of what's to come to keep his fans happy. If you've not read Wilson's work before, here is a great place to start.
Jim Crace writes short, peculiar novels that de-construct our assumptions and put us solidly in a world that seems almost like the one we live in. But something is different, something is off. Perhaps the end has come, as in 'The Pesthouse,' or perhaps the main characters are murdered as the novel begins in 'Being Dead.' But if you open a Jim Crace novel, you can count on two things being very true; the prose will transport you to another world, and that world is not likely to be entirely friendly to the humans who find themselves adrift in it. With 'Harvest,' (Nan A. Talese ; February 2013 ; $24.95), Crace strips us down to the essentials. Walter Thirsk lives in a remote English village. After the harvest, smoke from a fire is spotted; and after that strangers arrive; and after that, nothing is the same.
Crace's prose and Thirsk's voice envelope the reader, drawing us in to a vision of life where there are really only humans and the emotions, suspicions and fantasies to spur the characters into action. Words are placed as precisely colored leaves in a harvest wreath as Crace draws us into the machinations that make us violent and beautiful, the allures that bring us pleasure and bring us pain. Crace so successfully floats this vision outside of all reality while grounding it in its own reality that is has the feel of a delicate work of fantasy fiction, even though there is no hint of genre. It is an utterly pure reading experience, immersive and powerful. This is a novel where every sentence seems to take us into a world of greater impure human purity. We are not a species to be messed with. We do it to ourselves all too well.
Readers looking the highest quality outé fiction they can find should know that they need look no further than Tartarus Press, which has two new books out that should rate high on any reader's to-buy list. Tartarus is pursuing a smart, idiosyncratic path of late, publishing forgotten and perhaps never-known practitioners of the weird as well as contemporary authors of the fantastic whose work achieves the same timeless feel.
Timelessess is not something you can really strive for as a writer. But it is certain that works in the realm of the fantastic can age well. The imaginary elements, if well done, can shift the work just enough outside of the time in which it was written to keep it feeling current long after those times have passed. This brings us to 'The House of Oracles and Other Stories,' by the Belgian European Symbolist Thomas Owen, translated and introduced by Iain White, who did a superb job on 'The King in the Golden Mask' by Marvel Schwob. The introduction offers a great vision of a lost literary movement. It almost feels like a story by Borges, and that will give readers a good indication of the work that follows. Born Gérald Bertot in 1910, he started his career early and published the stories found here in collections in the 1940's to fill up paperstocks the Belgians were keen to avoid being confiscated. He took the name of Thomas Owen, a detective in one of his owen earlier stories.
Owen's stories have a crystal clarity that makes the weird and macabre events they describe all the more pertinent and realistic. This is a book where you will amazing sentences in story after story; "Yesterday, when I awake, there was the tail of a kite emerging from my mouth," the narrator of "Portrait of an Unknown Man" tells us. The monsters we find here are rather more real than we would prefer and they often emerge from within. There's a superb scene in the opening story, "Two of a Kind," when the narrator, bed-ridden with illness, finds himself confronting a new symptom: "Needles repeatedly came out of my body in this way. Always at the level of my heart." Of course; Owen's stories stem from emotions made real, in the flesh. There's a strong sense of the erotic nature of the fantastic here. The two intertwine in "The Gate," in which a young man who tries to follow up on an encounter with a beautiful woman finds her circumstances are stranger than he might have imagined. 'The House of Oracles and Other Stories' is perfect evidence that there is much more fantastic literature than we might have expected.
Contemporary author N. A. Sulway's striking novel 'Rupetta' is a powerful, sweeping but compact epic vision that slips through genres. We meet Rupetta in the present, but she quickly takes us back to the past; Languedoc, France, on November 11th, 1619, when she first achieves consciousness. Built by Eloise Remi, Rupetta is part human and part machine. Her consciousness is tied to the Wynders, the minds of the women who wind her through the ages. The novel begins with an ominous intimation of Isaac Asimov;
"THE FOURFOLD RUPETTAN LAW
Life is Death.
The Earth is a Grave.
The Body is a Machine for Dying.
Knowledge is the Path to Immortality."
Sulway nails this story with powerful prose, powerful voices and an intricately detailed but wide-ranging vision of the past and the present that come to be as Rupetta, sometimes sold, sometimes forgotten eventually becomes the pivot-point around which our world revolves. Sulway pulls not punches and remakes our world with a magical and mechanical matriarch who yet has secrets that could undo her.
The real treat here is the seamless flow of prose that makes the reading experience utterly unique. Writing with complete confidence in her story and her creation, Sulway evades any categorization you might care to apply beyond immersive, inventive and not feminist, so much as womanly. Sulway uses her fantastic notion to create an unforgettable immortal character that lets her speak to both what is, what might have been and what might still be.
When you come up for air from a selection of books such as these (the short stories make a great between-novel palate cleanser), you're likely to have a much better understanding of just how unimportant genres are with regards to the reading experience itself. All one needs to do is to open a book, and let it speak. Listen. The voices in your head are real, and the memories these books will create are real as well. Mingle your memories of reading a book with your memories of what you read. You may find your memories of the 17th century are much clearer than you might ever have expected.
02-04-13:Ian Rankin is 'Standing in Another Man's Grave'
John Rebus is no longer a cop. Forced into retirement, he's taken a job working on cold cases with a couple of other retirees. It's paper-pushing scut-work, but it's better than being dead, which seems like a destination that is all too near. Then he takes a call from Nina Hazlitt, a woman whose daughter disappeared six years ago. Nina's never let go, and when she calls into the cold case unit looking for the cop who led the investigation, she gets Rebus instead. Rebus gives her just enough credence to let her get her foot into the door, and in short order, he finds himself looking for much more than her daughter.
'Standing in Another Man's Grave' is a sort of reboot for Rebus, and for readers who have never read Rankin's work, it's a sterling place to start. The upside is that you're going to read an outstanding novel, filled with memorable characters, conflicts, layers and twists that are extremely immersive and rewarding. The downside is that you're going to want to go back and add Rankin's entire back-catalogue to your own cold case files. It's a win-win for everyone, really, other than the few folks in the novel who have the unfortunate luck to cross both Rebus and the law. Rebus may seem shaggy, unkempt and disorganized, but he's persistent and pushy. He doesn't make a lot of friends, but he solves cases in a manner that makes for a superb novel.
From the beginning of 'Standing in Another Man's Grave,' Rankin's prose is a joy to read. It's filled with great lines and feels detailed and dense, but never difficult or slow. Rankin writes his prose with a very dialed-back, understated sense of wry humor that makes every scene effective and entertaining. The dialogue rings true and is nicely interspersed to keep a lively pace. Since the novel spends a fair amount of time on the road, we are gifted with Rankin's evocative descriptions of the Scottish landscape. Rankin manages to write a novel that creates a subdued, moody atmosphere with an effortless grace that is extremely easy and pleasing to read.
Readers will find a rather large cast here, but even if you are not familiar with the series, Rankin does a great job of setting everyone up while never making it feel as if we're getting the brief. The characters enter the scenes with lots of history that we can sense from Rankin's language and Rebus's reactions. Cafferty, an ex-crime boss and one-time nemesis, now has the occasional drink with Rebus. Malcolm Fox, who had two novels in the lead as a member of "The Complaints," that is, the cops who sniff out bad apples in the department, here proves to be a nemesis for Rebus as well. Fox is a by-the-book fellow, and he has no time for Rebus's rebellion and rule-skirting. Fox warns Siobhan Clarke, once Rebus's sidekick, that she'd do better to stay away from Rebus. The tensions between the cops are effectively layered with those of the suspects and the victims' relatives. Even the one-scene characters have real heft. For all the people you meet in this novel, there are none you will forget.
From the first scene on, Rankin crafts a story of growing tension and intricacy. As Rebus begins to investigate the disappearance of Nina Hazlitt's daughter, he finds that there is much more to the case than he at first suspected. For all that he is working a cold case, Rebus really wants to be back in the thick of it, in active pursuit of someone in flight. The solution here is never straightforward and the complications offered by the villainous attentions and intentions of both Cafferty and Fox are just two threads in a story that grows organically. Rankin paces all this with an admirable precision and the very restrained use of perspectives other than that of John Rebus.
The balance in this novel between our enjoyment of the journey and our anticipation of the solution is superbly wrought. Rankin's pacing, prose and his sense of detail feel simple and naturalistic. Nothing is forced or exaggerated, but the investment, involvement and rewards are all supremely satisfying. There's no need to have read any of the previous Rebus novels to make this one work. 'Standing in Another Man's Grave' is superb completely on its own. It has the feel of an enjoyably-complicated literary novel and a snarky, rebellious character who makes it fun. John Rebus may be retired, but readers will want go back to (re-) experience his youth, and hope for more to come. Complications and complaints be damned. This is a world we want to enjoy, one muddy footstep after another.
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]