Blackout and All Clear.

Connie Willis’ time-travel novels are a marvel; she’s created an alternate universe where time travel isn’t just possible, but plausible, because it’s intrinsic to her plots but not to the characters or the setting. The first full-length novel, The Doomsday Book, sent a character back to the period of the Black Death at the same time that a pandemic hit Oxford in 2060, where the time-traveling historians reside. The second, To Say Nothing of the Dog, was a comedy of manners that parodied a Brit Lit classic. Her 2010 diptych Blackout/All Clear is a magnum opus in scope and length, a single novel published in two parts because the combination runs over 1100 pages, sending three historians back into World War II only to have everything go awry for them. The duo swept the major sci-fi novel awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Locus) despite some reviews that criticized the books’ length. I adore Willis’ writing and character development, so while the books are long – it took me just over two weeks to finish the pair – my only regret at their length was that I was dying to get to the resolution.

Willis’ time-travel universe keeps that physical impossibility to something of a minimum. Historians travel backwards in time for research purposes, and of course are charged with staying out of the way of history lest they find they alter it. Spacetime itself has a defense mechanism, however; it won’t allow time travelers to land at a point in history where their mere presence may change its course – so, no, you can’t go back and kill baby Hitler, even in fiction. Those who try end up displaced in time or location from their target, and the gap is called “slippage.” Meanwhile, returning through a portal, called a drop, to 2060 is also complicated – the drops must not be seen by “contemps” from that time period, and if the location isn’t secure, the drop won’t open and the historian can’t return home until the next rendezvous. It’s an elegant, concise way to introduce time travel and all of its attendant problems into serious literature that would otherwise collapse under the weight of the details.

Unlike Willis’ previous two novels in this setting, nearly all of Blackout/All Clear takes place in the past. Once the historians start to step through the portal into World War II at the start of the first book, we don’t get back to Oxford until well into All Clear; this is a novel of three historians stuck in World War II, simultaneously trying to find a way back to their present and to avoid doing anything that might alter history … which could in turn mean that time travel is never invented, creating a paradox with unforeseeable consequences (none of them good, though). Michael Davies wants to research heroes, but ends up in the evacuation at Dunkirk. Polly Churchill wants to research the conditions and behavior of people who sheltered in Tube (subway) stations during the Blitz, but ends up in a shelter below a church and falls into an amateur theatrical troupe. Merope Ward wants to research the lives of evacuated children in the English countryside, only to find herself saving one of her ward’s lives and bringing some of the children back to London to an uncertain fate during the bombings. The three all realize soon enough that something’s amiss, between the slippage and the failure of their drops to reopen, and start to look for each other in London to seek a way out before the paradoxes of time travel overtake them.

Willis’ prose captures the cadence and flow of great British authors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, even though she’s an American author writing today, with the clarity and wit of a Wodehouse and a bit of the descriptiveness of Dickens (but not too much). She also creates wonderful characters, a few of whom, like department head Mr. Dunworthy or young Colin Templer, we’ve seen before. Merope, who goes by Eileen in the past, and Polly are a little bit too similar to each other, although some slight personality distinctions emerge in the second book, but the characters around the core trio are wonderfully diverse and well filled-out, from the actor Sir Godfrey to the aging fisherman Commander Harold to the imps Alf and Binnie who plague Merope’s existence. Willis has given her world depth and texture by populating it with believable, three-dimensional characters, even unlikable ones, so that reading her novels, especially this two-part tome, becomes an immersive experience. I was very much reminded of watching the Foyle’s War TV series, which is set almost entirely in World War II and even has one episode that occurs in part in a bomb shelter; Willis recreated that setting in words to the point where I could lose myself in the story.

Blackout itself isn’t much of a standalone novel because it ends mid-story; there is absolutely zero resolution at its end, not even so much as an answer to the question of why these historians have gotten stuck when their colleagues had gone to other points in history and returned without major incident. If you’re going to read one, you’re committing to read both, and that does mean that you’ll be in the past with the trio of trapped heroes for a long time. I’m completely comfortable with that – I will happily spend all day in Connie Willis’ words if my schedule permits.

Next up: I’ve read a few books since this pairing, but just started another Hugo winner, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which definitely sounds like something other than a critically acclaimed sci-fi novel.

Babel-17.

My second first-round projection (“mock”) for this year’s draft is up for Insiders.

Samuel Delany wrote his short novel Babel-17, a smart, profound philosophical work, when he was just 23 years old, an astounding achievement for a work that would be impressive for an author of any age. The prose is a bit abstruse and the story a little meandering, but this is a novel of ideas, or rather one very big idea, that the language we speak can ultimately shape the way we think, a concept known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. (If any of this sounds familiar, it’s also the core idea behind the 2016 movie Arrival.)

According to The Linguist List, the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis states that “an individual’s thoughts and actions are determined by the language or languages that individual speaks.” The words and concepts of a language thus define not just what you say, but what you think and do. That simple version of the hypothesis, also called “linguistic relativism,” is generally accepted to be true, although there’s naturally disagreement on its extent, and there are stronger variations of the theorem (found in that link above) that are more controversial.

Delany builds an entire story around Sapir-Whorf, using an alien language called Babel-17 that humans and their allies have tried for years but failed to fully decipher, but that the other side in an ongoing, intergalactic war have weaponized to create turncoats within the allies’ forces. The protagonist, the poet and starship captain Rydra Wong, finds herself recruited by the Allies to crack what they suspect to be a code, only for her to discover that it’s an actual language that can re-program someone’s brain. This leads her on a series of missions into the war zone while coping with the likelihood that one of her own crew members is trying to sabotage the ship and potentially kill her.

For a novel that’s ostensibly set in a war, there’s very little fighting in Babel-17, which spends more time describing the consequences of war (like mass starvation) than the details of battle. Delany was enamored with his ideas about language, and managed to combine those with a compelling, three-dimensional protagonist – perhaps a too perfect one, as Rydra is brilliant, empathetic, and apparently beautiful, although the last point is only mentioned but never a factor in the story. The plot itself is a little muddled, and Delany’s prose struck me as Joyceian in spots, so for a book of under 200 pages it took me more time than I’d expect to get through it … which isn’t a criticism per se, more an observation given how quickly I read in general, and a reflection of how philosophical this novel is.

Delany does struggle to get the story to a reasonable, fulfilling conclusion, but I think that’s more feature than bug because the open question of the book, can language determine who we are and how we act, is not conducive to a plot deep enough for a novel. (Arrival got away with it, I think, because it was based on a short story, and a movie can work with a much shorter or thinner plot than a full-length novel can.) I never found myself wrapped up in the war plot. Delany gets more mileage out of the saboteur thread, although that conclusion wasn’t terribly satisfying on its own, only in the context of the broader question about language and thought. While I imagine linguists might object to his metaphor here, using Babel-17 as a brainwashing tool (and thus weaponizing Sapir-Whord), it takes a difficult and I think controversial topic in linguistics and puts it into a story in a way that an adept reader would understand the hypothesis and be left with plenty to chew on after finishing. That’s the great achievement of this book.

Jo Walton, whose book Among Others is one of my favorite novels of any genre, also weighed in on the wonders of Babel-17.

Next up: Richard Russo’s Everybody’s Fool. It’s good to see Sully again.

Dragon’s Teeth.

Upton Sinclair is best remembered today for two of his early novels, the expose The Jungle and the novel Oil!, the latter of which was the basis for the movie There Will Be Blood. (Little-known fact: when Sinclair was on his deathbed, he had a clause put in his will that the movie version had to star Daniel Day-Lewis, who was just 11 years old at the time.) Sinclair later penned a series of eleven novels starring the charismatic socialist Lanny Budd, and the third one, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943. It was out of print for years before the entire Budd series reappeared last year in ebook form, which is how I picked up Dragon’s Teeth (on sale one day for $2).

The novel is very much a product of its time, a blend of wartime patriotism and unrealistic action, with Lanny almost too good to be real and yet surrounded by many flawed characters, including his shallow socialite wife. (There isn’t a female character worth a damn in the book.) The story is the real driver here, as Budd, who’s living abroad in Europe for most of the novel, becomes an early prophet of doom as Hitler begins his rise to power in the late 1920s, even as those around him continue to try to do business with the German government or claim that the worst won’t come to pass. The novel’s second half becomes more action-oriented, where Budd has to rescue two Jewish friends, first a father then the son, from imprisonment by the Nazis, where Sinclair also provides a window into what’s really happening in Nazi Germany – perhaps a bit late by the time it was published, but certainly a reaction to the belief by some Americans that stories of Nazi atrocities were exaggerated or false.

There’s a lot more story than I just gave you – in 600+ pages, there had better be – but much of it is window dressing, or weak criticism. Sinclair appeared to have little or no use for the idle rich, and his depictions of their total indifference to the suffering of the poor and of the Jews in Germany are hard to take – although I concede they may have been very real. (We’re certainly seeing lots of indifference to the poor in our country today.) Sinclair ratchets up the tempo by raising the stakes – there’s really no reason to believe either or both of the Jews Lanny is trying to rescue will be found alive, or come out of the camps intact. But he doesn’t give a ton of depth to most of his characters; it’s a serious novel, but breezes along in parts like a comedy of manners.

What did surprise me, however, was Sinclair’s treatment of the two Jews at the heart of the story. American authors prior to 1950 or so tended to depict Jewish characters using hackneyed stereotypes, if they depicted them at all. Sinclair has Lanny related to the family by marriage, which I imagine would have been scandalous in polite society of the time, and his desire to rescue his friends/relatives is both philosophical and personal. The father Johannas is a businessman, but the Germans are the ones obsessed with money here – the price of freedom in both cases is money, everything Johannas has in the first case, then another exorbitant sum to free his son.

Throughout the Lanny Budd series, Sinclair puts the protagonist into major world events, here having Lanny meet with Hermann Göring and Adolf Hitler multiple times, putting Lanny right in the middle of The Night of Long Knives, and sending Johannas’ son (and thus Lanny) to Dachau. Other real-world events appear via news reports so that Lanny can react to them (or expound his socialist views) and scold the Pollyannas who take Hitler at his word or try to continue to do business with Germany after the Nazis took over. In the moment, it probably felt like an important book that captured a time that was eight years in the past but also relevant to ongoing current events. Today, though, it seems heavy and dated, saved by brisk writing and plenty of action in the book’s second half, but not enough to make it stand up like Sinclair’s better-known works.

Next up: I’ve been reading Connie Willis’ Blackout/All Clear diptych, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel, and have about 350 pages to go in the second book.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

My first book, Smart Baseball, is out now in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook. You can find links to order it here or get it at any local bookstore.

Kate Wilhelm won the Hugo and Locus Awards for Best Novel in 1977 for her book Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, which Locus called – I kid you not – the best book about cloning, which I guess is a subgenre I just missed over the years. It’s also much more than just a book about cloning; like the best genre fiction, it uses its setting as a platform to tell a bigger story, in this case one about the importance of individuality in a society that might overvalue the collective good.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang starts with the fall of civilization; environmental degradation leads to worldwide food shortages and global pandemics. One family in the Shenandoah Valley starts planning for the apocalypse by building a research facility and eventually a hospital on their rural property and beginning a cloning program to combat declining fertility. Over the course of the novel, which jumps forward a few years at multiple points, the clones take over the kibbutz and start building their mini-society in a very different way than their ancestors would have, creating something akin to true communism as described by Marx in the end of Das Kapital. That attempt runs into massive practical and cultural problems, and Mark, the hero of the last half of the book, becomes the reluctant individual who tries to topple the status quo.

I don’t know what Wilhelm’s political views were, but I found it hard to see this as anything but a criticism of communism and its advocacy of a command (centrally planned) economy. The clones aren’t just similar; they experience a psychic bond to each other, so when one is injured, his/her clone siblings feel it, but so they’re also unable to function apart from their broods. Mark is raised outside of the commune for several years by his mother, Molly, who was part of a group that attempted to explore the ruins of nearby Washington, D.C., the members of which were all permanently altered by the traumatic experience of their separation. That leaves Mark the one true individual in the colony, not just able to function on his own, but able to think critically and creatively in ways that the clones cannot. At first, he acts out the way that bright kids do, playing pranks on the clones who can’t think their way out of trouble, but eventually realizes (or decides) that he’s the only person who can save both the colony and what remains of humanity.

And that’s really what this is – a savior story, set against the backdrop of a collective society that doesn’t just deny the individuality of its members, it breeds all individuality out of its members, selecting clones based on physical or mental characteristics needed to maintain the colony. (There’s an anti-eugenics theme in here as well, although it’s not as well-developed.) In a novel with few complete characters – that’s a feature of a cloning story, not a bug – Mark is the best, and comes across as the reluctant hero, beset by internal demons that resulted from mistreatment by the very society that he’s trying to save. I haven’t read the works of Ayn Rand beyond a few snippets, but this seems to mirror the anti-communist, individualist themes of her objectivist philosophy, just with better writing.

Next up: Kelly Link’s Pulitzer-nominated short story collection Get in Trouble.

Spin.

Smart Baseball is out on Tuesday! You can still preorder it here.

Robert Charles Wilson’s ambitious novel Spin, winner of the 2005 Hugo Award for Best Novel, combines some hard science fiction with some highly speculative work in both cosmology and nanotechnology as it follows three characters after the cataclysmic event that gives the book its title. It’s a bold novel of ideas that struggles a little in its midsection but comes through with a rousing, clever finish that also gives a bleak story a hopeful if uncertain resolution.

The Spin of the title is the name humanity gives a temporal bubble that an unknown, external entity (later dubbed the “Hypotheticals”) has placed around the Earth, causing time inside the bubble to move more slowly than it does outside. Where one year passes on Earth inside the Spin, a hundred million years pass outside of it, which means that after thirty to fifty years inside the Spin, the region of the solar system where the Earth exists would become uninhabitable as the Sun begins the expansion that precedes its death.

The story itself starts with twelve-year-old Tyler Dupree and his two friends, Diane and Jason Lawton, from the night the Spin first appears, obscuring the stars and knocking out satellite communications worldwide. Jason is the scientific genius of the trio; Diane, his sensitive twin sister who turns to religion; and Tyler, the narrator and balancing figure, a bit of a Nick Newland for his bland presence in the story, whose love for Diane is unrequited and whose friendship with Jason feels professional even before, later in life, he becomes Jason’s personal physician.

The narrative jumps around in time, with vignettes from a distant future where Tyler is going through a process we later learn is a massive physical adjustment to a sort of drug regimen brought to earth by a human who has returned to Earth from Mars. It’s one of Wilson’s most clever gambits in the book – Jason and others at his father’s think tank/quasi-governmental organization Perihelion decide to create life on Mars by terraforming and seeding it from afar and then sending people. This takes advantage of the time discrepancy, so the hundreds of millions of years required by evolution take just a few years of Earth time. And it turns out that Life on Mars advances even beyond what life on earth has, with a life-extension treatment that upends the lives of the few on Earth who try it. His return to Earth sparks a second, even more extensive space program that holds the key to humanity surviving the imminent death of its home planet and solar system.

Spin is saved from itself by Tyler and the twins, as the story, while entertaining for its speculative aspects, could not support a 450-page novel by itself. They’re only moderately well-developed, but are at least developed enough to feel real (unlike the twins’ parents, who are straight out of central casting – the hard-driving, materialistic, unloving father, and his miserable alcoholic wife); the twins have a yin/yang dichotomy between them, the hardcore rationalist against the emotion-driven sentimentalist, but Wilson has them behave in ways that transcend two-dimensional stereotypes. Jason’s tortured relationship with his father could make up its own book, and felt more authentic than Tyler’s cold pining for Diane over years when he doesn’t see or hear from her.

The speculative science involved in the second space effort and the resolution of the Spin story reminded me a bit of Michio Kaku’s Parallel Worlds, a non-fiction science book that delves into the idea of the multiverse and whether, for example, wormholes might exist or someone (or something) might travel through a black hole into another universe. In the science world, this might be called “bunkrapt,” but it is fantastic fodder for hard science fiction, and gives Wilson an improbable but internally consistent resolution to the story. There was a point around 2/3 of the way through Spin where I felt like the narrative had slowed down and I was probably going to end up giving it a negative review, but the truly clever endings to the various plotlines make the book a success.

Next up: Another Hugo winner, Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

I’ve had mixed results with Norman Mailer’s work in the past – I loved The Executioner’s Song, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction even though it’s pretty clearly a work of non-fiction, but bailed on The Naked and the Dead after just a handful of pages because of its turgid prose and Dickensian attention to detail. When I read that he’d written a noir-ish detective novel, though, I figured the genre would at least make up for any obstacles I found in his writing, and contemporary reviews of the book, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, were so positive that I gave it a shot. It’s somewhere in the middle for me, overdone as a work of genre fiction, but also, I think, exploring a theme that’s basically absent from the first fifty years or so of hard-boiled detective stories.

Tim Madden is a writer who never seems to write anything, and whose wife has walked out on him, apparently for good this time. Their relationship is built on nothing much at all, but he’s broken up about it, and goes on a bender one night after meeting a couple from California in a bar in his adopted home of Provincetown (a small town at the tip of Cape Cod that, then and now, is known as a gay haven, which turns out to matter substantially in the story). He wakes up the next morning to find he has a tattoo with the name of a woman he doesn’t know, blood all over the inside of his car, and, eventually, a woman’s head in the place where he stashes his marijuana. He’s then left to try to figure out what happened – including who the woman was and whether he killed her – while various people from his past and present show up, including the woman he once dumped for his wife after they went to a swingers’ party, and complicate his efforts to solve the crime.

The novel’s style seems a clear callback to the hard-boiled novels of which I am so fond, although Mailer’s prose is more involved than the clipped tones of Dashiell Hammett or the sparse artistry of Raymond Chandler. It’s almost too well-written for the genre, in that you can tell this is a very good writer trying his hand at an unfamiliar type of writing. Nearly all of the side characters are straight out of central casting – dimwitted hoods, ex-boxers, corrupt cops – but Tim himself is unique, a writer rather than a detective, a child of privilege who got kicked out of Exeter, a former drug dealer who did a stint in prison where he met a former Exeter classmate of his who’ll also figure in the present mystery.

I’m completely interpreting here, but I think Mailer was trying to explore questions of masculinity, especially as it related to homosexuality, something that’s even telegraphed in the novel’s title, which comes from an anecdote within the book where a mobster utters that line, as if dancing would erode his toughness. (It also called to mind the Belle & Sebastian line, “We all know you’re soft/cause we’ve all seen you dancing.”) Most of the male characters in the novel are grappling with maintaining some sort of facade of manliness in the face of emotions that, I think especially in the 1970s and early 1980s, would have marked them as effeminate, if not as “gay” in the pejorative sense of the term. There’s a lot of just plain ol’ fashioned heterosexual depravity in this book, and of course given the time of its writing (published in 1984), there’s quite a bit of homophobic language, including a reference to “Kaposi’s plague,” which refers to a rare cancer that became common among gay men at the time and turned out to be associated with AIDS. But so much of that content read to me like men trying to prove they’re men – I’m not gay, see how I say awful things about gay men, they’re all (bundles of sticks), I’d like to kill them all, etc. The straight men doth protest too much.

And while I doubt “toxic masculinity” was even a term back in the early 1980s – as far as I can tell, it was coined well after the book was written – there’s a huge element of that within the book and behind the crime itself. Without spoiling the whodunit, I’ll say that men trying to either prove their masculinity or suppress characteristics that might be labeled as feminine or gay loom very large within the story, enough that when I finished the book, I found that theme was much more on my mind than the plot itself, which was a little too convoluted, with the murders kind of too pointless for this style of novel. That makes it a cerebral detective story, but maybe not as compelling of a mystery as the classics of the genre are.

Next up: Robert Charles Wilson’s Hugo Award-winning novel Spin.

Commonwealth.

I’ve been a devotee of the fiction of Ann Patchett since reading her magnum opus, Bel Canto, an ensemble story that takes inspiration from the 1997 incident when Tupac Amaru fighters took over the Japanese embassy in Peru and held 72 people hostage for four months. Patchett built from that story to create a deep, rich web of complex characters and wrote a literary fugue that she later said was her attempt to recreate Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. (I’m not a fan of that book, so I’d say there’s no comparison.)

Her latest novel, Commonwealth, is the only other novel she’s written that tries to tell the same sort of broad tapestry of a story, with at least five and as many as ten well-defined, realistic characters in a book that plays with time as she reconstructs the history of two families. The book starts with a christening party and a drunken kiss between a husband and a wife who are married to other people, a kiss that begets an affair that begets divorces, marriages, a death, and six children becoming stepsiblings and forging bonds that will last for decades.

This isn’t Bel Canto in format, however; that book had epic scope but was told in linear fashion. Commonwealth jumps around in time based on what details Patchett wants to reveal, a gambit that started as disorienting but improved as the story went on because each section reveals something about one or more characters that proves useful in the next. I still might have preferred a linear timeline here, largely because that makes it easier for me to immerse myself in a story, but Patchett is such a skilled storyteller that she can make the future into prologue and still have it all tie together.

Although the four adults involved in the two marriages that become an affair, two divorces, and another marriage set the plot in motion, this book is much more about the kids involved than anyone else: two sisters from one marriage, then four kids, two of each sex, from the other. They’re not an easy mix at any point, but because Bert and Beverly, the couple who kissed and eventually divorce their spouses to marry each other, are kind of half-assed parents, the six kids end up partners in crime, the older ones mostly taking care of the younger, but also getting into all sorts of trouble, some trivial, some tragic.

Each story focuses on different kids, but Albie, the second-youngest of the six children, is easily the most interesting, I think because Patchett has written him as someone who today would be considered “on the spectrum” of autism but who in this book’s time period would never have been diagnosed. He’s just weird in the eyes of his siblings, who hand him Benadryl tablets and tell him they’re candy so he won’t be such a pain, and grows into a self-medicating, risk-loving teenager who can’t stay in school or keep a job and really doesn’t find any stability until at least his 20s. But as he gets older and the family situation keeps changing, some of his bonds with siblings, especially his stepsister Franny (the second best-developed character in the book), become the novel’s true center.

There’s also a bit of fun metafiction within Commonwealth, where Franny, who feels as I do about books (hand me a supply of books and then just leave me alone for a few weeks), meets a literary idol of hers, Leon Posen, and eventually becomes his lover and sort of amanuensis. Leon eventually takes her stories of her childhood and writes them into a novel, Commonwealth, that restarts his literary career, becomes a bestseller, and narrowly misses winning the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. That last bit may prove prescient; the book is considered one of the favorites to win this year’s award, which will be announced on Monday, April 10th, but is probably less likely to win than Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad.

Patchett’s prose is as lush as her characters, and here she marries the two with a story worthy of her words; when she hasn’t succeeded, it’s been in books with weak stories, like Run or Taft. Commonwealth is a huge success, however, a story of and for everyone, one that is simultaneously about nothing and about everything. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and Patchett gives us a whole new unhappy family to enjoy.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

My last post from Arizona went up yesterday for Insiders, with notes on four prospects: Dylan Cease, Anderson Espinoza, Luis Almanzar, and Scott Blewett. My annual breakout players column goes up Thursday – but if you subscribe to my newsletter, you already knew that.

Also, some great boardgame apps from Asmodee are on sale till March 26th. Here are the ones I recommend, each of which is $2:
* Ticket to Ride (iOSandroid)
* Splendor (iOSandroid)
* Pandemic (iOSandroid)
* Small World (iOSandroid)

Just 34 more days till Smart Baseball is released. You can still preorder it now via Harper-Collins’ site.

Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 with his sprawling novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a story about comic books, magicians, Jewish mysticism, homophobia, fascism, and a few other themes, one that garnered universal praise but that I thought could have used some serious editing. That experience steered me away from Chabon, figuring if I couldn’t love his acknowledged masterwork then I probably just wasn’t a fan, until I picked up his Hugo Award winner The Yiddish Policemen’s Union earlier this year in a used bookstore. It’s still very much Chabon’s voice, but the story here is so much more focused and the side characters more developed, which spurred my “hot take” tweet the other day that I preferred this novel to his magnum opus.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in an alternate timeline where the real-life proposal to create a homeland in Alaska for displaced Jews went through, and where the state of Israel was overrun by Arab attackers, so that the city of Sitka – population in our timeline: about 9000 – is a bustling metropolis of over two million people, mostly Jewish refugees and their descendants. (For comparison’s sake, the entire state of Alaska has fewer than 750,000 people right now.) This protectorate comes with an expiration date, like the United Kingdom’s agreement in Hong Kong or our agreement in Panama, where the autonomy of the local Jewish population over their municipal affairs will end two months after the time in which the story takes place, with the fate of all of these Jews unknown. They may lose their citizenship, and will certainly lose their socioeconomic status, with federal agents lurking, ready to come in and throw the Jews out.

Set against this backdrop is an old-fashioned noir detective novel, one that begins with a dead junkie in the flophouse where alcoholic cop Meyer Landsman lives (and drinks). The junkie has been shot in the head, execution-style, but left behind some very strange clues, including a miniature chessboard left in the middle of a difficult problem and Jewish prayer strings (tzitzit) that the victim appears to have used to tie off when shooting heroin. The victim turns out to be someone fairly significant in the local underworld, which spins Landsman and his partner, the half-Jewish/half-Tlingit Berko Shemets, into a traditional hard-boiled detective storyline where they bounce in a sort of circle around the same handful of suspects and sources to try to unravel the core mystery. Of course, Landsman gets knocked out, kidnapped, nearly killled, and drunk over the course of the novel, because Chabon is at least true to the form to which he’s paying homage.

Chabon creates a fun cast of eccentrics to populate this novel – which was also true of Kavalier and Clay – even though he has to cut them all from the same basic cloth. They’re all exiles facing the potential end of their safe haven, all brought up in the same semi-closed community, all coping with the same existential doubts. Even those who’ve spent time outside of the enclave, such as Meyer’s ex-wife and now boss Bina, share the same core experiences and are facing the same sort of countdown-to-extinction questions. Chabon gives them surprising depth given the limitations he’s placed on himself with this setting.

He also wrote a cracking good plot; at the end of the day, detective fiction lives and dies by two things, the main character and the story, so while Chabon’s prose can be spectacular, it’s lipstick on a pig if the story isn’t good. I was drawn into the story fairly quickly, and he manages to peel back the layers in a way that feels realistic, while also infusing just enough of a conspiracy to keep the reader guessing – and to give some meaning to the general sense of the Sitka population that the world is really out to get the city’s Jews.

The characters in the book are all supposed to be speaking Yiddish, with a glossary at the end of the book for Yiddish terms that Chabon chose to keep or that lack an easy translation, a detail that makes sense for the setting but that gave the book the only real distraction, especially when Chabon would tell us that a certain character had switched to English or, on one or two occasions, Hebrew. It fits the setting – a refugee population moving en masse like that wouldn’t just adopt a new tongue – but detracted slightly from the flow of the story.

As for the ending … I don’t think Chabon intended to satisfy the reader here, because this isn’t a traditional hard-boiled detective novel, but an updated one that respects the tradition, and because the conclusion here has to mimic the fate of the Sitka population. They’re not getting the resolution they deserve, so the readers should at least be left with some ambiguity to reflect it. With the rest of the story as tightly woven and written as it is, that’s a compromise I can easily accept as a reader.

Next up: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Hugo winner Mirror Dance, part of the Vorkosigan series; I read and enjoyed The Vor Game in November but skipped the review because I was on vacation.

Mister Monkey.

I was unfamiliar with American author Francine Prose’s work before stumbling on some glowing reviews in the fall for Mister Monkey, her 22nd book of fiction, a brilliant and funny book about the participants in and around the staging of a really terrible musical for children. Prose, whose work outside of writing has created some significant controversy, manages to touch on so many ideas and develop many fascinating characters in under 300 pages of high and low comedy, from the 12-year-old actor in the monkey suit who is growing up too fast to the Yale-educated actress at the end of her rope who has the worst part in the play.

The play is called Mister Monkey, and is based on a not-very-good children’s book by the character Ray Ortiz, whom we’ll meet over the course of Prose’s novel. Ortiz is a Vietnam War veteran who tried to write a book about his experiences there, but it ended up, through the wringer of publishing, a weird children’s book that was subsequently adapted into a bad musical that has become a perennial production, in the way so many mediocre works aimed at children do. This off-off-Broadway staging has more than its share of tragicomic characters and elements, and Prose manages to spin them off into a circle of stories that touch on everything from existential doubt to the fear of romantic rejection. It’s like Pulitzer winner A Visit from the Good Squad, except that it’s good.

The musical itself is all background – we get hints of why it’s so bad, of course, but that’s about all we get, which is probably a small mercy from Prose, who definitely enjoyed making up this artistic monstrosity. Instead it’s the spark that gives us Adam, the child actor who is twelve but looks eight, already knows his stage-mom is not well, and is struggling with the onset of puberty and, among other things, the fact that he has a crush on one of his adult co-stars. And gives us Mario, the server at a Rao’s-like restaurant who always waits on Ray, who goes there every time there’s a new production of Mister Monkey and gives Mario a couple of tickets to the play, because it turns out Mario just loves the theater … and he too develops a crush on the same actress who is the literal and figurative target of Adam’s affections. Everyone’s flawed, but they’re all flawed in entirely credible ways – shy, confused, frustrated, manic, resigned. Only Lakshmi, the costume designer who also plays the police officer in the musical, comes off as less than fully-realized, in part because her story has a bizarre twist that is a forced laugh and doesn’t fit with the rest of who she is.

That laugh stands out because it’s one of the only attempts at humor here that doesn’t land. Mister Monkey is very funny due to Prose’s wry, observational style that lampoons life but usually doesn’t mock its characters. Shifting focus with each long chapter means we get one character’s thoughts on everyone else, only to learn later on that we only had a fraction of the story, and often someone’s difficult or hostile behavior was merely a symptom of a deeper problem. It’s Gibby Haynes’ line, “you never know just how you look through other people’s eyes,” in prose form. (No pun intended, but how can you avoid it with an author named Prose?)

Prose also gives us an unconventional “here’s what happened to all the characters” section at the end that I thought elevated that gambit over the standard epilogue format without becoming excessively sentimental; such sections are always a little bit sappy, because the author obviously cares about her creations and knows the readers will too. In this case, however, she leaves a few of their fates open-ended, hinting at new beginnings as much as she does at new opportunities for disappointment.

And if there’s an overarching theme to all of the interwoven stories of Mister Monkey, that’s it. Everyone in the book is dealing with some sort of disappointment. The realization that the acting career isn’t coming. The loneliness of a lifetime of bachelorhood. The sadness of a widower whose family doesn’t have much time for him. The pathetic acceptance of the unloving boyfriend. They’re all disappointed in life by different things, but their disappointment is what ties them all together – that and a very stupid children’s musical about a monkey who is falsely accused of stealing someone’s wallet.

Next up: I just finished Michael Chabon’s Hugo Award-winning novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union on the flight home from Arizona last night.

The Underground Railroad.

Colson Whitehead’s 2016 novel The Underground Railroad won the National Book Award for that year and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, the first book to win both awards. The last three Carnegie Medal for Fiction winners have gone on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as well, making Whitehead’s book the current favorite for that honor as well, and it would certainly fit both in the quality of the work itself and the kind of American themes the Pulitzer committee is charged with identifying.

Whitehead’s alternative history has an actual railroad operating underground, in secret, ferrying slaves to freedom in the north with the help of abolitionist whites, with southern plantation owners and slave-hunters trying to ferret out its locations and operators. This becomes the route for Cora, a slave on a brutal plantation in Georgia who has been abandoned by her mother (who fled the plantation without a word) and finds the farm’s ownership going from bad to worse, as she attempts to find freedom in the north despite impossible odds and the threat of torture and death if she’s caught and returned to her owner.

Cora herself is one of the great strengths of the novel, as Whitehead has created one of the most memorable and compelling female protagonists in American fiction. It’s easy for a writer to craft a fictional slave who captures the sympathy of readers; Whitehead’s success is in crafting one who captures our empathy. Cora is strength in futility, a tightly wound ball of fear, rage, and grief who makes her dash out of a desire for freedom and a quest for a connection to the family she’s lost. She’s neither broken by the dehumanizing experiences she had as a slave, nor unbroken as we might expect of a fictional heroine. There’s enough reason in Cora’s character to doubt that she’ll succeed in reaching her goal.

The other strength of The Underground Railroad is the setting, which goes beyond the mere reimagining of the titular escape route as a physical entity. Cora lands in South Carolina and then North Carolina, each of which has come up with its own “solution” to the slave question rather than continuing to employ slaves as in the true antebellum south – but, of course, South Carolina’s superficial paradise has a sinister plan beneath the surface, while North Carolina chose to end slavery in vile fashion that has some unfortunate parallels in our modern climate. She eventually ends up in Indiana, where a house of free blacks simply proves too successful to stand even in the face of whites who oppose slavery and would likely feign horror if anyone called them racists. None of these places after Georgia is based in historical reality; each is the product of an imagination that can take a metaphor and create a realistic setting that puts ideas into buildings, people, and actions. It’s fictional but not fanciful, and each location is a world unto itself that could easily have hosted an entire novel and would generate hours of discussion about the meanings beneath the details.

Cora is hunted throughout the book by the amoral, mercenary slave-hunter Ridgeway, who refers to any slave as “it” and travels with the most motley crew of associates imaginable. But Ridgeway himself is utterly two-dimensional, maybe one-dimensional, and instead seemed to me to be a clear attempt by Whitehead to make Cora’s fear of recapture and memories of oppression incarnate. She cannot escape her past until and unless she escapes Ridgeway for good. That doesn’t make him an interesting character, but in a book that seems to urge us to fight the national tendency to forget the sins of our fathers, it makes him an invaluable one.

The nature of the rest of the book makes the other characters, most of whom are white, less than two-dimensional as well, although again it seems that Whitehead is using these people as stand-ins for ideas. The well-meaning whites in South Carolina are particularly striking because they are so opaque, and because they tell themselves they’re doing the Right Things, even when what they’re doing is ultimately both wrong and springs from a sentiment that is itself thoroughly wrong. The couple who harbor Cora in North Carolina present different sides of the white person who knows slavery is wrong, but chooses to look the other way, to decline to get involved, or to just generally protect his/her own well-being rather than helping others in more desperate straits. Creating so many underdeveloped side characters is generally a major flaw in a novel, but the genius here is in creating characters from ideas without them becoming totally one-note.

I have no idea if The Underground Railroad should or will win the Pulitzer, since I haven’t read any other 2016 books yet aside from the one I’m reading now, Francine Prose’s Mister Monkey. I can say that few books of recent vintage have disturbed me the way Whitehead’s book has; the world he’s created manages to be abhorrent and magnetic at once, a world you’d never want to live in but that you can’t help but want to see. And it’s so full of ideas without ever devolving into sermon, imploring us to remember our past and accept that we will never fully escape it. The book’s final chapter is less conclusion than peroration, showing us the difficulty of becoming free of our history and depicting just one narrow path to get there.