Like Here But Worse

In 2022 Shehan Karunatilaka won the Booker Prize for The Seven Moons of Maali Ameida. Hi ho. The book is bizarre in all the best ways.

It’s 1990 in Sri Lanka. Maali Almeida is a photographer, gambler, and self-described slut. He’s also a journalist and homosexual, so he has lots of enemies. And because Sri Lanka is in the middle of a civil war, it’s easy for a photo-journalist to die. It’s also easy for a homosexual to die – but not for the same reasons.

And what do you know? It’s page 1 and Maali is already dead. The after-life is a hellscape filled with demons, ghouls, ghosts, and bureaucrats who claim they want to help you. It’s just like the “living” world only worse.

Maali has no idea who killed him, why, or how he died. He has seven days (or seven moons) to figure it all out. Then he needs to decide what he’ll do next. To paraphrase The Clash: should he stay or should he go? Does his decision matter? Does anything matter? Yes, obviously, The Clash matters. Stay focused.

Seven Moons is impossible to categorize. It’s historical fiction in how it describes the Sri Lankan civil war. It’s a love letter to the Sri Lankan people traumatized by that war. It’s a satire on religion. It’s a parody lampooning people who try to change society through violence. It’s a deadly-serious comedy, and it succeeds regardless of the category you put it in.

But mostly, the story is a delight because, as flawed as Maali is, he is honest when it counts. Even though he lies to nearly everyone, he never lies to himself or the reader. He’s also brave, even when it’s not smart to be. When he is told his photos are gruesome, he responds “then maybe people should stop doing gruesome things.”

If Karunatilaka resembles any writer, it’s Kurt Vonnegut. At one time people read him. Maybe, with Seven Moons‘ deserved success, people will start reading Vonnegut again. If so, that would be another great thing about Maali Almeida.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

The Passenger – So Many Questions

Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger opens with a dead woman hanging from a tree. She committed suicide on Christmas day. So that’s brutal, but then you remember who the author is.

The Passenger is a beautifully written Southern Gothic. It’s also frustrating – taking detours that may be interesting but don’t lead anywhere. For example, one character has a wordy monologue about who really assassinated JFK. It’s only mildly intriguing because this terrain has been trampled for decades. So you wonder – was McCarthy being paid by the word?

After the suicide, the story jumps about 10 years to 1980 and a small plane crash in the Gulf of Mexico. Excellent, more death. Perhaps McCarthy can work the Holocaust into this. Spoiler alert – he does.

Bobby Western (think Western Civilization) is a salvage diver. He is sent by an unknown client to investigate the crash. He and his partner, Oiler, dive into the literal and metaphorical murky waters, use a torch to open the plane’s door, and find 9 drowned passengers. The plane’s black box is missing. It is clear there was a tenth passenger, but that person has disappeared. When he returns to New Orleans, government agents show up asking vague but concerning questions. Oiler goes to work on another assignment and dies. Was he murdered? Is Western next? How come the plane crash is never mentioned in the newspapers? Is Western being followed? Who keeps breaking into his apartment? Can he do anything about it? If he can, will he? So many questions, and McCarthy isn’t interested in answering any of them.

This story is really a meditation on the shitshow that was the twentieth century. Auschwitz and Hiroshima are the “sister events that sealed forever the fate of the West.” It doesn’t help that Western’s father was a physicist who helped build the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

Western’s sister (Alicia) is the young woman who committed suicide. She was schizophrenic and stopped taking her meds. In flashbacks we jump into her mind. She’s a twentieth-century Alice in a demented Wonderland, and these chapters are stunning. They show McCarthy at his formidable best, and the novel is worth reading for these sections alone.

Western is haunted by Alicia’s suicide. He loved her very much. Maybe too much. Incest is hinted at. He’s also extremely troubled by his father’s work on the bomb. If Alicia is a modern-day Alice, Western is a twentieth-century Hamlet. He certainly has daddy issues, and suicidal Alicia just might be his Ophelia. Plus Western is supremely indecisive. He doesn’t know if he’s being hunted by a killer or haunted by a ghost. He’s trapped and doesn’t care. “If all that I loved in the world is gone what difference does it make if I’m free to go to the grocery store?”

So who is the passenger? Who isn’t? The passenger seems to be any creature buffeted by storms trying to survive without necessarily knowing how best to do that.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Annie Ernaux’s Exteriors: A Stranger’s Connection

When Annie Ernaux won the 2022 Nobel Prize in Literature, I had only one question. Who is Annie Ernaux? Why have I never heard of her? Is she French or something? That’s where the internet comes in handy. She’s French. Regardless, I picked up one of her books, Exteriors, which was first published in English in 1996. It’s short, curious and rewarding.

Ms. Ernaux believes a “hypermarket (supermarket) can provide just as much meaning and human truth as a concert hall.” That concept has been expressed before, but not quite the way Ms. Ernaux presents it. She writes in a hyper-detached style, as if she’s a scientist. She focuses only on the essential. Unicorns do not prance on these pages. Exteriors purports to be a memoir, but there is no sustained narrative. The book consists of written snapshots of complete strangers. Her observations are more akin to sparse journal entries.

Still, it is literary and themes do emerge. Ms. Ernaux describes contemporary society as purely transactional. Tacky consumerism pervades everything. She’s not a fan of the ruling classes either. Their obvious disdain for the working classes is oppressive and depressing. The few relationships presented tend to be dysfunctional. Ms. Ernaux does not interact with anyone except the reader.

So why does Ms. Ernaux write about the strangers she observes on the train or at the mall? I enjoy being a voyeur as much as anyone, but is this mere voyeurism? Ms. Ernaux thinks not. “It is other people – anonymous figures glimpsed in the subway or in waiting rooms – who revive our memory and reveal our true selves through the interest, the anger or the shame that they send rippling through us.”

In a crass world, there can still be profound connections, even with strangers. A child on the train reminds Ms. Ernaux of her sons when they were young. A woman waiting in line reminds her of her deceased mother. “So it is outside my own life that my past existence lies: in passengers commuting on the subway or the RER; in shoppers glimpsed on escalators . . . in complete strangers who cannot know that they possess part of my story; in faces and bodies which I shall never see again. In the same way, I myself, anonymous among the bustling crowds . . . must secretly play a role in the lives of others.”

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor


Lessons In A Life Adrift

Ian McEwan’s Lessons opens with a piano teacher groping her student. She is 25 years old, and the boy is 11. Her cold fingers pinch the inside of his upper thigh and travel up his shorts to his underwear. As is typical, the victim blames himself. He’s newly arrived at his English boarding school and misses his mother tremendously. He’s textbook, and Miriam begins grooming him.

Roland is 14 when the Cuban Missile Crisis happens. Fear and loneliness compel him to ride a bike to Miriam’s house in the nearby village. She doesn’t seem surprised when he shows up unannounced. Roland is escorted upstairs to her bedroom, and Miriam tells him what she expects. As if he is a child. Because he is. After they have sex, he is even more under her control. “She had always frightened him. He had not forgotten how cruel she could be. Now it was more complicated, it was worse and he had made it worse.”

Over the next two years, Miriam manipulates Roland. She is always the teacher, and he is always the pupil. His schoolwork suffers. He loses touch with friends. The night before his sixteenth birthday Miriam tells Roland they will be traveling to Scotland in the morning to get married. This scares him more than the Cuban Missile Crisis did. When he flees, Miriam yells “You’ll spend the rest of your life looking for what you’ve had here.”

She’s not wrong. The trauma from this relationship has “rewired his brain.” He drops out of school. He floats from one job to another, from one relationship to another. Finally, in his thirties, he meets Alyssa. They get married and have a son, but the marriage falls apart.

Alyssa dreams of being her generation’s greatest writer, but she’s sinking. Being a wife and mother is suffocating. She can’t be the writer she wants to be so she leaves. Years later, she writes novels and they’re brilliant. Roland wonders how he could have been married to a genius and not realized it. Is Miriam to blame? Is he still a victim?

Roland’s life story (from the 1950s to 2020) is deftly told. McEwan is a deeply humane writer, and he creates fascinating characters with complex motivations. The women are far more interesting than the men, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows Shakespeare or women.

McEwan is generous and empathetic with all his characters – even Miriam. That is a testament to his genuine skill as a writer. But there’s a problem. Roland does eventually (late in middle age) confront Miriam. This is a pivotal moment, and its resolution is humane only if Miriam hasn’t abused other children. And we have no reason for believing this is the case. What if she is a serial pedophile? The fact that no one thinks to ask this, especially after all the scandals uncovered during the 1980s and later, is a glaring problem in an otherwise masterfully told story.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Christopher Marlowe in a Bodice

So, Gladiola, I’m looking for a historical fiction-spy-romance novel. And it needs to be a bodice ripper. But the bodices must be worn by men. They should also be ripped off by men. Can you recommend something?

Wow! That’s really specific. But fortunately I just finished reading Allison Epstein’s A Tip for the Hangman, and it has everything you want in the historical fiction-spy-romance-male/male bodice ripper genre. However, the narrative does drag at times, especially at the end.

The story opens in October 1585, and Kit (Christopher Marlowe) is at Cambridge University. He believes the other students think he doesn’t belong there. They do. He comes from a poor family in Canterbury where his father is a first-rate alcoholic and third-rate cobbler.

Though he’s a brilliant student, he’s an outsider – all the more so because he’s homosexual. Fortunately his classmate and best friend, Tom, is too. Their love is the only stable thing in Kit’s life. From the beginning Tom knows Kit is a brilliant poet. Eventually Tom realizes this means Kit is also a brilliant liar.

Kit’s moral flexibility comes to the attention of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster. He desperately needs spies, because Papists across England and Europe are conspiring to depose the queen and replace her with a Catholic monarch. Their leading candidate is Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary (Queen of Scots). That must be awkward around the holidays.

Soon Kit is inside Mary’s household sending vital information to Walsingham, but Kit’s success comes with a cost. “Perhaps he understood, now, what it was for actions to have consequences. None of Walsingham’s agents understood that from the beginning – if they did, they would never sign on. But they all realized, sooner or later, what victory felt like. Hazy and sour, like a half-remembered dream.”

Walsingham gives Kit more assignments, but meanwhile Kit has become the most successful playwright in London. His plays scandalize the censors and the church. He is clearly an atheist, and his relationship with Tom is concerning. Could he be susceptible to blackmail? Could he be a traitor? As long as Walsingham is alive, Kit is protected. Walsingham dies. Kit better watch his back.

The novel is mostly true to the scant historical record on Marlowe. However, the large holes in the record allow Ms. Epstein to conjure an intriguing tale that works best when focused on Papist conspiracies and Kit’s efforts to expose them. And while the love between Kit and Tom is convincingly depicted, it also drifts into melodrama. Overall, however, A Tip for the Hangman is an entertaining read.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Chaos and a Bloated Mango

Fevered Star is Rebecca Roanhorse’s second novel in the Between Earth and Sky fantasy series, and it picks up right where Black Sun left off, except it is no longer Year 325 of the Sun. It is Year 1 of the Crow. Order has been usurped by chaos. The city of Tova is destroyed, and the sun now hovers “on the horizon like a bloated mango, casting only enough light to shadow the city in an eerie perpetual twilight.” That won’t be good for tourism.

The story opens with Lord Balam (the jaguar lord who arranged to send Serapio to Tova to crush the sun priesthood) learning how to dreamwalk – a nasty bit of sorcery outlawed for centuries. Balam is intent on breaking worlds and “realigning the very course of the heavens.” So far his plan is going swimmingly but for Serapio surviving the attack on Sun Rock. That was unexpected and unwelcome. Fortunately Lord Balam always looks for the “potential in the chaos.” Potential abounds.

Serapio has become Odo Sedoh, the Crow God Reborn. But his clan, Carrion Crow, is split on whether this is good for them or not. Chaos is unpredictable.

Naranpa, too, has unexpectedly survived. She was the Sun Priest, but she becomes the living embodiment of the Sun God. She just needs to learn how to control her incredible powers. Easier said than done. If Naranpa succeeds, she can restore order and heal the Meridian, but she desperately needs allies. All three of them do.

Serapio, Naranpa, and Lord Balam struggle to form these alliances. Each has access to powerful magic they sometimes struggle to control. The future of the Meridian is at stake. War appears inevitable. It looks to be bloody and catastrophic for all involved.

Ms. Roanhorse tells an absorbing story that moves at a steady clip. The characters are diverse, complex, and realistic. As in Black Sun, Ms. Roanhorse’s incorporation of mythology from the pre-Columbian Americas is interesting and effective. She brings refreshing elements to the fantasy genre. Most importantly, Fevered Star maintains the reader’s curiosity about where this series is headed.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

When Pretending to be Something, Don’t be a Nazi

In the introduction to his sublime Mother Night, Kurt Vonnegut famously warns “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” Take Howard W. Campbell, Jr., the novel’s captivating narrator. He wasn’t careful at all, and now he’s sitting in an Israeli jail waiting to be tried for war crimes. Hi ho.

Thirty years earlier during the 1930s, Campbell was an American playwright of “modest reputation” living in Germany. He was married to a beautiful German actress, and they were a “nation of two.” What could possibly go wrong? A brushfire called World War II.

Immediately before the war started, Campbell was recruited by an American agent to be a spy. Campbell agreed because “I would have an opportunity for some pretty grand acting. I would fool everyone with my brilliant interpretation of a Nazi, inside and out.” He succeeded outrageously and for all the world to hear. He became a radio broadcaster and propagandist for the Nazis; however, during his broadcasts he sent coded messages to the Americans to help the Allies win the war. But to the world, he is a “shrewd and loathsome anti-Semite.” His outward support for Nazism ultimately lands him in that Israeli jail.

Mother Night is Campbell’s confession to the Israelis. He gives it voluntarily and eagerly. But he’s not interested in exoneration. He readily admits to being a “man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times.” Is this irony or just a statement of fact? Does it matter?

Because here’s the thing. Campbell was a spy for the good guys in that war, but he still helped the Nazis. His father-in-law, early in the war, had suspected Campbell of being a spy. He hoped Campbell would be shot as a traitor. By the war’s end, he no longer cared if Campbell was a spy or not. “Because you could never have served the enemy as well as you served us . . . I realized that almost all the ideas I hold now, that make me unashamed of anything I may have felt or done as a Nazi, came not from Hitler, not from Goebbels, not from Himmler – but from you . . . You alone kept me from concluding that Germany had gone insane.” That’s quite an indictment. And it is one of the passages that makes this book brilliant. Throughout the novel, it is clear that Campbell’s vicious propaganda assisted the Nazis in their brutality. It is not clear at all how he helped the Allies. Given the severe consequences of all his lies, does being an American spy save him from condemnation?

Mother Night is obsessed with lies and their consequences. And though it was written more than 60 years ago, it is as relevant now as ever. Chew on this if you doubt me: “I had hoped, as a broadcaster, to be merely ludicrous, but this is a hard world to be ludicrous in, with so many human beings so reluctant to laugh, so incapable of thought, so eager to believe and snarl and hate.”

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Hag-Seed: A Tempest in a Teacup

In 2015 Hogarth launched the Hogarth Shakespeare project to have Shakespeare’s plays retold by acclaimed or (more frequently) popular novelists. Gratuitous? Yup. Lazy? Sure. Good idea? Nope. Money grab? Yahtzee! But, hey, Hollywood does it all the time, so why not?

Plus, Hogarth tapped Margaret Atwood to modernize The Tempest. So how bad could it be? Fair enough. Hag-Seed (Ms. Atwood’s adaptation of The Tempest) is not bad. At times, it’s quite enjoyable, but that’s usually when Ms. Atwood doesn’t hew to the play.

Felix is Ms. Atwood’s Prospero. Early on, we learn that his wife died shortly after giving birth to their daughter, Miranda. We also learn Miranda died when she was about 4 years old. In a former life, Felix was the artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival, which he planned to make the “standard against which all lesser festivals would be measured.” To do this, he needed money, and that was Tony’s job. However, Felix’s failure to focus on the business side of the festival costs him. Tony convinces the board to fire Felix, and Tony replaces him. Felix has a temper tantrum and goes off the grid – changing his name and essentially exiling himself.

About 12 years later, Felix is working part-time at the Fletcher County Correctional Institute where he puts on Shakespeare’s plays with the inmates. “Power struggles, treacheries, crimes: these subjects were immediately grasped by his students, since in their own ways they were expert in them.” His program is modestly successful.

Tony and some of the more culpable board members are now important government officials. They will be at the institute to see the inmates perform My Fair Lady. Really? You ask. No, that would be stupid. They are staging The Tempest, of course. Felix plots his revenge.

The novel works best when it focuses on Felix’s interactions with the inmates and how they produce the play inside a prison – how they relate to Shakespeare’s works. They are effective and humorous fairies, goblins, and demons, and there is much to like about these passages. Ms. Atwood is adept at handling the “play within a play” aspect of The Tempest, and the prison is a perfect substitute for an island.

But the novel is less successful in addressing Felix’s need for vengeance. In The Tempest, vengeance is central to the plot. At times Prospero is monstrous in his pursuit of it. However, Prospero did not voluntarily exile himself. His brother usurped him and put him in a small boat with his young daughter – leaving them to drift on the sea. His brother clearly wanted them to die horrible deaths, so Prospero’s desire for vengeance is understandable.

Vengeance is central to Hag-Seed as well, and Felix at times is also monstrous in his pursuit of it. But his all-consuming need for vengeance doesn’t hold up. Felix exiled himself. Miranda was already dead, so her life was never at risk. If Felix’s life was in danger, he did it to himself. His desire for vengeance, which drives the plot, is gratuitous. Ultimately, and sadly, so is Hag-Seed.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Kazuo Ishiguro’s No Country for Old Men

Listen. Masuji Ono desperately wants to tell you something. He’s still relevant. Time has not forgotten him.

Ono is the beguiling narrator in Mr. Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. The story opens in Japan in October 1948. The Americans are now in charge, and Japanese society is going through monumental changes. But Ono is focused on successfully negotiating a marriage for his younger daughter. His past may make that difficult. Or it may not. It’s unclear because few people seem to remember him these days. Post-war Japan is moving on without him, and he’s not too happy about that.

At the beginning of his career, Ono was an artist of the floating world – the “night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all our paintings.” He was ambitious. When the imperialists takeover, Ono abandons the floating world and (as he tells it) becomes the center of a group of artists producing “work unflinchingly loyal to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor.”

Ono seems to have had some influence during the 1930s, but Mr. Ishiguro is coy. He never allows the reader to discern how influential Ono actually was. Even in Ono’s self-serving narration, nagging doubts poke through. Ono may simply be deluding himself and as a result unintentionally misleading the listener.

The war allows Ono to excuse and justify his work for the Imperialists: “if your country is at war, you do all you can in support, there’s no shame in that.” Except there might be – especially when you betray friends and colleagues. However, Ono smothers this shame every time it tries to breath.

Despite his arrogance and evasions, Ono is sympathetic. His unflinching support for Imperial Japan did not protect him. His wife died, and his son was killed in a “hopeless charge” across a minefield. He has suffered and done so stoically. He loves his daughters and grandson. But he’s lost in this new Japan. He recognizes (somewhat reluctantly) that the “old spirit may not have always been for the best.” That’s an understatement, but it’s the only kind he can make.

Ono spends much of the story trying to convince the listener, any listener, that he was highly-esteemed at one time. And he may have been. Or he may have just been ordinary – a thought Ono refuses to contemplate. Mr. Ishiguro is a master of the unreliable narrator, and Ono certainly falls in this category. “I cannot recall any colleague who could paint a self-portrait with absolute honesty . . . the personality represented rarely comes near the truth as others would see it.” Is Ono describing a colleague or (unwittingly) himself?

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor

Black Sun – We Aren’t in Narnia Anymore

Black Sun is the first book in Rebecca Roanhorse’s Between Earth and Sky fantasy series, and it does exactly what it’s supposed to do: make you want to read the second book. The story opens with 12-year old Serapio being blinded by his mother – yeah, no Mother’s Day roses for her. She tells Serapio his blinding is necessary because “Human eyes lie. You must learn to see the world with more than this faulty organ.” Fair enough. But isn’t there an easier way to teach this lesson? Apparently not in the Meridian – the world where this story is set. Especially when the mother’s ultimate goal is to turn Serapio into a god. She’s not interested in roses.

This is 10 years before the Convergence – a “day when the sun, moon, and earth align, and the moon’s shadow devours the sun.” Order moves to chaos and back to order again. But during this transition, order is vulnerable and chaos can overthrow it. The Watchers are tasked with maintaining the “balance between what is above and what is below.” However, rumor has it they are corrupt and weak. Seeds of rebellion have been thrown on fertile ground.

The story jumps to 20 days before the Convergence, and a daughter of the sea, Xiala, has been tasked with transporting Serapio to Tova (the Meridian’s holy city) in time for the Convergence. It’s an arduous journey across water, and the crew is disgruntled. But Xiala has mystical powers. She should not be trifled with.

Serapio has been trained as a warrior and now has magical powers of his own. His destiny is to battle the Watchers. He will be formidable. The story ends on the day of the Convergence. The battle is beyond bloody, but the outcome is unclear.

Black Sun is stellar. It has all the elements of a traditional epic, but it also pulls from many myths outside Western Europe. Ms. Roanhorse’s the Meridian is no Camelot, Middle Earth, or Narnia. In those fantasy worlds, there is an obvious divide between good and evil. In Black Sun, it is opaque. The story is told from several points of view. Some characters think Serapio is a hero, while many consider him a villain. So are these constructs meaningless because they are subjective? Such a thought would cause C.S. Lewis to crap his pants.

Near the end Ms. Roanhorse writes: “tell me your stories so that I might know who you are and what you value.” She clearly values an expansive epic – one that includes matriarchal societies, gender fluidity, and bisexuality. She also treasures interesting world-building, complex characters, and great story telling.

Gladiola Overdrive, Chief Editor