Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

gone girlThere’s this tremendous moment halfway through Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl when the beleaguered but rather suspicious husband Nick opens the door to a creepy woodshed and begins yammering “Nonononono” in overwhelming panic and I thought hell yes, this is when the book is going to go from good to great, from kinda creepy to full-blown twisted, from Agatha Christie in the parlor to David Lynch cutting off the swaddling to reveal god knows what — bodies hanging from meat hooks? a perfect replica of a covered-up crime scene? Nick’s Rosebud? clones?!?!

But no.

Let me back up. The first half of Gone Girl is, basically, perfect. You get two competing and alternating first-person narratives, one from Nick and the other from his wife Amy. Amy disappears mysteriously (her POV is from the time leading up to her disappearance, Nick’s is from after), and suspicion begins to circle around Nick, who is completely baffled. And as the competing accounts build Flynn very effectively drops all sorts of hints that something is wrong. Not just a little wrong, but deeply, darkly, disturbingly wrong — and it all comes to a head when Nick sees what’s waiting for him in that woodshed.

The second half of Gone Girl gives all the answers. And I’m sure some people will be satisfied by them — and god knows it’s all readable enough to keep you up until 5 a.m. — but I was disappointed.

Look, I don’t really expect every book with a mystery to reach into science fiction to pull out a hand-wavey answer. But I use the bizarre excesses of scifi as exemplars of the kind of crazy thinking that’s really appropriate here. A writer can’t wind the reader up so tightly (as Flynn does so well during Gone Girl‘s first half) and then explain it all away with something mundane. But that’s what Flynn does here — and though it’s not predictable as such, the “answer” falls well within the range of things that this genre has already seen.

It’s really hard to talk about this without spoilers. So let me say a few things, in a spoilerish way, about my objections to where this book ends up.

(Perhaps I should emphasize: alert for vague spoilers.)

First: Gone Girl talks a lot about gender — a lot — in ways that demean both men and women in the beginning (battle of the sexes and all) but end up just being bad for women. I mean, the plot literally turns on the equivalent of false rape accusations and the purported female hysteria associated with this outrageously exaggerated danger. On the flip side, male transgressions — infidelity, emotional abandonment, etc. — are waved away with the equivalent of “But those bitches are crazy!” Ugh.

Second: There is a second, late twist in this book that basically requires a complete reversal from the first twist. But I just didn’t understand how the relevant person could “sell” the second twist to the world given what was done to make the first twist work. I mean, there are financial records, paper trails, and other physical evidence all done to make the first twist work — and somehow all of that stuff is waved away when the relevant person turns on a dime?

Third: The ending is kind of grotesque. You know how the advice for abused women is just to walk away? Yeah. Apparently the characters in this book think it’s better to just hug it out. That’s weird and twisted, sure, but for all the wrong reasons.

★★★☆☆

The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

shining girlsLauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls is about a time-traveling serial killer who snuffs out promising young women by brutally murdering them, and the lone surviving victim who becomes obsessed with finding him. But as cool as that concept sounds the book doesn’t really follow through on any aspect of it.

Take the time travel. It happens through a bit of hand-waving — there is a House that allows its occupant (in this case the serial killer) to step out at any point in a several-decade span of time. I’m ok with the fact that Beukes never explains how or why the House does this. But I’m not ok with how little she explores the time-traveling aspect of this story. Sure, there are some funny little loops that pop up (like the serial killer discovering a dead body “before” he’s killed the person) but for the most part the House serves the purely functional purpose of delivering the killer to his next victim. It might as well have been the subway, or underground tunnels, or a discreet chauffeur. There are no Primer-style paradoxes, or Back to the Future-style callbacks, or even the glimmer of a Big Idea from any of the people who discover the House and really should be knocked on their asses by the thought of what they could do with a time travel device. Beukes is so uninterested in the really interesting ramifications of time travel that it’s not clear to me why time travel had to be part of this book at all.

Next, the “shining” girls. Why does the serial killer (his name is Harper BTW) target them? Never explained. Are they actually girls with a bright future? That’s my guess — but who knows. (One of them is a stripper who literally glows from irradiated paint, which doesn’t strike me as a resume item for a Leader of Tomorrow.) It occurs to me that the shining girls are probably just a random collection of picaresques. And although Beukes admittedly does a good job in the few chapters told from the disparate victims’ POVs, if they’re just any old collection of people that makes both Harper’s obsession and the book’s point seem very small potatoes indeed.

Finally, the lone surviving victim, a young woman named Kirby. Her miraculous survival is told in one of the book’s most harrowing and effective chapters but outside of that she’s kind of useless. I’m dancing carefully around spoilers here but suffice to say that (1) she never really figures anything out from 95 percent of her “investigation,” (2) the solution, quite literally, comes to her rather than vice versa, and (3) she resolves nothing really — the cycle of deaths will continue, if I’m reading the ending right. If Kirby had just sat on her butt instead of engaging in lame repartee with a much older reporter who has the hots for her twenty-three-year-old self (a gross sidestory to this book), the result would not have been that different.

So all the really nifty parts of this book — the time travel, the victim class, the protagonist — don’t amount to much. But I didn’t hate The Shining Girls. It was very good in spots and easy enough to read one subway ride at a time. It just never felt as awesome or fresh or surprising as its premise promised.

★★★☆☆

Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

13547504Raising a child is a profound and terrifying experience even when her development is totally standard. The depth of parental devotion is a cliche but it’s true — when parents say that there is no pain they wouldn’t suffer for their child, they really mean it. But the vast majority of parents aren’t put to the test. For most of us, our anxiety is vastly out of proportion to reality. Our kids will turn out fine; if anything, we could stand to be less neurotic about their well-being.

Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is about the parents who really are forced to confront the question of how far they’ll go for their babies — and the children who are the involuntary beneficiaries or victims of that choice. The book covers a wide range of afflictions, including deafness, schizophrenia, autism, Down’s syndrome, and more. Solomon spent years talking to different families and digging into the experience of raising and being raised with these conditions.

The families’ own words are staggeringly powerful. Again and again, Far From the Tree forces you to confront the harsh reality of parents making terrible choices in extremis. For example, I didn’t know before reading this book that many autistic children are incapable of expressing (or perhaps even feeling) anything like love — even as their parents go to extraordinary lengths to address their symptoms, which can include seizures, violence, and self-harm. Raising the most severely autistic children, this book makes clear, requires a parent to be something close to a saint: abnegating self-interest out of a pure sense of duty, and nothing else.

Multiple severe disabilities represent, in a sense, the other side of this dilemma. The children are often affectionate, sometimes lucid, but their lives are bleak and full of pain. That’s bad enough, but the real agony for parents is knowing that their child has no future — a thought that mixes both relief and heartbreak. (On a related note, I suggest checking out this article and related video if you want a good cry. My wife was obsessed about this for days.)

Reading this book as a parent is really hard. It’s impossible not to put yourself in the parents’ shoes and wonder what you would or would not do if faced with the same set of circumstances. What would you do during pregnancy if you knew that your child would be born with Down’s syndrome — a condition that is neither fatal nor crippling, but that will require you to care for your child for her entire life? Would you put in the extraordinary effort necessary to ensure that your deaf child receives all the education that she needs? How long could you withstand the delusions of your paranoid schizophrenic daughter until you finally commit her to a psychiatric institution?

For the most part, Solomon’s reporting errs on the side of optimism — this book is filled with parents heroically sacrificing their careers, their personal interests, and even their own families (marriages and siblings are particularly vulnerable) to give their children the best lives possible. It’s very uplifting! But then there are passages like this, in the chapter on autism:

In 1996, Charles-Antoine Blais, age six, was killed by his mother, who did no jail time but served one year in a halfway house and then was appointed as a public representative by Montreal’s Société de l’autisme. In 1997, Casey Albury, age seventeen, was strangled by her mother with a bathrobe cord, after refusing to jump off a bridge. Her mother said to the police, “She was a misfit. People were scared of her because she was different. I wish it could have been quicker. I’d wanted to kill her for a long time.” She received a sentence of eighteen months for manslaughter. In 1998, Pierre Pasquiou was drowned by his mother, who was given a three-year suspended sentence. In 1999, James Joseph Cummings Jr., at the age of forty-six, was stabbed to death by his father inside the residential facility where he lived. Cummings Sr. was sentenced to five years in prison. That same year, Daniel Leubner, age thirteen, was burned alive by his mother, who was sentenced to six years in prison.

In 2001, Gabriel Britt, age six, was suffocated by his father, who dumped his body in a lake and then received a four-year sentence for pleading guilty to a lesser crime. Also in 2001, Jadwiga Miskiewicz strangled her thirteen-year-old son, Johnny Churchi, and was sentenced to time in a psychiatric hospital; a medical examiner said that she had “‘a rigorous standard of excellence’ she couldn’t live up to anymore.” In 2003, Angelica Auriemma, age twenty, was drowned by her mother, Ioanna, who had first attempted to electrocute her. Angelica’s mother said, “I worried obsessively”; she served three years. Also that year, Terrance Cottrell died of asphyxiation when his mother and other churchgoers submitted him to an exorcism. A neighbor described the mother as explaining how “they held him down for almost two hours. He couldn’t hardly breathe. Then she said the devil started to speak through Junior, though he can’t really speak, saying, ‘Kill me, take me.’ She said the church told her it was the only way to heal him.” She was not prosecuted; the minister who had led the exorcism was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and fined $1,200.

In 2003, Daniela Dawes strangled her ten-year-old son, Jason, and was given five years of probation. Her grief-stricken husband testified, “Until that day she was the best mother anyone could want.” In 2005, Patrick Markcrow, age thirty-six, was suffocated by his mother, who received a two-year suspended sentence; that same year, Jan Naylor shot her twenty-seven-year-old autistic daughter, Sarah, then set the house on fire, killing herself as well; the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that they both “died of hopelessness.”

In 2006, Christopher DeGroot was burned to death when his parents locked him in the house and set it on fire. Each of them was sentenced to six months in jail. In 2006, Jose Stable slit the throat of his son, Ulysses. He called the police and said, “I just couldn’t take it anymore.” Jose Stable served a three-and-a-half-year sentence. In 2007, Diane Marsh killed her son, Brandon Williams, age five; the autopsy said he had died of multiple skull fractures and an overdose of Tylenol PM tablets; his legs were covered in burn scars because his mother used to discipline him by dipping him into scalding water. She was sentenced to ten years. In 2008, Jacob Grabe was shot by his father, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

And here’s another harrowing paragraph, in the chapter on the children produced by rape:

One woman I met outside Gitarama explained that a man killed her family, including her husband and three children, took her in sexual slavery for the duration of the genocide, and then fled. She gave birth to a son, then developed AIDS; the son remained healthy. Knowing she would soon die, she worried that he would have no relatives to care for him. So she tracked down his father in jail — this man who had killed her husband and children — and decided to build a relationship with him. Every day she brought him homemade meals in prison. She could not speak of what she was doing without staring fixedly at the floor.

* * * * *

Unfortunately, Solomon’s reporting is only half of this book. As the subtitle makes clear, Solomon also wants to comment on these children’s “Search for Identity.” But boy does his discussion of this topic go awry.

I actually have no fundamental disagreement with his analysis. The core of his argument is a distinction he draws between vertical and horizontal identities. A vertical identity is one you share with your parents, such as race, culture, family continuity, etc. Solomon argues persuasively that vertical identity is the default template for parents’ interactions with their children — hence the widespread assumption that parents will “pass on” their lives to their kids. Horizontal identity, by contrast, is a child’s self-conception based on traits that her parents don’t share.

Obviously people experience both forms of identity as a matter of course (e.g., everybody has school friends or work colleagues that don’t overlap with their family ties). What is special about the parents and children Solomon writes about is that vertical identity is wholly shattered — leaving behind bewildered parents who often just do not understand their children on a basic level — and horizontal identity is often the only source of community available. The level of that availability varies widely. Deaf children and dwarfs, for example, can rely on well-organized groups that host conventions and tailor curricula and social events to their needs. Children of rape, by contrast, live in a shadow world of shame. The overwhelming theme of Far From the Tree is that “different” children (and to some extent their parents) truly need these horizontal identities, even when they are difficult to construct — and particularly when parents reject the children who are strangers to them.

So far so good. The problem that I have (and I am deliberately leaving this for the end because of how much I appreciated the book overall) is that Solomon presents all of these thoughts in just about the most annoying way possible. The man is in love with the sound of his own writing, filling page after page after page with flowery but meaningless prose — for example, the ghastly phrase “shimmering humanity,” which Solomon loves so much that he later repeats it as “shimmering personhood.” Solomon regularly mistakes pretension for profundity — the only explanation for a sentence such as “Zhenya plays as though it were a moral act that could redeem the world.” And Solomon has an unhealthy obsession with cute turns of phrase. To wit:

As Aiden Key, a trans activist, put it, “My gender is who I am; my sexuality is who I bounce it off of.”

William Saletan, national correspondent at Slate, wrote, “Old fear: designer babies. New fear: deformer babies.”

The worst part is that Solomon interjects these twee thoughts everywhere — between every individual story, at the end of every chapter, at the beginning and end of the book, etc. It got to the point where I began skipping his ruminations and going straight to his reporting, which to Solomon’s credit remains outstanding throughout. I recommend you do the same.

★★★☆☆

This Town, by Mark Leibovich

15814168As a politics junkie, I thought I would love Mark Leibovich’s This Town, which is billed as an inside look at Washington, DC. But I hated it, for a reason best captured by the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein:

“This Town” isn’t a book about Washington. It’s a book about members of Washington’s political-communications complex. The key characters are mostly people who, in some way or another, get paid to talk about politics. . . . The bad news about “This Town” is that the political-communications complex is kind of an awful place. The good news is that it really doesn’t matter. The political-communications complex gets a lot of press for itself because the political-communications complex includes the press as well as the key political staffers whose job it is to talk to the press. But the attention is far out of proportion to the complex’s power.

Too true. This Town read like a high schooler’s memoir about his social life — all-consuming to the subject, utterly meaningless to a disinterested outsider.

What’s disappointing is that Washington has some genuine problems — including the cliques that dominate certain areas of policymaking. (The fight between Larry Summers and Janet Yellen for the Fed chair highlights one of the problems with deep insider politics.) That is to say, the type of society Leibovich (sorta) lampoons — connection-driven, content-free, intensely exclusive — exists and causes major issues for the rest of the country.

But the privileged hangers-on whom Leibovich features? Pfffft. At the end of the day they’re nothing.

★☆☆☆☆

Among Others, by Jo Walton

8706185I tried. I really tried. I love Jo Walton, but Among Others is so dreadfully dull that I couldn’t finish it.

The book is a series of diary entries from a young schoolgirl who makes her way through a difficult school transfer and a move-in with her father by reading tons of speculative fiction. Like all diary novels Among Others is meandering and reflective but here the faults of the form are at an extreme. Well over a third of the way through there was no conflict and no semblance of a plot — really nothing but nostalgia for old books (with weirdly detailed descriptions of specific titles and authors) and a concededly convincing portrayal of a tedious and trying school year.

I should add that the book is technically “fantasy” but that angle is so slight (at least at the beginning) that it’s basically nonexistent.

Now this is Jo Walton so notwithstanding my inability to abide the book as a whole, there were occasional passages where she just crushed it. My favorite bit is where she (or rather her narrator) discusses the nature of magic:

You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic.

N.B.: I’m fully aware of the irony of praising this passage while criticizing the seeming absence of magic in the plot. But there’s a big difference between explaining something beautifully and forcing readers to live through it for hundreds of dull pages.

★☆☆☆☆

Hothouse, by Brian Aldiss

aldiss-hothouseLet’s clear up a few things right from the start. You don’t read Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse for the plot, which is terrible. You don’t read it for the characters, who are shallowly drawn. And you don’t read it for the writing, which is distant and formal and anachronistic — typical Aldiss, in other words.

The only reasons to read Hothouse are: (1) its loving exposition of a hostile world in which vegetables have become predatory and humans tiny and vulnerable; and (2) its unrelenting, trippy weirdness.

The world-building is Hothouse‘s main draw. Indeed, in many ways it’s the book’s only draw. There’s no real plot, and not even a hint of character development. Instead, Aldiss’s “characters” essentially take a long tour from one bizarre environ to the other, allowing us to see through their eyes a cavalcade of wonders and horrors.

This aspect of the book is great. Aldiss’s imagination astounds. The sun is about to die. The earth has stopped spinning, leaving one side plunged in darkness and ice, and the other teeming with vegetation encouraged by twenty-four-hour sunlight. Animals have mostly been killed off by the newly evolved legions of predatory vegetables. Humans, shrunk to the size of small monkeys, barely survive. They are beset on all sides. Just in the first few chapters, for instance, Aldiss lovingly recounts a series of nightmare vegetables that bait, capture, and devour a traveling group of unfortunate humans in increasingly horrible ways.

Aldiss’s commitment to the terror and hopelessness of this world is impressive. This is not one of those optimistic tales of plucky humanity prevailing over hostile forces. Humans are doomed, both individually and as a species. Helplessness is their plight; “nothing now could be done” is the prevailing sentiment when some person in a careless moment falls victim to a predatory plant and waits in horror to be slowly digested.

But there is still wonder. Traversers — giant spider-like plants that can survive the vacuum and hard radiation of space — spin webs between the earth and the moon, unconsciously carrying plant spores and the occasional human being to the nascently lush lunar surface. The ocean has become filled with massive crustacean-like monsters, which engage in endless battles with land-bound plants over the beaches that separate their terrains. And the border between the sunlit half of the earth and its dark side is demarcated by enormous walls of ice and a vast twilight wasteland in which only a few hardy creatures can scrape out a living.

All of these remarkable environments are fascinating, and at its best Hothouse is just one crazy set piece after another. But at times, perhaps too many times, Aldiss’s fertile imagination veers into a bizarre trippiness. The morel is the most prominent example. Basically it’s a fungus that drops onto the main protagonist’s head and invades his brain. It’s alive and parasitic and highly intelligent, but it’s also hella weird, interjecting a wacky monologue as a separate voice in this narrative.

As weird as the morel is, it’s nothing compared to the Sodal Ye, an enormous fish-like creature with a gorgeous voice and prophetic powers that is carried around by an enslaved human whose body has been brutally adapted to the task.

And as weird as that is, it’s nothing compared to the occasional episodes when Aldiss apparently loses all touch with reality and churns out feverish passages like these:

‘Hear the clocks chime!’ twanged the morel. ‘They chime for us, children!’

‘Oh, oh! I can hear them!’ Gren moaned, twisting restlessly where he lay.

And in all their ears came a sound to drown all else, a chiming sound like diabolic music.

‘Gren, we are all going mad!’ Poyly cried. ‘The terrible noises!’

‘The chimes, the chimes!’ the morel twanged.

The chimes!

Aside from this somewhat disquieting weirdness, there are also aspects of Hothouse that are downright offputting. Aldiss occasionally plummets straight into sexism: “‘My fruit skin chafes my thighs,’ Poyly said, with a womanly gift for irrelevance that eons of time had not quenched.” And later, somewhat less offensively, “‘When we’ve explored, we will catch fish in the pool and eat them with fruit,’ she said, with a woman’s talent for producing comfort when it was needed.” Granted, Aldiss wrote this book during a different time, but even with this allowance these types of sentences are no less jarring.

More substantively, I really hated the tummy-belly men. The protagonists quite heartlessly abuse them — depriving them of comfort, leaving them behind, and ultimately driving them away. Through it all, the tummy-belly men keep up an endless stream of childlike antics and borderline retarded dialogue. The unceasing abuse of these annoying but nonetheless innocent and mentally damaged humans became (to me) ever more revolting as the story progressed.

I guess in a way that everything I’m saying here just reflects different sides of Hothouse‘s basic character. It is fundamentally a very uncomfortable novel, one that never lets you feel completely settled or at ease. Different aspects of that discomfort will appeal to or turn off different people. But there’s no question that it’s highly effective, even if not always pleasant.

★★★☆☆

The Human Division, by John Scalzi

15698479I consider John Scalzi to be an outstanding science-fiction writer, a decent human being, and an owner of cats (that’s not just a fact, it’s a sign of character), so it pains me to say that The Human Division is not a good book. It’s a very Scalzi book, which means that despite its weaknesses it still merits two stars for some funny dialogue, clever shenanigans, and occasional stabs at profundity. But absolutely nothing of significance happens!

The basic story is about a mysterious conspiracy that leads to lots of surprise bombings and other miscellaneous acts of sabotage. You will find out basically nothing about this conspiracy. Instead, Scalzi gives us a lot of speculation, mostly in the form of endless expository dialogue between characters positing that the conspiracy is intended to pit the Colonial Union against the Conclave in a battle for the loyalty of otherwise-unaffiliated Earth. But that’s pretty obvious right from the beginning. (I mean, shadowy forces blow up a diplomatic ship and try to pin the blame on an innocent party!) What’s interesting is who is behind the conspiracy, what their ultimate aims are (chaos, or something more concrete), and what exactly their devious plan is. You will find none of these interesting details in The Human Division.

Instead, Scalzi gives us a lot of setup, and (my other problem) a lot of filler. The book was released in a series of thirteen “episodes” of varying lengths. About a quarter of them are basically useless: I’m thinking in particular of “Walk the Plank,” “A Voice in the Wilderness,” “The Dog King,” and “This Must Be the Place.” Are these stories totally disassociated from the main plot? I would guess not. But the connection is pretty tenuous, and there certainly would have been better and less tedious ways of getting across the same points.

Apparently Tor (the publisher) was so pleased with sales of The Human Division that it’s commissioned Scalzi to write a Season 2 that continues the story. In a way, I wish he’d just started there. The Human Division is less of a first volume than a preview episode for a series that hasn’t even really begun yet.

★★☆☆☆