Mini-reviews of some of the books I’ve read in fall 2018. Sayaka Murata, Victor LaValle, Daisy Johnson, Howard Norman, and Esi Edugyan. Spoilers for pretty much everything.
Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman (novel, 2016): This short, odd novel follows a woman whose phlegmatic allegiance to the routines of her workplace is tested when she lets a leeching incel move in with her to stave off her family’s harassment about marriage. That their relationship remains platonic, and that his whiny misogyny bounces right off her teflon disinterest (she treats him as a housepet and respects him about as much), is one of the book’s quirky surprises.
Victor LaValle, The Changeling (novel, 2017): LaValle’s novel is a fascinating genre experiment. As a mystery, it teases fantastic answers to plot questions it resolves mundanely, and those answers are all the more terrifying because their realism comes as a surprise. (What’s scarier than magical omniscience? Digital omniscience). Yet its final mystery, revealed in the last twenty pages, is answered fantastically: a basement-dwelling reddit troll is feeding immigrant children to an actual troll living below Queens. This literalized metaphor inverts the novel’s prior structure, underlining the point that fantasy, though it might estrange, cannot exaggerate the monstrous logic of racist nationalism.
Daisy Johnson, Fen (short story collection, 2016): Johnson’s stories recount the gooey, awkward, and traumatic sexual awakenings of teens living in a town in England’s fenlands. As sometimes happens in weird fiction, a few of these stories meander, assuming their speculative elements perform more emotional heavy-lifting than they do (often because those elements require sharpening to be more than abstractly evocative). But Johnson captures feeling so viscerally elsewhere that most stories punch hard enough to be memorable even when diluted by insufficiently-honed weirdness. Her prose is vividly imagistic, though sometimes a triply-displaced metaphor gets in the way of coherence.
Howard Norman, The Bird Artist (novel, 1994): Norman’s ear for the rhythms of life in a Newfoundland fishing village is so clear that it unfortunately magnifies the failure of the novel’s emotional arc to quite cohere.
Esi Edugyan, Washington Black (novel, 2018): Edugyan’s novel is a brilliant portrait of the psychological damage wrought by white supremacy, even the well-meaning, abolitionist kind. Born into slavery, the novel’s protagonist Wash is adopted, then abandoned, by a gentleman scientist whose painful family problems obscure Wash’s own suffering during their time together. Wash has been so trained to see white pain as more deserving of compassion that he—and so readers, in the novel’s first half—spend more time pondering the scientist’s family drama than how Wash will navigate the world as a freeman, or cope with the trauma of his enslavement. Brutally, when Wash finally recognizes this injustice, he’s the only one who does. The scientist can’t, or won’t, for all his good intentions.