A Reading Journal of the Plague Year (Mike)

Here is the fourth entry in the occasional series of book’ish posts that I’ve outsourced to a few old friends: A Reading Journal of the Plague Year. Well, considering this is the third entry in as many weeks it’s at risk of becoming a regular series. I hope you’ve all read the third entry—Aparna’s piece on reading Agatha Christie while on lockdown in Delhi; the second entry—Mahmud’s review of Clancy Sigal’s early 1960s road novel, Going Away; and the first—Peter’s recap of a few false starts and then a few things he’s enjoyed getting into since all of this began.

This week’s entry is from my deplorable friend, Mike. Like Peter, Mike also posted a piece earlier this year on some of his favourite reads of 2019. Mike is one of the most voracious and wide-ranging readers I know, someone who pays no heed to the usual fences of genre that hierarchically divide the literary landscape. He is also one of the most generous readers I know, attuned always to the pleasures of reading. I expect that if you haven’t already read all the books he talks about below, he’ll have you ordering at least one of them.

I’m hoping to have a few more entries in this series over the next few weeks. A couple of people who’d said they would write one have gone to ground since but I’m hoping I can rouse them again—and who knows, maybe I’ll write one myself.

(The purchase links below once again go mostly to Content, the excellent indie bookstore in our town (one link goes to Alibris). Content is owned by friends but I have no financial relationship with them and make nothing from these links. They ship all over the country so please consider buying from them and supporting an indie bookstore. Indie bookstores need support at the best of times and even more so in these times that are so far from being the best of times.)

A Reading Journal of the Plague Year ~ Mike Reynolds

For about a week or two early into Minnesota’s shelter-in-place mandate, I felt fried.  I had a stack of novels but a scattergun attention-span; I found myself skipping off the surface of most everything, and set one book aside after reading the same chapter for four nights running.  Films, television — even music — led to endless channel- and playlist-surfing.  I’d “take a break” and open Twitter, and fall down the rabbit-hole of rants and revelations and silly memes.

Then Patrick Hoffman hooked me.  I got a hold of his forthcoming Clean Hands, the title of which seems timely and scoldy but thankfully has nothing to do with public health.  It’s a crime novel, I guess, yet no mystery to solve, just the careful, precise mapping of one bad choice after another.  A major corporate law firm responds quickly after an associate has his pocket picked. The passerby pinched his phone, which was carelessly loaded with confidential documents that could scuttle a high-profile case.  Hotshot lawyer Elizabeth Carlyle calls in her friend, a fixer named Valencia Walker, and this sets in motion a series of plays as every Tom, Dick, and Yuri tries to obtain, and maybe exploit what’s on, the device.  Hoffman is a whiz at quickly sketching the players in the game — wannabe Russian mobsters, ex-intelligence officers now neck-deep in corporate espionage, con artists and contract killers and a whole menagerie of self-serving liars.  He’s even better at the slow, steady drip of detail, the rigorous delineation of all manner of corporate fraud and surveillance technology.  Yet the book never downshifts into information-dumping; it races over the course of a few days and a lot of consequences.  I dug it.

And, no real spoiler for a noir plot like this, everyone gets dirty, and everyone gets stuck, and many get a lot worse than that.  Clean Hands is a prime example of my favorite kind of escapism: the kind where everyone is trying to get away, and no one gets away.  It gave me my reading groove back, as I realized the perverse pleasure, when I am not supposed to leave the home, of narratives of entrapment.  If this were a different kind of blog, I might riff on the fact that all narratives seem like this kind of trap: closed systems with preordained outcomes.  Grimy noir or sunny romance, the arc of the plot is toward a fixed end that we can’t sidestep.  But it’s not that kind of blog.

Yet I do very much dig deathtrap plotting.  My next two reads provided other riffs on genre predestination.  Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians follows four Blackfoot buddies whose youthful indiscretions triggered the vengeful pursuit of an elk spirit.  It is a straight-up, damn good horror novel — or, really, like a few good horror novels in one, moving from character to character in set-pieces that steal liberally from ghost stories and psycho-thrillers and creature features.  It is also a straight-up, damn good set of character studies, diving deep into the post-traumatic (and often toxic) aftershocks of American Indian masculinity in the context of racism, poverty, and cultural and historical disjunction.  For many writers, the monsters would be metaphors, the slipstream author swiping the skeleton of a horror plot to give shape to a more conventional, “literary” study.  (You see, what these men can’t escape is being Native in this country, can’t get away from this history . . . .) Jones isn’t that kind of writer.  Or, rather, he writes with equal care and commitment about every kind of horror these men are facing, and none of them disappears into abstraction.  As with his previous (and outstanding) novel Mongrels, the matter-of-fact embrace of monstrosity echoes and amplifies the specific and concrete lives and minds of his characters (and vice versa).  He is simply a damn good writer.

So is Paul Tremblay.  But I wasn’t sure I needed another zombie(ish) novel, and even less sure I needed right now a novel that frames its zombie(ish) horror in a sudden pandemic.  Survivor Song, set outside Boston, begins in medias res with an outbreak of a particularly virulent form of rabies, and maintains a rigorous realism through its focus in on a small window of time and a very specific quest for medical attention.  Natalie is pregnant, and when bitten rushes for help from her best friend (and pediatrician) Ramola, to inoculate herself and the child.  The novel is a gripping exaggeration of anxieties in the era of COVID-19.  As I read along and hit on detail after detail–N95 masks, the roving packs of armed and xenophobic protesters who reject the “hoax” thrust upon the American people, the ridiculous lack of preparation of governmental services, and the heroic compassion of emergency service workers–the alignment of text to world was jarring.  (Cognitive assonance?) It was also, in so many ways, deeply energizing. Tremblay doesn’t let us off the hook with some rainbow ending; he warns us in the opening prelude that not everyone is going to get out the other side of the plot.  Yet he also sidesteps the fetishization of post-apocalyptic grimdark and the gloomy cynical mawkishness (or mawkish cynicism) of the recent zombie outbreak in pop culture.  His horrors are framed by a deep empathy for all: afflicted, embattled, infected, ignorant, selfish, just plain scared.  Everyone in his novel is stuck, and stricken, and seen — this is a horror novel concerned with, not slickly depicting, human suffering, and like many of the best generic locked rooms it opens up a way to see the world.

The last three new novels I want to rave about also wander into locked rooms but each uses sly retellings of ends sinister to take aim at the slow-rolling catastrophe of climate change.

Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible reboots–and seems a pointed deconstruction of–Lord of the Flies.  A group of children band together while their bougie parents drink too much and fuck around in a vacation rental.  The kids camp, play a kind of keepaway to distance themselves from the thoughtless adults, comment dryly (but with an underlying sadness) on the absence of authority. And then some kind of apocalypse happens — a hurricane rolls in, social breakdown seems to blackout the surrounding states, and the children hole up at a farmhouse and turn their vacation play into a more formal working community.  The depiction of adults — all foolishness, inaction, helplessness, and amplifying cruelty in the face of escalating crises — trends away from silly/funny to downright damning, but Millet is as concerned with the moments of hope, the unshakeable commitment to one another in her band of children.  Like all of her novels, Bible is often surprisingly funny and more than a little angry, before sucker-punching you with a moment so sad and precise that you lean into that hope she skeptically yet emphatically underscores.

Deb Olin Unferth’s Barn 8 is a heist novel about factory farming.  As in most capers, the plotting trods through the familiar stations of the cross: see the impossible job (kidnap and find new homes for a barn overstuffed with chickens), get the team together, work through various interpersonal tensions, tease out the complex technical mechanics of actually doing that impossible theft, and then watch the plan fall to pieces with the inevitable unexpected monkeywrenches.  That monkeywrenching, and many other narrative elements, tips the cap to Edward Abbey’s influential environmentalist novel of inept property destruction.  But Unferth also monkeywrenches point of view, telescoping in and out of time to see this “caper” in the broader emotional contexts of each characters’ histories.  In many ways, it’s also a novel about loss: the prime architect of the heist grieves her mother; there’s an undercurrent of deep grief with how we (mis)treat animals, neglect our impact on the world and one another.  That collision of tones and topics seems like a recipe for disaster, but Barn 8 is precision-tooled — funny, compelling, pacy, vital.

And, finally, I was equally enthralled and surprised by Vicki Jarrett’s Always North.  It begins on a trawler headed toward the Pole in summer, surveying for future excavation of the natural resources underneath the disappearing ice.  Software engineer Isobel is on board but not entirely onboard, and carefully tries to distract herself from the implications of the work by flirting with the second officer, teasing the captain, commenting sarcastically and dryly on ship social dynamics and her own personal flaws.  Things turn thrillery with a number of carefully-placed and -paced mines: observations of political fights, the sudden disruption of data collection for reasons that are hard to pin down, and the stalking figure of a giant polar bear trolling from a shrinking distance as the ship’s progress slows.  And then the novel doesn’t just shift gears but blows up the machinery, turning into another kind of beast altogether.  It’s sort of a political thriller, something of a climate change disaster novel, shot through with a metafictional speculative twist that gets us thinking about how we’re stuck in time and our narratives about the world.  Each of these plots is a locked room, and Isobel never quite escapes. . . but she slips between them, exploiting the tensions and misalignment to try to map a path out.

And I’ll close on that note, applying it to the brief nod above to the varied fantasies of no-escape across these very different novels.  Feeling trapped–by a virus and this particular batshit historical moment, by what feels like the slow-motion vise of environmental and economic collapses–I turn to plots which play off of, but also empower me to play with, that feeling.  That exaggerated outlining of the prison bars in each, particularly across various texts with varied ways of sketching the narrative cage, I find paradoxically, para-textually liberating.  But this isn’t that kind of blog. So put it another way: when Stephen Graham Jones constructs his version of a vengeful spirit inexorably pursuing his doomed protagonists, he references countless other plots, his text haunted by other ghosts. Heists, noir thrillers, horrors, apocalyptic fantasies —  every nod to genre seems to mandate a conversation between stories, and to invite a conversation between readers.  Even though the covers of the book close (and as the plot clamps down on the characters), the echoes carry on, and we readers slip outside the bars of closure and seek another version to tell, some other reader to talk about the book(s) with.  That strikes me–sitting alone at my keyboard, waiting for the next gridded conference call, waiting for the next wave to break over me–as a marker of possibility.  No lockdown locks it all down; what story are we going to tell next?

Mike Reynolds is professor and chair of English at Hamline University and a reformed administrator. He will drink whiskey with or without the ‘e.’ 

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