Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The New Republic

The New Republic
By Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver's 2012 novel, The New Republic, is actually a problematic manuscript with a checkered history. Originally penned in the late 1990s, this psychological novel about terrorism was dismissed by American publishers as too jejune for American readers. Following the attacks on September 11, 2001, and the proceeding years of earnest introspection (at least among literary circles) an ironic take on terrorism and journalism continued to frighten off publishers, until recently. Apparently the social and political climate of 2012 was ripe for an unabashed satire on media sensationalism and terrorism. In the meticulous Shriver style, there are no psychological tables left unflipped and no sociological surfaces left unswiped. Having recently finished Shriver's Orange-Prize winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, and loving it, I desperately wanted to love this novel as well. Alas, I didn't. But it's not all bad.

The New Republic is set in the fictional state of Barba, a drab, beard-like (Barba... get it?) appendage of land that extends into the Atlantic Ocean off Portugal's southern coast. Barba has recently become a European hotbed of terrorism under the guise of a paramilitary group known as the SOB – a radical terrorist cell fighting for Barban autonomy from Portugal and claiming responsibility for a seemingly random series of violent international attacks. Due to the rash of attention, foreign correspondents from the world's major media sources have descended on this European backwater previously known only for its unceasing gale-force winds, its tacky souvenir production industry and the hairy pear, a local fruit that is every bit as unappetizing as it sounds.

The foreign correspondents form a Greek chorus of media personalities (or lack thereof. Shriver's two-dimensional take on the members of the foreign press is rife with meaning), producing tired examinations, reasonings and rationales for the violence in lieu of any hard reporting on the ground. Joining this murder of squawking crows is Edgar Kellogg. Kellogg is a greenhorn journalist sent to Barba to replace Barrington Saddler, a larger-than-life personality who has gone missing and who may or may not have a lot more to do with the SOB than simply writing about them.

But the entire point of The New Republic isn't the narrative so much as the themes it illustrates, sometimes in bold relief. Shriver, obviously, takes aim at the notion of modern terrorism and the manner in which it is reported to illogical extremes but this novel is really about charisma. Why some people have it and others don't and what drives people who don't have charisma to emulate and ultimately turn on those who do have it. In this vein, Shriver is disappointingly predictable. Kellogg recounts the story of why he has quit his Manhattan law firm to become a journalist. He is determined to follow in the footsteps of his charismatic prep school friend with whom he hasn't spoken in decades. Turns out that his friend has grown up to become a milquetoast sycophant for the Daily Record newspaper and possesses none of the self-assurance that he possessed in school. This was like discovering the butler killed Lady Butterbum in the conservatory on page 12 of a 400 page book. You'd think Edgar would learn his lesson right there before shipping off to a european hellhole, but apparently Edgar isn't that bright. Diligently, Shriver trudges on and, lo and behold, exactly what she says will happen in the beginning actually happens at the end.

Predictability is certainly a problem, but my real problem with The New Republic was the characterization of Shriver's have-not anti-hero, Edgar Kellogg. Kellogg is simply irritating. He's blunt, rude and completely devoid of charisma. Furthermore, he seems to lack class, tact and common sense. He's also arrogant, haughty and condescending. He's incapable of hiding his true feelings and utterly incompetent at his job. I could go on, but you get the picture. Needless to say Edgar is a bastard.

While I understand that Shriver is attempting an examination of charisma and needed a character that was indeed lacking in it, but Kellogg is so relentlessly devoid of any emotions ascribed to charisma that he almost ceases to exist in any sort of reality understood by the reader. How does someone like Kellogg even ingratiate themselves enough with anyone to discover their lack of charisma? I wouldn't give Edgar 15 minutes before standing up and walking out on him.

By way of explanation, Edgar was once a morbidly obese kid and, though he lost the weight, he never lost the inferiority complex. Fair enough, I suppose. Consequently, Edgar has awkwardly shifted into adulthood with an acute sense of both entitlement and disdain for those around him. Why shouldn't he have what others have? He deserves it more than they do, anyway. In that respect he had transferred his personal self-loathing onto everyone else. That's some serious pop psychology right there.

In literary terms, this makes Edgar not so much a character but a caricature. He is, like the blathering idiot reporters at the local Barban watering hole, a predictable cartoon cut-out of what would happen if someone had zero charisma superimposed on a novel along side the world's most charismatic correspondent. This makes The New Republic a wolf in sheep's clothing. It is less novel and more a psychological and sociological diatribe.

Which is why the novel, as a whole, fails to impress. Don't get me wrong, Lionel Shriver's acute understanding of her subject matter is apparent, especially on the subject of terrorism and the media and the elements that would be used with such effect in We Need to Talk About Kevin are manifest throughout. Furthermore, the writing is, at times, sublime and, at points, this novel can be scathingly funny. But it lacks in any real movement, drags on so unnecessarily through the middle and leaves the reader with a rather cop out ending. Unfortunately, the strong qualities of this novel only made this reader feel cheated out of what could have been an extremely poignant book.

As it stands, it simply feels like a novel that should have remained right where Lionel Shriver left it in 1998... taking up a few megabytes of space on an out-dated hard drive. Perhaps the publishers were right the first time. Perhaps we didn't really need The New Republic.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


By Khanh Ha

[The following review is part of the Flesh blog tour being organized by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. This review also appear at the superbly excellent blog I Read A Book Once. For a full list of tour hosts, see the tour page.  For more information on Khanh Ha and his work, check out the author's website.]

I'm not an expert on the subject but I have noticed a shift in Asian historical fiction over the past decade or so. My first exposure to Asian literature tended to place an inordinate amount of emphasis on colonial powers. Whether intentional or accidental, it's hardly surprising that Asian literature would be colored by the regions tempestuous relationship with the domineering west, especially among writers writing in English, given the historical largesse that European power expansion had on the globe until well into the 1980s. Most (if not all) of the prominent Asian writers of the era were educated in the colonial education system. The end result were several generations worth of writers who examined their own culture as a reflection of a distant European culture. While the notion of colonialism was certainly one that deserved examination, it literally dominated the literature in a way that left very little room for other themes. In that sense, colonialism became the proverbial elephant in the bed for Asian writers.

However, as colonialism in Asia gradually recedes from the collective consciousness, we are presented with a second (and now third generation) of post post-colonial Asian literature (if this term is not yet coined, it's mine) come of age, there has been a sea change in the focus of literature from the Asian perspective. As a result of time and distance, colonialism has, mercifully, become less and less relevant as a theme in Asian literature. Asian writers are free to examine other, more organic experiences that have nothing to do with the White Man's Burden. Recent authors such as Jessica Hagedorn from the Philippines, Jeet Thayil from India and Amitav Ghosh from Bangladesh are just a sampling of the new wave of refreshingly innovative Asian writers on the current literary landscape.

If you are looking out for names to add to the growing list of skillful Asian writers, look no further than Khanh Ha. His debut novel, Flesh is a somber, brooding and grim exploration of revenge and moral responsibility in turn-of-the-century Annam (present day Vietnam). If debut novels are, in essence a declaration of an author's intent, then you could do a lot worse than pick up this interesting little novel by Khanh Ha.

Flesh is told from the perspective of Tai, a young Annamese boy who witnesses his father's execution for banditry in the opening pages of the book. Tai's family reclaims his father's body but not the head, which is sent to a neighboring village to be displayed. Tai makes it his own personal mission to reclaim his father's skull from the village and provide it and his father's body, according to East Asian tradition, with an auspicious resting place. This daunting mission takes Tai from his village to the city of Hanoi and under the wing of a wealthy Chinese businessman and becomes involved, both physically and psychologically, with a beautiful young woman from Yunnan.

Flesh is the quintessential story of revenge. At its heart it is a brutal tale about brutal people living brutal lives during a brutal time. But if all you take away from Flesh is its moodily executed story of revenge, you are only getting half the picture. At its core, Flesh is about coming of age and trying to be a good person and do the right thing in a world where the temptation to resort to crime and murder are all too common. Through Tai, we are exposed to a cruel and remorseless world of banditry, savagery and addiction. Tai walks the razor's edge of temptation on virtually every page of the novel and, like most people, succeeds as much as he fails in trying to be a decent human being along the way. In that respect, Flesh is as much a novel about humanity as it is about humanity's proclivities toward barbarity.

Ha's prose is dream-like and poetic. It has a lucid quality that, in it's better moments, adds volume and flair to the writing, though in portions, Ha's style gets the better of itself and becomes a convoluted morass of thoughts. I had mixed feelings about Ha's style. He tossed in enough great writing to make me sit up and take notice, but its uneven quality betrays his inexperience as novelist.

Flesh is not a great novel, but it is a very good one. As a purpose statement, even this inconsistent work is worthy of notice. I think that readers of Asian literature, and specifically Asian historical fiction, should take notice of Flesh. Ha has laid a foundation for what could be a very promising career.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
By Douglas Adams

I have a few reviews coming up this month that have to published on very specific dates, so it was going to be a little quiet around here for a few weeks. But I hate to let too many days go by without some sort of content so I thought it would be a good idea to discuss a couple of novels that I am currently rereading with classes or individual students. These are not new reads, but they are fresh enough in my memory to discuss with clarity and assurance, so let's get to it.

So anyway, I miss Douglas Adams. His death in 2001 is perhaps the only literary death that truly shook me not only due to his age (he was only 49) but because he was my first real literary love affair and the the author of the first book that really, truly made me stagger in awe. More on that later, but first, the story of how The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy very nearly cost me my university education.

Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but it did almost make me fail my first year Western history exam (which would have been a disaster because that was my major). Here's the story:

It was the night before the exam and like any good Canadian university student, I was cracking my textbooks for the first time that semester in an effort to cram as much of the course material into my head in the ten hours (give or take) before the exam. I had the books all laid out on my bed OCD style and was just brewing up a pot of extra strong coffee when a friend from down the hall walked by my open dorm room door and tossed an inconspicuous little paperback onto the top of my neat textbook pile. He tossed it in a manner that suggested that he was discarding a chewing gum wrapper or a banana peel. He didn't even stop to tell me what it was.

At first, I thought it was some sort of exam prank. I'd grab whatever it was off my bed and find it covered in goo, or something equally annoying and time consuming. But when I went over and picked it up it was the oldest, most busted up paperback I'd ever seen. What was left of the cover was hanging on by the merest suggestion of a fiber, the spine was exposed, cracked and separating somewhere in the vicinity of page 86, there was no back cover at all and it looked like it had taken a dip in the bathtub on more than one occasion.

A looker, she was not, but something possessed me to flip to the beginning of chapter one to see why exactly my buddy had discarded this dilapidated old novel into my room.

Eight hours later, I finished The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, admitted to myself that it was my new favorite book and proceeded to shit bricks about my history exam that was less than three hours away (textbooks still unopened).

The story ends well. I ended up doing fine on the exam and continued my studies over the next three years without incident, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours. But I learned a couple of valuable lessons that night. First, I learned the practical usages for a towel, both physical and psychological. Second, never, ever start a novel when there is something pressing to accomplish. I have a difficult time prioritizing anything over books. And third, never underestimate the power of Douglas Adams.

Since then I've read this novel at least a half dozen times and it never ceases to make me smile. Through the fictional notion of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (A tablet-like guidebook for interstellar travelers), Adams prophesied the advent of the Internet, the e-reader, tablets, smart phones... or at the very least, Wikipedia. The Babel Fish imagined in the novel predated translation software (one program that actually bears the name Babel fish, in fact) and we are probably less than a decade away from very practical translation apps that will be able to instantly translate any language into any other language at conversation speed. Hell, Adams predicted (almost to the exact spelling), Google. And he did it with such ease that it seemed as though he were blindfolded with his hands tied behind his back. With such accuracy one might require three pints of bitter to soften the mental blow of his awesomeness.

On a more serious note, Adams was the first author I ever read that put a fine point on many of the questions I had about religion. I've been an atheist since I can remember. The way gay people say they've always known they were gay, that's me except with atheism. My family wasn't particularly devout, but they were church going people. But as far back as I can remember I found the entire ordeal of church, the rituals the forced (to me, anyway) joy and the stories to be deeply unsettling and, at times, creepy. It was Adams through The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy that made me realize that I wasn't the only one who thought everyone around me was taking crazy pills. I credit Adams for allowing me to be unapologetically atheist. It's made my spiritual life a lot easier to reconcile.

But what I like most about this The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and to a lesser extent the rest of the trilogy of five) is that unlike so many science fiction writers (I'm looking at you Arthur C. Clarke!) Adams wrote with a scathingly astute sense of humor and irony and he never once, ever took himself or his story seriously. The fact that the reader navigates Adam's world of morose robots, fjord designers and rock star politicians from the perspective of the mildest of mild-mannered Englishmen is as much a bottomless well of comedic potential as it is a source of comfort in a universe populated by drug and alcohol fueled party animals. Adams had enough sense to ground his readers with Arthur Dent when he knew full well that he was going to send us into a universe so supremely bizarre that there was at least someone we could look to in order to ask the questions we are all thinking about. Want to know the science behind the Improbability Drive? Don't worry, Arthur has you covered, and he'll try to bring along a cup or tea as well.

Thirty years after publication (and ten years after the untimely death of Adams himself) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and its sequels remain not only readable but also as relevant as they were in 1979. There are precious few works of science fiction that can compare to the Hitchhiker series. When so many authors were grappling with the moral, existential and ethical questions of androids, space travel, alien contact and cloning, Douglas Adams threw caution to the wind and made the sci-fi universe safe for those of us who would simply rather bypass the difficult questions, buy a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster and see where the evening takes us.

Here's to Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's series. He made all other sic-fi sound like Vogon poetry by comparison.

Incidentally, I still own that busted up copy of the book. It's one of my prized possessions.