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Apr 17

Week 15: Lots of Nominees, Exposition Sucks and Great World Building but Shame about the Story…

Books Read

Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

Updraft by Fran Wilde

Currently Reading 

The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

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The nominees for two major awards were announced this week.  The first was the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction:

  • Cynthia Bond: Ruby
  • Anne Enright: The Green Road
  • Lisa McInerney: The Glorious Heresies
  • Elizabeth McKenzie: The Portable Veblen
  • Hannah Rothschild: The Improbability of Love
  • Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

Brief Observations

  1. I’ve read both the Yanagihara and the Enright.
  2. The Yanagihara has stuck with me months after finishing it (not literally, the book isn’t stapled to my clothing or anything) and yet I still wouldn’t describe it as a good book. I’m not upset though to see it nominated.  Even at it’s most frustrating, it’s always interesting.
  3. The Enright is fantastic novel. It’s about a Christmas family reunion and explores the deep marks and impressions that parents and upbringing leave on children.  Highly recommended.
  4. I’m looking forward to reading the McKenzie which I’ve heard many good things about. The McInerney has also piqued my interest.

The second set of nominees announced this week were the finalists for the Man Booker International Award:

  • A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker), José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola), Daniel Hahn (UK)
  • The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), Elena Ferrante (Italy), Ann Goldstein (USA)
  • The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), Han Kang (South Korea), Deborah Smith (UK)
  • A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), Ekin Oklap (Turkey)
  • A Whole Life (Picador), Robert Seethaler (Austria), Charlotte Collins (UK)
  • The Four Books (Chatto & Windus), Yan Lianke (China), Carlos Rojas (USA)

Brief Observations

  1. As I might have mentioned in a previous post, this is the first year that the Man Booker have treated translated works in the same way they treat novels written in English.  It’s a fantastic decision and will hopefully provide greater exposure to translated works.
  1. I don’t have much to say about the nominees because of ignorance on my part, but I was aware of the Han Kang and had it lined up to read. It’s also hard to avoid Elena Ferrante who has already made a significant impact in the English speaking market.  I won’t be reading The Story of the Lost Child, but rather the first book in the Neapolitan series – My Brilliant Friend.

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We trap ourselves in habit.  And when I say “ourselves” I mean me.  Unless a novel is outright unreadable, so awful that the prose is one step above gibberish, I’ll keep churning through the book until I’ve turned the last page.  Intellectually I know the pressure to finish every novel I start is an obligation I’ve placed on myself.  But the habit is now baked into my DNA and feels impossible to break.

This compulsion to persevere with a work well after the novelty has worn off is the reason I finished Lawrence Schoen’s novel Barsk: The Elephant Graveyard.  It’s by no means an awful book.  The prose is serviceable and effort has clearly been spent on creating a detailed and somewhat layered empire of planets administered by sentient (or uplifted) animals.  There’s also potential in the novel’s big idea – nefshons, a particle attached to all living things that captures a person’s memories, attributes and identity.  An individual (or talking animal) with access to the right drug and some innate talent can gather together these nefshons and turn them into constructs of the people they were linked to.  It especially comes in handy if the person is dead, because nefshons just like energy can’t be totally destroyed (though they do fade over time).

Unfortunately the novel’s spark of invention is submerged in scads and scads of exposition.  Whether it’s characters explaining the plot to each other or whether it’s Schoen spelling out how nefshons work for what feels like the hundredth time, narrative progression and character development is stifled until it becomes impossible to give a shit about the oppressed talking elephants and an ambiguous prophecy that might lead to their salvation.  It’s not that all exposition is bad, or that authors should avoid it at all costs.  I’m one of those guys who loves it when Stephen King drifts into a tangent about a feature of Castle Rock that has fuck all to do with the overall plot.  But when the prose struggles to rise beyond that meat and potatoes style that Analog has made famous over the last 50 years, than exposition, especially the type that describes character motivation and then repeats that motivation in dialogue, is an antidote to entertainment.  I blame myself of course.  I should have been strong enough to break the pattern and realise that while Barsk isn’t a disaster of a novel, it’s simply not worth my time.

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What made N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season such a great read is how Jemisin beautifully marries together both world building and plot.  Not only is their depth to the environment she depicts but the story that goes with it is surprising and wonderfully structured.  With Updraft Fran Wilde gets one of these things right and the other less so.

Updraft is set on an unnamed world where the populace live in towers made from bone that rise high above the clouds.  Unsurprisingly there’s really only two ways to travel, either via bridges strung between a selection of the towers or by strapping on a pair of wings and flying.  Kirit, a denizen of tower Densira, is desperately looking forward to passing her wingtest so she can work side by side with her famous mother and trade goods between the towers and other bone cities that make up this world.  And that’s how it might have worked out if Kirit’s unique ability to control the dreaded, vicious sky mouths with just her voice hadn’t drawn the attention of the ruling élite – the Singers who live in The Spire and who administer the city with a heavy – one might say totalitarian – hand.

As that description might suggest the highlight of Updraft is the world building.  Wilde beautifully captures the splendour, exhilaration and fear that comes from flying unprotected, prey to the ever-changing wind and the lurking threat of the sky mouths.  More importantly though, she considers how a society that has no access to dirt, to fertile land, might survive.  And it’s this idea of scarcity that proves to be a constant presence throughout the novel, not only in the way it gives the world depth but also how it motivates Kirit as she uncovers some disturbing truths behind the Singers and The Spire.

However, as original and breathtaking as the world is, the actual story – the emergence of Kirit’s vocal talent, her reluctance to join the Singers, her training at the Spire, her eventual attempt to overthrow a corrupt regime – is a series of plot beats we’ve seen a thousands time before.  The first third of the novel is frustratingly devoted to Kirit doing everything in her limited power to avoid being sent to The Spire.  This is inspite of the fact that it will be clear to the reader 10 pages in that no matter what she does, the Spire is exactly where she’s headed.  The middle of the novel deals with Kirit’s training as a Singer.  As we’ve come to expect when an individual with a unique, but raw, ability is sent elsewhere to hone their power, Kirit’s tutelage involves the usual amount of borderline abuse, bullying and jealousy.  Finally, in the tradition of so many other young adult dystopian novels, Kirit almost single-handedly overthrows the current regime.  OK, she does have help but there’s something predictable and ordinary in how quickly she becomes the rallying cry for a revolution.

As much as I liked the unique world on display in Updraft, the by the numbers plot has soured me from picking up the sequel.

2 comments

  1. Lindsay Taylor

    I’m about half way through Barsk at the moment and my general impression is that it’s good enough with some interesting ideas. I probably have more tolerance for exposition than you do.

    In the case of Updraft, I was a little less enamored of the world-building. We get it loud and clear that this is a scarcity society. So how does it make any sense from a world-building point-of-view to have such a high body count? It’s very clear that even before things go off the rails in this book that people die regularly, either from sky-mouths or the stupid trial-by-combat court system or just being dumped in huge masses to appease whatever needs appeasing. Just to get to replacement level with that level of attrition, every woman in the story would have to be pregnant a lot of the time, and families would be a lot larger with a lot of missing members.

    To be honest, I love some of the imagery in this book, including the spires, the sky-mouths and the wings, but overall I think it’s a bit of a mess.

    1. Mondyboy

      The idea’s in Barsk are interesting, the concept of nefshons and precognition provides all sorts of possibilities that I don’t think Schoen develops because he spends so much time explaining stuff.

      Fair point on Updraft in regard to attrition. Wilde plays hard and loose with the population and whether this is the only city on the planet or there are others. But, yeah, now that you mention it, a society with that level of scarcity couldn’t afford such a high mortality rate.

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