Sunday, October 21

So I picked up some things at one of the used bookstores over on Main last night - John Barnes' Kaleidoscope Century, Jo Walton’s The King’s Name, and Douglas A. Martin’s Your Body Figured. I really appreciated Barnes' A Million Open Doors a decade or so ago, so I read Kaleidoscope Century before I went to bed. This turned out to be not a great idea for either of falling asleep or waking up in a useful frame of mind.

(Spoilers follow.)

My advice to anyone else thinking about it: Yeah, don’t.

Coincidentally, the first review I found when I went looking this morning was by Jo Walton. I find it difficult to add much to her take, though she’s kinder to the work than I can really manage. It’s periodically smart, interesting, and scary where it feels plausible, but I don’t feel like any of this bears the weight of its sympathetic portrayal of a mass-murdering serial rapist with an on-and-off gig steering his civilization into anomie and general horror.

I’m willing to admit that this reaction may mark me an unsophisticated reader. It’s one I’ve been having more and more often lately to this or that cultural product. I decided to try some Iain Banks not all that long ago, because everyone seems to think that Banks is pretty much the cat’s pajamas. He may well be, but I gave up halfway through Consider Phlebas, which was inventive and contained interesting big ideas and still felt like its main offering was a dreary, grinding series of exercises in the construction of sadistic little set pieces full of shit and blood and purposeless agony.

Of course, the history of the human species as a whole is full of awfulness. You can’t even start to approach the reality of the 20th century, nevermind all those that came before it, without accumulating a sense of abject horror as one of the common denominators of human experience. Evil and madness are if not constants then at least certainties. It’s not that I don’t expect fiction (or art generally) to grapple with that reality, but I guess it starts to seem like deep, focused invocations of it outside the realm of documentation and history might need to be pretty goddamned extraordinary, transcendent, lucid pieces of art before they are really worth inhabiting as a reader.