The Chang-rae Lee Version of Dystopia

This is from the review of On Such a Full Sea, Chang-rae Lee’s new novel.  The review appeared in the January 27, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.  The reviewer was Joanna Biggs.

“More and more we can see that the question is not whether we are ‘individuals,’ Chang-rae Lee writes in On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead), his new, dystopian novel.  “The question, then, is whether being an ‘individual’ makes a difference anymore.”  It seems doubtful, in Lee’s somber future.  Afflicted by swine- and bird-flue epidemics, and a profound change in the climate, America, now known simply as the Association, has split into three separate social groups.  At the top sit the Charters, a small professional class that has controlled the country’s remaining resources and withdrawn into gated villages.  Catering their dinner parties and keeping their cars perpetually waxed are the ‘service people,’ who live in the land beyond, known as the counties.  ‘You better have it while you have it’ is the motto of the bartering, hardscrabble life there.”

District 12, anyone?  The twist is that the oppressed classes are “workers whose ancestors arrived from New China a hundred years earlier.”

Biggs then cites a list of dystopian narratives (which fortunately or unfortunately do not include anything YA), starting with “the math genius D-503, in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, who begins by designing the spaceship INTEGRAL . . .  to the fireman Guy Montag in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 who starts out as a kerosene-wielding book burner and ends up harboring what may be the last copy of the Bible,” to Winston Smith, the “mid-ranking employee” of the Ministry of Truth in Orwell’s 1984.

Self has read most of Chang-rae Lee’s novels.  She’s read Native Speaker, Aloft, and A Gesture Life.  Of all his novels that self has read to date, her favorite is still A Gesture Life.  Harrowing.  She’ll never forget it.

What she likes most about Lee’s writing is the quietness of the voice.  The restraint masks sheer agony.  All his main characters are tightly wound but restrained, almost to the point of lunacy.  Feelings are to be distrusted.  They are acknowledged only under great peril.  Which makes him sound, on the surface, like Kazuo Ishiguro.  But self finds Chang-rae Lee’s characters, almost all of them, to be deeply emotional and passionate individuals.  If they do harm, it is mostly to themselves.

She does have a copy of On Such a Full Sea, signed by the author himself after a reading he gave in Berkeley.  Self is sorely tempted to tote it along to Ireland, but it’s hardback.  And self has sworn she’s not going to burden herself with more than a handful of books this time.  The fee for mailing the books back home will be exorbitant, if what she paid after Hawthornden is any indication.  Oh what to do, what to do!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Denby on Katniss

The New Yorker, 2 December 2013

The New Yorker, 2 December 2013

Apologies, dear blog readers.  Self knows there’s a new science fiction movie out, one that’s starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James.  She’s excited to see it, just hasn’t had a chance yet.

The Pile of Stuff is truly — enormous.

This morning, she reaches in, pulls out a New Yorker, and settles down to read the movie reviews.  Just to show you how old this issue is, the movie being reviewed is The Hunger Games:  Catching Fire.

It’s very interesting:  Denby writes that teenagers tend to view the gladiatorial fights-to-the-death literally, while their “elders” think about them metaphorically (“as a metaphor for capitalism, with its terrifying job market . . . ” or “as a satiric exaggeration of talent-show ruthlessness”)

“Distraction,” Denby writes, “is supposed to work miracles.”

(Well, it does, David.  It does.  What can self say?  Distraction is, in fact, a most excellent and potent tool.  Just ask parents of recalcitrant toddlers, beleaguered office managers, conniving politicians, crafty taxi drivers and military strategists, thieves and other people up to no good, magicians, low-lifes, jerks both run-of-the-mill and spectacular etc etc etc)

While the first Hunger Games movie was “an embarrassment,” Denby calls “the first forty-five minutes or so” of Catching Fire “impressive.”

An excerpt from the review:

For Katniss, the pleasure of victory never arrives.  At the very beginning of the movie, we see her in silhouette, crouching at the edge of a pond, a huntress poised to uncoil.  She hates being a celebrity, and she certainly has no desire to lead a revolution.  Jennifer Lawrence’s gray-green eyes and her formidable concentration dominate the camera.  She resembles a storybook Indian princess and she projects the kind of strength that Katharine Hepburn had . . .

As for the rest of the characters, Denby assigns one adjective (more or less) for each:  Peeta is “doleful” and Gale is “faithful.”  Caesar Flickerman is “unctuous and hostile.”

Woody Harrelson gets a little something extra:  As Haymitch, he is a “hard-drinking realist” who nevertheless “guides Katniss through every terror” and “is the core of intelligence in the movie . . .  his glare and his acid voice cut through the meaningless fashion show.”

And that is about all self can squeeze out for now.  Oh Pile of Stuff.

P.S. Can self share a secret with dear blog readers? She longs, longs for the filmed version of Mockingjay, knows it’s not arriving until Nov. 21 this year, and has already decided to clear her November calendar. Yup, that’s right: no travels, no workshops, no classes, even NO WRITING (if that’s even possible). Most of all:  No angst, no domestic crisis, no recriminations, no regrets over things said or unsaid, no self-doubt, no dithering, no envy of others getting NEAs or Guggenheims or MacDowell acceptances, no wringing of the hands, no mundane distractions, no remodeling projects, no Tweets, no literary contests, no reading of book reviews, no compiling of “Best of 2014″ lists, no planting, no housecleaning, no shopping whether for essentials or non-essentials (even food), no entertaining of mysterious knocks on the front door or of phone calls from solicitors, no bewailing of personal imperfections, no exaggerations, no facials, no massages, no Vinyasa Flow classes, no research in Green or Hoover libraries etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

 

DIVERGENT Quote of the Day

Self crawling along through Divergent.

Apologies, dear blog readers.  She knows a lot of people checked in on her previous Divergent posts, and the movie’s opening next week already, and Sole Fruit of Her Loins wants to see it.

But the weather’s been soooo beautiful.

And she’s still having all sorts of car problems.

Today, she’s on p. 59, and the beginning of teen fiction territory. Mild spoilers ahead:

I see a few hands stretching out to me at the edge of the net, so I grab the first one I can reach and pull myself across.  I roll off, and I would have fallen face-first onto a wood floor if he had not caught me.

“He” is the young man attached to the hand I grabbed.  He has a spare upper lip and a full lower lip.  His eyes are so deep-set that his eyelashes touch the skin under his eyebrows . . .

Our heroine makes it into the Dauntless headquarters:

People are everywhere, all dressed in black, all shouting and talking, expressive, gesturing.  I don’t see any elderly people in the crowd.  Are there any old Dauntless?  Do they not last that long, or are they just sent away when they can’t jump off moving trains anymore?

Further along, Tris (formerly — in her pre-Dauntless existence — called “Beatrice”) gets to try her first hamburger.  Members of the oh-so-meek Abnegation faction are referred to as “Stiffs” by the Dauntless.

“You’ve never had a hamburger before?” asks Christina, her eyes wide.

“No,” I say.  “Is that what it’s called?”

“Stiffs eat plain food,” Four says, nodding at Christina.

“Why?” she asks.

I shrug.  “Extravagance is considered self-indulgent and unnecessary.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Re-Reading MOCKINGJAY: Commander Paylor

With the Divergent movie about to open, and a new female action star poised to take the crown from J-Law (which self doesn’t think will happen, even though Lionsgate produces both series and has said of Divergent:  “This one will be special.”)

Self swears, she will never ever be caught using the word “dystopian” when she writes about The Hunger Games.  Nope.  Don’t even go there.

She finally caved and bought a large print edition of Mockingjay, while waiting to board a flight to go south and visit son.  And she’s been doling out excruciatingly small dribs and drabs ever since.  Here’s a passage where Katniss meets Commander Paylor for the first time:

Her dark brown eyes are puffy with fatigue and she smells of metal and sweat.  A bandage around her throat needed changing about three days ago.

Katniss finds her intimidating.  The reader can tell after this passage:

She looks young to be a commander.  Early thirties.  But there’s an authoritative tone to her voice that makes you feel her appointment wasn’t arbitrary.  Beside her, in my spanking-new outfit, scrubbed and shiny, I feel like a recently hatched chick, untested and only just learning how to navigate the world.

Only eight more months till the movie.  Self wonders who’s playing Paylor.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

The Multi-Tasker: Resuming DIVERGENT

Very exciting doings in self’s life:  yesterday, she had just dropped off her car at the mechanic (It failed the smog test, boo) and was finally sitting down to dinner when she heard — or rather, felt — this awful hard thing pop out of her mouth.  She looked in dismay at her hand:  she was holding a tooth.  A tooth!  A tooth!  A tooth!  And she hasn’t even finished paying for two implants she had done a year ago!

She called the dentist and the dentist said, Can you come over right now?  And self said:  I can’t.  My car’s in the shop.

Make no mistake, the part of her mouth that once held the wayward tooth hurts.  Throbs.  Self wonders if she can survive the weekend.  She decides to douse herself with vodka.  No, brandy!  Good thing she just came from Costco and bought a huge bottle of brandy for $13.99!  That was very forward-thinking, self!

Dr. Oz is on TV. Which makes self feel twinges of guilt for not trying harder to look for her high-cholesterol medication.  She thought she packed it in the bag for Seattle, but when she arrived at her destination, it wasn’t anywhere. Then she got so distracted, she never bothered ordering a refill, so it’s about two weeks since she’s taken anything. And yesterday, when she saw her doctor, she told him she was going to be in Ireland in May, and he said she should have her cholesterol checked before she leaves, and then self remembered that if she doesn’t resume her medication, her cholesterol will be high.  So she told the doctor she’d get back on the medication, and stay on it, and then — after a month, say — she’d have the blood test.  And he just looked at her and self could practically read his mind:  I am so tired of this woman.

Anyhoo, Dr. Oz is on TV, and self was perusing the Clarkesworld Magazine website because, as dear blog readers well know, science fiction is her new “thing.”

Oh, there have been scattered forays here and there:  her ZYZZYVA story, “Extinction,” and her New Orleans Review story, “Thing.”  Her “Isa” story on Eunoia Review.  But lately, she’s been having sustained bouts of science fiction writing, and she loves it.  Loves it, loves it, loves it.  In her stories, her characters can be green or blue, scaly or moss-covered, six-eyed or blobb-y.  They don’t need to be attractive in the human sense.  In fact, they’re mostly physically repellent.  What does this mean.

SPOILER ALERT!

She’s also reading Divergent (at a snail’s pace).  There was some nail-biting tension in Chapter 5, because Beatrice slashed her hand and let the blood drip over — not glass, not earth, not water — is there anything else?  Self, you dolt!  You’d better go back over the chapter and read from the beginning!

Beatrice’s blood falls on coals.

Coals.

Which means she has chosen –  self draws a blank.

She has to read into Chapter Six to learn that “coals” represent Dauntless.

Just before it is her turn to choose, Beatrice goes over her decision to remain in her parents’ faction, Abnegation (which means she will have to help her parents clean up after everyone else has left the room, how exciting):  “I can see it now . . .  I watch myself grow into a woman in Abnegation robes . . .  volunteering on the weekends, the peace of routine, the quiet nights spent in front of the fireplace, the certainty that I will be safe, and if not good enough, better than I am now.”

Self was just beginning to think how someone in Abnegation would be an extremely boring character to stick with for a 500-page novel when, of course!  She chooses something else.

It’s just like the moment when Katniss decides to shoot an arrow straight up into the force field dome, instead of into Finnick’s gorgeous face!  Totally unexpected and –  AARRGH!

Anyhoo, our plucky Beatrice chooses the Dauntless faction, and pretty soon we learn that she is so much shorter than everyone else in Dauntless because she can’t see past their shoulders.  Good thing the factions don’t have a height requirement.

But perhaps that’s precisely Veronica Roth’s point:  Short people can be dauntless, too!  Height, after all, is not a requirement for bravery!  Yay!  There’s still hope for self, who The Man opined is two inches shorter now than she was when he first met her, in grad school (She did ask her doctor about this, BTW, and it only seemed to exacerbate his exasperation.  Basically, his response was:  “Do your care?” Self’s response:  “Only if it means I’m getting hunchbacked!” At which the doctor just shook his head.)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

DIVERGENT, Chapter 5: The Choosing Ceremony

Self spent last night bawling — literally  bawling — over Hunger Games fanfiction.

In one fanfiction, Katniss is a maid in the well-off Mellark household.  In another, she is hired by Peeta’s father to help out in the bakery.  In others, Peeta is King Peeta and Katniss is a winsome country lass.  Self doesn’t like these fairy tale ones as much as the others, but sometimes self needs to read something relaxing, and it’s always a kick to imagine J-Hutch wearing a kingly crown. In all of the fanfiction, the socio-economic status reflects that of the characters in Suzanne Collins’s trilogy:  Katniss = poor.  Peeta = well-off.  Stage set for melodrama of the highest order.

And now to Divergent, Chapter 5.

The heroine, Beatrice, and her brother, Caleb, belong to the Abnegation faction (a very irritating faction, don’t ask).  But now they get to choose whether to stay in Abnegation or go to some other faction that’s a better fit for their skills and personality.

Usually the teens who are choosing opt to stay with their families’ factions.  In the case of Beatrice and Caleb, that would mean Abnegation.

A boy from Dauntless goes to the center of the room and makes his choice:  Candor.

His blood falls onto glass, and he is the first of us to switch factions.  The first faction transfer.  A mutter rises from the Dauntless section, and I stare at the floor.

They will see him as a traitor from now on.  His Dauntless family will have the option of visiting him in his new faction, a week and a half from now on Visiting Day, but they won’t, because he left them.  His absence will haunt their hallways, and he will be a space they can’t fill.  And then time will pass, and the hole will be gone, like when an organ is removed, and the body’s fluids flow into the space it leaves.  Humans can’t tolerate emptiness for long.

Wow, self loves the writing.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Home Again (post-AWP/2014)

Back home, self means.

Thank goodness it’s been raining, so she doesn’t have to worry about catch-up watering.

She pores over her AWP goodies, reluctant to put any of them away.

She watched bits of the Oscars yesterday, and was surprised at how subdued J-Law seemed.  Almost, tired.  Her eyes didn’t have last year’s sparkle.  She looked thin and elegant, but — Good Lord, self never thought there’d come a day when she’d welcome Miley Cyrus’s stubborn commitment to hi-jinks.

Help help help!  What has happened to that Funny Girl of yester-year?  Nicholas Hoult was by her side, looking neither happy nor unhappy.  Are these two really getting married?

Today, self does her usual thing:  Costco.  Laundry.  Scanning her e-mail for rejections.

She inadvertently let her car registration lapse, and it’s a smog test year, boo.

Perhaps now she can finally focus on finishing Divergent. She bought her copy months ago.

The heroine is named Beatrice (which is a nice name, though not as unique as Katniss).  She is still deep in the nest of her Abnegation family.  There is a really intriguing passage on p. 37 (end of Chapter 4):

I peer into his room and see an unmade bed and a stack of books on his desk.  He closes the door.  I wish I could tell him that we’re going through the same thing.  I wish I could speak to him like I want to instead of like I’m supposed to.  But the idea of admitting that I need help is too much to bear, so I turn away.

I walk into my room, and when I close my door behind me, I realize that the decision might be simple.  It will require a great act of selflessness to choose Abnegation, or a great act of courage to choose Dauntless, and maybe just choosing one over the other will prove that I belong.

Hmmm, that’s truly excellent writing.  It continues excellent through Chapter 5, when self has to stop to greet The Man.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Week Before AWP Exhaustion and Self Is Already Exhausted

So, what better way to lose herself for a few minutes, or even an hour, than in reading Hunger Games fanfiction?  She found a really good one today.  Dear blog readers will probably laugh but it is no joke:  one of self’s bookmarked sites is Mockingjay.net.

No, self will not go there.

Instead, she continues with Divergent.  Because the movie — well, the movie stars Shailene Woodley.  And self loves Shailene Woodley.  She’s loved her ever since The Descendants.

These are the young actresses self particularly loves:  Jennifer Lawrence, Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt (well, she’s a bit older; still, self loves her), Jena Malone and Shailene Woodley.  Oh!  She also likes Felicity Jones.  She liked Natalie Mendoza in The Descent.  She likes Lilly Collins. And Lupita Nyong’o who was absolutely incandescent in 12 Years a Slave.

Where were we?

Oh yes, Divergent.

On p. 33, self finds out a little bit more about the world of the book:

The narrator’s father has returned from a hard day at work.  He is some kind of political leader.

The narrator explains:

The city is ruled by a council of fifty people, composed entirely of representatives from Abnegation, because our faction is regarded as incorruptible, due to our commitment to selflessness.  Our leaders are selected by their peers for their impeccable character, moral fortitude, and leadership skills. Representatives from each of the other factions can speak in the meetings on behalf of a particular issue, but ultimately, the decision is the council’s . . .  It has been that way since the beginning of the great peace, when the factions were formed.  I think the system persists because we’re afraid of what might happen if it didn’t:  war.

Self loses herself in conjecture.  To tell the truth, self belongs in a faction like Abnegation.  But she longs to break out of it because it is just, so, so — limp. For instance, p. 34:  “We aren’t supposed to speak at the dinner table unless our parents ask us a direct question, and they usually don’t.”

Members of Abnegation must be humble and self-effacing all the time.  They must not take pride in their looks or in their character or in their intelligence or in their creativity.

What. A. Terrible. Way. To. Be.

Self knows, because she spent — oh, about 80% of her life doing all those self-abnegating things.  And it did her not. One. Bit. Of. Good.

Until self suddenly had this mind-blowing revelation, courtesy of Manang Marilou of Bacolod:  Nobody cares if you are miserable.  So you might as well be happy.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

The Reading List Goes a Wee Bit Bonkers

Self has been reading The Hunger Games trilogy at night — an hour before bedtime, she selects a section of about 50 pages or so. She’s read each book about 10 times since the Catching Fire movie.

She made a wee bit of headway in Divergent.

She also trotted around with her, to coffee bars, the issue of One Story with B. J. Novak’s story (Yes, it’s that B. J. Novak, the one who co-wrote The Office with Mindy Kaling)

This morning, she began reading a new One Story story, Laura Spence-Ash’s “The Remains.”

She had minimal contact with the neighbors.  She waved once to John.  One of his boys — they’ve gotten so tall! — was pushing a lawn mower around their front yard.

She saw that all her clematis were still alive.  The one that used to be against John’s fence, until he replaced the fence and hacked it down, is still alive.  But struggling.  It probably won’t survive the year.  Now, it’s nothing but a clump of dead brown twigs, with small green shoots at the bottom.  It used to cover almost half the fence, and every spring for a dozen years it put forth the most magnificent, white flowers.  If it dies, self doesn’t think she’ll have either the time or the patience to grow another clematis to that size.

Let’s see, what else did she do this weekend?  She returned Black Lamb and Grey Falcon to the library (took nearly a month of her life) and began a new book, The Hemingses of Monticello:  An American Family, by Annette Gordon-Reed.

She scanned one of her bookshelves and pulled out a wee pocketbook called Envy.  It’s a dictionary.  Inside are definitions for:

  • acidity (Noun): The measure of bite or acidity in one’s tone
  • acidulous (Adjective):  A way of speaking that sounds bitter or sharp
  • adulation (Noun):  Extreme praise, admiration, or flattery, especially of a servile nature
  • allege (Verb):  To accuse someone of something — usually wrongdoing — without proof.

There’s a quote from Bertrand Russell:

Envy consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations.  If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

How the Hunger Games Fan Fiction Replicates Self’s Advice . . .

Still in son’s house, the house he and Jennie rent. Every night, we gather in front of the TV to watch the figure skating. Self makes horrible, taunting remarks — about the lace top of one of the male Russian skaters, about Putin sitting grim-faced rink-side, about how the medal counts are broken down by country (“Isn’t the whole point to stop thinking of individual countries, isn’t the point WORLD PEACE?” self whines)

When everyone else has gone to their room, self begins searching for Hunger Games fan fiction. She always finds good ones. The one she began reading earlier is called Good Again. It is 32 chapters. Whoever wrote it, he/she is good.

What makes self burst out laughing is a line from Chapter 7.  Katniss is still suffering from PTSD, it’s been less than a year since she returned to District 12.  She calls Dr. Aurelius, the doctor in the Capitol, and he tells her she needs to go back to hunting.  Here’s an excerpt of their conversation:

“Would you be avoiding hunting?” he asked.

I was absolutely avoiding hunting.  I went sometimes, when Peeta asked for squirrel.  It used to calm me, but now it just reminds me of . . .

“Gale,” I said quietly.  “It reminds me of Gale.”

“I see,” the doctor paused.  “Gale was your hunting partner, as I recall.  Do you love hunting?”

“I do.  Not just hunting.  Being in the woods, walking, climbing trees.”  I was becoming nostalgic.

“Would you say it was a major part of your identity before the reaping?”

“Yes.”

“Well, Katniss, I will now assign you a bit of homework.  I want you to go hunting.  Be sure to take a notebook with you.”

Dear blog readers, self is teaching an on-line creative writing class.  And since Day 1 of the class, she has been repeating, over and over:  “Bring a notebook with you wherever you go.  Writing is like a muscle.  It gets better with use.” (Katniss, if you were one of self’s creative writing students this quarter, you wouldn’t have to be told of the value of bringing a notebook with you wherever you go)

To have her words echoed by Doctor Aurelius in Hunger Games fanfiction is beyond priceless.

Self has learned that there’s a new character in the Mockingjay movies:  Antonius.  Why oh why did this new character have to have a name that sounds so much like Aurelius?  Only now, while typing this, does self realize it is perfect:  Antonius, a possible Capitol torturer, is responsible for breaking people.  If this is correct, he’d be a perfect foil to Dr. Aurelius, whose specialty is healing Katniss’s and Peeta’s devastated psyches.  (As usual, self has spoken too soon:  Tonight she reads on Hypable that Antonius is likely “a doctor from District 13.” The mystery deepens. All she can say is, Knepper does a great broody face)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

« Older entries

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 495 other followers