Tag Archives: dystopia

Exit West: This futuristic fairy tale will make you sad. And then you’ll forget it. Because feelings are for suckers.

Mohsin Hamid had an idea: a future where people could travel by walking through a door. And then he tried to write a novel – Exit West – around this idea with varying degrees of success.

Most successful is the grafting to this idea the ideas of home, belonging, citizenship and immigration. Our two protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, open the novel in an unnamed country on the brink of civil war. Desperate to escape the country they pay to exit through a ‘door’ (which shouldn’t be in quotes because it is a literal door, but (of course), also a metaphorical door). Along with many of their countrymen they escape and find themselves unwelcome refugees in the lands on the other side of the door(s). Think about it. If you had the idea or prompt – “Doors that open to another place” – you could use that idea in all sorts of fanciful ways. I would most certainly have a door taking me to a pizza factory, for instance. Hamid goes the other way and takes the tired metaphor and scene of border crossing and offers a fresh take. The door allows the exploration of the desirability of destinations (which doors get guarded), of state security (how and whether and when doors are policed by the state) and agency and access (who can make it to a door, who can pay to open one).

Less successful is the romance narrative. Narrated in third person omniscient, the novel has a distinctly fairy tale tone and feel that would/could lend itself to a sweeping romance. Alas in this case I never connected with either Saeed or Naidia. Which isn’t to say I didn’t find their romance believable, or the ultimate conclusion of their relationship relatable. More I didn’t care enough about either of them to be overly concerned by their individual or collective fates. I was much more interested in the doors and the world they opened into. As I suspect Hamid was, too.

I have trouble locating where things don’t quite work – as the writing is top notch, the characters are given all sorts of opportunity to develop, the conflict is real and pressing, the settings unnervingly universal and realistic (and dystopic, I should add). I think it comes down to narrative point of view for me. I wonder if this one might really be the example of where rewriting from a different point of view makes it a much better novel. I can see it narrated from either Saaed or Nadia’s perspective and finding a much stronger sense of connection and empathy. Of course you can argue that this connection isn’t the point. That I’m meant to be focused on the conceit. But, for me, I wanted a stronger connection to character and a more complete sense of the impact of leaving on them as individuals and their relationship.

So this isn’t a settled one for me. More that the idea itself offers a solid exploration of a refugee experience, if not a terribly good romance.

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Ship Breaker: The Young Adult Fiction Debate

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2014 has been a year for “think pieces” on young adult fiction. Beginning with the Slate “Against YA” , other writers took up the question of why adults read fiction purportedly written and marketed to young adults and many asked whether this was a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing (see The New York Times “The Death of Adulthood” , Salon’s defense of The Fault in Our Stars, the New Yorker’s “The Great YA Debate” and Book Riot’s take “23 Things I’d Rather Read than Another Think Piece On What’s ‘Wrong’ With Children’s Literature” — what is a ‘think piece’ anyway, if not another way for Slate to describe an article?)

What I want to do here is not to rehash the same ‘good’ or ‘bad’ question, but rather to describe three moments from Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker that, to me anyway, suggest that the genre debate is beside the point. What we would be better off doing, as readers, as cultural consumers, is asking questions about the merits of individual books, how they get read and discussed, what their impact might be on readers of whatever age. When we fall into disparaging an entire [genre][generation] we forget that the nuance and depth of individual books within this genre varies wildly, just as those who read them do. To the extent that we might be better off asking if there are “good” and “bad” readers, rather than ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choices of texts.

Tirade aside – here’s three things about Ship Breaker that I found provocative:

1. The exploration of income inequality and precarious labour: As the novel opens, our protagonist, Nailer, is maneuvering through the dangerous innards of a ship in order to extract valuable copper for his owner/patron. While doing this work we learn that this work will soon be beyond him as he’ll grow too big to fit in the narrow passages; we also witness as he is injured and worries about whether he will be able to work with his injury because ‘time off for illness’ isn’t something his owner/patron will tolerate. Nailer is spared the decision of whether to work with his injury when he stumbles upon his ‘lucky strike’ (more on luck in a minute) – an opportunity for enough money to leave the city in which his fate (to work until he dies) is predetermined. The novel explores at length the luxuries – material and psychological – that come with wealth, not the least of which is access to transport (call it ‘mobility’ if you want the double play on social standing and geographic movement).

2. The tension between luck/fate and choice: Nailer is the son of an abusive father. He is witness and subject to all sorts of violences. All the while, he, his friends and his community put great store in ‘fates’ – to the extent that the fates ought to be appeased with offerings when good ‘luck’ occurs in order to prevent the opposite. When Nailer makes his significant ‘lucky strike’ his friend, Pima, advises him to kill in order to secure the prize. Nailer, unwilling to kill, makes a deliberate choice that is – according to Pima and his context – contrary to expectation. The novel places the idea of predetermination and choice in tension not to suggest these ideas are polarities, but rather to explore the ways the characters travel between positions and struggle to test the limits of both epistemologies.

3. The consequences of resource extraction/consumption on global warming (and the dangers of genetic modifications): The novel is set in the dystopic-future after the floods, droughts and cataclysmic storms of global warming have destroyed infrastructure and government, and rising sea levels have redrawn not just the maps, but the social, political and economic landscapes. As Nailer and co. make their way though the different plot points, and as the different thematic questions are explored, underpinning it it all is this setting of grim disease, pollution and danger wrought by the setting. A setting, the novel takes some pains to remind us, that is the consequence of human greed and over-dependence on non-renewable resources (with some direct links back to income inequality). Hybrid species of part-human/part-dog (or tiger) move through this world – and demand agency (or not) – in fascinating and complicated ways (with some direct links back to fate and choice).

So there you go. Call the YA genre simplistic if you like. Deride those who read it for lacking sophisticated taste or a willingness to engage with complex questions. Or consider each book on its own merits for what it offers each reader. Which is not to say that I liked Ship Breaker. I didn’t really. But even while I don’t want to gush about how much fun it was to read, there are certainly complex ideas at work in the novel well worth exploring for readers of all ages.

P.S. Someone lent me this one and I can’t (at all) remember who recommended it and lent it. SO – if this is your book, let me know and you can have it back, and also: thanks for sending it my way!

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Divergent and Insurgent: Reading for Pleasure and Diminishing Returns

reading-for-pleasureSeldom have I been so excited about a book while reading it and then so utterly disappointed by its conclusion. So it was with Vernoica Roth’s *Divergent* and then *Insurgent*. I have no comment on the final book in the trilogy because I won’t be reading it. Why did I bother with the second, you ask? Well, I was so captivated by the first half of *Divergent* that I went and bought the second book and lest I be one to squander my (tiny) book buying budget, I had to read the second out of deference to Not Wasting Book Money. The gap between my enthusiasm and my eventual feeling about the book is hard to retrospectively bridge. That is to say, it’s hard to find something good to say about the series when I now have so many complaints, but I *must* have found something worthy and exciting if I was willing to pay for it (note: I am not library-monogamous, just library-preferential).

So what did I enjoy? The world-building aspects of this series are terrific. Like The Night Circus, the physical space imagined by the novel is captivating. So, too, the initial characterization of Tris (a characterization that takes a decided turn for the wooden and flat as she reacts and acts without any consequence to character development) and her confusion of what and who she is. The mystery elements: where are we in time and space? What kinds of cultural, social, political forces are at work? What’s the allegory here? compel the reader to keep reading with an urgency and a pleasure often misplaced in Literature that wants to slow you down enough to savour each word or sentence.

Reading *Divergent* was certainly an exercise in reading for pleasure. In much of my graduate and undergraduate discussions of literature outside the classroom my peers expressed discomfort or disbelief that “reading for pleasure” might even be possible. Having such extensive training in being critics,  how, they wondered, might it be possible to turn this critical eye “off” long enough to enjoy a book? Trained to say “no” and “but,” (how) could we allow for appreciation and commendation? I suppose I could argue that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: it is possible to find pleasure and retain critical faculties. I think I could also argue that books get read – or we read – with different intents and purposes. That the same book can be read by the same reader with different foci and attention. Putting aside the precision and attention of close reading and allowing – or abdicating? – attention to the pleasures of plot and character might well be possible (I think they are). It’s tempting to be self-depricating and say I was just a poor critic, unable to notice that worth being critical. But I’m not: I’m a good reader. So I suppose it’s an argument for the dialectic: that a reader can take pleasure from a text and simultaneously be aware of its problematic bits. *Divergent* has troublesome politics, Tris and Four have an imbalanced sexual relationship and her gender gets worked out and worked over in disturbing ways, choice and freedom get bizarrely dichotomized against violence and power.

So if it’s true that I could enjoy *Divergent* and still be aware of its problematic politics, when did I stop enjoying it altogether? I’m tempted to say it was when Four’s named turned to Tobias and I stopped being able to remember him as a sexy and mysterious instructor and could only think of him as a predatory creep, but I think it’s more basic: I stopped enjoying *Divergent* and I disliked all of *Insurgent* because the writing was bad. Really, really bad. Written for a movie and without the subtlety to pretend otherwise kind of bad. Written without the attention of an editor bad. Written as if the reader might not have ever read anything else before bad. BAD. Which is not to say that *Insurgent* doesn’t have its share of ideological issues, just that before the reader can start to think about those she has to get past the terrible writing, lack of character development and uninteresting plot. It will make a terrific movie, I’m sure, because it was written to one.

I almost wrote “Avoid both,” but I don’t think I should. *Divergent* is pure pleasure. Read it and enjoy. Just don’t – for the love of God (and boy does Veronica Roth love God – capital G) bother with the second or third.

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