Man. Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth is so good. And I’m so annoyed by it because it’s effectively a collection of short stories. I’m not going to revise my opinion that short stories are impossible to love because I continue to be frustrated by getting attached to characters and then having to give them up 30 pages later, HOWEVER, this book is probably a novel? Yeah, it must be – just with really focused chapters on very different characters.
The book opens with a chapter following two young girls in a Russian sea-side town as they are kidnapped. In the following chapters, each a subsequent month in the year, the narrative microscopes on a character touching the life and investigation of the kidnapping. Together they offer a portrait of a town fractured by racial divisions between the indigenous population and those of more recent settlers, between those committed to Soviet ideals and those aiming for something different. Threads of corruption and patriarchal control weave through, but with nuanced explorations and substantial counter portraits.
If anything the ‘novel’ is an argument for community, and how we have come to imagine ourselves and live our lives in isolation from the necessary communities that surround us. (Ah – that’s an argument for the form of discrete chapters, too!) It’s incredibly strong writing and a pleasure to be immersed in.
My complaint – and I’m reluctant to call it even a complaint – is the ending. I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil, but I did find it dissatisfying. Maybe it was a lack of foreshadowing? Or probability? Or that I’m simply opposed to pat resolutions. Anyway, you read it and let me know what you think of the ending.
To believe in the power of art to create or change politics (for the better) is no small thing. Such belief requires an implicit optimism that the despair and risks of the political moment (of now or any time) has difficulty supporting. Cynicism is a logical, rational response to the political moment of Trump, or in the case of Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time : Stalin. The personal danger of resisting the cynical impulse by creating art is the question of the novel. Continue reading
I had one of those afternoons where I ended up wandering around the public library sipping lukewarm decaf coffee and waiting to meet someone. You know, one of those library visits when you’re not properly looking for a book to read (you already have a mass stack waiting at home), but you browse because you browse. And you end up finding on the spinning carousel a murder mystery set in Russia and shortlisted for the Booker Prize and you think, yeah, I’m in the mood for something plot driven. So you checkout A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops.
It’s a fast read and an enjoyable one, but probably not a novel I’ll remember reading (without this blog). Set in Moscow it follows an American expat lawyer as he falls in love with a Russian… some kind of woman. Written as a letter to his fiancee, the reader knows from the outset that all of the drama is safely in the past, but also that something dramatic and terrible happens because our protagonist, Nicholas, has withheld the story from his fiancee until now – just days before the wedding (which raises questions about the viability of their marriage, but whatever). (It’s also a fast read because it’s short: think big text and double spaced. So it’s satisfying to read over breakfast or on the bus because you finish a reading session and find you’re already halfway done. It would, in fact, be ideal airplane reading because you’d enjoy the thing and finish it on your flight.)
What exactly the dramatic and terrible something is propels reader speculation throughout and is, I suppose, the substance of the ‘mystery’: what has happened or will happen to Nicholas that will be so bad he’s had to withhold it for so long? I’ll admit that by the end of the novel I wasn’t convinced that what he did was all that terrible, more that he was so stupid as to not realize what he was doing until it was too late. As a fiancee I’d be far more concerned about marrying someone so daft than someone with a checkered past. Oh well.
So yeah. If you’re in an airport looking for something for a flight, or want a book to read while you ride a stationary bike and train for your summer triathlon season (not that I would know anything about reading under such conditions…), I wouldn’t argue against this one (which is clearly not the same thing as arguing for it).
I’ve only read a few histories of Russia. N. suggested the category “Books set in Moscow,” but I find Russian everythings (history, literature) daunting and intimidating, and so I’ve done my best to avoid finding out how little I know by avoiding reading anything too Russian (notable exception: City of Thieves, which is really, really, awesome). If I had known all I needed to do to understand the Russian revolution was to read Animal Farm I might not have spent so many years in self-imposed ignorance.
In any case, after reading (well, listening to) Animal Farm I feel I have a grasp on the main players and events of the Revolution. I appreciate the extent to which propaganda was used (have I already forgotten the book I read earlier this year about propaganda? what was it? set when Trotsky dies? Sigh.) to lead the “masses,” and the ultimate capitulation of communist/socialist/marxist ideals. That said, I do not have any better understanding of the differences among communism, socialism, marxism. I did not appreciate the representation of the animal masses (the sheep, the dogs, the ducks, the people) as unthinking and blithely following orders.
As for the classification of this book as a book with “non-human protagonists,” I feel somewhat reluctant to class it as such. This book has human protagonists, who happen to be pigs/horses/ducks. The only non-human character is the cat (unnamed) who behaves as a cat ought to: with a total disregard for the expectations and desires of others.
I do have a much better appreciate for why this book makes such frequent appearance on high school curricula: it perfectly demonstrates allegory and symbolism. That it does a poor job of characterization is probably an effect of the allegorical focus. What I mean is, I wonder whether a straightforward allegory can have interesting and complex characters if the whole point is to replicate/represent real events in symbolic/narrative terms? Maybe?
All said and done I feel braver in approaching Russian history because now I’ll picture dueling pigs and subservient horses and all will make perfect sense.