The Strange Bird

For he had no typewriter ribbon left and only fifty sheets of paper and he counted on the stabbing imprint of the keys to make an impression like a branding, and when he had used the fifty sheets, front and back, he would start again, typing over what he had already impressed upon the page.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

 

Bird, Scavenging along an Interstate Highway in Texas

Back in the olden days, the days when we did things, I would go to a book club in a bookstore on the other side of town and join a group that would read the same book and discuss it. It seems so long ago.

One book we read was Jeff VanderMeer’s Dead Astronauts. I really can’t say I enjoyed the book – it was too, too difficult to read. I looked forward to the discussion. I was curious about what everybody thought – but the thoughts were jumbled. I asked, at the end of the evening, “Would anyone here have finished this book on their own – without the pressure of having book club?” The answer was a resounding NO.

Though I won’t say the book was enjoyable, it was interesting… and it was… haunting is the best I can come up with.

And when I came across an online short story written by VanderMeer – The Situation – I read it and wrote about it. It was another fabulous story but told in a more conventional way – not too difficult to get through.

And then… well, there’s this thing I do. I always like to have some short books laying around – something to read when I don’t have very much time, energy, or patience. What I do is I walk down the aisles of the library in the fiction section simply looking at the physical books. Then I pull the small and slim volumes out and see if they are something I might be interested in. This, again, was back in the olden days when there were libraries.

The last book like that I checked out – I looked at it and, surprise, it was another by Jeff VanderMeer – a short novel, novela really, called The Strange Bird.

And it, again was in a different style. It was a straightforward (though bizarre) tale told as a hero’s journey – like The Odyssey, or The Alchemist,  or The Hobbit, or something like that.  The protagonist is the eponymous “Strange Bird” – a creature that may have started out as a bird but had been manipulated in a horrific futuristic bio-tech lab – bits added from many different animals… and humans… fantastic properties and abilities… until what was left was an intelligent, damaged, powerful, fearful, beautiful, hurt and most of all – unique thing – the Strange Bird:

In the lab, so many of the scientists had said, “forgive me” or “I am so sorry” before doing something irrevocable to the animals in their cages. Because they felt they had the right. Because the situation was extreme and the world was dying. So they had gone on doing the same things that had destroyed the world, to save it. Even a Strange Bird perched on a palm tree on an artificial island with a moat full of hungry crocodiles below could understand the problem with that logic.

—- Jeff VanderMeer, The Strange Bird

Even though the styles are varied – the Strange Bird is a “Borne” novel and The Situation is a “Borne” novela and The Dead Astronauts is another “Borne” novel. They are set in a fantastic world established in the linchpin novel Borne by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a dystopian earth destroyed by the experiments conducted by The Company – a giant biotech conglomerate. The blasted world is left with the few remaining humans battling for survival with the genetic monsters created by The Company – now escaped and running amok.

There are characters and locations shared (though often at different times – different stages of their lives) – Charlie X, Rachel and her lover Wick (who sells drugs in the form of customized beetles that produce memories when shoved in one’s ear), the Balcony Cliffs, and especially the giant flying killer bear, Mord. Borne himself(herself? itself?) is mentioned briefly in The Strange Bird.

So, now, what choice do I have? I picked up a copy of Borne – will read it next.

 

 

Joy Cannot Fend Off Evil

“But, in the end, joy cannot fend off evil.
Joy can only remind you why you fight.”
Jeff VanderMeer, Dead Astronauts

(click to enlarge)
Mural, Deep Ellum
Dallas, Texas

OK, it was Monday, the end of work, I was so very tired, I didn’t have my car with me, I had to get clear across town, if I really wanted to go there, it was cold, it was raining, it was dark,  I thought about not going, I would get back home so very late, here’s how I would have to travel:

Work Shuttle – DART Red Line – walking downtown – Dallas Streetcar to Bishop Arts – Walk to Restaurant – eat a hamburger – Walk to BookstoreWild Detectives Book Club discussion of Dead Astronauts – Walk to Streetcar – Streetcar downtown – walk to DART station – Red Line to Spring Valley Station – wait for bus – DART bus 402 – walk home from Belt Line and Yale

Maybe I shouldn’t have gone, today is the next day and I’m tired I didn’t get enough sleep last night

 

But I realized I had to go because the book was so difficult and so WEIRD that I had to find out what the others thought about it. Also, I had fought my way to the end of a tough read – I had earned the trip and the meeting.

 

I asked the group, “Would you have finished this if you weren’t in a reading group? If there weren’t other people shaming you into plowing ahead and getting to the end?” Everyone (and I mean Every-One) replied enthusiastically “Hell No!”

 

What do I think about difficult books? What do I think about WEIRD books? What do I think about books that stretch the envelope of what text can do? What do I think about books that play with illustration and typography in odd and confusing ways? (think House of Leaves)

 

I did say that, usually, I judge difficult and WEIRD books… in the end… by an emotional connection. I don’t care if the plot makes no sense I don’t care if there is a conventional resolution I don’t care if the theme is obscure(d) – but I prefer it if I have some kind of emotional connection or some sort of inner payoff at the end

 

With Dead Astronauts there was some (but not a lot) especially in the Sarah section and at the very end. Was there enough? Is Batman a transvestite? Who knows

 

Now, the next big question is should I read more VanderMeer? (I did really like The Situation – a protoBorne novella)  Should I read Borne? (set in the same world as Dead Astronauts but different – the people in the group that had read it said it was character-driven) Should I read Annihilation?( I saw the movie without knowing it was from a book and thought it was very cool) Should I read the whole Southern Reach Trilogy (A guy sitting next to me said he really liked Annihilation but the sequels left him cold because they resolved too much of the mystery of Annihilation)

 

So Maybe I’ll read Annihilation and skip the rest of the Trilogy. I think I will read Borne.

 

But first… I have to read L’Assommoir – Have to keep troopering through my Zola project – and then, in March there’s another Wild Detectives Difficult Book Club project – we’re going to tackle The Brothers Karamazov (about six weeks of work)………………….

So little time, so many books.

 

 

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

 “Desire is suffering. A simple equation, and a nice catchphrase. But flipped around, it is more troubling: suffering is desire.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”

I was looking for something fun and not too heavy to read so I paged through the books I’d bought (mostly during Amazon sales) for my Kindle and settled the cursor over “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe” by Charles Yu – clicking it into my “READING” folder.

It’s an odd, postmodern bit of strangeness. You know, right away, when you find out that the protagonist’s name is Charles Yu, the same as the author. You suspect that the protagonist claims to have written the book that you are reading… and you would be right… sort of.

Yu (the protagonist) works as a time machine repairman. For the last ten years he has lived in his own time machine, a TM-31 Recreational Time Travel Device. Though there isn’t any extra space in the thing, he does have two companions – TAMMY, his love interest – an attractive bit of programming, and Ed, his non-existent, ontologically valid dog.

He works in Minor Universe 31 (not a coincidence that it has the same model number as his machine) – which is a pretty grim stretch of time-space continuum. It is broken, never really finished, and cobbled together from New York and Los Angeles scrunched together, with half of Tokyo thrown in for leavening.

Protagonist Yu gets himself in a real jam. He returns to his time machine after it gets some needed maintenance and sees himself climbing out of it. He panics, shoots himself, then jumps into the time machine and escapes into the past.

He is now stuck in a time loop. His only hope is to write a book that will tell his future self how to escape from the trap. The book that he is writing is “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe,” and you are reading it.

There are, obviously, many twists and turns of space and time and many turns of phrase and twists of fate. Physics enters into it too. And hypertext.

The book has links in it – including a link to a YouTube video on the famous Libet experiment on free will.

So I don’t know if I really decided to read this book… or simply went along with the flow when I discovered that I had already moved it into my READING folder on my Kindle – then fooled myself into believing that I had chosen it – and now am lying to y’all about deciding…. or something like that.

So, all well and good. Food for thought. But, the big question is, do you give a damn?

And the answer is, surprisingly, yes. The beating heart of the book is the relationship between Charles Yu and his father. I can say with pretty strong confidence that the grip of emotion is present in both the author and his eponymous protagonist. The story is the search for his father, who has also become lost in time, and an examination of the father and son’s life together. This is the meat of the story. There are a few passages that will rip your heart out… and that is the reason to read the book.

The science fictional pyrotechnics are just added dessert.

 “I don’t miss him anymore. Most of the time, anyway. I want to. I wish I could but unfortunately, it’s true: time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain into experience… It will force you to move on and you will not have a choice in the matter.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe”

Oh, and this book sure feels unstageable and unfilmable… but it’s been adapted into a one-man play and Chris Columbus has optioned it for a film.

“There must be some kind of internal time distortion effect in here, because when I look at myself in the little mirror above my sink, what I see is my father’s face, my face turning into his. I am beginning to feel how the man looked, especially how he looked on those nights he came home so tired he couldn’t even make it through dinner without nodding off, sitting there with his bowl of soup cooling in front of him, a rich pork-and-winter-melon-saturated broth that, moment by moment, was losing – or giving up – its tiny quantum of heat into the vast average temperature of the universe.”

—- Charles Yu, “How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe “