Sunday, February 21, 2010

Apocalyptic stories painted in 'cheery hues'

My first observation on picking up this book of interconnected short stories was the David Mitchell-style tribute it pays to our world. Think Cloud Atlas, or Ron Currie Jr’s uproariously funny God is Dead. Yes, the setting is apocalyptic, the world has come to an end, or is about to — and yet our unnamed protagonist who grows from childhood to age 40 in these nine stories, worries about mundane things like relationships and the human need to be liked.

Steven Amsterdam is a debut writer who bolsters his dystopian vision with issues facing our planet, from climate change to refugees; computer bugs to medical malpractice. Each of these issues that fill our daily news consumption and contribute to heightened anxieties is, in Amsterdam’s hands, a mere backdrop to explore how humans need not become devils in the face of approaching annihilation.

Which makes Things We Didn’t See Coming (Pantheon, $24) a far more hopeful book than its subject indicates. Even in the face of cataclysm, people find the space to reinforce their humanity. “What We Know Now,” for instance, is about a man on the run from an end-of-the-century computer virus reminiscent of Y2K. “What is he so worried about?” his father asks at one point. “It’s always been the end of the world. What did we have this century? World War I, the influenza, the Depression, World War II, concentration camps, the atomic bomb. Now he’s scared about a computer glitch?”

Indeed, there is something surreal about this conversation, knowing as the reader does how Y2K turned out to be an anti-climax, and yet, the new century began with the most dastardly atrocity in history on American soil.

Amsterdam plugs this unease with felicity. In “The Forest for the Trees,” marriage as we know it has transformed into something called a “practical union,” which allows couples rights to “extra-union sex.” The story is about the break the unnamed narrator is taking from his union to Margo to live with Juliet, a senator. “The practical part,” he says, “it’s almost like marriage, except it doesn’t crumble at every whiff of infidelity.”

Changing social mores are not restricted to relationships alone. “The Profit Motive” is about a job interview that the protagonist attends, where his clothing has been impregnated with all manner of dyes and chemicals that enable the interviewing panel to measure the candidate’s truthfulness.

In “The Theft That Got Me Here”, the narrator drives his old grandparents to Rural to help them relive their past. Apparently, the world, or at least the unnamed country in this collection, has been divided into Urban vs. Rural. All other differentiating factors have evaporated. People who are “modern” have opted for Urban, others for Rural, with a few suburban lovers going for the middle. The story, another meditation on a changing world, is a deeply moving paean to family ties.

My only problem with the collection — and this is big praise for a debut — is that the author fills his characters, particularly the randomly occurring ones, with enough life and panache to merit a full-blown novel that gives them greater voice. Pity that he restricted himself to disparate stories.

All said, Things We Didn’t See Coming will appeal to readers who like their apocalyptic fiction dressed in cheery hues. If you were disappointed by the pornography of despair in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, you are sure to enjoy this one.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Narrative, flow don't quite work hand-in-hand in 'Glass Feet'

The setting for Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet (Henry Holt, $24) is the fictional northern archipelago of St. Hauda’s Land, a mysterious place of bogs and swamps where people lead lives of quiet desperation. Into this desolate landscape steps Ida Maclaird, who is making a second trip to the island to find the answer to a question almost baffling in its simplicity: Why is she slowly turning to glass?

Midas Crook is a young photographer who uses his camera to negotiate the distance between him and the world around him. Scarred by his father’s suicide and his mother’s subsequent mental collapse, Midas cannot bring himself to escape the strange, insidious hold that the island has on him.

Inevitably, this being a love story, they meet and Ida’s cheery disposition (in spite of her condition) meets its match in Midas’ gravitas. Midas takes random snaps of Ida, and it is one such image that captures the truth of her feet: they are not flesh, but glass. Afraid and unwilling to get involved at first, Midas realizes he cannot bring himself to run away.

So far, so good. And Shaw shows immense promise with his deft use of language, which sings in a book that is at its heart filled with sadness. The soft light on the island plays coyly with the thick vegetation, casting glorious shadows and producing a riot of images all ably captured by Midas’ camera and Shaw’s prose.

Yet, there is just too much desperation here, too many missed chances. Henry Fuwa, a recluse who knows the secret behind Ida’s condition, loved Midas’ mother once upon a time, but their love was not to be. Ida’s caretaker on the island, Carl Maulsen, loved Ida’s mother once, but that was not to be either. And Carl and Midas’ father (also Midas), both scientists, worked together before the latter’s suicide. You see, the book is literally wallowing in pessimism.

Against this grim backdrop, the only hope is the budding affair between Ida and Midas as they go about unraveling the mystery that has its roots in the island’s strange habitat. But even this is not allowed its space, and often one gets the sense that their love is being stifled more than is called for by the merits of the case.

But Shaw has a real feel for language and his prose shines, such as when Henry recounts the night he dug out Midas Sr.’s body and the startling revelation he chanced upon. Or when the book describes the slow transformation that Ida is undergoing from her feet up, as her flesh, then the underlying soft tissue, and then the bone, turn transparent.

A magical fable, The Girl With Glass Feet showcases Shaw’s considerable talent while also pointing to this being only a debut novel and therefore prone to flaws in narrative consistency and flow. It is this reviewer’s fervent wish that the author continue along his chosen path and grow leaps and bounds with his subsequent works.

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This review appeared in Chicago Sun-Times.