Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Haruki Murakami
400 pages
Kodansha International (1985)

Tl;dr summary: Part surreal fantasy, part sci-fi detective story, all wonderfully bizarre—and masterfully constructed.

Read this if you like: Unicorns, cross-genre experiments, simulated worlds

I never reach the end of a Haruki Murakami novel feeling like I’ve figured that shit out. I typically have the first inklings of an idea, a vague picture in my mind of how all the pieces fit together, the sense that there is, in fact, some deeper mystery that was explored and revealed, the details of which I am simply not quite smart enough to have determined on my own.

And this doesn’t bother me in the least—I think, at least in part, because I feel confident that this is exactly what Murakami intended. I greatly respect that Murakami doesn’t tell his readers what conclusion they’re supposed to draw from the story. The story is; you’re to make of it what you will.

My first Murakami experience (Kafka on the Shore) was for a grad school course. I had to do a class presentation on it and I remember frantically looking up his themes and meaning on the internet, expecting that the talking cats and soldier ghosts and portal stones had to signify something. Imagine my frustration when all I could find was an interview where Murakami explicitly stated he doesn’t think about his writing that way. As he said in a 2004 interview with John Wray for The Paris Review, “When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all. I just wait for the story to come. I don’t choose what kind of story it is or what’s going to happen.”

There are certainly aspects of Hard-Boiled Wonderland that make me think of Kafka on the Shore. The most obvious is his use of the two contrasting voices and storylines to create the complete picture. Later in that Paris Review interview, Murakami says that he set out with Kafka on the Shore to write a sequel to Hard-Boiled Wonderland. Though he ended up pursuing a completely different story (as would inevitably happen, given his approach mentioned above) there are lingering similarities between them. “The style is very similar,” Murakami says of it, “The soul is very similar. The theme is this world and the other world; how you can come and go between them.”

Of course, they’re not identical. Kafka switches between a 15-year-old narrator (first person) and a series of adult characters (third person); Hard-Boiled Wonderland keeps both storylines in first person and the voices similar, for plot reasons that may be considered spoilery and I therefore won’t drop here.

From a craft perspective, the tension established by the narrative structure is slightly different, as well. In Kafka on the Shore, the mystery is in how the many characters are ultimately connected. In Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Murakami tells you what’s happening in the very first chapter, when the narrator describes counting coins in both pockets simultaneously. Even if you don’t understand the significance of this reveal on the first read, by the mid-point of the novel even relatively inattentive readers know how the two narrators are related. The tension between the storylines for me wasn’t how they related but when they happened in relation to each other (if both could even be said to have a “when” in the conventional way, but that’s another discussion) and what, if anything, each could reveal about the other.

Murakami’s worlds are delightfully weird in the most appealing way. This is what drew me to him in Kafka on the Shore and what has kept me consistently coming back for more—and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is chock-full of this weirdness, whether it’s in the form of unicorn skulls or underground laboratories where sound doesn’t work quite right. There’s no question his stories are impeccably crafted, but whether or not you’ll find it as enjoyable to read (or as influential on your own work) truly depends on how comfortable you are existing between the genres. Hard-Boiled Wonderland is part love story, part mystery, part surreal fantasy, part near-future sci-fi—it’s a little bit of everything, but in a way that makes the parts work together instead of fighting, and this, more than anything, is the true wizarding of Haruki Murakami.

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Binary Star

binary-starBinary Star
Sarah Gerard
166 pages
Two Dollar Radio

tl;dr summary: Bulimic woman struggles with co-dependent relationship, astronomy, veganism.

Read this if you like: Experimental literary fiction

 

I can’t recall ever having seen eating disorders handled well in fiction. Partially, I think, because they’re so often associated with teenage girls, who are a tough character group to get right outside of a young adult novel. Like drug addiction, it’s also a hard topic to explore without veering into stereotype or melodrama.

The way Sarah Gerard handles this potentially problematic topic is by putting it into an experimental context. From a craft perspective, this is the most successful aspect of the novel. The narrative style feels perfectly suited to the protagonist’s voice, whose arc could be best described as a slow unraveling.

In exchange, some clarity is sacrificed. It can be tricky to figure out who is talking when, which lines are spoken and which are thought. This creates a controlled confusion. It felt intentional, and I believed the author was in command of her narrative the entire time, but I also don’t feel it was universally successful as a device for the entire length of the book, sometimes jarring me out of the reading experience. A device I did enjoy was the use of repetition. There are several passages that take the form of lists, each sentence in the list starting with “I want…” or “Tell yourself…” and cumulatively painting a picture of the moment.

The characters in this book are not especially compelling people. The protagonist’s thoughts are consumed by her eating disorder; she pays attention to little else. This makes her beyond unreliable because she’s not even all that interested in what’s going on outside her bubble. John, her boyfriend, is equally self-involved. Their relationship is obviously flawed from the very first scene. It’s interesting that she’s so intrigued by tabloids in the book, because that same emotion is what made me want to keep reading Binary Star, not a hope for redemption but more the compulsive staring at a train wreck.

There’s always something a bit dissatisfying for me about the downward spiral arc; your hopes can’t be dashed if they weren’t there in the first place, and this is essentially the author handcuffing herself, removing most of the viable sources of tension from her bag of tricks. The forward momentum in Binary Star is driven by the language. It’s rare for me to enjoy a book where I’m not invested in either the plot or the characters. But the narrative voice is so raw, in turns simple and lyrical, and the rhythm of the words pulled me in and kept me pushing forward. I especially enjoyed the astronomy metaphor that runs throughout the book. This is a character who has a difficulty with perception and scale, so it makes sense to the narrative that she would see her relationship with John as comparable to celestial events.

It feels not quite right to say I enjoyed reading Binary Star. A lot of it is painful, and sometimes the train wreck’s so gruesome you kind of want to look away, and the fact that Gerard could evoke that kind of reaction is testament to the high level of craft. The strength of the voice alone makes this one worth a read, even if you’re not typically into more experimental narratives.

I would be irresponsible to give that advice universally, however. This is a novel-length trigger for anyone recovering from an eating disorder, describing the feelings and acts with profound realism and accuracy. For some, it could be cathartic to see that someone else has been there and understands so thoroughly; for others, it may be best to steer clear.

Whiskey, Etc.

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Whiskey, Etc.
Sherrie Flick
207 pages
Queen’s Ferry Press

tl;dr summary: Collection of short (and short-short) literary stories showing the everyday lives of a variety of characters.

Read this if you like: Writing and reading flash fiction
Flash fiction is a tricky beast. It calls for an author that can do a lot in not much space, an economy of language more similar to poetry than most prose. To be true flash fiction, though—rather than a prose poem or other hybrid form—it also needs to have a narrative progression, along with the well-developed characters and setting expected from longer fiction. Given that, it’s not surprising that there seems to be a lot of debate in the literary community about what is and isn’t true flash fiction, or that so few people do it well.

The 50-odd stories in Whiskey, Etc. are grouped together based on their thematic content. While they feel like they all take place in the same general universe, each tells its own story and concerns its own cast of characters. The stories range in length from a few hundred words to around 15 pages (which, admittedly, is no longer flash, but is still on the short side). The stories that are around 1-2 stories in length read the best to me. Some of the shortest pieces, like “Half-Full,” have enchanting language but feel more like the set-ups of stories than complete works, arguably falling more on the prose poem side of the equation. Longer ones, like “Unlocking,” don’t have the same tight snap; sometimes reading more like chapters in a novel than contained pieces.

Sherrie Flick’s choice of details are what make her flash fiction so successful. Character routines become stand-ins for their daily lives, sometimes taking on new meaning. The dinner preparation in “Boiled Clear” springs to mind as one example. It opens on Suzy slicing brussels sprouts and chopping garlic, at the same time her boyfriend Neil is dying in a car accident; normal life kept marching on, uninterrupted by his death.

Common objects also frequently stand in as touchstones for emotions or states of beings. Various forms of food are used to establish context and build characters, like the Manhattan Up in “Winter Storm” that represents the life Evelyn didn’t live. Cars feature prominently in several stories. As the cause of death and emotional catalyst in “Heidi is Dead” and “Boiled Clear.” The car is nostalgic freedom in “Road Trip” and potential freedom in “You Have a Car,” which forms the character’s present by looking at her possible futures.

Another key to the success of these stories is their tight focus. This is perhaps why I was less of a fan of the longer stories that take up more in-world time. Few of the stories in this collection span more than a single day; some last only a few minutes. The  character’s whole life might be revealed in the narration, but the in-story action is often a single event or meal or moment, and this gives the story room to breathe within that moment, lets it stop and show all the small details that build the emotional and narrative tension.

I have to say that while some of the stories in this collection spoke to me more than others, they were all a joy to read. I was trying to read more from a craft perspective, and even so found myself slipping into “reader” mode, getting sucked into the story and having to go back and re-read with more analytical eyes. Whiskey, Etc. turns a microscope on daily life. What it shows is sometimes heartbreaking, often optimistic, and invariably beautifully written.

Negotiating with the Dead: Atwood on Writing

I’m not a scholar or a literary theoretician, and any such notions that have wandered into this book have got there by the usual writerly methods, which resemble the ways o the jackdaw: we steal the shiny bits, and build them into the structures of our own disorderly nests.

–Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead

Margaret Atwood is not an easy writer to categorize. Her work often spans the space between genres; her voice is both distinct and singular. So it’s not especially surprising that her book on writing is equally unique. It’s more a philosophical look at the life of the writer than it is a discussion of craft or a dispensation of advice. The result is much as she describes it in the quote from the introduction shown above, an intriguing amalgamation of literary criticism with Atwood’s own first-hand experiences as both poet and prose writer, and how her gender, era, and nationality shaped her path.

I’ve been doing research on ancient myths of late, so the references Atwood uses in Chapter 6 (“Descent: Negotiating with the dead”) held a particular interest for me. She describes Gilgamesh as the original writer: he travels into the underworld on a quest for everlasting life and returns instead with two stories, which he immediately inscribes in stone—a fitting metaphor for the process of writing. The idea of storytelling as a form of immortality is something she explores elsewhere in the book, as well. You could argue the question “Why do writers write?” is the book’s main motivation, and though she’s not interested in providing a concrete answer, the options she presents are all intriguing.

Chapter 4 (“Temptation: Prospero, the Wizard of Oz, Mephisto & Co.”) also spoke to a debate I’ve been having with myself of late, namely the writer’s responsibility to their society and culture. Does being a feminist oblige the writer to address issues of inequality in her work? The question here is whether art should exist for art’s sake or whether it should have a purpose a higher aim. As with the question of a writer’s motivation, Atwood doesn’t come down firmly on either side of this debate, more laying out the popular arguments of each and letting the reader do with them as they will.

Negotiating with the Dead encourages writers to think about the broader picture of their writing life. Who is your writer self? Why does she write? Who does she write for? They’re questions it’s worth taking time out to ask every now and then, no matter what point you’re at in your own writing career.

A couple quotes to finish. One from Chapter 1 (“Orientation: Who do you think you are?”):

It took me a long time to figure out that the youngest in a family of dragons is still a dragon from the point of view of those who find dragons alarming.

…which isn’t writing advice so much as life advice, really. For a line that I think sums up fairly well the overall message of this book, I turn to the aforementioned Chapter 4, on “Temptation”:

An art of any kind is a discipline; not only a craft—that too—but a discipline in the religious sense, in which the vigil of waiting, the creation of a receptive spiritual emptiness, and the denial of self all play their part.

The Princess Bride: Book vs. Movie

Though I saw The Princess Bride for the first time when I was a kid, I only recently got around to reading the book. The film is one of the rare movies from my childhood that stands up to repeated viewings on the basis of more than just nostalgia; I was curious how the experience of reading the book would compare.

The Princess Bride is a magical, wonderfully quirky novel, and the movie adaptation stays very true to the text in terms of plot, character, and tone. The differences between the two are subtle, but each version has its own unique strengths.

What the book does better:
1) Character backstories. In the movie, all we truly know about Fezzik, Inigo, and Vizzini is that they’re a band of roving miscreants; nothing is explained about how they come together, and though we know Inigo’s father was slain by the six-fingered man, we know very little about why or when.

The book fills in all those details for you. You get to see Inigo’s life, starting in his childhood, get a filled out origin story for Fezzik, and know more about how this rag-tag trio came together. The book also gives more space to Fezzik and Inigo after Vizzini’s death. Each of them is used at times as a viewpoint character, allowing insight into their thoughts and emotions that makes them more fully realized. This same expansion happens with other major players: Count Rugen and Miracle Max don’t receive their full due in the movie, but are fabulous and detailed characters in the book.

2) The world is richer. One of the most heartbreaking cuts for the movie is the elimination of the Zoo of Death. It’s an absence you never notice until you read the book; I understand why it was cut, because the story still makes sense without it and the novel had to be condensed into a couple hours of film. Still, it would have been cool to see all of Prince Humperdinck’s dangerous critters portrayed on the screen, and its inclusion in the book helps to shape Humperdinck’s character, showing his pride in his hunting prowess in a way the movie can’t convey.

The book has a generally richer world beyond the Zoo of Death, as well. It gives the details of the political interplay between Guilder and Florin, providing more context for Princess Buttercup’s abduction. These world details push The Princess Bride a few notches closer to a true fantasy tale and out of the kid’s book fairy tale type territory.

What the movie does better:
1) The frame device. There’s a whole long (fictional) explanation in the beginning of the novel about William Goldman’s connection to The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern: how the book is actually this long treatise on Florinese history, and the story Goldman loved as a child was really a condensed version his dad had created by reading him “just the good parts.” This frame is continued throughout with parenthetical asides where Goldman comments on or elides Morgenstern’s “original manuscript” which are clever but ultimately overplayed (IMHO).

The simpler frame device used in the movie (a grandfather reading a story to his sick grandson) captures the quirky spirit from the book without taking it to unnecessary levels. The interjections are well-timed, pulling you from the story in a story at just the right moments, uncluttered by unnecessary details.

2) The humor. The delivery of the dialogue gives the humorous moments an extra pop, whether it’s Billy Crystal’s portrayal of Miracle Max or Vizzini’s speech when he’s figuring out which goblet Westley poisoned. The physical humor is another thing that doesn’t come across as clearly on the page as on the screen. The success of this element in the film is largely thanks to the movie’s impeccable casting. You’ll find no truer Vizzini than Wallace Shawn, and I can imagine no one else except Andre the Giant as Fezzik—and both of their attitudes and delivery are key in building the mood.

Watch or read first:
Watch. The aspects of the plot that are cut from the book version to fit the movie’s time constraints aren’t especially major points, and missing them won’t hinder your enjoyment in the least. The casting for the film was so incredibly spot on that having those actors in your mind while you’re reading is in no way distracting or contradictory. In a very meta way, the streamlined version of the story for the movie is analogous to the way fictionalized William Goldman cuts the “original” Morgenstern book down to its essential parts, keeping the excitement and slicing out the lengthy details. If you like the movie, going back and reading the book gives you enough extra stuff to enjoy that it won’t feel repetitive, and nothing happens that’s so surprising it can be spoiled by knowing the outcome when you go in.

The Epic of Gilgamesh: A World-building analysis

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I read The Epic of Gilgamesh for the first time only about a month ago. It’s not long; about half of the 125-page book I borrowed is scholarly background and analysis. The actual myth is around 60 pages—and it casts a massive shadow for such a small text. It’s the earliest surviving epic, believed to date from around 2,100 BC. For context, The Odyssey was written in the 8th century BC, and theologians believe the earliest Bible books were written between 1,500 and 1,000 BC.

Whether you realize it or not, a lot of the Western cultural myths that endure today owe their origin to Gilgamesh, either directly through plot points (e.g. the Bible’s story of the Flood) or indirectly thanks to the idea of the heroic epic. If you’re a genre writer, especially, Gilgamesh should be required reading at some point in your life. I’ve broken down what I found to be some of the most unique aspects of the world and tale below.

Gilgamesh and the Raglan scale
The Raglan scale (also called the Rank-Raglan scale, after the name of its two developers) is a list of traits common to the stories of most heroes and epic figures, including ancient ones like Buddha and Odysseus, as well as modern heroes like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker. It covers strange convergences in the origin stories of a variety of heroic and legendary figures (here’s a link if you want to see the specifics of the 22 points).

It’s a bit tricky to determine Gilgamesh’s score on the Raglan scale, only because nothing of his life before becoming king is included in the epic (which is, itself, one point on the scale). But he scores at least an 11, possibly up to an 18, depending on who you ask. For comparison, this puts him in the same range as such epic heroes as Perseus (18) and Hercules (17), and religious figures like Jesus (18) and Buddha (15).

Why does this matter? The simple answer is that this pattern is a part of our sub-conscious understanding of heroes. They have a mysterious origin, often with a godly (or otherwise supernatural) parent; their rise to power is almost always balanced by a fall and mysterious death. That it applies to Gilgamesh—widely acknowledged as the oldest known hero—demonstrates that this pattern of the hero’s journey has indeed been a part of the human consciousness since the earliest instances of literature.

The oral tradition
Many of the ancient epics were composed originally as poetry as opposed to prose, in keeping with the fact that they largely originated from an oral rather than a written tradition. These epics were then put to paper (or stone tablet, as the case may be) many years after the story’s initial creation. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of these stories.

There is a unique cadence to epic poetry, the emulation of which gives stories the mythological feel familiar from religious texts. Repetition was the device that most stuck out to me in creating this feel. I noticed this most in the fourth section, “The Search for Everlasting Life,” in which the description of Gilgamesh’s face as looking like one who has made a long journey, “burned from heat and cold,” is repeated twice with each new figure he meets. His great deeds are also listed in full with each new person he encounters—again, a repetition that makes more sense in an out-loud recitation than a from the page reading.

Emulating this style is one way to give modern works—especially fantasy or science fiction epics—that same mythological feel. A notable example of this is the recitation of titles after characters are introduced on Game of Thrones (Danaerys Stormborn, Queen of the Andals, Mother of Dragons, the Unburnt, etc. etc.). It’s a device that can get tedious rather quickly, so one to use sparingly, but it’s a more subtle way to infuse that feel into the works than the Ye Olde English used by some fantasy writers trying to accomplish the same thing.

Enkidu
While Gilgamesh is a similar king/hero to others found in countless epics (as the Raglan scale exploration above demonstrates), the character of Enkidu is a far more unique figure and—to me, at least—infinitely more interesting.

Enkidu is created by the gods as a companion to Gilgamesh to stop him from raping and pillaging his way across his own country (no really, here’s a direct quote from section 1, “The Coming of Enkidu”: “No son is left with his father, for Gilgamesh takes them all…His lust leaves no virgin to her lover, neither the warrior’s daughter nor the wife of the noble”). The goddess of creation, Aruru, made an image in her mind and created Enkidu out of clay. His description marks him as a beastly creature, with a hair-covered body and long hair on his head; he also knew nothing of cultivation or culture, “ate grass in the hills with the gazelle and lurked with wild beasts at the water-holes.” Enkidu is sent to a harlot who teaches him “the woman’s art” and civilizes him enough to take him to Gilgamesh. The two men wrestle and subsequently become besties until Enkidu’s untimely death.

That origin story is interesting enough in and of itself, but it’s Enkidu’s role in the narrative that really caught my eye. Enkidu helps Gilgamesh to kill the Humbaba that guards the Cedar forest, then later also assists him in killing the Bull of Heaven; these two acts earn him the ire of the gods, who give Enkidu the sickness that kills him in retribution. Which is fucked up, if you think about it, since it was because of Gilgamesh Enkidu did these things in the first place. Gilgamesh recognizes the fucked-uppedness of the situation and is overcome first with grief and then with the realization of his own mortality, traveling to the underworld to search for everlasting life.

It is interesting that to tame Gilgamesh’s wild side the gods give him an even more wild companion. In Enkidu, Gilgamesh finds a warrior who is his equal. Enkidu becomes his closest friend because he is able to provide a challenge that was missing in all the other warriors of the land. In this, I see a message of recognizing and confronting one’s duality to achieve the level of self-awareness and competence that makes one worthy of ruling. Also interesting is the fact that it is sleeping with a woman that instructs Enkidu in the ways of civilization enough that he can be presented to Gilgamesh at all. Though mortal female figures are as notably lacking in The Epic of Gilgamesh (as they are in many ancient epics) this recognition of the role of the feminine in shaping masculine identity is a window into the Sumerian beliefs on gender roles, otherwise absent from the male-dominated narrative.

Enkidu and Gilgamesh had the original bromance. Like many of the Greek heroes, their bond of mutual respect and admiration is depicted as stronger and more pure than most romantic relationships—in fact, no attention is given in the epic to either man’s love life beyond their early sexual conquests, while on Enkidu’s death Gilgamesh grieves for him as he would for a lover. This emphasis on the friendship-love bond as opposed to the romantic-love bond is refreshing for a modern reader, since there is almost always some kind of love interest for the hero in more recent epics. It’s proof that such storylines are in fact not necessary to create an emotionally charged story.

Gods and monsters
The mythological figures in The Epic of Gilgamesh were not nearly as familiar to me before reading as those of other cultures, like the Greeks and Romans—or I should say, I didn’t realize where the figures had been drawn from, because they are equally prevalent as references in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. There are many of these figures (obviously) but I’ll point out the two I found most recognizable on my reading.

If you watch Ancient Aliens, you’ve heard of the Anunnaki, who are the offspring of the god Anu (the Sumerian/Babylonian god of the sky, and rough Zeus equivalent as father of the gods). They have only a brief appearance in Gilgamesh during the Flood narrative, portrayed as the seven judges of hell who light the land on fire as a preface to the arrival of the storm.

The Humbaba is a familiar name to players of RPGs, notably Final Fantasy; a monster by this name appears in III, VI, VIII, XII, and XIII. In Final Fantasy it is almost always a Behemonth-type enemy, strong and difficult to kill. In the epic, the Humbaba has the face of a lion, the claws of a vulture, and the horns of a bull. He also breathes fire and has a snake’s head at the end of his penis, because when the Sumerians set about to create terrifying beasties, they didn’t fuck around. (Enkidu and Gilgamesh also make prominent appearances in many of the Final Fantasy games, where Gilgamesh is a great swordsman, and Enkidu his faithful dog).

The relationship between gods and mortals in the Sumerian/Babylonian mythology is similar to the relationship in Greek mythology. The gods are mostly removed from mortal concerns, but can be appealed to in times of need; whether or not they intervene is, of course, up to the gods, and they are equally as likely to punish those who annoy or insult them as they are to help the loyal believer. The Sumerian gods are capricious and fallible. In “The Story of the Flood,” Enlil (the god of the earth) orders all humanity to be killed because—and I quote—“The uproar of mankind is intolerable and sleep is no longer possible by reason of the babel.” Basically the equivalent of having noisy neighbors and deciding to burn their house down instead of just asking them to shut up. After the flood passes, though, many of the gods are pretty salty with Enlil for his over-reaction, and Enlil himself feels some remorse for his actions, giving Utnapishtim (essentially Sumerian Noah) eternal life as a reward for having survived the catastrophe.

The Sumerian pantheon is not explored in depth in The Epic of Gilgamesh. The way it’s sprinkled in assumes some pre-knowledge of these figures, which of course makes sense, given that the target audience was probably other Babylonians that knew damn well who Anu was, meaning he needed no introduction. This in and of itself is a lesson to world-builders. It never bothered me that I didn’t know the gods’ backstories. I looked them up later (because I’m that kind of gal) but the lack of explanation doesn’t impede understanding—whereas a break for explanation would have destroyed the flow. You need to know all the details of your world, but your reader doesn’t (necessarily). Sparing details, name-drops, and hints can do as much to shape a vast history and culture as pages of description—and are way easier to read.

Swarm Theory

swarm_theory

Swarm Theory
Christine Rice
361 pages
University of Hell Press

 

tl;dr summary: Life in New Canaan, MI is shitty, and lots of different characters tell you why.

 

Read this if you like: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, Alan Heathcock’s Volt

 

I am a firm believer that genre conventions are made to be broken, whether the term’s used to refer to form or content. In terms of content, Swarm Theory falls squarely in the literary camp. It’s the form where author Christine Rice shakes things up here—and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it.

The stories (chapters?) themselves are well-written. Some are better than others, as is often the case. “Known Issues” and “The Art of Survival” are masterful—in fact, the entire first act is strong. There are flashes of brilliance in the remaining three acts, too. “King of the Lakes” is tragically beautiful and “Spectacular Diversions” has a unique voice paired with an excellent pacing and flow. A couple of the stories feel a bit cliché; I could swear I’ve read “Other than Honorable Intentions” before, or at least something like it, and “Kinetic Friction” is predictable, bordering on melodramatic. Generally, though, it’s a good representation of the modern literary style: artfully-written everyday people, many of whom are good people doing not-so-good things, some of whom find either redemption or growth at the end of their journey.

Where I felt this book stumbled slightly was in its scope, which seemed to exceed the constraints of the structure. The individual narrative sections couldn’t quite decide whether they were chapters or stories—not self-contained enough to stand apart from the collective but not interconnected enough to give the book a complete narrative arc. To use the bee metaphor so prevalent in Swarm Theory, the novel as a whole felt like a hive full of worker bees with no queen. There were so many points of focus that the complexities of the plot felt confused, a bit scattered. I was missing a tangible central thread that could focus the narrative and give it direction.

I should admit I was predisposed to pay extra attention to the structure of this book when I came into it. I’ve been working on a project with a similar structure, one that you might call a “novel in stories,” that walks the line between a novel and a collection. I picked this book up intentionally to see how she approached the multiple POVs and whether or not it worked. The biggest benefit of the structure is how big it makes the world. Giving so many character their own voice lets us see all of New Canaan, even the parts one character or another would never visit.

The downside of the multiple POVs, as you might guess, is that it’s harder to follow. To fully appreciate the story I think would take me another read. The reader has to piece the bigger story together out of short, limited glimpses of the world. It jumps back and forth in time over a pretty broad stretch. The de-centralized narration makes it harder to gather on a first read which details and people will be important later on; many characters appear sporadically or go by different names in different perspectives, making them difficult to track. I ended up doing a lot of back-checking and re-reading just to get my bearings. I’m not opposed to a difficult novel on principle, but in this case I feel as though the structure made the book harder to read than it had to be, and I’m not sure it was ultimately in service to the story.

The interplay between the voices allowed for beautiful dramatic irony. The characters are as well-formed as they are diverse. I wonder if perhaps this is what I’d call a writer’s book. I found myself appreciating it from a craft perspective, admiring her use of language and coming at it from an intellectual more than an emotional angle. There’s a lot of good here if you’re willing to work for it.