Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
August 2017

Title: Amatka
Author: Karin Tidbeck
Publisher: Vintage

Amatka (2012 in Swedish; 2017 English translation) is Karin Tidbeck’s debut novel, though you’d be hard-pressed to guess that based on its confident, succinct prose and the meticulous way it works out its own internal, dream-like logic. Strangeness is suggested from the novel’s arresting opening line, in a prelude titled simply “The Train”: “Brilars’ Vanja Essre Two, information assistant with the Essre Hygiene Specialists, was the only passenger on the auto train bound for Amatka.”

This line magnificently captures the novel’s matter-of-fact attitude regarding what we would think of as bizarre circumstances—why does the train carry only one passenger? What are Hygiene Specialists? If Essre is the location or name of this Specialist Group, why does it double as part of the protagonist’s name?—and the underlying narrative structure: a lone woman, traveling to a strange land, with a clear sense of purpose. By the second page, just as we’re beginning to get a sense of the physical and psychic space occupied by Vanja, we’re presented with the almost-throwaway mention of something that will prove critical to understanding the novel’s world: “‘Suitcase,’ Vanja whispered, to keep its shape just a little longer. ‘Suitcase, suitcase.’” Yes, you read that correctly. As is confirmed over the next few chapters, the inhabitants of Amatka, an agricultural colony, as well as Vanja’s own native Essre, the administrative center of this world’s five main colonies, must ontologically reinforce the structure of their reality by repeatedly naming various objects with clarity of intent and will. What happens if they renege on this responsibility, or deliberately envision the wrong object when thinking of its name, I will leave you to discover.

By the end of the novel’s prologue we learn that Vanja’s mission is one considered important by her supervisor, and that Vanja “was the first of her kind.” And what is this critical mission? “‘I’m supposed to find out what kind of hygiene products people use here. Soap and such. So the company knows what products they should try to launch here.’” This might sound mundane; it turns out to be anything but. A quick glance at the novel’s table of contents reveals a strictly chronological approach to the novel, which is divided into four sections corresponding to four weeks, each further subdivided into seven units of time named “Firstday,” “Seconday,” “Thirday,” “Fourday,” “Fifday,” “Sixday” and “Sevenday.” Throughout the description of Vanja’s experiences during these intervals Tidbeck remains a mostly detached reporter, dispassionately chronicling Vanja’s investigation of local hygiene and her budding relationships with the people she gets to know in Amatka: the farming technician Jonids’ Ivar Four, the retired doctor Sarols’ Ulla Three, and particularly the medic Nina, and the librarian Samins’ Evgen. This is one of the novel’s strengths, because Tidbeck never slows down to explain why things are the way they are or what precisely motivates these characters to behave as they do; she presents them with almost documentary precision, occasionally focusing on details that will prove relevant to the plot later on. This approach could prove alienating—readers love mysteries, but at some point they’ll want explanations too, even if those engender further questions—but Tidbeck solves this problem, and simultaneously mitigates the danger of Vanja being too distant, by also providing Vanja’s first-person reportage and notes within the “day” chapters.

If I had to try and summarize the novel’s vibe, I’d be tempted to describe it as a kind of

1) Eastern-European police procedural (though there’s been no obvious crime committed, and Vanja isn’t formally a detective, there are many clues that methodically accrue towards a dramatic, Dark-City-esque conceptual-breakthrough denouement),

2) filtered through a dystopian, antiseptic-but-grimy, 1984-sensibility (there’s plenty of references to bodily conditions such as rashes and eczema, recalling for example Winston Smith’s varicose ulcer; there is strict government control over citizen’s lives and thoughts, and anyone can become an informant; the risk of disobedience entails a brutal from of brain modification; Vanja’s gateway into the world’s covered-up past and her own untapped feelings is triggered by reading poetry, while Winston Smith became haunted by certain rhymes; the librarian Evgen has been charged with culling half of the library’s collection—“Anything not . . . essential . . . is to be destroyed and recycled.”—which is effectively a way of rewriting the past, not dissimilar from Winston’s job in the Ministry of Truth, and so on),

3) mashed up with some Kafka (the whole bit about reality requiring language to hold its form, for example, which was important in 1984 but here is pushed to a new literalized level; the preponderance of strict bureaucratic procedures; the absurdity of certain social interactions),

4) beautifully composted with eco-punk, New Weird-ish preoccupations (mycoprotein used in everything, the mushroom farms and chambers, a bleeding over of science fiction into fantasy and horror; recalling the perceptual conceit of Besźel/Ul Qoma in China Miéville's The City and The City).

In a way, the ending of Tidbeck’s novel reveals it to be more thematically subversive than some of the aforementioned works, but it may also prove underwhelming for readers, at least in terms of plot resolution. I admit it worked on an emotional level for me, but left me intellectually dissatisfied. The experience of Amatka’s world, though, is surely memorable.

In the end, perhaps one of the best descriptions of Amatka might be found in Vanja’s response to the poetry of “About Plant House 3”: “Every sentence had been whittled down until only the absolutely necessary words remained. Every one of those words was precise; it could have been lifted out of the text and hold enough meaning in itself. In Berols’ Anna’s poetry, all things became completely and self-evidently solid. The world gained consistency in the life cycle of plants, the sound of a rake in the soil.”

Title: The Art of Starving
Author: Sam J. Miller
Publisher: HarperTeen

I wish I could take credit for carefully planning to review Sam J. Miller’s The Art of Starving and Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka in the same column; we have here two debut novels; narrative structures built around the passage of days; central same-sex relationships; and protagonists who are, in very different ways, trying to figure out the world and their place in it while undergoing wrenching transformations on their quests. And there may be a little Kafka in Miller’s novel, too, as there was in Tidbeck’s; one of my favorite Kafka short stories is “The Hunger Artist,” which depicts a character who, if nothing else, shares the sense of alienation and being misunderstood that teenaged Matt experiences in Miller’s novel, and likewise takes to caloric deprivation as a volitional act. The truth is that I knew little about each work going in—Ann VanderMeer had recommended Tidbeck’s novel, and I love Miller’s short fiction—and so I lucked into reviewing them together. Besides the mentioned similarities, though, the novels couldn’t be more different in tone or approach—but they do share the quality of excellence.

Miller’s novel is impressive in several ways, not least of which is the balancing of plot and character, each seamlessly informing and advancing the other. The novel opens with Matt, a junior at Hudson High, struggling to cope with and understand the absence of his sister Maya, who has run away from home for reasons undisclosed. Matt is also the victim of perpetual high school bullying at the hands of the unholy trinity of Bastien, Tariq, and Ott, seniors who physically and verbally abuse Matt for being a “faggot.” Also key is Matt’s mom, who is at risk of losing her job at the local hog farm and may know more about Maya’s disappearance than she’s letting on. The Art of Starving begins as Matt’s angst-fueled instructional manual in how to achieve superhuman abilities through deliberate starvation. Each chapter presents a “rule” or observation on how to progress along this spiritual and seemingly supernatural path. The manual’s “Preface” jauntily informs us: “Congratulations! You have acquired one human body. This was a poor decision, but it is probably too late for you to do anything about it. Life, alas, has an extremely strict return policy.” The first of the 53 “rules” begins thus: “Understand this: your body wants the worst for you. It is a complicated machine built up over billions of years, and it wants only two things—to stay alive and to make more of you.” He is as disaffected as he is precocious. His investigation of his sister’s absence launches him on a course whose climax beautifully resolves Matt’s inner odyssey and the outer reality of Maya’s decision. It is a deeply affecting journey.

Another fantastic balancing act occurs in the psychological realm. Is Matt truly gaining the skills he thinks he is, such as hyper-heightened senses of smell and hearing and even the ability to stop time, or is he merely hallucinating as a result of a very serious eating disorder? Whenever the evidence seems to lean one way, Miller expertly and gently nudges us in the opposite direction, and since we are trapped within Matt’s subjective retelling of events, for a long time there is no way to discern fact from fiction. In the end, one of the novel’s triumphs is to suggest that insisting on such a distinction may be futile, if not actively distracting from what really matters.

I’ll say a little more about character development. I don’t think I’ve ever read a young adult novel where the characters felt as believable and nuanced as they do in The Art of Starving. Every beat comes across as authentic. In particular, I praise Miller for making his young adults truly that; ferociously smart and intuitive, but simply lacking in the kind of experiential “wisdom” that might propel them into full adulthood. Matt himself is extremely self-aware, but as often happens during adolescence, his self-awareness is refracted through emotional turmoil. Many of Matt’s observations are beautifully rendered and make for memorable lines. Two of my favorites: “She thinks I’m a child who needs to be protected from the horrors of grown-ups, because she somehow forgot that the world of children has its own horrors. And that the world of teenagers holds the horrors of both”; “Instead of the hate I always thought lurked beneath every handsome jock’s facade, there was mostly apathy.”

Miller’s novel is a stylistic tour-de-force in the way it creates a completely naturalistic, quirky, unique voice for Matt, never pandering or distractingly meta. Matt himself is made wholly believable by dint of what he chooses to share and what he chooses to gloss over. The Art of Starving is a deeply intelligent and sensitive novel peopled by unforgettable characters. Despite its title, it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

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