The Left Hand Of Darkness, Or: Maybe I Don’t Like Sci-Fi, After All

A25837084.jpgbout halfway through Ursula LeGuin’s classic novel, The Left Hand of Darkness, and about halfway through a snore, I realized that maybe sci-fi wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong: I’d read fantasy as a kid, and now and then read some sci-fi short stories. I gobble up dystopias; anything that whiffs of magical realism is added immediately to my queue. I like dabbling in the fantastical. The real world is real enough, thank you!

But The Left Hand of Darkness is a whole ‘nother ballpark. It’s not fantastical so much as it is scientific. Through the eyes of Genly Ai, an envoy from a different planet, LeGuin sketches out a world wildly foreign from planet Earth. Nothing is comfortable or easy on the the planet Winter, for Genly or for me. First, it’s essentially always winter (hence the name). LeGuin invented a new calendar, and a different name for each day of the week. In the limited inhabitable latitude, two countries with radically different philosophies and societal structures compete. For diplomatic reasons, Genly traverses the border. All that is just accompanies the juicy bit, though, and the one part that made The Left Hand of Darkness an interesting thought experiment.

What makes Winter so unique, though, is its inhabitants. While human, the population isn’t gendered. They are both man and woman. Once a month, during the “kemmering” mating process, they become sex-crazed and shack up with whomever else is in kemmering, be them a partner or stranger. This leads to some situations that seem askew: The king gets pregnant; characters embody both typically “male” and female” traits. LeGuin has fun skewering the notion of gender, and how it boxes us into learned behaviors. Genly flops around, not understanding. A typical man!

To be honest, I picked the book up because I thought it would be juicy (I know! Naive). I wanted LeGuin to really explore life without gender. And for the most part, she did. I guess my big complaint is — there is no sex in The Left Hand of Darkness! The characters, when not in kemmering, are completely subdued and almost behave as if they have zero sex drives. HellLO Ursula, why didn’t you take us into a kemmering sex den? While the rest of us down here are stewing in monogamy and trapped in our bodies, you could’ve showed us an alternative.

As a result of LeGuin’s chaste writing, Genly’s diplomatic trip is just that: Diplomacy. No snogs. No watching alien genitalia shift and morph. No trips to the kemmering houses.

I’ve realized now that sci-fi is more interested in world-build ing than in making out. While I respect the genre, I’m going to retreat to my erotic thrillers, thank you, where authors are more interested in warm-blooded planets than winter.

While I’m happy The Left Hand of Darkness exists as a thought experiment, I can’t deny its effect on me. Alas, it was to snooze.

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“Call Me By Your Name,” Or An Aching Love Story That Will Become An Aching Movie This Fall

418NXgCbb8LI’ll be lucky if I can get Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman out from under my skin at some point within the next year. I’ll also be lucky if my fellow commuters forget that, one Thursday afternoon, my face involuntarily contorted into a sob on the last page of a slim novel. What Call Me By Your Name lacks in pages, it makes up for in sheer psychological depth.

Welcome to the landscape of an all-consuming first love. A kind love that you forgot about after you turned 20, because frankly, that kind of full emotion is almost exhausting to remember. And it’s sad to remember, too — that state of pure awareness can only be sustained for so long.

Elio is 17, and if I could describe him in one word, it would be inflamed. He’s inflamed because of his sudden, unexpected attraction to the American scholar staying at his family’s Italian villa for the summer. And he’s inflamed because he’s realizing that he’s capable of such extreme emotion, emotion so viscous action seems impossible. Essentially: he’s just realized what love is.

Most of the novel is Elio parsing through his own thoughts, squeezing meaning from his David’s daily paths, searching for layers of truth behind innocuous lines of dialogue. He’s a thinker, not an actor. Eventually, after pages and pages spent analyzing passion, he acts. Thank god — now we get some juicy bits involving peaches and unforgettable innuendos.

There’s a lot I love about this novel. Italian villas. Literary crowds. Literary snobs. Sexy sex. Coming of age. Persistent great love that nags and nags throughout a lifetime. The idea of soulmates. The exploration of sexuality, bisexuality, and loving someone for their “core.”

Most notably, I loved the pressing, inespecable presence of time in the novel. Time functions on three levels in the novel. There’s the slow-moving Mediterranean Summer Time that I, having spent summers in Cyprus and Greece, know so well. Waking up with the sun, the mornings stretch, then the afternoon meals stretch, then night turns into a terrain of desire. Sleep’s an afterthought in the long, languid days that seem to go on forever, but when sleep does come, it knocks your sun-drenched body out. 

In the weeks we’d been thrown together that summer, our lives had scarcely touched, but we had crossed to the other bank, where time stops and heaven reaches down to earth and gives us that ration of what is from birth divinely ours. We looked the other way. We spoke about everything but. But we’ve always known, and not saying anything now confirmed it all the more. We had found the stars, you and I. And this is given once only.

On the other hand, time is inevitably pulling Elio and David towards an ending. David’s fellowship at the villa lasts only six weeks. Once the boys finally get together (no spoilers) Elio must make a choice. Does he give himself fully to the moment as if there were no ending, or does he stay aware of time?

Contrasted with this furious love affair is Elio’s ten-year-old neighbor, who’s dying of leukemia. Her days in the Italian sun are numbered, and she’s very vocal about the fact, to an off-putting degree. David and Elio are never able to confront their own limited days in the sun with language. Rather, they twist, they ache, they twist the minute hand but it doesn’t slow down. We’ve all been in those time-sensitive love affairs. They’re even more passionate because they have years of passion to cram into days. The roar of a love that can’t live out its due is deafening. It’s sad to think that the little girl won’t ever feel that love.  

And then, finally, there’s Love Time. Just as with the book Americanah, time doesn’t erode the connection between David and Elio, and that’s almost the worst part. The optical illusion of time passing — that circumstances change but people don’t.

Twenty years was yesterday, and yesterday was just earlier this morning, and morning seemed light-years away.

All that praise doled out, there’s also a lot that drove me crazy about this novel. I’m happy I’m not a 17-year-old boy in love for the first time. There were many instances I said, yo, Elio — just go to him! While Aciman’s language is supremely exacting, it’s also maddening. How much time can we spend in the whirling dervish of adolescence? No longer than the number of pages that this book is: That is the absolute maximum.

I also took one large plot detail with a grain of salt. David is 24, and Elio is 17. In a book, I don’t care. But in real life, if my 24 year old boyfriend left me for a 17 year old, I’d be…well — inflamed.

I’m hoping that the movie, which has already garnered praise at Sundance, will strip some of the mental game of one-person ping pong, and inject more searing stares. Yum, Armie Hammer, yum.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Some books I love because I can’t shake them off. I enter into the dense patchwork of prose and emerge altered. I love those books, though sometimes their barbs bristle and make me uncomfortable. Other books I love because they’re beautiful, and that can make up for many other structural foibles. There are other books I love because they are true, and others because they’re indulgent. And yet other books I love because I wish I’d written them.

9780571326105.jpgThen, there are books that I love because they come into my life at just at the right time.

On November 8 of 2016, I happened to be reading the perfect book. I had started it only a week before, heading to the bookshelf to choose the chunkiest paperback I could find for my first morning train commute. The book was called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. As a sucker for epic books set in India (of which there happen to be multitudes), this novel had been on my list for a while.

That said, I’m happy I delayed reading the novel for the time of Donald Trump’s election. While on the one hand, I feared that my country was spinning so fast that we were all going to slide off the surface of the earth, I had a book that told me: it could be worse.

In A Fine Balance, the lives of four characters are thrust together when they all briefly stay within the house of Dina Dalal, an independent widow attempting to hold on to her old apartment by running an illegal clothing factory. She employs an itinerant uncle/nephew duo, whose comedic timing and camaraderie is darkened by an undercurrent of caste violence in their hometown. Then, they’re joined by the quiet student studying air conditioning, who feels adrift in the big city and longs to return to his father’s store in the mountains. Or, better put, to his childhood in the mountains, before everything changed.

Accompanying Mistry’s four main characters is a chorus of vivid, fantastic ancillary characters who are just as memorable. There are characters lurking the backstories and memory, usually cloaked in nostalgia. And boy, are there villains. There are villains who raze entire settlements; people with violence in their guts; the erosion of soul that occurs from a prolonged lack of kindness.

 “The human face has limited space. If you fill it with laughter there will be no room for crying.”

The greatest villain in A Fine Balance, however, is everything that is done to the four main characters without their consent. Aka, the economy. As it turns out, no matter how lovely and fantastic your personality is (and they are all so lovely), they are at mercy of external circumstances. And external circumstances in India in the 1970s were just, well, not so great. Mistry’s world is bursting from the seams with detail — Dickensian detail — and that makes the status quo all the more horrifying. The nephew and uncle, for example, are completely bound in by their class and status. It haunts them with violence and injustice for the rest of their lives.

Individualism — people’s personalities, quirks, idiosyncrasies, what makes them human — is steamrolled under Great Economic Forces. Only in Dina’s confined apartment can the four characters live in a briefly society free from the pressures, assumptions, and that govern the outside world, especially for the poor.

As the best fiction does, A Fine Balance made me get outside myself. It showed me more convincingly than any non-fiction ever could that it could be worse.

 “Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.”

My DT-induced anxiety, while bad, was tempered by this incredibly realistic account of India as it crawled towards independence. As in: my family didn’t face violence for trying to vote. As in: I wasn’t sleeping on doorsteps, or confined to the whims of my demanding older brother, or my home wasn’t being deforested by the British.

In A Fine Balance, being an individual is only possible if you have money. Otherwise, you’re crushed under the wheel of corrupt, conniving, and indifferent bureaucracy.
And what makes the book so damn effective is that in Dina’s apartment, we see these four characters — lambs to the slaughter of the economy — in their full individual glory. I highly recommend reading this book. It’s an exercise in empathy.

For a more in-depth analysis of this incredibly plotted novel, check out this blog post.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

The year is 1976. The Lee family is the only Chinese — or, well, half-Chinese — family in their small Ohio town. And for unknown reasons, Lydia, the family’s 16-year-old middle daughter, has just been discovered in the bottom of the town lake.

In Celeste Ng’s slim novel, the backbone of a death isn’t suspense or who-dun-it. Rather, the story is held together by intricate, deep-seeded family dynamics of miscommunication and good intentions gone awry.

everythinginevertoldyou-celestengThat’s because the how of Lydia’s death is tragic, but not much of a surprise. The why — that’s the interesting part. And it’s not just Lydia’s “why,” but her parents’ and her siblings’. In this story, each family member is equally important in shaping the circumstances for Lydia’s death. In a narrative arc that jumps back and forth in time, exploring important moments in each of the characters’ formation, Ng lets the reader in on each characters’ secret yearnings that dictate their choices. The mother who wanted to become a doctor, and is constantly disappointed by her accidental pregnancy that derailed her plans. The father, the son of Chinese immigrants, who wanted more than anything to fit in — and exerts that same desire on his children. The older son, whose dreams of astrophysics (and his whole personality!) are overlooked by his parents, who are focused on Lydia, their favorite. Lydia, who forges a mask of a personalty under the weight of her parents’ expectation. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, who takes to surreptitiously collecting her family’s possessions because they don’t really notice her.

“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”

The catch to such well constructed characters? Each member of the Lee family has a distinct history and personality that dictates all of their actions. While this means the plot flows swimmingly — aka each action makes complete sense, given their history — it also meant that I didn’t buy it. Yes: is was a beautifully, achingly written book. In lyrical prose, it portrayed the pressures of being different and the repercussion of inter-racial relationships — two subjects I can relate to especially. But I also imagined Ng’s characters swerving along a clear-cut track, entirely blinded to the needs of their family members, existing in a bubble. In every instance real-life people could have had a conversation and explained their inner lives, Ng’s characters repress, ignore, pretend. In other words, they felt like characters — not real people.

Maybe I just have too high expectations for people’s communication skills. Maybe the Lee family, each with their hidden lives, is really what many families are like (I acknowledge not everyone has a loud Mediterranean family like I do). But I couldn’t help but think: all of this could have been avoided by a few key conversations. And hey, maybe that’s the point of the book.

While I thought the characters behaved in mechanically cruel way at times, that’s not to say I don’t recommend the book. I totally recommend the book. A family is made up of the same story told through many different lenses. In this book, we see the fractals, the way the life of one person is changed utterly by another. And we see this great tragedy: our intentions, once received, are sometimes stripped of their goodness. Without proper communication, our good intentions can go sour, punch people in the stomach, push girls (inadvertently — I’m not giving anything away!) into lakes.