The Moment of Doubt

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I knew this was a work of fiction. That there was no Doctor at the turn of the century, performing strange experiments, seeking to resurrect mythical beasts. I knew it was all made up, and paired with drawings both beautiful and fantastic.

But quite a few times, I had a moment of doubt. My suspension of disbelief stuttered towards the border of actual belief. Because that’s just how damn real this story felt. It seemed plausible, it bore resemblance to things I’d read in history books. Steps into the truly insane were rotted to deeply in an understandable world that they seemed almost believable.

Now, that doubt doesn’t make it all true. But, at the end of the book, you’re left with a lingering suspicion. Because it seems just possible that this ma have happened, at least parts of it. The participants vanished, were killed–how are we to know if they lived? The moment of doubt not only occurs during the reading experience itself: it lingers.

If This Is About Age, Do I Have To Be Old To Understand It?

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“The Lemon Table” stories are about growing old. Being old. Looking back, and finding that you still look forward. Coming to terms with what’s just on the horizon, or with the mistakes one has or hasn’t made.

Each story is a little odd, difficult to swallow at first. Like all Barnes books. But each story makes sense unto itself, and once the reader figures out that sense the story becomes something beautiful.

But they’re all old, and I am young. Am I deluding myself, thinking I can understand these tales? Am I just being silly? Lying? Or, just maybe, has Barnes managed to do something truly astonishing, and render into words an experience that can truly connect with anyone?

Poetry, or Prose?

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Every sentence seems breathtaking. Every scene walks the line between reality and unreality.

Everything is true, but is it true in a metaphorical sense? Or a physical sense? What is the difference?

What does love do, when confronted with such madness? Flee? Embrace? Contain?

These are the themes that Helen Oyeyemi plays with in her utterly stunning novel “White is For Witching.” I don’t understand the title. I won’t understand it until, I suspect, the third of fourth time I read that book. But it is so beautiful, so breathtakingly glorious on every page, I don’t know how I could resist reading it again and again.

It didn’t make much sense. But what it did express was transcendence.

The Birthday of the World

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How many concrete alternatives to our world can you imagine? Not just “people live in trees,” or “gravity is different.” I’m talking shifts at the foundations of society and social structure. How well do you think you could render such a thing?

Ursula LeGuin can do it. I’ll be the first to admit she hasn’t done it in every novel she’s written (skip The Dispossessed, it’s just the USSR and America in space). But in these stories, she nails it. She creates worlds where a piece of culture, of society is different, and then she starts playing around with real people. Flawed people, difficult, cowardly, brave, interesting people.

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A world where people change genders when they “go into heat.” What sort of family life would one have?

A planet where men were almost wiped out in prehistory, and are viewed as precious commodities who have to be protected in segregated spaces. What relationships would that bring between brother and sister? Lovers? Friends?

If marriage involved four people, in an intricate set of relationships, semi-arranged, but with genuine love? What owuld people do?

A planet where, instead of pressure from every angle to be extroverted, there was a strong bias towards introversion. Discovery of the self and self-reflection as far more important than the cultivation of relationships. A culture in which going to someone’s home is a violation of their all-important privacy.

A society of people who started like us, but have been on a ship for generations, bound for a planet to settle. What would they be like, living in that ship for all time.

Things That Break Cannot Always Be Fixed. But That’s All Right.

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In Amy Tan’s “The Valley of Amazement,” characters are beaten, kidnapped, sold, raped and abused. They are pushed into marriages and prostitution, are betrayed by lovers, are abandoned by family. And yet, not one of them feels like a victim.

In this novel, things break. People are forced into situations they cannot, and will never, change. They love, they lose, they hate. And yet, through it all, they are always¬†themselves. Given the subject matter of Chinese courtesans in a fiercely patriarchal society, just surviving and maintaining agency is a feat in and of itself, one I can’t imagine attempting.

Now, there’s plenty of other interesting things in this novel. Tan’s research was clearly extensive, and she paints the picture of these courtesans and their world of prewar Shanghai incredibly well. But at the core of the novel are her characters, their relationships with one another, and their maintenance of their selves in the face of overwhelming odds.