This is a novel review post, it contains minor spoilers for One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, and The Mark and the Void by Paul Murray, as well as Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer which I mention briefly.
Update from the previous episode: I concluded my review of Too Like The Lightning on a note of worry. Parts of that book wasted the rich and exciting weirdtopia Ada Palmer created on incongruous plots and whole chapters in Latin, and the ending seemed to set up the sequels to do the same. I didn’t think that Palmer would be willing to give up all the baggage that made Lightning not-quite-great, and Lightning was successful enough that she could afford not to.
But she did anyway, Seven Surrenders is quite-great. Palmer mercilessly cut out all the bad parts, from the obsession with pronouns to the characters that made the story stuck. Seven Surrenders delivers a tight plot that focuses on the politics, personalities, and philosophy that made Lightning so intriguing.
As with movies, it’s very rare for a book sequel to be so much better than the original. Seven Surrenders is rated 0.34 points higher on Goodreads than Lightning, which is the gap between an average book and “best of” lists. The only two comparisons I could find are Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and Iain Banks’ Culture Series. In both cases, every book past the second one was as good as #2 and the first book remained a low-quality outlier. I have every reason to believe that this will also be the case with Palmer’s series, and I can’t wait for The Will to Battle, the third book in the series, to come out this winter.
A Bit of Magic
One of my main worries about Lightning was that it introduced too much magic into a world that didn’t need it. George R. R. Martin said in an interview that he wanted to keep the supernatural elements of Song of Ice and Fire to the minimum required to spice up the story. An occasional dragon, a rumor of white walkers, but no archmages dueling with world-shattering powers. The mundane world of human relationships and survival has enough tumult and mystery. How a story’s characters react to the supernatural should illuminate their reaction to the natural, not make the latter irrelevant.
Although they may seem unrelated, all three novels I will talk about deal with the supernatural encroaching on the natural world. All three take place in settings (19th century Colombia, 21st century Dublin and Johannesburg) that are real but yet strange to readers outside those countries. But the novels take very different approaches to facing the strangeness, not just the differences of literary genres but fundamental differences of worldview. It’s those worldviews that I kept thinking about after reading each book, and they’re what I want to explore in the reviews.
One Hundred Years of Solitude
A trickle of blood came out under the door, crossed the living room, went out into the street, continued on in a straight line across the uneven terraces, went down steps and climbed over curbs, passed along the Street of the Turks, turned a corner to the right and another to the left, made a right angle at the Buendía house, went in under the closed door, crossed through the parlor, hugging the walls so as not to stain the rugs, went on to the other living room, made a wide curve to avoid the dining-room table, went along the porch with the begonias, and passed without being seen under Amaranta’s chair as she gave an arithmetic lesson to Aureliano José, and went through the pantry and came out in the kitchen, where Úrsula was getting ready to crack thirty-six eggs to make bread.
Marquez didn’t invent magical realism, but the genre became associated with Latin American writers, and with Marquez in particular, and with One Hundred Years of Solitude more than any other book. Fantasy writers like Gene Wolfe and Terry Pratchett don’t see a difference between the two genres, but I think that there are two clear distinctions of magical realism that are showcased in Solitude.
The first is that Marquez’ characters don’t see the supernatural as being unusal, unlike most fantasy books where magic is recognized as being magical. Making breakfast and dealing with GPS-guided streams of blood are just part of a regular morning for Ursula, one of the main characters in the book. In fantasy books, magic is done with spells and rituals. In the village of Macondo, where Solitude is set, shit just happens.
The second difference is that in most fantasy novels the supernatural is subject to its own rules, just like gravity and electromagnetism are. Whether magic is a fundamental force or an aspect of sentient deities, in can be predicted and controlled to some extent. In Macondo, shit just happens.
The convoluted lineage of the Buendia family at the heart of the story reminds one of the Old Testament (Jose Arcadio begat Jose Arcadio begat Jose Arcadio…) But the God of the Old Testament is, when he’s not fucking with Job, logical and consistent. He sets out clear rules, and if you break the rules you’re punished. If you’re a righteous person you’ll also be punished because of some technicality, but probably less so.
One Hundred Years of Solitude reads instead like the Greek myths if the Gods of Olympus were left out of the story. In the myths people get seduced, deranged, petrified, and revived as part of the conflict between capricious gods and heroes. Ancient Greeks faced with a freak thunderstorm could at least tell themselves that Zeus is up to something even if they don’t know what. When the Buendias face a rain that lasts four years, they can’t even take solace in any higher power making sense of it.
The chaotic inscrutability of the universe is the main theme of Solitude. The trials and tribulation caused by humans, like elections, wars, and banana companies, are just as irrational and arbitrary as the rain storms. The author treats them as one and the same, and so do the book’s characters.
The characters of Solitude are just as senseless as the world they inhabit. They eat dirt, craft gold fish, fall madly in love and break each other’s hearts with no rhyme or reason. None of the characters seem to have consistent motivations or values, as if they have fully succumbed to the absurdity of the world and take offense at reason.
Needless to say, this worldview is hard for a rationalist to swallow. The rules of rationalist fiction are: a sane and consistent world, smart characters with realistic motivations, and a plot that can be solved like a puzzle. Rationalist fiction encourages the reader to think as hard as the characters do, and rewards those that make the effort.
One Hundred Years of Solitude takes place in an insane world, with characters that behave like a buggy version of The Sims, and with no real plot to speak of. Thinking hard about the story actively reduces the reader’s enjoyment. It’s aggressively antirationalist.
Some of my favorite books have crazy characters meandering in a realistic world, and some have smart characters dealing with an insane world. Solitude has random shit happening to random people you have little reason to care about. It asks the reader to turn off their brains and enjoy the scenery. The scenery is enchanting, imaginative and described in beautiful language. But in the end, I want a story I can read with my brain and not just my eyes.
I yank open the cutlery drawer to be confronted with an anomaly worse than emails from dead people or a man with a gun sitting on my bed. It’s a large carving knife with a viciously serrated edge and two broken teeth. It’s tarnished with rust. It’s not mine. And neither is the china figurine of a kitten with one paw playfully raised, also stained with rust. But it’s not rust. It’s not rust at all. Perversely, the thought that flashes through my brain is “I can haz murder weapon?” I laugh out loud, a sobbing hiccup.
― Lauren Beukes,
Zoo City is a noirish crime story, but you’ll find it in the fantasy section of the bookstore. The Zoo part is the magic: some people who commit crimes mysteriously acquire an animal familiar and a low-key magical talent. The story is told from the first-person perspective of Zinzi, a former-journalist-current-scam-artist with a sloth on her back and the ability to sense threads connecting people to items they lost.
The City is Johannesburg, and it’s the perfect setting for a story about a weird group of people. South Africa is one of the most diverse countries in the world. It has 11 official languages and dozens of ethnic groups: black Zulus and Xhosas, white Afrikaner and English, immigrants from all over Asia, refugees from all over Africa, and prawns. It’s completely believable that when the new “race” of animalled people show up and settle in a run-down neighborhood, everyone else shrugs and comes to sell them animal food.
The plot is exciting despite the occasional stutter and the predictable elements of the noir genre (“I had a bad feeling about this job…”). The prose is full of great one liners (“It bothers me, like a pubic hair stuck in your teeth.”) and the style is delightful. Instead of expositional dialogue, the world’s background is provided in vignettes that mimic IMDb movie reviews, Wikipedia pages, and academic papers. The writing is interspersed with African slang like sgebenga and makwerekwere that add flavor without distracting even if you’re not quite sure what they mean.
But the book shines on the strength of its main character. Zinzi is instantly sympathetic, deep and utterly believable. A main theme in the book is guilt and redemption, but Zinzi’s life isn’t dominated by the BigDarkHistory™ that earned her the sloth. She’s a normal person trying to do good and get along with people, while occasionally being an asshole as a result of jealousy, pride, and the occasional drink.
Zinzi is capable without being Sherlock-Holmes-overpowered, as smart as the smartest readers of Zoo City can be expected to be. And as a reader, you get two mysteries to solve alongside Zinzi for the price of one. First, how to finish the job and get home safely. And second: what the hell is up with the animals?
If Solitude is magical realism, Zoo City offers realistic magic. The first zoos show up a decade before the story takes place, and the world reacts to it about as expected. Some countries execute zoos, some study them in labs, witch doctors brew potions with animal blood and a physicist decides that the spirit animals have to do with something-something-quantum and something-something–consciousness in accordance with Penrose’s Law that states that all hard-to-explain things are the same thing.
Ultimately, life in the dirty part of Johannesburg is strange and exciting with or without quantum animals. The reader is invited to do what Zinzi does: figure out what you can to get by, and enjoy the ride.
The Mark and the Void
‘I want to get past the stereotypes, discover the humanity inside the corporate machine. This’ – he gestures once again at the window, and we both turn in our seats to contemplate the reticular exapanse of the Centre, the blank facades of the multinationals – ‘is where modern life comes from. The feel of it, the look of it. Everything. The banks are like the heart, the engine room, the world-within-the-world. The stuff that comes out of these places,’ whirling a finger again at the Centre, ‘the credit, the deals, that’s what our reality is made of.’
Technically, there’s no magic in The Mark and the Void. But there’s investment banking, which takes the role of the mysterious force that decides the fate of individuals and nations but remains beyond the ken of mere mortals.
The narrator of The Mark and the Void is no mere mortal though. Claude Martingale is a research analyst for the Bank of Torabundo, a man who knows the hidden mysteries of valuation spreadsheets (and little else). The novel starts, and immediately jumps at least two meta levels, when Claude meets Paul, an author-insert writer who is looking to be inspired by the modern day “everyman” and perhaps rob the bank in which his everyman is employed.
The Mark and the Void is my favorite of the three novels but this review will be the shortest because it would superfluous. This review by Slate magazine is excellent, covers all the bases, and it’s what has gotten me to read the book to begin with. I’ll just focus on the magic.
Real-life Paul Murray knows more about global banking than in-novel Paul (he’s aware that investment banks don’t actually hold any cash that can be robbed), but less than Claude does. To him, the Financial Services Centre dropped on Dublin like the supernatural rain on Macondo, and the suited bankers are no less strange than a girl with a magical sloth. And his reaction to seeing the otherworldly is to find it hilarious.
The Buendias don’t seem to find anything funny about their predicament, and while Zinzi has a quick wit, she’s mostly preoccupied with surviving the hard knock life. But in Dublin, both the writer and the characters are in on the joke. “If you do it in the bookies, it’s a bet… If you pay some 23-year-old in an Armani suit two hundred grand to go to the window for you, it’s a derivative.” says Jurgen, the German banker who was once a member of Gerhard and the Mergers, “one of the best reggae and rocksteady crews on the Bavarian financial scene”.
The truth is, real life investment banking is crazy and magical and also really funny. The entire world is crazy and magical and really funny. And keeping this in mind is the best way to deal with it.