I’ve just finished reading Hernan Diaz’s Trust. I decided to buy the book after listening to an interview the author did with Kelton Reid on The Writer Files.
Trust is a story of wealth, power, and the American Dream. It’s also a story about secrets and discovering the truth. It’s a postmodern novel that comes in four parts: a novel within a novel, a ghostwritten autobiography, a journalistic investigation, and a personal diary. It loses some oomph towards the end, but it’s still a good read. The things that set this novel apart are its intellectual and philosophical underpinnings, the playfulness of using multiple texts, and its accessible prose.
As science fiction becomes fact
For a 1930s audience, Dick Tracy’s futuristic radio phone wrist watch seemed amazing. Now, with mobile devices like the iPhone, that isn’t the case. As technology becomes pervasive, it becomes less interesting.
The same things can happen to stories. As a certain type of story becomes more pervasive it becomes less exciting, until they turn into a cliche.
Stories are places where conversations take place – conversations between characters, between writer and audience. The perceived freshness and relevance of a story is a cultural thing. Culture is always changing. For a time the gangster story captured America. It mirrored American society, a mirror to notions about the city, and the rat race. And then the gangster story fell out of favour.
The western was also popular, representing ideas about landscape and individual freedom. As American society changed these kinds of stories became less relevant places to have a conversation about the American story. Science fiction began as a metaphor for exploring the social and technological possibilities of the industrial world. With Modernism it offered a solution to all of societies challenges. But, later on, science itself became another problem for humanity with the irresponsible use of industrial technologies, pollution, environmental damage, and the smallness of humanity within the larger cosmic reality. Optimism changed to pessimism, celebration to warning.
More recently, with the rise of literary science fiction, can genre science fiction continue to hold its own? What if there are better metaphors to describe our relationship with technology? With AI, for example, old school genre science fiction might not be asking the right questions. Literary fiction or the psychological thriller might be more relevant story form? Increasingly, I see science fiction as ‘historical fiction’ that happens to be set in the future.
- Inside Story (2020) was Martin Amis’ last novel, if you can call it a novel. It’s a mishmash of essays intermingled with a memoir, and a dash of writing advice. The sections of memoir were influenced by Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein – another memoir camouflaged as a novel. Amis writes about his friends, and family acquaintances. These are often writers, some are discussed with reverence, others with salacious scorn. As a novelised memoir it’s hard to separate fact from fantasy. There are some great writing tips later on, simple but powerful ones. To sound unique, Amis explains, never use readymade expressions. (But then, paradoxically, he uses the word ‘chicks’ to describe people.) There’s a lot of politics in the book – the state of Israel, 911, political correctness, US race relations, Trump even. Amis is that awkward thing, a left wing writer derided by the left. This ‘novel’ feels too long, and indulgent. The mix of disparate elements gives it the quality of a fix-up, or a gimmick. Much of the political discussion is angry and dated. There’s a prolonged exploration of aging, and death. It’s boring in places and punctuated with sermonising rants. Thankfully, there’s enough of his trademark wit and linguistic playfulness to retain the reader. Amis’ fiction maintains an odd dynamic between intellectual distance and the cartoonishly grotesque. Ultimately though, his fiction isn’t about highly plotted storytelling, it’s more about his character observations.
- In the Distance is Hernan Diaz’s first novel. It’s set on the old American west, when a Swedish protagonist travels to California in the Nineteenth Century. It reminded me, in parts, of the film Seraphim Falls. The novel is an entertaining read, but it didn’t hold my interest as much as Trust. Part of the reason might be the protagonist’s inability to speak fluent English, which limits his interactions with the other characters and, consequentially, the reader’s ability to get to know him through those interactions.
- Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton starts out with literary fiction realism that lulls you into the false sense that you’re in a cosy novel about local eco-activists. And then, Chameleon-like, it turns into a satire, followed by a thriller, and finally a horror. There’s a lot going on. The novel is written from multiple viewpoints, skilfully revealing and withholding information. The overall effect jumps in and out of the characters’ different viewpoints, playing with genre and tonal shifts to create a novel that’s slick and subversively unsettling.
- Death of an Author by Aidan Marchine is a novella produced and edited by Stephen Marche using artificial intelligence. He explains how he made the novel at the end of the book. It was 95% AI and 5% of his own editing. Even though AI is at an early stage of its development, Death of an Author exceeds anything that most ordinary people could write, but it also exists within the uncanny valley of a weird simulation of a novel. It lacks the ticks and personality, and the authorial indulgence of a human ego. Some of the descriptions don’t work, and can be jarring. As Stephen Marche points out in his explanation of the production process (at the end of the book), AI is a tool that needs careful direction to get the best out of it.
- My fears about Silo (Season 1) are coming true. It’s a watchable, well made show, but I’m not feeling grabbed by the story or its protagonist. As I mentioned last month, part of the problem comes from the script’s focus on other characters at the expense of Juliette Nichols. Stories with big reveals have to make dramatic sacrifices to keep the revelation a surprise – Wayward Pines, Ascension, and Lost. Once the revelation is out, it’s hard to keep up the dramatic tension. Silo could well end up in that territory. While I’ve been watching Silo I have noticed that I am conscious of the writer’s goal in many scenes, rather than being fully present in the story. The whole scenario of Juliette Nichols and the generator (episode three) felt like a clunky device to show the audience that she was worthy of being made the sheriff. It felt like things started to get going in episode four, when Nichols finally had an antagonist to fight against (which makes for a more satisfying story on a basic human level). The problem is that most of the interesting characters, the ones we’ve spent the most time with, have been killed off. We haven’t spent enough time with Juliette Nichols, which makes her feel like a cardboard cutout – and that makes me less inclined to keep watching.
- The new trailer for Killers of the Flower Moon appears quite promising. A film to look out for when it appears on Apple TV later this year?
- A fountain pen and ink review from Tadashi Byers – Me and My Meisterstück 146 with Mystery Black Ink Mont Blanc, and My First Sailor Ink: Kiwaguro black Ink. Both reviews include a live drawing and an associated reminiscence. The two stories are nostalgic, with a folksy, coming of age charm.