Friday, 13 March 2020
Tuesday, 14 January 2020
• I love Gerwig’s direction and most of the choices behind the camera – though, does Alexandre Desplat’s score lead us a little too often? Yes.
• Don’t hate me BUT I am, it seems, one of the few human beings unconvinced by Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet, but they’re both great here and, as awful – racist, sexist - as the Oscar (and Bafta) nominations are, I believe she totally deserves her nomination. She is FANTASTIC.
• Is it feminist enough? This is a debate on the left with which you may be unfamiliar. It’s partly, but far from completely, a book v film argument. I don’t like the book and cannot remember all the details so I try to judge the film versions on their own merits. I like that we get more of older Amy, I like the ending. I like the time-altered structure that may on occasion be a little awkward – the repetition on Beth’s death scene? – but more often gives us interesting and thoughtful juxtapositions…
• …and so it seems to me that we still, urgently, need narratives about sisterhood, community, play, kindness and compassion that intertwine with stories about equality and justice, self-definition and self expression, the need for art and artists and much more.
• It is, like the other great adaptations, a big, warm hug of a film that gives us a serious tale wrapped up in nostalgia, beautiful landscapes, warm and comforting interiors, familiar and relatable characters…
• …thus Gerwig begins her film with that title card: “I had lots of troubles; so I write jolly tales.” Despite her structure and the playful ending …
• …this is still a very familiar kind of film. It runs on a very fine border between earned sentiment and universal sentimentality. It runs on a fine distinction between hope and optimism. It runs on familiar structures – and yes, to take one example, Beth’s death feels like a very familiar device that allows us to feel the pain of loss but with a very quick closure and without the real-life consequences of such a loss. It is sad but cathartic rather than challenging or difficult. I do, of course (!) cry at Beth, the piano and Mr Laurence - AND try to read it in terms of loss and love - BUT Little Women glosses over, in a very romantic way, class conflict.
And that’s where my problem lies. First let me be clear that I’m not picking on this film. I’d happily have Little Women win Best Picture over most of those other snooze fests/really stupid films/tired late works. I’ll watch it again with great pleasure. It’s just that at the beginning of the new decade somehow my questions and thoughts won’t be swallowed down any more.
My problem is with fantasy and nostalgia. My problem is with happy endings. My problem is with carrying on as normal. My problem is with rushing things and glossing over pain and distress. And even though I know I’m entering a dangerous maze-like path - the idea that we should be prescriptive in any way when it comes to art has always been abhorrent to me - I’m wondering if there are films we need far more.
Time is running out. I still feel like a mad person for saying it but the evidence in 2019 was OVERWHELMING. Think of it as Year 1 of the new normal and that things are only going to get worse. I’m not suggesting that people won’t find ways of fighting back or that there won’t be resistance – we will be forced to fight back and sometimes they will succeed. I am suggesting that we’re already locked into enough warming that we are facing challenges – political, social, practical – that we haven’t got answers for – and that billions will suffer or die as a result. And much sooner than most people can imagine. Happy endings are running out. Normal lives – or what white people in the developed world thought of as normal – are coming to an end. And as usual it will be poor and working class people of colour around the world who will suffer the most to begin with and always.
This HAS to have consequences for art doesn’t it? The art that we need to imagine differently. The art we need to reflect (?) the perilousness of our circumstances. The art that will provide a sense of ‘Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will’ [and maybe Little Women gives you that?] The art that will help us chart a path between giving up or stupid optimism, or between waiting for others to lead the way or forging a path ourselves.
And my sense is that we have to start challenging every little degree of fantasy and sentimentality in our treasured narratives that pretend to make sense of the world or give us hope for the future. My whole experience of art - actually it's my whole experience of life and making decisions - is being framed in a new way: part of my brain is now, always, screaming “But, we’re running out of time” "Wake up!" “Half of the world is in the grip of vile nationalist governments with fascism just around the corner”
I wish I didn’t hear that scream but I know I need to listen to it
Monday, 24 December 2018
There is little here that you won't find on many of the 'Best of' Lists so its easy to find reviews and recommendations, context and background.
- Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
- Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
- A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio)
- Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
- Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
- Zama (Lucrecia Martel)
- Leave No Trace (Debra Granik)
- A Fantastic Woman (Sebastián Lelio)
- Roma (Alfonso Cuarón)
- Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-eda)
- The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.)
- Faces Places (Agnes Garda)
- Western (Valeska Grisebach)
- You Were Never Really Here (Andrea Arnold)
- Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev)
- First Reformed (Paul Schrader)
- 120 BPM (Robin Campillo)
- Cold War (Paweł Pawlikowski)
- Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada)
- A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper)
- A Ballad for Buster Scruggs (Coen Brothers)
- The Miseducation of Cameron Post (Desiree Akhava)
- Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)
- Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton)
- Love Simon (Greg Berlanti)
- Life and Nothing More (Antonio Méndez Esparza)
- Widows (Steve McQueen)
- Jeune Femme (Léonor Serraille)
- BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee)
- The Square (Ruben Östlund)
- The Breadwinner (Nora Twomey)
- I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie)
- Beast (Michael Pearce)
- Annihilation (Alex Garland)
- Disobedience (Sebastián Lelio)
- Coco (Lee Unkrich)
- Apostasy (Dan Kokotajlo)
- Summer 1993 (Carla Simon)
It's always been the case that most of the films I watch are from Hollywood or the art-house circuit. I often wish there were easy (and cheap) ways of seeing other films and more documentaries as it's clear there are a different layer of films out there. So I would point you to the . He is fun to disagree with and there is a lot to discover in the films he reviews and searches out.
Wednesday, 12 December 2018
Thursday, 12 April 2018
This year there are 108 books on the submissions list so first of all well done to the judges - that is a massive undertaking to read so much. I've only read a tawdry 24 and doubt I'll get round to too many more - with the Man Booker International and the Women's Prize long lists plus my own non-fiction projects there isn't enough time! For the record I've read Allan, Barker, Booth, Bradley, Campbell, Charnock, Doctorow, Hamid, Harkaway, Helle, Hunter, Jemisin, Kalfar, Leckie, Ha Lee, Lennon, McAuley, Mieville, Newitz, Palmer, Roberts, Robinson, Tea, Vandermeer. I hope to get through Kleeman, Robson and maybe Sullivan before I go to back to school.
OK, so I've done a quick search and I believe there is a 2:1 split with around 72 of the texts written by men. There were a couple of authors obviously keeping their gender from the publicity material and I didn't want to pry any further. Apologies if the number is out by one or two. I believe their are 5 BAME authors. Again, my search was relatively thorough but could be slightly out. Whatever way you want to think about those numbers you'd have to be somewhat heartbroken at the state of publishing and the state of the world. There are all kinds of initiatives in other realms and I would humbly suggest that everyone involved in SF and fantasy need to do more.
The good news however is that there are some brilliant books on that list. So many that my first request to the judges is to REBEL because I'm going to cheat and have a shortlist of 8: I think they should do the same too. Mwahahahahahahaha. Yep, don't care. Or rather, I do care.
First of all it allows me to contentedly keep to my own rules - at least a 50/50 split of men/women and at least 2 books by BAME authors in the shortlist; it also allows me to include all the books that I believe should be part of the discussion. That said I'm completely open to reading more of the books - if there is something like The Swan Book hiding in there I hope someone will let me know asap. I'm sure the Shadow Clarke discussions will persuade me to read more too.
There's one novel in particular that I love, but can't find a place for it on list - I would urge you all to read Spaceman of Bohemia. I'd also recommend Campbell, Lennon and Vandermeer - fantastic novels. It's nearly two years since I read Clade so it isn't imprinted in my mind like the other novels but it's a really important book and I'm hoping one of the Shadow Clarke writers will choose to think about it. I read The Real Town Murders last August and it suffered a little from my glum mood. I reread it again a couple of weeks ago along with Matha Wells's All Systems Red and I can easily say that it was the most joyful reading weekend of the year. Both novels are smart, funny and tense - a wonderful and unusual combination. Read them both.
More generally? There certainly is a lot of dystopian writing going on at the moment isn't there? I have to say that I find quite a bit of it irritating. What's most annoying is that some writers don't seem very interested in ideology or in the mechanisms of social and political change. It also seems as if many have bought into essentialist and determinist ideas about human nature. I appreciate that it's difficult - these are dark and absurd times. Our political leaders are venal and opportunistic simpletons. Their partnership with the ruling class makes for despair and fearfulness. I think it's genuinely difficult for people to imagine progressive political organisation and collective action unimpeded by a craven media and state bigotry. Yet I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell desperate, perhaps, to remind me that humans are social beings that yearn for community, purposefulness and meaningful work too. Is there a way to throw off the muck of ages and the rank ideologies of capitalism? I don't know, but I do want my dystopias, utopias and SF to have some kind of interesting and searching political awareness. My suspicion is that too many are failing in this regard.
My now traditional (and provisional) list then:
The Rift - Nina Allan. Along with Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone, my novel of the year. It's sensational and fully deserves its BSFA and Kitschiest awards. A novel, like Central Station last year, to fall in love with.
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid. I read this almost a year ago I guess. There are lots of people in the speculative community that love this book. I have a reservation or two and so hope to read it again and join in Shadow Clarke discussions. Whatever my doubts it needs and deserves to be part of the discussion.
Gnomon - Nick Harkaway. Blimey! SO much to think about. So many notes. Mind blown.
The Stone Sky - N.K.Jemisin. I intend to read all three again before the Clarke is awarded and get my head around the full weight of the achievement.
Austral - Paul McAuley. Beautiful. McAuley is such a brilliant writer and this may be his best novel. Maybe his most important one too?
Too Like the Lightning - Ada Palmer. Copious notes and looking forward to parts 2 and 3.
New York 2140 - Kim Stanley Robinson. There is so much I need to say about this novel. I know that some think it too big and baggy, some think it too Keynesian and too liberal. I loved every second and I'm fascinated by the decisions Robinson has made and the (possible) effects they have. Essay on the way.
Black Wave - Michelle Tea. Weirdly for me, I've been listening to this when I run. It's brilliantly read by Tea herself. As pleasurable in its way as the Harkaway (which is saying something)
First of all this list is almost identical to one Adam Roberts posted on Twitter. I promise I'm not copying Adam! Ian Mond and Nina Allan have played the same game so take a look at their provisional lists too. Finally people will know that I am a big Nicola Barker fan and maybe surprised by the exclusion of H(A)ppy. Weirdly perhaps, reading Gnomon subsequently has made me revise my ideas a little but there is much I can't seem to forgive in it. More later...
Good look to the judges and everyone involved. Don't forget that rebellion is GOOD.
Looking forward to the Shadow Clarke discussions with much anticipation.
All twitter recommendations appreciated :-)
Thursday, 1 June 2017
- Clarke Award – 7074
- BSFA – 4925
- Hugo Awards - 14.3K
- Strange Horizons – 20.7K
- Media Diversified – 50.5K
- Bailey’s Prize – 43.2K
Subjective taste and critical practice depend on so many factors, thus any reading will privilege certain aspects – close reading, theoretical base, genre knowledge, life experiences, political orientation. Once you remind yourself of that basic idea, it becomes almost impossible to defend the rhetoric and moralism that goes into a special pleading for this book or that. I like a bit of rhetoric and I like a bit of hyperbole – it’s fun. BUT my head would not have exploded if The Power had won this year now would it? It will be hard to stop but I probably should. Moreover, I CAN understand why Priest, Mieville, MacInnes, Kavenna or ANY novel didn’t make it on to the shortlist. The idea that there is some objective truth or taste out there that says differently now seems to me entirely bogus. Even amongst those with a depth and breadth of knowledge about the SF megatext there is no agreement or consensus about the books this year or any year.
This is difficult of course – if we can’t be passionate about the art that we love then what can we get passionate about. When great books don’t receive the acknowledgement and discussion they deserve it feels like an injustice, sometimes a personal affront. The problem with prizes is that they ask us to join together two, perhaps strangely irreconcilable, ways of splitting up literary discourse – taste, value, aesthetic judgement on one side set against criticism and theory on the other. This is probably an unavoidable contradiction – an understandable fudge that we prefer to ignore for the most part because we understand how literature, especially the novel, is so intertwined with humanism, with the middle classes and with a bourgeois outlook, but maybe it’s one we must acknowledge more and explore further. Moreover, even amongst the Shadow Jury and the writers that have regularly reviewed the shortlists there seems to me quite a divergence on their aesthetic preferences and on their theoretical baselines.
Once you get over the idea that the 6 best books – for YOU, or for the good of humanity, or for SF – will get chosen every year for the Clarke then it can be quite liberating. For me the obvious conclusion is that there should be a commitment to equality. The greatest insult to SF, art and humanity is not that Becky Chambers has been on two consecutive shortlists but that there were no women on the 2013 shortlist and only two last year. Add to that the outrageous fact that it is 20 years since a BAME author won. If the Clarke announced their commitment to a shortlist each year to include at least 3 women and 2 BAME authors – as a minimum – that would give publishers something to think about and writers all over the world a little encouragement. This kind of thinking has to be implicit in the judging process anyway, one would have thought, so why not make it explicit and send a clear message to bigots and conservatives everywhere. People might complain that ‘lesser’ books would thus be forced into contention. You’d have to laugh in their faces first and then explain why they were patently wrong.
There is also much said about originality, finding new voices and so on. Yes to all that, of course, but I hate the idea that a shortlist should never again have a novel by KSR, Priest, Mieville or, actually, a few other white men who have already received lots of praise. Why? Judge the text – whatever your criteria. For me that is about its relevance, its pleasure and play, originality, complexity, ambiguity and whether it is asking hard questions.
And BTW, I have no idea what a coherent shortlist is. Coherent how? And after reading the discussions I’m pretty sure no one will ever convince me! Actually, I want to blow raspberries at coherence. Damn, I really should stop with the rhetoric already!
Returning to personal taste……this year’s shortlist felt like a victory to me, especially after last year. But then lesser evilism IS the order of the day in these parts. Three very good books, an interesting one and two I haven’t read. Looking back through shortlists it’s generally hard to hope for anything more. Is that a bit depressing? To settle for less, to NOT reach for the moon? To accept that classic realist texts will win out over experimental or interrogative texts? To accept the formulaic over the disorientating? I’m actually not sure any more because I don’t know how you overcome all the contradictions. One of my favourite books last year was a realist text – Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End – not just because it was beautifully written, exciting and passionate but because it confronted ideas about history, landscape, environment and sexuality. Was it the same as having my unconscious disturbed and pulled apart by Han Kang’s two novels? No. But I’m happy to have both, to appreciate the work they do and to try to do some work in return.
Part of me is also wondering whether a critical community has a right to the high ground anyway – in taste, morals, experience, whatever – when they/we will, rightly, champion The Thing Itself but not push half as hard for a text like The Swan Book. [Octavia Cade – I know you have tried!]
The Shadow Clarke has been brilliant – some great, insightful reviews; amazing honesty even when it showed up inconsistencies and contradictions; passion, love and care. It is helping me to think about all kinds of ideas and investigate them further; it is helping me to confront my prejudices and lack of knowledge. It’s part of what has made want to try and read in a different way. What about you?
Sunday, 7 May 2017
I tried to write this with ambition. I didn't manage to get what I wanted but it was fun trying and it feels like a worthwhile beginning. I guess now that Occupy Me is on the Clarke shortlist it will come under more scrutiny. One of the great things about the Shadow Clarke is being able to appreciate the different styles of review as well as finding different things to value and new ways of seeing. Looking forward to all the thoughts and ideas in the next couple of months. And big thanks to Nina Allan for encouraging me to try.
“and the sound of the maple trees across the fence became sharper and full of the words that trees speak to the air” (Occupy Me 63)
Trees and a suitcase
I hate all that plot description that comes with a review – read the blurb I say – but if you need some clues Tricia Sullivan’s Occupy Me has an angel, dinosaurs, a suitcase – think Pulp Fiction, think Wile E Coyote, think The Rockford Files (!) – plus a vet and a doctor. It has higher dimensions and quantum foam, trees of all kinds though especially trees of knowledge that might just be libraries spanning time and space AND it has bird gods, though actually our avian overlords may just be artistic scavengers or better, refuse ‘artistes’. It’s a novel that is helter-skelter and overabundant; in some ways it’s like (a very glorious) extended episode of Doctor Who…and I’m sure that some readers may even think, a little on the twee side. Though of course, they would be wrong. Those same readers may wonder if the parts add up to an organic whole. And to be fair I wonder myself but it really doesn’t matter. There are many, many riches here - this is a marvellous novel – full of love, kindness, empathy and extraordinary ambition - the only one that can give Central Station a run for its money in 2016’s SF best of. But that is to get ahead of myself.
Somehow along the way I stopped reading theory and essays. I’m not sure how, I loved reading Winterson and Kundera, Eagleton and Jameson, Freud and Phillips. It’s so nourishing, trying to parse all that intelligence and creativity, watching how people make links and connections and test out ideas. It’s the joy of intellectualism and the pleasure of eclecticism. And actually it’s kind of a turn on trying to harness some of that suppleness and openness. So 2017 has marked a return to all this as I try to make sense of the terror and despair, fear, anxiety and melancholia that characterise a personal and political crisis. I suspect that many of you are trying to figure it all out too. For now at least I’ve recognised two main strands to my thinking that, although seemingly inconsistent, actually complement each other. First there is this from Sebald:
“Melancholy, the rethinking of the disaster we are in, shares nothing with the desire for death. It is a form of resistance. And this is emphatically so on the level of art, where its function is far from merely reactive or reactionary. When, with a fixed gaze, melancholy again reconsiders just how things could have gone this far, it becomes clear that the dynamics of inconsolability and of knowledge are identical in function. In the description of the disaster lies the possibility of overcoming it.”
This fits in with a conversation between China Mieville and Jordy Rosenburg and with Richard Seymour’s recent championing of Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia.
And then there is this sentiment, here summed up by Sarah Waters in her Introduction to Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus:
“the narrative ultimately celebrates liberation, the casting off of myth and mind-forg'd manacles, the discovery of voice, empathy, conscience, the making of a ‘new kind of music’…Carter’s writing, not just in this novel but throughout her work, is a celebration of words – a celebration of language and all the marvellous things that language can be made to do.”
Neither are about the emptiness of false hope or dogma but about doing work: of mourning and grieving, and of creating space for the imagination.
When I first read Occupy Me, over a month ago, I loved it and really heard, in its generous spirit, that new kind of music. My thoughts went straight to larger than life women like Nicola Barker’s Medve in Five Miles to Outer Hope and Angela Carter’s Fevvers; then they went sideways a little to the humour of Sue Townsend and Douglas Adams. I also thought of Bertha and Pearl in Katherine Mansfield's Bliss and of H D's Trilogy and her Tribute to Freud. All of this might seem bizarre to a SF reader – I’m not sure. But none of it felt forced - Sullivan actually mentions Doolittle in the text and, in a book of fantastically suggestive chapter titles, names a chapter after her: Occupy Me is undoubtedly an open and discursive text and dares to venture in all kinds of directions. Ali Smith discusses the "revelation that art itself is a broken thing if it’s anything, and that the act of remaking, or imagining, or imaginative involvement, is what makes the difference" (Artful 23). Occupy Me is a text that demands your imaginative involvement. Some might wonder if I am pushing the boundaries of a reading too far? Actually I think not, getting lost in the dense intertextuality of H.D.'s Trilogy is a bit like getting lost in Pearl's higher dimensions and it's a text that is, similarly, about the search for knowledge and freedom, justice and new possibilities. It is deeply interested in testing boundaries and exploring ‘other realms’ (60) – sexual, imaginative, political and in exploring the connections between past, present and future.
Finally, because I was trying to make a SF connection and find a way of orientating SF readers, I settled on Adam Roberts, the only other modern SF writer I know that can mix bathos and irreverence, high and low culture, comedy and political (and moral) seriousness with such dexterity and such command of tone. Moreover and more importantly, it felt like an overtly feminist text full of wonder and joy – something driven and original. A work that demands to be thought of in a tradition that celebrates women and the subversive potential of pleasure and play. This led me, as usual, to try to discover a little more about the author. What I found filled me with admiration for Sullivan and full of anger at the ridiculous gender essentialism that, in part, led her to stop writing and go back to university to study physics. To be honest it scared me a little that the Suck Fairy would visit on the second reading and I wouldn’t like Occupy Me as much. I needn’t have worried.
Okay, if you haven’t read the book - here is what you need to know. At the beginning of the novel Dr Sorle – a man who has been literally split into two by the greed and violence of modern capitalism and colonialism - forces the dying Austen Stevens - the billionaire baddie, into a magic, multi-dimensional briefcase. Actually Stevens wants to go, he believes it is a gateway to eternal life. He has promised the doctor a huge amount of money to be saved. With the money Sorle plans to build an organisation called the Resistance – a network committed to small acts of kindness and empathy in the hope of changing history for the better. However the briefcase is also a part of Pearl, an angel - maybe: a part that Sorle has stolen so that he can blackmail her into showing herself to Stevens, to show him that miracles exist. What follows is a kind of thriller as Pearl tries to discover who or what she is, as Sorle tries to make the deal go ahead despite all manner of complications and as the larger forces of fossil capital try to thwart them both as they try to recoup the billions that Stevens embezzled. Along the way they meet the novel’s third main character Alison, an aging vet who likes a wee drink. I should say too that though the plot does carry you through it is hardly a plot driven novel. Indeed it is an incredibly illusive novel, trying to pin down its overall meaning is like trying to capture a willow the wisp. At one point Pearl wonders if she’ll need “a metaphysical bomb defusion kit” to open the briefcase: the reader may feel a similar desire as they try to decipher the text. SF readers should be happy with its discussions of entropy, chaos and the butterfly effect but the joy of it is in the writing, a numinous sentence by sentence beauty that I probably won’t be able to capture, and in the characters and in Pearl’s search for justice and selfhood.
You should know too that I’m always criticising books for their simplistic politics but the main bad guy in Occupy Me has made his money from oil, exploiting the resources and land of a developing country, fermenting war, skimming profits and finding ways to avoid paying tax. He and the forces he represents are all out bad: “evasive, cunning, self-righteous, blind.” (176) Pearl, like the reader, is sick of the simplicity of their cruelty: “this is how these guys operate. I’ll never be able to understand it. Here I am giving it away, my energy, my compassion, my strength. And dude wants to sell my own love back to me at a price. Everything’s a fucking commodity.” (179). Finally she sees in Stevens “the decay of age and the algorithms of selfhood that were starting to harden up into parody.” (180) and in that image its hard not to find an echo of this “disaster we are in” – the obviousness of it – its unique grotesque – history forgotten; hatred and stupidity transcendent. Is it too easy to hate a character like that? Of course it depends on the purpose of the novel. And this is a book with a bold palette.
Indeed Occupy Me is often a bit daft, not just bold but a little broad perhaps, a little flirty, but that is part of it's appeal - its lusty joie de vivre and egalitarianism. Pearl is larger than life; she has the sassy swagger, and the hint of vulnerability, of a Hollywood dame – Mae West perhaps. But then she is also one part Hulk, one part Clarence Odbody, one part Fevvers, one part sensuous lesbian role model:
“My body: not much shy of two metres tall, wide-hipped, umber in colour and packed with lively muscle and enough fat to last a long winter. My grey-streaked twists bounced around my shoulders when I moved. I was fond of myself already.” (31)
“I stood looking at myself in the bathroom mirror and saw what Marquita saw: a fifty-something woman of indeterminate not-European ancestry, her denuded head wrapped in an orange cloth, her weighty breasts moving as slow pendula even in the tightest exercise bra. Shoulders like a linebacker. Traps so steep they looked like one of those road signs that warn trucks to use a low gear. Legs bowed and springy, feet large and high-arched. A nice thick layer of subcutaneous fat: no chance of this one passing as a ripped-up bodybuilder. She was packing power. Marquita looked at me with open adoration, but I always look at myself with surprise. There’s so much I haven’t figured out yet, and most of it is myself” (68)
She is endlessly open to life’s possibilities but also has a problem: ‘I don’t know which parts are me and which parts are my environment and which parts are … other beings.’ (62). And later she addresses her missing part: “You are mine but you’ve been made into something else. I am yours but you don’t know me anymore. How do we put ourselves back together? Where to begin?” (116) This is a text about ontology, identity and alienation just as much it is a book about higher dimensions and the desire for a better world. This is where, even in its playfulness, Sullivan’s text also nudges us toward those big questions that I alluded to earlier: “We begin by not being crushed to death and progress from there.” (146)
The dinosaur and the briefcase (again)
I think I could convince most discerning readers to try this book simply by quoting passages from it. Here is the Pterosaur:
“Over the railway bridge the ancient animal glided black and lunar, like a cracked piece of sky... The creature looked like forged emptiness. It breathed smoke and the vast unlit places between stars. On the ground it seemed amplified. Its wings made a hard wind with even the most casual movement, and its breath rebuffed the waves. A pheromone fume seeped from its fur. There was a disturbing hum in my occipital bone, a sensation of drag on my consciousness. Like magnetism. The sensation was out of all proportion to my physical body. I felt I could be reeled, wings and all, into a single one of the quetzlcoatlus’ black-hole pupils and never be found again” (140-1)
But Sullivan’s dinosaurs are much more. They are a BIG metaphor for linking the past with the present; in thinking about irony, change and permanence. So too with the suitcase. Sullivan excels in using her genre tropes to expand and deepen the philosophical, scientific, speculative and moral parameters of the text. She can be completely literal in questioning SF tropes:
“This is for everyone who thinks ships are made of metal and petrochemicals and that they travel through space like sailboats travelled the high seas, propelled by mysterious engines that grant them impossible speed. That space sailors have space battles with space pirates and electrical cables and explosions and space bars with space booze.”
But then there is this:
“I feel the substance of the briefcase slither between the clacking grip of my claws. The substance of the briefcase itself is deep, and its intermolecular spaces are suspect: they look back at me like eyes. But these clever engineered depths are as nothing compared to the skirling void of that frank maw. Eater of dead men, mother of questions, it is before me and presents itself without sound, without smell, without sight. Without touch. My claws hold the edges of its containment, a mystery field that shows me my own blindness without mockery and without pity. I try to breathe. I need something to anchor me to the visceral but claws and breath and blood are not enough.” (166)
There is existential dread in that skirling void and in the pitiless need to see and understand ‘without mockery and without pity'. The text's celebration of language and imagination goes hand in hand with its sense of the battle between self and ego.
There is a point when Pearl is questioning her need for deep connections and the way she falls for people. Her lover Marquita suggests ‘Love is attachment. That’s essential for the survival of the species. Women who love too much? What the fuck is that? The whole idea implies that love is a pathology. So now women are devalued because we can attach deeply.’ ‘I still wonder if I’m violating boundaries by letting myself reach into people like I do.’ ‘Maybe it’s not love at all,’ Marquita said. ‘Maybe you’re training your mirror neurons. Learning the species by empathy.’ Pearl notices people’s “humanity even when they couldn’t see it anymore themselves.” (98) The little episodes where she sees into the pain and contradictions of the humans she encounters are moments of delicate grace.
This is a book about training your mirror neurons and to (re)turn to Katherine Mansfield, Occupy Me “is the leaf, is the tree, firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig. All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me.’" (quoted in Artful 84). It’s a text that transforms H. D.’s mystical feminism into feminist SF. To be known by Pearl, one imagines, would be a wonderful thing. To occupy is to fill, to keep busy and active, to hold. Occupy Me is a text that wants us to hold each other and fill each other up; it asks us to occupy the spaces that Stevens and his ilk don’t understand and cannot comprehend.
And I didn’t even get to Akele, kindness, environmental reclamation and of a luminous, deeply political dénouement:
“Something wants to burst out of the ruination. Out of futility, out of crushed hope, out of that broken place where nothing can ever help. No superglue to repair this tear in the universe. Loss is just the way it is.” (263)
And it does