Monday, June 24, 2013

Blogging the Caine: Elnathan John's "Bayan Layi"

"Bayan Layi" by Elnathan John is a story that, for whatever reason, puts me in mind of Tim Maughan's "Limited Edition," a long SF story that was shortlisted for the BSFA award in 2012 and which I found through this review by Niall Alexander for Tor. I don't know how much of my annoyance with Maughan's story stems from Alexander's comments about the London Riots, and how much of it is in the story itself, but I did read the whole thing a while back, so that's something.

Elnathan John's story is very much about violence, and very much about perspective. The perspective allows the story to do something that I think has gone widely unremarked, on top of the interesting points already made; because of the position our narrator, Dantala, occupies, and the abstracted names of the groups in whose bame the violence is being perpetrated, it is never entirely clear that the "political thuggery" taking place is as straightforward as Dantala believes it to be. That he is excluded from the discussion at the pickup truck, coupled with Banda's cynicism is the first major tip off.

John's story, lacking the explicit political-chatter context of Maugham's, sets itself up to be received as a much more straightforward moral tale; an opposition party hires a local gang to terrorize an area into electing them, the established class fixes the vote anyway, chaos ensues.

Lurking in the background, however, there are many other possibilities. Little things, like the Big Party representative removing his affiliations because, as Dantala tells us, "I think he is afraid he will be attacked ... because he used to live in Bayan Layi too," suggest that, given the lack of access our narrator has to any direct authority, the Small Party representatives paying the kids under the Kuka Tree could easily represent someone else entirely; if not the Big Party directly, then perhaps a third party, interested less in electoral results than tactical disruptions, or proxy war with a different motive entirely.

This is not, of course, to say that this conspiratorial reading is at all necessary; only that it seems to me that the text remains open to it through its fidelity to the viewpoint it adopts. This is important; unlike the glut of information we get in Maugham's story, which obscures a moral stance that Alexander's review articulates well and positions it not so very far from the conservative chatter ostensibly being parodied within, the deep textual ambiguity of John's story means that the apparent moral of "Bayan Layi" rests on unstable ground. My sense is that "Bayan Layi" strongly resists a cathartic moral reading in this way (which is, I believe, why the Critical Literature Review accuses it of simply piling on horrors; I am also reminded of the wretched review of Tao Lin's Taipei in The Millions, which, among other things, accuses the book of failing to moralize about drugs as a point against it) despite readers of any political affiliation seeming to have plenty of content to moralize about.

The capacity to write both in and around this moral instability is ludicrously important to me as a reader, and it is something that I don't think Maugham accomplishes. In contrast, the other story which Alexander reviewed in the above link, "The Song of the Body Cartographer" by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, is a shining example, full of sentences which glance off of the story itself and suggest a near-infinite complexity just beyond the reader's enforced periphery. "Bayan Layi," I think, never quite reaches this level; contrastively it reads much more like a puzzle than a poem. Which is not to detract from John's story; they are written in very different registers and very different goals, and for what it's worth I think Loenen-Ruiz's story is impeccable, but to compare the two seems very beside the point.

I have touched very little on the violence in "Bayan Layi," and I am not quite sure what to say of it. It is perhaps the way in which the perspective is most immediately and powerfully driven home. I suspect that no one can read the descriptions of the racialized beating without reflecting seriously on the way that the limited narration shapes the story. For me this was another moment of the sort of disconnect that the story glosses over but which seems to ground it; the boy flees, Banda tells Dantala not to chase, and the boy is found dead later. There is nothing that necessarily indicates that the boy died of the wounds from the beating, or even, really, that he died at all; and yet the story does not dwell in this ambiguity, it simply is. It doesn't make excuses for its characters, but it does provide context. It even gives us the excuses that the characters, or at least Dantala, provide themselves, but without fetishizing them. The acts of violence themselves seem to me neither gratuitous nor excessive in quantity, but neither are they a disinterested cataloguing or a sociological abstraction. Which is the long way of saying that I haven't much at all to say about them, really.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Blogging the Caine: Abubakar Adam Ibrahim's "The Whispering Trees"

I get the impression, from Ibrahim's "The Whispering Trees," that it takes part of a tradition with which I am unfamiliar; that what is being drawn on to make this text work is simply something I don't know. At the same time, though, it retains a closeness to traditions with which I am familiar, and so is even more confusing.

"The Whispering Trees" opens with a direct address to the reader;

"It’s strange how things are on the other side of death. I fear I am incapable of describing the experience to you because I do not know what words to use."

And, of course, the following paragraphs are a long, unsuccessful attempt to do just that. It didn't lead me to expect any explicit cosmic horrors, exactly, but it did put Lovecraft on the brain (and the title certainly didn't help). If Lovecraft did anything, of course, it was to insist obsessively that his unknowable horrors were material, not metaphysical, and so the association isn't even really accurate at all; I get the impression that, if anything, Ibrahim and Lovecraft are in some strange, atemporal way, contemporaries, both reacting to a body of work with similar rhetorical strategies, although with wildly different purposes.

On the other hand, the moral, too, while apparently the antithesis of a Lovecraftian point, boils down -- if you read both authors uncharitably -- to, effectively: "give up." Whether this sentiment is expressed through the character's realization of the harsh, unthinkable malevolence of the universe or through their coming to terms with their lot and desiring nothing else, and whether this is accessed through "madness" or depression, the takeaway's arguably the same; give up.
Before this gets too belaboured; the point, I suppose, is that "The Whispering Trees" seems, to me, to have many genre trappings.

At the same time, though, I get the sense that it isn't really a genre text, and even as I write that I cringe. I tend to think even the most ostensibly ostensive definitions of genre tend toward a certain essentialism; "knowing it when you see it" might seem to be radically open but it is almost exclusively used in service of arguments in favor of enclosing genre in a supremely reactionary way. Part of my disappointment in the story is that I would like to read it as a genre text, and figure out where it does interesting things given that context. For whatever reason -- it is at least equally possible that I am at fault here as that the story is -- I can't, though. This is related to my sense that it derives from a different tradition; someone suggested the magical realism of Marquez, but I'm still assuming there is some more relevant, perhaps explicitly religious, canon from which "The Whispering Trees" draws of which I am entirely ignorant. Again, though, I would not be especially surprised to learn that I am wrong here.

I suppose that means I'll defer to others' judgments here; I've nothing much to say.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Blogging the Caine: Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid"

I'm having a lot of trouble thinking about Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid," the second Caine Prize shortlisted story in this roundabout.

Part of that is that I get the impression that I would have been head-over-heels for it at one point in my life. Currently, I'm not quite so. Reading the other posts on it has helped sharpen some of the things I find alternatively interesting and alienating about it; neither, unfortunately, in sufficient force to develop a compulsion to argue for a particular reading.

From Aaron's title, I began thinking about the objects in the story; the (missing) suitcases, the referenced but never represented construction vehicles, the fanny pack. Here was a way, I thought, to talk about how the story uses a human frame to tell a systemic story, represented metonymically through the absent & absented objects. It might be possible to do this; I can't quite formulate it though.

One of the major sticking points for me is in the language. As Beverly Nambozo Nsengiyunva points out, it is a story that is "riddled with similes," and they seemed to me egregious, empty words that impeded the story in a way that was totally unproductive, and which detracted from what I was trying to get out of it. I initially misread Kola Tubosun as suggesting that these might be an incursion of Logan/Balogun's voice into the narrative, which I found incredibly interesting and possibly productive. I thought immediately of Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s discussion of Zora Neale Hurston's use of free indirect discourse in Their Eyes Were Watching God (in his book The Signifying Monkey). As a "third, mediating term," (208) these similes might be doing an interesting work I had completely overlooked. Then I didn't really have any more thoughts and realized I had misunderstood the point being made, entirely of my own fault. Maybe though?

I remain convinced, however tepidly, that the story has a particular relationship between the individual/humanistic and the systemic. Each person continues to seem to me to be more a position than a character; and yet the great bulk of the 10,000 or so words are specifically there to develop one character or another. And it's not that the development is poorly done, or the story is just an exercise in plot at the expense of character; it feels very much like, for all the pushing towards the humanist story that is attempted, the systems inevitably encroach & annihilate. The story, for instance, of Logan/Balogun's sister Ayo's pregnancy immediately transforms from being about relationships between people to one about the relationship between a people and a state. The story of our protagonist, however we might feel about him, becoming an uncle immediately fades from view and is replaced with an implication of political corruption; which itself is slowly revealed not to simply be not just an excuse to moralize about "them," but literally the reason our protagonist has a roof over his head at all.

There were two moments in the story that suggest to me that its point is structural. The first is the consequence of Logan/Balogun's meeting with Ali Sayyar, the politician who impregnated Logan/Balogun's Ayo and is revealed to be his family's benefactor; Logan/Balogun responds to this by deciding, to paraphrase, that the way to smash the state is not to face it head on, but to undermine its foundation: the family. That he fails at this immediately and catastrophically isn't surprising: he expects that simply making transparent the ways in which the family is dependent on the state (as metonymically represented by the corrupt politician) will create sufficient moral uproar to divorce the two. Of course he completely ignores the material conditions and so just breeds a lot of contempt and infighting.

The other moment (and here I reveal myself a boring pedant for absolutely sure, as though that weren't clear enough already) is the conversation at the party between Logan/Balogun and the unnamed schoolteacher who argues for a redistribution of wealth in the United States. More than the content, though, its how this conversation takes place: the teaher is characterized as surly and a little drunk, Logan/Balogun is getting pissed off but never quite snaps, and we are told that the conversation must take place in short bursts interrupted by people leaving and Logan/Balogun feeling socially obligated to leave and give them a small parting gift (of cash) throughout. It's the perfect scene for representing the immutable structural encroachment on the personal; a situation in which the philanthropic humanitarianism of the story (cf the title) should be the focus is completely derailed, and not even by an individalist critique of that humanitarianism, but by a critique of the structural problems that it occludes altogether.

That's about all I can manage on the story at this point; a bunch of somewhat related threads of thought that don't really lead anywhere.