Review | Bitter Orange, Marshall Moore

Bitter-Orange-Cover-Shadow-V6Marshall Moore’s short story collection The Infernal Republic explored experiences of ennui and despair beneath a veneer of the absurd. The author takes this a step further in the more sober novel Bitter Orange. The protagonist, Seth Harrington, can turn undetectable — note: not invisible, but more like he’s “stepping out of time” — in morally grey situations. He can, for example, steal a bottle of wine right under the sharp-eyed, sharp-tongued shopkeeper’s eyes, or use a one dollar bill to pay for a cell phone. It’s like a Jedi mind trick, but one that works only when doing bad things.

Can such a power be used for good? Possibly, but for Seth, the question doesn’t even arise. Nor, for the most part, does the question of how to use this power to become a supervillain and conquer the world. Rather, this power exists, here’s what it seems to be able to do, now what? When you have the ability to do what you want without having to face the consequences (because no one will witness what you’ve done), what will you do? Remember being a kid and told not to do something because your mother/teacher/a police officer will catch you? For the religious, perhaps it’s the idea of an omnipresent god that deters bad behaviour. Yet, when you remove the threat of external responsibility, when you are pretty much guaranteed that you will not be caught, then the question becomes: now what? And, more importantly, so what?

It’s in that “so what?” that Moore’s social commentary strikes home. Bitter Orange is set in the post-9/11 world. Like many people, Seth has been affected by the event — most of the time, the experience of shared grief is viewed as a comfort (you are not alone), yet Moore presents the less acknowledged, less explored alienating aspect of shared grief. When so many people have undergone the same thing, many of whom may have undergone worse (who can say whose grief is worse?), where does your pain fit in, why does it matter?

Seth’s power makes him fear he himself is disappearing for real, again a not-too-subtle metaphor for the feeling of insignificance (the “so what?”) created by events like 9/11. At a time when all Seth wants to do is connect, he obtains a power that sets him apart, even from his closest friends. Moore’s resolution does provide somewhat of an answer, but by no means a definitive one. Perhaps most powerful in Moore’s book is the focus not on grief or pain, but rather on what comes after. Even Seth’s powers don’t lead so much into any tortured soul-searching as to soul searching with a somewhat flat affect, deliberately so. It’s ennui, it’s pointlessness, and it’s even more soul destroying than the pain.

Personally, I prefer Moore’s short fiction — the shorter format distills his message and renders it more potent. With the novel format, the story tends to meander. Subplots, such as Seth’s one-time female lover refusing to believe he’s really gay, are intriguing and do add to the plot, but they could have been more tightly integrated with the story. The ending was unexpected, but, as with the author’s less successful short fiction, Moore goes for the easy dramatic flourish. I find Moore at his best in the quiet moments, the subtle layers that reveal much more than what is said, and particularly with a subject as complex and stirring as dealing with a post-9/11 world, quiet is more telling than volume. Still, there’s a lot going on in Bitter Orange that is worth checking out, and a lot more that bears reflection even after you turn the last page.

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Thank you to the author for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | River Dragon Sky, Justin Nicholes

I’m a sucker for good cover art, and the cover of Justin Nicholes’ River Dragon Sky caught my attention immediately. Kudos to Justin Kowalczuk for the beautiful cover image.

In a debate over the importance of guanxi (connections, or, more specifically defined by the professor, nepotism), university student Zhuan He argues that the importance of guanxi shouldn’t even be in question — we all use it. “It is part of the human being,” she says. “You have to cut out his heart if you want to cut out guanxi.” She adds that if you ask Americans what they like about China, “they will say the Chinese are cooperative where the Americans quibble. It’s in all the textbooks.” [64% of eARC]

I include these quotes because they seem to me indicative of the general thrust of this novel. River Dragon Sky explores the connections between five characters — Zhuan He, her boyfriend Feng, Russian professor Kal (also Zhuan He’s lover), American missionary David (also Feng’s professor), and the seer Junping (who believes Zhuan He is his long-lost daughter Xiling). Their lives intersect in a web of connections — Kal for example frames David as Zhuan He’s lover, so Feng becomes insanely jealous of the wrong man; Feng becomes an obsessive stalker, yet Junping as well watches Zhuan He closely; the university is concerned over arson cases when we know fairly early on the arsonist’s identity; and so on.

Adding to the complexity of the story are shifts in time and perspective — we learn about Junping’s courtship of Xiling’s mother, as well as Kal’s history of trouble at school. Nicholes also adds cross-cultural complexity — Zhuan He, for example, knows that her classmates view her relationship with Kal as a bid to leave China, and as she says in her debate speech, “If you do [marry your coach], maybe you marry him because he can enable you to do something. Can you go abroad to study, to practice English, without guanxi?” [64%] It’s quite a lot for a novel to cover, and in the hands of, say, David Mitchell or Haruki Murakami, this tale could have been amazing. Unfortunately, in Nicholes’ hands, the story just feels disjointed, convoluted and erratic. There are a few moments of beautiful insight, and chapters that drew me in to the story, yet for the most part, I found myself either confused or detached.

A lot of it, I think, had to do with language. In attempting to create an atmosphere of great import, Nicholes veers too much into abstraction and waits too long before giving the reader something concrete to grasp. Take for example the following passage:

The memory that Junping had teased from the American was from a long time before. He sucked in a break while thinking it over. His stomach burned.

In other life, Junping had lifted a newborn’s hand to his face and pressed his lips into its palm. The smell had been sour. The child had been cradled in blankets beside a woman.

Junping stumbled back against the wall. He brought his hands up to his face because he couldn’t believe what was happening. Another ghost approached him (they had visited, shifting shapes, before), another omen come to unsettle him, to prevent him from glimpsing, when that walking stick lay in his deathbed in place of his body (the sign that he’d achieved immortality), the all-subsuming Tao.

It was a girl. She was reading the hexagrams he had drawn into the paper. He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe who this was. But it was true, and it all made sense.

But why? After all these years? [5%]

The narration is probably supposed to be dramatic, building up to the big reveal about who the girl was. Unfortunately, the dramatic impact is undercut by the lack of clarity. The sentence about the ghost is a prime example of what I mean about abstraction. Nicholes injects some spirituality and horror into the narrative, but uses an overly convoluted sentence with bracketed clauses that distract more than elucidate. As well, at this point, we have no idea why Junping is so affected, or why he’s thinking of ghosts and the Tao.

It’s frustrating for a reader, and even within this passage, we still have so many unanswered questions. Who is this newborn and this woman? How can we tell when the flashback begins and ends? Where did these hexagrams come from? Who is this girl, why did she have such an effect on Junping, and what does all this have to do with the baby?

The language also gets oddly formal, or at times rather awkward, making me wonder if this is a translation (it’s not). Take for example “before he had molted the identity of Yang Dong” [5%], “Kal had revolted against his dad” [27%], and “he’d absconded with Darlene” [27%].

I don’t usually mind difficult books, but in this case, the language wasn’t compelling enough to put me under its spell, and the payoff (various revelations and insights throughout) didn’t feel significant enough to merit the self-important tone. It’s not a bad book. I did enjoy the kung fu scenes and the relationship between Zhuan He and Kal. I also found Feng’s stalker tendencies creepy and David’s attempts to stay out of the love triangle drama somewhat amusing. Overall, however, I think much could have been streamlined and clarified.

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Thank you to Signal 8 Press for an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review | Remember Tomorrow, Tricia Merritt

A year after her brother Zach dies, Alannah Greer receives an email from his partner Benson inviting her to Hong Kong for Zach’s memorial service. The email ends with a cryptic assertion that Zach didn’t have to die. En route to Hong Kong, Alannah discovers that she has the ability to time travel, and you can probably figure out the rest of the story from there.

Tricia Merritt’s Remember Tomorrow has an interesting concept. Certainly, I can understand the desire to change history and save a loved one’s life. It turns out that the hit-and-run that killed Zach may have been orchestrated by a corporation studying genetic abnormalities, and so the story takes a thriller-ish turn. It was fast-paced, I liked Benson as a character, and the mystery about the corporation interested me, however, there were several major problems with the novel.

First and most glaring is the language. Merritt goes too far in attempting to make her words sound poetic. 5% in and I was already very frustrated.

…a bologna and ennui on dry rye [1%]

…the bland despair of white bread [1%]

…a little guilt-rodent poked its head up out of its gopher hole [1%]

A mosquito-cloud of distractions… [1%]

…before there’s nothing left but a scalding vortex of antimatter? [1%]

I’m not a big fan of super poetic narratives, but at times, I can see how it works. I am also generally understanding of the occasional unfortunate metaphor. However, so many clustered even just within the first few pages of the eARC, and it was driving me mental.

This is especially unfortunate because there are times when Merritt gives truly striking turns of phrase. For example, I loved the first few lines:

Sometimes, life’s all about cravings. My name is Alannah Greer, and until recently, I’d have killed for a nice tuna salad on sourdough. [1%]

Sharp, concise, intriguing. The tone is just quirky enough to hook the reader. Merritt follows that up with the “bologna and ennui” line that I hated as being overly poetic, but because the first couple of sentences were so striking, I was willing to give her a shot. Another passage I liked:

Benson was my brother’s partner. Was. As an English teacher, I understood the finality of the past tense more clearly than most, and thus I hated it more intensely.

Fucking was. [1%]

Again, concrete details, with a distinctive voice. We learn quite a bit in just a few lines.

For a splinter of a second, I felt sorry for her with her bad posture and her endless cups of lukewarm herbal tea. [2%]

“Splinter of a second” reminded me too much of the earlier-quoted “mosquito-cloud of distractions” — trying too hard to insert metaphor — but I absolutely, absolutely love the image of “endless cups of lukewarm herbal tea.” Amazing.

Merritt has some outstanding phrases, and it’s unfortunate that just when I see a line I absolutely love, I then see a series of lines I absolutely hate. The overall impression is of a young writer in love with her proficiency with language, yet still lacking the experience to know when to pull back.

Her attempts at humour are even less successful than her overly poetic descriptions. She does have some funny moments, but oftentimes, I’d read an offhand comment or a piece of dialogue and cringe, because it just felt too forced to be funny. There was also a truly awkward moment where Zach, teasing Alannah about a date, asks “Did you spit or swallow?” [69%] Merritt acknowledges the impropriety of the question with Benson turning pale and Alannah pertly replying, “That’s for me to know and you to wonder about.” [69%] To be honest, I’m not sure what the line was there for in the first place. Crude humour, perhaps, but it just felt pointless (people with brothers, would they really ask that?) and therefore horribly awkward.

Another issue that could have used a good editor is Merritt’s propensity to go off on tangents. Just when the mission to save Zach really kicks off, and Alannah realizes she now had to investigate who wanted Zach dead in the first place, Merritt pauses that storyline to take Alannah on a shopping trip. I understand Alannah’s need for new clothes at that point, but detailed, Becky Bloomwood-like descriptions of her trip around Hong Kong shops were completely unnecessary. Just as unnecessary was Alannah’s reflections, right after the shopping trip, on her lack of a love life. Again, I’m sure she was lonely and really in need of a sexual encounter at that point, but I just couldn’t care less. A bit later on, when teased about a date the night before, she reminds Benson and Zach about their investigation and tells them they should focus. All I could think was, about time.

I was also bothered by Merritt’s treatment of Alannah’s ability to time travel. After emphasizing how physically draining it is to travel through time, such that Alannah literally collapses after her trips, Merritt then turns time travel into a convenient plot device. Alannah’s plans to prevent Zach’s death involve her travelling through time and undoing whatever errors were in each attempt. It’s still physically draining, and we do see the toll it takes on Alannah to have to time travel after Plan A fails, then Plan B, Plan C and so on, but after a while, Alannah’s ability to time travel starts to feel like deus ex machina.

After all the build up and the random tangents, the ending was rushed. It felt like Merritt realized she had to end the novel and so decided on some action scenes to tie up loose ends. The villain gives a speech about his master plan, and Merritt tries to alleviate the cliche nature of this scene by having Alannah comment sarcastically on the fact that he’s giving a monologue, but it doesn’t help. Worse, even after we get the big reveal, nothing still makes sense to me. How did the villain get involved in the scheme in the first place? Who are the mysterious “they” he keeps alluding to? How did the villain pull all this off, and what does he hope to achieve? Alannah eventually acts like she’s figuring things out, but her explanations still leave many questions unanswered.

Then, in the last few pages, there’s another big reveal, a surprise twist that I saw coming from the beginning. Unfortunately, I only saw it coming because it seemed like a convenient point to add a surprise twist, and not because Merritt set it up well. There were no indications leading up to this twist, and even the reveal was handled in a couple of pages, and in a very anticlimactic way. This revelation had the potential to be huge, yet it was handled with barely a whimper.

Finally, after the big action scenes, there were still some minor threads left unexplained. The action scenes had their casualties, and I at least wondered what happened after that, considering other people in the corporation weren’t aware of the villain’s plot. Didn’t security cameras catch the action? Didn’t the characters have to deal with some kind of fallout afterwards? I was frustrated, and I felt like the author rushed me through the most pivotal moments in the book.

Overall, an interesting concept, and despite all the problems I pointed out, the plot still makes it worth a read. I just think the story deserved better editing.

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Thank you to Signal 8 Press for an electronic ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. This book was published under the Scarlet Storm Press Imprint of Typhoon Media in Hong Kong.

Review | The Infernal Republic, Marshall Moore

Marshall Moore’s short story collection The Infernal Republic is darkly comic, at times downright disturbing, yet in some ways also strangely endearing. Moore’s stories feature characters who, for some reason or other, are alienated from their community, and therefore voice desires that we may censor ourselves from even contemplating. Yet at the root of even the most twisted desires is usually the almost desperate need to connect. Moore’s stories are intense and, when he resists the urge to throw in a surprise twist at the end and just allows the situation to play itself out, his stories are powerful.

Take for example “The Infinite Monkey Theorem,” which attracted me to this collection in the first place. Yahweh and Lucifer have placed bets on the idea that ten thousand monkeys with typewriters will, given an infinite amount of time, be able to re-create the complete works of Shakespeare. The story’s protagonist is Beëlphazoar, a demon tasked with supervising the monkeys and the team of demon guards. I love the concept — it’s absolutely ludicrous! — and Moore amps up the absurdity throughout. For the few thousand years, Beëlphazoar is so bored by his job that he teaches himself Mandarin, then Cantonese and other Chinese dialects. The demons get so desperate they beg Beëlphazoar to count “Some1” and “saxifrage” as words. “This isn’t Scrabble,” Beëlphazoar argues, but even he is soon desperate enough to consider cheating. As his fellow demon Nabob points out, “Boredom is death when you can’t die.”

The story itself kept me laughing throughout, but beneath the humour is the utter despair of all these demons stuck with a thankless, ultimately pointless job for all eternity. If you’re fortunate enough to have never felt that way about your job, watch Office Space. Beyond that is the relationship between Yahweh and Lucifer. Beëlphazoar describes the rift between Yahweh and Lucifer as a “vicious divorce,” and I was struck at the depth of emotion suggested by that term — one deity the spurned party, longing to rekindle the relationship, and the other unwilling to take him back. So when one party looks “crestfallen” at the outcome of the bet and Beëlphazoar suddenly understands what was at stake, I just love all the emotion seething just beneath the lines.

Much darker and angrier than “Infinite Monkey” is “Town of Thorns,” possibly my favourite in the collection. The story is almost painful to read — Michael was the victim of a hate crime and deals with the experience by getting tattoos, which alienates his partner Wade. “The heartbreaks, like the gods, are in the details,” Wade thinks. Michael has changed so much of his physical appearance that the only thing that remains unchanged are his sexual organs. “Why are you looking at my dick like that?” Michael asks, and Wade thinks but is unable to say aloud, “Because I miss the guy it’s attached to.” Just as Michael is having difficulty dealing with the violence to which he’d been subjected (which the cops claim is a matter of bad luck rather than gay-bashing), so is Wade unable to break through the barriers Michael has put up. Michael’s hate, fuelled by pain, is almost palpable, as is Wade’s love, both his desire and his inability to help Michael move on from the experience. We want Wade and Michael to re-connect, to be as happy as they were before the crime, yet we also feel Wade’s helplessness, that maybe things have just changed too much or, worse, maybe Wade had never really known Michael at all. I love the push and pull within this story, the pushing away and the clutching on. This is probably Moore’s most serious story in the collection and, for me, the most powerful.

I also liked the story “Flesh, Blood and Some of the Parts,” about a suicidal teen in a world where children were literally indestructible. How can one kill himself if doctors can easily remove one’s arms? It’s a twisted concept, yet also thought-provoking: how far would you go to prevent someone from taking his own life? Another story has a couple of strangers bonding over a man about to jump off a ledge, while still another has the narrator running over the man he loves and wanting to make love to his injured victim. Both stories very much twisted, and the narrator of the latter story actually psychotic. Yet Moore’s writing is compelling, and while I may not sympathize with the characters, I certainly perceive their obsessive need to connect. I also loved “Still Life with Pterodactyls,” about a man who has the power to make people disappear, but is unable to control it. He is doomed to loneliness, and I love how this is downplayed by Moore’s matter-of-fact recitation of disappearances.

Some of Moore’s shorter stories — about a condo literally ejected from its building or a woman who recruits beautiful young women for supernatural beings — just fell flat for me. They felt gimmicky, and I was left at the end wondering, so what? “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” inspired by the Damien Hirst piece of the same name had potential, but also left me with the “so what?” feeling at the end.  “215,” about a house that has become self-aware and whose owners want to convert it to an apartment complex, had an interesting horror-story approach but was a bit heavy-handed with the existentialism.

Infernal Republic is an intense short story collection. Some of the works try a bit too hard to be funny or to have a surprise twist, but many others delve deep into the darkness of human desire. The stories I enjoyed in the collection are disturbing and, more importantly, compelling. The experience of reading this collection is much like the cover image suggests — it’s a wild, unpredictable ride, and like Moore’s characters, you dive deep, looking for something to break your fall.

The Infernal Republic isn’t available on Indigo, but can be purchased on Kindle and Amazon.ca.