Sunshine (Robin McKinley)

I really enjoyed this book a lot. It’s a vampire novel, but instead of focusing on where vampires come from or how they die, it focuses on the fact that they are upsetting and terrifying. For me, the strongest element of the book is the examination of how we deal with trauma. Yes, there’s a little bit of sexy vampire stuff, but there’s only one good one and all the rest are represented as serial killers, which they are by necessity. I also like the fact that the old one isn’t physically stronger than everyone else, only mentally. I’ve never understood why, for vampires, age equals physical prowess.

I also appreciate the way that the protagonist has lived so long in a post-Voodoo Wars America that she doesn’t start by explaining all the differences. Things seem normal at first, then there’s mention of a bad spot, and it’s only gradually that you figure out that magic is real and security is a big business.

 

The Bone Clocks (David Mitchell)

People have been going on about this book for a while, so I finally succumbed. What a disappointment.

Mitchell’s writing is still good, and he’s still doing multiple narrators and multiple time periods and the transmigration of souls, but the outlook has become so incredibly bleak. By ending Cloud Atlas in the nineteenth century, he found a way to leave us with a feeling of hope and opportunity, but here there is nothing but People suck and then we destroy the earth and the lucky ones die. Holly Sykes, protagonist, does not suck, but she’s surrounded by really horrible people, and even though all the other narrators are kind of in love with her, it’s not really a book about love. It’s more about death and the realization that some people would become serial killers for the sake of retaining their youth. According to the interview in the back of the book, that includes the author (if he thought it would actually work).

Fun thing that you miss if you read the e-book: There’s a circle with a radius line in the header. The radius travels around the circle to make it look like a clock. The parts are roughly equal in length, but in the first part the radius travels around the clock once, in part two it goes around twice, until in part six it is moving at breakneck speed, giving the reader the sensation that time is moving faster and faster.

This might be a horrible thing to say, but by the time I got to the climax of the book I was really bored with it. Brubeck’s section about reporting on the Iraq War was emotionally difficult for me, followed by Crispin the morally repugnant author, so by the time I got to the Horologist I was really done with writers, writing, and this book. Again, it’s not the style that bothered me; it’s the content. I really enjoyed Cloud Atlas, but the other books I’ve read of his have just not lived up to that one.

 

A Destiny of Dragons (T. J. Klune)

Sequel to The Lightning-Struck Heart. Sam of Wilds is given the task to unite the five dragons and save the kingdom from an evil wizard so powerful even Randall doesn’t like to talk about him. A good bit of the book deals with Sam figuring out how to cope with prophecy and fate, asserting his right to freedom of choice. In the second part, he goes up against a scary dragon again, only to discover (again) that the dragon is a basically good person who’s been socially conditioned to respond aggressively. This dragon is an emo teenaged snake monster, so he doesn’t join the crew permanently, but he’ll be available to Sam when he needs him.

Sam now has Kevin (from the first book) and Dark (from the second book), so I’m imagining the rest of the series as continued quests to find dragons and convince them to join Team Sam. Sam also spends a good bit of the book trying to come to terms with the fact that the man he loves as a twenty-year-old will not be his for his entire life. Wizards live for hundreds of years and age slowly, so even if Ryan Foxheart survives being a knight for the length of a normal human life span, he’s still going to die an old man while Sam looks young and cute and lives forever. It’s sad, but it’s also realistic, understanding that your first relationship isn’t going to last forever. Poor Sam, but we all go through this at some point.

All the things I loved about the first book I love about the second one as well. I needed something to relax with after the Mitchell, and this was just right.

 

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Coldheart Canyon (Clive Barker)

Barker has generally used a two-part structure in his books – you sort of defeat the bad guy halfway through, but then you realize that either it was much bigger and badder than you had imagined or there’s another much worse bad guy waiting behind the one you were after. In this one, though, he moves away from that into a much more unified plot. There’s still the magical world that exists parallel to ours, and the wide cast of characters so you don’t know who’s going to make it through and who won’t.

A famous actor gets plastic surgery, but has a bad reaction to it and goes into hiding in a secluded neighborhood off Sunset Boulevard. There he meets some sex-crazed ghosts (and people who should really be ghosts by now) and enters the basement room that becomes The Devil’s Country. The obsessive president of his fan club tracks him down and has her own, very different experience.

There’s a section of about twenty-five pages where the author retells the story of how his own much-beloved dog died, and it’s not really essential to the plot, but it was essential to his grieving process and really, with almost seven hundred pages, it’s not long enough to feel like we’re completely sidetracked.

I love every Clive Barker book I read.

 

Gut Symmetries (Jeanette Winterson)

Sometimes I think that if people had a vocabulary for what they’re doing, they’d be more comfortable with it. These days we’d call this a polyamorous relationship and leave them in peace.

A young scientist has an affair with an older, married colleague. She feels guilty, so she talks to the wife about it. The wife is angry, of course, but also unexpectedly young and beautiful and artistic, so the women have an affair as well. Then there’s some trading around among the three.

What’s really interesting, though, is the intersection of different types of knowledge. Theories of gravity and attraction among subatomic particles and celestial bodies collide with poetry and attraction between lovers of various sexes. There’s only one world, and a Grand Unified Theory would have to encompass every mode of being, not just at a particle level but in all the ways we know ourselves. The book is full of synchronicities and parallels and connections, so many that I’d like to read it again so that I can see more of them and understand them when I see them.

I love every Jeanette Winterson book I read, and I’ve needed to read books I’m going to love.

 

Veronika Decides to Die (Paulo Coelho)

The first few times I read this book I loved it, but this time I was a lot less enthusiastic. It’s still an interesting story about a woman who learns to live well from the inmates of an insane asylum, but the discourse about mental illness is much more troubling to me now than it was before.

Coelho’s idea seems to be that mental illness is cultural and all you really have to do is learn to reject society and embrace who you really are in order to be healthy. There’s some value to that for some problems, but I don’t think schizophrenia can be cured with self-love, or that astral travel solves depression. He makes the chemical explanations sound equally as faith-based as the metaphysical ones, so serotonin and dopamine seem to exist on the same plane as the third eye and the soul. There may be value in both the mechanistic view of the body and the four-humors spiritual view, but it’s important to interact with those ideas on their own terms. Cortisol isn’t the same thing as black bile.

 

The Beauty of Men (Andrew Holleran)

It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book this depressing. It’s about a gay man who survives the AIDS crisis but can’t handle middle age. It was like listening to that guy I dated briefly in Texas all over again – no life in the present, just a constant remembering of those who’ve died while taking care of an aging parent who is also going to die soon. There’s some cruising, but he pines for a man who doesn’t love him, which keeps him from being happy. Twenty years later, life for gay men in rural areas isn’t this bleak. I understand the importance of having recorded this moment in time, but I don’t live in that moment, and things are better now.

Protagonist lives in the same area of Florida that my dad does, so I did spend some time wondering where that boat ramp is. Not that he makes casual sex seem anything other than futile and depressing. Holleran writes well, but the world he creates is dark and empty and desperate, as if AIDS kills some men’s bodies but robs others of their souls.

 

The Magicians (Lev Grossman)

This is a Harry Potter-Narnia mashup for grown-ups, with a little Dungeons and Dragons mixed in.

Quentin Coldwater gets pulled from his elite private school for teenage geniuses to attend a magical college. He gets through all four years in a little more than half the book, wanders around adulthood miserable and high until the two-thirds point, then he and his friends go off to Fillory, a magical land from a series of children’s fantasy books Quentin is obsessed with.

This is a book about what it’s like to grow up. Quentin is really bad at it. He can’t handle real-life adult problems, even after four years of school and comparative independence, so he turns to addictions for a while, then retreats into his childhood fantasy world only to discover that it’s full of adult problems too. Education, sex, and drugs haven’t prepared him to face the fact that he has to deal with the mess of who he is instead of hiding from it. In the end, he gets one of those mindless office jobs as another way of hiding from himself. There are two more books, so I hope he gets some self-awareness eventually.

There’s a television series based on these books that I rather enjoy, but it’s dramatically darker and more violent than the book. The book focuses exclusively on Quentin instead of tracking Julia’s parallel but more traumatic experience. Another important difference is time. The book encompasses five or six years (probably, maybe more), from when Quentin is seventeen until he’s in his early twenties. The series changes Brakebills to a post-graduate program and compresses everything from this book into a year or so. The compression of time makes sense with the actors not aging quickly and the fast-paced world we expect from entertainment, and the delay makes the sex more palatable I guess, because no one wants to watch twenty-two-year-olds having a threesome? (Poor Alice.)

 

The Eyes of the Dragon (Stephen King)

The intended audience of this book is dramatically younger than it is for any other Stephen King book I’ve read. It’s about a sword-and-sorcery fantasy land, with a prince locked in a tower and an evil magician who secretly runs the kingdom. Instead of going chronologically, there’s this circularity of the narrative, edging the plot forward a bit then running back to explain the backstory or to catch us up with a different character in a different location. It’s exciting and all, Stephen King deserves absolutely all the praise he gets, but the ending was rather dissonant with the rest of the book. Despite the fact that there’s a severely alcoholic teenager, most of the tone is light and kid-friendly, so when the magician grabs an axe and comes charging up the steps of the tower, it’s scary in a way that doesn’t fit with the rest of the book. Besides, he can do magic and he poisons the king. Why is he charging around waving an axe over his head at all? Did he suddenly forget all his magical abilities in the overwhelming hatred for the prince? Yes, he’s one of those villains who wants to see the world burn, but he does everything else so quietly and intuitively that the eruption of physical fury at the end is really out of character.

 

Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

There was a recent movie, but I haven’t seen it.

The thing that strikes me about this one most strongly is how important it is to stay current with the news if you’re going to solve crimes, and how much easier it was to stay current with the news a hundred years ago. Hercule Poirot is less tired than he is in books written thirty years after this one, both literally and as a character. It’s a very well-ordered story: events unfold until the murder, then the detective examines the crime scene and interviews the witnesses and suspects, then he brings them all together and explains how the murder was done and by whom. There are no surprises, no desperate turn of events, and very little violence. The lack of action makes me wonder why this one is so popular and why it is so often considered the representative, exemplary Agatha Christie novel. Maybe people like the combination of simplicity and intellection. I enjoyed it, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about.

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

I love this book so much. It’s about a competition between two magic teachers – they each train a student, then bind them together in a magical fight to the death. Of course the two fall in love. The first time I saw that much, but this time I saw just how important everyone else is, the clockmaker, the contortionist who survived the last challenge, the fortuneteller who uses Temperance to keep them balanced, the teenager who teaches the magician about stories, the woman who sees behind the scenes and runs mad, the boy who falls in love with the circus and saves it. Of course I love the circus as well, all the magical tents that don’t seem to match what I remember of circuses – The Wishing Tree, The Pool of Tears, The Ice Garden… It’s beautiful and emotional, and not at all outsized or self-conscious the way I picture circuses. I want Morgenstern to write more books.

 

The Poisoned Island (Lloyd Shepherd)

This book starts with a rape, and rubs the symbolism in as it continues to tell the story of English botanists raiding Tahiti. It’s marketed as literary fiction, but don’t be fooled: this is a dark Regency-era murder mystery with a strong social-justice message. It’s also the second in a series, which didn’t become clear until I got curious about all the references to the characters’ shared history and checked Amazon, and sure enough, the major characters are mentioned by name in the description of Shepherd’s previous novel, The English Monster. So read them in order. I’m not saying it’s poorly written, because I think it’s a good book – I use ‘literary fiction’ as a genre rather than as a description of quality. But seriously, the body count gets up to nine or ten, and the protagonist takes a really paternalistic attitude toward his wife, who seems like a brilliant scientist if men would stop hampering her activities.

 

The Earthsea Trilogy (Ursula K. Le Guin)

I thought this would be a good way to slow down the way I’m burning through my book collection, reading a three-in-one, but it didn’t work. It went so fast. Three titles: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. In some form, all three books are about the human conflict with death. Le Guin points out that death is to be respected, but not sought after, not worshipped, not feared. The protagonist of the first one turns into a guide in the other two, but while it makes sense, it’s a little sad – the first book makes it clear that he has dark skin, as do most of the people in Earthsea, but the next two books have white protagonists, and Ged becomes another magical Negro spirit guide. There are important things here about who we are and what it means to be human, but the racial stuff did make me sad. There are more books now, so maybe the people of color come back to the center in Tehanu, but I don’t know yet.

 

The Lightning-Struck Heart (T. J. Klune)

I loved this book so much. Again, it’s sort of thick so it should have taken me a while, but I went through it so fast and loved it all. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks that bitchy twinks who make sex jokes in a fantasy landscape can be hilarious. Fantasy/gay rom-com, completely genre-appropriate. Sam is a wizard’s apprentice whose best friends are an angry glittery unicorn and a half-giant. He’s in love with Knight Delicious Face, engaged to Prince Justin – the prince gets kidnapped by a sexually aggressive dragon who has been deified by a local town with mind-control corn, so the baby wizard and the knight go on a quest. I am super excited about the fact that there are three more that I can put on my list.

 

Oh, and by the way, today is my seven-year anniversary on WordPress. You’ve come a long way, Angry Ricky, but you’re still yourself, even though you thought you might lose yourself along the way.

A Change.

Posted: November 2, 2018 in original
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It’s time for a change. This format isn’t serving me well right now, so I’m starting another blog. If you’d like to see what’s happening with me, then check the first entry here:

https://theoccasionalmandealswithhisshit.wordpress.com/2018/11/02/the-journey-begins/

If you’re just here for the books and not my personal drama, then skip it. I’ll post here less frequently, but Confessional Reviews will still exist, for now. Life is temporary, and so is the internet.

As much as I do love me some du Maurier, I understand why this is one of the less frequently mentioned. It’s a multigenerational novel like The Loving Spirit, but it doesn’t have the clean-cut feel, where the person whose name and date range is the title of the section doesn’t always die at the end. There isn’t someone who lives through all the eras of the book, either, so it doesn’t feel as tightly focused as the earlier book. She’s also not setting most of the novel in Cornwall, and there’s something missing when someone isn’t writing about the thing she loves. England and Ireland have had a troubled history, and I honor the courage it takes to tackle that in a work of fiction, especially the courage to see things from the side of the colonizer rather than the more fashionable colonized.

COPPER JOHN, 1820-1828

John Brodrick owns a considerable property in Ireland. Now, remember your history before 1820. Vikings were taking Irish slaves back in the Middle Ages, and they took around half of England and mixed into the local populace. So, remember that the Irish are Celtic while the English are a weird mix of Celt with Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Romans, and whomever else came stomping onto the cliffs of Dover. In the seventeenth century, there was all that unpleasantness with King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, but there was also a great deal of unpleasantness between Cromwell and the Irish, which resulted in English nobles taking control over the Irish land, in a style that was already a throwback to feudalism. The Irish have been unhappy about this ever since it happened, and many of them are still unhappy about sharing their island with the United Kingdom.

Sometime in the eighteenth century, Brodrick’s grandfather bought their estate from the Donovans because they couldn’t afford to keep it. The Donovans have never lost their idea that the land is theirs, even though everything about the sale seems to have been legal and at least partially initiated by their side. They hated Brodrick for buying their land, I assume because he had the money for it and they didn’t. Later one of the Donovans shoots Grandfather Brodrick in the back. The sale and murder create a dynastic feud between the two families.

The current Brodrick has the idea to mine for copper on Hungry Hill, which is a symbol for Ireland itself. His older son Henry is on board, but the younger, John, is against it, in the manner of a younger son whose opinion is never consulted and whose pursuits are never respected. John loves Hungry Hill, and his mostly unvoiced opinions lean toward environmentalism and conservation of natural habitats, though those phrases are anachronistic for a Regency character. He’s a real businessman, this eldest John Brodrick, and he seems to care for little apart from his mines. He puts in a lot of work to make an agreement with the guy who owns the other side of the hill, but he is eventually successful. He hires a bunch of Cornish miners to emigrate and start the work, and also to train the Irish workforce who will eventually replace them. He has so much zeal for the mine and everything connected to it that he is called Copper John, a convenient nickname to differentiate him from his son.

Watch how the colonialism works. The copper comes up in Ireland, but they don’t have the technology to transform the raw materials into a usable resource, so the copper has to be taken across the water to be processed and sold. Copper John needs to keep an eye on both the mines and the factories, so when he can afford to, he buys an estate (or two) near the refineries and lives part of the time in Ireland and part in England. His daughters prefer living in England, so as a family the attention is directed away from Clonmere Castle toward the English estates, which means that they are using the money from their Irish mine to support the English economy instead of buying Irish goods and services. The Irish fight back by stealing the copper, breaking the machinery, and doing poor work, so Copper John has to take a closer hand in it. By which I mean explosives and murder.

Copper John has five children, and two of them die in connection with the mine. It’s like an exchange, John’s payment for all his wealth. It’s a shame, because these were the two children that everyone liked.

GREYHOUND JOHN, 1828-1837

John has a sense of perpetual insecurity. He knows that his father would have preferred Henry, but he often wonders whether his love Fanny-Rosa would also have preferred the older brother. He loves his dogs, and racing is the thing he really cares about. It would be easy to frame this as a discussion about gambling, but du Maurier doesn’t pursue that angle. It’s an expression of his love for nature and his ability to make a scant living by caring for a natural, renewable resource instead of making a fortune by destroying the natural beauty and going through nonrenewable resources as quickly as possible. John loves his dogs, and when they and he are too old and fat to keep racing, there’s a contented early retirement for them all.

That Fanny-Rosa is a real piece of work.

A louder splash than usual caught his ear – there must be some big trout in the lake, after all – and he climbed over a boulder to have a sight of the fish, and oh, God! it was no fish jumping at all, but Fanny-Rosa, naked, with her hair falling on her shoulders, wading out into the lake, throwing the water aside with her hands.

She turned and saw him, and instead of shrieking in distress and shame, as his sisters would have done, she looked up at him, and smiled, and said, “Why do you not come in too? It is cool and lovely.”

It takes a few years before John will be ready for that, but they do get married and have a baby seven months later (full term). Fanny-Rosa has an un-self-conscious joy of life that the Brodricks lack, they being weighed down by the responsibilities of money and respectability.

 

So. The generational pattern here is a pair of brothers named John and Henry. Henry is blond and popular, and John is dark and brooding and isolated. They both love the same girl, but Henry doesn’t figure it out because he’s kind of clueless and John is tortured and so, so dark, but not in a sexy way. Greyhound John has five kids, and Wild Johnnie is just that, until he drinks himself to death because he’ll never be with Henry’s wife, who is truly awesome. Of course, Henry’s son Hal combines both John and Henry traits, and he witnesses the collapses of the mines. There’s an epilogue from the 1920s, where we see the Donovans finally regaining power over the land while Clonmere Castle is a decrepit ruin.

This book is a representation of why colonialism is awful for the colonizers. You put all this effort in, but eventually it just drifts into a muddy jumble of disappointment and depression. Even Fanny-Rosa devolves into a gambling addict dying in a mental institution in the south of France. Everyone dies, everything ends, so it’s better to treat people with respect instead of the way the British have treated the Irish for nearly all of recorded history.

Hungry Hill is an important document for the history of colonialism, especially white-on-white, but despite du Maurier’s gifts with prose, it’s not delightful. The 1940s were a tough time, what with moving directly from the Great Depression to World War II and all, and it seems that she was having a hard time finding happy things to write about. There’s beauty, but even though I find joy in the midst of the depression and anxiety, there’s not much in du Maurier’s book. Which is probably why it’s taken me so long to write about it. I mean, I finished this book more than a month ago, I think.

I would like to say that after a few weeks I still have a strong impression of this book, but that wouldn’t be true. It’s a murder mystery that takes place over the course of an evening, and at 160 pages, it can be read in the same period of time. By 1964 the original author who wrote as Brett Halliday had already been retired for a few years, but the publishers were still cranking out Mike Shayne novels at the rate of one or two a year. I haven’t yet read anything between the very early Bodies are Where You Find Them and these later ghostwritten stories, so I can’t speak to whether the writing changes abruptly or gradually, but this is a much simpler story than that earlier one.

Tim Rourke, our favorite newsman, comes to Mike Shayne, Miami private eye number one, with a problem. His friend Ralph Larson is terribly jealous as a husband and is likely to do something violent to the man he thinks is screwing his wife Dorothy. Shayne has a talk with the wife and considers the matter closed, but later that evening she calls and asks him to stop her husband doing something terrible. He and Tim race out to the lover’s house, only to catch the husband in the act of shooting him. Conviction seems like a cinch, until it becomes clear that the gunshot didn’t kill him after all – he was already dead.

Because this is a Mike Shayne novel, there are organized crime and local politics, and police officers who are convinced that the private detective is the murderer himself, but these are details that elude me, being outside my realm of experience and interest.

He got out a cigarette and lit it, and looked around him slowly. It was a pleasantly furnished and comfortably cluttered, feminine-looking room. The long sofa along one wall was covered with gold brocade and littered with small soft cushions in bright contrasting colors that managed not to clash. There were end tables with big utilitarian ashtrays on them, and two comfortable-looking overstuffed chairs ranged against the wall opposite the sofa. The muted music he had heard through the door was coming from a stereo set with twin speakers that were detached from it and set at right angles in different corners of the room. The music was not familiar to him, classical, he thought, probably one of the three B’s. A door at the end of the room directly in front of him opened onto a bedroom with a big double bed that was unmade and had two rumpled pillows at the head of it.

Shayne liked everything he saw as he stood there and heard clinking sounds of glass against glass in the kitchen, and he frowned and tried to analyze the warm feeling of contentment that welled up inside him. It was definitely a woman’s place, and yet it welcomed his masculinity and made him feel immediately wanted. He did not know why that was, or how the woman in the kitchen had managed it so well, but he did know instinctively that she had managed it, not consciously probably, but as an expression of herself.

The woman who lives across the hall from Tim’s friends is fascinating, in an odd way. She’s here as a distraction, to illustrate just how focused Shayne is being on this one night, despite how much drinking he’s doing. I suppose I find sirens fascinating because I’m interested in the way people are moved by love and lust, and the different things that work to attract someone. I mean, I don’t find May’s apartment all that alluring, any more than I’d be drawn to the woman herself, with a little too much lipstick and a blouse that’s a little too sheer. It’s not every man that she can draw into her home; Shayne says that it is, and the narrator doesn’t disagree, but I do. There’s a specific sort of man that she can draw in, and it’s that sort of man that is being normalized here. Mike Shayne represents one type of masculinity, but there can be more than one. Despite the apparent lack of substance, this novel has a firm sense of gender roles and gender identity, and woe betide the woman who crosses those lines.

I heard recently that in BDSM relationships, it’s the sub who has the power, and I guess that makes sense. Once he (or she) decides to stop playing the game, it’s over. The situation persists because someone chooses passivity, and if he were to stop being passive then the dom would stop too, because consent is critical to BDSM success. That’s why there are safe words. This is the paradigm that is normalized for romantic relationships in this book, but without the safe words. Mike Shayne keeps muttering about how women don’t know what they do to men, as if men are irrational slobs ruled solely by their emotions and it is women’s work to keep them happy so they don’t run around killing each other. Men are violent, but women are powerful. Dorothy Larson tries to adopt the masculine role of actively choosing a lover (note May’s passivity, and think about how sirens are like spiders), so she fails in the civilizing-of-man role society assigned to her. It’s really her fault that her husband is a murderer, not his. With Dorothy as the active, Ralph is somehow made passive, so he’s powerless in the grip of his jealous anger. Other men feel sorry for him because the cuckolding makes him less of a man in their eyes, someone insufficiently dominant.

Which is, of course, rubbish. Every man is responsible for his own actions, both in reality and in the eyes of the law. It is not women’s job to civilize men or fix them in any way. It is not even women’s job to design a shag pad to seduce men who happen to pass through the corridor. To me, it is society that emasculates men by limiting their range of emotions and denying them access to healthy expressions of those emotions. I also blame society in general for restricting women’s access to education and the professions. I mean, Dottie is acting precisely as she’s expected to: Unhappy with your man? Get another! Don’t get a job or try for any sense of personal fulfillment apart from being a sex doll who cooks and cleans! You’re a woman! It’s like 1960s gender roles cut every person in half and expected them to be content as half a human. No wonder there was so much protesting.

A straight person recently told me that she had a strong value for the gay community because of our blending of both masculine and feminine traits, then told me that I was still halfway in the closet because of my traditionally male gender presentation. It was a weird conversation, and one that troubles me because of the larger conversation about gender and sexual orientation going on in the United States. We’re often told that being gay means being gay in the 1970s, when gay men tended to go to extremes of gender performance – either completely effeminate or so over-the-top butch that they dressed primarily in leather and motorcycle police helmets. But this is 2018, and being gay doesn’t threaten my masculinity. I don’t have to operate at a gender extreme, or seem androgynous to others. People can if they want to – I’m not saying we should blend into straight society. I am saying that we all have the right to determine what is natural for ourselves and the right to perform our own natures in the way we choose (so long as it doesn’t involve harming others). Some men wear nail polish and makeup; I don’t. Some men drive big trucks and hunt deer; I don’t. Some men wear a lot of black and play guitar; I do. Some men do none of these things, and that’s fine too. They’re still men.

It’s not a masculine or a feminine thing; it’s a mature adult thing to recognize societal expectations and decide for oneself how to interact with those expectations. Everyone gets to choose their own gender performance.

Unless you live in Miami in the 1960s. Then, men either keep their women at home through constant fucking or kill the men who step in as substitute fuckers. Mike Shayne’s world is fictional, but it’s the fantasy of the people of its time. People imagine a world that is simple and easy to understand because the one we live in is so far beyond us. There are so many things to be understood that there’s no way for any one person to understand them all. I mean, scientists have recently found a way to use one egg cell to fertilize another egg cell and create healthy offspring capable of reproduction. I don’t know if those mice really are lesbians, but in another fifty or a hundred years it might be possible for same-sex couples to have children who are the genetic offspring of both parents. It’s a concept I’m having a hard time comprehending, or maybe it’s something I hope for so much that my brain won’t let me think of it. With so much beauty and wonderment in the world, why reduce it to binary opposites? I’m not arguing against black and white when there are shades of grey – I’m arguing against black and white when there are green and blue and red, concepts that black and white can’t understand. Let the world be what it is, a huge sticky mess of colors and concepts and genders and sexes and sex acts, life and death and all the what-the-fuckery in between. Let people be who they are, no matter whether they match you in language, skin tone, or gender presentation. It’s a bit odd that I read a detective novel and extracted the message that we should all mind our own business, but it’s an odd world, and the more we learn the odder we find it. Welcome the odd.

This book is ideal for those people who have left Christianity, but feel nostalgic about the shitty inspirational fiction.

“Cade, do you ever feel trapped in your life?” asked George instead.

Cade paused and smiled. “What do you mean?”

“I mean … I feel like I’m just headed down a path I can’t change. It didn’t happen all at once. It crept up on me. First you get a house, then the kids come along, and suddenly I’ve got major responsibilities. And one day I wake up and my life is half over. I mean, my life hasn’t been horrible, but I feel like I’m just along for the ride.”

Shitty inspirational novels often follow a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress pattern, where Everyman is guided through the trials of life by someone who moralizes a lot and stands in for his conscience, or God, or the Church, or whatever is meant to guide people through the trials of life. Kuhn’s guide is Shiloh, a physicist with an intense aesthetic sense. While he sees beauty and wonder in everything, Shiloh’s biggest message is about order and chaos. He argues that we need both, and that life is all about managing the balance between the two. He talks about culture as striving for this balance: rock and roll music, soccer, science, whatever he likes he sees as having achieved the perfect mix. If there’s something he doesn’t like, it’s either too structured (like baseball) or not structured enough. The thing that irritates me about this guide, other than the condescending attitude all these guides take, is that he is so subjective. George takes him to a baseball game and talks him through the theme and variations, so he becomes a bit more reconciled to it, but who decides how much order is enough? Shiloh does. He doesn’t have a god to blame it on, but really, it seems that his main concern is teaching George about his worldview and insisting that his personal tastes have cosmic significance.

The protagonist is the other essential piece to this puzzle. George is represented as an Everyman, someone who staggers blindly through life, content to let entropy take over as he falls into deeply ingrained habits of self-centeredness and insensitivity, until he meets the guide. First off, I don’t believe that everyone is like George. He’s a cishet white male, so he has a lot of advantages that most people don’t. He’s also quite comfortable with regard to his income, so to me, most of his problems are illusory. Yes, bad things happen to him, but he has a much wider safety net than I do, wider than most people I know. This sort of protagonist in this sort of allegory always makes me wonder about the author. How much privilege is necessary to see George as representative of anyone?

As I implied above, things change when the protagonist meets the guide. He’s been insensitive to his own feelings and those of everyone around him for years, but suddenly he becomes unusually articulate about his emotions. Overnight he drops the mental defenses we all have and becomes able to say exactly what he is feeling and why, without disguises or misdirection, to a man he barely knows. This aspect of the books is in my opinion less realistic than the sci-fi elements we’re going to discuss in a minute. It takes a lot of time to work through the mental blocks we create to protect our innermost selves. In a society where vulnerability is harshly punished, especially in heterosexual men, this style of opening up takes a long time to achieve. If someone does open up suddenly, it’s usually a misdirect designed to gain approval. George has had the same best friend for twenty years or more, but after chatting with Shiloh on the train a couple of times it’s somehow easier to talk to the comparative stranger than to Cade, despite their long history. These protagonists turn into a bizarre mixture of petulant immaturity and intense self-awareness.

And speaking of privilege, how many first marriages last twenty years? His wife is presented as perfect, the exact combination of capability and submission that gives conservatives confidence in themselves and in the perpetuation of the human race. With women like that at home, we can move forward in business and politics, knowing that all failures at home will be made up for by the stay-at-home mom. She’ll take care of the house and kids so that the men don’t have to raise children or clean up after themselves. Since Everyman is supposed to be a good guy, he’s going to try to wash dishes or talk with his son, but he’s going to do it poorly because the penis disqualifies him from recognizing dirt or giving appropriate emotional responses. There’s a daughter too, with whom he does marginally better <sarcasm> because her needs are so much simpler. We all know that girls only need a few trips to the mall with their friends to make everything all right. </sarcasm>

Another vital component of the shitty inspirational novel is cartoonishly extreme suffering. George has some trouble at work and might get fired, but then his daughter is in a car accident where she breaks a couple of limbs and loses an eye. Then his son gets alcohol poisoning and major counseling. Then his wife gets cancer and dies. It’s a bad year, but no one has this many bad things happening to them in this short a period of time. I suppose it’s the intensity of the suffering that gives him all of those emotional breakthroughs, but it’s so forced.

The final element is the supernatural. Christian shitty inspirational novels focus on God, or angels, or Jesus, or finding a mystical shack in the woods. Here, the supernatural is replaced by technology. Shiloh gives George a watch that transports him between dimensions. He’s really interested in string theory and all that multiple dimensional stuff, which he claims is the only solution to some of the observed phenomena out in space. I guess loop quantum gravity doesn’t exist in Shiloh’s world (Leslie Winkle forever!). So, George gets a chance to travel back in time, to parallel dimensions, so that he can relive his days. At first he tries to recapture glory, but then he turns to fixing his regrets. The changes don’t affect his life, but they do change him, giving him more hope and a stronger sense of self-efficacy.

The moral of the story, because even agnostic shitty inspirational novels need a moral, is that we should all be kinder to one another, so I should probably stop calling these novels shitty. I mean, they are – about a quarter of the way in I asked myself why I was having such a hard time with this book, and I realized that it was because it’s poorly written – but it’s not kind to say so. I agree with Kuhn that being kinder is the best hope we have to make the world a better place, even if I have a hard time with his vehicle.

What really sparked my interest was at the end, when George has a chance to go back and live his whole life over. I would love that. I’d lose most of the people I care about because I would go back to before I met them and make different choices, but I would prioritize my happiness from an earlier point in my life. I would come out of the closet sooner, exercise more at a younger age, choose a new profession, and generally explore parts of myself that I’ve left neglected this time around. The chance to do everything over again, and do it differently, appeals to me strongly.

I’m an overly sentimental person when it comes to fictional characters, so I stuck it out and even got appropriately weepy at the end. Agnostic inspirational fiction is such a weird category, but that is definitely what this is. Perfect for people who can’t stomach Christianity but miss the poorly written novels. It’s like being uplifted against your own will.