May 27, 2015

Book 28: The Killer App

The Killer App
John Writher

I knew immediately upon reading The Killer App's back cover that the book could equally be an unexpected gem or an unpolished rock. Alas; with the exception of its excellent premise and related hints of promise, it is much more the latter than the former. Set in a near-future England where geneticists have developed an experimental procedure to transfer a grown human's consciousness into a newborn's body, the plot offers plenty of potential opportunities for serious meditation. Yet while Writher seems to acknowledge many of the conundrums he poses, he rarely pays them adequate attention. When he does focus more narrowly on the considerable ethical dilemmas inherent in his premise and posited by the plot's subsequent course, he often engages them not only far too late but also by means of a character's convenient change of heart that is too ill-defined and sudden to be at all convincing. Even the book's genuinely surprising twists, and their significant emotional fallout, fail to resonate or to provoke the type of philosophical inquiry that the premise deserves. Readers and characters alike suffer from clumsy prose and flat characters who don't quite act as though they are anything more but vessels for the author's narrative whims.

Two-dimensional characters may occasionally prove sufficient in the type of thriller that this book aspires to be, but The Killer App lacks the kind of consistent pacing that maintains readers' engagement. The book often feels fitful, with unexpected perspective shifts that sometimes see minor supporting characters' thoughts displayed with as much prominence as the protagonists', without a segway to allow readers to make sense of the switch. Twists both routine and unexpected (including not one, but two utterly unnecessary and woefully unconvincing romantic arcs) do keep the plot moving along, but the entire book is marred by an out-of-nowhere ending that is equally problematic because of its suddenness and its failure to follow up, or even acknowledge, the fate of several minor characters whose treatment drives much of one protagonist's moralistic deliberations (which are, at any rate, far too little and far too late for the book to fulfill its evident aspirations). To ignore these implications of the plot, especially after deliberately drawing such attention to them in the name of character development, is to effectively dissipate the novel's unique ideas and waste its corresponding potential.

Added to an endless parade of extraneous commas and a clear lack of competent copy editing, the book's listlessness can make for a frustrating reading experience, particularly when coupled with Writher's excellent ideas. The result is a premise that seems half-baked at best, with valuable literary real estate devoted to unconvincing emotional asides and insufficient character development where they could have explored the fascinating implications of the technology that Writher so brilliantly conceives. Yet despite its many flaws, the book nonetheless displays a fair bit of promise, with a compelling premise that allows readers to speculate even when it fails to capitalize on its conceptual strengths. The science fiction at the book's core is first-rate and its basic premise is more than worthy of further exploration, and I would love to see Writher or another writer take another stab at it. Hampered, however, by haphazard character development and a plot that ignores its more interesting implications for a seemingly neat, but wholly unsatisfying, conclusion, The Killer App fails to deliver on its considerable potential.

Grade: C

May 18, 2015

Book 27: Americanah

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I've decided to make an effort to read more books by foreign writers, particularly women, and it's been hard to ignore the positive praise for Americanah. While I agree that the accolades are absolutely well deserved, I've been struggling to determine what, exactly, it is that makes this novel so compelling. The book is, from the start, poignantly and articulately observed as Adichie carefully straddles the line between beautiful and effective prose; her sentences are often as insightful as they are practical, but one never gets lost in the language at the expense of the story. Even more remarkably, the novel's overt exploration of race and identity, particularly as it is construed in the modern United States and Great Britain, never feels out of place, even when it becomes blatantly political. By voicing some of her most poignant observations and strident criticisms of the West's treatment of race through Nigerians Ifemelu and Obinze, Adichie grants them an added sense of depth and increases their impact. Even Ifemelu's most strongly worded blog posts, which unapologetically and directly confront race and racism in the United States, are carefully wedded to the plot. Illuminating and critical in equal measure, the novel forces white readers to grapple with privilege and bias without resorting to condescension or alienation. For the book's characters, and thus its readers, race is simply there, an omnipresent facet of life that cannot be ignored once they leave Nigeria.

Despite its clearly politicized point of view, Americanah's politics are a function of, rather than a reason for, its plot, and Adichie is as critical of Nigeria as she is of the United States and Great Britain. Her settings ring true and come to life, from Lagos to London and Brooklyn to Baltimore. The novel is much more than its political leanings, effectively delivering two vastly different visions of the modern immigrant experience and relying, at heart, on the fluctuating relationship between Ifemelu and Obinze as their paths cross, diverge, and merge through time. Both Ifemelu and Obinze are immediately convincing and familiar, though their actions are at times a bit suspect, and the supporting cast is likewise strong. Adichie effetively, but subtly, develops and utilizes her characters and their locales, to the point where it becomes easy to forget that the action is, indeed, taking place in a novel. Every aspect of the book bursts into immediate, vivid life, often feeling more like an all-encompassing experience than a deliberately constructed novel.

To read Americanah as a native-born, middle-class white American is to be transformed, to experience life through a vastly different set of sympathetic eyes. Adichie effortlessly conveys her characters' experiences without resorting to gimmicks or hostility, relying instead on her immense talent and keen eye for detail. All of the small details fall gently into place, gradually building compelling portraits of these fictional characters and the very real worlds they inhabit. The book challenges readers' default points of view but does so with remarkable subtlety, focusing on a shared human connection before pointing out the ways we seek to alienate those we perceive as different and obscure our shared humanity. Far from didactic, the novel confidently navigates the modern world's peculiarities while engaging readers with a plot that is true to its story and, in the end, its message. This is a book that begs to be discussed and dissected, a life-changing experience that slowly alters its readers' perceptions simply by focusing on the human elements at its core. A novel equally about coming of age, the immigrant experience, racism, and true love, Americanah offers a remarkably complete view of Nigerian nationals Ifemelu and Obinze that is instantly accessible to white Americans despite- or perhaps in part because of- its overt focus on racial identity.

Grade: A

May 10, 2015

Book 26: Astoria to Zion

Astoria to Zion: 26 Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone's First Decade
Edited by Ben Fountain

According to editor Ben Fountain's introduction, the stories in Astoria to Zion are all included (at least in part) for their examinations of the idea of place. Though this stated theme is not always evident in each of the collection's 26 tales, many do explore the varied meanings of physical (or even mental) location and presence, whether as an anchor or as a jumping-off point for further musing. The most successful works are, unsurprisingly, those that are most inextricably linked to their locales and those that embrace plot as a way to move story, characters, and readers alike along the path to a conclusion, however inconclusive. Several authors, however, fall into the quintessential trap of modern literary fiction, refusing to knit their observations into something meaningful and, in the process, forsaking interest for the sake of creating art that, without sustaining the audience's interest, becomes meaningless. This makes the collection somewhat uneven, as runs of two or three engaging stories are inevitably cut short by a dull foray into the worst kind of litfic. As a whole, the balance tips ever so slightly, and ever so precariously, to the good, meaning that the book may be best enjoyed in small doses, as the reader is unsure from one entry to the next what type of experience lies ahead.

It is to Fountain's credit that the collection embraces standout fiction that manages to be both literary and, in a word, interesting, providing a platform for many talented writers to consider how we alter, and are altered by, the places we inhabit, visit, and abandon. I've read Kevin Brockmeier's "The Year of Silence" a few times before, but its inclusion here invited me to revisit it in a different light, allowing it to resonate with me in a way it hadn't before. This, indeed, is the power of a good anthology, where the theme enhances already excellent stories by inviting reconsideration and a providing a particular frame of reference. Likewise, Astoria to Zion's best historical fiction (the stories by George Makana Clark, Miha Mazzini, David Means, and Ben Stroud) works on several levels, asking readers to think deeply about the meanings and ramifications of both temporal and physical location while vividly depicting relatable visions of the past. Nor does the general focus on location inhibit authors from exploring their ideas in variegated ways. Benjamin Percy, Rick Bass, and Kevin Wilson all set their stories in snowy forests, but each tackles it is a unique way; the settings, while similar, evolve in these skilled hands and come to represent something much more than a story's incidental location.

While each of the authors at least nominally relies on a set idea of place, some are more wedded to the concept than others; even the better stories that employ a more tenuous connection to locale, such as Bill Roorbach and Lauren Groff, somehow pay tribute to its importance. Indeed, the collection's least successful offerings are those that feel untethered while struggling to define their settings, motivate their characters, and/or embrace the power and near necessity of plot. Contrast this with its most moving stories, which carry great depth and resonate beyond their final pages; it is no coincidence, I Think, that all rely on movement and change, whether positive or negative. Something happens in these stories, and it happens somewhere, as the book's theme would imply. Astoria to Zion is an interesting microcosm of modern short fiction, with its best stories evenly matched or exceeding the very best of the field and its worst embodying its most unwelcome trends; in the end, its great pleasures exceed, however tentatively, its perilous pitfalls.

Grade: B