Monday, August 24, 2015

Jack Glass, Adam Roberts

Jack GlassWhat a splendid thing this book is. Inside and outside. Full disclosure: as an experiment, I bought this book ONLY because I loved its cover. I didn't read anything about the content or the author, I carefully avoided reading the cover blurb, and jumped into it in complete ignorance.

I have a very visual imagination and I've loved many book covers before, but I've never bought a book just because of its cover, this was the very first time for me. A complete gamble. And I'm glad it paid off so well!

So, just for a second, take a look at this cover. Not only its intricately crafted stained glass drawing is very beautiful in itself, it also:

1). succeeds in evoking a certain complexity in the plot / content, therefore attracting thinking readers;
2). it works wonders on a tablet or computer screen: the back-lit surface of your device screen will give this cover an even more credible "transparent glass" effect. This cover, in summary, is just a marvel to look at. It deservedly won the BSFA award for "best SF book cover". 

Adam Roberts loves Science Fiction. In a brief TED talk, he said: "Science Fiction is not similar to poetry, science fiction is poetry". So, no surprise there, Jack Glass is a Science Fiction book. In the author’s own words, the novel is a collision of ‘the conventions of ‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction and ‘Golden Age’ detective fiction, with the emphasis more on the latter.

The book is divided in three stories, all connected and all taking place in the same world.

From the start, we know from the narrator that the murderer in each story is Jack Glass, but that's all we know. The mystery lies in Jack's true identity, and in why and how he committed these murders.

The first story blew my mind. It was actually reminiscing of some Golden Age SF. Big Ideas SF. It's dark, intense, full of ideas and horrific, heavy moments.

With the second story the writing's tone shifts completely (maybe a bit too much?), introducing new important characters and, finally, providing a big picture overview of the universe where these stories are taking place. In a sense, you can see the first story almost as a prologue to the book. With the second story, Roberts is much heavier on the detective fiction. Yes we are still in a distant future, but it really feels like reading an Agatha Christie or Arthur C. Doyle story. And that is a good, fun, exciting thing. You can certainly feel the playfulness and the joy that Roberts was feeling while writing this book.

One could say that the main difference with a Sherlock Holmes story is that this one takes place in the future, and therefore it will be much easier for the author to come up with a clever resolution and make it seem oh-so-obvious, because he knows things about this world that the reader does not know. But I would counter that argument by noting that many of the Christie or Doyle stories, although firmly based in the present reality (of their author), used very similar deus-ex-machina devices to resolve everything at the end, and to make the reader feel like he had the obvious solution in front his eyes the whole time, and that he was a fool not to spot it.

The third story, "The impossible gun", sums everything up and brings us to a slightly deeper appreciation of Jack Glass as a complex character, and of his background.

Look, "Jack Glass" is just a load of intelligent fun. It's inspired by works from the Golden Age, but it's very original at the same time, and very well written. Does it lose a little bit of momentum at some points? Maybe it does, especially during the second and third story. Is it a bit too cold in its intricate plot? Again, maybe, but deep and involving character development is not the point of this book.

Maybe it's not a perfect book, but it deserves 4 stars and a half from me for the fun that I had reading it, and for the uncommon level of mental stimulation that it can generate.

SF author Paolo Bacigalupi wrote a very positive review of this book, wondering why an author of Adam Roberts' talent has not won any of the big SF awards yet (he did win the BASF award for Jack Glass though). And Bacigalupi finds his own answer in the fact that Roberts is a unique, very unconventional writer, who focuses on the Big Idea for each one of his books, and then moves on to something completely different. A serial experimenter. While it's much easier - and profitable - in these days, to strike gold with a more or less original concept, and then cash in on the series, and keep writing about the same characters. That might very well be true.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Limbo, Melania Mazzucco - Literature as a slap in the face

LimboMelania Mazzucco is the best contemporary Italian writer I know. She is an author "with balls", writing with the ferocity of Edward Bunker and the raw depth of McCarthy. Make no mistake: behind the elegant style, the masterful architecture, the perfect ear for each voice and the accuracy of the details, there is a wild beast that pushes to the maximum to get right into our most intimate essence of being human. The truth in her novels is outlined with a vivid and brutal force, although beautifully controlled by a master of her craft.

No bullshit. No judgements. Just life. Reality. Naked humanity.

I don't read her novels for the topics they cover anymore: in fact, I do not care to read about a gay couple adopting a child (the theme of her latest novel). But I already know that I will read that book anyway, because now I am addicted to that voice, so powerful and brutal. There are not many like it in the international literary scene.

Let me try to explain: whereas an average writer manages to immerse the reader into a character's thoughts and soul, leaving the reader with a certain feeling of comfort, a certain sense that what you are reading is helping you escape your reality, and it has not much to do with yourself and your life, Mazzucco will slap you in the face, yell "Wake up!", grab your hair and drag you into the character, and when you feel like you've touched the bottom, she will make you dig even deeper, to feel the the character's humanity under every aspect, including the physical one, her body, her armpits, her hair, her biological functions. Until the individuality built in the novel becomes almost more vibrant and palpable than the real-life people who are close to you, your family.

In other words, while reading this author you will often have moments when you find yourself saying: "Oh shit, this is me. It's talking to me here".

What I'm talking about is literature. Real literature, vs any light-weight novel that is out there.

This is a novel about an Italian woman who enlists in the army, fights in Afghanistan as a sergeant, is wounded and lives his rehabilitation in Ladispoli as in a limbo, neither alive nor dead. There she meets a man who finds himself in limbo too, albeit quite a different one. It's clear that the ways of writing this novel and make it a horrible, illegible brick are endless. Indeed, we can say that the plot does not do much to attract your interest when summarized in this way. 

But unlike a novel that I would not consider literature, in "Limbo" the language and the narrative form are not tools used to embellish reality or to make it more pleasant, nicer, or more tolerable. 

Melania Mazzucco loves raw: raw reality, raw characters.

Language is essential, focussed, practical. It becomes a tool that the author uses to sharpen the senses of the reader and encourage you to see reality with eyes open wide, throwing beams of bright light onto corners of life that are in the dark or that we keep ourselves in the dark for fear of looking at what's there.

I believe there is nothing better or more useful that literature can do. To be a slap in the face. Wake up the reader, even if only for an hour or two.

Here's what I mean when I say "vivid" and "brutal": Mazzucco's approach to writing is that of a fighter in a ring: fearless. As a writer, she is not afraid of anything. There is no beautification, no makeup, no eye shadow or blush. There is, however, a constant attention to the poetry of the real things - and to the poetry of language (or you would you watch a documentary or you would read a report instead).

Examples: "The waves continue to graze the sand." The description of a sunrise rising, viewed from the bottom of a canyon in Afghanistan: "There was a smell of cordite and smoke. The sun was drawing a yellow patch on the mountain's highest tooth. The light was walking fast on the rocks, the shadow regressed ".

Clearly, in the hands of a writer of this caliber, any narrative line becomes a corollary to what is the true heart of the novel. Sure, it is very interesting to read of an Italian female soldier in Afghanistan, butit is not the story what's most important. It's the voice. The author's personality. It's this, I think, that Alberto Asor Rosa means when he says that "Melania Mazzucco's books are life itself." It is no daring hyperbole. It's true: these are not regular novels, they are a voice that gets into your bones, and that makes you look at yourself as you really are.

I read Alberto Asor Rosa's review in the newspaper La Repubblica, and his comment that "the political-historical judgment runs behind the compact facade of the book, we can guess." I completely disagree with that. What is the political stance? Pacifism? Feminism? No no no, there's none of that within the core of this novel. Indeed, part of the strength of this book is its total lack of judgment on the part of the novel itself, while various judgments are given by the characters. On this point, therefore, I do not agree with Asor Rosa (aka Novel Levon or Radar Radar). 

I firmly believe in Sturgeon's Law, for which "90% of everything is crap", especially when applied to the world of modern publishing world. Such wonderful and important novels are likely to be mixed, on the shelves of a bookstore, with all the crap that is printed and sold these days. Limbo is in the 1% of that remaining 10%. Trust me.

Limbo, Melania Mazzucco (Italiano) - La letteratura come schiaffo

LimboMelania Mazzucco e' la migliore scrittrice italiana che io conosca. E' un'autrice con le palle, che scrive con la ferocia di Edward Bunker e la profondità cruda di McCarthy. Che sia chiaro: dietro lo stile elegantissimo, l'architettura magistrale, l'orecchio perfetto per ogni voce e l'accuratezza dei particolari, c'e' una bestia feroce che spinge al massimo fin dentro al punto piu' intimo della nostra essenza di esseri umani. La verita' nei suoi romanzi assume contorni vivissimi e una forza brutale.

No bullshit. Niente cazzate. Niente opinioni. Solo vita. Realta'. Umanita' nudissima e crudissima.

Il suo "Vita" e' splendido, ma e' "La lunga attesa dell'angelo" che mi ha lasciato letteralmente a bocca aperta, non credevo che lo si potesse scrivere, un libro cosi' vivo.

A questo punto, non la leggo piu' tanto per gli argomenti che tratta o per le storie che racconta: tanto piu' che non mi interessa leggere di una coppia omosessuale che adotta un bambino (tema del suo ultimo romanzo). Tutto lascia pensare che si sia finalmente lasciata andare alla tentazione di saltare nel dibattito politico, del dire la propria, in un'Italia divisa fra difensori ad oltranza della famiglia (a destra) e relativisti per cui tu il tuo sesso te lo scegli, non ci sei nato (a sinistra). Ma so gia' che il libro lo leggero' lo stesso, perche' ormai ho il bisogno fisico di leggere quella voce cosi' potente e brutale. Non se ne trovano tante nel panorama letterario internazionale. E poi ho l'impressione - e spero - che abbia scelto quel tema perche' era alla ricerca di nuovi orizzonti narrativi da esplorare, e non perche' voleva un argomento politico per il quale schierarsi.

Cerco di spiegarmi: mentre uno scrittore mediamente bravo riesce ad immergere il lettore nei pensieri profondi e nello spirito di un personaggio, e lascia al lettore una certa liberta', o una sensazione di comodita' nell'immaginare un personaggio e farlo proprio, la Mazzucco senza che tu te ne accorga ti da' uno schiaffo, ti dice "sveglia!", ti prende per i capelli e ti trascina dentro al personaggio, e quando ti sembra di toccare il fondo, ti porta a scavare ancora piu' in profondita', a sentire fisicamente il corpo del personaggio, le ascelle, i peli, il sesso, le funzioni biologiche. Fino a quando l'individualita' costruita nel romanzo diventa quasi piu' vibrante e palpabile delle persone che ti stanno accanto, dei tuoi familiari. 

In altre parole, questa non è una lettura di evasione, e neppure un libro di denuncia o di quelli che fanno inorridire per cercare di mandare un messaggio. No, in Limbo il lettore si sente preso in causa, coinvolto nel profondo, proprio come dovrebbe essere quando parliamo di vera e propria Letteratura. 

Ecco, in una parola: profondità. Una qualità di un romanzo che non si può misurare scientificamente. Tanto che qualcuno legge Baricco e si azzarda a dire che è "profondo". Ah! Bella questa. Il vanaglorioso re dei superficiali. Be', lasciamo stare. Ecco, Melania Mazzucco è il contrario di Baricco: è un'autrice profonda. Qualsiasi argomento ci presenti.

Questo e' un romanzo su una donna italiana che si arruola nell'esercito, combatte in Afghanistan come maresciallo, viene ferita e vive la sua riabilitazione a Ladispoli come in un limbo, ne' viva ne' morta. Qui conosce un uomo che e' in una specie di limbo anche lui, se pur molto diverso. E' chiaro che le maniere di scrivere un romanzo cosi' e farlo risultare un orribile, illeggibile mattone sono infinite. Anzi, diciamo pure che la trama non promette bene, quando la leggi riassunta cosi'.

Ma a differenza di un "romanzo qualunque", qui il linguaggio e la forma narrativa diventano strumenti non usati per abbellire la realta' o per renderla piu' piacevole, simpatica, o tollerabile. Sono, al contrario, strumenti che l'autrice usa per acuire i sensi del lettore e stimolarlo a vedere la realta' con occhi piu' aperti, a gettare fasci di luce abbagliante su angoli della vita che sono in ombra o che noi stessi manteniamo nell'ombra per paura di guardare cosa c'e' li'.

Credo non ci sia niente di meglio, o di piu' utile, che la letteratura possa fare. Essere uno schiaffo. Svegliare il lettore, anche se solo per un'ora o due.

Ecco cosa intendo quando dico "feroce" e "brutale": la Mazzucco scrive con i controcoglioni, non ha paura di niente. Non c'e' abbellimento, non c'e' trucco, ombretto o fard. C'e', pero', l'attenzione costante alla poesia delle cose vere - e del linguaggio (altrimenti ti guarderesti un documentario o ti leggeresti un reportage).

Esempi: "la grana scettica della voce". "Le onde continuano a brucare la sabbia". Oppure la descrizione di un'alba nascente, vista dal fondo di una gola in Afghanistan: "C'era odore di cordite e fumo. Il sole disegnava una chiazza gialla sul dente più alto della montagna. La luce camminava veloce sulle rocce, l'ombra regrediva".

E' chiaro che, in mano ad una scrittrice di questo spessore, qualsiasi narrazione diventa un corollario a quello che e' il vero cuore pulsante del romanzo. Certo, e' molto interessante leggere di una donna soldato in Afghanistan, ma non e' la storia la cosa piu' importante. 

E' la voce. La personalita' dell'autrice. E' questo, credo, che Alberto Asor Rosa intende dire quando dice che "i libri di Melania Mazzucco sono la vita stessa". Non e' un'iperbole azzardata. E' vero: non sono storie, non sono romanzetti, e' una voce che ti entra nel midollo, e che ti fa fare i conti con te stesso.

Ho letto la recensione di Asor Rosa su Repubblica, e un commento che lui fa è che "il giudizio storico-politico corre dietro la facciata compatta del libro, possiamo indovinarlo". Non sono affatto d'accordo. Anzi, parte della forza del romanzo è proprio l'assenza totale di giudizio da parte del romanzo stesso, mentre i giudizi vengono dati dai vari personaggi. Su questo punto, quindi, non sono d'accordo con Asor Rosa (detto anche Onip Pino).

Credo fermamente nella legge di Sturgeon, per cui "il 90% di tutto e' merda", soprattutto quando applicata al mondo dell'editoria moderna. E quindi mi dispiace un po' che questi romanzi cosi' meravigliosi e importanti rischino di confondersi, sugli scaffali di una libreria, con tutta la merda che si stampa e si vende di questi tempi.

E scusate per il mio, di linguaggio, ma spero di essere riuscito a comunicare la mia passione per questa scrittrice