Friday, June 2, 2017

Love in the time of apocalypse

Jeff VanderMeer and Mohsin Hamid wrote some of my favorite books of the last few years. Both have new novels out, which I purchased for my flights to and from New York City last weekend. Strangely enough, different as they are, both books take place in a dystopian future and feature love stories of couples on the run. Though neither is up to its author's previous standard, both are good reads.

The title character of VanderMeer's Borne is an odd bit of genetically engineered something-or-other discovered by the book's resourceful scavenger-protagonist Rachel in the nightmarish Mad Max landscape she inhabits. She decides she'll keep him. I was immediately reminded of one of my very favorite Dr. Seuss poems:

Needless to say Borne doesn't remain merely a curious little lump for long, and soon he is a large, very smart, and voracious shape-shifter. Borne aside, Rachel has plenty of problems on her hands, struggling to stay clear of the terrifying giant flying bear that rules much of her territory as well as the Magician, a powerful warlord who has recruited an army of ultra-violent bio-damaged orphans to compete with the bear and the Company, which apparently was responsible for the mess everyone is in.

I wasn't really convinced by the bear or the Magician, and if you read much sci-fi you've probably already encountered someone like Borne. The book is not as downright weird and compelling as VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy. Still, Rachel and her drug-dealing partner Wick are a couple worth getting to know. And VanderMeer's powers of description remain acute.

Mohsin Hamid's Exit West takes place in a much nearer future that closely resembles our own time. There is no flying terror-bear, but the religious extremists who take over Nadia and Saeed's home town (perhaps Aleppo) are just as scary. As chaos, violence, and intolerance descend on their city, rumors spread that there are doors hidden in the city that can take you far away to a safe somewhere-else. These portals, like the wardrobe that opens into Narnia, are an odd contrivance. In an otherwise realistic work of fiction, they serve one main function in the narrative: to permit the plot to follow its refugees directly from origin to destination, skipping the journey itself– no harrowing boat ride across the Mediterranean, no airless shipping container, no trek across the desert and treacherous midnight crossing of the Rio Grande, no underground railroad... such an odd choice for a novel about forced migration!

Hamid's previous novels were concise, tightly focused, compressed. His prose has been referred to as "lapidary," which describes both its beauty and its cold, sharp, even cruel precision. These virtues are present in Exit West too, but for once I found myself wishing for a more expansive, epic approach. A refugee story that crosses multiple continents– from an unnamed city in the Middle East or Central Asia, to Greece, to London, and to the future favelas of Marin County (!)– and that posits a humanistic, even optimistic vision of the refugee community as full of progressive possibility– really deserves a longer treatment... to take its time. Instead, Hamid rushes toward the ending. Did he have trouble juggling the diverse settings, or the seemingly gratuitous element of magic realism? Need the paycheck? Just lose interest? Mohsin, take this one back and work on it a couple more years. It could be a masterpiece.

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