Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Nostalgia For the Future: Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

I'm willing to bet James Sallis would appreciate Lavie Tidhar's novels. That is, given, Sallis's fondness for writers who cross genres, influenced by those  sci-fi writers of the past, who, like their hardboiled counterparts, published their work in cheap paperback editions and magazines. Not to mention a fondness for writers who, in saying something different, are laws unto themselves. No doubt about it, Tidhar delights in pushing the envelope labelled contemporary science fiction to the hilt. Almost two years after reading it, I still find myself raving to people about his remarkable His A Man Lies Dreaming (my review of which you can read here). And most recently Central Station, a novel that's appeared in bits and pieces in various magazines over the last few years. Likewise, it's a bit of a  jigsaw puzzle of book that reads like a prose poem based perhaps on some barely recognisable or remembered mythology. Perhaps something along the lines of  a 21st century version of Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human crossed with Tanith Lee poetic-realism. Based on the four Tidhar novels I've read over the past couple years, his work seems to get better and better. And even though I've come to expect a certain range and unexpectedness, Central Station was still full of surprises. But, then, that's been the case since his 2011 novel Osama (I've yet to read his daunting but no doubt readable steampunk trilogy The Bookman Histories), the title alone demonstrating the author's willingness  to go places  few others would dare. One gets the feeling that Tidhar, who grew up on a socialist kibbutz in Israel, followed by long spells in South Africa and elsewhere before ending up in London where he now resides, couldn't be dull if he tried.

Actually, Tidhar's London connection is relevant when it comes to Central Station. Because in many ways, the novel is radical enough to be a kind of throwback to those sci-fi outlaws editing and  edited and contributing to the London-based New Worlds back in the 1960s. That is, writing with one foot in the future and another in the present. In Tidhar's case, he accomplishes this through a  narrative that revolves around a small set of people living in a future city situated between Tel Aviv and Jaffa where virtual reality pretty much the reality.

"[That] vast space port which rises over the twin cityscapes of Arab Jaffa, Jewish Tel Aviv. It happened amidst the arches and the cobblestones, a stone-throw from the sea; you could still smell the salt and the tar in the air, and watch, at sunrise, the swoop and turn of solar kites and their winged surfers in the air."

Just as contemporary populations have gravitated  towards urban centres, or, more recently, European safe harbours, so those in Tidhar's novel have gravitated towards Central Station, living in its shadow, presumably for purposes of protection, communication, access and survival. It's also where all travel emanates from. At the same time, the surrounding bazaar-like streets remain old-world in appearance and atmosphere. Though a country unevenly divided between those with the data and those without, it is, nevertheless, a multinational, cross-cultural society-  Chinese, Israelis, Africans, Vietnamese, Somalians, Thais, Arabs, and other aliens jostle side-by-side. It's a world in which children are made as much as born, products of cowboy genetic engineering. Where distant wars, to whatever degree forgotten,  constitute part of everyone's DNA. Where ex-soldiers dispense mind altering drugs and children communicate with the touch of a finger. And where the population is, for the most part, linked by node implants and the super-internet-like Conversation. Into this diverse, inter-related and claustrophobic mix, Tidhar throws a data-vampire infected by the Nosferatu Code who sucks memory from her victims instead of blood; an African book dealer who loves the vampire almost as much as does pulp paperback fiction; the owner of a Shebeen, whose adopted son- his actual mother having succumbed to an ailment, perhaps culturally-induced, called Crucifixation- exudes strange powers;  a god artist who, in between creating deities out of thin air, performs cicumcisions; a robot priest; a rag and bone man called The Lord of Discarded Things; and  a doctor who oversees births and has daddy problems, who returns to Central Station from Mars, pursued by the vampire, discovers his father has a dementia-like mind plague.

As with A Man Lies Dreaming, Tidhar has created a poetic, dream-like, even nostalgic, world that, however foreign, is all too imaginable. Which might well be the hallmark of any good science fiction story. Beneath it all Central Station yearns for a place that once was, or maybe never was save for someplace deep within the author imagination... And like a disturbing and complicated dream, it's a novel that, like A Man Lies Dreaming, will haunt any appreciative reader long after he or she has turned its final page.  

"Once it had all been orange groves... he remembered thinking that, as he went out of the doors of Central Station, on his arrival, back on Earth, the gravity confusing and uncomfortable, into the hot and humid air outside. Standing under the eaves, he breathed in deeply, gravity pulled him down but he didn't care. It smelled just like he remembered, and the oranges, vanished or not, were still there, the famed Jaffa oranges that grew here when all this, not Tel Aviv, not Central Station, existed, when it was all orange groves, and sand, and sea..."

Monday, June 20, 2016

Where the Past Is Buried: Willnot by James Sallis

It doesn't take much to make me want to devour any James Sallis novel that might come my way.  And Willnot, his latest, certainly does not make me want to alter that opinion. So what that, even for a Sallis novel, it's farther away than ever from what one normally thinks of as crime fiction. That's okay with me. After all, we live in a criminal culture, so anything that exposes that fact or digs into the culture, constitutes, as far as I'm concerned, crime fiction. On the other hand, Sallis has always used crime fiction, as any writer of his calibre might, to talk about other things- finding one's place in the world, how we seek some kind of community despite feelings of estrangement, finding solace in literature, music and relationships, no matter how transitory those things might be.

And Willnot is yet another Sallis title that, like Drive/Driven, suggests a grammatical pun, if not parsing. Here it's not just present and past that matter, but a contraction that goes right to the  heart of domesticity. But let's not be too hasty or silly in calling the book and town it's named after Won't, even if that contraction expresses the condensed small-town reality, the obstreperousness and marginality of those living in what appears to be such a convivial atmosphere.  It's in this town in some unnamed state that  Dr Lamar Hale and his partner Richard, a schoolteacher, reside. The book, sprinkled, as often the case, with references to Sallis's favourite  sci-fi writers and hardboiled writers, opens with Lamar called out to deliver his verdict on a grave uncovered on the outskirts of town containing several bodies. At any rate, that's simply the hook on which Sallis hangs his novel, and not the commencement of some tough-guy crime narrative. But, all the same, prescient, not only about what's to come, but the fact that this is a novel about what lies just beneath the surface- whether a grave or history itself- and how everything impinges on everything else. As for Lamar, what better investigator than a doctor; that is if  one's intention is to investigate the human condition and that thin ice that separates  past and present, life and death, sickness and health, fact and fiction. With a license to speculate as well as to cure,  a doctor here is the ideal substitute for the perceptive private eye now so familiar to readers that, exceptional circumstances aside, one  winces whenever they appear on the scene.

And a word must be said about the way Sallis  treats Lamar and Richard's relationship. Which he does this with  a  matter-of-factness befitting the era we live in, and  a casual humanity that reminded me of the way the late Kent Haruf treats his characters in novels like Plainsong and Eventide.  At other times, Willnot's wit comes across as  a stripped-down, albeit more meditative, version of one of Andrew Coburn suburban noir novels like Voices in the Dark or No Way Home. And like Haruf's Holt, Colorado, or Coburn's Bensington, Massachusetts, Sallis's Willnot is not quite the idyllic place it appears to be. Yes, it's a place that attracts odd but decent people in search of tranquility, community and small town life. But, like any place else, it too is  affected by outside events and circumstances, be it war, austerity, malaise, or the whims and crimes of others. Still, anyone who stops off in Willnot, whether house hunter or female FBI agent, can't help but be affected by the town's somewhat dated ethos.

Willnot is, in fact, an extraordinary book, not just about place, but the interaction between past, present and future. So one moves lightly over a terrain that includes those graves, pulp sci-fi books published by Lamar's father (in a twist on the usual parent-child relationship, Lamar's dad is disappointed when his son announces that he wants to be a doctor rather than a writer), and the past,  including a study of early American utopian communities by Richard's  twelve year-old student. At the centre of it all, smack in the present- though he does have penchant for meandering  through his past- is Lamar, dispensing information, making diagnoses, performing minor operations and writing prescriptions, while Richard performs teacherly tasks, while joking in the face of a world rapidly melting around him. Meanwhile, a veteran of the Iraq or Afghan war, whom Lamar once took under his wing some years before, returns, bringing the war with him.  As customary in a Sallis novel, there are various casualties and any number  of aphorisms pointing the way, perhaps the most fitting being one not included, Gramsci's The point of modernity is to live a life without illusions without becoming disillusioned.  This might be one of the saddest of Sallis's novels. But, in its recognition of the fragility of everyday life, it also just might be one of his most humane. And maybe one of his best. As the narrator says, "Going on is what it's all about."

(a version of this review can be found at the Crime Time website)