Review: Wool, by Hugh Howey

Wool1>>Published: March 2013

>>Finally got around to it: July 2014

She was alive.

For however much longer, this was a brutal, beautiful, and brand-new fact for Juliette. She had spent three days climbing long stairs similar to these as she came to grips with her fate. Another day and night had been spent in a cell made for the future corpses who dotted the landscape. And then—this. An impossible trek through the wilderness of the forbidden, breaking into the impenetrable and the unknown. Surviving.

Whatever happened next, for this moment, Juliette flew down foreign steps in bare feet, the steel cool against her tingling skin, the air burning her throat less and less with each gulp of new air, the raw stench and memory of death receding further and further above her. Soon, it was just the patter of her joyous descent ringing out and drifting down a lonely and empty darkness like a muffled bell that rang not for the dead, but for the living.

***

Originally released in separate installments, and later collected as an omnibus and published by Simon and Schuster, Hugh Howey’s Wool is a rare beast: a self-published story that I didn’t completely hate. That may sounds like faint praise, but given that before this I’d sworn off self-published books—too many atrocious experiences and combative authors—it’s an accomplishment worth mentioning.

Most know the story by now, how Howey found success self-publishing through the Kindle Direct program before a publisher snatched up the print book rights for the collected five-part omnibus. The success of this tale, however, isn’t just a case of an author knowing how to sell himself far and wide; there’s genuine narrative merit to Wool.

The novel is a dystopian mystery. Society—or what’s left of it—lives in a silo descending more than one hundred storeys into the earth. Life in the silo, much like its vertical nature, is a hierarchy: the grunts who keep the gears spinning and the lights on live far below, near the bottom, while the lawmakers and authority figures reside at the top (having just watched Snowpiercer, the parallels are obvious). The world outside is a barren wasteland, the air a deadly combination of toxins. When someone breaks the law, they are sent outside to clean the lens that affords those in the silo a slim glimpse of the world up above. But no matter the crime, the cleaning is a death sentence, for no one who goes outside lasts more than a few minutes in the unforgiving environment.

Beyond this basic premise, the story of Wool—very much Juliette’s tale, though she doesn’t take centre stage until the third part—is political in nature. Without giving too much away, it’s clear that whatever happened to the world outside happened not in spite of humans but because of them. In response to this, the people who created the silos that house what remains of humanity have taken that most dystopian of approaches: treating ideas as a contagion needing to be controlled. But ideas are not a virus, and human nature—one divided between questioning authority and falling comfortably into step—cannot be so easily subjugated.

I’m reluctant to say anything more about the story, because above all else Wool’s strength is in its plot. That’s not to say its characters are uninteresting, but apart from Juliette, Solo, and Mayor Jahns, most are lacking in any real development. In particular, the novel’s villain, Bernard, whose actions Howey goes to great lengths to justify, in the end came across as a little too moustache-twirly for my tastes.

Wool doesn’t break new ground for the genre, nor is the writing especially unique—it’s not “bad,” per se, but there’s much that could be cut and tightened, and very little in the way of colour or artistry—but it gets the job done and I got a good enough picture of the world these characters inhabited. Howey’s a clear graduate of the Dan Brown school of ending every bloody chapter with a cliffhanger, which for better or worse adds a certain propulsive feel to the book, even in moments where quiet reflection might have been preferable. Additionally the ending is disappointingly abrupt.

I’ve learned since finishing the book earlier today that there are prequel and sequel chapters in existence, though I can’t say I feel compelled to check out either. My experience with Wool was satisfying but not transformative; I feel like I’ve just finished a decent burger and fries but don’t really have any room left for dessert.

 

Review: How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?, by Doretta Lau

Single_Blade_of_Grass-COVER>>Published: April 2014

>>Finally got around to it: July 2014

As we stepped into the living room, Jenna Kim—a girlfriend of an American named Chad or Chuck or Chandler who specialized in Joseon dynasty history and who directed all his conversation at my breasts whenever I had the bad luck of speaking with him—was sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. Her skirt was hiked up to her waist, and she wasn’t wearing panties. She had a cigarette in one hand, and was blowing smoke out of her vagina. Jenna was famous for this at parties. She called it her “Singapore hooker trick.”

“Oh, fuck, not again,” I said loudly. “I need another drink.” I went into the kitchen. Kenichi followed.

“Is this type of behaviour common at parties in North America?” he asked, amused.

“She’s such a fucking moron,” I said. “Singapore is the least likely Asian setting for this kind of desperate sex work. I mean, if she had said Thai hooker trick, I’d still be annoyed with her, but at least she wouldn’t come across as so utterly stupid. She has no sense of political and socio-economic realities in different Asian countries. You’d think all of Asia was poor and backwards from her estimation of Singapore.”

Kenichi laughed. “She’s got a cigarette in her pussy and you’re thinking about socio-economic factors and its influence on prostitution?”

***

The twelve stories in Doretta Lau’s How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? focus primarily on the experience of being lost and dissociated, be it from one’s culture, family, career, or by love.

In “Two-Part Invention,” the protagonist, tired of seeking—and failing to find—love amongst the living turns to dating dead people, specifically the pianist Glenn Gould. “Days of Being Wild” looks in on a young Canadian screenwriter living and attending school in New York City as she grapples with grief over the death of her grandmother, crippling self-doubt, guilt rooted in familiar career expectations, and a nasty case of writer’s block. The story feels a bit all over the place in the beginning, as life appears to be happening around the protagonist, but finally achieving an emotional release by the story’s end helps reconnect her to the world.

“O, Woe is Me” and “The Boy Next Door” offer twin tales of down-on-their-luck men in unforgiving relationships with women who simply are not right for them. The first is centred on a shootee (professional victim) at a local sideshow and his life of lost opportunities, be they university athletics or competitive eating, and his girlfriend who appears to loathe his very being. The second follows a recently unemployed photographer, whose girlfriend does not approve of his vocation, as he flirts with the idea of entering the porn industry in order to make ends meet.

“God Damn, How Real is This?,” “Rerun,” “Left and Leaving,” and “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?” are the standout stories in this collection. In the first, society is grappling with the sudden reality of Communicative Time Travel as people’s future selves attempt to steer their pasts in new directions by sending text messages back through time, warning of illnesses, avoidable crises, and poor decisions. “Rerun” follows a twenty-four-year-old former actress attempting to get her life back on track after ditching her seventy-year-old meal ticket at the altar, simultaneously working through the revelation that the majority of her life has been some form of pretend with little reality to ground her to any one identity. “Left and Leaving” uses two events far too familiar to anyone from the Lower Mainland, BC—the Reena Virk murder case and the growing number of missing women from the DTES who would later be revealed as Robert Pickton’s victims—to tell the story of two young girls whose mother is among the missing, and their difficulties flitting from one school and one foster care situation to another. And in the collection’s title track, Lau employs an almost A Clockwork Orange style of diction as a group of Chinese youths—dragoons, not droogies—get on with a bit of recklessness (not quite ultraviolence, but the vibe is similar) as they “reclaim” racist and racially stereotyped terms and insults for use as their personalized nomenclature.

I didn’t find there to be any weak stories in this collection, though when stacked against the four tales listed above, a few of the remaining pieces—“Writing in Light” and “Sad Ghosts” in particular—don’t hit with the same force of impact. Lau’s writing is consistently enjoyable, and her tone strikes a fine balance between sarcastic levity and sincerity. If I were to lobby any complaint against the collected work it would be that several of the protagonists feel cut from too similar a cloth, with only their experiences lending independence to their voices.

There are several recurring themes throughout How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?—drinking and alcoholism, adoption/foster homes, and the film and television industry offer strong aesthetic and thematic grounding to much of Lau’s work. Additionally, she is quite enamoured with photography and visual art in general; being as heavily involved as I was with the Vancouver visual art community in the late ’90s and early 2000s helped anchor me emotionally to several of the stories collected within.

Running a scant 120 pages, there’s little to no wasted space in Lau’s work. The stories are universally tight, and any surrealism or abstraction is spread judiciously throughout. This is an easy recommendation—How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? is a fantastic one- or two-sitting read.

Review: Young God, by Katherine Faw Morris

18490626>>Published: May 2014

>>Finally got around to it: July 2014

One of Angel’s fingers is holding the elastic of the bikini bottom away from Nikki’s skin. Nikki clamps her legs shut.

Angel smirks. Angel nods at the bed where Coy Hawkins is sleeping. The covers are on the floor. He’s half-wrapped in the fitted sheet.

“He’s just waiting to see who’s gonna pay the most money for you,” Angel says.

“What?” Nikki says.

“It’s called the high bid. Because you’re a virgin.”

“I ain’t a virgin.”

Angel puts on Nikki’s white sunglasses.

“You act like one,” Angel says.

“I don’t gotta work for him. He’s my daddy,” Nikki says.

Angel turns to look at Nikki.

“That don’t matter.”

***

Nikki Hawkins is a switchblade in the body of a thirteen-year-old girl. In Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God, the teenage protagonist is living in the North Carolina hills with her mama (a barely thirty former teenage mother) and her mama’s junkie boyfriend/fuck puppet Wesley. When her mama slips and falls to her death from atop a cliff near the start of the novel, young Nikki does what few children her age would ever dream of doing and embarks on a mission to maintain her family’s position as top dogs in the local drug trade. In order to accomplish this potentially overwhelming task, she steals Wesley’s car and goes to her father Coy Hawkins, ostensibly to find a buried inheritance she’s owed but also to learn from him the ins and outs of the trade—hopefully without getting killed in the process.

As expected, things do not go smoothly for Nikki. Fuck smoothly—things are never not horrible for her and everyone around her. Beyond simply peddling drugs, Coy is also involved with prostitution and associated turf wars, and he uses his daughter early on to help “send a message” to another pimp in the area. Coy wastes no time incorporating Nikki into his schemes, teaching her the importance of being the first to market with new “product”; though he keeps her awareness at an arm’s length, it isn’t long before she’s learned enough to start acting and making deals on her own.

Told over five parts with short, often less than half-page fractured thoughts masquerading as chapters, Morris carves a pint-sized weapon out of Nikki. Surrounded as she is by deadbeats and unsavouries of all sorts—not to mention a father who vacillates between pimp, rapist, murderer, and paranoid caregiver who tries, too little too late, to push his offspring to get an education (threatening to call the Department of Social Services on her)—Nikki is forced to grow up fast, understanding rather quickly on which side of “kill or be killed” she intends to stand.

The narrative’s unexpected strength is in its inability to linger on anything—life for Nikki appears to be entirely surface gloss and without consequence, nothing ever really impacting beneath her skin. It’s only when heroin is introduced into the story, and into Nikki’s mind, that we as readers start to see some of the more pressing fears and uncertainties she experiences as she and Coy slide further into fogginess and moral emaciation. Late in the tale, when Nikki tells someone she’s actually sixteen and not thirteen, the reader is forced to question whether she is simply lying in order to present a stronger, more experienced self, or if in the haze of drugs and violence in which she’s been living time has glided on by while her perception of reality has slipped quietly away.

Morris’s writing is harsh and broken but not staccato; the short, emotion-deprived chapters are not sharpened but blunt, striking unexpectedly and without concern. The novel itself feels belligerent, as if un-desiring of approval or acceptance. What results from this is a hard, uncomfortable narrative that doesn’t seek to shock but to unsettle by keeping the reader at the same level of detachment as the characters appear to be to one another. To this end, its final page hits like a body mutely thumping the pavement following a ten-storey fall—complete with all of the horror but none of the Hollywood fanfare.

Young God feels numbed, in some ways defeated by the inevitability of Nikki’s increasingly dark path. Morris presents Nikki’s fate without polemics, ethical grandstanding, or melodrama. It’s a novel I appreciate and respect more than I can say I enjoyed. It scalds in the moment, but like the cruelties enacted by its dangerous heroine, the pain does not linger far beyond the page—it’s merely a matter of running some cold water over the wound to see that the flesh has closed over again.