More Books, Less Problems

I’ve been acquiring a lot of books recently. This is unusual for me, and I blame the temporary homelessness. Books are my portable home. I curl up in them much like a hermit crab wriggles into a shell. When I move into my new place next week, hopefully I’ll go back to being an unapologetic library rat.

About a month ago, I picked up William Wallace Cook’s insane/awesome Plotto: The Master Book of All Plots and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I traded Wild for a copy of Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, which a friend got signed for me at the book’s launch party in San Francisco.

I just returned from a trip to Portland. I arrived back to East Coast with six more books than when I had left.

After spending a late night in Powell’s, I emerged with used copies of the following:

  • Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower
  • Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
  • The Boy Detective Fails – Joe Meno

My friend then lent me three more books:

  • Accelerando – Charles Stross
  • Hyperion – Dan Simmons
  • Ringworld – Larry Niven

So if you ask me what I’m reading at any time during the next few months, the answer will almost certainly be science fiction or contemporary fiction. But isn’t it always?

I do feel like I should balance out this list with some ladies, though. Jo Walton’s Among Others has been calling my name, as has Edith Pearlman’s short story collection Binocular Vision. I’ve also never read a whole Kelly Link book, which seems like a terrible gap in my reading history. Any other suggestions?

1Q84 and the End of the World

I started reading 1Q84 late last evening. I’d been putting it off. After Dark, Murakami’s last novel, was a slender thing that seemed to end too soon. I wanted to read 1Q84 slowly, carefully. I wanted to make it last.

I read the first two chapters last night before bed. Halfway through the second chapter, my fingers were eagerly drumming on the edges of the pages. As soon as I finished, I grabbed a notepad and ballpoint pen and began to write. I didn’t have the patience to go upstairs to get my laptop and wait for it to power up. I needed to immediately scrawl words across a page.

I first encountered Haruki Murakami when I was about 16 or 17. It was in the fiction section at the main branch of the Charleston Public Library. The main branch of that library system was a very good one, and I spent a lot of time there during the five years I lived in South Carolina, and afterwards when I would come down from Connecticut to visit my mother. My memories of that library are very vivid. I remember how it smelled: book glue, new shelving, highly conditioned air.

This was before Goodreads and literary social networking. I read novels voraciously, but with very little guidance. I enjoyed my English classes in school, but those classes usually didn’t put post-modern fiction, or foreign novels, or science fiction on the syllabus. I was on my own. I would discover an author I liked, and then methodically work my way through every single book by that author at my library’s particular branch. I read Philip K. Dick that way, and Kurt Vonnegut, and William Gibson. I had no one to talk to about those books. My friends liked books, but not always the same books that I did. I read in a vacuum. I don’t remember how Murakami’s name was first given to me. I think I read a sentence somewhere that compared him to Philip K. Dick. That was enough.

I went to the “M” section of the library. After reading through the jackets of the various Murakami novels, I picked out Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I read through the book in under a week. Afterwards, I was completely blasted. I felt like something had written something especially for me, directly to me.

Soon afterwards, I began writing fiction for the first time after years of writing poetry. My entire brain switched gears.

I then proceeded read every Murakami novel ever written. Later, in college, a writing professor introduced me to Murakami’s short fiction. I read all of those collections, too. I’m caught up now, so I have to wait years between new novels. Sometimes I go back and re-read. Every time I encounter Murakami, though, it always triggers a flurry of productivity in regards to my own projects.

Nowadays I have plenty of friends who are happy to talk about Murakami with me, but sometimes I still think about my teenage self wedged into a gap between the stacks at the CPL, reading her first Murakami novel, and feeling like she and he were the only two people left in the world.

Dead Gods

When I was 19, I wrote a story called “Bookgirl and the Mystery of the Dead Gods” that I later expanded and retitled “The Animal Machine”.  It was about a clerk named Beatrice whose head was occupied by mutated fragments of old archetypes.  There was Mr. Bird (Thoth), Mr. Strobe (Quetzalcoatl), and Mr. Trench (Jörmungandr).  She dislikes this possession, but the gods give her someone to talk to.

The story had a lot of problems with structure and pacing and I eventually dropped it.  The ideas were fun, though, and I might go back to it some day.  When I showed it around to people back in the day, they said, “Have you read American Gods?”

I hadn’t.  I’d simply been reading lots of Jung and The Hero with a Thousand Faces.   Then, last year, I finally read American Gods, and then Anansi Boys, and then “The Monarch of the Glen”.  Obviously, I liked Neil Gaiman’s world.

Some time later a story came up on PodCastle called “The Nalender”.  It was about small gods who feed of belief, and a system of power based around that idea.  I liked that one, too.

A few weeks ago, I finished China Miéville’s Kraken.  I liked it.  I really, really liked it.

Gaiman focuses more on familiar, dusty gods and mythical creatures.  Miéville’s world is more animistic: anything that can be a metaphor can have a bit of god to it.  A lightbulb, a key encased in concrete, or a giant squid preserved in formaldehyde.  I love this kind of stuff.  The thing all of these systems have in common is the power of belief: the more believers a god has, the more powerful or real he becomes.

There’s something about theology/mythology that’s really appealing to areligious writers of weird fiction.  If you look at the tenents of religious belief as implausible as say, magic, it’s easy to construct a world based around them.  Lots of speculative fiction asks, “What if magic was real?”  In the last 20 years or so, more speculative fiction writers have been asking, “What if religion were real?”