Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening, pt.7: Christopher Barzak

The Year in Review
by Christopher Barzak

2012 was a year of rereading and rewatching and relistening for me. I took in some new books, films and music, too, but not to the degree that I usually do. It felt like a year to look backward, to dig into things I’d first experienced as a younger person, to see what I could make of it now. Here are a few things that stuck out for me.

The movie Kwaidan, which originally appeared in Japan in 1964. The title can be interpreted to mean either “ghost story” or sometimes as “strange story” in Japanese. I prefer the latter, only because it’s a more flexible terms, and because this film is actually a collection of short films rather than one whole, and while all of the short films collected in this compilation are ghostly in some way, some have more to do with spirits rather than ghosts. And from my experience of living in Japan and discussing old Japanese folktales with some of my Japanese friends, there is a clear difference in Japan between a ghost and a spirit. One is, of course, the soul of a human living on in non-corporeal form after earthly life has ceased; the other is an entity that might not even be human, and may have never had a corporeal form to begin with. The set pieces for these short films are all expressionist in nature, very obviously artificial, and yet ethereal and fairytale-like. They compliment the tales being told about lovers who abandon their wives and families in order to move up to higher status, or who promise to keep a secret but unwittingly tell it years later, bringing down upon them swift and cosmic punishment. These are what I always wished I would feel when I read European fairy and folk tales. For some reason, the old stories of Japan feel decidedly old and terrifying.

The novel, Island, by Jane Rogers, who this year won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Novel (though with a different novel). Island is a novel told from the point of view of a young woman who has been abandoned by her mother as a child, fostered and adopted and then given back into foster homes for the rest of her life, until she turns 18 and decides to seek out her birth mother in order to kill her for setting her off into a world of loneliness and hard, exploitative people. The voice is electrifying and frightening in the levels of anger and madness it approaches, and Rogers makes use of fairy and folk tales as a way for the narrator to tell and retell her life story, which has been storyless, as her abandonment leaves her as cut off and drifting and alone as an island, without any connection to others. This is a high gothic novel in a more modern setting, and while it includes many of the typical set pieces of a gothic (remote island, lots of fog, incest, murder, etc.) it feels like it’s reinventing the gothic mode by the anger of its narrator, Nikki Black, alone.

We Have Always Lived In the Castle, a short novel or novella, depending on how you define by words or page count, by Shirley Jackson. I loved this book when I first encountered it in my early twenties. The narrator is an angry and somewhat crazed young woman like the narrator of Island, but in a self-contained and remote mansion in a village of old-fashioned Americana yesteryear. Merricat Blackwood, the narrator, is simultaneously charming and magical, like a black cat under moonlight, and repulsive and frightening as you delve deeper and deeper into the mind of a young person who has destroyed nearly her entire family.

One of the new books I read this year was a young adult novel called Imaginary Girls, by Nova Ren Suma. This is a dark supernatural novel also narrated by a young woman, whose mother, hippie-like and drifting, has left her in the care of her older sister. The small upstate New York town that they live in is experiencing weirdness, as a young local girl both sisters witnessed drown at a party of young adults a couple of years back reappears in town, seemingly alive, and no one but the sisters seem to remember she is supposed to be dead. What follows is a novel that unravels a mystery that will make or break the sisters’ deep and exclusive bond.

In music, I continued to go back and back again to listening to the late Amy Winehouse’s album Back to Black. A self-destructive spirit that somehow invites sympathy rather than repulsion propels the lyrics of songs like “Back to Black” and “Tears Dry on Their Own”. The album as a whole is a breakdown from the terrors and loss of control of addiction to drugs, alcohol, and toxic love, but somehow winds its listener up in a voice that feels like it could be your own, only never, not you, and especially not that voice, which actually feels like it should be placed up alongside the voices of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, but littered with broken glass around the base of its trophy.

I also reread Graham Joyce’s novel, The Tooth Fairy, which remains my favorite of anything he has written (though his newest novel, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, which I also read this year, is a close second). The Tooth Fairy came out in the US back in the 90s, and I remember being a young twenty-something, reading about a strange, demonic version of the tooth fairy appearing to a young man on the verge of adolescence, and over a period of years as he comes of age, including possible murders, drugs, pipe bombings, graffiti-tagging, and earthy sex scenes, and thinking, This is so awesome! Going back to it in my late 30s, I was surprised by the amount of swearing and darkly erotic sexual experiences were depicted in this novel, and noticing how I flinched just a little bit at these as an adult, I began to worry that adulthood and everything that goes along with it had begun to assimilate me, and I quickly determined to swear more often and to revisit this book more often in the future, so as not to lose my sense of what’s totally awesome. Earthy sex, lots of swearing, getting into trouble, and learning from losing.

There’s a lot more that I read, watched and listened to this past year, but these were a few of the things that I’m still thinking about as the new year approaches.

Christopher Barzak's writing is concerned with a variety of relationships: love of all kinds, families and their structures, the working class, international and interracial dynamics, life for GLBTQ people, rural solitude and isolation, urban decay, urban revitalization, identity. His first novel, One for Sorrow, won the Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy in 2008. His second book, The Love We Share Without Knowing, is a novel-in-stories set in a magical realist modern Japan, and was a finalist for the Nebula Award for Best Novel and appeared on the James Tiptree Jr. Award's Honor List. Aqueduct Press published his Birds and Birthdays in 2012 in its Conversation Pieces series. His first full-length collection, Before and Afterlives, will be released in March 2013.

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