Thursday, February 16, 2017

The spiral of us

I don't know how I came to have this book. I've had it for some time, and I know I didn't buy it or steal it. Friends deny giving it to me. Having established that it evidently dropped from nowhere onto my stack, I took it for a sign.

My reading in January had been not exactly depressing, and not heavy, yet it weighed. It felt decidedly male. No, I don't quite know what I mean by this. Coupland, Gaiman, Pynchon, and more, all writing boys' stories. I wanted something... not gentler exactly... More measured?
The lost and found/found and lost is like a section of our DNA. In the spiral of us is the story we can't tell — the story we tell in single lines, separated from one another not by neat spaces but by torn-out years.

Emerson said that the rarest thing on the planet is a truly individual action — but I'd set the bar at a story told. It's why the nineteenth century writers favoured such long and satisfyingly plotted novels. Some of them — like George Eliot — really believed there was something to tell and that we could tell it. Dickens knew very well that we could not, but he told it anyway, glittering and bravura. It's one way of defying chaos — the kind of Chaos, with a capital C, that can't be avoided; the exuberant, unfolding, unpredictable universe, expanding when it should be contracting, made largely of something that is not something but nothing — dark energy, anti-matter. A thing unconfined. What to say when the certainties fail?

Words are the part of silence that can be spoken.
I think I found... that something in The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson, though it didn't entirely work for me.

It's too compressed a book to satisfactorily be all the things it thought about being. It's a sci-fi parable that blends philosophy, anthropology and humour, but it's suddenly a travelogue from the 1700s, deciphering the warring cultures of Easter Island, and then an urban thriller, on the run through society's fringes. Futuristic yet ancient. Space pirates. A resistance movement. A cautionary environmentalist tale. And a love story. Stories within stories. In about 200 pages.

I don't mind that the connections are somewhat opaque, and I generally love Winterson's rhythm, her way with words (sparse but pregnant). But here the change in tone from one narrative to the next, as well as from character to character, felt like a self-indulgent exercise. It's all too deliberate, built for show. Winterson's poetry did not flow naturally out of it; or the characters did not fit comfortably under the umbrella of her poetry. This book demands a lot of the reader, and I'm not sure it's rewarded.

But as one character reminds us: "Stories are always true. It's the facts that mislead."

While I didn't love The Stone Gods as a novel, it provides an endless source of food for thought and conversation. Among its topics for consideration: We have destroyed our planet, depleted its resources, and therefore must colonize a new one (first priority: build a mall). A future with predictably customized advertising and customer service. Genetic manipulation. No one ages anymore. No one gets pregnant anymore (that's what test tubes are for). What is natural? The kernel of our consciousness and "humanity." Machine learning and the inevitability of a singularity. Robo sapiens. Cultural bias, but also species bias. The eery feeling that our future may be a past that we've already experienced — this may not be the first planet we have inhabited and destroyed. The paradox that technology makes us stupid. "Love is an experiment." Is that enough?
Everything is imprinted for ever with what it once was.

Is that true?
Ursula K Le Guin in the Guardian.

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