Entering the Dark Republic: a review of D.L. Young’s Soledad

So, when I received my copy of D.L. Young’s debut novel, Soledad, it was right around the time the U.K. took leave of the European Union.

After that vote, there were some half-serious memes on social media calling for Texas’ exit from the U.S. As ridiculous as that sounds, as yahoo-ish as that sounds, there are not a few here in the state who wouldn’t relish the chance to revive in their minds the glory days of the Republic of Texas. There is/was, for instance, the notorious Republic of Texas movement in the 1990s, led by the now imprisoned Richard Lance McLaren, which claimed, among other grievances, the U.S. illegally annexed Texas in 1845.

Historically, Texas, as early as September 1836, just a few months after becoming a republic, sought annexation, but the Van Buren Administration wasn’t keen on it, fearing, in part, war with Mexico.  The U.S.’s westward expansion, and fears of British expansion and economic growth, prompted President John Tyler to promote Texas annexation in 1844, although that push, with much U.S. prompting, didn’t pass until 1845.

In the 90s, Secession appealed to a certain element rife with conspiracy and government hatred, in particular after the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco.

“The idea of nationhood appealed to many Texans,” Joe Nick Patoski wrote for Texas Monthly, while covering the McLaren standoff,  “and a movement was born.”

Most in the area of McLaren’s property at Davis Mountain Resort, Patoski reports, didn’t like McLaren much. Some offered to shoot him themselves if the DPS didn’t, others planned margarita parties if and when he was pronounced dead.

McLaren’s supporters, however, echoed his rhetoric, including a street preacher, W.N. Otwell, as Patoski reports, who said, “‘He’s the one who’s done the research,’ [Otwell] said. ‘We’re here because we’re interested in this, because we believe the New World Order has trampled our constitutional rights. It’s the Antichrist and the mark of the beast.’”

McLaren was and is still imprisoned in Amarillo, after a 1997 standoff with the Texas Department of Public Safety. In that standoff, two hostages were taken on McLaren’s property at the Davis Mountains Resort.

This strand of apocalyptic thinking is all too common among the ahistorical Secessionist types — with its nascent Tea-Party rhetoric too chillingly trumpeted in the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his followers, and its a strand of thinking Young carries forward in speculative excellence with his Soledad.

Young’s is a dystopian vision, a hellish republic divided against itself; it’s a what if of what Texas could be if these Secessionists succeeded, and an extended metaphor of what I fear the U.S. could become should the trumpeters take the stage this November.

Ostensibly, the novel tells the story of a “reader” Soledad Paz, a slave, whose drug-enhanced psychic abilities allow her to inform the brigand-businessman Flaco Guzman whether those who would do business with him are lying to him. Liars, of course, get shot in the head and their bodies dumped in the West Texas desert, a “meal for coyotes and vultures, like all the others who try to pull one over on the great and powerful Guzman.”

But the novel takes us beyond the already balkanizing republic, beyond a Mad-Max-esque adventure — spoiler alert: Soledad escapes into a wilderness of hate — and like Soledad herself, stares at our collective souls, sees things we can’t even see ourselves because we’re too blind or too wrapped up in rhetoric to see.

For me, the most chilling section of the novel is the set piece in Waco, when Soledad and those who have helped her escape Guzman, get captured by Christian fundamentalists who make current Islamic terrorists look like black-pajamaed Boy Scouts, “the thousands of well-armed zealots who don’t like strangers” and “have a special hate for outsiders, anyone who’s not a baptized, Bible-carrying, true believing Fundie.”

These are the kind of people who weave the divine into every detail of history, much like the McLaren bunch, much like the conservative evangelicals blowing their shofars for Trump or Cruz and lamenting the loss of God in their fantasy Christian nation. The uber-patriots wrapped in flags, an AR-15 in one hand and a Bible in the other. They spew the wrath of God, rather than the Sermon on the Mount. They shout down opposition and claim persecution at the slightest slight.

In the novel, this group commits one of the most chilling atrocities, one we’ve seen or heard about, the kind of thing we associate with Islamic terrorists: a woman buried up to her neck and stoned to death for being a heathen (a Catholic in this case). Young depicts this stoning with ferocious detail, as if it’s something he actually witnessed.

One fortunate thing about Young’s dystopic vision, is that as Margaret Atwood has noted, “[W]ithin each dystopia [is] a hidden utopia, if only in the form of the world as it existed before the bad guys took over.”

Of course, as Atwood says, in each utopia there is a concealed dystopia, and perhaps Soledad will, instead, reach for some sensible middle ground, and not try to make things perfect, only better.

— Todd

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Review of China Mieville’s Embassytown

EmbassytownEmbassytown by China Miéville

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

China Mieville’s Embassytown is as much an exercise in semantics as it is a science fiction novel about an alien culture on the brink of apocalypse as it comes to clash with human colonists.

The alien culture—the Ariekei—has a language that would be a fundamentalist’s/literalist’s wet dream or worst nightmare; it has almost no figurative language, and what little figurative language it does have, in simile, is taken as literal truth.

Everything is true or passes as fact. They cannot make subtle distinctions and have no room for gray areas of ambiguity.

The language, known as Language to human colonists, is so obscure, only altered humans, known as Ambassadors can fully understand it. Which leads to intrigue and near apocalypse for both Ariekei and humans when an Ambassador introduces lies into Language.

The Ariekei become addicted to the lies and crisis erupts. In the middle of this crisis is Avice Benner Cho, who has just returned to her home planet after years in the immer, a sort liquidy wormhole that allows for interstellar travel (Mieville is ever inventive with language). Avice is an unwilling participant in the intrigue, partly because her husband Scile, a linguist, is a co-conspirator and partly because she is a simile in the Ariekei Language.

Though Embassytown is as imaginative and inventive as Mieville’s Hugo-winning The City & The City, I preferred The City & The City and its intriguing look at how we see and choose to “unsee” (another of Mieville’s coinages)others set against the backdrop of a noir murder mystery.

Embassytown is, however, an intriguing look at how language can be abused, especially when varying shades of meaning are stripped from it and only literalism survives.
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Book Review: Pass With Care Through Pinebox

Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas
Edited by Matt M. McElroy
12 to Midnight, 2009

Big fish lurk beneath the waters of Lake Greystone in Pinebox, Texas. Really big fish. But I will warn against a fishing trip, if you value your life. In fact, I will warn you to pass carefully through the little East Texas town.

Sure, it seems a friendly enough place with mom and pop shops and a state college.  You might stop for pie at Mom’s Diner or admire the architecture of the Golan County courthouse. Still, I recommend you pass on through, because Mayberry this town is not.

Strange things happen in Pinebox. And some of its strangest lore is collected in Buried Tales of Pinebox, Texas. Besides an unusual amount of deaths by alligator attack — though alligators are rarely seen — in Pinebox people disappear mysteriously, rumors fly of a creature known as the Piney Devil lurking in the  woods around town, old ladies get accused of witchcraft, and criminals . . . well, let’s just say justice gets served.

The thirteen stories in the collection range from transcripts left by a travel writer who mysteriously disappeared to Preston DuBose’s “The One That Got Away,” a campy story that’s sort of a cross between Call of Cthulhu and a Jeff Foxworthy routine, to Ed Wetterman’s “The Witch of Linda Lane,” a tale of young boys who suspect their friend’s death may have been caused by a witch. The stories are capped off by a series of Headlines, newspaper clippings recounting the strange happenings in the town and surrounding county.

This collection is a fun read, some good horror stories for this time of year. But beware . . . if you stay too long in Pinebox . . . well, as one local says, “‘Gators do funny things, sometimes’.”

Book Review: Making a Literary Life

Every time I vow not read another writing advice book, I find one that really seems to tackle issues I’m having trouble with.

Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life (Random House, 2002) is the most recent advice book that I’ve checked out. Along with chapters on craft, See adds a new dimension: How to make a life as a writer, which delves into relationships, publication, networking and promotion.

To the chapters on craft — plot, characters, revision and scene — See includes an interesting section on geography, time and space, which expands upon more than just setting.

In this section, she emphasizes specifics over generalizations.  She says, for instance, if a writer generalizes too much when trying to be “‘universal” the writer runs “the risk of boring . . .  readers to death. Because the ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in ‘the city’ may be easy enough to write about, but who can stand to read about them?”

The specifics matter. A character’s geography matters, how that character gets around matters, how time influences characters matters. Such things matter so much See suggests using such tools as drawing maps of the town a character lives in, of the place where a character lives. It’s a reminder we should know our characters inside-out as we work out their lives and stories on the page.

Also, as with other writing books, See stresses the importance of commitment to the craft. She has her version of Richard Rhodes’ Knickerbocker Rule — you write by applying your ass to your chair. See’s version of the rule is “a thousand words a day — or two hours of revision — five days a week for the rest of your life.”

There’s no other way around it, kids: to write, you have to commit to writing, you have to take time out and write and write and write, and then write some more.

My favorite sections in this book are about the writer’s life itself, the people around you, and the best people to be around (those who genuinely support your work); your life and outlook (how do you see yourself as a writer? how do you want others to see you?); how do you build a network of writers, editors, etc. (See suggests one charming note a day to a writer, editor, agent, etc.); and how do you manage publishing and promoting your work?

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Book Review: In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction

In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction
Edited by Lee Gutkind
W. W. Norton, 2005
440 pages, $15.95

In my newspaper days, recorded in my reporter’s notebooks was every story’s genesis. Almost daily I set out from the newsroom, notebook in hand, ready to write stories of cross-pulling preacher-bikers, social club ladies, native plant gardeners, and an ex Hanoi Hilton POW, all people and experiences I thought I might one day weave into my grapplings with fiction.

A stack of weathered, worn notebooks, an image that evokes stories ready to be told. It’s the image on the cover of In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, a selection of 25 essays from the first 10 years of the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction founded by Lee Gutkind, the “Godfather behind creative nonfiction.”

Each piece in the collection is representative of the genre, a sort of nebulously-monikered genre that encompasses almost every form of nonfiction: personal essay, traditional reflective essays, and New Journalism or literary journalism, reportage that largely relies on narrative to get its information and ideas across.

These pieces, each in their own way, seem to capture the spirit of the journal Gutkind founded, which he reports in his introduction to the collection is a mix of “good old-fashioned reporting — facts, plus story and reflection or contemplation.” Like journalists — and some as Mark Bowden are journalists — practitioners of creative nonfiction take out their notebooks and collect interviews and gather other documentation and report their stories, but they immerse themselves in the worlds of meth addicts who stumble upon a cache of money, as Bowden does, or report and reflect upon their experience of becoming a father, as Phillip Lopate does.

These essays are not works of confessional “navel gazers,” as Gutkind reports James Wolcott infamously quipped in Vanity Fair magazine. They are explorations into the world, engaging the reader, as writers always have, seeking out, as Gutkind himself has sought as a writer,  “other lifestyles, other professions, and the patchwork of prejudices and kindness that make some people different from others.” The pieces take us deeper into the world to discover the play of language, as Diane Ackerman does, or provide insight into the workings of  the brain and mind and whether there is a separation between the concept of the “mind” and the physical brain, as Floyd Skloot does.