The work of Le Guin and other science fiction writers whose work chips away at the presumed links between nature and culture demand that we regard biological facts (like sex) as accidents of history and social facts (like gender, family organization, and capitalism) as open to reconfiguration. Science fiction socializes technology, creating a sandbox in which its role in mediating biology and society can be reimagined as well. In the process the genre creates space to propose alternative social fictions that take the place of the social arrangements that act as social facts in the “real” world. Embedded in worlds that don’t (yet) exist, liberated from tech bros on scooters, and freed from the baggage of biology and predestination, technology can be made to uphold different social orders. Science fiction gives us hope, then, because it shows us how human nature might be remade — but safely, at a speculative distance.
Hempel’s method of transmuting life into fiction is nothing if not exacting. “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story,” she once wrote. Choosing what to let in, and how to deploy it, is even more important. “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” doesn’t gain anything from the knowledge that it is based on Hempel’s secret shame. That knowledge might even detract: It’s when fiction doesn’t quite stand by itself that the reader, distracted, wanders in search of biographical clues. “I live in so many sentences,” Hempel has said. The best of those—riveting in their precision—also take on new lives of their own.
I am not a foodie. I don’t even know the difference between a meuniere and a mirepoix. But from the outside looking in, it’s clear that foodie culture is roiling with a new awareness of social politics, undermining some of that culture’s unspoken tenets: that taste and pleasure are neutral, universal concepts; that the kitchen is an apolitical zone. Being a foodie now, in 2019, requires thinking with more than your tongue.
It feels like two things are happening here. First, Smith is increasingly recognising the narrative possibilities of this new type of storytelling, finding deeper and more compelling ways of getting under the skin of her times. There’s something else, though. While reading Spring, I became suddenly aware of the extraordinary meta-novel – the year – that the quartet will form once it’s complete, and how thrilling and important that book will be. This is writing that acts by accretion, subliminally, weaving you into its webs of stories. Now that we are past the halfway mark it’s possible to perceive the shape of the whole, to recognise quite how dazzling the interplay of ideas and images between the four books will be.
Place, Eudora Welty wrote, is where an author’s quest for truth starts. A novel doesn’t “begin to glow,” Welty claimed, until its setting comes to be “accepted as true.” For authors inclined to rebel against this kind of dictum, withholding the particulars of a place can be a way to pursue a different kind of truth, less about conjuring place than about conjuring patterns in human failure found all over.
Dave Eggers embarks on that alternative quest in his eighth novel, “The Parade.” In an unnamed country, two unnamed employees of a foreign road-building corporation arrive for a 12-day assignment. In time for a planned national parade, they must pave a road extending from the rural south to the urban north of a nation “awake and alive after a civil war its residents assumed would have no end.” To avoid the men being ransomed or killed, the company advises them to withhold their names and nationalities not only from civilians but from each other.
Washington cracks open a vibrant, polyglot side of Houston about which few outsiders are aware. On one level, this landscape is bleak. These stories take place amid dismal laundromats and broken-down pharmacies. There are turf wars and shootouts. Things happen near Dollar Tree stores or in Whataburger parking lots. The men and women here are extended hope only in minuscule, homeopathic amounts. Perversely, their neighborhoods are gentrifying at the same time, pricing many long-timers out.
But there is a fair amount of joy in Washington’s stories, too. (Some have previously appeared in magazines like Tin House and The New Yorker.) An underthrob of emotion beats inside them. He’s confident enough not to force the action. The stories feel loose, their cellular juices free to flow.
It seems likely that Bolaño never intended The Spirit of Science Fiction to be published. It is also likely that parts of this book inspired some of his later work. Although The Spirit of Science Fiction has the feel of a work in progress, there is much to enjoy in it – the dialogue, in particular, is nothing short of brilliant. Further, interspersed with the action, are episodes when someone tells a story. These brief tales are typically mystical or dream-like and are shining gems in a beautiful setting. Bolaño is a superb story-teller, and while this novel has much more to offer than these mini-masterpieces, The Spirit of Science Fiction is worth reading for them alone.
It’s not a question
without the mark: How do we live
with trust in a world that will continue