#tobyreads: Unlikely Journeys and Unexpected Connections


Last week’s column looked at isolation and solitude. This week’s goes in a different direction: finding literature that brings together unexpected elements in deeply effective ways. This can include everything from science fiction incorporating elements of folklore to surreal fiction inspired by the lives of animals to an elusive, digressive take on the detective novel.

Nalo Hopkinson is a writer whose work has come highly recommended, and I got around to reading her novel Midnight Robber last weekend. The plot is the stuff of classical adventure: a young girl named Tan Tan finds herself exiled in a hostile environment, and must find her place in an unfamiliar society. Here, the setting is science fictional: it begins on a planet called Touissant, where Tan Tan’s father Antonio, jealous over being cuckolded, oversteps his boundaries and commits a horrific act. Both end up sent to another world, where humans coexist with other species; over the years, Antonio’s hypocrisy evolves into something monstrous. There’s an episodic quality to the book, as Tan Tan finds her place in a new world.

All of that, I daresay, would be compelling enough, but Hopkinson’s narrative voice is vivid, evoking the speech of Touissant’s residents without ever feeling overly contrived or stylized for the sake of stylization. Interspersed throughout the novel are stories inspired by Tan Tan’s actions, herself inspired by folklore: this, Hopkinson seems to be saying, is how legends are made — something as true now as it will be in the distant future.

The release of Bleeding Edge this week prompted me to take the copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice that had been sitting on my to-read shelf for far too long down, and to devour it. Short version: I dug it, although it does seem to be one of the few Pynchon novels I could hand to someone not well-versed in the more esoteric side of literature without being terrified that they’s begin to look at me askance. Also, reading it in such close proximity to Bleeding Edge revealed at least one small point of connection between the two novels — and has me wondering if these two novels, as well as Against the Day, form a sort of loose trilogy of the twentieth century’s encroachment on pulp and mythic traditions, and the way memory gives way to a digitally recorded (and manipulated) alternative.

I’d picked up Colin Winnette’s Animal Collection from Spork Press’s table in Chicago, and read it in the lead-up to his reading at Book Thug Nation earlier this week. It’s structured around a series of short stories, each focusing on a particular animal. Sometimes it’s an actual animal; others, it’s a bizarre representation of one; and for still others, it’s a reference in the dialogue. (“Giant Panda” is, perhaps, the most poignant example of this.) Sometimes it’s surreal; at others, it’s affecting. It’s an off-beat collection that establishes its own bizarre groundrules and then explores their possibilities; I can’t really argue with that.


In the realm of comics, I picked up the first collection of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s utterly, wonderfully insane East of West. The first few pages outline the premise: the setting is a parallel world, where the Civil War continued on for decades until the asteroid that (in our world) caused the Tunguska Event instead flattened a large chunk of the Southwest, splintering the US into seven distinct nations. Also, it’s the future and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are hanging around doing nasty things. Well, three of them are, and they’re really creepy children. Also, the fourth of them — that would be Death — is arguably the closest thing to a hero in this. Seriously, I have no idea what to make of this, except that it’s impressively over-the-top and totally compelling. It reads like a blend of Alejandro Jodorowsky in space opera mode, and Scott Pilgrim as written by Cormac McCarthy. And than anything-goes spirit reminds me that I need to revisit Trip Fantastic, as word seems to be that the story is nearing its conclusion.

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