So: The Book of Strange New Things. I’d been curious about Michael Faber’s new novel for a while, and cracked into it earlier this week. The setup is simple and almost archetypal: in the near future, a man named Peter is set on a mission to minister to a group of aliens on a distant planet, while his beloved wife Beatrice stays behind on an Earth in which existing economic and environmental tensions are ratcheting up even higher. The terrain over which Faber is traversing here is thematically rich: you have questions of faith, of the future of humanity, and of the pressures that exist on a marriage all woven together.
It’s more of a character study than anything–in other hands, this novel could veer in very different directions. The Oasans, the aliens to whom Peter ministers, are very welcoming of him; are there ulterior motives there? Is the American corporation that runs the colony, charging exorbitant prices for certain food and drink, up to something? In a different novel, these might be at the forefront of the book. In Faber’s novel, while not ignored, these questions are left to hover, as Peter and Beatrice correspond about their own rapidly changing lives across two worlds. There’s a lot to ponder here, from a philosophical point of view. But there’s also a wrinkle in the narrative that doesn’t become apparent until a fair amount of time has passed: specifically, how the reader is supposed to react to Peter’s faith. Initially, his life seems idyllic; his love, almost idealized. But we’re also given glimpses of the man he was before dedicating himself to his faith: addicted to various substances, prone to violence, unpredictable. And slowly, the dedicated man of God we meet is seen as more of a human, more flawed, his own obsessions presented less as those of a saint and more of a fragile soul, someone who’ll be subjected to tests that no one should have to witness.
For all that there is a lot to discuss here, though, some smaller details didn’t entirely work for me. Some of the dialogue from his American characters suffers (in my mind) from overusing catchphrases or verbal tics; while I understand that certain characters would speak more formally while others would speak more casually, it still had the effect of making certain supporting characters feel reduced. And given the humanism on display in this book, that makes for an oddly distracting effect. Still, I’d recommend this based on Faber’s philosophical scope and the wrenching experiences he puts his characters through.
From space travel, we move to a more familiar, though no less resonant, setting: let’s talk about Alice Bag’s memoir Violence Girl. The author was the singer for the LA-based punk band The Bags, who were active in the late 1970s; she’s also played in a number of other bands since then. Though unlike a lot of musicians’ memoirs, we don’t get to the formation of the band for which the author is known until about halfway through. In this particular case, that’s not a bad thing–not because the history of The Bags isn’t interesting (it is), but because Bag’s life is worth reading about regardless of its ties to musical history.
She writes affectingly about growing up in a Mexican-American family in the 1960s and 70s; her father in particular emerges as a gripping, contradictory figure: supportive on one hand, and abusive towards Bag’s mother on the other. The memoir traces the evolution of Bag’s political consciousness and her own musical aesthetics over time, and blends that with the window it provides into the LA punk scene of the time. Highly recommended.