Alif and ereaders: A paired adventure for the 21st century

Alif the Unseen
Alif the Unseen, the debut novel from G. Willow Wilson, scores big for me on world-building but not so much on pacing, plotting, characterization and the mechanics of writing.

I’m going to be reviewing two experiences here today. One is the debut novel of journalist/essayist/graphic novelist G. Willow Wilson, and the other is reading my first novel on an ereader — in this case, a Kobo Glo. Both have their ups and downs, but I’m finding one more fulfilling than the other.

(If you’re not interested in my thoughts on ereaders, feel free to skip down to the book review.)

The backstory on this is that I’ve missed reading fiction for pleasure. I read constantly, not just for class and as a news junkie but also killing time by screwing around on the internet. This means that I spend most of my commutes hoping something interesting has happened on Twitter, when that time is really a prime opportunity to expose myself to all those books I always lament never having the time to read. I also have always meant to see what the experience of using an ereader is like; it’s something I have to understand, even if dedicated ereaders seem to be getting folded into tablets and iPads and cell phones.

That was why I went for the Kobo Glo, actually. I want to give myself as few opportunities for distraction as possible — this is why I don’t have wi-fi in my apartment, so I can at least unplug completely in some parts of my one-bedroom to get work done. The Glo is like the Kindle Paperwhite, but I chose Kobo because I have very strong feelings about hating Amazon’s horrible predatory business model and liking the fact that Kobo purchases can support independent bookstores.

My verdict on the Kobo so far, several years later than just about everyone else:

  • I super like the ability to download previews before I commit to buying. I super don’t like publishers who haven’t figured out that “first 50 pages” should never include the front of book matter or stop at the dedication, which tells me nothing about the book itself.
  • I like the feel of the device. The shell is a nice tactile experience, and the screen doesn’t give you that weird slippy feeling (or smudge!).
  • I was worried the flashing while the eInk resets every few pages would bother me, but that’s not been the case. However, while touching or swiping the screen to flip pages works fine most of the time, I’ve experienced some lag or failure to respond at times, as well as the device skipping pages. Not nearly a deal-breaker, but certainly an annoyance in the moment.
  • The Kobo looks like it will only accept documents from the Kobo store. Don’t be fooled. You can load all the DRM-free Project Gutenberg/MIT Shakespeare/.epub documents of your choice. Calibre is your friend. Calibre is super your friend.
  • About supporting local bookstores: I cannot seem to find a place where I can set or reset which bookstore my purchases go through. My account defaulted to the brick-and-mortar shop where I bought the device. Not that I’m complaining, I had just hoped to be able to spread the indie-supporting love.
  • I’m reading more fiction and more open to trying new books. Halle-freaking-lujah!
Kobo Glo box
Happy birthday to me!

Okay, so, about New Book #1. This review contains spoilers!

Alif the Unseen came very highly recommended by another blogger I follow. She praised the book for being “a Middle Eastern urban fantasy rather than an urban fantasy story that happens to be set in the Middle East.” Now that I’ve read the book, I agree that this is my favorite part about it. Default assumptions about a world are, in so much fantasy fiction, Christian, Western and white. Alif the Unseen accomplishes with Islam what I would still love to see in a fantasy rooted in Judaism: it’s not a diaspora, it’s how the world works, and it’s wondrous. (If anyone has any recommendations of books featuring non-Western/non-Christian fantasy worlds, I would love to hear them!)

The plot is a little cyberpunk and a little Neverwhere. Alif is the handle of a young hacker in an unnamed contemporary Gulf emirate. When his well-born lover enters into an arranged marriage, Alif, in his grief, writes a computer program that renders her unable to contact him, find him or prove that he exists. The code does this by discovering patterns in the way individual users interact with technology and networks, which, of course, means the State becomes very interested in acquiring this code.

This would make for a rather straightforward political thriller if it wasn’t for the jinn, and the dangerous holy book which is dropped into Alif’s keeping.

Some books you enjoy more for their individual parts than the whole; some books are more than the sum of their parts, some less. My favorite thing about China Mieville’s The City and the City, for instance, was the physical overlap between the two titular cities, and the meshing (and resistance to meshing) those cities experienced; the rest of the story didn’t move me so much. Alif the Unseen pulls a similar trick with the Seen and the Unseen worlds, that of the jinn, which I always enjoy, as a trope. That’s where the Neverwhere comparisons come in, with Alif, his sensible friend Dina and the troubling Vikram the Vampire passing between two occasionally symbiotic realms.

I really liked a few other aspects of this book. The secondary characters were often very engaging. The jinn, in all their variety and un-humanness and modes of being, are great. Sheikh Bilal, the old cleric who gives our anti-heroes refuge in a mosque, is my favorite kind of religious figure: determinedly human, determinedly kind and committed to a kind of spiritual engagement with the world that promotes love, curiosity and wonder. Dina, who lives in Alif’s apartment complex and who decided to take the veil at 13, reveals herself more and more as a confident, grounded and surprising heroine in her own right. The only insinuation that Dina’s veil oppresses her comes from Alif’s own assumptions, which fall away throughout the story as he comes to understand and respect her more and more.

When Wilson settles into a mode of classical storytelling — when she gives herself over to fairy tale and myth — she’s at her best. The holy book of the jinn, by the jinn, is called The Thousand and One Days, and every so often Wilson treats the reader to excerpts. They’re a lovely counterpoint and a relief to the boorish, insecure and arrogant protagonist, which is probably the point, but they come too infrequently.

And now my problems with the book. I didn’t like Alif. That’s intentional, on the author’s part, before his character development kicks in, and there’s a lot to be said for getting inside the head of a protagonist who exemplifies some unpleasant qualities in young men so those can qualities can later be knocked down. But shoehorn in a love story — Alif realizing, just before he’s carted off to a secret state-run prison, that Dina loves him and that he loves her back — and I’m just annoyed, even if I’m rooting for Dina. Also shoehorn in a love triangle, with an actual madonna-whore set-up, and I’m even more irritated. I liked Intisar, the high-born lover with a high-calibre intellect who breaks Alif’s heart in the beginning, but we don’t get inside her head much, which makes her a cypher in the end — especially when she betrays Alif and loses everything, which reveals her true nature as a spoiled, fussy noble.

Also, while I understand that three months in solitary confinement will change a guy, I found that Alif changed both too much and not enough. His insights — and his newfound appreciation for a beard — were just too convenient and not messy, to me, much like his transcendent, netbook-melting coding sessions.

The convert. Ah, the convert. So let’s back up: G. Willow Wilson is a white American woman who went to Egypt, converted to Islam and fell in love. She wrote a book about it, which I have not read, though I would very much like to. The convert, who never gets a name of her own, is a white American woman who is, for reasons of plot, the only person who can analyze the Alf Yeom, the jinn holy book, and confirm its true nature.

Why the convert joins this ragtag team on the run from the Hand, the mysterious state-backed hacker who’s after Alif and the Alf Yeom, is beyond me. She filled me with secondhand embarrassment as she became, over and over again, a mouthpiece for the author’s own thoughts and experiences. (Wilson insists that’s not the case, but I have a hard time believing that when you get semi-self-aggrandizing and perhaps deliberately “ignorant American” quotes like:

“Look at all the Eastern writers who’ve written great Western literature. Kazuo Ishiguro. You’d never guess that The Remains of the Day or Never Let Me Go were written by a Japanese guy. But I can’t think of anyone who’s ever done the reverse — any Westerner who’s written great Eastern literature.”

Ishiguro moved from Japan to Britain at the age of 6, and didn’t return to Japan until his mid-thirties. And I can’t help but squirm when I imagine that Wilson is trying or hoping to achieve that last point. Maybe this is giving her too little credit, but it is a jarring moment in the narrative that never becomes relevant again.)

As for the decision not to give the convert a name, I don’t know enough about post-colonial movements reacting to colonialist narratives to know how much this is about subverting or highlighting dehumanization. But I am irritated that, ultimately, the convert’s purpose is to be a vessel — that literally, she is impregnated by a jinn before he dies so that other jinn will owe her the favors that they owed him. And it’s the jinn’s idea, not hers. (In that process, she falls in love with him overnight. Go figure.) After that, she disappears. She remains behind in the Hidden Quarter, where the jinn live apart from humans, to bring her pregnancy to term while the others return to the city to fight the man and save the day. At least Sheikh Bilal decides to stay behind to study with and learn from the jinn, and because he recognizes that his quality of life back in the human world will be much diminished.

Finally, the writing itself. I don’t know if I just noticed this more as the narrative progressed or if the quality of the writing actually deteriorated, but I often found action scenes in particular muddy and hard to follow, and I totally cannot forgive anyone using multiple instances of “quavered” and “quailed” or other intrusive verbs for “said.” I also thought there were macro pacing issues, and that the revolution which makes for the book’s climax came as a surprise, in some ways, because we’ve been sticking so closely to Alif’s isolated perspective as a man on the run. This was most disappointing because we’re given other glimpses of how good Wilson can really be, which leads me to believe that somewhere in the process, whether in editing or the writing itself, she was rushed.

That said, I wouldn’t not recommend this book. It does a good job in challenging the notion that movement toward tradition and religion is regressive and disempowering. And I think if I wasn’t comparing it to a number of other books in my head, I’d have been much more uncritical.

Therein lies the rub for me, though, because I was thinking of another set of books by another author that I’ve seen do this thing too — this thing where an outsider washes up in a land strange beyond his wildest dreams, which challenges him personally and spiritually, and which ravages the reader as we are told the Alf Yeom does.

Prester JohnI struggle a lot with Catherynne M. Valente‘s work. I love her as a blogger, but her novels often infuriate me as much as I enjoy them, especially because she also has a tendency to write herself into her heroines (September in the Fairyland books, Marya Morevna in Deathless), and because her writing can be either wildly, stunningly beautiful or horribly self-aware and twee.

I know I can be pretty hard on books — it’s actually been quite a while since I’ve found one that doesn’t fill me with fury (oh, Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, you could have been so good!). I have particular wants, apparently: see my review of Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife for more on that. In one shining instance, Valente nearly fulfills that want for me, with her A Dirge for Prester John trilogy, two parts complete.

Here’s my offhand summary from the first time I read The Habitation of the Blessed, at the end of 2010:

Back in the day (1165), this letter circulated around Europe from somebody named Prester John, claiming to live in this amazing kingdom with the Fountain of Youth/Immortality and gryphons and blemmyaes and the Gates of Alexander and all sorts of other Very Medieval Marvels. It was either India or Ethiopia or Central Asia somewhere, and all sorts of people tried to find the Kingdom of Prester John. The basic idea is that this kingdom is real, and that a missionary in 1699 is given three books with stories or testimonies from that kingdom, and for reasons I don’t want to spoil, this monk is transcribing these books. So the stories are told in A-B-C-Frame style, and they begin to feed into each other, and it’s all very cool, etc etc etc.

I also wrote It’s the first book of hers I’ve been able to finish, and I see the appeal: everything is as gorgeous and brutal and loving and weird as promised. I got angry about slips Valente made here and there (Akkadian was an utterly lost language until the late 18th century, and no one would have been fluent in it at any point in history before the mid-1800s!), but overall this was a shake-me-at-my-foundations story the first time around. I was really impressed by how much the book challenged the world, our world, and the reader.

Every sentence in Habitation of the Blessed and The Folded World is driven by emotion, even the descriptions. Valente gets the rules of improv, and the idea that we as human beings are ultimately more interested in character than plot (which is why, I think, I’m so much more forgiving of a story with interesting characters — I’m looking at you, BBC Robin Hood and every other terrible TV series that I love). I wish Alif the Unseen had more of that, and in some ways Wilson is hobbled by her protagonist, who for vast swaths of the story only cares about himself. I’ll be very interested to see Wilson’s other fiction, and what she produces in the future, because she’s obviously a skilled and potent voice. At the moment, however, I’m just wondering when Valente is going to round out her Prester John trilogy. For a taste, you can read the short story which inspired the books here.

Next up on my Kobo adventures: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar. Thanks for sticking around this long! And seriously, if you have recommendations for me, please, fire away.

2 thoughts on “Alif and ereaders: A paired adventure for the 21st century”

  1. […] In my last book review I found it helpful to think about the mix of other stories that went into that one. A Stranger in Olondria shifts around: a little Invisible Cities, a little Great Expectations, a little Dictionary of the Khazars. The long, slow exposition is totally plot-free. We learn about life on Tyom, the island from which our protagonist, Jevick, hails. Jevick’s father is a wealthy pepper merchant with two wives and an older son whom we probably would call developmentally disabled, which makes Jevick the heir to the family trade. […]

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