Monday 14 September 2015

The Book of Phoenix

(September 2015)

Never let anyone tell you that twitter is worthless. In addition to the massive box of books I scored a couple of years back based on nothing more than a cheap seasonal pun, I'm now in possession of a gorgeous hardback copy of The Book of Pheonix, thanks to the fact that the good people at Hodderscape (or at least their social media managers) have a surprisingly similar taste to me for dubious mid-90's RnB poetry mash-ups.

It's especially pleasing in this case, as this plopping onto the doormat essentially made a tricky decision for me: this is a book that I wanted to read, but wasn't necessarily sure that I wanted to expend resources on acquiring. I've read a couple other of Okorafor's books—including Who Fears Death, to which this serves as a prequel—and my reactions have been very equivocal. Can something be very equivocal? I guess I mean that there's been a hell of a lot to admire about the books in terms of theme, content, and imagery, but unfortunately I just haven't been able to get on with the style. More specifically, it's the narrative voice(s) employed. Here:

I stood tall, stretching my arms, back, and legs. I felt a little odd. Like I was me, but who was me? I looked at myself. I was naked and covered in dust; I must have looked like a ghost. But I was alive. After I'd died. I vividly remembered dying. My name is Phoenix, I thought. I don't know who named me, but I am named well. I stood up straighter. 

Pulling out this particular passage to quote might be a little unfair, as the percussive repetition of the first person singular here is clearly deliberate. (Pheonix has just experienced her first death and rebirth cycle, and this is her taking ownership of her new self.) But on the other hand, that deliberateness is a large part of what I find so awkward about the narration in Okorafor’s work*. There's a dissociative neutrality about her voices, combined with a certain didacticism that results in a tendency to repetitive overexplanation.

You never get the sense of the writer not trusting her readers, however, which is often the effect of this kind of writing. In every instance the stylistic decisions make sense for the character and story being told: the flatness in Who Fears Death can be ascribed to its flashback device, the disparate told-not-shown superficiality in Lagoon a result of the focus on place over character, and here the simple descriptive prose arises naturally from the fact that Phoenix, the narrator, is an experimental test subject whose growth has been accelerated so at the start of the book, and despite being able to read a book in a matter of minutes and having the physical appearance of a forty-year-old woman, is only three years old.

During the course of her short life she’s constantly subjected to emotionally and physically painful tests. Her inventors/captors succumb to inevitable hubris and she escapes, before turning her rage upon them and everything they represent, and her rage burns bright and long and hard. In the latter stages of the book you’re actually quite glad for that stylistic dissociation, for the same reason you wouldn’t want to get too close to an exploding building: it’s distressing enough to experience (and rightfully so) even from that distance, so if you were any closer to the source it would be devastating.

Okorafor, then, is a writer of significant skill who clearly has consummate control over her craft, who tackles important, uncomfortable issues with passion and belligerence, and who is on occasion capable of conjuring breathtaking imagery. And yet for all the technical adeptness on display in her work there’s still something about it that leaves me a little cold. I want to love her work; there is so much about her work that should be lovable, and righteously unlovable, and everything in between. But underneath it all there’s the sensation that I’m being spoken at rather than to, and it’s one that’s unfortunately only gotten worse with time, not better. Her books deserve to be read widely and read well, and I can only offer my sincere hopes that you get on better with them than I do.

*I’m only referring to the three books of hers I’ve actually read, of course. As far as I can tell though those are all the novels she’s written aimed at adults, so I think that’s a valid enough sample to draw some conclusions from.

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