Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Chicago Nerds: Lagoon

For the last meeting of the Chicago Nerds book club, we read and discussed Nnedi Okorafor's 2014 novel "Lagoon". It's an unusual first contact story--shape-shifting, primarily ocean-based aliens land just off the shore of Lagos, Nigeria, and then...stuff happens.

There is a lot, a confusing lot, going on in this novel--intentionally so, it would seem, with the chaos of the story meant to reflect, perhaps even praise, the chaotic nature of Lagos. Unfortunately, I  found that the intersection of many different codes, coupled with some rough areas in the writing, deflated the novel's impact. I'll try to expand that a bit below.

The biggest consensus from the group, I think, was something along the lines of "we really wanted to like it", but had too many issues in actually reading it. Definitely a worthy discussion, our reservations notwithstanding--possible spoilers below!

So to just get a few of our complaints out of the way first, big ones included:
  • Flat, cartoonish characters.
  • Bad plotting & logic--there's a lot running back and forth after invisible MacGuffins, a lot of overly-convenient scenes, a lot of super-powered aliens not using their abilities in simple ways.
  • Sudden switches to pidgin, which is ANOTHER LANGUAGE. A complaint compounded for ebook readers unaware of a glossary/dictionary until it was too late.
  • Some specific issues with the writing, particularly the seemingly-unplanned jumping from limited third person omniscient to head-hopping, sometimes mid-paragraph. We also talked about failing "Chekhov's Gun"--stuff introduced early and not followed up on, and also big giant things zooming in out of left field late in the game.
  • World rules that were too physically-inconsistent (localized ocean level raise never explained, Ayodele's "mortality" completely inexplicable given what we know about her physical existence, etc.)
  • As mentioned above, the mashing-up of too many different traditions was difficult for some of us. Too many, I say.
    • Aliens, outer-space, came-in-a-spaceship aliens
    • Alien-enhanced animals (with their own personalities & agendas that don't really seem plausible with their pre-enhanced biologies, but hey that's okay)
    • Giant mobile malevolent road...spirit...thing...
    • Religious/mythological figures, such as Legba & Mami Wata.
    • Also the Ijele masquerade...incarnates? and...talks to...the Internet?
    • Wait, our three protagonists don't actually have alien powers--they were like some kinda superhero mutants all along?
    • Wait, maybe the aliens aren't aliens, maybe they're "just technology"?
    • "Why hello! I'm the giant magic spider that's been telling this story all along, sorry I didn't say hello earlier! Welp, gotta run!"
Any two, maybe even three of these could have combined to form something interesting. But with so many, the effect for me was to strip any reading of significance. Aliens & technology (which rely on a cognitive and to some extent materialist worldview) stop being potent if the work switches modes to the mythological/fantastic (which work with a different set of rules). Meanwhile, playing with mythological or religious traditions can be very interesting from some sort of fantastic framework--but if they are somehow the result of an alien landing, it seems to strip them of authenticity.

To be fair, some of this criticism might stem from the brevity of each different thread--"Lagoon" has  a central plot, but has many very divergent smaller chapters interspersed throughout, and if some of them had been given more space maybe some of those different threads and themes would have worked out more satisfactorily. As it is, though, it doesn't strike one as a (possibly productively) confusing text so much as a confused one. Like many at group I wanted to like it, did genuinely enjoy reading a story in a real, rich setting that I've never read much about before, and it's intriguing to me that so much of my problem here was one of genre--if I'd been able to drop it cleanly into "magical realist" or "surrealist" some such, where I don't expect any rules to apply, I think I would have enjoyed it much more.


The internet provides weird sources for images.
One of the things we did really enjoy about this book was all the side chapters and sketches. Indeed, these often felt more real than the core characters, and we liked the many different viewpoints on the events they provided. Granted, these chapters also included some of the weirder one-off ideas, like the Ijele/Internet fireside chat, and the "enlightened animals who are promptly squished by a truck or plane or something" trope. Did Okorafor mean for that to be comic? Really can't tell. Rather reminded of the whale & petunias in "Hitchhiker's Guide", actually.

We talked for a bit about Nigeria's strong literary tradition, from classics like Achebe to the recent inclusion of Chigozie Obioma's "The Fishermen" on the Booker shortlist.

However, that led us to an odd and interesting discussion about how our pre-conceived notions of an author's identity lead us to approach a work. We wondered, for instance, how we would feel about "Lagoon" if it was (or if we thought it was) written by a white author with no connection to Nigeria--would we be harsher on its shortcomings, less likely to overlook issues or find this Lagos believable?

One rather scathing Goodreads review begins "Dear White People who read this book and thought it was awesome, This is not Lagos." Note that I can't confirm/endorse those opinions, and have my doubts about their extremity--Okorafor is not exactly a stranger to Nigeria. But, lacking anyone with experience of Lagos at the group, one does have to wonder a bit at how readily we accept this particular vision. Reminded of how much I liked the Brazilian setting of Johnson's "The Summer Prince" (a Think Galactic selection), only to later read (Brazilian) Ana Grilo's pointed critique of those elements.

We also discussed the recent controversy over Michael Derrick Hudson's inclusion in the "Best American Poetry" for an entry submitted under the name Yi-Fen Chou--apparently a routine he had of re-submitting rejected poems under a non-European name. It is very much worth your time to read editor Sherman Alexie's frank discussion of the whole affair, if you're at all interested. TL;DR, he basically says "yep, I was giving extra attention to under-represented works, and not googling the authors, and this poem impressed me, and I'm leaving it in". It's much more nuanced and heartfelt than that, though.

Argh this film.
Okorafor says in the afterword that "Lagoon" was partially inspired as a response to "District 9", Blomkamp's 2009 film, a connection that I think would have been picked up on by many readers anyway. I would happily devote many words to critiquing that film, goodness, but for now suffice it to say that "District 9":
          1. Is deeply confused about what it's trying to say about race relations. And,
          2. Presents Nigerians as hyper-violent superstitious cannibals.
In the sense of a response to Blomkamp, "Lagoon" makes more sense: it overwhelms that kind of monovocal story with a slew of different characters and viewpoints, all running off at tangents. Lagos ("rhymes with chaos," we are told) is thus made more realistic--and resistant to one, simplistic interpretation--by what Other Jacob called "literary techniques intended to create this confusion".

We had a bit of a debate about whether the aliens are aliens of the from-outer-space variety or not. It does seem pretty clear that they arrive in a space ship, which should shut this argument down...but later in the novel we were wondering first if perhaps it's more a "traveling from another dimension/reality" kind of thing (I thought of the "Memetic Reality" from Brin's "Uplift" series), or if we should actually think of them as arising right here on this planet--there's this strong suggestion that they "are" change, "are" technology, not merely composed of the latter or bringing the former. This reminded us of the new/old gods of Gaiman's "American Gods" (2001):
There were old gods in that place: gods with skins the brown of old mushrooms, the pink of chicken flesh, the yellow of autumn leaves. Some were crazy and some were sane. Shadow recognized the old gods. He’d met them already, or he’d met others like them. There were ifrits and piskies, giants and dwarfs. He saw the woman he had met in the darkened bedroom in Rhode Island, saw the writhing green snake-coils of her hair. He saw Mama-ji, from the carousel, and there was blood on her hands and a smile on her face. He knew them all. He recognized the new ones, too.

There was somebody who had to be a railroad baron, in an antique suit, his watch chain stretched across his vest. He had the air of one who had seen better days. His forehead twitched.

There were the great gray gods of the airplanes, heirs to all the dreams of heavier-than-air travel.

There were car gods, there: a powerful, serious-faced contingent, with blood on their black gloves and on their chrome teeth: recipients of human sacrifice on a scale undreamed-of since the Aztecs. Even they looked uncomfortable. Worlds change.

Others had faces of smudged phosphors; they glowed gently, as if they existed in their own light. (536-7)
Very similar kind of thing going on, perhaps, in "Lagoon"--it's just never spelled out clearly, and the code-switching makes it difficult to know what to think of Legba et. al alongside the aliens.

Even perhaps a little crossover
in the cover art, here.
Incidentally: shape-shifting, ocean-based aliens? We couldn't help but think of Cameron's "The Abyss" (1989), which feels like it may have been a little bit of an influence,

A tough read! A great discussion! And some members highly praised Okorafor's other work, even to those of us not wild about this one.

Sorry for the late posting on these notes, has been a hectic few weeks. The next Chicago Nerd book club selection is "Cloud Atlas" by David Mitchell. I should remind you that Mitchell is appearing with "Cloud Atlas: THE MOVIE" director Lana Wachowski at the Music Box...the day before our book club, actually! Also I should remind you to be cautious lest you inadvertently read "The Cloud Atlas"...that's not the one. (Worth listening to the Radiolab on the same topic though if you're into balloon-based warfare.)

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