Sunday, September 13, 2015

Think Galactic: The Girl in the Road

Meeting once again amidst the erudite shelves and, if our cellular devices are to be believed, Faraday-cage-lined walls of Myopic Books, the ornately robed members of Think Galactic cast back their cowls, exchanged a few cryptic, sweeping gestures, then sat at the circle to discuss Monica Byrne's 2014 novel "The Girl in the Road".

Girls and roads plural both, as it turns out. Byrne's novel weaves together two different stories. Mariama is a refugee girl whose travels take her to Ethiopia, while Meena is a young Indian woman who, fleeing violence, decides to walk "The Trail"--an ocean-spanning tidal generator that stretches from Mumbai to Djibouti.

We none of us quite knew how to summarize our reaction to this book. It's well written--with the caveat that neither narrator is completely reliable. And the characters are well-drawn--but we found it a little hard to sympathize with them nonetheless.

It's definitely a powerful book, and--one doesn't want to say haunting, but definitely a little hard to get out of the mind. One can easily see why it was awarded the Tiptree. More of our thoughts and, most definitely, SPOILERS, below.

I had one particular gripe with Meena's story--which has the more science fictional, the more fantastic setting of the two--and that is that Byrne, despite clearly having done a lot of research on her (otherwise extremely well-realized) worldbuilding, seems to forget that the on the ocean. After an initial period where she has a hard time walking, Meena really doesn't give us anything about the conditions.

Approximate Trail-way.
Think Galactic:
"We Will Make Your Map
If You Forget To
And, I remind you, the Trail is a highly-flexible, fairly narrow road across a vast stretch of ocean. It should be bucking, rocking, sometimes glassy-still, sometimes fitting the waves and turning into transient mountains and valleys. Spume and spray should whip across it, debris should accrue on the windward side (perhaps vast drifts, we thought), odd creatures could briefly heave into sight and then out again.There should be noise. Something.

There's not.

So that's kind of a bummer. Two counterexamples that sprang to my mind were the floating islands in Lewis's "Perelandra" (1943), which force the protagonist to learn new ways of interacting with an ever-changing, wavelike landscape, and also Yann Martel's "Life of Pi" (2001), for its foregrounding of lots of weird sea-stuff.

But let's put that aside.

A big thing we talked about here is the reliability of the narrators--this is not so much a case of a traditionally unreliable narrator, but rather of faithful recounters who are experiencing reality a bit unusually. A bit of tech that Meena claims to have swept into the ocean turns up again at the end of the trail. A bite of food that Mariama nearly chokes on becomes the "kreen", a sort of voice or spirit in her chest that affects her behavior. Hallucinations abound, particularly on Meena's sojourn, some obvious, some less so. Mariama addresses her narration to the goddess Yemaya, who she thinks she has actually met in the flesh.

This book gets more unsettling the more I think about it, because of the centrality of abuse. Both Meena and Mariama have witnessed, been victim to, and sometimes been perpetrators of violence and abuse. Both have constructed mythologies and memories to cover these up, and while the covers are not invisible as such to the reader, the drawing-back is still a bit traumatizing. Both the "assassination attempt" and the "sky-colored snake" that Meena & Mariama, respectively, are fleeing from seem from the outset rather blatantly suspicious or downright unreal, and I find the whole Yemaya storyline/mythology particularly troubling--because if it were just Mariama's narration, we as readers might be able to buy it, a world where magic is real and orishas walk among us. But the book gives us plenty of room to deduce the real situation, which is an unsettling tale of abandonment, abuse (where guilt is not entirely clear-cut), and a long slow road towards more (quite horrific) violence.

We talked for a bit about the coding of reading the narration as "moving through/penetrating chambers" in a sort of mysterious/religious fashion, which helps in reading Meena's tale particularly. We tried, unsuccessfully, to deduce a deeper meaning from the order of people she meets on the Trail: families, father/son scientists, sailors, surfers, pirate radio guerillas, lotus eaters, the hot-dog-serving prophet of empiricism.

We most definitely liked many aspects of the world-building, both geopolitically and technologically. Meena's bag of tech goodies for the trail is well done (though I have questions about the pod & buoyancy, and question an ocean-survival computing device that DOESN'T FLOAT), and the vague plausibility and nebulous dangers of "metallic hydrogen" superconductors works nicely.

We really liked how non-Western this is--America & Europe really don't come into it, and we have a sense of India & China having complicated relations in East African countries. Sara compared the political scene to that of George Walker's "Fées des Dents" (2010) which we read in Mothership a few months ago.

There's also a lot going on here with gender and sexuality. We were particularly fascinated with the Indian sexual revolution, and with Mohini, Meena's hijra partner. The flip side of this is the abuse, rape, and uncomfortable power/sex dynamics woven through both storylines.

We really liked the inclusion of Lucy/Dinkinesh, and the theme of maternal ancestry.

Much talk of snakes! All kinds of snakes here. Sea snakes, poisonous land-snakes, mythological snakes, things that aren't really snakes, and the Trail itself is explicitly snakey. Jörmungandr and the ouroboros (which will always remind me of that scene in "Adaptation") were much in my mind--y'know, sea-girdling serpent with apocalyptic connotations, and the sort of infinity-loop that these narratives wind up making. Meena & Mariama's stories can eventually be seen to intertwine and loop back into each other, and to Byrne's credit not in a way that is clear until fairly close to the end.

Also, not to go crazy with wiki-links, but: sea snakes.

Also also also: "cowry-shaped
mouth?" Huh.
And again I say: Huh.
Also also, we had some question (and it's definitely a question in the novel, too) whether humans can survive on small amounts of seawater or not. Not going to cite all my sources here, but it looks like, pretty conclusively: no.

Meena's trip across the trail put us in mind of the Appalachian Trail and the Camino de Santiago--long walking routes that have their own rituals and myths, occasional high-profile violence, as well as sort of good Samaritans like Byrne's "hot-dog and sanity" vendor.

One of the hardest aspects of this novel, why it doesn't sit well, is the violence of both our protagonists. Without wanting to spoil multiple twists--they both murder people pretty gruesomely, and not justifiably. Along with some of their other behavior, it makes them extremely difficult to be fully sympathetic to, which in turn makes the book as whole a strange reading experience.

A good discussion of a troubling book! Next month Think Galactic is doing a monster mash: we're reading two different horror-themed novels, S.P. Somtow's "Vampire Junction" and Jeff VanderMeer's "Annihilation".

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