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What We’re Reading: The Vanishing Kind

2016 July 21
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by Josh Johnson

What We're Reading

FSFThe Vanishing Kind by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science FictionJuly/Aug 2016)

The Vanishing Kind, Lavie Tidhar’s noir novella recently featured in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, is the story of Gunther Sloam, a third-rate filmmaker from Berlin, who is searching post-WW2 London for a past love named Ulla Blau. The frame character through whose voice we get the story is Tom Everly of the Gestapo (at least, that’s who he says he is), and Tom (and/or his men) follow Sloam on the filmmakers London investigations. In this world, the Germans won the war (though there are small mentions of continued but futile resistance happening in America) and London is a city in need of rebuilding. It’s streets are filled with refuse, it’s buildings are in shambles from the war, and it’s people lead lives in the dark—trading illicit goods, working as prostitutes, hiding their identities. This is the London Sloam walks through, and no one here is as they seem: a rare book dealer is both a Jewish man living another identity and a drug circulator using the rare books as a front. A dwarf, wealthier than seemingly anyone else in London, meets Sloam in an abandoned church and reveals that he’s been paying for the German occupation, because “even Nazis need money.”

And yet the strangeness of “The Vanishing Kind” is not in the double lives and secret machinations of its characters—it is in semi-surreal movie logic that runs through this piece like a set of train tracks, guiding the narrative and reader alike. We are introduced to Sloam as a filmmaker, and many of his thoughts are through the lens of film (London is shows as a “city projected like the flickering images of a black and white film”), but the story itself—the characters, the odd coincidences, the villain’s speech and the hero’s resilience, the tidiness of the narrative, the sense that everyone here knows everyone else and the hero is slowly and inevitably nearing the final reveal—all of this is done with a tongue-in-cheek, meta-recognition of its own tropiness (Tidhar has never been shy about Phillip K. Dick’s influence on his work). Sloam should never survive even a few pages of this story, and yet he does, and his response each time is to wonder without purchase or understanding why in the world no one has shot him yet. He’s a man who has been forced to make pulpy films currently living in one of his own, and the illogical logic of these stories pushes him along from inevitable realization to inescapable meeting with little care for his awareness or comprehension. Here, for instance, is Tom Everly, the narrator, describing Sloam:

Of course the obstinate German did not take my advice. I had accused him of being a romantic and I wasn’t wrong. Gunther, for all his battle experience in the Wehrmacht, still insisted, deep down, to think of himself as a character in one of his own cowboy pictures. All he could think about was Ulla Blau’s ruined, once-beautiful face staring back at him from the mortuary slab. I think he believed himself untouchable. Most Germans did, after the war.

In this way, the novella leans on its author’s ethos to pull a reader along—knowing that Tidhar does these types of pastiche, send-up, derivation-with-a-meta-twist stories so, so well is enough to convince a reader during the early stages of the story that what seem to be heavy-handed, overly melodramatic moments in the text (or moments of serious and seriously questionable plot convenience) are in fact intentional—they are Tidhar’s attempts to build the pulp framework in which he is trying to find a story with unironic and genuine heart. And in this he succeeds. The plot ends with Sloam finding Ulla Blau, secret identities uncovered, and, of course, more death. The one who was behind the whole thing all along (spoiler: it was Ulla, obviously) is revealed, and while this seems to be the end of the story, it really isn’t. Anyone who has read a pulp mystery (or even seen a police procedural) will see the reveal that Ulla must be behind the deaths that plague the story, but Tidhar is careful to not stop the story there. Instead, what follows after this reveal is a surprisingly profound connection made between the “how these stories usually start,” “how they usually end,” and the power in understanding your story, understanding your role, and finding agency within those constructions/constrictions. To be honest, I wasn’t ever truly sold on the story until the last page or so, but those few pages managed to give me a new way to understand and appreciate everything else in the novella. It’s a surprising story, one that, like the London Sloam finds himself in, brings you in under false pretenses and only reveals the truth when it’s too late.

What surprising stories have you been reading recently?


What We’re Reading: Central Station

2016 March 17
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What We're Reading

Central-StationCentral Station by Lavie Tidhar (Tachyon Publications, May 2016)

Central Station takes place on, in, and around an enormous, future space station rising from Earth into space and serving as a hub and launch pad for travelers of the universe. It’s a liminal space, situated in between Jewish Tel-Aviv and Arab Jaffa, and so the station has all the benefits and drawbacks of a transitional, middle space: possibility paired with despair, great potential paired with great failure, the rich moving amongst the poor, celebrities and vagrants, etc. Nearly everyone in this future world is augmented in some way, either through the ubiquitous “nodes” implanted at birth that allow people to access to the great Conversation going on at all times (think every social media feed, YouTube video, and a million, million other pieces of ephemeral, often banal data being broadcast around and into you every second—that’s the Conversation), or through other, more invasive and explicit augmentations (four-armed Martian Reborn, human/robot amalgamations called Robotniks that speak Battle Yiddish, actual robots that practice religion, etc). It’s an eclectic, imaginative population filling a strange and often-recognizable world.

Central Station is an assemblage of vignette-like chapters that shift POV but remain inside and around the titular hub. On the levels of process and history, this makes sense; many of the chapters in the novel have been converted from stories published elsewhere. For many writers, this could lead to something fatuous, a loosely linked set of essays that promise continuity but offer bare contemporaneity. However, Tidhar is magic, and in his hands these individual stories pull life from one another. The novel reads like extended poetry, cycling through descriptions of Central Station or its denizens through the eyes of different characters, expanding and reworking those descriptions and understandings endlessly, a machine cycling through its routines and finding beauty anew in each iteration.

Narrative, in this way, is necessarily fractured in Central Station, but the fracturing creates a sense of momentum and power in the narratives. One for instance, splits the narration between a woman known only as the Oracle (who, we learn, was once named Ruth) and her distant relation, Mark Cohen, who created and bred the Others, entities existing solely in the digital space. Tidhar has some serious work to do in this chapter—it’s near the end of the book, and neither the Oracle nor the Others, despite having both featured in the narrative earlier, are yet clear to the reader. We still have serious questions about how these things work, what their value is to the larger narrative, and what their value is to the micronarrative of the chapter. It’s a lot to accomplish, and Tidhar does it with aplomb, balancing the exposition necessary to grease the narrative wheels with intrigue, emotion, and stories that, despite being set in a scarily distant future, seem real. And true.

The individual chapters and characters are all wonderful—both for themselves and for the larger narrative they come to inhabit and impact. I don’t want to spoil any of that for you, because it’s a real treat to discover the small and large ways things come together, but I do want to talk briefly about one character in particular: Achimwene, a man born without a node or any sort of augmentation. He can’t connect to the Conversation or see the digital world and, fittingly perhaps, he sells ancient, mostly useless artifacts: paper books. Achimwene’s story, without getting too much into the plot, curves away from the banal when he meets Carmel, a strigoi (a data vampire). And Carmel is many things to Achimwene: a mystery, a danger, a love interest. You know the stories (now ubiquitous) about vampires, but here’s the thing: so does Achimwene. This is a man still dependent on narrative to make sense of his life, still, in this fast, digital future, reading pulp novels and imagining himself as the detective or the monster hunter or whatever. He gives us perhaps the most relatable and personal moment in the entire book:

He looked at the things in the box, these fragile, worn, faded, thin, cheap paper-bound books. They smelled of dust, and mould, and age. They smelled, faintly, of pee, and tobacco, and spilled coffee. They smelled like things which had lived.

This is Achimwene’s world, surrounding himself with relics and long-ago stories. And this is where Tidhar’s true mastery reveals itself. Achimwene thinks of himself as being in a love story when he meets Carmel (complete, of course, with all the problems that often come with heteronormative love stories told in pulp fiction), but soon they get it into their heads to investigate Carmel’s origins, to investigate how it was she came to be allowed in to Central Station. In other words, Tidhar tells the reader exactly what he’s going to do; he’s going to switch this narrative from a love story to a mystery, and yet the magic of his trick is not in his telling us this Important and Necessary Stuff about how narratives shape our lives (though, that’s important, too), it’s in his ability get us to believe it. About five or six pages into this new mystery narrative, I was totally hooked. I was into it. I had completely forgotten that the author told me exactly what he was about to do; I was enthralled by the mystery, by the pacing, by the intrigue. Tidhar, in this moment, is like the magician who shows his set-up, tells the audience what the trick is called and how to do it, and then somehow still gets a standing ovation—raucous cheers and joyful tears included—when he does the trick. It’s an amazing moment.

Central Station is a treat. I’ve yet to find a Lavie Tidhar book or story I didn’t love, and this new effort by the author is no exception. It’s due out May 10th. Do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Have you read any excellent books recently by tried and trusted authors?