Book review: One writer, two very different books
With two novels published in 2021, Portland-area writer Catherynne Valente has had a productive pandemic. Both books mix sci-fi and fantasy, both are compelling reads and both are, surprisingly, more than a little biblical. Plus, the two are deeply angry — albeit angry at things that his audience thinks deserve it. Beyond that, the two novels are as different as Froot Loops and food.
“The past is red” is a story close to global warming. After a Noachian flood, what’s left of humanity lives on the Lost World’s Shipwreck Islands. Survivors named their haven Garbagetown and sorted the trash into heaps that define neighborhoods like Pill Hill, Shoeshire and Screen Lake.
Tetley Abednego was born here, cast out of Garbagetown society, and trying to make the most of it in a future that Valente says isn’t post-apocalyptic for its residents. It’s just home.
Longtime fans of literary science fiction will find a good deal of Denis Johnson’s “Fiskadoro” here. There’s the candid protagonist in a world in ruins, a mythical Eden we speak of with nostalgia, and through it all, the detritus of a past unspeakably rich in things but poor in foresight.
Valente does not hide his anger at our society’s inability to look to the future. “If (before) culture was a bird, it would be a seagull. Greedy, stupid, vicious… beautiful feathers.
But Tetley lightens the darkness with jolts of wry humor. “I regret my choices, I yearn for the past. I have a very busy schedule. or “I could already feel my sunburn getting sunburned.” She listens to a Garbagetown interpreter in green fishnet stockings read old gourmet menus describing duck confit, scalloped potatoes and “passion fruit soufflé topped with orbs of pistachio ice cream.” And locals will smile when a matchbook of Becky’s Diner or a quilt depicting the Portland Head Light appears amidst the rubble.
If “The Past is Red” is a parable, “Comfort Me With Apples” is the feminist allegory par excellence. It is told from the perspective of Sophia, a Stepford Wife-style character “in whom the organ of dissatisfaction was somehow absent from birth”. Sophia lives in a large house in an upscale gated community called Arcadia Gardens. Her husband has outfitted the place with everything she could want, her neighbors just want to see her happy, and the homeowners association rules and restrictions are just there to keep things tidy and enjoyable. It’s not just existence, it’s ambrosia.
Throughout his story, Valente points to “allegory” in every possible way. Its chapters are titled like varieties of apples: red, golden, green, and delicious. Matching this litany of crisp, tart and sweet, Sophia’s neighbors have names like Lyon, Baer, Hart and Palfrey. It’s easy to imagine a blonde mane, a thick overcoat, doe eyes and a graceful gait.
Also pay attention to word roots, meanings in other languages, and mythical references. There’s a lot hidden here, both from the reader and from Sophia, and it’s up to both of us to find out what’s going on. Valente gives a lot of clues, but there is also a good misdirection.
The theme here, of a woman sensing something is wrong with her world and trying to uncover the mystery, is familiar. He figures in many fictions as well as in science fiction novels like “The Echo Wife” by Sarah Gailey. And as with most of these books, the problematic figure is the man. So, from the first page, we know that our task is to find out the truth about Sophia’s beloved husband.
Beyond the mystery, beyond spotting the clues and piecing them together in unexpected resolution, the fun of this book is in the writing – the phrasing, the beats, the imagery and the mood. “Sophia is upright and in his arms in the same fluid unfolding motion as the heron ascends.” “Comfort Me With Apples” is like the best kind of journey – there’s as much to enjoy in the journey as there is in reaching its end.
John R. Alden, who lives in Portland, has been writing about science fiction and fantasy for more than three decades, primarily in a column for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.