The three novellas that comprise Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter were the perfect read after the two longer pandemic novels (Severance and Station Eleven). They go back to Willa Cather subject matter: the hardscrabble ordinary lives of the mid-west and west in-between Americans of the 1870-1920 period. Incomes are rising rapidly and children increasingly are becoming well-educated and leaving the small farm towns. You can see plainly how the next generation is full of possibilities, but the probability of falling back are ever-present. Illness, “old mortality,” is everywhere. Nowhere more dramatic than Pale Horse, Pale Rider where death arrives unheralded in the middle of a banal paragraph about opening letters. When that sentence hits you, I bet every reader looks up and sighs, “Whew.” The prose is a bit as if you took Willa Cather and James Joyce together: everything is perfect and there are little shifts of point of view from sentence to sentence that are truly remarkable. Lots of history: Porter was a keen observer obviously and the novels are filled with little details and asides that pop up in dialogue that have you running to Wikipedia.
If you are looking for a pandemic novel that explores precocious post-college five years in New York City (think how many novels there are that do that!) that culminate in pandemic, this is the one for you. Excellent writing, lots of flashback. For my taste rather a straightforward plot. And a few of the post-pandemic social “customs” and realities rang a bit implausible for me for some reason.
Comparing with Station Eleven is a bit unfair, but they are similar in many ways, so here’s the difference: Station Eleven is unabashed pandemic-candy. Arthur Leander is gloriously-handsome movie star but really a nice guy; Miranda’s life is any person’s dream life; the characters notice beauty, not ugliness; Clark radiates wonder and hope; the Prophet is interestingly “explainable” not just a downer; who wouldn’t want to have grown up on that island?; etc.
A challenging, brilliant novel to read during COVID19 pandemic. The opening chapter so uncanny in May 2020. Lots of technique and a good solid story. Maybe a few quibbles about consistency in some of the characters (Clark, for me, was just a bit too much of a foil.) I saw lots of nice echoes to Watchmen (obs the comic story in the story) and Blind Assassin. And you get the feeling a closer reading would deliver even more nice literary allusions, all wrapped in a close reading of Lear. Really, I have to say, unqualified recommendation.
I enjoy Ursula LeGuin-Doris Lessing-style “anthropologist science fiction” and Ammonite by Nicola Griffith fit the bill very nicely. Sharp anthropology about slowly understanding important relationships and concepts. A nice female-only world, and good discussion of reproduction. The soldier Danner character gets tedious at the end. If she uttered “damn” one more time I was gong to stop reading. But overall a really pleasurable read.
I would definitely recommend Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. Towards the end of the book, as the pandemic is recalled by Snowman, in two pages she summarize the current global experience. Atwood’s a little heavy-handed, and you don’t go there for the writing, but this is a really good novel chock full of ideas and keen insights (into men’s psychologies, here, since Oryx and other women are pretty much ciphers).
Reading a few dozen pages every day of Los Cuatro Viajes Del Almirante Y Su Testamento: Cristóbal Colón. Lots of Leste, noreste, sudoeste, but in between the thrilling story of a about 90 sailors spending months at sea, then trying to interpret what they found, learning rudiments of Taino language while kidnapping people… and the reader knowing that millions will die because of what Colón unleashes… The one thing that so far really sticks with me: Colón over and over again writes, “these people don’t seem to have any weapons at all…”
George Saunders “Love Letter” in The New Yorker. At three pages, one of the best pieces of topical writing I have seen. Great craft, perfect tone. A letter from a grandparent to a grandson. Harking back to a long tradition. The past like a nightmare weighs…
The reviews at Mookse are, however, decidedly mixed.