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Damnificados, by JJ Amaworo Wilson, PM Press, 2016, $15.95, tpb.
Amatka, by Karin Tidbeck, Vintage Books, 2017, $15.95, tpb.
Black Mad Wheel, by Josh Malerman, Ecco, 2017, $26.99, hc.
"The skyscraper was the third-tallest building in the city," JJ Amaworo Wilson observes in the opening of his incandescent debut novel Damnificados, "and from the highest floor you could look down on the backs of birds gliding on air. One muggy August afternoon Rolo Torres tried to parachute from the fiftieth floor. The chute stayed shut and he landed face first in a refuse pile.
If you can stop reading Amaworo Wilson's novel there, you're made of sterner stuff than I, especially once you know the book's inspiration. In 2007, squatters occupied roughly half of the forty-five stories of an unfinished highrise in Caracas, a project abandoned after Venezuela's most recent economic collapse and the death of financier David Brillembourg, who funded the project. A born-again ex-con named Alexander Daza organized a small army of reputed gangsters and civilians to take over the abandoned monolith. Thousands of people eventually occupied Torre David, or Tower of David. They pirated electricity and established bodegas, a dental practice (unlicensed) and beauty salon, tattoo parlors and internet cafes, and arranged to collect modest fees and monitor a rota so residents could help with the building's upkeep. Residents of the homegrown city in the sky were evicted in 2014 and sent to live in housing projects outside of Caracas, but the legendary occupation inspired an episode of Homeland, several documentaries, and articles by the New Yorker journalist Jon Lee Anderson.
It's an extraordinary real-life story, one that seems difficult or impossible to top. But Amaworo Wilson does a spectacular job with Damnificados, which marries an intoxicating, twenty-first century fabulism with gorgeous prose to create a fictional community that feels as deeply rooted in magic, history, and politics as Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Macondo. Twenty years after Rolo Torres's fatal plunge, a ragtag group emerges from the darkness to stake their claim on Torre des Torres—a derelict sixty-story highrise, third tallest in an unnamed city in a country or district called Favelada, a building funded by the late Rolo's family fortune.
"They come from Agua Suja and Minhas and Fellahin and Bordello. They come from Sanguinosa and Lbutig and Oameni Morti cardboard cities and shantytowns on the hills, where the rain makes rivers of mud, where houses slide away. And they drag fraying baskets and polythene bags, soot-stained blankets, coats of crinoline and fake fur. A woman in her fifties pushes a wheelbarrow which carries a three-legged dog. And from out of a nook comes a cripple named Nacho, heaving his wasted body on bandaged crutches, his quick eyes scanning the streets for trouble."
Nacho Morales, a translator with a withered leg and arm, is the commune's gentle leader, though he refuses to acknowledge the title. (Years before, a gypsy prophesied he would find his way there.) Now Nacho oversees the tower with the aid of a polyglot assortment of so-called damnificados, including a pair of young German twins, Dieter and Hans; Don Felipe, a chess-playing priest; the massive strongman known only as the Chinaman, who never speaks; and, eventually, Nacho's rakish brother Emil. Amaworo Wilson has said his fictional tower is also the Tower of Babel, an edifice created of myriad languages and peoples, and much of the book's clout comes from its heady mix of races, ethnicities, religions, and ages (curiously, heteronormative relationships seem more common than others).
Torre des Torres is built on a trash heap, as, seemingly, are great swathes of the city, and many of its residents sift through Faveleda's detritus to survive. Some have jobs as bus drivers, hotel cleaners, maids, caretakers, in factories or malls. Some people beg. Still others are entrepreneurs who start their own businesses in the tower: a bakery, a tattoo parlor, "Marias Beautty and Hare Salon," whose glamazon proprietress sets her sights on Nacho's brother Emil. In lieu of elevators, residents build ramps that extend from floor to floor, which they navigate with motorcycles (as in Caracas's Torre David). Nacho establishes schools throughout the tower to educate both children and illiterate adults. Residents of individual floors organize themselves as smaller communities within the vast vertical commune, each with its own leader. "You're building Utopia, brother," Emil tells Nacho. And, despite its engulfing poverty, the tower does feel Utopian, especially compared to the teeming, dystopic city that surrounds it.
Utopian and also otherworldly. Inexplicable events occur. A two-headed wolf appears. In the aftermath of a near-Biblical flood that lays waste to the city, five giant stone heads emerge as the water recedes. No one knows how they got there, and geologists are unable to identify the stone they're carved from.
Yet not even Utopia can escape the forces of capitalism. A brutal scion of the Torres clan shows up and threatens to massacre the tower's residents if they don't leave. Nacho, the Little Cripple and reluctant hero, reflects on the legendary Trash Wars of the past, whose dead lie beneath the tower.
"…all he can think of is the fate of the damnificados, men and women he barely knows. They are from all over: Favelada and Fellahinm Agua Suja, Minhas and Balaal, the forests of Dahomey-Krill. Some speak Creole, others Spanish, others, Arabic, Afrikaans, Gujarati, Tagalog, Urdu, Lao. They are carpenters and cleaners, beauty queens, fixers, ex-junkies, glueheads, bohos. Uniting them is impossible, but saving them…he has no choice."
Another Trash War erupts, not the last one Nacho is a part of; more unexplainable events ensue, along with one genuine miracle. Nacho embarks upon a journey to the wasteland of Solitario, a dreamy, nightmarish quest across a sea of ice, then returns to Favelada, where yet more cataclysms await, manmade and otherwise. This is a book of wonders: Amaworo Wilson's imagination seems as boundless as the world he's created: a world like our own, inhabited by the ninety-nine percent who don't live in gated communities or intact glass towers, who scrabble for food and housing, healthcare and employment while the remaining one percent watch impassively as the waters rise.
Damnificados brings to mind William Gibson's Bridge trilogy, J.G. Ballard's High-Rise, Chris Adrian's surreal The Children's Hospital, and Pat Murphy's The City, Not Long After, this last a book that shares Damnificados' utopian dreams. Amaworo Wilson spins an often dark tale, one that refuses to avert its eyes from mass poverty and the dire results of climate change, but it's never a bleak or depressing one. There's too much energy and beauty in the ruins and the survivors of the Trash Wars, too much warmth and magic.
Also, wisdom. After yet another Trash War, Nacho "looks at his hands, sees they are unchanged, but knows that humans are the last things on Earth to recognize what they have become." In 2017, Venezuela's crumbling Torre David remained vacant.
Swedish author Karin Tidbeck's understated, powerful Amatka is a novel in a very different register than Amaworo Wilson's: one that, despite its subtlety and restraint, punches way above its weight. It feels like another sort of classic, one in the mode of Ursula K. Le Guin's great Hainish novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. Tidbeck writes in both Swedish and English, and has published several books in her native country. Her stunning debut short story collection in English, Jagganath (for which, full disclosure, I wrote an introduction), was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and received the Crawford Award. Amatka is an even stronger work, with the political resonance of books like Fahreinheit 451 or 1984.
As with Le Guin's stories, Tidbeck's is a tale of contact and conflict set on an unnamed alien planet which human settlers, presumably from our own Earth, have colonized. Like Damnificados, Amatka eschews a U.S.-centric perspective. Its settlers have Swedish names and a culture derived from Scandinavian influences; its society is modeled after Sweden's socialist democracy. Much as I would love to imagine a Swedish manned interstellar mission, or an Earth in which the Scandinavian model has attained ascendance, this makes the novel feel more like a fable or thought experiment than a nuts-and-bolts sf novel in the mode of Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy. So does the fact that the settlers seem to have no access to computer or IT technology. They travel between the planet's four colonies by high speed train, communicate by telephones, and use paper for record-keeping. And paper—or rather its scarcity—is one of Amatka's major plot fulcrums.
The novel's protagonist, a young woman named Brilars' Vanja Essre Two, known as Vanja, is an information assistant for the Essre Hygiene Specialists, who travels from her own home territory, the colony Essre, to its frigid sister-colony, Amatka. Essre is the planet's administrative center, Amatka its agricultural one (there are also centers for science and industry, though these are peripheral to the story). Vanja's task is to gather information about Amatka's use of various personal hygiene products—shampoo, soap, hand creams, menstrual pads and the like—and report back to her superiors, who hope to expand their operations to Amatka. Like 1984's Winston Smith, Vanja is a civil servant trapped in a monochrome world, one based on a more benign communal model rather than a totalitarian one.
Or so it at first seems. If Orwell's vision of the future was of a boot stamping on a human face, forever, Tidbeck's is of mandatory weekly wholesome fun, participation in communal singing, meals of mushroom stew, and games at Leisure Center Two, forever.
A few of Amatka's residents raise an eyebrow at Vanja's remit: it smacks of capitalism, though that word is never mentioned. Amatka, like the rest of the planet, is ruled by a committee elected by the commune. Rules are many and strictly enforced. All of the planet's colonists are required to have children, who are immediately separated from their parents and raised in communal children's houses. Parents and children are allowed to meet only once a week. Emotional detachment is not just discouraged: those who display too much affection for their offspring are punished in a horrific manner that only slowly is revealed as the story progresses.
Vanja's beloved father has met this fate, and one of the novel's most disturbing scenes is when she realizes what's become of him. Another is when Vanja is subjected to artificial insemination against her will, and describes the loathing she feels at the thought of a "parasite" growing within her. There are strict rules for bathing and shaving. Work assignments are determined by the committee. Domestic relationships don't seem to be, except for the proscription on childraising. When Vanja falls in love with Nina, one of her housemates, she decides to remain in Amatka to be with her. While her supervisor in Essre has the usual reaction to a valued employee's unexpected defection, Vanja is allowed to stay. She's assigned to the commune office, where she does filing and sorting of official applications and reports.
Chief, and strangest, among all of the rules enforced by the committee is the importance of naming every single object with which one comes into contact. On the novel's second page, Vanja enters a room on the train taking her to Amatka, and immediately notes how "everything was marked in large and comforting letters: WASHBASIN, PANTRY, TABLE." The lettering identifying her own battered suitcase is almost illegible, a condition whose impact becomes clearer later on.
"She could fill in the letters, of course, but the question was what would happen first—that the book simply fell apart from wear or that it dissolved when she put it away. She is really out to scrap it.
"Suitcase," Vanja whispered, to keep its shape just a little longer. "Suitcase, suitcase."
The requirement to name and label things permeates every aspect of life in the colonies. Doors are labeled DOOR, along with the name of who- or whatever lies inside. Folders are labeled CONTENTS: REPORTS and CONTENTS: NOTE. From their earliest years, children learn "The Marking Song," along with "The Pioneer Song," along with a grim lesson that recounts the planet's history.
A long time ago, then the pioneers came here, they built five colonies. Now only four remain.
At first this obsessive naming seems like a form of magical thinking, or perhaps a remedy against a plague of forgetfulness. Certainly the need to write the names of things and post them everywhere explains Amatka's reliance on paper products—but not the even more urgent need to preserve "real paper"—i.e., paper made from tree-based pulp, paper presumably brought from Earth or whatever planet or generation starship was the colonists' prior home.
Yet gradually one learns otherwise. Apart from the human colonists and (I think) a few sedges and grasses, the only native life form is a type of fungus. From this, the colonists have learned how to synthesize most of the things they need—building materials, mycopaper, objects like suitcases and clothing, and food, the latter augmented by more familiar Earth-derived mushrooms, chanterelles and the like, and also some legumes.
But things synthesized from the native fungus degrade over time, reverting to a disgusting white sludge treated as a biohazard. One way to forestall this process is to constantly and consistently name and label everything. This seems to imply that, somehow, the fungus is itself affected by the act of naming, which in turn suggests that the fungus might potentially form some sort of symbiotic relationship with the colonists. The possibility of this—even the suggestion of it—is something the colonists ignore, and the committee refuses to acknowledge.
There are other things that remain mysterious. A strange lake which each night freezes over, then thaws. The unexplained deaths of a hundred colonists in a fire at the leisure center. Among the victims was the colony's premier poet, Berols' Anna, whose collections bear titles like About Plant House 3 and the even more popular About Plant House 5. (Poetry cycles by other writers include About Eight Mushroom Chambers and About Bodily Variations, along with the enigmatic About Trains.)
Vanja acquaints herself with these works when she visits the colony's library and befriends its librarian, Evgen, a red flag for readers familiar with the history of libraries and librarians in fantastic literature. Evgen is being forced to cull the oldest works in the library—those printed on real paper, and not mycopaper. Ostensibly this is because the higher-grade paper doesn't decompose as mycopaper does, and is needed for official documents. But when Evgen shares his discovery that letters and historical documents dating to the planet's colonization are being censored and even destroyed, far more sinister elements come into play, which lead to the truth behind the disappearance of the planet's fifth colony, and of the hundred people lost to the leisure center fire.
Amatka can be read on many levels: as a straightforward interplanetary adventure; as a satire on the communal experiment; as a stark warning against censorship; as environmental fable and a critique of colonialism. But mostly it's a novel about the importance of words and imagination, and how a culture suffers and ultimately declines into fascism when those are repressed or forbidden, as Vanja learns toward the book's end, when she dares to do "that shameful thing, to truly imagine that a thing was something other than it was." It's a brilliant book, and while the pages it's printed on may decompose over the years, and its electronic rendition be reduced to random jolts of light and energy, Amatka itself will linger for a long, long time in the reader's mind.
Josh Malerman's 2014 debut, the post-apocalyptic novel Bird Box, received strong reviews and was shortlisted for various awards, including the Bram Stoker Award for best first novel. Black Mad Wheel, his second book, is a more straightforward horror story, set in the decade following World War II. It features a seminal (fictional) R&B and rock and roll band, the Danes, whose members first met while performing in the Army band overseas. Back in Detroit over a decade later, the group limps along, recording their sole hit and performing in dives as commercial success eludes them. Then a shadowy U.S. military intelligence officer approaches their front man, Philip Tonka, and makes the band an offer they can't refuse: one hundred thousand dollars apiece, if they'll go to the Namib Desert and track down the source of a malevolent sound that the Pentagon intends to weaponize.
The Danes agree to the terms, despite quickly realizing they've made a deal with a (metaphorical, human) devil that may soon lead to a confrontation with an actual, supernatural one. "How much trouble could one sound be?" one of the Danes wonders.
As it turns out, a lot. First discovered in 1948, the sound's signal subsequently disabled a nuclear warhead. Two platoons previously sent in search of its source have been found dead, their members flattened as though run over by an infernal steamroller. Merely listening to a reel-to-reel recording of the sound in a studio causes Philip and the other Danes to vomit and keel over, nearly losing consciousness. Philip registers it as a feeling as well as a sound, a chord, and the chord itself as "more of a flood than a reverberation. More like something coming toward him than a song. As if the air it travels upon is scorched, rendered black, leaving a trail as wide as the studio, and maybe the entire city beyond the studio walls."
Still, a deal's a deal: a hundred grand, two weeks in the desert, and the Danes are done. Or done for.
Malerman does a great job with pacing and ratcheting up the suspense, cross-cutting between the Danes' desert sojourn and its aftermath, which finds Philip in a hospital under military surveillance, every bone in his body broken but miraculously alive, though with only a very shaky memory of what happened to him or his bandmates in the desert. The desert sections are terrific—eerie and unsettling, a bit reminiscent of Zachary Lazar's underrated novel Sway, with its bad-acid high induced by a toxic combination of Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones, Kenneth Anger films, and the Manson family, though Malerman doesn't rely on malign decadence for his effects. His descriptions of the Namib's desolate beauty are riveting, as are his evocations of what the Danes find as they begin to penetrate the area from which they believe the sound emanates. Same for Malerman's depiction of 1957 Detroit, his command of the nuances of music, sound recording and equipment, and the nature and power of music itself—unsurprising, since he's the front man of Michigan garage outfit the High Strung.
The characterizations are weaker. The Danes feel anachronistic, twenty-first-century dudes zapped back sixty years and trying to ape the jargon and attitudes of a bygone era. Philip's hospital scenes aren't as compelling as those set during the band's desert quest, especially when an unlikely love interest is introduced in his nurse, Eileen. And the ending didn't quite come together for me. As with many horror novels, there's a law of diminishing returns: the closer one gets to grasping, or almost grasping, the mystery behind the horror, the less scary and satisfying the payoff is. But Black Mad Wheel is a considerable achievement: there are scenes in this novel as haunting, and nearly as impossible to shake, as the ghastly sound that echoes through every page.
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