On Green

Adrienne Martini, in the June 2009 Locus:

Green the book is about Green the girl, a waif who was purchased from her father and carried across the sea, where she is stripped of all that she has known, which includes her language and name. “That is the last of what I remember of that time in my life, before it all changed: a white ox, a wooden bell, and my father forever turning away from me”. The image itself is heartbreaking, but this sentence is also full of an evocative rhythm that infects the rest of Lake’s prose. The words almost have their own energy.
At its thematic core, Green is about human trafficking and a meditation on how actions always have unintended consequences. Or as Green herself points out, “Freedom has sch strange and unexpected prices”. One such price is Green as a character. Given all that she has endured and how realistically Lake uses her experience to influence her actions, Green is tough to embrace. While readers pull for her success, we pull away from her personality. She’s not, in other words, someone you’d want to have a beer with.

What’s most striking may be the volume of thought that illuminates Green. What could be a straightforward hero’s journey story is made much richer by Lake’s attention to detail, which merges seamlessly into the main action without ever weighing it down. His touch is deft when filling in the texture of Green’s world.

Maureen Kincaid Speller, in Interzone 222:

We might be in familiar territory, with Green perhaps as the unrecognised last scion of a once noble house, being secretly trained to recover her destiny, but Lake doesn’t take the easy road. Instead, the novel focuses as much on Green’s intense desire to preserve her sense of self and find a future of her own choosing, as it does on the story’s broader action. Rather than following a traditional pattern of quest, discovery and resolution, significant parts of the story are driven by Green’s attempts to find her own way, using the distorted set of skills she has acquired, and then twisted by a need for her to respond to the failures of others. People plot but they don’t plan; they achieve goals but don’t consider the consequences of doing so, and Green is wrenched from the path she is attempting to follow, having trained to become a Blade of the Lily Temple, to once again become part of someone else’s scheme. One of the striking features of this novel is its low-key but persistent emphasis on how difficult it is for women to live in this world as individuals.

John Clute at Sci-Fi Wire:

That, on the other hand, Lake’s savagely pollarded heroine never seems to shut her mouth should come as no surprise either, I guess: because it is clearly not part of Lake’s belief system, or of his writerly strategy over the long consolatory pages of Green, to treat the savageries of immurement Green suffers as a child as ultimately deforming. Wolfe, whose example has clearly shaped Green, may be the only contemporary author of American fantastic literature consistently to treat damage as damaging; Lake adheres to a sunnier version of the costs of being born in prison: that spunk will unlock the barred door.
It’s warmingly clear that Lake expects us to recognize his use of a story model closely identified with the work of Gene Wolfe. It is not a model that Wolfe himself created, of course: first person narratives couched in the form of confessions put on paper for us to read have been common since the 18th century, when they worked to affirm the truth of what was being told. There is no gap between the telling and the tale in Daniel Defoe. Nor did Wolfe create the unreliable narrator, a device of telling that becomes fully self-conscious in Club Stories like Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” (1898).

Wolfe’s innovation has been to inject a modernist problematic into all those elements that such narratives are ostensibly laid down to make clear: basic data about the narrator’s true identity and parenthood and victims and lovers and true occupation and ultimate destiny are all unreliably conveyed; the engines of transformation that actually render a small child into an armoured and dangerous adult creature can be uncovered only through inference; the motives of the narrator’s parents or owners behind the walls of the house or school or prison or skull are invariably left untold or lied about; and finally, the narrator’s motives for making his story (in Wolfe the narrator is always male) available for us to read are similarly left dark.
It is here we come to something of a sticking point, which is rage. The young peasant girl Green (she refuses to use the name her owner gives her), who has spent most of her life in a deep Skinner Box being shaped, refuses to accept her destiny. After all her travails, she tells us, “I was still me“, and my heart sank. The person we have thought she was—the aleph self gaining some dark noumenousness from her immurement in the heart of the Wolfean world she had been selected for as an infant—turns out to be a cloak that only half conceals a moderately sophisticated Liberal Humanist teenager from California with anger issues. Made berserk by the thought that she—a simple illiterate peasant lass from a subsistance rice paddy—has been bought and educated by immortals whose nature and purpose on the plate of the world we have not yet learned, Green kills one of her teaching Mistresses, scars her face so she cannot become a concubine, and escapes with Dancing Mistress into the City.

Kyra Smith at Strange Horizons:

Specifically, there are two ways in which we can interpret Green’s sadomasochistic lesbianism. We can see it as the sort of empowering lesbianism practiced by apparently kick-ass fantasy heroines or we can see it as yet further evidence that Green has been completely broken by her time of enslavement. Either reading is discomforting, the former because it strikes me as a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of homosexuality to view it as more legitimising than heterosexuality, and the latter because it implies a direct causal relationship between abuse and ‘aberrant’ sexual behaviour. In both cases, Green’s sexual preferences are reduced to something illustrative rather authentic. The upshot is that there is no sense of emotional reality to her attractions beyond shared orientation and the possibility, perhaps, that the author finds the idea of two girls getting it on a bit hot. Or one girl and a catgirl. I’m not joking.
The lack of emotional resonance can be partly attributed to the difficulties of first person narration, for Green is relentlessly, tediously first person. Constant allusions to the act of narration itself suck any tension from the story and, because Green lacks any real agency for most of the novel, the result is peculiarly picaresque—a string of semi-arbitrary incidents that may, or may not, connect to other semi-arbitrary incidents. And while attempting to ground big political themes in the personal, by entrenching the reader in a central character, is admirable, the ultimate effect, in this instance, is to simply put all the big, exciting, world changing events at a distance. Green herself is not exactly pleasant company—she’s cold, mistrustful, misanthropic, and self-absorbed to such an extent that the supporting cast are all bland, fuzzy figures in whom it is nearly impossible to invest.
I think I would have had less of a problem with Green had I been able to shake the suspicion I was meant to think she was awesome. She does kick-ass fantasy heroine things like kill people, sleep around, win fights and be Chosen By The Gods (yes, she’s that too) and her only flaws are the sort of flaws it is acceptable for a strong woman to have—i.e. she is a little bit impulsive, a little bit ruthless and just too gosh darn stubborn sometimes. Because of this, and her general disinclination to give a damn about anyone else, she never felt like a real person to me.

Karen Burnham at SF Signal:

Jay Lake’s Green is a character-driven fantasy with enough action to satisfy the most blood-thirsty of us. The important part is Green, the girl, the heroine, the character we come to love and root for. Fate buffets her, and few heroines really maintain their agency in the face of the forces arrayed against them. But Green manages to struggle through and we get to enjoy watching her do it. Even when the plot fades into the background, it’s enjoyable to watch her learn and grow.

She’s not perfect–she makes a lot of immature fuck-ups and occasionally you just want to smack her–but when you consider her age (the book covers her life from roughly age 3 to perhaps 16) you can understand it. Who among us always made the right call as a young teenager? But here’s the really important part: Green is an amazingly Competent Woman; she can dance, fight, sneak, kill, cook, sew, account, philosophize, and more. She’s also gorgeous, of course. This reminds us all of so many female heroines throughout literature. I’m thinking in the past of Heinlein women and just recently in the character of Jin Li Tam in Ken Schole’s Lamentation. However in Green, Lake takes us through all the steps needed to create that woman. It is a very unpleasant reality.

Terry Weyna at Reading the Leaves:

I greatly enjoyed reading the last two-thirds of the book. Lake writes in Green’s voice to great effect, exploring her confidence and her self-doubt, her determination and her self-pity. The story told in this segment, if seemingly different from the story of Green’s upbringing, is exciting. For me, though, it simply did not work as well as the first segment. I became so invested in seeing Green gain her freedom that once she did, nothing else seemed quite as interesting. It’s an interesting writing problem: how does one achieve such a goal and still make what comes after seem of utmost importance to the reader? Lake does not seem to have figured that out. Again, the rest of the book is enjoyable, but it seems so very different from what went before that it must be noted as a major flaw.

Daniel Hemmens at FerretBrain:

It gets worse, considerably worse, when she returns to her home. Suddenly Copper Downs goes from being not merely more affluent than her homeland but objectively better. Green states, quite clearly, that:

My captors had been right. Rather I should have been on my knees thanking the Factor for what he had taken me from.

Now I know that this is partly Green giving in to despair, but nothing in the text challenges this conclusion. It’s rather an object lesson in the dangers of taking on too many genre stereotypes at once.

Had this been the story of a white man who was taken away from his pseudo-European farming village and conscripted into the armies of the Dark Lord of Evil then I would have been overjoyed to find him returning home to realise that his long lost homeland was a poverty stricken shithole and his father was a bastard who never cared about him. It would challenge the assumptions of a genre that frequently glamourises poverty, and it wouldn’t have any creepy overtones (unless you want to make a big thing about militarism).

Make the white man a south-Asian woman, however, and you start getting into difficulties, because now you’re not saying “being poor sucks” you’re saying “being foreign sucks”. Turn conscription into slavery and you’re not saying “you might be better off in the army than on a farm” you’re saying “you might be better off as a slave in Europe than as a free man in your own country.” Add in the courtesan angle and you’re saying “it is a good thing for south-Asian women to be sold as sex slaves to European men.”

I hope I don’t need to point out that this really isn’t okay.

20 thoughts on “On Green

  1. Wow, that’s… quite the range of responses.

    I was sufficiently disenchanted by Mainspring that I suspect I’ll hold off until someone whose judgment I trust tells me it’s worth the effort.

  2. Isn’t it just?

    I was tempted to try to organise a proper round-table, but don’t really have the time right now. I’m sort of hoping a number of those reviewers will turn up in the comments and debate with each other, though. ;-)

  3. Everyone else is wrong!

    How’s that?

    (And I can see how this book can be read umpty dozen ways. And I still think it all falls apart in the last 1/4.)

  4. I think that that last comment not only massively over-states its case, it also completely fails to follow.

    Firstly, I don’t think there’s a racial element to the moral dilemma he is outlining. If Lake’s idea is that sometimes its better to be a well lookd after slave than poor freewoman then I think that idea holds across cultures and races without either of those factors really modifying the idea.

    It’s not racist to suggest that a poor south-east Asian person might be happier as a white man’s slave than they would be working on their own farm because it’s not the being south-east Asian that changes anything. It’s the reality of poverty and the importance of freedom to happiness. If one is sometimes better off as a slave than a free person then it follows that sometimes south-east asian people are better off as slaves to white people.

    What would be racist would be suggesting that south-east Asian people are more likely to be happy as slaves to white people than white people would be as slaves to south-east Asian people.

    South-east Asian slaves are images that tap into the imagery of colonialism and neo-liberalism. In fact, neo-liberalism posits the idea that south-east asian people ARE better off as slaves to white interests than they are working for themselves on their own farms. To confront that kind of moral calculation is not racist, it’s timely and politically interesting. Lake may well fail to develop that theme in any detail but in principle it strikes me as unfair to lambast him for engaging with a timely moral dilemma especially on such poorly thought-out and knee-jerk grounds.

  5. It’s like the blind men and the elephant, isn’t it? Everyone saw what she wanted to see in this book. Hemmens saw it through a post-colonial lens. Smith missed everything in the book but the sex in one of the weirdest reviews I’ve ever read. Clute grabs the elephant’s trunk and sees Gene Wolfe. I focused on the structure of the novel.

    Frankly, I think it’s a compliment to Jay Lake that his novel can be seen in so many different ways — that it is sufficiently rich to contain all these viewpoints (and then some).

  6. Jonathan – I think Hemmens’ remark is profoundly dishonest.

    He moves from enslaving the white male (might be better off) to enslaving a nonwhite male (might be better off) to sex-enslaving a nonwhite female (it is a good thing).

    Shifting terms like that invalidates the entire argument. “might be better off” does not equate to “a good thing”. Given the original conditions of the nonwhite female’s life, it is equally arguable that this slave “might be better off”. This is not to say it is a “good thing.” A “good thing” is a thing that should be done. “Might be better off” refers to the fact that even a thing that should not be done may yield a tolerable outcome.

    Under no circumstances can Green be taken to suggesting that what happened to Green was in any way “a good thing”. It was a bad thing, a thing that should never be done, yet the novel suggests that even after all her bad experiences, Green can legitimately wonder if she might be better off now than if she had remained in her childhood home.

    To suggest that it is possible that good might come out of bad is not to advocate bad or suggest that it is actually good.

    And to suggest that enslaving white/males might be justifiable in a way that nonwhite/females can not be is an exceptionalism to which I take exception. The justification of slavery can not depend on identity politics.

  7. Terry, did you click through to Dan Hemmens’ review? It covers a lot more — the post-colonial bit is just what I quoted.

    It does strike me that if Clute is even half-way right about how unreliable Green is, it becomes a very difficult book to talk about. As opposed to, as is already clear, a difficult book to talk about.

  8. I originally said this:

    “Green follows the general trend of Jay’s work over the last several books, as his technical chops continue to improve. This is a solid offering with a strong first person voice. That it didn’t really push my buttons is more on me than on the author. The author more or less did what he was setting out to do, but most of what was being done I didn’t really care about. I’d have preferred it if there were less time spend in the narrator’s childhood and less in her head, but it would not have been the same book at all if those things were true.

    I thought that the related story [at tor.com] was stronger, but both are worth reading.”

    But upon reflection, I think that I was struggling for something positive to say. I think that lacking the external frame (Wolfe’s end-notes and intertextual comments), we can’t really guess at where the narrator is being unreliable so you get comments like this one, from the strange horizons review: “Also she’s eyebrow-raisingly mature for her years.” That may not have been so, if we had better access to woman who’s writing down the story. She tells us that her memories are foggy, but they never seem so. Is she inventing these details from later experience? We can’t tell, because Lake never gives us any clues.

    Also, I think that Smith, while weird, has a good point: all of the sex in this book is wrenchingly _off_, in one way or another, and very little, if any of it, rings true as normal sexuality, other than the basic details of interaction. All of the intention seems a little icky and look-at-this-weird-shit-I’m-writing-innit-sexy.

    All of this said, it’s been months since I read the book, and it could be that it’s just souring in my memory because I’m tired almost to death of fantasy novels focused on too-wise ninja badasses and I kind of wish the genre could get beyond violence and war sometime soon.

  9. Wow. I was directed to this link by the author’s twitter feed. Lake simply stated that the excerpts represented a range of reaction. Let me also say that the the two reasons I read this book were (1) it was part of John Scalzi’s ‘Big Idea’ reading list (not alone sufficient cause for me to purchase it) and (2) that the author has significant experience with cancer.

    I don’t know what is the intended ‘theme’ or the ‘lesson’ of this book, but it certainly doesn’t need to have one. Kyra Smith’s review, which I had read earlier, seems to focus on sex to the exclusion of other elements in the book that are extremely successful – especially the character Endurance. I do, however, agree with Smith about some of Green’s inexplicable perniciousness at the age of three or four.

    My experience with the book was extremely positive. I found that, although the main character is not terribly sympathetic at all times, the massive turn of events that makes up the transitions between the three main acts (and the ending) was so dramatically satisfying that it literally made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I found Lake’s prose to be so compact and efficient, as if not a single word had been wasted.

    The economic style went well with the careful and sparing use of magic and religion. The book existed more as a grand piece of unfamiliar music that drew me in despite its horror and difficulty. I was, at the outset, not happy about reading the story of a slave who was routinely beaten. But my own endurance paid off, and the thunderous ending made for a grand conclusion. Thus far, it is my favorite book of the year, perhaps all the more so for the trouble it has caused.

  10. Lois — Yeah, I thought that too. It’s one thing to say that a poor person might be better off as a slave and quite another to say that poor people should be enslaved.

  11. Terry:

    As Niall says, there’s more to Dan Hemmens’s review than his issues with Lake’s treatment of race and colonialism, and in fact I think Niall may have done the review a disservice by quoting what it probably the weakest part of it rather than its much stronger (and more persuasive) analysis of Green‘s treatment of sex and gender.

    I’m also curious to know why you consider Kyra Smith’s review one of the weirdest you’ve ever read. I haven’t read Green myself, but if there’s one bit of consensus among these widely divergent takes it is that issues of sex and sexuality are prominent within it. What’s weird about a review that examines the novel’s statements on these issues through a feminist lens? For that matter, isn’t saying that Smith ‘missed’ all other aspects of a novel a rather contentious way of putting it (not to mention inaccurate – both Smith and Hemmens comment on the problems they had with the novel’s first person narrative and its characters)? It’s hard not to read your comment as saying that political readings of a novel are less valid than purely aesthetic ones, even if the novel itself is heavily political.

  12. Re: Hemmens. I hate to pile on, but isn’t this a bit of intentional fallacy? I.e., I don’t feel comfortable saying that Lake believes what Green is saying in that passage. Rather, I find it easy to believe that a person who has spent 10 years of a roughly 13 year-old life trapped amongst people who partake of the highest levels of privilege in their world would find her homeland a bit lacking by those standards. I read it as a way in which she internalized the values of those who raised (enslaved) her — certainly not so hard to believe, and not exactly an endorsement of slavery.

  13. I read the entire Hemmens’ review and did not find it stronger or more persuasive at all. It was just what the quoted passage had led me to expect.

  14. A few people have mentioned not liking the ending. For me, it’s a symptom of a larger problem I have with many sf/f books: it’s a perfectly good book, and then at the end of the story they have to SAVE THE WORLD! It’s as if the author is afraid that the rest of the plot/characterization/world-building will be all for nought unless the stakes are THE ENTIRE WORLD!

    Could just be me, though.

  15. Karen:

    I.e., I don’t feel comfortable saying that Lake believes what Green is saying in that passage.

    Why do you need to? The implication can be there whether or not Lake believes it or intended it.

  16. I guess I was reading Hemmen’s post as saying that Lake is stating, through the mouthpiece of Green, that being a slave in Europe is better than being free in Southeast Asia. However you are absolutely right: the book can imply lots of things that Lake may or may not believe. Which I guess is why Hemmens has to say things like: “Once more I should say very, very clearly that I’m not actually calling Jay Lake a racist.” over and over again in his post.

    However, I do *not* believe that “Green” must be read in the way Hemmens does. He points out: “Taking a step back, it is possible that Lake is aware of all of these issues, and that the whole book is working on a much more subtle level. It is possible that the extent to which Green internalises the prejudices of her captors is supposed to be her final tragedy.” And that is much closer to how I read it. i.e. I do not believe that the narrative (or Lake) endorses the reading that Hemmens thinks it does.

  17. Abigail —

    I thought the Smith review strange because I absolutely did not read this book as being only and solely about sex. I also do not find it insulting to all women everywhere that a female character in a novel finds mildly sado-masochistic sex to be enjoyable. And in the context of this novel, I did not find a sex scene between a human and a non-human (one who is, I should add, very most definitely *not* an animal, and one with whom Green has had a long and happy relationship before sex ever comes into it) to be somehow disgusting.

    I don’t think it’s fair to call that review a feminist review, either. It’s not. It’s a sex-oriented review with a huge chunk of feminist outrage thrown in for good measure.

    And based on the excerpts above (I did not go back and reread each review in full, but also in my memory of the reviews I read in full), no one else cited here read this book as a book that is mostly or even prominently about sex. Political readings of books are fine, but the text should support the reading — rather than be merely the reviewer’s hobbyhorse, as appears to be the case here.

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