BOOK REVIEW: The Incarnations by Susan Barker. An interstitial epic set in China

The IncarnationsThe Incarnations by Susan Barker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spanning over 1000 years, The Incarnations starts in contemporary China and follows the life of a young taxi driver and his family. Wang Jun is the son of a former Maoist official whose mental illness and bisexuality estranges him from his already cold father and his manipulative stepmother. Wang Jun is married to a massage therapist and has a 10 year old daughter who aspires to be a comic book artist. The family lives in abject poverty, a stark contrast from the relative opulence of his upbringing. Wang Jun begins receiving anonymous letters addressed to him that recount in vivid detail the past lives he and the letter writer have lived, starting from the Bronze Age and up to and including the Cultural Revolution. The appearance of the letters begins to intrude into his family life in unexpected ways.
The prose style of the anonymous letters, addressed in the second person, are rich, (homo)erotic and flavored with folklore as well as historical accuracy. The contemporary scenes are beautiful rendered, full of carefully crafted characters and emotionally resonant vignettes. There is a wonderful tension between the modes of storytelling —psychologically acute portraiture and the epic, tall-tale style of the letters. This is an uncategorizable novel—historical and contemporary, magical and mundane.

Interstitial Fiction: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell & Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Bone Clocks

Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks tells the story of warring immortals through several different perspectives. On one side, the Horologists, are immortal mind forces, (not unlike Doro in Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster series) that are continuously reborn in various bodies. A nemesis group, Atemporals, live forever by vampiristically ‘decanting’ the life forces of random victims. But if you’re expecting a straightforward fantasy adventure, you will be surprised. Mitchell’s novel is concerned with an ordinary teenage girl in 1980s England and the people she comes across. Holly Sykes is a rebellious girl growing up in Thatcher’s Britain, and her concerns are her boyfriend; her over-protective Irish mum; her weird brother Jacko; and the Talking Heads’ Fear of Music. The story gets in motion when a betrayal by her boyfriend and her best friend spurs her to run away from.  Sykes’ life has intersected with with the Horologist/Atemporal in enigmatic episodes that she puts down to dreams or hallucinations. Sykes narrates the story in the breathless present tense of a self-absorbed teenage girl. The fantastic takes a back seat to the High Drama of teen angst. Then, abruptly, her story ends on a suspenseful note. Then we are thrown into the mind-space and narrative of the narcissistic, sociopathic Cambridge student Hugo Lamb. It takes a while before the significance of the character-and-scenery change to take shape, but along way, we get a realistic character study of a privileged cretin. The next character hops are: a war reporter in Iraq, a bad boy British novelist (a kind of roman a clef), and the narrative of one of the Horologists. These different stories, all monologues, operate as linked novellas. Some are more fantastic than others. The war reporter’s piece, for instance, is a journalistic current event reportage. The novelist’s piece is satirical romp of the British literary life, while the Horologist’s tale is pure speculative fiction. Sometimes, The Bone Clocks gets mired down in the mingle-mangle minutiae of its characters life, and the plot comes to a stand still. But there are sparkling scenes and strong characters to pull you through the draggy bits. It might be my favorite Mitchell novel.

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer


The Southern Reach Trilogy (comprising of the alliterative titles Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance) tells the story of a ‘soft’ apocalypse and/or an enigmatic invasion using a variety of narrative techniques that give the work deeply personal feel. The opening Annihilation is a first person account of an expedition into a transformed landscape.  It’s psychedelic/trippy nature reads more Leary than Lovecraft. It’s a kind of speculative guidebook, filtered through a biologist’s awe (in both the spooky and the amazed connotations) at Nature. Authority takes the third person-limited perspective of an interim director, sent to clean up an off-the-rails organization. It’s a kind of Kafka-esque workplace drama, full of alienation, anomie, and paranoia. The tone in Authority expands to (dark) comedy to fill out the otherworldly ambience. The concluding novel, Acceptance, ends the trilogy on a haunting note, rather than a pat and dry Hollywood ending. It’s the most character driven novel of the three, and the sections, both within and outside of Area X, are underscored with an elegiac quality. The result is speculative fiction that has real emotional resonance.

Confessions of an Interstitial Author

Sea, Swallow Me_Fotor_Collage

What type of author am I?

Sometimes, I’m marketed as a speculative fiction writer. Other times, as a black gay writer. When I self-published two stories, I cross-marketed myself as a M/M author (along with a dark fantasy tag). And there was the year when I marketed myself as a YA author dealing with the issues of bullying, racism, and homophobia.

Here’s the thing: I hate marketing myself. My preferred elevator pitch—I’m influenced by Tanith Lee, Toni Morrision, Flannery O’Connor, Kafka, Samuel R. Delany and Shirley Jackson—seems to confuse people. To me, even my ‘realistic’ fiction alludes to the fantasy fiction I love, and my fantasy/horror is deeply inspired and influenced by ‘real life’ issues like racism and homophobia. I hate the way gay fiction is often marketed—the parade of glistening torsos and six pack abs do not appeal to me at all and furthermore, doesn’t really reflect my work. I don’t want to be put in the “black/African-American literature” section of the bookstore; it limits my audience and besides my characters are not all POC (or gay, or men). My speculative fiction is ‘literary,’ and my ‘literary’ fiction has tons of allusions to spec fiction.

I think the best way to describe my fiction is Interstitial Fiction. Which only causes even more blank looks. My forthcoming book, Skin Deep Magic, can be marketed in a variety of ways. Allegory, satire, horror, magic, and Gothic forms are represented in the 10 pieces. Race and sexuality are thematic concerns. I can only hope that the book reaches its various audiences.

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