Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
In the new millennium’s parlous second decade, many countries could compete — should they care to — for the status of world’s most troubled place. The collapse of the Cold War’s nuclear-bracketed stalemates and the spread of destabilizing force multipliers like social media and religious extremism birthed this new reality of ever-simmering conflict and anxiety. It isn’t just outright warfare of the internal brand being waged from Syria, Sudan, and Ukraine that threatens stability. It’s also corruption and chaos potentially knocking out the underpinnings of societies like the Philippines and Venezuela. Millions of people around the world could justifiably say they fear what the coming years will bring.
Even so, Iraqis have a powerful claim on a horrendous past and frighteningly unclear near future. Since 1980, Iraq has spent more than 20 of the intervening years at war, whether the grinding and savage stalemate with Iran, a poorly picked fight with President George H.W. Bush and a devastating invasion by President George W. Bush, being ripped apart by the bloody Sunni-Shia civil war, or the current fight against ISIS. The end result of all these battles, ethnic cleansings, suicide bombings, and massacres is a people traumatized. It makes for a wretched reality but unfortunately rich topography for speculative fiction.
Unlike almost every other book you will find out there about Iraq right now, the ambitious new short story collection Iraq + 100 has little to say directly about all the nation’s recent wars. This is somewhat remarkable. As noted in the introduction by the book’s editor, author Hassan Blasim (The Iraqi Christ), “Iraq has not tasted peace, freedom or stability since the first British invasion of the country in 1914.” Still, any opportunity for Iraqi writers to get together and write about something besides the wars, even if that trauma shadows each word in this book to some degree, must be seen as a kind of victory.
That is not because there’s nothing more to say about the wars; it will be years, if ever, before that is the case. But with few exceptions, books published in English about Iraq — novels and nonfiction — have been about the horrors wrought there and the outsiders who wrought them. But for the odd refugee, interpreter, Baghdad politico, Shiite warlord, or Sunni chieftain popping in as secondary characters, the focus is usually on the foreigners. Iraqis themselves rarely have a voice. When they do, they’re often confined to whatever war or atrocity is then being waged.
The guiding principle behind Iraq + 100 was for the assembled authors to write stories set in Iraq 100 years in the future. The tradition of science fiction in Arabic is relatively thin; Blasim blames this on “inflexible religious discourse” and an overemphasis on the Arabic poetic tradition, which has “weakened the force and freedom of narration.”
To some degree, the stories in Iraq + 100 illuminate Blasim’s critique. With few exceptions, there isn’t much in the way of driving narrative to be found here, no pulp fiction adventures. But given that space opera or dystopic tales in the Star Wars or Mad Max vein have been so widely disseminated at this point, it’s a relief that what appears to be the first collection of Iraqi science fiction in English is filled with so many non-derivative voices.
Blasim’s story is a case in point. “The Gardens of Babylon” creates a world where the old certainties no longer apply. In his future, clean energy has swept the globe, leaving “Babylon” a comparatively carefree technopolis run by the Chinese and rife with decadent entertainments. Like a Middle East take on Logan’s Run, Babylon is protected by great domes from the outside, which is all sandstorms and ruins: “a desiccated relic of a bloody past, a past that was steeped in religious fanaticism and dominated by classical capitalism.” Blasim spins his narrative off into increasingly surreal tangents after that which don’t quite cohere but leave a burnt sensation, as of a collective imagination trying to respark an entire artistic tradition.
Although Blasim’s piece notes a desolate outer land, it has an optimistic angle in that at least religious extremism and fossil fuels (and fighting over both) seem to be a thing of the past. Most of the other stories here also steer clear of any fashionable dystopian scenarios. Zhraa Alhaboby’s “Baghdad Syndrome” is a magic realist piece festooned with florid storytelling and details like a weeping statue that directly draws on Scheherazade. It also makes for a powerful statement about the strength of Iraq’s horrific past, with its future society’s cheery sloganeering about erasing history: “Leave behind your names and live!”
That cheery admonition is given a darker tinge in Khalid Kaki’s short and tart “Operation Daniel,” in which a Memory Office is there to “protect the state’s present from the threat of the past.” Anyone caught speaking in an old, prohibited language was duly arrested and incinerated. But still, ancient artifacts and old songs litter the characters’ lives, reminders of the joys they lost in the safe-seeking abandonment of their legacies.
Some stories bound more carelessly about, like Hassan Abdulrazzak’s “Kuszib,” with its disposable “solar blade” transport, “terror-proof” trashcans, Soylent Green wine, and goofy security “robotic puppies” that seem like a Jeff Koons installation reimagined by a security contractor. Others have a quasi-utopian atmosphere, like Ibrahim al-Marashi’s “Najufa,” which imagine terrors from the deep past — like that of the dreaded terrorist group CAKA, “the Christian Assembly of Kansas and Arkansas” — now swept away in a peaceful and technologically advanced Iraq. Ali Bader’s “The Corporal” is a thoughtful, acerbic, Ted Chiang-like piece about an Iraqi soldier killed by an American who spends his waiting time in limbo in the peaceful city of Kut one century hence. Religion is no more, everybody lives in harmony, and the soldier watches in astonishment as the Iraqi president gives a speech about the war against religious extremism in America.
Blasim writes that he coaxed the contributors into the project by telling them that “writing about the future would give them space to breathe outside the narrow confines of today’s reality.” There is indeed room to breathe in Iraq + 100, occupying as it does such a generally hope-filled and forward-looking universe. Given the reality of today’s Iraq, with its sectarian feuds and threats ranging from ISIS to the potential catastrophic collapse of the Mosul dam, conjuring up other, freer, less hunted lives — realistic or not — feels less like a writerly exercise and more like an exercise in survival.
Not all books can make us cry and those that do are often so shamefully sentimental that we can’t easily admit to reading them, let alone crying with them. This, however, is not the case with Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, a novella-length text in three chapters, which produces in its reader tears of the most literary kind.
The book’s first two chapters concern the adventures of a set of nineteenth century figures from England and France: the most popular actress of the time, Sarah Bernhardt, the photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (popularly known as Nadar), and Fred Burnaby, a colonel in the Royal Horse Guards, a cavalry regiment of the British Army. All of those characters are devoted aeronauts and are fascinated by balloons and their machinations. Levels of Life begins in a cheerful mood, with the ascent of the trio from the ground in separate balloons. Some of them are accompanied by bottles of champagne, others by copies of the London Times and all with high hopes of witnessing great landscapes.
Burnaby and his French friends seem to have the best time, clinking their glasses and discussing whether the monarchy or the republic is the better system. Barnes does an excellent job in describing the differences between the aeronautical cultures on two sides of the English Channel. In England the Aeronautical Society’s members include a number of lords and dukes while in France the Societe des aeronautes, founded by Nadar, is more of an artistic society, listing Alexandre Dumas, père et fils, and George Sand among its members.
There are descriptions of the first balloon and the pleasure it brought to aeronauts in the eighteenth century. There are snapshots of accidents and violence, too. A young man dies in Newcastle, falling to earth from “a height of several hundred feet,” his internal organs bursting out on to the ground. Then there are references to ballooning’s cultural significance (according to Nadar the three supreme emblems of modernity are “photography, electricity and aeronautics”) as well as the political hopes it had inspired. Victor Hugo and progressives in France believed that balloons could bring democracy to the world. Barnes doesn’t seem to share their enthusiasm. Aeronautics did not lead to democracy, he jokes, “unless budget airlines count.”
There is an enjoyable portrait of Nadar, “a journalist, caricaturist, photographer, balloonist, entrepreneur and inventor, a keen registerer of patents and founder of companies.” His fascinating life story floats above Victorian history, drifting from one project to another, very much like a balloon. He arises as a man more interested in the vertical than the horizontal. Nadar’s fascination with height and Paris sewers are accompanied by Barnes’s own memories in Paris as a young man.
After “The Sin of Height” and “On The Level,” a rather flat chapter in which Barnes dramatizes the relationship between Burnaby and Bernhardt, we reach “The Loss of Depth.” Here, the cheerful historical figures of the book leave the stage to a couple (Barnes and his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh who died in 2007) who play the tragic last days of their relationship before our eyes. Kavanagh is a co-author of Levels of Life in the sense that it is above all her memory that defines and gives meaning to this text.
Barnes and Kavanagh have loved each other intensely for many decades:
We were together for thirty years. I was thirty-two when we met, sixty-two when she died. The heart of my life; the life of my heart. And though she hated the idea of growing old — in her twenties, she thought she would never live past forty — I happily looked forward to our continuing life together: to things becoming slower and calmer, to collaborative recollection.
Reading this chapter one feels as if the balloon in which they began traveling together all those years ago is now occupied only by the reader and Barnes whose job it is to look at the distance they traveled as a couple. The thirty seven days between the diagnosis of Kavanagh’s illness and her death form the emotional core here, as do Barnes’s experiences of desperation and grief.
It is the abrupt and sudden severing of a relationship that makes Barnes’s prose so unbearably intense. “You put together two people who have not been put together before,” he muses, “then, at some point, sooner or later, for this reason or that, one of them is taken away. And what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there.”
What was taken from him with Kavanagh’s death had been alluded to in different texts, but in a decisively covert manner. A quick look at some of the titles of Barnes’s most recent books gives a good idea about his experience: Nothing to Be Frightened Of, The Sense of an Ending. Although both of these books have death as their central theme Levels of Life is the first text in which Barnes tries to come to terms with the experience of losing Kavanagh.
In his essay “The Philosophy of Composition” Edgar Allan Poe argued that the death of a beautiful woman is “unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world.” That Kavanagh is dead and Barnes, a master of the English language and certainly one of the more significant innovators of the English novel, is here to tell the tale of her death, is sufficient to make these recollections poetical. For Barnes, the death of a loved one had become a source of inspiration, however painful that experience might have been. Completed four years after Kavanagh’s death, his recollections reflect not only his ongoing feeling of desperation but also his fascination with the idea of death. It is as if Barnes, who had loved words and his wife more than anything else in the world, had to endure the pain of losing one of his beloved things. This leaves him alone with the other thing: literature.
Levels of Life ends, surprisingly I think, in a light and cheerful note, with the image of France. His devoted readers will know that French culture is one of Barnes’s intellectual passions which, one by one, continue to receive the delicate attention of this unique writer.