Review: Recursion, by Blake Crouch

(reposted from the Washington Independent Review of Books – for tons of great reviews, book news, and interviews, click here, then keep clicking)

Every speculative fiction author is a high-wire artist. But it’s even worse than that: no matter how high, windy, or impossible a circus stunt might be, a tightrope walker at least has terra firma anchoring the beginning and end of their journey. And they have a net.

Not so with the authors of stories that bend our recognizable world out of any shape we know. Not so for the writers who strain what-if to the limits of suspending disbelief. In speculative fiction, there is almost every way to get it wrong and so very narrow a thread to cross to get it right.

Blake Crouch carves out his own pedestal by getting it absolutely right with Recursion.

(Warning: This book is so good, I’m about to do that thing where the fizzy drink overflows its glass.)

Recursion follows a scientist, Dr. Helena Smith, who has pointed her powerful brain at the hope of using technology to help Alzheimer’s patients retain their memories, and Barry Sutton, a cop whose life is defined by memories of his daughter’s terrible death and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage.

When Helena’s research draws the attention of a visionary billionaire, his plan to develop her life’s work beyond anything she’d considered sets the fate of the entire world balancing on a string. And the spheres of planets, even more than high-wire artists, don’t teeter safely on a hair so fine.

At a modest 336 pages, it’s astonishing the amount of intriguing, adventurous, terrifying, emotional, philosophical, and even inspirational ground this book manages to cover. One might expect it would take a doorstopper stack of pages to convince us to play along with such a wild reach of make-believe. But Crouch wastes not a word, and at zero sacrifice of lyricism.

Case in point: early on we meet Gwen, Barry’s colleague and confidante, on the eleventh anniversary of his daughter’s death.

She slides off the stool and embraces him, the faint smell of sweat from her ride combining with the remnants of body wash and deodorant, resulting in something like a salted caramel.

He says, “Thanks for checking on me.”

“You shouldn’t be alone today.”

She’s fifteen years younger, in her mid-thirties, and at six feet four inches, the tallest woman he knows personally. With short blond hair and Scandinavian features, she’s not beautiful exactly, but regal. Often severe without trying. He once told her she had resting monarch face.

Every character is just this clearly drawn and every scene orients the reader with this kind of precision. The pedal gets buried in the floorboard from the first chapter and there is no coasting all the way through to the epilogue.

One of the book’s most impressive achievements is that the hinge-pin technology that drives this story is a fantastical extrapolation from a few crumbs of real-life scientific breakthroughs. Helena’s machine (and its application) is the big ask here, the thing you have to believe. It inspires each player’s greed or good intentions. There is no story without it.

If the presentation of the mechanics had been muddled, no amount of clever scene description and snappy dialogue could have saved Recursion. But the capabilities and implications of Helena’s invention are explained in a way that ports with the reader through every plot twist. We don’t doubt our understanding of it. We never have to double back to ask wait, how does all of this work again?

It’s almost impossible to overstate in a nonspoilery review how impressive this feat is. What Inception did for dreams, Recursion does for memories, but arguably a bit more cleanly.

And it kind of had to be that way, because Crouch wasn’t content to come off merely undaunted by the task of mapping out a heady techno-thriller. No, he had to go for the throat. Or the tender heart, as it were. Threaded through the plot’s whiplash and satisfying turns is a love story so poignant and wrenching, it should rattle any armor against the mushy stuff.

Set in both contrast to and in concert with unimaginable-yet-believable horrors (seriously, if you think worldwide death and destruction is as bad as it gets, do let Blake Crouch’s imagination take yours out for some exercise) the partnership of necessity between our heroes carries this tale to its conclusion. Along the way it blooms into an epic devotion between two people that holds lessons for us all to the very last page.

Recursion is reportedly already under development for Netflix by Shonda Rhimes and Matt Reeves, and that’s great news. But this feels like one of those times that there’s no besting what the author has put on the page. The screen version(s) will be good. Maybe even great. But I can’t stress enough how much you’ll want to take this on in book form first. It has instantly slotted into the ranks of the very best fiction I’ve ever read.

Blake Crouch may be a daredevil, unafraid of any speculative heights, but he’s definitely an incredibly talented writer and thinker. His surefootedness with the spectacle that is Recursion is well worth every ooh and aah it collects. Bravo. *standing ovation*

 

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The Mind Half-Empty or Half-Full: A Tale of Aphantasia

code-matrix

 

I saw a post on Facebook where someone had come across the term “aphantasia”. It’s the label for the phenomenon of not seeing images in the mind. An estimated 1 – 3% of the population have limited or no sensation at all of mental pictures.

The meme was expressing dismay (and the comments, a deep sadness) over all that aphantasiacs must be missing. This post was specifically imagining a terrible loss in the experience of reading without having the words on the page make a movie in your mind.

Well, I’m aphantasic. And it’s not sad at all. It’s only hard to explain. But I’ll try.

I know what things look like. When I’m seeing the world with my eyeballs, I process visually like everyone else. But there’s nothing that feels like vision in my memory or during invention—in daydreaming or while composing fiction. I can’t see anything. I don’t even really quite know what that would mean.

When I’m remembering or wool-gathering or writing a scene, I’m doing that other thing about what the world looks like: the thinking about it thing – which is a completely different beast.

Everything that’s taken in through my sense of sight becomes something different once it’s in my head. There’s no picture, per se, to recall. It’s kind of like that raining code in the Matrix. I mean, I don’t “see” a code like that either. There’s this altogether separate sense that serves as a transcription for everything that’s gone from visible to conceptual.

Scientists only coined this term in, I think, 2015, and I first ran across it last year. It’s something I’d been trying to describe my entire life. What’s really funny is that this whole time, I thought everyone else was being metaphorical when they said they saw things in their minds. I thought that calling it vision was a convenient shorthand like even I use—oh, I can picture suchandsuch or I can just see him doing that.

I didn’t know I was an oddball. (Seriously, I’m not sure how many times I have to learn that lesson.)

I’m not missing out, though. I get to hear, see, smell, taste, and feel things the way everyone else does. But all the recorded regular senses, the information that’s delivered in them, is translated into a distinctly different sensory property—a bonus sixth one, if you will, of What Things Are Like.

What things are like and what they look like are slightly different. It’s analogous to the difference between seeing something and recognizing it. Those two sensations are similar (and usually related) but they’re not the same thing. The experience of recognition is different from the physical sense of sight. There’s something else going on there, a non-visual component. That’s what I have instead of pictures in my head.

I feel it like a magnet pulling metal shavings around a thought, giving it shape. Remember that toy? It’s like that. Except it doesn’t look like that. *sigh* This is difficult.

I don’t have images in my mind, but there’s a separate device, a comprehensive catalog of recognition, as vivid and developed—and pleasurable when it’s pleasing—as my other senses. It’s a trove of what things are. Does that make sense?

When I read, I don’t ever bother trying to put together what things or people in the stories look like. I mean, if there’s something where the fact of what it looks like is important to the plot or character, I’ll certainly take note of it. But the description of things translates to me as what it’s like to be in that place or in that body, or the sense of what it’s like to have that fictitious emergency or salvation or despair or triumph.

It seems that for most people, imagining what it would be like to not see pictures with their thoughts is this awful, black, cavernous loss. But it’s nothing like that for me. I have a very rich internal life and imagination. It’s just different from what, as far as I understand it, most of you experience.

And, luckily, reading is a singular pleasure in synthesizing that sense of recognition from words alone.

If someone came to me with a pill or a potion and told me it would give me images to go with my thoughts, I’d only take the medicine if it were guaranteed that I could go back to the way I was before, if I found I didn’t like it. From here, the only way I’ve ever known, I can honestly say that vivid visual imagery sounds kind of unpleasant. Distracting. Rushed.

I love being in my head. I love how it feels considering things with that other, translated sense in my mind. It’s an important, even treasured, facet of my experience of being alive.

It’s almost hard for me to imagine how you normals do it. But I’m starting to, ahem, get the picture.

A New Prized Possession & The Title of My Next Book

Now I have another thing to run back inside for should my house ever go up in flames.

All the people under my blazing roof will get sorted out first, and the guinea pigs, too, with or without my help. I’m only half-heartless. So we’ll start after that.

This was the list of what felt irreplaceable before today:

– my wedding album

– my double-dragon pendant

-my sister-in-law’s quilt

my wolf’s head sculpture

-and Lovey (You can read about Lovey here, and yes, I very well might run into a burning building for him. Who’d risk being haunted by that?)

And I might grab my computer, too. All my stuff is properly backed up, but it’s such a pain in the ass to set up a new computer, it might be worth a little smoke inhalation to be able to skip that.

Anyway. Now there’s something new.

See, the MacGuffin in my next book is a nearly four hundred year old painting—Landscape With Obelisk, by Govaert Flink.

Landscape with an Obelisk

 

That painting was part of the largest theft of personal property in the history of personal property.

On March 18th, 1990, as St. Patrick’s Day spilled over into National Hangover Day, two policemen rang the bell at the closed-for-the-night Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. They said they’d received a disturbance call. The security guard let the cops in and, spoiler alert, they weren’t actually cops.

The museum guards got themselves tied up and the robbers spent just under an hour and a half liberating thirteen pieces from their frames and cases, to the tune of over $500 million.

And the artwork hasn’t been seen since.

Now my book doesn’t deal with the famous heist, per se. It doesn’t speculate who might have done this, or suggest a fictional investigative path for this notorious crime. But it does a what-if on the idea that a viral video reveals a glimpse, in a suburban home, of one of the lost pieces.

Landscape With Obelisk, is—in some estimation—one of the lesser treasures taken that day. For more than three hundred and fifty years, it was assumed to be a minor work by the Master, Rembrandt van Rijn. It’s not. It’s an imitative effort by one of his students, Govaert Flinck, a fairly terrific portrait artist who never made it big.

Nobody really knows why the thieves took it. By 1990, the art world had known for years that it wasn’t a Rembrandt, and there were much more valuable pieces that were left untouched, although the faux policemen had free rein in the museum for quite a while that night. The theft of the Flinck remains one of a number of things we can only shrug about where the Gardner heist is concerned.

But it made me imagine a story. So I wrote it.

And then I had to title it.

I like coming up with titles for my work a little bit less than I like getting MRIs. I can take a Valium for the claustrophobia and deal with an MRI.

Valium doesn’t help with titling. I tried.

This poor book went through no fewer than sixty-eight title suggestions. (I think it’s probably more than that. I’m pretty sure I just deleted some of the lists in teary fugues over the months.)

Do I believe in Divine intervention? Define ‘divine’ the right way and I might. Of all things, and after more hair-tearing than I’ve ever done over a title, a quote by the Master himself, Rembrandt, surfaced:

“Try to put well in practice what you already know, and in so doing, you will in good time discover the hidden things you now inquire about.”

Et voilà! The book is called THE HIDDEN THINGS.

It fits beautifully. The title nods and winks at the secrets in the story, and the discovery of those secrets, but also at the personal arc of one of the main characters who discovers essentially a superpower unleashed at watching herself do something impressive in the video. And she sees it all from outside herself, the one vantage point that would normally be forever hidden from her.

But Rembrandt’s quote also eloquently captures something I truly believe about life: You’re never starting from zero. Whatever the universe lobs at you next, you’ve been preparing for it since your first screaming breath. It may not feel the match of what eludes you or surprises you. It may not feel like enough. But the facts and intuitions you’ve been taking on board since Day One have set you up for the next thing. You know how to learn.

So not only did this quote save me from having a book with a blank cover, it made me—for the first time in my entire life—want an inspirational wall hanging.

I had his words put on a plank for my office wall.

Maker:0x4c,Date:2017-10-10,Ver:4,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar01,E-Y

 

And now, a confession.

I was so geeky about it that this plank is cut to exactly the dimensions of Flinck’s Landscape With Obelisk—71cm x 54.5cm.

Worse than that, the incredibly patient and wonderful people at The Blue Spruce Decor Co. cut the wood into three sections, just like the dimensions of the three oak panels that make up the stacked backing under the ancient gesso that Landscape With Obelisk is painted on: 20cm on 20.5cm on 14cm.

I like to imagine his master’s words were always there, hidden under the painting, and I have them now, discovered, beside me while I work on whatever I can’t title next.

This thing pleases me—a lot. It’s one of a kind. So I guess I’ll have to run back in during a conflagration. I suppose that’s the price for ever getting to be this pleased.

(And seriously, if you have a quote or a lyric or a saying you love and might like to have close at hand for your own inspiration, Danielle at The Blue Spruce is wonderful. She works with you enthusiastically to get exactly what you’re looking for. I wholeheartedly recommend them. It’s a beautiful piece.)

Occasionally, I write a poem…

It doesn’t happen often and I actually wrote this one a few weeks back, but I was just reminded of it, because my house is popping and creaking and startling me while I’m trying to work. The other day, from down the hall, I heard the sound of someone walking across my guestroom floor.

No one was there, of course. Of course.

 

Preview

I glimpsed the ghost in me
The rattle and knock
The cold spot already brewing
The foreknell in the floorboard
that does not yet squeak

Second sight and sixth sense
A pocket full of night

I test the balance of the trinkets
on the shelves
I wick the oil from the hinges
in the doors
I map the playground
of the small, fine hairs
at the back of your neck

Vanguard angry
for the time

When I am nothing but
a will peeled off its way

 

-Jamie Mason

 

 

 

Back to the Read-A-Thon that really wasn’t

So, it feels like a thousand years ago that I gave away copies of MONDAY’S LIE in exchange for reading assignments from the winners. But really it was only January.

Life rather shook things up, so the timeline of the original read-a-thon was, well, blown up. I am, however, completing my assigned reading as I can. It’s great fun. I love this contest and the books it leads me to.

I can mark off another on the list, LITTLE BEE, by Chris Cleave

Little Bee
This book was hugely successful and there is no mystery to its fate. It’s beautiful.

It’s the story of a Nigerian refugee who stows away from hell on earth in a shipping container bound for England. Adrift as an undocumented alien, Little Bee seeks out the British couple whose one and only interaction with her on a beach in Nigeria changed the lives of all the players forever.

Stunning, funny, insightful, and heart-breaking, LITTLE BEE is simply amazing.

Magpie moments: what catches my writer’s eye in real life

Many to most people are storytellers. It’s what we do, for any number of reasons – to report, to inform, to entertain, to warn, to make it so that everyone who comes after doesn’t have to start at zero. We don’t stand on the shoulders of giants as often as we stand on the shoulders of stories.

But for those of us prone to fiction, for those of us whose reports are things that simply never happened and never will, it’s funny what real life offers up as inspiration.

A few days ago, I was on an airplane. The captain announced that we’d all been good citizens and had got situated and accounted for in record time. He said we’d be able to pull away from the gate a few minutes early. So we did.

As we backed out from the jetway, there was a bit of drumming at the right side of the plane. The clatter was enough to have me say to my seatmate, “Ah, the reassuring banging just before takeoff.”

We laughed.

The plane rolled forward and headed to the runway. The banging didn’t stop. In fact, it picked up tempo and insistence. The flight attendants exchanged quizzical looks over their seatbelt seminar and we all realized, at just about at the same instant, that the frantic thumping was coming from the floor.

The flight attendant sprinted for the cockpit, calling to us as she ran, “Everybody stomp on the floor so he knows we hear him!” Presumably, this would keep him from having a heart attack, the poor soul who had landed himself locked in the undercarriage. He was clearly concerned for his safety or else he really, really, really didn’t want to go to Atlanta for some reason.

The plane stopped and someone let him out. Then we were back to normal and off to the friendly skies.

For fiction writers, there are a lot of embers there, in a lot of genres, glowing away in the heart of that little campfire tale. You could blow on any one of them and spark a story to life.

For me, I was caught on the thought of how adrenaline-spiked that man must have been. How hot did his blood burn when the plane started forward and picked up speed? Was he the sort who would laugh it off over a beer later that day, or is he still having nightmares even now? Did it strengthen his faith in the world, that things usually work out fine, or did it rattle him into a nervous wreck? Does he carpe diem more now, or does he check a dozen times that he’s locked the door and turned off the oven?

And how much mileage does he get out of the story of the day he almost went to Atlanta in the bottom of a 737? Is it enough to change a man?

It’s one of the best things, maybe even the very best thing, about being a fiction writer: the possibilities are endless. That’s also one of the harder things. If anything can happen, well, anything can happen. You have to herd those cats and bend the focus onto a rail that makes a beginning, a middle, and The End.

You have to wear blinders to keep on task, but also know when to snatch them off when you’re stuck or the plot is getting stale. You have to pick the right words to make the writing worthy of the imagined thing.

Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” It’s true and that’s the hard work of the job. But the fun of the job is getting to be the guy who gets stuck in the belly of a plane without having to be the guy who gets stuck in the belly of a plane.