Discontinued books — Anathem and As Meat Loves Salt (34,35/107)

Back in August I was telling one of my random hookups about my 107 books project and he asked, “Which one are you least looking forward to reading?” And my answer was, “Uhm… none of them?” Because I wouldn’t have bought them if I didn’t want to read them, right.

New answer: these two. Books that I bought Because of Reasons (Neal Stephenson; gay romance), started, put down, and now dread the prospect of picking up again. So, deciding that life’s too short, I gave myself permission not to finish them. That was years ago, so my commentary here is filtered through a rather long lens.

I probably would have read even less of Anathem than I did except I was on a ten hour plane trip, and so more or less a captive audience. I read for about half that time, had barely scratched the surface (this is one of his doorstops), and eventually decided I’d rather stare at the seat in front of me and let my brain generate its own content. It’s not bad per se, but I wasn’t interested in the main character, didn’t seem likely to get interested in the main character, couldn’t really tell what the setting was supposed to be, nothing was happening, and it was shaping up to be one of his Neal Stephenson Does Serious Business Literature books. Dude, knock it off and write another Snow Crash.

As Meat Loves Salt, by Maria McCann, is historical fiction set during England’s civil war. The main character is a man named Jacob, who joins the army after some shit goes down and he has to get the hell out of Dodge, meets another man named Christopher (Ferris, he’s nicknamed) and they embark on an affair that — dollars to donuts, cuz I haven’t actually finished it — ends very, very badly.

I am a huge fan of protagonists who are basically good people but end up doing terrible things. Because they think it’s necessary. Because they weren’t thinking at the time and only realize the ramifications later. Because they may be good at heart, but their upbringing has left them with a thoroughly skewed moral compass. The reasons for it are endless, and endlessly fascinating. (Shortlist: Felix in Sarah Monette’s Melusine, Calanthe in Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu books, Yuri in Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird)

This is not quite that. To wit: in the first scene of the book, the people of Jacob’s village are dragging a millpond to look for a body, because a girl went missing some days back and they’re thinking she might have drowned. They don’t find her, but let’s just say that Jacob’s the only one not surprised by the body they do find. Then he steals a bunch of money, rapes his newly-wedded wife, beats his brother nearly to death, and leaves both of them to hang and goes off to hide in the army.

By which point I was like, “You know what, I think you’re just a bad person doing bad things.” o_O

He really is. Not straight-up evil, but he has a staggering lack of empathy for other people and feels that being angry is sufficient justification for whatever violence he does them. That makes it hard to cheer his relationship with Ferris (who initially seems far too nice for Jacob and you’re like “NooooOOOoooo just stay away from him!”, but is later shown to be rather fascinatingly manipulative) because seriously, this guy doesn’t deserve a happily ever after, he deserves to hang.

And yet, McCann’s writing is damned good, immersing you in the gritty reality of Cromwell’s war-torn England and what it feels like to be so intensely in love when society has no framework for that kind of passion. (The lead up to their hooking up is pretty excellent, make no mistake.) McCann does one of the best jobs I’ve ever read in writing accurate historical attitudes to sexuality, without filtering the characters through modern conceptions of being gay. A line that I liked:

I was a fornicator, of unnatural appetite, in thrall to an Atheist. I repeated the words in my head and tried to feel the shock of them, but they remained strange and cruel, far removed from Ferris and me. It was simpler to say I was in love.

After that, however, the writing is on the wall that This Will End Badly and that it will be the characters’ own damn faults, which is a trope I don’t enjoy. (People doing the best they can in a bad situation and still falling short: marvelous. People making damn stupid decisions for motives I can’t sympathize with: not so much.)

So, I think I’m good to quit while I’m ahead.


Coming up next: review of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which was fucking phenomenal.

16 thoughts on “Discontinued books — Anathem and As Meat Loves Salt (34,35/107)

  1. I am so with you on As Meat Loves Salt. I tried reading it, got maybe halfway through and decided I really didn’t like either of the characters very much, and knowing the English Civil War, couldn’t imagine a satisfactory ending that didn’t involve bloodshed and tears.

    Also, YES to The Sparrow! One of my all time memorable reads.

  2. I got it shipped to me when I was living in Japan, and then lugged it back to the states half-unfinished — in retrospect, should not have bothered.

    And ohhhhh, but The Sparrow was good. Can’t believe it’s been there all this time, sitting on my shelf untouched while I’ve read so much else that was crap. Wish I had some way of knowing which books I should skip to, and which ones I should just plain skip. -_-

  3. I’m a librarian so I read a lot of everything some of it great, some forgettable. Let me get a nights sleep and ill try to comevup with something you haven’t read!

  4. I’ll have you know that it won the Economist’s Best Book of the Year award. Therefore it is Grate Literature and we are illiterate philistines.


  5. I’ve tried three different Stephenson books and got 100+ pages in to them and . . . wandered off. Whatever buttons he pushes in other people, he seems to just miss the mark with me. I can’t find the characters, the plot, OR the setting engaging enough to continue reading. (Which vexes me, as I can see why people like him but can’t get there myself.)

  6. Which books of his have you tried? Because I am a big fan of Zodiac and Snow Crash, enjoyed Diamond Age but to a lesser extent, and the rest of his books I can take or leave.

    He gets the most acclaim for his Serious Business Doorstops, but honestly, my money’s on Zodiac. It’s got a wonderfully engaging and snarky protagonist, it’s short, it’s FUN, written before he started trying too hard to be all meaningful and literary.

  7. I loved Zodiac; I think I bought about 4 copies as presents for other people when it first came out. So I’m with you there. And (interestingly enough) I bailed partway thro’ both Anathem and As Meat Loves Salt. Anathem – I could stay interested as long as the characters stayed in the citadel / church, but as soon as they went into the wider world I really struggled. Meat Loves Salt – yes, the end is as sour as you’d think. (I have no problems with skipping to the end of books.)

    If I remember rightly, Bastard out of Carolina is on your booklist; this is one amazing phenomenal book and I’m looking forward to seeing what you make of it.

  8. Glad to hear it! I’ll do that one next. :)

    Tradeback fiction is at the top of the queue right now, because it’s bulky (trying to get rid of stuff before I move) and I can generally knock them out faster than nonfiction.

  9. Yeah, I even liked “The Big U”– Stephenson’s career started out so humble and playful and fun, and then took a turn into the kind of books where it seems like an engineer wanted to write a collection of essays about some cool scientific and mathematical and historical ideas, but then turned it into a particularly bad and clumsy novel in a transparent and misguided attempt to attract a wider audience.

  10. I found As Meat Loves Salt incredibly compelling. I thought it was really brave of McCann to write two such flawed and unpleasant characters, and a real break from pretty much ever other novel ever written in the history of the world where the protagonists are essentially decent, or at least experience some sort of redemptive character arc throughout the course of the story. I can’t say I enjoyed it exactly – for all the reasons you state – but it really, really stuck with me afterwards. The end I would say is the best bit. It’s just horrible and, I guess, kind of inevitable, but still somehow wrenchingly sad. Car crash ending certainly. Horrible, horrible, but hard to look away from.

    I did then buy it for two of my friends and both of them were like: Dude, why did you buy me this really depressing and nasty book? Hm.

    I also thought she was masterful at writing sex scenes that were subtle and brief, yet still incredibly erotic.

  11. I do not disagree one jot about her sex scenes — the attraction between Jacob and Ferris as it got hotter and heavier was far and away the best thing about the book.

    And I think it hits a particular kink of mine, which is being gay in an era in which gay was not a thing, where you don’t even understand what it is that you’re feeling, but not knowing the words for it doesn’t stop you from feeling it anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that those were the Bad Old Days and I wouldn’t trade being queer now for being queer a few hundred years ago, but there is something… excruciatingly poignant about finding that kind of love when as far as you know, the two of you are the only ones in the world who’ve ever felt that way.

    (The BBC mini-series of Tipping the Velvet did it really well too — that breathless sense of wonder at mapping utterly uncharted territory.)

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