It had been hot from the beginning, from mid-April, that is, when I had gone south in Howard to see the place he thought of as home; and had been surprised by the colors of the Carolina spring, the new green of trees, the purple flowers of the roadside grass, the yellow-white dogwood blossoms; and had been further surprised by the beauty -- in rust, wood-gray, faded green, and Indian red -- of abandoned tobacco barns and derelict farmhouses and barns with peaked and spreading corrugated-iron roofs.
I picked up V.S. Naipaul's travelogue of the American South in a used bookstore in Charlottesville for a few bucks. It looked interesting, especially in the context of my recent binge of listening to the Bitter Southerner podcast and the associated thinking about the past and changing identity of the South.
I loved it.
The writing is beautifully descriptive of the people, landscapes, and buildings that grace the South, yet manages to keep the prose clean and economical as well. Naipaul is clear-eyed about a history steeped in slavery, segregation, and multi-laterial racial resentment; yet while the racial past permeates the lived present, he never lets it detract from or overshadow the beautiful things either. He also doesn't run from examining ideas and identities for which great care is required to preserve the essential truth, in whole range from nuance to outright contradiction.
A fine piece of writing. It had made me want to not only read the Naipaul's other works (I had never heard of him before this book), but also to start planning my own road trip around the region, to which I'm a recent transplant and have relatively little exposure.
Great premise and I love that it's bio hard science fiction, a sub-genre of which I wish there were more shining examples. Especially given recent advances in genetics, neuroscience, and prostheses, I feel as though there are lot of questions related to the intersection of science and society that the genre could be addressing, but isn't.
The novel was written in the late 60's, and some aspects of it haven't aged well. All of the characters with any agency are educated, scientifically-minded, white men, and it was honestly difficult to tell them apart by anything other than their names and blunt descriptions. Counterpoints were Peter Jackson and Officer Willis, who had unique and well-crafted dialogue that I enjoyed reading "aloud in my head" if that makes sense.
The exposition is fairly heavy-handed, with technical (but at least interesting) info dumps roughly every other page. Like many thrillers, this novel is overwhelmingly plot-driven, with little in the way of introspection, reflection, or emotion shown by any of the characters. However, at least the hooks are laid well throughout the story -- I definitely wanted to keep reading to find out what happened.
I'm glad to have checked off a classic I've been meaning to get to for a long time. Overall: enjoyable but dated, interesting but hardly enthralling.
Despite the high praise on the back cover and intriguing premise, this novel left me feeling kinda meh.
The worldbuilding and the plot were at least interesting enough that I wanted to keep going for awhile, and I did manage to make it through twelve chapters before setting it aside. However, the characters are as flat as a Kiskashin's sense of humor, and often take actions that don't seem to be motivated by anything except it would lead to a gosh so cool scene or situation.
While intellectually interesting and many-layered, the plot and side-plots weren't tightly bound to a cohesive story thread enough for me to become emotionally invested in what was happening. It doesn't help that the star of the show, Brennan Pike, comes off as a happy-go-lucky cross between Han Solo, a leprechaun, and a cartoon pirate. The dialogue as-written reflects this. So annoying.
Highlights: expansive world-building, huge ancient alien starship, creative meshing of artificial and advanced biological life forms, interesting side plot that takes place inside a mind crystal
Lowlights: somehow manages to be pretty boring overall, despite all of the above
DNF (pg 252 of 483).
When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saaed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black rode.
"If you don't pray," he said, lowering his voice, "why do you wear it?"
They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screen-down between them, like the weapons of desperados at parley.
She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.
"So men don't fuck with me," she said.
The quote above appears at the end of Chapter One, and sums up the essence of what I like about the novel. It does equally well as an example of what turns me off as well.
I love that the setting and characters give me a unique and interesting perspective on the world, one which I seldom have access to. They surprised me, and confronted me with assumptions and prejudices that I wasn't aware I harbored, even considering myself fairly open-minded and educated about the world. In this way, Exit West demonstrates to me that there simply aren't enough diverse voices from a Middle Eastern lens that are making it into the mainstream consciousness, leading to a limited set of narratives from which we draw our judgments and conclusions about its culture and diaspora. I appreciate that this novel expands that perspective. Further, the characters are likeable and I immediately sympathized with their position, foibles, and desires.
With such strengths, it might seem odd that I am giving a rating of 3/5 stars. The fatal flow in the novel is this: despite the unique perspective and sympathetic characters, it was hard for me to feel engaged with the story itself. The tone, while sometimes genuinely funny and surprising, often just comes off as smug and cheeky to me. The style is literary and detached; even violent deaths are described matter-of-factly, and it feels like it takes a very long time for things to happen. Given the violence and suffering of the backdrop of civil war, I found myself craving something more direct, clear, and raw to bring it home emotionally.
That, or perhaps I'm just not literary enough to appreciate the excellently crafted prose when the plot feels understated and beneath the surface... I'm no pulp reader -- lack of character depth and hacked-together stocked plots do really annoy me. I do want to think when I read, but in the sense that I want to learn something new, maybe have my mind blown, and perhaps be inspired. I don't want to be craving more connection while applauding politely, as artisan turns of phrase pirouette on by.
Overall, I'm glad this novel exists, and I don't think I wasted my time reading it... but you won't find me singing it's praises or strongly recommending it to friends.