Sunday, March 1, 2015

Review: Seoul Survivors (2013), by Naomi Foyle

(Some spoilers).

A sleazy, glamorous near-future science fiction thriller, weaving an ensemble narrative about a conspiracy to breed a theme park of angelic humans.

I read pretty slowly, and I'm a bad judge of what feels pacey/ploddy for other people, but I think those first hundred pages might drag a little, as you move between Sydney’s, Johnny’s, Lee Mee’s, and Damien’s stories without much sense of how they will connect. Their desires and histories are fairly generously unfolded, and they’re placed in volatile circumstances, but three characters are rendered rather passive by those circumstances, while the fourth character (Johnny) is quite cagey about what he’s up to, in a “don’t give the reader too much too soon” kind of way.

It feels like there’s a lot going on here, and I sometimes felt a bit confused as to how I was being addressed, and what I was being invited to enjoy. Is it an evocative portrait of a clamouring, colourful cityscape? ‘[E]ven the pools of vomit on the steps were almost throbbing with light’ (97). Is it a suspenseful, keep-you-guessing techno-thriller? A saga driven by relationships, conflicting desire and contradictory commitments? A lyrical first novel by a poet, filled with wit, epiphany and cadence? A gross-out shock-fest? Soft porn? A blackly comic satire?

That last one’s the most promising. Seoul Survivors feels like it clicks into focus when, despite its tragic subject matter – eugenics, but also people trafficking, drug addiction, murder, bestiality, necrophilia, rape, misogynistic exploitation, grief at the death of a sibling, terrorism, ecological catastrophe, hipsters – you try to treat it as continuously tongue-in-cheek. That takes a bit of effort though. The humour is hit-and-miss at best, and at worst it is unrecognisable. The trigger warnings would probably be longer than the novel. Damien’s wrestling with the Nescafé machine (252), the semi-casual nuking of London, Damien’s ‘better to let her think he had been arrested and murdered and bear a grudge against Korean officials for ever, such dissent would do the country good’ (320), the way he describes a tableau, or perhaps a red tailored tunic-thing, as a ‘great album cover’ (339), the insistent off-stage use of Hugh Grant -- those bits were all pretty funny.

It's not that I think ‘this novel can’t decide what it wants to be’ or anything! – if it wants to be all those different things, and if it can make it work, that’s amazing. It just didn’t work for me, most of the time. Perhaps the best glimpse of what it could have been was when for a short period each of the individual stories was interesting in its own right – I think Johnny is dealing with blackmail, Sydney with her affair, Lee Mee with her runaway friend, and Damien – can’t quite remember; he may just be grinding levels to save up for a ticket to Canada at that point, but I feel like it was interesting, whatever it was.

Seoul Survivors does morph into a bit of a page-turner in the final stages. The climax is suitably harrowing and extreme, but somehow just basically really dismaying. Maybe that is simply purely the sadness of having a character you like die, and just after things were looking up too. So much of the novel has involved two vulnerable women – Sydney Travers and Lee Mee – not quite having the resources ("resourcefulness"?) to discover how they’re being manipulated. A new kind of energy opens up when Damien is drawn into the plot, an energy which is to do with skepticism, questioning and resistance. He’s doing the things you’ve been screaming at Sydney to do (honestly I'm beginning to think that fictional characters may not even understand screaming, these ones make me wonder if I should be, like, burping at them?), and it looks like there’s every chance that Sydney might start doing them for herself any minute. So it’s dismaying as hell when that energy is shut off again in such a shabby, grisly way. It does seem that without Damien’s intervention, Sydney would have probably ended up dead sooner or later, but it would have been nice to have that consolation made extra clear.

Can anyone really write good endings though? I can't think of anyone.

What else sticks out? It's so visceral. Strong emotional responses are often construed corporeally – characters who almost wet themselves, or get wet, or hard, or throw up. ‘Her own cheeks blazed, her stomach dropped away and suddenly, scarily, she thought she might piss herself. Fuck, what was happening to her? She clenched her pelvic floor muscles and stared at Johnny over the grill’ (52). I wonder if all this wrenching-of-guts-etc. could have been more effectively used if it was a bit more tightly focused on Johnny’s character? He is a pretty impressively loathsome creation, reminiscent of one of Martin Amis’s grotesques, but he might have been thrown into sharper relief if the low motives and bodily fluids weren’t quite so pervasive. (But whatever: we're all bodies. Anyway, Sydney is already very much part of Johnny’s world as the novel opens, and the gastrological prurience which kicks off Damien’s strand is one of the more intriguing elements of the novel’s early stages. Besides, gathering that goopy cloud into just one of the four narratives is probably easier said than done. There’s a pervasive sleazy glamour which has a lot to do with setting and milieu: sex, drugs, clubbing, modelling, a certain kind of arts scene).

I guess the one thing this novel knows is its strength is Seoul itself. One thing which can make science fiction good science fiction is a commitment to informational and extrapolative accuracy; perhaps that applies as much to history, sociology and anthropology as it does to science? So it also seems important to think about how well a novel like this manages its representations of cultural differences -- it's important anyway, but perhaps it's important in a distinct  way for this kind of is-it-or-isn't-it, edge-of-sf writing? So how deeply does this novel understand contemporary Seoul? Idk.

Also: this book made me feel unclean. That's not a complaint.

It was Foyle's first, and I'm interested to see what her second / third are like.

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