Saturday, May 29, 2021

Robert Nichols, Daily Lives in Nghsi-Altai (2017)

This was the last book to be published by the late, much-lamented Verbivoracious Press. Nichols was a poet and activist, not to be confused with the better-known British poet by that name. His second wife, Grace Paley, was a rather better-known writer. This book consists of four linked novellas from the seventies: Arrival (1977), Garh City (1978), The Harditts in Sawna (1979), and Exile (1979). Additionally, there's a prequel, Red Shift, which I think was published sometime in the nineties, but about which the introduction is really unclear about. Considering how little documentation there is of this work, you'd think they'd've tried to do a better job.

People describe this cycle as a "utopia," but I'm not so sure. It has utopian elements, definitely, but, well, it's certainly an ambiguous utopia, which yes, is the subtitle of Le Guin's Dispossessed, and guess who provides a glowing blurb for this book? So there you are. Well, basically, there are three Western visitors to Nghsi-Altai, which kind of seems to be in the Tibet/Bhutan region, but which also seems to have coastline, so also somewhat like southeast Asia. These vistors are William Blake, Jack Kerouac, and Santiago Álvarez. Kerouac is fairly quickly killed off (probably for the best; he was after all a horrendous misogynist) and replaced by William Morris. The idea is that these guys all represent different strands of leftist thought, though that remains an underdeveloped concept. You might think from that this is a really zany, fantastical work, but aside from casually tossing in these temporally disjointed writers, it's realistic in its depiction of an unreal society.

Well, that's mostly true. Red Shift is definitely the oddest of the lot (and therefore, possibly, the most interesting?). There's a lot of poetry, and a lot of material that clearly seems to be criticism of the Vietnam War, making me wonder: was this <i>really</i> written in the nineties? We meet the characters and learn about an eco-terrorist organization and some of the motivation for wanting to see a different society. Not bad.

Arrival is when the characters have arrived in Nghsi-Altai itself, living in the rural regions, and are sending reports back home. The country is a kind of radically decentralized anarchist state, highly reliant on renewable energy, which honestly isn't that different than visions of the future we may be familiar with, but what the hey. It's fairly interesting/entertaining. Gahr City expands on this, as now we're in the big city. It can be a bit dry in places, but I definitely applaud its general ambitions. For a utopia, there sure is a fair bit of crime and corruption and surprisingly harsh punishments for them. Well, utopia is only something you can approach asymptotically. Most likely.

The Harditts in Sawna, I have to admit, is where the book started to lose me a bit: the Westerners basically disappear, and we get a lot of sociological stuff about the Nghsi-Altains (what's the proper demonym here?), and I have to admit, I found it a bit of a slog. Not much to hold onto. Still, Exile ends things on a relative high note: the idea is that when the society is out-of-balance, families are forced--by random drawing--to go into exile to restore said balance. can that be a feature of a utopia? Hard to say. So there's that--the Harditts are being exiled, and there's also a bit more from the foreigners. More hermetic poetry. Some history of the region. And that's about all she wrote.

I don't know; I'm glad to have finally read this. It seems like it would be the kind of thing that would be right up my alley, and I can easily imagine that if I'd been exposed to this earlier, it might've figured in my doctoral work. But it DOES get really boring in places which I know is not exactly a scholarly judgment, but what can you do? Still, credit where do: this really is unlike anything I've read before, so for that, it automatically gets extra points.


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