Monday, June 24, 2013

Blogging the Caine: Elnathan John's "Bayan Layi"

"Bayan Layi" by Elnathan John is a story that, for whatever reason, puts me in mind of Tim Maughan's "Limited Edition," a long SF story that was shortlisted for the BSFA award in 2012 and which I found through this review by Niall Alexander for Tor. I don't know how much of my annoyance with Maughan's story stems from Alexander's comments about the London Riots, and how much of it is in the story itself, but I did read the whole thing a while back, so that's something.

Elnathan John's story is very much about violence, and very much about perspective. The perspective allows the story to do something that I think has gone widely unremarked, on top of the interesting points already made; because of the position our narrator, Dantala, occupies, and the abstracted names of the groups in whose bame the violence is being perpetrated, it is never entirely clear that the "political thuggery" taking place is as straightforward as Dantala believes it to be. That he is excluded from the discussion at the pickup truck, coupled with Banda's cynicism is the first major tip off.

John's story, lacking the explicit political-chatter context of Maugham's, sets itself up to be received as a much more straightforward moral tale; an opposition party hires a local gang to terrorize an area into electing them, the established class fixes the vote anyway, chaos ensues.

Lurking in the background, however, there are many other possibilities. Little things, like the Big Party representative removing his affiliations because, as Dantala tells us, "I think he is afraid he will be attacked ... because he used to live in Bayan Layi too," suggest that, given the lack of access our narrator has to any direct authority, the Small Party representatives paying the kids under the Kuka Tree could easily represent someone else entirely; if not the Big Party directly, then perhaps a third party, interested less in electoral results than tactical disruptions, or proxy war with a different motive entirely.

This is not, of course, to say that this conspiratorial reading is at all necessary; only that it seems to me that the text remains open to it through its fidelity to the viewpoint it adopts. This is important; unlike the glut of information we get in Maugham's story, which obscures a moral stance that Alexander's review articulates well and positions it not so very far from the conservative chatter ostensibly being parodied within, the deep textual ambiguity of John's story means that the apparent moral of "Bayan Layi" rests on unstable ground. My sense is that "Bayan Layi" strongly resists a cathartic moral reading in this way (which is, I believe, why the Critical Literature Review accuses it of simply piling on horrors; I am also reminded of the wretched review of Tao Lin's Taipei in The Millions, which, among other things, accuses the book of failing to moralize about drugs as a point against it) despite readers of any political affiliation seeming to have plenty of content to moralize about.

The capacity to write both in and around this moral instability is ludicrously important to me as a reader, and it is something that I don't think Maugham accomplishes. In contrast, the other story which Alexander reviewed in the above link, "The Song of the Body Cartographer" by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, is a shining example, full of sentences which glance off of the story itself and suggest a near-infinite complexity just beyond the reader's enforced periphery. "Bayan Layi," I think, never quite reaches this level; contrastively it reads much more like a puzzle than a poem. Which is not to detract from John's story; they are written in very different registers and very different goals, and for what it's worth I think Loenen-Ruiz's story is impeccable, but to compare the two seems very beside the point.

I have touched very little on the violence in "Bayan Layi," and I am not quite sure what to say of it. It is perhaps the way in which the perspective is most immediately and powerfully driven home. I suspect that no one can read the descriptions of the racialized beating without reflecting seriously on the way that the limited narration shapes the story. For me this was another moment of the sort of disconnect that the story glosses over but which seems to ground it; the boy flees, Banda tells Dantala not to chase, and the boy is found dead later. There is nothing that necessarily indicates that the boy died of the wounds from the beating, or even, really, that he died at all; and yet the story does not dwell in this ambiguity, it simply is. It doesn't make excuses for its characters, but it does provide context. It even gives us the excuses that the characters, or at least Dantala, provide themselves, but without fetishizing them. The acts of violence themselves seem to me neither gratuitous nor excessive in quantity, but neither are they a disinterested cataloguing or a sociological abstraction. Which is the long way of saying that I haven't much at all to say about them, really.