This is a river of fear, he wrote. The refined soul naturally veers from melodrama, but Brazil turns hyperbole into reality. There is a spirit here, lowering, oppressive, dreadful. It saps the heart and the energy as surely as the monstrous heat and humidity, the ceaseless insects, the daily torrential downpours; rain warm as blood that yet chills the bone. I find I can almost believe anything I am told of the Amazon.
[Warning: Long and rather rambling post follows...]
Some readers of this blog may remember that I read McDonald's previous novel River of Gods last year, and adored it. Brasyl once again showcases many of the strengths of that book: vibrant characters from all walks of life (and two different centuries), textured prose packed with myriad shadings of detail, and clashing perspectives - outsider (as in the quotation above), insider, somewhere in between - on what it is, and has been, and might be, to live in Brazil.
It is divided into three more or less equal storylines, told concurrently in a repeating cycle of alternating chapters, collected three-by-three under section titles like "Our Lady of Production Values" and "Our Lady of the Flood Forest". The first in the cycle is set in Rio de Janeiro in 2006. It centres on Marcelina Hoffman, a commissioning editor for the Canal Quatro TV station - that is, a purveyor of such gloriously trashy TV as Gay Jungle ("elevator pitch: can eleven gay men marooned in a stilt-house in the middle of the Amazon turn one straight guy gay?") and Getaway (her most recent idea: a reality show that revolves around luring an unwitting group of youths to steal a car kitted out with hidden cameras; they win if they can evade the tipped-off police for half an hour of high-speed chase).
As the novel opens we are pitched straight into the guerilla filming of the Getaway pilot, all breathless, jumbled action and slang-filled dialogue as Marcelina and her tech crew find that nothing will quite go according to plan. It's an effective beginning, which is made all the better by the garrulous, infectious Marcelina, her viewpoint-narration so peppy and eager it seems to spill over itself in the telling:
For a season it ruled; every other pitch at the weekly sessions was capoeira-related, and then the Next Cool Thing blew in from the bay. By then Marcelina had donated the spandex and so-last-season shades to a charity store, given the pedometer to Mrs Costa from downstairs who was haunted by a fear that her husband was a somnabulist who walked the streets kilometer after kilometer at night, stealing little things, bought herself the classic rig of red-striped Capri pants and stretchy little top and was taxiing twice a week up the hairpin road up the breast of Corcovado, upon which Christ himself stood, an erect nipple, to Mestre Ginga's Silvestre fundação. She was a convert to the battledance. Cool would come around again; it always did.
At first glance she's a shallow, attention-span-challenged airhead: obsessing over fashion, knocking back pills, Botox-ing in her lunch-hour, and brimming over with touchy-feely Californian cliche (she refers to her friends as her "alt dot family. Mediaistas and gay men"). And, in many ways, she is just this. But she's also warm, fiercely loyal, and - always one of my preferred traits in a character - sharply self-aware. (She also has a fun line in snark; again, a preferred trait.) Bar the stress of working in a field that depends on anticipating ever-fickle audience tastes and continual one-up-manship with colleagues, and the stinging criticism of a family that cannot understand why she would not want to have babies instead, Marcelina loves her job in all its crass silliness - partly because, indeed, of its crass silliness. She knows what fame is, what these created images are, but is enchanted by it nonetheless, and has been since childhood:
"My love, that was Mr Frank Sinatra."
Her mother's face had shone like the women in St Martin's on solemn novena.
One moment of silver. The flicker on the screen. Her mother had shown it to her, on the steps of the Copa Palace, in every beautiful old tune she had pumped out of the organ. Marcelina had chased, leaped for it, snatched with her hands until she caught it and held it up, shivering and flowing from form to form, and she had seen in an instant how the trick was done.
In contrast to her partner, a highly-respected crusading journalist, Marcelina reflects that she is "quite happy to pursue a career of insignificant triviality." She draws the reader in with her enthusiasm, with her silent mantra "Give me it give me it give it just give me the series" when talking to her boss, or with her on-the-hunt focus:
For the first time in months arousal flickered at the base of Marcelina Hoffman's heart. Her hangover evaporated in a puff of adrenaline. Blond ambition. Blond promotion. The commissioning merry-go-round between the main networks was spinning again.
Marcelina is aware, too, that there is a cruelty lurking beneath what she does: that the sort of reality TV her station puts out is about "the joy of public disgrace" - "the suffering of others, the freak show. Give us torment and madness, give us public dissections and disgust, give us girls taking their clothes off." But here her self-awareness fails to cross over into empathy, and she goes on doing it anyway. Her latest brainwave is to track down Moacir Barbosa, the luckless goalkeeper who became the national scapegoat for Brazil's defeat in the so-called 'Fateful Final' of the 1950 World Cup, in order to trick him into a reality TV 'trial'. (In reality, Barbosa died in 2000; this is one of several hints in the book that the Brazil of Brasyl is not quite 'our own', on which more below.)
Said futebol match - so notorious it even has its own Wikipedia page - saw Brazilian dreams and expectations crushed on home soil, in the Maracanã stadium in São Paolo, producing something of a national crisis. As Dona Bebel, Marcelina's housekeeper, puts it:
"Every true Brazilian should have July sixteenth 1950 engraved on her heart. This wasn't a soccer match. This was our Hiroshima. I don't exaggerate. After the Fateful Final nothing was ever the same again."
Later, she clarifies:
But the real pain wasn't that we lost the World Cup; it was the realization that maybe we weren't as great as we believed we were. [...] Maybe we were just another South American banana republic strutting around all puffed out like a gamecock in gold braid and plumes that nobody really took seriously.
Another character recalls seeing Barbosa being pointed out in public - minding his own business one day, buying coffee - with the exclamation, "'Look! That's the man who made all Brazil weep.'" Marcelina, of course, gives the lie to all this; she knows nothing of it until Dona Bebel recounts the story in all its national soul-searching (melo)drama. This is one of several occasions when there is a sense that (as we might expect) each person's Brazil is different - and co-existent - and that images and ideas of the country jostle against, shape, and sometimes even subsume the reality. Similarly, the Marcelina's car thieves hold their guns sideways, "in that way that had become fashionable since City of God."
Marcelina spares little thought for Barbosa's long suffering until she, too, finds herself the victim of a new reputation entirely beyond her control: a subtly-distorted image that she cannot shake. In Marcelina's case, the image turns out to be an alternate version of herself, sneaking in and out of her life to cause chaos - blowing her secret project, deeply offending her mother, ignoring her friends - and somehow managing to be flashier and more convincing than the real thing. Now, granted: an alternate-universe double would not be my first thought, either, if all my friends suddenly and inexplicably seemed pissed off with me. But it takes Marcelina an inordinately long time to realise what is going on, nonetheless.
Still, in light of Marcelina's job, and of the book's pervasive notes - in its present-day and future threads - of many-eyed surveillance and identity as mined information, it is a nice touch that Marcelina should only become properly aware of her double via a security camera feed. And once she has worked it out, Marcelina is not the sort of person to crumble; threat established, she heads out to fight back:
"Where will you go?"
"I'll find somewhere. Not home."
"How will you let me know when you've done whatever it is you need to do?"
"You'll know, newsboy." [...] So easy to stay among the books and the minimalist leather, the picture glass and the slinky little playsuits, so easy to drop everything onto him and burrow down into his mass and depth. So dangerous. No one was safe until she had the mystery under her foot in the roda.
The second plotline begins (in the present tense) in 2032, in a bigger-better-faster-more version of São Paolo, Brazil's biggest city: a hyper-real morass of media saturation, of flash and flesh and logos. The racial and cultural melting-pot of Brazil comes through more strongly here, as does the social stratification, both being reflected very strongly in the characters' lives. Crime is ever-present ("Some are born with bullet marks on their bodies, like stigmata," we are told. "Even in semirespectable Cidade de Luz murder is the most common death for young males. You properly come of age if you make thirty", although it is far from being as unrelentingly pessimistic as that might imply). So is the fear of crime, and the ever more elaborate methods of protecting against it: data protection, surveillance (the "Angels of Perpetual Surveillance [...] Sixteen sky-drones, frail as prayers", McDonald as ever deftly weaving his sfnal ideas into the cultural world under examination), and elevated enclaves for the rich ("Helicopters itch and fidget between rooftop landing pads; there are people up there who have never touched the ground").
It is a world of information, whether spied or volunteered, official or black-market; a virtual sphere in which identities legal and illegal reside:
Information is not owned but rented; date-stamped music and designer logos that must be constantly updated; [...] Every click of the Chillibeans, every message and call and map, every live Goooool! update, every road toll and every cafezinho generates a could of marketing information, a vapor trail across Sampa's information sphere. Alibis, multiple identities, backup selves - it is not safe to be one thing for too long.
Our lead-in to this era is the likeable Edson de Freitas, (very) small-time entrepreneur, wideboy, and (under the name Efrim) transvestite. Efrim has moments of gleeful flamboyance:
"Hooo honeys!" Efrim cruises in, hips waggling samba-time, looking their style up and down, down and up. "My, what shocking bad shoes." Fia and her girlfriends whoop and cheer. Efrim lets the TalkTalk roll, swaggers up and down in a mock military inspection of each in turn. "Honey, has no one told you pterodactyl toes are no no no? Oh my sweet Jesus and Mary. Pink and orange? Efrim shall pray for you, for only Our Lady of Killer Shooz can save you now."
Yet in large part this goes uncommented-upon; refreshingly, no-one (family, friends, girlfriend, the people he does business with) bats an eyelid at Edson's right to also be Efrim, and vice versa. It may be a sign that melting-pot, multicultural Brazil (or Brasil, as it is consistently called in this strand only) has more space in it for the marginal, the non-conforming, the uncategorisable; it may simply be a reflection of the protecting power of Edson/Efrim's reputation and connections, or of the places where he spends his time.
More than this, however, Edson's transvestism is very much a manifestation of Brasyl's preoccupation with identity, and particularly with multiple, juxtaposed and/or constructed identities. I have already mentioned Marcelina, and her actively-hostile double, and will note in passing that her more conventionally-minded female relatives seem to have a habit of producing twins. In the 2032 strand there is also Edson's girlfriend, the hacker Fia Kishida ("You can fall in love with someone for their shoes", Edson, not Efrim, thinks when he first sees her), of whom two versions are seen. In addition to Efrim, Edson has a third, more playful persona as Sextinho, the nickname that his older lover "Mr Peach" (Edson's longterm "mentor and afternoon delight", with whom he often dresses up to adopt still further selves) gives him. When Edson tells him about Fia, Mr Peach is not jealous, since "It's not that kind of affair; it's not that kind of city. Here you can lead many lives, be many selves" - he knows that both relationships can co-exist.
By way of pillow talk, Mr Peach, a professor, always regales Edson with "stories" of science ("Like a superhero, Edson feels he can fly, high and vertiginous, on what physics tells him about the real"). He introduces Edson to the aspects of quantum theory - parallel universes, life as information, and the very cool quantum knives (which are sharpened "down to the quantum level", and every bit as deadly as that sounds; "like a blade made from dreams") - that underpins the interweaving storylines:
Of course Edson wanted to know what was so special about photons that they had ghosts. To which Mr Peach said, Nothing. In physics the laws apply everywhere, so if photons have ghosts, so does every other particle (and these they had covered in Physics 101, years before) and everything made from those particles. A trillion ghost Sextinhos. A trillion ghost Fazenda Alvarangas, a trillion ghost Brasils and ghost worlds and ghost suns. [...] A trillion and more, vastly more, universes.
The third storyline takes place in 1732, as the Irish Jesuit, Father Luis Quinn, comes to the fledging colonial Brazil. He has been sent to confront Father Diego Gonçalves, a priest gone rogue and loopy deep in the rain forest, Kurtz-style, and "restore him to the discipline of the Order". Given that Gonçalves was adjudged "sinfully ambitious, maniacal" even before he left the bosom of the Order, it is hardly the most well-omened of expeditions. Along with the French scientist Falcon, whose diary provides my opening quotation, Quinn travels deep into the soporific, lowering landscape of the Amazon ("green and mold, water and heat and broken light [...] its horizons as distant as the next tree, the next vine, the next bend in the river. A vegetable world, vast and slow"), following rumours of what Gonçalves has done there:
"Entradas and survivors of lost bandeiras told of monstrous constructions, entire populations enslaved and put to work. An empire within an empire, hacked out of deep forest. Death and blood."
But even in the regions where 'civilised' Portuguese colonial authority holds sway, the land's reputation precedes and obscures it ("'Tell me, Father Luis, since you landed how many people have told you that Brazil is not like anywhere else?' 'Only a few dozen, it seems. And more when I was still on the ship'"). Even nature - in a further alternaity - seems driven mad; the colony's draft animals of all sorts have been decimated, succumbing without warning to a plague of "the rage" (rabies?). Quinn's observations of this colony built on slave labour and the consequent strict social hierarchy ("where resentments and attachments alike must be hidden; alluded to by codes and rituals of behaviour") are fascinating in themselves, but also in how they contrast with what we see of Brazil the 21st century. Whereas Marcelina's and Edson's worlds are filled with individual Brazilians of every colour and (multi)ethnicity, in the 18th-century version things are much more sharply defined, and confined:
The Ver-o-Peso roared with laughter as the red-faced youth in the torn shirt went reeling across the cobbles from the boot-shove to his arse. Red laughter, black laughter from the roped-off wagons and drays on the city side of the wide dock where ships and rafts from the high Amazon and Tocantins moored four deep. White laughter from the chairs and temporary stands set up on barrel and planking. From the street and the steps and all around Luis Quinn, the laughter of males. From the wooden balconies on the macaw-colored facades of the feitores' houses and inns, immodestly open to heat and regard, the laughter of women.
This may be a function of observer's bias; Quinn is, after all, coming from largely-white Europe. He also has a stronger-than-most awareness of the privilege being rich and white confers; he once murdered a black slave while drunk, and became a Jesuit out of a desire for atonement, since his own society would never dream of punishing him for an act that was the right of "that exalted class that can murder with impunity", and discipline, since he fears the enjoyment he took in that exercise of power.
Viewed by a more charitable light, in laughing at the defeat of Quinn's duelling opponent, in the quotation above, the people of different colours are all sharing a single experience. And later in this story-strand some of the boundaries are seen to break down, when Quinn and Falcon found a settlement in the Amazon, the Cidade Maravilhosa, made up largely of "índios" and escaped slaves. Given the colonial setting, however, this is still along power-imbalanced lines: Falcon begins a relationship with a woman named Caixa, and he teaches European science as the pinnacle of human learning; there are thus overtones of paternalism, however benevolent, and things soon take a turn for the less harmonious, as other figures within the City begin to build their own power bases.
The inequality in the flow of power is more pronounced in the criteria for inclusion in Gonçalves' own jungle City of God, an altogether less secular project: colour-blindly inclusive on the one hand, ruthlessly exclusionary on the other, and either way based on a system of control in which Gonçalves and his colonial religion hold all the power, and determine who fits and who does not:
"Citizens of heaven, subjects of Christ the King," Gonçalves shouted to Quinn. "They come to me as animals, deceptions in the shape of men. I offer them the choice Christ offers all: Accept his standard and have life in its fullness, become men, become souls. Or choose the second standard and accept the inevitable lot of the animal, to be yoked and bound to a wheel."
The divisions of 18th century Brazil are more stark when it comes to gender, slicing through possibilities and living space:
The white women, the Portuguese, were nowhere to be seen. Then he saw a subtle movement behind a carved wood grille at an upper window, shadow within shadow. The mistresses were sequestered in their great houses, veiled behind the curtains of sedan chairs, less free than their slaves. The men's world of the street, the women's world of the house. Casa and rua. Ways of home and ways of world. Hidden and public.
This is, of course, in marked contrast to the gender-slippage of Edson/Efrim and his bisexuality, or even ambitious, take-charge Marcelina, eschewing a conventionally-feminine life, and the physicality of her capoeira.
Two Jesuits, two Cities: here are the historical storyline's parallels and contrasts, the incipient alternaity within these different visions of what Brazil could become. McDonald never really pursues the issue of how Marcelina's and Edson's Brazils develop out of these early potentials (if indeed they do): he returns to the quantum theory of multiple alternate Brazils, the mechanism by which a given version is launched on its own trajectory, rather than exploring the trajectory itself. Quinn travels on to an encounter with the Iguapá, a mysterious ('uncontacted') people who live deep in the rain forest, by whom he is captured and force-fed a psychotropic drug that offers him a sort of shamanic spirit journey to glimpse the many possible pasts and futures of both himself and Brazil. Again, McDonald puts the tropes and popular images of his chosen cultural subject to good SFnal use (the drug also appears in Marcelina's storyline, embedded in a picture of a golden frog).
Of the three parts of Brasyl, I found Quinn's storyline the most rich and interesting - historian's bias, this time, I suppose - and also the most shortchanged. While McDonald's information-dense prose style continues to work well when it comes to conveying the feel of this place and time, the pacing and structuring are less successful. Scenes begin, end and transition abruptly, in a way that suits the zippy, snapshot pace of life in the present or future but which sits oddly with what is otherwise (and necessarily) a languid, claustrophobic trip up Heart of Darkness River. The need for a slow, oppressive build to the explosive action of the end, and presumably to maintain the page-count balance between the three strands, also means that a lot of the connecting tissue (and even some major events) happens off-camera, to be narrated back in summary later.
By contrast, Edson's storyline seems to inhabit more space than it really warrants: it has, after all, a fairly skeletal plot compared with the other two, being more a slice-of-life in the future than a complete story, and Edson's emotional arc is much less full or transformative than either Quinn's journey into revelation or the complete overhaul of Marcelina's life. Edson is much the same person at the end as the beginning; the same cannot be said of Marcelina or Quinn (or Falcon).
Indeed, I'd go so far as to suggest that Edson's storyline has the feel of McDonald treading water, or at least trying less hard than he might - since he hardly has to, being a master of this sort of thing - in comparison with the painstaking construction and layering of the others. (If pushed, I might go further: for a novel of the multiverse, Brasyl struck me as curiously un-transcendant, taken as a whole and when set against the visionary conclusion to River of Gods). That said, Edson's future São Paolo also showcases some of McDonald's most atmospherically-beautiful, cognitively-estranging description:
Beyond the shotgun shacks, the dark trash mountains crawl with stars; LED head-torches and candle lanterns flickering like fireflies. The miasma the dump constantly exudes glows blue and yellow. It is radiantly beautiful. Weird stuff here by superstition, street legend. Whispers of night visions; strange juxtapositions of this city with other, illusory landscapes; angels, visitations, UFOs, orixás. Ghosts.
Yet there is no doubt that we, as readers, hold some writers to different (higher) standards than most, and I have no doubt that it is in part the weight of expectation that has engendered my reservations. The fact remains that Brasyl is truly excellent work, one of the best six SF novels of last year, I'm sure ;-), if not the best; I would rank The Execution Channel and Black Man, and perhaps The Carhullan Army, above it. It is the sort of read that opens up vistas of imagination and empathy in the way that really good fiction ought to. It is not so much a novel about Brazil as a novel about the various overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) images and touchstones of Brazil, past and present, real and imagined, actual and potential: football, samba, capoeira, favelas, racial and religious blending and variety, hallucinogenic frogs and rain forest tribes, above all bright light and colour. In keeping with the big science fictional idea behind it - the quantum that means there is no one, 'real' world, but as many possibilities as there are observers and turning points - this is (a) Brazil(s) of the mind, of ghosts and illusions and alternaity and imagination, as much as it is a reaching after a 'real' Brazil.
And, appropriately for all these reasons and more, our climactic vision is of football fans in the Maracanã, in a myriad alternate Fateful Finals:
This thronged stadium is totally silent. Not a cheer, not an airhorn, not a thunder of a bateria or the chant of a supporters' samba. [...] A stadium of ghosts. As his eyes catch up with his ears, Edson sees something very much like weather blowing across the stands and the high, almost vertical arquibancadas, like the huge silk team banners passed hand to hand around the huge circle, a change-wave rippling between worlds, between realities, between Fluminense and Flamengo, between decades. The fans of a million universes flicker through this Maracanã beyond time and space.