Reviewed by Justin Goodman
by Lavie Tidhar
ISBN: 9781616962142, May 2016, Trade Paper
At the opening of Lavie Tidhar’s newest novel, Central Station, is a geometrically simple but deeply difficult to understand map. Its function—unlike the maps that J.R.R. Tolkien would spend his life sketching—is not to immerse the reader in the richness of detail, but to highlight a lack. There is no longer a border between Israel and Palestine and, in its way, the novel is ensconced in the wearing away of all boundaries over time; the eponymous station acts as a through line between the once vying states instead, a planetary division swallowing the continental. “This great white whale,” Tidhar calls it in reference to Herman Melville’s Pentecostal Moby Dick. Which is apt. One could repeat Ishmael’s very words about Queequeg’s home when describing it: “it is not down on any map; true places never are.”
With this new novel, the cosmopolitan Tidhar turns away from the noir that drove his award-winning Osama, The Violent Century, and A Man Lies Dreaming. Those who appreciated the Dashiell Hammett/Raymond Chandler scrubbed into a pulpy Po-Mo alternative reality resembling a lighthearted Phillip K. Dick will still find that in Central Station through Achimwene—a bookseller in an age when books are antiquated commodities—whose life “had been a Romance, perhaps, of sorts. But now it became a Mystery” when he meets and falls in love with the data/memory vampire (alternately called “strigoi” and “shambleau”) Carmel. For the most part the story focuses on his sister Miriam though, the operator of a shebeen (bar), and the legal guardian of the manufactured child Kranki who leads to her meeting her ex-lover Boris Chong.
All these characters exist in a telepathic field called “The Conversation”—excluding Achimwene who was born nodeless, “without which one was worse than blind, worse than deaf”—which spans the universe. Between the “memcordist” whom record their experiences for the perusal of others in the Conversation and an economy heavily indebted to a virtual reality game called “Guilds of Ashkelon,” its position as a stand-in for the borderless internet is a bit heavy handed. Though not as heavy-handed as Tidhar’s attempts to satirize religion through Crucifixion, an addictive substance: “Motl needed faith. He needed it bad.” While the name becomes grander and more meaningful by the end, the build-up and revelation are intensely unclear. Perhaps lacking the philosophical muddiness and reverence for religious ideas Dick would utilize in his later works (The hallucinogenic, specifically religious The Divine Invasion in particular, although homage is paid to Ubik).
If this sounds overly-complicated, that’s because it is. Central Station suffers from the line between two contrary aims. On one end, to evoke traditional science fiction’s expansive focus that mirrored the progression of the sciences. Consider how Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Frank Herbert’s Dune series followed the progression of generations. Boris Chong fled to Mars to escape “Wei Wei’s Folly”—his grandfather requested of the semi-magical being, The Oracle, that his memories (and ergo all the family memories) be passed on—only to find he not only couldn’t escape it, but he has to return home because his father has been destroyed by the overflow of information. In Vladmir Chong’s words, “I am, already, memory.” This story is brilliant by itself. A perfect encapsulation of the Croatian academic Darko Suvin’s idea that true science fiction should frame a hypothesis.
Only, in Central Station, we are absorbed in a mesh of urban realism. The romances (Boris & Miriam; Achimwene & Carmel; throwaways Motl & Isobel) and tangential characters (Ibrahim, a junkyard owner glorified as “The Lord of Discarded Things”; Ezekiel, a ‘robotnik’ whose war memories provide a chapter to the book and context for strigoi) suggest a horizontal purpose closer to Junot Diaz’s debut short story collection Drown. Drown is unlike, say, Asimov’s Robot series (which ‘robotniks,’ as robot-people forced into vagabondage by peacetime, lovingly mocks along with films like Terminator and Robocop) precisely because it paints a place in time as opposed to a place over time. It’s a thin line. That’s the point of Central Station, after all. Our conceptions are limited, and enlightenment is regularly post-mortem or premature. I will be honest. The difficulty of loving this novel is the difficulty of reviewing this novel. There’s too much of it, too little time with it. There’s a reason Golden Age science fiction novels were at least 300 pages long. How perfect it is that Vladimir Chong, admiring the landscape on his way to his assisted suicide, realizes “how quickly and startlingly the landscape changed in so small a place. It was no wonder the Jews and Arabs fought over it for so long.”
About the reviewer: Justin Goodman graduated from SUNY Purchase with a B.A. in Literature. Having moved from Long Island, he now lives in the City with reviews in Cleaver Magazine and InYourSpeakers, and work in Italics Mine, 360 Degrees, and Counterexample Poetics.