Boy Swallows Universe, Trent Dalton

Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton
Harper (2018)
Young Adult
Rating 2/5

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Boy Swallows Universe, by Trent Dalton is a coming-of-age tale that takes place in Australia against the backdrop of poverty, violence, and drug dealing. When the story starts, 12 year old Eli Bell knows what his mother and her boyfriend are up to, and he thinks that he can make them better heroin dealers. When their kingpin overload discovers their plot, however, he takes violent action and upheaves Eli’s life. Though Eli feels as if his scheming might have cost the family, he still believes that he has a gift for noticing details, and he plans to use that gift to bring his family together, to catch the Kingpin, and to improve the conditions of his own life. 

I pined after this book for a few months. Everything about it seemed like something that I would enjoy immensely. It has a great cover and title and comes highly reviewed, and so I was sure that I too would be enthralled by it. I was wrong. In fact, this is one of the books that I have least enjoyed in a long while. So much so, that had I not committed to writing this review I would not have finished it. (I think life is too short to read books that aren’t bringing you joy.) 

What sticks out to me most about this book is just how unoriginal it feels. From the brother who is selectively mute, to the ex-convict showing up at the right moment to save the day, and various plot points that you will see coming from a mile away, there was nothing in the pages of this book to make it stand out from any other book that explores the same themes. At the surface, it seems like this book is full of twists and turns, but when you actually experience them it feels like riding a kitty coaster as opposed to the real thing. As an avid reader with an active imagination, I can often dream up where a novel is going, but this one was just too easy and felt very neat. 

Beyond its story problem, there are several elements of this book that made me uncomfortable as a reader. First, is that I do not think that this book goes far enough to highlight the consequences of illegal drug dealing when you are still an adolescent. I really don’t appreciate anything that glamorizes such illicit activities, but especially a narrative where the character still essentially gets all the unrealistic things that they want. I also did not like how the romance played out between Eli and Caitlyn—which to me felt like a teenage boy’s gross fantasy. When Eli meets Caitlyn she is adult enough to be working as a crime reporter at a newspaper, and Eli is still a young teenager. Despite that, Eli tells Caitlyn that when he is a man they will be together, and because I’ve already told you that this story is too neat, that is exactly what happens. To me, it reads as weird reverse grooming, and I cannot imagine a grown career woman going for a teenage boy as her partner—especially one that she has known since his youth.

Overall, I did not like this book, and sadly, I would not recommend it. It’s characters are too predictable and neat, the situations that it invents are too easily conquered, and the bad parts are too bad.

Only some of you will understand this, but my reign as Paula is over.  

Interested in hearing about a book that I love? Check out my review of Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler.

“Calved,” Sam J. Miller

“Calved,” by Sam J. Miller
From, Asimov’s (Sept. 2015)
Climate Fiction
Rating 5/5

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This is a futuristic tale that features climate disaster, violence, and an interesting dissection of generational poverty. At its core, however, “Calved,” is about a father’s love for his son. The father is taken away from his son for many months at a time because as an unskilled immigrant from America in a post-climate disaster arctic city the only work he can get is calving glaciers to make drinking water for the new deserts that have blossomed and withered the land across the world. Each time the father is apart from his son he feels the boy transforming into a new person, and he fears that eventually that new person will disassociate himself with his father–the source of his shame and low position in society. This makes the father wildly desperate to show his son how he is a good man, starting with giving him his only prized possession a t-shirt all the way from the sunken United States that reads “New York F cking City.” While their relationship might have been on the rocks all along, when the son seemingly loses the shirt that father’s actions have potential to truly unravel their relationship. 

This is also a story about America and immigration, but the shoe is on the other foot. Miller imagines the way American citizens will be received by the world when we are displaced from the place we thought of as our forever home. In Qaanaaq, the stereotypes citizens seem to have about immigrants mirror the rhetoric of our own society, but the vitriol is inverted. Upon first read it made the part of me that learned history through the lens of American exceptionalism outraged, and it also made my heart ache because I know that this story does not portray the possible experience of humans in the future after a climate disaster but the way things are right now in America!

As the layers of this story are pulled back, it reveals a social commentary that is multiplicitous and that goes beyond the exploration of the immigrant experience and delves into perceptions around American ideals about poverty and masculinity. The father assumes that because he can only get a job on the ice ships, because he is largely absent in his son’s life, because his skin is dark, and because he is an American immigrant, that his son’s only natural path forward is to hate him. When his son turns into a moody teenager, the father can only think that the apocalypse of their relationship is upon them. He becomes desperate to disprove the stereotypes about Americans–that they are uneducated, small-minded, brutes–he wants to prove to his son that he is a good man despite the circumstances of his social standing. The father, however, does not know how to articulate this because he cannot speak plainly about his emotions to his son. Instead, he can only connect to him by attempting to objectify women and watching violence for entertainment. This enforces his son’s insecurity about his father. He fears that his father might really be all of those things, that he is the personification of the American ideal of masculinity. This causes the son to think that he must hide who is from his father because he cannot fully perceive his father’s unrelenting affection for him. 

One of the things that I most enjoy reading about is the cost of authenticity. Typically, though not always, these stories feature a feel good moment where the protagonist has a moment of triumph with their chin held high. “Calved,” is the negative of that experience. Both the father and the son mold themselves into what they think the other expects of them because they assume that it is the best way to make their relationship work. This pretense eats a hole in their bond that very likely could be fatal and that highlights the necessity of authenticity, especially in the relationships with those we hold dearest.

If you’re looking for a well done literary climate fiction story, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story about a complex father son relationship, this story is for you. If you’re looking for a story to appeal to your sense of empathy, this story is for you. 

Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try “Remind Me to Remember,” by Emily Wells with this post.

My Top 32 PJ Harvey Tracks (32-25)

Quarantine has pushed us all to the edge of our mental capacity when it comes to boredom. Some people are thriving in this environment—establishing their blog, working on their fiction, learning an instrument, watching every episode of The Golden Girls on Hulu—while others have found themselves in a depressive creative slump fueled by fear and anxiety. Then there is me, who made a 32 song tournament to determine which PJ Harvey song from her 9 main albums is my favorite. It was difficult choice after difficult choice—but I guess that I am stronger for putting myself through it. In the end, what I found was that I love the song ranked 32nd almost as much as I love the song ranked 1st. With that in mind, I decided that I would break down the whole list for you, because yeah, PJ Harvey’s music really is that good. Seriously.

Listen to along on Spotify while you read.

32. “A Dog Called Money,” From The Hope Six Demolition Project

On this entire list, I believe that this is the only track that is not part of an album’s standard release. According to the data that I have been gathering since 2017 this is my most played PJ Harvey track. It may seem like a weird choice, but I am sure that you will find this list full of those. This track marches forward with percussion rifts that remind me of being in band in high school, Harvey’s vocals are hardly featured on the track—never appearing on their own and turned down below the male vocalists through the chorus, but that is part of this song’s power. The chorus comes from a conversation Harvey had on the streets of Washington D.C. and just as the lyrics say, he tells them what is what. “Everything is staged, that’s how it is, people are just paid and bought and I’m tired of it. What are you going to do to change it? It’s all about money, that’s what’s going on.”

31. “Dollar, Dollar,” from The Hope Six Demolition Project

There is not another PJ Harvey track that I can think of that is as visceral and real as this one. The atmosphere is built around the sounds of the busy city streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, where Harvey had an encounter with a child through the window of a car that makes her feel powerless to elicit any change. Far from the minor keys and heavy guitars of her early work, this track is haunting in its own eerie way. Its approach is minimal, the chaotic city street is far noisier than anything in the song. When Harvey starts singing, after more than a minute of the street sounds playing, her voice is in stark contrast to the chaotic sounds of the city streets. She is accompanied by long notes played on an organ and minimalistic percussion that is eventually joined by back-up singers and saxophones played in a less than conventional manner. The song’s climax comes in the form of a saxophone solo that portrays the dejected tone of the song perfectly. Leaning more toward conceptual art, this is a track worth sitting down and giving your full attention to.

30. “The Letter,” from Uh Huh Her

This song is a perfect personification of the catchy pop-oriented rock music that Harvey is so adept at creating. This song is all addictive riffs and soaring vocals that make for a fun listen. This isn’t a track where Harvey reinvents the wheel, but it’s a track that shows the wide range of music Harvey is capable of creating while still casting whatever spell over the songs that make them feel so distinctly her. Once you know this song, it is hard to want to skip it.

29. “Broken Harp,” from White Chalk

One of the most emotional tracks on this whole list, and one that shows the depth of feeling that Harvey is able to portray through her voice. White Chalk is a hard departure from Harvey’s previous records and features a more folky and ethereal sound. It is yet another testament to Harvey’s prowess and versatility as a musician, and shows that she can create songs that are vicious and raw, and also vulnerable and impassioned. This track starts with one of the most devastating vocal lines that Harvey has delivered in her career. Fifteen seconds of acapella singing, “Please don’t reproach me/ For how empty my life has become.” Like so much of Harvey’s music, the instrumentation is simple—little more than strumming on the guitar—but her sense of rhythm along with the vocals that sound wounded make for a disquieting track. To me, this song is the sound of my personal demons, of the type of failure that seems impossible to recover from.

28. “The Devil,” from White Chalk

This track is so many things—a witchy invocation, a piano ballad, a brand new singing voice (and vocal range from Harvey), a harbinger of a whole new musical direction, and a catchy ass song to boot. The opening to 2004’s White Chalk is unlike any song on Harvey’s previous albums. The hard edge of the electric guitar has been replaced by a bouquet of new instruments. Her sound has evolved, it has remained simple, and yet has turned into something that is richly complex in texture and atmosphere. All the while it is a song that at its core still feels very much like it belongs among her catalog and that acts as a perfect bridge between the first and second half of Harvey’s career. This is another track that is just hard to skip when it comes on.

27. “The Ministry of Defense,” from The Hope Six Demolition Project

Simplistic, striking, and bombastic (yes both of those words are necessary), in this track Harvey revisits an old friend from the past, the distorted electric guitar, and it is cranked up to eleven. This track is a new heavy and artful side to Harvey’s music that is attention grabbing. This is the apocalypse through the eyes of PJ Harvey, except she is writing about the real places that inspire 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project. What I love about “The Ministry of Defense,” is how interesting and fresh it is. This is an aggressive hard hitting song that is unrelenting in its melody, a crunchy riff that punctuates Harvey’s singing, which ranges from haunted to enraged. With that said, this is one of the rare tracks from Harvey that feels a little underdeveloped. Still, all you have to do is listen to this track to exactly how it earned its spot here on the list.  

26. “White Chalk,” from White Chalk

A campfire song sang by a ghost about being trapped in the place where you come from. The vocals, guitar melody, and pattering drums alone are enough to make this song great, but what pushes it over the edge for me is the imagery in the lyrics. “White Chalk hills will rot my bones,” is the only line I need to even type out for you to understand what I mean when I say that the White Chalk album features a poetic evolution in Harvey’s music. This is a song that simultaneously feels haunted by the past and that fears the future. It manages, somehow, to feel sparse and complex, busy and calm, soothing and haunted, artsy and catchy. It is a song that contradicts itself, but that only makes it more interesting. 

25. “The Words that Maketh Murder,” from Let England Shake

If you listen to the accompanying playlist I’m sure this song will come as a relief after all of the tension in the previous tracks. Of all of PJ Harvey’s music this song has to be the catchiest song she has ever written. It is hard not to sing along even when you’re hearing it for the first time. But when you really listen to this track, you’ll find that it is weird as hell. That it is an entire world all of its own. It feels genius and unique and once in a lifetime. If I could only send one of PJ Harvey’s songs into space, this would probably be one of the songs that came to mind first. Simply put, it is amazing. It also does one of my favorite things ever at 1:46 when all of the music dies away and it is just Harvey singing accompanied by the drums and the back-up singers, and then at 2:06 the music comes rumbling back in. Harvey’s music is a lot of things, but you will find very few tracks that are as dancable as this one. Despite this track being Harvey’s best pop hit, however, there is more to the joy of this track than meets the eye.

Like cheese and wine, art can be best when consumed together. Why not try PJ Harvey’s Interview with The Guardian with this post.