by Dave Wheeler
Recently, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of being kept awake at night by books. Not that I’m especially an early-to-bed-early-to-rise-er, but there are few instances where I’m doing much more than watching television in the midnight hours. (Curse you, Misfits!)
When you work at a bookstore that keeps late hours — 9pm, 10pm, 11pm, oh my! — spending another hour or two with another book isn’t always in the cards. It’s the harsh truth about book work: books become work. Not always. And not completely. I’m sure video game designers by trade can attest to some level of disinterest in their own recreational gaming from time to time. And with the quality of television programming these days being as superb as it is…
I digress. What I meant to say was books don’t always hold my interest at the end of the day, but last week I was up until 1:30am reading Alif the Unseen. Multiple nights.
At the risk of gushing too much about a local author I follow on Twitter and may see both at work (books! who’d’ve thought?) and around town, I must say that G. Willow Wilson’s first novel impressed me to bits. I’m not sure if it was the deft interplay between themes arcane and technological, the way each character surprised the others as well as the reader, the thrilling pace of fantastical events, or the careful demystification of places and ideas foreign to my own that endeared me initially. Not that such an order is required.
A prolific author of graphic novels and a memoir, Wilson received one of this year’s Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Awards for Alif the Unseen, and very much deserved it. Alif, the protagonist, is a hacker who serves a wide swath of internet users in a heavily censored nation, surrounded by desert and riddled with both human ideologues (imperialists, anarchists, Islamists, communists, technocrats, etc.) and fiery spirits (jinn and demons), some seen, many invisible. And when Alif’s network falls prey to the government at large, he finds allies in unlikely places and power in a mystic apocryphal text, while desperately avoiding arrest and incarceration.
This book is a trip, and a trip worth taking! Like I said, very rarely am I so taken by a narrative that I spend my late night hours in their pages. It may be an odd pairing, but the last book to do this to me was Justin Spring’s biography of writer, tattooist, and “sexual renegade,” Samuel Steward: Secret Historian. For his spectacular investigation into one gay man’s life in the middle of the 20th century, Spring won an award, too: the 23rd Annual Lambda Literary Award for Gay Biography.
Samuel Steward, while fiercely secretive about his homosexuality and his numerous escapades in an age of extreme homophobia and discrimination, managed to network superbly with literary and artistic movers and shakers internationally. An author and artist himself, his dossier of friends included, but was not limited to, Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, George Platt Lynes, and Alfred Kinsey, all the while fastidiously keeping another dossier of more explicit relationships, called his “Stud File.”
For the sake of this post, I could say that, for me, hidden lives make for the most compelling stories. Or that people who live and move outside the scope of established or privileged societies resonate so well with me because as a reader I often feel unseen, an outsider, even fictional, in relationship to the very real events happening on the page — if I wanted to be all meta about it.
But I don’t think that’s it. I don’t think that’s it at all. I think it’s more like this: What keeps me reading late into the night is a freaking good book.