In the end and despite its flaws, The Incarnations is an entrancing novel that will keep you interested and engaged from the first page to the last, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a masterful balance between imaginative storytelling, insightful social critique, and a sweepingly revisionist national history.
New York: Touchstone, 2015.
Welcome back! Other projects—two academic conferences, a dissertation chapter, a research trip to London, editing and mailing a literary journal, and prepping for a new job, just to name a few—kept me away from reviewing for this blog at my usual pace. I mention these activities not as an excuse, or its equally sinister cousin the humble-brag, but only to explain my absence and hopefully exemplify my happiness at having returned to the task of reviewing good books!
This week’s novel has been sitting on the nightstand next to my reading-chair (if you don’t own such a piece of furniture, you are missing out one of life’s real pleasures) since last Christmas, and I’ve only had a chance to get back around to it this month. Although it’s a bit of a throw-back at this point, I think Susan Barker’s The Incarnations certainly deserves a little bit of late praise, especially since Barker’s star seems to have faded since her book’s publication in the England in 2014 and here in the States by 2015.
What first grabbed my attention in this novel was Barker’s original and vibrant writing style. She has a way of describing locations, characters, and interactions in ways that can be electrifying to read:
Every night I wake from dreaming. Memory squeezing the trigger of my heart and blood surging through my veins. The dreams go into a journal. Cold sweat on my skin, adrenaline in my blood, I illuminate my cement room with the 40-watt bulb hanging overhead and, huddled under blankets, flip open my notebook and spill ink across the feint-ruled page. Capturing the ephemera of dreams, before they fade from memory.
A few paragraphs later, we get the same kind of linguistic shock and tenacity as before:
Newsprint blocks the windows and electricity drips through the cord into the 40-watt bulb. For days I have been at my desk preparing your historical records, my fingers stiffened by the cold, and struggling to hit the correct keys. The machine huffs and puffs and lapses out of consciousness. I reboot and wait impatiently for its resuscitation, several times a day. Between bouts of writing I pace the cement floor. The light bulb casts my silhouette on the walls. A shadow of a human form, which possesses more corporeality than I do.
Yet, to focus on Barker’s writing style alone is to miss what makes The Incarnations. If the novel has one particular setting, it could be placed in 2012, just before the start of the Beijing Olympics. I hesitate to call this period THE setting because one of the key features of this book is the way it plays with time and history. In one sense, it follows the life of Taxi Driver Wang Jung, his wife Yida, and their young daughter Echo. In spurts and flashes, we see Wang’s troubled life from birth, his relationship with his distant mother, abusive father, and vindictive stepmother, and eventually his own complicated home life with Yida and Echo. These seemingly mundane moments are interspersed with a series of letters, written by an anonymous, mysterious author, that purport to recount Wang’s own past lives. And, as readers discover throughout the novel, these lives are not wholly divorced from the one he currently leads; instead, they are deeply intertwined at the most basic level with his every experience.
The concept of reincarnation and how Barker so effectively weaves it into the novel form is what makes The Incarnations a book not be missed, this year or last. Each of Wang’s past lives recounted by the invisible epistolist occurs at a different point in 1500 years of China’s history. Barker glides through multiple dynasties, across the sprawling Chinese geography, and she convincingly portrays everything from floating boat cities to a Lord of Flies style Moaist school yard. Deeply rooted in historical detail, this novel is one where journeys into forgotten villages, the bathhouses of concubines, and barber shop fronts for prostitution seem genuine and lived in, rather than the stuff of fairy tales or morality plays.
On top of the creative capacity Barker displays in this work, perhaps the most important contribution this novel makes to modern literature is its portrayal of China itself. Barker makes it clear that a country massive in geography, culture, and population, must also have an equally sprawling underbelly. Setting the novel just before the Beijing Olympics—where China attempted to rebrand itself as a modern, first world nation that has thrown off the violent shackles of Maoist revolutionary zeal—only makes Barker’s focus upon the millions of Chinese who must exist as the dregs of society, as the castoffs of a corrupt system, that much more compelling. This is not to say that Barker entertains a long bash session of Chinese culture and history; rather, her novel gives us a look into the daily lives of average Beijing citizens, and particularly into the different standards of living (and standards of morality) afforded to those who have Party affiliations. Whether she is right or not about these portrayals is difficult for this reviewer to judge, though Barker did apparently live in Beijing for several years while writing this book. Still, at the very least, Barker uses her novel to provide a different image of Chinese culture and history than Western readers are probably accustomed to reading, and for that alone, this novel should not be overlooked.
Some reviewers have compared The Incarnations to Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and while I wouldn’t go as far as that, I would agree that Barker’s storytelling prowess certainly reminds me of Rushdie in her technique and imagination. As readers should be able to discern from my review of Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, I love a good story. Even moreso a good story within a good story, within a good story; like ogres, onions, and club sandwiches, great stories needs layers. And Barker can seamlessly interweave multiple plots, while simultaneously slipping into backstory, myth, and narratives of personal and national history that all eventually branch back into themselves in ways that rival even the best in such craft, like Salman Rushdie, for instance. Moreover, these narrative streams merged together so perfectly that I often felt buoyed by the current of her words, carried along almost without any effort of my own, and that is a skill not to be overlooked or underestimated, especially for a young writer only on her third novel.
With The Incarnations, Barker has produced a wonderful novel that has flown under the radar of most readers, and although I would wholeheartedly recommend to my readers that they pick it up (for all the reasons mentioned above), I must also admit that the book has some significant problems as well. Most glaring of all is the problem with Wang Jun and his life as the central story around which the other narratives revolve. To put it bluntly, Jun is not a terribly interesting character, and unfortunately, he remains overly stagnant throughout the novel. When confronted with new ideas, issues, problems, or circumstances, he remains stubbornly the same in ways that have less to do with making a point about his character and more about the writer not seeming to know what she wanted to do with him in the first place. This problem is multiplied tenfold by Barker’s ending. While I won’t spoil it for you, I will say that the conclusion seems forced and reads like the last resort of an author who does not know how to tie together all of the loose strands still hanging between her fingers.
The other key problem with The Incarnations is that, try as our author might to keep it spicy, sex in literature is often boring. This is doubly true when people seem to be having sex every few pages. I’m not a prude, nor do I sneer at sex in novels as immoral, unconventional, or out of place. Literature itself, and novels in particular, are about the human experience, and anyone who thinks sex isn’t a central pillar of human life needs to have their head checked. This does not mean, however, that constant sex scenes, particularly those that emphasize the brutality of the act, are necessarily useful as storytelling devices. Much like films that struggle because of too many fight scenes or too much CGI, Barker’s novel uses sex too often, to the point that it often distracts from the story at hand, while at other times, it completely weighs the narrative down. To be fair, the novel’s conclusion implies certain reasons for the repeated sex scenes, but overall, The Incarnations could have been improved by an occasional focus on some other aspects of the human experience.
However, in the end and despite these flaws, The Incarnations is an entrancing novel that will keep you interested and engaged from the first page to the last, and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a masterful balance between imaginative storytelling, insightful social critique, and a sweepingly revisionist national history.