Saturday, October 19, 2019

"Disintegration" by S.E. Soldwedel - A Review by Carlo Alvaro

More than a Story, a Literary ‘Singularity’

By Carlo Alvaro

Disintegration by S.E. Soldwedel. Inkshares (2019). Paperback 412 pages, $ 14.71.

On its surface, S.E. Soldwedel’s Disintegration seems a series of interweaving adventure tales. They take place in an indefinite future. The adroit narrative leaves the reader free to interpret. To one, it may be a traditional, hard-boiled sci-fi story that at times is reminiscent of Aliens and Blade Runner. To another, it may be a perverse hallucination akin to Jacob’s Ladder or In the Mouth of Madness. It is both cinematic and literary at once.

Soldwedel doesn’t moralize. He doesn’t indict his own characters. He lets them damn or redeem themselves—often both, in one order or the other. We could say that we don’t know what he intended, but it seems a conscious choice to allow the reader to project his or her paradigm. The way we think affects the way we perceive the media we consume. Soldwedel understands the subjectivity of perception, and he exploits it to create a rich, ambitious tale rife with moral ambiguity.

There is no singular protagonist. Instead, this is an ensemble drama. Soldwedel skillfully interweaves these storylines without dropping any threads. The brevity of certain chapters and a lengthy hiatus of one storyline only add mystery and pique intrigue. This aspect of the book is the one that I like most. Why settle for a simple, comfortable story? Rather, Soldwedel’s tale is the literary equivalent of taking a trip through a wormhole: terrifying, fascinating, compelling! While an Einstein-Rosen Bridge underpins the entire premise, he sends the reader through a series of figurative portals to arrive at surprising but satisfying destinations. We travel these warped paths with the various characters, feel their discomfort, experience their perversion and, in a few cases, their redemption.

In this text, I see subversion. At the same moment a misogynist might revel in depictions of violence, a more discerning reader would recognize that the heroes of this book are, in fact, its women. Soldwedel’s lens unflinchingly examines things from which most people would prefer to turn away. He seems to be saying that, yes, humanity is capable of great ugliness but the only way to confront it is to pay dutiful witness to the evils that we perpetrate. What good does it do us to ignore them? He posits that our champions should be those who have experienced abuse, know trauma, and have persevered despite. And who—rather than continue the cycle—lash out at the engines of oppression that churn out the men and women who perpetrate such abuse.

One character, Ada, is a counselor by trade and she is the most emotionally intelligent of all the players. Even still, she is averse to commitment, polyamorous, and bisexual. Further, neither her sexuality nor that of any of the characters is played for titillation. Instead, Soldwedel uses sex to develop the characters—to reveal how they act at their most vulnerable, and how they prey upon or protect the vulnerabilities of others. By some estimations, Ada might be considered a “minor” character, but her influence upon multiple “major” and “minor” characters is so profound that I consider her one of the most important figures. She is, in many ways, the conscience of the book.

Playing with and against Ada is Carina, an Algerian refugee turned soldier, whose late, French father served in the same military. Carina smolders with rage borne of trauma, and of resentment that she had to pretend to be French to join the martial empire that she reluctantly serves. One of the many striking things about her is her size. Soldwedel describes her to be over six-feet tall and powerfully built, enough to dwarf many of the men she encounters. She also presents as a militant, misandrist homosexual, but is so beautiful that the men around her refuse to withhold their “appreciation.” It’s a fitting anecdote for where we find ourselves, at present. It can be read as an endorsement of certain trends, but the author doesn’t vilify the villains of that paradigm. Instead, the narrator is neutral. The characters speak for themselves, and even the bad actors are permitted their moments of nuance, exhibiting even beneficence and empathy.

Though rife with coarse language, there is beauty and elegance in the prose. The narrator is not just neutral but erudite, whereas the characters are as aberrant and multifaceted as real people. Soldwedel’s creations are so credible as to seem real—even those who are not human. The aliens are allegorical, though not in a trite way. The author knows the razor’s edge upon which dance such trappings of science fiction, and he manages to keep them balanced. They neither fall off one side into the absurd, nor off the other into belabored self-consciousness.

Disintegration is the work of a writer who understands craft and that all contrivances are products of ego. Yet, it is rare for a debut author to have seemingly barred his ego a place in the narrative. At the very least, he’s prevented it from infecting the book with the sort of obvious wish-fulfillment that damns the early work of so many writers. As such, the novel appears to be a labor that has undergone many iterations. Parts of it indicate a certain brash youthfulness, which might to some audiences seem puerile. Other parts—the characterizations—boast deep understanding of the human condition.

I won’t leave you without a taste of the plot itself. The back cover tells us of a world in disarray, the victim of a long conflict that hints at an immortal architect, which imbues the fiction with an element of the fantastic. It then teases a plan to restore order, but not before an assassination. There are elements of political intrigue, global war, and personal betrayals. It’s an ambitious work. But it works. What holds it together are its well-drawn and eminently relatable characters, even those whom you may wish not to like. I look forward to Soldwedel’s further output. A debut of this caliber promises even greater things to come.

- Dr. Carlo Alvaro has been teaching philosophy at New York City College of Technology of the City University of New York since 2011. He has also taught at St. Francis College and at Kean University. He’s the author of Ethical Veganism (2019) and Raw Veganism (forthcoming, 2020).

Copyright©2019 by Carlo Alvaro, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Songs of Story Men - Vaneshran Arumugam and Emmanuel Castis

Vaneshran Arumugam (left) and Emmanuel Castis (right)

ON Saturday, 28 September we held the fourth Moral Sense Colloquium, which focused on cross cultural morality, human and animal. As part of the program, two seasoned actors and musicians from South Africa, Vaneshran Arumugam and Emmanuel Castis performed their work, SONGS OF STORY MEN. We witnessed a moving, multicultural feast that weaved a story of two men and one shared love in New York. There was tension, conflict, and yet above all brotherhood. Everything was told through a medley of crisp song and sprightly movement, a sharing of tones through the textures of a steel-string guitar and a nylon-string guitar. Every moment of the performance was well orchestrated to achieve maximum effect. There was Indian chanting and yoga-like rhythms along with light shared from one man to another. Words consisted of texts from Shakespeare to popular songs. The audience was engaged in part of the performance, and everyone I spoke to afterward confirmed having a deeply satisfying experience. I know I did. The lighting and sound engineer was Guy de Lancey.

Among the many guiding questions of the Colloquium, here are a few that would have been addressed by Songs of Story Men: What is cross-cultural morality? What principles and standards of behavior are shared among cultures? How do values, beliefs, and practices differ among cultures? And as Charles Darwin says, in The Descent of Man, “The following proposition seems to me in a high degree probable – namely, that any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.” Today we’d say “humankind” and not “man,” but the point is that Vaneshran Arumugam and Emmanuel Castis, through their artistry of words, music, and song, epitomize the type of universal moral sense, evident even among animal species, Darwin alludes to.

IN their own words, here’s a bit of what Arumugam and Castis say, put together especially for the event program by their colleague and manager, Jacqueline Acres, of Sixface Creatives: “Songs of Story Men is an experiential meditation on cultural relationships and story. It aims to incite the imagination and evoke the emotions of the audience into drawing together different musical, literary and performance styles and techniques into a cohesive “narrative.” The piece aims to present a thinking, feeling platform for experiencing one’s own reflections and glimmers of memory... The creation and curation of content is evolving and arises from and in response to the actual life experience of the performers, as men, as children of immigrants, as Africans... and as storytellers.”

About The Performers.

Vaneshran Arumugam is a veteran of the South African and International independent film scene, and a film maker in his own right with the independent offbeat hit, “Actorholic.” On stage, he has played the part of parts – Hamlet – for the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, while in South Africa he has become the very image of Othello gracing the cover of the Oxford University press edition of the play. Vaneshran graduated with a Master’s degree in Consciousness in Performance as a Ford Fellow in 2008, which first brought him to New York where he studied at Columbia University under Kristin Linklater. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Residence at St. Francis College in 2013, teaching and performing. Vaneshran and his wife Jacqueline have been selected as a winner in the competitive global social innovation challenge 2019 (Civil Society Academy) in recognition of their innovative vision for the arts in social design, Living University.

Emmanuel Castis became a household name through his character Steve in the popular South African drama, Isidingo. Since then he has been on film sets and stages all around the world. Having played a role in major soaps/dramas in South Africa (Sevende Laan, Erfsondes, Scandal) and the United States (General Hospital, Days of our Lives), Emmanuel is a well-known star of the screen. Emmanuel started his theatre career in Bloemfontein on the Sandt Du Plesis stage playing Rocky in the Rocky Horror show (1999). He has gone on to star in a host of musical and live theatre productions, including, Jersey Boys and Grease. His other claim to fame is beating Trevor Noah in strictly come dancing season 4, 2008, proving that white men can dance! Emmanuel released an album in 2008 called South of Nowhere. He now gigs regularly with his band, Dalliance.