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