In/Half

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 07 Sep 2018

Member Reviews

3,5 I think.
It definitely was written by a Slav. Gloomy, gray vision of near future which is very characteristic also for Polish speculative literature. Or any other genre, really ;)
Story: Blurb was really encouraging and interesting. Concept is brilliant. Still,  it's not action based but internal and external (relationships) character development. Sometimes it's very (but not straight forward) philosophical and reminds me  early cyberpunk novels. Which is kinda interesting when You realise that there is no "cyber" in this world, all "cyber" is lost. 
Writing: sometimes it's heavy and I had to really try to stay focused. I must admit that I don't remember some parts of this novel already. Also, in English it tends to sound really juvenile but I think it's a matter of translation Slavonic language to English. It sounded much better when I translated it to Polish (another Slavonic) in my head, I swear ;) It's not a matter of poor translation skills, but grammar nuances, I think.
Overall: not for everybody.
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I didn’t finish this, but felt I still wanted to give a review rather than not provide any feedback. It simply wasn’t my cup of tea yet I wonder how much that has to do with my impatience as opposed to taste. I think classifying this as sci if/fantasy perhaps invites the wrong kind of reader to this novel. It is undoubtedly a literary novel, and for those who are proud to be the owners of saintly levels of concentration, I think this would make a great read. 

Perhaps I need things spelled out clearly for me, and I thank Antonomasia G for the wonderful and enlightening review. I hope this book finds its way into the hands of readers who will appreciate the complexity and craft of such a novel.
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I did not finish the book but my friend loved it so don’t write off the book right away! You may enjoy it.
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Evan's chapters are nice. For the rest it is just a Bruce Sterling's wannabe...I don't see the science fiction point of view and I don't see the link between the characters in the book...
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I just didn't like anything about this. I thought it started really slowly, with drawn out descriptions, and unlikeable characters. I just couldn't get into the story. Abandoned without finishing. Sorry.
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[2.5] In/Half is described as being set 25 years in the future, but too much of it reads as if it were written 25 years in the past.  

The current blurb gives the impression of a story in which Millenials find themselves hit by the breakdown of the internet when they are middle-aged. Which sounds pretty intriguing. 

It is twenty-five years into the future, and a glitch in the global communications network is ripping a previously united world apart at the seams. The millennials find themselves hardest hit ... As they prepare to celebrate their fiftieth birthdays, the three [main characters] find themselves hurtling through a disconnected world filled with the debris of past histories... 
(blurb 2 months pre-release)

But what we actually have here is a novel set in 2036,in a world where the internet shut down on 17th December 2011 (a premise which, if offered upfront, would set reader expectations more fairly). The book was written when the author was 25, in 2011, and first published, in Slovenia, in 2013. 

I don’t think it helps, either, to associate this story in the English-speaking market with the word ‘Millenials’. These three characters have little to do with the sets of traits, opinions and interests which, in the 2018 Anglosphere, are associated with Millenials. They pass more convincingly for Boomers from UK and US novels written in the 1970s-1990s (and by no means do they always act like 50-year-olds). Perhaps they don’t resemble Millenials-as-we-now-know-them because they didn’t experience the last 7 years of the internet. But there isn’t very much looking back to the time of the internet that would connect them with the idea ‘Millenials’. And, whether it’s due to different cultures in Slovenia and the UK, the influence of novels the author read, the degree of change in social attitudes between 2011-2018, or all three, there are a lot of ways in which the characters don’t have much in common with the sort of UK/US Millenials likely to pick up translated literary fiction.

So I think the blurb could really do with a rewrite. I spent most of the first half of the book feeling like it wasn’t doing what it says on the tin, that it was, to paraphrase Updike’s rules of reviewing, failing to achieve what it attempted to do. But that was actually down to blurb, and authors don’t write blurb - nor did Frelih set out to create those expectations when he was writing the novel six or seven years ago. 

90% of In/Half comprises three sets of three chapters about the three main characters: first there is a chapter about Evan Z--, then one about Kras Wolf, and finally one about Zoja, and this sequence repeats three times. The chapters are consistent in length, each taking up about 10% of the book.  

The chapters about Evan, an arsehole of a theatre director and junkie who has, for some reason, been invited to spend a year staging a play in Japan, read as if they were written in the 90s by a fan of Martin Amis and cyberpunk. Evan’s ill-treatment of his girlfriend, and the character of his agent and drug dealer, who glories in the name Gordon Falstaff, sometimes made me feel like I was reading a parody of a certain type of later twentieth century novel. (But at least there were a few intriguing, strange and original bits and pieces, like Evan’s dentist wife who wore one of his teeth as if it were a locket, and the artificial rain.) The prose is entirely competent but doesn’t fizz like that of Amis fils. 

Alongside the egotistical, objectionable middle-aged male writer/artist-character (how much time have I spent reading about these over the last 25 years?), another well-known staple of litfic is the reunion of a fractious, feuding upper / middle-class family. And this is the basis for the second strand of chapters, about former government minister Kras Wolf and the many relatives who gather for his 50th birthday party. The first chapter about them didn’t really grab me, but in the second and especially the third instalments about them, they grew more intriguing, to the extent that I thought a longer piece of writing would have done the characters more justice, showing their relationships and personalities over decades – and with more detail on how the changing conditions they had lived through had affected each of them. (And I really wanted to know how Kras’ aged father had got into modern druidry whilst living in a totalitarian-sounding south-east European state with no internet.) In the space available here, there wasn’t enough space to flesh them out, and they ended up largely as sketches, but they were still interesting enough collectively to help transcend the occasional eyerollingly daft porny scenario of a sort that often turned up in later twentieth-century litfic, like a 17-year old voyeur spying on his considerably older lesbian half-sister and her partner in bed … and a while after being caught, apparently getting a handjob from the partner. 

The chapters about New York-based anarchist performance poet Zoja (whom I imagined looking like a composite of Patti Smith and Eileen Myles) could have contained more about her – the bulk of the writing was about the local scene and the people she knew. I found what I read of Zoja very likeable, and there was a lot hinted at that wasn’t explored. The character of Anwar underground for years after his family were killed in a purge was an interesting digression, at least. The scene sounds like all the articles about Brooklyn hipsters circa 2010. It’s 2036 and they still haven’t moved on from Brooklyn. Facial hair is still in for men. There’s even a record-collecting craze, although the last record player "died in 2027". 

I was surprised by In/Half's similarities to British and American fiction, not something that I usually find obvious in translated novels. However, there must also be some Slovenian and other influences going on that I couldn’t pick up on, and which may enable a deeper appreciation of the book in people who know the place - beyond my own assumption that it is implicitly addressing the legacy of the former-Yugoslav wars of the 90s (in which Slovenia itself barely took part). This seemed nearest the surface in the arresting poetic repetition of a litany of death towards the end of the third chapter about Kras.   

In/Half, despite its flaws, contains some great passages of writing. There are a few gorgeous landscape descriptions, and I found it hilarious on the two occasions when Evan got his comeuppance for offending well-connected Japanese people. My favourite bit of the novel was 40% in, where these features both occur within a couple of pages. 

Most of the book is in perfectly decent literary-fiction prose, but this wasn’t hugely engaging when combined with certain other aspects of the book: lack of detail on many characters, general sense of datedness, and passages of cod-philosophical reflection. A few of these musings I found very wise, although much of it is the sort of stuff that may seem profound when one is aged 15 or 25, but less so by 40. 

The social attitudes are markedly un-Millenial, and, whilst I understand Slovenia is slightly more conservative than the UK, and that this would have formed the backdrop to the writing, I don’t think In/Half fits in too well as a 2018 English-language literary publication by a young European, of interest to under-40s. (The translation must have been commissioned a couple of years ago, so the extent to which this would be the case, after the #metoo movement, would have been hard to see.) It only really discusses a resurgence of social conservatism on one issue - porn - and the rest of the time it seems simply to reproduce the attitudes of older novels in the way it gives a lot space to sexist and arrogant and/or disturbed male characters. There are descriptive asides in the narrative that manage to invoke most well-known discriminatory -isms or -phobias at one point or another. (One one occasion, different attitudes in close-3rd person narratives demonstrate that Zoja’s views are not the same as those of an acquaintance of hers, but otherwise these sentences often read as if they belong to a more distant omniscient 3rd person narrative.)  It’s been pretty well hashed out by now in Anglo media that there are ways to show a reactionary fictional society whilst narrating in a way that reflects attitudes common among progressive young educated people. I think the book suffers, in a way that the author couldn’t have forseen, from the ‘woke’ shift among many likely UK and US readers between 2011-2018. And besides, these days, if people want to hear about dysfunctional personalities in the arts and politics, they only need to look at a news site to see stories that feel even weirder than fiction, because of their reframing of individuals and offices the public thought they knew about.  It is frustrating that so recent a book hasn’t aged well, but perhaps recent-past work is especially prone to that, because one assumes it will still feel recent only a few years later. If something is a couple of decades old, it’s more contexualised. (However, an English language translation also makes the book accessible to readers in many other countries across the world, including places where these underlying attitudes won't seem so out of step.)      

This isn’t genre dystopian fantasy with the expectations that carries, but regardless of this being literary SFF, I found the world-building too vague and hint-based. (And with this summer being what it is, the occasional complaints about weather being too hot just felt normal… The future is already here.)  I think a lot of the skill and work in imagining convincing near-future worlds is in giving a convincing picture of the political and social situation, and in creating a sense of strangeness with different trends, items and technologies from the present. In the novel’s typical literary focus on individual human drama, these got little space. Several big logistical issues were totally ignored. Outlines of political developments were tantalisingly incomplete. (Part of the point of this dystopian scenario is that people have less access to information, but the main characters are a high-ranking politician and famous creatives who travel internationally, people who would obviously know more than average.) 

I was reminded of articles a few years ago which described how authors struggled to incorporate widespread internet use into novels, resulting in the popularity of tricks by which it could be ignored, such as having protagonists move to remote cottages, or setting stories in the past. I wondered if this was another, especially given the similarities to older novels. But the background to the internet switch-off, The Cut, is explained in detail. (Going to spoiler tag this as it’s some way into the book, but I’d have liked to have known it much earlier, and it doesn’t spoil the rest of the plot. Communication services were expected to be endangered by massive sunspot activity, and governments worldwide decided not to do anything to try and protect systems from it, in order to quell the ‘Great Cacophony’of social media.)

During most of the second half, I was sure I’d be rounding my rating up to 3 stars. The final chapter changed my mind. I couldn’t believe it actually shows the three old friends reunited on a mystical plane after death. Two of them appear to be in some kind of dream, not actually dead, but generally this scenario is right up there with the big corny popular fiction clichés. In the scene, the three of them also talk like a bunch of twentysomethings. A really good editor could have got some big changes made in the original here.   

I wondered how much of the tone of the writing was created single-handedly by the translator, and how much it reflects the original. It looks like this is Blake's first publication of a whole novel, after translating non-fiction and short stories. It generally feels very well done, and natural without falling into the clichés of work originally in English, but the missed opportunity evident in the phrase “this Adórkus dolt” jolted me into awareness of other possibilities that must have have existed during the translation process. (The scene in question is even in America.)

At least one other reviewer suggests that In/Half may connect better with younger people rather than with those of us nearing, or in, middle age. I would think that might be the case mostly because average twentysomethings haven’t read as many old litfic novels that have trodden similar ground, and therefore may not be bored by the prospect of some of these scenarios. (It will also be interesting to read opinions on this book from other people who have read a lot of this sort of thing, and hear what they got out of it that I missed.)

Oneworld have published some of my favourite books of recent years, including The Sellout by Paul Beatty, and Vodolazkin’s Laurus, and I’m still keen to see what they bring out next - although of course, as this review shows, not every book from a publisher is to any one reader’s taste. 

There is more than enough here to suggest that Frelih will produce good stuff in the future and develop further as a writer - even if this book has some issues typical of a first novel (apparent influence of older authors, trying to fit too much in) and hasn’t had the luckiest of timing in its English publication.
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This was definitely not for me.  I mean, Slovenian science fiction, yay! but even so, I’m not the reader they were looking for.  Don’t let that keep you away, though.
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As someone who has passed the landmark of fifty a few years back, I found myself unable to relate to the characters.  Perhaps it is my experience over the authors perception of age.  I also found many of the sentences short and put together almost as bullet points rather than the flowing language I am used to in fiction.  Perhaps this is a book for the younger crowd and I am a bit too old for it.   I won’t pass judgement on it and will leave this to the younger crowd.
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