Friday, March 31, 2017

YEAR OF GARAK, part 3: A Stitch in Time by Andrew J. Robinson

The Year of Garak just keeps on rolling along! It's month three and there's still SO MUCH GARAK to discuss. Seriously, people. So much. For the next stop, though, we're looking at another novel, by Garak himself, actor (and author) Andrew J. Robinson.

The novel covers the entirety of Garak's life up to the direct aftermath of the Dominion War. His childhood, some of his time in the Obsidian Order, some of his time on DS9, and some time back on Cardassia following the Dominion withdrawal. It's a fascinating read that's a bit hard to track down in physical form (I was watching amazon & ebay for about a year and still paid over $10 for it), though it is available in ebook, too. Anyway, this is more a discussion than a normal review, and I'm joined again by writer and all around awesome person Nicasio Andres Reed!

Oh, and in case you don't remember from last time...

Nicasio Andres Reed is a Filipino-American writer and poet whose work has appeared in Queers Destroy Science Fiction, Uncanny Magazine, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Liminality, Inkscrawl, and Beyond: The Queer Sci-Fi and Fantasy Comics Anthology. Nico currently lives in Madison, WI. Find him on Twitter @NicasioSilang.

And now, to the discussion!

CP: All right, opening salvo! This novel is rather big, and ALL ABOUT GARAK. It’s lovely. I kind of felt weird that so much time was devoted to Garak as a young person going through basically Battle School, but I do think it was interesting. Especially because from the onset we see that Garak doesn’t really fit in that well on Cardassia. For one thing, his “dad” is into a very unpopular (I think criminal, really) religion that preaches a Cardassia that isn’t really what the government/military subscribe to, and also because he seems to want connections outside the Cardassian structure of “everyone is playing everyone.” He gets a...can I call it a pet? Which is another rule broken, but which also acts as his one friend, beginning Garak’s long history of forming friendships where he probably shouldn’t. Here I guess I saw that he’s always been semi-seduced by the philosophy of his fake-dad. That he’s always been sentimental and always kind of cared about people. About justice. And that despite being a part of a government organization that’s ALL ABOUT MURDER, he’s also always been against corruption. It’s so weird and, I feel, shows that conflict within him. He wants to steer events, because he knows he can do it better, but he’s terrible at completely playing along because he routinely trusts the wrong people to see the truth. Which is probably part of what gives him such a unique relationship to the truth.

But okay okay, I’m rambling a bit. I thought this was a fascinating read, especially because we get to see Garak at many stages of his life and especially after Cardassia has been ruined, trying to find meaning in the rubble. And indeed finding something there, though perhaps not what he thought he’d find. But yeah, your opening thoughts?

NR: “A unique relationship to the truth” is a phrase I think Garak and Tain would both appreciate very much.

This book is, to me, such a gift, such a lovely marriage of the collaborative storytelling of the TV series itself and the clearly extensive time that Andy Robinson spent delving into his character. There’s a book I recommend to writers that’s about acting, Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting, and reading A Stitch In Time always makes me think that Uta Hagen would be exceptionally proud of Andy Robinson. His thoroughness and his absolute detail are fantastic. His ability to live honestly within every stage of Garak’s life in this story is something I really admire.

I don’t know why I’m always surprised by how good this book is, the writing. Something in its tone reminds me of nothing more than the early Smiley novels from Le CarrĂ©.  Is that too effusive of me? It’s something in the matter-of-fact-ness, and in this narrative driven not by any sort of innate ambition of Garak’s, but by his curiosity and his loneliness. The description of Garak wandering the city and choosing a stranger to follow, to imagine their lives in order to feel less alone, God, I’ve done that, and thought maybe it was because I’ve led such an itinerant life and was always new in a city, and alone. But here is Garak, in a city he grew up in, walking for miles and miles, yearning for connection across a chasm he doesn’t entirely understand. Thankfully, he can lose himself in the all the MURDER WORK.

There’s a great moment of insight in a conversation with Bashir, when the doctor is suggesting some human-style holodeck therapy to help Garak cope with the panic attacks that start coming on when he tries to work on intercepted Dominion coded messages. Garak chides him, says the doctor is applying human medicine to a Cardassian person in a way he would never do for a physiological problem. That moment answered a question I started with: if the few relationships that Garak had on Cardassia were tainted with betrayal, obfuscation, lies, or simply guardedness, then why did he long so much to return from his exile? But in that, I was thinking from my own perspective. Of course he misses home, misses the surety of masks. When Garak talks about being disarmed, it’s by sincerity and guilelessness. The people who don’t know they’re wearing a mask, who don’t think they’re obfuscating, those are the people who have him anxious and on edge.

CP: Oh glob yes! Which, as DS9 progressed, made so much sense with Garak and Bashir. Because, as it turns out, Bashir was wearing a mask all along. Now, am I saying that Garak knew that Bashir was enhanced all along? No. But am I saying that he was instantly drawn to this man he knew was playing a game, and playing below his level, and scared, and alone, and wanting to make a connection? Yes. I think that he recognized that Bashir was hiding and wearing this exuberant mask to try and hide and decided to take a chance because Garak was so out of place, lonely, and bored at the time of the switch.

And I love how you point to that moment with Bashir, because it also points to some of the ways that Garak is fooling himself. He wonders in the book what happened to sour his relationship with Bashir. They’re not as close as they once were and the blame gets put vaguely on the holosuite adventure where Bashir shoots Garak. But I think part of the real break happens when Bashir comes out about being enhanced. At that point he’s not as concerned with masks any more, and so he stops being quite so useful to Garak. He stops reminding him so much of home.

Also agreed that the book is very interesting and that Robinson does a great job bringing it to life with this style and voice that very much captured his portrayal of Garak in the show. I might have my weird hangups with regards to Garak and sexual attraction (because I love how obvious it is that he’s very much attracted to people regardless of gender but also kind of disappointed that he’s plopped in a very “traditional” situation of being in love with/maybe sleeping with another man’s wife), but I think that it is a very earnestly written book that does get to a lot of the complexity of Garak across the many times of his life. And yes, that he’s so lonely and isolated and wanting to make connections but also quite engaged with his work because it allows him to interact with people, to play the game.

I think maybe that’s a weird part of his character to me, that he can separate out the murder from everything. I can think of a few times when he likes a person and still has to murder them and is all like “oh well.” Which speaks to me of the way that he (and Cardassians) treat interactions. It’s about the game, about the masks, and the realities of the work (the treatment of Bajorans, the murders that Garak participates in) are just sort of incidental. Like, if pressed, they’d say that of course it’s unfortunate, but that’s just what you do. Life is a sort of game to win and if you’re not winning you’re losing. Which the novel couches in the whole alt-religion thing that Garak finds, that shows that maybe what Cardassians need to move forward isn’t to lose the game, but to realize that the game is not...separate from everything. That you can still care about people. That the game does not erase the work. That those must work hand in hand, which is where I feel the book is taking Garak, from the beginning where he does feel this but then rather brutally suppresses it, to the ending where he’s allowing himself to feel it again.

NR: There’s a section that really hits on what you’re talking about here: the start of his exile on Terok Nor. He’s walked through the station and observes the horrific treatment and enslavement of the Bajorans there, and...makes it about his feelings. Like, yes, it’s very pitiful and unfortunate! But also it’s written as if a classic pathetic fallacy: the subjugated masses may as well be the weather, reflecting his mood. It seems to be both an extension of their homegrown class system and a racial superiority thing, and it’s a pretty gutsy observation of a beloved character, to see him gloss over what’s going on around him. Once he’s installed in his tailor’s shop, I don’t think we really get anything other than incidental mentions of the exploited Bajorans he shares the station with.

CP: Yes! I love how you compare it to the weather because it does seem to be thought of like that. And right, I think this plays into the Cardassian racial superiority that the book also addresses, especially with how it shows the alternate versions of what is basically the Cardassian creation story. In the “official” version, the Cardassians and the other race they shared their planet with were enemies and the Cardassians rose to dominance and survived and maybe exterminated the other race because they were better. And yet this religion that Garak’s not-dad follows preaches that it wasn’t like that. That before the Cardassian climate shifted, the two races lived together to some extent. Indeed, it was probably the other race that was dominant but after the climate shift they weren’t as suited as the Cardassians and so (probably, imo) the Cardassians turned on them and took what they had.

So this vision of racial superiority is woven pretty deep into the mentality of Cardassia. But it’s not something that’s absolute. Garak is exposed to this other idea very early on, and I think that it does take root inside him. But it’s not until much later, until after his exile, until after he starts to see the value of other cultures, that it really starts to blossom (which, I mean, the plant theme is pretty stressed in the text, that the environment and soil are so important and that Garak isn’t really able to bloom on Cardassia until it’s a much different place). I keep returning to the scene in the book where Garak’s sitting around with the “band of named Cardassians” from the various shows who are trying to “save” Cardassia in the face of the vulgar democratic movement, and he suddenly just starts laughing. It’s a revealing moment, because to me it’s about Garak revealing the charade. Revealing the masks that everyone is wearing, and making them acknowledge them, and everyone is unnerved. He’s just transgressed, but he’s still the one with the power, because he can see through this game. He knows that Cardassia has to change, and that the game is going to be forever different, because Cardassia lost, and lost hard. There’s no regaining that superiority, really, after everything, and yet Garak doesn’t want to. He still loves his people, and yet he knows they have to move forward.

I think the book really does an interesting job with that journey of Cardassia and Garak, from making this suppressed religion illegal to needing to embrace it. Because Cardassia needs compassion now, needs help. Because it couldn’t save itself. The game has changed and Garak, for all that he had invested in the old game, has changed with it.

NR: Jumping back for a moment before I forget: the eliding/omission of Garak’s queerness from the majority of the book is definitely a disappointment and, I think, a bit of a failure. Makes me want to sit down with Robinson and hash it out, since we know he had some mistily-defined clash with the show’s staff on the subject. There’s an early moment where Garak expresses attraction to Barkan while there’s at MURDER SCHOOL, but that’s the end of it, and from there, as you say, it plays out in a very cliche hetero way. Something of the writing style tricks me into being lenient on this, as it recalls for me a bit of Evelyn Waugh, a bit of that suppressed queerness, but I’m under little illusion that that’s either intentional or, you know, enough.

But then: the framing device of letters to Bashir. The obsessive recollections of their relationship, of trying to pin down where it went sour and distant. Maybe that’s what gives me the Brideshead Revisited vibe. I always worry that my urge to make everything an intertextual conversation ends up giving too much credit to any one text; but there is ye old tradition of the older man, at the end of his career, who could not be expressly queer in his youth, and is circling round and round his memories of the relationships that could have been.

That scene you talked about, lord, I love it. Laughing in their faces at the absurdity of the old guard operating as if they aren’t sitting under miles of rubble, breathing in the ash of billions dead. The comparison between these people hosting their meeting under the rubble of one of the old money mansions and Garak’s instinctual memorial for the dead built of the same rubble: love it.

CP: I want to talk about the frame of the novel too, so thanks for bringing that up! Making this a sort of confession, a letter to Bashir, is rather great. I love it in part because it does show the different worlds that Garak has moved through. This letter, this memoir, this whatever-you-call-it, is written after Garak’s exile has come to an end. He’s back on Cardassia. But it’s a Cardassia that is so different from the one Garak grew up in that it’s like a new kind of exile. If his time on DS9 was painful because of the constant reminders of home, because of his isolation, because of the hatred directed at him, then his time back on Cardassia seems even more painful because of what he has lost, because of the death all around him, because of how gone his Cardassia is. How ironic that he continues to have episodes, even in the wide open space of his homeworld, when that seemed to be the one thing he assumed would cure him. Only he discovers that the cramped space that triggers him is the space in his own head. Is the way the old Cardassian ways of thinking limit and entrap. Only when he can cast those out and find hope and purpose in this new Cardassia do the episodes stop.

I think I’ll close my thoughts on what I feel he’s doing in writing to Bashir now, through this narrative. I’ll come back to that idea of the Cardassian repetitive epic, which I think this subverts. Because it does move in repetitive cycles. Of exiles and betrayals. Garak and his home with his not-father. Garak and murder school. Garak and his work with the Obsidian Order. Garak and DS9. Each one is something Garak is forced into. Is a sacrifice he makes thinking that other people know best, that Cardassia knows best, that history only moves in circles. Only now that Garak has truly come full circle, back to the home of his childhood, he sees that the future is not a closed loop. Perhaps because he saw so much of Bashir’s disillusionment with the Federation, with Section 31, with the war. It’s a way of saying thank you to his friend, and good bye, and that there’s still hope. It is a rather beautiful sentiment from a man who has always been sentimental, and can finally put his mask aside for a moment to show that to a friend who needs to see it.

So yeah, do you have any closing thoughts on this novel?

NR: That’s lovely, and I agree, the confessional is an effort to break the Cardassian cycle. We know from Tekeny Ghemor and Enabrin Tain (and from a fantastic character in Una McCormack’s The Never Ending Sacrifice) that the traditional Cardassian confessional comes when a person knows they are dying. Then they’ll call someone to their bedside and finally let spill all their secrets, name all their rivals, confess with their last breaths. Which means, of course, that they never have to live with those secrets being out in the world, or to grapple with the weight of their own confessions. But Garak, here, has no intention of dying after this confessional. He’s willing to reckon with a lifetime of secrets, let them into the open air, and then let them go. We should all be so graceful. 


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