Book Reviews for Spooky Socialists

Book Reviews for Spooky Socialists

To get our comrades into spooky season, members of the New Kentucky editorial collective here present brief reviews of three haunting texts.

Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri

This year for Halloween, we recommend a ghost story about capitalism in post-war Japan. Richmond-born socialist Morgan Giles has translated Korean-Japanese author Yu Miri’s short novel Tokyo Ueno Station and the literary world has taken notice. Ms. Yu and Ms. Giles are short-listed for this year’s National Book Award.

We understand the enthusiasm. Tokyo Ueno Station is about the ghost of an itinerant laborer from rural Japan who, decades after the untimely death of his son, winds up in a tent city at the park in Tokyo from which the novel takes its name. The novel is written in slim, poetic dispatches of narrative philosophy that explore where life goes when it seems to have nowhere to go. Ms. Yu uses the history of the eponymous park to juxtapose the grandiose lives and struggles for power of the nobility against the banal and often painful realities of common people.

Though a thoroughly Japanese novel, it contains a universal story about the working people who bear the brunt of capitalist economic development. The sacrificial act of moving to the city to provide for his family makes the protagonist strange to his children and vice versa. Kentucky readers may recognize shades of the experience of yesteryear’s Appalachian migrants, who left their roots behind to work in the industrial North. Many of us will relate to the protagonist, who upon first arriving in Tokyo, is afraid to speak to anyone for fear that they will make fun of his accent.

Belly Up by Rita Bullwinkel

Most people already know that spouses can come back to life, that ghosts float among us, that sticking your tongue in an electrical outlet could turn you into a monster or worse. And we can agree Florida becoming a zombie preservation seems like grounds for horror. But in Belly Up, a short story collection published in 2018, Rita Bullwinkel elevates this material beyond the simple thrill of danger or the macabre by making us realize that bizarre situations are cause for quiet reflection that we have always had the potential for. In “God’s True Zombies,” she writes:

“Loving a Floridian is like loving Frank Sinatra. Though he might be handsome, he is dead, so really my love is confined to a kind of removed admiration. A sulky, beaten kind of love that floats in between two people but never really sticks to anything solid….The unease of the unfamiliar, however, is undeniably sexy, forcing my mind to jump realms into a place I have only seen in pictures and pornos.”

For some reason, you won’t find truths like this in a horror novel like The Mummy by Anne Rice — all action and hardly a moment of pondering in sight.

If nothing else, this makes Belly Up a short story collection with good politics — not because there are characters voicing the need for affordable healthcare for everyone or fair housing — but because talking and writing about anything seems easier afterwards.

This makes Belly Up a short story collection with good politics — not because there are characters voicing the need for affordable healthcare for everyone or fair housing — but because talking and writing about anything seems easier afterwards.

Illustration by 18th century Dutch pharmacist Albertus Seba
Illustration by 18th century Dutch pharmacist Albertus Seba

The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic by Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker

In Greek mythology, Hercules slew the Hydra of Lerna as the second of his twelve storied labors. The hydra was a terrifying, hulking swamp monster with poisonous breath, venomous blood, and a multitude of viscous, snapping snake heads which, when severed by the sword of Hercules, not only regrew but doubled in number! In some versions of the story, Hercules defeated the beast by severing its central head and cauterizing the stump with fire; in others, it was arrows dipped in its toxic blood that felled the horrible creature. One way or the other, however, the hydra was put down, order was restored in Lerna, and a triumphant Hercules continued on his labors.

This spooky season we recommend a radical’s reconsideration of the murdered beast: Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker’s The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Written with literary verve, this sprawling story charts the emergence and development of global capitalism and the motley, multitudinous forces that rose up to resist it.

The book’s heavy metal title is not at all an arbitrary choice. As Linebaugh and Rediker explain, the Hercules-Hydra myth became especially resonant in the years that witnessed the birth of capitalism in Western Europe. The 17th century architects of state, empire, and capitalism saw themselves as Herculean figures charged with taming the old unruly world and bringing a new order into being. In order to do this, however, they needed the labor of common people, the hewers of wood and drawers of water whose fate it was to build the infrastructure, crew the ships, and slave in the fields of empire. And while the brutal methods required to tear common people from the land and create a global laboring class did produce a modern world, they also everywhere gave rise to working class resistance, to strikes and slave rebellions and revolutions.

These blows against capital were always struggles for human dignity and self-determination, but for contemporary statesmen, as well as the writers and philosophers who were proponents of order and industry, commoners demanding better lives were like the monstrous hydra of misrule: dangerous, motley, and endlessly multiplying.

The Many-Headed Hydra spans the early modern world, from the British enclosures of the early 17th century, through the first blush of colonial expansion and the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to the great revolutions that rocked the western hemisphere in the 18th and 19th centuries. In it, these writers recover a hidden weapons cache of global working class resistance and history. Spooky stuff if you’re a boss who thinks he’s Hercules, but inspiring if you are one of the heads of the hydra.