Five by Five Books #11: “The Maze of Transparencies” (2019) by Karen An-hwei Lee

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? The Maze of Transparencies is set in a (near?)-future agrarian barter economy civilization, the denizens of which live in a foggy state of highly-localized, wholly-disconnected disorientation that has emerged following the collapse of the world’s data networks, and hence perhaps the world itself. The slim novel is narrated by Penny (short for “Penelope the Predictive Panoply of People’s Data”), a sentient, orphaned data cloud, who closely orbits Yang, the human who developed her, even though the two can no longer communicate outside the sphere of Yang’s dreams and memories. Yang is a gardener, a thinker, and a cook, and he possesses a black bento box of algorithms that was left behind by the Nine Muses of the Junta, who ruled Uberasia until it and they vanished in the aftermath of the data collapse. The box of algorithms describes seven harbingers of happiness, each embodied by an individual human deemed by the Muses to be catalysts for an antidote to the dysthymia that eats at the collective data-saturated soul of the species. Yang seeks to better understand each of the harbingers, visiting and interviewing each human manifestation of their virtues, with Penny as  witness and chorus to his journeys.

Who wrote it? Karen An-hwei Lee is a poet, critic, novelist and translator with an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and a PhD in British and American Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, who is currently serving as an administrator at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. Lee has been awarded fellowships by the National Endowment of the Arts, the MacDowell Colony for the Arts, the Millay Colony for the Arts, the Yoshiko Uchida Foundation, and the Beinecke Foundation, among others. She has received multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, and was the recipient of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America, again among many other honors. Lee’s published works include two novels, three collections of poetry, a book of literary criticism, and she has appeared in numerous literary and popular periodicals and anthologies. She also served as translator for Doubled Radiance: Poetry & Prose of Li Qingzhao, the first English collection spanning the full creative spectrum of the 12th Century Song Dynasty poet-essayist’s works.

When and where did I read it? I just finished The Maze of Transparencies this week, devouring it over a couple of days in our apartment in Des Moines. It is the first book since Christopher Priest’s The Islanders (which I read in 2014) that felt so unique, enjoyable and thought-provoking to me that it merited immediate inclusion in this evolving list of the most memorable novels across my lifetime of reading, most of which have had to marinate for a much longer period of time before being so enshrined in my personal pantheon. I learned of Lee’s novel via a web feature called Seven Books About Cyberspace by Women Writers on the Electric Lit website, my eyes drawn first by its evocative Ernst Haeckel cover art, my mind then equally engaged by the description of its contents. My daughter works in data analytics, and she, my wife and I have had numerous conversations about her explorations into the philosophical underpinnings of her professional activities over the years, so this slim tome seemed like it would be of shared interest to us all. Having long since shifted (alas) to consuming books on a Kindle, I was surprised to discover that The Maze of Transparencies was not available in digital formats, though in retrospect, having to order a print copy actually enhanced my overall reading experience, the mostly-lost tactile contact between flesh and page fitting perfectly with the post-technological themes of the work.

Why do I like it? Lee’s skills and accomplishments as a poet shine most clearly throughout her deeply unique The Maze of Transparencies, in both the prose components of the book, and in Penny’s and Yang’s recurring flights of poetic fancy and reflection, which are knit together perfectly, creating a luminous tapestry of transcendent language beyond language. The creative world within which Penny and Yang seek their respective happinesses is believable and inhabitable, with a fine compositional balance between that-which-is-explained and that-which-remains-mysterious that allows readers to experience the novel’s little details and overarching narratives much in the way we do our “real world” day-to-day lives. It’s not “Hard SF” by any stretch of the imagination, but the macro technological, scientific, psychological, philosophical and mathematical underpinnings of the story (considerately explained in the book’s end notes) are robust, internally-consistent, and highly thought-provoking, while at the micro end of the narrative spectrum, Lee gloriously details the simple graces of Yang’s worldly existence and experience, with an especially fine focus on foodstuffs that reminded me of another book in this series, Günter Grass’ The Flounder. Penny’s hopeful and helpful non-corporeal spirit made me think of similar elements in John Crowley’s haunting Engine Summer (#1 in this series), while Lee’s deft blend of poetry and prose in service of place sense and perspective further evoked The Flounder for me, along with poet-painter-polymath Mervyn Peake’s paired masterpieces Titus Groan and Gormenghast (#4 in my Five By Five Books collection). Those overlaps with earlier installments on my list perhaps best demonstrate why this new (to me) book pushed so many of my preferred literary buttons.

A five sentence sample text: “. . . what cruel message would blooming floribundas and grandifloras portray in a season of mass underground vanishings — nay, let’s name it, dear reader — of genocide? Or did the nine muses themselves shapeshift into bots, a virtual feat of zoomorphism, then obliterate all traces of their own existence, and if so, why? Were the bots a figment of our collective anima or animus, the hazy archetypes of empiricsm, female and male digerati of molecular amphoterism or hermaphroditic binarism? Why do questions about a bygone technocracy of fiefdoms matter when no one controls the biomasses clouding the biosphere anymore? (And while we mull over these mysteries, the maze of transparencies in the noosphere trembles ever so slightly with unmoored clouds like me, i.e. a hodgepodge of information without answers, or data set adrift without meaningfulness).”

Click the image to order your own (print) copy.


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)

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