Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Yarn by Jon Armstrong

Yarn by Jon Armstrong
Published : Night Shade Books, 2010
Awards Nominated : Philip K. Dick Award, John W. Campbell Award
The Book :
” From the neo-feudalistic slubs, the corn-filled world of Tane's youth, to his apprenticeship among the deadly saleswarriors of Seattlehama--the sex-and-shopping capital of the world--to the horrors of a polluted Antarctica, Yarn tells a stylish tale of love, deceit, and memory.

Tane Cedar is the master tailor, the supreme outfitter of the wealthy, the beautiful, and the powerful. When an ex-lover, on the run from the authorities, asks him to create a garment from the dangerous and illegal Xi yarn--a psychedelic opiate--to ease her final hours, Tane's world is torn apart.

Armed with just his yarn pulls, scissors, Mini-Air-Juki handheld sewing machine, and his wits, Tane journeys through the shadowy underworld where he must untangle the deadly mysteries and machinations of decades of deceit.”

This is the first book I’ve read by Jon Armstrong.  From what I’ve heard, Yarn is actually a prequel, based on a minor character from Armstrong’s debut novel, Grey. I didn’t actually know this until after I’d read Yarn, but I don’t think that it’s necessary to read Grey first.  I believe that the two novels are independent stories set in the same world.
My Thoughts :
The parts of Yarn that most impressed me were Armstrong’s world-building and the enthusiasm he maintains while portraying his imagined society. The world of Yarn is bizarre, leaning toward absurd.  It’s a world where fashion dictates almost everything—even sex and violence are bound up in its rules and vocabulary.  Drugs, such as the illegal Xi yarn, are also presented through clothing and fabrics. Seattlehama, the sex-and-shopping capital, is surrounded by the ‘slubs’.  In these agricultural districts, men are brainwashed members of a crop-worshipping cult, and they’re kept docile by hormone-infested work shirts.  It might be a little difficult to get into this world at first, since it is full of specialized jargon, discussions of various threads and fabrics, and very few instances where anyone stops to explain.  However, the zest and attitude that infuses the text made it very easy to become engrossed in the story.
For anyone who’s ever read the Hunger Games trilogy, Seattlehama is a bit like the Capitol, taken to more of an extreme.  I think that both settings were designed to highlight the horrific absurdities of consumer culture by extrapolating wildly from current societal tendencies.  We can see some of the aspects of Seattlehama today—service industry personnel that are desperate to keep their customers happy and reward programs for brand fidelity.  However, I don’t think there’s any serious danger of our world becoming like Seattlehama and the slubs, so I see Yarn as more of a caricature than a warning.
Yarn switches between a story of the present and of the past.  In the present, the successful tailor Tane Cedar attempts to complete a dangerous last request for his ex-lover Vada. In the past, the novel tells the tale of Tane’s humble beginnings, and his tumultuous rise to fashionable power.  For me, the past story was much more compelling.  I think ‘farm boy goes out to seek his fortune’ is a pretty commonly appreciated plot, and, along the way, Tane’s past also slowly reveals the foundation and emotional context for his present. The cast of both stories was vibrant and memorable, from major characters—like the revolutionary Vada or the violent knitter Kira—to the very minor—like the anxious fast-food worker or the high-class saleswoman working under a death threat.
While the world and the cast are fantastic, I think Yarn suffers a bit in the plot department.  In general, the basic plots of both past and present stories are surprisingly normal and common for such an unusual setting. I find myself wondering if Armstrong was intending to offset the quirkiness of his world with a familiar plot formula, in order to help readers relate to the novel more easily.  The energy and vibrancy of the setting mostly make up for the predictability of the fundamental plots, but I was still a little disappointed with the ending revelations.  Some of the secrets revealed seemed unnecessary and unlikely, causing the story to lean a little further from chic and closer to silly for me.  The ending left me feeling a little dissatisfied, but I still enjoyed the overall experience of reading Yarn.
My Rating : 4/5
Above all, Yarn is an intensely stylish tale.  What the general plot may lack in originality, Armstrong makes up for with his consistent, vivid, and thorough depiction of a world where the consumer culture has gone wildly out of control.  From the agricultural slubs to the highest department store, Yarn takes its readers on a wild ride through all the echelons of power in this absurd yet compelling society.  The characters are vividly portrayed, from the protagonist down through those who only graced a few pages.  While I found the ending something of a letdown, Yarn’s unique ‘fashionpunk’ world with its relentlessly enthusiastic portrayal left me highly impressed with Armstrong’s skill as an author.


  1. Having read both Yarn and Grey, you can read them both as stand alones, in any order. They take place in the same world, but with different characters at different times.

    Jon Armstrong is becoming one of those authors for me, that I will read anything he writes. It's rare to come across this level of intense energy, of unabashed imagination and worlds that feel like they are one eyeblink away from satire. Reading Grey and then Yarn was almost like reading my first cyberpunks or my first steampunks - my eyes opened wide and I just wanted to take it all in.

    At least with steampunk and cyberpunk there is more to find, but I've yet to find anyone else who does anything like Armstrong.

  2. Thanks for your comment! I've never seen anything quite like Armstrong's 'fashionpunk' either, though I wonder if his success will lead other writers to try out similar ideas. Whether he ends up launching a major sub-genre or not, I love Armstrong's style.

    I'm planning on reading "Grey" sometime soon. It's good to hear that I haven't ruined the book for myself by reading them out of the order of publication!

  3. Grey intrigued me, as did Yarn, but I was a bit put off about the whole "fashionpunk" thing, not knowing what to make of it. Considering your point about it being concerned with hyper-consumerism makes the idea more accessible to me. Thanks for the review!

  4. Thanks for the comment! I'm glad the review was useful :). I don't think interest in the world of high fashion is a prerequisite to enjoying "Yarn", if that's what put you off the idea of 'fashionpunk'. I hope you enjoy Armstrong's work, if you decide to check it out!

  5. That's exactly what might have put me off. I can barely coordinate my wardrobe, so I was worried that a keener fashion sense than mine was required to enjoy Armstrong's work.