Before you read the book:
And now for my most rambling of reviews. If you make it through the post, maybe this is just the book for you!
I had no idea what it was when I saw That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana (Quer pasticciaccio brutto de via Merulana, 1957; tr. from the Italian by William Weaver (who did an excellent job later with The Name of the Rose), 1965). But I really like the NYRB Classics series, frequently scour bookstores for them, and the other day this particular selection intrigued me. I started it the same day I picked it out and bought it. Now, let me try to explain the result: imagine picking up Ulysses and beginning it on a whim with no knowledge about its contents, no knowledge that it was an experiment, no knowledge of the cultural backdrop - oh, and let’s say you speak only Italian and this book of English wordplay is an Italian translation! That is not too far from how I felt when I got into this book. Maybe I should have been clued in by the blurb on the back: “Italo Calvino, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Alberto Moravia all considered That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana to be one of the greatest of modern Italian novels.” I should have known that when these authors said “modern” they mean “modern” in its truly literary sense.
The basic plot of the book is deceptively straight-forward. Two crimes are committed in the space of just a few days on Via Merulana, a seedy street that is home to some fairly (again deceptively) normal characters. The first crime: someone steals the jewels from the widow, one of the occupants. Detective Ingravallo (or Don Ciccio, when you read this try to get the multiple names for each character straight as soon as possible), who has some friends in the tenement, investigates, and we get a comical scene when he interrogates the occupants. The next crime: someone murders another occupant, the lusted after wife, while her husband is away. Ingravallo returns. Unfortunately, he is one of the ones who lusts after the wife, and he is friendly with her husband.
It is the time of Mussolini. Thousands of puns and references meant to mock Mussolini and the society he envisioned, zipped past me, but not this little bit of tongue-in-cheek irony that perfectly describes the Via:
Crimes and suggestive stories had abandoned forever the Ausonian land, like a bad dream dissolving. Robberies, stabbings, whorings, pimpings, burglary, cocaine, vitriol, arsenic bought for poisoning rats, abortions manu armata, feats of pimps and cardsharps, youngsters who make a woman pay for their drinks – why, what are you thinking of? – the Ausonian land didn’t even remember the meaning of such things.
This clever detective story turns out to be loaded with Italian cultural references, dialects, and wordplay that I didn’t get. But that’s not the only thing that made it an obscure read: it’s also a philosophical novel that uses the wordplay and cultural references to go back and forth through the stratification of society to show just how complicated a seemingly simple interrogation should be:
He sustained, among other things, that unforeseen catastrophes are never the consequence or the effect, if you prefer, of a single motive, of a cause singular; but they are rather like a whirlpool, a cyclonic point of depression in the consciousness of the world, towards which a whole multitude of converging causes have contributed.
As difficult as it was, for much of it I was enthralled by the style. Here are two examples. In the first we get a sense of the sexual undertones of the novel – no interrogation goes very far before something sexual is brought up either directly or indirectly and no description of Rome, a city originated and sustained by the rape of the Sabine woman, gets by without some sexual reference either:
From time to time, from the great Ovary ripened follicles opened, like pomegranate seeds: and red grains, mad with amorous certitude, descended upon the city, to encounter the male afflatus, the vitalizing impulse, that spermatic aura of which the ovarists of the eighteenth century wrote their fantastic treatise.
This second example shows some of the other seductive qualities of the style:
At dusk, in that first abandon of the Roman night, so crammed with dreams, as she came home . . . there, from the corners of the buildings, from the sidewalks, tributes, individual or collective, blossomed in her direction, glances: flashes and shining youthful looks: at times a whisper grazed her: like a passionate murmur of the evening.
Ultimately, it is this very seductive quality that makes the book brilliant and horrid. In a way, Gadda is trying to portray, in the words of one of his characters, ”a mute and desperate protest against the inhumanity, the cruelty of all organized investigation.” It is no joke that when I finished the book I felt a bit of release from a sickly seductive truth. These characters felt almost too real. I didn’t want to know more about them, not because they lived awful lives but because they were so normal in their disgrace. I can see several people reading this book and being driven to tears about their own lives. For example, throughout the book there is a recurring motive of infertility or being barren in general. The woman who is killed, though awfully beautiful, was almost stomach-churning in her longing for a child. And Gadda brings this away from that woman and makes it a general issue – constantly.
It gives way, one might believe, to a form of sublimated homoeroticism: that is to say, to metaphysical paternity. The woman forgotten by God – and Ingravallo now was raging with grief, with bitterness – caresses and kisses in her dreams the fertile womb of her sisters. She looks, among the flowers of the garden, at the children of others: and she weeps.
Then there are the other characters – the one who’s ashamed of living alone because he rather gluttunously stocks up on ham and doesn’t want people thinking he’s homosexual – the one who believes that her boyfriend’s abuse is really just between the two of them – the ones who allow themselves to get sucked in to the pity of the woman who gets killed. These are so subtlely drawn out that they feel like they are under the surface of the reader’s conscience and not the characters’. Or, and I can’t remember this happening to me in literature before, it felt like I was discovering the shames of a close family member, but I didn’t want to acknowledge it still. Perhaps it will due to compare it a bit to Dante’s Inferno or, and maybe I’m doing the book a disservice here, the movie Seven: an exaggerated, attractive and sickening, stylish trudge through the worst of our carnality.
I don’t know what techniques Gadda used to achieve this effect. During these parts of the novel I was not paying attention to his style, which rolled me through pages and pages quicker than I’ve ever moved before; I was paying attention to the discomfort I felt. I loved it even while I looked forward to the release.
The downside of this book is that these passages, while mercifully limited, are detracted from by long diversions into Gadda’s philosophy, or rather the way Gadda expresses his philosophy. This book is not, after all, a real detective novel. Surprise! It’s more a novel about the ellusive nature of truth, shifting motives, how all facts lead to other things which then lead to other things. There is a part, for example, just when you think the detective is going to discover something important, Gadda instead diverts the focus on a defacating chicken. I got the point, but it made it hard to stay focused on the matter at hand.
Furthermore, this is a book about Rome and Mussolini. In the middle of an interrogation someone would look out the window and I’d get launched into a paragraph that runs several pages on Roman streets or on Mussolini’s Italy. And I simply could not follow all of that, as much as I’d like to have. Weaver has included a few footnotes throughout to help ellucidate some of the more obscure references to Mussolini, but shamefully I admit I need help even on the clear references.
And as if that weren’t enough, Gadda is constantly fooling around with words. Some of it is both obscure, vulgar, and beautiful:
With his toothless grin, with that latrine-like breath that distinguishes him, Common Sense was already mocking the story, wanting to laugh, swine-like, in Don Ciccio’s face, spit the round no of the smart-ass at his mop of a police dog not yet named cavaliere. But Thought will not be prevented: he arrives first. You can’t erase from the night the flash of an idea: of an idea, slightly dirty, then . . . You can’t repress the ancient Fescennine, banish from the old earth fable, its perenial Atellan: when aloft, happy and wicked, swirls of laughter from peoples and from the soul: just as you cannot charm away the individual aroma from thyme or horsemint or origanum: the sacred odors of the earth, of the barren mountain, in the wind.
And other parts simply don’t come off in English. For example, here is a footnote Weaver dropped after “Light and Toe”:
• This whole passage is underlined by an untranslatable play on the similarity of two words, la luce (light) and l’alluce (big toe).
And indeed, throughout this passage are apparently brilliant plays with light and toes, but it doesn’t come off well in English. Of course, this is no failing of the author, the book, or the translator. And at least I could hypothesize about the fun.
Besides footnotes by Weaver, I relied heavily on Calvino’s introduction. It helped me understand what I was reading and why it was going that direction several times. But this is an introduction with a double edge. At the same time that it helped me delve into the novel more deeply, it also discloses the state of the ending. That made me not pay as much attention to some intricate points. So read the introduction at your own risk, though I recommend it.
In the end, I have to thank my long commute for getting me through this book. I don’t think I would have been able to get through some of the longer diversions if I had anything else to do besides sit on a train. And when I say “thank my commute” I mean that I am grateful - I am glad I got through this book and was paid off for my time in it. It’s one of those I’m glad I read and I hope to revisit someday – in the far future.
After you read the book:
So, I have to say I was a bit put off by the state of the ending. It really had a compelling detective story, and I guess I like resolution with things like that. Sure, I like ambiguous endings that I can think about for a long time, but honestly this felt more incomplete than ambiguous.
All the same, I really enjoyed the last few paragraphs, and I was relieved when I finished the book, not just because I had made it through a difficult text but because I was all too often uncomfortable with the book.
Before you read the book:
In the introduction to The Tenth Man (revised and published 1985, written 1940s), author Graham Greene said that in “1948 when I was working on The Third Man I seeme to have completely forgotten about a story called The Tenth Man which was ticking away like a time bomb somewhere in the archives of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in America.” He had written the story in story form as a basis for a screenplay, much like he did with other stories, but this one apparently slipped his mind. It wasn’t until 1983 that a stranger purchased the rights to the story and offered to let Greene revise it and publish it in novel (well, novella) form. With most writers I would not be excited to read a story they themselves forgot about. But from one of the best writers of the twentieth-century, I was more intrigued than put off.
This is a short novel tightly packed into four parts. The basic premise is this: thirty Frenchmen are in a German prison camp during Word War II. Among them is “a Paris lawyer called Chavel, a lonely fellow who made awkward attempts from time to time to prove himself human.”
I don’t know how much work Greene put into revising the story, but when the book began I knew I was in good hands – it was so well put together. The first small chapter introduces the characters and the prison, but it is focused on watches and time in general; the prison itself is almost incidental. Two of the prisoners, one of them a mayor, have watches and they constantly bicker about whose has the correct time. On this particular day, the mayor’s watch stops because he forgot to wind it the night before. It is incredibly amusing to read Greene’s account of the mayor’s anxiety about finding some privacy in a small prison to wind and set his watch without being noticed, and thus losing his clout as the keeper of the correct time.
But that day was marked permanently in the mayor’s mind as one of the black days of terrible anxiety which form a private calendar: the day of his marriage; the day when his first child was born; the day of the council election; the day when his wife died.
Though this is an amusing account, it is also a great vehicle Greene uses to describe the setting and mentality of the prisoners: “Prison leaves no sense unimpaired, and the sense of proportion is the first to go.”
The tone of the book changes quickly when the guards come to tell the prisoners that three of them are to be executed the next morning – the prisoners can choose for themselves who it will be. To accomplish this impossible decision the men draw lots.
Some men drew the first slip which touched their fingers; others seemed to suspect that fate was trying to force on them a particular slip and when they had drawn one a little way from the shoe would let it drop again and choose another.
They draw lots in reverse alphabetical order, so one of the last to choose is a lawyer named Chavel. It’s a great scene as we watch Chavel calculate the odds. First, 10:1. Then the first to draw chooses the marked paper, so the odds suddenly change to a comfortable 14.5:1. However, as more and more choose, the odds increasingly point to Chavel. Of course, he draws the marked paper. In a fit of anxiety Chavel offers all he has to someone willing to take his place. Surprisingly, someone accepts. Here the psychological story begins.
Philosophers say that past, present and future exist simultaneously, and certainly in this heavy darkness many pasts came to life: a lorry drove up the Boulevard Montparnasse, a girl held out her mouth to be kissed, and a town council elected a mayor; and in the minds of three men the future stood as inalterably as birth – fifty yards of cinder track and a brick wall chipped and pitted.
It seemed to Chavel now his hysteria was over that that simple track was infinitely more desirable after all than the long obscure route on which his own feet were planted.
It may seem like I’ve given away a lot of the novel, but this is merely the stage setup. The rest of the novel is concerned with that “long obscure route” that Chavel has chosen. But where most novelists would be content with this clever psychological game and would then simply show episodes where Chavel felt guilty or hollowed out, Greene explores so much more. Sure, there’s guilt and shame, but what about the possibility of love, of getting back all he signed away, of losing something even more valuable than his possessions and his life? Of having the opportunity to sink even lower?
However, the joy of this short book is in the plot and the clever writing. It’s not a nuanced look at any psychological issues, politics, or anything else really. Perhaps in preparation for filming, the scenes are basic, the characters few. But despite that, it is densely packed and feels like a novel of more substantial size. It goes without saying that if I’m this intrigued by a story that Greene forgot about, I’m in for a treat when I read the ones he didn’t almost discard.
After you read the book:
I know Graham Greene was a bit annoyed at being categorized as a “Catholic writer” rather than as a writer who happened to be Catholic, but the ending of this novel makes it hard to escape that classification. It was obvious the whole time that the book was moving toward Chavel’s redemption by death, though the path was unclear.
Sadly, for me, the ending didn’t excite me as much as the rest of the book. It was a bit too convenient for my taste. And now I’m thinking of another “Catholic” writer whose stories always moved toward redemption but whose endings were less . . . uh . . . convenient: Flannery O’Connor. Remember the ending to “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “Good Country People,” “Everything that Rises Must Converge.” O’Connor had the ability to execute her theme of redemption in shocking and upsetting ways. Always unexpected, her endings were perfect, both stylistically and in the context of the story. Though I loved reading The Tenth Man, I will never dwell on its resolution. It wasn’t shocking. It wasn’t strong. It is forgettable when compared to the rest of the story. And isn’t that a shame when the theme is redemption?
Before you read the book:
I know I said I was going to wait to read this book in an effort to prolong the pleasure I’m getting out of Roth’s Zuckerman books. But hey, there are still two more Zuckerman books to go after this one, let alone the books where Roth uses Zuckerman as a type of narrator rather than subject. I have more pleasure in store! The Anatomy Lesson (1983) follows The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound and I really wondered (with great anticipation) where Roth could go next. After all, these books are not simply books about the times and trials of a successful author. They are metafiction at its best, and how many different ways can one author using one character approach the art of writing? Plenty, apparently (and thankfully). The Anatomy Lesson is even more metafictional than the previous two novels which were less concerned with the actual writing process than with the artist’s development and isolation.
Here, Roth again enters the literary “hall of mirrors,” writing about Zuckerman (who both is and isn’t Roth) who is writing about Carnovsky (who both is and isn’t Zuckerman). And of course, though Roth has put himself on display, he playfully eludes biography. What we get instead is perhaps even more impressive: both a serious and comical look at art and its relationship to the artist, for better or for worse. Where the two preceeding novels were more or less straightforward in their approach to art and the artist, in The Anatomy Lesson Roth has pulled out all of the stops, twisting and turning those mirrors under all kinds of light to present a virtuosic show unlike any I’ve ever seen before. What really makes me make such a bold statement is the fact that throughout the book Roth maintains all of this complexity yet his prose is as limpid as can be.
The story picks up with Zuckerman just having turned forty, he’s in a lot of pain - ”a hot line of pain that ran forward behind his right ear into his neck, then branched downward beneath the scapula like a menorah held bottom side up” - and for the past several months he’s been looking for some relief. In another excellent opening line, Roth encapsulates much of what is to come: Zuckerman’s relationship with his mother, who is soon “gone,” and his relationship to the other women.
When he is sick, every man wants his mother; if she’s not around, other women must do. Zuckerman was making do with four other women.
Though these women do their best to assist Zuckerman, the pain is practically unbearable. The only time he is even slightly comfortable is when he is lying on his playmat (the locale for quite a bit of Rothian word play). To make matters worse, Zuckerman cannot write. Sure, part of the problem is the pain the physical act of writing creates, but Zuckerman can’t even come up with anything to write about because the pain consumes him. Oh, and to make matters even more worse, he’s going bald.
. . . vocationally obstructed, physically disabled, sexually mindless, intellectually intert, spiritually depressed – but not bald overnight, not that too.
At its roots The Anatomy Lesson is about this pain, which is both real and metaphoric. No physician has successfully diagnosed the pain; none has given Zuckerman any relief. The only relief Zuckerman can find is by varying doses of vodka, Percodan, and marijuana. Having so much pain for so long begs the question: what is the real source of this pain? Because Zuckerman is always trying to capture his experience, he comes up with many plausible sources. First and foremost:
Zuckerman was taking “pain” back to its root in poena, the Latin word for punishment: poena for the family portrait the whole country had assumed to be his, for the tastelessness tha thad affronted millions and the shamelessness that had enraged his tribe.
Early in the novel, Zuckerman’s mother dies. At the funeral Zuckerman’s brother, a dentist, gives a seventeen-page eulogy (more than Zuckerman has composed in months), and the eulogy achieves its effect, serving to set the record straight about the mother and Carnovsky’s mother and to sever the brothers’ relationship for good. Zuckerman sardonically thinks that his purpose in writing is now complete: he’s murdered his parents and become estranged from his brother – emancipation! Though on the surface Zuckerman speaks with mostly this type of derision, Roth won’t let his character be so quickly derided by readers. Roth complicates things, and makes the book so much more worthy to read, by allowing Zuckerman to show that underneath it all, he’s still lonely and scared and completely empty. Despite all of the “outward trappings of pleasure” all that results is pleasure’s opposite. And you’d think all of these mixed emotions would be a great place for a writer to find new material, but so far, nothing – only the temptation to end it all . . . or come close to it:
On the other hand, a failed suicide that didn’t completely cripple him might provide a new subject – more than could be said so far for success. But what if the pain vanished halfway down, went the way it came, leaped from his body as he sailed from the roof – what then? What if he saw in every salient detail a next book, a new start? Halfway down is probably just where that happens.
But the real pleasure in this book is the metafiction, this pain as an analogue to writing, Zuckerman’s physical decline and mental anguish (at least from the outside perspective) as an analogue to the irony of passing the threshold to becoming an artist:
If you were to watch some certified madman groaning over a table in his little cell, observe him trying to make something sensible out of qwertyuiop, asdfghjkl, and zxcvbnm, see him engrossed to the exclusion of all else by three such nonsensical words, you’d be appalled, you’d clutch his keeper’s arm and ask, “Is there nothing to be done? No anti-hallucinogen? No surgical procedure?” But before the keeper could even reply, “Nothing – it’s hopeless,” the lunatic would be up on his feet, out of his mind, and shrieking at you through the bars: “Stop this infernal interference! Stop this shouting in my ears! How do I complete my life’s great work with all these gaping visitors and their noise!”
And in The Anatomy Lesson, we readers get to reap the rewards of Zuckerman’s pain and isolation (or Roth’s).
From what I’ve said above, the following might come as a shock: I did not enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed The Ghost Writer or Zuckerman Unbound. The sheer pleasure of Roth’s writing was still there, but some of the feel of the previous novels was missing for me. I enjoyed, for example, the isolated setting and its meanings in The Ghost Writer. And even though what Zuckerman does with Amy Bellette’s past is not nearly as subtle a venue for metafiction as the body is in The Anatomy Lesson, I still think I enjoyed Zuckerman’s subversive exploitation of a completely unknowing Bellette more. As for my feelings for The Anatomy Lesson compared to Zuckerman Unbound, Alvin Peppler doesn’t make an appearance in The Anatomy Lesson. Happily, in The Anatomy Lesson we still have the pleasure of experiencing one of Roth’s energetic rants. This one comes from a progressingly drunk and drugged Zuckerman roaming around Chicago adopting the name of his hated critic Milton Appel. It gets better: he pretends to be Milton Appel, the grittiest of pornographers. In some classic ribaldry, Zuckerman/Appel become verbally incontinent for some pages, and that makes him feel a little better. But for some reason, even this did not match the fantastic rants and comedy of Alvin Peppler. I think it is because a ribald rant is easier to create (at least, they are far more common) than a self-pitying, Zuckerman-hating, importunate rant from the Alvin Peppler.
But that does not mean I wish Roth had quit with just the two previous novels. You’ll notice that my gripes with the novel are much more my own personal tastes and not to be mistaken as gripes about Roth’s style or tone here. He’s still spot on. In fact, this lesson in pain and anatomy goes deeper than the previous two about what it costs an individual to create through writing. I have The Prague Orgy sitting on my shelf . . . and I don’t know how long I can abstain!
After you read the book:
I think another element that, while enjoyable, made this book less pleasurable than the previous two was the ending. As much as I enjoyed it, it was not quite as ambiguous as the other two. In The Ghost Writer we get an excellent, pathetic scene in which Mrs. Lonoff walks alone down the wintry street while Zuckerman and Lonoff discuss the car’s problems. In Zuckerman Unbound we get the father’s death and Henry’s separation. We get a sense that it is a bitter relief for Zuckerman who then roams around the changed streets of Newark. But that didn’t happen here. The Anatomy Lesson ends with irony (which is to be expected) but it left me less with a sense of ambiguity about the calling of “writer” – in fact, it seemed to end with a judgment against Zuckerman. Here he is, a patient in the hospital going around seemingly concerned with the other patients. But he is actually collecting, with boyish excitement, material and “setting himself apart,” failing to accept that his perceived distance is not real, that he is one of the subjects, and that these people are indeed real. It seemed to cast him in a much poorer light than the previous novels which had also recognized this state of being as a legitimate price to pay to create.
Even though I enjoyed the other two novels more, though, this is a great ending. Zuckerman, we know, goes on. I cannot wait to find out what he does next!
Before you read the book:
For anyone looking to read the next Pulitzer’s front-runner, this is your best shot so far (at least of the books that have come up on my radar – please recommend contenders if you’ve found others). An interesting and entertaining (and pleasantly detailed) rumination on cricket in the United States, a contemporary variation on The Great Gatsby, probably the most convincing and nuanced post-9/11 novel I’ve read, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) is the best new book I’ve read in the last few years.
But wait! I don’t want to oversell the book (too late?). I think I benefitted by reading The Asylum’s didn’t-love-it review, and I think that helped me go into this book with lower expectations – an amazing way to approach a book! So before even running through the elements of the plot, let me disclose a few of the things that stood out as less than “masterful.” Stylistically, there was this line:
A bell for the benefit of the blind burped at intervals as I rose.
This glaring alliteration calls attention to a line that says nothing, nothing even close to, important. Thankfully, such mediocre – or rather, less than mediocre – attempts at poetic prose are otherwise practically absent. Another annoyance was the wife’s conclusory manner of stating her political views in her quick jabs; they felt like they were in the book just to present some righteous anger toward the United States or toward her husband - she was just too eager that it felt unnatural at times, like she was writing a column rather than having a conversation over the phone with her husband. But that too didn’t stop me from really enjoying the book. So now, on to some of the reasons I loved it.
Much has been said in reviews about Netherland‘s being informed by (or relying on) The Great Gatsby, that great American novel that summed up the 1920s and cast an unflattering light on the American Dream. The final page of Gatsby looks back to the settlement of New York by the Dutch and perhaps can be seen by a Dutch writer (O’Neill was primarily raised in Holland) as an invitation to compose an up-to-date perspective.
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes – a fresh, green breast of the new world.
Here the Nick Carraway, the self-reflecting narrator telling a bigger story than his own, is Hans van den Broek, a Dutchman who has moved with his English wife to New York. The Gatsby, the aspiring (or deluded) object of affection, is Chuck Ramkissoon, an imigrant from Trinidad. Daisy Buchanan is invoked as a plan to build a cricket field that will reorient Americans to the world’s civilized sport – and rake in a lot of money.
A sports arena for the greatest cricket teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I’m talking about advertising, I’m talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant. You’re going to have a clubhouse. Two thousand members at one thousand dollars a year plus initiation fee.
The period being summed up in Netherland is the five years after the World Trade Center fell. The fear (rational? irrational?) that followed 9/11 is present in all of the pages of Netherland, yet it is sometimes subtle and, even when it is not so subtle, almost always indirect:
Our hotel apartment had two bedrooms, a kitchenette, and a view of the tip of the Empire State Building. It also had extraordinary acoustics: in the hush of the small hours, a goods truck smashing into a pothole sounded like an explosion, and the fantastic howl of a passing motorbike once caused Rachel to vomit with terror.
Netherland doesn’t take all its cues from The Great Gatsby – in fact, throughout it impressively avoids feeling contrived and stays fresh. The narrator’s main story line is his relationship with his wife, Rachel, and their son following the attacks on the World Trade Center. Before the attacks, they lived in Tribeca, but after the attacks they moved to seemingly safer Midtown (to that hotel apartment mentioned above). Soon, Rachel cannot stand living in New York any longer, and this is an excellent excuse to separate from Hans, so she and their son move to London following the attacks.
What follows is a great story that follows two major story lines: Hans’s relationship with Chuck and the future of American cricket, and Hans’s relationship with his distant wife and child and their future as a family. All of this cast in a post-9/11 atmosphere that felt very real. Despite this, the main event in this novel is not 9/11; it is just the backdrop. It was nice to read a post-9/11 novel that is focused on the effects of 9/11 but that did it in such a way that provides at least a modicum of perspective.
Besides Gatsby, Netherland also called to remembrance that great essay “Here is New York” (1949) by E.B. White. White’s essay evokes nostalgia for a lost New York as White roams the city’s streets, describing in his superbly simple yet elegant style the essence of New York City. This essay was written soon after the United States used the atomic bomb on Japan, thus the essay also looks forward ominously - and since 9/11, presciently – to destruction visiting the City:
A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.
Even though Manhattan was not destroyed by the terrorist attacks, that was the closest thing to destruction from external forces the city has known. O’Neill seems to be picking up where White left off, describing in excellent prose the state of New York City at street level since the attacks. There’s nostalgia and pain, exacerbated by the absence of Hans’s wife and child and somewhat allayed by the prospect of a cricket field. All of these elements are intricately drawn, and there is a lot there to be studied and thought about in future readings. O’Neill is a very talented writer, and somehow he made me recognize feelings I didn’t know I felt.
At this point it is hard to know whether this book will stick to my mind once I’ve got some distance from it. So will it become a classic post-9/11 novel? When I finished it down I thought it could. But maybe after a few days and a few books have passed by – not to mention more time since the period it sums up - I will not remember that I once spent a lovely time wandering around New York thinking about what cricket could do to that terrific city. I hope that is not the case.
After you read the book:
The last sentence in White’s ”Here is New York” is one of those superb moments in literature, when a great insightful piece is concluded with style and substance that makes the reader think for decades to come. Here White is talking about an old, battered willow tree:
In a way it symbolizes the city: life under difficulties, growth against odds, sap-rise in the midst of concrete, and the steady reaching for the sun. Whenever I look at it nowadays, and feel the cold shadow of the planes, i think: “This must be saved, this particular thing, this very tree.” If it were to go, all would go – this city, this mischievous and marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death.
I cannot be sure, but it sure seems like O’Neill had this very passage in his mind when he wrote the last page of Netherland. Remember:
You only had to look at our faces.
Which makes me remember my mother. I remember how I turned and caught her – how could I have forgotten this until now? – looking not at New York but at me, and smiling.
Which is how I come to face my family with the same smile.
There is a lot of hope in this last passage of Netherland, and it seems to be invoking the “marvelous monument which not to look upon would be like death” moment in White’s essay. Some might think it is a bit too hopeful an ending for an otherwise ambivalent story. But I didn’t feel that way. This hope is subverted by Chuck’s death. I’d like some time to reflect on how to reconcile the ending with Chuck’s ending.
Before you read the book:
On my book’s dust jacket, short story writer Charles D’Ambrosio says Nam Le’s collection of short stories, The Boat (2008), belongs on the same shelf as Dubliners. Wait a minute! In my opinion that statement condemns any book of short stories. Few books of short stories could withstand scrutiny against Dubliners. Its inevitable deficiencies would stand out in stark relief? Luckily, I went into The Boat discounting some (most) of D’Ambrosio’s praise because The Boat is Le’s first book and he’s still very young – 29. If The Boat were truly a book of short stories that sits beside Dubliners, then it would blow me out of the water. If not, hey, that’s not so terrible. It still could be better than most. And since my expectations when I began were not so high that The Boat was doomed to sink, I can now say that this was an excellent book . . . coming from such a young writer.
This collection contains seven short stories: “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” “Cartagena,” “Meeting Elise,” “Halflead Bay,” “Hiroshima,” “Tehran Calling,” and “The Boat.” You can probably tell from the titles that this book is a conscious attempt to span the globe. Indeed, the shifting from one ethnicity to the next is the string (along with the curious presence of the word “boat” in most if not all of the stories) that holds the collection together formally.
Le himself was born in Vietnam, moved to Australia, and now spends his time between Australia and the United States, where for a few years he honed his writing skills at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, presumably preparing this book. At first glance, Le’s work is a new contribution to the saturated canon of ethnic literature. In the first story, “Love and Honor and . . .,” Le delves into his own Vietnamese heritage. The narrator is a young Vietnamese writer – in Iowa – trying to get out a short story by its deadline. His father, a survivor of the massacre at My Lai, flies in from Australia to spend some time with his son. It’s the worst possible time: the narrator’s story is due soon, and he’s suffering from writer’s block. But what appears an inconvenience could prove provident. His father’s story is excellent, fodder for the masses, and the narrator can easily use it to show how it has made his relationship with his father very difficult. Plus:
“It’s hot,” a writing instructor told me at a bar. “Ethnic literature’s hot. And important too.”
But (still self-consciously), Le subverts the reader’s expectations of another collection of ethnic literature by criticizing it, calling it boring and exploitative.
I was told about a friend of a friend, a Harvard graduate from Washington, D.C., who had posed in traditional Nigerian garb for his book-jacket photo. I pictured myself standing in a rice paddy, wearing a straw conical hat.
This first story teases us by seeming to meet our preconceptions about a book written by “Nam Le.” But Le playfully changes the game, and challenges readers in the process. Speaking of this first story, Le said to Patricia Cohen of The New York Times, “One of my chief ambitions of the story was to play with that idea of what we consider to be authentic, how much autobiography is implied or assumed, how we read something differently if we think it’s been drawn from the author’s life.”
So after this first story I saw promise for the rest of the collection because of two main things: (1) a well executed and interesting story of a father-son relationship that, though self-consious, is not written in self-proclaiming, presumptuous language; and (2) a sort of manifesto in which Le says he won’t be confined to write about his Vietnamese heritage. And the rest of the stories (except for the final one) predictably stray far away from Vietnam.
Sadly, this manifesto and the clever way Le presents it to us is probably the highest point of the short story collection. But it was not the only high point. Le’s writing is mercifully immune to the common plague of pretentious language that is endemic in current “literary” fiction. The stories themselves are interesting and sometimes moving and I was drawn into all of them, which is rare in a collection of short stories – there’s almost always at least one that I wish I’d skipped (here, thankfully, my least favorite “Hiroshima” also happened to be the shortest, so I was never tempted to skip it). Also, each story is nicely arranged, full of timely revelations about the characters and events that keep the stories moving at a nice, natural pace. And each is unique in its style and voice. While sometimes when I read a book of short stories I feel like I’m getting variations on a them, I didn’t feel this way about The Boat.
Here are my two personal favorites:
“Cartagena”: in which a fourteen-year-old Columbian boy gets an “office job,” i.e. a job as an assassin, in Medellín, where Andrés Escobar was killed after scoring an own goal in the 1994 World Cup. Le’s writing and voice evoked the place and attitude really well for me. I once lived in Northern Brazil in the favelas of Belém and São Luís, and the atmosphere and mentality was spot on with my own experiences. Made me wonder how Le knew so much about the way these children grow up expecting short lives so that at fourteen they can already, without much irony, say, “He spoke playfully now, as if we were kids again.”
“Tehran Calling”: in which an American, Sarah, flees to Iran from a painful break up with the man she thought made her happy. In Iran awaits her old roommate who went back to revolutionize its treatment of women. In probably the most nuanced piece in The Boat Le portrays the relationship between these two women and the men in their lives against the backdrop of Iranian politics.
Sadly, though I really enjoyed reading these stories, and I recommend them to others, I’m not sure I’d enjoy rereading them. This is not because they were disappointing – they weren’t - but I feel like I got enough out of them in one turn.
Also, though I thought the stories were written well, I’m not tempted to reread them to figure out how they work formally to achieve their effect, which is one of the main reasons I’ve read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” Joyce’s Dubliners, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and anything by Flannery O’Connor so many times. Le’s writing is smooth (and promising), but in these stories his devices are not ellusive. Though he impressively adopts a unique voice and style for each story, they are all familiar. And lastly, though each story ends with a satisfying revelation, these revelations are minor, also feel familiar, and while important to the character in the story cannot approach Joyce’s epiphanies’ devestating effect on the reader.
Then again, why should they? We wouldn’t be reading much if everything had to survive scrutiny against a masterpiece. These are excellent stories, well worth the time I spent reading and genuinely pleasurable. Le’s manifesto serves as a great introduction to someone who might have a strong voice in literature in the decades to come. And now I sit anticipating Le’s next work (though apparently it won’t be his 700 page novel produced in Iowa since he’s scrapped it) – what personna will he adopt since he can’t now in good faith go for the hot, easy, exploitative, boring ethnic thing?
Before you read the book:
I’m pretty sure that even though it didn’t win the Best of the Booker J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace was the runner up. To me, anyway, it was the second most substantive book on the shortlist and it seemed like most people I talked to who didn’t vote for Midnight’s Children voted for Disgrace. At any rate, I thought it might be nice to take another look at an earlier Coetzee novel that won the Booker Prize but that was not considered for the Best of the Booker: Life and Times of Michael K (1983).
Here we meet an apparent simpleton, Michael K. He lives near his mother in a city that is getting torn up by war. Though he’s comfortable in his routine, K decides to hook a cart up to a bicycle so he can take his mother away, back to the village where she grew up. The book is divided up into three parts: Part I is from K’s perspective; Part II is from the perspective of the doctor who treats K; and the very short Part III is again from K’s perspective.
As in Disgrace, Coetzee’s prose is sparse yet elegant, painful and full of irony.
The damp weather was no good for her, nor was the unending worry about the future. Once settled in Prince Albert she would quickly recover her health. At most, they would be a day or two on the road. People were decent, people would stop and give them lifts.
Unfortunately, and it’s no surprise, K’s plans do not pan out. The consequences are ugly. But somehow, the book is beautiful. This is one of those rare works of art that by showing ugliness gets the reader (who pays attention) to recognize, more deeply, beauty. I’m not talking about cartharsis here. This book doesn’t necessarily dwell on the tragedies that occur – they are presented here more like an inconvenience. I’m not sure how it happens, but while reading this book - this book about war and about one man’s physical decline as he attempts to become invisible – during the day I looked around me and saw so many wonderful things. Things looked brighter. I was happier. It was not because I was contrasting my life with that of Michael K. It was because in his life I could see some fundamental beauty which I could then recognize in my own. I would read the sad way Michael K passes time while alone or in captivity and feel some fundamental truth, some elemental beauty even among the ugliness of human nature. For example, this simple passage from early in the book is simple, its momentary bliss is rare, yet for all its simpleness it shouts a message louder than the ravages going on around the characters:
[H]e was again able to take his mother, wrapped in coat and blanket, for a seafront ride that brought a smile to her lips.
I liked this book more than Disgrace. In both, Coetzee has a way of using simple words in seemingly simple sentences, coming up with a fabulously understated style:
He had a feeling that he was losing his grip on why he had come all these hundreds of miles, and had to pace about with his hands over his face before he felt better again.
But Life and Times of Michael K felt more compassionate than Disgrace. Because Coetzee had to recognize the fundamental beauty I talked about earlier, I felt more drawn to K and to the writer. Simple passages like the one here made me feel like Coetzee was not merely defending a character – as I felt in Disgrace, where Lurie is almost completely unlikeable on the surface – but also working hard to get the reader to love a character that he loved:
There was a cord of tenderness that stretched from him to the patch of earth beside the dam and must be cut. It seemed to him that one could cut a cord like that only so many times before it would not grow again.
Michael K is deceptively complex. He seems simple. He barely talks. The simple style of the novel strengthens this feel. However, like the novel itself, there is much more below the surface. The doctor, who tells Part II, is one of the only characters who recognizes Michael K as something more than a simpleton. His revelation is probably flawed too, but that leaves more room for readers to get what they can from the life of Michael K.
After you read the book:
I wrote here mostly about the beauty I found in Michael K. But here I want to look at some of the horrors I encountered along the way. When Michael K’s mother died his silence left me stunned. He was frightened of his mother, and it was interesting that because of this he is almost scared to grieve for her. Though he seems to be running away from the war to Prince Albert, I felt that mostly he was still trying to carry out her will, and not because he loved her just that much but because he was frightened of what would happen to him if he didn’t. This hold she had on him made him fairly impotent when she was alive. Now she’s dead and his body too begins to waste away.
Did you see hope in the tryst he had with the woman at the end? Was there some vitality reentering his life? I wanted to see it that way, but the encounter felt too cheap. It almost seemed to underscore the decline of Michael K.
Before you read the book:
Since I finished Fatelessness and Liquidation, I did a little bit of research on Kertész. He is the first Holocaust survivor to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize). And it is incredible, relatively, that he has survived the survival. Most other writers who survived the Holocaust eventually took their own lives: Paul Celan, Jerzy Kosinski, Jean Améry, Piotr Rawicz, Tadeusz Borowski, and debatably Primo Levi. Kertész is reportedly a very pleasant fellow, with a nice smile – though Kaddish for an Unborn Child (Kaddis a meg nem szvületett, 1990; tr. from the Hungarian by Tim Wilkinson, 2004) would not lead one to think that. This is the third book in Kertész’s Auschwitz tetralogy (Fatelessness, Fiasco, Kaddish for an Unborn Child, and Liquidation). I read them out of order but would recommend starting from the beginning because they build upon one another. Once again the translation is by the incredible Tim Wilkinson, whom I respect more and more with each Kertész translation. He has a fluid style and an excellent vocabulary. I hope he keeps up the work because there are plenty of books in Kertész’s oeuvre that are not yet available in English – like Fiasco.
A Kaddish is a Jewish prayer of mourning, and that insight makes this one of my favorite titles of all time. It evokes such a devestating statement: here the narrator speaks to the child that he could not bear to bring into this world.
The first word in the book is “No!” - this in response to a philosopher who asks the narrator if he has any children. On the next page, we also learn that “No!” was the response the narrator gave to his wife when she asked him if he wanted any children. But the existence of the book, this Kaddish, shows that the narrator’s unbudging stance is not simply jaded apathy or cynicism; it is also full of regret and sorrow:
“No!” something within me bellowed, howled, instantly and at once, and my whimpering abated only gradually, after the passage of many long years, into a sort of quiet but obsessive pain until, slowly and malignantly, like an insidious illness, a question assumed ever more definite form within me: Would you be a brown-eyed little girl, with the pale specks of your freckles scattered around your tiny nose? Or else a headstrong boy, your eyes bright and hard as greyish-blue pebbles? – yes, contemplating my life as the potentiality of your existence.
But this is not just a book about sorrow or cruelty, about not wanting to subject a child to this world. It is a great meditation, a philosophy even, on the Holocaust, particularly Auschwitz. The narrator, in case you haven’t guessed, is a survivor of Auschwitz. In fact, the narrator is B. whose story continues, sort of, in Liquidation. Since Auschwitz, B. has looked death in the face, not with fear, not with yearning, but more with a foggy stupor of someone who fails to understand why he isn’t dead. It can be said of B. (by B. himself) what Elie Wiesel said about Primo Levi upon Levi’s death: “[He] died at Auschwitz forty years earlier.”
. . . the continued digging of the grave that others had begun to dig for me in the air and then, simply because they did not have time to finish, hastily and without so much as a hint of diabolical mockery (far from it: just like that, casually, without so much as a look around), they thrust the tool in my hand and left me standing there to finish, as best I could, the work that they had begun.
Taking his rant a few steps further, Kertész also goes back and forth with a very difficult question: why did Auschwitz occur? Interestingly, that Auschwitz occurred is not that surprising to B. On the contrary, B. thinks that Auschwitz not happening is the true conundrum. After all,
. . . Auschwitz has been hanging around in the air since long ago, who knows, perhaps for centuries, like dark fruit ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable disgraces, waiting for the moment when it may at last drop on mankind’s head . . .
So for a part of the book, B. stops questioning the nature of evil, which he says is rational, makes perfect sense, and looks at the nature of good, something ”truly irrational and genuinely inexplicable.”
But the book does not dwell in such abstractions the whole time. Much of the last part of the book deals with B.’s marriage to a Jewish woman born after Auschwitz, but still with “the mark” of Jewishness. She hopes that his ranting will help him purge himself of some of this pain and she supports him to show that she understands him. B.’s response to this offers a deep look at relationships in general.
I hope that what I’ve said above makes the book attractive – it should be read – because I’m about to note the style of this novel, which might at first seem discouraging. Kaddish is stylistically different than Fatelessness and Liquidation. Fatelessness read more like a conventional, philosophical novel. Liquidation felt a bit like a Tom Stoppard play. Kaddish is a lot like Notes from Underground, a continuous declamation where words and thoughts trip over each other in long sentences on the crowded page. The book is 120 pages. In those, we have only seventeen paragraphs (there are six paragraphs on one page late in the novel, so such a high number as seventeen is actually a bit misleading). Many of those paragraphs end in the middle of a sentence that continues on into the next paragraph. This run-on feel is not unique to paragraph breaks: there are only nineteen sentences in the first ten pages, or less than two per page (I almost counted for the whole book, but I decided not to – any takers?).
Amazingly, this style is not cumbersome. In fact, this type of Chomskyan recursion makes the novel feel like one long statement, and it flows well from the writer’s “pen dipped in sarcasm.” I really enjoyed it.
After you read the book:
This book follows the philosphy of fatelessness that Kertesz discusses in the book of the same name. B. views his birth as arbitrary, his confinement as arbitrary, every step of his life since then as arbitrary, nothing fated, nothing meant to help him become anything particular. The very fact that he, a secular, nonbelieving Jew would still be incarcerated and subjected to such horrors just doesn’t make sense:
There is no denying that I have known and felt since long ago, from the first stirrings of my thoughts, that some mysterious shame is attached to my name, and that I brought this shame with me from some place where I had never been, and I brought it on account of sin, which, even though I never committed it, is my sin and will pursue me throughout my life, a life which is undoubtedly not my own life, even though it is me who is living it, me who suffers from it, and me who will later die from it . . .
This book also offered some interesting insights into Liquidation, particularly with this line B. speaks to his unborn – never-to-be-born – child:
. . . your non-existence viewed as the necessary and radical liquidation of my own existence.
Here Kertézs sets up B.’s ultimate, uhh, fate. Liquidation begins with his suicide – B. has successfully liquidated himself. But Liquidation also looks at what that means to the survivors, particularly his ex-wife who has married a non-Jew and is raising two children who as yet do not know they are Jewish.
Before you read the book:
I have a hit and miss relationship with the New York Times best books of the year list. However, I’m always interested in what they choose. For 2007, one of their selections was the Norwegian novel Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, translated by Anne Born. Originally pulished in 2003, it picked up a handful of awards in Norway and has since picked up more recognition and more awards in its English translation.
After reading several fast-paced novels in a row, Out Stealing Horses at first felt like a long, deep breath - the kind of prose I could really settle down with. Elegiac in tone, the book begins in the fall of 1999 when Trond Sanders, our almost-septigenarian narrator, has moved to a small house with no phone or television to enjoy some solitude after a few hard years’ grieving. In the first chapter Trond is awakened by a sound at night and goes outside to find his only slightly younger neighbor out searching for his wandering dog. Sheepishly, the neighbor admits to Trond that he once shot a dog when he was a young boy and since has never had the heart to do so again, but maybe the time has come. This is the first of many weighty moments, where Petterson lets us know that there’s something underneath the prose that won’t be revealed for a while. This encounter at night with his neighbor disturbs Trond and he locks his door when he goes back in his cabin. It also takes Trond back to the summer of 1948, a formative summer of grief and undesired growth. In a line, we get another look at some of the underlying themes that won’t really show their significance until later (even though the mention of the German occupation and its teaser quality is far from subtle):
It was 1948 and one of the first days of July. Three years earlier the Germans had left, but I can’t remember that we talked about them any longer. At least my father did not. He never said anything about the war.
At fifteen, Trond is living with his father in another old cabin, getting ready to log their land. Trond’s friend Jon comes one night to go out stealing horses, something they just do sometimes. In one of the most compelling parts of the book, Trond and Jon go to the neighbors to ride his horses - but even in the rush there’s something strange and unsettling to me in the prose, one of my first experiences with distaste in the novel:
There was a rushing sound, and the hoof beats died down, and the horse’s back drummed through my body like the beating of my heart, and then there was a sudden silence around me that spread over everything, and through that silence I heard the birds. I distinctly heard the blackbird from the top of a spruce tree, and clear as glass I heard the lark high up and several other birds whose song I did not know, and it was so weird, it was like a film without sound with another sound added, I was in two places at once, and nothing hurt.
To me the last sentence seems like it is really straining to be clever but that the final effect is not worth it, and the word “weird” doesn’t fit the tone for me. Unfortunately, this was just the first of a few annoyances that eventually overcame my enjoyment with the book.
Nevertheless, back to the story, and back to one of the parts that really did capture me fully and made the book worth my time. All seems normal, from Trond’s rather naïve perspective as he and his friend finish their thrill with the horses. But then Jon takes him to see a nest in a tree and then destroys the nest in a trembling stupor of anger. Then Jon climbs down the tree and begins walking home, going neither fast nor slow. Confused, Trond walks home, unsure whether to run up to walk by Jon.
Again we have a surprising jab, a moment of obvious weight but with a mysterious cause. In this case, Trond cannot account for it, has no idea what is going on. Slowly, flashing back and forth from 1999 to 1948, the novel unwinds and Trond finds out what has happened and becomes himself implicated. With some compelling scenes from 1943 during the German occupation of Norway (something I had never really considered before, and something that made the book that much more interesting to me), we have a really interesting story.
The main problem, at least for me, was the prose. While at first I enjoyed the swaying feel of the long sentences, by the middle of the book I was drifting too far away. When I wanted the book to move on, it slowed down and I mean really slowed down – some sentences went on and on, line after line without a break. In fact, that is the reason I have no more pulled quotes in here. I didn’t want to type up many of these sentences. Sometimes long, run-on sentences work well and are impressive and effective, but I didn’t feel that with Out Stealing Horses. Eventually it just felt overdone, the effect wore off, and I got annoyed and just wanted to finish the book rather than engage with the story.
Now, writing the review, having the story in my mind without having to trudge through the slow sentences, I find that I did enjoy it. The story itself is impressive, in a gloomy kind of way. And often the slower style worked well. In fact, it’s been a long time since I noticed so much silence in a book. It made the important sounds much more powerful. Unfortunately, I felt like too much of it flagged, distracting me from the parts I genuinely did enjoy.
Before you read the book:
I recently posted a review on Eugenides’s first book, The Virgin Suicides, and in it I mentioned that I didn’t like his Pulitzer-winning Middlesex (2002). I have to admit, when it won the Pulitzer I was excited to read it. The crowd of people who loved it looked inviting and genuinely excited. But after reading it, I was disappointed and now have to cross to the other, lonely side of the street. Perhaps someone will help me see where I’ve missed the crux of the book, and then I’ll gladly jog across the street again.
The story is based on a fascinating premise:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Here we meet Cal, formerly Calliope or Callie, Stephanides, who discovers that being a teenage girl is incredibly difficult – and then discovers he’s not really a girl at all. But the story doesn’t get there for quite a while. Like many good stories about identity, we must first go back to the forebears, Cal’s grandparents who, like Saleem Sinai’s in Midnight’s Children, seem to be on the fringe of many major historical events that combine to create the world in which Cal grows up. However, in this book, this trek through history, in the book to trace the path of the gene that ultimately makes Calliope Cal, while interesting in and of itself, felt disconnected from Cal’s story.
When I told my life story to Dr. Luce, the place where he invariably got interested was when I came to Clementine Stark. Luce didn’t care about criminally smitten grandparents or silkworm boxes or serenading clarinets. To a certain extent, I understand. I even agree.
I agree too. This quote comes from page 263 and is really where, to me, the story finally picked up and got into the subject the book promised – Cal’s life as a hermaphrodite, his coming to terms with his past and his identity, his unique perspective on the world coming from both a man and a woman.
While the first 263 pages were interesting and had some important developing points, I wish it were distilled, perhaps a few times over. Eugenides is a great, fluid writer – very witty. But he can get really wordy, and I didn’t see the need here. I admit that one of my favorite writers is the laconic Cormac McCarthy; I am often annoyed by what seems to me undue verbosity. This was a case where many elements that make up the length seemed superfluous and distracting. I know, I sound like – and probably am like - the ignorant Emperor telling Mozart he uses too many notes, cut out a few and it would be perfect. But strangely I felt like Eugenides told so much about his characters and yet they still felt underdeveloped. Often times the family history felt like one event after another without much time devoted to feeling what the character felt. We were simply told what the character felt.
In the end, though the story is compelling and undoubtedly interesting, I didn’t feel like it delivered. I see a lot of connections Eugenides makes about identity, but they didn’t seem fully developed. In fact, there were many symbols and motifs throughout the book that were very clever, and I expected a lot from them. But ultimately they seemed to be only that: clever, or rather, a device used to show cleverness and not to really further the plot or elaborate on a theme.
And that reminds me of another disclosure I must make. It’s an awful thing to go into a book expecting it to be something, but that’s what I did here. Over the last decade in literary criticism, gender/identity studies have increasingly looked at androgyny (which is close to, but not the same as hermaphroditism) and what it can say about perspective and gender. When a book called Middlesex won the Pulitzer, I unfortunately expected a nuanced, philosophical look at gender and America and identity. I didn’t feel like this was it.
Unfortunately, those expectations (my own fault) made me miss out on some of the other subtle aspects of the novel that shine through the history: the Smyrna uprising, immigration, Henry Ford’s ironic morality screening for his employees and the rise of Detroit, American optimism after World War II, the race riots in the 1960s and the decline of Detroit, the impressive connection between classicism and Cal’s Greek heritage.
Please don’t judge me too harshly for what is probably my own failure to comprehend. In fact, please leave comments that help me see what I’m missing. See, I still have faith that the book is great, that all those people on that side of the road are correct.
And, after all, I did enjoy this book. Though I treated it harshly above, I enjoyed the Forrest Gump-like trek through American history. There are really some fascinating episodes in this book that made me realize how ignorant I am or how much I’ve lacked the imagination to see what these events meant to people living at the time. Eugenides does an excellent job bringing these episodes to life. Sometimes, though, they felt like a series of episodes Sometimes I felt like he should have written an essay on American history rather than this novel.
I also enjoyed Eugenides’s sly, clever writing. I know that above I said that some things seemed to be there just to showcase the author’s wit, but some of that is forgiveable because he is really witty. I guess the best way to put this is that in Middlesex (but not The Virgin Suicides) Eugenides’s writing reminded me of Jim Carrey’s acting: at moments brilliant, hysterical, and spot on; but at other moments just too much, with a need to be toned down, better controlled.
After your read the book:
I feel a lot of pressure to love this book. I have the desire to love this book. Please help me out here.
Before you read the book:
Night Train (1997) is my first venture into the world of Martin Amis. After the hullabaloo, I thought I had to get a sense of his writing.
Here we have an interesting twist on the tried and true (but usually overcooked) American detective novel. In the first paragraph, detective Mike Hoolihan introduces herself:
I am a police. That may sound like an unusual statement – or an unusual construction. But it’s a parlance we have. Among ourselves, we would never say I am a policeman or I am a policewoman or I am a police officer. We would just say I am a police. I am a police. I am a police and my name is Detective Mike Hoolihan. And I am a woman also.
Mike has been a police for a long time now, but she’s about to tell the story of her worse assignment, one she was personally involved in, and one that has more significance to us than the typical detective story. Jennifer Rockwell, who seemingly has it all and has it all together has committed suicide. Jennifer is the daughter of Colonel Tom, Mike’s boss and a true friend who has helped Mike through many rough patches in her life. Colonel Tom cannot believe that his daughter would commit suicide, so he sends Mike in to investigate.
Because any outcome, yes, any at all, rape, mutilation, dismemberment, cannibalism, marathon tortures of Chinese ingenuity, of Afghan lavishness, any outcome was better than the other thing. Which was his daughter putting the .22 in her mouth and pulling the trigger three times.
Three times? That should be an early clue that indeed Jennifer could not have committed suicide. But these jaded police don’t jump blindly to conclusions. They have their response:
You shoot yourself once in the mouth. That’s life. You shoot yourself twice. Hey. Accidents happen. You shoot yourself three times. You got to really want to go.
But even though some suicides have succeeded by shooting themselves in the head three times, Jennifer’s still makes no sense. While often unlikely suicides happen because the person just succumbed to ”the water torture of staying alive,” Jennifer’s never shown any signs that she’s even slightly tired or depressed. Quite the opposite. She has everything anyone could want: a perfect boyfriend, a perfect family, a perfect job she loved, a perfect figure, no financial problems, no troubled past. But there are clues that suggest something went wrong – or right.
Even though Amis’s style was very clever, sometimes his adoption of the jaded detective voice was, as it often is, annoying to the point of becoming its own analogue of water torture. All those short, repetitive jabs. In fact, through the first fifty pages or so I really wondered whether I’d be able to handle the rest of the slim novel. I’m glad I stuck with it. It turns out to be a tightly wound post-modern novel with a satisfying ending.
On a side note, because Amis’s 2006 statements that have sullied his reputation somewhat, I was paying particular attention to any author signals in this book, written over ten years ago. Early in the book, Mike gives one of those preemptive apologies that is not an apology:
Allow me to apologize for the bad language, the diseased sarcasm, and the bigotry.
Even though by the end I was smiling at Amis’s clever resolution, I’m not sure Night Train was the best jumping off point for getting to know Martin Amis. I think I’d like to see something he’s written with more substance. But it was definitely impressive enough I want to get to know his work better, so what do you recommend?
After you read the book:
This is a pretty amazing way to present a post-modernist theme: take the American detective novel, already the scene of so much filth and apathy, and use it to show someone who though she has everything still commits suicide because:
She just had standards. High ones. Which we didn’t meet
But like many post modernist works (and many detective novels), once this interesting thought, the answer to the mystery, is disclosed, it loses some of its flavor. Incredibly clever. And the book was certainly tight enough to lead up to it perfectly. But I must say that as clever as it was, as good a read as it was, I’m happy to move on to other thoughts, to other reads.