It would be hard to be at all engaged in the literary world and not hear about Roberto Bolaño – and 2666 (2004; tr. from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, 2008). I remember hearing about 2666 probably a little over a year ago. Already published in Spanish, it was heralded the posthumously published masterpiece – we in the English-speaking world had only to wait to get our hands on something built up to sound as much a literary landmark as 1922′s publication of The Waste Land and Ulysses. Finally, last month 2666 arrived, and with it a host of gushing reviews and recently it’s garnered the top spot on many “Best of” book lists. Here are just a couple examples of the gush: “Vanishing: the exact opposite of what 2666 will do,” said Janet Maslin in the New York Times daily; “Now throw your hats in the air,” said Jonathan Lethem in the New York Times Book Review. Would it rather make me exclaim, “Now throw your hands in the air!” Well . . . yes and no.
Rather than anchor myself down with the 900 page hardback edition, I opted for the 900 page, three book paperback edition. This greatly facilitated the reading process. I was able to toat the book around during the day without much trouble. Also, I was able to read it while rocking my son to sleep at night (many late nights recently) and I couldn’t have done that with a hardback tome. And furthremore, I’m honestly not sure I would have finished it had I not had the feeling of completion every 300 pages. Though the prose is smooth, there are pages and pages and pages (most of the book, in fact) where there were no paragraph breaks. It was nice to see the fake end.
Now on to the book review. I’m going to start off by being honest: this is not a book for everyone, which means that it might vanish off of the bookstore shelfs Ms. Maslin, even if it doesn’t disappear from academics’ shelves. I think that other long tomes that will never disappear – War and Peace, Moby Dick, In Search of Lost Time, and even Ulysses – have a lingering appeal that entices even the least academic bibliophile to pick them up. I’m interested to see if 2666 can do the same.
Can you tell I’m avoiding my actual review? I don’t know how to put into words what this book did to me. In the same moment I was completely captivated and yet wanted to put the book down out of exhaustion. In the same moment I wanted to pick the book back up again to read some more of Bolaño’s insightful prose and yet wanted to leave it aside, perhaps forever. Let’s see if I can articulate this mess.
The book is divided up into five parts:
- The Part about the Critics
- The Part about Amalfitano
- The Part about Fate
- The Part about the Crimes
- The Part about Archimboldi
It was pulled in from the start. Bolaño somehow makes exciting and interesting the adventure of four literary critics trying to track down their favorite subject, the ellusive author Archimboldi. In the process, the four critics mingle in more than scholarship. Two of the men, Espinoza and Pelletier, begin a simultaneous affair with the one woman in the group, Liz Norton. The other, crippled critic Morini remains in the margins, working on a large project while remaining politely on the sideline of the affairs. All of this leads to some comedy, and here is an example for how compelling this book can be:
The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier’s call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used twenty times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times. The word solipsism seven times. The word euphemism ten times. The word category, in the singular and the plural, nine times. The word structuralism once (Pelletier). The term American literature three times. The words dinner or eating or breakfast or sandwich nineteen times. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times. Then the conversation proceeded more smoothly. Pelletier told Espinoza a joke in Germand and Espinoza laughed.
Pelletier, Espinoza, and Norton follow a clue about Archimboldi’s whereabouts to Santa Tereza, a city in northern Mexico where maquiladoras look out to the border with the United States. There, as the three critics realize their search will be fruitless, they experience the horror of the place. All become disorientated and lose focus not only of their search but of themselves. And they also learn that since 1993 in Santa Tereza, women, usually young, have been found murdered at such a rate that there are over 300 cases. Astoundingly, Santa Tereza is based on Juarez where this mass murder has actually been ocurring, still is, and is perhaps even picking up speed.
The first part ends somewhat abruptly and the four critics never appear in this book again. But the reader remains unsettled while transitioning into the second part about Amalfitano, one of the residents of Santa Tereza who led the critics around in their search for Archimboldi. Amalfitano is also becoming slightly unstable. He acquires a book of geometry and hangs it up outside to watch the elements attack it (a great metaphor in the book that bolsters Bolaño’s case for incoherence). Meanwhile, his daughter grows up to her teenage years and we meet her again in the third part of the book. In this part a black New York journalist is sent to Santa Tereza to cover a boxing match. He also learns of the murders and asks if he can collect some material for a potential article about the disturbing (understatement) situation. He doesn’t get this permission, but he does encounter Amalfitano’s daughter. The fourth part, the one about the crimes, is the most disturbing. Here we finally get an almost case by case narrative about the crimes and some of the men and women attempting to figure them out. It is the type of thing one can’t turn away from. It reminded me of sentencing reports I used to read when working for a federal judge. But at the same time it was incredibly poetic. Bolaño shows immense control here. How can one keep the tap dripping this slowly and steadily for so long? But does it come together in the end? Not for me.
“I don’t understand a word you’ve said,” said Norton.
“Really I’ve just been talking nonsense,” said Amalfitano.
It’s the same response I had. I felt power. I appreciated the writing. But for me it didn’t come together. That was apparently the point, and there are many clues about this throughout the book. But the constant buildup and tangents that turn into nothing left me frustrated in the end, and not at the state of the world but rather at the state of this novel or – as will surely happen – at the state of novels that mimic it.
So this year was, for me, a Booker anomaly. Usually I love the Booker Prize. It has introduced me to some fantastic books, not to mention some of the best novelists. I don’t know when I would have found Julian Barnes if it weren’t for his sometimes appearance on the Booker shortlist. His most recent to hit the list was Arthur and George (2005), the year John Banville’s The Sea won (a book I didn’t particularly like at the time but that has refused to leave my mind), and probably the last good year for the Booker Prize. This year Julian Barnes’s memoir Nothing to Be Frightened Of, listed as one of the five best nonfiction books of the year on several lists, inspired me to revisit one of my favorites:
In its own way, this novel is also a bit of nonfiction. The Arthur in the title is the famous Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A bit more obscure, but no less real, George Edalji is the son of an Indian father and a Scotish mother. The novel’s main narrative thrust comes when George, due partially on his race, is arrested for a series of animal mutilations. Knowing he was innocent, Arthur engages on a quest to prove his innocence and find the real culprit. This actually happened, as unbelievable as it may sound: Arthur was confident enough in his sleuthing to adopt the trade of his greatest legacy, Sherlock Holmes. However, the book is so much more than an interesting telling of this biographical footnote.
The book begins with some wonderful, though completely disconnected (Arthur and George didn’t meet until 1903, much later in their lives) vignettes about Arthur and George’s youths. Here are the first lines in the novel, introducing Arthur:
A child wants to see. It always begins like this, and it began like this then. A child wanted to see.
He was able to walk, and could reach up to a door handle. He did this with nothing that could be called purpose, merely the instinctive tourism of infancy. A door was there to be pushed; he walked in, stopped, looked. There was nobody to observe him; he turned and walked away, carefully shutting the door behind him.
What he saw there became his first memory. A small boy, a room, a bed, closed curtains leaking afternoon light. By the time he came to describe it publicly, sixty years had passed. How many internal retellings had smoothed and adjusted the plain words he finally used? Doubtless it still seemed as clear as on the day itself. The door, the room, the light, the bed, and what was on the bed: a “white, waxen thing.”
A small boy and a corpse: such encounters would not have been so rare in the Edinburgh of his time.
And here are the first lines introducing George:
George does not have a first memory, and by the time anyone suggests that it might be normal to have one, it’s too late. He has no recollection obviously preceding all others – not of being picked up, cuddled, laughed at or chastised. He has an awareness of once having been an only child, and a knowledge that there is now Horace as well, but no primal sense of being disturbingly presented with a brother, no expulsion from paradise. Neither a first sight, nor a first smell, whether of a scented mother or a carbolicy maid-of-all-work.
Though I often don’t like it when an author fiddles with verb tenses, in this book it becomes more than a gimmick. Arthur’s narrative is in the past tense until he meets Miss Jean Leckie, a woman who will become his notorious mistress in a notoriously unconsumated affair. Indeed, one of the most interesting aspects of the novel delves into Arthur’s inner battle to be faithful to his dying wife, whom he loved dearly, and maintain an unsexual romantic affair with Miss Leckie. George’s narrative is completely in the present tense until he is put in prison for the animal mutilations. If that were the whole point though, then I would say this was a clever narrative gimmick, but Barnes extends this “tense” issue beyond this. Much of the book deals with life and death, what comes after, what remains. It is not a spoiler to dislcose the last lines: “What does he see? What did he see? What will he see?”
Without disclosing too much of the story, it must be said that Barnes uses Arthur and George to examine in novel form what he eventually does in his memoir, and had previously done in a New Yorker personal history essay entitled “The Past Conditional,” which begins, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.” Using Arthur’s fascination with spiritism, Barnes delves into the more spectral aspects of our existence. When most authors would have been content to exploit Doyle’s attempt to do Holmes in a simple mystery novel, Barnes uses it to roam around some longer-lasting mysteries.
I had not heard of James Salter until I came across a review of Solo Faces on John Self’s Asylum. After looking into him a bit, I realized that once again here was an author I should have read already – let alone heard of. My ignorance is forever on display on this blog! But that’s okay since my ignorance is also lessening – ever so slightly. I have now introduced myself to Salter through Light Years (1975).
The first chapter set my expectations high. With virtuosity Salter moves from the harsh nature of the Hudson (“The Hudson is vast here, vast and unmoving. A dark country, a country of sturgeon and carp.”) to a man in a bathtub – all naturally, with little transition - from myth (“The Indians sought, they say, a river that ‘ran both ways.’ Here they found it.”) to modern New York. Time and space seem to flash by in an instant, and Salter sets up his motifs of light and darkness, time and space, myth and history (“It’s in the darkness that myths are born”).
Here we meet Viri and Nedra Berland and their two daughters Franca and Danny. Much like Revolutionary Road, this book is about the dissolution of a marriage in the outskirts of modern New York. Viri and Nedra (in the beginning) are in their late twenties. Viri commutes daily into the City. Their friends have their own motives. Also, the book references the play The Petrified Forest, which is the play that April Weaver is performing at the beginning of Yates’s book (coincidence?). But Light Years itself is much different than Revolutionary Road. For one thing, where Yates prose is clear and precise, Salter’s prose spits at you, often in oblique abstractions. The sentences are abrupt, short. Transitions are minimal. All of this gives the text an urgency, and time slips by, even when Salter’s slowing the flow down to linger in a moment with the characters.
She is nine. Danny is seven. These years are endless, but they cannot be remembered.
Viri sleeps in the sun. He is tan, his fingernails are bleached. On Mondays he goes to the city on the train and returns on Thursday night. He is shuttling between one happiness and another. He has a new secretary. They work together in a kind of excitement, as if there were nothing else in their lives. The isolation and indifference of the city in summer, like a long vacation, like a voyage, cast its spell on them. He cannot get over her niceness, the beauty of her name: Kaya Doutreau.
As can be gleaned from that sample paragraph, the Berlands are not faithful to each other in their minds, and it is not a spoiler to say they are not faithful at all. Though they seem an ideal family on the surface – they are creative with their family activities, they have many friends, and they spend many days at leisure on the ice or the beach – Viri and Nedra are friendly but passionless. Salter has a brutal eye for details that show this side of their life.
“Are you happy, Viri?” She asked.
They were in traffic, driving across town at five in the afternoon. The great mechanical river of which they were part moved slowly at the intersections and then more freely on the long transverse blocks. Nedra was doing her nails. At each red light, without a word, she handed him the bottle and painted one nail.
In Light Years Salter presents a portrait of their life from their late twenties to their late forties – the years of light - in long exposure. In discreet, wonderfully detailed episodes that flow naturally from one to the next – much like life – Viri and Nedra age, break apart, come together, forget their intimate friends who come and go with little fanfare, and watch their children grow into young women about to enter the light years of their own lives.
By far the most compelling aspect of this book, to me, was the unique and effective stylistic method of depicting these lives. Salter must have thought about this technique to a great extent, and while he executes it perfectly he also perfectly and poetically describes it:
Their life is mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it seems a unity, it can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one. Within there is no form, only prodigious detail that reaches everywhere: exotic sounds, spills of sunlight, foliage, fallen trees, small beasts that flee at the sound of a twig-snap, insects, silence, flowers.
Though I’m usually a fan of clear, formal writing in the tradition of Cheever, Yates, and Roth, Salter’s fragmented or runon prose is some of the best writing I’ve experienced this year. At once developing a story, it also develops a philosophy of life. And the style’s impact on me was actually more intense than the story itself.
In fact, the story of Viri and Nedra appealed to me only in sporadic intervals. I never quite connected to them in the way I kept expecting. Despite the almost cruel intimacy Salter gives us with these characters (line taken from James Wood’s idea about Yates) once an episode passed they returned to being blurry characters as the less interesting aspects of their life flashed before my eyes. But even as I write that, and know it’s true, I know it also is not true. I truly felt for Viri when his pathetic emptiness was displayed before me in such sharp light, several times. And even when Nedra, whom I never truly sympathized with, has her face to the floor, there’s some longing there that made me feel deeply for her. This especially became true when she drives across the state to Philadelphia to watch her father’s elongated death (a brilliant bit of writing). Perhaps, in a way, this is Salter’s device. Life is blurry. Some moments – moments of immense emotion – stand out in distinct relief from others. But in the end, the life dissipates. The light goes out, and the relief collapses in on itself. Even the people who were there don’t quite believe it was real.
I have a hard time whittling down my list of favorite books of the year to a mere ten, twenty, or even thirty. Nevertheless, I will attempt in this post to remember my ten favorite books I found this year (though only one was published this year). Here they are, presented in alphabetical order because if I tried to rank them there would be two problems: first, many of the books would tie for first, second, or third, and I’d probably never get to number four; second, I think I’d put The Ghost Writer on top, but then I’d feel very wrong because I couldn’t honestly say it is better than Revolutionary Road though today I’m in the mood to reread The Ghost Writer. So here they are with links to the original review in the title.
The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth: This is the book that got me addicted to Philip Roth, and I think it might still be my favorite, though it was difficult to choose between this one and American Pastoral (which was definitely one of the best books I read this year, as were many other Roth books, but I figured I could lump all of the Roth I read this year here with The Ghost Writer). “Roth’s writing alone is so precise and so simple that experiencing just the diction, let alone the pain and wry humor, of one sentence after another left me giddy.”
First Love, by Ivan Turgenev: I hadn’t read anything by Turgenev before this one (haven’t read anything since – yet) but I’m glad I finally got over my fear of this particular Russian. I remember that I read this one during one day’s commute. “Despite the train noises and the people coming and going, First Love really affected me with its powerful depiction of innocent love teamed up with overwhelming passion and a desire to be a martyr according to the whims of the one you love.”
Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson: Robinson was the only woman besides Toni Morrison to have a book considered the best book of the last 25 years by an American novelist. This was that book. ”Robinson’s tone thoughout strikes the right note for me. Somehow she injects into her prose the atmosphere of Fingerbone, with its foggy lake, along with the transiency of the characters. Though the town remains in place, it always seems to be drifting away into the past. At the same time, the past does not disappear – the lake remains, and somewhere down there is a wrecked train and car.”
Life and Times of Michael K, by J.M. Coetzee: I’ve read only three books by Coetzee: Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians, and this one. Though the one I hear least about, Life and Times of Michael K is my favorite. And I think Coetzee’s writing absolutely spoiled my reading of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. “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.”
Liquidation, by Imre Kertész: Of the three Kertész books about Auschwitz and the years since, this one about the suicide of a child born in the concentration camp is still my favorite. “Despite the miracle of B.’s birth, years later he commits suicide. That is where the book begins. But for what reasons did B. commit suicide? That is where the book goes.”
The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh: Despite this book being most recent in my memory, I’m confident it will outlast many others I read this year – or in many years to come. “To get right to it, this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and one of the best.”
Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill: I’m in good company including this as one of the year’s best – both the New York Times Book Review and James Woods of the New Yorker included it in their list too (James Woods called this year’s Booker committee middle-brow, which brought back bad memories and reminded me that this is my only pick from this year’s Booker longlist). I still stand by this: “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.”
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates: My find of the year (I’d already found Roth). How did I make it this far in my life without having someone tell me to read this? This one will last this year’s top ten list to be on my all-time top ten list. “Yates’s writing is a reward in and of itself. His ability to make the reader and characters intimates is masterful. I felt their pain, not because I was recalling my own experience but because I felt like I was there, in their room. When they shouted, it hurt my ears and made my breathing shallow, my shoulders tense. I also felt hope at the sight of an unexpected smile.”
The Sea, the Sea, by Iris Murdoch: My first venture into the beauty and terror of Iris Murdoch’s prose, this book was purchased on a whim. I also started it one night thinking, I’ll just see how the first pages are. I didn’t stop. “Even though I found the story implausible and the characters unlikeable, I found myself reading this book compulsively, often when I should have been doing something else. It says a lot for Murdoch that I’d gladly spend my time in this man’s head.”
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides: My wife pointed me to this book, but since I didn’t like Eugenides’s Middlesex it sat on my shelf for about two years. Finally, I pulled it out this summer and was astounded by its quality in both form and substance. “Telling the story from the first person plural, a group of middle-aged men who, when adolescents, were neighbors of the Lisbons during the ‘year of the suicides’ and have never been able to get over the deaths. In fact, they’ve been obsessed, collecting ‘exhibits’ such as photos, shoes, retainers, anything they can get their hands on. Through the years they’ve interviewed everyone who can give them any details into the girls’ lives, including the poor parents. This book is their reflection, their report (though, don’t be frightened, it does not read at all like a report).”
This forced me to leave out Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, J.G. Farrell’s The Seige of Krishnapur, and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, all books that I found delightful and highly recommend. It always says something when I finish a book and want to read whatever else the author wrote – all of these books created that desire in me.
There were a few books that I revisited in 2008 and reviewed on the blog. They are as good as many of the books I found this year.
And here are somet titles of books I read but didn’t review because they were pre-July. Some of the reviews might come in 2009.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith. One of the funnest books I read. Exquisitely amoral.
- All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren. I thought this would be a painfully written, idealistic vision of American politics. Painfully written? Beautifully written, rather. Idealistic? Tragic.
- The Winter of Our Discontent, by John Steinbeck. This is my favorite Steinbeck, and it is probably the least like other Steinbeck books.
- The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, by Jeffrey Toobin. Here’s my shout out to the nonfiction genre. Though I read many nonfiction books during the year, my passion lies in fiction, so I haven’t even reviewed one piece I’ve read. That is not on purpose. Had I read this one while writing my blog, I would have reviewed it.
I only recently read Brideshead Revisited, my first encounter with Evelyn Waugh’s work. That book displayed an impressive amount of range. While it was focused on the upper upper English class, there were many aspects to the novel - youth, war, sexuality, marriage, religion, alcoholism – that all flowed naturally from one narrative. Despite that range, however, I was not expecting what I found in The Loved One (1948). Not only does the setting shift from upper-class Britain to a sort of no class America/Hollywood setting, but the tone is completely different. This cover, which I thought was just some cover designer’s abstract interpretation but which is actually quite literal, should give some clue:
To get right to it, this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and one of the best. (I’ve said such things a lot this year. I can only thank fellow bloggers and commenters who give me good suggestions constantly.) From the first page I was drawn into Waugh’s darkly humorous prose and subject matter. There we meet Dennis Barlow and his uncle Sir Francis Hinsley, two Englishmen who have resorted to live in Southern California, “the counterparts of numberless fellow countrymen exiled in the barbarous regions of the world.” Hinsley works in the movie industry where he has recently run into some trouble with one of his stars:
‘He had most of her nose cut off and sent her to Mexico for six weeks to learn Flamenco singing. Then he handed her over to me. I named her. I made her an anti-fascist refugee. I said she hated men because of her treatment by Franco’s Moors. that was a new angle then. It caught on. And she was really quite good in her way, you know – with a truly horrifying natural scowl. Her legs were never photogenique but we kept her in long skirts and used an understudy for the lower half in scenes of violence. I was proud of her and she was good for another ten years’ work at least.
‘And now there’s been a change of policy at the top. We are only making healthy films this year to please the League of Decency. So poor Jaunita has to start at the beginning again as an Irish colleen. They’ve bleached her hair and dyed it vermilion. I told them colleens were dark but the technicolor men insisted. She’s working ten hours a day learning the brogue and to make it harder for the poor girl they’ve pulled all her teeth out. She never had to smile before and her own set was good enough for a snarl. Now she’ll have to laugh roguishly all the same. That means dentures.’
Though Waugh presents his characters as people who take their ridiculous jobs seriously, we know that Waugh’s portrayal of this society is dead serious – and dead on. Just like this actress is used and abused to create a new entity from the surface out, much in this novel deals with the veneers people place over themselves. These veneers ultimately serve to destroy them. Neither Dennis nor Hinsley are doing particularly well in America. They don’t like the culture; indeed, Barlow in particular is very cynical about America (“A man could leave such a girl in a delicatessen shop in New York, fly three thousand miles and find her again he cigar stall at San Francisco, just as he would find his favourite comic strip in the local paper; and she would croon the same words to him in moments of endearment and express the same views and preferences in moments of social discourse.”).
Still, though they pretend they are outside of the society, they cannot rise above it. Barlow, a failed poet, now works at The Happier Hunting Ground, a pet mortuary and one of my favorite literary creations (or is it for real?):
‘Our Grade A service includes several unique features. At the moment of committal, a white dove, symbolizing the deceased’s soul, is liberated over the crematorium.’
‘Yes,’ said Mr Heinkel, ‘I reckon Mrs Heinkel would appreciate the dove.’
‘And every anniversary a card of remembrance is mailed without further charge. It reads: Your little Arthur is thinking of you in heaven today and wagging his tail.’
‘That’s a very beautiful thought, Mr Barlow.’
I can’t resist including a bit more of Waugh’s hilarious prose about the pet mortuary:
Not all his customers were as open-handed and tractable as the Heinkels. Some bogged at a ten-dollar burial, others had their pets embalmed and then went East and forgot them; one, after filling half the ice-box for over a week with a dead she-bear, changed her mind and called in the taxidermist. These were the dark days, to be set against the ritualistic, almost orgiastic cremation of a non-sectarian chimpanzee and the burial of a canary over whose tiny grave a squad of Marine buglers had sounded Taps.
It isn’t long before Hinsley loses his job and commits suicide. Barlow finds him hanging in the apartment and must now go about arranging for his funeral. This takes him to the Happier Hunting Ground’s aspiration: Whispering Pines. Here The Dreamer has founded a virtual fairytale necropolis. It is to here that the elite of Californian society bring their Loved Ones for a final ceremony and for a final resting place. The workers roam around reverently preparing Loved Ones for – well . . . for a show. One gets the feeling that Whispering Pines is the equivalent of a quickly raised gated community. Everything has the look of something else that’s really nice: “Then there is Lovers’ Nest, zoned about a very, very beautiful marble replica of Rodin’s famous statue, the Kiss.” And here is one of my favorites in a sort of Poet’s Corner based on Yeats’s “Lake Isle of Innisfree”: “[N]ine rows of hapricots (which by a system of judicious transplantation were kept in perpetual scarlet flower)”; “He looked into the hives and saw in the depths of each a tiny red eye which told that the sound-apparatus was working in good order”; “Peace came dropping rather more quickly.”
While preparing for Hinsley’s finale, Barlow meets Aimée Thanatogenos, a new but rising cosmetologist. Proud of her work, Aimée attempts to show Barlow the importance of what Whispering Pines is, though she admits it’s frustrating to have art that decomposes so quickly. An interest, nevertheless, sparks between the two. To complicate matters, Mr. Joyboy, the head cosmetologist – indeed a god among the workers of Whispering Pines – is pining for Aimée too:
‘But Mr Joyboy, you’ve given him the Radiant Childhood Smile.’
‘Yes, don’t you like it?’
‘Oh, I like it, of course, but his Waiting One did not ask for it.’
‘Miss Thanatogenos, for you the Loved Ones just naturally smile.’
‘Oh, Mr Joyboy.’
‘It’s true, Miss Thanatogenos. It seems I am just powerless to prevent it. When I am working for you there’s something inside me says “He’s on his way to Miss Thanatogenos” and my fingers just seem to take control. Haven’ you noticed it?’
Aimée confounds herself trying to choose between the cynical, ungodly Barlow, though attracted to him, and the godly, artistic Mr. Joyboy. Whose Loved One will she become?
As I hope you can see, this novel entertained me to no end. I still get excited reading these pulled quotes (by the way, sorry for the large amount of quotes in this review; there were many many more I wanted to include, so don’t worry that I’ve pulled all the best ones). The humor, however, is not the only thing this novel has going for it. This novel, which takes apart a society based on veneer and superfluity, itself has a serious and genuinely tragic narrative underneath its humorour cover. It’s subtitle is “An Anglo-American Tragedy,” and while that is a satirical title, it is also quite literal. Underneath it all, the novel deals with exactly what these people can’t: loneliness, cynicism, aura, and death. And Waugh’s prose isn’t entirely sardonic:
There was silence still. Dennis had made an impression far beyond his expectation.
‘Here you are,’ he said at length, stopping at Aimée’s apartment house. This was not the moment he realized for soft advances. ‘Jump out.’
Aimée said nothing and for a moment did not move. Then in a whisper she said: ‘You could release me.’
‘Ah, but I won’t.’
‘Not when you know I’ve quite forgotten you?’
‘But you haven’t.’
‘Yes. When I turn away I can’t even remember what you look like. When you are not there I don’t think of you at all.’
Those of you who read the comments on this blog already know KevinfromCanada. I’ve come to respect his taste and opinions greatly in the last few months since I first encountered him on the Man Booker forum. I would not feel misguided to read any book he recommends. How, then, could I ignore his – uhh – fanaticism about the Giller Prize, a book prize I only became aware of during this year’s Booker slump. Kevin said it had better books. Due to an unexpected and generous gift, I was able to procure a few of them and begin focusing more intently on Canadian literature, which until now I’ve only known through Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.
Mary Swan is completely new to me. And I think she’s pretty new to most other readers, too. There is next to nothing on her wikipedia page – if that’s any indication – and I don’t even know how old she is. I saw a picture of her in the New York Times, and she looked pretty young, but old enough to have some good experience. Indeed, she was already accomplished before writing The Boys in the Trees (2008): she won the O’Henry Award in 2001 for her apparently “masterful” short story “The Deep,” which was collected in a volume of her short stories called – get ready – The Deep and Other Stories. Perhaps some readers of this post can help us get to know Mary Swan better. I definitely want to now that I’ve been introduced to her skill in this novel.
It was more than Kevin’s good word that persuaded me to buy this book and read it first (I believe his picks for the winner of the Giller were Through Black Spruce, which won, or Barnacle Love). The blurb on the back of the book, for once, really pulled me in:
In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the intricate and unexpected connections between the people in this close-knit community that continue to echo into the future. In her nuanced, evocatie descriptions, a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel hammer of a revolver.
Usually I consider blurbs completely untrustworthy; I rarely read them (the cover, on the other hand, is often what convinces me to buy or not to buy). The gushier these blurbs are, I figure, the harder they feel they have to sell a book. It was the “grief clicks into place” line that intrigued me so (the “cold steel hammer” didn’t quite negate my intrigue), and on that I chose this as my jumping off point for the broader world of Canadian literature.
In the first paragraph, I was wary of what I was reading. The first short introductory chapter felt all too reminiscent of the overwritten, melodramatic, attempts at subtlety I found in the pages of Child 44 (please please forgive the inclusion of any reference to Child 44 in this review – this book does not deserve such a comparison).
And then he was running through the long grass, wiping at the blood that made it hard to see but not slowing, still running. The roaring fell away behind and he knew that meant his father would turn on one of the others, that his mother would step into the worst of it, but he didn’t care; at that moment he didn’t even care.
I thought, ahhh, the blurb got me! Thankfully, next to none of the book is written in this style. In fact, far from being inept, Swan’s style is impressively subtle. She has the ability to make you feel and understand things that aren’t written. More on that momentarily. First, a bit – just a bit – about the plot.
It’s the late 1800s in Canada. William and Noami Heath, escaping the grief of losing several children to sickness (and maybe escaping some other things), have just arrived from England. Still, though they are not destitute, they never seem able to get on their feet financially, a problem William has always had. Eventually, with their two growing daughters, they end up in a small community. A terrible crime is committed, and there’s a botched execution. And that’s about all I want to say about the plot. The book is not about the plot anyway – we know what tragedy happened fairly soon, anyway – rather, it is about how some of the people in the community react internally to the crime and to their own tragedies. Indeed, though no one really knows the Heaths. They were a normal family. No one could have seen it coming:
Like Mr. Luft, these reporters also asked about money. Said they’d heard about some dishonesty, an embezzlement charge, but all Alice could tell them was that the school fees were paid on time, that the family lived simply, but was far from the poorest in town. The questions went on and on, until her mother spoke up, loudly. They were a fine family, she said. A good, Christian family. There was nothing different about them, nothing peculiar.
However, these people think again and again about all of their interactions with the Heaths.
It takes most of the book to learn that much about the plot. Swan reveals the events and the characters so slowly I wondered frequently how she held the cards back so long. Often this annoys me. It’s as if the author is keeping back important plot points just to keep the reader reading. It’s gimmicky, completely artificial, and it’s aggravating to be dragged along not by any interesting characters or by a genuine mystery but rather by a detail that usually doesn’t pay off in the end. However, in The Boys in the Trees it is no gimmick. I felt that this method of slow revelation was very effective at showing how the characters’ were dealing with the events in their minds even as they roamed around in their day-to-day life. Admittedly, at first, it was a bit difficult to follow. Characters would pop up with common names like Rachel, Alice, Lilian, and Sarah, and Mary Swan does not intervene to give the reader many explicit details about their relationships. Far from frustrated, though, I enjoyed the method. It felt like I was really getting to know some people, at first only through their actions, then through little things they say, and then, only later, getting the whole story by putting together the pieces. In lines like the following, we slowly find out about the death of a father who works at a pharmacy and where he sometimes takes his two daughters:
Later Alice started coming and spoiled it all, but Sarah waited her out. She had always been good with figures, was already helping with the books and checking the stock, learning to mix the simpler preparations. While Alice lived her child’s life, giggling with her friends and mooning over words, just words. No help at all the winter it ended, sobs from behind her bedroom door, from behind their mother’s. What did they think – that they would survive by magic?
This is also one way we learn that the execution was botched:
He told her how it had been and she said, Good. Said, He should have suffered. It was what the whole town had been saying, what Robinson himself might have felt, if he hadn’t seen it.
So if one doesn’t pay attention, it can be hard to follow. Some books like this are unnecessarily obfuscated. The author thought it sounded more profound or thought that by making it difficult the books somehow became more worthwhile. But in this book, the obfuscation is not there just to make one think – here, it makes one feel. In such a short book I felt I had a wealth of knowledge about these characters and I genuinely cared for them.
Also, this method of slowly revealing the character’s past is incredibly effective at creating a haunting tone. But it’s also a naturally haunting story with haunting lines (“Thinking about how the dark took the color from everything, how the best that the cold moon could show was shades of gray.”). There are indications that the oldest Heath girl has visions of her dead siblings (“I had never questioned, never thought before that maybe they were only mind. The jumping boy, the laughing smudgy-cheeked girl, and sometimes the other who was just a streak of color at the edge of my looking.”). And all of the characters are haunted by their own past, their own sins. They dwell in a very noisome silence.
The structure of the book also makes it a bit difficult to follow. In a way, it is a book of short stories – or, rather, short character studies. One of the first chapters is entitled: Naomi. This is the matriarch of the Heath household, but at the time, I didn’t know that. This chapter is written in the first person. A later chapter is told from the perspective of the town doctor. Another from the doctor’s son. And many are third person accounts about one or two or three other characters. While sometimes characters from other chapters creep into the narrative, for the most part when you finish one section you finish with that character. Still, it felt like a novel and not like a collection of short stories. The narrative push continues through the transitions nicely.
However, for those of you who like resolution, there is little resolution in terms of understanding why things, many things, happened.
There’d be a reason for it, maybe some kind of lesson being taught, but Robinson didn’t care to puzzle it out. The business of living complicated enough, he thought, and harm done for enough plain reasons without having to dream up new, twisted ones.
And I’m okay with the unresolved here because the book still felt complete. It still felt like it accomplished a great deal – all that it set out to do. Sometiems with good but unresolved books at the end I feel I want to read more to know what happens – something feels underdeveloped or simply mission. But with this one I just want to read it again.
I don’t know why I shy away from Young People’s literature. Well, perhaps I do at least know my own assumptions – potentially puerile content, gimmicky plot structures, facile resolutions, reputation (mine), and, worst of all, the tendency to dwell on the surface with no subtlety as it pushes platitudes into young minds. But it seems that the ones I do pick up are very worthwhile. This suggests my assumptions about this category of books are probably unfounded and need revision – they are certainly unfair. I’ve been surprised in the past to find these books are often more experimental, more provocative, and more profound than much of the fiction I usually read. Octavian Nothing (2006) is no exception.
I chose to read this one almost on a whim (a good whim). The 2008 National Book Award (which Octavian won in its year) had recently been awarded, and I like American history, particularly the Revolutionary War. Also, the back of the book compelled me by speaking of some mysterious “experiments.” And, being a Young Person’s book, the price of the volume was fairly low. That’s about all I knew or considered when I took the book to the counter to pay.
At the beginning of the book, we come to know a strange and yet strangely appealing 18th-century group of rational philosophers living around Boston in the late 1760s and early 1770s. Our young Octavian is being raised by these scholars, philosophers, musicians, scientists, etc. Consequently, for the second blog post in a row, we have a surprisingly sophisticated voice telling the story, this one from the 1770s with unstrained floridity.
The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twitching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.
Octavian’s mother is a queen, and he is treated as a prince. As such, his is a charmed life: he has servants and he is trained in all of the arts and sciences. He loves learning, and he excels in all of his subjects.
However, Anderson does an excellent job at developing this innocent and idealistic upbringing while giving glimpses at the more sinister side. For example, there is a strange manner of appellation: The head of the house is Mr. Gitney, but he’s called 03-01 (01-01 is the “glorious majesty the King – the initial 01 signifying His Majesty’s family, the House of Hanover.”) There are strange rooms and strange commentary offered by the servants. There are even slight intimations from those teaching him. It’s haunting, really. It turns out Octavian is unwittingly part of an elaborate experiment (a type of experiment that actually took place!), and, as he always knew unconsciously, his life was very different from the life of those around him and even different from what he’s been brought up to know.
In the years as I grew, my mother must have perceived the peculiarity of our situation; but though she may have noted, she did not discover its irregularities to me by word, look, or gesture.
Or, by God – I reckon now, now that it is all gone – yea – mayhap she did discover it to me, in every gesture, in all looks, in the space between each word – and I, never knowing her elsewhere, did not know how to parse her warnings and subtility.
How would her smile have appeared, did we not live in that house?
Now, I’m a fan of approaching a book knowing next to nothing about its content. While I’m not going to disclose any major spoiler here that isn’t disclosed in the first fifty pages (or on the cover, for those who pay more attention to it than I did), in the course of this review I am going to discuss briefly the nature of those mysterious experiments. For me it was fun to have my knowledge of the experiment come together in the first few pages of the book, so some of you might want to take my recommendation of this book at face value and, without further word, go read the book – avoid the minor spoilers herein.
As I said earlier, this book portrays an ugly reality in a way a young adult could understand, but still with the type of subtlety that makes literature so provocative and poignant even to adults. Octavian Nothing is a black boy. His mother was indeed a princess in some lost African tribe, but events were such that she became a slave when still very young and pregnant. Fortunately, or unfortunately, she was bought by these rationalists who have treated her and her son as royalty all in an attempt to discern the intellectual capacity of the African. This type of experiment actually took place, though Thomas Jefferson, for one, didn’t think such experiments were called for – he thought it plain enough that the blacks were of inferior intellect (yet, apparently there was something in them that attracted him – read Annette Gordon-Reed’s National Book Award winner for nonfiction The Hemingses of Monticello). Notwithstanding public sentiment, Octavian is given an outstanding classical education which he adores. He is an accomplished violinist, and his mother plays the harpsichord masterfully. He’s content. In the first part of the book, Octavian gradually becomes self-aware, and the pending doom of the Revolutionary War as well as the glorious ban on slavery in England after Somersett’s Case affect the atmosphere in which young Octavian comes of age amongst rationalists funded by distant investors with their own interests.
One thing I like about National Book Award winners is that they don’t receive the same type of criticism and censorship as, say, Newberry winners when they include material that some might say is inappropriate for young adults. Despite the YPL categorization, this book dwells on a very brutal subject without shying away from some of the shocking violence - or adultness. For example, while there is no explicit sexuality in the book, given the chance, Anderson allows his characters to speak truly:
“This is no banter, sir. This is no game.” I could hear the fury in her voice. “This is no jest, no frolic, no badinage. I was a pincess, once; I am a princess still. Royal blood will mix only with other royal blood. Otherwise, it demeans the line. Tell me what nation you offer me, what alliance, what regal house – or leave.”
Still in a tone of play, he said, “My lady, you know what scepter I offer, and what orbs.”
It’s my biased perception that most censors wouldn’t know what this man was saying, but if they did, and this book were a Newberry winner, there would be a giant hullabaloo. The book would be banned; parents and librarians would march without ever having read the book. That is not to say that the winners of the National Book Award for Young People’s Lit are filled with adult humor and adult situations, but they do seem to manage to allow their characters to develop in realistic situations without being confronted with the same ire that accosts Newberry winners.
Back to the book: Anderson’s style throughout feels incredibly faithful to a voice from the time period while still managing to be accessible to, well, young adults. He uses words and syntax that are no longer common, but it never feels gimmicky or strained. With this, he manages to create a wonderful, complex atmosphere that encapsulates the lightness of youth giving way to the onslaught of experience and the incredible historical events of the time. It is at times lilting and at times haunting. For example, here is a scene from the pox party that reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”:
I watched them dance before me – the young and the wealthy, their parents, full of knowledge of the ways of trade and profit – delicate in the light of candles and fire – while behind them, the metal orbs or Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Sol hung unused from their orrery gears, and in their cages, the racoon and serpent surveyed the hornpipe frisking with superstitious gaze; a skeleton was hanging, face turned to the wall; and while those dainty dancers skipped it on the polished floor, they brushed against engines that could produce the sparks of electrical virtue that brought thunder and lightning battering from the skies.
In the first fifty pages I highlighted many passages for my own memory or for this review. However, as the book went on, it impressed me more and more. As Octavian became more self aware and more mature, the style seemed to match his growth (not that it was juvenile to begin with). I was particularly enthralled by the first part of the last section when Octavian uses classic philosophy – the teachings of his mentors – both to explain his plight and to prove his mentors wrong. It is rich in that biting irony that is more dumbfounding because it is still there today. Definitely a treat to read, even as it becomes more and more a moral indignation novel.
As the title makes known, this is the first book in a series. I have not looked at the second one, which was released recently, and I have no idea how long this one will go. (Have any of you heard how long Anderson plans to go with this?) I’m pleased to announce, however, that even as Anderson introduced new characters and plot turns into this volume, the tone continued to feel intimate. I never got the feeling that I simply read the introduction to a dissertation on lofty themes. The lofty themes are there, but the characters don’t become mere vehicles for expressing the themes in epic form.
The first chapter in Invisible Man (1952), “Battle Royal,” is frequently anthologized in literature textbooks here in America, so I’ve always been curious to know how the rest of the book turns out. The initial chapter works by itself and was first published in 1947. The book, which eventually went on to win the National Book Award in 1953, took another five years to write.
As is often the case with National Book Award winners, it is very experimental. This is partially based on two sources of inspiration: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground (“I’ve recalled it often, here in my hole”) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (“And oh, oh, oh, those multimillionaires!”). Ellison has received some criticism for writing a book on black identity while using language and symbols derived from the oppressive culture. But this should be expected from anyone portentously named Ralph Waldo Ellison, right?
The unnamed black narrator in Invisible Man is definitely very well educated and self-aware, a contrast with characters in the works of James Baldwin and Richard Wright. With the gift of Ellison’s prose style, the narrator introduces himself:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
The man lives in a basement, sealed off but lit brightly, more brightly than any place in New York City. While I am not aware of any influence the the book had on current events, it was published and won the National Book Award before the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) overturned Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which allowed for “separate but equal” facilities. In Plessy the Court had said that blacks were granted political equality, but no one could go so far as to grant them social equality. These themes of separation and social equality rise again and again throughout the novel:
And yet I am no freak of nature, nor of history. I was in the cards, other things having been equal (or unequal) eighty-five years ago. I am not ashamed of my grandparents for having been slaves. I am only ashamed of myself for having at one time been ashamed. About eighty-five years ago they were told that they were free, united with others of our country in everything pertaining to the common good, and, in everything social, separate like the fingers of the hand.
After letting us know his current situation living underground, the narrator lets the narrative go back in time to when he was the valedictorian of his high school - leading to the brilliantly strange sequence of the battle royal. He is chosen to give a speech at his high school graduation, but before giving the speech, he and his fellow black classmates are forced to fight in front of the whites of the town as the whites drink and laugh. In the middle of all of this, a nake blond comes dancing through the room.
The creature was completely hypnotized. The music had quickened. As the dancer flung herself about with a detached expression on her face, the men began reaching out to touch her. I could see their beefy fingers sink into the soft flesh. Some of the others tried to stop them and she began to move around the floor in graceful circles, as they gave chase, slipping and sliding over the polished floor. It was mad. Chairs went crashing, drinks were spilt, as they ran laughing and howling after her. They caught her just as she reached a door, raised her from the floor, and tossed her as college boys are tossed at a hazing, and above her red, fixed-smiling lips I saw the teror and disgust in her eyes, almost like my own terror and that which I saw in some of the other boys. As I watched, they tossed her twice and her soft breasts seemed to flatten against the air and her legs flung wildly as she spun. Some of the more sober ones helped her to escape. And I started off the floor, heading for the anteroom with the rest of the boys.
Eventually, he is granted the opportunity to give his speech. He does stumble at one point:
“What’s that word you say, boy?”
“Social responsibility,” I said.
“Social . . .”
“. . . responsibility.”
The room filled with the uproar of laughter until, no doubt distracted by having to gulp down my blood, I made a mistake and yelled a phrase I had often seen denounced in newspaper editorials, heard debated in private.
“Social . . .”
“What?” they yelled.
“. . . equality-”
He has to immediately renounce what he said and blame his error on the stress. Happy with their work, the whites give him a suitcase and send him to college. This is where the battle royal ends and the book begins. But that doesn’t mean the symbols and the strangeness are over. We meet a host of characters whose symbolic backgrounds stretch all the way back to Homer (“Homer A. Barbee was blind.”). Things do not go well in the South, as his relationship with the benefactor whites sours as does his relationship to other blacks. Moving north to New York City, things are very different, but not much better (there, among other things, we get some Communist rallies that honor but still objectify the blacks). Underlying a lot of the movement is the knowledge of the narrator’s hiding place in the brightly lit basement and his sad realization:
“You’re a black educated fool, son.”
Ellison is a brilliant writer, pulling out loads of cultural symbolism to deconstruct the culture. It is one of the most sophisticated and right-now important novels I’ve ever read. And it’s been right-now important, now, going on nearly sixty years.