Europa Editions is getting quite a bit of publicity these days for publishing Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid. I had never ran into them before, but then suddenly I saw their attractive books popping up all over the bookstores! Which is great news for those of us who love literature in translation. I received a few review copies (all look excellent!) and decided to start with the young Valeria Parrella’s second book of short stories For Grace Received (Per grazia ricevuta, 2005; tr. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar, 2009).
Review copy courtesy of Europa Editions.
It’s always impressive when a young author enters with such a mature voice and style, not to mention substantial depth of analysis in some fairly complex social and psychological topics. Parrella has set the bar high for her future in literature. The book contains four short stories: “Run,” “Siddhartha,” “The Imagined Friend,” and “F.G.R.” (that’s from For Grace Received, if you didn’t catch it).
My favorites were “Run” and “The Imagined Friend.” Here’s how “Run” begins:
Every time I cross this street, I always choose the same spot: I walk sort of kitty-corner from the traffic island, or straight as an arrow along the crosswalk, as if the cars had stopped to let me pass. Or else, stepping down from the trolley, without an umbrella, I run to take shelter under the awning outside the pharmacy. But I always cross Via Marina at this same spot, I don’t do it on purpose — that is, I do it on purpose, but without wanting to. And when I cross here, I image it.
What she imagines every time she crosses this street, at this location, is the terrible scene when the man she was living with was stabbed by thugs trying to intercept some money he was transporting. Why was he transporting money? Well, this is a look at the seedy side of Naples. I’ve never been to Naples before, but even if I had, I doubt I’d get a glimpse at this side of this city. If you notice the subtitle on the book cover, you’ll see it says, “Four Stories of Modern Naples.” Parrella’s look in “Run” are definitely disillusioning for those of us whose thoughts are more romantically inclined when Naples is said.
The tragedies in “Run” don’t stop at the stabbing of the money courrier. He lies crippled and dying for weeks, their young son rushing in to his bed to play with him. One of the most affecting scenes is after his death when the narrator sees the young child looking at the empty bed. It gets worse, though, because the narrator herself is forced to work for those who ran her boyfriend’s life, ending in her going to prison.
If it looks like I’ve given away the whole story in “Run” in that last paragraph, rest assured that I did not. There is much to this story. I haven’t even mentioned the man who witnessed the stabbing and what role he plays in the after effects of the tragedy. This was just an excellent story. If anything, its fault is in taking on too much. Parrella is dealing with several weighty themes in a short story. For the most part, though, it works and left this reader with that devastated, empty feeling I don’t necessarily like but certainly appreciate.
My other favorite, “The Imagined Friend,” also involves a woman rolling with punches as her young child drifts around the periphery. Fortunately, this woman is not involved in Naples’ underworld, but her life is still tragic. She’s involved in an unconsummated extramarital affair, dealing with the guilt but also dealing with the apprehensiveness brought on by a fear of getting hurt. Here’s a line Parrella’s prose here that might appeal to some and not to others.
She moved toward him like a blank sheet of paper, with the expression that she used to wear at university on exam days, as she walked into the hall and focused on a sheet of white paper to keep from focusing on anything else. Like actors when they tire themselves out before the curtain, to keep from feeling the fear.
While that particular writing doesn’t necessarily appeal to me (it feels a bit forced, as if the idea were better than the execution), this metaphor does give a nice look at our narrator’s approach to this potential lover. Though a short story, encounters with this lover are few and far between but always just around the corner, a great representation of the narrator’s disturbed frame of mind as she deals with that and her family.
For me, “Siddhartha” and “F.G.R.” were less successful. At least, they didn’t affect me in the same way as the two I discuss up top. However, For Grace Receivedis a great introduction to Parrella’s abilities and promise. If you’re looking for a small collection of slightly longer short stories, this is a great place to go. If you’re looking to take a trip to Naples, perhaps this will give you a healthy dose of disillusionment.
I was definitely wary before beginning The Golden Mean (2009). It is a historical fiction told from the first person narrator Aristotle. But that also made me very excited. Obviously such an ambitious book could be a major flop, but if done well . . .
Incidentally, I am surprised at the indiscreet Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement on the cover, but let’s get into the book.
This book picks up in about 343 B.C., when Aristotle is travelling to Pella, the capital of Macedon, with his very young wife Pythias. They have just left Atarneus, where Aristotle had founded his first philosophical school under the patronage of Hermias (Pythias’s father, probably). Lyon does an exceptional job subtly introducing some of the region’s impending doom. Aristotle is couriering a treaty from Hermias to Philip of Macedon, who is just beginning his campaign to take over the known world. Atarneus lies frighteningly close to Persia, so Hermias was hoping to get Philip’s protection in return for Hermias’s loyalty.
When the narrative begins, Aristotle has already stopped by Stageira, his birthplace (in Macedonia), to witness for himself the destruction brought about when Philip destroyed the town. We get a great sense of the time when we meet Philip and Aristotle humbly submits himself to him. In The Golden Mean Philip and Aristotle were friends in youth — at least as close to friends as one can become with the future king. This is possible since Aristotle’s father was Philip’s father’s chief physician. Consequently, they have an interesting relationship in The Golden Mean now that both have grown up, Aristotle in Athens building his mind, Philip in Macedon building for war.
The Golden Mean‘s central story line is the relationship between Aristotle and the young Alexander the Great, who is at the time first in the precarious line for the crown. Alexander is a genius, though a bit unruly, a bit extreme. Thus the title of the book, Aristotle’s famous theory of balance. The narrative tension builds when it becomes clear that Philip’s army will have to war with Athens, Aristotle’s ideal city. Despite being a Macedonian by birth, not to mention the prince’s tutor, Aristotle is not trusted. Indeed, mocking him becomes a way of mocking the enemy. But when Aristotle attempts to become the leader of the Academy in Athens, he is rejected: ”I’m Macedonian to the Athenians and Athenian to the Macedonians.” Seeing the tension and the politics and the personal relationships played out in narrative form is a great experience.
Now, let me explain where I’m coming from as a reader of this book. I love classical studies, and, as a student, I took as many of them as I could while not being a classical studies major. I am enough a lover of this time period to have gaped in envy when Aristotle sees the original Tiresius’s mask for the original production of Oedipus Rex. However, though I’ve studied this era as well as the works of Aristotle, I’m not versed enough to say how well Lyon hits the mark here. So, as a layman with a nurtured love for this time period, I was very pleased with this book.
I didn’t think I would be. All too often I feel like authors just mess things up when they try to fictionalize history, particularly a historical person like Aristotle. There’s just too much to get wrong. And even if they don’t get it wrong, they are often unbearably pedantic, slamming the reader over the head with historical fact that has no place in the narrative other than to show off. They mistake this kind of pedantry with making the book accurate. Why not leave the task to the historians? Just as happened in The Disappeared, our author shows just how self-conscious she is of the potential pitfalls with this narrative — here is Aristotle:
I’ve been working on a little treatise on literature, the literary arts. Tragedy, comedy, epic. Because I’ve been wondering what’s the point? What is the point of it all? Why not simply relate such history as it has come down to us in a sober manner, not pretending to fill in the gaps?
Lyon answers the question in the book on the next page; however, much more resonant is her answer wit this book as a whole. Though I’ve studied this time period several times, I’m all too often satisfied with factual statements, like this: Aristotle was Alexander’s tutor. I think, wow, that’s neat! But I fail to feel out what that means. But in The Golden Mean Lyon gives these familiar facts a most wonderful texture, something we can really rub our fingers across, something that in recreating the history solidifies it. Obviously, this is problematic, because there’s simply no way she got it all right. But neither did Shakespeare. And neither will any historian today since we are too far removed to know what really happened.
I’m not saying that Lyon is Shakespeare, but this is a solidly written narrative, filled with moments of insight.
The palace is quieter now with the army gone. In the Macedonian tradition, the king must be present at battle to win the favour of the gods. Tiring for Philip, no doubt, and eerie for those of us left behind. It’s hard not to feel like a child left alone when his parents have gone to an important dinner and will be away all night. The familiar rooms echo differently, somehow, and time turns to honey.
All that said, I’m wondering how well this book would travel with a lover of literature uninterested in Aristotle or Alexander the Great. Though Lyon isn’t being pedantic, there are plenty of inside references that might not hit home with most people who aren’t at least minimally versed in this the brink of the Hellenistic Age. Unlike Shakespeare’s Histories, this is much less a study in human nature and much more a straight historical narrative. The characters are wonderfully realized, the prose is strong — indeed, of the four Giller Prize shortlisted novels I’ve read so far, this is the most solid in terms of consistent narrative technique and balance. Lyon has excellent judgment. However, to me it didn’t seem to strive to be much more than a well written story. The reader is left with a wonderful rendering of a fantastic time period, but there’s not much else to wonder about in the end. I would have liked some more analysis of the characters and not just masterful characterization. Still, to me this is an accomplishment we can all take pride in. It’s not surprising to me that Lyon has made her way as a finalist in all three of Canada’s major literary awards this year.
The Killing Fields of Cambodia, the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, have been covered before, particularly by the courageous Dith Pran, who died last year. I knew going in to The Disappeared (2009) that the book could not be as affecting as the journalistic accounts. Yet, there’s something haunting and reverent about the cover that compelled me and gave me hope. I hoped like mad that the book could be as haunting and, knowing the topic, especially as reverent. In the end, despite a few flaws, the book greatly exceeded my expectations.
Our narrator is Anne Greves, a Canadian who, in her youth (she was only sixteen), fell in undying love with the passionate musician Serey, a Cambodian exile to Montreal. With only minor clunkiness that we get over soon enough, we come to know that Anne is writing this book to Serey as an attempt to take account of their past:
Bones work their way to the surface. Thirty years have passed since that day in the market in Phnom Penh. I still hear your voice. I first met you [. . .]
We don’t know what happened in the market in Phnom Penh until well into the book. Instead, we go back to the late 1970s to witness the budding of Anne and Serey’s relationship. Serey’s father had sent him away from Cambodia, and while away, the Khmer Rouge came into power, shutting down all borders and all communication. Right before the borders closed, Serey received a last telegram: “APRIL 16TH, 1975, BORDERS MAY CLOSE. DO NOT COME BACK UNTIL I CALL. FATHER.” Since then, Serey has had no means of communicating with his family or with anyone in Cambodia. He only knows from accounts on the news or in books that what is happening at his home is worse than any nightmare.
We read Year Zero by a French priest called Ponchaud. He described people pushing hospital beds, women giving birth in ditches, a cripple with neither hands nor feet writhing along the ground like a severed worm to get out of Phnom Penh. You threw up in the toilet and then you opened the book at the beginning again and read all night, looking for clues about your family. In the morning you said, What if my family is dead? What if I can never go back?
Trying to understand the love that Anne and Serey have is a bit difficult and actually made the first part of the book more interesting to me. Its a tribute to Kim Echlin that the relationship felt real even though vague and immature. Perhaps it was the vagueness and immaturity that made it feel real. After all, here is a sixteen year old girl who as of yet has no idea about pain. Her mother is dead, but Anne doesn’t remember her. Her father is distant, and Anne seems to wish they did more together, but on the whole Anne’s biggest concern is that her father doesn’t take her to listen to music. She has to wait until some older friends are willing to take her, and it is then that she meets Serey. So is Anne attracted to Serey’s music, to his foreignness, to his pain, or is it more fundamental? We get a sense that it is at least a selfish sort of love when, after the Vietnamese invade Cambodia, the borders open up again and Sereys says he must got back to find his family. When he tells her this, Anne admits to her conflicting and selfish feelings:
I wanted the borders to close again, so I could have you back. I wanted you to die so I would not have to think of you without me. I wanted money. I wanted to be older. I wanted you to find your whole family alive so I could be with you. I wanted you to find your family dead so you would be mine.
We even remember how young she is when, at his exit, Serey says, “Little tiger, don’t be stubborn. Let’s not leave each other without a kiss.” She simply responds, “I am not the one leaving.”
Years later, Anne has heard nothing from Serey. Attempting to bring back at least his feel, she has rented out his old apartment – very different now after several other tenants have come and gone — and she paints the bedroom the color it was before. One day while watching a television program, she is certain she has spotted her lover. One of the flaws in the book is the inexplicable irrationality of Anne’s decision to go to Cambodia to search for Serey. Echlin relies on the irrationality of love to explain this, but I would have liked more analysis here. Up to this point I wasn’t convinced of their relationship and viewed their story more as Echlin’s way to take her readers from Canada to the Killing Fields. It felt a little contrived. Making things worse, Echlin has Anne and Serey reunited fairly quickly. However, the book had been going strong until that point, and the very strong last half makes up for the convenient devices here.
As I just mentioned, while reading the book I was worried that Echlin was using the narrative to report on Cambodia. I’m fine when authors have major, broad events in their books. If they’re capable of doing the reporting justice through nuance and imagery and analysis. I’m not a fan, however, when it looks like the author is trying to be a journalist without having journalistic standards. In other words, if a book looks like an author’s attempt to reduce to sentiment an immensely complex and important event in history, I want to look the other way. I don’t like self-serving and undisciplined pathos. Thankfully, Echlin appears to be aware of this and even introduces a complex counterstrain in her narrative when she writes,
I think of Tuol Sleng and I hear Bach’s passion and I hear the thumping rhythms of Todesfuge and the chanting of a horrified chorus in Antigone. I hear a voice cry out in anguish, If this is a man? Human cruelty turned into a note of music, the rhythm of a sentence. Men have invented a word for this. They call it sublime.
She recognizes the importance of art as well as its potential pitfalls and falsehoods. The sublime is enlightening. But attempts to reach the sublime can be exploitative and ham-fisted. Hopefully, then, this account, this artistic use of Cambodia, must be something more than mere hack reportage.
So I was intrigued but not convinced by the first quarter of the novel. And once Anne got to Cambodia I was worried that the story could become that hack job of reportage. But, taking me off-guard, the complexities and that haunting reverence I hoped would be there came forth. Yes, this is a story about Cambodia. Hopefully many will read this and remember what happened there. Hopefully others will read this and come to know for the first time what happened there. However, there is a more universal theme to the novel as it moves from the specifics of Anne and Serey and even Cambodia’s disappeared to humanity’s disappeared. We can feel it touch us personally, brining the specifics of Cambodia closer to us. Hopefully we feel a genuine connection and not just a connection by artifice.
Again, the Giller Prize shortlist includes an entry that, both in its structure and explicitly in its text, concerns compelling issues in aesthetic theory. But thankfully this one carried through with subtlety. What remains when we go?
I held the bone and felt its curves under my palms and I looked at the pocked surface. All the joys of life left no mark at all. What is the value of a single human life?
After an intriguing, if ultimately disappointing, experience with Fall, my first read on the Giller Prize shortlist, I decided to read Anne Micheals’ The Winter Vault (2009). I remembered that when KevinfromCanada reviewed this book, he was disappointed, yet his review still made me want to read the book. The setting and topics sounded very interesting to me, so I was secretly pleased that it made the shortlist.
After reading it, I’m still fascinated by the topics and setting (oh! and the astute reader picks up on the limiting language I use in that sentence!). I’ll describe the setting first, as a kind of introduction to the plot. We start in southern Egypt, near the temple of Abu Simbel, in the mid-1960s when Abu Simbel was being removed from its original site where it had set for millenia, much of that time burried under sand. Because of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the original site would flood causing Abu Simbel to be under water. Letting such a wonderous site die under water seemed wrong, so the Temple was cut up and relocated to higher ground. I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to be the one who wielded the saw that made the first cut. Michaels does an excellent job presenting the tragic irony that was unfolding.
The dam would make a gash so deep and long that the land would never recover. The water would pool, a blood blister of a lake. The wound would become infected — bilharzia, malaria — and in the new towns, modern loneliness and decay of every sort.
I had never heard about the moving of Abu Simbel, though I had heard about the Aswan Dam, so the reportage here was excellent. At this point, I even appreciated Michaels’ overtly poetic language. I was also invigorated by Michael’s foray into some of the deeper aesthetic thory issues at play: “If one could be fooled into believing he stood in the original site, by then subsumed by the waters of the dam, then everything about the temple would have become deceit.” Indeed, Michael’s poetic introduction to the book ushers in such themes:
Perhaps we painted on our own skin, with ochre and charcoal, long before we painted on stone. In any case, forty thousand years ago, we left painted handprints on the cave walls of Lascaux, Ardennes, Chauvet.
The black pigment used to pain the animals at Lascaux was made of manganese dioxide and ground quartz; and almost half the mixture was calcium phosphate. Calcium phosphate is produced by heating bone four hundred degrees celsius, then grinding it.
We made our paints from the bones of the animals we painted.
No image forgets this origin.
Avery Escher is an engineer assisting in the deconstruction and relocation of Abu Simbel. His wife Jean is by his side as they experience the dread of attempting to save an object by dismantling it and relocating it, passing it off as just as good as the original. Avery and Jean met in Canada under similar circumstances in the late 1950s when the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway required the flooding in 1958 of ten villages, now known as “The Lost Villages“: “In the flooding of the shoreline, Aultsville, Farran’s Point, Milles Roches, Maple Grove, Wales, Moulinette, Dickinson’s Landing, Santa Cruz, and Woodlands would become ‘lost.’ This was a term for which Avery had once felt contempt but now appreciated, for the sting of its unintentional truth; thousands would become homeless as though through some act of negligence.” The inhabitants of the Lost Villages, as would happen to Abu Simbel and the Nubians, had to pack up and be relocated to replicas, numbered cities built quickly and unrooted. Not only is Michaels discussing the tragedy of being forced to move away from ones home, but she is also discussing how location, architecture, objects, flora, etc., can never be sufficiently replicated. I’m a big fan of aesthetic theory, so Michaels completely had me here:
Simulation is the perfect disguise. The replica, which is meant to commemorate, achieves the opposite effect: it allows the original to be forgotten.
Even if this sentence has become typical, it is still profound, and it fit nicely into this book.
My problems with this book, sadly, are numerous. For me, the book goes down hill quickly when Michaels expands her already ambitious scope, chasing tangential themes ad infinitum. It was working out great when we examined the themes in terms of Avery being an engineer or in terms of Jean being an amateur botanist. But it starts to become jumbled when we look at jazz players, painters, sculptors, architects, and so on. It’s not that they don’t connect to the theme; it’s that they ultimately don’t connect to each other. In other words, in order to maintain order in this book, the complexities all must be boiled down to a highly abstract and general theme: our relationships with place and with inanimate objects and how those relationships can affect or even mirror our relationships to each other or to the dead. This is a great theme. It’s been done wonderfully, particularly by the esteemed W.G. Sebald (my recent reading of The Emigrants might be one reason I was so so disappointed here). In The Winter Vault the ellaborations spread out to make the book too thin, really straining the increasingly weak narrative.
It’s impressive how Michael’s attempts to tie these themes together in the narrative involving Jean and Avery, and eventually a man named Lucjan, whose past takes us to Poland and the Nazis. But in Part II it really doesn’t hold together — at least, it didn’t for me. The narrative became a prop Michaels decorates with language that become less poetic and more flowery. The characters stop talking to each other and start speaking to the reader for Michaels.
It’s really sad, too, because this was a fine book, and some of it still resonates with me, but I became very frustrated with the meandering threads that drifted further and further from the solid foundation established in Part I. This book needs a Part II, that’s for sure. Part I cannot stand along. Sadly, Part I stands much as it would if it were alone, because Part II is a weak structure – it would be better to relocate Part II somewhere else.
In other literary news, the finalists for Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award were announced today, and the list includes Michael Crummey’s Galore, which I didn’t really like. Alice Munro is also on the list for her last book Too Much Happiness, which I will be reading and reviewing after getting the Giller Shadow Jury readings finished. Other finalists are Annabel Lyon for The Golden Mean (also to be reviewed soon for the Giller Prize), Kate Pullinger for The Mistress of Nothing, and Deborah Willis for Vanishing and Other Stories.
- Bonnie Jo Campbell: American Salvage
- Colum McCann: Let the Great World Spin
- Daniyal Mueenuddin: In Other Rooms, Other Wonders
- Jayne Anne Phillips: Lark & Termite
- Marcel Theroux: Far North
I have read only Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark & Termite (and if you remember, I interviewed her here). I actually signed on to the National Book Award website specifically to see if she’d been nominated because I assumed she would. Very deserving. I didn’t read last years shortlist in its entirety — we’ll see if I do it this year.
- David M. Carroll: Following the Water: A Hydromancer’s Notebook
- Sean B. Carroll: Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of Species
- Greg Grandin: Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City
- Adrienne Mayor: The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy
- T.J. Stiles: The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt
- Rae Armantrout: Versed
- Ann Lauterbach: Or to Begin Again
- Carl Phillips: Speak Low
- Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon: Open Interval
- Keith Waldrop: Transcendental Studies: A Trilogy
Young People’s Literature:
- Deborah Heiligman: Charles and Emma: The Darwin’s Leap of Faith
- Phllip Hoose: Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice
- David Small: Stitches
- Laini Taylor: Lips Touch: Three Times
- Rita Williams-Garcia: Jumped
I am very excited to be part of the Giller Prize Shadow Jury this year. While only one of KevinfromCanada’s top picks made it to the shortlist, I have to say that the actual shortlist ranges a number of attractive topics. Look at this range: (1) The Golden Mean takes us to Aristotle’s tutelage of Philip of Macedon’s son Alexander; (2) The Winter Vault starts in Egypt during the construction of the Aswan High Dam, moves back to the Lost Villages during the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and then to Toronto with a look at Nazi occupied Warsaw; (3) The Disappearedgoes to Cambodia under the Kmer Rouge; and then we spend time in Canada proper with (4) Fall taking place in a private school in Ottawa and (5) The Bishop’s Man going to a priest’s parish on Cape Breton Island. I’m not saying KFC is wrong that other books on the longlist were better (he read them — I did not), but I’m certainly compelled to read these titles for more reasons than for their inclusion on the shortlist.
I started with Colin McAdam’s Fall (2009) because it was KFC’s least favorite on the shortlist. I thought, let’s get this one out of the way. One of the benefits of having low expectations is that the book has a great chance of meeting them, and that was certainly the case here — too an extent.
First, the basic setting. Fall (like the last book I reviewed) is set in an exclusive private school. This one places us in Ottawa’s St. Ebury. The principal characters are Noel, the son of Canada’s Consul General to Australia; Julius, the son of the U.S. Ambassador to Canada, and Noel’s roommate; and Fallon, the Fall of the title, Julius’s girlfriend, and Noel’s obsession. Here’s an early passage from Noel about Fall:
One face could be my guide and salvation. It could be my comfort and the goal of superstition. It seems incredible that I can no longer picture her.
When I achieved a perfect mark on an essay, it presaged Fall’s eventual love for me. When I scored a shot from the line in basketball, which I rarely did, it was because I would kiss Fall that week, that term, that year.
Most of the book is told either in the first person by Noel, who is looking back, or in a stream of consciousness by Julius, who is very much in the moment. Julius is well liked at school. Noel is bookish and insular and, we’ll find out soon enough, downright creepy. To make things worse for Noel, he has a twitch in one of his eyes, earning him the nickname Wink. The only reason Noel and Julius are roommates is because everyone thought Julius would already have a roommate, so they got someone else. Noel was who was left over when it turned out Julius didn’t have a roommate. For almost a year Julius has been dating the beautiful Fall, and they seem to be developing a genuine loving relationship for a couple as young as they are. In the meantime, Julius and Noel have come to confide in one another. A friendship might even be budding. Noel is thrilled when he and Julius together pull a prank on another student. Only Julius is caught, and he doesn’t implicate Noel. In the ensuing punishment, Julius asks Noel if he’ll relay notes to Fall for him.
Up to this point the novel has been fairly uneventful. As far as events go, it’s fairly typical of most “school” novels. This is how Noel’s first section, the first main section of the book, starts:
The days that made me, that were supposed to change me, that didn’t actually make me, are showing me now what I was. My days in the room with Julius. Years have provided some safety.
We see the older narrator looking back through the years on some formative experience that happened while at school. What is unique is the style. Our narrator, as you can see from the pulled quote above, is not straightforward (though I’m willing to blame McAdam for the confusing abstraction of that first sentence, and not Noel). Noel is evasive even as he pretends to be honest: “Certainly, I never wanted to hurt her.”
The really unique style is found in the sections from Julius. They are told in a sort of frenetic stream of consciousness. The problem is that they are very simplistic and make Julius out to be a fairly shallow character concerned only with what is physically going on right in front of him. That might be exactly what McAdam intended, and this might be exactly who Julius is — it just doesn’t make for great reading, even when McAdam finds a unique way to show how Julius is feeling. Furthermore, the clipping style without quotation marks, without question marks, well, without a lot of punctuation, can get annoying very quickly:
My hair looks good.
I ate too much salami.
I’m humming a song I don’t know.
No one knows this song I’m humming.
I’m gonna choose a song I know and I’ll hum it.
I’ll whistle it.
Why am I humming and whistling.
My hair looks good.
My teeth look good.
Scar on my lip.
From a zit.
Many of these runs go on for pages and involve Fall’s dialogue too, but not her thoughts. Though it is annoying and, I thought, ineffective at building character, it does bring the reader to the immediate presence of Julius. Still, it’s not a very satisfying presence to feel. The only time I felt like I was getting something was when Julius was amazed by Fall and by his love for Fall. Others might enjoy the raging hormones, but that was gratuitous to me — and the problem was that there was a lot of gratuitous material, rendering the pages from Julius’s head almost pointless in the grand scheme of the novel. Indeed, even the passage where we really sense the nature of Julius’s and Fall’s relationship come from Noel:
Julius told me that when he and Fall first got together she wouldn’t let him kiss her. They pressed foreheads together and whenever their lips came near she made a quick mhn mhn sound . . . no . . . no . . . and he said it drove him crazy. But they held on to each other, kept their foreheads together and looked in each other’s eyes, so close that Fall’s two eyes looked like one. And Julius said that you’d think it was a tease, you’d think a girl who wouldn’t kiss would take a lifetime to go further once you kissed her. But it wasn’t a tease. Kisses were important to her. He said it never annoyed him. They walked around school grounds and stopped, got close, walked again, and stopped. He said he had never paid much attention to kisses before, just to where they were heading. But when he kissed Fall that night it wasn’t just a signal or a relief, it was a loss of bones and a jump that wouldn’t land.
Noel has the best lines in the book. Here’s another one where he’s wishing he had the opportunity to talk to Fall:
This is the sort of thing I had wanted to say to her. I understand you, Fall. I knew that you were so much more than a beautiful, popular girl; that a beautiful, popular girl could still possess an aching, solitary soul.
These lines, for better or for worse, are the best we get about Fall too. She remains basically speechless throughout. From such passages, we get the sense that Noel is sensitive, but his narrative is as self-serving as it is confessional. In fact, we sense his pride, that, as was the case in his youth, he doesn’t fully accept responsibility for what went wrong. This is where the book is so intriguing (though it is also frustrating because it makes the book a bit lopsided and incongruent). Noel’s menace, which I’ve only alluded to here, is compelling and confusing:
I couldn’t sleep so I wandered the halls. Everyone was in his own bed, in his own box, with no idea that I was outside. The EXIT signs hummed in the halls. Edward was in his room alone that weekend. I held my hand an inch from his door. I could have done anything. I stared at my arm and realized how much it had grown.
It seems that McAdams has attempted to write a book that juxtaposes a rational world governed by rules with an irrational world governed by the “animal choices.” And while we get a sense of each of these worlds — that’s where the book succeeds — they never really come together in the book, making the book feel unbalanced and self-contradictory in a bad way.
So, why did I say this book succeeded for me and then proceed to say many negative things about it? Well, first off I said that the book met my low expecatations. But it did that easily, because within the jumble is some real intrigue. It’s a dark book, and even if all of the elements don’t quite fit, several discreet units are done so well that in the end I was left with a positive impression. McAdam is obviously a talented writer. But to me this is a book whose whole is less than the sum of its parts.
* This post has been edited since its original posting because, frankly, it was cobbled together quickly and was no good. It still doesn’t do this book justice, but I hope it conveys my sincere respect and admiration a bit better.
Last year my wife read The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks (2008), and she has been recommending it to everyone since. When trying to persuade me to read it, she showed me some passages and did get me to read my first P.G. Wodehouse. Then KevinfromCanada read this book and enjoyed it. I’ve always planned on reading it, but it’s one of those you think you’ll read next, always next. Well, as you can see, I finally read what has become one of my wife’s favorite books by who has become one of her favorite authors.
The surface of this book is deceptive. It’s marketed to the young adult crowd here in the United States. Though there are many fine YA books (truly, many — it’s having some kind of renaissance or something), sometimes I give the category short-shrift, thinking that the substance and style are purposefully simplistic to speak to young adults. Many YA books, however, have complex substance and stylistic choices that, frankly, I’m not seeing in a lot of what’s selling around America these days. With this particulary book, E. Lockhart has managed to write a book that speaks to the YA group — to their interests, to their situation, and in their voice – while still expanding on complex ideas with a subtlety that appeals to the most discriminating literary critic.
So for the surface: this is a book about fifteen-year-old Frankie, who, between sessions at an elite private school, has blossomed over the summer. Boys who say they don’t remember her from her freshman year before now faun over her at the beginning of her sophomore year. Frankie is fortunate enough to catch the interest of a senior — the coolest senior boy, in fact, Matthew Livingston. She had a crush on him from the year before. He’s highly privileged. His place in society is so secure that he is free to make a fool of himself. He doesn’t get embarrassed when he laughs and spills milk down his shirt. Rather, he challenges others to be anywhere near so disgusting.
Frankie admires his freedom, but she also loves the way he worships her. She knows he really does care for her. And she’s loving becoming part of his world, even if it does consist of a bunch of boys doing dumb things at a cold night-time party on a golf course. She can’t understand why her roommate Trish doesn’t find such an event appealing. Trish would rather stay home and bake cookies with friends:
“It’s fun,” answered Trish. “Way funner than listening to guys talk about sports and slur their words, I’ll tell you that.”
Frankie found her friend’s attitude infuriating. By opting out of what the boys were doing in favor of a typically feminine pursuit, Trish had closed a door — the door between herself and that boys’ club her brothers had on the beach. Sure, she was still invited. She could open the door again. But another summer spend making crumbles in the kitchen, and the boys would stop asking her to come out. Instead they’d expect warm dessert to be waiting for them on their return.
The party on the golf course does turn out to be fairly boring and anti-climatic. But it’s not about what you’re doing. It’s about who you’re with. These are the people who hold the power in the school.
But this is not a book about popularity and its intrigues and dangers. This is not even a book about Frankie finding out that these parties are, in fact, dumb — that she should just be herself and do what she wants to do, regardless of what society says. This is a book about attempting to change what society says.
Matthew Livingston doesn’t quite let Frankie into his world entirely. He is president of Alabaster’s secret society, the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. Frankie’s father was a Basset Hound, and even now that he’s much older his best friends are still those who were his fellow Basset Hounds at Alabaster. One night, after Matthew runs off, Frankie follows him to a meeting where the Basset Hounds are planning their Halloween prank. After the meeting, Frankie’s thoughts were “how could I have done it better?”
Frankie has a fascination with the concept of the Panopticon, that theoretical prison design where all cells face the guard station so the prisoners always feel like they’re being watched. She also finds Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories about The Suicide Club fascinating as the members find ways to overcome that always-being-watched feeling in society that keeps us doing what we’re supposed to, that keeps us following unwritten rules.
So Frankie, feeling a surge of power and ingenuity, takes over the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds. How she does so is part of the fun of the novel. What she does as the leader is most of the fun. But even while engaging in pranks, the book maintains a multifaceted engagement with many layered. It turns out that this book also is not about female power — at least, it is not clear cut. That power doesn’t necessarily bring good thing. In the following segment Frankie has just exploded at her ex-boyfriend for telling her to be careful with Matthew.
She admired herself for taking charge of the situation, for deciding which way it went. She admired her own verbal abilities, her courage, her dominance.
So I was a monster, she thought. At least I wasn’t someone’s little sister, someone’s girlfriend, some sophomore, some girl — someone whose opinions don’t matter.
Frankie walked to her next class, not looking out for Matthew or Trish or anyone. Just feeling power surging through her, with all its accompanying guilt, righteousness, joy, and fear.
It’s wonderful to see Frankie admiring herself for what she’s done, even when she doesn’t like herself for what she’s done. But Frankie knows that what she does still isn’t enough to get her what she wants. Even as Frankie uses her intellect to prove she is just as capable, if not much more capable, to lead the Loyal Order of the Basset Hounds, even if they knew it was her, they wouldn’t truly let her in.
Well, I’m afraid I’m just not conveying the layers and ambiguity in this book. It’s all coming across in my words here as rather moralistic, when it actually is never clear what is good for Frankie. The book is fun and provocative. Lockhart’s style engages teenagers; it’s flowing and natural. Lockhart also engages intellectuals who like theories about how architecture conveys messages and rules to society, about symbolic meaning behind seemingly irrational behavior, and, one of my favorites, about the “neglected positive.” The neglected positive is the positive form of words such as disgruntled (gruntled) or immaculate (maculate) that we use only in their negative form. Lockhart isn’t just being clever. All of these elements come together in a highly controlled form that never allows the answers to be easy. I highly recommend getting to know E. Lockhart and the wonderful Frankie Landau-Banks.
In some ways, we can see Frankie Landau-Banks as a neglected positive. A buried word.
A word inside another word that’s getting all the attention.
A mind inside a body that’s getting all the attention.
Frankie’s mind is a word overlooked, but when uncovered — through invention, imagination, or recollection — it wields a power that is comical, surprising, and memorable.
Today Romanian-German author Herta Müller won the Nobel Prize for literature. Amazingly, it was predicted yesterday by The Literary Saloon, based on several factors M.A. Orthofer lists.
Hilary Mantel has won the 2009 Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. I wasn’t interested in this book, but I do have the goal to read all Booker Prize winners. So, when the mood strikes . . .