For some time, KevinfromCanada has been recommending that I read The Imperfectionists (2010). A few weeks ago, my wife and children went on a trip leaving me home alone. I had just finished Maile Meloy’s wonderful short story collection and, sadly, nothing I had on my shelves appealed at that moment (when my wife and children leave, nothing much is appealing, I’m afraid — I’m hopeless that way). Kevin and I had been corresponding and he said it was time to read Rachman’s book about a quirky bunch of imperfect people (who would remind me of some of the people I run into in my profession, he told me) who work for a respectable niche international newspaper based in Rome — this book, he assured me, was just what I was looking for.
My profession, incidentally, isn’t related to journalism at all — Kevin’s was; however, Kevin was exactly right. Despite the slightly unfamiliar professional world in which these characters roam, the characters themselves were very familiar. Journalism, in a way, is almost incidental, though its fall emphasizes the decline in the character’s lives.
Told in a series of character vignettes, The Imperfectionists is mostly about disappointed professionals who for the past several years have almost put their humanity on the back burner while dedicating their lives to a declining industry. Of course, they’re as human as any of us, and it is in revealing their hidden desires, fears, and pain that Rachman really succeeds — and this is also, by the way, a very funny book.
Rachman’s first vignette focuses on Lloyd Burko, the paper’s Paris correspondent:
He opens the window, breathes in, presses his knees into the guardrail. The grandeur of Paris — its tallness and broadness and hardness and softness, its perfect symmetry, human will imposed on stone, on razored lawns, on the disobedient rosebushes — that Paris resides elsewhere. His own is smaller, containing himself, this window, the floorboards that creak across the hall.
Sadly, Burko is already over the hill when the book begins. Later, in one of the snapshots from the paper’s first fifty years, we hear of Burko’s promise in the field of journalism. Then we see he is one of the paper’s stars. But in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, Burko is old and dried up — it’s been a long time since he’s had a story. Strange for someone who lives in Paris.
Incidentally, the floorboards the creak across the hall make the sound because that’s where his wife is. Across the hall lives the much younger, richer man with whom she’s having an open affair. She and Burko have discussed it. At his age, they have decided, he wants her more for companionship, but she of course needs more.
The headline of this piece is “Bush Slumps to New Lows in Polls.” This gives us a nice feel for the time period, but, as is the case with all of the chapters’ headlines, it also gives us a sense of what is happening in the chapter itself. Burko’s new low is tremendously low as he desperately seeks out a story, knowing if he doesn’t have one he won’t be able to pay his rent, will have to move, and will do so alone. It’s terribly sad to see a star – someone I admired due to the way Rachman treats him — do what he does here. We sense bitter failure from the outset, and then we watch it unfold.
The book’s next chapter, “World’s Oldest Liar Dies at 126,” about the obituary writer Arthur Gopal, is very different. Here we meet someone who has never been a star:
Arthur’s cubicle used to be near the watercooler, but the bosses tired of having to chat with him each time they got thirsty. So the watercooler stayed and he was moved. Now his desk is in a distant corner, as far from the locus of power as possible but nearer the cupboard of pens, which is consolation.
Arthur is having some writing trouble as well, and here we see some of Rachman’s dark humor about the profession:
No one has died. Or, rather, 107 people have in the previous minute, 154,000 in the past day, and 1,078,000 in the past week. But no one who matters.
However, for Arthur, that is not a problem.
That’s good — it has been nine days since his last obit, and he hopes to extend the streak. His overarching goal at the paper is indolence, to publish as infrequently as possible, and to sneak away when no one is looking. He is realizing these professional ambitions spectacularly.
Arthur hates his job because it takes him away from his home and his beloved daughter. When asked to write the obituary of Gerda Erzberger, who is not yet dead, Arthur hates the prospect of spending a few days away from home while he interviews the obituary’s subject. But he goes. Gerda figures out quickly that he is writing her obituary. She doesn’t mind but rather waxes philosophical about life and death, at times hitting close to Arthur’s life:
“I always disdained those who made children. It was the escape of the mediocre, to substitute their own botched lives with fresh ones. Yet today I rather wish I’d borne a life myself.”
This story takes a tragic turn that makes Arthur one of the paper’s new workaholic stars as he takes over his department and places his old boss near the watercooler.
The stories, I found, were always interesting. Some begin with great lines that quickly make the character recognizable:
When she realizes that Nigel is having an affair, her first sentiment is satisfaction that she figured it out.
Others have unique yet strangely familiar concepts, like the one about a reader who began subscribing to the paper decades ago. Her problem is that she has never learned how to read a newspaper and feels compelled to read every line. Consequently, though it is 2007, she is just up to 1994. Her big news is the Rwanda genocide and Cobain’s suicide. She doesn’t allow new technology she hasn’t heard of in her home, so so much for the iPhone. As fun and quirky as this piece is, like the rest it touches on familiar human foibles with great insight and no small degree of tenderness. Rachman obviously loves these characters — and the newspaper industry — though he doesn’t allow that to prevent him from exposing their failures with clear strokes.
The book has its failings (just like its characters). One of my biggest problems with it was that sometimes Rachman’s dialogue doesn’t feel natural and starts to sound like a device to get some information out there quickly for the reader. This is very apparent when Arthur Gopel is interviewing his obituary candidate:
“But my point, you see, is that death is misunderstood. The loss of one’s life is not the greatest loss. It is no loss at all. To others, perhaps, but not to oneself. From one’s own perspective, experience simply halts. From one’s own perspective, there is no loss. You see? Yet maybe this is a game of words, too, because it doesn’t make it any less frightening, does it.”
This quote goes on for a while. And it may be understandable that an old woman about to die would go on and on, it becomes apparent that in all that jabbering Rachman is setting up the remainder of his story. It comes out a bit superficial. This problem is not invasive, but it does mar a book that is for the most part mature, well balanced, nuanced, and insightful.
Perhaps it was that sort of problem that has made the book seem much less accomplished than it actually is. Many who love it qualify their love for it, and I’m not sure that is necessary. Though I can understand its exclusion (it may not have even been submitted) for its exclusion from the Booker longlist, in my opinion its a wonderful book that is both serious and funny and accomplished. Rachman is writing about something he cares a great deal about without making it a sentimental journey for the reader. A book this tender and open, despite its shortcomings, instills welcome life in contemporary fiction. I’ll put Rachman with Meloy — as long as they are writing, we have good reading days ahead of us.
The Man Booker Prize 2010 season is off! Only five of the thirteen titles are currently available in your U.S. bookstore (maybe). Most of the others have publication dates in the next few months, but there are a few that didn’t seem to have any publication plans in the United States. Perhaps now. Perhaps only if they make the shortlist at this point. So, if you’re from the United States and want to join in the thrill of the Booker Prize season by reading all of the longlisted titles in the next few months, you’ll have to go to the UK to get your orders. Luckily, you can go to the Book Depository (from my link, if you wish me to get a small cut) and get the books and free shipping! Highly recommended.
Here are the thirteen longlisted titles:
- Peter Carey: Parrot and Olivier in America (available now)
- Emma Donaghue: Room (available September 13)
- Helen Dunmore: The Betrayal (availability in U.S. unknown)
- Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room (available on Kindle only; other U.S. availability unknown)
- Howard Jacobson: The Finkler Question (availability in U.S. unknown)
- Andrea Levy: The Long Song (available now)
- Tom McCarthy: C (available September 7)
- David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (available now)
- Lisa Moore: February (available now)
- Paul Murray: Skippy Dies (available August 31)
- Rose Tremain: Trespass (available October 18)
- Christos Tsiolkas: The Slap (available now)
- Alan Warner: The Stars in the Bright Sky (availability in U.S. unknown)
At this point I have read only two: Parrot and Olivier in America and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, both expected to make the longlist easily, though I thought both of them less than wonderful, if good in some ways. I don’t know how involved I’ll get this year. I have Lisa Moore’s February, so I’ll get to that one. McCarthy’s C on its way from Knopf. I’m tempted to order the rest from the Book Depository, but we’ll see.
Happy Booker Season to all!
Tomorrow the Man Booker Prize longlist will be announced. Last year I didn’t go out and read the books as I did in 2008, though I have collected all of the 2009 shortlisted titles – with the exception of the ultimate winner. While I don’t know how much I’ll get involved in Booker 2010, I did try to read a couple of the contenders before the longlist announcement. David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is on most lists (though I don’t think it would be a worthy winner), Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists isn’t on most lists, but it finds its way on some (I have read and very much enjoyed The Imperfectionists, but the review hasn’t been posted yet). And, now, I have read two-time Booker winner Peter Carey’s well received Parrot and Olivier in America (2010). Will he make the list again?
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
As much as I enjoyed Oscar and Lucinda, Carey’s picaresque Booker winner of 1988, I haven’t read more Peter Carey, not even True History of the Kelly Gang, his second Booker winner, though I bought both books on the same day. The plot of Oscar and Lucinda was unique and a pleasure to behold, but the book was also exhausting in its intricate detail. It takes me about five years to recuperate from reading a Dickens novel before I’ll read another, though I typically enjoy them (speaking of which, I’m due since the last Dickens I read was Our Mutual Friend in 2004). Perhaps it’ll be similar with Carey. But now, with Booker season on the horizon and a new book partially based on Alexis de Tocqueville and his trip to the nascent United States, it was time. I was just too intrigued to wait three more years.
Alexis de Tocqueville is a fascinating figure for those interested in the history of the United States. His aristocratic upbringing during the French Revolution uniquely combined with his liberal inclinations and led to fascinating insights about purported democracy and equality in the United States. These insights are still relevant today. In fact, Peter Carey said that what de Tocqueville must have really been worried about was Sarah Palin (click here for George Saunders’ piece showing that fear — hilariously).
With such thoughts in mind, the book begins. In this imagining Carey uses all sorts of poetic license. He doesn’t even have de Tocqueville as a character in his own book. Rather, de Tocqueville is played by the apparently more snooty Olivier:
I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and the comtess, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable — slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the Château de Barfleur.
Born in 1805 to French aristocrats, it is understandable, natural, that the young Olivier would sense some nameless fear throughout his youth. In fact, the Terror, he says, had been “the flavor of my mother’s milk.” He’s a nervous yet passionate young boy, a bit sickly, perhaps –
We can ignore nose bleeding for the time being, although to be realistic the blood can be anticipated soon enough — spectacular spurts, splendid gushes — my body being always too thin-walled a container for the passions coursing through its veins, but as we are making up our adventure let us assume there is no blood, no compress, no leeches, no wild gallops to drag the doctor from his breakfast.
– but he’s intelligent enough. He has a fascinating curiosity and a unique perspective already. For instance, one day he spies an invention hanging from some rafters, but the first thoughts he expresses to us aren’t about the invention itself:
Why it should be strapped, I do not know, nor can I imagine why my uncle — for I assume it was he — had used two leather dog collars to do the job. It is my nature to imagine a tragedy — that loyal pets have died for instance — but perhaps the dog collars were simply what my uncle had at hand.
This quote, from the first page, cheered me a great deal. I found the slightly paranoid mind of the young Olivier wonderfully captured as he pondered over the use of dog collars. However, soon such details expanded into paragraphs, pages, and even digressive chapters. I had a rough time for the first 100 pages or so because I kept wondering just how much of this type of admittedly imaginative absurd detail, which is also a feature of his plot structure, Carey could pack in. The writing is exuberant, but it tended to inflate the piece and to the point where I couldn’t sense the emotion anymore — and growing up an aristocrat in Napoleon’s time would be quite emotional. In truth, I got bored, and the slightest distraction was enough to lead me from the page.
During this time we also meet Parrot, who will become Olivier’s servant/companion in America. His boisterous introduction –
You might think, who is this, and I might say, this is God and what are you to do? Or I might say, a bird! Or I could tell you, madame, monsieur, sir, madam, how this name was given to me — I was christened Parrot because my hair was colored carrot, because my skin was burned to feathers, and when I tumbled down into the whaler, the coxswain yelled, Here’s a parrot, captain. So it seems you have your answer, but you don’t.
I had been named Parrot as a child, when my skin was still pale and tender as a maiden’s breast, and I was still Parrot in 1793, when Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont was not even a twinkle in his father’s eye.
To belabor the point, sir, I was and am distinctly senior to that unborn child.
– is a breath of fresh air, and we know that our misgivings about Olivier are okay since Parrot calls him Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont (he also callse him Lord Migraine, among other fun appelations). But Parrot’s narrative also lapses into digressions intricately woven into the narrative. I was tempted several times to quit the book, but I just had to see what would happen when they got to America, that being my main attraction to the novel in the first place.
But I don’t mind digressive books (some I love). It isn’t that the childhood of Parrot and Olivier (separated by a gulf of years) isn’t interesting. And it isn’t that the writing on the sentence level isn’t exceptional, because it is — take this example from when Parrot learns he can draw:
I knew Adam Smith before I reached fractions. Then I was put to Latin which my father liked no more than I did, and this caused us considerable upset, both with ourselves and with each other. It was due to Latin that my father got in a state and clipped my lughole and I grabbed a half-burned bit of kindling and set to drawing on the floor. I had never seen a drawing in my life, and when I saw what I was doing, dear God, I thought I had invented it. And what rage, what fury, what a delicious humming wickedness I felt. All of therfloor and who will clean it? I had seen my daddy’s hand reach for his belt buckle and I was, ipso facto, ready for the slap. Yet at this moment I entered a foreign jungle of the soul. I drew a man with a dirty long nose. A leaping trout. A donkey falling upside down.
But my daddy’s belt stayed in his trousers.
I love that, years later, Parrot still experiences the emotion of his childhood self as he tells the story. I guess for me it’s that such high-strung, detailed prose is exhausting. But also, it can only sustain me for so long. Give me a paragraph or two, and I love it. Give me page after page and it’s starts to sound like a long-winded uncle whose not trying to reveal anything about himself but rather is just trying to be witty.
Thankfully, Parrot and Olivier come together on a boat sailing to America. It was rough for them but so much better for me. Carey’s writing remained fun, but it also served to reveal more than I felt it did in the first 100 pages. Here I was thrilled to see Olivier and Parrot interact, Olivier thinking he is so high above his servant that it is not improper to dictate his dissatisfaction with Parrot for letters written by Parrot himself. Here is the man coming to report on democracy in America. There’s also a wonderful scene, also one where Olivier is dictating to Parrot, when Oliver seems to be considering his servant a bit more, albeit by insulting him by dictating to him a lascivious (yet delightful) report on Olivier’s sexual escapades with Parrot’s lover.
When they do get to America, I began reading the book I’d hoped for. Olivier’s experiences lead bafflement at a people who seemed to want their leaders as uneducated as possible, where a farmer could be a banker, and where everything seems to revolve around money, with no interest — at least, certainly no skill — in the arts.
I had not known America would look like this. In my innocence I had hoped to find here a model for the future of France, or at least some sign as to how, if democracy was unstoppable, we might at least safeguard our future with certain principles or institutions.
Yet all I had learned was that when the mob was allowed to rule, a second mob sprang up beneath them, and the difference between the Americans and the French is that the Americans do not need to steal from their fellows when they can roam the countryside in bands, cutting trees and taking wealth. Anyone can claim a site for his château, whether he be a night soil man or a portraitist.
Furthermore, the prose slows down at times to allow the reader to dwell in the somber and often conflicting emotions, particularly the conflict of love and disdain. We see things that really bother both Olivier and Parrot, things they cannot cover up with wit. There are still digressions, including some lengthy backwards glances at Parrot’s time in Australia, but they felt more natural — or perhaps I was merely growing accustomed to the book, learning from it how to read it rather than wishing it were something different.
In the end, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I still felt it was a bit unbalanced, even in what themes it was chasing down — it’s not a masterpiece — but it was a delightful excursion into an unreal past that says a lot about our precarious present.
I grew up in a very small town in Idaho. The nearest big city was Salt Lake City, 250 miles south — and even it’s not a big city. Now that I work in New York City, now that 25 miles is a big distance (it seems to take the same amount of time to go 25 miles here as it did 250 miles in Idaho), I find myself missing the open spaces and the mountains and plains landscape of the West. So one thing I loved about Maile Meloy’s recent collection of short stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009), was the immediate familiarity with that vastness. Meloy grew up north of me in Montana, where many of these stories take place.
I’ll state it up front: this is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. From beginning to end, always just when I thought Meloy couldn’t pull it off again, I was fully engaged and drawn into the lives of her torn characters. Some of my admiration certainly comes from my relationship to the landscape and to the characters here — she portrays them so well — but that’s not really it. Meloy’s writing is direct and incisive. Within these eleven stories Meloy’s characters breathe and their depths are shown in strong and unique plotting.
Often, the stories are fairly simple and straightforward. My favorite, one I almost wish I hadn’t read so that I could still read it for the first time, was the book’s first, “Travis, B.” Immediately we get to know the central character, Chet Moran, and the small town he grew up in:
Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore. In Logan, they still did, and he had it before he was two. He recovered, but his right hip never fit in the socket, and his mother always thought he would die young.
There’s no evasiveness here. In prose so direct as to appear simple when linked together with “and” and “but,” Meloy sets up a sad but matter-of-fact tone. Loneliness is just below the surface as the characters go about their lives. Quickly, Chet is around twenty years old and still walks “as though he were turning to himself to ask a question.” The direct prose continues as Meloy sets up the foundation for a story that is both sad and innocent and terrifying.
He left home at twenty and moved up north to the highline. He got a job outside Havre feeding cows through the winter, while the rancher’s family lived in town and the kids were in school. Whenever the roads were clear, he rode to the nearest neighbor’s for a game of pinochle, but mostly he was snowed in and alone. He had plenty of food, and good TV reception. He had some girlie magazines that he got to know better than he’d ever known an actual person. He spent his twenty-first birthday wearing long johns under two flannel and his winter coat, warming up soup on the stove. He got afraid of himself that winter; he sensed something dangerous that would break free if he kept so much alone.
In order to get out and meet people, Chet begins driving up and down the streets, looking for groups. One night he sees a bunch of people going into the school, so he parks the pickup and joins them in a classroom. These people, all teachers, have come together for the first of what will be a bi-weekly course on education law. The young, pretty, flustered instructor enters the room, and Chet decides to stay and enjoy the pleasant company, even if he doesn’t participate or even care about what everyone is talking about.
One night the instructor asks Chet where she can find some food quickly. It turns out that she is not from the area. In fact, she lives on the opposite side of the very long state of Montana. She signed up to teach the course because when she was finishing law school she was afraid of not having a job; she went for whatever she could find. Now she regrets it because she has a “real job” back where she’s from, and partly as a joke they have given her the license to complete her term in this miserable teaching job. I can’t imagine. In order to teach these Tuesday and Thursday night classes, she must drive for nine hours each way — thirty-six hours per week on the long winter roads. After a few weeks she is obviously exhausted.
On the other hand, Chet’s only solace in his lonely, empty week are those few hours with her. Waiting to see her on those nights is nearly more than Chet can stand. There are tender moments when Chet does his best to charm her and try to make her time there a bit more palatable. We know that Chet is incredibly lonely, has always been lonely, and we want him to find some happiness in this budding relationship. Still, he and the instructor are worlds apart, and we’re not sure, though he’s always been polite and good natured, what he might do to ensure those worlds come together. It’s a wonderfully crafted, lonely story, amplified by the vast, open distance in Montana.
Though this was my favorite story in the book, I was not disappointed by the rest. For the most part the premises continue to be fairly simple as we watch simple people struggling with their conflicting desires and sometimes getting into situations that make the reader’s throat go dry.
Two examples where I found myself physically affected by the story (short breath, dry throat, tensed muscles) are “Red from Green” and “The Girlfriend.” Both stories put older men in close proximity with younger girls. Though the initial motives are guilty but not sexual, the tension reminded me of the hotel scene in Roth’s American Pastoral (though what happens is very different).
In “Red from Green” a young girl accompanies her father on a boating trip. Their companions on the trip are her uncle, a private attorney, and the central plaintiff in a class action law suit her uncle is litigating. The trip is meant to smooze the plaintiff who is thinking of dropping the suit and moving away; if he leaves, the case dries up. Throughout the day the girl watches as her father (who is a district judge) allows the man to take advantage of his desirability. The plaintiff catches fish that are too small but keeps them anyway, something her father usually has no tolerance for. Later the plaintiff takes the girl out to practice shooting, using illegal hollow point bullets. Late in the evening, after the uncle has already retired to his tent, the father also gets up from the fire and goes to his tent. Before entering it he looks back at his daughter whom he has now left alone with this strange plaintiff, who has just asked if she could please kneel on his back to help him loosen up some tight muscles. It’s horrifying to read and wonder just what is going to happen. Worse, why? Did the father expect nothing to happen? Why would he leave it to chance? Did he actually expect something to happen? We have no reason to disrespect this judge. From all accounts, he’s a fine man who runs a disciplined life and courtroom. He’s a protector. But what is that moment of ambiguity about? It’s a great story.
“The Girlfriend” begins when Leo, a man in his fifties, shows up at a hotel room to meet a teenage girl. The air is tense. We soon find out that the girl is the girlfriend of the man who murdered Leo’s only daughter. The case has just ended with a guilty verdict, but this girlfriend lied on the stand to protect this boy who raped and killed another woman. It’s more than Leo can stomach, so he’s asked her to explain it. The tension in the prose makes it feel like we’re in the room with them, and it’s very uncomfortable to witness the discussion between these two broken and desperate people interact. Leo learns more about himself than he’d hoped.
There are other male-female struggles, like in “Lovely Rita” when a young man is killed in an accident at a construction site and his girlfriend comes to his best friend for help: she’d like him to set up a raffle at the construction site for a night with her. In “Two Step,” a wife who suspects her husband is unfaithful discusses the matter with the very woman he is being unfaithful with — and then he arrives, and we feel sorry for both women.
There is also the quirky “Liliana,” which begins with a sentence that echos Kafka’s Metamorphosis:
On a hazy summer afternoon in Los Angeles, while my wife was at work and our children were napping, I answered the ringing doorbell to find my grandmother, two months dead, standing on a stoop.
Liliana, the grandmother, was a very rich woman with a past in war-time Germany cinema. She and her grandson never saw eye-to-eye. She seemed to think him unworthy and never shared much, if anything, with him, forcing him to make his own modest way through the world. He despised her. He doesn’t want anything from her – has resigned himself to that fate, actually — but he certainly resents her. And here she seems to have returned from the dead.
While I stripped the master bed and carried the sheets to the wash, I thought about Jesus and Elvis. People had wanted them back, badly, and still did. But who would have willed Liliana back.
There’s some nice comedy when Mina, the wife, arrives home:
“Mina, dear,” Liliana said, standing to take my wife’s hand. “I haven’t seen you with this Sapphic haircut. Your children are lovely.” / Mina’s hair was cut short because she had no time to deal with it, and I thought of it as gamine-like and sexy. “Thank you,” Mina said. “You look great. Especially under the circumstances.”
As quirky as this story may seem, it actually — and it’s incredible how Meloy always succeeded in doing this — is a subtle look at this man, his insecurities and his strengths and his final devastating revelation.
I was so pleased with this collection I immediately marked Meloy as one of my favorite authors. She’s written one other collection of short stories, which one the PEN/Malamud, and two novels. I believe I have all three waiting for me in the mail today. And I can’t wait to see what she produces in the future.
While growing up I often heard about the fighting in Lebanon, though I was too young to understand just what that meant. It occupied a large part of my young imagination, but when I was older and learned the basics of the conflict, I never bothered to look into specifics. One great thing about a good book: it makes you want to learn more about whatever its talking about. Elias Khoury, who lived through the civil war, wrote White Masks (Al-Wujûb al-baydâ, 1981; tr. from the Arabic by Maia Tabet, 2010) right in the midst of it.
Incidentally, this is one of the best constructed books I’ve had the pleasure to hold. It is a nice, practically square hardback with a sharp-edged binding. The paper is exquisite to touch. Good books should be packaged well.
When I say good book, however, I don’t necessarily mean enjoyable, at least, not enjoyable in the way I would typically use that word. I found White Masks a very difficult book to wrestle with due to a mixture of evasive writing and boring writing. Though I’m glad I stuck through it, I knew throughout that if I put it down for long I might not return to it. Well, more on that in a minute, because the book wasn’t always a struggle. The book begins with a great little introduction.
This is no tale. And it may not be of particular interest to readers, as people these days have more important things to do than read stories or listen to tales. And they’re absolutely right. But this story really did happen.
This is how we meet our nameless narrator (though he won’t always be our narrator). He is a young, though he has already left journalism school behind. Still, he has the urge to chase down stories:
One morning, I saw in the paper a short piece entitled “Dreadful murder in the UNESCO district” and, don’t ask me why, but whenever I see the word “dreadful,” the word “wonderful” springs to mind.
The victim is Khalil Ahmad Jaber, but there seems to be no reason for his murder. For one thing, he is just a simple civil servant, hardly worth the trouble of what appears to be a very brutal, deliberate assault. But even more peculiar is the fact that Jaber is the father of one of the young men killed in the war. The young man being a martyr, all honor to the parents. The mystery called to our narrator.
The murkier the story got, the greater my interest grew. Thanks to a variety of sources I was able to contact, as well as my daily perusal of the papers, I was able to collect a vast amount of information pertaining to the murder, which, according to medical reports, took place on the morning of April 13, 1980.
The narrator interviews many people with even a slight connection to the victim. The result is a series of oral histories, somewhat reminding me of The Good War by Studs Terkel. The narrator steps back and, almost without inserting his own voice, allows the speaker to tell a story.
As each speaker begins his or her story, the victim and the murder often go into the background and the speaker becomes the subject. In fact, one of the longest stories is told by one of the men who found the body. This man had only a few minutes with the victim, and he never knew him alive. However, in these digressive narratives, though the war seems like incidental backstory, there is a lot of subtle criticism.
In the wife’s story, for example, we watch as the Jaber, before his death, goes about hanging up posters of his son the martyr. (Here is a great link to the American University of Beirut Jafet Library that shows a few of these martyr posters.) He does this compulsively. Years pass, people think the war is over, yet he is still going around hanging up posters. His madness continues to develop as he pastes up the propaganda for the cause that killed his son. And in his madness the only support he and his wife receive is from the party’s martyr stipend.
This madness and the posters are a fascinating theme throughout, especially when Jaber begins to use erasers to erase the posters, all amidst his own commentary that the posters erase the wall (probably a partially destroyed wall thanks to the bombs) they are plastered on.
Still, these digressive narratives became, for me, too much of a maze. I admit that pages would go by where I just didn’t know how what I was reading fit into the greater narrative. I’m sure my ignorance is partly to blame. But also, I suspect that meandering could have been part of the point, a way to show that these characters were in control of their story and wouldn’t deviate despite the narrator’s prompts and despite reader expectations.
The reader could just refer to the forensic pathologist’s report and dispense with all the attendant detail; alternatively, he might find it sufficient to read the wife’s statement or those of the municipal workers — they were the ones to discover the naked corpse dumped on the roadside. Indeed, the reader might even regard this introduction as adequate, and leave it at that. Every one of us has a story, after all, and that’s more than enough. We have no need of other people’s.
And in the end, the narrator offers some more commentary on his search for the mystery behind the murder:
I find myself completely baffled: the author feels he doesn’t really know what happened in his story and that he is not in full possession of the facts . . .
So even knowing that the digressions and evasiveness are deliberate, it made for some very frustrating reading. At times it made me think of my experience with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which was also frustrating in its evasiveness and digressions. However, in 2666 I was never tempted to put the book down. The writing was powerful and visceral, and the story, as pointless as its point may be, was fascinating. Thankfully, after finishing White Masks I was glad I’d been through it. The writing is not Bolaño’s (and I never wanted it to be), but it is strong, the voices are interesting, and some of the conceits are illuminating. It is a worthwhile book, but make sure you have the energy to grapple with it.
Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat was so strange, so not what I was expecting from the author of The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie, that I couldn’t wait to find out what else she had up her sleeve. There are quite a few to choose from, and unfortunately I don’t see them that often in the bookstores. But New Directions recently released a new edition of Not to Disturb (1971) that in its lovely black, matte cover called out to me as I was passing it one day.
Not to Disturb (perhaps obviously from its cover) follows Spark’s stranger, more moribund fiction, though I didn’t find it quite as strange as The Driver’s Seat . . . still, it’s pretty strange.
When the book begins, we are thrown into an already ongoing conversation. Several servants are talking about some future event — some future death or murder — as if it has already happened.
‘Small change,’ he says, ‘compared with what is to come, or has already come, according as one’s philosophy is temporal or eternal. To all intents and purposes, they’re already dead although as a matter of banal fact, the night’s business has still to accomplish itself.’
There is a meeting about to take place in the library between the home’s regal owner, his wife, and one of his private secretaries. They have locked the door from the inside and said they are not to be disturbed. For some reason, these servants are preparing for death. How? By arranging their alibis and signing contracts with journalists who will want their personal perspective. They think the police and camera crews will show up first thing in the morning, if not sooner. By their estimation, the event should occur around 3 o’clock in the morning or maybe 6 o’clock.
‘I really could sleep,’ she says. ‘I really feel like another nap.’
‘No,’ says Pablo. ‘Lister wants us all to be suffering from shock when the police arrive. Lack of sleep has the same effect, Lister says.’
Brewing underneath that macabre surface are the strange relationships between all of the people. One of the young maids is pregnant, and they don’t know who the father is.
‘I never went with him,’ says Heloise. ‘I had the chance, though.’
‘Didn’t we all?’ says Pablo.
Sex is very much the issue here. There are a series of other strange relationships too, and not just among the servants.
‘Sex is not to be mentioned,’ Lister says. ‘To do so would be to belittle their activities. On their sphere sex is nothing but an overdose of life. They will die of it, or rather, to all intents and purposes, have died. We treat of spontaneous combustion. One remove from sex, as in Henry James, an English American who travelled.’
Not to Disturb is a very short book. And it seems everything I can say about it would reveal its secrets, and they are more fun to learn — or, rather, discern – from the book itself. The whole book is a lot of fun, even if it is a dark criticism of the upper class and their world, which includes their servants. The characters are revealed through incisive dialogue that is almost always evasive (that’s part of the fun). However, I didn’t find in it the depth of The Pride of Miss Jean Brodie or even of The Driver’s Seat. Still, it suited my mood perfectly when I read it. There is a lot to decipher, interesting people to meet, and Spark fills it with dark comic lines like this one.
‘Death is that sort of thing that you can’t sleep off . . . .’
I have a lot more Spark to enjoy. An exciting prospect considering the fact that I have no idea what to expect next. In a way, it’s the same feeling I get when I anticipate another Aira novel: who knows what is going to be between the covers, but it will be interesting.
A few weeks ago The New Yorker had a story about some books that were on display. These books had been in the personal collection of various famous authors, and all contained interesting marginalia. One was Nabokov’s edition of a collection of New Yorker short stories from the 1950s. In it, he’d assigned each piece a grade, some getting Cs, Bs, As or whatever. He’d only assigned two the high grade of an A+: J.D. Salinger’s “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” (discussed here) and his own “Colette,” published July 31, 1948. It turns out that both stories take place during a nice little summer vacation at a resort, though that’s about where the comparisons stop. July is a good time to read either.
Click for a larger image.
This story eventually found its way into Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory. I haven’t read that yet. ”Colette” is also sometimes titled “First Love.” It is the memory Nabokov has of a summer trip taken in 1909, when he was 10. The first two pages (of a four page story) take place on the train journey from St. Petersburg to Biarritz in southern France. I kept waiting for Colette to show her face, but she doesn’t. It turns out that is far from a bad thing. In Nabokov’s hands, this train journey memory is magical. For example:
It was marvelously exciting to move to the foot of one’s bed, with part of the bedclothes following, in order to undo cautiously the catch of the window shade, which could be made to slide only halfway up, impeded as it was by the edge of the upper berth.
Like moons around Jupiter, pale moths revolved about a lone lamp. A dismembered newspaper stirred on a bench. Somewhere on the train one could hear muffled voices, somebody’s comfortable cough. There was nothing particularly interesting in the portion of station platform before me, and still I could not tear myself away from it until it departed of its own accord.
There’s such lovely peace there in that night, “somebody’s comfortable cough.” A decade later Nabokov’s life — all of Russia — would be in turmoil, but in 1909 they were still able to travel to France for a two-month vacation. The details feel like memory; the reader feels the nostalgia and the comfort.
Colette, who is nine (and whose real name was Claude Deprès), finally arrives at the narrator’s side: “On the browner and wetter part of the plage, that part which at low tide yielded the best mud for castles, I found myself digging, one day, side by side with a little French girl called Colette.” As often happens with young children, they jump right into friendship, having no reason to distrust one another. Our narrator develops an innocent passion for the young girl:
Two years before, on the same plage, I had been much attached to the lovely, sun-tanned little daughter of a Serbian physician, but when I met Colette, I knew at once that this was the real thing. Colette seemed to me so much stranger than all my other chance playmates at Biarritz! I somehow acquired the feeling that she was less happy than I, less loved.
I like how the love is innocent; it certainly feels true and pure. He loves playing beside her, he worries about her, he empathizes with her. She must trust his love, for one day while looking at a starfish, he kissed him on the cheek:
So great was my emotion that all I could think of saying was “You little monkey!”
I kept wondering just what would happen to this young couple. Naturally, this summer fling could not last forever. They were too young to have any power to make it last beyond, yet it does last in Nabokov’s memory:
The leaves mingle in my memory with the leather of her shoes and gloves, and there was, I remember, some detail in her attire (perhaps a ribbon on her Scottish cap, or the pattern of her stockings) that reminded me then of the rainbow spiral in a glass marble. I still seem to be holding that wisp of iridescence, not knowing exactly where to fit it in, while she runs with her hoop ever faster around me and finally dissolves among the slender shadows cast on the gravelled path by the interlaced arches of its border.
This is a wonderful short story about an innocent love and its effect through the years. An A+? Well, I think “A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” is the better of the two (I like Lolita quite a lot more than Catcher in the Rye, so that is not just a statement in support of the man who inspired this bi-weekly feature and its title), but it was such a pleasant read with some hearty sadness, perfect for a warm summer day when one doesn’t want to contemplate suicide.
Using random.org I plugged in the appropriate numbers for the Bolaño/Walser giveaway. Though both winners have their own blogs, I promise that was not a condition of winning — it was all random.org’s doing. Also, one winner was a brand-new commenter whose first comment was for this contest. The other has been here as long as I have — almost.
I appreciate everyone who entered the contest, and I especially thank you all for your kind words of well-wishing on my two-year anniversary. It’s been a lot of fun and much of that is due to your reading, commenting, and support. This is a great community. So . . .
A copy of Roberto Bolano’s Amulet goes to Selena who writes at Like Glass – congrats! Now I expect you to comment more :)
A copy of Robert Walser’s Microscripts goes to Isabel who writes at Books and Other Stuff — congrats too! Isabel has been a very welcome presence on this blog since its earliest days. Thanks!
Emails are going out to Selena and Isabel.
A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010): I would have prejudged this book based on its title. It brings to mind the contemporary loud, voice driven, substance-less, contemporary literary showy pieces. I would have been very very wrong. I didn’t prejudge it because I became interested in – in fact, excited for – A Visit from the Goon Squad after reading some of Jennifer Egan’s fiction in The New Yorker (see the forum here). Her first piece this year was “Safari,” which I didn’t particularly like, though it showed she was obviously a great writer. Then I loved her second piece, ”Ask Me If I Care.” When I found out that piece formed a part of her new book, I couldn’t resist.
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
This book is a series of inter-connected yet entirely independent short stories dealing with a limited cast of characters and ranging fifty years, from the early 1970s to the early 2020s. Each story could be read alone; each has its own world, its own voice, its own problems, its own inner structure. There is a vast range of styles: the conventional third-person narrative, a second-person narrative (which is often jarring for me but works great here), a piece of journalism (which also works tremendously well — Egan writes for The New York Times Magazine too), and a PowerPoint presentation (again, I feel I should say this to fend off anyone thinking this is just a showy piece — this works very very well; somehow Egan has created a deep story that just wouldn’t be as deep were it not a PowerPoint presentation). Each part comes together so nicely that the formal elements go into the background and do their work to enhance the ongoing narrative. In other words — and Egan deserves an ovation – the virtuosic form and style don’t detract from the elegant substance of the book. Simply, the substance is the outstanding element here.
Though each story can be read independent of the others, I wouldn’t recommend picking and choosing that way. Egan has laid them out in such a way that it feels more like a novel. We watch characters grow older and younger, we see their dreams fall apart and then we go back and see them formed. Fittingly, the book begins with an epigram from Proust, something about time and memory . . .
Then we are suddenly engrossed in the first story where Sasha, thirty-six and a rising assistant to one of the country’s best record executives, is about to steal some poor woman’s purse while that woman is using the restroom in some downtown New York City bar. With a smooth transition, we are with Sasha on the couch as she describes the event and her feelings to Coz, her psychiatrist. This dual narrative continues on seamlessly, and we learn that waiting for Sasha outside of the restroom is/was Alex, her date for the evening, someone who has just moved to New York. When the woman from the restroom appears sobbing, Alex starts up a little mission to help her find her missing purse, shocked that many people don’t get involved the way he thinks they should.
After the hullabaloo at the bar, Alex and Sasha go back to her apartment. The descriptions of downtown Manhattan in the wake of 9/11 are fantastic, bringing the physical space — the absence of two big buildings and their light – into the mentality of the residents (really, they’re small parts, but probably as good as anything I’ve read trying to get a grip on those earlier post-9/11 days). In Sasha’s apartment, Sasha maintains a little shrine of objects she’s stolen through the years.
Alex leaned over to peer at the tiny collection on her windowsills. He paused at the picture of Rob, Sasha’s friend who had drowned in college, but made no comment. He hadn’t noticed the tables where she kept the pile of things she’d stolen: the pens, the binoculars, the keys, the child’s scarf, which she’d lifted simply by not returning it when it dropped from the little girl’s neck as her mother led her by the hand from a Starbucks. Sasha was already seeing Coz by then, so she reorganized the litany of excuses even as they throbbed through her head: winter is almost over; children grow so fast; kids hate scarves; it’s too late, they’re out the door; I’m embarrassed to return it; I could easily not have seen it fall — in fact, I didn’t, I’m just noticing it now: Look, a scarf! A kid’s bright yellow scarf with pink stripes — too bad, who could it belong to? Well, I’ll just pick it up and hold it for a minute. . . . At home she’d washed the scarf by hand and folded it neatly. It was one of the things she liked best.
Toward the end of the story, Sasha is looking through Alex’s wallet when she finds a note that has been there for who knows how long. The note, in pencil, simply says: “I BELIEVE IN YOU.” Before she knows what she’s doing, she’s taken the note.
This story is well balanced and controlled. Egan is dealing with a complex structure, keeping the reader present both in that night with Alex and in the psychiatrist’s office some time later. The themes that rise are subtle and have the aching feel of nostalgia. We also get the sense that things aren’t going to get better for these two. Sasha’s self-destructive habit is bound to keep her from reaching her potential — but she feels like she was lost years ago. And whatever past Alex came from, with that note that meant so much he kept it with him, is quickly receding. This perfectly sets up what is to come in the rest of the book.
After the first story, the book begins to go back and forth in time, though it only ventures into the future in the last two pieces. We meet several of the main characters in one of the early pieces, “Ask Me If I Care.” Though familiar, this piece is better than it was in The New Yorker. Part of that is because it is expanded and more polished. However, it is also better because we are reading it in the light of the stories we’ve already read. We’ve met at least one of the characters in a previous story, and we already have some of the larger themes. This doesn’t detract from the great individuality of the story.
Taking us back to San Francisco in 1979, Egan introduces us to a group of punk-rock teenagers about to go out into the world they really hate, though, as Rhea, the young narrator, comes to realize, only one of them is truly angry. Part of this story is devoted to the sad story of Jocelyn (not the angry one — yet) who is seduced by a forty-something-year-old record executive named Lou. The narrative takes on the opaque air of late nights filled with drugs, alcohol, and sex. Still, through that our Rhea keeps her unique voice and her subtle, perhaps unintentional, insights. Here she is talking to Lou, the aging record executive:
I go, Do you even remember being our age?
Lou grins at me in my chair, but it’s a copy of the grin he had at dinner. I am your age, he goes.
Ahem, I go. You have six kids.
So I do, he goes. He turns his back, waiting for me to disappear. I think, I didn’t have sex with this man. I don’t even know him. The he goes, I’ll never get old.
You’re already old, I tell him.
The next story turns out to be “Safari,” the piece I didn’t like in The New Yorker (imagine my surprise — I had no idea how that would fit here; it does). In A Visit from the Goon Squad, it is fully fleshed, well balanced, not as blatant; in fact, I found it a beautiful piece that slows down the rushing blood of “Ask Me If I Care.” In it we find Lou in the early 1970s on an African safari with his much younger girlfriend and his two teenage children. He’s a lot more likeable here than he is in “Ask Me If I Care,” somewhat revising our opinion of him and preparing us for the pity and disdain we will feel for him when he lies on his death bed in another story.
Time is the goon in the title: “Time’s a goon.” Time comes and takes out these folks’ knee-caps — or puts a bullet through their head — as they squander their dreams, sometimes through no fault of their own. In a piece where a publicist takes a twenty-eight-year-old has-been movie star named Kitty Jackson to help polish the public image of a genocidal dictator, we watch that young star freshen up a bit as she prepares to meet the mass-murderer, bringing back a bit of the promise she once had. In another piece, the fabulous journalistic piece, we read about an attack on Kitty when she was a young star. This piece brought visions of Humbert Humbert to me as the journalist uses his incredible writing ability and narrative thrust to give an almost charming veneer over a horrific event that leads to a very sad vision of lost hope — his own, not Kitty’s.
Egan’s book is all over the place, but she has controlled it so well one never feels knocked around by it. Instead we feel a bit of the violence of time, especially as we see characters we recognize but that are no longer who they once were: “That wasn’t me, in Naples . . . I don’t know who it was. I feel sorry for her.” The last story of the book takes us back to Alex, that young man with the “I BELIEVE IN YOU” note. He wouldn’t recognize himself in that earlier story either, and it’s hard to watch him try to remember that night, that girl, while he tries to organize a public concert for one of the kids we first met in 1979, over forty years ago.
After writing all of that, I’m sure the book might still look like a stylistic, structurally ambitious flight of fancy. I assure you that Egan pulls it off. The ambition, the variety — they never cloud over the intimate settings she’s created where we can spend quiet moments with these compelling individuals. This is an exceptional book that, despite its appearance of flare, should be taken seriously. I hope and expect to see it show up in awards season.
On July 1, this blog had its two-year anniversary. To celebrate I thought that today, rather than post a review (though a review of a really really good book will be up in a couple of days), I would celebrate the anniversary with a giveaway of not one but two books.
First, Robert Walser’s Microscripts. I have an unread copy still in its shrinkwrap.
Last year I read and completely enjoyed Walser’s The Tanners. It is a classic book that finally made its way to the English language with the help of New Directions Publishing and through the wonderful talents of Susan Bernofsky. I recommend it completely. A month or so ago, New Directions released another Walser collection, Microscripts. Walser developed a minute script he used so he could write stories on any found paper lying around. An entire story might find itself on a postcard, or a ticket stub, whatever was there. For years the script was thought indecipherable, but through years of diligent scholarship and scrutiny, these texts were produced in intelligible German. Again through the talents of Susan Bernofsky, these short stories are available to us.
But this book is more than just text. New Directions, with its usual high standards of publishing has created a beautiful book (it also just released the gloriously produced Nox by Anne Carson, which I hope to review soon). This is hardbound and contains complete color scans of the original microscripts in their original size. So we get to see that business card Walser wrote on and his tiny script. On the facing page is the translation. At the back of the book, along with an essay by Walter Benjamin, are the German translations of the text.
I’m afraid that I can’t offer an opinion on the stories themselves because I haven’t read most of them, but what I’ve sampled is quirky and astoundingly intricate.
Second, Roberto Bolaño’s Amulet. I have an extra unread paperback edition for someone.
New Directions is also the publisher behind this giveaway. Over the past few years they’ve steadily released Bolaño’s work for us, and I’m always anxious to see what’s next. This is one of the ones I haven’t read yet. I’ve been saving this book for a bit of a dry spell. Several trusted sources claim it is one of his best, and since I don’t have many more of his works to read, I’ve been saving it — but not for too much longer. Perhaps whoever wins my extra copy of Amulet will accompany me in a read-along when the time comes.
Now, imagine I have two hats, one for Walser and one for Bolaño. To win, leave a comment below indicating which hat you’d like to throw your name in. You can, by the way, through your name in each hat if you’re interested in both titles, though you will only be allowed to win one of them. So your chances of winning will go up since you’ll put your name in each of the two hats. However, your name won’t be entered to the same hat twice, so multiple comments be counted (though you can certainly leave multiple comments about the books or the process or whatever).
I will draw the two winners on this Friday, July 9. Since I’m not sure when I’ll do the drawing, whether early that day or late, please feel free to enter until I’ve announced the winners.