It has been over a decade since I moved away from the small town where I was raised. My parents, both raised in the same town by parents who were also raised in the same town, moved away just last week. They didn’t move far, but still there is something about their moving away from a small town that has nestled our family for a few generations. Over the past year or so I’ve been increasingly curious about that town. Having lived in the community for so long, my family knew just about everyone, old and young, and there were a lot of great people. Growing up, I rarely caught whiff of a scandal. People had problems, children were killed in accidents, but, for the most part, for all I knew, anything sordid was minimal.
A couple of months ago I asked my parents to give me some history of the town, some of the history that as a child you never learn about. I wasn’t interested in scandal for the sake of learning about a scandal. I was more interested in learning more about the community and what unspoken events shaped it and hung around its neck during my childhood. What haunted the people I knew when I was too young and careless to see it in their faces? For better or for worse, my parents have been unable to supply me with much information. Either my childish impressions of tranquility were true (and I suspect in a good number of cases it was — though certainly not all) or people were very good at keeping to themselves. All of this was much on my mind while I read the small-town tale Montana 1948 (1993).
Montana 1948 reminded me at times of So Long See You Tomorrow. Here we have David Hayden, a man past middle age, looking back on the events at the end of a childhood summer: “From the summer of my twelfth year I carry a series of images more vivid and lasting that any others of my boyhood and indelible beyond all attempts the years make to erase or fade them. . . .” The images that have so stuck with David are (1) a Sioux woman lying in fever on a bed in his house, (2) his father kneeling on the kitchen floor in front of his mother, begging her to help him, and (3) his mother loading a shotgun she intended to fire. These very transformative and tragic events happened in a small Montana town and, incredible as it might seem at first, without most of the town even knowing about it. For David, though, these nearly invisible events changed his life for always; if not for them ”perhaps I would have lived out my life with an illusion about my family and perhaps even the human community.”
We certainly see how these invisible events, particularly the aftermath, has affected how he sees the world at an older age, after he has become a history teacher rather than follow his father in his law practice:
I did not — do not — believe in the purity and certainty of history over law. Not at all. Quite the opposite. I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do, that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide . . . . Who knows — perhaps any region’s most dramatic, most sensational stories were not played out in the public view but were confined to small, private places. A doctors’ office, say. A white framed house on a quiet street.
In 1948, the Haydens are a well known family around town, even though they are a fairly small family. David’s father is the sheriff. His uncle is a respected doctor and war hero. David’s paternal grandfather was also the sheriff. He basically ran the town, and he reveled in the power: “To him, being the law’s agent probably seemed part of a natural progression — first you master the land and its beasts, then you regulate the behavior of men and women.” David’s mother has a deep resentment to the Haydens. For one, she has an obvious distaste of the grandfather. For another, she didn’t like what being a Hayden meant for her husband:
If my father didn’t fit my ideal of what he should be in his occupation, he certainly didn’t fit my mother’s either. She wanted him to be an attorney. Which he was; he graduated from the University of North Dakota Law School, and he was a member of both the North Dakota and Montana State Bar Associations. My mother fervently believed that my father — indeed, all of us — would be happier if he practiced law and if we did not live in Montana, and her reasons had little to do with the potentially hazardous nature of a sheriff’s work compared to an attorney’s or the pay scale along which those two professions positioned themselves. She wanted my father to find another job and for us to move because only doing those things would, she felt, allow my father to be fully himself.
David, at twelve, has a slight awareness of these family politics, about what’s expected of him and about how similar expectations have altered his father’s life and his mother’s demeanor, but until 1948 he was never really conscious of it all. That was the summer that his mother and father hired Marie Little Soldier, a Hunkpapa Sioux girl from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. David has an innocent crush on Marie and looks up to her boyfriend. As can be guessed, most in the town have a deep-seeded prejudice towards Indians, even those with otherwise good intentions.
This is as good a place as any to mention something that I would just as soon forget. My father did not like Indians. No, that’s not exactly accurate, because it implies that my father disliked Indians, which wasn’t so. He simply held them in low regard. He was not a hate-filled bigot — he probably thought he was free of prejudice! — and he could treat Indians with generosity, kindness, and respect (as he could treat every human being).
As an older man, one of the ways David fights against his father’s prejudice is by slipping into a nice pair of moccasins when he gets home from work. As a child he was aware of the prejudice, and it offended him how Marie was treated at times. Soon Marie becomes very sick. When David’s mother says she’ll call Doctor Hayden, Marie nearly has a fit. She won’t see him. Discounting it as some Indian misconception about the medical field, David’s dad calls his brother anyway. This is the simple beginning of a string of events in which Marie will end up dead and David’s father will have to decide how to balance his role as sheriff and his role as a Hayden.
It is much more than that, though, and not nearly so simple. Through David’s youthful eyes, being recalled painfully by his elder self, we see a lot of the beauty that makes communities and families, and we see just how fragile such things can be, or how strong. We see how he begins to honor his father not for the bravery he must face being a sheriff (he knows his father’s job does not entail much danger) but for the less visible burdens his father must bear:
I hadn’t realized until that moment how large a part of my father’s job this was. When someone’s son rolled his pickup on a county highway, or someone’s father shot himself climbing over a fence when he was deer hunting, or when some woman’s husband dropped dead of a heart attack in a hotel down in Miles City, it was my father’s duty to notify the family. Or when a drunk lay down on the tracks right in the path of a Great Northern freight train, it was my father’s job to find out if he hadany family. To this say I cannot hear the phrase — “pending notification of next of kin” — without thinking that someon out there, someone like my father, is toting around a basket of grief, looking for a doorstep to deposit it on. To think I once believed the hardest part of his job would be the dangerous criminals he might face.
I brought up So Long, See You Tomorrow at the beginning of this review not only to show some similarities in narration but also because both books are quiet, introspective looks into the past. Also, like So Long, See You Tomorrow, Montana 1948 is a special book, a classic piece of American literature not because it is widely read (though it should be) but because it simply is in its depiction of a facet of American life and counterlife.
When the Booker longlist was announced last month, I quickly raced online to see what books were available in the United States. A handful were, a few more were almost to be published. One was available only on from the Kindle store as an ebook: Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (2010). I’ve tried the Sony Reader and the Kindle before, and I didn’t like either one. No temptation whatsoever (though I’m sure they’re getting better). I have an iPhone, though, with the Kindle app. But the iPhone’s screen is pretty small, and I wondered if I would purchase it only to find it unreadable. But the book was out of stock on The Book Depository when I finally made up my mind that I needed to read it (thanks, in large part, to KevinfromCanada’s review). I had built myself up to buying the book, though, so I went to Amazon and downloaded it to my iPhone. I though I would write some of my thoughts on the ereading experience, but then I realized that they would be skewed. I loved this book. I was completely entranced. I might hate reading books on the iPhone, but I wouldn’t know yet because this book is so good I would have enjoyed reading it while someone kicked me in the shin.
In a Strange Room is divided into three parts: “The Follower,” “The Lover,” and “The Guardian.” Each part was published independently in The Paris Review. In fact, I almost bought the Summer 2009 issue because it had “The Guardian” in it. I don’t remember why I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t though, because though the parts are independent, the power of In a Strange Room is in the combination of the three. The book is about relationships and memory, most of it comes in the form of a travel tale, and Galgut’s prose is astonishing in its power.
On the Man Booker website there is a brief interview with Galgut where he says this book is about power, love, and guardianship, and how our relationships are defined by one or more of these elements. “The Follower” is the story about power. It begins with a man walking down a road. ”He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking and alone.” He soon sees a man dressed all in black coming the other direction. The chat briefly, they are both going different ways, and they part. Suddenly we are thrown for a bit of a loop: “Het gets to the ruins in the middle of the afternoon. I can’t even remember now what they are . . .” Note that shift from third person to first person. The book will continue to shift perspectives, to fabulous effect as we learn that the narrator is “he,” that at times he is looking back on his past as an objective observer while at other times he is there reliving the past. Memory, and how it changes perspectives, has a role in this book on relationships.
He sits on the edge of a raised stone floor and stares out unseeingly into the hills around him and now he is thinking of things that happened in the past. Looking back at him through time, I remember him remembering, and I am more present in the scene than he was. But memory has its own distances, in part he is me entirely, in part he is a stranger I am watching.
That night when he arrives at the youth hostel, he is surprised to find the man in black in his room. The man’s name is Reiner, and Reiner has decided delay his journey, which makes Damon (the narrator’s name, like the author’s, is Damon) uneasy, though also excited. In this companionship Damon has some desires. The homoerotic tension is palpable. The tension builds because Reiner is travelling to avoid a girl. He never talks about the potential for a sexual relationship with Damon, but nor does he respond in a way that would allow one to take place.
A few years later Reiner writes to say he’s coming to South Africa, where Damon lives. He wants to go for a journey and would like Damon come along. Damon gladly accepts, not necessarily because he hopes something might develop between him and Reiner but because he cannot stay in one place:
The truth is that he is not a traveller by nature, it is a state that has been forced on him by circumstance. He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety, which makes everything heightened and vivid. Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details, he feels no connection with anything around him, he’s constantly afraid of dying. As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something, but always away, away.
If Damon, besides moving away, away, is also wishing for some goal, he doesn’t get there. Things end badly after weeks in which Damon follows Reiner on all-night hikes and then cleans up camp while Reiner preens himself in the morning. Besides the tension in the air brought on by Damon’s ambiguous feelings toward Reiner, there is an element of competition and resentment, all combining to form a relationship that has “the shape of a dark passion to it.”
It’s a great story, and it leads nicely into “The Lover.” Not as intense as “The Follower” (or “The Guardian,” for that matter), “The Lover” is more tender. At its beginning, Damon feels the desire to leave again:
Something in him has changed, he can’t seem to connect properly with the world. He feels this is not a failure of tte world but a massive failing in himself, he would like to change it but doesn’t know how. In his clearest moments he thinks that he has lost the ability to love, people or places or things, most of all the person and place and thing that he is. Without love nothing has value, nothing can be made to matter very much.
In this state travel isn’t celebration but a kind of mourning, a way of dissipating yourself. He moves around from one place to another, not driven by curiosity but by the bored anguish of staying still.
So he leaves South Africa again to travel up to Malawi. Another journey, and this time he finds a group of travellers who would like his company, and in this group he might have found someone who reciprocates his attraction, a young man named Jerome. We see as their relationships builds in potential, small moments in time, and we see it recede and become formal again, perhaps with no possibilities:
They have never been more distant, or polite. In the morning his actual departure will be an echo of this one. He has already left, or perhaps he never arrived.
In the third story, “The Guardian,” Damon is travelling in India with Anna, a friend who is suffering from serious depression. He’s offered to watch after her, and there is hope that some travel will do her good. Sadly, his old friend is hardly there anymore but has been replaced by a “thing that’s taken up station inside her, driving along with so much fury and power.” We move fast as time collapses and Damon works all hours to make sure Anna doesn’t kill herself, which makes him hate her, though he still feels responsible for her.
The themes of travel, memory, and companionship (in all of its forms) come together nicely:
A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are. In the room you slept in last night a stranger lies in the bed. Dust covers over your footprints, the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone. Things happen once only and are never repeated, never return. Except in memory.
This is certainly one of my favorite books of the year, and I’ve had a pretty good reading year.
I have been looking forward to reading C (2010) since I first heard the premise: a modernist-style tale that takes place in the early twentieth-century following a young Englishman, who is enchanted by technology – particularly communications technology, like radio – as he comes of age, goes to war, survives, travels Europe and heads to Egypt. So maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but I know McCarthy’s reputation as a writer who focuses on ideas, allowing his characters to languish in order to tease out insights, and having a novel like that on the Booker longlist made me excited.
Now, I’ve read it, I liked it and sometimes loved it, but I have no idea how to write about it. On the one hand, it does have a conventional sequence of events that would be somewhat easy to lay out, somewhat like I laid out above. Those events are, for the most part, interesting. On the other hand, the events themselves are not as interesting as the underlying ideas and wordplay and philosophies (McCarthy set out to write this novel from an anti-humanist perspective — and I think he succeeded there), and the characters tend to blur in and out of focus as McCarthy gives the theories lift by playing with radio waves and signals: to write a comprehensive review that will give readers a taste of this book is, for me, going to be impossible.
So I must warn you. In this review I go a bit further in bringing up potential spoilers than most others have. One in particular, though it takes place early in the novel so I’m going to call it fair game. Plus, bringing it up is the only way I can think of to look at this book from the perspective I’d like to use. I’ll warn you when it’s coming.
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
Before going further, I’d like to say is that the cover design by Peter Mendelsund is fantastic. The almost nostalgic old image that, though innocent, haunts, painted by someone who is dead, of a young child, who must surely also be dead and whose face is covered up and distorted — one-eyed, mouthless — by the Morse Code dashes and dots: this image encapsulates a lot of what I got out of the novel.
The book begins in England in 1898, in a chapter titled “Caul.” The doctor arrives at a home, ready to deliver the as yet unborn Serge Carrefax, who, when he comes, comes shrouded in a caul. Pulling the doctor — and the reader — asided (and away from the birth), Serge’s father seems to be concerned mainly about whether the doctor has brought with him the copper wire he requested. It’s a nice start to a novel and appears fairly conventional: a baby born with a portent of fortune whose father is distracted from this great event by his own pursuit of breaking-edge technology. However, that would be too focused on the characters. That Mr. Carrefax is distracted by technology is one of the most important things to take away from this first set-piece. The technology Mr. Carrefax is working on is for communication, and yet what a breakdown.
Besides wires and waves technology, Mr. Carrefax is also deeply invested in the pedagogy of teaching deaf and dumb people to communicate, something he has succeeded in doing to varying but impressive degrees of success. His wife, for instance, though deaf can communicate very well by reading lips and then speaking with her own voice. Under Carrefax’s theory, there’s no need for signs. Speech that comes from breath is a deeply important part of what humans should be striving for. After preaching the divine nature of speech (“Speech itself breathed the earth into being — and breathed life into it, that it in turn may breathe and speak. What, I ask you, are the rising and falling of its mountains and its valleys or the constant heaving of its seas but breath?” ), Carefax links the basis of his pedagogy to the divine: “And we, ladies and gentlemen: do we not also move to the same gasping and exhaling rhythm? Is not our spirit, truly named, suspirio? Breathing, we live; speaking, we partake of the sublime.”
It is fascinating to me, then, that McCarthy has this same character fascinated by technologies that create illusions of contact and which, from some perspectives, become distorted and might actually wash out not just an individual’s importance but also humanity’s because it survives humanity. The waves continue bouncing around forever.
Serge grows up in this environment (which is also a silk farm — his mother’s project; yes — there is a lot going on here) with an older sister named Sophie. There are some wonderful passages depicting the two of them experiencing childhood together, a childhood enhanced (or not) by science. While Serge directs his attention to radio, Sophie is enamored by the natural sciences and chemistry. However, they manage to cross interests frequently.
Now, dear reader, is where you may want to avert your eyes. I’m about to disclose that event I warned about above, so . . . beware: POTENTIAL SPOILER!
Their childhood together is, sadly, cut short. Sophie is an enigma to her younger brother, and she has never acted stranger than she does in her last days, just before she ingests cyanide and is found dead. For me, though his grief is never directly dealt with, the rest of the novel must be seen through Serge’s grieving eyes, though McCarthy is not going to make that easy for us. For one thing, upon her death, Sophie becomes ephemeral to Serge. Her body means nothing. Her funeral is almost comical, in the same tragic sense that I find parts of As I Lay Dying comical. Here is an exchange between Mr. Carefax and the doctor:
“As you’ll doubtless be aware, it’s not unknown for death to be misdiagnosed, which makes for a certain . . .”
“You think it might not have been accidental?” Learmont asks.
“Not — what? No, no: that’s not what I meant. I was referring to the rare — yet still, I believe, well-documented — instances in which a death is recorded, only for the so-called deceased to awake several days later and recover their full capacities.”
“I’m sorry to say that in this case we can entertain no hopes, not even the faintest, of — “
“Bells were used, in times less technologically advanced than ours, with cords running from within the coffin to miniature towers mounted on the tombstone, should the incumbent come around and wish to signal the fact to those in a position to liberate them — a vertical position, as it were . . .”
“But your daughter’s been . . . I mean, after the autopsy, there’s simply no way that — “
“Yes: splendid! So I was thinking that perhaps we could avail ourselves of more contemporary hardware. I’ve arranged for a tapper-key, donated from Serge’s arsenal of such equipment, to be placed beside her in the coffin, and will attach a small transmitting aerial to the Crypt’s roof, should she — “
“Which one of my keys?” Serge asks. “You’ve never consulted me!”
“That way, she won’t need to rely on the circumstance, far from guaranteed, of someone happening to pass by the Crypt at precisely the moment she comes to and rings. The signal emitted will be weak, but strong enough to cover the estate, should, for example, Serge be experimenting with his wireless set, as I believe his wont is these days . . .”
There are still remainders of Sophie, of course, and not just her clothing and other effects: in a house as technologically savvy as this, there is no way to get around recognizing her presence on surfaces as natural history suggests or in the air as waves. Yet McCarthy never lets us forget that this immortal ephemera that remains is something else. In fact, we put up with a lot of distortion when sounds and events are happening live:
He’s spending lots of time up in the attic these days. It’s the spot with which he most associates hours spent alone with Sophie. The cylinders discs are still there. When he plays them now, her voice attaches itself, leech-like, to the ones recorded on them — tacitly, as though laid down in the wax and shellac underneath these voices, on a lower stratum: it flashes invisibly within their crackles, slithers through the hisses of their silence. He looks over the flat, motionless landscape as he listens. The sheep never seem to move: they just stand still, bubbly flecks on Arcady Field’s face. The curving stream also seems completely still, arrested in a deathly rictus grin. Only the trees in the Crypt Park seem to have any movement in them: they contract and expand slowly, breathing the sound of the Day School children practising their recitation:
Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth . . .
The looping, repeating lines mutate and distort so much that, even when the words come out correctly, they seem like a mispronounced version of something else, other sentences that are trying to worm their way up to the surface, make themselves heard.
Impressively, McCarthy also makes Serge himself feel ephemeral to the reader. As he goes through his life in the early part of this century, we are distracted, as in the passage just quoted, time and time again by something else — by McCarthy’s ideas and playfulness, to be more precise. In this book, through his language, he makes communication spacial and creates a space around his characters, even his main character. It’s like I’m following a character close but directing most of my attention to the sounds in the air. I remember that even his birth was somewhat obscured by a communication project.
And then there are the ways McCarthy obscures (but not to the point of obfuscation) his narrative by some static in the form of wordplay. It’s certainly not as sophisticated as what you’d find in Joyce or Nabokov, but McCarthy fiddles with words and language more than most do these days. For example, here is a passage that has just been playing with the word “insect” and moves quickly on to “incest” — but not quite, not quite yet.
“You like your sister, huh?” the dispensing officer, a Barney from Queens, New York, joshes him the third time he negotiates a trade-off.
“Sorry?” The question takes Serge aback.
“It’s what the Negroes call it up in Harlem.”
“This,” Barney answers, pointing at the phials. “Sister, dope, Big H: heroin. You don’t call it that here? I mean in England?”
“No,” Serge answers him after a pause. “I don’t think we do.”
The arrangement becomes a regular one: every week Serge hands over to Barney the fruit of Versoie’s trees and beehives, Barney hands over the goods, and sister roils and courses through his veins.
Of course, the way the drugs play with perception, put Serge “in tune” with certain frequencies, is all part of the intricate mechanics of this book.
Now, this is not to say that the book is brilliant, though on some level I think it is. Still, I admit to being disappointed many times, despite being very satisfied in the end. For example, there are some extended passages that are very boring. I can often handle boring. I think sometimes it is necessary and that boring parts can be quite fascinating, but I didn’t get that here. Sometimes I’d sit staring at a page for twenty minutes, attempting again and again to make it through the paragraphs, but always finding myself thinking of something completely different. Then I would become fascinated again. Then bored. The ideas and writing slowed down until it was worse that “boring”: it was dull. Also, some of the set pieces not only don’t satisfy, but they flop. KevinfromCanada expressed his disappointment in the section where Serge goes to a health spa — I agree with him, though I haven’t even read The Magic Mountain. Such disappointments sometimes intruded and made me doubt the brilliance of the book. Was it all pseudo-intellectualism? Could it be more trick and not much substance? Are all of the connected elements merely devices that, as one reviewer said, were reverse-engineered to create the novel?
In the end, I decided the answer to those questions was no — mostly. This is a very worthwhile book, its play and its intellect quite nicely supporting an astonishing amount of substance. It is a bright light on the Booker longlist and hopefully its shortlist. For one thing, the multiple ideas and the play go on throughout the book and tie together with satisfying insights. The ideas are interesting, particularly for me the idea of trying to capture someone in time but seeing that really there is little remainder, and most of that is distorted by static and becomes something else entirely. The person is gone, no matter what remains. Astonishingly, McCarthy manages all in a very conventional sequence of events that start at one point in time and move forward, always. Finally, McCarthy can write. This is one of the best sentences I’ve read in a long time. Serge has just exposed a hoax in the popular field of spiritualism, though in doing so he has destroyed a woman’s connection to her dead Michael:
If mass and gravity have been added to her, something’s been stripped away as well: despite her layers of clothes, she somehow looks more naked than she does even when undressed, as though a belief in which she’s clothed herself till now, a faith in her connectedness to a larger current, to a whole light and vibrant field of radiant transformation through which Michael might have resonated his way back to her, had been peeled off, returning her, denuded, to the world — this world, the only world, in which a table is just a table, paintings and photographs just images made of matter, kites on the walls of playrooms unremembered and the dead dead.
I know, I’m a year behind here. The Little Stranger(2009) was longlisted and shortlisted for last year’s Booker prize. You may recall, I wasn’t much in the Booker mood in 2009 in large part because of the miserable experience that was Booker 2008. I was attracted to some of the books on the 2009 list, like this one. I’ve even acquired the whole shortlist. This was the last one I got, in fact, and if it hadn’t been promoted as a ghost story, I probably wouldn’t have even read it just yet, but for some reason I was in the mood for a good spooky story. Still, being a year behind on this particular book puts me out of the long conversations about what actually happens in The Little Stranger (whose otherwise nice cover had the misfortune of being that of a best seller and suffered stickers and quotes in all of its space).
This book is narrated by the polite voice of Doctor Faraday, a forty-year-old county physician who has raised to his position from the humble home of a shopkeeper and a maid. Faraday is a bachelor, too busy to find time for social visits. However, one day the family doctor of the Ayres family is unavailable, so Faraday answers the call and makes his way to Hundreds Hall, the Ayres estate. He had been there before:
I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fête: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six.
This recollection is more than a wistful memory. Faraday remembers the estate very well. He was enchanted by the house, so much so at the time that he vandalized it by breaking a wooden acorn from the woodwork. Now, it is almost thirty years later from that first visit, “and shortly after the end of another war — the changes appalled me.” Faraday hasn’t been back since. The Colonel is now dead, and so, sadly, is the little girl Susan — she died very young, not long after Faraday’s first visit to the house. Now the home is occupied by Mrs Ayres, her two children Caroline and Roderick (who were born mainly to fill the void left by Susan), and a young maid Betty. It is, in fact, Betty whom Faraday has been called to treat. Soon he realizes that she is faking her illness. She’s new in the house and, though the Ayreses have been kind, the house itself gives her the creeps. There’s something not right, she says.
This is the introduction to the ghost in the novel, though the ghost only comes out every so often, and mainly in the latter half of the book. The first half is devoted to developing the strange relationship between Faraday and the Ayreses. His mother, see, was the Ayres’ nursery maid. For the most part, Faraday is simply fascinated by the house, and he feels the Ayreses have let the house go.
But Hundreds Hall had been made and maintained, I thought, by the very people they were laughing at now. After two hundred years, those people had begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards. Meanwhile, here the family sat, still playing gaily at gentry life, with the chipped stucco on their walls, and their Turkey carpets worn to the weave, and their riveted china . . .
Still, Faraday is a professional and he wants to help the Ayreses as best he can. Roderick, who since the Colonel died has been saddled with the task of managing the failing estate, still suffers from an injury he sustained during World War II (he is also suffering from psychological damage), and Faraday offers to treat it for free as he’d like to use some new treatments. This gives Faraday a reason to visit Hundreds Hall more frequently. As his visits increase, he and Caroline commence a friendship of sorts. She’s a charming and generally confident woman, and Faraday’s esteem for her grows each time they meet. Faraday also offers his assistance to Mrs Ayres and Betty — soon, in other words, Faraday is a constant visitor to Hundred Hall, the perfect witness for the family’s downfall.
Soon the strange occurrences become more frequent and more visible. They are an excellent way to look at the multiple ways things are falling apart for the Ayres. First, Roderick is afflicted with the stress of war and of running an estate which loses money each day. He’s psychologically weak, and the ghost first insinuates its way into Roderick’s nights and then his days. Strange things keep happening in other parts of the house: spots appear on the ceilings, childish scribblings appear in hidden corners, the whistle attached to the nursery keeps sounding off. Of course, all of this can be explained by the fact that the house itself is falling apart. Parts of the roof are leaking, the childish scribblings appear to be underneath the paint, and the place is so drafty now it’s no surprise they hear more and more strange sounds.
Of course, there is also the possibility that Betty is the cause. She did just come to the house, and perhaps as the maid — the only maid — she feels some bitterness toward the family. Or maybe she’s just that kind of adolescent. Class continues to be a part of the picture, as the house falls apart around the Ayreses. They, along with many others in the gentry, have all but forfeited their position in society; perhaps it’s a combination of all sorts of pressures coming on their mind: ‘Is that so surprising, with things for that family so bleak? The subliminal mind has many dark, unhappy corners, after all. Imagine something loosening itself from one of those corners.’
There are other explanations. Obviously, there really could be a malicious ghost; the primary candidate is little Susan who died so young and whose position was so quickly replaced by Caroline and Roderick. Mrs Ayres certainly still feels guilt and longing. And even Faraday, who every once in a while displays seemingly uncharacteristic vehemence (at least, it is uncharacteristic as he describes it), has several motives to shake up this family. As his relationship with Caroline blossoms, he stands to raise his position in this world even higher if he can gain even more access to Hundreds Hall, perhaps even own it.
The book is exciting. I read it in great gulps and finished it quickly despite its being over 500 pages. The ghost story was intriguing, but I found the portrayal of the social classes as they crumble and get restructured was just as exciting to read. Waters is a wonderful story teller, and her writing is full of life and great observations. I’m anxious to read more of her work, and I have her other two Booker shortlisted works on hand.
Now, for my final two-bits. When The Little Strangerwas published, several quarters compared it to Henry James’s classic literary ghost story The Turn of the Screw, which just so happens to be one of my favorite stories of all time. In that story, there is such a strong degree of ambiguity that one cannot know exactly what happened in the story, though all sorts of possibilities are opened up and kept alive. Likewise, The Little Stranger has several pathways of interpretation, each exciting in its own way. The multiple threads are certainly part of the book’s strong charm. Furthermore, as in The Turn of the Screw, the most terrifying possibilities of all have nothing to do with the supernatural. The malice is all too human. I don’t think The Little Stranger lends itself to quite as much psychological possibilities as The Turn of the Screw (I think, in fact, that The Turn of the Screw is in many ways a reflection of the reader’s own psychological disposition), and I even think one particular possibility is so strongly hinted at in the text as to close up the others entirely. But it is very satisfying — and creepy and scary, if not for the reasons one expects.
Not too long ago, you’ll remember, I was positively gushing about Maile Meloy’s most recent collection of short stories, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. As it so happens, my gushing was genuine. I wasted no time acquiring the rest of her backlist, which includes two novels and one other acclaimed collection of short stories, Half in Love (2002; PEN/Malamud winner). I was hoping to space out my reading of these short stories, but they are so short (most around ten pages), and so good, I couldn’t help reading one after another until they were all gone.
Because my recent praise of Meloy is so fresh, it’s tempting to just say, This is as good — maybe better. Read this too. But thankfully these stories are also the type one likes to talk about. So, right to them:
The opening story in this collection reminded me a bit of “”Travis, B.,” the opening story in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (which, if it comes up again, I’m shortening to Both Ways). This one is called “Tome.” At first, the story seemed fairly simple. A young female tort lawyer has a hopeless client. He was injured on the job, collected his workers’ compensation, and is now statutorily prohibited from pursuing a claim against his employer in court. No matter how many times she tells him this, he doesn’t quite believe her. The story has some action that lands the man in prison. I really don’t want to give any more away. Let me just say that this is one of the best stories about human intimacy I’ve ever read (the intimacy is what reminded me of “Travis, B.”). Seriously, somehow this plot line lends itself well to a story about human relationships, it does it in twelve pages, and it does it without any sentimentality — none.
There are fourteen stories in all in this short collection. A few of them take place out of the country, like “Aqua Boulevard,” which takes place in France, has a slow buildup to a wrenching ending that is as simple as an older man going to watch his children at a swimpark after he’s seen their pet dog killed. This story won the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction. Another story, “Red,” takes place in wartime London. It comes complete with a numb soldier about to ship out, but it somehow avoids being a war story.
Those stories aren’t my favorites, though. I prefer the ones where Meloy enlivens the still relatively unknown American West. One of these, “Ranch Girl,” is told in the second person — always a tricky thing to pull off. But this one is not only in the second person; ”Ranch Girl” is also subjunctive. There are a lot of if’s that then lead to the developing story where a young, intelligent girl tries to choose whether to stay on at a ranch, and be like so many of the other women she knows, or go away and become something different.
In grade school, it’s okay to do well. But by high school, being smart gives people ideas. Science teachers start bugging you in the halls. They say Eastern schools have Montana quotas, places for ranch girls who are good at math. You could get scholarships, they say. But you know, as soon as they suggest it, that if you went to one of those schools you’d still be ranch girl — not the Texas kind, who are debutantes and just happen to have a ranch in the family, and not the horse-farm kind, who ride English. Horse people are different, because horses are elegant and clean. Cows are mucusy, muddy, shitty, slobbery things, and it takes another kind of person to live with them. Even your long curled hair won’t help at a fancy college, because prep-school girls don’t curl their hair. The rodeo boys like it, but there aren’t any rodeo boys out East.
“Ranch Girl” shows a story with many paths: “‘You’re so lucky to have a degree and no kid,’ Carla says. ‘You can still leave.’” This is an interesting story about how some of the seemingly simple choices are difficult to make.
Another of my favorite stories was “Paint,” a simple story about a man who is basically estranged from the wife he lives with. We see their strained relationship from the beginning. He’s apologetic, and she deals with him with tense silence, which is both a way of avoiding reconciliation and a way to punish him:
Marie was washing breakfast dishes at the sink, light from the east window gilding her hair and shoulders.
“Leave those,” Jack said. He wanted the morning to last, wanted to linger over the coffee. He guarded his cup.
“It’s almost done.” She was dressed smartly for work, his tall and formidable wife, in pressed black trousers and a silver blouse. Her black hair, striped now with gray, was twisted up at the back. She studied an ice cream bowl Jack had left to dry the night before, then dropped it into the sudsy water.
“That was clean,” he said.
“No, it wasn’t.” Into the water when the drinking glass he’d washed, the spoon.
“Marie,” he said sharply. She looked at him in surprise.
“Just leave the damn dishes,” he said. “Please. I’ll do them right.”
She finished in silence and dried her hands on a towel.
Marie resents Jack for many reasons. For one, he never seems to pull through and has time and again disappointed her with empty promises he truly intends to fulfill. One of those promises was to stain their deck. Animated with the prospect of doing something right, Jack rushes out to buy supplies and begins the job.
One thing Meloy is good at is thwarting our expectations. Much like Flannery O’Connor, who will just slap you in the face with something, Meloy throws things at her characters that surprise us, make us rear back, as much as them. That happens in “Paint,” and we are left reading a story we just didn’t expect from its beginning, though, again like Ms. O’Connor, we look back and think it was perfect.
There are many who doubt the short story. Even since I wrote my review of Both Ways (hmmm, thought I’d get the chance to use that abbreviation more when I noted it), I have read again and again comments from people who say they just don’t like short stories. I hope that this blog has done a bit — with its weekly New Yorker forum, its (somewhat) bi-weekly The Clock at the Biltmore feature, and its frequent reviews of short story collections – to show that I think short stories are not only worthwhile but are incredibly addicting. I can’t help but think that these dissenters just don’t know many short stories. I think this because they tend to say things like this: “I like the depth of a novel” or “I like that in a novel you can really get to know the characters.” I understand this, but it is a misconception to think that a short story, even these very short stories, cannot be deep or that you cannot develop a very intimate relationship with the characters. Furthermore, these stories are still on my mind, I’ve continued reading them a second and third time, because there is so much in there to think about.
While it’s true that novels and short stories are different beasts, they are both beasts, and the art of the short story is going strong. For some, there’s a whole new world of literary possibilities. Of course, for me it is now time to open up Meloy’s novels.
I have next to no knowledge of Chinese literature. My knowledge of Chinese history, even fairly recent history, is negligible. So I approached The King of Trees(1984, 1985; tr. from the Chinese by Bonnie S. McDougall, 1990, 2010) with some real trepidation. Surely the cultural references would zip by my head. The back of the book says, “Never before had a fiction writer dealt with the Cultural Revolution in such Daoist-Confucian terms, discarding Mao-speak, and mixing both traditional and vernacular elements with an aesthetic that emphasized no the hardships and miseries of those years, but the joys of close, meaningful friendships.” I know what the Cultural Revolution was, I know what Daoism and Confucianism are, broadly, and I know who Mao was. But throw all of that in one sentence, along with aesthetics, and I’m afraid I’m in over my depth; in all honesty, surely I missed a lot of that subtext. However, what I didn’t miss was that second part of the quote, those “close, meaningful friendships.” I was also worried I wouldn’t be able to relate to the characters, but here I was completely wrong. While all things political zipped passed my head, I was enraptured in the story of these characters, mostly men forming deep friendships with other men. Ah Cheng’s writing is so intimate, I was surprised at how touching it was, at how deeply I felt for the characters. This was probably my biggest surprise of the year, so far.
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
The King of Treesis a compilation of three novellas Ah Cheng wrote in the early 1980s: The King of Trees, The King of Chess, and The King of Children. When I finished The King of Trees, I didn’t quite want to move on. I felt the same way when I finished The King of Chess. And, not surprised this time, I felt the same after The King of Children. These a wonderful, sometimes aching (but always softly), stories.
The first novella in the collection is The King of Trees. At the beginning we see a tractor transporting our party of Educated Youth into a valley. During the Cultural Revolution, youth from the urban areas of China were sent to the countryside to live among the peasants, all in an effort to have the urban youth re-educated. These particular youth are in charge of cutting down a forest on a mountain side, all the while mingling with the peasants who have lived there for generations. One peasant, whose name is Knotty, has a special relationship to the area and to the trees. Here is an exchange between Knotty and the narrator.
“Have you been sent here to clear trees?”
“No,” I answered after thinking it over. “We’re here to be re-educated by the poor and lower-middle peasants, to build up and defend our country and to eliminate poverty and ignorance.”
“Then why cut down trees?”
“We’ll cut down useless trees and replace them with useful ones,” I replied. (We had been given a general idea of our work when we got here.) “Is felling easy?”
He lowered his head.
“Trees can’t run away.”
There is one particular tree that no one has, so far, cut down. Knotty has said that it will lead to death. It’s large enough that it would take days to cut it down, so that combined with general superstition have saved the tree. Still, the tree is blocking valuable light. Some of the Educated feel they need to educate the peasants: “In practical terms, old things must be destroyed.”
There are, obviously, several things going on here, and in my ignorance of the Cultural Revolution, I’m not going to say much about them. The best part of this story, for me, was the relationship between the narrator and Knotty and Knotty’s peasant family. As he narrates, our Educate Youth shows respect and compassion towards Knotty. We get the sense that the narrator has no desire to mess with this landscape.
The next story, The King of Chess, likewise has a lot to say about Chinese culture, in particular Daoism, but were it not for the excellent essay at the back of the book by the translator, much of this would have passed by me, though I was quick enough to feel that moments were important, even if I didn’t get their deeper significance. Again, what pulled me into this story was the relationship between the narrator and a rather pathetic young chess master named Wang Yisheng. They meet on a train that will take them out to their work camps. When the narrator enters a room on the train, Yisheng asks him if he would like to play chess. The narrator politely refuses. Later we learn that while Yisheng is waiting on the train for someone he can challenge to a chess match, his sister is outside trying to say goodbye to him. He knows this, but he doesn’t care. His life is chess.
Yisheng is certainly self-absorbed and arrogant, yet from the narrator’s eyes we start to see him differently. They develop a friendship, seemingly based on nothing, but we still feel the strength. One day Yisheng shows up at the narrator’s camp for a brief visit (he’s walked for over a day to get there), and he finally finds someone who wants to have a chess match. It’s fascinating to see how this conflict brings both the narrator and Yisheng to new realizations (which, I am told, stems from the Daoist concepts in the story).
Probably my favorite of the three was the final novella, The King of Children. The story begins with a transfer of one Educated Youth from one job to another:
By 1976, I had been working in the countryside for seven years. I had learned how to clear the land, burn off the undergrowth, dig holes, transplant seedlings, hoe the fields, turn the soil, sow grain, feed the pigs, make mud bricks, and cut grass. If I was a little slower than the others it was only because I wasn’t as strong. This didn’t bother me, though, as after all I was still earning my keep.
One January day, the local Party Secretary summoned me over to his place. Not knowing what it was about, I squatted at the threshold of his door, waiting for him to speak. He tossed over a cigarette, but I didn’t notice until it dropped on the floor. I quickly picked it up and looked up at him, grinning. He threw over some matches; I lit my cigarette and inhaled.
“Gold Sand River?” I asked.
He nodded, puffing at his water-pipe so that it burbled.
When he finished his smoke, he leaned the pipe against the wall, brushed the dust off his rough hands, blew his nose between his fingers, and asked, “Coping with our life here with the team?”
I looked up and nodded.
“You’re a bright guy,” he went on.
This alarmed me, and I wondered if he was being sarcastic. I turned his words over in my mind like a millstone, but as I hadn’t done anything wrong, I smiled: “Are you kidding? If it’s a job I can manage, give me the assignment and I’ll do my best.”
“You’re out of my hands now. The branch farm has transferred you to teach in the school. You are to report for work tomorrow . . .”
He (and everyone around him) are baffled by this assignment. They see it as a cushy job; the hard times are over.
When he arrives at his new post, he meets his supervisor Chen who says he will take him to his class:
I still wanted to argue but I saw the other teachers in the office were looking at me curiously. “What is there to be afraid of?” one of them said. “We’re not that brilliant either but we still teach, don’t we?”
At first the narrator finds some comfort in the job. He sets the children to copying passages and writing on the chalk board: “children were easier to look after than cattle.” One of the students is very dedicated and sets himself to the task with a focus that is never diverted. I like classroom/school novels. Usually they seem to be from the perspective of one of the students, though, and this novella gets us into the head of a teacher in a very interesting time and place, China in 1976. Mao dies that September.
Again, my primary pleasure in the novella was its depictions of relationships like the one between the narrator and the gifted student and the one between the gifted student and his father, whom the narrator knows from his old work.
Now, this work deserves far more scholarly criticism than I’ve given it here. While I’d like to be qualified to speak on its place in world literature due to its technique in speaking about China during the Cultural Revolution, I suppose it will have to suffice here to say that if you are looking for an exceptional read that will hopefully lead you to another place and time you’d like to learn more about, this is the book (not David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet). Indeed, I like that for me the primary focus of these novels was on the characters just getting by day to day and not on the political world around them. This made me care for them as people in a very difficult world.
I have always wanted to like William Trevor’s stories more than I actually like them. After all, Trevor is venerated as one of the greatest short story writers of all time – or perhaps I want to like him more because of the charming, wise smile on his now 82-year-old face; he just looks like someone I should listen to. Sadly, much of my experience with him has left me, probably rightly, feeling rather dumb. For me, his stories have tended to be so subtle as to appear pointless. Don’t worry, Trevor lovers, I’ve always considered myself at fault. And, notwithstanding my misgivings, something must have emanated from the stories, or I hoped to suddenly become more perceptive, because I am still attracted to his work and have high expectations that someday his writing and I will develop a strong relationship. Cheating at Canasta (2008) certainly helped.
This collection of twelve stories had the subtle style I expected, but I must have been paying closer attention because time and again I was seduced by Trevor’s quiet insights. His style certainly isn’t showy, but one can see the hand of a master molding a thought to its simplest shape without reducing the detailed textures. It is in the textures that these stories excel. Indeed, if you miss the texture, you might miss the story itself, as I’m sure has been my problem time and again. The premises for many of the stories in this collection aren’t interesting on their face but were, rather, touching or devestating glimpses at human beings chased down by circumstance or by their own, usually innocent, folly.
“The Dressmaker’s Child,” the first story of the collection, really grabbed hold of me. Cahal, a young man who works as a mechanic with his father, is one day solicited to escort a newly married tourist couple to a religious statue which, it is said, cries. The statue is not much of a shrine for the locals; after all, it’s just the rain collecting there. The initial buildup is slow and contemplative. It takes quite a bit of the story before we actualy see the titular character, a little girl in a ragged white dress, who plays on the side of the road. It’s actually worse than it sounds. The little girl’s sport is to run into cars as they go by.
When Cahal hits something on the drive back home, just as he’s passing the dressmaker’s home, and the couple in the back don’t notice, he’s able to discount his own impression that he might have hit — actually, might have killed – the little girl. The story becomes incredibly strange and incredibly interesting when the dressmaker herself starts popping up wherever Cahal is. There’s a mixture of vengence and sexuality in her gaze, and I’d never considered that combination before nor the effects it might have on the young man. The story starts us in one place and then suddenly we realize we’ve been reading an entirely different story. This is not always the case with Trevor’s stories, but it certainly was a nice opening to this collection.
This strange story had me paying close attention to the rest of the stories. It was so strange, and the close attention to the gestures and to what was not being said paid off. Consequently, the following opening to “The Room,” which has the subtle style I’d been accustomed to when I read Trevor, became quite a dazzling piece of writing; there is so much detail in each clause.
‘My marriage is breaking up,’ the man who’d made love to her in his temporary accomodation had confided when, as strangers, they had danced together. ‘And yours?’ he’d asked, and she’d hesitated and then said no, not breaking up. There’d never been talk of that. And when they danced the second time, after they’d had a drink together and then a few more, he asked her if she had children and she said she hadn’t. That she was not able to had been known before the marriage and then become part of it — as her employment at the Charterhouse Institute had been until six weeks ago, when the Institute had decided to close down.
The syntax is, at times, confusing. I had to read “That she was not able to had been known . . .” a few times before it made sense (in fact, when I typed it above, and then later when reviewing my review, I had to read it a couple of times again — I think I’ve smoothed it over in my mind by now). Still, there’s something in that tangle that relates to the story. I like that it is tangled yet the story still moves on quite quickly, making the reader (at least this reader) do double-takes, which became more and more enjoyable the more I delved into Trevor’s stories. There’s almost always – if not always – many things — if not everything — going on underneath.
A couple of my favorites stories in the collection were two that dealt with relationships, in particular with the not-so-showy aspects of relationships, those stable elements, which aren’t actually that stable but upon which one might make assumptions sufficiently strong to build a relationship upon.
“Cheating at Canasta” is a touching story where a man, Mallory, sits and eats in a restaurant in an Italian city. He’s getting no real pleasure, though; he’s only there because he promised his recently deceased wife, with whom he’d frequented the restaurant during their marriage, that he’d go back again after she died. He didn’t want to go and deal with the memories, and it seemed even more foolish considering she made him make the promise when she herself was losing her memory. It was a momentary whim. Somehow she remembered these trips, extracted the promise, and then forgot the trips and the promise the next moment.
At the restaurant Mallory thinks back on her dying days when they’d play canasta in her hospital room. Since she had no idea what was going on, he’d often cheat to let her win. During those games he would think about what was already lost; and why satisfy her demand to visit this restaurant when in the very moment she made it she forgot it?
In the depths of her darkening twilight, if there still were places they belonged in a childhood he had not known, among shadows that were hers, not his, not theirs. In all that was forgotten how could it matter if a whim, forgotten too, was put aside, as the playing cards fell from her hand were?
While in the restaurant, Mallory eavesdrops on a young couple:
‘I keep not hearing what you’re saying.’
‘I said I wasn’t tired.’
Mallory didn’t believe she hadn’t been heard: her husband was closer to her than he was and he’d heard the ‘Not really’ himself. The scratchy irritation nurtured malevolence unpredictably in both of them, making her not say why she had cried and causing him to lie. My God, Mallory thought, what they are wasting!
This story, while full of sentiment, is not sentimental. I thought its reflection on relationships and their destruction, the times built up and then lost, was remarkably acute.
Another touching story with a simple premise and simple (seemingly) characters was “A Perfect Relationship.” Here we go into an empty apartment with Prosper, an older man who has just lost his much younger girlfriend. They never fought. There was no bitterness. All seemed to be well:
The affection in their relationship had been the pleasure of both their lives: that had not been said before in this room, nor even very often that they were fortunate.
Nevertheless, one day she simply leaves, and he just cannot comprehend it:
He sat where she had left him, thinking he had never known her, for what else made sense?
It is sad to see how much this absences affects him, how much it has shaken a foundation he felt was securely in place and that he believed he needed in order to function. There’s an excellent passage that shows this. Prosper is drinking wine alone in a public house.
He sipped the chilled win, glancing about at the men on their own. Any one of them might be waiting for her. That wasn’t impossible, although it would have been once.
I’ve read quite a few short stories in the past few months. Some are very conventional, written by people who seem to be following a learned formula for writing a short story. Some have been masterful. These certainly fall into the latter category. Trevor is not afraid to take us wherever the story demands to go. A story that begins with a car ride to see a crying statue, that devotes a bit of time to introspection and place, can move on to become one with a vengeful, hypersexual mother menacing a young man. Yet it all felt natural and exciting, something those conventional stories lack.
Thankfully, Trevor isn’t the only one writing wonderful short fiction these days. We’ve got him at 82, Alice Munro at 79, Tobias Wolff at 65, George Saunders at 51, Chris Adrian at 40, Maile Meloy at 38, and Karen Russell at 29. Those names and ages were just the ones off the top of my head. The short story is still a thriving field, and here is a book by one of its chief sowers and harvesters.