Probably the best known name (internationally) on this year’s Giller Prize, that Douglas Coupland’s novel made the Giller list was still, to me, a surprise. It is a novel, but actually it is Coupland’s contribution to the Massey Lectures, an annual event in Canada, directed at “enable distinguished authorities to communicate the results of original study on important subjects of contemporary interest.” Hopefully some Canadian visitors will help us learn more about this event, how prestigious it is, which lectures have been particularly memorable, and just how many of the lectures have taken the form of fiction. As far as I know, Player One(2010) is the first of the Massey Lectures to be nominated for the Giller.
I was both interested in and wary of the premise for the novel. Four individuals find themselves together in an airport cocktail lounge when disaster strikes the world outside. We first meet Karen, who has arrived at the lounge to meet a stranger she met on the internet. Rick is the bartender who was trying to start a landscaping business before someone stole his truck and tools; now he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of a famous life coach. Luke was — until yesterday, in fact — the pastor of a small church; he lost his faith, emptied the church’s bank account, and is now on the run to who-knows-where. Rachel has shown up at the lounge to find someone with whom she can procreate in an effort to show her father that she is truly human. There is also a fifth individual named Player One, but the first we learn of Player One is that it is Rachel’s online avatar. At the end of each hour (the book’s five sections are each subtitled “Hour One,” “Hour Two,” and so on), Player One comes in to narrate a glimpse of what is coming next.
In each of the book’s five sections, each character’s perspective is presented, and with those perspectives come some of the novel’s themes. Rachel is a single mother who struggles to get anywhere in life where a single man in her situation would be getting a lot of attention. Early on, Rick wonders, “At what point did you switch from being a story to being a cautionary tale?” His brush with the rich life coach is really just another failure, and he’s learned that failure doesn’t always lead to growth. Luke is suffering a spiritual crisis which has led him to see that ”[h]e felt lost when he was young, too, but back then he felt lost in his own special way. Now he feels lost in the same way everybody else does.” When Rachel comes along, we see that she isn’t “neurotypical.” Her quest to procreate was brought about when she overheard her father telling her mother how tragic Rachel was — only without any sympathy. Her character gives Coupland the opportunity to really dig into identity:
“. . . . I can’t tell faces apart. It’s hard to tell people apart. I can’t distinguish personalities. When my high school yearbook came out, it was like looking at a thousand identical faces. I couldn’t even find myself.”
Identity is also one of the reasons the story takes place in an airport, a place where, the characters surmise, people suffer from a lack of identity. But the airport is also a state of limbo, a place where time seems to stop, a place where one’s personal narrative pauses. Some of the interesting ideas expressed in Player One deal with personal narrative. Several of the characters, as they contemplate deep thoughts at roughly the same time, wonder that human beings are the only species able to sequence, that is, able to lay events out one after the other and into the future. Human beings have tenses. The curious state of the book’s characters explores this idea. However, Player One is different: “Player One’s life is more like a painting than it is a story. Player One can see everything with a glance and can change tenses at will.”
So there are some really fascinating explorations of ideas going on in this novel. There are also some interesting looks at current world affairs that might or might not bring humanity to a major crisis. Karen and her internet boyfriend first met in a Peak Oil Apocalypse chat room. The first whiffs of disaster that we get is the sudden surge in the price of oil — up to $250, then $350, then up and up until oil is essentially not for sale at any price. Outside there is chaos. And inside, while dealing, the characters engage in deep thoughts or in deep conversation with each other. And that’s where the book, as a work of fiction (and, honestly, that’s where my interest in it lies), really started to lose me. Here is a sample conversation that takes place shortly after the characters defy death. Rachel and Karen are speaking to each other:
“Rachel, I work in a psychiatrist’s office. I see people all day, in and out of their conditions. Who they are at any given time is usually based on whether they’re sticking to their meds.”
“What is your conclusion? Are these people really people? Or are they only their conditions?”
“I think we’re everything: our brain’s wiring, the things our mothers ate when they were pregnant, the TV show we watched last night, they friend who betrayed us in grade ten, the way our parents punished us. These days we have PET scans, MRIs, gene mapping, and massive research into psychopharmacology — so many ways of explaining the human condition. Personality is more like a . . . a potato salad composed of your history plus all of your body’s quirks, good and bad. Tell me, Rachel, and be honest: if you could take a pill and be ‘normal,’ would you?”
Rachel thinks about what Karen has said. After and uncomfortably long time, she says, “Potato salad?“
It is clever. I like that in the end Rachel is totally hung up on the metaphor which her mind cannot compute. But I had a hard time accepting that this conversation would be taking place with explosions going on outside and while the men are trying to take care of a sniper whose shown up. I don’t believe these thoughts would even cross Karen’s mind — she has a child on the other side of the country going through who knows what in the riots.
I suspect many will really enjoy this book. To do so, one has to allow Coupland to go where he wants to go and one cannot worry about how we all got there. I couldn’t do that. To me, the book suffers from its origin: a piece of fiction purposefully meant to engage in an important subject of contemporary interest. The novel felt reverse engineered. Despite the fun glossary of terms (Coupland doesn’t disappoint when bringing in new labels for contemporary maladies), I found that when the book started dwelling on its themes rather than its characters it lost a lot of steam. This was at about the halfway point, just when I wanted it to get going. Perhaps in another mood I would have found more to like here. As it happened this time, though, terrible things were happening in the world, and I got fed up with these people philosophizing from a metaphysical perspective ”What is to become of us.”
I try to avoid comparisons to Holden Caulfield as much as possible. Such is the abundance of potential heirs to the great first person narrator of The Catcher in the Rye that it is practically a cliché to label them as such, and it usually leads to disappointment anyway. Comparisons seem to come every time a book arrives where an angsty youthful protagonist with a biting voice goes on and on about the troubled times and how pointless it is to do anything about it, to even care. I usually feel that the heir apparent is really nothing more than a wannabe, though; any similarities are illusions created by the author’s heavy investment in voice; the books tend to fail to create a thematically coherent, richly textured book. While my heart still lies with The Catcher in the Rye, I think in Lemon (2009) Cordelia Strube has written that thematically coherent, richly textured book with an angsty protagonist and a biting voice. Readers of Salinger will recognize the undercurrent of death while innocence suffers in an ugly world. I’m done bringing up Holden Caulfield now, because Lemon, regardless of the faults I perceived, stands on its own, and I don’t want to lead anyone to believe it is just another derivative work.
Review copy courtesy of Coach House Books.
To be honest, I’m not that patient with angsty teenage misery novels. The reason I read this one first upon learning of the Giller Longlist is, in part, because I wanted to get it over with. The cover shouts at me, and I assumed that by reading it I was more or less submitting myself to a spitting, bitter teen vent. I think a lot of these types of books sound the same; I’m prejudiced because I think the voice of an angsty teen is easy to mimic, though rarely feels genuine. I was fully prepared to dislike this book. In fact, while reading it, I actually kept thinking that eventually it would fall apart in my hands, validating my preconceptions. But that never happened.
Our disillusioned teen narrator is high school senior Limone, though most people call her Lemon. We meet her as she’s speaking to her school’s guidance counsellor:
‘If I hadn’t been reading about a Jewish girl in Nazi Germany, I might have let Zippy kill me.’ This gets Blecher scribbling in her notepad. I knew it would. She’s a psych-major-dropout-turned-guidance-counsellor, the only thing between me and another suspension.
Zippy is Lemon’s adoptive mother. Lemon doesn’t know her biological mother. And, after the near murder-suicide with Zippy, Lemon has been living with a surrogate mother named Drew. Drew, who was the school principal, is now agoraphobic after a student knifed her. Needless to say, Lemon’s life is filled with turbulence, almost to an unbelievable degree. In fact, one of my main gripes about this book is that so much tragedy, both that Lemon can do nothing about and that Lemon brings upon herself, happens to Lemon in a short period of time. However, every time I began thinking “this is too much,” I was brought back into the world Strube was creating, and it felt real and painful. Despite the excess, Strube has control, and it still worked for me.
So, now to explore some of the tragedy; it’s not just Lemon’s home-life. She sees tragedy everywhere. She’s fascinated by history and literature. Throughout the book Lemon offers biting critiques of women and men in literature from the works of George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte to Emily Dickinson. She throws out historical anecdotes from all over the world. People are ugly. In particular, men have been ugly to women, and women have felt the need to excuse it. She doesn’t think the world has gotten any better. Her three moms have all been damaged by the men in their lives (Lemon’s father), and at school she’s witnessing the hypersexualization of teenage girls as she watches her friends and enemies:
We used to talk about other things than sex and guys. We used to have confidence. We spun cartwheels and handstands. We got A’s in math.
Some of the problems come from a lack of love, others seem to have plenty of love but still end up seemingly missing “the security that love produces.”
This is a fairly miserable book, though the relief comes from a strange source. Lemon volunteers at the children’s cancer ward. There she gets moments where she doesn’t have to watch her friends “need to get attention from anything with a penis.” At the cancer ward she becomes very close to Kadylack, a young girl dying of cancer. Kadylak’s parents visit infrequently since they have each taken on more jobs so they can pay for Kadylak’s treatment. Strube creates a very loving relationship that illuminates the mother-daughter relationships Lemon reads about and experiences in her own life. The relationship goes both ways; here is a scene following one of the book’s most horrific events, an event Lemon narrates with a mixture of intimacy and distance:
I push open the door and it’s Kadylak in the bed. She looks up as if she’s been waiting for me. She holds out her arms and I hug her and start bawling, which is completely freaky for me. I don’t want her to see so I hide my face in the little curve between her neck and shoulder but then my ribcage starts to spasm and I’m making horrible sounds like I’m dying or something, and the tears are burning my eyeballs, which can’t be normal. Kadylak just squeezes me harder and we stay like that for ages. She’s even skinnier than before, I’m scared I’ll crush her. I want to tell her what’s happened but I know I can’t. I thought I was dealing with it pretty well. I ate Shredded Wheat and had a shower and put on clothes and all that.
Strube at one point took this mother-daughter relationship a bit further than I thought I was willing to go, but again she reigned it in and left me pensive rather than irritated. If she felt like she was risking it, for me it paid off.
Lemon is a fascinating, conflicted narrator. In an effort not to give in to false optimism she tends to err in the other direction, making life difficult for herself and others. She brings up their faults — and humanity’s — to assuage any guilt she might feel.
I’m suffering intense feelings of guilt and loss about everything — Kadylack, Mr. Paluska, my mothers. I even feel badly about duping Lund and Huff, and about not giving a goose’s turd about anything that’s going on around me. You’re supposed to care about stuff in your immediate vicinity but I’m sitting around worrying about girls from Thailand being sold as cash crops, being shipped in airless containers to New York brothels. I worry about women being burned because their dowry money isn’t enough, or because some hothead husband decides they’ve been unfaithful, or getting stoned to death for not wearing a burqa. But boys killing boys in my neighbourhood? A knifing in the school that’s got everybody in a flap? It happens.
This book certainly won’t appeal to everyone. The blunt, disrespectful teen vulgarity that is incredibly unattractive in real life saturates every page in this book. It works well, but it is hard going. The misery on the page is the kind of stuff we don’t want to believe happens, and we certainly don’t always hope to read a book about it. Strube makes her readers suffer. I was frequently put off — but I was always deeply enthralled. It was important discomfort. I looked for many excuses not to like this book — the cover, the name, the misdirected bitterness, the sometimes seemingly contrived and sometimes self-inflicted misery — but none of my misgivings prevented me from becoming emotionally involved.
Now, for those who think perhaps I was simply emotionally manipulated, perhaps you are right. I don’t think so, but I know others will feel differently upon reading the book. I was always ready to bail if I felt like Strube was simply tampering with my emotions. In the end I think she got a lot of it quite right. Lemon has a voice which I’ve heard before, and unfortunately her life and her responses to that life are all too real (though I hope not to familiar).
Earlier this year I read and reviewed John Williams’s other well known works, each a masterpiece: Butcher’s Crossing and Augustus. The first John Williams book I bought, though — and the first I’d heard of, and the first I heard great things about, indeed, the book that made me go out and read the other two — was Stoner (1965). Last year it seemed everyone I follow on the blogosphere was picking up and reading this book. Everything written about it made the book appealing to me: a story set in the academy in the American mid-West, early twentieth century, precise prose, humble character, a man who “did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and [whom] few students remember . . . with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.” But it was the first few lines that made me stop reading the book each time I picked it up:
An occasional student who comes upon the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.
See, I found them so beautiful, I could sense the love John Williams had for William Stoner, that I couldn’t bear to read the book yet.
And you’ll not be surprsied to find out that I loved this book. Williams shows once again that he was a master worthy of holding a place among the greatest American writers. His observations and precise language about human relationships reminds me of Edith Wharton, his sense for place and time and ability to invoke it through language reminds me of Sherwood Anderson, his compassion for people reminds me of William Maxwell, and his ability to imbue deep meaning into the quotidian reminds me of Emily Dickinson.
Though the book begins by telling us that Stoner has died in 1956 and that no one much remembers his life, the book is all about Stoner’s life, though he himself will eventually wonder “if his life were worth living; if it ever had been.” He was born on a farm to a “lonely household . . . bound together by the necessity of its toil.” When Stoner is old enough, his father suggests he go to university to study agriculture, hoping Stoner could then return to the farm and help improve it. Unexpected by either father or son, Stoner falls in love with language and literature, eventually dropping his science classes to focus on the impractical study of words and thought. The rest of his life will be spent — sequestered, some would say — in the halls of academia, where a friend and fellow graduate instructor will say,
But you have the taint, the old infirmity. You think there’s something here, something to find.
It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear.
Williams does an exceptional job showing just how dispossessed Stoner is. He still has contact with his parents, but theirs is such a tired life that nothing much comes out of the infrequent visits. Eventually Stoner meets a beautiful young woman from a higher social class. The awkward budding of their relationship is really difficult to watch. There is so much silence, so much unsaid, so much they simply don’t know about each other, and so much they will never know about each other. We don’t want them to get married, but they do.
They went into marriage innocent, but innocent in profoundly different ways. They were both virginal, and they were conscious of their inexperience; but whereas William, having been raised on a farm, took as unremarkable the natural processes of life, they were to Edith profoundly mysterious and unexpected. She knew nothing of them, and there was something within her which did not wish to know of them.
And so, like many others, their honeymoon was a failure; yet they would not admit this to themselves, and they did not realize the significance of the failure until long afterward.
Eventually, when Stoner is forty-two years old, “he could see nothing before him that he wished to enjoy and little behind him that he cared to remember.” Yet he still feels passion about literature and language, and he has a passion for teaching it to others. It seems so strange that a man whose life is, by his own account, hardly worth living can find so much in examining deeply thoughts about life and death and love. In many ways, then, this book is about that quest that, even if futile in life, can still be life-sustaining. Stoner still manages to see truth and beauty, even in the toil:
He wondered again at the easy, graceful manner in which the Roman lyricists accepted the fact of death, as if the nothingness they faced were a tribute to the richness of the years they had enjoyed; and he marveled at the bitterness, the terror, the barely concealed hatred he found in some of the later Christian poets of the Latin tradition when they looked to that death which promised, however vaguely, a rich and ecstatic eternity of life, as if that death and promise were a mockery that soured the days of their living.
This all connects together into one of the most pleasurable and profound examinations of the link between heart and mind I’ve ever read. That link is the key to understanding this book and to seeing it as more than just a biography of an unlucky, quiet man. Stoner takes us through the early twentieth century. When World War I is taking students from the university and teaching them to despise the Germans, Stoner sees one of his beloved professors weeping. Not long after, Stoner has the misfortune to witness a repeat of all of this during World War II:
One part of him recoiled in instinctive horror at the daily waste, the inundation of destruction and death that inexorably assaulted the mind and heart; once again he saw the faculty depleted, he saw the classrooms emptied of their young men, he saw the haunted looks upon those who remained behind, and saw in those looks the slow death of the heart, the bitter attrition of feeling and care.
This book about the humanities is filled to the brim with humanity. Stoner‘s aesthetic beauty underlines its own themes, which Williams explores in a variety of ways. The book isn’t simply about a man growing old alongside a wife who never loved him. There is a daughter involved, inter-departmental politics, old friendships, and old enemies who (as was touched on in Augustus) after so many years gain some of the qualities of a friend. I do hope that the resurgence this book had a year ago, when everyone seemed to be reading it, doesn’t die down.
This morning the 2010 Giller Prize longlist was announced:
- David Bergen: The Matter with Morris
- Douglas Coupland: Player One
- Michael Helm: Cities of Refuge
- Alexander MacLeod: Light Lifting
- Avner Mandelman: The Debba
- Tom Rachman: The Imperfectionists
- Sarah Selecky: This Cake Is for the Party
- Johanna Skibsrud: The Sentimentalist
- Cordelia Strube: Lemon
- Joan Thomas: Curiosity
- Jane Urquhart: Sanctuary Line
- Dianne Warren: Cool Water
- Kathleen Winter: Annabel
Remember, I am part of the Shadow Jury, explained here on KevinfromCanada’s blog. The only book I’ve read so far is the very enjoyable The Imperfectionists. You can read reviews of it, Cities of Refuge, and Annabelon KFC’s blog.
There are only a couple of titles available in the United States: The Imperfectionists and The Debba. That being the case, and since the shortlist is going to be announced in only a couple of weeks, I don’t know how many of the others I will get to, though I will be reading the entire shortlist.
I am glad that I don’t have to read Emma Donoghue’s Room. I just had no interest, despite its positive reviews and inclusion on the Booker shortlist. I am sad, though, that I won’t be quickly reading some of the other eligible titles KFC has been reading through the year. Ghosted and Far to Go look particularly good.
I would like to remind everyone how much I enjoyed reading for the Giller Shadow Jury last year. I didn’t like all of the books, but I loved the process and the exposure to books I normally would have skipped. Each book was interesting, and it showed me how strong Canadian fiction is. I expect many surprises this year as well. Stay tuned!
You may remember that I read and loved Jennifer Egan’s new book A Visit from the Goon Squad. While looking up various discussions about that book, I found quite a bit of esteem for her past books and couldn’t wait to get my hands on one. Look at Me was a finalist for the National Book award in 2001, but it wasn’t at the bookstore the day I went there, so I picked up The Keep (2006). I didn’t feel like I was settling. Not only was The Keep fairly well received in its day, the back of the book promised an exciting story: something about a teenage prank and the restoration of an old European castle by those same teenagers now grown up. That might not normally appeal to me, but I was still on a Jennifer Egan kick and she could do no wrong. But I did have a tough time with The Keep: it is a very strange neo-Gothic book.
Before we get into the book, though — because, in the end, I didn’t really like it — I just want to say a few words about Egan’s writing. In A Visit from the Goon Squad Egan uses a variety of voices and forms to convey a complex and satisfying story. I hoped that The Keep would go in somewhat the same vein (though I knew there would be no PowerPoint chapter); indeed, the first chapter is great. It tells about that childhood prank that ends so terribly, and I would recommend the book for the first thirty or so pages alone.
In their youth, cousins Howie and Danny were friends (though Danny always had his misgivings). Howie made the world around them exciting by constantly imagining another world, albeit a geeky world full of dungeons and dragons themes. Danny loved it, but he knew that imagining fantastic creatures was not cool. He felt like a dork, and he could see that the other cousins thought he was pushing it. Howie, to them, was a chubby loser; he fit the geek mold, and there was no getting around it. Danny had more potential but risked being a loser by association. Egan, in just a few pages, does an excellent job building up a complex rival relationship, only Howie seems oblivious to the rivalry, making Danny’s prank an act of betrayal, even if it hadn’t ended so badly. As it turns out, the prank ends very badly; it separates Howie and Danny for years, though it does seem to free Danny for a time to become the kind of person he thought he should be.
Now, twenty or so years later, Danny doesn’t know who he is. A lot of promise has been washed away by years of going nowhere. He now dresses gothic and wears mascara, and, while he’s recognized on the streets of New York City, he has no idea who he really is. This is exacerbated by the fact that he cannot disconnect from the digital world. He must have email (in fact, he has a sixth sense for wi-fi connections) and near constant chatter on the phone.
After the chilling first chapter, we follow Danny as he frets about a dark European pathway up to a foreboding castle. The path itself isn’t so much a problem; it’s that Danny hasn’t checked his email in a while. Howard (as Howie is now called) has put in years hard work as a bond trader to make enough money to do whatever he wanted, and now he’s restoring an old castle. In the end, he wants the castle to be a retreat for people who want to escape the modern world. People go, discard all of their personal belongings, especially phones and the like, and live in a state where only their own imaginations can entertain them. Danny doesn’t know Howard’s plan, but he has accepted Howard’s invitation to come play some important role in Howard’s vague project. Hating that he has no access to the outside world, Danny is also not too convinced by Howard’s selling point:
Howard: Think about medieval times, Danny, like when this castle was built. People were constantly seeing ghosts, having visions — they thought Christ was sitting with them at the dinner table, they thought angels and devils were flying around. We don’t see those things anymore. Why? Was all that stuff happening before and then it stopped? Unlikely. Was everyone nuts in medieval times? Doubtful. But their imaginations were more active. Their inner lives were rich and weird.
All of that leads to an interesting story where that childhood prank, unbeknownst to either of them, gets reenacted (it’s really not as good the second time). Strangely, though, this story of Danny and Howard becomes, almost, beside the point. Fairly early in the book we a first person narrator intrudes on the action. This other voice interrupts the story to explain his narrative tone, his style, to excuse anything we readers might think of as too fantastic or contrived. Soon we find out that the story of Danny and Howard might not be genuine. The fantastic elements that aren’t explained by the narrator — the illusion of youth in someone others consider an old hag, particularly — might be just fantastic elements. The story about Danny and Howard is being written by someone for a writing class. As it happens, that writing class is happening in a prison.
All of that is revealed, as I mentioned, early on (so don’t worry about spoilers). It looked promising, like some complex puzzle I couldn’t wait to reconcile. The problem for me, though, came when the two competing narratives (both interesting enough) kept failing to reconcile. Not just as narratives (why is this prisoner writing this story; what is fact, what is fiction; etc.), but thematically. I couldn’t bring myself to accept that the one story fed off of the other, that what one was saying illuminated and enhanced what the other was saying. I don’t mind it if two stories fail to reconcile if that is the point, but here it looked like they were supposed to but that they simply failed. Or, rather, they reconciled, but it was a muffled fizzle.
In the end, I quite liked reading Egan again. She can certainly write in a way that keeps one reading along at a quick pace, and she thankfully doesn’t hold back with her own imagination or experiments with style. I just didn’t accept the book as a whole. Where, despite having everything against it, A Visit from the Goon Squad came together in brilliant, natural ways, The Keep started feeling rather floppy. However, this won’t keep me from reading the rest of what Egan has written – The Keep wasn’t that bad, and A Visit from the Goon Squad is that good.
Jenny Erpenbeck is one of those names that I frequently catch glimpses of in my peripheral vision. She was longlisted for the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Book of Words, but I didn’t read it or even read much about it. Other than that, I knew New Directions had published some of her earlier works, but I had never read anything by her — not even a short story — and I really only knew was a young writer brought up in East Berlin, who, over the past decade, has won several prizes in her native country. I was anxious to get to know her, but I’m not sure I would have now were it not for her translator Susan Bernofsky, whose work on Robert Walser was brilliant. Based on Bernofsky’s ability to rather than on Erpenbeck’s I read Visitation (Heimsuchung2008; tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky 2010).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
Visitation will remind some people of Simon Mawer’s 2009 Booker shortlisted The Glass Room. Both take place in the tumultuous world of twentieth century Europe, particularly around World War II, and both use a central location — a home — to explore a variety of people and a variety of themes from the time period. I read about half of The Glass Roomearlier this year, but it just wasn’t holding me (there was nothing wrong with it; I just wasn’t in it at the time, but I hope sometime to have another go). Erpenbeck’s book is much shorter (and much less conventional a novel) and, to me, much more successful at drawing the reader into a world of impressions as time drifts by a home in which various visitors spend some time, and this worked well for me.
The book begins like a fairy tale with the chapter ”The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters.” Here we get to know the land (which was briefly introduced in geological terms in the prologue), a home built upon the land, and a widowed farmer and — well — his four daughters. There’s familial peace, some scandal, and the location is imbued with a sense of human life. The language is repetitious, as if it is oral and speaking in refrains. Even time tends to go in and out.
This isn’t to suggest that the work isn’t cohesive. It is disorientating at first, but eventually it settles down, or we learn to read it. Soon a family of Jews is given “a full half” of market value for the land. The family is going to be lost that had such thoughts as this:
When the willow tree has grown up tall and can tickle the fish with its hair, you’ll still be coming here to visit your cousins, and you’ll remember the day you helped plant it, grandmother Hermine says to little Doris.
The story goes from World War II to its aftermath when “The Red Army Officer” comes to spend a night. This was the chapter, incidentally, which really pulled me into the book. It was powerful to watch the land go in and out of possession in the years after World War II, until those trying to escape to the West weren’t Jews trying to escape but rather East Germans trying to escape East Berlin. As I said above, the story manages to run cohesive, despite its impressionism — it doesn’t feel episodic. The characters relate in more ways than location, though that one spot brings their perspective to us. The attempts to own or to divest property, or just to find solace there for a while, brings the characters together.
And, as with Robert Walser, Susan Bernovsky shows her skill as a translator. She picks up on wordplay that simply could not have been easy to translate.
Now, the impressionism will put off some people. Not only is it impressionistic as it blurs time and space, but Erpenbeck also has a few spells of technical writing (such as city ordinances and the like) which are important to the feel but sometimes difficult to read. It is not always a pleasant read in the sense that one can derive joy out of vibrant passages, but it is genuinely interesting. And there is a lot of joy to be gained in piecing it together and seeing the place enhance the feel of its people.
Today the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced.
I’m glad to see Galgut and McCarthy on the list, as those were two excellent books. I’m not surprised to see Carey on the list, though I hope it does not win. Like many others, I’m surprised not to see David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet there. My surprise, though, is based on the fact that so many people loved it, and not because I think it is deserving. Personally, I’m happy to see it off the list, as I hope Mitchell one day wins for a stronger work. Of the four longlist titles I read, it was my least favorite — a real disappointment, actually. However, from word of mouth, I suspect I will like Room even less. The Finkler Question and The Long Song are two I’ve been curious about, so I hope to read them.
As for availability in the United States, you can get Carey, McCarthy, and Levy in hardback (though I haven’t seen the Levy in stores for a while; perhaps that will change now — I hope.). You can purchase Galgut and now Jacobson from the Kindle store. Donoghue will be published on September 13.
I lived in the Brazilian Amazon for two years. I spent a lot of that time in the city of Belém, which is at the mouth of the Amazon river, just where it shoots for miles and miles into the Atlantic Ocean, and in the city of Santarém, which is much deeper in the jungle, where the Amazon and the Tapajós Rivers meet (it’s incredible because the Amazon is brown and the Tapajós is blue, but they don’t mix right away — here is a photo). I didn’t go hacking into any jungles, but I certainly was surrounded. It was beautiful, particularly since I always knew I was fairly safe as I didn’t wander too far from civilization. Still, the imagination wanders, and there are plenty of stories to help it. I heard many stories of lost people and lost cities while in Brazil. I have always been interested in old civilizations that are now basically lost, even if they were never that large (like the ones in Southern Utah that I spoke briefly about in my review of Butcher’s Crossing). There’s something about seeing land one which people once worked their lives away, and now with no trace. Add an air of intrigue and myth to that, and that’s how I felt often in the Brazilian jungle.
So, when David Grann, one of my favorite New Yorker writers, expanded into a book one of his articles about his journey into the Amazon jungle to search for clues to the fate of Percy Fawcett, the classic explorer who went searching for the lost city of Z with his son in 1925, never to be heard from again, I knew I had to read it. It took me a while to get my hands on a copy, but it took me only two days to get through it. Incidentally, it seems that the story of Percy Fawcett is the inspiration behind the final part (in the original version) of Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust — and I really liked that ending.
The book begins with a prologue that I felt to be misleading, for reasons I’ll elaborate later. In this short introduction, Grann, somewhat baffled about the forces (curiosity, inspiration) that compelled him to leave the comforts of his home and family in Brooklyn, finds himself in the Brazilian jungle, a place where “men die from the most innocuous-seeming oversight — a torn net, a boot that was too tight.”
Let me be clear: I am not an explorer or an adventurer. I don’t climb mountains or hunt. I don’t even like to camp. I stand less than five feet nine inches tall and am nearly forty years old, with a blossoming waistline and thinning black hair. I suffer from keratoconus — a degenerative eye condition that makes it hard for me to see at night. I have a terrible sense of direction and tend to forget where I am on the subway and miss my stop in Brooklyn. I like newspapers, take-out food, sports highlights (recorded on TiVo), and the air-conditioning on high. Given a choice each day between climbing the two flights of stairs to my apartment and riding the elevator, I invariably take the elevator.
Despite his own inexperience as well as his propensity to avoid any such discomforts, Grann is too intrigued by the story of Fawcett, who “had determined that an ancient, highly cultured people still existed in the Brazilian Amazon and that their civilization was so old and sophisticated it would forever alter the Western view of the Americas.” In the years leading to his quest, Fawcett became increasingly paranoid that someone else would make the discovery before him, so most of his preparations were made in secret. Furthermore, he feared that if he told details of his route through the jungle and became lost, many others would lose their lives trying to find him. Consequently, when he didn’t appear in 1926, 1927, or 1928, no one really even knew where to start. “He had vowed to make ‘the great discovery of the century’ — instead, he had given birth to ‘the greatest exploration mystery of the twentieth century.’” Notwithstanding his secrecy, many tried to find him, and many died or were lost forever.
Grann came across the story of Percey Fawcett when he we doing research for his story on the mysterious death of a Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes expert (the fascinating article was published in The New Yorker here; subscription required). Conan Doyle admired Fawcett, and Fawcett’s stories of the Brazilian jungle were an inspiration to Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. As Grann followed his curiosity, he learned about Z, “a sophisticated civilization with monumental architecture could have existed in the Amazon.”
The thought of an ancient civilization flourishing in the Amazon has been taken as a myth for years. Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian Institution called the region “‘counterfeit paradise,’ a place that, for all its fauna and flora, is inimical to human life.”
After giving us some of the details of the region, Grann dives into the history of Fawcett. An important figure in the Geographical Society, he made several trip to the Amazon in the early twentieth century in order to map out the region. Miraculously, though he witnessed many casualties, Fawcett himself never even got really sick. These stories of the expedition take up quite a bit of the book, and that is no bad thing. I was fascinated by the discoveries he made, by the methods he employed, by the myth he created of himself that he began to believe. Grann does a great job digging into some details while keeping everything exciting and immediate. Much of this is because we know that after World War I, Fawcett is going to try to find the civilization he’s been hearing about here and there on his expeditions, but he will never come back.
I loved the book. It hit me in all the right places, as Grann’s articles often do. There’s an element of mystery and factfinding (like when Grann visits the home of one of Fawcett’s descendants and finds some clues about Fawcett’s real route). There are elements of myth (and part of me always likes where a good myth takes me). And there’s the beautiful, deadly region that some men feel they are called on to explore. I was really only disappointed that Grann didn’t explore his own experience a bit more, as his prologue promised to do. We are left with the impression (probably correctly) that Grann’s trip and its subsequent discovery weren’t really terribly difficult. A few moments of disorientation, a time or two when it looked like something dangerous my be on its way, but for the most part a fairly easy trip into the jungle. After reading the deeply self-reflecting Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer (loved them too), and being very fulfilled by not just the story but also by Krakauer’s own internal and external struggles, I was hoping for a bit of that here. For the most part, though, Grann stays out of the story, though he looks like he’s about to jump in at any time. Of course, the reportage on Fawcett’s life and explorations is sufficient for the excitement a book like this is supposed to produce.