Over the past year I have become a big fan of the nonprofit publisher The Library of America and their books (see their inspirational 25th Anniversary movie here). For sometime, the dust jackets on their editions turned me away. I’m not a huge fan. However, I got one of the books, took the jacket off, and, wow, it’s a beautifully crafted cloth book. You can bend each cover back until they touch, and the spine will not break or deform. I now have a row of Library of America volumes, jacketless, in a beautiful line on my bookshelf. Incidentally, I got a good start on my row by becoming a subscriber. Each month a new book arrives, jacketless but in a hard sleeve. The terms of the subscription are more than generous. There are no hidden costs.
That row of books, however, has turned out to cause another problem. I do most (90%) of my reading on my commute to work. There’s just no way I’m going to pack these beautiful books, no matter how durable, on the train and subway I take to my office. So I’ve been getting these books that I desperately want to read but couldn’t quite figure out a way to do it. Finally, I decided that my weekend reading, as limited as it is, is going to be devoted primarily to my LOA stock. And first on my list was William Maxwell. I loved – loved — his final novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, so I took down LOA Volume 1 and read his first, Bright Center of Heaven (1934).
Before I talk about Bright Center of Heaven, another word about the LOA volume. I typically do like to get my books individually packaged. For example, I’d rather get an author’s individually published short story collections than a collected works or something similar (just a preference, not a rule). I won’t be getting the LOA’s volumes of Philip Roth anytime soon, because I like to have all of his individual books taking up room on my shelf. However, I’ve realized that I don’t mind these collected editions of novels much at all, especially when they come as nicely packaged as these do. Another benefit, these volumes come with articles and essays and random bits from or about the authors. They are masterfully edited. Often, they often come with things that are essentially unavailable elsewhere. In this case, that unavailable thing is Maxwell’s first novel, written when he was just 26 years old. After two modest printings, Maxwell suppressed its republication for the rest of his life. He thought it was weak and derivative.
Well, to be honest, it is a bit derivative. When I read the novel, I didn’t know much about its publishing history, other than that it was out of print for around 70 years. I knew nothing about the book itself. However, after only 20 pages or so, I could tell it was heavily influenced by Virginia Woolf, particularly To the Lighthouse (one of my favorites — in fact, Woolf is one of my favorites; she’s not on my blog because I read all of her work before I started blogging). I later read John Updike’s tribute to Maxwell and review of this LOA volume in The New Yorker (where Maxwell worked pretty much from just after this book was published until the 1980s) where Updike mentions that Maxwell felt he’d lifted everything from To the Lighthouse.
That’s not quite true, and I’m glad this book is available now. Maxwell was too hard on himself. While similar in style to Woolf, Bright Center of Heaven is still its own creation, and it shows that Maxwell was already a brilliant observer and writer, just the type that The New Yorker would pick up to work for it for a half-century.
This book takes place in Meadowland, an artists’ colony in the upper Midwest run by Mrs. West (the setting is inspired by Maxwell’s own time in a similar place in Wisconsin). Mrs. West is a widow and the mother of two adolescent sons. She brings about the central event in the novel: the visit of a Harvard-educated black lecturer named Jefferson Carter. Mrs. West has invited him and says, “I’ve always been a little hyped on the subject of Negroes. I always feel I can pardon them things I wouldn’t put up with in my own, don’t you know, because of what we have done to them.”
This is “outlandish” to many of the community’s residents, and his mother’s strange ideas is particularly hard for Nigel:
It was a special and excruciating kind of agony for him that Nigel should find his family queer. With every particle of his being he wanted to be like other people and do the things they did. But there was always his mother doing outlandish things, like bringing a Negro to Meadowland, and he had to stick up for her, no matter what. “They’re all right, if you don’t mind Negroes.”
One of the strengths of the novel — indeed, one reason it is reminiscent of To the Lighthouse — is how many characters Maxwell inserts into the foreground, allowing their consciousness to flood the page. He follows them for a few pages, in which they are very well developed, moves on to another, and then comes back later. By the end, we have come to know well some dozen characters, all connected in some way by the community, but each with her or his own concerns. I found them all interesting and engaging. My favorites to follow were the young lovers. He’s bookish and seems vaguely inattentive; meanwhile she cannot sleep because she is trying to find a way to cope with an unintended pregnancy (he doesn’t know yet, though she mouths the words to him when he isn’t looking).
Another interesting character – and one whose concerns, I think, reflect Maxwell’s – is a young painter. She tries again and again to get her art to rise above the merely representational:
She looked again at the canvas. Anybody could see that the oranges were oranges. The oil-can was clearly an oil-can. She could paint well enough where the thing itself was concerned. It was something more she wanted — some revelation of the identity within forms, of the relationship between two spheroids and a hemispheroid out of which emanated a thin curved spire.
This “something more” is what Maxwell is getting at as he introduces character after character in Bright Center of Heaven. The artist’s struggle is nicely undercut later in a thought Jefferson Carter has as he bursts out of a tent in a fury despite the “good intentions” of the white hosts:
These seven people had no meaning beyond themselves, which was to say that they had no meaning at all. They did not express the life of the nation. They had no visible work. They were all drones and winter would find them dead.
Bright Center of Heaven is very different in tone, style, content, scope than Maxwell’s late masterpiece, and it is certain that Maxwell got even better, managing to become a spare, limpid writer rather than the somewhat abstract one we see here. I prefer the later style, and I think in terms of substance and control the later book is better too, but it is a shame this book has been inaccessible for so long. It is a great start to the career of one of America’s best and most compassionate writers.
Fifth and final stop on the 2010 Giller shortlist for me is Kathleen Winter’s Annabel (2010), an intriguing story I’ve been looking forward to reading since I saw KevinfromCanada’s review of it earlier this year. First, there is the cold wilderness setting of Labrador. I like dwelling in harsh weather conditions — in books, that is. But what interested me more was that this setting is used to emphasize themes in a book about an intersex child (intersex is, recently, the politically correct term for those historically called hermaphrodites, though ”intersex” too apparently has critics).
Copy courtesy of Shadow Giller Chair KevinfromCanada.
Annabel opens up with a mystical (or is it mythological) prologue. A blind hunter and his daughter Annabel are floating on a canoo for the hunting season. The hunter is asleep as the daughter drifts sleepily down the river. Then the daughter spies a white caribou on the shore. As she stands to reach out to the animal, Annabel upsets the boat. Neither she nor her father can swim, and they perish.
In the next scene, Thomasina (the wife and mother of the two who have just drowned) is helping Jacinta Blake give birth. As you may have guessed, when the child is born, neither Thomasina nor Jacinta knows whether it is a boy or a girl. It appears to be both. They will, they know, both love it, but Jacinta wonders, “Will other people love it?”
The baby’s father, Treadway, is a quiet hunter. For much of the year he is gone on his sled. Though Treadway is far from cruel, when he learns of the child’s sex, he ensures that what he feels is right is done. There is little discussion. They will, he determines, raise it as a boy — no one else will know the secret — so the baby is christened Wayne. Thomasina, who has just lost her Annabel, breathes the name Annabel at the christening.
To be honest, I had a hard time with the first half of this rather large book (461 pages, but with relatively large type). We know early on that Treadway will repress everything he can about his daughter and accept only his son. We know that Thomasina is going to do all she can to make sure Wayne understands that he has a feminine side that just might be more prevalent than his male side. Jacinta, meanwhile, is in the center, and she only wants the child to feel loved:
Whereas [Treadway] struck out on his own to decide how to erase the frightening ambiguity in their child, [Jacinta] envisioned living with it as it was. She imagined her daughter beautiful and grown up, in a scarlet satin gown, her male characteristics held secret under the clothing for a time when she might need a warrior’s strength and a man’s potent aggression. Then she imagined her son as a talented, mythical hunter, his breasts strapped in a concealing vest, his clothes the green of striding forward, his heart the heart of a woman who could secretly direct his path in the ways of intuition and psychological insight. Whenever she imagined her child, grown up without interference from a judgemental world, she imagined its male and female halves as complementing each other, and as being secretly, almost magically powerful. It was the growing up part she did not want to imagine.
Nevertheless, the development of these characters is pretty heavy-handed. We get to watch Treadway perk up uneasily, feigning confusion, anytime there is a remote question about Wayne’s gender. He is particularly annoyed by any clues Thomasina, who is quite meddlesome, leaves around. I found the dialogue to be rather long-winded and lacking in natural rhythm. Nevertheless, I was compelled to read the story: even if I felt it was a bit heavy-handed and blunt, I liked where the story was going, and I cared about Wayne and his family. Honestly, it was harrowing to watch as Jacinta is tormented, wishing for a world “in which her child did not have to be confined to something smaller than who he was.”
One of the most effective ways this book got me to think about gender roles was while I read its large tourquoise form, with a cursive Annabel on its spine, on my subway ride.
It becomes, then, a strong argument (if, again, heavy-handed) for self-determination. Eventually Wayne finds out the truth and must go out on his own to figure out just who he is. I found this part of the book very interesting, even if it still seemed to lack the nuance I was hoping for in this novel about the blur between gender identity. I liked, for example, when Wayne struggles with the split in his identity, really trying to find out who it is he’s been locking up inside of him for so many years:
Wayne was glad there were shadows in the store. He wanted the part of him that was Annabel to try the dress on. He longed to take it home and let her dance in it, just one night.
But on the other hand, this is a bit muddled with some heavy-handed tangential issues. For example, Wayne’s best friends while growing up was the free-spirited Wallis Michelin. Treadway, of course, hated the relationship, wishing Wayne would play with the other boys, particularly the popular ones. Wally herself was popular, but not because she tried to be. She was free from those types of cares, and this made her attractive to other people (until the day when her “competitors” try to take her down). Wally loved to sing, and she and Wayne built a bridge (bridges are another symbol that becomes a bit over used) they’d spend hours on. We care for Wally, but sadly she becomes a device to emphasize the search for self-identity: it is tragic, though a bit quaint, when this talented young singer loses her voice in an accident and spends the remainder of the novel trying to figure out how to get it back.
To me, as much as I cared for Wally and felt Wayne’s pain when she begins to drift out of his life, I had a hard time accepting the metaphor and applying it to Wayne/Annabel. It felt reductive (besides convenient and heavy-handed), and, therefore, I didn’t feel it had a place. And that sort of sums up my thoughts: a great promise whose success is reduced by excess.
I am afraid that at times I have neglected to link to Shadow Giller Jury chair KevinfromCanada’s review of this year’s Giller shortlist. He has read and reviewed all five. My review of Annabel is forthcoming, and then I will have also read and reviewed all of this year’s shortlist.
Fourth stop on the Giller shortlist. Only Annabel left. As a quick reminder, I really enjoyed Alexander MacLeod’s short story collection Light Lifting, but I didn’t really like the last two. To be honest, I didn’t have high hopes for The Sentimentalists (2009), which, as a paperback with a sturdy dust jacket and filled with high quality paper, is certainly the most attractively produced book on the shortlist. I think I had low expectations because it is — as you can see on the cover — a war novel, and perhaps I thought a young poet couldn’t pull it off in her debut novel. When I began this book, though, I was quickly pulled into its strange rhythm. I started it fairly late in the evening, stayed up way too late reading, and finished it as quickly as I could the next day.
Copy acquired by fellow Shadow Giller judge Alison Gzowski.
I was surprised when, for the first 100 pages or so, war was barely mentioned. The story, instead, follows the narrator, a woman in her thirties, as she thinks back a few years to when they moved her father from Fargo, North Dakota to a place called Casablanca, a town next to Lake St. Lawrence, Ontario. Casablanca is a new town, created when the old town was flooded to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway. (You may remember that this was a topic in last year’s Giller finalist, The Winter Vault.)
The narrator is also thinking back to her childhood, when her parents were still together. Her mother used to suffer from severe attacks of melancholy and was terrified to lose control. The mind, in this book, is not that reliable:
Of the event she would make only a small note in the journal she kept in which to record our lives: another episode today, she would write. Followed by a record, as near as she could render, of the last thing that she had thought of or seen before the exquisite pain had begun. Tomato plant. Obscure memory of Aunt Rose.
In this way my mother attempted to uncover a pattern or system to her grief, but there never did appear to be one, and the pain continued to erupt equally from the sight of an old photograph as from an untwinned sock. But after each entry my mother would go on to conclude: it should not happen again. And this conviction — that unhappiness, in herself and later in her children, should be staved off, then eliminated entirely — originated from that same source within her that assured her that the progress that my father was making on his boat, and that my mother was making on my father, and that my father’s words were making on her heart, would be measurable and lasting things, upon which each of us could build.
The mind and memories, and the fallability of each, is the central topic of the book. Also central is a look at some tragedies in life that can cause the pain and which, for whatever reason, cannot be forgotten though memory cannot be relied on. In this way, the lost village, with its houses and roads under water, becomes a nice and subtle symbol of the past and of memory.
We must have known, and then ignored for lack of real evidence, that Henry, and a few others that we saw regularly around the lake, could still remember that original town. That they perhaps even felt that it was to the old rather than to the new that they more fully belonged. But because they hardly spoke of it, they did not interrupt our dreaming, and perhaps were even instrumental in leading me, at that age, to the false presumption that a thing could, quite simply, be forgot.
As I said above, I really enjoyed Skibrud’s set up of the book and its themes. Her writing, at times, complements her themes. It is a segmented style, replete with commas and interjections that seem to question whether the sentence is really saying what it purports to be saying. I liked to think of it as looking at the buried village through choppy water. Most of the time this choppiness, while it doesn’t make for quick reading, does not create a messy sentence. I had to slow down at times to catch what was going on, but usually that was enough — and pleasurable. However, there were times when I had to reread a sentence several times just to understand how each clause fit together. This next sentence, I think, is an example of just how far Skibsrud takes this segmenting style. It is an extreme example, but if you don’t like it (and I admit it is a little too obfuscating for my liking), then you will probably be frustrated by this book:
And so it was because Henry himself did not speak of the house that he would have built, or of Jacqui again, that it was Owen’s grandfather who told him of his mother, painting her picture alongside his own wife’s ghost, so that the two women came to live for Owen side by side. It was startling the way that things could, in the end, come to exist like that, within the same small space, when they had seemed in life, to need, necessarily, to exist for themselves alone.
I get the sentence now, but I’m not convinced it couldn’t have been cleaned up just a bit — a few too many prepositional phrases and long constructions – while still maintaining the sketchy narration I found effective in other parts.
Now, I have not mentioned the war yet, and the war is the central event of the last half of the book. Sadly, the book didn’t hold me at the end as it did at the beginning. I was less interested in the war (Vietnam) than I was in the relationship between the daughter and her father after the war. For years she didn’t even know he’d been to war, and she still doesn’t know much about his time there. What she does know, she doesn’t know for sure — something awful happened and her father was part of it. There are many conflicting accounts, perhaps all of them wrong, surely none of them exactly right. On the surface, the narrator is still trying to get to know her father through the murky waters that have covered the years, but the conflicting accounts take control of the narrative — I just wasn’t as interested in that aspect.
Still, it is too bad this book has been ignored for almost a year. It is too bad that, even though it is a Giller finalist, it will probably still be neglected. It might not be perfect, but it is very worthwhile.
For me, stop number three of the Giller shortlist is the second collection of short stories, This Cake Is for the Party(2010), Sarah Selecky’s debut. As I said when reviewing Alexander MacLeod’s debut, Light Lifting, debut short story collections are tricky things. The short story, as a form, is quite different from a novel, but many young authors seem to write short stories as primers for novels. They become apprentice pieces, a way to experiment without commitment, a way to rid oneself of some self-indulgent autobiographical drivel. Often they feel formulaic. Unfortunately, This Cake Is for the Party felt this way to me, though I know others out there feel differently.
Copy courtesy of Shadow Giller Chair KevinfromCanada.
This collection contains ten short stories, and, though I’m not saying each is autobiographical, each has that generic MFA feel. Most of the characters are women in their late twenties or early thirties, they are involved in writing projects or the academy, they like to cook Italian food, they are involved in relationships that are leading to more serious commitments than they are used to, they are thinking about children. Now, all of these have made for great stories and novels in the past, and to be sure these stories are not poor; they are just familiar.
For example, the first story, “Throwing the Cotton,” involves two married couples. They all met during university at Trent some years before. Anne, the female narrator, is married to Sanderson, who was her professor at Trent. The other couple is Shona and Flip; they, more conventionally, were both students. For years they and their single female friend Janine have been spending the long May weekend at a cottage by a lake. Sandy has brought along a stack of first-year composition papers to grade. It’s a story about fidelity, and we know early on, before it has been disclosed, who is sleeping with whom and where the story is going. Sandy wants to have a baby, has been prepared since Christmas, but this weekend complicates her plans.
Maybe I was in a grumpy mood — if so, certainly “Throwing the Cotton” didn’t help — but for the next couple of stories I was really put off by the collection. If the content of the stories felt familiar, so did the technique. The pacing seemed to be controlled by a familiar mode — character detail, line of dialogue, character detail, line of dialogue, etc. — that when used over and over eventually felt as rhythmical as water torture. While it is true that every writer uses techniques for character development and pacing, sometimes it feels natural and sometimes it feels mechanical. Here it felt mechanical. I don’t recall the last time I thought it felt so deliberate, as if the story itself had no heart of its own.
Seeing that if I kept reading with that attitude I would not read each story on its own but rather would only look for faults, I decided to stop for a bit to clear my head. I’m happy to say that when I came back to the collection, I was in a better mood, and hopefully a bit more fair. While I didn’t love any of the remaining stories, I was definitely getting through them with more pleasure. Perhaps they were better stories, but I’m inclined to think it was my change in attitude.
I was particularly refreshed when I read the beginning of “Prognosis.”
Dear Mrs. B —– ,
Twenty years have passed since we have spoken. I know you haven’t always agreed with our lifestyle, but I was surprised when your letters stopped entirely. It’s been almost a decade. Your unwillingness to argue about our life decisions in recent years led me to believe that you were either resting comfortably in a divot of calcified judgment or that you had finally made peace with our choices. I had hoped it was the latter, but I just discovered that your silence was more menacing than I had feared. Your resentment is palpable and extraordinary, and it has tested the architect of my marriage. I don’t know what has been more distressing — having to justify our modus vivendi every time I was in contact with you, sensing your disapproval from a distance during these years of silence, or learning that you have actually been in contact with my husband all this time.
This story is, as it appears, a long letter, and it is full of intrigue. Again, I didn’t love the story. Much of the time we know that the information is not being written for Mrs. B —– , but for us readers. That felt a bit clanky. Still, I think the passage above shows that, on sentence by sentence level, Selecky is a good writer. In other words, the sentences themselves are not the problem. It’s the generic stories and the mechanical superstructure.
I’m sad to say that this collection of short stories, for me, represented what I consider to be a problem with writing programs, whatever their benefits. The stories revolve around a similar type of person — those thirty year old writers who have spent the last ten years in writing programs, now teaching in them and engaging in a world of new commitments; they are relatively poor but still interested in fine cuisine. Obviously, this is an over generalization, but several specimens, including this one, fit.
Because the drop-down menu on the right-hand sidebar becomes more cumbersome the more categories are added to it, I’ve decided it’s time to create a review index. The first index available is arranged by author. I hope to add one arranged by title soon (that one will take some work). You can click on the new link to the index at the top of the right-hand sidebar (or you can click here) to see the index.
Putting this index together was a fun task. I liked remembering what I’ve read and reviewed here over the past few years. What surprised me most, though, was how creating this index changed some incentives that I didn’t realize were influencing my choice of what to read next. This might seem strange, but the drop-down menu incentivizes me to read more authors; the more authors I read, the longer that menu is — it’s nice to see it grow as my reading base broadens. The index by author, however, incentivizes me to read more than one book by an author; the more books under an author, the more my completionist urges are sated — it’s nice to see my reading deepen under certain authors, particularly those favorites I’ve been neglecting (get ready for more Ozick, for example).
My second stop on this year’s Giller shortlist is David Bergen’s The Matter with Morris(2010). Bergen won the Giller in 2005 for The Time in Between, and he was shortlisted in 2008 for The Retreat. The other authors on this year’s shortlist are all first-time Giller finalists. None has ever been on the longlist, either. In fact, other than a short story collection here (Winter) or a book of poetry there (Skibsrud), the other finalists are new authors in the book publishing world. Bergen is the heavy-weight, the seasoned professional. Yet, without having read three of the five finalists, I suspect Bergen’s book to the be the weakest on the shortlist.
Copy courtesy of Shadow Giller Chair KevinfromCanada.
First things first: Bergen’s writing is not showy and it is fluid. Though a novel of abstract ideas, the writing remains clear. That’s a plus from my perspective. Bergen has honed his skill to the point where he is not in the way of his story. But the story is where the problem lies.
Morris Schutt is a successful syndicated newspaper columnist based in Winnipeg. “Morris longed for the true and the beautiful and the good in his column, and though he could not be certain, he anticipated that we are saved by hope.” When the novel starts, it is 2007, and Morris is 51 years old. Despite his idealistic aspirations in his column, his life is falling apart around him, starting nearly two years earlier when his son Martin was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. Morris is going on the far side of middle age, and he isn’t sure what his life means. In the beginning, when reading about Morris Schutt as he became increasingly erratic and alienating, I thought often of Julian Treslove in The Finkler Question, not least because of this passage:
Morris wanted to be Jewish. He imagined that this might have made him a more interesting person; more spontaneous, passionate and complicated, though Lucille had already called him complicated in the extreme. (She said his desire to be Jewish as a secret wish for tenderness and affection. “You’re isolated, Morris. You think that love is over there somewhere, close to the menorah. But maybe it’s right in front of your Russian Mennonite nose.”) She might be right, Morris thought, but she didn’t have to be so smug.
But this story doesn’t go anywhere near where The Finkler Question did (nor does it have the humor, the style, or the intricate texture). In fact, that Morris wanted to be Jewish amounts to, essentially, nothing. It is stated, brought up a few times, but becomes a non-issue, just an extraneous detail that doesn’t illuminate the subject. Morris does admire Jewish writers, and Bergen references Saul Bellow frequently throughout the book. Morris himself likes to write letters (he is twice called upon by very different, unconnected individuals to write an important personal letter that each would then pass off as his own), so we understand that we are to be thinking of Moses Herzog. To what end, though, I was unable to discern, unless it was so that Saul Bellow’s creation could stand in, when convenient, for David Bergen’s.
The Matter with Morris is replete with events and references which don’t seem to connect and are never really developed. The central emotional event is the death of Morris’s son, but this almost seems a plot device to get to some other plot devices. In their grief, Morris and his wife Lucille have separated, Morris has taken to prostitution, and Morris has decided to quit being a columnist — he will withdraw all of his money from the bank, cash in all of his stock, and disconnect himself from the world entirely. At about the time he does this, he schedules a night with a prostitute only to find that the girl who comes knocking is an old friend of his son’s. In the background, and sometimes in the foreground, Morris has a platonic affair with an American woman who also lost a son recently. She read and was touched by a self-indulgent, self-pitying column Morris wrote about his son.
Why doesn’t this all add up to an interesting story? Because none of the threads is developed and none crosses over. We’ll follow one, say the prostitute Morris decides to take care of, but it ends as if the idea fizzled (I don’t think the book, already quite short, would have been the lesser for removing this thread altogether). We’ll then follow another thread for several pages, say the American lover, but then it also goes nowhere, moves into the deep background, as if it is forgotten; and certainly the reader can feel free to forget about it — it doesn’t illuminate anything going on in the foreground. Not one strand, including the son’s death in Afghanistan, is followed for very long before another comes up and assumes the importance of the moment, and not one strand effectively connects to another.
I don’t believe the absolute disconnect was on purpose. It doesn’t seem like a technique meant to emphasize grief. If so, it certainly doesn’t illustrate grief well. Rather, it seemed we were supposed to accept the grief Morris is experiencing and somehow accept his behavior and thoughts as a reaction to or defense from the grief. Then this is supposed to illuminate the deeper philosophical themes that present themselves in the form of brief quotations from their primary source.
Throughout the novel, Bergen quotes or clearly references several religious and secular texts. At the end of the book, he includes this incomplete list: Plato, Cicero, Petrarch, Dante, Shakespeare, Kierkegaard, Boehme, Adorno, Tillich, Strauss, Nieburh, Allan Bloom, Eagleton, Bellow. Many of the passages are italicized, like this one:
She was prepared, like Telmon, who said, I knew, when I fathered them, that they must die.
Sadly, the presence of all of these voices, all of these thoughts on existence and aesthetic unity, lends nothing to The Matter with Morris because The Matter with Morris cannot support their presence. There is an important lesson here: If you want gravity in your book, you cannot incorporate it by reference.
I’m baffled by the presence of this novel on the Giller shortlist.
The 2010 National Book Award Finalists have been announced. What surprises many is that Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is not among the fiction finalists. What surprises me is that Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squadis not among the fiction finalists. I’m pleased, though, that Nicole Krauss’s Great House is there. I haven’t read it yet, but the selection published in The New Yorker earlier this year was fantastic. I have the book on hand and will be reading it soon. I’m a bit surprised that Parrot and Olivier in America is there. I liked it okay, but I didn’t think it was that great. I haven’t read much about the other three fiction finalists. As for the Young People’s Literature finalists, usually, thanks to my wife, I know a few of those. She may have told me about some of these earlier this year, but none of them stuck with me so they are all new to me.
The winner will be announced November 17 (usually quite late in the evening).
- Peter Carey: Parrot and Olivier in America
- Jaimy Gordon: Lord of Misrule
- Nicole Krauss: Great House
- Lionel Shriver: So Much for That
- Karen Tei Yamashita: I Hotel
- Barbara Demick: Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
- John W. Dower: Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq
- Patti Smith: Just Kids
- Justin Spring: Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward
- Megan K. Stack: Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War
- Kathleen Graber: The Eternal City
- Terrance Hayes: Lighthead
- James Richardson: By the Numbers
- C.D. Wright: One with Others
- Monica Youn: Ignatz
Young People’s Literature
- Paolo Bacigalupi: Ship Breaker
- Kathryn Erskine: Mockingbird
- Laura McNeal: Dark Water
- Walter Dean Myers: Lockdown
- Rita Williams-Garcia: One Crazy Summer
Howard Jacobson has won the 2010 Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question. I loved Galgut’s In a Strange Room, but I’m very happy that The Finkler Question won.
This year was a good year for me. Of the four shortlisters I read, I would have been happy had In a Strange Room, The Finkler Question, or C won. Had Parrot and Olivier in America won, I would have at least said they gave it to a good writer, even if I didn’t particularly enjoy the book.
After the four Giller Prize longlisters I read (The Imperfectionists, Lemon, Player One, and The Debba) each failed to make the cut to the next round, I had to start the shortlist from scratch. I decided to start with one that I have been looking forward to the most, Alexander MacLeod’s debut collection of short stories, Light Lifting (2010). Now, debut short story collections are tricky things – sometimes they are overedited and come off a bit dead, but other times they are simply brilliant– so I don’t always look forward to reading them. Also, I had never heard of Alexander MacLeod. So, why was I looking forward to this one? Because Alexander MacLeod is the son of Alistair MacLeod, surely one of the best short story writers there is; I’ve been making my way through his complete collection, Island. I hope to review it here soon. But first, the next generation — talent is not always passed on.
Copy courtesy of Shadow Giller Jury Chair KevinfromCanada.
I’m happy to say that Light Lifting proved to be the pleasure I was hoping for. Each of its seven stories are quite different in content and style, though each ushers a character to some extreme situation (more often than not one that might not look extreme to the rest of us; maybe just some quiet moment) and each bears the marks of the author with spatters of details in sentence fragments that somehow do not interrupt the flow of the narrative.
Most of these stories take place in or around Windsor in Ontario, Canada, just across the river from Detroit. Refreshingly, these stories all focus on what I’d call the working class, though some of them focus on children of the working class. I agree with fellow Shadow Giller Jury member Alison Gzowski: this is a refreshing debut short story collection. It seems that so many short story writers today write deeply intellectual-seeming stories from some theoretical perspective gleaned in grad school and cultivated in an MA program. There are some great ones out there that follow just this mold, but there are many many terrible ones. At any rate, they grow tiresome. In Light Lifting we see an author who writes compassionately about people we all know, struggling in a region that has been decaying for half a century.
My favorite was, as often seems the case, the opening story. “Miracle Mile” begins with two friends in a hotel watching the television report on Mike Tyson biting off Evander Holyfield’s ear. For some reason, these two are just lying there, waiting for something, doing nothing — purposefully trying not to move a muscle:
We just sat there, side by side, beds three feet apart, perched on top of our tight blankets like a pair of castaways on matching rafts drifting in the same current.
I meshed my fingers together on my chest and tried to make them go up and down as slowly as possible. It was coming and we were waiting for it. The goal now was to do absolutely nothing and let time flow right over us. It would have been impossible to do less and still be alive. I felt like one of the bodies laid out in a funeral home, waiting for the guests to arrive. You couldn’t put these things off forever. Eventually it had to end. In a couple of hours, some guy dressed all in white would say “Take your marks.” Then, one second later, there’d be the gun.
If you’re into sports writing, this is a must read. These two friends, the narrator and Burner, are highly successful 1500 meter runners. If you’re not into sports writing (and I’m going to guess for most readers of this blog, sportswriting is not high on the reading list), I still think this story will appeal. Beyond the sport itself is an excellent ellaboration on the theme of emptying life of all goals except one, how this changes a person, how pushing oneself to the brink can often take one over the edge. Here is one of my favorite passages about the vast difference three seconds makes.
That’s how we talked most of the time. The numbers meant more than the words and the smaller numbers meant more than the big ones. It was like we belonged to our own little country and we had this secret language that almost nobody else understood. Almost nobody can tell you the real difference between 3:36 and 3:39. Almost nobody understands that there’s something in there, something important and significant, just waiting to be released out of that space between the six and the nine. Put it this way: if you ever wanted to cross over that gap, if you ever wanted to see what it was like on the other side, you would need to change your entire life and get rid of almost everything else. You have to make choices: you can’t run and be an astronaut. Can’t run and have a full-time job. Can’t run and have a girlfriend who doesn’t run. When I stopped going to church or coming home for holidays, my mother used to worry that I was losing my balance, but I never met a balanced guy who ever got anything done. There’s nothing new about this stuff. You have to sign the same deal if you want to be good — I mean truly good — at anything. Burner and I, and all those other guys, we understood this. We knew all about it. Every pure specialist is the same way so either you know what I am talking about or you do not.
The cover of the book must have been inspired by this story (though the image matches the tone of several others). In “Miracle Mile” we see these runners engage in a horrifying pastime. At night, they’d go down to the train tunnel that went from Windsor to Detroit. One of them would take off running through it, and then, five minutes later, the other would follow. Not everyone who pulls this stunt is so lucky as these two (we know they live because the scene is a recollection while they relax in the hotel later), but there was one night in particular that our narrator recalls. After a rough flight through the tunnel, having fallen down a few times, he comes out on the other side and collapses. Several minutes later Burner still hasn’t made it through the tunnel.
I was actually hoping that he’d been caught on the other side, or that he’d chickened out, or come to his senses. I didn’t want to think about the other possibility but it still came flashing into my head. For one second I imagined how even at top speed, there would still have to be this one moment, just before the full impact, when Burner would feel only the beginning of it, just that slight little nudge of cold metal pressing up against his skin.
What a chilling thought.
This longish short story with a terrifying ending (not in the train tunnels) is an excellent start to the collection which also features confused parents (“Wonder About Parents,” my least favorite in the collection — a bit too impressionistic and not particularly insightful), a group of brick layers going out to lunch on their temp’s last day (“Light Lifting,” back to the strength of “Miracle Mile”), a young female swimmer taking on a diving challenge (“Adult Beginning I”), an adolescent boy who makes deliveries for the local pharmacy on his bike (“The Loop,” one of KFC’s favorites, and one he talks about at length in his review; by the way, neither one of us could escape pulling lengthy quotes), four brothers who have a somewhat hateful relationship with a strange boy (“Good Kids,” a very sad story), and a lonely story about a man who lost his wife and son in a car accident (“The Number Three”).
Perhaps I shouldn’t have started my Giller shortlist reading with this book. It might not get any better. But if they come close, the other stories will still be very worthwhile.
And, just because it was very difficult to limit the quotes I pulled for this review, and to reiterate how nicely MacLeod plays with tone and detail, here is the first paragraph in lonely “The Number Three”:
The single fried egg might be life’s loneliest meal. He listens to the sizzle of unfertilized yolk and waits another second before lifting away from the heat. The timing is important. He wants the skin starting to harden but everything else still shaky and runny inside. It quivers on his spatula before sliding onto the plate slimy and wet, like a living thing. Half a shake of salt, a full shake of pepper and good to go. This is supper. The toaster pops and he looks over. Watches the filament cooling, turning black again. He butters and dips and mops. The room is almost silent. Only the occasional gurgling coming from deep inside the fridge. A single fried egg, he thinks: enough food for one person, as long as they aren’t hungry.