My wife and I are thrilled to announce the arrival of our third child (and our third son). He was born Monday evening, and everyone is doing great. Today we are all home enjoying some rest time, and I thought I’d get on here briefly to celebrate with you all. To mark this occasion, it’s time to give away a couple of books.
This “celebration” is not sponsored by any publisher. I am promoting two of my favorites: New Directions and NYRB Classics. So fantastic are the books these two publishers release annually that I am quite confident even if I read books only from their lists I would be satisfied. I would love to give away a brand new copy of one books from each of their lists. So, here is the basic outline of the giveaway:
- Leave a comment.
- In the comment list one New Direction title and one NYRB Classics title from the lists provided below.
- I will draw two names at random on the night of Saturday, October 1. One name will get its New Directions choice, and the other its NYRB Classics choice.
- I will ship anywhere, so this is open to international readers. If you have way too many books already, please enter anyway; if you win you can choose to donate your book to, say, a library.
- If the book the winner chooses is for any reason not available for me to purchase, I reserve the right to request the winner choose another book or forfeit (I don’t anticipate this happening because all of these books should be readily available).
Below find the lists. I have chosen both older and recent books from New Directions and NYRB Classics. For example, Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods is hot off the press and I haven’t read it yet. Others I have reviewed and have recommended many times here since this blog began (which was, incidentally, just a few weeks before the birth of my second son).
From New Directions, please choose one of the following books and leave a comment:
- Helen DeWitt: Lightning Rods
- Gert Hofmann: Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (my review here)
- César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (my review here)
- László Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance (my review here)
- Enrique Vila-Matas: Never Any End to Paris
- B.S. Johnson: The Unfortunates (my review here)
- Horacio Castellanos Moya: Tyrant Memory
- Evelio Rosero: Good Offices
- Javier Marías: All Souls
- Muriel Spark: Not to Disturb (my review here)
From NYRB Classics, please choose one of the following books and leave a comment:
- Brian Moore: The Mangan Inheritance
- Gilbert Highet: Poets in a Landscape
- J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country (my review here)
- Milton Rokeach: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
- Theodor Fontane: Irretrievable
- John Williams: Butcher’s Crossing (my review here)
- Jean Stafford: The Mountain Lion
- Brian Moore: The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (my review here)
- Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts
- Penelope Mortimer: The Pumpkin Eater
Feel free to spread the word, though I realize that may dilute your chances of winning. Best wishes to all, and good luck!
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Thomas McGuane’s “The House on Sand Creek” was originally published in the October 3, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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I’m very excited about this one and will be posting my thoughts soon. Happy to hear from others in the meantime.
The Giller Prize does it again: The Beggar’s Garden (2011) is another excellent short story collection, and another from a debut author. The author’s blurb says that Michael Christie “worked in a homeless shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and provided outreach to the severely mentally ill.” His experiences there have made there way into this collection with striking emotion and clarity.
The Beggar’s Garden is made up of nine short stories, each centering on someone dealing with some form of mental illness or homelessness or both. Each story stands entirely on its own, though throughout Christie has them slyly referencing each other. No story was a failure, though I have to admit that I liked the ones in the first half quite a bit more than the ones in the second half. That said, I’ve gone back to those early stories and found that they not only held up to my memory but have strengthened.
The first story is called “Emergency Contact,” and it begins with an excellent line: “They sent the wrong paramedic, one I’d never met before.” Here we meet a woman whose loneliness is so heightened and so well portrayed it feels rapturous. Her soul is bursting. Her loneliness has driven her to seek companionship by calling ambulances so she can savor the human contact, taking her back to a long illness of her youth that kept her happily in a hospital for months. One paramedic was particularly kind and, while treating her for nothing, complimented her on her nightgown. That was two weeks ago, and ever since she’s been dying to call for another ambulance at the same time she’s afraid of coming off as desperate. The way Christie ties this state of mind to a physical malady that needs treatment shows just how strong a writer he is:
Tonight after dinner I’d put on the same interesting nightgown before dialling 91 at least thirty times, snatching and replacing the phone for over an hour. There should be someone who picks up when you just dial 91, someone reassuring and pleasant, a service for people in almost-emergencies, because that’s what this was, not really in the life-threatening category. I just needed to see someone specific, but it was the sort of longing that could corrode something essential inside me if it stretched out for years.
Of course, she finally calls, and as we saw in the first line the wrong paramedic showed up. The pain and longing is so delicately handled, we can see that Christie is basing these people on his own experiences and his own feelings for them. She finally does make it to the hospital, hoping to find her paramedic, but just being at the hospital is a great start:
I’ve always liked how they make the ID bands impossible to remove without destroying them, how for this reason you could never wear the bracelet of another, how they, and the belonging they bestow, must be earned.
“Discard,” the next story, begins with an older man named Earl roaming around a garbage can, scoping out its contents, spying a promising clean cake. But rather than attempt to get the cake, the Earl attempts to set a half chicken in the trash in such a way it won’t be soiled, the smell coming out “a smell so bad it graduated to taste.” As it turns out, Earl is not homeless. Rather, a while before he lost his wife and, in the destitution that followed, he saw his estranged grandson on the television in a line for a soup kitchen. He assumed his grandson, whom he helpd raise, was dead, but there he was. So now he has taken it upon himself to make his grandson’s life a bit easier. It took him a long time, but eventually he found his grandson and learned his daily routine:
He found himself strangely proud of his grandson, proud of the steady way he carted the things he found and of the resourcefulness the task required. Earl knew that he himself had never worked so hard in his life.
And now, knowing his routine, Earl hopes to help his grandson feel a bit luckier, though it doesn’t go quite as planned.
“Goodbye Porkpie Hat” is one of the strangest books here. Structured like a science paper — “Purpose,” “Materials,” “Method,” etc. — here we meet a crack smoker who has found a deep love for science. This helps him out a great deal when a somehow alive J. Robert Oppenheimer who hopes to have some assistance smoking crack.
In another heartbreaker, “The Extra,” we meet a mentally ill narrator who lives in a basement (no, not a basement apartment, a basement) with a man named Rick. The narrator’s voice is optimistic and innocent: “Most of the time I forget it’s damaged. Maybe it’s too damaged to know it’s damaged. Or maybe it’s not damaged enough for me to notice. Either way, it’s not very bad.” Rick isn’t actually terrible to him, but at the same time he is taking advantage.
Rick needs my help. He can’t get welfare because years ago he got kicked off for not telling them he had no job while he was still getting cheques. But Rick says we’re lucky because I have a disabled brain and we get more money than the regular welfare pays anyway, so it works out, and we split the disabled money right down the middle.
As the story progresses, Rick finds the perfect job for them: they will be extras in a movie one of Rick’s high school friends is working on.
Each of these stories is different. The characters are impoverished in a variety of ways, but Christie is consistent in his presentation: it is caring without in the least romanticizing the characters or their situations.
A shortlist contender? I hope so.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Callan Wink’s “Dog Run Moon” was originally published in the September 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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Wink is a debut author from the west, where I grew up, and for whatever reason those types of short stories usually work for me. On the one hand, I really liked this story. It’s quick and fun and interesting. On the other hand, I’m not sure the ending worked for me — so please let me know your thoughts in the comments.
“Dog Run Moon” has a simple premise. Sid, the narrator, is running naked in the moonlight alongside a dog, while Montana Bob and his accountant, Charlie Chaplin, chase him down on an ATV. Sid’s feet are getting torn on the rocks. Here’s how the story begins:
Sid was a nude sleeper. Had been ever since he was a little kid. To him, wearing clothes to bed seemed strangely redundant, like wearing underwear inside your underwear or something. And that was why he was now running barefoot and bare-assed across the sharp sandstone rimrock far above the lights of the town. It was after two in the morning, clear, cool, early-June night, with the wobbly gibbous moon up high and bright, so that he could see the train yard below — the crisscrossing rails, a huge haphazard pile of old ties, the incinerator stack. He was sweating, but he knew that once he could run no more the cold would start to find its way in. After that, he didn’t know what would happen.
The dog, technically, is Montana Bob’s, but after one bad day Sid “liberated” it. So, in a way, this is all about a dog, though there’s a subtext. Here’s a glimpse, when Sid is worried the dog will give away their position:
The problem was the dog. Sid would have to cut a wide path around to keep the dog from straying close to the lights, and, if the dog was captured, then what was the point? Another thought: might the dog return to its former owner willingly? Sid was unsure. He kept running.
The day Sid liberated the dog he was on his way home after a failed visit to “her,” a nameless woman Sid had spent “years of nights” with. They were both naked sleepers, but one night she got into bed with some clothes, and the next she didn’t come to bed at all. So, who knows if this dog needed liberating or whether Sid is even good for it, but he likes to run. As the night goes on, Sid’s mind waxes poetic and imagines what he’d tell her:
Since we dissolved I’ve been a spectre running blind and naked in the desert. Is that melodramatic? Well, that’s what is happening to me now.
At any rate, even though I’m not sure how I feel about it, I really liked reading it and I’m anxious to hear others’ thoughts. How does this all tie together? What’s with the dissolving and the evaporation — and the feet?
I haven’t covered the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize on this blog before, but it’s high time I start — it’s a prize worth watching. Here’s a description from the prize webiste (which you can find here): “The 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize is worth €35,000 to the winning author of a collection of short stories published for the first time, in English anywhere in the world [. . .].” Collections of previously published works are not eligible, but translations are.
For those who don’t know, Frank O’Connor was a master of the form. Earlier this year, Melville House published a beautiful edition of O’Connor’s study of the short story, The Lonely Voice. I read it and loved it. I don’t agree with all he said, but it was refreshing, so refreshing, to have someone taking the form seriously, not as just a shrunken novel or as apprentice work. I highly recommend The Lonely Voice and hope someday — perhaps as part of an extended series on short stories — to review the book itself.
Anyway, the prize itself has been in existence since 2005, when Yiyun Li won with her debut collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers (which also won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Guardian First Book Award). The other five winners up to 2010 are Haruki Murakami, Miranda July, Jhumpa Lahiri, Simon Van Booy, and Ron Rash.
This year’s winner was announced last week:
- Saints and Sinners by Edna O’Brien (my wife got me this collection earlier this year, but I still haven’t read it).
The other finalists:
- Death is Not an Option, by Suzanne Rivecca
- The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín
- Marry or Burn, by Valerie Trueblood
- Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod (my review here)
- Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, by Yiyun Li
My wife got me a copy of Saints and Sinners earlier this year that I still haven’t read, and I also have a copy of The Empty Family I need to get through.
Thanks to John Self, today I saw an article on the Guardian website by judge Chris Power (click here). In it, he says a number of things that struck a cord with me, this one the most: “If it was between this shortlist and the Booker’s, I know which one I’d read.”
Besides stating that his favorite was Li’s collection (which would have made her the first two-time winner of the prize), Power also lists a few books that didn’t make the shortlist that he recommends:
- American Masculine, by Shann Ray
- Circus Bulgaria, by Deyan Enev
- What I Didn’t See, by Joy Fowler
- Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, by Danielle Evans
- Crime, by Ferdinand von Schirach
- Volt, by Alan Heathcock (my review here)
I have a copy of American Masculine that I’m looking forward to and Volt is one of my favorite reads of the year.
So, I’ll repent, update some parts of this site, and make sure the Frank O’Connor Award gets noticed here.
So here we have the interesting case of an author born in America (and who currently lives in California) finding his way onto a Canadian literary prize list for a book he wrote that appropriates the voice and experience of South Asian immigrants. And thank goodness, too, because The Meagre Tarmac (2011), one of the three short story collections on the Giller Prize longlist, is excellent.
Though this is a collection of short stories, there is a caption above the table of contents that says, “These stories are intended to be read in order.” I recommend that as well. The first three stories center around the same family, and I don’t think the third with no relation to the first two would be as strong. The fourth story takes us somewhere new, but throughout the stories refer to one another, and I believe that it is really when taken line-upon-line and then as a whole does this book succeed.
The Meagre Tarmac is an immigrant book. It focuses on the successes and troubles of (usually) first generation Indo-Americans, as they attempt to make it in a foreign land while dealing with culture and family. They are dedicated to business and the sciences (never the arts!) and succeed beyond their wildest expectations only to find that something is missing. While this book is precisely about what I’ve just described, I want to say that I’ve purposefully begun this review with such a generalized description that sounds in many ways just like thousands of other books about the immigrant experience. Indeed, one of the characters in The Meagre Tarmac is a book editor who specializes in such novels: “They featured potent memories of ancestral homeland, twisted loyalties, religious and sexual and political schisms.” The Meagre Tarmac features all of these, but for me it is more and better, in part because of how well it delves in such a personal manner into the nature of that intangible, inexplicable something that is missing.
The first three stories — “The Sociology of Love,” “In Her Prime,” and “The Dimple Kapadia of Camino Real” — focus on the Waldekar family. Here is how the first story, narrated by the patriarch, begins:
A monstrously tall girl from Stanford with bright yellow hair comes to the door and asks if I am willing to answer questions for her sociology class. She knows my name, “Dr. Vivek Waldekar?” and even folds her hands in a creditable namaste.
Vivek Waldekar is one of those successful immigrants. He left his wife and newly born son in India while he received his education and finally secured a job in the emerging tech industry in California. Plans went perfectly and he eventually brought them over to America where they had another daughter. He is quite proud of his upbringing and how he has managed to meld the best of it with the best of American culture. Of course, underneath his pride, he’s confused. And with good reason. We learn in the next story that his thirteen-year-old daughter, Pradmilla, whom he barely mentions while extolling his less talented son’s endeavors, is quite content to be the current conquest of her ice skating coach, who thinks that girls of thirteen are perfect in every way. No one in the family knows about this secret relationship, but when moving back to India is brought up, Pradmilla simply says that she will commit suicide if her father takes her back to India, and she means it and we believe her. Mrs. Waldekar has her own secrets that arise from an attempt to catch something she felt was missing, but really it just makes whatever is missing that much more conspicuous.
Most of these characters are unhappy, and it shocks them. A character in a later story, “Dear Abhi,” articulates it perfectly:
When something is missing it’s not exactly easy to place it. I have given this some thought — I think it is called “evidence of things unseen.” Despite external signs of satisfaction, good health, a challenging job, the love and support of family and friends, no depressions or mood swings, no bad habits, I would not call myself happy. I am well-adjusted. We are all extremely well-adjusted. I believe my situation is not uncommon among successful immigrants of my age and background.
I’m focusing on the “overall” experiences that are common to all characters in the book, but I also want to show just how well Blaise takes a moment and injects it with a very personal response, familiar to us all, while maintaining the type of detail that includes the character’s unique cultural make up. Here is an older man looking back on the moment he first felt a sexual awakening. The girl would become the great love of his life, though their situations would take them in completely opposite directions. They are playing tennis.
We lost a point, but she ran up to retrieve the ball even before I could scoop it, and when she bent over, and when she turned to toss it back to me, I saw for an instant the entirety of her body as though she had disrobed in front of me. She was as naked to me as if we had been in the shower. It was a lascivious moment in a young man’s chaste trajectory. It meant that new terms had been introduced into the rather simple-minded equation of work+study+success=fulfillment.
Blaise’s stories are filled to the brim with those unexpected and intangible “new terms” and that “evidence of things unseen,” and the reader can feel it, too. One of my favorite stories, “Potsy and Pansy,” deals with the intangibles — and the tangibles – involved in love and sex. The main character, “Chut,” is Parsi, and for most of his life he has done things right to achieve his modest success in Pittsburg while his parents worked to arrange a proper Parsi marriage. It was completely unexpected to Chut when he found contentment in the arms of an American girl named Becka. But now his parents have found the perfect marriage candidate, a Parsi movie star up in Toronto. On the one hand, he feels he owes it to his parents to meet his marriage candidate. On the other hand, he isn’t particularly attractive and cannot see himself in a relationship with a movie star; plus, he’s content with someone already. On another hand, he sees the possibilities for a completely new life for himself as this movie star’s husband. It’s the perfect opportunity to grab a hold of something that’s been missing, even though he’s smart enough to know he’ll also be losing something else.
I enjoyed the bits and pieces of the book, and they add up to something even greater. Three cheers to the Giller for bringing Blaise to my attention.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Ann Beattie’s “Starlight” was originally published in the September 19, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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It’s been six years since Ann Beattie last published a piece of fiction in The New Yorker. I was looking forward to reading it, though I really disliked her most recent work, the novella Walks with Men (my review here).
“Starlight” is an excerpt from a new novel Beattie, a master of short fiction, is working on. Though I get annoyed at these excerpts as they usually appear to be paid-for marketing rather than a genuine attempt to give us some quality short fiction, at times the marketing works to our benefit. I would never have read Beattie’s novel because she didn’t, in my mind, even pull of the novella — stick to your short short fiction, I would say. But, though “Starlight” didn’t leave me gushing, it did interest me in the topic Beattie chose enough that I may check out the novel, Mrs. Nixon: A Novelist Imagines a Life, which comes out in November (okay, such is my reading load right now that, despite my interest, I’m probably not interested enough to actually read the book, so anyone’s comments are appreciated).
“Starlight” begins with a section entitled “Mrs. Nixon Joins the Final Official Photograph.” Here are the Nixon’s grasping for some dignity in their final moments before being ejected from the White House. Beattie does a great job presenting the rush of preparation, the type of rush that is also an attempt to avoid feeling, something like Emily Dickinson’s “The Bustle in a House the Morning After Death.” But the thoughts will not be pushed aside:
The plane will transport us. California is there waiting for us, earlier in time, still young. And Dick: what is he thinking? That we have to be a united family until the last, united for posterity, acting like the cross in front of the vampire, warding off evil and repelling anyone who wants to transgress against us. Because we are the Nixons, like a lineup of suspects: that’s the man who said the war had to continue; he’s the one who tried to tell the nation what was best. And his wife, why isn’t she looking at the camera? Why isn’t she trying harder? She went mute long ago.
The next section is the short, “Mrs. Nixon reacts to ‘RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon,’” followed by the longest vignetter, “Brownie,” my favorite. It begins, “What exactly do you do if your husband brings home a dog?” Mr. Nixon was out for a walk one night and brought home a new dog. The vignette is a terrible look at a man who just wants to keep the dog and who won’t stop talking. The back-and-forth between him and Mrs. Nixon is something to behold, Mrs. Nixon mostly keeping quiet, Mr. Nixon going all over the place.
The final vignette is “Mrs. Nixon’s Thoughts, Late-Night Walk, San Clemente,” which brings the piece to its close, though we can feel it is not finished, and I mean not finished in a bad way. It’s like the ending was tacked on because, after all, these are just a selection of the many vignettes that will presumably build to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Still, the whole thing takes 15 minutes to read, and dang it if writing this review didn’t make me even more tempted to go read the book when it comes out.
There weren’t many Giller Prize longlisted titles available in the United States when the list was announced, but one you can get for the Kindle is Genni Gunn’s trip into a family’s history, Solitaria (2011). Gunn has written two other novels and two collections of short stories (and some poetry, and even an opera). She was born in Trieste, Italy (and has also translated a couple of books of Italian poetry), and in Solitaria she takes a Canadian with Italian heritage back to Italy to learn about his past.
The book is set in the midsummer of 2002. As it opens, we wander through a dilapidated Italian villa that is finally being restored:
Once, this villa was the pride of its owners, nestled in a sprawling lot facing the Tyrrhenian Sea, surrounded by palms and oleanders on manicured lawns where children played and cats sunned themselves. Over time, the children grew and moved to the cities. When the owners died, the villa was sold to foreigners who came only in summer. In the winter months, small boys climbed over the fence and played in the tall grass no one tended. Sometimes, they built fires on the beach, and tried to pry open the green shutters. The villa was sold and resold, neglected and abandoned by owner after owner, none of whom lived there.
Besides representing the gradual disintegration and dispersal of the Santoro family and the gradual collapse of memory and the past, something grand becoming dust, the disintegrating villa also brings us to the story’s shocking catalyst. During the restoration, workers discover the body of a man who, it is determined, was murdered in the 1950s. A television crew for the television show Chi l’Ha Visto?, which reports on unsolved crimes or disappearances (“Our answering machine receives approximately 40,000 responses a year”), arrives to film their report. When the clip airs, Piera Valente and Teresa Santoro, two older women with a terrible relationship, are stupefied when they realize that the body is that of Vito Santoro, Piera’s oldest brother and Teresa’s husband, the father of her son Marco. For nearly fifty years, the whole Santoro family, Teresa included, believed that Vito had emigrated to Argentina. They all believed it because through all the years Piera said she was receiving letters from him.
Vito and Piera are two of seven Santoro children born in the early twentieth century to a poor man and woman who were against fascism when it was unpopular to be so. Over the years, the family has dispersed across the globe, and the mother and father have — obviously — died. When the other siblings hear the news, they come back to Belisolano, Italy, where Piera and Teresa live, to attend the funeral and get some answers.
From this, we go to Canada where David hears the news from his mother, Clarissa, one of the Santoro siblings, a world-class soprano. Piera, it turns out, has locked herself in her room, refusing to let anyone enter and refusing to answer any of their questions. The only person she wants to talk to is David, the nephew she has always favored. Like many members of the once-close family, David is a bit of a rootless recluse. He is involved in a long-distance relationship with a woman he has only been with, face-to-face, a few times, and that suits him okay. In fact, though he doesn’t necessarily want to go to Italy, it is an opportunity to avoid a long vacation with his girlfriend, a vacation that would more than double the amount of time they’ve actually spent together. So, off to Italy he goes.
When David arrives, we meet several other members of the family, though Piera has remained locked in her room. Gunn does a great job introducing these elderly siblings and their children. In fact, when the novel takes us into narratives of the past, when I met these same characters as children I felt a bit of glee in meeting them at that stage of their lives, so nicely drawn are they at the beginning of the book, though they are introduced only briefly. Not long after the introductions, David makes his way to Piera, who feels attacked and misunderstood (as she has felt for most of the past half-century), and she begins telling him the story of her youth, and we settling into “the oppressive heat of memory.”
Much of the book is her stories about the past, going back to the 1920s and 30s, when her father was fed up with fascism and the family was young, up to the mid-1950s, when the family broke apart for various reasons. Rather than focus on this time period in Italy’s history, though, making the book a vehicle to explore territory that is perhaps familiar, Gunn keeps the focus on the family. This, for me, was a good thing, and rather than become a poorly disguised, politically correct reexamination of the past, the family’s personal trials remain front and center. Though history can destroy, this book very much focuses on this statement from Piera:
And family, too, can become the rubble around you, the millstones and boulders, the pebbles and stones — a virtual quarry impeding your every step.
We learn that Vito, the eldest child, was always the black-sheep of the family. Perhaps this is in part due to the fact that he was often sent away to care or be cared for by others as family circumstances determined, but whatever the case Vito never fully settles into his family. For the children, Vito often feels like a visitor rather than a brother. This causes problems for Piera, in particular:
Sometimes, I daydreamed that he was not my brother at all, but a stray boy my parents had taken in and sent away and welcomed back, a boy I could fall in love with without the shame, a boy who would usher me into the pages of a romantic novel, with whom I would live happily ever after.
For his part, Vito’s love for Piera tended less to the brotherly and more to the romantic, and he frequently makes little advances to let her know this. At least, that’s Piera’s version of the past. When David goes downstairs to report, the other siblings don’t believe it happened quite that way: “Anyway, as always, Piera is making this her story instead of Vito’s,” Clarissa says. “Self-centered as ever.”
“Appropriately vague,” says someone at the house. “Ah. The nature of truth.” Sadly, Solitaria is not vague at all. As much as I enjoyed the setup and the character, the novel deflates considerably when it becomes obvious it is becoming less and less a character study and more a family melodrama, complete with much wailing. Even the characters start flattening as we move quickly to the big reveal, which is quite predictable at about the three-quarter mark.
I still rate the book highly because its first half is nicely done: the narrative is well balanced and both the characters and the setting are nicely textured. It doesn’t make good on the promise it makes at the beginning, but I found it enjoyable, well done on the whole, and, as I’ve often found with the books on the Giller lists, interesting and compelling despite its flaws.
Last year The New Yorker included David Bezmozgis when they highlighted twenty young fiction writers in their “20 Under 40″ series. Bezmozgis’s piece, “The Train of Their Departure” (my thoughts here), was one of my favorites, a somewhat rare case when I felt like the excerpt from a novel worked as a complete and interesting short story. The novel it came from is The Free World (2011), which was recently placed on the Giller Prize longlist. KevinfromCanada considers this one of his favorite books of the year (his review here). I personally thought the short story was better (his debut, Natasha, was a highly regarded collection of short stories; The Free World is his first novel). However, don’t take that to mean I’ll be putting up a fight should this turn out to be a contender as the winner of the Shadow Giller; it’s a wonderful book.
The book begins with dislocation. We are on a train platform in Vienna, which is neither the origin nor the destination for the Krasnansky family. It is 1979, and, somewhat against the odds, they have just left Soviet Russia and are headed to Rome, thence to who-knows-where — maybe the United States, maybe Australia, maybe Israel, maybe even Canada. The first member of the family we meet is the philandering Alec. They family has arrived in Vienna and must transfer all of their luggage from one train to the next, but Alec takes a moment to look around at the many people in transit.
His own family roiled among them: his parents, his wife, his nephews, his sister-in-law, and particularly his brother, Karl, worked furiously with the suitcases and duffel bags. He should have been helping them but his attention was drawn farther down the platform by two pretty tourists.
Alec goes so far as to imagine a quick conversation with the two pretty tourists, imagining them being from Chicago, happy to talk to him because he will tell them that is where he is going. Meanwhile, in the back of the reader’s mind is a question: didn’t we just read that he has a wife who is busy working with the luggage? Somehow in these first few pages, Bezmozgis, with understatement, gives us a selfish character that we can’t help but be attracted to, and we get a sense of his relationship with the whole family. As I mentioned above, for me Bezmozgis works best when he’s working on the smaller scale, and this opening scene could be a short story in and of itself — a fantastic look at flux through the eyes of a few well drawn characters.
The story doesn’t focus all of its attention on Alec. In fact, soon it is Polina, his wife, who takes center stage as her own dislocation is developed. Polina was unhappily married when she met Alec. It’s not that her husband was bad to her; on the contrary, he was entirely proper, and she felt a severe lack of passion. As we saw from the first page, Alec is eager to supply passion. Interestingly, though the bulk of this novel is about how the Krasnansky family toils in Rome to find passage to anywhere where they can settle down, Bezmozgis spends a lot of time developing Polina’s back story, including her brutally detached courtship with her first husband (“The Train of Their Departure” focuses on this as well). Polina’s story was a highlight for me, and maybe that’s one reason I found some of the rest of the book wanting. I just didn’t feel as connected to, say, Karl and his family, or even Alec, and passages dedicated to their point of view paled a bit in comparison to the richness of Polina’s.
I don’t want to give the impression that the other stories — the onest that show the brothers’ attempts to get a leg up in Rome as they try to both expedite their departure and plan for an indefinite stay — are weak. They are not, and I believe they make Polina’s story even stronger when we consider her own dislocation. Another character I didn’t want to stop reading about was Samuil Krasnansky, the patriarch of the family. Samuil is 65 in 1979 and lived through the revolution. He knows what life was like before the Soviet state was formed, and he’s devoted his life to supporting the Soviet state. He cannot comprehend why his family would want to leave. Sure, maybe things were not perfect, but they were better than when he was a child. His own children grew up knowing only the Soviet way of life, and without anything to compare it to all they saw were its flaws. His wife, Emma, for her part, really just wants the family to be together:
– You know, I’ve thought about it, Emma said, and what is this except another evacuation? Emigration, evacuation; I don’t see such a difference. At least this time everyone is together.
– Think before you speak, Samuil said. In the war you ran from the enemy. Now who are you running from?
Throughout the novel, Samuil appears to be on the verge of death. At first, he is a bit like Grandpa Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, he just didn’t want to leave and it’s had to imagine he’ll stay alive long after being torn from his roots (Grandpa Joad dies on the first day of the trip). However, Samuil becomes, along with Polina, one of the most fascinating characters I’ve read about this year. Yes, death is next door:
There had been a point — once it became obvious that his sons would leave Riga, that no manner of threats or appeals would deter them, and that his family and his reputation would be destroyed — when Samuil had, for the first time in his life, contemplated suicide. The idea plagued him for weeks. He sought a reason to keep living, to justify his waking-and-breathing participation in the future. Almost certainly he would be expelled from the Party.
But the way out will not be so simple for Samuil, and Bezmozgis shows that a man may be wilfully on the verge of death but “the habit of survival” cultivated through his life doesn’t allow it. Consequently, Samuil, despite looking like a shell after leaving his past behind, becomes a very full character who struggles as the family adopts a new life, a life which includes the tentative reintroduction of of Judaism, which for Samuil is no real root at all.
The Free World is very much a novel about characters grouped together by circumstance, and so those circumstances — Communism, emigration, corruption in the free world — are nicely explored; however, and thankfully, The Free World is more interested in the individual character’s lives. This is not a book that uses prop characters to get something off its chest. As I said above, some of these character’s lives are better done than others, and for me the strongest aspects of the novel were the ones done in miniature, making the book as a whole feel a bit unbalanced. Nevertheless, as Giller season heats up, this is a book to pay attention to, and it deserves that attention despite any of my misgivings.
This morning the Giller Prize longlist was annonced, and the Shadow Giller is ready. Here are the books:
- David Bezmozgis: The Free World (available in the U.S.)
- Clarke Blaise: The Meagre Tarmac* (available in the U.S.)
- Lynn Coady: The Antagonist
- Michael Christie: The Beggar’s Garden*
- Patrick deWitt: The Sisters Brothers (available in the U.S.)
- Myrna Dey: Extensions** (limited availability in the U.S.)
- Esi Edugyan: Half-Blood Blues (despite its Booker longlisting and now shortlisting, still no sign of this one being available in the U.S.)
- Marina Endicott: The Little Shadows
- Zsuzsi Gartner: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives*
- Genni Gunn: Solitaria (available in the U.S.)
- Pauline Holdstock: Into the Heart of the Country
- Wayne Johnston: A World Elsewhere
- Dany Laferrière: The Return
- Suzette Mayr: Monoceros (might be available in the U.S. later this month)
- Michael Ondaatje: The Cat’s Table (available in the U.S. as of October 4, 2011)
- Guy Vanderhaeghe: A Good Man (available in the U.S. as of January 3, 2012)
- Alexi Zentner: Touch (available in the U.S.)
* = Short Story Collection
** = Reader’s Choice
Wait, that’s 17 books (three of which are short story collections)! The Shadow Giller has its work cut out. I have read two of the books already: David Bezmozgis’s The Free World (which I have yet to review on this site) and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers (my review here), which, along with Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize this morning. I have on my stack Alexi Zentner’s Touch, so I’ll probably start there. Of the others, we’ve seen a sample of Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table in The New Yorker earlier this year (my post here), and I am thrilled to become acquainted with Guy Vanderhaeghe’s work. I don’t know much if anything about any of the others. I’ll do some digging through the day to try to find out which of these titles are available in the United States.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Shadow Giller, let me point to the write up by KevinfromCanada, our chair, here. It’s my third year, and I’ve been looking forward to it since last November, when last year’s winner was announced. Kevin and Alison Gzowski are also back as the Canadian jurors. This year the Shadow Giller has shaken things up even more and will be joined by another international judge from across the sea: Kimbofo (who blogs here at Reading Matters).