Happy Halloween! If you’re looking for a bit of literary horror, you can’t do much better than the Granta 117, the horror issue. This issue features “horror” writing from some writers whose names might spring up when “horror” is mentioned, but there are also many I never would have thought of in this context. Here are the contents:
- “False Blood” by Will Self
- “Your Birthday Has Come and Gone” by Paul Auster
- “Poem” by D.A. Powell
- “Brass” by Joy Williams
- “The Starveling” by Don DeLillo
- “The Mission” by Tom Bamforth
- “She Murdered Mortal He” by Sarah Hall
- “A Garden of Illuminating Existence” by Kanitta Meechubot
- “Deng’s Dogs” by Santiago Roncagliolo
- “The Infamous Bengal Ming” by Rajesh Parameswaran
- “The Ground Floor” by Daniel Alarcón
- “Insatiable” by Mark Doty
- “The Colonel’s Son” by Roberto Bolaño
- “The Dune” by Stephen King
- “Diem Perdidi” by Julie Otsuka
Now, when I say “literary” horror, I don’t necessarily mean what most people would think of when they hear the word “horror.” Let me explain. When I got the issue, I flipped through it and saw that Alarcón’s story was short. I’ve only read one thing by him, but I liked it and wondered how on earth he’d do with a horror story. I wasn’t disappointed in the story, which takes us to where a bunch of actors are putting on a fight club, but it was obvious that “horror” was being interpreted broadly. Not the creepy willies I’d expected, but not a bad thing in my opinion.
I then went to the beginning and read Will Self’s “False Blood.” Again, horror was being interpreted loosely, but this was an astonishing bit of personal nonfiction where Self tells about a blood condition he’s been suffering through. The writing is exquisite, and the exploration of addiction is truly horrific. You can read a shorter version of the essay at the Guardian website here.
From what others say, there are some classic creepy stories here, but I am still working through it. I suggest you do the same!
I’m a little late in bringing up the latest Roberto Bolaño book, Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998 – 2003 (Entre parentesis, 2004; tr. by Natasha Wimmer, 2011). It came out earlier this year, and beyond the first week after its release I haven’t really heard much about it. I’m behind in getting to it for a couple of reasons: (1) I have had less time to write reviews, so I have a pile of books I’ve read and want to review but just can’t, (2) while this book has been a joy to dip into, it’s not exactly the easiest book to “review”; enjoying it, even understanding much of it, may depend a great deal on how one feels about Bolaño and his work. However, so much has Bolaño’s work grown in my estimation since I first read and reviewed 2666 (my review here) that I had to get some thoughts down here and bring Between Parentheses up again, especially if people missed in when it first came out.
Between Parentheses is a large catch-all. It purports to collect “most of the newspaper columns and articles Roberto Bolaño published between 1998 and 2003.” There’s no quality control, then, and that has upset some people. Of course, there are those (and I’m one of them) who wouldn’t have it any other way. Bolaño, even when writing off-the-cuff about things he may know little about, is at his worst still full of infectious energy. Further, most of the pieces here are very short and can be quickly skimmed or skipped altogether if necessary.
The date span, 1998 – 2003, is the approximate span of time when Bolaño was a living literary superstar. He’d published books and won some minor awards before 1998, but that was the year The Savage Detectives was first published. Between then and 2003, when he died at fifty, what he thought mattered, and he was basically given free rein to write for various publications on various topics. And here they are.
The book isn’t arranged by chronology but rather loosely by theme in six parts: 1. Three Insufferable Speeches, 2. Fragments of a Return to the Native Land, 3. Between Parentheses (Bolaño’s column in Chile’s Las Últimas Noticias), 4. Scenes, 5. The Brave Librarian, and 6. The Private Life of a Novelist. Within are speeches, interviews, long essays, brief thought bubbles, sketches for books, book reviews, etc. All the stuff we’d expect the author to have been involved in within the literary world that could be written down.
I have two favorite parts. First, the book reviews and author portraits Bolaño wrote for his column. He writes about writers as diverse as Jonathan Swift, Turgenev, Philip K. Dick, and Thomas Harris. Some of my favorites were short but insightful pieces about a few of my favorites: César Aira (“an exceptionally perceptive chronicler of mothers (a verbal mystery) and fathers (a geometric certainty)”; you can read my reviews of Aira books here), and Horacio Castellanos Moya (“[His book El asco's] acid humor, like a Buster Keaton movie or a time bomb, threatens the hormonal stability of the idiots who, upon reading it, feel an irresistible urge to string the author up in the town square. Truly, I know of no greater honor for a real writer”; you can read my reviews of Castellanos Moya books here). The number of authors brought up in these pages, under praise or high criticism, is large. I don’t know it, but it’s enough to keep one reading through life.
My other favorite parts are the little tidbits that give insight into Bolaño’s strange and unique work. If you haven’t read Bolaño, some of this may not make much sense, but in a piece on exile Bolaño discusses “the photographic negative of an epiphany, which is also the story of our lives in Latin America.” I cannot think of a better way to describe his work and the sensation upon finishing — “the photographic negative of an epiphany.”
Bolaño also discusses his experiences in the early 1970s when as a twenty year old he was in Chile during Pinochet’s coup. Afterwards, Bolaño was arrested and spent eight days in captivity in a schoolhouse (an event recounted a few times in his fiction). He succinctly relates how those days after the coup felt: “full days, crammed with energy, crammed with eroticism, days and nights in which anything could happen.” If finishing a Bolaño book feels like looking at the photographic negative of an epiphany, reading one feels like how he describes this time in his life: “The experience of love, black humor, friendship, prison, and the threat of death were condensed into no more than five interminable months that I lived in a state of amazement and urgency.” That condensing: that’s his literary work.
Bolaño’s work is powerful, and it can be powerfully confusing and off-putting. One thing I’ve learned, though, is that, while I can admire (greatly) individual pieces in his oeuvre, Bolaño’s project was greater than any single work, and each work built up toward his lofty ideas. Between Parentheses is a great companion piece, essential, I think, to anyone who really wants to dig in. It’s not that it adds up to greater comprehension (though I think it can); it’s that it continues to rearrange the puzzle pieces in interesting ways.
Apparently some time early Friday morning, my webhost had a server die, and it happened to be the server my data was on. When they finally got my stuff transferred to another server, I guess it still takes some time for other ISPs to redirect traffic. Consequently, even though my site was up, people still couldn’t see it, including me. I believe that enough time has passed that ISPs all over have figured out where my website currently sits (I have no idea what all of this means, by the way). So, after a day and a half down, I found out that they’d also lost the last week’s worth of data, which meant two posts and I don’t know how many comments (not too many). I have the posts back up, but the comments are gone for good. I’m sorry for this and I hope that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.
I also couldn’t write any post for this weekend, so I’d like to direct you instead to this interesting essay about the life and death of The American Book Award (a populist movement that replaced the National Book Award during the greater part of the 1980s) that was in the New York Times Book Review today. Click here for the article.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. George Saunders’s “Tenth of December” was originally published in the October 31, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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I have been having a hard time with George Saunders lately. Where I once looked forward to his stories in The New Yorker, and have recommended his earlier story collections to others, I was a bit saddened when I saw his name in this week’s issue. I just haven’t enjoyed him this year. But I dug in — or, rather, I tried to. I started this story on Monday morning and felt like I was making steady progress, but it took me three days to actually finish it. I’m afraid I’ve just continued to drift away from one of my favorite short story writers, and I’m not sure it’s his fault because, in retrospect, this is a pretty nicely executed story, even if I found it a bit predictable and Saunders’ style and structure familiar as to him (not as to others, since I still think Saunders has his own strangeness).
“Tenth of December” has a structure that reminded me right away of one of my favorite Saunders stories of the last few years, “Victory Lap” (my brief thoughts here). In that story, Saunders had us enter the heads of two narrators with distinct (thoroughly stylized) voices. At first the two lines of narrative are distinct and seemingly unrelated, but soon the two characters come together in an unexpected and dramatic way. Similarly structured and similarly stylized, “Tenth of December” didn’t work for me nearly as well while reading it. When I wrote about Saunders’ last story, “Home” (my thoughts here), I wondered how much of my disappointment was based on the fact that it wasn’t a good story and how much was based on the fact that, if you’ve read enough Saunders, the stories start to feel the same. Sadly, that this story feels similar to another, despite the differenct characters and the different circumstances, only strengthens arguments against Saunders we’ve heard before: that he’s mostly style and little substance.
When the story begins, we meet a young boy named Robin, who has ”unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs.” Obviously picked on at school, in the wilds around his home he visualizes a world where he moves around enacting heroic stealth operations against some otherwordly creatures named the Nethers. Robin runs all of the speaking parts in his own mind, becoming as much a figment of his own imagination as the Nethers. Here we get a sense of his voice, which moves along haltingly, mimicing the way a child (or an adult) might add on new phrases as they come to mind, moving the inner narrative forward bit-by-bit, each time teasing out a bit of minor peril and heroism which can never climax because then what?
Today’s assignation: walk to pond, ascertain beaver dam. Likely he would be detained. By that species that lived amongst the old rock wall. They were small but, upon emerging, assumed certain proportions. And gave chase. This was just their methodology. His aplomb threw them loops. He knew that. And revelled it. He would run, level the pellet gun, intone: Are you aware of the usage of this human implement?
Each time I read a Saunders story, even back when I was really enjoying them, I had a hard time trying to determine if the voice was effective or affected. And even when I found it effective, it still often grated for a while until the story completely took over. While this voice worked for me in theory, I still found it kind of annoying as I read because it continued to push me out of the story, but this perhaps represents my own late-blooming prejudice more than anything. This is not the shortest of short stories, and I’m sad to say I never was able to fully engage with it due to the voice play.
Interestingly, despite the stylized voice, the story is still told by a third-person narrator, albeit an incredibly close third-person narrator, so close, in fact, that even spelling and usage errors pop in. This works well since both Robin and the character I’ve yet to talk about have withdrawn from their lives and created an alternate narrative where they see themselves from some imagined perspective that stands apart. Here we see Robin again confronting the Nethers, who increasingly take on the characteristics of the jerks at school.
He’d just abide there, infuriating them with his snow angels. Sometimes, believing it their coup de grâce, not realizing he’d heard this since time in memorial from certain in-school cretins, they’d go, Wow, we didn’t even know Robin could be a boy’s name. And chortle their Nether laughs.
Part of Robin’s inner narrative involves the new girl at school named Suzanne. She doesn’t even know his real name, but now the Nethers have her and Robin is there to save her — their relationship is destined to last forever. It’s total wish-fulfillment (and familiar — come on — we’ve all at least imagined a good come-back to that argument long after we lost) as she says, “And also, yes to there being something to us,” and invites him to her pool. I was a bit thrown when she said, “It’s cool if you swim with your shirt on.” This seemed to be Saunders butting in his head to show that Robin is also chubby and dreaming of a girl who doesn’t mind. But I’m not so sure it’s consistent with Robin’s inner narrative to let in his chubbiness, especially in the form of swimming with a shirt. A minor quibble.
At the end of the first section, Robin spies a winter coat and, a bit farther on, the man who has dropped it despite the winter chill. This is Don Eber, a man in his fifties who, we find out as the story breaks Robin’s section and takes us to Don’s, has cancer. Shedding his winter coat and testing the theory that freezing to death is just like falling to sleep, Don is struggling with his own inner narrative where Dad and Kip each hold conversations about Don’s actions. Don’s third-person narrator is also so close as to allow all of the slip-ups in Don’s mind as coldness overtakes him:
Not so once the suffering begat. Began. God damn it. More and more his words. Askew. More and more his words were not what he would hoped.
Don, attempting suicide, and Robin, coming to the rescue with a coat (but across a barely frozen pond) are about to meet in dramatic fashion. And I’ll be darned if in writing this review I didn’t find myself appreciating Saunders’ story more than when I read it, though not to the point I’m interested in going back through the story now. It’s long and (perhaps it was my mood) a bit tedious.
So I find myself needing to test myself re: Saunders. If I now read the older work I enjoyed, would I still like it? I hope so, and I hope I can get over whatever hang up I have right now because, going through the process of writing this review, I’m beginning to suspect it’s just me. Is it?
This year I completed four of the books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize: Snowdrops, The Sisters Brothers, Half-Blood Blues (reviews here, here, and here, respectively) — and the only one of those I felt should be on the shortlist was Half-Blood Blues — and Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending (2011). I tried the other two shortlisted books, Pigeon English and Jamrach’s Menagerie, giving up on each after I realized that I had no interest in finishing them. For the most part, then, to me an off-year for the Booker (others have praised the shortlist as the best ever). The off-year was made all the worse when some of the judges took offense to criticism, pulling attention from the books to the judges’ own sense of indignation. Even moments before the award was announced, in her speech Chair Stella Rimington was still harping on about the criticism and her pride that this shortlist has sold better than any in history, but she barely mentioned the shortlisted books generally and didn’t ever mention them by name (you can read the speech here).
Yes, for the most part, an off-year, but with one glowing exception: The Sense of an Ending won. It is a wonderful book — short, subtle, thoughtful, not only readable but re-readable. Let’s move on from the fiasco (for a moment) and focus on the winning title. It deserves it.
This is a short book (just over 150 pages) in two finely controlled parts. Our narrator is Anthony Webster (Tony). He’s in his sixties, he was married once and is still on friendly terms with his ex-wife (she might be only friend), and he’s proud that his daughter has turned out as well as she did, even if they don’t talk as much as he’d like. Part 1 focuses on a few key relationships and events from forty years ago that have recently arisen to haunt the sixty-year-old narrator, causing the narrator to think thoughts such as these:
Had my life increased, or merely added to itself? [. . . .] There had been addition — and subtraction — in my life, but how much multiplication? And this gave me a sense of unease, or unrest.
So as Tony is attempting to grappling with his past, he lays these particular memories out before us. From the beginning Tony is forthright about the fallibility of his mind, how much his memories may be inadequate or self-serving or even false. After listing a few vestigial images, he says, “This last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”
The first central memory deals with the time when Tony was in school. He had two best friends named Colin and Alex, and when Adrian Finn moved in Adrian automatically and inexplicably became the fourth. They were all smart, but Adrian is clearly ahead of them all, a true philosopher at heart. For example, once they were together in history class, debating the knowability of history, and Adrian came up with this apt definition: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” Obviously, Tony has already told us that the nature of memory is central to this story; documentation will spur the action in Part 2.
The second key memory in Part 1 comes after school is done. The four friends have moved on, and Tony’s attention is spent on his first girlfriend, Veronica. I’m going to be honest here: I don’t know how to write about Veronica. In Part 2, Barnes not only shows how Tony’s own memory of events can change, but he also changes the way we see (and feel about) Part 1. I don’t mean he “recasts” what has already been told, or not only that anyway; I love it when authors do that, but Barnes goes further because the reader is complicit. I’m just at a loss here regarding Veronica, whom Tony’s ex-wife calls “the Fruitcake” — well, perhaps that says enough about how Tony remembers her.
Tony’s relationship with Adrian and Veronica are central, and they lead to a quiet tragedy that took place forty years ago. In Part 2, in the present day, Veronica’s mother has died and left Tony a diary. It’s been forty years since Tony was with Veronica, and the only contact he had with her mother was during the only weekend trip he took to visit Veronica’s family. Why she is leaving him a diary, he has no idea. When Tony receives word from the solicitor that Veronica has taken the diary and refuses to let him have it, Tony tries to figure out a way to get it (some documentary corroboration). He doesn’t realize how much this is going to change who he thinks he is, and it leads him to think quite badly (perhaps quite rightly) of himself:
And so, for the first time, I began to feel a more general remorse — a feeling somewhere between self-pity and self-hatred — about my whole life. All of it. I had lost the friends of my youth. I had lost the love of my wife. I had abandoned the ambitions I had entertained. I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded — and how pitiful that was.
I love that last sentence. How well Barnes manages to imbue simple sentences with deep emotions. It reminds me of when he wrote, “I don’t belive in God, but I miss him.” These two sentences alone are clear proof that literary writing does not mean “impenetrable,” as the critics say (though it can). In these, Barnes presents a simple thought, and then undercuts it with another simple phrase, but that undercutting and the resulting combination show a complexity of feeling and thought that many writers could not articulate in a page.
So Tony begins to see the past a bit differently. Strangely, this doesn’t just mean he remembers things in a new light; rather, he remembers things he’d long forgotten.
For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out. The events reconfirm the emotions — resentment, a sense of injustice, relief — and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be contradiction. But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?
Barnes’ two-part novel enacts that very idea: what happens to memory when emotions change? We learn more about the past as Tony does, and our impressions of what went on in Part 1 change a great deal. As I said, and I don’t think everyone will have this same experience, but it made me feel strongly for Veronica. Tony had a memory buried in resentment that came to the surface as the resentment dissipated:
My brain must have erased it from the record, but now I knew it for a fact. She was there with me. We sat on a damp blanket on a damp riverside holding hands; she had brought a flask of hot chocolate.
It’s that flask of hot chocolate; it reveals, subtly, that she valued their relationship, tried to nurture it, tried to prepare simple pleasures with her hands. The book doesn’t stop its revelations there, but I shall. One thing I promise: Barnes doesn’t go the easy route and help us discover that Tony remembered things all wrong and now this new stuff is the way it was. Some have complained that the book is too ambiguous. It doesn’t solve itself; it just reveals complexities and shakes certainty.
Before ending this post, I wanted to also bring up the book’s tone. Barnes is, in some ways, presenting an essay on memory, but this is also a book about loss, particularly the loss of time. All of this is leading to death and what the life that just ended meant anyway.
The Sense of an Ending is a fabulous book. There are layers and layers that I didn’t even touch on here but that I am certain will be with me for some time. Highly recommended.
This evening, the winner for the 2011 Man Booker Prize was announced:
- The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
It has been a troubled year for the Man Booker Prize. When awarding the Man Booker International Prize to Philip Roth, judge Carmen Callil resigned. It seemed the only folks who showed up for the Best of Beryl Bainbridge Prize (the now annual off-shoot to the main award) were the crickets. Jonathan Talor, Chair of the Booker Foundation, claimed the Man Booker International Prize, which has had only four winners, was now the world’s premier literary prize and superior to the Nobel Prize. Then the judges of the real Booker Prize got criticized to no end (I was not on their side) for choosing “readable” books that “zip along.” Well, the most literary title won. I’m looking forward to reading The Sense of an Ending. Barnes has been shortlisted three times before, and his winning this year was far from a foregone conclusion though many thought it the best book on the shortlist. Will this put a stop to the criticism?
Ah, another finalist for this year’s much-maligned Man Booker Prize. In part because of the criticism (much of which I agree with, particularly criticism about how some of the judges have responded), I really didn’t want to read Half-Blood Blues (2011), even if it did eventually win the prize (it helps that the book still isn’t available in the United States, though it is finally slated for publication by Picador in late February 2012). But then Half-Blood Blues was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, making it mandatory reading. But I was further encouraged when the book went on to be a finalist for Canada’s Governor’s General Award and Canada’s Writers Trust Fiction Prize (that’s finalist for four prestigious prizes, folks). So, even if the Booker judges had it mostly wrong, perhaps this book was a ray of light on the list.
I say yes, a ray of light indeed. It’s not my favorite book of the year, but so far it is my favorite book of the Booker shortlist (I have only not read or attempted to read Julian Barnes’ A Sense of an Ending, which I suspect I’ll like very much when I get to it, but who knows?). If Half-Blood Blues wins the Booker Prize tonight — in just a few hours — then I say a good and worthy book won, and we can put behind us the rest (well, most) of the issues with the Prize. I’ll try not to spoil things for the Shadow Giller by ranking it on the Giller shortlist just yet.
The premise and the well rendered voice of the narrator, Sid Griffiths, an American black octogenerian, are the book’s two main strengths. First, to the premise. In the 1930s many of America’s best black jazz musicians fled to Europe in order to escape Jim Crow laws. In Europe the jazz culture flourished, for a while. Our central characters, the narrator Sid and his childhood friend Chip Jones, are two American black men who went to Berlin where they formed an exceptional jazz band. Here, to highlight Sid’s jazzy cadence as a narrator, is Sid’s introduction to this background:
See, I was born here, in Baltimore, before the Great War. And when you’re born in Baltimore before the Great War you think of getting out. Especially if you’re poor, black and full of sky-high hopes. Sure B-more ain’t south south, sure my family was light-skinned, but if you think Jim Crow hurt only gumbo country, you blind. My pals and I was as much welcome in white diners as some Byron Meriwether would be breaking bread in Jojo’s Crab House. Things was bitter. Some of my mama’s family — two of her brothers and a schoolteacher sister — they was passing as whites down Charlottesville way. Cut us off entirely. You don’t know how I dreamed of showing up there, breaking up their parade. I ain’t so sure about it now, I suppose they was just trying to get by best they could. We could’ve passed too, said we was bohunks or something, but my pa ain’t never gone for that. Negro is what the lord made us, he always said. Don’t want to be nothing else.
Edugyan, to me, does a great job of creating this voice without overdoing it and forcing the reader to reread simply to decode what was being said about Jojo’s Crab House.
In Berlin, Sid and Chip meet up with a couple of other jazz players, one in particular, “the kid,” twenty-year old Hieronymous Falk (or Hiero), would go into history as one of the best jazz trumpeters ever. Hiero’s back story is also very interesting. His mother was German, but his father was one of the black soldiers sent by the French to occupy Germany after World War I; he’s the “half-blood” of the title (“Half-Blood Blues” is also the name of one of the groups most famous songs, which, again, has a fascinating history). These soldiers would be known as “the Black Shame, the Scourge, the Black Infamy”; it was presumed that any woman who had a child with one of the soldiers was either a prostitute or a rape victim. Hieronymous Falk is a legend (and Edugyan doesn’t hesitate to create verisimilitude by listing real jazz musicians who were inspired by this fictional character), but there’s little of him. The book opens in Paris in 1939. The group fled Berlin when the Nazis rose to power, but they didn’t get as far away as they should have. At the end of the first section, Hiero is arrested by the Gestapo, never to be heard from again (we lovers of literature know that it is not rare this story of a legendary, obviously masterful artist whose life was cut tragically short by the Nazis).
Half-Blood Blues then moves to 1992. Sid is old. As the “dependable” member of the band, he never became famous. Chip, on the other hand, has had a successful international career. Still, the most famous of all is Hiero, who allegedly died shortly after the war. Chip visits Sid at his home in Baltimore. Some filmmaker has made a documentary about their jazz band, focusing in particular on Hiero and on their last days together when they recorded “Half-Blood Blues,” their masterwork that was almost lost. The documentary will premiere in Berlin at the new “Hieronymous Falk Festival.” Sid wants Chip to attend with him. Unexpectedly, Chip also tells Sid that ”the kid is alive”; living in Poland, Hiero heard about the documentary and sent Chip a letter asking him to come to Poland to visit while on his trip to Berlin. Chip wants Sid to go with him there too (though Sid soon reads the letter and realizes never does Hiero ask for him to visit).
Reluctantly, Sid says he’ll go to Berlin but not to Poland. He doesn’t really believe Hiero is alive anyway. We quickly learn there’s more to it than that. At the premiere, Sid is mortified when he watches part of the documentary where Chip is being interviewed and says this about Sid:
“A shame, the trust we all put in him.” Chip took a long deep breath, reflecting. “But he’s a lesson, really. A lesson in what jealousy’ll do to a man. To betray such a genius musician, and a kid at that, over a woman. Over the kid’s talents, and over a woman. I mean, there he stood, denying his friend, pretending he didn’t even know him, while they dragged the poor boy away. I ain’t saying he pre-arranged it. I ain’t saying that. But handing Hiero over to the Boots, to the Gestapo, like that . . .” He shook his head. “That’s mind-blowing, ain’t it? I don’t have to tell yhou what a great blow that was to the legacy of jazz. I mean, here we was on the verge of that groundbreaking recording . . . I know, I know, we still got a pretty good take, but imagine what it could’ve been. Hell. It’s a crime. It’s a crime for which Sid ain’t never been held to account.”
Love, jealousy, betrayal: the book will go back and forth in time (next to Berlin in 1938) as we trace the exciting story and find out what happened to these characters (these characters that, by this time, I already cared deeply about). I really enjoyed this book and am a bit baffled by some comments I’ve heard that it was boring. I certainly didn’t find it boring. I do have a gripe though: I felt that the pieces were set up by an expert hand who had absolute control. Sadly, when they started moving, that hand seemed to disappear, allowing the pieces to progress more predictably, as if much of the work was done in the setup. Again, that’s not to say I didn’t like how this book played out (I was attached to the characters, and even knowing what was going on didn’t prevent me from caring or being affected when things happened); I just felt like the incredible premise didn’t quite play into the later events. Still, I recommend the book — may it do well in its awards season.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Caitlin Horrocks’ “Sun City” was originally published in the October 24, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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I had never heard of Caitlin Horrocks until this morning. She’s published in several other literary magazines (including a few I read often, like The Paris Review, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, and The Kenyon Review, though apparently not in one of the issues I read), so I’m looking forward to her debut in this magazine and to becoming acquainted with her work. I will be posting thoughts here eventually, but feel free to leave any thoughts in the comments.
I’ve never really gotten into Michael Ondaatje, partially because I’ve never really given him a chance. Several years ago I started The English Patient, but I gave up after about 100 pages. Though I feel it must be the case, no one has ever tried to convince me I’m missing out on much. Earlier this year, however, I read and enjoyed an excerpt from The Cat’s Table (2011) in The New Yorker (my thoughts on the excerpt here). It was unique, somehow both rambling and direct, intense and placid. It had the best elements of a story where the narrator is enjoying the telling for the sake of the telling, because someone is listening. I wasn’t sure I’d like a whole book that went that way, though, so I’m not sure I would have read the novel had it not been chosen as a finalist for the Giller Prize. But what a great experience I had reading this book! It was even more enjoyable than the excerpt led me to expect.
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
I’m not at all a fan of the U.S. cover of the book, which to me looks like something thrown together for an early galley. That said, the cover says one thing well: a boat features prominently in The Cat’s Table; perhaps the grainy black and white picture also gives a sense of the time, which is the early 1950s. When the book begins, we meet an eleven-year-old boy on his way to the docks in Colombo, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka). He’s about to get on a boat that will take him to England to be with his mother. I love the first few lines, so well do they show a bit of numbness, a bit of shock, a bit of dislocation, as the boy travels in a car with “two adults.”
He wasn’t talking. He was looking from the window of the car all the way. Two adults in the front seat spoke quietly under their breath. He could have listened if he wanted to, but he didn’t.
He will, after all, be making this journey by himself, leaving behind all he has known until then. We follow him as he gets to the dock and sees what looks like a city floating in the water. This is the Oronsay, “the first and only ship of his life.” He finds his cabin and settles down:
He did not go back up on deck for a last look, or to wave at his relatives who had brought him to the harbour. He could hear singing and imagined the slow and then eager parting of families taking place in the thrilling night air. I do not know, even now, why he chose this solitude. Had whoever brought him onto the Oronsay already left? In films people tear themselves away from one another weeping, and the ship separates from land while the departed hold on to those disappearing faces until all distinction is lost.
Here Ondaatje introduces the narrator, that “I” who is telling us, with no small degree of bewilderment and curiosity, about this eleven year old boy: “I try to imagine who the boy on the ship was. Perhaps a sense of self is not even there in his nervous stillness in the narrow bunk [. . .].” This little introductory section is small. Soon we realize that the narrator is in fact the older man that eleven-year-old boy became. The older Michael barely knows who this Michael boarding the ship is. However, when the voyage begins, he no longer refers to the eleven-year-old boy as “him” but as “me,” and we see that, in some ways this is the beginning of his awareness, the beginning of the Michael the eleven-year-old boy became (though not without losing something too).
So what we have here is a kind of reminiscence, but it’s as if the older Michael is trying to understand himself throughout, as if things that happened over fifty years ago can still surprise and intrigue him, bring a smile to his face, cause him to wonder, as if they are still happening: Michael is still on that boat, though it was the “first and only” boat of his life.
The eleven-year-old boy eventually leaves his cabin and finds his place in the dining room. He is assigned to sit at the cat’s table, so called because it is the least privileged place, the furthest from the captain’s table. Here he meets two young boys, Cassius and Ramadhin, who will be his constant companions over the three-week journey — and, of course, through his life, though he will completely lose touch with one of them once the journey is done.
The first part of the book is, in large part, a series of short episodes that tell us about the people these three boys meet, the places on the ship they explore, the intrigue they experienced as they enjoyed nearly complete freedom. It’s not that every episode is important to the book, but each gives a sense of childhood and, given the novel’s perspective, of how these moments stick with us through our lives. The latter part of the novel continues to relate these experiences, but the focus shifts a bit to exploring just how these people and events affected Michael as he grew up.
Naturally, one thing at stake in this novel is memory and the retelling of past events. The narrator understands this:
The three weeks of the sea journey, as I originally remembered it, were placid. It is only now, years later, having been prompted by my children to describe the voyage, that it becomes an adventure, when seen through their eyes, even something significant in a life. A rite of passage. But the truth is, grandeur had not been added to my life but had been taken away. As night approached, I missed the chorus of insects, the howls of garden birds, gecko talk. And at dawn, the rain in the trees, the wet tar on Bullers Road, rope burning on the street that was always one of the first palpable smells of the day.
Besides acknowledging how something can be both small (it was only three weeks out of a life, and at times seems insignificant) and large (this was a “rite of passage” that has stuck with him through his whole life — it changed his life), that passage also acknowledges a lost past. This sense of loss and gain remains present throughout the book as a past life drifts so far away the narrator cannot even recognize the boy he was. He also loses touch with these people who, nevertheless, remain present in other ways.
It took me about two weeks to read (and I usually can get through a 250 page book in a couple of days). The prose is clean and easy to get through, the pages are not clutted — it’s just a book that demanded I read slowly, and I’m glad I did. It’s a wonderful book, one I think you may need to read in a certain mood but which certainly pays off if you are.
Today the 2011 National Book Award Finalists were announced on Oregon Public Radio. Winners will be announced on November 16.
Young People’s Literature
- My Name Is Not Easy, by Debby Dahl Edwardson
- Inside Out & Back Again, by Thanhha Lai
- Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy, by Albert Martin
- [EDIT to withdraw**]
Shine, by Lauren Myracle
- Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt
- [EDIT to add*] Chime, by Franny Billingsley
- Head Off & Split, by Nikky Finney
- The Chameleon Couch, by Yusef Komunyakaa
- Double Shadow, by Carl Phillips
- Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems: 2007 – 2010, by Adrienne Rich
- Devotions, by Bruce Smith
- The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, by Deborah Baker
- Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution, by Mary Gabriel
- The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt
- A Life of Reinvention: Malcolm X, by Manning Marable
- Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, by Lauren Redniss
- The Sojourn, by Andrew Krivak
- The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht (my review here)
- The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka
- Binocular Vision, by Edith Pearlman
- Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
As usual, I don’t have a lot to say about any of the categories other than fiction (and even there, I don’t have a lot). Of the titles for young people, my wife has talked to me about Shine, which apparently is about a hate crime and apparently describes it fairly graphically. Some parents were in an uproar, saying things like we shouldn’t let our children see such things. Apparently the first time a child should confront a hate crime is when one is actually being perpetrated. To acknowledge in a book for young people that kids are dying all over the country due to hate is apparently inappropriate. From my tone, you can see I disagree. I just hope the book itself is good and isn’t getting nominated simply because of the issue.
Of the fiction titles, the only one I have read is The Tiger’s Wife. I hoped Eugenides’ new (is it too new? — I just checked and no it isn’t; books published between December 10, 2010 and November 30, 2011 were eligible) book would be on there, as I wanted more of an excuse to read it sooner than later. I have Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision (again, my wife got it for me months ago), and I see I need to pull it out. I don’t really know much about the other titles, but I’m not, at this point, dying to go read the whole list. That’s more due to past experience with the NBA (and, in particular, the Booker) as it is to these books. For the record, I found enjoyment in The Tiger’s Wife, but I didn’t love it.
*UPDATE (October 12, 2011)
What an embarrasment! In the comments below, Michael, a local Mookse and Gripeser, brought this to my attention: It turns out that in the YA category, Lauren Myracle’s Shine was not supposed to be a finalist. There was a miscommunication — obviously, and the judges’ real finalist was Franny Billingsley’s Chime. (Click here for the BBC news article.) Shine, Chime, I guess that we should have seen this coming since it seems 9 out of 10 YA novels have those similar one-word titles. Yes, a miscommunication, and apparently several misteps along the way that prevented some kind of double check. They have decided not to eliminate Myracle at this point; rather, they have added Chime as the sixth finalist. I can appreciate the organizers’ desire to avoid embarrassing Myracle by removing her from consideration, but, honestly . . . She isn’t going to win since the judges didn’t make her a finalist in the first place. Also, can she ever really use the “National Book Award Finalist” in good faith? Well, to limit the embarrasment, the public line is not that it was a mistake to include Shine but that the judges decided to add Chime to the list as well.
**UPDATE (October 17, 2011)
Today Lauren Myracle withdrew her book from the list of finalists, apparently at the request the National Book Foundation (see the PW report here). What a devastating week this must have been for her, all due to major failures on the part of the National Book Foundation. The error reportedly occurred when the organization misheard the judges report the finalists over the phone! What a stupid way to pass a list on. And how stupid that there was never a double check. There will be from now on, I assume (perhaps wrongly). This whole thing was entirely foreseeable and avoidable, but I guess most stupid errors are. The National Book Foundation is rightfully embarrassed. I wonder what changed their mind: they were initially going to keep Shine on the list, though already tainted. Honestly, it’s a bit surprising Myracle didn’t voluntarily withdraw sooner, and without prompting from the Foundation. It’s not like she was going to win, and I have a hard time imagining ever wanting to publish the next book with the “National Book Award finalist” blurb, knowing that it was more of a clerical error. I know sales are sales, but I have a hard time believing that was the motivating factor. It is possible that Myracle was more interested in making sure her book got some publicity because of its content: hate crimes against gay youths. It seem reasonable to me to keep the book there, regardless of the embarrassment, so that some people will at least consider its message. And some benefit came about from this anyway: as partial penance, the National Book Foundation is donating $5000 to the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a LGTB rights organization (click here for their page).