Marcel Beyer, one of Germany’s 5 best poets, one of Germany’s 5 best novelists and a damn good nonfiction writer, has just won the Büchnerpreis, Germany’s most prestigious lifetime achievement award. I mean he should have won it a decade ago, especially if you look at some past winners (Arnold Stadler, Sibylle Lewitscharoff, FC Delius and Martin Mosebach all number among past winners of the award), but this is well deserved to say the least. All of his fiction has been translated into English, and it is uniformly excellent. I’ll try to have something new on him up one of these days but in the meantime, I’m a bit perturbed that the only thing on my blog I can link to is my very bad review of his very good novel Kaltenburg. I feel it should be mentioned again for readers who only know his novels that Beyer has always written poetry as well as fiction and he is one of the very very few writers who excel at both. I have read (despite not owning) his last collection multiple times and the constant excellence of Beyer’s writing through the years that never flagged, never got bad or complacent, is just stunning. His fiction is infused with a passionate reckoning with the wayward forces of history, a work struggling with the complexities of knowledge and narrative. On top of that, he has developed a style that is always clear yet powerful. No two novels of his are truly alike except in the most broad of parameters and his poetry is still different. German literary fiction about German history, when it’s not written by Jirgl, is often either clichéd (Erpenbeck), sentimental (Tellkamp) or dour (Ruge). There’s really no writer like Marcel Beyer in this country, and that’s been true and obvious for a long time. This recognition by the German Academy for Language and Literature is long overdue.
LaMarche, Phil (2007), American Youth, Sceptre
I went into this book knowing nothing about it or the author. Someone recommended it to me and I decided on a whim to read it. Not knowing anything about it, I was surprised at the way the book’s title’s relationship to the text keeps mildly shifting. From a vague description for much of the book’s personnel to the name for “a small group [where local kids] get together and discuss politics, activism, that sort of thing.” The kids in question are all right wing nuts, if you can call adolescents that, but the book loses interest in politics with remarkable speed given how central they are to a significant portion of its characters. Rather than examine the way politics insinuate themselves into youth culture, American Youth is a novel about a a small town that was hit hard by the recession and a Bildungsroman of sorts where a young boy discovers guilt, politics, sex and redemption, in this order. Phil LaMarche tries his hand at a version of America that has already been well examined by the likes of Richard Ford, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Thomas McGuane or Daniel Woodrell. This is not a very good novel, but there’s a very good novel in it somewhere, which makes it a bit maddening to read. The first half of the novel is quite intriguing, until the second half, which reads like a dutiful tying up of lose ends and narrative strands, really ruins the whole thing. The impression is that Phil LaMarche decided to end the novel on a redemptive note, and shaped the later acts of the story accordingly, rather than ride out the story as is, and see what its implications and possible directions are. It’s rather like seeing an object grow before your eyes only to find that it’s a bag full of hot air. And it’s not even particularly well written. Not bad, mind you, but the simple prose aims for early Hemingway, particularly some of the early Nick Adams stories, without having early Hemingway’s gift for compression. It is no surprise that this book and its author is an MFA product (you may have read my misgivings here and here), because the book reads (though it apparently isn’t) like someone’s thesis, dutifully taking an idea and putting it through the gears of what a “good” realist novel dealing with small town America should do. Alternately, it could be a result of a short story writer grappling with the very different task of building a novel. I imagine if Bonnie Jo Campbell ever gets round to writing a novel, it might be very similar to this one. And yet, despite all this, I can’t say I regretted reading it. It is a quick read, with good characters, and a really good first half. Look, it’s fine.
The characters and the various ways they are interconnected is the real achievement here. A kid dies early in the novel, and the guilt is curiously deferred: the killer bears some responsibility, but it was an accident brought about by age and inexperience; the novel’s protagonist, an experienced user of guns who loaded the gun only to leave it in his friend’s hands also bears some, as do the victim, shot when the two kids were grappling over the gun and the protagonist’s mother whose distracting noises prompted the protagonist to leave the gun in his friends’ hands. This is no spoiler, we learn this fairly early, but it shows us the way the novel connects its characters. Shared guilt, shared hate, shared pain. All people in the novel are somehow connected to all other people by a sad game of six degrees of shame and fear. The construction of the novel is so well done that I would not be surprised to learn that the author used a complex diagram to draw up the characters and the story. Sometimes, the effect is almost Checkovian: any character who we are introduced to that is not an immediate source of misery for the protagonist will eventually turn out to provide a solid dose of it – this is very impressive but, especially towards the end of the book, becomes more annoying that enjoyable. LaMarche’s treatment of guilt and shame gets more heavy handed as the novel slogs on. One can almost hear the author’s urge to include and clarify certain elements beyond ambiguity. The guilt for the killed boy is palpable and informs even simple observations. It is also mostly unspoken, weighing heavily over everything. This is how it should be. Similarly, boyhood betrayals and loyalties are debated with unspoken feelings of guilt and anger, expressed with body language and sullen words. When, however, towards the end of the book, a budding love, and the protagonist’s first sexual encounter, turns sour amid accusations of rape, we get an unholy amount of paragraphs of the protagonist debating the guilt or lack thereof for the act of rape. The original encounter, which is clearly a form of rape, was described clearly enough. No reader would have needed the copious debates of how the accusation shocked the boy who thought “it was not like that” and then his insight that maybe he did cross some line, and his debates of the topic both with other boys as well as the girl whose pleas to stop he ignored in the first place. I’m not advocating treating a terrible act with less condemnation, but the step by step discussion of it in the book, again, has the whiff of college debates on rape culture and an author who was trying to ‘get it right,’ even at the expense of the literary quality of his novel.
Curiously, he doesn’t get it right, despite the tedious extended discussions of the act. His failure here is less one of misreading rape, and more one of the role he allows women to play in this story and particular in this part of the narrative. The victim of rape basically drops out of the story after the accusation makes the rounds, reappearing only to assuage the protagonist’s feelings of guilt. Calling what happened between them rape becomes less an accurate description of what happened (though it is) and more of a weapon wielded by other boys and a source of resentment, anger and violence. The girl’s motivations and feelings suddenly disappear from a novel that was originally very interested in them and very clever in how it introduced them. This is due to two defects in the novel. One is its massive disinterest in its female characters. After setting them up, they become mere catalysts for the male characters’ actions. This gulf between the depth of the characters as we are introduced to them, and the shallow actual use of them is due to the second defect and that’s the novel’s slavish devotion to structure. There is no room in the third act to examine the girls’ motivations and feelings because the beats of the story demand that something else happens now. There is no room for the mother of the killed boy to have a complex reaction to the violent events because the only room the tightly scripted story allows her to have is as a forgiving catalyst for redemption. That’s also why the politics fall by the wayside. We need them in the first act, to connect the protagonist to that right wing group of teetotaler boys called “American Youth,” but the arc of the story does not have an opening for any examination of politics or of the way that that small town really deals with politics, so it really never comes up again, except in small phrases here and there. And with all that tightness the book still doesn’t really have a dense texture. The second half, which is almost single-mindedly dedicated to finishing the story and hitting all the right beats, and tying up all the strands of story in the right way is pretty flabby because as the author loses interest in all the strange and exciting characters that populate the book, he falls back more and more on the protagonist’s thoughts and ruminations. The second half of the novel could be cut by 60% without losing anything truly significant. It shows where the author’s interest and priorities lie: in construction. He spent so much effort setting up the story that it feels as if the second half of the book is just a quick, unedited filling in of gaps. As I said before, this makes for a maddening reading experience. And not in a good way.
American Youth is set up as a book about small town life, about politics, even sexual politics, about how right wing politics are fueled by anger and frustration, about guilt and redemption, but ultimately, it is only the latter and the way a young boy matures into a young adult. The final chapter of the book, and especially the final paragraph, with its cheesily formulaic outlook into the future finally jettison all the darkness and bleakness that was a part of so much of the novel, and replaces it with a contemplation of what this young adult plans on telling his child. It feels as if the author is exceptionally blind to the possible implications of his story. There is a big unmarked, unexamined heart to the story where everyone is male, white and has whatever vaguely centrist politics Phil LaMarche himself has. Everything that doesn’t fit this basic assumption of normalcy is introduced as needed and jettisoned as needed. Thus, the politics of the book. The “American Youth” right wingers are the only people in the book whose politics are discussed, really, and then some politically correct newcomers. There is, as with so many other aspects of the book, a moment where we find a fissure in the text, an instability that might be used to cleave open many assumptions. It is the moment when the protagonist’s mother, trying to find out about a police officer’s stance regarding the killing, asks a friendly police man: “is he like us?” That was an extremely smart way of showing how the town’s loyalty works, and it tied into another strand of the story that examined boyhood loyalty. Yet as we enter the second half of the story it is as if the question had never been asked. The implication being, somehow, that we the reader are assumed to be like the author. In a book on the construction of whiteness as “a bounded cultural identity,” Matt Wray suggests that dismissive terms like “White Trash” serve as “boundary terms,” that help manage disparate lines of social loyalty. In a way, much of American Youth is concerned with offering us elements that are not “like us,” sharpening the books sense of who belongs to the ‘in’ group and who does not. Liking guns is good, being obsessed with gun rights is weird and so is not liking guns at all. Drinking a bit of alcohol is good, getting drunk off your ass is weird and so is not drinking at all. Doing the beast with two backs now and then is good, abstaining from sex is weird. And so on. None of these are awful, but when it comes to the book’s gender politics or its dubious racial politics, the picture is a bit less savoury.
Overall, the problem is not of the book focusing on loyalties and marking insiders and outsiders. Writers like Daniel Woodrell are excellent at doing that in similarly set stories. But Woodrell creates closed worlds where the demands of the story dictate the way it moves. He replicates the closed world of the stories in the closed form of the novel. Phil LaMarche’s novel has no loyalties to its characters or its story. It is about white male experience and could conceivably be set in a different place among different characters, if the story beats are mostly maintained. It acts like a story about places, a novel invested in local cultures, but we soon see the lamb hiding beneath the wolfskin. At some point, I think, the book even quotes Cormac McCarthy and while the man’s recent output is less than inspired, the man’s work contains books so infused with a sense of place that we almost drown in it. Suttree this ain’t. The disappointment I felt on reading American Youth makes it hard for me to predict where LaMarche’s path as a writer will take him. One hopes that he learns to shake off the MFA guidelines and learns to trust the story, trust his characters.
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Vera, Yvonne (2000), Butterfly Burning, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
So here is another example of me being awfully badly read. The late Yvonne Vera was a leading/important novelist from Zimbabwe, winner of multiple literary awards. And this is the first time I ever read any of her books. What’s worse is that I think I have only read 2 novels by writers from Zimbabwe, period. One is Vera’s novel, and the other one is the obvious choice that anyone who graduated from college has had to read at one point or another, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s fantastic debut Nervous Conditions. There’s a good likelihood that much of what follows is basically a comparison of the only two novels I’ve read from an African country with a rich literary tradition, which is awful and myopic, but there you go. In case you don’t make it that far, let me impress on you that if you read Dangarembga’s novel and expect anything close to the same from Butterfly Burning, you’ll be very surprised. Given that these are two women from the same country, the same generation, both writing about the plight of being a young woman in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, both fêted by Western literary critics and academics, it is quite stunning just how dissimilar the two books are. Vera’s novel is very unusual, a challenging read in many ways. At the time that I am typing this review I am not even sure whether it is very good. Stylistically, Vera opts for a language that is generally coded as poetic, but in the process she loses precision, accuracy and intellectual punch. If you read Dangarembga’s novel, you know it spreads out its problems and areas of interests for the reader to see and understand. Vera’s novel is just as personal, just as political, and targets similar issues sometimes, but the textual surface is like a wave of text hitting you. Vera shifts from explicit physical details to a poetic vagueness that sometimes appears to border on self-parody. And yet, as much as I was tempted to shore up its faults in a summary of the book, Vera’s commitment to her style, Vera’s intense presentation of her concerns and the sometimes almost impenetrable surface of the text all contribute to a literary power that can’t but impress. If you don’t like writers who describe sex as a couple “[falling] to a solitary passion” and “yielding to each other,” this is maybe not for you. If you want your African novels to be as clear as Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s early work or Dangarembga’s, then this may not be for you either. But for everybody else, Yvonne Vera has written an oddly compelling, deeply flawed but powerful novel about the female experience in an African country under British occupation. The final scene of confrontation and self-renunciation is genuinely fantastic.
One thing that struck me is that the novel’s near-obsessive account of what it feels like to be a woman in 1940s Zimbabwe and the density of its imagery and the vagueness of the language sometimes blinded me to the subtleties in the book’s overall construction. Butterfly Burning is written in many places like a novel about feminity and patriarchy, with a long, almost surreal passage where a women performs an abortion on herself by literally reaching inside herself; at the same time, it is also a novel about history. Yvonne Vera very carefully placed this novel, the intensity of which could suggest an autobiographical impetus, in a period almost two decades before she was even born. There is no simple identification as in Tsitsi Dangarembga’s novel, which follows a girl about the same age that the author would have been at that time, give or take a year. The way Vera’s novel is structured with respect to the broader historical narratives is deeply interesting: on the one hand, the story of the novel’s young female protagonist, a woman named Phephelaphi, is not particularly contextualized historically. We learn that certain kinds of education were not open to her, but unlike, again, in Nervous Conditions, we have no clear historical time-line, no extensive debates about the role of the colonizers and missionaries. Dangarembga is very specific even about the things that have changed in the lifetime of her characters. I suppose that’s what makes it such a popular choice in classrooms – reading Nervous Conditions gives you a fair idea of Zimbabwe’s history of the period depicted in the novel. An all you can eat buffet of educational opportunity, if you will. Yvonne Vera’s history is more hidden. There are no or very few British people in the novel, we learn next to nothing about the control that the colonizers exert over their colony and the restrictions that the colonized live under. The bad things that happen to Phephelaphi are not abstract deeds by some distant colonizing power – they are things that men do to women in many places all over the world. The sexually active women in the book, including Phephelaphi’s late mother and Deliwe, the proprietor of an illegal nightclub, do not distinguish between black and white men, and while a white policeman commits a murder in the book, it is not political or racist – it is a crime motivated by masculine jealousy which can turn to violence at any time in any country, something that hasn’t changed until today. So, given all these parts of the story that are primarily concerned with female experience, one could be excused if the novel appeared almost unpolitical, as far as the broader range of Zimbabwean history is concerned.
This is not the case. The book begins with a hanging, a result of the first uprising in Zimbabwe in 1896. The stark image of men hanging from a tree and a mother leading her son to see and remember what happened is what the book wants us to use as historical context. Now, Dangarembga’s novel doesn’t end at the 1977 war of independence, but the sequel (which I have not read) continues the time-line to end up right there. Vera, who was born a mere five years after Dangarembga declines to choose the war of independence as her marker. Instead she makes the failed rebellion almost a hundred years earlier her historical touchstone. The boy who watches his father hang from a tree becomes, 40 years later, the much older lover of Phephelaphi, a construction worker named Fumbatha. Thus, the vast bulk of the novel is set almost exactly between the two rebellions, and Vera can rely on her evocation of the first one to implicitly also evoke the second. What’s more, the interrogation of urban social structures in the book, not focused on class but on gender, also speaks to the author’s thinking regarding the underpinnings of the movement that ended up finally gaining independence (although that’s obviously speculation since I’ve read none of her other books). If politics is made by men, because women have no space in it, because women have to fight for their own spaces and their own bodies first, then what follows is that politics are always undergirded by violence. This is not even just about the Mugabe administration and its violent acts. A few months/weeks ago I read this book about the Zimbabwean economy by Hevina Dashwood and it is an utterly dispiriting read about how a country that was founded on vaguely socialist principles, coming as they did out of a popular revolution, descended into market-driven liberalism, marked by a decline in social welfare and a decline of popular participation and interest in government. There was no general change of mind in the population – it was a decision driven by the then finance minister in cooperation with the world bank and the IMF. The minister had to slowly convince first the bureaucratic apparatus and then the ruling party’s internal debating structures before informing the public of this new direction. Social disengagement is its own violence, and markedly, in Burning Butterfly, it is abandonment, lack of employment and social cohesion that lead to the book’s dark ending. Originally written in 1998, after free market reforms were completely implemented (according to Dashwood, the process ended in 1997), it is hard not to see at least some implication here regarding political action and inaction.
Yet despite all this history, the core of the novel remains its dealings with feminity. There is a strong tension between motherhood and sexuality that the novel does not resolve or judge. Sexual openness is dangerous, but that’s due to patriarchy, not because the act itself is a problem. Motherhood itself, however, is also restrictive and oppressive. There is a strong connection of sexuality to freeing people from the bond of repressed memory, but encounters with motherhood can also lead to almost painful epiphanies. As Grace Musila has pointed out, “nationalist discourses constituted the African nation as the feminine victim of an aggressive colonial master” and “the prostitute’s body became a convenient index for the degraded postcolonial nation.” Vera reacts very strongly against this appropriation of the female body for the purposes of political rhetoric. Butterfly Burning reasserts the primacy of the female body over political discourses. Phephelaphi resists the seizure of her body twice, with an increased rate of violence and insistence. Vera has places this female story very carefully and very intentionally within the historical framework without making it a direct part. The connection is Fumbatha, Phephelaphi’s lover. Phephelaphi herself resists. In a way, the novel’s own language is a bit like an act of resistance. The intense smell of poetic writing, i.e. writing that is written as “poetic” and not writing that is itself powerfully poetic is all over the book. While Dangarembga’s novel is written in crystalline, sharp English, with short, precise sentences and thus fits discourses of order and narratives like that very well, that is not as easy for Vera’s novel which I think intentionally reaches for a kind of feminine écriture. The effect is that the novel reminded me immediately not of other African writers I know but of North American feminist postmodernism, specifically Carole Maso’s books. Another reference would maybe be Daphne Marlatt or even the female sections in W. Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides. While those parts of Anderson sometimes read like parody and I very specifically didn’t like Marlatt’s book, the urgency of Vera’s novel elevates the sometimes murky and sentimental phrasings to a different level. Given the book’s thorny relationship to the history experienced and pushed by men, this style appears to provide another layer of resistance. I will admit, I was a bit annoyed. Half of the pages I marked in my copy of the novel featured some borderline outrageous formulation. Yet towards the end of the book, especially during an extremely graphic scene of abortion by a character’s own hand, the style proves useful beyond the sometimes challenging readability. We never see the scene 100% clear and the style contributes to that – but Vera manages to do two things at once: to not shy away from the intricacies, sometimes brutal, of the female physical experience, without delivering a clinical description that would hand epistemological control right back to the patriarchy. It’s an interesting effect and absolutely worth having to wade through what feels like overly flowery language (and not the good, Thomas Wolfe kind of flowery).
This writerly strategy may be due to the fact that Vera, while a writer from Zimbabwe, is also a Canadian writer, who lived with her Canadian husband in Toronto when she died. And while I have some difficulties contextualizing Vera’s writing within what I have read of African literature, I would have no such difficulties with a comparison to Canadian literature, where that kind of writing is not uncommon, from the aforementioned Marlatt to the widely admired Margaret Atwood. At the same time, I do not mean to suggest that Butterfly Burning is a Canadian novel in the sense of a novel written for a Canadian audience. Unlike writers like Maryse Condé whose 2010 novel (cf. my review here) contained a baffling comparison involving Hurricane Katrina, betraying the extent to which Condé’s life and references are centered around Western Europe and the US, Vera’s novel was first published in Zimbabwe, only later in the US. Its primary audience is African, and its message is urgent. The politicization of the private, of the female body, does work out rather well, especially, when, intentionally or not (I can’t decide), the novel’s final scene evokes iconic images of protests like the monks who protested the Vietnam war.
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Karlsson, Kolbeinn (2010), The Troll King, Top Shelf
I have never read a graphic novel by a Swedish creator before, but if The Troll King is any indication, Swedes like their comic books like they like their rock music: weird and intense. I think the only book I read recently that approaches Karlsson’s interests and the direction of his work is Jeff Vandermeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy of novels. The Troll King is a novel-in-stories, I guess, but given how coherent the whole narrative turns out to be when we read the last story, it may just be a novel, full stop. The book starts off strange and then just keeps getting stranger until a surprisingly emotionally resonant ending. Reading the book I was so overwhelmed by its themes, its art, its contradictions and its metatextual elements that I didn’t even consider the direction the narrative was taking until the final of the book’s stories just took me by the hand and led me down a narrative path that proved to be as poignant, as it was strangely common, almost formulaic. Karlsson draws on a broad range of influences, from Nordic myths to anime/manga, he writes a story that is both tender and emotional as it is filled with a strange physicality. If you feel weird about two large bearded men/monsters having a loving and sexual relationship, depicted fairly directly, you won’t even make it past the first section, and you’ll miss fever dreams, the murder of birds, a lot of other (small) male genitalia, death, birth and rebirth and other topics. All of it realized in an art style that somehow straddles the divide between crude and precise drawings, colored with inspired abandon. It is a dark tale with a sweet ending, a violent story with quite a few funny visual jokes. If we look for the way the book relates to its audience, how it employs perspectives and speakers and voice, we (or rather: I) get the feeling that Karlsson is sometimes seduced by his own powerful artistic vision to the detriment of really mapping out all the book’s details. Would I recommend it? The blurb on the back of the book suggests that Karlsson and Miyazaki are kindred spirits and that’s not far off the mark. If you feel like reading a version of Miyazaki that is darker, more physical, more violent, more racist/reactionary, more explicit, but similarly inspired of and reverential towards nature, dreams and folklore, then read this book. I personally greatly enjoyed reading it, and I can assure you that the book only becomes better upon rereading. This is quite something.
For all its skill with visual elements, for the ingenious way the author uses color both in backgrounds as well as in lines, the most impressive part of the book is its narrative discipline. For much of the book I thought I was reading a couple of stories set in the same part of the world, united by the trippy visual imagination of the author and nothing else. The final section or story however ends up tying up all the book’s strands, even though it doesn’t do so neatly. Some asides, like an odd, seemingly LSD-fueled vision of the Wild West, don’t really find a place in the book’s final narrative concerns, but most do. It is, as we find out at the end, a story about family, humanity, about modernity and modern man’s resistance to it. For all the book’s violence, the underlying emotion is a gentle sadness, a longing for a more natural time. The two odd characters on the covers are not trolls or beasts, they are “mountain men,” as the back of the book proclaims. Their beards and body hair are just drawn with such attention to detail that it flips over into mild surrealism. Hence the hair helmets. The artistic goal is one where the way the mountain men are drawn and the way trees, grass and bushes are drawn resemble each other. The men are truly becoming part of nature, and in the process they lose some part of their humanity. This is where Miyazaki is likely most relevant, with his stories of nature resisting man-made modernity, of some pockets of humanity allying themselves with nature and with the magic that is fundamentally linked to that nature, magic that has its roots in the connection of people with the soil and animals. There is a reactionary element to that kind of story, which has been discussed a few times in scholarship, but Miyazaki leverages that reactionary element with his intelligent manipulation of gender and class discussions. Karlsson…doesn’t, but I’ll get to that in a moment. At this point I’d just like to stress the way Karlsson’s book, despite looking like a surreal tale of madness, really does fit many of the ecological tales. In her influential 1962 study of pesticides, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson writes that, “[g]iven time […] life adjusts, and a balance has been reached. For time is the essential ingredient; but in the modern world, there is no time.” In some ways, The Troll King is a resistance to the loss of time in the modern world. Events in it happen in some kind of dream time. While there is a clear chronology that connects many parts of the book, others appear to speed up or slow down time to allow for things (skulls, mushrooms, trees and dead cowboys) to grow and die. Human agency doesn’t shape time, the processes of nature do.
This attitude towards human agency also feeds into the book’s relationship towards language and myth. The longer the book continues the fewer lettering we get. The story starts relying on expressive images rather than on explanatory captions. Yet even before that, what few words we are given are rarely explanations and more emotional commentary by one or more of the people depicted in the panel in question. Karlsson’s lettering looks like very personal handwriting, so when he switches to a different character’s voice, I was at first taken aback (this, I suspect, speaks to the density of the book which made me assume that all details were calibrated exactly). The first two chapters, consisting of the marriage of the mountain men, and of a dwarf’s fever dream, are basically the only parts of the book with consistent words and voices. In a way, these two sections ease us into the book’s themes and concerns and having words at the beginning helps us jump the hurdle of the strangeness of the rest of the book. But there is another way to see this change. As the book progresses, it dives deeper into its themes of myth and creation, culminating in the tale of two chubby hairy green men burying a skull and digging up the dead cowboy from a vision they had. In Walter Benjamin’s discussion of language and divine creation, he discusses, I think, the idea that things have, originally, no name. Their mute language is a residue of the divine word of creation. According to this reading of Benjamin, it is with the Fall that language loses this immanence, this magic quality and starts referring to abstractions, to outside sources, to broad constructs of knowledge and culture. The book, for a while, until the two last chapters, reverses this process, stripping its story of the reliance on words and constructs. The mountain men, for example, describe themselves as “Ewoks,” and their marriage dance is maybe related to pagan rites, maybe to Dragonball Z (I admit that was my gut association because I am philistine trash, but, you know, why not). This relationship to language and signification seems to be an essential part of the book, and if we assume its centrality, then we immediately connect it to the overwhelming masculinity of it all. The book abounds in small chubby penises, and all the processes of procreation are specifically framed as bypassing the female element. Despite the book’s buoyant joy in using visual references to all kinds of pagan and neopagan takes on rites and liminal spaces, it does not appear to refer at all to the bible of neo-pagan nuttery, Robert Graves’ immensely readable book of questionable scholarship, The White Goddess. Graves’ story of the maiden-mother-crone, the universal Goddess, is completely subverted by Karlsson, whose book features a brown God of the woods, who looks as if he had been created from mountain men beard hair.
This odd masculinity of myth can, I suspect, be read as a commentary on feminist theorists like the extraordinary Helene Cixous and concepts like the phallogocentrism. Given how central the binary is to Cixous, Derrida and other critics of phallogocentric thinking, it’s interesting that The Troll King has removed all womanhood from its text, in full embrace of phallocentrism, even as indeterminacy increases. Of course, the slanted take on procreation always implicitly engages discourses of feminity, and the way the book’s ending fits neatly into the canon of Western narratives also shows up the indeterminacies in the book’s middle as mere skirmishes with signification. But if we look at the way myth is masculinized here, we can ask more questions of the text. One is the connection of nations with its folklore. Surely, myth and similar narratives are among the most important stories that hold together the ‘imaginary communities’ of nations, as Benedict Anderson called them. And just last week I read a really good book on how masculinity shapes nationalist discourses and debates, Charlotte Hooper’s Manly States. The point here is that this book, which is set in a vaguely Western/Northern wood, with high rises merely shown in a few panels, should, I think, be read in the context of modern Swedish national anxieties. I cannot possibly do that, my knowledge of Swedish culture is meagre at best, but I have some pointers. One is the reflection of this topic in Hans Henny Jahnn’s immortal masterpiece Fluss Ohne Ufer, the largest portion of which is dedicated to two German men who move to the Swedish countryside to escape modernity. The other is something that turns up in two and a half panels, but is extremely specific – and both racist and possibly misogynist. These panels describe the mountain men going to town to buy groceries. In order to hide their strange exterior, they wear burkas. Black embroidered burkas. What’s more, the panels that show us the burkas are panels of their return to the wild: depicted are two humans in burkas, carrying a plethora of full plastic bags of the Swedish ICA supermarket chain. That image, of women in burkas carrying plastic bags of groceries is one that is exploited by various caricaturists. The humor here is based both on racist and misogynist assumptions.
These two panels are instantly distasteful and repugnant, particularly since they are clearly supposed to be humorous, but there is nothing else in the book that directly takes up this line of discourse – except for the book’s take on myth and masculinity as I suggested before. It is quite impressive to what extent the book ties up all its concerns like that. It makes me dislike Karlsson as a person, but the artistic power behind this book is undeniable and the focus and density of it all is exceptional.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)
Now and then I upload more recent pictures of my desk. This is from March(?) last time it was really orderly. If you read one of my reviews, this is where the *magic* happens.
Hiraide, Takashi (2014), The Guest Cat, Picador
[Translated by Eric Selland]
For my birthday a year and a half ago, my sister brought me a cat, as, I suspect, a therapy animal/companion. I love cats, and my sister was right to suspect that my cat would keep the specter of suicide mostly away from my door. This year, she bought me a bunch of books, some of them cat themed. I’m saying this to explain that I have an obvious affinity to cats. My family has always had a cat and I genuinely missed having one around. I love cats. So when I come across a book that speaks to its author’s deep appreciation of feline companions, I’m already halfway convinced of the book’s quality. By cat-themed books I mean books about people who have cats. There are obviously also books about cats, written from a cat’s perspective, a genre that has some important forebears. I (badly) reviewed one of them here, ETA Hoffman”s Tomcat Murr. Many entries in this genre, somehow, have turned to the genre of the mystery novel, from Rita Mae Brown’s post-Rubyfruit Jungle work to the German novel Felidae (which I advise against buying because its author has turned into a deplorable creature and there’s no point in lining his pockets further. Get it from a library. It’s enjoyable, I think). But none of that here. This is about animals as companions. In these situations, animals often serve as agents of disorder, of emotional or empathetical destabilization of order or just as unreadable creatures beyond the reach of rational analysis. The raven in Charles Dickens’ severely underrated early novel Barnaby Rudge, companion to the simple minded eponymous hero of the novel, serves such a purpose, for example. In a way, its first appearance in Dickens’ novel is a culmination of several figures of incomprehension. That encounter with animals is something that we know from writers all over literary history, in the past century most powerfully expressed by poets like Elizabeth Bishop or James Dickey, but pets have a whole additional significance. More than Bishop’s gentle-but-threatening moose, pets are already connected to a domestic sphere. They are part of the machine of urban structure and architecture. They help us read and sometimes push against needs and asks.
I say all this because that is exactly, I think, the role played by “Chibi,” the cat from Takashi Hiraide’s novel. Hiraide is a poet and the spare but efficient way the book is structured suggests the assured hand of a writer used to play tennis with a net, to paraphrase Frost. Chibi is a “guest cat” not in a semi-permanent sense, like a cat left behind with a cat sitter or a friend. Chibi is a frequent visitor rather than a guest, really. Her home is in the same neighborhood but she has taken a liking to the protagonists of the novel and spends quite a bit of time at their house. Her movements are not restricted, and her relationship to the protagonists is one largely of autonomy. The book charts the relationship of the protagonists to the cat from its beginnings to the end, telling a story of a middle aged man diverging from what appeared his set path in life to make small but important changes. The whole story is set to the backdrop of the country itself going through changes. Chibi, the curious cat, with her roaming ways, serves, if not as a catalyst, then as a figure of independence and divergence, helping the protagonists make sense of their changing lives. This “cat ownership […] on an ad hoc basis” is written without any tired insights into the mind of a cat. In fact, the cat’s itinerant ways and her unclear attachment to the protagonists allows Hiraide to situate the book between urban stories of pet ownership and the tales of encounters with wildlife, except: there are no epiphanies here. There is half a revelation in the final pages of the book, but it is one of contextualization, of understanding human agency and the restrictions they place on the freedom of animals among us. I have mentioned my limitations with regards to Asian literatures before here and here, but it never feels so acute as here where I’m left to speculate about the literary and cultural reception of Romanticism, particularly of the Wordsworthian kind, in Japan. Is the retreat from epiphany a choice by Hiraide, emphasizing the austerity and materialism of the novel, or is this typical of late-20th century literary writing in Japanese?
The only non-fairy-tale book I have on my shelf to compare is a brief manga by Junji Ito. Now, if you are a reader of this blog, you may recognize the name from some intense praise I offered for his work a while ago. Junji Ito is one of the best and most accomplished writers of horror comics I have ever read. His work may sometimes seem too direct and unsubtle, but for me at least, it has its desired impact of scaring me or at least appearing sufficiently creepy. This comic book, published by Kodansha Comics in a translation by Stephen Paul, as Yon & Mu, is basically a memoir of acquiring cats. Junji Ito offers his usual approach of injecting every frame with some modicum of dread, fueled in this case by his lack of appreciation for cats. So when his wife forces two cats on him, he indulges in sharing the dread they invoke in him. This dread is clearly played for laughs. In a way, the whole book is a kind of deconstruction of Ito’s poetics, with every sweaty forehead and grimacing face showing us how much the effect of his more serious books depends on audience collaboration. At the same time, some of the ‘serious’ dread carries over, emphasizing an incipient metaphysical dimension to the story and cat ownership in general. The book may seem loose, but if we look close, it ticks a lot of boxes relevant to the genre. We get a kind of vision, but they do not carry the weight either of classical or of modern epiphanies, so, as a way to gauge a cultural environment for an understanding of Takashi Hiraide’s novel(la), it’s not greatly of help. Let me, however, recommend the book, and, while I’m recommending cat related comics, let me additionally recommend the adorable manga Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata, published by Vertical in a translation by Ed Chavez. It is written to reflect the pet’s perspective, so it doesn’t fit my thoughts on The Guest Cat, but it is just the most adorable comic you’ll read in a long time. Ah, and for a final recommendation to close out this paragraph, you should read Grant Morrison’s comic We3, a contemporary take on Richard Adams’ classic 1970s novel The Plague Dogs. Morrison mimicks many of the conventions of animal-perspective storytelling, but undercuts them by exploring questions of speech and technology, autonomy and language. It’s a story of three pets fleeing the laboratory that planned on turning them into cyborg killing machines. Donna Haraway’s work has surely contributed to Morrison’s thinking here.
Technology, interestingly, plays no role in The Guest Cat despite its setting in the 1980s. In fact, the book is set precisely at the end of the Showa period, which ended with the death of Emperor Hirohito in 1989. Human artifacts here are more of the wood and concrete kind. The book begins with the protagonists, a married couple, moving into a house. Hiraide spends an enormous amount of time explaining to his readers the exact layout of the neighborhood, how the house, which is itself a kind of guest house, relates not just to the lerger mansion on the same grounds but also to the neighboring houses and the street. The relationship between all these places, these narrowly defined small territories is almost geometrically exact – in fact, due to the odd angling of the house vis-à-vis the street, a trick of the light sends the image of approaching passengers through a knothole in a perfectly positioned tree onto a wall in the protagonists’ house. This sense of proportions and of the interaction of light an architecture is reminiscent both of the work of Gaston Bachelard and, particularly, Junichiro Tanizaki’s brief essay In Praise of Shadows, In it, the famous (and excellent) novelist describes the role of darkness and light in aesthetics, but he particularly discusses effects of shadow and reflection in architecture. One of his observations, of light reflecting an image onto a wall, off some gold leaves in a decoration, comes remarkably close to the appreciation of light in Hiraide’s novel(la). It’s interesting that The Guest Cat would be interested in light and its effects on rooms, and Tanizaki interested in darkness and shadows, particularly, because both books have a sense of the nostalgic about them. Tanizaki ends his essay with a lament on the advent of electrical light and the resultant omnipresence of light, whereas Hiraide constructs the strangest little simple abode that appears almost like an ancient object to which modern humans brought stoves and computers and the like.
After about 1,500 words of talk, I am not sure I conveyed to you that, with all this, The Guest Cat is a very good book. It sidesteps easy sentimentalism without losing emotional resonance. It creates multiple layers of significance by superimposing people and events on certain roles and things. One example is the way the author blends the Emperor’s death with the much smaller death of his landlord. The writing is not always disciplined, sometimes the author indulges in speculations about the cat’s presence in their lives that drag on for a bit. Like many men, the author likes to hear himself talk and he cannot always control the detrimental effects this has. This isn’t helped by the patchy language that sometimes slips awkwardly between registers, something that I tend to lay at the feet of the translator. Yet all of this is nitpicking. The writing is usually elegant, and the author modulates the architecture of his novel very well. While the aforementioned memoir by Junji Ito is exclusively of interest to people who love/have cats, The Guest Cat does not rely on shared affinities. It is a very nice book. It never attempts to go beyond its small confines of offering a small episode in the life of a writer, despite its reach into the larger fabric of the historical moment. Like a poem, then, say, one of Mary Oliver’s small ones or, more accurately, the luminous work of Wisława Szymborska, who populated several of her poems with cats, declaring once that “D[ying]—you can’t do that to a cat.” Hiraide does not have Szymborska’s precision, but that would be a tall order anyway. Yet with her, he shares a sense of how cats interact with spaces, with things and routines, how cats resist – and attach themselves to their human companions. It is something that rings very true to me, which returns us to the bias I admitted to in the first sentences of this review.
As always, if you feel like supporting this blog or my cat, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)
lê thi diem thúy (2003), The gangster we are all looking for, Anchor
Much like the last book I reviewed here, I somehow ended up reading this book by accident, but I don’t regret it – lê thi diem thúy’s debut novel is a very good book. Among the shorter books I recently reviewed, it doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Herrera’s novel, but apart from smaller issues of style and pacing here and there, it’s hard to find flaws with it. As the book progresses, it picks up pace, power and emotional resonance. It takes no formal or stylistic risks, there is no complicated mythical or metafictional conceit, but for a traditional narrative of immigration, it is exceptionally well done, and what’s more, lê has developed a very recognizable, very vivid voice right out of the gate that is not reliant on tricks, but on a solid control of language. Her observations and the images she chooses to use are usually on point – sharp, meaningful, insightful. The book’s broader range is chronological but the narrator keeps moving backwards to illuminate other episodes from her childhood, finally to reach all the way back to her earliest childhood in Vietnam. Dreams are incorporated into the narrative not as exotic or fancy artifacts but as parts of reality, equally as important to understanding the protagonist’s life as the wide awake observations of life as a Vietnamese refugee in San Diego. It is pleasant to read a novel that is both so solidly crafted, so well written and so emotionally resonant as this one. It’s what one hopes would emerge from the MFA author mills instead of the cheesy formulaic pap that usually ends up on our shelves. If you teach writing and structure to someone, a novel like The gangster we are all looking for is surely the desired result. lê conveys the cultural barriers that open up for refugees without hokeyness, she tells us of loss and family ties in a language that is both taut and expansive. Sure, the novel could have been a bit tighter, but I suspect that my quibbles with it stem from the joy I had of reading it. The gangster we are all looking for is an exceptional book that I immediately reread – and it somehow gets better the second time around. So if you are up for a lovely, conventional but exceptionally well done little book about the Vietnamese immigrant experience, do read this book.
The book follows its protagonist, a six year old girl, who lands with her father and four other Vietnamese men (she calls them the four uncles) in California, after an arduous flight that led them to the US via Singapore (look up Boat People if you want to know more). Her mother stayed behind, but would join them later. For the majority of the book the mother is present and significant. The book is broadly structured chronologically, with the first page essentially describing the landing of the six year old girl, and the last chapter structured around her return visit to Vietnam 20 years later. Between these basic elements, the book moves back and forth, withholding certain elements only to fill them in later. The management of time feels fluid and expertly done, the effect is of a mosaic of memory without losing readability or fluidity. I’m not surprised to read that the novel is, among other texts, based on a performance piece of the author’s, because that explains the taut cohesiveness of the whole book despite all the small episodes and the changes back and forth in time. An audience can’t just go back a few pages to figure out something confusing, it needs to make sense as a flow of story, in the moment. And that’s certainly true here. This fluid mosaic technique is not associative. Instead, lê uses hard cuts, having structured her book through paragraphs and chapters, which makes the easy cohesiveness (unlike, say, Jirgl’s excellent but less easy to read mosaic novel Die Stille, with each chapter/paragraph dedicated to a photograph) even more impressive. Another example of the author’s smooth handling of her material is the way the book is both clearly narrated by the adult who remembers the early days of her life, and yet in many childhood vignettes, we are offered the child’s sense of wonder and -sometimes- her obstinacy and strangeness, unmodulated, uncommented. We never feel, I don’t think, a real contrast between the way the childhood scenes are narrated and the way the adult fills in other portions of the narration (including occasional sections where other people’s thoughts are imagined). It’s all just – and I’m sorry to repeat myself here – extraordinarily well handled, so that the book’s surface is always smooth (but never slick).
Another interesting aspect is the way the novel handles immigration or migration. We don’t really see the process of fleeing a country and entering another, apart from the occasional memory. The book begins exactly at the moment of landing: “Linda Vista, with its rows of yellow houses, is where we eventually washed to shore.” The author very rarely explains things and customs to us, so most of the time, our knowledge does not vastly outstrip the child’s – or rather, our horizons are similar. So of the process of immigration, the signing of forms and the learning of language, finding jobs etc., none of this really turns up in the book. Instead, migration is presented as a negotiation of living spaces. The child, her father and the “uncles” first live in a wealthy benefactor’s house and later, she lives with her father and mother in several different houses and apartments. Houses, according to Gaston Bachelard, “would appear to have become the topography of our intimate being” and they give us “illusions of stability.” It is that latter phrase that I find particularly interesting, in the light of some things I’ve been reading recently, but let’s start with the first phrase, because it describes part of the author’s method. The book very diligently takes upon itself to describe to us the different houses, especially in the early stages. While the child’s personality is being formed, our attention is being directed to the spaces wherein the transformation takes place. And transformation is the exactly right word. The author even suggests it to us in one of the book’s strangest and most intriguing sections: having found a butterfly trapped in amber, covered in glass, the child protagonist becomes convinced she can hear the butterfly’s wings, she can hear it talk and becomes increasingly interested in freeing the butterfly, which culminates in a minor disaster, and a borderline unhinged dialogue. The butterfly is an obvious reference to transformation, but the child’s truculent obsession with hearing its wings through the amber and the glass leads us to something else: the book’s dissatisfaction with the structures and houses that it builds up.
“Illusion of stability,” indeed. Water moves through the novel in all kinds of places, doors are literally un-hinged, and family traditions and structures are reduced to symbolic acts, and unstable symbolic acts at that. Usually, immigrant narratives are about finding a place, a space, inscribing an identity onto the crowded slate of a national identity. Settling. Take another book I reviewed last year, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life. Most of the book’s post-migration narrative takes place in the same house, and while physical and mental illness destabilizes that new home, the ultimate result is one of growing roots and becoming almost too happy. Even immigration narratives that don’t end in success are basically negotiations of the same paradigm, just with a different outcome. In the case of this novel, however, lê cleverly combines two different movements. There’s the movement from house to house, trying to find, as they say with rescued pets, a “forever home.” That this search is unstable, with lovers from the old country, alcoholism, violence, poverty and desperation all helping to destabilize it, does not make this search any less goal-oriented. At the same time, the protagonist slowly but surely extricates herself from this process. This is no leaving the nest and growing one’s own home, the way Sharma’s protagonist did. This is just a dissatisfaction with this structure. It reminded me of Deleuze’s correction of Foucault in which he suggested that society is not just strictly structured through power, but instead through “lines of flight.” For Deleuze, it is desire that oozes out of structures, that opens up narratives of power, and lê’s protagonist’s path through the book charts that slow undoing of stability. As with the butterfly, sometimes lê rigs her book to make this process extra clear. For example, in an abandoned house, where the neighborhood children play, they put up a big carton box, just large enough for two kids to fit inside. They added a curtain to it and then they named it “The Other Room” and then just “The Box.” So I’m sure the box was meant for shenanigans to begin with, but we are not shown that. We are however shown the moments the protagonist spends in the box with a boy, moments we follow in extraordinary detail. The box itself is an attempt to provide additional stability to a stable but disintegrating environment, and what do we find inside? The discovery of desire.
But the Deleuze idea that I have been most preoccupied with these days is the idea of cartography. It’s primarily of interest to me with regard to Lowell’s and Bishop’s poetry, but the way lê structures the journey through houses can, I think, be excellently described using Deleuze’s concept of looking at journeys through maps as trajectories, journeys through different milieus with their own subjectivities and their own negotiation of territoriality. Those trajectories “merge […] with the subjectivity of the milieu itself.” If we follow Deleuze and look at the sturdy, seemingly immovable object of memory and the narrative of origin as “displacements” instead, it encourages us to see narratives of becoming, as the one that lê’s protagonist undergoes as a challenge to thresholds and simple identities. The book doesn’t end with an identity arrived at or confirmed, it ends in an absolute image of fluidity and open possibility. The narrator’s becoming-woman is inverted against the certainty of place and context. As a narrative strategy, it strikes me as unusual in immigration narratives. Take Sunjeev Sahota’s booker-shortlisted The Year of the Runaways, which starts in a similar environment, of adult immigrant men living together, negotiating their new space. But Sahota’s very good novel is primarily interested in looking at one milieu and a process of becoming that is determined by a very narrow set of thresholds and enclosures. The gangster we are all looking for is about a protagonist attempting to escape into indeterminacy. It’s quite a feat that the author manages to do all this and yet stay consistently readable. Ultimately, it’s this conventional smoothness that keeps this from reaching quite the heights that it could reach, but, you know, it’s really good, after all.