John Irving: In One Person

Irving, John (2012), In One Person, Simon & Schuster
ISBN 9781451664126

IMG_20141001_012503So in my recent run of reviews I reviewed and discussed some writers I enjoy greatly. Among them perennial favorites. I however like to think that I am good at being reasonably, well, reasonable and reasoned about these matters. With a handful of writers, I just completely lose that ability. One of those writers is John Irving. I cannot, with any degree of certainty, tell you whether he’s a genuinely good writer. I know I love his work. I am excited for his books to come out, I enjoy his writing and characters and plots greatly, I’m just fundamentally a fan of his work. When I mentioned, in my review of Lawrence Norfolk’s last novel, that it was like comfort food when it came out after such a long period of silence, well, that’s how Irving’s work is for me all of the time. That is not to say that I don’t see faults in his work. It’s just that they don’t necessarily influence what I think of the books. A Son of the Circus, a highly problematic book, is also one of my favorites. I make exceptions for exactly 3 of his novels. I think his first two novels are markedly subpar, apprentice efforts, but many writers have those. And then there’s The Fourth Hand (2001), which I read the minute it came out and which turned out to be a sloppy, rushed self-caricature of a novel that I always somehow blamed on his preoccupation with what he called his “movie business”. Irving has since nicely recovered from it, publishing good to very good novels. His most recent one, In One Person may just be his best novel in many years, one of his very best efforts. As far as I can tell. A writer whose work I am so personally influenced by and indebted to is hard to recommend to others, but I can say this much: if you have read any other Irving book and enjoyed it, you will like this one, as well. In many ways it serves as a summary of a long and great career, touching on issues, tropes and ideas prevalent in many of his best books. That said, there’s a second group of readers to whom I can issue a definite recommendation: if you read any Irving and fundamentally disliked it, this is also not for you. It is not a book that will win over critics of his work. For everyone else, I recommend reading the rest of my review, maybe. In my opinion, In One Person, an interrogation of how the life that we led outlasts us, is a fantastic book, maybe even great.

DSC_0262The main problem with saying Irving is a great writer or calling any of his books great is how workmanlike he is as an artist. His prose is always well crafted, but designed to mainly stay out of the way of his characters and plot. It doesn’t make you stumble, nor does it invite you to stop and admire individual lines or paragraphs. In many ways he follows and echoes American literary traditions, but all the major writers of that tradition had a style that was important and remarkable. Irving’s stylistic unremarkableness is not something we associate with great writers. And yet, a page of mature Irving is instantly recognizable. This is not a case of a writer like Paul Auster who would be better off writing screenplays instead of novels. Irving’s unremarkableness is not an inept blandness, or the merely serviceable writing that you’ll find in a lot of genre literature. Irving intentionally strikes a tone that has just the right wavelength to support and cushion his characters. He’s well aware of where his style could go. I was introduced to James Salter’s writing through remarks in Irving’s books, and he championed Salter and other stylistically acute writers consistently. Irving just chooses, I think, to craft his style differently. This explanation of mine, however, is not only tainted by the fact that I am a fan of his work, it also doesn’t change anything about the literary surface of his work. It doesn’t make his novels more directly capital-l Literary. The signifiers that we take to show us literary excellence are sidestepped by Irving. It’s not just the prose. It’s also his plots and characters. Irving is very self-consciously literary, and includes metafictional artifacts in his work, playing with the ideas of authorial identity and authority, offering us postmodern epistemologies and games. In many respects, however, these seem extraneous to the emotional core of his novels, which is the interior landscape of his characters. Irving can marshal music, myth and miracles in order to show us the alienated heart of a teenager in the New Hampshire province, but we are never deluded as to where his focus is: it’s always personal and emotional. That kind of writing shares a lot with partisan political essays: they tend to primarily appeal to those already converted. If you fail to be empathetic to the emotional narrative Irving has to tell, you are bound to enjoy the book you’re reading much less. That is not how we conventionally frame Literature, which we frame as having an appeal even when its content is objectionable.

DSC_0260What’s remarkable is how little all of this seems to bother Irving. There is no attempt in his work to be more “respectable”, although the madhouse that is A Son of the Circus is not something that he tried his hand on again. Irving is one of the rare writers who know what he can do well and what he wants to do. He’s written some short stories, but his style and method are a much better fit for long-form books, and so his stories are restricted to a faily slim volume called Trying to Save Peggy Sneed (1996) which, while not bad, is clearly not where his strength lies. Irving describes himself as an obsessive writer who lives for his craft and puts in 12 hour days at the computer when he is drafting. His method, as he outlines it in his Paris Review interview, is one where he accumulates a lot of material, writing faster than he can read, just revel in telling a story, including digressions. It is only afterwards that he goes about revising and sculpting the novel. But however he cuts and forms the text, the core of it, the obsessibe torrent of story, that part always remains. Irving does not betray his characters, he works them out through stories and events. They are not intended to stand in for anything else, they are part of a storytelling process and are treated kindly, if sharply, by Irving’s pen. And that has a lot of downside to it. Because Irving has so little interest in the intellectual construction of his novels, some of the associations and references can be a bit difficult, because of course his characters do signify beyond their paltry selves. Of course they do, and not just within the symbolic order of the individual book, but also within broader social or cultural contexts. But these signifying acts are often a bit displaced and muddy, because they are not consistently worked out. That said, this doesn’t happen all that much, because, despite his protest (“I’m not an analyst and I’m not an intellectual.”), he does ground many of his books politically and intellectually. From his contribution to the debate on abortion and female choice (The Cider House Rules) to his examination of the American state of mind during the Vietnam war (A Prayer for Owen Meany) and now gay and bisexual rights with the new book, there is not a lot of room for political ambiguity, however his plots and characters shake out.

DSC_0261In fact, despite Irving’s own protests and many critical readings, his books are more delicate and analytical than they are given credit for. The most recent one, In One Person, is a perfect example of this. One could look at it as an involving and evolving story of a young queer man’s discovery of sexuality and maturity, and it certainly works well from this angle. Irving’s protagonist William/Billy Abbott has a clear and sympathetic voice. We are told his story from his point of view, moving back and forth with the vagaries of a 70 year old man’s memories. The joys, tragedies and revelations of Billy’s life are basically offered to us without buffering or caution. If his readers are willing to follow, Billy will lead them through a story that contains numerous affairs, changes, death and a magnificent amount of small set pieces that Irving has spent a lifetime of honing his skills at. There are intrigues, betrayals and a multitude of secrets. Bigotry attacks the good people in Irving’s book, and they strength and honesty often wins out. It’s a cauldron of stories, all of them centered around Billy Abbott and his librarian friend, Miss Frost. This description seems a bit broad because I don’t want to spoil many of the book’s lovely surprises and turns. Not because there is some dramatic tension that will be punctured, some criminal whose identity will be revealed too early. No, it’s precisely because In One Person is more than just one excitable wave of story. It’s a very delicate artifact that uses its revelations and explanations as means to draw you in, to make you an active, complicit collaborator in its theater of identity. Because that’s really what it is, an almost 500 page long disquisition on identity. It uses actual theatrical performances as a way to both develop the topic intellectually, as well as quite practically involve the book’s characters in staged performances that mirror personal instances of performativity. There are men living as women, taking up a theme that goes all the way back in Irving’s work to Roberta Muldoon, the former football player. who famously said in The World According to Garp, “All men are liars“ and who, as Irving hastened to add “knew this was true because she had once been a man.” There are men living as men but performing women onstage. There are gay men perfoming heterosexuality, and there are bisexual people who perform all kinds of things. People burst into rooms to find perfomances, staged and unstaged.

DSC_0241And yet none of this reads as stiff as I make it sound, because below it all is the story of Billy, whose sexual awakening is told in perfect pitch, this itself being a literary performance. Because to all the above to this is the layer of the book itself, handing us a character that is biographically similar to its author, and who, as a novelist, narrates the book. This raises the question of the book itself as performance, which is one layer among many. This Chinese box of tales of identity that ultimately engulfs the whole of the book itself is not, however, some idle game. We have to give up things for choosing our own performance. Some have to give up a public life, like Miss Frost, some have to live liminal lives that only fully flower onstage and some die. Death is what we start off with, and the specter of AIDS. Billy was born 15 years after Merrill, but his view of the great scourge of the gay community in the 1980s ressemble’s Merrill’s. In elegy after beautiful elegy, Merrill struggled with being the one who was alive while so many of his friends died. In “Tony: Ending the Life”, Merrill writes

Mirrors are graves, as all can see:
Knew this emerging mask would outlast me,
Just as the life outlasts us, that we led?

Mirrors are transient images, but the “emerging mask” is also a kind of performance. Merrill’s work is full of roles performed, and of people about to enter stages. AIDS threatened the freedom of choice in this, the ability to free yourself from the bigotry of decades past that was ongoing at the time. It’s important to read In One Person from this angle to see what’s at stake in all the minor squabbles. Overall, the novel is a long coming of age book for a 70 year old bisexual author, who lost friends and acquaintances to time and this terrible disease. The book being his own performance, he examines what will outlast him, and what has outlasted those in his life that already passed on.

DSC_0265On top of all that, the book itself, beyond its status as a partially auto/biographical performance, sometimes feels like a sampler of many elements of Irving’s work. There may be no bears, but as mentioned above, a Roberta-like character is moved from minor character to heroine, the whole book is set in a smart New Hampshire town, more precisely, in a New England boarding school. Billy visits Vienna and he becomes, briefly, a wrestler. Sports itself is treated as another performance that allows participants to actively engage in roles and rituals. This interaction with Irving’s whole oeuvre points to the centrality of art. Art doesn’t magically make everything better, but I suspect Irving would agree with the spirit of Merrill’s assertion in “Farewell Performance”, another elegy dedicated to a friend who died of AIDS. Merrill starts his poem saying “Art. It cures affliction.“ – in a poem about someone who died, who we cannot save by writing a poem however exquisite. But in examining braveness and honesty we can stand up to “pity and terror”, as Merrill framed it. Some might criticize Irving’s novel for taking on such a socially important topic in such an Irvingian and quaint environment, but they would fail to understand how important art is to this book. Or to its author. This is what he also implies when he says, in the aforementioned Paris Review interview: “I am compulsive about writing, I need to do it the way I need sleep and exercise and food and sex“ – it is also a moral stance. In case it’s not become clear, I consider John Irving an important writer, wherever he may be in discussions of canon. And In One Person is an important book.

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Jen Williams: The Copper Promise

Williams, Jen (2014), The Copper Promise, Headline
ISBN 978-1-4722-1112-5

Wiebe, Kurts J.; Roc Upchurch, Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781607-069454

DSC_0171So through the years I have reviewed quite a few fantasy novels on this blog, but I am still looking for recommendations, and trying to understand contexts and history of the genre. As far as I can tell, the big caesura in the genre was JRR Tolkien’s entry on the stage of epic fantasy. A lot of what followed copied the structure of Tolkien’s books pretty closely, with some changes here and there. The most recent style of fantasy is “gritty” fantasy, which is now pretty much the predominant genre. Gritty means a certain amount of soi-disant “realism”, which mostly means more sex, way more violence and intential cruelty. Some writers have done interesting things with this, and people like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, David Anthony Durham and the mercurial talent N.K. Jemisin have taken the genre in new directions, mostly by offering a more sophisticated understanding of social issues. Jen Williams, a debut novelist, opts for a slightly different path in The Copper Promise and that is best summarized by the word “fun”. She is not interested in grit, not in realism, not in carefully constructed portrayals of nations and cultures. Honestly, the main instinct for me as a reviewer here is to squeal about the fun I had reading this book and how much fun I suspect the author had writing it. The other book I want to mention here is Rat Queens, written by Kurtis Wiebe with artwork by Roc Upchurch (pencils, ink and covers). The first trade, “Sass and Sorcery” has been out for a few months and it’s an equally joyful celebration of fantasy, yet also cognizant of gender issues and narrative holdovers from tradition.

DSC_0194Another distinction I should have made in my first paragraph is the one between epic fantasy and the sword and sorcery line of fantasy, which mainly inspired Jen Williams. More accurately, she appears to have been inspired by Fritz Leiber’s legendary novels featuring his heroes Fafhrd (not a typo) and the Gray Mouser, called the “spiritual father [of] most fantasy writers” by Raymond Feist. Epic fantasy tells us stories of nations and cultures. It usually contains stories of adventurers embedded within, but the stakes are a bit higher, and these books tend to offer elaborate maps in the back. In George R.R. Martin’s increasingly lackluster work we even find whole lists of ‘houses’ and their living and deceased members. None of this for Williams. The world is small enough to traverse with a dragon in a short amount of time, it contains roughly four recognizable areas or nations and the narrative tends to just “switch” areas to tell different stories in different places. Her tradition is that of Leiber (and Burroughs), of intrepid adventurers in a world full of wicked people and magic and strangeness. At the same time, she takes that tradition and spins it cleverly. But it’s not an intellectual exercise. This book is a big steaming cup of fun. If you like fantasy, but are bored by the epic fantasy line of writing and/or the ‘gritty’ type of fantasy, read this. In fact, if you like fantasy, read this. And if you like both fantasy and comic books, I implore you, read Rat Queens.

DSC01517The main characters in The Copper Promise are a pair of mercenaries, Wydrin, a female slender thief and Sebastian, a disgraced former soldier, a burly but conscientious man. The story uses Wydrin as a focal point although it is a third person narrative. As the book progresses, a wizard of sorts joins the two, as they endeavor to stop a gigantic dragon/god and her army from burning the whole world. The narrative moves us briskly along, and while we are never really surprised by the events, we are also never bored. The basic structure of the story is old fashioned in the best sense, a novel thoroughly happy with storytelling in the pulpy sense of the word. At the same time, the writing is always solid. Humorous, light and precise, a perfect storyteller’s tool. No fake archaisms, no purple descriptions of emotional agony or orientalist interiors. And this is not gritty. There’s none of the cheap glee many contemporary fantasy writers have in killing off or torturing ‘good’ characters. The story is paramount, not the self-regard of the writer. Have you seen Martin on a talk show, laughing his odd laugh when people ask him about all the characters he has killed off so far? He enjoys being that person. And increasingly, that shows in his work. Fritz Leiber’s tradition is different, a tradition of having fun telling a tale.

DSC_0172The basic setup of The Copper Promise already suggests similarities to Leiber’s work, but the connection goes further. On a superficial level, Jen Williams’ thief is nicknamed Copper Cat and puts stock in naming her knives, and not only is that also Mouser’s habit, but additionally, one of Mouser’s knives is called “Cat’s Claw” (and Mouser himself is “on the cat’s path”), as we learn in “Ill met in Lankhmar”, an early novella/story. There’s more, however. Fritz Leiber’s main audience were adolescent boys, and so there are women as decoration and the occasional odd sexually charged story. Moreover, Leiber’s stories, as far as I have read them, have a recurring interest in fatherhood, or more broadly, in the lasting ties created through sex, whether that would be offspring or families or tribes. A lot of his well known stories prominently feature these elements, from “The Snow Women” to “Lords of Quarmall”. In contrast to Leiber, Jen Williams’ audience are not adolescent boys, or not just, and her novel uproots many of the assumptions behind the use of those elements while keeping the elements themselves. She changes Leiber’s virile barbarian into a religious, conscientious soldier who gets the boot from his order due to his sexuality when his love for men is discovered. She gives the role of the irreverent thief with a big appetite for money, food and men to a female character. And while I can’t give details on this short of spoiling a major plot point, she offers a particularly inventive spin on the idea of masculinity and procreation. In fact, I enjoyed that part of The Copper Promise so much that I felt it got a bit short shrift. That’s the only real mark against the book: as you’d expect of a debut novel, it’s not extremely well balanced. Some parts are much longer than they’d need be and some interesting developments are handled in only a handful of pages.

DSC_0174Another aspect of the book is its love of telling stories. It’s not openly metafictional, like Rothfuss’ book with its framework is, but it offers an impassioned plea for the magic of words, and its more than just having magicians in the book, and magic words and scrolls etc. No, she offers us a take of personal awakening, a set of characters and their journey to discovering their identity, all of which happens through the act of reading words, discovering language as a thing in the world. Language, ordinary language seems so new, so magical to these characters that they start using it in lieu of names, picking new names out of the dictionary. This fascination with words and storytelling does not seem to me to be accidental. Indeed, Leiber is such an interesting choice for a young writer to pick up these days and signals an interest in the art of telling a plainly fun story. Interesting not because he is so unknown – in fact, there seems to be a kind of Sword and Sorcery renaissance in recent years, from movies based on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Princess of Mars books to new Conan comics (with art by the fantastic Becky Cloonan, so you might want to have a look at those, too). No, interesting because the question of the value of “pure” storytelling is part of a public debate that featured most prominently one of America’s leading ‘serious’ novelists, Michael Chabon. In between his major novels, Chabon has consistently been publishing smaller texts, some of them nonfiction, some explorations of genre. One of them is Gentlemen of the Road, a historical novel set roughly in 950 AD in the Khazar empire. As Chabon explains in an afterword, he went off “on a little adventure” in it. He also explains the joy and importance of storytelling, of going beyond the confines of what he calls “late-century naturalism”. I feel a lot of fantasy in the “gritty” school of writing tries to defend itself by injecting that naturalism back into a genre literally meant to be fantastic. Chabon’s book is not a fantasy, and his stakes are much higher. His is a novel clearly written after the Shoah, offering a debate on Jewish identity that he would continue in what I think is his best novel so far, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. But the discussion about “adventure fiction” and the appeal inherent in the form, it also applies to The Copper Promise, which stakes out a place for itself as fantasy adventure fiction, both smart and joyful.

Drakensang

Screenshot is not actually of one of the games I mention, but it’s a CRPG and it’s me playing a female protagonist, so there.

Another tradition that I found applicable, but that might not be intentional at all, is a much more recent one. Video games. More precisely computer role playing games, CRPGs, in short. Don’t look at me like that. I have played a few of them without being what they call ‘a gamer’- I don’t own a console and my laptop is rather old, that imposes inherent limits. But the new tradition of CRPGs gave role changes and especially stories involving women more of a push. Despite all the misogyny that is so rampant in today’s ‘gamer’ scene, the fact that these stories are more interactive, written by multiple authors and have to appeal more directly to an audience interacting with the game opened a large array of possibilities. In the arguably best CRPG ever published, Baldur’s Gate II, you play with a group of people, a group that you can staff with a large amount of female characters. Other, more recent games like Mass Effect, a CRPG in a science fiction setting, or Dragon Age, in the usual fantasy/middle ages setting, even allow you to pick a female protagonist or have a same-sex romance. All this is to say that I think video games, as much as they have supported and developed a new strain of misogyny among young men (recent events have been especially appalling), also have opened up vistas of action and thinking about things differently. The tradition Williams holds on to may be the Leiber kind of writing and I may be a horrible philistine here, but as I read the first 100 pages, my brain kept seeing the events in action, I kept translating them in my head into the familiar images of computer role playing games. And that’s not a bad thing. If you have ever played a classic CRPG, like the aforementioned BGII or Planescape Torment, what you come away with is a world alive with stories, and with humor and sadness and all the ingredients for a fun story. A lot of gritty fantasy has lost that by focusing on ‘serious’ stories, and I am not criticizing that. All I’m saying is that some writers, like early Robin Hobb on the epic fantasy side, and Jen Williams on the sword and sorcery side of fantasy, have a place in all of this too.

DSC_0170As do the Rat Queens. Kurtis Wiebe and Roc Upchurch collaborate on a story that is about mercenaries killing trolls, having sex with Orcs and generally getting up to all kinds of shenanigans. The fights are frequently pretty bloody and the jokes can be a bit bawdy. What makes the story special, apart from the general excellence of the art and the clarity and humor of the writing, is that Wiebe and Upchurch took a story that generally uses women as decorations and moves them into the foreground. The four main protagonists are women, although not all of them are human. We are offered hints of complicated backgrounds and intrigues, although the first trade does not go beyond hints. First trades are, after all, rarely more than exposition. But there’s enough for us to become invested in the inner lives of these female mercenaries. A group of vividly drawn and varied female characters as the main focus of a comic book is not a frequent sight. What’s more, Rat Queens is much more clearly indebted to and comments on the video game genre. The story is placed before a background of routine “raids” of troll caves and other cliché targets, mimicking the ubiquitous “tasks” in role playing games. The first half of the book’s arc plays fast and loose with its references and the various traditions it finds itself in. It’s an exuberant kind of book and that has an effect on its readers. It’s been a while since I had quite this much sheer fun reading a comic book. Comics, as well as fantasy novels, have become “gritty”, telling their stories in literal and figurative darker colors. Frequently, haunted male protagonists have to deal with a violent and brutal world. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy that kind of writing, but it’s such a relief when we find books like Rat Queens (or Kieron Gillen’s short lived arc on Young Avengers) that are much more invested in telling a colorful story. It’s a good time for fantasy and comics and both Rat Queens as well as The Copper Promise are excellent examples of that. And while Wiebe is already an established writer, there’s no telling where Jen Williams could go with her next books.

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Ned Vizzini: It’s Kind of a Funny Story

Vizzini, Ned (2006), It’s Kind of a Funny Story, Hyperion/Miramax
ISBN 978-0-7868-5196-6

DSC_0247So as a matter of fact I tend to read quite a few novels written in the genre commonly referred to as “Young Adult” (YA), but I don’t think I’ve reviewed one yet (unless we count The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, cf. my review). There’s been quite a wave of those in recent years, with some of those novels clogging up the bestseller lists, including, very prominently, John Green’s sentimental exercises in mediocrity. With a few exceptions, the non-science fictional YA books tend to be a bit underwhelming. I am a fan of children’s fiction, but YA often replaces the linguistic openness and epistemological wonder of children’s fiction with a dour and moralistic realism. Writers like Green are better creators of plot than they are writers of prose. It’s mainly the age of his protagonists and the audience of his books that distinguishes Green from novelists serving the adult audience like Nicholas Sparks or David Nicholls. Part of the reason for this are the simple, sentimental plots. It takes the talent of writers like Rainbow Rowell to imbue these simple plots with some resonance, both linguistically as well as in the way these writers locate urgency and impetus in their books. Rowell’s breakthrough effort Eleanor & Park engages questions of body image and poverty, without having to mine them for sobs. A surprising (or not) amount of non-science-fictional YA novels go for the emotional jugular by presenting us with the Big Topics. Green tackled topics like cancer and suicide, other popular options include abuse, bullying or the Shoah. It’s a cheap and easy shorthand that manages to both lock into the angst of the target audience, as well as present a topic that is already moving as it is. In this context, Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, which looks at suicide, depression and high school pressure, could be seen as one of many more or less uniform books using suicide as a hook for its prospective teenage readers (click here for a goodreads list of recent/popular books dealing with the topic). However, it’s much better than that, I think. There is no doubt that it’s flawed, and that it could have used a very stern editor, as it sprawls over 400 pages, mainly because this writer apparently has difficulties saying no to himself. But the core of it is extremely well realized, and Vizzini manages to give us a story about depression and hope that has room to breathe, that does not hit us in the face with the sad plot and that has room for digressions. He has interesting ideas that go beyond the cold/cheap utilitarian logic of the common YA book. Even the undisciplined length and structure has a charm. Plus, suicide is always a hoot.

DSC_0245It’s Kind of a Funny Story was Ned Vizzini’s third book and second overall novel, and he retained the teenager focus of his earlier work, even though the book’s setting was inspired (according to the afterword) by events in Vizzini’s own life a mere two years prior. It’s hard to comment on the book’s structure because there isn’t a lot, apart from the chronological movement of the plot. But there are three distinct phases of the book, all three easily distinguishable. Vizzini’s character, 15 year old Craig Gilner, is a gifted child (the single most overused YA trope) who lives with his mother. They barely make ends meet and so his acceptance to the Brooklyn Executive Pre-Professional High School, a kind of elite high pressure high school, is a blessing and a curse. It is a drain on his family’s resources, but it also allows him the potential of ‘going places’. As is the case in many poor families, the talented offspring often carries the hope of the less fortunate older generations, and not always willingly. The first part of the book shows us his life with his mother and the way his life changes just by having the possibility of going to that school in it. He has to learn hard for the entrance exams, and feels constantly intimidated by friends who also apply and who – to him- seem so much smarter. Eventually, he ends up doing really well on his exams, entering the high school only to feel crushed by the pressures there. The double pressure of being a teenage boy, with crushes and insecurities and the obscure land of sex and booze just out of reach, combines with the new pressures of being in a high stakes, high expectation environment now. It doesn’t help that one of his best friends is a rebellious but brilliant fellow student who, to top it all off, is also successful with girls. As he is starting to struggle with school work, he starts breaking down, a process that eventually results in suicidal ideation and a call to the suicide hotline and finally, a trip to the mental health ward of a nearby hospital. This is the third and final section of the novel and the one that readers and reviewers tend to focus on most, for obvious reasons. Vizzini, in a move that is either clever or tedious (I can’t decide), clearly constructs Craig’s experience in the hospital as an odd, and much less pressure filled, mirror image of Craig’s elite high school life. Without spoiling the plot, let me just say that things happen, insights are gained, cookie characters met and resolutions arrived at.

first page

First page

I know I am not making the book sound terrifically appealing right now, but hear me out. Because Vizzini has written a novel clearly reliant on and cognizant of a wide array of literary traditions, first of all. One of these is the phenomenon of the precocious child who has to cope with school pressure. I skimmed some reviews of the novel before sitting down to write this and there’s an awful lot that discuss how Vizzini looks at a modern phenomenon here. That, however, is clearly not the case, unless we have a very wide definition of modern. Two of the best (maybe the single best, actually) treatments of this topic are early 20th century texts, Rainer Maria Rilke’s masterful story “The Gym Class” (1899-1902) and Hermann Hesse’s novel Beneath the Wheel (1906). Rilke’s story is part of a whole wave of fascinating prose about Prussian military academies, much of it no longer in print, regretfully, and it features a boy who, during a gym class, pressured to perform, suddenly overextends himself so much that he collapses and dies. Rilke, who’s mostly known as a poet, was actually a fantastic prose writer, and this story, in the space of only a few pages, manages to offer up an atmosphere dense with pressure, with the need to conform, and, paradoxically, pushes a boy to perform better than his classmates. Since standing out by failing is not an option, he strives, in one tense moment, to stand out by being better. He rises above his fellow students, figuratively and literally (the exercise is rope climbing). Conversely, Hans, the protagonist of Hesse’s novel, goes down the other route – he fails, and this, in turn, breaks him. If Rilke’s story parallels Vizzini’s novel in spirit, Hesse’s book has more similarities. Hans is a gifted student from a poor background, who studies hard for an exam that would allow him to enter a prestigious school. The pressure on him is enormous. Like Vizzini’s protagonist, he suspends his entire life to study for the exam, and everything depends on him making it. Once he’s in, however, he starts caving to the increased pressure, both from the overwhelming expectations at school, as well as from his adolescent life. It doesn’t help that one of his best friends is a rebellious but brilliant fellow student. Eventually, after some incidents, Hans has a breakdown, falls into persistent depression and commits suicide. Even though I believe that both texts are translated into English, and despite the similarities, it’s hard to say that this is consciously part of Vizzini’s tradition, but it does help in debunking the claims of a modern malaise being at the heart of the book.

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Additionally, these texts only cover the first two sections of It’s Kind Of A Funny Story. The second half, set in the psychiatric hospital, probably feeds off the much more American tradition of psychiatric hospital books, from Ken Kesey’s classic to Susanna Kaysen’s memoirs, with books like The Bell Jar as links between one and the other. But Vizzini doesn’t care much for the difficulties of social pressures on less than privileged groups. Sylvia Plath’s subtly voiced distress of having to field the pressure of trying to be a high achiever and of being a woman in a society that increasingly treats women in contradictory and complicated pressuring ways, of having several goals some of whom contradict each other, none of this turns up in Vizzini’s book, which is very much a book about white male adolescent angst. Then again, it’s not as simple as that. Among the many things Vizzini throws at his readers in his rambling, associative narrative, is the fact that Craig Gilner is an artist and has one particular artistic obsession. It’s so central that it made it onto the book cover: he loves drawing maps. Not maps of real places as much as imaginary maps, of personalized cityscapes. He makes this intricate and inscrutable kind of art for people, creating portraits of them in the hard, straight and angular lines of maps. More than just an oblique reference to Korzybski’s dictum, the project thus is a kind of inverted psychogeography if that makes sense. The multifaceted theories of psychogeography grapple with the fact of architecture, with the way it suggests meaning and structure, and offeres ways of drifting, of playfully destabilizing that structure and meaning. In a way, Vizzini’s character re-imposes structure. He creates meaning through maps, using a visual language that we all identify with order and clarity. This is clearly part of the emotional core of the book. At the end of his 5 day stay in the hospital, Craig is happy. In just 5 days he gained a lot of insight into his life and the novel ends with a paragraph of affirmation. Craig, thanks to a benevolent mental health institution (contra Kesey and Kaysen), finds a new path, evading the fate of Hesse’s protagonist or Plath’s. Fittingly, the book’s language is calm and simple. It eschews dramatic or cheap shots, but it’s also a bit dull. It’s a lot like listening to an actual teenage boy prodigy tell a story for 400 pages. Sometimes entertaining, sometimes less so. And it’s very frequently funny, which makes the ending absolutely the one you’d expect. The ending ties up the whole story in one neat bow. There are no inconsistencies, no breaks. And then life intervened.

DSC_0246Look, I’m probably going to veer a bit off course here, so I apologize in advance. You can stop reading now, you know what I think of the book. And here’s another caveat: I know there’s always a danger of reading books autobiographically, and God knows I have a bunch of angry footnotes on that topic in my Bishop chapter. Scores of excellent scholars have pointed out, for example, that The Bell Jar should be read as fiction and not as veiled autobiography, but here’s the thing. It’s Kind Of A Funny Story itself makes the connection to Vizzini’s own life by pointing out that the story was inspired by a brief stay of Vizzini’s in a hospital in his early 20s. It’s hard, then, to disconnect the loud wishful thinking at the end of the book from Vizzini’s attitude towards his own mental well being. Vizzini killed himself in 2013 by jumping off the roof of his parents’ home. Last year, after Vizzini died, I reread the last paragraph of the novel (I added it as a picture above) and it sounds much more desperate, much more like a sad, fervent hope rather than a projection of personal happiness. Between Vizzini’s own stay at the hospital and his final suicide attempt were 9 years. Getting released from a hospital after a mental health breakdown is not like getting released after breaking a foot. In The Bell Jar, Esther’s mother, when Esther returns early from the hospital rather than having an extended stay, says “I knew you’d decide to be all right again”, misunderstanding the depth of her daughter’s condition, and indeed what follows soon after in the novel is one of the most harrowing and accurate descriptions of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide I have ever read (and I’ve read a few). As many writers, among them Jean Améry, have pointed out, there is no illness like depression for bringing out the unaffected but well meaning talking heads, especially when it comes to suicide. One of the worst things I have heard people say is “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” – I’m not sure 9 years qualifies as all that “temporary”. Similarly, when Ned Vizzini’s death was publicized, and again, when Robin Williams was found hanging from his belt a few weeks ago, Brad Listi’s literary podcast Other People aired an interview with Jennifer Michael Hecht, pop philosopher and poet, whose book Stay reminds me of nothing so much as the books on dealing with cancer that Barbara Ehrenreich skewered in Bright Sided. During the interview, both interviewer and guest were quick to point out that they never even came close to considering suicide. I’m not sure a person who is neither a trained professional nor someone who knows what they are talking about from personal experience should run their mouths about it. But that’s just my two cents.

DSC_0228Meanwhile, It’s Kind Of A Funny Story is absolutely worth reading. You have to give it room, it lacks the tautness and discipline we tend to get from the YA genre, but it’s absolutely a worthy entry to a genre that now has a long and sad tradition. Vizzini captures the voice of his protagonist perfectly and the rambling narrative is part and parcel of that. And you know what, despite my leery comments on the hope at the end of the book and my grumbling about feel-good commentary, Vizzini himself, as far as I know, recommended what I call the charlatans of hope to his readers and fans, and while they clearly did not help him long term, 9 years are nothing to sneeze at and he helped many of his fans with similar struggles.

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Ilija Trojanow: The Lamentations of Zeno

Trojanow, Ilija (2011), EisTau, Hanser

ISBN 9783446237575

[translated into English by Phillip Boehm as
Trojanow, Ilija (2016), The Lamentations of Zeno, Verso Books

ISBN 9781784782191]

ZenoA special subcategory of the writers who write great books and then leave their readers hanging (as discussed in my last review) are the writers who write one great novel and then just stop writing fiction altogether. Some, like Harper Lee, stay silent, some, like Arundhati Roy, continue writing prolifically, but just not fiction. That second category often contains activists, who, as they age, find that their time is better spent writing essays and speeches rather than novels and stories. Ilija Trojanow (sometimes inexplicably spelled “Iliya Troyanov“ in English) is a recent example of this. Between 1996 and 2006, he published several exquisite travelogues, as well as 3 novels. A debut about arriving in Germany or rather coming to terms with life as a migrant (1996), a second novel using the languages of Science Fiction (1997, see my review here) and finally, Der Weltensammler (2006), his breakthrough achievement that won him a multitude of prizes and sold a large amount of copies. You can not only read my review of it, you can even read it in English translation, as it has in fact been translated into English and many other languages. That last book, a monumental novel about Richard Burton combined his interests in cultural exchanges with his recurrent topics of migration and identity. Even his companion nonfiction volume about Burton sold well. Trojanow seemed to have arrived. And since then – nothing. Or rather: no new fiction. He has been publishing copiously on the surveillance state, on ecological issues, on racism; plus, he has edited a multitude of books. Trojanow, all in all, has to be considered one of Germany’s leading public intellectuals. And yet, selfishly, I was upset that he did not write fiction. Until, that is, 2011, when a slim new novel came out. And what a good novel it is! Published in German as EisTau (~ice thaw), it is a short but dense novel about global warming and one man’s outrage and obsession. It does not contain long diatribes about the state of the world, but at the same time, it’s just as much polemic as it is a novel. If not for Trojanow’s prodigious literary talent, this novel could have sunk like a stone. Instead, we’re offered a complex and very literary book that is highly recommended and deserves to be read carefully. And 2 years after I wrote this review, it has finally been published in English translation by Verso Books as The Lamentations of Zeno.

The Lamentations of Zeno is the story of Zeno, a depressed geologist who has spent the last few years of his life so far offering lectures to tourists on a cruise into the Antarctica. The cruise apparently features experts from areas like geology and biology who help tourists to contextualize the events they see and learn about that cold part of the world. We learn about his life story from himself: most of the novel is framed as being entries in his notebook. Not only does he tell the story from his point of view, but the notebook as an object itself, as well as the writing process is references throughout. It’s not a diary. These are literary, reasoned accounts written by a man who is tired of being a human being, as he says near the end of the novel. They follow two timelines. One follows in strict chronological order the events on the ship in the present tense, the others are memories of his relatively recent past. About halfway through the novel we learn about the catastrophe in his life that leads him onto his current path: a glacier specialist at a university in Munich, he finds out one day that the glacier he’s been monitoring almost obsessively, is irrevocably dying. And subsequently, the same happens to his life because he stops caring. He drops out of the university, gets left by his wife, and finally signs up for this stint on the Antarctica cruise. He has been known to be cranky on the ship, but this time, something snaps and the trips slowly but surely steers into a disaster. I am not spoiling this book because we are apprised fairly early of events on the ship by another kind of chapter in the book. Alternating with Zeno’s notebook, we are given short two-page chapters that are a cauldron of voices. TV ads, snippets of songs, etc. But they are not just random cutups of cultural noise. They also contain snippets of conversations with former passengers as well as, at the bottom of each of these ‘noise’ chapters, a bolded “breaking news” section that tells us of the dramatic events onboard the ship.

DSC_0226The noise chapters have a function in the narrative by foreshadowing the events of the notebook, but they also have a different role: in their noisiness they contrast with the quiet of the ice, offering us a human counterpart to the serene elegance of nature. It reminded me of nothing so much as Jelinek’s mastery of voices and allusion, especially in Die Kinder der Toten. Jelinek blends this noise into her own prose, while Trojanow’s method seems close to montage. It would seem that these alternating chapters introduce the city-scape noises of Dos Passos’ trilogy or Döblin’s Berlin novels into a kind of pastoral novel, but I think we would be mistaken about Trojanow’s aims here. Jelinek is a critical writer, not of a specific issue, but of the hate-filled structures of Western societies, skewering targets from misogyny to racism and ecological catastrophe. In The Lamentations of Zeno, we get a similar sense of broad disappointment with the direction of mankind. Critics have dismissed Trojanow’s novel as an ecological screed that has no literary value, but this is a superficial reading. Even without defending its literary value (which I will in a moment), even its polemical intentions far exceed just ecology. In the very first chapter, in an aside, we meet Filippino workers; we learn, with the deployment of just a few sentences, how much the globalized economy is built on the exploitation of poor and third world workers, a topic that Trojanow comes back to. We also get a sense of how globalized narratives are built, how people travel, and how knowledge is dispersed. When Zeno expresses his unhappiness with being human, he doesn’t merely refer to humans as those who subjugate and destroy nature – he also refers to the way mankind treats its disadvantaged and oppressed members. His criticism is global and personal. It’s important to note that all the events are motivated by Zeno’s personal unhappiness, his personal obsession and disappointment. We are not supposed to read Zeno as a relatable everyman whose opinions we should emulate or admire. Zeno has lost all regards for the fate of the human race. In one of the most memorable passages, he describes himself rooting for avalanches in news reports that show the cascading ice and snow swallowing a village.

EistauWith this personal nature comes a narrative that is increasingly unreliable. After all, what we read is basically Zeno’s manifesto, a way to describe how he arrived at doing what he did. We are clearly supposed to read this book as being set in the tradition of Italo Svevo’s La coscienza di Zeno. Svevo’s book poses as the life story of Zeno, a middle aged Italian, one of modern’s literature’s most famous unreliable narrators, written by Zeno himself during/for psychoanalytic treatment. In his book we are offered accounts of his life, his marriage, his relationship to his father. Zeno’s ruminations on his life and his illness lead to the observation that his illness mirrors or corresponds to mankind’s sickness. This step from sentiments like Lowell’s “I myself am hell” to the idea that the narrator’s mind is not the only one that’s ‘not right’ is inherited from Svevo. Additionally, there’s a German-language (though mostly through Swiss writers) tradition following Svevo of novels which offer psychoanalytically prompted ‘autobiographies’, but this time the goal is to explain a crime or catastrophe that has happened. Of this tradition, Max Frisch is probably the writer most well known to non-German audiences. This referential pattern suggests that Trojanow’s Zeno, even though we only learn of his intent to do something out of the ordinary halfway through the story, must have intended something of the sort all along. There’s a second way in which the two Zenos, the one from Bavaria and his Italian predecessor, are connected, and that’s their relationship to women. Anyone who’s read Svevo’s book is left with the impression that Zeno’s relationship to the female gender can be a bit arduous at times, and significantly contributes to his malaise. There’s a certain amount of misogyny written into the novel, which helps us nail down the slippery character of Zeno a bit more. With Trojanow’s Zeno, we have a similar situation and just as with Svevo’s counterpart, we can’t but feel that his explanations and descriptions are a bit self serving.

There are two women we get to know at some length, and then there’s the female tourists on the ship. The first woman is Zeno’s wife Helene. She is painted as a superficial, spiteful woman, interested in material values beyond everything else. She’s portrayed as unhappy: unhappy about Zeno’s obsession, unhappy about his academic income, unhappy about the cheap trips abroad they take together, unhappy about the apartment and possessions they can afford. On a trip to Spain, Zeno and Helene cannot be happy about the same things, and the narrator Zeno puts his now ex-wife into her place by placing a lesson on humility at the end of his account of the Spain trip. There’s no intimacy or passion between the two. The other woman we get to know is Zeno’s current girlfriend Paulina, who works on the ship and with whom he has a torrid relationship that lasts just as long as the cruise. Am attempt to continue the relationship beyond the ship has failed because Paulina and Zeno find each other boring when exposed for a long time. His treatment of her is a bit condescending and it somehow includes awkwardly written sex scenes, just to somehow drive home the image of her as a loving but temporary sex kitten. Zeno’s discussion of the female lecturers and tourists are similarly condescending. He may be aware of a broad swath of social issues, but his own sexism clearly escapes him. It is due to the masterful art of Trojanow that our attention is directed towards that subject. It’s implicit in the descriptions but his narrator is not aware of it. Without broaching the question of intentionality, it’s still not clear how central this aspect is to the book, how much it is supposed to tie into its other questions and concerns. I have a tendency to assume that books I generally like use prejudice as active elements rather than say that these books are racist or misogynist. In this case, the background of antarctic exploration justifies, I think, this charitable reading.

GetImageIn The Lamentations of Zeno, I think, there’s a broad discussion of masculinity and destruction. Exploration and destruction, we learn are connected, and Zeno himself, once pushed hard enough, decides on being destructive. The history of antarctic exploration, for a long time, was a history of men doing manly things. Men enduring pain, men persevering, men rivaling other men. The first woman to set foot in the Antarctic didn’t do so until 1935, and she was the wife of the captain of a whaling ship. This is not due to a lack of interest of women in exploration. In fact, women wrote a rather famous letter to Shackleton in 1914 and Shackleton declined because there were “no vacancies for the opposite sex”. As in many other areas dominated by men, women’s absence is not due to female disinterest, but due to men imagining and enforcing gender roles, something that continues to this day, as the harassment of female participants in the programming and gaming culture proves. This separatist mindset also fits the broader mindset regarding nature. As the great ecologist William Cronin suggested, we live with the cultural paradigms established by nature writing, including travelogues, which provide an account of nature as something separate and apart from human beings, and this criticism includes ecologists as well as writers celebrating the use and exploitation. The novel, by offering us a closed, fixed (in the page of a notebook) story, which it undercuts, asks us to establish alternative narratives. There’s a quiet line that connects Trojanow’s work to stories like Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Sur”, her story about female adventurers who reach the south pole before Shackleton in a privately finded expedition in 1909. Their “desire was pure as the polar snows: to go, to see – no more, no less.“ The lack of such counter narratives in the book itself contributes to the desperation. Zeno has no solutions, only anger and frustration and at no point does he manage to look past his known points of reference for other ideas. This, one suspects, is the call to arms of Trojanow the activist. Write and think solutions, offer counter narratives, understand the urgency of the desperation and challenge it. Trojanow’s writing is full of ellipses, and he uses every part of the novel to his advantage, creating multiple narrative spaces. Ilija Trojanow is a very good writer and The Lamentations of Zeno is a very good novel. Go read it, but do it carefully, look into the spaces between and below the language.

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Lawrence Norfolk: John Saturnall’s Feast

Norfolk, Lawrence (2012), John Saturnall’s Feast, Grove Press
ISBN 978-0-8021-2088-5

DSC_0163 So I guess we all have these writers – writers whose every book we read as soon as possible and whose future books we wait for, refresh amazon pages for, look up bookseller news for – or maybe that’s just me. Two of these writers have kept me waiting for an especially long, long time. One is Canadian novelist Rohinton Mistry who hasn’t as much as announced a followup novel to Family Matters (2002), and whose name I punch into Google at least once a month. The other writer is Lawrence Norfolk, who had let 12 years pass between his third novel and John Saturnall’s Feast, which is his fourth. Rumors about Norfolk’s fourth novel had been floating around for years, various titles and plots were offered. As for me, I bought it the instant it was published (or rather it was bought for me; I was hospitalized at the time) and read it within two days of receiving it. And I loved it. This is no hyperbole. I was reading the book carefully, slowly, and loved every minute of the experience. I loved every page of it, loved the way the book looked (the Grove hardcover is such a handsome production…). And yet – after I finished it, it did not give me the frisson of having just read the new novel of a favorite writer which is just as good or better than his previous books. Most of us remember the excitement when Pynchon’s tremendous Against the Day (2006) came out and the goodness, the excellence of the book stayed with you for days – it was not just that a fairly long wait since Mason & Dixon (1997) was finally over, it was also excitement over how good the new book was. Not as good as M&D, but very clearly among his best work. Even the smaller in every way next novel gave me a similar sense (here’s my review of that one). All this is to say that that is how the experience should have been, but it was not. What I found instead was a well executed, very readable, very enjoyable book. As I will point out further down, I think it’s a technical exercise in romanticism. Pretty good. But as a followup to Norfolk’s other work, it was a bit of a disappointment. It’s hard not to recommend it – it’s so much fun to read, especially in winter, but it’s also…not a masterpiece. So you might ask: wait, you’re saying this book is very good – and a disappointment? Yes. Maybe I should explain.

DSC_0206I have to admit to a slight bias here, I guess. Norfolk’s previous three novels are very good. Very, very good. I have reread all three in the past month and they all hold up, even improve on rereading. His debut was Lemprière’s Dictionary, published when its author was a mere 27 years old. On its face, it is a retelling of the creation of John Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary containing a full Account of all the Proper Names mentioned in Ancient Authors, which is a real book, written by a historical person really called John Lemprière who, like Norfolk’s protagonist, came from Jersey. That is where the similarities end. Norfolk’s novel is a historical conspiracy novel that features a cabal of French protestants who are secretly behind the East India Company. It’s a book deeply steeped in myth, visions, and history – but it’s also a book with very odd steampunk underpinnings, with steampunk-like cyborgs (well, kinda) and automatons. All of this is done in a style that is so assured, so clean, that it can carry the complicated plot which teems with characters and descriptions and preposterous ideas and not confuse the reader beyond the intended confusions. It has held up remarkably well, and I strongly recommend you read it – but only in the British edition (the American edition has been mutilated). There has been criticism of its anglocentricity and orientalism, but Norfolk’s main goal is disorientation. The basic idea of historical novels, drawing intellectual connections between then and now, infusing a seemingly fixed situation with understanding, Norfolk sets about unmooring its fundamental pillars.

DSC_0207His second novel, The Pope’s Rhinoceros, basically takes the style and ideas and thrust of the first novel and splashes them over a vastly bigger canvas. Not only does the novel have about double the size of the debut, the same explosion happened to plots and characters. While the debut novel mostly took place in Jersey and London, with small trips to places like La Rochelle in France, the second novel spans across all of Renaissance Europe. I am not even going to attempt to offer a summary, but the novel contains monks traveling through Europe, artists, soldiers, and a mythical sunk city. While the first novel played with myth as an element in disorienting the audience and its protagonist, the second novel makes a full grab for a full religious and mythical framework. Religion, power, sexuality and art were all toys in the manic hands of 27 year old Norfolk, but The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels like the work of someone who thought through the concepts he used in his debut and applied them more deliberately in his second attempt. The Pope’s Rhinoceros, as was Lemprière’s Dictionary, is very well researched but doesn’t care to be accurate about the facts of history (or rather, is intentionally inaccurate). There’s a larger emphasis on myth as compared to steampunk automatons, but the mind is the same, just more mature. It’s a dense novel that frequently seems to just burst with material and descriptions and plot and good god all those characters, but it never really feels self-indulgent. Norfolk has a story to tell and ideas to convey, and everything in The Pope’s Rhinoceros feels absolutely necessary. It’s also really well written.

DSC_0132In his first two novels, Norfolk has developed his own style, highly recognizable, and perfectly adapted to the mad novels it was created for. In his third novel he cut down on the style. In many ways, this is no longer the Norfolk we know. While the first two novels occasionally invited comparison to the intellectual and philosophical romps through history of Umberto Eco’s novels, the new one is nothing like that. The progression from the first two novels seems to be cut short: page count alone seems clear: Lempriere’s Dictionary had about 500 pages, The Pope’s Rhinoceros roughly 900 and the third novel, the severely underrated In The Shape of a Boar, came in at just above 300 pages. Instead of being set in a distant period in England’s past, it’s set in World War II Romania and postwar Europe. For writers mainly associated with a specific setting and writing to transition to a much more modern period or setting can be difficult, even great writers struggle. The British and American sections of Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and the entire nonredeemable awfulness that is Rushdie’s Fury can serve as sad examples. Given the history of such ventures, it’s a bit surprising that In The Shape of a Boar is an absolute triumph. It’s split in two parts, the first one is a philological account (with footnotes) of the mythical Calydonian boar hunt. It takes the archival concerns of the first two books, both of which share and foreground a concern with the production of knowledge, and turns it inside out by offering sources in a clipped, but musical account of the myth. There is a third part that returns to the first, but it’s much smaller.

DSC_0130The second part, larger than the first one, is a very thinly veiled account of the life of Paul Celan (with one big deviation) and especially the Goll-Affair that haunted and broke Celan. The book offers us disquisitions on truth and storytelling, it’s an exercise in naming and sourcing; even the philological footnotes are already infiltrated by opinion and doubt. We are asked to transpose the mythical structure on the contemporary events, we are made players in a postmodern game, but unlike the cushy historical fantasy backgrounds of the earlier novels, this one offers us higher stakes. I can’t possibly do justice to the book within this summary, so I won’t attempt it. Suffice to say that at the center of it is a text called “Die Keilerjagd” (“The Boar Hunt”), written by Norfolk’s stand-in for Celan (the poem itself alludes to the Todesfuge via the Goll affair link, and “In Gestalt eines Ebers”, the poem that lent the novel its title). Subsequently, the authenticity, accuracy and plain truth of “Die Keilerjagd” is called into question. The Celan character is not necessarily at the center – it’s really the text and the question of historical truth and representation. The time-lines in Norfolk’s book can be shown to correspond to events in history, which helps read certain events. For Norfolk, this book represents the pinnacle of his achievement to that point. It takes up his concerns with truth, power and myth, with archives, art and vision, and transports them to a different platform, offers them different contexts. It’s a very brave undertaking, breaking with a certain part of his audience, and seemingly breaking with his previous work, but actually, it sharpens it, it re-focuses some concerns in his previous books. In The Shape of a Boar is a surprising step forward, but just as The Pope’s Rhinoceros, it’s also a development of his previous work. It’s stylistically acute, offering a shift even in writing to accommodate the subject matter. With In The Shape of a Boar, Norfolk established himself as a great writer. What would be his next masterpiece? Where would he go next?

DSC_0129Given these expectation on my side and many other readers of his work, when John Saturnall’s Feast came out, a medium-sized, easily read little book that had a small portion of myth, to go with a historical background and an engaging story, previous readers of Norfolk had to feel a bit let down. If you reread the effusive praise I have just offered for his other books, you could claim that I just had unreasonable expectations. That may be so. But I can’t help but feel that this step back is deliberate. In The Shape of a Boar was not as well received as his previous work and it had to have sold much fewer copies. In writing this short, very pretty book, he clearly appealed to the audience of his earlier books, and maybe, after the rumored failure of a much more ambitious project that was abandoned during the 12 years between novels three and four (one of the rumors was based on titbits like this note from a British Council webpage ca. 2006 that said “He is currently working on a new novel, The Levels, about the effect of gravity on human relationships.”), this smaller project helped him center, retool his writing. I don’t know and generally I don’t like this kind of speculation. So let’s move on to the book itself.

DSC_0164What kind of book is John Saturnall’s Feast? Set in the years just before, during and just after Cromwell’s reign, it is a novel about the English countryside. We meet Norfolk’s protagonist in a village in the middle of a green and gorgeous valley. He is the son of a village witch, who watches over a pagan rite of fertility and renewal. Her murder pushes the newly orphaned John Saturnall away from his home and into the kitchen of a manor whose lord, Sir William Fremantle, rules over the valley. With him, Saturnall carries a book of recipes his ancestors have kept and worked with. Saturnall quickly rises within the household due to luck, skill and his preternatural taste that allows him to distinguish all ingredients of a dish. He is tasked to coax Lucretia, the daughter of the house, who is on a hunger strike of sorts, into eating, and what ensues is a beautiful dance of seduction centered around food. As Cromwell takes over the country, the waves of history engulf Fremantle manor as well. Violence, war, religion, love and food spin together, carrying Saturnall through years of upheaval, through love and pain. If this summary sounds a bit bland, I can assure you I am not misrepresenting the book. The slightly mad, disorderly myth that ate at the archives of knowledge in the previous novels is very neatly stowed away here. Its most powerful appearance is early in the novel, in an evocation of the mythical power of nature and pagan rites, of the feasting tables of nature, and the intrusion of the “Priests of Jehova”. But once we enter Fremantle’s manor, it becomes background noise. It’s a means to characterize Saturnall, give him a distinctive motivation that is different from the other workers in the household. It also provides motivation and structure to the book. The book’s handful of characters are odd, but they don’t remind the reader of similar characters in Norfolk’s work – instead we feel like we are looking at a novel whose sense of interiors and history is inspired by Gormenghast without having that novel’s genius.

DSC_0162I’m not trying to be harsh. I really like this book even today and there’s a lot that’s interesting here. The narrow focus on English history allows Norfolk to combine tendencies from mythography and historiography to provide a very strong sense of place, of a profound Englishness. That’s why the recipes he prints at the beginning of every chapter have no real intrigue, they are purely decorative (but beautifully so). Wonderful books like How to cook a Wolf, a cookbook that also reveals the stress of life during hard times, or Günter Grass’ Der Butt, a novel about carnality in the baroque and today, use recipes to add to a story, to offer relevance and substance from a different medium. But for Norfolk the goal is a kind of grand essay on general Englishness, and he marshals an army of details to create this sense of place. This starts with his choice of Cromwell’s time as the setting for the book. In his great study of Cromwell, Christopher Hill has pointed out how much of a role Cromwell plays for the structure of English history, for its development and interpretation. He goes so far as to say that Cromwell in his revolution “combine[s] the roles of Robespierre and Napoleon, of Lenin and Stalin, in theirs.” Norfolk clearly has a strong sense of that. His focus on one rural village evokes no period of literature so much as Romanticism itself. It’s a period novel in a double sense: written about a certain period but also written in the style of a different period. Even the choice of topic might point back to Romanticism, if we remember that one of the most famous manifestos of Romanticism was Hugo’s preface to his play about Cromwell. This book doesn’t play fast and loose with historical facts, it doesn’t offer you facts in the first place. The book itself, in the Grove edition, just adds to this sense. Every chapter is dedicated to a different recipe in the cookbook, offering the recipe and a woodcut-style picture to accompany it. The recipes and chapter beginnings are printed in burgundy ink. It’s just so overwhelmingly pretty. I have included pictures of it somewhere in this review.

DSC_0134And this is why I can’t help but think that its superficial blandness is intentional. It is, as if it was intentionally written and conceived as a romantic period artifact. Even the writing itself, which at times seems a bit sloppy is, I think, intentionally written as a pastiche (not parody) of period writing. The modernity of the language is what allows us to read it as more than parody. I think this book is extremely clever, and a lot of its blandness is intentional, and it’s honestly a fantastic, joyful read, but intentional blandness is still blandness and this book, with all its cleverness and all its formal accomplishments, feels like a step back for a writer that I consider to be vastly underrated. And there’s the distinct possibility that I am reading these accomplishments and this cleverness into a book that doesn’t have it. That is not such a well constructed artifact. However, it is the rest of Norfolk’s work that allows for this reading. If Norfolk really were such a minor writer, Lemprière’s Dictionary would have looked more like Iain Pears’ fun but forgettable Rashomon-in-England fable An Instance of the Fingerpost. But it doesn’t look like that because Norfolk is, indeed, a very good writer, and ultimately, saying that John Saturnall’s Feast is ‘merely’ a great read is burying the lede. In a time of dull but ‘clever’ books written by novelists without a sense of style (Blake Butler’s work comes to mind), such a readable work, with such commitment to sumptuousness and beauty, and written by such a capable hand, is not only rare, it is absolutely laudable. Overall, it’s a bit like comfort food – like a slice of your favorite pizza. If you haven’t had it in a while you’ll absolutely die for a slice. Look, I am waiting for his next book, just as impatiently. But I was also, speaking of Hugo, reminded of this passage in the Préface:

En somme, rien n’est si commun que cette élégance et cette noblesse de convention. Rien de trouvé, rien d’imaginé, rien d’inventé dans ce style. Ce qu’on a vu partout, rhétorique, ampoule, lieux communs[…].

John Saturnall’s Feast is very formulaic, and in danger of meriting such criticism. But compared to other books in the genre, this one is much more competent, much more fluid in the use of myth, and much more aware of the period style it uses and adapts. It feels like a watershed moment for Norfolk. Where does he go next? I can’t honestly wait to find out.

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Denise Mina: Field of Blood

Mina, Denise (2005), Field of Blood, Little, Brown
ISBN 0-316-15458-x

DSC_0197So when I said there would be shorter reviews as well as longer ones, I actually had this book in mind. Denise Mina’s crime procedural Field of Blood is a fairly straightforward crime novel set in Glasgow in 1981. I read it on one long train ride between two university libraries and I enjoyed it so much that I somehow started to take notes on it (I can’t tell you why that’s a sign of enjoyment for me, it just is). While I find the genre very entertaining, I don’t actually read mysteries a whole lot; I am nevertheless aware that there’s a specific Scottish tradition of that kind of writing, although most of those books, like the vast oeuvre of Ian Rankin, are set in Edinburgh. While the basic tradition is mostly dominated by brooding male detectives, whose inner demons make for excellent drama to supplement the murder mystery, there have been quite a few important female writers. I have to admit to not having read any British examples, but the American writers I’ve read are all really good, among them Laura Lippman and Sara Gran. I even enjoy the faux-British mediocrity of Elizabeth George. It’s not a huge coincidence that the first names that came to mind are American or English. In a recent review/interview with brilliant Scottish novelist Janice Galloway, the interviewer writes: “[a]lthough Scottish fiction can boast a line of hard men […] its hard women have been less visible”. Galloway herself points to the dearth of role models when she started out. This translates into mystery writing, but just as there’s now a whole series of female Scottish writers (my personal adoration of A.L. Kennedy’s work is well known), the field of female writers of crime novels has also greatly expanded.

And yet, amidst the growing competition, Mina’s book stands out. Field of Blood is many things at once: a mystery, a brisk psychological study of a young woman in a male dominated field, but it’s also a tentative discussion of the cultural background of 1980s (and 1960s) Glasgow. It may be a reviewer’s cliché to say that a book is many things at once, but as I’ll point out later, it’s a salient observation in this case; it contributes to the way we read and understand the book. Field of Blood is constructed with all the trappings of the genre, but the material is smartly dealt with. The novel is a bit strangely structured, and while you get a clean resolution, Mina has sidestepped the temptation of tying everything up in a clean knot. In novels like these, finding the killer usually means finding someone complicit in the social struggles depicted. Unraveling the case leads to an unraveling of a part of history or contemporary society that the author intends to examine. Massimo Carlotto’s fascinating investigative noirs are an example, or to stay in Scotland, the very good crime novels of Val McDermid. In Field of Blood, however, the murder case and the social issues are -in many ways- separated, allowing the writer to offer a resolution to the plot without a solution to the broader issues. The protagonist may be personally connected to the case, but that’s just a plot device. There are other connections too, some reaching into old criminal history. It’s just a really well executed intelligent crime novel with an overwhelming sense of place and time.

The place in question is Glasgow which gives the book a more working class background. Glasgow and Edinburgh have been rivals in Scotland for centuries. According to Robert Crawford’s book On Glasgow and Edinburgh, the latter is a more European kind of city, filled with old buildings, centered around the arts (and banking these days), while Glasgow is a city of heavy industry, the Scottish equivalent of the North of England. And like in Liverpool and Manchester, the thatcherite 1980s were no joy for working class Glaswegians. As heavy industry slowly lost its importance, and the Tory government cracked down on unions and workers, these communities suffered greatly. But Mina goes a bit further and situates her protagonist in an Irish Catholic community. Back in the 19th century, a huge amount of poor Irish fled to Scotland and most of them settled around Glasgow and Dundee. The UK has had a difficult relationship to Catholicism in general and with the Irish in particular and so it’s no small wonder that the Irish Catholics in Scotland were not especially welcome. In 1929, not that long ago, the Church of Scotland published a pamphlet titled “The Menace of the Irish race to our Scottish Nationality”; the division between Catholics and Protestants has been an impactful one for Scotland, a division that extends to their two big football clubs, Celtic Glasgow (Irish Catholic) and the Glasgow Rangers (Protestant). The misgivings of the broader protestant society and administration and the resulting insularity and defensiveness of Irish Catholic communities plays a large role in Field of Blood, which is as much about a young woman coming into her own as it’s about the murder of a small child at the hands of two slightly older children.

DSC_0199That last remark is not a spoiler. In fact, the book leads with the scene of the murder and presents us two boys, unequally complicit in a horrible crime. The question that needs to be answered by the plot is whether the boys did the heinous deed alone or whether they were made to do it or maybe enticed into doing it. And even though I called it a procedural at the beginning, it doesn’t focus on the police at all. Instead, the focal point is a female journalist called Paddy Meehan. Her real name is Patricia, but everybody calls her Paddy, which has two effects. It confirms the social/ethnic background, literally naming her (Paddy is a stereotypical Irish name), and it ties her to a different (not fictional) person with the same name. Patrick ‘Paddy’ Meehan was at the center of a miscarriage of justice debate in the 1970s. A Glaswegian Irish Catholic, he was framed for a murder he did not commit. It took seven years for him to be pardoned, even though, shortly after the trial, someone else came forward and confessed to the murder. In his later years, ‘Paddy’ Meehan came to believe that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union, and had been involved in a prison escape by a British double agent, none of which was ever proven to be true. Field of Blood incorporates a retelling of Meehan’s life story in alternating chapters. They offer an uneasy current of counter-history that undermines the legitimacy of stories told in the present tense of the novel.

The main task of Meehan’s life story is to show and remind Patricia/Paddy of the unreliability of the police, especially where minorities are concerned. If they had had no problems framing Paddy Meehan for a murder, would they flinch from framing two Irish Catholic boys in order to have a presentable result to a tragedy that outraged the public? However, Mina also tells us about Meehan’s life as a spy and she does this in a way that does not really inform the reader of the truth of the matter. The situations that she vouches for as an author are ambiguous, involving unseen locations, cells, blindfolds. Other, less ambiguous scenes are offered us through Paddy Meehan’s voice, a cracked, slightly off kilter kind of voice. She never really ties these memories/delusions of her protagonist’s innocently jailed namesake to the main narrative, leaving it in the book just as a queer disturbance of epistemological clarity. This is especially important since the mystery genre has a particular relationship to that idea (I went on about it in my reviews of brilliant novels by Pynchon, and childishly flat novels by Charles Stross), and while we are not following detectives or policemen around, a similar connotation follows investigative reporters.

Patricia/Paddy isn’t quite an investigative reporter, but her investigation of this story represents her first attempt at being one. Her struggles as a woman at a newspaper filled with men is made explicit, and represent a variation on a theme that readers and viewers are fairly familiar with. And while we can assume she is about to carve out a place for herself in this male dominated world, that is not the most interesting emancipation. As an Irish Catholic, she is also strongly involved in that community, almost imprisoned by it. With no sexual experience, she is engaged to be married to a young man from the same community. She lives with her parents (as he lives with his) and goes to church every Sunday. While we soon understand that this community is oppressive to her, we are not asked to condemn the closely knit web of families and friends. Denise Mina makes it clear that this is a supportive community, with a closeness born from necessity and poverty. There is none of the common pat judgment of somewhat insular religious communities. When Paddy appears to betray them by writing an article, the community turns against her. However, this shunning of Paddy inadvertently frees her long enough to see why she has not been happy following the community traditions and eventually allowing her to emancipate herself from the ties that bound her.

DSC_0198The portrayal of Irish Catholics in Fields of Blood is done in broad strokes, which makes sense, given that it happens in brief intervals during breaks in the mystery plot. At the same time, it is fairly complex, an effect that is achieved by the mosaic-like technique Mina uses in her novel. She throws out all these elements (and there are more, including body image struggles and sexuality) and hopes for the sense of place that permeates everything to make it all cohere. In a sense we are cast as detectives here, as well, connecting all the elements of the book in order to see the whole picture. Choosing a female protagonist allowed Mina to also present to us, like fellow Glaswegian novelists Galloway and Kennedy (part-time in her case) did before her, the experience of growing up female in working class Glasgow. The book is not on par with Galloway’s or Kennedy’s work, but it doesn’t aim for that kind of literary discourse. It’s literary goals are different and clear – and clearly met. There are other excellent books about female detectives that show how feminity is under pressure both by criminals as well as by the police apparatus. Alison Littlewood’s recent fairy tale/serial killer novel The Path of Needles is a very good example of this. As for Mina’s novel, it exceeds even those books. Sure, there are minor incongruities that have the effect of sometimes making the book read like somebody’s debut novel (it’s actually her third book), but they are fleeting. If you enjoy reading crime novels, this is the book for you.

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