Tournament of Books 2017

So I’ve been both busy and sick this year and somehow, it wasn’t until I was looking up reviews after I posted my own review of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton that I noticed that that this year’s Tournament of Books is already over and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad won a very impressive victory. The ToB is one of the most entertaining and unique items in the Book event calendar. A literary March madness: in 5 brackets a selection of recent books are pitted against each other and a judge picks the winner in each bracket. The championship round then unites all the judges as the book with the most votes takes home the trophy.  The great advantage (and sometimes source of frustration) is that it is absolutely the luck of the draw, not just who you encounter in your bracket, but also what kind of judge is asked to render judgment on any given bracket. Thus, due to idiocy, a few years ago, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help beat out John Wray’s masterful Lowboy. This year, in the most spectacular bit of idiocy yet, All the Birds in the Sky beat Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  More details on the way the tournament works here. For the second time in several years, I actually reviewed one or two of the books in the tournament. I have linked them in the list of the brackets below. Ok. Here you go, the brackets of this year’s ToB:

Judge: Kirstin Butler
The Underground Railroad
v. Black Wave

Judge: V.V. Ganeshananthan
The Vegetarian
v. All the Birds in the Sky

Judge: Steph Cha
My Name Is Lucy Barton
v. Version Control

Judge: Susannah Cahalan
The Mothers
v. High Dive

Judge: Will Chancellor
Moonglow
v. Grief Is the Thing With Feathers

Judge: Caille Millner
Homegoing
v. Sweet Lamb of Heaven

Judge: Lili Loofbourow
The Nix
v. We Love You, Charlie Freeman

Judge: Pamela Ribon
Sudden Death
v. Mister Monkey

Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

Strout, Elizabeth (2016), My Name is Lucy Barton, Random House
ISBN 978-0-8129-7952-7

I’ve actually read this novel twice. Twice! And I am still not sure what to think about it. It appears to be written and conceived so clearly in many ways, with various structures and strictures in place to deal with some forms of sentimentality, a style that conveys emotionality and openness without lapsing into soft and soppy imitations of poetic diction, qualities I am particularly receptive to after trying to get through Janet Mock’s interesting but horrendously written memoir in the past week. And yet – particularly as the plot or rather the protagonist’s life story unravels (or develops), the book’s previous flirts with cute sentimentality (“And yet I think: nobody comes from nothing.”) become more of a foregrounded stylistic element or annoyance, depending on your taste. Yet even that is reflected in the book itself, which is on many levels a metafictional exercise about how to write the life of a woman in 21st century America. Thus, narrative structures in the text come to be equivalent to family structures in the plot, for example and it becomes hard to see any sentimental streaks in the novel as having an existence beyond signifying the stylistic element “sentimentalities” for the literary discourse of the novel. It is all very interesting, and in many ways very accomplished and honestly intermittently moving, even, but to me, it sometimes also felt like a very dull undergrad MFA course on how to write and not to write a novel about female experience in our time. I cannot tell from the author’s bio whether she’s ever taught a course like that, but this novel feels like a very didactic (but very nimble) result of a course of that nature. The way the novel looks at life, love, nature, family and art with the same didactic lens that it then also turns upon itself feels greatly like some 18th and 19th classics in the very development of the genre. So. Is this a good novel? Maybe? Will I read a new book by Strout? Probably not? Here’s where I stand: it does what it does pretty darn well. I may not care a ton about what it does. But a lot of people love it. You may too. I liked it. I think.

The split that passes right down the middle of the book – of intellectual thinking and sentimental wallowing is something that has been part of literary history for a while. There’s this recent-ish study on the legacy of Charlotte Smith by Claire Knowles that is very insistent on the difficulties of female writers and poet to deal with the charge of sentimentality and the attempts to get out from under it. The result can sometimes be a meatless over-structuring, as in Valeria Luiselli’s novel(la) Faces in the Crowd (see my review here). Writers like Anne Tyler, who dive deeply into the rich emotionalism of female life stories are on the other side of the divide, I suppose. And in the middle are books like this. Toward the end, the protagonist’s daughter says: “Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it but when you live with someone for twenty years that is the novel and you can never write that novel with anyone again!” The last fourth of the novel is full of those kinds of remarks, peppered with “my dear daughter” and “my most tenderhearted daughter” – and despite all the emotional or sentimental value of these remarks, they are also serious comments on structure and on female life writing. After all, the novel’s very title invokes unreliable narrators like Moby Dick’s (who starts the novel with the invitation: “Call me Ishmael”) and a whole genre of biographical fiction. The split I feel dominates the book – it’s also right there in the book’s language. Much of it is clean and sharp, shepherding the book’s many small stories and memories into short chapters that never extend long enough for sentimental whimsy, but sometimes, usually compartmentalized into individual paragraphs, the book blossoms into small, warm, emotional dictums, analogies or just pure declarations of emotional loyalty. None of this really breaks with the overall structure and narrative, until the last fourth of the novel, which, in turn, is specifically framed as a text with a freer relationship to structure. And yet, despite this intellectual framing of everything, most of the stories in the novel are filled with life, plausibility, warmth, the kind of storytelling skill that Luiselli’s book lacked.

All of this is extraordinarily well controlled, in part, one feels, as a way to combat the generic expectations of this kind of book, the (feigned) autobiography of a female writer. In her study, Knowles cites a movie review by Philip Hensher, mediocre novelist in his own right, who reviewed the movie Sylvia. Hensher disapproves of the treatment of the two poets as equals with, perhaps, Plath coming out on top. “Hughes’ [story],” he writes, is “too complex and rich to be reduced to a weepy narrative.” Plath’s own life, however, isn’t granted the same complexity by Hensher. This critical suspicion is, one feels, one of the impulses driving My Name is Lucy Barton‘s construction, and at the same time, Strout isn’t giving in to the gendered critique – she offers an écriture that is both feminine and intellectually sharp enough to escape the charge of being a mere “weepy narrative.” In this, I feel, the main intertext here is The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. In Tolstoy’s classic novella, a terminal illness leads the protagonist to reevaluate his life. His relationship to his family, to his own life, to progress, all of these things get an airing, and none of these things fare well as Ivan Ilyich shambles towards death. Yet as he comes to accept his family, comes to see his life and theirs with compassion, the fearful presence of death disappears. The central conceit of Strout’s book is also a mysterious illness that ties Lucy Barton to her bed and forces her to reconnect with her mother. Most of the novel is set in the hospital room, with the relationship to her mother as the main storytelling impetus. Much like the elements of the room, the illness and the restricted choice of visitors shapes Lucy Barton’s life, these same elements shape the novel. The shortness of chapters, the sharpness and sometimes simplicity of the writing, the resistance to sentimentality, they can also be read as symptoms of the cautious, insecure relationship of the protagonist to her mother. In other words, the cagey, resistant kind of writing may reflect a resistance towards a certain relationship with motherhood and feminity, and as the character connects with her mother, so the book connects with a different literary tradition, leaving critical suspicions behind as we, in comparatively few pages, catch up with the rest of Barton’s life.

This, of course, also has a literary tradition. I believe it was Teresa de Lauretis who coined the term “the maternal imaginary” for the wave of books of fiction, poetry and literary criticism that explored the relationships of female writers with their mothers, often explicitly meant to provide a counternarrative to Harold Bloom’s Portnoyian obsession with writers and fathers. In one of her last books, Barbara Johnson suggested that poetry is an attempt to hear the voice of the mother, and it is surely no accident that My Name is Lucy Barton is a story about a woman writing her life, who, in the story, meets a writer who teaches her some fundamentals about writing, and who, for the largest portion of the book, finds herself locked into a small room with her mother, forced to talk to her, listen to her, re-assess her memories of herself, her life and her marriage. And in a book that isn’t exactly short on metafictional narrative devices, the central one is one of the most famous ones: a serious lingering illness. Susan Sontag wrote a whole essay about the way illnesses are misused as metaphors for all kinds of things, including narratives of “strength and weakness.” Particularly relevant to Strout’s novel are a few remarks by Sontag regarding illness and cities: according to Sontag, “[b]efore the city was understood as, literally, a cancer-causing environment, the city was seen as itself a cancer.” This connection of city life with a false, unsustainable, unconnected, unnatural life is maintained in Strout’s novel, as well. That’s also where the main connection to the “maternal imagery” of the novel is from: Barton is originally from a poor rural area, and many of the stories her mother initially tells are stories about people “back home” – reconnecting Barton not just to her mother, but also to her community roots, and, later, to a more natural, unrestricted kind of writing. There are more themes like this, the way the curious way the novel treats gay people and HIV, the way it works with insider/outsider figures, but after a while one returns to the initial impression: there’s a lot of stuff in here, and the book certainly has enough material for a whole book of undergrad essays, but the sum of it all, the controlled, hyper-determined way all the levels of the book appear to be examples and mirrors for other elements of the book on lower/higher levels, it feels too much like a textbook for an MFA course.

And going through reviews, this impression of mine may be my own problem. Certainly, many people only read the book on an emotional, emotive level. But that would, I think, underrate the author’s considerable achievement here. I don’t know that I like this book a lot – but I can certainly admire its execution. If this sounds like equivocating – it is. I wish I had stronger emotions about this book, positive or negative, really. But, apart from admiration for its craft, I don’t. I can appreciate it as a book in a long tradition that books like Claire Knowles’ have illuminated, and I can appreciate the nuance in Strout’s prose, but there’s a limit to my appreciation. I’m sorry if this has made my first review after a longer break a bit of an odd read but there you go. I think you should read this novel, if you care at all about the themes I laid out. That’s it.

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Happy New Year, Everyone

15780902_10211866012072810_2728734389601758620_nHave a great 2017 everyone. I’m listening to an Otis live records right now, drinking a lovely gin. Who knows how long I will be around, any of us really. Have a drink on me, on you and the new year.

Read poetry, write poetry, read books, punch a fascist, you know, you do you next year.

Love,

Marcel

My Year in Reviewing: 2016

dsc_3252So after posting 26 reviews last year, I happened to post the exact same number this year, despite some quiet months without reviews. An alphabetical list of the books under review this year are below, with short commentary. I wrote about three very notable books that I didn’t get around to reviewing (but will probably review next year) here. If you feel like supporting this blog, why not click here. If you want to buy my book, why not click here? Incidentally, I have review copies of my book in pdf and (possibly) epub, if you feel like reviewing German poetry. Email me! Now, here’s the list of reviews.

Margaret Atwood et al.: Angel Catbird. Margaret Atwood is a genius novelist. Not a genius writer of comic books. Two more volumes coming early next year.

Glyn Dillon: The Nao of Brown. The less talented Dillon brother. The art is good. The overall impression is meh. His brother died this year. A genuine loss.

David Ebershoff: The Danish Girl. Terrible book. One of the top 3 worst books I read last year, overall. Dubious America-centric revisions to history that, given recent elections, seems somehow symptomatic

Brian Evenson: The Warren. Science fiction, I suppose? One of my three favorite books of the year.

Ellen Forney: Marbles – Mania, Depression, Michelangelo + Me. Writing about depression while fetishizing the psychopharma industry.

Tomer Gardi: Broken German. One of the best German novels of the year, written by an Israeli citizen in his German language debut. Hilarious, sharp, brilliant.

Claire Gibson, Sloane Leong and Marian Churchland: From Under Mountains, Vol. 1 One of my favorite comics of the year. Art and writing perfectly complement each other.

Kent Haruf: Our Souls At Night. Quiet little book. Not as good as I hoped, not as bad as I feared. Won’t be reading more of his stuff, I don’t think.

Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat. Excellently crafted little story/novel/novella about a cat, Japanese modernity and a marriage.

Line Hoven: Love Looks Away. I’ve read a couple of German comics this year and this is easily my favorite. Will post a review of the thoroughly mediocre Kinderland by Mawil next year. Hoven’s book is smart, poetic and the art is spectacular.

Paulette Jiles: News of the World. Award-winning piece of Americana drivel. Good for a present for your badly read relative. Solidly done, enough to dazzle some. One of the worst books I’ve reviewed (if not read) this year.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian. Genuine, absolute masterpiece. There’s an odd connection between Kang and Evenson in how they approach physicality.

Kolbeinn Karlsson: The Troll King. Swedish comic. Interesting, well made, a bit racist. Overall a recommendation.

Phil LaMarche: American Youth. Eh. So it’s MFA Americana fare with good ideas, but dull execution.

Fouad Laroui: The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers. Laroui is a profoundly interesting writer. In this I introduce you a bit to his work. Not a very popular review with editors (sigh) but in a reduced form, it’s done well on this blog this year.

Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda: Monstress. Very good comic book. Among my favorites this year. Doesn’t rise to the heights of, say, Tom King’s Vision or Lemire’s Descender, but very good nonetheless.

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd. Overrated book. Overdetermined, too disinterested in the idea of making a story cohere.

Sharon Dodua Otoo: Synchronicity. Otoo won one of the most prestigious German awards this year and she’s one of the most interesting German writers (she’s not German).

Iain Reid: I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Overrated piece of crap. Genre fiction by the book. No surprise. Nothing interesting.

Fran Ross: Oreo. A forgotten American masterpiece. Read it. Now.

Ray Russell: The Case Against Satan. Excellent, slyly complex piece of horror fiction. Deservedly considered a classic.

Cecilia Ștefănescu: Sun Alley. Bad novel, translated badly. No point in mincing words. Shame on the publisher who did a disservice to the cause of translated literature in English. Shame.

Akimitsu Takagi: The Informer. Crime novel from Japan. Exceptionally well excecuted, but appeals strictly only to people interested in genre, I’d say.

lê thi diem thúy: The gangster we are all looking for. A novel written in shorter segments about growing up foreign in the US. This is very good.

Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune. A masterpiece of Japanese fiction. Truly astounding.

Yvonne Vera: Butterfly Burning. African novelist of genius, sadly deceased. Novel is very good.

Kai Ashante Wilson: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps. This has languished on the occasional fantasy discussion list, while it, and its sequel/prequel A Taste of Honey are really among the best books published this year. Tor inexplicably marketed this to fantasy fans; this should be read by all fiction fans, period. I’ve never wished more that a book had landed with a different publisher. FSG Originals, for example. They’ve been doing amazing work. I’ve read Kristin Dombek on Narcissism this year, weird fiction by Amelia Gray, and science fiction by Jeff Vandermeer, all published by FSG Originals. Well designed, well pitched. Wilson should be on many of the lists summarizing this year’s best fiction, yet he’s not. It’s hard not to feel Tor is a bit at fault for that.

Three Unreviewed Books

This has been a fairly good year for books (albeit not for literature as a whole, which is no longer allowed at the cool table, apparently), but not necessarily for me. Many books published this year – among them novels by John Wray, Nicola Barker, AL Kennedy, Zadie Smith and Colson Whitehead, all of them among my very favorite writers, I have not read (most of them I don’t even own), let alone reviewed here (or elsewhere). There are three novels of note, however, which I do not wish to leave unmentioned this year. I’ve read all three, yet have not managed to write a review due to time constraints etc.

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1. Paul Beatty: The Sellout

I mentioned Paul Beatty in my review of Fran Ross’ underrated classic Oreo. Beatty’s debut novel did some remarkable things with language and myth, serving up a rich stew of poetry and politics. The Sellout is similarly rich fare, but more carefully calibrated. It is one of the best books of the year, whatever else you out on your list and it puts poor self satisfied novels like Paulette Jiles’ shitty one to shame which has no place on a best of list that also includes Beatty. Beatty touches on power, language, law, politics, and he does it all in an exuberant, poetic style that never lets up, that has no weak spots, nothing. Beatty is one of the best American novelists and this novel should cement his stature, if there is any fairness in canon formation (there isn’t). Read it, please. It may be too much, it may seem overwhelming, but I plead with you, persevere.

2. Rachel Cantor: Good On Paper

I have not read Rachel Cantor’s debut novel, but her sophomore effort Good On Paper is ridiculously smart, clever and, most of all: fun. The story of a translator who has given up on her craft, but is now, out of the blue, offered to translate the forthcoming work by one of the great poets of the time, feels a lot like comfort food for me, but without the bloating and unease. Reading it is a light and pleasant experience that touches on our knowledge of Dante, translation, poetry, with a hint of Celan and other poets like that. Honest to god, I have rarely seen a novel appeal this directly to what I find enjoyable. The writing is crisp and clean. I marvel at the impression of ease and fluidity that Cantor affects in this book that wears its complexities lightly. If you are among the three people reading this blog, I promise you will enjoy this novel, cross my heart. It’s impossible not to. Read this book.

3. Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen

Eileen is probably one of this year’s most overrated novels. Not because it’s not good – much of it is very good, and sections of it are remarkably well executed (read the first chapter for a masterclass on how to pull off an introduction to a character), but it was sold as a literary masterpiece, which it is not. It is not tight enough, not concise enough, not clear enough for that. And for a novel that eschews the literary pleasures of Beatty’s and Cantor’s novels, opting instead for a plain, sharply spoken style, it does not excel at that particular kind of writing, which is, admittedly, more difficult to pull off. On this blog I have repeatedly complained about the vicissitudes of writing simply. Moshfegh’s novel is elegantly structured, but ultimately does not rise to the challenges it sets itself to. And yet you should read it. Moshfegh does some interesting things with some very old narratives and structures. Whatever the problems with this novel, Moshfegh is a writer to watch who, in some moments, can truly make you gasp with admiration.

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