Maile Chapman: Your Presence is Required at Suvanto

Chapman, Maile (2010), Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, Jonathan Cape
ISBN 978-0-224-09042-1

Suvanto1Intentionally or not, several of my recently reviewed books on this blog have had this in common: they were well constructed intellectually and sometimes lacking in narrative or emotional power. Yet in all those cases, there was something that saved these books from being tiresome exercises in postmodern mastery. Not so with Maile Chapman’s debut novel Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, which is a dull, cold example of everything that people dislike about MFA produced literature. And when I say people, I mean me. In some ways, Chapman’s novel is the polar opposite of the other MFA novel that I reviewed negatively on this blog. Instead of fake emotion and ornate sentimentality, Chapman offers us the other extreme, smooth, cool surfaces, an impartial narrator, trained, if I read her acknowledgments correctly, on the Greek chorus (there’s a terrible novel by Blake Butler that has similar aspirations), and a disaffected, alienated set of protagonists who hurtle slowly (yes) towards a dark catastrophe, which, of course, is never really illuminated so as not to lose the oppressive air hanging over the story. This kind of writing is enormously hard to pull off, and only few novelists I have come across have managed to do so successfully. Maile Chapman is not one of them. The book is both dull and too busy, bland and overdetermined. It’s setting is both historical and set in a world seemingly outside of history. The main reference of the book appears to be Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, as well as Euripides play The Bacchae, although the first one is something I infer from the text itself, the latter is explicitly mentioned in paratextual artefacts. The former is a common reference in these kinds of settings, the latter is a bit puzzling, and in connection to the book would require some serious interpretative work, which this book does not deserve in any way. I regret paying money for this book and you shouldn’t invest money or time on a book that writes about illness and disability with the eye of the panoptikum. The plot centers around a sanatorium in Finland, and I am willing to wager that any novel you’ve read set in a sanatorium or Finland blows this disappointing, flat, almost unreadable book out of the water. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a bad book.

Suvanto2Why, you may ask, did I persevere and finish it, if it’s so obviously bad? For one thing, I always finish books, even if it takes a while. The other thing is that the novel is so oddly bad that I kept hoping for later sections of the book to redeem earlier ones. It’s not until the book’s denouement follows the most expected lines possible that I gave up on it. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is a novel about women. Women in a Finnish sanatorium somewhere in the mountains to be more precise. The main interest for the narrator and the reader is the wing containing rich women, many of them American. One of the focal characters, and ultimately the tool employed by the author to pull off the reveal/hide trick at the novel’s end, is also American, a nurse that is increasingly overwhelmed by her duties, the Finnish winter and her colleagues as the novel progresses. The book is set in the 1920s, but it stands at an odd angle to history. It’s the 1920s, so any reader will assume a connection to the 1920s novel Magic Mountain that is set in the years before WWI in a sanatorium in the mountains. But Thomas Mann connects his book to the broader flow of history, ending his book with the thunderstrike of the breakout of WWI. Chapman’s book could have been set in a different period or on a different planet or even just an unmarked hospital space. Instead, it’s eerily specific, but doesn’t really use that specificity except for color. And then there’s the book itself, the object ‘book’, I mean. There are gorgeous photographs on the front and the back and on the inside of the cover page, as well. They are not however of the sanatorium described in the book. They are, I think, of the Paimio Sanatorium, built by Alvar Aalto, a Finnish architect, who, according to Wiki, was driven by “a concern for design as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art; whereby he […] would design not just the building, but give special treatments to the interior surfaces and design furniture, lamps, and furnishings and glassware.” That the pictures are of that hospital is probable given that the copyright of the photos is held by the Alvar Aalto Museum, and that Chapman mentions, in her acknowledgments, that she had “extensive tours of Paimio Sanatorium.” If you followed the link above, however, you’ll have discovered that Paimio wasn’t finished until the 1930s (a historically much more interesting time).

Suvanto4So Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is set in a hospital like Paimio Sanatorium, but not in it. So it’s a hospital with a bit of history and reputation, not a brand new place, but we’re supposed to imagine it in the style of a later period? Look, it’s entirely possible that I overlooked something, but details like this are all over the book. Chapman both commits to and sells out on specifics. The book is set in Finland, and the difficulty of learning Finnish, or at least Swedish is foregrounded a few times, and Finnish words crop up all over the novel. Yet the author never makes any real use of the linguistic distance between most of its American protagonists and the Finnish people around them. It could be any language and any region, as far as I can tell. It could be a fantastical science fictional language for all that it makes a difference. It appears that the main reason for all the Finnish in the book is the Fulbright year the author spent in Finland, and the MFA-sanctioned idea that the use of other languages provides an interesting element for the dynamics of a novel. At least we don’t get that other MFA idea of making that ‘other’ language an Asian or African one. A recent, well-crafted, but MFA-bred German novel by Andreas Stichmann, Das Große Leuchten, appears to give in to that specific unpleasant instinct. So this is not politically or culturally dubious as simply baffling. Almost everything in the book, including setting and languages and culture, is used primarily to provide an interesting surface, but as a reader, one tires enormously fast of this. Do something with this, is what one is tempted to yell at the author. Don’t just paint the walls, put something into the rooms. The worst of all the surface games is the book’s use of female physicality and illness. Part of the book’s literary heritage is the Gothic novel. The hospital is large, some goings-on are unexplained and the vastness of the house and its events leads some inhabitants, at a late point in the book, to expect ghosts. But part of the Gothic novel has always, in my opinion, been a confrontation with the Other, and that Other often manifested itself in physical ways. Lust, hate, greed and their impacts on the human body is a constant topic, as is the use of the female body as a malleable object in all of this. There is a whole range of literature on the Gothic as a a genre negitiating masculinity and feminity. Patriarchal violence is common in these texts.

So, theoretically, the fact that Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is centered around various female discourses could be interesting; similarly, the constant presence of the female body here is intriguing. While Gothic novels often contain a veiled hostility towards feminity, engaging discourses of decadence, and various female engineered threats against masulinity. I think Chapman very carefully and intelligently engages these discourses. There is a woman with gonorrhea, a nod to the topic of (sexual) decadence, but in the context of the novel, where it’s mostly stripped of men, it becomes a question of personal injury and shame. Chapman doesn’t shy away from all the levels of female corporeality, although most of the time it’s some variety of able bodied corporeality. Still, within that limit, we get discussions of pregnancy, of bodily fluids, of the changes in women’s bodies as they age. We get frank discussions of the fear of women to be exposed to their husbands, exposed in frint of male doctors or just plain exposed. Compliance, the central issue of the last book I reviewed, is important here as well. Since it’s the 1920s, there’s an even higher premium on compliance, and the final catastrophe breaks out because of bottled up fears and frustration. The book teases its readers with all the possibilities of these constructions. It just adds one after the other and this is the main point that kept me reading – I expected, I waited for the writer to really do something with all this material, to make everything add up to something, to use one of the forms she kept piling up to break out of the traditions. After all, both the Magic Mountain (with its inversion and continuation of the Bildungsroman), as well as the Gothic novel are more or less ideologically clear, they wouldn’t fit this sympathetic use of female bodily functions. And yet. And yet, the final twist, the last part of the book where the plot picks up the pace a bit and all the various threads of the novel are combined into a brutal and mysterious ending – it is exactly what you expect to happen after reading about a third of the book.

Suvanto3This is really the oddest feeling – in a book that appears to be so invested in so many potentially incisive cultural, sexual and political areas, there’s ultimately nothing really at stake. As a reader you’re constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the writer to connect it, to do something. And it never happens. Here is another example: the novel is written by someone who appears to be clearly cognizant of some contemporary theoretical ideas. Much of the book can work as a riff on some ideas in Michel Foucault’s work, especially those where he discusses institutions of exclusion and inclusion, where he writes on hospitals and prisons, for example. At the same time, it shares none of the self critical, politically trenchant insights. In Your Presence is Required at Suvanto, everything is decoration. Well, who knows, that might be part of Alvar Aalto’s design philosophy. What really, ultimately, sinks the book, however, is not the flatness and inconclusive nature of its ruminations. It’s the terribly bland writing that transports all of it. Written in present tense, maybe to mimic the narrative choruses of Greek drama, the style is simple. Clearly aiming for distanced elegance and clarity, the writing is, instead, flat like the drywall behind my desk. A whole bunch of uninspired, declarative sentences without any real sense for rhythm, urgency and compression. This is depressingly common, and all too often, it’s being read as beautiful. What happened to us as readers? Is this a very late impact of Gordon Lish’s inspired work on Carver that has, in lesser hands, turned into trite declarativeness? Why is it always the Hemingways and the Lishes of the world that inspire authors to copy their methods with less inspiration and understanding? Why doesn’t a writer with a baroque style get copied by lesser writers who try to write ornate prose? I suppose this also connects to my misgivings to the MFA style. It’s almost as if it’s a genre now, this kind of writing. Simplicity without condensation is just dull. Your Presence is Required at Suvanto is the worst book I have finished this year and the only one I regret reading.

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Kelly Sue Deconnick et al.: Bitch Planet

Deconnick, Kelly Sue and Valentine de Landron (2015), Bitch Planet: Extraordinary Machine, Image Comics
ISBN 9-781632-153661

bitch coverI don’t usually review comics after reading only one trade paperback because the first trade tends to be a mere introduction to story and characters, despite generally containing 4-6 issues of the comic. As a side note, there’s, for me, a sense of comics having loosened a bit these past years, with narration much more slowed down. I mean, the whole story of X-Men: Days of Future Past is narrated in two issues. That would have to be at least a miniseries today. That’s just not how it’s done today. And in a way this is true of this first trade of Bitch Planet as well. The plot has barely begun to get off the ground as we leaf through the last pages of the book. But the book itself is so interesting, so unique, that I decided to review it here anyway, in part because I have been slow with reviewing comics these past years and Kelly Sue Deconnick, with the help of various artists, has carved out quite the interesting body of work that now contains an exciting and inspiring Marvel character that she made completely her own, a mystical and engrossing Western, which she financed through kickstarter, as well as various work done on Marvel and Dark Horse characters, work that’s always bright and interesting. I have lost track of some of her Marvel work in the past year or so, as Marvel ditched its new-found order created through the “Marvel Now” slate of books in favor of several events that I find impossible to keep track of. Meanwhile, she keeps writing creator-owned books for Image Comics and the one that’s come out in paperback most recently, Bitch Planet, is quite something. It’s a faux-1970s (60s? 80S?) dystopian comic that imagines an uber-patriarchal future where female criminals are shipped off to a prison planet. But being obese and disobedient is already reason enough to find yourself on a ship out to the “Bitch Planet” and Deconnick does not hold back in describing the arbitrary and cruel nature of this odd dictatorship. The book is clearly and thoroughly didactic, and if that bothers you, don’t read this. Everybody else will find something to enjoy about this book. In a way, Kelly Sue Deconnick has made a career out of working on characters and stories that help to tell stories about female experience. Bitch Planet reads in many ways like a summary of her career so far. Its density shows the importance and interconnection of her themes. Plus, it’s a coiled-up ball of fun.

bitch 2The plot itself is, as I suggested in the first paragraph, a magnificent smorgasbord of 1970s science fiction tropes and topics, from prison planets to mass surveillance, to sport-as-deadly-spectacle, a scenario that has most recently been revived by the spectacularly successful Hunger Games franchise. As a matter of fact, a vast variety of these recent YA franchises that started with badly written books (the nicely done Hunger Games books are an exception to a sometimes confoundingly incompetent rule – Divergent is a particularly disheartening example of this) also lean on these same 70s texts and films. It almost feels as if there’s a checklist. Suzanne Collins’ career is maybe a good example of this shift – her first series of books tell a highly imaginative story of an underground rat kingdom where a boy becomes hero and antihero in an epic (and bloody) fight for subterranean supremacy. It follows traditions in a broader sense. Hunger Games, in contrast, owes a debt to a much more narrow, concentrated tradition, the 70s dystopian fiction/film. But in stark contrast to those forebears, most of these franchises, with, again, Collins’ books being a bit of an exception, eschew politics and complexities of representation, by turning all the earlier text into a mush that is nothing more than an elaborate allegory for teenage angst. In this respect, they follow the tendency of many pop-cultural revivals of texts from the 70s and 80s that used to have a political bent, and are now cleansed of relevancy. One example in the realm of comic books is certainly Green Arrow. Once, when he shared a book with Green Lantern, Green Arrow was aware of racial tensions and social disparities; these days, the new revivals of the Green Lantern books are but a shadow of that earlier writing. In contrast to all of that, Kelly Sue Deconnick’s book connects in more than style with the earlier tradition. Bitch Planet is happily political. In fact, the trade contains a didactic “discussion guide,” aimed at explaining the book’s politics to those not as well versed in recent readings in feminism and intersectionality. As far as I can tell, individual issues also and additionally contained short essays on topics in feminism. If anything, Deconnick has taken the politics of the 70s and dragged them into the present time, heightening and commenting on the issues. The term intersectionality itself has not been coined until the late 1980s and has not gotten traction in popular debates on political theory until this past decade.

bitch 3To be clear, Deconnick and De Landro didn’t create a modern story, inspired by the 1970s. They aimed and succeeded at creating a fantastically entertaining pastiche of 1970s comics, although I suppose it might be more the idea of 1970s comics rather than a specific example of one. The nature of the pastiche becomes clear in more ways than just the gorgeous artwork that smells of nostalgia. When we get dates and periods, the timing appears to be a bit off. When discussion Hall of Fame players of the futuristic sport of the book, we are offered years like 2012 and 2018. Speaking as someone who, for some reason, has a pretty solid grasp on the world’s major sports, I am fairly certain that sport, a more brutal version of American Football, does not exist right now. The year 2012 is, I think, supposed to signal the time estimations common in texts from the 60s and 70s that assumed a much more rapid progress in technology (and a much more rapid dissolution of constitutional democracies). The result of this method is the creation of a critical nostalgia, but not one that’s inherently critical of the texts it references, only of the social and cultural contexts that produced this text. In fact, by lacing the issues with obviously racist and sexist ads, some of which, in a final metatextual twist, reference the book’s characters, the genre itself, the science fictional blaxploitation (if that is a genre) is highlighted as a medium that resists and comments upon a social context. This, in turn (stay with me) makes the text a stand-in for the same non-compliance that is a marker of the women in the book. Indeed, much of this book appears to loop back on itself, and could end up in some kind of vapid postmodern loop, if all of it wasn’t anchored in angry and explicit politics. Kelly Sue Deconnick’s feminism, as rendered in this book (and others) is a brand that’s not all that common today, one that critically comments on the male gaze, and how that gaze comes with expectancies: most importantly, expecting women to comply. Ariel Levy, a few years ago, has written a clear and pretty sharp critique of how that compliance to the patriarchal gaze might look like in Female Chauvinist Pigs, a book I strongly recommend. Non-compliance, the “offense” of women on the “Bitch Planet” is a rallying cry for the book and Deconnick’s work in general.

DSC_1937Her other extraordinary book for Image Comics, the kickstarter-financed Pretty Deadly, also offers a female resistance to a male myth of the frontier and death (compare/contrast Jonathan Hickman’s recent series of books on a a resistant Rider of the Apocalypse, a very openly male figure of Death, and how this impacts Hickman’s discussions of narrative and myth). Superbly illustrated by Emma Rios, this is a book that’s not so much simple commentary on the frontier myth, as an imaginative reworking of those myths. In more direct terms, we find in Bitch Planet also a book that discusses female experience, although I would hope for more examples of that in later issues. Women of all shapes and sizes, of various backgrounds, resistant to men, discarded by men, non-compliant women, we also find them in the book(s) Deconnick is likely most well known for, her run on Captain Marvel that, so far, spans at least four Captain Marvel trades, two Avengers Assemble trades and god knows how many “event” books. She uses these books, apart from handing out action packed stories of superheroics, to discuss questions of personal identity, of alcoholism, of representation. Personally, I would have preferred these books to be less tied into larger Marvel Universe narratives, but these books are an excellent example of the powerful stories you can write despite being locked into a fairly restrictive narrative box, one that was assembled using a majority of Marvel’s current titles. What’s certainly true is that, through all her books, we can see a theme emerging, and the clearest it’s been stated so far is the excellent Bitch Planet. I have no idea where Deconnick’s writing is leading her next, but I do know that I cannot wait to find out. She is one of my favorite active writers in comics, and her influence and impact on a growing community around her is admirable and amazing. Please read her books.

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Janet Hobhouse: The Furies

Hobhouse, Janet (1993, 2004), The Furies, NYRB Classics
ISBN 1-59017-085-7

DSC_1914I’ve been reading two books on mothers and daughters this year and this is the one I finished first. And what an excellent book it is. A posthumous autobiographical novel about Janet Hobhouse’s life. It ends badly, and doesn’t tell a joyous story, but Hobhouse’s luminous writing, elegant, well paced, always balanced -if barely- above the abyss of despair, makes for a deeply satisfying reading experience. Janet Hobhouse died in 1991, at the age of 40. She died having published multiple novels, and having lived quite the life on different continents. I have not – let me admit this in advance- read any of her other novels, so I cannot say how this unfinished book compares to her more polished published work, but, apart from the odd lapse in style, and the occasional gaps in the narrative, this novel reads fairly polished, the product of a finely tuned literary mind. I assume that people might enjoy unraveling all the allusions and hidden names (Philip Roth is one celebrity among several that makes an incognito appearance in the book), but the joy of reading The Furies goes far beyond the typical appeals of romans à clef. In a way it is a (post)modern take on Portrait of a Lady, or, in many places, a dark revision of The Dud Avocado. It’s a book about being a woman and a daughter in the 20th century, and not quite fitting in with any of its fashions and movements. A book about being beautiful but desperate, brilliant but lost, a novel about secrets, about private and public lives. What an extraordinary novel Janet Hobhouse wrote, in a style that may seem conventional, but it’s a style that’s exceptionally malleable and convincing at the hands of Hobhouse. It’s an honest book – and by honest I do not refer to its autobiographical moorings. It doesn’t aim to manipulate or deceive, it stacks life’s events according to its own inescapable logic and not according to some narrative. Despite Hobhouse’s old fashioned, 19th-century pen, the novel is fantastically precise. It doesn’t ask us for pity. “I have survived,” she says near the end. The book asks us to respect her, that is all. Honestly. Just go and read the damn thing.

That the project at hand is one about 20th century feminity becomes clear as we are charmed and transported by the first parts of the book, which read like a condensed, melodious family saga, as we follow the narrator Helen’s ancestors from 19th century Germany to New York. This history is primarily a history of difficult and complicated women. Of ugly women, beautiful women, of headstrong women and women more happy to be part of larger family narratives. This early section (“Prologue”) doesn’t span a large amount of pages, and it certainly deviates from the rest of the book as far as style and pacing is concerned, but it establishes the parameters of what is to come. Being a headstrong, intelligent woman is a difficulty in a society that primarily follows the narratives of men. Families are units united by the husbands, the fathers, and continued by the sons. Mothers and daughters are cogs in a system, made to conform to expectations. Some, like the narrator’s grandmother, run away for a time, but families always catch up. Emma, the runaway grandmother, eventually “succumbed,” as her mother had done, settled down, married, and soon became mother to (eventually) three daughters. That particular household is remembered by Bett, Helen’s mother as profoundly unhappy. “I remember nothing but fear in that house. […] I was afraid of my father’s hitting me.” Being made to fit in the patriarchal mold is not a kind process, and not all the women in Helen’s family took well to it. As the years passed, the men died or were divorced so that, ultimately, the family became “its complete, exclusively female, self.” Soon after, the family’s matriarch died and the daughters and granddaughters spilled into the world. We barely need all this history, because few of the characters return in the rest of the book. But it serves as a foil for Bett’s and, later, Helen’s life. The connection to a larger family whole, which the matriarch had provided through her acts of “angelic” servitude to the larger concerns of everyone else, is severed by her death, and none of the daughters and granddaughters is pliable enough to knot these ties again. Willfulness, non-conformity and independence are behind many of the problems besetting Brett and Helen – struggling through lives not due to any personal faults but due to the hostility of the narratives that are expected of them.

Mutlu Blasing has pointed, in a discussion of Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, to a line in Moore’s work: “Turn to the letter M […] / and you will find / that ‘a wife is a coffin’” Blasing later adds that “[t]he “letter M” links matter, mother, and mortality” – neither Bett nor the narrator, Helen, are comfortable being in that kind of coffin but the outside pressures do not make that life easy for them. That said, there’s also no comfort in each other – Bett is an awful mother, captivated by her own misery, her bad luck with men and money. In some ways, Bett lives a Holly Golightly life, only with child and the diminishing charms of middle- and then old age. She cannot provide sustenance to her daughter, whom she initially sends to a boarding school, described by Helen as “a kind of depository for the strays and the detritus of misfired adult lives.” Eventually, Helen gets to leave boarding school to live with her mother full time in New York. I say “gets to” because young Helen practically swoons with love for her mother, whose distance and neglect hurt her like mortal wounds. As readers, we find that distance, and the hurt contained therein, masterfully rendered in Hobhouse’s frequently long sentences, her offhand observations and her way of putting devastating revelations at the beginning of unassuming paragraphs. When eventually, her mother dies of suicide, the inattentive reader is apt to mis-read, to miss that moment. Her reaction to it is also telling: “The very first, clearest sensation is of weight lifting off my head and shoulders.” She is relieved, first, and then crumbles. Immediately before that scene, we are shown the last conversation between the two, a conversation that ends in a minor act of violence. This is the end point of a long and arduous mother-daughter relationship that shapes much of the book. Maybe my Holly Golightly association was unfair. In fact, Bett is a complex character. He distance is a sign of untreated depression. During her early years with her daughter, Bett retreated to the bathroom to deal with her incipient panic attacks, turning the radio up loud enough to drown out her sobs and sadness. What’s more, Bett is a talented, possibly brilliant woman who worked in jobs “below or outside her capacities” and “[n]ever once ask[ed] for a raise.” She even taught herself economics, wrote a 400 page book on privatization “which one NYU professor to whom she sent it pronounced ‘a work of genius’.”

DSC_1913Bett was abandoned by her own mother, and this loss, this alienation, she hands down to her daughter. Decades later, mourning the death of her mother, Helen would destroy her clothes, swear off sex, because “[m]en were hers, and if she couldn’t have them any longer, then nor could I.” The late, great Barbara Johnson once wrote that poetry is “an attempt not to address the mother but to hear her voice” and suggested that the loss of the mother is the “primal scene” at the heart of much literature. This primal scene is repeated several times in the book, through abandonment and death, as well as small forms of abandonment, as when Helen waits for Bett to come visit her in boarding school. The book, consequently, is an attempt to find Bett in her life. We don’t hear Bett’s voice a lot, but we are walked through a lot of rooms, straining our ears for traces of Bett. The loss of her mother to suicide and the more general, at this point practically genetic, feeling of alienation pervades Helen’s attempt to make sense of her life. She constructs her past in long, flowing sentences, searching for memory, for help, for support. For, at least, some form of explanation. The first half of the book is called “Women” and it contains most of Helen’s time in schools, and her life with her mother, moving from apartment to (smaller) apartment. It ends with a family reunion of sorts, with all the surving women of the family meeting at Helen’s graduation. It’s important to note, if I haven’t made that clear so far, that The Furies is no fashionable ode to sisterhood, no belligerent attack of the patriarchy with a feminine model of solidarity. And support, any gesture of love is hard won, and a Pyrrhic victory more than anything else, considering the investment of emotional capital. At the same time, the book doesn’t contrast the cohesive big family with the fractured modern assemblage of single women. Hobhouse is extremely clear that the so-called unity not only produced its own share of depression and alienation, but was also only possible because one woman gave herself up to become the family’s Angel. Bett, while a bad mother due to situations and losses, is not a bad, lazy or stupid person. She fails, when she fails, because of a society that will not recognize her gifts and strengths and skills for what they are. Living a life considerably below one’s considerable talents would drive many people to depression.

The second part of the book is called “Men” and mostly follows Helen’s sexual adventures, starting during her time at Oxford. It’s called men in part because she moves away from her mother to live with her father, a similarly distant man in England. Hobhouse’s observations of England, of Helen’s place in it, and the way her presence manipulates and changes the places around her are absolutely astonishing. In a way it is as if we were privy to Isabel Archer’s voice instead of the narrator’s condescending drone. Helen’s way of dealing with men is, on its face, not unlike her mother’s ill-fated procession of dates. But in this case, we are hearing the story from Helen herself, and it is one of learning to deal with men while attempting to keep a sense of independence and self-respect. Helen, subjected to a cold kind of love from both her parents, needs amorous attention, and not just the romantic kind. And she passes it on. A lonely boy, Edward, who has so far only known “the expensively procured abuses of public school, the brute assault of the elders,” is taught a gift, “sex undivorced from love,” thus becoming part of “the lover’s ecosystem.” Helen’s heart does not get broken, instead she breaks a few, moves back to the US, marries, gets divorced, etc. I am loath to offer too many details, because while the main tension of the first half is in the dark mother-daughter relationship, the second half is more eventful. As readers, we can breathe more easily, although the end of the book constricts our hearts again. Given that the novel is openly and famously autobiographical we know what’s coming. The cancer diagnosis and the fight through it. At some point, she has dinner with one of the women from her family, her mother long dead at this point, and, asked for details regarding her health, declares herself to be well, noting: “Oh yes, this is exactly how it’s going to be. You cannot reach out. People will be frightened. This is something you have to go through entirely alone.” A bleak statement in a book with few joys.

There are many parts of the book where a reader would be reminded of the harsh and punishingly glittering work of Jean Rhys, but none as much as the last chapters. It is in these parts, the presumably least revised ones, that we find fewer and fewer of the beautiful, sloping sentences, just attempts at song, abandoned. Statements, and a queer hope, towards the very end. The Furies is one of the most beautiful books I have read all year and a book I can recommend to anyone. I have, unusually for my reviews, quoted quite liberally from the book because I can’t stop typing up lines and remarks. What a remarkable achievement this book has turned out to be: intelligent, harsh and sumptuously beautiful.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Andy Weir: The Martian

Weir, Andy (2013), The Martian, Gollancz
ISBN 9781101905005

DSC_1911So I have become a bit of a science fiction fan in the past decade. I mean, I’ve always liked it, but it’s only fairly recently that I started reading more of it. My awakening, if we want to call it that, came when I first encountered the work of Samuel Delany, and so my early reading was more in the New Wave vein, plus contemporary weird science fiction. It took a while to read more broadly, but if you look at my reviews, it’s books by China Miéville, Adam Roberts plus that smelly thing you found behind your couch. It’s no accident that I haven’t read John Scalzi (who is fantastic) until this year. All this is to say that I’m a bit worried I might be a bit of a snob when it comes to science fiction. Not that I’m not willing to call trash what it is, but some books just make me apprehensive. The Martian is one such book. It was recommended on the internet as a ‘scientifically accurate’ book that would ‘make a great movie.’ All the comments on it stressed the accurate nature of its descriptions and the technical obsessiveness of its tale of a Martian Robinsonade. I evaded getting the book for months until I found it among my birthday presents. And as it turns out, I was both wrong and right. The Martian is damn, damn good. A book that I assumed to be movie fodder, it’s surprisingly clever in its structure, deft in its characterization and written in surprisingly effective prose. At the same time, for an exhaustively researched book that makes living on Mars, even just a few hundred days, believable and plausible in a way that even Kim Stanley Robinson hasn’t managed, I was profoundly struck by the novel’s utter lack of imagination and vision. The effectiveness of the prose style is achieved through a kind of sleight of hand – Weir has his protagonist write a diary, in the style that’s current among Internet denizens today. The voice of his protagonist is clear and recognizable – because we know that person. Many of his early readers are, in fact, that kind of person, a white male narcissist. Which, to be fair, is the central character in many Robinsonades. Weir, however, stops there. He makes no use of the form, displays no real sense of the traditions he works in and squanders the potential of both genres he works in, science fiction and the Robinsonade. And yet, despite all this, do I recommend the book? Of course I do. Ultimately, it’s a big bag of fun and you’ll remember all its good parts for a long time. A vivid, exciting read. And smart.

DSC_1914It’s more clever than it is actually intelligent, though. We don’t get the sense that Weir has thought about his form beyond coming up with a fun idea and working out the practical details. A comparison with a similar science fiction novel, Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. The Martian is much more immediate, and its world unfolds in a much more palpable and believable fashion for the reader. At the same time, Weir’s secondary characters are all cardboard cutout caricatures. Not having seen the movie, I assume that losing the voice of the man stranded on Mars, Mark Watney, and getting more (quite literally) fleshed out versions of the other characters, the overall depth and verisimilitude of the story’s characters is more balanced. Weir’s big sticking point is the science, and he applies it well to create -and sustain- excitement. He is quite excellent at adding new elements to his world, new bits of knowledge, just at the right time to catch falling arcs of suspense and create new ones. Much like classic 19th century works of fiction, this book was written in small installments and you can tell by its structure. A Fall of Moondust is just as technical (although probably not as plausible today as it was then), and just as exciting, but instead of consisting mainly of one character’s ramblings, it’s an ensemble piece, with a large section of moon-inhabiting humanity involved in the accident and the eventual rescue. I’m not totally spoiling the book because, much like The Martian, it’s a story that is predicated on the excitement of following along. There is no abyss of unknowability, no postmodern darkness here. In my Scalzi review I mentioned the push by reactionaries for a more obviously and directly enjoyable science fiction and The Martian is really it. It might seem that Clarke’s book is an obvious predecessor – but that’s only superficially true. If you read Clarke’s work you know he doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions – so why is this such a straightforward book? I always assumed that Clarke was aware of the genre he was working in and its traditions, the Robinson Crusoe line of writing, and instead of making the easy choice of just transposing the situation onto a different, more spherical, kind of island, he leaned on something that was actually rather common in old fashioned science fiction, contra Puppies, the idea of looking at a future society.

DSC_1918Make no mistake, Clarke doesn’t offer us any kind of grand vision of the future either, but there is a broader sense of community, of where he thought society might go in the time allotted between his time and the time he assumed we’d be living in lunar colonies. Unless I missed a major element (in which place, please comment), there’s really no obvious reason -apart from the actual technology- that The Martian couldn’t happen next year. Drop us the necessary technology under the Christmas tree (please?) and this story could happen in January. There’s no inherent reason why this has to be on Mars or in the future. My complaint here is similar to what bothered me about Charles Stross’ mediocre look at the near future, except it’s a bit more frustrating and that’s because while Stross draws on contemporary traditions that have limited potential as is, and he lacks the punch/interest to push them beyond what they are, Andy Weir is working in a line of writing that has, almost from the moment of its inception, produced interesting and exciting literature. Having man isolated from others, or a selection of humanity separated from the rest, this motif has led to some of the most memorable and powerful books. The ur-text of the genre, Daniel Defoe’s novel, is already much more complicated than you’d think. Defoe already has his stranded man tied into some important questions of his day. The question of owning another human being, selling them, how it ties into wealth and colonial narratives are, unexpectedly for anyone who hasn’t read the book, raised. Crusoe is sold himself into slavery, escapes with the help of a black boy, and then, deliberately declines selling the boy into slavery (but gives in and hands him over for a three year period of enforced labor) because “he had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own [liberty].” Just a short time later, he is convinced to embark on an expedition to buy and trade “negroes” for rich plantation owners. It is this trip that puts Crusoe on that island. After his escape, he returns to his “colony” which in his absence has become plentiful and Crusoe, almost by accident, has become a rich man. Intentionally or not, Defoe offers us a discourse on freedom, and on the way colonialism was built on the self-interest of the English despite knowing full well its harmful effects. Books afterwards kept adding to the debate. Frequently, they used the situation between Crusoe and Friday to illuminate power dynamics. Michel Tournier’s book is probably the most accomplished take on that. The Martian completely rejects this tradition, and declines absolutely to offer any sort of commentary or context. We even get odd, borderline racist, but definitely contemporary (for us) pieces of slang. Multiple times, a rough construction is described as “ghetto” by the white, definitely not “ghetto” protagonist of the book. If any thinking has gone into his book concerning contexts and futurism, it’s that the near future is just as terrible in terms of racial construction as the present. Harsh pessimism, if so, Mr. Weir.

DSC_1913But there’s more. The central conceit of Defoe’s book is (along the line of many books of his time) that the story is the journal of a real person and the book merely “a just history of facts.” The diary/journal has been enduring as one of the most interesting literary genres. Some takes on Crusoe’s story, like Coetzee’s masterful novel Foe, have examined the epistemological situation. What’s truth in narrative? The diary as a whole is interesting, as it is splayed wide between authenticity and artificiality. A few decades ago, in an essay that still holds up marvelously, Felicity Nussbaum painted a picture of the diary as a pre-modern attempt at constructing a public self. That explains why women, whose writing had been relegated to the margins for a long time, used the diaries to gain purchase for autobiographical narratives. One of the interesting aspects of the way The Martian uses journals as the primary way to record the story is that these diaries are half way between journals and letters. They are written with the express purpose of being preserved for people to find in case Mark Watney’s goose is cooked and his life on Mars ends ignominiously. This method would explain why so much of this diary is a performance. Stranded alone – one thinks of William Golding’s Pincher Martin as a particularly brutal variety – does not bring out the sadness, isolation, alienation of brutality one might expect or fear. In fact, Watney, isolated for hundreds of days, is as upbeat on his last day as he is on his first. This could be due to the performance aspect of the journals-turned-letters, a way, say, of putting up a facade for those coming after him. But there’s no undercutting of this attitude in the later scenes of the book where we see him interact with other people and we are privy to their points of view. In all the research that Andy Weir has undertaken to make his book realistic and interesting – one wonders how much of it was spent looking at anthropology, sociology and psychology. I do agree, as I said elsewhere, that bleak writing has become a tired and tiring cliché in and of itself, but the buzzing happiness in the pages of The Martian can be a bit grating.

This is a book that, carefully, intentionally, thoroughly, has NOTHING to say about people, the future, emotions, society – anything, really, that doesn’t involve the growing of potatoes on a wasteland planet. What it does express is a sense of social isolation of a certain class of citizen and writer today that exceeds the blindness of slave trader Crusoe. Crusoe was aware of how terrible it is to lose one’s freedom when he embarked on his slave trading mission. Defoe wrote this into Robinson Crusoe. Like many Europeans during colonialism, he just didn’t consider the treatment of black people a moral imperative that was more important than developing and growing wealth. Mark Watney – and by extension, Andy Weir – don’t even have that level of reflection. And yet – it’s such an expertly written book. The prose is never great, but always at least serviceable. The book is captivating and fun, and for a week after finishing it, I walked about town, partly living on Mars in my head. The Martian could have been more – but it’s a sign of the times that it is not. And what it is, is quite a lot.

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David Duchovny: Holy Cow

Duchovny, David (2015), Holy Cow, Headline
ISBN978-1-4722-2588-7

holy cow 1This year I have stepped up the frequency of reviews a bit (here’s a list), and have reviewed some short/genre books. Still, I admit, this book is maybe an odd choice to pick for a review (rather than, say, read, chuckle and discard). The reason for it being both my great love for the TV work of Mr. David Duchovny, and my utter delight at just reading the plot summary for this, his first novel. So this will end up being my shortest review in years, but I would indeed like to draw attention to this delightfully nutty book. David Duchovny wrote a novel that is uneven, funny, moralizing, way too self aware and profoundly silly. It’s not as good as I hoped it would be but it’s still a great delight and I dare you to disagree. It’s a great joy to see an actor with a serious background turn to fiction and not have the book be a pale imitation of the already tired paradigm of the Serious Literary Effort. The worst example of this is Ethan Hawke’s prose, which is awful, derivative and makes you want to sue the editor. And at the same time, it’s very serious, very considered, very, for lack of a better words, ‘writerly’. Have you ever read a novel that was very obviously an MFA-produced empty, dolled up Literary Novel (I reviewed one here)? Hawke and actor/writers like him produce work like that, only with fewer critical readers involved in the process.

There should be more writers like Vollmann

There should be more writers like Vollmann

I will say that this goes beyond Hawke. I miss writers taking big risks, they don’t have to be big books (although that’s always great), but how many boldly conceived failures do you see on the shelves today? Even the big books, like Dave Mitchell’s work, tend to be on the safe and acceptable side. Writers like William Vollmann have become pretty rare. Even when writers go out and put out a big, juicy chunk of a book, they tend to frame it safely. Take Clemens Setz’ gargantuan new book. As far as I have read it so far (it’s very long), it pays for its scope with restrained, easy, nonliterary language that you’d expect more from a gossip magazine rather than a boldly imagined novel (which, otherwise, it is). So, no, David Duchovny’s novel is not the alternative, it’s not the great, bold literary statement that I’ve called for. It’s a lightweight, not really well written book that pontificates way too much, but it is genuinely silly. This could have turned out differently. You may know David Duchovny primarily as an actor, but he has a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature from Princeton and Yale respectively, and these are not James Franco’s post-fame prestige degrees, this is a genuine education. He even started on a PhD, but abandoned it in favor of a career in acting. If he wanted, I’m faily certain he could have produced a pastiche of The Serious Literary Novel. You know the kind. Short sentences, heavy looks, the kind of stuff only Richard Ford among living American novelists can pull off and even he’s no longer doing a good job of it.

setz ereader

So this is the edition that I’m reading the new Setz in, for…reasons.

So David Duchovny has the background to write a Literary Novel but instead he gives us this silly book. The story summary on the flap gives the entire plot away, and by this I mean the entire plot. There’s a reason for that – and it’s the atrocious pacing of the book. Duchovny was not issued an editor when he published this book, it seems (much as Morrissey’s List of the Lost appears to have come about without an editor), and so he gives himself completely over to the voice of his protagonist, Elsie Bovary (yup), a cow who, upon watching TV one night, discovers the unspeakable things humans do to her bovine kind. I’m not going to discuss this book in terms of its traditions, because, one, that would be unfair to the traditions and the book, which is not written to be set in a literary tradition, and mentions some of the most well known books in various chapters anyway. The second reason for this is that the Orwells of the liuterary world might not actually be its ancestors, properly speaking. If anything, the pontificating on eating meat and factory farming animals seems to fit a popular mode of unthinking veg(etari)anism, with books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals more likely to be an influence on the gestation of Holy Cow. If you have read any of those books, it won’t surprise you to hear that this portion of the novel is easily the weakest part.

holy cow shalom

The book comes with illustrations b< Natalya Balnova

In part, that’s due to the fact that the discussions of animal rights and animal feelings and welfare break with the book’s basic mode of silliness. They are serious, in a book that’s very much not so. The voice of Elsie is a delight, however. She’s spunky, if not very smart, and she is cast as the author of the book (dictating the novel to a certain Mr. Duchovny), relating to us reactions of her editor, toying with form. The novel really takes off when it introduces her two travel companions as she prepares to flee the farm to go to India where cows are revered and not eaten. Those companions are Jerry, a pig that changes its name to Shalom and becomes more Jewish as the book progresses (including a scene of the pig going to a mohel to have a circumcision performed) and decides to go to Israel for similar dietary reasons that convinced Elsie to go to India. The third member of their club is Tom, a turkey who hasn’t read up on the world outside the farm as much as Elsie and Shalom have and is convinced that in Turkey no-one will surely kill a turkey, the bird being the country’s namesake and all. Although he asks for one detail to be observed

Just as an aside, however we get there, can we not go through that country called Hungary? It sounds like a nightmare for all of us. Just the name makes me shiver: Hungary. And all the scary, hungry Hungaryarians that live there.

Again, there are plenty of fairy tales involving disparate groups of animals going on adventures, but the book merely nods to those traditions. It makes no use of allegory, really, except on the most superficial level. What follows is a silly, picaresque adventure through Turkey, Israel and India, in the course of which the three manage to unite Israelis and Palestinians, being hailed as peacebringers.

holy cow 2Look, the book is just a ton of fun, and it’s best read with one eye closed to the occasional pontification. It’s published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a highly reputable house, and according to the acknowledgments at the back, Jonathan Galassi, translator extraordinaire and current publisher of Farrar Straus and Giroux, personally encouraged Duchovny to write it. I have no doubt that this attention is similarly motivated by Duchovny’s pop cultural stature, as Frank Bidart’s endorsement of James Franco is, but at the same time, this is not a bad book for what it is. There are, for example, approximately five pages of punning and very broad Jewish humor just in the middle of it, and the book somehow straddles the divide between having animals behaving like humans, reading books, flying planes etc. and yet not being actually able to speak. Duchovny just sidesteps any inclination to explain anything, make anything more realistic. The primary question in the creation of the book appears to have been “is this funny?” and it really is, most of the time. The lovely black-and-white illustrations by Natalya Balnova and a surprisingly good fit. I will admit, you need to bring a certain sense of humor to the book, an affinity to silliness and sometimes really, really well worn jokes, but all books in a way demand things of their readers. Ultimately, with all its flaws and the silly vegetarianism and the odd pacing, I really enjoyed reading Holy Cow. And for me, that’s enough.

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As always, if you feel like supporting this blog, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van

Darnielle, John (2014), Wolf in White Van, Farrar, Straus & Giroux
ISBN 978-0-374-29208-9

DSC_1530I feel as if upwards of 50% of review intros that I post these days are disclaimers somehow tied to my personal bias towards an author, or fat books or genres or things like that. I mention this because there’s no way I can review this book without admitting to similar bias. It is, however, a bit contradictory. Let me start by saying that John Darnielle is the lead singer, songwriter, (sometimes) producer and all around lead person of the American band The Mountain Goats, a celebrated band that has been putting out records for decades. The Mountain Goats is one of my favorite bands, and I consider John Darnielle one of his generation’s most talented songwriters. At the same time, I think I am a bit of a snob. However much I admire Darnielle’s craft, I think I approached Wolf in White Van with a bit of condescension. Look, I admire Neil Young, but his memoir Waging Heavy Peace is fairly lightweight. It’s a lovely read (and highly recommended), but its rambling writing is nowhere near other excellent memoirs. I admire the Silver Jews, but I’m not a great fan of David Berman’s poetry. There are musicians I admire whose books I have decided not to read for now (how good is Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, once we strip away the reverence for her musical achievement? No, I’m asking. I haven’t read it yet). As you can see it’s a fairly long list and something I’ve been giving a lot of thought. So let me say that, first of all, Wolf in White Van is a very good novel. It has some structural issues, there are flaws in the writing, but it’s a very good debut novel, intricately structured, and emotionally powerful. Unexpectedly, it’s literary and wildly ambitious, telling a story about suicide, deformity, a story about survival and about storytelling itself. It’s intensely original, which is its main virtue and which covers up many of its flaws. I have never read a novel quite like it and I’m willing to bet you haven’t either. At the same time, it’s written with a kind of reckless intensity that means it’s really not for everybody, much as I dislike that phrase. The book doesn’t care to introduce you to its skewed way of thinking, or ease you into it. It’s 200 pages that are equal parts dense and loosely self-indulgent. It’s very good.

DSC_1573The story mixes various points in time, from the protagonist’s teenage past to his long hospital stay after an accident, to his adulthood. Sean Phillips (that’s his name) makes a small amount of money off a very old kind of role playing game. The so-called play-by-mail game requires the players to send their moves handwritten (or typed) to a postal address, which then returns the result of the move. If this sounds familiar, it’s also the way correspondence chess works. There are many, many varieties of this, but Sean’s business involves players taking part in a kind of choose your own adventure situation. They are presented with a long description of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, and then have to decide what to do. They are not given choices, but Sean has structured the descriptions in a way that all choices fall into different but recognizable categories. Then Sean returns them the result in the mail, which is another long description. The game he invented and scripted and developed, is called Trace Italian, and it’s constructed so intricately that at the time the book is set, no player has ever completed it yet. In a not terribly subtle fashion, the game and players’ progress in it, is presented as one among many metaphors for life in the book. For Sean, writing the various scenarios and scenes of the game helped him find his footing after his accident, it’s his life’s work, and it’s intermingled with the actual events of his life.

“The unnamed every-player who lies in the weeds at the moment of Trace Italian’s opening move – that’s me. [That player] has a goal now, something to do with his life. His map is marked; he’s headed somewhere as he rides down the desolate plain.”

Sean never quits providing the game despite rapidly dwindling numbers of players as “most players just drift off eventually. Their focus wanders; their interest shifts.” He feels responsible for his players, for the labyrinth of moves he sent them into. The absolute nature of the game and the way Sean and many of his players are immersed in it makes the reader think of cultural histories such as the classic study by Johan Huizinga, as well ideas of similacra and simulations by writers like Baudrillard.

DSC_1529With Huizinga, whose work on the middle ages I love and strongly recommend, we have this intriguing idea of how play informs everyday life and is both a force in and an antagonist to politics and violence. The idea of play as an all-enveloping phenomenon is nicely complemented by the (much less substantial) ideas of notorious Frenchman Baudrillard and his concepts of simulations and simulacra. Look, John Darnielle sets up his novel so powerfully, so beautifully at the crossroads of ideas of how life works, and of life simulations, and he keeps mirroring motifs. There is, for example, the present tense situation, where Sean has been sued by the parents of two players of Sean’s game. These two players left the game, as far as Sean knew, they stopped writing, dropped out. At the same time, they decided to take the game into real life, treating the world, our world, our shared reality, as if it was Trace Italian. Eventually, their survival trip through this Trace Italian simulacra came up short, and they were found, one dead, one close to it, somewhere in a ditch they had dug for warmth. One of the oddest parts of the book is that there’s really no conventional plot to any of it. There are things happening, but the situations still feel stationary, and the novel’s effect mostly derives from giving us – and juxtaposing- three situations, three slices of Sean’s life at different times of his life, making us read all three from the context of the two others, forcing us to make an interpretation of Sean’s life. We have his parents, the dead couple’s parents and friends, all of whom turn up in the book, trying to read Sean themselves. In a way, in one of many motif repetitions and mirrors, the three basic situations or rather times of Sean’s life are themselves like Trace Italian move results. It’s as if we had written in after the first situation and then we got to the next point. There’s an eerie feeling to it of responsibility and necessity. Sean, for all the awfulness that his adult life has sort of turned into, never becomes maudlin, never feels sorry for himself. In another set of interpretations, it might be worth it to sorts through the book’s imaginary to find mirrors and repetitions of biblical narratives or stories, because at times, without ever explicitly committing to it, it feels like a fragmented, heightened version of a morality play, informed by a Christian, though not fundamentalist, perspective. Neither in the middle nor the last part do we really see the move, we just see the situation. The only time a scene resolves into Sean really taking a move, deciding on one option among many is the earliest, when teenage Sean decides on a difficult, and badly executed, course of action. At this point I have to warn you that I will explain that situation, which is a minor spoiler and (if you need this kind of stuff?) trigger warning in the last paragraph.

DSC_1572Meanwhile. in this review’s first paragraph, I kept calling Wolf in White Van Darnielle’s debut novel. That’s not entirely accurate. While Farrar, Straus & Giroux refer to the book as a debut novel in the book flap, the question of whether that’s really true depends on your definition of “novel”. Back in 2008, Darnielle published a volume in a book series called 33 1/3, published by Continuum. If you come across any entry in the series, I recommend you pick up a copy of its small, slender paperbacks. The series collects various critics’ and writers’ takes on classic rock, pop and hip hop albums. There is a great variety of authors. For example, Dr. Dai Griffiths of Oxford University wrote on OK Computer, Ric Menck, drummer of Velvet Crush, wrote about The Notorious Byrd Brothers, and Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef authored an entry on If You’re Feeling Sinister. They are short books usually explaining the context of an album with a personal anecdote or with a broader comment on the time of its publication. Much what you’d expect. John Darnielle’s book, titled Master of Reality, is a novel/story about someone locked into a psychiatric institution who is allowed to keep a diary and alternates between unhinged rants and explanations of the songs on Black Sabbath’s seminal album. It’s not a novel, and it’s also not very good as fiction, much more along the lines of what my snobbish expectations had in store for Wolf in White Van. Darnielle writes songs about desperate characters, depression, and about heavy metal. In the little book about a foundational record of the genre, Darnielle offers us all three. The book is torn between filling the role of books in the series and telling a fictional story at the same time. It does well in the former, but flounders terribly when it comes to the latter. In Master of Reality, Darnielle has no good grip on where to take this teenage voice, where to rein it in, where to let it go. Unless you’re interested in the Black Sabbath album, it’s not really worth your time – but for the reader of Wolf in White Van there are interesting connections between the two books.

DSC_1528In a sense, Master of Reality frequently feels like a very early dry run for the much more accomplished later novel. In it, Darnielle stretches and pokes at this teenage character who is both knowledgeable (about the things rock-obsessed teenagers are obsessed) and naive. It’s frequently annoying and if Darnielle’s name hadn’t been on the cover I wouldn’t likely have finished it, despite my interest in the subject matter. That same teenager (at löeast the same archetype) could be said to also be part of Wolf in White Van, but only tiny portions of the book revolve around that teenage character, which is an excellent decision, given Darnielle’s inability to properly master that voice. As I said, of the novel features that character, Sean Phillips, as he is a badly adjusted adult, making a small amount of money off an odd and outdated business, and mostly living off insurance payouts. When he was 17, Sean shot himself in the face with a shotgun. On the list of efficient/painless suicide methods, shooting yourself is not rated very highly unless you’re an excellent marksman (despite its high ranking here). The most famous literary example of people killing themselves with guns, young Werther, lived about 12 hours in terrible pain until he finally died. Goethe goes into unpleasant detail on this. A solid amount of inexpertly performed suicides with guns never even end in death, just in terrible mutilations. Sean Philips is one of those unfortunate people. After his attempt, he ended up with a terribly disfigured head. There’s a chance I spoiled you by telling you this, because Darnielle doesn’t detail the “accident” that leads to Sean’s disfigurement until the last chapters. It’s also those chapters that most closely resemble the teenage voice of Master of Reality, but the author has accrued enough ideas over the course of the rest of the book that he doesn’t need to lean on that voice to add something to the text. The final chapters are mainly used to fill in gaps, rounding out the story and making the topic of role playing and storytelling that are interwoven throughout the book, much more meaningful. There are many possible paths we can follow. Sean, letting them all play out, decided on this particular one.

I have reviewed other books dealing with suicide, like Édouard Levé’s Suicide, Ned Vizzini’s novel It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and A.L. Kennedy’s On Bullfighting. John Darnielle adds something genuinely original and unexpected to a literary tradition, a unique and cerebral examination of choices. The difference between games like Trace Italian, as they actually exist today, and the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of books, is that Trace Italian is life-like in the sense of having to pick an option from contextual clues, there’s no-one that sheperds my options into three easy to read versions. There is a hopefulness to this otherwise frequently dark book: it’s the plurality of options, and the call to make a choice, any choice, and see what’s your next move.
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Maybe this next move is supporting my blog? As always, if you feel like it, and like what you find here,, there is a “Donate” button on the left and this link RIGHT HERE. :) If you liked this, tell me. If you hated it, even better. Send me comments, requests or suggestions either below or via email (cf. my About page) or to my twitter.)

Anne Tyler: A Spool of Blue Thread

Tyler, Anne (2015), A Spool of Blue Thread, Ballantine Books
ISBN 978-0-8129-9928-0

DSC_1546In my review of John Irving’s In One Person, I pointed out that I (we all?) have problems with certain writers in figuring out whether my enjoyment of their work is strictly personal or whether these books are more broadly speaking great literary achievements. It’s not just Irving for me. Another writer who I find similarly troubling is Anne Tyler. Now, unlike Irving, I have not read all of Anne Tyler’s work, but what I have read I found instantly enjoyable. A friend on a literature forum I used to be on recommended Tyler to me and I purchased an omnibus volume of three of her novels, a horribly ugly book by the way. I stared with The Accidental Tourist and with that, I was off to the races. I have never not loved Anne Tyler’s work, but she’s not always been critically well regarded except in a mildly condescending manner. A Pulitzer winning novelist, Tyler has often been pegged as a soft family (or women’s) writer. In the post-The Wire era, who among us would volunteer her name when asked, during the recent race based crisis in Baltimore, which novelist to read to get a sense of the city? And this despite her dedication to Baltimore and her careful social and historical examination of its residents in book after book. Anne Tyler is not a remarkable prose stylist, but she is a fundamentally good writer of prose. Her writing, in some ways, could be compared to the great chronicler of Maine, Stephen King, in their unobtrusive efficiency and their dedication to the rhythms of ordinary life, but her prose is considerably more literary than that. With Tyler you never feel as if she wasn’t in control – and it’s a control that has been refined with each new book. Maybe the point of comparison shouldn’t be the rough-and-tumble efficiency of King, and rather the elegant refinement of John Updike. She lacks Updike’s olympian notes of stylistic beauty, but she shares with him not just the refined and yet unshowy language, but also the sense of effortlessness. Updike famously did not overly revise, and so his prose is a testament to his elegant brilliance (brilliant elegance?) – the same is true for Tyler, even though I don’t know how many revisions go into a page of her prose. Ultimately, Tyler, despite her accolades, her popular success and her Pulitzer is an underrated writer in the American canon.

Ugly book or ugliest book? My first Anne Tyler.

Ugly book or ugliest book? My first Anne Tyler.

I only wish that I had picked a different novel than A Spool of Blue Thread to make this point. Because, apart from some truly excellent chapters, this book confirms rather than challenges the prejudice against Tyler’s work held by many readers. Her twentieth novel mostly walks down well-trod paths, with her skill inducing not admiration as much as a kind of leisurely boredom. The novel is extremely well crafted, well structured, full of believable characters, and an admirable empathy with these lives, but in many places, the novel is a bit of an indictment of Tyler’s middle-class sensibilities, and her frequent blindness to lives outside of her immediate purview. Nothing in this book feels urgent, there’s no obvious reason that this book exists. And yet. And yet the book, as often as I was midly annoyed by its Tylerisms, also gave me immense pleasure and it has standout moments that truly surprised and moved me. It’s as if there was a fresh and relevant novelist hiding in Anne Tyler the accomplished routinier, not coming out except for small moments, a chapter here and there. It’s this book that has been nominated for the absurdly redefined new version of the Man Booker Prize and you know what? It may not be the best book on the list but it’s heads and shoulders above many recent winners of the award. A Spool of Blue Thread has empathy, skill and a clear-eyed observation of a particular stratum of society. Far too few books (and god-awful Booker winners) do these days. For all the sentimentality and unsurprising sepia toned nostalgia in the book, Tyler’s novel feels original in the sense of specifically composed to convey this story, line by line. She has told similar stories before, but you never feel as if she feeds you Coelhoesque stock phrases and stock emotions. Meanwhile, here are quotes from Julian Barnes’ Booker winning The Sense of an Ending. Click on the link, I dare you. I repeat. Booker. Winning. Anne Tyler takes no shortcuts. A Spool of Blue Thread is almost 400 pages long, with an exceptional sense of which scenes should run for how long to achieve the maximum effect. The book doesn’t turn on small individual paragraphs, on a pithy line or two. It’s the accumulation (and juxtaposition) of lives that creates the book. Right now as I type this there’s a niggling sense in the back of my mind of me talking myself into liking the book more than I liked it while reading, but I do honestly recommend it. And if you’re stuck halfway, irritated at the Whitshank family, I promise you, the book gets better.

Bad Booker winner or worst Booker winner?

Bad Booker winner or worst Booker winner?

One early problem I had while reading the book is that I couldn’t see the point of it. In Tyler’s variations of middle class life in Baltimore there’s always an idea, an emotion, a big character flaw or oddity driving the story. It took me a long time and hundreds of pages to see that point in her new book. The book consists of four parts, which get smaller and smaller, with the first part, “Can’t leave till the dog dies” the longest and least fractured of the four. These four parts are subdivided into numbered chapters, which don’t always function the same way. That’s, incidentally, another reason why I had to think of Updike’s lack of revision when considering Tyler’s novel. There’s a sense of slightly disintegrating discipline as we move through the book. The first two or three chapters of part one are relatively clear as having a uniting theme. While the book (with the exception of part 3, is more or less sequenced chronologically, there is some temporal overlap at the beginning, as we get to know the Whitshank family by looking at the role of some of its individual members. Tyler has done this before (this phrase is applicable to many parts of the book, sadly), with more direction and purpose, as when, in the 1983 novel Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, she offers us a Rashomon-like look at childhood, and the different ways family experience is coded for different family members. Not until the last part does Tyler really shift the perspective this time around, however. The Whitshank family of A Spool of Blue Thread is one of Tyler’s typical oddball families, consisting of the parents, a very dedicated and loving couple, and their odd children. There is their son Denny, who leaves home early, bouncing around the world without ever really telling his family. He comes out to his family on the phone but next thing they know he is engaged to a woman. Next time they hear of him he’s marrying still another woman, and having a daughter with her. And next time they hear of him, he is single again. He is the outsider because the rest of the family strongly values being connected to each other. This is one of the themes as is a kind of subdued upward mobility. Comfortable middle class life, with a stable, traditional marriage is implicitly and explicitly the goal – and the supposed takeaway from the book, as its final pages pivot to Denny’s point of view, revealing his intention to follow the Whitshank family tradition and establish his own middle class household.

DSC_1549The first (and last) chapter, featuring Denny is one of the ways Tyler offers up her message of middle class desirability. The first chapter, showing Denny’s deviancy as a contrast, as a way to define what it means to be a Whitshank is interesting. Being a Whitshank is not a question of DNA. The adopted family son, Stem, is, as many people point out, more of a Whitshank than Denny, the roaming, possibly bisexual, unsteady black sheep of the family. He does not hold a good, steady job, and the family embarrassment for him is palpable. He moves in and out of the story, and is never really expected to draw the reader’s sympathies. He is a mild irritant. This definition of class by exclusion is interesting in the light of recent events in Baltimore because that’s also the way race is defined, by having a clearly marked Other to distinguish from us. And this leads me to the other way Tyler offers her middle class message: the house the Whitshanks live in has been built by the just deceased grandparent generation. The inappropriately named Junior Whitshank, father of the current family patriarch Red Whitshank, has built the house, but not for himself. Builder by trade, he had built it for a different, richer family. He was lucky enough to be able to eventually move into the house himself. The Whitshank family history starts with this movenment into middle class respectability. Nobody knows where Junior Whitshank came from, what his background is. The family is tied to the house, it’s self made in a very literal sense this way. And I’m not giving away too much when I tell you that at the end of the book the house is sold. Not for poverty reasons, but due to unforeseen events. Many elements of the book resemble elements from previous books, and if you know Tyler’s work, you will recognize many of its characters and subplots, but one feels as if Tyler tried hard, this time around, to do two things at once. Tell a believable, warm-hearted story – and provide an allegory of sorts about the American middle class as a transitional phenomenon of social stability. I’m not sure she manages this divide awfully well, because in order to pull it off she has to add enough plot details and observations, to properly supply both “books” with support.

DSC_1547That said, there is a point where Tyler suddenly breaks with the narrative to go back in time to give us the story of the marriage of Junior Whitshank and his much younger wife Linnie Mae, the parents of Red Whitshank and originators of the Whitshank family as it exists in the present of the book. Their story starts off with a crime and a surprise but I will not offer any details except to say that the two of them originally came from the south and worked their way up from being out on the streets with only 7$ to their name to living in an upscale Baltimore neighborhood. I don’t want to give more details because the 80 pages allotted to the life of Junior and Linnie Mae are the most intensely pleasurable and readable of the whole novel. I didn’t care about structure, I didn’t take notes, nothing, I was completely swept up by the story. The greatest tragedy of the novel’s writing is that Anne Tyler could conceive of and write a character like Linnie Mae and have most of the novel be about the simple, kind but unspeakably dull present day Whitshanks. We care for them, sure, but Linnie Mae is a thunderstorm of a character. Smart, strong-willed, and deceptively kind-hearted, she is the kind of character described in blurbs as “she knows what she wants and she gets it” – but since the 80 pages are mostly from Junior’s perspective we get only bits and pieces of the character that she is. And at this point in Anne Tyler’s work, maybe that’s why Linnie Mae sticks out so sharply in the book. She has not been ground into the broad dough of what we have to call the Tyleresque novel. There are no mind-numbing quotidian details to soften our impression. The love story of Junior and Linnie Mae, if we can even call it that, is complicated, and frequently even surprisingly dark, but makes for exceptionally compelling reading. In fact it#s not just these 80 pages. The whole last third of the novel ties up much of the rest of the book and shapes it, making much that seemed like superfluous detail meaningful in hindsight. It’s a novel that truly rewards rereading and punishes those who bail on it halfway through. A Spool of Blue Thread is far from the best novel in an oeuvre that has quite a few remarkable highlights, but it’s also extremely well crafted, smoothly written, and for a brief time, very compelling.

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