Lewis Trondheim/Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrisson

Trondheim, Lewis and Stéphane Oiry: Maggy Garrison: Fais un Sourire, Maggy, Dupuis
ISBN 9-782800-160788

“Sometimes, winning just means not losing.” This, said by the protagonist of Lewis Trondheim’s book with Stéphane Oiry, just about sums up the darkly humorous tone of this quite excellent first volume. I cannot remember reading something quite like this. I picked it off the shelf in anticipation of my flight to London today (I’m packing and leaving in half an hour and need to stay awake, so here we are), and was surprised at the way Trondheim and Oiry create a sense of space and density at the same time. Maggy Garrisson manages to both sympathetically portray an unusual character with remarkable depth, and tell a noir crime story that follows genre conventions and thumbs its nose at them at the same time. There’s also a sense, partly due to my limited reading in the genre, that in this book, the francobelgian influence on American comics has ‘come home,’ in the sense that some of the rooms and atmosphere in the book are more common in the great American artists that are all influenced by the Belgian ligne claire tradition. I was particularly reminded of Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine, not in the way Oiry draws his characters (though that also plays a role), but in the way Trondheim and Oiry use the space in rooms, streets and landscapes, and combine it with the real estate on the page, to create a sense of emptiness, loss, longing and loneliness. The writing itself is equally remarkable: Trondheim’s characters never say too much or too little. There’s never a sense of the writer posturing to create a sense of drama or sadness: all the dialogue is just right, sometimes driving the story forward, sometimes just filling in a gap in how we understand the characters and the socioeconomic background. This is very good, and I am looking forward to acquiring and reading the second volume, but I’d like to stress how much of a complete experience this slim album really is. I’m currently also very excited about Greg Rucka’s Lazarus, but every 120 page trade feels like half an episode, half a story, just dragging me along in a half-glimpsed plot (I really love Lazarus, but that’s not the point). Trondheim’s pacing is much different – a book by a writer who is correctly admired by many readers of comic books.

The most remarkable scene is just one page somewhere in the middle. Maggy is in the supermarket as she notices a man stealing a package of cookies. Outside, she catches up with him and asks him: why did you steal these cookies? Why not the much more expensive kind, the artisanal cookies? He answers: the camera would have picked him up stealing those cookies. That’s it. The book moves on and doesn’t return to the cookie stealing, shop-lifting or this particular thief. There is no sense of overdramatizing it, but Trondheim needs it to illustrate three different points: the commonness of crime, and how much it is woven into the way poorer people make ends meet (stealing food always has important literary connections, to Hugo and others) is one element. Another is the pragmatics of crime – there is no romanticization of criminals or crime. You take what you can get, when you can get it. Crime is not a story of elaborate ego-pleasing capers. It’s a question of survival for many people, and not an evil deed, but part of pragmatic evaluations. Both of those points are relevant to the larger story of the book, and the small observation of the cookie theft ends up offering a metaphor of sorts for the other crimes committed in the book and the other criminals portrayed in it. There are criminals who we meet as criminals, and criminals who turn out to be criminals as the plot unfolds, and criminals who are not particularly criminal after all. We don’t hear about all of their motivations, but this one page with its story of cookie theft compromise serves as an illumination of everything else that happens in the book. And Trondheim and Oiry do all this without offering us an explicit summary or moral, and they manage to sidestep the saccharine melancholy of many American comics this reminded me of. I mean, it’s interesting to me how similar many scene set-ups are, especially when compared to the most similar francobelgian comics I can remember reading. And yet, the difference to Ware, Burns, Tomine and company is so striking, that it’s hard not to see the distance as intentional somehow.

Some of this difference, surely, is owned to the female protagonist. Trondheim’s Maggy approaches many portrayals we know from other media, but Trondheim sharply differentiates her from them. First of all, this is a story about Maggy. I’m a bit worried about the ending and what it could mean for a second volume, hut taking just the first book, Maggy’s main motivation is – well, it’s Maggy. Maggy is unemployed but scrappy, trying to make her way. The story is started when she gets a job in a private detective’s office, though that job quickly turns sour. You could imagine a Maggy existing in a Chandler novel, and you wouldn’t have to rewrite the books, at all – noir protagonists are usually oblivious to the role and presence of women who are not either attractive or rich, and Maggy’s attractiveness is not of the glossy noir kind, and she’s certainly not rich. She picks up something that doesn’t belong to her, and foils whatever plan her alcoholic gumshoe boss had, and you can imagine him seeing it as a nuisance or bad luck and moving on at his job that apparently involves real crime, as well as the riveting case of a cat that ate a canary (literally). One of the emotionally most affecting turns is not Maggy’s connection to a man, but a connection she built to a female police officer, and one of their bonding moments involves the examination of (subpar) men at a bar, and the groping of men with the help of a trick. As a scene later shows, Maggy is attractive enough to distract men during the commission of a crime, but her attractiveness isn’t the point. She’s charming and intelligent, but that isn’t the point either. She has a manic pixie dreamgirl-like effect on a man, but that doesn’t define or limit her character, and it doesn’t dominate the book either. Maggy is just Maggy and for her, sometimes, “winning just means not losing.”

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Wioletta Greg: Swallowing Mercury

Greg, Wioletta, Swallowing Mercury, Portobello
ISBN 978-1-84627-607-1
[Translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak]

Look, it’s not that I regretted reading this book; it was, after all, fairly short. On the other hand, I’m not particularly elated about the fact either. The novel by Wioletta Grzegorzewska (who writes under the name Wioletta Greg) is fine. It’s okay. Swallowing Mercury is a solid entry into the canon of books on growing up. Much like many books in the genre, it’s written in short vignettes, which largely center around the way the world of things shaped this young Polish girl’s early life. It’s actually quite remarkable how overall pleasant this book is despite the decidedly unpleasant things that have apparently happened to Greg’s protagonist, young Wiola, including sexual assault and the death of her father. Part of that impression is due to the calm voice of the protagonist who talks about her life with a kind of detached air of curiosity and equanimity. Much of the book follows story-lines we probably expect from this kind of fiction. The overlap of objects and bodies, the examination of religion in her life, some elements of village humor (a trickster figure, here, the grandfather) and grotesquery and some unpleasant evocation of the discovery of sexuality. The incipient dullness of it all is forestalled by the author’s deft use of these elements and her intelligent connection of various elements, making the novel resonate with its themes again and again. The book is well written – or maybe well edited, that’s hard to tell, because all of the skill in the novel is structural. The writing is lamentably flat. Since I don’t know any Polish, I cannot tell whether the dullness of the writing is the author’s fault or the translators, but the novel exemplifies the worst qualities of so-called sparse and simple writing. Writing simply is, as I probably said before, much more difficult than writing a solid text in ornate prose. Swallowing Mercury’s prose isn’t always bad, but it is always inconsistent, and never particularly interesting. This is the kind of prose narrative where one gets the distinct impression that the author (or the translator) wasn’t extraordinarily interested in how the book works on a sentence by sentence level (in contrast to “genre” writers like Brian Evenson, by the way). This is not necessarily bad, but when that approach is wedded to a “simple” style, the result is not particularly enchanting. And in a book that uses so many well-worn elements, with political asides sometimes awkwardly shoehorned in, the writing is particularly important. As it is, Swallowing Mercury is a light, pleasant read. You won’t regret it, but with so many other books to read, I mean, why would you read this one?

Wioletta Greg is a poet, which makes me think the blame for the writing should be placed at the feet of the translator maybe. But maybe I’m just a bit put out by the “Translator’s Note.” Usually that note explains words and terms, explains why certain choices were made over others, sometimes maybe some background is offered, but in this case, the “note” is basically like a regular afterword, offering a cohesive reading of the book in light of its political and historical background. It doesn’t just explain facts that are unclear to the reader who isn’t well versed in the history of Poland in the 1980s, it also explains and elaborates on suggestions that are clear to the reader. The only real “translator’s note,” i.e. the only remark that discusses her work on the novel, is a short paragraph towards the end: in it we discover that the book’s title, which is also the title of one of its chapters/anecdotes, wasn’t the title of the book when it was published in Polish. It was, in English, “unripe fruit,” which, in hindsight, makes a ton of sense, as the novel consistently alludes to its title directly and indirectly. After I spent an hour reading a book and connecting its various elements to the title and that specific story in my head (after all, it is a book that asks for, even requires this kind of reading, spinning a web like the holy spiders that recur in the novel), I was a bit put out that the structure I imagined was created by the translator or the publisher or both; who knows. So maybe that’s why I suspect a sloppy translation here rather than a carelessly prosaic writer.

The book has two main themes threaded throughout: one are the fruits of the (original) title. Ripe and unripe fruits are present in many moments of Wiola’s life. The sticky juice from raspberries is smeared over her face as she first meets her father after his release from prison, she is arms deep in sour cherries when she meets, dirty and disheveled, an ex-boyfriend at a fair, unripe fruit are eaten, strawberries and finally, her father, who leaves her again at the end of the novel, tells her he always considered himself an unripe fruit on the inside. There are echoes of fruits in the way the body treats bodily fluids and other wet things, most remarkably, her period and the mercury of the (English) title. The insistent, and sometimes quite gently and skillfully done, mirroring of different elements connects these various things in sometimes powerful and interesting ways. The book begins with various Catholic rites, but never allows religion to be a transformative element. Neither eucharist nor confirmation are accorded that place – instead, we have Wiola “swallowing mercury,” an element associated with transformation, and we have the pagan webs of various juices and fluids that are involved in shaping this girl. It is accidents that push her to become who she is. This novel is very emphatically not a Bildungsroman. Wiola is nudged, pushed, and she demurs, acquiesces, follows the paths suggested by others. Not until the very final page do we see her make a firm, autonomous decision, and even then, it is presented as Wiola choosing one current to drag her rather than another. In this, Wiola is certainly her father’s child – he still considers himself an unripe fruit, internally. If you start reading a novel about childhood called “unripe fruit,” as polish readers of the novel did, the expectation is to see the fruit ripen, expectations formed by many other books in the genre. But, the novel suggests, maybe some people always remain unripe fruit inside, aging only outside, from the years and events that the world has forced on them.

The second theme of the novel is the father. His presence and absence form, more or less, the beginning and end of the book, and his travails offer the book’s most potent metaphor: taxidermy. Wiola’s father is a passionate taxidermist, who cannot keep up with the dead animals in his house. As we learned in the 1980s from Donna Haraway’s magnificent essay on taxidermy (“Teddy Bear Patriarchy”), modern taxidermy was put in the service of realism, of creating the magic of epiphany from within the world of modern man’s tools and concepts. If I don’t misremember, Haraway insists that this is a continuation of the enlightenment-borne attempts to contain and categorize nature, but to offer, to the audience, a magic situation that appears to remove all traces of man’s hand from the created product. It is creating a story and then hiding all the elements of creation. Wioletta Greg’s use of taxidermy as the father’s predominant metaphor (much as his daughter’s are fruits, ripe and unripe) is her most impressive trick. It allows her to connect the various single stories in the book, about childhood, about womanhood, as well as the single story of socialism, using the opaque figure of taxidermy as the connecting element. It is also an explanation for the novel’s refusal of the enlightenment genre of the Bildungsroman, built right into the narrative. In many ways, Swallowing Mercury is a novel about secrets, but really, it is a novel about that which we cannot know or contain. The animal elements of our world prove to be uncontainable for the father, who is poisoned by an angry critter; similarly, adulthood, as viewed through the eyes of a young girl, is something that is opaque. If you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t plan for it. You just go. Wiola, Greg’s protagonist, is pushed, and occasionally resists, but she goes on, inevitably. One wishes Wioletta Greg (or her translator) had found a better language for this the overall interestingly structured book. Grzegorzewska lives in England. Maybe she’ll write her next novel in English and allow us to take a full measurement of her achievement as a writer without the tempering pen of a translator.

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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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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.

(ISBN)

Paulette Jiles: News of the World

Jiles, Paulette (2016), News of the World, William Morrow
ISBN 978-0-06-240920-1

img_20161213_091117“Some people were born unsupplied with a human conscience and those people needed killing.” – If you think this is a great sentence, many of my criticisms of Paulette Jiles’ novel in my review will not apply to you as a reader. You’re bound to maybe like it. News of the World is a widely-praised work of fiction after all, turning up on end-of-the-year lists, shortlisted for the National Book Award and more. The sentence I quoted, stylistically, isn’t atypical of the novel’s style. Certainly, much of the writing in the novel is deliberate, albeit without the care and elegance you’ll find, for example, in Brian Evenson’s most recent book The Warren. Deliberate – in a way that reminds me of the writing in E. Annie Proulx’ novels, of which William T. Vollmann has offered a thorough, accurate and uncharitable assessment this year. It is certainly the kind of writing that lures some reviewers and readers into calling it poetic. It is not, finally, all bad. News of the World is tighter, more well written and sharper than much of the seemingly poetic guff that gets turned out by many of the MFA institutions around the US. There is a sense of Jiles understanding her material, working with cliché and tropes to do something that’s certainly unique enough to deserve recognition. This is not a bad novel, but it is also not a very good one. This is partly due to the material – it is enormously hard to do something interesting with the Western that hasn’t been done before, and been done better. This novel in particular raises themes variously treated by novels like True Grit, The Sisters Brothers, or Lonesome Dove, and by movies like The Searchers. Jiles’ novel is different – that much is true, but it is not necessarily an important or worthwhile difference. In many ways, Jiles, writing in a genre that has been constantly modernized and updated in the past decades, offers a quietly reactionary take on many of the themes of the Western. I find it really hard to come up with reasons why you should pick up this book – unless you want an inoffensive book present. It is indeed largely inoffensive (though reactionary and mildly racist), mostly reasonably written and hits enough of the right emotional beats (think Lifetime movie) to offer a pleasant overall reading experience. If you are looking for a present for a colleague, this is a reasonable option. If you are looking for a book for yourself – don’t bother. I promise you you’ve read much better and there are much better books out there dealing with these same topics.

News of the World is set during Reconstruction and its protagonist, retired Captain Kidd (yes, very humorous) is traveling through Texas, reading the newspaper to audiences for a small fee. He makes a small amount of money but he’s not motivated by money – he likes informing his audience by giving them a good mixture of news from the US (“Texas Readmitted to the US!”) and stranger news from abroad, say England or the Orient, almost fairy-tale like news items. His readings are performances, and he selects and paces his news items accordingly. There is an interesting tradition on the nexus between the Wild West and performance, from the ubiquitous saloons and dancing, to the multilevel meditations on performance and reality of contemporary TV shows like Westworld. I’d also count movies like Louis Malle’s Viva Maria!, I suppose. One of the connections these texts establish is the one between creating narrative and creating a national narrative, but they always also introduce a moment of unruliness, the carnivalesque, interrogating with one hand the same national narrative that they appear to establish with the other. It’s worth looking at these movies and books in terms of these negotiations and each text resolves these tensions differently. News of the World is a bit of an oddity in this respect – there is performance in the text on so many levels, but the novel is also absolutely unwilling to allow for any kind of shifting knowledge loyalties. Kidd as the curator of news is absolutely sure that what he does is, performance aside, a fair and balanced account of the world outside. The most telling aspect of this is one night when he arrives in a city where two gun-toting hotheads live who are absolutely sure that the newspapers just have to be full of accounts of their heroics. They expect the famous reader of newspapers to include lavish, ideally illustrated, recitations of their (frankly murderous) exploits. Kidd declines and doesn’t read at all. The choice between embellishing his usual readings or to give a straight reading that endangers his life leads him to decline giving a performance altogether. Surely it is no accident that in these times of slanted news and partisan embellishments of facts, Paulette Jiles chose to write a book revolving around a man of impeccable news-related ethics. In some ways, Jiles’ Captain Kidd is the Civil War era equivalent of a curated Facebook news feed. In News of the World, performance doesn’t undercut the serious national narrative – the national narrative and the straight-laced seriousness of truth and history kneecaps the possible literary effects of performativity, contributing to the dutiful dourness pervading the whole novel.

It’s not that the novel is without humor, there’s quite a bit of it, but it is the gentle, chuckling kind, primarily connected to the second protagonist of the novel, the ten year old Johanna Leonberger, a girl abducted by the Native American tribe of the Kiowa and recovered by the US army. Jiles did a bit of research into the matter and apparently, abductees quickly developed a loyalty to their tribe and unlearned the use of English, extending to basic matters of pronounciation. The tribe Jiles picked for Johanna is the Kiowa who are unable to pronounce an . So throughout the novel we see Johanna either elide the consonant or replace it with an . That has some slightly unfortunate consequences for the novel because Jiles insists on rendering all of Johanna’s dialog, even when its protagonists understand it perfectly. Thus, one of the more adorable aspects is Johanna saying “KEP-DUN” when referring to Captain Kidd. The plot of the novel involves Kidd being paid to take Johanna from north Texas all the way to the south to return her to her relatives. On the way, Jiles insists on parading her trek of oddballs past a lineup of Western cliché, including a very drawn out gunfight. There is the sultry widow, the gunslinger and his Native American henchmen, and different well known varieties of Civil War vets. I discussed the Caprtain’s occupation before the plot, because that occupation is the only thing in the novel that does not feel like a mosaic of themes and characters, mildly remixed, but essentially untouched. If you have seen some classic Hollywood Western movies, you have seem multiple versions of these same characters. Jiles does provide some odd quirks, but they are mostly to do with pacing. A suprisingly large portion of the novel is dedicated to one long gunfight while half the journey is summarized in about ten brisk pages. This imbalance is also mirrored in the novel’s descriptions: Jiles provides very long, detailed, almost jarring descriptions of defunct guns; while I suppose it is possible to read these as reflections of the Captain’s limited mind, we know he has other obsessions, and we know he does not provide nearly the same amount of detail on these. In these descriptions, as well as other places, we find the vicissitudes of a historical novel and the research needed for accuracy. Jiles lacks the light touch with reseach that would make for an overall harmonious narrative. I mean, I’m sure it impresses some readers, as so-called historical accuracy often does, but in the text I found it odd – and not in a good way.

searchersposter-billgoldResearch also mars the issue of Native Americans. It is not just Johanna’s unfortunately rendered speech, which bears the marks of decades of racially charged use of language. The contrast of Johanna’s speech with the overall modern and clear speech of people around her is problematic. The whole thing is reinforced by research: Jiles’ conviction that the stories about abductions are right, and her thorough reading of them leads her to focus her novel mostly on non-Natives. Johanna, a girl of German ethnicity who speaks better German than English, is the novel’s representation of Indian-ness, in speech and behavior. She yells out the Kiowa war cry, she has to be physically restrained from scalping an enemy and she’s flabbergasted that she wouldn’t be allowed to bathe in the nude in the middle of a small town. She is curageous because the Kiowa are courageous and so on. The tired character tropes I mentioned previously have here found an ideological equivalent. We have all heard these kinds of stories. As a German, I know some of these stories from white Germans who have never been to the US, most famously Karl May (whose late work was adored by Arno Schmitt), a thief, liar and literary prodigy who wrote fantastical stories about courageous Indians and the white people who encounter them in wonder. Yet while the character archetypes Jiles uses are common throughout the history of the Western genre, Jiles’ attitude towards Natives is not very common among more recent novels. And by recent I mean most significant cultural output since the 1970s. Johanna is the Good Indian, and is contrasted not by one, but by multiple groups of Bad Indians. Dangerous Kiowa, plus the henchmen in the aformentioned firefight who are not just mean and dangerous, but also cowards, running away after hearing Johanna’s intonation of the Kiowa war cry. It is truly the oddest thing. The movie that is the closest comparison, The Searchers, from 1956(!), is a masterpiece with a difficult moral narrative. Its protagonist, played by John Wayne in arguably his best role, is an unabashed racist, someone who thinks miscegenation is evil and Indians having no place in polite white society. The racial politics of the movie undercut this character, and offer various gradations of other characters, including Martin, who is partially Native American and the abducted girl in question. The Searchers is genuinely interested in interrogating the nation-building narratives around race, which, as I said earlier, are so important to some aspects of the genre. And much as Jiles’ newsreader offers a contrast with that aspect, the novel as a whole also rejects the trajectory of the genre. In Jiles’ novel, white people are white people and Native Americans are Indians. That’s not to say that there aren’t bad people in the novel of all colors (including Johanna’s relatives), but that’s never what nationalist narratives rely on. What’s important is the role of the other and as the novel comes to an end, the Other is safely banished, Johanna is married to a farmer and somehow, in their marriage and family, we can see a glowing image of Texas rising off the page.

Paulette Jiles is a Canadian poet, living on a farm in Texas, as far as I can tell and that means very little for the book. Her being a poet is not a boon to the language (unless you adore that first sentence), but then, Dorothea Lasky is a prizewinning poet and Bob Dylan is this year’s winner of the Nobel prize, so, you know… And as for the Canadianness – somehow, comparing Jiles to some other excellent Canadian novelists who have written about the West, from Ondaatje to Kroetsch, one gets the feeling that living in Texas is more impactful for Jiles’ writing than anything else. There is nothing really redeeming about News of the World, outside of a general pleasantness of writing and tone, and, honestly, how an esteemed publication like LitHub decided to put it on a list of best novels of the year (and was slightly miffed the NYT didn’t do the same) eludes me completely. Maybe it’s me. But it’s not.

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Yuko Tsushima: Child of Fortune

Tsushima, Yuko (1983 [1978]), Child of Fortune, Kodansha
[Translated from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt]
ISBN 4-7700-1524-0

yukoSometimes accidents have interesting results: the only reason I heard from Yuko Tsushima in the first place is Jake Waalk’s essay on this blog. You can (and should) read it here. And so, almost by accident, I picked up her novel Child of Fortune, but really, if you’ll permit me the terrible joke, it was my ‘fortune’ that I did so. This novel is not like any other novel you’ve read. I know I say that a lot and maybe I’m just very discerning about the books I pick, but it is true in this case. Not, however, very obviously so, I have to add. Yuko Tsushima’s novel about a middle aged woman’s coming to terms with her daughter, her pregnancy and the men in her life contains many beats we expect of novels of this kind, particularly those published in the late 1970s, as Tsushima’s was. I don’t know the cultural context well, but Geraldine Harcourt’s introduction clarifies some points about it. Yet even so, the book’s effect and strengths are not dependent on being weighed against tradition and context. The book holds up fairly well on its own. It’s a truly terrific novel about physicality and the needs of a woman who is trying to navigate closeness, about motherhood and adulthood at the same time. More importantly, Tsushima writes extremely well, both in the way the novel is structured and narrated, as well as on a line by line basis. The latter effect may not be remarkable if you pick any line from a random page, but as you continue to read on, pretty much every time, you’ll notice small shifts in emphasis. Three, four sentences on, there’s invariable something that will set you back on your heels lightly. I could truly quote progression after progression from the book. This is of course not solely or entirely something that can be chalked up to Tsushima. Clearly, Geraldine Harcourt’s translation (without being credited anywhere on the cover, of course) is extraordinarily successful here. I cannot possibly judge how close she came to being faithful about the Japanese original text, but Tsushima’s novel is a celebrated, prize-winning novel in Japan, and it is truly excellent in English, so at least that has been preserved. What’s more, the text may sound a bit odd here and there, but it always feels like something belonging to the text itself. The novel never reads translated, it is a rich and full text as it is, without needing the sometimes condescending praise afforded to translations. It does not appear to be in print, which is a damn shame. You should read it and it should definitely be in print. Damn it, this should be taught in writing classes. I am not exaggerating. I’ve just finished Ottessa Moshfegh’s celebrated debut novel and I’ll be damned if she couldn’t stand to read some Tsushima with attention and a notepad. As should we all. Child of Fortune isn’t flashy. Nobody dies, nobody is tied up in the attic, no great discoveries are made. It is a small narrative of a woman’s life for a few weeks and months. Yet the execution, and conception, of this unremarkable-seeming story are stellar.

Child of Fortune is, on the surface, fairly simple. It starts with Koko, a single mother, who teaches the piano and is not happy with who she is, and not on the best of terms with her daughter, who primarily stays with her aunt. The pressures of loneliness, of economic problems as well as the vicissitudes of keeping a daughter in middle school happy and in (fashionable) clothes are all taking a toll on Koko. Things come up in her life, and then go away again and at the end, she is, apparently, in the same situation: single, on difficult terms with her daughter, and in financial trouble. Through it all, Koko mostly maintains a placid emotional state, with a few exceptions here and there and so one could be forgiven for thinking that nothing much happens in this book. Instead, what we find is a quiet revolution, a woman standing up for herself, even if she does it only internally, a woman stepping away from social pressures for a quick, ludic moment. Tsushima did not inscribe a future for Koko into the text, but the final moment, involving an invocation of play and childhood serves to inject a moment of deviance, of deviation into the text and the structures it struggles with. Koko rejects the “featureless but comfortable place known as ‘common sense’,” but the novel is not a triumphant resolution (or indeed a dark one). It feels more as if Tsushima has constructed a discourse on an ethics of self care in the novel and how the physical autonomy of women (or of that specific woman) plays into that. I could say it’s a discourse about self care in general, and certainly, parts of it read true to me, as a profoundly failed man in his 30s, but Tsushima’s novel is centered around pregnancy. The pregnancy is the disruptive event, the thing that triggers the ending, that threatens to change all her relationships: with family, her ex-husband and with her current lover. Remarkably, it doesn’t appear as if Tsushima works from any obvious literary patterns, this is not a play on a tradition, or anything. The novel reads like a genuine literary encounter with the phenomenon of pregnancy in a woman in her mid-to-late 30s, working through it. I do not mean to suggest meandering. Tsushima isn’t making up her mind as she develops her character. No, the thinking underlies the whole structure of the book. Every part of the narrative is tightly strapped onto the engine of the author’s thinking about pregnancy, common sense and physicality. Her protagonist, Koko, apparently, at first, a cog in the engine of common sense society, turns out to be more of a moving part, shifting slowly against a stiff background. The interior voice, both worried and aloof, both confused and surprised, plays a major role in this, as does the frequently surprising language. Tsushima manages to bridge the divide between a cerebral, intellectual novel – and a moving, immersive one, with admirable ease.

Now, all this said, I can hear the objections. After all, the 20th century has seen a vast array of novels about womanhood in a modern age come forth, many of them among the best books published in the past century. Jelinek, Elsner, Drabble, Jong, Lessing, I mean it’s an endless list of excellence. So what’s different here? The difference is that with Tsushima one has the feeling that a writer is finding new expressions for a situation, without relying on darkness, the grotesque or working within the contradictions of language. It is a subtle work that we are presented here, with contradictions, gently worked. One is Koko’s interest in sex. She “dwelled so fixedly on the existence of men,” and that “greedy desire of hers had indeed been there since childhood, differing little from an adult’s.” She loves her daughter and yet she “could never guarantee that she wouldn’t abandon her in some remote place if that were the only way she could have Doi.” Koko labels it selfishness, but selfishness, in the same chapter, also leads her to resolve to clear up a relationship. Koko’s appetite appears clear, “the molten lava of her sexuality,” but Tsushima shows us the complexities of that. She may have an affair with a weak, “plump,” boyish man, reminiscent of, for example, the husband in Gisela Elsner’s fiery feminist novel Die Zähmung, but eschews the simple rhetorical angles of this. Instead, she insists on her physicality being “misunderstood.” Men too often draw her into sex, and Koko wants to escape the limits of those relationships. Indeed, when she, somewhat by accident, seduces the eventual cause of her pregnancy, she finds it “hard to suppress a deep disappointment with [his] arousal – as deep as her joy at coming into contact with a human body.” Koko is both interested and disinterested in sex. The main problem with it, for her, is the way sex implies a certain sequence of events. She likes closeness, intimacy – mere fucking is not what she is looking for. She wants to break with the way things go, usually. It’s interesting – almost as if the novel itself interrogated this sequentiality of human relationships, without overtly breaking with it to the point of modernist collages or postmodernist fragments. The fragments are still there, but they are embedded in the expectations of how to write these characters. I found a brief 1984 review of the novel in WLT, where the reviewer expresses some irritation at the inconsistent characterization and the author’s insistence on not embedding the characterization in a normal narrative. This irritation is clearly something created by the author – much as Koko turns out to be a bit of an irritation to the people around her, the novel provides its own -subtle- thorn in the unprepared reader’s side. The untroubled, unhurried tone of the novel, which avoids (sometimes narrowly) cascades of obsession or anger contributes to this, even as it describes the protagonist being “shaken” by one revelation about herself or another.

Georges Bataille’s theory of religion starts on an interesting premise. It’s a comparison of humans with animals – or animality. Animals, Bataille writes, are in the world like water in water. Completely contingent, and nothing to shake them from it. Humans have tools. The profane, simple tool introduces exteriority into a world of contingency. In some ways, it strikes me as if Tsushima has examined the ties that bind female experience to the workings of the world and suggested a way, a tool of introducing exteriority, of prying someone loose. Why, she asks, do some people go on living despite an utter lack of a “compelling reason” to do so. Koko, looking at herself, cannot find “a single redeeming feature” and yet she’s shaken to discover “that the will to live is still there.” Maybe that is the theme of the book: finding, if not a compelling, then an acceptable reason to continue to live. The point is not political – it’s personal. Yet it is also about female experience in a world with sometimes cruel expectations of women, so it’s also political. Child of Fortune isn’t a long book, but it is very good. It contains its own contradictions, it is well narrated and paced. It contains, finally, some hope that there is a way to go forward.

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