November 2, 2015 § 2 Comments
I’ve often thought I should read—would enjoy reading—Rachel Cusk. She’s one of those writers whose books are in the library, so I don’t buy them, but then they’re not on my shelves reminding me to read them, so I don’t. I’ve been aware of all the controversy over her, her books and her relationship with the press—which is quite baffling and would almost certainly be different if she was a man. I read reviews of Outline last year, but it sounded the least interesting of all her work—why would I want to read a book about “a novelist teaching a course in creative writing during an oppressively hot summer in Athens”? But Outline’s nomination for two Canadian literary awards (and for some reason I did actually know she was born in Canada), the Giller Prize and the Governor Generals’ Award, brought it back to my attention.
And I’m glad it did. It’s not really about someone teaching a creative writing course at all; the course is the thinnest of frames by which the novelist is brought to Greece and into the company of the people she meets. There’s no real plot, no conflict, no intrigue. The narrative arc consists of our meeting the narrator as she gets on the plane at Heathrow to fly to Athens, and leaving her as she says her goodbyes just before returning home. We never see her at home in her natural setting but we do learn something of her past and present through her thoughts and conversations.
As she travels to Greece and takes up her brief teaching job on the course, the narrator reports on her long conversations with various interesting people she meets. Saying it like this makes it sound about as exciting as “As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives…” but you’ll just have to trust me. Mostly the characters talk at her, but in great detail, so that what we learn about the narrator is just as much from her thought responses and reactions as it is from what she actually says. She only mentions this fact once, when somebody does ask her a question, and it strikes her as though this person has had to teach themselves to ask their interlocutor the occasional thing about themselves. Her students also have the chance to speak, and tend to speak in long soliloquies; they interrupt each other occasionally but mainly to talk about themselves rather than clarify something with the original speaker or draw out their point.
There are two chief features of the novel that are so well, and so consistently and repeatedly, well done that they start to wash over you, almost wasted, if you don’t take a moment to put the book down. The first is the sheer quality of the insights and observations. The conversationalists aren’t necessarily people we are supposed to like, and some are to varying degrees outright irritating in their self-absorption or their “cold-shower”ness (this is a concept from Milan Kundera, no idea which book, that I use as a shorthand with my nearest and dearest to indicate a person who goes on at interminable length about some little quirk about themselves that they have decided defines them and must be proclaimed to the world whenever possible. If you know which book I’m talking about do let me know). I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that Cusk treats them with empathy, because I think that’s not the point, but what she does is make sure that we understand that actually we are all people, we all share some of these anxieties and insecurities and tendencies to self-aggrandise.
The other feature is the tone, the sentence construction, the absolute care that has gone into the choice of each and every word. This might be, I suspect, the reason Outline appears on two prize lists this year—because this kind of writerly attention is not something that has been all that common in Canada of late, so its difference might have felt like something of a novelty. I don’t mean to imply that Canadian writers don’t weigh each and every word—far from it. But things other than sentences and their rhythm and music have been given higher priority: creating a deep emotional response in the reader, conveying often hidden but surprisingly universal feelings and reactions, evoking a sense of time and place. With Cusk, it’s all about the sentences.
To end, here’s a nice little quote from a conversation the narrator (whose name we only learn very near the end, when someone phones her, and it feels almost intrusive, as if we have found out by accident) has with her fellow teacher, Ryan, a writer who recently was given a six-month sabbatical to write but found himself instead embroiled in—and in fact seeking out—mundane domestic tasks like taking the baby to the park. He had a short story collection published a while before, but now
it’s like looking at old photographs of yourself. There comes a point at which the record needs to be updated, because you’ve shed too many links with what you were. He doesn’t quite know how it happened; all he knows is that he doesn’t recognise himself in those stories any more, though he remembers the bursting feeling of writing them, something in himself massing and pushing irresistibly to be born. He hasn’t had that feeling since; he almost thinks that to remain a writer he’d have to become one all over again, when he might just as easily have become an astronaut, or a farmer.
This reminded me of listening to the CBC the other day where someone, possibly one of the guest presenters on the classical part, was talking about the concept of inspiration as a Romantic invention—before that, inspiration was irrelevant. You had the technical skill, you knew the form, you had the practice behind you: off to work you went to produce what was expected of you.
Will it win the Giller? Who knows. It’s a strong shortlist, and one that is well worth reading in its entirety. I imagine it has a better shot at the Governor General’s Award, simply because I think that race is—to my taste—between three (Cusk, Cayley, Vanderhaeghe) rather than all five.
October 28, 2015 § 2 Comments
South Korea is known for having a very high suicide rate, among the highest in the world, and it’s this subject that Giacomo Lee takes on in his debut novel, Funereal. Young Ha-Kim, who wrote a novel about suicide called “I Have the Right to Destroy Myself” twenty years ago addressed the high numbers in an April 2014 New York Times piece. He posits the various reasons that are often discussed for why South Korea so often heads the suicide statistics, including scorn for mental illness (aka mental weakness), lack of psychiatric help and loss of face for those who do seek it, breakdown of the family unit, economic insecurity, educational pressure.
Many of these conditions, though, have been present in other times and other places without having the same effect on suicide rates. In Lee’s novel we get a glimpse of what might be different about now, as we understand more about the context for Korean millennials: a country with very little economic prospects for the under-thirties; massive social pressure to perform, conform and stay young; and an overwhelming focus on appearance. South Korea is often recognised as the world’s plastic surgery capital, and this is not for older people seeking rejuvenation but something people might be given for a high-school graduation present: a BBC report from ten years ago estimated that around 50% of women in their twenties had had plastic surgery.
The novel’s main character, Soobin Shin, is working in a dead-end job at a café with no prospect of using her education or finding a career. She’s tired of her situation, her on-off boyfriend, her job, and the lack of prospects, but life becomes more interesting when she is headhunted by a café regular with an interesting project: he’s starting up a company called OneLife that allows the suicidal to rehearse their death, have a fake funeral, and then get on with life thanks to the cathartic effect of the quiet time alone in the coffin combined with the reasons for living provided by the love, respect and affection in evidence at the funeral. Soobin is the face of the company—friendly, natural-looking, cheerful—and things seem to be going well. That is, until clients start dying. This kicks off the plot-heavy part of the novel, which starts off realist but full of the flashing neon and bubbliness you might expect from KPop, and gradually moves into something more surrealist and sci-fi. It’s dark throughout, yet not unrelentingly so. It’s not quite as accomplished, structurally or stylistically, as the other Korean literature I’ve read this year, for example Hang Kang’s The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) or Kyung-sook Shin’s I’ll Be Right There (translated by Sora Kim-Russell), but in fairness I think a better way of putting that might be that Lee is not yet as sure of himself as an author as these more established writers. Nonetheless, Funereal is a powerful book that discusses an important subject without sentimentality or sensationalism.
October 23, 2015 § 2 Comments
I’m not ashamed to say that I think The Corrections is a really good book. It came out just before I really found my adult place in the world of books, so I didn’t read it until perhaps 2004. So it’s not hard for me to see why The Corrections remains so important in my reading life. I read Strong Motion and The Twenty-Seventh City soon afterwards, but they didn’t have the same impact. I also didn’t love Freedom, and couldn’t even tell you why now, beyond a vague feeling of disappointment. So I wasn’t desperate to read Purity (and certainly didn’t intend to write about it), but when I put a hold on it at the library (a few weeks after publication date) I turned out to be the first in the queue. Then a week spent in bed allowed me to catch up on my reading, including finishing Purity in just about a single sitting. (But please, that cover–those covers! I’m a fan of simple covers, but seriously? Did every person involved in designing and approving these covers just say, “Screw that, it’s Franzen, it really doesn’t matter what it looks like”?)
Franzen is talented at creating characters, at least as an opening gambit; it reminds me of reading Stephen King books when I was really not a fan of horror in any form, but could happily read his novels for the setting up of the characters. Each massive section of Purity is devoted to a different character, spending time on their backstory and seemingly irrelevant details, pouring it all out in a fascinating torrent. It makes you feel as if you can almost understand people; it’s quite basic in a psychological sense of character being created by experience, although perhaps less so than in his earlier novels. It’s a bit of a conundrum all round: how can a writer so patently misanthropic write so seemingly illuminatingly about other people?
The plot of Purity is more expansive, structurally, than Franzen’s other two big novels, focusing only intermittently on family units and the difficulty of having (but also of not having) such a thing as a family. Purity Tyler is the central character in the novel. Known as Pip, she’s 24 and has little idea of what to do with her life. Purity as a concept is, naturally, of great importance to her, but it’s hard to find and even harder to pin down, which means she’s currently working for a shady eco-energy company called Renewable Solutions that doesn’t “make or build or even install things.” Instead, “it ‘bundled,’ it ‘brokered,’ it ‘captured,’ it ‘surveyed,’ it ‘client-provided.’” Pip’s issue with Renewable Solutions is that she can “never quite figure out what she was selling, even when she was finding people to buy it, and no sooner had she finally begun to figure it out than she was asked to sell something else.” When not at work, Pip lives in a squat with a motley crew of misfits: Stephen (with whom she is in love) and his wife Marie. There’s also the couple’s adopted child, Ramón, and the schizophrenic Dreyfuss, also the house’s former owner.
The compelling thing about Franzen is how, in Pip’s seventy pages, we feel as though we’ve already had a novel’s worth of information about her and her life. So much of what Franzen does is, generally speaking, a creative-writing course no-no: the acres and acres of telling, the enormous flashbacks interspersed only briefly (but very strategically) with contemporary action, the fact that each time we do get close to some action, there’s a sudden stop and a shift to another character. (I wonder: when Franzen does finally resolve these scenes, much later in the book, does he have to write them as flashback or character history first so they don’t come out totally dead?) And yet it all works, at least until it turns out to have the nutritional value of a drive-through meal.
The next character is Andreas Wolf, a sort-of Assange-like figure obsessed with purity of information while having layer upon layer of murky past himself. Pip goes to intern for Andreas in Bolivia before being sent back to the US to spy on another internet concern, Denver Independent. The story starts to write itself from here, and to summarise much more would be to start giving the plot away, which, rickety as it is, is still part of the fun of the book, at least for as long as Andreas himself doesn’t make you put the book down in disgust.
For me, reading Purity was a bit like seriously overdoing the wine while knowing you’ve got an early start the next day. I devoured the whole thing in just a few hours in bed, but afterwards could only grumble about it. The misogyny! The constant, all-consuming, relentless, unconscious misogyny. The main character is a women, sure, and the misanthropy haunts the pages like the taste of one piece of banana colours every piece of fruit in the salad, but really, did all the mothers have to be quite so insane? Why were so many of the women, major and minor characters, crazy mothers or crazy lovers, so messily hysterical, allowing their craziness to spill over into other people’s—usually their son’s–lives? Why were the men, to the extent that they were indeed also mentally troubled, so quietly stoic about their problems, bearing them with fortitude and—apparently—not letting them affect other people (despite Franzen’s own evidence to the contrary)? Also, there is essentially no sympathy for mental illness, except perhaps for Dreyfuss’s properly managed and medicated schizophrenia (and Dreyfuss is, not coincidentally, fairly hostile to human interaction himself, while simultaneously being a Franzen-esque pithy observer of humankind).
The problem with the book is that although initially it feels enjoyable, the more you think about it, the worse it seems. It’s like a soap opera for people who don’t watch TV, or maybe for people who do watch TV as well, given the sales figures. The men can’t stop thinking about their penises–or more accurately, can’t stop being controlled by their penises, poor old chaps. What trials they suffer! The women–especially Pip’s mother, Annabel–are like Macbeth’s three witches given back stories and starring antagonist roles. Do they have any redeeming qualities? You’ll have to look carefully. The effect is to reduce and restrict the humanity of the characters that Franzen spent so many painstaking pages creating. Their histories give them far more intellectual capacity than their impulse-driven, primitively instinctual present moments can sustain, switching them from blank slates moulded from past experiences to collections of cells propelled by the most basic, and most base, principles of evolutionary biology. The Corrections will always be important to me, but I might not pick it up for a while, just in case.
October 20, 2015 § 4 Comments
In a slough of despond, for a good chunk of the last eighteen months. It’s been a difficult ride, but I hope things are looking up now. This might be the blog’s rebirth. Might.
While I haven’t been blogging, I have managed to write a (very) few things for other places.
My review of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Deborah Smith, appeared in Open Letters Monthly.
I wrote about the fascinating Nelly Arcan for the TLS (subscription required).
My thoughts on Perrine Leblanc’s The Lake (translated by Lazer Lederhendler) will appear in a forthcoming issue of the TLS.
I reviewed The Keeper’s Daughter by Jean-François Caron for a forthcoming issue of the LRC.
As well, I have a translation of a Jonathan Goyette short story forthcoming in Carte Blanche.
More soon, I hope.
March 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
I completed Afghanistan in my reading around the world list well over a month ago, but haven’t had a chance to write about them (or anything else, for that matter). I read two books: A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar and A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear by Atiq Rahimi. Two of Rahimi’s other novels, The Patience Stone and Earth and Ashes have been made into films, but it seems impossible to watch them without buying a DVD at an extortionate price. (On this note, why is it so hard to watch films in this brave new webworld? Apart from the DVD, I could not find a single legal way to watch these recent films. iTunes will sell me the French-subtitles version for $20, so why not English?)
Given Rahimi’s titles, you might be forgiven a moment of alarm: books from Afghanistan with words like “dream” and “stone” in their titles might suggest novels like The Kite Runner. But his work is very different. He was granted asylum in France in 1985, and his earlier novels were written in Dari, while The Patience Stone was written in French. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is, appropriately enough, a book that questions the boundary between dreams and reality. The book is written in short sections and switches back and forth between the narrator’s dreams, the memories of the previous night as they slowly return to him, his present semi-captivity and the past that led up to the crisis the novel skirts.
It’s 1979 and Farad is a student. Having grown up in a more liberal Afghanistan than the one that has been thrust on him recently, Farad has had some trouble adjusting to the pro-Soviet regime. He got into some trouble the previous night with a friend, that might have involved alcohol and definitely involved a physical struggle with authority, and he’s being sheltered by a mysterious woman—at considerable risk to her own reputation and safety—whose son appears to believe that the narrator is his long-lost father. The short sections are powerful and work towards a cumulative effect of gradual understanding for both the narrator and the reader. The writing is dark and cynical, and the book is, at least to begin with, a demanding read as we must struggle with the narrator through his disorientation.
The Fort of Nine Towers is not a novel but rather memoir. Qais Akbar Omar opens by describing Kabul life before the Taliban and Mujaheedin. In 1991, when Qais was eight, Afghanis wanted the Soviets to be expelled—but they weren’t expecting what they got instead: the Mujaheedin. The memoir details around two decades of the author’s life, as daily life becomes ever harder and increasingly dangerous. This extended upper middle-class family is forced to move en masse to the titular fort, from where they can observe the fighting without being quite as at risk as in their old compound. Each time a family member ventures out—Qais’s father or grandfather leaving to pick up the relatives that couldn’t fit in the car the first time or to try to dig up the gold they buried before they left the compound—they have a terrifying brush with death.
It’s a fascinating memoir because the child in Qais never leaves him. Whatever new situation he and his family are thrust into—leaving the fort at short notice to travel a hugely indirect route to stay with a relative, which descends into an impromptu camping trip with several hair-raising escapades worthy of a Famous Five plot, or travelling the country with the nomadic extended family he’s never met—he is always interested and eager to learn. (This book definitely has shares something with Khaled Hosseini’s writing.) He’s also irrepressibly optimistic: despite all the evidence to the contrary, he still believes in the essential goodness of people. The narrator’s cynicism and bitterness in A Thousand Rooms, by contrast, seems to spring precisely from the betrayal of this trust.
What both books have in common is an examination of the way people adapt to extreme circumstances. Like Anne Frank’s diary, they are a reminder that there is a before for people in war-torn or politically repressive situations; a before when civilisation and the rule of law seemed untouchable. In both books Taliban stop the narrator/author and demand to see whether their testicles are hairless (in neither case are they; this is deemed a very serious offence), reminding us in the West that it’s not just women’s rights that are comprehensively trampled under these regimes, even as we also see the much greater extent to which women’s liberty and self-expression is curtailed.
Just one country in and I’m starting to think that every school curriculum should involve the study of fiction from every country in the world (except, of course, for the sad fact that pedagogy and literature make an astonishingly ugly couple). Next up is Albania. Last year I read Elvira Doñes’ Sworn Virgin (translated by Clarissa Botsford from the original Italian), published by the excellent And Other Stories. Interesting as it was, I’m not sure how representative you can call it, so I’ll be looking for at least two more recent books. Ismail Kadare springs to mind. Any recommendations?
January 2, 2015 § Leave a comment
Happy new year to any readers still here after the last year’s unintended hiatus. No promises for 2015, but lots of plans.
December 10, 2014 § 1 Comment
I read The Children Act a few weeks ago, and ever since (particularly given all the horrendous news recently) I’ve been bothered by the fact that there were two separate instances of men being falsely accused of rape. Two! As if writing a whole book (Atonement) about the subject wasn’t enough. It’s fiction, obviously, but why this insistence on such a rare occurrence? I confess, in the current climate I can only find it depressing.