Books to get excited about in 2016

December 14, 2015 § 12 Comments

For some time I’ve been trying, and completely failing, to do the #TBR20 challenge. Failing, I think, because I like to arrange in advance all twenty books in a pile in the order I plan to read them, and then something happens: a library hold comes in with a two-week limit, I’m asked to review something, an ARC arrives, or some new book seems so wonderful I feel an urge to buy it and start reading on the spot. At least two of these will happen before I’ve finished even the first book on the pile, and then—well, then the whole thing is wrecked, naturally. I don’t handle disruption well.

So in a sort of reverse #TBR20 spirit, I’m choosing twenty books that will be published in 2016 that I’m really looking forward to. If I had to limit new book acquisition to just twenty in 2016, this would be a pretty good selection.

The publishing dates are probably a random mix of UK and Canadian, with a smattering of US dates in there, but most should be the book’s first publication date worldwide (feel free to comment if you know a book will be out earlier somewhere).

  1. Han Kang: Human Acts (Portobello, January, Korea, Deborah Smith)

The Vegetarian, which I wrote about for Open Letters Monthly earlier this year, was an excellent novel and an excellent translation–definitely one of my top five in 2015. Very much looking forward to this one, set in 1980 and dealing with suppression of dissent, protests and censorship.

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2. Lina Wolff: Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs (And Other Stories, January, Sweden, Frank Perry)

Women at a Spanish brothel are collecting stray dogs and naming them after famous authors. Swedish, funny and Bolaño-esque–what’s not to like?

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3. Sunil Yapa: Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist (Little, Brown, January, US)

Set during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, this debut novel promises rawness and heartbreak. Having once (many years ago) tried to write a novel based on political protests and radical activism, I’m eager to see what Yapa does with this.

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4. Peter Verhelst: The Man I Became (Peirene, February, Netherlands, David Colmer)

This book is narrated by a gorilla which really should put me off. But it sounds very interesting, with the gorilla essentially a stand-in for humans and the dilemma of choosing between principles and self-preservation. It will be my first Peirene book as a subscriber, which is exciting in itself. I must confess that it also appealed because I initially confused the author with the Belgian Dmitri Verhulst (Problemski HotelChrist’s Entry into Brussels).

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5. Raphael Montes: Perfect Days (Viking, February, Brazil, Alison Entrekin)

This combines a psychological thriller with a road-trip across Brazil. The author is a disgusting over-achiever: a celebrated writer, a lawyer, and he’s only twenty-five. Apparently his English is good enough to write a literary novel–or so you might believe from reading the various publishers’ pages about this book, none of which mention a translator. In fact, for all the big publishers on this list, I had to Google because the publisher “forgot” to #namethetranslator

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6. Under the Stone, Karoline Georges (Anvil, Feb, Quebec, Jacob Homel)

This one seems intriguing but tricky to describe, so I’m going to simply quote Chantal Guy in La Presse: “A unique literary exercise that can’t be solely described as a traditional dystopian novel. Indeed, a disturbing strangeness worms its way throughout, a strangeness that could be at home in a fantasy novel, a realist psychological work, a poetic experience. Perhaps Karoline Georges has in fact created a new genre, the claustrophobic novel, but she demonstrates that despite whatever constraints are put on her work, a writer can create the most peculiar worlds through the singular strength of her imagination.”

7. Georgi Tenev: Party Headquarters (Open Letter, Feb, Bulgaria, Angela Rodel)

I am immediately attracted to anything with a life-under-communism theme, so this award-winning Bulgarian novel set in the 1980s and 1990s and dealing with both personal and political aspects of the transition from communism to democracy seems fascinating.

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8. Fariba Hachtroudi: The Man Who Snapped His Fingers (Europa, February, France/Iran, Alison Anderson

From the Europa Editions website: “Winner of the 2001 French Human Rights Prize, French-Iranian author Hachtroudi’s English-language debut explores themes as old as time: the crushing effects of totalitarianism and the infinite power of love. She was known as “Bait 455,” the most famous prisoner in a ruthless theological republic. He was one of the colonels closest to the Supreme Commander. When they meet, years later, far from their country of birth, a strange, equivocal relationship develops between them. Both their shared past of suffering and old romantic passions come rushing back accompanied by recollections of the perverse logic of violence that dominated the dictatorship under which they lived. A novel of ideas, exploring power and memory by an important female writer from a part of the world where female voices are routinely silenced.”

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9. Leonard Pfeijffer: La Superba (Deep Vellum, March, Netherlands, Michele Hutchison)

Another Deep Vellum book, Sphinx, by Anne Garréta and translated by Emma Kate Ramadan, was in my top five this year. For a new and tiny press, Deep Vellum is certainly getting some impressive others (which is probably, sadly, indicative of the enormous amount of literary talent waiting to be translated into English). Deep Vellum is a publisher whose catalogue I would happily read in its entirety.

The publisher’s blurb: A joy to read, profoundly funny, touching, and profound, La Superba, winner of the most prestigious Dutch literary prize, is a Rabelaisian, stylistic tour-de-force. Migration, legal and illegal, is at the center of this novel about a writer who becomes trapped in his walk on the wild side in mysterious and exotic Genoa, Italy—the labyrinthine, timeless port city nicknamed “La Superba.”

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10. Helen Oyeyemi: What Is Yours Is Not Yours (Picador, March, UK)

Helen. Oyeyemi. Need I say more?

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11. The Goddess of Fireflies, Geneviève Pettersen (March, Véhicule, Quebec, Neil Smith)

Acclaimed as not just a contemporary classic but also the Quebecois coming-of-age tale for those who grew up in the nineties, The Goddess of Fireflies, translated by Bang, Crunch author Neil Smith, is one not to be  missed. Originally published in French by one of my favourite Quebec publishers, Le Quartanier.

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12. Ismail Kadare: A Girl in Exile (Harvill Secker, March, Albania, John Hodgson)

My read-a-book-from-every-country-in-the-world ground to a halt after just one country (Afghanistan). This new book, from Albania’s best-known novelist, seems to have just the subject matter to draw me back in to the next country on the list.

From the publisher: “Stefa, a playwright, is called in for questioning by the Party committee after an unknown girl, Linda B., is found dead with a signed copy of his latest book in her possession. Stefa remembers dedicating the copy to Linda’s friend, who has since become his mistress. He soon learns that Linda’s family, considered suspect, were banished from Albania and that the girl committed suicide. Gradually Linda’s story unfolds: how she loved Stefa, and pretended to have cancer so she would be allowed back into the country to be near him, before succumbing to despair.”

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13. Jacob Wren: Rich and Poor (BookThug, April, Canada)

I’ve yet to read a book by Jacob Wren, yet I’ve been fascinated from afar by him and his books for three years. Definitely time to remedy that situation with Wren’s newest book. Here’s the catalogue blurb: “Who hasn’t, at one time or another, considered killing a billionaire? Following on the critical success of his novel Polyamorous Love Song (one of The Globe and Mail’s 100 best books of 2014), Canadian writer and performer Jacob Wren picks up the mantle of the politically and economically disenfranchised in Rich and Poor—the story of a middle- class, immigrant pianist who has fallen on hard times, and now finds himself washing dishes to make ends meet. Rich and Poor is a rare work of literary fiction that cuts into the psychology of politics in ways that are off-kilter, unexpected, and unnerving. In drawing comparisons to fiction that focuses on “the personal as political” (including Chris Kraus’s Summer of Hate and Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives), Rich and Poor is a compelling, fast-paced, and energizing read for adventure-seeking, politically active and/or interested readers who rowdily question their position among “the 99%.”

Malcolm Sutton’s Job Shadowing, out from BookThug in May, also looks very interesting (excerpt here).

14. Michèle Audin, One Hundred and Twenty-One Days (Deep Vellum, Christiana Hills, April, France)

Another one from Deep Vellum! The second female Oulipian to be published by this Texas house (Garréta was the first), Audin is a mathematician and was elected to the Oulipo in 2009. This novel, which spans the twentieth century with a disparate cast of mostly mathematician characters in a variety of locations on several continents, but particularly Europe in the two world wars, is difficult to describe but not to read. French cover (blurrily) pictured.

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15. Catherine Leroux: The Party Wall (Biblioasis, April, Quebec, Lazer Lederhendler)

This is an author I have somehow failed to spot in Quebec lit, so I’m very glad Biblioasis is bringing this one to a wider audience. Leroux has just been nominated for the Prix des Libraires for her new novel, Madame Victoria. 49th Shelf describes this novel as reminiscent of the novels of Tom Robbins and David Mitchell. The publisher’s blurb:

Catherine Leroux’s first novel, translated into English brilliantly by Lazer Lederhendler, ties together stories about siblings joined in surprising ways. A woman learns that she absorbed her twin sister’s body in the womb and that she has two sets of DNA; a girl in the deep South pushes her sister out of the way of a speeding train, losing her legs; and a political couple learn that they are non-identical twins separated at birth. The Party Wall establishes Leroux as one of North America’s most intelligent and innovative young authors.

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16. Basma Abdel Aziz: The Queue (Melville House, May, Egypt, Elisabeth Jaquette)

This Egyptian novel is set in an almost present-day Egypt, slightly more dystopian than reality. After a failed uprising, a sinister authority, the Gate, rises to power. The main character was shot during the uprising and is waiting for official permission to have a bullet removed; the novel is, intriguingly, structured using his medical records. My main fear about books from the Middle East is that they’ll be similar to The Kite Runner in tone, mood or style (because it’s a proven genre that sells in the Anglo world, not because all ME writing is actually like that, but this one is published by Melville House and is described as “evocative of George Orwell’s dystopias, of Kafkaesque surrealism, and of the dark satire of Sonallah Ibrahim’s ‘The Committee’,” by the translator in a review at Madr Masr so it’s pretty certain to be way better than that.

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17. Lola Lafon: The Little Communist Who Never Smiled (Serpent’s Tail, June, France, Nick Caistor)

I read this book in French purely on the basis that I loved the title, and even though I knew almost nothing about the (real, fictionalised) main character, the Romanian Olympic gymnast Nadia Comaneci, the book was still really good. It’s not exactly historical fiction, but traces a life of this tiny gymnast who captured the imagination of many in the west when she scored a perfect 10 in Montreal in 1974. (French cover pictured.)

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18. Clemens Meyer: Hearts Like Diamonds (Fitzcarraldo Editions, October, Germany, Katy Derbyshire)

I read Meyer’s All the Lights (And Other Stories, also translated by Katy Derbyshire) and really enjoyed his sometimes disorienting style. Katy gives a good flavour of the book at love german books:

It’s about the sex industry, about prostitutes and the men who make money out of them. It’s about one particular man, Arnold Kraushaar, who rents flats out to prostitutes and provides them with services, a man who doesn’t see himself as a pimp as such. And there are other men with other names running other businesses, club managers, gang members, policemen, fathers and regular customers. And there are women who work as prostitutes, and we learn some of their names but they never tell us them directly. It’s about the changes that happen in one big city in East Germany, from a state that tolerated a miniscule amount of informal prostitution to one in which it has been a legalized industry for ten years.

And there are stones and rocks – gemstones and crystal and eyes like diamonds, and tunnels through the rock under the city, and there are angels and killers and horror and there’s even love, or something like it. The women are all so different but most of them so strong, and p. 301 made me cry twice over and I had to skip one chapter when reading for the second time. There is Machiavelli and Karl Marx and Wolfgang Hilbig and David Peace and Hubert Fichte and Lewis Carroll, and no doubt more I haven’t identified. And it ends – almost – with Mahler, but is otherwise nothing like Open City.

 Note to self: writing this list might be easier if I’d chosen books with easily described plots and clear narrative arcs.(German cover pictured.)

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19. Éric Plamondon: Hungary–Hollywood Express (Véhicule, autumn, Quebec, Dimitri Nasrallah)

This is the first of a superb trilogy called 1984. I know I’m not the only one to be deeply envious of Dimitri Nasrallah for getting to translate this fantastic book. It is, naturally, impossible to describe, but you can read an excerpt at Drunken Boat. Each book in the trilogy looks back, in fragments, over the 20th century (lots of cultural references both obvious and sly for people who like that sort of thing), through the eyes of a famous person who has a particular connection with the year 1984 (the Tarzan actor Jonny Weissmuller, Steve Jobs and the American novelist Richard Brautigan).

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20. Megan Bradbury: Everyone Is Watching (Picador, June, UK).

I’m pleased to say that my friend Megan Bradbury will be publishing her first novel next year. From the publisher: “Everyone is Watching is a novel about the men and women [including Edmund White, Robert Mapplethwaite and Walt Whitman] who have defined New York. Through the lives and perspectives of these great creators, artists and thinkers, and through other iconic works of art that capture its essence, New York itself solidifies. Complex, rich, sordid, tantalizing, it is constantly changing and evolving. Both intimate and epic in its sweep, Everyone is Watching is a love letter to New York and its people – past, present and future.” (No cover yet.)

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh

November 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

When an unsolicited review copy of The Lemon Grove arrived (ages and ages ago now; I’ve just discovered this review all ready to go in my old files), I gave it a quick glance and looked away. Among my many rules of thumb when selecting reading material is the following: 10. Avoid books with fruit in the title. Off the top of my head, I can think of one successful exception to this rule (The Toss of a Lemon by Padma Viswathan). But then I remembered that Helen Walsh was the author of, among other things, Brass, which I had never read but whose reviews and reputation had stayed with me over the years. And then I thought, well, it’s a lemon, and not an apple. Perhaps it won’t be that bad.

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The Lemon Grove opens with Jenn and Greg on holiday in their beloved Deia, on the picturesque side of Mallorca. They’ve been coming each year with Greg’s daughter Emma, but this year they’ve had a week on their own and then Emma is flying out with her new boyfriend, Nate. The fact of Nate accompanying Emma has been the source of much discussion and controversy in the family, but Jenn persuaded Greg that Emma, at fifteen, was old enough for this big step.

Helen Walsh has a respectable critical following. A review of The Lemon Grove in the Guardian claims that Walsh proves that literary fiction and erotica need not be mutually exclusive. I’m not convinced that this is entirely true. Some elements of the book are stronger than others: the fact that Jenn does not become ridiculous either during or after the fling shows that this is not a book reinforcing stereotypes about older women and sex, and that’s a good and rare thing. Although Nate comes off badly, Jenn manages in the end to bag not only the upper hand but also the moral high ground and her self-respect. The step-relationship is also well done: resentments that have been simmering for years, and resentments that mother and daughter each believe the other has been stewing in for years, come exploding out, as a diversion from what’s really going on, at a moment of extreme tension.

Sex, though, is often a problem for literary fiction. Many people bemoan literary writers’ supposed allergy to writing about sex, and in particular the act of it. The cringeworthy Bad Sex awards poke fun at people who try. Even if you take it as a joke or a compliment, who really wants to be humiliated over something so personal, even if it’s not remotely autobiographical? Isn’t the real problem with sex in literary fiction that sex, in real life, is one of the vanishingly few moments when we are truly present in our lives? Incorporating sex into literary fiction—a genre whose basic raison d’être of literary fiction is the absolute antithesis of mindfulness—is tricky. Literary characters are always looking back, reflecting, pondering. The most successful inclusions of sex scenes might be ones where the character isn’t present, and is instead thinking about the shopping list or making the children’s school lunches or someone else entirely, but it’s not a particularly original story.

And tension is part of it, too. The characters give in to desire too early, in narrative terms, after which point the tension is no longer will-they-won’t-they, but rather will they be discovered by Greg or Emma, will he betray her, what are Nate’s motives and does he really find Jenn that attractive, while apparently still being as interested as ever in Emma? The problem is that none of these really escalates into tension: many of the times they could be discovered are reported afterwards rather than in the breathless rush of immediate terror. Nate’s motives and intentions get murkier by the minute, but ultimately he feels a bit too shadowy

If you’re a literary reader looking for erotica—especially that rare-ish beast, erotica that is not based on submission fantasies or on women being degraded or humiliated—this novel is a good bet. If, on the other hand, you simply want a strong literary novel, you might be disappointed in this one.

Spill Simmer Falter Wither by Sara Baume

November 26, 2015 § 2 Comments

I started reading Sara Baume’s debut novel immediately after I finished André Alexis’s Giller-winning Fifteen Dogs. I’d forgotten that Spill Simmer Falter Wither was a dog book, and I groaned out loud when I saw the dog on the front cover. But I’d picked the novel up on the basis of Eric Karl Anderson’s review, David Hebblethwaite’s review, and Michael Caines’ TLS blog post about six books by women that could have made an alternative Goldsmiths Prize shortlist (I also have Pond and Don’t Try This At Home to read). So despite the dog I was prepared to give it a chance. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Alexis book, exactly, more that I felt I’d read too many similar things, even though I haven’t at all, and even though his book was cleverly done. I guess I’m just one of those snobbish readers that thinks books with animal characters are for children, although I can’t actually remember liking them even then. I don’t have, for example, especially fond memories of The Wind in the Willows or Watership Down. My limit for animal books was probably Beatrix Potter—less philosophy, perhaps.

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Anyway, Baume’s novel is the tale of a lonely man who adopts a dog—not some friendly labrador or bouncy golden retriever, but a mutt who is frankly impossible to have around children or other dogs—even the man at the shelter calls him a“vicious little bugger.” The man, Ray, is fifty-seven (“too old for starting over, too young for giving up”) and his father has recently died. He’s more or less entirely socially incompetent in the way that Anakana Schofield’s Martin John is, except in this case it’s the father rather than the mother that has dominated for too long (and our man here has much less agency that Martin John—is, in fact, entirely under his father’s emotional control).

The book travels through the four seasons (spill, simmer, etc.) with the narrator plodding on through his sad and rather pitiful existence:

Everywhere I go it’s as though I’m wearing a shiny spacesuit which buffers me from other people. A big, shiny one-piece which obscures how small and dull I feel inside. I know that you can’t see it; I can’t see it either, but when I pitch and clump and flail down the street, grown men step into the drain gully to avoid brushing against my invisible spacesuit. When I queue to pay at a supermarket checkout, the cashier presses the backup bell and takes her toilet break. When I drive past a children’s playground, some au-pair nearly always makes a mental notes of my registration number. 93-OY-5731. They all think I don’t notice. But I do.

Tension mounts when the dog, One Eye, attacks another dog and possibly a small boy. Complaints are made, and the narrator finds himself living in his car for weeks on end to avoid having the dog removed by the authorities. The book is, in essence, a love letter to One Eye, the safe recipient of a love that has had almost nowhere else to go for Ray’s entire life. For all this, the novel admirably avoids sentimentality.

Spill had some things I like in a novel as well as some that I don’t, but, interestingly, these preferences (or prejudices) were somewhat upended by this book. First, there’s description—lots and lots of description. Normally I skip over description of places. It bores me. But Baume’s language is fresh and vital (“He’s a triangular men. Loafy shoulders tapering into flagpole legs, the silhouette of a root vegetable”), with some wonderful verbs (“There are cherry trees lining the roadway in full flower, spitting tiny pink pinches of themselves into the traffic”, and kept me reading throughout. On the other hand, plot, something I can usually take or leave, was in slightly too short supply for me in this book. I’m normally quite happy for a novel to meander around inside a character’s head without making any outward linear progress, but with this book the stasis of being on the road (no destination, same thing day in, day out) was not compensated for by enough interiority. Ray withholds almost all the details of his life until the shocking later stages of the book, but unlike in Rachel Cusk’s Outline, another book of narratorly secrecy, we don’t discover anything about other people either.

Although Spill Simmer Falter Wither won’t make my top ten of 2015, it’s a beautifully written book and an impressive debut. Sara Baume is definitely a writer to watch.

Outline by Rachel Cusk

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.

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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.

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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.

Funereal by Giacomo Lee

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.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

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”?)

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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.

purity

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.

Where have I been?

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.