May 2019 Reading: Gingerbread; Arcadia; A Horse Walks into a Bar; Runaway; Delicate Edible Birds; The Buddha of Suburbia; All That Man Is

Gingerbread by Robert Dinsdale (2014)

The second novel I have read by Dinsdale, this book, though narrated in the third person, sticks closely to the point of view of its child protagonist, a young boy in Belarus whose mother has just passed away and who enters the woods with his grandfather to scatter her ashes. His Papa is initially reluctant to go into the woods, which hold the secrets of his past, but once he is there he finds himself unable to leave, and the boy must honour his promise to his mother to look after the old man in the winter wilderness.

The use of the child’s point of view is very effective; his naive, endearing way of looking at the world softens the story, adding a fairy tale quality that ties in with the magical stories his Papa tells him by the fireside. As the novel progresses, hints of darkness creep in and grow larger, and the tales the old man tells swell to incorporate historical realities dressed up as myth. Hearing Papa’s past experiences (including one terrible action) through the medium of these ‘tales’ is incredibly effective – and affecting – and allows for a quite complex exploration of the dark truth contained within so-called fairy tales. The exquisite detail of the descriptions of the wilderness reminded me of The Outlander, which I read last month. The way in which the wild begins to claim his Papa is both frightening and poignant, and although I found the denouement slightly over the top (and hard to follow at times), there is something so unique and beautiful about this novel, and I found myself thinking about it long after I had finished it.

Arcadia by Lauren Groff (2012)

I am still determined to work my way through Groff’s entire back catalogue, and this is one of two books by her that I read this month. This novel is set in a 1970’s commune in upstate New York, and also starts off from a child’s point of view. We follow Bit, first as a five year old, then a teenager, and finally an adult, as he negotiates his way through the world. For me, the early section, detailing his childhood in the commune, is the strongest. Bit’s experience of the only world he knows is beautifully drawn, immersed as it is in nature, and his connections with the women of the commune, including his troubled mother, Hannah, seem to me to provide a real insight into the way children perceive maternal figures as almost a part of themselves. His silence as a way to cope with Hannah’s depression, how he enters her dreams, the fluidity of the boundary between his body and hers, all of this was so interesting that I almost wished the whole novel had taken place through the eyes of Bit as a child. Groff’s prose, as always, is lush and gorgeous, and sentences worth savouring litter every page, particularly in the first section.

However, Groff has the larger theme of freedom vs community to deal with, and the inevitable decline of the commune brings to light this conflict, as things begin to unravel in Arcadia. Drugs, power struggles, the endless battle to make ends meet: the utopia they aim to create is of course doomed from the start. But Groff avoids a lofty position of judgement by sending Bit out into the ‘real world’ and revealing its shortcomings, too. The novel leaps ahead in time, and important events are often told after the fact, The third section of the novel catapults us into a world reeling from the effects of global warming and a global pandemic, and as Bit and his mother retreat back to the remnants of Arcadia, it is hard to dismiss their former home as merely a failed social experiment.

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman (2017)

A real-time description of a stand-up show seems like a perilously difficult premise for a novel, and I doubt there are many writers who could pull it off. The book opens with Israeli comic ‘Dovelah G’ giving a performance in a basement bar in Netanya. He has invited along an old friend from early adolescence, a retired judge, who is our narrator, and who is wondering, frankly, what the hell he is doing there. Grossman pulls off a highly impressive feat in this short, powerful novel, illustrating on the page the ebb and flow of the show, the tension and its release, but this is no ordinary stand-up performance. The show gradually devolves into near-chaos as Dov G dips in and out of a story from when he was 14 and at an army camp and was suddenly summoned home. It is a story he needs to tell, despite the audience’s reluctance to hear it.

There is nothing funny about watching the man self-destruct on stage, and the book is a searing, blistering, flaying experience – a highly uncomfortable read, to say the least. It tangentially reminded me of Hannah Gadsby’s show, Nanette, as it asks some of the same questions: what is the bargain we make as audience members? How complicit are we? How do we react when the release of tension is denied to us? This is a brilliant, brutal book, excellently translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen. I felt exhausted by the end of it, and yet I would certainly recommend it.

Runaway by Alice Munro (2006)

Along with Dinsdale and Groff, Munro is becoming one of my 2019 staples, and I have many more of her collections to read. I’ve jumped ahead from 1982’s ‘The Moons of Jupiter’ to this collection, and I certainly noticed an increased complexity in the stories in ‘Runaway’. I have to say that, blown away as I was by ‘Moons’, a few of these stories rang less true for me, and the more stylistic elements (shifts from first to third person, the inclusion of headlines and subtitles) did not appeal to me as much. There were one or two plot twists that had me groaning, though it should be pointed out that in one case the protagonist has the same reaction to the implausibility of what is happening.

However, let me qualify the above by saying that a ‘bad’ Munro story (by which I mean one that I personally do not absolutely love) is still an excellent story by anyone else’s standards. Her descriptions are vivid and natural, and her characters run deep, seem real. While reading the story of a woman who returns home to visit her parents, I remember thinking: yes, that is how life feels, that is how it happens. In the introduction by Jonathan Franzen, he describes how Munro’s narrow scope allows her to work away at her small patch of experience, digging deeper and deeper, uncovering further layers of truth. I’m still working on some sort of shoddy metaphor about Munro on her allotment, tending the same patch of soil so that it gets richer, produces more and more…you get the point.

Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (2009)

More Groff, short stories this time. The nine stories in this collection are all beautiful at a sentence level, and build up to a satisfying whole by the end of each story. In ‘Fugue’, the disparate elements of the story come together in a surprising and elegant way. ‘Blythe’ is brilliant on female friendship, and the title story, set in World War Two at the time of the German occupation of Paris, poses perhaps the biggest dilemma that any of the characters face: a group of journalists find themselves held hostage by a Nazi sympathiser who wants Bern, the only woman, to sleep with him. ‘Watershed’ and ‘Majorette’ were the stand-out stories for me.

The historical settings of some of the stories do at times feel a little like experiments, and as a collection, I found it less cohesive than ‘Florida’, the first work by Groff that I read, but the stories nevertheless provide a fascinating exploration of dilemmas faced by women in different temporal and spacial settings.

The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi (1990)

A novel that I always assumed I had read, the mention of this work in an essay by Zadie Smith got me thinking that perhaps I hadn’t, actually. Time to sort that out, and I am glad I did. The first person narrator, Karim, describes himself in the opening paragraph as “an Englishman, almost” and it is that ‘almost’ that the novel explores. The book is as much, or perhaps more, about class as it is about race, but it goes beyond those two issues: Karim’s search for identity is not restricted to these terms. He is not exactly a likeable character, horribly self-absorbed and lacking in purpose as he is, but his relentless introspection is fascinating and revealing about both the character and the 1970’s world he is living in.

And it is a very funny book. The rich cast of characters that populate the novel provides much of the humour: from his Dad, Haroon, the ‘Buddha’ of the title (also called ‘God’ by his son), to the social-climber Haroon runs off with, Eva, to Karim’s aunties and uncles, to the ‘theatre types’ he meets when he embarks on a career as an actor – each one is complex and hilarious, over the top but still somehow realistic. I think it is a real skill to write characters who are almost parodies, but are still believable, and Kureishi treads the fine line of caricature with aplomb. My favourite character is Changez, the hapless man brought over from India to marry Karim’s friend Jamila (who is the most reasonable and sensible character in the book) – the subversion of the traditional power relationship in their marriage, and Changez’s acceptance of it, provides some surprisingly touching moments.

Beneath all the glitter and colour and punk-rock-glam of the book is a fierce examination of the way we construct ourselves, and this unflinching, warts-and-all picture of the difficulty of doing so made me glad I had finally got round to reading it.

All That Man Is by David Szalay (2016)

In an interview, Szalay explains the unconventional format of this book as follows: “I sat down to think about writing a new book and just didn’t see the point of it. What’s a novel? You make up a story and then you tell that story. I didn’t understand why or how that would be meaningful.” In his attempt to find meaning, Szalay presents us with nine stories, each of which features a male protagonist five or ten years older than the last, each at a moment of crisis. There are connections – London is mentioned in most of the stories, and each one has a broad European sprawl. Travel is a major feature, mostly by road, and the specificity of the locations suggests a pretty extensive research jaunt around the continent.

I have to admit, I wasn’t won over by this book at first. The opening story, about a seventeen year old Interrailing around Europe, failed to grab me, and the second story left me with a similarly lukewarm reaction. However, there is a cumulative effect brought about by the deliberately repetitive nature of these stories, a sense of inevitability, that caused the book to grow on me. On the subject of male desire, the book is brutally honest, and there is an interesting shift from wanting ‘experiences’ to wanting power. The stories about the journalist who invades the privacy of a government official with whom he has a sort of friendship and about a multi-millionaire on the verge of losing everything were the strongest for me, and most clearly showed off Szalay’s talent for crisp, beautiful prose. The novel offers a specific and recognisable idea of manhood (predominantly the straight, white male who finds his life gradually settling into the traditional pattern of marriage, family, career, though there are exceptions – notably the drifter, Murray, who sets up on the ‘Croatian Riveria’ and seems unable to avoid making a complete mess of his life), and while at times I perhaps wished for a bit more variety, the book provides a highly intelligent insight into what it means to be that sort of a man, in this sort of a world.

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