September 2019 Reading: The Overstory; The Art of Being Normal; What We Lose; My Year of Rest and Relaxation; The Great Believers; Multiple Choice; Her Body and Other Parties

The Overstory by Richard Powers (2018)

My approach to creating reading lists is very haphazard; I’ll gather suggestions from articles or friends and note them down in small batches, and I often don’t get round to buying the books for months or even years. By the time I finally read them, I’ve forgotten who told me about them, and anything about the book at all. I mostly read on my Kindle, so I don’t even have a blurb to guide me before I dive in. I like this ‘blind reading’ – it throws up some good surprises. However, I sort of wish I had been aware of what a massive undertaking Powers’ novel was before I merrily embarked upon reading it – it is epic, both in size and concept, and I have to admit I did a fair bit of complaining about still being on ‘that tree book’ for the two whole weeks it took me to get through it.

It is worth the effort, though – it isn’t often that you come across a book that is truly transformative, that changes the way you think. Telling several different stories across over a hundred years, Powers’ novel challenges our notions of time and our relationship to the natural world by slowing down to the rhythms of ‘tree time’ and revealing the over-arching complexities of an ecosystem we so often ignore, or, more dangerously, destroy. This is a difficult one for me to review, as I can’t say I actively enjoyed the experience of reading it, even though I am very glad I did. The book is full of so many beautiful and loving descriptions of trees that I became almost numb to the technical brilliance of the writing, and although there is some pay-off for following the seemingly disparate stories of characters such as Nick Hoel, Mimi Ma and Patricia Westerford, the professor who argues that trees are far more communal than we might imagine, that they communicate with each other, there were other storylines, such as Neelay, the paralysed computer engineer whose world-building game is a revolutionary hit, that, for me, could have been pruned (excuse the pun) without hurting the text. My requirements for a novel are pretty basic: a good plot, and characters I genuinely care about, and this novel is not nearly as interested as I am in such trivialities. Instead, it is a far-reaching, profound study of our relationship with the natural environment, at a moment when such explorations are urgently necessary.

The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson (2015)

Again, I had no real idea what this novel was before I started reading, although I had seen the cover and guessed it was about gender identity. It turns out to be a fantastic YA novel, easily digested in a couple of hours, and exactly what I needed as a palette cleanser after emerging from the tangled forests of Powers’ book.

Written in the present tense, with two first person narrators, the book zips along with enough tasty plot twists and funny but touching moments to maintain interest until the last page. Of the two protagonists, I much preferred Leo, finding David rather irritating, but both are well-drawn, and David’s struggle with his identity is very well-depicted. Alongside the issue of being a transgender teenager, plenty of other, more typical problems are explored, which helps to avoid defining characters in reference only to their gender identity. Williamson’s matter-of-fact approach to an important topic creates a great, refreshing read, and I am glad this book exists.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons (2017)

The first person narrator of this novel, Thandi, takes the reader on a journey through grief: her mother’s illness and subsequent death have a profound effect on her, calling into question all kinds of issues of identity and purpose. The book is experimental in form, a series of non-sequential vignettes, fragments of non-fiction texts, song lyrics, and so on, interspersed with more conventional narrative sections. The effect is that of a collage, reflecting how the human mind works, especially a grief-stricken one.

Thandi is the daughter of a South African mother and an African American father, and she feels the in-betweenness of her ‘light skin and foreign roots’. She visits South Africa quite often, but is never quite at home there, and in the States her family has its home in a fairly affluent, predominantly white neighbourhood. Layered on top of this is her own struggle with how to live well, her relationships, her own unexpected journey into motherhood. It adds up to a deeply nuanced, thought-provoking read that is one of the best examples of ‘auto-fiction’ I have read in a long time.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Fiction is full of horrible male protagonists, ghastly men whose stories we follow with a mixture of revulsion and fascination. It is still thrilling to me to stumble across a deeply unlikable female main character who is nevertheless able to hold my attention, to demand that her story be read, no matter how unsympathetic she is. The unnamed narrator of Moshfegh’s novel is a tall, thin, blonde, beautiful (by her own frequent description) woman from a privileged background who has decided to sleep away a year of her life and hopefully emerge as a new person, finally able to engage with the world.

The attraction of retreating into sleep is obvious, a premise I can definitely get behind. The narrator is aided in her quest by the quackiest of all quacks, Dr Tuttle, a Yellow Pages doctor who provides some of the funniest scenes in this often funny book. The heady cocktail of prescribed drugs that the narrator takes to keep herself as near to sedated as possible is described in lovingly detailed recipes for getting the balance just right. Her best friend, Reva, is another genius creation, spouting self-help nonsense and reeking of desperation as she comes round from time to time to check on her hibernating pal. The absurdity and black humour hide a core of uncomfortable truth at the centre of the novel – who hasn’t fantasised about retreating from the world? When the narrator finally hits upon a terrifying new drug called Infermiterol, which causes three-day blackouts during which she loses all memory of what she does, she is able to fully realise her goal, and enlists the help of an artist to keep her secluded for the final months of her project. The ending of the book is divisive, I think, but it worked for me.

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (2018)

This brilliant novel opens with a funeral, plunging us straight into the midst of the AIDS crisis in 1980’s Chicago. The two main characters are Yale, a gay man who watches his friends succumb one by one to this terrible, still mysterious illness, and Fiona, the sister of the recently deceased Nico, whose memorial service/party creates one of the best openings for a novel I have read for a while. Fiona is also given a parallel narrative set in 2015, in which she searches for her missing adult daughter in Paris. At first, the two storylines seem unconnected, but as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Fiona’s role as caregiver to so many of the young men during that awful time has had an indelible effect on her, and on her relationship with her family.

The men in the sections set in the mid-to-late 1980’s are a well-drawn and realistic a group of characters, and I felt utterly convinced by them, mourning the inevitable losses as if I knew them. Yale is a truly wonderful character, and the subplot involving his work for an art gallery and his attempts to secure works from a former model for great artists in pre-war Paris, Nora, added another layer to the narrative. Nora’s comment that they share an experience of losing loved ones to a kind of war is a poignant moment. Fiona, too, is a fantastic character – it is through her that the boys’ memories are held, and I think her inclusion is useful for Makkai’s determination, as stated in the afterword, to stay on the right side of allyship vs appropriation in writing this novel. This book managed to inform me about a period of history of which I was pretty much ignorant while also introducing me to some of the best, most endearing characters I have met this year.

Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell (2016)

One of the strangest novels I have read this year, Multiple Choice is structured like the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test, which Zambra took at school. As such, it functions as a kind of ‘choose your own adventure’, with different options open to you as you work your way through. It starts with a section where you must choose from a list of single words, and then onto ordering sentences, and then whole texts followed by ‘comprehension questions’, with full rubrics provided before each section.

At first glance, this is the kind of thing that might send me into a traditionalist huff about post-modern (or post-post-modern, who knows where we’re up to now) nonsense, and I will admit to reading the first section with a very sceptical face indeed. However, as the book progressed, not only was there far more narrative than I expected, but the close focus on the constructive act of reading began to have an odd effect on me. By drawing such explicit attention to the role of the reader in interpreting texts, Zambra makes you complicit in a way that is actually quite exciting. The silly moments in which the pretentiousness of the whole exercise is cut through with humour do not undermine the reflective nature of the endeavour. And complicity is a theme here – the shadow of Pinochet looms large, along with Zambra’s assertion that no one at the time could claim ignorance of what was really going on behind the scenes. This is a book which demands rereading, as it is assuredly going to be different each time. A special mention must go to the excellent skills of the translator, McDowell.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado (2017)

A heady blend of genres, the eight stories in this collection had me once again marvelling at the sheer power of the short story as a form. The first story, ‘The Husband Stitch,’ ostensibly takes us through the narrator’s rather conventional journey through marriage and child-rearing, but the undercurrents are anything but normal. From the mysterious green ribbon around the woman’s neck to the swirl of folk tales, ghost stories and old wives’ tales that infuse the narrative, this story announces itself as Something Different. And so it is with all of the stories in this fantastic, and fantastical collection: Machado has created a brand of speculative fiction that is startling in its originality.

From ‘Inventory’, a list of a woman’s sexual experiences against a backdrop of a lethal virus spreading across the country, to the novella-length story in the form of episode synopses for Law & Order: SVU, to the fading women who are literally disappearing in ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, these stories amazed me with their innovation, bravery and freshness. There are hints of Angela Carter, among others, but my main takeaway from this book is that this is a writer speaking entirely in her own voice, of which I want to hear much, much more.