September 2012 Reading: Affinity, Burger’s Daughter, Small Island, American Gods, Two in a Boat

Affinity by Sarah Waters (2000)
 
I’m reading Waters’ books in a funny order. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read – I still have to read Fingersmithand The Little Stranger. Affinity is my least favourite so far. It tells the story of Margaret Prior, a troubled young woman who becomes a ‘lady visitor’ at Millbank prison and finds herself drawn to one of the inmates, spiritualist Selina Dawes. This is a somewhat bleak, dispiriting novel which lacks the sparkle of Tipping the Velvet or the intricacy of The Night Watch. The ‘twist’ ending, too, fell flat for me. But I am not giving up on Waters yet – her prose is still great, and her attention to detail, building up the Victorian world surrounding her characters, is still impressive.
 
 
Burger’s Daughter by Nadine Gordimer (1979)
 
Gordimer has described her novel as a ‘coded homage’ to Bram Fischer, Mandela’s defence lawyer and a prominent anti-apartheid activist, and Lionel Burger, the ‘Fischer’ figure, looms over the book as a lofty presence. However, the real story, as the title suggests, is about Lionel’s daughter, Rosa. It is a fascinating premise: how does it feel to have grown up in a family obsessed with activism, to be left with a legacy that is impossible to live up to?
 
The narrative dips in and out of first person, and this is mirrored in the interplay between personal and political concerns in the novel. Gordimer uses language with beauty and  precision – I haven’t read anything by her for a while, and I had forgotten just how good she is.  I particularly loved the almost dream-like passages of the time Rosa spends in a small, rundown tin cottage with her not-quite lover, Conrad, such as this one describing re-reading letters:
           
I read them again and again, their script appeared in everything I seemed to be looking at, pupils of yellow egg yolk slipping separate from whites of eyes cracked against the bowl, faint quarterings of tabby ancestry vestigial on the belly of the black cat, the slow alphabetical dissolve from identity to identity, changing one letter at a time through the spelling of names in the telephone directory.”
 
Rosa’s search for an identity which isn’t wholly contingent on her father’s legacy takes her abroad and back again, in and out of the South Africa Gordimer writes about so well. Highly recommended.
 
Also check out Tessa Hadley reading and talking about Gordimer’s excellent short story, ‘City Lovers’:
 
 
Small Island by Andrea Levy (2004)
 
Quite a few people have suggested this novel to me, and having read it, I can see why. Interweaving the stories of four characters, the English Queenie and Bernard, and the Jamaican Hortense and Gilbert, the novel’s main plot is set in England in 1948. However, in the sections labelled ‘Before,’ Levy manages to elevate the characters’ backstories to a more prominent position even than the ‘main’ events. Each character has a highly distinctive voice, my particular favourite being Gilbert, whose experiences in the country he has come to defend are wonderfully tragi-comic. I was also very impressed with how Levy deals with the racism of characters such as Bernard: it is a real skill to write about attitudes we now find repugnant without making the reader turn against the character who holds those opinions.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman (2001)

I am ashamed to admit that this is the first work by Gaiman that I have read, but it won’t be the last. American Gods is one of the most imaginative novels I have read in a long time, with a cast of fantastical, mythical, and yet somehow utterly believable characters and a road trip plot that revels in the epic scale of the States. Only the final section involving Shadow’s (was there ever a greater name for a protagonist?) ‘vigil’ lost my attention a little; other than that I was fully immersed in the crazily inventive world that Gaiman has created. What should I read next of his?
 
 
Two in a Boat by Gwyneth Lewis (2005)
 
Time for a little bit of non-fiction, because variety is the spice and all that. Subtitled ‘A Marital Rite of Passage,’ this book unflinchingly depicts a marriage at close quarters, as Lewis and her husband Leighton decide to take to the seas and attempt to cross the Atlantic. Spoiler alert: everything does not go to plan.
 
The nautical terminology got a bit much for me at some points, but in fairness to Lewis, she does make an effort to explain it all in layman’s terms, and most people who pick up this book probably have more of an interest in boats than I do (not difficult). And as a poet, Lewis can certainly paint a picture with words; there are some gorgeously visual descriptions. The book ends with the couple finding themselves on quite a different journey than the one they were (sort of) prepared for – a tragic twist that helps to make sense of what has gone before.






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March 2011 Reading: The Road, Birthday Stories, Child of God, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Bright Lights, Big City, Jesus’ Son

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
I’ll admit, I’ve had this book for a while, and have been putting off reading it.  The thing is, I’m pretty squeamish, and I have a hyper-active imagination: watching a horror film can result in a week of no sleep.  And I had been warned that The Road wasn’t exactly full of fluffy kittens and rainbows.  That’s not to say I don’t like my books a bit ‘dark’ – I was just slightly concerned that it might be too gory for me.
Fortunately, the slow-burning terror of The Road relies less on guts and gore and more on the poetic, terrible beauty of McCarthy’s language:
“Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”
McCarthy’s description of a post-apocalyptic landscape is all black ash and charred trees, relentlessly colourless: it is a world where the ecosystem has been all but destroyed.  It cheapens the novel to refer to it as a ‘global warming warning’; we never find out what has caused this destruction – it isn’t necessary.  The emphasis isn’t on the cause, but on what the chilling reality of nature turned barren means for the humans in the novel.  In this, McCarthy’s vision seems terrifyingly accurate – his indictment of human behaviour is all too convincing.  However, amid all the doom and gloom, of which there is a lot, there is an element of hope.  The central relationship, between the nameless father and son, lifts the story out of despair and adds a seam of redemption to the bleak setting.
McCarthy’s sparse punctuation, doing away with speechmarks and apostrophes: “dont”,“cant”, and his truncated, often verbless, sentences allow his words to resonate in an elemental way.  There is a startling authority to the narrative which really makes you believe that this could actually happen.  It’s a book that cannot fail to make you think.  As the father says to his son in the novel:
“Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever.”
The Road is definitely one of those things.
Birthday Stories – Selected and Introduced by Haruki Murakami (2004)
One of the things I liked most about this collection of short stories is the brief insight into Murakami’s personality offered by his introduction.  As a recent convert (see February’s reviews), I’m delighted that the man behind the novels seems just as bizarre and baffling as his characters.  He has compiled an anthology of stories about birthdays, basically because he read a couple of stories on the theme, and thought, hey, there must be more.  And there are.  So here they are.  Each author is carefully introduced by Murakami in his own, inimitable style: “his work is not for everybody”, “[his stories] can seem somewhat contrived”, “I myself was fortunate enough to meet her […] and found her to be slim and elegant”.
The stories themselves are well-chosen and varied, and include writers that I have been meaning to check out for a while, such as David Foster Wallace and Denis Johnson (see below for a review of Johnson’s Jesus’ Son).  The ‘birthday’ theme doesn’t overwhelm the anthology, as the stories are of a high enough quality to avoid mawkish sentiment on the subject.  It also includes a short version of Raymond Carver’s story ‘A Small, Good Thing’ called ‘The Bath’: Carver’s editor notoriously pruned his work, much to the writer’s displeasure – hence Carver’s later publication of ‘restored’ versions of his stories.  Murakami being Murakami, he has chosen the first version because it “has its own special flavour […] as if it has had its head lopped off for no reason.”  At a later moment, when I’m feeling extra-geeky, I’ll compare the two properly.  Among the other writers included are William Trevor, Andrea Lee, Paul Theroux, and of course, Murakami himself (rude not to).
All in all, this is a solid collection of stories, and would make a good, if slightly gimmicky, present for literary types on their special day.  Which was probably exactly what canny Murakami was thinking.Child of God by Cormac McCarthy (1973)

Even though The Road wasn’t exactly a ‘feet up with a mug of tea’ read, I was left in awe of McCarthy’s prose style and narrative mastery.  I also highly rated No Country for Old Men (I’ve only seen the film – has anyone read the book?) so I thought I’d check out an earlier work of his.
Child of God is both more violent and more humorous than The Road, although the humour is wrapped up in some deeply disturbing events.  The story of Lester Ballard, a social outcast in a country community in East Tennessee, the book flicks between a third person narration which sticks close to Lester as the plot unfolds and an unnamed first person commentator with a strong Southern accent, who offers us nuggets of information about Ballard’s history:
“I don’t know.  They say he never was right after his daddy killed hisself.” 
Describing Ballard as not ‘right’ is something of an understatement.  As the novel progresses and Ballard retreats further from normal society, his acts of violence and depravity become more and more shocking.  It’s not entirely surprising to learn that the book caused some outrage when it was first published, but it is a testament to McCarthy’s skill as prose stylist that the descriptions of Ballard’s acts, though disturbing in the extreme, never feel gratuitous.  The occasional glimpses of humanity in Lester, such as when he chases, laughing, after a flock of birds, pose the same dilemma as the title of the novel: can this man, for whom the phrase ‘a danger to society’ might have been invented, really be considered a ‘child of God?’.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
This is actually a re-read – I enjoyed both this and his previous novel, Everything Is Illuminated, when they first came out, but it was time for a revisit.  Foer is one of those writers I almost love, but have to keep going back to in order to figure out just what is missing for me.  In Foer’s case, it’s hard to identify, as he uses such a dazzling array of narrative tricks and modernist flourishes that it’s easy to get a little blind-sighted.  This novel is full of ‘special effects’, from photos to coloured scribblings to blank pages, all of which teeter dangerously on the ‘pretentious’ precipice.
Dealing with the tricky subject of 9/11, Foer makes a seemingly wise move in having a child as the main narrator.  Oskar’s father was killed in the attacks, and the novel charts his attempts to come to terms with his father’s death through embarking on a kind of ‘treasure hunt’ to track down the lock which matches a key left by his dad.  Oskar is nine years old.  Supposedly.  And here is one of the problems: Oskar is an often hilarious, sometimes endearing, mostly very odd character, but he is in no way convincing as a nine year old.  Sometimes Foer just about gets away with it, such as this reported conversation with a cab driver to whom he owes $76.50:
           
“I said, “Mr Mahaltra, are you an optimist or a pessimist?” He said, “What?”  I said, “Because unfortunately I only have seven dollars and sixty-eight cents.”
but all too often, his precociousness just sounds like the author intruding with another witty gem he just can’t resist.
Another issue, which I also found with Everything Is Illuminated, is that the narrative that runs parallel to the main story just doesn’t interest me as much.  The complex relationship between Oskar’s grandparents, with all its melodrama and historical tragedy, failed to engage me.
For all of these perceived flaws (which are only a matter of personal opinion) I do admire Foer’s virtuoso use of language, his humour, and his daring.  I would love to see him write a simple, pared-down narrative, but it would probably bore the pants of him.  He has a new novel coming out this year – if anyone has read it, let me know.
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney (1984)

I mentioned Bright Lights, Big City when reviewing Then We Came to the End (February Reading) as both novels use unusual points of view.  In the case of McInerney’s narrative, the entire story is in the second person: ‘you’. The novel begins:
“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.  But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar to you, although the details are fuzzy.”
From here on, the reader is plunged into the self-destructive world of the protagonist, all the while addressed as ‘you’.  This is a risky move, but one that has resulted in his novel becoming the seminal example of such a narrative.  (Which means, really, that no one else should try it, because it’s been done.)  It does indeed work well – once the strangeness has worn off, it has the effect not of trying to implicate the reader or suggest that ‘you’ yourself are actually the protagonist, but rather of providing a communal bond with the protagonist, a bit like when ‘you’ is used to mean ‘one’ in general, such as when I review a book and write “as the novel progresses, you find yourself beginning to really care about the characters”.
McInerney is careful not to allow this neat little trick to detract from other aspects of the novel.  The supporting cast of characters are colourful and well drawn, especially at the magazine where the protagonist works in the Department of Factual Verification.  In fact, some of these sections reminded me of Then We Came to the End, depicting office life with the same kind of humorous despair.
The novel also presents the various vices of the protagonist without glamourising or demonising.  ‘You’ take drugs, drink too much, indulge in the excesses of the era, but Bright Lights, Big City never becomes a cautionary tale about addiction.  It is about a self-indulgent man who has had some hard times and needs to grow up, to figure out how to live:
“Your head is pounding with voices of confession and revelation.  You followed the rails of white powder across the mirror in pursuit of a point of convergence where everything was cross-referenced according to a master code.”
Bright Lights, Big City paints a convincing portrait of a young man “all messed up and nowhere to go” in eighties Manhattan; it’s a short, snappy, snazzy book that still feels fresh.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992)
There’s a kind of pleasing symmetry to reading this as my last ‘March’ book – in some ways, Johnson’s work combines the bleak, blank violence of McCarthy’s work and the drug-hazy derailment of McInerney’s novel.  In addition, Johnson’ story ‘Dundun’ was one of the Birthday Stories chosen by Murakami (see above) and contains one of the best sections of dialogue I’ve read recently:
“McInnes isn’t feeling too good today.  I just shot him.”
“You mean killed him?”
“I didn’t mean to.”
“Is he really dead?”
“No.  He’s sitting down.”
“But he’s alive.”
“Oh, sure he’s alive.”
The only minor flaw in this harmonious aligning of the literary planets is that the edition I bought off Amazon is by a German publisher.  Luckily, the stories themselves are in English (heavily glossed – I can now tell you the German for “subterranean”, “to squish”, “yank someone off” and  “f*ck with someone’s high” if you’re interested – although the doubtless insightful mini-essay at the back of the book remains beyond my capabilities).
The stories in Jesus’ Son are all told by the same narrator, though they aren’t entirely sequential, and read just as well individually.  Like McCarthy, Johnson’s prose is lean and precise, and occasionally quite beautiful, despite the grim underbelly of life that he depicts.  The world of drugs and addiction here has nothing of the veneer of respectability it maintains in McInerney’s novel.  There’s a film, made in 2000, which I’d like to watch, although I can imagine I’d have to cover my eyes at a couple of points.  As I said at the start, I’m pretty squeamish, and there’s a guy with a knife in his eye in one story.