Fever, infatuation, and Colonel Chabert

I’ve been re-reading Your Face Tomorrow, in which Jacques Deza spends several months separated from his wife, Luisa. He is in London while she remains in Madrid, in their apartment, with their children, and he thinks about her every day. This, naturally, includes imagining what she might be doing without him—and with whom.

Toward the beginning of the first book, Fever, he considers:

And yet, illogically, I believe that Luisa will not take this new love or lover back to the apartment where she lives with our children or into our bed which is now hers alone, but that she will meet him almost secretly, as if respect for my still recent memory imposed this on her or implored it of her—a whisper, a fever, a scratch—as if she were a widow and I a dead man deserving to be mourned and who cannot be replaced to quickly, not yet, my love, wait, wait, your hour has not yet come, don’t spoil it for me, give me time and give him time too, the dead man whose time no longer advances, give him time to fade, let him change into a ghost before you take his place and dismiss his flesh, let him be changed into nothing, wait until there is no trace of his smell on the sheets or on my body, let it be as if what was had never happened.

marias javier infatuationsThis idea wasn’t one I’d remembered from my first reading of Your Face Tomorrow, and I believe I’ve already found one more allusion to it in the first volume. But I’ve seen Marías work it up into a whole novel: The Infatuations.

That novel also involves a woman named Luisa, and this Luisa is indeed a widow. The narrator is curious about the death of her husband, and becomes involved with Luisa and with a family friend named Díaz-Varela. The narrator’s death investigation is a significant part of the novel, but The Infatuations is also preoccupied with the fact of the dramatic changes triggered by a sudden, unexpected, and violent death.

The death’s effect on Luisa is the main thing, and there are conversations both real and imagined about what will happen to her. Will she see anyone romantically again, and if so, how long will it take? Will she kill herself? Will she ever “get over” her husband’s murder? And so forth. The main thing is, what effect will time have on her?

Díaz-Varela is sure that she will marry again, after an appropriate period of mourning. He describes how she will change over the next few years, first becoming used to the idea “I’ve been widowed” or “I’m a widow,” until, one day

“…she won’t be, and will say instead, ‘I lost my first husband, and he’s moving further away from me all the time. It’s such a long time since I saw him, whereas this other man is here by my side and is always by my side. I call him “husband” too, which is odd. But he has taken the other husband’s place in my bed and by virtue of that juxtaposition is gradually blurring and erasing him. A little more each day, a little more each night.'”

It is “odd,” but there it is, time can change “husband” from one man to another. As Luisa’s dead husband said in a conversation imagined by the narrator, “That is the awful power of the present, which crushes the past more easily as the past recedes, and falsifies it too without the past getting a chance to speak, protest, contradict or refute anything.”

Díaz-Varela explains to the narrator that he recently read a book, Balzac’s Colonel Chabert, “which agrees with me as regards Luisa, as regards what will happen to hear in the fullness of time.” A few years ago, when I read The Infatuations, I read this too. It’s about a French soldier in Napoleon’s army who is counted among the dead at the Battle of Eylau but is, in fact, saved. By the time he makes it back to Paris, his wife—his widow—has already married another man, and the last thing she wants is the return of a ghost who threatens her social position. Colonel Chabert struggles with his impossible existence, wishing he’d lost his memory along with everything else.

J’ai été enterré sous des morts, mais mantenant je suis enterré sous des vivants, sous des actes, sous des faits, sous la société tout entière, qui veut me faire rentrer sous terre!

I was buried under the dead, but now I am buried under the living, under contracts, under facts, under all of society, which wants to put me back underground!

The awful power of the present is such that it cannot readmit this figure from the past, and Colonel Chabert may have been better off dead.

“It’s what we want that we see, not what is

So a couple weeks ago I noted on Twitter that I was excited about reading some new fiction. I was probably around 50 pages into Lydia Millet’s Sweet Lamb of Heaven at that point, and I did what I often do when I’m excited about a new(ish) book: I looked for what other people were writing about it.*

It was an interview by Lily Meyer at Electric Literature that really caught my eye. Asked how she went about writing a novel “about language,” she says:

I wanted a reliable narrator, and really, my bailiwick in the past has been the flawed narrator. But here, because I had these outlandish conceits, I needed someone authoritative. She’s arch, she’s intelligent, but she’s pretty straight, and I needed that foil to play against ideas about the divine and the supernatural. You can’t really have a narrator who seems overtly untrustworthy, which is the kind of narrator that’s easier for me. But I wanted to have her be believable. I didn’t want the reader wondering whether she was just a kook. It wouldn’t have served my ideological or narrative purposes, and I think it’s sort of boring. I’m a little jaded about the Am I crazy thing that you see in a lot of horror movies. I tried to dispense with that, to say, This isn’t a story about unreliability.

millet lydia sweet lamb heavenI wondered whether Millet was messing with the interviewer at this point.** A narrator doesn’t have to be overtly untrustworthy to be unreliable, or to seem so to the reader. And I had definitely questioned the narrator of Sweet Lamb of Heaven.

Something about the book would be useful here. Anna, our narrator, is keeping a sort of diary or document of her experiences since an unplanned pregnancy led to the birth of her daughter, virtually ignored by her now-unfaithful husband. From the time Lena is a newborn, Anna hears a voice when she is nearby. She searches for explanations of the voice, and after some research (she does not tell any medical professionals what’s happening) she concludes that she is not insane but experiencing auditory hallucinations.

That’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, but by page 15 Anna is pointing out potential flaws with the theory. At this point, it’s a realistic novel: assuming Anna is hallucinating, whether she’s sane or not, the voice is the only thing out of the ordinary. Her husband, Ned, may be cold to her and the baby, but he hasn’t done anything. It seems to be written purposely to teeter between two possibilities, the one on the surface, where Anna has righteously left a bad man and taken her child, and the one where Anna is unbalanced and is kidnapping Lena. Again, early in the novel, Anna recounts the time they’d been hiding out on the Appalachian Trail, saw helicopters and decided to flee:

And I knew we’d been right to run when the cook, who had become a friend, called me. She said four men had come, two from each direction since the trail stretched out on either side of the cabin. They converged on it fifteen minutes after we’d left. They weren’t dressed for hiking: their shoes were shiny leather ruined by mud. So she told them only that we’d left the day before, and after some unhappy muttering and some prowling around the grounds and questioning of other guests, the four men went away.

This is the kind of evidence Anna has of Ned’s ultracreepiness—circumstantial. It all could be straightforwardly just as she says. But those could have been cops, FBI agents or whatever, chasing after a kidnapper rather than Ned’s henchmen—a word Anna later repeats to herself, “a comical word I’d never thought I’d have a use for.”

After fleeing the leather-shod men in the mountains, Anna and Lena end up spending the off-season at a motel in a sleepy town in Maine, giving us, as Laura Miller writes in Slate, “the skeleton—and no small amount of the flesh—of a Stephen King novel.” For a while it’s just them and the motel owner, but then a young woman named Kay arrives. Eventually the place is overrun with affluent men and women of all ages who, Anna will come to find out, have also heard the voice.

This throws her for a huge loop. Ned heard the voice once—a point that severely undermined her hallucination explanation—but this is much worse. (And how realistic is the novel now?) They develop a sort of support group to discuss the voice, and what they think it might be or mean. Kay has more ideas about that than the others.

“It exists in most things that live. It’s language, or the innate capacity for language, is a better way to put it. You could say it’s the language of sentience.”

“Trees don’t have language. Trees don’t have opinions,” objected Navid, kicking the floor with his toes.

Kay looked up at him. It was a different look from those she usually gave him, I realized. It was sympathy.

“It’s not that we’re the only ones who have it, or hear it, or are it,” she went on, so quiet that I had to strain to hear. “What’s different about us, different from how it is with the other animals and even the plants—what happened with Lena and Anna and in my case with Infant Vasquez? What’s different is that we’re the only ones it leaves.”

Kay’s argument is bolstered by Anna’s inclusion of one of many excerpts from Wikipedia, in this case from the entry on communication:

Communication is observed within the plant organism, i.e. within plant cells and between plant cells, between plants of the same or related species, and between plants and non-plant organisms, especially in the root zone … plant roots communicate with rhizome bacteria, fungi and insects in the soil. These interactions … are possible because of the decentralized “nervous system” of plants.

It’s fine to say that plants “talk to” bacteria in the soil to describe what’s going on when they exchange chemical and electrical signals, but I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to think this is about more than just a colorful way of describing such banal interactions. But I’m not at all sure what that more is, an it just ends up seeming like a childish misreading of the Wikipedia article. When Anna on the next page laments her inferiority compared to Kay, is that because she’s sane and Kay is perceptive, or because she’s depressed and afraid and doesn’t realize Kay is a total flake? (And there is evidence Kay is not well—Anna herself accepts that Kay is “mentally ill.”)

There might be a clue in an extended excerpt from a Huffington Post blog post by Peter Russell on the nature of consciousness.

But wait. That blog post is from June 9, 2011, and was updated on August 9, 2011. But Millet sources her excerpt to Peter Russell in HuffPo in December 2013. There’s also this post, under a different byline (Peter Baksa), published October 3, 2011 and updated December 3, 2011. And it’s just about word-for-word the same thing. Peter Baksa seems to have a book about The Secret; here are his and Russell’s Twitter feeds.

I’d be inclined to call this stuff “flaky” regardless, but even if you’re into The Secret, there’s something fishy going on with those identical blog posts. Did Millet know about them? (Did Anna?) (And was I really meant to take seriously a passage of research on the nature of consciousness pasted in from HuffPo? Is that really a straight, non-kooky narrator—or the research skill of a professor?) (And where is the version from 2013? It’s definitely not on Russell’s author page.)

Soon there is another Wikipedia excerpt, from an entry on panpsychism:

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, the view that mind or soul (Greek: ψυχη) is a universal feature of all things, and the primordial feature from which all others are derived.

But that’s not what Wikipedia actually says. It’s not what Wikipedia has said at any point in 2016, as the excerpt is dated:

In philosophy, panpsychism is the view that consciousness, mind or soul (psyche) is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Panpsychists see themselves as minds in a world of minds.

Panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories, and has been ascribed to philosophers like Thales, Plato, Spinoza, Leibniz and William James. Panpsychism can also be seen in ancient philosophies such as Stoicism, Vedanta and Mahayana Buddhism. During the 19th century, panpsychism was the default theory in philosophy of mind, but it saw a decline during the middle years of the 20th century with the rise of logical positivism.[1] The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has once again made panpsychism a widespread theory.

Now, I don’t think those differences are significant in terms of meaning, but…what is up with that?!? (And yes, she even changed “psyche” to Greek letters.)

The next excerpt is from the entry on endangered languages—except that it’s not. Phrases like “now happening at a breakneck pace” should be a tipoff; Wikipedia is not supposed to sound like that. It’s much clunkier. Next a single sentence from the language isolate page is misquoted. Then the programming language entry.

Was I supposed to notice this? Was I supposed to check? I didn’t check everything, and I don’t really see a rhyme or reason to the choices—except that they do all sound much better in Millet’s version.

So there is a big hole in my reading of the novel. A few of the reviews I read suggested that I may be a poor reader of Sweet Lamb of Heaven due to my almost complete lack of experience with the horror genre. But I might also say that the following description of how horror works, from Miller, is a significant reason I dislike it. She describes Millet’s novel as having

a sturdy narrative engine whose momentum, however familiar it may feel, proves irresistible. It propels the reader toward the expected apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil. But Millet’s fiction inhabits a different moral universe from King’s. In his novels, the nature of evil goes largely unquestioned; what concerns King is the task of summoning the courage to confront it. Sweet Lamb of Heaven uses the same epic devices to put forth a new idea of horror.

I think it’s that lack of explanation of the confrontation between good and evil that makes horror seem a bit empty to me. But this novel seemed mostly empty too; I’m not sure about that “new idea of horror.” Ned seemed pretty meaningless—where does he come from, after all? Where does the “legion” of other horrors come from, and why?

I do think there is something there, even though the novel really suffered for me as I got toward the end. The idea that there’s one voice out there, and you can only hear whatever part of it you can hear, is interesting, as are Anna’s musings on loneliness. I’d been all set to write about how I often found Millet’s endings hollow, or at least unable to deliver on the promise of her premises, but when I looked at some of the weaknesses in this case—namely, the lameness of Anna’s reliance on these Wikipedia texts and her seeming descent into fear and flakiness the longer she is embedded in the hotel (or, better, the longer she’s cut off from society)—I found that they were a whole new anomaly. Perhaps one that should spark a paradigm shift in my reading of the novel? If so, I am not yet sure what it would be.

*I was going to link to them all for you, but now I can just send you to LitHub.

**Meyer also says she asked herself, “When’s the last time I read a novel this explicitly pro-choice? And I don’t know!” I’m not really sure what this is referring to; I don’t recall anyone getting an abortion or even considering one, and the events of the novel are touched off when the narrator chooses to carry a child to term despite earlier plans not to have children, at least at the moment.

Rebecca Solnit Doesn’t Explain Lolita to Anyone

Rebecca Solnit writes in The Lit Hub that she’s gotten what she considers ill-founded pushback on an essay she wrote in response to Esquire’s list of “The 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read,” specifically with regard to Lolita: “some of the men out there respond on the grounds that my opinion is wrong, while theirs is right because they are convinced that their opinion is a fact, while mine is a delusion.”

In my experience very few people, even among cultural and moral relativists, actually espouse a view from nowhere in most of their daily life, pretending essentially that they have no preferences or personality. And Solnit herself does not do so here: instead she falls into the unfortunate position of holding the strong opinion that it’s wrong for other people to hold strong opinions.

The essay irked me when I first read it on December 17, the day it was published, but it irks me even more that I’m drawn to write rebuttals of things that seem so ultimately boring. Over the next few days, I seemed to see more organizations sharing the essay, though, praising it as…well, I’m not sure. Because what’s really here?

The 2,900-word essay takes more than 1,100 words to mention Lolita, and by my count less than 400 words are (generously) about the novel. There are about another 500 that could be fairly characterized as comparing other books to Lolita. Gamergate and pickup artists get more than half as much space as Lolita itself. Most of the essay is devoted to theorizing about empathy and the emotional state of people (men) who made negative comments about her previous Lit Hub essay.

(The Lolita essay includes only four links throughout: one to her previous Lit Hub essay on 80 books no woman should read, one to a story in The Atlantic on college students and microaggressions, one to a 1988 essay by Arthur C. Danto, and one to an essay about “women’s stories being discounted and discredited. There were no links to anything written by anyone who disagreed with her. She does not even clearly say that this essay is a counter to responses to her essay on the Esquire list; perhaps all the criticisms she is talking about are in the comments to that, but she never says.)

So what does she have to say about Lolita? That should, of course, be the interesting question. There are two main points: that men say it’s wrong to “identify with” a character, and she says they’re wrong about that (she doesn’t explain whether it’s correct, necessary, okay, one possible thing to do, etc.); and that it’s a book about “a white man serially raping a child over a period of years.” At no point does she explain what that is supposed to mean.

It’s just when you identify with Lolita you’re clarifying that this is a book about a white man serially raping a child over a period of years. Should you read Lolita and strenuously avoid noticing that this is the plot and these are the characters? Should the narrative have no relationship to your own experience?

If the answer to both of those questions is “no,” then what? What does that mean about Lolita and why it shouldn’t be on a list of books men should read?

Challenged by one man with the idea that Lolita is an allegory, she responds: “It is, and it’s also a novel about a big old guy violating a spindly child over and over and over. Then she weeps.” What does that mean? There is not much hope of finding out. All she really said about Lolita in the first essay was that it was a “masterpiece of Humbert Humbert’s failure of empathy,” which makes me wonder if she forgot about the frame.

The other issue is the one of “identification,” and whether it’s—what? acceptable? necessary? To support that, Solnit draws on the “currently popular argument that books help us feel empathy, but” notes that “if they do so they do it by helping us imagine that we are people we are not.” But does that theory really do the work Solnit needs it to?

The idea is that by reading a novel with characters who are different from you, and learning about how they might think and feel and be in the world, you will empathize with them better. But Solnit seems to take that to mean that you will sympathize with them more. It doesn’t occur to her that empathy could breed anything else, but of course not all understanding brings people closer together. Sometimes understanding someone better clarifies how different you really are. I have frequently felt more alienated by reading novels with characters who are truly different from me; their stories prove we are far apart.

And that really goes to the heart of it: Solnit makes a lot of unsupported claims about what empathy does, about what it means for novels to induce it, about how readers and critics react (“no one gets told they’re wrong for identifying with Gilgamesh or even Elizabeth Bennett”), and most of all around what automatically happens to someone’s epistemology because they, for apparently the first time, needed to develop a theory of other minds.

Curiously, she seems to undermine most of her point about Lolita itself:

You can read Nabokov’s relationship to his character in many ways. Vera Nabokov, the author’s wife, wrote, “I wish, though, somebody would notice the tender description of the child, her pathetic dependence on monstrous HH, and her heartrending courage all along…”

This would suggest that there is not only a possible reading generally in line with the way Solnit thinks of the world, but that in fact it was there all along, intended by the author or at least discussed with his wife, who was well known as a major influence on his work. Perhaps, in fact, the whole point of Lolita (or at least a point of it, and an important one) is Solnit’s reading—so why on earth is she pissed that Esquire thinks people should read it? Why not, instead, talk up how valuable it would be for men to read it and identify with Lo?

Because that wouldn’t be playing a team sport, I guess.

A commenter on that original piece complaining about Esquire seems perceptive:

I disagree — I think the books named for the “80 Books No Woman Should Ever Read” list should be on an “80 Books Every Woman Should Read and Talk With Men About”. I initially agreed with the article, and then I went to Esquire list to see what other absurd tidbits I could pick up from it. But Esquire’s point about For Whom the Bell Tolls (a book I disliked) says men should read it not for the guns or drinking or sex but for “A lesson in manhood: Even when you’re damned, you press on.”

And that made me realize something: I didn’t get that from the book at all, but many men probably did. Whereas I saw dumb machismo, they saw perseverance and purity of purpose. I’d be interested to hear why intelligent men think Hemingway embodies manliness– is it the penis thing? Or is there something more profound that doesn’t occur to me because I’m coming at it from a different perspective? What is it about penis-gun-death that is so appealing to some people but so ugly to others?

Intelligent and curious women should read these books because we are fascinated about a perspective that is alien to us, and because, for whatever reason, many men we share this earth with DO love these books and see something valuable in them. Let’s ask what it is. Let’s start a conversation. Let’s really absorb and try to understand perspectives that repel us, rather than giving them a label that allows us to dismiss them.

The constant psychopathologizing is, let’s say, just not to my taste. Passages like this seem so obviously hypocritical that it’s hard to see how others found the essay:

Saying this upset some men. Many among that curious gender are easy to upset, and when they are upset they don’t know it (see: privelobliviousness). They just think you’re wrong and sometimes also evil.

If the entire piece isn’t about how her interlocutors are wrong and sometimes also evil, I don’t know what it is about.

Because I have no idea what Solnit thinks of Lolita and why. Perhaps if she herself had a clearer opinion on the book, she would understand better when others defend theirs like they actually believe in them.

Purity is very probably worth re-reading

Franzen Jonathan PurityI initially became a fan of Jonathan Franzen before The Corrections was out in paperback. After disappointment in Freedom, however, I hadn’t been in much of a rush to read Purity. It was a terrible nonreview—inane clickbait that made no reference to a single line from a single Franzen novel—that finally pushed me to do so.

It is the usual Franzen fare. Its frequently described as simply “domestic fiction,” but I see Franzen’s work more along the lines of Sam Tanenhaus’s “naturalistic story of domestic strife and estrangement (and sexual combat) within the larger workings of a ‘paranoid’ conspiracy.” Caleb Crain in The Atlantic emphasizes the relationships more, and how they are all engineered to drive one character or another toward what is called in The Twenty-Seventh City “the State,” that is, one of paranoia.

Most of the relationships in Purity are permanent. Not “lasting”—permanent. Some of these are romantic; others are parental. Motherhood in particular plays a prominent role in the novel.

The novel opens with a conversation between the title character and her mother. This dialogue seems to be most frequently discussed in the context of judging Pip’s line about “moral hazard” cute-funny or annoying-unfunny, but that small joke is actually just the first time the novel takes up the issue of loving someone who harms you because you have no other option psychologically.

Pip’s mother cannot stop loving her, no matter what Pip does: as her mother, she is simply stuck. And Pip has the same problem. Another character has it even worse: Andreas feels constantly manipulated by his mother, and lays out the problem several times, including at the beginning of the first section he narrates:

An accident of brain development stacked the deck against children: the mother had three or four years to fuck with your head before your hippocampus began recording lasting memories. You’d been talking to your mom ever since you were one year old and listening to her for even longer, but you couldn’t remember a single word of what you or she had said before your hippocampus kicked into gear. Your consciousness opened its little eyes for the first time and discovered that you were headlong in love with your mom.

Andreas stayed in love with his mom, no matter what she did, no matter how much he would have preferred to hate her—or be indifferent. His love is deep and physical and there can be no escape from it but death.

Pip doesn’t feel so oppressed by the situation, and late in the novel, when a newfound relative suggests to her that she should be angry with her mother for effectively abusing her, she mostly shrugs the idea away. There’s no question of her even really punishing her mother for anything, let alone ending their relationship.

Tom Aberant has another such relationship with his mother. He spends several years neglecting her—which basically amounts to treating her like an average person, about whom he’s not as crazy as he is about his new bride—but there’s no question he’ll be with her at the end of her life. And she, in her turn, even returns at that time to her childhood home, which she ran away from some 50 years before.

The nuclear family, a favorite of Franzen, is center stage in Purity, and certainly the many passages about nuclear disarmament—probably Pip’s only real “issue” politically—are a comment on it. “Fusion chain reactions were natural, the source of a sun’s energy, but fissile chain reactions weren’t,” muses Leila in the section she narrates. And, like parental-filial relationships, marital ones are also nearly impossible to destroy in Purity.

Take Anabel and Tom. They can’t even manage to extricate themselves after a divorce, and spend the rest of their lives obsessed with each other and their past together. Her existence follows him everywhere. In East Berlin, Tom “abandons” Andreas Wolf to return to his already highly problematic wife. Leila will always know that he loves Anabel more somehow. Leila, of course, herself will never leave her husband Charles (though he did leave his first wife, for her).

There is one prominent example of something different: the “New Testament relationship” of Leila and Tom.

Her life with Tom was strange and ill-defined and permanently temporary but therefore all the more a life of true love, because it was freely chosen every day, every hour. It reminded her of a distinction she’d learned as a child in Sunday school. Their marriages had been Old Testament, hers a matter of honoring her covenant with Charles, Tom’s a matter of fearing Anabel’s wrath and judgment. In the New Testament, the only things that mattered were love and free will.

Tom and Leila seem to be the ones to be admired; they are admired very much by Pip. She sees a healthy relationship and inserts herself as their surrogate daughter. But their lifestyle has its downsides. Tom and Leila do not have a perfect life, where they agree on everything like magic, so that constant choosing is, well, real:

She was remembering the old desolation and feeling it again now, the conviction that love was impossible, that however deeply they buried their conflict it would never go away. The problem with a life freely chosen every day, a New Testament life, was that it could end at any moment.

That’s not something most of Purity‘s characters have to face. Whether Leila is better off for it actually seems unclear to me. Sure, Pip admires her and Tom—but isn’t Pip kind of a dope in a lot of ways? The purity-obsessed Anabel may go on about Pip’s wonderful moral sense, but there’s clearly an element of maternal blindness to it just because Pip’s moral sense is anything but pure—should we side with her on this? After all, Leila is insecure even if it does all work out.

Most telling, to my mind, is Pip’s exchange with Cynthia, Tom’s older half-sister who tells Pip that she should be angry with her parents for not revealing themselves—especially with her mother, who kept the secret for much longer and who, effectively, had Pip as part of a long-term revenge plan against her ex. But Pip isn’t interested in holding her mother accountable for choosing to bring her up in such a self-serving way; she is instead happy to have been used.

Her mother had needed to give love and receive it. This was why she’d had Pip. Was that so monstrous? Wasn’t it more like miraculously resourceful?

The final scene was one of the most curious for me. Pip and her boyfriend are in a car outside the shack where a horrific argument is going on between Tom and Anabel.

The people who’d bequeathed a broken world to her were shouting at each other viciously. Jason sighed and took her hand. She held it tightly. It had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn’t sure she would. Only when the skies opened again, the rain from the immense dark western ocean pounding on the car roof, the sound of love drowning out the other sound, did she believe that she might.

For now, at least, Pip and Jason are in a New Testament relationship—but will that last? Is it, in fact, the New Testament relationship that will overcome Tom and Anabel’s hideously permanent one? Or is it just sex winning out over screaming at each other? Or is it, perhaps, the choice to be a mother, however fraught that is, redeeming the “broken world” “bequeathed” to Pip by her own parents (that one seems like a stretch)?

I have never been quite sure what I think Franzen is getting at, other than saying “it’s really complicated.” But Purity was impressive enough, and effective enough, that I’m starting to think he’s worth re-reading. Maybe from the beginning.

Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize Short List

The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize is set to be announced tomorrow, so on Saturday, the women of the shadow jury so kindly organized by Frances (including Bellezza, Rebecca, and Teresa) all discussed our top choices for the list.

I didn’t manage to read all the books on the longlist in time, and I didn’t have a personal list of six I thought were worth giving an award to. I did feel that way about A Brief History of Seven Killings, though, and Satin Island. I had two other weaker choices as well. In an alchemical process of consensus-seeking, these are the titles we ended up choosing for the group’s shortlist:

  • Did You Ever Have a Family? by Bill Clegg
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
  • Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
  • Lila by Marilynne Robinson
  • Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy
  • The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

My guess for the real shortlist is different—for one thing, I am certain A Little Life will be on it. Incidentally, I’ve read a bit more of that, and it continues to be just awful. But I’m also pretty certain it will win the Booker outright.

On Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

I read Satin Island long before it was added to this year’s Man Booker Prize longlist. It was the only longlisted book I’d previously read, and at the time I thought it was the best novel of the year. I still think so. I haven’t had a chance to really write about it—naturally, blogging about books this good is more difficult than complaining about Anne Enright—but I wanted to cover a passage that especially caught my attention when I was flipping through the book again a few days ago.

It’s from the first chapter, section 1.5. Satin Island has fairly traditional-seeming chapters, but it’s actually written in sections similar to a philosophical treatise—or perhaps an essay, report, confession, or manifesto? The narrator, U, is at an airport in Turin, and this section introduces one of the most important elements of the story, insofar as there is one.

Around me and my screen, more screens: of other laptops, mobiles, televisions. These last screens had tickers scrolling across them, text whose subjects included the air delay in which I was caught up. Behind the tickers, news footage was running. One screen showed highlights of a football game. Another showed the aftermath of a marketplace truck bombing somewhere in the Middle East, the type of scene you always see in this kind of report: hysterical, blood-spattered people running about screaming. One of these people, a man who looked straight at the camera as he ran towards it, wore a T-shirt that showed Snoopy lounging on his kennel’s roof, the word Perfection hovering in the air above him. Then the scene gave over to an oil spill that had happened somewhere in the world that morning, or the night before: aerial shots of a stricken offshore platform around which a large, dark waterflower was blooming; white-feathered sea birds, filmed from both air and ground, milling around on pristine, snowy shorelines, unaware of the black tide inching its way towards them; and, villain of the piece, shot by an underwater robot, a broken pipe gushing its endless load into the ocean.

mccarthy tom satin islandFirst, I find McCarthy does a rare thing: writes realistically about immediately contemporary technology affecting daily life. I’m fine with novels that prefer to ignore the ubiquity of mobile phones, but it’s certainly interesting to me the extent to which McCarthy nails the experience of all those screens—in an airport especially.

From one perspective, U is multitasking just like any 21st-century business traveler. His eyes are on multiple screens; he’s following multiple storylines. And if the perspective is reversed, we see that each individual story happening around the world has a whole screen devoted to telling it. We’re each living our own singular life, and meanwhile we’re all keeping at least half an eye on dozens of other, just as singular, lives.

The man in the Snoopy T-shirt has also stuck with me for many months. I want to think for a minute about what McCarthy does here. U is watching a screen showing a specific thing: a specific truck bombing in a specific place. But McCarthy describes it generically—as something that everyone knows. You know, a Middle Eastern marketplace bombing. But then he goes for the novelistic detail that will make it real and immediate: the man running toward the camera in an American T-shirt. Which, itself, is completely generic—you’ve seen that too, whether it was Snoopy, Mickey Mouse, or the Chicago Bulls.

The oil spill is described in basically the same way, and the tension between the generic and the specific will follow U throughout the novel. It makes sense, as it’s also exactly what U’s task is. He’s an anthropologist whose whole purpose is to create general narratives based on his observation and study of specific events. Which is, oh yeah, a lot like writing a novel!

This is the fifth in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

With The Moor’s Account, I not only tackled another Man Booker–longlisted title as part of the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Panel project, but I also finally got around to reading Laila Lalami, who’s been at least vaguely on my list to try for about ten years now.

lalami laila moors accountThe Moor’s Account is a frustrating sort of novel for me. I enjoyed reading it. I don’t have much to complain about. But I didn’t pull out a single Post-It flag to mark a single passage in over 300 pages. It’s good historical fiction. The premise in particular is good: Lalami has imagined the story of what was perhaps the first black man to explore North America, a Moroccan slave own by a Castilian nobleman who brought him on an ill-starred journey halfway around the world.

Estebanico, né Mustafa, is the narrator of The Moor’s Account, and he indicates clearly from the outset that he has decided to write his own story, “to correct details of the history that was compiled by my companions, the three Castilian gentlemen known by the names of Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and especially Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who delivered their testimony, what they called the Joint Report, to the Audiencia of Santo Domingo.” Admittedly, Mustafa’s corrections aren’t necessarily the final truth: “Because I have written this narrative long after the events I recount took place, I have had to rely entirely on my memory. It is possible therefore that the distances I cite might be confused or that the dates I give might be inexact, but these are minor errors that are to be expected from such a relation.”

Thus begins a story whose teller is always clearly a storyteller, thinking explicitly about his own stories and those of other people, about how stories affect listeners, and about how history is created. In fact, about how stories are created at all, and what his own role can and should be in the real story of his life.

The journey Mustafa makes with his Castilian companions—including the three who live but also the hundreds who die along the way—consists of a series of typically small joys and large misfortunes forming a loose trail from Florida to Mexico, and from a historical perspective is great fun. For much of the novel, Mustafa’s story alternates chapters between the story of the American journey and the story of his time before. As he recounts the armada’s landing at Florida, he tells the story of his own birth just outside Azemmur, and the history of Morocco is similarly fascinating.

If there’s anything tiresome in The Moor’s Account, it’s Mustafa’s continual insistence on greed as the root of all evil—at least, of all his problems—sometimes it seems a bit strained. And while the meandering among the Indians doesn’t follow exactly predictable lines, most of it does feel familiar, and this reader found no surprises at all from the time the explorers once again found Europeans until just about the end of the novel. The wrap-up was a bit fast and neat without being totally believable—though of course anything could have happened after Mustafa stopped telling the story, I suppose.

While The Moor’s Account didn’t have half the staleness of Anne Enright’s The Green Road, it also didn’t have half the life of Marlon James’s Brief History of Seven Killings.

This is the fourth in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.

The Hare by César Aira

aira cesar hareIs it particularly difficult to write about César Aira, or am I just out of practice?

Either way, I’ve been having an exceptionally hard time composing a post on The Hare. But it’s August 31, officially the last day of a Spanish(-Language) Literature Month that was graciously extended by a whole second month, and I need to do it.

My last post on Aira, on his miracle cures, was not so positive. But The Hare is magnificent. Its plot is superficially similar to that of An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter: a Romantically educated European goes to South America and wants to see Indians. In this case, the main character is Clarke, a naturalist and geographer, and instead of painting the Indians, he wants to talk to them.

Specifically, he wants to talk to them about the Legibrerian Hare, a leporid that’s very shy, but when it does come out, it can fly. The reality of the Legibrerian Hare—and pretty much everything else in the Huilliche world—is hazy. The picaresque journey Clarke will go on in search of the hare, or the other things he’s seeking, will teach him the ultimate lesson of life for the Huilliche and Voroga, the two warring tribes whose story he’s invaded:

Clarke had never perceived so clearly the need for the novelesque in life: it was the only truly useful thing, precisely because it lent weight to the uselessness of everything.

Clarke’s whole life is later determined to be the “kind of thing [that] only happens in novels…but then, novels only happen in reality.”

There’s a lot of good absurdist stuff in here for me, but also a lot of good normal stuff. Clarke makes a young friend and they talk and have adventures. He experiences growth by confiding in others and exploring the world. People fall in love and find their lost loves and find their lost relations—you know, just like happens in any good novel.

Early in the novel, one of the Indians tells an anecdote about their leader. He ends it with a joke: “And also, to be truly spontaneous, one would have to say ‘spontaniety,’ wouldn’t one?” The narrator notes carefully:

The joke was different in Huilliche, of course, which was the language they were speaking in. But it survives the translation.

Does it? One can only wonder. After all, “[b]ooks should never be adapted. As a reader, you start thinking of all the changes they must have made, and you don’t enjoy the book.” And not only is most of the book not actually written in Huilliche, even though pretty much all the dialogue is spoken in Huilliche, but I also of course read an English translation from the Spanish. What was I saying, again? Something about the absurdity in trying to understand what anyone is really saying?

After all, The Hare is a novel, and novels are a pack of lies.

Preliminary thoughts on A Little Life

If you’ve read very much about Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, over the past few months, there’s a good chance you’ve read about how she really didn’t take to editing. The stories seem proud of this—Yanagihara’s editor thought maybe there was too much difficult material in the book, but she wanted to let her readers have it. And look how successful it’s proved! In your face, editor!

I have no opinion on the matter of the allegedly difficult material, because I haven’t gotten to any of it yet. But I have gotten to a lot of material that’s making it a difficult read for me. None of those stories I mentioned above said anything about Yanagihara taking issue with copyediting, but I don’t know what else to think. Pretty much the only passages I have marked in the novel are flagged for clunkiness, general weirdness, or worse. Some examples:

“[T]hey asked for the bill so they could study it and divide it to the dollar.”

It seems to me this is trying to sound extreme, what with the studying, but then dividing it to the dollar doesn’t seem like much of anything at all. What else would they do, divide it to the nearest $10? The bill for a single dish in a dive restaurant?

On Lispenard Street: “Willem was new enough to the city—he had only lived there a year—to have never heard of the street, which was barely more than an alley, two blocks long and one block south of Canal, and yet JB, who had grown up in Brooklyn, hadn’t heard of it either.”

So, in fact, both Willem and JB are new enough never to have heard of it, because you could live there your whole life and never have heard of it. “And yet” is not the conjunction you were looking for there.

“Willem was liked by everyone and never wanted to make people feel intentionally uncomfortable….”

Intentionally Uncomfortable would be a really good band name.

“(something that, even then, he had only the slightest of interest in)”

I just can’t read “slightest of interest” without my blood pressure going up. Mostly because why? This isn’t expressive of anything, except unprofessionalism. If this is all an artistic statement about the voice of people my own age, in my own socioeconomic class, well, I don’t know what to say other than that I don’t want to read it.

But I don’t think it is that anyway.

The following two quotes appear within two Kindle pageturns of each other:

“[H]e wondered whether they [his mother, grandmother, and aunts] might be condescending to him, or just crazy. Or maybe they had bad taste. How could four women’s judgment differ so profoundly from everyone else’s? Surely the odds of theirs being the correct opinion were not good.

“There’s my brilliant boy,” Yvette would call out whenever he walked into the house.

It had never had to occur to him that she was anything but completely correct.

Now, this could be a radically unreliable form of narration—with free indirect style fluid enough to land on each of several main characters and end up seeming like a genuinely almost-omniscient third person…who then forgot what he told you a minute ago.

But there also isn’t much of anything to make me think it really is that, either. And is that a reason why the narrator would say it “wasn’t so unusual, really” for Willem to wake up alone, and a few short lines later, “[b]ut Jude was always there”? Perhaps that’s just meant to indicate Jude is a sort of background character. Not that he really seems like that.

“Jude was wearing a bright navy sweater that JB could never figure out belonged to him or to Willem….”

See, the reason I said above that I just don’t want to read this is that it clunks. I don’t believe this is the voice of my generation. I believe my generation can hear that clunk. But then I remember this is on the Man Booker long list, which is why I’m reading it.

Add to all this a tendency to have pronouns without actual antecedents that’s just irksome, and my apparently complete inability to put away my mental red pen, and I can’t get anywhere near involved enough in the narrative to actually think much of anything about that, except a general echoing of Lydia Kiesling’s essay in The Millions on the novel. But I share the incredulity some readers seem to have about the big story, even about little bits of the story. If I don’t find the interaction Willem and Jude have with a real estate broker believable, what am I going to think about the abuse later on?

I just don’t know the answer to that question. But I do think an answer is going to have to wait, because there are a lot of novels on this long list and I need to give some others a chance that this one, honestly, might never have with me.

But please, do tell me if you think these are artistic choices. I’m kind of torturing myself over it.

This is the third in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Brethren, you can’t write no book ’bout this. Make me get this straight. You writing book ’bout the Singer, the gangs, the peace treaty. A book on the posses? You know, each one of those is a whole book. What you going write about anyway?

James Marlon Brief History Seven KillingsIt’s a good thing Marlon James doesn’t believe his character, Tristan Phillips, on the limits of the form. A Brief History of Seven Killings is among the better examples of polyphony I’ve read, and James writes an impressive number of limited first-person narrators with significantly and genuinely different voices and dialects, nevermind styles. Not only is it immediately clear which of the dozenish characters available is narrating a chapter, it’s just as clear when one of those characters changes her identity multiple times that it’s still her.

James uses the form to great effect, the plot coming together as each narrator adds a bit of information to the story. One of the narrators, Alex Pierce, is an American journalist who visits Jamaica in the 1970s, hoping to cover the Singer—Bob Marley, that is, who goes almost-unnamed throughout the novel. Eventually, Pierce will uncover a completely different mystery, which just happens to be the mystery of A Brief History of Seven Kilings itself, one in which Bob Marley plays a small yet pervasive role—again, pretty much like he does in A Brief History of Seven Killings itself.

The depth of characterization and strength of the voices cannot be overstated. The mystery is exciting and unraveled excitingly, but the greater pleasure of the novel is simply in listening to Nina Burgess’s thoughts, and Josey Wales’s, and Pierce’s too. Too many to name. James fits them together painstakingly, weaving them around each other to create just the right amount of tension, sadness, and joy.

This is the second in a series of posts on the Shadow (Wo)Man Booker Prize. Four friends and I are reading this year’s Man Booker long list ahead of the short list announcement.