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

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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.

The 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

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The Hare by César Aira

Is 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

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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.

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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?

It’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

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The Green Road by Anne Enright

This is the first 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 young man who wants to be a priest grows up to be a closeted gay man in 1990s New York, friends and lovers dying all around him of AIDS-related illneses. His sister waits for a mammogram and thinks of her children, her husband, her girlfriends, her mother, and how none of them appreciates her. Their brother is an aid worker in Africa, struggling with his white girlfriend-of-convenience over the dog she wants to keep as a pet but which offends their Muslim staff. Their other sister is a depressed new mother hiding her burgeoning alcoholism from her baby’s father.

And then their mother manipulates them all into going home for Christmas, one last time.

This is a perfectly good example of the genre, but I have read this book before. It’s hard to say what particular interest The Green Road has. There’s nothing really wrong with Anne Enright’s novel, though unoriginality could be considered a failing. It’s perfectly well written; there is competence and a sufficient amount of style to the voice. But the writing isn’t special. The setting isn’t special, the characters aren’t particularly special, and its purpose is unclear. Perhaps it is meant to be a novel of the Irish family living through the millennial boom—but that seems a thin thread to hang the whole book on considering how little of it is really spent contemplating rising real estate prices. Enright spends more energy musing on how fat everyone has become since the 80s, strangely not as a symbol of the American-money-fication of Ireland.

And the economic concerns start to feel tacked on

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“The operational tool came from the field of publishing.”

In An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, genre is understood as a means to represent the world. Rugendas’s genre is “the physiognomy of nature,” and he believes that if he follows a set of formal rules, his landscape paintings will become accurate representations of the world he observes.

There’s no painting in The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira, and it may appear at first glance that there’s no art. But attentive readers may remember there is a performance at the end of the novella—and that it’s meant to construct a representation of reality.

The plot of the novella…well, to be honest I am no longer certain. I read Miracle Cures several weeks ago, and I didn’t care for it—unlike An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter before it or The Hare after it. It seems charming enough, and I believe it’s just a quirk of personal distaste. But the plot’s not all that important, because what’s important is what Dr. Aira thinks is happening, and that’s this: he knows the “miracle cure,” the panacea that can save any life, and he’s finally been induced to use it for the first time, after years of theorizing and mockery.

The miracle cure is quite simple. If, in this world, X is going to die, then the miracle “X lives” is excluded by reality. But what if it weren’t? What if, instead, Dr. Aira rounded up every fact about the universe—alles, was der Fall ist, as it were—and then excluded the ones that excluded X’s living?

Just as Dr. Aira’s theories are getting really out there, (not-Dr.) Aira lays this on us:

[I]t was a titanic task, for the listing of the facts was merely the qualifying round before carrying out the operation itself: the selection of

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How the light gets in

“I could see this book working for you. Ignore the hideous blurbs.” It doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement, but coming from Tom, a tip like that can get a book to my house, into my hands, and finished* within five days of ever hearing of it. And thus did Nicole read Kathleen Founds’s debut novel (don’t listen to the descriptions [or hideous blurbs] that say it’s a short story collection!), When Mystical Creaures Attack!

“I bought it because it has a recipe for Broccomole Dip. But I think you would enjoy it for other reasons,” he went on to say. Well, yes. (I’m a little concerned about whether he actually ate the broccomole dip.) And what’s not to enjoy? First, we have a Leonard Cohen quote for an epigraph. And then, the first chapter: essays written by a class of schoolchildren to the prompt, “Write a one-page story in which your favorite mystical creature resolves the greatest sociopolitical problem of our time.”

If the prompt itself sounds ridiculous, imagine the treatment it gets from a class full of—is it high school seniors? Could be juniors. But this is more than just silliness. How many things are established in this first “chapter”?

The cast of characters The major themes, of interpersonal harms, forgiveness, love, hate, and longing for death/happiness The possibility that the English teacher is not quite right The English teacher’s overwhelming concern with major sociopolitical problems The way her concern with said problems plays out as the themes mentioned above A good idea of the structure of the novel, which is a polyphonic narrative that could be very loosely described as epistolary, and includes all sorts of documents

Pretty good for a journaling prompt, no?

Those documents include writing assignments, actual letters, emails, second-person narrations, short

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“[Y]ou will forgive me if I do not take your tale for something whole”

I ended my last post on The Luminaries lamenting the way a cascade of seemingly small details shook my faith in the novel. To be more precise, it shook my willing suspension of disbelief, and that’s a real problem.

Aside from what I’ve already discussed, it left me confused about how to regard certain characters and events. Walter Moody, the original focus of the action—he inserts himself accidentally into a meeting of a dozen men who eventually let him in on their mystery—plays a familiar role. More Hercule Poirot than Peter Wimsey, Moody presides over the group. And as they are beginning to think they are putting things together, he puts them off:

“I am wondering whether I trust Mr. Lauderback’s intentions, in referencing the name of that goldfield so casually to Mr. Balfour this morning.”

“What do you mean by that, Mr. Moody?”

“Don’t you trust him—Lauderback, I mean?”

“It would be most irrational if I mistrusted Mr. Lauderback,” Moody said, “seeing as I have never met the man in my life. I am very conscious of the fact that the pertinent facts of this tale are being relayed to me second-hand—and, in some cases, third-hand. Take the mention of the Dunstan goldfield, for example. Francis Carver apparently mentioned the name of that field to Mr. Lauderback, who in turn narrated that encounter to Mr. Balfour, who in turn relayed that conversation to me, tonight! You will all agree that I would be a fool to take Mr. Balfour’s words to be true.”

But Moody had misjudged his audience, in questioning so sensitive a subject as the truth. There was an explosion of indignation around the room.

“What—you don’t trust a man to tell his own story?”

Surely a man as intelligent as Walter Moody has a better way

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“[A]n enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat”

Yesterday, I said I had broader problems with The Luminaries than just some historical inaccuracies and sloppy writing. My problems are of two basic types, explained concisely in David Sexton’s London Evening Standard review (nominated for the Hatchet Job of the Year Award, but not, according to the kind David Hebblethwaite, as good as my own hatchet job):

The prose style is annoying, a pastiche of the omniscient narrator, a confident “we”, a device used successfully by some great 19th-century novelists but which now seems an intolerable affectation.

Catton never shows, she tells, wagging on in the most officious way. She has a particularly dismaying habit of telling us what the characteristics of every personage are, before then making them conform to them, a sure-fire way of killing any curiosity.

At least, if you add to the “intolerable affectation,” the fact that Catton doesn’t actually do this well (see yesterday’s post—and yes, this is important; I’ll get into why).

Most of the reviews I’d read of The Luminaries didn’t actually say very much. The novel was a “Gothic cathedral,” something about a tail beating you over the head, lots of images like that—but no detail, and no explanation. Presumably, at least some reviews wanted to avoid spoilers in a piece on what is ostensibly a mystery story, but it was just the sort of thing to keep me wondering, indefinitely, whether there was any there there or not.

But since Hebblethwaite is usually such a reliable source, I thought I ought to seek out his own review, well worth reading in its entirety. I agree with every point. Not believing in astrology, I simply don’t care about that conceit, but I agree that it “set[s] up some of the novel’s main subtexts.” It’s just that, I

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