My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

If I had expected Eileen to be like Hot Milk, it was I Am Lucy Barton that actually reminded me of the Deborah Levy novel, and how. The title character and narrator is positively in thrall to her mother, though in this case it’s not exactly a lifelong condition.

Lucy Barton is in the middle of spending nine weeks in the hospital due to an appendectomy and its complications, and her husband has invited her mother to spend some time with her there—even though they haven’t seen each other in years. So Lucy, depressed and lonely and missing her family, is suddenly confronted with her mother again, and is thrilled to be talking to her. She’s thrilled to hear all of her mother’s stories from home, gossip about family and neighbors. She constantly tries to please her, unpredictably takes offense at innocuous statements, and ends up literally begging for her love. There’s no word for it but pathetic. And clingy, childish, needy…

Unlike Hot Milk, and like Eileen, I Am Lucy Barton is narrated by an older version of the main character. But the older Lucy Barton doesn’t poke the same holes in her young self. She’s a more serious-minded person than Eileen. And Lucy’s dysfunctional childhood of poverty and abuse leads her to an utterly conventional adulthood. Married with two young children at the time she’s in the hospital, she phones her daughters, desperately repeating that she loves them—in obvious contrast to what she hears from her own mother on this score. The same neediness drives both conversations.

Unlike Eileen‘s narration, which is never really explained, that in Lucy Barton is: Lucy Barton is, throughout the novel, herself a novelist, and she describes at various points in the book her relationship with author Sarah Payne. She first meets

Continue reading My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is the story of a 24-year-old woman who lives with her alcoholic father, a retired police officer, works by day as a clerk in a prison for boys, and doesn’t do much else. She went to college, but during her second year her mother got sick and she came home to care for her until her death. Ever since then, she’s been stuck in her childhood home, obsessing over her bodily functions, reading National Geographic magazine, and driving around with the windows down in a beat-up old car whose exhaust backs up.

When Frances wrote briefly about Eileen, she also blogged about Hot Milk, noting that she “loved [the latter] for some of the same reasons,” so I went into Eileen expecting to see similarities. There are some, of course, but a huge difference stood out: the narrator. While Hot Milk is narrated by Sofia in real time, Eileen is narrated by Eileen as an old woman.

So while there are some definite parallels between the characters of Sofia and Eileen in their 20s, those characters are treated very differently by their respective narrators. Sofia has no different perspective as a narrator than as a character. Eileen, though, judges her young self in all sorts of ways as she describes the events of her 25th Christmas. Eileen the narrator also presents her judgments of many of the other characters in the novel, describing both how she felt and what she thought about them at the time as well as her assessment now, decades older and wiser.

Her assessment of herself is critical, but not overly so. She gives herself a pass on many things, generally reasonably. But mostly she’s willing to laugh at her young self, or at least willing to see that self’s problems as small,

Continue reading Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Hystopia by David Means

David Means’s Hystopia is an alternate history where John F. Kennedy wasn’t assassinated in 1963 and went on instead to seek a third term as president—and where Eugene Allen, a young Vietnam veteran with Stiller’s disease, commits suicide after completing the final draft of his novel, Hystopia.

Eugene Allen’s Hystopia is also an alternate history. In Allen’s novel, unlike in the “real” world of Means’s novel, there exists a drug called Tripizoid—a drug whose effects are not fully understood.

In Inner Hystopia‘s world, that’s what makes Trip a “drug”—Wendy, a nurse, specifies at one point that in her work she gave people “medications,” which were different entirely. Drug status isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this world, though: remember, it was Richard Nixon who started the War on Drugs, declared drug abuse “Public Enemy No. 1,” and implemented the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, and Nixon has never been president in either Inner or Outer Hystopia. Tripizoid is in wide use as part of a psychiatric treatment called “enfolding.”

People in this world are able to “enfold” a past trauma—along with an entire Causal Events Package leading up to that trauma, which might consist of almost their entire lives—by reenacting it under the influence of Tripizoid. Think Vietnam veterans taking part in staged battles across the state of Michigan, tripping balls, and afterward remembering none of it. Ignorance is bliss.

But there are also “failed enfolds,” and one such is Rake, who kidnaps a young woman named Meg—also enfolded, though not a veteran—and takes her on a killing spree, eventually depositing her with a war buddy who has secretly enfolded himself behind Rake’s back. This man, Hank, helps eventually free Meg (and himself) from Rake. Meanwhile, Singleton, a member of the Psych Corps, is having

Continue reading Hystopia by David Means

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

I’m the first to admit that I’m not the best reader of Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk. As each of the several positive reviews I read noted, it’s about a deeply neurotic mother-daughter relationship, which Sarah Lyall insists in the New York Times is known to “[a]nyone who has been a mother or a daughter.” But the “toxic dance of power, guilt, competitiveness, dependency and resentment” she describes is not, in fact, part of my experience of the world.

But why should that be a problem—I should be able to understand all this anyway via the empathetic magic of the novel, right? Well, let’s see.

Hot Milk is narrated by Sofia Papastergiadis, a woman in her midtwenties who has dropped out of a PhD program in anthropology and works as a barista, sleeping weeknights in a storeroom and spending weekends at her mother’s. At the opening of the novel, she is in Almería, Spain, also with her mother, who has mortgaged her home in London to pay for treatment at a private clinic there run by a Dr Gómez.

From the very first page, it seems clear that Sofia’s mother is driving her crazy.

Will I still be here in a month? I don’t know. It depends on my sick mother, who is sleeping under a mosquito net in the next room. She will wake up and shout, ‘Get me water, Sofia,’ and I will get her water and it will always be the wrong sort of water. I am not sure what water means any more but I will get her water as I understand it: from a bottle in the fridge, from a bottle that is not in the fridge, from the kettle in which the water has been boiled and left to cool.

As Sofia explains

Continue reading Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

“People whose consciences torment them are the exception”

[W]hy did she do that, they will say of you, why so much fuss and why the quickening pulse, why the trembling, why the somersaulting heart; and of me they will say: why did he speak or not speak, why did he wait so long and so faithfully, why that dizziness, those doubts, that torment, why did he take those particular steps and why so many? And of us both they will say: why all that conflict and struggle, why did they fight instead of just looking and staying still, why were they unable to meet or to go on seeing each other, and why so much sleep, so many dreams, and why that scratch, my fever, my word, your pain, and all those doubts, all that torment?

This passage appears at the end of the first chapter of Book II, Spear, and is repeated in full four more times by the end of Book VII, Farewell, with slight variations in the sequence at the end (extending as far as “why that scratch, my pain, my word, your fever, the dance, and all those doubts, all that torment”). Its last sentence (“why all that conflict and struggle…”) is repeated an additional time on its own.

Repetition is not exactly unusual in Your Face Tomorrow*; Deza relies on it to make himself more clear, to orient the reader (and perhaps even himself) in his own stream of consciousness, to remind the reader (and, again, maybe himself as well) of the connections between things he’s heard and seen and thought before and what he’s hearing or seeing or thinking now, and as a way to triangulate toward a more precise conveyance of meaning. And, of course, the repetition hammers home the importance of the repeated idea.

And note what is

Continue reading “People whose consciences torment them are the exception”

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.

This 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

Continue reading Fever, infatuation, and Colonel Chabert

“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.

I 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

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

Purity is very probably worth re-reading

I 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

Continue reading Purity is very probably worth re-reading

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

Continue reading On Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

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

Continue reading The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami