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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Shining a different sort of light on The Luminaries

I have Real Things I want to write about. Serious things. Mostly involving the centenary of the Great War, and how my greatest intention for the year is to completely kick the ass of that never-actually-done project, not to mention re-reading Parade’s End. The first four chapters, by the way, are so good I’m almost afraid to keep going. I may end up in an infinite loop of reading Some Do Not and watching the first episode of the miniseries, over and over again, before I even get to the second volume. (what do you want, when they case the most beautiful man in the world to play the role of the best man in the world?)

But since I just can’t seem to struggle out of my alternating sense of awe and retreat into Dorothy Sayers mysteries in order to write something halfway worth reading, I thought I’d dip a toe into the water with something much easier: a hatchet job. Oooh, I’m rubbing my hands together already!

The victim, this time around, is Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries—that’s right, it’s last year’s Man Booker Prize winner, and the subject of my most recent Read This Then That column (hint: the Wilkie Collins is way better). As I read this doorstopper—and I read it voraciously, too, I should add, because it’s that kind of book—I found myself marking here, there, and everywhere, the kind of thing that makes me ask: “Was this copy edited? And, if so, who should lose their job?”

I’ll ignore completely the narrator’s propensity to tell rather than show as a matter of taste (and part and parcel of the faux-Victorian package). I’ll ignore the fact I’m skeptical of that faux-Victorian package to begin with, because problems only arise if it isn’t skillfully done

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“[B]eing productive in a low-level manner,” or, thoughts on Taipei

I’ve never had a very long list of living authors I liked well enough to reliably read their books on publication. Even Haruki Murakami, faithful as I was to him since high school, has fallen by the wayside, an unread copy of 1Q84 on my shelf. These days, it seems, Tao Lin is the only such writer left.

I never expected to like Lin’s work; when Shoplifting from American Apparel first came to my attention I assumed it was all annoying hipster gimmick that might be fun to make fun of. I believe I was wrong about that, but two novels later, the Lin-hate can seem almost reflexive.

Lydia Kiesling’s review of Taipei in The Millions, for example, makes clear her total revulsion at Lin’s writing right in the lede:

When I began to read Taipei on my morning commute, I wondered if I had been lobotomized in the night. On the way back home, I wondered why someone who hates words would take the trouble to arrange so many of them in a row. The following morning, I wondered, Why does he hate me?, the way people wonder about playground bullies, or terrorists. Why does he inflict upon me his “framework-y somethingness,” his “soil-y area,” “the salad-y remains of his burrito”? Why does he take away my joy?

This was Kiesling’s first experience with Lin, and she did not like it. After a brief summary of some of the hipster-annoyingness in the novel, she gets down to business: she hates Lin’s style. Which is good for me, because it’s what I love.

I say this novelist hates words, because the novel reads as though it were the result of strict parameters imposed by a perverse contest, or the edict of some nihilist philosophy, to use as few interesting

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Last Friends by Jane Gardam

In the June issue of Open Letters Monthly, I review Last Friends, the third of Jane Gardam’s Filth novels.