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“
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
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
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.
Continue reading Preliminary thoughts on A Little Life
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
Continue reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
“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
Continue reading How the light gets in
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
Continue reading “[B]eing productive in a low-level manner,” or, thoughts on Taipei
As much as I always love New Directions, it’s rare for me to actually read three of their titles in a row, as happened quite by chance with Robinson, Alphabetical Africa, and Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry. Though I’d call B.S. Johnson’s novel the most avant-garde in the bunch, Abish is no stylistic slouch, and Alphabetical Africa is, say, the most Oulipian.
The formal conceit of the novel is that the first chapter contains only words beginning in ‘a’, the second only words beginning in ‘a’ or ‘b’, and so n, until the middle of the book, when all words are available, and then, chapter-by-chapter, begin disappearing from its lexicon in the reverse of the order they entered it (FILO, for the geeks out there).
Even for those willing to accept the premise that one can write a reasonable novel omitting the more common letter in the language (c.f., Georges Perec, La Disparition), this probably seems like it must inevitably seem nonnaturalistic and extremely formal. There’s no doubt that Alphabetical Africa isn’t a typical novel, but it is a novel—it distinctly tells a story, and fairly clearly—and the strategies Abish uses to fulfill his constraints are varied and successful. It opens thus:
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement…anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation. Albert argumentatively answers at another apartment. Answers: ants are Ameisen. Are ants Ameisen?
“Ameisen” is the German for “ants.” While far from natural speech, this is also impressively well put together considering the words all start with one letter,
Continue reading Alphabetical Africa by Walter Abish
The Tournament of Books kicked off this week with a preliminary round featuring three books about the Iraq War. You’ve probably seen this list dozens of times by now so forgive me for noting once more, they are The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, Fobbit, by David Abrams, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.
I have yet to read the first of these books, and at this point the likelihood of my doing so is pretty low, but before completely burning out on the subject mentally (because, of course, I’ve written hardly anything on it—primarily this discussion) I wanted to respond to the selection of Billy Lynn as the round’s winner (and, less specifically, as the winner of the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction).
Billy Lynn seems to be a general favorite among the three books, and in many ways I can see why. Billy himself is a likeable protagonist. His fellow soldiers are fun, and their relationships genuine if not untroubled. These kids are real; they have been through the real shit; and they are going to keep it real at the positive madhouse that is a Dallas Cowboys Thanksgiving Day game.
US army officer and writer Nathan Bradley writes at the ToB that he “want[s] to know what the ‘road meat’ thought, what they felt and feared when, limbs still attached, eyes still bright, they were deployed to a country gone unhinged and blood-crazed. Neither Fobbit nor The Yellow Birds does so.” Billy Lynn certainly does, and if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not a bad place to start. But I’ve been left for a while wondering what exactly Fountain’s novel offers beyond this. The end of the novel, which is supposed to offer some kind of
Continue reading War vs. war
Ava Bigtree is the undeniable star of Karen Russell’s 2011 novel Swamplandia!, and with good reason. She narrates at least half of the book, and her painful move toward acceptance of her mother’s death is clearly its centerpiece theme. But Swamplandia! is also a novel very much concerned with work. As a sort of veil of feminine mystery is lowered over Swamplandia! itself and Kiwi literally disappears from its realm, he seems to drop under the surface of the novel as well despite the fact that his story takes up the other half of its pages. And Kiwi is the biggest nexus between the novel and work.
Ava Bigtree’s older brother Kiwi never loved Swamplandia! and the cult of the Bigtrees the way she did; he wished they lived on the mainland so he could go to a real school and then college and have a good, white-collar job—not dress up as fake Native Americans to impress dopey tourists. And now that their mother has died, their grandfather has been sent to an assisted living facility, and their father has clearly abdicated all attempts at keeping a normal life going for the children, Kiwi emigrates.
On the mainland, he goes to work for The World of Darkness, the grotesque theme park that has ruined Swamplandia!’s business and attracts seemingly even more grotesque tourists. As an immigrant, he realizes that he doesn’t speak the language of his fellow employees, who quickly take to calling him “Margaret” because of his geeky social ineptitude. He is quick to find out that his SAT-word flashcards are not doing him any good in this environment, and he does his best to blend in, though he is constantly messing up. Just as Ava is back home re-learning how to live without their mother, Kiwi is doing
Continue reading Kiwi Bigtree, immigrant