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

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

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

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.

Continue reading Preliminary thoughts on A Little Life

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

Continue reading A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

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

Continue reading The Green Road by Anne Enright