Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘contemporary lit’

Today at Necessary Fiction, I review a short story collection by Canadian writer Derek Hayes – The Maladjusted.

As a collection, these stories ask the reader to consider a person’s awkward ways and unacceptable behaviors—from the aging immigrant working as an aide in a public school classroom to an otherwise “normal” young man obsessed with his girlfriend’s facial hair. Obsession is a key word for the cadre of voices and personalities in The Maladjusted, obsession and self-esteem, as each of these people overthink and worry themselves about both small and big issues of daily life. There is definitely charm in this fixation, a revelation of the quirks that make us human. At the same time, Hayes makes it clear, in “Maybe You Should Get Back Here,” or “A Wonderful Holiday,” that his characters suffer for their anxieties, and that people often turn away from their graceless behaviors to judge or pity them.

You can read the entire review here.

I have to say that one of my favorite aspects of reviewing for Necessary Fiction is getting to be one of the first people to write about a piece of début fiction, especially a work that comes from an independent press. I know that many of these novels and story collections – and there are so many published each year – will never really get talked about as much as they should. If we want to think of literature as an ocean, then the big publishing houses are like continents and the smaller, independent presses more like islands of all shapes and sizes. All of us readers are just plying around in our boats, looking for a place to moor up for a night, a few days, a lifetime.

One of the little islands out there in that vast ocean of literature is a small press called Engine Books. In March they are publishing a short novel called Echolocation by a woman named Myfanwy Collins. I had the pleasure of reading this book a few weeks ago and reviewed it this week at Necessary Fiction.

Here are the first three paragraphs from my review:

Animals like bats and dolphins echolocate because it is an effective tool for navigation in a low-visibility environment, in darkness or troubled water, for example. In the simplest terms, to echolocate is to shout two simple questions, “Where are you? Where am I?” and then wait for an answer. The answer comes as an altered repetition of the original question. So echolocation can be understood in terms of intensities and transformations of sound. But it is also a process that cannot achieve its completion alone. Echolocation implies a relationship between two objects. It is about wanting to know where things are in relationship to the self. Used as a metaphor, as Myfanwy Collins has cleverly done by choosing this word as the title of her novel, echolocation conjures up an image: a shouting out into the darkness, a careful listening for the transformed return of that first offered sound. This idea contains both action and stillness, both hope and potential failure.

There are three women in Echolocation, women who have found themselves living in a kind of darkness. First is Geneva, who has returned to care for the foster mother who raised her. Geneva’s darkness has taken her by surprise, the result of a series of traumas, of physical and emotional separations. She eventually invites Cheri, her pseudo-sister, to help her, and when their Auntie Marie passes, to share what remains of their childhood home. Cheri’s darkness is of a more psychic variety, self-imposed, self-defeating. Finally, Cheri’s mother, Renee, is heading toward these two after years of absence, carrying the weight of her past as well as a new burden.

The book moves forward as these three women attempt to re-situate themselves, both geographically, in the sense of their return to an earlier home, but also psychologically. The “Where am I? Where are you?” is also a “Who am I? Who are you?” In this sense, Geneva, Cheri and Renee are engaging in a kind of spiritual echolocation—with respect to each other as well as the obstacles in their path.

Read the full review here.

My review makes it clear that I loved this book. It was beautifully written and the story is unique. It was also a book that asked me to think about the nature of violence and how a person can come to believe in a “rational violence.” I’m intrigued by that – it’s a thought that makes me uncomfortable, and yet it seems very human at the same time.

 

 

 

 

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I have more to say about Michel Houellebecq’s La Carte et le Territoire, but I’m switching gears today because I finished Franzen’s Freedom last night. It isn’t really my style to trash a novel completely, and Freedom doesn’t actually deserve that, for various reasons that would be a little boring to go into in detail, but I do feel like spending too much time writing about Freedom might actually be a little more than it deserves.

I’ll try to be succinct.

And fair.

Essentially, my frustration with Freedom is two-fold. First, I am strongly averse to novels which attempt – however clever the writing, however clear and thorough the character analysis – to base an entire fictional universe on what is essentially facile psychology. Not a single person in Freedom did anything unexpected, or behaved in any way which wasn’t already signaled by Franzen in the first few paragraphs of their fictional existence and which was then explained away by Franzen through pop psychology drivel, or, excuse me, ideas.

And second, well, frankly, the book made me feel like I was watching a witty reality TV show. Here are the Berglunds airing their difficult marriage for the entire world to see and comment on. And don’t we all feel so much more superior for not behaving like them? Aren’t they all such sad little creatures? And we can feel sympathetic; we can, but not too much, because really it is all their fault, and the fault of that superficial beast of American culture. I mean, come on, can’t we write incisively, meaningfully, about America without mimicking such a problematic form?

I suppose if I had to, I could come up with something nice to say about this book. But those two reactions trump any praise I might have. Franzen is a good writer, and Freedom is nearly an enjoyable read. But I didn’t find anything really clever in Franzen’s project.

In fairness, I think reading Freedom after finishing Houellebecq might have contributed to the violence of my reaction. The two writers are doing something very similar in their novels. Both are a little manic in their attempt to document contemporary culture, both are cynical toward that society (although their cynicism takes vastly different forms), and both are interested in explaining contemporary neuroses. But where Houellebecq’s metafictional experiment plays with form and content, and therefore implicating the reader which brings his social critique full circle in an ingenuous way, Franzen just seemed to recycle pop culture and superficial psychology.

Did I just go ahead and trash the novel? Okay, yeah, pretty much. Well, maybe in a few days I’ll come back with something more balanced…

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Finished a good book over the weekend – Christopher Torockio’s Floating Holidays. This book came out in 2007 from Black Lawrence Press, a small publisher with an interesting and diverse catalogue.

Before I begin praising this book, which is ultimately what I would like to do, I have to mention one thing that I found nearly unforgiveable. The handful of typos were annoying but I could ignore them, a minor printing issue I could forgive because I’m sure Black Lawrence were just as dismayed when they got the books back from the printer, but in one scene a doctor gives a line of such bad information I nearly shut the book and called Torockio myself to complain. He has a doctor tell a pregnant woman that some internal bleeding early on in her pregnancy could cause complications….like Down Syndrome. Um, that’s a genetic disorder and nothing but a mutation on a certain chromosome will cause it. Not only did it surprise me beyond belief that someone in this day and age could actually think this, but how come his editor didn’t fix this?

Okay, so this huge flaw occurred inside one teensy tiny little scene and doesn’t affect the book overall, but I had to point it out. Now, let’s move on.

The book blends a number of voices and several story lines, all of which have their genesis in a certain corporate event. On first glance, the book appears to focus on the world of office cubicles and big corporate life, but the stories stretch much further than that and are ultimately more concerned with the domestic narratives of the novel’s various characters.

It is difficult to pull off a book with so many different voices but Torockio does it well, pegging each character quickly with some feature or habit that really defines them but not letting those ‘tags’ (for lack of a better word) overpower each character’s development. In terms of story, the book concerns itself with life’s setbacks, both marital and professional, how the two are often linked, and how his characters navigate such difficult waters. My description isn’t doing the novel much justice, the book has real momentum. And despite the fact that some of the characters aren’t necessarily likeable, Torockio portrays them all with real empathy.

Floating Holidays did what my favorite kind of contemporary fiction does – gets me to see people, their idiosyncrasies, their weaknesses, their frail strengths and tentative optimism. Humans can be so nutty sometimes – for no obvious reason people might suddenly be horribly mean to one another, while across the street a group of strangers band together to stick it to The Man. Why do we do these things? Torockio seems just as curious.

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Oh, why why why did it take me this long to get introduced to Damon Galgut’s sublime novel The Good Doctor ? My own fault, actually. I mooched the book a while back after reading about it in various locations (namely, Bookeywookey), but didn’t bother to read it until last week. Big mistake. I consider this book one of the best reads of the year.

Over the last few years I’ve developed a real interest in South African literature (although I know I’ve really only skimmed the surface at this point). There is something about the subject matter and the writing style of writers like Gordimer, Coetzee, Brink and now Galgut, that consistently impresses me…a thoughtfulness, a heaviness, a careful and reflective creation of story and character.

The Good Doctor is a tightly contained, intimate story with immense reach. It manages to portray an entire landscape of complex socio-political realities while remaining closely focused on a single man’s thoughts. The narrative action follows a short timeline (less than a year) yet it reflects both an era as well as the main character’s entire life.

The book opens with the arrival of a young, new doctor at a rural hospital in one of the former South African homelands. The hospital is barely functional, with only a few staff members and hardly any equipment. The new doctor is appropriately shocked and dismayed and the current staff expects him to simply pack up and leave. But Dr. Laurence Waters is an idealist and instead of leaving, he begins to see what kind of new life he might be able to bring to the run-down hospital, and in connection, to the empty town and neighboring villages.

The book is narrated by Frank, a doctor who has been living in this forsaken community for several years. Frank is a jaded and troubled man, somewhere in his forties, who experiences Laurence’s arrival, first like an amusing event in an otherwise humdrum existence, but later as a threat. Laurence is going to change their lives and Frank isn’t at all certain this is a good idea.

What struck me about The Good Doctor is the way it hummed along with an eerie, restrained violence. Frank is neither stable, nor is he a “good person”, yet it is his voice leading us through this story. I love this kind of fiction. Frank is my guide to this fictional universe, but the more I get to know him, the more I mistrust his view of things.

So what gets set up is essentially a face-off between Frank and Laurence, but not a face-off in any traditional sense…as Laurence moves his improvement projects further along, Frank spirals deeper into a series of self-defeating behaviors. Alongside this contrast of personality, there is a problem of looting at the hospital, increasing violence in the town, as well as a number of small conflicts between the few staff members at the hospital. The novel’s restrained menace eventually blossoms into a real, tangible tragedy.

And here is where the novel really impressed me. This tragedy in and of itself is an answer to the Frank/Laurence (resignation/idealism) face-off, but it also gets to the heart of Frank’s true brokenness, which is founded in more than just personal history and his own specific disappointments, but involves South African history, lingering prejudices and universal human failures.

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So, I’ve spent a few days thinking over Pat Barker’s 1984 novel Blow Your House Down. This was a difficult and disturbing little book. At the same time, I had a hard time putting it down. Mostly because Barker’s straightforward style kept it from turning into something vulgar or sensational.

The bare bones of the story are that prostitutes in northern England are being murdered by a serial killer. That obviously doesn’t even scratch the surface of what this book is really about. Part I begins with Brenda and her story of becoming a prostitute – the man that abandoned her in staggering debt and with two children, the horrible job at a chicken factory, the discovery that the woman watching her children is abusing them and her eventual first ‘customer’. It is also a story of friendship, as one of the other prostitutes, Kath, takes Brenda under her wing and teaches her about surviving on the streets. But Part I takes a ghastly turn at the end, adopting the serial killer’s perspective and laying out a gruesome, detailed murder. It was one of the most difficult 12 pages I think I’ve ever read. But if I’m not mistaken, Barker is never one to spare the hard details.

Part III and IV, I think, are what make this book truly remarkable. In III, another prostitute, Jean, who has been particularly affected by the serial killer’s two most recent murders, decides to go after him. I am hard put to decide which character would have been more difficult for Barker to inhabit while writing – Jean or the serial killer. And yet she does both with considerable care and precision. Jean’s section is much more interesting, however, in the sense that we are never quite sure if her decisions are based on ‘fact’ or ‘fear’ – although she is one of the most courageous women in the entire book. The book opens with a quote from Nietzsche, which seems to speak to this section – Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. It strikes me on second thought, though, that this is equally true of the police trying to catch the killer, who are perfectly happy using the prostitutes as bait.

Part IV is the bridge between the prostitute’s world and ‘the rest of us’. It’s where Barker very cunningly reveals how, although we might like to ignore the violence out there, smug in our belief that we’re safe because we’ve kept ourselves separate from ‘that world’, we can’t, in fact, escape it at all. Most of the men who visit these prostitutes come from ‘our world’, the killer is someone who moves back and forth, someone we would never suspect if we met him outside those ‘dangerous’ places. And Barker makes it very clear that these women working the streets aren’t so different from the rest of us; the two worlds are highly entangled.

I’ve heard wonderful things about Barker’s writing style and it was really interesting to experience it on my own for the first time. She is incredibly precise and I couldn’t find a single instance of ornamental or superfluous description – yet there were moments when she brought two or three lines together and this incredibly vivid image just leapt off the page. And her transitions are very subtle. In Part I, when we switch to the killer’s perspective she does this wonderful trick of having him finish the line of a song one of the prostitutes is singing as she stumbles, drunk, down the street. He finishes that line and suddenly we’re seeing her through his eyes. Very effective. Very creepy.

Blow Your House Down was Barker’s second novel, and it’s set in the same area as her first, highly-acclaimed novel, Union Street. I think I’ll get a copy of this first one right away, I actually wish I had read it before Blow Your House Down. And then I’d like to read the Regeneration Trilogy, which numerous friends have recommended.

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Over my holiday I read John Banville’s The Sea very slowly. I think he is a good author to take slowly, and I liked being able to take up with the book a little each day and meander through his careful sentences. The Sea is an interesting novel, with not much resembling any sort of plot. Despite the quietness of the narrator’s account and his sometimes hazy focus, there are two stories vying for attention – narrator Max’s childhood memory and his feelings about a more recent, but significant loss. But even without any overt plot, there is movement. Max uses his memories of the one painful experience to get to the heart of the other, much more powerful one.

I mentioned before that my initial experience with The Sea was slightly disappointing because it reminded me so quickly of the Banville novel I read and loved last year – Eclipse. As I got deeper into The Sea, some of the resemblance wore off, but the more striking similarities remained. Especially the overall narrative tone and how the book features a narrator escaping into the past to deal with a present trauma.

Now I happened to really like the narrator in Eclipse, so finding him in slightly altered form in The Sea wasn’t necessarily a problem for me. I just had to make some small adjustments to my expectations, to try and banish my vision of Alex from Eclipse and let Max come into his own. There were differences, although mostly in detail, not much in tone and emotional structure.

There was something very ominous about The Sea, a moody and threatening subtext which I think created much of the novel’s tension. I felt this mostly when Max went into the past to describe his relationship with the Grace family but it was there in his more recent memories as well and in his current-day conversations with his daughter or the other residents of the hotel where he is staying. I saw this as Banville’s acceptance of the more dangerous aspects of grief. Not the danger of suffering, or the way sadness can surreptitiously and wholly take over, but more a kind of simmering violence. The understanding that things are not right, and that they won’t ever be right.

This is only my second Banville novel and I’m sure I’ll be looking for more, if anything just to enjoy the thick texture of his writing. There were moments when I wished he’d taken a simpler route to convey a thought or two, but on the whole I like his layering and complicated sentences, his obscure word choice and heavy images. This type of writing asks me to slow down and measure out the rhythm of each word.

 

 

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Nadine Gordimer published her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953. This book traces a young woman’s complicated journey from the ignorant bliss of her sheltered childhood to an adult’s understanding of her particular South African world and her place in it. I can’t help seeing The Lying Days as the most biographical of Gordimer’s novels – it isn’t about a writer, thankfully, but it does detail a psychological journey which strikes me as basic for someone destined to become a transformative political figure. So many different tensions to navigate: the struggle between wanting to fulfill the self but knowing that serving the greater community is more important, a relentless and exacting self-scrutiny, and the ability to turn that same scrutiny on society and not be blinded or deluded into ineffective or condescending action.

These same tensions then figure in her other novels and take on new depth depending on the context. The Lying Days is a strictly personal coming-of-age, both sexual and political, while her next novel takes up that same idea from an altered perspective. In The Lying Days, Helen is South African and finds her way to her self within a familiar landscape she must learn to see objectively, while Toby in A World of Strangers is a foreigner coming into South Africa who undergoes a similar realization from a different angle. This second novel goes further than the first by delving into the intracacies of a bi-cultural friendship.

This same theme then becomes even more powerful in her third novel, Occasion for Loving, which is about a bi-cultural love affair. It is in this novel that one of Gordimer’s fundamental ideas gets phrased for the first time.

Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.

Here is something which will come back again and again in her work, in the relationships she creates which reflect South African society and later, in a more general way, which explore any ingrained system of cultural, political or gender-based separation.

The Late Bourgeois World goes further into the psychology of revolution, how a cause becomes both motivating and devastating for an individual, how that individual must fight to maintain a sense of self while accepting an equally powerful need to self-efface for the greater good. It is a short novella and very intense. For ninety pages, Gordimer holds a magnifying glass over one woman’s thoughts and experience, using those suddenly clear details to reveal a much larger story.

Her next novel, A Guest of Honour, takes up this same question of the individual within a larger system, although the magnifying glass is inverted to provide a vast, sweeping portrait of an entire country and its politics. Here, I think, Gordimer puts all her questions and attempted responses into a single, far-reaching framework – bicultural relationships, revolutionary psychology, objective political action, love (or lust) in a context of political turmoil, and social/political reconstruction.

At this point in her bibliography, history is already happening. The political system of apartheid is beginning to crumble. Her next two novels (The Conservationist and July’s People) capture that period of uncertainty and transition and distill it into a single emotion – fear. The upheaval of a political system can be seen in much the same way as a generational change and role reversal, both frightening experiences, and I think Gordimer integrates that feeling of heightened anxiety into her exploration of cultural differences.

So I’ve traced this link between her first six novels, and I could go on to include the next eight (but I won’t – no time), because I was curious to see how her thematic project moved from one book to the next. The six novels I’ve just outlined are quite different, both technically and in terms of story, but they are part of an ongoing discussion which Gordimer invites the reader to participate in each time he or she sits down and opens one of her books. Following that discussion has been one of the more rewarding aspects of reading her from start to finish this year. I have loved seeing how she opens a question in one book and then goes back to it in another, or then looks at it from another angle in a third. This is where fiction really shows its power, I think, in its ability to accommodate sustained discussion.

 

 

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I know, I know, I have assailed you with Nadine Gordimer for an entire year. But if you have the patience to stick with me for just one more week, I promise to mention her only when absolutely necessary for the next few years.

Sometime in 2007, I decided Gordimer was one of the writers I wanted to read from start to finish and I duly looked up all of her novels and ordered them or mooched them, setting aside a section of my overflowing shelves for her fourteen novels, and then last January, I plucked number one from the shelf and began what became an extremely rewarding journey through a succession of fictional worlds.

There are a number of doors I could open to begin with, points of entry for a Gordimer-centered discussion, but I think today I would like to talk about the intricacies of her writing style. More than anything, I read for the little stuff – the way a writer puts words together, the transitions and word choices, how the narrative threads and directs the story, how descriptions get built and then placed appropriately, how the writer animates a character.

I have mentioned before one of the more arresting aspects of Gordimer’s writing is her ability to capture, distill and convey an emotion or an observation. Across her fourteen novels, I was continually pulled up short by a line here or a paragraph there that managed to reflect some minute truth I wasn’t aware of until the way she expressed it made it all too clear.  Very often these moments were superfluous to the actual story in progress, and functioned like a kind of supportive netting cast delicately across the larger structure of the novel. This is something I find lacking in some contemporary fiction, as though writers are afraid nowadays to stray too far from the point.

Her earlier novels have a traditional narrative structure, but later she began making some interesting choices in narration. The Conservationist (1972), in particular, is one of the first to try something different. In that novel the narrator, Mehring, is not just telling his story, but he’s speaking to another character in the book. A character Gordimer never brings onto the page, so that our only experience with that person is through Mehring’s frustrated interior discourse. It’s an interesting technique which creates a kind of narrative layering, multiple voices within a singular narrative focus. She does this a second time in Burger’s Daughter (1979).

In The House Gun (1998) and The Pickup (2001), she writes simultaneously from the perspective of both halves of a married couple.  Exploring the two opposing/complementing sides of a couple is something she started doing as early as her third novel, Occasion for Loving (1963), but in her later novels the technique becomes much more refined, more subtle. And in many ways, more intimately reflective of the “unit” she’s describing. There are very few seams or spaces between each character’s thoughts, and Gordimer moves back and forth between Harald and Claudia or Julie and Ibrahim without any heavy guiding structure to “tell” us who is thinking what. The separation comes naturally, from their differing characters and voices.

I’ll finish today with some thoughts on how Gordimer handles description. She is skilled with corporeal presence in her writing, and knows how to give substance to her characters without resorting to unnecessary superficial tags. Instead, she gives them weight, shape, and movement. I think My Son’s Story (1990) showcases this particularly well, as so much of the book is wrapped up in exploring the physical differences of Sonny, William, and Hannah, as well as Sonny’s wife’s physical transformation. But even the smallest, most insignificant character in any Gordimer novel is unique and real and perfectly visible. It is almost infuriating how simple she makes it, a line detailing a nervous habit, a few words on the shape of a forearm, the exact description of someone’s laugh.

 

 

 

 

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Let’s go back to Graham Swift. I’ve been thinking some more about Last Orders. I talked about the story when I wrote up my first post, but I want to spend some time looking at the jumble of voice and structure and detail that transformed this particular story into such a wonderfully-written book.

 

What strikes me only a few lines into the very first paragraph is the particular emotional structure of Ray’s voice. His edgy melancholy and gruff sadness. He is a sappy stoic. Ray is set up right away as our guide to the novel. He opens THE story and signals that this story will also be HIS story. There are a lot of characters introduced across the next few pages and sly allusions to almost every single subplot which means the novel threatens to become confusing. But it stays firmly in Ray’s perspective for 18 pages, long enough for the reader to feel steadied again, before switching to Amy.

 

Amy’s voice is the “chin-up, old girl” variety – a perfect blend of bitter self-pity and desperate pluckiness. She is so angry but she’s trying not to let that anger win. One of the novel’s strengths is its willingness to keep us in suspense as to why. And we’re also meant to wonder about June, the person to whom Amy is talking.

 

Eventually, although Ray remains the most frequent POV, each of the men gets a turn leading the narrative – Vince, Lenny, Vic. And Amy shows up a few more times. The effect created is very much like a gathering in a noisy neighborhood pub. Someone starts reminiscing and everyone adds the detail most important to them. The stories intersect but also swiftly diverge. Details start to get cluttered or vague. The voices of the novel’s seven narrators are similar because they all come from the same place and have lived similar lives, a feature of the novel that frustrated me at first, but as I read further, I think Swift manages to differentiate them where it matters – their judgments of others, their interior decisions.

 

Besides Ray, I found myself really drawn to Vic. He speaks directly to the reader only seven times and each time with this kind of fierce pride and solemnity about him. He is the only man in the group who seems to be at peace with himself and his life. Although he’s just a little pompous too. He can’t help feeling the power his job gives him, although he tries to be respectful of it for the most part. I suppose I liked the contradiction in that. A character that recognizes the authority he has over people at their weakest moments and who tries to honor that but who can’t help feeling just a bit superior. That seems very human to me.

 

Part and parcel of the constantly shifting point-of-view in the novel is the way each man describes the others, and his friendship in relation to each and then to all. It was interesting to compare how Vic thought others saw him with the glimpses Swift gives the reader of how they actually did. Same for Ray and Vince and Lenny. Human relationships are so complicated, with so much room for misunderstanding and false impression. The men in Last Orders have known each other for something like forty years and Swift does an excellent job of using a particular blend of their voices to bring all that baggage, both good and bad, into the present moment of their car ride to Margate.

 

This is a novel I could write pages and pages about. And after my first post, so many of you mentioned his other novel Waterlands, which I now have waiting for me on the shelf, along with Shuttlecock, so I’m really looking forward to both.

 

 

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