Thursday, March 12, 2020

March Reads Part One

Backwater by Dorothy Richardson
Honeycomb by Dorothy Richardson

“It is jolly to talk about things,” she said, as the blood surged into her face.
He was grave again and did not answer.
“People don’t talk about things nearly enough,” she pursued.

Continuing with my Richardson project here, I'm making better progress than I usually do with similar endeavours (as in, I didn't wait a year or more to return to the task). I had got the sense from reading a couple reviews, either on blogs or on Goodreads, that Pilgrimage gets more abstract as it goes on, increasing its difficulty, I suppose. Thus, I was expecting a slow shift in later books and not immediately in "chapters" two and three.

Backwater picks up with Miriam back in England getting a job as a teacher for a North London private school (forgive me if I've mislabeled what type of school. The English school system is arcane and bewildering to me) where she immediately hates everything and everybody, a common theme so far in this novel sequence. Backwater is less episodic than Pointed Roofs but still not focused the way a "traditional" novel or Bildungsroman would be. Miriam is what one would call a New Woman, a specific term from the Late Victorian era: she resists traditional roles for women, she resists patriarchal rule such as Christianity, she smokes, and most importantly, she wants to choose. She wants choice in her own life. A background theme in Backwater is one of economics. Miriam is happy to be making her own money, even if it's to support her quickly impoverished parents, but the looming government regulation of teacher, including accreditation, means she will either have to submit to training or languish around the poverty line. Coincidentally, this kind of financial precarity mirrors my own situation (Victorian pun unintended): I have training but no one will take me on unless I get more training and I won't make any money until I get this training. However, to receive this training means spending money I don't have and facing some risk. Even with more training, Miriam and I aren't guaranteed jobs; there's a chance we both undergo more schooling and shouldering debt just to be in the same place as we were when we began. The world built by Pilgrimage is slowly modernizing, one of the many reasons why scholars find Late Victorian/Edwardian literature so discursively productive. Many of the structures and systems that seem natural to us have their origins in this period of intense modernization and the literature produced by this era can be illuminating as to how people felt about such leaps. For Miriam, modernization has its pros and cons: the trams, the noise, the increased industrialization of daily life is hard on the soul, but her freedom to move, to take trains by herself, to move around the city is not something she'd trade for anything. We recall that the Late Victorian era gave us the flâneuse (the female form of the flâneur). The flâneuse is the urban spectator (a perfect protagonist for a sequence of novels charting modernization) but also a fantastic symbol of the increased alienation suffered by people under the thumb of capitalism, especially this late-19th Century accelerated capitalism. Miriam's desire for independence is mirrored by her freedom to move, her freedom to choose to escape the doldrums of North London. Yes, she's classist (Backwater refers to the obviously uncool part of London where she works), and fairly mean to these lower classes ladies who run the school. Miriam is not a morally perfect character, and her classism is tempered somewhat by the novel's subtle clues that she is, indeed, a spoiled teenager experiencing angst. We're not to trust what she says as gospel.

The other discursively productive thread in Backwater is Miriam's reading as hobby. I was reading a bit about the rise of the middlebrow in The History of British Women's Writing 1920-1945 (here) which argues part of the genre's genesis comes from reading as an avenue for social mobility:
eager to promote a culture of book-buying in a section of the population who had not previously been able to afford it, the book clubs sought to transform ephemeral best- sellers into ‘modern classics’, decking them out in ‘dignified’ uniform bindings and employing in their advertising copy language carefully designed to evoke a life of cultured and leisured gentility. ("The Feminine Middlebrow Novel" by Nicola Humble. pp 100)
Again, we see a genre developing thanks to both aesthetic concerns and market forces. Hence, why we cannot pretend genres such as "realism" are stable structures built entirely of aesthetics. The combination of commerce and audience helped created a genre with its own tropes, interests, aims, and, of course, ideology. Humble's article tracks the developing genre through depictions of women reading in literature. She writes:
Repeatedly within its pages we find discussions of book collections and favourite books, of lending libraries and bookshops, of old favourites and new best-sellers, of the differences in practices, status, and incomes between male and female writers, of reading for pleasure and reading for instruction... (101)
Richardson's Miriam is no different. In Backwater, she visits a local library, a bookshop, reads seemingly countless novels, and, keeping with the artistic aims of the entire cycle, describes lavishly the physical objects of the books themselves, in other words, indulges in commodity fetishism (something I'm also incredibly guilty of). Around the halfway point, Miriam has discovered the pleasure of reading Ouida, a then-famous, but controversial writer. Richardson writes:
From that moment the red-bound volumes became the centre of her life. She read “Moths” and “In Maremma” slowly word by word, with an increasing steadiness and certainty. The mere sitting with the text held before her eyes gave her the feeling of being strongly confronted. The strange currents which came whenever she was alone and at ease flowing to the tips of her fingers, seemed to flow into the book as she held it and to be met and satisfied. As soon as the door was shut and the gas alight, she would take the precious, solid trusty volume from her drawer and fling it on her bed, to have it under her eyes while she undressed. She ceased to read her Bible and to pray.
Note the focus on the physical act of reading and even acts around reading. Richardson barely describes the contents of the books, presuming the reader, a middlebrow reader such as Miriam herself, would be already familiar with the novels themselves. Miriam goes through phases; she obsesses over Rosa Nouchette Carey and then Mrs. Hungerford, both of whom were new names to me. Part of the appeal of this Late Victorian-Edwardian literature is, as I say, the encroaching modernity (and modernism) but also a glimpse into the interests and social practices of people long dead. There are countless Victorian bestsellers and blockbuster hits that I've just never heard of. If they're not available from Penguin or Oxford or Dover, they're almost inaccessible to a layperson. None of Ouida's oeuvre are in print save the very famous The Two Flags from Valancourt (it's too expensive for me to take a chance on). There are print-on-demand schemes, but they're often simply printed scans of library books, warts and all. These are also expensive (which is odd considering their public domain status) and are bound terribly. 21st Century society doesn't have the same reverence for books as Miriam's era. We still love books but we're not a reading society anymore. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing; it simply is a thing. So novels like Backwater help us understand these reading publics and how they've developed and changed.

Honeycomb was a better read, aesthetically, but a lesser read in terms of themes and plotting. Miriam has quit her teaching position for a pseudo-governess position in a rich household in the suburbs, where there's actual nature and actual people. She barely teaches the precocious children; her job is mostly to keep them entertained, something she isn't great at, but tries. Most of the "action" as it were comprises episodes of her within this upper class household, attending the small week-end parties (hyphen used purposefully) and going shopping with the Missus of the house. Reading this 100 years on, I found it difficult not to read it as a satire about the rich, how awful they are, how useless they are. I also struggled to discern whether or not that's intentional. Miriam seems ambivalent about it. Some people she finds fascinating while others make her soul cry out. She describes Mr. Corrie, the pater, in withering terms, but also admires him in some ways. She seeks out his opinion but admits he knows nothing about anything, especially Miriam herself. He mispronounces the name of a French town and she corrects him, inwardly rolling her eyes. But she yearns for the Corries. Or is it that she yearns for their money?

The other series of episodes is Miriam being courted. There's Bob, who condescendingly refers to her as "my dear girl" and another dude named Mr. Grove. She feels the anxiety of marriage as two of her three sisters are engaged (and marry in a dual ceremony at the end of the book). Again, and again, Miriam is ambivalent. For every moment she feels a thrill at this companionship she resists the men and their clumsy advances. It's subtle but it feels like Miriam thinks these men are courting her because they should and since they expect marriage will happen, they put no effort into the actual courting. Mr. Grove is especially heinous and he seems to think being mysterious and self-deprecating is the way to interest Miriam. She's attracted to his religiosity but repelled by how sniveling he is.
Adam had not faced the devil. He was stupid first, and afterwards a coward and a cad ... “the divine curiosity of Eve....” Some person had said that.... Perhaps men would turn round one day and see, what they were like. Eve had not been unkind to the devil; only Adam and God. All the men in the world, and their God, ought to apologise to women....
This sort of sums up Miriam's proto-feminism: she sees the need for men, but she's offended and put upon by those men. They have ruled for far too long without facing reality (ie the devil).

Speaking of religiosity, both "chapters" 2 and 3 pick up on the thread seeded by Miriam's agnosticism from Pointed Roofs. In Backwater, Miriam confesses to one of the ladies who owns the school that she doesn't believe but she feels adrift nonetheless. The school mistress, Miss Haddie, gives her a Bible which Miriam reads faithfully and derives some comfort from its poetry and words of wisdom. But Miss Haddie's piousness and her spinster status co-mingle in Miriam's eyes. She feels she has to escape the "emotional tyranny" of North London, the claustrophobia of the school and the Church:
‘I was right—I was right,’ Miriam gasped to herself as the light flowed in. ‘I’m escaping—just in time.... Emotional tyranny.... What a good expression ... that’s the secret of Miss Haddie. It was awful. She’s lost me. I’m free. Emotional tyranny.’ ...
In Honeycomb, her ambivalent feelings towards Mr. Grove are stirred by his fervour. He wishes to join a brotherhood but the expectations of family and society are forcing him into the study of Law. Miriam feels incredibly conflicted about this. On one hand, she wants him to follow his dreams (“You have a dearest wish; that is a good deal”) but on the other hand, the cloister is too confined, too strict for Miriam ("[Miriam sees] the figure at her side shrouded in a habit, wrapped in tranquillity, pacing along a cloister, lost to her"). She can't decide if his faith or his self-pity repels her but she also can't decide if his convictions and morals attract her or not:
She did not really want to help him. She wanted to attract his attention to her. She had done it and he did not know it. Horrible. They were both caught in something. She had wanted to be caught, together with this agonising priestliness. But it was a trick. Perhaps they hated each other now.
“It is jolly to talk about things,” she said, as the blood surged into her face. 
There are no easy answers in either Backwater or Honeycomb and for that, I can't wait to read more. 

Friday, February 28, 2020

February Reads Part Two

In Green's Jungles by Gene Wolfe
Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
Wreath of Roses by Elizabeth Taylor
Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson
The Medieval Monastery by Roger Rosewell

After finishing the Solar Cycle this month, I immediately purchased the two reference guides compiled by Michael Andre-Driussi because I was energized by my Return to the Wolfe (excuse the pun). The second guide, covering the final two thirds of the Cycle, includes a timeline which was particularly helpful because The Book of the Short Sun was far trickier in terms of its syuzhet than previous Books. Which isn't to say the fabula isn't as tricky if not trickier! Don't mistake me here, The Book of the Short Sun is far more complicated and abstruse than anything in the original quartet or the follow-up. I won't write out a long synopsis here as I think the ones written on Wikipedia and in Goodreads reviews will suffice.

In retrospect, On Blue's Waters was disappointing to me in the same way Shadow of the Torturer was: I didn't see the bigger picture and therefore thought the initial sally was weak. I still think OBW is a bit of a slog (all that long stuff with Seawrack or the days Horn spends in the hole! oy!) but it's all necessary setup for the second and third parts, which I liked much more, enough that I read them back-to-back.

In Green's Jungles upends a lot of the things I assumed about the world (whorl) Wolfe has invented. With The Book of the New Sun, part of the pleasure is the warmth of recognition: understanding that something fantastical is actually long gone technology. I even wrote about my sincere enjoyment of realizing the Moon was terraformed at some point in the future hence its description as "green Lune" in the original quartet. The pleasure is predicated on my familiarity with science fictional tropes. Without them, the metatextual vector goes nowhere. You'd just be reading about weird dudes who lie to everybody they meet all the time. With The Book of the Short Sun, elements of fantasy are introduced that have seemingly no corresponding science fictional trope. For example, the Narrator (not naming him is necessary) finds he can astroproject (not the books' term for it) himself and his companions (those in close proximity) to other planets, including the distant Urth, where the Narrator gets to meet a young torturer's apprentice. I can't for the life of me come up with a rational explanation for this, especially since this warping (as Andre-Driussi calls it) requires the inclusion of what the text calls an inhumu, the vampire species living on Blue and Green that, again, have no corresponding scientific explanation. The existence of aliens in the Solar Cycle is nothing new: they're introduced at the end of The Book of the New Sun and feature prominently in Urth of the New Sun, the epilogue. Although I should caution myself here. The aliens (Hierodules) in the fifth book have the power to transport an entire star without (it appears) any negative effects on the galaxy (I'm no physicist but it feels like moving something that massive that fast would upset something gravitationally-speaking). This power threatens suspension of disbelief in the rationality of this universe.

Still, In Green's Jungles, with its astroprojection, astral items, vampires and ancient aliens, feels more detached from the relatively grounded world of Urth. The themes Wolfe introduces are similarly more abstract. Gone is the conniving but ultimately good Severian, replaced with the Narrator who suffers a crisis of identity and a crisis of purpose. He is good... perhaps even Good with a capital G and the problems he faces are far more complicated than those Severian deals with. The world of Blue is corrupt and without the force of religion, even the false religion of the Whorl (the name for the generation ship from whence all these colonist came), humanity has devolved into warring polities and cities. The Narrator, in his journey(s), helps bring order and Goodness to these towns, sometimes at great personal cost. Things feel more allegorical here but also more focused than the original quartet's one damn thing after another. Using the structure of a trilogy to complicate the timeline is an especially genius idea as knowing the events at the beginning of the story/fabula would greatly alter one's perception of the events in the middle and end. Something happens to the Narrator at the near-beginning of the journey, something that essentially sparks the resulting syuzhet. This reminds me of the timeline twisting in Kill Bill Vol 1: it makes the most sense, narratively speaking, for Beatrix to visit the villains in the order she does so that the film builds to a crescendo.

Return to the Whorl revisits and refines some of the themes in the second volume: war is dehumanizing but necessary sometimes, revolution is often required, and identity is extremely slippery. It's a quicker read, I think, than the other two, because the two timelines look to converge, letting some explanations bubble to the surface (such as the confusion about who the narrator is) while others are left opaque, to be puzzled out by readers. I thought I wouldn't love this whole trilogy as much as the other two, but I do... just for different reasons. Where The Book of the Long Sun reads like a necessary political document and The Book of the New Sun feels like a love letter to science fiction, The Book of the Short Sun is an exploration of loss, identity, and fate. Deeply in love with this series!

Elizabeth Taylor's Wreath of Roses was good, I guess. This is my second or third Taylor and I'm just not seeing what everybody else is seeing here. The prose is beautiful, the character well drawn, but I can get this from countless other writers. I couldn't quite manage to line up all the happenings in this plot with themes or ideas I thought the novel was trying to express. I loved a lot of the observations and the sense of place and time, but maybe the scaffolding of the structure is just too subtle for me? Perhaps.

As others have expressed on Goodreads, I too wonder how I will review/track Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage. Individual chapters? One volume at a time? The entire thing in one go? Even though I'm reading this in the Virago 4-volume edition, I've selected the Broadview edition of the first novel for at least the first review.

It's astonishing to read this in 2020, 105 years after its publication. The content feels over a hundred years old but the style...? It feels completely fresh, as if published today or at least in the last 20 years. The fluid oscillation from third person subjective to free indirect speech is carried off with such skill and flair, as if "stream of consciousness" had already existed for eons. In one slim "chapter" (her preferred term for the individually published novels), Richardson mastered a technique still used to this day.

I've tried reading this before and slid off it, the cast being too large, the plot being non-existent, but this time, I devoured it in a couple days. I realized the intricacies of the cast aren't of primary importance; that the plot is merely an excuse for the exploration of thoughts and feelings and impressions and opinions and fears and doubts and desires. This is a novel of expression, both external—all of Miriam's painterly observations of colour, shape, scent, texture—and internal. Not much happens here, plot-wise: she heads off to a German private school where she's tasked with reading English to the German students (young ladies of middle class backgrounds who need to be "educated" to be considered marriageable material); she encounters domestic and quotidian moments of life such as having her hair washed, going for a picnic, encountering gossipy cliques, receiving blouses from home that are outmoded and gauche. It's all very ordinary, but there's necessity and poetry in the ordinary. I was reminded a lot of Alcott's Little Women and Céline Sciamma's recent film Portrait of a Lady on Fire: depicting that which is not generally depicted is in of itself a radical act. While the latter is more dramatic and modern (abortion! lesbian desire! a miniature social revolution!), Little Women and Pointed Roofs do much of the same ideological work in portraying a world of the feminine previously (still?) considered unworthy of artistic depiction. In other words, the banality is the point.

Can't wait to continue with this.

I read a short introduction to medieval monasteries for a project I'm contemplating. I won't say much about it yet.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

February Reads Part One

A Sick Gray Laugh by Nicole Cushing
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg
The Needle's Eye by Margaret Drabble
Real Life by Brandon Taylor

That's six in a row that I very much liked—loved. The best of the bunch was easily Real Life, which was, aesthetically, the novel I desperately needed. Coming out this week from Riverhead Books, it somewhat challenges the "type" of novel associated with Riverhead. Instead of being "poetic" in the way a lot of Riverhead novels are, Taylor's debut is resolutely realist and minimalist in scope, but maximalist in observational power. The whole novel takes place over a weekend and scenes have the length and intensity of a stage play, with some scenes stretching out over 50 pages. Wallace, the protagonist, is a gay black man studying biochemistry in a lab populated mostly by well-meaning but narcissistic white people. Like Taylor himself, Wallace struggles with his career choice, his specific desires, and his tumultuous past. Scenes unfold with vivid clarity and almost sensual attention to physical details. No gesture, no touch is unimportant in Taylor's world. Every caress and graze are as essential to character as their backstory. There's a bravery in Taylor's novel: where some authors might relinquish scenes after a tense moment, this one goes full bore into the aftermath. The novel suggests quite explicitly that to live in the world with people is to submit yourself to their cruelties, whether intentional or not, and in turn, spread cruelty outwards from yourself. Each scene is a diorama of this idea in action—that even well meaning white folks will allow racism and homophobia because it's easier to forgive (white people) afterwards than interrupt in the moment. But this cruelty extends to even love; Wallace enters a complicated sexual relationship with an ostensibly straight man named Miller, a fellow scientist. There is no pursuer and pursued in this relationship but two confused men lashing out at each other while paradoxically seeking comfort in each other; though Taylor would object to my use of the adverb "paradoxically" as the novel suggests there can be no love without cruelty. Instead of bullshit prose gussied up as "poetry" by eliminating "like" and/or "as" from similes (a modern trend I despise), Taylor's prose is polished and careful and methodical. There are beautiful turns of phrase but nothing so flashy as to detract from the essential drama of the scene. This would work beautifully as a film—save for the elimination of introspection and interiority—thanks to Taylor's lavish "stage directions." I was saying to a friend just the other day that sometimes cultural objects that are too perfect, too smooth are less fascinating than objects which frustrate or stymie. The characters in Real Life have jagged edges; they're frustrating and annoying and they make bone headed decisions in the heat of the moment. Wallace doesn't know what he wants and he says the wrong things and he can't get along with people and everybody rubs up against everybody else and it's a mess. It's a wonderful example of realism. This will probably be my favourite novel of the year.

A Sick Gray Laugh was tremendous, unlike anything I've read in a long while. According to the acknowledgements, Cushing was greatly influenced by European writers like Witold Gombrowicz and Thomas Bernhard and their novels structured not like novels but like screeds or jeremiads. I haven't read much postwar European fiction, to be honest, and it's a glaring blindspot. Apparently, I'm missing out on novels that explore the possibilities of the form. A Sick Gray Laugh has an unusual premise to go along with its unusual form: Noelle Cashman is an award winning novelist who has been fighting her own mental illnesses all her life. She's recently started a new medication that's helped with her neuroses and psychoses, but now she's seeing the world as it actually is: drenched in a miasma of Grayness, a near-total fog that drains the world of its literal colour and figurative colour. She memorably describes this Grayness as a thick clotting snot stuck to everything. The Grayness allows for regular folks to go along willingly with anything (such as voting against their best interests) and eliminates any heretical or confrontational thought. Cashman begins the book as a work of history, investigating the origin of the Grayness and the history of its epicenter, in a neighbouring town, which includes multiple utopian cults and strange things. The novel asks some serious questions about utopia and whether efforts to ameliorate the world could ever work when folks are more than happy with the shitty status quo. It also interrogates authorship and the project of interpretation via author biography. Cushing's narrator, Cashman explicitly challenges the reader to divest themselves from reading Cashman as Cushing, despite the identical nature of both people. A Sick Gray Laugh is characterized, or marketed I should say, as horror, and it's definitely not the kind of marketable horror that Nick Cutter and Joe Hill traffic in. Instead, this is ontological horror: what is the origin of our own sick lives and can we assign blame to an outside force or is it our own apathy that imprisons us? I loved this, not just for its intellectual fun, but for its sick sense of humour and playfulness. I wish more novels were this daring.

Speaking of horror, Enriquez's Things We Lost in the Fire was great, too. A collection of short stories set in Argentina, past and present, with all the gothic and gory horrors you can imagine. One story involves a guy contemplating killing his own baby because it's annoying him too much. Another story has the ghosts of a SWAT team scaring the crap out of two girls (on the cusp of pubescence of course). The language is plain and pulpy, evocative without drawing too much attention, and the horror is top rate. This is what I wanted Samanta Schweblin's novel to be. It's a shame I don't know much about Argentina, because I can only imagine the political history looms large over the horrors herein. Hope we get more of her work translated.

I read Dept. of Speculation in two sittings: both while I waited for my dad as he managed the long lines and drudgery of informing the government of a death in the family. Offill's dark portrait of a marriage and motherhood resonated perhaps a bit more than if I hadn't just lost my own mother and had to watch my father navigate the gnarled paths of bureaucracy. I thought it was very funny and perceptive, astute in its observations on the casual ways partners hurt each other. I eagerly await reading her third novel, Weather.

I can't remember how I heard of Laura van den Berg's novel The Third Hotel other than I guess seeing the cover in the bookstore and online. I'm glad I read it, even if with some time, I'll probably forget about the experience. It's a perfectly fine novel that's just good enough to be readable but not great enough to be memorable, I'm sad to report. Its premise reminded me a bit of Katie Kitamura's A Separation, which you might remember me adoring. In The Third Hotel, a bereaved wife goes to the film festival in Havana her husband was to attend, and there in the busy streets among the throngs of people, she catches a glimpse of her supposed-to-be dead husband walking around. The Third Hotel moves like a ghost story but is more like a typical American in a foreign place kind of novel where things are Weird and Different, which the novel even comments on(!).  There's quite a bit about horror as the protagonist's husband was an academic specializing in scary movies and not all of it meshes entirely with the rest of the book. But van den Berg's sense of place and atmosphere and weirdness is on point, so she gets by thanks to that. I'd be interested in seeing what her next project is.

Ah, Margaret Drabble. I read this almost entirely out of spite. Thanks to Tessa Hadley, I'd learn of the pejorative "Hampstead novel" and Drabble was the biggest target for that arrow. The Hampstead Novel is a derogatory term for realist novels set in definitely middle class neighbourhoods in the UK and concern themselves with their petty bourgeois problems such as adultery, child-rearing, careers, and the like. The Needle's Eye is one of Drabble's best reviewed novels (JCO in the New York Times Book Review gave it a rave review here) and is about a lawyer bitter with his wife getting involved (not romantically but personally) in the legal affairs of a woman going through a child custody case. Stylistically, the closest comparison I can make is to Henry James, but obviously they're of different magnitudes of order. Drabble's sentences are long and labyrinthine with clauses and asides and she's less attentive to scenes of person-to-person drama and more fascinated by long sections of introspection, similar to The Master in execution. Obviously, Drabble's sentences are far easier to parse than James (who gets a name drop in The Needle's Eye, but not a single reference to What Maisie Knew) but they're still a bit trickier than her contemporaries (her sister, A. S. Byatt, no stranger to this blog, wrote cleaner but simpler sentences). I found the novel enjoyable to read and its reputation as either a useless bourgeois masturbation fest or "an experience as moving as any we call 'real,' 'beautiful,' 'transforming.'" (Oates). It's a fine novel about people in love and out of love and some of the tricks Drabble uses are a bit cheap (the protagonist's wife is such a stereotypical shrew and the other woman is a bit too saintly) but the quality of craftsmanship is high enough. Unfortunately, this puts me in the unenviable position of defending Drabble against Iain Banks and China Mieville, who I think have mischaracterized Drabble's work to the point of strawman.

Banks famously dismissed the Hampstead novel as sending the message that this genre wasn't a genre, but real life, and possibly the opposite of genre. Mieville refers to the Hampstead novel as being "about a middle class world where the people are hermetically sealed from the rest of the world" (here). The crux of the complaint is a bit of genre snobbishness, I think, and this might have more to do with the literary world from the Thatcher era than with the novels themselves. That realist authors like Drabble would present their fictions as being real and thus more valuable than genre, in that genre is "escapist" and realism is not, must stick in the craw of socialist/Leftist writers like Banks and Mieville. The latter argues that "[j]ust because those books pretend to be about 'the real world' doesn't mean they reverberate in it with more integrity" than non-realist books (his italics) (here). This takes us to Mieville's next stage in his argument: if the Hampstead novel presents itself as non-escapist, mirroring the real world, than it's mirroring a world "hermetically sealed" from social and political concerns in favour of minor bourgeois problems. The hope of this genre, if one could assign agency to such a thing, is to perpetuate the idea that those social issues Mieville is referring to aren't worth paying attention to. Though Mieville doesn't explicitly gesture towards it, this calls to mind Adorno's formulation of the culture industry. The standardized production of superficially dissimilar but ultimately identical cultural objects engenders a passivity in the audience, allowing for the normalization of the economic status quo as established and perpetuated by those producing the cultural objects. Because of the culture industry's appeal to the widest possible audience, the objects produced under this logic must satisfy the intellectual rigours of high art and the more visceral emotional release of low art. In that middle lies mediocrity and the continued obedience of the masses to those with capital. Mieville chooses fantasy and other ghettoized genres not for escapism but as thinly coded calls to action. He argues that his so-called "escapist" fantasy is more materialist and less escapist than the fantasies of these bourgeois writers who have the privilege to happily ignore the ways capitalism has marginalized other people. In other words, the Hampstead novels are dangerously escapist.

However, and I'm not the first to suggest this, but it's no coincidence that the writers of these Hampstead novels were mostly women. Drabble, Margaret Forster, Anita Brookner, and other venerable writers doing quietly feminist work have been tarred with this brush of bourgeois fantasist. There's a vague stench of sexism around these accusations, as if the smaller domestic problems of women in middle class situations aren't as "literary" or as relevant as, say, science fiction about vast AIs engaged in projects of utopia. There are two major publishers in the UK, Virago and Persephone, who have worked tirelessly to scoop women writers on the subject of domesticity off the forgotten shelves of  history. We know and generally agree that the Canon of English literature, or even Canons, tend to overlook women writers, especially writers of domestic fiction. There's obviously a hunger for these novels about the concerns of women or else Virago and Persephone wouldn't be in business after all these decades. Mieville makes a strong point that realism as a genre is just as escapist as fantasy, that reactionary politics appears in all genres, especially in cultural objects produced under the logic of late capitalism. But Banks and Mieville don't throw out the entirety of science fiction and fantasy just because Tolkien and Heinlein wrote fantasies of Empire and marginalization so why do they dismiss the Hampstead novel wholecloth? Because, and here I tread clumsily and loudly for the rhetorical effect, the Hampstead novel is about women and women's issues aren't the meat and potatoes of revolutionary politics. In other words, women's concerns aren't nearly as important their manly concerns, to which I retort, come on, man.

Like I say, I'm in the unenviable position of defending Drabble from Mieville and Banks, two of my favourite writers and wonderfully consistent political thinkers. I don't necessarily disagree with their diagnosis of the bourgeois fantasies of the Hampstead novel, and in fact, if The Needle's Eye was written by a man, I might have agreed almost entirely. But I can't help but notice how forceful these critiques are of women and rarely is the same energy expended towards men. Women often undergo far more intense scrutiny in the public eye/literary field just because they're women. Just like how cultural objects meant to be enjoyed by teen girls are the ones most quickly dismissed or mocked, domestic fiction is sometimes unfairly maligned. Obviously, this is not an inviolable rule; after all, Alice Munro is one of the most feted writers of all time and she myopically focuses on the lives of the bourgeoisie.

Honestly, I could have written another 1,000 words on the specifics of The Needle's Eye's interrogations of the dyads "femininity and sacrifice" and "masculinity and duty" but I think I've made enough of a case to trouble to the waters of Mieville and Banks' complete dismissal. I'm not saying they're wrong; I'm saying things aren't as simple as that. Look forward to more Drabble reviews because I was impressed enough to continue.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

January Reads

Look at Me by Anita Brookner
Heat Wave by Penelope Lively
The Past by Tessa Hadley
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C. Pam Zhang
Under the Net by Iris Murdoch

Some personal news. My mother passed away on January 27, 2020 at 5 in the morning, after a brief but awful fight with cancer. I haven't felt much like writing for a few months as I've felt more bone tired than I thought possible. From visiting in the hospital to processing heavy medical information, I just haven't really found the energy to do *gestures at blog* this. I have been working on a post about my month with Joyce Carol Oates (I read 7 in a row) for two months but I just can't muster any enthusiasm. Not for JCO herself, obviously; she persists in being excellent. I'll eventually finish that post but not today.

I took time off work because my father also has cancer and has been fighting it for over a year now. We did not expect, a year ago, to be at my mother's deathbed. Thanks to this time off work and doing a lot of waiting, I found some energy for reading. It was either that or risking my sanity. I read 7 novels during January, but two of them were JCO books and so will be listed under the heading of "Joyce Carol Oates-ember" as the post will eventually be named. (For February, I'm already at 6 and it's only the 12th as I write this post).

Brookner's Look at Me was terrific, delivering on the promise of Hotel du Lac and going even further. The novel doesn't lend itself to easy interpretation or pat answers and for that I applaud it. Brookner has gone swiftly from blind spot to new (to me) favourite writer. I've already picked up a handful of her other novels and I look forward to swimming farther in these disturbing oceans.

Heat Wave was phenomenal. Lively opens up this world and invites the readers in, comforting them with accessible symbols and well defined characters, but for all the welcome she provides, the texture and feeling of this world is scouring and febrile. Attention is closely paid to the ways people just don't get along.

Hadley's The Past was great up until the final fifth, at which point there are some melodramatic notes more akin to soap operas and indie films than the rich careful novel of the previous 4/5s. Disappointing but not completely rubbish.

The Zhang novel is highly anticipated and I'm grateful to have read an advanced reading copy. I wanted to like this so much but I found it overwritten and lacking in forward momentum. The most interesting character is held at arm's length for much of the novel until a revealing flashback just before the final fifth (an extremely common structural choice nowadays, much to my chagrin). The flashback was ten times more interesting than the rest of the novel and obviously I wanted more of that than what the novel thinks is a draw.

Under the Net felt like a preliminary draft of The Sea, the Sea, and I'm getting the sense from critics that many of Murdoch's novels are shaped like her Booker Prize-winning effort. There are madcap antics, people running to and fro, misunderstandings, and philosophical asides. The first 50 or so pages of Under the Net were funny but my attention wandered as the novel went on. Not quite as magisterial and commanding as The Sea, the Sea. I will definitely read more of her stuff, as I collected all of the recent Vintage paperbacks (there are 6 of them) reissued for Murdoch's centenary.

I didn't mean to read 18 women authors in a row (other than my concerted effort to read JCO) and I thought for a moment of continuing that trend and making an entire year of it, but there are too many trilogies I need to finish (Wolfe, KSR, Barker) to wait yet another year. Still, I'm confident the year-end ratio will weigh heavily in favour of women.

Monday, December 30, 2019

2019's best reads

A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Night of the Claw by Ramsey Campbell
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
Miami Blues by Charles Willeford
The Dollmaker by Nina Allan
The Secret of Ventriloquism by Jon Padgett
Wounds: Six Stories from the Border of Hell by Nathan Ballingrud
Normal People by Sally Rooney
Faithful Place by Tana French
Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

In reverse chronological order, here are the 12 books I couldn't stop thinking about after I had read them. If forced to choose a single title, Asymmetry would have to top the list, if only for how much it wormed into my brain, how tight was its grip on me. I loved all these and a few others, but for whatever (100% arbitrary) reason, I capped my list at a beautiful dozen.

Lessons learned from this year's reading? I remember setting my goal at 90 books and telling myself to read the longer books, the behemoths that I push past in search of shorter, more gratifying reads. This year, I read 8 books over 600 pages. According to Goodreads, I read 34,466 pages across 113 books, making for an average of 305 pages per book, which sounds about right. In 2020, I'd like to continue reading more of the paper leviathans languishing unread on my shelves. I've been staring at Bronte's Villette and other Victorian doorstoppers for years now (including a massive serial novel from the late 19th century that's so thick it's published in two >900 page volumes). Sometimes I begin resenting a novel for eating up so much of my time (eg. The Golden Notebook) and sometimes I enjoyed that distinct pleasure of praising something just because it's long (eg. You Bright and Risen Angels). Speaking of Vollmann, I picked up four of his Seven Dreams novels and his nonfiction work Imperial over the course of the year. All of his books are intimidatingly long (Imperial is 1308 pages and The Dying Grass is 1356 pages!) but I had fun with the one I finished this year. So perhaps I'll set my goal for only 80 books and lean into this trend. Let's make that average page count hit 500 instead of 300!

I also read 63 books by women out of the 113, or 55.75% women authors. This is the first time since 2014 that I was over 50%. In comparison, in 2015, I read only 26% women. Last year was 43% so at least I have improved. There is zero excuse for not reaching gender parity with authors. There are women I follow on Twitter who read only women and they read more than I do, or at least, as much as I do.

I also managed to chip away at the Booker Prize project. I finished the year with 35 books out of 55, or 63%! I read two more women Nobel Prize winners (Svetlana Alexievich and Doris Lessing), meaning I've now read 6 of the 15 women winners of the prize! Almost halfway!

So: resolutions.

In 2020, I'm going to read more books from prize winners that I've enjoyed (such as more Anita Brookner and Penelope Lively). I'm going to finish off some trilogies and series I've started (Robinson's Mars, Barker's The Wounded Kingdom, Herbert's Dune, Wolfe's The Book of the Short Sun). I'm going to read more short fiction (I've got two massive William Trevor collections and a best-of by Mavis Gallant that weighs in at 800 pages); I own almost every Alice Munro and Ann Beattie so this blog will see more of them. And of course, I'm going to read more Booker Prize winners and more women Nobel Prize winners.

The usual caveat: who knows where my tastes will take me? I may not know where my tastes will take me, but I do know I'll record fastidiously where I'll go.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

November Reads

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
How late it was, how late by James Kelman
Follies by Ann Beattie
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons
Childwold by Joyce Carol Oates
Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

I didn't like Fever Dream at all. Another novella widely hyped that I felt nothing for. I expected it to be more trippy than it ended up being. I asked a friend at work why he loved it so much and he said it had to do with that anxiety parents feel about children not being close. And in terms of that affect, Schweblin pulls it off well enough. Technically, this novel is admirable. As a reading experience, I found it flat and tedious. Oh well. No big deal.

Took me ages to read Kelman's winner for the Booker Prize. I owned a paperback of it when I was in high school because I assumed it was like Irvine Welsh and in some ways it is, because Kelman famously wrote in Scots dialect. But the story itself is more of a short story ballooned to 400 pages, criminally so, as not much happens and not much means anything here. Kelman's protagonist lies to himself constantly, placates himself with pablum and inspirational phrases. This is like what if one of those Instagram accounts but spoken by a drunken Scotsman?  The blindness he experiences literalizes the blindness he has for his own life, for the Scottish and their social problems. The protagonist falls into a byzantine labyrinth of social welfare programs that feel like when Dirk Diggler needs to get money to buy his demo but he needs the demo to get the money (here). The themes and symbols and whatnot are hammered home pretty quickly and much of the book feels like repetition. I'm disappointed but I still want to read more by Kelman.

Another collection of stories from Beattie, another assemblage of beautiful moments and heartbreak. With Follies, Beattie struggles against the prison of her own style. One story is a diptych, offering two characters who meet in passing; another story offers a moral. But most of the time, her stories are the same flashes of minimalism, with these poignant bits of despair fleshed out with astute pop culture references. I liked it a lot, of course. The title novella, "Fléchette Follies," features a bizarre CIA agent offering to go find a wayward drug addict son, and it is chock full of little asides and character moments that could have made their own complete short story unto themselves. Every Beattie story is like its own universe, something I can't say about every short story writer.

Black Light was terrific. Nominated for the National Book Award, this collection of stories works as a complete work too. Not that the stories are connected by character or event, but by mood and flavour. The cover copy doesn't do this book any justice. Never is it mentioned anywhere how wonderfully dingy and grimy everything is in this book. There's bugs, dirty couches, trash everywhere, people are constantly sweaty and dirty, booze on every page. Details stand out from beyond the filth though, such as the mother who demands her children pack up their toiletries every morning and every night to keep the bathroom empty, and any stray item found is thrown out mercilessly. A fantastic collection. Can't wait to see what Parsons does next.

Childwold is an early Oates and it's extremely 1970s: stream-of-consciousness, various voices, little to no plot, and focused more on class than anything else. Childwold is the town in which a poor family comes into contact with one of the rich sons of the ruling upperclass, a son in his 40s who obsesses over the 14 year old daughter. The voices are unique, and there's never any problem distinguishing them, but there's a lot of excess, as if Oates had a novella she needed to expand. This means lots of flashbacks and lots of family history, especially from the old patriarch who's going slowly senile. Where the novel succeeds is in its aggressive, unflinching look at rural poverty. Oates never lets you forget how close these people are to starvation or ruin. But like with all Oates books, the real allure is her psychological acuity. Everything is so dense and claustrophobic and tense and sweaty. Simple sequences like shopping for a new coat leave characters' heads swimming, dizziness. Everything is cranked to maximum and I love it.

Trust Exercise is like if somebody read Asymmetry by Halliday and thought, "let's make this worse." The cover copy, as usual, is annoying as hell, signalling that there's a "twist" at some point, and ugh, there sure is. The first part, the best part, even though I didn't like it, was at least a complete and interesting section. Though it opens with two 14 year olds having sex (really professional sex), which is kind of off-putting. And, sure, it's weird that in 1980-whatever, these theatre kids are absolute stars at fucking despite being 14 and 15 and so on, but let's not dwell on this. The eponymous trust exercises are obviously the best and most alluring part of the entire novel: theatre kids are forced to reveal personal information for the sake of strengthening their acting skills. I asked a couple friends who went to theatre school and they said some of this is rooted in reality and just as goofy as I expect it to be. But the novel abandons this at the halfway point, opting for a drastic time jump, setting off my eyeroll quite quickly. It turns out the preceding section was simply a fictional telling written by one of the characters. In this second part, a character on the sidelines in the fictional novel provides commentary on the novel in question and its supposed "reality." Ugh. Sure, I mean, Asymmetry did the same trick but at least had the decency not to affix blaring neon signs indicating so. The third part turns all of this on its head again for an even less necessary narrative. I'm not even sure what level of "reality" this third section is on. It's all quite irritating, especially since the promise of the novel is in its not-often explored territory of acting school. That this book won the National Book Award and Asymmetry didn't is ludicrous, as suspension-of-disbelief-breaking as this very novel. I've heard great things about Choi's other novels, so maybe I'll give them a try.

Next month? A special theme month! Check back to see!


Friday, November 1, 2019

October Reads Part Three

Night of the Claw by Ramsey Campbell
The Laws of the Skies by Grégoire Courtois
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
A Separation by Katie Kitamura
Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

Night of the Claw is a straight up horror masterpiece. It's a common tack in reviewing Campbell's fiction to make mention of that Stephen King quote about how reading Campbell is like doing a hit of acid and it's hard to avoid such an observation. Everything is telescoped, distorted, off-kilter. I always feel like characters are lurching, stumbling, their sense of balance affected. Night of the Claw has copious scenes of characters struggling with telescoping reality, their vision tunneled, their palms sweaty, everything on a Dutch tilt. Simple bits like ascending a hill to ascertain if a vision was real or not take up multiple pages of vivid description. In terms of pure aesthetics, this was a joy to read. In terms of its subject, it's a bit of a mixed bag (which sums up my experience with all the Campbell books I've read so far). The novel's MacGuffin, or engine of horror, is a relic from Nigeria, and Campbell manages the tricky act of balancing the colonialist gaze with a more nuanced portrayal of Nigeria. Firstly, that the claw doesn't come from "Africa" is a good sign. Campbell has the protagonist in Nigeria twice, once at the beginning to receive the eponymous claw, and later at the halfway point when he must undergo a journey into darkness, as it were, heading deep into the jungle to face the Leopard Men of Africa, an assassin's guild from the colonial-era. It's hard not to Orientalize Africa as this dangerous, lawless place of darkness when you're writing about a supernatural artefact in the shape of a razor-sharp claw so kudos to Campbell for attempting a more nuanced portrayal of Nigeria in the late 70s-early 80s. He writes about the traffic, about scholars, middle class people; it feels authentic, as if he visited Nigeria himself. But what do I know, I've never left the continent. This is just to say that the novel doesn't feel egregiously or purposefully racist.

Courtois' The Laws of the Skies sounded like my cup of tea: extreme survival horror but starring children, and it started off quite well, with a graphic shocking death within twenty pages. But quickly my patience was exhausted as the novel is cartoonish and goofy in all the wrong ways. Three teachers take an entire kindergarten class camping in the woods (would never happen) and one kid kills a teacher, setting the class in a panic, allowing them to run to their doom in various ways—the funniest being poisoned to death by berries. The problem is the novel's Frenchness; its incessant insistence that this is not pulp but rather serious literature. The French have written terrific pulp! There's nothing to be ashamed about if you're writing pulp! So why is Courtois so afraid of having a laugh? He spends so much time philsophizing, putting words in the children's mouths, words they'd never speak, and the odd direct address to the audience. I couldn't help but roll my eyes. 

Moon Tiger is obviously a re-read and it's as good as I remember it, though not nearly as adventurous as I recall. I had the notion in my head the timeline was a lot more scrambled, but the protagonist's memories unspool quite linearly. Not that this is much of a nitpick; I still adored this novel and I can't think of another Booker winner I rate this highly. 

Kitamura's A Separation was a revelation. One of my favourite books of the year. Reminded me a lot of Levy's Hot Milk, but this was far more controlled, far more modulated, to the point where you can and should begin to question the first person narrator. Her thoughts colour everything and I couldn't help but question if the assumptions and conclusions she would leap to were correct. A stunning work of observation, with beautifully drawn moments of looking. Can't wait to read something new from this writer.

Girl, Woman, Other is the 2019 co-winner of the Booker and I had assumed from its reputation that this would be a slightly difficult book in the way that Milkman is touted to be. But alas, the prose in GWO is fairly rote in execution. The cover copy promises hybridized prose with poetry and sure, there's unconventional paragraph shapes but that's not that uncommon in the Year of Our Lord 2019. The novel is readable, very much so (took me two days to read it) and the characters were very lively, very believable. I couldn't quite shake the feeling that Evaristo was ticking boxes with all her characters. Maybe a sustained portrait of less characters would have been more impactful.