Saturday, October 26, 2013

Book Review Round-Up

May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Homes
The Midnight Choir by Gene Kerrigan
The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi

Homes's Orange Prize-winning novel is not a satire but it is comic. Despite its tone, in the first 20 or so pages, there's a fatal car accident, adultery, murder, and Thanksgiving. The rest of the novel propels with the same amount of force and energy, making it a somewhat breathless exercise. Homes uses a first person present tense to sustain this sense of immediacy. The novel's origin as short stories is apparent in the conciseness and the brevity of scene, though this does not detract from the experience at all. Rather, this force of plot helps the comic bits stay funny rather than surreal. Instead of letting my mind linger on the plausibility of situations, the novel simply provides another comic setpiece, such as a naturist community engaging in a laser tag fight (about as attractive and sad as you'd expect). The narrator is an academic enamoured of Nixon, somehow aware of the former President's personality problems yet ultimately forgiving, a paradox that reverberates throughout the text. Homes offers numerous incidents of ludicrous proportions yet the narrator takes everything in stride, including a stroke, and a prepubescent niece who might be engaged in a lesbian love affair with a school administrator. His narration is flat and impassive, totally at odds with his description of his affective reactions. It pushes the reader away, giving space for comic effect. Ostensibly about this family, Homes's novel expands to touch on contemporary America as a whole, including alternative forms of incarceration (rural camping with threat of domestic drone strikes), America's indulgence in prescription medication, suburbia's predictable relationship to sex and adultery, government, legal system, medical system, private school system, academia, and a host of other institutions that are failing individuals all the time. It's not satire, because the institutions are depicted realistically. Despite the comic tone, the novel has countless moments of blistering emotion, including when the narrator has a panic attack in a public park, sobbing uncontrollably though a police officer asks him to move along. Not all is perfect though; secondary characters are mostly blank, including the children. Their inconsistent behaviour and maturity confuses perception of their age even if those numbers are made explicit.

The Midnight Choir is a Dickensian crime novel focusing on a variety of characters on both sides of the law in modern Dublin. Written by an award-winning journalist, the novel is surprisingly poetic, though not in the clichéd "nobility of the streets" sense. Kerrigan's prose is muscular and sensitive at the appropriate times, while his construction of the plot is... almost watertight. The central character, a morally upright police detective, is mentioned repeatedly to betray his brotherhood for the sake of a greater moral authority: the law. Despite 25 years of virtue, he compromises his integrity in the final stretch of the novel. This can be effective for the story, but Kerrigan doesn't quite sell it, turning the moment implausible. Thus, the author does not stick the ending, which is one of those exceedingly writerly moments of dramatic irony. Even if I didn't quite believe in the ending, I was perfectly enamoured of the novel as a whole. The Midnight Choir is a very good novel, yet not great.

Kureishi's debut novel is as Bildungsroman as novels get, filled with all sorts of quasi-quest imagery such as the figurative "crossing the threshold" and initiations. I'm quite torn on this novel. I liked the first third quite a bit, as it's complex, satirical, and very critical of clueless white people in 1970s London, but also post-war immigrants who unable or who refuse to assimilate. Similar to Zadie Smith's White Teeth, Kureishi seems ambivalent about assimilation. However, at the two thirds mark, the novel becomes tiring and aimless. The narrator becomes an actor, which cues the painfully clichéd depictions of upper middle class labor activists/artists, upper class patrons, and the truly execrable cliché of the sexual depravity of the artistic sector. Of course the theatre company director would arrange for his wife to sleep with the narrator. Dohoho, those middle class people and their swinging. In May We Be Forgiven, Homes sells this stereotype by infusing it with self-awareness. Kureishi simply depicts his narrator's growing disillusion with the world of theatre with a straight face. It's not effective. Yet, the novel turns around in the very final pages, as the development of the protagonist reaches its organic conclusion. He has a beautiful insight when he realizes his philandering father is actually in love with the woman he left his wife for. Parents are perceived as perfection, but really they're just as scared as everybody else. While trite and banal, this is the necessary key to the narrator's maturity, and Kureishi definitely sticks the landing.

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