Wide Open by Nicola Barker
Music for Torching by A. M. Homes
Blackwater: The Flood by Michael McDowell
Wide Open wasn't quite the sublime delight of her later books, but I found it entertaining nonetheless and fascinating as a rough draft for what is to come. The plot is her usual ragtag band of misfits and weirdos brought together by "fate" as it were, or rather, as stories demand. I get the sense Barker enjoys writing fiction because of the possibilities inherent to the form; she pushes things as far as they can go within the mode of realism and never stepping over the border into the fantastic. Mostly, the pleasures to be had in Wide Open are in her prose. There you feel Barker's true talents lay: she has the gift of assembling the new from the detritus of the old. A sampling then. Here is one of her signature show-off similes: Connie looked up, startled. Sara was standing in the doorway. She looked pale and her hair was scuffed up wildly, like two rooks fighting over her moon of a face" (203). This particular line elicited a guffaw from me. It's the audacity of the simile more so than its success or failure as an artistic device. Later, she writes: "Through his side window Nathan saw a distant crust of mismatching eczema perched on the crest of a preponderantly flat landscape. It was dusk. Light hatched out like angry zits" (I didn't get the page number for this one). This description doesn't quite work—it's from Nathan's perspective, but there's little characterization to support that he would imagine the world in such a corporeal and/or disgusting manner. Mostly, I like this because it's just so... daring and unique and flavorful. And finally, a short paragraph which includes a phenomenal simile and a sample of Barker's trademark rhythm:
He drifted from room to room. First, Sara's bedroom. It was plain and powdery and vaguely mussed. The cupboard doors were open, and inside her clothes were hung on old metal hangers like a threadbare assemblage of frustrated sighs. He fingered the assorted fabrics. He looked down at the shoes. A hat-box on the top shelf, and, in the corner, under dense plastic, a long white dress. A wedding dress. He lifted the dress from the cupboard. He pulled off the plastic. Net and dust and old yellowy silk fell from his clumsy fingers and frothed on to the carpet. (183)
In my review for Cartesian Sonata, I wrote "the assembly of words into astonishing patterns, hitherto never heard, has always been my favourite magic trick" and Barker does exactly that in her fiction. The frustrated sighs, the vaguely mussed, the froth on to the carpet, it all gives me shivers for the delight of encountering a combination of words I'd never thought of before. That's the appeal, for me, of fiction. Plots are one thing but it's the words that thrill me.
It's been over 5 and a half years since I read A. M. Homes' Women's Prize for Fiction-winning novel, May We Be Forgiven. Thank god for this blog because how else would I have remembered that? I read it in October of 2013 (here) (that same month, I wrote my long essay on Star Wars and exhaustion. Good god where does the time go?) I'm not sure why, in my review for May We Be Forgiven, I seemed so intent on stressing the novel isn't satire. Perhaps I had just read the Wikipedia article on satire and thought I was an expert? That's happened before.
I have fond memories of that particular novel and I still have the hardcover at my parents' house. After reading Beattie and Barker, Homes' name popped into my head. I've kept a hold on Music for Torching and This Book Will Save Your Life in all those intervening years with the hope of reading them. I'm glad I never sold them. I started reading Music for Torching eons ago (ie some point in 2013 or 2014) and abandoned it, disliking its narrator's flat voice and its penchant for seemingly random quips of dialogue. Rarely do people have straight conversations in Homes' fiction, it appears. But this time, inspired by Beattie's superlatively good Chilly Scenes of Winter, I managed to read Music for Torching in under 24 hours (partly due to a sick day; thanks, stomach!) And Beattie's style and influence does feel as if looms over Homes here, not just in the terse, reportage-style prose, but also in the precision, the almost cutting insights.
Maybe my memory of May We Be Forgiven is blurry from the years, but Music for Torching feels less over-the-top comic and less wild and thus, a bit more successful in its aim. It's more focused, more like a razor than a circus of freaks, paraded for guffaws and gasps of "can you believe this shit?". Music for Torching lays bare the secret and not-so-secret ways in which people hate each other, let their bitterness seep out, become rotten and malignant. Yet, there's a measure of a pity for these characters. Elaine, one of two protagonists, can't stop comparing herself to Pat, a neighbour with a perfectly organized home, perfectly behaved children, an ambitious and loving husband. Elaine believes herself a failure. In a scene around two-thirds of the novel, Elaine goes to the grocery store:
Milk, OJ, coffee. There is a row for everything. On some aisles, she shops well, planning ahead, buying the economy size in anticipation of desire, need to come. On others she takes nothing from the shelves; expiration dates make her anxious, the dairy case upsets her enormously—too much pressure.Paul, the other protagonist and husband to Elaine, flits between affairs, lights upon the household like a bird ever-ready to take flight. He seems to float through life. Numerous morning scenes has Paul in a good mood, ready to take on the day, ready to be a better husband, a better father, but his own bitterness wears him down, so by lunchtime, he's already preparing his poor decisions of the remaining day.
Elaine and Paul circle around each other like animals about to test each other's position as alpha, but neither can ever make the finishing blow. They simply circle, endlessly, in a pattern circuitous as their suburban neighbourhood. It's no wonder Beattie and Cheever hover over this novel: the quiet desperation of modern life, often exaggerated for comic effect, beats in the breast of the three authors. Music for Torching is fun, funny, despairing, and a great time capsule of America in the 90s, before Columbine, before 9/11, before Bush, before Obama. I'm not sure if its observations on the mundane nature of suburbia are still as razor-sharp, thanks to the erosion of the middle class and the almost complete death of any mass culture movement against capitalism. But that's an essay for another day.
The Flood, the first part of McDowell's Blackwater serial (or long novel split into 6 parts, I'm not sure yet), is a goddamn cornucopia of riches. I've been feeling the itch for some Southern Gothic and have been pecking away at Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, but it's not an easy read. McDowell's is, obviously, a much easier time. It's dripping with Southern Gothic atmosphere and as an added bonus, it's got incredible scenes of horror. McDowell was operating on a level far above his peers in the paperback horror dimestore industry. I don't want to say too much on The Flood, if only cause I'll end up repeating myself 5 more times as I read each one. Suffice it to say, this is fantastic.