Sunday, September 1, 2019

August Reads

Broken Harbour by Tana French
Water Shall Refuse Them by Lucie McKnight Hardy
The Incendiaries by R. O. Kwan
The Barbarous Coast by Ross MacDonald
The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
The Prestige by Christopher Priest  
The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley
Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
Pseudotooth by Verity Holloway
The End of Alice by A. M. Homes
You Bright and Risen Angels by William T. Vollmann
Joe by Larry Brown
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley

August was very productive thanks to vacation!

Let's start with the not-so-great. R. O. Kwan's debut novel is tantalizingly close to good but the writer gets in her own way. The Incendiaries follows two young Korean-American students, one a former evangelist, the other succumbing to the allure of a charismatic cult leader. The narrative gallops towards a tragic conclusion and because of this momentum, the novel never slacks. The problem is the prose is a bit too mannered, a bit too fussy for the immediacy and vividness of the plot. The religiosity of the writing is welcome and thematically appropriate, but when diving into matters of the flesh, of the irrational, of the violence, the narrators keep their writerly flourishes. I liked this, but I can't say I'll ever read it again. I do hope to read her next project, though.

Water Shall Refuse Them thrilled me less in the ways intended by the plot and more in the way Hardy writes. There's an extremely welcome physicality in the prose, a sensuous, almost drunken attention paid to the body, to the stickiness, to the sweat, to flesh. The teenage protagonist experiences a physical bout of Teenage Magic (of which I wrote about here) thanks to a sexy boy and then goes through some literal magic. Everything is great up until the end, when all the big revelations hit, all of which are a bit deflating. Another example of an author I hope to follow and watch grow.

Broken Harbour was terrific, another stellar example of sharp crime writing from the venerable and reliable French. The opening scene of the novel lasts over a 100 pages! With each page, I asked myself how long she could sustain this opening scene, and to my delight, it just kept going and going. I briefly held hope the entire novel would have been the opening scene (a dream of mine is write something that's all opening scene and nothing else) but alas, this wasn't to be. Whatever disappointment I felt encountering the first scene-change was dissipated entirely by her commanding skills. The mystery itself was more mysterious than in previous French novels, which I was surprised by, but she still hangs her social commentary on top of it, in this case, the recession and subsequent depression that ravaged Ireland in 2008-9. The murder victims in Broken Harbour are literal victims of "keeping up with the Joneses" and she bangs on this drum quite loudly. This novel's narrator, Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy, has a voice a bit too similar to that of the previous novel's narrator, Frank Mackey. But I wonder if this is more of a byproduct of French's commitment to realism and how cops all speak the same. I've heard that the next French novel, The Secret Place, is the worst of them all, but we'll see.

The Barbarous Coast was typical MacDonald: beautifully written, melancholic, fiery, and moralist. Here's a sample that sums up the novel quite beautifully:
I didn't mess with any of it. I wanted no part of Stern's death. I drove home on automatic pilot and went to bed. I dreamed about a man who lived by himself in a landscape of crumbling stones. He spent a great deal of his time, without much success, trying to reconstruct in his mind the monuments and the buildings of which the scattered stones were the only vestiges. He vaguely remembered some kind of oral tradition to the effect that a city had stood there once. And a still vaguer tradition: or perhaps it was a dream inside of the dream: that the people who had built the city, or their descendants, were coming back eventually to rebuild it. He wanted to be around when the work was done. (481)
This sixth novel in the series provides us with a sadder, angrier, wiser Archer, one who has realized, or is coming to realize, that his proximity to the corruption he's constantly exposing will have its inevitable effect on him. He cannot observe without being changed by that which he observes. When Archer encourages a character to answer questions, in an effort to "solve this murder," the character replies, quite sagely, "'Will it? Say you do, then what will happen?... The same thing will happen that happened before. The cops will take over your case and seal it off and nothing will happen, nobody get arrested'" (479). Slowly, with each book, we see a detective beaten down not by the crimes he witnesses but by the inexorable corruption which leads to crime. This novel takes Archer back to Hollywood, where a former boxer is being turned into an actor and an estranged wife is being blackmailed. In what can only be said to be trademark aspect of each Archer mystery, every character the detective meets is lying, cheating, and part of the complicated web spun by greed. While The Barbarous Coast wasn't as top tier as The Ivory Grin or The Drowning Pool, it was still a cracking read.

Reading The Death of Sweet Mister, I think, concludes the set of all the contemporary-set Woodrell novels he's published so far. I have only his historical fiction to look forward to now. I didn't love this one as much as Give Us a Kiss or Tomato Red, but it was still terrific. I wish I had read these novels in order of publication to see how each novel expands its scope and anger from examining the individuals who are greedy and murderous to the way in which poverty and society force these people to victimize each other. The "death" of the eponymous sweet mister, ie Shuggie, the overweight adolescent protagonist, is not literal, but the death of his innocence and his inevitable slide into ruthless, inescapable helplessness. It's a coming-of-age novel in which you pray the character won't age, won't be forced to see adulthood any more than he's already forced to by poverty and rootlessness. Instead of blaming these sad sacks, Woodrell saves his ire for the lack of opportunities and the disparities of class they cannot escape.

The Bluest Eye was obviously a fucking masterpiece. There's so much going on in the novel, though, so even if it's a masterpiece, it's a smidge less of a masterpiece than say, Sula or Beloved, both of which tread some of the same ground but do it in a more focused way. For example, there's a long section devoted to Soaphead Church who serves, narratively-speaking, to send Percola over the edge of sanity, but it's 50 pages of overwrought monologue to get there. It's too much. But otherwise, this was incredible.

The Prestige surprised the hell out of me. I'd always avoided reading the novel because I worried my familiarity with the film adaptation would make reading the source tedious. Thankfully, Priest's novel has one additional layer of narrative the film dispenses with, and it provides the best surprise I think. Especially since Priest's narrators assume the reader has figured out what the film presents as the major twists, such as the Bordens being twins. It's assumed as fact about halfway through the novel which is neat. I loved the novel but honestly, I would have gone gaga for it had I not seen the movie. Alas!

The Beauty was terrific. The edition I have is the North American one which includes a similar length story called "Peace, Pipe" which I thought was interesting but not all that great. "The Beauty" was a unique take on the post-apocalypse genre and there were sentient fungus in the shape of human women so who could hate this?

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy was recommended to me by Brandon Taylor and I loved it a lot. I read this slowly over the course of a month (started in July) and finally whipped through the last third in one day. Meloy reminded me a lot of Richard Ford in the careful unadorned prose, the plain speech, and attention to the ways people sabotage themselves in life and in love. I wouldn't mind reading more of her work.

I very much wanted to like Pseudotooth more than I did. From its synopsis, I was expecting this to be about a young woman's life with severe mental illness and how the world just doesn't understand neurodivergent folks. And yes, that's part of it, for about one third of the novel (my preferred third, obviously). However, the novel veers into traditional portal fantasy and loses me. I'll mention briefly that I'm using "portal-quest fantasy" as Mendlesohn defines it in her book Rhetorics of Fantasy:
In both portal and quest fantasies, a character leaves her familiar surroundings and passes through a portal into an unknown place. Although portal fantasies do not have [her italics] to be quest fantasies the overwhelming majority are, and the rhetorical position taken by the author/narrator is consistent. (1)
While the protagonist of Pseudotooth doesn't go on an explicit quest as in say, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but there looms, behind the scenes, the idea that the secondary world's stability is linked closely to the mental stability of the first world's two human characters, and so, solving the problems of the secondary world will do so for the protagonists. Mendlesohn writes "the portal-quest fantasies are structured around reward and the straight and narrow path" (5) and though Pseudotooth does not conclude with a reward or even dangle such a bauble over the head of the protagonist, the route from unwell to atonement (at least mentally) is a linear path. The secondary world in this novel is Weird as Fisher defines it:
The sense of wrongness associated with the weird—the conviction that this does not belong—is often a sign that we are in the presence of the new. The weird here is a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete [his italics]
It's not a world made of orcs and dragons but a British village, with factories and chocolate and shops and gossips, but slightly wrong, slightly off. Magic might exist in this secondary world, but maybe it doesn't. The protagonist has to navigate this new world and find her way home, despite wanting to stay here forever. But I was never invested, neither in the secondary world (too sketchy, too cosy, like a 50s pulp story from the UK) nor in the protagonist. I can't remember her name and don't really feel like looking it up.

I'm shocked by how much I disliked The End of Alice. I've previously enjoyed A. M. Homes a lot! I think, often, of May We Be Forgiven, and its deadpan tone more deadpan than I'd ever encountered before. But The End of Alice is not deadpan at all. Instead, it's the purple prose of a convicted pedophile in prison who corresponds with a college girl who plans on seducing a child. I thought the correspondence would be the bulk of the story, but it's more about the convict navigating prison than anything. I don't object morally to this novel. I've read worse. But at least with similar novels, like Lolita or Tampa, there's an insidious counter-narrative slowly revealed, in which the narrator is delusional or at least, self-delusional, and a loser. There's no counter-narrative here; we already know the narrator is a loser. Nothing changes by the end except a revelation about the titular Alice which problematizes nothing in the narrative, though it's meant to, like one of those shitty twists which ask the protagonist to compromise themselves morally (like in Fede Álvarez's Don't Breathe). Anyway, this sucked but it was only 250 pages.

It took me 8 days to read Vollmann's You Bright and Risen Angels and by the end of it, I was a bit resentful; not of the novel, but of the time spent with it. I could have probably read four novels in the time it took me to read this one. It was entertaining as all hell, like a messier Pynchon, and just as fun, but perhaps without the singular genius that is Pynchon, often imitated but never duplicated. When explaining the novel to friends, I was at a loss: a war between the Establishment and an alliance of revolutionaries and the insect kingdom? an ahistorical history of electricity? a simulated computer game between two narrators? You can see why I accuse this of messiness. But as I said, I had a lot of fun with it and can't wait to read another one of his mammoth tomes.

Joe was revelatory. Like a Cormac McCarthy story in an Elmore Leonard plot but set in Mississippi. It's a slow novel, with the two protagonists not encountering each other until almost the halfway point, and it revels in that slowness. A scene might start with Joe walking up to the local store and sharing a beer with a friend for pages until a crucial bit of plot pokes its head out. Larry Brown has the gift of living inside his characters and, critically, living inside the setting. The landscape plays as much a part of the story as any other character, thankfully. I will definitely read more Larry Brown, don't you worry about that.

Late in the Day is not really a novel I thought I'd enjoy so much. It's definitely the most bourgeois novel I've read in a long time. It concerns itself with two couples shattered by the death of one of their own, leading to adultery and copious flashbacks. The structure, with its laborious flashbacks, and its slow forward momentum, its cast of wealthy "middle class" people who drive Jaguars, own art galleries, have scintillating conversations about Tarkovsky, pour over art books, and enjoy first editions⁠—these all would have driven me up the wall save for Hadley's effortless style and psychological insight. A very old-fashioned novel, to be honest. A. S. Byatt might have written this back in the day. I read a review of this in the Guardian which called it a "Hampstead novel," apparently a derogatory term for novels of the 70s-80s written by women about middle-class adultery. One of the victims of this accusation back in the day was Margaret Drabble (sister to Byatt, surely not coincidentally) and so I guess I will give Drabble a try. And probably another Hadley I liked this so much.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this post. Re: Hampstead novels, yes, a lot of creative writers have lived in Hampstead and probably still do. Whenever I come across a label like that for women writers, ie disparaging, I automatically flip it around and become interested. Penelope Mortimer is also worth reading.

We read a few if the same writers this August.

Your twitter pal, NK