Thursday, October 24, 2019

October Reads Part Two

Neuromancer by William Gibson
Count Zero by William Gibson
The Moons of Jupiter by Alice Munro
Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry

Speak No Evil is our queer book club pick for this month. I've missed quite a few of the meetings and the books because a) I'm antisocial and b) picky about what I read. I avoid reading anything anybody recommends to me unless the person recommending it is an internet friend who knows my taste. And to hammer home the point, I found Speak No Evil to be fine, not great, not even good, but just fine. An easy way to pass the afternoon. The problem is one of structure. I read in another review that this novel is what's left from a larger project with more voices and more plot, and while I commend Iweala for cutting something down to ~200 pages, I could feel the ghost of this older sibling lurking at the edges of the novel. Speak No Evil follows Niru, an 18 year old athlete, scholar, and well-rounded nice person who suddenly discovers he's gay. Once his strict Nigerian parents find out, he's sent off to the homeland for conversion therapy. Back home, he's presented with temptation. At this point, I looked up from the novel and said to my partner, "hey the story is finally starting" and I was halfway through. Much to my chagrin, this thread is dropped right away, and the novel switches perspective. I groaned aloud at this. I sighed and grimaced as the novel did exactly what you think a didactic novel like this will do. I didn't hate the ending, but ugh, how many more novels of queer suffering do we need? The pivot to painful topicality hurts more than hinders. You wonder what could have been if the novel had had the space to address this because as it is, it feels coarse, almost vulgar in its didacticism. This might have worked a lot better if it had been either much larger (in terms of scale) or even shorter, starting at the halfway point and using quick flashbacks to get across exposition. It's a useful adage to start your story as late as possible.

I spent months reading The Moons of Jupiter until I decided I wanted to finish it. I do this again and again with short story collections and I really need to stop because I struggle to remember the first few stories. The collection is slightly uneven and I get the sense from reading reviews that Moons is a transitional work for Munro; she wouldn't perfect the time dilation aspect of her stories until the next couple books. But I say slightly uneven because the stories that aren't masterpieces are still heads and shoulders better than most I've read. A theme simmering under the surface of this collection is the volatility of men. Numerous stories feature slightly dopey, well-meaning men who inflict inadvertent hurt on the women characters, either through inattention or general volatility. There's the constant threat of explosion or anger from these men, as if just one thing is going to set them off. Maybe not to the extreme of violence, but to the edge of malice, to lashing out and hurting the ones they love. I don't remember this aspect from other stories. I think I'm going to have a Munro celebration soon and just power through two or three collections in a row (and take scrupulous notes).

An addendum: the cat featured in this review of A Little Life, Grimey, pissed on five of my Alice Munro books. Only one of which was irreplaceable (a weird American trade paperback of Progress of Love) so it wasn't too arduous to find them again. I purchased a bunch of them in hardcover at the charity booksale I mentioned previously, so in a way, this was an upgrade. Especially for Moons; I used to own a really hideous Canadian trade paperback from the late 90s, early 2000s (apparently Canada didn't get good book designers until the 2010s) and I finished reading the collection in a 1992 hardcover reissue.

Grimey, by the way, has been rehomed, because we could not get a handle on his bathroom accidents. I'm heartbroken, but he seems happy in his new home.

Agent Running in the Field is definitely a minor effort but still entertaining. It's not quite the angry-at-Brexit le Carré we were promised though dribbles of his righteous fury leaks out. Cleverly, the author puts most of the anti-Trump, anti-Brexit ranting in the mouth of a dubious character, a sweaty awkward young man who we're meant to be suspicious of right at the outset. This tempers the fury, mutes it almost, especially since the narrator/protagonist refuses have his political feelings nailed down. The novel zips along, paced perfectly so, but ends extremely abruptly. I had hoped for at least a couple pages after the final moment for a smidge of denouement, but I suppose the protagonist's last act in the narrative is a thematic end. I'd probably complain the novel went on too long if le Carré had kept going.

Night Boat to Tangier was my first Kevin Barry, though not my last. Unfortunately, it was quite disappointing. I'd expected a more Beckett-esque experiment in form, especially coming from a winner of the Goldsmiths Prize, and there are shades of Waiting for Godot (I mean, how else can there not be with this premise?) but shorn of its stylistic affectations, Tangier is a conventional contemporary novel with dual timelines and trauma in the past structured as a revelation near the endpoint of the novel. Mark Harris at the New York Times writes of this structure: "Split timelines — the bad past that explains the bad present — are a genre staple, and the emergence of something awful and long-suppressed is such a consistent motif that it has turned many novels into waiting games" (here) and this phenomenon isn't confined to genre; this bifurcated structure is popping up everywhere and it makes for stale reading. A twist shouldn't be a pat hollow 1:1 for trauma, or as Harris puts it, "a tidy little gift bag of answers and rationales right out of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." Tangier bounces two timelines, the present (a far more engaging narrative) and a past narrative quickly catching up with the present. I'm making a bit too much of the "revelation" but that's just because I was let down by how utterly conventional and prosaic this novel was. Misplaced expectations? Maybe. But I do want to read his earlier stuff.

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