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, "Fl├ęchette 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!

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