Thursday, February 13, 2020

February Reads Part One

A Sick Gray Laugh by Nicole Cushing
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg
The Needle's Eye by Margaret Drabble
Real Life by Brandon Taylor

That's six in a row that I very much liked—loved. The best of the bunch was easily Real Life, which was, aesthetically, the novel I desperately needed. Coming out this week from Riverhead Books, it somewhat challenges the "type" of novel associated with Riverhead. Instead of being "poetic" in the way a lot of Riverhead novels are, Taylor's debut is resolutely realist and minimalist in scope, but maximalist in observational power. The whole novel takes place over a weekend and scenes have the length and intensity of a stage play, with some scenes stretching out over 50 pages. Wallace, the protagonist, is a gay black man studying biochemistry in a lab populated mostly by well-meaning but narcissistic white people. Like Taylor himself, Wallace struggles with his career choice, his specific desires, and his tumultuous past. Scenes unfold with vivid clarity and almost sensual attention to physical details. No gesture, no touch is unimportant in Taylor's world. Every caress and graze are as essential to character as their backstory. There's a bravery in Taylor's novel: where some authors might relinquish scenes after a tense moment, this one goes full bore into the aftermath. The novel suggests quite explicitly that to live in the world with people is to submit yourself to their cruelties, whether intentional or not, and in turn, spread cruelty outwards from yourself. Each scene is a diorama of this idea in action—that even well meaning white folks will allow racism and homophobia because it's easier to forgive (white people) afterwards than interrupt in the moment. But this cruelty extends to even love; Wallace enters a complicated sexual relationship with an ostensibly straight man named Miller, a fellow scientist. There is no pursuer and pursued in this relationship but two confused men lashing out at each other while paradoxically seeking comfort in each other; though Taylor would object to my use of the adverb "paradoxically" as the novel suggests there can be no love without cruelty. Instead of bullshit prose gussied up as "poetry" by eliminating "like" and/or "as" from similes (a modern trend I despise), Taylor's prose is polished and careful and methodical. There are beautiful turns of phrase but nothing so flashy as to detract from the essential drama of the scene. This would work beautifully as a film—save for the elimination of introspection and interiority—thanks to Taylor's lavish "stage directions." I was saying to a friend just the other day that sometimes cultural objects that are too perfect, too smooth are less fascinating than objects which frustrate or stymie. The characters in Real Life have jagged edges; they're frustrating and annoying and they make bone headed decisions in the heat of the moment. Wallace doesn't know what he wants and he says the wrong things and he can't get along with people and everybody rubs up against everybody else and it's a mess. It's a wonderful example of realism. This will probably be my favourite novel of the year.

A Sick Gray Laugh was tremendous, unlike anything I've read in a long while. According to the acknowledgements, Cushing was greatly influenced by European writers like Witold Gombrowicz and Thomas Bernhard and their novels structured not like novels but like screeds or jeremiads. I haven't read much postwar European fiction, to be honest, and it's a glaring blindspot. Apparently, I'm missing out on novels that explore the possibilities of the form. A Sick Gray Laugh has an unusual premise to go along with its unusual form: Noelle Cashman is an award winning novelist who has been fighting her own mental illnesses all her life. She's recently started a new medication that's helped with her neuroses and psychoses, but now she's seeing the world as it actually is: drenched in a miasma of Grayness, a near-total fog that drains the world of its literal colour and figurative colour. She memorably describes this Grayness as a thick clotting snot stuck to everything. The Grayness allows for regular folks to go along willingly with anything (such as voting against their best interests) and eliminates any heretical or confrontational thought. Cashman begins the book as a work of history, investigating the origin of the Grayness and the history of its epicenter, in a neighbouring town, which includes multiple utopian cults and strange things. The novel asks some serious questions about utopia and whether efforts to ameliorate the world could ever work when folks are more than happy with the shitty status quo. It also interrogates authorship and the project of interpretation via author biography. Cushing's narrator, Cashman explicitly challenges the reader to divest themselves from reading Cashman as Cushing, despite the identical nature of both people. A Sick Gray Laugh is characterized, or marketed I should say, as horror, and it's definitely not the kind of marketable horror that Nick Cutter and Joe Hill traffic in. Instead, this is ontological horror: what is the origin of our own sick lives and can we assign blame to an outside force or is it our own apathy that imprisons us? I loved this, not just for its intellectual fun, but for its sick sense of humour and playfulness. I wish more novels were this daring.

Speaking of horror, Enriquez's Things We Lost in the Fire was great, too. A collection of short stories set in Argentina, past and present, with all the gothic and gory horrors you can imagine. One story involves a guy contemplating killing his own baby because it's annoying him too much. Another story has the ghosts of a SWAT team scaring the crap out of two girls (on the cusp of pubescence of course). The language is plain and pulpy, evocative without drawing too much attention, and the horror is top rate. This is what I wanted Samanta Schweblin's novel to be. It's a shame I don't know much about Argentina, because I can only imagine the political history looms large over the horrors herein. Hope we get more of her work translated.

I read Dept. of Speculation in two sittings: both while I waited for my dad as he managed the long lines and drudgery of informing the government of a death in the family. Offill's dark portrait of a marriage and motherhood resonated perhaps a bit more than if I hadn't just lost my own mother and had to watch my father navigate the gnarled paths of bureaucracy. I thought it was very funny and perceptive, astute in its observations on the casual ways partners hurt each other. I eagerly await reading her third novel, Weather.

I can't remember how I heard of Laura van den Berg's novel The Third Hotel other than I guess seeing the cover in the bookstore and online. I'm glad I read it, even if with some time, I'll probably forget about the experience. It's a perfectly fine novel that's just good enough to be readable but not great enough to be memorable, I'm sad to report. Its premise reminded me a bit of Katie Kitamura's A Separation, which you might remember me adoring. In The Third Hotel, a bereaved wife goes to the film festival in Havana her husband was to attend, and there in the busy streets among the throngs of people, she catches a glimpse of her supposed-to-be dead husband walking around. The Third Hotel moves like a ghost story but is more like a typical American in a foreign place kind of novel where things are Weird and Different, which the novel even comments on(!).  There's quite a bit about horror as the protagonist's husband was an academic specializing in scary movies and not all of it meshes entirely with the rest of the book. But van den Berg's sense of place and atmosphere and weirdness is on point, so she gets by thanks to that. I'd be interested in seeing what her next project is.

Ah, Margaret Drabble. I read this almost entirely out of spite. Thanks to Tessa Hadley, I'd learn of the pejorative "Hampstead novel" and Drabble was the biggest target for that arrow. The Hampstead Novel is a derogatory term for realist novels set in definitely middle class neighbourhoods in the UK and concern themselves with their petty bourgeois problems such as adultery, child-rearing, careers, and the like. The Needle's Eye is one of Drabble's best reviewed novels (JCO in the New York Times Book Review gave it a rave review here) and is about a lawyer bitter with his wife getting involved (not romantically but personally) in the legal affairs of a woman going through a child custody case. Stylistically, the closest comparison I can make is to Henry James, but obviously they're of different magnitudes of order. Drabble's sentences are long and labyrinthine with clauses and asides and she's less attentive to scenes of person-to-person drama and more fascinated by long sections of introspection, similar to The Master in execution. Obviously, Drabble's sentences are far easier to parse than James (who gets a name drop in The Needle's Eye, but not a single reference to What Maisie Knew) but they're still a bit trickier than her contemporaries (her sister, A. S. Byatt, no stranger to this blog, wrote cleaner but simpler sentences). I found the novel enjoyable to read and its reputation as either a useless bourgeois masturbation fest or "an experience as moving as any we call 'real,' 'beautiful,' 'transforming.'" (Oates). It's a fine novel about people in love and out of love and some of the tricks Drabble uses are a bit cheap (the protagonist's wife is such a stereotypical shrew and the other woman is a bit too saintly) but the quality of craftsmanship is high enough. Unfortunately, this puts me in the unenviable position of defending Drabble against Iain Banks and China Mieville, who I think have mischaracterized Drabble's work to the point of strawman.

Banks famously dismissed the Hampstead novel as sending the message that this genre wasn't a genre, but real life, and possibly the opposite of genre. Mieville refers to the Hampstead novel as being "about a middle class world where the people are hermetically sealed from the rest of the world" (here). The crux of the complaint is a bit of genre snobbishness, I think, and this might have more to do with the literary world from the Thatcher era than with the novels themselves. That realist authors like Drabble would present their fictions as being real and thus more valuable than genre, in that genre is "escapist" and realism is not, must stick in the craw of socialist/Leftist writers like Banks and Mieville. The latter argues that "[j]ust because those books pretend to be about 'the real world' doesn't mean they reverberate in it with more integrity" than non-realist books (his italics) (here). This takes us to Mieville's next stage in his argument: if the Hampstead novel presents itself as non-escapist, mirroring the real world, than it's mirroring a world "hermetically sealed" from social and political concerns in favour of minor bourgeois problems. The hope of this genre, if one could assign agency to such a thing, is to perpetuate the idea that those social issues Mieville is referring to aren't worth paying attention to. Though Mieville doesn't explicitly gesture towards it, this calls to mind Adorno's formulation of the culture industry. The standardized production of superficially dissimilar but ultimately identical cultural objects engenders a passivity in the audience, allowing for the normalization of the economic status quo as established and perpetuated by those producing the cultural objects. Because of the culture industry's appeal to the widest possible audience, the objects produced under this logic must satisfy the intellectual rigours of high art and the more visceral emotional release of low art. In that middle lies mediocrity and the continued obedience of the masses to those with capital. Mieville chooses fantasy and other ghettoized genres not for escapism but as thinly coded calls to action. He argues that his so-called "escapist" fantasy is more materialist and less escapist than the fantasies of these bourgeois writers who have the privilege to happily ignore the ways capitalism has marginalized other people. In other words, the Hampstead novels are dangerously escapist.

However, and I'm not the first to suggest this, but it's no coincidence that the writers of these Hampstead novels were mostly women. Drabble, Margaret Forster, Anita Brookner, and other venerable writers doing quietly feminist work have been tarred with this brush of bourgeois fantasist. There's a vague stench of sexism around these accusations, as if the smaller domestic problems of women in middle class situations aren't as "literary" or as relevant as, say, science fiction about vast AIs engaged in projects of utopia. There are two major publishers in the UK, Virago and Persephone, who have worked tirelessly to scoop women writers on the subject of domesticity off the forgotten shelves of  history. We know and generally agree that the Canon of English literature, or even Canons, tend to overlook women writers, especially writers of domestic fiction. There's obviously a hunger for these novels about the concerns of women or else Virago and Persephone wouldn't be in business after all these decades. Mieville makes a strong point that realism as a genre is just as escapist as fantasy, that reactionary politics appears in all genres, especially in cultural objects produced under the logic of late capitalism. But Banks and Mieville don't throw out the entirety of science fiction and fantasy just because Tolkien and Heinlein wrote fantasies of Empire and marginalization so why do they dismiss the Hampstead novel wholecloth? Because, and here I tread clumsily and loudly for the rhetorical effect, the Hampstead novel is about women and women's issues aren't the meat and potatoes of revolutionary politics. In other words, women's concerns aren't nearly as important their manly concerns, to which I retort, come on, man.

Like I say, I'm in the unenviable position of defending Drabble from Mieville and Banks, two of my favourite writers and wonderfully consistent political thinkers. I don't necessarily disagree with their diagnosis of the bourgeois fantasies of the Hampstead novel, and in fact, if The Needle's Eye was written by a man, I might have agreed almost entirely. But I can't help but notice how forceful these critiques are of women and rarely is the same energy expended towards men. Women often undergo far more intense scrutiny in the public eye/literary field just because they're women. Just like how cultural objects meant to be enjoyed by teen girls are the ones most quickly dismissed or mocked, domestic fiction is sometimes unfairly maligned. Obviously, this is not an inviolable rule; after all, Alice Munro is one of the most feted writers of all time and she myopically focuses on the lives of the bourgeoisie.

Honestly, I could have written another 1,000 words on the specifics of The Needle's Eye's interrogations of the dyads "femininity and sacrifice" and "masculinity and duty" but I think I've made enough of a case to trouble to the waters of Mieville and Banks' complete dismissal. I'm not saying they're wrong; I'm saying things aren't as simple as that. Look forward to more Drabble reviews because I was impressed enough to continue.


Dorian Stuber said...

Well, this makes me want to read Drabble immediately. Thanks. Have you read Doris Lessing? I'd be curious to compare.

matthew. said...


I read The Golden Notebook last year and liked it okay enough. I've picked up her entire Martha Quest series so that's on the horizon for me soon enough!

Dorian Stuber said...

Have only read the first one of the series. Highly recommend her 70s and 80s stuff: Summer Before the Dark, Good Terrorist, etc.