Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist (2014)

August 27th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

In many ways, likability is a very elaborate lie, a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.  Characters who don’t follow this code become unlikeable.  Critics who criticize a character’s unlikeability cannot necessarily be faulted.  They are merely expressing a wider cultural malaise with all things unpleasant, all things that dare to breach the norm of social acceptability.

Why is likability even a question?  Why are we so concerned with whether, in fact or fiction, someone is likable?  Unlikable is a fluid designation that can be applied to any character who doesn’t behave in a way the reader finds palatable.  Lionel Shriver notes, in an essay for the Financial Times, that “this ‘liking’ business has two components:  moral approval and affection.”  We need characters to be lovable while they do right. (“Not Here to Make Friends,” p. 70, iPad iBooks e-edition)

I have been following Roxane Gay on Twitter ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, An Untamed State, back in June.  It is a different experience witnessing a writer and cultural critic holding forth on a variety of issues “in real time” before sitting down and reading her debut collection of thirty-eight essays, Bad Feminist.  Many of the issues raised in her essays I first experienced in truncated form on Twitter, but in both media, what immediately becomes apparent is Gay’s wit and honesty.

The essays that appear in Bad Feminist are culled from columns that have appeared in the past few years at places such as The Rumpus, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Salon, among others.  Grouped into five categories (“Me,” “Gender & Sexuality,” “Race & Entertainment,” “Politics, Gender & Race,” and “Back to Me”), Bad Feminist‘s essays explore a variety of topics, ranging from the personal to cultural flash points such as the depiction of blacks in American cinema (“Surviving Django” and “Beyond the Struggle Narrative”).  In these essays, Gay is not a polished, aloof critic.  Instead, she allows her virtues and flaws to be on full display, showing an individual who is deeply engaged with her subject matter, sometimes to the point of self-conscious subjectivity.  This, however, is not a flaw but a feature in her essays, one that makes Bad Feminist an absorbing read.

One shining example can be found in “What We Hunger For.”  Starting as an admission that she cannot critique The Hunger Games effectively due to her fannish attachment to it, Gay proceeds to write a passionate essay that touches upon a traumatic time in her life (a gang rape in middle school) before proceeding to tie this in to the question of “darkness” in contemporary YA fiction:

In June 2011, Meghan Cox wrote, in the Wall Street Journal, about how Young Adult fiction has taken too dark a turn, has unnecessarily exposed young readers to complex, difficult situations before they are mature enough to make sense of those situations.  She wrote,

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is.  There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader – or one who seeks out depravity – will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds. 

She is correct in noting that there is darkness in some Young Adult fiction, but she largely ignores the diversity of the genre and the countless titles that aren’t grounded in damage, brutality, or loss.  More troubling, though, is the suggestion that somehow reality should be sanitized for teen readers. (p. 115)

The remainder of “What We Hunger For” discusses this desire for sanitizing YA literature, making it somehow “safer” for readers and how it is a misleading goal in light of those young readers, much more than what one might presume, who find solace and strength in these accounts of others battling difficulties and horrendous moments in order to come out on the other side.  Gay argues her point persuasively, using personal experience to flesh out her points without ever denigrating those who believe otherwise.  This ties in directly to the next essay, “The Illusion of Safety/The Safety of Illusion,” in which Gay explores her unease about the notions that lie behind the usage of the label “Trigger Warning.”  She is compassionate toward those who have suffered traumatic flashbacks, but she nonetheless sees an issue of not feeling protected, not feeling safe, when such warnings are issued.  It is a view with which I have a deep sympathy for, as what she says on it jibes with my experiences:

This is the truth of my trouble with trigger warnings:  there is nothing words on the screen can do that has not already been done.  A visceral reaction to a trigger is nothing compared to the actual experience that created the trigger.

I don’t know how to see beyond this belief to truly get why trigger warnings are necessary.  When I see trigger warnings, I don’t feel safe.  I don’t feel protected.  Instead, I am surprised there are still people who believe in safety and protection despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. (p. 122)

An interesting feature of Gay’s essays is that while she sets up interesting discussion matters, she rarely, if ever, concludes them with strong, assertive stances.  Instead, these pieces feel like conversation starters, presenting a topic through a deeply personal lens (albeit one that is informed with critical theory as well as knowledge of pop kitsch), but leaving enough “space” for the reader to leave his or her comment as an appendix.  Several times, I felt like I wanted to write a response, to ask a question or inquire about the source material, and this sucked me further into Gay’s essays than if they had been polished, academic affairs.  Their structure betrays their original purpose as columns, many of which would have been online and have featured a Comments section.  Some might not like this, but for myself, this works wonderfully because it allows the reader space to draw her own conclusions about the topics raised.

The breezy nature of these essays might not appeal to everyone, but for the most part, Gay displays a sharp, introspective mind that is constantly asking questions about the world and its peoples.  The topics are engaging and while there might be a perceived dearth of firm conclusions, this actually ties into her opening and concluding sections, in which Gay explains why she has labeled herself as a “bad feminist.”  If Montaigne’s Essais were the foundation for the essay genre, Bad Feminist is an excellent example of the early 21st permutation of that form.

Lily King, Euphoria (2014)

August 25th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

She rolled a pencil beneath her palm on the table and then she looked up at me.  ‘Helen and I were lovers,’ she said.

‘Ah.’  This explained a few things.

She laughed at my ‘ah’ and told me they had met during Nell’s first anthropology class with Boas.  Helen, a decade older, was his graduate assistant.  Their connection was instant and though Helen was married with a house in White Plains, she stayed in the city many nights a week.  She had encouraged Nell to go and study the Kirakira, but wrote her angry letters accusing Nell of abandoning her.  They she surprised her by meeting the boat in Marseille with the news that she had left her husband.

‘But you had met Fen.’

‘I had met Men.  And it was awful.  Before Helen, I would have said that the desire to possess others is more male than female in our culture, but I think temperament comes into it.’  She tapped the pencil on our Grid.

‘Was she bread to you?’

She shook her head slowly.  ‘People are always wine to me, never bread.’

‘Maybe that’s why you don’t want to possess them.’ (pp. 159-160, iPad iBooks e-edition)

When I began classes at the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, I had the vague notion that I might complete a minor in Anthropology.  Although I lacked a couple of classes of completing that by the time I graduated in 1996, I did enjoy the three classes that I did take in the field, especially the Cultural Anthropology class.  Of particular interest to me as a cultural historian trainee was the value and perils of ethnologies, or the studies of particular cultural groups.  One name that was repeatedly brought up was Margaret Mead and her pioneering work in New Guinea.  Even then, she was a very controversial character.  Her monographs on sexuality in New Guinea caused a firestorm of debate in early 20th century Anglo-American culture, where birth control could not be sent in the mail and the Comstock Laws were in full effect.  What is known of her own life, her loves and passions, were also equally the stuff of legend and disdain, even into the present time.

In her first historical novel, acclaimed novelist Lily King takes a pivotal time in Mead’s personal and professional lives, an expedition in early 1930s New Guinea with her second and future third husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson (Fen and Bankson in the novel), and she fictionalizes accounts of that fateful expedition in order to highlight not just the tensions between the characters, but also between the three’s Western perspectives and the cultural practices of the villagers they have been observing.  Mead/Nell’s interactions are the driving force of King’s narrative and the convoluted dynamics of their relationships makes for an intriguing, sometimes fascinating read, even for those who are somewhat familiar with Mead’s personal life.

Euphoria is told via Bankson’s PoV, punctuated with entries from Nell’s journals.  It is an effective storytelling mode, as it allows for a contrast of the deeply personal with the more antiseptic, clinical approach associated with observation journals.  As the story shifts between these two poles, the reader manages to get a clearer impression of what is truly transpiring than if either one of the two narrative modes had dominated.  Yet there are times where there is a bit of a bleed-over, as Bankson’s account of Nell’s initial pregnancy during the expedition takes on an odd mixture of theoretical views of sex with personal disappointment of the lack of fruitfulness in his own relations with her:

I walked down the men’s road.  A cluster of pigs were muscling each other for a scrap of food beneath one of the houses and making a racket.  There was very little light in the sky, but whether it was sunrise or dusk, I wasn’t sure anymore.  I had been spun around by them.  I was seven hours away from my work, and had been for who knew how many days.  Nell was pregnant.  She and Fen had made a baby.  When I was with them it was easy to convince myself that she hadn’t fully made her choice yet.  She played her part in that.  Her eyes burned into mine when I had an idea she liked.  She followed every word I said; she referred back.  When I had written down Martin’s name on the graph she’d passed her finger over the letters.  I felt in some ways we’d had some sort of sex, sex of the mind, sex of ideas, sex of words, hundreds and thousands of words, while Fen slept or shat or disappeared.  But his kind of sex with her produced a baby.  Mine was useless. (p. 161)

The plot depends more upon character interactions than upon external events to drive the narrative.  The tension between the three anthropologists simmers before threatening to explode, making for a quick read for the majority of the time.  Yet there is more than just character tension developing within the narrative.  Nell’s journals, focused more on the people through which the three move, refers back to the historical Mead’s accounts of her time in New Guinea, replete with the then-shocking revelations about sexual relations and family-kinship connections.  Those brief entries serve as a counterpoint to Bankson’s narrative, creating a multi-layered tale that works equally as a fictionalization of a key moment in a historical figure’s life and as a social commentary on how Mead’s views themselves perhaps have been superseded by subsequent ethnological research.  Although there are a few places where Euphoria perhaps plays up the romantic tensions a bit too much, weakening the overall narrative in the process, on the whole it is a very solid effort, one that will encourage its readers to learn just a little bit more about the extraordinary anthropologist who inspired it.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Niall Williams, History of the Rain

August 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I know what that’s like too, when the last thing you feel is the pinch in your arm and this might hurt just a little and you’re off into the wherever depending on the length and breadth of your imagination.  My father has a whole section of his library just for this.  Here’s Thomas Traherne (1637-74), poet, mystic, entering Paradise (Book 1,569, The Faber Book of Utopias, John Carey, Faber & Faber, London):  “The corn was orient and immortal wheat which never should be reaped nor was ever sown…the dust and stones of the street were as precious as gold.  The Gates were at first the end of the world.  The green trees, when I saw them first through the gates, transported and ravished me… The men!  O what venerable and reverend creatures did the aged seem!  Immortal Cherubims!  And the young men glittering and sparkling angels; and maids, strange and seraphic pieces of life and beauty!  Boys and girls tumbling in the street and playing were moving jewels.’

Paradise has actual gates? (pp. 31-32)

Forget Marx’s observation that religion was the opiate of the masses.  For bibliophiles, the act of reading serves as a pallative, giving voice to our pains and providing, sometimes, a numbing agent for those pinpricks of the soul.  In Niall Williams’ 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, History of the Rain, he explores the ways in which literature, both composed and collected, can communicate those awful little family secrets that mere conversations fail to do.  It is an interesting approach to the staid family history genre, albeit one that depends in part upon the reader’s familiarity with the books referenced.

Nineteen-year-old Ruthie Swain is an invalid, confined now to her family’s County Clare home, replete with thatched roof and lack of certain modern amenities.  Desperate to understand her family’s history, especially that of her late father, a poet, Ruthie turns to his vast library of books in a search to understand not just the man her father was, but just how these thousands of volumes shaped him.  As she reads and narrates her thoughts on her family and their literary influences, the diary-like tone of certain passages gives way to amusing anecdotes grounded in the literature she is perusing:

That’s how I see it anyway.  That’s how I see it when I ask Mam ‘How did you first meet Dad?’ and each time she tells me the story of Not Meeting, of Passing by, and how it seems to me God was giving them every chance not to meet, and the singular nature of their characters will mean their stories will run parallel and never do a Flannery O’Connor.  Never converge. (p. 180)

Over the course of a few hundred pages, Ruthie discusses the known facts of her parents’ lives, of her father’s existence as a failed poet and even worse farmer; of her mother’s exasperation in dealing with him; of the impossibly high standards that her father, Virgil, holds himself to; of how her twin brother Aeney drowns and how that affected her father and his attempts to write publishable poetry.  But most importantly, there is within the family notes and the scribbled margins of her father’s books a reference to a poem, “History of the Rain,” that might hold clues to understanding just how Ruthie’s father came to be the enigma that he was for her.

Williams rarely tells the Swain family’s history in linear fashion.  Instead, he favors a more elliptical approach, in which the volumes that Ruthie mentions contains clues to not just what happened in her parents’ lives and why they were reluctant to share those moments with her, but also why her father tried his level best to become a poet.  This quest to understand familial past is not original, far from it, but Williams’ use of literary references to a wide range of authors spanning the globe imbues the narrative with a secondary layer that enlivens it, making it feel fresher for its more universal approach to discussing the personal.

However, there are times where the dependence upon the literary perhaps goes too deep into the well.  Ruthie’s copious references to literary works at times felt a bit too much, as though she were not a fully-fleshed human but instead a literary quote generator that could spout a phrase suitable for any and all emotional moods.  However, these moments thankfully are few in number and on the whole, Williams manages to integrate well the personal family history narrative with the use of literary references as a means of exploring the human condition.  As the narrative unfolds, Ruthie arrives at the conclusion that there is a price to becoming different from others, a toll exacted for those poetic souls who seek to go so deep into this earth that they are transformed by this search for understanding.  It is perhaps a little trite, but in light of the journey that Ruthie has narrated, it is a fitting one.  History of the Rain works best if viewed as a bibliophile’s relation of human thought to the real world, connecting our sorrows with those narrated by others.  It may not be a perfect novel, but it is a very human tale, one that I enjoyed reading.

2014 Booker Prize winner: Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

August 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Something was happening inside Dorrigo Evans as he watched.  Here were three hundred men watching three men destroying a man whom they knew, and yet they did nothing.  And they would continue to watch and they would continue to do nothing.  Somehow, they had assented to what was happening, they were keeping time with the drumming, and Dorrigo was first among them, the one who had arrived too late and done too little and now somehow agreed with what was happening.  He did not understand how this had come to be, only that it had.

For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god.  It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal.  For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. (pp. 352-353 iPad iBooks e-edition)

As a young child, I was fascinated with the two World Wars.  I have two distinct memories related to this.  My father, a Vietnam War veteran, very occasionally would talk about what he experienced in that latter war, namely witnessing the torturing of a Viet Cong prisoner by Korean soldiers.  The other thing he would recollect was how a history professor of his had been in the Bataan Death March and how his harrowing stories of slave labor and brutal mistreatment by the Japanese affected him decades later.  These stories have shaped my images of warfare, especially in relation to PoWs, as being an excruciating series of terrors punctuated with witnesses (if not direct experience) of torture and depraved behavior.

In his 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Australian writer Richard Flanagan follows the lives of a group of Australian PoWs and their Japanese captors as they are charged with building the infamous Burma Railway.  This railroad, known also as the Death Railway for the tens of thousands of forced laborers’ deaths during its construction, and its construction has been described in many novels and movies, mostly famously in Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.  Boulle’s account of the PoWs’ experiences during the building of the infamous Bridge 277, however, does not accurately describe the sufferings experienced by the PoWs.  In contrast, Flanagan’s novel devotes much of its space to covering these depravities in substantial detail.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, named after a haiku by a 17th century Japanese poet, is divided into five parts that chronicle the lives of several soldiers, most especially that of Dorrigo Evans, over the course of the twentieth century to the dawn of the twenty-first.  At first, the action is slow in developing, as the prewar lives of Evans and other PoV characters only barely hints at the transformations to occur after their capture and forced labor on the Burma Railway.  It is in the final three parts of the novel where the gradually building tension in the soldiers’ lives blows up in spectacular ways.  As Evans, a medical doctor, is placed in charge of a thousand man detail, he daily has to confront the awful decisions of survival and death that he is forced to make.  He witnesses several brutal beatings, such as that quoted above, and these dehumanizing experiences change him and others around him, including some of his captors.

Flanagan asks a lot of his readers.  Not only are these sufferings outlined in sometimes graphic detail (the discovery of a man who had just died from amoebic dysentery being but one example), but just when it would seem that the Japanese and Korean soldiers had been built up to be cruel, inhuman monsters, he turns around and has several chapters in the crucial middle section told from their perspectives.  This, however, serves to create a larger dynamic here, that of how violence shapes lives.  In the final two sections, following the end of fighting, Flanagan shows these now ex-soldiers and how they struggle to adapt to their new surroundings.  The results are not always pretty, as denials and self-exculpations for what has transpired abound.  Violence continues to haunt these men, even as some struggle to justify their actions in order to prevent themselves from being condemned.

As noted above, The Narrow Road to the Deep North starts very slowly.  Although the character development established there eventually pays dividends, it was a very sluggish first couple of sections and it was not until nearly 200 pages into the novel that the story truly comes into its own.  However, the second half of the novel is so powerful in its treatment of violence and how these soldiers try to cope with what is happening to and around them that it more than makes up for the slow pace of the beginning sections.  Flanagan’s prose is chilling at times, especially in his depictions of the punishments inflicted on the soldiers.  Even more than this, it is how he turns these graphic portrayals around and makes of them a commentary on the human condition that makes The Narrow Road to the Deep North a worthy nominee for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

2014 Booker Prize finalist: Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013 US release)

August 24th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Those weeks I spent with our grandparents in Indianapolis still serve as the most extreme demarcation in my life, my personal Rubicon.  Before, I had a sister.  After, none.

Before, the more I talked the happier our parents seemed.  After, they joined the rest of the world in asking me to be quiet.  I finally became so.  (But not for quite some time and not because I was asked.)

Before, my brother was part of the family.  After, he was just killing time until he could be shed of us.

Before, many things that happened are missing in my memory or else stripped down, condensed to their essentials like fairy tales.  Once upon a time there was a house with an apple tree in the yard and a creek and a moon-eyed cat.  After, for a period of several months, I seem to remember a lot and much of it with a suspiciously well-lit clarity.  Take any memory from my early childhood and I can tell you instantly whether it happened while we still had Fern or after she’d gone.  I can do this because I remember which me was there.  The me with Fern or the me without?  Two entirely different people. (p. 56)

What constitutes a family?  Is it a grouping of genetically-related persons who lodge together in a common dwelling?  Does the adoption of others into the home create family bonds?  If so, what happens to a family’s bonds when the adopted member is removed suddenly?  These questions are just a few of the ones raised and addressed in Karen Joy Fowler’s 2013 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, recently selected for the 2014 Man Booker Prize longlist.

The story centers on the relationship that Rosemary Cooke, now in her early 20s in the narrative present of 1996-1997, formed in the late 1970s with Fern, who later was removed from the family in 1979 when Rosemary was five.  Theirs was an unusual relationship, one that was in equal parts grand social experiment and extended familial bonding, and for the first section of the novel, the reader only learns just a tiny bit about what made this experiment special and how their separation affected the entire Cooke family.  Fowler’s story is built around a slow unraveling of the central mystery surrounding Rosemary and Fern’s too-brief siblinghood and a direct discussion of that might ruin for some potential readers the magic of this tale.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is largely told from Rosemary’s point-of-view.  We see flashbacks to various key points in her young life, to how she struggled to conform to social expectations for kindergarteners and how her various social relationships reflected a lack in her life.  Her parents, but especially her father, are shown in a negative light, as the experiment conducted by them has had a deleterious effect on all four remaining members of the Cooke family.  But it is Rosemary’s brother, Lowell, who is the most readily damaged by the sundering of the Rosemary-Fern relationship.  He turns against his parents, against his society, and becomes what might be described as an eco-terrorist, one who is on the run from the FBI during part of the 1990s narrative sections.  Fowler does an excellent job in fleshing out the other family characters with short, sharp observations that give each family member a backstory without the need for much description.

Fowler has carefully constructed the narrative, as Rosemary’s reminisces combine with her current social interactions to create a contrasting before-after effect that leads to a gripping tale of loss and recovery.  Fowler subtly shows these gradual changes in Rosemary after her separation from Fern and how over the intervening 17 years she has come to terms with the changes caused by that loss.  Rosemary, like her parents and brother, is not the same as she was “before,” but the “after” Rosemary, despite her closer relationship to Fern than what the rest of her family experienced, is somehow more resilient, less prone to the self-destructive behavioral changes that have afflicted the others.  These less damaging changes enable Rosemary to deal well with Fern when she re-encounters her nearly two decades later in a very different social milieu.  Their brief meeting is poignant without ever slipping into maudlin melodrama.

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves was my seventh-favorite 2013 US release and it is not surprising to see that it was nominated for the 2014 Man Booker Prize after its UK release.  It is a touching story that displays a keen level of insight into what makes us social beings.  Fowler’s prose is carefully crafted to fit the characters and plot.  The characterization, as I noted above, is top-notch and the plot moves steadily, with very few hiccups, towards its emotional denouement.  It is a fitting nominee for this award, one that I would highly recommend to readers of a wide variety of literary genres.

Paula Bomer, Inside Madeleine (2014)

August 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I don’t want to jump out any window.  I just want to breathe something that makes me feel like living.  They pump the air in here out of machines.  It stinks like Play-Doh.  Open a window, please – I won’t jump – I’m not a suicide patient.  I just don’t eat.

My neighbors don’t eat either.  Eye socket girls.  Nurses drag them with their IVs to the scale.  Some girls get weighed once a day, others, two or three times.  Liquids pump into our bodies through plastic tubing, adding pounds to our emaciated frames.  We don’t like the pounds.  We look voraciously at one another.  We envy the protruding bones of someone who is that much closer to not being here at all.

You may think that I don’t know I’m emaciated.  I know every curve and angle of my rib cage.  I know my breasts have disappeared completely and my nipples lay flat against my chest.  I am aware that the new girl has hair growing out of her face.  This girl’s body sprouts hair like moss on a tree stump, everywhere, to keep itself warm, to protect itself.  I know about these things.  I’m aware of the effects of my disease. (“Eye Socket Girls,” p. 10 iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paula Bomer’s third book, the collection Inside Madeleine, is one of the more direct books on women’s issues, particularly body image, that I have read.  The eight stories are raw, sometimes visceral stories of women fighting, often failing, to maintain their sense of identity despite the plethora of pitfalls that await them.  These were not easy stories to read, but Bomer manages for the majority of them to make them compelling reads, leaving me feeling like I was rubbernecking, looking at the carnage of her characters’ lives.

The opening story, “Eye Socket Girls,” sets the tone for the tales that follow.  Set in a hospital ward for anorexic girls, the first-person narrator pulls no punches when it comes to describing how she and others like her ended up in treatment.  The passage quoted above, taken from the introductory paragraphs, makes it quite clear that this will not be a pitiable character, but instead a more vindictive one who is convinced by that starving herself, she is defying a system that judges young women by impossible standards.  As she continues her narration, the topic switches to a rather uncomfortable topic:

That’s why people fight us.  No one likes to see a young girl win.  We’re supposed to be nice, well-behaved things.  Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods.  I don’t get my period anymore.  I haven’t bled since I was fourteen. (p. 12)

This is not the standard cautionary tale and in the next story, “Breasts,” the third-person protagonist, Lola, also confounds reader expectations by her uses of her “assets” ending not in trouble, but instead in something more ambiguous.  This is a motif that Bomer returns to several times in the stories that follow, that of a young woman defying social conventions and often, albeit sometimes with visible and metaphorical bruises, making her way through a society that seems bound and determined to see them fail.

Despite the mostly-excellent stories of the first seven tales, it is the novella-length eponymous concluding story that makes Inside Madeleine a memorable read.  It is a tale of a young woman some might call a slut, Madeleine, and how she utilizes her body to get what she wants.  A slightly chubby (this is emphasized at several points early in the story to set up the conclusion) middle school girl, she tries to befriend some high school boys at a local skating rink by going down on them.  As word of her “talents” spreads, her demeanor changes to an outwardly haughty yet vulnerable young woman.  It is her interactions with a socially nondescript boy her age, Mark, and their tumultuous relationship over the intervening years that makes this story a fascinating read.  Bomer pulls no punches, as both Madeleine and Mark have their own issues with manipulation until finally the story spirals down to a conclusion that connects Madeleine’s tale, albeit thematically, with others in the collection.  It is a powerful denouement, one that the reader will not forget anytime soon.

Bomer’s prose sparkles in most of these tales, as her characters feel alive and defiant thanks to her ability to string emotion and setting together with monologues that seethe with frustration and the desire to spite those who presume to keep them down.  The characterizations are top-notch and the plots surprise without feeling illogical or disjointed.  While the middle tales are not as memorable as the ones discussed above, the novella “Inside Madeleine” alone would make this collection one worth reading.  Inside Madeleine is destined to be one of those rare collections that I’ll revisit several times in the years to come.

2014 Booker Prize finalist: Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

August 20th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

I encouraged my patients to floss.  It was hard to do some days.  They should have flossed.  Flossing prevents periodontal disease and can extend life up to seven years.  It’s also time consuming and a general pain in the ass.  That’s not the dentist talking.  That’s the guy who comes home, four or five drinks in him, what a great evening, ha-has all around, and, the minute he takes up the floss, says to himself, What’s the point?  In the end, the heart stops, the cells die, the neurons go dark, bacteria consumes the pancreas, flies lay their eggs, beetles chew through tendons and ligaments, the skin turns to cottage cheese, the bones dissolve, and the teeth float away with the tide.  But then someone who never flossed a day in his life would come in, the picture of inconceivable self-neglect and unnecessary pain – rotted teeth, swollen gums, a live wire of infection running from enamel to nerve – and what I called hope, what I called courage, about all what I called defiance, again rose up in me, and I would go around the next day or two saying to all my patients, “You must floss, please floss, flossing makes all the difference.”

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be.  That he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself.  The ailing bits he tries to turn healthy again.  The dead bits he just tries to make presentable.  He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch.  He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match.  Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and lone molars stand erect as tombstones. (pp. 3-4)

If you had told me before reading Joshua Ferris’s Booker Prize-longlisted novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour that a story centered around a depressed dentist whose love for Red Sox baseball was only matched by his failure to maintain any relationship would be one of the funniest novels released this year, I would have looked askance at you.  But it is true, this novel tackles some potentially drab situations (in addition to the above, add the search of an atheist for some sort of meaning) and manages to find brightness within them.  It is an impressive accomplishment.

Paul O’Rourke on the surface has an ideal life.  He is a very successful New York dentist, having a large practice located in a posh Park Avenue office complex.  However, the rest of his life is a shambles, much of it due solely to his self-destructive behavior.  His obsession over religion and meaning, trying on religious customs as though they were thrift store clothing despite his constant declarations that he is an atheist, his repetitive and borderline creepy conversations with former and current employees, his rapid cycling through of hobbies, all of these show a person on the edge of a complete and total breakdown.  Yet as he keeps circling around his core problems, reluctant to tackle what truly is the cause of his insomnia and mild depression, his observations are genuinely funny.  Yet Ferris’s humor, like much great comedy, does not detract from the root pain and suffering.  Instead, Paul’s humorous observations (including an insane tying in of a dental patient to Ross and Rachel from Friends) about what he experiences happening around him serves to accentuate his inner ennui, his desire to fit in and to find some meaning, any meaning in his life.

Paul’s world, jumbled and rudderless as it is, is turned upside-down when it turns out that someone has created Facebook, Twitter, and a webpage using his dental practice name.  Furthermore, these pages contain religious tracts of an obscure group known as the Ulms, who claim ancestry from the few survivors of the first biblical genocide, that of the Amalekites.  As this “other Paul” makes status updates and tweets despite Paul’s protests, Paul finds himself more and more drawn into what is unfolding.  People relatively close to him, from family to former lovers, find this “new” Paul fascinating in ways that the maladroit Paul just cannot be.  Paul himself begins to find, if not answers, then at least possibilities, to some of the issues, particularly faith-related ones, that have troubled him for years.

For most of the narrative, the story balances precariously between being intense and tedious.  It is a testimony to Ferris’s ability to turn a phrase that moments devoted to the minutiae of matters such as the 2011 Red Sox September collapse end up being wry, attention-grabbing moments that sustain the story through a middle part that is less well-developed than the introduction and conclusion.  There is nothing actively bad about this middle section, but in Ferris’s showing the reader precisely how Paul’s depression and self-defeating actions have constrained his life, the narrative at times too closely resembles this repetitive downward spiral.  However, even in these less interesting moments, there are still moments of profound silliness that break up the monotony of these scenes, making them more bearable for readers.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour succeeds primarily because Ferris’s prose is outstanding.  It isn’t just his clever wit and juxtaposing Paul’s foibles with his monologues, but it is seen in how he mixes in controversial elements like non-faith and religious sentiment to create sparks that kindle a reader’s interest rather than burning away any further desire to read.  The revelations toward the end about who is behind the “other Paul” online identity is handled well and the implications of that revelation tie in nicely with the novel’s thematic explorations of non-faith and the desire to create meaning out of life.  This is not to say that the ending is predictable.  If anything, it is a conclusion that, while fitting for Paul’s character and situation, does not follow standard conventions and yet, somehow, it all works.  To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is sharp, smart, and yet has a compassionate take that makes the humorous elements feel more humane and less biting than they could be, considering the serious topics that are the targets here.  It certainly is a fitting nominee for the Booker Prize and is one of the better humorous novels that I have read in years.

Cara Hoffman, Be Safe I Love You (2014)

August 19th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

She had been naked for less than ten seconds when the snow began to feel hot.  Her body, pale and lean and strong, biceps and things banded with black tattoos, lay basking against the glacial ice; a snow angel overcome by shadows and lights, calm and awed in whatever seconds remained.

The tower scaffolding from the rig flickered, and she could barely make out where the dark stacks cut into the white sky.  Just shapes and brightness.  And she thought of a silent shower of frozen sparks.  And the shhh and hush of sand and desert blindness; how it was here too in the snow where everything shone.  Where everything refracted and blazed and brought the world back to the simple material of itself, of its beauty.  This was all she had ever wanted. (p. 3)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is such a catch-all term.  Originally called “shell shock” and devised to describe a range of psychological and neurological disorders related to World War I, it now refers to a whole host of physiological as well as psycho-neurological changes the body and mind undergo in reaction to repetitive or traumatic stress.  Just saying someone has PTSD is not enough; people vary as much in their reactions as they do in virtually everything else in their lives.  But it does suffice to explain that someone has endured something and is trying to reconcile themselves to the effects.  Due in part to cultural expectations, men and women often manifest PTSD in different fashions.

In her latest novel, Be Safe I Love You, Cara Hoffman tackles the issue of combat-induced PTSD and how it affects a young, recently discharged female soldier, Lauren Clay.  Decades of post-war stories have perhaps conditioned readers to expect violent outbursts punctuated by withdrawal and depression, but very few stories have explored the effects of PTSD on women veterans.  Lauren’s narrative is bracing, not just because of the subject matter, but in the ways that Hoffman explores certain burdens that are more unique in women vets compared to their male counterparts.  The result is a gripping story that unfolds at a steady rate, causing readers to want to pause at times to contemplate what is occurring and at others to want to speed on, to see what the results of Lauren’s actions will be.

The main action unfolds over a two week period following a surprise Christmas 2000’s reunion of Lauren with her family.  Hoffman chooses to open Be Safe I Love You with a prologue set at the very end of the chain of events.  The reader is thrown full force into a powerful scene whose import is not revealed until the same scene, with a few tweaks, is repeated in the penultimate chapter.  This first, poetic image sets the stage for the search to come, that of discovering beauty within a wasteland of emotion and destruction.  This is a very effective scene in that it establishes the internal battle before we are introduced to its causes.

Much of Be Safe I Love You is told in flashbacks.  We see Lauren, who was an aspiring classical singer, join the Army in order to provide the necessary money for her divorced father to afford the mortgage and for her younger brother, Danny, to continue to live there.  In these flashback sequences, we see the conflicts that Lauren feels as she desires to keep her family together while sacrificing much of what she loved in order to achieve this.  Hoffman does not linger overlong on these scenes, but instead she reveals just enough of Lauren’s character to establish a strong, identifiable “before” character before contrasting it with the post-combat, discharged Lauren, who is struggling to reintegrate herself into civilian life.

The key turning point in the novel is when Lauren takes her younger brother, who used to dream of being an Arctic scientist before he began to undergo his own deleterious changes in her absence, to the Jeanne d’Arc Basin in northern Canada.  There she thinks to instill a sense of survival traits in her brother, but it quickly becomes apparent that she is fighting for her own survival.  For her, the snow becomes the desert, the solitude of glacial plains reflecting that of their Iraqi counterparts.  Lauren’s spiraling state is revealed via a close third-person PoV, as those formerly close around her note the subtle changes in her demeanor shortly after her arrival, with these changes manifesting themselves in increasingly worrisome fashion over the course of these fateful two weeks.

Hoffman does an excellent job balancing the reader’s desire to know more about Lauren’s mental state with developing her surroundings.  Lauren’s father and brother, along with former friends and relatives, are fleshed out with short, succinct scenes that never feel extraneous.  Hoffman’s prose manages to convey a sense of the ethereal, where the sublimity of the natural serves as a counterpoint to Lauren’s frustrated desire to reconnect with her old self and her former loves and hobbies.  Hoffman easily could have overplayed this, turned Lauren’s tale into a maudlin affair, but her restraint in giving into these treacly touches makes Be Safe I Love You one of the most poignant postwar-related fictions that I have read.  As the story closes with the initial struggle over, Hoffman leaves the reader with the sense that Lauren’s life is still unfolding, that there will still be peaks and valleys to navigate.  It is a fitting conclusion to one of the better novels released this year.

2014 National Book Award and Booker Prize longlist: Richard Powers, Orfeo

August 18th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The officers swung back toward the front door.  Off the dining room, a study stood open.  The room’s shelves swelled with beakers, tubing, and jars with printed labels.  A half-sized refrigerator stood next to a long counter, where a compound microscope sat hooked up to a computer.  The white metal body, black eyepieces, and silver objective looked like an infant Imperial Stormtrooper.  More equipment covered a workbench on the far wall, glowing with colored LCDs.

Whoa, Officer Powell said.

My lab, Els explained.

I thought you wrote songs.

It’s a hobby.  It relaxes me. 

The woman, Officer Estes, frowned.  What are all the petri dishes for? 

Peter Els wiggled his fingers.  To house bacteria.  Same as us. 

Would you mind if we…? 

Els drew back and studied his interrogator’s badge.  It’s getting a little late. 

The police officers traded glances.  Officer Powell opened his mouth to clarify, then stopped.

All right, Officer Estes said.  We’re sorry about your dog. 

Peter Els shook his head.  That dog would sit and listen for hours.  She loved every kind of music there is.  She even sang along. (p. 7)

Richard Powers’ eleventh novel, Orfeo, can be read on two levels:  a fugitive thriller and as a treatise of sorts on music and biology.  There certainly are grounds for both, as the frame story of a seventy-year-old former music teacher and amateur biologist, Peter Els, getting in trouble with the police for having what appears to be a homebrew bioterrorist kit certainly contains enough twists and turns to satisfy thriller fans.  But it is the flashback sequences, to Peter’s former life and his love for music and his desire to encode music within bacterial DNA, that comprise the heart of the novel.

Powers divides his frame and flashback stories through the use of cordoned-off epigraphs that end up comprising a related story whose impact on the main narrative is not seen until the end.  It is an effective device, as it allows for short, quick transitions without being too abrupt.  As Peter narrates his experiments with his dog Fidelio and her ability to discern tonality, the narrative tenor shifts subtly toward a slower, more rhythmic pace than the sharper, more staccato bursts of dialogue that comprise much of the frame story.  There is a discernible pattern to the prose, almost as if Powers were exploring tonality of a spoken sort within some of these passages.

There are times where the discussion of music and bacterial encoding become almost too complex, too full of jargon.  At these moments, thankfully few in number, the narrative devolves to a series of lists, barely connected to the lives enfolding around Peter’s discoveries.  For the majority of the sections, however, Powers manages to achieve a layering effect by these lists of music and muses, such as this passage:

Reading wasn’t possible.  All Els was good for was music.  Shelves in the front room held three dozen jewel boxes – road trip listening, left here in the vacation home alongside battered Parcheesi sets and moldy quiz books.  Ripped copies of Ella Fitzgerald’s Verve Songbooks, They Might Be Giants, Sonic Youth, Nirvana and Pearl Jam, a smattering of emo, albums by Wilco, Jay-Z, the Dirt Bombs, the Strokes, and Rage Against the Machine.  There was a time when the proliferation of so many musical genres left Els cowering in a corner, holding up the Missa Solemnis as a shield.  Now he wanted alarm and angry dream, style and distraction, as much ruthless novelty as the aging youth industry could still deliver.

He found a disc by a group called Anthrax, as if some real bioterrorist had planted it there to frame him.  He looked around the cottage for something to play it on.  In the kitchen he found a nineties-style boom box.  He slipped the disc into the slot and with a single rim shot was surrounded by an air raid announcing the end of the world.  A driving motor rhythm in the drums propelled virtuosic parallel passages in the guitars and bass.  The song came on like a felon released from multiple life sentences.  The melodic machete went straight through Els’s skin.  It took no imagination to see a stadium of sixty thousand people waving lighters and basking in a frenzy of shared power.  The music said you had one chance to blow through life, and the only crime was wasting it on fear. (p. 171)

Being familiar with each of the bands listed here, Powers’s description of their sounds struck a chord.  There is an eloquence about his comments about Anthrax’s sound that makes their music come alive for me twenty years after I stopped listening to them regularly.  There are numerous passages in Orfeo that speak to this love of music and how music is so interconnected with language and human desire.  As the story unfolds and we learn more about Peter’s life, Powers manages to weave together the fugitive and flashback sequences in a complex double helix similar to the bacterial DNA he was studying.

There are, of course, other symbolic references within Orfeo, beginning with the titular reference to the mythological musician who sought to bring his bride Eurydice back from the dead.  Powers explores this in subtle ways, with an ending that is fitting without being too contrived or obvious.  Yet ultimately the plot, although for the most part executed well, matters less than how the reader comes to appreciate the musical topic.  For those who are not enamored with music or at least experience some wordless joy when listening to it, Orfeo may be a sonic wall that keeps them from understanding the novel’s full import.  But for others, Powers’ dexterity in mixing musical tonality with a deep, personal story leads to a deeply satisfying tale.  It may not be the easiest or most plot-centric of the Booker Prize nominees, but it certainly contains a beauty in its prose and thematic execution that make it a joy to read.

2014 Booker Prize longlist: Paul Kingsnorth, The Wake

August 17th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

the night was clere though i slept i seen it.  though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still.  when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still

when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time.  a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc.  none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when there seems no end to its deopness

none will loc but the wind will cum.  the wind cares not for the hopes of men

the times after will be for them who seen the cuman

the times after will be for the waecend (p. 9, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel, The Wake, perhaps has the least-traditional history of any of the 2014 Man Booker Prize-longlisted works.  Originally a crowdfunded novel, The Wake is set in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.  This period, until recent decades, had long been dismissed as being a mostly seamless transition from English to Norman rule, from Old English to Old French being the language of court and literature.  Yet evidence, ranging from folk tales to archaeological records, has revealed that there was at least a decade’s long simmering rebellion against William the Bastard/William the Conqueror’s takeover.  These rebellions, many of which were based in the fens of East Anglia, inspired tales of doomed heroes like Hereward, later given the appellation of “the Wake” in the 14th century.  Certainly in the early 21st century, as we bear witnesses daily via social media and television to struggles of downtrodden peoples to retain at least a shred of dignity in the face of oppressors that seek to wipe out their very languages and cultures, there is something of an echo of these 11th century “last stands” against the rising tide of Norman occupation and dispossession of English landowners.

The Wake is a historical novel that seeks to recreate the mood and feel of these struggles following 1066.  Set mostly in the fen country where the Isle of Ely rebels fought, it is a first-person narrative presented by an ahistorical character named Buccmaster of Holland.  The setting itself has a lot of potential for social commentary about disproportionate land ownership (a regrettable legacy of the Norman Conquest) and freedom fighters, but Kingsnorth makes the bold decision to create a “shadow language,” an English that is stripped of French and Latin-derived cognates and which often uses a slightly-modernized form of Old English orthography, to narrate Buccmaster’s tale.  This is a tricky endeavor, as much of the narrative depends upon the reader being ready to put in the necessary syntax parsing in order to make this enterprise work.  Use too many archaisms or utilize them incorrectly and the entire affair risks collapsing under the weight of its artifice.

However, Kingsnorth adroitly uses this synthetic language to great affect.  In particular, there are instances of clever double entendres, such as the use of “waecend” in the prologue quoted above.  There is the meaning of “the awakened,” but it also bears the sense of “watchful,” of someone who is aware of his or her surroundings.  Buccmaster is certainly “aware” of what has transpired in England; he is caught between several social tidal waves.  He observes the “old religion,” seeing the old English gods in the trees and fens of his native land.  Many of his discourses are related to this connection he perceives between nature and religion, between home and hearth.  The language he uses brings out these connections more readily than any modern idiom would.  As he and others gather in the margins to ready for a final fight against the Norman trespassers, his reflections on his passing world add a sense of gravitas to the situation.

Buccmaster is more than just a passive observer whose reminiscences about the old ways illustrate a fading society.  He is a fighter, possibly touched with madness, and it is the complexities of his character, interlaced with his tales of what the “frenc” have done and how so many are falling in their fight to preserve their lives, that make The Wake such a fascinating read.  The following passage, from near the end of the story, demonstrates well Kingsnorth’s ability to imbue the coming calamity with a sense of urgency without ever abandoning the Anglo-Saxon origins of his synthetic “shadow tongue”:

well there is naht else to do then but tac my sweord and use it as great weland had telt me to cwell them what has torn down all that we is in angland.  this time grimcell is not fast enough he is not locan not thincan i wolde tac him on and no other cums betweon him and welands sweord.  it gan cwic into him with a sound lic the cuttan of mete undor his sculdor and he calls out and locs at the blaed what has gan right through and cum out his baec and he wolde sae sum thing but his muth is all blud.  i locs in his eages what is not agan me now not agan me no mor and i pulls out the blaed hard and he calls then lic a cilde and falls hard on to the fyr and for a sceorte moment he writhes lic an ael on the glaif and then he mofs no mor

well then there is all callan and runnan and roaran and annis mofs lic she wolde go to him but i tacs welands great sweord what is all ofer with his blud and i sae thu (p. 383)

There is a powerful economy of description here.  Whereas a “modern” writer might try to convey this warrior having a sword run through him with a metaphor, Kingsnorth’s Buccmaster recounts this with poetic redundancies.  The sword goes quick into Weland with a sound akin to the cutting of meat, yes, but it is the “not agan” and “not agan” that reinforces the deadliness of this encounter.  This is followed with “all callan and runnan and roaran,” which gives the sense of a burst of immediate, helter-skelter action.  In using this, Kingsnorth hearkens back not so much to Romantic accounts of medieval battle but to descriptions older than Mallory’s Le Mort d’Arthur, to a time when such repetition comprised essential parts of heroic ballads.  Kingsnorth recreates these motifs faithfully without ever making his narrative feel like a dull xerox of medieval legends.

The Wake certainly is one of the more original of the longlisted Booker Prize nominees.  Its prose is challenging, yet once the reader becomes accustomed to its quaint rhythms, it becomes a very lyrical story, one which utilizes several narrative tricks not usually explored in novel form.  Its protagonist, Buccmaster, is a surprisingly complex character, one whose thoughts and actions resonate with readers well after his final words are spoken.  The themes, especially that of resistance in the face of an inevitable defeat, are presented well and are universal enough to address issues beyond those of late 11th century English society.  Taken as a whole, The Wake is an impressive effort and certainly justifies further consideration from the Booker jury.


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