I’m moving! From Tumblr to… literaryvice.ca
I hope to see you there. Thanks for the four years of reading (!) and I look forward to many more in the new - more reader friendly - format.
Update your bookmarks, etc.
I’m moving! From Tumblr to… literaryvice.ca
I hope to see you there. Thanks for the four years of reading (!) and I look forward to many more in the new - more reader friendly - format.
Update your bookmarks, etc.
Oh I loved Kevin Wilson’s *The Family Fang*! Funny, whimsical, smart. The premise: two performance/conceptual artists have two children A and B who they raise as part of their art. The children and parents perform their disruptive, chaotic art as the children grow-up. Once grown, the children abandon their parents/the art to pursue their respective lives as an actor and writer. A split timeline allows the reader to follow the present of the two children (Annie and Buster) as they grapple with failures in their lives and the disappearance of their parents as well as the past lives of their art pieces/growing up.
The interwoven scenes and the unfolding plot let the reader explore - through humour, the absurd and a reworking of the classic take on the modern American family - what it means to make art, what constitutes commitment and trust, what we owe our parents/children and the limits of familial love.
A terrific read.
I’m two books behind on blogging in part because I wasn’t sure how to review Noviolet Bulawayo’s *We Need New Names.” Not that I wasn’t sure whether it was a great book - it is - but because I wasn’t sure how to capture its complexity and subtlety. I haven’t come any closer to figuring it out, but I ought to do my best before my classic E. memory loses the details. Though it’s been over a week and the narrative lingers, so perhaps that’s a telling enough quality.
The book follows Darling as she immigrates from an unnamed African country to America. (Though we might suppose from the details of its political history that the country is Zimbabwe, except in some senses trying to ‘figure out’ the country takes away from the message in the book that African countries are imagined by Western audiences as uniform and interchangeable.
The book opens with rich scenes of her childhood at home: the bonds among her friends, the tensions among her community, the NGOs that service it and the white inhabitants of the town. These scenes are then contrasted with Darling’s arrival in America where the refuge she seeks and the prosperity she imagines is complicated by the American problems of minimum wage, eating disorders, porn and alcoholism. She arrives in her oft imagined DestroyedMichigan, or Detroit - one of the most masterful elements of this book is the way Bulawayo plays with and comments on language. Through the manipulation of words on the page she demonstrates the thematic question she explores through her characters about the power of English, the limitations of language to express real affect, trauma and dislocation and the ways in which mastering/mimicking English is imagined as a parallel to gaining mastery over one’s self and world.
Unfolding in her journey are questions for the reader about inequality, resource management, international relations and concomitant questions about exploitation (of the poor, the environment, other countries). But for me the most disturbing questions were around relativism of suffering. Darling’s life in America certainly reveals the many ways in which the “Paradise” of the West is fraught with its own traumas and suffering - not the least of which is the irreconcilable sense of an identity that is neither American nor of Zimbabwe. But these traumas are diminished by Darling for not being *as* terrible as those experienced at home. Her hometown in Zimbabwe is named Paradise - a perhaps too-obvious irony and invitation to question where the “true” Paradise might be located: no where. And if the book argues that the so-called traumas of American life are insignificant in comparison to those suffered abroad, what does that do to the reader who must - on some level - identify with and experience the “injustices” of Western life? How can the individual reconcile their specific experience of suffering with the recognition that elsewhere the causes/sources/experience of suffering is exponentially worse?
I suppose I (perhaps unfairly) wanted the book to offer some explanation or solution to the question of the relativism of suffering, some way to mitigate guilt or self-recrimination? maybe. or perhaps a way to think about inequality in a way beyond the level of recognition. A way, too, for Darling to make sense of her stuck-between identity. That any emotion she has she must always reimagine in light of what she has been spared. She doesn’t allow herself to feel lonely because it could be so much worse. Where does this refusal of suffering leave Darling? or the reader?
I read historical fiction because I love the careful (and sometimes casual) intersection of the factual and the imagined, the playful ways these two imagined-as-discrete categories reveal one another to be permeable and fluid. The ways I learn the traditional historical timeline - the IRA formed in these years under these leaders with these goals - as well as the ahistorical lessons of any good fiction - the cruelties of income inequality, sacrifices of parents for their children, the transient/eternal commitment of lovers. A balance between these two elements - the history lesson and the human lesson - can be tricky to achieve. So much historical fiction becomes unreadable as it tries to force an independently brilliant narrative onto the historical lesson it wants to teach; similarly, the stories that miss the opportunity to tell a resonant story in the peculiar (misguided?) commitment to telling it Just The Way It Was.
Roddy Doyle’s *A Star Called Henry* is perfect historical fiction. It imagines an unsung hero of Irish history and gives him a biography, a set of triumphs and losses, a grand and history-making ending — even though he never existed and isn’t “real” by any historian’s estimation. It’s perfect in that Henry’s biography - that of a homeless orphan who becomes a larger-than-life myth - depends on fiction and myth for its making (metafiction!) just as the novel relies on the imagined to tell its truer-than-truth story of Irish history.
And what a story. Like my understanding of Russian history I had previously wandered about in an embarrassed ignorance of Irish history hoping I’d never be in a circumstance when I’d have to expose how very little I knew. I knew that the IRA was a thing. That “the troubles” existed. Bombs had exploded, etc. But why? when did it start? who cares? Well *A Star Called Henry* gives this history through Henry in a way that makes it personal, non-partisan and engrossing.
My one complaint comes in what/who gets lost in this story. Henry’s mother, Melody, figures as the tragic figure of the Irish underclass. Lost because of the triumvirate of poverty: inadequate housing, nutrition and health care. Henry, who takes to an independent life on the streets at age four loses his mother and that’s the end of her story. At that point in the novel she becomes the functional symbol of loss and grief for Henry. Likewise his wife - first name unknown - is an independent, fierce and unstoppable woman in her own right, but we know her only through her relation to Henry. I appreciate the narration that makes this Henry’s story, I do. And perhaps its a testament to the strength of these characters and this novel that I wanted more of these secondary characters. I wanted their narratives as full as Henry’s - even though his is a patchy work of missing periods and jumped chronology.
Though having poked around I see that *A Star Called Henry* is but the first novel in a triology. So perhaps this complaint gets redressed in the later two novels. I’ll definitely be reading them, so will let you know. In fact, I’m embarrassed both by my scant knowledge of Irish history and that this is the first book by Roddy Doyle I’ve read. He’s brilliant. Really. And this book, well, I do think it’s historical fiction perfection. So there.
Rating: If you’re so inclined, or you shouldn’t
I love thrillers and police procedurals. So much. Law and Order is a staple in my life - feeling anxious? watch the predictable unfolding of 44 minutes. With Andrew Pyper’s *Lost Girls” (see a few posts ago for his Demonologist) I wanted to be swept up and riveted by the book. The back cover made me hopeful. The early chapters even more so. But, like the Demonologist, the premise and the opening salvo left so much to be desired.
In reading the acknowledgements (aside: I *love* the acknowledgements in novels. I wish they were longer - see Dave Eggers’ acknowledgements in AHWOSG for a good model - just kidding, but not really) I noticed that Pyper had previously published sections of the novel in journals. I suspect (because the book makes me a detective?) that the few chapters at the beginning - briefly returned later in the novel - focused on the young kids at the lake was a brilliantly written and published short story. But the rest of the novel that tries to take this exceptional opening premise and extend it is just… not good.
The suspense isn’t suspenseful. I don’t care about our protagonist. I don’t believe his fear. Even if I did, I don’t care whether he’s scared. The unbelievable elements - ghost woman at the lake who steals children - is introduced as a ghost story within the narrative, not as something compelling or real in her own right. As a result the story-within-a-story that lacks the thematic depth that you might expect from a story-within-a-story and instead serves a simple plot purpose: to introduce the complicating “ghostly” element of the murder mystery. It’s a weak way to introduce this element and that the rest of the plot is premised on this weak element means that well… the rest of the plot is similarly shoddy.
So no, I won’t read anymore Andrew Pyper. Even if all the Canadian presses keep telling me he’s all that. I get it. He’s got some great components, and I’m guessing he’s a brilliant short story writer. But going 0-2 makes me less willing to climb on board again.
On the prompting of my childhood/adolescent/lifelong friend, J., I’m testing out a new way of starting reviews. At dinner last night she told me that she skimmed my reviews as quickly as possible to find out whether the book was worth reading, without spoiling the read itself (it’s true I’m prone to spoilers). She asked whether I might include some kind of rating system in the first paragraph to alert would-be readers to the urgency, necessity or avoidance of a particular read. Less keen on the scale of 1-10 model, she suggested something like “must,” “maybe” and “don’t.” So I’ll try it out and you can let me know what you think. I think 3 choices is a bit limiting, so I’ll go with five: Urgent Priority to Read (5), You Should (4) If You’re So Inclined (3) You Shouldn’t (2), Priority to Avoid (1).
For John Green’s *Looking for Alaska* I’ll offer a “You Should” rating.
And now for the proper review:
My high school Philosophy teacher, Mr. M, approached the existential philosophers with a certain (albeit appropriate) skepticism. He suggested that the existential questions, while worth considering, were most often ignored by “the masses” or easily solved by “making meaning” (given that life has no inherent meaning to an existentialist) in one of two ways: creation or destruction. He fingered all of us in the room and urged us to consider how we might make our own meaning. I (obviously) still remember this lesson and often reflect on whether my desires to have babies or write a novel are borne more out of panicked impulse to make my life count for something than from any intrinsic desire to have a [baby] [novel] [marathon completion].
John Green’s *Looking for Alaska* has its own Mr. M in the form of the curmudgeonly Religion teacher who pushes his students to think beyond memorizing names or dates and to think instead about the implications of religious questions in their everyday lives. But more than a teacher figure, the text asks and answers the same question: What can we expect out of life? What makes life meaningful? What responsibility/authority do we have to make our lives worth living?
These questions are explored against the usual drama of teenagers at boarding school: pranks, lust, foreign exchange students and too much calculus. Think John Knowle’s A Separate Peace rewritten for 2006 and with a massive online cult following.
It’s a brilliant book not for any particular innovations in plot - that much is pretty staid - but for its novel answer to the question of what makes life meaningful? I won’t do too much spoiling in giving the answer, but the novel took my usual atheist angst about my inevitable death and consumption by worms and brought to it a fresh and even (gasp) hopeful promise about why life (and death) might be meaningful.
And for the intended teenage audience I imagine these questions and the answers presented in *Looking for Alaska* are ever more urgent. That the novel does not gloss or diminish the poignancy and “reality” of these questions for an adolescent audience seems at once both respectful of its readers intellect, but also of its readers complex emotional life. I appreciate that much young adult fiction - including that which I read when I was myself a teen - doesn’t shy away from the difficult, confusing and overwhelming. But this book more than many others I’ve read presents these questions as *actual questions* and sees the problem of answering them as one that all people - not just young people - have to muddle their way about answering. I guess it offers the reader some responsibility, too, to sort out for him/herself what the answer might be.
And so because this is a book that asks difficult questions and presents compelling - and fresh! - answers, and because it gives funny/smart/round characters a chance to grapple with these questions/answers, and because it’s set at a boarding school and who can resist a good boarding school story (hello Harry Potter fans) I’ll give this book its (4) You Should rating. Go read it. You Should for the book’s sake and because it will help you look/be hip and cool with the teenage crowd (so hot right now).
I’m generally wary of self-described “literary” texts. It feels like a bit of a pre-emptive strike or (to mix analogies) like arrogance masking insecurity to claim “this is a literary thriller.” All the same, this is getting close to a literary thriller (note I said *close*).
There’s certainly the pacing and plot of a thriller: Kidnappings, women in fashionable suits, private jets and fancy hotel rooms, hitmen and demons Not surprising the acknowledgements of the book point out that this book is being turned into a movie. And this is one of my complaints with the plot: it reads like it wants - desperately - to be turned into a movie. Forget spending time examining the thoughts and beliefs of any one character - or how they might change! - we! have! plot! to! consider! It is a gripping plot, though. I made it through the book in two days and wanted, very much, to be reading it.
I do have other complaints though - are these outweighed by the compelling plot? hard to say. I was okay with the demons and the parallels with the Da Vinci Code (mostly because this was much better written). I was less okay with the various explanations for why our narrator was beset with demons. The novel suggests that demons are all around us, and those suffering from depression may be more likely or more able to “see” these demons. Okay. I’ll accept. But then the novel trots out - almost on a chapterly basis - different hypotheses for why the demons have decided to wreak havoc with David’s life. Not that I’m not interested in the theories, but that each one was presented as “the” reason, so I’d try to absorb that reason and make it fit with the bizzare plot elements only to have “the” reason change a chapter later. It made character motivation and action hard to believe and it made subsequent “reasons” for the demons feel like they were created to suit the particular plot point.
That is to say, the plot was so overpowering that everything else - including reasons for plot points - had to be subsumed to the whim of plot.
So there’s no real character development - David doesn’t come to understand his father, brother, lover, wife, daughter or self any differently than he did before, now he just accepts demons exist because they showed up and ate his face (not really) - no sense of setting (they drive across the continent and it reads like a movie script describing them in a car rather than the setting having any meaningful relationship to the story). No real thematic or moral question, except perhaps “what would you do for a demon?”
So yeah. “Literary” if you take literary in the sense that the writing wasn’t terrible - there were some okay descriptions and useful figurative language. And for all those complaints, still undeniably readable. LIke gobble it up readable. I might even read Pyper’s other - more famous - “Lost Girls” if only to see if the idea of “literary thriller” exists or if my bias against the genre outweighs any strength in the writing,
Published in 1965 John William’s *Stoner* reads like something written forty years earlier. I’m not sure how I’d never heard of the book before, though a quick search of the internet suggests no one else has either (thanks mum for point it out to me). It was reissued in 2006 by New York Review of Books with an accompanying set of quotes from famous people (Tom Hanks endorses it!) pointing out its relative obscurity. So! If you’re looking for that hipster book that will set you apart as a reader who knows what’s what… No really, this book well deserves much more attention (something beyond a Wikipedia *stub* for instance).
Except it’s sort of a thematically appropriate obsolescence and obscurity. The novel takes a realist and measured approach to the question of what makes our lives meaningful - recognition? reputation? family? career? - and ultimately concludes that most of us - including our titular character and protagonist - will die unremarkable and unremembered (just like the book!). Against the idea that this obscurity is to be bemoaned or fought, the novel suggest that by embracing the small, idiosyncratic “purposes” that enliven our individual lives we can find, if not notoriety, then contentment. This message is one well worth considering in an era of ubiquitous fame and instant-celebrity. Instead of imagining that life fulfilment will come from celebrity, or even posthumous remembrance, the novel suggests that it is the quotidian and the insignificant that afford life its purpose and satisfaction.
In a similar vein the novel poses that the disasters that befall us (our protagonist is an English professor at a small American college who cannot communicate his desires, married to an unhappy and angry woman, father to an unhappy and angry daughter) as smaller - even to ourselves - than we might imagine. Disasters of workplace tension are nothing compared to the personal horror of making the wrong choice in a partner or abandoning our parents’ dreams for us to pursue our own.
A humble book about a humble man that is, in this humility, simply extraordinary.
*The Orenda* is well plotted historical fiction with reasonably complex characters, but its thematic questions are muddy. The plot, narrated from the three, alternating first person perspectives of Bird (the warrior), Snow Falls (the damsel) and Christophe (the Jesuit) has a classic development. In a three act structure the plot introduces our three characters and their relationships, sets the conflicts and sees the climax and resolution. The structure appropriately mirrors what Boyden has setup as a climactic moment in indigenous-settler relationships - that is, the historical period narrated is imagined as a “tipping point,” to borrow from another Canadian writer. The “resolution” bleeds into the reader present with a concluding paragraph from the chorus of the novel who reminds the reader that while these events took place in the historical past, the relationships/resonances continue.
The chorus also makes the argument that what appears from the present as obvious mistakes on the part of Wendat, were not at all obvious at the time. I suppose this is where my ambivalence emerges. If the narrative wants to ask questions about historic responsibility for the death of indigenous peoples and cultures - and indeed the book offers this up as a sort of genocide - and if it wants to ask these questions in a complicated way, it aims to do so through narrative point of view. By showing three different perspectives on events the text weaves form and content to emphasize not only multiple perspectives in historiography, but multiple perspectives in “present” events: that even while, or maybe especially while, an event unfolds the outcome - (the reader’s present) is not at all known or certain. That individuals act in the immediate moment in ways that best align with their personal and cultural values and beliefs, and that to hold any one person accountable for not foreseeing the future is unfair.
As unfair, perhaps, as not assigning *some* accountability within the text for what can only be read as unjust values and beliefs. If the text holds that personal values and beliefs dictate behaviour, the text also introduces as sort of moral relativism that excuses behaviours and beliefs that cause harm and stem from arrogance. In particular I’m referencing the text’s position on the Jesuit priest Christophe. While we can see that his behaviour is guided by his beliefs, the text passes no judgement - to a fault, I think - on these behaviours/beliefs, instead suggesting that Christophe acts in the only way he possibly could based on his belief structure. Historical blame gets diffused into this sort of relativism and happenstance. Except that the Wendat people Christophe lives with change *their* behaviours and beliefs - so change is possible! - in response to living with him for years. Why then, can we we not see some change in Christophe?
The unwillingness to adopt or present a *position* on the history can be seen again in the descriptions of torture. The Haudenosaunee and Wendat routinely torture one another; in a few lines the Jesuits compare this torture to torture occurring as part of the Spanish Inquisition, as a way, I suspect, of suggesting that neither is more “savage” than ther other, just practicing their particular beliefs in ways appropriate to their respective (cultures). This point is one Boyden raises in interviews, too, I suspect as a way of diffusing criticism that the narrative presents the indigenous as “savage torturers.” Except by equating one form of torture with another the narrative repeats this kind of moral equivalency and so, moral ambivalence. I’m dissatisfied with this equivalence/ambivalence because it seems to me from the perspective of the present - and from the present reading into this past - the events that led us to today are not (at all) open to relativism and ambivalence. Responsibility ought to be assigned in the past, and responsibility ought to be acknowledged/taken in the present.
That said, I’m excited and curious to hear how the book gets taken up by the reading public. With all the “buzz” the book is getting I’m confident it will be on many reading and prize lists and it will most certainly stimulate lively conversation - an outcome the book well deserves. I look forward to hearing what you think and to talking about the book and the history-present it describes.
G. bought me Haruki Murakami’s *What I Talk About When I Talk About Running* for my birthday this year. It was a thoughtful gift in that the book combines the things I love best in the world: running, writing and reading. Alas, shortly before my birthday I sustained a concussion and was unable to read or run for several weeks (a near intolerable state). In any case, between the concussion and its recovery (I’m only now able to run 15km at a time) I hesitated to read Murakami’s book. I suspected (rightly) that whatever his intention, I was going to read the book as an indictment against non-runners and a clarion call to pick up my shoes.
Hence reading the book now that I’m able to run again. And I’m glad I waited. Sure the book is about a lot of other things, among them the “making” of time for things like running, the illumination that comes from solitude, the benefits of self-awareness in defining and reaching goals and the need for determination and courage in meeting these goals. More explicitly the book is also a book about writing and the writers life. A sort of metaphoric welding of how (long distance) running-is-like-writing and how writing-is-like-running: both require determination, focus, sacrifice and solitude.
And both, for Murakami, are to be admired. Oh sure, at several points in the book he makes claims about how these things he does - long distance running or writing - are just his personal preferences and *not* to be mistaken for declarations of what *should* be for everyone, and yet, an unmistakable tone of arrogance and self-satisfied judgements underpins these very claims. For instance, on discussing his choice in shoes, he writes “I like the fact that this brand of shoes doesn’t have any extra bells and whistles. This is just my personal preference nothing more. Each person has his own likes […] They have no gimmicks, no sense of style, no catchy slogan. So to the average consumer, they have little appeal” (92). In setting up the shoes as the bare-bones runners and putting these in contrast with the “average consumer” who will be taken in by “gimmicks” (bright colours? snappy laces?) Murakami implicitly makes himself - the exceptional consumer - one who is wise to the gimmick and a “real” runner. The rest of us, who hold our “personal preferences” just happen to have a crasser preference.
This tone that says on the one hand “to each her own” and the other “but other approaches are inferior” smacks of an arrogance that I found tough to get past. Much as I felt the book was written for me - a reader, a runner, a writer - and much as I could identify with the parallels he drew among these activities, I couldn’t get past the quiet arrogance that permeated the text that argued for these activities as superior. That by taking part in marathons (and Murakami pointed out that he’s also done ultramarathons the *real* marathon in the age of the bucket list and that in his younger years he ran marathons in “good” times inviting, of course, the observation that there are “bad” times) Murakami was proving his credentials as a masochist. Sort of like the colleague who constantly complains of being “sooooo” busy, or the insomniac who takes pleasure in how little sleep he gets “I’m sooooo tired” as if to take you to task for managing your time well, or getting enough sleep for health, or - heaven forbid - enjoy social sports, watching television, running a mere 4:30 marathon and buying shoes in bright colours.
And clearly I do identify with parts of Murakmi’s work and attitude to non-runners. I started out this post, after all, pointing out that I *do* run, talking about how far I run and explaining away my slow arrival to the book. So yes, I see myself in the arrogance of the long-distance runner, and I don’t like it. So perhaps a point of praise in that I like to think I’ll be more deliberate and circumspect in my discussions of exercise.
For all these complaints I’d still suggest the book if you run - or perhaps it would be better still if you didn’t - or write (though it is a book much more about running than writing) because it offers space to think about the deliberate construction of our identities by way of the habits we adopt, practice and come to see as essential to who we are. That these identities must be worked upon and worked over - that we cannot be writers unless we write, nor runners unless we run - but that there is flexibility in these categories, too, that we can call these our identities our own even if we do not inhabit them with perfection or even to our own ideal. That sometimes we can be satisfied with having done the thing at all (but never, in this book at least, if we didn’t bother to try).
Of the many things I enjoyed about Guy Vanderhaeghe’s *The Last Crossing* I most enjoyed his use of narrative voice. The book moves between characters third person limited perspective with delineated sections for each and in ways that allows the same event to be experienced “differently” by the reader as it is shown from a different voice. This narration is particularly appropriate in that this book, set in the 1860s in the (eventual) American and Canadian northwest, is historical fiction: a genre that demands we readers think about the whose perspective is being offered *and* about how multiple versions of history contradict, complicated and confuse an idea of “what really happened.”
I love Charles Gaunt as a character best of all. Charles opens the book as he receives a letter advising him to return to Canada. The bulk of the narrative is then taken up explaining why Gaunt might want to return to Canada - what and who is there for him? and the book closes with the return to Gaunt’s present as he decides what to do about the letter. I love Charles because he sees his own limitations and failings and does not shy away from them. He realizes, too, those things about himself he cannot know - a sort of conscious ignorance and accepts that this ignorance will impact his decisions. He’s just the sort of thoughtful and reflective person I’d like to be.
In any case - I enjoyed the book. I found it provocative as well as “readable” - that ineffable quality of just being a pageturner. It’s well worth the read. Though you’ve probably already read it being as I’m showing up to the party a decade late (made more hilarious - to me at least - in that this book would have been/is *perfect* for my now complete dissertation. Oh well - even more enjoyable to discover it now when I can just “enjoy” it and its complexities without wondering how I’ll explain and analyze each passage).
I love Dave Eggers. In the unabashed, sincere way that would likely be scorned by the irony-lovers of McSweeney’s, I just love him. Since reading *A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius* I’ve lined up for everything he’s written. I’ve found his work playful, smart, (sincere) and wise. I’ve marvelled at his triumphant shifts in genre and narrative voice as he shows naysayers that he’s not (simply) the navel-gazing memoirist of AHWOSG (as it is known), but a writer of robust talent able to shift in mood, tone and voice in ways that marvel only in comparison with his other works (which is to say, each individual work doesn’t read like a self-referential return to earlier works, but rather a reader who has read his past works can draw these comparisons and applaud the dexterity of his craft).
So it is a tempered criticism I offer of *A Hologram for the King* - one marked by my recognition that I could be (simultaneously) (and unintentionally) holding Eggers to a higher standard *because* I admire him so much OR I could be overly generous because Eggers holds a choice place in my pantheon of favourite authors (a blog for another day, suffice to say John Steinbeck, Margaret Laurence and William Trevor keep him in good company).
The plot (with *Spoilers*) in a few sentences? Alan, failed businessman, has a last ditch opportunity to make his fortune selling holographic technology to Saudia Arabia. After a series of Kafkaesque bureaucratic failures he succeeds in delivering his pitch, but fails to land the deal when the Saudi king opts to go - as did the rest of American business - with the cheaper Chinese firm. Meanwhile Alan struggles to make sense of his middleage, his failed fatherhood, his frustrated sexuality and his degenerating body: he, like America, is falling apart and ailing.
It’s a book that masters the Thematic Moment - the repeated realization that the description or the dialogue is meant to be Symbolic and Important and Worth Noting. Case in point a scene where Alan wades into the waters outside the (holographic) city (note the holographic city is in and of itself meant to be Symbolic and Worth Noting) and registers the difference in this water from that of his home. Heady times for one wading his feet. It’s only a complaint insofar as each scene has this predetermined weight that makes the reading feel unnecessarily heavy: we are embarking in each paragraph - willing or not - on something thematically momentous. The end result is that the character, the plot and the scenes do not unfold with nuance or grace, but rather a sort of clumsy seriousnessness that weighs down potential authenticity of charm.
Still, this is a criticism that recognizes its own limitations. I was frustrated with the lack of “events” in the plot even while I realized the thematic importance of showing the impotence of the narrator (see? am I being overly generous?). I was troubled by the manner in which all other characters read as placeholders for characteristics or affects desired or needed by our narrator (Alan), even while I realized the “holographic” metaphor - as one meant to remind us that most, if not all of our interactions with other people, institutions, identities - requires the characters to be void of depth or substance.
So while I can argue the literary merits of the artistic choices, and could write a persuasive essay on the thematic significance of Alan’s tumor, or Alan’s near (but again failed) shooting of a young Arab boy, or the contrasting significance of indoor/outdoor settings - and I’d believe all of this to be true and earnest, the truth is: I just didn’t like the book.
There, I said it: I just didn’t enjoy it. I wanted, so much, to love it. And I think it has much to recommend it. I think it makes great material for teaching tenth grade English, or American foreign and trade policies. I just don’t think it’s one of much enjoyment.
I tried three times to read this one. First two times on an ereader where the need to flip back to the family tree on the first page (the book is a memoir that spans several generations) made getting absorbed by the book nearly impossible. The third time I got the book from the library and made it a least a third of the way in and then… nothing. I just couldn’t commit I guess. And I feel like a first rate reading fraud as the rest of the world assesses this book as one of the very great, and I know I *should* as a literary sort, think the same thing, but I don’t. I just wasn’t interested in the family, in the reasoning behind the acquisition of the art objects, I wasn’t concerned with the attempt to write a meaningful, deep memoir of objects, memory and family. I’m very willing to admit this as my failing rather than that of the book. So take the advice of the heaps of others and read it, but know that I found it resistant. And a little dull. Does this make me a terrible reader? Person? Maybe. But I made the commitment to stop reading books that didn’t move me (either for better or worse) and so I have with this one.
I’ve written many times before about Ivan E Coyote and how very very good her stories are (they are very very good). I recently made my way though this collection as a set of nighttime reads. You know how usually you can only manage four or five pages in bed before falling asleep? Well this collection is perfect because no story clocks in at more than six or seven, each one is a contained little gem and you go to bed satisfied that you’ve explored something rich and deep without having to dive too far. I suppose it’s like wading to your ankles in the time it takes, but still discovering a submerged treasure. The subject matter is quotidian, the narration a matter of fact first person, and yet it somehow manages (and I suppose it should be my task here to figure out that “somehow” and explain it, but like watching a magician, I’d rather not look too closely at Coyote’s magic for fear of having the whole thing spoiled) to unsettle/resettle the taken-for-granted. Magical!
I was so prepared to like Lisa Genova’s *Still Alice*. I come from a family with Alzheimer’s disease. I’m fascinated by questions around euthanasia - when is not only morally right, but a moral right in and of itself? I found the idea of a novel narrated from the third person limited perspective of an Alzheimer’s patient (though how incredible would that first person narrative be?) compelling on its own terms: offering a voice to the people afflicted with a disease that renders them - or subjects them to voicelessness.
And for the first two thirds of the novel I played along. Sure I took issue with the cinematic qualities of the narrative that screamed ‘MAKE ME INTO AN OSCAR WORTHY SCREENPLAY’ and the unidimensional cast of supporting characters (family members). But I was intrigued by Alice’s (albeit narratively superficial) attempts to make sense of a changing identity: and a violent forced change at that.
Where I lost respect for the novel as a social enterprise interested in asking what the rights of an Alzheimer’s patient might be (or anyone cognitively impaired) was in the singular dismissal of Alice’s express wishes to end her life when she lost her ability to identify herself as a self. Don’t mistake me - it’s not that I’m unhappy that she was kept alive (though I *am* unhappy that she was kept alive) my complaint is one with the narrative: rather than engage with her request, with this question about right-to-death, the narrative - in one tidy slip between chapters - forgets (!) to even ask the question: should we as a family kill Alice? Do we owe it to her sense of self, to her identity, to her wishes, to let her die? to assist her in her death? Nothing. Just a skip between paragraphs and she’s happy as a mindless, identity-less clam.