The Distinguishing Characteristics of ‘Life A Users Manual’ by Georges Perec which I Have Now Read

 

Some of these items may be contradictory. So be it.

In ‘Life A Users Manual’, the lives of all the people who lived in the apartment building at 11 Rue Simon Crubellier in Paris fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.

We are introduced to the residents of each apartment in the building by a description of the furnishings in the apartment. Georges Perec takes a sensuous pleasure in describing the objects in the rooms of the various flats in the building. These descriptions of objects are opulent, colorful, exquisitely detailed, and exceedingly long. There were such greater varieties of objects back in the days before all our products became mass-produced, uniform, and always the same with little diversity or spirit.

George Perec is a completist. Perec cannot mention anyone drinking whiskey without describing the picture on the label of the whiskey bottle (“a jovial wench giving a dram to a mustachioed grenadier in a bearskin hat”).

When Perec makes a list, it is sure to be exhaustive and exhausting. When listing all of the food provisions stored on the left hand wall shelves of the Altamonts’ cellar, he lists (I counted; I may have miscounted, but this number is close) 121 items including large jars of mustard and gherkins to sardines in oil to vermicelli to sausage and lentil stew. I found these massive lists which go on for pages and pages quite exasperating. The lists for furniture and room decorations and clothing tend to be somewhat more interesting, but the list of home decorating and outfitting appliances found in a catalog was even less engaging and more lengthy.

This is the busiest novel I have ever read. It wears you down, your resistance.

For some time, I considered the possibility that Perec created these interminable lists of sometimes banal items as a sly comic trick on his readers, and I still believe that may be partially true.

The reader can’t be sure if he is being conned or enlightened. In the long run, it probably doesn’t matter.” – Paul Auster

With his elaborate lush descriptions and long, long sentences, Perec’s style is the opposite of minimalism. I will call his style maximalism.

In many of the sentences I would often lose track of what Perec was first discussing as he moved on to involved situations of his many, many characters or long lists of ornately described objects. This was quite vexing for me.

If you could make your way through each long sentence without getting distracted, you are a better reader than I.

Georges Perec was a member of Oulipo, the Parisian group which had/has as its goal “constrained writing”. One of Perec’s constraints must have been that before telling his characters’ story, he had to describe all the flat’s furnishings and objects of interest. I can see how describing these objects in the rooms could be a spur to creating an interesting story.

I much preferred the sections in the novel where Perec tells a straightforward story without all the clutter.

Certainly ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is often quite annoying for the reader, but it is also endlessly inventive.

Life A Users Manual’ gives the lie to the literary trend of minimalism. Sometimes more is more. Sometimes more is better.

When Perec finally gets around to telling stories about his characters, they are quite fun and humorous to read. If you are not overwhelmed by all the ornate description of objects in front of them, you will probably enjoy them.

Perec expends seven pages capturing the high drama of one of his main protagonists Bartlebooth fitting the 750 pieces of a wooden jigsaw puzzle into a finished picture.

His characters tend to be hugely successful at first but ultimately come to a disappointing end or visa-versa. Many of these human endeavors screw up.

To read Georges Perec one must be ready to abandon oneself to a spirit of play.” – Paul Auster

‘Life A Users Manual’ gives the lie to the literary trend of realism. Sometimes the more far-fetched, the better. Take, for example, when Perec likens the apartment building to an iceberg. I have rarely read anything so humorous as what Perec describes as being in the basement of the building. I’m learning to love lists.

Finally ‘Life A User’s Manual’ is a collection of tales. In the last index in the novel he lists all of the 108 tales therein and in which chapter they can be found.

Perec is mischievous. In the chapter titled “Foulerot, 3” after spelling out all of the other objects in the apartment, Perec spends a couple pages lavishing attention to a painting sitting on the floor of the apartment. Then he proceeds to tell the detective story which is depicted in the painting, a ridiculous story where all three of the suspects have murdered the Swiss diamond trader Oswald Zeitgeber who also commits suicide. The story has nothing to do with the apartment building besides being depicted in that picture, but it is fun to read anyhow.

Perec’s theme in ‘Life A User Manual’ appears to be the uselessness of human endeavor, perhaps starting with reading this novel. One could spend years tracking all the obscure references that Perec makes in ‘Life A User’s Manual’, but that would also be useless.

Here is what Perec seems to be really telling us. The main point in both literature and life is not the end destination but the trip along the way. You and I might as well take our time and enjoy the objects, people, and stories around us.

A more traditional review of ‘Life A User Manual’ will soon follow.

 

‘The Boy in the Field’ by Margot Livesey – An Economy of Style

‘The Boy in the Field’ by Margot Livesey    (2020) – 272 pages

‘The Boy in the Field’ begins with three children from the same family, a boy Mathew aged 17 and a girl Zoe aged 15 and another adopted boy Duncan aged 14, saving a life. They discover a boy in a field who has been severely injured in an assault. They get an ambulance thus saving his life.

The following chapters each are from the point of view of one of these three young siblings. Matthew, while trying to track down the assailant, finds out that his girlfriend has become involved with his best friend. Zoe has her first real love affair. Perhaps most poignant, Duncan begins a quest to find his real mother. Meanwhile their parents are having their own problems in their relationship.

The story takes place in Oxford, England.

The sparseness, economy of style, and the short declarative sentences in this novel reminded me of the trend of minimalism among United States writers more than those of England. Most of the famous minimalist fiction writers were from the United States following in Raymond Carver’s footsteps at the Iowa Writers Workshop. I do not associate minimalism with English writers at all.

Margot Livesey was born in Scotland and now lives in the Boston area. It turns out that she is now a professor of fiction at this Iowa Writers Workshop which is the epicenter of the minimalist movement in fiction.

Here is a good example of the minimalist style of Livesey from the character Zoe:

The pavement echoed under her new boots, the people she passed looked chilled, cramped, in their tiny lives, the blood inching through their veins. Litter rattled across the pavement; a beer can rolled in the gutter.”

I have read more than my fair share of minimalist fiction and I do like its plain no-nonsense style. It was quite unusual to find an English novel written in this fashion, but as shown above Margot Livesey does have the necessary credentials.

In the next to last chapter, all the main characters come together and the various strands of these three teenagers’ stories as well as one strand of their parents’ story are resolved. And then in the final chapter, we see the five members of the family in their new situations eight and a half years later. This is the grand finale.

‘The Boy in the Field’ has a real economy of style, so I won’t blather on about it.

 

Grade:    B+

 

‘The End of a Childhood’ by Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson…I Mean Henry Handel Richardson

 

‘The End of a Childhood’ by Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson)   (1934) – 76 pages

 

How I do hate the ordinary sleek biography. I’d have every wart and every pimple emphasized, every murky trait or petty meanness brought out. The great writers are great enough to bear it.”

These are the words of Henry Handel Richardson, a woman writer from Australia who lived from 1870 to 1946. Yes, woman writer, for like George Eliot, she wrote under a male pseudonym.

Mrs. Richardson applied this principle of exact unrelenting truth she stated above to her own fiction. Her masterpiece, completed in 1929, is ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’, a trilogy of novels, which tells the story of a family living in the gold fields of frontier Australia, immigrated from Ireland, having to cope with the devastating effects of the young doctor father’s severe mental and physical deterioration from syphilis. You can feel for the young mother and her children having to face the growing ostracism by her neighbors caused by her husband’s bizarre behavior. Of course, the doctor’s patients drop away after several of his episodes, and the family is reduced to poverty. I’ve read It is based quite closely on Mrs. Richardson’s own childhood. This is one of the world’s greatest works of literature.

The stories in ‘The End of a Childhood’ are about this same mother Mary and her two children Cuffy and Lucie after the husband and father Richard Mahony has died. A reader unfamiliar with the work of Richardson can fully appreciate these related stories in ‘The End of a Childhood’ without knowing the background of the characters, but for those of us who have read ‘The Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ trilogy these stories are extra special. The stories bring back characters we know and care about.

Mary Mahony speaks of her children thus:

In other words, they both were very highly strung, and in consequence, the strain of his illness, and the unhappy years preceding it, had told on them more severely than if they had been ordinary children.”

No writer is better than Richardson at capturing the poignancy of those tragic and not-so-tragic incidents that occur during a normal lifetime. A neighbor lady caring for the children during their mother’s sickness, says the following to Cuffy:

Well I know this, my boy, there’s precious little of your poor Ma in either of you. It’s your Pa you take after, both of you, more’s the pity. He was just such another. What she had to put up with, her life long, simply doesn’t bear telling.”

I can never get enough of the story from the ‘Fortunes of Richard Mahony’ trilogy. It is amazing how vividly I remember the plight of the Irish family of Richard Mahony out in the Australian bush in Ballarat.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

The Art of the Angry Rant – The Fiction of Thomas Bernhard

 

Another in my continuing series about my favorite writers

 

All my life I have been a trouble-maker, I am not the sort of person who leaves others in peace.” – Thomas Bernhard

It took me awhile to fall in love with the fiction of the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Early on, I read ‘The Lime Works’ and ‘Concrete’ and I couldn’t figure out what was so special about his odd work. I must go back and read those two early novels.

However, now I can strongly recommend Bernhard’s novels ‘Extinction’, ‘The Loser’ (one of the characters is the pianist Glenn Gould), ‘Woodcutters’, and the short novella ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’. I also notice that the novella ‘Walking’ gets very strong reviews, but I haven’t read it yet.

Thomas Bernhard was born in 1931 to an unwed housemaid mother, apparently the result of a rape. His father, a carpenter and petty criminal from Germany, never acknowledged him as his son.

When Thomas was eight, a social worker arranged for him to be sent to a home for “maladjusted children”. Considering that at that time all Austrian young people were required to join a branch of the Hitler Youth which Bernhard hated, who really were the maladjusted ones? In a later play, Bernhard represented Austria’s Nazi legacy as a pile of manure on the stage.

While establishing a worldwide reputation as one its finest writers, Bernhard was always a figure of controversy in his home country of Austria. One of his plays included the line “There are more Nazis in Vienna now / than in thirty-eight.” referring to Austria’s Nazi past. Austrian leaders on the right called for his expulsion from the country.

After a strong literary career in which he wrote eleven novels and more than twenty plays, Thomas Bernhard died in 1989 in an assisted suicide at the age of 58. He had been having severe problems with his lungs.

His will was controversial in not allowing publication of his works or staging of his plays within Austria’s borders.

What makes the work of Thomas Bernhard special?

One of Bernhard’s main writing techniques is the monologue or, more precisely, the rant. He gives his characters free reign to say exactly how they feel and think about things, and it is often harsh and astringent.

Recently I read Bernhard’s early work, ‘Gargoyles’ which is about a doctor who sees the sometimes ugly truth in his patients’ lives. He sees people get sick and die close up, and sometimes it’s their own fault. He sees people’s families during these rough times in their lives and sees the breaking points within the family. In his village many of the men are cruel and spend all day drinking in the bar and then come home to beat their wives and children. These men are frequently anti-Semitic. There are two doctors in his town and the only Jew in town, Bloch, has “relieved the other doctor of the lasting shame of having to treat a Jew by consulting my father”. Now Bloch is one of the very few men in town in whom the doctor can confide.

I was quite impressed with the first half of ‘Gargoyles’, but later when the doctor visits The Prince the novel turns into a long incoherent deranged rant. I downgraded the novel a bit for that reason. However later in his career Bernhard perfected this monologue or rant technique, and in such novels as ‘Wittgenstein’s Nephew’ and ‘The Loser’, the included rants held my interest throughout.

Sometimes these rants get so over-the-top in their anger that they become humorous. The comic element in Bernhard’s work is frequently overlooked.

Thomas Bernhard told it like it was for him and it wasn’t all peaches and cream, and what more can we expect from any writer? He is one of the great ones.

 

 

 

‘Transcendent Kingdom’ by Yaa Gyasi – From Ghana to Alabama to Harvard to Stanford

 

‘Transcendent Kingdom’ by Yaa Gyasi (2020) – 364 pages

First, a few facts. Yaa Gyasi was born in Ghana in 1989. She and her family moved to the United States in 1991. From the age of ten, she was raised in Huntsville, Alabama. She received her Bachelors’ degree from Stanford University and her Masters degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She completed her first novel in 2015. After initial readings from publishers, she received several offers for the novel. She accepted a million dollar advance for the novel from Knopf. That novel, ‘Homecoming’, won several major awards including the PEN/Hemingway Award for best first novel. ‘Transcendent Kingdom’ is her second novel.

When the New York Times has an artist draw a picture of you, you know you have arrived.

So why all this excitement over Yaa Gyasi?

The writing of Yaa Gyasi is cerebral and thoughtful yet vivid and passionate. She brings an intensity to her character portrayals that makes you care about what happens to them.

Our female narrator here, Gifty, is a Stanford neuroscientist. Her research involves modifying the behavior of mice by altering their brain activity. If the behavior modification techniques are successful for mice, similar techniques could be applied to humans in the hope of controlling addictive or other abnormal behavior patterns. Gifty has a special family interest in addictive behavior, because her brother Nana died of a heroin overdose before he became 20 after becoming addicted to Oxycontin prescribed for a basketball injury. Then Gifty’s grief-stricken mother took to her bed and did not get up. Eighteen years later Gifty’s mother has a recurrence of her sleeping mental sickness, and Gifty who is now a graduate student at Harvard brings her mother to her campus apartment.

While reading ‘Transcendent Kingdom’, I learned a new word for Gifty’s mother’s ailment, anhedonia:

Anhedonia – lack of pleasure or the capacity to experience it

Gifty’s father came over to the US from Ghana with the family, but was unhappy living in Alabama where his family are treated worse than second class citizens because they are black:

In my country (Ghana) neighbors will greet you instead of turning their heads away like they don’t know you.”

He returns to Ghana leaving his wife working two jobs and raising the two children.

It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

Gifty’s mother works hard to hold the family together under difficult circumstances.

She was a matter-of-fact kind of woman, not a cruel woman exactly, but something quite close to cruel.”

The familiar, perhaps over-familiar, plot of Oxycontin addiction is offset by a spirited portrayal of living in Alabama and then on to Harvard and Stanford.

Do we have control over our thoughts? When I was a child this was a religious question,” she says, “but it is also, of course, a neuroscientific question.”

 

Grade:   A-

 

 

‘Missionaries’ by Phil Klay – It Opened My Eyes

 

‘Missionaries’ by Phil Klay   (2020)  –  404 pages

‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is especially about the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. The United States has inserted themselves into the local battles in these countries with little understanding of what’s going on, like the war in Vietnam. This is about the new kind of wars the United States is fighting in the 21st century, wars that never end.

‘Missionaries’ is a novel that will change your entire worldview. It is an example of how fiction can provide more meaningful information than non-fiction and provide it in a more enjoyable and palatable form.

In Columbia, the United States has been heavily involved in the conflict since its beginnings, when in the early 1960s the U.S. government encouraged the Colombian military to attack leftist guerrillas in rural Colombia. This was part of the U.S. fight against “communism”. Besides the military, the United States also encouraged right-wing paramilitary groups to fight the guerrillas. These paramilitary groups soon developed into ruthless violent vigilantes, and they also became heavily involved in the illegal drug trade of cocaine and other substances themselves.

Here is what happens when a man is chainsawed in half in the public square of a small village.”

Now US private mercenary army companies such as Academi (formerly Blackwater) and Dyncorp recruit former members of Colombian paramilitary groups to fight in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and elsewhere because these guys have no qualms about killing or torturing people.

Even military people tend to hold mercenaries in contempt.”

In ‘Missionaries’, four narrators tell the interlocking stories in Colombia of the coco growers, the narcotics dealers, the Colombian army, and the paramilitary groups. And overseeing it all are the US Special Forces with their drones, a “higher level of badassery”. Most of the people who have been killed or tortured in these drug wars in Colombia do not belong to any of these groups but instead have been civilians. Shoot first and don’t ask questions later. It was not unusual for a former Colombian military officer to turn paramilitary operator, then turn narcotics dealer.

By relating the stories of each of the main characters up until then, Phil Klay has found a fascinating way to bring us up to speed on his intricate yet tragic story. And then ‘Missionaries winds up with a rousing scary thrill ride.

And now there is the war in Yemen, “one half war and one half extermination”, which the journalist in ‘Missionaries’ refers to as “the most fucked-up war we’re engaged in right now”.

‘Missionaries’ goes a long way to explain why the United States wound up with a nasty corrupt authoritarian fool for its President.

 

Grade:   A

 

 

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson – Unforgiven

 

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson (2020) – 309 pages

In the first three novels in this Marilynne Robinson series (‘Gilead’, ‘Home’, and ‘Lila’), we see Jack Broughton from a distance. His close relatives in Iowa see him as the prodigal son who could not restrain himself from misbehaving. However the new novel, as the title suggests, is written almost entirely from Jack’s point of view. In ‘Jack’, we see him close up in St. Louis, and Jack is a mess. He can’t keep a job, drinks alcohol heavily, and spent a couple of years in prison. Jack is unrelentingly obsessed with his own failures as a person, in religious terms his perdition. We are told over and over about Jack’s view of himself as a sinner and reprobate. Jack’s main goal in life is to make himself harmless to other people.

It was really all about shame.”

The novel gets quite repetitive in Jack punishing himself. Jack is so self-absorbed or self-centered in his own failures and transgressions, you would think there is hardly room for anyone else in his life, but the novel ‘Jack’ is also a romance. In the first quarter of the novel, Jack spends a chaste night locked in a St. Louis cemetery with a young black woman, Della Miles. Jack is in his late thirties; Della is in her early twenties. They share a religious background, both of their fathers being Protestant ministers. They also share a sustaining interest in poetry and literature.

This lugubrious opening overnight scene in the cemetery could have been drastically shortened with no loss to the story. The focus is always on Jack and the supposedly monstrous sins he has committed. We find out very little about what Della Miles thinks about herself.

The time is the 1950s. St. Louis still has anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting interracial marriage, and even for a white man and black woman to be seen together walking the streets causes a furor. Jack knows that by continuing to associate with this respectable young black woman, he will only drag her down, but he can’t help himself. Jack realizes he is doing harm to Della just by being with her.

In nautical terms, the novel ‘Jack’ is not a speedboat nor a sociable cruise ship but instead a lumbering cargo ship with a heavy load. But we readers who have followed Marilynne Robinson’s serious novels throughout her career expect and want something with substance. Robinson does not disappoint in that way. ‘Jack’, like all of her previous novels, has gravitas. However I have to downgrade it because it is so self-centered on Jack himself and gets terribly repetitive.

‘Jack’ is a dark heavy read, but if you have read and been moved by the other three novels in the series as I have, I’m sure you will want to read ‘Jack’ anyhow.

 

Grade:    B-

 

 

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ by Saki, Master of the Back-Handed Compliment

 

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ by Saki (1912) – 244 pages

Somehow in my vain attempt to become acquainted with all of the world’s great literature, I had left out Saki. I have now corrected that omission.

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ is for those of us who love literature not only at the story level but also at the sentence level. What Saki manages to do with his sentences is amazing. In nearly every one of his sentences, Saki is arch, droll, supercilious, coy, mischievous, and whatever else you want to call it.

Saki is a master of the backhanded compliment.

Their one child had the brilliant virtue of never saying anything which even its parents could consider worth repeating.”

His talent lay so thoroughly in the direction of being uninteresting, that even as an eyewitness to the massacre of St. Bartholomew he would probably have infused a flavor of boredom into his description of the event.”

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of the House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity.”

Few people talk as brilliantly to impress a friend as they do to depress an enemy.”

There is no fear that I shall degenerate into that fearsome thing – a cheerful talkative husband.”

A close-cut peaked beard lent a certain dignity to his appearance – a loan which the rest of his features and mannerisms were continually and successfully repudiating.”

I found these facetious lines entertaining and great fun to read.

‘The Unbearable Bassington’ is Saki’s only novel which was written shortly before World War I in which Saki, who was already over-age and who refused an officer’s commission so became an ordinary trooper, was killed in combat.

The two main characters in ‘The Unbearable Bassington’ are the lady Francesca and her wayward son Comus.

Fate had fashioned him with a certain whimsical charm, and left him all unequipped for the greater purposes of life.”

Francesca realizes that her son Comus, “the young lord of misrule”, will never amount to anything substantial, so his and her only hope is for him to marry a rich woman. Besides unless they can come up with some money, they will lose their beautiful house with all its luxurious furnishings. This story is about Francesca and her pursuit of an advantageous marriage for her son.

She saw him as he was, the beautiful wayward laughing boy, with his naughtiness, his exasperating selfishness, his insurmountable folly and perverseness, his cruelty which spared not even himself.”

This is a drawing room comedy or tragedy. With Saki it is difficult to tell the difference between the two.

I suppose the rap on Saki is that he is so enamored of his wicked sentences that they get in the way of the drama and flow of his story. But ‘The Unbearable Bassington’ was fun while it lasted.

 

Grade:   A-

 

 

 

 

‘Failing Heaven’, Poems by Charles Behlen – The Real, Sometimes Cruel, World

 

‘Failing Heaven’, Poems by Charles Behlen     (2014) – 103 pages

The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen are ones to which I could easily and fully understand and relate. These poems are forthright, blunt, explicit, and candid. These are valuable qualities that you don’t often find in poetry.

My problem with much other poetry is that I cannot empathize with the writer. A lot of poetry seems to be written by the Lord or Lady of the Manor as he or she surveys the flora, fauna, and fowl on their estate. It is all so very restrained and refined, but the poetry doesn’t hit me where it hurts. The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ hit me where it hurts.

I was born on a small farm near a Wisconsin town where the local Rod and Gun club during their annual event hung up a canvas in which a guy, my uncle’s hired hand Harry, was paid to stick his head through a hole in the canvas, and the local townspeople would pay money to throw ripe tomatoes and raw eggs at his head. Harry was happy to get a little extra beer money. I watched this when I was a kid, but it was discontinued when I was about 6 or 7.

So in the first poem, ‘Iron Lung’, when the county fair has a display of little children with polio on ventilators, I remembered when county fairs pulled stunts like that.

A couple of the farms in our neighborhood were rented out to poor families. Sometimes a landlord would kick a family out of their home on short notice for not paying the rent or for some other reason. The short poem ‘Home’ captures that sense of hurried abandonment.

Home

by Charles Behlen

Someone must have given up                                            halfway to the alley.

In backyard weeds                                                                            a rocking horse

lies upside down                                                                              on a wadded dress,

shoebox swollen                                                                           with cancelled checks.

Now the rain starts to fall                                                           and the bell in the horse’s

broken-out chest                                                                         sings to a house

that is silent, cold                                                                         and growing dark.

Even though many of these poems take place in Texas, I am a guy from up north in Minnesota who could easily identify with them.

Not all of these poems are about the coarse side of life in the sticks. The poem ‘Uirsche’s First Three Decades ‘ deals with the battle of Arnhem in World War II, and the poem ‘National Corpse’ concerns the battle of Verdun in World War I. These lines from ‘National Corpse’ express my own view of World War I:

But the big and obvious question remains:

How did a bunch of interrelated royals

churn this earth into a boiling barbed-wired mass

of blasted trees, blown-off faces

face-up on the roads – all hung with the unshake-

able stink of cordite, alcohol-soaked bandages,

dead horses, dead men?

These poems aim directly for your senses, and they are accurate. Not every poem hit home for me; that would be too much to ask of any poet, but enough of them did to make reading these poems several times a rewarding experience.

Finally, the scenes of nature in ‘Failing Heaven’ are not your typical serene idyllic scenes of nature. Here is from “Ballad of MacKenzie Park”:

A swan lay in the rushes,

killed with a bottle of beer.

It’s neck lay in the water,

one white wing on a tire.”

The poems in ‘Failing Heaven’ depict the real, sometimes cruel, world.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

 

‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift – Back to Brighton

 

‘Here We Are’ by Graham Swift   (2020) – 195 pages

 

You’re in Brighton, folks, so bloody well brighten up!”

 

‘Here We Are” is a Brighton novel. I like Brighton novels. There’s ‘Brighton Rock’ which is prime Graham Greene, and there is wild off-the-wall ‘Berg’ by Ana Quin, and here we are in Brighton again with Graham Swift.

As befits Brighton, ‘Here We Are’ is a small-time verging on big-time show business novel that takes place around 1959. Before there was television there was Brighton, and many of the Brighton entertainers became the early TV stars.

And anyway the show was always just what it was, a flickering summer concoction at the end of a pier.”

This is also a tearjerker romance by a high quality writer. By keeping a narrow focus on only three characters – Jack, Ronnie, and Evie – we get an emotional and believable story which is what I have come to expect from Graham Swift.

Jack is the master of ceremonies. Already a show biz veteran at 28, he is the consummate entertainer, the song and dance man who also can tell a joke. He’s the guy who attracts all the stage door Floras, and he takes full advantage of them.

Ronnie started out in “the humblest of houses in Bethnal Green”, a poorer section of London. His father was away at sea most of the time. When the bombing of London started in the late 1930s, Ronnie’s mother sent him off to safety with a well-to-do childless couple, Eric and Penelope Lawrence, with whom he stayed for almost five years. Mr. Lawrence happened to be a practicing magician and taught Ronnie the tricks of the trade.

Later Ronnie meets Jack in the army after the war, and the two team up as an act. Jack realizes there is something missing from Ronnie’s act and they place the following ad:

Magician’s Assistant Wanted. Suit Young Lady. Previous Stage Experience Essential.”

Enter Evie White. Evie answers the ad, and together Ronnie and Evie become the magic act, Pablo and Eve. They rightly figured all the men in the audience would be so busy looking at Evie, they wouldn’t be looking at the things Ronnie was doing. They become a show major attraction on the pier.

This is a show business story handled adroitly by Graham Swift. I have read a lot of Graham Swift novels over the years starting with ‘Waterland’. Among the male writers that started out with him, Ian MacEwan is probably more dramatic in his approach, William Boyd is more adventurous and humorous, and Kazuo Ishiguro can come up with more spectacular meaningful plots, but no one can draw the feelings out of a reader as well as Graham Swift.

 

Grade:     A

 

 

 

 

‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante

 

The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante (2020) – 320 pages Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

I want to start here with an exercise for you. Try to remember your life situation when you were 13 years old, your family, your other relatives, your friends, your feelings, your school. If you are like me, you will remember a lot more details and recall much more vividly everything that was going on for you then than you would have guessed. Thirteen is the approximate age when we start breaking away from our family circumstances and begin to become independent persons. That’s also when we begin to realize that our parents are just two human beings with their own set of problems just like everyone else.

So what has this got to do with The Lying Life of Adults’? Here our main protagonist Giovanna is 13. Her father’s offhand remark which she overhears sets off a startling chain of events.

She’s getting the face of Vittoria.”

Giovanna is of course curious about this aunt Vittoria, and she finds out that her father and his sister Vittoria had a big fight, and that’s why their family never visits her. She starts asserting her independence by visiting her father’s enemy sister. Soon after that the marriage of Giovanna’s own parents falls apart.

I was completely engaged in the story of ‘The Lying Life of Adults’. Much of the novel is about the intrigues of relating to the opposite sex as an adolescent and teenager. This, of course, has been the subject of hundreds of novels, but Ferrante’s approach seems fresh and interesting for the most part.

Throughout we have mentions of a bracelet that Giovanna’s grandmother had worn, and the bracelet gets handed from person to person during the story. I suppose Grandma’s bracelet would be considered the objective correlative to use a fancy literary term, but the bracelet did seem a little too obvious and artificial as a literary device.

However, overall, ‘The Lying Life of Adults’ held my interest throughout. It’s a story of growing up in Naples, Italy, but probably is applicable around the world.

Lies, lies, adults forbid them and yet they tell so many.”

Perhaps as a further exercise, think about the lies which your parents told you when you were a child. I really couldn’t think of any outright lies my parents told me then.

 

Grade:    A-

 

‘Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain

 

‘Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain   (2020) – 161 pages

 

‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. It is a short novel with short chapters, but it has a slow cadence; it is best if you read it slowly.

Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create.

In books, I found even more strongly my desire to write, to write back to them and their jagged perfect words. I found life that ran close to mine.”

There are only a few characters in ‘Indelicacy’. Our narrator Vittoria and her friend Antoinette work as cleaners in a museum. Vittoria has an intense urge to write about the museum paintings when she is away from work.

One day as she is mopping the floors, Vittoria meets the man who will soon become her rich husband who remains unnamed throughout. One could say he is not one of the novella’s significant characters. Vittoria moves up in the world to a nice house with a maid, and she no longer must work as a cleaner.

Who are the other significant characters? Besides Antoinette, there is the young woman Dana whom Vittoria meets in ballet class after Vittoria is married. Dana is intensely pursuing ballet as Vittoria is pursuing writing. Then there is the woman Solange who works cleaning the house for Vittoria and her rich husband. No other characters are mentioned by name.

One of the many charms of ‘Indelicacy’ is when our female first-person narrator goes totally off the wall. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it prevents our narrator from sounding just too sincere. At one point, Vittoria attends a reading presented by two authors. Vittoria is not at all impressed by their performance and says to them on the way out, “You’re both worms of the worst kind. When you open your mouths, you are male worms eating from a toilet.”

One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

Twelve Wildly Original Unusual Novels

 

Lately I have been reading the new novel ‘Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain, and it caused me to consider some of the other dazzlingly original novels which I have read in the past. I will be covering ‘Indelicacy’ in depth in a future article, but in the meantime I have put together the following list of really good novels which I have read that are well nigh unclassifiable. I tried for a wide variety in this list; the only trait the novels in this list have in common is that they would not fit into any other genre list.

 

‘The Intuitionist’ by Colson Whitehead (1999)– Here is an allegory about a female New York City elevator inspector. Some of the elevator inspectors are “intuitionists” and others are “empiricists”.

It is failure that guides evolution; perfection provides no incentive for improvement, and nothing is perfect.”

 

‘The Man Without Qualities’ by Robert Musil (1930) – Here is a novel of ideas that will change your life if you have the patience to read all of its pages. I actually found the novel quite easy to follow and understand once I got into it. Since it is divided up into Part I and Part II, I gave myself credit for reading two novels.

 

 

‘The Bone People’ by Keri Hulme (1984) – It was originally turned down by many publishing houses, one of which wrote:

“Undoubtedly Miss Hulme can write but unfortunately we don’t understand what she is writing about.”

‘The Bone People’ was finally published by a small publishing house and went on to win the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1984. It is now considered an unorthodox classic about the indigenous New Zealand Maori people and us.

‘Good Morning, Midnight’ by Jean Rhys (1939) – Critics in 1939 found the modernist novel ‘Good Morning,Midnight’ so repellent that it sold very poorly. Rhys then disappeared from public view, stopped writing due to feeling inadequate, and fell into obscurity. By 1964, Rhys was living in a shack made of corrugated iron and tar paper. Then there was a major Jean Rhys revival in 1976 with the publication of her novel ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’. Author V. S. Naipaul wrote that ‘Good Morning, Midnight is “the most subtle and complete of her novels”.

‘Pale Fire’ by Vladimir Nabokov (1962) – It starts as a 999-line poem with commentary, but winds up being one of the most humorous novels ever written. If you want to fully appreciate Vladimir Nabokov, don’t read ‘Lolita’; read ‘Pale Fire’ instead.

 

 

 

 

‘White Noise’ by Don DeLillo (1985) – I could have picked any one of several DeLillo novels, but I picked ‘White Noise’ because it was my first love of Delillo’s work. I had read some of DeLillo’s earlier work, but wasn’t totally captivated until this one. This is a supremely ironic take on consumer life in the United States and elsewhere.

 

 

‘The Hour of the Star’ by Clarice Lispector (1977) – This is Lispector’s masterpiece. She was a Brazilian writer for which the reader sometimes must work hard to fully appreciate her novels, but in the end it is well worth the effort. The French critic Hélène Cixous has written,The Hour of the Star’ is a text on poverty that is not poor”. It is as bewildering as it brilliant.

What can you do with the truth that everyone’s a little sad and a little alone?”

At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien – Here is another novel which originally had poor reviews, but now is on the Guardian’s list at #64 of the greatest novels ever written. It is an Irish comic masterpiece. Dylan Thomas gave us this line about ‘At Swim Two Birds’: “This is just the book to give your sister – if she’s a loud, dirty, boozy girl.” But don’t force me to explain what it is about.

 

‘Berg’ by Ann Quin (1964) – Here is one that is easy to follow and understand. Set in a seedy British seaside resort, ‘Berg’ is an outrageous and fun read. It is a sleazy tale about killing Dad. Maybe if Ann Quin had lived, English literature might have been wilder, less cautious, and sleazier than it is today.

 

 

 

‘Autobiography of Red’ by Anne Carson – This work is a verse novel based loosely on the Greek myth of Geryon and the tenth labor of Herakles, but that description is not even close to capturing everything that this book is about. It is a deeply odd and engaging work about creating art which in that sense makes it similar to Anina Cain’s ‘Indelicacy’.

 

 

‘Blindness’ by Jose Saramago (1995) – A mass epidemic of blindness afflicts nearly everyone in an unnamed city. Here we have a near-total social breakdown caused by this epidemic. This is a Portuguese novel for our particular time, or maybe we should avoid it just now.

 

 

 

‘The Book of Disquiet’ by Fernando Pessoa (1982) – ‘The Book of Disquiet’ was found among Pessoa’s possessions after he died in 1935. It was not published until 47 years later. It was Pessoa’s lifelong project and has been called “a factless autobiography” by one of the several personnas this wonderful poet assumed in his work. I consider it a fantastic work of fiction.

 

 

 

 

‘The Glass Kingdom’ by Lawrence Osborne – Bangkok is a Place Where Nearly Everyone is on the Take

 

‘The Glass Kingdom’ by Lawrence Osborne (2020) – 292 pages

As I have mentioned before, Lawrence Osborne is excellent at capturing the flavor of the people’s lives in the locales where he situates his novels. His stories are always well-observed. The biggest problem with ‘The Glass Kingdom’ is that it takes place in Bangkok, Thailand, and the flavor of the lives of the people who live there and who travel there is quite wretched.

Booming and exotic with a large number of visitors from other countries Bangkok, Thailand is a great place for a young woman who has just embezzled $200,000 to get lost in. Or so it seems to Sarah (a made-up name) who is from the United States. Sarah decides to hide out in Bangkok, in a luxurious residential complex called the Glass Kingdom, four connected 21 story towers. Built in the Nineties, by now the Glass Kingdom has lost some of its luster and has been surpassed by several even more luxurious residential complexes. This is exactly the kind of place Sarah wanted, a somewhat nondescript place she can lose herself in.

You can disappear in Bangkok pretty easily because it’s a big city. And it’s so free and loose.”

Bangkok is the capital of Thailand and has a population of over 8 million people. It has a large tourism industry based on restaurants, bars, and sex clubs. Both Chinese and Japanese entrepreneurs invest huge amounts of money in Thailand.

At the Glass Kingdom, Sarah meets a small group of young women who get together to play cards occasionally. Mali is herself from Thailand, Ximena is from Chile, and Natalie is from England. Bangkok is a cosmopolitan place, and nearly everyone there is on the take.

There is also a Thai maid, Goi, who plays a significant role in the story. The Thais are justly suspicious of all the white people who visit their country. The white people are referred to by the derogatory term “farangs”. Be prepared for some quite gruesome things happening.

Absolutely none of the characters in ‘The Glass Kingdom’ is likable or honest. They each seem to have their own scam going.

Sometimes a person’s unconscious falsity was more interesting than their conscious virtues.”

Thailand is wealthy today, thanks to Chinese and Japanese business owners. Perhaps the most terrifying aspect about Thailand is that it is a military dictatorship. Whenever there is any coup or disruption that might affect the tourist industry, the government uses military force to clamp down.

Everyone is brave until a soldier prepares to blow your head off.”

Osborne captures all the colorful details of Bangkok, its flowers, its lizards, its overwhelming heat. The problem is that every person in ‘The Glass Kingdom’ and perhaps all of Bangkok is compromised, and none of them seemed worthy of empathy.

 

Grade:    B

 

 

‘What Happens at Night’ by Peter Cameron – At the Far Northern End of the World

 

‘What Happens at Night’ by Peter Cameron (2020) – 299 pages

 

Early while I was reading ‘What Happens at Night’, I came across the following line which reminded me that Peter Cameron is remarkably adept at writing interesting sentences:

A few dark cars and trucks stoically amassed garments of snow in the small parking lot.”

If a fiction writer writes crisp, clear, engaging sentences, more than half the battle is already won.

‘What Happens at Night’ takes place in far northern Scandinavia, I suppose Finland. Much of the novel takes place at the Borgarfjaroasysla Grand Imperial Hotel. With its remote northern hotel setting and its literary qualities, the novel reminded me of ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles.

The two main characters, a married couple, are unnamed. They are throughout referred to as “the man” or “the woman”. They have come from New York to this remote location in order to adopt a baby. The wife is quite sick with uterine cancer so she stays most of the time in the hotel room, but the husband ventures out to the hotel bar where he meets some alluring characters, particularly an aging female lounge singer named Livia-Pinheiro Rima. Much of the novel takes place in that hotel bar.

The novel proceeds in serendipitous fashion with the man off having these offhand wayward adventures in the bar while his wife is mainly sleeping. They do go together to meet the baby that they are going to adopt, and on the way they meet a faith healer called Brother Emmanuel.

The sentences are always well-made, but I really don’t know what to make of the plot. The plot is not exactly playful and not exactly serious, but it does not seem to be tied to any reality to which I could relate. The story has a surreal quality that might occur at the far end of the world where this actually takes place.

But the sentences kept me reading.

It was that I could see too clearly, too devastatingly, the things, things, about people that were hurt and therefore lovable, the beautiful sacred space in them that needed touching. And once you’ve seen that in someone, it’s difficult not to love him. Or her. At least it was for me.”

 

Grade:    B+

 
 
 
 

‘Mauprat’ by George Sand, Part 2 – A Woman Ahead of Our Time

 

‘Mauprat’ by George Sand (1837) – 384 pages                     Translated from the French by Mary K. Artois

George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) was a woman who was so far ahead of her time that we still haven’t caught up with her. In ‘Mauprat’, Sand gives the reader something new and different, a woman hero, not a heroine but a woman hero.

At the center of ‘Mauprat’ is the love story of Bernard and Edmee. Bernard’s life before meeting Edmee was one of banditry and drunkenness. He falls madly in love with Edmee on first meeting her, but the young lady Edmee does not allow herself to become the victim of a tyrannical and dissolute husband. Here is Bernard, still unable to control his passion:

But I was unable to obey her. My head was turned; I locked my arms around Edmee’s waist, and it was in vain that I tried to loosen them; my lips touched her neck in spite of myself ; she turned pale with rage.”

She will not marry Bernard until he meets her requirements for being civilized. She sets the rules. Edmee transforms her brutal second cousin Bernard from an ignorant coupe-jarret (cutthroat) to a humane and tender human being. Edmee teaches Bernard to subdue his passions, to honor his fellow man, and to respect her personal freedom. In ‘Mauprat’, love leads to social justice.

As the critic Mikhail Mikhailov wrote of Edmee, she was a woman who was “sufficiently educated and idealistic to infuse life with her convictions, ideas, and actions”. Another Russian critic Vissarion Belinsky in the 1840s praised ‘Mauprat’ for “its profound and poetic idea, that of a strong, intelligent, beautiful woman raising a man above his bestial passions”.

George Sand wrote romantic novels that were full of passionate personal revolt and heartfelt feminism, attitudes that went against societal conventions and outraged her early British and American critics.

Here is George Sand in real life writing to a man she may have been having a romance with:

Immodest creature, you do not want a woman who will accept your faults, you want the one who pretends you are faultless – one who will caress the hand that strikes her and kiss the lips that lie to her.”

This was written in 1837, the same year ‘Mauprat’ was published, and it certainly reflects the spirit of that novel.

I could go on and discuss other aspects of ‘Mauprat’ such as it was one of the first novels that was written in serial installments for a magazine, but I think I will leave it with one final quote from George Sand:

The world will know and understand me someday. But if that day does not arrive, it does not greatly matter. I shall have opened the way for other women.”

 

Grade:   A

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

‘Mauprat’ by George Sand – A Novel for Our Times

 

‘Mauprat’ by George Sand (1837) – 384 pages                       Translated from the French by Mary W. Artois

‘Mauprat’ takes place just before the French Revolution when the landed nobility still lorded over the peasants. Wealthy land barons terrorized their poorer neighbors. Many of these landed gentry oppressed the peasants by imposing heavy duties on them while avoiding taxes themselves.

The poor have suffered enough; they will turn upon the rich, and their castles will fail and their lands be carved up. I shall not see it; but you will. There will be ten cottages in the place of this park, and ten families will live on its revenue. There will no longer be servants or masters, or villein or lord.”

This situation was made worse because certain orders of the Catholic Church were in league with the landed gentry to oppress the peasants.

It is the indelible characteristic of the Catholic priesthood,” he said. “It cannot live without making war upon families and ferreting out every means by which it can get money from them….gentle robbery.”

George Sand

The La Roche-Mauprats are a particularly cruel and rapacious family of the nobility. The Mauprat father is “a man who had a genius for wickedness, and his sons, lacking the affection they were incapable of feeling, submitted to the ascendancy of his detestable superiority and obeyed him with a precision and promptitude almost fanatical.” Sound familiar? ‘Mauprat’ is a novel for today.

The father La Roche-Mauprat and his seven sons intimidate and frighten their neighborhood. Of course no woman would go near the estate fearing for their honor.

“Bernard, do you wish me to tell you why they thought all women are liars?”

Yes.”

It was because they were violent and tyrannical with beings weaker than themselves. Whenever one makes one’s self feared, one runs the risk of being deceived.”

However there are two sides to the Mauprat family. The other side of the family is also well-to-do, but they are pillars of the community. Our hero Bernard was born into the good side of the family, but his mother died when he was five, and he was adopted by the cruel Mauprats. Of course one of his uncles, Jean, hates the kid for being there, and Bernard later relates that “For ten years I suffered from cold, hunger, and insult; from confinement in the dungeon and from blows, according to the more or less ferocious caprices of this monster”.

Later Bernard finally escapes the clutches of the cruel Mauprats and is taken up by the honorable side of the family where he meets his second-cousin Edmee who turns out to be the love of his life. However Bernard has learned some nasty habits during his sojourn with the cruel Mauprats, and he must make amends before Edmee can like him at all. Bernard has overpowering feelings for Edmee.

Edmee never knew in what peril her honor was in that agonizing moment; I remember it with eternal remorse; but God alone will be my judge, for I triumphed, and this evil thought was the last I have felt during my life.”

Later hiding behind a bush, Bernard overhears a conversation between Edmee and the abbe:

Now I realized fully the odious part I was playing, and I had just read in the depths of Edmee’s heart, the fear and disgust I inspired in her.”

So in ‘Mauprat’, we have a devastating romance as well as an acute depiction of the social situation in France just before the Revolution.

It was the first time that I had heard of a peasant being spoken of as a man.”

As now even the United States has lost its way and fallen into a corrupt autocracy, perhaps it is time for a second French Revolution?

Stay tuned for my second article about this novel in which I will deal with the more literary qualities of George Sand and ‘Mauprat’.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan – The Songwriting Begins

 

‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan   (2004) – 293 pages

I am by no means a Bob Dylan completist.

My relationship with Dylan’s songs over the years has been erratic to say the least. I have only bought a few Dylan albums, and a couple of them I have been disappointed with. At least one of those originally disappointing albums I learned later to really like and another one I stayed disappointed with. For a long time I preferred Joan Baez’s versions of his songs, especially ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ and ‘Farewell Angelina’.

I remember when the radio became inundated with Dylan songs including ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ by the Byrds, ‘It Ain’t Me, Babe’ by the Turtles. ‘All I Really Want To Do’ by Sonny and Cher, ‘The Mighty Quinn’ by Manfred Mann and ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix as well as Dylan’s own performances of his classics including ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Rainy Day Women #12 & 35’, and ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’.

I could list my 10 favorite Bob Dylan songs as of today, but tomorrow the list might change anyway.

It took me sixteen years to finally get around to reading his partial autobiography, ‘Chronicles: Volume One’. It turns out that ‘Chronicles’ is a fascinating book; it is offhand, spontaneous, and enthusiastic, everything I look for in an autobiography.

Bob Dylan did not start out as a songwriter. He started out playing other people’s songs. From the beginning he was almost totally devoted to music but not his songs. Much of ‘Chronicles’ is about how Dylan came to write his own songs. Two of his primary influences were the folk musician Woody Guthrie and Delta blues musician Robert Johnson. However he expresses enthusiasm for many other musicians and songwriters throughout ‘Chronicles’. He is for the most part generous in what he says about them, and when he can’t be generous he is sincere. I admired his sincerity throughout ‘Chronicles’.

‘Chronicles’ gives us striking word pictures of only a few of the many phases of Dylan’s life, starting when he arrives in New York City alone with his acoustic guitar from his family home in Hibbing, Minnesota, not even 20 years old. At this point Woody Guthrie is his idol, and Dylan seeks out the offbeat folk music venues where he can perform. He also visits Woody Guthrie who is hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey.

Then we jump ahead to 1970, and Dylan is working on another album ‘New Morning’. By this time Dylan is mighty tired of being “the voice of a generation’, being accused of “turning my back on the folk community”, and being hounded by the press and everyone else. He just wanted to be left alone with his family. Just before ‘New Morning’, he apparently intentionally put out a bad album ‘Self-Portrait’ to deflect attention away from himself.

The next jump in this autobiography is to 1987. This long chapter is about Dylan’s renewal as a songwriter and musician. He came together with producer Daniel Lanois and some musicians in New Orleans and created the album ‘Oh, Mercy’ of his own original songs, and that album is considered a comeback for him.

The last chapter goes back to Dylan’s very early teenage days in Minneapolis when he first discovered folk music.

Along the way, throughout the book, we get scattered appreciations of Ricky Nelson, Roy Orbison, Joan Baez, Johnny Rivers, Johnny Cash, and Tennessee Williams, among several others. Here are some of Dylan’s words on Harry Belafonte :

Harry Belafonte was also there. Harry was the best balladeer in the land and everybody knew it. He was a fantastic artist, sang about lovers and slaves – chain gang workers, saints and sinners and children…He was a movie star, too, but not like Elvis. Harry was an authentic tough guy, not unlike Brando or Rod Steiger. He was dramatic and intense on the screen, had a boyish smile and a hard-core hostility…To Harry it didn’t make any difference. People were people. He had ideals and made you feel you were part of the human race. There never was a performer who crossed so many lines as Harry. He appealed to everybody whether they were steelworkers or symphony patrons or bobby-soxers, even children. He had that rare ability.”

I admired Bob Dylan’s sincerity and enthusiasms throughout this autobiography.

 

 

Grade:    A

 

 

‘The Discomfort of Evening’ by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – Bum Holes and Poo

 

The Discomfort of Evening’ by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (2018) – 282 pages                                                                             Translated from the Dutch by Michele Hutchison

I suppose your reaction to ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ will depend on whether or not you like the following typical sentence from the novel:

I watched as the diarrhea splattered on to the grass like the caramel sauce my granny poured on to the rice pudding.”

I did not like it.

Some readers may see this analogy as clever, but I saw it as obtuse and gross. This awkward disturbing simile is probably most representative of the novel as there is a lot to do with bum holes and poo throughout “Discomfort of the Evening”. The author throws hundreds of such analogies or similes against the wall, but only a few of them stick.

I was definitely motivated to read ‘The Discomfort of Evening’ since I had just heard that it had won the International Booker prize for 2020, yet I struggled and struggled to keep my interest in the novel. I was severely disappointed. Let me explain.

‘The Discomfort of Evening’ is narrated by a 12 year old girl, Jas, as she tries to cope with the severe dysfunction of herself and her entire farm family after the death of her older brother Matthies in a skating accident.

After a major tragedy like this, there is always guilt. Guilt prevents one from feeling the honest pain of bereavement, thus the pain manifests itself in other bizarre forms. This is especially true for children.

There is a lot of self-mutilation with pins, etc. This is a novel of a family’s severe abnormal behavior, but the excesses in the writing here kind of diminished my trust in the author.

After her brother’s death, Jas has a problem with constipation and she has an epiphany when she finally does have a poo, and we get a sticky detailed description of the results.

Granny once said that poo is healthiest when it looks like the greasy veal sausages she sometimes makes. My poo looks anything but that.”

Even when the similes aren’t coarse, they didn’t make very much sense to me.

In the light of my globe, her nose looks like a capsized sailing boat.”

What is that supposed to mean?

The family is very religious, and there is a lot of quoting of the Bible. The Bible passages are not there to uplift but more often used to explain some aberrant act by one of the family members, especially the other brother Obbe.

Things go from bad to worse on the farm when the family’s entire dairy herd has to be killed due to foot-and-mouth disease. Of course we get graphic descriptions of this event. It makes for a grim read, and there is no humor or redemption.

I suppose since the narrator is only 12 years old we must forgive the clumsy syntax of many of her sentences, but these sentences do make it difficult to read and stay interested in the story.

Perhaps some readers are so moved by the dire circumstances of this farm family that they leave their critical faculties behind at the door.

Since it won that major prize, maybe you should read it anyhow regardless of my opinion. Decide for yourself.

 

Grade:   C-

 

 

 

‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor – Real Life at the University

 

‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor (2020) – 327 pages

As I was reading the campus novel ‘Real Life’, the descriptions of the student union and the nearby lake seemed very, very familiar. I looked at the author’s bio in the back and found that one of the places Brandon Taylor had done graduate work was the University of Wisconsin-Madison, my alma mater. As I was reading ‘Real Life’, it was almost like I was back there sitting at an outdoor table on the Memorial Union terrace near the shore of Lake Mendota.

In ‘Real Life’ we see the world from the point of view of Wallace, a perceptive sensitive graduate student studying bio-science. He is doing research on nematodes, a kind of small worm that is able to reproduce rapidly and thus is ideal for genetic research.

Wallace has a small group of friends, most of whom are also doing graduate work in bio-science. In the first chapter and throughout the novel, Brandon Taylor captures all the subtle and not-so-subtle interactive dynamics of just a few college guys and gals sitting at a restaurant table talking. Early on the readers know they are in the hands of a master. Nearly every sentence gave me a smile of recognition.

And they fell into that chilly silence that comes between two people who ought to be close but who are not because of some early, critical miscalculation.”

Wallace is gay and black.

Through his character Wallace, Brandon Taylor explores those profound racial tensions that we all know exist but we cannot express.

The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the hen house.”

Throughout the novel, I was impressed with the ability of the author to go deeper into the psyches of his characters mainly through dialogue. ‘Real Life’ is a novel a reader can immerse oneself in as Wallace probes his life situation.

Is this what Dana was trying to say to him earlier? That he’s not the only one who has a hard time? That he doesn’t have some sort of monopoly on misery? But it’s different, he wanted to say then and wants to say now. It’s different. Can’t you see that? It’s different.”

Ordinarily I cannot relate to the quite explicit gay love scenes, but from Brandon Taylor’s original insights into other subjects, I suspect these scenes in the novel are true to life.

‘Real Life’ is long listed for the 2020 Booker Prize.

If you are looking for a novel that has profound insights into human behavior yet still is enjoyable, ‘Real Life’ is an excellent choice.

 

Grade:    A

 

 

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