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Winton is a writer particularly skilled at showing the hidden emotional depths of hard men for whom sentimentality seems anathema. Reviewer Cathleen Schine described Winton as a “practitioner of what might be called the school of Macho Romanticism.” Many of his male characters are strong on the surface, conceal their feelings through silence or crude talk and refuse to divulge the emotionally complicated aspects of their past. Jaxie, the teenage protagonist of Winton’s new novel states “Our stories. We store them where moth and rust destroy.” I found Winton’s previous novel “Breath” utterly captivating in this respect for the way it describes the tentative friendship between two solitary boys and their desire to surf. “The Shepherd’s Hut” focuses on the life of another hard-edged teenage lad who is in the midst of a crisis. The novel is structured almost like a thriller opening with Jaxie gunning it down a rural road in a speeding vehicle and the novel gradually unfolds to reveal how he got to this point. He’s someone left without any support network having been slighted by his community and born in an emotionally and financially impoverished household. He refers to his abusive father as “Captain Wankbag” and after a shocking accident, Jaxie is left to fend for himself in the Australian wilderness. His journey and the connection he makes with a reclusive hermit is a sobering take on the erosive effects of solitude, but also the ultimate tenacity of the human spirit. 

Boys like Jaxie are understandably designated as troublemakers for their harsh language and aggressive attitudes. He describes how his behaviour led to him being so ostracised and feared by his fellow classmates and teachers at school, they felt relieved when he dropped out. He describes how his energy can’t be contained “Christ, you could burn a skyscraper down with what’s in me.” As difficult as he must be in person, it’s also challenging for the reader to like at times for the disparaging way he refers to “blacks” and “poofs”. But he’s someone that’s grown up in an isolated environment dominated by straight white people. As abrasive as Jaxie is, it’s still easy to have empathy for him. He feels he must be totally self-reliant after his mother died from illness and no one came to his aide when his father beat him multiple times. But going alone in the wilderness and in life brings many perils with it. His plight trying to survive is arduous and bloody. Winton's writing evocatively captures the terror of self reliance.

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As challenging as it is being on his own, Jaxie encounters different challenges when he meets and bonds with a mysterious old Irishman named Fintan living in a secluded old hut. There's a painful hesitancy as the men don't know whether they can trust each other either with their physical or emotional safety. Winton gets so well how difficult it is to form connections with other people because it means making yourself vulnerable: “It’s a dangerous feeling getting noticed, being wanted. Getting seen deep and proper, it’s shit hot but terrible too. It’s like being took over. And your whole skin hurts like you suddenly grew two sizes in a minute.” The psychological journey these two go on feels deeply meaningful and I connected with the story so strongly in the way it demonstrates how people hide themselves in different ways. The novel powerfully shows how there is a kind of security in solitude, but also a price to pay for going it so perilously alone.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesTim Winton
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This is the first novel by Norah Lange to be translated into English and it’s just been published by the wonderful independent press And Other Stories. It was written in Spanish and originally published in Argentina in 1950. In her day Lange was a celebrated member of the Argentine literary scene – especially the avant-garde Buenos Aires group of the 20s and 30s. Throughout her life she famously hosted many literary salons and associated with writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca. She was awarded a Grand Prize of Honor by the Argentine Society of Writers having published poetry, memoirs, nonfiction and novels. Yet, she’s barely known outside her native country for reasons which César Aira’s introduction to the book and James Reith’s recent article in the Guardian interestingly suggest. It’s thrilling to discover a novel like “People in the Room” because, although I studied avant-garde literature at university from Borges to Alain Robbe-Grillet to Tristan Tzara, there were few female writers of this era included on the course list outside of Gertrude Stein and Nathalie Sarraute. It’s somewhat alarming to think that Norah Lange was there all the time, but most North American and European readers had no access to her work.

As characteristic of the innovative art and writing from this time, “People in the Room” pushes the boundaries of character and narrative where we’re given few specific details about the protagonist and her situation. Instead the reader follows her labyrinthine train of thought as she voyeuristically observes three women in their thirties through a window across the street from where she lives. Her obsession with these neighbours leads to endless speculations about their potential status as criminals or tragic figures or secretive heroines. Curiously, though she makes tentative contact with the women, she doesn’t want to discover any actual facts about them – not even their names. It’s as if her observations can transform them into an endlessly tantalizing array of fictional characters of her own creation: “I knew, if I was patient, I could have their finished portraits just the way I liked finished portraits to be: for them to be missing something only I knew how to add”.

Maybe it was the frequent references to portraits and three women that made me fleetingly think of the portrait of the Brontë sisters as I was reading the novel. But it was thrilling to discover when I read in Aira’s introduction (which I only did after I finished reading the novel so as to avoid any spoilers or interpretation of the text before I’d experienced it myself) that Lange had publicly stated she was partly inspired by Branwell’s famous portrait of his sisters where a ghostly painted out figure looms in the background. There’s a popular romantic conception of the Brontës living a cloistered existence of literary creativity that seems to chime with this story. But “People in the Room” also doesn’t shy from exploring darkly troubling concepts as well. Throughout the book Lange refers to portraits as if to fix a version of the women in place before excitedly creating another portrait which shows them in a different light. But this leads to an unwieldy multiplicity: “She seemed to possess many portraits, as if constantly adding them to the hidden gallery of her own face; as if arranging, on the four walls of the drawing room, in order, the story of her face.” It’s fascinating how these descriptions naturally inspire ideas about our psychology and William James’ concept of how we have a different personality for each person we know. It suggests that no matter how dedicated we are in observing or spending time with one another we can never really know one another completely.

 Branwell's portrait of the Bronte sisters

Branwell's portrait of the Bronte sisters

Alongside these fascinating ideas, there’s a compelling ambiguity throughout the text about the narrator herself. She’s a teenager on the brink of some great change who is directed by her family at one point to take a trip elsewhere. Yet, rather than meditate on her own state of being or future, she continues her frenzied focus on the women across the way who might be entirely in her imagination or mannequins or women involved in their own unknowable preoccupations. It’s as if she wants to preserve something about her creative process and imagination before yielding to the responsibilities and limitations of adult life. There’s a sombre tone to this enterprise “it would always be as if she was gathering memories beside a plot reserved for a grave.” There are frequent macabre references throughout the novel to death or the narrator’s expectation/desire/fear that the women she observes might soon die. Perhaps if they are dead she can better preserve her own idea of them without the messy complication of their real personalities. There’s a disturbingly bleak sort of romance to this which she describes stating “when I was fond of people I always imagined them dead.”

Getting brief clues about the narrator herself at different points in the text makes “People in the Room” a mystery wrapped in a mystery. I enjoyed the many layered and oblique ideas this book holds. It’s a novel which ought to be read alongside Norah Lange’s contemporaries for the fascinating concepts it explores and the way the curious story pushes the meaning of narrative. But it’s also a compelling exploration of the process of writing itself. The women are the narrator’s malleable characters which she endlessly enjoys reshaping, imbuing with her own psychology and destroying in a perverse godly act when she can no longer control them. It’s a novel that can be read in many different ways and would no doubt benefit from multiple rereadings. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNorah Lange
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Patrick Gale's new novel “Take Nothing With You” is a refreshing new take on a coming of age story. At the beginning we first meet the protagonist Eustace in his later years. At this stage of his life he's begun a promising new relationship with Theo, a fairly senior army officer stationed far away, and, though their connection has progressed from a dating app to regular Skype conversations, they've not yet met in person. But Eustace has also been diagnosed with cancer and needs radiation treatment which requires him to remain in temporary solitude within a lead-lined room where he can take nothing with him that isn't disposable. It's the first example of how the title of this novel resonates so strongly throughout a life marked by stages which require abandoning physical things and one form of identity to progress onto another. The bulk of this tale is concerned with Eustace's childhood and adolescence as he discovers a love of music and other boys. The story poignantly demonstrates the courage that is required to declare your true desires and to express your creativity even if it goes against the grain of the majority. It also shows the importance of role models to foster young people’s creativity and to assist in helping them to grow and flourish.

Eustace discovers a love of playing the cello during his childhood and he’s lucky enough to come under the tutelage of a passionate musician named Carla Gold. She serves as an important mentor in training him to develop his natural skill and passion. But financial pressure and discord in his parents’ marriage creates problems for Eustace in realizing his full potential. Although the story is focused on Eustace I appreciate how Gale takes care to sympathetically refer to the struggles of his parents as well. They face their own challenges and must sacrifice things to move forward in their lives or make compromises. Another example of this is the father of Eustace’s friend Vernon who is struck by a paralyzing illness. Here is another example of someone who must cruelly progress in life without things which feel like an essential part of his identity. I also appreciated how Eustace’s relationship with his mother is depicted in such a complex way. Gale writes some startlingly lines to describe the realms of what remains unknown between mother and son: “He had never seen his mother naked and never seen her bank statements.” Considering the dramatic things which occur in their relationship with each other, I imagine rereading this novel will make reading earlier scenes between them feel even more impactful.

 Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

Detail of a painting from 1671 by Abraham van den Tempel

The story also sympathetically shows Eustace’s sexual development and how he gradually comes to terms with his homosexuality. Two male friends of Carla serve as mentors in a very different capacity, not just in how they educate him about gay culture, but from the fact of their existence living openly as a gay couple. Without this kind of example in his life, Eustace would have certainly found it difficult to imagine relationships other than the ones he forms in his early sexual experimentation with boys only interested in homosexual acts as a form of physical gratification or a power game. It’s also interesting to note how in one section Gale gives a survey and critique of gay fiction at this time of the late 20th century. Writing by Thomas Mann, Gore Vidal, EM Forster, James Baldwin, Gordon Merrick and Edmund White were crucial in openly bringing the stories of gay men into novels, but they had their limitations and only represented a narrow scope of experience: “The men in all these seemed to be uniformly handsome, virile, rich and expensively educated but they came to believe in their right to happiness and the stories ended with them neither punished, unhappily married nor dead. The novels had about them a strain of self-mythologizing breathlessness, full of precious feminine references which confused him.” Gale’s writing feels to me like an additional crucial voice in gay fiction for the way he poignantly describes the varied ways gay men can survive amidst oppression without compromising essential parts of their identities – as he did in his moving novel “A Place Called Winter”.

Beyond the detailed and captivating descriptions of Eustace’s growth as a musician and a gay man, this novel is an evocative account of the experiences of childhood and the different methods we use to piece together how the adult world works in our own way. In one section it describes how Eustace tries to visualize the different counties in England based on a map he had in a game when he was younger. It’s these sorts of references which we mentally go back to in order to make sense of the physical and emotional landscape in front of us. I thoroughly enjoyed this touching and captivating novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesPatrick Gale
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It’s so bizarre when reading one novel after another to discover coincidental and surprising connections between them. Right after I finished reading Madeline Miller’s “Circe” I started reading Sharlene Teo’s debut novel “Ponti” since it’s one I’ve been anticipating and I wanted to finish it before going to the latest Lush Book Club hosted by Anna James. I soon realized one of the main characters is called Circe as well. While it’s a really evocative name from Greek mythology, it’s certainly not a common one so it was a fun surprise. But this is just an incidental comment about my process of reading what turned out to be a novel that’s so distinct and engrossing.

Since its publication earlier this year, “Ponti” made a splash on social media after receiving a briskly cutting review in the Guardian from Julie Myserson who criticised the “writing workshop” feel of certain scenes and the “limitations of creative writing courses.” In particular she objects to the turns of phrase in sections narrated by Circe whose somewhat self-consciously crude language is actually a crucial part of her character. The review sparked a flurry of responses defending both the value of writing courses and the creativity Teo demonstrates in this complex novel. It was good to hear that Teo herself felt unperturbed about the criticism when Anna asked her about it at the book club discussion. She sensibly sees the value in the debate for how it encouraged people to discuss her novel more and how it also raised interesting issues surrounding creativity/writing courses. I simply note all this because, despite Myserson’s dismissive tone about the book, I found “Ponti” to be refreshingly original and emotionally arresting. 

Teo uses such an interesting structure for “Ponti” which rotates between three different characters’ perspectives in three different decades. This felt slightly disorientating at first until the story so compellingly began to fit together. For a part of the book I couldn’t help longing to only remain with Szu whose story follows her in the early 2000s navigating her awkward teen years and friendship with Circe. Szu also lives under the shadow of her more glamorous mother Amisa, an obscure film star whose only role consisted of acting in a trilogy of cult horror movies but she now makes a living as a con artist psychic alongside Szu’s auntie. However, as the novel progressed the revolving perspectives and connections combined to create a thrilling momentum. The way its told says something quite poignant about the meaning of time, memory and grief. In one section a character observes how “Grief makes ghosts of people. I don’t just mean the ones lost, but the leftover people.” In a way, Amisa, Szu and Circe are all living ghosts who are unable to fulfil their potential because of disappointments or trauma that they’ve experienced.

The relationships between all three of the characters is so sensitively composed. It felt bracingly honest how Szu and Circe develop a bond, but their connection slips away as soon as Szu needs Circe the most. They aren’t simply misfits within their school who form a friendship over being outcasts. Their relationship constantly shifts and reforms just as they are building and reforming a sense of identity in these crucial teenage years. Circe reflects that “The truth is Szu and I told half-fictions to each other. We were complicit in our mutual exaggerations.” Teo captures so well the sense of story telling between friends as a self-mythologizing enterprise and an exploration between the lines of candour/confession and emotional truth/historic accuracy. She also shows the heart breaking way friends can outgrow one another.

 It was lovely meeting Sharlene Teo at the Lush Book Club

It was lovely meeting Sharlene Teo at the Lush Book Club

Equally, Szu’s relationship with her mother Amisa is movingly portrayed as Szu feels such pride in her mother’s acting career despite it being short lived and unsuccessful. In one of the most striking scenes Szu desperately tries to interest a classmate in Amisa’s films even when the girl obviously doesn't care. It felt strikingly realistic how Szu feels a mixture of pride and repulsion for her mother. For whatever reason, Amisa doesn’t feel the kind of bond with her daughter where she can gain any satisfaction from the daughter’s admiration. Instead she shuns Szu and hunkers down in her bitterness at not having achieved the kind of fame that her potential suggested she might reach. This disconnect between mother and daughter is heart wrenching, especially in the way their relationship ultimately plays out. There’s also an unsettling poignancy in the way Amisa’s film role was that of a female vampiric ghost from Malay mythology. A version of the legend relates how the Pontianak originated from a child being stillborn. In this novel it’s ironic that here’s a child capable of loving her mother, but instead Amisa selfishly only longs for the love of the wider world. Her ego is what makes her become a kind of monster.

It's a deeply engaging reading experience. Overall, I feel “Ponti” is strikingly sophisticated in how it creatively incorporates a well-known trope from horror movies to say something meaningful about the tragic disconnect which can occur in our most important relationships.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSharlene Teo
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It’s fitting that Alexia Arthurs’ debut collection of stories has an epigraph from Kei Miller who writes so compellingly and inventively about national/racial Jamaican identity. In particular, his writing is often concerned with perception, self-perception and storytelling traditions. Arthurs’ lively and invigorating short stories engage with similar ideas through the diverse perspectives and tales of many different individuals. These men and women have moved from Jamaica to America or moved back to Jamaica after living in America or are first generation Americans with Jamaican ancestry. Many of these individuals feel a tension in being caught between these two nations. Their values, desires and goals have been gradually modified having lived within both cultures and this naturally makes the characters question where they fit within either country and how they interact with different communities. Arthurs depicts a wide range of points of view from the intimate thoughts of a college girl to an elderly man who holds a longstanding secret to a resentful twin brother to a lesbian who returns to Jamaica for a friend’s wedding to a pop star preoccupied with the sudden death of one of her dancers. In skilfully depicting a rich plurality of voices Arthurs raises challenging questions about how we define ourselves and the assumptions we make about others.

It’s also noteworthy that Zadie Smith gave a blurb for Arthurs’ book calling it a “thrilling debut collection” considering how Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” has subjects and themes that so closely mirror Arthurs’ story ‘Shirley From a Small Place’. Where Smith writes about a famous white singer (loosely inspired by Madonna) who has a mixed race assistant, Arthurs writes about a famous black singer (loosely inspired by Rihanna) who has a white assistant. These plots obviously have a sensational side to them fictionalizing the intimate lives of celebrities, but in depicting such figures they show an amplified version of the conflicts central to their stories. Arthurs’ pop star Shirley has achieved the sort of recognition and success in America many Jamaicans dream of, but she’s also subject to the projections and scrutiny of the general public. It results in a distancing from the people who have been closest to her all her life, particularly her conservative mother Diane. But it also gives Shirley a stronger identification with the meaning of home in relation to Jamaica. The way their relationship changes and how it makes Diane re-evaluate her own image and desires interestingly plays off from the previous story in the collection ‘We Eat Our Daughters’ where several children relate tales of the domineering mother they never fully understood.

The collection also fittingly begins with a story about a character who consistently makes assumptions about different people and then must readjust her understanding of them after actually interacting with them. In ‘Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’ Kimberly feels a natural kinship with Cecilia because she’s one of the only other black girls in her freshman class. But Cecilia comes from a very different region and socio-economic background so their attitudes and perceptions about race are very different. There’s a melancholy poignancy in how the girls are unable to really see each other because they inhabit their racial identities so differently. In another story Arthurs also highlights how Americans often cling to people who come from similar backgrounds to themselves out of fear. She wryly observes “America, the land of diversity, where people talk to who they think it’s safest to talk to.”

Characters in several of the stories make strategic decisions about who they want to befriend or have a romantic relationship with based on someone’s race, but find it’s an individual’s values rather than their skin colour which ultimately determines whether they are compatible. For instance, unmarried teacher Doreen tries to formulate a relationship with another Jamaican man in America because of their similar backgrounds despite warning signs he might not be the one for her. There’s also often a weary awareness of how white characters will make assumptions about black characters and dictate how race should determine their position in society: “She was the kind of white person who would never let me forget my blackness – she would detail oppressions to me as though I hadn’t lived them.” These examples all highlight the tragic way people react to each other based on appearances rather than really listening to what someone has to say.

 Characters in different stories refer to eating cornmeal porridge

Characters in different stories refer to eating cornmeal porridge

‘Slack’, one of the most stylistically daring stories in the collection, shows multiple perspectives of characters reacting to the deaths of two young twin girls in a water tank. It felt reminiscent of the technique Marquez uses in his novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” where a proliferation of talk about a death makes it seem as if the death was always inevitable. Athurs’ story also makes a searing indictment of the perceptions surrounding the term “slack” which is used to describe women who exhibit loose morals by having affairs with multiple and/or married men. The mother of the drowned girls Pepper is referred to as such, despite the fact she was only an adolescent herself when she became pregnant and no blame is affixed to the older married man who had sex with her. It’s a term and attitude which recurs in several of the stories highlighting how people also frequently form judgements based on gender.

The title of this book has such a playful double meaning since it can be posed as a statement as if the book is like a "how to" manual, but it also functions as a question - one particularly relevant to Jamaicans who move to America. There’s such a proliferation of vibrant characters and compelling situations in all the stories found in “How to Love a Jamaican” that make it a mesmerizing and highly enjoyable read. What I appreciate most about the many perspectives Arthurs brings to the table is that she raises so many issues and questions without offering any easy answers. She merely represents these varied and idiosyncratic voices while respecting their passion and humanity.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlexia Arthurs

Since I was a big fan of Madeline Miller’s “Song of Achilles” I’ve been so eager to read her latest novel that reimagines the life of another Greek mythological figure. It did not disappoint. Circe’s most famous role in the myths (and my only prior knowledge of her) was as a magical goddess/sorceress who hosts Odysseus amidst The Odyssey and transforms some of his sailors into swine. Miller tells Circe’s story from her origins as the nymph daughter of the Titan sun god Helios and the Oceanid nymph Perse, a vain and negligent mother. She has a lonely early life as her appearance and voice are scorned by the immortals surrounding her. Her natural propensity for kindness and compassion is tempered by the darker cruelties and vanity of the gods as well as the shallowness and relentless ambition of humans. After being banished and experiencing so much heartache it’s understandable that Circe becomes hotly bitter, intensely lonely and decides to foster her own innate power to fight for what she wants and what she feels is right. In a sense, Miller does for Circe what Gregory Maguire did to the Wicked Witch of the West. Their stories take a figure who is scorned and branded a witch in popular culture and gives them back their humanity. “Circe” is also a finely crafted story that’s truly romantic and thrilling in its many adventures.

One important thing I’d stress is that if you aren’t already familiar with the many Greek myths Miller touches on throughout the novel, don’t look them up before you finish it. Otherwise, it will spoil the plot. At a few points I became curious about some details of a mythological figure I wasn’t aware of so I looked on Wikipedia to find out more and inadvertently spoiled the story for myself. Of course, plot isn’t the most important aspect of a novel and I know its somewhat silly to claim a tale that’s thousands of years old can be spoiled but take this caution if you want to remain in suspense about how a particular storyline will play out. It did feel at some points that there wasn’t a need for Miller to reference quite so many mythological stories. It was as if she tried to cram them all in or that Circe was bragging about having a connection to famous figures. But this is my only light criticism of this novel and the unique interpretations and relationships formed between all these stories is always compelling.

It’s so interesting how Miller writes about the way the gods and adventurous humans are very cognizant that their actions will lead to stories being told about them. It’s analogous to the way some people today only do certain things in order to post a picture or vlog about it on social media. Although the deities are immortal and can recall these stories, the humans need bards to capture their tales and relate them in a way that many future generations on will still be impressed by their accomplishments and dramatic clashes. Miller highlights how these bards and poets often have a misogynistic point of view: “Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.” It’s so refreshing to see a range of women from these myths given a fuller complexity in both their heroism and villainy. Figures like her relentlessly cruel sister Pasiphae or the hot-tempered Madea are vividly realised. One thing I found particularly striking is the relationship that develops between Circe and Penelope as their encounter would typically be portrayed as one of rivalry, but instead what we get is a hard-won and sympathetic bond between them.

 1786 Painting of Circe enticing Ulysses by Angelica Kauffmann

1786 Painting of Circe enticing Ulysses by Angelica Kauffmann

Something that makes Circe stand out as remarkable for her time is that she’s incredibly passionate and desires to have love in her life, but not if she’s just going to be seen as a commodity. She ominously notes “Brides, nymphs were called, but that is not really how the world saw us. We were an endless feast laid out upon a table, beautiful and renewing. And so very bad at getting away.” Circe refuses to be used and she's prepared to fight. When men sexually attack her she uses her magic to defend herself. As a consequence she’s labelled as difficult and a witch. But Miller also shows a really heartrending psychological complexity to Circe’s reaction to being raped. For sailors she meets after she states “I might take him to my bed. It was not desire, not even its barest scrapings. It was a sort of rage, a knife I used upon myself. I did it to prove my skin was still my own. And did I like the answer I found?”

However, as Miller demonstrated in her previous novel, she can also beautifully capture the heights of romance. The text is infused with such a striking intensity of feeling when Circe finds love and the vulnerability this raises for a lonely individual: “in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth.” She is so good at capturing all the great adventure and drama of these classic tales but infusing them with emotions which are immediate and real. Unsurprisingly, when references are made to Achilles it feels like the author treats him with particular affection. But Circe is such a compelling figure in her own right that I wanted to spend even more time reading about the centuries she spends living in the paradise and prison that is her island of Aiaia.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMadeline Miller
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2018 marks the centenary of Muriel Spark's birth. It's been wonderful seeing how this event has reinvigorated interest in Spark’s books. Many people and organizations have marked the occasion from Ali of HeavenAli's year-long read-a-long #ReadingMuriel100 to Virago Press publishing a beautiful new edition of “Memento Mori” (that also celebrates this essential publisher's 40th anniversary) to Adam's video commemorating Spark's birthday (his booktube channel is even named after this Spark novel.) My own interest in Spark's fiction unfortunately stopped early on as I've only previously read “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, "The Driver's Seat" and “The Finishing School” in 2004, the year it was published. The later turned out to be her final novel and it sadly felt lacklustre and slight to me which is why I didn't pursue reading any more of her earlier books. But now, having read “Memento Mori” I feel doubly inspired to pursue her back catalogue. It's so brilliantly clever and funny with its large cast of idiosyncratic elderly characters who are continuously hounded by a mysterious caller that regularly reminds them “Remember you must die.” The story is perfectly drawn to capture the tragicomic condition of old age as well as the great challenge of facing our own mortality.

Despite the creepy anonymous reminder many characters continue to spend their few remaining years getting into petty arguments, changing their wills out of revenge, desperately trying to hide age-old affairs from their partner, scheming to inherit money, amassing stacks of pointless statistics, routinely reading horoscopes or fighting the care staff that try to assist them. There’s something deliciously pleasurable in reading about characters who have supposedly reached the height of maturity but who act out so petulantly. It’s like a rebellion against the social norms we’re all constricted by, but it also serves as an example of how getting older doesn’t necessarily mean we get any wiser. The magnificent characters in this novel can be as undone by jealousy, pride, greed, lust and gluttony as anyone under seventy.

It’s also an incredible how Spark writes about serious subjects such as the onset of dementia and the fear of poverty in old age, but the story remains light and funny throughout. She writes in a minimalist way which only gives just enough information and the right amount of dialogue to make the reader feel they know the character implicitly without weighing the narrative down in detail. Also, Spark employs repetition with the instincts of a stand-up comedian. The more we get to know the characters and their tiresome tics, the funnier they become because their face-slapping predictability is wickedly humorous. We can almost foresee when Godfrey will comment how someone has lost their faculties or how Alec Warner will insist on gathering pointless data or that Dame Lettie Colston will change her will as a ploy to get what she wants. Although Spark may take the piss out her characters, she also treats them with a lot of care and affection. So when some characters abruptly die the reader feels their loss quite sharply.

The story is also impressively layered. Details of the characters’ complicated pasts and their various entanglements, deceptions and secrets are carefully distributed throughout the narrative to create a larger picture of why they act the way they do in the present. All the while there is the peculiar mystery of the morbid caller who harasses so many of them which in itself becomes quite comical, especially when none of his victims can agree on what his voice sounds like. I was very moved by the way this novel says so much about the human condition while also being fantastically entertaining. It’s impressive that Spark wrote this when she was only forty years old. My experience of the book was also enhanced by reading the entire novel aloud to my boyfriend during a week-long road trip we took around Scotland. It felt appropriate to read this Scottish writer in her native country (even though the novel is actually set in England.) The narrative and dialogue really came to life in reading it this way and gave us plenty of laughs along the way.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMuriel Spark
2 CommentsPost a comment
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I think this novel must be the perfect summer read. I've enjoyed it immensely amidst Britain's recent heat wave as its themes and setting sync with this feverish weather. It's told from the perspective of elderly Frances who is lying on her deathbed. She recalls a hot summer in 1969 when she worked at a dilapidated English country estate alongside a mysterious couple. An American has purchased this crumbling residence and they've been hired to catalogue and assess any architectural items of worth prior to his arrival. The once grand place has been ravaged from being used by the military during times of war and neglect from a once privileged family who gradually completely died out. Although she was in her late thirties when she took this job, Frances was socially awkward and solitary because she had an isolated life with her mother who she cared for until she died. By contrast, the couple Peter and Cara are rambunctious and outgoing so the bond they form with Frances is unique in this odd removed location. It's a dramatic, creepy tale whose expertly paced narration teases out a lot of mystery and suspense. 

I've read a couple of novels recently which meaningfully portray solitary individuals who have severe issues relating to and socializing with other people such as “Convenience Store Woman” and (the somewhat unsuccessful) “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. The women in these novels focus on their work and find fulfilment in a routine set of duties. The same is true with Frances who was previously content to pen articles about architecture in obscure journals. She's never had a romantic relationship or even a friend. So it's interesting how her friendship builds with Cara who is outgoing, but unpredictable and unreliable. It seems natural for such contrasting personalities to form a connection as a way of balancing each other out. I really appreciated the way the author sympathetically portrayed this dynamic and the many stumbling blocks they encounter as they variously connect or disconnect with one another.

It feels like novels about eerie English country estates are a well-establish trope in literature and Fuller builds on this wonderfully in her portrayal of the broken down residence of Lyntons. Wandering through the great house there are tantalizingly peculiar traces of the family who lived there for generations with secrets built into the very walls. Uncovering pieces of their story is as intriguing as the unfolding relationship between the trio who have taken on the task of assessing the place. The unsettling haunting location and Cara's propensity for superstition naturally builds a tension where something supernatural might be taking place. It makes the novel wonderfully atmospheric and raises meaningful ideas about the accumulation of so much history as well as considerations about who has the right to inherit the spoils of the past. 

As well as all these engaging elements, this novel primarily centres around the complexity of guilt. From her death bed Frances grapples with issues of culpability as we gradually discover what happened that summer on the estate. But all the characters wrestle in different ways with feelings of guilt from broken promises to neglecting the ones they love to possible murder. A local vicar also carries the burden of a difficult past. Within the estate there grows a large orange tree whose fruit appears sweet, but whose flesh is dry and bitter. It's a moving metaphor for the way people's outward personalities can conceal the waste within. Being in this isolated environment forces all these characters to variously confront their previous actions and consider degrees of blame, forgiveness or repentance. It adds a deeply emotional aspect to this gripping story and it's something the author is particularly adept at portraying as she's done in her previous two excellent novels. But “Bitter Orange” is an entirely new kind of book for Fuller with its riveting tale. The experience is like pulling twisted clinging vines off from some concealed artifact and uncovering the fascinating story it has to tell.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesClaire Fuller
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I’ve always had very conflicted feelings about Truman Capote. This is the author who wrote the achingly beautiful autobiographical short story ‘A Christmas Memory’ which my cousin read to an enraptured audience every year at his annual Christmas party. And, of course, he penned the novella ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ whose whiff of glamour surrounding Holly Golightly’s tale of self-creation made the teenage me desperate to move to a city. But Capote was also the man who spat venom about countless figures I admire from my favourite author Joyce Carol Oates who he called “a joke monster who ought to be beheaded in a public auditorium” to Meryl Streep who he called “the Creep. Ooh, God, she looks like a chicken.” Many years later, Oates had the last word and proved who really succeeded and endured by tweeting on October 14th 2013: “Ironic that I am a judge for the Truman Capote award when Capote in a druggy interview said he hated me & that I should be executed. LOL.” So I’ve never made the effort to read some of Capote’s most enduring works like “In Cold Blood” and “Music for Chameleons” and certainly not his notorious unfinished novel “Answered Prayers”. But I was thrilled to better come to understand an interpretation and look at Capote’s complex, spirited and ultimately tragic life through reading Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel “Swan Song” about the high-society heroines Capote befriended and shockingly betrayed.

In 1975, Capote published excerpts from his unfinished novel “Answered Prayers” in Esquire which presented thinly veiled portraits of several wealthy, powerful trend-setters and their husbands. He spilled all the tea about their romantic trysts and dirty laundry. These women such as Babe Paley (a style icon), Slim Keith (a socialite credited with discovering Lauren Bacall), Gloria Guinness (a beauty rumoured to have once been a Nazi spy) and Lee Radziwill (Jackie Kennedy’s younger sister) had confided in Capote over the years and made him a firm fixture of their elite circle. He had a charisma, wit and talent for giving people what they needed. Capote sought to immortalize their stories in literature and reveal the sordid truth about their husbands by writing his new novel which he envisioned as a 20th century version of “Remembrance of Things Past”. The women didn’t see it this way and expelled him from their group, turning him into a social outcast. Capote sought to turn these flesh and blood women who he referred to as his “swans” into characters, but Greenberg-Jephcott endeavours to give them their voices and identities back in her novel. It’s narrated from their collective perspective as they observe Capote’s downfall as well as devoting sections to their individual stories. Fascinatingly, the author also includes multiple versions of Capote’s life tailored to appeal to the different women’s personalities. It builds to a complex portrait that raises questions about the difference between fact and fiction, the boundaries between self-creation and self-delusion and the real meaning of love/friendship.

These are all themes threaded throughout Capote’s own work so it’s fascinating the way Greenberg-Jephcott posits how he grappled with these problems within his own life. It also asks what the difference is between drawing upon real life for the sake of art and the degree to which an author exploits those closest to him. Of course, decades after all the dust has settled, almost no one cares about the particulars of these women’s affairs which were once tabloid headlines. If Capote was able to capture something about universal concepts of ambition and betrayal while also describing the particulars of a bygone age of American history his writing would have lasting value. But what responsibility should he have had to respecting his friends’ privacy? And how much was he motivated to write these things as an elaborate revenge upon the high society which shunned his mother and drove her to suicide? Greenberg-Jephcott weaves ideas into her narrative about Capote’s lowly upbringing, the community and family who rejected him and his intense longing for his mother’s approval. It’s fascinating how the author shows Capote to be at once a fragile boy and a vindictive genius in one alcohol/drug-fuelled gluttonous man.

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All this is such rich material that it’s almost easy to forget the admirable writing skills Greenberg-Jephcott deploys in bringing this complex story to life. The novel bursts with details about some of the most important figures of the age that these women mingled with – everyone from the Kennedys to Hollywood bigwigs to Diego Rivera to macho blowhards like Ernst Hemingway and Gore Vidal – as well as honouring the admirable accomplishments of the women themselves. There are such evocative descriptions of place from the rural landscape of Capote’s Louisiana upbringing to sun-bleached afternoons on the Italian Riviera to glitzy parties in New York City. The author captures inflections of speech from Southern drawls to society slang. It makes for vivid and mesmerising reading. I was particularly interested in the descriptions of Capote’s relationship to his childhood friend Harper Lee who mostly existed on the periphery of his life but played an important part. In a way, it seems a shame that he didn’t value and cultivate this continuous friendship over the course of his life rather than seek to gain favour with the high society he aspired to join. If he’d sought favour with his intellectual equals rather than needlessly trashing them out of what I can only suppose was jealousy he might have established more stable and enduring friendships. But his example shows how even a genius with great psychological insight can be toppled by the mechanisms of his own ego. He was also the product of a part of American culture that’s relentlessly aspirational and wealth-driven in a way that often leads to bloated excess and dissolution.

The wonderful thing is that “Swan Song” doesn’t read like a tragic tale, but a celebration of beauty and art and intimacy. There is peril, loss and a price to pay, but there’s also an infectious spirit to the many scintillating personalities the author brilliantly portrays that made me want to lean in and listen.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Part of me has always felt a simmering sense of panic, that some unknown danger or threat could be lurking around every corner. Fear can be such a powerful impetus in our lives both for motivating us to keep ourselves safe and hindering us from fully engaging with the world. It feels essential that children should be nurtured in a way that allows them to be cautious without being so panicked they seal themselves off from experience. So I was really struck how Sophie Mackintosh’s debut novel “The Water Cure” creatively and dramatically describes a group of three sisters who exist in a perpetual state of fear. In one collectively narrated part of the story they ominously feel: “Emergency has always been with us, if not present emergency then always the idea that it is coming.” They live in a deserted and dilapidated estate on an island within the fenced boundaries designated by their mother and father who is referred to as “King”. They’ve been taught that the society outside of this circumscribed space is diseased and toxic so they never leave it and subsist on tinned foodstuffs while performing arcane and painful rituals to cleanse themselves and keep them safe. They are warned in particular about the dangers of men and how some men thrive on the toxic environment surrounding them. In the past, sick women arrived on their shores, but they didn’t live long. And one day two men and a boy arrive so that their carefully ordered existence is disrupted. In her portrayal of this intensely isolated family, Mackintosh’s hypnotic story shows the unwieldy process of development, the transformative effect of passion and the inbuilt tension between genders.

It feels really effective how this novel is partly like a dystopian fable, but rather than build or explain the reasons for this poisoned world it’s focused through the innocent point of view of the girls who’ve never known anything outside of this existence. So all we understand about the world is through their limited first person or collective narratives. All we get are a scattering of hints like this from middle sister Lia: “Every year the seasons become warmer and it is the earth telling me that change is coming.” It becomes more a survivalist story as we gradually learn their odd and violent purification practices and gradually discover the truth about their lives. In doing so, the novel explores more about the development of their natural instincts and identities which sometimes clash with the stringent rules their parents have designated for them.

Mackintosh has a really striking way of writing about the body and the rituals the family perform highlight the sometimes uncomfortable ways we inhabit our own bodies. It’s like their exteriors need to be toughened through processes of cutting, isolated meditation, ingesting huge amounts of salt water and temporary suffocation as a way of preparing them for the inevitable violence of the world: “Pain is a currency like the talismans we sewed for the sick women, a give and take, a way to strengthen and prepare the body.” They are also trials by which these sick women can return to life and themselves after encountering trauma “It was beautiful to see, Mother pointed out. A woman becoming whole again. It’s true that, after the water cure, their bodies had a new solidity, as if somebody had redrawn their outlines. Their eyes were clear, ready to return.” But the sisters, whose lives are so insulated and who only know the pain that’s been designated by these rituals, have a very different relationship with their bodies. Lia strikingly describes how being looked at with desire causes her to inhabit her skin in an entirely different way: “My body, up until now, has been just a thing that bled. A thing with vast reserves of pain. A strange instrument that I don’t always understand. But something kicks in, triggered by the looking.” This is such a powerful way of describing the way as we develop and encounter the gaze of others it can transform how we feel about ourselves and the relationship we have with our own bodies.

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The story also forms a really powerful metaphorical representation of the uneasy power relationship between men and women. The sisters have been reared to believe that men are incredibly violent creatures. Men are the most violent threat outside the fences surrounding their home but this violence is also such a substantial part of human existence its internalized as well: “The violence came for all women, border or no border. It was already in our blood, in our collective memory. And one day the men would come for us too.” Yet when the sisters actually encounter the small group of men who arrive on their doorstep they discover how gender dynamics are really much more complicated. It felt very powerful and haunting how the story both affirms and undermines notions that the relationship between different genders must be prone to some inevitable violence.

What I enjoyed and admired so much about this novel is the way it tells what is essentially a traditional story about family and romance, but in such a uniquely dark way that is like a curious blend of “Lord of the Flies”, Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” and Angela Carter’s “The Passion of New Eve”. The accumulation of observations the girls make have a forceful impact which makes the fabulous setting have a real-world resonance. I was especially moved by the way Mackintosh describes the position of being someone’s child: “It has always been that we are what you made us, and so our survival is a tacit endorsement of you, however much we might hate that. But our lives are our lives.” This feels like a statement that could be made by anyone who has to come to grips with the peculiarities of their origins and the unique way they’ve been raised, but who must embrace the challenges of their own free will in order to move forward in life. The account of the sisters told in “The Water Cure” is both a wonderful testament to that hard-earned independence and a tale so engaging I was gripped throughout this impressive novel. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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You can also watch my reading vlog about Night Gaunts & HP Lovecraft's famous poem.

Throughout her writing career, Joyce Carol Oates’s fiction has frequently self-consciously tapped into the gothic and horror genres. She’s previously described how this form of writing seems to be linked to a quintessential kind of American experience born out of the country’s largely puritan roots. Examples of her fiction in this genre can be seen in many of Oates’s story collections and her 2013 novel THE ACCURSED is probably the most sustained instance of her utilizing this curious blend of horror, death, romance and a pleasing sort of terror. There are two established masters in particular Oates frequently references when discussing this form. In Oates’s 1996 NY Review of Books article titled ‘The King of Weird’ she observes that for “Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft the gothic tale would seem to be a form of psychic autobiography.” She goes on to observe how H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction appears to have been motivated by a particular kind of sensitive sensibility and a childhood overshadowed by his father’s severe mental illness, prejudices and early death from syphilis. From a young age Lovecraft was plagued by nightmares that were populated by a monstrous race of entities he labeled “night-gaunts” who were faceless beings that snatched him up and terrorized him. Lovecraft wrote a poem about these creatures which Oates includes in the epigraph of her story collection which is also called NIGHT GAUNTS.

This entire collection is inflected with the twisted imagination and preoccupations of Lovecraft, but rather than depicting fantastical worlds they are stories set in starkly realistic and (mostly) contemporary settings. In fact, the titular story which ends the book is a tribute to and a fictional re-imagining of Lovecraft’s life. This story vividly invokes the difficult experiences which shaped him and influenced his creative imagination from his reading about the hellish landscape of Dante’s Inferno to browsing the terrifying drawings of Felicien Rops. Interestingly, she describes how the only way he could keep the horrors which plagued him at bay was to render the haunting images and wild scenarios of his nightmares into fictional forms. It’s a striking depiction of the artistic process and as his craft develops, “he had no need to commemorate the night-gaunts that haunted him, but could create his own.” Oates’s story itself is also a suspenseful tale of horror where Lovecraft is entrapped in a circular kind of nightmare which makes him a simultaneous witness and victim of his past plagued by feelings of grief, loneliness and fear.

Oates has previously fictionally rendered the lives of famous authors in her short fiction, most notably in her collection WILD NIGHTS! These tantalizing tales function both as a fictional homage to some of Oates’s primary influences as well as a way of reckoning with the problematic aspects of these authors’ ideas and beliefs. The story ‘Night-Gaunts’ itself makes candid references to Lovecraft’s prejudice against Jewish and non-white people and grapples with the seeming contradiction of how (as Oates describes in the ‘The King of Weird’) “Lovecraft was unfailingly kind, patient, generous, unassuming, and gentlemanly in his personal relations; yet, in keeping with his Tory sensibility, an anti-Semite (despite his deep affection for Sonia Greene and other Jewish friends), racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot.” A kind of disguised or shrouded racism is described in a few of the stories in this collection including a neglected wife who takes solace in connecting to white supremacists online and a young Asian scientist cognizant of the stereotypes projected onto him from his colleagues and romantic partner/test subject. 

 Félicien Rops, La parodie humaine (1878)

Félicien Rops, La parodie humaine (1878)

In Lovecraft’s poem he states how his night-gaunts fail to “wear a face where faces should be found” and in Oates’s stories there are fascinating examples of individuals who are described as faceless. A central character in a story will turn someone they encounter into a faceless “other” who then becomes their antagonist. The fact that the protagonists literally don’t recognize the facial features of these characters dangerously denies them of their humanity. The opening story ‘The Woman in the Window’ fictionally imagines the scenario of Edward Hopper’s famous painting ‘Eleven A.M.’ (Incidentally, this painting is the cover image on the hardback edition of Oates’s previous story collection BEAUTIFUL DAYS.) In this painting, the naked woman’s face is obscured by the hair falling in front of her face. Oates’s story describes how she is an aging secretary who has become a nuisance and terror to the married boss who keeps her as a lover. In the story ‘The Long-Legged Girl’ a wife suspects that a young female student is having an affair with her husband who teaches her and she describes how the girl’s “long straight silver-blonde hair fell about her face shimmering like a falls.” Despite the girl describing her difficulties and innocent reverence for her husband, the wife refuses to see her as anything other than a seductress. In the story ‘Walking Wounded’ a cancer-survivor who returns to his home town continuously encounters/stalks a woman with “silvery hair” and at one point he observes how “Her long, tangled hair falls forward, hiding her face, which seems to him an aggrieved face, though he cannot see it clearly.” The climax of the story powerfully depicts a violent clash where the protagonist’s fantasy about this woman collapses. All of these stories meaningfully portray the way Lovecraft’s unconscious technique of making faceless demons out of people we fear leads to disconnection and egregious violence.

A wonderful nail-biting sense of suspense is created in these stories when the line between reality and nightmares blur. This sometimes occurs when there is an ambiguity about whether the protagonist is a perpetrator or victim. In ‘Walking Wounded’ the main character is working on laboriously editing a lengthy nonfiction book and keeps finding descriptions of violence against women inserted in the text. (Whether it is the text book’s author or the protagonist who wrote them is unclear.) In ‘Sign of the Beast’ a boy is made to feel incredibly self-conscious in the presence of his new Sunday school teacher who teases and may molest him. Much later, when the teacher is eventually found dead, the boy feels certain he must have committed the crime though the law enforcement insists he played no part. These uncertainties about guilt form a suspenseful read, but also poignantly portray the psychological reality of the characters whose sense of logic breaks down.

In the most ambitious and lengthy story in this collection ‘The Experimental Subject’ a naïve young nursing student is unknowingly enlisted in an outrageous biological experiment. A group of scientists entrap her and manipulate her for the purposes of their study. This story playfully pits the ambitions of man against biological advancement and ideas about evolution. It also meaningfully portrays the plights of two frequently scorned segments of the population: the working class and racial minorities. The breadth and ambition of this novella feels almost cinematic in scope. It’s a fine example of how Oates’s fiction can travel to the wildest corners of our imaginations and artfully dramatize the simmering preoccupations of America. These stories skilfully invoke the tortured imagination of Lovecraft and form utterly compelling modern tales of suspense.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s risky when poets become novelists. When a writer transitions from focusing on language and metre crafted into carefully honed short pieces to a sustained storyline centred on characters and plot, there’s a danger that the author’s ideas won’t show as robustly. Of course, there are plenty of poets who successfully wrote in both forms (such as Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath or Ben Lerner) and many books utilize elements of each form to gloriously withstand categorization (like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves). 

Katharine Kilalea is a South African writer who moved to the UK where her poetry collection One Eye’d Leigh was nominated for multiple literary awards.OK, Mr Field is her debut novel which follows the beleaguered existence of its eponymous hero after a train accident that leaves him incapable of carrying on his career as a concert pianist. In some ways, this feels exactly like the sort of novel a poet would write: it’s meandering, image-focused and its characters remain vague outlines. But in other ways it’s crafted more like a philosophical or surrealist novel that seeks to defy metaphor and psychologically describes the difficult feelings of the solitary protagonist. 

Mr Field was a renowned European musician, but after his debilitating accident he decides to uproot himself and his wife Mim to Cape Town where they reside in a replica of Le Corbusier’s ‘Villa Savoye’, set on the coastline. The long horizontal windows and free floor plan allow views of the sea. But Mim disappears fairly quickly leaving behind notebooks filled with trite descriptions comparing the ocean to the rhythms of human existence. Rather than seek out what has become of his wife, Mr Field sinks into a contemplative, directionless and lonely state, imagining the voices of birds or a dog or a widow named Hannah Kallenbach.

He obsessively lingers outside Hannah’s window preferring a muted form of observation rather than actually interacting with her. The very logic and rhythms of his existence are modulated by the modernist structure he resides within and the construction of a tower near his own property. This is no doubt highly influenced by the many years the author has spent working in an architecture practice and her current pursuit of a PhD focused on the experience of space in poetry. It allows for many interpretations and meanings as Mr Field is caught in an ambiguous state between fogginess and clarity, dreams and reality, life and death. Stripped of his passion he has become a stranger to himself and lacks a motivation in his life. He seems to want all the comforts of a home and a relationship but without engaging with real people. In this limbo-state he might be “a part of the unhappiness that’s come apart from the total mass of unhappiness” but outwardly he is essentially fine or at least “OK”.

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Some of the most effective parts of the novel are the descriptions of Mr Field’s new relationship to music. His old piano - which had always inspired him in the past - becomes an object of resentment. He was never enthusiastic about playing Chopin’s famous Prelude or “Raindrop” piece which he feels verges on sentimentality. But now, with his injured hand, when he tries to practice this piece of music again it’s like his hands work as if they are unknown to each other: “the way my hands moved in relation to each other. They seemed to understand something about the piece that I had never understood myself. Before, they had been a pair, operating together, but now they were independent.” And the repeated A-flat note that is meant to simulate the steady sound of raindrops becomes a backdrop to Mr Field’s story just like the waves outside his windows. They are a reminder of the dull persistence of time amidst personal loss and riotous emotions. Mr Field, however, seems to feel curiously resistant to their being interpreted as such. It’s this tension: the desire to exist without residing within any larger symbolic meaning which makes the story of this novel so disarmingly innovative as well as frustrating in how it eludes meaning. 

This is a deeply meditative novel whose curious tone teases out tantalizing questions about how we position ourselves in the world and about the gap between our inner and outer realities. The story knowingly resists any form of logical plot or certain conclusions. It’s a book that readers will most probably find either richly engaging or frustratingly tedious.

This review also appeared in the Open Letters Review: https://openlettersreview.com

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Before I moved to England I worked at a fast food restaurant for approximately four months. It was an interim period and the only temporary job I could find in my area. Maybe it was the knowledge that I’d soon be immersed in London culture, but the strange thing about working such a repetitive job was I found it oddly comforting. I quickly formed a routine of long shifts interspersed with periods of reading and deep sleep caused by the utter exhaustion of being on my feet all day. Such mindless uniform work where your duties, attire and even your attitude is regulated by a corporate entity that rigorously enforces such conformity allows you to blend in and not have to think. Keiko, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s “Convenience Store Woman”, finds her service job at such a chain store equally comforting. Partly this is because she finds human relationships so bewildering. From early childhood she never knew how to act correctly, but the store's strict policies and motivational team spirit provide her a framework in which to more easily conform and blend in. She integrates so well into the store's corporate mentality that after many years working the same part-time service job she feels like her personality is inextricably tied to the store and that she has no identity apart from it. 

It feels like Keiko's methodology is linked to Andy Warhol's philosophy about how “The most beautiful thing in Tokyo is McDonald's. The most beautiful thing in Stockholm is McDonald's. The most beautiful thing in Florence is McDonald's. Peking and Moscow don't have anything beautiful yet.” Warhol used mass production to create art that was the same but different. In a similar way fast food restaurants and convenience store chains are the same but different. Warhol was also someone who felt like an outcast because of his looks and manner. It makes sense that such conformity and acceptance found in an environment with so clear and rigid rules would appear beautiful to both Warhol and Keiko because it subsumes personal inadequacies in favour of the ideals of a corporate entity. Of course, the horrific consequence of subscribing to such a mentality is that everything that is unique about an individual is levelled out.

I found it really interesting how this novel dealt with issues of loneliness in comparison to the recent book “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”. Both are about isolated women who live completely for their work and find relationships outside of the duties of their job excruciatingly difficult because they literally don't understand social decorum. But I felt Convenience Store Woman” deals with this subject matter in a much more interesting way especially in the way Keiko forms a bond with another misfit who comes to work at the convenience store named Shiraha. He's outrageously misogynistic and socially outcast, but he doesn't believe in aligning himself with the goals of the convenience store. Nevertheless, Keiko finds it convenient to form a relationship with him because it will add to the sense she is normal. This really poignantly says something about the degree to which our relationships are built on convenience rather than authentic feeling.

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This relationship also creates an incidental element of humour in the novel. Keiko actually treats the self-concerned Shiraha as an animal that she must feed: “It’s the first time I’ve kept an animal at home, so it feels like having a pet, you see.” The novel “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” also revolves around its protagonist forming a relationship with a man, but “Convenience Store Woman” deals with it in a way which felt more realistic because it seems more likely that isolated individuals like this who operate outside of social norms would more naturally create alliances with each other. I also found it darkly funny how Keiko can't tell the difference between her friend's baby and her nephew: “Maybe this particular baby should be more important to me than the others. But so far as I could see, aside from a few minor differences they were all just an animal called baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same.” This is a humorous perspective but it's also tinged with sadness and disturbing in how Keiko feels so estranged from human emotions and the violent ways this disconnect manifested in some incidents early on in her life.

Keiko's philosophy for dealing with her aberrant personality is to align herself totally with the convenience store's mentality and needs. She considers how “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated.” She finds this consoling, but it's also terrifying in how she feels if she doesn't conform into society she will be expunge and wiped out. At one point some of her colleagues laugh about how it'd be better if Shiraha died because he doesn't contribute to society and Keiko reflects “if I ever became a foreign object, I’d no doubt be eliminated in much the same way.” So this story's extreme example points at many anxieties, fears and challenges that we face in learning how to function in society. This novel enjoyably satirises many aspects of modern corporate culture while also saying something poignant about isolation and the social pressure to conform.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSayaka Murata
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The year is flying by and so many great books have already been newly published (including so many I’ve still not got reading). It was difficult making this list because I’ve read 48 books so far this year, many of which were excellent. I’m only going to mention 10 here. But I’d love to know some of your favourite books so please leave a comment to let me know about your top recent reads. If you want to know more of my thoughts about any of these click on the titles for my full reviews.

Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck – This is a novel, longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, about a retired professor in Berlin who becomes involved in the lives of several refugees. It’s a topical story about immigration, but I think it’s also so much more than that too. It’s a really emotional story with a teasing mystery at the core of its protagonist and it also contains such profound philosophical thoughts about identity.

Sight by Jessie Greengrass – This debut novel was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize and I made a silly early prediction that it will win this year’s Booker Prize. Readers’ reactions to this novel have been very polarized. It’s a very particular kind of introspective story that won’t be for everyone. But personally I loved it for the way it shows the transition in identity from child to parent and the artful way it blends nonfiction with the pressing ontological issues its protagonist faces.

Crudo by Olivia Laing – Laing’s nonfiction has shown how she has a very personal and intelligent way of looking at historical figures. Her first novel Crudo really cleverly blends her passion for the writer Kathy Acker with her own preoccupations about modern life. The more I think about this novel the more it affects me. It speaks so meaningfully about this crisis we feel inhabiting our bodies and minds in a chaotic world where global politics that are increasingly bleak and how challenging it is wrestling with our own egos every day.

Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli – I can’t think of another book that has proved to be so relevant to the immediate emergency Americans recently faced concerning illegal immigrants and refugees being forcibly separated from their children. Luiselli describes her experiences speaking to asylum seekers who are children and the reality of their crisis in a way that is incredibly enlightening. When I read this a few months ago I said this short book should be required reading for every school in America, but I think it should be required reading for every adult as well.

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The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson – This historical novel is based on the true story of a large group of Icelandic villagers kidnapped and enslaved by Barbary pirates in 1627. Many are forcefully taken to Algiers and this novel mainly focuses on the story of the plight of a reverend’s wife. It may sound bleak and there are distressing scenes but it is also richly detailed, beautifully told and intensely poignant in the way it asks questions about: where do you belong?

Beautiful Days by Joyce Carol Oates – A book of short stories that are intensely dramatic and show a magnificent range from tales of stark psychological realism about the conflict between lovers or the conflict between a mother and her son to stories that are slightly more surreal in tone like an ex-president forced to dig up the graves of all the victims of his policies or a girl trapped in a painting like some nightmare fairy tale. They are so imaginative and gripping and this is the second book of short stories Oates has published this year. Her other book Night Gaunts is equally as compelling and you can watch me talk at length about these HP Lovecraft-influenced stories in a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekmgrCyZqDg&t=155s

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro – This novel describes a woman who is a wife and mother and how she enters into an affair. It’s well-trodden fictional territory but Quatro speaks about it in such a thoughtful and considered way. It shows how challenging it is to grapple with our desires – not just our desire for sex – but also for an engagement with someone that is intellectual and spiritual. And it gives such a sobering take on how messy all this unruly passion is.

Problems by Jade Sharma – This debut novel is about an anti-hero named Maya who can’t connect with life in the way she knows she should. Her marriage is inane. Her lover is distant. Her job at a bookstore is going nowhere. Her thesis is unfinished. Her mother is nagging. Her drug habit is getting worse. She's self-conscious about her body size, her skin colour and her very non-PC sexual impulses. But through all this the author has a frank candour and humour which makes this novel oddly comforting in a way that acknowledges what a disaster all of our lives really are.

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Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith – I was lucky enough to see Smith read some of the poetry from this book in person. He is such a passionate and lively reader. And these poems are so engaged and revelatory in how they speak about black bodies in America, gay culture and being HIV positive. They’re politically aware and playful and sexy. Even if you’re not someone who normally reads poetry, I think anyone can connect with this incredibly original and relevant writing.

And finally, not a new book, but a classic. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley! I’ve been reading more classic novels than I usually do – not just for some Rediscover the Classics campaigns that I’ve been curating – but also other books and it’s been so enlightening. And it was such a joy to read Frankenstein for the first time and it’s appropriate too since it’s been 200 years since this novel was first published. It really wasn’t what I expected as it was so much darker and complex and philosophical than I thought it’d be.

So those are my choices! I feel glad to have read such amazing books and I’m sure I’ll discover many more great reads in the next six months. Now I’d love to hear about what books you’ve most enjoyed so far this year.

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My copy of “Summer Will Show” has sat on my bookshelf for years and I’ve always meant to get to it as Sarah Waters has said it’s one of her favourite novels. I’ve never read anything by Sylvia Townsend Warner before but it’s interesting that this author of the early twentieth century has remained relatively obscure because it feels like she ought to be better known and more widely read. The most popular revival of her writing seems to have come in the 1970s when the feminist and lesbian themes in her work were more celebrated and her novels were republished by Virago Press. But her prose style is just as cerebral and precise as Henry James while also engaging with history and politics in a fascinating way. So it seems a shame she’s not been canonized to the same degree that The Master has, but I’m glad I’ve finally started to read her work. I was prompted to do this when the booktubers Shawn and Britta invited me to read “Summer Will Show” with them and I was glad for the opportunity to take it off my shelf.

It’s the story of an aristocratic woman named Sophia Willoughby who is estranged from her husband, but is mostly content to be without him as she can focus on raising her two children (albeit in a rather strict manner as dictated by the predominant theories of education at the time). When she loses them her life feels emptied on purpose. The way Warner describes her lack of agency is really striking where there are listless periods of hollow time. It’s remarked how “It was boring being a woman, nothing that one did had any meat in it.” So Sophia seeks to find her husband again in Paris where he resides alongside his mistress, a Jewish woman named Minna. At the time she arrives the revolution of 1848 is just getting underway. Sophia finds herself swept up into these dramatic events (at first as a spectator and then as a participant) and her newfound interest in the current politics and the burgeoning Communist movement gives her a purpose in life outside of society’s rules and expectations.

This novel presented an interesting challenge because its cerebral, tightly-compacted style requires a lot of concentration. Warner also has a choppy method of transitioning between scenes so it can be difficult to imaginatively locate oneself in the narrative. Also, important events can be compressed within a single sentence or hidden in larger paragraphs so it’s a narrative that demands focus. While this means it’s not a light read, it also makes it a more interesting and impactful one because when big events do come amidst lengthy descriptions of nuanced passage tracing the contours of its protagonist’s psyche they can pack a big punch. There were scenes in this novel I felt utterly gripped by. It’s also a beguiling way of looking at history especially in the scenes where Sophia and those around her witness the revolution in an almost casual way. Minna hands out all the guns in her house to the revolutionaries and then feels relieved that she and Sophia can now enjoy eating chocolate and chatting. The novel gives a tremendous sense of how factions at all levels of society were reacting to these events and getting on with their lives at the same time.

Observations about significant events and small scale occurrences form a wonderful kind of humour when reading this story. There’s a special kind of absurdity to Warner’s storytelling in scenes where a pestering friend is shut outside while Minna and Sophia pretend not to be home or in how Sophia takes up the work of a con-artist while wearing a disguise. This gave the narrative some much-appreciated levity amidst the density of Warner’s intricate narrative style. But I also highly enjoyed the underlying sensuality to Sophia’s character where she finds herself sometimes overwhelmed by sexual impulses. In one scene she approaches her riding horse and feels a desire “to lick the polished metal on the harness, so cold and sleek to the tongue.” This points to an underlying lust she feels which might or might not be quenched when she becomes a close companion to Minna. It’s never expressly stated that they’re lovers, but I read in the introduction by Claire Harman in my NYRB Classics edition of the novel how Warner’s characters mirror in some ways both herself and her real life lesbian lover Valentine Ackland. I wonder if Warner would have written about the relationship between Sophia and Minna differently if she’d written this novel today.

There’s a lot to appreciate in this book but there are problematic aspects to Warner’s descriptions which are unavoidable. The fact of Minna’s Jewishness is brought up continuously throughout the novel in such an uncomfortable way both in the characters’ dialogue and in every description of Minna and her actions. It really emphasizes how this is a novel from 1936 and this was the manner in which general views about Jewish people were expressed. Of course, the descriptions of the working class and Sophia’s mixed-race cousin Caspar fare no better in how they are insensitively described. I don’t think this is necessarily Warner being overtly anti-Semitic, racist or classist. She was capturing the milieu and the portrayal of such attitudes is only natural as long as all the characters are given their own integrity. Minna gives multiple impassioned and mesmerizing speeches throughout the text, but unfortunately Caspar isn’t granted as much of a voice and it feels like the treatment of his character really lets this novel down.

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It’s interesting though how Warner portrays Sophia’s grappling with her problematic opinions: “she who arrived at the rue de la Carabine with all her prejudices girt about her now only recalled her former life in order to discover that another prejudice was a hamper, and could be discarded.” Sophia is someone who has evidently led a very sheltered life and raised under provincial beliefs so it feels hopeful that in time she will be able to disentangle herself from her poisonous biases and respect people as individuals. But it’s also striking how the novel portrays a period of history when slavery was regarded as taboo, but viewing people of colour as inferiors was not. In regard to Sophia’s children its remarked how “They have been told something of the colour question, and of the rational humanitarianism which forbids that any race should toil as slaves when they would toil more readily as servants”. This is a striking portrayal of the prevailing attitude and the perception that there are inherent imbalances between races of people.

The way in which Warner captures Sophia’s journey and inner transformation is really fascinating. She inherently feels that “God, her being knew, meant her no good. He had something against her, she was not one of those in whom he delighted.” A large part of why she feels this way is because a woman of the mid-nineteenth century in her social standing had so few options. Her choices are beautifully laid out for her in one section by the wonderfully compelling character of great-aunt Leocadie. But she finds avenues to circumvent these few routes by searching for something she can affix her submerged passions to. It’s telling how in one scene its described how taken she is by the poem ‘The Definition of Love’ by Andrew Marvell whose first verse ends with “Upon Impossibility.” To break out of her station and follow her impulses must have felt impossible for a woman in her position. I was really taken by the complicated way Warner portrays a woman who steps out of the narrative that’s set for her.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson