I’ve been reading some really long novels recently so I like to keep a book of short stories to read on the side. I’m very glad I picked up this new collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen despite not having yet read his debut novel “The Sympathizer” which won multiple awards including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. All of these stories touch upon the Vietnamese immigrant experience in America from different perspectives – frequently with characters forced to leave their native country. Many involve people who were directly affected by the Vietnam War or people who are still affected by it second hand based on the experiences of their parents. Their day to day lives are still weighed down by the recent history and trauma of severing ties with their native land to create a new life for themselves in America. This produces fascinating situations where characters wrestle with finding a cohesive sense of identity based on economic status, nationality, race, sexuality and gender. These exquisite stories are so impressive for being both profound and compulsively readable.

Generational clashes often play an important factor such as the story ‘The Americans’ where a former air force pilot locks horns with his daughter Claire who settles in an entirely different culture. Or in ‘Someone Else Besides You’ a regimental father who vandalizes the car of his son’s ex-wife demonstrates a different form of emotional repression. But these stories also show a tremendously moving fluid sense of identity where people are caught between their Vietnamese and American selves. Nguyen shows this so artfully in his characters that range from a ghost writer, to a peddler in fake merchandise, to a young woman who was given the same name as her older American half sister to a young refugee who is taken in by a gay couple in 1970s San Francisco. Their dramatic situations play out the tension between paths in life laid out for them and ones which they forge on their own.

A professor who suffers from dementia is given a copy of a Picasso painting which reflects the confusion he has about his wife's identity.

A professor who suffers from dementia is given a copy of a Picasso painting which reflects the confusion he has about his wife's identity.

The economic disparity between nations and levels of society greatly influence the lives of these characters as well. Some characters are determined to compensate for what they were forced to leave behind: “His ambition was to own more books than he could ever possibly read, a desire fuelled by having left behind all his books when they had fled Vietnam.” Stories and story telling between the characters also play an important role. In ‘Black-Eyed Women’ it’s observed that “In a country where possessions counted for everything we had no belongings except our stories.” Part-factual/part-embellished tales of life in Vietnam are passed down through generations. There is a definite divide between the narrative of those who escaped persecution in their homeland and those who remained in oppressed circumstances where dissent requires time in “re-education” camps. The reader is prompted to wonder what is “authentic” about national identity or the lives we live particularly in the story ‘The Transplant’ where compulsive gambler Arthur receives a liver transplant from an Asian man and ‘Fatherland’ where a Vietnamese woman returns to her homeland to visit her father’s second family. How much do nations owe to compensate for the wrongs of wartime, what obligation do countries have to take in those that have been forced to flee their native land and how do you assimilate people caught between two wildly different cultures? These queries subtly raised throughout the stories feel highly pertinent to the broader discussions of many nations.

It’s interesting getting a different perspective of the long lasting effects of the Vietnam War after having read Robert Olen Butler’s novel “Perfume River” last year. This considered the aftermath of the war over generations from a white American perspective. Nguyen shows how some Asian characters living in the United States still feel the war in their day to day lives like in the heartrending story ‘War Years’ where the battle against the Communists is still very personal for an ardent woman struggling with irreconcilable loss. It leads the narrator to note how “while some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.” The overall effect of these stories is subtly haunting because the perilous positions and existential dilemmas of the characters feel so emotionally real. Nguyen skilfully plays out the ambiguities of these situations in which no one can ever feel settled or fully at home.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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I’ve greatly admired Nadeem Aslam’s writing since I read his 2004 novel “Maps for Lost Lovers” which focused on an immigrant Pakistani community in the north of England. There is something so striking about his use of imagery which conveys the feelings of his characters and expresses the ideas which they are wrestling with. His novels are intricate, layered with diverse references and wrestle with pressing political dilemmas, but at the heart of his writing are compelling dramatic stories of individuals simply trying to live and love each other in challenging circumstances. It feels like his new novel “The Golden Legend” is his most violent and heartrending yet. It’s set in Pakistan and concerns several individuals caught in the middle of a fraught religious struggle. An architect named Nargis hides a dangerous secret which she must reckon with when her Christian friends Helen and her father Lily find themselves embroiled in a serious conflict with the strict Muslims of the community. Together with a young ex-militant man named Imran from Kashmir, they escape to a forgotten place of refuge – inevitably they are unable to remain hidden from the larger world forever. 

This novel fully engages with the highly-charged social and political landscape of Pakistan. It depicts an extraordinary amount of violence including civilian deaths under covert American missions, the burning of Christian homes, the persecution of Muslims who are deemed not Muslim enough, journalists slaughtered by jihadi, suicide bombers and a man sentenced to death for blasphemy just because he ‘liked’ a disrespectful comment made about Muhammad on Facebook. But Aslam shows the intricate web of motivations which feed into these horrific acts. People can self-righteously justify any number of atrocities when faith is mixed with hidden motives such as revenge, the quest for power or financial/political kickbacks.

Aslam also reflects: “It felt strange to think this about a place that could be so violent, but most of the time there was a deep desire to avoid confrontation in Pakistan. Ordinary people wished to be left alone, and wished to leave others alone, finding pockets of love and comfort within the strict laws that governed them. They had been owned and abused so often that at the most basic level ownership and abuse meant nothing at all. It did also mean, however, that the loud, belligerent individuals and groups could remain unchallenged.” The citizens who live within a society so embroiled in conflict will inevitably feel swayed to do whatever will allow them to live most peaceably. They are also the products of a particular history and that inheritance informs everything about their being.

Acts of violence aren’t only inflicted against people in the novel, but towards that history itself. When Nargis is cornered and intimidated in her home a precious book is slashed. Instead of disposing of this she uses golden thread to try to stitch it back together. This is a self-consciously meditative act imitating Kintsugi: the art of mending pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. The line where the pottery is broken is emphasized in the mending because “Some things were more beautiful and valuable for having been broken.” The same is true for the individuals who survive these conflicts, who lose people they love most in life and still demonstrate acts of touching humanity. It’s observed of people displaced in the midst of battle that “old women held daises next to the faces of children suffering in the cold air, the yellow centres giving off a light that was believed to control difficult breathing.” This is what Aslam captures so beautifully in his writing: small acts of caring which raise people out of their perilous circumstances.

In one scene a character listens to 'Blue Bell Knoll'

Something I connected with most strongly in this novel was the way Aslam meaningfully portrays internal conflicts of identity. Several of his characters pretend to be something they are not because of an overwhelming amount of persecution. Some Christians find it easier to pass as Muslims in this community and sometimes it’s necessary to hide one’s religious background to avoid oppression/arrest/execution. But the grave danger of such concealment is that it might be uncovered. An unknown person broadcasts people’s secrets to the entire city over a loudspeaker. In another shocking scene, men are examined by officers to see if they are circumcised to prove whether or not they are trustworthy Muslims. Aslam shows how dangerously corrupt systems of government and societies can become when people are persecuted simply for belonging to a particular group rather than because of their actions.

Another grave consequence of denying an essential part of your identity is the way in which it produces feelings of extreme isolation. This is true whether it’s concealing something important in how you publicly present yourself to society or with people you love in private. Aslam observes how “Loneliness was such a terrible thing, it was said, it made even God cry out to man.” So some of the most tender and beautiful lines of this novel are when the writer depicts scenes of enduring love borne out of honesty: “There was order, safety and happiness, and there were veins of leaves dried sentimentally in books; and there was one asking the other to choose something from a restaurant menu for both.” As fractious as the society in this novel appears, Aslam artfully portrays remarkable touches of humanity. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNadeem Aslam

Having read Boyne's heartrending novel “A History of Loneliness” a little over two years ago, I was extremely keen to read this new novel which is certainly his most ambitious publication thus far. At over six hundred pages “The Heart's Invisible Furies” follows the life of Cyril Avery from his dramatic birth in 1945 to 2015. It's a novel that's truly epic in scope as it incorporates significant moments in history from the 1966 IRA bombing of Nelson's Pillar in Dublin to the recent referendum to permit same-sex marriage in Ireland. Boyne captures climatic shifts in societal attitudes over this seventy year period. For those who experience Irish life from day to day and suffer terribly from the constrictive ideologies of its domineering institutions, it feels as if nothing will ever change. As one character puts it: “Ireland is a backward hole of a country run by vicious, evil-minded, sadistic priests and government so in thrall to the collar that it’s practically led around on a leash.” However, surveying the societal shifts over a full lifetime through Cyril's point of view, the reader is able to see how things do slowly change with time especially through brave individuals who make themselves heard.

The novel begins in 1945 when the local priest discovers that Cyril's sixteen year-old unmarried mother Catherine Goggin is pregnant. He publicly denounces her, physically throws her out of the church and orders her to leave their small farming town in West Cork. Inexperienced and nearly penniless, she bravely makes her way to Dublin where she decides to give Cyril up for adoption after giving birth to him. Cyril is raised in the home of Charles and Maude Avery who are two very different, charismatic and highly original characters. Charles is a wealthy and powerful businessman with many vices including gambling, womanizing and alcoholism. Maude is an irascible reclusive chain-smoking writer who produces a new novel every few years and delights in how few copies get sold “for she considered popularity in the bookshops to be vulgar.” In a hilariously memorable scene recounting her only public appearance, she reads her entire novel to the audience without stopping until everyone leaves the bookshop in exhaustion. Although these characters are an absolute delight to read about, they make frightful parents treating Cyril more as a lodger than a son and continuously reminding him that he's “not really an Avery.”

Each section of the novel leaps forward seven years showing Cyril’s development and struggles throughout his entire life. It’s speculated that our lives dramatically change in seven year periods of time. The philosopher and mystic Rudolf Steiner hypothesized that there are significant changes in human development in seven year cycles that are linked to the astrological chart. Scientists say that every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years meaning that biologically we become completely new human beings. One of the most touching things about “The Heart's Invisible Furies” and why it justifies its length is how it shows how orphaned Cyril is not limited to one set path in existence, but has multiple opportunities to grow and change over the course of his life. Sometimes he makes poor decisions and other times he realizes his full potential over these seven year strides. The priest who banished Catherine and her child borne out of wedlock condemned them to a life of shame and misery. Although they both periodically suffer throughout their lives, they survive and flourish. Their story is a great testament to how the human spirit overcomes the narrow-minded dictates of society.

Through Cyril’s perspective the novel gives a personal view of some the most horrific social and historic events in his lifetime including fatal homophobic beatings, a teenager kidnapped and mutilated by IRA members, concentration camp survivors, the sex trade in Amsterdam, the stigma of AIDS and its early epidemic in NYC and the September 11th attacks. These subjects are treated seriously and sensitively portrayed. However, the novel is nowhere as bleak as this list makes it sound. It’s often a very comic story with vibrant scenes and memorably idiosyncratic characters. Boyne uses a satirical wit and Dickensian social eye when writing about characters such as Mr Denby-Denby, a flamboyant civil servant, or Mary-Margaret Muffet, a conservative uptight Catholic girl, or Miss Anna Ambrosia who gets monthly visits from her “Auntie Jemima” and dismisses Edna O’Brien’s books as “pure filth.” These characters brilliantly reflect the social attitudes of their respective time periods and show up their ludicrous ingrained systems of belief. It’s moving how many characters reappear periodically throughout the years and Boyne shows how they either change or obstinately stick with their provincial points of view.

One of the most important aspects of the novel is Cyril’s homosexuality and the severe difficulty of growing up as a gay man in Ireland during his lifetime. Cyril develops an early love and lust for his boyhood friend Julian. But where heterosexual Julian can be flagrantly sexual and voracious in his female conquests, Cyril’s sexual experience is confined to cruising and he’s constantly terrified he’ll be found out. He feels an “overwhelming, insatiable and uncontrollable lust, a yearning that was as intense as my need for food and water but that, unlike those basic human needs, was always countered by the fear of discovery.” It forces him to make dishonest choices and romantically engage with women when he really longs for a relationship with a man. One of the greatest obstacles his character must overcome is learning to be honest about who he is, especially to people who will appreciate and value him regardless of his natural desires. Other gay characters in the novel have diverse ways of either concealing or expressing their homosexuality: “Ireland, a country where a homosexual, like a student priest, could easily hide their preferences by disguising them beneath the murky robes of a committed Catholic.”

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Nelson's Pillar after the 1966 IRA bombing

Even as some gay characters begin to live quite openly in later years, Cyril struggles to freely express himself or confide in people he should trust. It’s touching how the long-lasting deleterious effects of being made to feel like an outcast or deviant in society manifest in the ways the characters relate to each other or shut each other out. It produces an overwhelming sense of isolation, something that Cyril recognizes when he encounters another character late in the novel: “It's as if she understood completely the condition of loneliness and how it undermines us all, forcing us to make choices that we know are wrong for us.” This movingly describes the way people who’ve been ostracised by society can hurt themselves and others. Yet, there are moments when characters can form a unique unity and bond over their estrangement when it’s acknowledged that “We're none of us normal. Not in this fucking country.”

The title of the novel comes from an observation that theorist Hannah Arendt made about W.H. Auden “that life had manifested the heart's invisible furies on his face.” It’s an apt way of describing this novel which is an intense, poignant and vivid account of a man’s hidden conflicts. His personal development fascinatingly coincides with that of his country. What’s especially impressive is the artful way that Boyne conveys an awareness of other characters’ inner struggles only through their action and dialogue. It makes for a convincing portrayal of a diverse social landscape with lots of dramatic and gripping scenes. It’s a breathtaking and memorable experience following Cyril’s expansive journey. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJohn Boyne
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Every time I read a book of poetry I wonder why I don’t read more poetry. I was prompted to read this collection after it won the poetry category of the Costa Book Awards and I’m so glad I picked it up. The title “Falling Awake” feels apt as Alice Oswald has a dizzying way of turning the world upside down, making it fresh and inverting expectation with her stunningly beautiful acrobatic language. Many of the poems in this collection focus on nature whether that includes animals, insects, the weather, the setting/rising sun or the transformation of the seasons. A few draw in references to figures from Greek mythology such as Orpheus and Tithonus. Their inclusion melds with the tone of the other poems giving a striking perspective on time’s movement and how we perceive the world as it flows around us.

Most of the poems are quite brief, but the most sustained poem is at the end of the collection and is written as a sort of performance. It concerns Tithonus, son of a water nymph who asked Zeus to make him immortal. His wish was granted but he continued to grow old so he persists through life and we’re told that we can hear his “babbling” thoughts for a period of 46 minutes with an accompaniment of music. This poem seems to encapsulate the major themes of the entire book which often presents consciousness as if it were a Samuel Beckett play. The thoughts and physicality of the subject are raggedy: “so the voice stumbles and the feet can’t get comfortable and the eyes flicker” but still time persists “first this: the sound of everything repeating / then this: the sound of everything repeating”. It gives a powerful sense of the claustrophobia Tithonus feels stuck in the nightmarish scenario of living in a decrepit state for infinity. But at the same time we can relate to it because like him we wake up day after day, contending with a world which partly changes but mostly stays the same.

These same sentiments are echoed in ‘Dunt: A Poem for a Dried-Up River’ where “a Roman water nymph” seeks to change limestone into a river. I believe Oswald is describing a statue in this poem which is frozen in place with legs and one arm lost. But nevertheless, this being is caught in a repetitious state and continuously fails. There remains the expectation that things might change or work at any moment with the continual prompt to “try again” and “go on”. Again, this feels very reminiscent of Beckett’s writing. In ‘Evening Poem’ I wondered if Oswald was at all influenced by Marghanita Laski when she states how someone appears “as if you’d sprung from the horse-hair of a whole Victorian sofa” which felt similar to Laski’s novel about a woman who falls asleep on a chaise-longue and wakes up in Victorian times. Several poems convey this sense of tumbling through time which is both limited and infinite or slightly disordered like the state between sleeping and waking.

I felt one of the most powerful lines in the book came towards the end of the Tithonus poem. Tithonus describes that there is “the makeshift character that springs from speaking and looking on and letting everything pass and then the loneliness of being left here endless lost to my lethargy like a dripping tap”. This so beautifully encompasses the nature of being, how identity is formed through our interactions with the world and how there is a quiet centre to life once we are alone again. It makes me feel how no matter the intensity of our connections with other people or how fully formed we might appear in their eyes, each of us are ultimately a primal kind of being when left on our own. Only a few of the poems give a sense of community or a polyphony of voices such as ‘Village’ where a number of voices express the devolvement of civilization as if the world is being returned to nature.

“Falling Awake” is filled with curious insights into how we perceive the world around us, the cyclical rotation of days and the sometimes hazy border between the conscious/unconscious mind. Reading Oswald’s poems is invigorating because it makes you want to listen more closely.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlice Oswald
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It's deeply frightening and upsetting how politically divided society is at the moment. When different factions are so convinced about the certitude of their own ideas and beliefs conflict is inevitable. Religion continues to be at the centre of many battles, yet in her new novel Elif Shafak creates the character of A.Z.Azur, a controversial Oxford professor who encourages dialogue across religious belief systems as he believes that too many people suffer from what he calls “The Malady of Certainty”. Every term he holds a selective seminar whose sole purpose is to probe the philosophical meaning of God. However, at the centre of this story is Peri, a highly intelligent Turkish woman who is confused about what God means to her. Enrolled in this seminar alongside her are friends Shirin, a bisexual woman with an Iranian background who considers herself “as British as a treacle tart but as out of place as a stuffed date cake” and Mona, a politically-engaged woman of Egyptian descent who is an ardently devout Muslim. These three women are referred to as “the Sinner, the Believer, the Confused.” They are individuals caught in a state of flux between different nations, faiths and ideologies. Shafak creates a deeply meaningful, extremely relevant and riveting tale about the role belief plays in these modern women's lives.

The novel opens on a typical day in 2016 when Peri is living as a mother in Istanbul driving with her daughter to a high-class dinner party. It's been over fifteen years since she studied at Oxford and the life she's settled into is very different from her idealistic university years in England. She and her husband socialize with powerful businessmen (some of whom are involved in dodgy deals) and an image-conscious class of women who “paraded their handbags like trophies won in faraway battles.” When caught in traffic Peri puts her own handbag in the backseat where it's stolen by a thief. Rather than accept the loss, she decides to do something drastic about it and this sets off a chain of events that prompt her to take action in life. The narrative switches back and forth between this extraordinary day and the back story of Peri's life. It recounts the sharp ideological divides which existed in her family home between her devout mother and non-practicing father as well as her elder brother Umut who is a Marxist targeted by the government and younger brother Hakan who is an “irredeemably religious and excessively nationalistic” journalist. Endearingly, Peri escapes from the dramas of her household by voraciously reading because she “found solace in literature… Books were liberating, full of life.” This leads her to do exceedingly well in school and secure a place studying at Oxford.

In Peri’s childhood home “There were portraits of the national hero everywhere; Atatürk in his military uniform in the kitchen, Atatürk in a redingote in the living room, Atatürk with a coat and kalpak in the master bedroom”

In Peri’s childhood home “There were portraits of the national hero everywhere; Atatürk in his military uniform in the kitchen, Atatürk in a redingote in the living room, Atatürk with a coat and kalpak in the master bedroom”

At the heart of the novel is Peri's quest for answers to irresolvable questions about her identity and faith. She's haunted by a jinni or spirit in times of distress which takes the form of a child's face. There is a dark truth about her past which she can't surmount and move on from despite trying to fashion a new future at university. A dramatic event in Oxford causes her to abandon her progressive life there and settle into a more traditional role as a wife in Istanbul. This is very different from how she envisioned her life, but she's not blind to the contradictions and hypocrisy of the society around her – especially those who are zealous in their nationalism and religion. Humorously she observes that “There were plenty of people who fasted during Ramadan both to renew faith and to lose weight. The sacred dovetailed with the profane.” The inequality between men and women remains a particular concern where she wonders “Was religion an empowering force for women who otherwise had limited power in a society designed for and by men, or was it yet another tool for facilitating their submission?” Peri desires to proudly be an active part of her faith and homeland without submitting to the oppressive dictums of those in power.

It feels particularly important to read dynamic and complex portraits of Muslim women's lives right now. Considering that the US has just enforced a policy temporarily blocking border entry for anyone from specific Muslim-majority countries, reading about the perspectives of Muslim lives prevents them from becoming a faceless other. I related to a lot of the specific and general conflicts Peri faced in this story despite her background and life being so different from my own. Elif Shafak writes a wonderfully immersive story with complex, nuanced characters. Irrespective of the current political climate, this is a compelling and accomplished novel in its own right. But I particularly admire how this novel and others such as Chinelo Okparanta's “Under the Udala Trees” and Ali Smith's “Autumn” address the current political climate of their societies and artfully suggest practical ways to create dialogue between fractious groups. “Three Daughters of Eve” is an original and memorable story.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElif Shafak

Joyce Carol Oates is such a prolific writer that it may surprise some of her readers to discover that she is also a committed and voracious reader. It’s easy to imagine the perennial question which Oates is asked “How do you write so much?” being quickly followed by “How do you read so much?” Soul at the White Heat is a sustained and fascinating collection of nonfiction chronicling not only her reflections as a writer, but her engagement with a wide range of books by authors —some of whom are “classics” and others “contemporaries.” Every analysis or review Oates gives of a single book is scattered with mentions of that author’s other publications as well as a wide variety of other writers and books which provide enlightening points of reference. The collection is filled primarily with book reviews, so the subtitle “Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life” clues the reader into how the compulsion to write is inextricably linked to the desire to read widely and rigorously. Because this collection comes from a writer of such productivity and stature, it can be read in two ways. The first is as an astute survey of writing from some of the greatest past and present practitioners of the craft. The second is as a supplement to Oates’s own fiction, providing fascinating insights into how her perspective on other writing might relate to her past publications. However, underlying this entire anthology is the question of why writers feel inspired to write and what compels us to keep reading.

For some writers, Oates gives an informative overview of that author’s complete output. There is the “weird” writing of H.P. Lovecraft or the “bold and intriguing” detective fiction of Derek Raymond both of which lead Oates to make intriguing observations about the nature of genre. Another section gives a broad look at the life and work of famously prolific author Georges Simenon with a special consideration for the memoirist nature of one of his pivotal novels. In one of the most personal pieces Oates recounts a visit and interview she conducted with Doris Lessing in 1972 where she considers Lessing’s psychologically realist fiction alongside her audacious science fiction. Oates nobly raises the stature of some lesser known writers such as Lucia Berlin by drawing comparisons between her “zestfully written, seemingly artless” short stories and the firmly established writing of Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and Raymond Carver.

Oates has taught literature and writing for most of her life and in several pieces it’s possible to gauge her academic nature to inspire and provoke more nuanced thinking. Such is the case in one of the opening essays where she meticulously dissects the “anatomy of a story.” In “Two American Prose Masters” she makes a sharply analytical critique of how tense is used in a short story by John Updike and contrasts this with a heartrending story by Ralph Ellison. At other times she questions how style and form are related to subject matter. For instance, when considering Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest she asks if a postmodernist use of irony excludes emotion no matter how devastating or “mighty” the subject matter. In considering the “detached and ironic tone” of much of Margaret Drabble’s fiction she prompts the reader to ask how this reflects contemporary English culture and feminism. As much as making judgements throughout these numerous essays and reviews, Oates draws readers to more attentively question how they read fiction.

As a critic, Oates shows a great deal of empathy towards the artfulness employed by the vast array of writers she discusses in this book. If negative points are made they are often balanced by something positive. However, she certainly doesn't shy away from pointing out severe failings in either authors or their books. Such is the case with H.P. Lovecraft who for all the wonder of his gothic imagination was “an antiSemite . . . racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot” and she observes how “For all his intelligence and aesthetic theorizing, Lovecraft was, like Poe, a remarkably uneven writer.” When reviewing the novel The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler and Tyler's parochial portrait of the diverse city of Baltimore she surmises that “the fiction is determinedly old-fashioned, 'traditional' and conservative; it takes no risks, and confirms the wisdom of risklessness.” In the case of Karen Joy Fowler whose novel We Are Completely Beside Ourselves Oates admires as “boldly exploratory” she nonetheless considers it a misjudgement to limit the novel's point of view to the first person. She circumvents even mentioning Fowler's novel for the first five pages of the review by embarking on a fascinating consideration of Darwin and animal rights.

Oates doesn’t strictly limit herself to the realm of fiction in her criticism. She also reviews nonfiction and autobiography. These range from what might be the new definitive biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin to Margaret Atwood’s overview of science fiction In Other Worlds (where Oates cites the notable absence of Doris Lessing) to Jeanette Winterson’s memoir about her attempted suicide. When considering an “unauthorized” biography of Joan Didion titled The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty, Oates considers the evolution of Didion’s writing and how in her journalism she finds “a perfect conjunction of reportorial and memoirist urges.” Sometimes Oates asks how real-life relationships between writers and artists influence their output. When surveying the published letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz she wonders if it weren’t for Stieglitz’s influence whether O’Keeffe would still have achieved her deserved legacy as an American icon of the art world. There is also an essay which contemplates the difficult later years of Mike Tyson in the book Undisputed Truth as well as a review of the film The Fighter where Oates draws upon her considerable knowledge of boxing to critique the way the film misses out on the athletic art form of the sport. It’s easy to see why Oates was motivated to write about these last two examples because of the sustained interest in the sport she’s shown throughout her career in both her fiction such as her most recent novel A Book of American Martyrs and her slim nonfiction book On Boxing.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

There are many pieces in Soul at the White Heat which will intrigue the avid reader of Oates’s oeuvre for how the subjects and writing styles she discusses relate to her own work. For example, Oates is highly sympathetic with Derek Raymond’s “existential pilgrim as detective, the object of his inquiry nothing less than the meaning of life itself.” This is both a mode of writing and character type she also used in her exemplary post-modernist detective novel Mysteries of Winterthurn. There is also a very considered review of Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Kind Words Saloon where he realistically renders the now mythic figures of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday just as Oates sought to reimagine the girl behind the legend of Marilyn Monroe in her monumental novel Blonde. Oates admires the different slant on Dickinson’s life Jerome Charyn takes in his novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson which is interesting to consider alongside Oates’s extremely imaginative short story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” where she gives the classic American poet a second life as a computerized mannequin. When writing about Lorrie Moore's distinctive short stories Oates pays particular attention to two stories which rewrite particular tales by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James (writers whose stories Oates has also previously created her own versions of). Despite there being many parallels in themes between her own work and these other writers, Oates tactfully never references her own fiction.

Soul at the White Heat opens with four somewhat candid pieces about the writing process and her own “credo” as an artist. It's possible to see how she holds to her “several overlapping ideals” when looking back at both her fiction and the way she critiques other writer's books. In Oates's writing room she reflects how her younger self would feel “stunned” that she would produce so many books when “each hour's work feels so anxiously wrought and hard-won.” From the confined space of the study this anthology ends by moving out into “real life” with a touching, vividly detailed essay about a visit Oates undertook to San Quentin prison where she admits her idealistic urge “To learn more about the world. To be less sheltered. To be less naïve. To know.” Although this is not mentioned in the piece, Oates was subsequently inspired to help bring the stories of prisoners to the public consciousness by editing the extremely engaging anthology Prison Noir. For an author who writes so infrequently about her own life (recent memoirs A Widow’s Story and The Lost Landscape being notable exceptions) it’s refreshing to meet Oates’s voice when unmediated by the guise of fiction. Here is someone so “inspired” and “obsessed” with the boundless excitement and vertiginous joy to be found in great literature that she is motivated to devote so much time to the activity of reading when she’s not writing her own fiction. Perhaps this is the real answer to that oft-asked question of how Oates has produced over one hundred books of fiction. It’s not about how it’s done; it’s about why she does it.

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

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

“Swimming Lessons” opens with an eerie scene in which a man follows the ghost of his lost wife to the sea. Is she real or a spectre of his imagination? This doesn’t develop into a gothic tale, but rather it’s the story of a family split apart through betrayal and secrets which intelligently and movingly portrays the psychological dilemmas of both the missing woman at the book’s centre and the family she left behind. Fuller does this through a structure which alternates between the stories of two adult daughters who care for their ailing elderly father Gil and the letters their lost mother Ingrid wrote before her disappearance. These letters she tucked into several books buried within the cluttered personal library that Gil has haphazardly amassed over the years. It’s a process of discovery which creatively shows the different perspectives of a broken family.

Having read Fuller’s first novel “Our Endless Numbered Days” it’s interesting to see how she structured both these books somewhat similarly, but the effect is quite different. Chapters alternate between an approximate present and a time some years previously to build a more rounded viewpoint on the startling personal choices some of her characters make. This is an interesting way of portraying time because information is meted out for the reader to show how the past directly impacts upon the present. In the case of this new novel, at the beginning Gil discovers another letter which Ingrid hid away for him. After the prologue we see him in his present condition largely from the perspective of his adoring younger daughter Flora. But we’re aware while reading Ingrid’s letters in between each chapter what effect these must have had upon Gil’s troubled conscience. It gives a more artful and nuanced viewpoint on a case where a wife and mother vanishes from her family.

At the heart of this novel is an enquiry into the nature of truth. It poses the question of whether it is “better to live without knowing because then you could always live with hope.” The story dramatically plays out this philosophical inquiry through Ingrid’s disappearance. She might have drowned in the sea as she frequently loved swimming alone in the early morning. Or she might have abandoned her family. The family and friends she left behind have different perspectives on this question and they reach varying conclusions during the course of this emotionally-engaging story. So much about our relationships and the respective fates of people who we’ve loved in life is ultimately unknowable. The trajectory of this novel often touches upon very tender feelings so I became totally swept up in the dilemmas of the highly engaging characters. The parallel stories of Ingrid’s development and the family who are still dealing with her loss many years later build to a dramatic conclusion.

Fuller has a great talent for giving a strong visceral understanding of her characters’ complex lives and motivations through small suggestions made in dialogue and action. Older daughter Nanette is highly capable, responsible and has a romantic crush on Viv, owner of a local bookshop. Whereas younger daughter Flora is impulsive, unwieldy and dismissive towards the man that she’s been recently sleeping with when he clearly adores her. In the case of Ingrid, we get her perspective only in the second person through the letters she’s written to her husband Gil. The complexity of her character slowly unfolds as she makes shocking revelations that reveal her complicated layers of grief and the precariousness of her situation. This gives a highly original and striking look at motherhood.

Ingrid and her friend Louise visit the swimming ponds at Hampstead Heath

Ingrid and her friend Louise visit the swimming ponds at Hampstead Heath

This novel will be especially pleasurable for any bibliophiles because of the portrayal of Gil’s considerable personal book collection. He’s not so much concerned with the content of these books as what previous readers have left within them: notes in the margins, doodles or paraphernalia tucked between the pages. I was reminded of Thomas Maloney’s debut novel “The Sacred Combe” where a man uncovers a family’s history through the things he finds hidden amidst the pages of their enormous library. This process of discovery not only builds a sense of reading as a communal activity but how every book is newly created through the process of reading – as a dialogue between author and reader. The books which Ingrid chooses to hide her letters within often make a wry commentary upon their content. For instance, an account of a chaotic gathering Gil brings Ingrid to is found in T.S. Eliot’s “The Cocktail Party” and a recollection about Gil’s frivolous spending is found in Martin Amis’ “Money”. It’s not necessary to be familiar with these various books to understand the witty way which Ingrid adds extra meaning to her letters through the choices of books she hides them within.

“Swimming Lessons” is a richly engaging and clever novel that gives an enlightening and fresh perspective on family life. Fuller movingly portrays the difficult decisions a mother must make and the complicated long-term effects of grief and guilt.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesClaire Fuller
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It’s difficult enough for many gay people to come out, but for a boy to grow up gay in a working class family in rural France presents its own unique challenges. Eddy, the hero of debut author Édouard Louis’s semi-autobiographical novel, comes of age in the late 90s and early 2000s in a large family that treads close to the poverty line. Almost all the young men in their small town within the Picardy region work in the local factory once they are legally allowed to leave school at an early age. They are expected to conform to a certain type of masculinity: hard-drinking, aggressive and sexually voracious. For naturally effeminate Eddy this presents a problem at an early age when he’s branded a “faggot” – a label he can never shrug off no matter how hard he works to self consciously appear to be a tough guy. His perceptive story recounts the themes and individuals he contends with during his development towards becoming an adult who eventually accepts his nature and finds a place where he can achieve a sense of belonging. It’s filled with the brutal and intimate reality of his journey and makes statements which are at once deeply emotional and highly political.

It’s striking how for much of his early childhood Eddy is well-liked and admired for the things which make his personality unique: polite, intelligent and creative. Yet, at a certain point, these qualities don’t fit into the standard behavior associated with young men. He’s mocked by his family, friends and the other children at school – two of whom regularly and brutally bully him. Having no way to defend himself against these attacks he resolves (in a way he later realizes is akin to Jean Genet) “I thought it would be better if I seemed like a happy kid. So I became the staunchest ally of this silence, and, in a certain way, complicit in this violence.” This is the point at which his life becomes sharply divided; there is the private life and the public face he shows to the rest of the world. Rather than living freely and naturally he becomes self consciousness and begins to modify his behavior to try to conform to those around him. Of course, it doesn’t work. It leads only to humiliation, secrecy and painful self-loathing. All he wants is to fit in, but he’s uniformly rejected.

While things are often difficult for any queer teen navigating through a largely heterosexual society, there are unique hardships for those from a socio-economic background like Eddy’s. He and the people around him have been excluded from the narrative of society. The working class are often ignored and scorned. The author proposes that this causes many to become insular and disdain any “outsiders” or the values of mainstream intellectual society: “To philosophise meant talking like the class enemy, the haves, the rich folk.” It leads to intense levels of homophobia as well as racism and sexism. Eddy concludes that “the crime was not having done something, it was being something. And especially, looking like one of them.” The “them” are the people who don’t conform to the conventional masculine mode which is stringently reinforced in every aspect of this working class community. Because the novel is written in retrospect from the point when Eddy has become Édouard, he’s able to understand the context of his upbringing. However, the physical and emotional pain from his difficult and warped development remain sharp in his memory. The author thoughtfully unpacks the social milieu of Eddy’s life which leads him to feeling like he has no options to leave or find support elsewhere because this is the only home he knows.

There are certain kinds of trauma from which a person can never recover from. Eddy’s many justified grievances will no doubt remain with him throughout his life and the anger he feels is palpable in this narrative. Not only was his self worth viciously lowered by trying desperately to conform, but he suffered numerous painful injustices. These ranged from being mocked by his mother for having asthma while she stubbornly smoked around him to the broken window in his bedroom which was left unrepaired for the majority of his teenage years. Then there are the atrocious contradictions of the people around him. He engaged in willing sexual activities with his male cousin and friends, yet he is the one publicly shamed for participating where the others are not. Also, his father’s homophobia and racism which he continuously vocalizes are forgotten on a couple of occasions when presented with a real gay person at a party or a black man he befriends in another city. Nevertheless, at home his father continued to berate him for his effeminate nature. At times the story feels all the more painful for the way it relates these details as the narrator struggles to make intellectual sense of them while holding the full fury of his emotions at bay.

It feels important that we have more books like “The End of Eddy” which pay tribute to the perspective of those who have been excluded from mainstream society. Notably, novels by Lisa McInerny and Kerry Hudson also sympathetically address this perspective of the working class. It’s been speculated that it was primarily this section of society that voted for Brexit and have elected deeply conservative leaders. Most often it’s their vote which influences government policy to become more insular in focus. Certainly this seems to be the perspective which Zadie Smith proposed in her article ‘Fences’ published in The New York Review. It’s also vital that we continue to have more stories from younger queer generations such as Chinelo Okparanta’s “Under the Udala Trees” and Garrard Conley’s “Boy Erased” where homosexuals still feel intensely pressured to live as heterosexuals. Luckily Eddy was able to eventually go to university, accept his nature and articulate his experience, but there must be countless people like Eddy who have fatally never been able to leave or speak about their constrictive circumstances. However – and this is really important - you don’t need to read “The End of Eddy” because it’s worthy. Read it because it’s a devastatingly honest and moving story in itself.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdouard Louis