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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
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When I recently heard that Leni Zumas’ new novel “Red Clocks” was partly inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” I felt I had to read it. I love Woolf’s poetically-charged novel so much and it’s lived with me for so many years I feel like it’s a part of my body and soul. The plot of Zumas’ novel doesn’t directly relate to Woolf’s writing but it gives several nods to it and pays tribute to her predecessor so part of the great pleasure of reading this book was knowing I was in the company of a fellow Woolf lover. The epigraph of this novel is a line from Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”. Set on the western US coast it portrays the interweaving lives of four different women in a time when abortion is outlawed in America and legislation is coming into place that requires any child who is adopted to have two parents. Sadly, it’s easy to imagine such regressive laws being put into effect with the current administration. Chapters are headed by a part that these four different women play in the story: the biographer, the mender, the daughter and the wife. So the novel is partly about the way that women can become defined by their roles in life and how society brackets women within a specific function. Of course, their characters are really much more complex than these parts and the story dramatically shows the way women can work together under a political regime that seeks to suppress and control them.

A few of the characters’ names relate directly to “The Waves”. The Mender is named Ginny (spelled differently from the character Jinny in “The Waves”) and whose demeanour is very different from Woolf’s creation in that Ginny is a modern-day apothecary who only uses natural herbs and organic concoctions to treat women in need. She lives in rural isolation, pines for the affair she had with a man’s wife and aspires to self sufficiency which make most of the local community “think she’s unhinged, a forest weirdo, a witch.” Ginny’s surname is Percival and comes from a lineage of “menders” she aspires to emulate and who were equally misunderstood and scorned women. In “The Waves” Percival is the elusive hero at the centre who all the characters admire and love. So, in a sense, it feels that by giving her character Ginny this surname Zumas is seeing her work as a writer in a tradition aligned with Woolf.

The Wife of the story is named Susan. Her promising legal career has long been left behind in order to become a full time mother to two children and her relationship to her husband has severely deteriorated despite her efforts to rescue it. It’s interesting how the character of Susan in “The Waves” is the most maternal and domestically-orientated one of the bunch, but over the course of her life she finds herself steeped in regret and sorrow for her stymied passions despite finding so much superficial contentment. I’ve always felt a deep affection for her so I enjoyed how Zumas creates in a modern version of this character the ability for her to pursue new avenues in her life that can exist alongside motherhood (without being anyone’s wife). 

The most fascinating character relationship between “The Waves” and “Red Clocks” is with Zumas’ character Roberta Stephens. Obviously, Stephen was Virginia Woolf’s maiden name. But Roberta is a teacher and writer working on a biography of an obscure woman named Eivør Minervudottir who was a polar hydrologist and arctic explorer “whose trailblazing research on pack ice was published under a male acquaintance’s name”. (Incidentally, Minervudottir’s uncle is a lighthouse keeper.) Short passages of her writing about Minervudottir are positioned in between the sections about these modern-day women. In “The Waves” each section is interspersed with a passage about the movement of light over the course of a day. So, by including these passages about Minervudottir, Zumas shows the way the struggles and ambition of historic women still resonate in the lives of women today. I also highly appreciate how these passages so Roberta’s writing process with lines crossed out as she aspires to articulate what she wants to express in the biography she’s writing.

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While these are specific references that relate to “The Waves” in ways that might be incidental (but which excite me to read about because I’m such a fan of the novel), the overall tone of the writing is unique and compulsively readable. Zumas uses such unique turns of phrase. In one section, a character feels as if she’s surrounded by “a crowd of vulvic ghosts”. But there are occasional lines which feel so resonant of Woolf’s writing they might be lifted from one of her novels. Zumas describes “the ocean beyond, a shirred blue prairie stretching to the horizon, cut by bars of green. Far from shore: a black fin” and later on how “Canned tomatoes make loud red suns across her vision.” The novel has touches of this Woolfian description and imagery which gives another sort of lovely tribute to the modernist writer, but overall it is infused with a much more modern sound and resonance.

I also appreciated the way these characters’ stories make a larger message about the way women relate to their bodies changes when put under restrictive legal measures. More generally, women are often made to feel that they inhabit a biological clock which gives them a limited time frame in which to bear children. Zumas poignantly describes how this is a pressure that some women feel dearly. The larger political message this story creates is skilfully envisioned especially in how the relationship between the US and Canada changes when a “pink wall” is created that disallows American women from seeking out abortions across the border. “Red Clocks” feels like such a timely book and it’s an imaginative and enjoyable read. You certainly don’t need to be a fan of Virginia Woolf to appreciate it, but it adds another dimension to how you can read this novel.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesLeni Zumas
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For all the daring stylistic variations and rich diversity of subject matter found in Beautiful Days, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection of short stories, there is a common theme throughout of disruptively close encounters with the “other.” At the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012, Oates gave a talk titled ‘Close Encounters with the Other’ and in this session she describes how “There comes a time in our lives when we realize that other people are not projections of ourselves - that we can’t really identify with them. We might sympathize or empathize with them, but we can’t really know them fully. They are other and they are opaque.” So in these stories characters strive for connections which often tragically break down. These encounters document the awkward or sometimes violent clashes that occur between individuals who are so dissimilar there is an unbreachable rupture in understanding. The factors that divide these characters include issues such as romantic intention, gender, age, race, class, education and nationality. Oates creates a wide array of situations and richly complex characters to show the intense drama that arises from clashes surrounding these subjects.

Some stories take fascinatingly different angles on the question of trust and the durability of love within romantic affairs or long-term marriages. In ‘Fleuve Bleu’ two married individuals initiate an affair with a declaration that they will maintain complete honesty. Yet there are fundamental issues left unsaid which motivate one individual to abruptly bring their affair to a halt. Here descriptions of the environment strikingly emote the passion of their connection and erotic encounters. A couple at cross-purposes is also portrayed in 'Big Burnt' where a weekend tryst to an island is initiated because Lisbeth wants to make Mikael love her, but Mikael wants a woman to witness his suicide. Whereas in 'The Bereaved' it feels as if the female protagonist was taken on as a wife only to care for the husband’s motherless child. The child’s early death precipitates a feeling of her role being taken away as well as deep feelings of guilt which manifest in a fascinatingly dramatic way while the couple embark on an ecological cruise. The stories suggest that no matter the passion or fervour of a couple’s connection there is an element of unknowability about one’s partner which makes itself known in the course of time.

Other stories describe class and racial conflicts between teachers and pupils. In 'Except You Bless Me' a Detroit English teacher named Helen earnestly tries to tutor her pupil Larissa despite strongly suspecting this student is leaving her aggressively racist messages. This is an interesting variation from a section of Oates's novel Marya where the protagonist encounters slyly aggressive behaviour from black janitor Sylvester at the school where she teaches. Both are expressions of the quandary a white individual might have faced at this time of Detroit history when racial tensions ran high. Helen makes little progress in her tutoring and then, many years later, finds herself in a vulnerable position with a woman she imagines to be Larissa as an adult. Like in 'The Bereaved', the protagonist is somewhat aware of her own prejudices, but is nevertheless drawn into paranoid fantasies. However, the wife of 'The Bereaved' is prejudiced not about race, but the obesity and perceived stupidity of a family aboard the cruise ship. Fascinatingly, she thinks of this family as like people who might be photographed by Diane Arbus in contrast to other groups on the ship who are like “Norman Rockwell families”. The central characters in these stories turn certain people they encounter into antagonists because there is an “otherness” about them which they can’t overcome.

Intergenerational conflicts which are described in some other stories are centred around a parent/child relationship. In 'Owl Eyes' teenager Jerald appears to have some form of autism where he has very advanced abilities in mathematics and experiences feelings of panic when there are deviations from his fixed routines. He regularly travels to a university campus to attend a calculus class, but when a man approaches him claiming to be his estranged father Jerald can’t reconcile how this man might fit into the narrative created by his single mother. Jerald is reluctant to engage with memory because, unlike math, it is uncertain and has an inherent malleability: “Memories return in waves, overwhelming. You can drown in memories.” Memory is distorted in the tremendously ambitious story 'Fractal' which is also about a mother and her son. At the beginning of this story the characters are only referred to as “the mother” and “the child” as if these identity roles supersede any individuality that would grant them names. “The mother” indulges her child’s specialist interest by taking him to a (fictional) Fractal Museum in Portland, Maine. As the pair explore the museums exhibits, multiple versions of their reality are gradually introduced until “the mother” is confronted with a true past that she’s wholly denied.

A very different kind of teacher/pupil relationship is depicted in 'The Quiet Car' where an arrogant male teacher/writer reflects on his declining literary fame and an adoring female student who he viewed in a disparaging way. When he bumps into this student again many years later he’s confronted by how his conception of himself has been overly inflated. Oates has recently shown a particular knack for excoriating the pompous egos of celebrated male authors/artists in her fiction. Most notably this can be seen in her collection Wild Nights! and her controversial depiction of Robert Frost in the short story ‘Lovely, Dark Deep’. However, Oates constructs a more playful tribute to a particular author’s ambition and his lasting impact in her story 'Donald Barthelme Saved From Oblivion'. Here she memorably describes the writing process as like walking over and over across a high wire and makes acute observations about the meaning and endurance of art.

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The vivid and intense story 'Les Beaux Jours' contains a much sharper critique of the problematic nature of artist Balthus’s famous painting. Here the reader inhabits the troubled psyche of the girl depicted in this artwork who is like an enslaved fairy tale heroine while simultaneously existing as a girl from a broken affluent NYC home. As with many stories in the second section of this collection, this story slides into the surreal as does the brief and powerfully haunting story ‘The Memorial Field at Hazard, Minnesota’. Here the author’s condemnation for the tyrannical nature of ego-driven politicians sees a former president forcibly condemned to the hellish task of digging up graves of those who were victims of his poor policies and warmongering.

Oates creatively engages with the politics of immigration in what is probably the most radical story in this collection 'Undocumented Alien'. Here a Nigerian-born young man J.S. Maada enters into a secret governmental psychological experiment rather than face deportation. A chip planted in his brain causes a “radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition” and results in him believing that he’s an agent from planet Jupiter's moon Ganymede. This leads to paranoid fantasies and a horrific confrontation with the white lady who employs him as a gardener. It’s tremendously poignant that the way J.S. Maada is manipulated, persecuted and discarded is indicative of how an intolerant section of white America reacts to “otherness.”

This collection of stories seems to possess an urgency and anger influenced by current American politics. It never ceases to amaze me how Oates continually pushes boundaries and orchestrates a dialogue around some of the most pressing matters in society today. In addition to how these stories address many dramatic instances of confrontations with the “other”, they also possess an impressive diversity in their style and form. The bold variety of narratives in this collection continuously surprise and delight. Much of the fiction in Beautiful Days is longer than a typical short story. With several stories tipping into lengths considered to be a novella, it feels that many could easily expand out into novels. Given that Oates’s forthcoming novel (currently titled) My Life as a Rat is based off her short story ‘Curly Red’, it will be interesting to see if the author chooses to build upon any of the short fiction in Beautiful Days. However, the stories in this collection stand firmly on their own with all their startling psychological insight and bracing depictions of tragic conflict. 

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

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Recently I made a video talking about examples of contemporary authors who fictionally reimagine the lives of classic authors. But it's been a funny coincidence that the past two novels I've read do this exact thing in creatively pioneering ways. Cristina Rivera Garza brought back multiple versions of the Mexican writer Amparo Davila in her gender-bending “The Iliac Crest” and now Olivia Laing has done so in her first novel “Crudo” by merging her own identity with that of punk poet and cutting-edge novelist Kathy Acker (who died in 1997.) I've been anticipating this novel so much because Laing's nonfiction book “The Lonely City” was such an important touchstone for me in understanding the condition of loneliness. “Crudo” follows a re-imagined Kathy twenty years after her death in 2017 during the languorous Italian days in the lead up to her marriage to a much older writer. She reflects on the state of the world from dispiriting politics to her interactions with groups of artists to the challenging interplay between the inner and outer world. In doing so Laing forms a fascinating portrait of the modern crisis of an individual who feels she has opportunities and access to vast amounts of information, but is in some ways powerless to enact change or escape her own privilege. 

Part of what makes Laing's nonfiction so mesmerising is the intense connection she describes with the artists and subjects whose lives she explores so sympathetically. These are often figures who were marginalized but whose creations and activism pushed the conversation forward. So it's unsurprising that she'd be drawn to the figure of Kathy Acker whose anti-establishment aesthetic incorporated styles of pastiche and a cut-up technique to explore elements from her own life as well as subjects such as power, sex and violence. Acker's fiction also appropriated a number of prominent classic authors such as Arthur Rimbaud, Emily Bronte, Marquis de Sade, Charles Dickens and Georges Bataille. It's described in this novel how “She wrote fiction, sure, but she populated it with the already extant, the pre-packaged and readymade. She was in many ways Warhol’s daughter, niece at least, a grave-robber, a bandit, happy to snatch what she needed but was also morally invested in the cause: that there was no need to invent”. In the same way, Laing transposes lines from Acker's writing (as well as some other authors) to form a modern narrative which is in some ways autobiographical. This literally bleeds Acker's thoughts and ideas into Laing's sensibility to reiterate what has been said before and say something new. 

I'm really fascinated by writing techniques which incorporate pre-existing texts such as Jeremy Gavron's recent “Felix Culpa” which forms a compelling self-contained fictional narrative. But “Crudo” is much more intensely personal describing its protagonist Kathy's desire to break out of the bounds her gender and her time period: the bleak summer of 2017 when the public dialogue was overwhelmed with talk of Brexit and Trump (as it still is.) It describes how she both wants to engage in this conversation and escape from it in the transformative space of solitude “It was just she kept sneezing, it was just that she needed seven hours weeks months years a day totally alone, trawling the bottom of the ocean, it’s why she spent so much time on the Internet” and how our online lives filtered through mediums such as Twitter allow us immediate access to information, but also have a curious distancing effect. This leads to a understandably pessimistic view of the world with its diminishing resources and reactionary politics:“It was all done, it was over, there wasn’t any hope.” But, of course, Kathy as an individual persists as does the propensity to create art that engages with and reacts to this fraught world. 

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Part of me felt uncertain at first if Laing's method of invoking the figure of Kathy Acker was necessary for her to fictionally express a state of being that is evidently so painfully real for the author herself. After spending a lot of time thinking about what this novel says, I'm convinced that Laing's method isn't just a formal experiment but a necessary act. For all its desperate searching and relatable despair, “Crudo” is a surprisingly romantic novel in the way Laing breathes new life into a pioneering writer from the past and pays tribute to the power of committed love for comfort and solace. One of the most powerful scenes comes when Kathy is at a dinner party where it describes her grappling to eat a crab. She pounds on it persistently to crack inside and there's a moment where her personality melds with that of the crustacean: “Someone was pounding on the door. The hammer, smashing the crab’s back. She wanted to be cracked open, that was the thing, only on her own terms and within preordained limits. There were rules, she changed them.” This beautifully encapsulates the core of this narrative which feels encroaching forces threatening our liberty and our bodies, but which shows a determination to change the landscape which is so rapidly transforming beneath our feet. “Crudo” is both a beautiful drag act and an urgent cry to witness, remember, connect and move forward.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlivia Laing
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“The Illiac Crest” describes the journey of a narrator whose fixed idea of the world gradually comes undone after being visited by two women; one who claims to be the Mexican writer Amparo Dávila and one who is an ex-lover ominously referred to as “the Betrayed”. The women take up residence in the narrator's house and develop a language of their own which the narrator is excluded from. It's a story which becomes increasingly surreal as the narrator who works as a doctor at a sanatorium investigates a former rebellious patient, seeks to uncover a lost manuscript and comes under suspicion by the facility's administration. At the same time the narrator visits a challenging older version of Amparo Dávila who claims the narrator really doesn't understand anything. Questions arise surrounding what makes an authentic identity in terms of gender, social standing, citizenship and political beliefs. When the young version of Dávila arrives at the house the narrator is drawn to the prominent bone of her pelvis and feels a mixture of desire and fear. The struggle to recall the name of this bone and acknowledge the truth lying beneath appearances becomes central to the story. This is such an intriguing book and I feel like it's going to take some time for its meaning to fully sink in. 

Experimental fiction which uses a non-traditional approach to plot structure and characters feels like it works best for me when I'm engaged by the immediate story, but only feel its subtler effects as time progresses. There are so many intriguing parts in this novel like the way people come to be named by the narrator as “the Betrayed” or “the False One” as a way of narrowly defining or claiming ownership to them. But, at one point, the narrator switches from the one in authority to the one being prosecuted. It disrupts the narrator's sense of being and his/her certainty about the world. The conscious and unconscious world start to blur into each other. The more ardently the narrator tries to understand things and insist that he is a man the more confused the narrator becomes. I was particularly intrigued by how the narrator is so drawn to the ocean and staring at the ocean as a way of obliterating the need for control: “You need the ocean for this: to stop believing in reality. To ask yourself impossible questions. To not know. To cease knowing. To become intoxicated by the smell. To close your eyes. To stop believing in reality.” 

It's interesting how this novel was first published in Mexico in 2002, but it's only just now been published in English for the first time. Its themes seem even more relevant today in terms of how borders are defined and laid out in a way which doesn't necessarily correspond with our subjective reality or the way we physically inhabit the world. These are the borders between one place and another and between one gender and another. The more rigidly these borders are defined the more conflict seems to arise. In the afterward, the novel's translator Sarah Booker describes how these themes are particularly relevant to Garza having grown up near the US/Mexico border. The novel seeks to disrupt our fixed ideas of reality as they've been socially constructed and demarcated by the society we inhabit. I enjoyed being immersed in its atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. I'm sure it'll be a book I'll think back on often and which will greatly benefit from a re-reading as it contains many hidden treasures. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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There are innumerable unsung and compelling figures from history who never quite achieved the fame or long-lasting influence you’d expect. One of my favourite books from the past few years is Megan Mayhew Bergman’s collection of short stories “Almost Famous Women” which fictionalizes the stories of several striking women who were figures of marginal significance in their times but not widely remembered. A couple of her tales deal with people around the notoriously vibrant art scene in Paris between the Wars. In Rupert Thomson’s wonderful new novel he reimagines the lives of two particularly fascinating women from this period. Lucy Schwob and Suzanne Malherbe were a life-long couple both born into prosperous intellectual families in France near the turn of the century. They were artists and progressive thinkers who questioned static gender roles in the way they presented themselves and by adopting the gender-ambiguous names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore. We follow their lives from childhood to mingling with significant Parisian artists to their dangerous anti-Nazi activism in occupied Jersey to the post-War years. It’s a sweeping and thrilling novel that gives an entirely new perspective of early 20th century Europe and a powerful account of a significant long-term same sex love affair.

It’s clever how Thomson chooses to narrate his novel through the perspective of Suzanne/Marcel becomes she’s in many ways the more stable and practical partner of this intriguing pair. Lucy/Claude is daringly defiant in her opinions and actions, but she’s also erratic and if the narrative were steered by her voice it would probably grow too unwieldy. Instead we follow their experiences through the dogged and perceptive point of view of Suzanne who is enthralled by Lucy’s radical ideas and cavalier attitude. At one point she recounts Lucy declaring “Masculine, feminine,’ she said. ‘I can do all that. But neuter – that’s where I feel comfortable. I’m not going to be typecast or put in a box. Not ever. I’m always going to have a choice.” It’s impressive how forward-thinking and brave this couple were to live in a way which so stridently defied the gender norms and conventions of the time. While this spurred their artistic visions in writing and the visual arts, their refusal to be categorized and the fact it was a male-dominated milieu probably contributed to the fact that this couple’s work isn’t as well remembered as that of some of their peers.

Something I love is the empowering self-determined way these women choose uncertainty over a safe and predictable life. In practical terms it would have been much easier for them to settle down into stable lifestyles, but they chose each other and they chose to question instead of being complicit. They declare their stance as such: “The path I had chosen was the one that I could not imagine.” Given the time period and sex they were born into it’s very easy for them to imagine straightforward conventional lifestyles, but they strike out into uncharted territory in their love affair as well as dealings with the founders of the Surrealist movement and in undermining the imposed authority of the Nazis. Although they are faithful in their love for each other, this refusal to adhere to convention also includes not settling down into a strictly monogamous relationship – something which naturally becomes a source of friction for the couple over the years.

Anyone enamoured with the glamorous intellectual circles which have been frequently mythologized in fiction and nonfiction accounts of the interwar periods of Paris will take pleasure in the many cameos of noteworthy eccentric figures. These include Gertrude Stein and her “melancholy lover, the one with the drooping eyelids”, Salvador Dali who is “a dapper, narrow-shouldered man with slicked-back hair and a moustache… up close, he smelled of old gardenias, their petals browning at the edges” and Andre Breton who “wore a green suit and a pair of spectacles, and he carried his famous cane on which were carved vaginas, erect penises and slugs.” There’s a strong sense of how these groups were self-consciously fashioning legacies at the time. Also, the warring egotism of different artists meant that “The movements came and went more quickly than the seasons, and the rifts between people we knew were perennial and vitriolic.”

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Claude Cahun & an unknown woman

However, this novel comes most grippingly alive when Suzanne and Lucy move to Jersey seeking stability and quiet, but find the war comes to their doorstep. Their actions are incredibly brave and it leads to some very tense scenes. There are also some funny observations about how easy it was, in some cases, to fool the Nazis by simply signing their anti-German fliers as if they were a soldier because “No one looking at the word ‘soldier’ would think of a woman.” However, the very narrow-minded misogyny which ironically allows them to get away with their subversive activities for so long also gets them into hot water when the Germans refuse to believe they were simply two older ladies acting alone. The fact that I had no prior knowledge about this couple and how their lives would play out added to making this novel such a tense read for me.

“Never Anyone But You” is also an especially compelling and heartfelt novel. It’s wonderful reading about a historical same sex relationship portrayed in such a compassionate way. There is an intensity and beauty to breaking taboos to be with the person you’re naturally drawn to, but there’s also a sense of isolation which comes from finding love which cannot be celebrated within the larger society: “Since we were excluded, we became exclusive.” This is a powerful sentiment that’s also echoed in Matthew Griffin’s novel "Hide" about a long-term gay relationship. I also admired how Rupert Thomson avoids sentimentality in how he presents the bond between these women: “It’s a mistake to think that a long relationship is boring. The longer you’re with someone, the more mysterious they become.” Following the harrowing story of this dynamic couple which is brought so vividly to life in Thomson’s novel made me appreciate how complex these women were and grateful that they’ve been rescued from obscurity.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRupert Thomson
2 CommentsPost a comment
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Every generation needs a new young narrative voice to articulate the feelings of disaffection that come with that particular time. From Emma Bovary to Holden Caulfield to Jim Stark to Angela Chase these alienated voices speak to those who feel outside the mainstream. None of the other characters in their stories can understand why these narrators are so problem-ridden because the protagonists are often born into lives of privilege and promise. The heroes of these stories don't feel like a hero to themselves because they are so confused and jaded and their lives are in utter shambles. But to many readers and viewers they articulate a blunt honesty, insight and humour about the anxieties many feel at that time.

It feels like Maya, the narrator of Jade Sharma's debut novel, could be the outsider voice of this generation. 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 dope habit is getting worse. She's self-conscious about her body size, her skin colour and her distinctly non-PC sexual impulses. Her story has a streamlined candour to it whether she's articulating her desires “I liked feeling like a thing. I like feeling like nothing” or expressing the self-disgust which accompanies feeling overweight “The worst was to feel both fat and hungry.” We follow her journey as she spirals into ever more debased and degrading circles of behaviour and her struggle to find meaning and purpose. But this isn't presented in a self-pitying way. Rather, her narrative has a lucidity, wry humour and insight that acts as a touchstone which many people will be able to sympathize with and relate to even if their experiences are far different from Maya's.

A trip to her in-laws for Thanksgiving perfectly captures all the gut-wrenching awkwardness of an obligatory trip to someone's family home. Maya is constantly plagued by self-consciousness from the moment she arrives and struggles to fit into this family's traditions, routines and Christian values. The family tries to integrate her into their home and make her feel welcome but this often produces the opposite result. When Maya makes gestures to try to participate by suggesting a movie for everyone to watch or help rake leaves in the yard the comically disastrous results only make her into more of an outsider. She achieves the perfect tragicomic tone when she remarks how being at her in-laws “was like a job. A bad shift at a bad job.” While experiences like this are soul-crushingly bleak to live through they are great fun to read about because it’s so easy to empathize with Maya’s discomfort.

The narrative takes an interesting turn when Maya slips frighteningly further into addiction, prostitution to support her drug habit and vice. Her descent into repeating self-destructive behaviour causes her to become more an observer of her life rather than the one actually inhabiting it. This detachment seems to reflect how she can recognize the problems she’s readily engaging in, but she’s helpless to stop herself from participating in them. An interesting way which the author plays with point of view is when Maya meditates on her consumption and relationship to porn. In one fascinating passage she describes how she desires to feel her identity shift fluidly from one sexual participant and gender to another while watching it: “In one way or another, I wanted to be the men, and I wanted to hurt the woman. I wanted to hurt like the woman, and I wanted to hate the men for hurting me. I wanted to be the man at home jerking off wanting to be the man wanting to hurt the woman. And then I wanted to hurt more.” This sense of simultaneously inhabiting each participant in sex: tormenter and tormented, perpetrator and victim, exhibitionist and voyeur effectively shows the power play at work behind the physical act. It also describes how sex can be another kind of addiction with ceaselessly recurring patterns backed by some unresolved emotional discord.

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Some readers will no doubt become impatient by Maya’s self-centredness and frustrated by her inability to progress out of her desultory state, but others will undoubtably find her to be the sole voice of reason while living through a modern malaise. By following the details of Maya’s life, Jade Sharma engagingly and succinctly captures many common ephemeral thoughts and feelings which are often contradictory. This is the experience which makes up modern existence. Every era of society throws up new expectations and challenges to succeed. It’s never ideal. It’s what drives us to seek out an honest reflection of all the poisonous emotion which prevents us from becoming the fully-realized individuals that we’re expected to become. This is why we need Maya’s voice.

This review also appeared in the Open Letters Review: https://openlettersreview.com/open-letters-review/problems-by-jade-sharma

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJade Sharma
2 CommentsPost a comment

As I discussed in my video about working on ‘Rediscover the Classics’ with Jellybooks, I have the exciting task of curating groups of classic books. My new selection has just been launched and it’s classic utopian novels! I’ve created original covers for all six of the books. You can see these covers, read more about them and join in here:

https://jbks.co/Utopia-reading-list

After registering for a free Jellybooks account you can select two free books from my selections to download and enjoy on your e-reader.

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I’ve always had a fascination with utopian literature and read a lot of it during my teenage years – as well as the darker side of the coin: dystopian fiction! It’s tantalizing to imagine how we’d build a society from the ground up and that’s just what a number of authors have done through the ages. In doing so, writers inadvertently or intentionally reflect both their own values and the values of their time period. In many cases utopian fiction seems a way of criticising the etiquette, morals or laws of the age they were written in. For instance, Thomas More points out corruption in the Catholic church that was occurring in the 16th century; Charlotte Perkins Gilman cites the injustice of women’s dependence on men being the primary breadwinners; and, in satirising popular travellers’ tales of the early 1700s, Jonathan Swift ironically wrote one of the most beloved and imaginative episodic journeys of all time! Throughout Margaret Cavendish and Samuel Butler’s novels there is also an interesting engagement with emerging technologies and scientific advancements of the 17th and 19th centuries respectively. As well as being engaging and imaginative stories, the six books I’ve selected for this Utopian Classics reading group also offer fascinating insights into history and the way people from the past dreamily gazed into imagined futures.

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It felt important to offer something of a balance (in gender at least) in choosing these utopian tales. The canon of classic literature is often top heavy with male voices and it’s exciting how there has been a recent resurrection of nearly forgotten female writers from the past such as Margaret Cavendish whose life was fictionally reimagined in Danielle Dutton’s fantastic novel “Margaret the First”. Many people will know Charlotte Perkins Gilman from her feminist classic “The Yellow Wallpaper” but not as many will have read her all-female utopian novel “Herland”. All of these novels also often hint at unconscious biases or dodgy ideas which many people will probably find appalling today. Slavery was an integral part of Thomas More’s utopia and Mary E. Bradley Lane vision of an all-female utopia was intentionally racist as it is composed exclusively of Aryan women. Rather than erase or gloss over these uncomfortable aspects of the fiction, I think it’s interesting to consider them in their historical context and just how much society’s ideals have changed since the time periods they were written in.

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Sometimes it feels like the frequent news reports about refugees and asylum seekers can turn into just another political debate and so much rhetoric that it diminishes the powerful fact that this is about individuals in a desperate situation. Recently I read “Tell Me How It Ends”, Valeria Luiselli’s utterly gripping and heart breaking essay about working with Central American children seeking asylum in America. In Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel “Go Went Gone” this issue is brought powerfully to life in the fictional story of Richard, a recently retired professor in Berlin who interviews and befriends groups of refugees after they stage a protest in a city square. This is based on a famous pro-immigration movement that took place in German between 2012-2014. But this isn’t simply a novel that’s giving a human face to one of the biggest social and political issues in Western nations today. It’s also an immensely engaging and philosophical story that says so much about identity, culture, history, memory and society. I was enthralled by the artful way Erpenbeck creates a complex tale that presents the layered past of her protagonist and the nation he lives in to demonstrate the malleable meaning of citizenship.

What this novel does so well in its narrative is show the day to day actions of both Richard and the group of male asylum seekers he visits. You get this progression of everyday life and their habits in a way that contrasts Richard’s steady comfortable existence with that of the state of limbo the various men from Africa and the Middle East experience. This gradually builds to an understanding of what a strain this puts on people who have come out of a traumatic situation. Erpenbeck writes how “Time does something to a person, because a human being isn’t a machine that can be switched on and off. The time during which a person doesn’t know how his life can become a life fills a person condemned to idleness from his head down to his toes.” It’s heartrending seeing how this changes many of the lively and fascinating individuals that Richard meets so that they become either despondent or incensed with anger. It also shows how these men who only want to work and build lives for themselves have their youth, intelligence and talent wasted in waiting for an answer that will inevitably be disappointing.

Richard and some goodwill workers do their best to help the men gain new skills, earn a bit of money or learn the German language, but resources are strained and restrictions prevent them from offering much assistance in terms of education, employment or legal help. Therefore the asylum seekers are prevented from even beginning to integrate or find any useful way to spend their days. It’s particularly striking how the refugees cling to their phones: “Richard notes that the men feel more at home in these wireless networks than in the countries in which they await their future. This system of numbers and passwords extending clear across continents is all the compensation they have for everything they’ve lost forever. What belongs to them is invisible and made of air.”

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Richard’s character may seem simple at first or that he’s simply a springboard against which the author can access the stories of the many asylum seekers. But he’s quite complex in a way that only becomes apparent with the full arc of the story. I won’t give any spoilers but it’s intriguing how aware he is of the role chance plays in terms of one’s national identity and sense of security. During a dramatic wartime situation in his childhood he came close to being left behind or winnowed out. The legacy of a divided Germany still lingers strong in the nation and though it appears unified now his interactions with the asylum seekers makes him aware of divides which are still palpably present: “Where before there was only a building, a sidewalk, and everyday Berlin life, a border had suddenly sprouted, growing up quickly and going to seed, unforeseen as illness.” Richard soon becomes aware of how conservative and resistant many of his countrymen are and how quick they are to make assumptions about and condemn people they don’t know.

Running throughout the novel is a haunting image of a man who drowned in a local lake. This is a holiday spot where an accident led to a man’s disappearance but his body was never recovered. It deters holidaymakers from using the lake and the unseen presence of this lost man casts a shadow over the area. It’s a powerful image that lingers in Richard’s imagination of life that has been lost and can never be known. There is a lot in this novel that has been lost due to chance or violence that it amplifies how cruel it is when a nation blocks the possibility of granting acceptance to so many victims of circumstance. This is a memorable novel rich with meaning and it makes a powerful impact.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJenny Erpenbeck
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This is the first time I’ve read a book by acclaimed novelist and short story writer Christine Schutt, but she has a disarming and fascinating way of writing about self-consciousness, family and the passage of time.  In “Pure Hollywood” the opening title story is also the longest tale in this collection. It’s an impressionistic story of a brother and sister after the sister’s much older husband dies. He was a wealthy famous comedian, but she soon finds she’s shut out of any substantial inheritance and she’s forced to vacate the modernist home she inhabited like a California Hockney painting. The odd series of events which make up her life feel as if they’ve been crafted in a Hollywood film script so she forms an odd emotional distance from her own sense of being. This is a feeling that recurs throughout many of the stories in this book where the enormity of characters’ loves and losses have a sense of being scripted and so they are abstracted out of the personal. What’s left is the sordid and grimy reality that they inhabit like bemused spectators blinking in the sunlight after spending too long in a dark movie theatre.

The stories include a range of characters from an affluent young couple on holiday to men purchasing flowers for a garden to a widow harangued by her daughters about her growing drinking habit. But almost all the characters are accompanied by some sense of personal loss whether it’s a spouse or child. Gardens also frequently feature in the stories so running alongside these deaths are a proliferation of plants and flowers growing with stubborn insistence. Tied into this surrounding life is a sense of eroticism, but the presence of gardens isn’t necessarily comforting or benign. In ‘The Duchess of Albany’ it’s stated “The garden was not genteel.”  In fact, two of the stories refer to the surrounding flora as “thuggish” as if they are mocking or bullying these survivors. Gardens must be tended and cared for, but also controlled and wrangled with just like the people in these characters’ unruly lives. The result is a bewitching mingling of imagery and sensations about how our relationships grow beautifully, but soon wilt or threaten to restrictively entangle us.

 "The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink, upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells."

"The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink, upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells."

It’s interesting how some of the stories slip into the surreal. The story ‘Where You Live, When You Need Me?’ about a woman named Ella who is employed by a number of affluent mothers to care for their children is particularly intriguing. The narrator reports how this child carer is much trusted, but no one knows much about her. At the same time as Ella appears the body parts of unknown children start being found in KFC buckets. The story has a high-pitched unsettling edge while not giving any conclusions. It strongly reminded me of Schweblin’s anxiety-inducing novel “Fever Dream”. The shortest stories in this collection seem to be the ones where Schutt also takes the most narrative risks in a way which doesn’t always feel successful or satisfying. Yet these micro stories also left some unsettling concepts lingering in my mind such as ‘Family Man’ where a husband living a remote “country-quiet life” feels that “The past sleds behind him.” But, on the whole, it feels like longer stories allow Schutt the space to develop characters that will resonate more powerfully such as an imperious rich old horse rider named Mrs Pall-Meyer or an irascible highly sexed famous painter named Gordon. On the whole I enjoyed these stories which have a vertiginous power to disorient their reader and articulate the peculiar subtleties of conflicting emotions. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson