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Ottessa Moshfegh has a particular talent for writing about vile characters in an engaging way. Her novel “Eileen portrayed an excruciatingly self-conscious protagonist recalling a dark mystery from many year ago. But where the protagonist of that novel was repulsed and embarrassed by her own body, the unnamed narrator of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” takes easy pride in her beauty and size two figure. But she doesn’t see this as an advantage as she slyly observes “Being pretty only kept me trapped in a world that valued looks above all else.” She’s an art history graduate that comes from a privileged background who sets herself the goal of sleeping as much as possible for a year. Her reasons for this goal are elusive at first and appear to be nothing more than the whim of a jaded spoiled young woman, but gradually it takes on more poignancy as she describes her difficult relationship with her mother and the disappointingly shallow experience of working in an art gallery. This takes place in New York City over the years 2000-2001 and she seems to be asking during this ominous period in which George Bush Jr takes office whether it’s more sensible to sleep through life than live it. Reading this novel is perversely pleasurable with its weary view of the world and the narrator’s overwhelming devotion to her hero Whoopi Goldberg who embodies for her the idea that “Nothing was sacred.”

The narrator has an all-consuming scepticism about human emotions and can’t engage in meaningful exchanges. She reflects “I felt nothing. I could think of feelings, emotions, but I couldn’t bring them up in me.” Her only friend is an old college buddy named Reva who is perpetually insecure, suffers from an eating disorder and aspires to obtain the narrator’s privilege and waist line. But the narrator barely tolerates her and breezily ignores Reva when she confesses that her mother is suffering from cancer or that she has an unwanted pregnancy. Equally any emotion Reva displays towards the narrator is awkwardly accepted like when Reva hugs her at one point and the narrator observes how “I felt like a praying mantis in her arms.” The narrator regularly sees a quack psychiatrist named Dr Tuttle (when she doesn’t sleep through their scheduled appointment) but only in order to obtain worryingly strong doses of sleep medication to aide her in sinking into an unconscious oblivion. Hilariously her doctor can’t even recall that the narrator’s parents are both dead even after she’s told this multiple times and makes extensive notes.

“Wherever she went, everything around her became a parody of itself, gauche and ridiculous. That was a comfort to see. Thank God for Whoopi. Nothing was sacred. Whoopi was proof.”

“Wherever she went, everything around her became a parody of itself, gauche and ridiculous. That was a comfort to see. Thank God for Whoopi. Nothing was sacred. Whoopi was proof.”

It’s rational to assume at first that the narrator’s desire for sleep is connected to the loss of her parents, especially her emotionally absent mother who she only ever felt close to when they were unconscious in the same bed. But this easy interpretation of the narrator’s goal is refuted when she reflects about her mother’s death: “the particular sadness of a young woman who has lost her mother – complex and angry and soft, yet oddly hopeful. I recognized it. But I didn’t feel it inside of me. The sadness was just floating around in the air. It became denser in the graininess of shadows.” Instead of building relationships or looking for a sense of self-worth when she’s conscious she only seeks to lose herself in an endless stream of rewatched VHS tapes of movies from the 80s and 90s. It gives her a temporary sense of detachment from reality that can only be perfectly realised in “Good strong American sleep.”

While it can be enjoyable to indulge in the narrator’s frank and nihilistic view of the world, the novel took on more poignancy for me as I pondered why Moshfegh set it at this particular point in American history. It’s a period leading up to an event which is ominously foreshadowed throughout the novel when it’s casually mentioned the narrator’s ex-boyfriend works in the Twin Towers. It ultimately began to feel like the author wished she could wake up from the string of tragic events and toxic culture that has plagued the country in the 21st century thus far and dismiss it all as a nightmare. Looking at it this way, it begins to make sense that the narrator considers “I would risk death if it meant I could sleep all day and become a whole new person.” The great tragedy of this novel is that the narrator can’t ever escape herself or the history she’s trapped in.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Something unsettled me amidst reading Rachel Kushner’s novel “The Mars Room” which focuses primarily on a young mother named Romy Hall who has just been convicted for two life sentences. We’re given a highly detailed and unflinching look into the lives of an array of individuals who have been incarcerated in a California state prison for women. Scenes veer from instances of horrific violence and suffocating devastation to humorous depictions of the women’s characters and interactions. This tragicomic balance is no doubt both true to life and necessary for a novel’s structure, but it felt somewhat voyeuristic in a way that made me uncomfortable.

That there is a whole population of people locked away from public view and the justice system is fraught with problems is something that shouldn’t be ignored. I believe fiction can be a means by which we can better empathize and understand the lives of people who were born into and are trapped in circumstances radically different from our own. And I have no doubt about the sincerity or meticulousness of Kushner’s labour in creating a novel that sympathetically represents people whose voices are too often ignored or suppressed. But I felt there was something awkward about the way she’s rendered these lives with such artistic control by also incorporating different third person narrative strands about a few male characters. While it didn’t stop me from being emotionally engaged at points or admiring many of the insights “The Mars Room” gives, it left me somewhat estranged from what I felt the core of this novel was trying to do.

Kushner has spoken in interviews about her proximity to correctional facilities such as this, friends who are serving long prison sentences and how Romy’s background is similar to girls she knew in her own childhood. There’s a potent logic in how we follow Romy’s journey from first being processed into permanent incarceration where she reflects about large swaths of her coming of age in a side of San Francisco much different from the popular understanding of that city in the 70s and 80s. This is a place of gritty urban decay, poor education and violence that almost inevitably leads Romy into a life of drug addiction and working at a strip club. However, interspersed with her memories and present experiences in prison are accounts of a dirty ex-cop named Doc and a Thoreau-loving man named Gordon who encourages inmates to get their GEDs while occasionally getting too touchy feely. These sections didn’t make much of an impression on me other than making grand statements that Kushner couldn’t give in the confines of Romy’s tale and serving as devices to feed into the plot working towards the novel’s somewhat melodramatic conclusion.

The content and musings within these third person accounts about men are sometimes interesting but jar against the larger narrative about Romy and other female inmates. For instance, at one point Gordon muses how “A man could say every day that he wanted to change his life, was going to change it, and every day the lament became merely a part of the life he was already living, so that the desire for change was in fact a kind of stasis that allowed the unchanged life to continue, because at least the man knew to disapprove of it, which reassured him not all was lost.” The devastating logic of this is really meaningful and speaks to universal ideas about human nature. Nevertheless, it felt too often like Kushner was striving to faithfully balance the lives of men against the female population of the prison. The only instance where it felt really effective was towards the end in how she rendered the misogynistic thought process and self-justification of a male stalker. But overall the balance Kushner tried to strike faithfully depicting all her characters’ stories felt unwieldy to me.

Romy recalls going to a museum and sees Henri Matisse’s painting ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ which she feels connected to.

Romy recalls going to a museum and sees Henri Matisse’s painting ‘The Girl with Green Eyes’ which she feels connected to.

I gravitated towards Romy’s voice the most and wanted to stay with it. There are many punchy short lines which brutally convey the way a prison environment leads to paranoia and isolation: “You can’t believe anything people say. But what they say is all you have.” Kushner also has a skilled way of emotionally drawing you into this character’s experience and then stating how you are still really different. At one point Romy observes “A lot of history is not known. A lot of worlds have existed that you can’t look up online or in any book, even as you think you have the freedom to find things out that I cannot, since I don’t have access to the internet.” I admire the way she makes a large statement about the hidden aspects of history and then reminds the reader how Romy is excluded from trying to research information in the way we’re now accustomed to because she can’t search for things online. The way in which the reader is drawn into relating to Romy’s human experience but is also made aware of the significant differences in terms of opportunities and freedom is really powerful. I just wish Kushner had stayed true to that rather than striving to create a panoramic view of society like in a Dostoevsky book who she heavily nods towards in this novel.

For a different look at the lives and mentality of people in prison, I’d really recommend reading the anthology “Prison Noir” which is a collection of powerful stories written by people who are in prison or have been incarcerated.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRachel Kushner
3 CommentsPost a comment
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Daisy Johnson's debut book of short stories 'Fen' was a bewitching example of how modern-day real-world issues could be given a darkly imaginative fairy tale spin. So I've been greatly anticipating her debut novel which references both 'Hansel and Gretel' and the myth of Oedipus. Before reading it I went to see Johnson speak at a Waterstones event focused on modern reimaginings of myths (since it's a literary trope so in vogue at the moment given recent novels from writers such as Kamila Shamsie, Madeline Miller and Colm Toibin.) It was a relief to hear Johnson explain that she wrote “Everything Under” in such a way that no knowledge of the Oedipus myth is necessary to understand this new novel since my only familiarity with Sophocles' tragedy is mainly through the complex made famous by Freud. Nor have I read the original fairy tale of 'Hansel and Gretel' since I was very young. 

So I went into reading this novel focusing purely on the story itself rather than how it relates to these classic tales. I wasn't disappointed because I'm so drawn to the universal themes she writes about, her characters who are outsiders on the margins of society and her strikingly distinct writing style. The beginning is so powerful in how it beautifully describes the sense of how we are tied to a sense of home which has forgotten us. However, I was quite confused throughout sections of this novel which jump through large periods of time and between characters. The story involves adoptions, gender fluidity, the disorientating effects of dementia and an elusive mysterious river monster named 'The Bonak'. But, by the end of the novel, I was fully engrossed and moved by how the pieces of the story slid together to form an impactful conclusion. It's the sort of book which I know will benefit from a rereading now that I understand its characters/plot better and the classic myths which were reworked into its structure.

A character named Gretel is at the centre of the story which primarily focuses on her quest to understand the past she's consciously forgot and find her mother Sarah who she's been estranged from for many years. The reason for Johnson's jigsaw style of storytelling seems to be rooted in a belief of how memories are necessarily distorted and also on a philosophy of life which is asserted by a character named Charlie. He claims that “life is sort of a spinning thing. Like a planet or a moon going round a planet… Sometimes it’s facing one direction but only for a second and then it’s spinning and spinning, revolving on its base so fast it’s impossible to really see. Except sometimes you catch a glimpse and you sit there and you know that’s what it would have been like if things had gone differently, that is the way it could have been.” Her characters can clearly envision different paths for their lives but find themselves curiously fated to follow trajectories that lead to dissolution and loneliness because of the bodies, families and circumstances they are born into. They are fettered by the past rather than liberated by a deeper understanding of it: “The past was not a thread trailing behind us but an anchor.”

It's interesting how Gretel's profession as a lexicographer seems to be a reaction against the instability of her upbringing where she and Sarah were so isolated they created a language for themselves: “They cut themselves off from the world linguistically as well as physically. They were a species of their own.” It's a compelling example of the way groups of people continuously splinter off from society, form cultures of their own and fold back into larger civilization to better inform and transform it. Just like time and language, gender and sexuality are never constant things in this novel. I really appreciated the complex way Johnson shows how her characters feel their way into inhabiting their bodies and expressing who they really are. Unlike most coming of age stories, there's a dark-edged violence to the anticipation of sex for Gretel when her mother Sarah gives a condom demonstration using a knife which tears through the material. Johnson excels at creating disturbing and tantalizing imagery which shakes the reader out of a complacent understanding of the world and this novel is a wondrous black gem of a book.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDaisy Johnson
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This novel made me feel nostalgic. Set at Harvard in the mid-to-late 1990s Elif Batuman’s “The Idiot” follows a freshman named Selin as she navigates the uncertain territory of college life, young love and finding a direction in life. I went to college at this exact same time in Boston (at a much smaller, non-ivy league school) and shared many of Selin’s experiences of starting to use email for the first time and riding on the T or the MBTA subway around the city. Selin comes from a privileged Turkish background and vaguely wants to be a writer (although when her first short story is published she finds no joy in it and even feels embarrassed.) She studies literature and languages: Russian, in particular. A large portion of this novel is taken up with the intricacies of campus living and then follows Selin to Hungary where she attempts to teach English in small villages. It’s plot is somewhat aimless – just as Selin’s life is somewhat aimless as she grapples to find meaning and purpose. This is the kind of book that is bound to frustrate and bore some readers (I definitely felt this way through some parts), but it also has a bewitching sense of humour and an endearingly oddball sensibility.

Something I really enjoyed in the first section of this novel were periodic exercises in Selin’s Russian class that involved learning the language through ‘The Story of Nina’. This is the journey of a fictional character named Nina who seeks to find a man that she loves who has moved away to work. There’s a special kind of absurdity in exercise books about characters acting out situations for the benefit of demonstrating grammar and phrases for students of language. They state things in non-realistic and obvious ways. This was the basis for Eugene Ionesco’s classic absurdist play ‘The Bald Soprano’ where two English couples out of a ‘learn English textbook’ The Smiths and The Martins converse in a way that is increasingly bombastic and fragmented. Selin feels an odd connection with Nina’s ongoing saga: “Of everything I had read that semester, ‘The Story of Nina’ had somehow spoken to me the most directly, and had promised to reveal something about the mysterious relationship between language and the world.” It shows how Selin isn’t just seeking an academic career, but longs to better understand an individual’s relationship to their experiences and how those experiences are coded in language.

Selin also tests the interplay between language and life in a relationship she develops with fellow-student Ivan. Although they know each other in reality, they form a different kind of intimacy through email exchanges. It’s somewhat ironic that Selin wryly comments that heroines in great Russian novels and even ‘The Story of Nina’ are about heroines who primarily obsess over a man. Yet, that’s exactly what Selin does as well. But this is only natural in someone who has just gone to university, hasn’t had sex and becomes preoccupied with the idea of romance. It’s her draw towards Ivan which compels her to travel to Hungary to teach in a programme that Ivan is connected to. This estrangement intensifies the displacement Selin already feels in her new adult life. She describes how “being alive felt like some incredibly long card game where you didn’t know if the point was to get cards or lose them, or what you had to do to get cards or lose them.”

Selin states that "I finally identified with a painting in the Picasso Museum. Titled 'Le Buffet de Vauvenargues'"

Selin states that "I finally identified with a painting in the Picasso Museum. Titled 'Le Buffet de Vauvenargues'"

Batuman has a knack for describing the awkward transition into adulthood with unerring accuracy. For instance, as we grow older we develop a very different feeling for the passage of time. Selin describes at one point how “I kept thinking about the uneven quality of time – the way it was almost always so empty, and then with no warning came a few days that felt so dense and alive and real that it seemed indisputable that that was what life was, that its real nature had finally been revealed. But then time passed and unthinkably grew dead again, and it turned out that that fullness had been an aberration and might never come back.” This reflects how as adults we start to become much more aware of the transitory nature of large life events and how the deadness of time in between can be compounded by an increasing awareness of our own mortality. 

The kinds of pleasures and insights found in “The Idiot” feel like they would vary depending on where the reader is in life and also someone’s reading mood. I’ve heard responses from students who have identified so strongly with this novel and consequently loved it. Academic life is curiously removed from reality which causes a sense of crisis in some students who might suddenly realise like Selin that “I really didn’t know how to do anything real. I didn’t know how to move to a new city, or have sex, or have a real job, or make someone fall in love with me, or do any kind of study that wasn’t just a self-improvement project.” While this novel gave me a lot of nostalgic twinges, many of the student experiences are far removed from my reality so I couldn’t help feeling impatient with long passages obsessing over the dynamics of social groups or the tedium of waiting for the cafeteria to open. At times I enjoyed sinking into the meandering feeling of it and the dry humour of Selin’s observations, but, as it’s such a long novel, it often felt like it indulged in these experiences too much.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElif Batuman

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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David Szalay has found an inventive way to portray the hearts and minds of men in this novel which follows nine distinct characters at certain points in their lives. From young aesthete/wallflower Simon who travels around Europe to savvy journalist Kristian on the brink of publishing a sensational piece about a high profile affair to elderly Tony who resides in Italy mulling over unexpressed desires with his adult daughter, the parts of this novel progress through stages in different men’s lives alighting upon commonalities and variations of experience. It felt to me like each part or short story could have been easily expanded into a novel in itself, but paired together they make a fascinating composite portrait which questions ideas about masculinity and life’s meaning. Towards the end especially, “All That Man Is” feels something like a Beckett play where the men’s common yearnings and regrets have accumulated together to sound like one voice crying out for all human experience.

Through several of the men’s stories there is a marked disconnect between how these characters confidently portray themselves publicly and the feelings of self-doubt they harbour privately. Szalay skilfully moves his narrative between these two spheres of experience to show dramatic points where the self-assured mask a man might wear crumbles. This sometimes happens in instances where an arrogant man is undone by desire like in the story of young slacker Bernard who finds himself seduced by both a mother and her daughter while on holiday in Cyprus. Or when social outcast Murray finds himself emotionally moved by a psychic who he nonetheless realizes must be a con-artist. Through this it is shown how men are compelled to maintain confident fronts both because of societal pressure to appear strong, but also out of an oftentimes unjustified personal pride.

As the novel progresses and the male protagonist of each new story become older there is an accumulating sense of the flow of time: how these men’s lives are caught up in details and misadventures which distract from their ideals and larger goals. Many of the younger men don’t give too much thought to this caught in their own admittedly false sense of their immortality: “this too shall pass. We don’t actually believe that, though, do we? We are unable to believe that our own world will pass.” The stories in the middle of the book are concerned mostly with professionals who are embroiled in the busyness of their professional ambitions and work life: “Life has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it.” Their unquenchable drive for power, money and status leave them little time for reflection or valuing things which should matter more like caring for their family or maintaining a sense of integrity. This takes on a poignancy with the later stories where the men often feel they’ve not achieved what they really wanted and have little drive to continue. This is most touchingly realized in the story of wealthy iron baron Aleksandr who is living through the collapse of his mighty empire and seeks a little feeling of home with an employee.

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 Frenchman Bernard goes on a cringe-worthy cheap holiday to avoid any responsibilities

Frenchman Bernard goes on a cringe-worthy cheap holiday to avoid any responsibilities

This book raised a lot of questions for me and gave me many conflicted feelings. I love how it exposes and satirizes how petty, selfish and short-sighted men can be which makes the reader question the idea of masculinity. But, at the same time, I kept thinking about the title and wondering ‘is this really all man is?’ There is little of the subtly about men which is so finely articulated in Andrew McMillan’s superb book of poetry “Physical”. Of course, the nine men in this novel certainly don’t represent all of mankind, nor do I think Szalay intends them to. Although there are some positive and humorous qualities about some of the men portrayed - with Balazs and Tony in particular demonstrating a sensitive side - they are overall quite nasty. Men can also be caring, compassionate and giving, but I think Szalay was more interested in exposing specific types of men and the inner lives they hide. It also shows how certain men perceive women and how women must navigate this male gaze. He does this in an accomplished way and its impressive how instantly I felt immersed in each part even though it was about an entirely new character in a different situation disconnected from all those before it (except for the final part).

“All That Man Is” is ultimately a fascinating and thought-provoking novel that leaves a lasting impressing.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Szalay

The narrator of "Eileen" is so painfully introverted and isolated in her thoughts I felt instantly on edge and utterly compelled by her story. As a now elderly woman, Eileen recounts a week in her life back in 1964 when she was a young woman who lived a very claustrophobic life with her alcoholic widower father. At that time she was friendless, worked in a correctional facility for young offenders and spent her free time on booze runs for her father or in the attic reading issues of National Geographic. Although she was secretly plotting to run away from her small New England town, the arrival of an attractive new staff member named Rebecca creates a dynamic tension that changes everything. Filled with squeamish descriptions of Eileen’s extremely self conscious physical and mental state, this sinister novel builds to a dramatic conclusion

The narrator of this novel reminded me slightly of “The Looking-Glass Sisters” because she’s so overwhelmingly uncomfortable in her own skin and lives in an isolated damaged household. Eileen is so acutely embarrassed by her own physical being that she even states “Having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself.” She has a heightened awareness of the smells and functions of her body. With so much disdain for her own being it’s no wonder she doesn’t have the self confidence to make any friends, let alone find a relationship. She has a romantic obsession for a man and frequently lingers outside his house. Eileen is equally critical and vile about other people as she is about herself. The comments she makes about her colleagues are frequently vicious and perverse. In an understated way she claims: “Looking back I’d say I was barely civilised. There was a reason I worked at the prison, after all. I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person.”

The only close relationship she has is with her father a man who drinks copious amounts of gin each day, protectively clings to his gun from his days in the police force and treats Eileen with abominable disdain. Eileen came back to live with him when her mother grew gravely ill, but since her mother’s death continued to stay with him far longer than she should have. Her beautiful and more confident sister Joanie left quite some time ago. Eileen skulks through life hiding her emotional state behind what she terms her “death mask” and flails about within her twisted fantasies. Throughout the novel I felt we were meant to question how truthful Eileen is being with the reader because it’s about a period in her life so far in the past. Also, she’s quite cagey with certain details. For instance, she never names this town of her youth referring to it cryptically as X-ville.

Frequently there are descriptions of the threat of icicles hanging from the roof of the house which Eileen imagines killing her or her father.

Frequently there are descriptions of the threat of icicles hanging from the roof of the house which Eileen imagines killing her or her father.

Eileen is so determinedly unlikeable that she’s actually quite fun to read about. I enjoyed her indulgent descriptions of repulsion for almost everything and everyone around her. It’s quite fun reading about someone living so firmly within her own rules that she shoplifts, creates teasing questionnaires for the mothers of the imprisoned delinquents and engages in other antisocial behaviour. Sometimes she’s flat out bitchy like in her judgement of one woman where she states “Her lipstick was a cheap insincere fuchsia.” In her disdain for the human condition she also explores a dark side of humanity from a highly unique angle. For instance, she feels that “Violence was just another function of the body, no less unusual than sweating or vomiting. It sat on the same shelf as sexual intercourse. The two got mixed up quite often, it seemed.” Anyone from the outside looking in on her situation would probably disagree and understand how a toxic situation has created a very damaged individual. But these strident opinions and alarming situations feel quite natural for Eileen because it’s all she’s known.

Hovering in the background is the knowledge that something very sinister has occurred, but the reader doesn’t fully understand the situation until towards the end of the novel. I enjoyed how Ottessa Moshfegh builds this tension with creepy descriptions and teasing passages which gradually build up an alarming amount of dread. Eileen is someone who only lives by her own moral code and it’s alarming to discover from her that “I didn’t believe in heaven, but I did believe in hell.” The consequences of her particular belief system create an atmosphere of tension which makes for compulsive reading. “Eileen” is a wickedly unsettling and mesmerising novel.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
4 CommentsPost a comment

In 1936 a Russian man spends night after night sitting by the elevator of his building fully expecting to be taken away to be killed. Dmitri Dmitrievich is a successful composer whose work has been judged by an editorial as contravening the ideals of the Soviet Union. He wants to avoid trouble for his wife and young daughter who sleep nearby so waits outside his door with a packed suitcase. He’s made to live in a perpetual state of terror expecting secret police to seize him at any minute. Over years of intense scrutiny and being batted around by the ruling political powers, his immense talent and passion for his music is slowly twisted. It provokes questions about the meaning and value of art when it’s trampled on by the overriding political forces it’s created under. The novel is composed in triptych form capturing Dmitri’s feelings at three very different points of his life. Spaced in twelve year intervals it also makes a fascinating portrait of the Soviet Union at significantly different stages of its existence. Inspired by the real-life Russian composer Shastakovich, “The Noise of Time” asks how the pure intentions of music fare when played against the clamorous dogma of reigning ideologies.

One of the great challenges of reading any novel set in Russia is trying to keep track and comprehend the flurry of names which appear. Many people have triple-barrel names, each of which is intermittently used and sometimes variations of those names are used in place of the proper names. This simply poses a practical problem for a reader, but I’ve never found it really detracts from my enjoyment of a novel – especially when it’s as powerful and elegantly told as this one. My strategy is to keep a list of the primary characters while reading and, after a time, the story washes over me to a point where I know who is who. Another challenge is entering into Soviet Russia’s complex and extensive history of which I only have a bare bones understanding. I didn’t find this to be a problem though as long as you have a broad understanding of Communist Russian and Stalin’s life – who plays an integral part in the story. Really this is a novel about the fate of artists under the rule of tyrants. Its universal meaning can be strongly felt even if you don’t get some of the nuances of the world in which it is historically set.

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  Dmitrievich keeps on his bedside table a postcard of  The Tribute Money  by Titian – painting where the Romans try to bribe Christ for their own political motives.

Dmitrievich keeps on his bedside table a postcard of The Tribute Money by Titian – painting where the Romans try to bribe Christ for their own political motives.

One of the most fascinating sections is when Dmitri goes on a state-approved tour of America. He’s much lauded in other nations even if some of his work is still banned in his own country. The Soviet Union try to use him as a pawn to present their country as less oppressive and more open. But the effect of this ultimately fails: “Scrub, scrub, scrub, let’s wash away all this old Russianness and paint a shiny new Sovietness on top. But it never worked – the paint began to flake off almost as soon as it was applied. To be Russian was to be pessimistic; to be Soviet was to be optimistic.” Instead of being inspired by the “freedoms” supposedly found in the US and other western nations, Dmitri feels how they are both played and play into political forces which seek to suppress opposition to their power. He also hilariously notes about American journalists that “The fact that they couldn’t pronounce your name was your name’s fault, not theirs.” There is also quite a funny perspective given of the thinness of Picasso’s political convictions: “he knew Picasso for a bastard and a coward. How easy it was to be a Communist when you weren’t living under Communism!” Dmitri eventually finds himself unstoppably drawn into a system whichapplauds him as an idol for their own purposes “He swam in honours like a shrimp in shrimp-cocktail sauce” rather than an artist with an independent voice and spirit.

This novel made me question the degree to which my own creativity is guided under the society in which I live. Even if I don’t live within a country that seeks to directly shackle what’s created within its own dominant ideological beliefs, I’m guided and influenced by the media and popular beliefs of those around me. In this novel it’s observed how even good intentioned people are worn down by the fact of their survival because “conscience was always there to insist that more courage could have been shown.” Barnes explores the deep complexities and moral ambiguities involved in a lifetime under an oppressive regime. What survives through the gruelling circumstances under which it is created is the music: “Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” But the novel asks how this might become perverted when the mind of the artist has been poisoned by a lifetime of compromise. “The Noise of Time” is a short intense novel of breathtaking scope and wisdom.

Listen to a wonderful interview with Julian Barnes by Sinéad Gleeson on The Book Show where they discuss “The Noise of Time”, the author’s bookshelf and his development as a writer: https://soundcloud.com/thebookshow/the-book-show-s3-1-16th-january-2016-at-home-with-julian-barnes

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJulian Barnes

Much of Evie Wyld's fiction has an unmistakeable feeling of menace as if there is something dangerous lurking unseen in the background just out of sight. This is felt most intensely in her novel “All the Birds, Singing” where someone or something unknown is savagely killing the sheep on a woman’s farm. In this graphic memoir she writes of her family life, growing up in Australia and her enduring fascination with sharks. Using stark pared-down language Wyld creates a mood where reality intersects with mounting feelings of fear, particularly a fear of death. However, sharks are not the monster enemy. They are gradually shown to be more the victims – killed by humans out of fear. They are a presence in the girl's imagination as comforting in their constant attendance as they are horrifying. The exquisite, expressive and haunting drawings imaginatively bring the story to life. Humans are cartoonish figures while images of the sharks or other sea inhabitants are drawn in a hyper-realistic way.

“Everything is Teeth” refers to the surface of a shark's skin which can be like sandpaper so swimmers who simply rub up against a shark feel their skin being cut as if by teeth. The title is given an even more layered complex meaning as the story progresses. When the girl eventually re-enters the water after receiving a jellyfish wound “The salt chews on my stings.” There is a sharp distinction created between the areas of habitation above the water and below. When this line is crossed it can result in injury or death. The savage way in which humans are shown to survive or fight against the threat we face when crossing this boundary between land and sea indicates how we are hampered by fear. This is echoed in relationships between the family members and the girl’s vivid imagination about how they might die. There are important messages here about learning to live with fear as well as maintaining respect for animals and each other.

The atmosphere created by the drawings and poignant text is utterly enthralling. There's an extraordinary drawing of her brother swimming where the water is swirling and the current looks like a mixture of eyes and faces. Oftentimes sharks linger in the background even when she’s on land as if they constantly circle the girl wherever she goes. While snuggled up on the sofa reading this book I felt my toes curl. I was reminded of a great short story in Jackie Kay’s collection “Why Don’t You Stop Talking” called ‘Shark! Shark!’ where a man nearing retirement has a growing fear of sharks despite living inland. Sharks make an easy metaphor for our fear of death, but the co-authors of this graphic memoir transform this into something more subtle and complex. This is a quick read, but it will linger with you.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson

This is the third new book from South Africa that I’ve read this year and it’s rather startling to discover common themes between all of them. SJ Naude’s book of stories “The Alphabet of Birds” describes a variety of characters’ estrangement from South Africa where they seek to build a new life elsewhere or struggle against seemingly insolvable social systems within their own country. Eben Venter’s “Wolf Wolf” follows the plight of a son seeking to prove he can be financially independent from his dying father. There are issues of alienation, insecurity, masculinity and severe family strife in both. These themes are also strongly represented in Jacques Strauss’ novel “The Curator.” The chapters in this novel alternate between a rural South African town of Barberton in 1976 and the more urbanized environment of Pretoria in 1996. We primarily follow Werner Deyer who is calculating, sexually-repressed and dangerously angry, but seeks to find an expression of something intangible in art through a copy of Salvador Dali’s representation of Christ and later in the house of a victim of a brutal childhood attack who now obsessively paints scenes of that attack. The reasons why Werner is like this gradually unfold over the course of this frequently disturbing, but gripping novel. The novel also powerfully deals with racial attitudes in South Africa, sexual molestation and the breakdown of family.

I didn’t think there could be a book published this year with content as disturbing as “A Little Life,” but in some ways I feel that “The Curator” is even darker. Of course, they deal with difficult issues in a very different way, but let me explain why I found reading certain aspects of this novel even more harrowing.

Firstly, the deadly violence in “The Curator” is directed between family members in a way which is terrifyingly insidious. Werner’s family hears news of a nearby farmer who shot his entire family before shooting himself. Werner’s father Hendrik fixates upon this story and has fantasies of dispensing with his own family – even going so far to employing a maid who witnessed the family attack and finds himself becoming sexually obsessed with her. Twenty years later, Werner becomes fixated on killing his father Hendrik who is now severely disabled after an anonymous attack. The author skilfully shows the way violence percolates in the closed environment of the home: “This is how it started. Before you knew it, you were hitting and beating and kicking and shooting everything in sight to make things okay again.”

Secondly, like “A Little Life,” this novel also deals with sexual molestation, but we’re shown this from the perspectives of both the abuser and the abused. Steyn is a man who works on the Deyer’s property and drinks heavily after leaving his family. He takes advantage of the adolescent Werner and seems to disturbingly believe that we are cognizant of acts of desire even at a young age: “If there is one thing we are born knowing about, it is sex.” Steyn eventually moves on to taking advantage of Werner’s younger brother Marius which makes Werner very jealous for the attention he’s no longer receiving. It’s unsettling the way this book shows how the desire for affection, especially for vulnerable children who aren’t receiving any love from their parents, can become dependent on adult sexual predators.

Finally, “The Curator” shows the pernicious long-term racism that occurs from longstanding social divisions. The white characters in this novel show an extremely derogatory attitude towards the majority of black people they encounter. There is also a class division between white people who live with certain privileges and poor white people who are viewed as no better than “kaffirs” (a contemptuous term for a black Africans). In one scene the mother of the family Petronella is disgusted by how dirty a neighbouring white girl has become so she aggressively bathes her: “she wanted to wash away the kaffir, so that everything was wholesome and normal.” There is a strong desire shown to keep the races separate. These divisions are rigorously reinforced through social pressure and there is a strong sense throughout the book that the characters fear crossing these racial boundaries. The novel also demonstrates what a heavily dominant and repressive force men make in this society. Petronella feels so belittled over time that she pleads that “I want to be treated like a human being.”

'Christ of St John of the Cross' by Salvador Dali

'Christ of St John of the Cross' by Salvador Dali

It feels as if there is something stirring in the political and social atmosphere in South Africa at this time which is provoking authors to create such compelling new novels with similarly frustrated characters who perpetually feel like outsiders. These authors have something important to say which is different from the most prominent South African writers who are globally well known. At one point in this novel Werner thinks he’ll pretend to be a writer when staying at a hotel and looking at a Scandinavian family he muses: “Those two stern-looking adults and their beautiful offspring probably have a lively interest in post-colonial literature; would want to discuss Coetzee and Gordimer and Lessing. He imagines having dinner with the family. He could tell them how he grew up not far from here and how those early years still exert a significant force on his work. In what way? They would ask. Oh, you know, the politics, but also the land. There is something, he would say, about this place that is unforgiving.” Jacques Strauss makes a powerful statement with this story about the “unforgiving” aspect of South African society where some issues are suppressed causing people to explode into violent action.

Having enumerated all the ways “The Curator” deals with such hard issues, you may be scared away from it. But I think this is an absolutely striking, original and skilfully written book that you won’t regret reading. It gave me such fascinating insights into a culture and conflicted consciousness so different from my own. By honestly representing and discussing issues raised in such a powerful novel, Jacques Strauss is bearing witness to the violence that can erupt in a repressed society.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJacques Strauss
2 CommentsPost a comment

When reading the poems in “Deep Lane” I like to imagine that I’m lying on a patch of grass listening to the poet speaking about his life, relationships and thoughts about existence. Because that’s what the experience of reading this collection feels like. It’s intimate, immediate and suffused with a sense of being immersed in the natural world. But this isn’t a cosy idyllic space; there are worms and thorns and inclement weather warnings. It’s also not so serious. He comically stumbles into a grave. He locks himself out of his house – twice! These experiences are drawn in to suggest meaning, but are acknowledged at the same time to be meaningless. The title poem spreads itself throughout the book taking several different forms as Doty describes the process of gardening and the environment surrounding his home. It has the effect of creating a personal landscape which the reader can recline in to hear Doty’s beautifully articulated meditations and penetrating observations about the way our lives are guided by unruly desires.

The poet conjures a number of disarmingly haunting images throughout the book. For instance, in one poem it’s described how a boy runs in a figure eight pattern between gravestones. More than a comment upon the connection between new life and death, it felt to me that this was a strong symbolic representation of the way in which our consciousness can remain in a childish or naïve state throughout our lives. Although we can’t help being highly aware of our own mortality as we continue to age and experience loss, a sense of active innocence persists weaving us around death as a way of carrying on despite the inevitable. In another poem he describes a church as a “breathing cloud of stone” which creates an image that perfectly fits with the emotion of a specific significant moment when he commits to his relationship with another man. It’s similar to prayers which feel so substantial that it’s like they are physically real but are only, after all, just words.

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  “the skull-buzz drone singing cranial nerves”

“the skull-buzz drone singing cranial nerves”

For Doty nourishment in life is inextricably mixed with the toxic. In one poem he envisions himself as an extinct beast with “Mother’s milk in my belly and a little of her shit, too.” There is a sense of being stunted by what is meant to make us grow, but this fouled sustenance is a part of the ecstasy of living. As he remarks in the poem ‘Apparition’ “with intoxication, I am unregenerate.” And these notions are given a more emotionally weighty form in the poem ‘Crystal’ about intravenous drug use which describes altered consciousness and groping for an articulation of meaning beyond language. Here the injection of impurities is a necessarily dangerous path to a more profound sense of knowing and developing.

Doty is playfully conversant with both language and his influences. He remarks in an aside when describing a suicidal boy’s legs “(I want to spell long with two n’s, as Milton spelled dim with a double m to intensify the gloom of hell).” Elsewhere he likens an emotional connection with another to “The way that nothing in Vermeer has an edge.” Another poem is a more direct dialogue with Jackson Pollock’s artistic method and pondering its meaning in relation to the active change of the city around him. These references effortlessly draw in the ideas of predecessors while arguing, building upon and expanding them.

Rather than letting ideas float out too far into detached realms Doty draws them back into solid experience and the world around him. He shows an endearing pleasure in nature and animals noticing “goat yoga” or faded hydrangeas that are like “the very silks of Versailles.” Moving through this landscape he articulates how we are beings driven by desire, but that we are “taught by craving.” Although we are hampered by nostalgia for what is past, experience can never be fully recreated and so we “want all the harder.” But, in one of the most profound poems in this collection ‘Hungry Ghost,’ Doty poses a fascinating counter argument to the Buddhist notion of extinguishing desire to extinguish suffering. If desire persists beyond the mortal then there is a kind immortality but also a form of existential horror “to be ravenous, and lack a mouth.”

“Deep Lane” is an extremely thoughtful collection by a poet who can burrow into the personal and particular to discover revelations that feel universal.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMark Doty
4 CommentsPost a comment

At first I had trouble with the title of this novel. Something about it sounds too posed and self-helpish or cloyingly sentimental like The Simpson’s character Monty Burns’ hilariously-titled autobiography “Will There Ever Be a Rainbow?” The question this novel poses is taken from an Alan Shapiro poem about the catastrophic loss of a loved one. Not so much a question as an achingly painful statement of fact for a family now broken and lost. At one point in “Did You Ever Have a Family” a character directly posits this statement to another. It’s a way of contemplating the meaning of family and our connection to one another. It takes on layers of meaning over the course of reading this novel making you wonder if families can survive despite how we might tear each other apart or fail one another. Told through a variety of characters’ perspectives, this is a novel that presents points of views about how different families can be shaped and how individuals continue reforming connections even after experiencing devastation.

At the centre of Bill Clegg’s novel revolving around a single disastrous event is a chilly silence. Many of the characters have retreated from the world to grieve and think in solitude. Contemplation is needed because “grief can sometimes get loud, and when it does, we try not to speak over it.” Former art dealer June literally walked out of her life with only the possessions in her pocket and now stays in a distant isolated motel for the foreseeable future. Cleaner Lydia stops working after a dramatic confrontation with gossiping ladies. She lives frugally and her only human connection is with a scammer who calls her persistently on the phone. Lydia wilfully submits to this man who claims she’s won the lottery despite knowing it’s a con. This reminds me strongly of the wonderful debut novel “We Are Not Ourselves” in which a grieving wife Eileen participates in spiritualist sessions which demand large fees despite her awareness she’s not really connecting with her deceased husband again. (Incidentally, author Matthew Thomas is a client of literary agent Bill Clegg.) It’s a particularly insidious characteristic of con-artists to prey upon the grief-stricken who might not be fooled but feel they must offer some monetary sacrifice as penance for ways they feel they’ve failed their lost loved ones.

There are beautiful passages of reflection, but overall this is a very chatty novel. Out of a tale about a house that literally exploded come the voices and opinions of the community around this event with their judgements, sympathy and tales of their own tragedies. At first it’s all speculation and opinion about the central mystery of how this disaster which claimed five lives (including a couple shortly due to be wed) occurred. The disparate voices did at times sound like talk show guests or subjects in a Frederick Wiseman documentary as they are so firmly entrenched and certain about the rightness of their point of view. But, out of these perspectives which ricochet off one another, emerge fuller stories about a scorned wife who gave birth to an illegitimate mixed-race boy named Luke, the tragic foreshortening of his promising future and the unlikely love he found with a divorced woman estranged from her family. There is also the tale of lovers Kelly & Rebecca whose hard-won romance sees them settle into a peaceful life running a motel. Gradually the novel is taken over by the more authoritative voices of June, Lydia, Silas (a wayward stoner with a sexual infatuation with Lydia) and Cissy (a motel cleaner who offers solace to lost souls). The novel takes on real velocity in the second half where the accumulation of details pays off to form a moving conclusion.

“Did You Ever Have a Family” contains a clamour of voices with stories which at times tip into the melodramatic, but at its heart it says something very touching about overwhelming grief and the endeavour to persist because “we are supposed to stick around and play our part.” For a novel containing such sadness, I found a lot of rapturous pleasure in discovering what really happened and assembling the jigsaw puzzle of connections between the characters.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesBill Clegg

I work part-time as a massage therapist and this job has made me highly conscious about how we inhabit our bodies. Although the basic structure of our physical being is the same, the way we carry ourselves varies dramatically. The relationship between mind and body can be as changing and tumultuous as our relationships with other people. The poems in “Physical” by Andrew McMillan speak beautifully and meaningfully about how we live within all this flesh and bone, the ways in which physical intimacy can make us redefine ourselves and the transformative impact our presence has upon our surroundings.

Many poems in this book focus in particular on the male body and queer experience from relationships with boyfriends to anonymous gay encounters. ‘Saturday Night’ creates a dialogue with a poem by Thom Gunn bridging commonalities of gay life over time touching upon the disappointment, exhilaration and insecurities tied up with cruising and romance. Online porn is an inevitable part of men’s experiences and in relationships it can play both positive and negative roles. In ‘Screen’ McMillan shows the complications which emerge from mingling mental images with the physical presence before you. More darkly, a mixture of violence and sensuality permeate the poems ‘Choke’ and the mythological-inspired ‘Leda to Her Daughters.’

Masculinity is referenced directly and indirectly in several poems. In ‘Strongman’ the challenge from a male family member is recalled. This physical provocation takes on deeper meanings than simply a macho test of strength. The closeness of the encounter provokes questions about intimacy and homophobia within the family. A unique challenge to all men is the experience of standing beside one another at urinals. In ‘Urination’ McMillan uses the mixture of embarrassment and excitement of these encounters to speak about the degrees of closeness we have with others throughout our lives. As in several poems in this collection, there is a switch partway through from the impersonal to the personal. Here, the commanding voice speaking to “you” evokes the sensory experience and power of connection found in the most intensely domestic morning setting.

Sometimes the form of the poems themselves casts scrutiny over the way men are meant to behave. ‘How To Be A Man’ is set out like a dramatic play where a man is prompted how to react to the impending loss of his father. It’s a contradictory aspect of traditional notions of masculinity that a man should build muscle and puff himself up physically, but also keep all his emotions in. McMillan literally bursts this understanding in his poem ‘The Men Are Weeping In The Gym’ where emotions spill out not in tears but in sweat. The denial of feeling takes on an eerie destructive sensation as McMillan observes how the process of weightlifting tears muscles apart to make them stronger.

The poem ‘Yoga’ speaks about the way we relate to our own bodies and the way physical connections with others can change the way we see ourselves. However, others poems such as ‘I.M.’ and ‘The Gift’ are about the insurmountable gaps created from lost connections and repressed emotions where physical distance exists. But unity is found in the poem ‘The Schoolboys” where a young group witnesses the burning of Thatcher dolls following the former prime minister’s death where they have little understanding of the historical context which has led to such celebrations.

Listen to McMillan read the final poem in this book 'Finally'

The most sustained poem in this book ‘Protest of the Physical’ fills the entire second section and it begins with an epigraph by Virginia Woolf from her ingenious prose poem of a novel “The Waves.” In a way, this is the most hypnotic and elusive piece in McMillan’s collection as it weaves together elements of a physical local landscape and a broken relationship. Language breaks down “what town of day is it?” Images and ideas literally slosh back and forth across the page as if the words are grasping for escape from the confines of the page and the voice from the confines of the body.

The poetry in "Physical" has the unique and astounding ability to make you reassess how you exist in your own body. It provokes ontological questions about whether a person’s mind is couched in the gray masses in our heads or the neurological connections within our bodies. Throughout the book the author has a disarming way of dividing physical acts from the body and then drawing them back in to distil the accompanying feelings so they are more concentrated. What's left are the intense emotions which have overwhelmingly permeated the memories of physical encounters. I’ve spent a lot of time sitting with many of the poems in this forceful, moving collection. I discovered fresh insights and asked more questions with each rereading.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndrew McMillan