Find Me by Andre Aciman.JPG

Literary sequels are definitely a trend this year with the recent massive release of “The Testaments” and now the forthcoming publication of André Aciman’s much-anticipated sequel to his novel “Call Me by Your Name”. Readers naturally have a lot of scepticism about these beloved stories being extended. The very popular film adaptation of “Call Me by Your Name” brought the romantic story of sensitive teenager Elio and older graduate student Oliver to a much wider audience. This not only prompted fans to clamour to know what happened next between these lovers but it also encouraged Aciman to revisit their story as he said in an interview “The film made me realize that I wanted to be back with them and watch them over the years.” Many will instantly dismiss the creation of “Find Me” as a money-grabbing opportunity given the new-found popularity of the original book. Whatever the motivation for writing it, I can assure you this new novel doesn’t kowtow to fans. Rather, it thoughtfully explores the deeper meaning of desire when stretched over time and juxtaposes a few different kinds of romantic encounters which turn into profound life-changing events. That’s not to say this new novel is without its problems and it’s likely to delight and frustrate fans in equal measure.

I read “Call Me by Your Name” shortly after it was originally published in 2007 and swooned. Revisiting Elio and Oliver’s story by watching the film adaptation a couple of years ago reawakened my love for their story. But there’s an important difference between the book and film. The film ends with Elio receiving the news that Oliver is going to be married which prompts him to mournfully stare into a fireplace. However, the original novel ends with a flash forward far into the future when Elio and Oliver reunite in Italy and we learn the news that Elio’s father Samuel has died at a relatively young age. Whether their passion is reignited or not is left vague, but their reconnection is cemented. This poses an interesting dilemma for the sequel because it needs to either fill readers in on what happened up to this point or follow them after it. “Find Me” manages to do both in a way which is unique and clever.

The first section follows Samuel or “Sami”, now divorced, on a train journey to deliver a lecture and meet up with his son Elio who is now a pianist. Sami encounters a spirited much-younger woman on the train and through long intimate discussions they develop a surprisingly deep connection. The story then moves forward in time to follow Elio whose musical career has blossomed and in Paris he meets an older gentleman in an encounter which quickly turns romantic. The novel moves on again to a period when Oliver is throwing a leaving party as he’s moving with his wife to teach at another university. During this party he feels a mixture of desire towards a young woman and a young man. Only in the final (much shorter) section do we see what happens when Oliver and Elio reunite. No doubt many readers will be impatient with the long lead up to this reunion, but I admire the way Aciman patiently considers the role that time, distance, chance and the imagination play in the strange alchemy which results in desire and passion.

Nevertheless, I did have a couple of issues with the novel. There are many overt discussions between the characters about romance and the degrees of intimacy which we either allow or deny ourselves. They explore meaningful sentiments and these exchanges are not entirely unrealistic especially when spoken between new lovers who come from a certain rarefied and highly-cultured class. But they sometimes verge into such self-conscious and ponderous territory that they become ludicrously esoteric. For instance, at one point a character named Michel states: “Fate, if it exists at all,” he said, “has strange ways of teasing us with patterns that may not be patterns at all but that hint of vestigial meaning still being worked out.” This carefully-formed statement might be something a high-minded person would ruminate upon in the middle of the night but when pronounced aloud in the company of a new lover it could only be met with a slight snigger at its philosophical loftiness. I feel like it would have been more natural if we followed the characters thoughts rather than verbalizing them to each other in an occasionally pretentious fashion.

I also felt slightly disappointed with the way Aciman doesn’t grant as much space in either the original novel or its sequel to female desire. They both almost exclusively focus on the men’s romantic and sexual urges and there are multiple instances where women, girlfriends and wives are slighted in favour of a new partner. Of course, this isn’t an unrealistic depiction of what happens to many women but instead of granting a comparable degree of fictional space to their experience the author focuses almost entirely on the men’s shifting emotional landscape as if these women’s feelings don’t matter. As a consequence, many of his female characters get sidelined. The only female voice that’s granted much of a role in either of these books is that of Miranda who Sami meets on a train. But we only hear her speak rather than get access to her thoughts or a clear idea of what motivates her.

Despite my reservations about these aspects of the novel, I was drawn into the story and its emotionally complex depiction of desire and sex. Not only does the novel explore the romantic tension between people who may or may not ultimately stay together, but it shows how so many of these urges are sublimated and experienced in other ways – particularly in music. One plotline follows the existence of a secret musical score and each section of the novel itself is named after an element of music. These suggest the undercurrents of feeling which accompany us through life, especially when recalling people we still love but didn’t stay with. It’s moving how Aciman depicts this yearning which endlessly draws his characters into memories of the past, prompts them to speak subliminally to each other and hope for a possible reunion in the future – no matter how unlikely.

Timothee Chalamet as Elio

Timothee Chalamet as Elio

What Aciman captures so well in these novels is how the unexpected pull of desire forces his characters into a turning point. These potential trysts whether realised or not aren’t just about sex but about choosing a radically different form of life from what his characters were previously living. They’re about communing with an individual’s deeper intentions for what they want in life and who that individual always hoped to become. Of course, these novels are also definitely about sex and in “Find Me” Aciman continues with his famous erotic imagery. No fruit is sexually ravished this time, but he does use suggestive metaphorical language concerning another fruit: “an overripe fig that parted all the way without tearing.”

Aciman’s speciality seems to be in capturing all the heated and emotional dynamics of that first erotic encounter – which more often happens in the mind rather than in physical expression. In their distance between each other which takes place over many years and across continents Elio and Oliver are able to extend this blood-rushing sensation. It appears Aciman believes this wouldn’t have been possible if they’d always been a couple because he states in this novel “the more we know someone, the more we shut the doors between us”. In suspending the tension of their reunion he perfectly prolongs that spot between agony and ecstasy. In short, “Find Me” gave me all the feels (as the kids say.) It’s a story that encourages deep reflection and slightly mournful yearning for that moment of discovery when someone you meet completely unhinges you and arouses all the passion of new love.  

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAndre Aciman
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Testaments.jpg

I can’t think of any other literary novel that has had such a build-up prior to its release. Details of the story were shrouded in secrecy and its shortlisting on this year’s Booker Prize all contributed to an anticipation which culminated in a midnight release of the book this week and a live interview with Atwood that was streamed to over 1,300 cinemas around the world. I have to admit, I jumped right on board the hype train and read the novel over the course of a day. Personally, I was especially excited to see how the story would continue 15 years in the future after Offred’s final scene and discover more about Gilead’s downfall because I reread “The Handmaid’s Tale” so recently. In “The Testaments” we get a lot more about the workings of this dystopian society because it’s narrated from three different perspectives who all have unique views and access to different layers of this totalitarian state. In doing so, Atwood offers further perceptive critiques on the nature of patriarchal society and presents moving psychological insights into how people survive (or perish) within oppressive regimes. I have to say the way the central characters’ stories come together is a bit forced and the plot is somewhat predictable. Nevertheless, it’s a continuously engaging and gripping experience reading this book.

Central to the tale is Aunt Lydia who appeared in the original novel in Offred’s memories as an imposing tyrant who trains her as a handmaid. In “The Testaments” we get Lydia’s secret account that she stows in her private library describing her journey from pre-Gilead times as a left-leaning judge to her imprisonment, torture and eventual position as one of the architects of Gilead society. She’s a complex and difficult character who hoards secrets as a means of maintaining her power: “I’ve made it my business to know where the bodies are buried.” Lydia experienced a traumatic wakeup call as she witnessed a democratic American society shift to a puritanical totalitarian state: “People became frightened. Then they became angry. The absence of viable remedies. The search for someone to blame. Why did I think it would nonetheless be business as usual? Because we’d been hearing these things for so long I suppose. You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you.” Rather than perish she proved her durability as a survivor and someone willing to compromise her morals in order to persist. She also takes pleasure in her power and position when denouncing her enemies or extinguishing those she views as weak: “I judged. I pronounced the sentence.” I appreciate the way Atwood depicts Lydia as an oppressor, but someone who is nonetheless sympathetic in her desire to live no matter the cost and becomes entombed in a perilous loneliness: “Having no friends, I must make due with enemies.”

The other two narrators are much younger and were born in Gilead so have no knowledge of a world without it. But they live on opposite sides of the border. Agnes lives in a privileged family within Gilead. She’s raised as a true believer and reared to become the high class wife of a commander. Daisy lives in the neighbouring democratic state of Canada and becomes involved with anti-Gilead protests. Both these girls experience severe disruptions when their intended paths in life abruptly change due to larger events and secrets are unearthed about their true origins. While their journeys are compelling the way Atwood brings together her three narrators’ stories relies too heavily on chance and convenience. The girls also perhaps serve too neatly as optimistic perspectives in contrast to Aunt Lydia’s position of corruption and vengeance. They are innocent as Agnes explains “We’d been protected… I’m afraid we did not fully appreciate the extent to which those of Aunt Lydia’s generation had been hardened in the fire. They had a ruthlessness about them that we lacked.”

Something I found really powerful about Agnes’ story is her friendship with a girl named Becka. While the other girls in their class enthusiastically embrace the idea of marrying a commander for the privileges such a position will bestow upon them, Becka adamantly refuses to marry because of her fear of sexual contact with men. It’s clear she’s experienced some unconfessed trauma, but Agnes doesn’t feel like she can discuss this with Becka because of her fear of the associated repercussions. While “The Handmaid’s Tale” meaningfully depicted the way women hesitate to be emotionally open for fear of being denounced, “The Testaments” further develops the way in which state pressure can reinforce these silences and prevent close friendships.

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

Atwood on the evening of the launch of The Testaments

More than the circumstances of the stories being portrayed, I probably felt more moved by the parallels between events “The Testaments” depicts and instances in the real world. Atwood has famously stated how “The Handmaid’s Tale” doesn’t portray anything which hasn’t already happened in human history and the same is true for this novel: governments “temporarily” take away citizens’ rights in a move towards totalitarianism; children are stolen from their birth parents and allocated to state-sanctioned couples; men use their positions of power to sexually abuse young females and sacred texts are wilfully misinterpreted for sinister motives. It’s all depressingly familiar and current. These universal themes about the deleterious effects of corrupt patriarchal governments reinforce the enduring power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and show why it’s become such a well-known part of popular culture. That Atwood feels the need to further examine the machinations of such a brutal regime and the moral conundrums these societal shifts present to individuals feels prescient.

Atwood has stated that one of the reasons it’s taken her so long to write a sequel to her famous novel from 1985 is that it took a long time to decide upon a structure and choice of narrators. I can’t imagine any better trio of narrators to continue Gilead’s tale than the ones she’s chosen. But strangely I wish she’d concentrated less on building such a tightly woven plot and neat conclusions for her characters. Rather than being taken to the centre of Gilead I’d have been content to dwell in the periphery with characters whose lives have hardened from living in such a restrictive society. Part of the power of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was in the necessarily restricted view and understanding Offred had of her surroundings. It’s what heightened the horror because this experience more accurately reflects our own. This new novel will satisfy the curiosity many Atwood fans who want to know what happened next, but at the expense of that terrifying ignorance we felt dwelling in the restrictive cowl of a handmaid’s bonnet.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMargaret Atwood
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It’s been heartening to see the buzz of excitement around the announcement a few days ago about Harper Lee’s new book “Go Set A Watchman” coming out this year. Like so many people, I loved reading “To Kill A Mockingbird” when I was a teen and, although there was no sign of this novel ever going away, how great that there is now a renewed interest in the original book which many people will no doubt read for the first time or reread. Who knows what the quality of it will be like, but it will be fascinating nonetheless. It’s had me thinking about sequels in literature.

It often feels like sequels of classics that come out many years after a book has been published and are written by another author are just looking to make easy money. I'm not talking about Harper Lee obviously who apparently wrote this book before “To Kill A Mockingbird.” As most people only think of sequels in terms of films these days, it’s interesting to note that there has been a long tradition of sequels in literature. I only know this because my boyfriend published an academic book last year titled “The Hollywood Sequel: History & Form, 1911-2010” by Dr Stuart Henderson. Obviously, I highly recommend it. Even as a non-film studies person it’s a fascinating and entertaining read about Hollywood. In an early chapter, it also discusses how many classic and 19th/20th century authors wrote sequels to their books.

The cash in sequel books I'm referring to are novels like “Scarlett” by Alexandra Ripley whose story followed from "Gone with the Wind." I'm not writing with total authority here because I haven't read “Scarlett” (but watched the tv series). Most reviewers were very critical of the book. As far as storyline, it seemed so preposterous and out of character with how Scarlett was in the original book - would she really go to Ireland?

One of my favourite literary prequels would have to be Jean Rhys’ “Wide Sargasso Sea” which tells the story of the famous “mad woman in the attic” from Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” as a girl growing up on a Caribbean island and how she came to be the mysterious woman in Bronte’s novel. Having been born on the island of Dominica herself, this novel succeeds so well I think because its invested so much with the author’s own identity and personal history (not literally but her emotional experience). It also gives voice to a character that was marginalized – not necessarily by Bronte – but by the restrictions of the plot as laid out in “Jane Eyre.”

A recent example of a brilliant literary sequel is Rachel Joyce's “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey” which came out in the autumn last year and is a sequel to “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.” I think it succeeds because it was written by the same author and, though it has lots of references to the first book, it stands on its own and could be read without having read the first book.

Another good example of a literary sequel is JM Coetzee's novel “Foe” which is his sequel to Daniel Defoe's “Robinson Crusoe”. I read both of these while staying on a Greek island last year. Even though this was written many years later and by another author it too succeeds because Coetzee uses the story as a commentary on women and race as represented (or not represented) in Defoe’s text. It’s more like a dialogue. While it was a fascinating read and contemplates the form of writing itself, I don’t think it stands on its own as a satisfying story. While “Robinson Crusoe” stands as an iconic figure in our culture today, it’s probably not well known that Crusoe himself wrote a sequel titled “The Further Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.” I haven’t read it but can only guess it’s not as much interest as the original since it’s now virtually forgotten.  

I’ve been trying to think of other sequel books. Do you know of any particularly bad or good ones? Or do you have any favourites?