This is one of those novels that lists out its ingredients without cooking anything. I wish it didn't feel like an experiment.
It wears a lot of itself...moreThis is one of those novels that lists out its ingredients without cooking anything. I wish it didn't feel like an experiment.
It wears a lot of itself on its sleeve. It is dreamy and hazy; you can tell by all the line breaks in the middle of sentences. Fairy tales, King Lear, Wuthering Heights are all used explicitly, but essentially just by making the comparisons. It's about liars because that's what the title says; you learn in the first couple of pages not to take the narrator literally, and the characters lie to each other, and I think it is meant to feel like a twisty mass of lies! lies!, but it doesn't feel that way. Only one lie matters. It's the one you read to the end to find out.
But, let's talk about how amazing it is when writers write about idyllic summer vacation time. Ugh, it is candy to me, I love this. I love the summer vacation as a cultural phenomenon that is stultifying and magical at the same time; we don't care if it makes sense as long as it's ours. And I always want to read stories about special summers, because as a kid my summers were never like this, as mostly I just sat in bed all summer reading books about summer (and I loved it).
This book is like a theme park called Summer Vacation Land, with this private family island of summer homes and domestic staff and motorboating to get to town and the big beach and the little beach and the maple tree tire swing and the books and the knickknacks and the dogs. Purposefully, the summers here cast a spell, contained in the bounds of the island and the vacation; the cousins never see or even speak to each other during the rest of the year, but on-island, they're a seamless unit. Should we know more about their lives than just what happens in the summer? Don't think that far!
Because… basically this book is the summer vacation of E. Lockhart's novels. It is takin' a little break. It is a thriller! That's all fine. But it is off-brand. Sometimes, you see what you look for in a thing, but other times you kind of ruin what you're looking at by looking for something else. I kept squinting through this, trying to get those warm, billowy, gauzy curtains out of my face and see if there was anything really going on in there.
E. Lockhart's previous books are some of the most intelligent novels about gender roles and related interpersonal politics that I've gotten to read, and they are meant for young people, and that makes them even better. And I love saying that because when I first heard about her I was like, "Well, that book is pink and has the word 'Boyfriend' in it so I think I will not." Because she does both! She does both: it's YA, it's boys, it's girls, it's fun but true feelings and mental health and it is grounded in so much thoughtful reality I want to bite my finger or something. It's a great way to write, and up to now everything of this author's that I've read has been like this, and I am doing everything I can to avoid saying "I am disappointed she tried something different" because that's not really what I believe.
The problem, I guess, is for fans of hers like me who might be looking for that insight to transcend genre again, for the talent that in the past turned YA romance books into feminist masterpieces to do the same thing with a suspenseful, twisty story with amnesia and secrets and mysterious illnesses and horrible truths. Instead, it's just what it says on the tin. Who can complain about that?
There is a little bit more. A little bit: mainly, the cultural challenges raised by Gat (who I consistently misread as "Gats" because this whole setting is so Gatsby-esque), who is the only non-white person of import in our character's life. He's smart as heck and has reasonably well-stated political insight about privilege (both white and other), and his feelings are heard and are… not insignificant. But neither were they deeply significant. This subject was more like a thing that got pointed at occasionally and then left alone, having assumedly spoken for itself. Cady is alternately shamed and moved by Gat's feelings of otherness, but the book doesn't really weight them enough. Supposedly they are also the whole catalyst for the big plot point, but it doesn't feel — er — true.
Similarly, there is a bit of handling of mental health issues as Cady deals with her confusing (and mysterious!) post-traumatic disorder of an unknown type — is it psychosomatic? a brain injury? — where she deals both with chronic pain and with a nagging grief she doesn't know the cause of. But we see her trigger a bunch of warning signs: she compulsively gives away her possessions, she drastically changes her appearance, she loses her ties to friends and relatives, she may be addicted to narcotics, she risks her safety in reckless activities, she speaks of wanting to die to escape her unmanaged pain. The author, I think, lobbed as many signals off the suicide-risk checklist as she could, and it does build up dread and concern for our protagonist. I wish it had been done more elegantly, or with a deeper purpose than to just telegraph that Cady is down in a deep dark hole, and then pull an amnesia trick on us. But again… that's what it says on the flap. That's what you get. Quit complaining. Okay.
Sorta 2.5 stars. But I'm rounding up because until the full bluntness of the ending rung out, I enjoyed myself and looked forward to what else we would learn. This author is a brand-loyalty for me, so I don't regret reading it (how could I, barely even spending a day on it) and I'm looking forward to more from her, whatever it's like.
Jo Ann Beard was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 (though I entirely owe the "discovering" to Sara), so I of course had to snatch up the first o...moreJo Ann Beard was one of my favorite discoveries of 2013 (though I entirely owe the "discovering" to Sara), so I of course had to snatch up the first of her two published books, as well. It is eating me up that there are only two!
This one is straightforward memoir, in short essay pieces. Her form really is creative nonfiction, memory-plumbing and storytelling. Although she published her more recent book In Zanesville as a novel, a large portion of that material is not-at-all veiled borrowings from her self. Which is fine. I think that's interesting. The writing's so good, call it whatever you want. Let it spring from wherever you get it from.
Anyway, what I mean is that it didn't surprise me to encounter the atmosphere of her life (especially her childhood) in this book; it felt familiar and I was glad to be closer to it with this writing, even though so much of the storytelling is so very uncomfortable. I definitely have a threshold for uncomfortable, and a few of these toed that line (mostly her bleak dating years) when there wasn't enough counterweight of something else, irony or affection.
But she is one of those writers with one hell of a gift for writing childhood, nailing the really mean and really funny details. She remembers (or at least extrapolates) enough to bring us back there to what children do and don't get about what goes on, and meanwhile keeps her adult eye always on her parents. Being able to contextualize your parents will always be one of the most fascinating things about adulthood to me. I think one's parents are a mystery you will never truly crack even though you have every clue. I collect so many clues. Does everyone feel that way, or is it just me? When a really good writer writes about their parents, I believe everyone does.
About half of the stories here are about being young (sometimes very, very young); feelings about big sisters, cousins, toys. The other half are about her adulthood, particularly her marriage and divorce, the story of which is sprinkled all throughout.
By the end, I was invested enough that I wished there was something more of a through-narrative to tell me all the missing details of her personal history. But that's impossible, in a collection of short pieces, and I'm a nosy person who likes details even if the teller doesn't want to show them to me. So that's not the author's fault. I never really consider it a criticism when I love something in a book so much that I just want a lot more than it has to give me.
About some particular pieces:
"The Fourth State of Matter" is such a good piece it would be worth buying a book for by itself, but as good luck has it you can already read that one for free. (I already wrote about it a couple of months ago.)
"The Family Hour" was the other jaw-drop standout for me, a stunner from her childhood that reads very close to the novelized family elements from In Zanesville, with the added horror-twinge of it being definitely from real memories. The sewer grate, the beer bottle, the back door. This story was amazing.
"Out There" was a brilliant and brief one about powering through a terrifying experience on a long trip. It reminded me of a segment out of Wild. The facts of it made a good story all on its own, but it's her way of showing the background that gives it weight. Us knowing where her head was reminds us that we never really know where anyone else's head is while they do anything. Which is cool, but isolating, and also sometimes people are terrifying.
The title piece is really long, bringing up the last fifty pages. It's about her friendship with her best friend, weaving stories from middle school up to their current relationship. Something about the way that their adult friendship is written made me laugh so, so hard a bunch of times. It's like the way she writes the blunt blindness of kids, only they're grownups so it's even funnier and sadder at the same time. I loved it. Also, for some reason lately there's nothing I like better than stories about sneaking around at night (I don't know) and this has a great one.
And definitely can't let this go without mentioning my other favorite character Hal, which was Jo's favorite doll when she was three, who figures significantly into a short Preface to the book as well as the longer story "Bulldozing the Baby." (Jo Ann Beard, I love you, but your titles.)
So what now? I don't know. These days, the author appears to have (what is hopefully) a nice teaching job at Sarah Lawrence, but her faculty page isn't up to date with publications, and she has no proper website. So she's just a person! What. That's fine. I would just be excited if there were more to go around. I'm so into this writer, you guys, and I can't quite handle the fact that she hasn't had a wide and prolific publishing career.
So I had Google do some homework and did my best to come up with a little Internet Bibliography for Jo Ann Beard.
Firstly, there are some pieces out there that are from this book:
* "Maybe It Happened." Memoir. (O Magazine, 2008.) You can read this for free! But it's very slight, almost like a teaser for another story. * "All the Many Beasts." Reporting. (Byliner, 1998.) Paywalled, with a free trial. Also with a little use of caching… * "Undertaker, Please Drive Slow." Reporting. (Tin House, 2002.) Only available by hard copy back issue. Looks unbearably depressing, anyway. * "Werner." Reporting. (Tin House, 2006.) Only available by hard copy back issue. I really want to read this one! It's also anthologized in The Best American Essays 2007, in case for some reason one ever runs into a copy of that.(less)
So just, from the beginning, I was doing this wrong.
I started in a subway car, at rush hour, standing up and stretching for a pole. I read through a w...moreSo just, from the beginning, I was doing this wrong.
I started in a subway car, at rush hour, standing up and stretching for a pole. I read through a week of commutes. Sometimes I read in bed, getting sleepy. I took this book on vacation and read at the airport, on a plane, on a train, on a train again. I finished it on a train (again), worn out and skimming to reach the end before my station came and the real adventures of my day began.
Rather wonderfully, this book begins by telling you how it wants to be read. Isn't it a lovely feeling to make some tea, shut the door, pick the comfiest chair and curl up with a blanket to begin to read a book? The whole first chapter is about this feeling. And there on the C train (of all trains!), that morning, I told the book I was sorry. I do read on the subway all the time, of course. The majority of my reading happens there. I've read some of my favorite books this way. But, no, it isn't the same, is it? Now that you made me think about it. Now that you made me feel bad about it. Where is the sumptuous reading time in my life? Why have I never gone and bought an armchair as glorious as that wonderful hideous brown one my parents owned, and somehow crammed it into my apartment to sit and read in? Why don't I have a whole separate apartment just for reading in? (Actually… last year, I had just that, waiting for my lease to end. That's NYC for you!)
Anyway, it's a joke, of course, this opening, telling you how to read. Isn't it? Nobody really gets to do things under ideal circumstances. (Or, when they do, it just makes the rest of us mad.) Sumptuous reading time is not the norm. People have laundry to do and kids to watch and whatever, we live our lives in tiny compartments. Just to write this review, this belated, difficult Goodreads review, I've shut myself in my bedroom tonight away from my loved one and my dog until we have to go to sleep. It's a treat, for just long enough to do this.
I knew before I started that this was a novel about books, but really, it's a novel about reading. Its subject is the experience of reading novels. The author explores this through several complicated conceits (which render most reviews of this book unintelligible, but I'll do what I can) and an alternating structure: first, a chapter about reading a book, and then, a chapter of that book. Repeat. Our protagonist is the one doing the reading. The plot occurs as he finds that the books he picks up are all wrong — he starts one after another and constantly finds that he's only got one proper chapter and the rest of the copy is a misprint, or missing, or untranslated, or secret… This happens ten times. And every bad beginning sends him looking for an answer somewhere else, and every answer he's offered only worsens the problem, until he's in too deep and your head is spinning.
So, it is basically a book of ten novels' first chapters, with a story spaced out in between. Being only beginnings, these opening chapters' only job is to make us want more of them, as the Reader does. (I myself had mixed results.) Some of them terminate at a suspenseful twist or moment of action. One of them — making its point rather vividly — even terminates during a sex scene that has gone on in acute detail for four long pages, but ends immediately before the impending climax. The point is, as soon as we get where the story's going, the story ends (for us). We never get, as it were, the good stuff.
Now: it's being funny. It's playing with us. Calvino is teasing us, and making us think about why we like novels to, er, begin with. That inquiry is rewarding, and he is kind of cute for coming at us with this mischievous resignation. He's writing as if to say, "Oh, were you reading that? …So what?" Well. Answer him! Isn't the beginning itself worth reading? Is a story only of value if it has someplace to take you? And what happens to the reader if this is all you get, this obstructed satisfaction? It begins to feel, after a while, like what happens when you're forced to miss more than one night of sleep — your brain never restores, you get confused and ornery, you feel like you need your shocks replaced.
And if you're our Reader, in this book, you might well end up on a wild fucking goose chase into the Siberia of conspiracy land. And that is putting it mildly.
I was so, so not ready for the crazy turns this thing starts to take halfway through, but once I got there, I had a better grasp of what I was dealing with. Part of what Calvino has created, with our Reader's quest for his novels' conclusions, is an immensely cynical satire of all people in the world who care for books: the publishers, the translators, the authors, the scholars, the university departments. The readers, who just want to read. They all want to know how the story ends, but all with their own agendas and — to the point of conspiracy, intrigues, and propaganda — all being willing to fight for what they want a book to be. It isn't much wonder at all, really, that Calvino wrote a book like this near the end of a long literary career. I think every one of these people has bought him lunch and talked his ear off, and he's about had it: Laugh at yourselves, for a change. Don't take it all so seriously.
One interesting thing is that in part of his chaos, Calvino here briefly invents the concept of the "variant" novel that is written by computers more perfectly faithful to an author's style than even the author is. Their effect on a reader is quantifiable and ruthlessly measured by the books' programmer-publishers. It's as crazy as it sounds, and also it made me think one of my favorite thoughts from when I read Borges: I so wish these writers could have seen what we've done with the internet. Calvino and Borges (with his continual stories of permutation and infinity) are exploring related territory, recursion and nonsense, the authenticity of a copy. You can almost see a variant world spring into being where literature is what leads to computer science, with these writers at the helm, where programming languages run both books and machines. They wanted to know where it led. What would their minds do with all of this? Who would be the characters if this book were written today? What might he want to say differently?
This book has so much to offer, but I am a reader easily tired by these clever tricks. I can't withstand them very long. (Also, I truly hated the ending, but I don't want to be a crab.) It feels like a weakness, like this makes me disappointing and disingenuous, like when you can't believe your mom doesn't want to go on the rides with you because "you get jostled around so much!" and that's the fun part. But I get Borges burnout, I get meta meltdown. I'm fatigued getting impressed by repeated impressiveness. When I realized just how much super crazy shit was gonna go on here, I understood the book better, but I also knew how much I would want to just get it over with. I don't know that I'll never be able to do it justice, but now wasn't the time, and I regret that. It was harder to read than it should've been, and took a lot longer than it should have, even during a busy period. It could be read in a day, I know. If one had one's comfy chair, and one's comfy tea, and gorgeous solitude.(less)
Now here's a book I'd never have considered reading if a family member hadn't taken it off his shelf at Thanksgiving and said "You should take this ho...moreNow here's a book I'd never have considered reading if a family member hadn't taken it off his shelf at Thanksgiving and said "You should take this home and read this. But I want it back!" And he came to visit us this week, so. Home it went!
The funny thing is how similar this novel was to If on a winter's night a traveler, in a few ways. In the beginning, a storyteller (seemingly the last one of the itinerant oral tradition in Ireland, c. 1950s) lodges at a boy's home for a few nights, and the boy then spends the remainder of his youth obsessed with finding him again. The book alternates chapters between the boy's search for the storyteller and stories told by the (or another type of) storyteller. As he follows clues to track the storyteller down, he runs into some method or another of having a story told to him. The goal of this structure is entirely different from Calvino, of course — there's no playing with your mind or the meta understanding of fiction — but the back-and-forth format was familiar, as were the little contrivances used to end a chapter in order to begin a new tale.
This was recommended to me as "a good yarn." It isn't a book for children really — unless you know one of those neat kids willing to crack a big book just for the fun in exploring it — because it's overlong and the through-narrative is a bit untidy. But, I kept thinking: these stories would be so great to read to a kid at bedtime. The storytelling chapters are almost all great fun, and almost all of them are transporting with imaginative historical detail. The best stories (i.e. except the ancient battles; my attention flagged) are told as fairy tales, but they aren't at all, none of them are. No fairies, no magic here. We get a telling of the legend of St. Patrick, which is as close as it comes.
And when I was little, that was what exactly I wanted in a story: not a fantasy, but to learn something, to hear a story all the more wonderful for feeling real. I would have loved almost all of these stories. In the legend of the Book of Kells, the list of different things they made paintbrushes from, the feather voting ballot system. Newgrange, and the genius of figuring out how to carry stones as big as your house for miles, the bear, the elders. Stories behind mountains, behind paintings. As a kid, these things would have filled my imagination enough to make my own stories up in my dreams. This was the stuff that ran through my head while I played in the backyard, pretending to gallop on a horse and shooting rubber bands like arrows. That was the apex at which my childhood connected with bliss; that's what I'll remember when, knock on wood, I'm ninety. Information for imagination.
As a novel I can't really say that this won me over entirely. The frame story, of the boy and his search as he grows into a college-aged adult, takes some strange twists. We learn — really, really, really long before he does — that there is some oddity in his family backstory. (view spoiler)[His parentage isn't what it appears to be — his father's wife, who's raised him as her son but with a complex distance between them, is not really his mother. His doting aunt, her sister, who has also always lived with them and helped to raise him, is his mother. Okay! That's fine! I wasn't super shocked. It was 1940, a girl gets in trouble, her family covers it up and raises him as their own, right? WELL that's not what happened! Try THIS out: the happy youthful marriage of Ronan's dad and not-mother resulted in an endless series of near-lethal miscarriages. What to do? Well… what if the husband has sex with the wife's young sister, in order to conceive? The child would be half theirs, and the other half close enough. WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG? That they fall in love? But out of respect for marriage and family and Catholicism they never sleep together again? They just live in the same house and raise this son as a parenting triad, n.p.? And it was no big deal that the young sister lost her virginity for this and then never married or dated anyone else? Also the husband and wife apparently ALSO live a life of abstinence evermore because contraception was illegal and conception was too dangerous? (hide spoiler)] …Mkay. So this is… a bit intriguing? Real super juicy and also pretty hard to swallow? You're left wondering how this even went down at all in the first place, and, you are waiting for something like 400 pages for Ronan to find out even the basics of this information you know. It isn't even dramatic irony or suspense, it's just… find out! Already! Tell him! Let's do this! Otherwise, what's the point? (view spoiler)[Once Ronan hits his wall of young adult self-pity and rage, we're supposed to feel for his whole existential Oedipal meltdown, but really he just looks like a sheltered baby, and he storms off on a months-long journey to heal his pain. Which should probably have been wondrous, only, we had to go with that guy. And he STILL doesn't know. (Oh, and also? The storyteller's his grandpa… all along! Bwahaha!)(hide spoiler)]
Okay that got sassy, but, you know.
I definitely learned some good stuff about Irish history. The nitty-gritty kings-and-battles and invasions and etc. was edifying, though not consistently my favorite to spend many chapters on. The book could probably have lost 300 pages and not been so much weaker. But, it was nice.
In a way, probably the thing I found most exciting of all was something that does not sound very exciting: walking. There are wonderful descriptions of walking, here, about the storyteller's intimate knowledge of his country, barn by barn. It makes you long to be him. It makes you think, yes, I will go and find the secrets too. His travel, and Ronan's, transport you into journeys that could take place any century in time where people have feet to walk on and the knowledge to go. Speaking of capturing the imagination, this is it. Go on the quest. Go on the walk. What's the story?["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)