[5.8/6] … It was that wonderful, so much more than any other book I've read in I can't remember how long. Though not without a human amount of imperfe...more[5.8/6] … It was that wonderful, so much more than any other book I've read in I can't remember how long. Though not without a human amount of imperfections.
I hadn't read Pynchon before, and this isn't the usual place to start. However (i) I'd loved the sound of this book ever since I saw press reviews for it, and I got a copy not long after it was released in paperback. (Yup, I – and various removal men – have been carting the thing around for fifteen years. And by god it was worth it. The opening pages are as magical a beginning as any I can think of, as good as Bleak House, and every time I thought of getting rid of the book I'd look at them and knew it absolutely had to stay. Besides, I'm ever so glad I've got this cover of lovely antique ampersands, and not the headache-inducing bastard which is now the default for the same ISBN. ) However (ii) If you're comfortable with eighteenth century British and a bit of American history, with reading the accent and dialect of north-east England, and have a smattering or more of knowledge about geography, astronomy, as well as * whisper* superstitious esoterica like feng shui and astrology, it might well be the right place to start. (I've read a few quotes from Bleeding Edge and seeing the author of this marvel writing about hipsters' jeans and how difficult it is to find your way out of Ikea, my heart sinks... Yup, M&D probably was the right book for me. Also, I disagree about the Ikea thing: it's simply a matter of ignoring the stuff on sale, and if you want to be even quicker, ignoring the designated routes and keeping moving.)
I find it easy to get disillusioned with present-day settings, but go far enough back with historical fiction and I start picking holes in it too. A book like Jim Crace's Harvest deftly sidesteps us pedants with a vaguely timeless setting and details from different eras; the amazing Mason & Dixon goes several better with meticulous arcana of its time and a proliferation of postmodern, knowing and quite often funny deliberate anachronisms. And in so doing, it's also terribly, terribly eighteenth century. The Pynchon blend of science and hippiedom suits the times perfectly too, the era of Religion and the Decline of Magic where one man could be both a mathematician and a rural wizard.
From that very conceptual level right down to a plethora of puns erudite and/ or filthy Pynchon is a master of layered recursion. (Why did no-one ever say to me, 'With that username, I bet you'd love Pynchon'? He generates the sort of wordplay once every goddamn page that these days, especially without someone to bounce off, I feel lucky to think of a few times a year.)
Ideas of modern and postmodern are just indications of popularity, not first occurrence: the very first novels were full of them and the eighteenth century could be postmodern and dirty-minded in a way that feels far more contemporary than the Victorians. (This is probably why I've always thought III works best out of all the Blackadder series. Though it doesn't hurt that the costumes of the era were so good they even managed to make Rowan Atkinson look slightly attractive.)
Even after a week to settle, I still just want to say about Mason & Dixon, “it's so everything. Wise and funny and moving yadda yadda yadda and all those adjectives cover quotes use. But this one really is. A great big exhilarating book that gives you the feeling of having lived the span of a life – two very interesting lives lived over three continents – and with much joy and fun and interestingness as well as terrible things witnessed all over the world. There's even room for pets. Most of all, it's an epic friendship with a warmth that initially surprised, found amid lots of left-brain cleverness and odd bursts of Carry On humour. Something that brought to mind the glow associated with those very few people who, almost as soon as your first conversation started, finding so much understanding yet a world's worth of contrast, you felt you didn't ever want to stop and you knew you wanted them around somewhere or other for the rest of your life. It was always exciting to pick up and read Mason & Dixon; some days I read a bit less but I never needed to space a short book in the middle. Nothing else would be as good, I was sure of it. (And in this project of reading some of the 1001 books I already own, I'm finding that not a lot of modern classics contain so much joy and fun as this one.)
But whatever could be wrong with this formidable feat of literature? Really not much at all. Getting near the end of part II some long stories-within-a-story were taking the piss a bit. Though one of those was the second time in a month I'd read a re-telling of the Lambton Worm (previously in Alice in Sunderland, which I thought told it better). Also a Sadeian yet picturesque detail from a serial in a scandalous magazine - this was another of my odd more-than-one-gender responses, for a while from an outside view I found it quite erotic and then later had a female-bodied response in which I was left me with the woman's equivalent of when a man, seeing a scene in which a protagonist gets kicked (or worse) in the balls, grimaces and cringes, and part of me was dissatisfied with the absence of mention of pain and its effects in the text.
But, bah, such a tiny tiny fraction of the book, a book which is very humane about the abuses of its times – useful for that having a hero who's a Quaker! And one which I might hazard had something to do with the generation of steampunk, shortly before it came to be called steampunk let alone the proliferation of names for its equivalent in other centuries: fantastical machinery (Vaucanson's mechanical duck takes flight, and more), and a scene in which one of our heroes decides to go a bit superhero which made me look up the publication date of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen - a few years later. I started off thinking the whole thing was “very 90's”: the musical numbers, the fantasy sequences, just like some of the great American TV series were doing at the time. But nope, I read more background: this is just Pynchon, he'd been doing that for aaaages. (The size and detail of the book also reminded me of a recent interview with Eleanor Catton in which she said the 21st century trend for doorstop novels was the book equivalent of the rise of the TV series box set.)
Yes, reading background. It does need notes and a dictionary. Quiet countryside is a pretty good place to read a great big cosy attention-devouring novel (even if its framing device is set in Advent, whilst there are so many swifts, swallows and house martins wheeling above you it's almost like being divebombed). But if you've got no dictionary, a Kindle with no charge and no cable, and mobile broadband of a speed that would make anyone long for a modem from the year of this book's publication, then you just have to make do with not looking up every weird word. There are a few sets of notes kicking around the internet which I managed to have a look at. Most of them were pretty unsatisfactory if you have a little relevant knowledge, not telling me many of the things I did want to know, so I'd given up on them by about p.100. By far the best was the Pynchon wiki, which I stuck with, though too many of the later entries are just intros and links to wikipedia entries without succinct explanation – would have been more interesting with a connection fast enough for all the click throughs - and glossing of words that you'd surely know already if you're reading a book like this (e.g. 'ubiquitous'). I've got a few extra bits and pieces I might email them once I have better internet and if I remember. In the meantime, in shorthand: p.390, Scarlet Pimpernel; that was probably my best spot. (Sorry, I probably sound a bit up m'self in this post; guess I'm just proud to have finished this book when I'd long thought I might never be up to it again.)
This was just such a wonderful book and if you think you might be relatively comfortable enough with the subjects (I know I'd have found it too much hard work if it was about a subject I knew very little of) then I would very very much recommend it. And I've no doubt it will reward re-reading too...(less)
For the first nearly 100 pages I simply couldn't see the point of this, or understand why - even before the film - it had become a modern classic. But...moreFor the first nearly 100 pages I simply couldn't see the point of this, or understand why - even before the film - it had become a modern classic. But then I was only reading the thing because for several years now it had felt like an embarrassing oversight not to have done. Not simply due to its appearance on most "best books of the last decade" lists, but, having usually owned a copy of at least one of McEwan's books since the week Enduring Love was released sixteen years ago, I'd always found it alarmingly easy to forget that I hadn't actually read a single novel of his.
Atonement's early chapters were positively Downton Abbey-ish. (I suspect that the later nursing scenes also inspired part of that series.) It was like a well-written version of supermarket fiction. Though the sort you'd find in Waitrose alongside Joanna Trollope. I daresay that it helped inspire quite a few of those books. And even its cover has become a generic type - one of whose recent incarnations can be seen on the British edition of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.
Historical fiction set in the inter-war period seems especially superfluous; there were so many wonderful, still-readable novels written at the time which give a better flavour of the era than however many years of research could now. So its only significant value is if it says things that couldn't really be said in print at the time. Like Sarah Waters' Victorian books. And sexual politics and the unspeakable also eventually become one of the themes of Atonement; there is also a certain cynical irony to a story about a miscarriage of justice set during the "Golden Age of Crime".
I had seen a few reviews critical of this aspect of the book such as this one - which is probably more spoilery than mine - and did keep them in mind whilst reading. It probably won't surprise people who know me or who read a lot of my posts that I disagree, though I did honestly give careful consideration to the idea. (And I felt profoundly sad for Briony in the 40's carrying around remorse for such a terrible thing. I also don't blame her in the least, for, like most people in most situations, she probably wasn't able to do anything better at the time anyway. McEwan's exploration of her thought processes in 1935 is thorough enough that I'm convinced this is also what he means to say. It was odd that her thought processes of later realisation weren't explored though; this should have been one of the most interesting parts of the story but it wasn't there at all. I was disappointed and puzzled that writing became her later career, but then not everyone grew up with the public service ethic I did, which says her former work is better and more useful both in society and to help assuage guilt and wrong action, whilst art usually involves self-promotion.)
What I see in the plot is an indictment of a culture of prudery and silence that was hurting both men and women. It's perfectly obvious, if you know much of the story, how a man is adversely affected. But it was also unthinkable for Lola that she could have said what really happened in the afternoon. And if she had been able to do that, everything would likely have been different. Both Briony and crucially her mother, from whom she probably learned her views, equate passionate sexual expression in words with a person being a physical threat. The police and judicial system aren't exactly dismissive of the idea either. Class discrimination fuels the situation as well and it's certainly no accident that the narrative mentions Robbie's illicit purchase of the banned Lady Chatterley's Lover.
There aren't as many big ideas as I thought there might be in Atonement: it is, mostly, a story (one which draws heavily from L.P Hartley's The Go-Between as a starting point). The only other explored theme is writing and the study of literature. By default, I find this a tedious and slightly embarrassing theme in novels. "Aren't we bookish people so special and different?" they say. There are quite a few that manage to buck the trend of irritation (recently Possession and Scarlett Thomas' Our Tragic Universe). But Atonement is one in which I didn't like this typical outbreak of meta, apart from its clever and justified use in Robbie & Cecilia's letters.
What I enjoyed more than anything though, were bits which were mostly just story. Part 2, about Dunkirk, especially, was very interesting. I quite like war films and even took a military history module once, but for some reason I've always avoided fiction about fighting in wars; perhaps I should re-think that. Most of Part 3, about nursing ... There's nothing quite like doing useful work that benefits other people to take you out of yourself and feel justified and purposeful. I miss it terribly. But reading a long account of someone else doing some is just as good for taking me out of myself, it turns out, and during those pages I quite forgot petty online debates which had riled me that day.
It did become perfectly apparent why the book is so popular, that it is well-written (even if the lyrical realism was too glaring and cold for my liking in Part 1) and it's a pretty good story with a few meta bits and things to debate. Some of it was still a bit dreary, obvious and unsatisfying, but I'm glad to have ticked this off at last.
ETA: I've recently read James Wood's essay on Atonement in The Good of the Novel and whilst I can't say it made me like Atonement any more, it did give me more appreciation of the work that went into it, e.g. that some of the plot points are a response to a 1935 essay by Cyril Connolly. (less)
What a let-down when something you'd been meaning to read for well over 20 years just isn't that great. (The title really jumps out from a newspaper p...moreWhat a let-down when something you'd been meaning to read for well over 20 years just isn't that great. (The title really jumps out from a newspaper page when you're a kid.) The narrative was so fragmented that the atmosphere - surely one of the most important facets of historical fiction or fantasy, even postmodern versions - never became truly absorbing, and you're booted out yet again just as it looked like it was going to. If I'd seen one or two of the individual chapterlets as short stories somewhere, I'd have liked them more than I did finding them in this jumble. Being an unfashionable two-wrongs-don't-make-a-right sort of feminist, I really disliked the anti-male sentiment in the Twelve Dancing Princesses fables. In any case, more dullness than disaster strikes me as a good antidote to fairytale happy-ever afters, and Perrault wrote Bluebeard* too. (In Written on the Body, by contrast, the bits about anti-man terrorism were written in such a perfect high-comic fashion that they were great regardless.) The male characters were, probably deliberately, either insipid or tyrannical (which I concede is kind of an interesting role-reversal of old tropes [minus sexy stereotypes] - but ones more common in poorer-quality literature. Ultimately it meant that there was a shortage of interesting people in the book.) The Dog-Woman, the anti-Puritan giantess and force of nature, was almost great - and occasionally funny - but as with pretty much everything about this book, her impact was much lessened by the bitty chapters, and the story skipping around too much for such a short work.
* I googled Bluebeard to check who the compiler / author was - but first a typo led me to adorable British Blue cats (aka blue bears). Look!(less)
If Sarah Waters wrote Vikings ... but with less oppression and more sex.
Whilst you probably have to be into the Xena type (and I'm not) to find this s...moreIf Sarah Waters wrote Vikings ... but with less oppression and more sex.
Whilst you probably have to be into the Xena type (and I'm not) to find this stuff hot, the book is also a very silly and entertaining suspense-filled swords-and-sorcery adventure about a young lesbian Norse warrior.
Along the way it also manages to philosophise about the experience of war and being violent, and have a strong opinion about the effects of the introduction of Christianity on women.
The author apparently has a postgrad degree in Scandinavian history, and it shows: there is a lot of great detail about objects and material culture of a quality you wouldn't generally expect in a story like this one. She also begins the book with a paragraph about warrior women excerpted from medieval Danish chronicler Saxo Grammaticus: quality! She takes liberties with aspects of the setting - e.g. showing Viking mercenaries in William the Conqueror's army - but it's not like total historical accuracy is the objective here. (less)