This had been on my radar for a while, but due to a few disappointing reviews I doubt I would have bothered with it if I hadn't been reading the Booke...moreThis had been on my radar for a while, but due to a few disappointing reviews I doubt I would have bothered with it if I hadn't been reading the Booker longlist. And whilst the book's not perfect, it was a great deal better than I'd been led to believe.
The freshness of the voice hit me from the first page. Darling, the young Zimbabwean narrator is on the way to steal guavas from a rich area with her friends, says We didn't eat this morning and my stomach feels like somebody took a shovel and dug everything out. A simile you can feel.
Recently I've noticed a few things that predispose me to like a contemporary novel, including characters from a social class different from the one I grew up in, and vivid metaphors which germinate from the story's setting. We Need New Names has both in abundance. Darling is too immersed in her world, doesn't know enough that's different, to describe it in a sensationalist way. That "this is how it is" voice, hearing things on someone else's terms with little overt judgement or analysis is very appealing, and which I often find makes so-called difficult subjects quite easy to read about.
We Need New Names moves so much faster, is more political and more immediate than Ghana Must Go another 2013 debut novel by a young woman with an African background and an Ivy League education. Bulawayo lived in Zimbabwe till she was 18 and she's used that experience to make this book way more interesting than Selasi's slow upper-middle class American family saga with a few scenes in Africa. (Another obvious new release to compare would be Americanah, which I haven't read.)
The most frequent criticism of this book I've seen is that it goes wrong in the second half when Darling goes to live with her aunt in America. I really can't see where this is coming from. The episodic structure is so similar to the Zimbabwe half for starters. There is something less zingy about its tone but that reflects the disagreeable Michigan weather, the amount of time spent indoors and the whole failed-American-dream thang. (Zimbabwe: local people killed with machetes over politics; USA: local people killed with guns because of money or general violent tendencies. Zimbabwe: 11 year old gets pregnant and too few people care; USA: kids regularly watch hard porn online whilst parents are at work. The jobs aren't much better for illegal immigrants in America, but at least there's organised education, sanitation, abundant food, abundant opportunities for consumer debt, and the inspiration of a young black president. And in both countries, friends to have adventures with.)
There were a few faults that could have been easily sorted out through editing. Inconsistent chronology, and stylistic tics like overuse of 'verbing and verbing and verbing' and of the Achebe-allusion "things fall apart". Cut these by half and they'd have still been distinctive and memorable. The book could have done with footnotes, especially for the phrases in Ndebele, and possibly (like A Tale for the Time Being) for other points too. I enjoyed looking things up online and now know a bit more about African politicians and musicians - but it's not always convenient to google stuff when reading.
We Need New Names had some totally unfussy reflection on the differences and kinships between black American / Ebonics culture and recently-arrived immigrants from Africa. Something I'd heard a little about in a British context but not enough. And a great scene about trying to communicate with officialdom in English as a foreign language which made me think & was reminiscent of A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. ...because you have to do all this [preparation], when you get to the final step, something strange has happened and you speak the way a drunk walks. And because you are speaking like falling, it's as if you are an idiot...Those who speak only English are busy looking at your falling instead of paying attention to what you are saying.
The Guardian review of this book asks Has the Caine prize [for African writing, which NoViolet Bulawayo won in 2011] created an African aesthetic of suffering? This sounds like a question worth considering, one which I don't have sufficient knowledge to answer. But Bulawayo addresses the wider issue - of what people think and show and want to hear about Africa - to an extent through her narrative: in scenes of white western journalists Darling and her friends encounter in Zimbabwe, and near the end when she phones one of her old friends who stayed there. You think watching on BBC means you know what is going on? No you don't my friend, it's the wound that knows the texture of the pain; it's us who stayed here feeling the real suffering, it's us who stayed here who have the right to say anything. As well as a critique of the author as self-appointed spokesperson this could allude to the way that a lot of internationally recognised African writing comes from authors who no longer live on the continent. I haven't read a lot of African fiction, so this is a tentative opinion on Bulawayo's response to literary stereotype-mongering.
A very readable book which gave me quite a bit to think about - glad I gave it a go after all. The quotes I've used don't reflect the freewheeling sense of adventure in We Need New Names/, which isn't a tediously worthy book as I may have made it sound here - it's as vibrant as its cover.(less)
One of those novels about a set of tangentially linked characters in a city. It's a format I like, but it's been done a lot so each book does need to...moreOne of those novels about a set of tangentially linked characters in a city. It's a format I like, but it's been done a lot so each book does need to distinguish itself, and the settings are important: most American ones feel very tired indeed to me, London rather overdone though at least likeable. Five Star Billionaire is set in Shanghai which is, mindblowingly, bigger than London & New York put together [in population terms].
For perhaps the first half of the book I was swept away by the engrossing details of location and culture; and by the feeling of my mental map reorientating itself to a centre on the other side of the world - Japan's just over there and it's where rich people might go on skiing holidays, immigrants make hops from rural Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur to Taipei to Guanghzou to Shanghai as they look for progressively better wages, whilst those who've made it might try and emigrate to Australia or Canada. A slight increase in understanding of this burgeoning place and the smallness and oldness of here gave me that same sensation of relief and peaceful insignificance as does looking up at the stars.
Aw's Shanghai has immense buzz. It's similar to the sense of 'Rising Asia' in Mohsin Hamid's new novel, and the homeland of Xiaolu Guo's Z in A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers which I also read recently. Shanghai though is so overwhelmingly glamorous, the place to be for young people on the make, that what I'm most reminded of is the mid-1960's Swinging London films, in which a country-fresh twentysomething (often female) arrives in the big city world of fun and dubious morality. Those films often had an underlying disapproving message...just as Aw doesn't present an altogether positive view of the brash new Chinese capitalism. This is a money-focused world which in that respect to the Brit or American feels more 1980's than 60's, but without the jadedness we might associate with 30 years ago.
Internet use, online relationships and internet addiction are dealt with better here than in most novels where I've seen them mentioned - and refreshingly (pun intended) without any use of screenshots or chat layouts. Several characters go through a cocooned hikokomori stage which was wonderfully done.
But for all that there were certain things I loved about this book, it did quite often also feel like just yet another city novel. I don't know nearly enough about Shanghai or about Malaysian immigrants to China - as the four main characters are - to speak definitively, but there was a feeling of stereotype about these characters and the reiterated, yet for some true, idea of a city that will chew you up and spit you out if you're not careful.
It feels comfortable to have certain stereotypes addressed head-on: this and the Hamid & Guo books I mentioned above both include fake designer goods, shoddy manufacturing etc. But the human personalities in Five Star Billionaire could have been more original. Broadly, the two women are very ambitious, the two men who've already made it young want to drop out. They are all most likeable at their crisis points, when they have doubts. (Or does that simply say something about me?) When the action is trundling along they're just mannequins and archetypes. The fifth character, the "Five Star Billionaire", a shadowy private investor & author of a self-help book, works quite well within his own discrete first-person chapters. (The other four are all in third-person omniscient.) But when he interacts with the others he's effectively just a symbol,rather in the manner of one of Scrooge's ghosts, and I still can't decide how well all this gels.
The author's first novel The Harmony Silk Factory was for a few years ubiquitous in British bookshops, and mentions the Lim family in its synopsis; they also have a significant role here. This book does work as a standalone story, though I sometimes wondered if I was missing anything by not having read Aw's earlier work.
Five Star Billionaire is perhaps a bit too long at nearly 450 pages. (Nevertheless it was a very fast read compared with my previous book, a 540pp Iris Murdoch; I read 95% of this in one 24 hour period despite feeling a bit ill.) To borrow a phrase from a friend of a friend in a recent discussion, it hints at big ideas but doesn't do much with them. For my liking it's maybe too bland and stylistically unoriginal compared with the Hamid or Guo novels; I saw it described on a forum as a "literary soap" - IMO they were quite right. It's like a jumbo bag of prawn crackers: large but light and insubstantial. As a relatively undemanding book which still gives quite a bit to talk about, it seems like good book group material if people don't mind the page-count.(less)
Philip Hensher encapsulated it in his Spectator review of the Granta Best Young British Novelists, of whom Selasi is one.
bog-standard products of the...morePhilip Hensher encapsulated it in his Spectator review of the Granta Best Young British Novelists, of whom Selasi is one.
bog-standard products of the American creative-writing machine: present-tense narratives introducing western readers to exotic places, with a surface conventional lyricism and a glossary explaining how to pronounce Lagos.
Those who don't share this jaded, cynical sense of a generic litfic / creative writing course / MFA style may take more kindly to Ghana Must Go, a family saga that mixes Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith's On Beauty and a bit more Africa for good measure.
I'm not saying that there aren't some lovely metaphors and descriptions here, bits of alliterative wordplay I liked, moments that pull at the heart, occasionally with personal resonance - but it was easy to forget them when wading through paragraphs of that standard, over-serious "poetic" stuff. I found most of the scenes in West Africa more interesting, anything which provided a sense of a culture I don't know well, but chiefly this is an American book: another moderately fucked-up upscale intellectual family over a few decades. (One of today's favoured templates just as Austen's "three or four families in a country village" once was.)
It's possible to imagine being quite impressed with this book in a different context: "she was the best writer in our year" ... but set alongside the amount of hype it's received, nope. I think the hype simply shows how much attention you can get for your okay first novel if you went to Harvard AND Oxford AND have the right media-friendly personality and opinions AND have already worked in the industry. Looking like a supermodel rarely does any harm either.
The publishers could have done more with editing and to encourage rewriting. (To some, surely they would have said "this is promising, but come back to us with your next novel instead".) I don't require fast-paced books but in the first 200 pages Ghana Must Go actually became repetitive and tedious. Moments of Kweku's, the father's, death are slowed down like time-lapse photography and supplied every few pages between flashbacks to various parts of his past life and his family's; then in Part II the same happens with the moments people find out he has died. Described this way I like the approach, but as it is in the book, it doesn't work very well; it's too drawn out and even sometimes disorganised. It's a structure perhaps better suited to film - Selasi has also worked in TV and screenwriting.
The characters, as they each first appear, have believable essences that make them seem somehow more real than the book, Kweku being the best drawn. But as the story wears on there are a lot of details and responses that don't fit together psychologically, that feel like the work of a writer who's either very young and sheltered or isn't a briliant observer of a really wide range of people and also doesn't know much psychology in depth, just taking bits and pieces from the media. Many of the best writers, including those from hundreds of years before anything specifically about psychology was written down, can transmit a sense of three-dimensional people who possess attachment styles and schemas of relating and reacting based on their experiences, show clearly how these were formed in their early lives and how they were affected later. Selasi's characters aren't entirely without psychological depth, it's more that there are collage-like instances of "that happened to them therefore they do this" - but often without setting it in the wider context of the person's earlier experiences and therefore certain things just do not compute. And as this is not a great novel, and also a first novel from someone with what appears to be a very privileged background ... this might be a cheap shot... the inclusion of a particular serious issue that's quite common in recent fiction, films etc seems somewhat exploitative. (view spoiler)[By which I mean the abusive uncle and the forced incest. There's such an awful lot of this sort of thing in fiction currently that it does start to seem tacky and exploitative unless the writer honestly needs to include it for personal reasons. (Or unless it's the sort of pulp in which you don't expect any better.) However, we shouldn't expect authors to make personal disclosures about traumatic experiences unless they want to anyway. (hide spoiler)]
Perhaps Selasi won't change her modern international family saga subject matter or her writing style a great deal, but I'm sure she'll polish the latter somewhat. Her next book (it's not like there isn't going to be one, is it?) will surely be better - though it probably won't be quite my sort of thing, so I won't read it unless I'm repeating this present game of reading stuff (likely to be) nominated for awards. And in any case - like Franzen - she's still interesting as a pundit regardless of the novels. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Even the presentation of the British edition is brilliant, with its big brash lettering like real financial self-help books: The Richest Man in Babylo...moreEven the presentation of the British edition is brilliant, with its big brash lettering like real financial self-help books: The Richest Man in Babylon, The Millionaire Next Door, and especially, right down to the colours and the italic typeface, Rich Dad, Poor Dad. The font inside is familiar from this sort of thing too; I don't know its name but it's definitely not one I associate with literary novels for grown-ups. The only thing obviously missing in satirical design terms is a contents page listing Hamid's 12 carefully named chapters.
The self-help book conceit does partly collapse within the narrative in order to accommodate descriptions, reversals and dialogue. Occasionally near the start I wished for a really good novel that more completely satirised and followed the format but in other ways How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is simply so stunning otherwise that I cared about this idea less and less.
It's probably the best novel I can ever remember reading in the second person (haven't found a comprehensive list of them yet to check any I may have forgotten) and one of the best novels I've read published this century (but in those 14 years I probably haven't read as much newly published fiction as during the 4-year period 1993-7). All I'd hoped for was something to finally show me that there is more to post-colonial literary fiction in English than lots of people imitating Salman Rushdie; reading a chapter or two of many novels in bookshops or libraries had always left me with the impression that this is what it basically all was. I didn't expect to love this so much. Or to be moved to tears more than by anything else I've read since I started using Goodreads. (But the book can also be very funny and I can't help but love something that inserts “but not in a creepy way” into a beautiful, emotional sentence that without it could have been a smidgen too precious.)
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia deals in a sense of spine tingling contemporary history, state-of-the-nation and state-of-the-world which I associate mostly with the great chronicles of British nineteenth century urbanisation and socioeconomic change – a seething environment very similar to that of “rising Asia”. Except that with a narrative which constantly creates a generality via its instructional form, it injects straight into the vertebral column rather than tickling at peripheral nerve endings with possibly-representative characters. And like many Victorian novels, which otherwise almost couldn't be more different stylistically, it has an ever-present awareness of the wheel of fate: of forces and factors and chances and choices which may not always seem much at the time but on which the course of life pivots. (The crucial difference from and critique of self-help books is that not everything depends on the facile “you can do anything if you want it enough / work hard enough.” Indeed, that only applies when larger circumstances are right.) The love story element, which for a while reminded me of Slumdog Millionaire and to a lesser extent of Victorians such as Dickens, started to seem more natural later on; its role is to bring some poetry to the life of a man whose role is "supposed to be" as an example of homo economicus.
The brilliance and wit of descriptions is beyond anything I expected a format like this to produce. I think this book could be particularly powerful for those who like reading history and current affairs books: it combines more factual books' panoramic sense of importance, change and the whirrings of the cogs of fate with an unfussy yet unusual and beautiful form of very self-aware fiction that is also quick to read. Chapter Nine is possibly the most striking, told predominantly through what is seen by myriad information systems, CCTV, security personnel and a drone, creating the sense of a worldwide narrative Borg.
The book has a unique approach to time (unique among anything I've read). Fuck the standard present tense narrative: this protagonist lives his whole life in the present. His childhood takes place amid the trappings of now. He is 30 now, 50, 70 now. The approach almost never seems to fail because if anything is looked back upon it is something universal such as an emotion, not a technology. The only time it is a bit off is sometimes when he is very old in the last chapter or two, when reminiscence and a separation from very recent progress and fashion inevitably almost forms a larger part of his life. And even then being made explicitly aware of his ever-presentness gave me a sense of a multitude of human lives lived in parallel or loosely connected, which I've usually found captured best in songs: 'Tonight We Fly' by The Divine Comedy, The Smiths' 'Rusholme Ruffians' or “No matter where we are, We're always touching by underground wires” from Of Montreal's 'Past is a Grotesque Animal”. (Ideas which always feel most powerful late at night for some reason, which is when I read the end of the book.)
If there may be one major gap here it is religion: the protagonist's belief is pretty much never mentioned; religion (various trappings of Islam) is something that other people around him participate in. Whilst I read quite a lot of American and British self-help books when I was younger (often a waste of time – if you're interested in them as something potentially useful go instead to academic psychology if you even think you might be up to reading some of it; the right stuff can really get to the heart of things). But I've never read a self-help book for the Asian market. So I don't actually know if they would mention religion much if they were hoping, for example, to sell to both Muslims and Hindus and others. I also haven't read Mohsin Hamid's earlier novels – and I probably won't as they don't really appeal to me like this one did – so I don't know what his approach to writing about religion tends to be. If you seek great verisimilitude about the region the low religious content of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia could be a minus but I can't say I really cared given how wonderful I found this otherwise for its sense of history in the making, portrayal of how huge forces and humans interact, expanding the possibility of second person narrative way beyond anything I'd seen previously, and too many other things it seems superfluous to repeat.(less)
Penguin Classics edition, translated by W.S. Merwin, introduction by Cristina García I looked at as many translations as I could before buying and was...morePenguin Classics edition, translated by W.S. Merwin, introduction by Cristina García I looked at as many translations as I could before buying and was sure I'd found the right one. The bold Warhol cover is a nice bonus. Yet after all that - and a high price for such a tiny book - I didn't connect with many of these poems as deeply as I thought I would. All have some lovely moments, but the best (and most viscerally sexy) verse is still, I think, the first, 'Body of a Woman'. This was among those which suffered least from sudden shifts in imagery ... I kept remembering what it was like reading Paul Verlaine; his poems made me feel like I was one of, or watching, two people in a room... Neruda is there for one or two lines, the next at the wharf describing boats. Perhaps my disconnection is also because I'm not so much at home with maritime imagery as I am with the urban smog and pastoral escapism of the French symbolists. But everything was too fleeting; I hadn't finished feeling and imagining before the focus shifted yet again. These poems are very, very well-loved though and at only 55 pages you'd be better reading for yourself than taking my word for it (if you think you may possibly like them).
The Epic pulses with primitive rhythm and the mesmeric quality of repeating structures constructed under the oral tradition. Some lines of this transl...moreThe Epic pulses with primitive rhythm and the mesmeric quality of repeating structures constructed under the oral tradition. Some lines of this translation feel as if they could be chanted and accompanied by drums.
It was scary, as well as fascinating: here is a voice from a time when life everywhere was harsher, when values were different - 1500-2000 years before Buddha or Jesus - and so many things we know wouldn't exist for millennia hence. We are very very far from home. At the same time the larger than life characters are still recognisably human, prone to raw emotions of anger, lust, friendship, sorrow, fear of death.
The book was unexpectedly easy to read in terms of actual structure, though the deep strangeness of the work demanded attention.
I feel driven to write this review whilst uploading some books I read a long time ago. The Epic of Gilgamesh is still haunting, five years after reading.
On a practical note, it's also usefully short and doesn't require the time commitment you need to read Homer unabridged, for example.
Not that I know about ancient Sumerian, but this book reads as if the translator, Andrew George, has done a very good job. His version is highly evocative.(less)