[4.5] A rip-roaring yarn and awe-inspiring use of experimental form - it's not every day you see that in a book.
Like Catton's previous near-masterpie...more[4.5] A rip-roaring yarn and awe-inspiring use of experimental form - it's not every day you see that in a book.
Like Catton's previous near-masterpiece, The Rehearsal, this suffers from a rather misleading cover. The illustration, and the very title The Luminaries seem to allude to "a different world entirely... a world of drawing rooms, and calling cards, and gowns" (p.31) - not a mystery/ adventure involving gold prospectors, prostitutes, drug addiction and frontier-town bigwigs. One likely to appeal to quite a number of readers who may be put off by the first impression of yet another Austen/Dickens pastiche.
The Luminaries certainly is a pastiche of a kind, though it was never so overwhelmingly Victorian in its style as I expected after seeing a well-known book blogger mention how he abandoned it: "Jeanette Winterson said, "If you want to read 19th-century novels, you may as well read the real thing, and not go out and buy a reproduction." It strays further from faithful Victorian reproduction after the early chapters, still making wonderful use of the depth of characterisation that's too often missing from contemporary British novels. And it's certainly faster reading than most nineteenth-century originals. The narrative voice has hints of George Eliot (whom I was delighted to read Catton also prefers over the Brontes and Austen). But (perhaps because I've never read Wilkie Collins, with whom this book's most often been compared so far) the experience of reading The Luminaries made me think most of all of Arthur Conan Doyle, back before I'd read the Holmes stories so often they'd become a little boring. Tales of skullduggery and crime often recounted through the medium of conversations between men - sometimes in the telling itself, sometimes as a deep-sea dive into a framed narrative like Heart of Darkness.
Still, those were comparisons to the actual Victorian... Neo-Victorian isn't a trend in which I've had much interest other than the odd work by big names like A.S. Byatt, Sarah Waters and Alan Moore. The larger-than life characters and the sheer pointless fun of this story do, for me, recall comics put into prose. (Michael Chabon was perhaps the most unlikely comparison I kept making as I read.) Catton seems like an intellect every bit as formidable as Byers but she so far has applied it to structure rather than essentially highbrow story-topics. Unlike Waters (and many other historical novelists) her application of modern values is subtle; characters are people of their time, though perhaps a greater percentage of the well-off white men are, without fanfare, decent and civil to ethnic minorities and to women of questionable backgrounds than may have been the case in the real mid nineteenth century. Characters of all origins are treated with equal dignity by the narrative, again, without ever making a song and dance about it, which periodically gives a rather pleasant time-warp effect. The setting, at least for most non-ANZ readers, has much novelty and interest, when so much Victoriana focuses on London; plus it has similarities to the Wild West along with its own distinctive character.
It's often quite possible to imagine if only one could put the words together a bit more nicely, had greater stamina for writing at length &c, how it might have been possible to write various books. The Luminaries though, is from a writing perspective a fairly mind-boggling achievement that sounds almost as difficult,and almost as much a potential impediment to producing a good story, as do the letter-missing-out antics of Georges Perec.
1) It is a highly complex mystery which would in itself be a considerable invention. 2) Each of its 12 parts has a word count exactly half that of its predecessor. 3) Astrology, a pre-existing complex (fictional) system has been used as a starting point for the characters' interactions. (A three-stairs-in-one-stride step up in intricacy from the use of playing cards in The Rehearsal.) Not only that but Catton has partially refashioned astrology to her own purpose by making each of the main characters a sign or a planet, and various buildings the houses on the chart - such that, for example, Mercury in Aries means a meeting of those two characters. (I think it would also be perfectly possible to enjoy the book as a story whilst ignoring or knowing little of these aspects.)
Towards the end of the book, it's possible to see the decreasing word-count become slightly burdensome as the "in which" chapter descriptions start to near the length of the text they precede. These same length constraints mean that there are several short chapters going into detail about earlier events to a level that isn't always necessary, but which I nearly always found interesting. At least Catton doesn't use this tailing-off to tie the "present" fates of the characters up too neatly. I (and probably a lot of readers of a book like this) prefer some unknowns at the end - although it's not terribly Victorian. What is impressive, though, is that the content never seems forced or unnatural - only the layout and chapter divisions indicate something unusual is going on.
The astrological-themed characters are an object lesson in how a seriously good writer can make archetypes into interesting personalities, few of whom end up seeming like stock characters; there's something atypical or unexpected about nearly all of them which offsets their origins. (Sometimes it's easy to spot how it's done: e.g. a spendthrift dandy ... who's Scandinavian.) Most have a cartoonish yet complex quality which reminds me of good comics. I didn't find out that twelve of the characters were based on star-sign attributes (though the planetary ones were clearer, somehow from the oblique dramatis personae) until I'd read over 200 pages. Once I knew this it all fell into place – and I occasionally had to banish mental pictures of the early 90's Creme Egg ads when certain characters appeared – but given that a) I know far more than I'd like about astrology and b) I think I read quite closely I was all the more impressed with Catton's characterisation for not having been able to help making it ridiculously obvious as many authors would have.
A drawback of the astrological scheme is that the planet-in-sign chaptering led to rather a lot of one-on-one conversations. What they characters are saying is generally exciting, and sometimes the chats become a framing device, but the format led to a slight background monotony that was at odds with my otherwise great enjoyment of the book. (This is why it's a rounded-down, not rounded-up 4.5.) The quieter among these conversations, in which we witness characters' communication of information - some of which we may already know - and their reactions, and in which “telling not showing” is really part of the useful action, reminded me of 18th-19th century epistolary novels.
Whilst sceptics surely can't argue with the idea of using one made-up system to make up something else, I've noticed a few press reviews which are puzzled by the astrological basis of the novel when only one character, Lydia Wells, has any enthusiasm for star signs. To me it seemed another mental leap by the author; to use this scheme for a story with a cast of hippies, psychics etc would have been obvious. Instead the story in The Luminaries is seasoned with astrology but not, I would say, overwhelmed by it – similar to the way Celine & Julie Go Boating is seasoned with magic both stage and esoteric. Though perhaps it's only if one's had much familiarity with astrology that it doesn't seem off-key to see it applied to non-adherents, to things and people which seem unrelated to the subject. Everyone has a horoscope, whether they've ever taken any notice of it or not. Even Richard Dawkins. My own knowledge comes from OCD-like phases of struggle with superstitious systems plus a tendency to hoover up information. (I managed to break from astrology after discovering “fixed star” astrology which added a near-exponential number of extra possibilities so that, crucially, from within the system itself and not only from outside, it all started to seem nonsensical and as if it could be made to say anything.) I was a little disappointed that, according to this interview Eleanor Catton seems – for the moment - to embrace astrology unquestioningly although she must be enormously intelligent. But she has at least made a rather stupendous work of art out of it - one started when she would have been only 26.
This is, incidentally, the first novel of its size I've finished in exactly six years. The last one was Darkmans - pure coincidence that the names almost mirror. And like the Nicola Barker, it was so enjoyable that the book was rarely burdensome (even if I did take a day off in the middle for a sub-300 pager, which helped).
I would love to see The Luminaries win the Booker. (There are two or three contenders between which I can hardly choose.) Though its scale of ambition and experiment, and sheer bulk, lead inevitably to a few imperfections that wouldn't be found in a more conventionally-structured, polished novel of a quarter of its length. Regardless, it was enormous fun, very readable and ever so clever. (less)
A Tale for the Time Being currently has almost twice as many Goodreads ratings as any of the other Booker longlisted books. At an average of 4.04 star...moreA Tale for the Time Being currently has almost twice as many Goodreads ratings as any of the other Booker longlisted books. At an average of 4.04 stars from 3200 users, people obviously like it. It has four pages of adulation from the papers at the beginning and seems to have been turning into a word-of-mouth success. But I'd barely noticed it before, just the title, and I don't think I'd even read the synopsis.
I really clicked with much of it, which surprised me. The surprise of liking it wasn't because of what it was about - there was a reason I read it first and not only because it's already available quite cheaply in paperback. It's that for a long time I've assumed by default (based on the evidence of reading only a small proportion) that I won't much like Booker books, and certainly won't connect with them. That may be true of several winners I abandoned when I was younger, and Salman Rushdie in general, but several favourites of mine have been on shortlists (including Darkmans, A Month in the Country, and A David Lodge Trilogy). If this year's prize is true to form, then A Tale for the Time Being will be shortlisted but won't win.
It's a very clever book: it was a compulsively easy read (though part III of IV was quite dark even by my curious standards) yet there are many layers. It's one of the most effortless and involving pieces of metafiction I can remember reading: I felt completely immersed in the story and unusually, had to keep reminding myself to look at it more closely. Usually this type of novel makes me hyper aware that I am reading a book about someone writing a book. This one is more about someone - who's also an author - reading a book, a diary, and the mechanics of construction are hidden and obliquely commented on.
(Writing, this is already feeling like one of those unenjoyable wading-through-mud posts which serves only to record thoughts. Thoughts which seem to grow in volume when put into words, like a boring toy which expands in water but doesn't do anything else.)
Ruth, a character based closely on the author, finds a package on the beach near her rural Canadian home. It contains a diary written by Nao, a sixteen year old Japanese girl. Chapters alternate between Ruth's life as she reads, and Nao's writing. Some of Ruth's reactions to the diary mirror (my idea of) the conventional mainstream reader's: a preoccupation with how realistic things are (she keeps trying to Google Nao and her relatives), and a sort of mother-hen smothery concern and judgementalism about an unusual or unhappy "character". It's a very cunning device for getting more people to connect with "weird" material. That makes it sound like something designed for a target market, but it actually seems completely natural.
The bit about realism spoke to me. I may not be one of those reviewers who writes sentences like "This book wasn't very good because it wasn't realistic", but I do pick at details of setting or fact. A Tale for the Time Being touches on a lot of subjects I like and know a little of but don't have the specialist knowledge to answer myself when I think "Is that accurate?" Things about Japanese culture, and nature viewed scientifically. Also Proust, and there may be extra layers of meaning here available to those who've read him.
After reading a couple of Goodreads reviews I'd been braced for some annoying quantum mysticism - but what I found were explanations about quantum mechanics and the theory of parallel universes very similar to those I've heard from friends who did physics degrees, and conscious use of those ideas in fantasy elements of the story. (Including the first instance of magic realism about the internet I think I've seen in a book.) In turn that gave me more faith in the use of other topics. This is a book which contains both romanticism and geekiness and it's nice to see these together. Parallel universes and the like are a bit of a theme in fiction this year; I've already encountered them in Life After Life and The Secret Knowledge.
Another criticism which mystifies me: that A Tale for the Time Being is overwritten. Perhaps these people were using a different meaning of the word. The writing is very clear and practically nothing is over-described. If you want to see 'overwritten' [i.e. an artificial or excessively elaborate, wordy style] in a new novel, have a look at Ghana Must Go.
I very much liked Nao's sections. Apart from occasional lapses where she seemed to be aware that that the imagined "you" she was writing for was an older westerner, they were immersive. Her voice was very appealing; she recounts a pretty miserable life, including severe bullying, in a matter-of-fact, almost chirpy tone without leaving out interesting cultural details ... I think the best way of describing it might be to say that, without hiding things from herself, she has little self-pity. Before I read the preview, I'd wondered if Nao's diary might be hard-going like Osamu Dazai's Schoolgirl, but this was a book I kept picking up when I should have been doing other things.
I haven't even mentioned Buddhism yet, one of the things that attracted me to A Tale for the Time Being and which influences the title itself. The relatively mundane content of Ruth's sections is implicitly an expression of mindfulness, and gave the book a calming, grounding effect which it wouldn't have had if it were simply Nao's story. (There's also something book-groupish about them - discussion and reflection on what we've just read - yet not as cloying as that could suggest to those who aren't fans of group reading.) Whilst it doesn't shy away from "unBuddhist" sort of content, the philosophy does ultimately pervade the book. Nao is troubled, but even at her most miserable times there's something very accepting about the way she recounts everything, which probably comes of having a Zen master for a great-grandma.
The problem I have with the book is that it's pretty negative about Japanese culture other than Zen. (In so far as I can comment - I know a couple of people who lived in Japan for a while, and others who are real Japanophiles; my knowledge is low compared with theirs.) I love the way Nao talks about "weird stuff" in a way that shows it's completely normal to her. The negativity is more in the selection of what is shown, some aspects of Ruth's concern about Nao and in the conclusion.
Nao spent her early life in America and misses the place. She was so engaging as a character that - especially as someone who was also very affected by a childhood move to a place I never felt at home in - I still find it hard not to say "I don't blame her". Even whilst I'm trying to comment on her as a construct. Ruth-the-character also mentions that both she and her mother "weren't very Japanese" and I daresay the author is reflecting some of her own feelings in the book.
I'd read and watched so few Japanese things before recent months (not for want of recommendations) so this is a fairly superficial impression... but there are certain features of the culture which I like better than the typical American/Western approach. An acceptance of "weird" sex and of certain types of eccentricity and subculture, a more accepting and unafraid attitude to death, and an obsessive love of aesthetics which is never regarded as shallow. And a "shame culture" is, on a gut level, something I can relate to more than a "guilt culture" even if it's not much fun. The older Japanese model of conformity and duty has always sounded very stifling, but the contemporary impression of the society as having that as a (nagging) backdrop to something much more varied is interesting and, again, relatable.
Lovely though A Tale for the Time Being is, I got the impression that it was trying to show all these distinctive aspects of Japanese culture (except perhaps the aesthetics) rather unfavourably. It took quite a while to become apparent, but the subtle cultural imperialism and motivational-posterness disappointed me slightly and made me hope that in 50 or 100 years time Japan hasn't become completely Americanised in its values. However (view spoiler)[it was interesting that a happy ending was only found for the characters through use of fantasy. (hide spoiler)]
And breathe. (Probably whilst meditating.)["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The political history was interesting - 1960s student radicals in India - but most of The Lowland, which takes place in subsequent decades, is just an...moreThe political history was interesting - 1960s student radicals in India - but most of The Lowland, which takes place in subsequent decades, is just another overly serious modern American family saga (immigrant subtype).
The unquestioned contrast in personalities of the two central brothers has a mythological quality but Lahiri's writing never achieves the grandeur befitting that. Sensible Subhash would, I'm sure, make an excellent, nice and reliable work colleague but written about as he was here he was of little interest. There wasn't enough insight into fiery commie Udayin, or enough story told from his viewpoint - there is a certain amount of judgement in this book that moderation and domesticity are best. I quite liked Gauri and Bela between approx. pp.200-300, but still, all the US storylines were things I've heard many times before and which don't much interest me as a subject for fiction. ("Stuff normal people like" was a phrase that kept popping into my head to characterise this novel and Lahiri, generally. Alongside Norah Jones, James Blunt and that ilk. Later I cheered Philip Hensher's snark about the book's American-airport-bestseller-style.)
The most laughable episode was this: (From memory as I don't have a copy with me) "Do you like it here?" she asked him. No-one had asked him this before... [He has been there years and this conversation obviously represents his stoicism and unselfishness, and that others have been taking him for granted. Two or three paragraphs describe a river and a bridge and him looking at same, before he actually replies in any shape or form.] What an exhausted old nag of a trope. I couldn't quite believe that readers of a highly-lauded author are still supposed to fall for this rubbish.
The worst thing of all? Lahiri's writing style. Her aversion to the word "and"; dull synonyms instead of adjectives. Minimal description, underelaboration leaving me too often unmoved and uncaring about the characters. Oh, the drear! All the bloody commas! For days after I finished The Lowland I cringed when I saw certain Lahiri-like sentence structures in other books. It's a cumulative effect which is unlikely to bother anyone on the basis of a few quotations. She's at it here, too, in a twee NYT article I clicked on for some reason. ...when I’d only read and heard about Italy, before I’d ever come to Rome is an example of the type of sentence I grew to loathe over 340 pages - almost every one featuring this sort of phrasing - and which now makes me want to throw something at the screen. Her few paragraphs in the article take something beautiful and render it mundane and lifeless to me.
From what I'd seen of previews, reader-reviews, and snideness such as this in the LRB: Even within the seemingly homogeneous sphere of the university English department, a schism has opened up between literary scholarship and creative writing: disciplines which differ in their points of reference (Samuel Richardson v. Jhumpa Lahiri)... I had suspected I would not enjoy Lahiri's writing, but not that I would almost hate it.
For perhaps the first half of the book I considered myself an ungrateful wretch, having got my mitts on a copy three weeks prior to official release whilst so many people who'd love to read it hadn't. When I started to dread picking it up, and even more dread those sentences, I must admit this guilt quite subsided.
3 stars is generous considering how much The Lowland grated, but as I was setting it alongside other Booker longlisted titles I had to concede that it is a perfectly competent novel that sits together well and makes sense. However, writing this review is making me reconsider whether I should rate this dull humourless litfic over more populist sort of novels which were stereotyped or had plot mis-steps. They were at least a bit more enjoyable to read.
ETA, Nov. This review of Unaccustomed Earth eloquently says a number of things I wish I'd said about Lahiri and her writing.(less)
[3.5] I wonder what people who read more thrillers will make of All the Birds, Singing. You may not have expected this to be a psychological thriller...more[3.5] I wonder what people who read more thrillers will make of All the Birds, Singing. You may not have expected this to be a psychological thriller set on farms, what with the author being one of the Granta Best Young British Novelists, who looks very cool and works in a London bookshop, and the book's pretty cover with twee wonky lettering. (A case of coverflip? It's not something I see a lot of in my reading but this seems like one, and it suits the protagonist very poorly. The Australian cover even features a woman with long hair and a dress - nothing like her. Without the Granta rec I wouldn't have picked up a book that looks like this, regardless of old proverbs.) The story is fairly grim, the grimmest book I've read since Sofie Oksanen's Purge - a truly all-round excellent novel also about a woman on the run from her past, that I'd recommend over this one.
Suspense is this book's greatest strength. Ever since I read the excerpt in the Granta collection I've wanted to know what happens. I read a longer excerpt on the publisher's website, and I still wanted to know more. This feeling lasted right until the end of the book. It's very neatly structured: chapters from the book's present, going forwards chronologically alternate with those from the past which run back chronologically. In typical literary fiction fashion, hints and allusions are made to a background which is only gradually and partially revealed to the reader. This usually gives the effect anyway of getting to know a somewhat enigmatic person (like the protagonist, Jake) in which part of the fascination is waiting to find out the pattern of what they will and won't tell you, as well as the facts themselves; the chapter structure really adds to that sense.
There were times, especially when I'd taken a break from the book and returned to it, that I would think, "oh, yet more lyrical realism"...but nearly every time I was hypnotically drawn back in, and away from that cynicism. It's lyrical realism well done and the novelty of the characters and their environment kept me interested.
In a way, it's a nature book, a rural book - set in Australia in the past and in its present on a fictional unnamed island off the west coast of England. [Why west? (view spoiler)[Lloyd says he is taking the ashes to the four corners of Britain and has already been to John O'Groats, Cornwall & Suffolk. The place is English, so it's not Anglesey or the Isle of Man. The community is much like a Scottish island, just English instead. (hide spoiler)]]. It's visceral and raw and full of animals (and spiders) alive and dead. The TLS review conjures its natural environment well. Yet for all that Jake lives in these places, she doesn't feel at ease in them - she doesn't feel at ease anywhere, dogged by fear and her traumatic past. Her feelings about her current location are pretty much the opposite of what mine would be in such a place, yet it's well evoked so the disagreement is irrelevant. It made me feel lonely to think about it, that old English history in the dark and the wet, the short days with no electricity. It made me want to go and sit in the truck, rev the throttle, just to remind myself of my century, just to feel the modern dry heat of the engine.
It's taken me so long to get round to discussing Jake simply because how to describe her raises questions. Her character and experiences made me realise how conventionally feminine a lot of modern literary female characters still are; she messes with commonly imposed dichotomies around masculine/feminine, weak/strong - and in a way that is more like the non-symbolic and complicated existence of a real person than a character who was drawn up to represent anything particular. It seems daft to call an adult a tomboy; what about a straight butch? Anyway, why do I have to label her for the purpose of this review? I liked a lot of things about her, and to some extent could relate: the ways she tries to be strong and almost compulsively independent even when it's a bit much, and the way she doesn't want to talk much except on her terms. Mostly, she's very well drawn but there were one or two points (below, as spoilers) which didn't quite ring true.
So, the writing, the setting, and the central character are pretty good. What's wrong with this book?
It mostly comes down to a number of pedantic points; if they'd been ironed out with really strict editing this could have been a seriously great little book. This is also where I'd love to know what detail-orientated regular readers of thrillers think. For all its well-crafted suspense, All the Birds, Singing is not original enough as a thriller and it lacks the greater significance and depth a "literary" work might have had to make up for that. I also felt that the narrator's register would have worked even better with some more humour as it's a natural bridge between bravado and fear.
Pedant's Corner - Whilst Jake has some money in the bank, it's not enough to buy a farm in the UK. The "present" setting is, if given any thought, an implausible romantic idea which is difficult to fit with the gritty elements of the story. Also, let's just assume she got her driving licence somewhere along the way and has unmentioned British-born relatives who'd make the whole immigration thing a lot easier. - Cressida Connolly notes the unlikelihood of Jake owning a gun in Britain. - She is a loner who's slow to trust people, so(view spoiler)[ why the heck doesn't she try and get rid of Lloyd as soon as she can? She doesn't even appear to be suspicious of him or to think carefully about his explanations and motives, which someone like her would. (hide spoiler)] - Related: (view spoiler)[People who live on their own and like their own space - I am one, and I know plenty of others - always find having visitors staying for more than a few days in a small house or flat to be pretty uncomfortable, and after a while you just need them to go away for a while. I've had plenty of conversations about this over the years and it's a sense and experience which is completely absent from this character whom I'd very much expect to have it. (hide spoiler)] - (view spoiler)[She had prolonged traumatic sexual experiences but in a first person narrative doesn't refer to any contrast between them and her relationship with Greg - even if she's lucky to have escaped more severe trauma symptoms. It could be because she's essentially an avoidant type who buries stuff but she doesn't say anything even once. (hide spoiler)] - A few hackneyed devices including symbolic cryptozoological beastie (this is, coincidentally, the third book I've read this month featuring one ... they're like buses). Various found items. (view spoiler)[And the validation-by-witness scene as per The Lady Vanishes - told in a way that seems like a single, off-key intrusion of magical realism. (hide spoiler)] But perhaps a few tropes like these are just necessary for a thriller? - There are quite a number of other things which raise potential quibbles, but they also leave room for assumptions that make the story flow. I like novels in which not everything is spelt out.
This book could be one of those examples of literary writing with a genre plot, but which does the "genre" element less well than experienced genre writers - as a few commenters on this Millions article allege is common. But as I haven't read a thriller for years, I'm not really qualified to say.
All the Birds Singing is definitely an interesting book with some strengths but it may not have been as great as some of the hype makes out. I've seen at least two comparisons with The Wasp Factory: to a teenager in the 90's the Banks book already wasn't half as shocking as people had said it was on release - but Wyld's character and plot don't have its level of originality either. But All the Birds is an extremely promising book, different and good enough for me to think it worth looking out for future works by Evie Wyld.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
[4.5] A formidably clever book with a rubbish cover. Both the jacket and the synopsis - a scandal over the relationship between a sixth former (in Bri...more[4.5] A formidably clever book with a rubbish cover. Both the jacket and the synopsis - a scandal over the relationship between a sixth former (in British parlance) and a 31 year old teacher - look like something from the younger end of a publisher's commercial women's fiction dept. But as the polarised ratings show, those looking for a straightforward beach read will be disappointed by an experimental, theory-driven novel which speaks the unspeakable. (As with Joanna Kavenna, another intelligent writer whose first novel was cursed by a chicklit cover, I wouldn't have discovered Catton if it hadn't been for a prize listing.)
This is not an easy book to write about; I've seen hardly any blog posts or reader reviews which capture it well, and I doubt this one will either. The professional reviews are relatively useful but The Rehearsal could do with an academic introduction.
The aftermath of the school sex scandal - an event which is significant because of what others think about it and the ripples it produces, (the two central participants having few direct appearances) - is interpolated with the first year of a group of students at a nearby highly selective university-level drama academy. The students have an annual tradition of a devised play with a history of success and controversy; this year they make their topic the teacher-pupil affair.
The Rehearsal is a book which deals with social roles, especially those adopted by or foisted on to teenagers, and with the construction of stories in judgemental gossiping reality, in people's heads and in different fictional forms. In saying, for instance, what it might be like if the girl playing Bridget were instead playing Isolde there is a sense of characters with independent lives, yet also constructed by the writer and the onlooker, that reminded me of a more intellectually sophisticated version of Jasper Fforde's book-world. It also made theatre performance and novel seem much more similar audience experiences than they generally are, and I felt a little bit of the world sliding to make a different shape.
Some synopses of the book say that it's intentionally unclear whether the school scenes are "real" (an idea which makes one realise the daftness of asking "what really happened?" about a fictional work). However, this appears to me to break down when accounts of the drama academy's play show some roles as having been played by boys when they've been described in this detached what-if way using examples of girls. And the drama students' ideas and dialogue are less complex and intelligent than those expressed by characters in the school scenes.
The Rehearsal is not a book to underestimate though, so I may have missed a point of theory here. Acting theory is another significant component of the book (as well as literary theory which Catton refers to in this interview); a 20+ year old grade five Speech & Drama plus a few Wikipedia articles were not enough to appreciate its uses in this book fully. I'm very much in favour of fiction which uses specialised knowledge - as I mentioned in my review of Hunters in the Snow - though I only gravitate towards it when it deals with fields I know something about. Possibly related to acting, there were shifts in modes of presentation and communication which had a deliberate consistency although the author's background reasoning sometimes remained opaque to me.
From the point of view of reader enjoyment, the drama students were, compared with the school pupils and teachers, terribly bland. They are, of course, new actors, whose purpose is to be trained to express others words and not their own. So the blankness is deliberate (just as is the way their teachers are referred to by their departmental roles, not their names, and few of the students gain names until late in proceedings. The teachers, at least, have strong personalities.) But the most prominent drama student, Stanley (is he supposed to echo Flat Stanley?) is so damn nothingy that it's boring reading about him this often. I couldn't bring myself to care about this character in the slightest, which is very unusual for me.
My favourite thing of all, though, and the thing which instantly attracted me to the book in the first pages of its preview, is the way that the characters in the school scenes speak their thoughts aloud in intense and beautifully described terms. In some conversations between the saxophone teacher and various mothers, these could - judging by the other party's small-talk responses - have been pasted over what was "really" said, as if the thought bubble and the speech bubble in a comic had been mixed up. (ETA The comics analogy was instinctive, but here Catton mentions Alan Moore as an influence.)
Mrs Henderson. At present your daughter is simply too young. Let me put it this way: a film of soured breast milk clutches at your daughter like a shroud.... ‘I require of all my students,’ the saxophone teacher continues, ‘that they are downy and pubescent, pimpled with sullen mistrust, and boiling away with private fury and ardour and uncertainty and gloom. I require that they wait in the corridor for ten minutes at least before each lesson, tenderly nursing their injustices, picking miserably at their own unworthiness as one might finger a scab or caress a scar. If I am to teach your daughter, you darling hopeless and inadequate mother, she must be moody and bewildered and awkward and dissatisfied and wrong. When she realises that her body is a secret, a dark and yawning secret of which she becomes more and more ashamed, come back to me. You must understand me on this point. I cannot teach children.’
Then there is the quite wonderful seventh-former Julia, who says much what I'd have thought in the same place, though - unlike her - I have usually considered it better not to bother articulating controversial opinions in certain company because I detest rows. She challenges a school counsellor's lecture which, trots out pat PC party lines and black-and-white binaries about power and boundaries.
But what if it's a same sex relationship? Surely comparison plays a much bigger role in same sex relationships... If comparison is abuse does that mean you reckon same sex couples are more abusive than ordinary couples?
I don't agree that Mr Saladin wanted to gain control...Sleeping with a minor [a seventeen year old, not even a minor here] isn't exciting because you get to boss them around. It's exciting because you're risking so much. And taking a risk is exciting because of the possibility that you might lose, not the possibility that you might win... It was exciting because he stood to lose so much if anyone found out.
...And anyway, isn't every relationship a power imbalance in some way?
Like me when I was at school, Julia also possesses that fear of being thought creepy by other girls at the same time as feeling annoyed by many and attracted to a few. The book, though, does have some of the sort of generalisations about female group behaviour which I only ever hear of in fiction by women writers. (My school was a bit odd and devoid of all manner of things good and bad which other people I've since known experienced at school. Our year never really gelled, said the teachers, which may be the reason for certain absent social features. Plus the most of the women I'm good friends with in more than a basic social networking sense tend, like me, not to be fans of hanging out in big all-female groups.) But despite all the occasional things that for me missed the mark, The Rehearsal captures very well the suffocating experience of being a teenage girl in a single sex school when you just don't see most things the way the others do.
In characters like the saxophone teacher and Julia, and in various features of Victoria's relationship with Mr Saladin (or even the psychologist father who tells tired old paedo jokes), I saw a challenge to a PC puritan orthodoxy and an understanding of people that made me like Catton and her book immensely. However, the unlikely lumping of the drama students into discrete groups of "boys" and "girls" with uniform thoughts about one another (they're drama students, no gay boys really?) was ostensibly disappointing in contrast to the nuanced treatment of the school pupils. Another interview indicates that Catton is no fan of binary oppositions either; she's seeking to mess them up as the book goes on but I don't think it comes across as clearly as it could in the drama academy sections of the novel. Then the students' use of language about the case seems to be drawn mostly from media sensationalism, and that seems to be nearly the final word on the affair itself. Catton's conclusions about the matter and morality of the relationship are somewhat opaque, rightly so for something which is easily treated with too much absoluteness. And this is a better book for not overtly preaching, for simply setting out jigsaw pieces of opinion and experience.
This is one which, more than most books I've read, would benefit from re-reading.
A couple of other long interviews with the author about The Rehearsal:
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)
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)
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)
I read the British version, published 2013 & shorter than the original. Even a couple of weeks after finishing this I still can’t rate it, my resp...moreI read the British version, published 2013 & shorter than the original. Even a couple of weeks after finishing this I still can’t rate it, my responses were so opposed. - At times this was the most annoying book I’ve read this year, yet by the end I’d warmed to the author so much I would have quite liked to talk to her. - If this sort of thing is a significant trend in the current avant garde, I despair of its insulated triviality. Yet I can also sort of see where she’s coming from and I found it quite interesting.
How Should a Person Be? was first published in 2010 by a small press in Canada – it’s Heti’s third book but her first to gain much attention. Which attention in America (it helped that she’s also the interviews editor of The Believer, McSweeney’s “let’s only write about books we can be nice about” mag) led to its being published there in 2012 and now this year in the UK. It blurs memoir & fiction in a way that Alt-Lit is very fond of (characters share the names of the author and her friends and are closely based on them) and it uses a similar style, though one which is more faux-naïve than flat and banal.
Its advertised themes include personal identity and feminism, though I side with those who think it’s more about narcissism and over-cocooned creative cultures.
It seemed important to realise that Heti wasn’t writing it all about herself now - that most of it happened in her twenties. Many of her central questions, like the one in the title, have been described by others as teenage … probably a lot of people did deal with them then. I recognised a lot of it from my twenties, being honest with myself, once I took a deep breath and stopped being exasperated assuming that she should also have got a reasonable amount of this out of the way by her mid-thirties, also realising what that thought said about me. (It’s just like with Alt-lit, that watching someone ponder their own narcissism makes this reader do the same, and whilst the writers generally intend that, I don’t much like that suffocating little mirrored narcissibubble and find it airier and a better view when thinking about other things. So forgive me if I don’t spell out every point of self-awareness and recursion which occurred whilst reading this book. There were plenty.)
“How should a person be?” has the potential to be a weighty moral question. But it’s not really treated as such here. It isn’t essentially about ethics, it’s about image and self-presentation and how to be someone who effortlessly produces satisfactory versions of those, how to fit in with or carve out your own niche among “people like you”, or people whom you aspire to be like - or rather your idea of them as generated by media, arts and how you view your friends. It’s a thought-bubble fragile-self world where this particular idea of “should” rules, rather than instincts of what you want to do and what you feel, and what you may think is morally right. And because Sheila (I will use Sheila to refer to the character, and Heti for the author) only associates with other young able-bodied middle-class creative white people - in a milieu deliberately made to resemble reality TV (the LRB review cites The Hills as one of Heti's influences) - there isn’t much push towards these other ideas, though they do appear at times.
Heti has described the book as part memoir, part fiction, but also part self-help book. It’s described as an anti-novel but Sheila’s various realisations about herself – which make up the implied self-help part – as well as events in her close friendship with Margaux do create a plot structure. Her therapist's (has to take unskilled job to get by / keeps Jungian analyst on speed dial... I can't quite figure out her budget, but anyway) advice about Peter Pan syndrome and and the way out of it being to achieve and get things done is very American and capitalistic. Letting go of the ideas about being "great" and "superior" don't seem to be anywhere, which I thought was a shame - both politically and socially. The later narrative, I was happy (and patronising) to see, did include ideas about becoming more aware of how she felt and acting on the basis of them rather than being so ruled by her ideas of how she might appear most interesting to others, or “how to be” in order to be a Great Writer etc. It was a very nice way of illustrating natural "self-help" through reflection and the process of living rather than parroting jargon and rules.
That is good, but what was almost missing was a moral sense, or even much thought about, things outside her own #firstworldproblems bubble, which was typified by the very detached use of the category “poor people”. Sheila does start seeing them as individuals, just as two male friends of hers who run a theatre go to Africa on holiday (which they basically describe as a holiday from narcissism) and experience revelations about the humanity and needs of others different from themselves. But the friends’ ideas about this recede because they can’t understand how to integrate them into their own lives without walking out on everything. Er, hello, ever heard of community theatre work?
As far as the feminism is concerned Sheila is a thoroughly liberated free modern woman with very few obligations who, in an ideological sense, still seems to think she has to fight certain old battles. Most of the action takes place during a time when she’s trying to complete a play for a feminist theatre group which she’s been working on for ages, around the time of her divorce. At the start she is somewhat preoccupied with ideas about how to be a Great Woman, that there aren’t too many examples to draw on for inspiration yet (really??? This lack-of-great-women-in-literature angst does seem to be an American thing: we've plenty in Britain now and in the past 200 yrs. Anyway, I’m of the view that it doesn’t matter who she takes inspiration from, she’s a woman herself, and it’s more egalitarian to reject these separatist ideas and gender-based designations.) Yet she doesn’t write about feminist ideology and history even when it would have been interesting and appropriate – e.g. when she takes a job in a hairdresser’s to support herself whilst writing the play. Evidently she’s not a dungarees and no make up type, but more ideas would have been nice: I was reading this to hear about what she thinks, not just to rattle around in my own head considering my own opinions. She spends a lot of time with her friend Margaux whom she tries to imitate to an extent, having not really had any close female friends before her. (It would have been more interesting if she’d gone into whybut it’s part of the simplicity of the writing style that she ignores that sort of background material.) Sheila basically seems to be a sex positive feminist – most of the best writing in this book is in the chapter “Interlude for Fucking” which even if you’re not into all the kinks she is (e.g. I really don’t like the mean talk / ‘verbal abuse’ stuff) gives a fantastic sense of what it is to crave someone completely, written in a really fresh way. And one of the most interesting parts of her increasing self-definition, especially in the light of books that have been published between 2010 and the present, is how she starts to make more conscious and critical decisions about sexual submission. (Though no-one can blame Heti for not foregrounding 50 Shades of Grey etc, this book has inadvertently become part of the current media over-representation of female kink as only being about rather un-subversive young attractive straight submissives as criticised eloquently by Laurie Penny in this blog post.)
The deliberately simplistic style of writing in the book is something I can see two ways. It’s an honest and immediate representation of thoughts and feelings which I appreciate in a person-centred, Carl Rogers-influenced sort of way. But it’s also frustrating on a personal level – I just want to know more of what she thinks about certain situations – and on an intellectual level. Works like this and Marie Calloway’s what purpose did i serve in your life are an implied subversion of “male” intellectualising but I think that does a real disservice to interesting and useful forms of thought and expression that really need not be equated with any gender – and perhaps they even self-sabotagingly increase that sense of genderedness . Regardless of gender debates, they are also arguably a disservice to the writer whose ideas receive less recognition because they are never expressly spelt out in the work. (Even, say, in one or two chapters that make them clear.) On some level, I have to admit that similar to Lydia Kiesling in her brilliant review of Tao Lin's Taipei in Ihe Millions, I just aesthetically don’t like this approach that much.
And the same goes for the prolonged explorations of narcissism in these works and Alt-Lit generally. There’s only so much “yeah, I’ve thought that too” one can do before it gets old (and of course not everybody has thought that). “Feminist narcissism” (a minor buzz-phrase around mostly American writers like this) is all very well in terms of having enough ego to put your work out there, but even to other somewhat narcissistic middle-class women (like me) narcissism as the main substance of the art itself is just a bit boring after a while. There are so many other interesting things in the world, and even in one egotistical person’s head and life, to think and care about than that particular set of ideas. David Foster Wallace’s ‘Good Old Neon’ was a story about narcissism but it took a wider context, albeit a negative one. So perhaps what Heti is saying - in contrast to DFW's conclusion - is that narcissism in a non-aggressive form especially, isn't exactly the worst thing in the world and isn't necessarily worth quite so much shame. (The shame that's the flipside to the egotism, and the shamefulness with which the narcissist may be regarded by others - shame which Heti tries to exorcise for herself by writing a "deliberately ugly" book including potentially embarrassing material. For her it looks like this therapeutic risk-taking turned out brilliantly, as she's been acclaimed for it.)She's saying it's not hopeless, you can improve bits and pieces and it's still okay to be yourself. "Benignly narcissistic white middle class artists are people too," perhaps. Even if billions don't care either way.
I’ve spent 1400 words mostly criticising this book, yet, even if Sheila’s social circle was a bit stifling, I quite liked her in the end and when I think back on the later part of the book in a non-specific sense, I feel it was an interesting experience and one I liked. How strange. (less)
TL;DR: Excellent material on black identities, nationality and racism which I've thought about lots since I first started reading the book. Liked the...moreTL;DR: Excellent material on black identities, nationality and racism which I've thought about lots since I first started reading the book. Liked the spiky protagonist. Shame that the good stuff is couched in 500 pages of bland middlebrow domestic fiction and romance plots that verge on cheesy.
I'm glad I hadn't finished my review of this (of the second half and the whole book) until now - since November I've read quite a bit more relevant stuff on the political side. The review of the first half, posted in August, is at the end.
Most of my criticisms are in the tl,dr - and obviously there were mitigating factors to get this to four stars. Given that Adichie (and implicitly the protagonist who some have described as a Mary-Sue) is my age, it made a deeper connection - she was at university when I was also, thousands of miles away, and the same world and cultural events happened in the background at the same times of life although our interests and emphases were different. (It also meant that some things were interesting because they weren't overfamiliar - at least one American GR reviewer says they didn't need to hear yet another account of the 2008 Obama campaign, which is understandable.)
I've recently read lots from a few American anti-racist blogs, which to someone used to the ideas of the British left sound very radical and somewhat alien. Their main ideological underpinning seems to be Critical Race Theory. That philosophy is new to British academia and public life, and as yet infrequently used: anti-racist discussion in the UK has for decades mostly been Marxist. At one point I saw the idea (which I'd not had to confront since reading bits of feminist structuralism etc for one university module, although I remained aware of it in the background) that putting aesthetic judgement of a work of literature first is usually a position of unexamined privilege. ["Privilege" is one of those jargon words I consciously try to avoid and hopefully this paragraph will be the only time I use it in this post. There are synonyms which don't shut out the idea.] I would say that if you want to concentrate on the political side, write or read non-fiction, and stop expecting art to be social science; if you must treat it as something else, call it a historical primary source. As far as I am concerned - which is presumably examined privilege and/or a preference for aestheticism etc - fiction needs to be interesting or good artistically to be worth considering as literature, but that doesn't preclude political content. For example, I think James Baldwin was a fantastic writer; Adichie's prose isn't a patch on his and she includes too much mundane detail. She falls into that mainstream literary fiction category that outside its fans, some people regard as highbrow and hard work, whilst others deride it as middlebrow and pedestrian. (Here I am leaning more towards the latter but a) am still attracted to knowing what people are talking about in that area and b) don't always feel like reading the most complex stuff.)
During most of the first half of the book I liked Ifemelu quite unreservedly because she seemed an individualist and contrarian, because her recent arrival to the US from Africa meant that day-to-day controversies were alien to her. However as she spent more time in the US she became more collectivist and involved. This was a response to what she saw there but, well, I suppose I was hoping to keep reading about someone who made an awareness of multiple perspectives paramount, and wasn't so uncritically involved.
Who, for instance, thought "I wish I could do what the fuck I liked with my hair without it being a political statement" and tried to untangle her what her underlying felt preferences would be if no-one else cared (which is easier on any issue if you've not been exposed to pressure and opinion all your life - which she hasn't), rather than embracing political aspects. [Whilst being a white woman, I have a semi-parallel in being from a family where there is no neurosis about body image. There are, at least, a few things we're not dysfunctional about, but as usual it's the stuff that makes me less, not more like, average women. Whilst my weight has varied a bit over the years due to health, discussion in the media is pretty alien to me and considerations like the cost of replacing clothes matter more. I think I look better as 12/14 even though it happened because I wasn't up to taking much exercise - to me it's similar and of no wider significance to me, and no more comment on anything or anyone else than if I'd got a haircut I liked (on my uncontroversial caucasian hair). Still, there isn't really a direct comparison and it's hard to explain being relaxed about something almost everybody else isn't.]
Possibly the most frustrating thing about Ifemelu was when she got angry about Afro wigs being available as fancy-dress items, yet wouldn't go to a demonstration about a racist wrongful arrest. (Again it's an idea of "real stuff" being more important than "representation issues" - there probably isn't a short way of describing this position but some would class it as "white liberals who don't quite get it".) As far as the wigs are concerned I think there may also be a US/UK difference: Americans will dress up as anything for Halloween whereas we traditionally have specific themed costumes. Also that type of wig here could easily be construed as general 70s big hair as worn by white DJs and so forth - I would never previously have assumed that a white person wearing one was pretending to be black. (It was odd how cross I got when reading some blog discussions of cultural appropriation. Virtually none of it had anything to do with stuff I liked - my tastes have always been so white they make Stuff White People Like look like Malcolm X; I always felt slightly (whitely) guilty that, although I'd tried, I didn't like most hip-hop or the novels of Salman Rushdie, preferring all sorts of more traditionally British and European stuff, especially books and films from and about cold places, and music styles like indie and electronica. At least it can be said I was rarely practising cultural appropriation. Apart from some yoga, anyway. Yet when I saw commentators positions as criticising certain friends or former lovers I was almost incandescent. In particular I remembered someone apologising in a rather uncharacteristic way that Young Americans was his favourite soul album. I had told him at the time that there was absolutely nothing wrong with that, and now I was furious that people would tell him there was anything wrong with him and his taste. There are standards about CA I've absorbed growing up: that popular music and culture produced in Western countries are ok, also products of powerful cultures like Japan - whereas using, say, Native American stuff, small fragile folk cultures or "world music" is very tacky unless the people are highly involved and well-paid etc. Also that it's silly to try and seal off hippy Eastern stuff that has now been around in western culture since many of my own generation's parents were young. In a separate case of one of those "it doesn't count" cultural appropriation comparisons, I've been disappointed in recent years to see European folk designs familiar from childhood become ubiquitous on chicklit covers and assorted other tat, but saw it as a case of how the market eats and spits out everything eventually... I may not be a marxist but there are things I see through the same lens.)
Aaand, back to the book. The demo Ifemelu failed to go on, because of a row with her partner - that seemed to me such a striking issue that, although I've never been much of a demonstrator, it's something I would go to in the context (assuming I were able to go on demos which I'm not now) regardless of awkwardness like that. A black security guard was talking to another black man outside after work - on the campus where Ifemelu and her partner worked - someone assumed they were dealing drugs and called the police and they were arrested. Stuff like that is unfortunately common, but when it's right outside your work and that workplace is somewhere generally liberal, making it somehow even more shocking that some people make those assumptions, plus you won't be the only one to stand up, I just can't understand not getting involved a bit.
One of the most interesting and informative bits was p.347, one of Ifemelu's blog posts "What academics mean by white privilege, or yes it sucks to be poor and white but try being poor and non-white". Most of the points are from the numbered list here whose author she acknowledges. I've always experienced some, though increasing, degrees of exclusion due to health problems and in recent years illness has got worse so that I could probably call it a disability (though I don't for various reasons). It's also different if you have multiple or unusual health problems and disabilities, rather than a single problem which is frequently catered for and/or recognised. I am so inured to things being more difficult for me or always hearing about people doing stuff I can no longer do that it's been a long time since I thought about the differences for able white people and able non-white people. (However, yes, I had thought about how many aspects of my experience might be even harder if I weren't white, or if I were male, or poor.) As a descendant of white immigrants, second/third gen, I have been assimilated in name (though I I feel a connection to people "here yet not from here", and think of myself as being like one of those paintings in which you can see there was another picture underneath - it's odd to remember that most people don't actually see it at all); there are things listed that would be harder with a foreign name. But this one made me think, somehow it's so basic when presented from that point of view: I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented. I thought of when I read only foreign material for a few days and often start to feel desperate for "home" as it were (much more marked with American than Euro stuff, and this is about outlooks and ideas not visuals); this is when that "home" isn't present where it probably should be. (And if you live in a major British city, the stuff on TV and in the papers rarely resembles the cast walking around in the street.)
People making book reviews about themselves isn't terribly unusual on Goodreads, and there's something meta in using a post about a book about a blogger to talk about stuff you've read on blogs - but after reading them blogs I couldn't help but be aware of this post as the trope "white people trying to make it [any discussions about race among BME people] all about them" (I decided to use the UK public sector jargon term BME rather than PoC - people of color - because of a) exasperating American cultural imperialism on the internet and b) arguments I've heard against 'PoC' and/or its widespread use, including from people who'd fall into the group... There simply isn't a term out there that is satisfactory to everyone.)
Speaking of which, I was so glad there was a section on Britain in this book. (Featuring Ifemelu's ex-boyfriend Obinze when he spent some time in London.) There's a certain slightly cartoonish stereotyping, but nothing you wouldn't expect from British comic novelists. (Occasionally it's off-beam - "Roy Snell" is an indubitably British, not American, name, but northern not Cockney if you're going for the tone she is here.) Adiche understands the different set of terms, "Black British", "Black African", "British Asian" etc - which are probably more familiar if you've worked in the public sector and seen thousands of those slightly Big Brotherish diversity monitoring forms. The way that Obinze's friends and relatives from African backgrounds assume all Black British people are Jamaican echoes The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, where the public at large thinks all recently-arrived West Indian people are Jamaican too. More separation and social rivalry between adult Black British and African characters is shown than between different black people in America (I have never heard anyone talk about this elsewhere) - but on the other hand Obinze is in the UK for a shorter time so can't get to know as many people as Ifemelu does in the US.
What I wrote after reading half of Americanah in August (I then abandoned the book until November): Bad reviews made me read this. The writers of the bad reviews didn't like the main character, for being arrogant and ranty, and didn't like the novel for containing too many of her blog posts so that it was a hybrid of essay collection and fiction. Ifemelu, the protagonist, sounded like someone I'd like and reminded me of sides of myself. And the second objection, well, that's just conservatism about form and I don't have much truck with that. I read the Amazon preview, loved it and the character so of course I had to read the whole thing. (She was arrogant, ranty and well-informed - half pissed off with the world, half laughing at it - yet trying judiciously to keep her stronger opinions to herself whilst, among other things, at the hairdressers. And not so stuck-up as to be beyond epiphanies of her own. The whole thing was clever and funny; the personality was familiar whilst the cultural specifics were outwith my experience, which I found an incredibly interesting combo.)
Earlier, I'd decided against the book because the blurb sounded like a romance, and of course not the tempestuous French sort without a happy ending that is just about the only kind I'd consider reading these days. Halfway through Americanah (got there two weeks ago; I keep deciding not to pick the book up again but don't consider it permanently abandoned) the story is 80% middlebrow family saga in the American style (though its primary focus is teenage/student Ifemelu and her relationships). And anyone who's read many of my recent reviews will know how sick I am of middlebrow American family sagas, and the way that books which don't at first look like the type turn out to be ... more middlebrow American family sagas. Okay, even if it is written just like books which do, quite a lot of this one doesn't take place in America, and it is a lot more interesting than it would be if it did. All of the interest comes from hearing about things that are different in Nigeria. The characters aren't bad. The writing style is, well, disappointingly but competently pedestrian (disappointingly given how highly the author is spoken of).
The "present day" chapters about Ifemelu in her thirties are so much more alive, with her personality and the observations about race in America that fuel her academic research and her blog. They fizz. I have reservations about saying I've learned things from fiction (one should remember it's fiction) but I did here. Or rather it was an opportunity to hear someone informed and somewhat sceptical, and who considers variation within a group important, talk about things I'd wondered about, a sort of "how might I think if I were...?" - not simply familiar orthodoxy. (Something I'm also searching for in this comment.)
The bad reviews wanted less Ifemelu and opinions; I wanted the background saga edited down by about 150 pages so it was mostly her and her posts. She could have that same life-story but simply allude to bits of it in what she writes and talks and thinks about. It was verging on dull, all spelt out as it was. (And Americanah really isn't like an essay collection dumped in a novel, to paraphrase some comment I read somewhere; the posts are, as far as I'm concerned, too few and far between and not long enough and I got no sense of boldness of form whatsoever.)
I want to go back to Americanah to read the great shorter novel that's hidden inside it, that novel about race in America (and Britain - her ex emigrates to the UK and his experiences are covered too; I'd only read the first few pages of that) but my heart always sinks at the prospect of ploughing through yet more family saga blah in order to get to the good stuff.
I'd tried reading Midnight's Children at least twice before: first time I was simply a bit bored, couldn't get into it; later I noticed the writing wa...moreI'd tried reading Midnight's Children at least twice before: first time I was simply a bit bored, couldn't get into it; later I noticed the writing was a variety of over-elaborate I really don't like. Why, then, try again? Never to have finished a Rushdie (I'd also abandoned The Satanic Verses and The Moor's Last Sigh in the 90s) seemed a terrible oversight given that I was reading a fair bit of British literary fiction, and there was residual guilt because he'd seemed so long to be the subcontinental writer and I felt I wasn't so much ignoring one author as wilfully neglecting a whole culture. Last year, Mohsin Hamid's very different style started me thinking that it was just Rushdie and his many imitators, not the place. Only a few people I follow on GR have read Midnight's Children but, more than for most books, I can remember several real-life conversations with friends and colleagues during which I'd been embarrassed not to have read it. This was a book I was reading not because I was intrinsically drawn to it, but in order to have read it, to be able to talk about it and understand conversations retrospectively - although as I'd read so much UK and US-set litfic in the last year, stories set entirely in other parts of the world were becoming increasingly interesting out of need for variety. (Incidentally, I was surprised and pleased at how many Indian words from Midnight's Children were in the electronic OED – understanding them definitely helped get a flavour of the book and the place.)
Rushdie's 2005 introduction to this edition was useful, especially his description of “the narrative tone of voice, comically assertive, unrelentingly garrulous and with, I hope, a growing pathos in its narrator's increasingly tragic overclaiming” - to which, I would add, a tad creepy, even before he's mentioned anything that could be construed that way. He narrates a story that's far from boring (always big stuff happening in history and individual life – not pages filled with detailed descriptions of routine household activities as in so much litfic) in the tone of a verbose bore, with a particular accent: in combination a voice that was kind of familiar but not very comfortable to hear. It took a bit of getting used to: 100-150 pages worth.
Whilst it's evident that Saleem is “overclaiming”, interpreting his story in very self-centred ways (like Portnoy, his self-absorption was encouraged from birth as he was repeatedly told what a special boy he was, destined for great things) he's not the classic unreliable narrator. I feel that the basic facts of what he says are true in the universe of the book – in contrast with Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five; I read Billy as a man who experiences hallucinations or delusions as a result of head injury and war trauma, but Saleem as someone living in a low-fantasy world where children born at the specific hour of Indian independence do indeed have X-Man like powers - and who is still a bit off-centre in his understanding of things, some of which may result from injury and trauma.
Dickens is mentioned in the introduction and Midnight's Children is Dickensian in its teemingness and family concentration and grotesquery; it often felt like reading a Victorian novel. Rushdie's intro also alludes to Jane Austen's “portraits of brilliant women caged by the social conventions of their time, women whose Indian counterparts I knew well” - though here there are only glimpses of their inner characters filtered through limited means for exercising influence. They are supporting cast to a male narrator who thinks it's all about him – not just in the way of a conventional man in a male dominated traditionalist society, but one who somewhat mistakenly thinks he's pivotal to his country's own history, like Zelig got a gigantic ego. (As an adult I find Austen a bit suffocating although I can see what she's trying to do, and there was the same sense of frustration here – more so because of the recency of the setting and because, prior to Indira Gandhi, I am not aware of particular Indian women who had more freedom and power than average, in the way I know of British and European examples from history and family history. Also, Rushdie's blanket anti-veil opinions come out in the novel: he doesn't believe that women should be able to choose for themselves whether to wear it – I have met independent-minded Muslim women who did and they weren't being coerced by anyone - and in Midnight's Children female characters are made to not wear it or wear it by men, the choice isn't theirs either way.)
Whilst there's too much going on for it to be entirely dull, Midnight's Children was at times routine and familiar, whether that's because of my familiarity with some of the works which influenced it, or those which it influenced. Whilst it's well-constructed, there were times when I was all too aware of that “This Is Literary Fiction” feeling and something about it felt safe and boring - literary fiction took off in the 80s, and Midnight's Children contributed to making it what it is.
The novel is almost universally feted now (especially in Britain) and even in 1981 there were many gushing reviews: “a continent finding its voice”. Was it the right book at the right time, not long after Said's Orientalism? The perfect bridge between two worlds – an epic novel by an Indian writer who was also part of the Establishment, educated at Rugby and, like his father before him, Cambridge. That useful introduction explains how Rushdie went travelling around India in the mid to late seventies after the publication of his first novel, staying in hostels: like an upper-middle-class Western traveller in his twenties yet not because he is, in part, of the place. There's a fascinating episode in the last third of the book aligned to that two-worlds outlook: Pakistani and Indian soldiers in Bangladesh re-enact aspects of colonialism on a country they consider full of backward, dark-skinned peasants: an allegory for British colonialism, and/or a way of showing that many peoples are prone to that behaviour under certain conditions. There are war crimes, and an experience in the jungle in which Heart of Darkness type threat fades into a mystical awakening of just the sort which manyWesterners seek in India.
It was only last year on Goodreads that I found out how similar some people say Midnight's Children is to Gunter Grass' The Tin Drum. Rushdie's novel had always (well, for c. 25 years) seemed about as established in Britain as books by living authors get, so it was a big surprise. I've never been especially interested in reading Gunter Grass – perhaps after about 500 other books I'm keener on - so decided to go ahead and get through MC anyway – even if I did think I should have read Tristram Shandy first, another obvious influence, whose verbose (though going by bits I've read, more likeable) narrator also takes a long time to get born. Rushdie is surely too important politically to be toppled from his pedestal in his lifetime for being derivative, so don't expect the media and academia to start pushing the view anytime soon that “this is an overrated reworking of The Tin Drum” - as can be found among some bloggers and online reviewers. As a public figure with Muslim origins who stood up against the fatwa on him, and who has repeatedly spoken out against “the culture of offence” when it seems to be gaining more power, he is significant at a time when identity politics have made factors like ethnic background at least as meaningful as what you're actually saying; if Rushdie's friend the late Christopher Hitchens made a similar argument, some would be able to dismiss it as the opinion of another white guy who doesn't really understand what he's talking about, but the same can't be said of Rushdie.
By pp.400-450 I was starting to wish Midnight's Children was 200 pages shorter than its actual 650. It was interesting but, like Saleem, it just went on and on and regardless of the narrative's eventfulness, took such a lot of words to say what happened. However, in Part 3, things picked up a bit with the appearance of Parvati – and the final two chapters /60 pages were storming: horrible, wrenching events with an emotional impact ten times the rest of the book (and political implications too) and a big finale which gave this great rambling beast something like a Bollywood makeover. After thinking 3.5 for at least half of the book, that last 10% left me with a sense of exhilaration that made 5-stars and prizes understandable under its influence. (less)