[4.5] A very interesting book. And not at all what I expected from Joseph O'Neill, whom I'd taken for American fiction's Mr Boring - on the strength o[4.5] A very interesting book. And not at all what I expected from Joseph O'Neill, whom I'd taken for American fiction's Mr Boring - on the strength of Zadie Smith's famous essay Two Paths for the Novel, even if the piece's essential idea did seem over-simplified. Some paragraphs in The Dog must count as Lyrical Realism, but almost none of this book is 'blah litfic', the gut response via which I usually label Lyrical Realism.
O'Neill isn't quite what he seems either: says an article, the longlist contains so many white men, white people generally... He's actually half Turkish and if his name were too, he would probably be classified differently by commentators. Like the narrator if he removes his unused unusual first name, he is "completely camouflaged by [his] name's commonness". The Dog is full of a sense of not entirely belonging anywhere whilst on the surface all strives to be correct, sometimes trying to adhere to the values of opposing forces simultaneously. A more subtle and powerful evocation of the immigrant, or half-immigrant, condition than a lot of first-generation family sagas.
It's predominantly written in a style associated with office work, rather than any floweriness of literature; although it doesn't use actual legal jargon it's from a mind - narrator and author - for which legalistic writing is routine. It's a meticulous examination of internal thought processes, contemporary middle-class ethics, and the inevitability of compromise and falling short. An up-to-the-minute existentialism. A critique of capitalism and the modern condition that, because it's more realistic and hardly ever violent, is way sharper than American Psycho. And a realistic updating of the disgruntled not-quite-middle-aged single male narrator for a point in time when men of my background and generation are less likely to say with marginal emarrassment that they sometimes identified with Portnoy, than to write about their project of reading more female writers (and honestly seem to mean it, although I still see a suppression of intrinsic human interest and enjoyment in favour of brow-beatenness, sheepish adherence to the viral internet and a state of being both more patronising towards and patronised by women than previously).
Reviews of O'Neill's Netherland point out the significant drawback for many readers of the main character being a highly-paid 1%-er. The narrator of The Dog isn't quite there, but he is working for them and would be a higher rate taxpayer in the UK. Following a horrendous breakup with a New York colleague, he takes a job in Dubai as a "family officer", a kind of financial manager, for a family of shady shipping multimillionaires, one of whom was once his university flatmate. He lives in a modern luxury complex which is a typical part of an entire city which has the temporary, air-cushioned vacuum feeling of chain hotels (only with an absurd level of amenities). The absurdly narcissistic ads for the building and others like it, followed by the hubris of the recession-frozen construction sites, and in the finished complexes more workaday residents than once envisaged - is the same trajectory as that of many recent warehouse and factory conversions in British cities.
His the kind of post and lifestyle which makes him easy to bracket with wanker-bankers - though his thoughts are more burdened with guilt and thoughts of ethics than most of his peers (a set of ethics which online is frequently termed 'social justice' by hundreds of thousands of people who've never been near volunteering in a soup kitchen or any other social justice work as the term used to mean before the internet mangled it into the war cry of Twitter mobs).
His guilt has only has a marginal effect on his actions at work. But whilst there is a difference of degrees in terms of the actual impact of a person's job, the same trains of thought, the same ethical cheese-paring and boundary-drawing, and having to follow policies you don't think are right, are universal. They also occur in charity and public sector jobs which sound like the most socially useful things you could earn money from. (Or not earn it - they apply in volunteering too.) You can never help everybody, and you can't even help that one person with everything. You always have to set the boundaries somewhere although to do so inevitably feels ruthless to both sides. (Some people try not to - a former colleague told me how when she was younger she'd got into debt because she was giving so much money to charity... and then ended paying more in interest than originally to the charities.) I sometimes wondered to what extent it was weak to want the day to day gratification of helping people directly and a job title that sounded nice, and if it might even be more useful, if only I'd been sufficiently healthy, to have a high-powered City job and donate most of one's salary, enough to fund several of my own charity post. I've been through variants of many of the thought-processes in The Dog, never seen them so closely rendered on paper, and I admire the way O'Neill has pinned these ideas so exactly (whilst making them sound 'real', with the occasional word-error and formidable bracket overuse). He applies similar precision to his description of how to do Sudoku, a procedure it was rather amazing to see verbalised.
The narrator is not a fan of the growing social media of 2007-11 (his years of employment) but he does spend a lot of time on the internet: forums, Google, Wikipedia, and porn (until he's so shocked by unexpectedly violent porn that he stops dead). Much of life is him on his own, or him and the computer. His social isolation in Dubai probably makes more pronounced his use of professional status and connection as a primary way of describing himself and others. It's quite a cold, cerebral narrative; whilst there's humour and methodical consideration of others' experiences, there isn't substantial fun or warmth here (which is why I've tentatively rounded my 4.5 down not up) - although I only tended to feel something missing when I surfaced from the book, because whilst reading I was buzzing with its resonance both personal and general.
'Dog' has multiple meanings: a dogsbody (he is one, and he in turn employs one of his own), wanting a dog for a pet but not being allowed, being dogged by guilt no matter where he goes, the state of guilt and shame "being in the doghouse" in his former relationship and generally - all subtly augmented by the unclean status of dogs in Arab culture. A sense that whatever you do, you can't help being to some extent bad. I felt the central question of the book to be: At what level does one stop trying and/or self-flagellating and become resigned to things?
(I became aware that I may be more forgiving to this narrator's professional situation than some readers would be because, being so tired, I empathise very readily with inertia and a sense of stuckness even when the subject might actually have the wherewithal to do something about it. But anyway, these days, at the other end of the economic scale from this chap, there are a lot of people doing jobs with a negative social impact, e.g. aggressive telesales, who really have no choice. So although his earnings are many times theirs, similar, yet really more urgent and difficult, dilemmas still occur.)
There is a huge amount to say about The Dog. I have a hunch that critics will be calling this an Important Book. Another thing I've not gone into yet is the religious theme which plays out in the denoument, more obvious when added to the narrator's probable Christian name. Although it's only 240 pages, this book has enough substance to launch a thousand essays. However I am not sure that average undergrads would get so much out of it: it speaks very much to and of the sense of loserishness that hits in the second half of one's thirties if adrift without an intact long-term partnership and / or offspring, or at the very least an actual divorce. And its intricate prison of work and consumerist dilemmas is most vivid with a good few years of different jobs and experiences under the belt, and having heard and thought these things over and over to the paradoxical point of boredom-yet-knowing-they-still-matter. ...more
U-turn: My original post from July, in which I said why I wouldn't read the book, is inside the spoiler tags at the end. I changed my mind after readiU-turn: My original post from July, in which I said why I wouldn't read the book, is inside the spoiler tags at the end. I changed my mind after reading a post on another site, which, with supporting quotes, said the book characterised protagonist Harriet Burden as exaggerating the problems faced by female artists in the 1990s.
The Blazing World turned out to be not yet another example of the overplaying of difficulties involved in being a reasonably well-off, healthy western woman that the internet is chock full of. It's the first prominent voice I've heard making the critique that I want to, and in a complex and nuanced fashion. Namely that some feminists exaggerate how bad things are in general, find fault with minutiae, emphasise the negatives and ignore the positives because their views are coloured by bad past experiences. (The online discussion environment definitely doesn't encourage any self-awareness and detachment on this.) In some cases, like Harriet Burden, they end up in dynamics which compulsively repeat the trauma*.
A good novel is a far more compassionate format for this than any blog post could be. It can fully acknowledge and understand a character's pain and background and reasons, whilst also presenting other views. And it contains several purposes and possibilities; it's evident from reviews that some readers get the most out of the book whilst entirely siding with Harriet's take on the world. (She is nevertheless a character I can imagine getting on well with, because she has so much to say.)
This was a very intense reading experience during which I took so many notes that it was like having a dialogue with the book and some of its characters. (I still have a lot of quotes and notes to write up.) So it could have been a five star book.
Problems with book structure and character voices However. The conceit that the book is a non-fiction work in its current state doesn't quite gel. There are books of first-person remniscence and other scraps about famous people who've died (I've read part of one about Peter Cooke) - but this isn't structured like those because it's so obviously using the pieces to tell the story of a novel, rather than having discrete divisions, e.g. chronological / friends from a particular milieu, just having each person do one piece etc. Taking the attempt at verisimilitude down a notch, and presenting it as a collection of sources the writer of the book about Burden has decided to use, may have worked better.
Hustvedt does a much better job of differentiating the voices than some other - otherwise good - novelists for whom that's their main weakness (e.g. Diego Marani). However some don't quite stand out. I really liked Phineas Q. Eldridge but couldn't quite buy him as a mixed race gay man heavily involved in queer performance art and politics. I don't think he necessarily needs to be angrier - there are gay men who are politicised but also don't mind a bit of faghaggish appropriation and are entirely kind about it. (Thankfully!) But he didn't use many from queer theory etc in his writing, and he didn't seem suffused with the identities that were vital to him according to the story. They only appeared occasionally, as if the author remembered from time to time who she was writing. Most of the female characters were strongly delineated. Apart from Harriet's lover Bruno, and the aforementioned Phineas, the men on Burden's side were bland wisps when they spoke, hangers for words rather than whole personalities - who they were having been more obvious from others' descriptions of them. (A few other male voices were obviously designed to be the baddies - showing the reality of art world sexism, even if Burden did make it out to be worse than it was - and they were convincing representations of a familiar sort of older, ranty male writer who can be rude about women.)
Hustvedt’s reputation and readership Siri Hustvedt is married to Paul Auster. My general impression prior to joining Goodreads was that Hustvedt was a light writer in the ‘commercial women’s fiction’ vein whom I’d never read because I assumed I wouldn’t like her books; Auster was a serious-ish but readable postmodernist who was quite popular when I was at university (I was impressed by The New York Trilogy) but whom I rarely heard talked about subsequently, even in the media. On Goodreads, what I’ve heard about Auster time and again is that people thought he was great when they were younger but they now find him mediocre. I was in no hurry to re-read him as it was, and those comments obviously haven’t changed my view.
I read Hustvedt’s The Summer Without Men in early 2012 as it looked likely to provide something I like in a book to switch off with: an easy read word for word but a lot of academic and cultural references better researched than those in popular fiction. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth and accuracy of the references - properly highbrow chicklit (not simply the two vague references to someone’s degree reading you get in actual chicklit). [Phrases in my review of the book now make me cringe, but it has to stand.] I was more interested in Hustvedt after that, but the number of reviews criticising The Summer Without Men for being pretentious and difficult, when set against the lack of similar jibes for her earlier novels convinced me that the book was a one off and I wouldn’t be very interested in her others. Despite the disparity in Hustvedt’s and Auster’s readership – she has and he has ratings on Goodreads - I see more people reading and liking Hustvedt than Auster – there are a couple of fans of hers in my friends and following.
I still don’t entirely understand the nature of Hustvedt’s readership and positioning, after non-media responses to the Booker longlist and a scan of reviews of The Blazing World. There are certainly fans of the book, but she seems to be caught between those who assume her a mainstream bestseller, and reader-reviewers who find the novel too intellectual / pretentious: neither fish nor fowl. (Has she changed during her writing career?) The ‘highbrow’ readers on Goodreads who often like books that are dismissed as pretentious appear either to ignore Hustvedt or perhaps in glancing at her work, find it shallow – all reference and no substance - compared with their usual fare. It may be that she’s one of those authors – often female – who attracts, or has been marketed to, not quite the right readership, one that finds her a bit too clever or just plain doesn’t get her. Although unlike, say, Joanna Kavenna, she has still got a reasonable number of fans along the way. (I wouldn’t have looked at Kavenna’s novels if it hadn’t been for Granta Best Young British Novelists, and the Booker will get Hustvedt some new fans too.)
Siri Hustvedt has studied psychology and neuroscience, and The Blazing World clearly shows a biographical interpretation of an artist’s work, so there is no shame in speculating on her novel’s personal roots. Heavy Harriet / Harry Burden felt metaphorically overshadowed and squashed by her husband Felix Lord until his death. (The names, the names!) Metaphorically because she was 6’2 and he 5’10. It doesn’t take much effort to draw a parallel: whilst Hustvedt has had far more public success than Burden did as an artist, she is – probably unjustly on the evidence of what I’ve read – less well-thought of than Auster.
TBC – this will be a very long post. I may exceed the space available for the first time.
*I’ve used this phrase a few times in earlier posts, but in the spirit of The Blazing World I will finally gloss that it is in all cases a reference to the paper ‘The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma’ by Bessel van der Kolk - considered something of a landmark in the contemporary psychology of trauma - and to related material.
(view spoiler)[ Nope, as I thought. (Not that I intended to read the whole Booker longlist this year anyway. David Nicholls FFS, and newly published and expensive?) After reading the preview there's no way I'm going to be able to read the whole of The Blazing World with any patience. If it had been set a minimum of a decade earlier, though, I might have bought the premise. But ask me to think of contemporary artists feted in the 90s and what are the first namesI come up with off the top of my head: Tracey Emin, Rachel Whiteread, Damien Hirst, Louise Bourgeois, Sarah Lucas, Chris Ofili. Four out of six are women. I'm simply never going to be in sympathy with a book that expects me, without presenting a fucking solid argument (instead merely a story) to believe something entirely contrary to what I noticed myself as an avid consumer of arts media at the time - its thesis being that female artists were still overlooked in the 1990s. But had it been set in or before the 1970s, and especially in the 50s or earlier, I would have read with great interest.
The faux-scholarly manner in which it's set out is engrossing - judging by recent reading (see also The Last of the Vostyachs and others) I find studies invented for fictional purposes as exciting as real ones in real journals - but I know I will be continually annoyed with the premise of the book. And I'm not interested, currently, in making myself read nearly 400 pages of something that I don't expect to enjoy quite a bit. There are more than enough things on the internet that make me cross in the same way.
I didn't expect to get on with The Blazing World, but my reaction feels the same as that I have every time I try to start The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter, a book I'd always expected to like. It begins from a premise entirely contrary to my perceptions and evidence I could easily locate via links - and I am expected to believe it as still true now or within my own teenage and adult lifetime, rather than as applying here in this culture predominantly on a historical basis before I was able to read about it, or, far more emphatically, before I was born.
It probably isn't actually a reference - would Siri Hustvedt necessarily even have read Peter Ackroyd's Chatterton? But the naming of the character Harriet struck me as a reversal or mirror image of the plagiarist with the same name in Ackroyd's novel. (hide spoiler)]["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"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This turned out more interesting, and more offbeat, than I expected - but although it deals with some pretty big topics (including identity theft andThis turned out more interesting, and more offbeat, than I expected - but although it deals with some pretty big topics (including identity theft and religion) it still felt rather inconsequential and throwaway.
I found it very easy and fast to read, as effortless as standing on a travelator, in the same way that kids' books tend to be when you're older. There's a lot of detail, but for want of a better word (also possibly chucking stones around in a greenhouse) a lot of it is just wittering. It should be funny - and to plenty of readers Ferris evidently is. I can see plenty of joke-shaped things on the page. But I hardly ever laughed; probably because a) I went off Woody Allen movies several years ago and b) my sense of humour is incorrigibly British these days. (A couple of weeks ago, a friend mentioned the game Cards Against Humanity; never having heard of it before I looked at its website, and thought I...just...don't...get...this. Which surprised me as I usually like said friend's sense of humour. Later, I found the UK version: it all made sense - though there were too many toilet jokes, a perennial problem with British humour.)
There's a freewheeling kind of plot: narrator Paul O'Rourke, a professionally successful but neurotic Park Avenue dentist, (probably late-30s like the author), obsessive Red Sox fan, atheist and internet refusenik, finds a website and a number of social media accounts set up in his name. His employees, who include an ex-girlfriend he still holds a torch for, and a battleaxe hygienist who annoys him but whom he keeps on because she's so good at her job, keep goading him to look at the sites rather than being supportive in diverting his attention away from them, and they feed his paranoia by saying how much some of the posts sound like him. He enters into email correspondence with the mysterious man who has set them up, doesn't stop when lawyers advise him to do so, and becomes embroiled in a conspiracy-stroke-quest in the manner of The Crying of Lot 49.
NB This paragraph is slightly spoilery in that it reveals things that aren't clear in the first 100 pages or so. Some of the web accounts set up in O'Rourke's name are spouting pseudo-Biblical text about the Amalekites, enemies of the Israelites (the name Amalek is in the Jewish tradition a personification of anti-Semitism) - with the original story altered. O'Rourke is drawn in by a group of people calling themselves the Ulm, who say they are descended from the Amalekites, but it isn't actually as sinister as it sounds: their tradition is doubt. "Our moral foundation is built on the fundamental law that God (if there is a God which there is not) would not wish to be worshipped in the perverted and misconceived ways of human beings, with their righteous violence and prejudices and hypocrisies. Doubt, or cease being moral... What the Christians and the Jews and the Muslims have tried to achieve through violence will come about naturally through our own abdication..." And - very first-world twenty-first century - they say there's a genetic ancestry test that's "eighty percent [accurate] if you came north out of the Sinai into the Rhine Valley prior to the Ashkenazi migration." It - plus the characterisation of a couple of atheist philo-Semites - is a peculiar conflation of the (1960s-onwards) coolness of Jewish culture, and contemporary atheists' (wish for a) sense of community via the internet, real-life discussion groups and mooted atheist "churches". And one that makes somewhat more sense in an American context where atheism is seen more frequently as radical and even dangerous, rather than just routine as in UK public life.
Religion is effectively understood as the ultimate attachment in the Bowlby sense - an epiphany which hit me one Christmas several years ago, though in a more detached way than O'Rourke, who wants to believe: “I would have liked to believe in God. Now there was something that could have been everything better than anything else. [Better than baseball, or his ex-girlfriends]. By believing in God, I could succumb to ease and comfort and reassurance. Fearlessness was an option!” Later, the idea of religion as an attachment to other human beings, members of the religious group in one's own time, the past and future, also appears.
The plot also seems to refer to common topics in aggressive US anti-racist blog discussions. Firstly, cultural appropriation: O'Rourke, a typical white American from a mongrel background, doesn't have a distinct cultural identity, feels rootless and boring, and via his girlfriends tries to work his way into other stronger identities: Italian Catholicism, and Judaism. (His need to belong is not really about race, but his father's suicide when Paul was a kid - however individual psychological traumas belonging to a person from the nationally dominant group tend to be disregarded in those discussions.) He also finds himself being [told he is] a bit racist when he didn't knowingly intend to be so, (a mixture of social faux-pas, unconscious assumptions coming to the surface, and atheist arguments which could be read as racist). And he is blamed by association when someone else - in this case an impostor using his name - is making statements with racist / anti-Semitic overtones. (There is an implicit question here: to what extent is it possible to be vociferously atheist without being / sounding somewhat racist? There isn't one definitive answer.) O'Rourke is much like the quibbling white blog commenter who is basically told they can't win and to go away and deal with their concerns elsewhere; in the book, he finds a culture of his own so he is no longer "appropriating". I wasn't 100% sure whether it is real-in-the-book (probably), or if, even in Ferris's fictional world, it is as Da Vinci Code as it sounds. The ambiguity isn't as strong as in, say Slaughterhouse Five, however.
The wider conclusions about religion and atheism in To Rise Again at a Decent Hour are not so evident in the way they were in Jenn Ashworth's The Friday Gospels, the only other contemporary novel I know dealing with them in a similar semi-comic fashion. They probably aren't meant to be: the story becomes more of a personal journey for O'Rourke; it ends with an upbeat, almost motivational-poster tone - the sort of thing cynical Brits love to call "so American" - and it's not clear how justified that mood really is. Although there is something to be said for the increased awareness of felt sense to balance rigid scientism. A couple of interviews with Ferris indicate he's simply throwing around ideas rather than making a statement. People have often assumed he's Jewish although he isn't actually (he's called Joshua and he looks like Joel Fleischmann from Northern Exposure). I've known a few people who might be described as philo-Semites, (it is a small phenomenon over here too) but they are much more civilised about it than O'Rourke, simply gravitating towards books, films, recipes etc, though I do recall with a smile two occasions where it elicited a slight disappointment to explain I couldn't be quite sure whether I have Jewish ancestry (east europeans who were keen to cover their ancestral tracks and various hints that make conversion a possible reason).
What this novel undoubtedly does well, where many others fail, is to give a great sense of the protagonist's working life. Too often realist novels fail in their realism because jobs happen mostly off the page, taking up far less of a person's life than they do for most in the real world. O'Rourke spends most of his time at work and the amount of his time off - spent slobbing in front of baseball games or meeting people linked to the Ulms - is proportionate to a full time job. And when he talks about his work in detail, he does sound just like the kind of healthcare professional who takes their job really seriously. I don't think I've ever seen that done better in fiction and he's way more convincing as a dentist than the protagonist of Stig Saetterbakken's Through the Night. However, when O'Rourke is talking about other areas of life, I'm less convinced. It doesn't quite seem to fit; there's a quality I can't quite describe which people seem to get after more than a couple of years in a job where they're responsible for the public like that - part of it is a continual awareness of consequences, even if you personally choose to ignore them. O'Rourke, when he's not talking about his work, doesn't have that, and just sounds like a thirtysomething comfortably middle class writer from Brooklyn.
There are also some good observations here on the passing of time and ageing, love and obsession, and the loss of control that the internet can bring. Though having in the past year or so read a lot more novels than I had done since my teens, I've found that most stories contain a few observations I connect with or which are pertinent, so these don't seem so very special. A favourite here: I usually cringe at repetitive joke re-naming of things, but found O'Rourke's perpetual use of the term "me-machine" for any tablet, mobile or laptop, just perfect. It encapsulates all the "urgh", stuck in one's head whilst in others, feelings I hate about the internet. (One of his cringier pet terms is "thunderbox" for the loo - which I'd only heard from Sloaney types who'd now be 40+; never knew it was a US word also.)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a curious book that's more than the upper-middle-class lad lit it sounds like on first blurb - but I'm still not entirely sure what it's for, and I somehow, subjectively, have the feeling that it doesn't matter, although some of the topics it addresses do. However, if you like American humour and aren't likely to be offended, it might be quite funny....more
Many posts refer to a "twist", knowing which would make it pointless reading the book. But if I'd known it from the start, I'd have been ten times morMany posts refer to a "twist", knowing which would make it pointless reading the book. But if I'd known it from the start, I'd have been ten times more interested - it's a much better premise than a blah family saga by the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, which is what I'd been ploughing through until 27% into the book. ((view spoiler)[Up to the age of 6, the narrator's parents raised her and her older brother with a chimpanzee living in the household as their sister, the chimp being identical in age to her, and then the chimp was suddenly taken away. (hide spoiler)])
I wouldn't have read WAACBO if it weren't for the Booker Prize, but I'm more surprised that it was on the shortlist for the Nebula Prize. [As said in an earlier status update] I may not have read much space opera as an adult, but I have read enough of other types of SFF for it to be my biggest read category on GR - since amalgamating the comic and serious subtypes - and I do not consider basically-realistic popular fiction about an entirely plausible life science experiment, similar to real ones, to be any kind of SFF. There isn't even any magic realism in here FFS. Not all fiction about science is science fiction. Surely.
Another fairly common criticism of this book is that it's manipulative - a term I've usually only seen in cultural discussions when they're about schmaltzy films of the Pay It Forward ilk. I didn't think WAACBO in the least bit manipulative: it's a question of where you stand already. People who've had close bonds with animals, and vegetarians and vegans, are unlikely to feel manipulated here. One character's extreme actions make complete sense in the context of his personal experiences, and the narrator does mention that the issues concerned aren't easy, and that she often tries not to think about them on a larger scale.
The book's greatest strength is its understanding of psychology, especially attachment, loss and implicit / physical memory. The paragraphs in which Rosemary, the narrator, talks about these aspects of her experience are brilliant. Although she is very chatty and instinctive, and never as methodical and detached in her discussion as I'd have expected given that her father was an academic psychologist. (This was most likely a deliberate choice connected to the "twist", but I think it leans unrealistically too far one way and doesn't give enough weight to what she would have picked up from him - she could have been both ways.) She is not really an "unreliable narrator" of the usual sort: simply a person telling you things when she feels ready to, although in the early part of the book there is a certain predictable artificiality to it - the sort of thing that means I'd almost always rather read a memoir by a real "difficult" character than a novel narrated by a made-up one.
The self-aware / psychology episodes were oases: otherwise this isn't a cultured book and the lack of references and intellectual playfulness bored me. It opened promisingly with a spine-tingling run down of the events of 1996, but thereafter the characters were in a local vacuum. The narrator is near my own age and it was weird and dreary to hear about her university years devoid of any music, fashion, films, non-course books, news. The only song mentioned was the MOR, catchily okay but waiting for something better to come on the radio, 'One of Us' by Joan Osborne. Although Rosemary's experiences made her interesting, I couldn't click with her outside of the discussion of psychology. Mid-western, middlebrow, often I couldn't wait to get out of there. The writing is quality popular fiction with the occasional slightly incongruous, "big word" stuck in for good measure.
It's a book that's becoming more interesting to remember than it was to read: the bits that stick in the mind were very worthwhile, and the padding is easily forgettable. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I had pretty low expectations by the time I started reading this. It was the first book I was drawn to on Goodreads which I hadn't heard of elsewhere.I had pretty low expectations by the time I started reading this. It was the first book I was drawn to on Goodreads which I hadn't heard of elsewhere. (Still a rare thing – I mostly use the site to record reading of books I knew about before it began, or those recommended by people I got to know elsewhere). Later I saw a few bad reviews of a sort I generally have sympathy with: reads like a creative writing exercise, yet more generic American litfic. Etc.
I was still interested in this “Is it a novel? Is it a collection of short stories?” episodic ficion about a middle-aged music mogul, his thirtysomething female PA and people connected to them, spanning time from the 1970s to the quite realistically mildly-dystopian late 2020s. Even though one negative review stuck with me for saying it wasn't that much about music at all. Hmmm....well, it's more about it than I expected after reading that. In the middle third the stories concentrate more on the slightly- or formerly- famous in general, not specifically the music industry, but throughout, youth - gilded, rebellious, romanticised - loss, compromise and ageing are understood in the modes of rock and pop in the second half of the twentieth century. Part of the idiom of music which feels like home to me in the way those of other mediums don't quite. And if I'd recommend this book to anyone, it would be people who also feel the resonance of those ideas around music and age. (Acting and sport have something of that idealised attachment to youth, but not quite in the same way...) I've been watching a lot of music documentaries on BBC4 lately and it's the same feeling in this book as from the interviewees there.
The title and theme seem to be a conflation of Bowie lyrics. A sickly, washed up guitarist at one point says "time is a goon" as if it were a stock phrase, which others in conversation with him briefly question. It's a recipe for the underlying theme of the book, blending the ideas in Bowie's 'Time' with "we are the goon squad and we're coming to town".
A Visit From the Goon Squad certainly has its litfic-blah moments – the first two stories/chapters are the least surprising in their perspective and contents; throughout some ideas and writing are more successful than others. A device which used to send shivers down my spine, the use of brief summaries of what would happen to minor characters in the future, started to become dulled by overuse, though at least a few mysteries were left. Sometimes the American-ness of everything bored me; if a book about similar people had been British or European I would have loved it more and possibly given it five stars.
Multiple, interconnected viewpoints are a big trend in fiction at the moment; I was reminded of The Spinning Heart though here the characters are distributed much further in time and geography; and like The Spinning Heart the book sometimes genuinely surprised me with who the next narrative was by or about, going left-field without losing the thread, weaving something cumulatively very interesting. Given that Goon Squad used first, second and third persons, plus a Powerpoint structure, at various points I quite understand the cynic who compares this to a writing course exercise, but I enjoyed the variety, there are too many other redeeming features, and I was too interested in the characters and their world to be so dismissive myself. It's also funnier than the average book of New York-set litfic, which helped it a lot. Chapter nine was especially witty, a send-up of the DFW-inspired trend for voluminously footnoted, excessively introspective journalism (and in the light of some comments, which I read three weeks after finishing Goon Squad, about Wallace's predatory past, the piece looks even cleverer). I also think the Powerpoint structure worked very well for some things - p.244 was my favourite in the whole book, about the idea of what someone's trying to say v. what they're actually saying, which traditional narrative paragraphs are never great at doing.) Goon Squad is experimental-lite, but that's fine really; most people don't want to read a neo-Finnegan's Wake on the train home from work, nor do they want to have to dumb down to Dan Brown as the next alternative.
Even if I didn't like most of the characters to the extent of I-wish-I-was-their-best-friend as happens with a few books, I usually shared their concerns, and where I didn't, they were interesting because it was harder work to understand them. I don't often get exasperated with characters the way many posters do – it's not like I have to talk to these fictional people all the time and it's interesting trying to understand almost anyone when there's no irritation from unending proximity. But here Sasha almost managed to annoy me into empathy-failure with her kleptomania. (After a while I tried to understand it in the same way as alcoholism, as she's a fairly aware person who doesn't actually aim to cause other people frantic confusion over needed items suddenly going missing.) Egan didn't lay it on with a trowel about characters' backgrounds as a cause of their troubles (thinking particularly of Sasha and Rob) … past and family were definitely alluded to but these characters were more like real and complicated people you meet, and who don't explain absolutely everything to you, than like examples in psychology textbooks - and I started to warm to Sasha as a person rather than because a detailed justification had been set out for her.
Goon Squad has a similarly lightish touch on contemporary concerns about the internet (sometimes, I think, with tongue surreptitiously in cheek): reconnection, the alleged demise of long-form writing, the ubiquity of the web, whose opinion to trust, the anxieties of exerting influence. The environmental stuff isn't overdone either, and if you presume the vague mentions of wars include the Iraq farrago the whole thing simply sounds weary, rather than something which everyone would take to be hell-in-a-handcart.
The finale had a little too much of the big triumphant Hollywood ending; a couple of days ago I'd finished Midnight's Children, another award-winner which had the same bombast at the end. Here again, whilst enjoying it, I was also conscious of manipulation, something to leave the reader or critic or judging panel on a very high note, having found a book with some merit which also turns out to be feelgood. However, what with the rock music theme ... a final flourish is a good way to end a gig. ...more
The political history was interesting - 1960s student radicals in India - but most of The Lowland, which takes place in subsequent decades, is just anThe 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....more
TL;DR: Excellent material on black identities, nationality and racism which I've thought about lots since I first started reading the book. Liked theTL;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.
At the moment I'm not very interested in reading contemporary fiction – I had enough of it over the summer with the Granta Best Young British NovelistAt the moment I'm not very interested in reading contemporary fiction – I had enough of it over the summer with the Granta Best Young British Novelists and then the Booker longlist. The Flamethrowers though, which was longlisted for the US National Book Awards and is now a finalist, I owned already, and decided to read before the finalists' announcement was made earlier this week. I'd bought it back in June because a) I was annoyed by the review in Salon and wanted to rant about it legitimately, i.e. after reading the book, and b) it sounded like the author might be on my wavelength about some things. (Now I CBA to say anything more about the Salon review except that the writer had, for some reason convenient to her bigging up of this book and/or other agenda, forgotten the existence of all the eminent women novelists of the past 200 years who've produced serious and well-respected works. To the second point I'd say after reading, very much yes on some things and very much no on others.)
Set in the mid to late 1970s in the USA and Italy, The Flamethrowers is the journey of a midwestern recent art graduate, Reno, through the worlds of motorcycle speed trials, the New York art scene, Italian motor magnates, and anarchist revolutionaries in both New York and Rome.
Some have commented that Reno is a bit lacking in personality. I can't totally disagree. Yet her relative blankness is also spot-on about what I remember of being a fresher or a twentysomething newly arrived in a city, soaking up influences, watching and listening and going along with, trying to work your way into a crowd who are your idea of cool people. Unformed, eventually to become interesting because of these experiences. (James Wood's review in The New Yorker says that her blankness and the unpleasant characters stem from The Flamethrowers being a reworking of Flaubert's Education Sentimentale. I suspect I'd have enjoyed this book more and understood more of its purpose if I'd already read the Flaubert.)
By far the most exhilarating sections – as you'd hope, really - are those when Reno is travelling on her bike, descriptions of speed and journeys that will make you long for the open road if you're that way inclined. (The paragraphs about skiing are great too and reminded me how much I used to love that as a kid.)
When she's on her bike, the other thing is that there isn't space for the rest of the characters. Most of them aren't even interesting, let alone likeable. And I like stories about temperamental artists. I found so little sense of fun or enjoyment in this book: none of that dizzying “Wow! I'm here! Look at all this!” which is surely a central part of striking it lucky in her circumstances, even if it's not all perfect. It's full of characters who should seem flamboyant yet flawed and somewhat amusing (one or two of them do, e.g. Burdmoore the semi-retired anarchist) but most, even to one reader well-disposed to their type, simply come across as arrogant bores who are advancing their own interests. We hear very little about the creative processes of the artists, a distinct weakness in a multiple viewpoint novel of 400 pages. (A little more on the politicos, but not enough.) I remember how in any interesting scene there were always a few arsey people you had to tolerate as part of it beside the nice and interesting and funny ones, usually some crap to put up with alongside the sense of wonder - here it's gits all the way.
Many of the press articles about The Flamethrowers have focused on gender (generally those by women; male reviewers I've read just get on with talking about the novel - usually saying it's good - thereby seeming to disprove the rants). So it's something I was always likely to observe closely in the book itself.
I may have been projecting a little, but I'm sure it's there in some scenes: Reno has a sense of self which is beyond gender, or has more than one gender (being pinned down for a while into young- femaleness by some situations and circumstances). A sense which was stronger when she was younger, before I became more readably 'girl'. She seems to experience, though perhaps not as an ongoing frustration, the question about men to whom she's attracted, “Would I rather be you or fuck you?” Not that the choice is really available.
So there's a welcome hint of queerness in the background but also a very thickly spread layer of all-men-are-bastards cis hetero monogamous feminism. (There is more underlying expectation of monogamy than seems to fit with 1970s artists.) Fair enough, undoubtedly plenty of male artists of the 70s were sexist so it's right to include that. But as well as their bad manners, there are gratuitous anecdotes wedged in which could be interpreted differently – kinks (YKINOK here) or personality types - but in their context are obviously meant to demonstrate misogyny. Also pushing of the 'male gaze' idea. (I may have already bored you at some point, because it's far from the first time I've posted this online, about how it's merely the objectifying gaze, that objectifying is a part of most sexual attraction regardless of gender and orientation, and that the designation and damning of the 'male gaze' is sex-negative and also excluding of the viewpoints of women who like to look that way at men or women or both.) These strands of feminism are of course, very seventies – my objection is that 2010s narrative choices are pushing them instead of characters in their own time. It was a surprise to be reading this, given the descriptions I'd read of Kushner as someone who disregarded ideas of what women should and shouldn't do and who seemed to object to being bracketed as a female novelist by some feminist commentators.
And as if I could forget, the style of writing is very much twenty-first century MFA litfic. A very good example of it, inescapably now. Coming to this straight after books from the 50s and 60s, set in their own time, the atmosphere of the era was stylistically almost absent in The Flamethrowers. And seeing as I'm not overfond of that MFA style in the first place, it made everything feel a bit dead and distant. Good research, not overused, made up for it to a degree (some wonderful film references; observational details like Reno describing something as the colour of ditto ink; or the sight of a person's smallpox vaccination scar. One possible clanger: toxins from a lifetime of rich food and wine … wasn't that an idea that gained popularity in the 90s?) With a few excellent exceptions, I'd rather get the feeling of a fairly recent time from a book written back then than from one just published....more
Philip Hensher encapsulated it in his Spectator review of the Granta Best Young British Novelists, of whom Selasi is one.
bog-standard products of thePhilip 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"]>...more
[3.5 The .5 is important. I don't like all of this, but I would go back to some of it.]
When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. / Even when it's I w[3.5 The .5 is important. I don't like all of this, but I would go back to some of it.]
When anyone escapes, my heart / leaps up. / Even when it's I who am escaped from / I am half on the side of the leaver.
Yes. I have always thought similar. But these words aren't quite my idea of poetic, not of award-worthy poetic, of a work so highly praised I keep hearing about it though I shut out most news. But this must be what is great poetry, today. I felt about the whole book much as I felt about those lines: empathy, and frustration at their almost-ness.
I am very fussy about poetry, but when I love it I love it unreservedly. And I have most particular notions of what I am looking for. "Serious" emotional poetry such as this needs to be impressionistic, to be moments of thought and feeling distilled, unmoored from context and explanation.
But these poems contain too much of those three latter to be poetry to me. Also too much of factual detail that rings with the aspic-frozen feel of trauma recounted - but that stuff only sounds right as prose. Many of the pieces frustrated me in being laid on the page as poetry when they are really prose poems. The over-use of enjambment (as also mentioned here) was absurd and kept dragging me out what should have been immersion. It made the overlong sentences and moments of prosaicness even more obvious. When it sounds, as that reviewer says, like extracts from a therapy session: "seeking how to accept him as he was" "not to have lost him when the kids were young" "I wonder if my husband left me because I was not quiet enough..."
"I had not known how connected I felt, through him, to a world..." This idea needs to be transmitted in fewer words. "Then my mind goes back to the summer rental" - Urgh, no, just start writing about it without explaining. That's what poetry's for. You can always put a footnote in if you feel it's really necessary. Why keep saying "my then husband" clunk clunk? Why not simply say "he"? We know already who it's about.
Poetry is for me about dispensing with the need to constantly explain, foreground, justify, demonstrate insight and self-awareness to the world and instead simply feel. Where she says "seemed to belong to him" I would want to say "belonged to him": the primal unreasoning unboundaried heart of it, consciously, temporarily, dumping neocortical analysis and detachment.
(Perhaps you can tell from such pernicketing that I have been discovering what it is to write my own daft poetry? You're supposed to do that at 15 not 35, but twenty years ago I needed to not feel most things and was very well-practised.)
But let that rant not distract from the fact that there are many lyrical and metaphorical and unclunky lines in these verses too. No one poem was my idea of perfect, but nearly all contained some perfect lines, varying in number.
For whatever reason, not always the above, these are the poems I liked the best: Silence, with Two Texts Object Loss Love The Healers Left-Wife Goose - Possibly the best thing here: very welcome silliness made of bits of traditional nursery-rhymic verse. The collection was devoid of humour until here. Something that Keeps Approaching Godthåb (She doesn't say why she's going to Godthåb, and leaves us to infer or look up where it is if we don't know. Hooray.) Discandied And most of the poems in the last section, 'Years later': and so they would be, because distance in time means more impression and memory, and unmooring from reportage fact.
It would only be fair to quote some lines I like as I did those which I didn't. But must, for now, leave that until later.
I saw these poems described as being "about the struggle to move on from" when they're not really, they're simply about occasions of being and feeling within the weeks, months and years after someone. Sharon Olds takes her own time. It brought back a quotation from the previous book I read, At Last by Edward St. Aubyn: "The people who tell us to 'get over it' and 'get on with it' are the least able to have the direct experience that they berate navel-gazers for avoiding." And for all the prosaic lines I complain of, Stag's Leap embodies that....more
I got into Marie Calloway last year, because of Momus. (If I were 15 years younger it probably would have been the other way round.) The flat style ofI got into Marie Calloway last year, because of Momus. (If I were 15 years younger it probably would have been the other way round.) The flat style of the Muumuu House / alt-lit school of internet-focused writers isn't one I especially like. So when I say "got into", I mean I became somewhat fascinated by her, not in the most enjoyable of ways, because she reminded me of aspects of my younger self and because the debate surrounding her, and her responses to it raise some interesting questions.
1) A review as if this were fiction [3.5]
(This binary concept of fiction/ non-fiction is old-fashioned and artificial and is a load of rubbish when related to several books I've enjoyed this year, including Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose sequence, The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman by Bruce Robinson, and Alfred de Musset's Confession of a Child of the Century. Yet by re-naming the characters and being open about the fictionalising of some events, those works are definitely classified as fiction. Calloway appears to be very public about certain aspects of her life, but less so about her writing methods, with only a little commentary here. I feel that considering Calloway's book as fiction is a way to get past the idea of reviewing her as a person which the current top review on here acknowledges much of the public discourse around her has done and which has, on the evidence of this book - in particular one email from a friend combined with the "Criticism" chapter - hurt her a lot.)
It seems, to me, pretty innovative - though there are great swathes of new writing I'm unaware of or haven't read, including publications by the rest of the Muumuu House crowd. It's far from the first time a writer has included emails or screencap pictures but the extent here really does transmit a life lived online, and especially via sites favoured by younger people: a kind of organised chaos of innumerable contacts and moments of upset. The world created by a traumatised young digital-native woman who keeps most people at a distance and lets a few become, rapidly, very close. Who experiments with little comment or consideration with formats of sexual relations now frequently mentioned in the media: the graduate who becomes a call-girl to pay off her debts; the female submissive. It's about how the internet can accelerate and widen access to such avenues. Not that a few people didn't always get into them quite young, but it was perfectly possible once upon a time for troubled middle-class kids like her only to know factually that such things existed - they seemed dark and distant - and only age and experience would lead one to run into people who'd been part of them.
The internet has also, more than ever, made it possible for younger people to connect with older works and ideas and she juxtaposes the mostly unpleasant experiences she has with men alongside quotations from feminists who wrote long before she was born ... the two combine to confirm the sadly negative view of men which her earlier experiences began. Hers is a heteronormative, gender-binary world in which men have power and women are angry victims, which does seem at odds with the very 21st century youth universe otherwise on display here: where are all the friends who do queer studies and the Tumblr gender-benders and bi-switches? I find it odd that the narrator never delves into this side of life. But it's not really a story about women and men anywhere near so much as a story about trauma and attachment styles. I am reminded also of my younger self so caught up in post-traumatic ways of feeling and relating that I didn't really consider the alternative views which didn't strike a chord with me. (Unlike the narrator I didn't tend to feel particularly socially or intellecually identified as "female": it only really felt relevant when I was with straight men I was attracted to. And I've never been at all negative about men as a class; I like them and have a very positive view of most of the friendships I have/had with them. Though I did have very fixed ideas about what they wanted in sexual and romantic relationships (a couple of which the narrator has too) - formed from media as I simply didn't know any real ones to form any other ideas from until I was a student. The only useful generalisation about men I've learned in the intervening decade and more-than-a-half is that men, like women, and people who reject those gender labels, are all different. It rarely helps to approach people with templates and assumptions; get to know them individually.)
Quite a few of my recent reviews have contained personal material, but in this one, it's a more considered choice than in any of the others. In response to Calloway's own mode of writing and to a review here from the books designer suggesting I think the most interesting way to read what purpose did i serve in your life is to "implicate" yourself in the reading, not Marie Calloway. What does it make you think about yourself?
The dull flatness of the style unites with occasional mentions of past trauma to gave the feeling - or non-feeling - of numbness (including most indicatively when the narrator says that past events made her physically unable to feel some things, and she says she dissociates ... this must have been severe, way worse than anything I've ever experienced). The numbness - and the occasional moments of overwhelm - gives a very authentic sadness to the story: a life lived between random male conquests (conquests by whom she feels conquered and laid waste) who provide attention, rudderless, un-anchored by any secure attachment to anyone. Trying to find a secure base in abstract intellectual ideas, but those sorts of ideas don't really do that. She always seems to feel discarded; she mentions no experience of having to dump someone else, which would have made her feel more equal and perhaps give her insight into the experiences of those leaving her. (The uncomprehending resentment and self-commodification of the title seems related to this, as well as to the idea of book and Calloway as public product.) The saddest thing is that she hardly ever seems to be having any fun despite all this sex; there's so little real sensuality and practically no laughing, only fear.
Towards the end she makes a connection which really gives an arc to the story: "I was really scared of being assigned that label [a girl with daddy issues] so I shied away from discussing or even allowing myself to think about those things. But I realize this is ... kind of at the core of my whole project"
This book wasn't fun to read, even if it was compulsive. As mentioned above, I am interested in reading tales of such lives in literary mode. The narrator of what purpose is a brilliant portrait of someone still within her time of trauma aftershocks rather than looking back on it. But I prefer reading the story as looked back on, with synthesis, psychological integration, wise reflection, elaboration, humour and most of all a strong writing style. (The author's blog shows a quotation from Zadie Smith on the subject of narrative voice - but Smith's style is still so much more stylish and alive.)
I could also see a fiction-writing Calloway as a critique of this particular corner of the literary world: one which likes to think of itself as more modern and forward looking but in which the easiest way for a female writer to get noticed appears to be through sex, nudity and exploitability. The mainstream literary establishment, by contrast, looks much more egalitarian and to judge on its own ideas of intellectual merit; somehow I don't think Hilary Mantel won the Booker that way.
2) Notes relating to this as non-fiction / memoir / elaborated memoir
When I was at school, if I felt lazy about creative writing homework, I would sometimes write a story featuring myself and people I knew; the plot was more or less invented, the characters were not. The teachers thought this was rather brilliant, but it just meant that a) I knew from reading the papers a lot that this was something modern writers did and b) I knew didn't really know how to invent characters well. (Something I actually only understood recently after reading A.L. Kennedy's On Writing.) I don't honestly know if all writers are being lazy and glib when they create such work. But because of those experiences of mine, I tend to think so in the back of my mind unless they bring brilliant style, structure or humour to it. what purpose sort of has an unusual experimental style, but it's also one that any person could cobble together in a few hours using some long blog posts and a bunch of chopped up screencaps and quotes in different font sizes. Or does it feel like a cliche because its motifs are so familiar, rather than because they're commonplace in books? It's a response to modern web culture, a 21st century version of the epistolary, but the fragmented bits and pieces of an online life make real synthesis into narrative a greater aesthetic challenge than when stories always took much more coherent forms. I'm just old fashioned though.
Also, I think it's unethical to print bits of other people's emails and chat conversations and other private interactions in substantial detail, but this, a norm I feel is accepted among all my various friends, itself appears to be an old-fashioned boundary to the alt-lit crowd and to plenty of younger web users. I don't like it. [Have now read that she got permission from friends. Did she from all sources? Can't tell... possibly, actually when considering the lesson she learnt after the "Adrien Brody" scandal. But there's something uncomfortable about the sight of it still, as people weren't necessarily writing them in the knowledge they'd be published. But that might be too rigid and judgemental a view.]
I can't deny that, like thousands of other readers, there's stuff I wish I could say to Calloway. Her "Criticism" chapter of quotes and screencaps includes one of the subset I'd belong to: "detailed advice from older women who've sort of been there and got over it a bit". I'd want to give her a reading list of a bunch of the most compassionate and intelligent books on trauma and attachment and responses to it I've encountered, by authors such as Daniel Siegel, Babette Rothschild and Bessel van der Kolk, Francine Shapiro, Carl Rogers and many more. Stuff about ditching this black and white heteronormative gender binary that really doesn't have to be part of the life of a middle-class creative person in the West (lucky as we are), that shows how equally women are actually regarded in such a context, rather than these delvings into a radical feminism that seems to bear no relation to life here. That having a period of deliberately not relating to anyone on a sexual level can make all the other human connections seem valuable in the way they didn't used to. Stuff about being more in control of kink, learning to feel what she truly enjoys and doesn't, and that she can have agentic choice and care for her safety, regardless of whether past experiences are among the reasons she's drawn to it (though I wonder if she may go on to reject all kink, not just the extreme stuff in the penultimate chapter, for a while, or permanently). Then there's really good writing that shows how art and creativity can be employed as a response to such experiences and which shows how much more it can say than the reductive labelling she clearly fears from pop-psychology, how it can be an eloquent conquest of such ideas. (I could list a number of motivations behind this, some of which will already be apparent in what I've written; the other being my frustration that due to physical ill-health I had to discontinue formal study of psychology & counselling - and any work where I could have used what I'd learned and read before I started trying to actually get qualifications related to it - and wishing I could give the knowledge to others who participate more in the world, especially those who remind me in any way of myself...)
But for all that one can look at Calloway's book and blog and see her in various states of undress and hear intimate details of her sex life, there's so much we possibly don't see. IS her life so centred around these random men? What about all the friendships and connections and conversations we don't see? Who can tell, except her, what they are like?
By the looks of things, Calloway wants to be a public intellectual. She creates such personal work but it's prefaced by a Kate Millet quote (thereby implying "the personal is political") and she takes part in debates on how writing is seen. But I honestly think that debate misses the point a bit. There are many well-respected women writers out there producing serious books which win prizes. They are not at all rare in the same way as female film directors. Male "confessional" style writing makes a stir and gets described as narcissistic: look at Augusten Burroughs or Karl Ove Knausgaard. This isn't a male/female issue. There is stil a partial separation of the personal or sensational and the intellectual in the literary world. I think Calloway's really missing out and excluding herself by not being more overtly intellectual in her writing in this book. But hey, that's her call.
Much of Calloway's criticism of her critics appears to focus, ultimately, around the idea of agency and validity. The language of "cannot be controlled" is hip young rebel stuff but it's also a protest against the feeling of powerlessness that stems from trauma (like the more overt "you pathologize my emotions to invalidate my reality" on her Tumblr) and dismissing her and labelling her as she says, feeds into that powerlessness and traumatic memory. A liberal / libertarian / person-centred response of acknowledging her right to agency even if she is doing things she might be embarrassed about in future (or exploring ideas we disagree with such as radical separatist feminism) is what's right and required. Reflections near the end of the book and on her blog show someone in process in the Rogerian sense, connecting past and present and wondering how to change things. It makes me curious about what she'll say and who she'll be a decade or two.
(For a minute I was surprised to read this interview from 2011 in which she stated she'd already done a lot of therapy. But then these things go in layers and stages, much like a plane gradually circling in from an infinite height...there nearly always is more to do.)
Full marks for making me think, for being a hype phenomenon, but this is y'know, a book, and the writing style itself isn't phenomenal.
[Further comments in the "reading progress" section.]...more