Mathilda Savitch wants to be awful. Like so many adolescent girls, she lies to her parents; steals cigarettes; coerces her friends into illicit activiMathilda Savitch wants to be awful. Like so many adolescent girls, she lies to her parents; steals cigarettes; coerces her friends into illicit activity; riffles through her sibling’s belongings; and ponders that great teenaged imponderable: sex. What casts her desire to be bad in more uncertain light, however, is the calamity that has produced it: the violent death, a year prior to the novel’s opening, of her older sister, Helene. Emotionally stranded by her parents—torpor-consumed in the wake of Helene’s death—Mathilda’s urgent need to be rescued from her “island of grief” fuels her misdeeds. About the island she wonders, “how large it is and how long it will take me to explore it [and:] how long I’ve been here without even knowing it.” Mathilda Savitch, playwright Victor Lodato’s debut novel, is the log of that exploration, narrated by its namesake in an attempt to navigate and then chart the territory of loss. Since September 11th, the novel-of-loss-as-experienced-by-precocious-child-narrator has come into particular vogue, from Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which deals explicitly with the World Trade Center attacks) to Marissa Peshl’s blockbuster Special Topics in Calamity Physics. These novels offer the possibility that the unsullied, slightly skewed vision of an innocent will recalibrate the vision of the adult reader—rendering incomprehensibly painful events less painful and more bittersweet via the transformative power of the child’s love and (loss of) innocence. These novels owe almost everything, of course, to Catcher in the Rye, from its originating plot mechanism—it is the death of his little brother, Allie, that is Holden’s undoing—to its supremely voice-driven narrative. And Mathilda Savitch fits neatly into the tradition. Lodato has a particular gift for voice. As a dramatist (he’s received both a Guggenheim fellowship and NEA funding for his theater work, among other accolades and awards) this should be his métier—dialogue is the sine qua non of theater. And from moment one, Mathilda’s hungry voice, its rhythm and its logic, is the vital, animating force powering the book. “I want to be awful. I want to do awful things and why not?” she announces, and the reader can’t help but follow along. Whether or not a given reader will find much of thirteen-year-old Mathilda’s insights plausible seems a matter of taste; Lodato indulges with little restraint in observations and ruminations on Mathilda’s behalf—“I wondered why God would open a door only to show you emptiness”—that some may find overly precious, which others will undoubtedly delight in. (Kids do say the darndest things.) While Mathilda’s ruminations on such diverse subjects as the nature of infinity, why people become terrorists, and the shape and texture of adult desire may grow tiresome, the real difficulty for the novel is not what Mathilda gives voice to but how controlling that voice is, and how little control Lodato has over it. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal about Mathilda, Lodato said that “for a long time I felt more like a secretary than a writer, I just let her babble and I wrote everything down that I heard.” Taking dictation from a character is one way for a writer way to enter a story, and one can see how that would be an especially useful method for a playwright. But Lodato, in writing a novel, is bereft of some of the theater’s other gifts: direction and staging; his infatuation with Mathilda’s voice has allowed it to subsume the other essential fictive elements that constitute a whole work. The novel makes explicit that its events occur in a post-September 11th world, perhaps a very near future. “In our history book, there’s a picture of the burning towers. I was only a kid when it happened, but they don’t let you forget stuff like that,” Mathilda tells us. But beyond that, the novel’s setting is willfully nebulous and vague, both chronologically and geographically. Instead of universalizing the story, or lending it a timelessness that allows it to escape an expiration date, this vagueness flattens the novel, removes it a from a universe in which we might invest ourselves, without providing a compelling substitute. Lodato has lavished so much attention on Mathilda’s voice that he has forgotten the reader’s need to partake in some sensory experience of the novel—something the set would accomplish in a theater production. In Mathilda Savitch there is little to see, to taste, to hear. This troubling flatness is pervasive in the action as well. The events at hand suffer from a quality of lazy melodrama: Helene meets her death under the wheels of a train; whether she’s been pushed or has killed herself is the novel’s central mystery, the solution to which is embarrassingly prosaic, especially given the overt quirkiness the book relishes in its narrator. The flabbiness of the action and the paucity of texture in the novel make the inclusion of a terrorism motif seem especially cheap. Conveniently for the story, a generalized terrorist attack takes place on the first anniversary of Helene’s death. The novel’s gesture toward a parallel between the two incidents of violence, its half-hearted attempt to comment on the intersection of the historical and the personal (or the political and the personal) is not only easy, but half-baked. If grief and loss are an island, as Mathilda suggests, then it’s not a desert island, uncharted and undiscovered. If anything, it’s more like an Australia—an enormous continent of an island, its perimeter fairly mapped and populated, but its stark interior less easily inhabited or articulated, so expansive that new and updated information is always welcome. Mathilda Savitch, deprived of too many of the working parts that such an undertaking requires, can provide only a rough accounting of the journey. ...more
Hi all, have any of you read any of Cavafy's poetry? I'm not sure where to start; I know that his published body of work consists of 154 poems, but thHi all, have any of you read any of Cavafy's poetry? I'm not sure where to start; I know that his published body of work consists of 154 poems, but there are SO MANY EDITIONS. Does anyone have a take on which translation might be best? Is there a difference as to how the works are organized from edition to edition? I need guidance, majorly. Thanks....more
Wait (hand up)--I know, I know. Revisionism distorts history; is dangerous ethically, morally, and politicallWhat's so wrong with being a revisionist?
Wait (hand up)--I know, I know. Revisionism distorts history; is dangerous ethically, morally, and politically; weakens the structure of the testimonial; subjects fact to well... subjectivity; allows for hateful liars to spread self-replicating viruses of misinformation, seeding them in our culture, spores polluting the transmission of that which we must not forget. Serious business.
But... on the small scale? Aren't we all revisionists? At least when it comes to constructing narratives for ourselves about our lives? Put another way: doesn't memory make revisionists of us all?
There is the fact that I was born in Los Angeles. There is the fact that I'm Jewish. But these facts are animated by my relationship to them, my interpretation of what they might mean. I didn't grow up in the same Los Angeles as my neighbor, nor do I conceive of my cultural inheritance the same way as say, the other 30 kids in the Valley Beth Shalom confirmation class of 1994, did or do.
But, here's the thing: I don't think about these same things the same way I did ten years ago or will ten years from now. If I write about them, I write by artifice and construction, by organization, and by interpretation, and I write and I write and I write, then I revise, until I feel some representational semblance has been reached, until there seems to be some congruency between experience and telling, as I see it. Then I abandon ship.
Because there's no end to the story.
Memory will continue its revisions.
Memory will continue to animate the subject, such that the memory of a thing is part of the relationship to that thing, so that the thing and the memory of the thing, say a love affair, are just one thing.
So that say, a novel about a love affair is part of the story of that love affair, so that the end of the story of the love affair becomes a matter of the arbitrary end of the novel, which is part of the story, which is a reconstruction of memory, which is a construction itself, anyway.
And I guess I really loved Lydia Davis's The End of the Story.
I've heard the book called "chilly" or "clinical" or even exasperating, but I think these judgments stem from a misreading of the book's project, or a desire for the book to be invested in something other than it is. The book seems to be about a love affair, but it isn't. The book is about writing, and about the operations of memory, about permutations.
Davis willfully refuses to engage in the emotional voyeurism that grounds so many other novels that take love as their subject. The tone of the novel is one of reportage: she excises the recreation of emotion in favor of an accounting or an inventory of emotions, so that she has an index from which to chart her revisions of her experience. Her obsession manifests itself in these revisions; it is the obsession of a writer.
Okay, yes, the book is cool to the touch; it's disingenuous of me to imply that I found the "judgments" I referred to above to be somehow wrong or innacurate--the prevailing sense one has while reading it is of breezes moving through half-lit California coastal winters, of vistas cut short by hills and canyons, of lots of time spent alone in a poorly-lit room--but I suppose what I feel is that they're incorrect as judgments that indicate some sort of failure on the book's part.
Because it is exactly the book's singular detachment that allows for it to be so naked. Davis's reporting of her narrator's evasions, revisions, and retrenchments are so precise, so scalpular, so bang-on, that I couldn't help but recognize them. Too often, the book cut close to home, much to my discomfort as a reader. The almost complete lack of heightened emotion laid bare all the fiction in fiction-making, and memory, and writing.
I get why the book isn't to everyone's taste, but I would so take down anyone who tries to dismiss it for all those currently acceptable/fashionable reasons to dismiss a piece of literature--it's "post-modern" or "pretentious" or too "meta" (gag) or too "self-aware" (reasons that, by the way, are almost always more about a reader's insecurity than about a book, and that are anti-intellectual, conservative, and lazy, to boot). Last time I checked, it wasn't criminal for a book to ask a reader to, you know, do a little work.
The End of the Storyis a book that asks a lot of its reader--but the work it asks us to do is worthy; it asks us to re-see, see again, see anew how and why we tell stories, how we remember; it crosses the boundaries of passive entertainment/"meaningful" literature about "important" themes to occupy a stranger, less mappable terrain; it stakes out an altogether weirder territory, one where a book or novel is always already unfinished, always already revised....more
Many reviews here have commented on Ishiguro's unreliable narrators (let's let that classification stand, whether or not it is entirely valid or reallMany reviews here have commented on Ishiguro's unreliable narrators (let's let that classification stand, whether or not it is entirely valid or really applies to all of his work), as if this aspect of his fiction is so obvious, or that it has been so exhaustively mined, that there is little to nothing left to say about such a narrative strategy.
Christopher Banks, When We Were Orphans' narrator, is certainly unreliable, yes. But our relationship to him as an unreliable narrator is a strange one, an inverted one. I think that it's fairly clear to the reader early on that Banks's memories and perceptions do not align with those of the people with whom he surrounds himself and/or encounters. His school chums and his one-time guardian recount for him their memories of his child self as a lonely, melancholy boy, which contravene his insistent accounting of himself as a sociable, friendly, put-on-a-brave-face type of lad. His insistence, which seems to verge on a quiet, private hysteria, his disproportionate insult, and the confluence of multiple others' POV point us to the fact that the schism between how he sees himself and how the world sees/saw him is not just a matter of opinion. The novel shows us, time and again, that Christopher is unwilling, unable, to reconcile not only his memory but his ongoing lived experience (see the scene at the wedding where he is apparently subjugated to teasing and humiliation, but insists that said teasers are his friends, etc., and note that we never get to see the actual scene) to the lived experience and memory of others. (We also never get to see him work, to uncover anything, to solve anything.)
Here's where I'm sort of getting to my (excruciatingly long-winded) point...
When We Were Orphans tells us, its readers, that it is a mystery novel. The book offers us one story, the disappearance of Christopher's parents, claiming that this story is its central mystery and suggesting, by form and structure, that this will be the riddle we puzzle out as we read, alongside Christopher. Thus, we enter into a sort of contract with the book in which we agree to be careful, astute readers, who by dint of our diligence and hard work will be treated to the satisfaction of resolution.
All along, however, there is a secondary mystery that is actually the primary mystery, and that mystery is twofold: one, when will Christopher realize how deeply, irreparably damaged his perception of the world is, and two, WE THINK when we will learn the truth that his distorted vision has necessarily been hiding from us, despite our best efforts to see through it? Usually, in a novel that relies on an unreliable narrator (ignore the inherent contradiction), part of the reader's pleasure is untangling the skeins of the narrator's logic in order to arrive at some approximation of truth.
But Orphans rejects that second possibility completely. (I am in no way suggesting that this novel's project is one of relativism, in which we're meant to see that there is no objective truth, or if there is, we cannot access it.) All along the mystery/mysteries is/are just a diversion, a smokescreen, a trick (that I admire deeply and totally respect) that leads us in a circle back to what we see, finally, is an absent center. There is no mystery in the book. The truth isn't the point. There is only the fact of Christopher's mutilating orphaning, his abandonment. His grievous misapprehension of his parents' abduction/leave-taking, the emotional/psychological violence of it,and his child's need to make sense and order of the insensible strand him in mental time; he is marooned in a make-believe world in which detectives are great heroes and even celebrities, a la Sherlock Holmes--a world that history tells us did not exist as such, especially in twentieth century Britain.
When Sarah offers Christopher the chance to reject his false understanding of the world, to "see clearly," and to reject a vision of himself (one that is manufactured by an innocent egotism/narcissism that has sustained him all along) in which he is the savior not only of his parents, but also of an entire city and perhaps nation, he is, finally, unable to do so. To give that up would be to negate himself, to reject his very identity. He would be twice-orphaned.
There's a lot going on here vis a vis the orphaning, of course--colonialism and imperialism, the patronizing"helping" of the east by the west, sexual politics and power, issues of class, et al. But as I read I felt more compelled by what's "missing" in this novel than what's there.
I'll confess to being somewhat befuddled by and disappointed in the final revelation concerning Christopher's mother, and unsure about the necessity of Jennifer. My only thought about Jennifer's utility (and despite its coldness, that word seems apt) is that perhaps she's meant to enact the cycle of violence that "orphaning" perpetuates... she is orphaned twice over, and the novel's end suggests how devastating this has been for her.
When I finished the book I found myself returning to its title, over and then over again. First person narratives usually require, despite old Bobby D.'s admonition, a looking back. They are necessarily retrospective. My mind lingers on the titular "When." Despite how sad the book is, despite its ambiguous ending, the title left me feeling hopeful for Christopher in that it seems to suggest that the time of his orphaning, of Jennifer's, and even of Sarah's (sigh), is past, is gone and that, no longer orphans, having chosen to look forward, to abandon their isolation and to rely on each other, on other people they might, oh they just might... be happy. ...more
A: I want to see if it's as bad-TERRIBLE, AWFUL, WASTE OF TIME-as I've heard (I don't know... sometimes bad reviI'm curious to read this book because:
A: I want to see if it's as bad-TERRIBLE, AWFUL, WASTE OF TIME-as I've heard (I don't know... sometimes bad reviews really produce a perverse, powerful desire in me to read the damned thing being excoriated).
B: I loved Motherless Brooklyn, thought Fortress of Solitude was a big, bold, failure, and think his sci-fi stuff is meh.
C: It takes place in Los Angeles... but is it about Los Angeles?...more
I would have imagined that a seasoned novelist of big books steeped in historical context might have avoided the beginner's error of forgoing actual nI would have imagined that a seasoned novelist of big books steeped in historical context might have avoided the beginner's error of forgoing actual narrative for HUNDREDS OF PAGES OF EXPOSITION, but I would have been wrong.
Apparently, Mr. Simmons could not forgo even one of the trifling matters of Dickensiana he picked up in the course of his research, and furthermore, he clearly couldn't be bothered to find ways to include these details dramatically.
This is a big, baggy mess of a thing, slack and sloppy just where it needs to be taut and running on tension. The book suggests to me that Simmons thought that using a novelist (Wilkie Collins) for a narrator afforded him (Simmons) the luxury of writing about Dickens's work in the style of a literary critic--wrong!--and at that, one working in the 20th century--double wrong! The passage on identity and doubling made me cringe it was so anachronistic in its language and use of theoretical concepts.
There are too many poor choices in this book to account for all of them. I really don't understand how the same writer can produce exquisite sci-fi like Hyperion, pretty good historical fiction/horror like The Terror, self-important trash like Carrion Comfort, and then utterly mediocre, structurally unsound work like this. My best guess is that somehow this is an issue of productivity; Simmons pushes out a lot of material, and I suppose much of it is bound to be not-so-great as a result....more