The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah (tr. by Geoffrey Strachan)

February 7, 2012

There is a grand tradition in which old men look back on their lives recounting the moments that made them who they are. It frequently occurs in novels too. From The Fall to Waiting for the Barbarians to The Underpainter, great literature has used this device to provide both distance and immediacy, both wide perspective and intensely personal focus. The character often is not the old man who tells the story. He is but a boy or a young man or even a middle-aged man who does not know, to our narrator’s dismay, what our narrator knows. And, though we know the boy or young man makes it to old age, we still cringe at the dangers he faces because we do not know what his condition will be on the final page.

The Last Brother uses this well-trod device to suck us into a story that yanks more heart strings than most people have. In addition to the (sort of) child narrator, Appanah deploys, in no particular order: natural disasters, clashes of religion, domestic violence, disease epidemics, abject poverty, racism, and, that powerful trump, the Holocaust. The old narrator sees with his young eyes more of life’s worst between the ages of eight and ten than most people see in a lifetime. One almost wonders if the book is some sort of reply to Dostoevski’s The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps a bolstering of Ivan’s anti-theist argument from evil.

This French novel is set on the island of Mauritius, from which Nathacha Appanah originally hails. (Nobel Prize-winner Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio also has “strong family connections” to the island of just over one million people.) Appanah’s novel found its inspiration in real-life events on Mauritius in the closing years of World War II. Her characters are fictional, but all of the large scale events in the novel are historical.

The novel opens in the present-day with a line reminiscent of Camus’ The Stranger: “I saw David again yesterday.” We immediately know that David is significant and, shortly, we know that something has kept Raj, the narrator, and David apart since David was ten years old. Appanah does a magnificent job of withholding enough of the mystery of who David is and why the narrator has not seen him for decades that I will not spoil it, though it is all told within the first six pages.

Most of the story takes place when Raj is nine years old. He lives with his parents and two brothers (Anil and Vinod) on the Mapou sugar cane plantation. The time and place is nicely evoked, as is Raj’s relationship with his brothers. Their father works in the cane fields and they live in a makeshift shelter, not even a shack, that, like every other sleeping place in the laborer’s camp, provides only the barest protections from the elements. The camp is a rock-studded mud hole that turns to an omnipresent dust between harsh rains. Life is hard and the children have to work nearly as soon as they can walk. Anil, Raj, and Vinod (in order of age) have the relatively plum job of carrying water from the nearby river. On these walks, Anil carries a stick, something Appanah uses to nice effect:

Anil always walked with a stick bent near the top into a U, sometimes resting his hand in the crook of it. It was a branch from a camphor tree which had been strongly scented for a while but had then simply become a little boy’s stick. He would twitch the grasses in front of him to drive away the snakes, which terrified us, Vinod and me. Anil adored this stick. It was, after all, the only thing that was really his own, that he did not have to share with anyone at all. It was a source neither of danger nor envy and no one could claim it from him.

We learn both how destitute the family is, how Anil shepherds his younger siblings through the dangers of camp and family life, and how, implicitly, Raj has not even a stick to call his own. There are other little nuggets, including that this stick, unlike the one his father uses to beat them and their mother, is “a source neither of danger nor envy”. Appanah and her translator (Geoffrey Strachan) handle this heavy novel as they do this particular scene, that is with aplomb.

The themes of brotherly love and familial bonds are predominant in this book, as well as the inherently tragic nature of life itself. This is not a light and happy read. Prepare for an emotional wringer. And, yet, the feelings Appanah elicits do not feel falsely won. There was a real story and there is real art in Appanah’s rendering. Neither life nor the novel treat Raj lightly. Given David’s absence from Raj’s life for something like sixty years, we know this period weighs heavily on Raj. Whatever else life has given him or done to him, he is forever marked by that brief, tumultuous time in his youth. Raj’s childhood choices are haunting spectres most fearsome for their persistent presence.

This is a TOB 2012 contender and, given some of the mixed reviews for Murakami’s homage to Orwell’s 1984 (i.e. 1Q84), The Last Brother may have an outside chance at an upset. On the shout-out front, Appanah nods not only to The Stranger with her opening line, but to other great French works too, like Alain Robbe-Grillet’s superb The Erasers. I don’t think a judge would have to be at all embarrassed to pick Appanah’s work over Murakami if the former spoke to them more directly than the latter.

Scouting the judge, however, suggests that 1Q84 and its science-related speculations will perform as expected against Appanah’s much less experimental, much more emotion-driven work. Misha Angrist is a Ph.D. bearing scientist whose bio has this quote:

I suspect that most of our children will have genome scans as a routine part of their health care, to say nothing of their social lives. I want to understand what that world might look like.

The novel of ideas will, I think, prevail.

I am happy to have read the book, happy to have been exposed to new facts about the horrifying plight of Jews fleeing Europe during World War II, and pleased to have made an acquaintance with this author. The book, however, will not appeal to everyone and likely will not go deep into the Tournament. In fact, while I liked it better than The Sisters Brothers, this also is not precisely in my “wheelhouse”. But The Last Brother is exactly the type of book (a serious and readable small press offering) that ought to make it into the lower seeds of the Tournament of Books. Kudos to the deciders on this one.


Siste Viator by Sarah Manguso

September 13, 2011

As readers of this blog know, I have been a longtime fan of the Tournament of Books. Though I would love for it to have a more literary bent, the Tournament uniquely creates a dialogue between book lovers who are prize/awards judges and the broader book-loving community. The Tournament is not a prize/award/competition on the Moses model, no tablet descends from on high with a title etched on it. Rather, the judges issue opinions explaining why they chose one book over another.

I, an attorney, like this decisional aspect because it emulates the common law tradition brought to the judicial system of the United States from England. In the common law system, (appellate) judges are expected to publicly defend their legal opinions in written opinions. In this way, the Tournament is perhaps the most open and democratic of the literary prizes/awards/competitions.

That openness, that juridical quality, also brings accountability to judges. We, the constituency, know who to blame for a particularly poor decision and who to praise for a particularly good call. The commendation or condemnation can come not only in quickly-stifled yells of glee or dismay that, being stifled not quickly enough, bring concerned family or co-workers running, but also via posts on the ToB’s message board or one’s blog. However, the best form of praise is good, old-fashioned money. That’s right, do like they do in Louisiana, pay the judge when s/he rules in your favor. Well, it isn’t exactly the same thing unless your book is actually being evaluated, but purchasing a particular judge’s book seems like a good way to reward a noteworthy ToB decision. I like to try good ideas, so I did try this one.

Sarah Manguso was my favorite ToB judge of 2011. Hers was, happily, only one among many finely reasoned and written literary opinions. I probably should have bought a shelf-full of books. I chose hers. I even chose poetry despite prose options. I guess Nicholson Baker will do that to a fellow.

So, poetry.

Did I mention that Baker participated in the ToB in 2010 and that Manguso’s 2011 ToB opinion was outstanding. It was awesome. She was great.

That’s Cloud Cube by Heidi Neilson on the cover.

Okay, I have a confession. I do not read much poetry. Baker really is responsible for my choosing a book of Manguso’s poetry, Siste Viator, rather than her prose. I am going to have to buy another of his books now, because that was an awesome thing he did. Manguso rocks. I have to buy another of her books too. This could get out of hand.

My delay and avoidance in getting to the merits of the book is due primarily to the fact that I am acutely aware of my limitations with respect to coherent commentary on verse, rhyming or otherwise. I know only how this poetry made me feel.

I smiled wrly at “Everything” and its line: “I am the statue that thinks it’s running.” The joke is on me too. I was inspired by “Asking for More” and have determined that, for me too, “The horse I ride into Hell [will be] my best horse.” I won’t share anything about “Kitty in the Snow”, but….damn! The thing about this poetry is that it pulsates. You reach out to feel that bit of life and it slaps you in the face. This is not poetry with which you cuddle, but you will, on occasion, clasp it to your breast in a fierce embrace. I loved it.

Baker helped me be less afraid of….uh, I mean better appreciate poetry, but I still don’t entirely understand the alchemy by which a mere splash of words can shatter the window between reality and you, that window you didn’t even know was there. Whatever the process, Manguso has produced gold.

The poems are in free verse, typically, and not rhyme. This, it seemed to me, rendered Baker’s metering discussion useless for this collection. But I am not even sure of that. I really am lost when it comes to poetry. However, even I can hear the lyricism in these poems and the vigorous thrashing for and at life. Manguso exposes the frustrated artist and, equally, the frustrated human.

Frustrated is not exactly the right word. It implies too much passivity. Manguso evokes an energy borne of the clashing of action with ultimate futility. Hers is not a Munchian scream of anxiety or terror, but a scream of courageous defiance. This is not to say that the poems explore primarily anger or opposition to fate. There is humor and tenderness too. Mostly, the poems reflect an intensity of passion that makes me ashamed. Why didn’t I think to ride my best horse into Hell? Now, being handed the idea, do I have the courage to mount my fastest steed and spur it into the mouth of Hell?

But there is more to the poem “Hell” than the wild charge she made. I am tempted to reproduce the poem in whole, but I limit this second excerpt to the punishing end:

…..What I do know is that there is a light, far above us,
that goes out when we die,

and that in Hell there is a gray tulip that grows without any sun.
It reminds me of eveything I failed at,

and I water it carefully. It is all I have to remind me of you.

This stab in the heart provides an example, I think, of how Manguso captures and fuses the frustrations and disappointments both of being an artist and a love-needing-giving-wanting human. The poetry in Siste Viator is intensely personal while managing universality. Love, loss, and art are the three principle threads Manguso weaves together. I say this as if each of those terms denotes a well-defined category when, I know perfectly well, they do not. I am at a loss as to how else to succinctly describe the purported “subject matter” of this poetry collection. I am not a poet.

A note at the beginning of the book relates the derivation of the title:

Siste viator (Stop, traveler)
was a common inscription
on Roman roadside tombs.

This bit of information both shocks and baffles me. More so before reading the collection. After, it makes the same sort of sense as suddenly finding two withered fists grasping your lapels and two bloodshot eyes glaring into your soul pleading for what you know not.


Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd

January 25, 2011

Graham Greene famously divided his fiction into “novels” and “entertainments”, the former being driven by literary ambition and the latter driven by plot. Greene eventually stopped making the distinction, perhaps because “entertainments” such as Brighton Rock had gained respect for their literary merit. More recently, literary novelist John Banville generated controversy by stating in an interview that he was “slumming it” when he wrote crime fiction under the pseudonym “Benjamin Black”. Of course, to hear the insult you need bat ears and a fragile ego, but that’s basically what he said. How else to interpret Banville’s statement that, as himself, he “writes painfully slow while [Black] is fluent and fast”?

William Boyd is slightly younger and has probably learned from his elder’s mistakes. As far as I know, he did not claim to write his thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms with any speed or notably fluency. I, of course, have no idea about his writing speed. But I will tell you, Boyd is remarkably fluent in English (I will admit to, uh, refreshing my recollection of both “bosky” and susurrus” by page two). I hope Dudley Edwards does not find out about Boyd’s wanton fluency.

Adam Kindred, a distinguished climatologist, starts things off by crossing Chelsea Bridge after interviewing for a university job. Adam, recently expelled from marriage to an American woman, has come to the new-to-him city of London to start afresh. Adam has “no idea how his life is about to change in the next few hours – massively, irrevocably – no idea at all.” But first, Adam surveys the river and muses that it is “odd how…instincts mysteriously drive you.”

Adam’s instincts take him to a small Italian restaurant where he strikes up a conversation with Dr. Philip Wang, an allergist. When Dr. Wang leaves a folder of documents behind, Adam decides to bring the file to Wang himself because “it seemed a friendly and helpful thing to do.” Wang never gets the folder back, instead dying from a knife to the chest. The police think Adam, the last man known to have seen Wang, is the murderer. Adam chooses to go underground rather than try to explain the curious circumstances which resulted in Adam’s prints ending up on the murder weapon.

It wasn’t ‘respect for the law’ that seemed to him paramount and fundamental, any more. No: it was freedom that governed this instinctive choice – his personal freedom. He had to stay free, at all costs, if he were to save himself, somehow. To remain free seemed the only course of action he could and should take. It was odd, this philosophical epiphany, but he was immediately aware that the individual freedom he currently possessed was unbelievably precious to him – precious because he now realized how tenuous and vulnerable it was – and he did not propose to surrender it to anyone, even temporarily….

He passed a pub on his left and was tempted to go in and drink something but, along with his new belief in personal freedom, he was aware of how expensive everything was in this city – he had to hoard his remaining funds as he figured out what to do next while he waited for the real guilty man to be identified and apprehended.

To complicate matters, Adam is pursued both by the police and by a hitman. The police are largely faceless except for Rita Nashe, who stumbled upon the body in the first place. Rita is a young constable who soon transfers to the Marine Support Unit (MSU). This being a thriller, the transfer away from the unit involved in the investigation of the murder brings her more thickly into the plot. Boyd handles this with aplomb, making the confluence of Nashe’s life and the story seem natural, as if Boyd was reporting on an interesting development rather than manufacturing a coincidence. This is a thriller, but a thriller written by an outstanding writer.

The hitman is a nicely full character whose interaction with the plot needs no finessing once Adam stumbles on his handywork. Adam is a loose end and Jonjo is a professional. Jonjo is not quite as frighteningly relentless (and psychotic) as Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurhh, but he is very good at what he does and not at all reluctant to use whatever means are required.

Being underground, Adam interacts with a number of interesting characters, including Mhouse, a prostitute. Mhouse plays a significant role in the story and, through Boyd’s skill, remains more interesting than cliched.

The documents Philip Wang has left behind relate to a drug, Zembla-4, that is on the fast track to approval after purportedly success clinical trials. The head of the pharmaceutical company that owns the rights to Zembla-4, Ingram Fryzer, is the last major shoulder over which the reader peers. Fryzer and his good for not much brother Ivo both sit on the board of Calenture-Deutz. Their financially-driven machinations provide the insight onto the important of the documents, something the reader learns well before Adam.

Boyd keeps the pace swift, but not breathtakingly so. Danger for Adam is everywhere and, meanwhile, he is on a race to save not only himself but a small subset of mankind. The stakes are appropriately large for a thriller, if not paradigm-shifting. All of which, to my mind, makes this ultimately more satisfying than the average novel in this genre. And Boyd uses that earlier piece about personal freedom and his plot to at least raise some interesting questions about free will, self-determination, and morality.

Perhaps, I am a bit biased given his description of “the potency and reach of the bloggers.” But what surely ruins my objectivity is Zembla-4. Zembla, of course, is the fictional land formerly ruled by Charles Xavier Vsevlav of Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I am nothing if not a sucker for Nabokov references. Once I see one, I think I see them everywhere:

Small flames burned palely on the familiar tartan lining of the trench.

Maybe that one is a stretch.

Boyd does more than shout out to the master of the mid-20th century. He creates characters who are decidedly not easy to love or to hate. Nearly all of them are sufficiently flawed to keep them real and none are so purely evil that they are simply an alien them. Each is bent by his or her chosen profession. To borrow Boyd’s central metaphor, the bending is such that an ordinary thunderstorm mutates into a super-cell storm and thriller fans will be pleased with the destruction wrought.


The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

January 11, 2011

This Tournament of Books longlist selection seduced me with its allusions to math and its connections to physics, two subjects I find fascinating. The author is, according to the book jacket, “a professional physicist” who is currently working on his doctorate in particle physics. The novel won the Premio Strega, Italy’s most prestigious literary prize, so promised to be worthwhile even if it did not make the ToB cut. It has kept its promise to me.

Knowing next to nothing of Italian, I read the novel in English. This places me one additional step removed from the author. The book has some clunky phrasing and relies too heavily on “then” to assure the reader that chronology matches sentence order. At one point, Mattia looks “out the opaque windows of the atrium”. (And he does actually see the landscape when he looks out, so this is not a metaphorical “looking out”.) I do not know whether these missteps are the fault of Giordano or his translator, but they are of only slight consequence. These occasional discordant notes are, happily, interspersed with some nice attention to the details of growing up and relationships.

The novel opens with Alice Della Rocca preparing for ski school on a morning in 1983. She is six years old and hates ski school. Her father is anxious to get her to the slopes, so Alice gulps her breakfast milk to please him. The milk will be her undoing. She joins her ski school class, says ciao to her father, and starts up the mountain. About halfway up, she has to use the restroom. Rather than alerting the instructor, she separates herself from the group to relieve herself surreptitiously. This decision, made in a moment to avoid embarrassment, leads to tragedy.

From Alice’s life, we move to Mattia Balossino who has a twin. Where Mattia is intellectually gifted, his sister Michela is significant mental impairments. Mattia has never been to any child’s birthday party but his own and Michela’s. In his third year of primary school, a classmate finally invites him to a birthday party. The classmate invites his sister too. Mattia, who has suffered considerable isolation because of his always present but oblivious sister, is crestfallen that the invitation is not his alone. At home, he broaches the possibility of going to the birthday party without Michela. His mother is disappointed in him. Mattia wants only to spend some time at the party without Michela, being a normal boy. His chosen method of obtaining his freedom chains him to that moment for the remainder of his life.

Both of these early scenes are written with an uncluttered poignancy. The characters are set on trajectories that, the reader knows, will eventually intersect. Giordano takes his time, developing the characters and their existence as misfits. High school is quite difficult for both of them, at least until they find each other. I expected a fairly conventional love story once they had met. I believe my expectations were somewhat justified by this passage:

The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other’s, through their arms and fingers.

The marked contrast between Alice’s light-colored hair, which framed the excessively pale skin of her face, and Mattia’s dark hair, tousled forward to hide his black eyes, was erased by the slender arc that linked them. There was a shared space between their bodies, the confines of which were not well-delineated, from which nothing seemed to be missing and in which the air seemed motionless, undisturbed.

Giordano subverts expectations for this high school romance. Alice and Mattia are broken people and Giordano does not shy from showing their frailties in a realistic light. While they balance each other, they do not “complete” one another or erase the mistakes from each other’s past. Mattia and Alice are not pieces to a puzzle that snap into place and live happily ever after. I applaud Giordano for this realism which helps to raise The Solitude of Prime Numbers above the triteness of Nicholas Sparks (at whom I somehow feel free to take shots though I have never opened one of his vacuous romances).

But, the best part of the book is, frankly, the central conceit of the novel and the passage around which, I believe, the novel must have been written. I will tease you with only a portion of Giordano’s excellent discussion of prime numbers:

You encounter increasingly isolated primes [as you search the set of whole numbers for primes], lost in that silent, measured space made only of ciphers, and you develop a distressing presentiment that the pairs [(e.g., 11, 13; 41,43)] encountered up until that point were accidental, that solitude is the true destiny. Then, just when you’re about to surrender, when you no longer have the desire to go on counting, you come across another pair of twins, clutching each other tightly.

The concept is evocatively beautiful. This is math for romantics. Or maybe just romance for nerds. Giordano’s novel fits nicely around this idea and its bleak but not hopeless consequences. By tying Mattia’s mathematical abilities to the less logical realm of love, Giordano elevates both number theory and romance. It is a nice accomplishment and one worthy of an audience. I have my doubts that it will be enough to survive the ToB brackets, but the novel would make a worthy contender.

I do have one final complaint. This is not a novel that gets chess right, though it does get romance right. A friend of Mattia’s compares the initiation of a kiss and sexual intimacy.

Once Denis, talking about himself, had told him that all opening moves were the same, like in chess. You don’t have to come up with anything new, there’s no point, because you’re both after the same thing anyway. The game soon finds its own way and it’s only at that point that you need a strategy.

While it is true that only very good chess players are likely to come up with anything newly valuable to chess in the opening, this does not mean lesser players need not worry until later about strategy. The strategy for all players begins at least by the opening (and for top level players before the game even starts). While there are thousands of named openings (or variations on named openings), it is a strategic choice for white to pick the solid d4 rather than the more dynamic e4. Likewise, whether black responds to white’s e4 with the c5 of the Sicilian Defense, the e6 of the French Defense, or the e5 of the Ruy Lopez Defense (The Spanish Game) is a crucial strategic decision. Denis’s analogy does work better for poor players who know nothing about openings, but only because they will likewise know little about chess strategy. Everything, then, is tactics.

So, of all the things that The Solititude of Prime Numbers gets right, chess is not one of them. The mathematics, however, more than makes up for this failure. And I find consolation in the fact that Giordano did not demonstrate Mattia’s genius by his winning every chess game he ever played.


This Is How by MJ Hyland

September 8, 2010

Everything unconditional belongs in pathology. – Nietzsche

I chose to read this author because she is a Tony’s Book World recommended author. I chose this specific book of Ms. Hyland’s because it was a Whispering Gums recommended book. And, too, the author was kind enough to drop by my blog. So, though I did not rush out and buy a copy of one of her books as she hinted I might, I did rush to my Kindle and buy one of her books. Jedi mind tricks don’t work on me.

The lesson here is not for writers to comment on my blog so that I will automatically, a month later, read your book and blog about it. It is for writers to get two other bloggers whose literary discretion I admire and whose opinions I trust to gushingly recommend your work and, only then, come nudge me in a most classy manner. In that case, I very likely, almost certainly, will rush somewhere to buy a copy of your book. I am conditionally easy that way.

The book. Well, it starts with that dark quote from Nietzsche above. Beyond that, the best thing to say about it is that I highly recommend it. This is a book that is best read cold. Everything I can tell you about the character and the plot without entirely spoiling the novel you are better off discovering on your own. Really, you are. But if you insist on knowing more, read on.

The protagonist of This Is How, the odd Patrick Oxtoby, narrates. Through the first person narration, the reader has insight into the sometimes hilarious, sometimes frightening, sometimes pitiable, and always engaging thoughts of Patrick. He is difficult not to like, but, all the same, makes the reader and everyone else around him a little nervous. The novel begins with a description of his hard, but not too hard knock at the door of a boarding house where he will try to begin a new life. The knock is answered by Bridget, the charming and attractive proprietor of the boarding house. This early scene gives an idea of Patrick’s quirkiness.

She takes hold of her long brown hair and pulls it over her left breast like a scarf.

‘Let me take your coat,’ she says.

‘I’m not bothered,’ I say. ‘I’ll keep it on.’

I want the pockets for my hands.

‘There’s a rack just beside you.’

‘I’ve said I’ll leave it on.’

‘I thought you might feel more comfortable with it off. It’s a very warm evening.’

She looks at me and I look at her and she takes a step back as though she blames the place where she’s standing for the silence.

Patrick is not slow. He did well in school, studied Psychology and History at university for a year or two before dropping out, and is an ace mechanic. While it is never articulated or confirmed, Patrick exhibits symptoms commonly associated with Asperger’s Syndrome or autism. He has trouble understanding social cues and connecting with people. He takes things literally and seems emotionally remote, even with those who should be closest to him. Underneath this (or on top of it?), Patrick is a sweet man. And, then, underneath that, he has an unsettling, potentially violent personality. As pointed out at Whispering Gums, MJ Hyland has created a lovable but disturbing character, who is both simple and complex. At least, it is no easy task to understand him, despite his simplicity.

Only a few pages into the book, we learn that Patrick had a fiancée, Sarah, who abruptly broke off their engagement. He describes the scene in which Sarah, standing at the top of stairs, tells him it’s over. She leaves him standing there as she walks out of the house.

I wanted to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression that I didn’t know how to make with words. But I didn’t, and when she’d closed the front door I said, ‘Okay, then,’ and, ‘Goodbye, then.’

Afterwards, I played the scene over and over, imagined how I planted my hands in the middle of her back and pushed hard enough to send her flying.

And I got this sentence in my head, over and over, ‘You broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine.’ It was something I’d never say, not like anything I’ve ever said. I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much….

I’m here now, a hundred miles away, and that’s the past. Sarah’s the past. It’s done with. I don’t have to think about it again if I don’t want to.

This scene fits a pattern in which we at once feel sorry for Patrick and afraid of him. His heart was broken, after all, and cruelly, but then there is his fantasy about the stairs. The reader isn’t alone in these feelings. The characters with whom Patrick comes into contact have the same conflicted feelings towards him. They want to like him, but, just when they start to feel comfortable, Patrick’s oddness puts them on edge again. Through a number of quite funny and touching scenes, Hyland builds Patrick’s unique character and the tension of the novel. The reader can feel the pressure building. Patrick will do something good or something bad, or somebody will do to Patrick something good or something bad. Like Patrick, the story keeps the reader on edge, hoping for the good but preparing for something bad.

This is a great success to the book. Hyland beautifully allows the reader to see what Patrick looks like from the perspective of others, and demonstrates that having access to his thoughts does not actually improve the reader’s ability to predict Patrick’s behavior. Because Patrick is incapable of understanding interpersonal customs and subtext, he is unstable in social situations. He seems to have the potential for violence, even if he doesn’t think about it “all that much.”

Hyland so superbly builds Patrick’s personality and the situation that we, the readers, know that Patrick is going to misunderstand a crucial fact at a crucial point. We know that, but we cannot be certain whether that misunderstanding will set him up for a trap laid by another or unleash some of his anger onto someone else or take a different but similarly tragic course. Tragedy of some sort looms ever larger in the first section of the book. That is, unless the twist is danger averted, a connection made, ensuing bliss. It could be. I certainly hoped that is the way things would turn out. But I have probably said too much already. By the time the crucial early to mid-novel event occurs, it feels inevitable.

And then, in the aftermath too, Hyland conjures the dueling specters of optimism and doom. Hyalnd manages her pacing well, so that, even when little is occurring, you know something will happen. And then it is put off a bit, and a bit. Excellent writing.

This book is about the intersection of love, sex, and violence. Patrick’s deficiencies in interpersonal communication make it difficult to make the types of connections necessary for love or even sex. Violence is another matter, but violence can only beget more isolation and confusion. Or, maybe, they are similar matters. Love and sex nearly as often lead to confusion. At least when someone is hitting you, you can be pretty confident about where they stand.

This novel is bursting with its author’s talent. To go any further into the plot would spoil it. That leaves large themes untouched, so I encourage further discussion in the comments, now if you have read it, later if you will.


The Incident Report by Martha Baillie

August 30, 2010

I was lucky enough to pick the winner of this year’s IMPAC award and, thereby, won (along with two others) Kevin from Canada’s 2010 IMPAC contest. In addition to the generosity of giving out prizes, Kevin kindly offered to expose me to Canadian fiction. I eagerly accepted and specifically requested that this book be among the titles he sent.

I had only ever heard of this book through Kevin’s coverage, as a member of the always excellent Shadow Jury, of the 2009 Giller Prize. His review captures the quirkiness and strengths of the book. It does have strengths besides its quirkiness, though the quirkiness is a strength too. I had not re-read the review until just now, partly with the aim of not simply repeating it and partly with the aim of engaging in at least a bit of conversation. Also, my comments here also reflect my conversations with my significant other who grabbed this book out of the shipment immediately and enjoyed it immensely. She liked the way the incident reports become more personal and begin to reveal the narrator as a character rather than as simply a recorder of events. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Kevin has summarized the book well, so I encourage you to visit his review, but I will try to give a shorthand version, for context.

The book consists of 144 incident reports by a librarian, Miriam Gordon, working in a Toronto library. The first incident report recounts Miriam’s interaction with a young man who spends two hours stripping electrical wire and then asks for a handheld vacuum to clean up the mess he has made. The first several incident reports relate events similar to this in that they are seemingly unconnected to plot issues or Miriam beyond her duties as a librarian. Gradually, however, Miriam begins inserting personal details into the reports and embellishing them with memories from her childhood. Martha Baillie pulls this aspect off quite well, I thought, methodically building a plot into these often quite short incident reports.

There are at least three major plot lines. One involves Miriam’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father. Another involves a mysterious library patron who begins leaving notes referencing the opera Rigoletto which, incidentally, is the first opera Miriam ever saw. The very short summary of the opera is that the father’s plot to avenge his daughter’s honor results in a mistake of identity that gets her killed. It soon becomes clear that the Rigoletto notes are meant for Miriam. The grow more sinister over time. There is also Miriam’s interactions with a young man she first sees reading in the park.

The plotlines all seem disaparate and unconnected, like the initial incident reports. However, over the course of this quick read (195 pages, most less than half full) patterns and links begin to form. The effect is one of literary pointillism, almost. It is a quite original approach and Baillie carries it off well. But, given the method of narration and Miriam’s limited knowledge, it is difficult to determine whether any of the connections or patterns are real or only imagined. One patron seems a good candidate to be the mysterious writer of the Rigoletto notes, and then, seems not to be such a likely candidate or is ruled out entirely.

Incident Report 10 is a key to at least two of the plotlines. Miriam relates the story of her first broken heart and her reaction after the breakup by phone.

I rushed out the front door without stopping to pull on my coat or boots. The freezing air slapped my cheeks: it plunged down my throat into my unsuspecting lungs. My father, who happene to be clearing the front walk, tossed aside his shovel and ran after me across the lawn, his feet breaking the crust, sinking into the deep snow. When he’d caught up, he took me in his arms. I present this memory in my father’s defense whenever I take him to trial, as I so often do, laying my fears and shyness, my crippling self-doubt, at his feet.

After this experience, Miriam is wary of romantic love and, as indicated, has mixed emotions regarding her father. Miriam’s relationship to men is, it seems to me, a primary factor in the book. The emotion of this short and quirky novel is subtly potent, creeping up slowly on the reader as the storylines unfold. The parade of eccentric patrons, for instance, marches through the story to the yearning beat of the human heart.

This afternoon at 4:55, a stout female patron, having spent several minutes exploring the contents of her purse, pulled out a small object. It lay in the plump palm of her hand. She thrust her arm across the desk. “This is for you,” she explained. She was rewarding me. I’d provided her with the books she needed. In its brightly coloured wrapper, the condom resembled a candy. At first I thought it was a candy. She was not a regular. I had never seen her before. Naturally, I thanked her.

This small events, when compiled, begin to tell us about Miriam, almost as much as her own more explicit discussions of herself and her mental state. She is an easy character to like. This is often a weakness in a novel, but the beauty of this novel is in its construction and in the events. The world is a tragic place for many of the patrons, despite their kindness. So too, Miriam, as gently caring as she is, has suffered. Her role is not unlike that of the heros of Greek tragedies and her heart is her weakness. Her very likeability, even lovableness, is her fatal flaw.

Kevin from Canada did not like the storyline involving the Slovenian named Janko who Miriam befriends. I thought the storyline was essential to the successful unfolding of the full plot, that it added some needed complexity to the mix, and hit the right emotional notes. This may be where you (and Kevin) realize that I am perhaps a bit more sentimental as a reader than is Kevin. I was pulled in by the relationship between Miriam and Janko and touched by its resolution. I cannot imagine being as satisfied with the book without it.

Before closing, I would also like to note the beauty of the novel as a physical object. The paper is thick and pleasing to the touch. Even more, the inside of the covers contain a reproduction of actual pages that were inserted into the book return slot of a library. The pages are covered with the series “0123456789” repeated over and over. Interestingly to me, the actual photocopy of the page shows that, despite the obsessiveness of the pages’ author, there are apparent mistakes a few times, where a number is repeated at the end of a line or from one line to the next, suggesting to me a fragility of mind that prevents the poor soul from effectively managing even this pitiable scream. It was a nice touch that emphasized the novel’s realism and tethered this story to the world. Damaged people reach out, often ineffectually, and it is not always easy or possible to understand their cries, much less to ease their pain. The physical construction of the book reminds me why my ereader is not a substitute for my physical library, only an enhancement.

Thank you, Kevin, for introducing me (and my wife) to this author and this book.


The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

August 26, 2010

The title of this book is, if you do not know, a reference to Superman. Superman’s Fortress of Solitiude has been a physical stronghold of varied significance and geographic location. My sense is that Lethem was probably making the reference to John Byrne’s Man of Steel miniseries comic book in which the Clark Kent persona is described as “The Fortress of Solitude”. I am not, nor have I ever been, a comic book fan, so this speculation is based on Wikipedia. Take it for what it is worth.

It is worth next to nothing, by the way. Because the Fortress of Solitude could also be Dylan Ebdus’s house on Dean Street in Brooklyn. The Dean Street house, like the Fortress, is occupied by The Parents. Occupied is selling it too strongly. Their spirits inhabit the place even if, technically, they do not exist there is a fully real and alive sense. Abraham spends most of his time working in his studio. Rachel becomes an even more ethereal presence. Superman’s parents are but statues, reminders. This parallel is equally compelling and also dervied from the Wikipedia articles on Superman and his lair, if you had not guessed.

Besides comic books, the fully prepared reader will be well versed in the music of the 1970s and 1980s, R&B and rap particularly, but not exclusively. Lethem’s alter ego and the narrator of the novel is Dylan, named after Bob Dylan (legendary folk singer, of course), a hero of his parents. His best friend for a time is Mingus Rude who is, presumably, named after Charles Mingus. Charles Mingus was a legendary jazz musician (the Kindle dictionary, rather than my own knowledge of music history, gave me that one). While Dylan Ebdus’s parents are not musicians, Mingus Rude’s father, Barret Rude, Jr., is a former soul vocalist. An entire section separating Dylan’s and Mingus’s childhood from their adulthood consists of fictional liner notes to an album collecting music by Barret Rude, Jr. Lethem has a deep appreciation for R&B music of the time and it shows through multiple references and an awareness which suffuses the work.

Finally, the cultural aspect that most gripped me: Lethem and I grew up at roughly the same time. The Fortress of Solitude is absolutely dazzling in yanking the reader back in time to a palpably real New York childhood. The games kids play, both psychological and ball-oriented, have you feeling like someone just outside the ring, watching. Maybe you’ll get picked, or picked on, next time. In the meantime, it is great fun watching Dylan make his way in this new world.

For, Brooklyn is new to Dylan. Abraham and Rachel decided to attempt a social experiment of some sort. They move to a rather blighted area of Brooklyn and enroll Dylan in the local public school. He is very nearly the only white child in the school. Even in the neighborhood, white children make only a brief, if potent, appearance:

And Dylan wondered guiltily why the white girls on skates hadn’t called to him instead. Knowledge of this heretical wish was his second wound. It wasn’t like the dead kitten: this time no one would judge wwhether Dylan had understood in the first place, whether he had forgotten after. Only himself. It was between Dylan and himself to consider forever whether to grasp that he’d felt a yearning preference already then, that before the years of seasons, the years of hours to come on the street, before Robert Woolfolk or Mingus Rude, before “Play that Funky Music, White Boy,” before Intermediate School 293 or anything else, he’d wished, against his mother’s vision, for the Solver girls to sweep him away into an ecstasy of blondness and matching outfits, tightened laces, their wheels barely touching the slate, or only marking it with arrows pointing elsewhee, jet trails of escape.

The opening section is told in the third person with access to Dylan’s thoughts, but not others’. Dylan is precocious and bright and not entirely unlike the young Coetzee of Boyhood. I would be surprised if Lethem had not read Coetzee’s work prior to writing his own. And, too, he probably was influenced by Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. It is no light thing, my comparing this work to those two masterpieces. Lethem is extremely talented, a standout of his generation. However, weeks after finishing this work, I am still unsure whether it will end up in my top ten reads of this year, much less that it is deserving as a spot on a list of twenty best novels of the 2000s. Its strong start is not enough for all that.

I am not from Brooklyn, so part of the strength of the start, for me, was the fascinating look at a childhood that was chronologically parallel to my own. The life of city kids was always mysterious to me, a different way of living. And so Dylan’s proves to be far removed from my own. While I would not trade my memories of herding cattle or playing in the hay barn for them, I am envious of street ball, block parties, and walking to school. But my particular, or peculiar, fascination with the lives of urban kids does not explain all of the appeal of the first half of the book.

Adult idealism hovers in the background of the child’s-eye Brooklyn. Gentrification, Rachel’s determination to raise Dylan in a racially enlightened manner, and Abraham’s commitment to art are all interesting and important sidelines. Each is essential, if not as thrilling as a well-tossed spaldeen. The beauty and success of the first half of the novel is that these larger, more political, themes are woven into the story of Dylan’s boyhood. They never overpower, only accentuate his experiences. In other words, this first half is never didactic.

The first third of the novel swings between Dylan’s perspective and several others in the neighborhood, including Isabelle Vendle (a prime mover in the gentrification process of Gowanus Hill), Barrett Rude, Jr., and Dylan’s parents. Lethem styles prose with the best of them while deftly managing these varying perspectives and the story. I was always disappointed to put the book down while reading this first section. This is despite the fact that some comic book powers may or may not seep out of the panels into Dylan’s world. I am not really into superpowers in my bildungsromans, but, as with the politics, they are used to enhance the richness of the world without being overly intrusive.

For one example, and on a theme that recurs throughout:

His mother had instilled this doubleness: there were things Rachel and Dylan could say to one another and then there was the official language of the world, which, though narrowed and artificial, had to be mastered in the cause of the world’s manipulation. Rachel made Dylan know that the world shouldn’t know everything he thought about it. And it certainly shouldn’t know her words – asshole, pothead, gay, pretentious, sexy, grass – nor should the bearers of nicknames know the nicknames: Mr. Memory, Pepe le Peu, Susie Cube, Captain Vague, Vendlemachine.

His father’s nickname was The Collector.

Dylan spends the entire book trying to navigate between the various worlds he is forced or chooses to inhabit. Not to belabor the quotes, but there is another, this one occuring in a scene involving a confrontation between two neighborhood rivals, “each kid” being the observers of this confrontation:

Each kid wondered and had to consider the possibility that he alone didn’t know, that the lines of force were visible to the others. The Dean Street kids were widened in that instant, a gasp of breath went in and out of the lung of summer just then. It made you dizzy to taste the new air.

I have hardly mentioned the plot at all, but, with a reclusive artist as a father, a drug-addicted sort-of-ex-singer for a neighbor, and a racial identity to grapple with, there is plenty of story for the first half. Lethem writes it so well, you’ll feel almost as if you’ve lived it too.

Then came the liner notes. It is a fairly short section, interesting enough. It ties the first and last pieces together, gives a nice interlude between childhood and young adulthood.

Part Three is ominously entitled “Prisonaires”. The reference is to a group of prison singers who hit the charts from prison, it’s a story grown-Dylan is pitching movie execs. The scene opens with Dylan packing to go to California for his father, and to pitch the movie. Dylan Ebdus is older, but hip. He is comfortable moving between worlds now.

Entry points between zones are hidden until they aren’t, until they become as obvious as a lit kitchen door in a club’s alley, behind which three young women from Walla Walla pool an evening’s tips. And as so often in my experience, passage between was eased by alcohol or marijuana or cocaine, those boundary medicines. Line, Mr. Mildly Weird Older? Of course I’d like a line, and to cross one too, please.

He is haunted by his past, though. He moves between worlds, but never feels fully part of any of them. On Dean Street he was the white kid, at college he was the public school kid, and in life he is struggling to make sense of his own life.

The weakness of the second half is in the fact that Dylan spends it trying to understand his life, explain it, come to terms with why Dean Street was the way it was. His musings leave a number of excellent snippets of prose for the reader. But the story loses momentum. It frustates partly because Dylan is frustrated, which is a good thing, but, and this is the less good, party because exposition does the work in the second half where the story carried the first. Dylan struggles almost as much with his own life as he does with “The Prisonaires”, a musical group whose lead, rather than ending in a fiery crash or cocaine-fueled heart attack or familial bullet, simply fades into, not death, but a quiet, non-descript existence. Dylan wants explanation, the reader wants a story.

I am rambling, but this is a huge book which, frankly, ambles over much territory. Lethem deserves credit for trying to talk about race in a novel, in a way that doesn’t insultingly patronize its readers and its characters. Yes, I am talking about a recent bestseller that shall not be named. There are not easy answers here. That is Dylan’s and Lethem’s problem. They both flail about, trying to find answers, but, both are still a little afraid because this is dangerous territory. Just as there are codes on the street by which Dylan knows both that he will be yoked and how to play his role in the yoking, there are rules in society for talking about race. Dylan and Lethem both struggle a bit. It is probably one reason they spend so much time in the second half trying to explain. But, for all that effort, I don’t think the second half is either as engrossing or as enlightening as the first half of the novel.

Now I am rambling. The book is good. I have struggled with what to say. I am going with this first draft. Part of my problem is that I wanted the novel to mean more to me than it does. Another part is that the first half was so outstanding, the grown Dylan could only disappoint. My disappointment should be gauged against my expectations and my first half experience. Oh, and if you like books set in New York, this one gives a look with depth at particular moment in time. In all, the novel is outstanding.

Lethem is for real.