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.


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

August 8, 2010

I try to recommend to my daughter books that I have previously read. I had heard quite a bit about Neil Gaiman, whose star in the YA world has streaked through the heavens over the past few years. I had never read him, but thought my daughter might find his work enticing. Watership Down has languished, barely begun, so I wanted a second try. Her mother has a history with Stephen King and, it seems, our daughter has inherited at least a portion of her penchant for the phantasmic. The Graveyard Book, its Newberry Medal, and the gushing over Gaiman convinced me that I should suggest this one. I could not afford two lackluster receptions in a row or my literary credibility might be shot with her. I read it myself first.

The story begins with a triple murder (all family members) by a professional assassin. Only a toddler survives the attack on the family. The baby, through coincidence or infantile premonition, had chosen the night of the murders to wander from its crib. The killer, Jack, tracks the roaming child, by smell, to the graveyard.

Gaiman skillfully uses that impersonal pronoun:

It stared around it, taking the the faces of the dead, the mist, and the moon. Then it looked at Silas. Its gaze did not flinch. It looked grave.

The child is known to be a he. In fact, the ghosts have been referring to the little boy as “he”, but Gaiman’s narrator uses the impersonal which creates a distance between the ghosts and the boy. The boy is not yet a part of the community and he is not really a full person yet, just a toddler.

The friendly ghosts hide the child and misdirect Jack temporarily averting sure death.

An elderly, ghostly couple who had never had children want to take the boy in and raise him. The residents of the graveyard hold a council to determine whether the adoption should be allowed. Their discussion is interrupted by a woman on a grey horse.

They knew her, the graveyard folk, for each of us encounters the Lady on-the Grey at the end of our days, and there is no forgetting her.

…They were watching the Lady on the Grey, each of them half-excited, half-scared. The dead are not superstitious, not as a rule, but they watched her as a Roman Augur might have watched the sacred crows circle, seeking wisdom, seeking a clue.

And she spoke to them.

In a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells, she said only, “The dead should have charity.” And she smiled.

The matter is settled. The Owenses will adopt the boy and raise him has their own.

Gaiman is an excellent storyteller. He has found the perfect voice for this sinister story. There are murders and equally frightening scenes after, but the story is told as a story. In that quote above, the narrator is unobtrusively inserted into the story with the slipping in of that “…not as a rule…” Little details like that provide enough distance to remind the reader, perhaps unconsciously, that they are reading a story, the events are not real. And, yet, the story is so compelling and the little details so pleasing (“…a voice like the chiming of a hundred tiny silver bells…”) that the reader is never pulled out of the story, but held tightly in.

The boy is named Nobody “Bod” Owens. The ghosts raise him with the mysterious Silas as his guardian. Gaiman carefully foreshadows key plot points and keeps the suspense building as Bod goes on small adventures. All the while, Gaiman is building in the little messages about childhood and parents and growing up that, I suspect, are typical of the genre.

His first contact with humans after his adoption by ghosts is with a little girl, Scarlett, whose parents visit the graveyard occasionally. The two always meet out of sight of Scarlett’s parents and, so, her parents believe Bod is an imaginary friend. Because no one else sees him, Scarlett thinks him unreal too, even as she tries to understand why he cannot leave the graveyard.

”Well, you can’t stay here all your life. Can you? One day you’ll grow up and then you will have to go and live in the world outside.”

He shook his head. “It’s not safe for me out there.”

“Who says?”

“Silas. My family. Everybody.”

She was silent.

Of course, the outside world is frightening for everyone, full of dangers for children and adults alike. Bod, as he grows, must leave the graveyard. He cannot live his whole life there. The ghosts and Silas, as all parents, worry about him and try to delay the inevitable. There are missteps. They give him freedom, but his adolescent curiosity and sense of justice court disaster. The dangers outside the graveyard are real, after all. Bod’s family was murdered and for a reason. Bod does not know the reason, the ghosts may not, but Bod does know the world holds a special danger for him.

Bod’s poor choices are more entertaining than those of most tweens. When he pours out his troubles to three passing ghouls, they sympathize. “What you need is to go somewhere where the people would appreciate you.” The anomic Bod follows the ghouls out of the graveyard and towards death. There is much humor for adults and much excitement for children in this and other vignettes, all of which drives home the messages of a frightening world, the protectiveness of parents, their wisdom, their errors of love, and the need for the child to be brave and careful. In other words, Gaiman does a good job of capturing both the feelings of childhood and the lessons teachers, parents, and awards juries believe are important for adolescents.

When Bod later decides he does not want to leave the graveyard at all, that he wants to stay with his parents and the other ghosts, Silas explains to him his difference from the ghosts.

Bod shrugged. “So?” he said. “It’s only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead.”

“Yes.” Silas hesitated. “They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished.”

I tried not to take this little lecture personally, as an allegorical description of parents or old folks. I too have potential still. I’m not dead yet!

But there are times reading this, that I felt old. It is a children’s book, if a very well-written and engaging one. I say that not only because I enjoyed it, and quickly, but my daughter (who is not quite finished) provides me with excited updates as she follows Bod on his adventures. As a children’s book, though, the bows are nicely tied, the unfolding of events is easy to see, even if you cannot always guess exactly how. The book reminded me somewhat of Alexander’s Bridge and The Secret Agent in how methodically the story was built, how tellingly events are foreshadowed. In other words, it feels a bit like a throwback, to me. There is a certainty to it all, a lack of the moral and factual ambiguity that marks adult literature, particularly recent literary fiction. Of course, this is a children’s book so it necessarily provides its young readers with the confidence that Bod will prevail, even as it frightens them that maybe he won’t.

I enjoyed the different world of children’s literature. I liked the interlude it provided between more demanding works. And I enjoyed the story. It was a good story and it was well told. I gained back a bit of credibility with my daughter. Best of all, though, my daughter and I were able to share and bond over the story. I will treasure the book for that.


Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

July 27, 2010

I now have the feeling you get after seeing a small mountain peak, making up your mind to climb it, and then looking out from it onto the valley from whence you came. It is not that Cloud Atlas is difficult to read or to enjoy. In fact, I was kidnapped by the story and soon developed Stockholm Syndrome. No, the feeling comes from having set out a plan to read Mitchell’s first three works in order and finishing them. The trek was delightful and I am sorry I will never feel the joy of discovering Mitchell’s genius in quite the same way. But, what a view.

Mitchell’s writing is connected by ideas more than by style or setting. In each of his first three books, randomness and chance play a large role, though perhaps less in this last one. Individual dislocation is another common theme. The role of storytellers is prominent throughout each of the works. Finally, Mitchell grapples in each with power imbalances and oppression, especially the struggle of individuals against the tyranny of organized groups. What I love about Mitchell is not only that he explores so many ideas and has interesting things to say about each of them, but that he ties the ideas together so artfully.

Mitchell is a writer who not only manages to produce a book that argues a coherent thesis, but has put together a body of work that fits together nicely so that the works together enrich and expand on the ideas put forward separately in each book. I think Cloud Atlas can be best and most easily appreciated in light of the earlier two works. They give context and background, not to the characters, but to the ideas Mitchell explores with such brilliance in his master work.

Cloud Atlas, if you do not know, is comprised of multiple storylines which are only lightly connected by character or plot. The story begins as a historical piece set, largely, on a ship sailing the Pacific in the 1800s, moves to a music-filled Chateau in the 1930s, turns into a 1970s mystery, then a modern (1990s/2000s) story about a smalltime con artist and publisher running from thugs, switches gears to an interview with Sonmi-451 (a genetically-engineered fastfood waitress, somewhat in the future), reverses to a nicely dystopian-future-based bildungsroman set far in the future, and back through each until the loop is closed in a most satisfying way. The arc of the story is genius.

The tying together of multiple, nearly independent, storylines reminds of Ghostwritten as both works present a nifty puzzle for the reader to enjoy while living the stories. I pointed out in my review of Ghostwritten how Mitchell carefully constructs these puzzles and, simultaneously, manages disparate plotlines that seem like they should be unwieldy. Mitchell, though keeps them tamed and relevant. He is a masterful storyteller, who tells stories with a purpose. Each character says and acts precisely as Mitchell wants them to speak and act, yet they live, wonderfully.

While all this storytelling and mastery of character and plot are going on, Mitchell gives us some brilliant prose too. Adam Ewing, seafarer of the 1800s, writes in his diary:

[T]he mind abhors a vacancy & is wont to people it with phantoms, thus I glimpsed first a tusked hog charging, then a Maori warrior, spear held aloft, his face inscribed with the ancestral hatred of his race.

‘Twas but a mollyhawk, wings “flupping” the air like a windjammer.

The allusion to Spinoza’s “nature abhors a vacuum” is both appropriate to the time and character and beautiful to the ear. “Flupping…like a windjammer” is lovely and, again, a gifted mimicry of a diarist of a century or two ago.

As the quote demonstrates, Ewing has the racial hangups of his time. Those are tested when he leaves, as a passenger on a ship, the island on which the story begins. On sailing, Adam Ewing believes he has left the Maori and their outfought rivals, the Moriori, but one of the latter has stowed away in Ewing’s cabin. The Moriori implores Ewing to either save him by pleading with the captain of the ship or to kill him with an offered knife. The Moriori, named Autua, does not want to be turned over to the captain whom he fears will torture him. One of Ewing’s friends, Mr. D’Arnoq, helped Autua hide aboard the ship and now Ewing must make a choice.

Cursing my conscience singly, my fortune doubly & Mr. D’Arnoq trebly, I bade him sheath his knife & for Heaven’s sake conceal himself lest one of the crew hear and come knocking. I promised to approach the captain at breakfast, for to interrupt his slumbers would only ensure the doom of the enterprise. This satisfied the stowaway & he thanked me. He slid back inside the coils of rope, leaving me to the near-impossible task of constructing a case for an Aboriginal stowaway, aboard an English schooner, without attaining his discoverer & cabinmate with a charge of conspiracy. The savage’s breathing told me he was sleeping. I was tempted to make a dash for the door & howl for help, but in the eyes of God my word was my bond, even to an Indian.

Ewing has more to deal with than just the stowaway. He also suffers from mysterious headaches. A fellow traveler, Dr. Henry Goose, promised, before they set sail, “to turn his formidable talents to the diagnosis of [Ewing’s] Ailment as soon as we are at sea.” The diagnosis is unpleasant. Dr. Goose informs Ewing that he has been infected by a parasitic worm that travels to the brain, lays larvae, and, when the larvae hatch, kill the victim. Ewing is relieved that Dr. Goose is one of the few who could have managed the diagnosis and has the potion which may destroy the parasites. Unfortunately, Dr. Goose tells Ewing, the treatment is a balancing act between killing and curing the patient.

The story is quite good. But if not to your taste, it trails off, mid-sentence, at page 39. From there, we meet an arrogant young musical prodigy who has alienated his wealthy father and gets by on high charm and low morals. The prodigy stumbles upon the journal in an old chateau while working for a syphilitic and renowned composer. This section is also very good, but lasts only a bit longer before also leaving the reader happily unsatisfied.

Each story is stopped in the middle, sometimes with tension, other times it just seems to fade. In all cases, the reader is left with a yearning to know what happens to the characters, but has little time to lament, because the stories are each more urgently engaging than the last.

Every section has a voice entirely different from what has gone before. I have quoted from the diary of the 19th century gentleman. “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is told in the present tense voice of the hard-boiled detective novel. Later, Sonmi-451 (Bradbury, anyone?) responds to an interview question by an Archivist:

To enslave an individual troubles your consciences, Archivist, but to enslave a clone is no more troubling than owning the latest six-wheeler ford, ethically. Because you cannot discern our differences, you believe we have none. But make no mistake: even same-stem fabricants cultured in the same wombtank are as singular as snowflakes.

The effect is remarkable. I tend to have a book on the nightstand and one I bring with me during the day. Cloud Atlas can be a bit like having four or five novels going at once. And, yet, somehow much easier than that. The cast of characters is never burdensomely large and the sections, even when completed, are barely novellas. They are all tied together by common themes and connections between characters. For instance, the two longer quotes I have provided both relate to slaves, subjugation, and the power of society over the individual. A peculiar birthmark recurs throughout. Mitchell is like a master cutter with a diamond. This gem of a book sparkles in ways I have not seen before, in ways I did not know a book could shine. It is a classic.

But I do not want to scare anyone away. The wonderful discovery for me was that, despite its intimidating reputation, Cloud Atlas is not difficult to read. It is not the struggle that, say, Crime and Punishment, in all its greatness, can be. While I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Mitchell’s first three novels in the order of publication, it certainly is not necessary. It may be the best way to read Cloud Atlas, as I would like to think. My suspicion, however, is that the most enjoyable way to read Cloud Atlas is to read it. Mitchell demonstrates that brilliant need not be difficult, at least in the reading. Writing about it or fully understanding all of Mitchell’s literary tricks, philosophical points, and cultural references, these things could take a career. But enjoying the book: you don’t even have to try.


Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II by J.M. Coetzee

July 10, 2010

There is danger here. Along with David Mitchell, whose Ghostwritten was good, whose number9dream was superb, and whose Cloud Atlas is disabusing me of the idea that I should write anything, text messages and shopping lists included, J.M. Coetzee makes me believe in the concept of genius. I have not read extensively in his oevre, only enough to know I will read the rest.

My love affair with Coetzee began in 2003. I was browsing a book store, probably Barnes and Noble, and this little paperback had one of those stickers that reminds the buyer that the author has won an award. In this case, the sticker announed that J.M. Coetzee had won the Nobel prize. It was on that basis that I picked up Disgrace to see if Coetzee was worth so much fuss. Well, you will never hear me deride the Nobel Prize in Literature. Whatever else the Nobel committee has done or will do, it gave me J.M. Coetzee and I am forever in debt.

The cynic might say that I would have discovered Coetzee anyway. After all, I did not start blogging because of the Nobel. Through blogging, I would have been exposed to Coetzee and would have fallen in love just the same. But that isn’t true. Cynics are not always right. There are plenty of books and authors lauded by bloggers I respect and, yet, I can and do read only a fraction of those books. Could someone have described for me why Coetzee would be a perfect author for me? You know, the way that Cormac McCarthy is the perfect author for others. I don’t think so. To do that, they would have to know me, would have to describe me. Not my type, me. And, then, explain why Coetzee is a great author for me.

Ideally, I would do that here. But I will not. I could not. Mostly, I don’t want to. I admire Coetzee, in part, for what he has that I do not. He has the courage to lay himself bare, to allow his readers to poke his insides, examine his motivations, his quirks, his deficiencies. Give me my skin and a cloak too.

Boyhood: Scenes from a Provincial Life charmed me. The boy is precocious and intelligent. Coetzee’s use of the nameless third person effectively evokes the distance of age and, yet, he manages to bring us into the mind of this child that will turn into the man who is J.M. Coetzee. But a great thing about Boyhood is that the subject is very much a boy and not a future artist. He is a boy growing up in South Africa. Boyhood is when I fell in love with Coetzee.

The plan after Boyhood was to read Youth and then Summertime, polishing off the trilogy in the intended order. My impatience for Summertime in January resulted in some skipping about. And so Youth waited for summer. The wait, its coming third, may have enhanced my enjoyment of it. It is not my favorite of the three. In fact, it is my least favorite, but it is still an excellent book.

Youth is an awkward as Coetzee shows anew. In boyhood, Coetzee was “a liar to the world in general, cold-hearted toward his mother.” His relationship to the world and to women has only matured, not changed. In Youth, he still poses for those around him, whether his employers, his friends, or his sexual conquests, and is cold-hearted toward the women in his life. He remains honest with himself, as honest as he can manage. That honesty is tempered by some delusions:

He is proving something: that each man is an island; that you don’t need parents.

So much of Boyhood is dominated by Coetzee’s complex relationship with his mother. She loves him, favors him even, and so he has the luxury of pushing her away.

It pains his mother, he can see, that he is steadily growing away from her. Nevertheless he hardens his heart and will not relent.

Early in Youth, Coetzee’s mother still suffers from his determined flight:

Whenever she sees him she tries to slip money into his pocket, a pound note, two pounds. ‘Just a little something,’ she calls it. Given half a chance, she would sew curtains for his flat, take in his laundry. He must harden his heart against her. Now is not the time to let down his guard.

He does not punish his mother for anything she has done, but what she would do, if allowed. He punishes her for being a potential obstacle in his quest for artistic greatness. That is the goal he has set for himself in Youth. His revelry in self-sufficiency is but a subset of his masochistic relationship with art.

Like Pound and Eliot, he must be prepared to endure all that life has stored up for him, even if that means exile, obscure labour, and obloquy. And if he fails the higher test of art, if it turns out that after all he does not have the blessed gift, then he must be prepared to endure that too: the immovable verdict of history, the fate of being, despite all his present and future sufferings, minor. Many are called, few are chosen. For every major poet a cloud of minor poets, like gnats buzzing around a lion.

And this, in some ways, is Coetzee’s immodest project. He shows some of his worst qualities, but they are all in service to this pursuit of artistic truth. “[F]ortunately, artists do not have to be morally admirable people.” He not only sacrifices his mother, but himself. At least, he is prepared to do so. Coetzee goes out of his way to emphasize his moral failings, but only to highlight his commitment to art. His cold-heartedness was necessary, he says. Perhaps. He is hardest of all on himself, he says. Perhaps. But he knows, by the time he has written this book, that he is the lion. And, yet, he knows we know he is the lion. Maybe he is hardest on himself.

Even his determination to take the test, to risk failure, by the end, is revealed as only bravado. He is like the rest of us. The final pages of the book relate his despair and frustration. He wants greatness, but he is not prepared, after all, to risk being less than great.

Now he is not a poet, not a writer, not an artist. He is a computer programmer, a twenty-four-year-old computer programmer in a world in which there are no thirty-year-old computer programmers.

Amidst the suffering, the awkwardness, the computer programming, and the making of an artist, there are books and poems and literary criticism. I was particularly pleased when, having just finished Ford Madox Ford The Good Soldier, Coetzee sets himself the challenge of reading Ford’s entire literary output. He does it for his thesis. Much of Ford disappoints him.

If Ford was such a fine writer, why, mixed in with his five good novels, is there so much rubbish?

The obvious retort is that rubbish is almost always inevitable. Five good novels is five more than most ever manage. Even the greats must try and fail. That’s what they say; what Coetzee says.

If Coetzee has failed, I have not seen it. This trilogy is genius.