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.

The Museum of Dr. Moses by Joyce Carol Oates

November 1, 2009

Inspired by Kevin From Canada’s coincidental choice of a “spooky” book Halloween week, I decided to finish Oates’s collection of “Tales of Mystery and Suspense” on Halloween. Some of the stories, like the title story, are quite creepy, while others are more psychologically suspenseful.

MuseumOfDrMosesMy favorite book by Joyce Carol Oates is the very dark novella Beasts. My next favorite would be The Gravedigger’s Daugther, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. This collection of short stories, however, is a fine introduction to her work if you prefer the short form.

The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense lives up to its subtitle. Oates is excellent at creating suspense. She knows how to slowly turn up the tension, making the reader more and more uneasy, until she lets go the climax often leaving the reader a little breathless. The tales here focus on mystery and suspense rather than the grotesque, though several involve that element as well.

One of the most affecting of the eight stories is “Suicide Watch.” In the story, a twenty-eight year old man, Seth, is being held on suicide watch and is suspected of murdering his two year old son and the boy’s mother. Seth’s father comes to visit, ostensibly for support. The story is less about the missing child and his mother than about father-son dynamics. While the suspense revolves largely around finding out whether Seth has done something to the missing boy and woman, the father’s strained relationship with the son is the most captivating aspect. The father is in no better a position than the reader with respect to knowledge of Seth’s guilt or innocence. In some ways, the father’s position is worse than the reader’s because of his and his son’s shared history and the father’s love of his grandson. Oates does an incredible job of managing the emotional intensity of the situation and pulling the reader along to the final insight.

Oates really shines in dark, psychologically taut scenes. She does emotion, particularly needy, desperate emotion, as well as anyone I have read. Her characters are almost always damaged or involved in highly dysfunctional relationships. She manages to delve into intense emotional situations without allowing the story to crumble into melodrama. This collection nicely highlights some of Oates’ strengths, particularly if you like dark, suspenseful tales.

The closest she comes to horror is in the title story, “The Museum of Dr. Moses”. The story primarily involves an adult woman in her twenties (Ella McIntyre), her mother (Mrs. Virginia Hammacher), and her stepfather (Dr. Moses Hammacher). The story opens with Ella on her way to visit her mother. The mother and daughter have been estranged since her mother helped Ella’s no account brother one too many times.

Virginia had previously escaped from an abusive relationship with Ella’s alcoholic father. During her estrangement from Ella, Virginia remarried. Her husband is the most prominent physician in the rural upstate New York county where Ella grew up and has been since her childhood.

There are early indications that, if nothing else, Dr. Moses (as he is familiarly called) is eccentric. After the County Historical Society provides funds to display some antiques of local significance, “Dr. Moses demanded money from the society to start a museum of his own.” The society obliges with a small grant which only offends Dr. Moses. He breaks off relations with the society, but set up the museum in the old house in the countryside where he lives with Virginia.

Ella arrives at the museum and is greeted at the door by Dr. Moses. He leaves Ella and her mother alone in the parlor to talk:

After Dr. Moses’s initial, courtly greeting of me, whom he referred to as his ‘prodigal stepdaughter,’ he’d retreated upstairs, meaning to be inconspicuous perhaps, but his slow, circling footsteps sounded directly overhead; the high ceiling above creaked; Mother glanced upward, distracted. I was asking her simple, innocuous questions about her wedding, her honeymoon, relatives, Strykersville neighbors and friends, and she answered in monosyllables; I told her about my teaching job, my semidetached brownstone with its small rear garden, my regret that I hadn’t seen her in so long. Some caution prevented me asking of more crucial matters. I sensed that my mother’s mood was fragile….Truly I could not see Mother clearly, even at close range. Ella! Help me. I heard this appeal silently, as Mother squeezed my hands.

I whispered, “Mother? Is anything wrong?” but immediately she pressed her fingers against my lips and shook her head no. Meaning no, there was nothing wrong? Or no, this wasn’t the time to ask?

Oates pulls the reader more and more deeply into the very strange museum of Dr. Moses and his odd relationship with Virginia (who refers to him as Dr. Moses). As with most of the stories in this collection, the ending contains some ambiguity though it resolves this key mystery. The mood is so expertly set and the characters sufficiently vivid that this story is easily one of the most memorable and disconcerting.

In all, this is a very fine collection of stories. The genre suits Oates well and she has managed to produce some original, memorable stories.

Samedi the Deafness by Jesse Ball

August 2, 2009

Samedi the Deafness follows in the tradition of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Jorge Luis Borge’s story collection Labyrinths. For instance, the following from The Crying of Lot 49 could have been nearly as easily dropped into Ball’s book:

“In Golden Gate Park she came on a circle of children in their nightclothes, who told her they were dreaming the gathering. But that the dream was really no different from being awake, because in the mornings when they got up they felt tired, as if they’d been up most of the night. When their mothers thought they were out playing they were really curled in cupboards of neighbors’ houses, in platforms up in trees, in secretly-hollowed nests inside hedges, sleeping, making up for these hours. The night was empty of all terror for them, they had inside their circle an imaginary fire, and needed nothing but their own unpenetrated sense of community.” – The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pychon

This scene from The Crying of Lot 49 very nearly summarizes the major themes of Samedi the Deafness. Rather than relying on dreams, Ball more frequenting explores the distinctions between fantasy and reality using lies and waking fantasies, but the concepts are quite similar. Just as it is unclear who, if anyone, is actually dreaming in the Pynchon work, in Ball’s novel, it is difficult to determine which of his characters, if any, is living in the real world.

Ball’s novel is set primarily in a mental institution filled with compulsive liars. To paraphrase Pynchon then, a central question in Samedi the Deafness becomes whether these liars need anything besides “their own unpenetrated sense of community.”

Ball also has a whimsical scene with children, otherwise absent from the work, who appear unexpectedly:

On the grass, children were playing. Where could they have come from? thought James.

And then he realized that there were children everywhere. Children on the porch, children on the lawn, children behind him in the house. Never had he seen so many children in one place.

– Why so many children? James asked the man seated next to him.

As if out of a long sleep, the old man answered slowly.

– It is a field trip. Every year the children come. Oh, how we who live here long for and await this day. Can you see their little hats, their little shirts? Have you ever seen a shoe so small?

The old man snatched at one of the children running past, catching the back of the little fellow’s overalls and dragging him to him.

– No! said a nurse, suddenly appearing out the doorway.

She slapped the old man’s hand with a ruler. He let go of the child, who ran off happily to the lawn.

The nurse gave a long, considered look to the old man.

– Olsen, we don’t want to put you back in, do we?

He said nothing, but grumbled quietly and looked into his lap.

– I said, we don’t want to put you back in, do we? Do we, Olsen?

He said that he did not want to go back in. Not for any reason.

– Good, said the nurse. Good.

Whether Ball intended it, I immediately thought of the Pynchon scene when reading the above. Neither scene is integral to the plot of the respective book. Both are fancifully humorous while touching on something deeper, though that deeper something is not precisely the same in each.

SameditheDeafnessIn Ball’s scene, the old man is obviously quite childlike and Ball appears to be having some fun with age and youth. However, there is more. The old man is able to snatch the child up with little difficulty. Though the child is oblivious to the old man grabbing him, the grab is not entirely benign. The child’s play is interrupted, the child did not come to the old man by his own will, and the old man is treating the child as a curious object rather than an intelligent and independent agent. There are issues of power, its abuse, and responsibility. These issues are important to Samedi the Deafness, if not central.

Before delving further into the book, I want to disclose several things important to this review. To my chagrin, I have not read Jorge Luis Borges, but what I know of him and his stories, incuding “The Library of Babel” with its universe full of interconnecting rooms, leads me to believe that Ball owes a debt to him. My not having read Borges is, therefore, almost certainly a limitation to my ability to fully appreciate Ball’s work.

As importantly, I have read Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and I was underwhelmed. There are great moments, such as the one I quote above, but overall I felt, as did Pynchon apparently, that the work was not a masterpiece. Many people disagree. I think these people, i.e. readers who love The Crying of Lot 49, will enjoy Samedi the Deafness much more than I did.

The protagonist of the novel is James Sim. James happens upon a dying man, Thomas McHale, in a public park. The dying man asks James not to go for help, but to stay and listen to him recount the names of his murderers. James complies. McHale tells James of a murky conspiracy involving various men and women. Samedi is the head of the conspiracy. McHale dies.

An hour later, James reads in the newspaper about a suicide in front of the White House. Authorities find a note on the dead man that warns of “the rod” in seven days. The note is signed “Samedi.” Rather than go to the police, James decides to investigate on his own.

Within three days, James is taken to what he believes is Samedi’s house. Upon arrival, James is invited to stay for a few days. The house is described to him as a “verisylum”; it was built to treat “dramatic cases of chronic lying.” The house contains a labyrinth of hallways and stairwells and the rooms are not numbered sequentially or in any other intelligible order. The occupants are subject to a set of arbitrary rules.

There would be no prohibition against lying, but the individuals present in the house, the chronic liars, would find in the arbitrary rules, which, as you’ll come to see, are many, a sort of structure that allowed them, as time passed, to construct an identity for themselves. The idea is that when many lies are told, unfettered by immediate comparison to fact, they end up comprising a kind of truth. On that truth too lies can be based.

James spends the remainder of the novel trying to determine the nature of this conspiracy and who is behind it. The important thing to note for this review is that very little beyond this can definitively be said about the plot. Things are described, but because so much of the plot is based on what characters say and the characters are all unreliable, the reader soon has difficulty separating the truth from the lies.

The quote is clever in that it could be a description of the novelistic process. Novels create worlds built of “lies” which have a truth about which lies can be told. (See Nabokov’s Pale Fire.) And yet, I question whether a novel, like this one, in which it is not entirely clear what “really” happens can succeed. Unreliable narrators are one thing. Nabokov’s Kinbote is awesome. But there must be sufficient clues for the reader to construct a plausible narrative or two. Ball may have been playing with Borges’ idea of infinite variations on a narrative and his idea that an infinite number of books could be interpreted in an infinite number of ways. However, while the concept is an interesting one, I am not sure creating a novel about which little definite can be said is a worthy goal.

If that was the goal, Ball succeeds. Perhaps a second close read would begin to reveal clues that narrowed down the narrative possibilities, but there came a point in the novel where I decided it was not entirely possible to determine whether anyone, including the non-character narrator, was telling the truth. That’s my way of saying, the narrative is likely indecipherable. Nabokovian ambiguity I like; incoherence, not so much.

There are inherent dangers in delving too deeply into questions of lies, liars, and the world they inhabit. Too many lies become a chore. As a reviewer of The Crying of Lot 49 has pointed out, “the fabrications take their toll on the readers’ credulity.”

Now, maybe this is genius. At the end, you cannot know who to care about or trust, if anyone, and you must simply choose someone to believe based on whim or arbitrary choices. You, then, are like the inhabitants of the verisylum in that you choose your own reality in order to make sense of the world in the book. Only by making arbitrary choices can you give the book a coherent plot. If that is the object, I think it is a little too close to being equivalent to presenting a blank canvas as the ultimate painting. It is clever, but probably too much so.

Aside from these problems, the prose style is not welcoming. It is very off-putting, but after reading for awhile, it does get into a rhythm. Still, parts of the book read as if it were an 80s text-based computer game:

— We can finish later, he said.

He gave James a disapproving look, and hurried off after Grieve.

Graham and James were left then together in the room.

This type of prose can go for a couple pages. Other times, the writing flows beautifully. So these are not stumbles, but intentional stylistic choices. And, to reiterate, the style does work with the story in a strange way, at least unless or until both the story and the style become grating.

This is definitely not a book for everyone. If you have not read The Crying of Lot 49 already, I would urge you to read that book first. Only then, if you like Pynchon, could I highly recommend this book.

As for the rest of us, this is an experimental work.

Experiments, said Carlyle, are not ever successful. Or they are always successful. Have it either way. An experiment simply procures information that was hitherto unclear.

Deferring to Carlyle, I will not say the experiment fails, though I was ultimately dissatisfied. I will say that I hope the book finds its readers, because I am sure it has them. I am sure it deserves them.