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.

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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.


What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

June 14, 2010

I am reviewing my most recent reads entirely out of order. I would have to go back to check when this started happening, and maybe I could not unravel the mystery even with the effort. The reasons are various. Sometimes, I want to wait and think about a book. Other times, I am excited about the book and want to get my thoughts down as quickly as possible. Sometimes, I am ambivalent about the book just finished, so I write instead about one that moved me in some way. Other times, this time, I feel almost sullied, so I write about it to purge myself.

I do not mean “sullied” as a negative. Siri Hustvedt is a poet and writes beautiful prose. The novel is engaging and has depth. And, yet, by the end I had a feeling of contamination. Perhaps, she writes too well, knows her subject too well, conveys the emotions of her characters too well.

Leo Hertzberg, an art historian and critic, narrates the novel and, from very early, it is clear that Hustvedt is intimately familiar with the New York art scene. On the opening pages, Leo recounts the contents of the fourth of five letters from Violet to Bill in which Violet declares her love for Bill. The power of the letters prompts Leo to write this book.

Leo then embarks on the chronological narrative, which begins with Leo buying from a gallery a painting that impresses him. The primary subject of the painting is a woman lying on the floor in an empty room.

It took me about a minute to understand that there were actually three people in the painting. Far to my right, on the dark side of the canvas, I noticed that a woman was leaving the picture. Only her foot and ankle could be seen inside the frame, but the loafer she was wearing had been rendered with excrutiating care, and once I had seen it, I kept looking back at it. The invisible woman became as important as the one who dominated the canvas. The third person was only a shadow. For a moment I mistook the shadow as my own, but then I understood that the artist had included it in the work. The beautiful woman, who was wearing only a man’s T-shirt, was being looked at by someone outside the painting, a spectator who seemed to be standing just where I was standing when I noticed the darkness that fell over her belly and her thighs.

Leo tracks down the artist of this “self-portrait”, William “Bill” Wechsler, and strikes up a friendship. Leo and his wife, Erica, end up living in the same building as, and directly beneath, Bill and his wife, Lucille. Both couples have sons at nearly the same time and become a close-knit group: “two families, one on top of the other.” Violet is the beautiful model in the painting.

This book is steeped in art, for that is what initially binds Bill and Leo. Many are the expositions on the meaning of art or the content of particular works, whether real or imaginary. This novel is so tightly constructed that each conversation is packed with meaning that, on a re-read, would undoubtedly multiply and reverberate.

In one of Bill and Leo’s early discussions, Bill is discussing medical drawings and Cezanne.

”That’s the problem with seeing things. Nothing is clear. Feelings, ideas shape what’s in front of you. Cezanne wanted the naked world, but the world is never naked. In my work, I want to create doubt.” He stopped and smiled at me. “Because that’s what we’re sure of.”

Little scenes like this take on new meaning after you have finished the work. Not unlike Bill’s painting, close examination reveals new and surprising details that deepen and complicate the work. Leo’s failing eyesight in late life has already been disclosed, but the completeness of the metaphor is not entirely revealed until the final pages. Early on, there are hints, like this one, of the ubiquity of doubt and its importance in our lives.

Closely related to doubt is duplicity and this novel fully explores dishonesty in its many manifestations. As that early letter reveals, Bill is not faithful to Lucille. His infidelity has far-reaching consequences for each of the primary characters in this book.

Duplicity is dishonesty, but the word calls to mind duplication and doubling as well, which is another pervasive theme in the novel. The two families are neatly symmetrical. Leo and Erica, Bill and Lucille. Later, they have sons: Matthew and Mark. M&M. Before this, though, Leo describes a conversation with Lucille, a writer.

She talked as if she were observing her own sentences, looking at them from afar, judging their sounds and shapes even as they came from her mouth. Every word she spoke rang with honesty; and yet this earnestness was matched by a simultaneous irony. Lucille amused herself by occupying two positions at once. She was both the subject and the object of her own statements.

Just as Bill was, in some sense, both the subject and the object of his “self-portrait.”

Despite the similarities of age, the two boys’ alliterative names, and their close relationship, Matt and Mark are quite different. While Bill is the visionary artist, it is Leo’s son, Matt, who shines with pen and paints. Bill and Matt bond over baseball too. “In a single body, Bill combined Matt’s two great passions.” And, yet, Leo does not seem to be threatened by their closeness and Matt loves his father. Bill, too, loves his own son. The close relationship between Bill and Matt is simply another confusing, complicating aspect of these two entangled families’ lives.

Violet is another. She and Bill have an affair that destroys Bill’s marriage to Lucille. Lucille moves out, Violet moves in, and the five adults and two children become more entangled than ever. Hustvedt is an extremely perceptive observer of human relations. Her depictions of intimate moments between lovers or friends or enemies have a quiet intensity that carries with it both truth and doubt, much like Lucille’s earnestness and irony. The reader both knows the characters and does not. Mysteries abound, both in personalities and events.

The novel is divided into three sections. By the end of the first section, Bill, Violet, Leo, Erica, Matt, and Mark are nearly a single unit. They vacation together, live in the same house, send their boys to the same camp to bunk together, and otherwise are as entangled as two families could seem to manage. Even Lucille unites them in a strange way. She has moved out of town, but is still relevant. She haunts each of the adults in a different way, her existence a shadow, for a time the only shadow, on their lives.

The second section opens with a punch to the gut. A character dies. The first third of the novel always had an ominousness to it, but that first section ends so happily that the shift is difficult to take. The raw emotion of the characters is difficult to read. Their grief is not only real but infectious. Hustvedt may write a little too well.

The grief never ends, but it does fade. The novel becomes something of a psychological thriller. The issues of duplicity and doubling take on greater and more unsettling urgency. One character, in particular, becomes something of a threat to the others, or seems to. Leo, for instance, is never quite sure whether the character is telling the truth or lying, sincere or fake, ally or foe.

Along with this potential menace, a shock artist, Teddy Giles, befriends one of the clan. Whether the friendship is based on a true connection or merely an attempt to undermine one or both of his detractors (Bill and Leo) is never quite clear to Leo or to the reader. Giles specializes in horror. Bill and Leo see his work as cliched, though Giles insists he is subverting cliched horror for more serious artistic purposes. Giles’ depictions of dismembered bodies and severed limbs are initially disturbing more for the attention they draw than for the truths they reveal about the mind that created them. Giles thrives on hype, rumors, and ambiguous history, never settling on an identity or a past. He embodies the worst of what plagues Leo and the surviving characters through the last half of the book.

To delve too deeply into the plot twists and turns of the second half would be resolve too much of the tension and ambiguity that is a necessary part of the novel. But I will try to convey my reaction.

I felt dirty. By the end of the novel, I had spent too much time with a seriously disturbed character and, more wearyingly, with those trying to help and those trying to exploit that character. I wanted to give up on the character, I wanted the others to give up too. But the families are too entangled for any of them to let the lost cause go. Leo says early in the book:

The longer I live the more convinced I am that when I say “I,” I am really saying “we.”

This is a story of a group and, however defective the one character is, the group cannot just push the character out. They have too much loyalty to each other, to the group, for that.

I have not addressed many of the novel’s complexities. Hustvedt did extensive research on eating disorders, hysteria, and psychopathy to supplement her apparently encyclopedic knowledge of art and literature. In addition to the themes I have already mentioned, she also examines the idea that people often “become what they [are] near” or, perhaps, merely emulate what they are near.

Despite this depth, the book was not entirely satisfying to me. I think that is primarily because of the character who is not only a liar, but seems unable to grasp the truth. The effect on the other characters is devastating. For me, I lost interest in what happened to the character. Next to violence, lying is the most destructive human behavior. And lying is more unsettling than violence. Hustvedt did a fantastic job conveying the full consequences and pathologies of compulsive lying, but the result is not an easy book. And yet, though it has only been a day since I finished, the trying aspects are fading while the strengths remain impressed in my recollection. I will seek out more of her work, only not too soon.

I will be reading something by Paul Auster soon. He is Hustvedt’s husband and the man to whom this work is dedicated. I am looking forward to comparing their styles. I have not yet read any Auster, but I am intrigued. Hustvedt is good, but there is room, in my opinion, for Auster to be better.


My Teenager’s Perspective: The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner, California, 1852

June 12, 2010

My daughter asked me to help her with an English assignment this past Wednesday. She wanted me to check for grammatical errors and typos. She accepted some of my suggestions, ignored others. This is as it should be.

Thursday, she surprised me. “You should put this on your blog.”

I had actually been planning to ask her if she would collaborate on a post on some YA fiction over the summer. I thought we could both read the same book and give kind of a father/daughter take. If she was interested. Well, without my saying anything, she beat me to the ask. I was pleased.

Her Wednesday assignment was to write a response to a book of fiction. You may notice in reading her “Response” that the students were required to use certain terms (e.g. exposition, protagonist, etc.) in separate paragraphs. The book she chose was The Journal of Wong Ming-Chung: A Chinese Miner, California, 1852 (My Name is America Series) by Laurence Yep.

At her request, this is my daughter’s response:

The exposition of this story begins with Tiger Rock, in Southern China on October 1, 1851. The first year of the leader’s era is ending. It is autumn in China and winter is approaching. The rice fields are not doing well. Of the many lives in this rural area, a certain boy’s family is trying to survive.

The protagonist in this book is Wong Ming-Chung also known as “Runt” for his miniature size. Runt is a round character, experiencing different emotions throughout the journey. Being ten years old and being the youngest of the family, Runt always thinks and tries to help his family. He is also at times curious, eager to learn and bound to be reading a book. However, being dark-skinned, he does not have the same rights and opportunities of those of lighter skin.

The conflict includes both some internal and external. The main conflict in the story is the individual versus society. Other conflicts in the story include individual vs. nature, individual vs. individual(s), and individual vs. self. With Runt’s family struggling, Uncle sets out to America to get money for the clan. Sometime after, Uncle needs assistance finding gold and requests Runt’s older brother, Blessing come. Runt’s parents decide to send Runt instead. Thus begins his grueling, dangerous, and yet exciting journey to the New World.

The resolution to this exciting story is when Uncle and Runt find enough gold to send to their clan back in China, and start living fancy. Later on, Runt’s family wants him to return home to China. Making his choice, Runt decides to visit them, then to return back to America to help Uncle.

The themes of this journey are to work hard, do your best, and to do what is right. Do these things, then you will most likely experience great rewards knowing that they have been earned.

I felt multiple emotions throughout the book. I could picture and feel how Runt felt on his amazing journey. It was as if I was actually there. I could feel the nausea when Runt and his family had to eat weed soup for days, the thousands of people when Runt was in San Francisco, and the worry for his family. For me, it is rare to find a book that makes me feel such emotions. This means one thing, this book was a great one. I hope to read more books like this wonderful, historical novel.


Legend of a Suicide by David Vann

June 1, 2010

***This review is part of a TLC Book Tour. A copy of the book reviewed was provided to me free of charge by the publisher.***

I had this class once with Grace Paley in which she told us that every line in fiction has to be true. It has to be a distillation of experience, more true to a person’s life than any moment he or she has actually lived. So this book is as true an account as I could write of my father’s suicide and my own bereavement, and that was possible only through fiction.

This quote from David Vann is from an interview included at the end of his story collection, Legend of a Suicide. The truth in these stories is not the truth of his father’s life, but the truth of David Vann’s own life. The motivations of his father in these re-imagined events, all bearing some resemblance to the author’s own experiences with his father and in the aftermath of his father’s suicide, do not always ring coherent.

As we spent those years in California leading steadily more circumscribed lives, my father ranged farther and farther up in Alaska, and everything he did seemed to lack sense.

Of course, when describing someone suffering from debilitating depression and/or pain and/or emptiness, coherence would seem a lie. Vann does not appear to be trying to understand his father, as much as he is plumbing his own emotions. The truth of these stories is in the psychological toll taken on the son by the father’s life and death. The nonchalant violence perpetrated against the reader’s emotions is neither gratuitous nor pointless. Vann takes the reader to through his journey from boyhood to manhood. The arc of the stories is a satisfying success.

David Vann has a fascination with fish. Given the treatment they receive in nearly all of the stories, it appears at first glance to be a hate-hate relationship. A single example will suffice to illustrate:

The halibut themselves lay flat, like gray-green dogs on the white deck of the boat, their large brown eyes looking up at me hopefully until I whacked them with a hammer.

There plenty of other, well-written descriptions of fish taking blows, often creatively delivered, but Vann’s characters are most brutal to the ones they love. Vann’s offenses against fish belie an affection echoed in the son’s feelings toward his father.

In the first story, Ichthyology, the son wins a couple of goldfish at a county fair. A cat kills them. His mother buys a proper aquarium and stocks it. Dead fish are, at first, buried “in elaborate ceremonies”. Mother and son tire of this quickly, dropping the ceremony in favor of a flush. They do replace the departed with new varieties.

Review Copy provided by the publisher.

At one point, the new fish they buy are “two new silver dollars.” The silver dollars survey their new bowlmates and, almost immediately, suck out the eyes of the “badly misnamed” iridescent shark. The shark is left blind and bumbling. The boy’s mother scoops out the silver dollars and flushes them.

In the background, his parents divorce, he and his mother move to California from Alaska, and his father becomes a commercial fisherman. The father is clearly struggling, not unlike the eyeless “shark”. He blasts a hole in his head just as Vann’s real-life father did. Where the father could not cope, the fish does. Vann has indicated in an interview (which I read after writing the foregoing), that the shark was symbolic of his father and its survival eyeless was a sort of redemption for the father. I took David for the fly shot out of the air by an archer fish, another stand-in for his father.

[T]here was the fly, mired in the water, sending off his million tiny ripples of panic.

I may be reading too much into this fishy imagery, but, as I said, the stories are so very much about the son. The father is a man grieving for a wasted life, a lonely future. Nothing the father does in any of these stories turns out successfully. And in each, in some way, he kills a piece of his son. No matter at whom the father points the gun, it is the son who is injured.

At the center of the book is a novella rather than a short story. In real life, David Vann turned down the chance to spend a year in Alaska with his father. Shortly after that refusal, his father killed himself. In the novella, Vann’s fictional self, Roy Fenn, reluctantly agrees to the arrangement. This alternative reality is no less painful. Rather than spending four nights on a hotel room floor listening in the dark to his father weep, as did David, Roy has months in a cabin. In the novella, as in the stories surrounding it, James Edwin Fenn is feckless. He plans poorly, usually messes up whatever he attempts, and is wholly unable to connect in meaningful ways with the people around him. We do not get far beyond this image of the father, however, before the drama at the center of the novella unfolds.

Even in scenes where James is alone, we learn more about David/Roy and his feelings toward the father than we do about the possible motivations and emotions of the father. In short, I found this book to be fictional primarily as it relates to facts. It felt to me as entirely autobiographical with respect to emotions, the emotions of David/Roy. I do not mean to suggest that David was the troubled youth of “A Legend of Good Men” or the troubled adult in “Ketchikan”. But the emotions in these stories feel raw. For instance, after dropping the fingerlings over the cliff in one memorable scene, thirty year-old Roy imagines the tiny fish on the pavement:

Waiting, then. For water, for some new rule, new possibility, that could make pavement not pavement, air not air, a fall not a fall.

By the end of this linked collection, the reader has some insight into Roy, the boy placed in many different stories, always with the tragedy of suicide either looming in the present or just behind in the past. In this, the book is a success. The effect of examining suicide from so many closely-related perspectives is quite interesting. This structural technique is conceptually related to what J. M. Coetzee does in Summertime. Where Coetzee has something to say about his alter ego, the nature of memory and perception, and the business of storytelling, the scope of Vann’s work seems more limited. He captures in close detail the feelings of despair, rage, and confusion of a son abandoned by a father, but the project does not seem as layered or as broadly ambitious. This is not a fault, merely a difference.

This collection also brings to mind Afterwards by Gina Berriault. The subject of Ms. Berriault’s novel (novella almost) is also the aftermath of a suicide. Berriault, to my mind, demonstrates how beautifully an accomplished author can use a suicide to dig deeply not only into the emotional consequences of such an act, but also into some fundamental philosophical and psychological questions. My point is not that Vann’s work is not as good as Berriault’s or Coetzee’s, but to highlight their different purposes.

Vann’s work is very focused on the emotional toll of a father’s suicide on a son. Even in the one story where the father survives, it is clear the story is about David/Roy more than the father. The book feels like it must have been a cathartic experience for David Vann. And we are fortunate he chose this method. While his work is not as ambitious in some respects as Summertime and Afterwards, it achieves its own aims in beautiful prose.

I will be interested to see how David Vann moves on from what is, in many ways, a memoir of emotions to more pure fiction. In this hope and expectation, David Vann reminds me of Dave Eggers. While I have not read everything Eggers has written since A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, my impression is that he has not yet made the jump from his own “semi-autobiographical” fiction detailing the emotional consequences of his own tragic youth to fully realized and accomplished fiction. And, yet, Eggers certainly has a successful writing career. Whether Vann follows the Eggers path or, more likely, makes a trail uniquely his own, I look forward to the further successes of David Vann.

[some typos fixed 6-2-10]


The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

May 22, 2010

It was uneven stylistically, and in places the writing was actually rather poor – there had been no time for any fine polishing – but the book was animated by a fury that no reader could help but notice.

And the fury that animates this book is compelling. Lisbeth Salander, the twenty-three year-old girl whose description titles the book, is the demon-haunted star. She is at once sympathetic and thrilling. I doubt any women want her past, but I am sure most want her grit. Most men too.

Salander was a girl who fell through the cracks of Sweden’s social system and developed a hard-edged personality that resulted in her being labeled slow, dangerous, and incompetent to manage her own affairs. As the book begins, she is under the guardianship of a very honorable man who treats her with respect. She controls her own finances and works as a freelance investigator for a security firm. The head of the firm, Armansky, originally hired Salander as a favor to Salander’s guardian. Salander, of course, made good and is now the star researcher at the firm, valued by Armansky for her thoroughness and ability to uncover secrets. Salander will not remain comfortable for many pages.

Mikael Blomkvist is the lead male in this thriller. He begins the book as a principled journalist being sentenced to jail for committing libel against a powerful industrial magnate, Hans-Erik Wennerstrom. An old friend of his had given Blomkvist information regarding some dirty dealing by Wennerstrom. Blomkvist, investigative reporter that he is, digs, writes a story, and the story turns out to be false. The reader is not told until late in the book the details of how and why the story Blomkvist wrote ended in his being tried for libel. The mystery of the libel is one of many threads with which Larsson weaves this complicated tale.

Another thread involves the third most important character: Henrik Vanger. On his birthday, every year but one for forty-three years, he has received a pressed flower in a frame. His niece, Harriet Vanger, started the tradition as a child. The prologue shows Henrik receiving the forty-fourth specimen. He believes Harriet’s killer continues to send the flowers to torment him. He is eighty-two and wants to solve Harriet’s murder before he dies. Henrik decides to hire an investigative reporter. Enter Blomkvist.

Larsson manages plotting extremely well. I had seen the Dutch movie based on this book, so I actually knew a number of key plot points. However, fitting this 590 page (in paperback) book into a two-hour movie required a number of cuts and significant simplifications. The novel is packed with intricate plot lines. In some cases, a particular subplot seems far removed from the main action, while, in others, the connection is apparent even while the resolution is not. Larsson manages to pull all of the strands together into not one, but multiple satisfying ends. The movie was quite enjoyable despite the simplifications, but the book is better.

Small puzzles and intriguing side stories are introduced throughout to keep the reader’s appetite whetted and are resolved for little payoffs along the way to the final reveals. I use the plural, because there are several large mysteries, each of which has its own resolution. And they all are resolved satisfactorily without the denouement feeling entirely contrived or inevitable.

The rage in this book is not only Salander’s, though her emotion and her personality drive the emotional currents within. Each of the four parts begins with a statistic. The statistic for Part 1 is:

Eighteen percent of the women in Sweden have at one time been threatened by a man.

The abuse of women is a major theme throughout the novel. The cold quantitative data contrasts well with the quickly moving, emotionally-charged story lines and the indomitably vulnerable lead female. The technique may be a little heavy-handed, but this is not primarily a message book, nor a feel good one.

For instance, Salander is not spared harsh treatment, but:

Salander never forgot an injustice, and by nature she was anything but forgiving.

She is also, as we are told at one point, not passive. She is a character women admire and men respect. And vice versa.

Characterization is a strong point of the novel. Salander is an excellent creation; Blomkvist has subtle complexities underlying his affable, passionate, playboy persona. The Vanger family is large and many of them do blend together, but the principle heroes and villains almost all have three dimensions. The same can be said of other characters. Given the large number of suspects and the many subplots, flat characters and types are necessary, but I am still impressed with the complexity that Larsson has managed to give so many of the characters. Heroes are not only heroes. They have weaknesses, flaws, and foibles. Despite the pace of the story, Larsson fills in important psychological details of his characters which lends credibility to the plotting. The characters do not read like puppets, doing what they are told, but like self-directed agents, reacting to events.

This is the end of the good stuff. The novel is a successful thriller. I would even say it is unusually successful for a thriller, though I am not an aficionado of the genre. But I would not say that most lovers of literary fiction will enjoy it. This is not a literary thriller. There are prose moments that may grate.

Despite a lack of poetry, “anon” appears at least twice in this book, apparently in earnest.

Blomkvist was enraged. But he had never managed to be enraged at Erika Berger for very long.

Perhaps its just me, but this just sounds strange.

Sometimes, the wording just feels awkward. Whether this is an issue of translation, I cannot say. But Larsson sometimes struggles to get across an emotion or mental state:

Salander felt that her composure was barely skin-deep and that she really wasn’t in complete control of her nerves.

There are a number of cases in which characters run through things in their mind, unnecessarily to my ear:

She sat on the worn sofa in her living room for one whole evening running through the situation in her mind.

After going through her address book in her mind…

He went through in his mind what he knew about Cecilia.

I do not mean to be a pedant, but to alert you to what you are getting and what you are not. The sentences are often poorly constructed. If this will ruin your experience, it is best to stay away. If you tend not to mark grammatical mistakes or unnecessarily long and convoluted sentences with a red pen in your mind, then don’t worry about it. For this kind of book, the faster you read, the better it is.

So, if you want to luxuriate in silky smooth prose with pleasing metaphors grab Bellow or Woolf or Nabokov and let this one lie. If you are in the mood for excitement and complex plotting, grab The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.