HHhH by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor)

February 15, 2013

There are two books here: One is a fictionalized account of historical events, the other is a book of criticism aimed at historical fiction and the problems inherent in that genre. Before reading HHhH, I, perhaps unwisely, read James Wood’s review in The New Yorker. The wisdom deficiency is in not caring, for I certainly realized, that James Wood’s interpretation and judgment would irrevocably shape my own. So now, although I would like to assure you and, in the process me, that I would have reached conclusions very similar to Mr. Wood’s on my own, there is nothing I can say that would accomplish that task. Much less is there anything I can say that would make it knowably true.

I did just recently read Austerlitz and, thus, almost certainly would have made unfavorable comparisons between that great work and this one. I do not like the narrator of HHhH and I think that is my own genuine reaction. I would not have known for certain, however, that the narrator is, in fact, Laurent Binet and not “Laurent Binet” fictionalized self and relative of Summertime‘s John Coetzee but for Mr. Wood’s providing solid evidence to support that conclusion. I think the book would be more interesting if Binet was a counterpart to John Coetzee. My criticisms then would largely be of the fictionalized author rather than the actual author and it would leave open the possibility that the actual author was aware of the defects in the fictional author’s arguments and presentation.

For me, Binet identifies a difficulty with trying to capture the truth of an historical event, but, rather than proposing an interesting solution (Coetzee’s multiple, subjective perspectives, for instance), he bemoans the problem while also capitulating to it. In fact, he embraces the methodologies he excoriates far more than necessary to accomplish his narrative goal. Woods put it thusly: “Binet has his cake and eats it, and gets to cry over the spilt crumbs, too.”

In other words, the “book of criticism”, as I have called it, unfortunately inextricable from the historical story, is not persuasive. But, it does have me thinking and typing about the intersection of historical truth and storytelling. Truth and storytelling may not be strictly compatible in a reductionist view of historical truth-telling where, unless every fact related is objectively true, the entire edifice crumbles. However, I think Binet is wrong in starting from that reductionist premise. Even the most cursory reflection on the subject reveals that a good story about actual events can never provide the reader with the “objective truth”. Frankly, I think his error is in assuming that it is theoretically possible to write an accurate history from a “god’s eye” perspective the same way Flaubert can write a perfectly objective account of Emma Bovary through omniscient third-person narration. No historian, nor any amateur sleuth bent on writing historical fiction, can attain the omniscience necessary for this sort of narration.

Austerlitz makes this point by nesting points-of-view like Russian stacking dolls: “But I was particularly anxious, Vera told me, said Austerlitz…” We are not getting the story directly from an all-knowing god, rather, the story comes to us from a very human narrator who gets it from Austerlitz who gets it from, in this case, Vera. The contingency of historical facts and the uncertainties of recollections is not ignored, but is used to a purpose. History is somewhat like a game of telephone, we can only hope that the gist of the message has not been lost. Hoping for an accurate transcription of the original is folly.

Binet, though, defies the necessary subjectivity of any account of history. He believes a complete tally of every detail is, theoretically, possible. After one section of fictionalized narrative, he writes: “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up. How impudent of me to turn a man into a puppet…To decide that he left in the evening rather than the morning, I am ashamed of myself.” Perhaps he should be, but not for the reasons he proclaims. Binet is so concerned with facts, the minutest details, he falls into the same hole recognized, and avoided, by Austerlitz’s secondary school history teacher (Hilary):

All of us, even when we think we have noted every tiny detail, resort to set pieces which have already been staged often enough by others. We try to reproduce the reality, but the harder we try, the more we find the pictures that make up the stock-in-trade of the spectacle of history forcing themselves upon us: the fallen drummer boy, the infantryman shown in the act of stabbing another…..Our concern with history, so Hilary’s thesis ran, is a concern with preformed images already imprinted on our brains, images at which we keep staring while the truth lies elsewhere, away from it all, somewhere as yet undiscovered.

Binet, I believe, is obsessed with accurately rendering the details of these “preformed images” rather than trying to get at the truth of the matter which does not exist in a detail like the precise expression on someone’s face:

And even if there are clues to Himmler’s panicked reaction, I can’t really be sure of the symptoms of this panic: perhaps he went red (that’s how I imagine it), but then again, perhaps he turned white. This is quite a serious problem.

But it is not a problem, serious or otherwise. It is not a problem for the historian because the historian need not speculate on which color Himmler turned, assuming he changed colors at all. The historian will give us the known facts indicating that Himmler was panicked, but has no need to speculate on the fifty shades of Himmler’s face. It also is not a problem for the fiction writer because these are precisely the details that matter for storytelling but matter not at all for the truth of what the novelist (historical or otherwise) is trying to convey. Whether Himmler turned red or white matters no more than accurately describing from a color palette Himmler’s original skin tone the moment before he heard the panic-inducing news. This fervid focus on the accuracy of cliched details is not brilliance or even intelligence, it is an author lost in a jungle of his own planting. Binet, though, seems too proud of his concern for these facts (is the Mercedes black or dark green?) to recognize the triviliaty of his quest.

41HyeElHR2L._SL160_I quickly found these worried asides both distracting and annoying. Almost as annoying as Binet’s use of, again I will use Wood’s words, the “trick of giving the impression that he is thinking the book through as he is writing…” This novel is obviously a well-polished work of art. Binet even comments within the text on the various drafts and his edits. But then he slips in things like: “Actually, no: that’s not how it is. That would be too simple. Re-reading one of the books that make up the foundation of my research….I become aware, to my horror, of the mistakes I’ve made…” Perhaps yes, but actually no. Yes, he may have discovered an error in that way and he may have been horror stricken, but he is neither now nor when he sent in his final draft, horror stricken at his errors. He has chosen, after much thought and deliberation, to leave them in precisely so, as a character, he can be horrified. Binet by presenting these errors to us for the purpose, presumably, of showing how easy it is to get a detail wrong, makes it much more likely that we will take away from this book errors rather than the facts with which he is so concerned. I remember a number of things about Gabcik, which one of those was I supposed to forget? I cannot remember. Thank you, Mr. Binet.

Binet cannot really have been concerned with me, his reader, nor about a scrupulously accurate story, for he leaves in errors to push his critical point while knowing that readers (primacy effect, etc.) will likely remember untruths he embedded in the text for the purpose of demonstrating how concerned he is with strict, objective truth. At moments like that, Binet seems mostly concerned with Binet and least concerned with his audience.

And that is another mistake Binet makes: He directs the spotlight away from the historical truth he claims he is after and towards himself. The story of Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis and the many other heroic contributors to the Czech Resistance ends up being eclipsed by Binet’s obsession with the color of the Mercedes in which Himmler rode to his castle. It is a mistake not only because the power of the story is diminished by the narrator’s intrusions (“Gabcik takes out his lighter and touches it to the German’s cigarette. I’m going to light one too….,” Binet writes at one point; at another, he laments: “I don’t even have time to mourn them…,”; perhaps worst: “…[Gabcik] runs down toward the river. And I, limping through the streets of Prague, dragging my leg as I climb back up Na Porici, watch him run into the distance.”). Pulling readers’ attention away from the ostensible heroes is also a mistake because Binet seems to misunderstand the problem of getting history right. In fact, he seems oblivious to the lessons of philosophy and post-modernism generally.

A god’s eye view of history is impossible. His effort to achieve it, or book length whine that he cannot, is akin to a Creationist’s search for the actual site of the Garden of Eden. Binet’s intellectual concerns are obsolete. Any account of the past is necessarily subjective, no matter how scrupulously you verify the make of the bicycle on which Kubis pedalled away from the ambush.

More damningly, this misguided chasing and the artifice he uses to convey it, becomes extremely tedious.

I have mainly cast stones, from the safety of Wood’s skirts, at that second aspect of the book. However, the story of Gacik and Kubis and the Czech Resistance, though not spectacular in terms of either storytelling or language, is both fascinating and important. Binet has done an incredible amount of research and often leaves the main narrative to relate unrelated acts of heroism from World War II, such the sacrifice made by the Kievan soccer team. Those asides add much to the book, giving as they do other perspectives on the times and the resisters’ heroism. They are much better breathers from the main narrative than, for instance, that authorial cigarette break which is wedged into an otherwise enthralling story. The book is good, in other words, despite the major problems I have with the argument Binet puts forth and the manner in which he makes it. This is a book I found well worth reading for what it does right and, too, for what it does wrong. It provokes. Literature that provokes must have done something right.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

February 8, 2013

The retelling and reworking of myths is as ancient as myths themselves. Milton’s Paradise Lost, of course, reworks the story of creation and the Garden of Eden. Jeannette Winterson’s contribution to Canongate’s “Myth Series” is an enjoyable example, so too is Jim Crace’s absolutely incredible Quarantine. In all, the basic plotlines of the original myth are used as a framework to push new and interesting ideas. The myth is redirected from its original purpose to something else. In Crace’s work, for instance, the historical truth of the original myth is undermined to explore mythmaking itself, how an ordinary man is turned into a god.

The Song of AchillesMadeleine Miller has chosen for her framework the myth of Achilles, one of the most well-known and most-oft told and re-told myths of ancient Greece. The focus of her telling is the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. In her telling, their relationship is a romantic one, but this interpretation is not original to her. Plato, in his Symposium, holds up the relationship of Achilles and Patroclus as a romantic ideal. Whether Achilles and Patroclus had only a close male friendship or a romance has, apparently, been an interpretational argument from ancient times through today. Miller sides with romance, but this decision does little to reinvigorate the myth. There is nothing particularly daring or inventive in this recounting of a famous myth. Miller seems to have been preoccupied with getting it right, sticking closely to the script and only letting her imagination bloom in the gaps.

Her aim then, was not to re-invent the myth and give it new meaning, but to tell the myth well. She succeeds. While the myth itself leaves the modern reader incredulous at times and the love story is fairly conventional, Miller is a good stylist matching imagery with character and story:

His mouth was a plump bow, his nose an aristocratic arrow.

This image of Achilles’s face as a drawn bow is beautifully unexpected and quite appropriate for the greatest warrior of all time. Or this:

Scyros’ great rocks that beetled over the sea…

Miller’s vivid imagery and the inherent narrative pull of the story (it is oft-told for a reason) makes this an easy read. The novel is stylistically pleasing, but not ambitious. The Song of Achilles does not achieve what Paradise Lost or Quarantine did. If you are looking to break that sort of ground this is not your book. However, retelling an important myth, and doing so well, is a valuable contribution to literature on its own. The book did win the Orange Prize for good reason.

Because I have little else to say about the content of Miller’s work, let’s talk Tournament of Books.

In my estimation, Dear Life, The Orphan Master’s Son, and HHhH all have considerably more ambition than The Song of Achilles. The first two of those are at least equally accomplished in terms of prose and structure. I cannot imagine The Song of Achilles actually winning the Tournament. It is too conventional, too safe, and the plot too well-known to beat out books with more exciting plots (Gone Girl), more intellectual heft (HHhH, The Orphan Master’s Son), and/or more consistently elegant prose (Dear Life). Consistency may get The Song of Achilles out of the first round, but I do not see much music for it beyond that.

My dream matchup for The Song of Achilles is HHhH, where an interesting discussion about the similarities between Binet’s passionate concern for fidelity to historical truth and Miller’s apparent passion for remaining true to the “facts” of an ancient myth (for instance, she rejects Achilles’s supposed invulnerability in favor of the “more realistic” and “older tradition” in which Achilles is simply a preternaturally gifted fighter but is not invincible). Binet was trying to write historical fiction while pointing out the impossibility of doing so while resolutely reporting only known facts. Miller was writing mythology as historical fiction. Both authors lost something by being too concerned with factual accuracy and not being concerned enough with giving the important details a voice. Binet was the more courageous, but Miller more certainly achieved her less ambitious goal. My nod is to HHhH because, as infuriating as Binet’s work sometimes is, it provoked. In comparison, The Song of Achilles felt like one of those amusement park cars that ride, slowly, on rails.

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

February 4, 2013

This National Book Award finalist and PEN/Faulkner Award Winner deserves the accolades it has gotten, particularly because there is so much depth in such a slim volume. Julie Otsuka found the perfect voice and narrative method to convey both the scope and the intimacy of the Japanese-American experience leading up to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The United States Supreme Court decision Korematsu v. United States, which upheld the discriminatory treatment of Japanese-Americans by the U.S. government, ranks with the Dred Scott decision and Plessy v. Ferguson as one of the worst stains on that great institution. Otsuka’s elegant prose and deft use of first person plural narration drives home the human cost of the racially discriminatory military order that led to the rounding up of thousands of Japanese-Americans for no crime other than having Japanese ancestry.

These legal tangents are my own. I am an attorney and hold the Korematsu decision in low regard, as most lawyers do. The book, however, is concerned, first, with the immigrant experience and, only later, the personal toll taken by the suspicions and paranoia directed at United States citizens of Japanese descent during a time of war. The actual Korematsu decision plays no role in the book, but the connections resonated with me, putting flesh and face on those who suffered under the unjust policy and the failure of the Supreme Court, that “weakest branch”, to attempt even to moderate the tide of paranoia sweeping a nation at war.

Enough about Korematsu.

This exceptional novel begins on a boat which is carrying young Japanese women who are coming to America ostensibly to meet husbands, current or anticipated. The narration is not from any particular individual’s point of view, but is told using “we” and “us”. Through Otsuka’s deft writing, however, individuals are not lost but, somehow, magnified using this method.

Several of us on the boat had secrets, which we swore we would keep from our husbands for the rest of our lives. Perhaps the real reason we were sailing to America was to track down a long-lost father who had left the family years before.  He went to Wyoming to work in the coal mines and we never heard from him again.  Or perhaps we were leaving behind a young daughter who had been born to a man whose face we could now barely recall – a traveling storyteller who had spent a week in the village, or a wandering Buddhist priest who had stopped by the house late one night on his way to Mt. Fuji. And even though we know our parents would care for her well –  If you stay here in the village, they had warned us, you will never marry at all – we still felt guilty for having chosen our own life over hers, and on the boat we wept for her every night for many nights in a row and then one morning we woke up and dried our eyes and said, “That’s enough,” and began to think of other things. Which kimono to wear when we landed. How to fix our hair. What to say when we first saw him. Because we were on the boat now, the past was behind us, and there was no going back.

On the boat we had no idea we would dream of our daughter every night until the day that we died, and that in our dreams she would always be three and as she was when we last saw her: a tiny figure in a dark red kimono squatting at the edge of a puddle, utterly entranced by the sight of a dead floating bee.

That last line not only stops this litany of secrets from blurring the varied experiences and individuals into a pitiable but somewhat The Buddha in the Atticamorphous lump, it ties the reader to the heartbreak of a single character with the crushingly evocative image of a young girl “utterly entranced”, as are we, by that lonely corpse.

There is more than sufficient hardship and heartbreak in the book and yet it never becomes maudlin. The characters are mostly optimistic, they have successes and failures. The fragility of life, so poignantly evoked by that dead, floating bee, comes through elsewhere as well and not only with regard to children, but also to matters of romance. These women were, after all, coming to America to join or find husbands:

One of us made the mistake of falling in love with him and still thinks of him night and day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who beat her with a broomstick and then lay down and wept. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who divorced her and sent her back to her parents in Japan, where she now works in a silk-reeling mill in Nagano for ten hours a day. One of us confessed everything to her husband, who forgave her and then confessed to a few sins of his own. I have a second family up in Colusa. One of us said nothing to anyone and slowly lost her mind. One of us wrote home for advice to her mother, who always knew what to do, but never received a reply.

These little vignettes I’ve excepted show some of the power of Otsuka’s collective narration, but know also that there are longer portions dedicated primarily to individuals. There are recurring characters, all are not as anonymous as you may begin to think from the quotes I have chosen.

Otsuka has managed to do what great fiction does, she shows us the world in a new light, in a way that engages both mind and emotion. The themes manage to be both universal – death, loss, and man’s refusal to succumb willingly to the crushing weight of life — and to be intimately specific – a mother’s last memory of her child: a three year-old by a puddle contemplating death as her mother leaves forever.

The Buddha in the Attic is both an impactful narrative and an exquisite glimpse inside the lives of an entire community under extreme pressures, both internal and external. Otsuka has achieved brilliance. She has also won a fan.

Open City by Teju Cole

May 10, 2012

Perhaps the most enticing thing I can say about this Book Critics Circle Award finalist and PEN/Hemingway Award-winner is that it pairs very nicely with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In my opinion, these were, by a wide margin, the two strongest novels of the 2012 Tournament of Books, though only Open City made it to the Finals.

The pairing works because both engage in issues relating to the construction of personal identity, guilt/culpability, and history. In blogging serendipity, both Whispering Gums and Pechorin’s Journal posted reviews of The Sense of an Ending on the same (April 25) day and both have sparked considerable discussion. If you have read A Sense of an Ending, or even if you haven’t, I recommend both reviews and the following discussions.

Open City warrants equal attention. Julius, the narrator, is a psychiatrist in the final year of his psychiatry fellowship. He has taken to walking around New York City aimlessly. Much of this novel is filled with his ruminations while walking, such as about bird migrations and whether his interest in bird migrations is connected to his new habit of wandering the streets. He considers what New York looks like from the perspective of geese and, importantly, when he sees no migrating geese from his apartment window:

I doubted in some part of myself whether these birds, with their dark wings and throats, their pale bodies and tireless little hearts, really did exist. So amazed was I by them that I couldn’t trust my memory when they weren’t there.

There is, of course, more than birds. The passage is important because memory haunts this book and this is one of the first hints of its importance and malleability. The climax of this book is a revelation about the past that alters the reader’s understanding of everything that has gone before.

Along the way, Cole weaves his story with strands of fascinating minutia, from those birds to Herman Melville to classical music to Nabokov to the slave trade to terrorism and all manner of other things, literary and otherwise. The references are not just random bits thrown on the canvas, though, each is carefully selected for how it will impact the whole. Julius, telling this story in the first person, is not as aimless as his wanderings suggest. While he is “conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly”, he shows very little emotion throughout the novel. He gains some trust with his detachment, a reservedness that suggests open and objective reporting.

Julius is a wonderfully astute observer, which also strengthens his credibility. He highlights little details of city life in thoughtful, sometime humbling ways. A man walking home alone after finishing the marathon is, at first, pitied for having no friends or family to share in his accomplishment, but, as the marathoner and Julius walk beside each other, Julius considers the strength of will it takes to finish a marathon. He moves from the burst of energy at the end of the marathon to the pain of the “the nineteenth, the twentieth, the twenty-first mile[s].” Completing a marathon is, he says, “still remarkable no matter how many people do it now.” After having really considered marathoning, Julius realizes that the marathoner walking gingerly home was not a sad figure, but a triumphant one.

It was I, no less solitary than he but having made the lesser use of the morning, who was to be pitied.

These little illuminations of the beauty of the routine make this novel sparkle. They also each build towards that radical late shift. The story of the marathoner provides a miniature of the bigger story: An initial scene creates a particular impression, in the case of the marathon it is the pitiful man trudging home anonymously, but reflection and revelation shift the meaning and, hence, the final impression that is left.

Whispering Gums (link above) makes an interesting connection between The Sense of an Ending and The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Open City is not really anything like that. Julius is, unlike Tony, not a bystander to life. He is sufficiently ambitious to make it from his native Nigeria to America through medical school and what appears to be a very solid, if not spectacular, career. Julius had to assert himself to make these things happen and he is much younger than Tony. Tony’s “melancholic tone” based on opportunities missed is absent here, but oddly mirrored in Julius’s clinical detachment from his own life.

The books are not exactly the same, however much the focus can turn to “what really happened?” Neither The Sense of an Ending (see Pechorin’s Journal link above) nor Open City are primarily concerned with presenting a mystery to be solved. The actual facts are, in at least some sense, irrelevant.

In Barnes’s work, this is because a major focus of the book is on how memory, all memory, is faulty. Constructing an “actual” past is a fool’s errand, in some ways, because, to borrow from Heisenberg’s insights into quantum physics, the mere recollection (observation) of one’s own memories alters them. It is impossible to perfectly reconstruct the essential variables of events in one’s past.

Cole has a slightly different focus. While I do not think this Copenhagen interpretation of memory is irrelevant to the story Julius tells, because there is some uncertainty there, it is more sideshow than main feature. Cole is more concerned with how personal narratives are constructed, particularly including value judgments, than with the unreliability of memory (or narrative). This is one of the more interesting parts of Barnes’s work too. After all, what really is interesting is how the recognition of the incompleteness of Tony’s memories reorders the value judgments placed on prior (undisputed) actions and inactions. Villians may be heros, or not. Cole confronts the reader with a similar principle of moral uncertainty. There are depths to be spelunked.

And amid all this, those delightful observations of small things:

The creak-creak of the swings was a signal, I thought, there to remind the children that they were having fun; if there were no creak, they would be confused.

I will leave with one last, sort of spoilerish conjecture. I am not sure of the meaning of those last 175 dead wrens. That so many birds died despite the fact that “the night just past hadn’t been particularly windy or dark” suggests something sinister about the flame, about the statue of liberty itself. Freedom comes up several times in the book. Julius finds freedom in his wanderings, there is the story of the shoeshiner who purchases the freedom of his sister, his wife, and himself, and the Brussels discussion of freedom, including the comparisons of freedom in Europe with that in America. American freedom “form[s] and sharpen[s]” people in unique ways, Julius suggests. For some, of course, the contact with American freedom is radicalizing.

I have not formed a clear idea of how this sinister side of American freedom fits in with the story-altering revelation. Julius is very careful to construct this portrait of a respectable, if disconcertingly aloof, man who cares about the arts, philosophy, history, and his fellow man. He is always polite, if not very warm, and he has come from difficult circumstances in Nigeria to success in America. That final detail brings new meaning to his demeanor, making it seem frosty rather than reserved.

My first impulse had been to equate the disorienting light of the Statute of Liberty to our own impulse to believe in our goodness. Like the promises of America, our own freedom of memory can disorient and destroy. The flame can guide some to safety and opportunity, others it destroys.

The error I have made, I think, is in trying too hard to boil Cole’s excellently crafted ending into a nicely summarized philosophical point. The birds simply are dead and the emotions there are quite similar to the emotions upon learning that final fact about Julius (and his own reaction to it). There is an inchoate sadness; the tragedy feels unfinished, an explanation is needed. But all we have are wrens, dead for reasons unknown.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

May 1, 2012

I have already griped about some of the slips of detail in Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel. Errors of detail shake the trust an author must have from her readers. I was shaken by some of Ward’s specifics, but stirred by others.

The beautiful evocations of late childhood in Salvage the Bones offset the mistakes of tractors that drive like cars and oddly formal playground basketball. Ward deftly sculpts mental images of those things she knows best.

A fifteen year-old* girl named Esch narrates this novel of a struggling black family in rural Mississippi. The family consists of four children (Randall, Skeetah, Esch, and Junior; three boys and a girl) and two largely absent parents. Esch’s mother died giving birth to the baby, Junior, and her father is usually unavailable in any productive sense due to perpetual drunkenness. With the tragedy of their mother’s death behind them by several years, we watch this kids as Hurricane Katrina, twelve days away at the start of the novel, looms ever larger over their lives.

The older siblings are all preoccupied with something outside the family: Randall is trying to obtain a basketball scholarship, Skeetah’s pet pit bull (China) is pregnant, Esch is in love with and pregnant by a handsome boy named Manny. Junior tags along with whoever will let him.

Ward captures sibling dynamics and the harshness of life for Esch and her brothers while capturing the bigness of teenage life, as it is experienced by teens, at least. When the older kids and some friends go camping, Skeetah shoots a squirrel for dinner. At the campsite, Skeetah butchers the small animal. He starts by cutting off the head, then:

He pitches the head into the underbrush like a ball…

On an adventure to a nearby farm, the reader feels like he too is crouching on the edge of the pasture watching Skeetah making his way past cows to a barn. Memories of playing in sheets hung on a clothesline feel almost like the reader’s own:

Mama washed all the sheets for both houses at once, and there was so much bedding that Daddy had to hand extra lines…The sheets were so thin we could almost see through them. They made cloudy rooms, and we played hide-and-seek in them. In the winter, they made our faces wet and achingly cold, but in the summer, it was so hot the sheets didn’t stay wet long, but we smashed our faces into them anyway, trying to find the hidden cool….[W]e let our hands hover over them, shoved our noses into them to see if we could see the other person running down the next billowing hallway.

There is much to love about this book. The characters are very strong. Esch and her siblings are excellently round characters. Skeetah, particularly, strolls out of the book as a fully formed person. Ward has great talent.

Despite my praise, I do feel the need to point out that there were aspects I found distracting (small details amiss), the sort of thing that tips off inhabitants of The Matrix to the artificiality of their world. Not everyone notices, of course. The strengths of characterization and story, which are considerable, override the minor failings for many. Shoehorning the story into twelve days did not work so well for me and gave too much focus to the hurricane. This is not a “Hurricane Katrina” book. I think the book would be stronger if it placed less focus on the storm.

It is not a perfect book. I liked it, though. I loved it best when it was about kids making their way in a teenage world or remembering a few short years ago when they were playing in “billowing hallways”. This is not the “Great American Novel”, but, if you read it, the characters are so real that you will genuinely hurt along with them.

*The promotional materials say “she’s fourteen”, but the math does not seem to work. Junior “is seven, and he is curious” while Esch was “eight [and] of no help” when her mother dies giving birth to Junior. Esch cannot be fourteen because she must turn fifteen on or before Junior’s seventh birthday (on his first birthday, she had to be nine, etc.). (This is also the summer after her tenth-grade year which, ordinarly, means an American student is fifteen or sixteen.) Bloomsbury how can you not know the age of the protagonist of the novel you publish?

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

April 24, 2012

I will be brief, because this novel has received widely laudatory coverage and I do not have much to say about it. Magical realism tends to have too much magic and too little realism for my taste. The mix here, though, was not bad. I also did not find, as others have, that the novel felt like two short stories (“The Deathless Man” and “The Tiger’s Wife”) duct-taped together to form a novel. Perhaps the most I can say is that I was not particularly moved.

Obreht has some beautiful imagery and intriguing ideas on offer. For the imagery, try this:

[H]e was the kind of boy who caught bumblebees in jars and then harnessed them carefully with films from cassette tapes so that it was not uncommon to see him walking down the main road with dozens of them rising around him like tiny, insane balloons while the film flashed wildly in the sun.

I also enjoyed the “sour little shudders” of a boy’s heart and the need, in cold and snow, “to wipe the sting out of his eyes”. Obreht paints exquisite details into her novel.

As for ideas, one of her most important characters is “the deathless man” who has been cursed with the inability to die. This idea has been often used before, though Simone de Beauvoir explored it with the most philosophical rigor in All Men Are Mortal. De Beauvoir uses Raimon Fosca, an immortal character, to examine what mortality means for our ethical systems and how it shapes human experience. In her rendering, immortality presents problems of its own, demonstrating that frustrations with limited time are, in some ways, based on false assumptions. The darkness and the light at the heart of existentialism is further explored through Fosca’s inability to create any lasting progress or improvements in the world. Whether man dies or not, meaning is ephemeral.

Obreht takes a light approach in bending the venerable myth of a man cursed with immortality to her purposes. Partly, this is by giving the deathles man a supporting, rather than leading, role. Natalia, Obreht’s narrator, learns from her grandfather’s interactions with the deathless man the lesson of hope in death. The deathless man proves that death need not be feared because there is something afterwards, something even to be longed for by one who knows best what to expect. Death, in other words, is not really death.

The primary problem with death, in Obreht’s telling, is that people are always worried they missed something that would have prolonged their life.

”But the greatest fear is that of uncertainty,” Gavran Gaile is saying. “They are uncertain about meeting my uncle, of course. But they are uncertain, above all, of their own inaction: have they done enough, discovered their illness soon enough, consulted the worthiest physicians, consumed the best medicines, uttered the correct prayers?”

I am not sure this could be written or believed by anyone over the age of forty. By that age, denial of mortality is generally no longer really possible. The greatest fears tend, then, to be those with which de Beauvoir and her character Fosca engage. The question is not so much “have I done enough to avoid death”, but “have I done enough with my life?” The brilliance of All Men Are Mortal is that Fosca’s life demonstrates that the thing we tend to mean when we ask that question is not really all that important. There is no monument a person can erect to herself that will insulate her from annihilation. All accomplishment is, in the longest of runs, illusory. Ozymandias may have been the king of all kings, but boasts of eternal greatness are always mocked by time. Impermanent beings must satisfy themselves with evanescent significance.

Obreht, meanwhile, demonstrates admirable skill, but never delivers the sort of depth her premise suggests. The deathless man serves as a kindly guide across the Styx. One needn’t fear death, because a friendly man awaits. He will start you on the path to find your previously departed loved ones. You will meet them again. Death is not death, but a mere transition. Obreht’s is too facile a solution to the unpleasantness of finitude.

The Tiger’s Wife is a promise to us that Obreht is an author worth reading now for the greatness she will give us in the future. This book provides pleasant diversion, but no real weight.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

March 6, 2012

Having just finished State of Wonder, I was extremely surprised when Jeff O’Neal pegged Patchett’s solidly conventional bestseller as the odds-on favorite to take home the Rooster. The unexpected endorsement from O’Neal has me looking for reasons why my assessment is wrong.

In its favor, State of Wonder has good sales (having made the New York Times Bestseller list and being one of six TOB contenders highly ranked on Amazon’s sales list) and demonstrates good, if not particularly artistic, craftsmanship. As a commenter at Book Riot noted, the novel is meticulously plotted. If it is possible to be too carefully plotted, though, State of Wonder is. For, despite the title, everything that occurs in the novel is carefully foreshadowed to prevent anything truly startling from occuring. There are twists and turns to the narrative thread, but there are warning signs well in advance of every sharp corner in the road. On the one hand, this prevents the reader from feeling unfairly manipulated; on the other, this reader felt he was being led too carefully through a zoo rather than let loose in a jungle.

The story involves the search for a wonder-drug being developed deep in the Amazon forest by a seemingly rogue researcher, Dr. Annick Swenson. When the novel opens, Anders Eckman, having gone to look for Dr. Swenson, is dead. He and the protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, had been working together, stateside, at the same pharmaceutical company which sponsors Dr. Swenson’s research. The head of the company, Mr. Fox, had pulled Eckman out of the lab and sent him into the Amazon to find out what sort of progress Dr. Swenson was making and, hopefully, to talk her out of the jungle.

While working together, Dr. Singh and Eckman had developed a close personal, as well as professional, relationship, so Singh is hit doubly hard by the news of his death. Eckman’s wife, of course, takes an even bigger psychological blow, not least because she is left to raise her and Eckman’s boys by herself. It proves too much for her. Karen Eckman refuses, on the basis of a two paragraph letter from the secretive Dr. Swenson to believe her husband is actually dead. Dr. Singh tries to console her and move her towards acceptance.

”He’s dead, Karen.”

“Why? Because we got a letter from some crazy woman in Brazil who nobody’s allowed to talk to? I need more than that. This is the worst thing that’s ever going to happen to me. It’s the worst thing that’s going to happen to my boys ever in their entire lives, and I’m supposed to take a stranger’s word on it?”

There had to be an equation for probability and proof. At some point probability becomes so great it eclipses the need for proof, although maybe not if it was your husband. “Mr. Fox is going to send someone down there. They’re going to find out what happened.”

“But say he’s not dead….”

Karen all but begs Dr. Singh to go to Brazil to find out what happened to her husband. In a neat turn of coincidence, Mr. Fox also wants to send Dr. Singh to find Dr. Swenson, because Dr. Singh has a past connection with Dr. Swenson and, so Mr. Fox imagines, may succeed where Eckman failed. Dr. Singh is not sure because their connection is well in the past and involves a mistake Dr. Singh made during her medical residency as an obstetrician. Unfortunately for Dr. Singh, the incredibly talented and stern Dr. Swenson, her immediate superior at the time, was nowhere to be found during an emergency and Dr. Singh, handling it on her own, made an error. Dr. Singh was so shaken by her mistake that she abandoned the practice of medicine.

The tension builds very slowly but, from the short summary of the set-up, it is easy to see where certain things are going. Dr. Singh and Dr. Swenson will become re-aquainted in the Amazon, the incident during Dr. Singh’s residency will be important, Karen is correct to be suspicious of Dr. Swenson’s short report, though maybe not for the right reasons, and so forth.

Did I mention that Dr. Fox and Dr. Singh are slow-brewing a romance, that Dr. Singh and Eckman were not doing the same though Karen half-suspects they were, and that everything in the novel is bent in service of the plot?

Dr. Singh did not strike me as a particularly compelling character. While she is “a good person” and a competent researcher, she mostly seems to me a vessel into which readers can pour themselves. That, and a slave to plot. She likes puppies, dislikes mean people, is sure of herself when she needs to be, but mostly is not. She definitely is not sure of herself if she needs not to be. She is open minded about alternative (native) remedies, but just skeptical enough to avoid commitment one way or the other.

For instance, when she comes down with a fever, she accepts a potion from Dr. Swenson’s Manaus-based guardians, the Bovenders. Her fever passes and she credits the drink until Dr. Swenson passes judgment on the natives’ medicinal efforts.

”For these people there is no concept of a dosage, no set length for treatments. When something works it seems to me to be nothing short of a miracle.”

Marina remembered that cup of sludge Barbara Bovender had brought her from the shaman’s stand and wondered if she was no more than a Westerner given to the charms of boiled tinctures. It was a cure she would never admit to now.

This conflict between modernity and ancient wisdom dovetails nicely with Patchett’s moral concerns. What, for instance, is a US-trained physician to do when faced with a native’s medical emergency? Let them struggle, or treat them? The corrupting influences of the profit motive, the hubris of Westerners generally, and how those factors together can strip seemingly decent people of their morality are all raised. To Patchett’s credit, she does not lecture her readers on the correct answers to any particular conundrum but, then, she avoids that by avoiding, in my view, delving into these issues. They are like engaging billboards beside a highway. They pass the time, but they are not the point of the drive. The gravitational pull of the plot curves the path of each noticed idea back to plot.

The story-centric nature of State of Wonder leaves it feeling too-light, despite the emotional and physical rigors through which it puts its characters, to seriously contend for the TOB title. At the end, you have had a good story well-told but not much else. I simply do not believe this sort of novel can win this sort of contest. Many of its competitors are flawed, but ambition counts in the Tournament. State of Wonder‘s primary ambition is to keep the reader engaged in the story. It does that well and with a practiced literary hand.

The best books, though, use their plots to make strong arguments. Patchett reversed her priorities, it seems to me, leaving any arguments put forward as weak as Dr. Singh’s waffle on the effectiveness of local “medicine”. The biggest ethical decision Dr. Singh is forced to make ends up being made for her. The lack of a coherent argument (not message, a simple message book is much worse than this) renders State of Wonder defenseless against its more aesthetically and ethically ambitious competitors.

[Edited after posting: At some point, I started typing “Eckerman” rather than “Eckman”. I have fixed those errors.]


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