The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

February 9, 2012

Kevin from Canada aptly calls this “a memory book.” As with The Last Brother, our narrator is an old man, reasonably well-situated in life who is looking back as, at his age, that’s where most of the action is. In both books, the narrator struggles to make sense of the past (hence the title on this one), but Barnes is a bit more interesting. The unfolding of events in The Last Brother are a mystery to the reader, but the narrator knows all the pertinent details. Raj tells his story, struggles with it emotionally, but he knows as much of the story at the beginning as we will by the end.

In Barnes’ Booker-winning novel, Tony Webster is as ignorant as the reader regarding crucial facts. This hole in Tony’s memory-knitted past gives his story intrigue in addition to the foreboding and urgency created where the narrator knows but the reader does not. The technique also allows Barnes to delve deeper into the human experience than, say, Appanah does in The Last Brother. While emotions run quite high in The Sense of an Ending and are important, emotions are not the primary theme. The theme is the interplay of memory and the construction of a life narrative.

In this aspect, the work reminded me most of The Underpainter, Urquhart’s outstanding, Governor General’s Award-winning novel. The narrator is flawed and, only belatedly, comes to realize how deeply flawed he is.

Despite this similarity of theme, The Underpainter and The Sense of an Ending they do not till the same soil. The two novels engage in very perceptive examinations of slightly different facets of the life as narrative theme. Importantly, Austin Fraser from The Underpainter had a single-minded focus on his passion, his art. His troubles reconciling the past stem from that focus. Tony Webster’s problems stem from turning inward. He has not pursued any great passion, he hasn’t the excuse of art. Rather, he erred by turning inward, by paying too close attention to the story of his life.

That is not to say that events primarily happen to him, as in The Last Brother. Tony has actively participated in shaping the past that looms so importantly in his present. The difference in the three approaches is vital to understanding what separates Barnes’ and Urquhart’s novels from Appanah’s. The Sense of an Ending and The Underpainter are attempts to capture how we reconcile altered emotions and/or revelatory facts with the fiction of our lives. Even acknowledging the extent to which our remembered pasts are fiction shakes something central in us. The Last Brother, by contrast, is more like history, biography, fact; the book reveals facts that cannot change and, in important ways, could not have been changed.

Part of this disconnect is that The Last Brother involved a nine-year old. Mistakes by our nine-year old selves are, mostly, easily forgivable. Even where we might have trouble forgiving ourselves, others generally do not. Children are simply not sufficiently developed at that age to have the same culpability for their actions adults have. Beyond that, it is not clear that any different choices by Raj would have changed any of the tragedies that befell him and those around him.

Tony was a man, though, and he made choices. This is not to say that the book is interesting because Tony can be judged for his errors. The theme, again, is memory and how we tell stories about ourselves to ourselves. While there is narrative pull in finding out what happened, the truly engaging aspect of the novel is the examination of the pillars of our self-image, and what happens if those pillars crumble.

For years you survive with the same loops, the same facts and the same emotions. I press a button marked Adrian or Veronica, the tape runs, the usual stuff spools out. The events reconfirm the emotions…and vice versa. There seems no way of accessing anything else; the case is closed. Which is why you seek corroboration, even if it turns out to be contradiction. But what if, even at a late stage, your emotions relating to those long-ago events and people change?

Taking the statement as a logical proposition, if the emotions associated with the events change, the events must be reconsidered, altered. The life we remember is not, after all, the life we have lived. A new narrative must patch the rip in the fabric formerly weaving emotion and events together. Barnes masterfully explores this reconciliation in ways that I have not quite seen before. As I said, The Underpainter comes closest (and is in some ways better), but Barnes has moved the stakes of the subject outward a smidge.

This book will be formidable in the TOB 2012 brackets. It earned its top seed and should live up to it. I have a hard time imagining anything other than another one-seed or The Tiger’s Wife keeping it out of the pre-Zombie final four. The book is too good, the characters too strong, too real, for some other book to sneak an early-round victory. I love the book and I like its chances.

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

February 7, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The novel of ideas will, I think, prevail.

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

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

January 31, 2012

For many of my childhood years, I owned two pairs of boots. One pair of boots was for “work” and the other was for Sunday. I always had a cowboy hat somewhere in my room, even if I only wore it occasionally. And I watched (in reruns) Gunsmoke and The Lone Ranger after school. I reveled in the possibility of a familial connection, by marriage, to Wyatt Earp, the gunslinging lawman. Westerns were to me as wizards and vampires are to the last decade or two of our youth. The world of cowboys and indians was more exciting than the “real” world and, I assume crucially, there was a divide between good and evil. The faint imprints my youthful fascination with the Wild West left on my psyche must explain my otherwise inexplicably strong desire to read this book.

If you want to know whether you will like it, the best I can do is pass along good advice. Kevin from Canada found, via a Booker Forum poster, the best way to sort those who will like the book from those who will not (poster’s words, not KfC’s): “[I]f you like Coen Brothers movies[,] I guarantee you will enjoy the book “

I am not in the business of guaranteeing anything. I am an attorney, after all. However, your appreciation of Coen Brothers movies is about as reliable an indicator of your fit with this book as anything. I do like Coen Brothers movies and I liked the book.

The “Sisters Brothers”, Charlie and Eli Sisters, are hired killers. Charlie, the eldest, is the natural leader, the quickest with his guns, and the most psychologically fit for the profession. Eli is “a tall and heavy and rough-looking man” and, stereotypically, a bit slow. George Milton and Lennie Small come to mind, though Eli is not at all retarded, just neither as quick nor as cynical as his brother..

As the book opens, Eli is waiting outside the mansion of a wealthy man known as “the Commodore” while Charlie, inside, receives their latest assignment. The book recounts the brothers’ adventures on this latest job which, it turns out, will be their last for the Commodore. There are gunfights and fistfights, drinking and brothels, horses and gold. In other words, it possesses all the elements of a typical western.

The brothers are known more by reputation than appearance. More than once in the novel, one or the other frightens a would be harasser by announcing that they are Charlie and Eli Sisters, or “the Sisters Brothers”. Men of merely ordinary toughness do not quarrel with the Sisters brothers and, so, most of the brothers’ problems come from rough riders who start trouble not realizing who their “victims” are.

I do not now own a pair of boots, cowboy or otherwise, which hints at a truth: gunfights do not excite me the way they once did. This has more than that, though. The cliched western exterior is really a framing device for much more complicated story of brothers, getting along in the world, and morality. On their ride away from the Commodore’s mansion, Eli relates:

Charlie and I had an unspoken agreement not to throw ourselves into speedy travel just after a meal. There were many hardships to our type of life and we took these small comforts as they came; I found they added up to something decent enough to carry on.

This hint of distance from romanticized notions of the “Wild West” is made more explicit a little later:

You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and signing harrowing songs of death and lace. But I can tell you that after a full day of riding I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep, which is just what I did, without even eating a proper meal.

This nod to realism is almost immediately tempered with Eli’s near fainting spell caused by seeing a spider “on its back, eight arms pedaling in the cold air.” The cold-blooded killer is “afraid of spiders and snakes and crawling things.”

Charlie has his weaknesses too. Aside from the bottle, he is terribly superstitious, leading to a comedic scene which pays homage to Mark Twain.

For me, the threadbare humor of assassins with a scaredy-cat side were too easy and, at their best, only mildly amusing. The idea has been explored too thoroughly in animated features to retain much punch. And, yet, when Eli encourages himself after managing a fire, I smile:

‘Little victories’ my mother used to say, and which I then said aloud, to myself.

It works because it is incongruous and subtle. This does not have to be a joke. It could just be Eli recounting the reason he uses that phrase, but then he says it “aloud, to myself.” The joke is more about the need adults sometimes have of comforting themselves, aloud, as it is about a hulking character’s attachment to his mother. The juxtaposition of size and psychological vulnerability plays on a stereotype that does not hold, but most of us have, at some point, thought something and then, the effect of recalling or thinking it being insufficient, we have spoken it to ourselves.

These light touches are what separate the book from mere “rollicking adventure”.

Charlie is never developed with much depth. He is quick on the draw and remorseless. Eli is a different animal. He longs to open a small store selling hats or hardware or chicken feed. While adept with rifle, pistol, and fist, he tends to the contemplative and the sentimental. He becomes attached to his run-down horse, Tub.

I sensed in him a desire to improve himself, which perhaps was whimsy or wishful thinking on my part, but such are the musings of the traveling man.

His mother is often in his thoughts and he draws a line between, essentially, civilians and combatants. The former he spares when he feels he can.

But this last is important. The book is not divided between “good guys” and “bad guys”. Most everyone is at least a bit bad, including, obviously, the professional killer who narrates the book. In other words, the characters are people, not exemplars of either virtue or vice. While deWitt is not blazing new ground here, the compromised protagonist being somewhat a staple in western films from John Wayne to The Unforgiven. The difference, though, is that Eli is not the toughest man in the story like Wayne’s and Eastwood’s characters nor is he somewhat reluctantly fighting the good fight. Eli is working at a profession he fell into by virtue of being Charlie’s brother. He is not conflicted about it nor does he console his conscience with the redeeming fact of bringing truly bad men to justice. He kills for money, not for merit. His kindness is mere recognition of common humanity rather than commitment to any ideal.

Eli takes the small comforts of life as he can find them. He is, in that sense, fiercely ordinary. Amid the violence and gags, deWitt draws this everyman with a sometimes startling sensitivity. Like the majority of people, Eli does not revolt against the world or the circumstances in which he finds himself. Rather, he ekes out of his existence the pleasures that he can and, without the irony of Kilgore Trout, ignores as best he is able the things he cannot change. But Eli’s lack of irony is not shared by deWitt. When a prospector offers them coffee, Eli accepts.

[M]y cup held earth and hot water, nothing more. I believe the man, through some lonely prospector mania, had begun brewing dirt and tricking himself into believing it was coffee. I had a mind to broach the subject with him but he was so pleased to be sharing, and I did not want to upset his pride; at any rate, who did I think I was to try and undo what had surely taken many days and nights to become fact for him?

This “live and let live” attitude should be startling coming, as it does, from a hired killer. By this point in the book, though, we know Eli too well. He has his own illusions, illusions he nurses and would not want taken from him. As we see with his horse, he empathizes with his fellow creatures and admires their attempts to “better” themselves. These glimpses of the everyman struggling with the world are, actually, much more exciting than the gunplay. It is a struggle for good and evil that is inside us all, a struggle with no clear winner (though sometimes a clear loser). This fight of Eli’s is both less grand than those fought by the celluloid heroes of my youth and more profound. Eli’s is the common struggle to make the best of an often harsh world.

I am glad this made it into the Tournament of Books, though I do not expect it to have much success. It is the type of book that ought to be included and ought not to make it too far.

*A pet peeve: At least twice in the novel, there are sentences like: “Charlie led Nimble out and stood beside Tub and I.” On the one hand, perhaps this jarringly ungrammatical construction (“..stood beside me….beside Tub and ME!”) is meant to convey our narrator’s cowboy education and the ineptness of his attempts to sound learned. But, other than some non-standard punctuation, I didn’t notice other signals that the narrator was trying but failing to speak with a cultured voice. I am reading too much into this, too little? Is it just pedantry to notice such things and grate one’s teeth? Did people in the 1880s even develop the tendency to overcorrect the ungrammatical locution “Me and John went to the store” as so many modern day speakers have? I thought that was a more recent phenomenon. These are the kinds of things I actually wonder about while reading. Please tell me that I am just being obtuse in not seeing deWitt’s brilliant purpose here, that there is a good reason for the incorrectly objective “Tub and I”.

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

January 17, 2012

Brooks is an author of obvious talent, but something about this project did not satisfy me. Caleb’s Crossing is the fictionalized tale of the first (and possibly only) Native American to graduate from the Indian College, which was part of Harvard College in the 1600s. In an afterword, Brooks describes the actual events as they are known and understood by her. The “real” story was primarily inspiration for Brooks’s imagination, but only partly because the historical knowledge of Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck’s life is so sketchy. Brooks maintains the primary skeletal features of the history in her narrator Bethia Mayfield’s telling, but deviates from various of the few known details.

I am sure there is rhyme and reason for all of her choices. For instance, I suspect that Matthew Mayhew (the historical name of the model for one of her characters) clanged in her literary ear. “Makepeace Mayfield” maintains alliteration but allows her to inject some Native American influence onto the colonists. The name change also separates the fictional Makepeace, something of a villain in the book, from the historical figure of Matthew Mayhew who she likely did not want to disparage. But something about the choice is discomfiting to me.

Whispering Gums has an excellent review of the book and compares it to a Kim Scott book that attempts a similar thing with respect to contact between early European settlers and Aboriginal Australians. I share Whispering’s tolerance for “loosely based” historical fiction. I loved Wolf Hall, for instance. Yet, I did not love this book.

One difference, I think, is that Mantel did not go around changing principal players’ names even if so many Catherines or Thomases can get confusing. Mantel’s project is entirely different, of course. Much is known about that time and many people know the players. Changing their names would be confusing to those who know something of the time.

Another difference is that I believe Mantel had something to say about Cromwell. She made Cromwell into a character who says something both about us and about the time. Brooks does not manage that. She manages an engaging, sometimes exciting, historical story. She does not challenge us the way Mantel does. Cromwell is not all likeability (though Mantel gives him a soft spot for small children and dogs), whereas Caleb and the narrator (Bethia Mayfield) are likeable in the extreme. They are two of the most attractive characters in the book, two of the most intelligent, two of the kindest, and two of the strongest-willed. I am suspicious of “perfect” characters. The sins of which Bethia is ashamed (e.g. questioning her Christian beliefs, not “knowing her place” as a female) are things that will endear her to most readers as an inquisitive and open-minded person.

Basically, Brooks makes it easy for the reader to know for whom they should cheer. The good people are almost always right. Bad people are almost always wrong. Still, I liked the book. Brooks has excellent pacing, does wonders with early American English (maintaining the flavor, but still generating smooth prose), and entertains. She does not do more than that. As an example of the prose, read this sample relating how Bethia learned, with her twin brother Zuriel, bits of the Wampanaontoaonk language while Joel Iacoomis taught it to her father:

For a time, when we were still very small, Zuriel and I made a covert game of learning it, and spoke it privily, as a kind of secret tongue between the two of us. But as Zuriel grew bigger he was less about the hearth, tearing hither and yon as boychildren are permitted to do. So as he lost the words and I continued to gain them, the game withered. I have often wondered if what happened later had its roots in this: that the Indian tongue was bound up in my heart with these earliest memories of my brother, so that, on meeting with another of his same age who spoke it, these tender and dormant affections awoke within me.

As Whispering points out, Brooks’s foreshadowing can be “rather heavy-handed” and the sexual tensions between Bethia and Caleb definitely needed “some resolution.” I would also add that the conceit of Bethia looking back does not completely work. She remembers details in the retelling, but then, a few pages later, seems to have difficulty recalling them. The book is not only Brooks’s work of imagination, Bethia is actively shaping the past too. These glimpses of Bethia’s reshaping of history, whether to fill gaps or for another person, are never developed beyond that. One might even think they are authorial mistakes. Brooks could have gotten more out of the device than she did. Without using her narrator’s occasional slips, she only manages to pull the alert (pedantic?) reader out of the story.

A particularly interesting aspect of Whispering’s review involves the question of whether writers should or should not “put[] modern attitudes into the mouths of historical people”. I am one of those people who is wary of that sort of thing.

Bethia goes out of her way to lament the suffering of a beached whale carved to death by the colonists. My concern is that this sort of thing could be added to endear Bethia to us. Modern readers will generally, if not unanimously, laud a character’s sentimentality towards animals, particularly those as intelligent as whales. Brooks vividly evokes the great creature’s mournful eye as the colonists begin butchering it while it lives. And Bethia’s concern for the whale is consistent with her character. Her empathy for “the other” is why she becomes a unique friend to Caleb, for instance, rather than condescending to him or regarding him with suspicion as an outsider.

This is all true, as is Whispering’s observation that “modern” attitudes do not just spring into existence from nothing. Sixteenth century colonists remain, though, products of their time and their communities. However special Bethia is, it is stretching credulity to place her well ahead of her time with respect to feminism, animal rights, racial equality, and the “many paths” approach to religion. Bethia was raised in the community by a minister father and she never left the community. Not that there then existed any communities which would have embraced any, much less all, of her relatively radical sentiments. Given the narrator’s many other admirable qualities, making her right about questions which were hardly even questions at the time, seemed to me to go too far.

Some people will really enjoy the book for the authenticity of its language, the beauty of its descriptions, the adventurousness of the story, and the likeability of most of the characters. This is a good book about mostly good people doing interesting things. There is little challenge though. Those few times where Bethia is uncertain of the right answer, the reader knows. All this makes me think Brooks was aiming at the bestseller audience rather than the literary crowd. I hope she gets her sales, because those looking for popular storytelling can do much worse than Brooks and Caleb’s Crossing.

The Conference of the Birds by Peter Sis

November 16, 2011

***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.***

Peter Sis is a well-known and highly regarded illustrator, having won the New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year seven times and many other awards as well. I have neither read nor, to my knowledge, browsed any of those books. This does not prevent me from declaring that Peter Sis is an extremely talented artist. This book is evidence enough.

Sis’s The Conference of the Birds is an adaptation of a 4500-line Persian book of poems originally written in the Twelfth Century by Farid ud-Din Attar. Sis’s version incorporates the poet into the story, turning Attar into the hoopoe of the original:

When the poet Attar woke up one morning after an uneasy dream, he realized that he was a hoopoe bird…

The story itself is simple and allegorical. The hoopoe gathers all the other birds together and takes them on a journey of enlightenment to the Mountain Kaf to find the wise King Simorgh. They pass seven valleys: Quest, Love, Understanding, Detachment, Unity, Amazement, and Death. On their way, the flock loses most of its members, dwindling, in the end, to thirty birds. The thirty arrive at the Mountain Kaf and find nothing but a pool. In the pool, they see their own reflection and realize that they are King Simorgh.

The story strikes me as very Buddhist or, even, Spinozan before Spinoza was cool. What is striking to a Twenty-First Century reader, particularly when recalling that Attar was a Persian Muslim born around 1145, is the radical interpretation of Islam contained in this poem. Attar’s views, unfortunately, were too unorthodox (for those in power at the time). Sis relates the final details of Attar’s (largely unknown) life:

Attar was tried for heresy and banished, his property looted. In the 1220s, he was back in Nishapur, where he died at the hands of Mongol invaders.

I can add little about the poem other than that it does not come across, in Sis’s re-telling, as particularly religious. In Sis’s adaptaion (and I believe the original), the poem undermines traditional Judaic/Christian/Islamic notions of God and the Divine. In The Conference of the Birds, the birds naively begin on a quest to find a distinct being of power and wisdom but, after passing through the seven valleys, realize that they have attained the power of enlightenment and need no separate divinity.

Sis is an illustrator and, frankly, the illustrations are even more powerful than the story. They are stunningly beautiful.

The large flock which begins the journey is made, in a bit of visual foreshadowing, to look like a bird’s head.

Each of the valleys is given an aesthetically-pleasing personality that, for all the lushness of the art, sometimes jars one out of settled expectations. The desolate, burning desert of love, is a good example.

Conveying with words or pictures the experience of holding the book is impossible. The book is printed on textured paper which lends an artsy feel to the pages and enhances the illustrations. The book has to held to be fully appreciated. I was and am awed by the absolute beauty of the book. Physical books will continue to exist so that we can hold stunning objects like this.

I am no art critic nor any sort of artist. I draw stick figures if I must use a pencil to represent people. Yet, even I can recognize the quality, the attention to details, the originality of Sis’s work. Sis uses a vivid and colorful style which, despite the modern appeal, recalls to mind the art of ancient times. Sis and his publisher have wisely chosen not to skimp on the construction of the book.

I am gushing, but the book warrants it. I am extremely pleased to have been exposed to this work and I, in turn, will share it, first with my daughter (who is quite artistic) and, hopefully later, with grandchildren. This is an adult book, though, so I will be sharing it with adults too, starting with my significant other. In the meantime, I will return to it occasionally myself to bask in the beautiful pictures. I was and am awestruck.

Kismet by Jakob Arjouni

November 11, 2011

My excuse for picking out this book was that I was searching for something my significant other, who likes crime and thrillers and Germany, might enjoy. This is a detective thriller from Germany. But, having been wrong before to rely on mere signposts rather than evidence, I chose to read it before gifting it.

Alas, the book was not one I would gift. I have relayed the basics (German, crime, thriller) to my one and only, she can choose to read it or not. I am not vested nor am I risking my credibility as a book recommender. The last time I tried this (vetting before wrapping a potentially gift-worthy detective novel) the novel also failed to grip me, so no gift. My ambivalence in making her aware of that one proved wise. She abandoned it. She will probably make it through this one, if she tries it. Still, I am done scavenging for recent release detective fiction that, in some way, can be linked to the literary.

The story begins with protagonist Kemal Kayankaya and a gentleman named Slibusky “crammed into the china cupboard, emptied for the purpose, of a small Brazilian restaurant on the outskirts of the Frankfurt railway station district, waiting for a couple of racketeers to show up demanding protection money.” Kayankaya wise-cracks his way through the wait to the confrontation, noting Siblusky’s smell and the ridiculousness of two grown men hiding in a china cabinet.

This small job, which Kayankaya assumed would require only scaring a couple of low-level punks, turns into something much bigger. The Frankfurt mafia/gang scene soon becomes the focus of Kayankaya’s single-detective agency.

The reason I am not a good reader of this type of crime thriller is that I find jarring the deux ex machina of an author who noticeably intrudes in the story to save his protagonist from that protagonist’s own incredibly bad and entirely unlikely decisions.

A momentary digression: I love The Usual Suspects in which Verbal tells the police detective a tale about an elusive and sinister man named Keyser Soze. Verbal has been arrested, he has to convince the police that he is more victim than perpetrator. In other words, he did not walk into the police station just for kicks, to see what would happen. Moreover, he escapes by his own sharp wits rather than the convenient dullness of his would-be murderers.

Kayankaya’s thought process seems to be: “What is the course of action most likely to end with my body being discreetly disposed of by powerful criminal organizations who do not hesitate to chop off the fingers of shopowners or start gun battles in the streets? Then I will do that and hope for the best.” Of course, with the author on his side, the best usually happens, in the long run. There are, I am told, four of these. I won’t be verifying the claim.

It is interesting (dismaying?) to me that German audiences are, apparently, as immune to ridiculousness in plots as are Americans. Though the thriller does seem to provide a glimpse into modern German culture, I am sure Jenny Erpenbeck, Martin Walser, Eva Menasse, or any number of other contemporary authors provide a more nuanced and insightful depiction of German life. For that matter, I am still slow getting to Thomas Mann and his Magic Mountain. (Footnote to self: Significant dread at tackling the monster suggests Rat’s Chance in Hell Challenge.)

Kismet uncovered for me pitfalls several book-selection pitfalls to which, it appears, I am not immune. First, relying solely on the translator (the esteemed Anthea Bell) is insufficient for ensuring that a particular translated work will match your or a beloved’s taste. Second, that a particular publisher (the also esteemed Melville House) prints the book does not mean, again, that you and the novel will run through flowered fields holding hands. Third, when you know you tend not to find a particular genre satisfying, do not keep blasted trying with unknown, unproven books/authors. Instead of reading books that I know I likely won’t love but hope my intended giftee might like, I should gift books that I love and that she might like. I will let her recommend to me those books from her favorite genre that she loves. Passing mediocre books back and forth would be idiocy. Luckily, I am the only idiot in the house.

So, I did not fall in love with the book. If you do not mind a few absurdly irrational choices by your protagonist for the purpose of an adrenaline rush, then this could be up your alley. For a more positive, less curmudgeonly review, there is always the Washington Post (very possibly to blame for putting this on my radar…though I kept thinking it was a blogger in my sidebar, it wasn’t) or The Independent. Better though, try a blogger who gives a nice, objective overview of the entire series, highlighting both the positives and the negatives.

The Other Side by E. Thomas Finan

October 27, 2011

This collection was sent to me as a review copy.

E. Thomas Finan tends to look inward and does so in affecting ways. His protagonists have uneasy relationships with the world and, therefore, the stories are unsettling for everyone. He writes achingly realistic fiction that speaks eloquently through the clipped or choked dialogue of its suffering characters. Broken relationships feature prominently, but not exclusively. The broken relationships are often deep in the rearview, though closer to the heart than they initially appear.

Among the stories, there is one that appears almost like a writing exercise. Finan made the courageous (foolhardy?) choice to re-write Hemingway’s most famous short story and include it in this collection. Finan’s is titled: “Dunes Like White Elephants.

Nearly as enigmatic as Hemingway’s, the story approaches its subject obliquely. As in its famous predecessor, the intersection of a pregnancy and a relationship create the understated, but intense, drama. Where Hemingway showed a man pushing a woman to abort her pregnancy, in Finan’s take, the man is pressing for marriage. I actually think Finan pulled this off without creating a disaster which, frankly, is what I expected despite the talent displayed in the earlier stories.

Review copy.

Finan’s female lead is as reluctant as Hemingway’s and Finan’s potential father has the same binary view of the world as did his forebearer: the couple must either abort the pregnancy or marry and raise the child. The relationship in Finan’s work is a new one and, at least partly for that reason, the woman is very uncertain about turning this unplanned pregnancy into a shotgun wedding. The man believes the conclusion is foregone, despite his questioning tone. So many elements are mirrored, this was quite a risky story to publish.

I like what Finan has done to twist Hemingway’s stereotyped roles in interesting ways. He did not simply re-write the story into the modern age or reverse the poles. Rather, he bent and twisted the classic into something new and provacative. Finan certainly does not surpass Hemingway, but he gets points for shocking this reader into a closer analysis of the original. Kudos to Finan for his gutsy decisions.

My favorite story in the collection is “Motley Black.” The narrator, “Jay”, is taking a bus ride across country to escape the geography of his most recent relationship. A wiseass (“My friends call me Foley.”…..“So what should I call you?”) and introvert, Jay tries to avoid a seatmate only to end up with the talkative and otherwise annoying Foley at his side. While Foley snores, Jay broods:

One can always find the loneliness within life. It is always there. Conviviality, conversational relish, the glibness of society – all are signs of the struggle to ignore that loneliness, always lingering at your shoulder like an unwelcome stranger, one that we know too well. Perhaps, for many people, the only thing worse than a stranger is someone we know inside and out; despite all that knowledge, that patina of familiarity, there remains the hollow core of ignorance. What was a friend? Someone to unburden your heart to? Well, what would telling do? I did not need any more of projected narcissism, which constitutes the heart and soul of common friendship.

This dark moodiness is typical of the stories in the collection, though humor peeks* through in places. In “Motley Black”, for instance, Jay’s wit leavens things until the main action hits. The story bends towards absurdity, I thought it had snapped at one point, but finds its way to a satisfying conclusion. You can find an extended excerpt here.

Finan writes with impressive confidence (as his cribbing from a Hemingway story suggests he would). He usually delivers. Even if every story is not seasoned to my taste, Finan achieves what it is he sets out to do. Impressive.

[**Edited 11-4-2011: Not mountain “peaks”, of course.]

Various Authors by Various Authors (edited by Rob Redman)

September 20, 2011

This anthology of never-before-published short stories is comprised of stories by, as the name suggests, various authors. The Fiction Desk published in April this volume of twelve stories from authors new and established (though mostly new). On September 30, 2011, The Fiction Desk will be releasing the second anthology in what is planned to be a continuing series. “The main thrust of the anthology series is to showcase a variety of writers and writing.” (From The Fiction Desk Newsletter, September 2011.)

You should know, though I have never met him, I consider Rob a friend. We have exchanged e-mail, he’s on my blogroll, he has always been gracious and generous with respect to my blog. In other words, I do not want to mislead you that I am completely disinterested in whether Rob’s publishing venture is a success. I am rooting for him. Still, given this first volume, I am sure he will do fine no matter what I say below.

After three stories, you know that this is going to be an eclectic collection. “How to Fall in Love with an Air Hostess” is a guide on how to fall in love with an air hostess. The second story, “Crannock House”, is set in a private boarding school in the mid-1980s. In the third, a husband finds his wife frolicking with a man in a dog costume…and she seems to believe the man is an actual dog…and her husband keeps paying the guy to come back. The Fiction Desk has definitely managed variety of subject matter and genre.

I will not discuss all twelve of the stories, though there is something in each to appreciate. In “Celia and Harold”, a man stops in a small, strange town, Midwick, to switch trains. In the pub, he is accosted by a barfly who warns him to leave Midwick as soon as he can:

”You’ve not seen her,” he said. “Pray you never do.”

“You’ll have to excuse me,” I said, patting my laptop and nodding in the direction of the window. “I have to get this work done before the train to Dymthrop arrives.”

The barfly snorted. “Forget Dymthrop. All that matters is that you get out of Midwick – and fast. Or you’ll be as doomed as the rest of us.”

The barfly is Harold and the woman he warns about is Celia. I won’t ruin the story, but it feels like something Stephen King might write. The idea is a good one and the execution is splendid. The reader, like the narrator, only gradually grasps the situation. To say too much more might give away the game, so I will just say that Patrick Whittaker’s story is one of the nicer gems.

Another I really liked was Ben Lyle’s “Crannock House”, a deeply affecting story about a prep school boy’s relationship with his math teacher. It has something of Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent in it, and maybe a dash of Edith Wharton. I was just now, after writing the above, looking up some biographical information on Mr. Lyle at The Fiction Desk to see if there was anything I should include. It turns out that my favorite story from the anthology was also the winner of the “Various Authors Prize”, that is, a cash award to the story judged best by the contributors to the volume. Three stories tied among the contributors, so John Self of The Asylum stepped in and chose “Crannock House.” He had this to say:

I liked it because it surprises the reader’s expectations and doesn’t explain everything, and despite its short length, it manages to be a complex and affecting portrayal of two characters covering a long period of time without seeming rushed.

We learn early in the story that Crannock House School is a “progressive” school.

There were no compulsory lessons: learning was considered a contract between teachers and pupils. The idea was that children knew what was best for them. My parents thought I’d do well in an environment of joy and discovery, rather than set texts, exams and school uniforms. That’s what my dad wrote in his articles for The Guardian anyway.

The story is narrated by James, a student at Crannock House School. He is thirteen when a new math teacher, Mervyn, arrives with wildly unkempt hair and a suit and tie. His attire is what most immediately marks him for an odd ball. The students soon realize that, consistent with his teacher-like neckwear, he actually intends to teach them math. James is an excellent student and he quickly wins the stern affections of Mervyn.

While James and Mervyn are both misfits in the wider world, they are misfits within the school of misfits too. Unlike most of the students, James, as the quote above hints, is from a reasonably wealthy and connected family. They could afford to send him to a better school but do not. The fact that James received an explanation for his being at this particular school from his dad’s Guardian articles suggests a parental distance later borne out in the text. Mervyn, meanwhile, believes in conventional learning. At least, he does not subscribe to the soft-headedness of Crannock House’s progressive approach to collaborative learning. Yet, as his wild hair and presence at Crannock House suggest, he also has failed to find his place on the outside.

What is most affecting about the book is the “complex and affecting portrayal” of the relationship between James and Mervyn. James needs a father figure and a friend, Mervyn needs a friend. The ending is emotionally wrenching without giving itself over to melodrama or cliché. Ben Lyle writes with economy, but sneaks in the occasional flourish of imagery:

He wiped his snub nose, adding to the silver spindles on his sweat-shirted forearm.

This is a fine effort by a fine writer. I understand that Ben Lyle is coming out with a first novel soon. I will be watching out for it.

As for Various Authors, the eclecticism and the quality continue. Charles Lambert’s “All I Want”, with its exploration of hopeless longing, was another highlight for me. By the close, each of the stories sticks in the mind for one reason or another. The Fiction Desk is off to a good start and I look forward to the next in the series.

Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

May 24, 2011

This is a book with much (and many) to recommend it. Lisa Hill aptly calls it a “maelstrom of ideas” and John Self at the Asylum notes “[n]ot much is left out of Skippy Dies – and there is so much energy it that it explodes out in unexpected directions.”

While it may be easier to list what the book does not have, let’s go with what it does have: Skippy dies, the students and teachers engage in hijinks of various sorts, there are crimes, death threats, adventures, romances, grand science experiments gone right and gone wrong, politics, fighting, true love, and…well, I am starting to sound a little like Peter Falk in “The Princess Bride” as he elaborates on the merits of the eponymous book whose story the movie relates. Falk as The Grandfather was right and so is Kevin from Canada. So too is The Reading Ape who makes another (more informative) movie comparison: “Skippy Dies is Dead Poets Society if Dead Poets Society were funnier, more complicated, and believable.” (See also Scent of a Woman.)

Skippy Dies is good.

For great summaries of the book and its plot, I direct you to any of the above-linked reviews. If you have not read the book, you’ll want to hit at least one of those to get a sense of what the book is about before reading my somewhat unstructured thoughts.

As a comparison of the opinions of Lisa, Kevin, and John will show reactions are quite varied, from love to slightly positive ambivalence. Kevin is an aficionado of ”school novels” and, so, really enjoys that aspect. He also finds the characters a great strength. They are. The students at Seabrook College each have distinctive personalities that both makes it easy to recognize them and allows Murray to explore the interesting interactions between them. John Self perhaps most admired Murray’s ventriloquism of anything and everything between “business speak and ad-land jargon to teenage angst and youthful brio”, but recognized the “messiness” as both a strength and a weakness. Lisa was put off by “the stuff about Ruprecht’s theories of physics” and the derivative nature of the adolscent banter and private school culture which powers the book.

I agree with them all, though not about everything.

The students (particularly) are entertainingly distinctive and, frankly, it is a blast to spend time with them. The adults are less so, though I not sure I found them quite as dull as Lisa seems to have found them. I also loved Ruprecht’s digressions into physics, where Lisa found her attention wandering “especially during the stuff about Ruprecht’s theories of physics.” This difference is likely explained by the fact that, just as Kevin loves novels set in schools, I love novels that touch on, incorporate, or, best, obsess themselves with physics. Skippy Dies comes close to the obsession end of the spectrum, though it is not really about physics or science at all. The physics in this novel is used as metaphor and can, I think, largely be tuned out as the rantings of a slightly unbalanced boy-genius. In other words, don’t be frightened by the physics. I just mention it because the physics metaphors permeate the story.

As an example of Ruprecht’s rantings, take this one where he makes an explicit metaphorical connection between physics and the story being told:

‘…When you think about it, the Big Bang’s a bit like school, isn’t it?’


‘Ruprecht, what the hell are you talking about?’

‘Well, I mean to say, one day we’ll all leave here and become scientists and bank clerks and diving instructors and hotel managers – the fabric of society, so to speak. But in the meantime, that fabric, that is to say, us, the future, is crowded into one tiny little point where none of the laws of society applies, viz., this school.’

Uncomprehending silence; and then, ‘I tell you one difference between this school and the Big Bang, and that is in the Big Bang there is no particle quite like Mario. But you can be sure that if there is, he is the great stud particle, and he is boning the lucky lady particles all night long.’

‘Yes,’ Ruprecht responds, a little sadly; and he will fall silent, there at his window, eating a doughnut, contemplating the stars.

This Big Bang metaphor is quite apt, actually, for the school in many ways. There are larger and smaller bangs throughout, very like the interpretation of M-theory (the M in this interpretation standing for “membranes”) where events like the Big Bang are caused by collisions between membranes (essentially separate universes) which transfer or generate massive amounts of energy that radiate throughout the “brane” (universe) before dispersing and cooling until another collision.

Murray returns again and again and again to the concept of different worlds colliding and releasing disrupting energies: the private school kids and drug dealers, the boys’ school and their sister school, the teachers and students, the cloistered life of the school and the politics of the business and finance world, parents and their kids. Then there is the metaphor of the doughnut.

The doughnut shop is a central hangout for the students, it is where Skippy dies, and, as you can see from the above quote, they are nearly omnipresent. Doughnuts are shaped like a torus which, in string theory, is a “perfect” shape. The connection is no coincidence as Murray returns to the doughnuts and the implicit connection with physics and string theory repeatedly. In fact, as I suggest above, he may return to these themes too often, wearing them out with overuse. (And there are other themes similarly beaten past death.) Still, I loved it. String theory as a metaphor for the laws of human relations is beautiful to me, enough that I could stand a little too much in this book as there is generally too little of it in other literary works.

Your eyes are probably glazing over as I delve deeper than I am certified to go in the ocean of science. There is more to the physics than I am able to relate here anyway, so I will just say, if you love such things, there are plenty of ideas to keep you occupied. If you are not into such things, you might not really notice how central they are to Murray’s task anyway because they can also be dismissed as the incoherent babbling of a slightly off-kilter Ruprecht. That’s how Ruprecht’s schoolmates generally take it.

Aside from the physics, the human interactions are done quite well. While the teachers are dull, Murray paints the intimacy of patchwork romances in eye-catching detail, such as this rumination by Howard:

Ah, right – this is how he normally acts with her. He remembers now. They seem to be going through a protracted phase in which they’re able to speak to each other only in criticisms, needles, rebukes. Big things, little things, anything can spark an argument, even when neither of them wants to argue, even when he or she is trying to say something nice, or simply to state an innocuous fact. Their relationship is like a piece of malfunctioning equipment that when switched on will only buzz fractiously, and shocks you when you’re trying to find out what’s wrong. The simplest solution seems to be not to switch it on, to look instead for a new one; he is not quite ready to contemplate that eventuality, however.

And, not to overdo it, but a later seen which also demonstrates the ad-jargon ventriloquism John Self mentions:

‘The Sony JLS9xr offers several significant improvements on the JLS700 model, as well as entirely new features, most notably Sony’s new Intelligent Eye system, which gives not only unparalleled picture resolution but real-time image augmentation – meaning that your movies can be even more vivid than they are in real life.’

‘More vivid than real life?’

‘It corrects the image while you record. Compensates for weak light, boosts the colours, gives things a sheen, you know.’

‘Wow.’ He watches her head dip slightly as she extinguishes her cigarette, then lift again. Miniaturized on the screen she does indeed seem more lustrous, coherent, resolve – a bloom to her cheeks, a glint to her hair. When he glances experimentally away from it, the real-life Halley and the rest of their home suddenly appear underdefined, washed out. He turns his eye to it again, and zooms in on her own eyes, deep blue and finely striated with white; like thin ice, he always thinks. They look sad.

There is a world, a torus-shaped world, in that last paragraph, and it is one of many that Murray shows us.

Yes, many plot points are far-fetched. Yes, the first third of the book (originally published as three volumes in a single slipcase) is much more fun than the rest. Yes, the book is too long. And, yes, the book is, overall, incredibly, soul-searingly dark. It still manages to be fun and the pages fly by and, most importantly, Murray manages at least every hundred pages to get something so precisely right it can make you gasp.

I picked this to win the Tournament of Books before I had read it. I wouldn’t pick it to win now, and not just because I know it did not win. It is not as accomplished a novel as A Visit From the Goon Squad. But it is a damn fine book. As John Self put it: “Murray is a writer to watch; but also one worth reading now.”

The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson

May 18, 2011

I owe an explanation for the long absence of reviews. I would like to tell you that I have been developing a grand theory of book/literary blogging, that The Great Ape’s always interesting observations sparked a desire to blog with purpose rather than haphazardly. Or, I would like to tell you that I have been engaged in such a stimulating reading project that I could not take a break to tell you about it, but that, now, the results will astound you. (For that, you can click through to The Rat in the Book Pile where Sarah is entertainingly blazing a trail through Russian lit.) I even would be satisfied telling you that I have been too busy compiling billable hours to dash off a review.

I cannot truthfully tell you any of those things and it’s Howard Jacobson’s fault. The Booker jury bears some responsibility too, but, mostly, I have to blame Jacobson. I could even blame myself for allowing this one book to derail my blogging. And there is the fact that, after the Tournament of Books, a short slowdown likely was inevitable. But none of this makes me willing to absolve Jacobson. He is to blame.

His sin is not in writing an astonishingly bad book that, nevertheless, garners an outsize share of readers. That would actually make me eager to post and blog. The problem is that the book is, at least on a sentence-by-sentence level, very well written. During the entire 307 pages, I felt I was in the hands of a skilled author who knew what he wanted to do and that, at any moment, I might be blinded by the brilliant coming together of the text into something coherently beautiful. But I never was. This last probably cannot be laid at the author’s feet.

The “well written” thing should be explained. I find it difficult because I marked very few passages. My own deduction from this evidence would be that, while there were no painfully bad sentences (though there were painfully unfunny jokes, possibly meant to be), there were few great ones either. I marked this:

His self-consciousness surprised and appalled him. What need was there for this? Why did he not simply speak his heart?

Because the heart did not speak, that was why. Because language presupposes artificiality. Because in the end there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be said….

He should have howled like an animal. That at least would have been a genuine expression of how he felt. Except that it wasn’t. There was no genuine expression of how he felt.

That’s good. The truth in that passage is written so we feel the inadequacy of language. A nice trick, Mr. Jacobson. It only really takes one good passage to redeem a book, so that should have done it. It didn’t. Though not because of the plot, more ably capsuled here, here, or here than I could manage at this point. Nor mostly the characters. The humor played a part.

I never laughed or smiled. There were things even I could tell were meant to be funny, that probably were. Whether, objectively, the jokes were any good, I felt no amusement. The obstacle to that was probably Treslove.

Treslove is a raving racist. That’s a lie. He is sort of the opposite of a racist, if a racist is someone who exalts his own heritage and/or hates and denigrates “the other.” Treslove is in love with the idea of “the other”, specifically Jews. He wants to be around Jews, to become a Jew, to fuck a Jew. I am not sure what can be said about a character who, after rogering a (Jewish) friend’s wife, is disappointed when he learns she is not Jewish. Treslove seems to be the embodiment of a brainless, reflexive anti-Semite, but with his conclusions running in precisely the opposite direction. This makes him nearly the same thing. It’s hard spending a book with such a fellow.

My sense is, after a couple weeks or so of thinking about the novel as little as possible, that the ridiculousness of Treslove, in contrast to the more normal characters, was Jacobson’s point. There is some utility in avoiding a direct indictment of anti-Semites, because the obvious evilness of their worldview obscures the equally important ridiculousness of it. Only an idiot really holds something against Jews because they are Jews and, therefore, only an idiot could really exalt Jews simply because they are Jews. Jacobson gets to make a point without wading into too much outright ugliness.

But that cannot be exactly right either because there are anti-Semites of a more conventional sort within the book, including, arguably, Jewish anti-Semites. The world is much more complex than anti-Semites vs. non-anti-Semites. Perhaps, instead, his point was that, post-Holocaust, we are all anti-Semites now…..But that cannot be right either, and not only because the sentiment would be only a vacuous ripoff of a more famous but still somewhat vacuous early-century statement. What I actually meant by that is I have no idea what the point of the novel is.

The crux of the problem is the lack of definition of terms. A late exchange between Treslove and a Jewish character begins to address one of this logical problem with Treslove’s idealization of, and anti-Semites’ villainization of, Jews.

‘Is it like being gay? Is there a Jewdar that enables you to pick one another out?’

‘Again, depends. I rarely think someone is Jewish when they’re not, but I quite often don’t know I’m talking to a Jew when I am.’

‘And what is it you look for?’

‘I’m not looking for anything.’

‘What is [it] that you recognise, then?’

‘Can’t explain. It’s not one thing, it’s a collection of things. Features, facial expression, a way of talking, a way of moving.’

‘So you’re making racial calculations?’

‘I wouldn’t call them racial, no.’


‘No, definitely not religious.’

‘Then what?’

She didn’t know what.

Neither do I. Maybe the amorphousness of the concept of “Jew” (ethnicity, religion, culture, ???) contributes to anti-Semitism. Some may convince themselves they are only criticizing a religion or a culture when, perhaps, they are not as clear on their categories as they imagine. On the other hand, perhaps sometimes people really are criticizing just an aspect of the religion Judaism and get accused of or lumped with or confused with actual anti-Semites. (I don’t believe religions, whether specific ideologies or the whole god enterprise itself, are beyond criticism. In fact, I think organized religions ought to be criticized and often and loudly.)

In the end, I only knew with certainty that Jacobson was lampooning Treslove. There are other candidates (the Zionists, the Jewish anti-Zionists, etc.), but I am too ignorant of Jacobson’s writing, his frames of reference, and Jewish culture generally to draw any reliable conclusions. I think he was making fun of (having fun with) most of them (fun for him, not for me), but I am not sure that is entirely right either. I have no answer to the “Finkler Question”, the “Finkler” question, or any other question posed, referenced, or tackled by this book.

I am dismayed that I cannot more ably identify why the novel and I did not get on. The dividing line between fans and the rest of us is the humor. Those who liked it, like it. Those who do not like the humor, close The Finkler Question with irritation. My annoyance puts me in the esteemed company of Kevin from Canada and James Wood (The New Yorker), but at odds with the equally esteemed John Self (Asylum) and Trevor (The Mookse and the Gripes). That’s it. That’s all I have.