Friday, 30 May 2014

The Baileys Longlist, Redux: 2

 So on to the 'lightweights' of the Baileys longlist - although Claire Cameron's The Bear, which I haven't been able to get hold of via the library and am not interested in enough to buy, probably belongs in this category as well. I've always found the literary use of the term 'lightweight' odd. It would be difficult to find someone who knows less about boxing than me, but as I understand it, a lightweight boxer isn't someone who isn't as good as the heavyweight boxers, but someone competing in a different weight category. Yet when we use this term to refer to fiction, it's always used disparagingly. Strictly, 'lightweight' fiction should be used to emphasise that a book is trying to do something quite different from heavyweight literary fiction and should not be judged against it. Sadly, the Baileys prize judges have forced me to assess the merits of these two lightweight novels against mainstream literary fiction, and they both come up wanting.

I've encountered Anna Quindlen's work before and found it deceptively engaging. Still Life With Bread Crumbs is no less readable than One True Thing. However, unlike the earlier novel, it lacks both depth and realism. Rebecca Winter (I kept on trying to find a reason for the Rebecca reference, but there was nothing - unless Quindlen is trying to say something rather-too-subtle for this novel about men who feel threatened by successful and independent women!) is a once-famous photographer who, at sixty, feels that her career may have come to an end. Struggling with her finances, she rents an isolated, tumbledown cottage in upstate New York to try to make ends meet. Predictably enough, she rediscovers herself, love, and her career during her time in rural seclusion. I had the sense with this novel that Quindlen was trying to be rather cleverer with the material than she could manage. It's more consciously constructed than her earlier work, with flash-forward asides that tell us things the characters couldn't possibly know, and chapter titles that give different versions of the same story. 

Ultimately, however, it's a feel-good romance with a predictable plot that centres on my least favourite device in fiction - the characters who don't talk to each other and sort things out but instead choose to jump to implausible conclusions, so the writer can delay their reunion until the end. It's a shame it's been bigged up as more than this, because as an easy read, it absolutely works, and I enjoyed the fact that it focused on an older woman but allowed her to be interested in her art as well as personal relationships, and presented her as refreshingly unconcerned about ageing in a physical sense (Rebecca reflects early on in the novel that she's not afraid of death but of living in an increasingly obscure state of penury). All the ends are too neatly and happily tied up, however, for this to provoke any serious thought.

Nevertheless, I still preferred Still Life With Bread Crumbs to Lea Carpenter's schmaltzy debut Eleven Days. I would say it reminds me of Jodi Picoult, but that strikes me as being a little unfair on Picoult (Nineteen Minutes and House Rules, at any rate, are much better than this novel). The novel focuses on a single mother, Sara, and her only son, Jason, who is missing after a Special Operation Forces mission in Afghanistan. The majority of the plot focuses on Jason's journey, as he puts it, 'from Athens to Sparta', and explores society's attitude to those who choose to serve in the armed forces, and the general incomprehension that somebody as smart as Jason would want to become a Navy SEAL. Sara, too, has had to adjust her expectations; as an editor, she has very much followed 'the life of the mind', although giving birth to Jason meant that most of her ambitions had to be put on hold. There's so much interesting material to explore here; the glorification of war in US society not matched by the glorification of individual soldiers, as Ben Fountain explores memorably in Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk; why Jason makes the decision he does; the psychological strength necessary to make it through SEAL training, and where that comes from. 

Unfortunately, the writing stays firmly in women's-fiction mode, and Carpenter's exploration of these questions is shallow at best. Indeed, the book reads at times like an apologia for war, which I found very uncomfortable (as opposed to foregrounding the perspectives of soldiers, which I would have found fascinating had it been done better). This is partly a consequence of the way the novel is structured. Most of the page time is spent on Jason's training, and he's never shown in actual bloody conflict. While I'm hardly a gore enthusiast, I felt this was ill-chosen; if only because it seemed necessary to explore how the carefully-learnt drills would work in practice. The research itself is gripping, but the way that Carpenter utilises it falls flat. Ultimately, I didn't believe in either Jason or his mother as characters. Jason is utterly idealised, writing perfect-son letters home to his mother, and while Sara is more conflicted, she's essentially dull; existing only in relationship to Jason. While the question of his fate still hangs in the air, as it does throughout the novel, this is understandable, but I found it difficult to connect to her lack of ambition, drive or interest. I'd recommend Billy Lynn or Ellen Feldman's Next to Love for something that deals better with the consequences of war.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Baileys Longlist, Redux

 I've been so impressed by the quality of the novels on the Baileys longlist this year that, despite the fact that the shortlist has long been announced, I decided to go back and read the rest. In fact, I read The Flamethrowers more than a month ago now, and have been meaning to write about it for some time. I'm pleased that I didn't, however, for it juxtaposes well with Evie Wyld's All The Birds, Singing, which I have just finished. The novels are superficially similar; both are narrated in first person by young women making their way in the world on unconventional terms, engaging with experiences that are expected to be the domain of men: in The Flamethrowers, breaking speed records on motorcycles on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and in All The Birds, Australian sheep-shearing. For me, however, the similarities ended here. Both books utilise a complex and ambitious structure, but while All The Birds pulls this off so elegantly that you scarcely notice what is happening, The Flamethrowers seems to lumber under the weight of its own vision. The novel opens with a fabulous set-piece, as Reno, our narrator, sets off to break a female land speed record on a motorcycle, and it periodically regains this narrative intensity as it continues. However, the narrative was too disjointed for me to fully engage with it. The bulk of the novel deals with Reno trying to make it as an artist in New York - a dream that is swiftly sidelined by her romantic involvement with Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian rubber fortune, and her fascination with his friend, Ronnie Fontaine. Reno's experiences are meandering and frustrating, and although there are some beautifully-observed scenes - I enjoyed Ronnie's utterly pointless monologues - I found it difficult to keep going. An interesting sideline deals with TP Valera, the founder of the Valera rubber business, and his first dabblings in Brazil early in the century; while the exploitation of the local workers is memorably written, it seems to be an interruption to the main narrative.

A key thematic thread is how Reno herself - and by implication, women in the context of the groups that she moves in - is overwritten or invisible. Radical men dream of a world where sex is reduced to a transaction, and women to sex. In her early days in New York, Reno works as a 'China girl' for film stock; posing for a frame that will only be seen by the lab technician who calibrates the film. She is present, important, but unseen. Reno's friend, Giddle, has decided to pursue success as an actress by inhabiting the role of the menial jobs she's forced to take on; she's not working as a waitress, she explains to Reno, she is inhabiting the role of someone who has to work as a waitress. In this way, she has moved beyond the need for success and is approaching true art. Reno herself does a Giddle throughout the novel, in subtler ways; she struggles to learn the codes of Sandro's circle, and when she goes with him to his family's villa in Italy, she is finally, and utterly, out of her depth. Her character is determined by those around her.

In contrast to The Flamethrowers, Evie Wyld's All The Birds, Singing, doesn't put a foot wrong. Seriously, this is one of the best novels I've read in the last few years. The novel switches between first-person chapters narrated in past tense and set in the present which move forward in time, and first-person chapters narrated in present tense and set in the past which move backwards in time. The common feature is the voice of our protagonist, Jake, a guarded, scared and self-reliant young woman. Wyld handles this complicated structure so effortlessly that the novel is as gripping as a thriller, skilfully using the chapters that move backwards to drop clues about the mystery that surrounds Jake's past and the network of scars on her back. Although the present-day plot also focuses on a mystery - some of Jake's flock of sheep keep turning up dead - we quickly realise that this is not the main focus of the story, and, in fact, is just the aftermath of everything that has happened before. Wyld, who has said she was influenced by horror tropes in the writing of this novel, is adept at building a lingering sense of dead. It helps that she's a fantastic writer, conveying huge amounts about her settings in a sparse page count. Virtually all the professional reviews of this novel have quoted its gruesome first line, which describes the dead body of a sheep. Wyld, however, is not interested in shallow grittiness, or in solely conveying how hard a life lived close to nature can be, and her descriptions of the tacky 'ombience' of the room that Jake used to share with her friend Kathy in Australia, or of the cheap processed food eaten by the sheep-herders, are as accurate and evocative as the bloody image of the sheep.

What really makes this novel, however, is Jake. Not 'Jake's voice', but Jake herself. I struggled with Wyld's first novel, After The Fire, A Small Still Voice (she's clearly leading the charge to insert commas into titles) partly because I felt distanced from the two main characters. In contrast, I felt that I 'got' Jake immediately, and Wyld's clever writing continually adds to the picture. As we move backwards through Jake's past, we learn so much about her - from her shifting feelings about her 'manlike', muscular arms to her penchant for fried calamari - and Wyld, partly through her use of such a clever structure, makes this process feel completely organic. Moving from present to past allows us to understand Jake better, as well. In an early scene in the present, Jake goes down to the sea with her dog, and hums 'the song from Titanic' to the waves as she lets the body of a dead pigeon float out to sea. The image of tough, unemotional Jake humming My Heart Will Go On is incongruous but intriguing, and I had expected it to be a throwaway detail that indicated a softer side to Jake's character. What Wyld does with that detail later in the novel both tells us so much about Jake and makes the original scene read very differently.

The time that Wyld spends in getting us to understand Jake is absolutely worth it, because this novel ends with a twist that would never work if we weren't absolutely connected to Jake by that point. As it is, this is one of the few novels I can think of that has a surprising ending that does not feel contrived, cheap or frustrating, but makes everything that came before even better. The solution to the sheep-killing mystery, on the other hand, remains technically unresolved; and yet, by that point, it no longer matters. We realise what we knew all along, that what Jake feared most was not the killing of her sheep but what she thought might be doing it; and, furthermore, what she herself has done that might make someone want to hurt her flock.

This novel would be my pick to win the Baileys this year… except, like The Luminaries, it has not been shortlisted. I find this truly incomprehensible, and it actually makes me quite angry that novels like  Burial Rites and The Undertaking were deemed to be better. I hope that All The Birds, Singing wins anything else that it is eligible for this year, because it definitely deserves to.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

'The things that matter to them'

I was surprised to see how overwhelmingly positive critics' reviews of this novel have been so far, and while I don't completely disagree with them, I thought I would offer a different perspective. This novel focuses on a single man: Zafar, born in rural Bangladesh and rising to a position of privilege via an Oxford education to become a derivatives trader and later, to work for the UN in Afghanistan. Zafar's story is narrated by his unnamed friend; still an investment banker, this friend, who met Zafar at Oxford, is surprised to find Zafar on his doorstep years after he had disappeared. Although he shares with Zafar a common experience of racial prejudice in Britain, his background is very different; the grandson of the Pakistani ambassador to the US, he was born in America. Hence, he is unable to connect with Zafar's continuing anger as he remembers his struggle to navigate 'class-ridden' British society, and his sense of being a continual outsider, even as he takes on official positions of great responsibility and prestige.

As an intellectual experiment, this novel is continuously fascinating. James Wood's excellent review in the New Yorker, which has already been referenced by a number of the reviewers here, rightly reflects on its exploration of the uses of knowledge. As Wood notes, Rahman is interested in exploring why a certain kind of knowledge leads to a certain kind of power, and how knowing the right things, even if you know very little else, can take you far in the world. Zafar, it's evident early in the novel, is not only well-educated in formal terms but an obsessive autodidact; he continuously tells his friend titbits of knowledge that never fail to fascinate. As one of Rahman's devices to remind the reader both how much we don't know and how useless a lot of our knowledge is, it's remarkably successful; as a literary choice, it is perhaps less so, as it frequently interrupts the flow of the narrative. The same could be said for the way in which the novel is told. The narrative is remarkably, and deliberately, difficult to follow. Not only do we constantly switch from the narrator's to Zafar's perspective with little warning, there is no use of quotation marks, so even in hindsight, it can be difficult to disentangle the precise moment when the voice changes. Furthermore, the narrative is told completely out of order, with the climax of the story - Zafar's time in Afghanistan - strung out throughout the book and interspersed with numerous other remnants of Zafar's memories. Again, from an analytical point of view, this way of telling is clearly integral to the novel's intellectual project. Zafar might intercept with bits of solid, factual knowledge, but the hopeless jumble in which he relates his own life reminds us how little we can really hang on to. Nevertheless, it is an authorial choice that becomes increasingly frustrating for the reader.

If Rahrman breaks one of the cardinal rules of the novel by writing such a confounding narrative, he breaks another with his characters. I found both the narrator and Zafar neither likeable nor interesting - a rather off-putting combination. Although I suspect our reaction towards both of these men is meant to be deeply ambivalent, ultimately my disinterest in Zafar meant that this novel - which is largely an exploration of why he has become the man he is today - lacked much of the driving force that it needed. Rahman writes some splendid set-pieces on Zafar - his near escape from a train crash in Bangladesh and his brief contact with a boy he might have been springs to mind - but they tend to get lost in what is, printing tricks aside, a very long novel. Also, for a man so rightly concerned with the classist and racist discrimination he has suffered, he is utterly blind to gender. Both Zafar and his friend are guilty of some pretty sexist statements throughout the novel - I think the low point was their comments on how 18 is the peak of a woman's attractiveness, although Zafar's blithe assertion that career women of 32 have often left it too late to get pregnant was also pretty bad. These attitudes are summed up in the way both men remember and react to the only significant female character in the novel, Emily, a long-term love of Zafar's. Emily, as an upper-class white Englishwoman, represents everything Zafar cannot have, and his desire to possess her is as symbolic as it is off-putting. Sadly, because we only see Emily through the filters of these two somewhat unpleasant men, it is difficult to get a handle on her as a character in her own right, although she seems to be quite capable of manipulation and deceit as well.

In the end, however, it wasn't the novel's uncomfortable gender politics or its convoluted structure that broke me - it was the fact that both Zafar and the narrator are so unforgivably pompous. To an extent, we can see why Zafar has become this hyper-educated, pedantic and obsessed man, but giving him a similar narrator to interact with was, I think, a mistake, especially as the narrator's pomposity is far less understandable. Of course, the characters' obsession with knowledge has thematic relevance, but when the novel ended with an image of Godel and Einstein walking together, as 'they discuss the things that matter to them and why they matter' I did start to wonder whether we were meant to take their discussions seriously. This would be easier to do if Rahman hadn't larded the novel so heavily with quotations - supposedly quotations taken from Zafar's notebooks - as these only added to the general air of self-righteousness. And while the value of knowledge is continually questioned, Zafar, too, judges others by what they know; for example, what they know about the geography and politics of Bangladesh.

This review has been largely negative, but, as I stated at the beginning, there is much to admire in this novel; this, for me, was the other side of the balance sheet. I will say that, whatever its brilliance, In The Light Of What We Know is not a novel to embark on, well, lightly; be prepared to engage.

Friday, 9 May 2014

The Baileys Shortlist: my order

1. Americanah - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
2. The Goldfinch - Donna Tartt
3. A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing - Eimear McBride
4. The Lowland - Jhumpa Lahiri
5. Burial Rites - Hannah Kent
6. The Undertaking - Audrey Magee

I think this is the strongest shortlist I have ever read for any prize; certainly stronger than this year's Booker shortlist. As I mentioned in one of my reviews, I've never read a shortlist where I felt all the books had deserved to be longlisted, but that is the case here. I would be genuinely happy for any of my top four choices to take the prize, and I think McBride may win it.

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Baileys Prize Shortlist, #6: Brothers in the land

When Subhash, working as a graduate student in Rhode Island, hears that his brother Udayan has married a local girl, Gauri, back in their native city of Calcutta, he is given only a photograph from which to guess at what she might be like. Receiving this letter shakes Subhash's world; having once been so close to his slightly-younger brother, he finds it hard to believe that Udayan has now married someone he has never heard of, and he is still suspicious of Udayan's carefully-worded letters, which make no mention of his previous involvement with the radical Communist Naxalites. However, as he studies Gauri's photograph, it is impossible for him to predict that this moment will become even more significant in the story of his life then it seems to be at the moment. I spent so long avoiding this warm and captivating novel, and I have to admit that I was wrong; The Lowland is both an engrossing and ultimately a very moving story. Unlike many novels which claim an ambitious scope because they move continents, The Lowland is ambitious in the best sort of way; retaining a very small central cast, it makes its readers truly care about the fates of Udayan, Subhash and Gauri, and it makes their stories unpredictable and yet seemingly inevitable, the way real lives are. 

Funnily enough, even as I write about this novel, I find it hard to describe it differently from the reviews that put me off reading it in the first place, and perhaps it just is one of those novels that succeeds through the quality of the writing more than anything else, convincing the reader quietly, bit by bit, that this world is worthwhile. But Lahiri is also gifted with structure, knowing exactly when to fill in the detail and when to pass over years in silence; the ending of this novel, where her chronological tale bends back on itself, will remain with me for some time. As the novel unfolds, it looses itself from being solely about two brothers from West Bengal and speaks to wider themes of ageing and what we choose to do with our lives as we age, and how key choices mould our lives more than we could ever have imagined. Lahiri manages both to tell a strong story and to people it with characters that seem genuinely unpredictable and alive, not locked into a narrative structure, and this is a difficult thing to pull off. Characterisation is also mostly conveyed by the narrative voice, rather than through dialogue or incident, and yet we do feel that we get to know the brothers and their family and not that we've simply been told about them.

Much as I enjoyed this quiet novel, I can't rank it as highly as The Goldfinch or Americanah, even though, as I've already mentioned during my discussion of the shortlist, in many ways both of those novels are deeply flawed. Unlike The Undertaking and A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, The Lowland very much does what I think novels should be doing, and so it's not because of this that it isn't my favourite. Despite its strong narrative, I didn't feel that it ever flared into brilliance, unlike my two favourites - except perhaps in its wonderful ending - and so I never responded to it as deeply. This judgment feels a little unjust, but I think what I'm finding through my reading of this exceptionally strong shortlist is how much, in the end, comes down to feeling.

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Baileys Prize Shortlist, #5: ‘it’s our turn now’

This is a short, disturbing, and in many ways, intensely frustrating novel about a German family in Berlin during the Second World War; both their son, Johannes, and their newly-acquired son-in-law, Peter, are fighting for the Nazis, and Peter ends up starving during the Russian siege of Stalingrad, abandoning any sense of principle in the struggle to survive. In stark contrast, his wife, Katherina, and her parents, under the protection of a doctor high in the Party’s esteem, are moving into a newly-requisitioned apartment, wearing beautiful clothing stolen from Jewish women, and eating chocolate, meat and champagne. The novel is simply narrated from both Peter’s and Katherina’s points of view, told largely through dialogue, and at times, feels more like a sketch within something more complex than a narrative in its own right. This impression is reinforced by our confinement in the world of these characters, with no other voice to speak against the horror of what they are doing; although neither is involved directly in Nazi atrocities against the Jews, apathy is their dominant response to any hint of what is happening, and they know where their newfound wealth has come from, and see the suffering of the poor in the streets. Audrey Magee has made a deliberate choice not to portray a family torn between their desire to survive and their knowledge that what is happening is wrong, and this alone makes The Undertaking a memorable read.

However, I felt uncomfortable with the novel beyond the aspects of it that are clearly meant to make it uncomfortable. The narrative was one key issue. Although I have read a number of novels that make such a skeletal telling of a story not only work but strengthen their telling – How Many Miles to Babylon? springs to mind – I don’t feel that The Undertaking is one of them. There is little sense of layer and nuance to the dialogue other than our sense of the crimes that Peter and Katherina’s world is built on, and none of the characters emerge as fully-dimensional individuals. The narrative pull is such that I did feel invested in the couple and what would happen to them – despite my better judgment – but I had little sense of who they really were as people, apart from their callousness. This sense of characterlessness was strengthened by the curiously flat affect of the way their story is told. While it makes sense for Magee’s purposes that they should distance themselves from others’s suffering, at times they seem scarcely more invested in their own lives. Although Peter’s feelings for Katherina are clearly powerful – even if she becomes more of a symbol to him than a woman – and Katherina’s feelings for Peter and for their son strong, little of this is explored and expressed. In consequence, the ending of the novel feels more like a heaping of events one upon the other, lacking the impact they ought to have, although I did like that we are left wondering how we should react to the pair now and whether their suffering in any way can mitigate their earlier profiteering.

Like A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, The Undertaking is the kind of novel I struggle with because I like long stories that delve deep into the inner worlds of their cast, and that is not what The Undertaking is aiming to do. Neverthless, I can’t rate the latter as highly as the former because it seems to me that it’s only trying to pull off one thing – our confused and ambivalent reaction to this family – and while it does this very well, there ought to be more to a novel than eliciting one reaction, however much that reaction makes us think. Like all the shortlisted titles this year (something which has never happened to me before when reading any prize shortlist!) I think it deserved its place on the Baileys longlist, but am unsure whether it was strong enough to be shortlisted, especially above titles such as The Luminaries (yes I am still bitter about its exclusion). A thoughtful and thought-provoking work, but not a stand-out for me, and I’m surprised that it was included on so many shortlist predictions, as well as on the shortlist itself.