Sunday, 31 March 2013

April schedule

Friday 5th April: Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Friday 12th April: Laura Rereading: The Collector by John Fowles

Friday 19th April: Small Crimes in an Age of Abundance and English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

Friday 26th April: Tigers Seven: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

There will also be a surprise random post to cover Richard Ford's Canada as promised - so look forward to that!

Friday, 29 March 2013

Lobster on Tuesdays

The scheduled post today was on Richard Ford's Canada, but although I'm enjoying the book very much, I haven't yet finished reading it! So a short review in the meantime.

With all the pre-publication hype surrounding this novel, and the massive advance given to its debut author, I was intrigued to find out what all the fuss was about - and hoping that it wasn't just the superficial similarities to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time that justified the excitement. Thankfully, the latter turned out not to be the case. This novel is immediately engaging, funny, and unputdownable - I zoomed through it over the course of a Saturday - but possibly sacrifices depth in consequence. Don Tillman is a professor of genetics who has decided that he would like to find a life partner, despite his difficulties with women and social situations, and devises a detailed questionnaire as part of his 'Wife Project' to find the perfect match. Inevitably, the woman he falls for - Rosie Jarman - matches none of his criteria, and he is forced to invent a spurious second project to justify spending so much time with her, the 'Father Project', as Rosie is hunting for her biological father. It is evident from the start of the novel that Don has Asperger's - indeed, Graeme Simison spends rather too much time nudging and winking over the subject to create some rather forced humour, introducing Don as he is giving a lecture on the topic, and having Don think things like 'people often don't notice things about themselves that are right in front of their noses'. Therefore, hijinks ensue as Don's reading of people, events and situations continuously comes into conflict with reality.

On one level, The Rosie Project isn't great literature, but it is a great read. There are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments in the novel - one particularly memorable scene is when Don and Rosie man a cocktail bar to collect DNA samples from potential fathers, and Don becomes an instant cocktail whizz, memorising the exact proportions of ingredients in each drink and cross-matching them with customers. It's also heartwarming in a very old-fashioned way, reminding me of some of Jojo Moyes's work, especially Me Before You. (I toyed with the idea of comparing this novel with David Nicholls's One Day, but decided that One Day was too sharply observational and, in places, bitter, to be a fit comparison - which gives you some idea of how sweet this is). Don and Rosie are instantly appealing as characters, and you can't help but root for Don as he clumsily goes about trying to find a woman who might be attracted to him. I also appreciated the fact that Simison didn't draw a neat line between Don's social problems, caused by his Asperger's, and the rest of the world's difficulties - a scene at a dating event is particularly illuminating, when all three men there immediately make faux pas, and Don feels reassured that he isn't the only one who says the wrong thing.

On another level, this novel is interesting on the surface but less satisfying underneath. Although I'm not an expert on the autistic spectrum, I felt uneasy about the depiction of Asperger's in the book. Briefly, Don's Asperger's seems to only cause amusing and solvable problems for him, while not hindering him in any of the really important stuff - holding down his competitive job, meeting attractive women other than Rosie (there are at least two other candidates in the novel who seem interested) and having some friends. I also felt that I learnt no more about the condition than I did from reading Curious Incident (which I thought was also a very shallow treatment of the topic) or even popular fiction like Jodi Picoult's House Rules. There were numerous opportunities for giving the reader more insight into Don's daily struggles other than gimmicks such as his meal plans, and I felt Simison skimped on this important dimension of the story. The plot is also both unrealistic and predictable - the solution to the 'Father Project' hinges on such a well-known genetic fact than anybody with a good GCSE in Biology should be able to work it out. I was unsurprised to find out that Simison initially wrote this novel as a screenplay, and I actually think it would work very well on screen.

I would recommend this as a fun and engrossing read - but don't expect anything spectacular.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Laura Rereading: 'There was never any doubt in my mind'

Before re-reading: This book was first published in 1986; I first read it c.2005, and have not read it since. I really enjoyed this when I was nineteen or so, and I remember it as a Japanese version of The Remains of the Day.

After re-reading: I re-read this in 2013. This seems like a less ambitious and less successful version of The Remains of the Day (but because it’s Ishiguro, it’s still a very worthwhile read).

One day, when I have a large house with its own library (or indeed, a flat with more then two bookshelves) I will embark upon a project inspired by Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing and only re-read books that I already own for a year (with the exception of new trashy novels, I imagine, because when Lindsay Kelk is due to publish something that sounds as original as I Heart Christmas, how could I not read that at the correct seasonal moment). When I do embark upon this project, I’ve decided, I will always record my ‘old’ judgement of a novel before I re-read it; because I believe at times my opinion will radically change, although I admit the first experiment hasn’t really bourne that out. And so, for the moment, I have decided to re-read at least one book a month and adopt this policy; unfortunately, I neglected to do it for The Kraken Wakes and The Spell of the Sorceror’s Skull, but as my ‘old’ impressions of those books were probably ‘Scary krakens!’ and ‘Scary Latin incarnations!’, I doubt that anybody missed much.

So, to move on to An Artist of the Floating World, this book is indeed an odd fish. Its central character and narrator, Masuji Ono, was a celebrated artist in pre-war Japan, and during the Second World War itself, but he now seems isolated and regretful, concerned with emphasising his reputation and the rightness of his actions while never telling the reader very much about what he did during the war that requires justification. Unfortunately for Ono, he is feeling the pressure to arrange successful marriage negotiations for his younger daughter, Noriko, and hence has to come to terms with the past and his fears that his previous actions may destroy Noriko’s chances. He is also struggling with his relationship with his older married daughter, Setsuko, and her young son, Ichiro, as his assumptions about masculine identity, the importance of Japanese culture, and early induction into adulthood are confounded by newer ideas. As this is an Ishiguro novel, it isn’t surprising that we gradually grow to doubt Ono’s narrative and wonder how far we can trust his own assessments of his guilt and his importance.

Ishiguro works through a number of themes in this novel that read as if he is limbering up for The Remains of the Day; and indeed, although this is still an accomplished book, the world does not feel as real or as deep as his imagined country-house landscape. Most obviously, both novels deal with an elderly man working through his guilt for his past actions before and during the Second World War, and coming to terms with the fact that the world-view he held and still holds, to an extent, may now be outdated. I had remembered this thematic similarity, but what I hadn’t remembered was the closeness of voice and structure between the two novels, despite the disparity of their settings. Near the end of the novel, Ono’s conversations with Noriko and Setsuko become eerily similar to Stevens’s conversations with his ageing father, even down to the small details; both Ono and Stevens are fond of ‘small laughs’ or ‘giving a laugh’ and the daughters and the son both add ‘Father’ unnecessarily onto comments, or speak about their father in the third person when they are having a conversation with him. Ono’s and Stevens’s self-delusions also mirror in the content of these chats, and it made me wonder whether Ishiguro – normally so skilful in distinguishing voice – wasn’t already mulling over the later novel in his head as he finished this earlier one (the publication dates do suggest that he wrote the manuscripts fairly close together). Ono’s repetitive descriptions of ‘The Bridge of Hesitation’ and his house also recall Stevens’s meandering car journeys and his obsession with English topography that frame his more interesting flashbacks.

However, more interestingly, Ishiguro seems to be working through certain aspects of this story that appear in a slightly different light in The Remains of the Day. Ono initially presents himself to us as an important artist and a figure who might have had great impact on Japanese support for the war effort, but it emerges throughout the novel that he may have been little more than one of many, a talented propagandist who never actually had the impact he claims for himself. Therefore, the ostensible plotline – of Ono having to face up to the terrible impact his actions had – is subverted; Ono’s admission to Noriko’s potential in-laws that he regrets his actions is of supreme importance to him, because he has to admit he was wrong, but also serves to bolster his sense of personal significance. Later, when Setsuko gently tries to tell him ‘Noriko told me she was extremely puzzled by Father’s behaviour that night... No one was at all sure what Father meant by it all’ and, later, ‘Father’s work had hardly to do with these larger matters [war propaganda] of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter. He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.’ Of course, this is precisely what Ono cannot stop believing, because to do so would be to destroy the narrative of his life, far more so then his admission at the end of the novel that some of the changes in Japanese life have been for the better.

In contrast, Stevens both recognises his small contribution, and regrets deeply what happened, at the beginning of The Remains of the Day. The plot-line is not him coming to see that his actions were minor or wrong, but him wrestling with the idea of how much personal responsibility and independence he should have assumed in his life. The Ono role is essentially split into two figures – Stevens and Lord Darlington, and the central question is whether Stevens will realise where he did grievously err – in his personal life – and whether he will be able to rectify this. In the end, Stevens, like Ono, is both changed and not changed. He seems to have undergone much more of a personal journey (one of the reasons why I feel The Remains of the Day is the greater novel) in some respects; but he is left considering the same question that was bothering him at the beginning of the novel, how to be a better butler. It is the small detail of his actions that eludes Ono, but Stevens is much more focused from the start on the incidences where he did make a personal contribution, such as his lack of resistance to the firing of the Jewish maids by Lord Darlington.

To end where I began, An Artist of the Floating World is a peculiar book; it feels in many ways like a sketch for something bigger, and I have suggested that it was, but I also think that this was intentional. Ishiguro doesn’t want to fill in the details; Ono’s focus is on certain aspects of his world, and not on others, and the narrative structure, with its repetitive bridges and houses, reflects this, as does Ono’s assumption that ‘we’, the readers, know the places he is describing, and so will not require further information. This familiar Ishigurean trick is perhaps used to greatest effect in Never Let Me Go, his masterpiece; here, it is somewhat of an afterthought, a taste of things to come.

Friday, 15 March 2013

'Heavy with the energy they might have deployed'

I'm a fan of both Marilynne Robinson and Paul Harding - I loved Robinson's Housekeeping, Home, and Gilead, and Harding's Tinkers - so the comparisons made between their work and this novel encouraged me to read it. Unfortunately, I feel this suggestion was misleading; Owen Martell simply isn't as good a writer as Harding or (especially) Robinson.

The novel focuses on 1960s jazz musician Bill Evans, his parents, Mary and Harry, and brother Harry Jr, in the aftermath of the death of another musician from the Bill Evans Trio, Scott LaFaro. Told in four parts from the third-person point of view of each of these four characters, it emphasises Bill's isolation and disconnection from the rest of his family. On the whole, it is competently written, although Martell's command of imagery can be patchy, ranging from the strangely workable to convoluted and over-wordy. This is particularly noticeable in Bill's section, which closes the novel. It opens with Bill on a plane flying back to New York, and a splendid description of the skyscrapers: 'even the Empire State Building is no more than a pine in the island forest. Bill tries to bring to mind the view in reverse, when he stops in the street and tilts back his head for the metal trunks to communicate down from the heavens rather than up into man's ambition.' It moves onto another image that doesn't quite work: as the plane is landing, 'he has a feeling for the transubstantiation by which he will have been made, before dark, to walk again in the city's cadence.' I see what Martell is getting at here, but I feel that 'transubstantiation' conjures up the wrong set of associations for this translation between one world and another. The passage ends with writing that is even worse, however: 'As they come out of the dive, the cabin fills by degrees with the red augur of evening. It splurges first on the plastic roof then on seat-backs and trays... This particular tint has about it the lucency of skin'. I think this description is overwritten, and over-padded with long words; alongside the rest of the paragraph, it makes even the good sentences function more awkwardly.

Oddly, Harry Jr and Mary's sections suffer from a different problem, although at least this shows that Martell is paying attention to voice. Both are written so simply that they seem rather flat, and I found it difficult to connect to either of these characters. There is the occasional touch of dry, observational humour in Harry's narrative that leavens it slightly - for example, 'The breeze caught a lock of his hair, those loose strands that decided every morning which side of his parting they'd register their allegiance to' - but this isn't enough to save it. By far the strongest section is Harry Sr, and I felt Martell's identification with his Welsh connections really shone through here. Nevertheless, the novel as a whole suffers from a lack of movement. I'm not particularly keen on plot-focused novels, but while a book like Gilead, outwardly uneventful, travels a great deal of emotional distance, I didn't feel that Intermission went anywhere - indeed, everything seems to be the same at the end of this novel as at the beginning. Perhaps this is the point, as the title seems to indicate - but in that case, I think this might have worked better as a short story, given that it is already virtually a novella.

For those disappointed by this, it might be a good idea to turn to Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station, another recent, slender novel which deals with a rootless young man. Adam is an American poet who has secured a writing fellowship to spend a year in Madrid, where he claims to be working on 'a long, research-driven poem exploring the [Spanish Civil] war's literary legacy' but is in fact doing nothing of the kind.. His 'creative' process is cyclical, meaningless and possibly closer to plagiarism: 'On these days I worked on what I called translation. I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever I first associated with it... Or I looked up a Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound ("Under the arc of the sky" became "Under the arc of the cielo" which became "Under the arc of the cello.")' This Babelfish approach to poetry, however, doesn't prevent Adam from securing positive critical attention and a measure of fame in Madrid, a seemingly inevitable result that reflects the novel's wider concern with false appearance and mistranslation. Adam's games with Spanish reflect his initial difficulties at making conversation in another language, where he is continually guessing at what the other person is saying, and also, it seems, allow him greater freedom to lie then he would have had in his native tongue, as when he pretends that his mother is dead to get the attention of an attractive woman. (Although I speak Spanish very badly, I recognised the confidence that another language can bring you; there's a kind of anonymity in words that aren't your own, and Lerner captures this phenomenon well).

Although Adam's emotional distance from the world around him, fuelled by drink and drugs, is initially fascinating, I felt that I wanted something more from Leaving the Atocha Station than these reasonably familiar musings on the role of art in life, even if Lerner explores the idea far more originally than most writers could manage. Fortunately, the book delivers. For me, the centrepiece of this novel was when Adam is chatting online to an old friend, Cyrus, who is currently travelling in Mexico, and Cyrus tells him a story. He and his girlfriend, Jane, encountered a group of young people swimming in a river, with one girl refusing to swim: 'One of the men, his girlfriend was on the bank... and he was trying to convince her to get in, to swim.' Jane jumped into the river, and began to try and persuade Cyrus to join her; after he did so, the 'girlfriend' yielded to the pressure and got into the river as well: 'things got very bad very fast. she went underwater for a second, and when she resurfaced, she was a little farther down and totally panicked'. As Cyrus's story unfolds - related brilliantly by Lerner within the constraints of instant messaging - Adam is gripped and engaged for the first time in the novel. It's entirely predictable that he later appropriates Cyrus's story as his own, but what this long set-piece does, positioned as it is near the middle of the novel, is emphasise that real things do still happen, that actions have consequences, however far Adam sinks into his ennui. Hence, it functions as a set-up for the violent events later in the novel, which Adam doesn't witness directly.

Therefore, although this novel deals with our distance from reality, it manages to stay grounded - and this was one of the main reasons, alongside the far superior writing, that I preferred Leaving the Atocha Station to Intermission. As this is Ben Lerner's debut, I look forward to seeing what he writes next.

Friday, 8 March 2013

No post

This week has been so hectic that I've had no time to write anything (other than working on a PhD and a novel, that is...) so I'm going to move my posting schedule forward and post on Easter weekend instead. Apologies.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Better to judge by its cover

You know, this book has a beautiful cover design. It's deceptively simple but very eye-catching, and I love the addition of the little cartoon animals sitting by Penelope suggesting that she is off in her own world, and the somehow jaunty font used for the author's name. The back flap tells me that the designer was Sian Wilson, so very many congratulations to her.

Having got my positive comments out of the way... on to the actual content. This book, which details Penelope's first year at Harvard, is bizarrely bad. I say bizarrely, because it isn't bad in any normally recognisable way - it's an awkward fusion of satire and light fiction, but even light fiction isn't usually this badly written. Reading it, I attempted a working hypothesis that the clunky writing was deliberate, that we are seeing everything through socially challenged Penelope's point of view and that's why all the characters seem so off-kilter and one-dimensional, but if this was Rebecca Harrington's intention, this doesn't really come off. As well as being annoying, the total lack of contractions in the dialogue reduces all the characters to sounding like each other, and although Penelope is obviously hopelessly out of her depth when trying to make friends, the other characters seem to share her problems, with a couple of minor exceptions. It's as if they're all attending Harvard in an alternative universe where nobody has ever experienced any human interaction before. Penelope's deadpan observations are obviously intended to be witty - although at the expense of the heroine, which is a dangerous game to play - but often fall flat. Occasionally, Harrington raises a laugh, as when she writes 'Two people walked into the library carrying toothbrushes because they were going to sleep there', a situation that Penelope clearly accepts as run-of-the-mill and never thinks about.

It's at these moments that I felt like I could see what Penelope was meant to be - a hilarious take on the sheer weirdness of Harvard through the eyes of a narrator who thinks all this is normal - but the crucial flaws I've already outlined stop it from working. I also thought that, to get full mileage out of this concept, Harrington should have chosen a narrator more like Penelope's roommate, Emma, who is as weird as Penelope in her own way but much more immersed in Harvard life. Penelope is essentially passive, spending a lot of time sitting in her room or waiting for boys to text her, and someone actively pursuing popularity, like Emma, might have made for a more dynamic main character. In many ways, this reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep, a far superior read in every way, and I think another reason why 'Prep' works and this doesn't is that the heroine of Prep, Lee, while still fairly passive, is much more socially astute than Penelope and acts almost as an anthropologist, studying the bizarre culture of American prep schools even as she longs to be accepted into the popular clique.

I finished this book because it was remarkably easy to read, despite being intensely irritating at times, but the only reason I would pick up something else by Harrington is to see if she can use contractions and deliberately omitted them in Penelope. From the author's note ('I am grateful for all the hard work he put into selling this novel. He is the best!') I'm not holding out much hope.