Friday, 7 June 2013

The weight of the world

Heft, Liz Moore's second novel, has been pigeonholed by some reviewers as being about physicality, with comparisons even being made with Lionel Shriver's Big Brother - but that isn't really what it's about at all. Rather than Shriver's caustic social observations (I've not yet read Big Brother, but I know and love her work well enough to predict how she will tackle this topic), Heft is both gentle and brutal, and less about obesity and comfort eating than it is about the deadweight of our own past; how we are dragged down by our own ballast even before we can decide to do things differently.

The novel alternates between the voices of Arthur Opp, a 550-pound former academic who hasn't left his New York apartment in ten years, and seventeen-year-old Kel Keller, at the peak of his physical fitness as he sets his sights on a professional baseball career. The link between these two men is Charlene, Kel's mother and a former student of Arthur's, whom Arthur remembers as a small, 'rabbitish' young woman with bangs 'worked into an astounding arc', dressed like 'a stoplight' with shoulder pads that 'threaten to eclipse her,' writing essays full of emotional connection to fictional characters but with little grasp of literary theory. Two decades later, Kel knows her as his ailing, alcoholic mother; balding, with red-dyed hair with the grey showing through, a constant rash, 80s clothes and two tattoos of which she is very proud. It is the contrast between these two versions of Charlene that packs Heft's first emotional punch, but there are plenty more to come.

In this novel, Moore highlights the force of circumstance that weighs against even our best intentions. Arthur hasn't entirely given up hope - he scrutinises himself in the mirror every day to make sure he doesn't put on so much weight as to render him immobile, and once bought an exercise machine - but the accumulation of his childhood experiences and now, the ten years he has spent alone, tell against him. At times, the reader is frustrated by his seemingly innate weakness of will, but we never really lose sympathy with him. Kel is determined to make a life for himself, but recognises that he is perhaps not as single-minded about baseball as some of his competitors: 'the people who play like they are magic, the people who play like they were made for baseball and baseball was made for them. Sometimes I think that I am like this too, like I am part of this, but there are days, more and more, when I'm not sure. And I think you have to be sure.' Meanwhile, Charlene seems to have completely resigned herself to her fate, until she writes a letter to Arthur that spurs him into action.

Heft continuously flirts with the possibility that these two disparate characters, Arthur and Kel, are going to save each other. Without saying too much about the contact that they have throughout the book, it seems clear that Heft is a novel about lifting your own weight, and that it suggests that others can support you but not take the burden from you. In this, it is an absorbing, moving and occasionally heartbreaking read that I very much recommend.

Amy Waldman's The Submission is a debut novel of a very different kind. This novel, detailing the aftermath of a jury's selection of a Muslim architect to design a 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, received much positive critical attention when it was published and is certainly an engaging and gripping read. The set-up - Mohammed Khan, the architect, has submitted his design, known as the 'Garden', anonymously, so no-one realised his ethnicity until it was too late to avoid the public fallout - is completely believable, as is Waldman's depiction of the various groups that rush to support Khan, or to decry him. Waldman also builds a cast of strong central characters, from Mo himself, to Claire Burwell, the representative of 'the families' on the prize jury, having lost her husband in the terrorist attack, to Asma Anwar, another widow who, being an illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, plays the inverse of Claire, and is voiceless. Even more minor and less sympathetic characters, such as Debbie Dawson, the leader of 'Save America from Islam', who can see Muslim threats from every direction, are humanised in brief, but brilliant, character sketches. Debbie's eldest daughter, Trisha, is applying to college: 'Trisha... had feared liberal colleges would blackball her when they realised Debbie was her mother. So she had decided to write her essay about how she both respected her mother ("Two years ago she was just a housewife who spent most of her time watching soap operas. The attack changed everything. She was called to fight for her country. She educated herself...) and disagreed with her ("Sometimes I think she tries too hard to be provocative. I believe in dialogue.") Debbie was totally on board with this strategy, but she had crossed out "watching soap operas" and replaced it with "taking care of my sisters and me."'

However, in some ways, the breadth of The Submission is also its weakness. At times, it could feel a little paint-by-numbers, and reminiscent of Jodi Picoult, especially in its handling of Azma, who is produced as a surprising contradiction, a representative of both Islam and the bereaved, and nudged rather too heavy-handedly into seizing her chance to speak just as the articulate Claire is becoming unsure of what to say. Of course, this novel is much better-written than anything Picoult could produce, usually eschewing elaborate and 'meaningful' metaphors but occasionally, the symbolism here also becomes a little laboured, as when Claire considers herself in the context of a set of Russian dolls that her husband, Cal, had made shortly before he died. Using the dolls to describe her confusion over the memorial design, she thinks: 'Each time she thought she had reached the last Claire, the true and solid one, she was proved wrong. She couldn't find her own core.' I didn't feel there was much to learn from Claire's fumblings, but perhaps this also indicates that I was feeling increasingly frustrated with her by this point in the novel. I have to disagree with Kamila Shamsie's assessment in the Guardian that a particular strength of this novel is 'the mirroring of Khan's growing self-righteousness with Burwell's crumbling liberal attitudes. If either of them had been less flawed both would have come out of it better.' Initially, I was on Claire's side as she fought for the Garden and was determined to uphold Mo's victory, despite her understandable uncertainty about what her husband would have wanted. However, by the time she is vacillating over whether to support the decision, I was feeling rather angry. She continuously claims that, although Mo should not have to explain the reasons behind the 'Islamic' features of the design, she 'wants' him to - but by this point in the novel, Mo has already given a rough description of how the elements of his Garden predate Islamic architecture and are influenced in many ways by other cultures and traditions, despite being shouted down by hecklers as he tried to speak.

My dislike of Claire, by the end, was also motivated by the fact that I didn't feel Mo became more self-righteous as the novel went on, but less so. Initially, although I obviously sympathised with the injustice served to him, I did wonder if he ought to have been more open about the reasoning behind the Garden and his position as a non-practising Muslim, although this raises another set of questions entirely. At his first meeting with Claire, I was on her side as she told him 'Thank you for the Garden', and his paranoia led him to say nothing to her in return. However, throughout the course of the novel, Mo seemed to learn, while Claire seemed to retreat. A particular turning-point is when a friend points out to him that he has deliberately cultivated long hair and a beard since the decision was made, appearing more like a Muslim stereotype, whereas he had always been clean-shaven before. Mo comes to recognise how he is allowing the public pressure to shape his own self-identity, and so gives the partial explanation of the influences behind the Garden. Their final conversation, where he explains that 'lines on a plane' or 'geometry', the essential part of any design, don't belong to any single culture, and she, laughably, asks him to 'take out the canals' because of a line in the Qu'ran, seems to me to represent complete capitulation by her, and a victory for Mo, despite the fact that he eventually withdraws the design. Nevertheless, I felt, uncomfortably, that Shamsie had read this novel correctly, and we are supposed to see both Claire and Mo's viewpoints as having equal validity.

So, an enjoyable and worthwhile read - but not as thought-provoking as it might have been.


  1. I had similar thoughts to you for both these books. I loved Heft, but thought The Submission lacked something. It has been a while since I read it so can't remember if I thought both viewpoints were equally valid, but I thought it didn't add anything new to the discussion and could have been far more thought-provoking than it was. Glad to hear our viewpoints are matching on this one.

    1. Yes, one of my problems with the viewpoint structure was that it gave less food for thought than I'd expected, which is a shame.

      I see on your blog that you're reading 'A Suitable Boy' at the moment - looking forward to your thoughts on that. I loved it, but can never predict if others will like it or not...!

  2. Laura, Heft sounds very interesting. The new Books You Loved goes live in a couple of days. It would be great if you linked in. Cheers

    1. Great, will try and remember to link in when it's live.