Saturday, 31 August 2013

September schedule

Friday September 6th: Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Friday September 13th: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson

Friday September 20th:  The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

Friday September 27th: The Fall by Simon Mawer

Friday, 23 August 2013

The subtleties of the soapbox

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's story 'Jumping Monkey Hill', which appears in her collection The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), an interaction between a writer on an African writing retreat and the course leader glosses the story as a whole. The course leader, Edward, criticises 'agenda writing' in a particular story, stating that 'the whole thing is implausible... this isn't a real story of real people'. Ujunwa, the author of the story in question, responds to the criticism; the story is real, she tells him, because it is her own story. Ujunwa's riposte could serve as the manifesto for Adichie's newest novel, and in my opinion, her best: Americanah. A similar debate occurs in Americanah, when the main character, Ifemelu, disagrees with a woman in the hairdresser's, Kelsey, about the V.S. Naipaul novel A Bend in the River, which is set in Africa. When Kelsey implies that Ifemelu is unable to read the novel in an unbiased way because of her emotional involvement with the subject - in other words, because she comes from Nigeria - Ifemelu reflects that Kelsey 'somehow believed that she was miraculously neutral in how she read books, while other people read emotionally.' This is a running theme throughout Americanah; elsewhere, Ifemelu makes a similar protest to Ujunwa, arguing that sometimes a message cannot be subtle, because it is true. This controversy over soapboxes in fiction, of course, reflects the wider theme of the novel; black people in America become doubly dispossessed by such arguments, because they are both discriminated against and unable to voice their experiences of discrimination, as their voices are not 'objective'. Reflecting this idea in an exploration of fiction makes it clear how ridiculous it is; what reader, writer or commentator is truly objective?

Nevertheless, I had problems with The Thing Around Your Neck; while I respected Adichie's manifesto - sometimes things are as black and white as they seem, and the truth is more important than adding nuances and question marks for the sake of literary effect - I did not feel it had been successful in practice. The stories that I found most significant in the collection were the ones that did seem nuanced and realistic, as opposed to others like 'A Private Experience', which felt schematic and simplistic. The point is, surely, that a novel does differ from a piece of journalism or a political manifesto; the tools it has available to convince readers are subtler. The reason that Americanah works so well, in short, is that it takes the intensely personal narrative of Adichie's first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003) and sets it against a social and cultural landscape that is as complex as that of her second, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), although Americanah, unsurprisingly, is primarily set in the United States rather than Nigeria. Neither of her other novels fully worked for me; this one did. Adichie does have a soapbox to stand on in Americanah, but she pulls this dangerous move off by integrating her message fully into the experiences of her two protagonists, Ifemelu and her one-time boyfriend and first lover, Obinze. On one hand, Americanah is an ultra-modern commentary on race relations; on the other, a very old-fashioned love story where we hope that boy will get girl.

Ifemelu and Obinze are both educated, relatively well-off Nigerians who, like the rest of their classmates, dream of escaping to another country one day to fulfil their aspirations; a gamut of Western countries are of course available, but Obinze in particular is fixated on America. It is Obinze who most vividly expresses the plight of the illegal immigrant who isn't an asylum seeker but, nevertheless, has very valid reasons to emigrate; his fellow guests at a British dinner party 'all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness'. He is 'merely hungry for choice and certainty'. Ifemelu and Obinze's quest for the West takes them along very different paths; Ifemelu is initially the more successful, attending an American university and eventually obtaining a visa when she finds a job in the States, while Obinze's road is rockier as he struggles to survive as an illegal immigrant in Britain. Both, however, are drawn back to Nigeria, their teenage years, and each other. In her exploration of both her protagonists' experiences, Adichie rightly places the question of race at the forefront, and the novel is rich with observed detail, exploring not only the tensions between black and white but between African-Americans and 'American Africans', between blacks and Hispanics, and - in a thread that runs throughout the novel from its opening in a hairdresser's - the small markers of culture such as whether a black woman has 'natural' or 'relaxed' hair. (I did find myself wishing for a little more intersectionality - gender and class are oddly absent from the novel - but it feels ridiculous to criticise Adichie for not covering every type of injustice. Ifemelu's experiences as a black woman, are, however, reduced to dating and hair, and there's little on Obinze's specific struggle in Britain as a black man.)

The other thing Americanah does which I'm usually very wary of in novels is draw explicitly on the author's personal experience (Ifemelu's career trajectory tracks Adichie's fairly closely). Like the question of the soapbox, this is something that Adichie addresses directly in the novel, when African-American writer Shan, the sister of one of Ifemelu's boyfriends, talks about her memoir of growing up black in the States, taking direct issue with the word 'nuance': 'My editor reads the manuscript and says, "I understand that race is important here but we have to make sure the book transcends race, so that it's not just about race." When she includes one of her mother's experiences of racism, 'my editor wants to change it because he says it's not subtle. Like life is always fucking subtle... somehow my mom's experience is suddenly unnuanced. "Nuance" means keep people comfortable'. This obviously speaks to criticisms of 'issue' novels as well as the problems of using personal experience, and the interesting thing is that Adichie portrays Shan's memoir as a flop and Shan herself as overly entitled, surrounding herself with disciples like her adoring brother. It's as if she is recognising the problematic aspects of using personal experience - not because it isn't true, but because what is true in a novel is not always what is believable - and deciding to do it anyway. It is this consciousness of how we can utilise our own experiences to convey what we want to say that makes Adichie's novel work, even if there are a few too many of Ifemelu's blog posts quoted verbatim, which can seem a little lazy when Adichie is so clearly capable of writing show-not-tell interactions.

Like Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behaviour, then, this novel is not only a brilliant read, but an important one; two qualities that rarely come together, in my experience, although most novels should not be both, and do not try to be. While characters such as Shan take issue with 'subtleties' and 'nuance' when telling real experience, in essence this is what this novel is; something that is both true, and utterly convincing.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Tigers Eight: Tyger, tyger

Ah, Tracy Chevalier. I find her novels interesting in three ways, none of which really have anything to do with how much I enjoyed them. Firstly, it seems that she has largely seized upon a formula and stuck to it; characters in a given historical period meet a Famous Person or Object (or, for maximum success, both: see Girl With A Pearl Earring) from that period and learn things about it. When she wanders outside this formula, the results can be interesting (The Virgin Blue, her first novel, is actually one of her best; it's rough around the edges, but I think that makes it more memorable) but more often terrible (why was Falling Angels written?) The second thing that I find interesting about Chevalier's work is that Girl With A Pearl Earring genuinely is an exceptionally good historical novel, something which I can't say is true of any of her other novels, although I thought The Virgin Blue showed more promise than most of them. I've considered this for some time, and I think that she chose precisely the right voice for Girl; because Griet's narration is so sparse, limited and precise, it makes it easier for Chevalier to tell a compelling story without the reader realising the limitations of her writing. The trouble with first-person narration, of course, is that you can't repeat exactly the same trick without all your narrators sounding the same - something that Chevalier is unfortunately prone to in her multi-voice novels, Falling Angels and The Lady and the Unicorn (which I enjoyed, but it could have been so much more).  

I've found Chevalier's recent novels especially disappointing. While I've not read her latest, The Last Runaway, I found Remarkable Creatures remarkably dull, and felt that it vividly illustrated the pitfalls of Chevalier's habit of using real historical characters in her writing. Unusually, the two women - Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpott - were centre stage in this novel, and Chevalier seemed constrained by the history, producing something that seemed halfway between history and biography, with little narrative drive or interest. However, as her author's note revealed, it wasn't even particularly informative about Anning and Philpott, with their lives compressed and rewritten for narrative purposes. Burning Bright - the novel I'm supposed to be reviewing here - suffers from the opposite problem. William Blake is the headline name here, but he hardly appears in the novel and makes little impact on its narrative. I can see the thematic resonances that Chevalier was aiming for, with Jem and Maggie's journey from innocence to experience reflected in Blake's poetry, but again, I don't think she's a good enough writer to pull it off.

Burning Bright, is, above all, dull. Chevalier is strong on eighteenth-century social and economic history, and Jem and Maggie's lives are firmly situated in both the present-day setting of London, and Jem's memories of his old life in Dorsetshire. As ever, Chevalier effectively homes in on small-scale detail, like her description of the various types of buttons Jem's mother and sister produce, and Maggie's swift assessments of the tactics of London salespeople, who utilise catastrophes such as fire for their own ends. However, the central plotline - a growing romance between Maggie and Jem - is too clumsily written to be really absorbing, and a subplot about the misfortunes of Jem's sister, Maisie, who is obviously intended to be a foil to Maggie, too cliched. And while London is as vividly described as Vermeer's seventeenth-century Delft was, Chevalier fails to weave her observations into the overall story, leaving us with a novel which, like Remarkable Creatures, is uncomfortably poised between history and fiction. And although the boundaries between history and fiction are an interesting place to explore, I think it would take a novelist with greater talent than Chevalier to take this on (even AS Byatt doesn't quite manage it in The Children's Book.)

The third interesting thing about Tracy Chevalier, then, is: why have I read all her novels? I think because, when she's at her best (Virgin, Girl, Lady - do you see what she did there?) she writes entertaining reads that are illustrated with fascinating historical detail, rather than long historical descriptions that lack plot (Falling, Burning, Remarkable - playing this first-word game is fun!) I hope that her latest novel, which I plan to read once it comes out in paperback, fits into the former category rather than the latter.

Monday, 12 August 2013

'Don't take my story or my words'

Absolution asks similar questions to a number of novels I've read recently; how do we construct and edit our narratives about ourselves and the people we know, and how far can we ever know the truth about a single individual or a single incident? While these questions remain fascinating, I think I'm becoming a little impatient with so many novelists retreading similar ground. Nevertheless, Patrick Flanery's take on these themes is impressive; as in Fallen Land, he handles a number of disparate narratives that gradually converge into a whole, and carefully retraces the gaps, flaws and contradictions in these stories. (I was glad that I had read Fallen Land, his second novel, before this, his debut; they share similar concerns with security and surveillance, but the theme is much more developed in Fallen Land, which is a more mature work, on the whole. Reading that book first helped me to appreciate the universality of the themes he explores in this novel; as one character comments, South Africa and the USA mirror each other).

Clare Wald is an acclaimed South African novelist who has at last allowed a young academic, Sam, to write her biography. Clare's interviews are stilted and uninformative, but it is through her first-person narrative and through the sections of the quasi-fictional memoir she is writing, Absolution, that we learn her true concerns; her guilt over the death of her sister Nora and how deeply she is haunted by not knowing what happened to her daughter Laura, an anti-apartheid activist who disappeared some years ago. Sam's narrative is also revealing; we realise that his involvement with Clare and Laura goes much deeper than we initially believed, as he came into contact with them first as a small child. Clare and Sam's present-day life in South Africa reveals Flanery's pessimism about how much the country has really changed; as Sam's friend, Gary, comments, he gives money continuously to his nanny, gardener, car guards, domestic, and 'the old man who comes to my front gate' because 'It can never be too much because they need it more than you... Just like if your hire car gets stolen or somebody takes the radio or the hubcaps - you have to tell yourself, whoever took it needs it more.' However, Gary is also careful about security, warning Sam never to answer the gate to a (black) delivery man, but to take the food through the letterbox, and his philanthropy is a form of assuaging his conscience about the continuing structural inequalities and separations in South African society. Clare, too, comes under pressure to amp up her security system, with the police insinuating that she must somehow sympathise with criminals if she doesn't take measures like installing panic buttons with an instant armed guard response against 'house invasions', something which seems unique to South Africa but is of course a device Flanery uses again in the US-set Fallen Land.

Absolution, however, is primarily not about South African society - its limited, white-only perspectives indicate that - but about identity, and how telling wrong or distorted stories affects what we do. Clare is seeking absolution for the part she believes she played in her sister's death, but when she asserts that Nora made her childhood 'a misery', the one incident she continually recounts is when Nora ruined her birthday cake by putting dog excrement in it, then tried to claim that Clare had done it herself. Clare stresses that it is the lying that was the worst thing about this incident, rather than Nora's jealousy over the cake, but the extent to which this one, very particular crime seems to sum up her whole account of her sister indicates how far Nora's memory has become distorted as Clare tries to justify her actions. Sam and Clare both continually rewrite motive and theme in their retellings of their own lives throughout the course of this novel, and so it's ironic, but completely fitting, that the most satisfying thread in this web is Clare's re-enactment of the last weeks or months of Laura's life. This is a story that Laura cannot tell herself, and we later find out that much of it is inaccurate, but because Clare controls it, it has far greater narrative drive and coherence. The most memorable image in the book is probably Laura lying in an iron cage in the sun waiting to drown, thinking of her childhood swimsuit, and yet we know that this is simply a possibility Clare has invented - there's no reason to think it really happened.

Clare's domination of the narrative persists into the very last 'excerpt' from her memoir, where she has a long conversation with her surviving child, Mark. At the end, Mark says to her, 'I beg of you, please, not to put any of this into one of your books. What we've said to each other is just for you and me. It's not for other people to read... Don't take my story or my words. These are my words.' As this is supposed to be a published work, the reader is left with a conundrum; either Clare has violated her promise to Mark or this is a part of Absolution that is entirely false. It is Flanery's clever exploration of the shifting boundaries between fiction and fact in Clare's writing that makes Absolution - the novel, rather than the memoir - interesting. In some ways, this is reminiscent of Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth; but unlike McEwan, he gives the reader enough clues to be able to puzzle away at these boundaries for themselves, and so has produced a novel that will certainly be worth re-reading.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

'He stared at himself again in the water and saw a different man'

Naomi Alderman was one of the many inclusions on the Granta 2013 list of best young British novelists that I was very disappointed with (Note: is it wrong that I now want to make this a much more positive post having found out that Naomi Alderman was the lead writer for the Zombies, Run! app, which I've heard amazing things about from friends, although I don't have the right gadgets to use it myself? I already knew that Alderman has written fascinating and illuminating pieces for the Guardian about the relationship between creativity and computer games, so she certainly deserves kudos for that). When the list was published, I had only read Alderman's first two novels, Disobedience and The Lessons, but both had seemed to me to be enjoyable, lightly literary reads, with little more to them than that. (In fact, I was particularly annoyed at Granta's choice of Alderman because I felt that it had wrecked my enjoyment of these previous novels; I'm such a contrary person that anything that seems to me to be 'over-hyped' has to work extra hard to prove itself again.) However, I'd always found her novels readable, so I decided to try her latest, The Liars' Gospel, wondering if this was what Granta had based its selection upon.

I would have loved this novel when I was fourteen years old; really, I think I would, given its retelling of the life of Christ set within the Jewish context in which it happened, and the occasional opportunities this offers for illuminating reconsiderations of certain aspects of the gospels. The retelling of the scene from John 12 where Jesus is anointed with the expensive perfume spikenard, for example, is especially striking. Of course, much of the strength of Alderman's retelling of this incident comes from her choice to tell it from the perspective of Judas Iscariot - or 'Iehuda from Queriot', as the non-Romanised version of his name might read - and this touches upon something else I would have loved about this novel as a teenager. The four first-person Biblical perspectives Alderman chooses - Mary, Judas, Caiaphas and Barabbas, as most will know them - allow four different perspectives on the life of Jesus. However, despite my adolescent love of switching perspectives, I think I would have been disappointed by this even then; the reimagining of Judas as a man of principle is clearly the most satisfying story here, and the other three narratives don't really measure up. Alderman's commitment to portray Jesus as a real historical figure, although admirable, prevents her from exploring some of the most interesting questions raised by the gospels; in Mary's narrative, for example, I suppose I was hoping for something more like Carol Ann Duffy's fantastic poem 'The Virgin Punishing the Infant' (from Selling Manhattan), which was perhaps my fault for having inaccurate expectations, but did pose the question of what Alderman's narrative is doing instead.

And apart from the things about this novel I would have liked as a teenager - the iconoclasm and the insistence on giving individual voices to secondary characters - I'm not sure that it is doing very much, despite moments of strength such as the spikenard scene and Caiaphas's musings on what the beliefs of his disciples really rest upon. I can see why it would have taken bravery to write it, but I'm not sure what it gives the reader beyond a deeper understanding of the historical Jesus - and I think a novel ought to give something more. Certainly, it doesn't make me any more convinced that Alderman deserved her Granta ranking. So this is a short review, because I'm perplexed, and reading some of the press reviews of this novel hasn't really helped. Perhaps I owe Alderman a review of Zombies, Run! ...

Thursday, 1 August 2013

August schedule

Friday August 2nd: The Liars' Gospel by Naomi Alderman

Friday August 9th: Absolution by Patrick Flanery

Friday August 16th: Tigers Eight: Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

Friday August 23rd: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche

Friday August 30th: Laura Rereading: Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell