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.

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