My impression of Claire Messud is that she’s admired by critics but unpopular with ordinary readers (e.g. this novel has a catastrophically low average rating on Goodreads, probably because of that “unlikable characters” chestnut). I fit into both categories, so was curious to see where I would fall on the appreciation spectrum. Doubly intrigued by Susan’s inclusion of The Emperor’s Children on her list of top New York novels, I finally picked up the copy I’d gotten from the free mall bookshop where I volunteered weekly in ordinary times.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that this is a 9/11 novel. It opens in March 2001 and covers the next eight months, with “the towers” first getting a mention at the halfway point. There’s heavy irony in one character commenting to another in the first week of September, “Whatever else they may be, our times are almost criminally uninteresting. The dullest times ever.” As in a couple of novels I read last year (not naming them in case that is a spoiler), the terrorist attacks wake the main characters up from a stupor of entitlement and apathy.
The trio of protagonists, all would-be journalists aged 30, have never really had to grow up. Marina still lives with her parents, social worker Annabel and respected cultural pundit Murray Thwaite. She got an advance to write a book on children’s fashions, but the project has languished for years. Her best friend Danielle is a documentary maker mired in an affair with an older man. Their other close pal is half-Vietnamese Julius, whose new boyfriend keeps him in the luxurious lifestyle to which he’s become accustomed.
The arrival of two young men sets the plot in motion. Through Danielle, Marina meets Ludovic Seeley, who has moved from Australia to New York City to launch a magazine, The Monitor, for which he is soliciting cutting-edge cultural exposés. Meanwhile, Murray’s nephew, college dropout Frederick Tubb, who has the unfortunate nickname of “Bootie,” has moved to the City to seek his fortune. Murray offers him a job as his amanuensis, but what Bootie learns leads him to wish he could expose his idolized uncle as an intellectual fraud.
For these characters, leaving an extended childhood behind means getting out from under the shadow of a previous generation and reassessing what is admirable and who is expendable. As Marina’s book title (The Emperor’s Children Have No Clothes) indicates, appearance and substance do not always match. I won’t give away what 9/11 means for this fictional world, though I’d be interested in discussing it in the comments with anyone who’s read the book. Bootie was my favorite, and what happens with him is particularly interesting.
This was thoroughly engrossing: richly textured and intellectually satisfying in a way that might call to mind George Eliot and Edith Wharton – or, more recently, Jennifer Egan and Zadie Smith. Great American Novel territory, for sure. I’ll be keen to read more by Messud.
Page count: 581
I’ve now read eight of the 12 titles longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2019 and skimmed another two, leaving just two unexplored.
My latest two reads are books that I hugely enjoyed yet would be surprised to see make the shortlist (both ):
The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein (2017)
I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. For one thing, its subject is still alive and has never been much of a public figure, at least not outside Victoria, Australia. For another, your average biography is robustly supported by archival evidence; to the contrary, this is a largely oral history conveyed by an unreliable narrator. And lastly, whether a biography is critical or adulatory overall, the author usually at least feigns objectivity. Sarah Krasnostein doesn’t bother with that. Sandra Pankhurst’s life is an incredible blend of ordinary and bizarre circumstances and experiences, and it’s clear Krasnostein is smitten with her. “I fall in love … anew each time I listen to her speak,” she gushes towards the book’s end. At first I was irked by all the fawning adjectives she uses for Sandra, but eventually I stopped noticing them and allowed myself to sink into this astonishing story.
Sandra was born male and adopted by a couple whose child had died. When they later conceived again, they basically disowned ‘Peter’, moving him to an outdoor shed and making him scrounge for food. His adoptive father was an abusive alcoholic and kicked him out permanently when he was 17. Peter married ‘Linda’ at age 19 and they had two sons in quick succession, but he was already going to gay bars and wearing makeup; when he heard about the possibility of a sex change, he started taking hormones right away. Even before surgery completed the gender reassignment, Sandra got involved in sex work, and was a prostitute for years until a brutal rape at the Dream Palace brothel drove her to seek other employment. Cleaning and funeral home jobs nicely predicted the specialty business she would start after the hardware store she ran with her late husband George went under: trauma cleaning.
Krasnostein parcels this chronology into tantalizing pieces, interspersed with chapters in which she accompanies Sandra and her team on assignments. They fumigate and clean up bodily fluids after suicides and overdoses, but also deal with clients who have lost control of their possessions – and, to some extent, their lives. They’re hoarders, cancer patients and ex-convicts; their homes are overtaken by stuff and often saturated with mold or feces. Sandra sympathizes with the mental health struggles that lead people into such extreme situations. Her line of work takes “Great compassion, great dignity and a good sense of humour,” she tells Krasnostein; even better if you can “not … take the smell in, ’cause they stink.”
The author does a nice job of staying out of the narrative: though she’s an observer and questioner, there’s only the occasional paragraph in which she mentions her own life. Her mother left when she was young, which helps to explain why she is so compassionate towards the addicts and hoarders she meets with Sandra. Some of the loveliest passages have her pondering how things got so bad for these people and affirming that their lives still have value. As for Sandra herself – now in her sixties and increasingly ill with lung disease and cirrhosis – Krasnostein believes she’s never been unconditionally loved and so has never formed true human connections.
This book does many different things in its 250 pages. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. It’s also simply a terrific read that should draw in lots of people who wouldn’t normally pick up nonfiction. I don’t expect it to advance to the shortlist, but if it does I’ll be not-so-secretly delighted.
A favorite passage:
Sometimes, listening to Sandra try to remember the events of her life is like watching someone reel in rubbish on a fishing line: a weird mix of surprise, perplexity and unexpected recognition. No matter how many times we go over the first three decades of her life, the timeline of places and dates is never clear. Many of her memories have a quality beyond being merely faded; they are so rusted that they have crumbled back into the soil of her origins. Others have been fossilised, frozen in time, and don’t have a personal pull until they defrost slightly in the sunlit air between us as we speak. And when that happens there is a tremor in her voice as she integrates them back into herself, not seamlessly but fully.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
If you’ve read her Booker-shortlisted debut, Eileen, you’ll be unsurprised to hear that Moshfegh has written another love-it-or-hate-it book with a narrator whose odd behavior is hard to stomach. This worked better for me than Eileen, I think because I approached it as a deadpan black comedy in the same vein as Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. Its inclusion on the Wellcome longlist is somewhat tenuous: in 2000 the unnamed narrator, in her mid-twenties, gets a negligent psychiatrist to prescribe her drugs for insomnia and depression and stockpiles them so she can take pill cocktails to knock herself out for days at a time. In a sense this is a way of extending the numbness that started with her parents’ deaths – her father from cancer and her mother by suicide. But there’s also a more fantastical scheme in her mind: “when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay, I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person.”
Ever since she was let go from her job at a gallery that showcases ridiculous modern art, the only people in this character’s life are an on-again, off-again boyfriend, Trevor, and her best (only) friend from college, longsuffering Reva, who keeps checking up on her in her New York City apartment even though she consistently treats Reva with indifference or disdain. Soon her life is a bleary cycle of sleepwalking and sleep-shopping, interspersed with brief periods of wakefulness, during which she watches a nostalgia-inducing stream of late-1990s movies on video (the kind of stuff I watched at sleepovers with my best friend during high school) – she has a weird obsession with Whoopi Goldberg.
It’s a wonder the plot doesn’t become more repetitive. I like reading about routines, so I was fascinated to see how the narrator methodically takes her project to extremes. Amazingly, towards the middle of the novel she gets herself from a blackout situation to Reva’s mother’s funeral – about the only time we see somewhere that isn’t her apartment, the corner shop, the pharmacy or Dr. Tuttle’s office – and this interlude is just enough to break things up. There are lots of outrageous lines and preposterous decisions that made me laugh. Consumerism and self-medication to deaden painful emotions are the targets of this biting satire. As 9/11 approaches, you wonder what it will take to wake this character up to her life. I’ve often wished I could hibernate through British winters, but I wouldn’t do what Moshfegh’s antiheroine does. Call this a timely cautionary tale about privilege and disengagement.
“Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me.”
“Oh, sleep, nothing else could ever bring me such pleasure, such freedom, the power to feel and move and think and imagine, safe from the miseries of my waking consciousness.”
Reva: “you’re not changing anything in your sleep. You’re just avoiding your problems. … Your problem is that you’re passive. You wait around for things to change, and they never will. That must be a painful way to live. Very disempowering.”
And one more that I got out from the library and skimmed:
Murmur by Will Eaves (2018)
The subject is Alec Pryor, or “the scientist.” It’s clear that he is a stand-in for Alan Turing, quotes from whom appear as epigraphs at the head of most chapters. Turing was arrested for homosexuality and subjected to chemical castration. I happily read the first-person “Part One: Journal,” which was originally a stand-alone story (shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2017), but “Part Two: Letters and Dreams” was a lot harder to get into, so I ended up just giving the rest of the book a quick skim. If this is shortlisted, I promise to return to it and give it fair consideration.
May and June are HUGE months for new releases. I’ve been doing enough early reading via NetGalley and Edelweiss that I’ve found plenty to recommend to you for next month. From a novel voiced by one of Hemingway’s wives to a physicist’s encouragement to waste more time, I hope there will be something here for everyone.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
[Coming from Hogarth Press (USA) on the 1st and Bloomsbury (UK) on the 3rd]
At first I thought this was one of those funny, quirky but somewhat insubstantial novels about a thirtysomething stuck with a life she isn’t sure she wants – something along the lines of Goodbye, Vitamin, The Portable Veblen, or All Grown Up. Then I thought it was just a crass sex comedy. But the further I read the deeper it all seemed to become: tropes from Greek myth and the fluidity of gender roles made me think of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, another debut novel that surprised me for its profundity. Lucy, a thirty-eight-year-old PhD student, agrees to spend a summer dog-sitting for her yoga entrepreneur sister in Venice Beach, California while she undertakes therapy for the twin problems of low self-esteem and love addiction. If you know one thing about this book, it’s that there’s sex with a merman. Ultimately, though, I’d say it’s about “the prison of the body” and choosing which of the different siren voices calling us to listen to. I found it outrageous but rewarding.
How to Be a Perfect Christian by Adam Ford and Kyle Mann
[Coming from Multnomah (USA) on the 1st]
The Babylon Bee is a Christian version of The Onion, so you know what you’re getting here: a very clever, pitch-perfect satire of evangelical Christianity today. If, like me, you grew up in a nondenominational church and bought into the subculture hook, line and sinker (Awana club, youth group, courtship, dc Talk albums, the whole shebang), you will find that so much of this rings true. The book is set up as a course for achieving superficial perfection through absolute “conformity to the status quo of the modern church.” Sample advice: find an enormous church that meets your needs, has a great coffee bar and puts on a laser-lit worship performance to rival “an amusement park for cats or a Def Leppard concert”; master the language of Christianese (“Keeping it in prayer” pretty much covers your bases); and bring as little as you can to the church potluck (a 25-pack of napkins) but consume as much as is anatomically possible. So, a lot of fun, just a little overlong because you get the joke early on.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
[Coming from Riverhead (USA) on the 15th]
In May 1994, the members of the Van Ness String Quartet are completing their final graduate recital at a San Francisco conservatory and preparing for the Esterhazy quartet competition in the Canadian Rockies. These four talented musicians – Jana, first violin; Brit, second violin; Henry, viola; and Daniel, cello – have no idea what the next 15 years will hold for them: a cross-country move, romances begun and lost, and career successes and failures. Drawing on her own history as a violinist and cellist, Aja Gabel infuses her debut novel with the simultaneous uncertainty and euphoria of both the artistic life and early adulthood in general. An alternating close third-person perspective gives glimpses into the main characters’ inner lives, and there are evocative descriptions of classical music. I think The Ensemble will mean even more to those readers who are involved in music, but anyone can relate to the slow fade from youth into middle age and the struggle to integrate art with the rest of life.
Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr
[Coming from Harper (USA) on the 8th]
Mary Karr is mostly known as a memoirist, but this is actually her fifth poetry collection. Death is a major theme, with David Foster Wallace’s suicide and 9/11 getting multiple mentions. Karr also writes self-deprecatingly about her Texas childhood. Best of all is the multi-part “The Less Holy Bible”: a sort of Devil’s Dictionary based loosely around the books of the Bible, it bounces between Texas and New York City and twists biblical concepts into commonsense advice. Not one for those who are quick to cry heresy, perhaps, but I enjoyed it very much, especially “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God”: “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath, / says God through the manhole covers, but you want magic, to win / the lottery you never bought a ticket for. … Don’t look for initials in the geese honking / overhead or to see through the glass even darkly. It says the most obvious shit, / i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”
In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman
[Coming from Simon & Schuster / TED (USA and UK) on the 15th]
Lightman, a physicist and MIT professor, argues that only in unstructured time can we rediscover our true identity and recover our carefree childhood creativity. This work-as-play model goes against the modern idea that time is money and every minute must be devoted to a project. “For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers. … I feel compelled to find a project, to fill up the hole.” Yet there is another way of approaching time, as he discovered when doing research in a village in Cambodia. He realized that the women he talked to didn’t own watches and thus had no real sense of how long any task took them. This sharp, concise treatise ruminates on the cultural forces that have enslaved us in the West to productivity. (In short, he blames the Internet, but specifically smartphones.) Lightman insists on the spiritual benefits of free time and solitude. “With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time,” he asserts.
Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
[Coming from Ballantine Books (USA) and Fleet (UK) on the 1st]
This is the weakest of the three McLain novels I’ve read, but when we’re talking about a writer of this caliber that isn’t much of a criticism. It’s strange to me that, having written a novel from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, McLain would choose to tell the story of another Hemingway wife – this time Martha Gellhorn, a war reporter and author in her own right. If I set aside this misgiving, though, and just assess the quality of the writing, there are definitely things to praise, such as the vivid scenes set during the Spanish Civil War, the dialogues between Martha and Hem, the way he perhaps fills in for her dead father, her fondness for his sons, and her jealousy over his growing success while her books sink like stones. I especially liked their first meeting in a bar in Key West, and the languid pace of their life in Cuba. I read such books because I’m intrigued about the appeal of a great man, but here I got a little bogged down with the many settings and events.
What May books do you have on the docket? Have you already read any that you can recommend?
The first book I ever reviewed on this blog, nearly three years ago, happened to be Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill. It was the strength of the writing in that offbeat work of history, as well as rave reviews for this 2017 biography of Muhammad Ali (1942–2016), that led me to pick up a sport-themed book. I’m the furthest thing from a sports fan you could imagine, but I approached this as a book about a cultural icon and read it with a spirit of curiosity about how Eig would shape this life story and separate the facts from the legend. It’s a riveting account of outliving segregation and developing a personal style and world-beating confidence; it’s a sobering tale of facing consequences and having your own body fail you. I loved it.
Today would have been Ali’s 76th birthday, so in honor of the occasion – and his tendency to spout off-the-cuff rhymes about his competitors’ shortfalls and his own greatness – I’ve turned his life story into a book review of sorts, in rhyming couplets.
Born into 1940s Kentucky,
this fine boy had decent luck – he
surpassed his angry, cheating father
though he shared his name; no bother –
he’d not be Cassius Clay much longer.
He knew he was so much stronger
than all those other boys. Racing
the bus with Rudy; embracing
the help of a white policeman,
his first boxing coach – this guardian
prepared him for Olympic gold
(the last time Cassius did as told?).
A self-promoter from the start, he
was no scholar but won hearts; he
hogged every crowd’s full attention
but his faults are worth a mention:
he hoarded Caddys and Royces
and made bad financial choices;
he went through one, two, three, four wives
and lots of other dames besides;
his kids – no closer than his fans –
hardly even got a chance.
Cameos from bin Laden, Trump,
Toni Morrison and more: jump
ahead and you’ll see an actor,
envoy, entrepreneur, preacher,
(though maybe things got out of hand).
Ali was all things to all men
and fitted in the life of ten
but though he tested a lot of walks,
mostly he just wanted to box.
The fights: Frazier, Foreman, Liston –
they’re all here, and the details stun.
Eig gives a vivid blow-by-blow
such that you will feel like you know
what it’s like to be in the ring:
dodge, jab, weave; hear that left hook sing
past your ear. Catch rest at the ropes
but don’t stay too long like a dope.
If, like Ali, you sting and float,
keep an eye on your age and bloat –
the young, slim ones will catch you out.
Bow out before too many bouts.
Ignore the signs if you so choose
(ain’t got many brain cells to lose –
these blows to the head ain’t no joke);
retirement talk ain’t foolin’ folk,
can’t you give up on earning dough
and think more about your own soul?
Just like Malcolm X always said
Allah laid a call on your head:
To raise up the black man’s status
and ask white men why they hate us;
to resist the Vietnam draft
though that nearly got you the shaft
and lost you your name, your title
and (close) your rank as an idol.
Was it all real, your piety?
Was it worth it in society?
Nation of Islam was your crew
but sure did leave you in the stew
with that Vietcong kerfuffle
and Malcolm/Muhammad shuffle.
Through U.S. missions (after 9/11)
you explained it ain’t about heaven
and who you’ll kill to get you there;
it’s about peace, being God’s heir.
Is this story all about race?
Eig believes it deserves its place
as the theme of Ali’s life: he
was born in segregation, see,
a black fighter in a white world,
but stereotypes he hurled
right back in their faces: Uncle
Tom Negro? Naw, even punch-drunk he’ll
smash your categories and crush
your expectations. You can flush
that flat dismissal down the john;
don’t think you know what’s going on.
Dupe, ego, clown, greedy, hero:
larger than life, Jesus or Nero?
How to see both, that’s the kicker;
Eig avoids ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stickers
but shows a life laid bare and
how win and lose ain’t fair and
history is of our making
and half of legacy is faking
and all you got to do is spin
the world round ’till it lets you in.
Biography’s all ’bout the arc
and though this story gets real dark,
there’s a glister to it all the same.
A man exists beyond the fame.
What do you know beneath the name?
Less, I’d make a bet, than you think.
Come over here and take a drink:
this is long, deep, satisfying;
you won’t escape without crying.
Based on 600 interviews,
this fresh account is full of news
and fit for all, not just sports fans.
Whew, let’s give it up for Eig, man.