This latest batch of colour-themed summer reads took me from a depleted post-pandemic landscape to the heart of dysfunctional families in Rhode Island and California.
Under the Blue by Oana Aristide (2021)
Fans of Station Eleven, this one’s for you: the best dystopian novel I’ve read since Mandel’s. Aristide started writing this in 2017, and unknowingly predicted a much worse pandemic than Covid-19. In July 2020, Harry, a middle-aged painter inhabiting his late nephew’s apartment in London, finally twigs that something major is going on. He packs his car and heads to his Devon cottage, leaving its address under the door of the cute neighbour he sometimes flirts with. Hot days stack up and his new habits of rationing food and soap are deeply ingrained by the time the gal from #22, Ash – along with her sister, Jessie, a doctor who stocked up on medicine before fleeing her hospital – turn up. They quickly sink into his routines but have a bigger game plan: getting to Uganda, where their mum once worked and where they know they will be out of range of Europe’s at-risk nuclear reactors. An epic road trip ensues.
It gradually becomes clear that Harry, Ash and Jessie are among mere thousands of survivors worldwide, somehow immune to a novel disease that spread like wildfire. There are echoes of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in the way that they ransack the homes of the dead for supplies, and yet there’s lightness to their journey. Jessie has a sharp sense of humour, provoking much banter, and the places they pass through in France and Italy are gorgeous despite the circumstances. It would be a privilege to wander empty tourist destinations were it not for fear of nuclear winter and not finding sufficient food – and petrol to keep “the Lioness” (the replacement car they steal; it becomes their refuge) going. While the vague sexual tension between Harry and Ash persists, all three bonds are intriguing.
In an alternating storyline starting in 2017, Lisa and Paul, two computer scientists based in a lab at the Arctic Circle, are programming an AI, Talos XI. Based on reams of data on history and human nature, Talos is asked to predict what will happen next. But when it comes to questions like the purpose of art and whether humans are worth saving, the conclusions he comes to aren’t the ones his creators were hoping for. These sections are set out as transcripts of dialogues, and provide a change of pace and perspective. Initially, I was less sure about this strand, worrying that it would resort to that well-worn trope of machines gone bad. Luckily, Aristide avoids sci-fi clichés, and presents a believable vision of life after the collapse of civilization.
The novel is full of memorable lines (“This absurd overkill, this baroque wedding cake of an apocalypse: plague and then nuclear meltdowns”) and scenes, from Harry burying a dead cow to the trio acting out a dinner party – just in case it’s their last. There’s an environmentalist message here, but it’s subtly conveyed via a propulsive cautionary tale that also reminded me of work by Louisa Hall and Maja Lunde. (Public library)
Ruby by Ann Hood (1998)
Olivia had the perfect life: fulfilling, creative work as a milliner; a place in New York City and a bolthole in Rhode Island; a new husband and plans to try for a baby right away. But then, in a fluke accident, David was hit by a car while jogging near their vacation home less than a year into their marriage. As the novel opens, 37-year-old Olivia is trying to formulate a letter to the college girl who struck and killed her husband. She has returned to Rhode Island to get the house ready to sell but changes her mind when a pregnant 15-year-old, Ruby, wanders in one day.
At first, I worried that the setup would be too neat: Olivia wants a baby but didn’t get a chance to have one with David before he died; Ruby didn’t intend to get pregnant and looks forward to getting back her figure and her life of soft drugs and petty crime. And indeed, Olivia suggests an adoption arrangement early on. But the outworkings of the plot are not straightforward, and the characters, both main and secondary (including Olivia’s magazine writer friend, Winnie; David’s friend, Rex; Olivia’s mother and sister; a local lawyer who becomes a love interest), are charming.
It’s a low-key, small-town affair reminiscent of the work of Anne Tyler, and I appreciated how it sensitively explores grief, its effects on the protagonist’s decision-making, and how daunting it is to start over (“The idea of that, of beginning again from nothing, made Olivia feel tired.”). It was also a neat touch that Olivia is the same age as me, so in some ways I could easily imagine myself into her position.
This was the ninth book I’ve read by Hood, an author little known outside of the USA – everything from grief memoirs to a novel about knitting. Ironically, its main themes of adoption and bereavement were to become hallmarks of her later work: she lost her daughter in 2002 and then adopted a little girl from China. (Secondhand purchase, June 2021)
[I’ve read another novel titled Ruby – Cynthia Bond’s from 2014.]
Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott (2002)
I’m a devoted reader of Lamott’s autobiographical essays about faith against the odds (see here), but have been wary of trying her fiction, suspecting I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. Well, it’s true that I prefer her nonfiction on the whole, but this was an enjoyably offbeat novel featuring the kind of frazzled antiheroine who wouldn’t be out of place in Anne Tyler’s work.
Mattie Ryder has left her husband and returned to her Bay Area family home with her young son and daughter. She promptly falls for Daniel, the handyman she hires to exterminate the rats, but he’s married, so she keeps falling into bed with her ex, Nicky, even after he acquires a new wife and baby. Her mother, Isa, is drifting ever further into dementia. A blue rubber shoe that Mattie finds serves as a totem of her late father – and his secret life. She takes a gamble that telling the truth, no matter what the circumstances, will see her right.
As in Ruby, I found the protagonist relatable and the ensemble cast of supporting characters amusing. Lamott crafts some memorable potted descriptions: “She was Jewish, expansive and yeasty and uncontained, as if she had a birthright for outrageousness” and “He seemed so constrained, so neatly trimmed, someone who’d been doing topiary with his soul all his life.” She turns a good phrase, and adopts the same self-deprecating attitude towards Mattie that she has towards herself in her memoirs: “She usually hoped to look more like Myrna Loy than an organ grinder’s monkey when a man finally proclaimed his adoration.”
At a certain point – maybe two-thirds of the way through – my inward reply to a lot of the novel’s threads was “okay, I get it; can we move on?” Yes, the situation with Isa is awful; yes, something’s gotta give with Daniel and his wife; yes, the revelations about her father seem unbearable. But with a four-year time span, it felt like Mattie was stuck in the middle for far too long. It’s also curious that she doesn’t apply her zany faith (a replica of Lamott’s) to questions of sexual morality – though that’s true of more liberal Christian approaches. All in all, I had some trouble valuing this as a novel because of how much I know about Lamott’s life and how closely I saw the storyline replicating her family dynamic. (Secondhand purchase, c. 2006 – I found a signed hardback in a library book sale back in my U.S. hometown for $1.)
Hmm, altogether too much blue in my selections thus far (4 out of 8!). I’ll have to try to come up with some more interesting colours for my upcoming choices.
Next books in progress: The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames and God Is Not a White Man by Chine McDonald.
Read any of these? Interested?
I’ve been taking advantage of various free and inexpensive literary events – a bonus of our temporarily virtual-only world. I have five of them stored up to write about, but to keep this post from getting absurdly long I’ll focus on two for now and feature the rest another time.
George Saunders in Conversation with Max Porter
Saunders’s latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is a written version of the graduate-level masterclass in the Russian short story that he offers at Syracuse University, where he has taught in the Creative Writing Program since 1997. His aim here was to “elevate the short story form,” he said. While the book reprints and discusses just seven stories (three by Anton Chekhov, two by Leo Tolstoy, and one each by Nikolai Gogol and Ivan Turgenev), in the class he and his students tackle more like 40. He wants people to read a story, react to the story, and trust that reaction – even if it’s annoyance. “Work with it,” he suggested. “I am bringing you an object to consider” on the route to becoming the author you are meant to be – such is how he described his offer to his students, who have already overcome 1 in 100 odds to be on the elite Syracuse program but might still need to have their academic egos tweaked.
The book is, thus, not just a set of essays on the Russian masters but also a guide to how to write well. It was clear there was mutual admiration between Saunders and Max Porter, who interviewed him. They discussed the revision process as an accumulation of micro-decisions that make the work better. For instance, Saunders compared two Tolstoy stories, “The Snowstorm” and “Master and Man” (written 20 years later), and noted that, though they are thematically similar, the later one is more organized.
Saunders spoke about writing as a dual process of intuition and iteration; a bunch of different “yous” have acted on a text by the time it’s done. Early on in his career, he thought that he had to choose which writer he wanted to be (e.g., Hemingway or Kerouac), but as he aged he realized that the mind is never fixed. He went surprisingly deep into Buddhism at this point, likening writing to meditation – both are practices pursued with intensity. To his younger self, he would say to keep going: improving is simply a matter of time (i.e., that 10,000 hours figure that’s bandied about as necessary for developing expertise).
The only drawback to this event was that Saunders was speaking from his snow-encased upstate New York basement and had a horrible Internet connection; often his voice was faint and delayed, while his image stayed static. We and Porter could only stare gormlessly and wait for his face to move to match his words! I think the book would be too niche for me – I’ve hardly read anything by the Russians, and since I don’t write fiction I’m not in need of a guide to those kinds of writing decisions – but it was nice to ‘meet’ Saunders ‘in person’.
An Evening with Kazuo Ishiguro
(Faber Members / Guardian Live event)
Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and the Sun, was published by Faber yesterday. This conversation with Alex Clark also functioned as its launch event. It’s one of my most anticipated books of the year, so I pre-ordered a signed copy along with my ticket and look forward to it arriving soon. Klara is an Artificial Intelligence “friend” purchased to combat teenage loneliness. A childlike figure, she is cheerful and treats the sun like a god. Ishiguro said that the book developed from a story he wrote for children aged five to six, about a little girl who takes a doll home – except his daughter, author Naomi Ishiguro, told him no way was it suitable for young children, being far too dark. He likes “displaced or alien narrators, fish out of water,” he said, because the limited perspective allows him to focus on oddness.
In addition to Clark’s questions, a few pre-recorded questions from literary celebs (Daisy Johnson, Bernardine Evaristo, and David Mitchell) encouraged Ishiguro to create a tripartite schema for his novels, reflect on his writing about Japan, and look back at the devices he has used. Asked by Johnson about the connections between his novels, he admitted that his first three novels all retread the same ground: a man who has made a mess of his life or career picks over the past. Then his mid period is set in dreamscapes, while his most recent three novels are dystopian fantasies (though he does not see Klara as set in a dystopian world).
In response to Evaristo’s question about whether he felt an obligation to write about Japan, he said that with his early work he was conscious of needing to represent a group of people who even then (due to World War II) were viewed with suspicion or antipathy. He left Japan at age five so the country didn’t seem entirely real to him. What he knew was based on very early memories, what his mother told him, comic books sent by his grandparents, etc. As he stated in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, writing about Japan in his twenties therefore felt like “an act of preservation.” Still, he wants his characters and situations to be universal.
Replying to Mitchell’s three questions (cheeky!), he explained that his first ambition was to be a singer/songwriter, and he wrote 100+ songs. Songwriting taught him minimalism. “You can say a huge amount by what you don’t say,” he noted. He hopes to create spaces, or rather vacuums that suck in the reader’s attention. Unlike Mitchell, he always knows the ending of a book before he begins, and his decisions are all about wanting to lodge in the reader’s brain. Thus, memorable endings are a priority for him, whereas they might not be for other writers. I was struck by his characterization of his own life: when he looks back, he doesn’t see a clear path that arose from his choices; instead, he sees a “weird, incoherent mess.” For this reason, he’s turned against the reflective device of his first three books. If he can come up with a theme, he’s hankering to write a book about hitchhikers in the north of England.
Towards the end of the (overlong) discussion, he mentioned that he has been questioning the novelist’s role due to the events of the past year: wondering about the meaning of fiction when so many have died and so many believe fake news. It was a melancholy but realistic point to end on. While I’m not an Ishiguro completist (The Unconsoled doesn’t appeal to me at all and I’m not sure I can be bothered with When We Were Orphans, but I will try The Buried Giant; I’ve read the rest), the event whetted my appetite to read his new book. (See also this Goodreads interview. I loved the anecdotes about learning he’d won the Nobel!)
Bookish online events coming up soon: The Rathbones Folio Prize announcement on the 24th and Claire Fuller’s book launch for Unsettled Ground on the 25th.