Tag Archives: second person

Adventures in Rereading: Julian Barnes and Jennifer Egan

My last two rereads ended up being as good as or better than they had been the first time around; these two, however, failed to live up to my memory of them, one of them dramatically so. My increased literary experience and/or the advance of years meant these works felt less fresh than they did the first time around.

 

Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (1984)

Barnes is in my trio of favorite authors, along with A. S. Byatt and David Lodge. He’s an unapologetic intellectual and a notable Francophile who often toggles between England and France, especially in his essays and short stories. This was his third novel and riffs on the life and works of Gustave Flaubert, best known for Madame Bovary.

Odd-numbered chapters build a straightforward narrative as Geoffrey Braithwaite, a widower, retired doctor and self-described “senile amateur scholar,” travels to Rouen for five days to see the sites associated with Flaubert and becomes obsessed with determining which of two museum-held stuffed parrots Flaubert used as his inspiration while writing the story “A Simple Heart.” Even-numbered chapters, however, throw in a variety of different formats: a Flaubert chronology, a bestiary, an investigation of the contradictory references to Emma Bovary’s eye color, a dictionary of accepted ideas, an examination paper, and an imagined prosecutor’s case against the writer.

There are themes and elements here that recur in much of Barnes’s later work:

  • History – what remains of a life? (“He died little more than a hundred years ago, and all that remains of him is paper.”)
  • Love versus criticism of one’s country (“The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.”)
  • Time and its effects on relationships and memory
  • How life is transmuted into art
  • Languages and wordplay
  • Bereavement

Indeed, I was most struck by Chapter 13, “Pure Story,” in which Dr. Braithwaite finally comes clean about his wife’s death and the complications of their relationship. Barnes writes about grief so knowingly and with such nuance, yet his own wife, Pat Kavanagh, didn’t die until 2008. Much of what he’s published since then has dwelt on loss, but more than two decades earlier he was already able to inhabit that experience in his imagination.

As a 22-year-old graduate student, I gobbled this up even though I knew very little about French literature and history and hadn’t yet read any Flaubert. I wasn’t quite as dazzled by the literary and biographical experimentation this time. While I still admired the audacity of the novel, I wouldn’t call it a personal favorite any longer. I think others of Barnes’s works will resonate for me more on a reread.


My original rating (c. 2006):

My rating now:

 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010)

This makes up a pleasing pair as it shares Barnes’s experimentation with form and meditation on time. Before my reread I only remembered that it was about washed-up musicians and that there was one second-person chapter and another told as a PowerPoint presentation. Looking back at my original review, I see I was impressed by how Egan interrogated “society’s obsession with youth and celebrity, the moments of decision that can lead to success or to downfall … and the way time (the ‘goon’ of the title) and failure can wear away at one’s identity.” Back then I called the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “achingly fresh, contemporary and postmodern. It is, in fact, so up-to-the-minute that one wonders how long that minute can last.” I was right to question its enduring appeal: this time I found the book detached, show-offy and even silly in places, and the characterization consistently left me cold.

This was probably the first linked short story collection I ever read (now a favorite subgenre), and the first time I’d encountered second-person narration in fiction, so it’s no wonder I was intrigued. “Each chapter involves a very clever shift in time period and point of view,” I noted in 2011. This time, though, I found the 1970s–2020s timeline unnecessarily diffuse, and I was so disinterested in most of the characters – kleptomaniac PA Sasha, post-punk music producer Bennie, musician turned janitor turned children’s performer Scotty, a disgraced journalist, a starlet, and so on – that I didn’t care to revisit them.

The chapter in which Scotty catches a fish and takes it into Bennie’s office was a favorite, along with the PowerPoint presentation Sasha’s daughter puts together on the great pauses of rock music (while also revealing a lot about her family dynamic), but I found the segment on PR attempts to burnish an African general’s reputation far-fetched and ended up mostly skimming five of the last six chapters.

This was a buddy read with Laura T. (see her review); we came to similar conclusions: this may have felt fresh and even prescient about technology in 2010–11, but it didn’t stand up to a reread; still, we’ll keep our copies if just for the 75-page PowerPoint presentation.

Note: Egan has said that her next project is a companion piece to Goon Squad that uses a similar structure and follows some of its peripheral characters into new territory. Based on this rereading experience, I don’t think I’ll seek out the sequel.


My original rating (June 2011):

My rating now:

 

To reread next: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and On Beauty by Zadie Smith

 

Done any rereading lately?

Paul Auster Reading Week: Oracle Night and Report from the Interior

Paul Auster Reading Week continues! Be sure to check out Annabel’s excellent post on why you should try Auster. On Monday I reviewed Winter Journal and the New York Trilogy. Adding in last year’s review of Timbuktu, I’ve now read six of Auster’s books and skimmed another one (the sequel to Winter Journal). It’s been great to have this project as an excuse to get more familiar with his work and start to recognize some of the recurring tropes.

 

Oracle Night (2003)

This reminded me most of The Locked Room, the final volume of the New York Trilogy. There’s even a literal locked room in a book within the book by the narrator, a writer named Sidney Orr. It’s 1982 and Orr is convalescing from a sudden, life-threatening illness. At a stationer’s shop, he buys a fine blue notebook from Portugal, hoping its beauty will inspire him to resume his long-neglected work. When he and his wife Grace go to visit John Trause, Grace’s lifelong family friend and a fellow novelist, Orr learns that Trause uses the same notebooks. Only the blue ones, mind you. No other color fosters the same almost magical creativity.

For long stretches of the novel, Orr is lost in his notebook (“I was there, fully engaged in what was happening, and at the same time I wasn’t there—for the there wasn’t an authentic there anymore”), writing in short, obsessive bursts. In one project, a mystery inspired by an incident from The Maltese Falcon, Nick Bowen, a New York City editor, has a manuscript called Oracle Night land on his desk. Spooked by a near-death experience, he flees to Kansas City, where he gets a job working on a cabdriver’s phone book archive, “The Bureau of Historical Preservation,” which includes a collection from the Warsaw ghetto. But then he gets trapped in the man’s underground bunker … and Orr has writer’s block, so leaves him there. Even though it’s fiction (within fiction), I still found that unspeakably creepy.

In the real world, Orr’s life accumulates all sorts of complications over just nine September days. Some of them are to do with Grace and her relationship with Trause’s family; some of them concern his work. There’s a sense in which what he writes is prescient. “Maybe that’s what writing is all about, Sid,” Trause suggests. “Not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” The novel has the noir air I’ve come to expect from Auster, while the layering of stories and the hints of the unexplained reminded me of Italo Calvino and Haruki Murakami. I even caught a whiff of What I Loved, the novel Auster’s wife Siri Hustvedt published the same year. (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve spotted similar themes in husband‒wife duos’ work – cf. Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss; Zadie Smith and Nick Laird.)

This is a carefully constructed and satisfying novel, and the works within the work are so absorbing that you as the reader get almost as lost in them as Orr himself does. I’d rank this at the top of the Auster fiction I’ve read so far, followed closely by City of Glass.

 

 

Report from the Interior (2013)

This sequel to Winter Journal came out a year later. Again, the autobiographical rendering features second-person narration and a fragmentary style. I had a ‘been there, done that’ feeling about the book and only gave it a quick skim. It might be one to try another time.

In the first 100-page section Auster highlights key moments from the inner life of a child. For instance, he remembers that the epiphany that a writer can inhabit another mind came while reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry, and he emulated RLS in his own first poetic attempts. The history and pop culture of the 1950s, understanding that he was Jewish, and reaping the creative rewards of boredom are other themes. I especially liked a final anecdote about smashing his seventh-grade teacher’s reading challenge and being driven to tears when the man disbelieved that he’d read so many books and accused him of cheating.

Other sections give long commentary on two films (something he also does in Winter Journal with 10 pages on the 1950 film D.O.A.), select from letters he wrote to his first wife in the late 1960s while living in Paris, and collect an album of black-and-white period images such as ads, film stills and newspaper photographs. There’s a strong nostalgia element, such that the memoir would appeal to Auster’s contemporaries and those interested in learning about growing up in the 1950s.

Ultimately, though, this feels unnecessary after Winter Journal. Auster repeats a circular aphorism he wrote at age 20: “The world is in my head. My body is in the world. You will stand by that paradox, which was an attempt to capture the strange doubleness of being alive, the inexorable union of inner and outer”. But I’m not sure that body and mind can be so tidily separated as these two works posit. I got more of an overall sense of Auster’s character from the previous book, even though it was ostensibly focused on his physical existence.

 

 

The library at the university where my husband works holds another four Auster novels, but I’ll wait until next year to dive back into his work. After reading other people’s reviews, I’m now most keen to try The Brooklyn Follies, Invisible and In the Country of Last Things.

Have you tried anything by Paul Auster this week?

Paul Auster Reading Week: Winter Journal & The New York Trilogy

Before this year, I’d read only one book by Paul Auster: Timbuktu, which fit into last year’s all-animal 20 Books of Summer for its canine main character. This year I’ve enjoyed having Annabel’s Paul Auster Reading Week as an excuse to binge on more Auster, including one of his memoirs, Winter Journal, and his most famous set of novels, the New York Trilogy. I’m reading another two Auster books, one fiction and nonfiction, and will see if I can finish and write them up before the week ends.

 

Winter Journal (2012)

This is one of the most remarkable memoirs I’ve ever read. Approaching age 64 and the winter of his life, Auster decided to assemble his most visceral memories. Here he parades them past in a seemingly random order yet manages to give a sense of the sweep of his life. The use of the second person draws readers in to (re-)experience things along with the author, while also creating an artistic distance between the subject and his reminiscences. Auster describes his aim thus:

Time is running out, after all. Perhaps it is just as well to put aside your stories for now and try to examine what it has felt like to live inside this body from the first day you can remember being alive until this one. A catalogue of sensory data. What one might call a phenomenology of breathing.

His life reappears through scars, through accidents and near-misses, through what his hands felt and his eyes observed. A three-year-old rips his cheek open on a protruding nail in a department store. A teenager slowly builds up a portfolio of sexual experiences. A young man lives and works in Paris and the South of France. A marriage to one fellow author (Lydia Davis) ends and a relationship with another (Siri Hustvedt) begins. A fiftysomething rushing to get home to the toilet makes an ill-advised turn against traffic and totals his car – luckily, he and his family escape unhurt. Numbness after his mother’s death cedes to a panic attack.

I particularly enjoyed the 53-page section in which Auster gives tours through the 21 places he’s lived since infancy, recounting the details he remembers of the dwellings and what happened during his time there. It’s impressive how much he can condense, but also how much he can convey in just a few pages on each home. This is the sort of format I could imagine borrowing for a short autobiographical piece – it would be a way of redeeming that involuntarily nomadic period when my husband and I moved every six to 18 months.

Reading this alongside the New York Trilogy allowed me to spot the ways, big and small, in which those novels draw on Auster’s life story. I’m now keen to read more of his nonfiction, especially The Invention of Solitude, which offended his relatives by revealing the shameful family story of how his grandmother shot and killed his grandfather in their kitchen.


Annabel says: “The book is written in the second person – addressing himself; it gives a real sense of intimacy to his story. … Auster is an unconventional, analytical and eloquent writer, and this unconventional memoir was a delight to read, he can look with humour at himself as well as being serious.”

Laura F. says: “You know how people say they’d read anything by their favourite author, even a grocery list? Winter Journal gets pretty close to that territory. … I’ve never read a memoir like this, and though focused on the physical, it’s a fully emotional experience.”


Some favorite lines:

“as long as you continue to travel, the nowhere that lies between the here of home and the there of somewhere else will continue to be one of the places where you live.”

“We are all aliens to ourselves, and if we have any sense of who we are, it is only because we live inside the eyes of others.”

“you can only conclude that every life is marked by a number of close calls, that everyone who manages to reach the age you have come to now has already wriggled out of a number of potentially absurd, nonsensical deaths. All in the course of what you would call ordinary life.”

Readalikes: I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell & The Lost Properties of Love by Sophie Ratcliffe

 

 


The New York Trilogy

(also my Doorstopper of the Month at 580 pages)

 

City of Glass (1985)

A metafictional mystery about a crime writer named Daniel Quinn who turns private investigator when he gets a phone call asking for the Paul Auster Detective Agency. This is one of those books where what actually happens is a lot less important than the atmosphere it creates. So what feels essential to me here is the sense of a labyrinthine New York City and a confusion of languages and relationships. Quinn, who is helpfully untethered after the death of his wife and son, is hired to tail Peter Stillman’s father, who has recently been released from a mental hospital, where he was sentenced after being judged insane for keeping his son in isolation in a dark apartment for nine years.

Feral children, maps, eggs, the Tower of Babel and Don Quixote are some of the recurring sources of metaphors in a deliberately disorienting and intertextually rich short novel that kept me turning the pages even when I didn’t know precisely what was going on. We get a glimpse of Auster himself, and are invited to muse on such tiny subjects as destiny, the limitations of language, the purpose of books, and the nature of truth. I’m curious to see whether the other two novels follow on from the story at all or just resemble it thematically.

 

Ghosts (1986)

I jumped straight into this from City of Glass, and it suffered by comparison. It is not a sequel per se, because it has different characters and is set in the late 1940s instead of the early 1980s, but it shares some of the same concerns (with literature, identity, doubling, the essential otherness of the writer, and so on) and again is a sort of metafictional mystery.

Part of why I couldn’t take this novella entirely seriously is the silly naming: White hires Blue to trail Black (really; all of the secondary characters are named after colors, too). It turns out Black is a writer who does little besides sit in his apartment, writing. Only when Blue disguises himself as a tramp and then as a salesman and meets Black in various other contexts does he realize that Black, too, is an investigator … writing up a case of following a writer who hardly leaves his desk.

While I appreciated the circularity and the uncertainty over whether these accidental twins would destroy each other, as well as the literary references to Whitman, Thoreau and Hawthorne, the whole felt slightly inconsequential (“Blue watches Black, and little of anything happens.”). Plotlessness is part of the point, but makes for only a moderately interesting read.


[There is one coded reference to Auster here: the fact that the book opens on February 3, 1947, the day he was born.]

 

The Locked Room (1986)

While most of the New York Trilogy is told in the third person, this is a first-person narrative that seems to pick up where City of Glass left off. It begins in 1977, when the unnamed narrator gets a letter from Sophie Fanshawe, the wife of his childhood best friend, telling him that Fanshawe disappeared six months ago, and despite the best efforts of a detective, Quinn (in another link to CoG, the narrator encounters Peter Stillman on a later trip to Paris), no trace can be found. The narrator has been named Fanshawe’s literary executor and takes it upon himself to get the man’s unpublished work out into the world: plays are produced, novels are published. He also starts writing a biography of the friend he always envied.

Except it’s more like he’s becoming Fanshawe, especially when he marries Sophie. Doubling has been a major theme of the trilogy, and here the metaphorical kill-or-be-killed situation seems to turn literal at the conclusion, which I didn’t particularly understand (e.g. he acquires and destroys a red notebook – is this in some way meant to be the same red notebook Quinn left behind at the end of CoG?). The narrator presents himself as the author of all three books, and asserts, “These three stories are finally the same story, but each one represents a different stage in my awareness of what it is about. I don’t claim to have solved any problems.”

The metafictional aspect of this novel is that Fanshawe’s early life is a lot like Auster’s as revealed in Winter Journal, while Sophie’s resembles his wife Siri Hustvedt’s (and the pair would later name their daughter Sophie).

 

Themes of the trilogy:

  • Identity complications, including disguises, doubles and substitutes
  • Writers and writing; the creator versus characters
  • The limits of language (e.g. Stillman’s monologue in CoG is astonishing)
  • Freedom/randomness versus fate

 

One representative passage from each volume:

  • “New York was an inexhaustible space, a labyrinth of endless steps, and no matter how far he walked, no matter how well he came to know its neighbourhoods and streets, it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself as well. … New York was the nowhere he had built around himself” (City of Glass)
  • “Writing is a solitary business. It takes over your life. In some sense, a writer has no life of his own. Even when he’s there, he’s not really there. / Another ghost. / Exactly.” (Ghosts)
  • “In the end, each life is no more than the sum of contingent facts, a chronicle of chance intersections, of flukes, of random events that divulge nothing but their own lack of purpose.” (The Locked Room)

 

My rating for the trilogy as a whole:

 

 

Have you tried anything by Paul Auster? Grab one of his books and join us for this week’s readalong!

Love, Etc. – Some Thematic Reading for Valentine’s Day

Even though we aren’t big on Valentine’s Day (we went out to a “Flavours of Africa” supper club last weekend and are calling it our celebration meal), for the past three years I’ve ended up doing themed posts featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title or that consider romantic or familial love in some way. (Here are my 2017, 2018 and 2019 posts.) These seven selections, all of them fiction, sometimes end up being more bittersweet or ironic than straightforwardly romantic, but see what catches your eye anyway.

 

Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler (2014)

Four childhood friends from Little Wing, Wisconsin; four weddings (no funeral – though there are a couple of close calls along the way). Which bonds will last, and which will be strained to the breaking point? Henry is the family man, a dairy farmer who married his college sweetheart, Beth. Lee* is a musician, the closest thing to a rock star Little Wing will ever produce. He became famous for Shotgun Lovesongs, a bestselling album he recorded by himself in a refurbished chicken coop for $600, and now lives in New York City and hobnobs with celebrities. Kip gave up being a Chicago commodities trader to return to Little Wing and spruce up the old mill into an events venue. Ronny lived for alcohol and rodeos until a drunken accident ended his career and damaged his brain.

The friends have their fair share of petty quarrels and everyday crises, but the big one hits when one guy confesses to another that he’s in love with his wife. Male friendship still feels like a rarer subject for fiction, but you don’t have to fear any macho stylings here. The narration rotates between the four men, but Beth also has a couple of sections, including the longest one in the book. This is full of nostalgia and small-town (especially winter) atmosphere, but also brimming with the sort of emotion that gets a knot started in the top of your throat. All the characters are wondering whether they’ve made the right decisions. There are a lot of bittersweet moments, but also some comic ones. The entire pickled egg sequence, for instance, is a riot even as it skirts the edge of tragedy.


*Apparently based on Bon Iver (Justin Vernon), whose first album was a similarly low-budget phenomenon recorded in Wisconsin. I’d never heard any Bon Iver before and expected something like the more lo-fi guy-with-guitar tracks on the Garden State soundtrack. My husband has a copy of the band’s 2011 self-titled album, so I listened to that and found that it has a very different sound: expansive, trance-like, lots of horns and strings. (But NB, the final track is called “Beth/Rest.”) For something more akin to what Lee might play, try this video.

 

Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo (2013)

Barry came to London from Antigua and has been married for 50 years to Carmel, the mother of his two adult daughters. For years Carmel has been fed up with his drinking and gallivanting, assuming he has lots of women on the side. Little does she know that Barry’s best friend, Morris, has also been his lover for 60 years. Morris divorced his own wife long ago, and he’s keen for Barry to leave Carmel and set up home with him, maybe even get a civil partnership. When Carmel goes back to Antigua for her father’s funeral, it’s Barry’s last chance to live it up as a bachelor and pluck up his courage to tell his wife the truth.

Barry’s voice is a delight: a funny mixture of patois and formality; slang and Shakespeare quotes. Cleverly, Evaristo avoids turning Carmel into a mute victim by giving her occasional chapters of her own (“Song of…” versus Barry’s “The Art of…” chapters), written in the second person and in the hybrid poetry style readers of Girl, Woman, Other will recognize. From these sections we learn that Carmel has her own secrets and an equal determination to live a more authentic life. Although it’s sad that these two characters have spent so long deceiving each other and themselves, this is an essentially comic novel that pokes fun at traditional mores and includes several glittering portraits.

 

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen (1991)

Set in an upstate New York convent mostly in 1906–7, this is a story of religious fervor, doubt and jealousy. Mariette Baptiste is a 17-year-old postulant; her (literal) sister, 20 years older, is the prioress here. Mariette is given to mystical swoons and, just after the Christmas mass, also develops the stigmata. Her fellow nuns are divided: some think Mariette is a saint who is bringing honor to their organization; others believe she has fabricated her calling and is vain enough to have inflicted the stigmata on herself. A priest and a doctor both examine her, but ultimately it’s for the sisters to decide whether they are housing a miracle or a fraud.

The short sections are headed by the names of feasts or saints’ days, and often open with choppy descriptive phrases that didn’t strike me as quite right for the time period (versus Hansen has also written a Western, in which such language would seem appropriate). Although the novella is slow to take off – the stigmata don’t arrive until after the halfway point – it’s a compelling study of the psychology of a religious body, including fragments from others’ testimonies for or against Mariette. I could imagine it working well as a play.

 

Bizarre Romance by Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell (2018)

Most of these pieces originated as text-only stories by Niffenegger and were later adapted into comics by Campbell. By the time they got married, they had been collaborating long-distance for a while. Some of the stories incorporate fairies, monsters, ghosts and other worlds. A young woman on her way to a holiday party travels via a mirror to another land where she is queen; a hapless bar fly trades one fairy mistress for another; Arthur Conan Doyle’s father sketches fairies in an asylum; a middle-aged woman on a cruise decides to donate her remaining years to her aged father.

My favorite of the fantastical ones was “Jakob Wywialowski and the Angels,” a story of a man dealing with an angel infestation in the attic; it first appeared as a holiday story on the Amazon homepage in 2003 and is the oldest piece here, with the newest dating from 2015. I also liked “Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m.,” in which a man goes to great lengths to assure two hours of completely uninterrupted reading per week. Strangely, my two favorite pieces were the nonfiction ones: “Digging up the Cat,” about burying her frozen pet with its deceased sibling; and “The Church of the Funnies,” a secular sermon about her history with Catholicism and art that Niffenegger delivered at Manchester Cathedral as part of the 2014 Manchester Literary Festival.

 

The Nine-Chambered Heart by Janice Pariat (2017)

I find second-person narration intriguing, and I like the idea of various people’s memories of a character being combined to create a composite portrait (previous books that do this that I have enjoyed are The Life and Death of Sophie Stark and Kitchens of the Great Midwest). The protagonist here, never named, is a young Indian writer who travels widely, everywhere from the Himalayas to Tuscany. She also studies and then works in London, where she meets and marries a fellow foreigner. We get the sense that she is restless, eager for adventure and novelty: “You seem to be a woman to whom something is always about to happen.”

An issue with the book is that most of the nine viewpoints belong to her lovers, which would account for the title but makes their sections seem repetitive. By contrast, I most enjoyed the first chapter, by her art teacher, because it gives us the earliest account of her (at age 12) and so contributes to a more rounded picture of her as opposed to just the impulsive, flirtatious twentysomething hooking up on holidays and at a writers’ residency. I also wish Pariat had further explored the main character’s relationship with her parents. Still, I found this thoroughly absorbing and read it in a few days, steaming through over 100 pages on one.

 

Kinds of Love by May Sarton (1970)

Christina and Cornelius Chapman have been “summer people,” visiting Willard, New Hampshire each summer for decades, but in the town’s bicentennial year they decide to commit to it full-time. They are seen as incomers by the tough mountain people, but Cornelius’s stroke and their adjustments to his disability and older age have given them the resilience to make it through a hard winter. Sarton lovingly builds up pictures of the townsfolk: Ellen Comstock, Christina’s gruff friend; Nick, Ellen’s mentally troubled son, who’s committed to protecting the local flora and fauna; Jane Tuttle, an ancient botanist; and so on. Willard is clearly a version of Sarton’s beloved Nelson, NH. She’s exploring love for the land as well as love between romantic partners and within families.

It’s a meandering novel pleasant for its atmosphere and its working out of philosophies of life through conversation and rumination, but Part Three, “A Stranger Comes to Willard,” feels like a misstep. A college dropout turns up at Ellen’s door after his car turns over in a blizzard. Before he’s drafted into the Vietnam War, he has time to fall in love with Christina’s 15-year-old granddaughter, Cathy. There may only be a few years between the teens, but this still didn’t sit well with me.

I liked how each third-person omniscient chapter ends with a passage from Christina’s journal, making things personal and echoing the sort of self-reflective writing for which Sarton became most famous. The book could have been closer to 300 pages instead of over 460, though.

 

The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall (2019)

An elegant debut novel about two couples thrown together in 1960s New York City when the men are hired as co-pastors of a floundering Presbyterian church. Nearly the first half is devoted to the four main characters’ backstories and how each couple met. It’s a slow, subtle, quiet story (so much so that I only read the first half and skimmed the second), and I kept getting Charles and James, and Lily and Nan confused.

So here’s the shorthand: Charles is the son of an atheist Harvard professor and plans to study history until a lecture gets him thinking seriously about faith. Lily has closed herself off to life since she lost her parents in a car accident; though she eventually accedes to Charles’s romantic advances, she warns him she won’t bend where it comes to religion. James grew up in a poor Chicago household with an alcoholic father, while Nan is a Southern preacher’s daughter who goes up to Illinois to study music at Wheaton.

James doesn’t have a calling per se, but is passionate about social justice. As co-pastor, his focus will be on outreach and community service, while Charles’s will be on traditional teaching and ministry duties. Nan is desperate for a baby but keeps having miscarriages; Lily has twins, one of whom is autistic (early days for that diagnosis; doctors thought the baby should be institutionalized). Although Lily remains prickly, Nan and James’s friendship is a lifeline for them. The “dearly beloved” term thus applies outside of marriage as well, encompassing all the ties that sustain us – in the last line, Lily thinks, “these friends would forever be her stitches, her scaffold, her ballast, her home.”

 

Have you read any “love” books, or books about love of any kind, lately?

September Recommendations: Boyer, Doughty, Englehardt, Jamie, Patchett

For this second half of the year I chose just 15 of the new releases I was most excited about. Limiting myself in that way has been helpful for focusing the mind: I’ve already read six of my most anticipated books, I’m currently reading another, and I have several more awaiting me. Had I chosen 30 or more titles, I would likely be feeling overwhelmed by now, but as it is I have a good chance of actually getting to all these books before the end of the year. These five September releases, while very different – their topics range from cancer and dead bodies to archaeological digs and family inheritance – all lived up to my expectations:

 

The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer

(Coming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux [USA] on the 17th and Allen Lane [UK] on October 3rd)

In 2014, Boyer, then a 41-year-old poet and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute (and a single mother) was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer. The book’s subtitle gives you clues to the sort of practical and emotional territory that’s covered here. Although she survived this highly aggressive cancer, she was not unscathed: the chemotherapy she had is so toxic it leads to lasting nerve damage and a brain fog that hasn’t completely lifted.

All the more impressive, then, that Boyer has been able to put together this ferociously intellectual response to American cancer culture. Her frame of reference ranges from ancient Greece – Aelius Aristides, who lived in a temple, hoping the gods would reveal the cure to his wasting illness via dreams, becomes an offbeat hero for her – to recent breast cancer vloggers. She is scathing on vapid pink-ribbon cheerleading that doesn’t substantially improve breast cancer patients’ lives, and on profit-making healthcare schemes that inevitably discriminate against poor women of color and send people home from the hospital within a day or two of a double mastectomy. Through her own experience, she reflects on the pressure women are under to be brave, to be optimistic, to go to work as normal, and to look as beautiful as ever when they are in excruciating pain and beyond exhaustion.

Impossible to avoid comparisons to Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor, but this book has a personal power I don’t remember finding in Sontag’s more detached, academic-level work. Boyer sees herself as one in a long lineage of women writing about their cancer – from Fanny Burney to Audre Lorde – and probes the limits of language when describing pain. I was reminded of another terrific, adjacent book from this year, Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson, especially where Boyer describes her imagined 10-part pain scale (Gleeson has a set of 20 poems based on the McGill Pain Index).

I could quote excellent passages all day, but here are a few that stood out to me:

“People with breast cancer are supposed to be ourselves as we were before, but also better and stronger and at the same time heart-wrenchingly worse. We are supposed to keep our unhappiness to ourselves but donate our courage to everyone.”

“The moral failure of breast cancer is not in the people who die: it is in the world that makes them sick, bankrupts them for a cure that also makes them sick, then blames them for their own deaths.”

“If suffering is like a poem, I want mine to be lurid, righteous, and goth.”

My thanks to FSG for the proof copy for review.

 

Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs?: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals about Death by Caitlin Doughty

(Coming from W.W. Norton [USA] on the 10th and W&N [UK] on the 19th)

This is the third book by the millennial mortician, and I’ve taken perverse glee in reading them all. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes explains cremation and combats misconceptions about death; From Here to Eternity surveys death rituals from around the world. This new book seems to be aimed at (morbid) children, but for me it was more like one of those New Scientist books (Why Don’t Penguins’ Feet Freeze?) or Why Do Men Have Nipples?

Some of the questions are more serious than others, but with her usual punning wit and pop culture references Doughty gives biologically sound answers to them all. For instance, she explains what might happen to a corpse in space, why the hair and fingernails of a cadaver appear to keep growing, and why the quantity of ashes from a cremation is about the same no matter the dead person’s girth (all the fat burns away; what would make your ashes weigh more is being taller and thus having longer bones). I was most interested in the chapter on why conjoined twins generally die at roughly the same time.

Doughty also discusses laws relating to the dead, such as “abuse of corpse” regulations and whether or not deaths at a property have to be reported to potential buyers (it depends on what state or country you live in); and what happens in countries that are literally running out of space for burials. In highly population-dense places like Singapore, but also in countries such as Germany, one is considered to ‘rent’ grave space, which is then recycled after 15 years and the previous set of remains cremated. Or graves might get stacked vertically.

This is good fun, and features lots of cartoonishly gruesome black-and-white illustrations by Dianné Ruz. If you’ve got a particularly curious niece or nephew who might appreciate a dark sense of humor, this would make a good Christmas gift for one who is an older child or young teen.

My thanks to W&N for the free copy for review.

 

Bloomland by John Englehardt

(Coming from Dzanc Books [USA only] on the 10th)

“you wonder if the scariest thing about all this is not that life can’t return to normal, but that it already has”

Especially after Gilroy and El Paso, I wasn’t sure I’d have the heart to pick up Bloomland, a novel about a mass shooting at (fictional) Ozarka University, Arkansas. But I’m very glad I did. Crucially, Englehardt’s debut doesn’t a) make easy assignments of guilt, b) resort to lurid scenes for shock value, or c) employ the cut-and-dried language of cause and effect. It’s a subtle and finely crafted piece of literary fiction. The second-person narration is an effective means of drawing the reader into the action, and inviting ‘you’ to extend sympathy to three very different characters: Rose, an Ozarka student who becomes romantically involved with one of the injured; Eddie, a professor whose wife dies in the massacre; and Eli, the shooter.

Both Rose and Eli lost their mothers when they were 11 years old. Six years before starting a poultry science course at Ozarka, Rose was caught up in a tornado that killed her grandmother and fractured her skull. The fact that her upbringing was even more traumatic than Eli’s is, I think, meant to discredit the lazy argument that dysfunctional families produce killers. In his early days at university we see Eli befriending a drug dealer named Gordon, whose hunting rifle he soups up to use in the shooting at the campus library in finals week. Englehardt also tests out another couple of predictors of violence: cruelty towards animals (au contraire, Eli can’t stand more than one day of debeaking chickens at a poultry factory and even takes one home as a pet) and violent, video-game-fueled fantasies (the story he writes for creative writing class is average for a teenage male so doesn’t raise any alarm bells).

Gradually we learn that there is an “I” behind this triple-stranded narrative: Dr. Steven Bressinger, an Ozarka creative writing professor. Although Rose, Eddie and Eli are all fully realized characters, we are also left to wonder how this Bressinger is able to access their memories and emotions. To what extent can he really put himself into their situations? And how much of the rest is made up? But then, that’s what the novelist does anyway: imagine what it’s like to be inside a character’s experience, especially when they’ve made unimaginable decisions.

So this novel within a novel thoroughly convinced me, especially as it moves into the future to examine how the campus and the wider community address issues of guilt and vengeance. Its timeliness is obvious, and Englehardt writes a gorgeous sentence, even when it’s about the homogeneity of the American suburb: e.g., “You start driving down MLK, past the mass grave of dollar stores, under the even clouds converging like one stoic slab of ice.”

My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

 

Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie

(Coming from Sort Of Books [UK] on the 19th and Penguin Books [USA] on the 24th)

I’m a big fan of Kathleen Jamie’s work, prose and poetry. Like her two previous essay collections, Sightlines and Findings, both of which I read in 2012, this fuses autobiography with nature and travel writing – two genres that are too often dominated by males. Jamie has a particular interest in birds, islands, archaeology and the oddities of the human body, all subjects that intrigue me, too.

The bulk of Surfacing is given over to three long pieces set in Alaska, Orkney and Tibet. She was drawn to Quinhagak, Alaska, a village that’s about the farthest you can go before crossing the Bering Sea into Russia, by her fascination with the whaling artifacts found along the UK’s east coast. Here she helped out on a summer archaeological dig and learned about the language and culture of the Yup’ik people. Alarmingly, the ground here should have been frozen most of the way to the surface, forcing the crew to wear thermals; instead, the ice was a half-meter down, and Jamie found that she never needed her cold-weather gear.

On Westray, Orkney (hey, I’ve been there!), there was also evidence of environmental degradation in the form of rapid erosion. This Neolithic site, comparable to the better-known Skara Brae, leads Jamie to think about deep time and whether we’re actually much better off than people in the Bronze Age were. Prehistory fits the zeitgeist, as seen in two entries from the recent Wainwright Prize shortlist: Time Song by Julia Blackburn and Underland by Robert Macfarlane. It’s a necessary corrective to the kind of short-term thinking that has gotten us into environmental crisis.

A cancer biopsy coincides with a dream memory of being bitten by a Tibetan dog, prompting Jamie to get out her notebook from a trip to China/Tibet some 30 years ago. Xiahe was technically in China but ethnically and culturally Tibetan, and so the best they could manage at that time since Tibet was closed to foreigners. There’s an amazing amount of detail in this essay given how much time has passed, but her photos as well as her notebook must have helped with the reconstruction.

The depth and engagement of the long essays are admirable, yet I often connected more with the few-page pieces on experiencing a cave, spotting an eagle or getting lost in a forest. Jamie has made the interesting choice of delivering a lot of the memoir fragments in the second person. My favorite piece of all is “Elders,” which in just five pages charts her father’s decline and death and marks her own passage into unknown territory: grown children and no parents; what might her life look like now?

There is beautiful nature writing to be found in this volume, as you might expect, but also relatable words on the human condition:

What are you doing here anyway, in the woods? … You wanted to think about all the horror. The everyday news … No, not to think about it exactly but consider what to do with the weight of it all, the knowing … You are not lost, just melodramatic. The path is at your feet, see? Now carry on.

My thanks to Sort Of Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

(Coming from Bloomsbury [UK] and Harper [USA] on the 24th)

Maeve and Danny Conroy are an inseparable brother-and-sister pair. Their mother left when Danny was little, so his older sister played a maternal role, too. And when their father dies, they become like Hansel and Gretel (or Cinderella and her little brother): cast out into the wilds by an evil stepmother who takes possession of the only home they’ve ever known, a suburban Philadelphia mansion built on the proceeds of the VanHoebeeks’ cigarette empire.

It’s interesting to see Patchett take on a male perspective in this novel; she does it utterly convincingly. I also loved the medical threads running through: Maeve is diagnosed with diabetes as a teenager, and Danny spends many years in medical training even though his only ambition is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a property developer. There was a stretch in the middle of the book – something like 46% to 58% – when I was really bored with Danny’s dithering (‘but I don’t want to be a doctor … but I don’t want to marry Celeste’), and the chronology is unnecessarily complicated by flashbacks, though this is, I think, meant to convey Danny’s desultory composition of his memoirs.

In the end I didn’t like this quite as much as Commonwealth, but it’s a memorable exploration of family secrets and memories. As the decades pass you see how what happened to Maeve and Danny has been turned into myth: a story they repeat to themselves about how they were usurped, until this narrative has more power than the reality. Readers, meanwhile, are invited to question the people and places we base our security on, and to imagine what it would mean to forgive and forget and start living in a different way.

Patchett is always so good on the psychology of complicated families, and her sharp prose never fails to hit the nail on the head. The Goldfinch comes to mind as a readalike – not least because of the significance of a piece of art: the cover depicts a painting made of Maeve when she was 10 – as well as Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good.

I read an electronic proof copy via Edelweiss.

 

Have you read any September releases that you would recommend? Which of these tempt you?

Four Recent Review Books: Flanery, James, Tota and Yuknavitch

Memoirs of adoption and a life steeped in trauma and sex; a metafictional mystery about an inscrutable artist and his would-be biographer; and a European graphic novel about a thief. You can’t say I don’t read a wide variety of books! See if one or more of these can tempt you.

 

The Ginger Child: On Family, Loss and Adoption by Patrick Flanery

Patrick Flanery is a professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London and the author of four novels. In his first nonfiction book, he chronicles the arduous four-year journey he and his husband took to try and become parents. For a short time they considered surrogacy, but it’s so difficult in the UK that they switched tracks to domestic adoption.

The resulting memoir is a somber, meditative book that doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of queer family-making, but also sees some potential advantages: to an extent, one has the privilege of choice – he and Andrew specified that they couldn’t raise a child with severe disabilities or trauma, but were fine with one of any race – whereas biological parents don’t really have any idea of what they’re going to get. However, same-sex couples are plagued by bureaucracy and, yes, prejudice still. Nothing comes easy. They have to fill out a 50-page questionnaire about their concerns and what they have to offer a child. A social worker humiliates them by forcing them to do a dance-off video game to prove that a pair of introverted, cultured academics can have fun, too.

Eventually there’s a successful match and they have tentative meetings with four-year-old O—, his parents’ fifth child, now in foster care. But this is not a blithe story of everything going right. I enjoyed the glimpses of Flanery’s growing-up years in Nebraska and the occasional second-person address to O—, but there is a lot more theory and cultural criticism than I expected, and much of the film talk, at least, feels like irrelevant asides.


With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

The Unauthorised Biography of Ezra Maas by Daniel James

This is a twisty, clever meta novel about “Daniel James” desperately trying to write a biography of Ezra Maas, an enigmatic artist who grew up a child prodigy in Oxford and attracted a cult following in 1960s New York City, where he was a friend of Warhol et al. But, with rumors abounding that The Maas Foundation is preparing to announce Ezra’s death in 2011, James finds that his subject’s story keeps shifting shape and even disappearing around him – as one interviewee tells him, “Maas is a black hole. His presence draws everything in, warps, destroys, changes, and rewrites it.”

The book’s epistolary style deftly combines fragments of various document types: James’s biography-in-progress and an oral history he’s assembled from conversations with those who knew Maas, his narrative of his quest, transcripts of interviews and phone conversations, e-mails and more. All of this has been brought together into manuscript form by an anonymous editor whose presence is indicated through coy but increasingly tiresome long footnotes.

Look at the sort of authors who get frequent mentions in the footnotes, though, and you’ll get an idea of whether this might appeal to you: Paul Auster, Samuel Beckett, George Orwell and Thomas Pynchon. I enjoyed the noir atmosphere – complete with dream sequences and psychiatric evaluations – and the way that James the “writer-detective” has to careen around Europe and America looking for answers; it all feels rather like a superior Jason Bourne film.


My thanks to the author for sending a free signed copy for review.

 

Memoirs of a Book Thief by Alessandro Tota (illustrated by Pierre Van Hove)

[translated from the French by Edward Gauvin]

In April 1953, Daniel Brodin translates an obscure Italian poem in his head to recite at a poetry reading but, improbably, someone recognizes it. Soon afterwards, he’s also caught stealing a book from a shop. Just a little plagiarism and shoplifting? It might have stayed that way until he met Gilles and Linda, fellow thieves, and their bodyguard, Jean-Michel, a big blond goon with Gérard Dépardieu’s nose and haircut. Now he’s known as “Klepto” and is part of a circle that drinks at the Café Sully and mixes with avant-garde and Existentialist figures. He’s content with being a nobody and writing his memoirs (the book within the book) – until Jean-Michel makes him a proposition.

The book is entirely in black and white, which makes it seem unfinished, and the style is a little grotesque. For instance, Brodin is almost always depicted with beads of sweat rolling off his head. The intricate outdoor scenes were much more to my taste than the faces. The plot is also slightly thin and the ending abrupt. So, compared with many other graphic novels, this is not one I’m likely to recommend.


With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch

This really blew me away. “Out of the sad sack of sad shit that was my life, I made a wordhouse,” Yuknavitch writes. Her nonlinear memoir ranges from her upbringing with an alcoholic, manic-depressive mother and an abusive father via the stillbirth of her daughter and her years of alcohol and drug use through to the third marriage where she finally got things right and allowed herself to feel love again after so much numbness. Reading this, you’re amazed that the author is still alive, let alone thriving as a writer.

Ken Kesey, who led a collaborative novel-writing workshop in which she participated in the late 1980s, once asked her what the best thing was that ever happened to her. Swimming, she answered, because it felt like the only thing she was good at. In the water she was at home and empowered. Kesey reassured her that swimming wasn’t her only talent: there is some truly dazzling writing here, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality.

There are so many vivid sequences, but two that stood out for me were cutting down a tree the Christmas she was four and the way her mother turned her teeth-chattering crisis into a survival game, and the drunken collision she had after her second ex-husband told her he was seeing a 23-year-old. With the caveat that this is extremely explicit stuff (the author is bisexual; there’s an all-female threesome and S&M parties), I would still highly recommend it to readers of Joan Didion, Anne Lamott and Maggie Nelson. The watery metaphor flowing through, as one woman learns to float free of what once threatened to drown her, is only part of what makes it unforgettable. You’ll marvel at what a memoir can do.

A couple of favorite passages:

“It is possible to carry life and death in the same sentence. In the same body. It is possible to carry love and pain. In the water, this body I have come to slides through the wet with a history. What if there is hope in that?”

“Make up stories until you find one you can live with. Make up stories as if life depended on it.”


With thanks to Canongate for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Knausgaard for the Sally Rooney Generation: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

I would have loved to see this debut novel on the Women’s Prize longlist the other week. It’s such a hip, fresh approach to fiction – the last book to have struck me as truly ‘novel’ in the same way was Lincoln in the Bardo.

Broadly speaking, this is autofiction: like the author, the protagonist was born in London to a Brazilian mother and an English father. In the tradition of Karl Ove Knausgaard, Yara Rodrigues Fowler audaciously includes the mundane details of everyday life – things like a friend coming for Sunday roast, struggling with IBS, packing for a trip to Brazil, and trying to be grateful for having half-decent work and a place to live with her parents in Tooting. She also recounts lots of conversations, some momentous – as when she confronts an ex about a non-consensual sexual encounter – but most pretty inane; all conveyed with no speech marks.

The book opens with fragmentary, titled pieces that look almost like poems in stanzas. That experimentation with how the words are set out on the page continues throughout the book. Some pages contain just a few lines, or a single short paragraph that reads like a prose poem. Even where there are more conventional sections of a few pages, Fowler deliberately eschews commas and hyphens to create a sort of breathless, run-on pace. This makes the text feel artless, like a pure stream of memory and experience has been channeled directly onto the page, and yet you can be sure that a lot of hard work was involved.

The perspective moves smoothly between the third and the second person, referring to the protagonist by turns as “she” and “you.” Sometimes she’s “the baby,” going grocery shopping with Vovó (Grandmother) Cecília in Brazil and asking for bedtime stories, or observing Aunt Ana Paula’s relationship with a classmate when she comes to live with them in London for a time. This stubborn archivist is equally convinced of the value of her family history and of her twentysomething life of relationships, parties, and a good-enough job.

I love the U.S. cover!

Navigating two cultures (and languages), being young and adrift, and sometimes seeing her mother in herself: there’s a lot to sympathize with in the main character. If you’re a fan of Sally Rooney’s work (especially Conversations with Friends), you’ll want to pick this up as soon as you can, even if you don’t expect to relate to someone of Fowler’s generation. Stubborn Archivist impressed me enough to earn the first entry on my “Best of 2019” shelf.

My rating:

 

 

Stubborn Archivist was published in the UK by Fleet on February 21st. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review. It will be published in the USA by Mariner Books on July 16th.

Wellcome Book Prize Longlist: Mind on Fire by Arnold Thomas Fanning

“all these ideas are swirling around inside your head at once, hurling through your mind, it is on fire, so when you speak it all comes out muddled and confused and no one can understand you.”

Like the other Wellcome-longlisted title I’ve highlighted so far, Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, Mind on Fire explores mental health. Its subtitle is “A Memoir of Madness and Recovery,” and Irish playwright Fanning focuses on the ten years or so in his twenties and thirties when he struggled to get on top of his bipolar disorder and was in and out of mental hospitals – and even homeless on the streets of London for a short time.

Fanning had suffered from periods of depression ever since his mother’s death from cancer when he was 20, but things got much worse when he was 28 and living in Dublin. It was the summer of 1997 and he’d quit a full-time job to write stories and film scripts. What with the wild swings in his moods and energy levels, though, he found it increasingly difficult to get along with his father, with whom he was living. He also got kicked out of an artists’ residency, and on the way home his car ran out of petrol – such that when he called the police for help, it was for a breakdown in more than one sense. This was the first time he was taken to a psychiatric unit, at the Tyrone and Fermanagh Hospital, where he stayed for 10 days.

In the years to come there would be many more hospital stays, delusions, medication regimes and odd behavior. There would also be time spent in America – an artists’ residency in Virginia, where he met Jennifer, and a fairly long-term relationship with her in New York City – and ups and downs in his writing career. For instance, he remembers that after reading Ulysses he was so despairingly convinced that he would never be a “real writer” like James Joyce that he burned hundreds of pages of work-in-progress.

This was a very hard book for me to rate. The prologue is a brilliant 6.5-page run-on sentence in the second person and present tense (I’ve quoted a fragment above) that puts you right into the author’s experience. It is a superb piece of writing. But nothing that comes after (a more standard first-person narrative, though still in the present tense for most of it) is nearly as good. As I’ve found in some other mental health memoirs, the cycle of hospitalizations and medications gets repetitive. It’s a whole lot of telling: this happened, then that happened. That’s also true of the flashbacks to his childhood and university years.

Due to his unreliable memory of his years lost to bipolar, Fanning has had to recreate his experiences from medical records, interviews with people who knew him, and so on. This insistence on documentary realism distances the reader from what should be intimate, terrifying events. I almost wondered if this would have worked better as a novel, allowing the author to invent more and thus better capture what it actually felt like to flirt with madness. There’s no denying the extremity of this period of his life, but I found myself unable to fully engage with the retelling. (Also, this is doomed to be mistaken for the superior Brain on Fire.)

My rating:

 

A favorite passage:

St John of God’s carries associations for me. I attended primary school not far from here, and used to see denizens of the hospital on their day outings, conspicuous in the way they walked: hunched over, balled up, constricted, eyes down to the ground, visibly disturbed. We cruelly referred to these people as ‘mentallers’, though never to their faces or within earshot, as we were frightened of them.

Now I, too, am a mentaller.

My gut feeling: There are several stronger memoirs on the longlist, so I don’t see this one making it through.

 

Longlist strategy:

  • I’m about halfway through both The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.
  • I finally got hold of a library copy of Murmur by Will Eaves.
  • The only two books I haven’t read and don’t have access to are Astroturf and Polio. I’ll only read these if they are on the shortlist. (Fingers crossed Astroturf doesn’t make it: it sounds awful!)

The Wellcome Book Prize shortlist will be announced on Tuesday, March 19th, and the winner will be revealed on Wednesday, May 1st.

We plan to choose our own shortlist to announce on Friday, March 15th. Follow along here and on Halfman, Halfbook, Annabookbel, A Little Blog of Books, and Dr. Laura Tisdall for reviews and predictions.

Heartland by Sarah Smarsh

If you were a fan of Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, then debut author Sarah Smarsh’s memoir, Heartland, deserves to be on your radar too. Smarsh comes from five generations of Kansas wheat farmers and worked hard to step outside of the vicious cycle that held back the women on her mother’s side of the family: poverty, teen pregnancy, domestic violence, broken marriages, a lack of job security, and moving all the time. Like Mamaw in Vance’s book, Grandma Betty is the star of the show here: a source of pure love, she played a major role in raising Smarsh. The rundown of Betty’s life is sobering: her father was abusive and her mother had schizophrenia; she got pregnant at 16; and she racked up six divorces and countless addresses. This passage about her paycheck and diet jumped out at me:

Each month, after she paid the rent and utilities, and the landlady for watching Jeannie, Betty had $27 left. She budgeted some of it for cigarettes and gas. The rest went to groceries from the little store around the corner. The store sold frozen pot pies, five for a dollar. She’d buy twenty-five of them, beef and chicken flavor, and that would be her dinner all month. Every day, a candy bar for lunch at work and a frozen pot pie for dinner at home.

It’s a sad state of affairs when fatty processed foods are cheaper than healthy ones, and this is still the case today: the underprivileged are more likely to subsist on McDonald’s than on vegetables. Heartland is full of these kinds of contradictions. For instance, in the Reagan years the country shifted rightwards and working-class Catholics like Smarsh’s mother started voting Republican – in contravention of the traditional understanding that the Democrats were for the poor and the Republicans were for the rich. Smarsh followed her mother’s lead by casting her first-ever vote for George W. Bush in 2000, but her views changed in college when she learned how conservative fiscal policies keep people poor.

This isn’t a straightforward, chronological family story; it jumps through time and between characters. You might think of reading it as like joining Smarsh for an amble around the farm or a flip through a photograph album. Its vignettes are vivid, if sometimes hard to join into a cohesive story line in the mind. Some of the scenes that stood out to me were being pulled by truck through the snow on a canoe, helping Grandma Betty move into a house in Wichita but high-tailing it out of there when they realized it was infested by cockroaches, and the irony of winning a speech contest about drug addiction when her stepmother was hooked on opioids.

Heartland serves as a personal tour through some of the persistent trials of working-class life in the American Midwest: urbanization and the death of the family farm, an inability to afford health insurance and the threat of toxins encountered in the workplace, and the elusive dream of home ownership. Like Vance, Smarsh has escaped most of the worst possibilities through determination and education, so is able to bring an outsider’s clarity to the issues. At times she has a tendency to harp on the same points, though, adding in generalizations about the effects of poverty rather than just letting her family’s stories speak for themselves.

The oddest thing about Smarsh’s memoir – and I am certainly not the first reviewer to mention this since the book’s U.S. release in September – is who it’s directed to: her never-to-be-born daughter, “August”. Teen pregnancy was the family curse Smarsh was most desperate to avoid, and even now that she’s in her late thirties, a journalist and academic returned to Kansas after years on the East Coast, she remains childless. August is who Smarsh had in mind while working two or more jobs all through high school, earning higher degrees and buying her dream home. All along she was saving August from the hardships of a poor upbringing. While the unborn child is a potent symbol, it can be disorienting after pages of “I” to come across a “you” and have to readjust to who is being addressed.

Heartland is a striking book, not without its challenges to the reader, but one that I ultimately found rewarding to read in short bursts of 10 to 20 pages at a time. It’s worthwhile for anyone interested in what it’s really like to be poor in America.

My rating:

 

A favorite passage:

“My life has been a bridge between two places: the working poor and ‘higher’ economic classes. The city and the country. College-educated coworkers and disenfranchised loved ones. A somewhat conservative upbringing and a liberal adulthood. Home in the middle of the country and work on the East Coast. The physical world where I talk to people and the formless dimension where I talk to you.”

 


Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth was published by Scribe UK on November 8th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

Second Person Narrative at New Era Theatre

It was a busy weekend for me: we saw Teesside folk duo Megson play at our local arts centre on Friday evening; on Saturday I baked a Dorset apple cake to take down to Hampshire for my father-in-law in advance of his 70th birthday, and in the evening, while my hubby got on with PhD stuff, I went to New Era Theatre, housed in a former chapel in our church carpark, for the first time. It’s a cozy space with only about 50 seats, and I sat on the front row.

The production was called Second Person Narrative, written by Jemma Kennedy and directed by Andy Kempe. Four actresses of different ages play the main character, known only as “You,” at various stages of her life. She’s an Everywoman, completely ordinary but also unique. Short scenes jump ahead three to six years at a time to highlight the big and small events that shape her life. At age 11, she tells the photographer on school picture day that she wants to be an explorer and save animals. At 23, she’s trying to spin her minimal experience into an enticing CV. At 36, she’s disillusioned by her first trip to the rainforest.

The set was a blue rectangular space with an Astroturf floor, hanging clouds covered in timepieces, and a gallery wall at the back where artifacts from You’s life accumulated scene by scene: her stuffed rabbit, a bouquet of flowers, a backpack, a cocktail shaker, and so on. The items are clever reminders of touchpoints from her story, but the wall is depressing: you look at it and wonder, Is that really all that a life adds up to? Occasional music emphasized the theme of time passing, with snippets of “As Time Goes By” and “Time after Time,” and the ending of each scene was signaled by the sound of a camera click.

Supporting characters seemed to serve as commentators on the protagonist’s choices. Her friends, mostly female, were dressed in white, while older males were in gray and played officious roles: her first work supervisor, a persnickety boyfriend who barely noticed when she left him during a trip to Italy, and a trio of men trying to turn her into a TV role model in her twenties or sell her a retirement flat in her seventies. By contrast, You wore red and black. Actresses played multiple roles: You’s mother and Granny from the early years were You in the third and fourth stages of life. This wasn’t just for convenience’s sake; it provides continuity and shows the character coming to resemble the generations of women before her.

The two most poignant scenes for me were when You is shopping with her mother and the salesgirl assumes the older woman will be in the market for things like a full-length caftan, and when sixtysomething You, having published a poetry collection, has to field inane questions from readers who don’t differentiate between a writer’s biography and art. Other scenes, though, such as You awkwardly flirting in a bar, didn’t add much to the whole.

I did expect the play to make more of the second person perspective. It’s something I find fascinating in books – though it’s often difficult to sustain for any longer than a short story or one chapter. The main character is never addressed by name; others refer to “she” or “her.” On a few occasions other actors come to the edge of the stage and carry on a one-sided dialogue, turning the audience into “You” and letting us fill in for ourselves what she’s saying in reply. What was confusing to me about that was that, as the years passed, the audience wasn’t only taking on the role of You, but her daughter and granddaughter too.

Only once is actual second person narration employed. This is during a nice meta moment when You, now 56, is hosting a book club meeting for friends; the text they’re discussing is Second Person Narration. After an argument with her daughter, she says aloud, “You look at your friends. You feel embarrassed. You pick your black top off the floor and wonder if you can actually still get into it.” One of the friends on stage asks, “Why is she talking like that?”

Overall, I found the production a bit odd and not entirely coherent, but it did succeed in making me think about the expectations placed on a woman’s life – by her family and friends, by society at large, and also by herself. The ending then, I think, specifically invites us to question how things would have gone differently had You been born male.

My rating:

 

What do you make of second person narration? Do you think you would have enjoyed this play?