The Outside Boy by Jeanine Cummins

American writer Jeanine Cummins

Like a lot of readers I discovered Jeanine Cummins via the controversy over her mega-selling fourth book, American Dirt (2020), which is a flight story of a mother and child fleeing the wrath of a drug cartel – they had murdered her journalist husband and 16 members of her immediate family – in Acapulco, Mexico for the safety of the USA. You can read my blog post about that book here. Latinx writers got very upset that a ‘white’ woman should deem to write, and successfully so, a Latina story; the phrase ‘cultural appropriation’ was used a lot in the ensuing brouhaha. I’m not completely sure why, but I usually tend not to read American writers; British, Irish, European, and Australian writers keep pushing the Americans down on my to-read pile. I’ll need to address this in a future post. A friend kindly sent me the book in the mail during the Melbourne lockdown – I was caught in Australia for most of 2020. I was surprised at how good it is: a cracking good read. Yes, it was a commercial success – helped along, no doubt, by Oprah Winfrey – but the writing is also good, authoritative, and compelling.

My lock-down host then gave me this, Cummin’s second book, The Outside Boy (2010). Although this too is a book set in a different culture to her own: Ireland, and a different time: 1959, no controversy erupted over this one. Cummins identifies as ‘white’, although she has a Puerto Rican grandmother; her husband is Irish which may account for the inspirational spark here.

It is a coming-of-age story of a 12 year old boy, Christy Hurley, a tinker’s son, a traveller, a pavee, told through his eyes, his words. The mashed grammar, misplaced syntax, and sometimes literal spelling all add up to the acceptable sound of a traveller’s boy, a gypsy youth who sees the world without any city notions of blame, cause & effect, and obligation.

“She’s my mother,” I said, and even though I was whispering, my words fell into the quiet room likes stones into a pond. They rippled out til I could see them on Missus Hanley’s face. She knew the weight of them words; she took them serious.

Cummins explains in an Author’s Note that she has not been entirely true to the traveller’s voice; a truly authentic pavee voice “would have rendered the book almost impenetrable to the American reader.” Her close writing and vocabulary choices are fundamentally apt and effective, although I think an unschooled gypsy boy in 1959 Ireland would not know the words ‘precarious’ or ‘choreography’, but this is a small point.

Christy is motherless. All he has of her is a mysterious photo from a partly burnt newspaper article. She died at his birth. “I killed her!” he often says. His father is frustratingly mute on the subject of the boy’s mother, but finding the truth of her becomes his, and the book’s, quest and narrative force.

The colourful world, language, and culture of the Irish travellers are major reasons that the book is such a joy to read. Like all good fiction a novel can take you out of your own world and show you how other people live, think, and carry-on regardless.

This is a highly entertaining and moving work. Highly recommended.

Here is a short video of Cummins talking about the inspiration and the writing of The Outside Boy.

You can buy various editions of the book here.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

American writer Barbara Kingsolver

On Friday, November 16, 2018 John Chau a 26 year old adventure blogger, beef-jerky marketer, and evangelical missionary walked onto the beach of the isolated North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman Sea, east of the Bay of Bengal, southern Asia. He clutched a fish and a copy of the bible. He hollered at a group of Sentinelese natives, ‘My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you.’ The natives strung arrows in their bows and he panicked slightly and threw the fish to them. An arrow pierced his Bible. He frantically paddled in his kayak back to the boat and the fisherman he had paid to bring him to the island. He was fearful but mainly disappointed. ‘They didn’t accept me right away.’ He returned the next day with the fishing boat out of sight thinking it was the boat the natives feared. He kayaked back to the same beach and attempted again to make contact. He was killed and his body has never been recovered. His father believes his son was a victim of an extreme vision of Christianity. John Chau has been called a martyr, an innocent child, a dumb American, and a deluded idiot.

John Chau’s mistakes that led to his death were a result of cultural ignorance, arrogance, hubris, and misguided religious fervour; and these are also behind the motivation of Kingsolver’s character Nathan Price, around which her novel The Poisonwood Bible turns in ever-dangerous circles. He attempts the same contact and Christian conversion of the villagers of Kilanga in what was then, in 1959, the Belgian Congo, but unlike Chau, Price takes along his wife, Oleanna, and their four young daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah, and Ruth May.

John Chau, according to his family, ‘“loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people”. Nathan Price had a similar belief in God that was so profound that he was embarrassed because God must be watching him even while his four daughters were conceived.

The story contained in the Poisonwood Bible is told only by the Price women. Oleanna opens every section but it is the girls who alternately tell the story of their continuing life-threatening existence; the villagers they befriend, the events that buffet their lives and the poverty they are forced into.

Each daughter has her own distinctive voice; this is Kingsolver’s greatest strength. The language is rich and revealing, defining and luscious. Rachel, the eldest, 15 at the beginning of the novel is self-centered and obsessed with her looks, her prised possession, a mirror. Adah, a twin, has a passion for palindromes, and has a congenital defect: the right side of her body ‘drags’; I was born with half my brain dried up like a prune. However she is witty and intelligent, opinionated but envious of her twin, Leah, who is the most outspoken, a tom-boy who worries about her salvation, and blames herself for Adah’s affliction. Ruth May. the baby, is inquisitive and observant, and sees the world as a baby might: innocently.

Seen through these five facets, the world of the Price women is multi-dimensional, exotic, and full of adversity: the natives, the forest, the river, the wildlife, the ants, the rain, the drought, and their ultimate adversary, the man, husband and father, who governs their bodies and minds. There’s no room for the devil here, not with Nathan Price around.

But it is not all doom and despair, there is childhood play and truthfulness and light-hearted growing up, but their inner lives, told to us by each narrator, tells of an existence separate, but true, from the one they have to present to their father, their supposed protector.

The Poisonwood Bible, her fourth novel published in 1998, is Kingsolver’s best known work. It as an ambitious and most assured novel. Nathan Price is almost a god-figure, rarely present, but his shadow hovers over and dominates the lives and thoughts of his women and their actions. Just like his God, he is tyrannical.

Strange to say, when it came I felt as if I’d been waiting for it my whole married life. Waiting for that axe to fall so I could walk away with no forgiveness in my heart. Maybe the tragedy began on the day of my wedding, then. Or even earlier, when I first laid eyes on Nathan at that tent revival. A chance meeting of strangers, and the end of the world unfolds.

The family seems doomed as long as it stays together, and out of sheer necessity, the women, but not all of them, save their own lives by putting themselves in even more danger.

However, ultimately this is not a book about daughters living with the day-to-day dangers triggered by a deluded dumb-American father; it’s more about how the daughters survived their deluded dumb-American father – and their mother who was powerless to stop him. Children are resilient, they survive, damaged perhaps, but they survive as best they can:

You can’t just sashay into the jungle aiming to change it all over to the Christian style, without expecting the jungle to change you right back.

The similarities between Kingsolver’s Nathan Price and Lucy Treloar’s Stanton Finch (Salt Creek, 2015) are pronounced: god-bothered men who put their loved-ones at great risk all for the sake of a belief system they learned, unchallenged, from their own parents.

I know many have read this book, but if you haven’t, do.

There are many free videos, short and long, on YouTube featuring Barbara Kingsolver talking about her work. Here is a short piece where she talks about the power of fiction.

You can buy the book, in various formats, here, along with her latest, Unsheltered (2018).

The Controversy over American Dirt

American Dirt pics
American writer, Jeanine Cummins and her recent book American Dirt.

American Dirt (2020) is a novel about a Mexican mother and her son who are forced to join the hordes of immigrants to try to enter the USA. The controversy around it rests on not just a white woman writing about a brown woman, and a writer who doesn’t understand the plight of ‘the other’, but critics are also  questioning her writing skills.

The two sides are simply described by NBC journalist Gwen Aviles:

The novel’s defenders maintain that Jeanine Cummins’ book, released on Jan. 21, is an important narrative confronting a topical issue, U.S. migration from Mexico and Central America. The book has been championed by high-profile celebrities, like Oprah who named it her bookclub pick.

The novel’s critics, however, primarily consisting of Latinos and other people of color, have deemed the book opportunistic and racist and are questioning why Latino authors often don’t receive a similar level of support for their projects, which touch upon similar themes and are written from an insider’s perspective.

This white-privileged use of people of colour and from other cultures as ciphers in novels has been around for hundreds of years: Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861) and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) are the most famous examples and both spurned novels that ‘wrote back’ to the colonial centre with Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea respectively. The characters: Dickens’ Abel Magwitch, a convict escaped from Botany Bay, and Bronte’s creole and unnamed mad-woman in the attic were used as plot points and not as rounded characters and it took Carey and Rhys to give these characters a voice and their own power and agency. These latter books are part of a literary genre known as Post-Colonial literature.

It’s not that a white writer cannot write about a brown character, it’s that when a white writer does they must do it with an understanding that that brown character has agency, honour, a past, and future. In other words the brown character must be respected.

The publishers of the American Dirt, Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan have cancelled their planned national book tour because of the controversy.

An open letter signed by 138 writers has been sent to Oprah Winfrey asking her to rescind her support for the book. The letter succinctly explains the criticism and you can read it here.

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler pic
American writer, Anne Tyler.

Read Anne Tyler.

Have you read any Tyler yet?

You should read Anne Tyler.

These, and other inferences, came from a fellow book worm and one whose opinions as a reader I trust. So, finally, I read Anne Tyler.

Saint Maybe (1991) is typical of her work: family relationships. There seems two kinds of families in the American novel: the apple pie variety and the gun variety. Tyler’s are the former but, of course, coping with a threat, a dilemma.

Ian Bedloe, the son in an apple pie family in Baltimore did something he believes was very bad and caused two deaths. Only he knows what he did, what he said; the only other person, his older brother, who was there when he said it, and to whom he said it, is dead. He is desperate to be allowed to atone for his ‘sin’ and is drawn into a local Christian denomination called The Church of the Second Chance. After what he’s done, he so wants to be good. And forgiven.

What interested me in Saint Maybe is the subject of religion. I was brought up in a religious family but the Christianity taught by my Christian denomination (Lutheranism) always seemed to be more like an insurance policy than a belief system. My mother read the bible like a novel. I have come to understand that religion is a very important element in human existence: each group, tribe, and civilisation since the year dot has had a belief system; mainly to answer the big questions (How did we get here? What are we doing here? What’s that big ball of fire in the sky? and There’s got to be something better, doesn’t there?) so we can get on with the everyday necessities: digging for yams, inventing machines, filling in a tax return. What I object to, and what I see as a blight on humanity, is the administration, and interpretation, of these belief systems: the temple, the synagogue, the mosque, the church.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints …”. So begins the last line of the Apostle’s Creed I learnt as a child, yet all three, the holy spirit, church, and saints are inventions of the (all male) administrators of Christianity over millennia.

The Church of the Second Chance is exactly one of these ‘administrations’; it teachers not so much what Jesus Christ said but what its leader, Reverend Emmett, says and Ian, so looking for a path to redemption and his second chance for what he has done, joins Emmett and his small flock, waiting, as the Reverend Emmett says, for a sign that he has been forgiven.

The Bedloes aren’t religious but Ian’s commitment to The Church of the Second Chance slowly pulls them in; ritual and routine can do that to people’s lives. The family conforms to the Church more out of respect for Ian than for a commitment to its beliefs.

Stream-of-consciousness is a novelistic technique (thank you James Joyce) that recently has had a revival: Anna Burn’s The Milkman won the 2018 Booker Prize and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker. It usually is associated with internal thoughts,  the ordinary, the minutiae of people’s lives. Here, Tyler uses the more common third-person narrator to tell the very plain story of Ian Bedloe.

Above her work-desk is the following quote.

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,

Or a general raises his hand and is given the field glasses,

Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.

Something will come to you.

…from Walking to Sleep by Richard Wilbur.

“I see those words as about getting an idea and making a  book,” says Tyler. “I don’t get anxious. It will come to you, let it come in.”

She works in long hand, rewrites in long hand, and only when she is satisfied will she then type it onto a computer; print it out and work on another draft in long hand. And so it goes. Her style, if she has one – she says she has no style at all – is “unmistakably hers: transparent and alert to all the nuances of the seemingly ordinary,” wrote Charles McGrath in a 2018 profile in The New York Times.

It’s true that the appearance of truth in fiction is achieved through detail which is why her writing is so believable: her work is full of detail, to the brim with detail: the weather, the light on window glass, a tone of voice, a look, the type of cut and grain of wood, what people know and don’t know; but she also deliberately omits detail, for the reader to work out. This also, ironically, adds veracity to the work; creates an investment for the reader in the story and its meaning. She is a joy to read.

Saint Maybe was filmed for television in 1998 starring Blythe Danner and Tom McCarthy, directed by Michael Pressman from a teleplay by Robert W. Lenski.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

Falconer by John Cheever

John-Cheever-pic
American short story writer and novelist (1912 – 1982), the ‘Chekov of the suburbs.’

John  Cheever was not a very nice man; or, to be kinder, a very complicated man. His wife. Mary,  hardly spoke to him – she had good season, he disliked homosexuals but was one himself – one lover, a student, lived with the family for a while; but he also had a short affair with Hope Lange, and he was an alcoholic until 1973; his daughter describing him as a father said, “he was a nightmare”. He was a snob and feared shame; and while terrified of his sexuality he wrote “if I could express myself erotically I would come alive.” He and his wife certainly hurt each other but they didn’t see that as a reason to break up a family. He craved the safety of domestic life but it made him ‘blissfully unhappy’.

In Colm Tóibín’s essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families (2012) his chapter on Cheever is entitled, New Ways to Make Your Family’s Life  a Misery. That chapter was well-thumbed while writing this post.

He loved fame. If you are a famous musician, you can play something; if you’re a movie star, you can give them an autograph; but if you’re a writer, as Cheever’s son Federico put it, “Well, you get to say pompous things. You get to talk about aesthetics and things like that. That’s the goodies you get.”

“I would like to live in a world,” Cheever wrote, “where there are no homosexuals but I suppose Paradise is thronged with them.”

Before he died he wrote to his son “What I wanted to tell you is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I’d tell you that, because sooner or later somebody’s going to tell you and I’d just as soon it came from me.” “I don’t mind Daddy, if you don’t mind.” In 1991 the New Yorker and Knopf paid 1.2 million dollars for the rights to publish the journals. Mary Cheever did not read them.

Cheever’s most famous story is The Swimmer (1964): a man ‘swims’ home via all the swimming pools from where he had been lounging beside one, to his. He is well regarded by his neighbours along the way but as he ‘swims’ closer to home the mood gets darker and the context more surreal. Is this really happening? When he gets there his house is empty. It was made into a film in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster. It was unsuccessful, but since has garnered a cult status. It was also the acting debut of comedienne Joan Rivers and the compositional debut of composer Marvin Hamlisch.

*

Many years ago my partner (now husband) and I had a boat: an old wooden cruiser. We took two friends motoring on Broken Bay one weekend and had a meal at Cottage Point Inn. We moored the boat rather grandly right in front of the restaurant; had a wonderful long lunch; too many bottles of wine; and returned to the boat only to find that it wouldn’t start. One of our guests, Julian, a vet, pulled up the floor hatch, climbed into the engine cavity and with a small implement borrowed from a neighbouring boat (far more grand, far more impressive) and a teaspoon from our cutlery drawer, got the engine going. What impressed me most, and has stayed with me all this time, was the feeling of Julian’s self-confidence, ease, and complete understanding of what he was doing. That same feeling returned while reading this book.

Falconer got Cheever on the cover of Newsweek with the title, A Great American Novel in 1977. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for three weeks. Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his next published work, his collected Stories.

Falconer, on the surface is a crime/punishment/redemption story: Ezekiel Farragut, an academic and drug addict kills his brother, although he admits hitting him with a fire iron, he says his brother was drunk and he fell and hit his head on the hearth; he has a “profound”  love affair with a fellow inmate and then escapes, posing as a corpse, and understands he’s a better man.

The third-person narrator self-references once …

but at the time at which I’m writing, leg irons were still used …

This is rare, as if the narrator is a character, Cheever we suspect, but it need not be. If a third-person narrator self-references too much, he becomes a first-person narrator.

His wife, Marcia, visits him in prison

Farragut stepped into this no man’s land and came on hard, as if he had been catapulted into the visit by mere circumstance. ‘Hello darling’ he exclaimed as he had exclaimed ‘Hello darling’ at trains, boats, airports, the foot of the highway, journey’s end; but in the past he would have worked out a timetable, aimed at the soonest possible sexual consummation.

and as they talk,

Out the window he could see some underwear and fatigues hung out to dry. They moved in the breeze as if this movement – like the movements of ants, bees, and geese – had some polar ordination.

The narrator relates Farragut’s anecdotes about his relationship with his wife: their back story …

… he thought that perhaps a bag of fox grapes may do the trick. He was scrupulous about the sexual magic of tools.

He means ‘tools’ in the sense of ‘gifts’, but uses the word ‘tools’; it darkly colours the image with cynicism and says more about Cheever than about Farragut.

Contradictions are scattered through the text like peppercorns in a stew; light and shade, good and bad, right and wrong, innocence and guilt, ‘superficial and fortuitous’, masculine and feminine …

He had been called a bitch by a woman he deeply loved and he had always kept this possibility in mind. 

Most of the text is a stream of consciousness, a re-emerging writing style, as noted in the Booker Prize 2018 winner, Milkman by Anna Burns;  but I’ll leave the last word to Tóibín.

“If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language.”                                                                                                                         Colm Tóibín.

You can read Joan Didion’s review of Falconer in the New York Times, March 6, 1977, here.

You can buy the Kindle edition here.

 

 

 

 

On Writing. A memoir of the craft by Stephen King

Stephan King pic
American writer Stephan King. “Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare.”

Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.

I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.

If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.

Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.

I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. 

I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.

King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.

But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.

All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.

“He came to the river. The river was there.”

He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!

However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.

For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.

All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment.  Highly recommended.

-oOo-

I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.

The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!

This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.

Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.

He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)

You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

American-Iranian writer, Ottessa Moshfegh (O te zar  MOSH feg) 

I love page 1. This is what I learned from page 1. The female unnamed first person narrator sleeps. When she is not sleeping she slips out of her apartment whenever it might be, day or night, and picks up coffee (stimulant), trazadone (anti-depressant), Amdien (sleeping pills), and Nembutal (more sleeping pills) from a 24-hour bodega. She takes them all, along with animal crackers, while watching movies until she falls asleep. When she thinks of it she orders Thai take-away. Sometimes she hears her phone messages which are, mostly, confirmations of  appointments for spas or salons she has made in her sleep. She cancels them. She hates talking to people.

This all sounds like she’s on a slow slip to depression and eventual suicide. But no. I find out on page 7 that her attempt at hibernation is quite the opposite: self-preservational. She hopes that while sleeping all her cells will re-new themselves, re-align themselves – every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant foggy memories –  so that after a year she will wake up a whole new person with none of the hang-ups, fears, denials, hatreds, annoyances, incapabilities, sensitivities, regrets, and pain of the old one. 

There are other characters too, her best friend Riva, her on-off-on-off boyfriend, Trevor, and her psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle. All, like the protagonist, are bonkers. Or are they just typical Manhattanites in the 21st Century?

By the end of chapter 1 everything is set, and set up. 

At the beginning of chapter 2 we’re back to the beginning of the project. She feels excited, hopeful, and fully prepared for her great transformation

Of course, this being a narrative our first person protagonist often wakes up and the narrative consists of her methods of getting back to sleep again, all drug fuelled. Exercise? Caffeine was my exercise. It catalyzed my anxiety so that I could get back to sleep again. She also wakes to visit her psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, who’s also mad as a cut-snake and writes down our narrator’s nightmares, which are all a pack of lies and mainly cobbled-together-fragments of bad movie plots, all intended to get more, and stronger, prescription drugs. Actually all her answers to Dr Tuttle’s questions are lies. 

“I was wondering if you could prescribe something a little stronger for bedtime. When I’m tossing and turning at night, I get so frustrated. It’s like I’m in hell.” She lied. 

“Hell? I can give you something for that.”

Her growing armoury or medication, prescriptions and samples from Dr Tuttle, have names like the siblings in second-rate Greek tragedies: Solfoton, Infermiterol, and Zyprexa. 

Not only do we find out what she does when she wakes up, but we also find out what she’s been doing when she’s been asleep: going out for coffee and drugs; ordering Chinese takeaway; rearranging her furniture; buying multiple tubs and multiple flavours of Häagen-Dazs ice cream which she forgets to eat or put in the freezer; booking Brazilians and fake tans; and chatting to guys on dating websites and getting, in return, closeups of their genitals. Thankfully, she too thinks this is going too far and gets her ditzy friend Riva to change her AOL password to something random and confusing so she won’t remember it. She hates Riva, especially when she talks. No, that’s not true, she really loves Riva. Well, actually, she hates her. Erm …

She’s obsessed with Whoopie Goldberg and old movies with predicable plots.

With all these pages of finding numerous ways to fall asleep they are surprisingly entertaining. It’s a hoot! But if you want your fiction characters to be nice and normal, don’t read this book. I wouldn’t want any of them at my lunch table. Nor would you. Trust me!

In fact, one of the attractions that kept me interested was what gross and/or outrageous thing was I going to read next? One day she wakes up in a new fur coat, the smell of which gives her the odd suspicion that she’s had sex with someone; and with a bunch of roses … on a train. 

Of course, the narrative of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is actually what she does between bouts of sleep, she even goes to Riva’s mother’s funeral. A book about sleep would be very thin, this one isn’t.

Moshfegh came to the attention of the literary world with her 2015 novel, Eileen, which won the Hemingway Foundation / PEN Award and was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize; however, The Irish Times reviewer hated it. Erin Cressida Wilson, who adapted Paula Hawkins’, Girl on a Train, for the screen will tackle Eileen for film producer, Scot Rubin. 

Here’s a short interview with Moshfegh talking about My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

You can buy the book in various formats, including the kindle version, here

 

Slam-Prose takes the Prize. Again.

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American writer, Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty is a 54 year old African American from Los Angeles and the first American to win the Man-Booker Prize (2016) since American writers were included in 2014. He has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. In 1990 he became the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe which garnered him a book deal. Two volumes of poetry Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991), Joker, Joker, Deuce (1994) and three novels , White Boy Suffle (1996), Tuff (2000), and Slumberland (2008) followed.  The Sellout was also awarded the 2015 National Book Critics Award for fiction.

Rappers and slam poets are never stuck for words

… And on hot 104-degree San Fernando Valley days, when we’re carrying their groceries to their cars or stuffing their mailboxes with bills, they turn and say, “Too many Mexicans,” a tacit agreement between aggrieved strangers that it’s neither the heat nor the humidity, but that the blame lies with our little brown brothers to the south and the north and next door, and at the Grove, and everywhere else in Califas;

they begin a collocated list and then subvert the last item

… Charisma flung back her long straight black hair from her face and took a hit that illuminated the mysteries of the internet, Ulysses, and the American fascination with cooking shows;

foster a slick line in similes

and comforts you like a lover making your bed while you’re still in it;

manufacture an artistic range of compound adjectives

My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, cafe-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yoghurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!;

add a touch of ethnic colour

… If I was lucky, I’d catch a glimpse of Marpessa, Charisma, and their homegirls holding court at the rear gate, sassy as a brass big band, hula-hooping their hips, chanting Ah beep beep, walking down street, ten times a week …”Ungawa! Ungawa!” That means black power! … I’m soul sister number nine, sock it to me one more time…;

and toss in a joke or ten

If New York is the City That Never Sleeps then Los Angeles is the City That’s Always Passed Out On The Couch. 

“I hate the act [of writing], definitely,” said Paul Beatty. “I mean, I don’t write much. One book every seven years or so. But it’s slow. When I’m doing it, it does give me a satisfaction. But it’s hard. It’s like how do you string together enough of these little moments where something is happening? That’s a pain in the a—.”

This is odd, or clever, because reading this book impels you to read it as fast as you can as if it was written while standing bare-foot on hot coals. But, then that, I suppose, is what slam-prose is all about.

In an age where a song lyric is suddenly, and some say at-long-last, recognised as literature – thanks to the Nobel Academy, The Sellout finally brings slam prose into the mainstream, and how? By out slam-prosing last year’s slam-prose Booker winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings by showing James how it’s really done. Where A Brief History … was a literary wank sprukin’ how boring seven pages of no-punctuation thought-stream can really be, The Sellout, o-n-l-y  j-u-s-t makes it over the literary line by having something to say. And no wonder publishing house after publishing house turned it down (What? A book about reinstating slavery? Are you kiddin’ me?!) until finally Farrar, Straus, & Giroux hyperventilated and agreed to take a punt.

If you like a novel to have ‘nice characters’ and a ‘good story’ stay away from The Sellout. If you like clever word-play, African-American street-speak, stand-up with balls, if you’re a book judge or a literary critic, or you like a book you can keep on the coffee table and dip in to when you’re feeling low you’ll lerve this one.

You can download the paper or ebook version here or from Amazon here.

 

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

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British-American crime writer, Raymond Chandler

Writers don’t think too much about genre; writers write what interests them. Genres are more important to booksellers as signposts to help readers find what they might enjoy.

Reading crime fiction is not only about who done it. It’s an escapist adventure into a strange world, almost filmic, where our fundamental assumptions are always confirmed: good, even if a little muddy, wins in the end.

The plot revolves around a rare, valuable and stolen coin, The Brasher Doubloon; a cranky client, two corpses, a wimpy son, wise-cracking dames, lazy police and nasty rich men. You get the picture.

Most crime fiction is written in the first person, which has its limitations. Unlike a third-person god-like narrator who knows everything, what people think and what they want including what will happen in the future, a first person narrator only knows what’s going on in their own head, and relies on what is seen, heard and felt to give clues to character’s motives and wishes. This is paramount in Chandler’s work: descriptions of people are all about physiognomy – the angle if a chin, clothes – the cut of a dress, gives clues to personalities, behaviour, and what might make them either smile at you or shoot you in the back.

“He was a lanky man with carroty short hair growing down to a point on his forehead. He had a long narrow head packed with shabby cunning. Greenish eyes stared under orange eyebrows. His ears were large and might have flapped min a high wind. He had a long nose that would be into things. The whole face was a trained face, a face that would know how to keep a secret, a face that held the effortless composure of a corpse in the morgue.”

All his characters are opportunists, if not after a quick buck, a quick fix, or a hook-up, they’re looking for gaps in your defense, eager to win a point, even if only for a little self-esteem. Characters with suggestive names: Eddie Prue, Jesse Breeze, Spanglet, and Linda Conquest – not unlike character’s names of Charles Dickens: Herbert Pocket, Charles Cheeryble, Bumble, and Mercy Pecksniff. The writing of Chandler is entertaining and lovingly cliché-free; it’s as if he searches for an ever-new cliché, uses it and immediately abandons it…

“Three dizzy-looking dames… all cigarettes and arched eye-brows and go-to-hell expressions.”

“She had eyes like strange sins.”

“Men … faces like lost battles”

“… enough clothes to hide behind a toothpick.”

” … there were quiet voices whispering of love or 10%”

“A tall fine-looking man in a grey suit cut by an angel…”

“women … faces like stale beer…”

“a great long gallows of a man…”

“She looked as flustered as a side of beef.”

“… as unperturbed as a bank manager refusing a loan.”

“You boys are cute as a couple if lost golf balls.”

Many commentators, such as the British crime writer, Mark Billington, praise the characterisation of Chandler’s work, but it’s all in Chandler’s outward description of them. Such commentators don’t realise how much descriptive work they do themselves to arrive at a rounded picture of a character; inspired, of course, by a few well-chosen and succinct words by the writer. This is higher praise, but it not the praise they’re talking about.

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Time to Kill, the 1942 screen version of The High Window starring Lloyd Nolan

If anything is going on in anyone’s head it’s never mentioned except as a cause or result of a look, a tone, or snide remark. Raymond Chandler is s master of this. Detailed descriptions of a room, a desk, a face, are iconic: the perceptive awareness of an accomplished private eye like Philip Marlow, Chandler’s alter-ego. He sees everything, even the clues that a reader might miss. There is no psychological self-examination except for the odd purple passage of self-depreciation. There is no romance but more than a hint of the romantic hero, especially in The High Window, where he rescues a damsel in distress, but not from anything as corny as a caped villain, but more from her own self-delusion, bad choices, and shallow vulnerability. Marlow is a good guy, mistrusted but tolerated by the police, hired but not liked by his clients. He’s a loner but his apartment, and especially his kitchen, are neat and clean, unlike his talk to women he doesn’t trust…

“I don’t like this house or you or the air of repression in the joint, or the squeezed down face of the little girl of that twerp of a son you have, or this case, or the truth I’m not told about it and the lies I am told about it and …”

It would be fair to say that this is a minor Chandler; the plot lacks the sensationalism that popular crime fiction has come to nurture, even though it has been filmed twice in the 1940s but neither was a success. It is, however, classic Chandler, all the more enjoyable for the wise-cracking, plain-speaking, and indifferent, but work-man-like Marlow, who would never slap a woman; but then why would he when his wit and words are far more effective.

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The Brasher Doubloon, the 1947 film version starring George Montgomery

Chandler, although born in the USA in Chicago in 1888, was raised and educated in England, becoming a British subject in 1907 but returned to America when he was 30. He lost his job as an oil executive in the Great Depression and turned to pulp fiction, studying the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. The Big Sleep was his first published novel and featured for the first time, Philip Marlow. The High Window is the third in the Marlow series.

You can read The High Window as an ebook here at the Canadian site of Project Gutenburg. In Canada it is in the public domain. You can only download it for free if it is out of copyright in your country.

 

The North Water by Ian McGuire

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English academic and writer, Ian McGuire.

Since 1996 Ian McGuire has been at The University of Manchester initially as a lecturer in American Literature and more recently as a lecturer in Creative Writing. He now co-directs the Centre for New Writing. His first novel, Incredible Bodies, “very funny and disconcertingly sad” said The Times; a contemporary campus novel was published by Bloomsbury in 2006. He specialises in the American realist tradition; Melville, Conrad are evoked in The North Water, his second novel (2016), and not just because it is set on a whaler. However the tone is most-certainly modern, mainly because of the very modern ‘foul’ language: he pulls no punches.

McGuire’s notable reviewers of The North Water, Hilary Mantel, Martin Amis, and Colm Tóibín, have written repeatedly about his “narrative tension” and his “remorselessly vivid” prose but when the writer writes narratives, each stuffed with its own tense detailed vividness: the brutal murder, then rape of a street urchin; the evisceration of a screaming sepoy; a face blown away with musket-shot; an arm ripped from a man’s torso by a ravenous polar bear; that same creature killed with a harpoon to the spine; the slaughter, dismemberment, and carving up of whales and their blubber; the medical inspection of a ravished anus; oh, and a whoring piece of low-life who sniffs then sucks his filthy fingers just “getting his final money’s worth”, all one needs to do is describe all this simply and accurately and ‘remorseless vividness’ is what you’ve got. I’m not at all deriding McGuire’s work, quite the opposite, but when your material is as rich, rare, and image-encrusted as any material can get, describing it simply is what a talented writer must do; and he does.

The tale, circa 1859, is one of a whaling expedition from the sludge of the Humber estuary, northeast England, to the whiskey ‘n’ women – each at a shilling a pop – in Lerwick of the wind-blown Shetlands, then north, and north again, and as far north as one can possibly go, beyond the Arctic Circle to the North Water, northwest of Greenland, in a boat packed with foul-mouthed vagabonds, murderers, liars, rapists, brutish thugs, opportunists with grudges; where life is a drudge, full of excrement, gore, and blood; where death is as easy and as light as a penny; where killing is a chore after your porridge, and where one shits first or is forever shat upon. Get the picture?

All ye who must like your book’s characters keep well away from this one.

But, yes, it is one of the most pleasurable reads I’ve had in a long time. This is where literary fiction meets plot and the latter comes up trumps; ah, but oh how sweet a brutal plot can be when it’s dressed in literariness and style such as this!

There are two main characters, Henry Drax, a villain of “pure evil” if there ever was one – we see him in all his ‘gory’, literary; and Patrick Sumner, a disgraced surgeon from his days serving the Raj in India, where a simple miscalculation under fire shatters his reputation. These two misfits, one with a shadow of redemption, the other, with absolutely none, lock horns on a fatal voyage where whaling may or may not be the ultimate goal: no spoilers here.

McGuire uses an omnipotent third-person narrator with no literary qualms about swapping POVs; all for going where the narrative takes him. (See my previous post of The Filth Heart, where the writer, Dan Simmons, abounds in such undermining qualms). The pace is fast and engaging but for brief passage of short but dense and fascinating description. A great read!

Highly recommended.