Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

Have I read anything since June? Well, yes, although not so much as I would have liked. The second half of the year started off so well: I spent most of July and early August reading just one book, but the book in question was Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. No slacking off there! This book is one I’ve wanted to read for years but never got to it, and it did not disappoint—worth a few words here even though it has been some time since I finished it.

The novel, as many will know, is an autobiography of sorts by the title character—except Tristram feels obligated to tell not only the events of his life but all of the background to those events, and the context to the background, so that the poor guy is only finally born over 150 pages in, about a quarter of the book. Needless to say, he doesn’t get very far with life, most of the book being taken up with stories about his father’s theories of names and caesarian sections, his uncle’s past action on the battlefield (the unforgettable “hobby horse”), why he wound up born at his family’s country estate rather than in town, and whatever else comes up to explain any stray utterance by the various characters. The book is, then, a running gag on all the ways narrative can be delayed (by many other smaller narratives). There is a lot I think I missed along the way—the novel is steeped in references to 18th-century philosophical and political debates that I simply don’t know much about, but it is fairly easy to let those slide by simply for enjoyment of the storytelling.

While the various side-stories are enjoyable, they are also a joke themselves on the idea of realism in the novel (even as that ideal was still developing): the novel uses narrative detours much as did the novel I read before this, Edward Jones’s The Known World, but to completely opposite effect. The narrator poses the same idea that Jones’s novel assumes, that you can never have too much context and background for other characters in order to understand the primary storyline, but here the idea is pure parody—the narrator can never get anywhere, can never tell his story, because he is constantly drawn to other distractions. While all those detours are fun to read, they are also largely negligible to anything you would need to read in a life story. It only our luck that he simply can’t help himself: perhaps the novel’s key idea, then, is that those narratives of “important lives” are much less significant than day-to-day anecdotes that provide the source of real narrative pleasure.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Known World

The Known World (2003) by Edward P. Jones is the best historical novel I have read in a long time, at least since I started this blog with 2666, although that novel is itself so different that I would need to go back farther to find something more comparable. After the first 10 pages or so, I was not expecting to enjoy it so much: in fact, at first I was a little bit bored and worried that it was going to turn into an example of the driest historical realism. But Jones turns that around quickly, first with a sharp satirical undercurrent that carries the first part of the novel, and increasingly by a depth of character accomplished by jumping back and forth to scenes across space and time.

The novel opens with the death of Henry Townsend, a black slave-owner in Virginia whose father bought himself and his family out of slavery only to see his son return as an oppressor in the same institution. Ultimately, the novel follows what happens in the wake of his death, but to get there it has to take long detours into history: to understand the events that unfold, you need not only Henry’s story, or the story of his wife Caldonia, who must take over the operation of the plantation, or Moses, the overseer who wants to take Henry’s place. Instead, you have to understand a whole population—other owners and their families, other free blacks, other slaves, the local sheriff and his deputies. In order to understand the changes in the present, you have to understand all the transformations, and failures to transform, that these people have endured.

A typical kind transformation in Jones’s novel is not for the good but rather shows how easily well-intentioned people can justify away their contributions to the harm of others—in the novel we have slavery, but the idea speaks just as well to the present. Henry’s turn to owning slaves against his parents’ wishes is only an obvious case—more disturbing and wrenching are the cases of Moses (the overseer) and Elias, a slave with an understandable resentment of Moses that, as his wife sees, could turn into something much worse. Another case is John Skiffington, a sheriff raised to believe slavery is wrong but who has no problem enforcing it and ultimately reasons away his ownership of a slave. His cousin, a slave owner who resents John’s rejection of slavery, gives John and his Pennsylvania wife Winifred (herself very much against slavery, but also easily compromised) a young slave girl as a wedding present: they justify to themselves that they can’t free the young Minerva because that would be rude and because they will just think of her as a daughter. In describing this situation, the novel offers one example of its occasional stinging satire:
Though everyone in the county saw Minerva the wedding present as their property, the Skiffingtons did not feel that they owned her, not in the way whites and a few blacks owned slaves. Minerva was not free, but only in the way a child in a family is not free. In fact, in Philadelphia years later, as she paid for all those posters with Minerva’s picture of them, Winifred Skiffington was to think only one thing—“I must get my daughter back. I must get my daughter back.”

Henry and later Moses both later, of course, think of themselves as slave owners “not in the way” of other, more harsh owners, but the novel constantly exposes the fraud in the idea that we are not contributing to a problem just because we are not as bad as others, and in the quote above the mockery of Winifred’s idea that feeling substitutes for reality is potent. A grim humor also comes in at times as Jones suggests how the kinds of historical documents we rely upon to know history (such as census roles) can be very deceptive and compromised: “facts” are always produced by people with a particular point of view, particular weaknesses, or particular limitations to their capacities.

In this milieu, real transformations for the better are rare and cherished, and Jones brings the good and bad together to create a complicated and beautiful portrait of a world short on redemption.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Year of the Flood

Margaret Atwood’s follow-up to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood (2009), does not have the suspense of the first, just because the initial drama that helped build the world is now very much in the background, but the second book builds on the first in illuminating ways. The book follows Toby and Ren, two members of a religious eco-group called God’s Gardeners, during that group’s rise and fall in the years leading up to the plague that wipes out humanity. Toby and Ren are the flip-side of Jimmy the Snowman from the first novel: whereas he (barely) stayed within the protective (in some ways) enclosures of the CorpSeCorps world, they have fallen out of that world into the more abandoned one beyond. The novel gives us two key things, then: a picture of a different part of the world Atwood has built, and also a different perspective on the events leading to the plague. Crake’s roll in engineering a post-apocalyptic world isn’t ignored, here, but the Gardeners reveal a certain amount of influence on him—and some of the more radical Gardener scientists whom Crake uses seem a little more aware of the way they have been used than he thought they were (at least as I remember the previous novel from last year’s reading, but maybe I’m forgetting something).

At some points early in the novel I worried that old characters might surface a little too much and make the novel seem a little too pandering to those following the trilogy, but that faded away quickly as I read on, and Jimmy’s appearance later in the novel is an obvious consequence of what we knew from O&C. The most confusing thing about the novel, at first, is the numbering of the years: because it is an apocalyptic event, you would think the flood would be year 1 (or year 0) in the Gardeners’ schema rather than basing their entire numbering system on the year they began as a group. However, it is easy to see how that would then require an awkward narrative labeling of scenes showing the past as “Before Flood (B.F.),” so it makes sense Atwood would design things the way she did. In all, this was a nice expansion that shares the strengths and weaknesses of the first book.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Are You My Mother?

Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? (2012) cannot help but be read against her memoir about her father, Fun Home, and Bechdel offers her own opportunities for putting the two projects up against one another within the text itself, but it may not always be in the best interest of the newer book. I don’t mean that the first book makes the latter one look bad by comparison, rather that it is easy to want Are You My Mother? to be about Bechdel’s mother as much as Fun Home was about her father. In fact, while her mother does play a major role, there is less of her here than there was of her father in the previous work, partially because Bechdel spends so much time thinking about the surrogate mothers she has looked for in her therapists and girlfriends. Where the earlier book seemed to be about a struggle to figure out who her father was, the newer book features more the struggle to figure out what she wants from her mother and what is fair to expect. The title comes from a children’s book about a baby bird looking for a mother it has never met and trying to make various other animals and objects its mother until it finds it real thing. Bechdel’s book is more a riff off this concept than a strict repetition—Bechdel already has the real thing, but the real thing isn’t quite what is wanted, leading to a search for the mother in a variety of other people.

She has better luck with the therapists than the girlfriends, and maybe this is why the psychoanalytic theory is the roughest part of this book: not because it is terribly difficult to understand but because Bechdel embraces it to the point that we get glimpses of its silliness along with its validity. But this is a rich graphic memoir that has opportunities for rereading and increased insight. Bechdel uses the graphic form expertly to repeat moments at different points in the text in order to show them in a different light, revealing how memory is framed by the context of remembering. Some of these events also appeared in Fun Home, which means these texts can enrich one another as well—not just be compared.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Shelves to Read 2012

Keeping up with past years’ practice, I took a picture of the shelves of books I have collected to read in the future but not gotten to yet. It is a short-hand way to get a sense of one changing aspect of my reading life. For a while I have had the idea in mind to try to narrow the books down from two shelves to one, in part to free up the space and in part because I don’t think it is really necessary to have that many books in the queue. Maybe I’ve made some small dent this year, with some open space on both the upper and lower shelves. I’ve managed to read a number of things on the shelf last year, not buy too many new books, and cut a few I have resigned myself to never reading (I can’t even remember now why I wanted to read Netherland, which looks to be a kind of book I would find awfully dull). Still, never know when I’ll suddenly splurge and get a whole chunk of books that will fill the shelves right back up again.


Previous editions: 2011, 2010.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

C

Tom McCarthy’s C (2010) is a massive disappointment that should have come nowhere near the Booker. The first chapter starts well enough with Serge Carrefax’s birth, but in some ways it sets up the major problem of the book, which reads like a very dutiful answer to the question of what would happen if someone was born in this strange situation. The review blurb from Jonathan Dee on the back cover is criminally inaccurate, referring to the novel as “an avant-garde epic” when it is neither avant-garde nor epic. In fact, it is very straightforward bildungsroman as we see Serge grow up against the historical backdrop of the first three decades of the twentieth century. Granted, aspects of the coming-of-age go awry as Serge is not successfully integrated into the community (for example, he thinks the experience of fighting in World War I is entertaining and that everyone else is just faking the shell shock afterwards), leading to a general flatness of character instead of roundness—but this ground has been explored many times over and much better by other novels.

The flatness gets to a key aspect of the novel: Serge sees the world as flat and can never get perspective right when drawing. He sees know depth in the world, and there is not much depth or growth to his character. You could say McCarthy is trying to use the flatness of the character to get to the roundness: the drama of Serge is his inability to see the world is round, leading to a death drive that hurls him forward. I think this is the most charitable explanation for what McCarthy is doing, but it doesn’t play out very well because the novel’s engagement with the world around Serge is itself so incredibly dry. You get the sense that McCarthy read a lot of theorizations of postmodern fiction as tied to flatness and space in historical metafictions, and then set out to write something that would fall into that category, leading to passages that read like watered down Pynchon or Powers, none of the excitement of the prose left intact. The worst parts are the didactic historical and scientific moments, McCarthy showing you he has done his homework by giving us not-usually-portrayed aspects of the rest cure experience or by having characters explain Egyptian entombment. I suppose many of the details McCarthy highlights would have been left out of your junior high world history textbook, but the passages read with about as much enthusiasm as the football coach who was assigned to teach the class to fill out his schedule. Historically and scientifically immersed fiction need not be so dull.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

At Swim-Two-Birds

It has been some time since I have enjoyed a full-blown metafiction as much as I did Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds (1939), a send-up of Irish folktales and fiction. The narrator, a college student in Dublin who drinks, sleeps, and writes instead of going to class, spins out the story of Dermot Trellis, a bartender who himself only writes and sleeps. Trellis works on a series of tales, including a tale of a “legendary hero of old Ireland,” a ludicrous American-style Western set in Ireland, the tale of an Irish curse, and others—all under his theory of “aestho-autogamy” whereby grown characters are born in life as well on the page with a complete back story. Several of Trellis’s characters, all of whom he forces to live in rooms above his bar in order to keep tabs on them, rebel against him while he sleeps in order to gain independence from the lives he forces them to play and eventually seek to destroy him in their own tale of revenge. Against this, the narrator’s uncle harasses him about his school attendance as his exams quickly approach.

At times, the parodies go on a little longer than I would really have liked. The story of legendary Irish hero Finn MacCool (“Each of his thighs was as thick as a horse’s belly, narrowing to a calf as thick as the belly of a foal.”) and the story of the curse each become a little tedious after a while. The strongest, because so ridiculous, is the Western, complete with Indian raiders on the Irish countryside. Otherwise, the book is best when it is shuttling between the various stories and the narrator’s life, other documents, and his insulting descriptions of his Uncle. At times the story of the characters rebelling against their author seems like a parodic reflection of the narrator’s struggle to make a story that will cohere; while it is that, by the end of the novel it becomes more and more apparent that their battle against Trellis is also much like the narrator’s rebellion against his uncle, their tale of revenge an outlet for his own resentment. The resolution to these dramas comes a little abruptly at the end of the novel, but that abruptness itself carries some significance in how lightly held the narrator’s opinions are and how quickly he will change them.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Glass

Sam Savage is a writer I might never have heard of had it not been for reading someone’s blog review of his brilliant Glass (2011)—I don’t remember who it was now, unfortunately. Savage’s first novel, Firmin (2008), stars a rat who may, I think, also be the narrator, which is the kind of thing that might be a little gimmicky except that now that I’ve read Glass I would be more than willing to see what Savage does with the conceit.

There is a rat in Glass as well, Nigel, the pet of the delightfully named neighbor Mrs. Potts. Early on in the novel, Edna, the narrator, is asked to take care of Mrs. Potts’s plants and fish, and she gets saddled with the rat as well much against her will. Edna is in the process of writing—or, I should say, typing, a distinction that would be important to her—a memoir, or perhaps an introduction to a reissue of her late husband’s novel, she doesn’t quite know. Edna is a lifelong typist with two dry spells, and her decision to write her book puts an end to the second, motivated by a publisher’s request for a forward to the reissue of the novel, which Edna believe to be not nearly enough space for what she would have to say. The book, then, is the record of her typing, memories of the past mixed up with events in the present and tangents that distract her from her main purpose.

Edna, it turns out, has a hard time organizing her thoughts, and her method of typing is to push out whatever thoughts she has at the moment she is motivated to write. She writes pages, or just a few lines, and then leaves off, with a blank line to indicate the break, and as pages come off the typewriter they go onto the table until the slowly wobble off onto the floor in a jumble. Because Edna can’t help but follow the train of associations, and keeps a list of issues she wants to get back to discussing at greater length, she is guaranteed to never finish her project.

The description of the book on its back cover does a little disservice to the actual story. The marketers play up the conflict between Edna and her late husband, asking readers to look for an answer to the question of whether Edna’s memoir is “homage” or “act of belated revenge” and if she or he was the victim in the relationship. This description makes the book sound like a distant cousin of Pale Fire, with a half-crazed narrator using textual commentary as personal attack, but that does not really capture what is happening here. Certainly Edna is unreliable in ways, and the text suggests some mental problems, some lifelong issues and others developments of late age. But despite her problems and those with her dead husband, neither of them come off as more than flawed people thrown together and left to complicate one another’s lives.

The rat, the plants, and the fish—all these things are thrown into Edna’s life and it is immediately easy to tell that they don’t stand a chance: the only thing to do is bet oneself which of the three will go first. Edna’s distraction from the pets and from her task mirror one another and indicate a more subtle plot to the novel as she becomes detached from the world and increasingly lonely, and it is this quieter narrative of Edna’s mental state in the current moment that most drives the novel forward to its climactic passages and uncertain end. The novel, finally, is a beautiful examination of memory and solitude, and it deserves to be more widely known.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Hour of the Star

Anyway whatever was going to happen, would happen. And for the time being nothing was happening, the two of them didn’t know how to invent happenings. --The Hour of the Star

This passage, from the middle of The Hour of the Star (trans. Benjamin Moser, 2011), Clarice Lispector’s final novel, places us at the beginning of a relationship that does not have much in the way of “happenings” even as the plot somehow inevitably does move forward. It is a moment when Lispector is at her most poignantly Steinian, with the repetition of the word “happenings” helping to make concrete what is otherwise usually an unremarkable and general word. This modernist obsession with the word as a solid entity and as fact is present from the first page, when the narrator begins a half-mad opening monologue on the nature of the world, art, and his motivations for writing his story. If his protagonist, Macabéa, and her boyfriend Olímpico don’t know how to make anything happen, neither does he, really: just as Macabéa is compelled to live her life but can never get around to anything that might be called living, the narrator is compelled to write his story of a “northeastern girl” despite not really having a direction. It is a story he must write but that he does not yet know.

What I found most amazing about The Hour of the Star was how Lispector pulls off a feat of balancing between a tongue-in-cheek relationship to the narrator and his protagonist and taking them quite seriously. The idea of not knowing where the plot is going and “just following the character” is taken to the extreme of following a character that has no volition at all to follow. The narrator avoids making Macabéa turn to prostitution out of fear of a cliché in the story of a girl going to the big city and finding it rough, and because a prostitute might have too much personality, or make the story too maudlin. As a result he ends up with a character even more abject. The story is at once a naturalist novel and a parody of its conventions: Sister Carrie made brief by a character that has none of the drive that gives Carrie a plot. But somehow along with the laughter comes a strikingly true howl of horror at a life wasted. In her introduction, Lispector writes that “This story takes place during a state of emergency and a public calamity.” The novel is nothing like the conventional historical or political novel that phrase might evoke, but it should keep us alive to the idea that the personal bears history in it and that Macabéa’s life bears the marks of a variety of public calamities. Her state of emergency is such that she cannot recognize it: when her only friend, inasmuch as she is a friend, notices her sad face, Macabéa is shocked because she has always thought of herself as happy. But her happiness is purely a thought inspired by radio advertisements; the surface of her face tells a greater truth than what is “inside.”

Friday, May 4, 2012

The Literary Conference

César Aira’s The Literary Conference (trans. Katherine Silver, 2010) didn’t wow me as much as it seems to have some others (I enjoyed Ghosts more), although it has its high points. The novel begins with the narrator, also named César Aira, solving a riddle of hidden treasure hundreds of years old before the eyes of an entire town, becoming rich in seconds as “the hero of the Macuto Line.” This is what he does accidentally in his off time: by day he is a translator, writer, and a scientific genius who plans world domination by attending a literary conference and creating an army of clones of Carlos Fuentes. The book, then, is a kind of ego fantasy—I was reminded of the U.S. writer Mark Leyner (who I haven’t thought of for quite some time), particularly his novel Et Tu, Babe. Leyner’s novel is even more over-the-top in its surrealism and narcissism, whereas Aira aims for a more conspicuously literary style.

Perhaps I should say “mimics” such a style, because one of the key themes running through the book undercutting its narcissism is a meditation on the narrator’s “vampirism” in relation to others in order to build himself out of other people. When he clones Carlos Fuentes, he explains, he is cloning “style cells” that contain Fuentes’s originality. Here the fictional Aira gives us a portrait of the real Aira, the writer known for producing a multitude of short books each with a distinct personality. Scott Esposito, recently responding to a longer essay on Aira (which I should say I haven’t had the time to read much of yet), sums up Aira’s approach to literature as a rejection of the idea of creating a unified world in the large novel, and thus a refusal of modernism and postmodernism, both of which question the capacity of the novel but do everything possible to maintain its world-building capacity. Instead, “Aira leads us toward a realignment of values in our literature, where representing totality is unnecessary.” Instead of the long novel that tries to encompass the world in a single authorial style, a multitude of shorter works that keep moving on to the next style. This idea seems plausible enough, yet in The Literary Conference Aira points to how this new literary mode itself might draw on world-dominating impulses that trace back to the modernism and postmodernism it replaces.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ice

I first heard of Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967, but republished in 2006 by Peter Owen) when John Self reviewed it on his blog almost exactly a year ago, and it went right onto my list of books to check out in the future. Going back to his post now, I had forgotten that he connects the book to Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, both of which were in and out of my mind as I read Kavan.

Vonnegut’s novel is an inescapable point of comparison from the point of view of content (a sci-fi dystopia with the world ending in ice), although the two foster such completely different reading experiences that the comparison is far more interesting than it might otherwise be. There are numerous general words we use to describe styles that can be applied to both novels, pointing out how arbitrary and context-dependent such terms can be: surreal, fragmented. Both of these terms apply to both novels, but neither captures the wildly different inflections gained: on the one hand, Vonnegut’s dead-serious whimsy and easier fit into sci-fi expectations (he is the most classically “postmodern” writer that no one talks about except peripherally in studies of postmodernism, probably because he is relatively easy to digest); on the other, Kavan’s extension of modernist experiments with surrealism and stream-of-consciousness that better fit expectations for literary difficulty (although the novel remains pretty readable at that).

Kavan’s modernism is what provokes thoughts of Ishiguro’s long novel. By one of those strange moments of serendipity in reading, of course, I just read The Unconsoled at the beginning of the year. I have to say that I find Kavan a little more appealing and successful in her take on this particular style of surrealism. My problem with Ishiguro’s novel was that I felt he wanted me to have more emotional attachment to the characters, especially the protagonist, and their situations than I could maintain given a style that kept detaching me from their reality. In Kavan’s novel, though, the form works with her portrait of a protagonist who is, frankly, fairly appalling, and whose attempts to save and protect “the girl” from “the warden” are only in service to a deeper desire to destroy her. Several of the narrator’s moments of displacement from reality into fantasy involve the girl succumbing to the aggressive ice that comes alive to surround and strangle her: sometimes he joins her in time to die with her, sometimes he doesn’t get to her in time, but death in any case is preferable to the idea that she end up with the other man. As a result, the novel reads as much as anything like a feminist portrait of wounded masculinity lashing out: the paranoid and persecuted anonymous narrator, evoking Kafka, is here transformed into a persona adopted by a masculine figure who is, in fact, in a position of relative political power (although it is unclear where he gets that power from) in order to victimize someone else. Indeed, the disastrous political and natural catastrophe just puts all the more urgency on getting to her in time to hurt her before he’s lost his chance. Of course, he does not see it this way in his more lucid moments, but it is not for kicks that Kavan has him reflect on the warden as his potential doppelganger.

At the same time that the worldwide disaster is pushed aside by the narrator in the novel in order to focus on his own obsessions, the novel highlights the ice enough to keep it relevant. Indeed, later in the novel the narrator alludes to the idea that the ice slowly overtaking the world results from scientific experiments gone wrong, and that the end of the world is due to human negligence--perhaps we might see that echoed in the narrator’s own solipsism. Here is where Kavan is closest to Vonnegut: in both cases the ice echoes the Cold War emphasis on technological progress at any cost. Yet, reading Ice in the present is also an uncanny encounter with an inversion of our own world situation of man-made global warming, a slowly encroaching disaster that politically powerful blocs hope to ignore indefinitely. Kavan could not have known about this coincidence, but that lack of foreknowledge makes the novel no less a chilling indictment of our own indifference and willingness to harm.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Lightning Rods

I snapped up a copy of Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods when it came out a few months back, and now that I have had a chance to read it I am and am not a little disappointed. The novel departs so dramatically from the reading experience of the brilliant The Last Samurai that it is hard not to see it in a negative comparative light—even though I was fully prepared by reading some of the advance discussion of the book, including her interview in Bookforum. But really the novel is the astonishingly rare gem of a successful satire—one that it is hard to believe is a satire at first because it would be easy to imagine a similar novel being published with a completely straight face (Jennifer Szalai's review in the NYTimes suggests this as well, though more obliquely, when she imagines a male satirist writing this).

The novel follows Joe, a failed salesman who comes up with the highly unlikely idea of ending sexual harassment in the workplace by incorporating “bifunctional” female personnel who work as temps in companies and fill a secondary role as “lightning rods.” A few times every day a computer program generates a random choice of a high-salaried male employee, who then may accept the offer and proceed to the disability toilet, where he will meet the sexually available lower half of a woman’s body backed through the wall of the women’s toilet on the other side. As a result, Joe promises, sexual harassment in the workplace will disappear because men will have their natural needs fulfilled in a way that doesn’t require bothering the female staff.

What could go wrong? The book tells us all of Joe’s justifications and answers to those who would protest: the narrative is Joe’s, told largely in language he would use in future years to discuss his noble rise in business and justify the shortcuts he took along the way:

What Joe would explain, when later confronted with this kind of criticism, was that at the outset the success of the facility was by no means the foregone conclusion it might in hindsight appear. In an ideal world he would obviously have wanted to spend more time making sure no one was doing anything she didn’t feel comfortable with.

In other words, the novel is told mostly in the language of marketing: Joe selling the idea of what he is doing as justifiable not just to potential businesses that might engage his services and the female employees who would provide those services, but also himself. Once he has decided to go forward with his plan, he looks tirelessly for reasons why it is not just not a bad idea but a good idea: from the dubious idea that this could help sexual harassment in the workplace to the idea that he is a force for good in developing disability-accessible toilets.

Still, having read that Bookforum interview, I found it hard at times hard not to remember DeWitt’s explanation that this book was written in order to build a popular following that would allow her to publish The Last Samurai, which wound up being published first after all. When, in the novel, DeWitt satirizes the market logic that drives Joe’s business, is she also criticizing herself and the publishing world that she sees as requiring her to write a more accessible book? Ultimately, I think she has found the perfect way to take that necessity and turn it into a strength: she adopts a simpler form, a more linear narrative, but she turns it inside out and against itself to question a world that is willing to buy Joe’s line of thought. If a certain self-doubt about the value of her enterprise underlies the book, she takes that doubt head on instead of talking her way around it as Joe might, making a worthwhile novel out of something that could have been simple evasion.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Unconsoled

Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Unconsoled was a surprise to me in its deviation from the other novels of his I’ve read—The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go—in that it abandons the narrator reflecting upon a long history leading up to more recent circumstances with increasing revelations of how much around him or her the narrator has missed. Here the narrator is confined to recounting a period of just a couple of days, and the events unfold according to a dream logic rather than the retrospective reflection that makes for a more easily read unreliability in the other novels. Typical examples include the narrator talking to someone for a while only to notice they are wearing or holding something quite distinct that would have been hard to miss, or realizing that the person he is talking to is someone he knows from his childhood or a member of his family, or realizing that the building he has been driven to far from his hotel is actually part of the same building connected by a short passage.

The events begin as the narrator arrives in an anonymous city in order to give a performance: he is a renowned pianist—and yet for some reason has also been asked to speak as an expert orator (perhaps another of the dream-like elements, then: being asked to do some task you don’t normally do). He has three days to make a series of appointments, get to know the issues of the city, and rehearse for his performances of both varieties. But he keeps getting sidetracked by people wanting favors and by issues with his wife, son, and father-in-law who, again in this dream logic, seem to live in this place that is not his home but rather just a performance stop.

Most of the events that drive the narrative have to do with someone refusing to say something in various situations where doing so would save a lot of grief over the long run: the narrator doesn’t want to tell a woman organizing events that he doesn’t know or have his schedule because it would be embarrassing; a father won’t console a child. These two examples typify the kinds of things that aren’t said—those that the narrator avoid out of a desire to please and those out of a desire to not intrude—but they are tied in that they are both ways of avoiding immediate unpleasantness whether or not it might in the long run be beneficial.

Many of these scenes are very moving, but I confess to feeling that something does not quite work for me about this novel: I am very interested in the surreal logic to the narrative, and interested to see Ishiguro do something a little different, but that surrealism also feels a little flat for me. For all of the dramas that the characters are engaged in, I found it hard for me to get too engaged with them: as soon as I began to get a little frustrated with someone, or empathize with some moment of regret or mourning, the form of the novel pulled me back. After all, in this dream logic, it is hard not to see most of the events as projections of the narrator’s mind, so the other characters are only acting as they are as figments of his imagination. I’m not even sure we are meant to read the events as a dream—the surrealism could rather be a metaphorical device indicating something about a particular kind of lifestyle mixed with the experience of a particular kind of European city. Nonetheless, the structure speaks so handily to what we think of as dream logic that it is hard not to come back around to the sense that all this is the unconscious at play. I almost feel that this novel would work better as a film—particularly a David Lynch film (if he scaled back the sex and violence). Unlike his other novels, which I don’t think have been served particularly well by their screen adaptations, this one seems to be attempting to capture a feeling through its surrealism that might work better on screen.