Friday, October 31, 2008

Life & Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

I have suddenly become obsessed with the fact that there is no "The" in the title of this novel. It would be a natural for a "The"...but no. And Coetzee's deliberate enough that it can't be a mistake... I suppose it de-emphasizes the fact that the life and times are Michael K's...

Anyway... I see this novel by one of my favorite writers as an evolutionary step between Kosinski's Being There and McCarthy's The Road, and of the three I like it best. There are echoes of the childlike gardener Chauncey Gardiner in Michael K (who is, unsurprisingly, also Kafkaesque), and there are echoes of Michael K's attempts to evade notice as he tries to return to his mother's home in the post-apocalyptic journey of the father and son in The Road. But the thing that has always bugged me a little about The Road is how easy it is to leave out all the details of the apocalypse and what happened to the mother and what the heck is going on. I liked The Road well enough and am not saying it was easy to write, but it's easy to get readers to feel sorry for a boy who has a dead mother, a shell-shocked father, no home and a bunch of faceless cannibals behind every bush, and no other defining traits. And it's easy in Being There to make it funny when people mistake the mentally challenged Chauncey for a political genius. But it's harder, in my opinion, to do what Coetzee does. Michael K has a cleft palate, is seriously undersocialized, and is insanely unwilling to accept help from the few who offer it as he escapes one refugee camp (govt run outdoor prisons, more like) after another; yet Coetzee makes him both sympathetic and intelligent enough to be compelling without turning him into an idiot-genius (as in so dumb he's way wiser than the rest of us--I've never bought into that whole better-to-be-stupid idea).

During much of the novel Michael K is alone, either walking the land or trying to farm it (yes, he like Chauncey is a gardener) and though Coetzee's use of internal monologue or free, indirect style is minimal, Michael K seems both sympathetic and intelligent precisely because of his skills with the land. This is different than making him a noble savage (better off because of his lack of so-called culture); it makes him expert in something that is useful and honorable. It drives me nuts when I am supposed to admire a character (like the movie version of Forest Gump) just because he's too innocent to be corrupt--but I'm very interested in a character who is innocent in the manner of a child, but who tries to determine what is right (Michael K thinks "right" is to go to his mother's home, where she wished to be buried, and grow fruit and vegetables) and tries to do right but faces constant obstacles. That formation allows a simple-minded character to engage in a complex plot.

And, of course, Coetzee makes it all a larger story--there is government corruption, overzealous do-gooders, and society's desire to turn the poor and oppressed into performing puppets who tell their stories on command and allow the do-gooders to ooh and ahh at their misfortune without actually solving the causes. In a lot of ways it's a novel about being a refugee and feels even more--or at least just as-- relevant now than when it was published in 1983.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse

Whenever I need to shore up my air of whimsy, I turn to the novels of Wodehouse. And not long ago I picked up a used copy (he doesn't need the royalties anymore) of this novel at my local used book shop, Bookwise. I never really know if I've read a Wodehouse before (unless I own it) and it doesn't really matter--they all have certain similarities and are perfectly okay for rereading since they don't stick in my head at all. But I really really enjoyed Piccadilly Jim, even more than usual. Perhaps because it's not a Jeeves book and so felt a little different, and perhaps because it's set in NYC, a juxtaposition that made the big-house aspiring-to-the-House-of-Lords baseball-loving-impostor-butler comedy even funnier. And while I was reading it occurred to me that while Austen may have supplied the plot, Wodehouse supplied the voice for Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones. I've long said the thing I like about so-called chick lit is that it permits women writers to be funny but I'd love to see more (women?) writers do comedy omniscience like this (the second sentence):

"She was a large woman, with a fine figure and bold and compelling eyes, and her personality crashed disturbingly into the quiet atmosphere of the room. She was the type of woman whom small, diffident men seem to marry instinctively, as unable to help themselves as cockleshell boats sucked into a maelstrom."

It seems pretty often the Bridget Jones-Shopaholic-Good-in-Bed women protagonists are Bertie Wooster-like in their behavior so that the comedy is mostly grounded in the things they do and think and sometimes in the situations they get into...but the narrator rarely (in my unscientific study) steps back and notices the larger world in such a funny way as Wodehouse does.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Between Panic & Desire by Dinty W. Moore

Full disclosure: Dinty Moore will be FAU's Sanders Writer in Residence for a week in the spring, he published my essay in Brevity, and he recently did me a career-related solid... but even if those things weren't true, I'm certain I would have enjoyed this memoir all the same.

Back during my glory days as an editorial assistant at Anchor Books, we were always trying to get essay writers to turn their essays into single narrative books. The theory then, and possibly now, was essay collections didn't sell as well as single narratives. Sedaris and Vowell and others have made a dent in that theory, but all the same, they seem to be the exception rather than the rule. The problem though is it's hard to turn disparate essays into a single narrative what I noticed most powerfully with this memoir was how well Moore had pulled off that feat. Partly this is because there is a quirky nature to his writing (which sometimes includes quizzes, psychic hotline calls, and numeracy (numerology? I don't know the right term) and is almost always collaged) that allows the reader to accept a collaged over-arching narrative. But what he does most brilliantly is apply extended metaphors that thematically link all of the essays. This may be because he has a strong sense of what he's doing with his writing--so the metaphors were in the background all along--but he sets up these metaphors at the start of the memoir so that they truly glue together all that follows. Two examples are the title--Panic and Desire are two Pennsylvania towns that Moore visits, and he cleverly sets up his trip between the two as a metaphor for his emotional journey through life, and his double vision (the thought of which absolutely gives me a headache)--which again serves as a metaphor for how he views the world. Read the book to find out what I'm talking about.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

A charming novel described as Dickensian by quite a few critics because of its oddball characters, child protagonist, and violations of labor laws...but it's not an imitation, it has its own more fantastical bent--with a dwarf living on a rooftop, a mousetrap factory, and amputated limbs galore. It's as if Dickens had watched Twin Peaks. (actually I don't know why I used that comparision since I've never seen Twin Peaks; it's as if Dickens had watched a Jean Jeunet film.)

Because I'm teaching Writing for Young Adults this semester I've become more conscious of how child protagonists are presented in novels for adults--and they seem to fit into two categories--the precociously verbal or the eerily quiet (in books for kids the kids have more range, some are even of only average intelligence). Ren, the protagonist one-armed thief of the title, is more of the eerily quiet variety (though he talks when he needs to). And his quietness creates a kind of serious, mature aura around him that helps keep him interesting despite his youth.

But what I really want to point out about this novel is how tightly woven it is. A lot of writers will know Charles Baxter's idea of echoes (he might even call them rhyming echoes, I forget) in fiction, in which certain objects or ideas or places get used more than once. It's especially noticeable in short fiction where the objects are fewer and therefore recycled more. But this novel makes brilliant use of that technique. And interestingly as you move through the novel and start to expect that things will reappear unexpectably, it helps make some fairly unbelievable occurrences feel more believable. Because you accept that this is a world in which nothing disappears for good--say for example if you pee into a jar and put that jar of pee into a desk drawer then when that desk drawer gets opened three chapters later that jar of pee will still be there and it will be useful.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill

Critics went gaga over this recent novel by Joseph O'Neill (who btw, is half-Turkish, my fellow half-Turks might be interested to know. He is also the author of a memoir about his split heritage, a copy of which I gave to my brother though I'm pretty sure he never read it just as I didn't read it but still hope to one day). Anyway the novel is good every which way--setting, characters, metaphors small and large, but I confess I never got beyond thinking it's good. Happy to read it once, unlikely to read it again. For a more loving view and a strong case for the value of an extended metaphor re: cricket see James Wood's take in the New Yorker.

Some reviews see the novel as a post-colonial Great Gatsby (I confess I also admire, but don’t worship, the feet of Fitzgerald). The narrator is Dutch, a finance guy living with his wife and child in Manhattan when 9/11 hits. His wife splits with the kid back to London and the narrator is left gutted, wandering, but still pretty rich. So he ends up hanging out with this cricket club made up of much poorer immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Caribbean and led by Chuck Ramkissoon, the would-be Gatsby, whose murder opens the novel. Chuck is possibly involved with the Russian mafia but definitely has big dreams, including opening a major cricket field in NY. The narrator is drawn to him despite misgivings, which makes this a sort of Gatsby in reverse—the Nick Carroway character is rich, the Gatsby character is poor. All of which I found intellectually interesting but not terribly emotionally rousing.

But still it’s a well written novel. And I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how characters are written, including the moment when characters are first introduced, the physical description, the use of their thoughts, the metaphoric descriptions attached to them… anything that shapes character. And I especially admired this description of Chuck which follows a dialogue in which he goes off on a long list: “Chuck wasn’t going to stop there. He believed in facts, in their momentousness and charm. He had no option, of course: who was going to listen to mere opinion from him?” What interests me is the way the narrator makes a broad comment about the character—taking the moment and using it to indicate a pattern of behavior and then expands that pattern out to a comment on the world in which we we live. Chuck is an immigrant and poor, not to be taken seriously unless he backs his opinions with facts. That moment of narrative "show and tell" makes Chuck feel real and deepens the scope of the novel.

Lately I’ve been thinking too about iconic characters, and what makes them iconic. Gatsby is, but in the end Chuck probably isn’t though he had the potential to be. He’s left a little too much of a mystery for me. He doesn’t actually feel quite as important to this novel as Gatsby does to his own (note to self: put character name in title should you wish iconic status).

Friday, October 03, 2008

The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso

I seem to be on a run lately of reading lyric, precise memoirs of illness, and this one is my favorite so far. Manguso's renders her illness--a rare blood disorder which at its worst leaves her so weak that she is unable to walk--in chapters that are more like individual prose poems and in paragraphs that are more like individual lines. One of my favorite lines comes on the last two pages: "But to pay attention is to love everything." The "but" follows two paragraphs about how suffering teaches you to pay attention because you might not know what's the important part (the lesson-giving part) of your suffering. But the way Manguso sets her paragraphs apart--with an extra space break between every single one--lets the line float on its own, both the completion of her idea and an idea of its own. To pay attention is to love everything. I'm not sure if the line/idea would have hit me so hard without the context of the whole book coming before it, but all the same: it's a mantra that works for me.

But back to Manguso's paragraph breaks. Any of you who teach at FAU have probably experienced the current bane of my existence--when students come to school to print, their documents are converted to the new Word 2008 on the university computers and suddenly there is an extra space break between every paragraph. It drives me nuts. And few students seem to have learned how to fix it. But here, Manguso shows how such a thing--used deliberately, that is--can be very powerful. It's not just that the white space between every paragraph, many of which are only one or two sentences long, creates a meditative pause for the reader (which it does), or that it emphasizes the line that came before the space break (which it does), but it forces you to emphasize the first sound of each paragraph in a way that you wouldn't otherwise. In other words, she's not using paragraph breaks so much as line breaks. And like a good poet she knows to sometimes use the sounds at the start of each line in combination. For example in one section (most of which are only two or three pages long) nearly every paragraph starts with "my" or "I." While in the abstract that may sound annoying, it actually creates a nice rhyme and rhythm (especially because she knows to interrupt it periodically) that lulls you as you read her sentences, which are mostly very clinical, fairly horrifying descriptions of what is happening to her body. It brings the poetry to the science.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

The Pharmacist's Mate by Amy Fusselman

I quite admired this small sad memoir about the death of the author's father (paired with her fertility treatments and pregnancy struggles). Lately I seem to prefer my nonfiction really spare (I'm also reading the similarly spare Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso). And this seems the kind of book that small presses exist to do (it's put out by McSweeney's)--too many small presses simply pick up books that are what the big presses publish but not quite as good. Small presses seem most successful when instead they pick up books that big presses weren't willing to take a chance on not because they weren't quite good enough but because they didn't seem marketable enough. And this is a pretty depressing book that's less than a hundred pages long, is poetic in its voice, and blends in the writing of a non-professional (the dad). And for all those reasons probably seemed risky to big publishers (if they ever saw it, I don't know). But it's really lovely and, despite what might be a pregnancy at the end, properly mournful. Elegaic, I suppose the reviewers would say.