Friday, December 16, 2005

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala

A short novel (publishers seem to have abolished the novella) told in the voice of an African child soldier that is amazing in its ability to stay in voice. I like the novel, it's unique, it's a compelling subject, it's very skillfully written, but I kept wondering why the kid is talking in this voice. It's the voice of immigrant English. But why would this kid be telling his story in English? It suggests that the audience for the novel is American (or at least English speaking) and the voice is the one that average Americans expect Africans to speak in. I suppose in lit crit thought there's a lot that could be made of this--the child telling his story to the audience that has so far been ignoring it, not to his own people who are well aware of it--but I'm mostly interested in it as a writing decision. The novel was written in English, by a writer fully capable of smooth, literary English, but if the voice of the narrator was not this chopped up lyrical pidgeon English, there would be no book. This is very much a voice-driven story; the voice creates the sense of chaos and strangeness of the world of war, and especially the confusion of being a child at war. There is almost no character development, and really very little plot (while there are many kidnappings, killings, and rapes, it's a strangely plotless book). It is the voice that holds the reader to the page--which suggests to me that this could have been a really phenomenal short story, and perhaps should have been, though I admit I cruised through the whole novel, and enjoyed it most of the time.

Home Land by Sam Lipsyte

As opposed to exuberant writing (see Adam Johnson's Parasites Like Us), the novel Home Land is manic writing. At first, the voice (and the author) seemed totally out of control--too anything goes--but then about ten or so pages in, I simply accepted it. This was a rant--a barely in control rant that belonged to a barely in control character--and I was going to go along simply to see would happen next. And then the book got really really funny. It was probably funny from the start, but I had to let my defenses down and accept that this wasn't realism so I shouldn't be expecting realistic behavior.

The narrator is a middle-aged, unsuccessful, seemingly not very intelligent, middle-class guy who keeps sending totally insane updates to his high school newsletter. At first, I was very suspicious of this conceit--I didn't want to read a whole novel of newsletter updates--but ultimately if Lipsyte hadn't stuck to it, the novel probably would have been much less successful. And this device is precisely the kind of thing that often gets struck down in workshop, where students have a tendency, if un-attended, to not let writing get too strange. I could see myself even suggesting that the author use the device as a start to the novel, but to let it drop quickly. And to some degree Lipsyte does--he uses scene, he uses far fewer "dear reader" moments in which he directly addresses his fellow alumni (the Catamounts) as the novel goes on, and he culminates in a high school reunion that involves many of the alumni that previously were seen in the updates. But he never lets go of the idea completely and it pays off in the end. So this is just a shout out to those who take risks in workshop and don't let the rest of us dissuade you from them.

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian and The Golden Compas by Philip Pullman

Students often like to make the case, especially if they don't like their grades, that what one likes in writing is subjective (and therefore can't be graded). I like to make the case, especially with students, that really great books aren't subjective. That quality writing goes beyond taste to be impressive no matter what the preferences are of the reader. And I believe this, but perhaps only with a fairly sophisticated, widely-read reader, who can recognize when a book is achieving its own goals. And Master and Commander, a book I read because of some quality recommendations from trusted friends and the force of millions (hundreds of thousands? I guess we're not talking television here) of fans, is a case of a book I could appreciate but not love. The Golden Compass, which I read for precisely the same reasons, is another. And the thing holding me back from love, I suspect, was character. Master and Commander is great at conveying a world (for those who don't know, the novel is the first in a long series which traces the friendship of a Captain and a doctor, as well as a lot of battles at sea, during the Napoleonic Wars), and it has what I guess is an exciting plot, but I never felt close to the people involved. My favorite moments were the character moments, but the book was mostly battles. So it was liked but not loved.

The Golden Compass also felt more plot-driven then character-driven. This I suspect is the difference between those who favor Rowling over Pullman--character over plot or character over ideas. Pullman's novel (the first in a trilogy) is undoubtedly more original than Rowling's Harry Potter series, and its ideas are definitely more complex and sophisticated, but I just don't know his protagonist (I've already forgotten her name--see!) as well as a I know Harry, and so I worry about her less, and therefore feel less as I read.

And I suppose this idea--that I rank a novel that makes me feel over a novel that makes me think (for the record, I prefer novels that do both)--does support the fact that there is a level of subjectivity to responding to writing. Though grading fairly still isn't nearly as difficult as students think it is.