Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Father and Son by Larry Brown

I'm a big fan of this novel--it makes a good case for how horror can be conveyed very quietly and be all the more moving for it. There was lots I admired, but a few things stood out:

One is that the early pages of the novel set up its circumference--the premise: a guy gets out of jail after three years and returns home, the place: rural, poor, everybody knows each other and both grudges and friendships go back generations, the characters (and their conflicts): sheriff (Bobby), ex-con (Glenn), and friends and associates of both. And the whole novel stays within that circumference--but though you think you know what will happen based on information and assumptions that you enter the novel with (about ex-cons in rural poor places and the who and the what you think they come from)--you really don't know what will happen (or what happened in the past). And it all unfolds quite gradually (it's a good novel to study for what is revealed when), so that your attention is held as new pieces of info are relayed. There's also the feeling early on that Glenn's behavior (largely bad) will be explained by the alcoholism of his father, who he bitterly resents--and while that's partially true, there's a much bigger story that Brown reveals in an interesting way. He uses his third person omniscience really intelligently because as he moves between characters, and into and out of their perspectives, you realize that Glenn often believes things that really aren't true. And he misjudges people, a lot. But even when you learn that...and you know some kind of tragedy is on the way (the novel sets that up from the start--which helps earn that ending), you don't (or at least I didn't) predict what actually happens.

So structurally it's well done, but stylistically I loved it too. The writing is very matter of fact, the chapters very short (and Brown has some clever chapter transitions--e.g. one character goes to sleep at the end of a chapter, different character wakes up at start of next chapter), and the amount of time spent in characters' heads is quite limited--which all helps balance out the potential melodrama of the action (let's just say the body count is high for a literary novel).

One of the best novels I've read in awhile, I say.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (translated by Alison Anderson)

I happened to read three newish, well-received novels in a row (this French novel, How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steven Hely, and You Or Someone Like You by Chandler Burr) that were in some way about reading (I guess that's not that much of a coincidence given my taste). The Elegance of the Hedgehog was by far my favorite but all three seemed to struggle some with balancing a novel of so-called ideas with an actual plot. The Hely novel is a mostly funny satire about a guy who decides to write a bestseller (he succeeds) in order to impress an ex-girlfriend at her wedding (he fails). And while it's got some funny bits about writing, mostly it's funny on the split between what is considered popular and what is considered good. It raised an odd question of audience though...as someone who thinks about the split between popular and good I should have been an ideal reader, but he was in essence telling me what I already knew, so I kind of smiled my way through rather than laughing aloud. On the other hand, a reader who wasn't already in the choir would likely be insulted by his thoughts on popular taste. The Burr novel has a different problem in that it needs its characters to behave in a way that suits the ideas that are being raised. And while I enjoyed the premise (Hollywood is swept up in book club mania), I struggled with believing the actions of the character who creates all the tension. Because the whole reading/book club thing was rather disconnected from his actions. They felt like two separate novels. But still not a bad book. But Elegance of the Hedgehog...

that had for 99 percent of the book a really great balance between the characters' thoughts (which are on philosophy, reading, class...) and the characters' behaviors, which were charming, interesting, funny. And a certain amount of tension is set right at the start by one character's declaration that she is going to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday. You pretty much trust that she won't (I mean, good grief if she did!) but the tension still resonates because you worry about someone who is so unhappy. And then halfway through a new character arrives (always a way to move the plot along) and the action picks up even more. But then ... but then... I really hated what happened in the end. It felt like the intellectually sound finale (it ties the philosophizing up nicely) but felt so contrived as a plot point. Very coincidental, very sentimental, very melodramatic. All things I have a personal prejudice against that I maintain is a personal prejudice you all should share. So the question is how to have it both ways...ideas and plot. Philosophy and character resolution. Well, I suppose you just can't force the action to fit the philosophy, which is what both Barbery and Burr seem to do. Hely is writing such a ridiculous book (meaning satire) that he can get away with that much more readily. Barbery is writing a sort of realist fairy tale blend, so she could get away with a slightly unreal finish...but not the one she's got, I think. Still I love that this novel, in translation no less, has gotten such good press and I love that I had to wait months before I could get it out of the library because so many people were reading it. And I loved the book itself up to until pretty much the last chapter which I may just mentally scissor away.