Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Best Books of May, Part Two

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do for Quadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month. Here’s the second part of May’s list, featuring a novel about Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers; a story collection about the boundaries of the real and surreal in middle America; nonfiction on the 1944 Ardennes offensive and on the power, both psychological and literary, of narrative structure; and the third poetry collection, exploring the concept of taboo, from Irish poet Caitriona O’Reilly.

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Top Ten Novels of the American South

toptentuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic I have decided on myself: top ten novels of the American South. (In fact, I may continue to do this, because I’d rather make my own lists than follow someone else’s. I’m a maverick, what can I say.)

  1. Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor. One of only two novels Flannery O’Connor wrote, this is a disturbing but brilliant novel about a “Christian malgré lui”, Hazel Motes, and his misadventures in rural Georgia. You would be hard pressed to find a book that better embodies the impersonal violence of the Deep South.
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. This is, without a doubt, one of the funniest novels ever written. My dad and I read it out loud when I was about twelve, and we frequently had to stop lest we choke on our own giggles. It’s the story of a Quixotic New Orleansean, Ignatius J. Reilly, and his oblique relationship to the real world. Marvelous, eccentric stuff.
  3. Delta Wedding, by Eudora Welty. A Mississippian family saga in brief, written in a gorgeous, ethereal style that perfectly conveys hot evenings, red dirt roads, cotton fields, silk dresses, front porches. There’s a great deal packed into this book, and the narrative voice is almost High Modernist in the way it floats over events.
  4. Absalom, Absalom!, by William Faulkner. Difficult to choose between this and The Sound and the Fury, but Absalom, Absalom! wins out because of its obsessive interest in heredity and legacy. Nothing could be more Southern.
  5. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and her only novel introduces an African-American heroine, Janie, who is sexually liberated and long-suffering in equal measure. True love, heartbreak, and a hurricane: what more can you ask for in a novel?
  6. Fair and Tender Ladies, by Lee Smith. This is one of the two on this list that I’ve actually never read, but I’m reliably informed (by my mother) of its greatness. An epistolary novel about the experiences of a young bride, wife, and mother in the Blue Ridge Mountains from WWI to the 1960s, it is the Appalachian novel par excellence.
  7. To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Oh my goodness. Need I say more? “You can shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember: it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Atticus! Boo Radley! Scout and Dill! Tom Robbins! Mayella Ewell! Has ever a writer produced more instantly iconic characters in one work? (Answer: no.)
  8. The Known World, by Edward P. Jones. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is based on an utterly true, but little-known, historical fact: there were (not many, but a few) black slaveowners in the antebellum South. How can you know that and not want to read a book about it?
  9. Cane, by Jean Toomer. The second book on this list that I’ve never actually read, but it, too, is a product of the Harlem Renaissance. It’s a novel in the same sense that Spoon River Anthology is; it consists of poems and short vignettes about the experience of African-Americans in Georgia, in the North, and then back to the Southern plantations again. Mostly ignored by critics on its release, it is now considered a seminal work.
  10. Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. An autobiographical novel about abuse, alcoholism, and gospel music, this captures the experience of the so-called “white trash” demographic better than any I’ve ever read. Most Southern novels are either about wealthy whites or poor blacks; the poor white experience is generally not deemed literary, and yet Allison does it. It’s beautiful and distressing in equal measure.

Girl At War, by Sara Nović

Girl At War is not a perfect novel, but it is a powerful one. Like many books that deal with disturbing themes and events, its occasional stylistic infelicities will be almost immediately forgiven and forgotten by readers gripped by the matter-of-factness with which Nović narrates her upsetting tale.

We open in Zagreb, Croatia, 1991. Ten-year-old Anna Jurić is a headache to her mother, a delight to her father, and best friend to Luka, a neighbour boy and schoolmate. As the civil war gets nearer and nearer to Zagreb, Ana and Luka adapt, in the curiously malleable way of children, to their changing lives. When Ana’s infant sister Rahela is diagnosed with renal failure, however, her parents determine to get her out of the country and into an American hospital. It’s on the way back from a trip to put Rahela on a MediMission flight that Ana and her parents are stopped at a roadblock, taken from their car, bound, marched into the forest, and shot, along with a dozen others. Ana survives only because her father, heartbreakingly, tells her to play a game: the soldiers are so drunk that if she falls into the mass grave in sync with her father, they may not notice. Only after the strategy has worked does Ana realize she was the only one playing—her father really has been shot, and really is dead. So is her mother, who, in her father’s words, was “going to go first.”

Clawing her way out of the grave hours after the soldiers have left, she stumbles toward the nearest village, mute and traumatised. Here, the first section ends, and we pick up ten years later, with Ana a twenty-year-old attending college in New York. This section of the book is less effective: as a ten-year-old, she was a touch bratty but believable, whereas twenty-year-old Ana is petulant, fidgety and uncommunicative. Certainly, these are realistic traits for a child of war, but we’re simultaneously asked to believe that she is holding down a degree, a boyfriend, and all of her memories about Croatia: “In America I’d learned quickly what it was okay to talk about, and what I should keep to myself…I’d told Brian [her boyfriend], as I’d told everyone else at college, that I was born in New Jersey.” To utterly repress such devastating memories is not uncommon; what doesn’t convince is Nović’s attempt to make it appear as though no one has noticed. Ana doesn’t give off a strong enough impression of self-control to make it seem plausible that she could pass, straightforwardly, for a privileged New Jerseyite with an attitude problem. Even if she did so, what motivation would her mentor, Professor Ariel, then have had to keep giving her thought-provoking books on the sly?

Ariel is perceptive: he has long guessed that Ana is from “somewhere else”, although when she asks what tipped him off, his answer—“Because you have an old soul”—is rather too gnomic for my liking. It’s his encouragement, though, that leads Ana to seek out the writings of W.G. Sebald and, eventually, Rebecca West. Through reading West’s magisterial Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Ana at last musters the courage to go back to Croatia again to try to sort through her past.

Girl At War is, essentially, exploring questions of the past and of survival. Is it possible to live a satisfying adult life when your childhood has been so comprehensively taken from you? How do you lay ghosts when your memory is capricious, when you don’t even know who all the ghosts are? At its most emotionally involving, its way of dealing with these questions is utterly heart-wrenching. The third section is a flashback to Ana’s training as a child soldier. Here, Nović recounts fear, rage, and the numbness of grief unsentimentally and with skill. Some touches are both instantly endearing and illuminating: when the commander of Ana’s paramilitary unit nicknames her “Indiana Jones”, we feel Ana’s flush of happiness and recognize how intoxicating it can be for an uprooted child to feel accepted, no matter by whom. The book’s most horrifying moments happen here, too: the reported rape of a fifteen-year-old; the moment in a cornfield when Ana makes her first face-to-face kill. It’s not the horror that carries this section, though; it’s the conviction. The imagery and action, the sense of real emotion and real damage, is at its most vivid and profound here.

Her return to Croatia, by contrast, seems unreal at times even to her. Ana is seeking closure, but she has settled into habits of thought that jar against the reality of life for those who still live in the area: “You don’t get to claim the war as your own personal tragedy here,” Luka reminds her when they are reunited. I found myself wishing that Nović had explored that point further. The scenes that show Ana feeling uncomfortable in the new Zagreb, where Luka’s cousins poke fun at her for being Americanized when her whole self-identity is bound up in not being American, are moving and saddening. So is her visit to a nightclub with Luka, where they’re served by a bartender who went to primary school with them, and whose whole family was ruined by the war. These flashes of pure emotion—longing, loneliness, sorrow—contrast sharply with Ana’s pettier resentment and jealousy of Danijela, Luka’s ex-girlfriend, who gets only a page and a half’s worth of scene. The descriptions of Danijela suggest that she’s frivolous and flirtatious, but the fact that Ana perceives her this way only betrays Ana’s own deep insecurities. The psychological progress that she needs to make, in order to move through and beyond the traumas of her childhood, is not easy. It’s to Nović’s credit that she doesn’t make the return to Croatia a magic cure for Ana’s problems, although I sometimes wondered whether she was going to be capable of any growth at all.

Eventually, she seeks comfort at Tliska, a seaside village where she and her parents used to holiday with family friends Petar and Marina. In an act of symbolic rejuvenation, Ana and Luka clean Petar and Marina’s abandoned beach house from top to bottom, and the end of the book suggests that Ana’s healing process will continue. Nović leaves some of the plot’s loose ends untied, for which I was grateful; she provides enough information to allow the reader to imagine a conclusion. Girl At War falls into some of the traps of the debut novel—primarily that of too much telling and not enough showing—but its freight of loss and hope will stay with its readers long after they close its covers.

This review is part of the promotional blog tour that Little, Brown is running for Girl At War; many thanks to the LB publicity department for providing me with a review copy of the book! See below for the rest of the tour schedule: 

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Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard

That which isn’t flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.

My US copy’s cover

Annie Dillard was twenty-nine years old when she wrote this book, a loosely structured account of a year exploring the woods, fields and waters around Tinker Creek, in the Roanoke Valley of Virginia. It isn’t precisely the landscape where I grew up—I was raised on the other side of the mountains, Charlottesville, in the Piedmont, the foothills, of the Blue Ridge—but it’s only an hour’s drive from my house, maybe less, and the basic topography is familiar. Less familiar is Dillard’s characteristic way of engaging with the world, an intoxicating combination of hard biology and religious or mystical awareness, the numinous and the natural in harmony.

Pilgrim At Tinker Creek is complicated by any attempt to work out where it sits, generically. Dillard’s voice is relentlessly first-person, which gives the whole endeavour the feeling of memoir. She starts off with an anecdote that embodies the full effect of her  dreamy but also highly sensual style:

I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest…Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses. It was hot, so hot the mirror felt warm. I washed before the mirror in a daze, my twisted summer sleep still hung about me like sea kelp. What blood was this, and what roses? It could have been the rose of union, the blood of murder, or the rose of beauty bare and the blood of some unspeakable sacrifice…I never knew. I never knew as I washed, and the blood streaked, faded, and finally disappeared, whether I’d purified myself or ruined the blood sign of the passover. We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… “Seem like we’re just set down here”, a woman said to me recently, “and don’t nobody know why.”

We wake, if we wake at all, to mystery. Though it’s easy not to notice it in the onrush of Dillard’s words and the sweep of her wonder at discovery, what she’s writing about throughout the whole book is really that question of mystery. What kind of creator allows such wanton waste as we see in the natural world? She understands the principle of red-in-tooth-and-claw; she observes it daily. Insects in particular, she notes, are horrifying. Nearly every species has some behaviour that is revolting or appalling to humans in some way. Yet they need to live.

We wake, if we wake at all, to mystery. So take that sentence apart, phrase by phrase. We wake. She writes of the experience of living outside of yourself, observing outside of time. She writes of turning off your internal commentary—something particularly difficult, I think, for writers to do—and of simply existing. She stalks muskrats by doing this: sitting on a bridge and just waiting. They have bad eyesight. They will not notice you unless you move, but you cannot be still enough until you have slipped out of time, ceased to engage in human self-consciousness. You can see, I hope, why “mystic” and “transcendent” are words so frequently bandied about Pilgrim At Tinker Creek.

If we wake at all. And yet Dillard is absolutely not a sentimental New Age drip. She concedes, readily, that we inevitably miss a lot. This is not due entirely to our own inability to stop our inner commentaries; there are some things that the universe and physics are designed to prevent us from seeing. (There, again, another scientific concept that slyly also fits a religious model of thought. She’s not trying to trick us into accepting monotheism; dogma couldn’t be further from the point. But the coincidence is striking, she seems to say.) This saddens and alarms her:

In the great meteor shower of August, the Perseid, I wail all day for the shooting stars I miss. They’re out there showering down, committing hara-kiri in a flame of fatal attraction, and hissing perhaps at last into the ocean. But at dawn what looks like a blue dome clamps down over me like a lid on a pot. The stars and planets could smash and I’ll never know…Oh, it’s mysterious lamplit evenings, here in the galaxy, one after another. It’s one of those nights when I wander from window to window, looking for a sign. But I can’t see.

Mystery, rumors of death, beauty, violence… She speaks of Shadow Creek. Shadow Creek is the horror and the glory at the heart of the world. Shadow Creek is a metaphysical companion to the physical presence of Tinker Creek, running through it, under it, next to it, always. Shadow Creek is the story she tells of seeing a frog deflate before her eyes, its skin crumpling; it was being liquefied and sucked out of its own body by a predatory giant water bug. Shadow Creek is the fear and trembling we feel when we contemplate unknowable enormity: “I see dark, muscled forms curl out of water, with flapping gills and flattened eyes. I close my eyes and I see stars, deep stars giving way to deeper stars, deeper stars bowing to deepest stars at the crown of an infinite cone.”

It’s almost impossible not to quote heavily, because the writing is so incredibly beautiful. Perhaps a little overblown in places, but she writes with an almost biblical authority; the rhythms are sometimes those of Shakespeare, sometimes those of gospel tent preachers, sometimes those of the Pentateuch. At twenty-nine, Dillard had the steel-spined confidence of a born writer and a born naturalist, and this book shows it all. At the end, she writes, “And like Billy Bray I go my way, and my left foot says ‘Glory’, and my right foot says ‘Amen’.” Reading, you want to shout it out, too.

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme: Best Books of May, Part One

Meanwhile, Over At Quadrapheme is my new way of showcasing the work I do forQuadrapheme: 21st Century Literature. It’s an online literary review for which I’m the managing editor. I also still write reviews, and compile a monthly two-part list of books being released that month. Here’s the first part of May’s list, featuring novels about a religious cult and a Spanish Civil War veteran’s suicide; nonfiction on global feminism and the unfairly forgotten Sir Thomas Browne; and a debut poetry collection by Anglo-Chinese Sarah Howe.

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The Beginning of the End, by Ian Parkinson

It would have been possible to live for an entire year at the villa without ever hearing a single human voice. 

Parkinson

The first thing any potential reader of this book ought to be aware of is that there is a lot of fucking. And when I say fucking, I say it advisedly: this isn’t romance. About 50% of the sex scenes are descriptions of porn videos. Nor is Ian Parkinson a euphemistic soul: I’ll keep the quotations to a minimum, but there’s no “throbbing engine of love” here—it is “penis” and “vagina” all the way. (Sometimes “glans”, which is so far in the opposite direction from euphemistic that it takes on its own sort of comedic value.)

Although The Beginning of the End is, then, sexually explicit, I would argue that it is so for a good reason. The narrator and protagonist, Raymond, engages in and describes industrial quantities of sex as a mere byproduct of his more serious problem: chronic loneliness. Raymond is a product designer working for Siemens in Belgium, and he is already quite an odd duck from the first paragraph:

I always wondered whether I was going to find the body of a young woman while I was out walking the dog. That’s how they’re found every other week on the evening news—by men walking their dogs. I liked the idea of visiting the corpse every other week to see how things were progressing. I didn’t see why you had to go and immediately call the police. Besides, it would have given me something to do.

Raymond isn’t precisely a psychopath, despite this unpromising start; he’s awkward, apathetic and fearful of talking to people, making him friendless and more or less incapable of non-transactional relationships with women. The whole novel is a working-out of the implications of this handicap on a person’s life. Although never diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorder or specific mental illness over the course of the novel, Raymond’s behaviour and personality are clear indicators of an untreated condition. That Ian Parkinson, as a debut novelist, has been interested enough in the consequences of going untreated to write this book says a great deal for him already.

Raymond’s only contact at work, an IT assistant called Bernard, suggests that he visit Thailand as an alternative to Belgian porn websites and an unrequited crush on a younger female colleague. The holiday yields an arranged marriage; Raymond’s new wife, Joy, is an aspiring porn star whose marriage visa will allow her to live and work in the EU. But Raymond’s father dies just before the wedding, leaving his villa by the sea in his will. It’s not as nice as it sounds: subsidence and erosion are causing seaside homes to slide into the ocean year on year. The property will require renovation and maintenance. To renovate and maintain property demands initiative, perseverance, and a sense of responsibility. None of these are qualities which Raymond possesses.

Living separately from Joy, who is now breaking into the Dutch and German porn industries, Raymond makes a start on the cottage, but quickly descends into daytime drinking, daytime television, reliance on unspecified prescription medication, and microwave dinners. One of the strengths of Parkinson’s writing is how absolutely it captures a sense of bleak inertia, that sucking encroachment of indifference to everything, which characterizes extreme depression:

It was three o’clock in the morning. Joy was probably in bed. I went into the kitchen and put a meal-for-one into the microwave, one from the Italian range, tagliatelle with wild boar sausage and parmesan. The kitchen looked disgusting. The sink was piled with plates and dishes and the bin was overflowing with half-eaten microwave meals. The remnants of a chicken curry were rotting on the floor. A few nights before, I’d seen a rat disappear behind the fridge as I turned on the light.

That deliberate flatness in the writing, factual and unflinching, reflects what we know of Raymond’s character: his slight oddness, his lack of self-awareness or self-analytical skills, and his propensity for passivity. It’s a clever move, creating a tight relationship between plot and character through the narrative voice. For a character who is defined by his isolation, especially, it works well.

One of the more interesting elements of this book, too, is its glancing—albeit obliquely—at modern sex work, how it intersects with the amateur swinger/BDSM scene, and the more general societal connection of sex and violence. Because Raymond is such an unreflective character, none of this is given to the reader directly; instead, we make inferences about the normalization of sexual violence through Raymond’s descriptions of the pornography he watches, of the sexual encounters that he and Joy engineer with other Belgian couples, and of a significant plot point which I won’t give away except to say that it involves violence against women. There is also the question of Joy’s authenticity: she is a very good porn actress, a skilled professional who gains a cult following, and pornography is certainly portrayed as a professional industry like any other, at least in Europe. Yet her premarital life in Thailand is also hinted at, and it doesn’t give the impression of an atmosphere where sex workers are necessarily autonomous. Raymond finds a picture of Joy’s baby son, left behind with her grandparents in a rural village; if working as a bar girl or becoming a mail-order bride was the most likely way to secure her son’s quality of life, how independent can Joy possibly have been to make that choice? These are hugely important considerations for contemporary society if it is to both respect the rights of sex workers and work to prevent the exploitation of the vulnerable. None of this is straightforward, and Parkinson’s obtuse narrator succeeds in making us aware of the scale of the issue precisely by skirting around it.

In a way, The Beginning of the End is sort of a dark comedy. I particularly liked Raymond’s early complaints about the dog which he agrees to look after for his neighbour, a gay man who then kills himself and lumbers Raymond with a pet. There is also some rather poignant comedy in his discussions near the end of the book with a man called Eric:

I asked Eric if he ever went to the Carrefour Hypermarché but he said that he didn’t like Carrefour. I told him that I like Carrefour Hypermarché, but that I like going to Match sometimes because they have really interesting special offers. Eric shook his head and said that it’s good that we can disagree about things and still remain friends. I said that I knew what he meant, that going to a new supermarket can be a really strange experience.

It’s the sort of awful sad absurdity that the League of Gentlemen, for instance, might have gotten some cruel mileage out of. Instead of cruelty, though, Parkinson’s touch on the absurdity is gentle; we are allowed to feel pity, instead of disgust.

The Beginning of the End is not a cosy read, certainly, but it’s brave in subject matter and assured in style. If you are truly put off by graphic sex scenes, it’s probably not for you, but if you don’t mind that, lurking underneath the shock-and-awe tactics is a novel with something unique to say. The book has been gathering blurbs comparing it to the work of Michel Houllebecq and J.G. Ballard. I’ve never read either of those authors, but if their work is anything like Parkinson’s novel, perhaps I’ll give them a chance.

Thanks to Salt Publishing for the review copy!

Ten Authors I Really Want To Meet

toptentuesdayTop Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by a blog called The Broke and the Bookish (yep, and…yep.) They’re cool. Check ‘em out. This week’s topic: the top ten authors I’d really like to meet. To be honest, I’ve already met Philip Pullman (we talked about The Faerie Queene), AS Byatt (we talked about poetic meter), Sarah Hall (she basically just signed my books but whatever), and JK Rowling (we talked about her shoes), so I’m not sure where else I can go with this… I’m kidding, I totally know where I can go with this.

  1. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She is a truth-telling genius of polished prose.
  2. David Foster Wallace. I know he’s dead, I don’t care. He’s a genius too. He also probably wouldn’t be a jerk (which is what has disqualified a lot of male authors from this list. I love Faulkner but I would rather be hit in the face with a haddock than have to deal with his after-dinner chat.)
  3. Angela Carter. I know she’s also dead. I also don’t care. Can you imagine what a great person Angela Carter must have been to hang out with?
  4. Anne Carson. Sad and sexy and super-clever. We’d hang out in tall-ceilinged rooms without artificial lighting and leave the window open and shiver in the breeze.
  5. Bill Bryson. He would be hella funny and you’d sit in a pub for hours after lunch and he’d tell you all sorts of mental travel stories like an enormous ursine uncle.
  6. Harper Lee. Quite obviously. She’s about ninety years old and still a boss.
  7. Olivia Laing. She’s hilarious on Twitter and her nonfiction is some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever read.
  8. Hilary Mantel. I would have THE biggest tongue-tied hero-worship embarrassment, but it would be worth it.
  9. Terry Pratchett. Another dead ‘un. He’d be like Bill Bryson but a bit dreamier, and a bit angrier, and a bit more off-the-wall.
  10. Flannery O’Connor. A woman who raises peacocks and writes the kind of violent mysticism that O’Connor did has got to be worth drinking a mint julep with, at least.