Reading Diary: Apr. 16-Apr. 22

9780241349199The Confessions of Frannie Langton, by Sara Collins: Frannie, a Jamaican servant in 1820s London, is writing her life history while awaiting trial for the murder of her employers. Part of that history explains her literacy, and the horrifying purpose for which her earlier master in Jamaica educated her. Unfortunately, while we are expected to understand that Frannie has been traumatized by more than the general experience of slavery, Collins doesn’t clarify until the book is very far advanced. The theory behind this decision is clear—Frannie mentions how little white people are interested in the stories of black people unless they are stories of suffering, and Collins chooses to elide the specifics of her protagonist’s suffering to prove the point—but it means the reader is asked for a high level of emotional investment more or less on trust, which is manipulative without being satisfying. I didn’t find the sexual relationship between Frannie and her mistress especially convincing, either. It’s a solid historical crime novel, but not the explosive debut it’s been touted as.

42270835The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead: Inspired by recent revelations about the crimes and abuse that occurred at the Dozier School for Boys, a reform facility operated by the state of Florida between 1900 and 2011. (It was in the news again last week. TW in the linked article for abuse and murder of children.) Whitehead skilfully uses that cruelty, and the racism that motivates it, to illuminate the conundrum of being black in general. Elwood Curtis, a clever boy who dreams of participating in Civil Rights marches and was due to attend college-level classes in his junior year of high school, must decide whether survival or resistance is more important: his choice inside the institution is the same one that his grandmother has been forced to make on the outside, in an equally corrupt and violent society. The final twist of the plot is perhaps unsurprising, but breathtaking. This, I think–pace Sara Collins’s novel, above–is how to detail suffering without rendering it pornographic. Out in August.

51qboo1lw9l._sx340_bo1204203200_Beneath the World, a Sea, by Chris Beckett: Unlike Beckett’s Clarke Award-winning Dark Eden, Beneath the World… is set on Earth, but a weird version thereof, containing a South American region called the Submundo populated by descendants of slaves as well as by humanoid creatures called duendes. These have a disturbing psychic effect on humans when they get too close, and are ritually hunted by the Mundinos, but the UN has now classified duendes as “people” and sent Ben Ronson, a policeman specializing in culturally sensitive crimes, to try and stop the killings. Beckett plays with ideas of the subconscious (allegorized, not terribly subtly, by the Submundo’s underground sea) and of conventional morality (what did the ordinarily buttoned-up Ronson do in the Zona, an area that disappears from a traveler’s memory as soon as they’ve left?) But these ideas are hardly virgin ground; a more interesting and original novel might have resulted from a closer focus on how “personhood” is defined when the subject is clearly organic (as opposed to the more familiar fictional arguments over robot personhood), and on the ramifications of the Submundo’s colonial history.

Currently reading: The Last Chronicle of Barset, the final novel in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series, dealing with Victorian religious and secular politics in a fictitious English county.

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21 thoughts on “Reading Diary: Apr. 16-Apr. 22

  1. Really interesting point about when fictional suffering becomes ‘pornographic’. (I think I remember an earlier discussion of this, perhaps on your blog?) I’m struggling with this at the moment with Yvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered; early on, there are scenes that are so horrific that they feel gratuitous, and even a bit melodramatic (because of the writing, not the content, which I’m sure is realistic). While it’s not really my place to say that there are ‘too many’ novels about slavery, I do feel that this novel treads familiar ground that has been better covered by other writers, which makes this kind of representation even more difficult to justify. Definitely keen to read The Nickel Boys!

    • So I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently – how authors deal with difficult or disturbing content, how readers react, etc. I’ve been considering the issue a lot more in relation to writing scenes of sexual violence, but obviously any book dealing with slavery is likely to deal with sexual violence, too. I think what you say about “the writing, not the content” is extremely relevant. As far as I’m concerned, an author has a right to describe absolutely anything they like, and to do so however they choose—but sometimes the stylistic choice undermines whatever the actual content or events of the piece might be. And I wonder, also, if we’re approaching a point where slavery lit is the new Holocaust lit? (I mean, I’m not saying that we are; but it does seem like a possibility. Many more authors are comfortable exploring the experience of slavery in fiction now, probably because more publishers are likely to take a punt on that work now, which in turn is largely down to the national and international conversations that activism is making possible, and when publishers start getting excited en masse about something, it’s usually only a matter of time until it becomes kitsch. Although, again, I may be wrong here because it seems to me that more Holocaust lit is written by people who the Holocaust never touched—non-Jewish people, people who never had a family member who’d escaped Europe, etc—and at least in the States, I don’t see that many white people writing about slavery from the POV of the enslaved.)

      • I totally agree – your reply is much more thought-through than my comment! I’m certainly not suggesting that there are subjects authors should avoid, but I guess Frannie Langton’s point made me consider whether it’s harmful to continually reproduce the same stories of suffering. I’m definitely more sympathetic to those who do this from a position of personal experience or relevant marginalisation (i.e. a black author who obviously hasn’t experienced slavery but has experienced its structural consequences.) But I guess there does come a point when writers have to ask themselves, however sensitively they deal with a topic, is it worth digging up this pain again? e.g. Rachel Seiffert’s Holocaust-focused A Boy in Winter, though I take your point that she’s not Jewish. For me, neither the Holocaust nor slavery will ever be exhausted as fictional topics, but I think writers may have to start thinking more carefully about what their book is bringing to the table than if they were writing about a lesser-known horror.

        (The point about sexual violence is also interesting. The first novel I wrote, way back when I was at sixth form/university, had sexual violence as a central theme, & part of my reason for putting it aside more recently was that I wasn’t sure what I was adding to the conversation after so much good writing on the theme was finally published, which hadn’t been around when I started the book back in 2005. But I may still come back to it.)

      • Yes—the question of originality becomes more and more important the more generally accepted a topic is. I think Collins’s point is precisely that, and in a theoretical sense I think her decision to be vague about Frannie’s ordeals for most of the book makes sense. But to do that, a reader needs some other reason to extend interest and understanding to the character, and what kept happening was that Collins would ask us to sympathize with Frannie *specifically for* what she’d been through—the nature of which we weren’t allowed to know.

      • Interesting – I haven’t read the novel and, given lukewarm reviews from people I trust, I’m not sure I’m going to prioritise it!

  2. I gave up on Beckett after the Eden trilogy; I’m just not keen enough on SF.

    Have you read the previous Barsetshire novels too? Would you recommend them (all)? I have held onto them with the vague intention of reading the whole series someday, but I haven’t been led to pick up any Trollope since grad school.

    • I have read the previous ones, and I’d recommend them, although Barchester Towers and The Small House at Allington are the best, I think. Some of the others are rather too long for their plots, but they’re always good fun.

      • Not necessarily. There are recurring characters, and I’m vaguely wishing there were some sort of family/acquaintance tree in the copy I’m currently reading, as it’s been literally years since I read the last one. But it’s comprehensible.

    • While I enjoyed the Barsetshire novels I think Trollope is at his best in the Palliser sequence. If you haven’t read those I would definitely recommend them. They do need to be read in order.

      • The Eustace Diamonds is fun, and the least connected to any of the others (and also the least political), but don’t put yourself through the slog unless you think you’ll enjoy it–they’re all long!

  3. The Nickel Boys sounds brilliant! Did you read and/or like The Underground Railroad? I still haven’t read that, wondering if I should try to prioritize it before reading his new one…

    • Read and liked it, very much. His earlier novel, John Henry Days, is also fascinating and not very well known – deals with America’s racist mythology, predatory capitalism, etc., while also being fairly funny. The Underground Railroad is absolutely worth reading.

  4. I’m another one waiting for the new Whitehead to be published. I read The Underground Railroad with two of my reading groups and it definitely stood up to a second read, which isn’t something you can say about every book.

    • Absolutely. Also, in his early work especially, as well as in TUR, his interest in genre tropes makes for really compelling reading and is probably in large part accountable for why they’re so good to reread; The Nickel Boys is pretty straight realism, no magic trains or elevator inspectors to be seen, but that feels appropriate.

    • I was dead keen for it too! It was one of those reading experiences that became more and more critical as the novel progressed. Like – worth reading, especially if historical crime is something you enjoy anyway, but heavens the publicity machine has a lot to answer for.

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