Reading Diary: Jan. 28-Feb. 3

9780241982884One of the fun things about my job is that, as part of the reading consultation that precedes our bespoke book subscription service, a lot of people tell me what their favourite book is. The Secret History turns up frequently. (If you’re interested, so do Sapiens, All the Light We Cannot See, and the works of Jane Austen, these last usually referred to in aggregate as opposed to individually.) Honestly, who can blame anyone for loving The Secret History? Tartt’s signature combination—an almost obsessive accretion of physical and emotional detail, and the distinct intellectual coolness of her phrasing—is seductive and very effective; never mind that she’s not quite managed to replicate it in the years and books since. Perhaps that’s because her setting, in this first outing, is the perfect backdrop for that kind of style: her overanalysing, overprivileged, overeducated New England college kids, with their total inability to recognise their self-centeredness and the monstrosity of what they eventually do in the name of intellectual curiosity. It is almost an anti-intellectual book, in the sense that it shows you so very clearly how easy and how fatal it is to lose sight of consensus reality when you live much of your life in your head. Two things stick out enormously on rereading: one, the extent to which Tana French’s The Likeness is an homage to this book (it’s not exactly hard to notice the parallels, but a reread brings it all back: Henry and Daniel are basically the same character), and two, the pacing issues that somewhat marred The Goldfinch are evident here, too, in utero as it were. The Secret History is a brilliantly plotted book, but it is extremely luxurious, almost languid, in its transitions. In a way that’s what makes it so phenomenal: it manages to be a thriller and a page-turner while looking like exactly the opposite. But with the benefit of hindsight, you can trace that languidness right through to the occasional bagginess of Tartt’s later work.

51xgptmawcl-_sx321_bo1204203200_The Wanderers is actually the second book of a trilogy,  but you don’t need to have read the first to enjoy Tim Pears’s writing, or to become fully immersed in the world he recreates. This volume is set in Devon and Cornwall in 1913, as Leo Sercombe is cast out of his home on the Prideaux estate in Devon for some crime which remains unspecified. (This is where having read book one, The Horseman, might be handy, but as the plot of The Wanderers doesn’t concern itself overly with what happened in the past, I found it didn’t noticeably dim my understanding of the book.) Pears gives the reader two perspectives: Leo’s, as he journeys across the West Country, making his way slowly towards Penzance, and that of Lottie, Lord Prideaux’s daughter and Leo’s former playmate. Leo’s sections read like slow-motion picaresque in a minor key, with awe and respect at the beauty of the natural world taking the place that humour and the grotesque usually occupy in that genre. He spends time with “gypsies” (Romany travelers), Cornish tin miners, and a vagabond named Rufus who served in the Second Boer War. Lottie’s story, meanwhile, follows a Bildungsroman arc, as her father remarries and Lottie fights to pursue an intellectual fascination with anatomy and dissection. What saves this arc from being a tired “feisty-girl” trope is Pears’s ability to express, sensitively and subtly, Lottie’s deep grief at Leo’s disappearance, and her isolation from her father and from any friends her own age. His writing, both about nature and about the complexities of the human heart, is delicate and precise and always slightly oblique; he is the master of presenting a situation or a piece of dialogue without comment, and letting the reader conclude what she will. I’m shocked that I haven’t read his work before now.

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Jamie Quatro’s debut novel, Fire Sermon, does something that I have never seen in a mainstream contemporary novel: it introduces an objective moral dimension to a fairly standard emotional dilemma. In other words, Quatro’s protagonist Maggie believes strongly and passionately in God, and also enters into an emotional affair (which, don’t you worry, becomes very physical) with a fellow writer, James. What saves this book from being another novel about sad white writers in bad marriages (thanks to Roxane Gay for that spot-on category) is precisely the presence of God in it. It’s not a novel that requires its reader to believe in God; it does require its reader to believe that other people can believe in God – intelligent, intellectual people – sincerely and without irony. Quatro’s adulterous lovers are drawn to each other first for the quality of one another’s minds: if your idea of flirtation is verbal sparring about metaphysical poetry and the Western apophatic tradition, then you’re going to find Fire Sermon very sexy. This also allows for a novel where adultery actually matters. The stakes are much higher, and the agony more pronounced, here than they strictly need to be; these people suffer not because society makes them, but because they want to hold themselves to a standard of behaviour and feeling that is incompatible with most of the other things that they want. That kind of suffering, the kind you enter with open eyes, has a very different quality to the more socially-ordained kind; you are not a victim of it in the same way. Faith is a hard habit to shake, and some people are built for it; consider Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. In addition to this deep sense of conviction, Fire Sermon is also richly allusive (C.S. Lewis! T.S. Eliot! Jane Gardam! Maggie Nelson! Sharon Olds!) I want more books about Christians like this: confused, fucked-up, questioning, questing.

Thoughts on this week’s reading: It’s nice to have read a book this week that’s just come out (as opposed to one that’ll be out next month), so that I can recommend it immediately. Reading ahead of release dates has its advantages and its disadvantages.

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Virgin and Other Stories, by April Ayers Lawson

not being comfortable at church but always pursuing a belief in something

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Things I really like about Virgin:

  • The way it nails fundamentalist Christianity, but from the inside out, so that you see all the seams and the inconsistencies. A lot of writers who skewer this kind of religious atmosphere in their work seem to be setting out to do just that—skewer it—and Lawson’s take is so much more complex. Many of her narrators are raised in fundamentalism, but aren’t necessarily of it, so that you get kids like Conner in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” trying clumsily to woo Ally Kapawski in the half-hour after church when the kids are running around and the adults are being sociable. Ally, meanwhile, is not unaware of Conner’s advances, but instead of being either a “slutty hypocrite” stereotype or a bible-thumper, she’s just massively, entirely disinterested:

So I pressed my mouth against hers. She didn’t kiss back but she didn’t move away, either. I just pressed my lips to hers until I got embarrassed for not knowing what to do next… and then I got out of the car. She followed.

  • The way Lawson can take a narrative concept that seem predictable—older man preys on younger girl—and make it special to our eyes by particularising it. Take, for instance, “The Way You Must Play Always”, one of my favourites of the five stories. Here, the “older man” is dying of a brain tumour, and he is not that old, maybe in his late twenties. The young girl is Gretchen, who narrates the story; she is thirteen and the piano student of the older man’s sister. Gretchen is falling in love with the older man, or at the very least obsessed. She finds him a source of endless fascination—not explicitly sexual but not quite not sexual, either—and spends the week in between lessons planning how best to be alone with him for a few seconds. The fact that he makes her touch him is, undeniably, wrong, but Lawson makes us see how wrongness is not incompatible with a huge and shifty complexity. Gretchen does not invite her molestation, but there is something about the whole act that interests her, and that changes the way the reader sees it. It’s uncomfortable to catch yourself reading this way, but also highly unusual for a writer to actually make you do it, as Lawson does.
  • The first story, “Virgin”, does this same particularising work with a seemingly predictable narrative: a man cheats on his wife at a party. But it’s not just any man, and not just any wife: it’s Jake and Sheila, they’ve been married a few years, and Sheila won’t let Jake have sex with her. They’ve managed it once; afterwards,

she sighed with what he at first mistook for contentment and said, “I guess that’s it, then.”

…He felt as if she’d struck him again; his whole body rather than just his head. “You mean you don’t feel anything for me.”

“No. No. I love you… I just… It’s me. I try to look in your eyes and I can’t, and I know I’m supposed to, but I can’t. It’s fun, though. It’s great. It’s just me, is all. I shouldn’t have said anything. I talk too much.”

Sheila is also from a fundamentalist family, is a virgin when she marries, is working through the trauma of childhood sexual grooming by an uncle. The sad bewildered blundering of their marriage is given a counterweight in the mother and child Jake meets in his work as a press officer for the local hospital. The woman has given a lot of money for a mobile mammography unit; she wasn’t born rich, and she has an open, straightforward way of speaking and of being. So does her three- or four-year-old daughter, who, on a visit to Jake’s office,

began to pick up and examine objects on his desk: his brass paperweight, his Post-it notes, his pens. She looked at these things as if they were fantastic, turning them in her small white hands while the water-coloured eyes contemplated their sides from multiple angles. …He quickly began to sift through the contents of his desk for something that might interest the child. Found himself handing over pens, an old Rolodex, a small green clipboard bearing the logo of a pharmaceutical company. The child accepted these things with the air of one accepting precious gifts. Suddenly he had the feeling that all things in his office were sacred, were less and also more than what they were.

There’s something so gravely farcical about it, I can’t help smiling every time I read it back. The solemn little girl, the slightly flailing professional man paying her homage, the faintly amused mother watching the scene. The way it could be a parody of the shepherds and wise men visiting the infant Christ, or it could just be an awkward guy and a self-possessed kid, or—best of all—it could be both at once. It all just works so nicely.

Things in Virgin that don’t work quite as nicely:

  • Most of the final story, “Vulnerability”, which is long, is set in New York City as an artist falls for her art dealer. The artist isn’t from New York; she’s settled long ago into a life where her husband supports them and she paints and faintly despises or resents him while also loving him while also being exhausted by the whole situation for reasons she doesn’t really understand. She is the sort of character who continually tests the reader’s patience because, Jesus, what does she have to complain about? And yet there’s something about her that’s a little socially weird and deeply observant and, we sense, she’s not just complaining for the sake of it but because something about her life really does feel wrong to her, and it’s easy to understand that. Maybe the story goes on for a bit too long, but it is painfully precise: Lawson draws the lines of a burgeoning affair that’s happening only partly for reasons of attraction or mutual affection or interest with such clarity, such attention to detail.

What I really like about Virgin, though, is something it doesn’t often occur to me to like, because the whole point is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself: her prose is like glass. Totally clear, totally unobtrusive; perfectly capable of style, but generally more elegant than in-your-face. It’s a hard, hard effect to achieve, but it’s what makes these stories both emotionally incisive and gloriously readable.

Many thanks to Natalie Shaw at Granta for the review copy! Virgin and Other Stories is published in the UK on 5 January.