#6Degrees of Separation: Picnic at Hanging Rock

This game is like “6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon” only with books. You can join in too; the rules are here.

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We start off with Picnic at Hanging Rock, by Joan Lindsay, which I’ve never read but which was something of a sensation in the ’60s and ’70s, a novel about the disappearance of a group of Australian schoolgirls on a school outing. I gather that the central mystery is never really resolved, though apparently Lindsay wrote a revelatory final chapter which was published separately. It sounds a bit rubbish.

My favourite disappearance story this year – and one of my favourite books of the year so far, full stop – has been Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. It’s a tender, nuanced portrait of a small community where a young girl disappears while on holiday with her parents; McGregor returns to the village over the course of thirteen years, finding both change and continuity with each passing year. It is a beautiful book, and highly recommended. (review)

Another “thirteen” book is Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel. In each chapter, she discusses a technical aspect of the novel form: voice, characterisation, length, and so on. In the final section, she writes notes on one hundred books that she read as part of her project to determine what defines a novel. It’s an excellent resource both on a technical level and for people who want a basic reading list of classics and contemporary classics.

One of the books I read because it was in Smiley’s compendium is Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters. A society novel about three Japanese sisters and their family’s difficulties in marrying them all off, it reminded me strongly of an east Asian Jane Austen, with equal biting wit, satire, and observation. (review – a very old one! I was so cute in 2013.)

I recommended The Makioka Sisters to a very well-read customer recently, along with Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence, about a pair of Catholic priests who travel to Japan at a time when Christianity is illegal. They end up serving an underground community of believers, but at great risk both to themselves and to their flock. The book’s emotional core is the choice between renouncing one’s faith publicly in order to save the innocent, or remaining technically faithful to God but condemning others to die.

Martin Scorsese directed a nerve-wracking film of this book last year. He also directed “Hugo”, a gorgeously shot if slightly incoherent movie based on The Invention of Hugo Cabret, Brian Selznick’s stunning children’s novel about a boy who lives in a railway station, befriends a pioneer of early film, and tries to fix an automaton left to him by his father.

So: from Edwardian Australia to steampunk Paris, via contemporary Yorkshire, mid-century Osaka, and post-Shimabara Japan. Where will your #6Degrees take you? Next month we start with Pride and Prejudice, which ought to provide a lot of jumping-off points…

Journeyman + The Violet Hour

April was so efficient a reading month that May was bound to be a bit slower by comparison; literally almost anything would have been. I’ve read nothing but review copies this month so far, and have still only finished four books in twelve days (and written reviews of two of them). So as not to fall behind, I’m putting my reviews for both Journeyman and The Violet Hour into the same post. They’re not desperately similar books, but, like many literary pairings, the more you think about them in conjunction with one another, the more they seem like two different ways of dealing with the same thing.

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Journeyman, by Marc Bojanowski (Granta)

After Daredevils, Bojanowski’s protagonist Nolan reminded me a bit of Jason, in the way that he’s an essentially good man who is often (though, crucially, not always) defined by his passivity. This isn’t Bojanowski’s first novel, but it’s the first of his that I’ve read, and it strikes me that he’s very much a writer of themes. That isn’t to say he doesn’t do them well—the integration of plot points into the service of theme is generally elegant and often slyly surprising—but you can bet your boots that when something does happen in this book, it will be resonant in more ways than one.

It starts as it means to go on. The title is a reference to Nolan’s occupation: he’s a journeyman carpenter. But it’s also, very pointedly, a reference to his identity: he’s a journey-man, one who is always moving, always packing up and heading on. “What’s that saying?” his brother Chance sneers. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” Nolan’s MO for life, it seems, is to get the hell out of Dodge whenever it starts to look too much like reality—commitment, mortality, what-have-you—is closing in. When he visits Chance in California, it’s meant to be a courtesy call, but he loses his truck and Airstream trailer in an accident and finds himself stranded there, unwillingly putting down what you might start to call roots.

Western literature’s original journey-man is Odysseus (technically I guess it’s probably Gilgamesh, but POETIC LICENSE), whose character becomes defined by war to the extent that he can’t bring himself to just go back home. He has to keep having adventures, keep escaping death, keep being larger than life. Nolan’s relationship to war is much more ambivalent, but equally haunted. The book is set in 2007 or 2008, a time when the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were real and present to almost every American, and especially to young men of fighting age. Nolan has not enlisted, and neither has Chance. Meanwhile, their father—a shadowy but hugely influential figure in their lives—was a veteran of Vietnam, about which he never spoke. At one point Nolan mentions the way in which participating in war demarcated adulthood for the men of previous generations; now, even those who’ve seen combat are not so much purified and matured by the experience as they are deeply, deeply fucked up. Additionally, since that participation is optional, it’s not clear what can come to take its place. Both brothers are dogged by a feeling of having failed in some way obscure but profound. Chance is an obsessive, writing a thousand-page novel about a Russo-Japanese naval battle and pursuing a serial arsonist in the little town of Burnridge. (Burn-ridge, get it?) Nolan works in construction, represses most of his feelings of guilt and lost-ness, and runs like hell from anything that might tether him.

We’re meant to fear the repressed man—we’re taught that his bottled-up emotions will one day explode, most likely in violence, and probably all over us—but in Journeyman, it’s not Nolan’s repression that’s frightening; it’s Chance’s behaviour. Unstoppably loquacious, clearly unhinged, he babbles about conspiracy theories and death and meaning and consequences; he assaults a man in a pizza parlor in the belief that he is defending civilisation; he is transported to rage by the next door neighbour’s teenaged daughter’s loud music, and pours bleach on their lawn. His mania is precisely the sort of thing that the tidy facade of suburban northern California is meant to hide. But instead of joyous anarchy, it suggests a man who’s come loose from the moorings of his community, even from sanity. Bojanowski’s ending, which is quietly redemptive but far from saccharine, reinforces that: the importance of committing to a place, to people. Of not keeping yourself isolated in the universe.

The Violet Hour, by Katie Roiphe (Virago)

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The other day, I was killing time in a Pret and this old woman came up to me and asked if she could sit at my table. There was another seat free and I wasn’t waiting for anyone, so of course I told her that she could. She sat for a moment, then asked what I was reading. Normally when people ask what you’re reading, they either don’t really care, or they’re mad. Choosing not to commit myself by speaking, lest she was either one, I held up the book so that she could see the front cover. “Great Writers at the End”, she read the subtitle aloud. “I knew a great writer once,” she said.

“Which one?” I asked. I still had one finger in the book, marking my place.

“You probably won’t know her,” she said slowly. She wasn’t that old, really, but she had the face of a smoker and her eyes were rheumy and the words came slowly out of her mouth in the way that I’ve heard words come from people who are on heavy medication.

“Try me,” I said.

She shrugged. “Doris Lessing?”

We talked for forty minutes. Her name was Hetty. Her father had been a South African journalist, had known Mandela. They came to this country when she was five. She seemed to have moved in rarefied circles. She told me she was bipolar. Some of the celebrities she said she’d met were probably lies—she couldn’t explain, for instance, how she knew Paul McCartney or Audrey Hepburn—but some of it was, I think, the truth. She’d nannied for Eric Idle’s children. She had written songs. She sang a fragment of one for me. Her voice was low and sweet, the kind of voice that the 1960s and ’70s liked.

This isn’t really, I know, a review of The Violet Hour, but in a tangential sort of way it is a nod to the sort of thinking that Roiphe’s book provokes. She writes about famous authors just before their deaths, and about how death pervaded their lives and their arts. Many of them were obsessed, fearful of it or romanticizing it or both. Dylan Thomas thought he was dying at thirty and returned to the idea constantly. Susan Sontag refused to discuss her cancer diagnosis; her personal mythology, her exceptionalism, had no room for mortality. John Updike tried to keep death at bay, all his life, with illicit sex: affairs were proof of life. Maurice Sendak was perhaps my favourite of all the featured writers (though to me he is more an artist): his long-undiscussed sexuality, his long-term partner Gene, his dogs, his adoptive son. He seems to have been mischievous, cantankerous and generous in equal measure.

I would have liked to see Roiphe focus more on the work of each writer: their lives and personalities are reasonably interesting, but more judicious close reading of passages would have been nearer to my heart. The work, after all, is what distinguishes them. But there is something extraordinary anyway in hearing about their childhood brushes with disease and disaster, their neediness or their fearlessness or their posturing in the middles of their lives as well as at the ends of them. “All deaths are the same,” Roiphe writes, and that’s what I won’t forget from her book. Hetty, who seemed to have tangoed with greatness, was now a woman with faded curly hair and a slightly trembling hand, drinking coffee across from me on Kentish Town Road and telling me stories. She was just a person, just a human, who would die. I was a young, hungry, sharp-elbowed woman, listening to her voraciously, and I was just a person, just a human, who would die. I’ve met two or three very famous people in my life, and every single one of them, when I looked them in the eye, was just a person. Just a human, who would die. Roiphe quotes George Bernard Shaw, who, as usual, is both pithy and correct: “Don’t try to live forever; you will not succeed.” Nothing wrong with that, this book says.

Thanks very much to Natalie Shaw at Granta, and Grace Vincent at Virago, for the review copies. Journeyman and The Violet Hour were published in the UK on 5 May.