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On Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”

17 Mar

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ten years have passed since the critically acclaimed, world-renowned author Kazuo Ishiguro published a novel, and the passage of time does interesting things to writers, even those as established as this Man Booker Prize-winner. Lauded for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contributes a fantastic but vastly different addition to his repertoire. The Buried Giant, released to stores March 3, 2015, is a fantastical story of a journey through the land of King Arthur, and were it written by any other author, it would be shelved resolutely in the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore, but I guess I should be grateful that this book is both stunning and working toward mainstreaming genre fiction. The next thing you know, Brandon Sanderson will be winning the Pulitzer or something. Watch out, world!

Ishiguro’s long-awaited seventh novel is not the traditional fantasy in the stereotypical sense of the label: unpronounceable made-up words, valiant heroes coming of age, and a fabricated back story longer than could fit in the 1,200 pages of the published product. Ishiguro’s fantasy is, in a handful of ways, much like his other novels: poignantly brief and excruciatingly sorrowful. The Buried Giant begins in a nameless hamlet in England. King Arthur is dead, and the England he united by sword and by law lies in an uneasy balance of Saxon and Briton. The people also lie under the spell of a heavy mist that suppresses the memories–both good and bad–of everyone it touches. The loss of memory transforms everyone into addled, helpless fools. People hunt for a missing child and then forget why they’re wandering through the woods. They set off down a road and 50 yards later can’t remember where they’re headed. Two elderly villagers, Axl and Beatrice, feel the nagging shade of a memory of a son they once had, and they set off to find him, in spite of their frailty and their foggy minds.

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from "Carl Jones")

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from “Carl Jones“)

Traveling from their small village, through cursed woods, over craggy mountains, toward their son’s village, the couple encounters a whole cast of references from Arthurian legend (half of which I’m sure I don’t even get). An ancient and doddering Sir Gawain quests with his equally ancient horse Horace to slay the she-dragon Querig who lives on top of the mountain. A young Saxon warrior quests to do the same, and when he crosses paths with our Axl and Beatrice, the couple is caught up in a story that will test the strength of their love as well as their memory. Before the wild world tears them apart from each, Axl and Beatrice must remember what they mean to one another.

One’s own memory is tricksy enough as it is, but when the topic of collective memory is addressed, history becomes a living entity unto its own. Think of how a nation or a society or even a family develops a collective memory through the retelling of an event or through the media or through trending, crowd-sourced narratives. We are constantly building our story as a group. When the mists of forgetting fall on the people of this story, ties are severed between present and past, between husband and wife. Beatrice is tormented with the idea of an incomplete memory, especially the memories of her son, whose name neither she nor Axl can recall. She and Axl have the opportunity to try and lift the curse, but is it worth remembering the pain of the bad memories just to experience the balm of the good ones?

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from "Swaminathan")

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from “Swaminathan“)

Ishiguro returns again and again to the concept of collective memory in his novels. In The Remains of the Day, especially, he discusses denial and misremembering through an aging butler struggling with memories of his involvement in dark deeds during World War II. The Buried Giant takes advantage of its fantasy genre to make the conversation of memory more blatant by making it more magical. Querig’s cursed breath descends on the land and forces a loss of collective memory for an entire generation. The horrors of that past are veiled in blissful forgetfulness, and the joys of a lifetime are only glimpsed in the corner of a dream. Ishiguro calls out humanity’s tendency to bury great tragedies to spare itself the pain and struggle of resolution. The collateral damage of this denial is that great joys and great accomplishments are also buried. Great loves and great progress are lost beneath the earth. Axl and Beatrice’s quest to find their son becomes a quest to remember–their son, their past, and their love for each other. In this beautiful novel that is at once lighthearted and tragic, Ishiguro produces a stunning story that is worth every moment of the ten years we waited for it.

“It would be the saddest thing to me, princess. To walk separately from you, when the ground will let us go as we always did.”

Read It: You don’t need to be a fan of Game of Thrones to enjoy this fantasy novel. In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro addresses one of his favorite topics: the discrepancies of memory. The fantasy setting is a thin veil for the author’s deeply moving story about the fluidity of narrative, but it is also a deeply moving story, so whether your a scholar coming to study a contemporary master’s work or a casual reader like myself, just looking for an entertaining and skillfully rendered tale of adventure, look no farther than TBG.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to read this novel if dragons killed your parents or you have some blood feud with your Saxon neighbors. This novel doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the fiery political climate of the post-Arthurian era. Then again, and more likely, you may be expecting the Ishiguro of ten years ago, the Ishiguro of The Remains of the Day, and you’ll probably be disappointed. Gone is the subtler artifice of his earlier years, and if you don’t keep an open mind, his new style will turn you off, marvelous though it is.

Similar Books: I honestly can’t compare this novel to Ishiguro’s others, but if this is your first of his novels, please read The Remains of the Day to feel the power of his prose when Ishiguro reached what some would call the pinnacle of his literary career. Aside from this, The Buried Giant reminded me of classical epics like Virgil’s The Aeneid and Homer’s The Odyssey. Axl and Beatrice’s travels through the English countryside ring of older tales–tales of hellish paths and overcoming otherworldly challenges. For more reading on modern takes of Arthurian legend, read John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from "English PEN")

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from “English PEN“)

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On Tom Cooper’s “The Marauders”

3 Mar

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

If there’s one place in the United States that inspires images of shrouded mystery and magical kingdoms, it’s the bayou. Maybe it’s the French and Creole cultural background, so spicy and foreign, so different from the Anglo-Germanic traditions elsewhere in the country. Or maybe it’s the setting itself: hoary trees, prehistoric predators, covered and joined with water. Thanks to the magical realism of films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and the hallucinatory elements of films like In the Electric Mist (not the best example, I admit, but I have an old man crush on Tommy Lee Jones), my perception of bayou stories is eternally skewed toward the mythical and darkly romantic. Tom Cooper’s debut novel about a hodgepodge of men in post-Deepwater Horizon Louisiana extracts the romantic and leaves the myth and the darkness. The Marauders speaks of good things to come from new author Cooper.

The Marauders sets its stage several years after the BP oil spill disaster at Deepwater Horizon, and describes the lasting effects the spill inflicts on the resident shrimpers of Jeanette, Louisiana. Cooper manages to scale the unfathomable disaster down to something more understandable and human by following the course of five stories: teenage Wes Trench and his quest for his father’s approval as a man and a next-gen Jeanette shrimper; Brady Grimes, the BP yes-man knocking on doors, heckling Jeanette’s residents into settling on a measly sum for their ruined lives; Gus Lindquist, a one-armed shrimper with dreams of finding the pirate Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure of Spanish dubloons; the Toup twins, who would do anything to protect their hidden island farm of marijuana; and Cosgrove and Hanson, two petty criminals on the verge of the biggest break of their lives. It’s a small sampling of life in a hurricane-torn, oil-slicked bayou, and Cooper adds enough spice to make the novel a decently tasty morsel.

Bayou (Photo from "Xavier Lambrecht")

Bayou” is Louisiana French from the Choctaw word “bayuk,” meaning “small stream.” Talk about lost in translation. (Photo from “Xavier Lambrecht“)

The separate story lines tell the same narrative: a man struggles against his ties to his homeland. These men are fixtures of Barataria or they dream of escaping its narrow lifestyle. They return home full of bitterness and loathing or they learn to respect a dying way of life and embrace its tradition. Cooper’s description of the landscape is sparse but vivid leaves readers with the sharp impression of scents and moist heat. His attentiveness to character description instills a little less confidence, though, and I found it difficult to consider the Toup twins as anything more than a couple of floppy, cliché villains–two-dimensional and easy to hate. Wes Trench is similarly flat in the opposite polar end of the balance between Good and Evil. He’s all hard work and youthful earnestness. I wanted to punch him in the face.

Cooper is strongest in the chapters following our one-armed shrimper and treasure-seeker Lindquist. Lindquist miraculously reaches his middle ages, despite his painkiller addiction and an obsession that drives away his wife and daughter and threatens to sink his business. When the starved, oil-covered shrimp are few and far between, Lindquist religiously scans the muddy banks of the Barataria with his metal detector searching for the buried treasure of notorious Gulf pirate Jean Lafitte. In his spare time, Lindquist researches his library of maps and old myths, pouring his time and his soul into the hunt of the pirate’s missing Spanish dubloons. The town both ridicules him for his obsession and respects him for his faithfulness. Fueled by his feverish pipe dream of pirate treasure, Lindquist is the heart of the Barataria. The man throws everything away–his health, his family, his livelihood–for a single belief, a hope that no one else seems to understand but everyone takes comfort in.

“No, he wasn’t wrong. Lindquist knew it in his blood. He knew it with providential certainty, the same way a dowser knew there was water in the ground, the same way a diviner knew a ghost was in the room. And as long as he kept searching, as long as he kept digging holes in the ground, he’d never be wrong.”

Oiled bird (Photo from "Marine Photobank")

An ocean bird suffers from an oil spill. The adverse effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster are still felt today by the Gulf wildlife and its human dependents. (Photo from “Marine Photobank“)

The Lindquist story line alone would make The Marauders an entertaining novel at the very least, and I would have enjoyed an entire novel about him and his pitiable, yet somehow respectable, obsession. The other characters seem to all fall short in comparison, but the greatest travesty is the novel’s utter lack of diversity. In the Deep South, where society is a great stew of hybrid cultures, languages, tastes, and customs, The Marauders is astoundingly white and male. Not only are the main story lines boringly similar to each other, but the other non-white or female characters are so wan and weak they could be figments of your imagination. Of the three or so female characters with speaking lines, one is dead, one is dying, and none of them exceed a stereotypical understanding of “woman as understood by a man”: the perfect, idolized mother lost in Katrina; the mother dying of cancer; a bitter ex-spouse. I’m not saying every book has to have a balanced cast of men and women. I’m just saying that the women included here are not real women. Even more appalling is the lack of any character who isn’t white. An off-handed mention of some Vietnamese fishers doesn’t count in my book, and the lack of any mention of Black Americans and Black Southern culture all points to apparent Cooper’s tunnel vision.

Read It: Do you feel like kicking back with a cold brew and a relaxing, but entertaining read that won’t force you into the hard labor of thinking? The Marauders is the book for you. With its bold, easy symbolism and swift currents of plot, readers won’t need to exercise their grey cells to uncover the mystery of Barataria Bay, and I say this as a compliment. The novel is totally accessible and enjoyable as fun, light read.

Don’t Read It: The Marauders is a debut novel, and it reads like a debut novel. Cooper still needs to flesh out his two-dimensional characters, get some meat on them to make their stories not only unique but worthwhile. This might not be the book for you if you aren’t willing to be a little forgiving of those first-novel kinks.

Similar Books: Tom Cooper’s novel reminded me more of a couple of films than of books: In the Electric Mist, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Sarsgaard–as surreal and hallucinatory as Gus Lindquist’s story of pirate treasure–and The Beasts of the Southern Wild, starring Quvenzhané Wallis–a wild ride of magical realism and Southern character sketches. A book with similar tone and attentiveness to geographical subcultures is Jessie van Eerden’s Glorybound, another first novel, this time following several characters in a West Virginia coal mining town.

On Miranda July’s “The First Bad Man”

10 Feb

The First Bad Man: A Novel [2015] by Miranda July

The First Bad Man: A Novel [2015] by Miranda July

We might not all have a Sherlockian mind palace to which we retreat at will, but we all have head space that no other person could possibly understand: it’s as fluid as a dream and ruled by personal systems beyond any external logic or comprehension, and no one writes about that head space quite like Miranda July. In her debut novel The First Bad Man, July takes us into the obsessive head space of Cheryl Glickman, a solitary middle-aged woman who is put upon by sudden and intense human interaction.

Cheryl bumbles through her professional life at the self-defense center in a series of awkward social interactions. She is painfully considerate and yet socially unaware. At home, Cheryl lives in strict, finely tuned system she developed over the years that eliminates any excess energy or materialism, leaving her to live like some kind of lazy Desert Father. Her hobbies consist of pining after Philip, an older board member of her company, tending her psychosomatic throat ailment, and staring into the eyes of infant children to find out if they have a metaphysical connection with each other. When she is volunteered to host–indefinitely–the adult daughter of her two employers, Cheryl’s carefully balanced world is tipped end over end, and she is forced to either run away, cope, or take control.

Self-defense (Photo by Michael Newhouse)

Self-defense (Photo by Michael Newhouse)

Clee, the unwelcome guest, is Cheryl’s exact counterpart: lazily excessive, young, inconsiderate, and sexually irresistible to men and women alike. The two figuratively collide in the orderly setting of Cheryl’s home as their two opposing lifestyles come in contact with each other. As tension builds, the two literally collide in a physical fight. A single incident of Clee bullying Cheryl into submission in her own home becomes a nightly ritual of all-out brawling, like a private, two-person fight club. When Cheryl sees herself through Philip’s eyes, she sees herself as a “delicate” woman, set in her life of lonely tradition and coping mechanisms. Through Clee’s eyes, Cheryl becomes something entirely different: a fighter, someone willing to defend her life and her place in the world with her fists and teeth. The two women bring out in each other their basest human instincts, and they begin to bond. When they begin to bond, their brawling evolves into reenactments of Cheryl’s self-defense class scenarios, a sophisticated and violent interpretive dance.

Through Cheryl and Clee’s phsyical battles, July creates a ridiculous language, a form of communication that Cheryl may have imagined entirely on her own. It’s Cheryl’s voice that guides us through the developing narrative of her relationship to her housemate, but we begin to understand this new kind of intimacy through Clee and Cheryl’s increasingly erotic fights. The author somehow excels at telling a story from deep within someone else’s psyche. It’s like retelling a dream to a crowd of strangers and, not only making it entertaining, but making all the personal symbolism of your dream relatable. July’s protagonist is laughably quirky when she enters the scene–when she tells readers about her connection to a spiritual being named Kubelko Bondy who somehow continues to be reborn in other people’s children, or when she describes in excruciating detail her system of peeing in jars when she’s too sad to walk to the bathroom–but becomes more human and more like the reader as the pages roll past.

I realize this may become a trend: taking photos of my book with my coffee. Get used to it, folks.

I realize this may become a trend: taking photos of my book with my coffee on my lunch break. Get used to it, folks.

Miranda July’s novels, much like her films, will never reach a large or mainstream audience, but she will earn the steadfast respect and love from a very specific niche readership. For me, July has already earned it. Strange as the premise and protagonist of TFBM might be, July’s novel is something I had never read before: forthcoming, but not overwhelming, in its quirkiness, with a powerful yet humorous pose. The premise of the self-defense reenactments combines July’s comedic sense with her background of performance art. In film, music videos, sculptures, and online sites, the author-artist is consistent in her tone and personality. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out July’s TFBM online store for evidence.

Miranda July is unapologetic, entirely original, and not likely to disappear from every single one of the art scenes you can think of. As captivating as her performance art and films can be, though, I hope she continues this fascinating trek through the literary world with more novels like The First Bad Man.

“It sort of worked. It wasn’t like saying abracadabra to make a rabbit disappear, poof. It was like saying abracadabra billions of times, saying it for years until the rabbit had completely decomposed and been absorbed into the earth, poof.”

Read It: Read it because you’re curious about new novelists hitting the scene. Read it because you finished every single Haruki Murakami book published in English to date, and now you need someone else to obsess over. Read it because you’re a weirdo, like Miranda July’s protagonist Cheryl, and think you have a metaphysical connection to psychic babies. Read it because if you don’t, you may miss out on the fascinating writer everyone will be talking about and her refreshingly weird novel.

Don’t Read It: You may feel more than a little uncomfortable with scenes in TFBM. A large portion of this short novel describes awkward violence and the awkward sex, and who’s to say which will make you more uncomfortable, the awkwardness or the content? In any case, many readers will be turned off by the gratuity of the novel. Those who are comfortable with or entirely desensitized to this kind of gratuity may not appreciate July’s bizarre sense of humor. It’s a pick-your-poison kind of situation.

Similar Books: I don’t know of any authors quite like Miranda July. Her dry and off-kilter humor and her disturbingly relatable caste set her apart from her contemporary author-peers. I would say the closest contemporary author to July’s style is surrealist author Haruki Murakami, only instead of Murakami’s talking cats there are July’s telepathic babies, and instead of jazz and spaghetti, there’s Gregorian chants and kale scrambles. Check out Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Sputnik Sweetheart, or 1Q84. For another fun tale of misguided, delusional protagonists, though, check out John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces.

Miranda July at Neumo's in Seattle (Photo credit: Paul Gibson)

Miranda July at Neumo’s in Seattle (Photo credit: Paul Gibson)

On Salman Rushdie’s “Midnight’s Children”

3 Feb

Midnight's Children [1981] by Salman Rushdie

Midnight’s Children [1981] by Salman Rushdie

Not only did Salman Rushdie’s luminary novel Midnight’s Children win the Man Booker Prize, but it won the Best of the Booker Prize. It’s the Bookerest of Booker Prize-Winners. It’s the  Über Booker. And if that alone is not enough to compel you to read this, then you’re hopeless. Midnight’s Children tells the epic tale of a family intertwined with the fates of India and Pakistan: two nations struggling for independence from years of colonialism. In Rushdie’s unique style of magical realism, and contextualized in an historically tumultuous era, Saleem Sinai discovers his midnight birth–the exact time at which India declared its independence from Britain–imbued on him supernatural abilities and an inexplicable connection to the fate of his nation. The novel is at once bizarre, hilarious, and heartbreakingly real.

“Reality can have metaphorical content; that does not make it any less real.”

Saleem Sinai is living out his life in a pickle factory. He believes he is “falling apart” slowly through growing cracks in his body, and he has to be tended to by a thick-armed assistant named Padma. With death near, Saleem must write his story and, with loyal Padma at his feet, his only audience member, he begins to tell the complicated story of his family beginning with his grandfather Aadam Aziz. Aadam embodies the start of things: he brings back Western medicine to his small Kashmiri village, and so begins the massive shifts of a colonized nation to modern independence. He falls in love with the beautiful Naseem who, at first, only allows the young doctor to treat her multitude of ailments through a hole in a white sheet held aloft by her muscular bodyguards. Aadam woos her and begins a cycle of change as the political climate of India becomes increasingly restless. India, under the thumb of Great Britain, is straining at her bonds.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the lawyer and statesman who orchestrated India's independence and the formation of Pakistan.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah was the lawyer and statesman who orchestrated India’s independence and the formation of Pakistan. (Photo credit “yes yes hi”)

Padma, and probably the 98% of Midnight’s Children‘s readership, is impatient for the point at which Saleem enters his own story, but he’s still interested in giving the important back story to the events leading up to his birth and the simultaneous birth of an independent India. Aadam Aziz and his wife Naseem give birth to five children: three girls and two boys. Naseem, soon dubbed with the ominous title Reverend Mother, keeps her home with a rigorous and religious hand. In this house, silence and starvation are forms of punishment. Young Mumtaz Aziz, the middle daughter, finds her escape through a young businessman Ahmed Sinai. She changes her name to Amina Sinai, severing her ties to her past, and the story moves one generation closer to Saleem’s entrance. Saleem’s parents move into the home of a departing British colonialist William Methwold, who sells his house for dirt cheap on the one condition that the new owners change nothing about the house for two months: neither re-papering the walls, nor discarding a hairbrush. The new Indian owners must retain every last British belonging in the house, leaving no room for their own lives. The metaphor is strong with this one.

(Photo by Marcin Wichary)

Saleem grows up in a villa whose legacy belongs to its former British owners. The imprint of the former colonialists is strong and unavoidable throughout his childhood. (Photo by Marcin Wichary)

Then, the moment we have all been waiting for–patient Padma included–arrives. Saleem Sinai is born at the stroke of midnight, the exact moment India’s independence is declared. In the same hour, one thousand other infants are also born, and all are imbued with magical abilities and fates intertwined with that of their mother nation, the newborn India. It doesn’t take long for Saleem to realize his power: he can read the thoughts of everyone around him, and ties the Midnight Children together through telepathy. Others can fly, change gender, teleport, or kill people with their knees. The children are spread across the country, spread across socio-economic barriers and tribes, but Saleem brings them together in a journey to understanding their potential. A year later, Saleem’s younger sister arrives. Her rambunctiousness, her untamed spirit, and her strange compulsion for destructive behavior (like burning people’s shoes) earns her the nickname “the Brass Monkey.” For a few dozen blissful pages, Saleem is a boy and the Brass Monkey is a girl, and their childhoods are filled with childlike events. For the two siblings and their cohorts, growing up in the tumult of their struggling new nation is an adventure, but in young adulthood and as the unrest between Muslim and Hindu intensifies, the two begin to involve themselves more actively in their fates.

“From ayah to Widow, I’ve been the sort of person to whom things have been done; but Saleem Sinai, perennial victim, persists in seeing himself as protagonist.”

Saleem finds himself enlisted in Pakistan’s army, fighting against his fellow Midnight Children and against the country bound to his life. The story begins to come full circle when Saleem’s sister Jamila “the Brass Monkey” Singer involves herself by performing from behind a perforated white sheet, making her audience and all of Pakistan fall in love with little bits of her at a time. It is the sign that Saleem’s tale is about to turn back on itself, the entire narrative a massive palindrome that is fated to reoccur for a 1,001 generations of knees and nose and nose and knees. Saleem, embodiment of India, does everything cyclically and backwards: he “gives birth” to many parents as they give new births to him, create new identities and new childhoods; he overturns the power of the colonialist to the colony, from government to its people.

In a stroke of fate, I read the Pioneer Cafe chapter at a cafe in Pioneer Square. I guess working in Pioneer Square helped fate along.

In a stroke of fate, I read the chapter “At the Pioneer Cafe” at a cafe in Pioneer Square. I guess the fact that I work in Pioneer Square helped fate along.

Rushdie uses words to demonstrate the reflective nature of his narrative. He flips words around (“Knees and nose and nose and knees” or “son and brother … brother and son“) in a way that lyrically reminds readers of this constant mirroring. This author doesn’t just create images with his words; his very words are themselves the images. At every moment, Rushdie amazes me with his attention to detail and devotion to the story. From his sing-song waywardness that reads more like a oral retelling to his meticulousness attention to the placement of every phrase, adjective, and ellipses to his tongue-in-cheek self-awareness, Salman Rushdie is undeniably a literary genius.

“That’s how it was; there can be no retreat from the truth. I shall just have to shoulder the burden of the doubter’s disbelief.”

Rushdie changed the way the history of India’s independence was perceived by tying its story to that of a human being. The link of fates made young Saleem Sinai’s life more magical and more wildly dangerous, and it made India’s history less chaotic, more human, and, through Saleem’s narration, readers get to understand the story through the biased and loving eyes of India itself, of a man whose every joy and sorrow was India’s joy and sorrow. And when I say, “sorrow,” I mean it. Despite the moments of levity and glimpses of Rushdie’s enlightened wordplay, this is a story of the pain of existence and the unavoidable loss that comes with gaining freedom.

Read It: Midnight’s Children is on every respectable book list of modern literature, and I read it to mark it off one such list, but it’s worth reading for anyone interested in the historical fiction genre, in the cultures of India and Pakistan, or in the style of magical realism. Rushdie is a top-rated name in magical realism and, while MC is relatively grounded compared to others like Haroun and the Sea of Stories, you will get your fix with the story of Saleem Sinai and his family drama.

Don’t Read It: Between the narrator and the story the narrator tells, Midnight’s Children can be a little confusing. Salman Rushdie’s writing style requires no small measure of attention as he guides readers through the fragmented, repressed thoughts of his characters, and a casual audience may find the layered narrative frustratingly broken. You might be as frustrated as Saleem Sinai’s audience of one, Padma, as she waits impatiently for Saleem to get to the point of his story. You’ll have to be patient for over 500 pages, and for some, it won’t be worth the wait.

Similar Books: Rushdie spends more time telling stories about stories in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which is much shorter and lighthearted than Midnight’s Children. For another beautifully written story of India, though, read the Man Booker Prize-winner The God of Small Things by the god-like Arundhati Roy. Just make sure you bring your box of Kleenex to catch all the feelings.

On F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Beautiful and the Damned”

4 Nov
The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Read its original review published in the New York Times.

What do get when you put a shallow, narcissistic, entitled, lazy man in a room with a shallow, narcissistic, entitled, selfish woman? Now add classism, money (or the lack thereof), and a pinch of self-loathing. Congratulations. You have the recipe for an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel of ultimate gloom. A year after his first novel, and three years before his magnum opus The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald published The Beautiful and the Damned. It tells the sweet, sweet story of Fitzgerald’s romance with Zelda Sayre through the thinly veiled fictional representations Anthony Patch and Gloria Gilbert. Set in the robust backdrop of early 20th Century Manhattan, the Prohibition, and a young, wealthy nation on the brink of global war, the story of Anthony and Gloria is the perfect example of the youthful wantonness of the Lost Generation, and the horrors that oppose them: poverty, boredom, and the loss of beauty.

1922 film adaptation

The film adaptation of The Beautiful and the Damned was released at the end of 1922, a handful of months after the book was published. Rumors say another adaptation is due, and will star Keira Knightly.

Anthony Patch carouses his way across Manhattan with his bros Maury and Dick, living off and taking advantage of his grandfather’s millions. When Anthony meets the inimitable, youthful Gloria Gilbert, he is entranced and, for the first time, believes he is in love. Gloria accepts Anthony’s love as superior to her other suitors’ affections, and the two end up married. They make the most of Anthony’s allowance. They chip away at their savings and bond funds to stave off boredom through endless parties and constant libations. They are young and beautiful and dole out their razor judgment to everyone around them, including each other.

…there were the high-piled, tight-packed coiffures of many women ad the slick, watered hair of well-kept men–most of all there was the ebbing, flowing, chattering, chuckling, foaming, slow-rolling wave effect of this cheerful sea of people as to-night it poured its glittering torrent into the artificial lake of laughter….

Through all the wantonness, selfishness, and carelessness, Mr. and Mrs. Patch establish themselves as paragons of the Lost Generation. In their youth and with the promise of Grandaddy Patch’s inheritance, both gloried in the ephemeral. They made a point to revel in all things mortal and temporary, because, after all “only the romantic preserves the things worth preserving,” and there’s nothing worse than being a romantic. But when the promise of wealth is suddenly at risk and our heroes wake up to find their youth flitting away, they stand in horror on the precipice of an unknown future. Mortality turns from a goddess to a monster, especially as war looms in Europe.

The real life happy couple: Zelda and Scott. I bet they're both tight in this photo.

Anthony and Gloria’s blissful marriage is modeled after F. Scott Fitzgerald’s amorous relationship with Zelda Sayre.

Anthony and Gloria’s relationship–made tenuous already by their equally narcissistic personalities–begins to truly crumble under the weight of relative poverty and onset middle age, and each of their most wonderful characteristics are strengthened. Anthony paints himself a pitiable victim of a cruel system, and I’m not sure how much Fitzgerald doesn’t agree with the attitude he created. According to Anthony, the worst traits Gloria exhibits are being quarrelsome (read, “opinionated”) and unreasonable (read, “won’t submit to me”). But her worst flaw has to be being a straight-up sociopath. Gloria simply cannot imagine anyone else’s pain or inconvenience. Walled off as she is behind her fortress of superiority, she is as inaccessible as a partner as she is a character, and my own schadenfreude only lasts for so long. The length of The Great Gatsby is just about right for Fitzgerald’s heavy-handed devices, unsympathetic anti-heroes, and melodramatic themes.

Your life on earth will be, as always, the interval between two significant glances in a mundane mirror.

Read this book if … you are a patient person; if you don’t mind misogynistic, racist, classicist, white male writers; if you love the Lost Generation and everything it stands for: mindless frivolity, aggressive self-destruction, getting what you want when you want it. Even if you don’t love Fitzgerald and his American modernist peers, you have to admit that they throw the best party among the most pathetic circumstances.

Don’t read this book if … you despise drama queens. TBatD is the story of the suffering of the 1%, and it is virtually impossible to feel any kind of sympathy for the novel’s two central characters as they “struggle” to survive their quickly shifting circumstances. Fitzgerald can also be a little heavy-handed with his themes, and if the banality of the protagonists doesn’t drive you crazy, the petulant Irony and Beauty will.

This book is like … the original Gone Girl. It’s the story of two people systematically destroying each other with the age-old weapon called “marriage.” Maybe I made the connection because I just saw Gone Girl the movie twice in theaters, but the second I thought it, all I could see was an ice-cold, sadistic Rosamund Pike as Gloria, manipulating a vapid, narcissistic Ben Affleck as Anthony, both too absorbed with love-hating each other to notice that the light at the end of their tunnel of aristocratic suffering isn’t daylight but the steam-rolling train of tragic realization.

The inimitable F. Scott Fitzgerald

The inimitable F. Scott Fitzgerald in his military get-up. Fitzgerald didn’t see the front, but his experience in camp makes an appearance in TBatD.

On Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” and Amy Bloom Live

21 Oct
Lucky Us

Lucky Us

Apparently, I needed a six-week hiatus from all things book-related, but you better believe I’m back now, despite the glorious initiation of the NFL regular season. (Just don’t expect any blog posts on Sunday nights.) I can’t think of a better author to get me off my lazy ass than Amy Bloom, with her powerful, imagistic storytelling and her epic whirlwind plots. On August 4 at the Seattle Public Library, Bloom read from her newest novel Lucky Us and immediately hooked me on her quiet authority. She filled the room with her presence before she even read a word, and when she did start reading, the author of Away–nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award–reminded me why I love her stories.

In Lucky Us, half-sisters Eva and Iris work out their tumultuous love-hate relationship with World War II-era America as their backdrop. Eva’s story begins when her mother leaves her on the doorstep of her father and half-sister, and she narrates her life as she knows it: being the shadow of the captivating, horrible, hilarious characters around her. The narrative alternates by chapter–from Eva’s first-person perspective to the letters from Iris years into the future to the close third-person perspectives of secondary characters–as the sisters and their makeshift family travel from coast to coast back again, picking up and losing members along the way.

Fireside Chat

Eva, like many of her fellow Americans, spends her days entranced by the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt in his Fireside Chat.

Here are the three things you need to know about Amy Bloom:

1) Her greatest strength is writing incredibly three-dimensional characters. With Bloom’s background in psychology, she shows that she knows people. None of her characters are perfect, but they are all relatable. They are all believable. They are all real people. In the reading she gave in Seattle on August 4, she said, “The goal for me isn’t to create characters. The goal for me is to create human beings.” In the short length of the novel, Bloom creates a plethora of human beings. None of them seem to be very likable, even the passive, apathetic Eva, but something can be said for creating a unlikable human beings really, really well.

2) Bloom believes “World War II is where you saw the seeds of change begin to crack,”  and that belief led to her extensive research of the state of a country on the brink of yet another global war. From era-specific music to the lure of Hollywood, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the internment Japanese- and German-Americans, Bloom sets a solid historical foundation for her sweeping family epic.

Manzanar

One character finds himself

3) For Bloom, novel-writing is like a race against time and space. She has to cover as much ground and as many years as she possibly can, and she’s only got 250 pages to do it! While her short story style is concise–pithy even–and jam-packed with content, Bloom’s novels feel plot development on steroids. Lucky Us begins in Eva’s youth. She is an abandoned daughter, a younger sibling in the shadow of her flippant, teenage half-sister, but by the end of the novel, decades have passed, and everything has changed. It may feel as if Bloom writes in generalizations because years pass in a single paragraph, or characters travel cross-country in half a sentence. But truthfully, Bloom’s prose is so efficient and terse that she doesn’t need a hundred pages to describe a road trip.

SPL

Bloom is as succinct and impactful in person as she is in her writing. At her reading in Seattle this summer, she established herself as an expert on people and an expert storyteller.

Read this book if … you enjoy historical fiction, character-based stories, and/or American epics. There are many things Bloom excels at, but my favorite is her apparent love and respect for the American epic.

Don’t read this book if … you’re a sucker for details. Bloom doesn’t care much for those. She’s a brilliant character sketch artist. She’s genius at the long game. But her broad brush strokes aren’t for everyone.

This book is like … Bloom’s first novel Away in its scope and similar content. Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a young, first-generation immigrant to the United States. Lillian embarks on a cross-country journey from New York to Alaska in order to be reunited with her daughter who was separated from Lillian and left in Russia. Lucky Us also reminds me of A View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. The Nobel Prize-winner Munro writes mostly short stories, as does Bloom, and both authors’ attention to history and epic perspective feel extraordinarily similar. One major difference is Bloom’s tendency toward the romantic and Munro’s tendency toward the understatement. Both are excellent.

Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. All to say, she’s a badass.

 

On John Darnielle’s “Wolf in White Van”

14 Oct
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle follows the meandering voice of Sean Phillips–disfigured and left in solitude by a tragic event in his childhood–into the Trace Italian, in the hope of finding refuge from reality.

If it weren’t for a friend of mine, I would never have heard of John Darnielle’s debut novel Wolf in White Van or John Darnielle’s acclaimed band the Mountain Goats (Thank you, @shriver!). Yes, I know. I’m a dirty philistine, but my eyes are open now. I may not throw on the Mountain Goats’ bouncy tunes by choice, but I will pick up any other novels Darnielle decides to write, because Wolf in White Van was an absolute thrill to read.

In Wolf in White Van, Sean Phillips narrates his reclusive life with an only half-lucid, meandering voice that leads readers through the maze of his memories and fantasies. Sean is the inventor of Trace Italian, a mail-in role-playing game set in post-apocalyptic America. Players from around the country send Sean their moves, and Sean mails them their results in return. Encroaching hunters offers players the choice to run, hide, or forage for food; finding a hut in the desert offers the choice to explore it or move on. Each choice leads to another. Each road destroys the possibility of other roads. Trace Italian is a universe of infinite possibility, and though the goal of the game is to find the Trace Italian–a safe refuge hidden from the horrors of this barren world–readers will learn that sometimes the goal isn’t at the end of the game but at the beginning, where it all started. When Lance and Carrie–two teenagers looking for escape–find themselves lost in Sean’s creation, even Sean’s fortified sanctuary begins to crumble.

“I feel my own freedom remembering this turn, what it means to find a place where the world’s shut out for good at last, where all signs point back at one another and the overall pattern’s clear if you look hard enough.”

Everything unravels and points backward in time toward the event that both destroyed and rebirthed Sean’s life, and event that directly led to his creation of the Trace. As a teenager, Sean was grossly disfigured and hides away to save others the discomfort of seeing him, hearing him speak, enduring his presence. Trace Italian provides most of the contact Sean has with the outside world, and he forms bonds with its players through small, insightful signs they give him with their handwritten game turns.In the astrologer’s hut. Through fragmented passages and no semblance of linearity, Darnielle etches out a schizophrenic narrative that circles a single tragic event in Sean’s past, and try as he might, he cannot shut out his own memories. There is no refuge that can protect Sean from himself. Everything he does traces inwards into a dark interior, more complicated than his ruined exterior.

Trace Italienne

A trace italienne, or star fort, is a type of gunpowder-age fortification designed to minimize risk by cannonball to the main walls of the fort. To Sean Phillips, the Trace Italian is a mythological sanctuary and the goal of his mail-in game.

If there is any criticism I can offer of Darnielle’s debut novel, it’s that WiWV is too brief. I’m a big fan of escapism and so is, supposedly, Sean Phillips. But we spend very few pages in the meat of Trace Italian. A couple of paragraphs of Sean’s second-person, choose-your-own-adventure role-playing game gives readers a glimpse of a vast, alien world, but I felt like I was told I was looking at a Brachiosaurus while being shown a single vertebra. I didn’t quite believe the Trace could be a real haven for Sean or a real danger to Lance and Carrie, because I didn’t quite believe the Trace was a real place. I wonder what Darnielle could have done with another hundred pages.

All you need to say is, "White van," and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility.

All you need to say is, “White van,” and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility. Add the word “wolf,” and you have yourself the worst kind of predator.

The area where he excels is creating incredible, surreal images in a way that reminds me of Don DeLillo or Haruki Murakami. Young Sean Phillips spends his post-event time watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network in the wee hours of the morning, bingeing on talk shows hosted by pink-haired pastors’ wives and evangelistic specialists on the evils of popular culture. Sean is drawn in by the bizarrely repetitive segments that cover the same topics using almost exactly the same words over and over again. One specialist warns of the rock and roll lyric that, played backwards, actually says, “wolf in white van.” It’s a message from Satan. It’s a sign of evil. Sean wonders what it means. He explores the ludicrous but inherently dangerous image of a starving, predatory wolf in an inherently dangerous vehicle like a white van. There is a monster, lying in wait, setting the trap, luring its next meal.

The question becomes, who is the wolf? Is Sean the disfigured monster luring innocent victims into his trap of a universe? Or is Sean the victim, the lured one, the innocent one? As Sean lies prone–both in the isolation he created for himself as an adult and in the hospital in his past, recovering from an unbelievable tragedy–and builds the Trace Italian within himself. He raises walls of dirt and forgotten things, and cloaks himself in his own version of the truth.

“When I was a child, I dreamed of powers like these, but I no longer have those dreams. I am free.”

John Darnielle

John Darnielle reads Wolf in White Van for the Macmillan audio book. Check out first few minutes on SoundCloud!

Read this book if … your body is ready. WiWV is a crazy ride, short as it is. Read it also if you’re already a fan of The Mountain Goats. The novel reads as if Darnielle expounded on one of his angsty death ditties–short chapters feel like verses, and the rhythmic prose moves the story along to a steady beat. Make sure you listen to “The Sunset Tree” on repeat while you read.

Don’t read this book if … disjointed narratives bother you. This plot doesn’t move linearly, and it may take some careful reading to follow along. A casual reader may still find it entertaining, and Darnielle’s voice is captivating whether you know what he’s talking about or not, but WiWV requires a good deal of attention to keep pace with the experimental story structure and keep track of the heavy symbolism.

This books is like … the dark, scary version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, in which a virtual reality game is substituted for a written one and the whole story is told from the perspective of players instead of the creator. On the level of narratives, WiWV reminds me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and, on a lesser scale, of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist or maybe Mao II, but without the over-the-top, self-adoring postmodern mumbo jumbo (mumbo jumbo that I deeply love, so don’t get me wrong).