Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Recent Reading Roundup 15

This recent reading roundup is brought to you courtesy of my brand new MacBook Pro and the almost anticlimactic process of setting it up--simply connect the new computer to the old one via a FireWire cable and come back in an hour to find your old computer mounted on a device with double the RAM, triple the disk space, and four times the processor speed. To quote Giles, I felt so useless, just sitting there and not contributing. Incidentally, if anyone in Israel is interested in a PowerBook G4 in good condition, drop me a line.

At any rate, to dispel the perception that the last month has been spent doing nothing but watching and writing about Deep Space Nine, here are a few books.
  1. The Child in Time by Ian McEwan - Dan Green at The Reading Experience recently wrote an essay comparing McEwan's early novels to his later ones, and concluding that the former are better, sharper, and more savage critiques of the class issues that permeate most of McEwan's fiction. I seem to have the opposite reaction. I've loved all but one (Amsterdam) of McEwan's later, post-Enduring Love works, but like The Cement Garden, The Child in Time left me cold, and with the distinct impression of an author still finding his voice and developing his skills. The Child in Time is the story of a couple's disintegration after their three year old daughter is kidnapped from a supermarket, never to be seen again, and McEwan's description of her parents', and particularly her father's, devastation and inability to cope are deft and heartbreaking. The novel's conceit is that, just as young Kate has become disconnected from time, prematurely prevented from growing older and making a life for herself, so her parents are unable to move forward, trapped in the moment in which she was taken from them. In order to convey this timelessness, the narrative moves back and forth in the protagonist's lifetime with very little warning or explanation, but McEwan's technique is not yet strong enough to support this kind of ambition. He's not yet the writer who could create a latter-day Mrs. Dalloway with Saturday, and as a result I found myself bored and uninterested. The novel improves in its latter half, but the good character work gets lost in the shuffle, amidst a lot of messy stuff about politics and philosophy, and some rather obvious speechifying about the redemptive power of love and the importance of moving on from grief. I can't help but compare this novel to Enduring Love, another book in which a couple has to survive a terrible ordeal, which is understated, subtle, and ultimately a great deal more convincing than The Child in Time.

  2. Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler - The question of whether Fowler's first novel is or is not SF (because the title character, who appears in the American north-west in the mid-19th century and drags a Chinese laborer off on an adventure, may be an alien) is a famous litmus test among fans of literary SF. I'm not so sure what my answer would be (though I'm leaning towards no), but I do see points of correlation between Sarah Canary and Fowler's Nebula-winning short story "What I Didn't See," as well as the James Tiptree Jr. story it, in turn, references, "The Women Men Don't See." Like both of those stories, Sarah Canary isn't so much about aliens as it is about alienation, specifically of disenfranchised minorities--women in the Tiptree story, women and non-whites in Fowler's story, and just about anyone who isn't an able-bodied, able-minded, white male in the novel.

    In all three works, there's a yearning among the disenfranchised to escape--to run off with aliens in Tiptree's story, or with gorillas in Fowler's. Sarah Canary, being a novel, is broader and deeper than the two stories, and explores the causes and effects of disenfranchisement more fully (including the way that reviled classes oppress one another--Chin, the protagonist who is swept up by Sarah Canary, thoughtlessly approves of foot-binding, and Adelaide, the suffragette he meets, is just as thoughtlessly prejudiced against him because of his race). As a result, it avoids neat solutions such as the promise of straightforward escape. Though they touch wonder of one sort or another--if she isn't an alien, Sarah Canary might be a figure out of Chinese or Native American myth, or she could just be a garden variety lunatic--its characters can't hold onto it, and at the novel's end they remain very much in our world, and still the victims of prejudice and oppression (which, as the novel's coda reminds us, are still very much with us today). It's a powerful work, but I'm not too thrilled by its construction. There are points where the narrative gets bogged down in historical detail and just plain weirdness, and others when the plot just races and pulls you along irresistibly. Technically speaking, Sarah Canary is a very uneven work, but it's so thought-provoking that I can't make much of its failures, and it is probably my favorite of Fowler's novels.

  3. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver - I was a little dubious about picking up Shriver's extraordinarily well-received and popular novel, as I'd long ago been spoiled for its twist ending, and wasn't quite certain the novel would work for a reader who knew what to expect. As it turns out, the novel was something of a disappointment, though not for the reasons I'd expected. Kevin, which unfolds in a series of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin, written in the wake of a school shooting in which their son Kevin kills seven people, is compulsively readable and fascinating, but I can't help but feel that Shriver is trying to have her cake and eat it too. She seems to have wanted to tell a story about the pressures and expectations of motherhood, and the way that women feel forced to get it absolutely right, and unable to express themselves when it fails to suit them, or when their children turn out unlikable. Which makes her choice to make Kevin evil almost from the moment of his birth inexplicable. Throughout the novel, Eva is tormented by the knowledge that she doesn't love her son, but as Shriver portrays him, Kevin, a malicious, manipulative, joyless monster, is inherently unlovable, except to his father, who steadfastly refuses to see the kind of person his son actually is (which ultimately turns Franklin into an insufferable character, and further strains the integrity of the novel's plot when Eva, fearing for her life and the life of her younger child, refrains from leaving home because she still loves him).

    By the time We Need to Talk About Kevin arrives at its climax, it is more a horror novel, along the lines of The Bad Seed, than a meaningful discussion of the realities of motherhood. I'm almost tempted to read the novel as a political allegory with Kevin standing in for America itself, in which Eva is a leftist, clear-sighted about the monster she's created but unable to stop it, and Franklin is a rightist, so besotted with the idea of parenthood (as he is with the idea of America, for which he gleefully ignores its faults) that he refuses to acknowledge its less than perfect reality. It must be significant, after all, that Eva begins to write her letters soon after the 2000 presidential election. Whether or not that's the reading Shriver intended, the novel's ending, in which Kevin inexplicably and with no foreshadowing expresses remorse for his actions, and in which Eva decides to forgive him and try to act like a mother to him, seems to have come from an entirely different novel, one in which Kevin's problems, and Eva's inability to care for him, were portrayed more subtly. For all of my problems with it, however, I gulped We Need to Talk About Kevin down. Eva is an engaging narrator and she tells her story well--even if you know where it's going. It's just a shame that Shriver couldn't find a way to say more with what is clearly a prodigious storytelling talent.

  4. The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith - I don't think I've ever read a novel so full of its own importance. A noir mystery with a lesbian twist, The Blue Place came highly recommended by several of my favorite bloggers (and its sequel, Always, was a Lit-Blog Co-Op pick a few months ago, which is what prompted me to pick the book up in the first place), but for the life of me I can't figure out what book they read, as the one I slogged through honestly put me in mind of fanfic, both in terms of the quality of writing and due to the sheer tonnage of angst the narrator, Atlanta cop turned bodyguard and all-around badass Aud Torvingen, experiences. Her voice is a ceaseless drone of self-aggrandizement by way of self-pity: look at me, I'm so tormented as I wear my $1,000 dollar suit to my practically optional job doing something I'm widely recognized as being exceptionally good at, while constantly musing over how much smarter, stronger, and better I am than everyone I know or meet. Isn't it horrible that I can kill a person using only my eyebrows? And by horrible, I mean cool, but I'm going to keep calling it horrible so you'll feel sorry for me and won't notice what a conceited, humorless bore I am. Griffith seems to have grasped that a noirish detective needs to be flawed and very nearly irredeemable, but she's missed the corollary to that rule, that those flaws need to be unattractive. Aud's flaws are the emo kind that get teenage girls all aflutter.

    The plot is largely forgettable, and takes about twice as long as it needs to unfold because Aud is, quite unintentionally, I assume, as dumb as a sack full of hammers. I have almost no investigative ability, so a good rule of thumb is that a mystery I can work out is far too easy. In The Blue Place, I worked out not only the identity of the killer (by using the same logic that tells you who the traitor in Star Trek VI is) but also every single investigative leap several dozen pages before Aud got around to it. The other characters are mostly stock types--the super-efficient office manager/den mother, the courtly southern gentleman, the wise matriarch--with very little individuation. The exception is the femme fatale and Aud's love interest, Julia, but, in a bizarre twist, she's just as flat and inhuman as female characters in traditional, male-centered, noir. She has no existence in her own right, and no purpose besides teaching Aud to love--something she obsesses over even on her deathbed. Right now, The Blue Place is strongly in the running for worst book of the year--I certainly hope I don't read anything worse.

  5. St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell - I was blown away by the title story in this collection when I read it in Best American Short Stories 2007, and most especially by the way it combined genre elements--the title is quite literal--and a mimetic attitude with a deftness that mainstream writers rarely demonstrate. As it turns out, my mistake was assuming that Russell is a mainstream writer. In fact, she's a writer very much in the vein of Kelly Link, and like Link her stories feature fantastical happenings reported in a matter-of-fact tone and set in mundane, modern day American settings, usually of the white-trash variety. The comparison to Link is unkind--Russell lacks her sharpness and her focus, and far too many of the stories in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves feel underdone, and often seem to stop midstream. Nevertheless, there's a lot of promise here, and though none of the stories measure up to the title piece, most of them are worth reading: for the narrators, usually precocious and slightly odd children, for Russell's way with words, and for her odd sense of humor. I'll be interested to see what she does next--with a bit more discipline she could really produce something special.


Anonymous said...

There was a point while I was reading The Blue Place that I thought "Who is she? Batman?" She has that air of being exceptional at every thing she does.

Which makes her Big Error near the end (keeping that vague to avoid spoilers) all the more inappropriate, story-wise.

I did like the description of Norway, though. That part was pretty interesting.


Hannah said...

>but as Shriver portrays him, Kevin, a malicious, manipulative, joyless monster, is inherently unlovable

Mmm. I would write that sentence more like, " Eva portrays him..."

If we believe Eva then yes, there's not a whole lot of _there_ there. But if we take Eva's perspective on Kevin (in particular) as a result of this concern:

>the pressures and expectations of motherhood, and the way that women feel forced to get it absolutely right, and unable to express themselves when it fails to suit them

it gets a whole lot more nuanced and interesting.

To me, anyway.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Yes, I certainly agree that Shriver intends for us to question Eva's perspective, but I found this impossible. Eva ascribes so many excesses to Kevin that we can't simply call her an unreliable narrator. Either she's telling the unvarnished truth, and Kevin is a sociopath, or she's deluded and maybe even insane. There is no middle ground, which is once again because Shriver went so far overboard in making Kevin a monster.

Foxessa said...

I heard "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves" read on my local public radio station's program, Collected Shorts, which usually has 2 - 3 short stories read by professional actors and actors, in a theater to an audience and recorded for the program. It broadcasts here on Sundays, and start my weekly workouts while listening. Often the authors are part of the program, providing a brief 'biography' of her/his story or whatever, which is also informative. I'm not so fond of reading short fiction, but I do like hearing it very much.

As far as the Griffith novel goes, you're on the money there too.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

P.S. Griffith's latest, Always is even worse in all the ways that have already annoyed you.

There's nothing to this one except everything that annoys.

I'd found redeeming values in the earlier ones, but this finished me reading any more.

Love, C.

Hannah said...

::shrug:: I found plenty of middle ground, but mileage does vary.

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