Recent Reading Roundup 37
I went through an unplanned blogging hiatus this summer, which meant that a lot of books and movies that I would have liked to write about ended up unreported (though some of them will be showing up in my forthcoming year's best list). Still, it seemed wrong to end the year without another look at what I've been reading (one of the things I'd like to get back to next year is full-length book reviews, which is something I've let slide, but this will do for now). Those of you who haven't been following along on twitter (or who have been defeated by its ephemeral format) might also be interested in the conclusion of my read-through of the Sherlock Holmes canon--here are my thoughts on The Return of Sherlock Holmes, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes.
- The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - Tartt's bestselling, Pulitzer-winning novel kicks off with a terrorist bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker loses his beloved mother in the explosion but survives himself, and in his addled state, steals the titular masterpiece. For the rest of The Goldfinch's 800 pages, the painting functions as both a talisman and a millstone for Theo--a reminder of his mother's love (it was her favorite work) and of the world of beauty and kindness he lost with her death, but also a source of anxiety, as he worries about being prosecuted and jailed if he tries to return it, and alienates potential friends in trying to keep its secret. Tartt doesn't quite manage to argue that Theo's fears of the authorities throwing the book at a theft committed by a traumatized, concussed child are realistic (but then, late in the book, she seems to suggest that Theo himself doesn't really believe in this danger, and is keeping the painting for more selfish reasons), but The Goldfinch is extremely effective at conveying the toll that trauma, sudden loss, and uncertainty take on Theo's psyche. Though not officially mistreated--he bounces from the home of a friend's affluent but chilly family, to the Nevada desert with his abandoning, neglectful father, who allows Theo to run wild, then back to New York where he's taken in by a kind but unworldly antiques restorer--Theo is left to more or less fend for himself, and his obvious bewilderment at being thrust into the world unprotected is heartbreaking. Distrustful of his new guardians, and anxious about being torn from them and deposited somewhere worse, he expends all his energies on gaming the system and fobbing off those in authority, and none on processing his trauma and growing up--which eventually leads, in his twenties, to an involvement with the criminal underworld, as he sells fake antiques and hobnobs with art forgers.
Despite its length, The Goldfinch is a compelling, engaging read, effortlessly evoking both the wood-paneled rooms of New York's upper classes and the dusty decay of a half-built Las Vegas suburb. But by the time one approaches the end of the novel--in which Theo's criminal acts, his concealment of the painting, and his emotional instability all lead him to a self-imposed exile in Amsterdam and a violent crescendo to the story--it's hard not to wonder what the point of all this was. Did the world really need another baggy coming-of-age novel about a middle class white guy who struggles with self-absorption and self-loathing? Even more importantly, did it really need a novel that is as obvious a retelling of Great Expectations as The Goldfinch is? On the latter point, it's particularly disappointing that Tartt passes up any and all chances to address the problems that Dickens poses to modern readers. Like her 1992 breakout novel The Secret History, The Goldfinch is steeped in a snobbishness so profound that it goes out the other end into self-parody. Goodness, in this novel, is associated with the sort of old-world, Anglophile gentility that wouldn't be out of place in an Edith Wharton novel, with people who love Old Masters, classical music, and early American furniture, and are politely bewildered by any pop culture artifact produced after 1960. The actual realities of American life, meanwhile, are treated--even by a modern teenager like Theo--with horror and incomprehension, as in the case of his grotesque stepmother Xandra, a spray-tanned, pill-popping New Age freak. People of color, in this construction, are almost entirely absent except as cheerful, devoted servants--the doormen at Theo's building, or the housekeeper who loved his mother so much that she offers to work without pay. (In a particularly tone-deaf moment, Theo's horror of going into the foster system is illustrated through the example of a pair of black children who were abused and murdered by their foster parents. It seems to have escaped Tartt's notice that this brief mention immediately throws into sharp relief how petty Theo's self-pitying concerns are, and how privileged he is in comparison to the children not deemed interesting enough to star in this story.) The novel's Estella is Pippa, a girl who caught Theo's eye in the moments before the explosion, and whose fascination for him is rooted equally in love and in his need to dwell on their defining traumatic moment. The Goldfinch occasionally hints that Pippa is just as troubled as Theo, just as haunted by what they experienced and just as lost (in her case, even more profoundly; being in the explosion throws Theo into the world of antiques and provides him with an avocation, but the injuries she sustains cost Pippa her future as a professional musician). But it never allows her to become a real person, rather than the idealized object of Theo's obsessive--and, as even he is eventually forced to admit, unhealthy--love.
Tartt is known for taking years--just over a decade, in this case--to produce her novels, and especially given that weight of investment it's hard to look at The Goldfinch and not wonder what it was all for. In its closing chapter, The Goldfinch launches into several pages of Theo trying to explain his new life philosophy, but though this creed is unobjectionable--don't get hung up on labels like good or bad, or waste your life obsessing about which one describes you; just be kind and loving to other people--it's also thin enough to drive home that there's really nothing at the heart of this novel. And its failures when it comes to race, class, and gender only reaffirm how shallow and unnecessary it is. (It's both interesting and sad that Tartt's only attempt to buck the snobbishness that infects her writing, her second novel The Little Friend, which has a female protagonist and tries to treat its working class characters with respect and explore their humanity, is also her least successful work, and that its poor reception is almost certainly the reason she returned to the milieu and tone of The Secret History in her third effort.) I'm coming off more negative on The Goldfinch than I actually felt while I was reading it, when I was carried along by Tartt's engaging prose and story, but by the time I turned the last page, the book's pleasures had faded, and I was left with its hollowness and its lingering problems.
- Inversions by Iain M. Banks - This stealth-Culture novel (whose stealth is wasted since every list of Banks's SF identifies it as such) has some echoes of Banks's more ambitiously structured work, such as Use of Weapons or Feersum Endjinn, with two storylines proceeding concurrently but with enough ornate worldbuilding detail that it can take a while to work out how their settings and time periods relate to one another. But in nearly every other way this is a major departure for Banks, his SF writing, and the Culture sequence--a novel rooted in character and emotion rather than elaborate SFnal invention, or in the grand scale of the Culture and its neighbors. This is all, of course, in service of the same goal as all Culture novels, the question of the Culture's right to interfere in the business of other races, and of the methods it uses to achieve its goal of spreading peace and prosperity, but in Inversions that question is examined on a very personal scale. In one plot strand, the narrator is the apprentice to Vosill, a foreign doctor in the court of the king, who has scandalized the court and the political system with her gender and her attempts to influence the king towards a kinder, more progressive mode of rule. In the second storyline, DeWar, a bodyguard in the service of a Napoleon-like usurper, tries to protect his master from multiple assassination attempts even as the empire he's built begins to crumble. Both stories are largely about interpersonal drama--Vosill's apprentice falls in love his mistress, who is herself in love with the king; DeWar develops a friendship with Perrund, the emperor's concubine, who slowly reveals her history of suffering and abuse during the emperor's wars--but interwoven through both are the central questions of the Culture sequence. Vosill is trying to make a difference while doing no harm; DeWar is protecting a violent warlord who might be a better ruler than his predecessors. Which is the right approach?
It's a concept that is perhaps too slight to carry a whole novel--or perhaps the whole thing would be more compelling if knowing that Inversions was a Culture novel did not make it so obvious who the Special Circumstances agents are (though I suspect not; I think that reading the novel cold would have been a supremely annoying experience, as so much of it is opaque unless you know the secret, and there aren't enough plot twists or action scenes to distract from that obliqueness). Banks has never been a particularly good writer of characters, and his tendency to plump for melodrama, particularly when it comes to the unrequited romances in Vosill's story, robs the book of much of its affect. (Another problem is the way that Inversions uses rape in both storylines; Vosill's story ends with a gruesome scene of attempted rape whose graphic description is not made any less exploitative by the fact that the rape is prevented at the very last moment; in the other story, Perrund's revelation that she was gang-raped as a child has no effect on the burgeoning romance between her and DeWar, despite the fact that she has obviously not recovered from the experience.) In the end, it doesn't feel as if Inversions adds much to the conversation that all Culture novels are involved in. The personal stories through which Banks chooses to approach it obscure the central issues rather than clarify them, and the dual twists at the end of the novel--in which Vosill is forced to commit violence, and DeWar is forced to acknowledge the personal cost of his big picture approach--feel more than a little schematic. The novel ends up working only as well as its characters do, and since the most compelling one of them, to me, was Perrund, whose story is glimpsed only in pieces through DeWar's eyes, this made for a patchy experience.
- The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox - On a summer's night in 1808, a heartbroken eighteen-year-old French peasant, Sobran Jodeau, take a bottle of his father's wine into the hills to drown his sorrows, and meets an angel. The two share the wine, and make a pact to meet on the same spot every year for the rest of Sobran's life. This is the starting point of Knox's novel, a strange, lush historical fantasy, and from it she spins out a number of enticing, interwoven stories. The Vintner's Luck is a portrait of early 19th century French peasant life, following Sobran's fortunes as he marries, has children and loses some of them, flourishes as a vintner, and becomes an influential figure in the village. Knox's portrait of the community, with its subtle nuances of class, family connection, and unspoken secrets, is delicately drawn and full of vivid characters, chief among them Sobran himself, who grows into an irascible, strong-willed man whose gruff demeanor belies the befuddlement he experiences whenever he encounters the numinous in the form of his winged friend. At the same time, The Vintner's Luck is a fantasy, with a meticulously constructed cosmology that gives not only the angel--whose name is Xas--but god and Lucifer and several other Biblical figures roles and stories to contrast against Sobran's human drama. (The one problem with this aspect of the novel is its unquestioned assertion that Christian theology is the correct one; there's more than a frisson of discomfort when Xas reveals to Sobran that one of his other human friends is a Turkish woman who, as a result of her friendship with the angel, converted to Christianity.) And finally, The Vintner's Luck is a love story, at points a deeply sensual one, between Sobran and Xas (as well as Sobran and several other human lovers). It's a romance that takes decades to unfold and suffers multiple complications, but despite its otherworldly elements Knox succeeds at making the relationship feel weighty in just the right way. When Sobran and Xas fight, their arguments are as petty and knowing as any other married couple's; when they make up, the resulting affection is often homely and mundane. Taken all together, these different elements should amount to a mess (especially in a novel as relatively brief as this one) but Knox miraculously manages to weave them all together into something beautiful and moving, which ultimately becomes a meditation on love and loss as the inevitable end of Sobran and Xas's relationship approaches. The Vintner's Luck is very much its own thing, and in some ways indescribable, but it's also truly worth a look.
- Tenth of December by George Saunders - About ten pages into Saunders's collection, one of the most lauded books of the last few years, I sighed and decided that it and I were probably not going to get along. Saunders seemed to be writing in the familiar vein of literary short story writers--minute, well-observed pieces with little in the way of plot or resolution--and I envisioned myself admiring Tenth of December but not really getting the fuss. About twenty pages after that, I got the fuss and then some. Saunders, of course, writes beautifully, his prose spare and incisive, and often quite funny. But the true magic of his stories is how they often conjure whole worlds in just a few pages--the internal worlds of their characters, such as the fantasist, Walter Mitty-ish protagonist of "Al Roosten," but sometimes also strange alternate worlds. Several of the stories in Tenth of December are unabashedly SF, and where you'd usually expect a literary writer dipping their toes in genre to write simplistic worlds with overwrought social messages, Saunders's light touch and sharp humor are as present in these stories as in the mimetic ones. In "The Semplica Girl Diaries," a middle class parent desperate to keep up appearances buys a lawn decoration made from living job migrants, and though this feels like too outlandish a concept to work Saunders is deft enough at describing the social nuances of this future society and its timeless need to keep up with the Joneses that you buy both the fad for such ornaments and the narrator's ability to ignore their profound cruelty. In "My Chivalric Fiasco," a theme park employee receives a promotion as a bribe for overlooking a superior's crime, but the new job involves being chemically altered to be truly chivalrous, and in that mode the employee can't keep his mouth shut about the injustice he witnessed. The humor of the story only lightly conceals the horror at its core, both at a technology that can alter people's personalities, and at an economic system that forces employees to accept such a treatment, and then punishes them for its consequences. And then there are stories where Saunders lets his humor fade, and the sad humanity of his characters come to the fore, as in the title piece, which intertwines the narratives of a terminally ill man bent on suicide and the lonely, precocious boy who decides to save him--a premise that might have been maudlin but is instead deeply moving (and also very tense, as both characters come close to death). It feels a bit silly to say that a book that has been decorated with almost every award possible turns out to actually be very good, but if you've been put off Tenth of December by its aura of respectability, I strongly urge you to give it a chance.
- The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters - A new Sarah Waters novel should be an event, so I was a little surprised at how muted the response to The Paying Guests has been. A hundred pages into the book, that reaction seemed a little less remarkable. Not that The Paying Guests is bad--it's as sharply written and plotted as any of Waters's novels, and just as compulsively readable. But readers looking for the delicious ambiguity and slippery characters of her last novel, the masterful The Little Stranger, will be disappointed. The Paying Guests, by comparison, is something much more mundane, a love story whose strong depiction doesn't quite make up for the familiarity of its beats. Set in 1922, the story centers on Frances, the only surviving child of an upper-class London family shattered by WWI and ensuing financial crises, who has let her sense of duty and propriety distance her from the rebelliousness of her youth. Struggling to pay the bills, Frances and her mother decide to take in lodgers, the lower-class but vivacious Leonard and Lilian. The early chapters, which chart Frances's unease at this incursion into her and her mother's life, and the subtle currents of class snobbery between the two families, are very well observed, but it comes as no surprise when Frances and Lilian become friends, and then more than that. The problem is, Waters doesn't really have anywhere interesting to go from that point. She's very good at describing the feverish, obsessive tenor of Frances and Lilian's affair, their growing desperation at being kept apart by the two other people in the house, but once that sense of claustrophobia is established, what can she do with it? Her choice is a rather melodramatic one that shifts the focus fatally away from the novel's strongest aspect, Frances's psyche. The book's final third, in which Frances and Lilian are torn apart by guilt and nearly caught in a legal noose, feels slack and boring compared to the tension of their early friendship and courtship. It's hard to know why we should care about these two characters, who suddenly seem very mundane where before their love affair felt as grand to the reader as it did to them--which means that the central question of the book's final chapters, can Frances and Lilian overcome the darkness that has come between them, is a lot less urgent than Waters needs it to be. In her afterword Waters says that The Paying Guests was inspired by several famous murder cases among the British middle class in the 1920s, but it lacks the nasty streak it would have needed to truly do those cases justice, or the emotional depth necessary to make their horror truly resonate. Instead, the book feels a little bit like Frances herself--too wedded to its respectability to be any real fun.