Recent Reading Roundup 38
For a number of reasons, I found myself neglecting my literary fiction reading in the first half of 2015. I tend to bounce back and forth between litfic and genre--too much of the mimetic stuff and I find myself longing for something about more than a few people and their emotional issues; too much SF or fantasy and I end up wishing for something more concrete to hold on to. So this last month I've been indulging in the "respectable" end of the literary spectrum (not all of the books below are properly litfic, but most of them are marketed that way), and, unsurprisingly, finding the same mixture of good and bad there that I do in genre.
- The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North - There was some surprise when North's novel ended up on this year's Clarke shortlist. Or, at least, there was on my part, because the plot description for Harry August, in which a British man experiences his life during the middle decades of the 20th century again and again, eventually becoming embroiled in a mission to stave off the end of the world, fairly screamed "commercial potboiler with tangential genre connection" (it certainly doesn't help that in both its premise and its setting, Harry August feels like a genre-ified version of Kate Atkinson's decidedly literary Life After Life, though I suppose the two books' publications were close enough that North arrived at her premise independently of Atkinson, who anyway is hardly the first to have used it). As it turns out, North is more ambitious than I gave her credit for. She takes the time to work through the mechanics of her repeated life device, most especially in her invention of the Cronus Club, a society of repeaters (or "kalachakras," as they term themselves) who discover new members and teach them how to survive, send information back into the past for the benefit of curious researches and financial speculators, and most importantly, enforce the rule that no undue interference in the major events of history is allowed, lest it lead to the end of the world (as it already has in previous timelines). The main thrust of the novel is Harry's attempt to figure out the fundamental laws of time and space that make people like him possible, in which endeavor he's joined by his sometimes-enemy and sometimes-friend Vincent, who is advancing technology at a dangerous rate in order to achieve this goal. The last third of the novel, in particular, is a cat-and-mouse game between these two men, as they try to outsmart one another with their knowledge of the past and the future.
For all that, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August still left me cold. Partly this is North's doing--where Atkinson made no attempt to work out the rules and implications of her repeated life device, North is rigorous with hers, which paradoxically only calls attention to the fact that it doesn't make any sense except as a contrived and hopelessly artificial literary trope. If you think for even a bit about the rules that North spells out for her novel's universe, the only conclusion you can reach is that they were laid down by a very present, interventionist, and rather capricious god (or an author), and yet none of the novel's characters acknowledge this--as they obviously can't, since trying to work out the laws of nature is the crux of the novel's story. (For example, Harry frequently wonders whether the world ceases to exist after his death resets it, but the fact that he remembers the deaths of older kalachakra surely puts the lie to that assumption. But if that's the case, then how is it possible that the woman who introduces Harry to the Cronus Club was on her twentieth life when she did so, when Harry was only on his fourth? They should both be experiencing the same iteration, even if hers starts before his on the linear timeline.)
But I think a bigger problem that Harry August reveals to me--one that can't be laid at North's feet--is that I just don't care for the repeated life device. I understand its appeal--it's fun to imagine how the same story might have played out if things had been just a little bit different. But to me, indulging in that impulse is almost inevitably depressing and demoralizing. The freedom to live your life over and over again comes hand in hand with the knowledge that no matter how well you arrange it, in the end it'll all reset to zero. Harry August, the novel and the character, are both aware of this fact, and much of the story revolves around Harry's attempts to find meaning in an existence that is empirically meaningless. But, well, that's not a lot of fun to read about (pretty much the only writer to have managed it is Harold Ramis in the screenplay for Groundhog Day, which uses humor to both defuse and acknowledge the paralyzing hopelessness of its protagonist's situation). Harry August tries to compensate for the bleakness of its story through spy novel antics, as Harry tries to outsmart Vincent and figure out his plan, but though these are well-written, they didn't do enough to distract me from Harry's own growing ennui. In the end, I couldn't figure out what I was meant to be reading this novel for, what I was meant to be hoping for. The premise of saving the world isn't enough to do it, since even Harry himself can't work up much enthusiasm for the project--he takes it on largely out of boredom, and even then he sets it aside for decades and even ends up working to bring judgement day closer for a bit. And Harry's victory over Vincent is achieved less through his being particularly clever or resourceful, and more because he manages to wait his opponent out, and largely due to a quirk of his biology that means that when Vincent subjects him to a procedure that should erase his memory, he still retains it. Perhaps if I found her premise less dispiriting, I would have been able to overlook these problems in North's execution in favor of what is still a smart and accomplished novel, but the combination of the two leaves me unimpressed.
- The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel - There was a minor uproar over the title of Mantel's second short fiction collection when it was published last year. Even without any strong associations, positive or negative, with Thatcher's name, I thought the title was a bit provocative. Having read the stories in this collection, however, it feels entirely apt and earned, as nearly every one of them is deeply political and suffused with a profound and very specifically-aimed anger. In the title piece, the narrator's home is invaded by an IRA member who plans to carry out the titular assassination when Thatcher leaves a nearby hospital after minor surgery. Though the story engages with its counterfactual nature--the narrator pauses near the end to admit that, of course, the assassination never happened, but leaves it to us to decide whether it was aborted, or happened in a parallel universe, or was merely a wishful fantasy--its main thrust is the narrator's conflicted feelings about the unfolding events. It's not that she doesn't want Thatcher dead, she explains, but she's worried about her own life, or being blamed after the fact, or her political issues with the IRA. Other stories, like "The School of English" or "Winter Break," deal with the fraught and often abusive relationships between rich westerners and the poor, non-white people who wait on them, while "Sorry to Disturb" is a (probably autobiographical) narrative of a friendship between a bored British company wife in Saudi Arabia and a local businessman, which quickly develops unsettling undertones due to the expectations placed on both of them in a rigidly gender-segregated society. Though Mantel's convictions are clearly and strongly felt, I found them a little overpowering--or at least, a little hermetic. The best writing brings you into its writer's headspace, but for all that Mantel's language is beautiful and precise, I found myself shut out of most of the more political stories in Assassination--they were clearly written for someone who could remember themselves in that particular political context. I enjoyed much more those stories in the collection whose themes felt more universal--"Harley Street," a piece about working relations and class tension which ends up, surprisingly enough, telling a vampire story, and "How Should I Know You?", about a writer making a gloomy journey to a small-town speaking engagement. Even these, however, felt like a stopgap measure, while we wait for the third volume in Mantel's Thomas Cromwell trilogy to be published.
- Rustication by Charles Palliser - In 1989, Palliser published The Quincunx, a twisty, impeccably plotted melding of the Victorian sensation novel and the modern fashion for unreliable narrators and psychological realism. It helped launch a subgenre--we probably wouldn't have had Waters's Fingersmith or Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White without Palliser paving the way for them--but it must be said that a lot of the authors who followed in Palliser's footsteps have improved on his work, particularly when it comes to writing believably complex characters, and to peering beneath the surface of Victorian mores about class, gender, and sexuality. Nevertheless, Palliser kept plugging away. He published one short work of contemporary fiction (The Sensationist), one novel that completely defies description (Betrayals), and another piece of Victoriana (The Unburied). He returns to that last genre with Rustication, in which the young narrator, Richard, banished from Cambridge for unspecified crimes, returns to his ancestral home, where his mother and sister have moved after the death of his father and some dimly-referenced public shame. The novel's overall Gothic tone--Palliser never misses an opportunity to stress the dilapidated condition of the house, the depressed state of the family's finances which often leads them to skimp on candles and fires, the gloominess of the weather and of the surrounding marsh, the unfriendly, secretive behavior of the servants and neighbors, and most of all the obvious (to the reader, if not to Richard) conspiracy between his mother and sister--is augmented by obvious references to staples of 19th centry fiction such as The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Bleak House, The Hound of the Baskervilles, and even the real-life George Edalji affair. In the foreground, meanwhile, the naive, opium-addled Richard is trying to work out why the women in his family have such extreme and changeable reactions to his presence in the house and what the various whisper campaigns in the neighborhood are about. When malicious, vulgar letters are delivered to the women of the neighborhood, and the local livestock are mutilated, he finds himself under suspicion, and has to work out the secrets his family has been keeping from him.
The actual mystery at the heart of Rustication isn't very hard to figure out--only the narrator's self-absorption and ingrained sense of entitlement keep him from working it out far sooner than he does. But Rustication is short enough that that lag between the reader and the character's understanding isn't too frustrating. What is frustrating, however, is that the novel is told from the perspective of a privileged, selfish young man who, even if he doesn't exactly deserve the nasty fate that is being cooked up for him, also doesn't do much to deserve the happy ending he actually gets. So many of the authors who followed Palliser used the template he laid out to examine how restrictive and corrosive Victorian social mores were, especially to people who weren't rich white men. Palliser himself did this, in fact, in The Unburied, which uses the revelation that its villain is gay to reflect on the fact that restrictive social conventions have forced this man to commit criminal acts, and even gives him a happy ending with his lover. In Rustication, however, Palliser seems to serving Victorian conventions more or less straight-up. The villains of this piece are all women, and there's only the faintest acknowledgment that what's forced them to behave so horribly is the marriage game in which they're compelled to sell their bodies, but also treated like damaged good if they do. Sex, in this story, is inevitably associated with evil and corruption, and the only "good" women are the one who abstain from it entirely--a naive and virginal old woman; the neighbor who reenacts the plot of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, living in saintly seclusion and suffering slanders against her reputation because of the bad behavior of the abusive husband she abandoned--and the servant who makes herself sexually available to Richard, but does so because she really likes him, not for any expectation of marriage. Palliser clearly wants Rustication to be the story of its protagonist's moral awakening and coming to maturity, particularly when it comes to gender roles--he ends it with a more rounded understanding of the pressures that are brought to bear on women in his society, and learns to forgive the ones who victimized him in an attempt to save themselves. But this burst of empathy feels too sudden and unearned, especially at the end of an entire novel in which Richard treats every woman he comes across as a receptacle for his hurt feelings and sexual fantasies. Becoming a better person does not justify the nasty person he was for most of the story, nor does it change the fact that while he escapes and gets a second chance at life, the women he leaves behind are given no such shot at redemption.
- You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt - At the height of the Cold War, twelve-year-old Sarah and her best friend Jenny write letters to Yuri Andropov asking him not to start a nuclear war. Only Jenny receives a reply, which includes an invitation to tour the USSR, and she quickly becomes a celebrity and child ambassador for peace while the neurotic, needy Sarah is left behind. When Jenny dies a few years later in a plane crash, Sarah is left with nothing but questions: did her magnetic, adored friend really love her? Why did they drift apart after Jenny's rise to fame? What happened to Sarah's letter? Ten years later, Sarah receives a message from a woman who claims to have met Jenny on her Russian tour, and claims, additionally, that Jenny is still alive, and that her death was faked to conceal her parents' defection. You Are One of Them bills itself as a thriller--or perhaps was billed that way by its publishers, hoping to cash in on the post-Gone Girl craze for female-authored, female-oriented mysteries that play with perception and narrative reliability. This, however, is not to its benefit. The actual question of whether Jenny is alive turns out to be fairly unimportant to the novel, and the elements of the story that could be called a mystery or an espionage narrative appear only in its final third, by which point the solution feels both obvious and not very urgent. The heart of the novel is Sarah, a woman with serious trust and self-esteem issues who saw in Jenny everything she wanted to be but couldn't. The best parts of the novel are the ones that examine the sometimes nurturing, sometimes corrosive friendship between Sarah and Jenny, and the ways in which Sarah learns to cope with loneliness after Jenny's death. Holt writes sensitively about these subjects, and weaves them into the history of the Cold War and descriptions of post-Communist Russia in interesting ways. But for all that, it's probably to the novel's benefit that it is relatively short. If you leave out the backbone of its sensationalistic premise (which was borrowed from the real-life story of Samantha Smith, whom I hadn't heard about before reading this book), You Are One of Them tells a rather thin story. That it goes down quickly makes that thinness easier to stomach, but I hope that Holt finds something more substantial to write about in her next outing.
- The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt - Disappointed by her reception in the art world and convinced that it is rooted in sexism, artist Harriet "Harry" Burden embarks on an ambitious project she calls Maskings. She engages three male fronts to present three different works, and plans for the revelation of her authorship to expose not only the sexism rife in the art world, but the effect that attaching a male face to it has on the work itself. When Harry's unmasking occurs, however, her final collaborator Rune, a renowned performance artist in his own right, denies that she had any input into his work, and her project fizzles into a damp squib that later takes a sinister turn when Rune kills himself as part of another work that borrows heavily from Harry's. The Blazing World, which presents itself as a scholarly work compiled a decade after Harry's death (and her posthumous rediscovery by the art world), is made up of excerpts from Harry's diaries, reminiscences from her friends and family, and various document fragments relating to her work and the controversy surrounding Rune and his death, all converging on their break and the reason that Maskings failed. Unlike other constructed narrative novels, however, The Blazing World isn't a mystery to be puzzled out. There's never any doubt that Harry created the final part of Maskings, and the question of why Rune killed himself (and whether that was his intention or an accident) isn't very central to the novel.
What The Blazing World seeks instead to achieve with its kaleidoscopic format is a fully-rounded, intimate portrait of Harry herself, a furiously intelligent, rage-filled, "difficult" woman who is riven between her burning desire for recognition and her disdain for the narrow-minded art world that could never figure out what to do with her. Though Hustvedt's topic is unabashedly feminist (and though Harry herself is a staunch feminist, frequently breaking into rants about the suppression of women's art and the ways in which her intelligence and talent were diminished by colleagues who saw her only as the wife of a renowned dealer), The Blazing World and its heroine are much spikier and more complex than the straightforward narrative of sexist dismissal that Harry spins. Harry is full of contradictions, as angry at herself for spending decades in her husband's shadow as she is at him for refusing to promote her art. And her hunger for recognition (and for the right kind of recognition; several of the characters interviewed in the novel point out that Harry could have sought out alternative, women-friendly venues to display her work, but kept plugging away at the laddish, newness-obsessed New York galleries) is as offputting as it is righteous, often bubbling over into fits of rage and even violence. For all these flaws, however, it's impossible not to fall in love with Harry, who is not just smart but endlessly fascinated with the world, full of snippets of information about art, philosophy, literature, history, psychiatry, neuroscience, and a myriad other subjects, which she weaves together into a fascinating, coherent artistic vision. (Rather gratifyingly for genre fans, one of her reference points is the story of James Tiptree Jr., which also allows Hustvedt to hint at Harry's own ambivalence towards her gender identity.) Flawed as she is, and frustrating as she is as a human being, there's never any doubt that Harry is the real thing as an artist, and perhaps the most profound feminist statement made by The Blazing World is that it allows a woman to embody those contradictions, so often reserved for men.
As well as constructing this vivid portrait of a brilliant, complicated woman, The Blazing World is remarkable for how joyously, effortlessly erudite it is. Nearly all the characters are artists, scholars, critics, or in some way immersed and fascinated by their chosen fields, and their narratives are dripping with references, quotes, allusions, and a sense of their love of knowledge. This is a novel about intelligent people talking intelligently about complicated and abstruse subjects, and while this might sound dry or hard to get through, it's actually the most fun I've had reading a book in a long time. I don't understand modern art at all, but Hustvedt's descriptions of artists creating and thinking about their work, of the thought and philosophy that go into installations that can seem random and cobbled-together, are endlessly compelling to me (in fact it's possible that I get more out of reading her describe how Harry's art comes together and the thinking that went into it than I would from seeing the actual work). They make The Blazing World a story about one of my favorite subjects--people hard at work on something that means the world to them, even if no one else understands it. It's impossible to put down The Blazing World and not want to remain immersed in its world of art and thought and creation, and impossible not to want to spend more time with Harry and her unusual, original way of seeing the world.