Recent Reading Roundup 48
The theme of this recent reading roundup is awards lists. Specifically, mainstream literary award shortlists like the Booker and the Women's Prize. That's not an area of literature I tend to frequent, since the books nominated for those awards often strike me as flat and narrowly-focused. But there are certainly enough exceptions to make these awards worth the occasional look--this year's Booker longlist, for example, is full of enough off-the-wall choices to almost make me reevaluate the entire award (I wrote elsewhere about Richard Powers's The Overstory, which challenges commonly held notions of what a novel is and what its focus should be; nor is it the only book on the longlist of which this could be said). I didn't love all the books I write about here--and some sadly conformed to my prejudices about award-nominated litfic--but there are definitely reads here that were more than worth the effort.
- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James - I was a great fan of James's previous novel, the dark, feverish Book of Night Women. So I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to Seven Killings, which after all won the Booker in 2014, but perhaps there was some self-protective inkling that here, our interests would diverge. Like Night Women, Seven Killings is a historical novel set in Jamaica, this time concentrating on the mid-70s, and taking as its linchpin the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in 1976. Like, I suspect, a lot of outsiders to Jamaican history, I knew that story mostly as an inspirational anecdote: Marley was shot the day before being scheduled to appear at a peace concert, and despite being lightly wounded, insisted on taking the stage, saying "The people who are trying to make the world worse aren't taking the day off. How can I?" James doesn't seek to explode this perception of Marley--on the contrary, to most of the novel's characters, he is a secular saint, and the man himself appears only briefly, as if he were too grand and holy a figure to attempt to depict in fiction. But the point of Seven Killings is to set the stage for the assassination--the warring political parties and their associated street gangs whose violence Marley was trying to stop (while also associating himself with the left-wing government of Michael Manley); the CIA's halfhearted but nevertheless baleful interference in the island's affairs; the desperation of ordinary Jamaicans to get away from the island's poverty and generational violence.
A Brief History of Seven Killings is a dense book. Told in alternating point of view segments by people who are connected to the shooting in various ways--a gang boss who is inspired by Marley to try to rise above his history of violence; a stringer for Rolling Stone who senses that there is a bigger story developing, but can't convince his bosses, for whom reggae music is a sideshow at best; the local CIA station chief--James writes in a slippery stream-of-consciousness, often heavily inflected by Jamaican patois. It makes for a challenging read, but a rewarding one in the novel's first two thirds, in which we count the hours and days leading up to the shooting, and address its immediate aftermath. But in its later segments, in which James follows the people involved in the shooting for years after it (well past Marley's own death from cancer), this approach starts to drag. It's easy to see his project--he wants to chart the reverberations from this single act of violence until every person involved in it is in the ground. But for me at least, following along on this journey required too much investment--not least, in the assumption that Marley's shooting was a major event worthy of this kind of minute attention. I found the segments of Seven Killings that used Marley, and his near-assassination, as a window to Jamaica's history to be quite fascinating, especially the way that Jamaica's left-right political conflicts, and the US intelligence agencies' attempts to influence them in favor of the right, end up presaging a lot of conflicts we see today. But the later parts of the novel seemed to require more interest in Marley, and in the still-open mystery of his shooting, than I could make myself feel.
- Sabrina by Nick Drnaso - The big buzz about this book is that it's the first graphic novel ever to be longlisted for the Booker, and I'm here to say that--overdue as that distinction obviously is--it's also entirely earned. Drnaso's style is highly reminiscent of Chris Ware, with many small, spare panels depicting characters in static positions, standing in their under-furnished houses or walking down nondescript suburban streets. But instead of general-purpose ennui, as in Ware's work, the focus in Sabrina is on a terrible violation, the disappearance of the title character, and how it affects the people in her orbit--her sister Sandra, her boyfriend Teddy, and Teddy's childhood friend Calvin, who agrees to take him in after the other man suffers a breakdown. Drnaso's choice of style is a perfect fit for his subject matter, effortlessly avoiding sensationalism and instead highlighting the horrifying mundanity of life in the wake of a tragedy. This horror is only compounded when, after Sabrina's body is discovered (this happens fairly early in the book, and with a typical lack of sensationalism) the media attention lavished on her case brings out troupes of internet crazies who begin harassing Sandra and Calvin, while Teddy falls down a rabbit hole of internet conspiracy theories that help to make sense of the nightmare his life has become.
It's an excellent turn of plot, very topical and sadly common, but if I have one complaint about Sabrina, it is that Drnaso takes the too-common approach of treating the poison spewed at his characters as a general-purpose failing of the internet. In reality, these kinds of mobs tend to be rooted in various forms of right-wing fanaticism--racism, misogyny, gun nuts insisting that victims of mass shootings never existed. In Sabrina, while the trolls who persecute our heroes evince traits of misogynistic hate mobs or gun right conspiracy nuts, there's no indication that there's any ideology at the back of their behavior, or a specific reason why Sabrina's case should have caught their attention, beyond simply being attracted to anything that gets a bit of a spotlight. It's a choice that leaves the book feeling less relevant than it could have been, and maybe even a little misleading--identifying a symptom while eliding the actual disease. Nevertheless, this remains a powerful work, brilliant at depicting the crushing weight of grief, and the toll that a sudden eruption of violence takes, even on people who are two or three degrees removed from it.
- Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin - As well as being nominated for several other major awards, this is the book that won this year's Tournament of Books, and what's more, did so by playing a perfect game, winning every single round on its way to the championship, and sweeping aside such contenders as Lincoln in the Bardo, Exit West, and Eugene Lim's Dear Cyborgs--three of my favorite books from the last few years. And, I'm sorry to say, I'm just not feeling it. I can see how in certain cases, the brevity and immediacy of Schweblin's horror novella would feel like a refreshing change of pace from a heavier read. But taken on its own, it feels like a gimmick whose main claim to fame is knowing not to outstay its welcome. Told as a dialogue between a dying woman, Amanda, and David, a boy who is obsessively trying to figure out when and where she came across the supernatural menace that is now killing her, Fever Dream offers a detailed narrative of the last few days in Amanda's life, in which she obsesses about protecting her young daughter even as weirdness closes in around her. Her narrative begins with a nested story in which David's mother Carla tells Amanda about an illness he barely recovered from as a baby, after which he became altered and sinister. This is probably the best part of the story, full of dark imagery and portents of doom. But the follow-up to it feels mechanistic. We know we're meant to be scared, but most of what Amanda describes are by-the-numbers horror film tropes, and the story's opaque ending leaves it feeling like much less than the sum of its parts or its atmosphere.
Another point that leaves me feeling rather cold about Fever Dream--and which I am surprised (but, honestly, not that surprised) that the ToB judges weren't struck by--is the story's handling of disability. When Carla tells Amanda about the change in David, she describes a happy baby who suddenly goes cold and distant, who becomes obsessed with minutiae, whose speech patterns are strange, and who has bizarre preoccupations that seem oddly adult. In other words, the classic description of an autistic child. And yet David is meant to be a monster--even described at one point as missing a part of his soul. I don't know whether Schweblin intended this analogy--though the fact that the town the story takes place in appears to have an epidemic of birth defects and developmentally delayed children suggests that she is at least aware of the connection--and if she did, I'm really not certain what she meant by it. There is, of course, a long history of horror fiction using disability, and the conflicted feelings of the parents of disabled children, as a metaphor or a trope. But that history is not without its problems, and there is nothing in Fever Dream that suggests that it is trying to engage with those issues. Instead, it ends up feeling just as flat on this level as on every other--an impressive performance, but one that lingers with you, if it does at all, for entirely the wrong reasons.
- Everything Under by Daisy Johnson - In its early chapters, Johnson's second novel (she is also a respected poet) feels like something very familiar, a novel of middle class ennui told in spare prose that is nevertheless plugged directly into its characters' emotions. Narrator Gretel lives a solitary life, shuttling between her evocative but improbable job at a dictionary, and her remote cottage. That life has recently been disrupted by the return of her mother Sarah, who disappeared when Gretel was sixteen, abandoning their already precarious existence, and vanishing so completely that Gretel has made a habit of periodically calling local morgues to see if her mother's body has turned up. Now suffering from dementia, Sarah insists that Gretel tell the story of her teenage survival and of her search for her mother, and in turn she tells the story of Gretel's early childhood, when the two were living on a boat on an unnamed river, and befriended a runaway teenager known alternately as Margot or Marcus. It's in the dive into these linked stories that Everything Under makes its turn into weirdness, and becomes a slippery, slipstreamy narrative that is half realism, half mythology. Is Fiona, the woman who had such a profound impact on Marcus's life, just an ordinary trans woman, for example, or is she Tiresias, the gender-swapping prophet? Is the Bonak, the monster that Sarah, Gretel, and other river-dwellers fear, an actual supernatural creature, or a serial killer preying on people who live half-outside the law and the reach of the authorities?
Johnson shows her hand a little too soon--about halfway into the story, you suddenly realize what she's doing, and from that point it's hard not to wait impatiently for the obvious turns of plot to occur. But her control of tone is so impressive, balanced just perfectly between dark fantasy and social realism, and her characters are so winning--in particular, Marcus's adoptive parents, who initially seem like a forgettable middle class couple but reveal themselves to be people of profound kindness who have suffered far too much, are a wonderful creation that I could have stood to read a lot more about--that even knowing where the story is going, the pleasure of getting there is significant. If I were to describe in bald terms what Everything Under is doing, it would sound glib and uninteresting, but Johnson's execution makes it feel like a world in its own right, experimenting with genre and theme in a way that few other authors do (I'd be interested to see if the novel makes the Tiptree list next year), and ending up so much more than the sum of its parts.
- Warlight by Michael Ondaatje - The most conventional of the Booker longlistees I've read, and not coincidentally, the one that I feel most confident predicting for the shortlist. Ondaatje's short, dreamy novel starts from what I can only describe as a completely serious, dramatic retelling of the first chapters of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Two siblings, Rachel and Nathaniel, suffer the sudden loss of their parents, albeit not from death but from a genteel sort of abandonment. It is shortly after WWII, and Rachel and Nathaniel's parents announce that work is taking them abroad. The children are to be left in the care of the family's lodger, a shady character referred to as The Moth, who quickly fills the house with an array of demimondains--forgers, race fixers, veterinarians who moonlight as robbers' assistants, ethnographers who moonlight as spies. These all turn out to be connected to the children's parents through their activities in the war, when their semi-legal talents were put to work in espionage. Now, with the world order still asserting itself, some of them are active in counter-revolutionary activity, or mopping up resistance groups that don't quite fit the new status quo. The children are only dimly aware of all of this, but nevertheless they manage to get sucked into the Moth and his friends' world. Rachel becomes an actress, while Nathaniel becomes the assistant of The Darter, who illegally imports racing greyhounds.
It sounds very exciting when you describe it, and there are a few scenes of action around the middle of the book. But most of the story is spent peering through the fog of a child's incomprehension of their parents. When the children's mother returns, Nathaniel goes back to live with her for a few years, but achieves only a partial understand of her wartime and post-war activity, and why it has endangered her so much. Later, as an adult, he learns more, but at that stage the point of the novel feels completely lost. For a while it feels as if Ondaatje is gesturing at the fundamental seediness of intelligence work and nation-building--the act that has made Nathaniel's mother a target turns out to be as far from wartime heroism as it is possible to get. But in this, as in so much else about the novel, he is extremely vague. The ending includes a sudden return to Nathaniel's time with The Darter to reveal how his thoughtlessness and self-absorption hurt people, but again Ondaatje's handling of this subject is too polite and distant to have much of an effect. Warlight is beautifully written, and joins the ranks of books about little-known aspects of the war that we will probably continue seeing for years (see Manhattan Beach from last year). But beyond that, I don't see that it has a point.
- Swimmer Among the Stars by Kanishk Tharoor - The stories in this collection range wildly between past and future, reality and fantasy. They have settings as diverse as ancient Rome, post-colonial Morocco, the well-appointed enclaves of the Upper East Side, and outer space. It can be hard to pinpoint a theme that unites them--besides, of course, Tharoor's dry-yet-affectionate tone and his careful attention to details--until one suddenly realizes that what ties them all together is loss. In the title story, the last speaker of an unspecified language plays host to ethnographers who want to record her speech, and muses about the insufficiency of their project, and her own inability to convey what this language and its loss mean to her. In "Tale of the Teahouse", a nameless city prepares to be sacked by a nameless khan, as the dwellers in the titular establishment proceed with their usual indolence, insisting that by doing so they are giving the doomed city meaning--after all, in what other place could people who are completely useless be able to survive and maintain their pointless lifestyle? In "A United Nations in Space", set in the mid-21st century, the delegates of the UN are evacuated to an orbital hotel after Manhattan is reclaimed by the sea, and observe helplessly as the planet roils beneath them, international order and even nations falling to climate catastrophe and war, while in space the Secretary General tries desperately to hold on to a dying idea of unity. Some of the stories are series of vignettes--"The Mirrors of Iskandar" follows the exploits of a romanticized version of Alexander the Great, and "Letters Home" travels back and forth across the ancient world to follow travelers and their tenuous, often hopeless efforts to maintain contact with the places they've left behind. All the stories are sad and beautiful, and together they create a sense of a world that is far bigger, more varied, and more full of lost and forgotten treasures than we allow ourselves to acknowledge.
- When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy - I have a slight quibble with this book's inclusion in this year's Women's Prize shortlist, in that I really wouldn't call it a novel. First, because long before this is confirmed in the book's afterword, it is obvious that what we're reading is a memoir only thinly concealed as fiction. The excesses described here, during the nameless narrator's four-month marriage to a man who was emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive, are too specific to be anyone's invention--only real life can be this horrible and this absurd, at one and the same time. And second, because despite being a work of prose, the book that I was most reminded of while reading When I Hit You was Claudia Rankine's Citizen, which is also presented in prose paragraphs but is still clearly a work of poetry. There's a similar sense here that it's the weight and meter of Kandasamy's words we should be paying attention to, a similar feeling of a series of thoughts and moments strung together rather than a continuous narrative--which makes sense not only because Kandasamy is also a poet, but because the experience she describes can't really be captured in anything as straightforward as narrative. In the book's opening chapter, the narrator listens to her mother tells the story of her escape from her husband, making herself the hero of it. This leads the narrator to conclude that she has to write her story herself in order to reclaim it. But another message seems to be that any attempt to tell her experience in a straight line will do violence to it, and therefore she's chosen a style that can be described alternately as an anti-novel, poetry in prose, or a poetic memoir.
None of this should be taken as a complaint about When I Hit You's recognition by the Women's Prize. On the contrary, since I don't tend to read memoirs or poetry collections, I might have missed this book if it hadn't been on the shortlist, and that would have been a grave loss. When I Hit You is, simply, stunning. Funny and thought-provoking as often as it is horrifying and infuriating, it moves back and forth in the narrator's marriage, as well as incidents that occurred before and after it. Each chapter is dedicated to a different theme, as the abuse the narrator suffers progresses from manipulation, gaslighting, isolation, all the way to rape and attempted murder. In one chapter, the husband demands access to the narrator's online accounts (he burns himself with matches until she agrees), and proceeds to answer emails on her behalf and even delete her entire online history. In another, he becomes obsessed with getting his wife pregnant, dragging her to humiliating appointments with fertility doctors who talk over her head and don't respond to the obvious signs of abuse in the marriage. Another chapter moves back in time to the narrator's previous relationship, which wasn't abusive but in which she was nevertheless taken advantage of, and which sets the stage for her marriage by classing her as used and soiled. These incidents come together to create a hellscape that slowly stifles the narrator's willingness to escape, her ability to see the world through her own eyes, not her husband's. It's particularly fascinating (and depressing) to read the scenes in which the husband uses his and the narrator's shared leftist ideology to tear his wife down, accusing her of petit-bourgeois hang-ups and claiming to be deprogramming her from her selfish, self-regarding feminism. In one particularly cutting scene, the husband forbids the narrator from writing poetry expressing her anguish over the violence in their marriage, making convoluted, exhausting arguments that such an act is counter-revolutionary. When she finds him writing poetry on the same topic, he insists that for him it's different--her poems are masturbatory; his are self-criticism. The novel's title comes from one of these poems; the complete stanza is "When I hit you/Comrade Lenin weeps".
It's in moments like this that one grasps the full genius of this book. As much as it is a narrative of horror, it is also a brilliant act of vengeance. Writing is both a liberation and a lifeline to the narrator--in her worst moments, the act of imagining how she will story this period in her life gives her the strength to believe that she will endure it. And in committing her husband to the page, she exposes him in all his horrifying ugliness. Without ever downplaying how malignant and dangerous the husband is, Kandasamy makes him look ridiculous and pathetic, and makes it clear how much of his abusive behavior is rooted in his own weakness and inadequacy. This doesn't make him any less of a baleful influence on the narrator, but one of the book's points is that his power over her comes, at least in part, from the society around them, which encourages her to stay in the marriage. The chapters describing the narrator's parents' minimizing reactions to her descriptions of abuse, in which they advise her not to talk back so much, or assure her that things will calm down after she has a baby, are terrifying precisely because these are the people she eventually has to rely on for her escape. Their help, though it eventually comes, is always tinged with disappointment and disapproval. From the rest of society, the narrator gets doubts, victim-blaming, and prescriptive demands whose sole purpose is to shut her up. Some of these are ills specific to Indian society, but many of them will be familiar to women the world over, particularly the constant impulse to explain and justify abusive men, even when those men are strangers, and their victim is standing right in front of you. However you want to classify it as a piece of writing, When I Hit You is a vital, brilliant work, a hugely important contribution to the growing conversation about abuse.