Recent Reading Roundup 54

I've been on holiday this last week (after getting on a plane! and traveling to a foreign country!) which has involved a lot of reading. I'll have more to say about the books I've read during this vacation in the coming weeks, but before I get to them, I wanted to clear the decks of reviews that have been sitting in my edit tab for quite some time, covering most the current year. Several of these books will be on my year's best list, and I'm glad I don't have to wait any longer to tell you about them.
  • Famous Men Who Never Lived by K Chess - If you wanted to craft an elevator pitch for this novel, it might run something like "Exit West meets Station Eleven". In Chess's debut novel, parallel universes exist, and three years ago, one of them suffered a catastrophic nuclear attack that left much of the US uninhabitable. Scientists at a New York research center were able to open a portal to our world, through which a hundred and fifty thousand refugees—now known as Universally Displaced Persons—were able to pass. Our heroine, Hel, is a former doctor who was forced to leave her son behind, and has yet to acclimate herself to her new life. Her boyfriend, Vikram, is a literature professor who used his personal possession allotment to bring over books, many of which don't exist in our world. Hel becomes particularly obsessed with The Pyronauts, a post-apocalyptic novel that is the sole surviving work of canonical author Ezra Sleight—who in our world, died as a teenager. When Hel discovers that Sleight's former house is up for sale, she comes up with a plan to convert it into a museum for lost culture from her world, but in the process of trying to secure funding, she loses the last existing copy of The Pyronauts. Which sends her into a tailspin as she becomes convinced that the book has been stolen, and starts stalking the woman she believes responsible.

    Chess's argument is that the UDPs are in some ways more lost than refugees within our world. On top of losing their home, families, and way of life, they have to contend with a new world that is an uncanny mirror to their own. Where place names, geography, and distant history are the same, but small details such as slang, the dominant technology, and which neighborhoods are considered good or bad are different. (One ever-present example is Hel's name, which in her world was a normal diminutive for Helen.) As if to add insult to injury, even those locals who aren't hostile to the UDPs find their obsession with their lost world boring. Hel is unable to secure funding for her museum because no one is interested in her world's lost culture, and the people who are treat it as a font for trivia, obsessing over differences and points of divergence without caring about the world in its own right. The novel's narrative is interspersed with interviews with other UDPs who talk about the way they've adjusted—or failed to adjust—to their new home's indifference to their core cultural assumptions. A New Agey gay man is dismayed when people keep reacting negatively to his good luck swastika tattoo. A woman who spent her old life trying to fit in now spins increasingly elaborate lies about social rituals in her old world to an ever-incredulous audience. A singer records versions of the songs of a Beatles-esque band, presenting them as his own work.

    At the same time, Chess leaves room for the possibility that Hel's perceptions are not to be trusted, and that her experience of detachment and inability to fit in is at the further end of the scale. Other UDPs, glimpsed at the edges of her narrative, manage to build lives for themselves in the new world, getting jobs and finding new partners. Hel, meanwhile, is clearly suffering from PTSD, unable to clearly sequence her memories, and prone to extreme emotional reactions when things don't go her way. Through her, and to a lesser extent Vikram, Famous Men becomes a study of how alienation and displacement can shatter a soul, making it impossible to make a home in a new place even though the old one is irretrievably lost. But the book also offers alternative perspectives on Hel and the other UDPs. Is Hel so broken because of the immensity of her loss, or is because, as Vikram wonders, she was a privileged white doctor who spent her life assuming that things would go her way, and doesn't know how to process being despised? And when Hel's monomaniacal focus on retrieving The Pyronauts wavers a little, she leaves space for locals to offer their own observations. Why, they ask, do UDPs act as if they have a monopoly on loss, as if the people of this world haven't also experienced their own tragedies? Why do they continue to compare the two worlds, highlighting the things about our own that are bad, when an objective comparison would have to conclude that the two worlds were good and bad in equal measure, just in different ways?

    Towards its end, Famous Men evolves into a mystery, as Hel's pursuit of the lost book, and Vikram's own explorations of Sleight's house, lead them to converge on a conspiracy to suppress UDP culture. It can end up feeling a little too neat, as every dangling thread from earlier in the novel shows up again to be tied up at its end. (In addition, the excerpts Chess offers from The Pyronauts add very little to the novel, and read like a fairly generic post-apocalypse story of which our own literary tradition has more than enough examples, to the extent that they almost undermine Hel's conviction that this is a work worth going to extremes to save.) But this solution, too, ends up offering a meditation on the costs of building a new life in the wake of losing your entire world, and how even succeeding at that unimaginable task can leave a person twisted and behaving in irrational ways. It also helps to put us on Hel's side, despite her frustrating behavior, hoping that she finds a way to let go of her pain and guilt without losing sight of her past, and finds a way to build a future for herself that also preserves some of the world that she has lost.

  • Real Life by Brandon Taylor - Taylor's debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker last year, feels, in many ways, like quintessential litfic. It's a carefully observed character piece, told in minutely-detailed, crystal-clear prose, equally at home describing a character's inner turmoil or a tense dinner party as it is detailing the procedures at the lab where the protagonist, Wallace, is a grad student. Its tone is even, perhaps even muted, and its events, which span the course of a single summer weekend, are thoroughly mundane-—the big moments of crisis include Wallace's advisor asking him whether he wants to remain in his master's program, or one of his friends discovering that his partner has secretly made a grindr profile. And yet when I try to talk about Real Life, I find that the terms I keep reaching for are the ones I'd use to describe a horror novel. It is a novel at once alienating—as you observe Wallace's increasing detachment from his life—and anxiety-inducing—as you wait for the next thing to go wrong for him. Its overall effect is one of claustrophobia, all the more so because no one in Wallace's vicinity will even admit that he is trapped. And what makes the whole thing even more horrifying is that nothing that happens in Real Life is impossible or unnatural—on the contrary, it seems highly likely that something very much like its events is happening even as we speak.

    On the face of it, most of what happens to Wallace over the course of the weekend—during which he meets up with friends (mostly fellow grad students and their partners), looks in on his work in the lab, and embarks on a tentative relationship with Miller, another student with whom he has had long-standing, occasionally hostile, tension—is not very dramatic or terrible. It takes a while for the full scope of his immurement to become apparent, and this feels very much like Taylor's point. When we meet Wallace—who is black, gay, Southern, and from an underprivileged background, all of which makes him something of an outsider in the Midwestern college town in which the story is set—he is closed off and taciturn, prone to begging off when his friends invite him to join in their activities, to solitary work in the lab late into the night, and even to taking his meals alone in the library. Much of his isolation seems like it's of his own making (a point that is echoed by several of his friends, who peevishly complain that he must be too good to hang out with them), perhaps the inevitable outcome of an introvert placed in a setting in which he can't help but stand out. It takes a few rounds of being confronted with the day to day realities of Wallace's life for us to ask the obvious question: is Wallace's alienation a product of his nature, or is it a defensive response to an environment that keeps hurting him in small but definite ways?

    As with many real examples of racism, no single incident in Real Life is bad enough that you can easily point to it as definitive proof. A fellow student makes an off-color joke. A guest at a dinner party goes off on a racist tangent, while everyone else looks down at their plates and waits for it to be over. Wallace's lab samples are contaminated, sending several months' work down the drain. Each time, you can see Wallace calculating whether it's worth it to make a fuss. If he angers his friends by making a scene at their dinner, or asking why they didn't stand up for him, would they use it as an excuse to cut him off? If he insists to his advisor that his samples were deliberately destroyed, by a student who is clearly a favorite, would she side with him? Taylor repeatedly makes the point that there is nowhere, and no one, with whom Wallace can feel truly at ease. He goes through life in a state of hyper-awareness, preternaturally tuned into everyone else's emotions and reactions to him, trying to stay ahead of them and thread an impossible needle—friendly but not presumptuous; hardworking but not a brown-noser; good enough for his lab but not a show-off—and never allowed to feel as if he truly belongs. And yet his keen understanding of his abusers, combined with his obvious depression, also make Wallace less likely to stand up for himself, more likely to fatalistically (but perhaps correctly) assume that there is no point in fighting back. 

    The result is an extremely effective study of the way that relentless, low-grade, unspoken racism can grind down its subjects, even as everyone around them is able to pretend that nothing is going on. Eventually, Taylor's limpid prose starts to feel like its own sort of punishment—Real Life is so easy to get through, so effortlessly readable, that there is no buffer between you and the next indignity to befall Wallace. Even the moments where Taylor seems to offer a reprieve, such as Wallace and Miller's private encounters, conceal dangers. Miller turns out to be violent, and Wallace may be too beaten down, too desperate for human connection, and with too few resources on his side, to protect himself. One obvious point of comparison for Real Life is Allegra Goodman's Intuition, another novel abut scientists who find themselves beaten down and alienated by both the rigors of their work and the unspoken currents of prejudice that govern their supposedly rational profession. But where Goodman's novel ends on a note of hope, Taylor refuses an ending of any sort, leaving the readers with only questions—will Wallace stick with his program, or allow himself to be driven out? Will he stay with Miller, and will that decision end up destroying him? What he offers instead is a chapter that flashes back to Wallace's first day in the program, which lays the final brick in Real Life's edifice of horror. The Wallace we meet in this chapter isn't alienated or depressed. He isn't an introvert who refuses his friends' company. This Wallace is optimistic, seeing his new friends and career as an opportunity to change his life for the better, and finally put his difficult past behind. It's left to us to understand how much the indifference and hostility of the people around him have ground down Wallace's belief in that future, and to wonder whether he will ever find a way out.

  • Red Pill by Hari Kunzru - Kunzru's follow-up to White Tears is apparently the second in a projected, loose trilogy about the politics of the early 21st century and its roots in 20th century racism. But where White Tears was earthy and gritty, Red Pill is chilly and remote. The first, longest segment of the novel follows its protagonist, a nameless freelance writer who seems like Kunzru's stand-in (like him, he is a Brit of Indian descent who now lives in New York), to a prestigious residency in Berlin, where he acts neurotic, avoids his fellow scholars, wanders the neighborhood (which includes the house where the infamous Wannsee Conference was held), and watches hours upon hours of the violent, nihilistic cop show Blue Lives. The narrator is clearly in the grips of depression, but it's unclear how much of it is down to personal issues—a flagging career, fading relationships with friends, the beginnings of a midlife crisis—and how much is rooted in the state of the world. Or really, what the difference is between the two, as illustrated by his encounters with another resident, a blustering, bullying academic who derides liberals as soft-headed fools whose ideals are entirely theoretical. This connects to the narrator's fears that his career and writing have all been for nothing, preoccupied with minutiae that no one cares about while the real world convulses around him. Later in the novel, he makes a halting, ultimately destructive attempt to reach out to a local family of refugees, as if to prove that he's capable of concrete action in accordance with his political beliefs, an attempt that ends up devolving into an ugly farce.

    All of this, however, is in the way of a long preamble to the novel's real business, the narrator's meeting with Anton, the creator of Blue Lives and, as is later revealed, a prolific poster on far-right online forums. In Anton, Kunzru crafts a chillingly accurate portrait of a modern fascist. While claiming to be rational and tough-minded, Anton is constantly playing, refusing to take anything seriously and teaching his legions of fans that to be serious about anything—like racism, or anti-immigrant violence, or the valorization of Nazism and its iconography—is to lose the game before you've even started playing. In other words, he's a troll, who crows about "triggering" too-serious libs while also calling for a new world order in which the strong rule over the weak, and virtues like mercy and empathy are discarded as pernicious lies. The narrator becomes obsessed with Anton, following him across Europe (though what he plans to do if he ever catches him remains unclear). But really, what consumes him is his own sense of inadequacy, his tacit acceptance that he is weak where Anton is strong, and that he doesn't have the power to fight against the rising tide of fascism that Anton represents.

    This all makes for an uncomfortable, alienating read, and one that I found myself all too eager to put down. In some ways, this is clearly Kunzru's goal—the reaction I had several times throughout the novel, of knowing just what I would have said to counter Anton's infuriating arguments and watching the narrator instead flail in helpless rage, felt like exactly the one I was intended to have (as is the recognition that if I were actually put on the spot, I might not have performed any better). But Red Pill's broader goal with this needling feels harder to justify. The novel ends on the evening of the 2016 election, with the narrator comforting his shocked wife and friends, and musing to himself that he is more able to face up to the evil that is coming because he's already looked it in the eye. It makes the entire book a screed against liberals who told themselves that fascism was a thing of the past, and failed to recognize its resurgence until it was too late. But that feels like five years ago's conversation, and the point that the book never addresses, even as it pats the narrator on the back for recognizing the looming danger, is that fighting it was never something he was going to be able to do on his own. Throughout the novel, the narrator is obsessed with protecting his family from Anton and his kind, and while this is an entirely understandable desire for a non-white man with a young child in 2016, it is also a masculine fantasy that has nothing to do with the communal, organized responses that arose to the Trump administration and other instances of far-right resurgence over the last few years. Red Pill ends without acknowledging this fact, which makes the novel's analysis of our current moment feel limited at best, and at worst useless.

  • To Calais, In Ordinary Time by James Meek - For some perverse reason, I picked the last year of all years to read a lot of books, and watch a lot of movies and TV series, featuring pandemics and plagues. In most of these cases I found it easy to separate fiction from reality. The fictional plagues were too virulent and deadly, or the emphasis of the story was on some sinister conspiracy to unleash death, not on the more mundane evils we've been contending with during the real pandemic, like anti-maskers or vaccine nationalism. James Meek's 2019 novel should, in theory, have had the same comforting distance from our uncomfortable reality. It's set in 1348, in the early months of the Black Death's arrival in England, and the social organization it describes is so different from ours that it should be impossible to draw connections between the two. And yet, more than any other story I've read or watched this last year, To Calais, In Ordinary Time captures what it feels like to experience a plague, even (or perhaps especially) when you haven't been directly affected by it. The way that the presence of the disease affects society and the normal running of things—at first slowly, and then all at once. The way that people refuse to accept reality, even when death is all around them. The way that the class structure is maintained even in sickness and death, while at the same time, the upheaval caused by the pandemic creates opportunities to defy and evade conventions that were seemingly set in stone.

    The novel is written in archaic language and grammar, and though I'm hardly able to judge the accuracy of Meek's mimicry (and one assumes that he would have erred on the side of readability over historical fidelity anyway), it's an extremely effective device which at first creates a sense of distance between reader and characters, and then slowly, as we begin to learn their slightly-off vocabulary ("neb" for face; "steven" for voice; "stint" for stop, etc.) and speech patterns, helps to put us in their headspace. This means that Calais has a ramp-up period, mirroring the way that the plague creeps up on characters who are busy with the ordinary events of their lives. Its early chapters chart the coming together of several people on a journey from Gloucestershire to Calais. Will Quate is a young serf who hopes to buy his freedom by enlisting in a company of archers, bound for the war in France. Bernadine is his master's daughter, who is running away from an arranged marriage and towards the man she loves, the sponsor and captain of Will's company. Thomas is a lay cleric from Avignon who has been dithering about returning home, where the plague is already raging. And Hab is a swineherd from Will's village who has run off after him. Except that sometimes he's also Madlen, and in both guises he (or she) try to convince Will that they belong together. They all end up embroiled in a power struggle that is tearing the archers' company apart, between the company's leader, the moralistic, hard-hearted Hayne, and the nihilistic Softly, over the rape and abduction of a French woman, Cess, during the company's previous tour. 

    The novel's early chapters are a bit slow, observing the company as it comes together, with the plague only a distant rumor (which Will and several other characters believe to be made up by priests who want to sell amulets and other religious services). They include interludes such as a sojourn at an abbey whose abbot has decreed round-the-clock choral music as protection from the plague, a tournament where the archers are recruited to perform in a stage adaptation of The Romance of the Rose, and a night spent by Will in the company (and in sexual service) of Isabella, Edward III's mother. Around the midpoint of the story, however, the balance shifts, and from that point the company keeps encountering greater disruptions to normality—a village where the residents have given up on burying the dead in separate graves, and the priest is so busy giving last rites to others that he himself dies unshriven; towns that have closed off routes of entry; a castle abandoned with all its furnishings and riches. The further the company moves into this nightmare space, the more honest its members allow themselves to be about the reasons that brought them there, and the way they see the world. The plague ends up functioning as a backdrop to a complex psychological drama that touches on issues such as faith, romance, guilt, absolution, sex, and social mobility. Meek is good at capturing the (often quite foreign) worldview of his medieval characters. Characters like Berna and her lover Laurence take it as a given, for example, that not only their social position but their capacity for emotion, their very humanity, is somehow elevated from the kind possessed by people like Will, Madlen, and the other archers. That feelings like love, moral outrage, or religious conviction can only truly be felt by the higher orders of society, while their lessers are essentially animals in human form, incapable of true suffering or elation.

    Being thrown together in uncertain times proves a challenge to that assumption, of course—Berna is outraged to realize that Will and Madlen's love for one another is pure and self-sacrificing, like the romances she reads about in books, whereas her relationship with Laurence is riven with doubt and uncertainty. Thomas, who interrogates the archers in the belief that revealing their sins to him is the closest they will come to being shriven before dying of either disease or war, keeps contending with their ideas about sin and forgiveness, which are more varied, and in some cases more sophisticated, than he had been prepared to discover. Not that Meek is suggesting a simplistic reversal, in which the upper class characters are thoughtless and the lower class ones are purely virtuous. Berna, for all her snobbishness, also turns out to be bold and heroic, more suited to playing the knight in a chivalrous romance than the damsel. And the archers' theology is often merely a pretext for their insistence that they have done nothing wrong, or a justification for their refusal to seek forgiveness from those they've wronged. Softly insists that kidnapping Cess after raping her was actually a noble act, giving her a home and his protection. But Cess, when she finally gets to speak, offers a shrewd and unsparing dissection of this self-serving narrative, as well as the excuses offered by the other men, who did nothing to help her. By the time the company (or rather the ones who have survived) arrive in Calais, all of the novel's characters feel rich and sympathetic, and all have been transformed, the plague having given them the opportunity to become the people they never knew they could be. It's an oddly hopeful ending for a novel so steeped in death, and, together with Meek's expert creation of an alien world, it makes Calais a novel that feels both achingly relevant, and entirely timeless.

  • Kristin Lavransdatter, Volume I: The Bridal Wreath by Sigrid Undset - For a period in 2019, a sizable chunk of my twitter feed was united in enthusiasm for Nobel-winner Undset's early 20th century trilogy, about the life and travails of a 14th century Norwegian noblewoman. I'm rather late to that party (though as the back matter of my copy points out, the trilogy has never been out of print, even in its English translation) but I can see why Kristin Lavransdatter is not only generally celebrated, but so appealing to modern readers. Not unlike Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, these are books about the inner life of a woman who lives at a time when women's lives and roles are strictly proscribed. A woman who is neither a rebel nor a conformist, who longs for the things she's been taught to desire—a husband, children, a home to run—but also has a rich inner life and her own thoughts about the rules she's been taught to obey. A woman who is torn between earthly desires and the life of the mind. Most importantly, a woman who is given the space to be wrong and make mistakes, without the narrative suggesting that this is somehow the end of the world.

    The early chapters of The Bridal Wreath introduce us to Kristin's family, minor aristocrats in a remote part of Norway, and to the rhythms and rituals of their life. Unlike To Calais, In Ordinary Time, which is set in a similar period, Undset stresses the relative simplicity of her characters' lives, how even the upper classes live in one-room wooden halls and do a lot of the same work as the peasants—Kristin's father works in the fields, and her mother sews, brews, and otherwise oversees a working farm. At the same time, Undset also wants us to see her characters as educated, cultured people with a rich life of the mind (albeit one whose center of gravity is a religious one). When Kristin visits a nearby cathedral town with her father, she's amazed by the architectural achievement, and by the work that has gone into decorating it. This is also where Undset introduces what is clearly a major running theme throughout the trilogy, Kristin's attraction to monastic life, and the way it clashes with her more mundane passions, as a young woman who is just discovering the world

    While on a year-long sojourn in a monastery before her betrothal is announced, Kristin meets and falls deeply in love with Erlend Nikulaussøn, a man from a good family who has tarnished his reputation by having an affair with a married woman. The two quickly fall in love and (which is a great deal more problematic) embark on a physical relationship. The rest of the novel is concerned with the complexities of arranging their eventual marriage—extracting Kristin from the promise to marry another man, who is admired by everyone but whom she can't love or even like; recuperating Erlend's reputation (including from the faux pas he's made in his pursuit of Kristin); overcoming the opposition of Kristin's father, the honorable yet somehow damaged Lavrans Bjørgulfsson; hoping against hope that Kristin and Erlend's inability to keep their hands off each other doesn't have the predictable result. In another novel, this would be the stuff of either romance or melodrama, the ultimate goal either a happily ever after or Kristin's ruination. Undset's concern, however, is her characters' inner life, and especially the battle that rages within Kristin, between her unshakable love for Erlend and realization that she can never give him up, and the knowledge that she is hurting people she loves and respects, and that Erlend himself probably isn't worth it.

    What's most remarkable about The Bridal Wreath—and what will, no doubt, be the thread that runs through this entire trilogy—is how forgiving it can be of Kristin's mistakes, even as it acknowledges their grievousness. Kristin hurts people who deserve better, and she goes against a religious creed that means a great deal to her (Undset was apparently a devout Catholic, and while that worldview is obvious in the novel, she wisely spends more time addressing the hurt that Kristin does to herself by behaving, as she believes, sinfully, than in expecting the readers to accept that sin as an objective fact). But as she's told by Erlend's aunt, a wise woman who is respected in Kristin's social circle despite having run off with her own lover twenty years ago, sometimes the most worthwhile life comes from having made mistakes and behaved willfully, before settling down. Marrying Erlend may be (most likely is) a mistake. But it's one that Kristin needs to make in order to become truly herself, whoever that ends up being. It's nice to read a novel that is so accepting of a woman's full complexity, and especially one set in a period where women so seldom get to be the heroines of their own story. Between its loving, searching exploration of Kristin in all her complexity, and its fascinating depiction of her world and its rules, The Bridal Wreath is a rich, engrossing, and entirely compelling historical drama. I can't wait to get my hands on the next volumes in the trilogy, to find out where Kristin's choices end up taking her.


C. L. said…
Oh, I've been on the fence about whether to check out "Real Life" — I really appreciated your review of it. (Ironically, it made me realize that I was comfortable with not reading it for now! You have this way of summing up the heart of a novel, and it helped me understand that this was a book that I was glad and interested to hear and read about, but didn't necessarily feel ready to experience myself at the moment. Perhaps later, when my head is in a better place.)

On the other hand, I hadn't heard about "To Calais, In Ordinary Time" at all, and now I might be adding it to my list. I checked out "Wonders Will Never Cease" because of an earlier review you'd written — and it wasn't a book that would have landed in my hands otherwise, and so I was glad to have read it. And your descriptions of "To Calais, In Ordinary Time" are compelling to me in a similar way. I do so appreciate your Reading Roundups; your perspectives are always a pleasure to read, and I often find new and interesting recommendations.

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