I feel like this is correct in diagnosis of a particular phenomenon, mainly transacted in English and for Anglo-American publishing, but — especially in the dichotomy between “thorny internationalism opposed to the smoothly global” at the end of the very long editorial — it fails to ring true to my own reading in translation, the best of which (while plausibly internationalist, in their terms) is simply different from the university-driven stuff rather than polemically oppositional.
“Mr. McGurk was a plastic leprechaun attached to the dashboard on a spring and he bobbed along comically as the Hitachi sped. How he had ended up being called Mr. McGurk neither of them could remember. Both brothers would do Mr. McGurk’s voice but Tee-J did it brilliant. He did Mr. McGurk as a cranky old farmer who was always giving out. Mr. McGurk was six inches of green plastic but entirely alive. He was made alive by their love for each other.”—
And here, pace Brad Leithauser’s piece from last week, is the one-sentence story, and maybe an example of how it serves a writer poorly. Because this one, “White Hitachi,” about a pair of ne’er-do-well brothers (and the elder realizing the younger is even less well-equipped than he to make it in the world) pulls itself up to this point, from a squabble and a bit of danger, to reveal the actual affection between its main characters: to the sentence at the end of the paragraph, where that’s the one sentence that encapsulates the turn in the story, expresses the beauty in the squalor. The paragraph’s a beauty, too: with the humor Barry’s very good at throughout this collection, the detail, even the broguey cadence; this might be the best image in the book. At the same time, the one-sentence sentence seems entirely unnecessary following the sentence before, a slight little slip into mawkishness, spelling things out just a little too much. A hair in the soup.
And maybe my favorite of the bunch, which upon having read in the New Yorker convinced me that Barry could do more than prosy Irish myth, two sinister old aunties out on a drive; here it’s Barry doing character (or, probably, caricature, although that’s actually the fun of it) through dialogue that’s the charm.
“This is the story of a happy marriage but before you throw up and turn the page let me say that it will end with my face pressed hard into the cold metal of the Volvo’s bonnet, my hands cuffed behind my back, and my rights droned into my ear — this will occur in the car park of a big-box retail unit on the Naas Road in Dublin.”—
I was, apparently, one of the few people not entirely charmed by Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane, a comprehensive and cohesive sealed little world of blarney-drunk style; and so Dark Lies the Island spent a bunch of time sitting on a shelf waiting for me to get to it. That, and I tend to avoid story collections, which seem to me to tend toward either functional or formulaic, working out an idea or fitting it into a pattern, tied up into a bow at the end. And the first story — a slight mood piece on a rooftop that ends with the girl slipping through a Velux window — and this opening paragraph of the second story, “Wifey Redux,” don’t do much to dispel that suspicion. We know where this story is going, especially when we establish the narrator’s bourgie bonafides; we settle comfortably into the gentle swoop of the story arc, as it takes us from this opening graf back and around to the car park again. The only trouble is that the story’s actually very funny, and funny in its observation of details, the occasional off-pitch note or highlighted grotesquerie. The arc is comfortable, but what happens within it is much better than its container.
But concentrating only on cleft chins is unfairly reductive, even if we are in the realm of, I think, paranormal romance (because Bristol House goes all over the place, with apparitions of Tudor ghosts and hints at right-wing Israeli conspiracy theories filling in the edges around the central romance between an academic and a TV journalist); this is the second part of a nice, not-overdone parallel between Annie’s allegiance to AA (which she takes whole and without reservations, in a way that she insists outsiders can’t understand) and the ghostly monk (in direct address from Purgatory, but whatever).
Lest you think that this is all you need to judge Bristol House, let me add that this is at least the third mention of a cleft in a chin, which may or may not belong to the same character, depending on how you look at things.
Brad Leithauser, writing mainly about novels that hang on single sentences, a question about which I am agnostic (despite being a person who tends to pull a sentence or two from a novel and read the whole work into it); while his overall reading, say, of Lord of the Flies is dead-on, I’m more convinced by the scope of his four-sentence read of Thackeray. But the opening, with this bit about the one-sentence short story, is absolutely correct — if a little ironic coming from the New Yorker.
“Five years ago, she had, like Hepzibah, like Euphemia and Beulah and all the sixteen wives before her, seen a whaleboat one morning—the same long slim hull, oars flashing in unison against a bright sky. She had, like her predecessors, reached for a boy’s hand and stepped in and glided away. But unlike so many previous wives, she had felt no irresistible urge. She was compelled not by fresh boys in blue middies, bright ties flying, but by necessity.”—
Katurah, Moses’s final wife; one of the points where there seems to be the possibility for this book to break out of its fairytale flatness and into something more touched by realism, which doesn’t happen. But which is enough to make you wonder what it would become, if more of the characters had this kind of agency, and weren’t simply subservient to the family saga playing out above and around them.
“Though Mordecai could name any fish or seabird’s rank in phylum or species in a flash, I was beginning to understand that he knew nothing of what they swam in and flew over. He did not account for those things that could not be mapped: the vagaries of wind or a sudden storm that might force a pod of whales deeper, slower; a freak of cold threading up from the deep to send a school of squid spiraling away from the whales, the whales hurrying after, away from Mordecai’s precious route. Having lived indoors his whole life, he was so untuned to the sea and its ways.”—
From the files of too-easy-to-take-advantage-of: despite a stack of juicy subject matter (incest! whaling! serial wife-abduction! a guest appearance by Circe!) this tends toward timid and equivocal; the frame story seems insufficient to carry the weight of the history Mercy wants to discover, as she and Mordecai move from revelation to revelation with very little friction, and the tone, which teeters somewhere between magical realism and full-on fairytale, smooths things out too, making the book into a series of linked set-pieces. The set pieces are often nice, with nicely poetic language and images pulled through, from one to the next — but the soft frame and the soft tone don’t give enough of a skeleton for the pretty bits to stick to.
“Yes, they still make TV shows somewhere. The rest of the country is still pretty shiny, from what I hear. Apparently the West Coast is more or less the same. Sunshine. Palm trees. Beautiful women in drop-top convertibles. Singing surfers. Moral rot. The whole enchilada, in the shape of California.”—
If I’ve not been clear enough, and I’m never sure I am, another comparison that’s probably worthwhile is to the last few William Gibson books — because the kind of stuff Sternbergh is doing (near future, semi-dystopian, deadpan cool, genre conventions; even and especially the virtual-reality layer of plotting and action) comes out of, has membership in, the world Gibson’s created. Shovel Ready is much, much tighter than (especially) any of the Blue Ant books: surface is perfect, plot never bogs down, manages its dumps of exposition gracefully, which is one of Gibson’s great failings. But Gibson’s flaws, especially in terms of exposition, put across the author’s sense of enthusiasm, his excitement at how strange things (increasingly actual contemporary things, too) really are: they’re glitches. By being glitch-free, Shovel Ready is better entertainment, probably, but entirely, completely low-cal.
The lovingly destroyed New York is evidence of that: it’s really obviously great fun to do, if we judge by how many times we get to see it each year, a boy’s game everybody gets a turn at. Sternbergh’s terrorist attacks aren’t quite as inventive as Nathaniel Rich’s grand flood, but the notion of the city persisting, half-full, is evocative. But the apocalypse is basically setting, background, something for the characters to run around on and deliver one-liners about (this one being particularly tidy, but Sternbergh keeps such a very very impressive pace with his quips that the grand guignol spatter of the plot mechanics has trouble keeping up sometimes; apocalypse as standup act). Again, ‘work of art’ is too strong a criterion, especially because Shovel Ready aims so clearly to be an entertainment, an effortless performance — but there’s not much ballasting the flawless execution of genre moves here.
“Every garbageman has funny stories of stuff he’s found on the job, of course. False teeth, brand-new flatscreen still in the box, a fake leg, a stuffed ferret. A double-ended dildo switches on, leaps out of the bag, twisting like an electric eel, stuff like that.”—
High-concept, hard-boiled dystopia, confidently done. Not anything particularly deep, and not really intending to be: in the land of judging a work by how well it realizes its ambitions, Shovel Ready is an easy winner, and Sternbergh is smarter enough than his material to make everything run with precision, and enjoys what he’s doing enough not to sneer at how easy he makes it look. This is a good performance — a better performance than it is a work of art (for lack of a better word).
“Me neither, lad. I arrived in Tokyo when I was twenty-two. My company made transformers, and they sent me up for training. I get off the train at Tokyo station, and twenty minutes later I find the exit. Would I ever hate to spend my life living in this hell-hole! I think. Twenty years on, look at what I did. Beware of holidays in paradise, lad. You think too much about what you never did.”—
But even if number9dream isn’t authentic or original, that doesn’t make it bad (hollow, occasionally unfocused, better-designed than executed; not bad). It shows Mitchell knows what works in the Murakami style, what makes that heightened and stylized world tick. And it shows Mitchell’s range as a stylist, even if not all of the stylistic experiments work (or are necessarily to my taste). And judging from what else I’ve read of his subsequent work (Black Swan Green, perfect and limited in its execution; Thousand Autumns, ambitious and exotic and less successful than either of the others) it might be the case that Mitchell, so assured at the level of sentences and intricate design, might also beware of paradise. Or at least of extending a holiday too long.
“Leatherjacket speaks. ‘In my homeland, it is said nightmares are our wilder ancestors returning to reclaim land. Land tamed and grazed, by our softer, fatter, modern, waking selves.’ Frankenstein produces a steel comb and pulls it across his hair, keeping his other hand on the wheel. ‘Sent by who?’ Leatherjacket folds in a new stick of gum. ‘Nightmares are sent by who, or what, we really are, underneath. ‘Don’t forget where you come from,’ the nightmare tells. ‘Don’t forget your true self.’’”—
And this is funny, here, the bit of authentic wisdom dropped in conversation between two thugs, characters so minor that they’re named only by physical attributes, all Tarantino-y. Of all the things number9dream actually is, authentic is not one of them: it’s very readable, kinetic, full of really impressive writing that’s often gorgeous or dazzling, but it’s not authentic. It’s very strongly synthetic, in that it jams a bunch of different modes and genres together, occasionally devolving into scrapbook — the fairytale bit, especially, reads like something Mitchell liked too well not to use, even though there’s little reason for it to be there. And more than anything else, it’s pastiche — setting aside the question of a British writer credibly rendering a Japanese teenager amok in Tokyo, which if difficult I expect can be done especially by a writer of Mitchell’s intelligence — an assembly of elements and images that are at least heavily inspired by Murakami, making number9dream read less like a novel of Tokyo or Japan than a novel drawn from the novels of Haruki Murakami.
Very early — first scene, more or less, and more or less only because the first scene is intercut with dream sequences, unsignposted and thus disorienting, that repeat our hero Eiji Miyake’s incursion into an office tower from the cafe he’s sitting in, daydreaming. Which Mitchell pulls off: the sentences in this book are incredible, immaculate, economical, near perfect (except for one storyline, later in the book, which purports to be nursery stories that Miyake comes across and reads while hiding out from the Yakuza, which actually do go too far in a kind of precocious, show-offy way). Until here. And it’s not a fault of the sentence or its setup; it’s the tipping of the hand, the wink that tells you the writer is willing to let you in on the joke, is giving you the hint you need to figure out what he’s doing. A little condescending, right?
“I am living in a movie that I directed myself. Up until now, it’s been a pleasant life. I have been spared from questions and attacks. I must have hoped that I would be able to sustain the fable until I believed in it myself and forgot my own life. Cultivating fables is complicated. You need a good memory. Otherwise you’re sunk.”—
Weschler’s story—of the man who discovers that his memories are not his own, that his actual history is not as he knows it—is also balanced and precise, if simultaneously both more outlandish and more familiar than Zichroni’s; it was only at the end of Weschler’s story, after completing Zichroni’s, that it began to resemble something like Muriel Spark rather than Patricia Highsmith, if that’s a useful distinction. Stein’s decision to separate the two narratives, and not just separate them but split them in such a way that either story can be begun from one cover or the other of the book, so that they’re printed upside-down from each other, and to encourage the reader to read one or the other first or to alternate chapters, encourages comparison between the two. But it doesn’t quite pay off as a narrative device or a gimmick: the narratives are strong enough on their own, and independent enough, that the connection between the halves doesn’t require the form, and the book might not actually be improved by the imposition of randomness, the abdication of authorial direction. That said, I’m not sure I would have picked up the book without the gimmick—so there’s that in its favor.
“The beggar had hardly left the place when the earth began to tremble. The palace collapsed along with the wall, and the merchant died beneath the ruins, which also buried his wealth. He had lived, his business had been good, his affluence had become wealth and even greater wealth, and the neighbors had become envious—all so that he could build the wall, and Hashem could allow that beggar who thanked Him for the piece of bread and the cool shade to rest for an hour; and no one ever heard about it.”—
A Midrash, related to the narrator buy his rabbinical friend, that sets the tone for the better of the two halves of The Canvas; the parable relates the story of a merchant who becomes wealthy, and indeed lives his entire life, in order to provide a moment of repose for a beggar. For Zichroni, the narrator, this opens up, or at least provides expression to, the suspicion that his story might just be accessory to someone else’s, a footnote to a larger tale. Zichroni’s story is the better tale in the novel, I think, because of the nature of his doubt: while Weschler, the other narrator, gropes through a version of amnesia, trying to discover exactly who he is (and what he has done), Zichroni (who actually might be right in his suspicion that his role is footnote-y) undertakes the more static, but more interesting, difficulty of squaring his strong Orthodox Judaism against the pull of modernity and especially literature and psychology, which Stein negotiates carefully and well.
“Consider this, though. If I’ve seen it on the internet, is it still underground? ‘Underground’ always connoted something hidden, something difficult to see and find. Something under the surface of things, yes? But if it’s on the internet—and I do praise the Lord that I lived long enough to see such a wondrous thing—it cannot possibly be underground.”—
This is the solemn, something-important-to-say bit, which kind of coalesces around the power of the internet to expose and disempower wrongdoing, which even seems kind of prescient for 2007, which was a largely pre-Julian Assange world (and a place where, apparently, Paris Hilton jokes still carried currency). Prescient or techno-optimistic, though, Ellis’s side point about the disappearance of the underground does make sense, with the long tail replacing the fringe.
“‘Fine for your cramped little towns like New York,’ Bob proclaimed, sitting up taller in his seat. ‘But this is the big country, and we need big cars, and the space for ‘em. This sidewalk thing, it just means we ain’t too proud to make things a little easier for our visiting cousins from Weakass Country. We’re big people like that.’”—
“At the departure gate, a drunken airport security woman was handing out box cutters to the passengers.
‘My asshole boyfriend’s in San Antone,’ she slurred, pressing the plastic handle, sticky with beery sweat, into my hand. ‘Take over the plane, drop it on the fucking Alamo.’”—
Maybe not the best joke in the book, but a pretty decent one for being off the cuff, especially in a setting that goes out of its way to be outlandish (and to put the outlandish into scare quotes, gleeful in its depravity). Crooked Little Vein coheres less well than Gun Machine, with its desire to say something important, or at least earnest, rubbing up uncomfortably with its urge to shock (or, more accurately, to prove that it won’t be shocked by anything), and never quite cohering entirely. But on a scene-by-scene, image-by-image level?
“Is it clear to you why I am asking you all these questions? Is, in general, would you say, much clear to you at all, or very little, or are you somewhere in between in the murky sea of prescience? Should I say murky sea of presence of mind? Should I go away? Leave you alone? Should I bother but myself with the interrogative mood?”—
Page four, begging the question; setting aside what exactly The Interrogative Mood actually is (subtitle says “a novel?” and the author interview in the back, which I’m not sure makes me like the book any more, explains that it was written on a whim more or less and published as a book through almost no agency or fault of its author, by serendipity), the important thing is probably what the book does. On the one hand, it sketches a picture of the author, the questioner, but only very vaguely—the scholar in me would have liked to have more repetition, more indication of the voice asking the questions, a reason why or a character arc or a plot, but I’m reasonably sure none exists. On the other, it presupposes and then enforces a relationship with the reader, encouraging you to answer (all of!) these (often!) nonsensical questions (“Have you ever heard of a bird bending a wire to use it as a tool?”) arranged in paragraphs of nonsequiturs, which I suppose either implicates you completely or forces you to examine the very limited forms in which these questions come as you let them beat over your consciousness.
“‘Not cunning.’ Clinch shook his head. ‘Not cunning, and not stupid either. Just—careful, and quiet. And innocent.’
‘Who is this woman?’ said Tauwhare slyly.
‘No: this isn’t a real woman,’ said Clinch. He scowled. ‘Never mind.’”—
On the other hand, when direct report happens, it’s sometimes lovely, like here where poor lovelorn Clinch tries to explain why he’d rather not have fallen for a whore—instead, he wants a modest woman, one “who doesn’t know her own beauty.” Tauwhare would consider such a one stupid; Clinch counters with unassuming, knowing when to keep quiet and when to speak, which Tauwhare calls cunning (which forces Clinch to abandon his angel-in-the-house fantasy, at least for now). This is no less skillfully done than the waspish puncture of this character or that in description; it is much warmer and funnier without any sacrifice of meaning or sense, a register that The Luminaries seldom seems to feel is necessary to employ—even at the very end of the novel, when the narrative speeds up and the chapter-headings take over the heavy lifting of narration, and the story itself comes in isolated little flashes of dialogue, which is when all the time you’ve spent with these characters finally pays off, even if it is so very late in the process.
“He began speaking, for example, by observing that upon a big tree there are always dead branches; that the best soldiers are never warlike; and that even good firewood can ruin a stove—sentiments which, because they came in very quick succession, and lacked any kind of stabilizing context, rather bewildered Quee Long. The latter, impelled to exercise his wit, retaliated with the rather acidic observation that a steelyard always goes with the weights—implying, with the aid of yet another proverb, that his guest had not begun speaking with consistency.”—
And here again, avoiding direct report for elevated paraphrase, which is interesting especially because it is the first discussion between two non-Europeans, and therefore the first opportunity to see, maybe, a different set of voices at work (although I suppose we have seen discussions between women—but they share the same language and culture as the mass of men who dominate the story). But once again, and with admirable economy, our narrator explains her preference for summary:
“We shall therefore intervene, and render Sook Yongsheng’s story in a way that is accurate to the events he wished to disclose, rather than to the style of his narration.”
Which is interesting, for a book that relies so much on paraphrase and pronouncement, and which emphasizes so strongly its design: The Luminaries feels like a huge dominoes-maze, one of those things that takes ages to set up, and comes down in seconds with the flick of a finger. For six or seven hundred pages, Catton balances characters and events and facts, and it’s only at the very end that all the tumblers in this machine start dropping into place—a very impressive trick of construction, but so long in coming.
“Joseph Pritchard always sought the hidden motive, the underlying truth; conspiracy enthralled him. He formed convictions as other men formed dependencies—a belief for him was as a thirst—and he fed his own convictions with all the erotic fervor of the willingly confirmed. This rapture extended to his self-regard. Whenever the subterranean waters of his mind were disturbed, he plunged inward, and struggled downward—kicking strongly, purposefully, as if he wished to drown in the mineral depths of his own dark fantasies; as if he wished to drown.”—
Just as often, if not more often, we receive descriptions like this, especially early in the book (which is to say, the first three hundred pages or so, which comprise a single evening’s conversation among 13 men, rendered in such a way as to take advantage of the celestial viewpoint and to imply that any other possible way, which would include direct reporting of this conference, would take even longer) as the dramatis personae are revealed. It’s kind of delightful, in the opportunities it allows for accuracy and for a certain kind of waspishness, laying bare the springs of these characters, and Catton has a very sharp scalpel (describing the opium supplier Pritchard in terms of other men’s dependencies). The other side to that brilliance, though, is a monotony of this single tone, with all the men starting to look like each other, with their flaws and virtues assessed with equal dispassion.
“Disdain, for all its censorious pretension, is an emotion that can afford a certain clarity. Thomas Balfour watched his friend drain his glass and snap his fingers for another round, and was scornful—and then his scorn gave way to mistrust, and his mistrust to perspicacity. There were elements of Lauderback’s story that still did not fit together.”—
One of the more spot-on things I read about The Luminaries was fulsome praise for the way the book stays out of the perspectives of its characters, rather adopting a strong omniscient perspective; the critic said something to the effect of ‘adopting a celestial view.’ Which seems about right, as a great many of the transactions between characters hinge like this, on a very exactingly-rendered change in knowledge, and its effects on the characters participating in the exchanged, laid out in such a way that ambiguity is minimized if not banished entirely. It allies the reader with the divine author: Balfour may be undergoing this change in his relationship with his patron and onetime idol, but we suspect that the author sees this more clearly than he possibly can, and she passes that information along to us with great clarity.
“I shrugged. I wished he’d known me from the West Bank, but that wasn’t it. Whenever I’d be over there for a show, the kids that hung around in front of Hard Times all tattoos with their homemade bikes, they just knew I wasn’t one of them. Like how I knew James wasn’t really one of them, was just pretending. But it didn’t matter.”—
James and Ruth both do this two-step around punk authenticity; neither one is entirely convinced they belong to the group they want to, each in a slightly different fashion, with Ruth feeling like an accessory of her prettier friend Bridget, jealous of her other friends, and James trying to prove he’s hardcore without having nothing. Each of them winds up pretending their way into what they want — which is how that works anyway, especially with an identity that’s chosen, that’s self-created — and Cauchon’s concentration on that single question, of membership and identity, makes these simple, spiteful characters work. Nothing isn’t a great big book (despite the claim of the absolutely terrible Kate Zambreno blurb on the back, calling it “the great American novel of the selfie,” which almost convinced me not to pick it up); it’s a very well-put-together, carefully-limited small book, that does nearly everything it sets out to do well.
Occasionally the style goes off the rails, veers into self-parody, but not often: this is probably the worst, and it took a couple readings-over to get past the on-point-ness and understand quite how much Ruth is making fun of Bridget (who, also a little too spot-on, she compares on the previous page to a picture of Marilyn Monroe in a newly-broken frame, “the reproduction of that syrupy, mousy face, but shattered. It was pathetic, really.” — which seems rather too nice and too tidy for the character thinking it, or any character in Cauchon’s world). Fortunately, the focus seldom gets this sharp, seldom shows the seams quite this strongly.
“Old white guy, long greasy hair. One eye wandered, I wasn’t scared. I swallowed. I’d pictured hobos like traveler kids, punks, anarchists like I’d seen in Minneapolis. Tan, with combat boots and some kind of mohawk or dreads, looking good without a shirt. Or old wise-guy boxcar hobos reading Plato, or like a young Bob Dylan. But these were filthy old criminals with bad teeth or no teeth and that death row look in their eyes. Two passed out in the grass so hard they could have been dead. Another one, a big one, tilted the bottle back to empty it.”—
Intentionally flat and laconic, with equally intentionally flat characters, in a way that actually works surprisingly well: this is the lack-of-affect prose of the Muumuu House style turned to something outside of first-world Brooklyn-set character pieces, kicking against something different from urban anomie or suburban suffocation (if only a little different — after all, we’re talking about travelers and crusties, who a lot of the time look like symptoms of affluence themselves, right?). And Cauchon gets a lot of mileage out of the style, and the space she creates with it: apocalyptic parties against an apocalyptic vengeful nature, the (literally) choking atmosphere of the natural world constraining and contrasting the tag-ends of a post-evacuation party scene in almost-uninhabitable fire-season Missoula.
“You see one painting, I see another, the art book at the museum gift shop puts it at another remove still, the lady buying the greeting card at the museum gift shop sees something else entire, and that’s not even to mention the people separated from us by time — four hundred years before us, four hundred years after we’re gone — it’ll never strike anybody the same way and the great majority of people it’ll never strike in any way at all but — a really great painting is fluid enough to work its way into the mind and heart through all kinds of different angles, in ways that are unique and very particular. Yours, yours, I was painted for you.”—
A little unfair, in that this is the last big lapel-grabbing bit, the big artistic climax where Tartt makes her final point about beauty and painting and I suppose the greed of the collector, the hold objects have on people. “It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” But in the very long, overextended denouement of the novel (which, unfortunately, features one scene where Theo, at this point thoroughly tiresome, interrupts his interlocutor over and over, for, like, three pages, as Boris tries to get to the point that will wrap up this whole 800-page hunk of wildly varying quality, often excellent with periodic long stretches of loose and baggy) this here is the knockout punch, one of the moments where Tartt tries her very hardest to make sure that the fight won’t have to go to decision.
“My moods were a slingshot; after being locked-down and anaesthetized for years my heart was zinging and slamming itself around like a bee under glass, everything bright, sharp, confusing, wrong — but it was clean pain as opposed to the dull misery that had plagued me for years under the drugs like a rotten tooth, the sick dirty ache of something spoiled. The clarity was exhilarating; it was as if I’d removed a pair of smudged-up glasses that fuzzed everything I saw. All summer long I had been practically delirious: tingling, daffy, energized, running on shrimp cocktail and the invigorating whock of tennis balls. And all I could think of was Kitsey, Kitsey, Kitsey!”—
This is maybe the best thing The Goldfinch does, the recovery and relapse, the tracking not of Theo’s impressions but of his ability to take impressions. Better than the bildungsroman stuff, and the novel-of-ideas art stuff. But more importantly, this is one of those paragraphs that you used to try, in high school or in college or just after, arch and a little pastiche-y, that almost nobody can pull off; this is that paragraph pulled off.
“And the strange thing was: I knew that most people didn’t see her as I did — if anything, found her a bit odd-looking with her off-kilter walk and her spooky redhead pallor. For whatever dumb reason I had always flattered myself that I was the only person in the world who really appreciated her — that she would be shocked and touched and maybe even come to view herself in a whole new light if she knew just how beautiful I found her. But this had never happened. Angrily, I concentrated on her flaws, wilfully studying the photographs that caught her at awkward ages and less flattering angles — long nose, thin cheeks, her eyes (despite their heartbreaking color) naked-looking with their pale lashes — Huck-Finn plain. Yet all these aspects were — to me — so tender and particular they moved me to despair.”—
For all of Tartt’s talents, with description and prose and mood, with combining genre and fascination with high art (which I think is one of her signal talents, writing books that are both delicious in a not-quite-pulpy way while using art as an integral part of her story, giving the reader the assurance they’re reading something improving, nontrivial, that might otherwise seem, um, trashy), The Goldfinch isn’t without flaws. Plenty of other people have pointed out the book’s reliance on coincidence, which doesn’t bother me nearly as much as other things — and this bit, about Pippa, who our narrator Theo is unquestioningly in love with, highlights the worst of it. Because Theo really hardly ever is around Pippa — as children, before the big caesura between Theo’s childhood and adulthood in the middle of the book, we see them together for maybe two meetings; in the latter half, she just drifts about on the edges, a target for Theo’s obsessions. There’s nothing wrong, really, with a McGuffin or an empty vessel, even in a book that’s this full of them, although one would rather like Tartt to have written a female character for this book who’s not a paragon or a cipher. But it’s hard to square the very precise, balanced self-loathing of this bit, which is a beautifully done bit of character, with the absolute blank space he’s writing about — both Pippa, and his relationship with her.
Oh, and I’ve lost the citation, and Google isn’t helping me much: but whoever pointed out their irritation at the use of dashes (in terms of The Goldfinch being beautifully designed, and horribly marred by all the ugly dashes) was absolutely completely right, and typing out a paragraph or two of this just confirms. And you understand: I’m no stranger to a gratuitous en dash.
“‘Everybody always says this painting is about reason and enlightenment, the dawn of scientific inquiry, all that, but to me it’s creepy how polite and formal they all are, milling around the slab like a buffet at a cocktail party. Although —’ she pointed — ‘see those two puzzled guys in the back there? They’re not looking at the body — they’re looking at us. You and me. Like they see us standing here in front of them — two people from the future. Startled. ‘What are you doing here?’ Very naturalistic.’”—
Early and incidental, the main character’s mother talking in front of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson; she goes on to talk about all of the various non-naturalistic effects in the painting, the corpse used as a light source to draw the eye, an arm rendered the wrong way around. Our narrator can’t really see the picture, doesn’t really care because he’s spotted a girl, and it’s a nice moment, an interesting reading of a painting, and a technically nice transmission of a monologue.
This also reminds me of Bennett Sims’s A Questionable Shape, which also opens with a consideration of the non-naturalistic in Dutch golden-age painting; both incidental bits — Sims was making a point about vision and perspective, I expect Tartt is even more tangential here, to the point that reading this as commentary on realism is probably justifiable but also grad-school stretching it — that demonstrate a certain kind of practice while carrying forward. I really liked Sims’s book; his reading of his painting, though, was intense, crabbed, close and impacted. Tartt, on the other hand, has this clean open paragraph, which easily circles in and out of direct speech and narration, part of a longer looping disquisition on an exhibition: calm and assured and glowing.
“She did not want to talk to, or listen to, or be seen by anyone. She wanted the shelter of a backyard and a flat suburban sky: real, American privacy. It still existed in her infinite country. A nation that offered doors to close, and rooms with no one else in them. A nation that needed space, and always found it.”—
Counterpoint to the tin-eared passage that opens the book, and elaboration on it, too: this is awkward work done with ideas in the same way that the opening is awkward work done with metaphors. Which is a shame, and do please keep in mind that this is rather unfair of me to pick on, because when Hill concentrates on her characters and her story, the things that actually go on in these peoples’ experiences, her prose calms down. But this is an abrupt out-of-focus pan back, a fumbled microphone.
“For a moment that afternoon, it was only woman and water, the bay in all its sickening glory squaring itself for a fight. The waves flexed before her, muscly and ultramarine. The wind taunted her, whapping strands of hair across her Vaselined lips, where they stuck, and stuck again, no matter how many times she brushed them free. Spray flew, the shoreline canted — and above the sails, large plates of cloud shifted tectonically, producing sudden, diving flashes of sun.”—
The first paragraph of the prologue that opens this novel, and to be quite honest its stylistic low point (although in the next paragraph a gin and tonic sweats anxiously, and there is a coating of sunblock that is both “invisible” and “thick as paint”). This is nervous writing, a first-time novelist so anxious to make a good first impression that everything is overworked, unfortunate, a step or two off, imprecise; it’s pale-faced queasy sweaty-palmed stuff. And it goes on for a little, or at least the effects of this labored entry lingers a rather long time, so that one is always a little mindful, a little wary of the inapt metaphor, the infelicitous construction, which has already burned you and will surprise you again, jerk you out of the moment when you begin to suspend disbelief and actually accept what these characters are doing.
For correctness’s sake: the last word up there is ‘potate-o;’ quotes don’t render italics. Not sure whether the point is that this is the wrong way around — this is the wrong way around, isn’t it? — or whether that’s just incidental, but I feel like the overenunciation in the typography can represent, like as a microcosm or a homeopathic tincture, the whole four-hundred-or-so pages without too much comment.
“For, it is more generally the case that Miriam, having reached the dread and hallowed age of thirty, mother of a two-year-old, collects to herself living emblems of her earlier self, even if they are mostly without a clue, contain barely a notion behind their brush-shined waterfalls of hair.”—
This, for Lethem, in this book, is a typical sentence — which is one of the problems that I am having with the book. Because this is very much a thing, a high style: the lurch along from clause to clause, with the echoey resonant phrasing (“dread and hallowed,” and then “brush-shined waterfalls,” both in the same sentence), and the indirection of one or two or more dependent clauses before reaching the verb.
Lest you suspect I protest too much, a couple of pages later, and part of the same scene, there’s this that expresses a very similar thought about Miriam’s female friendships:
“Whereas beginning with Lorna Himmelfarb, or even earlier, and never more than in the instance of Stella Kim, Miriam’s lady confidantes are the ground beneath her feet, the earth itself. Perhaps also even the feet with which Miriam feels herself planted on that earth. Root and body of herself in another. So it is Stella whose eyes Miriam feels she sees through, as she sizes up the killer-hipster moustachioed ad-man Peter Matusevitch, as well as the other, possibly non-incidental competitor there in the green room, the stocky accountant who now presents himself as Graham Stone.”
Not that this is bad writing — it’s a virtuoso performance, a baroque fugue. It’s exhilarating, in small chunks, and I’m afraid I’m only reading this one in small chunks. But it’s also the voice of an omniscient narrator, because Lethem writes like this for all his characters, across three generations of a Queens family: this encrusted verbiage is not reflective of Miriam’s understanding of the world or her inner life, but of the narrator who reveals that inner life to us. It’s a filter between the reader and the thing read about. Often enough that’s desirable; Lethem’s excellent, virtuoso prose serves his earlier first-person novels well (and even, in The Fortress of Solitude, does well in third person, where everything is so very animated by the two main characters). But this novel is different, in scope and character and concern — multigenerational, political, significantly less homogenous. And the filter of the hyperverbal, baroque narrator distances the events of the novel, rather than amplifying action, or comedy, or theme: not bad, but a little uncomfortable, ill-fitting.
“to follow this and draw it onto the wood is a frequent solution, a person, he demonstrated something with wide gestures in the air, looks at the old drawing plans and stores them away in his head, that’s what he did as well, as for books themselves, of which there were an innumerable quantity in the Shicho — he made a droll, wry face — well, books never help, because books are someone else’s experience, the unfortunately can never help the toryo, only his own experiences can be of help to him, he must always try everything out for himself”—
And likewise, one of the pleasures of Seiobo, here and above, are the characters explaining their process and their craft: here, a master temple carpenter, and previously, a master actor of the Noh, neither of whom necessarily feel the need to lay bare a mystery that they apprehend — nor do they need to obscure it — because their experiences of the sublime (or the divine, or whatever) simply transcend understanding.
“then he pulls himself together, and he says something in reference to the given question, very cautiously and circumspectly, with elegant restraint, and refraining from using big words, he says something, something about the mask, that here is such and such a mask, and in a certain play, it more or less means this, but when it comes to what does the Noh want, or what is the essence of the Noh, and so forth — the dreadfully tactless questions — he doesn’t know what to do, he genuinely doesn’t understand, he can’t even understand how someone can even ask such a question, the kinds of questions children ask, if at all, not grown up people”—
One of the reasons why Seiobo is so successful is that it takes on such a thorough examination of art (and a bunch of related topics, like creativity and practice and craft, especially craft): it does this through panorama, incorporating a bunch of different art forms and cultures, Arabic architecture and Noh and nineteenth-century European landscape painting; but also through a capacious understanding of artistry, and what it means to participate in art. There are stories about sculptors and painters, but also a lecturer on music, and a museum guard, and a government agency responsible for restoring Buddhas, and Krasznahorkai treats all of these different tasks, all these endeavors, as allied activities, similar graspings at the sublime and ineffable. It is often hard to deal with art about artists (because it is most often bad, or at least engaged in special pleading: if you promise me I never have to read another second novel about a young man writing a novel, I’ll be just a little happier) especially after the Romantics (and no matter how un- or anti-Romantic we get, we still can’t shake that particular strain). But Krasznahorkai’s artists are not just inspired or blocked: they are numerous, sometimes mysterious or mystical, but also professionals and craftsmen and laborers, each of whom gain their own window on the eternal, which is not only reserved for the single chosen auteur.
Also incidentally, and related to Seiobo’s lack of faith in a single artistic genius, solely responsible for creation: the work that the translator, Ottilie Mulzet, must have done on this is absolutely heroic, completely unimaginable; and this is the second strange, singular, excellent book from New Directions that I’ve read in a row.
“for there is a domain, that of death, the dreadful weight of the earth pressing in from all sides which has entombed them, and which in time shall devour us as well, to close in upon itself, to bury, to consume even our memories, beyond all that is eternal.”—
And, to proceed out-of-order, which isn’t like me: the last part of the last sentence, resolving the chord struck above: Seiobo is, increasingly as the book goes on, something like a memento mori, a celebration of art and a reminder that even the thing that the book celebrates and belongs to is vanity, an attempt to understand and cope with and even stave off death. And is also futile. So Krasznahorkai begins with the crane and its unknowing sublimity; here he concludes with the grave and the eternal.
“for you it will be much better for there to be no tomorrow and no day after tomorrow; so hide away now in the grass, sink down, fall onto your side, let your eyes slowly close, and die, for there is no point in the sublimity that you bear, die at midnight in the grass, sink down and fall, and let it be like that — breathe your last.”—
From the end of the first section of the book, which is about (and here addressed to) a crane in Kyoto’s Kamo River, and is the only section of this very long book that is not directly related to the arts; also only a partial sentence, because this is Krasznahorkai, who has written a four-hundred-some page book with maybe two dozen periods in it — his sentences are very, very long, and progress with an implacable internal logic if not necessarily syntactical ease. The effect — and his writing is geared toward effect as much as sense — is wearying and immersing, demanding full attention and requiring a slow circling through a page as you reread passages over again to confirm the connection; but also forcing your head into the flow of another person’s action or thoughts, coercing an identification. And here, as the unseen narrator addresses the crane, the first chord struck on Seiobo’s themes: the intersection of sublimity, intention, and death.
One of the minor, mean-spirited pleasures of Krasznahorkai is imagining dropping one of his books, like a sweating stick of dynamite, on the desk of the middle school teacher who made you diagram sentences.
“He was more than fat; he was gigantic in that seldom-seen fantastic way that brings to mind thick dough puddings and overstuffed Morris chairs. One of the men who bowled regularly in League Wednesday nights, who was also an avid reader of science fiction, compared Greaseball to a spaceman who had been infected by a spore that had bloated him into moon-proportions. It was a striking analogy, for Bolley’s body was not only hasty-pudding squishy, and waggled flappingly as he stumped forward, but the skin was an unhealthy yellow, pimpled and puckered and strewn with moles, pustules, explosions of flesh, that made him look like some diseased fruit, overripe and rotting within.”—
Not to give this too much time — because after all, it’s a juvenile-delinquent pulp from the late ‘50s, and a debut novel by an author who gained prominence in an entirely different genre, a curiosity in other words rather than a masterpiece, and presented as such — but this is a lot of description for an essentially background character, the mark of a writer that doesn’t know how to work in long form yet; it’s a game of the dozens that’s gotten out of hand, with poor Mr. Ellison egging himself on until he stops making sense entirely (“waggled flappingly?”). The contrast is especially sharp in light of the short stories that Hard Case has printed after the novel, which are also standard juvenile-delinquent pulp, but harder, faster, and meaner: a writer punching his weight.
“Seung has brought a chicken, which he plans to roast slowly with fresh cherries, dried apricots, and a sweet white wine. He’s brought pasta, too, and tomatoes and herbs for making a sauce. He learned how to do the sauce from Sterne, who has an Italian grandmother. Seung picks up something from everybody. He assembled himself from those around him.”—
And this is a perfect turn of phrase, a great description of a character; it’s just not that functional a character type for your romantic lead, for one half of the star-crossed center of a novel. Earlier, in the shortest single chapter of the book, Bennett-Jones writes that “I’m inventing Seung too, of course.” But a romantic lead who’s a black box, viewed from the outside (and indeed outside of the romance itself too) does not lend itself to great passion; while The Virgins is as much if not more about Bennett-Jones’s envy than it is about Seung and Aviva’s romance, it’s still more difficult to identify with or understand Bennett-Jones’s envy for blank Seung than his desire for Aviva, who is drawn with much more depth and sympathy than her boyfriend.
“Over the years I’ve come to understand that telling someone’s story — telling it, I mean, with a purity of intention, in an attempt to get at that person’s real desires and sufferings — is at one and the same time an act of devotion and an expression of sadism. You are the one moving the bodies around, putting words in their mouths, making them do what you need them to do. You insist, they submit.”—
Not that a narrator has to be sympathetic or repentant — indeed, not by a long shot — nor need he even be entirely consistent: but by combining such a technically-difficult narrator with a story that naturally puts him at a remove from the central characters means that the book hangs very heavily on that single performance. And Bennett-Jones is a good character and an interesting narrator, but these are not always compatible over the full performance of the novel, and even tarnish each other a little through contact.