Reading Highlights from 2014: Fiction

Reading Highlights from 2014: Fiction

Meg Wolitzer The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer. The Interestings. (2013).

Wolitzer’s novel focuses on a circle of friends who meet during their teens at a summer camp for artistically gifted youth called Spirit in the Woods. Told mainly from the point of view of Julie Jacobsen, the narrative follows this close-knit and variously talented group from the age of fifteen through to their mid-fifties. The narrative starts against the backdrop of Nixon’s resignation (1974) as the teens gather nightly in the wooden tepee sleep-out of the charismatic Wolf siblings, Ash and Goodman, who come from a cultured, privileged background that assures them a sense of belonging at a camp such as this. The group declare themselves ‘the Interestings’ for the level of intensity, complexity and talent that they possess singly and as a group. Intended perhaps as a satire on adolescent hopefulness and egotism, The Interestings nonetheless suggests that at least one member of the group, Ethan Figman, a plain-looking boy of unremarkable background, is in fact insanely, incandescently talented. Already, at fifteen, he is filling notebooks with the comic strip of his creation, a world called Figland that converts the banal horrors of his bleak suburban upbringing into mordant tales. Julie, renamed Jules by her hip camp friends, is invited by Ethan to a private showing of his animated versions of Figland and has a sudden insight: despite his plainness, here was real talent, “He was a genius … His cartoon was mesmerizing …”

Jules, also from an unremarkable background, with a home back in New Jersey, is attending Spirit in the Woods on a scholarship. Her story makes a parallel to Ethan’s as each starts from a similar back-story, only to experience very different outcomes. While Ethan’s work goes on to be wildly successful, both commercially and artistically, growing to become a Matt Groening style Simpsons-esque empire, Jules’s early years as a budding comic actor lead nowhere. Eventually conceding that a little talent that shines its small light among one’s peers is not enough to light up anything beyond that circle, Jules becomes a clinical social worker who runs a modest practice. The remainder of the narrative explores how Jules’s feelings of intense camaraderie and loyalty towards her more successful friends, are rendered more complex and ambiguous by disappointment and poisonous social comparison.

As The Interestings ploughs through the early adulthood, adulthood, and middle years of this group, Wolitzer uses the various backgrounds and personalities of each member to explore questions of success and envy, privilege and chance, and the saving role of friendship as each deals with the flux of fortune. In addition to Jules and Ethan, there are the Wolf siblings, the diabolical Goodman and the likeable Ash, Cathy, a dancer whose artistic career seems doomed from the beginning by her statuesque build, and Jonah, the under-parented son of a Joan Baez type folk singer. Much of Jules’s story is taken up with her envy and frustration at being so proximate, through Ethan, and Ash, to phenomenal financial and artistic success, while she is forced, as are most of us, to make other, more imperfect choices.

The Interestings explores similar territory to Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Freedom, as, by considering talent and its fate, Wolitzer locates the individual story in a deeply textured social and economic milieu. This is brought into sharp focus when Jules’s best friend, Ash Wolf, develops a promising career as a New York theatre director, and Wolitzer gives Jules a painful epiphany:

“…it had never just been about talent; it had also always been about money. Ethan was brilliant at what he did, and he might well have made it even if Ash’s father hadn’t encouraged and advised him, but it really helped that Ethan had grown up in a sophisticated city … Ash was talented, but not all that talented. This was the thing that no one had said, not once. But of course it was fortunate that Ash didn’t have to worry about money while trying to think about art. […] ‘I love her and she’s my best friend and she’s very dedicated, and she does the reading and puts in the time, and she’s legitimately interested in the feminist aspect. But isn’t it true that there are a lot of other people who are talented at the same exact level, and they’re all slaving away? She’s got some good ideas. But is she great at directing? Is she the theatrical equivalent of Ethan? No! Oh, God will strike me dead right now.’”

Wolitzer shows how the novel form itself is uniquely well-suited to explore the central dynamism of human life in modernity – how we struggle to make good on our given resources and talents; how relationships form and shape us; how we aim to make something of our lives, but always do so within the opportunities and limits of our circumstances and society. There is the myth, especially in America, but also in every culture touched by the American narrative, that the individual carves out their life from the raw material of circumstance and that the virtuous individual will triumph over odds. Wolitzer shows, through the fortunes and struggles of her characters, that it is never that straightforward, even for those born to advantage and even those whose lives seem, on the surface, to encompass every kind of success.

Ultimately, The Interestings is a meditation on the mystery of talent – whether or not it exists, and the many factors that play into its being expressed or not, “Talent could go in so many directions, depending on the forces that were applied to it, and depending on economics and disposition, and on the most daunting and most determining force of all, luck.” The author chooses to portray a small coterie of New York friends who attempt artistic careers, or make deliberate choices not to, using their story to prompt our thinking about the interaction of self and circumstance, and the relationship between the narrow range of personal experience, and the wide angle lens of social history. If anything, the novel invites speculation into just how useful the contemporary obsession with talent and fame and success really is, and what happens to how we experience our lives if we only value what of them reaps wealth and publicised rewards. By developing the narrative through the parallel lives of these friends, Wolitzer also shows how our long-standing relationships help us make sense of the passing of time. Through the story of Jules and her friends, I felt like I was satisfyingly involved in some of life’s great questions.

KnausgaardBoyhoodIsland

Karl Ove Knausgaard. Boyhood Island. (English translation: 2014).

“… event after event is dispersed in the air above the little meadow of one’s own history, only to fall between the blades of grass and vanish …”

This is the third instalment of the English translation (from the Norwegian) of Knausgaard’s epic experiment in fictionalised autobiography My Struggle. In this volume, ‘Karl Ove’ relives his primary school years living with his father, mother and older brother on the island of Tromøya. Setting up in a new house in a new estate, Knausgaard’s family are part of a post-war generation who hope to be part of a new, better-educated, more socially just Norway. The class heterogeneity, optimism, and easy neighbourly intermingling of different kinds of families that Knausgaard portrays, held together by common schooling and community sporting clubs, was extremely nostalgic for me, having grown up, on the other side of the world, in a very similar community on the outer suburban fringe of 1970s Melbourne. This was a time in Australia, too, where there was a popular hope that socialised health care, free, accessible, high-quality education for all, worker protections, and a welfare safety net were going to usher in a golden era of social as well as material prosperity. Such were the days.

Of the three My Struggle volumes I have read thus far, this had the most traditional, straightforward narrative structure. Knausgaard portrays his struggles for self-acceptance as well as inclusion with his peers. The strained and ominous atmosphere that permeates his adolescent and early-adulthood memories of his father in Volume 1: A Death in the Family, is explained further in this volume. A primary-school pedagogue by trade, Knausgaard’s father is shown, in a cruel irony, to have no insight into how to relate to his own sons. ‘Control Freak’ does not even begin to cover the tyrannical perfectionism and glowering threat posed by this man. However, a young Knausgaard does find some relief elsewhere during unsupervised hours roaming the beaches, docks and forests that surround his home, sometimes getting into peril during the explorations and adventures he undertakes with his boyhood friends. Soccer and music, and, a little later, reading, also offer escape hatches from the unbearably oppressive atmosphere at home.

Of the three volumes translated thus far, this was the least striking, stylistically, perhaps because the story arc and the attention given to portraying childhood within a suburban-fringe or small-town setting are stock-in-trade for autobiographical novelists. However, the quality of Knausgaard’s writing, and the searching, self-critical way in which he narrates his novel-memoir, lifts this work above the usual Bildungsroman.

Knausgaard recounts experiences that are so specific and weird that they simply cannot be made up and they certainly disrupt any containment by a simple bucolic narrative. Discovering an undeclared tip and scouring it for disposed of pornography magazines, and having pooing competitions with his friend off the sides of fallen trees certainly fit this bill, as does the painfully meticulous attention given to the many ways in which the child Knausgaard was overly keen to please adult authority figures. The clarity and attention to detail, the felt heft and haptic specificity of Knausgaard’s writing, work like a magic portal to another time. I am looking forward to Volume 4 of this incredible project.

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Elizabeth Strout. Olive Kitteridge.(2008).

Olive Kitteridge is a quiet, yet sharply observed series of stories that accumulate into a novel-in-episodes.  Set in the fictional small town of Crosby, Maine, Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel revolves around the telling moments and saving graces of otherwise untold lives. Olive Kitteridge is a retired high school maths teacher. Gruff, vinegary, but ultimately a soul built to last, she does not suffer fools but, at the same time, saves a man planning suicide and shows a kind of all-round sturdiness that recommends her. Capable of fierce love, she is also hopelessly undemonstrative with her own son, Christopher, and, in a darkly funny story, works with discreet malice against her status-conscious daughter-in-law. Her rather worn husband, Henry, a pharmacist on the verge of retirement, is capable of great loyalty to his difficult wife, even as he contemplates a late-life affair.

Strout’s stories impart a luminosity and quiet humour to otherwise unremarkable lives in a way that reminds me of Alice Munro’s work. Olive Kitteridge has recently been adapted as a four-part HBO miniseries with Frances McDormand in the title role.

The Emperor's Children

Claire Messud. The Emperor’s Children. (2006).

Messud’s The Emperor’s Children is, like Wolitizer’s The Interestings, concerned with a New York circle of friends who represent a cultural milieu. Messud’s novel has a shorter time scale, set in the year leading up to, and some months after, the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. Reminiscent of Jay McInerny’s Brightness Falls (1997), The Emperor’s Children deals with expensively educated thirty-somethings flailing away at the verge of either solid careers or failure. Julius, a gay, part-Vietnamese freelance journalist, has worn his charming schtick threadbare. Unable to steel his nerves for the demands of a regular gig, he is reduced to face-saving manoeuvres, such as calling the only decent suit in his wardrobe, an Agnes B number, his ‘signature suit’. Meanwhile, Marina is eking out her preposterous advance for her book on how children’s fashions express the changing values and aspirations of their parents. Their mutual friend, Danielle, is the main point of focus for the novel. Also a graduate from Brown, where they all met, Danielle is an outsider by virtue of her mid-west, single-mother home background. A producer for a documentary unit that rarely takes up her ambitious, socially-aware ideas, she finds herself stuck working on yet more hackneyed documentaries about cosmetic surgery gone wrong. She is tempted to join a new venture in commercial magazine publishing by an Australian media iconoclast called Ludovic Seeley. Looming over them all is the figure of Murray Thwaite, Marina’s father, an entrenched opinion-maker for the liberal press, who garnered his reputation reporting on the Vietnam War and has been resting on it ever since. A classic ‘hollow man’ of the world of letters, Thwaite is the cause of Marina’s writer’s block and the target of Seeley’s anti-values campaign. Lastly, Thwaite’s nephew, Bootie, from an unremarkable small town, arrives in New York armed with Musil’s A Man Without Qualities and a searing, Emersonian ambition to be authentic and make it on his own. It is Bootie who ends up attempting to knock down the graven image of Murray Thwaite, only to bring exile on himself.

Messud’s novel is a comedy of manners about the artistic and liberal-democratic aspirations of New York’s cultural establishment and, more specifically, the generation of their children. It also casts a knowing eye over the hypocrisies and intellectual double-book-keeping of the entrenched liberal elite. Murray Thwaite, who espouses the values of rigor, honesty and keeping it real, is all the while recycling his hackneyed 1960s journalism and showing nothing but indifference to the troubled black teen his social justice lawyer wife is working to keep out of jail and whose mother perishes in the World Trade Center. Messud’s prose is at times too circuitous and there were many times when I sighed at the insularity of her characters; their assumption that something that happens to their kind of people in New York has happened to the world was just grating rather than satirical. But this was an unsentimental examination of a slice of American life and the character of Danielle in particular, felt trustworthy.

Further reading:

The New Republic review of The Interestings and another Messud novel The Woman Upstairs.

Kill Your Darlings interview with Meg Wolitzer about The Interestings for the 2014 Melbourne Writers’ Festival.

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An Uncanny Experience: Reading Gone Girl alongside Oliver James’ The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch.

In the ‘Staff Daily’ at the school where I work, a recent ‘Thought for the Day’ was something about what we do when we procrastinate being perhaps what we should do more of in our life. Clearly, with Year 11 exam scripts glaring at me from their pile and report deadlines looming, what I have chosen to do before all that is write about Gillian Flynn’s psychological thriller Gone Girl.

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Gone Girl is narrated in the first person by Flynn’s two protagonists, unhappily-married Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot. Set against the backdrop of America’s post 2008 financial troubles, Flynn’s novel details the lives of Nick and Amy as they meet, fall in love, marry, move into the gorgeous New York brownstone that Amy’s parents buy for them (!!) and have what seems to be, on the surface, a couple of years of a reasonably good time … before both lose their jobs. From thenceforth, Nick moves them both back to his home town in Missouri once he hears that his mother, Maureen, has terminal cancer. From there, the reader is plunged into what can only be described as Midwest Noir. The physical and psychological landscape is somewhere between Capote’s In Cold Blood and David Lynch’s chilling portrayals of suburban menace.

Amy Dunne disappears from the protagonists’ characterless McMansion in a half-deserted housing estate. Her husband Nick is the main suspect. For the first half of the novel, the reader cannot decide whether or not Nick is the likely killer. He does not love Amy. He is having an affair. He is a heavy drinker. He is complacent and – crucially — dishonest, especially with himself. But is he capable of murder?

Gone Girl exhibits our current anxieties in spades: that the GFC and technology have conspired to put out of work whole swathes of the liberally-educated; that our media is a grotesque machine for churning our lurid stories that stoke insecurity and rage but leave us no sense of what the truth really is; that the promise of the post-WWII economic Dream has shrivelled to empty malls, stagnant real wages, high unemployment, vacated ex-urbs and rusting industrial sites.

At the heart of these social and economic fears is a very personal, intimate one: that no matter how much time you spend with your spouse, you may not ever really know them. The first half of the narrative draws on the female fear of male violence from those men closest to them. Most of all, once the plot enacts its ‘twist’, Flynn taps into a long narrative tradition about women and evil. Gone Girl is part of a recurrent idea that women remain essentially inscrutable to their flawed, but essentially ‘good guy’ husbands, and that behind the friendly smile and the offer to make a cooked breakfast lies a villainess plotting to kill you.

Flynn goes deep into the vein of patriarchal images of female villainy that link female violence with their sexuality and roles as mothers: Medea killing her children for vengeance; Lady Macbeth swearing she would “dash the brains” of a baby if she had given her word she would do so. And, yes, a baby makes an appearance in Flynn’s narrative. Beyond that, she contextualises her tale of female psycho-pathology in a landscape that is saturated with stories. Everything her protagonists Amy Elliot or Nick Dunne do is a reference to another narrative: the feminist one of rape victims; the social work one about middle-class domestic violence; the backlash one about men being turned into compliant “dancing monkeys” in their futile efforts to please demanding feminist wives; the other backlash one about the “surrendered wife”; and all of those narratives about crimes and how they are solved and how they play in the media. There is an ‘as-if-ness’ to everything in Nick and Amy’s lives, which seem as manufactured and bereft of context as their neighbourhood.

In setting up the cultural scene of her tale, Flynn piles on layer after layer of irony. Her entire narrative explores the impossibility of authenticity in an ultra-post-modern world where everything is mediated. This feature of the novel adds to the sensation of uncertainty and vertigo it induces in the reader. Nick Dunne and Amy Elliot work as writers at pop-culture magazines that promulgate the consumption ethic and comment on entertainment. When both are put out of work by the triple-whammy of online media, falling sales and the GFC, they are crushed by a sense of failure; they no longer measure up to the idealised image of ‘success’ their erstwhile employer-publications promote. They go from being cute thirty-somethings living in a New York brownstone, to out-of-work nobodies, living in an anonymous McMansion in Missouri. In other words, they go from players in a narrative of upward mobility and success, to victims of the very same values they once identified with.

Nick and Amy acclimatise to their return to Nick’s Missouri hometown very differently. However, they are similar in their patronising assumption that ‘real’ lives and really interesting people are in their forfeited New York. That’s where the main story is – and the Midwest is just ‘flyover’. This is where my reading Gone Girl alongside Oliver James’ work analysing the ills of late-capitalism, The Selfish Capitalist: The Origins of Affluenza and Britain on the Couch: How Keeping up with the Joneses Has Depressed Us Since 1950 was so illuminating and uncanny. While commentators on the novel have pointed out its connection to feminism and the ills of married life, few seem to be prepared to link Amy’s pathology to the contemporary rise in unhealthy social comparison, particularly in its pathological manifestation as clinical narcissism. These are the cultural trends explored in James’s work that make a perfect gloss to Flynn’s text.

In Nick’s account, the move to Missouri disorients Amy because her carefully constructed and competitively maintained persona as “Amazing” (a word used with deadly drollery in Flynn’s novel) has no purchase in their new milieu:

“My wife had a brilliant, popping brain, a greedy curiosity. But her obsessions tended to be fuelled by competition: She needed to dazzle men and jealous-ify women: Of course Amy can cook French cuisine and speak fluent Spanish and garden and knit and run marathons and fly a plane and look like a runway model doing it. She needed to be Amazing Amy, all the time. Here in Missouri, the women shop at Target, they make diligent, comforting meals, they laugh about how little high school Spanish they remember. Competition doesn’t interest them. Amy’s relentless achieving is greeted with open-palmed acceptance and maybe a bit of pity. It was about the worst outcome possible for my competitive wife: A town of contended also-rans.”

Nick adjusts by taking the last of Amy’s trust fund (raided earlier by her feckless parents) to open a bar, knowingly called ‘The Bar’. Meanwhile, Amy tries playacting the role of ‘good wife’ and grateful daughter-in-law to Nick’s wonderful mother, and his misogynist, demented father, who regularly escapes from a comfortless nursing home.

Once Amy goes missing and Nick is a prime suspect, his side of the narrative is caught up in the pantomime of trying to appear ‘right’ to TV viewers. While Amy is relentlessly involved in constructing and maintaining a perfect self-image, Nick is castigated by various characters for failing to understand that one of his chief tasks is to successfully play a role. To the reader, Nick’s reaction to Amy’s disappearance is not quite right – we suspect him – but at the same time, we see how even an innocent man would be forced to play the role of “Innocent Man” under such circumstances.

Amy’s parents, child psychologists (but of course!) have made a mint over the years from a twee children’s book series called “Amazing Amy”. In the books, Amy-as-character does all the things that her parents evidently wishes she would do, too. While the real childhood Amy was a fledgling Queen Bee who ran a “Ponzi scheme” of intimidation among her school peers, the fictional Amy played fair and was reliable and generous. While the real thirty-something Amy is single, her fictional double gets married. Flynn creates a psychological backstory in which Amy has been trained, from early life, to construct a performed identity based on what her parents (and their publishers) want. Exterior perfection counts for all, and it is buffed to a high shine, while the inner life remains dusty and dim. Gone Girl’s sweetly vicious heroine is the embodiment of female empowerment crossed with rampant social competitiveness.

Gone Girl draws its power from several tensions and contradictions in contemporary liberal democracies. We invest in our romantic and marital relationships as a source of fulfilment and meaning in a cold, competitive world. Meanwhile, our rates of divorce and family dysfunction are sky-high. The promise of individual success is held up as more alluring than ever, but the economic realities make this a distant possibility for the majority. The novel paints a world of vanished hope for upward mobility and increased prosperity for all; Nick is a first-generation university graduate from his family, and winds up just where his forebears started.

Another issue, embodied in the eponymous ‘Girl’, is the way in which the hyper-mediated, consumption-driven culture we live in now encourages people to have extremely high expectations for their lifestyle and themselves. As James points out in Britain on the Couch, one of the effects of our living in a media-saturated world, is that the people with whom we compare our lives now includes celebrities, and a cornucopia of images of wealth, status, beauty and success. What’s more, psychological studies show that, at a deep unconscious level, we tend to blur the line between fantasy and reality. Hence, it does not matter that we ‘know’ that fashion images are photo-shopped and that our media give disproportionate time to the rich and beautiful. We still feel inadequate and that we ought to meet these ideals. Gone Girl explores how our quest for self-actualisation and success has grown more intense, just at the historical moment when ordinary people are increasingly exposed to economic ill-winds that make it more and more likely that they will fail. Flynn’s Amy is faced with a choice: either accept her downward mobility and adjust accordingly, or rig reality in such a way that her self-aggrandising image is maintained. Ultimately, the story of Amy Elliot and Nick Dunne is an exploration of how devotion to a particular kind of self-image and consumer-success can become, well, psychotic.

Oliver james selfish capitalist

Gone Girl delivers a satire on the pathological culture of self-regard that is so very evident in Flynn’s characterisation of both her protagonists. In the psychology of the fatally married narcissists that Flynn portrays, the pursuit of the life that they are each ‘entitled’ to, sweeps aside other people’s subjectivities and rights, and indeed, reality. This is the motivation that underwrites Gone Girl’s skewed and nauseating ending.

Both Amy Elliot and her husband, Nick Dunne, are unattractive characters; I did not warm to the self-satisfied husband. Nick seems to think that if he does not get what he wants out of life, then there is no reason why his wife should either, and he certainly could not be expected to exert himself to make her feel valued for herself. Indeed, Amy’s scathing account of his desire to marry a ‘Cool Girl’ was, like the ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’, clearly a male fantasy that does not serve women well. However, I found her creation in ‘Amazing Amy’ a tour de force perversion of feminist ideals. Amy’s ‘feminism’ is nothing less than the demand that she get everything someone as beautiful and accomplished as she clearly ‘deserves’.

Reading Gone Girl alongside the ostensibly unrelated texts by Oliver James, The Selfish Capitalist and Britain on the Couch allowed me to see these patterns in Flynn’s text. James contends that the neo-liberal market policies pursued in largely English-speaking countries since the late 1970s have produced a significant upswing in the rates of psychological distress in those countries. Fuelled by increased job insecurity, longer and more intense working hours, long commutes, increased housing costs, and constant bombardment by marketing messages, James argues that we are seeing higher-rates of emotional distress. These rates include serious mental illness such as schizophrenia and greater rates of anxiety and depression. Intriguingly, we are also seeing increased numbers of sociopaths and narcissists, particularly in the contemporary workplace. Using comparison data from capitalist counties that did not adopt neo-liberal policies (mostly Western Europe) that show lower rates of psychological distress, James argues that the higher rates could be caused by our political and economic environment. Large household debt to fund ever-larger expenses for housing, private schooling and ‘keeping up appearances’ are among the culprits in James’s account, while the lower rates of mental illness in Western Europe, he suggests, are because of structural protections such as welfare and industrial relations laws, as well as cultural tendencies that prioritise non-materialist values.

James draws on research by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, whose book The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement outlines evidence that younger Americans are more self-absorbed, but less happy, than previous generations. They, too, think this is a cultural effect (rather than genetic) that has a lot to do with the increased emphasis on success and self-presentation in our world. Their work makes an interesting counter-point to Gone Girl, including its portrayal of the realities of a post-GFC world:

“American culture’s focus on self-admiration has caused a flight from reality to the land of grandiose fantasy. We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy (with 11 trillion dollars of government debt), phony feelings of being special among children (with parenting and education focused on self-esteem), and phony friends (with the social networking explosion). All this fantasy might feel good, but, unfortunately, reality always wins. The mortgage meltdown and the resulting financial crisis are just one demonstration of how inflated desires eventually crash to earth.”

Materialist values favour money, possessions, appearance and fame, and they are at the heart of “Amazing Amy’s” pathology. As Joshua Rothman, of The New Yorker, in his analysis of the Gone Girl phenomenon, writes

“ … our concepts of masculinity and femininity—and of personhood, success, and freedom—have grown less compatible with the compromises of coupled life. The men’s and women’s magazines for which Nick and Amy worked tell us that our ideal selves are urban, maximally attractive, and maximally single, with absolute career freedom, no children, and plenty of time for the gym.”

In other words, not a lot of empathy, compassion, negotiation, or realism – ingredients for relationships. In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn has written a psychologically sophisticated thriller that prompts a forensic analysis of the cult of personal success.

Review — How I Live Now (novel and film)

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THE NOVEL:

Rosoff’s first novel, How I Live Now (2004) is a cracker of a read for adolescents and adults alike. Daisy, the hard-bitten-but-vulnerable female protagonist retells her experiences of a number of life firsts:

–       The first time she lives away from her New York City home, as she spends the summer with her cousins in the English countryside.

–       The first time she falls in love, completely and utterly with her cousin Edmond.

–       The first time she survives a hostile enemy occupation as World War III breaks out.

This seems like a rather unlikely and crowded premise for a novel that runs to just 224 pages. Rosoff pulls it off, largely through the mesmerising and at times very funny voice of Daisy herself. A typical snippet is her internal monologue sketching her impressions of her cousin Edmond:

Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looked like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night …

The first-person narrative gives the reader the impression that Daisy is hastily confessing her thoughts, feelings and experiences directly to the reader, entrusting us with her most raw and important moments. Beneath the cynical exterior we glimpse the psychological reality of someone who is in fact deeply troubled but feels compelled to keep people at a safe distance:

… for a minute I was so glad I was 15 and from New York City because even though I haven’t actually Seen It All, I have in fact seen more than plenty, and I have one of the best Oh Yeah, This Is So Much What I Usually Do kind of faces of anyone in my crowd.

She is wise to the insincerity and pain of the adult world around her, but touchingly open to those adults who she can see have tenderness and good intentions, even if they are clearly unable to divert disaster. An example of this is her astute observations of Aunt Penn, whose role in international peace negotiations is about to leave the cousins to their own devices:

After looking at me for a few seconds more she put her hand up very gently and pushed the hair off my face in a way that for some reason made me feel incredibly sad and then she said in a regretful grave voice that she was sorry but she had to give a lecture in Oslo at the end of the week on the Imminent Threat of War and had work to do so would I please excuse her? She would only be gone a few days in Oslo and the children would take good care of me. And I thought there’s that old war again, popping up like a bad penny.

What follows is a brief idyll as Daisy and her cousins romp through the beautiful countryside fishing and picnicking and swimming, living off the land and the occasional trip to a local village for supplies. Daisy and Edmond develop feelings for each other without the restraining presence of adults. Meanwhile, Rosoff’s heroine slowly dismantles her hardened, New-York-Teen exterior, learning to enjoy life and perhaps even accept herself.

Then war intervenes. What follows is an intense tale of survival and responsibility and incredible faith.

You can read an extract at Meg Rosoff’s website.

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THE FILM:

Starring Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, The Lovely Bones) and George Mackay as Edmond, Kevin McDonald’s adaptation of Rosoff’s novel stays true to the spirit and the outline of the tale.

Ronan is very believable as a spoilt and self-absorbed New York teen who is pushed to use her determination for higher purposes than diet and appearance by the outbreak of World War III. Responsible for keeping her young cousin Piper alive and for finding her way back home, Daisy is a heroine who must keep her wits about her.

The film makes some changes to Rosoff’s original tale – as seems to happen in the transition from text to screen. Edmond is older. A brother who appears in the book is completely left out. Daisy’s seven-year-long tale is abridged to about a year. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the film’s rendering of Daisy’s harrowing journey. The English countryside is used to great effect and makes a strong contrast to the devastation of war as the tale unfolds. MacDonald’s adaptation kept Rosoff’s approach that allowed her heroine both a great love story and a good head on her shoulders.

Apparently, some reviewers have claimed that the love story in this film is ‘about incest’ and there has been some controversy about this aspect of the narrative.

Just for the record, folks, anyone who has read L.M. Montgomery’s classic novels for Young Adults, including the Anne of Green Gables series could tell you that there are PLENTY of cousins falling in love and marrying each other there. It was once not uncommon.

Meg Rosoff herself has been taken by surprise by this reading of the film. In an interview she says:

“I really take exception to the whole notion of incest when it comes to the book. Daisy and Edmond are cousins who’ve never met each other and who’ve grown up in separate parts of the world. Call me naïve, but it never even occurred to me when I was writing the book that it was going to be contentious. If an editor had said to me, ‘Ooh, that’s really going to affect your sales’, I’d have taken it out and made them second cousins or something. It wasn’t a big thing for me. And, as I said years ago when the book first came out, I come from thousands of years of Eastern European Jews, where everyone married their cousins. Plenty of people still do marry their cousins – it’s legal almost everywhere in America.”

Source: http://www.film4.com/special-features/interviews/meg-rosoff-on-how-i-live-now

 See a Film Preview

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On reading Jennifer Egan’s fiction: A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) and Look At Me (2001).

I read Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) last September and was absolutely riveted by its splendorous combination of arch cleverness and compassion. It seemed impossibly architectural. I kept muttering, ‘How did she do it?’ as I leafed through the pages. It has multiple narrative voices and only occasionally intersecting lines of plot. Yet Egan manages to pull it off, making a genuinely moving story about music and failure and growing up and suicide and lying and hoping against hope that all this is going somewhere.

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A few reading friends had recommended Goon Squad to me as ‘very clever’ and ‘you like this sort of thing, don’t you?’, which had the unfortunate effect of putting me off for some months. I have grown weary of the po-mo knowingness that characterises so much fiction that gets called ‘clever’ – I want stories about people and perplexity and I am less interested in stylistic pyrotechnics that are at heart rather empty. Call it a reader’s mid-life crisis, but I want a fire to warm myself by in the books I read, as well as style. I want to feel I have good company in life’s perpetual imperfection.

But it turns out that I am an Egan fan. Yes, she is very clever and she must map out her stories from beginning to end because they fit together like a well-made Swiss machine. But she has not sacrificed the mess of being human and her characters are, for all the structural finesse of their creator, as fully mired in the quandary of living as the rest of us.

Goon Squad was a great solace to read. I was in the midst of a year that was going quite wrong. The life I had envisioned for myself as I had, in my late twenties, thought about this age, was clearly not going to come to pass. I had another life instead, and that life was, after all, fortunate, just more complicated than I had expected.

Egan speaks to these things – loss, shock, solace, making do and finding one’s way. We follow her characters from invincible or uncertain early adulthood into middle age. Some make it. Some don’t.

One of the themes of the novel is our culture’s enchantment with youth and potential, and the cost we pay for that enchantment by being completely unprepared when life proves more fleeting and limited than we thought. Brought up on the mantra of ‘follow the dream’ Egan’s characters are faced with the mid-life question of ‘Where to now?’ She deals with lack and how learning how to accept it is essential to living well.

A visit from the good squad cover

Egan’s characters’ various neurotic responses to life’s inherent imperfection is what drives her narrative; those always in search of the next definitive peak experience paradoxically put off fully entering into life. In the passage that gives the novel its title, a once cultishly adored indie rock singer regards his obesity and fading health, his lost career. He says, “Time’s a goon.” In a darkly hilarious take on contemporary mores, Bosco, the ex-indie rocker, plans a ‘Suicide Tour’ in which he plans to kill himself by trying to incarnate his youthful vigor and frantic on-stage persona in a final farewell ‘comeback’.

In this way, Egan’s novel reminds me of the line from the poem by Robert W. Service, “It is Later Than You Think”:

Lastly, you who read; aye, you

Who this very line may scan:

Think of all you planned to do …

Have you done the best you can?

See! the tavern lights are low;

Black’s the night, and how you shrink!

God! and is it time to go?

Ah! the clock is always slow;

It is later than you think;

Sadly later than you think;

Far, far later than you think.

For indie music fans there is a lot to like in Goon Squad – a love of this music informs its stance of being earnest, yearning and ironic all at the same time. This is evident in this graphic-novel style review of Goon Squad I found. Thanks to Cafe Con Lech Con Guards: http://cafeconguads.tumblr.com/

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After Egan won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2011 for A Visit from the Goon Squad, her publishers re-issued an earlier work, Look At Me. In some ways, I liked this novel even more.

Look At Me has a similar structure to Goon Squad in that we follow a range of characters in parallel lives. While in her later novel Egan ponders loss and survival, getting through and making do, in Look At Me, she invites her readers to consider our obsession with image and being seen.

The main character is Charlotte Swenson, a one-time successful model whose career is on the wane. Suffering a car accident that smashes her face, Charlotte is literally put back together by a surgeon and 80 titanium screws. The result is that she is still miraculously normal looking, but the face that she has traded with since her teens is gone. None of her former friends or agents recognise her or even want to know her – she loses her identity as well as her income.

Egan takes on a hard task with her protagonist. Vain, shallow and self-pitying, Charlotte is an unattractive heroine. She had knowingly given up a college education in favour of glamour and being an ‘it’ girl. Failing to turn her face into an advantageous marriage or mistress-hood at the right time, Charlotte is now left scrambling to cash in on her story. Her obsession with never having fully ‘made it’ – having fallen just short of being a super-model – Charlotte’s reveries dwell on her youthful vision of success. This is symbolised in her mind as a penthouse ‘mirrored room’– the site of endless looking, endless glamour, where time is frozen and she never grows old.

In counter-point to Charlotte is a plain teenager with the same name in Rockford, Illinois. Her beloved brother is in remission from leukaemia and in the midst of this crisis her family all but ignore her. She conducts a clandestine affair with a maths teacher at the local high school. He, in turn, is a terrorist, lying low, constructing a false identity, and planning his blow against American excess and consumerist bloat. Across town, Moose, a faded high-school star athlete, nurses failure and paranoia as a marginal academic. In each case, the future and the past tug at them, marooning them in the predicament of how to become someone or lose who they have been.

Look At Me is a philosophical novel; in it the author asks us to consider the role of image and being seen as a component of identity. She suggests that we have amped-up this aspect of selfhood at the cost of losing our interior life. Charlotte Swenson’s predicament underlines that the bigger the image, the less substantial the self.

When her protagonist becomes involved in an online ‘reality’ venture in which she sells her own life through a webcam and diary, Egan takes her exploration to a logical extreme. Presciently, she constructs a world in which what was once considered interior – our ‘true selves’ – has since, with burgeoning Web 2.0 technology,  become something we turn inside out. Egan predicts a world where privacy is merely obscurity.

Charlotte Swenson only somewhat redeems herself, but the journey on the way is deeply engaging.

Both Egan novels are recommended reads.

Paris Review interview with Jennifer Egan:

look at me

 

Sloan Wilson (1955). The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. (2002 edition) Penguin, London.

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” – Henry David Thoureau, Walden (1854).

Sloan Wilson’s novel and his protagonist Tom Rath have become bywords for 1950s conformity. The “man in gray flannel” is seen as the embodiment of the faceless anomie of the corporate and suburban worlds. The hordes of men in suits and fedoras stepping onto the 8.26 at a station somewhere in Connecticut and getting the 5.31 home is the classic cinematic representation of these lives of “quiet desperation”. But it is a misreading of Wilson’s novel to see it as an endorsement of corporate America or the suburban values of consumption, political quietism and ‘getting ahead’.

Wilson’s novel, and the film adaptation starring Gregory Peck as the ‘the man in gray flannel’, are source texts for the popular television drama series Mad Men. Yet Wilson’s novel was not written as a timepiece. The story of Tom Rath and his family was composed as a contemporary reflection on the dilemmas of individuals caught in a society that has apparently triumphed over fascism, and which pits its individualism against Communism, but which is dogged by feelings of purposelessness, even despair.

With all the apparent prosperity of the post-war American world, the Rath family are still struggling to make ends meet as the house needs constant repairs and the local school is underfunded and they need better education for their children. What’s more, the promises of self-actualisation and freedom held out by their society are belied by the constant need to toe the line at work and pay the bills.

Sound familiar, anyone?

This text speaks to us for some of the same reasons that Mad Men has its appeal – we like to think that we have progressed beyond the oppressive gender roles and racial segregation of the 1950s – 60s era, but some of the sharp questions about purpose, conformity and alienation are still apposite. The gap between life’s promise and its disappointing actuality is perhaps a peculiarly American literary theme as no country has articulated the duality of possibility and limitation as consistently as they. In the 20th century the United States did more than conquer with military might — it also exported its outlook and ideals. We have all, in modern Western societies, adopted parts of their creed, in particular the “pursuit of happiness” and the ‘good life’.

The contradiction inherent in this peculiar mix of individualism and conformity was trenchantly critiqued by theorists Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man (1964) and Theodore Roszak in The Making of a Counter Culture (1969). But these critiques came later, on the wave of dissent that characterised the youth culture of the 1960s. Wilson’s hero is lonely in his desperation and has not the comfort of being able to join a counter-culture. Contemporaries of Wilson who explored the psychological and political costs of 1950s conformity were William H. Whyte in The Organization Man (1956) and the artistic rebellion of the Beats.

In the voice of Tom Rath, Wilson explores similar territory – but from the perspective of one caught in the bind of the average middle-class salary slave, rather than the artistic outsider. The narrative drama of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit turns on the tension between the authentic goals of raising a family, caring for a marriage and trying to do something meaningful with one’s life, and the inauthentic ones of having to serve a corporate ethos and someone else’s goals to earn the money:

“But when you come right down to it, why does he hire me? To help him do what he wants to do – obviously that’s why any man hires another. And if he finds that I disagree with everything he wants to do, what good am I to him? I should quit if I don’t like what he does, but I want to eat, and so, like a million other guys in gray flannel suits, I’ll always pretend to agree, until I get big enough to be honest without being hurt. That’s not being crooked, it’s just being smart. … How smoothly one becomes, not a cheat, exactly, not really a liar, just a man who’ll say anything for pay” (183).

The result of this insight for Tom is self-loathing — the knowledge that he is compelled to serve another man’s ethos at the expense of what he genuinely believes. And, unlike some of the writing of the Beats, Wilson’s portrait is compassionate; he credits Tom Rath, and men like him, with the ability to reflect on their dilemma, even if they feel powerless to make a fundamental change.

Tom Rath’s story is also part of another literary tradition – stories of returned servicemen who are expected to pack away the traumatic experiences of war and slip seamlessly back into the flow of civilian life. Indeed, the chapters that recount Rath’s war experiences are searing narratives of a young man’s confrontation with death and his own struggles to square his conception of himself as a decent man, with the realities of murder and Carpe Diem adultery that comprise his wartime life:

“The trick is to learn to believe it’s a disconnected world … where Thou Shalt Not Kill and the fact that one has killed a great many men mean nothing, absolutely nothing, for now is the time to raise legitimate children, and make money, and dress properly, and be kind to one’s wife, and admire one’s boss, and learn not to worry, and think of oneself as what? That makes no difference, he thought – I’m just a man in a gray flannel suit” (98).

Tom’s accidental killing of his war buddy Hank in the Pacific arena haunts him to the point of despair, as does his knowledge that his brief love with an Italian girl has left her with a child and no family in a country pounded by war. The result is a gnawing sense of arbitrariness and absurdity that renders Rath incapable of committing himself wholeheartedly to the American Dream, “Maybe we are all, the killers and the killed, equally damned; not guilty, not somehow made wiser by war, not heroes, just men who are either dead or convinced that the world is insane” (164).

In his introduction to the 1983 edition of the novel, Wilson noted that he called his protagonist ‘Rath’ because he was essentially an angry man. This comes through in some of Tom Rath’s musings, in which he mimics the absurd aspirations he feels expected to follow after having faced death and dealt death in the name of freedom: “I could get a job in an advertising agency. I’ll write copy telling people to eat more corn flakes and smoke more and more cigarettes and buy more refrigerators and automobiles, until they explode with happiness” (163). The novel pinpoints the core dilemma of a society built around consumption – that it tends to address existential and political needs with material placebos.

The considerable hypocrisy of Tom Rath’s milieu is also addressed – – the fact that the nuclear family is held up by the very media he works for as the image of human companionship, but that he feels pressured to spend little time with his own family in order to be seen as a success in the business world. The double-think of conventional morals is also attacked. As Wilson says of his hero, “there was considerable irony in the fact that he had been highly praised for killing seventeen men during the war, but was in peril of disgrace for fathering one son.”

Wilson gives his hero a happy ending and this perhaps reduces the political impact of his work. However, it allows him to pose an argument that would appeal to many readers – that Tom Rath’s predicament is somewhat ameliorated by successfully campaigning for a decently resourced local public school, a job near home and more time with his family. The novel does not propose belief or faith as the answer to Tom Rath’s despair – it accepts that a subscription to political programs or parties is impossible for a man like him. Instead, it offers something more modest –that the opposite of despair is not belief, but meaning. For Tom this means seeking “simple justice” on “matters of conscience” and being willing to accept the consequences.

Diamond Sharp Best Reads

2011 was a stellar year in reading for me. The evenings became book time. One result is that you do not want me on your team for a trivia competition if the questions relate to events in this past year’s news, current affairs, or popular TV shows. Nor did I see the inside of a cinema more than a few times. However, I did get some great experiences behind an upheld book. 2011 was also the year I bought an e-reader, with some interesting results – but more on that later…

If you are looking for something to read over the summer, here are some titles I heartily recommend …

Fiction:

Per Petterson (2006). Out Stealing Horses. London: Vintage.

The stand-out read for novels this year was Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. The narrative follows a man in his sixties, Trond, who, after a personal tragedy, has retired to a remote shack in the Norwegian countryside. In 1948, when he was fifteen years old, Trond spent a fateful summer with his father in a cottage by a river in a Norwegian border town. Now an old man struggling with recent trauma, he encounters a character from that long-distant season. This almost-stranger was involved in terrible events that destroyed two families. This meeting stirs up old memories and grief, triggering a narrative that is at once crisp with clear memories, and haunted by unresolved feelings about these long-past events. The ensuing tale explores Trond’s relationship to his father and his journey into manhood. Petterson’s style is rich with imagery and symbolism, but also restrained, so that strong emotions steal up on the reader. The meanings of this novel slowly come into focus, like a developing photograph. Norway’s experience of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation is also a strong element in Trond’s tale, which gives the personal grief it explores a larger, historical resonance.

You can read my full review of Out Stealing Horses here.

Non-Fiction:

Chloe Hooper. (2008) The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island. Melbourne: Penguin.

On the 19th November 2004, Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley arrested an aboriginal man, Cameron Doomadgee, for swearing at a police officer. Forty minutes after being booked, Doomadgee was dead on a cell floor. His injuries were ambiguous – the police statement was that Doomadgee had tripped while struggling with Hurley as they entered the station and that they both fell on the concrete steps outside the lock-up. A medical examination revealed injuries consistent with someone who had been in a car accident. Upon news of Doomadgee’s death, Palm Island was engulfed by rioting. Hurley was the first individual police officer to be charged with an aboriginal death in custody. He was acquitted due to ‘inconclusive evidence’.

Hooper travelled to Palm Island at the invitation of Andrew Boe, a high-profile lawyer who was working pro bono for the Palm Island aboriginal community on the inquest and subsequent case. Her book is the result of her meticulous and dogged research – reading case history and the history of Palm Island, once a hybrid prison and missionary colony; interviewing family and friends; going back over Hurley’s career and Doomadgee’s life; and attending the inquests and court hearings. However, the relentlessness of both the nature of the case and the social situation it describes does not make Hooper’s prose pedantic or leaden. Instead, her honesty about how she is confronted by the details of life on Palm Island and her willingness never to swerve from those which are hardest to write about gives her prose a tautness and severity that keeps the reader gripped.

Hooper’s book is written in the vein of work by Joan Didion or Truman Capote: long-form, ‘New Journalism’ where the investigation of a crime becomes a confrontation with the darker side of human nature. In the case of Hooper’s work, it is apparent that the individual violence she documents is the inevitable and ongoing expression of the violence of colonialism and its aftermath.

The Tall Man foregrounds Hooper’s voice, her perplexity and nervousness as she enters a world foreign to most urban, especially southern, white intellectuals. As she confesses to her readers, “Like most middle-class suburbanites, I grew up without ever seeing a black person, except on the news.” She is an outsider trying to break the code. Running beneath the narrative, tying it together, is Hooper’s ability to convey where she might have flinched – she is not ‘unflinching’ – but where something, a search to understand events at the extreme end of people’s capacity for violence and nihilism, as well as an earnest sense of justice, keeps her tied to the story.

Using Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a framing reference, Hooper meticulously explores how an apparently upstanding police officer could become one with the moral decay endemic to the broken communities he serves. We are made uncomfortably aware that the problems of Palm Island are the wages of colonial policies. Like Conrad’s Kurtz, Hurley is portrayed as a man not simply ‘infected’ by the problems of dysfunctional communities, but someone who brought the capacity to do harm with him. The situation on Palm Island poses difficult questions to white readers – who do we think is willing and able to weather the challenges of these remote places? What is it possible to do to help? Hooper’s readers are forced to recognise that for many of them, they would not be up to the job. I certainly had to admit to myself that I would very quickly reach my limits when confronted with a place of such beauty and despair as Hooper describes. The story is emblematic, as it poses vexed moral questions which Hooper does not pretend are solved by reductive politics or slogans. The writing, also, is superb. Reviewers use words like “riveting”, “chilling”, “compelling” and “necessary” when discussing her style.

Memoir:

Judtih Wright. (1999). Half a Life-Time. Melbourne: Text Publishing.

I know, this book is a dozen years old. But trust me, if you can track it down in a library or some other source, it is well worth a read. Wright, one of Australia’s most celebrated poets, died 25th June 2000. She left a body of work that was wide-ranging in its style and concerns. She was a voice that was trustworthy and direct, even when her words were artfully composed. This adherence to her own sense of priorities and what she wants to say is evident in both her memoir and the approach to living it documents. There is a soundness to this text that is a result of her steady gaze and sorted-out priorities.

I have a suspicion that Wright’s status as a ‘celebrated’ Australian poet – the kind whose work is sampled in school readers and read at assemblies and quoted by columnists – is based on a partial reading of her poems. Poems that focus on her love for the Australian bush and her family’s farming life are emphasised at the expense of those about the Aboriginal dispossession and genocide that the pastoral expansion produced. Her environmentalism and her critique of the pursuit of the consumerist ‘good life’ and its costs to earth and soul tend to be glossed over in popular uses of her work. This memoir, therefore, is a good corrective to any attempt to make her quaint and straightforwardly nationalist, as her wry and critical views of our society are quite clear in her narrative of rapidly changing times in Australia and her own efforts to carve out a life for herself.

Half a Life-Time documents Wright’s own memories of her childhood and formative years as a child of Anglo pastoralists in the NSW highlands. From her early decision to become a poet, we follow her through home lessons, boarding school, university (unusual for a girl of conservative farmers at that time) and her blossoming affair with a much older, married man, with whom she formed a long-term partnership even though it was impossible for them to marry. What carried me along in reading this memoir, apart from my interest in Wright’s poetry, is the wonderful ability she has to choose a few details that sketch a whole place and time. For example, ration-era, war-time Brisbane is described as a town of peeling wooden fences. Why? Because paint is scarce, pointing up a whole era of economising and making-do. Wright understates her bravery; however, it is clear that in her writing, her choice of partner, her way of life and her commitments, she acts with a clear sense of what is right for her at a time when most women of her age and place were tightly held in check by notions of feminine propriety. Her “life-time” is well worth a visit.

 

Poetry:

Cate Kennedy. (2011). The Taste of River Water. Melbourne: Scribe Publications.

I have been slow to cotton on to Cate Kennedy’s work and now I am kicking myself for having taken so long. It started with an excerpt from her memoir of living overseas in Sing, and Don’t Cry that was published in an issue of Heat. The piece struck me for its fineness and tempo, but I did not follow up until this poetry volume came out and I found myself reading and re-reading its poems with wonder.

The Taste of River Water is a selection of Kennedy’s poetry from two previous volumes – Joyflight and Signs of Other Fires – as well as new work. Her eye is for the telling moment that, when examined closely, cracks open a whole life. Such are the strengths of “Thinking the Room Empty” and “Making a Path” which select a key event – one dramatic, one humdrum – that unlocks a deeper theme about survival and making a life for one’s self. Her empathy for others is evident here, too. In “8 x 10 Colour Enlargements $16.50”, Kennedy respectfully paints a moment in a farmer’s wife’s participation in a photography competition. She conveys in a few brief snapshots the complex dilemmas of this woman’s situation. This poem actually brought tears to my eyes.

In a series of poems about losing a baby and then conceiving and giving birth to a second, Kennedy seems to turn her poet’s gaze on herself. Kennedy’s poems glow with grief and gratitude and, if not quite solace, then the agreement to savour what life has to offer, even in the face of loss. I enjoyed these poems for their honesty and their art.

Young Adult Fiction:

Meg Rosoff. (2004). How I Live Now. London: Penguin.

Reading YA fiction is an occupational hazard of the high-school English teacher. Apart from the necessity of reading what is set for a class, there is a steady stream of student-recommended titles and those which seem to create a ‘buzz’ in the reading and publishing world.

One of the interesting developments in publishing and reading in the past fifteen years or so is the growing influence of YA fiction in the ‘mainstream’ or adult market. YA novels are in the adult best-seller lists and being adapted for film all the time. Harry Potter and Twilight are the most obvious examples, but there is also the Phillip Pullman His Dark Materials trilogy which got turned into a film and a musical, and Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, which is being released as a film any moment now.

Young Adult fiction could be broadly defined as those novels which feature an adolescent protagonist and main characters, are written in a way which is deemed more ‘accessible’ than ‘classic’ or ‘literary’ texts, and which focus on the themes of growing up and the developmental challenges and tasks of adolescence. Many of them are written very badly. Some try too hard to be ‘hip’ with the kids. And, for some obscure reason, almost every protagonist is an only child. A great number on the market are seemingly published for calculating reasons – trying to cash in on a reading fad (i.e. vampires). Too many underestimate the reader’s ability to intuit the emotional lives of characters and so we have an over-abundance of gritted teeth, pounding hearts and clenched fists.

Nonetheless, YA fiction can be written well, and can grapple with adult themes in a way that is more confronting and honest than a lot of ‘light’ adult literature. A few become classics – like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

Within the first few pages it is apparent that Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now is a cut above the run-of-the-mill YA novel. Her protagonist, Daisy, is a smart-mouthed, hard-shelled New York teen who has been sent by her father and step-mother to live with an aunt and four cousins in the English countryside. She is estranged from her father, her mother died giving birth to her, and now, fifteen years later, her father has remarried. His new, young bride has produced a baby sister – with predictable reactions from the teen Daisy.

Rosoff draws us in with Daisy’s voice which is by turns wry and confiding. Her self-knowingness fails to obscure the loneliness and uncertainty that plagues her. The alert teen reader will gradually tumble to Daisy’s central problem, which is subtly revealed (for a YA novel) through strategically placed asides and observations. Rosoff has put a lot of art into creating Daisy’s voice which allows her to portray character, action and relationships economically. For example, as she meets her cousin Edmond for the first time at Heathrow, Rosoff manages to convey some essential details of two characters at the same time:

 

“Now let me tell you what he looks like before I forget because it’s not exactly what you’d expect from your average fourteen-year-old what with the CIGARETTE and hair that looks like he cut it himself with a hatchet in the dead of night, but aside from that he’s exactly like some kind of mutt, you know the ones you see at the dog shelter who are kind of hopeful and sweet and put their nose straight into your hand when they meet you with a certain kind of dignity and you know from that second that you’re going to take him home? Well that’s him.

 

Only he took me home.”

 

Rosoff sets her novel in contemporary England and her heroine spends some time in a teenage idyll somewhere in the Home Counties. The aunt is bookish and free-thinking, which in practice means Daisy spends a great deal of time hanging out with her cousins, looking after the farm, and picking up an education through reading from the extensive home library; only the eldest cousin, Osbert, goes to school. Her cousins are gifted in several spooky ways and she forms a strong bond with Edmond. However, the idyll is broken by an invention on Rosoff’s part – contemporary England is drawn into an anti-terrorist conflict overseas; once almost all of its armed forces are off-shore, an unnamed force occupies the country and brings it to its knees. The aunt, a high-level international peace-broker, is in Norway at the time of the invasion and Daisy and her four cousins are left to fend for themselves for what feels like the better part of a year.

What follows is Daisy’s struggle to survive and to reunite the family she had only just found before they were broken up by war. Her relationship with Edmond is her true north and she searches for him among the wreckage of an England transformed by violence, random acts of terror and starvation. With her younger cousin Piper, Daisy travels by foot through a dangerous countryside; the experience turns her into someone capable of looking after another and herself.

How I Live Now surprised me with the sharpness of its writing. It dealt with emotional complexity in a way that was age-appropriate, but honest. I thought this novel was a good read for its target audience of 12 – 15 year olds, but the writing was of a quality that adults would enjoy. No clenched teeth or fists. No rapidly exhaled sighs.

Happy reading!

Review: Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping. (1981. Reissued 2005.) London: Faber and Faber.

Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping. (1981. Reissued 2005.) London: Faber and Faber.

When I spied Marilynne Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, at the local bookstore, it was one of those moments when, without a doubt, a book calls. I was surprised to see it there nestled among the more recent novels, as I knew it was published in the early eighties, but guessed that it had been reissued on the back of her more recent successes with Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). Housekeeping was listed in the Observer’s ‘100 Greatest Novels of All Time’, while Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize and Home the Orange Prize. Robinson is not prolific, but it seems that everything she publishes becomes a classic.

Prizes and accolades alone were not, however, what induced me to read Robinson’s first novel. What made me reach for it was the memory of what it had been like reading Gilead, a novel set in a religious community. In Gilead I had found a steady attention to the small, luminous details of life lived in prayerfulness and quietude. The prose was infused with a reflective religious sensibility, where individualism is blended with a community formed around common beliefs and intuitions. It had a Transcendentalist cast to its vision. In American Transcendentalism, God or the divine is immanent in the manifested world, and the task of human consciousness is to recognise this and live in such a way that this immanent spirit is interpreted and extended by human thought and creativity. This American tradition, stemming from Emerson, Thoreau, William James, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, that melds intellectualism and mysticism, has powerfully influenced modern American letters. The concentration on the everyday and common experience, the effort to rescue ordinariness and see in it a solitary beauty, is evident in the American poetic tradition. The gifts of poets like Wallace Stevens and Billy Collins have been the ability to imbue the perceived world with a living significance. Even the work of Adrienne Rich, which takes the everyday as a starting point for considering the political realities we live in, draws its power from this main line of poetic and intellectual energy in American life and letters. In an interview with The Paris Review, Robinson explains something of the religious vision that animates her work:

“Ordinary things have always seemed numinous to me. One Calvinist notion deeply implanted in me is that there are two sides to your encounter with the world. You don’t simply perceive something that is statically present, but in fact there is a visionary quality to all experience. It means something because it is addressed to you. This is the individualism that you find in Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. You can draw from perception the same way a mystic would draw from a vision.”

Transcendentalism was partly articulated in opposition to Calvinism, yet the two creeds seem to share this reverence for the divine manifested in the perceived world. So it was with some anticipation and delight that I settled down to read Housekeeping. Although written more than twenty years prior to Gilead, the later novel was so much a product of a particular vision and voice that I was expecting something similarly committed to observing and honouring the animate spirit in the material world in this earlier work. I was not disappointed.

Housekeeping is narrated in the voice of Ruthie as she looks back on her childhood and adolescence. She and her sister Lucille are abandoned by their mother, Helen. She drives them for two days to see their maternal grandmother, leaves them to wait on the front porch, and then gets back into the car only to plunge it off a cliff into the cold Fingerbone Lake. Left with their mother’s inexplicable suicide the girls are partly raised by their maternal grandmother. After her death, the two girls are passed to a series of incompetent relatives, the last of whom is a vagrant, Aunt Sylvie. The two girls struggle to grow up in the remote town of Fingerbone, which seems joined to the outside world only by a train line that forges its precarious daily journey across the lake on a long-span bridge with pilings driven deep into the lake floor. On the same lake floor lies, somewhere, their mother and, before her, their grandfather, who drowned when a train slid off the rails in the middle of the bridge and sank with all save two of its passengers.

Sylvie, a habitual transient, is ill-equipped to raise two girls in a town tethered to existence only by a fierce commitment to maintaining a homely foothold, and in a family haunted by dispersion and loss. The ‘housekeeping’ that is the novel’s title and central concern, are the acts of humble yet necessary maintenance that keep life going in one spot. Sylvie seems unversed in housekeeping and even the slimmest fundamentals of ‘keeping up appearances’: she sleeps fully clothed, with her shoes tucked under her head; she naps in a local park with a newspaper peaked over her face; she keeps her few personal effects ready-packed in a suitcase at all times; and the meals she prepares seem like the makings of a rudimentary picnic. In later attempts to mimic housekeeping, Sylvie collects used tin cans, jars and out-of-date magazines and newspapers, as if sheer accretion is enough to anchor her life.

The two girls form an alliance, in which they truant and camp and read and attempt to fathom what their lives are about. During these years, Ruthie reflects that she and her sister were, at times, “almost … a single consciousness”. Nonetheless, upon her entry into adolescence, Lucille pledges her loyalty to the world beyond their house – a world of dress patterns, bobby socks, convention and cleanliness. Aptly, she runs away from home to live with her maiden Domestic Science teacher. Ruthie, on the other hand, seems at a loss as to how to either make the transition to the explicable, orderly world of her neighbours and sister, or create another world of her own. Ruthie reflects that:

“It was a source of both terror and comfort to me then that I often seemed invisible – incompletely and minimally existent, in fact. It seemed to me that I made no impact on the world, and that in exchange I was privileged to watch it unawares. … this feeling of ghostliness …” (105 – 106).

While Lucille catches hold of the “other world” of convention and propriety and hence, seeming permanence, Ruthie gradually unmoors herself from this reality. The passage into womanhood as our society imagines it is, it seems, a bridge she cannot cross.

In Ruthie, Robinson has created a consciousness that looks on a world imbued with both terrible loss and persistent optimism. Her narrative recalls an Old Testament sense of humanity’s doomed wanderings, which are only made sense of in relation to a Promised Land or proffered revelation. A persistent motif in the novel is a destruction that carries within it its own restitution. Hence, the scene in which Sylvie sets fire first to the accumulated newspapers and magazines, and thence the house itself, recalls the vision of human life in the Book of Job: “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5: 7.) Both the early Christian and Stoic philosophers imagined human life as sparks of consciousness struck from a central forge and fated to glimmer but briefly before ascending into the night. The magazines and newspapers, repositories of the attitudes and conventions that Sylvie cannot but fail to embody, go up in flames “till some current caught them in the upper air, some high wind we could not feel assumed them” (199). Robinson’s prose has a Biblical cadence in such climactic scenes: “Now truly we were cast out to wander, and there was an end to housekeeping” (209).

The novel’s concerns with loss and the dream of restitution give Ruthie’s narrative a meditative air. Her voice manages to be both elegiac and grateful – a kind of hymn to absent presence. Early in the novel, Ruthie imagines a “resurrection of the ordinary”, a youthful vision of

“a general reclaiming of fallen buttons and misplaced spectacles, of neighbours and kin, till time and error and accident were undone, and the world became comprehensible and whole. … For what are all these fragments for, if not to be knit up finally?” (92)

As she matures, Ruthie’s sense of her own life is still shaped around what is missing – the fragmentary and the unfinished. She gives us a sad vision of herself as “unlike other people” because of her “habit of waiting and expectation which makes any present moment most significant for what it does not contain” (214). It is a sense of storylessness, of having been abandoned by those who might have handed a narrative on, and, in Ruthie’s case, of being unable to adopt a place in the general stream of human story known as ‘society’, that marks her out.

One is pulled through this narrative inexorably and slowly. Despite its brevity, Housekeeping is not a ‘quick’ read. It invites the reader to pause and feel the blessing on every page. Robinson’s vision is centred on heart-ache. In interview she has claimed that

“The ancients are right: the dear old human experience is a singular, difficult, shadowed, brilliant experience that does not resolve into being comfortable in the world. The valley of the shadow is part of that, and you are depriving yourself if you do not experience what humankind has experienced, including doubt and sorrow. We experience pain and difficulty as failure instead of saying, I will pass through this, everyone I have ever admired has passed through this, music has come out of this, literature has come out of it. We should think of our humanity as a privilege.”

Housekeeping is a religious book in the sense that it is charged with this religious feeling about human suffering and the paradox of smallness and significance.  In every passage there is a reverential attention to the flutterings of consciousness, the divine animation in the material world. And yet because of that it is not grand; Ruthie and Lucille and Sylvie are tiny individuals painted against an endless landscape. Housekeeping is about the uncertainty and transience of human life – the troubled sparks.