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.

olive-kitteridge

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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Review – The Price of Privilege: How parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. New York: Harper. 2008.

 

book cover price of privilegeMadeline Levine’s book The Price of Privilege gives the non-professional a good overview of the problems besetting affluent teens with some compassionate and practical alternatives to their current predicament.

 

It is tempting to dismiss the psychological ill-health that seems to be hitting adolescents from privileged homes. Like the issues dealt with in Overwhelmed, it would be easy to disregard the problems explored here as just the sort of thing that wealthy people inflict on themselves. However, Levine’s book persuades us that we should take these problems seriously. Her argument is that teens are teens, after all, no matter what their background, and need mentoring into adulthood from trusted adults. What’s more, these teens in particular, are more likely to become the surgeons, politicians, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and leaders of the future. So, we want them to be resilient, moral, compassionate, stable, and capable of making positive contributions to their community. Levine suggests that too many of them are ill-equipped for the expectations and roles that await them.

 

Levine commenced her project on a hunch that her practice was seeing ever-greater rates of depression, substance-abuse, eating disorders, bad behaviour, selfishness, fragility, self-destructive habits and all-round unhappiness in her wealthy Marin County community than in the previous quarter-century she had been a psychologist. Her initial calls to colleagues around the U.S. confirmed that her observations were not merely local, but seen in affluent communities around her country. Further research she has since carried out paints a disturbing and surprising picture – affluent teens now exhibit greater levels of psychological ill-health than their peers on the next tier down the social scale, in the middle classes. This was a mystery and counter-intuitive to Levine, as it would be for most of us. Surely, young people who have so many opportunities, who have the best education, extra-curricular activities, the nicest neighbourhoods, the most conscientious parents with the resources to support their every endeavour, would be far better off than any other group of teens in the country? These are not, after all, the kinds of teens that feature in the usual accounts of educational failure, dysfunctional families and chronic, entrenched disadvantage that, sadly, still tell a tale of wasted talent in our communities.

 

"Full Moon at Wildwood" -- Russ Seidel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/
“Full Moon at Wildwood” — Russ Seidel. https://www.flickr.com/photos/10159247@N04/

Levine’s book points out that although we know the saying that money cannot buy happiness, we still act as if it does. Therefore, we think that more money always = more happiness. We also know that parental involvement in a child’s education is positively correlated to that child doing well. However, Levine argues, we have made a fundamental error here, too. Some parents have misread this to mean that over-involvement in a child’s education, in which a child is constantly coached and shaped, scheduled and pushed, is necessarily better than some involvement. Worse yet, the developmental “tasks” of adolescence, which include, crucially, the development of an independent, autonomous sense of self, and a growing ability to manage one’s own life and solve one’s own problems, are interfered with when parents prematurely solve problems for their children, particularly those of the child’s own making (like not studying for assessment and then not doing very well.) Levine argues that:

 

“Parents who persistently fall on the side of intervening for their child, as opposed to supporting their child’s attempts to problem-solve, interfere with the most important task of childhood and adolescence: the development of a sense of self. Autonomy, what we commonly call independence, along with competence and interpersonal relationships, are considered to be inborn human needs. Their development is central to psychological health. In a supportive, respectful family, children go about the business of forging a ‘sense of self’ by being exposed to, and learning to manage, increasingly complex personal and interpersonal challenges.”

 

Levine argues that over-involvement leaves her young clients feeling passive and empty, “the kind of anxious, overprotective, oversolicitous, intrusive parenting that has become commonplace in affluent communities actually diminishes a child’s sense of efficacy and autonomy.” In a neat analogy, Levine argues that while the parent of a three year old would never forbid their child from learning to climb small stairs, and then expect them to know how to climb seven flights, parents of adolescents, out of an instinct to protect their children from hardship or unpleasantness, can intervene at times when their children are making the mistakes that are necessary to learn about consequences and prepare for the steeper challenges later on as they take on full adulthood. Not having learned to climb the stairs, Levine’s teenage clients fall to pieces when they are expected to climb several floors up.

 

However, Levine is compassionate and attuned to the very real challenges and dilemmas of parenting in communities where adolescence seems so high-stakes and there is a relentless emphasis on the external signs of success and achievement.

Genuine involvement in learning emerges from an authentic sense of self. Image credit: Image credit: Jenna Carver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/babyowls/
Genuine involvement in learning emerges from an authentic sense of self.  Image credit: Jenna Carver: https://www.flickr.com/photos/babyowls/

Levine argues that while high grades and success at extra-curricular options are well and good, if they happen, they should happen as a natural outgrowth of a fundamentally more important task that faces young people – – to develop an authentic sense of self. Levine calls this an ‘internal home’: “the welcoming and restorative psychological structure that children need to construct in order to be at ease internally as well as out in the world. It is where kids – -where all of us – – retreat to when we need to ‘pull it together’, ‘think it over’, or just take care of ourselves.” It is the basis of moral action and the ability to respond to situations effectively and with integrity, as well as personal wellbeing. This is the result of children feeling like they “own” their lives, who have grown a sense of self-efficacy by having developmentally-appropriate experiences, thereby seeing that they can “have an impact on [their] world.” This is distinguished from ‘self-esteem’; Levine argues that self-efficacy is more important, as it stems from real experiences of the child acting “appropriately in [their] best interest”.

Levine is not against high academic achievement and the self-discipline necessary to learn well. On the contrary, she is advocating for a shift in values and parenting that genuinely cultivates a commitment to deep learning. If high grades are the result of the young person pursuing learning out of increasing levels of engagement, curiosity, passion, and skill, if, in short, the young person wants to pursue this learning out of a genuine, internal motivation, then they have achieved an important milestone in their growth into competent adults. As she observes, “Ultimately, motivation for any venture needs to feel like it comes from inside. When it does, it feels ‘true’”. If, however, the achievement of high grades is pursued just for the status and to please others (usually anxious parents) and that there is no genuine love of learning, if, in fact, the teenager will take any shortcut they can to get the grade, even having their essays professionally written, hacking into the school’s grade database to change their marks, or having their parents apply pressure to their teachers, then something has gone seriously awry. In these cases, the grade, once taken as an indicator of learning, has come adrift of the activity it was meant to report on, and has become, instead, a kind of fetish.

Levine dissects the values of communities where this is happening and encourages her readers to resist unhealthy cultural pressures in their own parenting – something which she acknowledges is extremely hard to do. After all, adults are also encouraged to assess their self-worth according to a narrow range of materialistic and performance-based criteria.

Levine is clear that the task of parenting teenagers is daunting and complex. Her tone is never accusatory, judgemental or dismissive. Instead, she challenges her readers to examine their priorities and values, and to critically examine the toxic aspects of the “culture of affluence”. She also encourages her readers to put their own genuine self-development high on their list of priorities, so that they can model a reflective self who acts with integrity and kindness, and responds to life’s set-backs appropriately.

Read an excerpt from The Price of Privilege.

Read an overview of research into psychological ill-health in teens from affluent communities.

Image credit: Ian Sane: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/
Image credit: Ian Sane: https://www.flickr.com/photos/31246066@N04/

Review: Brigid Schulte. Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No-One Has the Time. Bloomsbury: 2014.

Image credit: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/289018821/for-working-moms-key-to-balance-may-lie-in-elusive-leisure-time
Image credit: http://www.npr.org/2014/03/11/289018821/for-working-moms-key-to-balance-may-lie-in-elusive-leisure-time

I saw mention of Shulte’s new book in an article about the plague of over-busyness that has taken over our lives. I wish I knew what that article was now, but of course, at the time, I was merely skimming it, while fielding incoming emails, and chomping down on instant couscous and tuna in the little window of ten minutes’ quiet I allowed myself before flinging myself at the next task on the enormous and endless pile. I did not take a moment to note it, save it, even clip it, but went right on to the next thing.

Something stuck, though, from that little mention; I downloaded the book to my Kindle that night. Reading in the hour before bed is my daily, sanity-saving luxury. Schulte’s work confirmed for me that it is just such ‘clearings’ in our daily round that is one of the keys to tackling what she calls ‘the overwhelm.’

‘The overwhelm’ is what Schulte calls the endless, crushing sensation that we will never be able to fulfil all our obligations at work and at home satisfactorily. It is the way that we feel the need to answer work emails while supervising our children, and then end up spending time at work making calls for their appointments at the dentist and paediatrician. It is the factor that turns our lives – and, disproportionately, working women’s lives – into what Schulte calls “crappy bits of time confetti”.

What it is like to live inside this fractured “time confetti” is captured on Schulte’s opening page: “It is just after 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and I am racing down Route 1 in College Park, Maryland. The Check Engine light is on. The car tax sticker on my windshield has expired. The cell phone I’d just been using to talk to one of my kids’ teachers has disappeared into the seat crack. And I’m late.” Schulte’s willingness to share with her readers the barely-controlled chaos that characterises so much of her days as a working journalist and mother was what engaged me straight away.

This shredded time rarely amounts to a good clean run at a task that requires space to concentrate and go into something deeply without interruptions. Even in moments of apparent leisure, Schulte argues, working mothers are running an endless ‘loop’ in their minds of all the other things they have to get done. This results in what time managements experts call “contaminated time” where the period of time ‘off’ is ruined by feelings of it being illegitimate, stolen from the obligations that are yet to be met. Contaminated time also describes how everything bleeds into everything else, so that work is disrupted by domestic concerns, home is interfered with by professional obligations, and contemporary technology facilities it all in an endless whirlwind of the work-anywhere-everywhere-all-the-time ethic.

Overwhelmed has garnered a lot of critical and media interest. It has keyed straight into one of the most pressing issues faced by working families – an issue that has so far remained a political sleeper. Who has not felt that endless whir of things that need to be done and the sinking feeling that there will never be a time clear for thinking, daydreaming, staring out a window, or doing something you really love? The mystery for many of us in the developed world is, for all the affluence that we enjoy, the real wealth that is wellbeing and common weal seems to have been lost. For many of us, it seems farther off than it was 30 years ago when material living standards were lower, but time for family, friends, neighbourhood and health was in greater abundance.

The promises of futurists of the early and mid- twentieth century were that by now we would be faced with a large population with surplus leisure time; what we have instead is a stratified population of the un – and under- employed, and the working poor, who have to net huge hours to make ends meet, and another population of a salaried workforce who are over-stretched and over-worked. This is especially true in the United States where Schulte lives, where there are no legal limits to the amount of overtime an employer can ask of professional, salaried staff. However, even in Australia, things are increasingly pressed and compressed as we have less paid leave and fewer limits on working hours than our peers in Europe. And that’s before we factor in the long hours of commuting many are compelled to do from affordable ‘bedroom’ suburbs on the fringes of our main cities as the price of housing relative to earnings continues to rise.

Since the second wave of feminism, women have made huge inroads into higher education and the professional workforce. The rhetoric around equality and blended roles has, however, not translated into an optimum reality for women. Despite the calls from the likes of Sheryl Sandburg to “lean in” the picture that emerges from Shulte’s research is a workplace culture that is blind to what raising a family actually entails:

“Nowhere is that disconnect between expectations and reality more apparent than when a woman has a child. Time studies find that a mother, especially one who works outside the home for pay, is among the most time-poor humans on the planet, especially single mothers, weighed down not only by role overload but what sociologists call ‘task density’ – – the intense responsibility she bears and the multitude of jobs she performs in each of those roles.”

Schulte quotes numerous studies that show that even in families that see themselves as having a mother and a father ‘sharing’ the care equitably, the father usually cares for the children when the mother is still actually around. The mother may be in another room, having ‘time off’, but she is still effectively ‘on-call’.  She is the ‘default’ partner for all matters related to children or the domestic realm.

To some degree, this is specialisation. For myself, I certainly have less patience playing with Lego for hours on end when compared to the infinite absorption of my husband as he plays with our son on the kitchen floor on a Saturday morning. However, it is also set by the patterns that take hold once the first child is born and someone – usually the mother – – takes time off work to care for the baby. While she is home, bit by bit, she starts taking care of everything else as well. ‘Childcare’ becomes childcare-kindergarten-school-homework-housework-grocery shopping-babysitters-tradespeople-grandparents-play-dates-doctors-holiday planning and remembering to put the garbage bins out. And when the woman goes back to work, that new pattern generally does not shift, leaving the working woman feeling strung-out and inefficient at everything and the father acting like what Schulte calls, “The Lion King.” This analogy does not quite work because actual male lions do not hunt; but what Shulte is getting at here is that the male breadwinner role to go out and bring home the money and then, job done, means that anything else he does around the home is constructed as ‘extra’, whereas a working mother is merely expected to hold down everything as a matter of course. In short, Schulte argues, a mother in the workforce is expected to live up to two entirely contradictory ideals – – that of the worker and that of the maternal caregiver and homemaker.

In my world, I would put it like this – how many times are women told they are “really lucky” if their male partner does cooking, or housework or childcare, as if it were out of the ordinary? Now try this one – how often do the male partners get congratulated for being “really lucky” to have a working partner, even after the first child is born, since she got a degree and qualified for a profession and she is not burdening him with the sole breadwinner role? I thought so.

Schulte attacks this double standard. However, while shoring up her argument with data and research, she also leavens her volume with a series of vignettes. There is one incredibly powerful scene in the book that may well have been the kernel of experience that set the author off on her search for what had gone wrong in her marriage and her life. As she was hauling a massive turkey out of the oven for basting one Thanksgiving, Shulte was also running that mental ‘loop’ about all the other little details she had to attend to and coordinate, meanwhile keeping an ear out for her two children who were playing in the house. Her husband slopes on by with a six pack under his arm saying he was on his way out to visit a friend’s house to watch him ‘smoke the turkey’ and that he would be back in time for the meal. Shulte blew up. Clearly, this was a watershed moment for Schulte in which she wondered how two well-educated, well-meaning, equality-committed partners could have ended up in such a place. I think it is a question that has been asked in lots and lots of similar households. As one of the women whom Schulte interviewed for her project said, “All HE has to do is go to work.”

It is inevitable that male readers will complain that they are once again being tarred with the same brush as their less with-it peers and that THEY bathe their children and mow the lawn and even cook dinner. But Shulte’s research is not about that. It is about the impact of social ideals on both men and women and how powerful they are, even when it is not in people’s interest to try to live up to those constructs. For men, it is the long-standing but ever-growing image of the ‘ideal worker’ that means that showing concern about how your career might affect your family is seen as tantamount to tainting your professional image. For women, it is the head-on collision between trying to live up to the image of the ‘ideal mother’ AND the ‘ideal worker’ at the same time.

Shulte presents persuasive experiential evidence and data that shows that the next frontier of new social movements — for both men and women– is acting on the collision between expectations at work and expectations on the home front.  Expectations in both domains have ramped up considerably since the 1970s.

For example, while working parents continuously worry that they do not spend enough time with their children, the evidence presented by Shulte suggests that parents nowadays spend significantly more time with their children than their counterparts did in the 1960s and 1970s, even in those days of shorter working hours. Expectations about housework and a presentable home are also subject to continual inflation. It is a question of perception. Time use studies from the 1970s, for example, show the gap between the idea that “American housewives, with all their time-saving appliances, would be freed from the drudgery of housework” and the reality that “they spent just as much time cleaning as did women without them, in Bulgaria.” Shulte challenges her female readers to really ask themselves what is important. Do they really need to do ‘it all’? Have they created a construct of ‘it all’ that is in fact a fantasy?

Thankfully, it sounds as if the marriage at Schulte’s household has survived, but the text of Overwhelmed is clearly a search for answers. How does the woman get back her time – and, as over-work pressures ratchet up for men as well – how does the man do more at home without imperilling his role and status at work?

Shulte attacks the problem on several fronts. First, she advises us to drop the competition that she calls the “busier than thou” attitude. Second, we can each of us challenge the “cultural imperatives” that pressure us to “not just have it all, but to fit it all on the fast track … until life feels … like an exhausting ‘everydayathon’”. Third, she analyses the cultural tyranny of the ‘ideal worker’ and ‘ideal mother’ constructs, and argues persuasively that they feed into the workaholic culture and that we internalise and then use to police ourselves to exhaustion. She also sketches out some strategies she used in her own life to rein in the overwhelm. She asked herself these crucial questions:

  • How much is enough?
  • When is it good enough?
  • How will I know?

She argues that we need to change “the narrative of success” to a broader picture of what a career looks like over the course of a lifetime and what wellbeing and wealth actually mean. This means we all check in with ourselves and see whether the priorities we are living by are ones that are genuinely important to us.

On a final note, Schulte’s cultural critique is persuasive and develops points made elsewhere by Alain De Botton’s work in Status Anxiety and The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. Overwhelmed is part of a growing theme in American writing about the impact of extreme work hours, ICTs, consumerist values, and economic pressures on the way we think, create, love, work, relate, and ultimately, find meaning. Books such as William Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry, Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, Maggie Jackson’s Distracted, and the Take Back Your Time movement all tap into various aspects of the feeling that much is not right about the direction our cultures are heading.

However, Schulte’s book shares something else with these titles – an odd reluctance to call for any systematic, policy-driven approaches to the problem. From an Australian perspective, this fear of government-driven solutions is a blind spot in American writing and positively Cold-War in its anxiety that any government funded and regulated approaches will be deemed ‘socialist’. Schulte’s heart-rending descriptions of the infant and child deaths that are the result of a refusal to fund and regulate child-care properly in the United States are a case in point. To be fair to Schulte, she uses these stories to argue for a more coordinated approach to child care and crèches in the United States, and her descriptions of the set-up in Denmark made me green with envy. But, as is too often the case, she pulls her punches when it comes to advocating legislation around work hours, worker entitlements and other industrial issues. These discussions still seem off limits to American writers. As such, they can only offer piece-meal and personal solutions to what is clearly a system-wide problem. The social movements around simple living, downshifting and work-life balance are as yet nascent; Schulte’s work contributes to this discussion, while also evidencing the silence about these issues in mainstream politics.

Further reading:

Interview with Brigid Schulte and book excerpt on NPR.

Review by Ann Crittenden in New York Times Review of Books.

Review by Helen Lewis in The Guardian.

Yagelski, Writing, and the Lego Movie

One of the highlights of the Term 1-2/Easter Break for me was participating in a reading and discussion group at the Faculty of Education at Monash University. (Thanks to Madeleine Coloumbe for inviting me along, and to Drs Graham Parr and Scott Bulfin for welcoming teachers from outside academe.) It was a rare chance for me to engage in discussion with other writer-educators about the theories and questioning that drive our practice in the classroom.

The set reading for the discussion was “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being” by Robert Yagelski. This was my first encounter with Yagelski’s work. Some of the ideas that caught my attention in the article were:

–          That writing can be a process or way of being, rather than only an effort towards producing a standard-English product.

–          That writing is a way of reflecting and also reflecting on the process of writing.

–          That this reflection and process is a powerful tool in helping students and teachers see themselves in more authentic (less alienated) ways and;

–          Writing that connects directly with personal experiences and our situatedness in the world taps into a less product-driven model of thinking.

–          That this (in some way) links to efforts to construct a more ecologically and socially sustainable future.

Yagelski’s vision is that, against the standards-based, “No-Child-Left-Behind” context of education in the United States, teachers can help students see writing as a way of constructing a sense of their own being. Yagelski’s hope is that writing becomes something in which there is a personal stake in literacy and the act of putting pen to page, rather than as an activity entirely mediated by standards and expectations set by policy. There was an element of phenomenology (via Merleau-Ponty) in the argument, in that the experience of writing as a process and practice, rather than the production of a standards-based written product, was put to the fore. Yagelski states, “writing as an activity matters, separate from any text that is produced” (7) and “Writing in the moment … has the capacity to change us” (7). An awareness of the writing as experience is offered as a way of off-setting the narrow focus on producing ‘correct’ texts.

These are challenging ideas for those of us working within the limitations and practicalities of the English classroom in Australia. The political discourse about English education has become almost exclusively framed in terms of ‘standards’ and achievement as benchmarked by such things as NAPLAN results and ATAR scores. If you teach in the VCE, there is also the added dimension of having to explicitly scaffold and teach forms such as the text response essay or the persuasive text.

On the one hand, as an English teacher, I do believe that helping students master certain ‘rules’ about standard English composition and expression does help them go on to occupy a more-empowered place in their life. Times when I have taught this concept I have used the scene from the Australian film The Castle where the characters first put their case to the courts in terms of the “vibe” of Mabo and the Constitution. It is only when they get a QC lawyer who can argue within the discourse of law that the heroes can hope to gain traction for their case.

On the other hand, my own writing and literacy journey is one in which the process of writing and the experience of writing – -seeing myself as someone who writes — has been utterly central. For me, putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard are an essential facet of learning, because that is often how I formalise the learning in my own mind. I write about it and compose some ideas on the page outside the flurry of my own thoughts, where reflections on Yagelski, for example, sit alongside plans for a year 11 lesson and wondering what my six year old son is up to. Writing (and reading) are activities that have long felt like they ‘belong’ to me. Since childhood I have felt an immense sense of personal ownership of reading and writing – they matter. One of the reasons they matter is that they make a third space between the utterly shared world of sociality and the private world of thought. In this third space I can interpret ideas, critically evaluate the ideas that have been passed down to me, and, most importantly, come up with a personal synthesis that I can then share with others. Writing, for me, even when it has occurred in an academic context, has been about an experience of being, it is about composing myself on the page.

It is this idea that writing and reading matter at a personal level that I hope to foster and encourage in my students. I know that they cannot have this personal investment in their own literacy if they see it as only an exercise in compliance.

Nonetheless, I think it is inaccurate to say the ‘rules’ or standards are entirely or straightforwardly oppressive. As the first person in my family to gain a degree I have observed the ways in which people with uncertain skills in standard text production spend a lot of time simply avoiding situations in which they might have to use them. My husband has part of a law degree. Some years ago he wrote a letter for a member of my family who was negotiating with a technical education institute and felt themselves without the necessary words and literacy skills to self-advocate in a discourse the institution would recognise. I have seen first-hand how weak skills in standardised text production can harm and limit power. To be able to text and Tweet and update Facebook, but to not be able to write anything longer than that, is inadequate and damaging. Explicit scaffolding into the forms and styles of ‘standard’ texts is for me a democratising exercise.

So where is the line crossed? Where does cultural capital – in the form of certain forms of academic literacy – become oppressive? How do standards situate the student writer as merely a producer of pre-determined texts and how do they actually enable a more fluent production of a self-in-the-world?

For me the crux of the matter is Yagelski’s observation that “writing [is] an act of meaning making” (9). His vision of writing, however, seems to oppose the authentic process of making meaning through writing to the business of producing academic, standard texts. He argues that students are fed a line that drives a wedge between the aim of producing texts in ‘standard’ academic forms, and a personally meaningful experience of writing:

“Writing, they are being told, isn’t about making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living; rather, it is about following rules and creating ‘good’ texts, about conforming to conventions and demonstrating a narrow kind of literate proficiency” (19).

But does this opposition always hold? Ultimately, what I want for my students is a technology and fluency in written and spoken discourse so that they can work out what they think and engage the world with their ideas. They need to be able to interpret and form their own reading of the texts and narratives that circulate in our culture, and they need to be able to formulate personally significant yet intelligible meanings of their own. Is this always opposed to growing fluency in academic literacy?

This is where I started to think about the Lego Movie. At the risk of sounding undertheorised, Yagelski’s article made me think of the film I took my son to see earlier in the break. Yagelski seems to pose division between ‘standard’ literacy and writing for “making sense of an experience in the world or finding a way through the complexities of living”. Emett, the protagonist of the Lego Movie, is a totally standardised being. He follows the instruction manuals for every moment of his day, following each guide to the letter. He strives to avoid deviation and eccentricity in a world where taste, thought and creativity have been outsourced. The villain of this world, President Business, aims to eliminate all personal creativity and reflection. The heroes of this dystopian Lego-verse are “master builders”, characters who have passed through the manual-following stage and have come out the other side able to cobble together any structure they desire from the bits available to them. In one scene of the film, the thoughts and imagination of the master builders appear as serial numbers and visual memories of the various Lego bits at their disposal. They run through them like an internal catalogue, out of which they assemble a prodigious variety of machines.

Now this is a version of creative production that suggests several things:

–          That fluency and creativity in a certain medium comes via increasing mastery of the basics;

–          That knowing the language or grammar of your medium allows you to negotiate new meanings and forms.

–          That any medium is plastic, with an inherent tension between pattern and surprise.

–          That the creative process is open-ended and that while there are forms, they are unfinished.

–          All meaning-making is dialogic, in the Bakhtinian sense of the word. That is, we absorb the forms and utterances of others, but we rather than simply recite them, we can add our own interpretations and variations to the language.

To come back to the teaching of writing, I feel that our current political atmosphere does seem to promulgate a view of writing that is like following an instruction manual. As in a lot of areas of life, there seems to be a concerted effort to eliminate the need for a person to have expertise and the powers of observation and interpretation. However, despite the attractiveness of Yagelski’s focus on writing as an experience, in practice I am not sure I can divorce the teaching of writing from the written product students are being asked to produce. What I would prefer is an approach that seeks to draw students through the process of writing that, while giving them the tools to write in academic forms, also helps them develop a personal stake in writing as meaning making. After all, the most tantalising writing assignment is, perhaps, one mentioned by Yagelski: “What matters to you?”

References:

Yagelski, Robert P. (2009). “A Thousand Writers Writing: Seeking Change through the Radical Practice of Writing as a Way of Being”. English Education, Vol. 42, No. 1 (October 2009), pp. 6 – 28.

Reading Highlights – 2013.

As I sit here eating just-one-more-Santa-shaped-chocolate I contemplate a good year in reading.

Here are some highlights from my reading in 2013:

Memoir:

Patti Smith (2010). Just Kids. London: Bloomsbury.

Patti Smith is perhaps best known for her ground-breaking 1975 album Horses and the work she has done as a poet and performer since. The famous and arresting album cover of Horses features a portrait of Smith by Robert Mapplethorpe, who went on to great fame as a photographer. This famous shot comes from the time in both Smith and Mapplethorpe’s lives that Just Kids documents.

Just Kids narrates the determination, grit, ambition and dreaminess of Smith’s years as a new arrival in New York and her intense relationship with Mapplethorpe. The two of them explore their way into their respective artistic vocations, meanwhile watching each other’s backs, stoking each other’s creative fires, and being a witness to each other’s emergence into viable artistic careers.

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Just Kids cover

Smith’s writing is intense, personal, confessional and intimate. She presents a luminous picture of a vanished world of the New York art scene and demi monde of the late 1960s – late 1970s. It is all here – Hotel Chelsea, where Smith and Mapplethorpe holed up during their romantic friendship; Warhol’s famous circle; seedy but vibrant neighbourhoods where up-and-coming artists mingled with junkies, psychiatric cases, and others marginal. I ended up reading this book with a notebook by my side where I would jot down the names of those I wanted to look up later. Her memoir is both a map to the New York avant-garde of the day, and an account of one woman’s decision to become the person she was meant to be. It is also, poignantly, an elegy for Smith’s lost friend, who died in 1989.

Novel:

Karl Ove Knausgaard. (English Translation 2013, Don Bartlett). A Man in Love. My Struggle: Book 2. London: Harvill Secker.

my struggle 2

Knausgaard’s project in his six volume My Struggle seems nothing less than the search for a new form. The result – called a “novel” but clearly based on daily events in the author’s own life – narrates the quest to find meaning and produce something new, despite living in this exhausted period a century after modernism.

A Man in Love is the second volume in Knausgaard’s project. In it he struggles with, among other things, the task of becoming a writer and writing something worthwhile amid a pressing reality that is in equal parts banal and fantastic. Calling the series My Struggle seems provocative, and I do not quite know what to make of the overt nod to Hitler’s autobiography. Perhaps it is a deliberate appropriation and reversal of the grandiose claims of a tyrant to title the humble and quotidian concerns of Knausgaard’s author-protagonist. In A Man in Love, the narrator’s main “struggle” seems to be balancing the demands of marriage and parenting small children with the demands of an artistic career. In this way, the ‘struggle’ appeals to the straightened, time-poor circumstances of any working parent trying to manage the competing commitments of love and work and art while trying to be something more than just a workhorse/consumer.

I read the first in the My Struggle series purely by chance. A Death in the Family was on a display shelf at the library at work. I liked the cover with its forlorn weatherboard house. The Scandinavian name caught my interest because I had recently enjoyed some fiction by fellow Norwegian Per Petterson. I went home and found the writer’s excruciating honesty about his awkward adolescence and his difficult relationship with his father mesmerising. A full third of the A Death in the Family dealt with Knausgaard and his brother cleaning his father’s home after he dies of alcoholism. That a writer would devote so much attention to the sheer labour of cleaning a house that was filthy, cluttered and destitute from neglect on one level seemed bizarre and a burden on the reader. On another level it was an audacious move and surprisingly cathartic as the reader follows the narrator’s efforts to exorcise the squalor of his father’s addiction and their disappointing relationship through the powers of bleach and cleaning fluids.

a death in the family

Overtly sourced from Knausgaard’s own daily grind, My Struggle: Book 2 details the author’s own labour to become a writer amidst the chaos and interruptions of marriage and raising small children.  Having left his native Norway for Sweden, Knausgaard struggles with the subtle linguistic, class and cultural nuances of a country that, for all its proximity, accentuates different values. Knausgaard’s narrative vacillates between the high registers of philosophical discussions between the author and his friend Geir about the nature of art, the creative life and efforts to write well, and the low registers of descriptions of smoking, drinking, cooking, and the rigors of looking after small children. The author’s yearning for the quiet and time necessary to create the writing most essential to his own sense of living a meaningful and effective life is pitted directly against the demands of family living. In particular, scenes of desperate parenting amid screaming toddlers and the rhythms of housekeeping are vivid in their unrelenting portrayal of the labours of everyday life. I, for one, heartily sympathised with Knausgaard’s moments of ambivalence when, no matter how much ‘in love’ one is with one’s family, there are times when the chief desire is to find a quiet place and be left alone. I read A Man in Love on the strength of the strange momentum Knausgaard seems able to generate from the most unpromising material – that, and the warm, complex voice that comes off the page. I look forward to Volume 3.

Australian novelist Richard Flanagan was also enthused by Knausgaard’s work.

Poetry

Seamus Heaney Field Work. (1976). New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.

field work heaney

By coincidence, Heaney died just as I was teaching his poetry to my Year 11 IB English class. This contact with his poetry reignited my interest in this frankly lyrical man who was so comfortable combining his own voice with the voices of mythology, past poets, and the bog-deep sources of the Irish and English languages themselves. His death heightened my sense of the preciousness of his work, given that it would no longer be elaborated on or added to. I have long enjoyed teaching the small selection we use in the course. I like Heaney’s attention to earthly details, to memory, to craft. He is an ‘approachable’ poet – rarely arch or ironic in that detached, distanced, urbane way. Instead, his work nourishes and feeds the reader even if his material is often hardship, squandered possibility, grief, violence and loss.

In Field Work, Heaney draws on all the sources of his experience, the loss of friends, the sectarian violence that was severing and ruining his country, his love of his wife, and the endless, fertilizing source of the landscape. Many of the poems synthesise these elements of Heaney’s life, as in “Polder” where a reunion with his wife is neatly conflated with a reunion with the land and origins that feed the poet’s identity and his art:

I have reclaimed my polder,

All its salty grass and mud-slick banks;

Under fathoms of air, like an old willow

I stir a little on my creel of roots

(“Polder”).

Many of the poems are elegies for those killed by sectarian violence, while others ponder Heaney’s role as poet in a land where words seem at times both useless and necessary, a “tentative art” (“Casualty”). I thoroughly enjoyed reading this work, its searching quality, its confession of not having any neat or grand solutions, and the unfinished love that animates so many of its poems.

So …those were some of the highlights. I will have to write up the next few titles anon.

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.

A Scandinavian tale: Per Petterson’s In the Wake. London. Vintage Books. (2002).

Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses was my year’s best read in 2011, so I have been keen to read more of this Norwegian writer’s oevre. In the Wake is similarly brooding, with a close exploration of family relationships, grief and loss. The tensions of the father-son bond, in particular, seem to be Petterson’s territory. As with Out Stealing Horse, the protagonist of In the Wake struggles to come to terms with a father whom he strove to please and who is now vanished. In Out Stealing Horses, the father disappears without a trace, but his presence in the son’s life, although enigmatic, is not simply destructive. By contrast, In the Wake portrays a father-son relationship that is deeply flawed, and which casts a shadow over the son’s sense of himself.

Arvid wakes one early morning to find himself outside a bookshop where he has not worked for two years. He is hungover, disorientated, has lost his wallet, has a black eye and two broken ribs: “I start to weep. I have been on my way down for a long time, and now I am there. At rock bottom” (14). This is the beginning of a descent into hell for Petterson’s protagonist. He is forced to confront the emotional mess he is in after having lost both parents and his younger siblings in a ferry disaster off the coast of Denmark six years before. His only surviving sibling, an older brother, is distant and, after his wife files for divorce, attempts suicide. Arvid is deeply lonely, adrift in his grief and unable to find more than the most tenuous connections with others. A writer by trade, his current project has languished, a series of incomplete fragments for which Arvid has no real enthusiasm.

In the Wake is a haunting exploration of a perennial theme of modern literature – the ‘crack up’. Arvid is so unmoored from life that he does not even recognise his own face in the mirror, “I stand in front of the mirror in the hall. It is difficult to focus, but there is someone there, I’ve seen him before. I nod, and he nods, and then I recognise myself” (55). His fragile connection to his brother is marred by silence and his own anger at him for having attempted death, “you trying to get out of everything and leave me alone” (199). What’s more, the troubling relationship he had with his father is broken off, unredeemed, as his father perished in the ferry fire.

Arvid’s journey is long one, but despite the bleakness, there is a glimmer of optimism at its core. Gradually, Arvid makes connections with others, similarly adrift in an alienating universe. The first is Naim Hajo, a Kurdish refugee who lives with his family in the floor above. This man’s humility and stoicism are a guiding star in Arvid’s own struggles to be at home in the world. The two men – one a native of Oslo and one far from home — mirror each other’s lostness:

“he points at me and says: “Problem,” and I do not deny it.

…he points to his own heart.

“Problem,” he says again (185).”

The other connection Arvid makes it to Mrs Grinde, a single mother who lives in the adjoining apartment block and whose light Arvid watches through his sleepless nights. In a midnight conversation, Arvid tells Grinde a story about his relationship with his father he has never told before: he saw his father ill in the hospital and, perhaps to protect his father’s pride as athletic and invincible, turns away before his father has seen him, rather than acknowledge the older man’s weakness, “he never turned around, just held his stomach and his face to the wall as he wept. … I held my breath, turned silently, and walked away” (83). It is a moment that demonstrates for Petterson’s protagonist again the power of story. His confessions to Mrs Grinde knit his raw experience together and help him reach out to another.

Scattered throughout Petterson’s tale are the cultural references that furnish Arvid’s emotional and intellectual landscape. Raymond Carver, Billie Holiday, and the Haiku of Basho are all mentioned and provide a kind of gloss to Petterson’s aesthetic. The passages where Arvid attempts to outrun his grief and pain by driving the backroads beyond Oslo, and his memories of hitchhiking and backpacking to visit his brother studying in England glow with precisely observed detail. The latter in particular have the flavour of the itinerant poet on the road:

There was an oil refinery there with BP painted in yellow and green on the great shiny tanks and a tower where a gas flame crackled and burned at the top and threw enough light for me to find my way up between two big rocks. I decided it would not rain that night and unpacked my sleeping bag and spread it straight on to the ground and crept into it with all my clothes on. I was exhausted and happy and fell asleep at once, and the few times I woke I looked straight up at the sky with its multitude of stars, and I knew the names of the biggest ones, and I saw the gas flame shining and heard it crackling and felt at home in the world (149).

Arvid’s nostalgia is, of course, tainted with the knowledge of all that is lost thereafter. There are also references to Scandinavian writers and heroes that are a bit mysterious to Anglophone readers. One such is the novel The Class Warrior by Svante Foerster which the protagonist reads obsessively, but with which I am unfamiliar. However, Arvid’s admiration for Carver does give a clue for English language readers to Petterson’s concerns with alienation and the search for redemptive meaning in the luminous moments of ordinary life.

Arvid has taken six years to admit that his pain is “unbearable” but his admission is the first step in a return to life. In a grim reconciliation with his brother, both men make a toast, “cleaned out, rock bottom”. In the Wake has a structural simplicity when compared to the architectural finesse of Out Stealing Horses; however, both are striking for the economical use of language to give a lyrical effect and a powerful exploration of loss and family bonds. The brothers’ toast is about as optimistic as the novel gets, but I find this kind of reading more nourishing than simple affirmation.