June 30, 2014

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck and other stories

Posted in McCracken Elizabeth at 8:00 am by John Self

Here is my review for the Independent on Sunday of Elizabeth McCracken’s excellent new collection of stories, Thunderstruck. If you’re sampling it, or have a copy and are wondering where to start, my favourite stories were ‘Juliet’, ‘Some Terpsichore’ and ‘Property’.

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck

May 20, 2014

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea

Posted in Marcus Ben at 8:00 am by John Self

Ben Marcus first came to my (largely baffled) attention with his debut book, The Age of Wire and String. I was going to call it ‘a collection of stories’, but that doesn’t really sum up short pieces of prose like this, titled ‘Intercourse with Resuscitated Wife':

Intercourse with resuscitated wife for particular number of days, superstitious act designed to insure safe operation of household machinery. Electricity mourns the absence of the energy form (wife) within the household’s walls by stalling its flow to the outlets. As such, an improvised friction needs to take the place of electricity, to goad the natural currents back to their proper levels. This is achieved with the dead wife. She must be found, revived, and then penetrated until heat fills the room, until the toaster is shooting bread onto the floor, until she is smiling beneath you with black teeth and grabbing your bottom. Then the vacuum rides by and no one is pushing it, it is on full steam. Days flip past in chunks of fake light, and the intercourse is placed in the back of the mind. But it is always there, that moving into a static-ridden corpse that once spoke familiar messages in the morning when the sun was new.

What to make of this? It’s funny. It’s compact – compressed, even. It makes you think. It’s even slightly moving at the end. Not bad in 160 words. But it’s difficult to say what it really means, if anything – not that that should be a bar to its success on its own terms. And the reason I chose this one as an example is because it’s the first in the book, one of the more straightforward pieces, and I never got very far with The Age of Wire and String. Even though I more or less liked the ones I did read. Jonathan Gibbs, an astute critic, describes it as “nonsense, but highly-charged, persuasive nonsense,” while one reviewer on Amazon, a better reader than I, made enough sense of it to say that the pieces “seem to denote some horrible family tragedy, possibly revolving around the narrator’s brother, Jason Marcus.”

I mention all this not just by way of background but because it’s interesting to see where Marcus has gone from there. His next book published in the UK was the novel The Flame Alphabet, and now we have another collection of … I think we can definitely call them stories this time.

Ben Marcus: Leaving the Sea (cover design by Peter Mendelsund)

Leaving the Sea is one of the most interesting books I’ve read this year, not just for its content but also for what it tells us about the author’s body of work and his progress as a writer. The stories are grouped, and the first four are traditional narratives – well, fairly. They have a New Yorker-ish air to them – three were published there – and to me recalled the likes of Lorrie Moore and George Saunders. They have Moore’s self-analytical protagonists, and Saunders’s passive-aggressive dialogue and men unhappy in their own skin. Paul in ‘What Have You Done?’ has “a belly that spilled around to his lower back. A second belly in the rear, which might be why he ate so much. Two mouths to feed.” Fleming in ‘I Can Say Many Nice Things’ has a similar problem. “Even in private, he had cut down on the nudity. These days the shame had followed him indoors.” In ‘The Dark Arts’, Julian, wasted with terminal illness, has the opposite problem. “You’d need more than clothing to hide a body like his. You’d need a shovel, a tarp.” Their physical failings reflect, or represent, something deeper. This is a past guilt, something sexual and unsavoury, for Paul in ‘What Have You Done?’ (the title resounds in our head as we look at Paul). He measures all women, even his mother, by their appearance. The story is set at a family reunion where Paul is trying to rehabilitate himself, but finds himself unable to talk to his family about his new life, about his wife and child. (“These people would have to die for Paul to be free. Which was bullshit, he knew. It was Paul who would have to die.”) This rings true: as children we develop and nurture the parts of our lives that cannot be seen by our families, the people who until then have known us best. (From the other side, parents first experience this when their child comes home from school and swears they can’t remember anything about their day.) Paul’s family knows him best and worst, and the story is not disrupted or spoiled by never finding out what it is that he did, just as in ‘The Dark Arts’ we don’t need to know precisely what is wrong with Julian. This coyness is a deliberate policy on Marcus’s part. In a recent interview, he spoke of how he had

written versions of all of these stories with a little more information. A little more background. And I often think, ‘OK, this answers a question,’ but in answering that question, some kind of potency is lost. When I give information, I feel like I’m killing a story. I worry about the inertia you can feel if you explain.

Shades here of Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child. “Knowing things completes them. Kills them. They fade away, decided and over and forgotten. Not knowing sustains us.” Marcus is right – the power of these stories comes from the tension between knowing and not knowing, the things the reader’s mind adds to fill the gaps that Marcus leaves. That’s on top of the more common form of knowing/not knowing in fiction, of wondering what will happen next as the story is carefully unreeled. This is particularly strong in ‘Rollingwood’, the fourth of the ‘traditional’ stories here, though to describe it as such is a stretch. We are in a slightly off-kilter world, where Mather, the divorced father of a sick boy, has to battle his child’s brutal treatment equipment that seems more medieval than medical; his feckless ex, who abandons the boy to Mather’s care for weeks at a time (“fatherhood has somehow become about helping the boy not love his mother too painfully”); and his obstructive colleagues, who conspire to make him feel as though he is fading from reality. Putting a sick child in danger is a pretty handy emotional shortcut for a writer, but it works here because the reader is simultaneously distracted by the strangeness surrounding it. It makes for one of the best pieces in the collection.

But then I liked all these first four stories, which together take up not much less than half the book. Their straightforwardness – in comparison to The Age of Wire and String – means they enter brain directly, all the more potently to worry at the reader once they’re in there. As well as these, there are what I think of as transitional pieces, like ‘Watching Mysteries With My Mother’ and ‘The Loyalty Protocol’, which are still recognisably stories, but branch out into stranger places. The first of these is a twenty-page-long looping thought by a man prone to obsessional worrying, who swoops and circles around the idea of his mother’s imminent death, trying to distract himself from it but unable to look away. He starts by wondering if she can beat the odds of death (“Odds are odds, and they should never be beaten. If they are, then the odds are incorrect and should be changed”), and digresses and diverts into related subjects (“Screaming requires a terrific summoning of muscle. It scares me to think that one day I will be too weak to scream when I most need to scream”) and back again. ‘The Loyalty Protocol’ sets us down in a neighbourhood which is carrying out a drill for an unspecified disaster. A man Edward, who often seems very like Marcus’s earlier male characters (“He thought of himself as deeply empathic – if mainly toward himself”, and is prone to “play[ing] out futures with women he’d never speak to”), is tested by the authorities who instruct him to leave his parents behind at the next drill – which may not be a drill but the real thing, not that Edward knows what that is. Here, like an extrapolation of ‘Rollingwood’, the effect is to make the emotional heart of the story stand out more starkly in an unknowable setting. Similarly, in ‘Watching Mysteries With My Mother’, there is an unexpectedly affecting tug when the narrator imagines how he would respond if someone asked him what he was doing at the time of his mother’s death:

Perhaps this man or woman would be someone with whom I would grow close, even though I would be an older person by then with little to offer in terms of romantic manoeuvres. We’d pose each other questions on couches, chairs, park benches, beds, in cars and on buses and sometimes walking through fields, or so I imagine, seeking to overcome each other’s defences, hoping that personal questions, asked and answered, would come, over time, to pass for intimacy, but wondering, sometimes, if that’s even how it’s done, and if that doesn’t seem too strenuous a method of getting someone to finally love you.

This reflexive style could pall pretty quickly for many readers, but it provides a bridge to the remaining stories in the book, which are generally shorter and definitely much stranger (strangers; literary aliens). What is most curious is not just their content but the fact that, although they appear later here, they were the earliest stories. The stories I have already discussed – twenty to thirty pages long, narrative in form, recognisable but distinctive – were first published in magazines between 2011 and 2013. The remainder are (mostly) earlier, some dating back as far as 2000, that is, a few years after The Age of Wire and String. And they are tricky, troubling, even obscure. These stories require the reader to think hard while reading them just to understand what each sentence is saying. For that reason, they are shorter: it would be impossible to keep this sort of thing up for two dozen pages: probably for the writer, and certainly for the reader. ‘First Love’ feels long at eight pages; ‘Fear of the Morning’ about right at four. What sort of thing are we talking about? Things that are very similar in tone and feel to The Age of Wire and String, though the most difficult stories in Leaving the Sea are, to me, still Ulysses to Wire and String‘s Finnegans Wake. They can seem like a slightly corny Martian school of poetry, where the narrator describes a world or situation to the reader, but with as much blurring as clarification.

So in ‘First Love’, a “mistake tunnel” is a mouth (ho hum), an orgasm is a “seizure” (well!), and when a seizure happens “the sun was briefly refuted and I achieved a dark area” (better; funny). Also, “having a secret means: I have swallowed part of you and that is why you feel incomplete.” So we are in a world where words hold not so much different meanings as additional meanings, and the struggle to understand human emotions is given freshness by having us struggle to understand the language. Making it strange makes it new. In ‘Fear the Morning’, Marcus treads close to silliness but balances it with a bracing, Bartlebyesque darkness, in a four-page account of the life of a man who spreads lotion on his body through a hole in his coat while he walks, and who aims to “perfect this skill until he had arranged for a situation that would go on for as long as he wanted it to, in which absolutely nothing occurred.” Then he ends a borderline beautiful passage with a line (“The people would be made of bark”) that breaks the spell, conjures whimsy, and left me wondering whether Marcus was deliberately deadening his own effects, as a sort of anti-joke – or whether he was just making it up as he went along. But these stories are not nonsense: they just don’t follow the usual path. There is a sadness running through them that seems pretty well exemplified by the title story, which suggests that human evolution was, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, a bad move which has made a lot of people very angry: the narrator reflects on the possibilities that might have been “if I were something better that had never tried to leave the sea.” Another of the earlier stories, ‘On Not Growing Up’, takes the form of a Q&A (“—How long have you been a child? —Seventy-one years”) that satirises the notion that childhood impulses and qualities are to be prized and preserved (“Is a tantrum disruptive? Or does it point to an emotional tunnel we’re afraid of entering?”), while emphasising once more the merits of not knowing.

These stories reminded me that Ben Marcus, along with his comment above about withholding information from stories, also said this in the same interview:

I spent years being too elliptical. Not on purpose. And I was always shocked when people would say that, and I would think, what are you talking about? It’s the most lucid thing that’s ever been written! No. No one understands you.

This, presumably, refers to The Age of Wire and String, and we might conclude that these stories chart Marcus’s development from there to here. He has become more mainstream, cutting out the cutting out, striking a balance better. But the earlier stories, the short and strange ones, definitely have a force of their own. They recalled a couple of quotes which I will end this piece with – this piece which has gone on far too long to say so little (but how to describe something you struggle to hold in your head?). The first is Flannery O’Connor:

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one.

The other is Beckett on Joyce:

His writing is not about something: it is that something itself.

April 18, 2014

Amanda Prantera: Mohawk’s Brood

Posted in Prantera Amanda at 8:00 am by John Self

Amanda Prantera and I go back a long way. I’ve had a good deal of pleasure from her novels – she’s written 16, most of which I’ve read – and a certain amount of frustration that she never seems to have had the recognition she deserves. Perhaps this is because her style is often, as The Times put it, “so delicate, so light to the touch that it belies the weight of the substantial talent that produced it.” Perhaps, too, it’s because she – like Brian Moore – is so varied in her subject matter that she hasn’t built up a big readership. When I say varied, among her books are: stories about werewolves and vampires (Strangeloop, 1984; Sabine, 2005; Wolfsong, 2012); historical fiction (The Side of the Moon, 1991) and science fiction (The Kingdom of Fanes, 1995); terrorist thrillers (Letter to Lorenzo, 1999) and conspiracy thrillers (the smartly titled Spoiler (2003), which one reviewer called ‘A Da Vinci Code for grown-ups’); and a barkingly-titled novel about artificial intelligence (Conversations with Lord Byron on Perversion, 163 Years After His Lordship’s Death, 1987). If you’re looking for a place to start, I’d suggest Capri File, which in 2001 must have been one of the first novels-in-emails, or Proto Zoë (1992), which comprises perfect little vignettes from a child’s life (and which, if you like it, has a sequel, Zoë Trope, 1996). More recently, Prantera has given us brilliant translations of two books by Marlen Haushofer: The Loft and Nowhere Ending Sky. I was delighted to discover, out of the deep blue air, that she has a new novel just out.

Amanda Prantera: Mohawk's Brood

Mohawk’s Brood shows Prantera stretching her interests into the family saga. Typically, it is done in an unusual way: despite covering over a century and a dozen characters, it is no epic – 250 pages top to tail – and it is written in what the blurb calls ‘flashlight mode’. Fortunately the blurb then goes on to define this neologism: “illuminating different events from different perspectives.” I suspect this has been done before (answers in the comments, please), but Prantera goes a little further by also making most of the action happen off-stage, or off-page. It is a book of recollection and anticipation, starting with the cover image, a real photograph which appears to have inspired the book, and which gets a fictional caption before the action starts, summarising everyone in it.

Characters in the book take turns to speak to the reader, so this is a sort of oral history of the family. We never learn their name but they are led by Mohawk, nicknamed after his childhood horse, and retiring from his career when the book opens in 1906. He has returned to England and passed the family business in Shanghai to his eldest son Harry. Mohawk is acutely aware of the struggle his life has been, and wants his children to float effortlessly at life’s upper stratum: “The summit is not for climbers … this is as far as I can go.” We find what they make of this – of where Mohawk has left them, with his dubious business interests (“a ban on importation of opium from India has, paradoxically, boosted consumption”) – in their own words, mostly. There is Little Ida, who feels frustrated when back in England (she feels as though she has been “pressed like a flower between the pages of a Jane Austen novel”) and wants to find love. “There’s the vet, I suppose, he’s young and very nice looking, but these dogs of ours are so dratted healthy…” There is Edwin, suffering from some kind of mental health problem, and who misses the movies in Shanghai: “it is the only time my head is fully at rest, when the living image on the screen invades it and blots out all the others.” There’s Tom, committed to social change for the benefit of the common man: “I’m awake. And half the world is waking up with me.” There’s Ernest, who fights in the Great War but is captured by the Germans when running an errand to fetch his commanding officer some cigarettes.

Most of the family members have something interesting happen to them during the course of the book, though we rarely hear about it directly. One of the curiosities of the telling is that most of the events are recalled by the characters as they speak to the reader, or even just hinted at: we are almost never in the thick of the action. (“I may count a hussy and a pervert among my progeny,” reflects Mohawk in response to revelations.) There’s a risk to this, and in the combination of satisfaction and frustration that results from the narrative approach. It’s satisfying because we get a dozen novels in one, and although it starts off slowly, by halfway through I was fairly gripped, but it’s frustrating because sometimes we want to hear more from a character but never do. (Donal Ryan’s well-received debut, The Spinning Heart, had twenty-one narrators, each of whom speaks to the reader only once, though that book was an exercise in comic ventriloquism as much as a story or investigation into character.) Interestingly, the character at the heart of the book, Mohawk’s eldest son Harry, never speaks to the reader at all, yet I felt I knew him so well that I had to flick back to check that this was really so. Prantera’s trick is that Harry’s wife Rebecca and son Sasha speak to us instead, and what we get from them is not just a family tale but an economic history of east and west. Harry’s wife Rebecca feels their life in Shanghai to be precarious – “the inhabitants of this city with all their roads and buildings and vehicles are only here on tolerance … at any moment the land could tire of its human clutter and shrug it all off.” But they are privileged, and the story is reflective of modern times as the wealthy float above the economic turmoil – the crashes, the revolutions – that convulse the world. Rebecca reflects, on sending Sasha to “the best” school, that “it is essential that from his earliest years he meet the sort of boys whom he can continue to befriend to his advantage in later life.” On a human level, however, they don’t escape, and Harry and Rebecca’s family happiness is under significant threat from harboured secrets.

The family members continue to take turns before our eyes – letters from Neville, surprising appearances from an ageing Mohawk, and a much-sought-after prime number from Edwin*. We also hear from non-family members, and often we don’t understand their connection or significance until the second or third time they’ve spoken to us. We work, though, to join the pieces, and this is one of the greatest delights in this enjoyable novel. Then, when we get to 1939, suddenly we jump to the present day, and there is a 40-page appendix which I wasn’t sure about at all. I’ll say nothing about it except that it simultaneously robs the previous 200+ pages of authenticity, but paradoxically adds plausibility. It seems also to resist the open-endedness, the uncertainty, which was one of the things I enjoyed most about this elusive book. Of course it also more or less requires you to reread it, which is probably a good idea anyway given the slippery telling of the story throughout, and Prantera’s slinky lightness of touch, which makes each character distinctive and memorable. As the final narrator points out, “I am not without my agenda.” What storyteller is?

* 20988936657440586486151264256610222593863921

April 1, 2014

Gerard Woodward: Vanishing

Posted in Woodward Gerard at 8:00 am by John Self

Often, I think, we retain a special affection for the first book we read by an author. Certainly that’s true for me with Gerard Woodward, whose second novel I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, the keystone in his Jones family trilogy, still floats high above his others. Recently I read the third volume, A Curious Earth, which I’d been holding off as I’d been told it was almost unreadably grim and sad – I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to find that it was more funny than sad, though sometimes a bit of both. But it was his gift of humour that I had in mind when I started his new novel, his fifth and, at 500 pages, his longest yet.

Gerard Woodward: Vanishing


Vanishing in parts exhibits Woodward’s comic gift at its best. For most of its first half it felt like reading William Boyd’s The New Confessions scripted by David Renwick – and that, I had better explain, is a double compliment. Like Boyd’s book (his best in my opinion), it tells the story, more or less, of a man’s life, within a wartime frame; like David (One Foot in the Grave, Love Soup, etc) Renwick’s best work, it has an absurd eye and a beautiful way of bringing together unlikely details. The man whose life we get is Kenneth Brill, and it comes within the framing device of his arrest and court martial during the second world war on suspicion of aiding the enemy. Brill is a painter – or “failed artist” as he put on his army registration form – and he maintains that he was painting fields near his family home to preserve them before the government paves them over for an airfield. This is around the hamlet where he grew up: Heathrow, in Middlesex. One of the aims of Woodward’s book – and one of its great successes – is to give back Heathrow to a culture where it means nothing more than a hell-on-earth airport. Heathrow’s development as a military airfield was begun in 1944; by the time it was completed, the war had finished. We presume Woodward’s aim was to create a sort of memorial to the place from the final words in the book (in his acknowledgements):

The hamlet of Heathrow was destroyed by a disgraceful misuse of wartime powers by the British government; that it was allowed to happen shames us all.

And the portrait of a vanishing place is one of the most satisfying aspects of Vanishing. This is dispensed in Brill’s memories of his childhood in Heathrow, where his father had an array of jobs including stage illusionist and prosthetic limbs supplier, though “in 1936 his business went up in flames. He took all his arms and legs out into the orchard, arranged them in a heap and set fire to them.” Most notably, his father had land which he farmed, in bitter rivalry with his half-brother Tiberius Joy, and the most entertaining parts of the book describe this battle, from a terrible burial suffered by Brill’s mother (pure Renwick, this) to a surprising discovery about sludgecake. Throughout, Woodward’s eye for imagery gives a freshness to scenes such as one where Brill plays doctor with his father’s medical supplies:

Countless times I had put a stethoscope to my sister Pru’s pale chest and listened to the slamming doors of her heart, or the sudden blasts of turbulence, the vortices and hurricanoes of her breath, or the belfry and breaking-glass clatter of her laughter.

There is much more of Woodward’s off-kilter invention and comic (and sometimes tragic) imagination throughout the first half of the book: the fate of Roddy, Tiberius Joy’s son; stripping with on-off best friend Marcus Boone; and all-male ballroom dancing in a Jewish school. Brill keeps moving schools – keeps vanishing – because of absurd developments and misunderstandings. Like his father’s interests – did I mention palmistry? – sometimes these seem random, chosen for their own sake and the delight they give Woodward to explore rather than for any intrinsic necessity to the story. (Woodward has spoken of an earlier draft of the book, where Brill had “a disrobing disorder, which meant he unconsciously lost his clothes at certain key moments.”) But the story is of a life, and you could reasonably say that a life is random and contains no overarching theme. Some of the elements – the aforementioned fate of Roddy Joy, or the excellent scenes involving a Polish art teacher – seem spirited away too suddenly, not fully explored or exploited. (But again, life, etc.)

But although this is the story of a life – a life so far – it is not chronological. As well as the framing device (and Brill’s subsequent court martial for espionage gives us an entirely unexpected but fitting conclusion), the scenes switch between his childhood in Heathrow and at school, and his wartime experiences as a camouflage artist: making things vanish. People arrive, unexplained – why is there tension between Brill and his colleague Somarco? – and allegiances seem to switch as the story jumps from between time and time. There is an uncanny representation of how memory works, with occasional repetitions or echoes of things mentioned before, as though Brill really is telling his story just as he remembers it. Yet as the story moves on, and we get to Brill’s time in art school and subsequently as a teacher, it seemed to lose some life for me, and certainly seemed to lose the comic touch that gave me so much pleasure in the book’s first half. We learn plenty about Brill through his activities and sexual relationships but there is something schematic about the emotional core of the character – though it does occur to me that this might represent a weakness on my part for traditionally explored characterisation. How many of us, after all, analyse our own personalities as cleanly as the novelist typically does for their characters? How realistic is it to do so? The second half the book seemed less vital to me, less surprising – perhaps inevitably as the story must stop opening up and begin to close down – but that I finished it at all, and with a fair amount of satisfaction, speaks of Woodward’s ability to sustain interest. In a way Vanishing, with its rejections of traditional time structure, of representation of character, of clean causation, is more novel than its frequently comforting qualities make it appear. There are strange things hidden in the countryside.

March 24, 2014

Jenny Offill Interview

Posted in Interviews, Offill Jenny at 8:00 am by John Self

Last week I wrote that Jenny Offill’s second novel Dept. of Speculation was probably my favourite new book of the year so far. It doesn’t seem to have attracted the attention of other UK reviewers yet, and amazingly, the Baileys Women’s Prize judging panel hasn’t resigned in embarrassment at leaving it off its recently-announced longlist. Doubtless the Booker and Folio judges will get it right, but in the meantime, I took the opportunity to ask Offill some questions about the book and her work generally.

Jenny Offill by Nicholas Latimer

Dept. of Speculation deals with everyday life but is unusual in its form and content. (“She acts as if writing has no rules.”) Can you tell us something of how the book came about?

I had written a more conventional novel about a student who had an affair with her professor and later married him. The book was from the POV of the second wife and of her stepdaughter. I worked on it for years, but there was always something leaden about it. What I wanted to write was something darker and stranger, something that spoke more directly to the collision of art and life. Eventually, I screwed up my nerve and dismantled that original novel, keeping only a few tiny things.

I read a lot of poetry and non-traditional fiction and for a long time I’d wanted to write in a more experimental vein. Dept. of Speculation was the result of finally writing exactly the way I wanted to without worrying about whether anyone else would like it. (That anyone did was a thrilling surprise.)

The book’s appearance is also unusual: paragraphs appear as separate sections surrounded by white space (you describe it as “maddeningly formatted”). Each paragraph has a stand-alone, aphoristic quality. Was it important to tell the story in this way?

The white spaces in the novel are meant to be resting places for the reader, stop-offs before the wife wheels off in another direction.  I thought it would be overwhelming to be in her head in a linear, uninterrupted way.

The aphoristic quality developed because of that constraint, but I liked it and decided to heighten the effect. One of the things I was interested in was making the seemingly trivial domestic moments have the same weight as the more obviously philosophical ones. The aphoristic style helped me to put the mundane and the sublime fragments on the same plane.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Your first novel Last Things was busy and bustling. Dept. of Speculation is much more pared down; it reads like the skeleton of a much larger book. Was it whittled away from a greater mass of material?

Once I found the form for Dept. of Speculation I wrote the narrative sections in a very pared down way, just as they are in the finished book. But the form took me a long long time to find. At first, I didn’t understand why I kept moving back and forth between first and third person POVs. But then I realized that the shifts in authorial distance exactly mirror the distance that the narrator feels from her husband at any given point in the story. After that, I understood how it fit together.

What I did whittle down was pages and pages of trivia on artic explorers, cosmonauts, obscure mystics etc. I threw away any that seemed too obviously symbolic and looked for others that felt quieter to me.

The portrayal of the demands of early parenthood in the novel is painfully recognisable. One character says to the narrator, “I think I must have missed your second book,” to which she replies, “No; there isn’t one.” Does this explain the fifteen year gap between your first novel and your second?

Nothing really explains it. All I can say is that I couldn’t write fiction at all in the beginning and then for a while I could, but not very well. The demands of early parenthood have an urgency to them that is hard to ignore. It feels strange to go hole up alone in a room and write even if you could slip away to do so.

Jenny Offill: Last Things (Bloomsbury)

You have cited influences as varied as Jean Rhys, Lydia Davis, Joe Brainard and Robert Walser. Can you say something more about your literary inspirations? 

I discovered Robert Walser’s work nearly twenty years ago and it was hugely influential to me. One of his stories ends with this line “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” That really stayed with me. I guess I took it to mean what if everything is interesting? What if nothing is beneath notice?

Part of my fascination with Buddhist thought is that it teaches that this is indeed the case, that the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience is meant to be delved into. (I do think we miss out on a lot of interesting moments when we hope only for happiness. )

Another big influence for me was the New York School of poetry. I particularly love those Frank O’Hara “I did this. I did that” poems that suddenly swing out into these strange ecstatic reveries. I’m also influenced by comedians. Maria Bamford and her brilliant standup routines about anxiety and depression in particular.

You have written three books for children as well as two adult novels. Is it harder to write for adults or for children? Do you find writing easy or difficult generally?

I find writing fiction for adults ridiculously difficult. My reach always exceeds my grasp. But the kids’ books are different. They are more like writing jokes or little fables. Timing and reversals are the key to them. I tried them as a lark to make money to support the glacial pace of my novel writing and they turned out to be fun and to keep me afloat.

Jenny Offill & Chris Appelhans: Sparky! (Schwartz & Wade)

Can you recommend an overlooked book or author to readers of this blog?

I am reading The Collected Poems of Ron Padgett and it is taking the top of my head off. Two other books I’ve read this year and really liked were Madness, Rack, and Honey by Mary Ruefle and Duplex by Kathryn Davis. All of these are put out by small presses so I’m not sure if they’ve made it over to England yet.

March 17, 2014

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

Posted in Offill Jenny at 9:57 am by John Self

Here is my review in the Guardian of Jenny Offill’s miraculous novel, Dept. of Speculation. It is perhaps my favourite new book of the year so far, and the list of books Offill cites as influences for it – including those by Jean Rhys, Denis Johnson, Robert Walser and Richard Yates – is pretty thrilling too.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation

March 13, 2014

Lorrie Moore: Bark

Posted in Moore Lorrie at 8:00 am by John Self

I wrote about Lorrie Moore a couple of years ago, after having mixed feelings about the few stories of hers that I’d read. Now she has a new collection, her first in 16 years, though it’s pretty skimpy at eight stories in 160 pages. More than that, four of these stories were in her 2008 Collected Stories (you can read one of them here), so what Moore’s fans will get is four new stories in 80 pages. Only one of these four is entirely new, as three previously appeared in magazines: Harper’s, The Paris Review and The New Yorker.

Lorrie Moore: Bark

Bark is an interesting reading experience straight after Mavis Gallant. I wrote that some of Gallant’s stories made my eyes glaze over: this never happens in Bark. Moore works very hard to give the reader a really good time. Her stories are stuffed with smart observations, clever ways of seeing and zingy jokes – and that is the only difficulty I have with them. They are so stuffed with novelty and display, that moments which might resonate beautifully within plainer prose, tend to get lost in the noise. In the first story, ‘Debarking’, a reference to the central character receiving “a divorce petition mailed from a motel” is nicely understated and suggestive, but struggles to make itself heard amid less subtle stuff, like a gag a few lines earlier about middle-aged dating being “a planet of the apings!” The story tells us about Ira, trying to get back in the game after his divorce. He is trying also to balance the fact that the two most important females in his life now are a woman, Zora, he barely knows but hopes to get to know better, and his daughter Bekka, of whom he has shared custody, with all the mess that that entails. With Zora, he is unsure whether he really thinks things about her or just wants to (“She had written her phone number and signed off with a swashbuckling Z – as in Zorro. That was cute, he supposed. He guessed. Who knew”). With Bekka we get observations that, if they come from life, would probably have been best left as Facebook status updates. “[Bekka] had once, in a bathtime reverie, named her five favourite people, four of whom were dogs. The fifth was her own blue bike.” (That’s cute, I suppose. I guess. Who knows.) ‘Debarking’ captures well the grimness of desperation dating, and the way participants detect the worst in one another without thinking of how they might themselves be coming across. This is exemplified in a genuinely funny and surprising phone call between Ira and Zora, which seems to justify his thinking earlier:

Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane. Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people. Dating proved it!

Ira’s uncertainties reminded me of Abe Simpson courting Bea Simmons (“Well, I was wondering if you and I you know, might go to the same place at the same time and… Jeez! You’d think this would get easier with time!”). Moore has a knack of filling her characters with these very recognisable weaknesses. In the story ‘The Juniper Tree’, a woman is happy to be persuaded by her own excuses for not visiting her terminally ill friend. When a mutual friend rings to say that she has died, our narrator breaks down. “‘I feel terrible,’ I cried, as if this were what mattered.” The story goes in interesting directions after that – of the cannot-be-disclosed-here variety – and provides a surprising depiction of guilt and grief.

The subject matter of Moore’s stories tends to be from a range of big things: illness, break-ups, death. The third story in Bark, ‘Paper Losses’, takes us back to divorce, with our lead, Kit, finding in the courtroom that “the county owned her marriage and that the county was now taking it back like a chicken franchise she had made a muck of.” That’s a nice simile, but Moore extends it over the following lines until it has, to coin a phrase, irretrievably broken down. She knows how to detonate a phrase though: Kit, on holiday, gets up early to watch turtles hatching on the beach but the guide keeps them there all morning to enable as many tourists as possible to see them. “He took them over to the water’s edge and let them go, hours too late, to make their own way into the sea. And one by one a frigate bird swooped in, plucked them from the silver waves, and ate them for breakfast.” Elsewhere, the effect is more slick than rich, and Moore sometimes reminds me of an American sitcom where the the humour comes not from the setting and the people but from characters saying witty things to one another. On the same page as the passage above, Kit’s friend says, “Soon you, like me, in your next life, like me, will want them old and rich, on their deathbed, really, and with no sudden rallyings in the hospice.”

This frantic waving from author to reader starts to seem gauche. Perhaps Moore could turn it down, but would these stories exist in toned-down prose? The slightly hysterical style is intrinsic to the mindset of the characters, which is itself a cause for concern. Many authors could be accused of sameness – seventy years ago, did jumped-up bloggers complain that Greene wrote too much about Catholicism? – but with Moore, not only do subjects recur, but characters sound too similar also. They all seem to respond to stress with wisecracks, and the effect is to make all the stories seem to take place in a parallel world where people are chipper and desperate at the same time, and exchange pithy dialogue with their partners. Over the length of a book, this becomes such a self-contained world – Lorrieland – that it jars and barks the shins when real world elements creep in, as they frequently do: 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Obama’s election, “the new economic downturn”. (Scanning the original publication dates for the stories that include these elements provides reassurance that they were headline news at the time of writing.) Those previously-listed subjects of the stories – illness, divorce, death – end up seeming like shop-bought ballast to counter the hectic drollery. (When I mentioned Moore’s compulsive joking on Twitter, someone responded, “I sort of love her, but worry that she thinks puns reveal hidden truths.”) The worst offender in this respect is the final story, ‘Thank You For Having Me’, which is the only previously unpublished piece in the book. The penultimate story, ‘Subject to Search’, regains its feet after some terrible jokes (a sign-language mishap is referred to as “a Freudian slip of the dumb”) by showing, horribly, a life where the only way of achieving a happy ending is to cut back into the past. (“He clasped her hand: electricity burst into it then vanished as he let go.”)

What this leads to is the best story in the book: ‘Referential’ doesn’t try to be funny, or not for long, anyway. It is about a mother and her “deranged son”, and her visits to him in a hospital or institution. When Moore writes about how “there was still sweetness in his eyes, the sweetness he was born with”, and then that “once her son had only wanted a distracting pain, but then soon he had wanted to tear a hole in himself and flee through it,” I think of my own sons, still mostly sweetness, and find it terrifying. This unleavened bitterness is bracing after all the stings and rimshots in the other stories. I realise I am making it sound as though I don’t like Moore’s work at all. I do: she is never boring and always entertaining. But the wit which for others intensifies the pleasure in her stories, for me dilutes their force.

March 4, 2014

Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge

Posted in Gallant Mavis at 8:00 am by John Self

Mavis Gallant died on 18 February 2014 – a couple of weeks ago. She had been on my radar for many years: I’d managed to acquire four collections of her stories, without ever reading them. Death is a great catalyst. Why hadn’t I opened them before? Because I have a completist impulse, partly from the desire to write about books I’ve read; to write about a book you have to read it completely. And collections of stories often aren’t suited to being read in their entirety – or not (another reason for me) at the same pace as a novel of equivalent length. Gallant herself had something to say about this, in the afterword to the selection Paris Stories:

There is something I keep wanting to say about reading short stories. I am doing it now, because I may never have another occasion. Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another, as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait.

‘Now’ was 2002, when Gallant was 80 years old, so you can see why she thought she may not have another occasion. Indeed, after this she published two more selections of old stories but no more new collections. The last of her new books, as far as I can tell, was Across the Bridge, published in 1993. My copy, published as a beautiful small hardback by Bloomsbury Classics in the UK, was, according to the inscription, a gift to me on my 22nd birthday. I will be 41 next month, so it has taken me 19 years to get around to this book. That is probably a record, even by my dilatory standards.

Mavis Gallant: Across the Bridge

Across the Bridge contains eleven stories, nine of which were previously published in The New Yorker. If you have a preconception of a New Yorker type of story, then Gallant’s work probably fits it: finely written, alive with detail, light on plot and formally straightforward. That description, however, leaches all the life out of them. The titles of two of her volumes of selected stories – Paris Stories and Varieties of Exile – gives a clue to what unites much of her work. Gallant was born in Montreal but lived in Paris for many years, and these two places provide the settings for almost all the stories here.

The first four stories concern the Carette family, Montrealers whose lives we follow for 50 years in as many pages, from the 1930s to the 1980s. In the first story, ‘1933’, Mme. Carette and her daughters Berthe and Marie are in reduced circumstances following the death of M. Carette. The story is a good introduction to Gallant because it shows her careful balance of sympathy for her characters, who are often in unwelcome predicaments, and her wry eye for the details that describe them. Here, Mme. Carette saves face, if only to herself, in discovering that after moving by necessity to a smaller flat, “by walking a few extra minutes, [she] could patronize the same butcher and grocer as before.” She soon faces the shame-inducing realities of becoming a woman who must now earn a living. In their new flat, the Carettes live above M. and Mme. Grosjean and their Airedale, Arno. This too brings a sharp mix of tenderness and cynicism, as Mme Carette breaks down in tears after expressing unkind – envious – thoughts about her neighbours (“We shall see what happens to the marriage after Arno dies”), while M. Grosjean is blissfully unaware that “all the female creatures in his house were frightened and lonely, calling and weeping.” He has taken Arno out for a walk, though “he made it a point never to say where he was going: he did not think it a good idea to let women know much.”

The next story, ‘The Chosen Husband’, jumps on to the time when Marie, a growing woman, is being courted. Mme. Carette is concerned again with social status, and that theirs cannot match that of Marie’s latest suitor, Louis Driscoll, though she reflects that the Carettes “were related to families for whom bridges were named.” She is presented not as emptily snobbish, but as ambitious, even if that ambition is directed only towards getting her daughter the right man. She rejects one young man, a Greek, for his own lack of ambition. “In the life of a penniless unmarried young woman, there was no room for a man merely in love. He ought to have presented himself as something: Marie’s future.” Again comes that delicate balance, as Gallant switches to tell us that Marie’s sister, Berthe, has had her own trouble with men, largely through her deep and broad appeal to them. In Berthe’s workplace, “Mr Macfarlane had left a lewd poem on her desk, then a note of apology, then a poem even worse than the first.” Men, you will note, are not coming out of these stories terribly well. The third Carette story, ‘From Cloud to Cloud’, affirms this. Now Marie has married, become a parent, and her son Raymond, 18, is the centre of the story. He will be a let-down to his family. The way in which time skips on in these stories is notable. They were published individually, so there is a need to set the scene anew each time, but they also run consecutively in this book, like a novella about one family, and they reinforce one another. In ‘From Cloud to Cloud’, what could be a clunky nod to get the reader to know that the year is 1969, becomes dextrous in Gallant’s hands: “It was the summer of the moon walk. Raymond’s mother still mentions this, as though it had exerted a tidal influence on her affairs.” Echoing the opening story, here Raymond’s father has just died, and he is drifting, and may never be still. There are some moments in this story which show clearly why Gallant is so highly regarded. As Raymond grows, Marie and Berthe get used to not seeing him.

They had his voice over the telephone, calling from different American places (they thought of Vietnam as an American place) with a gradually altered accent. His French filled up with English, as with a deposit of pebbles and sand…

This is a beautifully compressed sequence, squeezing in so much about history and politics, the direction of the story, and the characters referred to, without seeming overstuffed. Later, a description of Marie shows Gallant’s dedication to le mot juste even in lighter passages. “She fainted easily; it was her understanding that the blood in her arms and legs congealed, leaving her brain unattended.” That unattended is just perfect. But amid the levity, again comes the stab, as Marie reflects on the disappointing Raymond, and “wonders about other mothers and sons, and whether children feel any of the pain they inflict.” Let’s consider that a rhetorical question. The final Carette story, ‘Florida’, shows Berthe inheriting her mother’s airs, as she goes out for dinner with a colleague: “She suggested the Ritz-Carlton – she had been there once before, and had a favourite table.” The men are still misbehaving, too: Berthe’s colleague over dinner tells her: ‘”I like the way you think,” he said. “If only you had been a man, Miss Carette, with your intellect, and your powers of synthesis, you might have gone…” and he pointed to the glass bowl of blueberry trifle on the dessert trolley, as if to say, “even farther.”‘

Mavis Gallant: Paris Stories

By now, reading these stories, I was entirely taken by the frivolous, serious, realistic Carettes, and the cumulative effect of their tales was not unlike the sequential stories about the Derdons in Maeve Brennan’s brilliant The Springs of Affection (though Brennan gets closer in among her characters’ emotions). I could have done with a whole book of them, so it was something of a wrench to be dropped among new characters. Typically, the other stories are also set among families, such as the long title story, where the narrator, Sylvie, and her mother are involved in trying to get Sylvie married. Her parents want her to marry Julien, the son of her father’s cousin Gaston: “My marrying Julien was a thought my parents and Cousin Gaston had enjoyed. In some way, we would have remained their children forever.” Sylvie prefers Arnaud, but her mother is not to be deflected: she “was a born coaxer and wheedler; avoided confrontation, preferred to move to a different terrain and beckon, smiling.” In other stories, where families do not feature strongly, there is nonetheless something like family, a question of belonging and possession. In ‘Forain’, the eponymous character is the literary executor for author Adam Tremski, a man who epitomises a sort of bohemian type, who “had shambled around Paris looking as though he slept under restaurant tables, on a bed of cigarette ashes and crumbs.” The retrospective portrait of Tremski is affecting, both for its vision of advancing age – the mourners at his funeral “had migrated to high-rise apartments in the outer suburbs, to deeper loneliness but cheaper rents” – and for a world where nobody ever really cared about books or the people who created them. “It was remarkable, Tremski had said, the way literate people, reasonably well travelled and educated, comfortably off, could live adequate lives without wanting to know what had gone before or happened elsewhere.”

Belonging is a theme too in the funniest story in Across the Bridge, ‘Kingdom Come’. It is nicely summed up in the opening paragraph:

After having spent twenty-four years in the Republic of Saltnatek, where he established the first modern university, recorded the vocabulary and structure of the Saltnatek tongue, and discovered in a remote village an allophylian language unknown except to its speakers, Dr. Dominic Missierna returned to Europe to find that nobody cared.

Missierna is another man, like Tremski, who feels under-appreciated by an ignorant world. “He still hoped that at least one conclusion might be named for him, so that his grandchildren, coming across his name in a textbook, could say, ‘So this is what he was like – modest, creative.'” Grandchildren requires children, and Missierna has them, but they too are unappreciative: like all children, everywhere. Anyway “he had been a featherweight on his children; he had scarcely gone near them.” Instead, “Saltnatek had been like a child, and he had stayed with it longer than any other, had seen it into maturity, and it had used and rejected him, as children do, as it is their right.”

My cheerful admiration for the stories detailed above – you must read Gallant, is the essence – didn’t apply to all of the book. This was an original collection of stories, so we might expect it to contain the odd runt, with a lower hit rate than a selected edition. In addition, it was the last new collection Gallant published, in her seventies, when you might be expected to have your best work behind you. In any event, it was some of the longer stories here that I struggled with. I thought occasionally of Alice Munro, whose impregnably praised stories more often than not make my eyes glaze over. Some of Gallant’s stories here – ‘The Fenton Child’ to name one – had a similar effect. It might be something to do with the density of detail Gallant brings – her stories are not quick hits but slow draws, pared novellas. Even when there is dialogue, the reader cannot skip lightly through it: constant attention must be paid. Characters come in thickets, and I would found myself halfway down a page, wondering how we got here. I am happy to accept that it is my error, but it is nonetheless a true response. Happily it applied to only a few of the stories here.

Gallant did not always assist readers who wanted to dive deeper into her methods of working and her intentions. In an interview in Granta in 2009, extracted here by Charles Boyle of CB Editions, Gallant repeatedly thwarted the well-intentioned questions by Jhumpa Lahiri: “I can’t tell you.” “I don’t know.” “If I knew that, I wouldn’t bother writing.” She was a little more effusive in her Paris Review Art of Fiction interview ten years earlier, at least on the scope of her career (Will there ever be a complete collected stories? “You wouldn’t be able to pick it up”), but maintained a resistance to literary-critical introspection. “I wish I could persuade you to believe me when I say that I don’t analyse my own work.” But her limited level of self-regard, boiled down, produced as sensible a manifesto as we could ask for in the end. “I want a story to be perfectly clear and I don’t want it to be boring. C’est tout.”

March 2, 2014

Agota Kristof: The Illiterate

Posted in Kristof Agota at 9:49 am by John Self

Here, as promised, is my review in the Independent on Sunday of Agota Kristof’s The Illiterate, a sort of companion to her masterpiece The Notebook. You can buy it here (and The Notebook here).

Agota Kristof: The Illiterate

February 28, 2014

Jill Dawson: The Tell-Tale Heart

Posted in Dawson Jill at 8:00 am by John Self

Jill Dawson is one of the most frequently-reviewed authors on this blog. Her books seem to me to epitomise the best of what might be called traditional literary fiction. There is always a strong story, and clear characters, but there is a sharpness and darkness to her work, and some element of novelty – not to say control of narrative voice – which sets it apart from the pack.

Jill Dawson: The Tell-Tale Heart

The Tell-Tale Heart has a concept which is summed up by one blurb like this: “a thought-provoking tale of a man who has a heart transplant and finds his feelings – and capacity for love – seem mysteriously to have changed.” This is an almost archetypal elevator pitch, and one which had me sucking air in over my teeth, like a disappointed mechanic. If the book hadn’t been by Dawson, I might have gone no further – but predictably, she has done unpredictable things with this high concept.

The story is told, to begin with, by Patrick, a 52-year-old university professor. He is a bracingly unsympathetic narrator – though his refusal to ingratiate himself with the reader is itself quite an appealing characteristic. He resents being made to feel bad: “I hate tears. Tears make you the villain and the unfeeling one, regardless of what you feel, simply because you can’t produce them yourself.” He is a womaniser, with two children to two women, and a recently ended affair with a student which has thrown his future of his career into doubt. Indeed, his future generally is not what it was and he has recently been given a heart transplant in a new type of surgery: ‘beating-heart’ surgery, where the transplant organ is kept alive during the operation. Typically enough, Patrick becomes interested in the donor of his heart, and typically enough (not much story without it), he finds out who this is when his post-transplant counsellor Maureen accidentally spills the beans (this is a work of fiction). And did I mention that incorrigible Patrick thinks Maureen has a thing for him? The story then switches between here and now, and … elsewhere, elsewhen.

Throughout Patrick’s story, the heart is centre stage, both his own heart – his own hearts, old and new (“I feel an ache in my chest, a pain so severe it’s like something thrashing in there”) – and the heart in history and culture. “Like Thomas Hardy; wasn’t he, horribly, buried without his heart? Some dim memory of a story about a biscuit tin. The dog eating the heart, which had been kept in a biscuit tin…” His daughter visits him in hospital – he’s never been much of a dad either – and, gripped by the expected lifefulness that would naturally follow near-death surgery, the emotional lability, he begins to think he is undergoing a personality change. “I have a curious, powerful certainty: my old self won’t have me.” He walks a fine line between unreformed and capable of change: when he gets a letter from the family of his donor, and his first response is to comment on the “cheap paper” and “old-fashioned writing,” it’s hard to tell whether he’s sneering or sympathetic.

As well as Patrick, we hear from Willie Beamiss, a young man involved in the Littleport riots of 1816 (“I was quite in the suds about Politics”); those involved were punished harshly as a warning to others (“Now launched into all eternity”). As well as having contemporary parallels with the increased sentences handed out to rioters in England in 2011, Beamiss’s story introduces the questions explored in the rest of The Tell-Tale Heart: where is the seat of emotion and thought? What divides them, brings them together, gives one power over the other? This takes us back to Patrick’s story, and that of a third narrator, as they both make us think about the heart as historically considered responsible for both lust and love, when these feelings are now attributed to organs that run in opposite directions from the heart. These, more or less, are what the two parts of the story are driven by: the things men do, and arrange to have done to them, to satisfy these wants or needs.

What it becomes is a book about sex and power, told in two ways. (Patrick self-justifyingly says that the two mothers of his children “shouldn’t have put up with me, given me that glimpse of power”). In this The Tell-Tale Heart seems to me to be a companion piece to Dawson’s 2006 novel Watch Me Disappear, with its clear-eyed look at childhood sexuality. Here, as there, the book is riddled with suggestion and refuses easy answers, though there is a hint of where Patrick’s disdain for women comes from. Like all Dawson’s books, it’s busy – it whispered things in my ear all the way through. It is wide-ranging but retains a strong hold on its story – which might explain why I find it so difficult to write about satisfactorily. Patrick, made increasingly reflective by recent events, recalls that his mother told him “There’s more to life than winning things, you know. Just be a good man, that’s all I ask.” “Oh Mam,” thinks Patrick, now. “Why did you set the bar so high?”

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