Month: August 2010

Damon Galgut: In a Strange Room

I was an admirer of Damon Galgut’s last novel The Impostor, and was disappointed when it wasn’t longlisted for the Booker Prize two years ago (particularly when you look at some of the books that were). So why didn’t I snap up his new book as soon as it was published? Why didn’t I read it, in fact, until it was longlisted for the Booker?

In a Strange Room first appeared as three stories published individually in the Paris Review; and that was the reason why I initially avoided it. Not really a novel at all, right? Added to that, the stories are autobiographical: “the project was to recall, as honestly and truthfully as I could, three journeys that I’ve taken at different points in my life.” So, not really fiction at all, right? Wrong, says Galgut: “memory is fiction.” (Here, I think of James Salter, and his novel Light Years, “a book of pure recall,” inspired by Jean Renoir’s assertion that the only important things in life are those we remember. Galgut agrees: “What you don’t remember never happened.”)

Galgut was right and I was wrong. In a Strange Room may not, in my view, stand up to The Impostor for complexity – it didn’t send me off into spirals of thought on every page – but it is nonetheless superb, an original and inspiring work of art. Even the simplicity is artful: the reader is undistracted, the experiences unmediated. Galgut achieves this with an unusual narrative technique (“I am a spectator of my own behaviour”): he exists on the page both as character (in third person) and narrator (in first), so we have sentences like, “Happy and unhappy, he falls asleep in the end, and dreams about, no, I don’t remember his dreams.” The first story is set in 1993, the last one just a few years ago, and the “I” appears more and more frequently as the book progresses: the memories are becoming clearer, the person described experiencing the events is closer to the person recalling them. It is a lovely technique, eloquent and economical.

I knew, anyway, that Galgut was a fine writer, and from the beginning of the narrative I felt myself to be in safe hands. In the first story – sorry, first part of the novel – ‘The Follower’, the character Damon finds himself in an unequal and undeclared power struggle with a German man he meets while travelling in Greece, who then comes to Damon’s home to explore South Africa. Travel is the ostensible theme of In a Strange Room, which takes its title from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying:

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were.

(I owe to Will Rycroft’s review of this book the knowledge that the next line of Faulkner’s, not quoted here, is, significantly for Damon, “I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not.”) The German, Reiner, is bold, proud, one moment intimate and the next standoffish: “He will not speak either, but in him silence is power. Unlike me, unlike me.” There appears to Damon to be a charge of eroticism between them. Reiner is travelling, however, to spend some time deciding whether or not to stay with a woman. Damon, “not a traveller by nature,” has more existential reasons. “He spends most of his time on the move in acute anxiety … Life becomes a series of tiny threatening details.”

As a result he is hardly ever happy in the place where he is, something in him is already moving forward to the next place, and yet he is also never going towards something but always away, away. This is a defect in his nature that travel has turned into a condition.

Damon both despises and envies Reiner for his self-involvement (he “has no interest in what is happening around him”) and the impression he gives of knowing love: “I am endlessly gnawed by the absence of love, to be loveless is to be without power.”

In the second story, ‘The Lover’, it seems that Damon will have reciprocation for his love of a fellow traveller, a young man named Jerome. For me this was the weakest section of the book, and most interesting not when it was describing the journeys they take together, but when Damon is reflecting on the permeable border between memory and portrayal, and the limits of his fiction:

Jerome, if I can’t make you live in words … it’s not because I don’t remember, no, the opposite is true, you are remembered in me as an endless stirring and turning. But it’s for this precisely that you must forgive me, because in every story of obsession there is only one character, only one plot. I am writing about myself alone, it’s all I know, and for this reason I have always failed in every love, which is to say at the very heart of my life.

The third part, ‘The Guardian’, shows Damon looking after an old friend Anna, who had “a future full of impressive possibilities” but labours under some form of depression or personality disorder which has her “losing the plot, living in fast motion, speeding along.” Damon struggles to cope with “this thing that’s taken up station inside her, driving along with so much fury and power.” The depiction of Anna is gripping, urgent and real as she heads for “her toxic, terminal rapture.”

I have surprised myself in writing this review by having nothing negative to say about In a Strange Room. At the time I felt lightly disappointed by it, largely because of its apparent straightforwardness, and the concern that with a tweak of expectations, some of Galgut’s observations might not seem out of place in a Paulo Coelho book (“There is a moment when any real journey begins. Sometimes it happens as you leave your house, sometimes it’s a long way from home”). Yet in writing about it, revisiting it, I have only praise. This is a wonderful book. It is an odd experience, to see how the processing of your responses can shift your thoughts – or what you thought were your thoughts.

Paul Auster: Invisible

Paul Auster’s Roth-like run of productivity continues. After producing just one short book between 1994 and 2002, since then he has published seven novels, with another one due in a few months’ time. The high points of this recent run were the first two – The Book of Illusions and Oracle Night – and results since then have been mixed. His UK publishers Faber are trying to sell his most recent novel as a blockbuster of sorts – just look at the cover below – with “page-turner” featuring in three of the quotes used. Well, Auster’s books are page-turners, but anyone raised on airport thrillers will not find much to please them here; and nor may seasoned Auster fans like me.

Invisible was a disappointment almost from start to finish. It is a four-part story telling of part of the life of Adam Walker, three of them by Adam within a framing device, and then a coda in another voice.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, as it means I have no desire to reveal spoilers – I wasn’t remotely interested in Adam’s story, which was the usual Auster stuff of chance encounters, mysterious strangers, sexual impulses and political engagement. Part of the reason for my lack of interest might have been the fact that I had been led to believe there was a surprising end to the story, so I was more interested in the framing device than in the ‘main’ story within it. Not Auster’s fault.

As it turns out, the ending wasn’t so much surprising as just unsatisfying, an odd coda somewhat resembling ‘The Man Who Liked Dickens’ in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust. Worse, the main body of the book was somewhat flabby, and waffly – Auster (or his narrator) saying everything several times, seemingly to enforce feelings that his cool prose never really evoked otherwise. It’s very hard to say what Adam’s story was about – thematically – because it just seemed to be about exactly what he tells us: revenge, shame, all the big ones. That said, Auster remains as efficient a storyteller as ever, and the pages almost blur beneath the hand – it took me just over a day to read its 310 pages, a breakneck speed for me these days.

Looking around for commentary on the book, I found James Wood’s review (and appraisal of Auster’s other books) from The New Yorker. I think Wood has the book nailed, but more worryingly, I found it hard to dissent from his comments on Auster’s work generally (the parody that opens the piece is painfully accurate). The weaknesses which Wood identifies, however, are not fatal. Auster has a kind of hypnotic effect in his prose – that storytelling magic – which enables or encourages the reader to bypass all kinds of implausibilities, the sort that look ridiculous when Wood isolates them. And because his books are page-turners, the reader tends to notice not so much specific phrases as overall effects.

Nonetheless I reread my earlier reviews of Auster’s recent books, and wondered, with a creeping sense of dread, if I would like the novels of his I’ve praised before if I read them now. Is this one of those moments where one begins to part company with a well-loved writer? Or is Invisible just a dud? I’m not sure I’ll dare, yet, to pick up his forthcoming Sunset Park to find out.

Emma Donoghue: Room

I first heard about this book on the Man Booker Prize forum, where some speculated that this – reportedly an expensive acquisition for its UK publishers Picador, and destined to be much-hyped – could be in with a shot of the prize. As I write, it’s been longlisted (though we’re told it was called in by the judges, not submitted by the publisher: so not quite so hyped then). The news is a triumph for Donoghue, an Irish-born writer living in Canada, who had cult success with a couple of early books in the UK (notably Hood and Slammerkin), but didn’t have the two novels which preceded Room published here – yet.

Room has an intriguing premise: it’s narrated by a five-year-old boy who lives in a room twelve feet square and doesn’t know the outside world exists. This immediately set my reading glands salivating: I imagined an allegorical, philosophical novel, a European-style confection that provided an analysis of all our lives by an extrapolation to the extreme, something like Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. So my disappointment with Room is partly unreasonable, denouncing it for not being a different book entirely.

Donoghue’s book, contrary to my expectations, is grounded in reality: not only a recognisable time and place (the USA, around now, with cultural references aplenty, from Lady Gaga to Facebook), but with clear inspiration from news stories in recent years of long abductions, in particular the Fritzl case. The boy, Jack, lives with his ‘Ma’ in the room, and he was born there: in other words, Jack is the product of Ma’s rape by her abductor, known to mother and son as ‘Old Nick’. That is not a spoiler, though there are developments in the book that I don’t want to reveal, so I’ll be pretty vague from here on. Nonetheless it’s clear that Room aims at the heart rather than the head, and for many people the emotional heft of the story will be enough to recommend it.

A child’s narrative is always tricky to pull off. Jack’s is readable but a bit too cute (“Ma leans out of Bed to switch on Lamp, he makes everything light up whoosh”), and as usual with such stories, the author’s great task is to give the reader enough information to read between the lines without having the narrator go into an unnatural amount of detail. This is handled pretty well, but like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – another tale of parent and child in extremis – there’s a sort of sentimentality which is all the more overbearing for being notionally concealed by the naive voice. The reader has to find the emotional tug between the lines, but because it’s there on every page, it’s impossible not to, and the reader feels falsely flattered as a result.

Room certainly has strengths. It is a quick read, and at times gripping and urgent (particularly in part three, which comes immediately before a significant plot development), though this has the unfortunate effect of making the parts before and after seem dull and overstretched at times. And the strong conceit of the book enables the reader to consider some interesting contrasts and paradoxes: how absolute innocence can coexist with absolute – for want of a better word – wickedness; how the ordeal led Ma to give birth to Jack, who is the one thing that now helps her through it. There are moments of conflict that stand out, such as when Jack objects to his birthday cake (he has just turned five when the book begins):

Then it’s time for the candles but there aren’t any.

‘You’re shouting again,’ says Ma, covering her ears.

‘But you said a birthday cake, it’s not a birthday cake if there’s no five candles on fire.’

She puffs her breath. ‘I should have explained better. That’s what the five chocolates say, they say you’re five.’

‘I don’t want this cake.’ I hate it when Ma waits all quiet. ‘Stinky cake.’

‘Calm down, Jack.’

‘You should have asked for candles for Sundaytreat.’

‘Well, last week we needed painkillers.’

‘I didn’t need any, just you,’ I shout.

However I have to admit that the most common feeling I experienced when reading Room was boredom. While it is essential for Donoghue to relate Jack’s experiences in sufficient detail to give the narrative authenticity (so it looks as though it’s coming from him in real time, and not being told to explain things to the reader), it turns out that a little of this actually goes quite a long way. And although I relished the opportunity to make my own interpretation of Ma’s trauma through Jack’s limited insight, this underplaying means that there are not many points in the book where the reader feels that real peril is at hand. It dwindles almost to nothing in the second half. In the end, although Room manages not to be ghoulish or exploitative about the real cases which were (according to the acknowledgements) its inspiration, it also fails to capitalise on the wonderful fictional opportunities that such a set-up promises.

Tom McCarthy: C

Tom McCarthy’s debut novel Remainder has achieved the status of a minor classic since its first publication just five years ago. Zadie Smith commended it at length in her essay ‘Two Paths for the Novel’ (“one of the great English novels of the past ten years”). I read Remainder with mixed feelings, but the ending was so strong and sticky that it has grown in my estimation since, so that I would now nod dumbly in agreement at all the praise heaped on it. (Though also because my reading since then has gravitated toward similar stuff.) I missed his second, Men in Space, but pre-publication praise for his new novel had me giddy with anticipation.

C is described by its US cover designer as “an extremely complex narrative … the negation of everything conventional one might mistake it to be.” Yet if this is a modernist text in disguise (which it isn’t, quite), it is a very good disguise. It is perfectly possible – and I expect will be a common experience – to read it as a rich, detailed, sometimes frustrating report of a life in the early 20th century. It has everything that might appeal to certain literary prize juries [and so it has proved since I wrote this, with the book being longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010]: it’s stuffed with cannily-drawn characters, historical verisimilitude, and normally big subjects like war and death. Is that enough?

The life story is that of Serge Carrefax – a satisfying crackle of a name which immediately me think, I am in good hands here – who was born near the turn of the 20th century to a father obsessed with communication. Simeon Carrefax (“speech is divine”) runs a complex network of interests (and is modelled on Alexander Graham Bell’s father) – a school for the deaf, a silk production plant, and an attempt to create radio communication by electrical means: “a web around the world … to send signals down.” In the grounds of Versoie, the Carrefax home, all is bathed in a “mechanical buzzing,” the “hum and rush” of static, “like the sound of thinking,” as Simeon plots his advances. “I’m working on a patent way for using radio to sense the weather in advance. The waves travel through it, after all.” He proposes the free flow of information, and dislikes the codes and encrypted messages his children Serge and Sophie use to keep secrets from others. “Goes against the whole principle of communication.”

Communication comes in many forms, from within as well as without, and Sophie Carrefax, Serge’s sister, receives signals that no-one else does. She can “see things. What’s coming. … It’s all connected. I feel it inside me.” Meanwhile, Serge takes to amateur radio, listening with fascination to the sounds coming through the sky to reach his speaker. Once, he hears helplessly as a ship in the Atlantic gives a distress signal. He loses the signal, but

listened to the whine and crackle … right through till morning – and heard, or thought he heard, among its breaks and flecks, the sound of people treading cold, black water, their hands beating small disturbances into the waves that had come to bury them.

Elements like this elegant prose, or the set piece showing two types of birth which opens the book, seem to represent McCarthy flexing his muscle to show what he can do if he wishes – because the book does not follow these traditional literary indicators. C has plenty of pieces to satisfy and is brimming with cleverness, but there is an affectless and static quality to the rush of activity which persists almost to the end. This foxing of the reader’s expectations is deliberate on McCarthy’s part: he is engaged in the business of, on the one hand, providing a story as full of life and rich in detail and variety as one could wish (“a dummy chamber,” to adopt one of the multiplicity of symbols in C); and, on the other hand, of never letting the reader forget that they are reading a book, experiencing a work of art. He wants the reader to be immersed and to stand back at the same time, interpreting the signal but also part of it.

This is partly achieved by the relentless dash of cross-references and correspondences which litters the text. Serge’s name is pronounded surge by his electrically-obsessed father, but serge by his mother (like the fabric, contrasting with the fine silks made at the family home). He is born with a caul, a traditional symbol of luck, and in literary terms shared by David Copperfield – and while Serge is being born, his father is taking delivery of coils of copper wire with which to improve his experiments with electrical fields (copper fields). At times, communication seems to rule everything in Serge’s world (as it does in our world): when he is in a train, it “comes to a stop. It’s not a station: they’re just waiting for a signal to change, or a point to switch, or an instruction to be shouted from the track-side in a foreign language.”

These notes to the reader remind us that this is a novel, artificial like the web of noise and information Carrefax was born into and celebrates. It reminds us too that the novel itself is one of the most complex forms of communication: every copy is identical, but every reading is different. It is a sort of perfect unbreakable code, where the key is the recipient.

Serge’s journey continues: to a health spa where his constipation and the gauze-like haze which blurs his vision will be treated; to the Great War, where he breaks the trend of literary habit by finding the experience not traumatic but enlivening, and later considers what is called shell-shock to be an echo of something “deeper, older, more embedded”. At war he sees communication via art, though a war artist complains about the impossibility of capturing the action (“The stuff won’t stay still to be painted!”). “Maybe that’s the art,” Serge observes. “I mean all the action, all the mess…” He takes time out – McCarthy speaking? – to knock non-modernist art such as Housman’s poetry, instead recommending to his fellow fighter pilots the work of Hölderlin. (“This is a German book!” “He was a German poet. … You should read it. Learn some phrases: help you if you get shot down behind enemy lines and they don’t understand what Shropshire hedgerows are…”) After the war, Serge returns to Versoie.

The restlessness, he comes to realise, is in truth an attempt to achieve its opposite: stasis. It’s as though if he moves about enough, the world will fall into place around him.

But once things start moving – and once technology begins to interrupt our lives – there is no going back. Serge feels like “a fixed point in a world of motion”, and the hiss of static and interference surrounding him grows as electrical communication continues to develop. Serge rushes on, to drug-crazed 1920s London, and then to Egypt, where people are continuing the work of hundreds of years, in trying to interpret the lives of the ancients, while forging their own technologies of the future.

C is for communication, complexity, and cleverness; for cocaine, correspondences and carbon (“the basic element of life”); for many more things besides (most of the central devices in the book begin with the letter). It teems with relevance and reference (I was forever scribbling in the margins of my copy, and I don’t pretend to have unpacked more than a fraction of its significance). Like Remainder, it resists easy interpretation but sticks around afterwards, challenging you to pick apart signal from noise. It celebrates flatness and depicts a time which foresees our suffocating web of worldwide information. But in the middle of it, inside all the cleverness, is a sad sketch of a man “transfixed by the technologies that will obliterate him.” His fate is to be outlived by the remnants of signals he listens to crossing the skies, as they echo and decline indefinitely while he – like everyone who reads this book, like the book itself – “breaks down into grains and runs away.”