Month: February 2011

Nicholas Royle: Quilt

When I first saw this book, I thought, “Nicholas Royle: I’ve heard of him.” Turns out I was thinking of another Nicholas Royle, author of several novels and other works. Clearly there is no writers’ equivalent of the Equity rule which means that no two actors may share the same professional name. This means that (a) the book reviewed here is by Nicholas Royle, Professor of English at the University of Sussex, author of many academic and literary works but now a debut novelist, and (b) I am currently working on a novel of my own to be published under the name Stephenie Meyer.

Quilt is one of those books I long for but come across rarely (and, truth be told, don’t always read when I do come across them). It is strange, surprising, sui generis. Royle, in a manner as much playful as professorial, includes an afterword to his own novel, where he denounces the current literary culture.

A novel can be as ‘original’, ‘brilliant’, and whatever other admiring adjectives you fancy, it can win a ‘fiction prize’, be talked about on TV, become a movie, so long as it doesn’t interfere with the running of the programme, so long as it can be satisfactorily filtered and neutralised, so long as it passes through without making any trouble in and with language.

Music to my ears. Yet too often my own running order interferes with such books; I stumble over them in my haste to get to the next volume awaiting my attention. The danger with books which really give us something unfamiliar is that we will mistake the lack of familiarity for fundamental flaws in the structure or writing. The converse of this, however, is to give too much credit where a book does break the banks of traditional literary fiction, and miss the flaws altogether.

Quilt runs a pretty neat line between seducing the reader and slapping them across the face. The initial subject matter is bereavement – the narrator’s father is dying (“I am in his grip, he mine, here and from now on”) – which although ostensibly offputting, is of course catnip to novelists. All that emotion, the feelings, the reality! Royle doesn’t play it like that. He leaves us to bring our own emotion to the subject, and sets about dismantling his reader’s expectations.

‘Making trouble in and with language’ is how he goes about it. He explores the limitations of language and literature – exhibiting them even while displaying how they can be extended. When the narrator is taking his father to hospital for the last time, he finds that

I’m blinded: the tears are pouring out of my face. Why merely this word, tears or teardrops, but no others, like Eskimo snow lexemes? Why not a new language invented every time? What’s pouring out of my face has never happened before.

This discussion of the inability of language – and by extension literature – to express the elements of every life makes explicit the book’s modernist leanings. (When the narrator speaks of “the sudden and absolute obliteration of authority,” he is referring to the death of one’s parents, but also of the conditions driving modernist thought.) The reason why, as the narrator asks, we don’t invent a new language every time is because nobody would understand us. His response to that is to ask who really understands us anyway. There is much playing and layering of language – quilting? – as the narrator searches for the best way to express himself, or his thoughts, or the gap between his thoughts and himself. His mind puns and spins like a flywheel to divert itself from thinking about the reality of his father’s death.

Quilt is not without traditional novelistic niceties: there are lovely moments of characterisation such as when the narrator recalls that his father “never likes to be in a car unless he’s driving.” But it opens with a sneaky paradox – the narrator telling us about something he couldn’t know – and the early pages, with their wrenching account of parental decline, give way to the “meddling” Royle demands of fiction in his afterword. A discussion on rays – the flatfish – comes to dominate narrative and narrator alike, striking into the text more and more frequently until it merges entirely, culminating in a twenty-page list of words containing the letters in ‘ray’, and a strong ending which manages to both satisfy and frustrate the desire for narrative closure.

In his afterword, Royle says that “a novel wants to be a joy forever, or, let’s say, a joy-fever, a fever that resists treatment, that stays with you awhile and can come back, at once chronic and fitful.” It is the perfect description for Quilt, with its overturning qualities, its ability to stick in the head while resisting resolution, and its determination not to leave the reader feeling that the end of the text is the end of the reading experience. What my reading life needs – what the literary world needs – is more Quilts and fewer comfort blankets.

Saul Bellow: Him With His Foot in His Mouth

My main gripe with Saul Bellow, even while recognising his greatness, is that there’s so damn much of him. It’s facile but unavoidable. With a hungry blog to feed and a couple of other minor draws on my time (oh yes: family and work), I’ve never been able to clear the couple of months that frankly I would need to really ingest the 496 pages of Humboldt’s Gift. All hail, then, Penguin Mini Modern Classics, the latest series of single-shot fiction miniatures from Penguin. (Decrepit readers will remember the Penguin 60s and Pocket Penguins from 1995 and 2005, and indeed the Great Loves. This new set celebrates half a century of Penguin Modern Classics.)

‘Him With His Foot in His Mouth’ is the title story from Bellow’s 1984 collection. It appears here in a standalone volume – the story is the whole book – which is by far the most satisfying way of doing it. (Many of the fifty titles in the Mini Modern Classics collect two or more stories together, which seems to me somehow to be cheating.) Needless to say, there is enough in its slim extent to fill the reader up as a whole novel by another author might.

Bellow’s style is there from the title: the carefully casual repetition, the self-regard, the demotic idiom. The story takes the form of a letter to “Miss Rose” from Shawmut, a sort-of retired professor, where he apologises for an off-the-cuff jibe he made to her some thirty-five years ago. Partly this is because he has been reminded of his crime by an old friend, partly because he fears that “there is a life to come – wait and see – and that in the life to come we will feel the pains that we inflicted on others.” I said ‘sort-of retired’ because although Shawmut is of a certain age, he is in no position to rest up:

The death of my brother leaves me in a deep legal-financial hole. I won’t molest you with the facts of the case, garbled in the newspapers. Enough to say that his felonies and my own faults or vices have wiped me out. On bad legal advice I took refuge in Canada, and the courts will be rough because I tried to escape. I may not be sent to prison, but I will have to work for the rest of my life, will die in harness, and damn queer harness, hauling my load to a peculiar peak.

Shawmut comes not just to make amends to Miss Rose for his “stupid wisecrack” (adding, “Allow me to presume that you are old-fashioned enough not to be furious at having led a useful life”), but to wallow in his own downfall – to say, look, I got my just deserts! Really, the letter is his document to himself, a self-critique, which is emphasised early on when we discover that what we are reading is not the final form, but a draft (“I will say it all and then revise, send Miss Rose only the suitable parts“). This being Bellow, ‘I will say it all’ seems like a challenge to himself that he can’t resist.

Shawmut has been warned to make amends by his old friend Eddie Walish, who was with him on the dangerous day. Bellow reminds us how he can do a novelist’s turn – how he could, if he wanted, be just a really good novelist – with just-so imagery (“absorbent-cotton bread”) and descriptions of characters so tight that they snap:

Our Ed, who suffered from curvature of the spine, would not carry a stick, much less wear a built-up shoe. He behaved with sporting nonchalance and defied the orthopedists when they warned that his spinal column would collapse like a stack of dominoes. His style was to be free and limber. You had to take him as he came, no concessions offered. I admired him for that.

(Eddie Walish sounds a little like Augie March introducing himself.) Shawmut laments Walish’s attack on him, the demand that provoked this letter of apology. “All the while that he was making the gestures of a close and precious friend, he was fattening my soul in a coop till it was ready for killing.” So beleaguered does Shawmut appear in his account – swindled by lawyers and family members, betrayed by his oldest pal – that it soon becomes clear that he wants to make Miss Rose feel sorry for him, to become the victim and leach her pity even as he purports to apologise. The simplest reason to apologise – feeling guilt – doesn’t come high on his list.

He is topsy-turvy, but what isn’t? “The world’s grandeur is fading.” He feels himself to be “not in the right state, the state of vision I was meant or destined to be in. … Until this ends there can only be errors.” He connects this to his financial troubles, the swindlings he has been on the wrong end of, and his disorientation in America, the money capital of the world. Shawmut, reversing his creator’s steps, leaves Chicago and goes to Canada. “It’s no easy thing to share a border with the USA. Canada’s chief entertainment – it has no choice – is to watch (from a gorgeous setting) what happens in our country.” A short journey, but on the way Bellow seems to cover – and uncover – a multitude, the whole man, and more besides; to take us around the world in eighty pages.

Charles Portis: True Grit

I was given this book by a friend last year who thought I’d like it (spoiler: he was right), but I didn’t get around to reading it until the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation started raising its head in all the right places.

True Grit (1968) until recently was most famous as a John Wayne film. Now it’s most famous as a Coen Brothers film. Where’s the justice for a fine book with a life of its own? Multimedia exposure means the story is in danger of becoming so well known that readers might feel they don’t need to bother with the book at all. It’s easy to summarise: Mattie Ross, fourteen-year-old, decides to avenge the death of her father by catching his murderer.

Mattie narrates the book too, from her old age looking back, but without any distancing of her precocious childhood voice. “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.” ‘Then’ was the 1870s, shortly after the Civil War. Times have changed between the story happening and the telling of it, though perhaps not that much: Mattie rebukes a bus conductor for calling black passengers “niggers”, then refers to them herself as “darkies”. The story takes Mattie and the reader from Arkansas to ‘Indian Territory’: we are in prime western land. Yet if this is a western, it’s one where men are men but girls are more.

Mattie seeks her revenge on her father’s murderer, Tom Chaney, in a roundabout way. First she and her friend Yarnell go to the city police station (“we found two officers but they were having a fist fight and were not available for inquiries”), then to see a public hanging.

I have since learned that Judge Isaac Parker watched all his hangings from an upper window in the Courthouse. I suppose he did this from a sense of duty. There is no knowing what is in a man’s heart.

At the gallows, “the man covered [the convict’s] head with a hood and went to his lever. Yarnell put a hand over my face but I pushed it aside. I would see it all.” And see it all she does, dragging the reader willingly along, as she strikes a hard bargain with an auctioneer over her father’s chattels, and persuades Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her find Tom Chaney. (“I said, ‘I would like to talk with you a minute.’ He looked me over. ‘What is it?’ he said. I said, ‘They tell me you are a man with true grit.'”)

From the start it is clear to see that the appeal of True Grit for filmmakers has been Portis’s dialogue. It is funny, sparky, surprising: pure Coen brothers. He has the rare knack of being able to progress the story through exchanges, and build up his characters at the same time. Rooster Cogburn operates on the fringes of the law, which is fine by Mattie, and she has no time for Sergeant LaBoeuf, who comes appointed by her mother to find Chaney, but has failed to manage it so far.

I said, “Why did you not catch him in Monroe, Louisiana, or Pine Bluff, Arkansas?”

“He is a crafty one.”

“I thought him slow-witted myself.”

“That was his act.”

“It was a good one. […] Well, if in four months I could not find Tom Chaney with a mark on his face like banished Cain I would not undertake to advise others how to do it.”

“A saucy manner does not go down well with me.”

“I will not be bullied.”

He stood up and said, “Earlier tonight I gave some thought to stealing a kiss from you, though you are very young, and sick and unattractive to boot, but now I am of a mind to give you five or six good licks with my belt.”

“One would be as unpleasant as the other,” I replied.

After a time, the reader can begin to feel some sympathy with LaBoeuf. Mattie’s sass and determination starts to look awfully like insolent stubbornness (well, she is a teenager). In some ways the story is an account of how this shrewd, proud young girl bests one grown man after another. “There are times when you are an almighty trial to those who love you,” observes her beloved Lawyer Daggett back home.

Despite the spark and zing of the dialogue, there are times when True Grit, at just 215 pages, nonetheless feels too long, particularly in the second half when a couple of characters begin to reminisce about their past exploits for what seems like dozens of pages. Nonetheless, it comes good in the end, where we even get a coda which may soften Mattie in our eyes somewhat. “Time just gets away from us,” she observes from her old age, and the reader driven through the book at an indecent rate by its narrative energy may know what she means.

David Vann: Caribou Island

David Vann’s previous book, Legend of a Suicide, was one of the most interesting debuts of 2009. I read it and enjoyed it – particularly the extraordinary central novella ‘Sukkwan Island’ – but that was during a hiatus in blogging for me, so I didn’t review it. I vowed not to make the same mistake with this, Vann’s debut novel.

Caribou Island should be familiar to readers of Legend of a Suicide for a number of reasons. It has the same setting: the unforgiving and isolated terrain of Alaska and its islands. But on closer inspection, it has not only the same character types (men are men, and so on), but the same characters: Rhoda and Jim, one part of the extended family at the centre of the book, are surely the parents of the narrator Roy in Legend of a Suicide. This link, however, should not deter new readers: I didn’t even notice it myself until the connection was raised by someone else who had read the book.

To those wishing to cut to the chase of this novel, the executive summary is: Richard Yates in Alaska. The dominant qualities which are both fairly and unfairly assigned to Yates are present here: depictions of human weakness and domestic blitz, a delightfully sour willingness to take the reader to the very end of their rope, and a brutally honest examination of a man’s worst qualities. I say ‘a man’ because Vann (unlike Yates) does seem to write better about men, and in Caribou Island his rendering of male dissatisfaction with marriage, with domesticity, with commitment, is breathtakingly bleak. “The gradual denial of all one desired, the early death of self and possibility,” as one puts it.

At the centre of the book are Gary and Irene. “Gary was a champion at regret […] unable to work his way out of the sense that his life could have been something else, and Irene knew she was part of his great regret.” Gary and Irene have, after thirty years of marriage, come to Caribou Island in Alaska’s Skilak Lake to build a log cabin and live there doing … well, they’re not precisely sure what, but feel that they’ll know once it’s done. People trapped together (the island is scarcely habitable) is the classic engine of drama and comedy, though there’s not much comedy here. Gary is a botcher, and is no more likely to get the cabin right than to get his marriage right. He may be the root cause of Irene’s brain-splitting headache, which comes on neatly symbolic at the start of the book – surely more serious than the sinusitis she suspects – and sets the reader to yelling at the characters, “Get her to a hospital!”

Man hands on misery to man (the epigraph to Caribou Island should really be ‘This Be the Verse’), and Gary and Irene’s children are no more content than their parents (nor were Irene’s parents themselves). Their son Mark has cut his family ties, which may be a convenient way for Vann to avoid having to draw him in much detail: a shame, as his antisocial character makes him potentially one of the most interesting people in the book. His sister Rhoda is engaged to dentist Jim, who has his own commitment issues, as he embarks on an affair with the comely Monique. His arrested mentality is neatly expressed:

Here was the woman he wanted to make babies with. He couldn’t imagine her changing diapers or even being pregnant, but he could see his tall, strong, beautiful children in a portrait some day, all devoid of any type of insecurity or struggle.

All in all, with Mark, Gary and Jim representing the male, one can only sympathise with Rhoda when she asks, apropos of the cabin-building, fish-catching tasks they set themselves: “Why can’t they just be men? Why do they have to become men?”

Caribou Island is a well-rendered story, though not without weak points. A couple of characters disappear without their stories feeling complete. And Vann seems not always to trust the reader’s own ability to make connections. “Maybe you can nail each layer down to the next, Irene said,” while advising Gary on the log cabin. “With longer nails. That might bring them closer together. And she was thinking this was a kind of metaphor, that if they could take all their previous selves and nail them together…” Moments like this reminded me of this Kate Beaton cartoon. And while Irene’s headache and ‘sinus’ pain is apparently unendurable and unending, it does go unmentioned for pages at a time when Vann has some narrative drive to get through that requires her to talk to Gary about their marriage.

Balanced against this is a superb sense of constant tension or threat – landing on glaciers, the root of Irene’s pain – where the reader is forever on tenterhooks, both dreading and hoping for the worst. There are nice angles on old subjects: “Rhoda […] wondered how much of Jim she was marrying. What percentage. Ten percent of his attention, some larger percentage of his affection, ninety percent of his daily needs and errands, some percentage of his body, a small percentage of his history.” Overall, the book builds on the promise of Legend of a Suicide and marks Vann out as a writer to keep reading, for stimulation if not for cheering.