Rachel B. Glaser: Paulina & Fran

I passed over Paulina & Fran when I saw it in Granta’s catalogue last year, but a flurry of praise on Twitter made me reconsider. I’m glad I did.

Rachel B. Glaser: Paulina & Fran

Paulina & Fran is a sharp and arch tale of two friends – though frenemies might be more apt. Paulina Hermanowitz is a cool, formidable arts student in New England, though her reputation may exceed her and exist mainly in her own mind. “Paulina expected cheers when she walked in. ‘I have arrived,’ she said loudly. ‘Straight from my bed.'” In her bed she left behind her lover Julian – reader, keep an eye on him; he’ll be crucial in the plot. Paulina is vaguely dissatisfied with Julian. “She knew that curly hair was the hair of creative geniuses. It was a mark of originality in a woman, though she found it frivolous in a man.” Keep an eye on the curly hair too – it’s increasingly symbolic as the story proceeds.

How do others see Paulina? She is, Julian puts it frankly, “a benevolent monster who fucks well.” “A sociopath,” says someone else. On a student trip to Norway, Paulina meets Fran Hixon, and the two hit it off, even if Fran understands that friendship with Paulina tends to be intense and exclusive. “She couldn’t visibly socialise with others on the trip.” Also, “being with Paulina was like being under Soviet rule […] but it was worth it.” For Paulina’s part, Fran’s attention means she no longer needs her old friends, Sadie (who “loved pictures of cats and dogs but not the creatures themselves”) and Allison.

The book proceeds by way of social situations, from parties where “everyone was inside the same big mood” to brittle one-to-ones between the recurring trio of Paulina, Fran and Julian. Everyone is self-centred in the most obvious way, never thinking about anything directly outside their own lives, and feelings are only expressed in order to further selfish ends. “Sincerity felt queer.” Glaser, in other words, has no desire to make her characters likeable, and this is what gives Paulina & Fran its astringency and edge. It also observes acutely its characters’ worst flaws, which chime so strongly only because they seem recognisable to us. “Paulina didn’t just want their approval; she wanted them to be jealous.” Sometimes the most enjoyable passages of bad character are enjoyable because of, not despite, the cartoonish awfulness of the sentiments, as when Paulina attends the funeral of an acquaintance, Eileen:

If Paulina had to die one day, as every woman had before her, she liked to think her funeral would outdo this one in elegance and expense. There would be swans, and celebrities, and a river of tears. The gods would hover. Horns would sound. Just a glimpse of this eventual funeral left Paulina feeling ill. No event, no matter how impressive, could diminish the loss of Paulina’s existence. Tears filled Paulina’s eyes and she dedicated them to Eileen. Poor Eileen. If anyone wrote her biography, it would be very short.

This is a book of stormy circumstances, where the characters have more ups and downs than the stock exchange. It is a book also of the intensity of friendship and emotion in young adulthood, and of the difficulty of changing our lives. When Fran, late in the book, finds herself back in an old, familiar situation, she “felt relief. She’d found a loose thread to her own past and could follow it back to herself.” Furthermore, for a few hysterical moments it seems to mean to her that “the future was going to be easy! She didn’t need to meet a new person! She didn’t need to change!”

The downside of Glaser’s desire to create whiplash-inducing hairpin bends is that she indulges a weakness for swapping viewpoint between characters mid-scene, which has a destabilising effect on the narrative. But she holds her nerve for an admirably wintry ending, which means that after the dazzling sunniness of the opening scenes, this short novel can deliver four seasons in one day.

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2015

Another year of diminishing blog activity. Please don’t plot it on a graph year by year, or I will have to rename this site Asymptote. As with last year, I’ve included a few titles that I really liked but haven’t reviewed. In a third tradition, titles are listed alphabetically by author. If these books have anything in common, it is probably strangeness and strength of voice.

EDIT: I somehow forgot to include Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker, which is odd as it’s not just one of the best books I read this year, but one of the best books I’ve ever read. I keep meaning to write about it here, but this might have to do.

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Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond
Seductive, sinister stories told by a woman whose inner and outer life are often hard to tell apart, not least for her.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women
A wondrous discovery, like finding a new Jean Rhys or Raymond Carver with an intimate, funny tone that makes this a rare collection of stories that just gets better and better as you race through them.

Jeremy Chambers: The Vintage and the Gleaning
A strong debut novel that takes the slightly worn world of Australian men’s-men and makes it vital and surprising. I learn from his Twitter account that the author is living with CFS/ME; I truly hope he is well enough soon to write more.

Gavin Corbett: Green Glowing Skull
In a year of strange books, this is the most cracked of the lot. Funny and energetic and bold as hell, and almost impossible to describe without making it sound like the worst book in the world.

Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments
A funny, fizzy memoir of a parent (see also Adam Mars-Jones’s Kid Gloves), which reminds us that if it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.

Han Kang: The Vegetarian (tr. Deborah Smith)
The first book I read this year and one of the most memorable. Resistance, disappearance and manipulation in three linked stories. Can Han’s forthcoming Human Acts really live up to it as everyone says?

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant
This book ruined weeks of my reading year, by making everything I read immediately afterwards seem thin and stupid. Ish is back on form after the (to me) slightly disappointing Never Let Me Go and Nocturnes.

Miranda July: The First Bad Man
A complete revelation and one of the most moving and disturbing novels I read all year. Definitely not quirky.

Marie NDiaye: Three Strong Women (tr. John Fletcher)
A trio of novellas that combine stories of women’s relationships with their families and sinuous sentences that I read and reread with delight.

Dorthe Nors: Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (tr. Martin Aitken/Misha Hoekstra)
A collection of funny and brutal stories, and a novella written in headlines, which is much better than it sounds.

Paul Theroux: The Mosquito Coast
I’d never read Theroux before. Who knew he was this good? The Mosquito Coast has one of the great monstrous father figures in modern fiction; the story rattles along at a clip and flashes brightly.

Hugo Wilcken: The Reflection
I read this exceptional experimental thriller three times this year and, if other books weren’t forever making demands, would happily go back right now for a fourth.

Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments

From one child’s memoir of a parent to another. This one is from Daunt Books, which in five years has established itself as one of the most reliable and interesting publishers in the UK, particularly for its reissues. “The P&L” for the publishing business, says James Daunt frankly, “is shocking”, but perhaps that’s the secret of its success: supported by the Daunt bookshops, the books don’t need to be commercial hits, so the editors can follow their tastes. Here we have the first UK edition of a book published in the US in 1987.

Vivian Gornick: Fierce Attachments

Fierce Attachments is a bright blaze of a book. Like Adam Mars-Jones’s Kid Gloves, it’s ultimately as much about the author as the parent, but Gornick’s style is blunter, jazzier. In its zippy to-and-fros between mother and daughter, it meets expectations for a certain kind of American writing. Take this exchange where Gornick’s mother is talking about her friend Bella, whose son never invites her to his home:

‘Ma, how that son managed to survive having Bella for a mother, much less made it through medical school, is something for Ripley, and you know it.’

‘She’s his mother.’

‘Oh, God.’

‘Don’t “oh, God” me. That’s right. She’s his mother. Plain and simple. She went without so that he could have.’

‘Have what? Her madness? Her anxiety?’

‘Have life. Plain and simple. She gave him his life.’

‘That was all a long time ago, Ma. He can’t remember that far back.’

‘It’s uncivilised he shouldn’t remember!’

‘Be that as it may. It cannot make him want to ask her to sit down with his friends on a lovely Saturday afternoon in early spring.’

At the time of writing the book, Gornick is 47 and her mother 80. Their relationship, she says, is “not good. We are locked into a narrow channel of acquaintance, intense and binding.” Too bad for her: but it does present the reader with plenty of zing. Indeed, the book and the writing is so lively and entertaining that it’s easy to overlook its sadness. When looking back to her childhood, Gornick recalls her mother as director of her own space – the home, a tenement flat in the Bronx. “Her running commentary on the life outside the window was my first taste of the fruits of intelligence: she knew how to convert gossip into knowledge. […] This skill of hers warmed and excited me. Life seemed fuller, richer, when she was making sense of the human activity in the alley.” But her mother doesn’t value her own skills.

She felt contempt for her environment. ‘Women, yech!’ she’d say. ‘Clotheslines and gossip,’ she’d say. She knew there was another world – the world – and sometimes she thought she wanted that world. Bad. She’d stop dead in the middle of a task, staring for long minutes at a time at the sink, the floor, the stove. But where? how? what?

Her problem is that she considers herself “developed” – “a person of higher thought and feeling” – and no good ever came of that. But she certainly lives at a higher level of intensity than others in Gornick’s life, particularly when she is widowed. Then, Gornick writes, not unreasonably “it was Mama who occupied the dramatic centre of the event while the rest of us shuffled about in the background.” Otherwise memorable incidents at her father’s funeral “pall in memory beside the brilliant relentlessness of Mama’s derangement.” Here is writing that matches its subject for life and scale. Gornick’s mother even finds that “in refusing to recover from my father’s death she had discovered that her life was endowed with a seriousness her years in the kitchen had denied her.”

It’s not all about Gornick’s mother – the title is in the plural – and we also get plenty of detail on friends of the family (particularly Nettie: “she’s slept with my father, I thought, and an immense excitement swept my body”) and Gornick’s various lovers. But it all returns to Mama in the end. When Gornick, in her youth, attends City College, she feels herself to be entering that world her mother wanted to: “most of us at City College … had begun to live in a world inside our heads where we read talked thought in a way that separated us from our parents, the life of the house and that of the street.” Gornick, not comprehending the fierce attachment that parents have to their children, doesn’t understand why her mother can’t approve vicariously. “I was the advance guard. I was going to take her into the new world. All she had to do was adore what I was becoming, and here she was refusing.” It’s tragedy in a minor key.

The main problem with Fierce Attachments is that it’s so readable – devourable – that it probably needs a more considered second run to take it fully in. And the other difference between this book and Kid Gloves is that Gornick’s mother was still alive when it was published. This could mean that Gornick needed to take more care in how her mother was presented than Adam Mars-Jones did of his father – but on the other hand, the parent who can’t answer back may deserve greater protection. In an interview about Fierce Attachments in 2010, Gornick spoke of a writer friend who said, “I write as though everyone is dead.” As for Gornick’s mother, the subject of this blast of a memoir, in the same interview we hear about what happened after publication – and it reads, inevitably, like something from the book itself. But guess what: “at the end, after a year, she got into the celebrity of the book,” Gornick reports, “and she was walking around New York signing it.”

Adam Mars-Jones: Kid Gloves

Being an Adam Mars-Jones completist is not a full-time job, requiring round-the-clock vigilance by a troupe of assistants. He has published so few books (three novels, two story collections and some essays in 34 years as a published author) that I’m never really convinced that there’s going to be another. Nor, perhaps, is he: “I’m not the sort of person who writes every day. I write when there’s something write, and if I can’t think of a way to write something, I just don’t.” This, surely, is preferable to the alternative. And it means that those rare publications, when they do come, can take us unawares – I had no idea that this book was imminent until a week or so before publication. Which made it a lovely surprise; but perhaps I do need that troupe of assistants after all.

Adam Mars-Jones: Kid Gloves (cover design by Coralie Bickford-Smith)

Kid Gloves, subtitled A Voyage Round My Father after John Mortimer’s play, is a memoir not just of Mars-Jones’s father, a High Court judge, but of “a particular time”. So although there’s plenty of Dad, there’s a lot of general reminiscing; and much of the paternal stuff is decently distant. For example, although we’re told on the first page that in 1998 “my father had been casually described by medical authority as demented”, we get no grisly slip-by-slip account of his decline – it’s a voyage round, not a deep excavation – but instead a launchpad for a rush of memories. My father and myself.

(I’m going to lapse into code for the rest of this review, by calling the author AMJ – the only way I can see of avoiding a bottleneck of Mars-Joneses accompanied by clarifications.) Mars-Jones Sr’s decline was already established when his wife died, though she had kept her ill-health a secret from him. AMJ “had just finished telling her that her dying belonged to her and she shouldn’t consider anyone else’s wishes, so I could hardly overrule this decision even though I disagreed with it.” When AMJ apologised to his dad for the fact that he had been given no warning of his wife’s death, “he seemed surprised, as if it was the most natural thing in the world for his wife of fifty years to slip away without a word.” These sentences – an intricately expressed report of inner workings, and emotion not so much muted, to adopt social media terminology, as blocked – are fairly representative of the book.

So, for a memoir incorporating the death of two parents, there’s not much emoting, and deep satisfaction for most of the book is more likely to be found in parsing the neat wit of AMJ’s paragraphs. They flow and fold in such a way that they sometimes need to be read carefully a second time, like the sort of poem where a sentence runs on through two or three stanzas.

Dad’s ideal was that we would all become lawyers, which would be following his footsteps in one sense, except that his drive and ambition had taken him very far from the paths trodden by his farming ancestors. To follow him would be very different from being like him, would mean in fact that we were very unlike him. The more we were like him the less we would follow him. All this tangle needs to be kept distinct from the common-sense awareness that we would most likely never emerge from his shadow and be assumed, even if we went on to ‘great things’, to have got our start thanks to his eminence.

All this reminds me – at the risk of aping the book by making this review as much about me as its ostensible subject – that I had more or less made the assumption AMJ expects in that last sentence. Or rather, not that he got where he is from his father’s eminence, but that he has pursued the uncertain life of a freelance writer through some trustafarian reliance on his father’s money. The book reveals that this lazy assumption could not really be more wrong. First, “it would take me about five years of literary journalism in print and on the radio to start earning a living.” Second, although judges, as AMJ understatedly notes, “are not poorly paid” (they currently earn around £175,000 a year, putting them comfortably within the top 1% of salaried employees in the UK), his dad had “reverse financial acumen” and in 1987 it was he who had to turn to AMJ, who then had a regular income as film critic for the Independent, for financial support.

Circling a character from enough angles can give as full an account as being inside his mind, and we do learn a lot about Mars-Jones Sr’s character, despite the coolness of the approach. His debt problems, his love of being admired (“Dad had never been uncomfortable with applause”), his vanity (“I was in the room when he had a negotiation with American Express about how many of his honorifics – MBE, LLB – could be crammed onto his Gold Card”), and his ill-temper all come through with plenty of lawyerly evidence. In the first 25 pages, there are three accounts of him demanding the immediate departure from his company of people who have, to his mind, insulted him. One woman whom he had known since her birth committed such an offence at his retirement party, and her apology merely inflamed his self-righteousness to a comic degree. “That,” he responded, “is something you will have to live with for the rest of your life.” The heavy emotional weather with which he buffeted his loved ones means that occasional tender expressions carry great force, as when he sends a postcard from a health club to AMJ, saying “You have always been a rewarding son” – even though the reward, of course, was his.

We get a lot about Mars-Jones Sr’s professional career too, with detailed accounts of cases involving Gilbert O’Sullivan (big in his time for sure, but a name known to me only because a website once told me that he had the number one single on the day of my birth) and Ian Fleming: so at last, thanks to Kid Gloves, I finally know why the non-canon James Bond film Never Say Never Again exists. And while 274 pages largely on the life of someone you’ve never heard of may seem a bit much, and while sometimes it is, there is plenty to attract even the judiciophobic, whether by content – the eternal battle of the generations, the unreliability of memory, the injustices of biography – or by style. AMJ’s tone is funny, intimate, gossipy and rigorous. This does mean, as suggested already, that there is not much obvious emotional wrench to most of the book. AMJ notes early on that “it’s part of my psychology, not perhaps the deepest part but part of what I work up and perform, to take things in my stride, to make out that nothing slows me down or drags me off course.” Later, more explicitly, he acknowledges that “I seem to be portraying myself as someone who dealt with his parents’ deaths comparatively coolly.” He adds “that’s not how I see it, obviously” but resists the temptation to say more.

What we do get, which is particularly welcome in a work that appears ostentatiously unstructured – no chapters, not so much as a line break – is an acceleration, both comic and emotional, in the last quarter. This famously homosexual (I think that’s a fair term) writer’s father had another defining characteristic: he was an out-and-out, as it were, homophobe. This sets up an apt tension for the coming-out-to-Dad scene – New Year’s Eve, 1977 into 1978 – though AMJ defuses it by playing it largely for laughs. And why not, when one of his dad’s considered responses was to recommend that Adam be “initiated into the joys of natural love by an older woman,” adding by way of provenance that the “procedure had done the trick for Prince Charles, though several courses of treatment had been needed to make sure that the cure was fully rooted”?

AMJ does a lot of defusing in Kid Gloves, interjecting chattily, such as his assurance near the end that “I’m not going for a big finish here, more of a syncopated coda effect.” In fact the final paragraphs, bringing back one of the carers who looked after his dad in his final years, are close to symphonic. And despite the disclaimer, the final 30 pages are heavy with earned emotion, as AMJ reports on Michael, the lover he introduced to his dad post-coming-out, and who died later of an Aids-related illness. “He and I had been saying goodbye almost from the moment we met.” It is these scenes which give the book the bulk of its weight. Openness – and nakedness – takes another form throughout, too: AMJ shows himself willing to appear undignified in surprising ways. So roll up if, among everything mentioned above – and the book contains multitudes – you want to picture the future literary critic of The Observer, aged twenty and squatting over a mirror to check if Kurt Vonnegut’s asterisk-shaped illustration of an asshole in Breakfast of Champions really was accurate. (Spoiler: it was.)

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

The Stinging Fly Press, an offshoot of the literary magazine, has made itself a publisher to watch with its careful selection of debut writers, many of whom have gone on to award-winning, bidding-war status. They published the first books by IMPAC-winner Kevin Barry, Irish Book of the Year-winner Mary Costello and Guardian First Book Award-winner Colin Barrett. So this new book was on my radar, though it wasn’t until Twitter began filling with praise, and the press agreed, that I picked it up.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Pond is described in the blurb as a ‘collection’ but also as having unity: a “chronicle of the pitfalls and pleasures of a solitudinous life told by an unnamed woman living on the cusp of a coastal town.” That solitudinous is a wink to the reader – expect more of that sort of thing, because this is a book which denies any separability of the traditional elements of a work of fiction. The language is the character is the style is the story. It’s all about the words: one of those books that makes you realise that the story could not be told, the character could not exist, in any other style; and then makes you wonder why that isn’t the case with more books. The style is not something overlaid on pre-existing content: the style is the substance.

Which means it makes sense that the stories here are similar, often hard to tell apart in memory, as most are told in the same way (and all but the final story in the first person). It is a digressive, repetitive, obsessive voice, which worries at memories, circles around experiences and alights on the same thoughts over and over. It is a picture of a flywheeling mind, in danger of coming apart, which often reminded me of Keith Ridgway’s broken narrator in the ‘Marching Songs’ chapter from Hawthorn & Child. In the story ‘Morning, Noon, & Night’, the consistency of voice covers everything beautifully, and the only way to present this properly is to quote it at length. It gives us meticulous rumination, such as when our woman thinks about how to arrange and display fruit:

Pears don’t mix well. Pears should always be small and organised nose to tail in a bowl of their very own and perhaps very occasionally introduced to a stem of the freshest redcurrants, which ought not to be hoisted like a mantle across the freckled belly of the topmost pear, but strewn a little further down so that some of the scarlet berries loll and bask between the slowly shifting gaps.

The description is comic in its grandiosity, and she rarely says something straightforwardly when she can hide it behind protective language. After ranging across subjects so wildly that the reader can just about keep her in sight, she interrupts herself:

Still, as I’ve said, none of this has anything to do with now whatsoever. I don’t know what it has to do with and as a matter of fact I’m not sure what now is about either.

This relieves the reader, like a good joke, and despite its density, Bennett’s prose is often funny. Reflecting on bathrooms, the narrator observes that she doesn’t like en suites: “as a rule I think it’s much nicer to leave a room entirely before entering another.” But at the same time it reminds us that these stories are often about the permeable barrier between inside and outside. The view we get of the external world is heavily filtered, and closely internalised. This makes a change from most first person narratives, which give us a uncluttered landscape and ignore the thickets and dead ends of how we really think. In ‘The Big Day’, we get an extrapolation of the quote above which brings the point home:

English, strictly speaking, is not my first language by the way. I haven’t yet discovered what my first language is so for the time being I use English words to say things. I expect I will always have to do it that way; regrettably I don’t think my first language can be written down at all. I’m not sure it can be made external you see.

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Sometimes a direct emotional statement breaks through all this diversion and play, given extra force by the contrast with its surroundings: “On occasion, I have gone quite out of my mind with love.” But the rest is an attempt to enable us to, as the narrator wishes, “just spend five minutes beneath my skin and feel what it’s like. Feel the savage swarming magic I feel.” And as the book goes on, she seems less and less like an eccentric outsider, and more and more like one of us: or perhaps it’s that the language temporarily reshapes the reader’s brain into sympathy with its way of thinking. Why else, after all, would I feel repeatedly drawn back to the stories even with little expectation of understanding them in the traditional sense?

That is to say, there are no straightforward plots, no simple stories in these stories, but this goes back to the inseparability of the elements. The language, full of curlicues and recirculations, would be irritating if delivered by a straightforward narrator – but it could not be delivered by a straightforward narrator. It is part of her. And with its richness and deformations – which become more pronounced in the later stories, particularly ‘The Gloves Are Off’ – I felt no desire for the longest stories, about 18 pages, to be any longer. That’s enough of that sort of thing. But Bennett’s resistance to A-to-B plots doesn’t stop her from filling the stories Pond with some of the strongest endings I’ve seen. In ‘The Big Day’, our woman ends her account of a new home by discovering a pond, in a way that is blunt with symbolism but powerful:

It’s not a very deep pond after all. I always believed they were endlessly deep. But when I took something down there one day I needed to get rid of fast, a broken, precious thing, I dropped it in the water and it did not sink and go on sinking. It just sort of wedged itself and was horribly visible. And within moments lots of very small things, some of them creatures I suppose, collected and oscillated, slowly, along the smooth crevices of its broken precious parts.

There is a literary awareness too, from the title of the opening story, ‘Voyage in the Dark’, echoing Jean Rhys’s greatest novel, to a story, ‘Control Knobs’, where the narrator ruminates on Marlen Haushofer’s dystopian novel The Wall. The stories, too, are arranged carefully, with very short pieces alternating with the longer ones. Sometimes, like ‘Stir-Fry’, they are only a few lines long, almost one-liners with a tweak – Lydia Davis length – which seems as good a place as any to have a go at giving this review an ending as strong as Bennett’s stories:

I just threw my dinner in the bin. I knew as I was making it I was going to do that,
…..so I put in it all the things I never want to see again.