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Review: Continent (1986) by Jim Crace   Leave a comment

Along with several other prizes, Continent won Jim Crace the Whitbread First Novel of the Year Award, which must have been something of a surprise to him considering that this is not a novel but a collection of short stories. Despite being his debut work – novel or not – this book represents a mature and intelligent beginning to Crace’s career.

There are two things about Continent that stood out for me as a reader. The first is the quality of the writing. Crace avoids the great error practiced by many authors today, which is to be ornamental and flowery under the guise of being “poetic.” This excruciating emphasis of style over substance is too often the misguided product of creative writing programs. Students in these programs should instead study Crace’s style to get an idea of what good writing is like: poetic in places, certainly, but also possessing a level of restraint and understatement that lends muscle and nuance to his prose. There is no unsightly narrative flab on display here.

The other thing that stands out is Crace’s intelligence. Continent does not possess any recurring characters or plot lines, but the stories – with the exception of the second story “The World with One Eye Shut,” easily the weakest piece in here – are linked by the common theme of the ambiguity of change and progress. The opening piece “Talking Skull,” for instance, is told from the perspective of Lowbro, an educated young man whose father has made a fortune from selling the milk of hermaphrodite cows to a superstitious populace. Torn between his family history and the enlightened perspective his education has brought him, Lowbro is faced with difficult decisions about how to manage his future.

Crace’s repeated message that the arrival of modernity has, beneath its glittering surface, numerous drawbacks that cannot be undone is a message that stretches all the way back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But Crace is never simplistic or hackneyed in his treatment of these problems: the conflict between modern and ancient in each story is like a coin that is turned over and over, allowing the reader to see the qualities and flaws of each side. The objects of the old superstitions that appear in these stories – magical milk, sexual rituals, electricity, horse-riding traditions, calligraphy – are thus always presented ambiguously. The benefits of science and progress, Crace shows, can come at a high price, a trade-off that is reflected, in turn, by the mixture of profound wisdom and superstitious ignorance that characterizes pre-modern cultures.

It is hard not compare Crace’s stories in Continent to both Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, although these two influences are fused together in an original way that belies mere imitation. There is, for instance, Crace’s decision, reflected in the title of his book, to set his stories in a kind of utopia in which particular settings are sometimes suggested (“Sins and Virtues,” for instance, is clearly set somewhere in the Middle East) but never clearly defined, a strategy that both Kafka and Borges use to great effect. But the most important aspect of their influence lies in Crace’s fusion of fiction and philosophy – not using literature as a didactic vehicle, but as a mode of critical inquiry, searching and questioning as the narrative snakes forward, always willing to double back and, if necessary, bite its own tail.

Continent is a solid book, but not a perfect one, and it is in the area of unity and purpose that I have my biggest reservations about it. The second story is glaringly out of place in the collection, as I have already noted, and I am bemused at what Crace was trying to do by suggesting that this fictional continent is somehow a variation on our own world – it’s not, and this strategy of suggesting a parallel world seems to me a distraction from the book’s real themes. That said, there was plenty to like in this collection, and it makes me looking forward to seeing whether Crace has fulfilled the promise evident in his debut work.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 14, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: Freedom (2010) by Jonathan Franzen   Leave a comment

“Humanity,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote in Being and Nothingness, “is condemned to be free.” So too it might be said that readers of contemporary fiction are condemned to tackle Jonathan Franzen’s fourth novel Freedom, a work that arrived, after a hiatus of nine years, in a flurry of triumph and acclaim. Certainly “condemned” is a good word to describe how I felt about it by the time I got to the end.

Franzen is one of those writers that people know about by word of mouth. His breakthrough novel, The Corrections, is a book that you are likely to discover in the process of unwrapping a birthday present from your uncle and aunt in Connecticut, the kind of work that an overexcited friend from your graduate school days presses into your hand and says: “You have to read this. It blew my mind.”

I don’t mind admitting that I, too, caught the fever. I started reading The Corrections on a plane to Los Angeles at the beginning of last year, and by the time I finished it I had already started formulating plans to get my own family together for Christmas for the first time in more than a decade. While I found Franzen’s style unattractive and pretentious, there was something real and identifiable about his characters that won me over. The author’s apparent cruelty I saw as a necessary detachment on Franzen’s part, important to shading the moral grays that turned each of the Lamberts into well-rounded, believable characters. As a consequence, I also went back and read his first two novels, which were solid enough but did not reach the same heights as The Corrections.

It was with a sense of anticipation, then, that I began reading Freedom a few days ago. I was patient. I was hopeful. As I got deeper into the novel, however, there was no getting around the looming conclusion: Freedom was downright awful. By the time I reached the three-hundred page mark, just over halfway, finishing the book really did feel like a prison sentence. Dutifully, I served my time.

So what can account for this spectacular failure? How can Franzen strike such a chord with The Corrections and then come across as so utterly tone-deaf in Freedom?

Before recounting its shortcomings, I should first say what it is that I liked about Freedom. After all, I did not expect it to be an unmitigated disaster from the very beginning, and it certainly did not feel that it was going to be while reading the initial stages of the story. Other reviewers have complained that the central characters of Patty and Walter were too dull to carry the story, a view with which I heartily disagree. Although Patty’s stilted “autobiography” (which Franzen, for no good reason, writes in a third-person voice that is indistinguishable from the rest of the narrative) is an incredibly clumsy approach for an established novelist, I found Franzen’s depiction of their tepid romance and marriage, especially the little details of the ways in which they repeatedly hurt and betray each other, to be painfully real. This element of insight in Franzen’s writing is what made The Corrections so successful, this feeling that while reading his novel you are also undergoing a painful but necessary session of emotional therapy.

Apart from the Berglund’s disintegrating marriage, however, there was little to admire about Freedom. What made the early pages of the novel interesting was Franzen’s critique of the ways in which human beings delude themselves. Thus, for instance, we witness Patty being led astray by her drug-addicted, emotionally manipulative college friend Eliza, who preys on Patty’s guilt and lack of esteem in order control the latter’s life. Similar spirals of reactive (should I say “corrective”?) behavior are set up throughout, from Joey’s reaction to his parents to Patty’s desire for Richard.

The novel thus provides the reader with a litany of self-destructive, guilt-ridden, passive characters – a lot like The Corrections, you might say, but here is the strange thing. Whereas Franzen, in the early stages of the novel, highlights the negative effects that flow from the weakness and endless self-pity that motivate his characters, by the second half of the novel he attempts to transform these same horrible qualities into virtues. Walter, in particular, is supposedly redeemed by the contention that his inherited negativity gives his life “meaning.” Despite the utter betrayal of his own ethical standards and his staggeringly grandiose sense of self-righteousness, Walter is excused, in the narrator’s eyes, because he is a “nice man.” Even Walter’s loser brother, Mitch, a worthless drunk who shirks all responsibility for his five children, is transformed into a kind of Thoreauvian hero by the end, living peacefully by a lake and only working when he has to. It’s a bizarre and bewildering moral u-turn that Franzen takes, down a path where I simply cannot follow him.

My increasing disillusionment with the novel as I was reading it only served to highlight other technical flaws that I might otherwise have been willing to overlook. I have already mentioned my dislike for Franzen’s style in his earlier works, but in Freedom this pretentiousness reaches a level that is simply unbearable. I teach my students to read literary texts closely on the grounds that authors choose their references and metaphors carefully, but Franzen’s frantic need to provide in-depth descriptions of inane, unnecessary details and endless name-dropping was too much. Consider, for instance, this ridiculous sentence from the novel’s epilogue (by which point I was at the end of my patience) in which Franzen makes a horrible contrast between the artificiality of the social networking site Twitter to the authenticity of birds in nature:

“There was plenty of tweeting on Twitter, but the chirping and fluttering world of nature, which Walter had invoked as if people were still supposed to care about it, was one anxiety too many.” (p.546)

To make matters worse, there are numerous other occasions where Franzen not only constructs hopelessly unwieldy metaphors, but also proceeds to insult the reader’s intelligence by explaining the symbolism: he makes a lazy parallel, for instance, between Jenna’s manipulation of Joey and the dubious loyalty shown to him by his right-wing political connections (p.401); the comparison of Patty’s split from Richard to America’s withdrawal from Vietnam (p.510); and, worst of all, the analogy between Joey’s grotesque search through his own feces for his wedding ring to his arms deal in South America, the difference being that “there was no gold ring hidden in this particular pile of shit” (p.441). No, indeed, there was not.

When I started reading Freedom, I thought I had some idea, based on my reading of his earlier novels, of what Franzen was setting out to achieve. What is most disappointing about Freedom is not that it is a failure, but that it is a betrayal of the kind of unrelenting emotional honesty that I once thought I detected in Franzen’s work. A great writer is one who invites you to resist them and wins you over anyway, which is what happened to me with The Corrections. Freedom, by contrast, seems like a miscalculated attempt to preach to a particular section of the choir, and surely Franzen, who early on in the novel takes Walter to task for being unattractive precisely because he is so passively agreeable, should have understood this same dynamic in his readers.

Rating: 1/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted February 4, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: The Rachel Papers (1973) by Martin Amis   2 comments

It is hard not to compare The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis’s debut novel, to Lucky Jim, the best and best-known work by his famous father, Kingsley Amis. Both, after all, are novels of disillusionment, with Jim Dixon finding that academia is rife with petty politics that take away from the fulfilling life of the mind he once envisioned, while Charles Highway, the protagonist of The Rachel Papers, seduces and then discards a slightly older woman by the name of Rachel, concluding that she is not a suitable match for him.

That, however, is where the comparison should end, for The Rachel Papers is a critical parody not only of Lucky Jim, but of a whole subgenre of writing about youth and its illusions. This kind of novel is ripe for caricature precisely because its features have hardened into a recognizable set of clichés: the uncouth but lovable narrator, for instance, whose rough exterior is a defense mechanism in response to the perceived injustices of the world.

While there are numerous novels that fall into this subgenre, two in particular stand out in the period preceding The Rachel Papers: Lucky Jim, as I have already mentioned, and The Catcher in the Rye. Amis never mentions the latter directly, but Charles does say on several occasions that he has been “reading a lot of American fiction,” and it is not a long shot to suggest that Rachel’s on-again, off-again American boyfriend DeForest has echoes of Holden Caulfield.

For Martin Amis, the disjunction between tough exterior and sympathetic core is ripe for critique. The implication is that we, as readers, see past these defense mechanisms in order to perceive that, beneath the angry countenance they present to the world, characters like Holden Caulfield and Jim Dixon are really romantics, misled into unhappiness by a mixture of cynicism and bad faith. Amis sees this gesture as encouraging a falsely sentimental view of youth, one that overlooks its stupidity and capacity for narcissism.

Charles Highway is the antidote to such mawkish sentimentality. Seeing the imminent arrival of his twentieth birthday as the entrance point into maturity, Charles sets out to make the most of his remaining time as a teenager. He moves from his family’s home to live with his sister, Jenny, and her boorish husband, Norman, in order to attend a school designed to help him get into Oxford University. Central to his farewell to his youth is his desire to sleep with an Older Woman, and that is where Rachel comes into the picture.

Not that Charles is desperate to lose his virginity – indeed, he already has a more-than-willing casual partner in Gloria, and the reader discovers that he has had sex with several other women, often followed by painful bouts of sexually transmitted diseases. But the seduction of Rachel is presented as a meaningful Goal, an encounter with an Older Woman, experienced and knowledgeable. Of course, the issue of Rachel’s age turns out to be farcical, since she is barely older than Charles, turning twenty herself during the course of their brief affair.

The Rachel Papers is an unpleasant read (what book by Amis isn’t?), but this horribleness is strategic. Amis takes aim at every sentimental preconception we might have about his youthful protagonist, emphasizing in particular the vulgarity of Charles’s body as he spits (“hawks”), leaks, squeezes, and vomits his way through the story. Charles is apparently not squeamish about any taboos, revealing his incestuous feelings toward his sister, for example, sniffing Rachel’s dirty underwear, and theorizing calmly that, based on his tastes and level of sensitivity, he “ought” to be homosexual, thus turning his enthusiasm for women itself into a kind of perversion. Amis shuts down any avenue for seeing his protagonist as a misunderstood romantic: from his sexual behavior to his intellectual pursuits, the reader has the sense that Charles knows exactly what he is doing and how revolting he really is.

The one remaining illusion for Charles seems to be that life will change once he becomes an adult, an assumption that seems to come true when, in his Oxford interview, the professor neatly pulls apart the contradictions and intellectual misappropriations in Charles’s arguments about which no one had previously dared to challenge him. But even Prof. Knowd’s incisive assessment of Charles’s abilities and shortcomings does not represent real maturity, but instead a sort of advanced pissing contest that suggests adulthood is a complicated continuation of, rather than a genuine break from, the immaturity of youth.

Amis’s rampage against the false sentimentalization of youth is not without precedent, although the best examples tend to come not from recent fiction but from the nineteenth century, such as Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe and Gustave Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education, both of which deal with the seduction of an older woman and the subsequent disillusionment of the young male protagonist. In Charles’s obsessive note-taking about his life and the people around him – the title of Amis’s novel refers to one of Charles’s notebooks detailing the affair with Rachel – there is also an implicit reference to a famous section of Søren Kierkegaard’s monumental work Either/Or titled “The Diary of a Seducer.” Kierkegaard uses the persona of Johannes to detail his idea of the “aesthetic life,” a perspective to which the grotesque Charles provides an obvious counterpoint. Charles also self-consciously imitates Franz Kafka by writing his own Letter to My Father.

Amis’s chief literary and intellectual point of reference, however, is William Blake, chosen because of his famous exploration of the line that divides innocence from experience. In one scene, for example, Charles recites to Rachel the first stanza from “The Clod and the Pebble” from Blake’s Songs of Experience, expecting her to reply. Charles ends up having to complete the rest of the poem himself, implying that Rachel is to some extent an innocent, lacking the language of experience that Charles has embraced (even the literal meaning of her name, “ewe,” suggests a slightly older version of the innocent Lamb from the opening of Songs of Innocence).

The Rachel Papers is at its best when its focus is on this intellectual context. In recent interviews, Amis himself has said that the main shortcoming he sees when reflecting back on his debut novel is how awkwardly the plot unfolds. The novel does meander along at times, and there were moments when I thought that this book would have made a better short story – tighter and more focused – than a full-length novel. I can’t say that I loved The Rachel Papers, but my own experience has been that it has provided much food for thought, and that, rather than pure entertainment, is the sign of good fiction.

Rating: 3.5/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 28, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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Review: The Electric Michelangelo (2004) by Sarah Hall   Leave a comment

There is a longstanding view that literary fiction is too mannered, too stylized, overly complicated in a way that is uselessly ornamental rather than essential. As a critic and teacher, I often find that such accusations come from people who lack the essential tools to grasp the strategies and purposes of the genre, reflecting that lamentable human tendency to conflate what we don’t like with what we don’t understand. Reading Sarah Hall’s The Electric Michelangelo, however, was an experience that caused me to rethink this question.

Hall’s novel tells the story of Cyril “Cy” Parks, a young man from the northern English resort town of Morecambe. Starting in the early twentieth century, the plot, such as it is, follows Cy’s life from youth to old age. His early life is dominated by his mother, Reeda, punctuated by boyhood adventures that come to an abrupt end when he is apprenticed to Eliot Riley, the town’s tattoo artist. After the passing of these two role models, Cy heads across the Atlantic to Coney Island, where he falls in love with Grace, a woman who asks him to tattoo eyes over her whole body. When things turn out tragically with Grace, Cy drifts around the world, eventually returning to Morecambe as an old man, taking on a young woman, Nina Shearer, as his own apprentice.

The plot itself is linear and curiously pedestrian – even Cy regularly thinks of his life as being “fated,” to such an extent that it often feels as though the story only shifts in any meaningful way when it receives various nudges from Hall. The complaint that “nothing happens” is a common element of the aforementioned criticisms of literary fiction, but that leads me to wonder: is the laborious plot of The Electric Michelangelo inherent to the genre, or is it simply poor craftsmanship on Hall’s part?

The issue of narrative drive is a complicated one, bound up as it is in this question of the purpose of literary fiction. The complaint that “nothing happens” has its mirror image, after all, in the counter-criticism made against popular fiction that, for all its thrills, twists, and romance, one is left with a certain feeling of hollowness, a sense that the narrative energy on the page of a popular work in the end amounts to very little. What is supposed to distinguish literary fiction from its popular counterpart, from this perspective, is the idea that the literary fiction has a sense of meaning and profundity. It gets us to think and question, rather than merely providing entertainment.

In The Electric Michelangelo, Hall’s words seem to be made of concrete. Decorative, poetic, but heavy and inert, the novel moves from the sheer force of her authorial determination rather than any sense of inner momentum. The lack of narrative energy in Hall’s novel is an affirmation of the great secret of authentic storytelling, that a plot contains the greatest amount of life when the author is forced to cede some control over the artistic process – the ancient Greeks, with their Muses, knew about this principle, and one might say that this idea has been confirmed for today’s audience, for instance, by John Fowles in The French Lieutentant’s Woman.

Now, it is true that one of the qualities of literary fiction is that plot may be sacrificed to meaning: think, for instance, of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, a work that is full of meaning but short on action. I know from my own experience of encountering Dostoevksy’s novel as a young, inexperienced reader and then returning to it, with somewhat wiser eyes, how a better understanding of the world of literary fiction can enrich and deepen one’s perspective on a work. But what makes Dostoevsky a successful writer of ideas is his willingness to allow ideas to enter the world of his story that challenge, in an authentic way, his own. The nihilists that appear in Dostoevsky’s novels are a magnificent example of this engagement: Raskolnikov, Stavrogin, and Ivan Karamazov are complex figures, never simply straw men to be knocked over by Dostoevsky’s own opinions. It is from this genuine clash of ideas that Dostoevsky’s novels generate their intellectual energy.

Hall, by contrast, is monotone in her heavy-handed attempt to generate meaning in her novel. Her metaphors are clumsy and unsophisticated, including the death of Cy’s father on the same day as the protagonist’s birth, the experimental sinking of Cy in quicksand, and disparate natures of the Siamese twins who run the Varga, Cy’s favorite bar in Coney Island. Hall seems desperate to saturate everything in her novel with meaning, but ends up instead with a cacophony of confused, forced metaphors.

Even more questionable is Hall’s decision to engage with history in her novel. The vague references to the Renaissance, especially to Michelangelo, are so shallow as to be laughable. The Renaissance, after all, was motivated intellectually by a rediscovery of classical ideas, whereas the ephemeral, visceral nature of tattoo art suggests instead a relationship to the Gothic that, if Hall had invoked it, might have allowed for a similar intellectual dynamism as runs through Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris.

Hall also imposes her own contemporary views back onto the early twentieth-century world that Cy inhabits in a way that provides a very one-sided perspective on culture has changed during this time. His mother Reeda, for instance, is a feminist before her time, an advocate for women’s rights who performs secret abortions in her hostel, and far too saintly to be believable. Despite the historical realities of the world in which he lives, therefore, Cy lives in an unrealistic bubble that is unconvincingly welcoming and tolerant toward women and minorities. Hall is so insistent on preaching to the reader that, toward the end of the novel, Cy even delivers a diatribe to his young apprentice on the importance of young people voting.

The problem with The Electric Michelangelo, in the end, is the ubiquity of Hall’s fingerprints over every last inch of her creation. The novel suffers, not because “nothing happens,” but because Hall is unable or unwilling to open up her story to the contingencies of the artistic process. It was the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin who identified the “polyphonic,” many-voiced nature of Dostoevksy’s work, and it is precisely this element that is missing from The Electric Michelangelo. The crucial element that defines literary fiction, therefore, is the willingness of the author to write against herself, to allow ideas and prejudices to be weighed without the sense, from the reader, that the measure has been fixed (even if, in reality, they have).

Rating: 2/5

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

Posted January 20, 2012 by Peter Mathews in Review

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