Sunday, November 11, 2012

The colour of infinity

— No-one's trying to kill him at all. He's just paranoid, isn't he? Nora says irritably. He's just a red herring. And the old people — I bet they're just paranoid as well.

"Ah, yes, but that doesn't mean that someone's not out to get them."

— You'll never make a crime writer.

"This isn't a crime story. This is a comic novel."

Emotionally Weird, by Kate Atkinson, is a weird novel. There's a story within a story, and it took quite some time for me to figure that was the case (and not that we were simply jumping forward or backward to another time period). And it took me a while longer to determine which story was inside which. Further, throughout the inner story — Effie's college life — we are treated to excerpts of a few more manuscripts (one of them more prominently). So structurally it's a bit weird, but fun.

It does not hold together as crime story, or mystery, but then it's not one (see above) — despite the mysterious goings on, the dog, the woman, and other red herrings. So if you're familiar only with Kate Atkinson's Jackson Brodie stories (as I was), check your expectations at the door.

The language is often breathtaking. At times it veers off toward becoming a parody of itself, but even this is somewhat fitting as the protagonist of the inner story is struggling to complete her creative writing assignment, and even though I had to look up a lot of words (a lot of them being very Scottish), the language is always light.

From the framing story, generally more serious and (intentionally, I think, maybe even mockingly) capital-L Literary in tone:
I have my mother's temperamental hair — hair that usually exists only in the imagination of artists and can be disturbing to see on the head of a real woman. On Nora it is the colour of nuclear sunsets and of over-spiced gingerbread, but on me, unfortunately, the same corkscrewing curls are more clownish and inclined to be carroty.

From the inner story — the college novel — that story intended to be "comic":
The old woman had skin that was the texture and colour of white marshmallows and in a poor light (which was always) you might have mistaken her hair for a cloud of slightly rotten candyfloss. Although fast asleep, she was still clutching a pair of knitting needles on which hung a strange shapeless thing, like a web woven by a spider on drugs.

New York Times

These and other reviews can't fully agree on what Emotionally Weird is all about.

One of Effie's assignments is an essay on Middlemarch, and the criticism Henry James levels against it: "Middlemarch is a treasure-house of details, but it is an indifferent whole." Henry James was wrong, of course. And I get the feeling that this entire novel is intended as a response to James, an exercise in Eliot's realism, a defense of it, but in its execution at once proof that ultra-realism is no longer suited to narrating today's realities.

Emotionally Weird is very realistic: a lot of nothing happens. There are many conversations — some interesting, some boring — with too many people. A lot of what happpens, as in life, has nothing to with anything else. It shows just how difficult it is to tease the narrative thread out of real life.

Emotionally Weird also has some wonderful details, especially to do with colour, and clothing, and how academics talk, but, despite how the Doctor Who references made me smile, it — and not Middlemarch — leaves me indifferent.

I wouldn't recommend this book to most readers I know, except to some who've had a particular kind of college experience.

"Today the Tay was the colour of infinity and made me feel suddenly depressed."

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