Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In praise of short novels

I recently convinced several people to read Valera Luiselli's The Story of My Teeth, not by describing the main character or his story or explaining the concept behind the book, but by praising how short it was. As if its brevity was its greatest virtue. Perhaps it was.

Of course you can read it over the weekend! It's so short! Only 134 pages, according to my e-version. And all those blank pages at the front. The table of contents is longer than expected. An epigraph or two. Decorative leaves between chapters. Then there are photo plates at the end, and the translator's chronology, which can't be said to be part of the book proper, though it was my favourite part. The author's afterword, also not really part of the book, although arguably it's what gives the book meaning. Still, it doesn't count as story. And more blank pages. Bringing us down to maybe a 100 pages of novel. Who can't manage that?

In this way I "sold" a book I didn't really like (I admire and respect it — I just didn't connect with it) because I had nothing better to say about it. It's really short! And an impromptu book club came into being.

I've read a lot of short books this year. It's all that my time and attention can hold.

Short novels means less commitment, cuz I just don't have it in me these days. Short novels sustain my interest, in ways most 400-page novels just can't. I can slip from one genre to another. More variety. I'm sampling more authors. And I have a sense of accomplishment. I can still read and finish books! And I can convince other people to read them too. Short novels are so digestible.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Keep your memories close

I think about memory and what it is. Keep your memories close, people say. Say it to children as often as they can. Keep them schooled up in bodymemory from early on. Give them an instrument for their own. Get them prentissed. And make them mind their memories.

I think about what it means to keep them close. The tradespeople who live and work in the city and trade in the market, they keep them on their bodies at all time, in pouches or pockets. The moneyed guilds, instrument makers and such, have elaborate bandoliers, belts with many pockets. The strandpickers port theirs in stickwrap, rather than linen or leather. Even Harry who reads the weather, whose house changes with the tide and whose head is loose as muttering, still keeps his wrapped in whatever he can find, and pushes them in his old shopping trolley along the strand of the embankment.

But for all that everyone keeps them and coddles them, I tend to think most adults wouldn't know their own memories from anybody else's. Something in their eyes and how they greet you in the market. At a certain point in your life, it's like you have to choose what to keep.
— from The Chimes, by Anna Smaill.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Fates and furies, wings and egos

I went to a wedding a long time ago, the wedding of close friends (where, coincidentally, I met my then future but now ex-partner), which made a huge impression on me. I was both moved and puzzled by what the priest said. That a marriage is more than one plus one. There are three in a marriage: husband, wife, and holy ghost. I'm skeptical about the holy ghost bit, but it's clear to me that any relationship is larger than its parts. But as most marrieds will tell you, the sum maintains its integrity only so long as the parts maintain their individual identity.

Sometimes, indeed, that third entity, Marriage, does not swallow up the others so much as form its own separate whole, for better or for worse.
Their marriage picked itself up off the ground, stretched, looked at them with its hand on its hips.
Fate and Furies, by Lauren Groff, is about a marriage. First we hear Lotto's version, and then Mathilde's. Surprise: they're not the same.

The novel has been making a lot of waves since it was published last fall. Obama's favourite book of the 2015. But the hype is starting to dwindle. It's when the novel came back as a zombie in this year's Tournament of Books that I finally felt compelled to read it.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book while I was in it. I couldn't wait to get home from work and go to bed early so I could find out what happened next. I spent several lazy Saturday hours in my reading chair with it. I mostly loved it. It gets all playwright-y and stylized at the end of part one, and I skimmed through a lot of that — just not my cup of tea — but I was pretty invested in this novel and cared how it turned out. A couple weeks on, however, I'd say the honeymoon is over, the thrill is gone, and I'm starting to wonder what I saw in it in the first place.

Here's a great but spoiler-infested review by James Woods. I wholeheartedly concur. There's just one thing he gets wrong; when Lotto finds success as a playwright, Woods notes, "Thanks to his wife, Lotto never again scrubs a toilet or pays a bill," but I'm fairly certain he hadn't done either since he met Mathilde nearly a decade earlier.
"Huge thing's your ego. Awful that you weren't the only man for her. Girl scrubs your toilets for twenty-three years, you begrudge her the life she had when you weren't around."
Laura Miller in her commentary on the TOB zombie round proclaimed "Gone Girl is brilliant, a better novel than Fates and Furies" (which so much makes me want to go read Gone Girl, which movie I loved):
One thing I like about the pairing of these two books, though, is that it does highlight the degree to which I think Fates and Furies has been enjoyed by readers as a kind of satire. It’s got a privilege-assuming, rather spoiled golden boy of a husband who is completely oblivious to the reality of his wife’s life.

Given that most readers of literary fiction are middle-class women, I’d bet a lot that this is a reason for its success.
Much is made of the novel's structure. I like the idea of changing perspectives, but these are hardly parallel narratives. Mathilde's story chronologically picks up where Lotto's left off, though through flashbacks, they do cover much of the same ground.

There's something like a Greek chorus that intermittently comments on the story, sometimes filling in the past, sometimes telling us the future, sometimes waxing philosophical.
[The ones made for music are the most beloved of all. Their bodies a container for the spirit within; the best of them is music, the rest only instruments of flesh and bone.]
I'm not familiar with Greek mythology beyond the basics, so all that fates and furies stuff is lost on me. I'm guessing that much of the tragedy in this novel comes from the Classics, but it reads like an engrossing domestic drama regardless. At times the prose feels a little too abstracted from reality, but it's mostly beautiful.
Rachel was afraid that Mathilde, whom Rachel loved as dearly as anyone, was about to bust out of it all in a commotion of wings. Poor Lotto. Poor all of them if Mathilde left him.
Mathilde's childhood and youth, it turns out, is so thoroughly fucked up, though not unbelievably, that it's no wonder she shuts the door on her past and lives a disciplined life in accordance with a strict set of rules. Lotto, on the other hand, is thoroughly oblivious, but also not unbelievably, because men can be stupid.

Was their marriage successful? I don't know.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

A bumblebee in a glass of beer

And they went on staring at him, examining this fat man who was too hot and had landed in their bar like a bumblebee in a glass of beer.
That's Dr Mahé, on holiday in Porquerolles. It gets under his skin — everything about the place, and especially a young girl. An irritation, an itch he needs to scratch.

It's been a while since I read a Simenon book. Maybe I'm out of practice. Maybe I've changed. The Mahé Circle was downright unpleasant. I mean that, of course, in the best possible way. It was intense and disturbing.

The sense of restlessness, malaise, agitation were palpable from the early pages. It made me uncomfortable. I was irritated with Dr Mahé, and with everything around me while I was reading this short novel.

The object of Dr Mahé's obsession is a mere child. I don't recall this type of scenario playing out in any of the previous romans durs I've read. So while Simenon's characters are hardly admirable, they are weirdly compelling, and the reading experience can be cathartic. Not so here.

Other Simenon characters are, if not sympathetic, at least pathetic. Not so with Dr Mahé. Am I being too harshly critical? I wonder if men find him more sympathetic than I do.

Arguably, Mahé is not obsessed with the girl per se (but he is!). It is the island, it is the languor, it is his childhood, it is some life outside of his bourgeois existence. It is the need to be noticed by his wife and his mother, the need to be respected by his nephew, the need to be accepted by the islanders. The need to catch that damn fish, claim his masculinity. But above all, it's the girl.
When he had married, he had not had like other men, who leave home, a feeling of freedom.
Arguably he is punished in the end. But I don't think he repents. I don't think he acknowledges how wrong he is. Metaphorically he finally gets the fish that got away, and that fish he was after was the negation of his actual reality.

I am fascinated by stories of those who walk away, why they walk away. This book, though — it's not about that. It's about the obsession. It's not about what he's walking away from, it's about what he thinks he's walking toward. I can't get over the wrongness of it being a barely pubescent girl.

Is that the point? Was that the point when it was written in 1946? Do men readers see it as the point? Certainly that's not what the reviews I've read center on. Is that because it's really not the point of the book? Is it because Simenon's primarily male audience (that's a big leap I'm making, an assumption with no facts to back it up) is as misogynistic as he was?

Maybe when I previously binged on Simenon it was a sign that I needed to walk away from my life. Maybe now that I'm in a better place, a better headspace, I no longer have the patience for the whining, or the dilly-dallying, or the quiet complacency. I just want them to get on with it. But not with too-young girls.

The writing: spare, psychologically perceptive, precise, and oh, so evocative. An infuriatingly good book.

John Banville: Simenon's Island of Bad Dreams
Tony's Reading List: Review


Georges Simenon's son Pierre will be hosting a literary brunch this weekend to talk about his father's works, part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. (See the calendar for this and other Simenon-related events.)

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Complexity and simplicity

"You're interested in time?"

"Complexity and simplicity," he replied. "Time was simple, is simple. We can divide it into simple parts, measure it, arrange dinner by it, drink whisky to its passage. We can mathematically deploy it, use it to express ideas about the observable universe, and yet if asked to explain it in simple language to a child — in simple language which is not deceit, of course — we are powerless. The most it ever seems we know how to do with time is waste it."

So saying, he raised his glass in salute to me, and drank it down, though I found suddenly that I was not in a drinking mood.
— from The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, by Claire North.

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Surpassing the truth

After all, as Quintilian says, a hyperbolic is simply "a fissure in the relationship between style and reality."
I'd heard quite a bit about The Story of My Teeth, and I'd followed with interest its performance in this year's Tournament of Books, and spurred by the upcoming appearance of author Valeria Luiselli at this year's Blue Met festival, I read it.

It's a strange little book, which has it's own strange little story, but frankly, I don't understand what all the fuss is about.

I've actually encouraged a handful of people to read this. We'll make a night out of it. Hear what the author has to say. Adjourn for cocktails.

Its selling points: 1. It's really short. It clocks in at 134 pages, but there's front matter and back matter and decorative plates and really wide margins. 2. There are clowns. Well, that may scare some people, but I think it's a plus. 3. There are funny bits, where I smiled and chuckled (but no guffaws) — but hard to say if it's at all funny apart from occasionally being clever and pretentious or almost constantly parodic and hyperbolic.

On the whole, however, I didn't like it. Gustavo "Highway" Sánchez, is not very likeable. Not that I have to like a character to like a book. But the book did not connect with me at all, not the character, the story, the tone. There were glimmers of hope, in the humour, in the oddness, in the clowns, but it wasn't sustained. But it is a weird book, in a way that merits discussion.

The story, such as it is: Highway left his wife and son to pursue his calling. He's an auctioneer, who once bought at auction and had surgically implanted Marilyn Monroe's teeth. He returns to Mexico with a fine collection of... of objects, of collectibles, and in the course of auctioning of his collection of teeth, crosses paths with his grown son.

The thing about auctioneering — he creates value, by telling stories.
When Highway first began to recount his stories to me, I thought he was a compulsive liar. But then, living with him, I realized that it had less to do with lying than surpassing the truth.
There are some marvelous insights gleaned from several of Highway's esteemed relations...

I completely disagree with my second-uncle Juan Sánchez Baudrillard when he says that "Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth."
I suppose my uncle Fredo Sánchez Dostoyevsky was right when he said that insult, after all, is a purification of the soul.
In other words, as my uncle Miguel Sánchez Foucault said in relation to something else, these men and women are "singular lives transformed into strange poems through who knows what twists of fate."
And my favourite cousin, Sartre:
I was certain that I had gone to hell. During the long family meals I had to endure in my childhood, my cousin, Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre, who used to wear white plastic flip-flops and couldn't hold his drink, would inevitably tell us — around the time when the dessert was being served — that we were hell.

One of the more mysterious elements of the book is "The Chronologic," contributed by translator Christina MacSweeney. It is in fact my favourite part of the book, for the great puzzle it presents. For example, why include an entry to mark the date that Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City. It presents an interesting framework for thinking about the story, a real-world level of narrative.

The Story of My Teeth stems from a commission to catalog an actual art collection, and was created in large part by collaboration. It was meant to be read aloud and in instalments. Audience feedback was integrated into subsequent drafts. The author's and translator's collaboration mean the resulting book is a further version of the original, not a strict translation.

The Afterword is more of an Artist's Statement, and for clarity's sake, I wish it were labelled as such. This book is like that odd installation at a gallery that you can't make heads of tails of, but you finally find the little placard an you read and you think it makes sense, but you read it again to make sure, but you're not sure, and you look at the art again and something clicks, but just for a second; it's somehow been made more acceptable even if it's not any less opaque.

The problem is: I'm not convinced art should work that way; it should stand on its own, not propped up by justifications. And for some reason, if that art should be literary — it's already full of words — I think it has less right to go outside of itself in order to communicate about itself.

In that sense, The Story of My Teeth "works" as a piece of art, an artefact, an experiment, but not as a real novel, in my opinion. But I do look forward to hearing the author, discussing the book with others, and having my ignorance dispelled.