I saw and heard, and knew at lastThe How and Why of all things, past,And present, and forevermore.
Time to get more ESVM, I guess…
I like this video, but it reminds me of a conversation I had with my husband about how much space we are going to need in our flat for our books. Neither D nor I talk like that writer, though. He sounds a little creepy.
I just read this book, which various people have called “the best book you will read this year” and other similar superlatives. My best tip to you, before I get started writing about this book, is DO NOT READ THE REVIEWS. Just read the book. The reviews all focus on the best stories, and I really wish I had read those stories without knowing the subtle ways he introduces the shocking elements – lulls you into a sense of normality and then rips the ground away.
So, that said, this review contains spoilers, and if you haven’t read the book and ever think you will, you should probably stop reading now.
Now, for the rest of you:
I did like this book. I don’t think that this is the best book I will read all year. In fact, I hope that is not true. But it is a truly good – possibly great? – book of short stories. I really love short stories lately, and I think the last several books I have read are short story collections. Lately, I really loved the writing in John Burnside’s Something Like Happy, although I’m not sure how daring or “important” that work is. My favourite – still – is Yiyun Li’s Golden Boy, Emerald Girl. I will be surprised if anything can compete with that – I found it both inventive, amazingly written and daring.
This book is different than those. This book is extremely daring, and the writing is very varied – intentionally. He is clearly a man of intense devotion to language, and attention to how language influences scenes and the way we judge characters. We as readers are thoroughly manipulated by the writing in this book, in a very artistic way, and that can be very uncomfortable at points.
I think I got off to a weird start with the book because I didn’t really love the first story, “Victory Lap”. It was interesting, gripping and intense, but I found the style grating and the main character’s voice unbelievable – a self-absorbed teenage girl. The voice of the self-absorbed teenage boy is also unbelievable, at least to me. But impressively different, and it sets a tone of edginess for the book.
I liked the next story, “Sticks”, which is very short, but super weird, and a really strong piece in the book. The way it ends – “He painted a sign saying LOVE and hung it from the pole and another that said FORGIVE? and then he died int he hall with the radio on and we sold the house to a young couple who yanked out the pole and left it by the road on garbage day.” It sort of intensely encapsulates exactly how no one wants to die, I guess, and left me physically shaking my head.
“Puppy” is one of the stories that everyone talks about, so if you really are going to read the book, I do really think you should skip this paragraph. It is not clear initially that what is tied to the tree is a child, but hence the cover picture of this edition of the book, and the story is very, very strange, and very affecting. Who chains their child to a tree? Perhaps, this story asserts, someone who has no other way to keep the child at home while letting it go outside. You enter the world of that family with this “normal” family (not super normal in itself), who comes to get a puppy from the family – and you see everything through the mother’s eyes, and you feel yourself judge them and want to run away… and then you run away with her, narratively speaking. A very strong story.
“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of my favourite stories, and it’s not one that gets written about a lot in the reviews. It is a piece about a drug testing centre in a prison for murderers, as far as I could tell. It that reminded me strongly of the New Yorker story about drug testing, “Operation Delirium” – a testing centre where the long-term effects of the drugs on the taker was not taken into account, and people were given drugs that they didn’t know what they did. It is really dark – about how these drugs impede decision-making, and the helplessness that comes from that, and ends with the narrator making a final decision to assert his will in his life – by killing himself. I liked this part:
What’s death like?
You’re briefly unlimited
It’s a complex story, talking partially about the drugs’ ability to take away the will of someone, and at the same time the social and genetic precursors of these murderers – asserting that the “murderers” had not wanted to kill anyone, and yet do not deny having done so. And at the end, the character gets some peace: “My only regret was Mom. I hoped someday, in some better place, I’d get a chance to explain it to her, and maybe she’d be proud of me, one last time, after all these years. … and I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.”
“Exhortation”, the next story, plays on similar themes, and I liked it as well, but I found the contrast in the narrator – a sort of flippant “we’re just doing our jobs” tone – jarring. And interesting.
“Al Roosten”, about a sort of small-town failure, was fine but sort of unremarkable.
“The Semplica Girl Diaries” is the one everyone talks about everywhere, and it is the one you shouldn’t read about if you are going to read the book. Believe me! I really wish I hadn’t. So anyway, it’s the one about these women who float in people’s yards, suspended by wires through their heads. It is an amazing and jarring story, and sort of irritatingly written at points – effectively, but irritating because it is in diary format (it reminded me of, but is nowhere near as extreme as, the hillbilly-type narrator in Cloud Atlas). But it is amazing. As amazing as people say, and it stays with you for a long time after, and I just wish I hadn’t read about it before I read it. Because I was just waiting to get to the part where it explains that they are floating on a wire through their head.
“Home” is amazing – about a veteran just back from a war – one assumes Afghanistan, because there is a really apropos conversation towards the beginning:
“Welcome back,” the first kid said.
“Where were you?” the second one said.”At the war?” I said, in the most insulting voice I could muster. “Maybe you’ve heard of it?”
“I have,” the first one said respectfully. “Thank you for your service.”
“Which one?” the second one said. “Aren’t there two?”
“Didn’t they just call one off?” the first one said.
“My cousin’s there,” the second said. “At one of them. At least I think he is. I know he was supposed to go. We were never that close.”
It is a really smart way of describing how Americans actually do still relate to those wars, which seem so far away, and almost-over, and inconsequential. And yet, everyone he meets also robotically says, “Thank you for your service.” It is actually what happens as well – I travelled with my brother, who is newly in the Navy (hasn’t gone anywhere yet), and everyone does say it. All the time. In this story, it is really striking how it sits alongside this total indifference.
It is a very tender story, and complex, as this writing about the military shows. It is a story about things that go wrong, and military discipline, and how an individual deals with depressing decline in his own personal life (“Oh, Ma, I remember when you were young and wore your hair in braids and I would have died to see you sink so low”). And it is very much about loss, and the unfixable loss of war:
“Then suddenly something softened in me, maybe at the sight of Ma so weak, and I dropped my head and waded all docile into that crowd of know-nothings, thinking: Okay, okay, you sent me, now bring me back. Find some way to bring me back, you fuckers, or you are the sorriest bunch of bastards the world has ever known.”
“My Chivalric Fiasco”, the penultimate story, is again an interesting concept (a sort of knight theme park story, with some of the drugs in the previous story used again), but I didn’t love it. But it was amusing.
And, finally, “Tenth of December”. This is another of the best of these stories, where there is deep tenderness, and amusing predicaments, and Saunders takes us deep into the idea that I think we all hear so much: we might as well kill ourselves if we start to get a terminal illness – you’re just a burden, etc. (I have a whole hysteria about this, which I will spare you.) This book goes deep into that – one of the main narrators is a person who, it seems, is getting Alzheimer’s or something similar, and knows it is happening. He is walking into the wilderness to kill himself.
“It happened to everyone supposedly but now it was happening specifically to him. He’d kept waiting for some special dispensation. But no. Something/someone bigger than him kept refusing. You were told that the big something/someone loved you especially but in the end you saw it was otherwise. The big something/someone was neutral. Unconcerned. When it innocently moved, it crushed people.”
And then it is a story that is about redemption and about life, and I loved it, and it made me really really close to crying.
“Because, okay, the thing was — he saw it now, was starting to see it — if some guy, at the end, fell apart, and said or did bad things, or had to be helped, helped to quite a considerable extent? So what? What of it? Why should he not do or say weird things or look strange or disgusting? Why should the shit not run down his legs? Why should those he loved not lift and bend and feed and wipe him, when he would gladly do the same for them? He’d been afraid to be lessened by the lifting and bending and feeding and wiping, and was still afraid of that, and yet, at the same time, now saw that there could still be many — many drops of goodness, is how it came to him — many drops of happy — of good fellowship — ahead, and those drops of fellowship were not — had never been — his to withheld.
And so on.
So that’s a lot of spoilers.
In sum, my favourite stories were:
I have procured 8 new books in the last 24 hours.
1 was a gift from my Russian teacher: Gombrich’s Topics of Our Time: Twentieth-century issues in learning and in art.
Three were cheap books bought off Amazon for under 1 pound, basically because I think I need them but not for any particular burning reason:
The rest are relatively more contemporary books that I think I need to read for one reason or another:
There are more books I almost bought, but this post is long enough!
I have a little stack of things to share with you this morning. Or a stack of things to go through. That’s it, sitting in the foreground of the sunny picture, next to some pillows on the floor. (I have something against the couch – I just don’t like couches so I sit on the floor.)
The problem is that my head is fuzzy right now, in a kind of pre-cold or pre-cough way. I will try to post something on Granta, and post on the other stuff later.
I read this latest edition of Granta on the flights I took this week to Moscow and then to Bishkek. I read basically the whole thing on the Moscow flight (4 hours), and then snoozed a bit and read a couple more stories on the Moscow-Bishkek flight. (On the return flights, only a couple hours later, I was totally exhausted and slept.)
Betrayal, Granta’s current volume, starts with a cruel, horrific story about Syria, “Seven Days in Syria” – about torture and about the real lives that are caught up in the war there. It writes unflinchingly, but a bit unsatisfactorily as well – it writes to show horror, and, of course, betrayal. There are no answers, though, and this story will not feed them to you – it is devoid of politics, at least from a Western audience’s point of view. Everyone is being betrayed by everyone else, and it sounds like hell. (I am currently also reading Samar Yasbek’s A Woman In the Crossfire, albeit very slowly/intermittently, and it has a similar tone. Maybe there is no more satisfying way to write about that conflict.)
Almost every story in this book has an interesting setting and unusual characters – ranging from re-enactors in a Custer’s Last Stand, forest fire-fighters and Pakistani teenagers. Aside from the Syrian piece, my favourites were “A Brief History of Fire” by Jennifer Vanderbes and the photography essay “Julie” by Darcy Padilla. “Abingdon Square” by Andre Aciman was also gripping, and somewhat true to life: it reminded me of men I work with and who hit on me, but don’t actually have the courage to do anything (not that I want them to).
All of the writing was good, but some of the other stories seemed like basically creative-writing-class assignments, or stories where they were trying on a new genre but weren’t giving anything away of themselves. I’d put Lauren Wilkinson’s “Safety Catch” in that category, although I enjoyed reading it. And “The Loyalty Protocol” by Ben Marcus, which reminds me of other bleak but somewhat uninspired dystopian stories. I don’t know if it is part of a book, but it felt like a lot of other things I have read before. Probably the most strong contender for this category of books that seemed to have been written for creative writing is “The New Veterans” by Karen Russell. That story was affectingly written but felt sort of cheesy, and I didn’t really ever get into it.
Finally, I didn’t manage to read “Paddleball” because it bored me in the first couple pages, and I was falling asleep on the plane.
This is basically going to be a stream-of-consciousness post about things I have read, or thought about reading, or somehow related to the world of ideas, in the past week.
I have read the past two issues of New Yorker on the Tube this week. Obviously not everything everything because I don’t have that much time on the Tube, actually. Or even on trains. Anyway I read the 28 Jan and 4 Feb editions of the New Yorker. I really liked the “Slumlord” article by Jon Lee Anderson about Chavez, although it seemed a bit inconclusive or just like a snapshot, which is a criticism that Brits often level against the New Yorker. (Not being a Brit, I often defend the writing of fact and reportage against the relentless bias of the British press.) I also learned a bit from the article “Home Economics” by Tad Friend, about the mortgage crisis and an investment plan/fraud (depending on whom you ask), but didn’t enjoy it as much. Similarly, I was interested in – but not totally won over by – the article about Dr. Oz, “The Operator” by Michael Specter. I don’t live in the US, so I don’t know about this phenomenon. There’s something compelling to me about him encouraging people to challenge the medical profession… and then it just seems weird.
My favourite and most remarkable article was the article on window-washing, “Life at the Top” by Adam Higginbotham. This type of article is really why I read the New Yorker: when you read these summaries of what the articles are about, and you think, “Okay…” and you make a bemused face. But actually, what the writers/journalists are doing is opening a whole other world to you, and making you think differently about something in your life… forever. Like, say, how I feel differently about floor-to-ceiling glass windows now.
So that was my transport reading.
I have been hauling around The Condition of Postmodernity in my bag all week (it’s probably into Week 2 by now… or 3…), but haven’t really read it. Too much work, tired brain, etc.
When go to bed, I read Dear Life by Alice Munro when I am going to bed – a story a night or so. But I don’t love it the way I loved Too Much Happiness, so I don’t know. TMH seemed like it was perpetually dark, and I guess I liked that – it felt like it was pushing a boundary somewhere. I don’t feel that about these stories. In fact, I don’t remember these stories in general much at all. More on that when I actually review it, I guess.
And my weekend was the festival on The Rest Is Noise – the weekend about Paris. This weekend was great, but also brain-sapping. I/we went to talks on Surrealist Poetry with Mark Waldron and Luke Kennard (moderated by Chris McCabe), and a Noise Bite session about Anais Nin, Georges Bataille, Gertrude Stein and the Moulin Rouge. We watched Un Chien Andalou and Menilmontant. D. and I each fell asleep in one of the films. I loved the surrealist poetry (“you’ll never know what a miserable suburb the Earth was” is a quote from “The Future” that I loved and noted), and the talk on Gertrude Stein was particularly good.
And then, finally, we went to see/hear some music by Falla and Respighi, but skipped out before we got to the Ravel. Which felt awesome, although now I need to listen to it.
Today I went to talks by Kevin Jackson on 1922 (author of Constellations of Genius) and by Sarah Churchwell on Americans in Paris. Then I watched a concert modeled on the avant-garde salons of the 1920s Paris: Satie’s Socrate (beautiful if background music but … I found it a bit dull to watch), and some amazing Stravinsky – I enjoyed that a lot more. It’s much wilder, of course. But interesting to see the two sides of the modernism and movements of the time.
A great weekend, which allowed me to do what I need to do with my weekends: to remember the other life that I life – my life inside my head, my intellectual life – the life of the thinking and, hopefully one day, doing something else. This is not to say that I am not happy at my job – I like it. But it is not everything I want to do with my life. But it is hard to fit it all in!
But, for this month, I think that my feeling of a bit of a smugness for reading the book at the same time as the Rumpus Book Club is also pretty good. I usually don’t know about good new books. Maybe my book blog stalking is paying off?