Various Fires

A couple of things today. First, the latest inbetweenie update of Shiny New Books is available at the site – a further 22 reviews and features. A few of my personal highlights:

The editors discuss the Booker longlist (which we enjoyed doing very much)

Max Dunbar’s wonderful review of Kevin Birmingham’s book about the controversy surrounding the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses

When I was too poorly to read and review Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Simon leapt Sir Galahad-like into the breach and took it on for me. He liked it but didn’t think it worthy of the prize longlist.

Reviews of books I absolutely have to read: Beth Gutcheon’s Gossip, N. Quentin Woolf’s The Death of the Poet, Maggie Gee’s Virginia Woolf in Manhatten, Angela Young’s The Dance of Love, Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath.

TheArsonistFor almost the past two months I’ve been hesitating over Sue Miller’s new novel, The Arsonist, and whether I would review it here or in SNB. I’m a huge fan of Sue Miller and think she is wonderful on the complex networks of emotions that bind families and friends together. She has tremendous subtlety in her writing along with a fine-tuned understanding of the dramatic power of ordinary daily life. In short she does something I love: write about reality in a way that digs deep into the real. When I began The Arsonist, I was convinced it was going to end up on my best-of list for the year, but then the ending left me in all kinds of doubt.

The story begins when Frankie Rowley comes home to her parents in the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire after fifteen years as an aid worker in Africa. She is burnt out from the frustrating work, and the strange combination of glamour and destitution she has experienced as someone who would do international good. She has also recently been through a bruising break-up, after the kind of intense but short-lived relationship she is normally skilled at resolving. Although she hasn’t yet told her parents, she isn’t sure she will ever go back.

Parents Sylvia and Alfie have their own troubles. They have recently retired and decided to live in what used to be the family holiday home, thinking that its rural location will be both soothing and energising. But Alfie is increasingly troubled by the early signs of dementia, and Sylvia finds herself in the undesirable position of carer in an isolated environment. Nearby, Frankie’s sister, Liz and her family, are building a holiday home of their own, and Liz is relieved to see Frankie back, feeling that impending responsibility for their parents has rested for too long on her shoulders. But Frankie feels herself shrinking away from family demands. Her relationship with Sylvia is awkward – ‘mothering wasn’t a gift of her mother’s’ – something Sylvia herself doesn’t deny when she realises how much she resents Alfie’s slow decline, and after the demands of Africa, Frankie instinctively veers away from more impossible calls for aid. Alfie, who has always been indulged, does not understand what a burden of care he has set in motion.

Anyway, the first night Frankie is back, she wakes with jet lag and decides to go for a walk. On her return, a car shoots past her and she believes she can smell smoke. It isn’t until the next morning that she learns a neighbouring property has been set on fire and burned to the ground. And it isn’t until several days later that she puts two and two together regarding the car and whom it might have contained. In the meantime, the fires continue steadily. An arsonist is at work, targeting the properties of the summer vacationers, and whilst it seems that care is being taken to choose ones that stand empty, it isn’t long before a mistake is made.

Frankie begins a new relationship with Bud Jacobs, owner of the local newspaper and another escapee from the grind of ambitious careers. He used to be a political journalist in Washington but decided to take on the challenge of local news instead. As the number of arson attacks mount and the residents become ever more alarmed for their safety, Bud searches for all possible angles from which to cover the fires. When he writes that an anonymous source from the state police suggested that ‘the divide between year-round and summer residents could offer a possible motivation for what otherwise seems a series of motiveless crimes,’ he stirs up a hornets’ nest with this possibility of ‘class resentment’. It isn’t long before the summer residents are sending a petition to him, demanding more responsible reportage. The issue is hotter than the fires themselves.

So Sue Miller creates all kinds of provocative and fascinating oppositions in her novel: Will they track the arsonist down before someone’s life is lost? And what will the motivation for the crime be – personal or political? What will happen to Alfie as his condition deteriorates? Will Frankie choose the ‘ordinary’ life of small town America or the big picture of Africa? And what of her relationship with Bud – will that persuade her to stay? What of the dynamics in Frankie’s family – can they work together or will they be torn apart?

But once Frankie and Bud begin their affair, it seems to suck all the heat out of the rest of the story; the least interesting part of the narrative slowly starts to dominate. And much as I do not wish to give anything away, it’s fair to say that nothing is resolved, not any of the potentially enticing and thrilling storylines. You might of course say that Sue Miller remains resolutely true to life in making such choices. But at the same time, after all the lit fuses of the early part of the novel, it’s a letdown that there are no explosive conclusions.

I wondered whether Miller had so acutely put her finger on a series of powerful issues in America that she was unable to resolve them without coming down off her novelist’s fence. It would have been too risky to come out with the motivation for the arson as class resentment, too provocative to have Frankie choose outright for insular concerns over difficult international situations, too awkward to tackle the very real constraints to personal freedom that are posed by serious illnesses – both to those who suffer and those who must care for them. As I say, what I like most about Miller’s writing is how real she is. But she is also an insistently compassionate author; she has her characters admit to awkward, shameful failings and is careful always to grant them every sympathy. Perhaps she couldn’t, at any level, construct villains. But it does make for an uneven and inconclusive novel.

First Cousin Once Removed of the Great American Novel

The ‘Great American Novel’ is a redolent term that reviewers tend to use towards a certain kind of book: a thick doorstep of social realism, wide in scope, ambitious in theme and literary in style. We’re talking Jonathan Frantzen, Philip Roth, John Steinbeck, Don DeLillo. The essential quality of the novel is that it must capture the spirit of the age, and say something significant about the experience of being American in the contemporary world and the present moment.

Funny, then, that I should find myself thinking about the possibility that the great American novel has an unusual cousin, a long-lost relative from the backwaters who has a quirky, some might even say, eccentric take on American life that might be every bit as truthful and potent as those fat mainstream novels. The ones I’ve read have all been written by women, they concern themselves with the fraught dynamics of family life and they contain a heady dash of magic realism.

For a nation that disapproves of the passive voice, magic realism with its essential unaccountability, its bright-eyed embrace of the fantastic, is always going to be a hard sell. You won’t find the challenging extremes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez here, or the brash playfulness of Angela Carter. But when it appears, it often salutes rural wisdom, the inherited knowledge of generations, or a simple but vivid case of altered perception. I’m thinking of Alice Hoffman, basically, and the candy-sweet voice of Sarah Addison Allen, and further back in that lineage, closer to its mainline and altogether darker, Toni Morrison.

The Moon SistersTherese Walsh’s new novel, The Moon Sisters, lies somewhere on the spectrum between Alice Hoffman and Sarah Addison Allen. It’s a simply told tale of two warring sisters, who must find a way to come to terms with the recent loss of their mother, despite their differences. Jazz, the elder, is rational, distrustful of sentiment and pragmatic. Her response to the sudden loss of their mother under disturbing circumstances is to get herself a job at the funeral home. Olivia, by contrast, is the flighty, dreamy one, homeschooled, imaginative and synaesthetic. Her response is to stare at the sun for so long that she just about blinds herself. And then, in this debilitated condition, she decides that the only way to assuage her grief is to make the long trip to the Monongahela glades and see the will-o’the-wisp phenomenon her mother longed to witness. A failed writer, their mother could never manage to finish her novel until she’d seen these fairy lights, something that was always unlikely to happen, given her depressive state. When she is found dead in the family kitchen, Olivia believes it was just an accident with the gas stove; Jazz has no doubts it was suicide.

An so off Olivia goes, infuriating Jazz, who finds herself once again obliged to protect her ditzy younger sister and embark on a trip she has no desire for herself. In no time at all the sisters run into trouble and fall in with a group of train-hoppers, whose motives for helping them are distinctly unclear. Told in alternating chapters, the narrative whistles along smoothly, the trick of inhabiting each sister’s viewpoint brings the urgency of their desires into relief alongside the vexatious nature of each sister’s response to the other. Olivia can’t bear Jazz’s anger and contempt, her insistence on attempting to lay down the law which makes her react subversively against it. And you cannot help but feel for Jazz who does not understand her sister’s emotions at all and sees only reckless self-harming behaviour. It’s a very good, convincing portrait of the love/hate that binds siblings together, pushed to an extreme because of a family crisis that no one knows how to deal with. A variation on the buddy road trip narrative, they will eventually be forced to come to terms with their differences and understand that what binds them together is stronger than the characteristics that pull them apart.

And what of the spirit of the age embodied in such a narrative? For me it was tied up in a throwaway remark that Oliva remembers her mother saying, when Jazz has spoiled her belief in Santa Claus: ‘my mother pulled me onto her lap and reminded me of one of her life truths: It was okay to believe in things that others didn’t believe in. It was okay not to believe, too.’ When the parameters are set so wide, what couldn’t fit in there? A few will-o’the-wisps are nothing. Olivia’s synasthesia is hardly radical. Yet in the very battle between straight-minded Jazz and hippy-dippy Olivia there’s a nation’s struggle at work between logic and liberality. Between the puritan pursuit of hard work and the desire for self-fulfillment and freedom of expression in whatever form it may take. That’s why this kind of fiction intrigues me: beneath its easy-read surface lies a complicated tangle of ideology. No wonder a little magic is needed to make it all come right.

A Rare Linky Post

Usually I think of my blog as the place where I put down my thoughts. But things have been so hectic of late that I haven’t really had any that are worth noting. Instead, I’m going to link to three posts that have caused me lately to stop and think.

 

Andrew Blackman: The Future of Books: Reactive?

This fascinating post reports on advances in technology in ‘reactive media’ in which we get to be hooked up to a machine that stimulates the storyline we’re reading if we get bored, or dials it back if we’re overreacting.

I guess that whether your reaction to all this is “Wow, that sounds cool” or “Please shoot me now” depends on what you want from your media,’ Andrew writes.

No prizes for guessing which camp I’m in.

 

Dutch Courage (written by my friend Ingrid): Proving Yourself

This is a beautifully written post in which Ingrid considers the subtle difference between ‘justifying yourself’ and ‘proving yourself’, a distinction linked to gender identity that she becomes aware of while supporting her young son as he grows. Masculinity, she learns, consists in part of:

The unshakeable drive to prove oneself worthy of a higher and nobler calling (love), the need to have one’s action’s approved by a band of brothers, that all-in-allness that men establish between each other through competition and the fair fight is absolutely hardwired into them. They could no more let go of it than they could drop down and walk on all fours. To laugh at this drive is to wound a man profoundly.’

 

The Guardian: Top Five Regrets of the Dying

This is an old post that Mr Litlove alerted me to a while back and which I return to every now and then to check in with and check myself against. It arose out of a book written by an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care. The regrets are:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard (apparently every single man said this).

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings (many felt that buried resentment and bitterness had played a part in their illnesses).

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends (ironically, while typing this my neighbour came to the door for a chat and after catching up with the headlines I had to shoo her away because I had so much work to do).

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

What a salutory lesson those five regrets encompass. I find myself particularly drawn to the last one, although I think that, taken wrongly, it can be made into an excuse for suppressing problems that really need to be dealt with. I’d probably change it into ‘I wish I’d let myself fully recognise what emotions were appropriate to any given situation, and let myself experience them.’

On that note, I will just say that I think my son is beginning to find more emotional equilibrium, and my back is a great deal better. Thanks to the splendid heated band-aid, I did make the event in Heffers last week with Jill Dawson (who turns out to be absolutely lovely). I was not what you’d call comfortable, but I was there. One less thing to regret. :)  Thank you all for your amazing, invaluable support; I certainly couldn’t manage without my virtual friends.

How Not To Learn The Hard Way

Erickson, looking worryingly like Robbie Williams' granddad

Erickson, looking worryingly like Robbie Williams’ granddad

In the first half the twentieth century, a psychotherapist called Milton Erickson had a gift for teaching people in strange and unusual ways. All Erickson’s patients wanted to do was something supposedly quite normal – lose weight, make love, travel without fear, or develop a new skill – but it was as if some kind of enchantment held them hopelessly in place. Bewitched by fear or insecurity, they lived lives of confinement, until Erickson and his bizarre methods succeeded again and again in releasing them from their spell. His therapies often looked contentious, but what he did have was insight into the obstacles we like to erect in the path of the learning process.

Erickson knew all about being stuck. As a teenager he had nearly died from an attack of polio that left him paralysed and mute. Using body memories and an unfeasible amount of determination, he re-learned how to access his muscles and eventually regained control of his speech and his arms. Dissatisfied still that he could not use his legs, he decided to embark, alone, on a thousand-mile canoe trip, taking with him only a few dollars. He returned home able to walk with the help of a cane, the ordeal having taught him how to push himself beyond what he believed to be his physical, mental and emotional capacities. These experiences restored his body to him, but they also gave him much insight into the complicated process of getting people to learn things to which they have an inbuilt resistance. He knew that minds are bewitched by the magician’s sleight of hand and powerfully affected by the experience of an ordeal, and he made use of these different mental triggers in his therapeutic process with great cunning and invention.

He was particularly successful at treating sportsmen who were struggling to reach new levels of achievement. One of his case histories concerns a young American high school boy who won a gold medal at the Olympics under his tutelage. When Erickson first met Donald Lawrence, he had been practicing the shot put for a year and theoretically had everything going for him. He was six foot six, 260 pounds of pure muscle and trained by an ambitious coach. But he was still significantly short of attaining a national high school record. Erickson told him the story of how Roger Bannister found the right frame of mind to break the four-minute mile by recognizing that he only needed to shave a tenth of a second off the previous record. He said to Lawrence, ‘You have already thrown the shot fifty-eight feet. And Donald, tell me honestly, do you think you know the difference between fifty-eight feet and fifty-eight feet and one-sixteenth of an inch?’

Over the next few sessions, Erickson would repeat this technique, lingering over the hard to conceptualise difference between fifty-eight and fifty-nine feet on an athletic field, or as he put it, enlarging the possibility for the young man. Two weeks later, Lawrence set a national high-school record.

Lawrence wins his Olympic bronze medal

Lawrence wins his Olympic bronze medal

Having proven himself to be a magician, Erickson had the boy in the palm of his hand. A few months later, he came to Erickson for advice about the Olympics. ‘You are just an eighteen-year-old kid,’ Erickson told him. ‘It would be all right if you bring home the bronze medal.’ Which Lawrence promptly did. Four years later, Erickson advised him that it would be fine for him now to win gold. By the time he stopped working with him, Lawrence was throwing the shot put sixty-eight feet and ten inches, all on the basis of a potent cocktail of numerical confusion, self-belief and a dogged devotion to the magic of authority.

Erickson’s success was based on the recognition that the conscious mind has really very little say in what we actually end up doing. All those motivational talks, all that pumping oneself up, all that pleading and scolding that goes on inside our heads is so much white noise. What’s actually in control is a small, piggy part of the self, stubborn, well-defended and unwilling to budge. Erickson’s methods depended on implementing change by tiny, tiny increments. The natural inclination is to rush towards change, trying to attempt far too much in one go and ensuring failure.  Instead, he encouraged his patients to consider how to make a two percent change to their situation. It had to be something negligible, something almost ludicrous in order to evade all those internal censors, hell-bent on assuring continuity. For once a little change has been made, change itself became a more acceptable concept, and another step in the right direction would be much easier to undertake.

But aligned with this insight was Erickson’s covert use of authority. Authority is generally what most of us appeal to in order to get the piggy part moving. Do it, or else, is the classic default setting for action. But Erickson’s authority was benign when he worked with Lawrence. Erickson was known as a shrewd judge of character, quick to exploit a patient’s foibles, and when he saw the docile, hard-working Lawrence steered into his consulting rooms by a determined coach with his eye on high school glory, he must have recognized a personality that would readily and willingly submit.

A relationship to authority resides at the heart of any learning process. The fear of the teacher’s wrath, the fear of the exam, the fear of public humiliation are undoubtedly motivating factors. But the stick isn’t enough on its own – there must be a carrot too. And the flip side of authority, its gentle alter ego, is the act of belonging. We submit to education in the first place in order to belong to our world, to a particular culture or society and its ways of thought. Belonging is a hidden, stealthy part of the things we learn, but it is all the more powerful for being understated. The young shot-putter belonged entirely to Erickson, as his faithful and loyal disciple. The sheer power of that belonging gave him the confidence to do whatever it was that Erickson said he could do.

For most of us, the point of thinking is to reach a point where we don’t have to think any more. A point where our ideas are organised, fixed and justified. And that point is usually one that is terrifically satisfying in relation to belonging – our ideas please our parents or our teachers, they seem in line with the famous figures we admire, the class we aspire to, the religion or political party that impresses us. It’s why intellectual arguments, no matter how brilliant they are, rarely persuade people to think otherwise, even in situations where objective, rational arguments might be recognized as extremely valuable. We have already thought ourselves into a position that feels secure and correct. To have to move on from it, to undermine all we have learnt to master, to face challenges, new ordeals, opposing thoughts, well, it’s no wonder that it’s a ghastly, unnerving prospect for anyone.

Erickson showed how knowledge is not just an acquisition based on logic, but one fraught with emotion and the need for security. We become emotionally attached to what we think we know, and so the greater the change in our knowledge, the more emotionally challenging it feels.

This post is a sort of indirect response to two fantastic articles:  Laura Miller’s brilliant continuation of Eleanor Catton’s article on literature and perceived elitism (after another twitter storm over the use of the word ‘crepuscular’ in the Paris Review).