And Now Something Completely Different

I am a lucky woman to have such good friends, real and virtual. One of the consequences of my last post was that I caught up with the man I like to call my academic son. He was my PhD student back in the day, and we had just the best time together. Anyway, he happened to mention that he’d recently read Attica Locke’s novel, The Cutting Season and loved it, having a taste for narratives with those Antebellum elements. Upon hearing which I said, ooh, I might just try to put you a list together of other novels you might enjoy, thinking amongst other things of Danielle’s fabulous Thursday Thirteen series.

Well, when I tried to come up with Antebellum stories, I did not do very well. Naturally I thought of:

gone with the wind1. Gone With The Wind, the classic by Margaret Mitchell.

And after some more thinking, I remembered – though have never read myself -

2. Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I believe has a line of plot about a slave girl in the deep South? I know Butler best as a sci-fi writer, and quite how that fits in, goodness only knows.

midnight in the garden3. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, which is all voodoo and spirits and noirish murder elements, yes?

Finally, I remembered reading a few years ago

4. Palladio by Jonathan Dee, which was about a bunch of New York advertising executives on a mission to turn publicity into an art form. I’m pretty sure they end up basing themselves in an Antebellum mansion down south, which has interesting connotations. I remember it as a postmodern sort of novel with lots of metanarrative elements and I did enjoy it.

After that I drew a blank. I mean, I have heard of authors like Eudora Welty and Ellen Glasgow and Robert Penn Warren, aware they are deep South writers without knowing whether their novels contain that sort of plantation story.

So naturally, I turn to you wonderfully read people for further suggestions. Any good ideas I can pass on?

 

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.

A Geography Lesson

No matter how hard I try – and these past six months I have been attempting regular exercise, for crying out loud – I am doomed to hoard stress the way squirrels pack nuts for the winter. Now that things are a little quieter, and the internal imp who scans the horizon for trouble has relaxed, I’ve been feeling quite dreadful. It seems I can only process emotional wear and tear via a form of illness.

archipelagoBy sheer coincidence, a couple of books I’ve read and deeply enjoyed in the run-up to this week, offered an entirely different approach to stress management: the dangerous journey. In Monique Roffey’s wonderful Archipelago, Gavin and his daughter, Océan, take to the Caribbean seas with their dog, Suzy, as a way to deal with compounded grief. Almost a year ago their house was inundated by a freak flood, whose catastrophic results we only learn about as the story unfolds. Close to breakdown, Gavin decides to reawaken an old dream of his youth and take his trusty boat, Romany, west from Trinidad where they live, out towards the Galapagos Islands. Then in the memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail – or at least 1,100 miles of it – after her mother’s untimely death sends her life off course and her marriage breaks down.

The first thing I needed with these books was an atlas. I confess my geography is appalling. It’s even worse than my historical knowledge, and in both cases, what meagre scraps I own come from literature. I am sorry to say that I had a rather shaky sense of where the Caribbean might be, although I knew it had something to do with America, having adored novels by Maryse Condé in the past. For those as ignorant as I was, Trinidad and Tobago are just off the north-east tip of Venezuela, and the Caribbean sits in the shape of a bird in flight between North and South America. The famous islands stretch off towards the North: Barbados, St Lucia, Martinique, and they curve around towards Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, much larger masses of land that form a rough barrier to the Atlantic. Whereas the travellers in Archipelago hug close to the coast of South America, heading through the Panama Canal and then far, far out west to where the Galapagos sit in solitary splendour.

‘I think I had the Panama Canal mixed up with the Suez Canal,’ I told Mr Litlove.

‘You thought it was the Suez Canal?’ said Mr Litlove, in terms of wonderment, which was rich coming from a man who would hesitate to identify the subjunctive.

wildThe Pacific Crest Trail is a wilderness trail that stretches from the Mexican border in California along the crests of nine mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, Klamath and Cascades, traversing Oregon and Washington on its way. The book had a dinky map in the front of it, useful for following the landmarks in Strayed’s memoir but pretty undetailed in itself. My atlas made it look much more daunting; the colours were the ochres and browns, even into the violet blues, of high altitudes. Despite the huge scale of the atlas, there was absolutely nothing there; no civilisation for inches around.

So two books with one word titles to remind you that serious travellers are a close-mouthed lot. They are too busy struggling with the elements to chat. And in both cases, decisions are made to embark on a physical challenge precisely because words fail and are insufficient for healing the pain. Something intriguingly alchemical goes on in this idea: emotional pain becomes released in physical pain, and physical toughness translates back to emotional toughness. In both cases, the journeys worked their magic, though I wonder whether it doesn’t all boil down to an email apocryphal funny my brother sent me, which said if you want to forget all your troubles, wear shoes that pinch.

Cheryl Strayed does exactly that. Young and inexperienced, she has launched into her hike in a way that shows the difference between things as we imagine they will be, and the lived reality. Her boots are a source of extreme discomfort throughout the trip and I got used to skimming the descriptions of her feet she regularly gave when she took them off at night. She also packs too extensively for her trip, creating an outsize backpack that she calls ‘Monster’, which takes its own toll on her body. You wonder whether she might have saved herself some trouble by just heading downtown and getting herself beaten up:

I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by the pack.’

This hike is all about her powers of endurance for Strayed, who was only 26 when she undertook it, and all about the methods of transcendence she can teach herself. Ways to bypass the boredom, the fear of all that could befall her out alone. As Archipelago is fiction, it has a lot more scope to explore its ideas. In the novel, nature is on trial, understood to be both beautiful and sublime, feared as both vicious and destructive. Gavin isn’t sure whether he is still fighting a losing battle against nature or learning to accept his place as part of it:

He has had a romantic attachment, notions about the sea, but these are fantasies. Now he is aware that the sea isn’t interested in him – and yet he’s fascinated with her. The sea has no feelings towards him whatsoever, and yet she stirs unfathomable moods in him. The sea doesn’t care, cannot care, one jot for him and his boat, his child, his dog, and yet they’ve been held mesmerised. At best, the sea is an accomplice to his restlessness.’

In both books, nature is an accomplice at best – willingly offering up vistas of breaktaking loveliness as reasons in themselves for the pain and the trouble of the undertaking. In Archipelago, nature wears a much crueller face, too, the devastation of catastrophe a magnified version of the ordinary battle for survival. But a lot happens in a silent beyond, in the place where human and nature interact. This is where the humans heal, though as Gavin realises, it is an oddly one-sided attachment where we manage to find far more than just what is visible. Perhaps it’s the sense of perspective that saves all the protagonists in the end; the awareness of their own diminutive size in relation to a wild, dangerous, tenderly indifferent world.

I loved both these books – they were highly engrossing, the Roffey full of glorious descriptions, the Strayed balancing its material well between accounts of the trip and her past life leading up to it. And they both have plenty of adventures to recount. But I am left feeling that the Existentialists were right – people are either thinkers or doers and it’s hard to be both. Travel is not the answer to angst for me: instead I have to be attentive to my internal geography. When I was much worse with chronic fatigue, I used to consider my body as a wild and lawless land, with sacking and pillaging going on in ways I couldn’t control. These days, there is much more of a community feel about my internal world, though every so often we have to hunker down when the Visigoths of stress maraud through.

Life, But Not As We Know It

The Ageof MThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is not my usual kind of book. I’m not at all into disaster movies or science fiction, though this book, despite having elements of both, doesn’t really fall plum into either of those categories. Nor do I read much YA, although yet again, I’m not sure whether the fact of an 11-year-old narrative perspective constitutes YA by itself (and in any case, technically this is written from some point in the future, looking back). But I was intrigued by the premise: with no warning, the earth begins to rotate more slowly and the days and nights grow longer and longer. The novel charts the gradual unfolding of this crisis.

Julia is an ordinary child growing up in an ordinary household in California. Like other citizens she hasn’t noticed the first incremental steps of what will become known as ‘the slowing’. It’s not until a television announcement is made that she and her parents have to face a freshly uncertain world.

Later, I would come to think of those first days as the time when we learned as a species that we had worried over the wrong things: the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different – unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.’

Inevitably panic sets in, but this is a global problem – it’s not like people can run to a safe place. After a few days of confusion and unpheaval, stringent attempts are made to return to something approaching normal. The schools open again, businesses and hospitals keep going but the experience of time has been altered irrevocably: now every day is shot through with an uneasy waiting, waiting to see when darkness will finally fall, when daylight will finally return. Steadily, the days are growing longer, and there is nothing anyone can do.

Some people attempt to continue living on ‘real time’, arguing that their bodies will adapt, and that nature will overcome. Meanwhile, as the usual 12-hours of  daylight becomes sixteen, seventeen hours long, government steps in and declares a return to clock time. The 24-hour day is reinstated, no matter what the sun happens to be doing in the sky. A schism opens up between those who comply and those who insist on remaining in step with the skies; they are considered subversives and in the wake of persecution most leave to form colonies of their own. For the rest, trying to sleep in broad daylight or commute in darkness is odd enough, but other strange problems are arising. Birds fall from the skies and balls fail to follow their usual trajectory as gravity loosens its grip. Sport becomes difficult to play. As the slowing continues, the crops begin to fail unless they are given artificial light; the increased drain on power reserves is enormous and problematic. Eventually, the daylight will last so long and the magnetic force surrounding the earth will become so weakened that it is dangerous for people to be out in its burning heat, whilst the long nights bring artic conditions.

And people begin to fall sick with an unexplained syndrome – dizziness, nausea, fatigue. Julia’s mother comes down with it. This is the most immediate effect on Julia and her family, although it is not the first. Her mother is a worrier, easily made anxious, whilst her father, a doctor fully accustomed to shift work, refuses to be unsettled by what’s happening. Her parents grow ever more estranged in their differing attitudes. And for Julia, the global crisis is a kind of amplified version of the trials of adolescence. Her best friend, Hanna, leaves town soon after the slowing starts as her family want to be with a Mormon community. When she returns, weeks later, their friendship is over in ways Julia can’t understand. Julia is secretly obsessed with a boy from school, Seth Moreno, and it’s hard to tell whether her crush is a way of keeping things normal, or another casualty of a world braking on its axis.

Maybe it had begun to happen before the slowing, but it was only afterward that I realised it: My friendships were disintegrating. Things were coming apart. It was a rough crossing, the one from childhood to the next life. And as with any other harsh journey, not everything survived.’

This is a beautifully written novel, full of admirable sentences (‘At last, like a fever, the night broke.’) and the slow breakdown of life as we know it is creatively imagined. I was engaged with the narrative and wanted to read it to the end. But – and here’s where the buts begin – this is a problematic novel in all sorts of ways. Essentially the main issue is that we have a very intriguing situation but no story. Everything that happens in the book can be placed under the heading of: Things Get Worse. When we reach the end, it is as unsatisfactory as only an ending can be when the situation depicted is essentially one of steady entropy. To say it fizzles out is kind. And the events depicted are the product of a deeply pessimistic imagination; things get worse even when they don’t have to. Why does Hanna stop being Julia’s friend? Why do Julia’s parents fall apart? Why does Seth shun her? And where is the entrepreneurial spirit that always arises in humans in crisis situations? Part criminal, part creative, people are wired to take advantage of changing conditions as much as they are wired to fear them.

All this is beside the dodgy science. I am woefully uninformed in scientific matters; you could get anything past me. But readers with more knowledge seem united in decrying the situation that is the best part of this novel. It seems it would not happen this way: there would be a great deal more of a prologue, and earth would likely be sucked out of its orbit altogether. Which would considerably shorten the story, I guess.

So this is an interesting one. A good book in some ways, a bad book in others. A readable book and a plausible book, and simultaneously an impossible book and a disappointing story. I enjoyed the first half a great deal, and felt my admiration steadily drain away in the second half. But the writing was consistently good; I’ll definitely be curious to see what the author does next.