My Experience Is Not Your Experience

I walk into the supermarket. I know exactly where I’m going. I head to the shelves of books for sale and start flicking through them, trying to ignore the glare of the neon lights that fills my peripheral vision. And as I flick through I come to a conclusion: they all sound exactly the same. I call it the deadpan first person present. You know what I mean. Short sentences. The occasional long lyrical one thrown in to prove the author can do it. It’s pitifully easy to write. And quick to read. And I absolutely loathe it.

Gah! Yuck! Awful! Where on earth has it come from and why has it taken over mass market fiction so completely? This year I’ve had a lot of this sort of contemporary fiction sent to me and I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read it. It puts my teeth on edge, like vinyl wallpaper and crepe dress fabric. It’s a very particular and personal response, though, as I’ve never come across anyone else expressing the reservations I feel. After a lot of thought, I realise that what I dislike is the lack of musicality in language like this; which essentially means no affect to the words – no deep-rooted emotion. Oh it says a lot of stuff, and often it’s used in thrillers to talk endlessly about the crisis the female protagonist is going through, but it’s language which is dead behind the eyes.

Well, for me it is. As I was thinking about why I disliked it so, I realised that the world has changed enormously when it comes to reader response. When I read up about it in college, it was stuck in the realm of theory, because no one really knew what readers en masse thought. Nowadays, with millions of blogs and sites like Goodreads we’re awash with the opinions of readers of every shape and size. And what becomes clear is how bizarrely picky we are.

Not long ago, I was at an author event where Sophie Hannah was speaking. She told us about a reader who had come up to her and tackled her about a detail of one of her books. In it, the protagonist had driven a car three weeks after a caesarian section. Given that no one could possibly drive for at least six weeks after such an operation, the woman said, it had put her right off the book. Oh, Sophie Hannah had replied, really? I drove two weeks after mine.

If I ever visit Goodreads, it fills me with terror for the human race, for much the same sort of reaction. I remember reading a review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland on it. The reviewer had had a complete tantrum over the fact that a character engaged in a sexual act fervently wishes her partner would hurry up. Whoever would do such a thing? the reader fumed. How impossibly rude! She had hated the book after that, given up on it and put it aside as a badly written novel. It was an extraordinary response in many ways, not least because the character in the book is committing adultery at the time, and whilst she enters into it willingly, she is assailed by guilt as the scene progresses. All the context for this event had been removed when the reader read the passage; some idiosyncratic trigger had been sprung and irrational but powerful feelings had taken over.

I think to some degree or other, no reader can really escape this sort of reaction. It’s very human – and equally human to blame the book rather than our own crazy emotions. The greatest incidence of such trigger responses seems to be around this issue of likable or sympathetic characters. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read reviews that bewail ‘horrible’ people in books that haven’t struck me as horrible in the least. And I’ve read enough books myself with characters endlessly justifying their behaviors (which annoys me) or responding in ways I think are odd, to know I do the same thing.

What it boils down to is, I think, that understanding my experience is not your experience remains one of the hardest laws of reality that we ever have to get our heads around, right up there with getting the fact that people can only give love in their own fashion, not in the way we might want to receive it. When characters in books react in ways that are alien to us, or in ways we think are wrong, or in ways that awaken old memories of hurts and slights, or in ways that are simply not borne out by our own experience, we become distanced from them. They are – quite literally – not sympathetic any more.

Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book Wilful Blindness, goes deep into the psychological research around this desire for the familiar. We marry people who are like us, we are friends with people who are like us, we search out views and opinions that confirm our own. And mostly, we hate to think this might be true. ‘Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently,’ she writes. In one experiment, subjects were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, and subsequently they ‘were far more lenient in judging the mad monk than those who had nothing in common with him.’ Trivialities matter. Since 1998, over 4.5 million people have taken Implicit Association Tests that measure bias, and especially the sort of bias we aren’t conscious of having, the kind that makes white doctors friendlier towards white patients than black ones. No point in being complacent – more than 80 percent of us are biased against the elderly. Nobody comes out of this particularly well, even if, as Heffernan insists, we all want very earnestly not to feel these ways.

Well, our book reviews are pretty clear that we are all full of foibles and prejudices, and that we are pretty hard on fictional characters who don’t match up to the internal yardstick. It’s an intriguing thought that books give us one representation of human nature, and book reviews give us another, more revealing, one. Reading is a trick way of looking into a mirror, because we read in the most private part of our minds, well away from witnesses and onlookers. Stories tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the lives in their pages. And what does my own irrational dislike of some innocent writing style say? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know I still have residual fear towards people whose emotions I can’t read, or who are saying one thing while feeling another. I love reading because stories do go beneath the surface, on the whole, they do show you the whole picture. I think I’m irritated beyond all proportion by stories that don’t have emotional depth, while this currently fashionable style is a way of depicting women in crisis who don’t make the reader feel like they’re ‘whining’ or ‘moaning’, which gets a very bad press. But that’s only my reading of the situation… and we all know that’s just personal.

Today Is Extra Shiny!

SNB-logo-small-e1393871908245I’m particularly excited by today’s Extra Shiny because my section, BookBuzz, is full of all sorts of new and thrilling things.

There’s the discussion for our book club on Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests

There’s an announcement of a poetry competition we’re holding.

There’s brand new YA special features.

There’s an interview with one of the judges on the Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize panel.

And Annabel has given us a new links page.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much new stuff happening all at once! I think I’m going to lie down in a darkened room for a while, if you don’t mind…but you go on over and have a look.

Back To Life

spectreofalex‘Of all my memories, of all my life’s innumerable sensations, the most onerous was that of the single murder I had committed.’ So begins Gaito Gazdanov’s haunting and mercurial novella, The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. The narrator was a mere sixteen years old when he became caught up in the Russian civil war, and it was after a period of intense and sleepless battle that he found himself cut off from his troop. Fortunately, he came across a riderless Cossack mare and hoisted himself into the saddle, but he had scarcely begun to canter before the horse collapsed under him, brought down by a sniper. Scrabbling in the dirt, the narrator saw a white stallion approaching, carrying his assailant. A pure reflex reaction; he shot back in self-defence and the man fell. In the brief moment after this, our narrator walked over to where the body lay, saw a young man of twenty-three or four slowly dying, and then as he registered the sound of horses’ hooves, he took the stallion and made his escape.

Many years later, in Paris, he comes across a book of short stories by an English author unknown to him. One of those stories is entitled ‘The Adventure in the Steppe’ and it is, of course, exactly the same story as his long-held memory, only from the point of view of the man he killed. From this moment on, the story’s author, Alexander Wolf, holds a magnetic attraction for him. To begin with, he tries to seek him out, approaching his English publisher who does not know where he is and clearly hates him. But then Alexander Wolf seems to have been supernaturally summoned, as the narrator walks into a bar and falls into conversation with an old soak there, only to find he is a friend of Wolf; one who was his comrade in the war, and who took him to hospital when he found him dying of a gunshot wound.

So, our narrator’s victim does indeed live on, and fate seems determined to draw them closer together to finish what they started. When the narrator falls headlong in love with a Russian woman he meets at a boxing match, and she has a mysterious lover in her past about whom she will not speak… well, the narrator doesn’t cotton on, but the reader certainly will.

This is a dense and curious story, psychologically fraught with the devastating power of what it means to take a life. A man who kills, our narrator argues, “is given the opportunity to become, for some short space of time, more powerful than fate and chance, earthquake and tempest, and to know the exact moment when he’ll put a stop to that long and complex evolution…Love, hatred, fear, regret, remorse, will, passion…all is helpless before the momentary power of murder.” Having known this power – in a guilty, stricken, senseless kind of way – the narrator is unable to recover from it. It’s as if a part of his own life has stopped at the moment he shot the rider of the white horse, and in consequence all he has subsequently lived through has been full of “regrets, dissatisfaction and a sense of manifest futility of everything I did.” The resurrection of Alexander Wolf is galvanizing, as is the relationship with Yelena (“Every love affair is an attempt to thwart fate.”), but playing with the power of fate is a crazy thing to do, the novella suggests, as it is jealous, and all too inclined to make puppets out of those who try to rise above its reach.

This is beautifully written and steeped in that glorious world-weary-emigré atmosphere of mid-20th century Europe. Gazdanov was a taxi driver at night in Paris to fund his writing, and this was his fifth novel, published in 1947. I am sorry to say that I put this on my wish list after reading a review of one of Gazdanov’s novels at Karen’s blog which featured a photo of the wondrously handsome author. It’s good to know that being shallow as a teaspoon doesn’t prevent a person from falling into the path of little-known masterpieces.

curtaincallA very different kind of novel, though also one intrigued by what it means to escape death, is Anthony Quinn’s Curtain Call. It’s 1936 and actress Nina Land is in a hotel room with artist Stephen Wyley, a place neither of them should be. Slipping out for cigarettes, Nina hears the most disturbing noises coming from behind one of the doors in another corridor. She knocks and enters and a young woman slips past her, sobbing and distraught. Only later does Nina realise that she has caught a glimpse of the man the papers are calling ‘the Tie-Pin Killer’. Quickly realising that she is probably the only person in London to have witnessed the man, Nina is determined to do what she can to help the police. But the plan she and Stephen cook up between them will end up causing more trouble than they imagine.

This is a novel that comes into being because of an attempted murder, but it is not solely focused on that crime. Instead, it’s more concerned with the lives of a group of people who are brought into contact with one another because of it. These include primarily the theatre critic, James Erskine, an egotistical elderly man whose homosexuality keeps drawing him into troublesome situations, and who is based on the life of a real critic and diarist, James Agate. Also, the critic’s put-upon secretary, Tom, whose epilepsy he attempts to keep secret (again with damaging results) and Madeleine, the young woman whose poverty has forced her to turn tricks, and who is the near-victim that Nina’s intervention saves.

In all honesty, it’s a while since I read this and the details are already hazy. But I did read it with enjoyment, feeling quite safe in the confident hands of this novelist. The fact it isn’t properly speaking a piece of crime fiction but a historical novel makes the ending feel a little odd, when the mystery is hastily solved. But the period detail is beautifully done and the story held my attention effortlessly. Given I’ve had a slightly disappointing run of contemporary novels lately, this was a step back onto higher ground.

Ooh and I nearly forgot to mention – on Thursday the Extra Shiny is out – with more reviews and article, plus our Book Club discussion on Sarah Water’s The Paying Guests, which I have just finished (am longing to compare notes with others). Also, we’ve got a new competition to announce. All this and more on the 20th!

Three Unique Voices

janice gallowaySometimes it’s good to read a book that does things a little differently and shakes up the reading experience. Scottish writer, Janice Galloway, is an author with an exceptionally dry wit, a poet’s use of words and a tendency to use white space on the page with great innovation. Her first novel, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, inhabited the inside of a young teacher’s head as she spiralled into breakdown, which might not sound awfully tempting, but is actually so well done and so witty and perceptive that the synopsis is misleading. If you wanted to try her, though, I might suggest beginning with her two volumes of memoir, This Is Not About Me, and All Made Up. They are straight narratives, wonderfully written, about the sort of crazy childhood that is a gift to a talented writer. I wrote a profile of her for Numero Cinq, the new (to me) literary journal I mentioned, if you’d like to know more.

Hotel AndromedaI also recently finished Hotel Andromeda, by the outstanding Gabriel Josipovici. This short novel revolves around Helena, an art critic struggling to write a book about the odd, reclusive American artist, Joseph Cornell. Cornell created a series of artworks, slim boxes containing a collage of writing paper from seedy French hotels with glamourous names (Hotel Andromeda, Hotel de l’Univers, etc) and images from classical mythology, that are evocative but defy clear meaning. Does the mythology elevate the seediness of the French hotels, or do the hotels corrupt the mythology? With art this undecidable, it’s not surprising that Helena wants a new form to discuss it, not a conventional critique or biography. The action in the foreground of the novel concerns Ed, a photo journalist recently made to leave Chechnya where he was covering the conflict. He turns up on Helena’s doorstep, saying he is a friend of her sister, Alice, who is out in Chechnya as an aid worker, helping to run an orphanage. Helena is hungry for details of her sister who never writes, and who she believes despises her work for its seemingly useless abstraction. Ed assures her this isn’t so, that her sister admires her, and feels her own work to be hopeless, an insufficient drop in an ocean of human suffering.

One of Joseph Cornell's Hotel Andromeda boxes

One of Joseph Cornell’s Hotel Andromeda boxes

So this is a novel which, in the simplest of ways possible, starts to play with irreconcilable extremes – what kind of a life has meaning? One in which we turn to the best in humanity, its creativity and art, or one that deals with the worst, its brutality and violence? Is Western civilisation an aberration that is bound to revert, over time, to the tyrannies that dominate the rest of the world? How are we even to understand a world that can contain such extremes of beauty and evil? I do love the way that Josipovici writes such lucid, easy stories, based on very natural dialogue, that blossom out into powerful, provocative ideas.

jeff burseyFinally, I’ve been reading my friend, Jeff Bursey’s, latest novel, Mirrors On Which Dust Has Fallen. You may remember a few years back I reviewed his first book, Verbatim; A Novel, which took the form of written reports from a fictitious Canadian parliament. This new novel creates a panorama of the fictional province itself, exploring the lives of a cross-section of inhabitants as they unfold against one another in the mid 1990s. There are a number of featured locations – the local radio station, Johnny’s Bar, the Catholic churches, the art gallery, the offices of a clothing warehouse, and numerous family sitting rooms. It’s a really tricky book to describe, because everything I might say about it is not entirely accurate. It’s a highly realistic novel in many ways, the voices that weave it together are all exactly the kind you’d hear if you stood in the middle of a bar and listened to everything going on around you, but then we often hop in and out of the characters’ heads, too. In the opening chapter, we’re following disgruntled employee, Loyola, as he packs suits for distribution, but when he turns the radio on to listen to the lunchtime news, it becomes a portal that shoots us down into the studios of the radio station. So we readers move about the world of Bowmount in an unusually fluid and dynamic way.

That being said, most of the chapters sink down deep into the characters and their preoccupations. The action arises out of everyday concerns, and yet it also has that edge of satire to it. Whilst a lot of the interest revolves around uncongenial work places, subject to ever more ruthless management directives, there’s also a notable and extensive debate around the place of the Catholic faith at the dog end of the 20th century, fraught as it is in Bowmount with a shameful number of sexual scandals involving children. And equally prominent is the place of art, as explored through a painter creating a very unusual tryptich and a photographer of graphic sexual images. Characters have their fervent opinions, which they impress upon others, and discussions, as they often do in reality, are a mass of interruptions, declarations and exclamations.

The reading experience was, for me, a highly unusual one. Sometimes, I felt like I was looking at swarming bacteria in a petri dish, everything felt so up close and I was so deep into it. I had to put the book down in order to gain sufficient distance to see the relationships of everyone intertwined in this microcosm, to feel the outlines of the story again. There were parts (mostly in bars) where I felt very entangled in the dialogue, but then there were other places when the head-hopping was fluid and lovely, as in a wedding service near the end of the book where we shift between a number of storylines that have been developing over the course of the narrative, each unfolding inside a different character’s head. Which is to say that you are taken through a number of experiences that are oddly akin to the experience of reality, whilst being at the same time clearly artificial and only possible in the realm of storytelling.

I had to look up the title, which seems to come from Bahá’í teaching and talks of children as being mirrors on which no dust has fallen, clear receptors of their world. As opposed, then, to the characters in this novel, whose perceptions are all cloudy from experience, disappointment and desire. It’s a really unique and unusual novel, quite unlike anything else I’ve read, I think.