The Global Phenomenon With The Long Title

harry quebertDo you ever feel that the nectar of hype comes in a poisoned chalice? Back in October 2012, a novel written by a 28-year-old Swiss man that had been awarded a couple of prestigious French literary prizes caused the most immense stir at Frankfurt, its one-man publisher selling the rights to over 30 different countries (with the book to be translated into anything between 32 and 37 languages, reports vary). People at the fair called it a global phenomenon but couldn’t quite remember its name, referring to it in their excitement as ‘the French novel with the long title.’

And then I imagine the publicity mill went into overdrive and comparisons with Roth, Franzen and Bellow were bandied around, and inevitably it all went downhill from there. Reviews of the English translation by Sam Taylor have been decidedly mixed, with the American ones the most caustic. ‘It’s the sort of novel you recommend to a grieving friend or coworker out on jury duty—somebody with temporarily disabled critical faculties trying to forget who or where they are’ the New Yorker said sniffily. But if they weren’t expecting Roth or Bellow, then I should think those on jury duty were pretty glad to have it.

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a slick and entertaining piece of literary fun with mirrors, set in an appealling Twin Peaks landscape. And so long as we don’t get any more carried away than that, no one is going to have their expectations hurt. The narrator, Marcus Goldman, is a young writer whose first novel has been an outrageous success. Once he’s run through a ton of royalties and sucked up enough syrupy recognition to feel bilious he finds himself on deadline for a second novel without a single idea in his head. Facing humiliation and a nasty law suit, he decides to visit his much-loved college mentor, Harry Quebert, in his seaside home at Goose Cove, New Hampshire. It doesn’t do a great deal for his writing, but the reunion is good for Marcus’s soul. He was a callow and cunning youth, too hooked on achievement to understand the notion of quality, but Harry knocked some sense into him (literally, in the boxing ring). And it’s Harry’s career as a celebrated novelist that Marcus longs to emulate.

However, not long after this visit, Marcus receives the stunning news that Harry is in prison. A body has been dug up in the grounds of his house, the corpse of Nola Kellergan who went missing thirty-three years previously. Alongside her in the grave is a manuscript copy of Harry’s most successful novel, The Origin of Evil. Hop back to August 1975 when Nola disappeared and we find out that she was having a passionate love affair with Harry that provided the inspiration for his novel. Worse still, Harry was waiting for her in a hotel room further up the coast that night but she never showed; they were intending to elope to Canada, for Nora was only fifteen and they both rightly feared scandal and jail.

Steadfastly refusing to believe in Harry’s guilt, Marcus returns to Goose Cove to undertake his own investigation. He’s known to the locals and he has Harry’s memories to guide him. But he’s also at the centre of the media storm, another famous face to add to the mix, and his editor and agent are leaning hard on him to turn out a book on the murder case as fast as he can. We are of course reading the book – or some version of it – that Marcus will eventually write. Except that this book in our hands includes all manner of revisions as twists and turns develop in the investigation, theories come together and then fall apart, and characters are unexpectedly seen in a new light. If you appreciate the metatextual level, you’ll enjoy the subtleties of Dicker’s plotting, but you don’t have to look at it like that. In a straightforward way, it’s a clever piece of crime fiction that keeps you guessing throughout its 600 pages.

Given that Joel Dicker clearly likes a bit of irony, I hope he doesn’t mind that his homage to a certain kind of American noir story is probably designed to annoy a lot of American readers. There’s all that metatextual stuff, and then a 15-year-old femme fatale (though how we see Nora changes constantly across the book) and then a whole bunch of archetypal characters. There’s a gruff and aggressive detective (who mellows), a dodgy rich businessman and his maimed chauffeur/henchman (quality of life destroyed in a random attack by thugs one night), a social-climbing café owner and her hen-pecked husband and Marcus’s crazy Jewish mother, who inhabits her role to such a degree of intensity that she makes no sense whatsoever. It may be no more than coincidence, but the contemporary French novels I’ve read in the past ten years or so seem quite comfortable with archetypes. Amélie Nothomb, one time star of the French literary firmament said in interview that

when we create we’re totally in tune with this creative pole that’s full of archetypes and which is, in fact, totally ridiculous, but perhaps also at the origins of life.’

I thought that was quite an interesting statement, but you’ll know where you stand on it. There’s also rather a lot of cringe-inducing aphorisms concerning the art of writing. For instance: ‘If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.’ But this is a narrative designed to be read fast, and if you zip past them at the right speed, they barely register at all.

So, let’s have a last look at the credit and debit sheet. If you want finely-drawn characterisation, exquisite sentence creation and no Lolitas, then this is not the book for you. If you like clever plotting, pacy storytelling and enjoy satires, homages and parodies, then it’s well worth a try. But whatever you do, don’t let the hype guide you; no good will come of thinking Jonathan Franzen might have written this.

Lying

You may well be familiar with the paradox of the Cretan liar, the Cretan who says: ‘All Cretans are liars,’ thus presenting a difficult act of deduction. Do we believe her or not? Lauren Slater’s creative non-fiction memoir, Lying, is the most audacious elaboration of this paradox that I’ve ever had the immense pleasure of reading. It’s a memoir that attempts to express the deepest, most twisted realities of Slater’s identity and her troubled relationship to her mother – and not a word of it might be true.

LyingWhen she was still a child, Slater claims, she developed a form of temporal lobe epilepsy which is described in a medical paper included in the memoir as ‘both a seizure and a personality disorder. A significant number of patients, although by no means all, display a series of dysfunctional character traits that include a tendency towards exaggeration and even outright disingenuousness (mythomania)’. At first glance, the personality disorder seems to belong more to her overwhelming, attention-seeking mother. Lauren’s father fades into the background, a spineless Hebrew School teacher, leaving centre stage in their family life to his socially ambitious wife. On a holiday in Barbados, Lauren’s mother embarrasses the hotel audience with her loud criticisms of the piano player, who then invites her to take his seat and do his job better. Lauren is well aware her mother can’t play the piano at all, but her mother allows her bluff to be called, seating herself at the keyboard for a while before finally saying, ‘I suppose not,’ and walking away. That night is the first night Lauren has a seizure, as if it were the first serious faultline opening up in her mother’s powerful grip on the family.

Initially her mother is ashamed of the illness and determined not to take it seriously. ‘“If you pay attention,” my mother said to me, leaning in close, “if you try very hard, you’ll be able to stop these seizures.”’ But when she is sent to the nuns whose special program teaches her how to fall without hurting herself, the will Lauren finds to help her is quite different to the one her mother insists upon. There are two types of will, she explains.

Will A is what we all learn, the hold your head high, stuff it down, swallow your sobs, work hard kind of will. Will B, while it seems a slacker thing, is actually harder to have. It’s a willingness instead of a willfulness, an ability to take life on life’s terms as opposed to putting up a big fight. It’s about being bendable, not brittle, a person who is brave enough to try to ride the waves instead of trying to stop them.’

The discovery of Will B seems to offer genuine hope and enlightenment to Lauren, as well as a way of escaping her mother’s clutches. But then puberty comes around and everything gets worse – her seizures, her relationships, her sense of self. In the end she is sent to a specialist who operates upon her brain, leaving her with just the powerful auras she experiences before a fit, no longer the fits themselves. Oh, and she’s also left with those personality disorder symptoms I mentioned before – the tendency to lie or exaggerate or dissemble. Unable to find her place in school and missing the attention her epilepsy brought her, Lauren takes to staging fits in hospital emergency rooms, fascinated by the effect she can produce.

And at this point, the narrative begins to dissolve, as Lauren starts to lie more openly – in front of her readers, that is. Writing begins to take on a major significance in her life, and she writes a short story about falling out of a cherry tree when she was a child, an incident her mother (not too strong on the truth herself) denies outright. Lauren begins an intense and unhappy affair with another writer (and sexual compulsive) who had wanted to mentor her, and when this ends and she is left in turmoil, she goes to her college counsellor who takes her life story – and the medical paper on her epilepsy – apart. The epilepsy she describes does not exist, no such operation would ever be performed, there is no specialist called Dr Neu. When he asks to see her scar, Lauren accuses him of sexual misconduct and leaves, never to return.

So what are we to believe? Slater regularly calls a halt to the narrative to tot up the balance sheet so far. Maybe this is an orthodox narrative, 99% true except for the odd memory glitch, or maybe it’s the epilepsy that causes her to lie and exaggerate, or maybe she is just her mother’s daughter, brought up to have a fluid relationship to the truth, or maybe the story she is telling is a metaphorical one, designed to get to grips with an experience for which she has no other words. In a letter to her editor, entitled ‘How To Market This Book’, she argues ‘I am giving you a portrait of the essence of me.’ How can we pretend that things are real or not real when half the time we’re not even sure ourselves? When reality can feel like a dream, or like such a vivid intense experience that we can’t believe it when other people tell us it wasn’t so, it wasn’t that way. How can we be completely sure that our memories are accurate? Or that the stories we tell ourselves aren’t true?

I am toying with you, yes, but for a real reason. I am asking you to enter the confusion with me, to give up the ground with me, because sometimes that frightening floaty place is really the truest of all. Kierkegaard says, “The greatest lie of all is the feeling of firmness beneath our feet. We are at our most honest when we are lost.”’

And the thing is, no reader can accuse Lauren Slater of not being honest about the way she toys with us. The book opens with an introduction written by Hayward Krieger, professor of philosophy (who needless to say, does not exist) in which he tells us exactly what we will be up against when reading this memoir:

[U]sing, or suggesting, the use of metaphor as a valid vehicle to convey autobiographical truths – thus her insistence that this book is, indeed, a nonfiction memoir – is a new and unsettling idea. Perhaps more unsettling and exciting is the writer’s insistence on not revealing to us which aspects of her disease are factual, which symbolic, which real, which fantastical, and by doing so asking us to enter with her a new kind of Heideggerian truth, the truth of the liminal, the not-knowing, the truth of confusion, which if we can only learn to tolerate, yields us greater wisdom in the long run than packaged and parceled facts.’

So, are you horrified yet? At the idea of a memoir about a debilitating form of epilepsy that might not be factually true? About a non-fiction writer refusing to tell her readers what actually happened and what is a construct?

But what if this memoir really is the truth of Slater’s life? What if she is a natural confabulator, uncertain herself what is real and what is fantastic? What if she is just more honest than most of us about the half-truths we live with, the uncertainties we turn into firm convictions, the character flaws that we iron out for our personal self-inspections? What if our identities were all composed of a mix of half-remembered events, powerful and distorting emotions, memories, fantasies and dreams? I think it’s more truthful to say that they are, than that they are not. I think that Lauren Slater asks us to confront a very disturbing truth of the human condition – and of storytelling – when she draws our attention to the very blurred boundary between truth and fiction.

A final intriguing point. Halfway through this book, I had a small, disconcerting thought. I went to my bookshelves and found that yes, I had this book twice, once in an American edition entitled Lying, once in a UK edition entitled Spasm. The blurb on the back of the American edition admits immediately that this is a book about the uncertain line between fact and personal fiction. The UK edition begins with the epileptic fits and the surgery, stating that by then the ‘psychological reflex was ingrained’ of inventing and exaggerating. Two utterly different perspectives on the same book. Which one is more true?

The Inconvenient Past

I have been such a bad blogger lately and I do apologise. I just have too much on at the moment, and when something has to give, it has to be the least work-related activity. Also, the last couple of months I’ve reviewed books a lot less here in order to write reviews for Shiny New Books. Instead, I’ve enjoyed writing more personal pieces on this blog. However, there are plenty of weeks – and I call them good weeks – when nothing much happens of interest to tell you about. Having just written that, I should confess that I was at the Cambridge literary festival on the weekend, which theoretically is a good blogging topic but I can’t quite work the enthusiasm up for writing about it. It was good! Really, writers talked about their work, they were witty and clever, the audience enjoyed themselves. You get the picture.

Instead, let me tell you about a couple more of the books that didn’t quite make it into Shiny and my probably very contentious reasons for not putting them there: two historical novels from debut writers, The Tutor by Andrea Chapin and The Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester.

Okay, so here’s a question: why set a novel in the past? Ostensibly there’s a simple answer to that – Andrea Chapin is writing about a part of Shakespeare’s life for which there is no actual historical record, Lucy Ribchester about the Suffragettes. Historical characters, in other words, for whom we still have a measure of curiosity. But I found myself wondering about the heroines of these novels and the role they served.

the tutorIn Chapin’s lushly romantic novel, young widow, Katherine de L’Isle lives with her uncle and his family, having lost two families of her own. They are Catholics at a time of great persecution and all sorts of disturbing events occur, beginning with the murder on their grounds of the family priest. Katherine’s uncle, fearing his presence as the main cause of persecution flees to France, leaving a power vacuum behind in his family. Into this chaos comes the young Will Shakespeare, occasional player, unconventional tutor to the family’s young children, and would-be poet. This Will is a shameless flirt and a charmer, constantly on the lookout for opportunities to weasel his way into rewarding relationships. Realising Katherine is a keen and astute reader, he ends up sending her his poem on Venus and Adonis for Katherine to critique, and as the poem proceeds, so Katherine begins to fall for Will and to imagine that their responses to one another are echoed in the verse. More fool Katherine, for Will is a tease and too interested in his own aspirations to care for her; she is about to hit a rocky end.

the hourglass factoryIn The Hourglass Factory, Frankie George is a rookie reporter for the London Evening Gazette, determined to make her name despite her gender. At present she is a reluctant ‘odds and sods’ columnist, teamed up with the overblown and demanding Twinkle, so when she is asked for a profile of infamous trapeze artist, Ebony Diamond, Frankie leaps at the chance. Particularly when she is quickly made aware that Ebony, with her Suffragette leanings, is swimming in dangerous waters. Following her to the London Coliseum to pursue her investigation, Frankie is as astonished as the rest of the audience when Ebony seems to disappear into thin air, the mystery compounded by an escaped tiger from an earlier act – which may or may not have eaten her. Frankie risks the ire of her boss, the vengeance of corrupt police officers and a variety of reckless and dangerous characters around her to pursue the truth.

Both of these novels are very well-written and carefully plotted with swooping stories. They’ve got everything: corpses, love affairs, mysteries, famous figures from the past, exotic locations. They have, in other words, a wholly 21st century mentality, nowhere more evident than in their female heroines who rush into the heart of the action without a backward glance.

So I get it; a lot of readers find it hard to forgive the past for its ideologies and don’t want to read about the sort of mindset women of those ages might likely have had. But why, in that case, write historical fiction employing such 21st century characters? Why not place them where they belong, in the current day? And weirdly, what’s the trend in popular contemporary novels but women struggling against their own weakness and dissolution, like the dreadful The Girl on the Train. If we still like the women-in-peril novel, if we are fascinated by women as their own worst enemies, why are we so insistent that women in the past should behave with autonomy and ambition? Is it only me who thinks that odd?

For my money, the only reason to write about the past is to inhabit the strange otherness of the past, the way it differed so profoundly from life as we know it. And for sure, we see that in the backdrop of both of these novels. Are we to think, then, that history is only used as intriguing scenery? A particularly attractive backcloth? If I go down this track, then I become cynical. Are authors latching onto these famous names – Shakespeare, the Suffragettes – just because they will sell? The reader gets a little bit of a history lesson from the details, and can enjoy a rambunctious story with lots of strong characters?

It’s the current style, and I am out of step. But in my heart, I find myself uneasy with this sort of falsification of history. This is not how it was. And it’s important we remember how it was, the reasons human beings chose eventually to live and think differently and the reasons why we do not wish to go back to those old habits. The past was not a nice place and women certainly did not think as if they were free. And the world today is not a nice place, with all sorts of self-serving ideologies still doing the rounds and holding us hostage. I hope future writers will not spare us by prettying it up and pretending we valiantly rose above it all.

In all fairness, Lucy Ribchester does give a very vivid portrait of what Suffragettes went through at the hands of the police and the jailors and Andrea Chapin makes it clear how brutal persecution of Catholics was in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. As I said, they are very good books on their own terms, with a lot of verve and colour. You will probably enjoy them! You should certainly try them to see what you think.

 

A Double Anniversary

SNB-logoYes,  it’s our first year anniversary at Shiny New Books and we’re celebrating with our 5th edition. Please do go over and check out our reviews, features, interviews and articles. Plus, we’ve got a special announcement about our new Shiny Book Club.

And on the 2nd April, this blog marked its 9th anniversary. That’s scary, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel as if nine years have gone past, though a lot has happened, admittedly. Nine years ago, I had just come off work on sick leave from the university, my son’s voice hadn’t even broken, and Mr Litlove was working for a different company. We were all quite different people, I think; there’s been a lot of changing and growing and developing going on here in all that time.

But the main constant – and the loveliest gift of all from blogging – has been the company of many dear virtual friends. So many of you have been visiting here faithfully for years, and I can’t thank you enough for that. And it’s been an extra delight to have good friends from the Reading Room become good friends at Shiny, too.

So a special thank you to Annabel, Harriet, Simon and Bookgazing, who are all on the Shiny Adventure.

And I am so pleased to direct you towards some of the fabulous reviews and articles in our 5th edition by these wonderful people:

Danielle picks us Books for Spring

Jean encourages us toward Reading in Translation

Arti considers the role Stefan Zweig played in Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel

Ingrid interviews American giant of letters, Phillip Lopate

Stefanie reviews Orlando and The Waves

Susan reviews the new Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter

Denise reviews Don’t Let Him Know by Sandip Roy

Karen reviews The Man In A Hurry by Paul Morand

And now that Shiny no.5 is finally out, I catch up with my email correspondence! If I owe you an email, a thousand apologies – I’ll be writing very soon!