Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson

This novel has the spine-tingling atmosphere of an episode of Netflix’s original series Sense8. Chance, coincidence, gambles, even miracles figure into the actions of a young woman seeking to make sense of her life and her mother’s death. The distinct sense of foreboding that pervades the pages comes partly from us: we are involved, judging the character’s choices against our own. The main character cannot be sure how this will play out, either. "I feel new. I’m a blank slate. A gamble…" This is a teenaged alienation story that does not run to drugs, alcohol, nor sexual perversion.

Katherine (Kit) Carlyle was an IVF baby who had been kept as a frozen embryo for eight years before she was implanted in her mother’s uterus with two other embryos. She was the one who survived, and from her years waiting in limbo, we know her conception and birth was a kind of gamble. Kit is nineteen and living in Rome when we meet her. Somehow Kit claims a kind of DNA memory of that pre-time of frozen suspension, and finds herself going in search of those origins when she feels abandoned by her parents--her mother to death, and her father to a peripatetic career.

Kit is a woman who doesn’t always have the motivations we associate with a woman of her wealth, beauty, and intellect. She is young but her naïveté is paired with a world consciousness that few people over thirty can claim. She also has waist-length hair. When I pointed out to friends that this seemed a male fantasy, one man said “not so fast: women with very long hair tend to obsess over it.” It turns out that hair is like a talisman in this novel, a touchstone upon which feelings, actions, and behaviors turn.

Author Rupert Thomson has published nine other novels, one described by critic Jonathan Miles writing for as "disquieting" for the horrific scenes of sexual abuse depicted. Thomson, now sixty years old, has been praised for his sentence craft and is often in the running for major literary prizes. One suspects it is his unusual sense of story rather than his writing talent that advances other authors over him to win prizes. In this novel, for instance, the palpable sense of doom and danger does not often play out: we readers are bloodied but whole. There is a rape scene late in the novel, but it is not graphic and is only implied.

More disturbing are the dreams and fantasies of the young woman, who likes to imagine her father searching for her, trying to find her. She writes letters to him, and despite accusing him of not loving her enough, she dreams that he will feel anxious moments trying to locate her with the few clues she has left behind. The author adds to our sense of unease by italicizing a sentence that could only be said by an older person to a younger one: "Even negative experiences contribute to the sum of who you are." There is a sense of inevitability about pain and exposure, though Thomson does not do his worst, to Kit nor to us, in this novel.

Thomson’s work may simply be too uncomfortable to win the prizes, but this novel stands as an entry in the new literature being written that gives us a sense of being untethered in time and space. Thomson’s characters appear to acknowledge and accept the many mysteries that come with interactions with new people. It remains an open question whether his reading public wants that, too.

**Rupert will be participating in a series of events in the US this fall. Please see below for a list of readings and interviews for the novel KATHERINE CARLYLE.**


Twin Cities Literary Festival – 10/17

Bookcourt – Talk, Q&A, Signing – 10/19/15
Greenlight Bookstore in conversation with Rebecca Mead – Talk, Q&A, Signing – 10/20/15
Center for Fiction in conversation with w/ Rebecca Carol – Talk, Q&A, Signing –10/22/15

Boston Book Festival – 10/24/15

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Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Geraldine Brooks is gifted with the uncanny ability to speak in tongues not her own. David, the second King of Israel, was "the first man in literature whose story is told in detail from early childhood to extreme old age." In this novel, Brooks writes in the voice of prophet Natan who stayed by David’s side through his long life, from the moment Natan exhibited his channeling of a voice not his own--the voice of the source of all things, called ‘the Name.’ This is particularly fitting, since Brooks’ skill in reading the past mirrors Natan’s gift to read the future.

While the Bible is the original source for much of David’s story, Brooks used the works of more lately scholars, e.g., Robert Pinsky’s The Life of David, and David Wolpe’s David: The Divided Heart, to paint a picture of a complex and lavishly gifted man who failed to rein in the passions that all men harbor and to which some fall prey. It is a powerful tale of bravery and woe, justice and corruption.

Through it all, we see the state of Israel taking shape, despite the tendencies of a "strife-prone people quick to fan grievance, to take sides and foment revolt." David lay a calming and just hand on the remains of many a defeated and bereaved enemy, and ruled fairly…until vigilance over his passions waned in the full throat of his power.

If David’s story predates Herodotus by half a century, it is the oldest piece of history ever recorded. Brooks brings back to life the characters and their environment, the violence and the adulation, the resentments and the love with such richness that we can smell zaatar on roasting bread and taste the bite of goat-cheese feta. Brooks’ own perspective is rich with understanding and generosity for both the greatness and the failures of man. David’s last son, Solomon (she calls him Shlomo), upon learning the details of a battle, would say, "there is nothing new under the sun;" all had happened before, if one looked back far enough in time. And so it may be.

This is the tale of how an abused and neglected boy overcame his origins, slay Goliath, and became an uncommon warrior and king. And it is the story of how power will corrupt, lest one guards with unceasing vigilance one’s baser instincts. Brooks points out in her Afterword that the story of David may not be just a parable but must define an actual figure "for no people would invent such a flawed figure for a national hero." David lives in these pages at least.

I am very pleased to be able to offer an advance reading copy of this title to one interested reader of my blog (U.S. residents, please). Sign up below and I will email the winner to ask for a mailing address. The book will come to you direct from the publisher, Viking Penguin. I will close this giveaway on September 30, 2015. Tell your friends. I look forward to hearing from you.

A winner has been chosen. Thanks everyone.

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Sunday, September 20, 2015

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Franzen in Purgatory?
”After all, as Aquinas wrote, the least degree of pain in Purgatory ‘surpasses the greatest pain that one can endure in this world.’”
----Stephen Greenblatt in Hamlet in Purgatory

Writing a novel is an intimate act. And a novel about intimate acts is even more revealing. After listening, twice, to Purity read on audio by Jenna Lamia, Dylan Baker, and Robert Petkoff, I immediately listened to several of the author interviews Franzen gave in the push phase of his novel promotion. I came away thinking Franzen is in a world of hurt.

The voices in this book all seem to be coming from inside the mind of one man. I never assume the writer has himself under the microscope, but in this case I have drawn the conclusion that Franzen doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know: how his self-styled isolation and arrogance about his experience of “the battle between the sexes” or “what other people do” has left him bereft of folks who could tell him what he needs to hear. His anger and confusion is slowly draining his battery. Something is rotten indeed in Franzen’s world.

Franzen is completely intentional and self-aware about his “stale, obese, exhausting…bloated and immensely disagreeable” work. “More matter, with less art.” (Hamlet, Act II.ii) The question remains why he wrote this book and not another.

Let’s agree on two things at least. Franzen has talent. Franzen has been exceedingly popular. He was popular because in the past he used a sharpish humor to define recognizable family dilemmas. His books were long but that was a particularity, not a peculiarity.

In Purity there are moments of giggle-bit humor: "His stomach looked like that of an adult sea-turtle" and the journalistic coup describing whole nuclear warhead fiasco. But what is missing from this novel is kindness. Did anyone else see a moment of inexplicable, un-self-interested, or unexpected generosity? Perhaps Tom re-burying the dead body? Even that gruesome helpfulness was predicated on gaining Wulf’s intimacy.

Descriptions of marital disharmony can only be funny when one knows that the two love one another. Franzen tells us Tom and Anabel do, but we don’t actually see any of that until arguably much later, when it surfaces that neither of them tries to expose the other. Not quite love then, since it is a negative, rather than positive, expression. We all know how intimacy can turn toxic, but what I didn’t feel is any relief from it, which I guess is Franzen’s point. None of us is pure. No one acknowledges the full complement of one’s own deceptions.

The good news is that this book does not define or reflect the world. I am hardly a poster child for unreserved glee, but I recognize that there are only two ways out of a "terminally fucked-up world:" do everything you can to improve its outlook or get out of the way. "To be, or not to be." (…III.i) Difficult choice: "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time…the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to...To die, to sleep no more...'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished...but that the dread of something after death…makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all." (…III.i)

In an interview with NPR Radio Host Terry Gross and in several other interviews, Franzen admits to feeling he may have missed out on a key human adventure: having children. When he was advised against it by an editor, he threw away the idea of adopting some Iraqi orphans. He should have gotten different opinions if he cared what others thought. People will talk you out of the best things you will do in life. I’m one who thinks it may have made him a better person, a more loving, loved, and forgiving man. And a better author, not a worse one.

For one, Franzen may have learned something about a key societal malfunction facing America today: race relations, including social profiling, and discrimination. In an interview included at the end of the unabridged Macmillan Audio file, Franzen explains he couldn’t write about race because he has no intimate knowledge of race relations, but "I have plenty of experience with the battle between the sexes." Yes, it appears to be so. Unsurprising, given (among other things) his constant insistence on beauty in lieu of more lasting, purposeful, and buildable human attributes including generosity and kindness. At a time when people around the world are celebrating the loosening bonds of constraint around “differentness,” here is a throwback novel from a rich old white male, anguished for having missed the point. Purgatory, indeed.

One only has one go at life, unless one believes in reincarnation. And there may well be "more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy." (… I.v) So, lose the leafy splendor of your golden crown, your self-pity, anxiety, "great expectations," and get on with life, Franzen. Grab it with both hands. Time is short.

Franzen returns again and again to his bitterness about the failure he sees in the promise of an Obama presidency. "The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll capture the conscience of the king." (…III.i.) How quickly Franzen became disillusioned. "[wo]Man, thy name is frailty." (…I.ii) Hath thou no understanding of the opposition our king hath faced? Do not thou think our king would have moved with sure swift sword on those who abuse their privilege, could he have done so? And what of his diplomacy of these last years, after your accusation? Do you not think he hath fulfilled some small part of his promise? Forgive not, and neither shall thee be forgiven.

This book is a tragedy. Franzen commits harikari.

After listening to this insightful discussion on the Slate podcast, I realize I missed many of the main points in this novel by going after Franzen's annoying style and subjects. Listen to this and see if it doesn't illuminate some points for you.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Hav by Jan Morris

Morris, most everyone knows, is one of the premier travel writers of the 20th Century. She went everywhere, and wrote with such interest and erudition about the places she visited that one reads her works simply because she writes better than anyone else. One publisher gave her the opportunity to write fiction, and Morris created an invented place, Hav, to which many folks immediately wanted to book a flight.

This novel is composed of two parts: in Last Letters from Hav Morris describes for us her first glimpse of the Protectorate of Hav, its residents, flora, fauna, religions, and origins. In Hav of the Myrmidons written twenty years later, Morris returns to a much-changed Protectorate. In the Epilogue to the combined novel called simply Hav published by nyrb, Morris tells us that the allegories of old Hav have been transmuted from a place of “overlapping ancient cultures but with familiar signposts based in history” to allegories of “civic prodigies…hitherto inconceivable and themselves all but fictional still.”

Hav is an international protectorate near the Black Sea and on the Mediterranean. Every major nation had its representatives there, ensconced in (formerly) grand buildings that carried a storied history. When Morris visited in the 1980’s, Hav was rundown and a tiny bit disreputable, but the glamour of earlier days still shone through.

Morris shares her first impressions upon her arrival at night (monotonous and cold, stark and forbidding) and those again modified by clear morning light (bright, colorful, polyglot). She stays several months, buys an automobile, and travels by ferry to outlying islands. She meets the important citizens and legal representatives of countries occupying national concessions in Hav and witnesses the major celebrations—the coming of the snow raspberries and the Roof Race. Her visits to The Iron Dog, and The House of the Chinese Master (“the most astonishing aesthetic experience Hav can offer”) are accompanied by marvelously detailed descriptions composed of wonder and awe.

The novel is just a travel memoir, a very good one with historical references and informative notes about where to find the best food, until Morris comes to her discussion of the British Concession and its history in the province. Morris seems to become much more pointed in her references when she describes the British consul, his wife, and English interests in establishing a base in Hav. Morris includes notes General C.J. Napier wrote to his wife about Hav: “A dreadful hole—worse than Sind!” and “Oh what a foretaste of hell this is.” The British always kept some distance from true involvement in the life of Hav (they “loathed the Protectorate”), created buildings that looked quite like those created in India for their comfort, and were reputed to house only spies in their offices.

We learn that celebrities and leaders from many countries visited Hav in its heyday. Morris’ description of Nijinsky’s visit is particularly poignant, but Hitler and Wagner (at different times, naturally), George Sand and Chopin, Kim Philby, and the shadowy Sir Edmund Backhouse, scholarly sinologist and baronet, were all said to have stayed there at some time or another.

An escarpment just to the north of Hav was home to a cave-dwelling tribe of troglodytes who never settled in the city proper but who form “a still living bridge between the city and its remotest origins.” Their language has a fragile connection with the Celtic, but is still incomprehensible to everyone outside their group. It is said when they first saw the peninsula upon which Hav now sits, surrounded by blue sea, they called the place “Summer,” or hav in the surviving Celtic language of the West.

The underlying political structure of Hav was a shambles of competing interests and insufficiently expansionist beliefs which added to the rich confusion of organic growth in the labyrinthine city. Hav was likewise a rich stew of religions, all in stages of isolation from their original tenets. One mysterious group called Cathars of Hav was composed of secret members of the community and whose ceremonies and meetings involve robes and chants in underground locations. The Cathars are said to trace their history to the Crusades and their beliefs to Manicheanism, or the dualistic cosmology between the forces of good and evil, darkness and light. This group alone gives Morris pause in her ramblings about the city, but she does not spend much capital thinking about them before she is advised by the British Consul to leave the city in haste.

Morris ends Last Letters from Hav on a note of uncertainty, with low-flying war planes streaking over the city. Morris sees warships on the near horizon as she pauses on an overlook near where she will abandon her vehicle and catch a train away from Hav.

Morris uses the word “maze” to describe Hav more than once, leading us to think she meant, among other things, to suggest “a-maze…ing” Hav. In 2005 Morris was invited to revisit Hav. Her later map of the city looks completely different from the earlier one, with many of the wonderful places she described razed. Now the Myrmidon Tower dominates the landscape: “a virtuoso display of unashamed, unrestricted, technologically unexampled vulgarity” upon which is emblazoned the state emblem of the Republic, the letter ‘M’ flashing in sequential colors of red, yellow, green and blue and overlaid against an Achillean helmet outlined in gold. When Morris ascends the Tower, she discovers the nearby newly constructed Lazaretto! Resort (“the name is written with an exclamation mark because we believe you will find it a truly exclamatory experience”) is, in fact, built like a maze when viewed from above. The suites are named for places once a part of the old Hav before the Intervention in 1985.

As luck would have it, the first people Morris interacts with in the New Hav are a “very English middle-aged couple” whose advice “don’t experiment too much with the local stuff” seems designed to remind Morris however things have changed, much has stayed the same. But then: “The thing is one feels so safe here. The security’s really marvelous, it’s all so clean and friendly, and well, everything we’re used to really.” And that turns out to be the most frightening and curious thing.

The troglydytes who originally named Hav are no longer living in whitewashed caves on the escarpment but have been moved to barracks near the airport where the menfolk work on airport construction. While many Morris spoke with seemed pleased with the central heating and the comfortable living, one man pointed out that they were experiments of “ethnic engineering,” given a few certainties in exchange for their unique though hardscrabble culture.

Morris must leave after only six days this time, while she was forced to leave after six months on her first visit. Things have changed quite a lot and the menace is palpable. People are afraid to speak openly for a very tight grip by the Cathars of Hav hear all and see all.

This science fiction reminds us what a woman of the world Ms. Morris is, for she has caught the national character of each resident group in Hav quite clearly. But it is her certainty that events and locales have really lost their historical basis and point of origin is one that stays with us long after we put her book down. The world is renewing itself, and has become strange to even one so practiced in the art of travel.
”The great ‘M’! ‘M’ for what? ‘M’ really for Myrmidon, or ‘M’ for Mammon? For Mohammed the Prophet? For Mani the Manichaean? ‘M’ for McDonald’s, or Monsanto, or Microsoft? ‘M’ for Melchik? ‘M’ for Minoan? ‘M’ for Maze?...’M’ for Me?”
Again from the Epilogue, Morris says “A whole world…has come into being since I wrote Last Letters from Hav. New states have emerged, and new kinds of cities suddenly erupted.” The world is a new thing in this century, and history doesn’t always provide a signpost. Morris, the great traveler, is perplexed and uneasy.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam

This debut novel is a kind of game-changer for me. I was interested to know what it must be like for Islamic immigrants settling in New York City, but came away thinking I was the one adjusting to life in a strange country. The experience of reading this debut is very New York but it is something else, too. It is so far from the lives of middle-America that we may not recognize it as organic growth, like a seed wrapped in a soil “bomb” of wetted soil and clay and tossed from a speeding bicycle. We knew that American consciousness had changed, what with the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in 2004, the election of a black man to the office of President of the United States in 2008, and the legalization of the recreational use of marijuana in Colorado in 2012. But I did not know how changed it had become until I read this book.

At first, I don’t mind saying, I thought this book was too long. There were too many words, too many interactions. But as the outline of the story became clear I realized I would not know what to cut without destroying the careful grooming of our sensibilities. It takes some time to come to the realization that while this is fiction and therefore not strictly true, it is real enough to require us to adjust our perceptions of what we thought we knew about the world. That is a big job for a debut.

The novel itself describes a family of Bangladeshi immigrants to New York City. They live in a reclaimed four-story brownstone in Brooklyn; the father rents a storefront (the awning of which he paints lavender in the opening scene) from a Muslim religious cleric and in which he has established Anwar’s Apothecary. He sells homemade jojoba shampoos, bars of lavender soaps, and beauty products, among other substances that capitalize on his ability to extract essences. Anwar’s wife, Hashi, uses the garden apartment of their brownstone as a hair salon specializing in wedding parties. One daughter, Ella, is a sophomore at Cornell’s Agricultural School and the other, Charu, is just turning eighteen and something of an entrepreneur designer/seamstress. She makes clothes and hijabs (“protective and beautiful rooms, just for one”) out of old saris and other unusual fabrics for fun and extra cash. She plans to attend NYU in the fall.

One immediately senses the enormous vitality in such a family. But a family is just a family after all, with all the complications and stressors two post-adolescent but unmarried daughters pose to a household. To add to the complexity, the college-aged daughter of the religious cleric from whom Anwar rents his storefront has run away from home and comes to stay at the Saleem’s brownstone, unbeknownst to her own father, a brutal man with an ungovernable anger and a pure sense of rightness.

My introduction cannot prepare the reader for that summer (2003) in New York with the Saleems. Bicycles, sex, pot, religious fervor, gay pride, family hatreds, night-opening flowers, silk saris, infidelity, hallucinations, lentils, heirloom seeds, weddings, mistakes, indelible friendships, forgiveness, real love, firebombs, and growing up are all on the table. It is a cornucopia that only immersion can satisfy. One may come away thinking, as I did, that one’s perception of the world has changed irrevocably.

A couple of interesting and useful things Tanwi Islam taught me include the phrase maya lage which means something like "feeling empathy and sympathy and love and hurt—all in one…It was fitting whether someone’s house foreclosed or an earthquake claims thousands of lives." In Buddhist and Hindu traditions the Goddess Maya is the Mother of Creation, and is believed to manifest Nature simply by the power of Her will. Hers is a truth that lies far beyond the veil of our existence. The name Maya literally means "illusion" and is associated with magic. You’ll understand all this much more when you finish Islam’s novel, when all is revealed.

Islam also introduced me to two writers I’d not heard of before: Tarfia Faizullah and Taslima Nasrin. In the beginning to Part II, entitled “The Black Forest”, Islam credits three stanzas from “Dhaka Nocturne” that stopped me in my tracks:
I admit that when the falling hour
begins to husk the sky free of its
saffroning light, I reach for anyone

willing to wrap his good arm right
around me for as long as the ribboned
darkness allows. Who wants, after all,

to be seen too clearly?

--Tarfia Faizullah, from "Dhaka Nocturne," Seam
The other reference, Taslima Nasrin, is mentioned later in the context of the suppression of writings from women by religious radicals. She is a former physician and poet whose feminist writings have been banned in her native Bangladesh, India, Pakistan…anywhere Islamic fundamentalist views prevail. A fatwa has been issued against her and she now lives temporarily in the United States for her protection.

Any book that insists itself upon my consciousness as much as this book has deserves some attention. I expect we have not heard the last of Tanwi Nandini Islam and I can only celebrate that fact.

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Monday, September 7, 2015

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Harper Lee’s second published novel confirms once and for all that Harper Lee was the writer we all thought she was when To Kill a Mockingbird became a worldwide success. Considering the period during which this novel was written, the arguments Lee places in the mouths of her characters seem as dangerous as a torch of oil-soaked rags burning hot in an airless Southern night, both for and against basic civil rights for black people.

The voice in this novel is distinct enough never to be mistaken for another, and the pleasure we derive from the stories liberally spiced with Southern wit and reminiscence…Jean Louise learning about sex, the morning coffee for neighbor women, or Scout wearing falsies to her first dance…make us want to laugh and weep that there is so little of Lee’s writing to enjoy. Watching Jean Louise take her first steps as an independent adult and see what it means to be a family member and a Southerner in a time of unequal rights is revelatory and beautifully clear.

In a time when authors find themselves hiding their meanings within complicated storylines and off-kilter personalities, this story and its thrust comes across as clear, powerful, and very close to perfect. Yes, its arguments may seem dated, but they certainly weren’t in the mid-50s when this novel was written, and considering race relations in the U.S. currently, we could all use a little look back at how little many of us have progressed in sixty years. Could it be that we just don’t listen to any voices that don’t accord with our own? Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack tells us we don’t have to try and understand, but then we won’t grow. Ah, there it is.

No matter how many times it has been written that this book preceded To Kill a Mockingbird in its genesis, but was refused by Lee’s editor, reviewers have persisted in calling it a sequel. And no matter that this book contains keys to important concepts many of us have never understood, e.g., a credible explanation for how individual Southern soldiers viewed America’s Civil War, and how reasonable men can disagree on something so fundamental as civil rights for all people, reviewers persist in voicing their indignation over the attitudes of a fictional lawyer. If the reaction to this book is any indication of how her first work was received, it is no wonder she never wanted to publish another novel: “I would not go through the pressure and publicity I went through with To Kill a Mockingbird for any amount of money,” she told a close friend.

This is a novel about growing up and learning to reconcile painful truths about the world. Lee’s meaning couldn’t be clearer, since she puts her arguments in the mouths of learned and articulate people and has precious little plot or character ornamentation to obscure her arguments. Some have called this bald sermonizing. To me it was a balm. The arguments surrounding race relations are so fraught that someone stating straight out what their issues are aids clarity and understanding, even if distinctions are still fine and complicated enough to make me weak with relief that I don’t have to read this book in translation, or in a language not my own.

I really can’t understand the twisted-mouth criticism of this novel. Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker (July 27th edition) calls the novel “touching, beautiful…and magically alive,” though heavily hyped. It was so hyped I became suspicious of its value as literature before I read it. Considering the success of Harper Lee’s first novel and her reclusiveness in the years since, a new book from her really is an event to be celebrated. Look what happened this summer leading up to Jonathan Franzen’s new book, Purity. You’d think his book was a miracle instead of one from a popular writer in the middle of his career. The American marketing machine cannot be accused of shrinking from their god-given right to make money anyway they can.

I listened to this novel read by Reese Witherspoon whose southern accent gave the novel a charming verisimilitude. And listening to Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack at the end help her integrate what she’d learned during her stay in Maycomb was grace itself.

Don’t let any reviews discourage you from enjoying this novel for yourselves. It is a wonderful, spicy, clear-eyed view of the South with all its peculiarities. A better defense of color-blindness I have not heard.

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Thursday, September 3, 2015

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Ferris, as you might be able to tell from the title, is all about religion in this novel. His main character, Paul C. O’Rourke, is a dentist—a dentist with a taste for the absurd. He is funny, especially when he is trying not to be. His practice in New York City keeps him crazy busy, so he allows himself only a few indulgences. He is a Red Sox fan in New York, which means he must watch every game (except the 6th inning), taping them to watch later if he has something else on his schedule. The ritual is one which gives structure, and a kind of meaning to his life. He wants something. He still has desire of a sort.

O’Rourke tries to be normal, just so that he can get along with other folks, but he is like a space bot acting human: it’s all wrong. O’Rourke is having a crisis. He doesn’t get the point “of it all,” and he especially doesn’t see God acting in the world. So when a patient tells him he is part of a long-lost race of non-believers in God (any god), O’Rourke wonders if perhaps it isn’t just possible: To be genetically indisposed to believe in God.

O’Rourke wants something to be everything: absorbing, challenging, meaningful. His girlfriends had close family ties, and O’Rourke found that to be meaningful for awhile: he wanted to be a part of their families as much as he was interested in the women themselves. But their religious affiliations always proved a barrier. O’Rourke didn’t believe in God.

One night O’Rourke wakes in the middle of the night and the city outside his window is completely quiet. Not a person could be seen, though earlier the streets were filled with people.
"I felt so forgotten, so passed over, so left behind, so lost out. I was sure not only that everything worth doing had already been done while I was asleep but also that, now that I was awake, there was no longer anything worth doing. My first instinct was to reach for my me-machine. It put me in instant touch, it gave me instant purpose…No one had called or emailed or texted. I would do practically anything, I thought, to have them back—I mean the strollers and lovers of a few hours earlier, so that I might have another chance to stroll alongside them…and, after awhile, to leave the Promenade, off to bed for a good night’s sleep—or to that one vital thing among the city’s offerings that night, that one unmissable thing that makes staying up all night a treasure and not a terror—and then to rise again at a decent hour—to walk the Promenade in the light of a new morning…oh, come back you people lost to darkness! Come back, you ghosts, the day is hard enough. Don’t leave me alone with the night…There was the hum of the river, and the last desultory traffic of the night washing by on the expressway below. I can only suggest the effect it had one me, that is the feeling that my life, and the city’s, and the world’s every carefree, winsome hour, were perfectly without meaning."

In the final pages of the novel, O’Rourke finds himself understanding a little of how others manage to get through their days. If it doesn’t hurt, there is no reason to worry about it. "What’s the point of dwelling on all the shit and the misery?" He’d like to do as others do, but one senses his melancholy. He is lonely and there is no God.

Finally, O’Rourke concludes that there is no certainty, no freedom from doubt, “there is only will.” We may retain the doubt, but we must still act, and in the acting, we may have enough to sustain us spiritually. It makes sense to me what Ferris says about religions: that they are less concerned about God than they are about the religion itself. And all religions have this problem. They can sometimes even lose sight of morality itself, a failing no involved God should permit.

O’Rourke was free to change his affiliation from the Red Sox to the Chicago Cubs, and take a swing with a cricket bat at a ball that came in fast and low one day in Kathmandu because while he still had doubt, he also had hope. The pitcher was his patient, a patient with perfect teeth.

I had to work hard on this book for many days before I caught glimmers of Ferris' meaning. I don’t think it is because I listened to it rather than read it. The listening helped because the reader, Campbell Scott, was drier and funnier than the voice I had in my head as I read, but it is true I couldn’t mark the sections that wove the religious quest together. They got buried under the avalanche of extraneous associations the story of the dentist practice provoked.

There is nothing wrong with a little existential angst, especially if it makes one doubt and not be an arrogant prick. But Ferris is right. It doesn’t get one anywhere and itself has no meaning. One can only do what needs to be done and go on with it. Unless, of course, you don’t. Go on with it, I mean. That's the other option.

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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Rubbernecker by Belinda Bauer

Belinda Bauer is now among my favorite mystery writers. I just love the way her mind works. I read her debut novel, Blacklands, (published in 2009) and was immediately captured by her assured style. She slipped under my radar until this year, when I saw hers among a listing of new books being published in the U.S. this summer by Grove Atlantic.

A young medical student discovers something unusual while dissecting a corpse cadaver and cannot let it rest. The simple story line cannot convey the host of associations and emotions, suspicions and satisfactions readers feel as Bauer leads us through events we are quite sure will turn out deadly.

This novel is classic in a timeless way. It is slim, pared to its essentials. With a phrase, a pause, and brilliant character development Bauer leads us finally to a conclusion that is wholly unexpected. I adore the way she handles the police investigation at the end. No histrionics, but a good policeman does the legwork and surprises himself with what he finds. This is good writing.

While I was reading, I was reminded in a very good way of Louise Welsh, the Scottish mystery writer, and Brigitte Aubert, the French mystery writer. Bauer has Welsh’s offbeat sly humor and Aubert’s daring: Aubert’s novel Death from the Woods featured a quadriplegic who solves a murder case. Bauer treats us to a paralyzed coma patient trying to telegraph his knowledge of a murder. It is masterfully suspenseful…and misleading.

The central character in this novel has Asperger’s Syndrome, and his differentness is handled so well that we teeter back and forth in our support for him. Brilliantly done, Belinda Bauer!

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores