Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is like nothing I have ever read. It is not (even though I spent the first half of my reading experience trying to make it so) about the immigrant experience, the migrant experience, or even the African experience (directly anyway) – its narrators immerse themselves in the entire body and soul of a young woman who was sexually abused and beaten as a child, and who has evolved an elaborate set of defense mechanisms to cope.
- My quick overview limits – in an almost generic sense – the ways in which this novel might be perceived. It does not read like the haunted memories of a woman trying to keep her sanity. Instead, with only two exceptions chapters are told from the point of view of the gods and goddesses who ride her, and who enable her to survive, and they are living, breathing characters (often to their chagrin, as they sometimes endlessly lament)…
- Emezi in the essay at the end of the novel describes it as “metaphysical,” so they (their preferred pronouns are they, their, theirs) are asking us to treat these big questions from a religious and spiritual standpoint, in addition to the psychological one.
- The borders – between body and soul, between religious identities, between genders – that we usually imagine are solid (if not rigid) do not exist in this novel, and Emezi clearly wants to examine them. They describe their work as existing in a liminal space, and those types of spaces are rife with conflicts, power, and energy.
- The use of many different embodiments of human personas in the form of a pantheon of all kinds of gods had me engaged (and possibly even immersed). There are no hints until about two-thirds of the way through the novel just what these various forms are, but there is lots of conversation of how they mean to both protect and annihilate Ada, the main (human) character.
- And the two extremes are not that far apart…
- As Ada deals with her own trauma, and jousts with the spirits inhabiting her, I never wondered about what parts of her were human. I am curious about that now – why did I so easily buy that these were gods inhabiting her body, mostly Nigerian or Yoruban? Was I imagining this novel was simply one of possession? Admittedly, that alone would be pretty cool…
- Finally, Emezi’s willingness to experiment is frightening in its precocity. This could have gone very wrong, and the fact that they also work in video and other art forms, according to the Internet goddesses at Wikipedia made me wonder if Emezi was simply too full of ideas to execute any of them.
- Answer – nope. They’re definitely talented enough to pull this off – it is one of the rare novels that I couldn’t wait to finish but which also didn’t find me rushing through and having to re-read because I had become impatient.
I picked up Your Duck is my Duck based on a recommendation from a best-of 2018 list, and I’m glad I did. Eisenberg’s stories aren’t the sort I usually read – they’re full of rich, spoiled people who aren’t always aware of how horrible they are, and in general her work is not all that kind to homo sapiens sapiens. I flew through these though, in that way that makes me have to intentionally slow down, and that alone speaks to my enjoyment.
- These stories aren’t really all that concerned with class, and while they show the rich in a fairly awful light they’re not satires out of New Yorker, stories designed to help confirm the image we already have of just how terrible rich people are.
- Instead, thematically they’re much more concerned with time. A typical narrator’s overview reads like this:
But seriously, wasn’t that the whole point of the past? The point of the past is that it’s immutable (p.42)
- This is a narrator who hints at the ways that time bends, but not in a Matthew McConnaughey in True Detective way. Time in this configuration sashays and flirts around and is just sort of naughty, promising us all kinds of delights and then slamming the door as we try to re-imagine them from our past.
- Another from the story “Recalculating”:
The day, so fresh and glistening, seemed to contain every summer that had ever been and to promise more, endless more. (206)
- Her stories are full of these little hints, all spoken in a narrative voice that is distinctive, fun, and deadly…
- And in its virtual hands time becomes a strange creature, one that certain of those among us with a shamanistic bent can read and perhaps even ride…just never control.
- The narrator is also consistent, speaking in a voice that feels both innocent and lively and enthusiastic as well as winking at the characters for us (and probably at us as well, for being, well, dumb).
- Finally, I’m not sure I’ve read a story as light and airy and depressing as “Merge,” which functions as a sort of mini-novella in the middle of the collection. I won’t go into too many details, but one character evaluation will probably tell you all you need to know – the investment banker who is convicted of fraud and seems at best a deadbeat dad is not the least likable character.
- The story also features a return to the primordial ooze, as Cordis, a wastrel son who his dad (the banker) may or may not want killed, ends up in a dream watching his dead shoot a homo heidelbergensis (a particularly fearsome potential ancestor of ours) in the head.
- Again, not my usual cup of tea, but man I enjoyed this collection…
Tommy Orange’s There There feels drenched in the violence that Native Americans have experienced since the arrival of Europeans, and that immersion feels icky to someone like me who has benefited from white privilege.
That’s how it should be.
More thoughts below:
- This novel feels related in a familial way to Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, in both the brutality of the narrative and its multiple-perspective form. One of the key differences is that Orange does not try to recreate language patterns like James does, and he can pull this off since his narrators are not often first-person.
- Another key difference is the mini-essay that Orange begins There There with, a meditation of sorts on the Indian head from US-issued coins. I’m assuming that the essay is as close to Orange’s voice as we will get, and it is apologetic (to the reader at least) for the material that it covers while also setting out clearly what the novel hopes to accomplish. The directness of this felt refreshing, especially since Orange argues that the best way to communicate the disruption and violence that the Indian community is subjected to is through a disrupted narrative, and yet he wants readers to not be discouraged from reading it by his approach.
- The storyline kept me reading as much as did the narrative approach. It clearly builds to a climax that is both tragic and seemingly inevitable. It also points to the smallness of the circle that is the Native American community after generations of degradation at the hands of white America, as at the powwow this convergence leads to long-separated family members suddenly recognizing each other, often in uncomfortable ways.
- Orange makes transparent his desire to broaden the perspective of what we think of as the Indian experience, introducing his audience to both the “Urban Indian” and the Native American who looks white. In this sense passing becomes a strange phenomenon – a couple of his characters are enrolled members of tribes, and yet they look white enough to find trouble in being accepted into the native community. Passing as white is not something that they desire.
- The references in this are polyglot in all the best ways. The novel’s title comes from a Gertrude Stein diss of Oakland – “there is no there there,” but it also could be a way that we try to comfort children through language. The novel itself references Plath and Stein, and also Erdrich and Alexie, but Orange is comfortable enough with pop culture to include films and music, including Native American rap…
- Orange’s interest in sound is clearly portrayed in this novel, both in the rhythm of his dialogues and the power in the powwow as well.
- As with many of these novels, it feels most clearly the absence or lack – Orange early on describes cities as doubly-fraught-with-tragedy spaces for Native Americans, since they both represent a place that is difficult to survive in and a landscape that used to be far different before whites arrived. The lack is a powerful metaphor, and one that dovetails jarringly with the fascination that canonical Western texts have with wide open spaces as lacking civilization (and thus better proving grounds for masculinity or for reclaiming some lost utopian primitive space).
- Read it. The novel makes the occasional difficulty in identifying which character is which well worth the trouble.
Homesick for Another World is a collection of Otessa Moshfegh’s short stories, and it works differently than her novels. Novels reward those who are patient, both writers and readers, the observer who identifies details and winnows important observations from those that do not contribute to the text’s mission. Short stories tend to be far more of an exercise in immediate gratification. In particular, short story characters can tend to be more outrageous since there is no time to develop them.
- Moshfegh does not cotton to this strategy – even in this format her characters don’t reveal much of themselves, and only sometimes.
- This approach makes them even less sympathetic in some ways, and forced me as a reader to do some work. Rather than pile characters into those categories that I often resort to – I like them, I don’t like them, I like them sometimes – I had to look more carefully at the brutalizations that they both inflicted and endured.
- I also had to look at the validity of my own reactions – is this a way to read fiction, as a judgment on characters? I try not to do that even in real life, so my guess is no…
- Her approach to these characters also meant that the narrative voice often felt arrogant in ways that I did not feel comfortable with. That discomfort is good – arrogance among the brutally unaware is a feature not a bug, I think…
- I also found myself reading for redemption, which I would argue is a common way for audiences in the US in particular to read. We want happy endings, and if the character is not a good person we want them to at least admit that they are indeed not a good person.
- This does not happen in Moshfegh’s work.
- So, are these arrogant, irredeemable characters worth reading about? Yes, absolutely, although I am struggling with the why. There are probably two reasons that are compelling…
- From a metafictional perspective, this type of character (and they run a wide range of genders) works to subvert what we expect in fiction, and Moshfegh offers a much wider variety than say Bukowski, whose characters all seem to be some version of himself.
- Character portraits of folks who are not historically evil but simply not very aware of the damage that they do are way harder to pull off and damaging to the general lack of self-consciousness and intentionality that we often think of as a critical element in fiction.
- We all want to be Emma, in some ways, capable of both growth and recognizing the need to grow. There are no Emmas in what Moshfegh is doing…
- Finally, the last three stories in this collection (yes, I’m a rules-follower and read them in order) were different – nostalgic in the title of the collection sense, rife with a sense of alienation that in my mind helps to establish the narrator’s credibility as a reliable source of all these types of personalities. Moshfegh’s ability to write in so many voices is uncanny, and kept me wondering what the hell was coming next…
- In that sense, this collection fits snugly with Eileen, a novel in which I kept waiting for the character to do something horrible, a tension that is never paid off directly but instead contributes to the general sense of daily horror that comes from this sense of having no reason to keep going forward (and yet we keep going forward anyway).
The New Me feels like the ultimate gig economy novel, a The Devil Wears Prada without the pretension, redemption, or hope. I enjoyed it, from the manic narrator and her constant wild mood swings to the step-back chapters that featured how those who work with or know Millie look at her from a third-person perspective.
- My expectations of Millie actually shrunk as the novel progressed. I felt certain that this would progress like a McInerney or Jamowitz or Easton Ellis, with characters who are ultimately lovable and redeemable by the end of the novel despite the stuff they have done and big city settings that feature young people trying to figure stuff out.
- Butler doesn’t do that – I won’t spoil it, but the novel ends far less redemptively or with the narrator having some newfound sense of intentionality than those novels did. The narrative voice moves to third-person even for Millie, and the frantic, desperate, and hopeless tone becomes one of calm resignation. The sense of having given up struck me, hard.
- I’m struggling trying to reconcile the narrative voice with these usual narrative arcs, or with my idea that gig economy texts need to somehow be either redemptive (the protagonist reconciles their place in a messed-up system by doing some sort of relatively good work, like Rob Lowe’s character in About Last Night gentrifying Chicago (but in a good way), or they fight the power as happens in a Cory Doctorow novel. I much prefer Cory Doctorow, by the way.
- Instead, Butler’s novel lets the anger and despair seethe below the surface, never letting either Millie’s intelligence or self-loathing completely go away.
- Butler seems to be compared to Otessa Moshfegh, but that comparison does neither a lot of good. I’ve read a lot of Moshfegh, and this is the first novel of Butler’s that I’ve read, and Moshfegh is much less willing to take responsibility for her characters, much less likely to inhabit them and make them autobiographical. Both methods work, I hasten to add, but the comparison seems misplaced to me.
- I also admire the way that Butler has Millie absorb the idea of the new me, as she is completely enmeshed in the language of self-improvement, occasionally awakening from her spiral to berate herself for not following the new methods of making herself better that she has pulled from the Intertoobz.
- The socialization of women into this culture feels to me like a critical element of imbibing us all in the joys of the gig economy.
- Finally, in my mind both Butler and Moshfegh (as well as many others of course) offer valid strategies for trying to understand contemporary lived experience. We seem aeons away from James Wood’s critique of Pynchon, DeLillo, and mostly Zadie Smith (see Wikipedia’s page on hysterical realism for a primer), and closer to the Beats (who both lived and foresaw where we were going), the frantic energy of the eighties, and a zeitgeist that feels real to me, one in which we try to create filters that enable us to make a modicum of sense of the constant bombardment that we have created and now face.
I’ve not read enough of McEwan’s work, something I’ll try to remedy after reading Machines Like Me. This is ostensibly a robot novel, and it has a lot to say about identity and the ways we look at our historical moment. More thoughts below:
- I’m currently reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, and it’s making me rethink how I think of historical fiction, and history in texts in general. In Machines Like Me, McEwan creates a novel that I think might well be called ahistorical, as he intensely winds the narrative up in historical events that are actually sort of the opposite of what actually happened.
- I had to keep looking up events to make sure that I remembered history correctly. For instance, in this version of the Falklands War, The Exocet missiles do far more damage to British ships than they actually did, and the British navy turns around and heads home rather than risk more losses. Thatcher is weakened politically, and starts a long decline that results in her resignation, a wee bit different than actual human events.
- Even the artificial people are a result of this novelistic approach – a breakthrough happens because Alan Turing (yep, that one) refuses the chemical castration that he actually took to reduce his sentence in real life, does his jail time, and comes out on the other side to become an entrepreneur whose genius combines with the work of a couple of Stanford labs to produce actual robots that are marketed to the general public.
- I won’t talk about it here, but the alternative history that McEwan creates fits neatly with the arguments in Berlant’s book, ones I hope to address in this blog before too long.
- McEwan hints at his narrator’s approach to history in this passage (one that neatly , in which the narrator listens to his girlfriend complain about her graduate work in history:
It was no longer proper to assume that anything at all had ever happened in the past. There were only historical documents to consider, and changing scholarly approaches to them, and our own shifting relationship to those approaches, all of which were determined by ideological context, by relations to power and wealth, to race, class, gender and sexual orientation (35)
- McEwan’s narrator both shows a familiarity with the work of historians, especially academic ones, and rejects them as being too politicized, neatly lining up with his view early in the novel that our technology is apolitical and ahistorical. He will probably change that opinion by the end of the novel.
The Shape of Water burst on the scene shortly before the re-issue of Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, but Ingalls beat del Toro to the story by 35 years as this novel features a housewife in a marriage that seems stagnant who falls for a sensitive male of another species. Water is definitely involved.
- Making the protagonist Mrs. Caliban is just one of the many brilliant moves in this novel. Ingalls calls attention directly to gender roles and expectations with the title, and by positioning the canon’s wimpiest monster opposite Larry (the monster in this novel) being someone who can kill – he does so out of self-defense, and does so brutally – reverses Prospero’s cultural dominance in favor of a monster who actually becomes the sort of ideal partner that Dorothy wishes she had.
- While Prospero tames Caliban, demonstrating masculine and English superiority over all types of Others, Dorothy falls in love in an almost traditional way with her monster. Their relationship is not one of master-servant (a trope for marriage that seems to fall apart while we watch among Dorothy’s social circle) but rather a contemporary good marriage, with a true partnership between equals rather than a series of passive-aggressive territory contests of the sort that middle class marriages degenerate into in the world of this novel.
- Larry seems more perplexed by the insanity of Dorothy’s world than she does by his. Of course we get to see her world and not his, but the ever-shifting alliances of marriages in Dorothy’s circle are hard to fathom, and become almost labyrinth-like. There simply are no good marriages, as men cheat, women cheat, and the ideal of the American household falls completely apart.
- The larger context that Ingalls works from is suburbia, and her portrayal of it makes middle-class citizens of the USA seem more savage than poor Larry…
- And by the way, this novel contains inter-species sex…don’t say you weren’t warned.