Sally Rooney’s Normal People felt like anything but, and I’m guessing that that’s at least part of the point. She tells the story of two on-again, off-again lovers from the west side of Ireland, young people who grew up together, went to college together, and develop a passive-agressive relationship that is both infuriating and compelling.
I have thoughts:
- I do not fully understand the geographical and cultural differences of the regions of Ireland, but the west’s reputation for pastoral beauty and economic wasteland seems to still be a thing. Connell is from the working class, and he knows Marianne because his mom (who is an amazing character) cleans her family’s house. They go to the same high school, where they have very different experiences.
- They of course fall for each other, but not in any way we might expect.
- They also both go to Dublin for college, and end up at Trinity (upper-crust, which Connell can only afford via scholarship). This journey is traumatic for Connell, and he’s not helped by his lack of social skills, brilliance at literature – having no job prospects when he gets done – and obsession with Marianne.
- They both circle each other, thinking that they are just fuck buddies when it is clear that they need each other in ways that might be fundamentally unhealthy but are nonetheless real.
- Marianne’s relationships are destructive as hell, and Connell manages to attract someone who seems like an honest-to-goodness good person (don’t worry, he drives her away).
- The self-marginalization of class is tricky here – Connell clearly sees no way forward of his own (and he might just be a dreamy kid who can’t see himself in a business environment), while Marianne is wandering through Dublin spending her family’s money, getting decent scores on her exams, but again not having much sense of a future. Her family is incredibly abusive, as her brother definitely threatens her and might actually hit her, and she seems to have internalized that violence.
- The dialogue is brilliant for its understatedness. They both sort of laconically go back and forth in what feels like a simulation of respectfulness – there is never any anger or even passion, as instead they constantly stop their conversations just short of the point where they might actually say something important.
- The title at first felt ironic, but now I think it’s more illusory and wistful. These two want to be normal people (I think epitomized by Connell’s mom), but they just can’t manage it.
- I’m pretty sure they even think they can save each other, but Rooney doesn’t give them that at the end…
I will read Rooney again, mostly because her dialogue feels absolutely spot-on for two teenagers who are desperately trying to hide what they feel are the demons that make them not-so-normal. For what it’s worth, they mostly fail at that…
Black Leopard Red Wolf is the second novel I’ve read by Marlon James, and in it he crosses genres into fantasy, a land that I often think of as being inhabited by the sorts of true believers who resent those not approved by the Tolkien groupies. That’s not so true, as writers like Samuel R. Delany and Stephen Donaldson attacked the generic boundaries early in its incarnation as popular fiction, and BLRW continues the exploration that those two began.
- It took me longer than I expected to get into this novel. I’ve been excited to read it since I finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the sort of casual way that James introduces us to his characters felt haphazard, and the various plot threads felt way too spread apart.
- By the end, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put it down.
- The narrative point of view is fairly amazing. We spend much of the novel inside Black Wolf’s head, a pretty unusual point-of-view from a fantasy novel perspective. At times he becomes so embroiled in his own rage and lust for revenge (his mantra is “fuck the gods”, if you are curious about his motivations) that he acts in ways that we could consider not all that heroic, especially if your definition of heroism includes piety.
- Curiously, James never apologizes for Tracker’s bloody ways, even in the ways that the novel ends. He doesn’t magically transform (although his motivations for revenge, the vampire killing a bunch of children whom the Tracker was a father-figure too, feel pretty primal and in some ways justified) into some sort of redemptive figure.
- In fact, Tracker does not even get the kill (you knew the evil folks were gonna die, right?).
- Black Wolf is a tracker (and he’s known in the novel as Tracker, not Black Wolf, in case Black Panther fans get too worked up), an archetype that does not constitute any previous fantasy hero’s identity as far as I can recall. For instance, Aragorn was often called the best tracker of his age, but that characteristic simply helped us understand how different he was from previous kings, establishing his worthiness.
- The general ways that James uses archetypes from African mythology is fascinating and really cool, and I am working on another project that attempts to map these figures onto to the deeply nordic base of most fantasy fiction.
- The setting is also intense – deep forests, ancient cities, sort of standard in interesting ways.
- I will need to figure out the boy who would have been king at some other time. Suffice it to say that patrilineage, matrilineage, and the increasingly chaotic nature of government by nobility is a backdrop to what is coming next.
- The novel also sets the next stage, with the appearance of the inhuman white scientists, and the god-killer figure warning Tracker that an entirely different threat is coming, soon. The threat looks suspiciously like colonialism.
I am looking forward to the rest of the series…
Jo Walton’s Necessity trilogy continues to delight me. The Philosopher Kings is book two in the series, and it starts twenty years after the final debate in The Just City, the one in which Athene, angry because she lost the argument and her Just City – based on Plato’s Republic – breaks up the experiment because the Republic was not working out as she imagined.
- Walton’s fiction experiments in interesting ways with all kinds of big ideas, and the factions that result from the end of the last debate (and Athene’s taking of all but two of the Workers with her) provide a glimpse at the drive to set forth and find lands of our own that motivated the continuous development of colonies that was ancient Greece.
- This set of colonies is imbued (burdened?) with the foreknowledge of what is to come, since in the original plan Athene simply plucked anyone who had thought of her out of their current time and plopped them as a Master in the Just City.
- Her portrayal of the gods is fascinating – she fully invests in the ancient Greek idea that gods have immense powers and yet are more fully realized humans. They can be capricious, loving, horrible, intensely empathetic, and a bunch more, and seeing how those characteristics play out in the mundane world is pretty cool.
- The consequences of time travel come into play here as well. The inhabitants do not want to destroy what is come because of what they know, and this concept gets really confusing with the advent of Christianity, since Christians still want to be saved and go to heaven.
- Walton does not give up what Hades is actually like in this configuration…no cheating I guess…
- There is far less dialogue in here, and a lot more action (of the traditional variety – I think dialogue is action, but I’m a nerd). I missed the dialogue, but I also miss Simmea.
- Oddly enough, she inhabits nearly the entire novel through Apollo’s love for her.
- As the inhabitants of the Just City leave to form new colonies, they come back for one thing – art. The potency and power of art in this type of city (which Walton sets up in direct contrast to Plato’s oft-expressed concerns about art’s power to invoke emotion in people) drives people to war.
- Some would say that anything drives people to war…
- I am really curious what the next novel will do with the notions of citizenship that Walton is just starting to explore at the end of this novel. In my reading of The Republic determining who is a citizen (and the whys and hows) causes a bunch of problems.
- I am also wondering about economics and material necessity. This series intensely examines what we think of when we think of the soul, and it gives us some looks at the material conditions that people face. As the material reality of the next landscape manifests itself perhaps we will see more of the economics of The Republic (esp. since Walton has effectively eliminated both slaves and Workers/robots).
On to Book Three…
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).