December 4, 2013
While it’s true that silence greets most literary books entering the world, there is something conspicuous about the polite silence that tends to greet a literary novel about a middle-aged woman. Now part of the problem with such an assertion, of course, is that it’s often one uttered by authors who’ve written unremarkable books about middle-aged women, books whose silence is understandable (and even a victory. If only David Gilmour’s next novel could meet a similar fate). But in the case of Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready to be Lucky? (and Shaena Lambert’s Oh My Darling, while we’re at it), the silence is nothing short of an injustice, for the book itself and all the readers whose worlds would be so enriched by it.
So let’s break the silence then, shall we? Rosemary Nixon’s collection of linked short stories is one of the funniest, most original books I’ve read this year. I started reading it on Friday, found it hard to put down, and had devoured it by Sunday afternoon. Are you ready to be lucky, indeed.
The first sentence of this book: “Roslyn high-steps up Bantry Street on an icy Alberta evening buffeted by the late-December gusts, holding high her sixty by forty centimetre tray of pineapple stuffed meatballs, trying not to look like a woman who, at the yearly No Commitment Book Club gift exchange, received a can of gravy and two books called How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself and The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead.”
The last sentence of the book is: “You fucking keep on playing.”
And let me tell you about everything that happens in between.
Roslyn’s just been dumped by her long-time husband, awful Harold. Carrying her pineapple stuffed meatballs, she’s on her way to a party, on the way to meet her fate. The party’s at the home of her friend Stella, a woman for whom being dumped has become a lifestyle. At the party, Roslyn meets Duncan Bloxham, and he chooses her. (Her delight of this fact is indicative of the slim pickings for divorced women in their 40s.) Her whole life having already fallen down around her, Roslyn sees no harm is getting carried away by the moment, and it’s not long before the two are married. Duncan is a pathological liar, a conman, an Imperialist asshole with a cruel streak and a terrible temper, however charming with his British accent. He’s the kind of character of whom the reader will wonder, “What does she possibly see in him?” Except Nixon tells us: the sex is fabulous. By the virtues of his cunnilingus, Roslyn hangs onto Duncan longer than she should, staying by his side on various adventures before finally kicking him out of her life.
We follow the couple to a community of British ex-pats in Spain in “Costa Blanca News”, and while I liked this part, there was a little too much “blimey,” the other characters rife with British stereotypes. In “Left”, Roslyn and Duncan are in England where she meets his family, and the true depth of his idle deceptions are made clear to her. Duncan is the most fascinatingly obnoxious character, so incredibly annoying that you’d like to hit him, and he calls to mind real people. Actual Duncans exist–you probably know this if you’re a middle-aged divorced woman. Nixon just has the chutzpah to put him down on paper.
In “The Sewers of Paris”, poor Stella has been dumped again, and she contemplates the one trip she took with her ex, a vacation from Paris far from the romantic ideal whose highlight was a tour of the city’s sewers. And in “Besides Construction,” we meet Lloyd, handyman hired to fix the crooked house that Roslyn bought after her marriage to Duncan ended. And the two of them dance around the idea of attraction to one another, Floyd a salt-of-the-earth type, not Roslyn’s type at all, but then lately, who is?
“In Which Floyd’s Odometer Passes the Million Kilometre Mark” is a story structured as a pinball machine, which it has in common with the whole book, actually. These are characters who wind up and bounce off one another just to see where things go. There is no traditional narrative structure in the book as a result, no tidy endings, no pat conclusions. The game goes on. “You just keep fucking playing.”
We meet Duncan again, back in Spain with another new wife, and later with even another, this one who he’d bought through the mail and who keeps her shit in the fridge. The story after that one is my favourite, in which Roslyn is en-route to her son’s wedding and drives her car into a deer. Yes, her son, Roslyn’s son Theo, whose wellbeing has been consistently kept in the back of her mind as she bounced from one adventure to another post-divorce. As she hits the deer, thereby ensuring that she’ll show up to the wedding late and rattled, if at all, she is listening to Jann Arden’s Good Mother on the radio, and the irony is not lost.
It is rare that such humour is balanced with incredible prose, cliche-free and striving to be something new with every sentence. This is a book that satisfies, not because it goes down easy, but because it fulfils a need in the reader for something that’s so profoundly good.
December 1, 2013
Jennica Harper is the poet whose books I stay up reading late into the night. She has uncanny ability to zero in on my fascinations, articulate questions I’ve vaguely wondered about, to use the very things located in the world around me (songs, cultural lore, television characters, celebrity references) and spin their own mythology. In a recent conversation, she asked, “Is there such thing as a “gateway poet”? That’s what I’d like to be.” And she has certainly succeeded at this, most recently with her latest collection, the beautiful, quietly powerful Wood.
Wood is meticulously packaged, the trunk-ring design from the cover repeated on the endpapers.The package is important, first because it’s beautiful, but also because Wood is a project of parts rather than strictly a whole and how these parts fit together is a huge part of the book’s appeal.
The first section is “Realboys: Poems for, and from, Pinocchio”. Like much of Wood, this is a story about progeny and disconnect. Pinocchio who is not quite a son, whose burgeoning sexuality extends the “wood” metaphor further (ha ha), who takes on Gepetto’s disappointment that he won’t grow to be a man–Gepetto, the man who made him! Who longs for the accoutrements of manhood without really understanding what they are. The only thing that isn’t rigid here is language: “I make things hard.”
“Liner Notes” is section 2, a long-poem from the perspective of a young woman 10 months into her first serious romance, thinking over the matters of her life as she cares for a disabled child and listens to “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells. “Tommy James and the Shondells went on vacation in 1969/ and never got back together…” The connections between the band, the song, the girl and the child in her care. She is on the cusp of adulthood, and the child stands for an unspoken possibility for the rest of her life, a possible narrative thread. She is playing house, experimenting with roles, hypnotized by the melody “over and over”, by her own power, by the possibilities still before her. The child is a window onto a way of life that nobody ever imagines, evidence that life takes on its own trajectory. And what does the child know about being a realgirl, about being being human? What does she know about being beyond human?
“There are various interpretations of the meaning of “Crimson and Clover”/…Many continue to believe it’s simply about being high, floating, synesthesia/letting go.”
“Papa Hotel” is imaginings on the father figure as iconic Hollywood movie stars, continuing the father-child (dis)connection theme that began with Pinocchio. Like the previous section, it’s an exercise in the hypothetical (wood/would!). Or the poet is imagining a context for inexplicable behaviour instead? ”My Father, As Jack Nicholson”: “A man who knows a pretty girl when he sees one, and he’s always seeing/ one. He reads waitresses’ tags, calls them their names…”
Next is “The Box” (wooden?), poems about Harry Houdini and his wife, about their marriage–”They had no children”. The poet imagines herself into the experience of Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner: “Now I’m the wife of the Handcuff King.” Poems about the tricks of their life together, and about their “Dream Children”. And then in “Wife”: Her imagined children are your imagined children. For all you know/ she was content, childless, her small womb unstretched, a balloon/never blown. Her belly skin taut ’til the end. You want her to want/ those children. Then she’d be missing something, like you…”
“Would” comes next, poems from the point of view of “you” in the preceding section, with a few variations. Once again, we’re delving into the hypothetical, including a poem about Lizzie Borden’s parents supposing that they, like the Houdinis, had had no children. The last line of a poem about the impossibility of real-estate is “Once more, knock wood for the happy ending.” A poem about miscarriage, another about the prospect of childlessness (and with these, we see a connection between this longing and Pinocchio’s), and then “Ring in the Grain” (see cover image, of course) about birth from the point of view of a witness, a record of the event addressed to the child front one cognizant enough to articulate the profoundness of the moment, note the details of the blur.
And then finally, “Roots: The Sally Draper Poems,” which you may have already read because they were published online last winter and then went viral and were quoted on Slate, which is pretty amazing. The poems are clever in their conceit, but their power goes beyond cleverness or pop-culture connections. This is Sally Draper specifically, buying a present for her specific father, for example. I loved the line in “Sally Draper: Upwardly Mobile”: At home, my mother had it made and brought to her by the help. Something/ I think about when I pour.” “Sally Draper Contemplates the Interstellar Mission” reaches back to Harper’s first book, The Octopus and Other Poems, while this whole sequence engages the same intimate knowledge of the teenage mind as her second book, What It Feels Like For a Girl. More hypothetical exercises, disconnected dads, an abortion, red lipstick. Last night of the book: “Would that be so bad?”
Wood appears to have emerged from several different projects whose connections were secondary, and yet how these connections function–how these poems speak to one another, echo one another, underline and overwrite–is the book’s most compelling quality. It’s a kind of puzzle to discern how these pieces fit together, and each reread will unearth a new layer of understanding (or perhaps another ring in the grain?). Which is good reason then to stay up reading late into the night.
November 18, 2013
I had the great privilege of reviewing Ann Patchett’s new book, the essay collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, and my review appeared in The Globe and Mail this weekend. The book was an absolute pleasure to read and reread, and to explore in writing.
“Patchett expounds on her craft with the verve of Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, but with both feet on the ground. She also makes explicit her influence by Joan Didion, revealing in Do Not Disturb that she’s been rereading all Didion’s books, which shows, and works to her detriment because she isn’t Joan Didion, which also shows. Though to be Joan Didion (who, it must be noted, got her start writing for Vogue) is a lot to ask of anyone, and some of Patchett’s best essays are of Didion’s calibre. She may well prove to be to the contemporary mythology of Tennessee what Didion is to California, with her own particular bent*.”
Read my review here!
*I kind of see Patchett as the anti-Didion, actually, particularly when she throws out the line, “I didn’t worry much about snakes” in her essay “Tennessee”. If you’ve read much Didion, you’ll know what I mean by that.
November 17, 2013
Eat It: Sex, Food & Women’s Writing is both a standalone book, and the latest issue of The Feathertale Review. Its editors have assembled a smorgasbord of Canadian women writers who write about food from a wide range of perspectives. Standout pieces are Amy Jones’ “Emotional Eating in the Digital Age”, stories by Jessica Westhead and Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, essays about women and poisoning, Chinese penis cuisine, and a perspective on an eating disorder that I’ve never before encountered, and a fabulous ode to dairy (yum). The book is smartly designed, and even has an index referencing all the foods mentioned in the volume. It made me hungry, but I devoured it.
I figured that A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love by Euphemia Fantetti would be fitting companion read, and I was right. This slim little volume is sometimes about food, mostly about hunger, and makes connections between these and Catholicism. Fantetti’s characters are lovelorn, sometimes desperate, and blessed with a darkly humorous edge. I loved this book’s subtle sweet, sweet subversion.
November 16, 2013
For nearly two weeks, I was reading The Goldfinch, carting it everywhere I went, having to pull out a bigger purse in order to accommodate its heft at 771 pages, my hand cramping as I read it while breastfeeding. I ripped the dust jacket when I tried to tear off a sticker, and then took the dust jacket off altogether when it started getting tatty from the travel. After that, I put the book down on the table on something green, and then the cover started to disintegrate when I wiped the stain off with a damp cloth. I don’t usually treat my books so poorly, but The Goldfinch is so large and solid, a piece of furniture nearly. It has presence, is lived with, is experienced. And it is interesting to think about my wear-and-tear on the book when I consider how much of the book is about what time does to physical objects. The Goldfinch is about its thingness just as much as it is about its text.
Part of this is because The Goldfinch is an event, a new Donna Tartt novel being a once-in-a-decade experience. I bought it the day it came out and for once got to be reading what everyone else was reading, which was fun as we marked our progress on Twitter. The book has been receiving mixed reviews, but those which are positive are ecstatic, and everybody on my Twitter feed seemed to be enjoying it as much as I was.
In some ways, my destruction of The Goldfinch is a tragedy, because the book itself is exquisitely designed, with thin pages and a subtly beautiful cover, though the cover seems to anticipate my treatment of it–food stains aside, the wear seems like part of the design. And on the flyleaf is a rendering of “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritus, a 17th century Dutch painter. It’s this painting which the book revolves around, this story of Theodore Decker whose own live turns on an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which killed and his mother and many others when he is thirteen years old.
The novel is a curious mix of old and new, strangely so at times. Though perhaps it’s just me who is surprised when a novel so steeped in longing and nostalgia refers back to a time in which email and emojis were a thing. What a thing to consider–how the present becomes the past, and how the past devours the future so that we look back and it’s there. Theo is writing his story from Amsterdam a decade and a half later, where something is desperately wrong and we’re not quite sure what, and then we forget about the present day altogether as Theo takes us back to the museum, and the explosion: “when I lost [my mother] I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me to someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life.”
Instead, he is traumatized by the incident, and left alone, by default falling into the care of a friend’s wealthy family. Compounding his trauma is fear of consequences to his actions directly following the explosion: listening to the curious instructions of a dying man, Theo removes “The Goldfinch” painting from the disaster scene, takes it with him, keeps it hidden. He tells this secret to no one, but lives in fear of its discovery. He tells us that he couldn’t tell anyone what he’d done for fear of repercussions–his whole life is unstable, he’s terrified of being thrown into foster care, he imagines being imprisoned for theft, and all this seems illogical because he’s so young and because of what happened. Surely her would have been forgiven? But I wonder now if really Theo didn’t tell because he knew that if he did, it would be taken from him.
The unreliability of Theo as a narrator, apparent or otherwise, as one of the book’s most fascinating features. He is a compelling storyteller, his story utterly gripping, and yet I was quite far into the book before I remembered that Theo had been at the museum with his mother only because he’d been suspended from school after some wrong-doing. What had he done, I wondered? I went back to check, and then realized that Theo claimed that he doesn’t even know, that it may have been fuss over a cigarette. He brushes past this. Situating himself as the hero of his story, or at least its victim, but it is remarked that Theo knows what to say and do to impress his friends’ parents, that perhaps Theo is not entirely genuine.
But these thoughts onto turn up here and there. Mostly we’re caught up in the twists and turns of his life, how his estranged father arrives back on the scene and whisks Theo away to live in Las Vegas where he’s making a living as a shady dealer. Here, Theo befriends the inimitable Boris, similarly lost, neglected, and prone to trouble. The two friends get up to trouble of their own, with drugs and petty theft, but Boris provides Theo with the first stable force he’s had in his life since he lost his mother.
The plot turns on coincidence, tragedy, collision and fireworks. There’s nothing subtle about this structure, though this is a book that is very aware of itself–Theo remarks upon the power of misdirection, the force of coincidence and chance. He ends up back in New York living with Hobie, a friend connected with the dying man he’d encountered in the museum. The friend deals in antiques, repair and reconstruction, and Theo begins working for him, making a racket selling forged pieces. He’s still hiding his copy of The Goldfinch, hiding this secret as desperately as he hides the painting itself.
Meanwhile (and this is a novel with a whole lot of meanwhile), he’s long been in love with a red-haired girl who’d been with the dying man and shares his experience of the tragedy, he is very addicted to drugs, he continues the orbit the world of his wealthy childhood friend. That friend’s mother has turned into a Miss Havisham figure after her own tragedy, the red-haired girl is called Pippa, and Hobie is a kind of Joe Gargery. The only explicit Dickens reference here is to Oliver Twist, however, the Artful Dodger in particular, in relation to Boris, though Tartt is subtly trickery here, and I think we’re meant to wonder if Theo himself is just how artfully dodgy in his own right.
I really liked Zsuzsi Gartner’s critical review of this novel from a few weeks back, because engaging with it even if only to disagree made me think deeper about The Goldfinch. She is also terrifically right about that Velveteen Rabbit moment, but I think Tartt is far too capable and tricky a novelist for us to write these off as shortcomings. The substance of the book is as such that its shortcomings seem inherent to its very fabric, and one can read into them to discover the novel’s deeper meaning. I am not sure that Tartt intended to write a realist novel, as Gartner asserts. Tartt, in reference to art, considers paintings which appear realist from afar, but upon closer look are constructed of dots and brush strokes–but then what isn’t? (It’s also worth noting that novels which insist on their novelness are the kind that I love best.)
It occurred to me that this novel so steeped in its thingness and in things was terribly complementary to Pinterest, so I created a pinterest board for The Goldfinch. Definitely a stupid way to waste a previous hour of Baby’ s nap on Thursday afternoon, but it turned out not so much. It was fun to go through the book again in search of things to pin and to include accompanying text, and an excellent way to further engage with the text–it turns out that 771 pages just weren’t enough for me.
November 12, 2013
If Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers were published today, critics would be lauding its uncanny sense of the contemporary moment, how Laurence dares to voice the unspoken truths of motherhood, her pitch-perfect portrayal of the subtleties of maternal ambivalence. Published in 1969, Laurence’s fourth novel belongs with Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Phyllis Brett Young’s The Torontonians as essential Canadian novels born out of the world of The Feminine Mystique. Which puts the book’s contemporary moment-ness in question, but then the lessons of The Fire Dwellers don’t tend to be the kind we pass on to our daughters, however much to their detriment. Not that they’d listen anyway. Isn’t it funny how the history of feminism is so profoundly uncumulative? How we have to learn it for ourselves over and over, and it’s a revolution/revelation every time?
But then The Fire Dwellers is largely about such disconnectedness, between generations, between spouses, friends, between the personal and the political, and—in the case of protagonist Stacey MacAindra—from one’s self, from one’s own life. Stacey is 39, sixteen years married, mother of 4, and according to the sensationalist copy on my Seal Book paperback, she’s looking for a lover. Which isn’t really true, though it’s probably a good way to sell a paperback. Anyone who has read the book, however, will tell you that she is looking for is herself beyond her oppressive roles of wife and mother. Roles which aren’t strictly oppressive; “They nourish me and they devour me too,” she writes of her children, and it’s in this in-between where she’s stuck, imagining the various ways she is destroying her children (by being overbearing, by too much attention, with her anger, all of these suggestions underlined by “helpful” magazine articles suggesting as much) and/or all the ways they would be destroyed anyway if she somehow managed to get away from them.
Through the novel, Laurence plays headlines from television news programs, broadcasting war, turmoil and unrest around the world. In one sense, the headlines are juxtaposed with the domestic, but we soon come to see that these are parallel, that the home-front is no safe haven after all.
“I can’t forget that piece in the paper. Young mother killed her two-month-old infant by smothering it. I wondered how that sort of thing could ever happen. But maybe it was only that the baby was crying, and she didn’t know what to do, and was maybe frantic about other things entirely, and suddenly she found she had stopped the noise. I cannot think this way. I must not.”
Children are hit by cars and killed, neighbours attempt suicide, Stacey and her husband worry about money, she fears that Mac is sleeping with his secretary, her youngest still isn’t talking (and what has she done to her to make this go wrong, Stacey wonders), and just as terrifying as the suffocating demands of motherhood is considering who she will be once the demands are rescinded, when the children are older. Who will she possibly be then?
Laurence’s The Diviners is so central to my literary consciousness, and I couldn’t help but see Stacey in the context of the Manawaka she’d fled from as a young woman, and in relation to Morag Gunn whom she’d stood apart from as a child but whom she’d have so much to talk about if they met up again in adulthood. And I was surprised to discover that Morag didn’t even exist when Laurence wrote The Fire Dwellers–The Diviners would be published 5 years later in 1974. But in The Fire Dwellers, you see the roots of The Diviners taking shape, its ideas and experiments with narrative and form.
Stacey MacAindra is Betty Draper, is calling out for Betty Friedan, though fat load of good a book is going to do her. (I always find it interesting when people critique Betty Draper’s character for her obviousness to Friedan, as though one day every woman in America read The Feminine Mystique, and society flicked a switch). Stacey MacAindra is also so many of us, as we remarked at my book club the other night. “Maybe we all turn into Stacey MacAindra sometime…” as I tweeted last week. Women for whom the day is never long enough to encompass all the things we want to do, all the people we want to or need to be. Women for whom motherhood and selfhood become a battle, with wifehood thrown in for good measure. You’d throw it all away, if you weren’t tied to it inextricably.
Stacey’s green slacks are dated, and so is her slang, but absolutely nothing else is in this novel which 45 years later is a challenge to and a reflection of the world at once.
November 10, 2013
I think that most of us in our 30s will see ourselves somewhere in Kelli Deeth’s short story collection The Other Side of Youth. For me, it was this passage from “Something Happy”:
“I have your grandmother’s china for you,” her mother said. “She took good care of it.”
“I don’t really have room for it,” Carmen said. She suddenly saw her grandmother’s hands–solid and covered in age spots.
“But you will,” her mother said. Carmen heard a strain in her mother’s voice, but when Carmen looked, her mother was not exactly smiling, but looking up and off at something pleasant only she could see.
It reminds me of a conversation my mother and I have had a million times, and all the grandmothers’ china I don’t have room for in my apartment, never mind that I’ve never had china of my own. And that I’ll probably never own a house ever, which would come with a basement I could put the china in until it came time to pass it on to my own daughter to keep in a box and never use.
This passage also reminds me of the woman in Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” whose husband was born the night the Titanic went down, the woman who told Didion that someday she’d be able to afford a house that code $1000 a month. “Someday you will,” she said lazily. “Someday it all comes.”
And Kelli Deeth’s book is about all the ways that it doesn’t, how those inevitable things like basements, china and having babies can go amiss. The final point in particular, which I thought was this book’s most remarkable feature. Just as we’re lately doing a terrific job exploring the many facets and varying experiences of motherhood, so too does Deeth show that not having children is a land of many stories and different experiences. Her characters are childless by choice or otherwise, ambivalent or despairing, looking toward adopting, desperately trying to hold onto high-risk pregnancies, trying to process the emotional pain and trauma of miscarriage, trying to maintain relationships under such circumstances.
A few of these stories are about young women, gritty stories about innocence lost too soon (and isn’t it always too soon)? In those stories of women in their 30s, on “the other side of youth,” Deeth shows that loss of innocence can be just as devastating, illusions only now being shed about what life gives and takes away.
These are dark stories, and yet there glimmers spots of hope and moments of illumination. Lives in pieces may seem like shards, but there is fascinating texture to so many edges.
November 3, 2013
Her name is Margaret Atwood. Margaret H. Atwood, no relation. She’s the protagonist of Missy Marston’s novel The Love Monster, which recently won the Ottawa Book Award. And her name is Margaret Atwood entirely by accident–her own mother, Rose, had never heard of the literary icon when Margaret H. was christened. There is no meaning to the connection, which is barely even a connection. In this, I suppose, Marston is casting light upon the shadow in which Canadian authors pen their books, putting the name out there because readers are thinking it anyway, or a name that’s something like it. Here is an iconoclast then, this Margaret Atwood, who’s just been left by a cheating husband, has psoriasis, and works in a dreadful office she calls The Button Factory.
And there are aliens. Oh, if anything could be more off-putting, I don’t know. If I’d known there were aliens, I don’t know if I could have picked this novel up, but I am so glad I did pick it up because it delighted me. The aliens (who, like the protagonist’s name) are also not the point, but they are there to add a little magic to a story which otherwise might be altogether too near to reality, too bleak to bear.
“This realization–that every single part of her, no matter what course of action she takes, will get uglier over time, that the process is inevitable and unstoppable–has been crushing.” I didn’t underline this part, because I was too embarrassed to and because I didn’t have to, because I am thirty-four years old and have just had a second baby, and therefore that line is seared on my soul. It sounds vain, I know, but it’s a culmination of things, things that have weighed on poor Margaret H. Atwood who is so memorably bitchy, grumpy, uninterested in making you like her, or anyone. It’s not just about looks, but about how her her life gets lost, and she is adrift in a sea of nothingness (and this part was not seared on my soul, but oh, I can relate about pants too tight). Here we have a story in a setting along the lines of The Office, cringe-worthy encounters, meaningless production, an absence of colour.
We come along with Margaret on her trip to rock-bottom, though the omniscient narrator also embraces Margaret’s mother, her co-workers, even the evil ex, the alien, and invests them with a powerful sympathy, an investigation of the kernel of sadness which lives within us all. The lines, the straight-talk, the music that Margaret plugs into her ears, the disasters–this Canadian book is hilarious, and will never, ever win the Leacock Prize (which is some kind of endorsement). It’s funny, and quirky, but not cute, and it’s terribly profound. Really amazing writing.
Lines like, “Motherhood, the motherfucker above all others: the feeling of always being the lifeguard on duty, of never having a moment’s peace. Counting and counting and counting the precious, vexing little chicks to make sure all are accounted for. Rose believes that, except for that single unspoiled year, sandwiched between her father’s house and her daughter’s birth, that one year lone with her lovely husband, she cannot remember ever feeling at ease. She is always on stand-by. She wants to turn it off, but she can’t. Duty calls. She can feel the motherfucking cape behind her as she rises from the table. Stand tall, mother. Fly!”
“But Lou Reed knows everything. If you just listen, it is all there. / He knows that the world can be terrible and that humans struggle to find their way. That’s why they need kicks./ He knows that some kicks can kill you (like heroine[sic*] and brute violence) and others (like love and rock and roll) can save your life. / He knows that sometimes only the tuba can adequately express rock and roll feelings. And he knows how important it is to–how exactly does he out it? Shake your buns.”
*I think “heroine” is a typo, but I’m not sure, and this novel is clever enough, and meta enough that I’d give it the benefit of the doubt. Like the protagonist’s name and the aliens, I can read a whole lot into this. The Love Monster is a novel as heavy on substance as it is on humour, which is rare. I seriously could write a half-decent undergraduate essay on that typo. And I loved reading about Lou Reed, just the day after his death, just another way this novel was like a message from the universe (which all books have kind of read like ever since I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby).
I liked this novel well enough, thought it was cute, funny, but then eventually, this novel suffused with bleakness begins to bubble over with light and joy and it all comes to mean so much more. SPOILERS!, I guess, but I’m not sure I could convince you to read it otherwise, what with the aliens and the psoriasis. The Love Monster celebrates life and the love, the ties that bind us to the earth and to each other. It is surprising and devourable, challenging tenets of CanLit but affirming the goodness of the world, and I love that. What a revelation–that a wonderful novel can also make you laugh, even make you happy.
October 29, 2013
The Pure Gold Baby is Margaret Drabble’s first novel since 2006′s The Sea Lady, and her first book since the memoir The Pattern in the Carpet in 2009. Her first novel since she claimed to have quit writing fiction, with a new publisher after she claimed that Penguin was “dumbing her down”. It’s a novel that it’s impossible to regard outside of the wider context of Drabble’s oeuvre, which even the book itself makes implicit. Page 19 makes reference to “the radiant way” and “a millstone”, which suggest the titles of two earlier Drabble novels. Late in the book, a passage: “A wider view, an aerial view, an uplifting view, a view of the river, a view of time, a view of the shores of the infinite.” Which reminded me of a passage I underlined in The Middle Ground a long time ago: “…London, how could one ever be tired of it?… When there it lay, its old intensity restored, shining with invitation, all its shabby grime lost in perspective, imperceptible from this dizzy height, its connections clear, its pathways revealed. The city, the kingdom. The aerial view.”
One has to take an aerial view of Drabble’s career in order to make sense of The Pure Gold Baby. Because it’s a curious book, and all her books have been curious lately. But let’s start at the beginning, with her first books during the 1960s, usually about young educated women living and working in London. She was a very fashionable writer, the kind Barbara Pym judged herself against unfavourably during her own wilderness years. The fashionableness means these books are dated now, but they have literary merit. Drabble has always been prescient too about social trends–she wrote about single motherhood early in The Millstone, she anticipates the modern media-scape in A Natural Curiosity.
Her perspective broadened during the 1970s and 1980s, much concerned with both the domestic and with wider social trends. Her Radiant Way trilogy is the story of England, the story of everything, a time of great social turmoil and changes, documented in the lives of the characters she made so real.
Since the late 1990s, her books have become very unconventional, stretching the shape of the novel with remarkable elasticity to encompass such largeness: questions of time, genetics, globalization, history. With every book, one gets the sense that she is asking herself again just what the novel is capable of doing. I don’t think Drabble has the credit she deserves as an experimental novelist. She is far from content to write the same book over and over, and seems rather determined to reinvent the book every time, though her preoccupations remain constant.
The Pure Gold Baby reads like a culmination of sorts, the Drabble universe encapsulated. We have a single mother in 1960s’s London, but she takes these characters right up to present day, employing that aerial view, that stunning omniscience she started playing with in the middle of her career. And then the narrative strangeness t00–it’s puzzling. This is the story from the perspective of a woman who pieces together her friend’s history over decades, through stories she has heard, rumours, long and drawn out conversations. Why is she telling this story? We never really know–even she doesn’t know. What do we learn about her, this character who is only named once or twice. Why does she matter?
The centre of this story is Jessica Speight, an anthropologist who a gives birth to a daughter she raises on her own, the pure gold baby of the title. It eventually becomes clear that all is not as it should be with Anna, that she has some kind of unnamable developmental problem–she’s a bit clumsy, a bit simple. Her existence and her affliction come to shape the trajectory of her mother’s life, and here Drabble is pondering motherhood, its questions and problems. Though as ever, her interest is genetic. From where did Anna come from? Jess is not forthcoming with this information, and it causes our narrator to wonder, questions about errant genes.
Or is the origin something else, and here is where the story begins–with a group of children with malformed hands by the side of a lake in Africa where Jess had encountered them years before Anna was born. We’re returned to this point again and again, and Jess makes the voyage back to Africa near the end of the book. It’s kind of an inverse Heart of Darkness, as though Africa were the heart of light, the light that emanates from people like Anna, humanity at its most basic, simple. Which is a bit racist and also reductive in terms of regarding disability, but then whether this is a hypothesis or conclusion is never clear. This is the kind of novel in which characters are allowed to be wrong.
It’s such a strange novel: we are taken through the decades of a group of mothers in London and learn which marriages ended, which children succeeded, which others went wayward (and how there was no telling of who would be who). This is a novel about friendship, and how we tell each other stories, about how we become characters in the stories of one another’s lives. It’s about mental health, public health, institutions. It’s a novel full of facts, pages of passages that read like non-fiction. It’s about progress, and the illusion of progress.
Pure Gold Drabble, is what it is. And so naturally, I loved it.
October 28, 2013
As much as I am pleased that we all love to celebrate the short story, the idea of “the short story” amuses me, as though it were only just one thing. To anyone who might imagine this to be so, I’d like to toss a copy of Cynthia Flood’s new short story collection Red Girl Rat Boy, which is likely to be world apart from the last short story collection you encountered, and is even worlds apart from the last short story collection by Cynthia Flood that I encountered (which is 2009′s The English Stories).
“This isn’t one of those stories puffed out with data about parrots or antique clocks or saffron… What happened, the doings that took me every-and nowhere-in this story, that’s all I intend.” –”One Two Three Two One”
These are stories without signposts, no smooth path laid out for the reader to find her way. Instead, we’re thrown blind into the mix, and we’re guided by voices, the illogic processes of the human mind. Some of these stories hang on specific hooks: the archaic technology of the answering machine in “Such Language”, in which a woman uncovers a terrible secret about her marriage, almost inadvertently, and then finally she has a story tell her friends at book club, who’ve felt that the security of her situation has implied that she thinks she’s above their problems. Real estate in “Addresses”, about a marriage that fails to progress (and is a great piece of circa 1970s’ high rise lit). Family photographs in “To Be Queen”, which reminded me of David Sedaris’ recent essay in The New Yorker. The dark and hilarious story “Care” is about the residents of a nursing home and their underpaid, under-respected aids–how those in both roles are exploited and abused, and how each undermines the system for their own devices. ”Care” might as well be speculative fiction for how it takes the reader into a whole other universe.
I could cloak my criticism of this book in theory, perhaps, but with “the short story” in particular, I think it usually comes down to taste. The stories I liked in this book (including all those mentioned above) I liked a great deal, and those that didn’t work were those where the work required of me as a reader didn’t seem to come with a payoff. Flood’s two stories about members of a far-left political group I just couldn’t get into; no matter how many times I reread them, the context was elusive. So too the story of man managing a grow-op while failing to contain his exotic cat–their weren’t enough people misunderstanding one another in this story for my tastes.
I mention the cat and the grow-op to make clear that Flood’s narratives knows no bounds. Like the cat itself, her stories break through barriers, surprise at turns, and Flood herself is the hunter shooting right between the eyes.