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My blog is devoted to thoughts and comments on Books That Matter, to updates on the life of Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, and to occasional, more personal, musings. I hope readers will feel free to respond, either here or Ask a Question or Leave a Comment. To read about book-related events, please see Events and Schedule. If your book club or group would like to schedule a visit, please see Request a Visit.




THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

March 3rd, 2014

 

The Luminaries (2013), by Eleanor Catton, is a fast-paced, not-quite mystery that is equally a study in the construction of narrative.   It won the 2013 Man Booker Prize, and although I would have been happy to see the honor go to Jim Crace’s Harvest (and having just finished Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life am surprised that it wasn’t even on the longlist), I am consistently optimistic about Booker Prize winners.  Is The Luminaries a great novel?  I don’t think so.  Is it a well-written, fun, satisfying read (a little long, in the best Victorian tradition)?  Indeed.

Set in the west coast gold fields of New Zealand’s South Island in the mid-19th-century, the novel begins as a group of twelve men gather in the public room of an inn to try to make sense of a death, a disappearance, a mysterious fortune, and more.  To their discomfort, a stranger enters the room, and becomes an unexpected interlocutor (as well as participant in the story being told).  Each man believes he holds a piece of the puzzle; none of the men has access to the whole.  As the assorted tales unfold, the narrative point of view escapes the inn and readers become privy to thoughts and actions not completely available to the listeners within the room.

All the while we are accompanied by a separate narrator more akin to a cosmic eyeball than an omniscient speaker.  We discover that one man’s certitude is undone by another man’s story.  And although the men labor to uncover the truth about the woman at the center of the mysteries, it cannot be the truth of her own history.   We are well into the novel when the action moves beyond the narratives constructed and reconstructed by the thirteen men in the public room, enters a present and then speeds into the past.  Facts remain, but the characters, as we know them, change.

In my own novel, Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For (2010), set in mid-19th-century Dakota Territory, I invoked the Victorian literary convention of beginning each chapter with a descriptive heading (e.g., “In Which a Coffin is a Bed but an Ox is not a Coffin”).  This is a convention to which Catton also nods, but she uses the convention of the précis to comment on the mutability of narrative and the very act of representation.   As The Luminaries tumbles to a close, the chapter summaries become longer and longer, recapitulating and repositioning what we already know, while the chapters themselves shrink.   Thus, the novel folds in upon itself and we realize that the rollicking action that has kept us turning pages cannot be separated from the manner in which that action is has been represented.

 

 

 

 

 

 

HARVEST by Jim Crace

November 23rd, 2013

Seven years ago I began keeping a journal of (primarily) fiction I had read.  The act of writing is an act of engraving on the brain and a few notes about plot, characters and language, as well as my reactions and opinions, helped to lodge the novels more firmly in my memory.

Then, this past February I finished a book I loved (Jim Crace’s Harvest) while traveling, and didn’t record my impressions.  Nor did I record the next book.  Or the next, and the rot had set in.  Now, looking at that stack of books waiting to make their way into my journal, I find that some are not simply more memorable, but are remembered more viscerally, housed in the brain, but experienced in the body.

This isn’t really news to me.  An example:  In the late 1970s I read a good deal of John Hawkes.  Honestly, I can’t even pretend to say what the novels were about.  But I just have to think of a title, say, The Second Skin, and I am visited by a sensation, not entirely pleasant, on my own skin, as if I were standing in the sun, too hot, too dry, too exposed.  There is an accompanying intimation of a fragrance that is both floral and foreign.  It is a sensual confusion that has something to do with compulsion and danger, of that combination of desire and regret, the future tainted with the past.

Of all the books that I have read this past year, it is Harvest that I expect to remember through sensation when the details of the plot fade.  There will be the smell of smoke and a bit of dread.  Although I am not a very loyal reader, and sometimes decide that life is just too short to invest my time in another book by a familiar author, I am always happy to pick up something new by the unpredictable Jim Crace (whose Being Dead is among the books I most often recommend).

Harvest is set in a distant agrarian English past.  It is a time when a laborer, man or woman, is likely to grow old without setting foot outside the manor’s boundaries, and a place where life is completely determined by the exigencies of working the land, of planting, tending, harvesting.  This seemingly timeless pattern is ruptured as the rural economy, and thus, the very shape of the landscape and the lives tied to the land, begins to shift from the openness of cultivated fields to enclosures for sheep in response to the burgeoning wool industry.  The action of the book takes place over the course of a week, long enough to watch a world destroyed.

The novel begins with a couple of fires and with Crace’s pitch-perfect prose:  “Two twists of smoke at a time of year too warm for cottage fires surprise us at first light, or they at least surprise those of us who’ve not been up to mischief in the dark.  Our land is topped and tailed with flames.”  One of the fires is the work of three men who have drunk too much, eaten some mushrooms, and mean nothing more than to do some mischief.   The other signals the determination of travelers to settle nearby.  Our narrator is Walter Thirsk, the grieving widower, the outsider who, after twelve years in the community, is lulled into believing he has become an insider.

 The trajectory from the moment the fires are sighted is unpredictable, but inexorable, with each succeeding crisis and tragedy the result of events that couldn’t be expected, and yet, in Crace’s hands, seem inevitable.  We are in a distant world that is oddly familiar in which so much of what is known is really a smoky combination of suspicion, supposition and desire.

Harvest was shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize.  I recommend it without reservation.

 

DAKOTA as Audio Book!

March 12th, 2013

 

The audio version of Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For has just been released from Audible.com.  It is unabridged and narrated by Margaret Daly.  Readers/listeners can also access the audio book from their Amazon accounts.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

March 11th, 2013

Can a reader, even a good reader, ruin a good book?

I believe so.  I believe that we enter into a contract of sorts when we take up a work of literary fiction:  we will commit, we will pay attention, we will read steadily.   If we break that contract, we are likely to be rewarded with a lesser book.

The other day I asked my partner how she was enjoying her Elizabeth Bowen novel, to which she replied that it was okay, but not as good as the last Bowen she had read.  My partner is chronically busy, often hurrying from one deadline to the next, and her reading of Bowen, I am guessing, had been fragmented, with a few pages read here and a few there.  Then her schedule eased for a couple of days and her reading intensified.  “I was wrong,” she told me.  “This is a really good book.”

We all do it at some point.  That’s just life.  But some books are more damaged by neglect than others.   A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) by Jennifer Egan is an example.  Read in halts and starts, it is a series of vaguely connected short stories.  Read carefully, its interrelated narratives form a web, a time web, that is.  Time is a thief.  Time is the goon.  The central (recurring) character is Sasha, who is also a thief.  We think, as the novel progresses, about what is stolen and recovered and what is unrecoverable

In the last chapter a character is trying to find his wife and daughter in a crowd.  At last he sees them:  “They were too far away for Alex to reach them, and the distance felt irrevocable, a chasm that would keep him from ever again touching the delicate silk of Rebecca’s eyelids, or feeling, through his daughter’s ribs the scramble of her heartbeat….In desperation, he T’d Rebecca, pls wAt 4 me, my bUtiful wyf, then kept his zoom trained on her face until he saw her register the vibration, pause in her dancing, and reach for it.”  As I read this passage, I felt that word “irrevocable” itself vibrate, and I recalled the line about Big Ben striking in London in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, that most potent discourse in literature about time that I know: “First, a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable.”

Egan plays with literary forms and disrupts expectations.  It’s not a game, but it can be playful, and sense is often made on a level just below cognition.  One of my favorite moments in the novel came in the penultimate chapter, when the PowerPoint pages (created by a 12-year-old girl) enact a textual “pause” in the novel itself as the young narrator attempts to decipher her brother’s fascination with deliberate pauses in popular music.  The PowerPoint graphs are oddly touching, as we watch her analysis develop.  Pauses are not, we understand, empty.  Silence reconstitutes the surrounding sound.

 

 

Wish You Were Here

March 3rd, 2013

I can be a little critical of lazy readers, the ones who need the car crash or the dismemberment or the murder on the first page to catch their interest.  I understand that spectacular beginnings have to do, on the one hand, with genre (all of the above seem right at home for a murder mystery, but I like my literary fiction to ask more of me as a reader), and on the other hand, with a publishing industry that is often more concerned with sales than quality.  One of the reasons I enjoy teaching an introduction to literary studies at the university has to do with the pleasures of teaching the rewards of patience, of paying attention to the words and sentences on the page as much as to the plot that develops.

I had my (smug, you bet) attitude put to the test with Graham Swift’s Wish You Were Here (2011).  I had read a couple of Swift’s earlier novels, Waterland and Last Orders (for which he had won the 1996 Man Booker Prize), so I was looking forward to Swift’s nuanced and careful prose.  But I admit that I was well past the half-way point in this novel before I began to appreciate it, and that’s asking a LOT of the reader.  I’m glad I finished.  The cumulative effect of the novel is powerful, but it is certainly not for all markets, and only a perverse stubbornness kept me reading.

Wish You Were Here melds story and the style brilliantly, and that’s the problem as well as the achievement.  The central character, Jack Luxton, is an English farmer who sells his farm after a series of hardships, including the devastation of the family’s cattle herd, first to fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease), and then to an epidemic of hoof and mouth disease.  The loss of the farm signals a loss of the past and of a way of life.  When Jack learns that his brother, Tom, has been killed in Iraq, he enters into a period that is defined by obsessive rumination, in which he compulsively relives, rethinks, repeats and revises the past.  The novel works as an honest recapitulation of how a man’s mind can process loss and anxiety.  We get Jack’s thoughts that make sense and that don’t make sense, the ones that fit into a sensible world, and the ones that are without that world but no less real for him.  The thoughts, and thus the representation of those thoughts in Swift’s style, are circular and repetitive, filled with lapses, breaches, leaps, ruptures and return.

It is a painful journey, as much for the reader as for Jack, and yet, having been on that journey we understand, in a way that an easier style would not have made possible, how salvation need not be glamorous to be miraculous.

 

 

Every Man Dies Alone

February 24th, 2013

When Borders closed its doors in Ann Arbor I was among the jackals feeding off the corpse, buying up dozens of books at bargain prices.  Some of the books I bought fell into the category of “Books That I Know I Ought To Read.”   Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone (first published in Germany in 1947) was on that list, and sure enough, it looked heftily important sitting there on my bookshelf for almost two years.

The copy on the dust jacket had me girding my loins for a difficult, if meaningful, read when I recently pulled it off the shelf.  I wasn’t wrong, but I was right for the wrong reasons.  The prose itself (translated by Michael Hoffman) is very simple.  This 500-page novel was, after all, written in 24 days, and that generally leads to a certain zippiness in presentation, to an uncomplicated, linear structure.

The difficulty is in learning again, and again, about the power of fear.  It is not the language and not the plot (based on a true story about a nondescript working-class couple in Berlin who begin an anti-Hitler, postcard-writing campaign following the death of their son at the front) that rivet, but the steady accumulation of terror and suspicion that we watch seep into a populace, making the unthinkable not so much ordinary as a component of self-preservation.   This is not a story of the banality of evil, as we understand it from Hannah Arendt, in which the unspeakable becomes normalized in a society; rather, this is a story from within the community of those who remained aware of the moral and physical degradation of their state.  And that is partly why this is such a difficult book.  Because it is not a fantasy filled with heroes who rewrite the past for us.  There is no happy ending available.  Every Man Dies Alone is a story of ineffectual and piecemeal resistance that changed absolutely nothing.  It is a story of the unknown, the forgettable, the everyday German citizens who were not pro-Nazi, who were not informers, who were not necessarily cowards, but who were always afraid, and thus, generally complicit.

I am not a scholar of WWII, of Germany (or France) during the Nazi era, or of Fallada’s work, and so my reading is necessarily superficial, but as I was reading this novel I was thinking that it might be a good companion piece for readers to Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise, which portrays the mass exodus from Paris as German forces prepared to invade.  Fallada wrote Every Man Dies Alone soon after the end of WWII; Nemirovsky was writing of the war as she was living within it.  What she had perceived as a five-part novel ends after the first two parts.  Arrested as “a stateless person of Jewish descent,” she died in Auschwitz.  I suggest that these books might be usefully read together not simply because both were written by authors who were living within the maelstrom of Nazi Germany and Occupied France, but because both are dedicated to working on the level of the individual.  These are not sweeping sagas of battles, or of heroes and villains (although there are some of the former and plenty of the latter), but of an everyday reality defined by the unthinkable.

 

Pied Beauty

February 8th, 2013

I was in southern Florida this past weekend.  The gulf was beautiful, the beach was nice, and the weather perfect, but it was a morning walk through the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a National Audubon Society sanctuary, that had me trying to dredge up my Hopkins.

A dappled thing

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)
Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

 

 

Vacation Reading

January 22nd, 2013

Although it seems like I travel often enough, my trips of the past couple of years have been mostly for conferences, book festivals and other events where I read from Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, gamely hoping to connect with new readers.

Over the holidays, however, my partner and I took a “vacation,” that is, we traveled for the purpose of being purposeless, which is, I think, a very lucky and healthy thing to do.  Part of the pleasure of the vacation had to do with reading new books (new to me), instead of re-reading books to teach.

But there was one hitch.  I had to finish Philip Roth’s 1975 The Great American Novel before the fun could begin.  I hadn’t read a Roth novel since the 1970s and I wasn’t looking forward to reading any more, but a student in my “Moby Dick and Intertextuality” course this past semester had informed me that he was referring to the Roth novel in his final paper, so I sighed and read (and sighed some more).  As it turned out, my student was only referring to the novel’s prologue, but, suffering from a bad case of dutiful thoroughness, I was determined to finish this “slapstick comedy.”  I read the last page as our plane touched down and I gratefully tossed the novel in the first trash bin there.

My partner was horrified that I was not recycling, but I did not want to run the risk of some unsuspecting reader picking the book up and thinking it was “literature.”  It isn’t.  It’s Roth at his most puerile and misogynistic.  Perhaps someone reading this blog will say that I just don’t get Roth’s humor.

Correct.

Next up was Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife (2003), which is a fine “vacation” read, exactly what I needed.  I was more interested in imagining Niffenegger’s study, and the charts and timelines she must have had to keep in order to control her novel’s structure, than I was in the story itself, but watching how other novelists do what they do is part of the act of reading for me.

Then I picked up Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which won the 2011 Man Booker Prize.  I had read, and enjoyed, a couple of earlier Barnes’ novels, and I am almost always happy with books that are nominated for, or win, the Booker Prize.  This novel is written in lovely prose and deals with an interaction of concepts that interest me, as a teacher and as a writer: how does time shape memory, how does narrative shape memory, to what extent does narrative constitute the past?  And certainly Barnes captures the fears that accompany us (and grow) as we get older.  Thus, I am not unhappy to have spent time with this slender and thoughtful novel, but ultimately, for me, it seemed to have a hole in the center where a plot we actually believe in or care about should have been.

Finally, I came to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004).  I am late to this party, I know, but I’m going to stay late, too.  Cloud Atlas, with its palindromic structure, is smart, fun, unexpected, and then unexpected again.  And again.  I found myself chuckling and muttering to myself, “You didn’t!” with amazement and appreciation.  And even when I got to the futuristic stuff, which is usually when I simply lose interest, I wanted to keep going, to see how and when I would get my next glimpse of how this Chutes and Ladders of a book worked.  Better yet, each component of this multi-segmented novel had me intrigued, in the ideas, in the plot, and in the characters, which, given the emphasis on fragmentation and the instability of narrative, was pretty amazing.  It is, in short, brilliantly constructed metafiction with a heart and a brain, and some great storytelling, to boot.

I finished Cloud Atlas the day after getting back from our two-week vacation.  What a pleasure it had been.  To read.  Just for fun.

ReadingNorthDakota

January 10th, 2013

Former North Dakotan and retired academic Brenda Daly has a new blog, www.readingnorthdakota.net, that is devoted to books about North Dakota or by North Dakota authors.  Ole Rolvaag’s homesteading classic, Giants in the Earth, was the first book to be discussed.  The January selection is Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, and I have happily agreed to answer any questions Dakota readers might have.  You don’t have to be from North Dakota to join in!

A Paraphrase, Not a Quotation

December 14th, 2012

I just read, with some horror, of a quotation attributed to me on an on-line quotation-churning site.  The problem is, the words belong to Wilkie Collins (from The Woman in White).  Throughout Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For there are occasional nods and winks to Victorian fiction (to George Eliot’s Middlemarch, to George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways, to Charles Reade, for example).  These intertextual paraphrases and hints serve a number of purposes.  Most importantly, they provide a narrative link to the rich tradition of Victorian novels, which Dakota, set in the mid-19th century, hopes to evoke.  This is one way in which literary historical fiction can acknowledge both its literariness and its fictionality (in that it recognizes that it is working within a network of texts that precede it).  It is an acknowledgment of influence.

When I use the phrase, “working within a network of texts that precede it,”  I am talking about intertextuality.  Intertextuality foregrounds the notion that all literary production takes place in the presence of other texts.  Julia Kristeva said that “any text is constructed of a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another.”   Although Kristeva’s work is far more theoretical and complicated than I am suggesting here, applied to a literary work we might say that the work is not simply the product of a single author, but of its relationship to other texts, and to the structures of language itself.

My first book, Teaching the Postmodern:  Fiction and Theory, was a study of how postmodern fiction and poststructuralist theory were in many ways covering the same ground, albeit in very different narrative form.  Although my second novel, Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For, reads as realist fiction in the Victorian vein, it also reflects, on a deeper level, my postmodern sensibilities, which are inscribed within the novel most obviously through paraphrase and allusion.

The paragraph with the paraphrase, by the way, comes at the end of Dakota‘s “Pre-Amble”:

I am Frances Louise Houghton Bingham, daughter-in-law of John Bingham, wife of his son, Percy, friend of Percy’s sister, Anna, and I mean for this to be my story.  It, too, is a story of what a woman’s patience can endure, as well as of what a woman’s resolution can achieve.  As to whether that refers in this case to one woman or two, you will have to make up your own mind.

And so, Reader, to Frances, alone in the bedoom she shares with her husband in his father’s home in St. Paul, Minnestoa.  It is January of 1874.  There is a photograph in her hand.

Now, you, lucky reader, should go right to Collins’ The Woman in White for a great read!