Friday, April 13, 2018

Reading group: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Well, here was a novel that everyone present thought 'wonderful' - that was the word people used.

It opens at New Year when the people of a Pennines village gather to help in the search for a thirteen-year-old girl, a holidaymaker, who has gone missing during a walk with her parents on the moor. But this book is not a crime thriller: the mystery is no curious puzzle to be neatly solved by the final pages; the concerns of this book are elsewhere, and indeed it interrogates the very genre. The girl here is not found, and in thirteen chapters each beginning at New Year, the book charts the effect on the community over the next thirteen years, and the fading yet lasting significance of the unsolved mystery.

The style is spare, calm and objective, the narratorial eye entirely omniscient, often watching as if indeed from above. The book begins:
They gathered in the car park in the hour before dawn and waited to be told what to do. It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren't being asked. The missing girl's name was Rebecca Shaw. When last seen she'd been wearing a white hooded top. A mist hung low across the moor and the ground was frozen hard.
Someone even said the style was almost 'cold', and what bowled everyone over was how paradoxically moving the effect was - everyone had been extremely moved by the book.
People puzzled about how McGregor had achieved this. A chief characteristic of the book is the constant juxtaposition of the progress of the human developments in the village with nature and the weather, creating a poignant sense of human dramas taking place within the greater scheme of things and evolving time, a moving sense of 'life goes on'. McGregor emphasises this juxtaposition by moving from one to the other without paragraph breaks:
It has, Cathy agreed, and Richard heard the rustle of her coat being slipped from her shoulders. It was daft but something stirred in him. A fog came in and lay heavy for a week...
Dialogue, too, is unpunctuated by speech marks, thus merging the conversation of human dramas with the overall narrative flow.

Someone commented that McGregor never actually tells you what people feel, but simply shows you through their actions. As can be seen in the quote immediately above, that's not exactly the case: he does in fact quite often spell out the way people feel, but there is something about the context in which he does so that makes it utterly convincing, and part of this I think is the humanity of his vision. Over the thirteen years we follow the lives and relationships of several of the village people with all their flaws. The narratorial view is entirely democratic and never ever judgemental, so we feel for them all. There is so much sadness as marriages break up and people die, yet there is a matter-of-factness too, as the foxes and badgers go on breeding in the woods and the goldfinches nest yearly in the fir copse. This soothing regularity is codified by McGregor in a constant repetition of phrases that achieves the effect of poetry, and which, as the years go round, we come to expect like a familiar lullaby. Every subsequent chapter begins with a line from the first, 'At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks...' and each repetition is followed by a different circumstance concerning the fireworks, poignantly illustrating the effects of events and change within the wider cycle of the life of the village.

Some people commented that McGregor does use the crime thriller genre to tease the reader and keep the narrative tension going: there are several characters whose behaviour could bring them under suspicion, and there are moments when clues to Rebecca's disappearance seem to emerge or to be about to emerge: a white top is found on the moor, for instance, and identified as hers; maintenance men dive in the reservoirs and the river keeper frees a blockage. These things struck me rather as aspects of the unending uncertainty and unfinished nature of the mystery for the inhabitants of the village. Everyone agreed how striking was the moment when a dog being walked comes across the navy-blue gilet which only the reader will recognise as Rebecca's - the dog's owner doesn't even notice it: a devastating moment of utter loss of significance for something held on the human scale as so significant.

Basically, we loved the book!

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Reading Group: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

There were only four of us to discuss this, Arundhati Roy's 1996 Booker-winning debut - Ann, Jenny, John and me. It's now two months since our discussion - I've been extremely busy and distracted by my own writing and research for an article - so by now my memory of our discussion is patchy, and I'm afraid I'm not likely to do justice to everybody's contribution. However - stretching my brain to remember - here goes.

The novel opens with the return of a young woman, Rahel, to the Indian village of Ayemenem, where, in the summer of 1969 when she and her twin brother were seven years old, a tragedy befell their Christian Syrian family, involving the 'laws that lay down who should be loved, and how'. The tragic outcome - which included the death of a child - is flagged early on, though not the details of how or why, and it is only slowly unravelled via extended non-chronological flashbacks mimicking the operations of memory, often (though not always) seen through the unknowing child Rahel's perspective, and set against India's political turmoil of the time.

We all agreed, I think, that the book's depiction of the downfall and decline of the family, and the lushness and squalor of the surroundings in which it takes place, are vividly depicted. The characterisation is rich, and the book is full of startling observations of the physical world - water falls from a swimmer's arm 'like a silver sleeve', for instance. Jason Cowley, a judge for the 1997 Booker prize, justified the book's win by pointing to Roy's childlike ability to see the world anew, and it's hard to argue with this.

However, John, Ann and I did have some problems with the language and voice connected with this vision. Rahel and her twin Estha are especially bright children with a particular language facility - they have the quick-fire ability to read sentences backwards, play word games, make verbal lists, and apply to words (in their heads) the quaintness of capital initial letters. This works beautifully when we are seeing the world and events through their perspective. However, Roy extends this 'childlike' wordplay to moments when our perspective is not that of the children, and the effect for us was coy, and for me often introduced a levity inappropriate to the situation. To some extent, I guess, when the perspective is that of the adult Rahel, this could be said to be Rahel inserting herself back into her childhood mentality, but it didn't always feel like that, and the same language play is used when the perspective is that of other adults. Salma Rushdie uses the same techniques in Midnight's Children, but in my view they work much better in that novel, since it is more outrightly comic. Jenny didn't agree with us. She thought that the self-conscious spellings - 'Lay-Ter' - reflected the dialect left behind by the Raj, but even allowing for that, I found the self-consciousness of its usage in the book coy and possibly flippant. For me there was also a more fundamental problem of perspective: the whole novel is framed by Rahel's present-tense adult perspective, yet scenes are described (in vivid detail) - and in particular a crucial one near the end - of which even the adult Rahel can know nothing, or which she can at best only speculate about.

In particular, for me, the linked problem of tone came to a head in a scene towards the end where a posse of policemen files through a field towards a hut where they know a fugitive is hiding. By this time we identify with their prey, and we have known since the beginning of the novel that the outcome will be tragic, so one would expect the narrative tone to be one of tension. Yet not only is the scene described at length with a leisurely relish - 'ancient trees cloaked in vines. Gigantic mani plants. Wild pepper. Cascading purple acuminus' - the policemen are portrayed in comic terms - 'Their wide khaki shorts were rigid with starch, and bobbed over the tall grass like a row of stiff skirts'; they 'mince' across a fallen tree trunk - and however ironically this is intended, I found it almost dismayingly inappropriate.

We did all feel that the closeness of the twins, and the fact that they were separated by the tragedy, was very moving, but because of the very vividness of the depiction of the brotherly-sisterly nature of that early closeness, we did not find the present-day ending between them (which I won't give away here) at all convincing.

Mark was away when we held the meeting. Afterwards he told us that he'd taken a brief look at the book and put it aside - I think he said it was 'tedious'. An Angela's Ashes for India, he said, and he wasn't at all surprised that we'd been only four for the meeting: the others, he said, must have been frightened away.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Reading group: Autumn by Ali Smith

Reading Ali Smith's early short stories made me a great admirer, and I was bowled over by her novel Hotel World (published as a debut, though in fact her second, as I discovered when browsing in a second-hand bookshop and coming across an earlier novel Like - an example, I presume, of the publishing industry's obsession with debuts and lack of faith in literary authors whose first novels - usually inevitably - have failed to be bestsellers in the commercial terms to which the industry now seems to be in thrall). I bought Like - a lovely silvery hardback from Virago, but I have never actually read it, since before I could do so our group discussed the novel that followed Hotel World, The Accidental, and, along with other members, I was rather disappointed. I had read none of her novels since, until Doug mentioned that he had found stunning her recent Women's Prize-winning and Booker shortlisted Autumn, and I therefore suggested it for the group.

I read it twice beforehand. Ali Smith's prose is wonderfully lyrical yet tough and informed by an extremely sharp intelligence. It has however a breathless headlong quality that tends to force me, at any rate, to read her novels so fast and greedily that I feel I'm often missing their undeniable depths and connections. (That's less likely to happen with a short story, I feel, as you come to a short story with a certain expectation of concentration, which slows down the reading process - plus the fact that a short story is more easily read a second time). Autumn is particularly headlong, I found, which everyone else in the group assumed was a function of its reported particular mode of production: apparently Smith was so late delivering her previous novel, How to Be Both, that in order to make the previously announced publishing date the publisher had to rush it out in double-quick time; when Smith realised how quickly it could be done, she suggested a quartet of books to be published seasonally, named after the seasons and responding to our current political and social times. Autumn, published in the autumn following the June 2016 Brexit referendum, is the first of the four. Certainly when I got to the end of my first reading, I thought I must have missed a great deal and so read the book again, and my two reactions to the book were markedly different.

As the book was my suggestion, it was up to me to introduce it at the meeting, but I didn't really want to talk immediately about my change of perception, since everyone else present had read it only once. Even as I was explaining this, I could see on the faces of everyone else present negative reaction to the book (Doug, the book's admirer, hadn't been able to make the meeting), and since their shared attitude was clear, I did then talk about my two reactions.

The book opens with a slew of literary references concerned with anarchy:

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That's the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it's in their nature. So an old old man washed up on a shore.

Those steeped in literature will recognise in this very short passage an echo of the opening of Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, set during the French Revolution (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times), a reference to W B Yeats' poem 'Second Coming' written in the aftermath of the First World War and the Easter Rising (Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold), and another recalling the shipwreck and anarchy of Shakespeare's Tempest. After this we segue into a dream sequence in which the 'old old man', Daniel Gluck, notices alongside him the (clearly contemporary) dead bodies of refugees while tourists suntan themselves nearby, ponders the fact that he is dead, drowned, remembers odd disconnected moments from his past - a postcard he bought once, conkers he once took as child to his baby sister - and, while the Greek nymphs of  Ovid's Metamorphoses dance in the near distance, turns, like the nymph Daphne, into a tree.

The next chapter switches tack and style abruptly: we are in a post office in summer 2016 and, in a far more naturalistic and wryly comic episode, thirty-year-old Elisabeth Demand, a junior lecturer in art history, is encountering the ludicrously obstructive bureaucracy of present-day England in applying for a new passport, and, while she is kept interminably waiting, reading Aldous Huxley's futuristic warning Brave New World. It is only in the next chapters that the two strands come together: Elisabeth leaves the post office for the Maltings Care Home, where hundred-year-old Daniel Gluck, once a writer of song lyrics, is in the 'increased sleep' period that precedes death, and it becomes clear that the events of the first chapter are the substance of his dream as he lies in his semi-coma.

Slowly we will learn that Daniel was the neighbour of Elisabeth and her single mother when she was a child, that he and Elisabeth developed a special relationship in which he nurtured her intellect and clearly set her on her art history career, and that now she is visiting him and reading to him while he sleeps. Meanwhile, however, we are treated to Elisabeth's own surreal dreams about Daniel as she nods off over her book beside his bed, conversations she imagines having with him should he wake, flashbacks to their actual conversations, full of word play, when she was a child, more of Daniel's own memories, seeming divergences concerning well-known real-life figures who are not however immediately identified - a tramp who only on my second reading did I recognise as Charlie Chaplin, the woman at the centre of the Profumo sex and spy scandal, Christine Keeler, and the forgotten female sixties pop artist, Pauline Boty (who is only now, in the 21st century, receiving recognition) - and what seemed on first reading an odd scene set in Nice in 1943 in which a Jewish woman is rounded up with others by the Nazis and resists. Running along through it all is a portrayal of the effects of the Brexit referendum result on British society, at one point directly echoing the oppositions of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities - All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they'd really lost. All across the country, people felt they'd really won - as well as a plot concerning Elisabeth's mother's lesbian awakening and rebellion against the mysterious and sinister fencing off of common land, presumably for the penning of immigrants. Interjected now and then are descriptions of the season as summer slides into autumn.

All of this, and more besides, is packed into a short book (the publisher has pumped it up with large print) and the effect for me for much of my first reading was of many very clever ideas and connections - a wide range of instances of oppression and resistance - being thrown into the air by an astute intelligence, but that I simply wasn't grasping it all and that maybe it didn't actually make a novel. It was only in the latter half of the book that I came to see that the elements, rather than being just the ponderings and imaginings of an author, all played their part in a novelistic structure. The Tempest, it will turn out, is the play that Daniel Gluck took Elisabeth to see as a child; very belatedly it will become clear that Charlie Chaplin is relevant not only for his political resistance but because Daniel showed the child Elisabeth Charlie Chaplin films; the tree dream is an echo of one of those childhood conversations; Pauline Boty is central because Daniel Gluck once knew her and was in love with her 'way of seeing' (and Elisabeth now teaches her work), and Christine Keeler because Pauline Boty painted her image and Daniel attended her trial. Pauline Boty, we will learn, is the woman for whom he bought the postcard mentioned early on, and on my second reading that early mention carried a significance that was so lacking on my first reading that I simply forgot it altogether. The resisting Jewish woman is Daniel Gluck's sister, lost after all in the Holocaust. I didn't actually realise this until my second reading. In fact, she is named - Hannah Gluck - but there was so much else going in the novel and I was reading in such a headlong fashion the first time around that I only vaguely registered this connection and read on before I could digest it, and then forgot it. It was only on my second reading that I realised that the song lyric that Daniel once wrote and which is now used in a supermarket TV advert is a song commemorating his sister. Then, in retrospect, his early memory of taking conkers to her as a baby took on an emotive resonance, while on my first reading, like the postcard, it seemed to have no significance at all. The Tale of Two Cities references are not simply pulled out of the air: it is one of the books that Elisabeth, having found it in a second-hand bookshop, reads to Daniel as he sleeps.

In other words, I said to the group, when I came to read the novel a second time, I was able to read everything through the frame of the history of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship and their shared conversations and preoccupations, at which point what had seemed the first time a bit of mess, perhaps, became a jigsaw puzzle with everything slotted into place. Everyone present acknowledged that the book was beautifully written on the level of the sentences - that there is no doubt that Smith can write - but nearly everyone said, in chorus, that, having read the book only once, their impression was, frankly, that it was indeed a mess. Ann, who was perhaps the most negative, said she felt that the book needed editing (to make the frame more obvious from the beginning) and this prompted speculation that the book had been written and produced in too much of a rush. Mark felt that although he could see from what I'd said that things did indeed slot together in retrospect, he wasn't sure that they really, thematically, fitted. What had sixties pop art and the Swinging Sixties got to do with Brexit? I felt convinced for a moment but then suggested that it was intended as a contrast, a time of hope and experimentation and the relaxing of rules contrasted with the closing down - the suspicion and resentment and austerity - of Brexit Britain, but people weren't very convinced, and there was some demurring about what the sixties in reality represented: the book seems a little starry-eyed about it all, but as Jenny pointed out, for most people the Swinging Sixties happened elsewhere.

The novel is clearly about the redeeming power of the arts in the face of political and social oppression, but the group were dubious about the wealth of literary references in the book: we did wonder what readers who didn't know them would make of them: would it give them a feeling of exclusion? Jenny said they made her think that Ali Smith was 'too clever by half'. Everyone was extremely interested in Pauline Boty, about whom none of us had previously known or known much, but I think it was Clare who said that she felt that the section describing her life and work came over as an injected lecture rather than an organic element of a novel, and there was general agreement on this. People also agreed that the Brexit sections, well written as they were, seemed levered in for the sake of contemporaneity, Mark being particularly strong on this, and Mark said he was really irritated by the sections describing the season, which he felt were also there simply to fit the original brief. Clare said she was really interested in and touched by the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth - and everyone agreed - but she felt that it was overshadowed by all the other elements and thus underdeveloped (and again people agreed). I was persuaded by this in the meeting and agreed, but think on reflection that reading with a clearer sense of the frame of Daniel and Elisabeth's relationship and preoccupations - the fact that so many of these things are elements of their relationship - would go a long way to dispel this impression. There were odd things that really sparked Clare's interest, she said, but which were only mentioned briefly, and that she wished had been developed, such as the fact that Elisabeth once had a boyfriend who expressed jealousy of her platonic love for Daniel. (I wondered whether this was an instance of a glancing technique that can work well in a short story, but perhaps not so well in a novel.) I did agree, and still think, that the mechanical architecture of the novel feels a little forced in order to bring the thematic elements together, the fictional Daniel Gluck having a relationship with the real-life Pauline Boty, for instance, and in particular his attendance at Christine Keeler's trial.

John kept quiet for most of the time as he felt much more ambivalent than the others. He too had read the novel only once, and he too had found it problematic, but like me he considered Ali Smith a brilliant writer and knew that she didn't make mistakes, and felt, as I had, that a second read would make him see it very differently. Jenny however questioned whether you should have to read a novel a second time in order to get it at all.

Trevor didn't make the meeting, but Ann had bumped into him beforehand. He hadn't liked it at all, he said: it certainly didn't come into his 'dead good' category. It was left to Doug to praise the novel. He wrote afterwards to reiterate how much he had loved it: 'I found it really uplifting. We are all time travellers!'

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Reading group: the Vegetarian by Han Kang

We approached Han Kang's The Vegetarian, suggested by Doug, with interest and even excitement. In translation it won the South Korean author the 2016 International Man Booker Prize, and the classy Portobello paperback edition carries rave comments from, among others, linguistically innovative novelist Eimar McBride, Deborah Levy, the Independent and the Irish Times.

A very short novel, it concerns a female protagonist, Yeong-hye, who one day, seemingly out of the blue, defies social convention and her own previous conforming nature by stopping eating meat, disconcerting her conventional and disapproving husband and family. Her father tries to force meat into her mouth, her instant response to which is to make a suicide attempt, and in reaction her husband leaves her. Eventually she stops eating altogether. 

The first somewhat puzzled comments came from Ann, who, unable to attend, sent us her thoughts beforehand. She said she was glad to have read it, and thought it an interesting insight into a culture very different from our own, but found it a discomforting read, and not simply, it seemed, for its events. The book is divided into three sections. The first is narrated by the husband and takes us to the point of Yeong-hye's suicide attempt. The second moves on to a time after Yeong-hye's husband has left, and the narrative voice switches to third person and adopts the viewpoint of Yeong-hye's brother-in-law, a video artist who becomes obsessed with using Yeong-hye in an erotic artwork, her naked body painted with flowers. The third section leaps on again further in time, and is the third-person viewpoint of Inge-hye, Yeong-hye's sister, now living alone with her child after having discovered her husband's erotic exploitation of Yeong-hye, and visiting Yeong-hye in the hospital to which she has had her admitted for her self-starvation. Why, Ann wondered, should only one character be awarded the first person - the character indeed who is least actively involved in the story, and who after the first section drops out of it altogether - and not the Vegetarian herself?

Others of us had had the same puzzled reaction to this structure, and some, in particular John, wondered, as last time, if, in view of the book's phenomenal success, we were perhaps judging by inappropriate Western literary standards, and seeing structural uneasiness where others saw brilliant innovation. I said however that in reading about the book and its author I had discovered that the three sections had originally been published separately as short stories, which, rather than novelistic inventiveness, could explain what we had experienced as an unevenness of narrative voice and focus. As it was, we had been led to think at the start that the book would be a psychological study of an unreliable narrator, a cold, convention-bound husband, only to find it was nothing of the sort, all interest in him dropped.

The only insights we have into Yeong-hye's viewpoint and psyche, however, are via the very minimal dialogue reported by the others, and the dreams featuring blood and murder that prompt her meat aversion, which are indeed presented as she related them, in the first person, but couched, in the uncomprehending husband's section, in distancing italics (and indeed lack specificity and are melodramatically cliched):
Dreams overlaid with dreams, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can't pin down...but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.
For the whole novel her psychic reality is thus distanced from the reader, and while it is clear that she is reacting to the oppressions of her society - the strict rules regarding diet and women's role -  for much of the novel the precise trigger for her specific reaction is kept a mystery: all Yeong-hye will say is that she 'had a dream'. In fact, she is in danger of being as much a mysterious object of curiosity to us as she is an object of eroticism to the brother-in-law.

The precise cause of her self-starvation is indeed revealed near the end in her sister's musing, but Doug said that he found this structure unsatisfying and even clumsy, a point with which I and others agreed. When we finally understand the underlying cause there is no sense of 'Oh of course!' prompting one to recognise in retrospect clues that had been there all along. Jenny said, But there were the dreams! I objected that the dreams were too vaguely symbolic to be related to the particularity of the cause. Jenny argued that that was what dreams are like - they are symbolic, and it is often not clear what the symbols refer to. This of course is true, but my point was that in a novel there would need to be some element - perhaps some more specific language in the depiction of the dreams, or a different structural presentation of the dreams - that would (in retrospect) create a more organic connection for the reader. Clare now came in and said that actually, she didn't agree that one needed to have that sense of 'Oh, of course!' at a novel's revelation. Doug and I felt strongly that it was essential, but since we were judging from the Western novel tradition, we agreed to differ. 

It is interesting, and perhaps ironic, that we didn't feel that the structure of the novel was organic, since the supreme motif of the book is vegetation: Yeong-hye begins by deciding to eat only vegetables, but eventually wishes to become vegetable herself, submitting first to her brother-in-law's erotic flowery transformation of her body, and finally believing that she has actually turned into a tree, at one point standing on her head with her legs in the air as branches. This symbolism is one of the striking aspects of the book, and which no doubt, along with the eroticism of the central section, has brought the book so much attention. However, because we don't share Yeong-hye's interiority, we just have to take for granted Yeong-hye's wish to be a tree, and its precise connection to the cause of her anorexia is unexplored on the deep, emotive and psychological level. What exactly is it about whatever has happened to her that links (thematically) to this specific wish? This question remains unexplored (for an answer in a similar scenario one can go to Ali Smith's novel Autumn, which we'll discuss next time). For me that was a real disappointment, and perhaps relates to a kind of cognitive dissonance that vaguely disturbed me when I first saw the book's Portobello paperback cover. Why would the cover of a book called The Vegetarian (and featuring a woman who wants to become vegetable) feature so prominently, as it does, a bird's wing? (It is only on closer inspection that you notice that the dark background consists of the veins of a leaf in extreme closeup.) In fact the image of a bird flying does occur at least twice in the book (once in the middle of the book, I think, and then again at the end), and on reflection it's a symbol of the escape Yoeng-hye is seeking through her self-starvation. In a way, it's the real (and more apposite) thematic symbol but, appearing only briefly and belatedly, it is heavily overpowered by the vegetation symbol, and the issues attached to it - the fact that Yeong-hye needs to escape, and the issue of the precise experience she needs to escape from, are thus subordinated.

We commented on the language, which Clare and Jenny had found stilted, presuming that this was a matter of culture. Others of us noted that it was uneven, generally formal but sometimes dropping, even mid-sentence, into the vernacular. This is especially so in the section narrated by the stiff, conventional and unfeeling husband: Before my wife turned vegetarian, he begins in his pompous way, I'd always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way ... However, if there wasn't any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, but then he will wonder if she might genuinely be going soft in the head, and congratulates himself on not 'kicking up a fuss', before eventually reaching out and touching her 'philtrum' (the groove between her nose and mouth). In spite of the fact that the prose has been widely praised as concise, we found it sometimes imprecise: after leaving the room and pushing the door to behind her with her foot, Yeong-hye is described as 'swallowed up through the door [my italics].' We were unable to know whether these seeming infelicities were created by the translation or were present in the original.

All in all, we were interested to have read the book, but once again we were left wondering quite why a book should have received such massive adulation, and suspecting once again that Western exoticism may have come into play. 

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reading group: The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Clare suggested this book which has received much acclaim and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. It is the tale of four young brothers in the west-Nigerian village of Akura in the 1990s, whose middle-class family falls apart after their disciplinarian father is moved away for his work and the boys then run wild. While fishing in the polluted, forbidden and 'cursed' river, they encounter the village homeless 'madman' Abulu who is credited by the locals with the power of prophecy, and who tells them that fifteen-year-old Ikenna, the eldest of the four, will die a horrible death at the hands of his brothers. The effect of this on Ikenna is to make him so distrustfully withdrawn from his brothers that the stage is set for the fulfilment of the prophecy. The tale is related by the youngest of the four, Benjamin, partly via his adult retrospective viewpoint and partly through his nine-year-old perceptions at the time.

Clare said that although she had found the book a fairly easy read and interesting, and the narrator likeable, she had been surprised, in view of the book's reception, to find it in fact not very well written, and she wondered if some kind of cultural special pleading were going on.

All of the rest of us had felt the same, and we now wondered: was this the case, that the book was less than well written, or, since we were so out of line with general opinion, were we suffering cultural blindness?

Reviewers have particularly praised the prose which is vividly and concretely metaphoric, each chapter beginning with a metaphoric announcement - 'Father was an eagle', 'Mother was a falconer', 'Ikenna was a snake', etc - which is elaborated for the rest of the chapter and picked up again throughout the book, and reviewers have found this inventive and vivid.

Narrator Benjamin explains early on that a metaphoric or symbolic mode is characteristic of the Igbo language (which the parents speak to the boys as well as English): was ... the way our language - Igbo - was structured, for although the vocabulary for literal construction for cautionary expressions such as 'be careful' was available, they said 'Jiri eze gi ghuo onu gi onu' - Count your teeth with your tongue.

That phrase, 'Count your teeth with your tongue', presented as a typical Igbo aphorism, is certainly very apt - counting your teeth with your tongue would certainly render it unable to engage in rash speech - and it has the witty virtue of economy. Obioma's metaphors are however extremely elaborate, and while the pictures they conjure are indeed vivid, they are often irrelevant to or even cut across the meaning intended. On the first page we are told that the brothers' parents are the 'ventricles of our home' - an obscure enough metaphor (what kind of ventricles?) to require elaboration:
'when ... [they] held silence as the ventricles of the heart retain blood, we could flood the house if we poked them.'
Yes, parents are the heart of a home, but ventricles? The elaboration of the metaphor is so concretely particular that you are forced to think in a very concrete way about the parallels being drawn: ventricles are only two of four chambers of a heart, and they don't exactly retain blood, they pump it on. And the image of a heart speared conjures the notion of death, making the metaphor overwrought for what we are in fact being told is a habitual parent-child relationship.

In the next paragraph we learn of the mother's distress at the father's sudden and imminent departure:
'...crumbs of information began to fall from Mother's soliloquy like tots of feathers from a richly-plumed bird', a mixed metaphor (crumbs = feathers) that had me putting down the book laughing (and not wanting to bother going on), inured to the mother's distress, and trying to get my head around the idea of a soliloquy being like a richly plumed bird. (In retrospect I thought that maybe it was the mother who was meant to be like a richly plumed bird, but that's not what the sentence, grammatically, says.) One chapter begins: 'Boja was a fungus', and the very next sentence proclaims with a lack of metaphoric logic: 'His body was filled with fungi.'

There were other things that seemed to us like either infelicities of language or authorial failures of imagination. A procession 'zipped' while 'plodding ponderously', a branch is 'foliated with leaves' (ie 'leafed with leaves'), grave diggers dig 'quicker' but with 'a bewildering air of apathy', and at one point Mother is 'visibly ripped inside-out'.

The book has been praised for its accomplished storytelling, which, it is generally agreed, borrows from the African oral tradition. However, it seemed to us that there were narrative structural techniques available to both oral and written storytelling that this book failed to use, with a loss of required dramatic tension. Very often a crucial feature of a scene - crucial to the story - will not be revealed during the portrayal of the scene but will be reported afterwards, thus losing the dramatic impact it could have had. A significant example is the narrative handling of the making of the prophecy and Ikenna's early reaction to it. Ikenna begins withdrawing from his brothers very early on in the book, but we, the readers, do not learn why until Page 84 when the horrific scene in which Abulu makes the prophecy is related in flashback. Yet this omission is not justified, as some reviewers have implied, by Ben's nine-year-old naivety. Early on in the novel we witness a scene at the river in which Ikenna has begun to act strangely. He is actually asked by one of the boys present if he is upset because of 'that day you met Abulu', which prompts Ben to think about that encounter, at which he was present - though he doesn't reveal anything about it to the reader - and to ponder briefly the fact that their brother Obembe suggested the connection with the change in Ikenna. It appears to be a deliberate choice by the author to keep the details of that encounter from the reader, as, rather obviously, and oddly for the reader, Benjamin is quickly distracted from pondering it. It seems a strange narrative choice, as knowledge of the prophecy would have provided for the reader a dramatic tension and sense of doom that is absent up to page 84. Once the prophecy is revealed to the reader, it is pressed home with such insistence and is so much the motivating force behind the action playing out between the brothers, that Benjamin's apparently epiphanic realisation late on in the novel that Abulu may be the cause of Ikenna's fate seems both overstated and inconsistent or disingenuous.

Overstatement and repetition occur throughout the book, and while they may indeed be acceptable characteristics of oral storytelling, as features of a 300-page printed novel aimed at a Western literary audience, they struck us as naive. The inclusion at the front of the book of a map of Akura, Obioma's own home village, with named streets and buildings that are not even mentioned in the book, seems another mark of naivety.

One particular scene seemed to point to an overall lack of narrative skill. After Benjamin and Obembe have taken horrific revenge against Abulu, and before going back into the house, they take off their blood-stained shirts and throw them away over the fence. When they get in the pastor is with their mother and they are forced to take part in a prayer session before they can escape to their room. Once they are in their room we are told that they had put their shorts on inside out in order to 'conceal the bloodstains', which immediately raised the following questions: Why was this fact not included in the scene outside the house (it would be a bigger operation to take off shorts, turn them inside out and put them on again, than to whip off shirts, and it would thus in fact be a more salient aspect of the scene)? And wouldn't the mother, who had been curious about their shirtlessness and would therefore have been peering at their appearance, have noticed that their shorts were on inside out? And wouldn't blood have soaked through presumably cotton shorts, and therefore have been visible to the mother anyway? It is as if the author, having failed to fully imagine the scene outside the house (or indeed, by extension, the revenge scene) had realised only later that there would have been blood on the shorts, and had had to make up (inadequately) for the omission. (Doug also said that in spite of the extended description of the weapons the boys construct for attacking Abulu, he simply couldn't envisage them or precisely how they were used, and others agreed - so in spite of the lengthy description we found a lack of vividness.)

Ann commented that this indicated a lack of editing, and we wondered if this was yet another aspect of over-positive discrimination. Jenny now wondered again however if it was inappropriate to be applying our Western literary expectations, and if the way this novel is written is simply 'the African way'. Others of us thought there were dangers of patronisation and indeed racism in this attitude - ie that of assuming African literature to be necessarily naive, insular and unreconstructed. Obioma is in fact on record as seeing the 'narrative arc' as crucial to storytelling, and, indeed, two generations earlier another Igbo Nigerian, Chinua Achebe, was using the narrative arc of Western culture to an extent and a rationality of prose with a sophistication that this novel fails to do. It is after all oral storytelling that is the traditional 'African way', and, as Obioma himself has stated in interviews, novels written in English by Africans like himself are necessarily Western and move away from that old culture. In fact, The Fishermen is full of self-conscious accommodations for its Western audience, such as its description of the characteristics of Igbo language quoted above, and its (somewhat clumsily inserted) explanation of the Harmattan:
Then, in late October, the Harmattan - a season when the dry dusty wind from the Sahara desert of Northern Nigeria travelled south and covered most of sub-Saharan Africa - seemed to have appeared overnight...
The book does have sophisticated aims, which reviewers have jumped on. Obioma explicitly invites comparison with distinguished antecedents, echoing the title of Achebe's Things Fall Apart in the text, and having Obembe directly compare his own and Benjamin's situation to that of Achebe's protagonist Onkonwo. Another parallel made explicitly within the text is with Cain and Abel. In interview, Obioma has called the book 'an African version of tragedy'. More than one reviewer has tried to draw a parallel with Greek tragedy by citing as the hubristic fatal flaw the ambition of the boys' father Ebe for them - he wants a lot of children (the four boys have two younger siblings) and for them to be Western-educated and become 'fishermen of good dreams ... who will ... become successful: doctors, pilots, professors, lawyers'. It's actually more complex than that: in fact, Ikenna's superstition operates more dynamically as a fatal flaw. (Meanwhile some have praised the novel for its psychological depth in tracing Ikenna's disintegration, but we found no psychological depth, since Ikenna's superstitious reaction is simply stated as fact and his behaviour observed from outside - as, indeed, in Greek tragedy.) While courting a Western audience, Obioma is on record as having called the book a 'wake-up call to Nigeria' and Nigerian politics do indeed form a backdrop to the action. Ebe is passionate about his boys receiving a Western education, yet the family is overtaken and destroyed by an old mode of superstition - the fatal flaw is perhaps rather the imposition of a Western colonising political situation and ethos on what Obioma himself has called an 'inherently superstitious' people.

So, are the style and construction of the book intended as a formal illustration of this, the way that old superstitions break through Westernisation? Or, as someone in the group said, are they an unfortunate pandering to a patronising and potentially racist Western view of African literature as charmingly exotic and primitive? Or is it simply that, as Clare had originally felt, on the level of style and structure the book does not match its author's ambitious and commendable and political aims?

We tended, I'm afraid, to conclude that last, and although Jenny said that she was glad to have read it, she had to admit that she wouldn't have carried on with it had she not had to for the group, and everyone else apart from Clare had said they had really struggled with it.

On a final note, however, Doug said he had really loved the depiction of the mother - a really great character.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, October 16, 2017

Reading Group: The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This was a bit of a whole-group choice, made in the absence of Trevor, who had been meant to  make the next suggestion, and prompted I suppose by the recent MGM/Hulu TV adaptation. Since Ann was next in line to choose, she stepped in and took on the task of kicking off our discussion.

In the past there seems to have been a bit of a reluctance in the group to read books by Margaret Atwood (one of my absolutely favourite writers), I'm not sure why. John has considered her a bit 'long-winded' - he reveres economy above all, and her books do indeed tend to be lengthy, and packed with lush detail (none of which I consider extraneous, however). There is a bit of a resistance in our group to authors who it is felt have been over-hyped, yet we have read several books by male authors you might say would come in that category, and I have suspected there to be a bit of an unconscious prejudice against Atwood as an overtly feminist writer - she was once published by Virago, and her early books deal most pointedly with feminist issues. The one book of hers we did read as a group was the early and shorter Surfacing, but it didn't go down particularly well, being found to be rather feminist-mystical. However, people had clearly been very impressed by the recent TV series of the Handmaid's Tale, and they all wanted to read the book.

Written in 1984, it is set in a dystopian future when pollution and radiation in America have affected fertility and given rise to a fundamentalist-Christian police state, The Republic of Gilead, in which women have been entirely stripped of all rights and autonomy and those few fertile educated women co-opted, after the Biblical Leah, to bear children for barren ruling couples. Such women, of whom our first-person protagonist, Offred, is one, are virtual prisoners in these households, their only tasks to shop for the household once a day with an assigned handmaid partner, in their regulation voluminous red gowns and the white wings that eclipse their view of the world and prevent eye contact and discussion, watched over at various checkpoints by armed guards, and once a month to take part in the 'ceremony', in which, while the wife holds her, the husband performs the task of fertilisation. Reading is forbidden, and communication with others is dangerous - police informers, the 'Eyes', are everywhere. Handmaids are stripped of all identity and given the household patronymic - in this case, 'Of Fred'.

Ann said that she had never read the book before, but was very glad she now had. She said that she had read it in one sitting on a five-and-a-half hour journey, and was immensely impressed, and wanted now to read it again as she felt that there were layers and layers to be mined in the book.
The air of menace is acute and there are sheer horrors - such as the hangings of subversives and renegade women - yet as Ann said there is such a light verbal touch  - Atwood is a mistress of irony - that it is immensely readable. Indeed, it is Offred's intelligence and perception, and her irony and spirit of resistance that promote in the reader an ultimate sense of optimism.

Everyone in the room agreed, and felt the book was a masterpiece. Ann said that most remarkable was the prescience of the book, written in 1984 but resonating so strongly with the rise of right-wing factions today. Mark thought that the book must have been even more striking when it came out in 1985, but I have to say that in fact I found the book much more shocking and urgent this time round. In 1985 I read it much more as a projection and warning, but in the light of recent political events it seems much closer to home. Offred constantly looks back on her life before the Republic of Gilead, so we learn how people's rights were peeled away, and everyone agreed that one of the things they found most frightening in the book was the moment when 'Offred' discovers that her electronic cash card no longer works: everyone with 'F' against their name on the database has been stripped of their financial existence at the press of a button. It is worth noting that in 1985 credit cards were not electronic, nor as essential a part of our daily financial transactions as they are either now or in the book; touch-screen cards, such as Offred had, were undreamt of (except of course by Margaret Atwood). In 1985 I didn't think too much about this detail, but reading the book now and thinking of how all our financial transactions are instantly location-recorded, we all felt a distinct chill. Prescience, indeed.

Any accusations of crude anti-male feminism were roundly dispelled by this book. As Mark pointed out, men as well as women suffer in this patriarchal regime, male subversives rounded up and left to hang as public warnings, and the male members of the ruling class, including the head of Offred's household, the high-up 'Commander', are not immune to slipping up and dire punishment. Offred's view of the Commander is complex, encompassing his humanity, and her sexuality too complicated and subtle for the over-simplistic feminism of her long-lost mother and her feisty friend turned subversive fellow handmaid Moira.

Ann said that the fictional 'Historical Notes' that end the book also contribute to a sense of optimism, as they are the transcript of a conference taking place some hundred and fifty years after the events of Offred's story, and in which the Republic of Gilead is discussed as a long-gone historical phenomenon. The speaker discusses the provenance of 'The Handmaid's Tale' we have just read, which exists in the form of once-subterfuge tape recordings, and speculates on the veracity and significance of the things it describes. Jenny felt that one purpose was to illustrate the contingency and incompleteness of history, and I felt that an important point was to show how difficult it is, from another era or culture, to empathise with the experience of cruel regimes, or see their relevance to ourselves - whereas the searing nature of the tale we have just read shows the urgent necessity of doing so.

So, a book we were all deeply affected by. And as Mark said, Margaret Atwood is very, very clever.
(Also let it be recorded here that I had a signed hardback first edition, which I lent to one of my son's schoolfriends and never got back - not that I begrudge it; I'm pretty pleased for it to have entered his life and mental landscape.)

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Reading group: Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

John thought it pretty ironic that after criticising his choice of The Men's Club as an old-fashioned and irrelevant portrayal of men and masculinity, Mark should immediately suggest a Western.

In fact, John Williams didn't want his publisher to label Butcher's Crossing as such, and thus fix it in a genre pigeonhole, and having read and generally admired his later and best-known book, Stoner, the rest of us in the group expected a subversion of the genre along the lines we had found in Cormac McCarthy's later and magnificent Blood Meridian.

To some extent our expectations were fulfilled. The chief way in which Butcher's Crossing subverts the genre, and which must have seemed fairly radical at the time of first publication (1960), is to portray the Wild West as utterly devoid of heroism and glamour, to present it rather as a numbing world of grime, hard graft and constant near-death. Protagonist Will Andrews is a university drop-out, a devotee of Emerson, filled with the vague and romantic notion of finding in the Wild West a truer life and his own truer self. In 1873 he comes to Butcher's Crossing, a shanty settlement erected for the trade in buffalo hides. Due to the overhunting of buffalo, the source of hides is beginning to dry up, but it turns out that the hardbitten hunter Miller knows of a hidden untouched valley in the Rocky Mountains where the buffalo still roam en masse. In pursuit of his personal mission, Andrews sinks a good deal of his inheritance in equipping a hunting expedition by Miller, himself and two others to this valley.

We now embark with the four men on a gruelling trek with horses and oxen-pulled wagon as the stubborn Miller insists on leaving the watercourse for a straight course towards the mountains across a baking plain, seems to lose his way, endangering their lives, and eventually finds it. Following the perspective of the neophyte Andrews, we are taken through the minutiae of every gruelling process, the setting up of camps, the handling of the animals, the preparation and cooking of the meagre food, and the physical discomfort as they ride, Andrews' thighs chafing, in the baking sun. Finally they reach the mountains and - again, after worrying uncertainty - find the valley, and new gruelling experiences are in store: firstly, for Andrews, the killing and skinning of the buffalo, and then, for all of the others, the obsession of Miller who is unable to stop shooting the buffalo which, unused to men, simply stand to be picked off. The skins pile up, far more than they will ever be able to carry back on the wagon, and the autumn creeps on, bringing snow that will trap them in the valley all winter...

Andrews' reaction to all of this - his initial shock and his slow numbing - create a psychological dimension that is another subversion of the Western genre, but the whole thing is in many ways extremely traditional, a heavily event-based linear narrative with everything described objectively in the minutest detail. Doug, Jenny and I had found much of the detail very interesting - everyone was as fascinated as Andrews by the way Miller made bullets, for instance - but we all felt that there was far more of it than was necessary in a narrative, and that its accumulation amounted to tedium. For this reason Ann and John had both given up on the book fairly early on. I have to say it took me ages to read it - I found myself reading really slowly - and Jenny said that she hadn't actually liked it as she found the graphic descriptions - of the skinning of the buffalo, for instance - unpleasant to read. Doug and I were both amazed by the description of the way the buffalo behaved and fell once they had been shot, but I said that at that point I wondered: is it actually true, or is it simply a feat of imagination on the part of the author? I then realised that the book was prompting me to read it in the wrong way, ie as a manual rather than a fiction, and I felt I'd rather read the source material myself in order to know the veracity of what was being described. There was one moment when I stopped reading at the inappropriateness of such description. As a life-threatening blizzard comes down on the men, Miller frantically struggles to create shelters out of buffalo hide, and the way that he does so is described minutely in a way that is simply not compatible with the panicking psychology of the occasion - Andrews would probably have had difficulty even seeing what Miller was doing, leave alone carefully noting the process.

It was also thought that, in spite of Andrews' psychological journey, the other men were stock Western characters - Miller the tacit gritty John Wayne type, Schneider the bad-tempered loose cannon, and Charlie Hogue, the Bible-reading drunk driving the wagon.

I said that for all that actually happens in the book event-wise, and the simplicity of the psychology, it could have been done as a short story rather than the 330+ page book that it is. On the other hand, it would have been difficult via a short story to recreate the gruelling tedium which the length of this book certainly does, and there was a brief discussion of the difficulty of writing about tedium without actually being tedious.

People also started to feel that there wasn't as much veracity as at first seemed: why, if Miller was such a brilliant hunter, did he make the mistakes he did? Wouldn't he have known, for instance, not to pile the wagon so high with skins for the homeward journey - as I read it, I was thinking, no, no, I wouldn't pile it that high! - and wouldn't he have known that the river would have been too swollen with melting spring snow to cross with the wagon, and wouldn't he have avoided doing so? Clearly the authorial purpose was to subvert the way that in the traditional Western heroic cowboys always defeat the odds, but we felt it wasn't actually psychologically or factually realistic that Miller would get in such a situation. Why, if every detail of how the men subsisted had to be told, were the facts of defecation and urination left out, and why was Andrews, who had lived in the wild with these men for six months or more, prissily shocked when asked to urinate with the others in a kettle to soften leather for thongs? It seemed a bit like the squeamishness of an academic author... And when Andrews, who has for months been in close contact with dying buffalo, hunkers down in his buffalo-hide sleeping bag to withstand the blizzard, why is this the first time that he feels a parasitic insect crawl on his skin and bite him? People were very affected by the fact that when Andrews finally gets back to Buffalo Crossing and bathes, the dirt peels off him in scrolls and he is revealed to be covered in insect bites, but wouldn't he in fact be covered in living ticks and lice? And how did the horses and oxen survive when they had to be let loose in the valley for the winter, any grass left from the hot summer long buried in deep banks of snow? And, as Jenny said, where were the wild animals? Charlie Hogue lays strychnine for wolves, but they never see any, and why is there no mention of mountain lions or bears?

And where, asked Mark in provocative disappointment, were the Indians? (Although it was he who had suggested the book, circumstances had prevented him from reading it after all.) Jenny, laughing, told him off for his diction, and John - previously accused by Mark as a purveyor of old-fashioned masculinity - snorted. We did then however consider the lack of Native Americans encountered on the men's journey. At one point a small group near a watercourse watch passively as the expedition passes, and Miller comments that they are 'not worth killing any more'. The implication is that the Native Americans had been defeated and cleared from the area before 1873 when the action of the novel takes place, but in view of the doubts we had above, and the fact that Native Americans defeated the army at the Battle of Little Bighorn only three years later, people wondered about the veracity of this too.

As John said, the theme of this novel mirrors that of Stoner in which the protagonist survives a life of disappointments through sheer stoicism. Butcher's Crossing ends in disappointment, and Andrews' mistaken idealism has been replaced by a stoical understanding of the futility of much human endeavour. However, although no one could deny that the prose of this book is superb, spare and understated but vivid and ringing with clarity, and that the descriptions of landscape and weather were breathtaking, as John also said, it lacks the passion of the (presumably more autobiographical) Stoner which by comparison is Williams' masterpiece.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here