Books of September
I figured that one of my books from South America would be a Marquez—he’s got a few novels to his credit and they’re big names. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Love in the Time of Cholera (which I have actually already read). Then, in the library, I found this book—three short novels in one cover, and thought that might be more interesting.
“Leaf Storm” appeared first, but I read it last because it took me a few tries to get into. It was somewhat difficult to read, not in the least because there were three different first-person narrators who would take over for each other at every section break, and I often didn’t realize the narrator had changed until the little boy suddenly started referring to his late wife and it occurred to me that the little boy was no longer speaking, his grandfather was. That’s a sign of one of two things: either I wasn’t reading closely enough, which is totally possible, because “Leaf Storm” was a very slow, meditative story that I mostly read at night while nearly asleep. Or, the voices weren’t distinguished enough by the narration. This would not necessarily be a slur on Marquez, because the book is obviously a translation of what Marquez actually wrote. Perhaps there were linguistic markers which would have differentiated the voices from each other if I had read the book in its native Spanish.
There was one moment, for example, where the woman character remembers the first night she was married to her husband, and he said something very basic to her, something like “How are you doing?” and she thinks how much it thrilled her to be addressed familiarly for the first time. And that took me out of the story for a minute because I thought, of course, if Spanish is like French, then there’s the difference between the formal and informal pronoun. (I don’t know Spanish, but in French thesentence would be “Comment allez-vous?” formally versus “Comment alles-tu?” informally. Although I think the most commonly-used expression is a split-the-difference “Comment ca va?”) A quick Google search tells me that the difference which so thrilled the female character there was probably a switch from “usted” to “tu.” In an English translation, you just have to know that. It’s not a literal thing. Most of our informal address comes through in tone of voice. (And some I suppose through slang, but Marquez did not make use of that.)
The second novella was “No One Writes to the Colonel,” an incredibly bleak story about a older couple struggling to make ends meet while they wait for the husband’s military pension, which is apparently something like thirty years late in coming. In the meantime, they are raising a rooster that they hope to make some money off of via cockfights. The wife is sick, they’re both starving, and things just stay the same. Their circumstances change for the worse—move laterally at best.
The great redeeming story was the third, “Chronicles of a Death Foretold.” The basic story is about a small town that is shaken up when two brothers kill another young man of their acquaintance, due to a misunderstanding about their sister and her virginity. What was really amazing about it was the narrative choice—it unfolds like a documentary, with an unidentified narrator describing the process of collecting eyewitness accounts and piecing the story together. The story opens with the murder, and then moves backwards and forwards in time depending on whose perspective we’re getting at that moment. Here’s a sample:
Victoria Guzman, for her part, had been categorical with her answer that neither she nor her daughter knew that the men were waiting for Santiago Nasar to kill him. But in the course of her years she admitted that both knew it when he came into the kitchen to have his coffee. They had been told it by a woman who had passed by after five o’clock to beg a bit of milk, and who in addition had revealed the motives and the place where they were waiting. “I didn’t warn him because I thought it was drunkards’ talk,” she told me. Nevertheless, Divina Flor confessed to me on a later visit, after her mother had died, that the latter hadn’t said anything to Santiago Nasar because in the depths of her heart she wanted them to kill him. She, on the other hand, didn’t warn him because she was nothing but a frightened child at the time, incapable of a decision of her own, and she’d been all the more frightened when he grabbed her by the wrist with a hand that felt frozen and stony, like the hand of a dead man.
The documentarian has the greatest storytelling challenge of any filmmaker, because he or she has to take a huge amount of information and characters and events and draw a relatively straight narrative line through it. Events can’t (ethically) be manipulated to make them more clear or more streamlined. The choice made by Marquez—to imagine a whole outside context for this story of some guy making an exhaustive investigation into this event via interviews, anecdotes, paperwork—but to use it with such a light touch. It reminds me of all those novels from the 19th century that claim to have been compiled from letters found in mysterious diaries and stuff, just because it was in vogue at the time to pretend you found your story instead of creating it in your own head. I like these kinds of techniques, because they don’t fence in the story. This one bleeds out in all directions. It’s saturated with context, with different paths, with inner lives. In short, it’s wonderful. I wish I was back in school right now so I could teach this story.
Starting out, Purple Hibiscus was giving me a lot of what has kept me away from global literature in the past. Here’s a sample paragraph, narrated by the protagonist Kambili:
Lunch was fufu and onugbu soup. The fufu was smooth and fluffy. Sisi made it well; she pounded the yam energetically, adding drops of water into the mortar, her cheeks contracting with the thump-thump-thump of the pestle. The soup was thick with chunks of boiled beef and dried fish and dark green onugbu leaves. We ate silently. I molded my fufu into small balls with my fingers, dipped it in the soup, making sure to scoop up fish chunks, and then brought it to my mouth. I was certain the soup was good, but I did not taste it, could not taste it. My tongue felt like paper.
Do you feel how AGGRESSIVELY MULTI-CULTURAL that is? There’s a choice to be made by authors who expect to have a foreign appeal—or whose editors want to inject foreign appeal, which also probably happens a lot. Either they explain nothing: “Lunch was fufu and onugbu soup. Anyway, moving on…” Or they explain way, way, way too much. I find it very awkward. “I molded my fufu into small balls with my fingers, dipped it in the sopu, making sure to scoop up fish chunks, and then brought it to my mouth.” No offense, Ms. Adichie, but that is one of the most awkward sentences I have ever read, ever. Is there a narrative purpose in here? Other than, ‘this is how African people eat fufu and onugbu soup? Aren’t we all learning?’ I have dropped a lot of multi-cultural lit because they shoehorn in too many descriptions of food and clothes and religious rites. I want to experience the story world, not read an encyclopedia entry about it.
And then, some way through the book, Kambili and her brother visit family—a free-thinking aunt who is a college professor, and her independently-minded kids. Kambili is bewildered when she witnesses how her aunt and cousins talk to each other, how they converse freely, casually, and without fear, how they remain open-minded about religious and political conflicts going on in the country. They have been allowed to develop relationships with the grandfather they all share—Kambili’s father cut the man out of their lives because he remained loyal to his ancestral religion. When the old man falls ill, Kambili overhears her aunt pray that God watch over the old man and she is blown away. God watch over a heathen? The idea is, to her, unheard of. The God she has known is—like her father—a rigid and unforgiving figure. She gets a counterpoint to this, too, in the friendly, liberal priest she meets through her aunt, and on whom she develops a mildly inappropriate crush.
Kambili’s understanding of the world gets bigger, and suddenly she has choices to make about how the rest of her life is going to go. Her new knowledge sets up tensions that didn’t exist before. That is a classic setup for a coming-of-age novel and it works great. I loved the aunt and cousin characters—I kind of wanted to live with them, too. So what started out kind of stiff and instructive grew into a more character-driven narrative—just as the protagonist is discovering her own character, who she is and who she can be without the interference of oppressive forces like her father. I am so much more receptive to literary styles and narrative choices that I don’t like if they turn out to mean something. The book began with Kambili an observer, one who catalogues and records but doesn’t interpret; Adichie wrote the character a nice, subtle growth arc. Well done.
So, let me preface this by saying, books set in Antarctica are not incredibly plentiful. They’re out there, it’s just the pickings are kind of slim. And the vast majority of them are genre fiction—mysteries and sci fi, mostly—I guess because there isn’t a lot of subtle family drama to be had on a continent which has never permanently housed families. (Antarctica is so interesting, though. I read a little online and apparently, there are children there now and schools. The children belong to the researchers and scientists who make up the entire population of that continent. Nobody lives there permanently because of course it is not a self-sustaining environment for humans.) Anyway, after searching for ages for interesting Antarctica books—the expert portion of the Global Reading Challenge requires me to read two—I finally picked two titles and went with them. (This is one; The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier is the other, and I just started it this week. It is already better than White-Out.)
So this book wasn’t exactly something I was panting to read, but even so it was kind of disappointing. I don’t really know anything about this author. There’s a whole list of other books that he’s written on the inside cover of this one—and I’m guessing those books are most likely genre fiction, something that appeals to retired men. Spy novels or war stories or mysteries about gruff, retired investigators. The writing was kind of staid, colorless, obligatory. The story also took this incredibly old-fashioned, stiff-upper-lip philosophy to its heart. That is all so out of my wheelhouse that I really couldn’t even comprehend it.
There was the narrative problem.The book had a very specific five-part structure, and what I would consider the emotional climax of the book—when the stranded protagonist basically surrenders to his love for the pristine beauty of the Antarctic ecosystem he’s previously been fighting against—happens in the fourth section. That leaves a fifth section—not an insignificant portion of the book—to wrap up literally every loose end that ever existed, including where, geographically, the main character retires to 50 years after the fact. Some attempt is made to sustain the suspense with the man’s secrets arising late-in-life, but it all just sort of fizzles away. I admit, had I been the editor, I would’ve taken the hatchet to the entire last section.
The book suffered most greatly from my comparisons to The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, a novel-length work written by Edgar Allan Poe. Though the stories are not a perfect match for one another (Pym does end up in Antarctica briefly, but under totally different circumstances), a lot of the themes are the same—solitude, survival. It occurs to me that Life of Pi—which I read back in July—also belongs in this strain (survival lit!). Both Pym and Pi work on two levels—as a suspense story about a character in unliveable circumstances, struggling to stay alive, and as a philosophical study of same. What that kind of intense situation does to one’s mind.
White-Out had the potential for all of that. Its protagonist lives alone in a tent on an Antarctic glacier for months, trying to stave off starvation and lamenting that he can’t remember what the sun looks like. Writing that is one thing—but making it suspenseful is another (this was a non-starter anyway, because we KNOW he survives, because the first chapter sets up his return to civilization)—and making it meaningful is yet another. I would have taken one without the other, but this book did not do either well—or at least not up to the standards of Poe or Pi’s Yann Martel.
For instance, the main character, in his despair at being stranded for months without adequate food supply, keeps looking at the dead body of his commanding officer and thinking “Dear God, no! I couldn’t!” And I know I’m supposed to be horrified by even the mention of cannibalism. But…Poe wrote the same thing in Arthur Gordon Pym, that time with four guys on a life raft. (And Poe did it even more horrifically. Those four guys were all still alive. They drew straws to see which one they would kill so they could eat him.) So if Poe was doing it in 1838, why am I still expected to shocked by it today? (Or in 1999 when White-Out was published?)
Bottom line: the story was not well-written enough to work as literary fiction, not well-plotted enough to work as suspense fiction, or deep enough to work as philosophical fiction. The only point I would really give it is that it was an effective love letter to Antarctica. I mentioned that the climactic moment was when the protagonist surrendered to the wild, pristine beauty of the landscape. There are lengthy descriptions of the seasonal return of the penguins and fish and birds and otters and whatnot that signal for the character both the end of the winter (inasmuch as it’s ever not winter in Antarctica) and the return of other living beings into his life. That section was nice; I enjoyed it. Also, it was the only point in the book that felt like it was really taking place in a strange environment—the only time I felt transported to Antarctica.
And others: also in the month of September, I listened to two audiobooks and read an online book, all during the slower periods at my job.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles: A novel narrated by a middle-aged guy stranded in an airport, trying to get to his daughter’s wedding. He starts composing an angry letter to the airline and all of his neuroses and past regrets come spilling out in the process. A funny idea, which is why I picked it up in the first place, but I think it was about three times longer than this slender concept could support. After long, serious passages describing the main character’s reckless youth, his drinking problems, how things went sour with his daughter’s mother, he would go back to speaking directly to the airline about wanting his 352 bucks back or whatever. It felt a little erratic. “Oh, this again.” I don’t know if the formatting of the book smooths the transitions out—is it formatted like a letter all the way through? The voice actor who read the book was terrific, though, playing drunky when he needed to, and exhibiting just a hint of a southern slur for a character born and raised in Lou’siana.
An Education, Lynn Barber: This is a memoir by a British woman journalist—a chapter of it was adapted into that movie that came out last year with Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard; the rest has nothing much to do with the movie except that the events therein happened to the same person. I was a little surprised to read the portion about the love affair—it takes a decidedly different tone from the movie, a little less nostalgic and rosy, a little more traumatizing. Also, Barber writes throughout the chapter as though her relationship with the man was built on her boredom and his persistence—she never acts at any point as though she’s quite in love with him. The movie felt different to me—Mulligan played it like she was in love, like it was a bad, bad idea to link herself with this man, but one that she didn’t ultimately regret following through on. That appealed to me a bit more than Barber’s take, which was sort of, “Whew. Glad I didn’t marry that sociopath. Don’t know what I was doing with him anyway.” The rest of the memoir follows Barber through college, marriage, and the foundations of her career in journalism. She begins at Penthouse magazine—really—and it’s fascinating how she makes the early days of editing a skin mag seem fun as well as totally prosaic. The last chapter, about Barber’s husband’s fight with cancer, is reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, and equally heartbreaking. An odd book, but I would recommend it, especially narrated in your ear by a nice plummy English voice.
Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, Mary Shelley: It took about two months to read this in 10-page bursts on my computer. I hadn’t actually it since 11th grade, so it was a fun experiment to return to it again—especially since I read Dracula again last winter, and in my mind those two books are always linked.
Frankenstein is not as awesome a read as Dracula, because Dracula has more action. Victor (AKA Dr. Frankenstein) is an incredibly passive character to hang that novel on. Early on, he narrates almost feverishly about the years that he spends studying, researching, experimenting to discover how to recreate the spark of life. Then he does, and his creature lives. He’s terrified of the creature, so he runs away—literally—and when he returns to his house, the creature has disappeared. And then a year passes while he tries to forget what he did. Later, after he’s seen the creature again, and the creature has demanded that Victor build him a female companion, Victor agrees. He spends a few months arranging a trip to England to work with some scientists there. He travels there slowly—in a downright leisurely manner– with a friend. Then they spend a few months traveling the English countryside.
From Derby, still journeying northwards, we passed two months in Cumberland and Westmorland. I could now almost fancy myself among the Swiss mountains.
Really, Victor, is that so? GET TO WORK. They’re here and there and Victor keeps describing scenery—mountains and rivers and fields. Look at the men of Dracula comparatively—Seward, Harker, Van Helsing, the other guys—they’re all working, all the time. They’re staying up all night doing blood transfusions on Lucy, then they’re staking out the cemetery, then they’re planning to infiltrate the Count’s house, and they’re jumping on and off trains. They’re dynamos. I’m not saying that Dracula is an inherently better book for that, or those men inherently better characters. Victor’s ambivalence and fretting over what he’s done is complex and interesting. It just makes the book a bit less suspenseful than Stoker’s. Supposedly Mary Shelley originally composed the story to be told around a roaring fire. Maybe she put in all the aimless wandering later.
Philosophically, it’s incredibly interesting—tons of circuitous little routes to follow. The most obvious is the question of the man of science playing God. In high school, which was the last time I read Frankenstein, I wrote a paper about how the debate about technology and ethics was still relevant to the modern world, using the cloning controversy as my example. (Remember Dolly, the first cloned sheep? She was new then.)
I was also fascinated by the part where the monster demanded that Frankenstein make him a mate. He basically lays blackmail at his feet—he says, I am unloved so I am unhappy. As long as I’m unhappy, everybody DIES. Make me a girl and you’ll never hear from us again. If you don’t, everybody DIES. I started thinking about the idea of the outcast, the pariah, and what their retaliatory rights actually are. If society disenfranchises a person (or a race, or an ethnic group, or a gender or a class, etc.) does that person/race/group have the right to turn to violence? Or should they turn the other cheek? You could trace a lot of different philosophical perspectives all congregating in this one scene.
I don’t know why Victor doesn’t just kill the monster, though. He has many opportunities; presumably one good shot to the head would do it. Then he DOES decide to kill the monster. But he waits until morning, and then he walks on the beach to think about it, and then he takes a nap. This is maybe the most meandery book I’ve ever read. Still, the hype is true. It’s a masterpiece of the English language.