The Sympathizer.

The Sympathizer was the surprise winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the debut novel of Vietnamese-American author Viet Thanh Nguyen, and if nothing else is a truly fascinating work of fiction for its new take on the Vietnam War. Nguyen’s unnamed narrator is a communist sympathizer and sleeper agent in the south of Vietnam, and recalls the conflict and its aftermath from the perspective of a Vietnamese national, as opposed to the countless looks back at the war from western perspectives (The Things They Carried, Tree of Smoke). The narrator himself is a walking dichotomy, born to a Vietnamese mother and French father (a priest, no less), living in the south and then in the U.S. while professing loyalty to the communists, with very bourgeois sentiments that compromise his work as a spy and an unwilling assassin.

The closest parallel I can think of for The Sympathizer is Graham Greene’s novel of Vietnam, The Quiet American, written later in his career after he’d become disillusioned with his country and his faith, a bleak picture of the war that included more than just a cursory consideration of the conflict’s devastating effect on the people of Vietnam. Nguyen’s look at the war is similarly derisive, suffused with parody and gallows humor, but ultimately an indictment of everyone involved, not least the United States.

The narrator tells his story as a confession to an unseen commandant and “faceless” commissar, as he’s apparently in a postwar Vietnamese reeducation camp despite serving the People’s Liberation Front during the conflict as a mole and assassin both in South Vietnam and then in the United States, where he works with a disgraced General from the South’s army who seeks to stage a Bay of Pigs-style invasion force that goes roughly as well as that real-life attempt did. His story involves time as a student in California, where he writes his thesis on the works of Graham Greene (in case you missed that allusion), as well as his work as a “consultant” on a thinly-disguised version of Francis Ford Coppola’s film Apocalypse Now, itself an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella into a Vietnamese setting. The director, known only as the Auteur, is a fatuous, racist pig who fancies himself an artist and tries to work from a script that doesn’t give a single line to a Vietnamese character. The narrator’s job is to try to undermine the pro-American tone in the film, but the entire story turns into an elaborate farce of the film, the movie industry, and subsequent American attempts to retell the story of the war in terms that the American public would buy.

The last quarter of the book takes a sharp turn toward the more serious territory of Darkness at Noon or 1984 as we switch to real time and the narrator’s ordeal in custody, where, we learn, he’s been telling and retelling his story to his jailers, but hasn’t given them the particular truth they demand of him. The climax is graphic and hard to read, worse than the two assassinations in which the narrator takes part, but works better as a metaphor for the damage the North Vietnamese inflicted on their own people and the psychic scars that endured long after the conflict.

Nguyen can be a bit heavy-handed with the allusions and metaphors. The narrator’s two best friends are Man (the blank canvas) and Bon (the good one of the three). He encounters a go-getter journalist named Sonny, and an ice-cold Japanese woman named Ms. Mori (think memento mori). The Auteur and the older lead actor in the film border on caricature, while the film is called The Hamlet presumably because the Auteur views his work as comparable to Shakespeare. And the prose can get a little purple, although I found myself flying through it anyway.

But Nguyen’s strength lies in the main character, both as the vehicle for retelling the war’s story in a new light, and for his own dichotomy. The narrator is not truly accepted by his fellow citizens because he’s half European; he’s not accepted at all in the United States, even though he speaks perfect English, because he looks “foreign.” He lives in the South and serves in their military, but his loyalties are with the North … only to find himself in a communist (which was the North) political prison after the war. These splits all parallel the way his self was broken by an incident he witnessed during the war but has buried in his subconscious, the nauseating passage I mentioned above; only by reliving and acknowledging it can he move on with his life.

Next up: I actually just read Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows for the first time; I read a few chapters with my daughter, but she found it boring, so I finished it myself. At least now I know the true story behind Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

The Man Within.

Graham Greene is one of my favorite novelists, period; I’ve read more novels of his than of any other author save P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Greene wrote twenty-six novels, two of which he later repudiated and which have been out of print for over eighty years, and divided his works into serious novels and mere “entertainments,” the latter typically what we’d now call spy novels, although some of his entertainments, like my favorite work of his, Our Man in Havana, still had serious themes and the distinction seems arbitrary when one has the vantage point of reading his entire oeuvre. His first novel, The Man Within, foreshadows the potential dichotomy in his work, as a suspense novel with a tragic-romantic component, themes of Christian morality and guilt, and a central character grappling with fundamental questions of right and wrong.

Francis Andrews, the novel’s protagonist, is on the run as the novel begins, fleeing his former smuggling mates after betraying them to the authorities. After three days on the run without sleep, he stumbles into a hovel occupied by a young woman, Elizabeth, watching over the corpse of her just-dead guardian, an encounter that begins with her threatening Francis with a gun but improbably turns into a Victorian romance. Their entanglement comes apart when Elizabeth persuades Francis to follow through on his anonymous letter and go to Lewes to testify against the smugglers, who stand accused of killing an officer of the law when the authorities caught them on a local beach – but who remain so popular with the townsfolk that securing a conviction is very unlikely. Francis, who labels himself a coward throughout the book, in contrast to his fearless (and likely sociopathic) smuggler father, faces choice after choice to put what is right over his own skin, a path that endangers Elizabeth and himself before a strange ending allows Francis to make one last stab at finding some measure of courage.

The Man Within was published when Greene was 25, and it reads more like an homage to British literature of the 19th century than a novel of its time; it came four years after The Great Gatsby appeared, three years after The Sun Also Rises, and seven years after Joyce ushered in postmodernism with Ulysses, all of which makes Greene’s first stab at a novel seem quaint in comparison. His second novel, Orient Express (also published as Stamboul Train), was a pure “entertainment,” a thriller set on the train that Christie made famous two years later. While that novel had elements of romance between the characters, those threads were more cynical in nature, dispensing with the naïve take on love Greene displayed in The Man Within, which has Greene’s voice in evidence but without the life experience he might have needed to craft his later works, both the serious “Catholic novels” and the thrillers that made his reputation. The most interesting character in this book gets relatively little screen time or development – Carlyon, Francis’ patron on the smuggling ship, a friend who filled in as a father figure, and who was most directly hurt by Francis’ ultimate betrayal and who is hunting Francis with the intention to kill him. That relationship, prior to the anonymous letter, isn’t well fleshed-out, and Carlyon is drawn too thinly for a character that would have to be complex to generate the remorse he does in Andrews.

Greene himself later derided this book as “hopelessly romantic,” but at least allowed this one to remain in print whereas the next two novels he wrote were, in his view, so bad that he renounced them and let them fall out of print. The Man Within stands more as a work of historical interest, as it shows Greene the storyteller learning his craft in a work that would probably rank as very good had it come from most novelists but, from one of the masters of 20th century literature, feels immature and a bit hollow.

Next up: I’ve finished Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and started William Faulnker’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel A Fable.

Swamplandia!

Karen Russell’s debut novel, Swamplandia!, was one of three finalists for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the year that the board decided not to give the honor to any title – in essence saying that there was no novel published that year that met their threshold for the award. It was an embarrassing decision, one that may have hurt independent booksellers, a dereliction of duty reminiscent of the BBWAA puking all over itself in the 2012 Hall of Fame balloting – there had to be a “best” book, even if the overall quality of the titles in that year was lower than previous classes. Swamplandia! fits that description well – it’s a very good book, not a home run like Empire Falls or The Orphan Master’s Son, but more than good enough to win the award and a whole lot better than the 2011 winner, A Visit from the Goon Squad.

In the novel, Swamplandia! is an alligator theme park run by the Bigtree family on one of the Ten Thousand Islands off the coast of southwest Florida, most of which are uninhabited and which are connected to the mainland (in the book) only by a daily ferry service. (In reality, the largest island, Chokoloskee, is connected by a causeway, but that appears to be the only one with such a link.) When Hilola Bigtree, a mother of three and fierce alligator wrestler, dies of cancer, the business and the famiy begin to come apart at the seams. Her husband, the Chief, seems to get lost in a delusion of expansion amidst rising debt and new competition from a mainland park, the World of Darkness; Kiwi, their oldest child, defects to the mainland to work for that very competitor; Osceola, the middle child, falls in love with the spectre of a long-dead shipworker; and Ava, the youngest child and primary character, finds herself alone at the family homestead, faced with the daunting task of trying to save something out of everything collapsing around her.

Swamplandia! itself is a profound tale of death, loss, and disillusionment, as Ava, wise for her years but still fundamentally a child, feels her mother’s absence most acutely, with all three children setting out on different searches for something to fill the void left after Hilola’s death and their father’s abdication as a parent. While incorporating elements of magical realism, Russell never lets the story devolve into pure dreamscape or fantasy, and the two primary plotlines – Ava’s search for Osceola in the “underworld” and Kiwi’s sputtering coming-of-age at the hell-themed World of Darkness – resolve in ambiguous ways, especially Ava’s, as the denouement of her story left me very conflicted on whether that particular device was necessary to wrap up her story.

Ava herself is a fascinating character, a Flavia de Luce transplanted into a darker setup, where the father isn’t just absent emotionally but physically, and her precocity isn’t always such an asset. She’s intelligent and independent, retaining some of the emotional immaturity of a typical 13-year-old, responding with an admixture of fear and determination to the impossible situation in which her father and siblings place her. She and Kiwi are the only fully-formed characters in the book, with Kiwi providing more comic relief as the fish-out-of-water on the mainland, a home-schooled (self-taught, really) teenager with the diction of a character from 19th-century literature but almost no self-awareness or ability to function in the social environment of modern teenaged life. The symbolism of some of the rides at World of Darkness is bombastically silly, but these interludes also provide a needed break from the darker sections involving Ava’s journey into the swamps.

Russell has, as far as I can see, never spoken about the theme of disillusionment, but Ava’s storyline with Osceola functions as a strong metaphor for a break with religion, or at least the “old-time” religion of Biblical literalists. Osceola finds a book on spiritualism and follows it, blindly, into the book’s underworld – a place of uncertain location or even existence. Ava connects with a prophet of sorts, the “Bird Man,” and follows him, also blindly, in search of Osceola, and perhaps her mother, deeper into the swamps of the Ten Thousand Islands in search of the entrance to the underworld, a trek that leads to what I’ll only identify as a stark disillusionment for Ava and near-madness for Osceola, as well as a sacrifice that parallels the red heifer of the Hebrew Bible (notably Numbers:19). It might be a stretch to say that the book is itself anti-religious, as Russell hasn’t publicly voiced any such views, but it struck me as at least a strong allegory in opposition to blind acceptance of religious dogma and scripture.

Next up: I’m behind on my reviews, but I’m just about finished with Tom Acitelli’s The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution, which even has a whole section devoted to Delaware’s own Dogfish Head brewery.

The Imperfectionists.

I’m still slogging my way through David Foster Wallace’s leviathanic novel Infinite Jest, but before I cracked this one open (figuratively, as I acceded to the ease of tackling this three-pound tome on an e-reader), I read Tom Richman’s marvelous 2011 debut novel, The Imperfectionists. Reminiscent in form of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2011, Rachman’s book is exponentially better in every aspect, from execution to prose to characterization, and should have won the prize over Egan’s book in a rout.

The Imperfectionists revolves around the staff of an English-language newspaper published in Rome, a paper that is dying the slow death of print as the Internet erodes its business model underneath its presses. (This paper hasn’t even established a Web presence, so backwards are its operations.) The staff of Americans comprises the motley crew you’d expect to find in such an ensemble novel, as in Then We Came to the End, with Rachman giving each character his or her own short story within the novel, while connecting everyone across the stories, jumping around slightly in time or place, so that the result is a richly textured work that provides insight into everyone – and into people in general – by looking at each character through several lenses and at varying distances.

Rachman’s style won me over through its incisive internal monologues, often the most cliched writing in any book. His dialogue is spectacular as well, but when he moves the voice into a character’s head, he might make you uncomfortable with how accurate and honest the writing feels, rarely if ever lapsing into the kind of overwrought nonsense that might make you want to pull a Pat Solitano and put a book through a window. His characters are mostly compelling, all sympathetic to enough of an extent that you want to hear what happens, yet all flawed in believable ways, especially around fidelity, which is the book’s dominant (but not sole) theme. Rachman adds interstitial passages on the history of the newspaper, from its founding to its demise, and crafts a subtle parallel between that rise and fall and the cycles of human relationships.

The strongest of those parallels develops around the subject of betrayal, as Rachman depicts relationships that unravel due to affairs, that survive in spite of them, or that struggle to stay true. The sense of loyalty that held the newspaper together while its wealthy founder/patron and, later, his son, keep the publication afloat morphs into a sense of betrayal as ownership declines to further subsidize the mounting losses, leading to staff cutbacks and eventually the paper’s closure. He crafts other stories around the death of a staffer’s child (for me, by far the hardest to read) or the inner emotional turmoil of the least-liked member of the staff, the subject of derisive comments in previous stories who becomes simultaneously an object of sympathy and pity as you understand why she is who she is.

The one thing The Imperfectionists lacks is a real conclusion, at least in the traditional sense of the structure of the novel: Each story is self-contained, with some kind of climax and resolution, but the novel as a whole does not have a single, linear plot, with just a brief epilogue attached to provide some kind of closure for readers invested in specific characters. I thought the novel would have stood alone without that appendage, as Rachman’s skill in crafting characters made further revelations unnecessary – I completed each story feeling as if I had learned what there was to learn about the character at its heart. It’s a remarkable book that deserves your attention.

Next up … well, let’s just say that the book I’m reading how is giving me the howling fantods.

The Worst Intentions.

I had two pieces go up late last week for Insiders – one on the Yankees’ dimming future and another on Josh Beckett and Lance Lynn.

I’ve been blogging a little out of order (and often late) recently, but before I forget I wanted to throw a quick post up on Alessandro Piperno’s 2005 novel The Worst Intentions (Con le peggiori intenzioni), a huge best-seller in Italy that won several major literary prizes there and appeared in English in 2007. Piperno, an Italian writer and literary critic born to a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, has produced the Italian equivalent to Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, equally crude and funny but without Roth’s trademark self-indulgence and with a more satirical eye turned toward the hypocrisy of the protoganist’s family members and friends.

Piperno’s narrator, Daniel Sonnino, is the sexually immature 33-year-old heir to a nonexistent family fortune, squandered by his extravagant and crooked grandfather, Bepy, who, along with Daniel’s father, believes in keeping up appearances over all else. The novel eschews the traditional narrative for a stream-of-consciousness approach to the family history of the Sonninos, chronicling their decline from his grandfather’s bankruptcy and flight from debtors, leaving his family to clean up the mess, to his father, mother (who views the Sonninos as frauds), uncle, and his grandfather’s one-time business partner, cuckolded by Bepy, and whose granddaughter, Gaia, becomes the object of Daniel’s puerile obsessions.

I’m not a fan of Roth’s writing, primarily because I find his central characters so self-absorbed despite their development being so arrested, but Piperno’s Daniel, while still immature both emotionally and sexually, is better able to observe his family from a detached perspective, and can even turn the lens on himself and recognize the impacts of his own failures and his inability to form meaningful relationships. His own worst trait is a sometimes-subtle misogyny that often bubbles over into not-subtle forms, particularly with Gaia, who enjoys having Daniel as a follower but dates the most popular boy in the school – one of the only other Jewish students and Daniel’s best friend. The entire final chapter is devoted to this triangle and its devolution, including Daniel’s own destructive action that follows him for years afterwards, which, given Gaia’s name, is fraught with metaphorical implications as well.

Piperno also separates himself from Roth by populating his book with enjoyably quirky side characters, similar to the way the TV series Arrested Development acquired such a devoted cult following – its narcissistic characters helped create a new genre of television comedy. Piperno’s characters aren’t all so awful; some are merely amusing, such as the Arab waiter who only reads Tolstoy’s War and Peace, over and over, reading nothing else over the last thirty years:

But every time, as he returned those old familly volumes [of Stendhal, Flaubert, Proust], the Arab’s face displayed a slightly fastidious expression, as if to say: “Thank you for the suggestion, my friend, but, you see, once you’ve read War and Peace you are condemned to read nothing else all your life!” And who’s to say that he wasn’t right?

Piperno’s previous book was a work of nonfiction looking at anti-Semitic elements in Marcel Proust’s work, and the Proust influence is strong here both in word choice and in the meandering flow of the story, although Piperno’s sentences and paragraphs aren’t quite so endless as Proust’s. Here he’s taken Proust’s narrative style, merged it with the neurotic realism of Roth, and produced a slightly difficult but clever and incisive work that was worth the effort required to get through it. His subsequent novel, Persecution, was just released in English in July, and its sequel, Inseparabili, won this year’s Premia Strega, the Italian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, so it appears that this book may just be a taste of his capabilities as a writer and satirist.

A Pale View of Hills.

Kazuo Ishiguro is best-known today for Remains of the Day, which really means he’s best known for making the book that they turned into that movie, although another one of his novels, the dystopian heartbreaker Never Let Me Go, was recently made into a movie starring the human dimple. (Both books are on the Klaw 100.) His debut novel, A Pale View of Hills, was critically acclaimed at the time of its release but has been obscured by those two later works, although it showcases both Ishiguro’s strong yet beautiful prose and his ability to create dreamlike settings that keep the reader off balance through shifts in time or realistic unrealism.

The narrator of A Pale View of Hills is Etsuko, a Japanese widow living in England after the suicide of her older daughter, Keiko, her only child from her first marriage, to Jiro, a traditional Japanese man. Her younger daughter, Niki, from her second marriage, comes to visit from London, triggering a series of flashbacks for Etsuko to when she was pregnant and struck up a relationship with the peculiar widow Sachiko and her daughter Mariko shortly after the end of World War II. Sachiko and Mariko have an odd relationship; Sachiko leaves the ten-year-old Mariko home alone for long periods and doesn’t require her to go to school, while Sachiko herself pursues a lopsided relationship with the American serviceman known as “Frank.” Mariko appears to be bright, but is scarred by horrors she witnessed during the end of the war, and her mother appears unable to help or even cope, escaping instead into her alternate reality with her paramour.

Those flashbacks are intertwined with another series of reminiscences to a time when Jiro was alive and his father, Ogata-san, came to visit Jiro and Etsuko for several days. Jiro himself was fairly cold and distant with his father, who seemed at that stage to have a stronger relationship with his daughter-in-law than he did with his son, as the latter is poisoned by the gap between Ogata-san’s views on the loss of Japanese culture with their defeat in war. (Ishiguro explored that topic, of coming to terms with Japan’s imperialistic, jingoistic past after World War II, in An Artist of the Floating World, a book I found less successful and less enjoyable than Hills.)

Ishiguro enjoys creating layers of mystery, then revealing only some of the answers as the book nears its end, a habit that covers this book from start to finish as well. One of those mysteries is left up to the interpretation of the reader, and I’m going to discuss my own belief, so consider this your spoiler warning.

Near the end of the book, Etsuko shifts without warning when relaying a conversation between herself and Mariko from referring to Sachiko in the third person to speaking in the first person – that is, she is suddenly Sachiko. Their two stories have substantial, if slightly imperfect, parallels, but Mariko could easily be Keiko, sharing her alienation and depression, since Keiko is depicted through memories as withdrawing herself gradually from her family and life, eventually doing so completely to the point where her body isn’t discovered for several days because she lived alone with no contact with family and apparently little or none with friends. Sachiko-Etsuko is convincing herself that she’s acting in her daughter’s best interests when she is attempting to smother her grief through this chase of a foreign man whose interest in her is mainly sexual; if you believe the two women are one, the strongest interpretation is that the American, Frank, is not the man Etsuko eventually marries, not just because of the different nationalities but because of Frank’s irresponsibility.

In this interpretation, Ishiguro’s overriding theme is that of guilt and regret, something he covered again in Remains and Floating World – our difficulty or even inability to come to terms with the past, with our own actions and those of others that affected us, with the hurt we dealt to others (with or without intent) and with how our choices crippled our own chances for happiness. Etsuko’s dissociation from her memory of Mariko-Keiko is her way of coping with her own guilt: As she grieved the loss of Jiro, her quest for her own happiness (or simply a facade of normalcy) forced her daughter’s best interests into the background just when she needed more of her mother’s love and attention. Etsuko acknowledges at one point that she knew the move from Japan to England would exacerbate her daughter’s problems, but clearly she made the move anyway, for what must have been purely selfish motives. Neither Japanese society of that time nor English or American societies since then accept selfishness on the part of the mother relative to the needs of the child, and Etsuko has to whitewash her own memories to live with them.

A Pale View of Hills includes Ishiguro’s usual digressions about music and art, and Etsuko and Ogata-san have an exchange on the art of cooking that spoke to me:

”Are you really planning on becoming a cook, Father?”
“It’s nothing to laugh at. I’ve come to appreciate cooking over the years. It’s an art, I’m convinced of it, just as noble as painting or poetry. It’s not appreciated simply because the product disappears so quickly.”

When Ishiguro was writing the book, in the very early 1980s, he probably couldn’t imagine our modern culture of celebrity chefs, who earn far more than painters or poets, although I think his point about the lack of respect for a product that is consumed rather than observed or read is a sound one.

If You Follow Me.

Before I get to the book, I wanted to suggest again that you check out “Where I’m Going,” the new single from Cut Copy, available for free on their website. I may have sold it short by calling it “straight-up early Britpop;” after listening it a few more times, including once with the volume turned up (inadvertently) too high, I realized that there are layers of sound beyond that surface candy, even beyond the Who-like keyboard bridge in the middle of the track. At a cost of zero, it’s worth every penny.

I received a review copy of Malena Watrous’ debut novel If You Follow Me in the spring, and I think it speaks to how deep my book queue is that I just got around to it last week after finally abandoning the leaden Night Train to Lisbon after about 130 pages. Watrous’ novel takes the standard fish-out-of-water plot and layers a story of personal drama and growth on top of it while achieving the unusual feat of tying up the minor plot threads while leaving the macro issues open.

The narrator, Marina, has come to Japan as an English teacher with her girlfriend, Carolyn, whom she met in a bereavement group about a year and a half before the novel starts when her father took his own life. (Carolyn’s mother died of cancer about eight years before that.) Marina isn’t so much following Carolyn as running from her unresolved grief and anger, but Watrous never allows that darkness to choke the life out of the novel, allowing other characters to come to the fore and even slipping in some light humor.

While Watrous works the fish-out-of-water angle for humor, particularly with Marina’s struggles to understand their small town’s rules for disposing of garbage (gomi), she uses it more to introduce a cast of unusual characters, some eccentric, but most with very real problems. Marina’s supervisor, Hiro, has a strange love of karaoke, communicates with Marina primarily through letters, and is thoroughly depressed by his job. Keiko is ignored by her useless husband and struggles to manage her two sons, one suicidal and another socially maladjusted. Haruki, the only boy in the school’s “secretarial” track, has just returned to school after bullying led him to shut himself in his room for three years, and the boys who bully him have, of course, their own reasons for their behavior. The array of well-drawn characters gives the book a richness that wouldn’t normally be present in this type of story, which usually has the protagonist/narrator as the only normal person and the major focus of the book, with the locals serving as comic relief or simply foils for the main character. Marina also serves as her own sort of comic relief, from her trouble with the gomi rules to her misadventures in driving (in a car with doors that don’t open) to her use of some rather risque materials to get the tough-kids class to pay attention to her English lessons, and the self-effacing voice Watrous gave her alter ego works extremely well through those episodes.

Beyond the mature characterization, I loved Watrous’ infusion of grief and loneliness into the novel without turning it into a bleak, depressing, or hopeless work. Marina keeps her grief at arm’s length – she can’t dispose of it any more than she can dispose of her intermittently-operating refrigerator – and learns something about her grief and herself from watching her charges and neighbors in the small town of Shika … but not everything, as Watrous doesn’t tie it all up in a neat package at the book’s end. Marina makes headway, opens herself up to new adventures, and finds some closure with her father, but at the end it’s clear that she’s still a work in progress. That realistic touch elevated the book to something more than a trivial read for me.

Three disorganized thoughts on If You Follow Me:

  • The cover isn’t doing the book any favors – celery green with a healthy dose of pink. It’s not chick lit, but it sure seems like they’re marketing it that way. I don’t view a book about a female main character as de facto chick lit, and the themes Watrous explores are universal across gender and sexual orientation.
  • If you’re thinking a book starring a lesbian is going to have some hot girl-on-girl action, you’ll probably be disappointed. That said, I thought the few brief mentions of sex seemed a little extraneous to the plot – more placeholders to get from one scene to the next (start sex scene, drop curtain) than actual plot drivers. I do give Watrous credit for a delicate hand, since I think 90% of the sex scenes I come across are painful to read.
  • Watrous studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under, among others, Marilynne Robinson, author of three novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilead and her debut novel Housekeeping, #58 on the last iteration of Klaw 100. And Watrous’ prose did remind me in many ways of Robinson’s – not quite as beautiful, as Robinson appears to have invented the English language and merely tolerates the rest of us playing with it, but gentle and sensitive in ways that Robinson’s is as well.

Next up: Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby.

The Patron Saint of Liars & The Whore’s Child.

Ann Patchett’s debut novel, The Patron Saint of Liars, showcases the kind of insightful, compassionate writing that helped make her magnum opus, Bel Canto, such a critical and commercial success, although Liars lacks the same degree of storycraft found in Bel Canto or in The Magician’s Assistant. It is, however, one of the best sad books I have ever read, as the story of a woman who is hopelessly broken inside and yet can’t help but damage the people close to her through her inability to deal with her own fears and insecurities.

The primary liar in the book is Rose, who flees a comfortable marriage in California when she discovers she’s pregnant and “realizes” – or decides? – that she isn’t actually in love with her husband. She ends up at a Catholic home for pregnant girls who want to have their babies and give them up for adoption, but Rose ends up staying on well past her ninth month – and keeps her daughter as well, only to find herself unable to be a mother to her child or even much of a wife to her second husband. Patchett gives us a window into Rose’s sadness but never much of an explanation for it beyond the death of her father in a car accident when Rose was three. Her own daughter, Cecilia, reaches her early teens before her mother leaves the picture, but Rose is unable to mother her and Cecilia ends up forming bonds both with the nuns who run the facility and the girls who come in for six or seven or eight months and then mostly disappear from her life.

The book comprises three sections, and though Rose is the central character in the book, she only narrates the first third, and her motives for lying and leaving were never fully clear to me. Son, the groundskeeper she meets and marries at St. Elizabeth’s, narrates the second part, and Cecilia handles the third, and both were more compelling, deeply drawn characters with the ability to process and communicate their own complex emotions in ways that Rose’s character cannot. And Sister Evangeline, a sort of grandmother-figure/mystic in the group of otherwise grey, dour nuns is a scene-stealer whenever she appears.

The Patron Saint of Liars is a sad book, but not a bleak one. Rose is clearly depressed and her lack of progress or recognition is heartbreaking, especially as it threatens the lives of those closest to her. But there are streaks of hope not for Rose but for Son and especially Cecilia, who wants her mother to be a mother but has also has the strength to find that nurturing from others and is, at the book’s end, developing into a healthier, fuller person than her mother ever was. It is imperfect, from Rose’s scant motives to her ambiguous fate in what becomes Son’s and Cecilia’s story, but Patchett writes about emotions so clearly and empathetically that I moved through the book’s pages as I might through a novel of action.

Richard Russo’s first short story collection, The Whore’s Child and Other Stories, feels almost like a collection of rarities and B-sides, with a few outstanding entries that, in total, wouldn’t be enough for a full volume, so the publisher stuck in a first draft and a few throwaways to provide some bulk, although the hardcover edition still barely reaches 200 pages even with generous line spacing. The highlights are vintage Russo, though, and it’s worth going through the collection to find those stories and moments.

The main thrust of these stories seems to be failure, especially confronting failure of the past with the uncertainty of the future among his mostly middle-aged protagonists, many of whom are professors, writers, or other sorts of artists. The title story is told by a creative writing professor who has an unusual student auditing his class, one who becomes the star of the show for her brutally honest writing that turns out to be an exploration of her own sad childhood. Several stories revolve around failed marriages – I found “Monhegan Light,” in which a successful cinematographer chooses to meet the man who cuckolded him, only to find himself the loser in the confrontation, very disturbing – and “The Farther You Go” is the ancestor of his novel Straight Man, condensing the story of the narrator’s daughter throwing her husband out of the house.

My main problem with the novel is that the inherently brief nature of the short story limits Russo’s ability to introduce the local color of side characters and the comic relief of subplots and running gags. Instead, we’re left with a sort of stark, gloomy fatalism about lives lived wrong without hope of a turnaround or just a temporary uptick. Only the final story, “The Mysteries of Linwood Hart,” brought that mix of humor and sadness in a sort of of coming-of-age story with a number of baseball-related scenes, but the attempts to decipher a complicated adult relationship through the eyes of the ten-year-old title character felt blurry.

I’ve enjoyed the five Russo novels I’ve read, especially Empire Falls and The Risk Pool, but I’d recommend The Whore’s Child for completists (like me) only, as the title story alone isn’t enough to justify buying the whole book.

I received a review copy of a new short story collection by Justin Taylor called Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, but the collection doesn’t live up to the title. I found the stories crude and immature, with the young writer’s obsession with sex (and with using sex as the primarily vehicle for meaning in the lives of his characters) and an evident lack of life experience. The characters were uninteresting, sometimes two-dimensional and largely self-absorbed, and their actions struck me as forced.

Mohawk.

We’re having major work done on our house, so we’re living out of a nearby hotel this week (frequent-guest and -flyer points are one of the few compensations for a high-travel job), which has cut down on blogging time, which is a long way of saying I’m sorry for the long gap between posts. I did chat yesterday on ESPN.com, and my top 100 ranking for the upcoming draft is already with my editors, so I’m hopeful we’ll see that on the site later today.

Richard Russo’s first novel, Mohawk, has most of the elements that made his next four novels (The Risk Pool, Nobody’s Fool, Straight Man, and Empire Falls) so good, but in many ways it’s obvious that it’s his rookie effort, since the well-drawn characters are existing rather than traveling through a coherent plot, and the humor isn’t as easy as it is in his later books.

There’s no single central character in Mohawk, although the ex-spouses Dallas and Anne and their son Randall are fairly close to the center of the book, involved in much of what goes on even though Dallas is more actor than active emotional participant. Anne has to be one of Russo’s best female characters, a middle-aged woman who is still paying for a mistake of teenaged rebellion while pining for a man she knows she can never have and feuding with her mother, a passive-aggressive shrew who would drive the Dalai Lama to drink. Russo fills Mohawk with many of the usual cast of blue-collar characters, including the greasy-spoon owner, the bookie, and the dirty cop, each of whom finds himself woved into one of the various plot strands when he’s not there for comic relief.

While it’s a fun and quick read, like the other four Russo novels, Mohawk doesn’t offer the strong, compelling story of those books, as it’s more a slice of life in a dying northeastern industrial town with the sort of folks Russo has since shown he loves to create. It’s worth reading for Russo fans, especially because it’s a look at a great writer in a formative period, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a starting point to readers just starting out with his work.

Next up: Still slogging through Junichiro Tanazaki’s The Makioka Sisters, kind of a dense, slow period piece. Best part so far is the footnote defining the word “sushi.”

Cold Comfort Farm.

Klawchat today at 1 pm EST.

Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm is the funniest book I’ve read this year and one of the funniest I’ve ever read. It combines the dry wit of vintage Wodehouse with the social commentary of Waugh and the literary satire of Henry Fielding. It is hard to believe it was Gibbons’ first novel, written when she was just 23, when it is so note-perfect.

Cold Comfort Farm tells the story of recently orphaned Flora Poste, whose parents were scarcely part of her life anyway, and who ends up staying with some distant relations in the south of England on the farm of the book’s title. Said farm is populated by a cast of ridiculous (and ridiculously named) characters, led by the mysterious Aunt Ada Doom, who stays in her room all but two days of each year and refers ad nauseum to the time when she was a little girl and “saw something nasty in the woodshed!” Aunt Ada keeps all her relations tied to the farm, threatening to go mad if any should leave, so everyone on the farm is horribly repressed in some way – most romantically or sexually, but some in other ways.

Gibbons was parodying the romantic rural novels of the time period, most of which have been forgotten even as her novel has remained popular, with Flora herself referring to them and joking about fearing finding two cousins with names like Seth and Reuben when she gets to the farm, which, of course, turns out to be the case. Gibbons even took aim at one of the leading lights of the literary establishment: the simpering, sex-obsessed Mr. Mybug stands in for D.H. Lawrence, seeing phallic symbols everywhere he looks and, of course, falling hopelessly for Flora without any provocation on her part.

The introduction to the current edition of Cold Comfort Farm features an introduction by Lynne Truss that does an excellent job of breaking down the novel’s power to amaze even readers who aren’t familiar with the saccharine novels Gibbons was satirizing:

Flora finds at Cold Comfort Farm a group of people who have been reduced to novelistic clichés – rather like the curvy cartoon-figure Jessica Rabbit in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, who famously drawled her existential plight, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.”Flora helps each character out of his or her difficulties and they quickly find happiness. She is a character in a novel who reads the other characters as characters and rewrites them as people. It’s the ultimate narrative miracle

Think of it as a precursor to Jasper Fforde*, where, instead of the protagonist ‘jumping’ into a novel, she simply lives it, and takes the stock characters she meets and gives them each a third dimension (or, in the case of Seth, simply discovers it and opens it up to the world), working as an extension of the novelist within the book.

*Gibbons even dabbles a little in Ffordian futurism (if you’ll excuse the chronological error) in the book, continuing the parallel with Fforde, setting the book about 15-20 years after the year in which it was published, mentioning video-phones and air mail and and an Anglo-Nicaraguan war in 1946.

As Flora fixes or fills out each character, Gibbons exposes the stereotypes or just flimsy drawings through humor. The ancient Adam Lambsbreath is supposed to be simple and rustic, cleaning (“clettering”) dishes with a twig, and yet Flora wins him over by treating him as more than a prop. Even the farm’s bull, Big Business, is just looking for a bit of a release, and gets it in a passage where Gibbons seems to be having fun with us by channeling her own inner Mybug/Lawrence. And when someone finally replies to Aunt Ada’s cries of “I saw something nasty in the woodshed!” … well, I won’t spoil the book’s funniest line, a brilliant four-word riposte that turns the old bat’s story on its head.

Next up: Almost done with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, a book good enough that I’m holding off on the revised Klaw 100 until I finish it.