A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

Eight hundred pages later, I don’t know much more about the greater events of the French Revolution, but I know tremendously more of the major personalities that drove it.

This novel spans a cacophony of different voices — shifting tenses through the all-powerful third person omniscient point-of-view, through transcripts, quotations, and occasional first person narratives — but chiefly follows three of the major players:

camille

Writer, orator, and “inveterate hell-raiser”, Camille Desmoulins.

danton

The loud, physically-imposing lawyer-leader, Georges-Jacques Danton.

robespierre

And enigmatic, doctrine-literalist, Maximilien Robespierre.

Mantel examines their complicated relationship with patriotism and revolution juxtaposed with their lust for (respectively) fame, wealth, and… well, it’s not entirely certain what Robespierre lusts for.  He seems to be lying to himself and is prone to bouts of hypocrisy for much of his political career. This is most evident in his opposition to the death penalty paired with the enormous amount of citizens he sent to the guillotine.

They’re all bad people. In one way or another. Yet Mantel keeps them sympathetic — not least of all by glossing over or making indistinct the number of deaths they directly or indirectly contributed to. This is good because the greater part of the novel is dialogue and those three spend a lot of time chattering at each other or another member of the prodigious cast. Their physicality is notable. Slight Camille pushing his long hair out of his face or putting his hands to said face; The physical presence and fright of Danton; Robespierre’s mental state tied to facial tics and whether or not his hair is powdered.

Unlike Wolf Hall, this book is more difficult to follow without some knowledge of French history. I only have high school history class at my disposal and suffered at parts. It focuses heavily on a certain of kind of middle class intellectual — the frequenters of the Jacobin clubs of the time and anyone with interpersonal relationships involving the three main protagonists. The common person is rarely more than a fickle element of a volatile mob. Uneducated and requiring society’s elite to guide them. Major events such as the King’s execution are skimmed over or summarized in a single line*. There is also an endless cavalcade of committees, sections, clubs, deputies, ministers, conventions, assemblies, and so on. I could not keep track. Maybe this is the intention. I am sure it was difficult to keep track as a bystander during the time and that might be the point, but I am not certain.

The writing is masterful; not quite as polished as in Wolf Hall and its sequel, but very good. It’s quite funny at times. It oscillates perspective and tense with ease. And it proves that the third person omniscient narrative (narrator knows all characters thoughts at any given time) is not dead in the modern novel and is excellent if used correctly. On the other hand, it really did not have to be so long. There’s a lengthy head scratching sequence following Madame Roland despite her role in the overarching narrative being minimal. It certainly did not need every working day conversation between Danton and Camille, but part of the charm of the novel is that time passes but feels natural rather than the author pressing fast forward on the time remote. It’s not just about the society shattering events, but the day-to-day.

Anyway, like most books about revolution and political upheaval, A Place of Greater Safety asks: When you topple the old regime and overthrow the despot, how do you prevent the new boss form just being as bad as the old boss? It doesn’t attempt an answer. It does leave us with an evocative quote courtesy of the Comte de Mirabeau:

“Liberty is a bitch that likes to be fucked on a mattress of corpses.”

 

*The line is something like “And Louis, the King, is quicklimed.” I only understood this due to a distant child association of my grandfather gardening. The King has become fertilizer. Intensive googling revealed that I understood very little. Quicklime hastens decomposition, meaning the sentence is literal — the king was killed and some one(s) used a chemical reaction utilized in soil balance to melt his corpse. There’s further meaning behind this, according to this website, the practice was typically used for pauper’s graves. They were shallow so the less you had to bury the better.

I don’t know whether to be impressed or annoyed.


 

The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion

lastthingThe dull and overwrought title, the fuzzy monochrome cover art dominated by letters, not to mention the plot and published date (1996) delineates this book as a certain kind of novel, native to the late 80s and 90s. The political-thriller involving shady arms deals and some person or persons just caught in-between. The American government is corrupt. Parts of it anyway. But it’s a sophisticated hands-off puppetmaster corruption. Bad things happen. People in third world countries die. American power and its politicians’ personal wealth increases.*

Yet, this story is hardly rote or typical. Joan Didion wrote it. The writing, as always, is superb. Even through the cynical lense of 2013, the events of 1984 as translated through 1996 are truly abominable. That the topic feels slightly dated may not be because it is a conception of American imperialism circa 1996, but that we have seen the process played out so often in the interim that it has become obvious and everyday.

The writing itself, told through a framing story of a reporter putting together the story many years later, is sparse and enamored with repetition. Didion observes the doublespeak and murky insubstantiality of political speak in interviews and speeches. Then repeats segments of it, over and over. She may go a little overboard, but the effect and pacing gives the novel a recursive feel. All of this has happened / is happening / will happen. Again and again.

Like Play it as it Lays, and, I suspect, most-if-not-all of Didion’s novels, the protagonist, Elena McMahon, is a woman becoming unhinged. The writing conveys an overpowering anxiety, whilst Elena maintains an aura of perfect control. Didion uses tricks like telling us when she (Elena)  has stopped crying without ever telling us she had began. Or giving us a running record of how many hours it has been since she has last eaten. Again, like Play it as it Lays, the protagonist confronts a personal emptiness; they try to invoke meaningfulness through their family, their daughter, their ex-husband. Largely unsuccessfully. They have become too isolated by society, too absorbed with the abyss.

 

*As the novel’s central scandal is the Iran-Contra affair, this isn’t just cheap drama but an affirmation of the truth — There were virtually no consequences to all involved, and least of all to those in the highest positions.

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

mynameisredIstanbul. 1591. A miniaturist is murdered and his colleagues are implicated. There’s chapters from the perspective of the man who will be called murderer as well as those by three master illustrators of which he is almost definitely one. The mystery itself is not the focus, the philosophy is. More on that later. A man called Black returns to Istanbul after twelve years and is thrust into the hunt for the murderer and also back into the arms of a former crush. What follows is a perplexing romance-less romance, that occasionally borders on hilarity, and whose context and cohesion is only revealed on the very last page.

This book is all over the place. At times, I thought it was excellent. At other times, simply getting to the next page seemed an insurmountable task. The structure rotates first person narrators including dogs, trees, and the color red. The first chapter header is I am a Corpse. They are brief and flowing. Until about sixty percent of the way through when they become tens of pages long and plodding.

The central philosophical thrust is the difference between Eastern and Western styles of painting and illustration in the sixteenth century. Europe (the Franks) were accelerating into realism, painting portraits that were immediately identifiable as their subject. Eastern painting was more representative and abstract: I don’t want to be a tree. I want to be it’s meaning. Illustrating involved repainting the work of old masters, attempting to mute personal style, and using staple images to represent people and ideas. There would be a generic sultan template, rather than a painting looking like an actual sultan. The latter would be a hubristic affront to the vision of Allah as would a painter leaving a signature on the painting itself. Personal style was prohibited (but inevitable).

The cast of characters gets drawn into this conflict as the current Sultan commissions a work painted in the Frankish style — it will conclude with a completely realistic portrait of said Sultan as well as tricks of perspective and shading that had barely penetrated the East in the sixteenth century. The culture clash is what triggers the murder that puts the plot in motion.

This is fascinating. It’s a conflict I had never considered or thought about before, shamefully considering the western version the default. But this too is wronged by the book’s sprawling excess. The theme is repeated ad nauseum. I lost track of how many times the illustrated tale of Husrev and Shirin was retold. There’s a really good book somewhere inside My Name is Red that may have surfaced with severe editing. The actual result is an alright book with major ups and downs.

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

changing-my-mindTo illustrate what Zadie Smith is good at, what I enjoyed most about these essays, I will begin with what I did not like: the personal and the morally / socially critical. Smith has an interesting family — older white father, black mother, rapper and comedian brothers — and she writes a few essays on family, specifically her father. She sketches a serviceable portrait of her father, barely touches on her brothers and her mother is utterly absent. The focus of these essays, the connection between Zadie Smith and her dad feel, for lack of a better word, constructed. Like these are the feelings an overeducated writer should have about her working class father. Not that she didn’t feel these things, but the writing does not convey real poignancy. It feels guarded, sanitized, and frankly dull. Along similar lines follow the Praising Obama essay, which may suffer more from reading five years after writing than any authentic emotional lack.

The latter flaw (social criticism) is exhibited in Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend, a piece that attempts to flay American celebrity worship and the absurd hullabaloo of Oscar weekend. It is written impersonally but implies a morally present writer. The epigraph to this book is by David Foster Wallace. He’s also the subject of perhaps the best essay in the collection. DFW, like Joan Didion who is also namedropped in the Oscar essay, could effortlessly dissect, censure, and simultaneously be deeply disturbed by many aspects of contemporary culture. Smith has these writers in mind while penning this essay, but she cannot pull it off. She isn’t like Wallace and Didion who come off as fragile, vulnerable people. When David Foster Wallace prefaces an article on American cruise culture with “I filled 3 Mead notebooks trying to figure out whether it was Them or Just Me.”, you believe him. Smith is too strong, too confident. She seems above it — not in some snobby English way, but I just can’t see her amongst the people, distraught by the people.

By contrast are the generous amount of film and literary criticism in this collection. When Smith is being serious and specific and the topic is something she clearly loves, the result is stellar. There’s an essay juxtaposing the hardline author focused literary perspective of Vladmir Nabokov versus the free-floating borderless version of Roland Barthes. And it feels important. How much should we interrogate what we read? How important is the author’s intention in this interrogation and analysis? She nails a similar topic again in her longest essay — a moving eulogy of David Foster Wallace via an analytic piece on Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Self, solipsism, our consumption and immersion in media and advertising culture. The voracious reach of capitalism in her (our?) generation. It made me sad for DFW all over again.

This collection has increased by reading list. I feel mildly embarrassed for not having read any Henry James (who expressed similar sentiments to DFW for his time). Smith’s tribute to Zora Neale Hurston as a meditation on how, if it all, we might identify with writers or their protagonists and what this means to the work overall was enough to make me add Their Eyes were Watching God to my to-read pile. I am generally hostile to the notion that one must “identify” with the protagonist due to features like race, gender, class, but I guess that’s easy for me to say when my specifications (white/male/middle) fit the dominant cultural narrative. The film reviews are good too. A paragraph about Grizzly Man saying things I already knew still made me happy.

So wait. I have to rescind my earlier point about a lack of pathos or emotional oomph. When writing about literature and film, Smith nails it, concretely and via personal authorial voice. When she mourns Alyson Flannigan’s fall in her review of Date Movie, and describes feeling disoriented and weepy afterwards, I believe her. The connection and love she has for her father is not communicated nearly as fully or believably as her connection and love for Katherine Hepburn. Or Nora Neale Hurston. It reminds me of all time NBA great Larry Bird, when confronted by a kid telling him he was his (the kid’s) hero, replying when I was a kid, my dad was my hero. I hope I am not coming off as overly sentimental or critical here. I just think it’s funny. I am sure many of us, including myself, would be similar. Does this speak to Smith and Wallace’s distrust of our deep and concupiscent investment with media culture? Maybe. Probably.

League of Denial by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru

league-of-denialSo here goes: my favorite sport is barbaric; it is destroying its players brains; Its prime pro league is doing everything it can to champion wealth above health; it may not be fixable.

The crux of League of Denial is that an increasing amount of dead football players appear to have brains riddled with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease. An unfortunate amount of those deaths were self inflicted or premature, due to the disease. Worse, it does not seem that CTE is linked to one big hit, but to repeated small-medium-large hits and improper diagnoses or insufficient recovery times leading to players returning to the field before they are healed. Worse still, due to the huge amount of money on the line and the hyped up over-the-top machismo of football culture that demands a man be able to take a hit or give one (lest he take an unassailable hit to his manhood), the players falsely report their symptoms as much as possible and clamber to get back into the game.

This would be bad enough, especially the notion that it is merely repeated hits as the cause, an unerring staple of the sport, that is leading to broken brains. But on top of all this, the NFL, in a modern day bid to mimic Big Tobacco, is refusing to admit that football causes brain damage. They have been discrediting legitimate scientists, publishing propaganda, buying out dissenters, burying evidence, and propping up false science committees with silly names (the mild traumatic brain injury committee) for decades. Their efforts have had cascading effects; skewed studies have led to equipment manufacturers scamming high schools with “concussion-lessening” helmets that do not change a thing. The players recently settled a 765 million dollar suit with the NFL, which was tragic and foolhardy, because now we will never know just how much the NFL covered up.

SI.com has published an article written by Seahawk’s cornerback Richard Sherman where he proclaims that football is a dangerous sports but the players know the risks and he complains about newer rules like not being allowed to hit a defenseless receiver. It’s sadly ironic because shortly before he shot himself in the chest (to preserve his brain for study), Bear’s great Dave Duers was on his radio show railing against the same rules, whining about the “wussification” of the NFL. Prior to ending his life, Duers typed out a treatise explaining the dementia and madness he felt in his later years, where he was described as a “different man” by friends and family. His deathnote / final text messages urged his ex-wife and fiancee to donate his brain to the NFL for study. On top of that, Sherman (and everyone else) does not know the true risks of football because the NFL still refuses to admit to brain damage and study.

Brain damage is horrifying, regardless of its source. You would be right to condemn a man who shoves his wife, who explodes into inexplicable fits of paranoid rage at the drop of a hat. Yet how do we account for it, how do we address it when these are sudden changes in middle age, when there is a very high chance they are a result of brain damage due to playing football? These aren’t outsiders, they’re endemic. Of fifty four brains of players that neuropathologist Anne McKee has studied, fifty two had signs of CTE.

I love football. A great game is intoxicating. Acquaintances or people who have otherwise known my company only outside of football games express shock and bemusement at my change of tone, demeanor, and frenzied enthusiasm when first watching a game with me. The book goes at lengths to show that the vast majority of the dissenters, the people raising a stink about safety and combating the NFL, are like me. They love football too.

“The game was part of him, part of his American story. That’s the thing about football, why it’s different from cigarettes and coal dust and not wearing your seat belt and a whole range of other things that have been proved bad for us. We love football. Americans by the millions are complicit in making this sport what it has become, for better or worse. The outcome of the NFL’s concussion crisis will affect the country. But it will be determined not by the “enemies” or “opponents” of football but by those in love with the sport; the players, the fans, the advertisers, the book writers, the moms and dads and kids. Even the scientists.”

It’s true. Football props up entire communities in America — the sole recreation other than substance abuse to many economically depressed areas. It sits upon a pedestal with God and Church as the only escape to youth in some urban communities. And like the protagonists of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Rajesh Parameswaran’s I am an Executioner, We the People, are responsible in part for the violence and brain obliterating nature of football. It exists as it does today because we willed (watch) it. And it will only survive if the fans push for safety and brain damage to be acknowledged and addressed. And that is hard. There is no simple fix like banning horse collar tackles or chop blocks. Even after reading League of Denial, I’m still pissed a few days after my Patriots lost to the Jets in OT due a stupid new rule. A stupid new rule amended to the rulebook to help player safety. What is wrong with me?

And not being able to push your fellow linemen on field goal attempts (the new rule) is hardly going to solve the concussion crisis. There will need to be more drastic changes, and the question is: can you maintain the essence of the sport with whatever needs to be taken out?

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

childhoodofjesusJ.M. Coetzee is a master at creating allegorical worlds that feel grounded and real, while remaining ethereal and dreamlike. Here in Novilla, everyone speaks Spanish, but it is never their native tongue. Bread is the course du jour, and every other meal. Everyone is polite and benevolent but spiritless and fleeting.  And the government will give you a house, but it will be spartan and drear.

To this world, which may be heaven or purgatory or simply another world in an endless stretch of possible worlds our soul travels through, our protagonist, Simón, and his adoptive child, David, arrive after their refugee ship sinks. For the first half of this novel, as Simón searches for David’s mother and the characters explore the bland and frankly sinister world, the novel is pretty good. Coetzee is an excellent writer. Most of the book is dialogue. I was invested in the mystery of what was going on — were Simon and David dead? Was David’s “mother” abusive? Why is Simón seemingly the only character in the novel who can feel sexual attraction? Where is this book going with its endless prattle on the importance of mothers versus fathers?

Then I reached the point where I was far enough in the book that I became certain none of the mysteries would be unveiled nor many questions answered. This is perfectly acceptable in some novels. Sometimes, the writing is stellar and the novel is constructed, either thematically or structurally, in such a way as no conclusion or denouement is necessary. While the writing is indeed good, The Childhood of Jesus is otherwise not that kind of novel. The symbolism is murky, the connection to the biblical title tenuous at best. Honestly, I’m not sure what Coetzee is trying to say. There’s a philosophical streak running through the book that wonders what is real? How do we know two plus two really equals four? But it’s basic and amounts to very little. The narrative begins to flounder about two thirds in and the novel becomes nearly as bland as the world it describes.

(I won this in a goodreads giveaway)

Life a User’s Manual by Georges Perec

lifeIn the preface to Infinite Jest, at least in my copy, Dave Eggers writes:

We’re interested in writerly ambition. We’re fascinated with what can be made by a person with enough time and focus and caffeine. […] We have an obligation, to ourselves, chiefly, to see what a brain, and particularly a brain like our own — that is, using the same effluvium we, too, swim through — is capable of.

This whole notion of writing as accomplishment, of watching a very skilled person taking an enormous amount of effort to do something strange, epic, and mystifying lies at the heart of what makes Life a User’s Manual so compelling. For it is a dense, ninety nine chapter novel (of sorts) detailing the human and animal inhabits, all of their worldly belongings and apposite life stories, and the physical and metaphysical detritus of the ninety nine rooms — from basements to bathrooms to stairs to hallways — of a Parisian apartment block at an exact moment in nineteen seventy five. The order and contents of the rooms is not arbitrary, but formally structured under an arcane scheme of Perec’s construction.

Each chapter is not merely a list of every item and person in the room*. It’s full of histories, existential journeys, genre detective stories, puzzles, sordid tales of revenge, interpersonal drama (both petty and dire), word games, print cutouts, and a rather copious amount of paintings described in minute detail.

The theme of Life is encapsulated in the sojourn of one of its principal inhabitants — the wealthy Englishman, Bartlebooth. Long before the time of the novel, Bartlebooth decided to use his immense wealth to learn how to paint watercolors and subsequently spend twenty years traveling all over the world painting ports, both major and obscure, across the world. Whilst traveling, he sent every painting back to another tenant, a master puzzle maker, to turn the paintings into wood-cut puzzles. A good deal of the novel, including the very beginning, middle, and end, is spent meditating on puzzles. Upon his return, Bartlebooth began reassembling the puzzles and sending them to a special craftsman to reconstitute into an unmarred painting to be sent back to their port of origin to be summarily destroyed.

So, life? Like Bartlebooth’s quest: weird and grandiose and beautiful but ultimately kind of pointless. Despite these continent criss-crossing adventures and heaps of possessions collecting over generations, despite fortunes being made and swindled, and despite birth and love and murder and death, the life of everyone in 11 Rue Simon-Crubellier, and everyone else– ends. But the rest of the world, like a rickety old horse-drawn cart, continues to trundle and bounce and roll along.  Valéne, an aging painter and near lifelong resident, yearns for something different as he approaches his own death:

Sometimes Valéne dreamt of cataclysms and tempests, of whirlwinds that would carry the whole house off like a wisp of straw and display the infinite marvels of the solar system to its shipwrecked inhabitants; or that an unseen crack would run through the building from top to bottom, like a shiver, and with a long, deep, snapping sound it would open in two and be slowly swallowed up in an indescribable yawning chasm; then hordes would overrun it, bleary-eyed monsters, giant insects with steel mandibles, blind termites, great white worms with insatiable mouths: the wood would crumble, the stone would turn to sand, the cupboards would collapse under their own weight, all would return to dust.

But no. Only these shabby squabbles over buckets and tubs, over matches and sinks. And behind that ever-closed door the morbid gloom of that slow revenge, that ponderous business of two senile monomaniacs churning over their feigned histories and their wretched traps and snares.

This reminds me of the late Christopher Hitchens commenting that the moment of his death did not frighten him, but the knowledge that the newspaper would still be delivered the day after was terrifying. The adage life goes on is obvious, but it is difficult to accept that at some point, it will go on without us.

*Mostly. If I have a problem with the book, it is this: a handful of chapters simply are an inventory of everything in a room, written by a man obsessed with lists. See an entire page or two detailing every variety of wine in a character’s wine cellar. Yeah, yeah, you get a great idea of a person via their possessions, but this gets pushed too far at times.

The Goddess Chronicle by Natsuo Kirino

goddersschronicleI did not think I was going to like this book. Maybe it was winning it for free from a goodreads giveaway, past wins of which have not exactly been of stellar quality. Maybe it was because it’s one of those small-size hardcover books with gigantic margins and space between the words whose physical heft seems an attempt to disguise a lack of substance. Or maybe I just have not read many good myth/fable narratives. Archetypes bore me.

But other than one huge flaw I’ll get into later, I enjoyed this book a good deal. There is going to be some general story (including ending) spoilers in this review.

Our protagonist, Namima, lives on a tiny island south of Japan, where as a child she is suddenly chosen to be the island’s “priestess of darkness”. Well, she learns she was chosen suddenly anyway — actually this was determined to be her destiny before birth. Being the priestess of darkness entails living alone in a hut next to the cave where all the island’s dead are placed to decompose, having next to no human contact, and absolutely, unconditionally remaining a virgin. Why? It’s just one of many cruel and nonsensical rules observed by the island’s populace to please the gods. In-narrative, it’s the catalyst for Namima to flee the island and to get the reader supremely pissed off at the the whims of “fate” or “God” as created, interpreted, and enforced by the (patriarchal) island’s tribal government. It’s a subtle touch that once the actual gods enter the story, none of them give a shit about any of this.

After fleeing the island and experiencing near-cosmic betrayal, Namima ends up meeting Shinto creation-goddess-turned-underworld-goddess, Izanami. With the assistance of creation god, Izanaki, Izanami had previously birthed most of the world and Shinto pantheon. Until she died a lingering death after birthing the god of fire (who is literally made of fire!! She succumbed to the burns). Izanaki attempted to enter the underworld to bring her back, but ran for his cowardly life upon seeing her festering corpse. Izanami, who is now totally bitter about this shit — being dead due to childbirth that Izanaki took part in but suffered none of the physical consequences and which he has now ran from — decides to start killing off one thousand earthlings a day. Izanaki, in response, decides he is going to impregnate fifteen hundred women a day to counter this. Izanami decides to make one thousand of those mothers her victims.

So, thematically speaking here: women get a raw deal because they have to deal with all the physical dangers (and child rearing follow up) of birth while men get off scott free. Izanaki actually continues to birth things (such as the moon goddess) after he escapes the underworld. These births are stand ins for the richer life experiences men can often claim later on in life that women cannot. Or that men can keep making babies regardless of age. There’s a key line where Namima is lamenting her plight in life/death and wonders why Izanami is so cold. Izanami points out that gods don’t really suffer like humans do. Namima asks Izanami why she suffers if that’s so.

Izanami replies: Because I am a female god.

This is cool and all, but the story takes a jarring but fascinating turn at this point and stops Namima’s first person account in favor of following Izanaki, who is off adventuring and laying the most beautific ladies of the land as is his wont. He’s not so much a bad guy as selfish and oblivious. Through a convoluted series of events, Izanaki realizes he’s basically been a dick for millennia and accepts a mortal’s limited life and aging, admits his mistakes with Izanaki, gives up serial monogamy and decides to stay with the next woman he has children with.

He treks on down to the underworld to tell Izanami this, to apologize and ask that she stop killing all those people every day. And Izanami… forgives him? Stops the slaughter? Lets Izanami go live and die like the mortal man he now is?

No! She locks him in the underworld and kills his ass. Then continues to massacre one thousand a people a day for eternity. The end.

I find myself… perplexed. But in a good way. Usually myths/fables have a clear cut moral, point, whatever you want to call it. What’s the takeaway here? The nature of God is unknowable? Izanaki’s epiphany doesn’t excuse thousands of years of neglect? Women still have to carry all the babies? I honestly have no idea. None of it fits. And I like it.

The thing holding this book back, the thing that makes it merely good and not great is the writing. As someone who cannot read a word of Japanese, I do not know if this is writer or translator, but the prose is incredibly bland, simple, and redundant. Things are described often as “impossible to describe”, “beyond description”. Namima tells us at least once she cannot describe the emotions she is feeling. It’s essentially “You had to be there, man!” in novel form. I think you sort of expect a poetic touch to myth that is absent here too. Ah well.

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

blindass2The main thread of The Blind Assassin is the written accord of an elderly woman, Iris, now poor but once wealthy, recounting her early 20th century life in Toronto and Port Ticonderoga, Ontario. In between these chapters are split a novel written by Iris’ dead-by-her-own-hand sister Laura, titled The Blind Assassin. For the sake of clarity, every time I mention The Blind Assassin in this review from hereon, I mean Laura’s book and not Margaret Atwood’s. The stories within stories motif continues further in The Blind Assassin as it follows a nameless first person protagonist having an illicit love affair with man who tells her sci-fi stories… about a blind assassin. In between those novel chapters are newspaper clippings detailing the lives of the major figures in the primary narrative.

All of these threads are intertwined, and reading one allows you to make assumptions about the others. They tie together by the end, and questions are answered, in what is not so much a twist as a gradual reveal. This is where the narrative is most persuasive and compelling: piecing together the clues of what happened leading up to Laura’s suicide, deciding who is who, and why The Blind Assassin was written in the first place. There is a hint very early (the sci-fi storyteller making a lewd comment about his lover’s body of all things) that apprises the careful reader that something is not as it seems here.

The problem is that the story is split unevenly — Iris’ recollection of her youth takes up the vast majority of the 500+ page novel. Her story, while very well written, is absolutely something we have seen before. The political/gender/class tumult following the Great War. The fall of old money and the rise of new. The Old World is dead and so is God. Again, it’s well written. Iris as protagonist is not so much likeable — in fact, sometimes her actions are incredibly disappointing and there is a lingering sense that she was purposely ignoring clues that darker goingons were afoot — but instead a character you become more and more invested in as the story goes on. It’s sort of shocking to read a sympathetic mother who has such a negative opinion of her adult daughter, and this is compounded by a short scene where said daughter is described and you realize Iris was right about her. But then you remember the story is told via an unreliable narrator — Iris herself.

But the what happened? strand is strongest and the book could have done with more of the in-story love affair/science fiction tale of the blind assassin. There is so little of it that it sort of ruins the conceit it could have been a full-length, published novel. Then again, it’s my cynical belief that The Great Gatsby’s longevity and place in the American consciousness is heavily imputed to it’s length and how easy it is to read, so maybe The Blind Assassin could have followed suit.

I will also admit a bias against the bildungsroman. Both as a personal preference and because I find authors so rarely nail the passing of time and the changing of places and people particularly accurately or believably. I enjoyed this novel. I feel like this review is giving off a considerably more negative vibe than how I was feeling as I read the book. Seriously, it was good! So, I am not sure if this is something that I would consider an exception to that bias or if that bias is the key to why I feel like I should have liked this book more than I did (or at least wrote a more positive review).

The Hare by César Aira

the hareSo Charles Darwin’s brother-in-law, Tom Clarke, travels to Argentina in search of the ‘Legibrerian Hare’, which apparently flies (or might be a priceless diamond, or a metaphysical quandary). He sets off for the pampas with a guide, a teenage painter, and an extraordinary horse gifted to him by the country’s dictator and instantly becomes embroiled in the local indigenous people’s politics. The denouement of which involves an enormous amount of coincidences that go far beyond unrealistic into a sort of nostalgic absurdity that reminds me of children’s books where every detail and character mentioned in the story must be tied together in the end.

The story is meandering, the lead is inconsistent, the secondary characters one dimensional, and the novel is most probably racist*. Events don’t make much sense with some regularity. The prose is sparse. Usually. Complex events will be summed up in a paragraph, but characters will also chatter on about nothing, exchanging pleasantries. Or ponder philosophy. Aira apparently has some wacky writing methods involving lack of revision, constantly pushing forward,  and proclaiming a philosophic and literary bent to the former. Wikipedia tells me:

He frequently refuses to conform to generic expectations for how a novel ought to end, leaving many of his fictions quite open-ended.

Open ended conclusions. How avant-garde.

He also appears to disdain long form novels. If it’s not clear yet, I am finding César Aira insufferable.

That said, there is something compelling about his writing, about this odd, likely racist* book. The writing and setting is unique in a way I find difficult to describe. The carefully articulated absurdity and irrationality the characters espouse. The random nonsense that appears without explanation (see — man-sized ducks ritually birthing giant eggs to slide into the ocean). The nonsensical actions the characters take, or the impossible fluctuations of time and space.

And either Aira, or his translator, Nick Caistor, has a stellar vocabulary. This book was the impetus for me to start a google doc of new words I’ve learned. Now I am trying to use circumlocution in common speech and am sort of amazed usufruct is a word.

*I know next to nothing about the Mapuche people, but it does not take much e-research to see that they have a problematic and troubled relationship with their European-descended colonizers like everyone else in the Americas… or anywhere. The Hare portrays them with much of the bloodthirst, absence of hygiene v. the white cast visible typical to media portraying native Americans. They are philosophers of the irrational and the silliness of the book only slightly takes the edge off. One groups lives underground in caves and sleeps most hours of the day. There’s a sequence where Clarke and friends strip naked and grease up and go native.

Okay, the above is the most probably racist element of this novel. Here’s the unquestionably racist part: There is a character present in Clarke’s backstory, a black Chilean (there’s some quote along the lines of ‘never trust a black Chilean’). He covets Clarke’s white lover and kidnaps her. He’s compared to a hulking ape. There is repeated emphasis on his blackness. There is a mandingo joke.

Googling these issues bring up almost nothing. If you just read the Goodreads reviews for instance, you’d never know. All I could find was this bit at the end of a gushing NPR review:

“The novel is not without its flaws — I’m sad to report that both its major villains are “black as an African,” and its overt equation of the Indian with the irrational makes my conscience queasy. But if you can set such quandaries aside, you’ll find there are few adventures more outrageous, and more unsettling, than this cowboy chase through the pampas in search of the white rabbit.”

I can’t set such quandaries aside. This isn’t some stupid aside, or hiccup. It’s the setting of the entire novel.