Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

The problem with this book is, like some of Kingsolver’s other more recent books, the characters feel as though they were created to embody positions, viewpoints, social issues. This isn’t a book about people and their deep personal struggles. It’s a book about the Trump era.

It makes two separate moves to convey this, and for me, both fall flat. First, she creates a present-day family populated with mouthpieces for ideas of our time: an Occupy Wall Street-attending, social justice warrior-millenial daughter, Tig; an emotionally lost, Harvard-educated, socially conscious investment startup-founding son, Zeke; Willa, the mother, who seems like she’s supposed to be our guide and has no particular viewpoint; Iano, the father who could never get tenure because our academy is falling apart and using adjuncts for everything; and Nick, Iano’s father who lives with them, adores Fox News, hates welfare and Obamacare (even while the family secretly gets him on Medicaid so they can afford the care for his diabetes and other woes), and constantly spews racist and sexist vitriol. We get dinner table arguments that go on at way too much length to make sure each character gets to fully articulate the viewpoint he’s there to represent. But nobody truly wrestles with real, human, individual problems in anything but the most superficial way. It’s okay–Kingsolver knows how to narrate, and construct sentences, and you can follow along reasonably pleasantly–but you can’t follow it anywhere I particularly wanted to go.

Then, we also get a whole second storyline, set in the 19th Century in exactly the same physical place, involving a female biologist, a high school science teacher, and a dramatic whole-town fight between “decency and Darwin,” complete with an extremely long public debate scene that fully puts the question on the table–again without digging into the most difficult personal lives of those involved. (Side note: I’ve already read the book about the female scientist who corresponded with Darwin, when Elizabeth Gilbert wrote it a few years ago, and found it a little too precious even the first time around.)

If there’s a central plot to the contemporary story, it’s Willa uncovering the 19th century story via the local historical society. Blah. Anyway, I suppose we’re supposed to recognize the charicatured anti-Darwin folks in the modern Trump Supports. Get it? Their viewpoints are so crazy and backwards, it’s like we educated liberal folks are the ones who are getting run out of town just for trying to each our high school students about science. Oh, you do get it? Wait, let me make it a little more explicit, just in case. But in my view, this kind of thing is best left to nonfiction. Let the novel stay in the realm of the deeply personal, even where it explores questions about modern life.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson

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The British cover is SO much better! But isn’t it always?

Atkinson has two distinct oeuvres–one of detective novels, and one of more classically literary work, largely invested in the lives of British people during World War II. Nobody was quite sure which this was going to be, and indeed, it’s really both.

It is a spy novel–it follows Juliet Armstrong (“Miss Armstrong,” to anybody who ever addresses her) who joins the MI5 around 1940 as a typist, and things escalate–but it’s also much more personal than anything you could reasonably consider a thriller, from the loss of her mother to her unconventional relationship with her boss, Perry Gibbons. (I supposed that relationship fits under the umbrella of romance, if you use a golf umbrella). It’s not just that the novel includes these things; it’s the way it explores them. In short, these characters are richer than what you typically find in even well-written fiction that exists foremost on the level of plot–it takes on more. And then there is the persistent undertone of indignation about the roles of women.

At the same time, it has too many sort of silly, pat observations, especially in Juliet’s self-commentary, to pull itself all the way into the Life after Life category. Enjoyable, but not likely to linger.

Postscript: Juliet later works at the BBC, and portions set there are interspersed. Throughout, it had me in mind of Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, another WWII/BBC novel and the undisputed classic of this micro-genre. Atkinson, it turns out, had that in mind, as she invokes it reverently in her author’s note at the end.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

This book strikes me as a project where the writer undertook a kind of post-modern experiment in exploring or communicating something about certain aspects of humanity by taking things to the extreme. Not exactly satire, although it has those elements (especially in the descriptions of contemporary art pieces and the invention of certain pharmaceuticals), but a literalization of something we usually look at as an abstract phenomenon.

An unnamed character–a superficially pretty young woman, graduate of Columbia, menially employed in an art gallery–experiences absolutely everything (e.g. the death of both of her parents) with deeply detached irony, and has no capacity for sincere emotion. (Or maybe it’s there, but she’s so incredibly twisted up that she’s completely unable to express it?) So she finds an unscrupulous psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, to prescribe her fistfulls of sedatives and hypnotics, both real and fictional (she takes Ambien, and Lunesta, and Seroquel, but I started to catch on that not everything was real when she gets one called Prognosticrone. . .), and endeavors to spend the year sleeping. Attended by an annoying, bulimic friend named Reva and an insufferable contemporary artist named Ping Xi, she largely accomplishes this. That’s pretty much it.

There’s a lot that could be said about the sociological stuff packed in here. The novel is set in 2000-2001, and includes a fair amount of technology that was outdated even then. There are odd obsessions with unlikely celebrities. There is also 9/11, although this, mercifully, would not fall in the bucket of novels that started coming out around 2005 that dealt earnestly with the impact of those events on New Yorkers. There are clearly questions about the role of art , and surely something to say about the fact that the narrator’s inheritance quietly renders money–including residence in a doorman building in Manhattan–a non-obstacle. But I don’t particularly feel the need to mine all that, because really, although it seems like Moshfegh ably accomplished what she set out to do, I prefer fiction that trades in sincerity.

Who Is Rich by Matthew Klam

Rich–an early-40’s illustrator/cartoonist, married with two kids and never enough money–returns to a yearly arts conference in a Provincetown-like setting where he teaches. And sleeps with a woman who is a zillionaire. (And falls in love with her?) Well-worn ground–tepid self-flagellation, self-pity stuff. It’s to some degree satirical–at least I hope so–and that’s a mode that rarely works for me, especially when it’s ambiguous (or ambivalent?) Klam is a skilled writer, but I’m not sure he actually had much to say.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

A pleasant, enjoyable novel about a string quartet, centering on the musicians’ relationships over the course of their lives/careers, looking at love, art, family, sacrifice–nothing earth-shattering, but it held my attention. It also managed to pull off feeling like all four members were equally central characters–no small feat. If I have complaints, they are occasional over-writing and some degree of predictability. (And do I feel unsatisfied by the novel’s careful refusal to pick a hero? That’s clearly the point–but I’m not sure.)

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Will, an ex-evangelical college student, andPhoebe, with whom he falls in love–Phoebe drawn into Jejah, a cult that is vaguely connected to North Korea. I had two problems with the book. The first one–which may not be totally fair–is that the jacket copy says, “When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears.” But that happens on page 170, our of only 210. What seems like it should be the set-up for the book (the author of the jacket copy certainly thought so) is actually its climax. The run-up is long, the part that seems more interesting very compressed. The second problem is that I just never believed it. I think if you’re going to write something kind of sensational, you need either to include enough detail to make it eminently real and plausible, or to write with an unwavering authority. Kwon does neither. Moments of drama are glossed over so smoothly you could miss them, motivations are incomplete or insufficient, and the facts just don’t seem tethered to the reality of what would happen in this situation. Oh well.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I have to say, this was delightful. It chronicles decades of the life of Count Alexander Rostov, under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel–but somehow, barely leaving the building, it’s full of adventure. Adventure arrives–people enter from the world–but largely, he makes it himself.

The book is old-fashioned–it is in possession of a third-person narrator prone to making observations about general truths, for instance–but in a way that feels comfortable, not stodgy. It plays explicitly with the tropes of Russian literature, invoking Chekhov and Tolstoy repeatedly. It is long, and concerns itself wit human experience not defined by time or place. And it simply tells stories.