Less by Andrew Sean Greer

415yqt4jtnl._sl500_I knew going in that this was billed as a comedic novel–and indeed, I laughed out loud more than once. That’s no small feat; my sense of humor, especially in books, is quite particular. But I always like my laughter to come amid sadness and poignancy, and although the tone here stayed lighter and closer to satire than my usual preference, it packed a punch in, too, around love, and aging, and the shape of a life as seen from the middle as you start down the slope. (What do you end up with if you have a series of relationships rather than a life-long commitment? What is it, really, to be alone? To be wanted? Remembered? Accomplished?)

So we have Arthur Less, a writer whose success was never great but is now on the decline, cobbling together a trip around the world to avoid his ex’s wedding and his own 50th birthday–and we get wacky, slightly humiliating episodes piled on one another, interspersed with memory and reflection in a way that mostly worked. (In one scene, a conceited competitor tells him his problem is that he is a bad gay; in another, he recalls specific activities his father arranged for him as a boy, which he enjoyed, and still enjoyed in memory even after learning years later that his father had taken them directly from a book about how to take your sissy son and make him into more of a real man).

The episodes themselves are often rather farcical. It’s entertaining, but also sad. If I’m going to read a book about a struggling male writer in middle age, this blows the pants off Who Is Rich.

(Also flagging without discussing: meta-fiction (Less is revising a novel where a middle aged gay guy wanders around the city, taking it from a drama to more of a farce); sneaky late revelation that there is actually a narrator, not just floating omniscience).

The Witch Elm by Tana French

s-l640For most of this book I thought I was reading a sort of awkwardly paced but pleasantly Irish murder mystery and then when I got toward the end I realized it was something else entirely.

It took a long time to get there; in fact, I almost gave up on it at one point. The hardback edition runs just over 500 pages, and the event that forms the jacket-copy premise happens 160 pages in. There’s definitely a slow period even after that where dynamics are brewing, but it doesn’t move the way I would’ve expected from a real mystery. And then, after the main mystery is solved, there’s this whole additional event that goes by disorientingly fast. But I went with it, through these complaints, because this book turned out to be a vicious attack on straight white male privilege.

I realized when I got to the end that the entire book had been set up that way, from the first sentence, to the work snafu that sets the chain of events in motion. In creating Toby, the narrator, French pulled off the thing I’ve always thought was nearly impossible: a character who embodies a trait she wants to criticize, depicted utterly believably, in the first person, without  detectable authorial contempt. Toby is deeply oblivious to the desperation sometimes faced by people who don’t share his privilege, and indignant about the fact that he gets excluded from things that he would never stand a chance of understanding. When less privileged people tell him of troubles they faced, he simply can’t grasp why they couldn’t just call the police and everything would be fine. Powerlessness is incomprehensible to him. And it’s utterly believable. In narrating his voice, French never lets her colors bleed through; we only see what she’s done by watching Toby react authentically to the things that happen to him. It would have been so easy for her to make him into a caricature, but she never did. And that’s what was so chilling about it.

I had my minor quibbles. I’m on the fence about a narrator in a mystery who has memory problems and thus doesn’t know whether he himself might be the killer. Gimmick aside, I’m not sure I fully bought those logistics. And there was an incident toward the very end I didn’t quite buy either–but because the overall effect was so powerful, I’ll go along with it.

This book kind of made me want to give it to some privilege-blind types I know and see if they even recognized it. I could see it slipping right by them. And that’s an enormous accomplishment, isn’t it?

Milkman by Anna Burns

36047860._uy400_ss400_This book was strange and spellbinding and tense and illuminating in ways unlike anything I’ve read recently. Its most prominent features are its stream-of-consciousness-adjacent style and its intense obliqueness (although this is really the characters being oblique, not the novel itself). A plot summary would tell you it’s the story of an 18-year-old woman in Belfast in the 70s who is pursued by a powerful paramilitary figure in ways the culture makes it impossible to resist or escape. And that is essential to the book, but does nothing to identify what’s so incredible about it.

We are so deeply inside the psychology of both the young woman and the local culture that I never once had the urge to shake her and tell her to just stand up for herself–it would obviously have been impossible for her, and the book made that extremely clear through its language and incisive descriptions, without ever explaining anything. A central feature of the novel its its refusal to name things, perhaps out of utter fear of the power of words or an inability to carry on while explicitly acknowledging what’s actually happening. There is no mention of Britain or Ireland, theIRA, protestants or catholics; only “the wrong religion,” and people from “over the road” or “over the water.” Nobody is known by a name; the narrator is simply middle sister, her stalked The Milkman (not an actual milkman; the book has another character known as Real Milkman). There is longest friend, maybe-boyfriend, tablets, girl, first brother-in-law, wee sisters, and so on. A cemetery is “the usual place,” a treacherous neighborhood “the ten minute area” (how long it takes to walk across it”. There is a group of early feminists, “the issue women.”

Nobody goes to the hospital because it would brand you as an informer; you only call the police if you intend to shoot them. There are two men in charge of what you are and are not allowed to name your children–any name too “over the water” is forbidden. You must not eat the wrong kind of butter, or drink “the tea of betrayal.” It never feels contrived or difficult to follow. It all makes sense, so much sense, against all odds. 

Postscript: I couldn’t tell you what it is, but I often detect a specific sensibility in works by Irish writers. I’ve sometimes wondered what you’d get from someone with James Joyce’s talent and aesthetic sense who was a woman. And I’ve also detected it in the work of Eimar McBride. In my work as an editor I recently selected a story by an Irish writer that had a distinctly Irish feel to it. Maybe one day I’ll manage to articulate what it is. In the mean time, I will continue to enjoy it.

 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

I usually hate it when writers write novels about writing. It almost always feels insular and self-referential and airless. You have no real audience. You’re only writing for other people just like you, who would rather you didn’t, so they could take your place. But this book manages to mostly avoid that feeling for me.

There are three primary characters–two are writers and one is a dog. One writer kills himself, the other, his dear friend, addresses most of the book to him, and inherits his aging harlequin great dane. Dog and writer experience and explore grief–and writer writes, all the while meditating on what writing really means, what it’s for, and how so many who wish to do it drastically miss the point. It is at times quite funny (of course I’d love a book that revolves around a suicide but still makes me laugh, and there’s a dog).

There were portions where I came close to rolling my eyes: the descriptions of life as a teacher of creative writing, sketches of the hopeless students who are convinced of their talent, standard-issue university politics, all shaded slightly toward satire. But perhaps because there is so much left off the page, I think she gets away with it. The relationship (between the humans) is never fully explained, but everything we do hear feels coherent; I was confident that it had all been thought through, that Nunez knew the whole of it even if her narrator did not explain it all.

And the dog. Oh, the dog.

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.