Writers and Lovers by Lily King

I’m honestly not sure what to make of this. First–I couldn’t put it down. I was captivated. But then, I also had the sense I sometimes get that most of what it was doing was describing–extremely accurately–a painful experience. Here, it’s one that I clearly recognize, not because I’ve really endured it myself, but because it’s adjacent to certain parts of my life. Paths I’ve peered down. People I know well.

Casey, the narrator, is in her early 30s. She’s very literary, has a degree in creative writing, and is living in Cambridge trying to finish her first novel while being in debt, bereaved, and single, and working as a waitress at a high-end restaurant while writing for a few hours every morning. Those are my friends and classmates — and I’m the one she, perhaps a little derisively, brings up who bailed and went to law school. Plus, the setting is familiar, with mentions of a number of actual businesses in Harvard Square, Porter Square, Central Square, Inman Square, where I’ve spent some time.

She’s also struggling with the recent death of her mother, and her reckoning with who she’d been while alive, as well as her history with her father, who turned out to be a real creep. Add to that other ways in which she confronts her own mortality. She has palpable anxiety. She’s just holding on. There are just a whole lot of layers, mostly beautifully drawn.

Yet? Is there a yet? Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk resistance to writing about writers. Maybe it’s that, for all the strands, it ends up feeling a little too neat. So much so that I actually wonder whether it’s even intended, in its ending, to be realist, or whether we’ve somehow veered into the fantasy life of the narrator.

It’s not especially original, but it is just so searingly accurate in describing something familiar, and so complex, with so many carefully imagined (or recalled?) angles and details surfacing throughout, that that doesn’t matter. Originality is probably overrated. These aren’t complaints. I loved it. I read it fast. Maybe I’ll read it again.

And anyway, I was sold before I started, because dear Liz had tipped me off to a little love letter to Faulkner that arises in the text. (Which was weird, because that also happened in the Sigrid Nunez book I just finished.)

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

It feels like Nunez is essentially riffing here. There is a narrator, and there is a front story, but a lot of the book is consumed with her repeating stories others have told, primarily on the theme of death and the meaning of life (super light-weight). The stories echo against each other and against the front story (which, while perhaps not central, feel necessary to hold the book together as a novel, and is in fact interesting and propulsive).

It seems to be going for commentary on the universal, as none of the characters have names (just “my friend” and “my ex” and “the woman”). It has no explicit connection to The Friend, but it has very much the same voice. This isn’t a book for those who want, in their fiction, only to experience things and not to talk about them at all. As is often the case with books about writers, the reflection is often quite explicit. But it still comes through story, and it’s still enjoyable to read and, improbably, rather funny at times.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

A group of graduate students are cruel to one another in an astonishing variety of ways over the course of a weekend. This book’s greatest weaknesses is that that’s really what happens, in the pages, in the scenes. Of course, there’s a lot more to it than that—it’s centered on intimate and nuanced explorations of the intersections of race, class, sexuality, gender, and culture, and some moments are pretty uncomfortable to read because the criticism is so spot-on (with the anger and resigned sadness that go with it).

All of that is incredibly valuable and belongs in the literary conversation, far more than it is (although I think there’s been progress in that realm, in terms of what sorts of books are getting attention and recognition). But as a novel? I’m not sure this quite gets me there. Taylor depicts prolonged arguments where two people are just touchy, reactive jerks to each other, for pages and pages. We can see behind that to some degree, to the pain and trauma that leads them to act that way, but that makes it emotionally astute, not narratively successful. I came away with the feeling that I had seen a situation, a person, a culture depicted quite vividly and astutely, that I had seen a piercingly accurate recreation of an all-to-common and damaging dynamic, but not that I had read a story.

This is Taylor’s first novel. I hope he takes these considerable skills and insights with him and journeys into deeper adventures of plot and structure.

Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart

The primary emotion in this book for me was sadness. There’s no great single tragic event–it’s just a detailed, nuanced picture of a situation that is entirely common (working-class family; domestic violence; alcoholism; a gay kid), and things happen more or less the way you might imagine, if you thought to imagine such things.

It’s one of those books where the prose just stays out of the way of the characters. They are sometimes odd but utterly believable, and memorable. There’s no description, no exposition–if we’re told what someone looks like, it’s because the character is noticing it. The whole thing feels incredibly intimate, and its scope is in some ways very small–a handful of people, an unremarkable existence–but also enormous, because it exposes so the whole worlds and universes contained in what seems ordinary. Full of pain though it is, the book never descends into despair, and though it shows us some of the worst of people, it also shows some of the best.

Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

I had high hopes, not just because of the National Book Award nomination but because the premise has a lot of potential — but like so many contemporary novels, it was so dominated by the “issues” it addresses that it truly lacked in character, and for me, that’s fatal.

There’s a sense I get when the author is describing a character’s flaws, or inaccurate self-perception, or delusions, or shame, that the author thinks he fully understands it, and it’s relatively simple, but the character doesn’t see it. And that kind of contempt-for-character is very off-putting for me.

Here, we have a modern well-off white family renting a vacation house, and the house’s owners show up, explaining there is some kind of unknown but potentially apocalyptic emergency unfolding in the city. There’s no TV, internet, or cell service, and it unfolds from there. But it uses a bizarre omniscient narration style, jumping from person to person even within a chapter or scene and telling us what characters are thinking and why, with a level of judgment that just doesn’t work for me. Sure, tell us what each person is experiencing, but we don’t need all the commentary. And we don’t need the speeches about race, gender roles, parenting, and human nature. This book is a sledgehammer when I’d prefer a bird gently landing, watching, wondering.

The Boy in the Field by Margot Livesey

It doesn’t feel fair to say I didn’t like this much. There are a lot of good things about it, and the general area–adolescents coining to terms in different ways with violence and betrayal–is ever-fruitful. It even has whodunit aspect, which can really propel an otherwise-dragging literary novel. The characters are (mostly) vivid and the prose is strong. And yet.

I think my real problem is that each of the three siblings portrayed here was to confined to whatever particular thing was troubling him or her, and their manifestations were overly convenient. Zoe is doing love and intimacy, so she both discovers her parents’ affair and gets involved a romance with an inconvenient subject. Matthew is doing violence, so he obsessively hunts for the perpetrator of a crime, is haunted by memories of a friend’s abusive father, and studies fencing. And Duncan, the youngest, both adopts a dog from an owner who may or may not be coming back and searches out his birth mother.

It starts with an incident with the three of them together, and ends with a huge costume ball where almost every character shows up and things get much more resolved than they should. Then it goes even farther and gives us an 8-years-later epilogue that ties everything up even more neatly. And–horror of horrors–it has a character who gets obsessed with a particular philosopher and makes proclamations about what he would’ve said about the various situations. (Usually when writers do this is Schopenhauer. This time it’s Spinoza.)

Interesting ideas, I guess, but far too neatly constructed for my taste.

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

Well, this book was devastating. It’s not terribly long, but it’s dense. You’re instantly thrown into the midst of the lives of three characters whose lives intersect, but only glancingly. I couldn’t put it down, even as the horrors piled up. It also pulls off a plot point that turns heavily on facebook without a hitch—something a lot of writers seem to struggle with.

It’s also rare to have a novel so squarely addressing social problems without ever feeling like that was how it came to be–because it’s so personal, so specific, so eminently plausible, which makes it all the more horrifying. And somehow, it’s also funny. And beautifully written. It’s rare to have this kind of fully baked self-assuredness in a debut.

Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This is the story of Gifty, born in Alabama to a mother who came there from Ghana. She is a neuroscience PhD candidate at Stanford, where her research program involves trying to figure out why her brother became an addict and died of an overdose when she was a child. As part of this inquiry, she also reexamines her upbringing in an evangelical church and her relationship to God, which has changed a lot as she’s grown up and become a scientist.

In the present, her mother has come to stay with her in California, which has prompted a series of memories from childhood, centered around the loss of her brother and her experience in the church, helped along by a review of her childhood journal. It’s awfully heavy on theoretical exploration–it’s so nearly constructed to discuss the relationship between brain and self, and what role, if any, God has in that–but it mostly saves itself by being very personal at the same time.

I prefer my philosophy to take more of a back seat to the personal story, but both components are here, and it certainly kept me reading and enjoying.

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is pretty consistent. She writes well, she creates colorful characters, she knows how to put together a narrative–but it just isn’t my style. I’m sure there’s part of it that’s cultural–she writes almost exclusively about Native Americans, often Chippewa, and there are aspects of world view I just can’t relate to–but I don’t think it’s just that. I want my fiction to feel more intimate than hers usually does. I’m more intrigued by internal struggle.

This book has the added complication of being set in real historical events, a 1953 attempt by the. U.S. government to terminate the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa, which Erdrich’s grandfather was involved in resisting. That drama is the main structure of the book, and then there’s an individual love/family drama set within it, but they mesh awkwardly for me. Like she was trying too hard to put them in the same book.

Actress by Anne Enright

First, I have an obvious soft spot for Irish novels. Something about the sensibility.

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This is a quiet novel–and one about late middle age, I think, even though the central figure is nominally a glamorous actress in all stages of her life. It’s about identity–of yourself in relation to your parents (and your parents for themselves). All the drama is the mother’s, but the impact is the daughter’s. There is a bit of a mystery, but it’s never fully solved.

So many of the facts of the book–of the narrator Nora’s life, really–are obviously fully formed but never much discussed; they just are. Her life, her house, her marriage, her children. It takes skill to create backgrounds like that.

There’s a lot of gender stuff going on here, which the book acknowledges by having a character remark on it, something the narrator doesn’t seem to like. That creates an interesting dynamic.

I’m never quite sure how I feel about books that just sort of drift through memory, pausing on things as they tie into some present thought. A book that’s about a life rather than an episode.