Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin

downloadIt sounds like it’s going to be one of those sort-of literary mystery/thriller things–a girl disappears on a tropical island–but it isn’t really about what happened, in the way those books tend to be. It’s about how everyone reacts, months later, years later. And it’s about how things just kind of happen sometimes, even predictable things, when we really believed (perhaps out of privilege?) they wouldn’t.

Schaitkin names her island Saint X and populates it richly. It’s not meant to be a specific real island, but it exists alongside St. Thomas and Antigua and Martinique, and it especially reminds me of St. John. She’s been up front about her reasons for doing that, and naming it so, and I think it works here; it reflects the way Americans view the Caribbean.

Race and class take a predictably foregrounded role here–wealthy white resort guests interact with working-class island residents–but that’s not the heart of the book. It’s there, and it’s an important aspect, rendered with a decent amount of sensitivity (although there’s always the fact that it was, in the end, written by s white woman), but the true core of the novel (as I believe the true core of a literary novel ought to be) is about human nature on an even deeper level. Senseless things just happen sometimes, and they change countless lives, sometimes dramatically. The book is focused on the girl’s little sister, 8 or 9 at the time, already in some ways fragile and troubled, and the need she feels as an adult to learn precisely what happened (as if that’s going to fix it for her). It’s about the experience of seeing her idolized sister being, basically, a teenager, with contempt for their parents’ well-intentioned but condescending interactions with resort staff, because she’s just taken some kind of international culture class in her first semester at Princeton. Its the utter devastation of the life of a man who becomes a suspect in the disappearance, where we see how that one night changed everything forever. There’s the mother, coming to understand what letting go is and isn’t. And all of it has a feeling of truth to it.

It’s a first novel. It’s a very good one, in my view. But I think it’s a mistake to include, scattered throughout, brief sections from the points of view of various peripheral characters (the island’s chief of police; the college boy also staying at the resort who is briefly questioned; the otherwise uninvolved woman who finds the body; etc.) It feels like author-cheating, a cheap way to get some extra insight in about what even further effects these things might have, and the lives going on around them that are or are not changed, and I think she didn’t need to do that to communicate everything she needed to.

 

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

downloadI was diverted and entertained, which was what I was after. There are some insights, and some pretty writing. So, starting from a place of generally succeeding, I had two main issues with this novel.

First, it’s about Bernie Madoff, but it’s nominally about a Ponzi schemester named Jonathan Alkaitis. The fictional version is modeled so closely on the real story that it just kind of feels like cheating. If you’re going to write a novel about how the dynamics of the time and aspects of human nature allowed things like this to happen, invent an incident. If you’re going to write about about Bernie Madoff, write a book about Bernie Madoff. But when you import this many details, it’s neither here nor there.

Second, It’s trying to be too many things at once. At the beginning it seems like it’s going to be about the troubles of a drug-addicted young man who makes some terrible mistakes, but after a fairly deep dive into his psyche, he ends up being a peripheral character. Later, we get third-person-plural sections of “The Office Chorus” describing the collective experience of Alkaitis’s inside-track employees. The heroine, to the extent there is one, ultimately doesn’t have that much to offer; she ultimately exists primarily in a non-Ponzi-related concern with what happened to her mother, who disappeared in an apparent drowning when she was a child in a remote part of Canada. I appreciate the impulse to see many points of view in a story like this–how it would happen and how it would touch countless lives–but this one just feels disorganized. It has no shape. It’s not sure what it wants.

Maybe that’s an inherent hazard in writing a story everyone already knows; you can’t get your intrigue from what may happen. Maybe you need all these spinoffs and dead ends because otherwise there’s nothing new. But for my tastes, everything needs just a little more cohesion. Of course, now they’re making it into a TV series, which seems to me like a better place for this technique. I’ve read a couple of books like that lately; is the renaissance of TV driving the structure of new novels?

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

downloadOyeyemi’s schtick is repurposing fairy/folk tales. She doesn’t retell them, exactly–rather, what she’s doing here is something more like riffing. This one is Hansel and Gretel.

But it’s not about a brother and sister, and there’s no obvious correlate for a witch. Instead, there’s a mother-daughter pair of gingerbread-baking immigrants from a vaguely Slavic country that, even in the world of the book, may or may not exist, and a quest to reunite with a childhood figure (name of Gretel).

It’s an intensely odd book–it both is and is not set in our contemporary reality–but it seems for the most part to have its own logic, even if it’s not something I can articulate. It’s not a fairy tale because people act as humans, not as archetypes, even if the consequences aren’t what we’d expect. On the whole, it didn’t quite come together for me, and it dragged a bit in the middle, but I’m still impressed by the sheer ambition.

Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg

9781501197840I’ve been thinking a lot about books written in unusual formats, and this is one. Of course there are letters (whole-book or series), but that’s hardly unusual, or new. This book is written as the catalogue to a photography exhibition of the work of Lillian Preston, a woman photographer in New York in the 60’s and 70’s, and through the material included with each of the 118 photos, presented in chronological order, a totally coherent–and gripping–narrative emerges. There are a number of different sources in the “catalogue.” Each picture includes some recollections and commentary by Lillian’s daughter, Samantha Preston (later known as Jane), who has assembled the exhibition after her mother’s death. And she, the daughter, is clearly the dominant voice; there are a few letters Lillian wrote to friends, but most of the remaining material comes either from Lillian’s journal, which she always wrote addressed to Samantha, or from interviews Samantha conducted herself with Lillian’s friends. All of this makes clear, through structure, that the daughter is our anchor.

The Kirkus Reviews headline for its review is “A riveting portrait of an artist who happens to be a woman.” Sure, Kirkus, if it has nothing to do with gender when the central struggle of your life is the pull of family, and especially your own child, against your art, you have to fight tokenism and pigeonholing to find a place for your work, the defining moment of your career concerns a photo reflecting an illegal abortion, and your life is upended by a court battle concerning a photo of your child in which you are blasted in the media as a “bad mother.” Sure, our culture’s consistent resistance to considering everything on its merits without gender labels is a topic in this book, and it’s an important issue to address, but this particular story is not separable from the artist’s gender. Not even a little bit.

Lilian is clearly conflicted, but she remains committed to her art first, and the book is largely about what that does to her child (and her parents). If, later in life, the child understands, is all forgiven? It has notes of a non-screwball version of Kevin Wilson’s recurrent theme about parents. And yet, after a crisis, Lillian does alter her artistic course to protect her daughter (although how voluntary that is is debatable), without great success at mending the relationship. I suppose we’re back, as always, to “You can’t have it all.”

519YUafEpML._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_I’ve read a number of books like this—a group of high school-era friends, spinning off into adulthood with various combinations and results. They’re usually very readable and entertaining, but it’s hard to be more. They almost by definition lack focus. And issues pop up: child labor, HIV, feminism (a Wolitzer favorite), depression, cults, rape, income inequality–not that that’s necessarily unrealistic. It’s just all over the place, too wide-angle to feel coherent. Did I enjoy coming back to it each day to hang out with these characters, as their kids passed the age they themselves were when they first met? Very much. But I didn’t come away with many thoughts, or impressions, or insights.

Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross

What a strange book. Strange, but also oddly gripping. It’s incredibly layered and sprinkled with allusions and thematic tie-ins, and even, for lack of a better word, self-allusions. It has a lot of form-theme connection and is highly cerebral without being sterile; it also has some high emotion.

The subject: marriage. Or really, what marriage is for men. I’m not sure what to make of all the violence against women—there are three primary couples and all three wives get killed, either in life or in vivid fantasy, as well as an ongoing obsession with Hitchcock movies—and the book in fact starts with David Pepin, the protagonist (if there is one), thinking about killing his wife, Alice. Pepin is actually writing a book on the subject, which seems to have a shifting relationship to the reality of the novel. We also have two detectives investigating his alleged wife-killing: Sam Sheppard (a famous real-life historical wife-killer who appears here without explanation) and Ward Hastroll, whose name is an anagram for Rear Window wife-killer Lars Thorwald. Points of view include David and both detectives–and Marilyn Sheppard, the only for-sure victim.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the repeated mentions of M.C. Escher, and the participation throughout of a mysterious hitman named Mobius. What’s all this? Is it part of the marriage exploration, or is it a somewhat separate venture into the art-life relationship? I could probably read it five more times and still not really catch all of what it was supposed to mean.

I haven’t “solved” it, but I came away with some sense that all the violence isn’t rooted in rage or misogyny, and it isn’t really anti-marriage. I wonder if, in enacting extreme violence, Ross is actually recognizing what men and marriage have historically done to women, personally or societally. The men cheat; when the women try that, they get killed. Women in these marriages stay in bed for weeks on end or become morbidly obese. And yet in all of this, it’s clear that each husband does love his wife.

Too much formal gymnastics? Probably. But there’s something very complex inside this maze.

The Girls by Emma Cline

81khfVQh6uLI started this because the premise sounded fun (a girl caught up in a Charles Manson-like debacle) but I ended up really enjoying other things about it. It’s full of descriptions and metaphors that are wholly original and exactly right, without ever feeling forced or overdone. It has a past-present kind of structure that is executed deftly and winds up having a purpose in the book as a whole besides just getting the story told. And as it nears the end, there’s a kind of shift in the narrator’s thinking that casts everything before in a different and intriguing light. (In this way it’s like The Witch Elm).

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a book called The Girls has a fierce feminist streak…

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

downloadI liked the structure of fairly short but in-depth sections that follow a host of characters who are loosely connected more than I expected to. There’s no unifying plot, at least not in the traditional sense, and no one character who could fairly be called central, but the content of the various stories is all connected–they all address the struggles of being, at least in some way, a woman, and of color (specifically black), and they largely focus not just on race and gender but on sexuality and relationships. The thematic linkage, combined with the continual reappearing of characters as peripheral figures in one another’s stories, keeps it feeling cohesive, and in in the realm of the novel. Some of the dives are deeper than others, but all are engaging.

What really struck me was the book’s illustration of the way everyone we encounter is fighting some battle we know nothing about-a critic who reviews the play written by another character, a teacher, a cleaner, a grocery store employee, a great-grandmother–across social strata, across generations. It’s the kind of book that makes me want to draw a chart, or a web.

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

downloadFirst: this is metafiction. The first section turns out to be a book a character is reading (albeit one in which she, or a version of her, is a minor character, written by a former classmate). It’s packed full of questions and suggestions about the relationship between art and life, experience and memory, truth and fiction.

Sarah (the writer) and Karen (the eventual narrator) attend an elite arts high school in the 1980s, so there is a lot of talk about acting, truth, experience, etc. To me, a novel that is about all that by virtue of its form and also explicitly about that in its content is just too much. (Cf. Asymmetry–even involving writers!–but not so self-referential.) Then there’s the fact that Choi seems to be obsessed with students sleeping with their teachers (second book in a row). And the fact that she insists on acknowledging and playing with even the most obvious tropes (like Chekhov’s gun). I can’t help but feel that even though she’s talking about it rather than just using it, it’s still not a very original thing to investigate. Oh, two people have very different memories of a shared experience? We know.

There certainly is some emotional core here–Karen as a character is deeply felt–but it’s obscured by all the cerebral pyrotechnics.

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

download.jpegThere’s definitely a lot going on here that I didn’t get on a first read, but the first read was actually satisfying just based on what was readily available–and that is a very difficult tightrope to walk. There is an obsession with language and words, with argument, in a way that perhaps I react to more than most readers because I feel many of the same things myself. But it’s also gendered, distinctly male (and self-consciously so).

Adam Gordon, our hero, actually tells this story from 2019, New York, but mostly considering the events of the late 90s in Topeka (cameo by Bob Dole), when he was a high school debate champion. Sprinkled in between, sections from each of his parents; ultimately no reducible explanation for the points of view other than a novel, with an author.

Another angle that interests me: the viewpoints of psychologists (some of them Freudian), who have occasion to say the things most characters wouldn’t about people’s thoughts and motivations, but it never feels like a device. Maybe that is Lerner’s birthright because it is his autobiography (psychologist mother)–or maybe it’s mostly skill. Either way, it’s a very cerebral book that maintains narrative interest and left me wanting to read it again and discover more.