Posts Tagged ‘novels


I Hate It Here: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

A Visit from the Goon SquadA Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

Sometimes books hit me right between the eyes and catch me unawares. Other times, I want to hit the book right between its eyes. This was one of those times.

Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad had picked up a shelf of tributes: a Pulitzer Prize, plenty of best-of-the-year awards and more blurbs than I bothered counting. Most say some variation of how smart the book is, how clever a writer Egan is. And that’s just where my problems begin.

Her book more or less follows a group of people along their lives, starting in late 70s San Francisco, through New York in the mid-aughts and winding up in the desert at some unspecified point in the future. They start punk bands, go on safaris and have a moment to reflect on the September 11 attacks. And they’re all super caught up in themselves and their lives that they might not realize how alienating they are.

Which is probably key to this book. It never asked me to consider that maybe these characters were supposed to be unlikable, but they’re all generally crappy people: they lie, cheat, backstab and act petty all the time. Maybe that’s the point, but I never felt especially clear on how Egan wanted readers to feel, if she wanted people to see through their self-congratulatory attitudes and luxury trappings. Particularly since Egan has her characters defend each other when they assault people and wreck each other’s lives.

Indeed, as the back copy says, some of these characters experience “redemption,” which I suppose makes it okay when one tries to sexually assault a person they’re supposed to writing a profile about: they’re bad now, but everyone will get their happy ending! Except maybe the victim, who in another story is wed to a third-world dictator. Really.

What really makes this book frustrating is how on a technical level, it shows Egan as an interesting stylist. Throughout the stories here, Egan tries different structures, forms and voices. One story is told through a PowerPoint slideshow, another is structured in the second person. There’s even a DFW pastiche, a rambling, self-obsessed story just laced with footnotes. And in a formal sense, the stories all work: they’re put together well and Egan never falters in all kinds of experimental styles.

But at the same time, it’s a gimmick that when combined with her characters narcissism, has the discomforting effect of feeling show-offy. It’s as if Egan is showing off, almost bragging about all the feats of prose she can pull off. It left me with a bad feeling in my mouth and at times, left some of her stories just about unreadable for me.

Still, I’ll give her credit when they work: “Great Rock and Roll Pauses” (aka: the slideshow story) is a moving story about parents trying to connect with an autistic child who’s obsessed with pauses in rock tunes; as someone with an autistic family member, the way she captured single-minded obsession and how families have to adapt to them resonated with me. Likewise, I think “Forty Minute Lunch” is supposed to be unreadable and awful; it’s certainly successful at it.

But ultimately, her novel never quite lived up the hype: it’s not a band novel, barely even one about music (so much for the back copy again, which claims there’s “music pulsing on every page’) and is ultimately one about people who all seem to think they’re a lot smarter than they are, written in a way that seems to suggest the author is of a like mind.

Rating: 2/10. Honestly, it was one of the more infuriating books I’ve read in a while; even as I blazed through the thing in a few days, I still found myself setting it down in disgust every so often. Even if you’re interested in her prose and attempts at various devices, I’d still recommend Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style over this. At least there, you don’t have New Yorkers feeling sorry for themselves every few pages!


The Curse of St. Custards: Molesworth – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle

MolesworthMolesworth – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, with an introduction by Philip Hensher

Maybe it’s a Canadian thing, but I’ve never really held an opinion on private schools. I’ve sort of been aware of them, but even when I was younger, they seemed like something for rich kids, something of a British relic. Which is maybe why so many British novels deal with them while Canadian fiction doesn’t.
It ranges from older stuff like The Lord of the Flies and it’s marooned school children to something as recent as the Harry Potter series, which is basically about life at boarding school: trouble with headmasters, living in dorms and everyone clad in a uniform, although it’s all sprinkled with magic.

Recently I came across a copy of Molesworth, a collection of books by Geoffrey Willans, all of them illustrated by Ronald Searle’s cartoons and picked it up on a whim. I was pleasantly surprised: it’s another look at boarding school, but it’s laced with a savage, cynical sense of humour. And Searle’s cartoons – dark and dryly witty – add another element to its cutting humour. It’s great stuff.

Essentially, Molesworth 1, aka student Nigel Molesworth, aka “the goriller of 3b and curse of St. Custard’s,” narrates the books like he’s writing a how-to for students. He’s young, flunks all his classes and can’t spell worth a damn. He’s also irrepressibly clever and sees that class is worthless, the food is appalling and Master Sigismund is actually “the Mad Maths Master.”

His stories take various forms: daydreams, lectures on how to get out of assignments and chance moments in the schoolyard with classmates. They include his younger brother Molesworth 2, his friend “Peason,” and my favourite of all, Fotherington-Thomas ,a guy who skips around saying “Hullo clouds, hullo sky.” I think one of the best moments – and a good example of the kind of humour we’re dealing with – is when Fotherington-Thomas and Molesworth discuss existentialist novels while lazing through a soccer game.

The kind of humour that runs through here is clever satire, dressed up like it’s coming from a kid and it works on a few levels. Although Molesworth can’t spell a damn, he’s up on world leaders, classical composers and literature. Sure, it’s funny when he calls out his Latin teacher on how useless it is in modern society, but even a kid will enjoy seeing a pupil best a teacher.

Granted, some of the jokes are a bit dated. When Molesworth cuts into French class, it’s at the droll texts featuring a kid named Armand who visits the zoo with his father. The reference is lost on me, but Molesworth’s take is still fresh (note: all spelling in context):

“ ‘Thou art a good boy, Armand,’ he sa, ‘this afternoon I will take thee to a zoo.’
Ahha you think is not so dumb as he look he will thro Armand to the lions.
‘Are there any animals in the zoo?’ ask Armand.
‘Oh but yes,’ sa Papa without losing his temper as this feeble question.
‘Houpla houpla I am so hapy.”
Perhaps the lions are not bad enough perhaps it will hav to be the loups… You wonder if it was noel coward who wrote the dialog it is so nervously brilliant my dear how long can it be before Papa do Armand.” (pg 174)

I especially enjoyed Searle’s cartoons. They’re something of a mix of Matt Groening and Ralph Steadman; they’re cynical and chaotic, but composed with a dry, understated wit.

At their best, Searle’s lines can look as dystopian as a nuclear wasteland while the kids smile, slouch and light a cig in the background.

Generally, his illustrations are for what’s happening in the text – the Molesworth brothers setting a giant bear trap for Santa; an unhappy Molesworth 1 trudging across a cricket pitch – but some of the book’s best moments are when Searle draws harsh, hilarious caricatures: an advanced whip, complete with telescopic sight and rangefinder; stuffy, silly-faced adults; the master pleading “you boys think I’m soft, but I’m hard, damned hard.”

This one completely took me by surprise. It’s funny, dark and packed with great cartoons. While it’s a little dated – the schools are still segregated by gender here, for example, and female students are basically ignored until the end – it’s biting humour holds up. Recommended!

(images via: Forbidden Planet, Matou En Peluche)


Crooked Cops and Kangaroos: The True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey

True History of the Kelly GangTrue History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

Winner of both the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize and the Booker Prize in 2001, Peter Carey’s book follows the exploits of Ned Kelly, a notorious bushranger and kind of cowboy Robin Hood. It’s a cruel little history, a harsh country where the peasantry is kept under a British boot.

Told via a series of first person narratives, Carey presents his story as being told by Kelly. The prose is sometimes semi literate but punctuated with striking imagery. More than once it reminded me of Faulkner’s novels, although it’s much more linear than those.

It follows Kelly from his early years, when his parents tried to scratch out a living on a small plot of land, through his brushes with bushrangers and the law and eventually to Kelly’s status as the most-wanted man in the country. And although Kelly’s never much of a sympathetic guy – he’s viciously racist, for one thing – he occasionally comes across as an interesting guy. He’s devoted to his mother and unborn child, pays shopkeepers for booze he drinks when he takes them hostage and has a strong streak of injustice towards the British.

Indeed, that feeling runs right throughout this book. Nearly everyone who wrongs Kelly in some way is connected to the establishment or the Crown. From the school keeper who refuses to teach those with Irish blood to the crooked cops who never stop pestering Kelly’s friends and family, arresting them on the slightest pretense, Carey paints a cruel, intolerant world where people are shoved up against impossible odds and all but expected to fail.

And in this world, Carey turns Kelly into a folk hero of sorts. He’s someone who rails against injustice and mistreatment from the Crown, someone who wants to see those wrongly imprisoned released and use government to expose corrupt officials. He’s something of a revolutionary, although perhaps a naïve one: he writes letters to government officials, sure they’ll believe him if they just read his words. He rails against newspapers but never quite grasps their role in keeping the status quo going.

At times, I was reminded of The Year of the French: both share a sense of injustice leading to a revolt, only to see it crushed by the British, their brutal tactics – fearmongering, bribery and eventually, murder – used to keep them under submission. I didn’t enjoy it as much as Flanagan’s novel, though. Their scopes were wildly different, with Flanagan picturing every side of a complex struggle and Carey keeping his focus solely on Kelly and his associates.
A casual acquaintance of mine lines in Australia and when I was about halfway through this book, I asked her about Ned Kelly. I’d never heard of him before, never even heard the term bushranger but I understood him to be a memorable figure in Australian history. But not really, she said, Kelly was just one of many bushrangers from that era. But she did pass along some photos she had of his suit of armor: they’re at a museum, kept on display in a glass cabinet near his death mask.

Rating: 8/10. One I enjoyed quite a bit. The prose took some getting used to and although it gets more fragmentary as it goes on, the book’s action kept rising and drawing me in. I barely put it down for the final 100 pages or so. Recommended.


The Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan

The Year of the FrenchThe Year of the French by Thomas Flanagan

An immersive novel, Thomas Flanagan’s historical novel takes readers right into the muck and bogs of 18th century Ireland, it’s prejudices and injustices, it’s poetry and cruelty. It’s pretty great.
For years, Flanagan was a professor of Irish fiction, specializing in 19th century Irish novelists, writers who were basically blotted out by James Joyce’s explosive fiction. An American, Flanagan spent a lot of time there and befriended several writers (including Seamus Deane, who contributes a short introduction to the NYRB edition of this book). He knew the country.

It comes through in his book: the rhythm of the dialogue, the gloomy ambience and snatches of lyricism embedded in his book. It has a dense feeling, like a layered work of history. And it’s based on actual events, albeit ones generally overshadowed by the Napoleonic wars and the later bloody struggles in Ireland.

In 1798, after years of prodding by Irish nationals, a small band of French soldiers landed in Ireland, hoping to stir up local rebellions and take Dublin. A short time before, sections of the island had rebelled against the English, although they’d been wiped out by the time the French landed. After several skirmishes, the English defeated the small French force; a few years later, Ireland was incorporated into England and during another bloody struggle, some 30,000 Irish died.

Flanagan’s novel takes these remote events and brings them to life. He mixes his action from narration to letters, diary entries and excerpts from histories written by his characters. Large sections are told via local priest Arthur Broome’s memoirs, written some years after the events, but others come from the diary of Sean MacKenna, a schoolmaster. Letters, other memoirs and diaries complete the multi-angled portrait.

When Flanagan bounces between characters and points of view, I’m reminded of Rashomon’s multiple angles of the same simple story. Several characters are English and look down on the Irish, often in a patricidal, coolly dismissive attitude that mixes loathing with a vague sense of problem solving:

“I know these people,’ Edgeworth said. “They are not governed by reason. All the laws and pamphlets ever written mean less to them than a poem. I have written against the dangers of poetry in this country. It is their only academy… hatred breeding hatred. I have tried. No one listened to me. ” (pg 399)

Meanwhile, the Irish characters have a more complex sense of their well-being. Several join the United Irishmen and fight alongside the French, while others (like MacKenna) stay away the fighting. Many often express the same lines about how they can finally escape the oppressive English while others only want to live their lives in peace, hoping to escape eviction by their absentee landlords.

It’s a sad, almost pathetic story. The Irish are quickly caught up with a charismatic French general, Jean-Joesph Humbert, who leads them in a form of guerrilla warfare and marches them to oblivion in the small town of Ballinamuck, the place of the pig. The English, who often say how poorly they feel for these downtrodden people, stamp them down like animals, slicing them down in battle and burning down everything in their path. It’s a sad, tragic story and one that continued up through the time Flanagan wrote this novel.

Written in 1978, The Year of the French kept reminding me of America’s actions in Vietnam a few years earlier. There too, the Americans destroyed villages in order to save them, went after local insurrection and fought decisive battles against smaller forces. There too, the larger, almost colonial force was never quite able to beat out rebellion; when Flanagan wrote this novel, Ireland was still in The Troubles, with the IRA setting off bombs and the British army patrolling the streets. Some 200 years on and the same fights were being waged, the same people’s lives wasted in senseless violence.

Rating: 8/10. One of the more dense books I’ve read this year and something that sucked me into it’s world, The Year of the French is a great historical novel. Flanagan captures the troubled spirit of these times: the conflicted villagers, the loyal British soldiers, even the mad landlord Tyrawley, a man who wants to help people but just doesn’t see the Irish as people. Recommended, especially for people into British history.


More Than A Musical: Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist

Oliver TwistOliver Twist by Charles Dickens

A confession: I’ve never seen the Oliver musical. But I know of it, like more or less everyone I know. And like them, I hadn’t read the book either. But as part of my ongoing quest to read all of Charles Dickens novels, I dove into it earlier this summer.

You could make a good case that Twist is his first proper novel. At the time, Dickens was just coming off an unexpected success, The Pickwick Papers, a story about a group of rich old guys and Sam Weller, who gave his story a spark of life. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that book wasn’t a planned one: it rambles and goes on and eventually winds down rather suddenly when Pickwick takes ill. I’ve always felt it ended simply because Dickens wanted to move on. And what he moved on to was Oliver Twist.

Thanks to the popular musical, it’s arguably Dickens best-known novel, although it’s far from his best. It follows the life of the titular orphan, who moves from orphanage to a life of crime to living with a well-off family. It’s the kind of read where you can tell right from the get-go things are going to be alright for Oliver. But then, they’d have to: the famous “Can I have some more” scene happens right at the beginning and things go down for Oliver from there, having him dragged into court, to a family who don’t want him and eventually, begging his way to London and it’s criminal underground.

Even at 25, Dickens had a knack for memorable characters. Here we’ve got career criminal (and general asshole) William Sikes; Fagin, leader of a gang of street kids; the Artful Dodger, who’s colourful, more or less amoral and doesn’t appear as often as you’d think. And those are just the self-acknowledged bad guys. What about the people who think they’re doing good? Here, Dickens rips into them, the social critic he always was.

One standout is Mr. Bumble, a self-important beadle and generally spineless coward. He’s the kind of jerk who looks to have power over people who aren’t strong enough to fight back, puffing himself up with this authority. In the 19th century, he was a beadle; today he’d probably be a mall cop. He’s completely full of himself and completely unaware of how much of an ass he is. He’s constantly saying darkly hilarious lines about setting an example for everyone else, which means he’ll have to get the best of things. An example: he makes his poor, underdressed companions ride outside the coach because what good would it do them if their beadle got sick?

But when facing people who aren’t poor or children, Bumble folds like a cheap suit: when confronted by someone with real authority at book’s end, he throws his wife under the bus and says “Well, the law is an ass.” He’s not evil on the same level as Fagin or Sikes, who generally make a living at breaking the law, but he kept making me think of Hannah Arendt, who I’m sure would’ve had something to say about him.

As for Oliver himself, he’s actually the least interesting part of the book: he’s dull, generally there to comment on how evil or nice someone is and has things happen to him, rather than setting things into motion. When he’s at the forefront, he’s almost a cartoon of a well-meaning person. When he sees someone pickpocket, his reaction is outrageous shock: just look at Cruikshank’s illustration (no wonder he translates so well to theatre). In the second half of the book, he eventually fades to the sidelines as Dickens focuses on more interesting characters like Sikes or Fagin. After all, if he’s not suffering for our pity, there isn’t much else for him to do.

I think you can tell how inexperienced Dickens was when he wrote this: it’s less episodic than Pickwick Papers and feels like something he was learning as he put it together. It starts off kind of heavy-handed. But he was a quick study: it picks up quite a bit as it goes on, mostly when it goes away from Oliver, and gains a certain melodramatic quality in it’s latter stages.

Rating: 7/10. It’s not a major Dickens novel and it’s got one of his weakest characters in Oliver, but like bad pizza, a dull Dickens novel is still pretty good. Recommended.