Indigo

November 22, 2014

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Early in Clemens J Setz’s novel Indigo there is a discussion of the uncanny valley – the theory that as simulations (for example, robots or animations) approach human likeness, they cause revulsion in the final moments before reaching complete realism (the valley refers to the dip in the graph that records how comfortable people feel):

“…people were shaken, profoundly shaken. That’s known as the uncanny valley…The uncanny effect is always present with particularly realistic-seeming simulations, especially of babies.”

In Setz’s novel this revulsion is caused by children suffering from Indigo Syndrome, a condition which manifests itself by its effect on others:

“People were getting sick by the dozen and didn’t know why. Mothers vomiting over their baby’s cradle. A big mess. Dizziness, diarrhoea, rashes, down to permanent damage of all internal organs, these are serious symptoms after all which can’t be explained psychosomatically.”

The reader himself also enters something of an uncanny valley in the novel’s construction, though this is more likely to result in dizziness than nausea. Told from the point of view of two different characters, though not chronologically, and with other texts inserted at regular intervals, the novel is something of a puzzle, requiring the reader to keep careful track of events. A gap between novel simulation and reality is created by one of the charters sharing the same name as the author, though Setz has said this is simply a result of originally writing in first person, changing to third when he admitted to himself that the narrator basically shared his personality.

Clemens Setz (the character) comes into contact the Indigo children (the author plays a clever game where, as he moves back and forward in time, the acceptable term for referring to the children changes) when he works at the Helianau Institute, where many of the children from Austria have been placed. His time there ends after an altercation with the Head of the Institute, Dr Rudolph, over the ‘relocation’ of the children. Over the next few years he investigates the events surrounding the Institute, compiling folders of evidence, some of which is reproduced in the novel. The author presents Setz in a nuanced way that leaves the reader uncertain whether he is uncovering the truth or dangerously obsessed.

The other main character is Richard Tatzel, one of the Indigo children. We meet him, however, as an adult, with his effect much faded, but struggling to fit in with social norms. When, for example, a neighbour comes to the door to apologise because she fears her son has insulted him, he replies with an invented story of further abuse:

“You should see what they do with the mongoloid from the yard next door!…They took turns punching him the stomach. Your son was there too.”

When he reads that Setz has been acquitted in a murder trial he slowly develops a desire to see him and find out what he has uncovered.

This summary makes the novel seem like a straight forward thriller, but Setz’s story is not told coherently, and Tatzel’s lack of 100% humanity makes his motivation difficult to understand. It is also scattered with further texts, some more clearly linked to the main narrative than others – it begins, for example, with a (true) story about the use of steel from the German fleet scuttled at Scapa Flow. In some novels this can, of course appear gimmicky, but here I found it worthwhile as the reader’s experience of the novel reflects society’s reaction to these children.

Interestingly, it is not long since I read another contemporary novel about children who cause illness in adults, Ben Marcus’ The Flame Alphabet. I would have to agree with Setz’s translator, Ross Benjamin, when he says that this is not simply about illness:

“I wonder whether it doesn’t say as much about our attitudes to anything we can’t understand, explain, master or control, to what we’ve been calling the uncanny, the strange and creepy and slippery and elusive. A frequent “attitude” explored in this novel seems perhaps a very basic human one: a simple incapacity to get a complete handle on things that profoundly and uncontrollably destabilize our world.”

In this way it explores a very modern anxiety which arises from a belief we should be able to understand and therefore control everything coupled to a realisation we cannot – something that is experienced by most people in relation to their children, but might also be a reaction to much of the modern world. This is a demanding but rewarding novel which will hopefully find a readership beyond it’s the one its rather pulpy cover suggests.

Leonardo’s Hands

November 16, 2014

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My first exposure to the work of Austrian writer Alois Hotschnig came when Peirene Press published Maybe This Time in 2011. Peirene are often the first to introduce a writer to an English speaking audience, but on this occasion Hotschnig had appeared once before when his third novel, Leonardo’s Hands, was translated by Peter Filkins in 1999 for the University of Nebraska Press. Leonardo’s Hands is a novel rather than a collection of short stories, but it still feels fragmented, its central experience broken into narrative pieces which the reader must put together, not inappropriate for a novel concerned with the healing process.

An indication that the reader will have to reconstruct the novel’s wholeness is that its starting point is not revealed until page 34:

“Police are still completely in the dark in their search for a driver who fled the scene of an accident. Innsbruck police know the driver was involved in the crash…claiming the lives of two people…Twenty-four-year-old Anna K is still in critical condition. Though she survived, she has not yet come out of a coma…”

As by this time we have acclimatised ourselves to the fact that the novel’s protagonist, Kurt Weyrath, is a part of an ambulance crew (or rescue worker in the terms of the translation), our initial reaction to the news report (one of a number of different texts to be found in the narrative) is that chronology is intact. It soon becomes clear, however, that Weyrath is the fleeing driver and his subsequent career change is an attempt to redeem himself. (In his introduction, Filkins tells us that Rettung, the German for ‘rescue’, also means ‘salvation’).

The news report, a device used again in the events of the novel’s conclusion, provides a context for the novel’s other voices. These include anonymous reflections on the job of rescue worker:

“Indifference was a professional tool without which it was impossible to do the job, as indispensable as the latex gloves that were always nearby.”

Also unattributed conversations, letters, and lost fragments of dialogue:

“But where are you really talking me?”

The effect of this is to imbue everything with wider significance by robbing it of a particular context, while at the same time insisting that the reader create a context if they wish to understand the novel as a narrative. That last question, which lies entirely alone, is clearly a patient inquiring, but can also be read as a plea from the reader. The earlier advice, whether Weyrath’s thoughts or generic counselling, serves to point out his weak spot. When told at a traffic accident he can stop searching, he hears Anna’s voice:

“Look further here, Kurt, you can’t drive away again, you have to be here for me, do you hear, Kurt?”

Weyrath cannot find salvation in his new role and instead takes up position at Anna’s bedside:

“Sit down next to me, Kurt, that way we’ll be together. Pick me up, why don’t you say something, grab hold of me. My eyes, look into my eyes. I’m opening my eyes.”

Eventually Anna does wake up and the novel’s second half goes on to chart their relationship. Anna has, of course, been a blank space until now; her character almost incidental. In what develops Hotschnig demonstrates the complexity, perhaps even the futility, of atonement.

Leonardo’s Hands (the title refers to Da Vinci’s Annunciation where Anna feels the message is conveyed and accepted by the angel and Mary’s hands) is a short novel (less than 150 pages) but its style means that it feels like a long journey for the characters– the reader is filling in the gaps, after all. For the same reason, despite our access to their inner lives, our understanding is only partial. When, towards the end, Anna says about their story, “We have something on our side that doesn’t really exist, we call it the truth. We will clear ourselves through inconsistencies,” she is to some extent describing Hotschnig’s approach. Filkins likens it to trying to understand a crisis by channel –hopping between interview, report, analysis. This gives the novel an invigorating urgency that is difficult to resist.

The Inspector Barlach Mysteries

November 14, 2014

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The Swiss writer Friedrich Durrenmatt is perhaps best known as a playwright, but among his other writing is a number of detective novels, including the two collected here by the University of Chicago Press, The Judge and his Hangman (1950) and Suspicion (1951), both translated by Joel Agee. You will frequently see them described as ‘philosophical’ detective fiction, as Durrenmatt uses the form to explore issues of morality, but if you also take this to mean that they are in any way lacking as examples of the genre you would be mistaken. The Judge and his Hangman is a carefully constructed puzzle in which layer upon layer of mystery is unravelled until only in the final pages do we understand the truth. Suspicion is a bleaker, more direct novel, where tension rather than mystery is Durrenmatt’s main weapon as he places his protagonist in more jeopardy than in perhaps any other crime novel I have read.

Inspector Barlach is a detective in the Maigret tradition: unsympathetic, largely closed to the reader, pursuing his investigation without either consulting or confiding in others. He is approaching both retirement and death. “The old inspector,” his boss, Lutz, says of him at one point, “…is, admittedly, somewhat rusty.” His imminent mortality is a less likely trait, with most writers keen to invest in a long-running series rather than a couple of short novels. It is revealed in the novel’s central scene when Barlach confronts the man implicated in his current case, the murder of a police officer:

“You’ll have to hurry up Barlach…You don’t have much time. The doctors give you another year if you let them operate on you now.”

It is in this conversation with Gastman that we discover their relationship dates back forty years when, as a result of Barlach’s proposition that to commit a crime “is an act of stupidity,” Gastman vowed to do so in his presence without Barlach being able to prove that he did it.

“Three days later… we were crossing the the Mahmoud Bridge with a German merchant and you pushed him into the water in front of my eyes.”

Barlach has been hunting him ever since, giving the novel a Sherlock / Moriarty feel, with Barlach’s solution revealing the moral ambiguity at the heart of crime and punishment, the novel’s title noticeably referring only to judgement and retribution rather than truth and justice.

The second novel, Suspicion, begins just after Barlach’s operation as he recovers in hospital. As he glances through old copies of Life magazine, his doctor, Hungertobel, turns pale; when Barlach presses him, he admits that he thought he recognised a picture of notorious concentration camp doctor, Nehle. However, he quickly dismisses his suspicions as ridiculous: the man he thought it was, Emmenberger, was in Chile at the time, and Nehle is known to have committed suicide after the war. Barlach defends his suspicions:

“Even if it’s a crime to think what we’re thinking, let’s not be afraid of our thoughts. How can we overcome them – presuming they’re wrong – unless we examine them, and how can we do that unless we admit them to our conscience?”

While the novel begins in traditional detective mode, with Barlach uncovering a number of clues that Emmenberger might be Nehle, it changes tone when he decides to have himself admitted to Emmenberger’s clinic, an undercover operation that is in fact a confrontation between good and evil. Anyone who has experienced the powerlessness of being a hospital patient, even under 21st century conditions, will quickly identify with the danger Barlach has placed himself in by challenging Emenberger (including paying a journalist to publish a story alluding to the connection). The atmosphere of the scenes which take place in clinic have more in common with the horror genre than the detective with their use of the grotesque and ‘trust no-one’ trope.

I would highly recommend these novels (especially in this handy one volume format) to anyone who enjoys detective fiction, but I don’t feel a love of the genre is a prerequisite: these are the kind of detective novels which demonstrate the way the form can be used to examine morally complex issues while remaining a page-turning read.

Lost Books – Two Women

November 9, 2014

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There is a temptation to think that books exist in a Darwinian universe where the fittest survive as classics and those less worthy perish into out-of-print extinction. Of course, as in the animal world, those blessed with longevity do not necessarily possess the best qualities, simply those qualities which are best suited to survival. Books also have the advantage that, Jurassic Park like, they can be resurrected for a new audience at any point – you need only think of Sandor Marai’s Embers, or Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. Reason tells us, however, that not every neglected text has been unfairly allowed to die out, and that some should remain the sole preserve of academics. Harry Mulisch’s Two Women is a case in point – not a bad novel, but one that feels very much of its time (the 1970s) and unlikely to survive long if released into the present literary climate.

I’ve long been an admirer of Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, though only a few of his many novels have been translated into English. I was delighted to obtain a copy of Two Women, originally published in 1975 and then translated into English by Els Early in 1980 for John Calder – at that time Calder published a number of exciting European writers like Heinrich Boll and Alain Robbe-Grillet, as well as Beckett, William Burroughs and Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions. It’s a slim novel, a little over 120 pages, which recounts a relationship between two women (the title is something of a giveaway, though the male authorship is not).

Laura, the narrator, is older and recently divorced; her attraction to twenty-year-old Sylvia is immediate and unexpected:

“Never before had I felt so clearly from one moment to the next that I was doing something that was going to change my life. Never before had I been involved with a woman, and at that point I hardly realised what I was about to do. Presumably I still though I was being carried along by some platonic, aesthetic feeling, as found in books.”

They move in together but Sylvia refuses to tell her mother – Laura must pretend to be her boyfriend’s mother. She even arranges to have a photograph taken with a young man on a trip to zoo to provide evidence of ‘Thomas’, an example of calculation that foreshadows her behaviour later in the novel. Laura’s ex-husband. Alfred, is puzzled by her new relationship, describing it as a ‘performance’ and a ‘game’, and speculating it originates in her inability to have children. To be fair, Laura herself seems uncertain of her sexuality:

“Each of us were only lesbian in that we slept together, but neither of us were women who got sick at the idea of having to sleep with a man. We never went to cafes or clubs for homosexuals, or to one of those women ghettos which could be found in the city, and as far as I was concerned, I knew there would never be another woman in my life except her.”

It is because the novel exists almost entirely in the world of sexual politics that it can feel dated. When two men pick up Laura and Sylvia in Nice, they become furious when they realise they are not going to sleep with them. Even a visit to the theatre sees an all-male performance of Orpheus and Eurydice, masturbation included.

All of this takes place in Laura’s memories as she drives to France where her mother has died. She has not spoken to her mother since she attacked Sylvia with her cane on a visit where Laura had asked Sylvia to stay in the background. Since then, Sylvia has left Laura for Alfred (when I said the novel was about sexual politics, I wasn’t kidding). This, in turn, leads to the novel’s dramatic conclusion which I am now largely going to give away because: a) no-one else is going to read it; and b) it was the one event that made it both interesting and powerful. When Laura returns from France, Sylvia appears to tell, her she’s pregnant:

“That’s what you wanted, didn’t you? You wanted a child from me…I’ve come to bring it to you.”

This is what a book group would call a ‘talking point’, though, again, it feels dated as a result of both advances in technology and attitudes.

I certainly have no regrets for having both tracked down and read Two Women – if nothing else it provides a further dimension to my reading of Mulisch. However, I don’t feel I can demand that it be immediately brought back into print. It’s a novel whose time has probably passed, best left to be discovered by those are prepared to dig down into the lost layers of the second-hand shelves.

The Glory of Life

November 7, 2014

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Not many writers inspire an adjective: Dickens, of course, Rabelais, and, above all, Kafka. This intimidating legacy has not encouraged other writers to leave well alone; from Alan Bennett to Haruki Murakami, the Kafka legend has been plundered and parodied, and now German author Michael Kumpfmuller (a name unlikely to be extended to descriptive use) has chosen to fictionalise the last year of his life in the novel The Glory of Life. Fourteen years ago Kumpfmuller published the comedic Adventures of a Bed Salesman, also translated by Anthea Bell into English. Two novels since have failed to attract the attention of UK or US publishers, and it can probably be assumed that the Kafka connection (and Haus Publishing’s focus on literature in translation) helped this fourth novel get noticed.

The Glory of Life takes as its starting point the meeting between Kafka and Dora Diamant in July 1923 in Graal-Muritz on the Baltic Sea where Kafka was holidaying and Dora was working as a cook at a home for Jewish children. Dora was the last in a line of young women (of course they started when Kafka was young, but by now he was forty while Dora was twenty-five) including the Felice and Milena now immortalised in Letters to… The correspondence to Dora has been lost allowing Kumpfmuller more artistic licence. Kumpfmuller presents the story from both Dora and Kafka’s point of view. Here, for example, is their first meeting:

“She tells him in far too much of a rush: I saw you on the on the beach with your wife – although she knows it can’t have been his wife or why has she felt so light-headed since he came to stand close to her in the kitchen? … I’d like to see you again, he says…She feels like calling her reply out loud: as soon as you wake up, whenever you like.”

The attraction is instant and all-consuming. It is also reciprocated, as we can see in the echo of Dora’s thoughts in Kafka’s own:

“…he knows at once in the morning that she is there somewhere, as if there were a rope between him and her, and they are slowly working their way along it towards each other.”

Soon they are planning their life together in Berlin, where they do eventually spend many happy months together despite food shortages and rampant inflation. (While they are far from wealthy, they are never quiet poor, and the sources of their income remains something of a mystery). Kafka had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 19717, and his condition had to be carefully managed, eventually deteriorating to the point he has to be readmitted to a sanatorium. The novel ends with his death in 1924 (as a factual event, this can hardly be termed a spoiler).

The Glory of Life is a touching love story, with Dora’s devotion to Kafka often affecting. At this point in his life Kafka was writing short stories, including ‘The Hunger Artist’ (ironically weeks prior to his death from starvation). His writing is mentioned frequently, yet the novel sheds little light on it. It is an activity he undertakes as opposed to an intellectual process that is revealed to us. Of course, that may not be Kumpfmuller’s concern, but then why chose a writer as your central character if his writing does not interest you?

For this reason, Kafka often comes over as a rather bland character. There is little conflict in his life, particularly in his relationship with Dora. She, and his sister, Ottla, seem to go out of their way to please him. Despite his gloomy reputation, in this novel he seems mostly happy, even as death approaches: “he feels surprisingly well”; “a new calm mood sets in”; “he is in a cheerful mood until evening.” He considers Dora’ future after his death but decides “she will be all right.”

I enjoyed The Glory of Life and its recreation of Kafka’s final year. Kumpfmuller’s attention to setting is a particularly interesting – though Kafka is in some ways remote from ordinary life, the novel also shows him immersed in it. My misgivings lie in the novel’s inability to give us much insight into Kafka the writer – and also in the irony that he has somehow become trapped in a rather conventional novel.

Thanks to Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life for my copy of The Glory of Life.

F

November 3, 2014

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“Fate,” says the writer Arthur Friedland, the unifying character of Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel F:

“The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.”

F, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, is a novel about how much control we have over our lives. Its characters, in particular Arthur’s three sons, Ivan, Eric and Martin, all look to place their faith in something that will give their lives direction and meaning only to find themselves guilty of falsifying that meaning. Martin becomes a priest who does not believe in God; Ivan dedicates his life to art only to use his talent as a forger; and Eric enters the world of finance, sustaining his investment company through deception and fraud. The F of the title, however, stands for none of these things – fate, faith, forgery or fraud (none of which begin with f in German) – but family, as Kehlmann has explained:

“’Family’ is quite a big word, so in the case of my novel only the first letter remained. When I started out I thought: ‘I want to do to the family novel something similar to what I did to the historical novel when I wrote Measuring the World. Which is to write an unusual specimen of the form. A family novel for people who don’t trust family novels.”

For this reason perhaps, it’s a family novel in which the members of the family are rarely together. Only in the first chapter, a family trip on which Arthur takes his three sons to see a hypnotist, do they seem at all united. Despite his protests that hypnotism will not work on him, Arthur is led to the stage. He answers Lindeman, the hypnotist, honestly – he’s a writer whose work is largely unpublished living off his wife’s money. “Maybe ambition would be an improvement,” Lindeman tells him, “Starting today you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs.” Arthur is still dismissive of the hypnotist as they leave, but when he drops Martin off at his mother’s, he also leaves Eric and Ivan (he has remarried). He drives off and his sons do not see him again until they are adults.

The novel, too, travels forward in time. We learn that Martin has become a priest but that he has yet to find faith – instead he overeats and continues to enter Rubik’s Cube championships, a toy his father gave him. Eric, an investment banker, has been using his clients’ money to make it appear as if their investments have been successful but now has nothing left and knows it’s only a matter of time before he is found out. The pressure, and a steady supply of prescription drugs, mean he now has an uncertain relationship with reality:

“Stay calm. Always calm. I look up, there he is, sitting in front of me. Martin. My brother. I look at the phone, the message is still there. I look at his face. Is it my imagination after all? Am I sitting here alone?”

Ivan, having decided that his own artistic talent didn’t stretch to genius, is forging paintings for the artist’s estate which he administers. Kehlmann connects the narratives using events like the lunch which Eric and Martin share (we see it from both brothers point of view) and characters such as the boy in the Bubbletea is not a drink I like t-shirt. He also includes a chapter called ‘Family’, purportedly written by Arthur, which traces his family back over generations in a way that makes life seem bleak and meaningless.

Novels by their very nature, however, imply fate rather than chance, subject as they are to the author’s plan. Kehlmann makes no attempt to disguise this, creating a puzzle of interconnecting parts which the reader must twist and turn, like the Rubik’s Cube which Martin cannot leave behind in his childhood, until the pattern is plain. A further clue is given when Marie, Arthur’s granddaughter, looks closely at a painting by Ivan:

“She stepped even closer, and immediately everything dissolved. There were no more little people, no more little flags, no anchor, no bent watch…
She stepped back and it all came together again.”

Is Kehlmann suggesting life is meaningless when viewed from close up, but subject to pattern when the proper perspective is taken? Or is that a property only of art? Is the novel’s form in conflict with its meaning? Is its comic tone at odds with its bleak message, a question once asked of Arthur’s first novel:

“Is My Name is No One a merry experiment and thus the pure product of a playful mind, or is it a malevolent attack on the soul of every person who reads it?”

Rarely does a novel so easily read, ask the reader such difficult questions.

Can’t and Won’t

November 1, 2014

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It’s not unusual for a previously unheralded writer to win an international prize, but it is unusual for a previously unheralded American writer to win an international prize. Such was the case when Lydia Davis won the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, recognition that perhaps began with the publication of her Collected Stories in 2009. This obscurity is partly explained by her chosen form – the short story – but also by the very nature of those short stories, which force the reader to question the rules and boundaries of the genre. Can’t and Won’t, the title of her latest collection, seems a reference to this very fact, a stubborn refusal to be proscribed by expectations.

The most obvious eccentricity is the brevity of many of the stories. Here, in its entirety, is ‘Bloomingtom’:

“Now that I have been here for a little while, I can say with confidence that I have never been here before.”

While its single sentence format makes it one of the shortest stories in the collection, the majority of the stories do not exceed a page. Of course, you may well argue that it is simply too short to be a story, but it is difficult to justify such a proposition with anything other than prejudice. It contains, after all, character, setting and plot.

More interestingly, the stories seem unusual in their rejection of fiction (there is, for example, a considerable difference between ‘Bloomington’ and perhaps the most famous one sentence story, Augusto Monterroso’s ‘The Dinosaur’ – “When he awoke, the dinosaur was still there.”). Davis’ stories in this collection are without exception in some way ‘found’ stories. Some even follow the pattern of found poetry, using an already existing text and editing it into a short story – those Davis has extracted from the letters of Flaubert. Davis explains the process:

“My aim was to leave Flaubert’s language and content as little changed as possible, only shaping the excerpt enough to create a balanced story, though I took whatever liberties I thought were necessary.”

The sensation that the stories are ‘found’, however, persists throughout, with those that do not originate in Flaubert’s life seemingly arising from Davis’ own. Another reoccurring series, for example, are letters of complaint which Davis says she has sent. ‘Letter to a Frozen Peas Manufacturer’ complains that the peas inside the packet are much more appetising than those illustrated on the outside. Other stories are simply marked ‘dream’.

In this way the stories seem to create larger whole: not a narrative but a character which we can (no doubt inaccurately for you cannot, even if you should want to, put every aspect of yourself onto the page) equate with Davis. When she writes about her family in ‘The Seals’ we have no reason to think the story is not autobiographical. This explains why a number of the stories are about writing. In ‘Revise 1’ and ‘Revise 2’ she comments tongue-in-cheek on the process:

“A fire does not need to be called warm or red. Remove any more adjectives.
The goose is really too silly: take the goose out. It is enough that there is a search for footprints.”

More seriously in ‘Writing’ she says:

“Life is too serious for me to go on writing.”

This cumulative effect prevents the shorter or more humorous stories seeming trivial. Overall the collection develops a sense of death and ageing:

“When you’re very young you’re usually happy, at least you’re ready to be. You get older and see things more clearly and there’s less to be happy about. Also, you start losing people.”

This perhaps finds its best expression in ‘Local Obits’, nine pages of sentences from obituaries such as, “Helen loved long walks, gardening, and her grandchildren.”

This, then, is the perfect short story collection. Easy to dip in to – with stories to fill even a few spare seconds – but also rewarding a thorough read through.

Leaving the Sea

October 24, 2014

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Like Donald Antrim, Ben Marcus is an American writer of experimental fiction published in the UK by Granta. With three novels behind him, most recently The Flame Alphabet (in which children’s language becomes toxic to adults), Leaving the Sea is his first substantial collection of short stories, the oldest of which was published as long ago as 2000. It is split into six sections with the more conventional stories separated from the more experimental until, it might be argued, both forms coincide in the final story, ‘The Moors’.

Almost all Marcus’ characters suffer from an isolation that is evidenced in broken or troubled relationships. In the opening story, ‘What Have You Done?,’ Paul returns to his family home after a lengthy absence. Though we do not discover what he has done, it has clearly put such pressure on his relationship with his parents and sister that they no longer trust anything he says, unwilling to accept, though they deny this, his assertion that he is married with a child:

“Paul determined that if anyone asked him, in the years to come, he’d say that if you’ve ever scared someone, even accidentally or as a joke, that person will flinch when he sees you.”

In ‘I Can Say Many Nice Things’, Fleming, a writer teaching creative writing on a cruise ship, finds communication with his wife strained:

“’Okay,’ she said, in the classic way she ended her phone calls. As in, Okay, I’ve had enough, this is over.”

The missing member of his class (was their disappearance responsible for the head count on the first night?) becomes someone to emulate:

“This was the perfect place to miss out on the next head count, should it come. No one would find him here…”

Illness is also a recurrent feature. Julian, in ‘The Dark Arts’, is suffering from an autoimmune disease and has gone to Germany for treatment. His illness seems to have fractured his relationship with his girlfriend, Hayley, and he waits on her arrival each day with less and less hope:

“She would fail to appear today, no doubt, as she had failed to appear every day for the last two weeks.”

When she does arrive he finds himself unable to tell her that he missed her, already too far along a darker path of his own. Illness is also responsible for the eerie opening to ‘Rollingwood’, about a father left to look after his young son, when the boy wakens “wedged under the machine” – a machine to ease his breathing as it turns out. Throughout the story his son is generally referred to as ‘the boy’ suggesting a certain alienation, emphasised by his description:

“…his pink-rimmed eyes, crusty and dry in the corners, and his skin not so much pale as yellow.”

This alienation is demonstrated again and again in stories involving relationships between sons and parents. In ‘Watching Mysteries with My Mother’, the narrator begins, “I don’t think my mother will die today,” and goes on to speculate about death, his mother’s and his own, while discussing the murder mystery programmes his mother loves to watch. Both are fascinated by the mystery of death, though in quite different ways. In possibly my favourite story (though I also loved ‘The Moors’), ‘The Loyalty Protocol’, Edward is reprimanded for taking his parents along to an evacuation drill. The story unfolds with apocalyptic dread, particularly in the light of recent spread of Ebola.

A number of the stories use a more intense form of language. At times this works on the level of Martian poetry, presenting something familiar in an unfamiliar way (“In daylight she wore motion-limiting weights called shoes”) but its ultimate aim is to evoke a reaction beyond meaning. Marcus has said:

“I tend to feel that language is a tool that we really hardly understand. If I put words together in a certain way, suddenly I’m feeling things I haven’t felt before. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the ability of language to do that. To cause so much feeling in us.”

In the final story, ‘The Moors’, Marcus uses this experimental approach to recreate a very ordinary incident to great effect. It’s a tour de force of internalised anxiety as Thomas stands in line behind a co-worker he wants to casually talk to, Marcus stretching a few minutes to over forty pages. It and ‘The Loyalty Protocol’ are among the best short stories I’ve read this year. Like Antrim, Marcus is an exciting, original voice in American fiction.

You can read some of his stories here.

Lost Books – Honeymoon

October 21, 2014

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When Stu over at Winstonsdad reviewed Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant and casually mentioned he was in with a chance of winning the Nobel Prize I thought I would investigate further. This proved fairly straight-forward: although little of his work had been translated into English, and most of that was out of print, I picked up a copy of Honeymoon (translated by Barbara Wright in 1992) for under a fiver. Within a few days he was indeed announced as the winner much to everyone’s (well, not Stu’s obviously) surprise and my delight – copies of his out-of-print work were quickly out of my price range.

Honeymoon seems to be typical of Modiano’s work – the general consensus seems to be that he tackles the same themes again and again – in that it is short (Simenon is an influence) and deals with the German Occupation of France. The novel begins with a suicide in a hotel in Milan. The central character, Jean, overhears it discussed at the bar:

“What had caused her to do it I might never know.”

Only later does he discover that he knows the woman in question – Ingrid Rigaud – and, years later, abandons his own life in order to attempt to answer the question he asked himself that day. Having said farewell to his wife and friends at the airport he leaves, not for Rio to shoot a documentary as they think, but for Milan, returning to Paris to in order to “pick up her traces.” Modiano now has two characters ending their lives (though in different ways) for obscure and shadowy reasons. One clue is Jean’s sense that the past is inseparable from the present:

“For a long time – and this particular time with greater force than usual – summer has been a season that gives me a sense of emptiness and absence, and takes me back to the past…The past and the present merge in my mind through a phenomenon of superimposition.”

The summer in Milan, when he heard of Ingrid’s suicide, merges into an earlier summer when he first meets Ingrid and her husband in Saint-Raphael, hitching a lift with them to Saint-Tropez. Modiano shifts feely between the different years throughout the novel as if to emphasise meaninglessness of chronology. A number of clues to Ingrid’s past are in evidence – only to be understood later. Though her passport states she is from Vienna, when Jean mentions that he has been there recently, she does not react. Later, as they switch the lights off to avoid being invited to a neighbour’s party, Jean asks what they will do if the neighbour taps them on the shoulder (Ingrid has already said they will pretend to be sleeping if they are seen):

“Well, in that case we’ll pretend to be dead.”

Ingrid and Riguad’s relationship with each other, and that part of France, began with The Occupation when they fled Paris together to a place where “people behaved as if the war didn’t exist.” (This is the honeymoon of the title). Ingrid’s Viennese origins suggest she is Jewish, or certainly that she came to France with her father to escape the Nazis. When the Germans begin to investigate people even there, they hide in a villa that belongs to friend of Rigaud’s mother:

“They built fortifications along the coast and came prowling around the villa. Ingrid and Rigaud had to put out the lights and pretend to be dead.”

Once again, Modiano suggests the past is a template for the present.

Jean’s relationship to these memories are unclear. Though he is investigating Ingrid’s past, there is little evidence he has unearthed such detail. (He meets her only twice). It is as if what he is trying to discover sits alongside his attempts to discover it in the narrative. At the same time he is moving into Rigaud’s old apartment, he is also reliving his own past, “in all these places where we had lived in the old days and which I have now come back to.” After spending his life making documentaries about explorers, Jean now seems to be on his own internal exploration.

Though brief, this novel seemed to me rich in atmosphere and ideas. It reminded me a little of Muriel Spark, particularly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with its masterful use of a non-chronological narrative where words and events echo across the pages. If this is typical of Modiano’s work, then I look forward to reading more.

A Map of Tulsa

October 17, 2014

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Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa is in many ways the kind of typical first novel that creative writing courses have largely eliminated: in it a gauche young man, Jim Praley, falls in love with a seemingly unattainable young woman, Adrienne Booker, whom he momentarily seems to attain. Adrienne ticks all the boxes for such devoted affection: she has rejected the conventional pathway of college taken up by Jim to stay at home in Tulsa and paint – something she can afford to do because of her wealthy family, which she is, of course, alienated from. The novel also charts Jim’s relationship with his hometown for which he feels an inexplicable longing even while recognising a lack of belonging.

When Jim returns from college he gets casually invited to a party for Adrienne’s birthday – the kind of party you feel he would not have got near when at school there. His attraction to Adrienne is instant but we see her quickly take command of the relationship:

“She took my arm. ‘Can I take him?’
Edith shooed me away, as if eager to get rid of me.
Adrienne steered me out into the hall. I felt mom-escorted, stiff-armed, institutionalized by these ladies.”

In the early hours of that morning they make love, with Adrienne again talking the initiative. Lytal suggests that Jim’s innocence leaves him disconnected from Adrienne:

“The sounds Adrienne was making seemed connected up to a story I hadn’t followed. I couldn’t tell if she was faking it or not.”

Although Jim says “he did not assume it was a repeatable experience,” he pursues her and she eventually agrees to see him again. We can see he is already forming his own idea of her in his head, regarding her decision to drop out of school as “Out the box. Ruthless…you’ve actually done something with your time.” Later in the novel he says, “It was aspirational when I first dated her.” He agrees to come to her apartment each morning to teach her about the history of art, the irony being that he sees her as the teacher. As Lytal explained in an interview:

“He doesn’t exactly worship her, but he takes her very seriously as a kind of sensei who can teach him self-discipline, art, personal dignity.”

When they are in her studio Jim watches her paint or sleeps:

“Only when she wanted a break did she turn to me, and then not to chat or heaven forbid touch or kiss, but to go through the art books.”

Eventually she tells him she wants to go back to painting alone, seemingly ending the relationship – only to revive it again when she asks him (via a third party) to come on a weekend away with her and a group of friends. Only after that do they become lovers and spend the summer together, but the signs have been there since the beginning that what Jim regards as permanent, Adrienne sees as transitory.

While then novel’s first part details the events of that summer, its second moves forward five years to examine whether Jim’s feelings have changed, both for Adrienne and for Tulsa. It would be unfair to say too much about this as clearly events have moved on. This structure works well: part one unfolds much as expected; part two allows Lytal to add a further dimension to his exploration of the relationship. (If I was honest I would say part one seems heavily autobiographical, part two doesn’t)

Superficially, Adrienne seems to be using Jim – switching him on and off as she pleases, making him as much an audience as a boyfriend. However, in retrospect, Jim gains more from Adrienne than she does from him, as he realises towards the end:

“I never really opened up to Adrienne. I never confessed. I worshipped her but I sacrificed nothing.”

What initially seems Adrienne’s indifference to Jim comes to look more like Jim’s abandonment of Adrienne. He often talks about her giving him a ‘map of Tulsa’, that is showing and taking him places he would otherwise never have seen; in fact what she was mapping was his idea of himself.

A Map of Tulsa is a readable if traditional first novel, rejecting current trends in more experimental writing for a different kind of honesty. If it has a fault it is that Lytal seems a little in love with Adrienne himself.


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