Archive for May, 2011


May 29, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Dave Eggers

Thinking about David Shields’ proposal that non-fiction is the new literature sent me searching through my book shelves for other writers who seem to share this view. The example of Dave Eggers is a striking one: few writers can be hipper than Eggers, who seems to have left his early experimental work (which did, after all, begin with a memoir) for stories solidly rooted in fact. He is an auteur who now spends his time making documentaries. This decision appears to be a moral rather than artistic one, but this in itself links it to Shields’ idea that non-fiction is somehow more ‘real’ than fiction.

Eggers’ latest book, Zeitoun, is about one family’s experience in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It is quite clearly billed as non-fiction (though its predecessor, What is the What, which I thought was created under similar circumstances, is listed under the ‘fiction’ heading of his bibliography inside) and described more than once in the endorsements both front and back as ‘narrative non-fiction’. What this seems to mean is that it tells a ‘true’ story (getting a little fed up of the quotation marks myself now) in the style of a novel. This means that the focus is on the experience of the individual; interior life is as important as exterior life; there is a lot of dialogue, most of it not concerned with imparting information; and that the narrative is structured beginning to end but with numerous character-creating flashbacks and even the use of a cliff-hanger.

Characterisation is probably the main component that differentiates the book from other factual accounts of Hurricane Katrina. The opening section, the build up towards the storm, is also concerned with building a picture of the two central characters, Zeitoun and his wife Kathy. It seems likely (though whom am I to say) that these individuals might be described as atypical. Zeitoun (his surname, but generally used to refer to him) is originally from Syria; Kathy is an American who has converted to Islam. Both have the kind of interesting back stories that one would expect from a novelist, and Eggers uses these in the opening section of the book to make us care about what happens to them. We learn of Zeitoun’s childhood in Syria, Kathy’s previous marriage and her conversion, how they met and decided to marry, the decorating company they run together. Does this make them more ‘real’? Perversely, it does not.

Partly this is the suspicion that they are appearing as they would like to be seen. True, Eggers is not suggesting they are perfect – but nor do they have any obvious faults. Perhaps this is because they have final editing rights, or because the story is being told from their point of view, or maybe it is simply that Eggers likes them. Whatever the reason, their life off the page prevents them from living on the page. This in turn leads to Eggers adopting a style that can only be described as bland:

“Kathy was a mess. Stories like this just wrecked her.”

Is this Eggers mimicking the register of his character? What then are we to make of Zeitoun waking up surrounded by water:

“He felt strangely lethargic, ethereally content.”

Or the description of the camp where Zeitoun will be imprisoned as “entirely martial”. At the most extreme points of his story (Zeitoun is arrested without charge and imprisoned without being allowed a phone call – Kathy assumes he is dead) Zeitoun’s point of view either disappears or is strangely muted. When he is first picked up by soldiers we are told:

“Zeitoun was not panicking.”

When he is attacked by soldiers on arrival at the camp, his consciousness disappears from view:

“The moment Zeitoun and the other three men were led off the boat a dozen soldiers descended upon them. Two men in bullet proof vests leapt on Zeitoun, tackling him to the ground. His face was pushed into the wet grass…”

Later, when he is imprisoned with no contact with the outside world, we are told:

“Zeitoun could think of no indication so far that any measure could be taken to advance his case.”

I would imagine my thoughts would be slightly more colourful by this point.

It seems unfair to criticise Eggers – he has set out to reveal how some individuals were treated after Hurricane Katrina and he has succeeded in this. As far as I’m aware, he has never argued that Zeitoun is the future of literature. The book is readable and it will hopefully shock and anger any reader. However, is it more ‘real’ or more ‘truthful’ than fiction? I would argue no. Its factual basis simply limits the writer, making his characters less real, and his truth shallower and less panoramic.

Danger rating: a little bit too much worthiness and not enough art.

The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead

May 20, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – David Shields

The experience of reading Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was one of the reasons that I decided to challenge myself with some more experimental writing in the course of this year. I’m not alone in worrying about the comfortable feel of Franzen’s fiction: here’s David Shield’s view of novels like Franzen’s:

“I read these books and my overwhelming feeling is, you’ve got to be kidding. They strike me as antediluvian texts that are essentially still working in the Flaubertian novel mode. In no way do they convey what if feels like to live in the 21st century. Like most novels, they are essentially works of nostalgic entertainment.”

Shields has come to prominence lately as a result of his manifesto on the future of the novel, Reality Hunger. He argues that the traditional, story-telling novel (the one I, too, have attempted to reject this year) is out-dated and should be replaced by something that better reflects reality. He proposes a collage of different genres, a blurring between fiction and non-fiction, and particularly champions the memoir. But we don’t need to read his manifesto when we can see his ideas in action in the book he wrote prior to Reality Hunger, The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead, recently published in the UK by Penguin to cash in on his recent fame / notoriety.

Shields describes The thing about life is that one day you’ll be dead as follows:

“This book is an autobiography of my body, a biography of my father’s body, an anatomy of our bodies together…”

The catalyst for the book seems to have been the rapid physical decline of his father, 97 at the time it was written, who had, up until very recently, still lived an active life, able to run and swim and exercise. This physical deterioration leads Shields to consider his own health and to meditate on the inescapable approach of death. The book is divided into four sections: Infancy and Childhood; Adolescence; adulthood and Middle Age; and Old Age and Death. Shields’ memories tend to appear chronologically throughout the narrative; his father’s life, whether presented as biography or autobiography (the book contains small sections written by his father, a journalist), tend to appear more thematically (to put it kindly) or randomly (less kind).

We are told enough to suggest his father led an interesting life, but not enough to make him seem an interesting person: in fact, I left the book with only a vague impression – sportswriter; served in the army; once completed a tennis match after having a heart attack; possibly related to the actor that played Otto in The Diary of Anne Frank. Of Shields I know about the sports he enjoyed playing when he was younger, and a little about his daughter – but of his relationships, his intellectual or emotional life – almost nothing.

Much of the book is instead taken up with swathes of information about the body. This might be biological:

“You’re born with 350 bones (long, short, flat and irregular); as you grow, the bones fuse together: an adult’s body has 206 bones.”

Or statistical:

“As people get older their ideal age gets higher. For 18- to 24-year-olds, it’s 27; for 25-to-29-year-olds, it’s 31; for 30- to 39-year-olds, it’s 37; for 40- to 49-year-olds, it’s 40; for 50- to 64-year-olds, it’s 44; and for people over 64, it’s 59.”

Of course, facts, even presented in this dull, text-book type way, can be used powerfully in literature, but this is difficult when they contribute 50% of the text. For a start, the reader feels slightly cheated: half the book is largely undiluted research, and in a digital age (something Shields likes to remind us we live in) research can seem particularly unimpressive. Shields use of collage also seemed pedestrian and predictable; not once did his juxtapositions surprise or amuse me. Above all, in literature, it is not enough for information to be interesting; it must also resonate emotionally and intellectually. We respond to art with both our hearts and minds: this book’s big idea is on its cover; and, despite it being about a dying father, it is rarely moving.

Danger rating: this book will make you feel old, and not because it intimidates you with its cutting edge.

The Erasers

May 16, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alain Robbe-Grillet

At one time, certainly, anyone interested in the novel read Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the leading French writers of the Nouveau Roman movement. He probably wrote his most important novels during the 1950s (The Voyeur, Jealousy, In the Labyrinth), and in the 60s and 70s also became involved in writing and directing films. The influence of cinema can be seen in his work, with its emphasis on the exterior, with mood and psychology being created through the description of scene and action, and his flirting with genre.

The Erasers, his first published novel, is superficially a detective novel, yet right from the beginning it confounds our expectations. It opens with the report of a murder –

“…The victim, critically wounded and taken at once to a nearby clinic, died here without regain consciousness.”

– that isn’t a murder – Daniel Dupont, we quickly learn, is only wounded in the arm. We see him in his doctor’s surgery (“he indicates his left arm wrapped in a bandage”); we see the events of the previous night from the assassin’s point of view (“Garinati has fired, only one shot, trusting to instinct, at a fragment of an escaping body”); we see the his house keeper phoning for help from a nearby bar (“his arm had only been grazed by a bullet”). While this montage of scenes makes it clear that Dupont lives, clarity is not Robbe-Grillet’s aim. In a narrative sense, he raises a further question (Why has Dupont faked his own death?) which will only be answered in the vaguest of terms:

“In the last nine days there has been a murder committed regularly, between seven and eight at night, every day, as if they had made this little detail into a rule.”

In a traditional detective novel, this would form the basis of the investigation; here it is simply a further example of the patterned nature of the text, with scenes and motifs regularly repeating throughout (the most obvious one being the visits the detective, Wallas, makes to various stationery shops to buy an eraser). Instead we have novel in which a detective searches for the perpetrator of a crime that has not yet been committed.

From the beginning, Wallas is presented as a vague, murky character. Robbe-Grillet’s use of repetition often parallels him with Garinati. After shooting Dupont Garinati goes to a drawbridge over a canal:

“Leaning over the handrail, Garinati has not moved.”

A few pages later we first meet Wallas:

“Wallas is leaning against the rail at the end of the bridge.”

Similarly, descriptions of Wallas’s visits to the scene of the crime frequently use phrases that evoke Garinati’s approach. This is a technique Robbe-Grillet uses throughout to blend separate events, giving the impression that they are rippling through the narrative. Here, for example, are the openings to three consecutive, but independent, scenes:

“The latch clicks as it falls back into place; at the same time the door has just slammed against the jam and vibrates noisily, producing unexpected echoes in the frame as well.”

“Wallas, already half turned around, hears the latch fall back into place…”

“Fabius, having closed the garden gate behind him, inspects the premises…”

The constant, careful opening and closing of doors becomes a motif for investigation, intrusion, and risk (the danger of being caught; the danger of what lies behind the door). Similarly, Wallas’s endless walks through the city suggest he is circling his destiny. Again, in a traditional detective novel, this would be bringing him closer and closer to the murderer; here it is drawing him towards the crime.

Although repetitive, and despite apparently presenting the solution before the puzzle, The Erasers is remarkably tense and claustrophobic. Passages of description seem imbued with layers of meaning while at the same time grounded in a superficial realism. The patterned artifice of the narrative often seems to better correspond to our experience of life within its endless repetitions and undiscovered meanings than the traditional novel. Certainly, anyone interested in the novel should read Robbe-Grillet.

Danger rating: it’s no surprise that Robbe-Grillet wrote a novel called In the Labyrinth as his narratives can feel like mazes where time seems to escape the clock and we can never be sure if we have passed that particular turn before.


May 10, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Christine Brooke-Rose

There is a game you can play with Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon if, like me, you have the blurb-free Carcanet edition: first read the novel; then check out the blurb for the Dalkey Archive Press version (available online); and, finally, see how much of this description of the text you recognise. This is not to suggest that the blurb of the American edition is in any way inaccurate; rather, Amalgamemnon is not a novel that lends itself to easy précis, or even comprehension. Therefore, rather than attempt my own summary, let’s be up front and start with theirs:

“A woman about to lose her job as a professor of literature and history delivers a passionate, witty and word-mad monologue…blurring the texts of Herodotus with the callers to a talk-radio programme, and blending contemporary history with ancient: fairy tale and literal/invented people (the kidnappers of capitalism, a girl-warrior for Somalia, a pop singer, a political writer), connected by an elaborate mock-genealogy, stretching back to the Greek gods, move in and out of each other’s stories.”

The references to Greek myths come early and frequently, from the punning title – Agamemnon and amalgamate (presumably a reference to the mixture within the text) – to the narrator’s identification with Cassandra. These allusions serve a number of functions (beyond simply emphasising the fictionality of the text). The narrator is indeed a woman who has lost her job as a Humanities professor:

“The programme-cuts will one by one proceed apace, which will entail laying off paying off with luck all the teachers of dead languages like literature philosophy history…”

Although covering all of the Humanities, “dead languages” is likely to lead us to the conclusion that the narrator, who also has the Greek sounding name Mira Enketei, is a professor of Classics. The narrator’s knowledge of Greek myth permeates the text, mixing with numerous contemporary references. Interestingly, Brooke-Rose’s fear that technology would lead to the downgrading of the Humanities is now more relevant than ever. Equally relevant is her questioning of the identity of Europe:

“…shall we ever make Europe?”

Here the allusions to Classical culture provide a historical basis for European identity, as do the numerous references to Charlemagne, who features in the exotic family trees the narrator creates containing names originating in many European languages. Greek myths are also important in one of Brooke-Rose’s other themes, the position of women in society: Cassandra, famously ignored by all and taken slave by Agamemnon after the fall of Troy; Andromeda, chained to a rock; Io and Europa, both seduced by Zeus.

But here lies one of the novel’s difficulties: Brooke-Rose is interested in so many themes, and her text is so allusive (Greek myth is only one strand), that it quickly feels dense as an Amazonian forest. It undeniably contains many fascinating ideas (I particularly liked the kidnapping of capitalism), but so many of them it is hard to feel that any one is done justice, either by author or reader.

The novel also wears it style on its sleeve. Brooke-Rose rejoices in long, often unpunctuated, lists; she loves alliteration, puns and made up words (sexplode, wifman, mimagree, fibstory); and, most alienating of all, the novel is written largely in the future tense:

“In a white village of some unpromised land a group of soldiers will advance cautiously with mine-detectors. Behind them others will be searching derelict houses, machine-gun at the ready.”

Each of these techniques can be effective; together they are overwhelming. Amalgamemnon is without doubt the most ’difficult’ novel I have yet read this year. Short as it is, I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. Yet, strangely, as I was looking over it again to write this, some part of me wanted to read it again.

Danger rating: a blizzard of words and allusions that, while invigorating in short bursts, can be numbing after a while.

A Visit from the Goon Squad

May 3, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Jennifer Egan

If you had asked me about the ‘goon squad’ a few months ago I could only have directed you to the David Bowie song ‘Fashion’ – a not entirely inappropriate link given that A Visit from the Goon Squad is a novel about both music and time. Bowie even merits a mention, though only to ascribe the shortness of the pause in ‘Young Americans’ to chickening out. A goon is either a fool or a thug – and therefore often a mindless thug – and the goon squad in Egan’s novel is time, trampling over the lives of her characters, pushing them around with brutal insistence. In Bowie’s song the goon squad is (I think) the trendsetters, equally merciless in deciding direction. Egan’s novel is also about trendsetters: all her characters are involved in some way in music, trying to be, spot or sell the next big thing.

The novel revolves around the character of Sasha, whom we meet her in the first chapter on a “lame date”, stealing a wallet from a woman’s handbag. She steals not out of necessity but out of compulsion: hording the objects she takes in her small flat, each one able to remind her of a particular moment:

“It contained years of her life compressed.”

The novel itself is like that heap of objects (“illegible yet clearly not random”): it may revolve around Sasha but only inasmuch as she is the strongest link between the chapters, each of which captures its own moment in time. This strategy is clear by chapter 2 where the narrative slips back in time and we find Sasha working for Bennie Salazar, who in the first chapter is “her old boss”. This is not, however, simply a time shift – narrative focus also shifts from Sasha to Bennie. This is a gentle introduction to Egan’s intentions as by chapter 3 we’ll have reversed to Bennie’s youth and first person narration.

This interest in time is also evident in the narrative itself, particularly in the music business obsession with youth. In chapter 2 we meet the band Stop/Go, no longer “young and adorable” but “pushing thirty.” Bennie, meanwhile, spends the chapter ingesting gold flakes in order to reinvigorate his sex drive, “his own having mysteriously expired.” Lou, Bennie’s mentor, is found in chapter 3 claiming, “I’ll never get old,” but is quickly revisited as a bed-bound old man in chapter 5. This obsession with youth is taken to extremes in the future set chapters towards the end:

“Now that Starfish, or kiddie handsets, were ubiquitous, any child who could point was able to download music – the youngest buyer on record being a three-month-old in Atlanta, who’d purchased a song by Nine Inch Nails called ‘Ga-ga’.”

The other over-arching theme is the compromises we make as we grow older. As Bennie says to Alex in the final chapter:

“You don’t want to do this…You think it’s selling out. Compromising the ideals that make you, ‘you’.”

When Bennie and his wife, Stephanie, move out to the suburbs, Stephanie’s brother, Jules, is appalled: “You and Bennie? Hanging out with Republicans?” Stephanie keeps her tennis matches at the club a secret from Bennie as if she were having an affair. For those who refuse to compromise the outlook is bleak. Jules ends up in jail after a break down because he will not turn his journalism into publicity pieces for actors; Scotty ends up working as a janitor; Drew drowns. The structure obviously emphasises these compromises, but also removes elements of the character development that lead to them: frequently the reader is left to fill the gap.

The most interesting chapter stylistically is chapter 12, presented as a PowerPoint created by Sasha’s daughter, Alison. While this suffers a little from being very easily read, which makes it seem slight in comparison with the rest of the novel, it does have a number of interesting benefits. The graphics and layout can have a considerable influence on the meaning, and it rejects the left to right bias of normal text giving the impression that you are reading simultaneously all the separate textual elements of each slide. It struck me as both an apt and accurate way to represent a child’s point of view.

A Visit from the Goon Squad is an interesting and entertaining novel. It is not quite the sum of its parts, however. Not all the chapters seem equally relevant: chapter 8 in particular, though possibly my favourite, seems rather tangential – included perhaps more for quality than importance. The stylistic innovation of chapter 12 is off-set by the sameness of the narrative voice throughout the rest of the novel despite a number of different narrators. The excursion into science fiction also seems rather obvious. But it does possess an engaging cleverness in terms of structure and it avoids most of the potential pitfalls of writing about the music business.

Danger rating: tracking characters across time can be tricky, but it’s not nearly as confusing as recent episodes of Dr Who.