Archive for January, 2011

Don’t Be Afraid, by Steven Hayward

January 31, 2011

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

The year is 1988, the setting a suburb just outside Cleveland, Ohio in mid-West America. The narrator is 17-year-old James Fortitude Morrison. Yes, everyone thinks he was named after The Doors singer, but the name is a tradition for males in his family, including father and grandfather — his dad is proud to have long been known as “Fort Morrison”, particularly in his hockey-playing days. In the opening sequence, we are told that Jim’s brother Mike has died in an explosion at the local library where the two worked part-time in the basement audio-visual section, tending (and viewing) films:

Mike and I — along with our younger sister, Vivian — had jobs at the public library because of our mother, who ran the reference desk. She was the one who did the hiring, and she hired us. Whether or not we wanted to work there was beside the point.

If you’d ever been to Cleveland Heights — before the explosion, that is — you’d probably remember seeing the library. Cleveland Heights is just east of Cleveland itself, one of the first places where people moved when the city began to go broke in the 1960s, around the time the Cuyahoga River caught fire. According to my father the city ran a campaign that was supposed to make people want to move here. They put up signs and handed out T-shirts, even had a bunch of coffee cups made, all of which had printed on them the same incredibly lame slogan in bright green letters: “Cleveland Heights, a nicer place to live.”

In Steven Hayward’s Don’t Be Afraid, what you see is what you get. The narrative tone and cadence of those paragraphs will continue throughout the novel. The action never leaves Cleveland Heights (“a suburb like any other, an ordinary nowhere”); indeed, an underlying strength of the novel is its portrayal of the isolation of suburban middle America in the 1980s from what was happening in the bigger world. This ordinariness, however, is offset by the power of the absurd, the library explosion that has killed the narrator’s brother, one year older but the two were close enough to often be seen as non-identical twins. And all of this is told through the eyes of a confused 17-year-old (who is subject to fainting when anxiety arrives), trying to figure out the back story to what happened.

Steven Hayward was born and raised in Toronto; while he has lived and taught in Cleveland, he brings a Canadian eye and background to his portrayal of life in the mid-West United States. This novel shares many characteristics with his first, The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke. While that one is set in 1930s Toronto, it too features a 17-year-old narrator, a study of an “ordinary” city with disturbing undertones (anti-Semitic clashes and an uprising of exploited garment workers) and an off-the-wall defining event, in that case “the most infamous baseball game in Canadian history, the riot at Christie Pits”.

The technique has both advantages and problems. A maturing teen sees his family and community through eyes that have a high level of understanding, but he is still on an upward learning curve. It opens the door for Hayward to make frequent detours into the contrast between generations and their markers and influences:

What my mother calls me is James James or J.J. because it reminds her of a poem she read to us when we were kids by the same guy who wrote those Winnie-the-Pooh books. Up until the day she found out about the existence of the dead rock star Jim Morrison — this happened because she saw Mike with a copy of No One Here Gets Out Alive, the biography of Jim Morrison and the Doors — she was under the mistaken impression that it was the kid in the poem, a good boy, who other people though of first when I told them my name was Jim Morrison.

Just in case you didn’t encounter A.A. Milne’s poem in your childhood it opens “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPre/Took care of his mother though he was only three.” Jimmy the narrator’s father is an investigator who acquires data to support insurance claim suits — combined with the librarian mother, that too gives the author material for exploring the conflicting reference points of the generations of the time.

Hayward also adds to those opportunities by having Jimmy take a year off school to deal with his grief, a year that he spends pretty much as “nanny” to his four-year-old brother, Petey, when he isn’t wondering about his older brother. That chore introduces us to the Mothers whom he runs into daily both dropping off and picking up his brother at his pre-school — the author has some fun with that little sub-society.

Like the narrator, Mike’s mother is having trouble coming to grips with his death and that story line is played out on two fronts. The entire family has been enrolled in a grief-therapy group, introducing us to some others who are having trouble coping. More important, however, she in her confusions instigates this novel’s version of the infamous baseball game in Lucio Burke, a birthday party for the departed Mike.

The problem, if you haven’t figured it out yet, is that while the digressions have their moments (and many do) the main story line is too flimsy to bear the weight of all the distractions happening around it. Jimmy just simply isn’t interesting or puzzling enough to keep the reader involved; the rest of the cast are reduced to supporting characters, either of his search or of the riffs that Hayward wants to play with his observations of the era (there are a lot of movie references for those who like that kind of thing).

The result is a novel that I was happy to see end, not because I didn’t enjoy it along the way but because I had realized many pages before the conclusion that it was not going anywhere other than where it was. There are moments and incidents that I am sure will come back in memory over time (the author’s laconic style is well-suited to those kind of side trips) but the overall memory is going to be “that book about what happened after the library exploded”.

We Had It So Good, by Linda Grant

January 27, 2011

Review copy courtesy Virago UK

I will admit to having a challenge with this novel. I liked Linda Grant’s last novel (The Clothes On Their Backs) so much that it was my favorite for the 2008 Man Booker. I have great admiration for her journalism which, in her fiction, is complemented by a deep appreciation for her Jewish heritage. She is of my generation and experience so, when I read the opening promotions of this novel, I was eagerly awaiting it. All of that would represent the classic definition of “high expectations”.

We Had It So Good is the latest example in what I think will be a genre that we will see more of in the next few years: mature writers who look back at the last half of this century when they started writing and the start of this one, when they are at their peak. Some, like Martin Amis in Pregnant Widow and Ian McEwan in Solar will choose to explore it from a highly personal perspective. Others, such as Jonathan Franzen in Feedom or even Jennifer Egan in A Visit from the Goon Squad will take a broader perspective. Grant clearly belongs in that latter category, but she brings a highly personal perspective that demands respect.

Consider this quote from relatively late in the book when the characters are aging and can look back, (but it gives nothing away) as a definition of Grant’s over-arching purpose:

Stephen could not get out of his mind how lucky they had been: himself, Andrea, Ivan and all their other friends. The sun had risen on them and had stayed all this time on their faces. Their purpose was to fulfil the ultimate destiny of the human race.

He was fifty-five years old and for the first time he understood that nothing bad had ever happened to him. He lived in a house worth a fortune with his wife of thirty years. His children’s lives had worked out, no-one was on drugs or in prison, no-one had died of Aids. Everyone he knew led a nice life and on and on it was all supposed to go.

So, let’s go back to the start and what produced that situation. Stephen, born in America in 1946, is the central character of the novel, an LA boy born of a Polish immigrant and Cuban emigre, born as WWII ended. We meet him in the opening pages as a young boy outside the fur storage depot in LA where his father works:

‘This coat belongs to Miss Bacall,’ his father told him, in his immigrant accent. ‘This one to Miss Hayworth. The animal was a living thing, a beautiful creature that once was. And only a beautiful woman deserves to wear a coat like this.’

That dream of the American melting pot will melt of its own accord. Stephen is, luckily, brilliant and wins a Rhodes scholarship, just as the Vietnam draft begins to send his generation off to their deaths. An “uncle” ( a real one, but, even more important, one with union connections) has got him into the seamen’s union (you have to be of the generation to know that this was the most mobbed-up of all the unions, teamsters and Jimmy Hoffa a distant second). While Oxford sends him a ticket, Stephen’s father cashes it in and the scholar ships to England on the SS United States as a working cabin boy and meets, from above decks, Bill Clinton, another Rhodes scholar, also on his way to Oxford. Okay, Grant is stretching credibility here (and that will continue) but she does it with a tongue-in-cheek smartness that is charming, not annoying.

It is in Oxford that we are introduced to the conflicts that will define the generation. Academically brilliant, but socially inept, Stephen is in “college” when peering out the window he spies the “girls” next door (we are about two months from “girls” being a totally sexist description). They are academic “hippies” in outrageous costume (but they have wonderful breasts) and, less than 24 hours later, he and Andrea are lovers. They will be together for the rest of their lives — for those youngsters reading this, yes, stuff like this did happen, but not often.

That too is not a spoiler (you really do want to read how it happened) but from then on this is a novel about how the children who were born in the five years after WWII cope with both coming of age and adapting (or not) to that maturity. Andrea comes from true British stock, Stephen from its American mirror — this is a novel about how those two contradictions come to resolution, or the lack thereof.

I won’t give away too many details but Grant’s interest is in how — and why — all that potential for change in the 1960s never came to pass, at least for this group and, arguably, an entire generation. Stephen and Andrea marry, they have kids and their life settles into a routine. Ever present is the feeling that however much success in the present might look like, so much potential has been overlooked. Or maybe — and for me this is the most powerful theme of the novel — only so much potential existed.

This is a theme that is starting to show up a lot in fiction and I do expect to see more — on the personal side, Amis and McEwan; on the more global aspect authors such as Franzen. For those of us who grew up in the generation (Stephen and I are virtually contemporaries) it offers much fodder for thought. For those readers who are younger, don’t dismiss it — this is the life that your parents lived.

I don’t think that Grant completely succeeds. She opens up so many stories in the past of both Stephen and Andrea (and I have included no spoilers here) that the end of the novel becomes too much tidying-up and not enough showing potential. This is a portrayal of ordindary lives, lived in an extraordinary age — alas, for me at least, the ordinary took precedence over the extraordinary.

Don’t let that dissuade you from reading the book — and I will say that this review is merely a gloss over some very intriguing plot and story lines that are included in it, many of which are worthy of a book themselves and have not even been mentioned here. I should acknowledge that my impression of Grant’s last novel has increased as time progressed; I can’t help but think that a year or two from now this one, also, will have risen in my evaluation. It has those kind of seeds.

(Note: While We Had It So Good has been released in the UK, its North American release is not scheduled until late April. If you like Linda Grant and the description of the book, I’d say it is worth making a UK order.)

The Brainstorm, by Jenny Turner

January 22, 2011

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Having confessed my fondness for “newspaper” novels (see my review of The Imperfectionists for a summary), I was on pointe immediately when a post from Will Rycroft alerted me to another oneThe Brainstorm, by Jenny Turner. It is not the best of journalism novels ever, but it has much to recommend it. And, whatever concerns that I might have with it, I suspect it heralds the end of the “great journalism” novel. I can only hope that Michael Frayn and some of his colleagues who toiled as both journalists and fiction writers in the last few decades will continue to document their experience.

Even today, most of this genre is set a few decades in the past (actually, the era when I worked in it) with ink-stained wretches, as much time spent in the pub as at the desk, Fleet Street the centre of the journalism world. That all changed some decades ago — so if “post-modern” is a term that can be applied to a newspaper novel, The Brainstorm fits that bill. The newspaper in Jenny Turner’s novel, a fading, formerly liberal, serious publication, is located in the Docklands, midst the shopping plazas, train stations and barren concrete approaches that Rupert Murdoch and his competitors made the “new” Fleet Street — as soulless a world as the former was drunken.

The central character of the novel — and the subject/victim of the brainstorm of the title — is Lorna, a sub-editor of the “brainy” section of the newspaper. Here is Turner’s introduction to Lorna at her desk:

Lorna turned her chair to look behind her, letting her eye sweep around the office floor. It was huge, like a park, but low-ceilinged, with walls of glass. It was crammed with workstations, broken up by banks of shelves. An executive cubicle jutted out at the far corner, with glass walls and potted-plant screening and beautiful flush doors. On the partition wall opposite, a sign had the name of a famous newspaper on it, etched in black on a sheet of thinnest tin. The same newspaper was heaped up in piles underneath it, and in more piles by the window, and in a smaller pile on Lorna’s desk. I’m in the office of a famous newspaper, she decided. The question was whether she was meant to be, and if she was, in what way. Just trying to frame the question made her feel alarmed and shaky. Her eye fell on a packet of cigarettes and a lighter. A passageway through the problem seemed to open up.

For anyone who has worked in — heck, even wandered into — a modern, high-rise office floor in the last couple of decades, that paragraph can only say “yes, I’ve been there”. It is typical of some of the best parts of Turner’s novel. She has an astute eye and an appreciation for what has changed and how things look now. Those descriptions aren’t limited to office life, they include shopping precincts, pubs, even dry-cleaners and they are a bedrock of what is strong with the novel.

The excerpt also introduces the reader to the “brainstorm” that Lorna is in the midst of — it isn’t so much defined as presented, in bits and pieces. Part of Lorna is all there, the part that examines what she doesn’t understand. Part is not there at all, a victim of the brainstorm, and Lorna is as puzzled by that as the reader is. For those who follow plot, it is the central story line of the novel; for those of us who appreciate the digressions and expansions, it is a necessary device.

Unfortunately, novelist Turner’s perceptive eye also has it downsides and these too play out in the book. There is no doubt that she believes quality newspapers have “dumbed down” in parallel with the move to the Docklands — and that means the staff, even of the “brainy” sections, has dumbed down as well.

The more dynamic of the souls clustered around Beatrice’s [the exeuctive editor] office had a blur about their outlines. They were only in this office in transit. Even before they had got here, they were already on their way to somewhere else. So what if they all had other needs, other agendas. So long as there were enough people buzzing around that office, wanting what they wanted, feeling their painfully felt desires, enough of these energies would intersect with one another to keep the thing afloat.

That description is about those who float at the top of the pile — Lorna is much closer to the bottom. Her colleagues are people like Julie, the power-driven, ambitious, deputy section editor, willing to sacrifice anything or anyone to get ahead; Miranda, who has determined that planning a party and her Rolodex are the path to success; Daisy, dippy as her name; and Kelly (“Kells” to the girls), a philosophy star who didn’t quite make it in the academy and is proving even more of a disaster in journalism, not the least because of her lack of fashion taste. (I am not being sexist — the males are even worse, but you will have to read the book to confirm that.)

Turner captures all of this with a resolute faithfulness — that observation is both an acknowledgement of her success and a pointer to her failure. The newspaper is dumber, its workers are dumber and, alas, the novel is dumber. The book is certainly not restricted to the workplace but even when it ventures beyond it is faithful to the emptiness of its characters and that leads to a void in the book.

I was reminded often during the reading of this novel of Joshua Ferris’ Then We Came to the End, another modern “workplace” novel set in a Chicago ad agency — even though it is a continent away in geography and a few layers away in creative content (we journalists have nought but contempt for ad agency workers). I liked Ferris’ novel because of its relentless portrayal of the modern workplace, and I would give Turner equally high marks. And I was frustrated by Ferris’ work, because it seemed to spin its wheels in its devotion to an accurate portrayal of the mundane — again The Brainstorm does the same. (And both authors can criticize this reviewer on the basis of “that is exactly what we were trying to do”.) And having raised the comparison, I should note that many readers are ruthless in their evaluation of Ferris and I suspect they will dislike this book every bit as much.

I’ll offer another, more positive, assessment despite some of my grumpy observations on the novel. As I said at the start, there is an excellent subset of English fiction that explores the “newspaper” and creates the vision of Fleet Street and the characters who worked there (and for those of us who were old enough to have actually visited the Street in its heighday, it remains a remarkably accurate vision). Turner’s novel is at least written in that spirit, even if it does read like a lament for what once was.

Thirty years ago, those newspapers began the move to the Docklands and all those old structures (not just the physical ones, but the internal ones) were knocked down. The Brainstorm is a novel based on that older tradition, but it has followed the industry and its people to their new home. It is faithfully rendered — it is not Jenny Turner’s fault that today’s newspaper characters are so much less interesting than the previous generation was. The elastic bands on the cover of this novel are not just a clever graphic device — they are an appropriate symbol of what has happened to that world.

The Long Falling, by Keith Ridgway

January 18, 2011

Purchased from Chapters.ca

There is a fictional stream that Irish novelists do better than any other: The guilt — and reaction to it — of a mother who has been overwhelmed by both the politics and the misogyny that defines her life. I am not even going to try to cite examples (okay, check out my reviews of John McGahern’s excellent novels) but it is a strain of fiction that has its appeal for me and Keith Ridgway’s overlooked novel, The Long Falling, deserves attention.

Grace Quinn, the aging central character of the novel, is not even Irish — she’s English and has moved to Ireland as a result of her marriage. I don’t want to give too much away but her husband is abusive (have we seen that before?), she lost a child in an “accident” (which remains ambiguous — her husband accuses her of “killing” the wrong son) and the conflict that preoccupies her as the novel opens is her surviving son’s homosexuality, which her husband simply cannot accept — there is a great passage on how he insists on describing his son as “queer” not “gay”. That confrontation will prove to be Grace’s tipping point in her creation of her own future.

Grace Quinn rumbles by the church in her husband’s small red car, which is old and ragged, with rust at its edges. She glances at the grey stone bell-tower, but there is nothing in her look, it is just an accidental thing, careless. It has become her habit not to see the place where her son is kept.

She is past the church and out past the mart, turning off the Shercock road at the signpost to Ballybay. The road home from Cootehill. Crossing the Monaghan border somewhere there amongst the hill and the lakes.

It used to be that she would only cycle this road, but then she learned how to drive, and realised for the first time how bad it was. Riddled with holes, pock-marked like the land it ran through, corrupted with humps and troughs and sudden bends, impossibly sharp. For years, she had heard others complain, heard whole radio shows devoted to the potholes of Cavan and Monoghan, and she had never really understood what it was all about. On a bike, you pick your own way. On foot it does not matter. But now she knew.

That is a longish quote but it does capture what makes Ridgway special. His plot may have a lot of antecedents, but he uses it to make some cryptic observations that add both depth and challenge to his book. She used to be a walker and a cyclist but Grace will use that car, virtually as a weapon, in the first part of the novel — the story that unfolds will be about what happens after that.

I don’t want to give away the plot (and I won’t) but this is a story of the relationship between mothers and sons — albeit one that requires some licence from the reader as it unfolds. Grace’s gay son, Martin, is facing his own issues as the story develops (his partner is in Paris and Martin has major fidelity concerns which may or may not be legitimate). The arrival of his mother brings a far more dramatic element to his world but it is one that he cannot accept, so he simply shuts it down. Indeed, the strength of this novel is the exploration of how Martin avoids facing the reality of his past — and the dramatic present that his mother has created.

Ridgway locates this dilemma in contemporary Dublin. Grace flees there and enters her son’s world; it is not one that she knows, but she adapts quickly (another entirely worthwhile sub-theme in the novel). Martin, meanwhile, ignores everything that her arrival implies.

Her eyes caught his and he was suddenly aware of her, definitely, without question, as the same woman he had walked with as a boy. The strength was back. The secret that he knew but could not explain, even to himself. She stared at him and he was startled by memory. His father. The smell of his father. The feel of the air on their faces as they ran. Her laugh. The lap of the water. Swimming the lake in summer, hiding a whole life from his father. His father and the things he said to her. His hands.

The Long Falling is about hiding, and the price that we pay for that hiding. The central story line of the plot has all the elements of a thriller (and quite a good one) but Ridgway’s achievement is to examine, question and explore what price individuals pay when they indulge in that kind of hiding. Yes, it makes things easier in the short term — but it also builds a debt that will inevitably be called in. The pain of that calling in is vivid in this novel.

As I said earlier, the Irish do this extremely well — and if you like Sebastian Barry, John McGahern, Roddy Doyle, Anne Enright, Colm Toibin and a number of others (and isn’t that a long list?), this novel will suit your taste very well. On the other hand, if you find those explorations gloomy and annoying, you might want to look somewhere else. I love the way that Irish novelists parse these elements, so it is no surprise that I highly recommend this novel.

A Visit From The Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

January 14, 2011

Purchased from Chapters.ca

Let’s start with a disclaimer — this novel made a number of 2010 top ten lists. Just for a start, the NY Times in the conventional world; the Mookse and the Gripes in the blogging world. I would have overlooked it but for those plaudits; I read it because of them and, while I am not disappointed that I did, for me it did not measure up to that standard. That may say more about me as a reader than anything else (am I again showing my age?), so read on and see if you have a different opinion. I do have the feeling that I may be out of step.

A Visit From The Goon Squad is a wandering, impressionistic look at a large group of characters (with the music industry as a central unifying theme) as they live through the latter few decades of the last century and the first couple of this one. The lives and experiences of the cast overlap each other, they have their own problems, they have sex occasionally or often (maybe marry, maybe split), they are mainly interested in themselves and they are preoccupied with what these episodes mean to their own insular life — that in particular relates to the era.

Some experience success, even if it is clouded. Consider music producer Bennie Salazar:

The shame memories began early that day for Bennie, during the morning meeting, while he listened to one of his senior executives make a case for pulling the plug on Stop/Go, a sister band Bennie had signed to a three-record deal a couple years back. Then, Stop/Go had seemed like an excellent bet; the sisters were young and adorable, their sound was gritty and simple and catchy (“Cyndi Lauper meets Chrissie Hynde” had been Bennie’s line early on), with a big gulping bass and some fun percussion — he recalled a cowbell. Plus they’d written decent songs; hell, they’d sold twelve thousand CDs off the stage before Bennie ever heard them play. A little time to develop potential singles, some clever marketing, and a decent video could put them over the top.

That quote from early on the novel has promise, but it is promise that is never realized. In the early pages of the book, I could find a dozen similar examples that say this could be a great book (and it obviously was for some) but for me it was an exercise in promised not realized. As Egan unfolds the many elements of her story, we meet many potentially interesting people but in the final analysis they remain just that — unrealized potential.

Here is the introduction to another one, Rhea, a teenage groupie, a generation younger than Bennie:

Nineteen eighty is almost here, thank God. The hippies are getting old, they blew their brains on acid and now they’re begging on street corners all over San Francisco. Their hair is tangled and their bare feet are thick and gray as shoes. We’re sick of them.

At school, we spend every free minute in the Pit. It’s not a pit in the strictly speaking sense; it’s a strip of pavement above the playing fields. We inherited it from last year’s Pitters who graduated, but still we get nervous walking in if other Pitters are already there: Tatum, who wears a different color Danskin every day, or Wayne, who grows sinsemilla in his actual closet, or Boomer, who’s always hugging everyone since his family did EST. I’m nervous walking in unless Jocelyn is already there, or (for her) me. We stand in for each other.

It is no spoiler to say that these characters will grow up (or age). And that that is the process that Egan’s novel is mainly about. They have their triumphs, challenges and disasters — so many, that the circumstances surrounding those action developments swamp what is good about the book. I don’t even have a Facebook page but, that caveat aside, this novel strikes me as the book equivalent of wandering from one Facebook page to another of a group of friends, following the “lives” of an overlapping group of characters. Lots of photos, many impressions, not much story.

Egan actually does go there, or at least a version of there. On page 176, she begins a 75-page printed, Power Point presentation which is related to one of the themes of the book. On the one hand, that seems “hip” — gee, someone put a Power Point presentation into a book. On the other, it is “totally gross”: anyone who has ever done a Power Point presentation in their life (is there anyone who has not?) knows that 20 slides is the absolute maximum — do you want the paying audience to fall asleep? Interesting trick, author, badly done.

For me, A Visit From The Goon Squad was a continuing exercise in frustration. It always offered the promise of going somewhere (and I did finish it), but the problem was it never did — in any of its numerous plot streams. Given the positive response from other sources, that impression may represent a failing on my part. Perhaps, this is what the fiction of today and the near tomorrow is meant to look like. I’ll keep up with it, if that is the case, but if it is, I am sure glad that I have a library full of classics to fall back on.

Ether, by Evgenia Citkowitz

January 10, 2011

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Through pure happenstance, daughters of Lady Caroline Blackwood featured prominently in the holiday reading of the KfC household. Janet Maslin of the New York Times kicked it off with a review of two memoirsWait for Me! by Deborah Mitford (the Duchess of Devonshire) and Why Not Say What Happened? by Ivana Lowell (Lady Caroline’s daughter). I am not a memoir fan but Mrs. KfC is and she loves the period under discussion in Debo and Ivana’s books. The memoirists come from different generations, but the cast of characters overlaps — Mrs. KfC highly recommends both. At about the same time, Tony’s Book World included Ether, a debut story collection by Evgenia Citkowitz, on his year-end top ten list. A similar listing from Tony last year convinced me to try Maile Meloy (these two reviews indicate how impressed I was) so I figured it was well worth following his lead again.

A full post could be written on Lady Caroline Blackwood, her Guinness inheritance, her marriages (painter Lucien Freud, pianist Israel Citkowitz, poet Robert Lowell) and who fathered which child, but I’ll let you google for all of that. What is relevant here is that that background produced some fascinating experiences for her children and, while Ivana Lowell and Evgenia Citkowitz reflect that in different types of prose, it shows to advantage in both works.

Ether is a collection of seven stories and the title novella which takes up almost half the work. I’ll focus my attention on the novella — not only is it the most impressive piece in the book, it is also a reflection of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the stories.

Ether is a very appropriate title since the 118-page novella is a series of ephemeral story threads and observations. They overlap and come together frequently, but part of the beauty of the piece is the way the author explores (incompletely, leaving lots to the reader’s imagination) each thread.

William is an author whom we meet at a restaurant in New York, lunching with his editor Vivian before they end up together back at his apartment:

Vivian Newman was no pushover. She was educated and smart. Vivian ran marathons in her spare time. She went to her office only to appear at his apartment a few hours later. They picked their way through packing cases, his life still in boxes, since the movers — a company that went by the name We Move U Fast — hadn’t turned up to collect. (You moved me NOT, William yelled into the phone that morning.) They had sex on a mattress, on the floor. It was raw and hasty, reminding him of student days when everything was improvised and imperative.

That assignation is a “goodbye” one. As the boxes indicate, William is on his way — to a teaching post at UCLA but mainly to find the time and space to write his next book. Vivian will remain his editor, but a new manuscript is more important to her than regular sex or an ongoing relationship. William stumbled into his first book, Days of Plague when he discovered a journal on the plague while searching for something completely different. Now he is planning a novel.

Citkowitz leaves that New York picture incomplete and immediately introduces us to William arriving in Los Angeles, where the rest of the novella is set:

At first sight La Cienaga was unremarkable, a string of fast-food stores, gas stations, and discount shops. But as the road climbed up past the oil wells — rusted cranes slowly pecking the ground — he began to notice the geophysical presence of the land. It dipped and rolled with a sculptural majesty. The suburban outcrops had the look of an unsuccessful art gallery installation; an awkward imposition that in spite of itself had an integrity, an insistence that it be called Art. As he drove, he had a sense of space expanded — the infamous and sultry LA sprawl. He experienced it as a release, much as you would the loosening of tight seams. He understood what the settlers must have felt to go so far west you can’t go any farther.

A sense of arrival.

Citkowitz is not just ethereal with her settings, she is even better when she applies her impressionism to her characters. William meets Madeline, an actress, at the first social function he attends in L.A. — the two will take up and eventually marry. Various succeeding chapters will be told in Madeline’s voice, often exploring history which has no relation to William at all.

Two other characters — Bree and her challenged son Dennis (maybe autism, maybe Asperger’s, the doctors say) — are introduced out of nowhere a third of the way through the book. Their story has its own set of gaps, influences and downfalls which eventually lead to a link to the William/Madeline story. Madeline has become a movie star threatening to move onto the A-list (until she self-destructs); Dennis gets a camera and becomes obsessed with photography and movie stars. It is a tribute to the author that when the obvious linking of the two story threads occurs, she uses it develop depth in both threads, not meld them into the far more conventional option which most writers would have taken.

The result of all this a collage of images — the New York publishing world, L.A. as experienced by new arrivals, writers lacking the discipline to write and many more confused individuals trying to make their way in a hostile world. Each element has parts which have been developed in immaculate detail and others which are completely missing. The novella does not so much end as hand off the various stories to the reader to contemplate what was there and what wasn’t, to complete the picture yourself.

The seven short stories are a bit of a mixed bag, although all are highly readable. My favorite, The Clearance, is a good reflection of how Citkowitz brings the experiences of her unusual (and privileged) upbringing to her fiction. We meet George, of the Clearance Company, stuck in his van in a traffic jam outside Harrods (the sale has just started, attracting crowds) on his way to a London townhouse in Belville Place (fictional as far as I can tell, but think Chelsea or Knightsbridge). George does “house clearances”:

We go in after the family have squabbled over the furniture and the antique dealers — bloody crooks — have cherry-picked the best bits and everyone is too shagged to care about the rest.

It was George’s job to get rid of the stuff that no one wanted, usually after a death, divorce, or bankruptcy, enabling the clients to start a gathering and accumulation of their own, so that the process could be repeated again by their children or executors in another sixty years.

George, of course, discovers much more than leftover furniture — like Henry James in some of his more plottish short works, he finds leftover people, leftover stories and, most important, leftover secrets. All of which are stirred into dramatic action to produce a highly successful story.

Ether was a more than worthwhile read and highly recommended for those who like the short story genre. The title novella has echoes of both John Fante’s Baldini quartet and Gina Berriault’s The Lights of the Earth, for those who know those two authors. Alas, Citkowitz is not up to Meloy for me, but she was still a worthwhile discovery to end 2010 with — I would be less than honest if I didn’t say that her next work will probably be better than this one.

Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones

January 4, 2011

Purchased from the Book Depository

January is not a major month for new releases, so the appearance (finally) later this month of Cedilla (the second in Adam Mars-Jones projected four-volume John Cromer series) ranks as a significant event. The publication of Cedilla has been delayed a couple of times (that seems to have been the case in the past with the author), but this time it seems to be for real. I have had a copy of Pilcrow on hand for some time (Mars-Jones is a favorite of John Self at The Asylum who has read and reviewed all three of his published works), daunted somewhat by its 525-page length, but the impending publication of volume two made any further procrastination unwise. I have a fondness for modern authors who undertake major projects like this since so few do (Byatt and Woodward do come to mind) — perhaps it is more the case that few publishers can be convinced to commit to them, especially from an author with a relatively slim publication record.

John Cromer is introduced to us as a 20-year-old who is learning to drive his first car, a red Mini, in 1968. That means he was born in 1948, also my birth year, and I well remember the attraction of the original mini, so Mars-Jones had me intrigued from the start. It is a deliberately misleading beginning, however. The present is quickly dispensed with, as the author retreats into memory, introducing Mum and Dad (and their quirky obsessions) and the child John’s fascination with bodily functions (which will continue throughout the book):

I have a separate memory of sitting in a shaft of sunlight and realising that everything around me happened by my say-so. Everything was conditional on me. Logically, of course, this is a memory of successful potty-training. The potty has been pushed out of the picture, but I know it’s there. I’m a little king, and I’m sitting on a foreshortened throne. My gross happiness is the immediate radiant aftermath of being told I was Mummy’s clever boy for doing my siss or my ‘tuppenny’ (the family word for defacation) so beautifully in the right place. That’s something that disappeared early on — excretion as one of the pleasures of life, expressive as a smile, not some dark duty that dominates the days.

That quote is chosen deliberately, and not just because it is an excellent sample of the straight-forward narrative style that will continue throughout the book. We learn that John is highly self-centred, with a critical bent, and rabidly introspective. He is also fascinated by idiom and private language (siss and tuppenny). And the presence of authority in the most basic aspects of growing up (potty-training) will be a constant theme of the book.

We find out the whys of all that just a few pages later when John is only three:

My life began with a fever. The pain came only at night, to start with. Starting in the knee. Hot and dizzy. At two in the morning I’d be screaming, then by breakfast-time I would almost have forgotten. All childhood illnesses are dramatic, but this was more dramatic than most. I would scream for quite a while without stopping, and I couldn’t bear for my knee to be touched. Mum gave me aspirin, so many that once I saw two Mums coming into the room.

All of that happens by page 20 and if you have an ingrained aversion to spoilers stop reading this review now. On the other hand, if you want to know whether investing 525 pages worth of reading time is worthwhile, accept the “plot” giveaways that follow as forewarning. While the opening section tells us that John is mobile enough to drive at the age of 20, the rest of this volume takes him only to age 15 or 16 — and he is all but immobile (crippled was the term of the day) and institutionalized for the remainder of the novel.

The doctors have trouble diagnosing his disorder. The first diagnosis (rheumatic fever), which prescribes motionless bedrest at home, turns out to be wrong — in fact, the prescription is the worst possible, resulting in the permanent fusing of his hips, knees, elbows and wrists.

If you’re a patient who isn’t positively going to die, so that sooner or later your condition is likely to improve, then the chances are you’ll be on the receiving end of whatever treatment is currently the fashion. In the seventeenth century I would have been bled. In the 1950s the prevailing wisdom required no special equipment. I was simply put to bed. Bed with no supper was a punishment. Until you say you’re sorry. Bed rest till you’re better was doctor’s orders, however long it took.

John’s body may be crippled and the prisoner of prescription from mistaken authority, but his mind is just fine. Mars-Jones spends some time examining the “learning” of a child confined to bed at home, before a new “diagnosis” currently in fashion sends John off into a different world. Now it is said he has Still’s Disease:

Rheumatic fever and Still’s Disease weren’t as different as chalk and cheese. They differed as one cheese differs from another. In one way they were much of a muchness: there was no cure for Still’s Disease, any more than there was for rheumatic fever, so Mum and the doctors hadn’t missed out on some magic potion to make me better. One day (the day Mum said good-bye to her wisdom teeth) she had woken up the mother of a pain-ridden, immobile child, and she had gone to bed that night the mother of someone very similar. Eventually both diseases die down in their chronic forms, leaving different types of devastation.

With the new diagnosis, John is sent to the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital, located at the Cliveden estate. The Astors had offered it to the Canadians as a hospital in both World Wars, now in the post-war era it is a nursing school and rheumatology unit (that is historically accurate). It is part hospital and part school for the patients (much more of the former than the latter). Without giving too much away, John will spend the rest of his childhood years here before moving on as a budding adolescent to another insitution for the disabled, more school than hospital (although he notes that both have powerful Matrons, which seems to make both more hospital than school in his eyes).

I am well into this review and am quite aware that I have provided potential readers with a knapsack full of reasons not to read this book. 525 pages featuring an immobile child as the central character? Who is self-centred in an often annoying way? And pre-occupied with bodily functions? And always at the whim of authorities with questionable ability? Why would I want to read this?

Let me offer two reasons.

One is that Mars-Jones has deliberately restricted his setting and action to allow for an ongoing series of character sketches of the people who have power in John’s tightly-restrained life — fellow patients, nurses, physiotherapists, doctors, teachers, even relatives (Granny in particular is a wonderful study) whom we experience and study as John does. None are central to the book, but all are significant and the author has both great fun and great insight in developing them. The fact that the cast changes frequently is part of the charm; collectively they represent a good portrait of the era.

Mars-Jones also uses those restrictions to create the forum for playing with language and its implications, a continuing aspect of the book that is not related to the plot at all. Here’s John contemplating the name of his first home-away-from home:

There was a doubleness, too, about the name of the estate, or at least its pronounciation. There were two versions racked with class nuance, both of them at odds with the spelling. Mum said only suburban people said ‘Cleeve-den’. Upper people always said ‘Clivv-den’ (just as Mum always said ‘upper people’). The only thing both parties would have agreed on was that the name wasn’t pronounced ‘Cliveden’, the way it was written, and they would have joined in laughing at anyone who knew no better.

Those tangential excursions into the contemplation of the vagaries of language (often involving “class” as it appeared — or sounded — in the 1950s) pop up every few pages and for anyone who appreciates the notion of the sub-texts that lie behind everyday language they are more than a diversion, they are an important aspect of the novel.

So, will I read Cedilla? Pilcrow was not an easy read and had to be set aside every 50 pages or so. But, yes, I will take on volume two — and am rather looking forward to finding out how Mars-Jones will use a mobile John (I warned you about the way the author plays with both language and body functions) to offer up other insights. I’m rather hoping that, like John Updike in the Rabbit Run books, he will look at the latter half of the twentieth century, decade by decade — he has done the 1950s rather well. He does of course make his fascination with language apparent with his titles, so I expect that to continue. If you don’t know, a pilcrow is the paragraph mark (¶) and cedilla is an accent (ç). John is fascinated by the grapheme Æ and umlaut, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see either or both show up as a title for volume three or four. And who knows what else: grave, acute, ampersand? As you can see, Mars-Jones did get me hooked with his playing with language and its more obscure tools.


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