Archive for February, 2012

Open City, by Teju Cole

February 27, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Julius is a doctor of Nigerian descent, a young psychiatrist entering the final year of a fellowship at an Upper West Side hospital in New York, not sure about what he will do next. His girl friend has just relocated to San Francisco — it is apparent from the start that that represents the end of their affair and that it wasn’t his choice. He may live in one of the world’s most populous, bustling cities but his life is at a crossroads and it is a lonely, dislocated one; his response is to take frequent walks around Manhattan:

The walks met a need: they were a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and once I discovered them as therapy, they became the normal thing, and I forgot what life had been like before I started walking. Work was a regimen of perfection and competence, and it neither allowed improvisation nor tolerated mistakes. As interesting as my research project was — I was conducting a clinical study of affective disorders in the elderly — the level of detail it demanded was of an intricacy that exceeded anything else I had done thus far. The streets served as a welcome opposite to all that. Every decision — where to turn left, how long to remain lost in thought in front of an abandoned building, whether to watch the sun set over New Jersey, or to lope in the shadows on the East Side looking across to Queens — was inconsequential, and was for that reason a reminder of freedom.

Those Manhattan walks form the backbone of the first third of Open City; for this reader at least, they brought back powerful comparisons to Paul Auster’s City of Glass, the first of the novels in his New York trilogy. While I don’t know Manhattan well, I do know the popular parts of it and Cole’s strolls brought many of them vividly to mind. Here is the way that he begins one:

One Sunday morning in November, after a trek through the relatively quiet streets on the Upper West Side, I arrived at the large, sun-brightened plaza at Columbus Circle. The area had changed recently. It had become a more commercial and tourist destination thanks to the pair of buildings erected for the Time Warner corporation on the site. The buildings, constructed at great speed, had just opened, and were filled with shops selling tailored shirts, designer suits, jewelry, appliances for the gourmet cook, handmade leather accessories, and imported decorative items. On the upper floors were some of the costliest restaurants in the city, advertising truffles, caviar, Kobe beef, and pricy “tasting menus”. Above the restaurants were apartments that included the most expensive residence in the city. Curiosity had brought me into the shops on the ground level once or twice before, but the cost of the items, and what I perceived as the generally snobbish atmosphere, had kept me from returning until that Sunday morning.

Anyone who has ever strolled around randomly in any of the world’s “great” cities will have little trouble identifying with Cole’s portrayal of Julius’ walks and his response to them. At one level, there is the direct observation of the surroundings, well illustrated in the example quoted above. Close to that comes the casual acquaintances and overheard conversations that strollers inevitably run into — for a Nigerian in New York, that usually involves other blacks who have arrived there from equally distant parts. And finally there is the introspection that strolling anywhere produces — memories of the past dating from childhood through to the near present. In Julius’ case that leads to a decision to visit one of his former English professors, now 89 and living the life of a shut-in, albeit in an apartment on Central Park South with an expansive view of the park itself.

I loved this portion of the novel: for me, it was even better than Auster (and I like the New York Trilogy a lot) in developing an image of the city and the people who have arrived there. About one-third of the way through the novel, however, Cole heads into much more introspective territory. Julius’ wanderings take a more global form (a four-week trip to Brussels occupies a goodly portion of the mid-section of the book) and the conversations with those he meets involve much more political, or metaphysical, content. If the first portion of the book is reminiscent of Auster, this part brings The Reluctant Fundamentalist more to mind. As well, the narrator’s introspection into his personal history becomes much more predominant — the author unfolds the details of this thread of the novel very gradually and I want to respect that here so I will let you discover them for yourself.

Perhaps because I liked the tone and surroundings of the first third so much, I became increasingly frustrated as the novel proceeded. If you will permit reference to yet another book, Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet does much the same thing but in Judt’s case it is a real life that is being remembered and he carries both personal memory and metaphysical tangents off in a much more rewarding manner. For me, Cole had not established Julius well enough as a character for his memories to be sufficently interesting and the “thoughtful” conversations he engages in lacked the depth required to produce true insight or engagement — I found myself eager for him to move on to the next one.

Open City has attracted a fair bit of attention for a “memory” novel based on “aimless wandering” (I am stealing that from the title of Will Rycroft’s recent review of the book at Just William’s Luck). Indeed, Open City is on the 16-book longlist in this year’s Tournament of Books where it will face The Art of Fielding in the opening round. As much as I enjoyed Cole’s portrayal of Manhattan from the sidewalk — and respected his character Julius — I’d have to say that Chad Harbach’s novel is likely to advance to the next round. Open City is an entirely worthwhile debut novel which promises more from the author in the future but simply has too many “stumbles” in its later pages to go beyond that in the present.

Dr. Brinkley’s Tower, by Robert Hough

February 23, 2012

Review copy courtesy House of Anansi

Fans of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood spaghetti western movies (yes, I am one) may have occasionally paused to wonder: Whatever became of those Mexican settlements so powerfully portrayed in the films when the twentieth century arrived? I have no idea at all where author Robert Hough stands on spaghetti westerns, but I can say his new novel offers a version of how that world unfolded.

First, a bit of background on Hough. He is one of those mid-list Canadian authors — Dr. Brinkley’s Tower is his fourth novel — who has attracted some attention in the form of year-end lists and longlist placing on awards such as the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize (in 2007 for The Culprits, his best-known work to date). I’ve heard of him but never read him so this seemed an appropriate time to make acquaintance.

The Leone-like setting of Hough’s novel is Corazón de la Fuente, located in north-east Mexico just across the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas. The year is 1931; teenager Francisco Ramirez, with helpful advice from the legendary local Casanova, 88-year-old Roberto Pantelas, has screwed up his courage and called on the much-desired Violeta Cruz: “I was just heading to the plaza, and I was wondering if you’d come with me.” Much to his surprise, she agrees.

Corazón has been badly damaged by both sides in the revolutionary wars, but this Saturday night repesents a breakthrough, not just for Francisco but the town itself. Saturday fiestas were long a regular part of the municipal routine but abandoned during the conflict — this event represents a revival of the old practice and, perhaps, a halting recognition of peace.

Yet there was another, more germane reason why those walking towards the plaza exhibited a certain spryness in their step. About six months earlier, a wealthy American businessperson had contacted both the town’s mayor and, apparently, the governor of the state of Coahuila. The gringo’s name was Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, and he was planning to start his own radio station just over the border, in the town of Del Rio, Texas. To achieve his broadcasting aims he intended to build an immense radio tower in a field just outside Corazón de la Fuente, so that the strength of his signal would not be compromised by what he felt were limiting, small-minded American broadcast regulations. (Here is where the information strayed into the territory of rumour, rumour so juicy and salacious that the old women of the town couldn’t repeat it without girlishly tittering: it seemed that Dr. Brinkley had grown rich performing some sort of operation that treated the most humiliating problem a red-blooded Mexican hombre could experience.)

That’s explanation enough for the tower — and surprisingly timely in current day terms where the Internet information explosion is being met with contentious proposals in Congress to apply restrictions. Before going further, though, let’s allow Hough to establish more of the scene:

Ten minutes later, Francisco and Violeta entered the central plaza, the site of so many roving gun battles during the throes of the revolution. Many of the houses ringing the plaza were still marred by the bullet holes, and the remaining trees in the square all had a grey, denuded quality, their trunks perforated with shrapnel. The town hall, which occupied an entire block along the north of the plaza, was still aerated by the cannon fire directed towards it during a battle between government forces and a splinter group composed of Villistas, anarchists and American-born mercenaries. But worst off was the town’s church, lovingly erected by the Spanish in the mid-1600s. During that same skirmish, a grenade had landed in an open window of the spire, causing the tall conical structure to fall away from the rest of the building and land in ruined, tamale-sized fragments.

The prospect of further conflict is one reason the spire has not been repaired but there is another, more powerful one: “Nobody had any money for bricks.”

The first row of seats in front of the bandstand at the fiesta is occupied by the town’s most important persons: the mayor, the village priest, the town’s wealthiest man and “it goes without saying, the owner of the local cantina”. The occupants of the next row are perhaps more germane to the plot of the novel:

On the next row of decorative benches sat the town madam and her working girls, a privilege honouring their status as the town’s most significant businesspersons. While every member of Madam’s infamous stable was named Maria, each had a different surname, selected by Madam Felix herself. These included Maria del Sol, Maria de las Rosas, Maria des Flores, Maria de los Sueňos, Maria del Mampo (who happened to be a transvestite from the state of Oaxaca), Maria de las Montaňas (a name earned because she was blonde and angelic, as though descended from the most altitudinous tips of the Sierra Madres), and last but not least, Maria de la Noche (who, due to the suggestiveness of her name and the sinful burst of her hips, was a favourite amongst Madam’s gringo clients).

That supplies enough flavor for the story. Dr. Brinkley’s tower does get built, bringing a brief boom to the local economy. His “hospital” in Del Rio (the promotion of which is the main business of the radio station) also thrives, which brings a corresponding boom for Madam Felix’s House of Gentlemanly Pleasures as those treated for erectile disfunction (I have no idea what the 1930s term was) head across the Rio Grande to celebrate their “cure”. Needless to say, the sole local cantina also prospers in the new world.

But, of course, progress brings its own problems — and it is not long until Corazón de la Fuente is back into the kinds of conflict that characterized the revolution. The people must, and eventually do, respond.

An Author’s Note says that the novel is based on real history. John Romulus Brinkley did set up a radio station on Mexican soil which led to the passing of the Brinkley Act in 1939, making it illegal for an American-owned radio station to broadcast from Mexico without U.S. permission. According to the note, his mansion still stands in Del Rio and the ruins of his broadcast facility are still to be seen near Villa Acuna, although both are in disrepair.

The result of all this is an entertaining read, but not much more. It has pace, the story is fun (if predictable) and the characters worthy (if even more predictable). All in all, a worthwhile diversion, but not one that motivates me to search out Hough’s back catalogue.

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

February 18, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

My experience with The Art of Fielding is a useful reminder that I should be careful about letting ingrained bias get in the way of me reading some good novels. The appearance of Chad Harbach’s debut volume featured much hype, followed by predictably glowing reviews — a recipe that immediately plants a “give it a pass” reaction with KfC. But a few months back when I offered a lukewarm opinion here on an even more hyped novel (Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot), positive evaluations of The Art of Fielding in comments from two regulars whose opinions I respect (Lee Monks and David) convinced me that perhaps I was making a mistake.

After all, The Art of Fielding is a “college” novel, a mini-genre that tends to strike a responsive chord with this reader. And it does feature sport — in this case, baseball — which speaks to my personal interests, although I confess not generally an indication of literary quality. Let’s just jump to the chase and say that Harbach delivers on both fronts.

The Art of Fielding is set at Westish College, a small liberal arts school in northern Wisconsin located on the shores of Lake Michigan. Like many college novels (including Eugenides’), its conceit is to place a cast of characters in the self-enclosed community that is both the college and its surrounding town and then let life unfold. Rather than trying to follow the plot and time line, I’ll focus on that cast.

The central member is Henry Skrimshander, a slight high school shortstop from South Dakota, whom we meet at a high school Legion baseball tournament. We see him first through the eyes of Mike Schwartz, the catcher of the Westish Harpooners (NCAA Division III, so hardly a powerhouse), who mocks him with the quiet epithet “Pussy” when Henry weakly strikes out in a losing cause. Schwartz’s opinion changes after the game when the South Dakota coach heads to home plate with a five-gallon paint bucket of balls, accompanied by the first baseman with empty bucket, and begins hitting grounders to Henry:

The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.

College (and sport) novels aren’t really noted for subtlety of plot — that description of the post-game workout a few hundred words into the novel is notice enough that Henry is a “talent” and that that theme will be central to the story. Schwartz, coming up to his senior year and virtually an assistant coach of the team, has pull enough with the real coach that Henry is offered a spot at Westish. We also soon learn of Henry’s own devotion to The Art of Fielding, a baseball memoir written by Aparicio Rodriguez (alas, it isn’t an actual book but Harbach is paying tribute to both another legendary shortstop, Luis Aparicio, and a modern star, ARod of the Yankees). Suffice to say that Rodriguez’s college fielding records are at risk — and there will be professional agents and scouts making the trip to Westish to check Henry out.

Schwartz is the foil for this story line. He is the kind of character who makes college novels worthwhile, simply because anyone who went to a post-secondary institution knows a version of him. Schwartz is a BMOC, star of both the football and baseball teams and a heart-throb for Westish co-eds, many of whom he has bedded. He’s tough, but decent, and a good enough student that he has sent off applications to the nation’s best law schools. Yet it is apparent from the start — and the author delivers on this very well — that Schwartz’s senior year will be the apex of his life, the last time that he will be “special” and the start of discovering what “normal” will be in future decades. Anybody who ever went to college knows a Schwartz.

A bridge to other story lines is provided when Henry arrives at his Westish dorm and discovers someone on his hands and knees in the bathroom, carefully cleaning the grungy grout with a toothbrush, introduces himself and gets the strange response of “Really…are you sure?”:

The young man rose to his feet and, after peeling off one of his bright-yellow gloves, pumped Henry’s hand warmly. “I was expecting someone larger,” he explained. “Because of the baseball fact. My name’s Owen Dunne. I’ll be your gay mulatto roommate.”

Owen is also on the baseball team, although he is a bench-warmer. His bigger claim to fame is that he is that year’s recipient of the Martha Westish Award, the school’s premier academic scholarship which comes with the reward of a single room. College president Guert Affenlight had strongly advocated for Dunne when the choice was made. When the baseball team coach came calling, saying Henry needed a room, Affenlight agreed to negotiate new terms with Owen — the promise of a computer and a book allowance were enough to get him to accept a roommate.

Which brings us to President Affenlight, whose academic reputation was established with his youthful authorship of The Sperm-Squeezers, a study of the “homosocial and homoerotic in nineteenth-century American letters”, sensationally successful enough to get him into the Times and Time and interviewed on CNN. A little back story is necessary here: Guert was a Westish undergraduate student whose interest in Herman Melville led him deep into the library stacks where he found the manuscript of an address that the author of Moby Dick had made at the college. Westish and Lake Michigan may be a long way from Melville’s oceans, but the manuscript has served both the college (they changed team names from Sugar Maples to Harpooners as part of their Melville-centred marketing push) and Affenlight well. He has not written much since, but the book and his teaching ability brought him a comfortable tenured post at Harvard. Eight years ago, Westish came calling the then 52-year-old Affenlight with an offer of the president’s job. A single parent whose talented daughter could be placed in a toney private school, he accepted and has been living in the suite attached to the president’s office ever since. Life will change in the year of the novel, however: Affenlight discovers that his attraction to Owen was more than academic.

There has to be a female in the story somewhere and that will be the daughter, Pella. She and her father have been estranged for four years. Just before graduation from the toney prep school — and already accepted at Yale — she ran off with a visiting lecturer, a San Francisco architect, and married him. She wasn’t just skipping college, she thought she was skipping that whole challenging period of life. Unfortunately (and we all know versions of Pella as well) that attempt to short-circuit life experience didn’t work and the marriage is a punishing disaster. As the novel opens, Pella has fled San Francisco and her architect husband and returned “home” to her father in Westish, trying to turn the clock back and begin the process of getting those four years of life experience she missed.

Those five main characters and a host of well-drawn secondary ones go through some pretty predictable plot developments and crises (some of which, it has to be admitted, require a lot of licence from the reader), but that is no criticism of Harbach. Indeed, the comfort of a lack of surprising plot developments is welcome since it offers more chance to contemplate his characters, because they are the real strength of the novel.

The result for this reader is a book that is not only entertaining but, in its own way, thought-provoking. A good “college” novel takes you back to your own experience and The Art of Fielding certainly did that — all five main characters brought back memories of similar creatures from my own school days. That, though, is the “depth” of the novel: on an entirely satisfying surface level, it is a story that features a largish cast of well-developed characters, every one of whom I found interesting.

Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot certainly had its moments, but for all the fine writing it had some very boring stretches as well. For this reader, The Art of Fielding was a far better read, rarely wandering off course. I still don’t think it was worth quite so much hype (it is a very good read, not a great novel) but I owe Lee and David a vote of thanks for convincing me to give it a chance. I’ll add my voice to theirs in recommending The Art of Fielding. Finally, if you don’t care about baseball, don’t let that put you off — interesting characters, which is what this novel is about, need to be involved in something and baseball is as good as anything else.

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy

February 14, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

We never do learn the full details of the event that precipitated the story in Tom McCarthy’s debut novel, Remainder: “It involved something falling from the sky. Technology. Parts, bits. That’s it, really: all I can divulge.”

Part of the reason for that is physical: the first-person narrator went into a coma and simply does not remember what happened. An equally important part, however, is legal, structural, externally-imposed by “authorities”. The Settlement that the narrator receives is a seemingly outrageous £8.5 million but, as his lawyer informs him, it comes with a condition: “You can’t discuss, in any public or recordable format, the nature and/or details of the incident…. You’ll lose the whole lot if you do, plus any surplus this might have accrued while in your custody.”

The event and the Settlement establish the conditions for the novel and its purpose — as the title implies, Remainder is about outcomes but they are necessarily clouded ones, bounded both by incomplete memory and “terms drawn up between my lawyer and the parties, institutions, organizations — let’s call them the bodies — responsible for what happened to me….”

Author McCarthy’s purpose in the novel is to establish those two altered realities, internal and external, each with a very different set of new controlling factors. On the physical side, once the narrator has emerged from his coma he has to (re)learn how to move — the part of his brain that controls motor functions has been damaged irreparably and he has to learn “re-routing”, literally finding a new path through the brain for even the most elementary actions.

To cut and lay the new circuits, what they do is make you visualize things. Simple things, like lifting a carrot to your mouth. For the first week or so they don’t give you a carrot, or even make you try to move your hand at all: they just ask you to visualize taking a carrot in your right hand, wrapping your fingers round it and then levering your whole forearm upwards from the elbow until the carrot reaches your mouth. They make you understand how it all works: which tendon does what, how each joint rotates, how angles, upward force and gravity contend with and counterbalance one another. Understanding this, and picturing yourself lifting the carrot to your mouth, again and again and again, cuts through your brain that will eventually allow you to perform the act itself. That’s the idea.

“Again and again and again” — and that’s even before you actually make a physical attempt. The countless mental repetitions will require an even larger set once the physical effort begins — how many times does a child (much quicker at learning than an adult) fall before he learns how to walk?

That’s just the internal world. Getting back to relating to an altered external world requires a similar process. The Settlement means the narrator is rich (in conventional terms) beyond belief, but his retained knowledge of the external world is as irreparably damaged as his motor function. The “re-routing” involved, and its consequences, is what the bulk of Remainder is about. We get a hint of the form it will take early on in Chapter One: a series of telephone incidents means the narrator has to make several calls to his lawyer to learn of the Settlement and we are gently introduced to the notion of repetition as both the learning and the reality that will become his new guiding force. And just as picking up a carrot turns out to require more bits of process than can be imagined, the new reality involves even more.

A couple of mundane incidents will further establish the new parameters. In the first, returning from his lawyer’s office where he signed the Settlement papers, the now incredibly wealthy narrator is on his way to a recommended financial advisor as he emerges from the Underground at Victoria Station:

It felt strange. After a while I stopped wondering which way the office was and just stood there, feeling them hurrying, streaming. I remembered standing in the ex-siege zone between the perpendicular and parallel streets by my flat two days earlier [when the repeated phone calls took place]. I closed my eyes and turned the palms of my hands outwards again and felt the same tingling, the same mixture of serene and intense. I opened my eyes again but kept my palms turned outwards. It struck me that my posture was like the posture of a beggar, holding his hands out, asking passers-by for change.

The feeling of intensity was growing. It felt very good. I stood there static with my hands out, palms turned upwards, while commuters streamed past me. After a while I decided that I would ask them for change. I started muttering:

“Spare change … spare change … spare change …”

Obviously, we do not have an unreliable narrator here but a different version: an incomplete one, more than adequately supplied with some resources (particularly money), completely lacking in others. Equally obviously, we have an author who is determined to take readers into the creation of an alternate, even absurd, reality that shares those characteristics of over-abundance and total absence.

I’m not going to try to describe the elements that McCarthy puts together there: suffice to say they all involve the idea of “re-enactment” as the consistent force (that “re-routing” lesson with the carrot has left an indelible mark). It will start by recreating in real-life the narrator’s hazy memory of a multi-story apartment building, complete with hired tenant/re-enactors including a liver-frying old woman, a pianist and minders who place wandering cats on the roof of the building across the courtyard. It will expand into the detailed recreation of a scene at an auto-repair shop, which then segues into re-enactments of three drive-by gang shootings in the neighborhood. With £8.5 million (the sum itself expanding through some wise/lucky investments in the technology industry), the narrator is not crimped on that front. I will, however, jump well ahead in the story to highlight an exchange from late in the book that illustrates the scope. It involves a local Councillor, a lawyer-like figure who has been involved in facilitating logistics for the re-enactments:

“He (the narrator) has, moreover, had the most trivial of incidents — a spillage that occurred during a visit to a tyre repair shop — played and replayed like a stuck record for the last three weeks, residual.”

“I’d forgotten about that,” I said.

“Forgotten about that, he says?” His tone rose slightly as he uttered this rhetorical question, then dropped again as he ploughed on. “No less than one hundred and twenty actors have been used. Five hundred and eleven props — tyres, signs, tins, tools, all in working condition — have been assembled and deployed. And that’s just for the tyre shop scene. The number of people who have been employed in some capacity or other over the course of all five re-enactments is closer to one thousand.” He paused again and let the figure sink in, then continued: “All these actions, into which so much energy has been invested, so many man-hours, so much money — all, taken as a whole, confront us with the question: for what purpose?”

If my brief outline has interested you enough to want an answer to that question, Remainder is worth the read. If your response is a version of “who would care”, you probably want to give the book a miss.

I read this novel because I was impressed by McCarthy’s 2010 Booker-shortlisted C which explores a far different altered reality. My initial response to both novels was remarkably similar: at the halfway mark, I was enrolled and intrigued; then frustration set in (repetition, almost by definition, becomes boring); only to have the closing portion of the book return me to a positive frame of mind. It has been 18 months since I read C and I would have to say that it has aged well — I’ve come to be more understanding of some of those parts that initially frustrated me. I’m hoping that same thing will happen with Remainder although, at this stage, I have to say some “re-routing” of the KfC brain may be necessary.


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