Archive for April, 2012

The Street Sweeper, by Elliot Perlman

April 27, 2012

Review copy courtesy Bond Street Books

Let me start this review with a warning: The Street Sweeper contains some of the most disturbing, heart-breaking prose that I can recall reading. As author Elliot Perlman brings his novel towards its conclusion, more and more of the book recounts the stories of the Sonderkommando, the death camp Jews who, on pain of an instant death, were required instead to load and unload the gas ovens, stockpile any final items of value and, finally, incinerate the bodies. It makes for dramatic reading but brings with it much more pain than joy.

How the author gets there, however, is an indication of the scope of this book. While the 544-page novel has an extensive cast of characters, the principal narrative threads are focused on two contemporary Americans — the street sweeper of the title and an historian who is about to lose his job at Columbia University — and how they discover their own versions of the story of the Holocaust.

Lamont Williams is the street sweeper. He is black, just out of prison after six years for his involvement in an armed robbery in which he was an unknowing participant as the driver of the getaway car. When we first meet him, he has just got the first good break of his life as the initial member of a new outreach program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre, a program designed to provide a job for “non-violent offenders with exemplary prison records”. The following quote is chosen more to illustrate Perlman’s painstaking, deliberate prose style than anything else — how stories get told are a very important sub-theme in this novel:

Probation lasts six months. This was the first hour of day four, and the supervisor wasn’t to be found outside either. Maybe Lamont was meant to see the job at hand, to identify the problem himself and show some initiative. He looked outside to see if there was anything that looked like an obvious job for someone in Building Services. Everyone outside was smoking under the hospital awning — paramedics, anxious family members, even patients themselves. It didn’t make sense. Maybe they were all just about to quit. Maybe the patients among the smokers had a cancer other than lung cancer, and need the comfort of cigarettes to get them through it.

One patient sitting outside in a wheelchair is not smoking and he’s been deserted by Patient Escort Services. We will discover later that his name is Mandelbrot and he demands that Lamont return him to his room, even though that is clearly a PES responsibility, not one that a Building Services probationer is allowed to carry out. Lamont eventually acquiesces and, when the two get back to Mandelbrot’s room, the patient offers the opening lines of his story:

‘There were six death camps.’

‘What?’

‘There were six death camps.’

‘Six what?’

‘Death camps.’

‘What do you mean, “death camp”?’

‘There were exactly six death camps but you could die more than once in any of them.’

The importance of oral history in keeping alive both the story of the Holocaust and the state of American blacks post-WWII is another one of Perlman’s subtexts and he has just introduced it. Neither Holocaust survivors nor black freedom fighters had any other option to tell their stories. As the book unfolds, Mandelbrot’s decision to adopt Lamont as the recepient and caretaker of his story will occupy more and more of the narrative — a device that underlines why we all need to be listeners to the tragic stories that can be conveyed in no other way.

Adam Zignelik is the Columbia University professor and we meet him in the form of one of his dreams — it starts with the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till, moves on to the deaths of four girls in the segragationist Birmingham bombing and concludes with the story of fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Eckford, one of the nine black students who were attempting to become the first of their race to attend school in Little Rock.

Adam Zignelik hadn’t been born when this happened, when some young men in the crowd who had followed her back to the bus stop and were now behind Elizabeth Eckford started calling, ‘Lynch her! No nigger bitch is going to get into our school. We gotta lynch her! Lynch her! Lynch her!’ Jake Zignelik had been born but he wasn’t there. Who was there for Elizabeth Eckford at the bench at the bus stop near the tree in Little Rock, Arkansas, on the morning of 4 September 1957? Thousands of people were there. Was there anyone else there for her?

Adam comes by that dream legitimately — his father, Jake, was part of Thurgood Marshall’s team which won the Brown versus Board of Education decision that supposedly guaranteed the right of black students to go to that school. When Marshall moved on to the Supreme Court, Jake (a Jew) took over leadership of the NAACP-backed Legal Defense Fund, the legal arm of the civil rights movement. Alas, Jake was a better activist than he was a father — Adam’s mother left him when the boy was a young child and he was raised in Australia.

Adam had an early success as an historian with a book that turned him, however briefly, into a television talking head. That lead to the Columbia appointment (where a childhood friend, the son of one of his father’s colleagues at the LDF, now heads the department). His career has stalled and the lack of published articles means that not only will there not be tenure, he will be asked to leave.

It is a conversation with the department head’s father, Jake’s former colleague William McCray, that starts Adam on what will turn out to be his own Holocaust voyage. William is certain that black GIs were among the first to arrive at the Nazi death camps, although the official record conveniently ignores any mention. While Adam makes little progress on that front, he does discover the work of a Chicago psychologist who arrived at the death camps shortly after liberation and taped scores of survivor stories, many of which have remained undiscovered in the archives in the ensuing decades.

The first half of The Street Sweeper develops those narrative lines — the second half is dominated by the Holocaust memories that I mentioned in my opening paragraph. Both Lamont and Adam have their personal stories as well — it is perhaps a weakness of the book that in the final pages Perlman needs to bring all that together in a rather tidy conclusion that seems hollow given the gut-wrenching stories that immediately precede it.

On the other hand, that is consistent with the nature of oral history — often the stories that are told are grotesque compared to the mundane challenges of current reality. Yet, if we are to appreciate the horrific lessons of the past, some way has to be found to strike a balance between the two — ignoring the stories because they are too terrible is simply not an option.

The Street Sweeper won’t be to everyone’s taste and readers who have Holocaust fatigue (yes, at times I am one of them) may find it particularly challenging. Yet, Perlman’s decision to contrast the stories of American blacks and the Holocaust (even though he is careful not to draw direct comparisons) has value — some people’s stories can only be heard not read. The aging survivors of the two threads of his story are becoming fewer and fewer every year — if we don’t listen now, soon there will be no one left to tell the stories.

Guest Post: Author Dave Margoshes on A Book of Great Worth

April 23, 2012

Dave Margoshes

This guest post uses material published in the “Afterword” in A Book of Great Worth, which itself borrows from a brief essay Dave Margoshes wrote for the literary magazine The New Quarterly to accompany three of the stories it published a few years ago.

I’ve been working on a series of stories about the character I call “my father” – loosely based on my own father – for about 30 years. Over that time, many of them have been in magazines and several in previous short story collections. I had no intention of doing a series, but I liked that first story – it was “The False Moustache” – a lot and wondered if I could use the character in other situations. The story had begun with a spark of truth – a story my father had told many times about a foolish man he’d once known – and the spirit of my father, who had died a couple of years earlier. I had a number of such yarns from my father rattling around in my head and I soon wrote several more of my own “versions.” Gradually, over many years, I began to think I might have enough of these tales to eventually fill a book.

All of the stories begin, first of all, with the character of Morgenstern, “my father,” who is very much imbued with the persona and personality of my own father, and with a seed of truth. There really was a strike at The Day, the Yiddish newspaper where my father wrote for years, and he went to work in a silversmith shop, the situation that informs the story called “The Barking Dog.” And he really did work briefly as a tutor/farmhand, the hook that gets “The Farm Hand” going. As for the story “The Family Circle,” there really was a Margoshes family circle, spearheaded by my mother, but beyond that, all three stories are fiction, as are all in the series, though some are more “fictional” than others.

As I continued to return to these stories, in between other writing projects, a few constants began to become clear to me. The most important was that, while the tone of the stories varies considerably, from somber to comic, they’re similar thematically in that they all show different glimpses of a fundamentally decent man in morally perplexing situations.

All the stories in the series walk that precarious tightrope between memoir and fiction. Of course, they’re not true memoir – they’re about my father, not me, though sometimes I appear briefly, as a child, listening to my father’s tale. Sometimes I (the author) have myself (the character) ask a question or in some other way provide a foil for the character of my father. Mostly, though, the focus is on “my father,” often in time periods before my birth. The stories are written in a blend of first and third person – when the character of myself as a child is on stage, it’s first person; but when the focus is on “my father” alone, it’s third. This bumping together of forms and techniques inevitably raises a question or two in the minds of some readers: is this truth or fiction, and how does the narrator know these things?

I worked hard, with the stories’ structure and a sort of old-fashioned expository style, to make them feel like memoir – like truth – but, of course, most serious fiction writers do that all the time – we employ technique to garb our fabrications in an illusion of truth. We want the reader to buy into our fictions. I also worked hard to imbue these stories with a tension created by that unstated question of how the narrator came to know not just the stories, in their broad strokes, but the fine details. That is the question, isn’t it?

Most importantly, I tried to honour my father. The best way to do that, I knew, was to get it right.

A Book of Great Worth, by Dave Margoshes

April 22, 2012

Review copy courtesy Coteau Books

Full Disclosure: Back in the 1970s, Dave Margoshes and I were colleagues for a few years in the newsroom of the Calgary Herald. He moved on, continuing what he now describes as a career as an itinerant journalist; I stayed and eventually was named publisher of the newspaper. Since that crossing of paths, he has published 12 books (stories, novels, poetry). I left the newspaper business 16 years ago and now blog about books; we re-established contact a few months ago when he left a comment here. I am chagrined to admit that I have not read any of his previous books; I am delighted to be able to comment on this one.

A Book of Great Worth is a collection of thirteen short literary pieces that, in the interest of descriptive categorization, would be called short stories. I don’t quarrel with that, but I’d like to have a more precise option that doesn’t fit conventional literary file folders: a celebration of fatherhood, written by a son, mainly about his own father, but, since he takes some liberties, this is fiction, not memoir. If that makes even confusing sense, you can understand why there isn’t really a concise description that fits.

In an afterword to this volume, Margoshes offers an italicized version of advice given by his mother: Listen to your father. Whatever label you choose to apply to these efforts, written over the last 30 years and originally published in a wide variety of sources, they are a response to that advice. The following quote from Margoshes’ afterword betrays conventional practice about proper reviews, but I’ll break those rules because it aptly summarizes the collection in a way that I found apparent from the start:

All of the stories begin, first of all, with the character of Morgenstern, “my father”, who is very much imbued with the persona and personality of my own father, and with a seed of truth. There really was a strike at The Day, the Yiddish newspaper where my father wrote for years, and he went to work in a silversmith shop, the situation that informs “The Barking Dog”. And he really did work briefly as a tutor/farmhand, the hook that gets “The Farmhand” going. As for “The Family Circle”, there really was a Margoshes family circle, spearheaded by my mother, but beyond that, all three stories are fiction, as are all in the series, though some are more “fictional” than others.

Okay, I’ve just cheated and let the author describe his approach to three of the stories (and an overview of all the rest). I’ll concentrate on describing two more and let you make your own decision on whether this intriguing collection fits your tastes.

Dave Margoshes was (is?) a journalist; as was his father; as was his grandfather; as was KfC. So for starters, let’s consider Harry Morgenstern as he appears in “The Wisdom of Solomon”. Margoshes arranges his stories in a rough chronological order, so we already know that his father comes from “journalist” stock, has farming experience in the Catskills and further west and has arrived in Cleveland where his family journalistic experience is not known and he has a chance to establish a name for himself.

It was 1920, and my father was twenty-seven; as he liked to say, he was always a few years older than the century.

The Cleveland Jewish World — Der Velt – had a grand title but the paper itself was somewhat less than grand. Its circulation was barely fifty thousand, just a fraction of that of the big Yiddish dailies of New York City, but it saw itself playing a role just as important in the lives of the Jews of Cleveland and other cities in Ohio, bringing them not just news, but education, entertainment and literature. It was that part that most interested my father, who had been writing a novel and poems, but he was assigned more mundane tasks at first, not the least of which were obituaries.

For those of us who used to be journalists, that paragraph and its reminders — New York at that time was supporting a host of Yiddish newspapers; now it struggles to profitably support an English one — brings back fond memories. One of the beauties of this story (and many of the rest) is the way that Margoshes introduces a dream and then explodes it with a healthy dose of reality. Father Harry, eager to escape obit writing (the graveyard of all young journalists :-)), is asked to write the agony-aunt lovelorn column:

The newspapers of New York were filled with such columns, which were wildly popular. Abe Cahan, the great editor at The Forward, the Socialist paper, had invented the form, which he called the Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bunch of letters, but all the other Yiddish papers had followed, even the religious papers, which at first considered themselves too serious for such a seemingly trivial feature. But readers demanded it. Regardless of what paper they read, they had questions, often much the same ones. Even the English papers, like the Sun and the Telegram in New York, seeing all the fuss were quick to follow.

Sigh. For those of us who are disturbed that agony aunts, uncles and drivel columnists are taking over the modern web sites of conventional newspapers, it is useful to be reminded that the threat is more than a half-century old. Needless to say, Harrry is good at his agony column (he sets a very high standard with the phoney letter he uses to launch the column) and eventually moves to New York and a more serious post as labor reporter, during the Depression and war years, at The Day.

Margoshes himself is a fine reporter with an eye and ear for history; in many of these stories he uses that talent not just to portray his father but to capture the atmosphere of the times and New York City. I commend the value of those but will move on to the title story, “A Book of Great Worth”, for my concluding thoughts.

The story opens with the crash of the Hindenberg — Harry Morgenstern was there as a reporter and injured in the resulting melee. By that time the author’s parents (his own arrival was still four years off) had a third-floor apartment on Coney Island. In the aftermath of the Hindenberg crash, Harry runs into a young woman from Montreal (“a damsel in distress. Just the ticket, you are,” the local bartender observes) and takes her home to provide shelter, both physical and emotional. Anna, who does not talk but writes notes, is searching for her “brother” although Harry’s mother is quite certain that “lover” would be a more accurate description.

The author’s father has only one material interest: books, books that he purchases at Fushgo’s second-hand store. And Fushgo has just presented him with a handwritten volume (“in the manner of monks”):

The handwriting was skillful and consistent throughout the several hundred pages, the unintelligible words clearly scripted in a faded blue ink, the enlarged capitals at the beginning of each new paragraph shadowed in a red the shade of dried blood. There was no date, no publisher’s name or city, no illustrations that might serve as clues to the book’s origin, and the title and author were just as indecipherable as the text itself. The leather of the binding was so thick — more like a slab of oxblood hide used for making shoes than the soft black grainy cloth publishers used — and the spine so warped the book could not be fully closed, and when it lay on the table it seemed like a head whose jaws had sprung open, eager to share the untapped wisdom within it. “For you, Morgenstern,” Fushgo had said when he produced the book for my father. “Read this and you’ll learn much the same wisdom you acquire conversing with your Anna.”

I offer that quote as an example that there is more to this intriguing collection than first meets the eye. Yes, more than anything else, this is an homage to the author’s father, one that it took him many decades to compile. But it is also a collection of some very perceptive observations about the world where his father lived — the Yiddish newspapers, East-side New York, the pull of both the West and the East, life in the streets and a life devoted to books.

Margoshes wrote these pieces over a span of decades and, if you try to read them all at once, you might find some repetitive parts distracting, because they do exist. Spread out over time, however, (I took six weeks to complete the book) the repetitions serve as handy reminders.

Dave Margoshes and I are contemporaries, although my father was a couple decades younger than his. And my father’s “fame” hardly rivals his — my dad went through three World War II boot camps and eventually ended up as a credit manager for a Western Canadian small town lumber yard chain. Yet, I remember well all that he introduced me to and to this day appreciate his concern in what I had the potential to become. A Book of Great Worth may be Margoshes’ homage to his father, but it is worth noting that almost all of these stories involve events that take place before the author himself was born, recounted to the son as personal oral history. In the final analysis, the collection is about what produced the man who did influence him — we all have fathers and they all share that characteristic. Few of us take the time to chronicle those family memories — that in itself is enough to say that this book is a valuable and unusual work, one that sparks its own reminders for the reader.

A final note: Come back tomorrow for a guest post from the author which will offer some further insights into this collection.

Ripley’s Game, by Patricia Highsmith

April 18, 2012

Purchased at Indigo.ca

I’ve been working my way through Patricia Highsmith’s five Ripley novels at the leisurely pace of one every year or so (and Tom Ripley has kindly been providing the KfC blog strap line for the last few weeks). The first two (The Talented Mr. Ripley and Ripley Under Ground) are generally regarded as the best and for me both certainly lived up to their high reputation. Given that critical opinion, it is fair to say that I approached Ripley’s Game with suitably lowered expectations.

Two bits of background first, however. For those who don’t know Tom Ripley, he is one of fiction’s most amoral, arguably immoral, characters, blindly pursuing his own devious ends without regard to anyone — or any recognizable moral code — around him. The result, for readers, is an intensely charming rogue. Highsmith is also much loved (with good reason) by movie directors and Tom is a natural subject. I’d tracked down the DVD version of Ripley’s Game (starring John Malkovich and available from Amazon.UK for the bargain price of £3.49 if you have an all-region DVD player) some time ago and Mrs. KfC and I jumped the gun on my reading of the book some months back. Yes, that means a bit of a spoiler, but we already know Tom is a killer and, since there are five books, we know he escapes punishment, so it didn’t prove to be a major one.

Highsmith supplies a new twist to her title character in this one. While Tom was a singular villain in the more gruesome aspects of the first two novels, he is more of a manipulative one in this novel.

Ripley’s Game opens with Tom receiving a shady acquaintance, Reeves, at the Ripley estate, Villeperce, in France — Ripley’s wife Heloise comes from an aristorcratic family so he lives a life of idle comfort there. (Aside: For those who have seen the movie, my observation would be that the estate of the book is not nearly as luxurious as the estate of the movie, atlhough it is still pretty grand.) Tom has done odd jobs for Reeves before, passing on or retrieving parcels of stolen goods or “recovering from toothpaste tubes, where Reeves had planted them, tiny objects like microfilm rolls from the unsuspecting toothpaste carriers”. He’s done those jobs more out of relieving boredom than anything else, but the “game” that is about to start is of a different order:

Now Reeves wanted Tom to provide someone, suggest someone to do one or perhaps two ‘simple murders’ and perhaps one theft, also safe and simple. Reeves had come from Hamburg to Villeperce to talk to Tom, and he was going to stay the night and go to Paris tomorrow to talk to someone else about it, then return to his home in Hamburg, presumably to do some more thinking if he failed. Reeves was primarily a fence, but lately was dabbling in the illegal gambling world of Hamburg, which he was now undertaking to protect. Protect from what? Italian sharks who wanted to come in. One Italian in Hamburg was a Mafia button man, sent out as a feeler, Reeves thought, and the other might be, from a different family. By eliminating one or both of these intruders, Reeves hoped to discourage further Mafia attempts, and also to draw the attention of the Hamburg police to a Mafia threat, and let the police handle the rest, which was to say, throw the Mafia out.

Tom doesn’t like Reeves much (although he has no time for the Mafia at all, regarding them as an unacceptable version of “bad”, a rather odd judgment given his own character), so the proposal as stated is not of much interest to him. But, twisted soul that he is, he sees another aspect to it — the chance to corrupt an otherwise moral person and introduce him to Tom’s amoral world — that does have appeal. And, selfish devil that he is, he has a possible candidate whom he had recently met at a party in a nearby village:

He recalled a tall blond Englishman with a certain resentment and dislike, because in the kitchen, that gloomy kitchen with worn-out linoleum, smoke-stained tin ceiling with a nineteenth-century bas-relief pattern, this man had made an unpleasant remark to Tom. The man — Trewbridge, Tewksbury? — had said in an almost sneering way, ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard of you.’ Tom had said, ‘I’m Tom Ripley. I live in Villeperce,’ and Tom had been about to ask him how long he’d been in Fontainebleau, that perhaps an Englishman with a French wife might like to make acquaintance with an American with a French wife living not far away, but Tom’s venture had been met with rudeness. Trevanny? Wasn’t that his name? Blond, straight hair, rather Dutch-looking, but then the English often looked Dutch and vice versa.

Readers who know him know that it is a bad, even fatal, mistake to piss Tom off (and also that, as in this case, he gets pissed off rather easily). Trevanny (that turns out to be his name after all) has quite unwittingly done that, setting the stage for the game. Trevanny runs a not-very-successful picture framing shop and has money troubles. Ripley is also aware from an art dealer friend that Trevanny is suffering from a serious case of leukemia, likely in its final stages. All of which gives our anti-hero a twisted motive — and elements of opportunity — to make him a “victim” by turning him into a contract killer.

Ripley puts Reeves in touch with Trevanny — Tom’s perception that he is corruptible proves true and the first ‘simple murder’ takes place. Alas, the killer/victim still has shreds of conscience and, while the act has not attracted police attention to him, it has introduced a slew of personal and family crises.

Those start to come into play when it turns out that a second murder will be required. Trevanny by this time has a case of cold feet but Tom, intrigued by the evil plot he has set in motion, steps in to push it along. From this point on, Ripley’s Game turns into a bit of a thriller (and Highsmith does thrillers well) but it should be understood from the start that the author is more interested in her study of character (or lack thereof) and inherent weaknesses — she keeps both elements in balance as the novel proceeds to its conclusion.

How good is Ripley’s Game? Judged strictly as a stand-alone book, it isn’t as good as the first two Ripley novels. On the other hand, if you have come to appreciate Ripley as a character (and I have) it is an entirely worthwhile extension of the portrayal of an evil rogue who is completely absent of any guiding force beyond his own selfishness. The thriller part works just fine; the development of fractured characters even better.

So it is a further-developed Tom Ripley that I send back to the shelf for another year — come back next spring for a look at volume four, The Boy Who Followed Ripley. Ripley is certainly proving to be worth an annual visit so far.

A note on the text: The three Ripley’s that I have read so far all are contained in the Everyman’s Library edition pictured at the top of this review — the next two will be the paperback Norton versions. If you think you may be a real Ripley convert, Norton has a wonderful looking hardback collection (here’s a link) which I may just invest in down the road. Once I have completed my leisurely first read, I think Ripley will be worth a second visit.

Five Bells, by Gail Jones

April 14, 2012

Purchased from Indigo.ca

I will admit that I have been awaiting the North American publication of Five Bells for some months, ever since I first came across the striking image on the cover of the North American version of Gail Jones’ fifth novel (I haven’t read any of the four previous ones). Yes, I sometimes do buy a book because of its cover (not often, I hasten to say) and this one drew me in immediately. I’ve never been to Australia, let alone Sydney, but I certainly am aware of that city’s Opera House and was intrigued by the powerful image from first sight.

That’s not to say it was just the cover that caught my attention. I’ve written previously about my interest as a Canadian in Australian fiction: the two countries have a lot in common and it is reflected in their literature — I drew some comparisons a few years back in this post and am delighted that it continues to attract regular attention.

And, finally, I was intrigued by the author’s premise. There are examples in all English-speaking countries of authors who opt to tell parallel stories from the viewpoint of a number of characters in their novels, but it does seem to be more prevalent Down Under — Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity and Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap are two examples that have been reviewed here. Five Bells promised a similar format: the stories of four individuals who head to Circular Quay and Sydney Harbour where the Opera House is located on a vibrant summer weekend day.

Two of the four, Ellie and James, are actually on the way to meet each other for lunch. They grew up together (and were teenage first lovers) in Western Australia and haven’t seen each other for years. Both are recent arrivals in Sydney so this visit to the harbour for each is a combination of new experience and memory-provoking presentiment. Forewarned is forearmed: author Jones is fond of descriptive writing — here’s Ellie’s reaction as she arrives at the Harbour and spots the Opera House:

Unmediated joy was nowadays unfashionable. Not to mention the banal thrill of a famous city icon. But Ellie’s heart opened like that form unfolding into the blue; she was filled with corny delight and ordinary elation. Behind her, raddled train-noise reverberated up high, and the didgeridoo, now barely audible, continued its low soft moaning. A child sounded a squeal. A ferry churned away. From another came the clang of a falling gang-plank and the sound of passengers disembarking. Somewhere behind her the Rolling Stones — ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ — sounded in a tinny ring-tone. Boum-boum, distant now, boum-boum, boum-boum, and above it all a melody of voices, which seemed to arise from the water.

If Ellie arrives at the harbor with curiousity and optimistic expectation, James is the other side of the coin:

James turned away and walked back down the pier. He saw the Bridge, he saw the ferries, he saw the peach-coloured facade of the gallery of contemporary art; it was hung with red banners advertising something or other. His gaze was listless, remote. Considering these sites unremarkable, dull in his own livid space, James turned his back to the Harbour and retreated to a cafe, as if he needed to defend himself from what might entertain others. People swept around him, each with their own thoughts, each — the idea was fleeting — with their own apprehension of what might undo a single life, teeth, a touch, a brown space held in time by a gape of open canvas. But the crowd was a collective, and indistinct. They were unconnected to him. They were blithely autonomous. The masses, he liked to call them.

Character three, Pei Zing, is also a relative newcomer to Sydney. She was born and raised in Communist China (Jones uses that terminology to capture the attitude of the times) and was imprisoned and “re-educated” in the Cultural Revolution. Her father was not only educated in England, he worked as a translator (of Doctor Zhivago, no less) so the family was a natural target for the attack on “The Four Olds” and Pei Zing paid a price. In the present time of the book, Pei Zing is actually just passing through the Harbour area — she is on her way to her weekly lunch with the woman who was once both her jailer and torturer (you are going to have to read the novel to find out how the author puts that together).

And finally, Catherine: Irish, a journalist, also newly arrived in Sydney, by way of London. Today is her first visit to the Harbour, part of her discovery of the New World to which she has moved:

Catherine loved Australian accents, the way they rasped in the air. The conversation unrolled in a friendly snarl. There was French, too — she recognised the syllables she had first heard as a schoolgirl in Dublin — and fragments, what was it? — of sing-songy Mandarin. Catherine saw a young man lunge for his girlfriend. He took her by the waist, swung her around, and kissed her dramatically, with a succulent smack. He was the Scot, another visitor, like herself. He wore a NYC cap on his head and had the indiscreet, restive confidence of someone newly in love.

I’ve included those extended quotes in this review because they are typical of the book. While there is a lot of “memory” in the stories from all four characters, there is also a lot of the Harbour and the polyglot of weekend visitors. Each chapter of the novel features a section from all four — the reader is invited to experience it through their fresh eyes, but also to join with them in the personal memories that it provokes. Jones does have to bring the four stories together eventually, but she does it late in the book with a device that, at least for this reader, was one more of convenience than realistic plot development.

As I indicated at the start of the review, I very much wanted this novel to succeed and I’m afraid it did not. I wasn’t disinterested in the four characters, but none of them really came to life. And the persistent, extended passages of detailed description started to wear as the novel went on.

This is an unusual (and churlish) spoiler, but I think I discovered my problem with the novel after I completed it and read the three-page author’s Acknowledgements at the end of the book. Jones opens it with thanks to “my colleagues at The University of Western Sydney, especially members of the Writing and Society Research Group …. the solidarity of members of this group is deeply appreciated.” And she also thanks the Shanghai Writers’ Association for her residency there, with particular thanks to the support of two fellow residents, authors Madeleine Thien and Yukiko Chino. Thanks are extended to 36 more people — that’s right, 36 — who supplied help with various aspects of the novel and that doesn’t include the extensive list of published sources that Jones consulted.

I’m not one of those readers who expects every novelist to exist in a lonely garret and, unlike some, actually think that Creative Writing programs do add value more often than not. I can’t help but conclude, however, that the intriguing premise and promise of this novel somehow got lost along the way, simply because too many people were involved in advising the author. I frequently think that novels that disappoint me could have been vastly improved with one more re-write — this is one that I think would have been far better served by one (or maybe even more) less.

Stories 1938-45, by William Maxwell

April 8, 2012

Library of America collection

This post will be in keeping with two of the 2012 objectives for the KfC blog:
1) a more disciplined approach to reading and reviewing short stories
2) finding the time to visit for the first time, or revisit, some overlooked authors who deserve broader attention.

William Maxwell certainly fits that latter category — indeed, while I have known his name for decades, my first experience reading and reviewing his work was just three years ago (Bright Center of Heaven and They Came Like Swallows). I resolved then that I would make my way through Maxwell’s work at a leisurely pace — he isn’t the kind of author who demands or rewards a sudden burst of attention but rather warrants an extended, more contemplative approach.

Swallows (1937) and So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) are the best (perhaps “only” might be a better description) known Maxwell works — that four-decade gap from an author who produced only six novels and a modest collection of short stories is ample indication that quality, not quantity, is a Maxwell trademark. And, after all, if he took more than four decades to write them, I shouldn’t feel guilty about taking one to finally read them.

That same characteristic served him well in the post for which he is probably better-known than his publications: from 1936-75, Maxwell was fiction editor of The New Yorker. Those whom he edited (and many of these authors have publicly saluted his contribution to their work) are an A-list of the short story genre: Nabokov, Updike, Salinger, Cheever, O’Hara, Bashevis Singer and Munro, just to name a few. A good argument could be made that Maxwell as an editor made a bigger contribution to the mid-twentieth century short story form than any other individual.

All of which made delving into his own early attempts at the genre an interesting prospect. It is an indication of the way Maxwell has historically been overlooked that the five stories under consideration here never actually appeared in a single volume until the Library of America released the first of its two-book Maxwell collection in 2008 (two, in fact, had never appeared in any collection before). Four of these stories first appeared in The New Yorker — Homecoming (1938), The Actual Thing (1938), Young Francis Whitehead (1939) and The Patterns of Love (1945) — and the fifth (Haller’s Second Home (1945)) in Harper’s Bazaar.

I’ll look at a couple of the stories in modest detail, but permit me some general observations about these early works first. While my own previous Maxwell reading experience is confined to his first two novels, I can say with some confidence that these stories are probably best regarded as literary “etudes” — attempts by the author to explore and develop the ideas and forms that will serve him well in his more ambitious later novels. A couple of decades later, Canadian Mordecai Richler did the same thing with his stories as I noted in my review of The Street a few weeks ago. The result is that they come across as entirely satisfying vignettes, but it has to be admitted that much more complete examples of the short story form itself can be found from all those writers whom Maxwell edited that I listed earlier.

The dual threats of loss and change — usually set in the insitution of family and close friends — are a consistent Maxwell theme and these early short works begin his exploration of that Pandora’s Box. This quote from the early paragraphs of Homecoming is very long for a review but it is a perfect example of the way Maxwell weaves those themes into his dignified, almost painstaking prose:

He had come back to Watertown to spend Christmas with his family — with his father and mother, and his two brothers, who were both younger than he was and not quite grown. But they were not entirely the reason for his wanting to come home. Before he went away, he used to be with Tom and Ann Farrel a great deal of the time. So much, in fact, that it used to annoy his mother, and she would ask him occasionally why he didn’t pack his things and go move in with the Farrels. And there was nothing that he could say; no way that he could explain to his mother that Farrel and Ann had somehow filled out his life and balanced it. They were the first friends he had ever had. And the best, really. For that reason it would not do for him to go back to New York without seeing Farrel. He had never even meant to do that. But he had hoped to run into Farrel somewhere about town, coming or going. He had hoped that he wouldn’t have to face Farrel in his own house now that Ann was not here. Now that Ann was dead, Jordan said to himself as he turned in and made his way up to the porch. He rang the bell twice. After a time the door opened and a rather small boy looked out at him.

Note the universal themes that Maxwell introduces in that paragraph. The disquieting experience of a young adult’s first return “home”. The memories of how the idea of “family” painfully changed as a maturing son found friends. The sense that broadening experience inevitably also produces loss. And the ominous threat that serious change (“Now that Ann was dead”) occurs in absence, introducing yet more uncertainty.

Homecoming is only seven pages long, but Maxwell speaks to all those issues as it unfolds. As one who appreciates Alice Munro, I was reminded while reading it that she frequently addresses those same issues in her stories. Unlike Munro, however, who usually points to some resolution, Maxwell tends to leave them described but open-ended — you need to get to his novels to find a sense of resolution.

Maxwell was born in Lincoln, Illinois in 1908 and survived the 1918 influenza epidemic, eventually moving to New York. His mother died in that epidemic, an event that frequently influences his fiction. Critics say that much of his fiction is autobiographical — that opening quote from one of his first short stories seems a concise description of the life that will form the basis for his writing.

In Young Francis Whitehead, Maxwell explores a different aspect of that life, although those same themes predominate (and Francis will make an appearance in another of these stories, Haller’s Second Home, when he returns home for the first time after being drafted into the Army). In this story, Francis has just returned from Cornell to the family home in New Hampshire for Easter weekend (note how Maxwell appreciates the way that “holidays” often bring disturbing family concerns to the surface). To provide a context, Maxwell uses a visit from an old family friend:

Miss Avery had stood by, in one capacity or another, while Francis learned to walk and to talk, to cut out strings of paper dolls, and ride a bicycle but they had seen very little of each other the last two or three years. Francis had been away at school much of the time. He was at Cornell. And Miss Avery decided, as she raised the knocker on the big front door, that he probably wouldn’t care to be reminded of the fact that she had once sewed buttons on his pantywaists. The knocker made a noise, but no one came. Miss Avery waited and waited, and finally she opened the door and walked in.

As in Homecoming, Maxwell uses the device of overlapping returns and visits to collect his characters before introducing the threatening “change” that lies at the centre of the story, in this case Francis’ decision to settle in New York after completing school — an idea that his mother simply can’t accept and that places Miss Avery in very uncomfortable circumstances. Again, there is no resolution; Maxwell is content to set the pieces in place, describe them and let the reader contemplate what the eventual outcome will be. We’ve all been there ourselves, so the reader brings his or her own resources and memories to the experience. That, too, is a consistent characteristic of Maxwell fiction, even in his longer works.

Finally, a note on the text. Generally, I am not a great fan of “collections” — they certainly offer good value for the dollar spent, but I tend to prefer self-contained volumes. For an under-appreciated (and under-published) author like Maxwell, however, the Library of America is doing readers a great favor by doing the collecting work for us. I suppose one could track down individual versions (and the popular novels are readily available) but an author who is this good deserves to be experienced in detail — the two volumes of Maxwell are an excellent resource for any serious reader of twentieth century American fiction. I am only halfway through volume one — look forward to more reviews of William Maxwell in the months and years ahead.

Capital, by John Lanchester

April 4, 2012

Purchased from the Book Depository

John Lanchester has been an author who has had my attention since his oustanding 1996 debut, The Debt To Pleasure, a novel that seemed to be about cuisine for its first half (and that was fine) and then became increasingly dark as its main character came into full focus. I’ve read both his next two novels — Mr Phillips and Fragrant Harbor — and while they weren’t up to his first one, they were entertaining enough.

I also know Lanchester through his journalism, most recently his regular contributions to the London Review of Books on the financial crisis, also collected as a book, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay (the “Whoops!” in that title is replaced with “I.O.U.” in editions published outside the U.K). His financial analysis is general not academic — but it was refreshing to see an author whom I knew as a novelist pay serious attention to the business world and the articles that I read were more than worthwhile.

So the premise of his latest novel, Capital, was attractive from the start. Set in London, opening in late 2007 and continuing through the height of the crisis, with a City of London banker at its centre, I had hopes that this was going to be one of those “inside corrupt finance” fiction works that strike a very responsive chord with this reader.

For the first 200 pages, Capital delivered on that premise in spades. It is a “widescreen” novel, featuring a number of different story lines, each with its own central character, that continue throughout the book. Lanchester introduces these characters and their stories with a satirical overtone (both for the people and their circumstances) that had me constantly chuckling and nodding in agreement with his pungent observations.

One aspect of Capital is definitely not “widescreen”. All of the stories and characters in some way are connected with dwellings on a single block of Pepys Road in South London, three-storey homes constructed in the late nineteenth century. They were “built for a specific market: the idea was that they would appeal to lower-middle-class families willing to live in an unfashionable part of town in return for the chance to own a terraced house — a house large enough to have room for servants.”

The ensuing century has been more than economically kind to Pepys Road (and central London in general). While there have been some stumbles along the way, the block has become steadily more fashionable, the homes upgraded. First the attics and more recently the basements at about £100,000 a pop: “…that also added at least that much to the value of the house, so looked at from a certain point of view — and because many of the new residents worked in the City of London, this was a popular point of view — the basement conversions were free.” That’s a pretty accurate summary of the Western Hemisphere housing market, not just Pepys Road, in the heady days prior to 2007 and the kind of trenchant aside that can be found on almost every one of those first 200 pages.

Before leaving Pepys Road, though, let’s quote Lanchester’s description of its current status:

Now, however, history had sprung an astonishing plot twist on the residents of Pepys Road. For the first time in history, the people who lived in the street were by global and maybe even by local standards, rich. The thing which made them rich was the very fact that they lived on Pepys Road. They were rich simply because of that, because all of the houses in Pepys Road, as if by magic, were now worth millions of pounds.

Let’s take a look at the banker I mentioned earlier, who actually is not the central character of the novel but certainly one of the ensemble that populates the book:

The proprietor of 51 Pepys Road, the house across the road from Petunia Howe’s [we’ll get to her in a moment], was at his office desk at his bank, Pinker Lloyd, doing sums. He was trying to work out if his bonus that year would come to a million pounds.

At forty, Roger was a man to whom everything in life had come easily. He was six foot three, just short enough to feel no need to conceal his height by stooping — so that even his tallness appeared a form of ease, as if gravity had, when he was growing up, exerted less effect on him than on more ordinary people…. He had been to a good school (Harrow) and a good university (Durham) and got a good job (in the City of London) and been perfect in his timing (just after the Big Bang, just before the City became infatuated by the mathematically gifted and/or barrow boys). He would have fitted seamlessly in the old City of London, where people came in late and left early and had a good lunch in between, and where everything depended on who you were and whom you knew and how well you blended in, and the greatest honour was to be one of us and to “play well with others” but he fit in very well in the new City too, where everything was supposedly meritocratic, where the ideology was to work hard, play hard, and take no prisoners; to be in the office from seven to seven, minimum, and where nobody cared what your accent was or where you came from as long as you showed you were up for it and made money for your employer.”

Roger’s problem with his bonus calculation is not just that he is hoping for £1,000,000, he needs to get it. His wife, Arabella, refers to his £150,000 salary as “frock money” — it doesn’t even cover the mortgage payments on the Pepys Road house and the Yount’s country “cottage” — so they live off the annual bonus. When you add up the regular costs — continuous redocoration at both properties, regular new furniture acquisitions, a nanny, Arabella’s constant spending, expensive vacations, etc. — a million would just about get Roger to even for the year. It’s no spoiler to say he doesn’t get that much — you’ll have to read the book to find out how bad the shortfall is.

Petunia Howe, mentioned in the quote earlier, lives across the street at Number 42 — the last person to have been born in the street and still resident there. In fact, her grandfather had bought Number 42 “off the plan” before it was even built back in the late 1800s. Petunia’s grandfather, father and husband were all barrister’s clerks in Lincoln’s Inn, the job passed on one to the other when nepotism still ruled at all levels. Her husband died five years ago and Petunia herself is approaching the end of her days — still, both her memories and current experience on Pepys Road are important to the continuity of the various story lines.

Modern London is a diverse city and that too has come to Pepys Road. The shop at the end of the road, number 68, is owned by Ahmed Kamal and the upper floor is home to his wife and two children. It’s one of those family corner store operations that can be found in any modern city — Ahmed’s brothers Usman (a fervent Muslim who hides the alcohol and men’s magazines on sale in the store when he is working there) and Shahid (who has questionable political connections from a trip to Chechnya in his teens) both take regular shifts at the shop.

Grant me leave to introduce one more character, “the most unpopular woman in Pepys Road”. Her name is “Quentina Mkfesi BSc, MSc, University of Zimbabwe, thesis subjet: Post-Conflict Resolution in Non-Post-Colonial Societies, with special reference to Northern Ireland, Spain and Chile”. Her application for refugee status in the UK has been rejected, she’s currently living in a charity-sponsored holding house awaiting her appeal and has obtained illegal employment under another name out of boredom. The reason she is the most unpopular woman on the street is that she is a parking warden…

…on the lookout for non-residents parked in the residents’ parking area, for business permit-holders parked in residents’ areas and vice versa, for expired permits of both types, for people who had overstayed their paid parking or — and this was a particularly fruitful issue in Pepys Road — for people who had misinterpreted the parking signs and paid for parking but were not parked in the dual-use, residents’ or paid-parking area, but were instead parked in the residents-only parking area.

Quentina is conscientious and always meets her quota (“of course, there was a quota”) of 20 tickets a day — she also has the lowest level of upheld appeals of her tickets by any of the current employees of the private company that has the parking control contract. Quentina and four other African employees of the firm have a daily contest to maintain their interest: whoever tickets the most expensive car each day earns a free beer from the others. In the chapter where she is introduced, she is confident of a win: She tickets an Aston Martin DB7, “a James Bond car with an on-the-road price of £150,000, parked in the residents-only area, not the residents-and-visitors area. He had made the classic Pepys Road mistake.”

It is not just the houses and people of Pepys Road who populate this novel, however. In its opening pages, all of the residents start receiving photos dropped through their letter box with the label (warning?): We Want What You Have. The prank, escapade, threat, whatever it is, grows (DVDs, graffiti, vandalism) and will become one of the threads that unifies the stories of the block.

This is a long review already and I haven’t even introduced all the story lines — trust me, there are a number more (a 17-year-old Sengalese football player newly-signed to a Premiership contract and a graffiti/installation artist, just to name two). And that’s just in the first 200 pages of Capital.

Which is a fair way of introducing the problems I had with the novel, because my copy of Capital is 577 pages long. As entertaining as those pages were, they do tend to be somewhat slight (which is a big part of the charm) and Lanchester tries to make his novel more “weighty” in each of the story threads as it moves along. Alas, he is much less successful at that — the middle third of the novel involves a fair bit of wheel-spinning with some not very interesting, obvious plot developments (you can predict a number of them off my thumbnail descriptions, I am sure — you certainly will if you read the book).

To his credit, the author recovers in the final third. It becomes a bit tidy, I admit (a frequent problem with “widescreen” novels and one that I can overlook), but the fractured humanity of the characters and their circumstances reasserts itself. Just to illustrate how that issue played out with me, I read the first 200 pages in one sitting, took four days of somewhat grumpy reading for the next 200 and finished off the last 180 in another single reading session.

The final result? Capital won’t be the best book that I will read this year, but some of the set pieces in it (Roger and his bonus, Quentina and her “route”) will be among the best. A tad long at 577 pages, but an entertaining read nonetheless — if you get frustrated in the middle, make sure you press on. I have the feeling that a few months down the road I’ll still be remembering the beginning and ending and conveniently forgetting the middle.


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