Archive for February, 2011

The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino

February 25, 2011

Translated by Alexander O. Smith

Review copy courtesy WordFest

And now for something completely different: A KfC review of a murder mystery, translated from the Japanese.

Regular visitiors here will be aware that mystery/crime is not my genre: in 26 months, this blog has reviewed only two (the first parts of Patricia Highsmith’s five-book Ripley series). Searching the blog for my experience with Japanese fiction would be even more fruitless: unlike many readers who have found value there, I don’t think I have ever before read a book translated from the Japanese. (I have nothing against Japanese fiction, just never been moved to try it.) So I haven’t just moved outside my comfort zone with this novel, I found myself in a couple of zones that are virtually unknown to me.

Some back story is required to explain how I got there. I have been involved with WordFest, the Banff-Calgary author’s festival, almost since its inception more than 15 years ago. I was on the board of directors some years ago and since then have maintained a connection as one of their “readers”, supplying thoughts on books by authors whom they are considering inviting to the new festival. (You can check out WordFest’s website here.) The festival’s new executive director, Jo Steffens, dropped by recently to introduce herself — and brought along an Advance Reading Copy of The Devotion of Suspect X.

Despite not being my usual fare, the promotional material on the ARC sparked my curiosity. Minotaur Books, the publisher, says that Higashino is Japan’s “biggest best-selling novelist”, that more than 2 million copies of this novel have sold in Japan and that it won the Naoki Prize (which they say is Japan’s equivalent of the National Book Award). Not just that, the press run for the first printing of this North American version is 75,000 — an amazing figure for an author not known here. Loyal WordFest “reader” that I am, it seemed worth at least a scan of the first few pages. One day and almost 300 pages later, I finished the book, delighted and intrigued by the experience.

The Devotion of Suspect X has five central characters, three on the crime side, two crime “solvers”. Let’s start with the criminal ones (this isn’t a spoiler — it all happens in the first 26 pages).

Yasuko Hanaoka is a former nightclub hostess who now works in a small shop selling boxed lunches. She and her teenage daughter, Misato, live nearby — since divorcing her abusive former husband, Togashi, (he was client at the nightclub) the two have moved several times to try to escape him. He shows up early in the book, apparently looking for reconciliaton or, failing that, money. He follows her home and, after an angry exchange with Yasuko, turns his rage on his step-daughter who hits him over the head with a copper flower vase.

Then [Togashi] leapt astride her, grabbing her long hair and striking the side of her face with his right hand. “I’m gonna kill you, you little bitch!” he roared.

He is going to kill her, Yasuko thought. He really is going to kill her–

Still on her knees, Yasuko looked around frantically. The electrical cord snaking from beneath the kotatsu caught her eye. She reached over, grabbed it and yanked it out of the socket. The other end was still attached to a corner of the kotatsu top. She stood, making a loop out of the cord in her hand.

She stepped behind Togashi where he sat atop her daughter, hitting her repeatedly, howling in blind anger. She slipped the loop over his head and pulled with all her strength.

It takes a while, but Togashi is soon no longer with us and mother and daughter face the daunting prospect of what to do next. That’s when the third member of the crime side, Ishigami, comes into play. We have met him at the start of the book: he lives in the apartment next door, he is a high school mathematics teacher, squat and ugly, who buys a lunch box at the shop every day Yasuko is there. He doesn’t show up on her days off and the owners have been teasing her that she has attracted an admirer.

The killing of Togashi has been rather noisy and, while mother and daughter are contemplating their dilemma, the phone rings.

Yasuko steadied her breath, then lifted the receiver to her ear and pressed the talk button. “Yes? Hello? Hanaoka speaking.”

“Um, hi. It’s Ishigami, from next door.”

Yasuko stared stupidly at the phone. It’s that teacher again. What could he possibly want this time? “Yes? Can I help you?”

“Erm, well, actually, I was wondering what you were going to do.”

Yasuko had no idea what he meant. “I’m sorry, about what?”

“Just, well,–” Ishigami paused before continuing. “If you were going to call the police, well that’s fine, I’ll say nothing about it. But if you weren’t, then I was thinking there might be something I could do to help.”

I’ve gone on at more length (and with longer quotes) than I should in setting up the story, but there is a reason. One of the distinguishing — indeed intriguing — qualities of The Devotion of Suspect X is that reading it is a novelistic version of reading the libretto of an opera. Both in story line and prose, there is an icy, almost simplistic, formality — the author demands of the reader a willingness to accept some very unlikely story developments (and equally formal, unrealistic language). (I don’t think that is a translation issue. It may well be a characteristic of Japanese fiction — my own lack of exposure leaves me unqualified to comment.) Like opera, however, the result is what I’ll call “literary theatre”. The stylization and simplificaton of the story and the voice may seem forced, but it is done to introduce the reader to an understanding of the underlying emotions and elements that drive both.

That tension comes into play when the two crime “solvers” are introduced. Kusangi is the lead detective on the case — his friend, Yukawa, is a physics professor with whom Kusangi regularly discusses cases. As it happens, Yukawa and Ishigami were classmates at the Imperial University, each with exceptional promise (albeit in the different fields of physics and mathematics). Yukawa is a bit of an amateur sleuth and becomes intrigued by this particular case and the involvement of his former classmate and friend. Author Higashino uses that device to add an entirely new layer to his story — the different nature of practical physics and theoretical mathematics, the classical problems in each field and how those problems and the investigation of their solution might play out when applied to real world crime (I warned you of the operatic nature of the plot).

In fact, Higashino introduces one of mathematics (and physics) classical “unsolved” problems as an over-arching theme of the story when Ishigami and Yukawa have their first meeting in the book:

“You’re familiar with the P=NP problem, right?” Yukawa asked from behind him.

Ishigami looked around. “You’re referring to the question of whether or not it is as easy to determine the accuracy of another person’s results as it is to solve the problem yourself — or, failing that, how the difference in difficulty compares. It’s one of the questions the Clay Mathematics Institute has offered a prize to solve.”

Obviously, this is not your routine murder mystery, be it in English or Japanese. You don’t need to know complex mathematics to be able to understand it, but the way that both Ishigami and Yukawa apply their science to the crime (or its solution) grows in importance as the book moves on. This reader came to appreciate that the stylized plot development was an important part of that structure — and the seemingly strained narrative and dialogue were a deliberate version of the simple “elegance” that mathematicians and physicists demand of their proofs.

So I would conclude that my venture into two different worlds outside my reading “comfort zone” was highly successful. There is a mental and emotional depth to this book that would be almost impossible to capture in a conventional narrative. I can’t say that I am eagerly awaitiing Higashino’s next translated book, but I am delighted to have been introduced to this one — which I freely admit I would never have found on my own.


The Empty Family, by Colm Tóibín

February 21, 2011

Purchased at

Colm Toibin is a personal favorite (see previous reviews of Mothers and Sons and Brooklyn here) so I was delighted to see that a new short story collection, The Empty Family, was on tap for 2011 — and I was not disappointed with the results. I understand that short stories are not to everyone’s taste, but if you have any interest in the genre this is an excellent addition.

Toibin takes an unusual approach to his short story collections, at least in my experience. They are not linked in the sense that they feature the same characters or surroundings, a relatively common device. Rather, his collections take themes (“mothers and sons” or, as in this case, “empty families”) and use that as a link for the stories. I think I am more inclined to short stories than many readers are; I’ll admit that Toibin’s approach of linking an underlying theme, but using widely varied settings, makes his collections even more interesting to me.

The Empty Family, however, has another continuing theme which adds even more interest to the collection. As the stories unfold, the central character is returning to a “home” or place of previous experience — Ireland or Barcelona — which, in addition to the missing family, adds a second layer of reminiscence to the experience.

Let me focus on the title story where an Irish imigrant to the United States (San Francisco was his home there) has returned “home” to the land of his birth and upbringing. Toibin introduces the concept:

I have come back here. I can look out and see the soft sky and the faint line of the horizon and the way the light changes over the sea. It is threatening rain. I can sit on the old high chair that I had shipped from a junk store on Market Street and watch the calmness of the sea against the misting sky.

I have come back here. In all the years, I made sure the electricity bill was paid and the phone remained connected and the place was clean and dusted. And the neighbour who took care of things, Rita’s daughter, opened the house for the postman or the courier when I sent books or paintings or photographs I had bought, sometimes by FedEx as though it were urgent that they would arrive since I could not.

Since I would not.

This space I would walk in now has been my dream space; the mild sound of the wind on the days like this has been my dream sound.

You must know that I am back here.

Toibin fills this in with memories of his time in San Francisco:

At Point Reyes there was a long beach and some dunes and then the passionate and merciless sea, too rough and unpredictable for surfers and even paddlers. The warnings told you not to walk too close, that a wave could come from nowhere with a powerful undertow. There were no lifeguards. This was the Pacific Ocean at its most relentless and stark, and I stood there Saturday after Saturday, putting up with the wind, moving as carefully as I could on the edges of the shore, watching each wave crash towards me and dissolve in a slurp of undertow.

I missed home.

I missed home. I went out to Point Reyes every Saturday so I could miss home.

And what is home?

Home was also two houses that they left me when they died and that I sold at the very height of the boom in this small strange country when the prices rose as though they were Icaraus, the son of Daedalus, warned by his father not to fly so close to the sun or too close to the sea, Icarus who ignored the warning and whose wings were melted by the sun’s bright heat. The proceeds from those two houses have left me free, as though the word means anything, so that no matter how long I live I will not have to work again. And maybe I will not have to worry either, although that now sounds like a sour joke but one that maybe I can laugh at too as days go by.

I will join them in one of those graves. There is space left for me.

Yes, that is a lot of quotes and not much interpretation from the reviewer, but it is a summary of the strengths of these stories. Toibin is a master wordsmith when it comes to evoking memories and, in the Irish stories in this book, that is exactly what he does. The narrator has left Ireland, but part of him — a large part — remains there — and in the best stories he (or she) has returned. They are exceptional examples of the genre.

My own favorite is “Two Women”, the story of a movie set designer who has returned to Ireland from the United States on a project. I am not even going to try to describe it — suffice to say, it is one of the best short stories that I have ever read. If you like Toibin and the way that he can capture moments, I am quite sure that you will share my opinion (which is why I am not attempting an evaluation).

The Barcelona stories in this collection did not land quite as well with me. There is nothing wrong with them but Toibin uses them to explore various homosexual relationships and, for this reader at least, they did not share the power that the Irish stories have — that is a comment based more on my interests than it is on the strength of the stories.

Short stories are not for everyone but, if you appreciate the genre, this is a particularly good collection. Toibin has the ability to take his substantial skill and make it work in the shorter form. In this collection, the central theme of people who are contemplating their “empty families” has been developed fully through a number of different lenses — while not every story succeeds, there is no doubt that most do. If you appreciate good writing, this is a collection that should not be missed.

How To Be Good, by Nick Hornby

February 18, 2011

Purchased at

Nick Hornby is one of those authors whose name I have been aware of for a while, but never was tempted to pick up — his books have always been well-reviewed but those positive reviews left me thinking that his approach just didn’t mesh with my tastes. My recent review of Linda Grant’s We Had It So Good produced comments from three different sources that they rated Hornby’s How To Be Good highly (and I don’t think it was just the similar title) so I moved it right to the top of the pile.

While this novel was published ten years ago, it does share some elements with Grant’s new novel — most particularly, its central theme is how a couple (and their children) cope with the pressures of the latter half of the last century on their relationship. That’s pretty much where the direct comparison ends, however. While Grant (and Johnathan Franzen in Freedom) use their subject families as a staging ground for a wide-ranging, outward examination of the societal forces at play, Hornby takes the opposite approach to the same environment: an introspective look at how those forces play out with a particular couple, their challenges and the resulting life.

This quote comes from late in the book but, at that point, it serves as a summary for the reader of everything that has gone before (and indeed the entire book) and I don’t think represents a spoiler:

The trick, it seems to me, is to stave off regret. That’s what the whole thing is about. And we can’t stave it off forever, because it is impossible not to make the mistakes that let regret in, but the best of us manage to limp on into our sixties or seventies before we succumb. Me, I made it to about thirty-seven, and David made it to the same age, and my brother gave up the ghost even before that. And I’m not sure that there is a cure for regret. I suspect not.

As that quote indicates, this is a first-person novel and when we meet the 37-year-old narrator (the author keeps her name hidden until well into the book — it’s a symbol of her lack of concete identity — so I won’t use it) she has just reached a tipping point in terms of the role that regret plays in her life:

I am in a car park in Leeds when I tell my husband I don’t want to be married to him anymore. David isn’t even in the car park with me. He’s at home, looking after the kids, and I have only called him to remind him that he should write a note for Molly’s class teacher. The other bit just sort of … slips out. This is a mistake, obviously. Even though I am, apparently, and to my immense surprise, the kind of person who tells her husband that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore, I really didn’t think that I was the kind of person to say so in a car park, on a mobile phone. That particular assessment will now have to be revised, clearly.

The 37-year-old narrator is a doctor, the family breadwinner. In both her professional and personal life, things have been slowly but steadily shrinking (if you are familiar with the “frog in hot water” metaphor where short-term adaptation leads to long-term annihilation it is appropriate here). Her own view of her medical practice has led her to characterize it by the hopeless cases (Barmy Brian is the best example and he will play a role in the novel) whom she sees regularly and can offer no help whatsoever of making things better — mainly because they want no part of things being better.

Her married and family life has shrunk in much the same manner, characterized by a listless affair that leads to the phone call from the parking lot. She doesn’t hate David, but she can’t really remember what attracted them in the first place — discordant ennui would probably be the most accurate description. The relationship has been degenerating on a more or less consistent basis, but circumstances have always made it easier to adapt (cf. the frog) than to do anythiing about it.

The narrative tension of the book is produced by David’s response to that same degeneration. Unlike his wife who started marriage and career with hope and ambition, he has always been passive. “Self-employed” as a writer of company brochures and working in desultory fashion on a “novel”, his life, effectively an aimless house husband, has been shrinking as well. But while in the present tense she is wallowing aimlessly in regret, his response to the shrinking of life (which for him wasn’t much to begin with) is to be aggressive about changing it.

The old David did have one regular source of income, a newspaper column subtitled “The Angriest Man in Holloway” where he vented his rage:

The last one I could bear to read [the narrator says] was a diatribe against old people who travelled on buses: Why did they never have their money ready? Why wouldn’t they use the seats set aside for them at the front of the bus? Why did they insist on standing up ten minutes before their stop, thus obliging them to fall over frequently in an alarming and undignified fashion? You get the picture, anyway.

A “healing” experience with a charlatan (truly, a laying on of hands) named D.J. GoodNews who fixes David’s aching back also changes his entire outlook on life. Angry, but otherwise passive, response to his circumstances changes to an obsessive attempt to make a better world. GoodNews, who is pretty much homeless, moves into the spare room, despite the narrator’s objections, and the two men begin hatching plans to make that better world (recruiting neighbors on the street to supply spare rooms to homeless youth is one that actually gets started) but, given their near-total lack of real life experience, those plans are both hopelessly grand and grandly hopeless.

Hornby uses that David/GoodNews thread to indulge in some of his observations about the broader life happening around this cast (just as Grant and Franzen use their families) and often accomplishes that with fair satirical humor. The major theme, however, is how wife and husband attempt to cope with their own relationship and the narrator’s dramatic revelation that she might (or might not — perhaps they should just adapt?) want out of it.

For this reader, How To Be Good turned out to be a very readable novel, but I will admit that it tended to confirm my impression of Hornby. The writing is more than competent, but the book just doesn’t have enough to it to be deeply engaging. My comparison would not be Grant or Franzen, but rather Gerard Woodward’s Nourishment, a novel focused on the marital and survival challenges facing a similar, rather hopeless couple as WWII comes to an end — Woodward’s book is set 50 years earlier, but both his and Hornby’s are preoccupied with how exterior forces play out on a married couple who are totally incapable of coping with them. For me, at least, Woodward’s sense of the macabre and absurd added an element that this novel simply does not have.

I gather from a bit of surfing that Hornby tends to specialize in what I will call “relationship angst” and that those who like that kind of thing feel he does it very well (hence his steady record of positive reviews). Alas, I am not included in that number which would explain my lukewarm reaction to the book. Having said that, there are set pieces and incidents that were very well done and I am sure will come back to mind over time — if you are more open to the central conceit than I was, I am sure you will find more in this novel than I did.

Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith

February 13, 2011

Purchased at

It was 14 months ago that I read my first Patricia Highsmith — The Talented Mr. Ripley — inspired by a review of a new biography of the author to finally beginning exploring a writer whom I had certainly heard of but never found the motivation to start. I own a copy of the Everyman’s Library volume that contains the first three of the five-volume Ripley series and, it is safe to say, that I was hooked from page one. That experience, bolstered by the positive discussion from commentors on my post who had read more of Highsmith and Ripley than my humble start, left me convinced that I would find further reading of Highsmith’s Ripley rewarding, even if some (perhaps most) critics say the first of the five is the best.

Highsmith has been on a special corner of the bookshelf since, the one reserved for guaranteed winners (Maile Meloy has an honored spot there as well) who are being saved for those times when I know I need a book that I will love. I hefted it several times over the last 14 months but always put it back — that corner gets saved for times of special need. I’ve been on a bit of a rough streak since the start of 2011; the books have not been bad, it is just that none of have been outstanding and several have proved to be challenging reads. The time for Highsmith to prove her worth had arrived and, I am delighted to report, she did. Ripley Under Ground may be 300 pages long — for me, it was a one session read, broken only by a hasty dinner.

Tom Ripley, having escaped the Italian and American authorities and his deserved fate in book one, is now 31, well-married (to a wealthy, young French aristocrat who is as amoral as he is) and living, quite idly, on a very comfortable estate just outside Paris. His gardening is interrupted by a phone call (quickly followed by a letter) which introduces the central intrigue of the novel — Derwatt Ltd., an enterprise Tom had dreamed up and in which he is now a minor partner, is under threat, just at the time when its latest asset (a show of new Derwatt canvasses) is about to open at the Buckmaster Gallery in London (owned by Derwatt Ltd.). An American collector, Thomas Murchison, who has previously bought a Derwatt from the gallery is promising to show up, challenging the genuineness of his purchase.

The last was a point, Tom thought, because Derwatt didn’t exist. The story (invented by Tom) which the Buckmaster Gallery and Derwatt’s loyal little band of friends put out was that Derwatt had gone to a tiny little village in Mexico to live, and he saw no one, had no telephone, and forbade the gallery to give his address to anyone. Well, if Murchison went to Mexico, he would have an exhausting search, enough to keep any man busy for a lifetime.

Let’s fill in some back story. Derwatt was indeed a rising artist, who committed suicide by walking into the sea in Greece, a few years back. The idea for Derwatt Ltd. that Tom came up with was that one of their gang, Bernard, would continue producing paintings. Two other members of the consortium, Jeff and Ed, would set up the Buckmaster Gallery to market them. The four would split the proceeds.

The plan has succeeded beyond all expectations. Derwatt canvasses are highly sought after and now command prices that rank with the most expensive new work in the world (and Bernard has produced 19 for the new show, to be augmented by some loaned genuine works). In addition to Bernard’s forged art works, there is also a lucrative art supply line featuring materials labelled ‘Derwatt’ and

“then there was the Derwatt School of Art in Perugia, mainly for nice old ladies and American school girls on holiday, but still a source of income, too. The art school got its money not so much from teaching art and sellling ‘Derwatt’ supplies as from acting as a rental agent, finding houses and furnished apartments of the most expensive order, for well-heeled tourist-students, and taking a cut from it all.”

A model business enterprise of the 20th century, one would have to say. The only problem being, of course, that it is anchored in the false premise that Derwatt is producing the new paintings — and Murchison is threatening to put paid to that. Highsmith gets her anti-American digs in here, incidentally: Murchison is basing his claim of forgery not on the style or nature of the painting he bought but on a technical observation: for the purple in his recent painting, Derwatt used “straight cobalt violet” but the painter had abandoned that “for a mixture of cad red and ultramarine five or six years ago” and artists never return to previous mixes.

Highsmith builds her first Ripley novel by creating these kinds conundrums for Tom and this one is no different. His solution to the issue is that he will head to London, disguise himself as Derwatt, hold a welll-attended news conference and, in the most important part, convince Murchison that his painting is genuine.

Unfortunately, he does not succeed in that last objective and (this doesn’t seem a spoiler to me, but it might to some) Murchison has to die. Readers of The Talented Mr. Ripley are well aware that there are only two possible outcomes to a Tom Ripley ruse — total success or a death. And, of course, each unsuccessful ruse produces the need for several more which also have only those two potential outcomes.

Yes, the plot stretches credibility, but it is to Highsmith’s credit that readers who are willing to bend their demands for realism are rewarded with the building of an ever-more complex house of cards that, surely, must eventually crumble. And, since we know there are five novels in the series, it is a given that Tom will somehow escape from the resulting chaos and disaster.

I have confessed before to a fondness for novels centred on the business of the art world (Steve Martin’s excellent An Object of Beauty is the most recent example and Olga Grushin’s The Dream Life of Sukhanov is on standby). So I started Ripley Under Ground with high expectations on more than one front — and Highsmith exceeded all of them. While the intricacy, intrigue and macabre nature of the plot drive the novel, she diverges and digresses along the way with observations of the era (and her characters) that add immense richness to the experience.

All of which made the reading of this book a total success. My Everyman’s Library volume has been returned to that special corner of the shelf, with volume three (and four and five) of Tom Ripley’s adventures awaiting those times when I know I need a rewarding book. And I’ll be adding a few of her non-Ripley books to the shelf as well — she is an author of the first order.

The New Face of Fiction, 2011: A Cold Night for Alligators, by Nick Crowe

February 8, 2011

The KfC blog had a great time with the New Face of Fiction last year — four first novels, all quite good, one of which (Ghosted by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall) made my year-end Best 10 list. This year’s NFoF features three novels: in addition to Nick Crowe’s, I will be reviewing Alexi Zentner’s Touch and Jamie Zeppa’s Every Time We Say Goodbye in the next few months. And yes if you stick with the blog there will be a NFoF contest once I have reviewed all three.

Let’s back up a bit. Canada does have a tradition of nurturing new authors and, since 1996, Random House has taken an active part with this program. In fact, that first year introduced us to Ann-Marie MacDonald, Yann Martel, Dionne Brand and Gail Anderson Dalgetz (links are here) — I’d say that is about as good a clean sweep as you can get.

But I don’t want to overlook the contribution that smaller publishers make in ensuring that new Canadian authors are given their chance. So let me digress for a bit to recognize Gaspereau Press who won the Giller last year with Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. And Biblioasis Press which published my 2010 favorite (and I urge you to look for it), Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting, a short story collection that ranks with the best anywhere, anytime. Previous Giller shortlists have featured novels from Cormorant Books, Arsenal Pulp Press and Freehand Press. We have a lively publishing industry in Canada and should appreciate the contribution that all these publishers make to our reading pleasure.

Review copy courtesy Knopf Canada

Nick Crowe’s employment history reads like the prototype of a first novelist: “Paperboy, dishwasher, psychiatric hospital janitor, laundry worker and guitar player before starting a career in television”. A Cold Night for Alligators is a reflection of that eclectic background, a coming of age story focused on a search for a missing brother. Crowe sets it up with a deliberately misleading opening — his narrator, 26-year-old Jasper, is headed home from his boring work at a Toronto insurance company, waiting in a downtown subway station:

I needed to make a break, switch things up, get going on a new path, fear and dread be damned. But in the meantime, I could wait to get home.

I needn’t have worried about getting home. Because at 6:15, as the train finally barrelled down the line toward the station, Ronnie Orsulak, having recognized me as the man-devil who would not change his five-dollar bill weeks earlier, walked up and pushed me off the platform and onto the tracks. I fell into the swell of approaching lights. There was a scream behind me, then a whole chorus of them, and then blackness.

A change was upon me whether I liked it or not.

Jasper survives that accident but the “change” that is upon him is one that moves him into his history, not his future. As he recovers, he becomes more and more entranced with what might have happened to his older brother, Coleman, who disappeared 10 years ago — on the eve of his parents’ decision to institutionalize him for psychiatric care.

A Cold Night for Alligators is about to become a “road” novel. The family had always vacationed in Florida and Jasper thinks that is where his brother is now. The subway accident having freed him from the insurance business, he is up to the search:

Interstate 75 is an arrow in flight; a projectile that wavers in its path southward, as though the wind has blown it off course in places along the way and forced it to meander. If you pick up the highway at the border in Windsor, Ontario, and head due south, beginning in Detroit, it will take you to the very tip of Florida, which to a kid born into a world of hockey and snow blowers was like a lost, magical world.

Growing up, I thought of I-75 as the road that never ended. Every summer, at the beginning of August, we’d pack the car up with suitcases, Styrofoam coolers, books and sun visors and head south. It was a three-day journey that began in the pre-dawn dark of Ontario and took us through the heartland of the United States and into the South. Michigan to Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and into Florida.

Okay, you go to Florida in mid-winter, not August — but a vacation is a vacation. And the family actually didn’t get to the tip of Florida — and neither does Jasper on this search. Their vacations took place on Sanibel Island in the Fort Myers-Naples area and that is where the narrator sets up his base in search of his brother.

We are given enough back story to realize that Coleman has a “gift” — he gets along with the alligators who are the denizens of the Everglades swamps between the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic. And Jasper is pretty sure that this is where his brother has set up shop. His aunt Val lives there, with Rolly Lee, a cracker of the first order, and he embarks on a search — aided and abetted by two buddies who are headed that way for a fishing derby.

All of this sets the stage for some low-life partying and violence. It is not a complicated plot by any means — indeed, the straight-forward way that Crowe tells his story is one of his strengths. For some reason, Florida swamp country seems to be on the fiction list this winter (Karen Russell’s Swamplandia is attracting a lot of attention), so put your boots on and trudge into the swamp.

A Cold Night for Alligators is a worthy first novel — it is not a great book but it is a very readable one. Crowe is a story-teller with clean, crisp prose that bodes well for future efforts. I have only been to Sanibel once but the novel did bring back memories. All in all, it is a very good start to another year of New Faces of Fiction.

Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick

February 3, 2011

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Cynthia Ozick is a favorite of the KfC blog — this is review number four of her works, which ties her for the lead in the “most books reviewed” category. Having said that, I don’t think she did herself (or her readers) any favors with the advance notices of her new novel, Foreign Bodies. To quote the inside cover blurb: “For her sixth novel, she set herself a brilliant challenge: to retrace the story of Henry James’ The Ambassadors — the work he considered his best — but as a photographic negative, in which the plot is the same but the meaning is reversed”. Admirable as that might be as a motivation (and I am sure it was), it adds nothing but obfuscation, useless expectation and distraction to a reader approaching this book. James is another KfC favorite and I had read The Ambassadors (and loved it) well before starting this blog — yes, there are comparisons between the two (which we can talk about in comments) but Ozick is a distinguished enough name to stand on her own. And that is how I will approach this review. If you haven’t read James’ novel, don’t let it stop you from trying this one.

Bea Nightingale is a New York teacher of English, approaching her 50th birthday, in a down-market industrial area — her students literally smell of the working class, but can be induced into reading by the violence in Shakespeare, since it reflects their lives. It is 1952, with the War still a recent memory, but Bea has saved up her money and is making her pilgramage to the beacon city that drove that generation of readers, Paris:

At that time there were foreigners all over Paris, suffering together with the native population, wiping the trickling sweat from their collarbones, complaining equally of feeling suffocated; but otherwise they had nothing in common with the Parisians or, for that matter, with one another. These strangers fell into two parties — one vigorous, ambitious, cheerful, and given to drink, the other pale, quarrelous, forlorn: a squad of maundering ghosts.

You can place Sartre, de Beauvoir, Baldwin, Hemmingway, whomever or wherever you want in that spectrum. That is what Bea wants to explore.


Her terrible brother, Marvin (an arms manufacturer, wealthy, living in Los Angeles, they haven’t seen each other for decades) has heard of the trip. The siblings have been out of touch for decades, but that does not preclude intervention here. Marvin’s son, Julian, went to Paris on a “gap-year” exploration some months ago (yes, here’s The Ambassadors angle) and hasn’t been heard from since, except for appeals for money. Despite their lack of recent connection and the fact that Bea has never met Julian, Marvin wants Bea to search for his son:

So! A wild goose chase, useless, pointless, it was eating into her vacation time, and all to please Marvin, to serve Marvin, who — after years of disapproval, of repudiation, of what felt almost like hatred — was all at once appealing to the claims of family. This fruitless search, and the murderous heat. Retrograde Europe, where you had to ask bluntly for a toilet whenever you wanted a ladies’ room, and where it seemed that nothing, nothing was air-conditioned — at home in New York, everything was air-conditioned, it was the middle of the twentieth century, for God’s sake!

For those who have read The Ambassadors, that excerpt should be enough to indicate why comparisons are of limited value — different age, different circumstances. James’ novel may be a model, but it is nothing more.

So let’s throw some other plot elements into the picture. Justin has found a lover, Lili, a displaced Romanian, whom he has taken up with. His sister, Iris, whom driven Marvin has high hopes for as a potential Nobel chemistry winner, although she is still a student, enters the picture as a force with influence on her father, brother and aunt. Plus, she has some goals of her own (feminism is part of the “negative” image in the comparison with James). And Marvin has placed his wife, an American Brahmin, in an LA “spa” to deal with her mental disorders. All of this contemporary action brings back memories for Bea of her ex-husband, Leo, now a successful composer of soundtracks for Hollywood movies. Ozick uses all of these elements to remove her novel from the narrative of James.

(I am cheating vistors who want a decent plot outline in this abstract summary. For a much more informative version, visit Trevor’s review at the MookseandtheGripes — it is a fair representation of how the action unfolds. And because he has done such a good job of describing the book as book, let me indulge in a very extended metaphor.)

Picasso Cubist Lady

Consider Ozick’s novel as a literary version of a cubist painting — I’ve chosen a Picasso portrait, but others would do. Now, imagine cutting this image up into a jigsaw puzzle and facing the challenge of putting the resulting pieces together; because that is what Ozick has done with this book. Each of her chapters is a piece of that puzzle; the reader’s challenge is to reassemble them and then figure out the resulting image.

There is a story line that pulls the book together, but, like Cubist paintings, while the elements of it all have consistency, they don’t really fit together in a coherent whole once you have done that work. The author emphasizes that by setting each chapter in different places (New York, Paris, Los Angeles, even in transit) and narrating each from a different point of view. The “glue” — if there is one — that holds them together are chapters which consist of correspondence between the various narrators — Bea, Iris, Marvin.

Like Picasso, each of the pieces of the puzzle is developed in exquisite detail. And there are enough hints, like a good jigsaw, to put them together. But when you have completed the task, the final image is much like Picasso’s portrait — there is much to admire, but you have only begun the task.

For this reader, that is the beauty of this novel. Each of its elements is sketched in the kind of realist detail that you can only expect from an exceptional short story writer (which Ozick, winner of four O Henry awards, certainly is). But when you follow the outlines and stitch them together, and then step back, the resulting picture requires a whole new layer of interpretation.

I certaintly enoyed that and it only adds to my high valuation of Ozick. Having said that, if you have not read her before, I would not start here. She is a wordsmith of the first order (and the short stories show it) but when she writes novels she does take the reading experience to a whole new dimension and that calls for some work. To appreciate that experience, I would advise starting with the shorter works (you could try The Shawl, but you would be starting with her best) — as much as I think Foreign Bodies is a signifcant achievement. This latest novel may require a revisit before I start to understand just how good it might be.

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