Fat Books & Thin Women


Where are you, Ellen?
June 28, 2011, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags:

How I feel right now

Well, right now I’m in Macedonia, sitting on my sofa, with a sugar headache. But in a couple days I’ll be in the States (FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 22 MONTHS), maybe reading but more probably devoting myself to the lost art of drinking beers out of paper bags in parks while wearing (scandal) a tanktop and a skirt that does not touch my knees. Which is to say, posts here may be irregular. Undoubtedly I’ll come up with something after my first trip to a bookstore (oh my god oh my god oh my god) that will probably only be of interest to fellow Peace Corps Volunteers who haven’t been in a bookstore in nearly two years, and I’ll probably read something that seems worth writing about, and I’m going to try and have a short story post up every Sunday still because I continue to love short stories whatever the rest of the world thinks…but these next three and a half weeks, I’m calling my summer vacation.

So weird to think that 72 hours from now I’m not going to be in my little town in Macedonia, but in New York. OPA!

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Story Sunday: Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Growing up, nothing disturbed me as much as the passage of time. For one, time is just different when you’re young (I remember sometimes wanting to cry out of boredom and time going so slowly), and for two – when you’re a kid, death, the irrevocability of things, our inability to retrace time, can be unimaginably disturbing for their sheer newness. (Remember the first time you realized you were going to die?)

Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer” is about a family trip to a river, but more than that it’s about the ways his main character thinks about time and tries to reshape it in ways that he think of as more acceptable, more lasting. This is a boy who’s really good at “standing around doing nothing”, and that’s what he spends most of the story doing. He stands, he moves slightly, he stands, he says a few words to his Grandmother, he continues standing. Millhauser lets us into this boy’s mind, though, and here reminds us of another thing we may lose as we grow older, the rich interior world of the child, in which every minor detail of the world is worthy of exploration.

He likes the picture of himself in his own mind as he stares out sternly over the river, frowning in sunlight, his fingertips resting on top of the inner tube, his other hand on his hip, Huck Finn on the shore of the Mississippi, an Indian brave with a quiver of arrows on his back, getting ready to go down to the canoes.

Millhauser is one of those writers I always mean to read. I’m good at buying his books, less good at actually opening them up. This is a gorgeous story, though, and has me convinced I should devote a little less time to so-so mysteries, more time to his short stories. He never falters in “Getting Closer”; he captures perfectly the feel of summer and being a kid who holds himself always slightly apart from the world.

Read “Getting Closer” online

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Review: Alex Garland’s The Beach

On the level of a thriller-crime-utopiagonewrong novel, Alex Garland’s The Beach is an unqualified success. Opening with the arrival of its main character, Richard, on Khao San Road (“backpacker land”), Garland’s novel has an unstoppable energy, the sort that overwhelms your need for sleep, food, or bathroom breaks. Given a map to an island far off the tourist track by “Daffy Duck,” a man who commits suicide the morning after Richard’s arrival in the hostel they both stay at, Richard heads out for the island with a couple also staying on Khao San Road. When they find the island it turns out to be covered by a marijuana plantation and its guards; but there is also a lagoon holding a utopia of former travelers drawn by a desire to stop seeing place after place felled by tourism.

Richard, Françoise and Ètienne are unusual in that they’ve been led to this lagoon by a map. New residents are typically brought in by older residents who have found them suitable – if maps get out, the lagoon will stop being what it is and become just one more beach mentioned in a Lonely Planet travel guide. Run by Sal, the camp works because everyone has their role as fisherman, gardener, cook or carpenter (apart from one, Jed, who works alone and whose job is unknown for most of the novel), and because there are no maps floating around the tourist towns. Richard has given a map out, though; fearing that the island wouldn’t exist, wanting his friends to be a part of his experience if it did exist, he left a hand-drawn map with some of his acquaintances before setting out for the beach that has taken on an air of the otherworldly in backpacker lore.

This secluded beach, of course, can’t remain secluded; Garland suggests that it is, at end, just like so many other hidden retreats that in time are turned into places for tourists to hit, not a tourist trap so much as a place that has lost its purity. It’s unnerving, fascinating, to watch what happens to the people living communally on the beach as they are forced to face how they relate to the rest of the world and how they remain separate. Things are forced into motion when Jed and Richard, on a “Rice Run,” overhear travelers talking about the beach and making plans to find it. Richard is responsible for this break in secrecy, having been the one to draw the map the travelers have, and though Jed doesn’t reveal Richard’s role in this he does request that Richard be reassigned to work with him, watching for new arrivals to the beach.

The Beach works best when Garland focuses on the day-to-day of Richard’s life. There are enough odd elements here – the marijuana plantation and its guards, the cave tunnels he must swim through to exit the lagoon, the air pockets he finds himself trapped in on his first journey out from under the rock, jumping through a waterfall to land on the level of the beach – that Garland doesn’t need too much “action” to keep the story interesting. Its progression, from the beach as a protected place to what seems the inevitable collapse of the commune if word gets out, is natural, making its way without hurry. The fear the inhabitants of the beach feel when they think about others learning of their island is palpable and fascinating. Richard hallucinates that the dead “Daffy Duck” is with him at times, and that his suicide can be linked back to his claustrophobic worldview, in which nothing can remain pure forever:

‘If I had a part in destroying the beach, I did it unwittingly. You did it on purpose.’

‘Who says I destroyed this place? Not me, pal. Not from where I’m standing.’ He glanced at his crossed legs. ‘Sitting.’

‘Who was it then?’

Mister Duck shrugged. ‘No one. Stop looking for some big crime, Rich. You have to see, with these places, with all these places, you can’t protect them. We thought you could, but we were wrong. I realized it when Jed arrived. The word was out, somehow out, and after that it was just a matter of time…Not that I acted on it at first. I waited, hoping he was a one-off, I guess. But then the Swedes arrived and I knew for sure. Cancer back, no cure, malignant as fuck…’ He stood up, dusted the earth off his legs, and flicked his bark zero into the waterfall pool. ‘Terminal.’ (379)

Garland at time stretches himself too far in attempting to draw some parallel between Richard’s hallucinogenic experiences on the beach and in protecting the beach, and the Vietnam War. Garland has character occasionally toss off Vietnam-era vocabulary and acronyms, and it never feels quite right; he leaves the reader with some sketch of a “bigger” novel commenting on the ways these films shape and alter worldviews, but never weaves this into the story enough that it can take hold.

Read as a slow-building thriller, The Beach is a nearly perfect book, so much so that Garland’s half-hearted efforts to infuse it with the feel of Vietnam-era films are forgivable.



Review: Emma Donoghue’s Room
June 21, 2011, 2:08 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Literary Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

Emma Donoghue’s Room is interesting for the way it tackles, as Jennifer over at Soy Chai Bookshelf writes, a topical subject, and for the ways in which it avoids fully addressing that subject. Donoghue’s novel is about the captivity of a mother and her son, Jack, who has no concept of a world beyond the confines of the converted garden shed he lives in. By telling the story from Jack’s point of view Donoghue mostly manages to avoid addressing their captivity head-on; as the Reading Ape wrote in his post summing up the 2011 Tournament of Books, Room avoids “the full force of adult consciousness” by presenting itself in the voice of a five-year-old.

Had Donoghue opted to tell the story from the mother’s point of view, though, it wouldn’t be a better book, simply a different one. Many of the horrors of the living situation explored here are amplified by Jack’s inability to view them as problems. To Jack, the room he lives in with his mother is the whole world, a place in which everything has a name (Bed, Skylight), in which anything can be a toy (eggs are threaded together and turned into a snake), and in which everything is clear and in its proper place. The joy Jack takes in things like preparing lunch is evident, but through those things Jack treats so matter-of-factly Donoghue is able to suggest the horrors of his mother’s life:

It’s 12:13, so it can be lunch. My favorite bit of the prayer is the daily bread. I’m the boss of play but Ma’s the boss of meals, like she doesn’t let us have cereal for breakfast and lunch and dinner in case we’d get sick and anyway that would use it up too fast. When I was zero and one, Ma used to chop and chew up my food for me, but then I got all my twenty teeth and I can gnash up anything. This lunch is tuna on crackers, my job is to roll back the lid of the can because Ma’s wrist can’t manage it.

We don’t know what happened to his mother’s wrist, what is wrong with it, but that Jack mentions it – that is enough to send the reader’s mind spinning off the possibilities suggested by that last sentence of the passage. Donoghue gestures at a worldview Jack’s mother has created, one centered on some Christian belief system, with the “daily bread.” She also suggests in other ways what sort of world Jack’s mother has made for him: the scheduling, the assignment of jobs, to keep their lives moving forward as much as is possible. What she does, in some sense, is to leave the mother’s thoughts vague enough that the reader is placed in the position of giving her character more life, of trying to imagine more fully how and why Jack’s mother creates the world that she does for him.

“Old Nick,” their captor, makes brief appearances in the novel, but he is more present as someone Jack’s mother doesn’t talk about “in case he gets realer.” What Donoghue does so well in this novel is to show, via the scattershot memories and observations of a five-year-old, what makes up the people around him. When Jack’s mother makes a request for some change to their accommodations Old Nick responds, “Aboveground, natural light, central air, it’s a cut above some places, I can tell you.” And, my God – the suggestion here, that he views himself as somehow reducing the horror of their circumstances, of giving them a comfortable and protected existence rather than the non-lives the mother and son live out in a 10-by-10 garden shed, makes for one of the novel’s most chilling moments. It’s not about the specifics of their room – that they have a skylight, for instance – so much as it is that Jack has hit his fifth year with no understanding of a larger world, with no idea that there are things outside of their room and those things don’t exist “in TV” but in the real world.

Donoghue sets Jack and his mother free, as she must to give this novel any arc, and again: to see this through Jack’s eyes does more to encourage the reader to explore the ways he and his mother have been formed than seeing it through his mother’s eyes would. This isn’t to say that The Reading Ape’s point about the ways Donoghue avoids addressing the “big questions” here isn’t valid, but rather to say that the novel wouldn’t gain anything if Donoghue had told this story from an adult’s perspective. In the second half of the novel she gestures at the mother’s point of view, as when Jack watches her give an interview to an Oprah figure. These passages, though, feel almost forced for the ways Donoghue shows, too explicitly, what the mother feels and thinks. The horrors of that room may be quieter when they’re told through Jack’s voice, but they’re more affecting. It’s Jack’s reluctance to leave Room and enter the “outerspace” that is the world that shows what the room has done to them, not his mother’s facing up to the questions about their captivity and Jack’s development that she must, once they escape.

Given the lackluster nature of those passages parroting the voice of Jack’s mother, Donoghue made a wise decision to tell this story from Jack’s view. By doing so she avoids having to address their captivity directly, herself, but leaves it to the reader to parse Jack’s vision of the world. After he’s freed from Room, once he’s in the world, Jack’s life doesn’t improve, in his mind, so much as it changes, radically and often negatively. As he says, “In Room we knowed what everything was called but in the world there’s so much, persons don’t even know the names.” That longing for a known world, for a space complete in and of itself, for captivity, colors everything Jack writes in Room, and at end this is the truer horror that Donoghue tries to explore.



Story Sunday: Jennifer Egan’s “Goodbye, My Love”

Story Sundays is a weekly feature at Fat Books & Thin Women. Always short stories, always ones available online for free.

Jennifer Egan’s “Goodbye, My Love” was published in Zoetrope: All-Story in 2000 and is now part of her every-award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. It’s a good story, and I’m happy to have learned rather belatedly that this is part of her collection of linked stories, which I plan on picking up when I’m in the States. (In less than two weeks! I am so excited for everything that I’m envisioning my ride home from the airport involving getting a burrito for dinner and visiting both a bookstore and grocery store. I bet that I actually just fall asleep, but if I’m lucky one of the airports I have a layover at will stock Egan’s book.)

Gosh, I am not doing well at writing about the story today, am I? “Goodbye, My Love” is about Ted Hollander, who’s purportedly in Naples in search of his occasionally-missing niece Madeline, but is in fact treating the trip as a sort of dream “working” vacation for an art history professor. Ted does end up finding his niece, by chance. Egan perfectly captures their interactions, which never feel quite natural: the years separating them, Ted’s memories of Madeline as a child, and his mixed feelings about the trip he’s taken, the limp and stories Madeline’s picked up over the years, serve as barriers between them. At one point Madeline takes Ted to a nightclub, where she talks him into a dance:

How long had it been since he’d danced in a nightclub? Fifteen years? More! Hesitantly, Ted began to move, feeling hulking, bearish in his professor’s tweed, moving his feet in some approximation of dance steps until he noticed that Madeline was not moving at all. She stood quite still, watching him. And then she reached for Ted, encircled him with her long arms and clung to him so that he felt her modest bulk, the height and weight of this new Madeline, his grown-up niece who had once been so small, and the irrevocability of that transformation loosed in Ted a jagged sorrow, so his throat seized and a painful tingling fizzed in his nostrils.

I’m not sure what I think of the ending and the way Egan jumps forward in time in what seems to be a gesture at reassuring the reader that Madeline’s life doesn’t turn out the way we, or Ted, fear it might. But it does make me want to read Goon Squad, and see how she fits this story into some larger arc.

Read “Goodbye, My Love” online

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The Best American Short Stories 2001
June 16, 2011, 11:57 am
Filed under: Book Reviews, short stories | Tags: , , ,

Surely it’s a sign of what the Peace Corps has done to me that I can celebrate finding a ten-year-old copy of The Best American Short Stories. The 2001 edition, guest edited by Barbara Kingsolver, offers as mixed a selection of stories as these collections usually do; though when I write that, I mean that the stories are only mixed in certain degrees and ways. There is often a startling and disappointing sameness to the stories, and though the Best American reading process is touted for being done blind, I find it difficult to understand how (or why) it is possible for such blind readings to have as their result a twenty-story anthology in which half the stories come from three publications. (Two from Tin House, four from Ploughshares, four from The New Yorker.)

This isn’t, then, so much a review of the anthology as me trying to express my confusion and sadness over how an anthology series like Best American can choose its winners from such a narrow pool. If the stories within the collection were extraordinary, where those stories were first published would be a matter of slight concern; but there are stories here by Ha Jin, Rick Moody, Alice Munro, John Updike, Dorothy West, that are middling in every sense of the word. And those are only the big names – though Roy Parvin contributes a fantastic story, “Betty Hutton,” with his character Gibbs possessing the best voice I’ve read in ages; and Trevanian’s “The Apple Tree” captures the feel of village life, rivalries, how stories are passed down; and Claire Davis in “Labors of the Heart” reveals the seemingly untouchable character of an obese man who is a virgin in his forties, and falling in love for the first time – they are the exceptions that highlight how dull many of the anthology’s other stories are.

There are other anthologies and other awards, of course, that pay greater attention to small presses and emerging writers, but there’s such a sameness to the Best American ethos that I wonder if making an effort to seek out the unknown, the young writer’s first extraordinary story rather than the great writer’s half-assed effort, would make a real difference to the quality of the collection. Maybe not.

There are good stories to be found here, and because I’ve come up with a few authors to look into (including Peter Ho Davies, who expanded on his story “Think of England,” here collected, for The Welsh Girl) I can’t really regret reading the anthology. There are too many tired stories here, though, too many stories that seem included for their authors’ names (blind reading or no, a story by Updike or Ha Jin or Andrea Barrett is easy enough to recognize without an author identification), too many stories that reflect the same-old same-old feel of so many New Yorker stories, to make me think this anthology is the best expression of the year’s fiction. If people claim to be uninterested in reading short fiction, perhaps it’s because their only source of that fiction is this sort of widely available annual anthology dedicated to fiction that is capable but unadventurous.

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The time of the novel and the time of the narrated in Sebastian Knight

I’ve mentioned countless times that Nabokov is my favorite author, and that the best care package my parents ever sent me included a few of his novels. I think this was my fourth time through Sebastian Knight, and while I’m not sure how to review the book, there is never not something to say about Nabokov’s work. It’s been a long time since I’ve tried to write anything other than a general book review, so forgive my rustiness.

The narrator of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, the half-brother to the recently deceased author of the title, spends the length of Nabokov’s 200-page novel in search of his brother so that he can write a biography of the writer’s life. The narrator’s product (which makes up Nabokov’s novel) is in part a response to a biography written by Mr. Goodman, Sebastian’s former secretary: The Tragedy of Sebastian Knight (part of, as the narrator puts it, “The Lethean Library” – that is, the library of forgettable books).

The narrator may be striving to write a biography of his half-brother, but the result is a book cataloging his attempts to learn about the life of the half-brother he saw only occasionally after childhood. The narrator strives for a forward motion in the text, to create some suspense or sense of narrative for the reader, and often this results in an odd mixing of narrative time and the time of the narrated. The bulk of the narrative is devoted to a search for a woman Sebastian met while at a sanatorium; the narrator uncovers her existence by catching a glimpse of her writing as he burns, on Sebastian’s instructions, a collection of papers following the author’s death. Despite the intensity of the narrator’s search this all comes to little, as though he’s abandoned an unfruitful plot line, though he does find the woman he’s searching for. He tricks her into revealing herself as the Russian woman of Sebastian’s acquaintance by saying, in Russian, that she has a spider on her neck.*

Once he’s satisfied himself that this is the woman he’s been seeking, the narrator leaves:

“Tell me,” she said following me into the garden, “what is the matter?”

“It was very clever of you,” I said, in our liberal grand Russian language, “it was very clever of you to make me believe you were talking about your friend when all the time you were talking about yourself. This little hoax would have gone on for quite a long time if fate had not pushed your elbow, and now you’ve spilled the curds and whey. Because I happen to have met your former husband’s cousin, the one who could write upside down. So I made a little test. And when you subconsciously caught the Russian sentence I muttered aside….” No, I did not say a word of all this. I just bowed myself out of the garden. She will be sent a copy of this book and will understand. (171)

In this passage the moment in the garden and this moment of the reading come together into one; in the narrator’s mind, the two are hardly distinguishable. He says nothing as he makes his way out of the garden, but to create a scene in which he does say something, in which he explains his exit and his methods, is the same to him as if he had actually said these things. And by imagining how the woman will react when she reads the book – “She will be sent a copy of this book and will understand” – the narrator lends to this scene a sort of odd timelessness, pushing the closure to the scene into a future the reader can never access.

Earlier in the novel, when the narrator goes to visit Mr. Goodman, unaware that the secretary has written his own book on Knight, he has Goodman, in the scene itself, wear a black mask so as to hide his appearance. It isn’t clear at first that Goodman is actually wearing the mask, that it’s not the narrator adding the mask into the narrative later on; but in the narrator’s mind, the text he’s going to write and the moment he’s going to write about appear so closely linked that it’s necessary for Goodman to actually wear the mask. After an uninformative discussion Goodman “returned the black mask which I pocketed, as I supposed it might come in usefully on some other occasion” (57). On his way out of the building the narrator speaks with a woman who was acquainted with Sebastian, and Goodman’s mask retroactively slips off:

“Yes,” she went on, “[Sebastian] was an amazing personality, and I don’t mind telling you that I loathed Goodman’s book about him.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “What book?”

“Oh, the one he has just written. I was going over the proofs with him this last week. Well, I must be running. Thank you so much.”

She darted away and very slowly I descended the steps. Mr. Goodman’s large soft pinkish face was, and is, remarkably like a cow’s udder. (58)

What’s remarkable here isn’t just the way the narrator literally places the mask over Goodman’s face in his narrated time, but the way he keeps that mask in place while writing the narrative, as though attempting to preserve some sort of “true” narrative time for the reader, recreating his meeting with the anonymous Goodman, preserving that image of the masked Goodman even though at the time he is writing the narrative he already intends to remove the mask at chapter’s end and reveal Goodman’s cow’s udder of a face. Nabokov lets us see the narrator forming the narrative and at the same time the narrator is confusing different types of time (by his very effort to distinguish them), Nabokov is allowing us to see through to the often clumsy creation of Sebastian Knight‘s time.

* That I am, now, able to understand a fair portion of the Russian in Nabokov’s novels is probably going to be the only lasting benefit to my having learned Macedonian.

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