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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