Hey Folks, just a quick note to let you know that the blog is officially going on sabbatical (after what has been a fairly protracted unofficial sabbatical). I should be back up and running in January with a new look and new (as in different type of) content. Thanks for your support!
City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg
What do Frank Rich, Andy Cohen and my cousin Peter have in common? They were all disappointed in City on Fire, a 911-page first novel by Garth Risk Hallberg that follows the interwoven stories of several subsets of New Yorkers between 1976 and 1977. Typically, the individual and collective opinions of these three wise men could probably sway me toward or away from a particular book, but in this case the premise was too intriguing for me not to give it a go myself. (I’m a sucker for epic, 20th century historical fiction, particularly from the century’s 2nd half. Lately it’s been all about The Americans and Halt and Catch Fire when I prefer to watch, rather than read, late 20th century historical fiction.)
Back to the book. Up until page 623, I was in. And then (semi-spoiler alert), the story abruptly jumps ahead 30 years. The jump is temporary, but I found that the technique pretty much killed all the tension the author had been building up to that point. And as I continued to read, I began to realize that of the many seeds planted earlier in the book, very few were actually going to bloom into anything significant. Yet amid my own chagrin, I understood why all three of my wise men had read the whole book before deciding they were disappointed – by the time you get to page 623, you’re finishing the damn thing.
Unfortunately, stringing along an audience for that long breeds a level of antipathy not found among those who put something aside after 50 pages. (Or, say, five episodes. You former LOSTies out there know what I’m talking about.)
In the past, I’ve found it funny when people complain about the length of certain books, regardless of their interest in the content. Recently, I observed my father cautiously survey a book purchase he’d made, wary of its heft. His comment was something along the lines of, “I hope it’s not too long, I don’t want to be saddled with this thing all spring.” Keep in mind that this was not a gift; it was a book he’d proactively gone out and purchased. It’s a strange logic to me: wouldn’t one rather read one good, long book rather than two or three mediocre short books in the same time span?
In considering the disappointment around City of Fire (my own included), I’ve begun to recognize the role risk plays in one’s reading choices. When someone starts a lengthy book, they feel they’re making an investment of their precious reading time, so they get edgy about the possibility of the investment not paying off. And the more we invest, the more we want in return. All that good work an author did early on to gain our buy in feels like that much more of a loss when he can’t pay it off over the course of many pages. Disappointment has a price. His readers are annoyed and resentful. Their early enjoyment is forgotten and in its place, their frustration is multiplied. They decide the book in its entirety is no good. To torture the idea one step further, you could say it feels like a literary pyramid scheme (minus the callous intentions).
Call me a gambler, call me a reckless risk taker, I’m willing to keep rolling the dice on big books. But if time really is money (or at the very least a valuable commodity in its own right), I can appreciate why others may not want to spend theirs in the same way.
The Neapolitan Novels
by Elena Ferrante
A couple weeks ago, I happened to find myself in the back corner of a Sarasota (that would be Florida) bookshop, perched on a folding chair, talking about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a group of women who had at least a generation on me. Because this is what I do. I travel to destinations even sunnier and warmer than where I already live to participate in book clubs of the elderly. (And/or my mother happens to be quite good at coming up with creative cultural activities when I’m in town.)
So the ladies and I were rapping and inevitably the conversation turned to the question that fans of these books seem anxious to answer: Who is Elena Ferrante? Funny how when a writer uses a pen name, people immediately want to know their true identity. Perhaps they feel it will give them a deeper understanding of the book, one they could not possible have otherwise. Yet once the author’s true identity is revealed, I wonder how much it actually brings any new, significant insight versus simply pacifying the public’s curiosity.
When it comes to uncovering the real Ferrante, the literary gumshoes out there seem to be focusing their detective work on people whose lives are/were very similar to the novels’ narrator, the fictional “Elena Greco.” What’s particularly strange to me about this line of investigation is that if someone has gone to all the trouble of publishing pseudonymously and even in the midst of international acclaim has yet to come forward, would she really veil herself so thinly in the story itself?
I’m thinking the author is buried a little deeper within these books. The series does have two protagonists, after all. The yin to Elena’s yang is Lila, Elena’s lifelong frenemy, muse, cheerleader and antagonist, all wrapped up in one very troubled, brilliant woman. Unlike Elena, Lila never makes it out of their insulated neighborhood in Naples and consequently, she never experiences the academic or professional success of Elena. But Lila is innately intelligent and clearly has a gift for writing from an early age. And it is her talents and example that spur Elena on.
Interwoven but ultimately divergent, the paths of these two characters could be seen as two tines of a fork in the road; each can see in the other what her life may have been like had she made different choices. Or maybe the two women are meant to be two sides of one person. Maybe a female born in 1944 Naples wouldn’t feel “whole” following one path or another. Maybe none of us do.
For my money (and I have people in Sarasota willing to back me on this), the real Elena Ferrante isn’t someone whose life has been like that of the fictional Elena. It is someone whose life has been like Lila’s. Rather than re-hashing a semi-fictional version of her own experiences, wouldn’t it be more interesting for a writer to explore what it would have been like had she taken another path?
by Colm Toibin
by Colm Toibin
This past weekend, I was mulling over what I wanted to tell you guys about Brooklyn and Nora Webster, two gorgeous novels by Colm Toibin. You may be familiar with Brooklyn because it was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie this year. Both books are set in Enniscorthy, Ireland and share a few characters, but the stories are entirely independent of one another. In Brooklyn, set in in the early 1950s, a young woman must venture to the U.S. by herself for lack of job opportunities at home. In Nora Webster, set in the late 60s/early 70s, a middle-aged woman has to figure out what to do with herself after the sudden death of her husband.
Both stories are told beautifully, in a simple, melodrama-free style, but I knew there was more to them that I liked, I just couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Deep in concerted thought, I did what every serious thinker resorts to when attempting to solve a high-minded query. I flipped on the E! channel and started watching the Caitlyn Jenner docu-series, I Am Cait.
Yes, I was looking for mind candy, but I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised and relieved I’ve been to see that someone involved in this show was smart enough to bring in some real academic heavyweights like Jenny Boylan and Kate Bornstein. And my mixed feelings about her aside, I give Caitlyn serious props for letting them chastise educate her on national TV so the rest of us can learn along with her. Despite the requisite Kardashian cameos (which tend to be pretty hysterical), any television program that has people quoting Simone de Beauvoir ain’t “Keeping Up With Cait.” Amidst sweeping Malibu vistas and Moschino dresses, there is some serious dialogue going on here. Including the aforementioned de Beauvoir quote from this week’s episode: “One is not born a woman, one becomes one.”
It was the brilliant Jenny Boylan who laid that one on the group during a discussion of gender roles and in her typically clueless manner, Cait responds with, “Where do you get this stuff?” You can see where this is both interesting and entertaining.
I perked up at the reference to this quote, as it is one of my favorites. I like it both for its simple lyricism (in its English translation) and for the various ways it can be interpreted. In its original context, de Beauvoir was saying that it is society that really shapes us as “male” or “female.” Given the crowd Simone hung with, some take a more existential reading of the quote (we aren’t “born anything,” we create who we are) and I’ve always liked thinking of it as an ode to maturation (we are born girls, we grow into women). All these interpretations are more or less streams that flow into the same river. Certainly the quote resonated with a group of transgender women who were not biologically born women.
We are all charged with finding our place in the world. For some, the journey may be easier than for others. Both of Colm Toibin’s main characters truly become women in the course of their stories and in depicting their journeys so eloquently, he reminds us that the process of becoming (whatever we may be) is one that is universal.
(By the way, I highly recommend Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides if you are interested in reading a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about gender identity.)
My Struggle, Book 3
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
The other day, I was standing on the train platform reading Book 3 of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume series, My Struggle. Most of my fellow passengers consulted their phones or walked by me zombie-style, immersed in whatever was coming through their headphones; a few pushed bikes down the platform and a couple sat chatting with one another. While I stood reading, feet planted firmly on the ground in Berkeley, California, March 2016, I was, at the same time, in Karl Ove’s childhood bedroom in Tromoya, Norway circa 1978. A breeze rushed past me as a train left the station while Karl Ove sat on his bed and picked up a book by Ursula K. Le Guin. In that moment, I felt like I was on the tail end of a ricochet, knowing that Le Guin grew up in post-World War I Berkeley.
People like to say that we’re more connected today than we’ve ever been thanks to current technology. But writers and readers know that we’ve always been connected through our conversations on the page. And even my beloved Skype hasn’t figured out how to time travel yet.
Of course not every writer connects with every reader. And anyone who tells me that Karl Ove is too internal and plot-deficit for their taste gets my full support and understanding. Yet clearly I’m invested at this point, having read the first half of his 3,600-page opus. So what’s in it for me, besides some company while I’m waiting for my train?
I’ll put it this way. Why do we like strange, twisty, suspenseful plots? Because we feel like we’re actively navigating through the story, picking up the crumbs a writer leaves and using our minds to interpret the path on which we’ve been set. It’s satisfying to figure things out and to be surprised, especially when both happen at the same time.
Karl Ove doesn’t map out intricate plots (this is a memoir* after all) but instead he lays out in exceptional detail every last nook, cranny and conifer of both his external and internal worlds. Were I to be air-dropped into Tromoya Island, Norway in the year 1978, I feel confident I could make my way through the “… gardens and rocks, meadows and woods, up and down dale, around sharp bends, sometimes with trees on both sides, as if through a tunnel …” to Karl Ove’s newly developed neighborhood, where buddies Geir, Rolf and Dag Lothar would be waiting to play. And then I’d see Karl Ove’s sadistic, alcoholic father looming in the doorway and feel just as shaken as Karl Ove does.
A cynical person could say that enjoying the kind of intimacy and sharing Knausgaard offers is another form of today’s rampant voyeurism (see reality tv, celeb gossip and pretty much the whole Internet). On the contrary, I think he’s speaking to something older and more visceral and thus, the hubbub around this series.
Simply put, he’s connecting.
P.S., I seem to find myself on an unintended Norwegian kick these days. My library copy of One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway just came in and my buddy Anne recently got us into Occupied on Netflix. I guess it’s no wonder I found myself buying smoked salmon earlier today.
*KOK calls these books “a non-fiction novel”