Fates and Furies
Penguin Random House, 2015
On one level, Lauren Groff’s novel, Fates and Furies, is easy to write about because it has a fairly straightforward plot about a very modern couple who fall lustfully in love, marry, and experience all the travails of a typical marriage—money, trust issues, psychological insecurity, secrets. The husband, initially a struggling actor, becomes a famous and successful playwright but dies an early death. The wife lives out the rest of her life on the wealth she’s inherited from her husband’s family and the financial success of his career.
That, of course, would be the Cliff Notes summary of the plot. Continue reading
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years of Pilgrimage
Vintage International, 2015
Magic Realism, Interiority, Bildungsroman Tradition
Haruki Murakami appears to have captured the imaginations of a lot of readers. And that’s saying a lot because he is not a writer who seems to be satisfied with just a story line.
In two other novels I have read, he clearly mixes his own brand of magic realism (fantasy, dream narratives, science fiction, fable) and a very realistic narrative (It would be an understatement to say that Murakami does not shy away from sex or death. He also manages to blend the murder mystery genre into some of his stories).
He is also a writer who has a strong interior sensibility and appears to be particularly drawn to millenials.
A third motif of Murakami’s fiction is a penchant for story lines that resemble the Bildungsroman tradition (stories about self-knowledge journeys, usually about younger protagonists moving through a variety of intense rites of passage). Continue reading
“I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,” says T S Eliot’s Prufrock.
He goes on to say that he sees the “Eternal Footman” holding his coat, snickering, suggesting that even the personified death figure would find Prufrock an amusing irrelevancy.
Later on, he admits that he is “no Prince Hamlet,” but merely “an attendant lord….Deferential, glad to be of use.”
What are we to make of Prufrock’s draw? Why do English teachers seem to love this poem? Why are we attracted to a guy whose life is without drama or vitality? A guy who seems to huddle next to the inconsequential; to revel in a world of what-might-have-beens; or to languish in a life that has never been completely or satisfactorily consummated. Continue reading
Harper Collins, 2012
The Larger View
Richard Ford’s “Canada” is a novel about memory. It is about failed relationships. It is about rites of passage. It is about compromises. It is about mortality. It is about defeat. It is about survival. It is about our need for psychological purges by performing acts of self-destructive daring or, if we are desperate, killing ourselves or others to wipe our slates clean of the mistakes of our past.
It is a novel about missed chances, individual choices, and the landscapes we end up in, not always by choice. It is a story about running away and, finally, about settling down. At the core of all our journeys, according to Dell Parsons, the sixty-three year old narrator, are the attempts: “We try, as my sister said. We try. All of us. We try.” Continue reading
Night Train to Lisbon
by Pascal Mercier
Translated by Barbara Harshav
Grove Press, 2008
“Last Train to Lisbon” was going to be read in a book club a friend of mine belonged to. The club started it, then decided to drop it. Another friend started reading it and has yet to complete it.
The criticisms were consistent: it was too long; it was too windy; it was too dense; the memoir writing was too tedious and philosophical; there were too many characters; there were too many scene shifts.
Well, I’m here to say. I finished the novel. In fact, I read it twice. What can I say? I was an English teacher. I love a challenge.
On the surface, the story is really quite simple: an aging philology teacher finds a book of memoirs in a book store. He starts to read them. The author of the memoirs was a Portuguese doctor and a resistance fighter during the Salazar dictatorship.
Gregorius, the teacher, has found his fantasized soul mate in this resistance fighter, Amadeu Prado, a brooding and tortured aristocrat, a “goldsmith of words” who destines himself “to rescue the silent experiences of human life from their muteness.” Continue reading
Let The Great World Spin
Random House, 2009
Except for a brief time in Dublin, McCann’s setting for this novel is in New York City during the Vietnam/Nixon-resignation years. And what a city it is: artists, clergy, prostitutes, judges, black/white/latino/Irish, computer geeks and hackers, street magicians—a veritable urban dream world.
McCann uses the famous event of the French tightroper walker and brilliantly fictionalizes it back into existence. It is the event that often grounds the novel (I would have to say that that event loses its force in the last two chapters when Tillie and Jaslyn narrate). Continue reading
Alfred A. Knopf, 2010
“….the gods love to eavesdrop on the secret lives of others.” So says the novel’s narrator and mythological character, Hermes, son of Zeus and Maia, the cave woman.
If we’ve forgotten our mythology 101, Hermes is also the messenger. And does he have a story to tell, a very modern story about ordinary human interactions and relationships and a story in the ancient classical tradition about love, larger-than-life genius, death, destiny, unrequited love. Continue reading
Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperbacks
New York, 2010
In all of the reviewing I have done over the years, I don’t ever recall using a statement from an author’s acknowledgment page.
When I read the last paragraph and then went back to look at the last page of the narrative itself, there appeared to be some covert, even tendentious wrapping up, some moral statement LaValle seemed to be making in this part allegory, part fantasy, part gothic, part magic-realism, part gruesome, grim-reality novel. Continue reading
The White Tiger
“Sweet-maker…that’s my caste, my destiny,” says the protagonist, Balram Halwai, in Aravind Adiga’s novel, “White Tiger.” Another character in the novel asks the question, “Do you think sweet-makers can manage fourth gear?”
Western readers are not used to reading about castes, an historically rigid class system in India for centuries. Historians tell us, however, that in urban India, the caste system is breaking down, even though it remains entrenched in rural India. Continue reading
Reading theorists have told us many times that readers take an active part in creating the very narratives they’re reading. A text is not static, no matter what the intention of the writer. Once the story goes out there, we, as readers, begin a kind of paint-by-numbers process of reinventing the narrative to fit our psyches. The broad outline of the story is there, but we color in the personal textures to suit ourselves.
Louise Erdrich’s novel, Shadow Tag, certainly opened up my own politically-correct notions of what I want to read or see in a fictional work about another culture. It continues to be difficult for me to shift out of a rather rigid belief that indigenous cultures should exist in this rarified world of innocence, that they should not accomodate themselves, in any way, to a dominant, sometimes oppressive culture—Japanese art should be pure “Japanese”; Chinese literature should be untainted by Western values; Indian film should always be driven by the country’s Hindu heritage.
Although I have evolved to having made my own accomodations, I find myself sometimes becoming a kind of politically-correct tourist who doesn’t want any ancient culture to change. I am sometimes particularly hard on writers and artists who produce assimilationist works, hybrids that have their sensibilities in two cultures. Continue reading