Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Sunday Book: Literary Eclipse

You know how sometimes you read a series of moderately good books and then you read a BLOODY AMAZING book and it makes all the books around it, temporally and physically, seem like pale imitations of books? Yeah, I just had that. The truly great book reminds you of everything a book can really be and makes everything you read before and after it a disappointment by comparison.

Salvage the Bones is that book. It is throwing shade on everything else I've read this month and will probably continue to do so all year, maybe forever. MUCH HYPERBOLE. Much deserved. It is gaspingly beautiful and it will destroy you. The end of the book made me jiggle nervously in my seat and cry for the best part of half an hour. I continued to cry after I closed the book. I was on a train. Luckily, I am a silent crier and hopefully the other people sharing our table didn't notice my expansive web of snot.
“Salvage the Bones,” the 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction, is a taut, wily novel, smartly plotted and voluptuously written. It feels fresh and urgent, but it’s an ancient, archetypal tale. Think of Noah or Gilgamesh or any soggy group of humans and dogs huddled together, waiting out an apocalyptic act of God or weather. It’s an old story — of family honor, revenge, disaster — and it’s a good one. As Arnold Schoenberg said, “There is still much good music that can be written in C major.” And Jesmyn Ward makes beautiful music, plays deftly with her reader’s expectations: where we expect violence, she gives us sweetness. When we brace for beauty, she gives us blood.
Best of all, she gives us a singular heroine who breaks the mold of the typical teenage female protagonist. Esch isn’t plucky or tomboyish. She’s squat, sulky and sexual. But she is beloved — her brothers Randall, Skeetah and Junior are fine and strong; they brawl and sacrifice and steal for her and each other. And Esch is in bloom. Her love for Manny and her love for literature have animated the world; everything is suddenly swollen and significant. (NYT)
It might be because I am horribly lacking in Bayou points of comparison but Salvage the Bones reminded me a lot of Beasts of the Southern Wild. Certainly if you like one I think you’ll like the other. A storm looms over both, threatening both the alien landscapes and the poverty stricken families who survive on them. Both have young, black female protagonists, with absent mothers and disconnected fathers, although the teenage Esch of STB has responsibilities of her own. There are animals and wildness and myth. I have decided that this is definitely a legit comparison. Also, Jesmyn Ward gives truly great dog.

Everything is wonderful: the writing, the plot, the structure, the characterisation, the wrenching emotional kick… This book is alive and important and vital – I can’t really recommend it highly enough. It sets the bar super high.


Vampires in the Lemon Grove is so whimsical. Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! and Kelly Link’s collection of magical realist/fantasy/genre busting short stories, Magic for Beginners, were two of my favourite books of the last year or so and I was prepared to love VITLG but it fell a little flat. My expectations were high (see also: Everland) but I don’t think that was the real problem. It is just a bit too quirky. My tolerance for quirk/kook/whimsy balances on a knife edge and VITLG tipped towards the cloying. I dunno, I love her imagination. There were stories that worked, like the Settlements Act and the tattooed Iraq vet, and there were stories that glimmered with possibility, like the silkworm girls, and I enjoyed the horse presidents but as a collection it left me a little cold.

Appropriately, Everland, which is set on two parallel Antarctic expeditions in 1913 and 2012, also left me a little cold. Mr Chartwell is such a great first novel and another of my favourites of the last few years; it is strange and imaginative – the ‘black dog’ of Winston Churchill’s depression is made talking, drooling, sinister flesh. Everland lacks that weirdness, beyond the inherent weirdness of Antarctica, and I felt lacked the heart. The setting is obviously interesting and Hunt writes extreme cold very evocatively. The tension builds in both stories and the triumphs and limitations of the human are stark against the brutal, unchanging setting but the parallels between the stories are heavy handed. There are so many connections between the stories that I struggled to remain immersed – you are constantly playing guessing games with the plots and characters, trying to match and predict the story. Some readers might enjoy that but I found it distracting and frustrating. Still, Everland is intriguing landscape to explore.

I have earmarked some quotes from How Should a Person Be? for future blog posts because there were moments where Heti articulated very exactly ideas/thoughts I was on the brink of feeling. There were sentences and paragraphs where I almost gasped at how intimately Heti seemed to have understood my own emotions and experiences. There were also long stretches of the book I found tedious, I could have done without the whole blowjob-as-the-art-of-our-time plot line, and ‘privileged white girls angst about how to live an emotionally and creatively satisfying life’ is difficult to swallow (ha) alongside STB but the flashing moments of truth and Heti’s willingness to really push the narrative and her eponymous protagonist to extremes made me glad I had read the book.

Even when they are imperfect I have a lot of enthusiasm for narratives by and about flailing, scruffy, broke young women trying to find/become themselves. It’s narcissism, of course, but I also think it is our turn – we have had centuries of the male equivalent, bring on Girls and Greta Gerwig and HSAPB?. I was so ready to like Friendship. Emily Gould is a complicated, super visible and often controversial internet ‘character’ but I like her writing (I thought her MFA vs. NYC essay was great) and I admire her aggressive openness online. But… meh. Admittedly, Friendship suffered the most from STB eclipse as it was the first book I read after the glory and emotional annihilation of STB and it just felt pointless. After Esch and Skeet, Randall and Junior, Manny and Big Henry, the bickerings and financial irresponsibility of Bev and Amy fell hella flat. I mean, I did appreciate the complexity of the central friendship, there are jealousies but the friendship isn’t defined by competitiveness, the girls make mistakes and hurt each other but they do love and try to support each other. Romantic relationships are totally secondary in the novel and that’s great. Plus, the book is very short and easy to read. It’s not awful but it just feels vapid. I will defend to the death women’s right to write pointless novels but I can’t really recommend it. That said, if you are going to read it I would suggest you do so as soon as possible because it is v au courant and is not going to date well.

Basically. READ STB.

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