Book Review – Milkman by Anna Burns (winner of the Booker Prize 2018)
On numerous occasions since I was a pubescent tyke I have attempted to read James Joyce’s Ulysses. The first was at 13, when a friend of mine and I, acting on the advice of a rakish older teenager, tried to find the reputed purple prose and forbidden porn between its covers (we didn’t, of course). Then in later years, more attempts, borne out of guilt and curiosity and masochism. I never made it past more than a few chapters, getting lost in the dense jungle of words and paragraphs, endless, rambling, chaotic, a steamy thicket of impenetrable literary flora.
I finally admitted defeat and moved on.
And then, a couple of years ago, I went to see the inimitable Jenny Steyn acting (solo); 90 minutes of explosively performed Molly Bloom from Ulysses. And she did it, unsurprisingly, in Irish. With that accent reeking of history and famine and whiskey and poetry. The curled ‘r’s’ and gentle lilts and hills and valleys splattered with metaphors and allusions. And James Joyce suddenly came to life. That’s it I thought! You have to read Joyce in Irish! Not English. Irish (the accent)!
And so it was with Milkman, this year’s Booker prize winner. Called ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘impossibly dense’ by some reviewers, I decided, fuggit, I am going in with my machete. And I will read it in Irish (I am no good at speaking accents, but I can hear them, the song and cadence in every sentence). On the rare occasions where I lost concentration switched to English it indeed became, um, leaden, opaque.
So this is like nothing else you will ever read, if you decide to uncrate your old Irish sword and fearlessly wade in to battle.
The best way I can describe this book it is one part Joyce (the close-packed cornucopia of words, sentences falling over each other, paragraphs sweeping endlessly over many pages, the joyous vernacular – (a ‘numbance’, an attitude of feeling numb, for example, or the emphatic use of ‘auld’ for ‘old’, written and pronounced just as spelled, just slightly differently than the boring english version).
And then one part Joseph Heller (weird and wobbly characters like ‘tablets-girl’ or ‘Somebody McSomebody’ or ‘nuclear-boy’ only mentioned early, but making themselves loudly and colourfully known only later, like Major Major Major in Catch-22). And the deep, black, screaming hilarity of the most unfunny of situations.
And then one part Kafka. Or maybe four parts Kafka. The world which unfolds makes Kafka’s cockroach seem common.
Our heroine (never actually named, like all of the characters in this book) is an 18 year-old eccentric, walking around her 1970’s Irish town (also not named, and neither is the IRA or Northern Ireland or Britain – only ‘renouncers of state’ and ‘the country over the water’). She walks with her head down, reading books, reading more books and not talking to anyone. That’s all she does, other than occasionally visit her ‘maybe-boyfriend’.
We soon find out why. These are deep in the times of the troubles. Everyone is suspect. Or could be suspect. Or should be suspect Or is made to be suspect. Traitors are a rumour away, a wrong smile, a misplaced glance, a wrong address. There are bombs and beatings and tar-and-featherings and kneecappings and death and disappearance. One day you are just living a small life and the next you are branded a traitor. By people who are perhaps, maybe also maybe-traitors. Or could be. Or could be made to be.
So bewildered is our heroine by this illogical and Bedlamic world into which she is forced to inhabit that all she can do is read and walk and talk to no one and look at no one. And have sex with maybe-boyfriend, who loves cars and has a workshop and has a acquired a turbo-charger from a car from ‘over-the-water’ and so his neighbour wonders whether he is a traitor and so…
Into her cloistered world steps Milkman, near the book’s opening. Not a milkman (although there is a milkman in the book, an important one). No, Milkman is a renouncer-of-state, a big shot paramilitary. And old and scary and slimy. And he wants her, because if you are a big shot in the renouncers-of-state, you take what you want, including pretty eccentric and vulnerable 18 year-olds who finally have no other choice.
And so the book takes wings of a sort, with our heroine stopping at every thought and conundrum and possibility, turning it this way and that, her head a jumble of maybes and surely-nots and what-ifs. And lets not forget the many, many sisters and brothers-laws and widowed mom and ballroom-dancing children and slaughtered dogs and decapitated cat’s head and, god, ach, ach, this book is near impossible to review, even though the plot is deceptively simple.
So, like my first attempts at reading James Joyce I am giving up on this review.
But if you choose to read it, read it in Irish. It is exhausting, astonishing, beautiful and you will leave it in a numbance.
Book Review – Levels of Life by Julian Barnes
One of the great good fortunes of my life is that I have never been visited by great loss or grief, but having been a proximal observer many times (and increasingly often as the years progress) it often seems to me that my rope must soon run out.
This slim memoir (117 pages), published in 2013, takes on the subject of grief and mourning with such surgical precision (and from the vantage point of the closest of personal circumstance) that I will surely return to this book as a guide and hip flask if and when I am similarly struck down.
Julian Barnes married the literary agent Pat Kavanagh (originally South African) in 1978 and remained happily and deeply committed to her for 32 years until she died very suddenly in 2010. He does not get into the details of her death; we find out only that there were mere weeks between the discovery of her medical pathology to her final moment. The book is not about the process of her dying, it is about the overwhelming (and impossible) task of accepting, wrestling and understanding the grief that accompanies a loss of a loved one. It is at once wrenching and panoramic, and in the hands of Barnes’s elegant and unwavering language, even more so, sometimes to the point of the reader having to stop mid-sentence to look away, as if from terrible car wreck.
First two thirds of this books are about other matters – ballooning in the late 18th century, early photography, Sarah Bernhardt and a specific love affair with one English gentlemen named Thomas Burnaby. As interesting and skilfully described as these historical events are, their tether to the death of Ms Kavanagh and Barnes’s descent into its aftermath are not evident until the last part of the book, where he launches directly into her death and his emotional drowning in the wake of it. It is described in finely-grained intellectual and emotional minutiae, and carried by the sort of language mastery for which Barnes is acclaimed.
This is naked microscopic introspection at its most brutal, its pain hard to witness, its eloquence soaring and melancholic. I can really only recommend this book for anyone who has encountered loss and grief, or like myself, has escaped it and wishes some to archive some wisdom for when it arrives.
One of the challenges in reviewing the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction is that it has done exactly that – won one of two most prestigious prizes in English fiction (the other being the Booker Prize), and so I can assume that some very wise and well-read judges had made this decision for sound reasons. The other challenge is to read through the hyperbolic shouts that adorn the cover, most from writers who command a large acreage of my literary mindscape, and to try and maintain objectivity in the face of them. And then there are the hundreds of reviews, which I would prefer not to read before I do my own. Which strikes me a tad ascetic, now that I think about it.
So. Less. The title takes its etymology from the last name of Arthur Less, and double entendres abound, the surname nestling in warmly with Mr. Less’s diminished life. And also joining a list of literary novels whose books are named after (and robustly inhabited by) their protagonists – Bellow’s Herzog, Lewis’s Babbitt, Williams’s Stoner. Arthur Less is introduced as a minor novelist, about to turn 50, and feeling a battered by a a betrayal of love in particular, and life in general. And so he embarks on a trip around the world – Mexico, Germany, France, Morocco, India, Japan. The reader tags along, and finds out about his life and loves lost along the way.
Arthur Less – lovelorn (twice over). Insecure, Lonely, in a self-imposed sort of way. Existentially crushed. Lost. Such a character should sink under the weight of his own disappointments and frailties, but a strange thing happened in this book. First I found him bland. Then I felt sorry for him. Then I started to like him and root for hm. And then I really, really cared what happened to him. It was a sort of magic spun by Greer; an excellent literary trick.
There was other literary magic too. The narrator, sometimes ubiquitous, sometimes attached and occasionally (and weirdly) dropping into first person and directly addressing the reader in the second person (‘You would think that Less…’). It takes no small accomplishment to pull that off, and Greer does. We find out why in the last chapter’s blinding reveal, more on that later. The unusual voice of the narrator turns our to be the key which finally opens the door of the novel.
There are few women in this book. Less is gay. His fiends are gay. His life is spent mainly among men. There are lovers, affairs, one-nighters. We discover that Less’s great love was a genius Pulitzer prize-winning poet, an older man who leaves his wife for Less, thirty years before the start of this story. And then a second great love, a younger man named Freddie, who suddenly leaves Less to marry another younger man, This world of gays and homosexual love is a little outside of my reading (and my life’s experience). It was edifying to peer inside that world.
So what is the book about? Less’s failed affairs, and the imminent wedding of his recent lover Freddie of ten years has forced Less to run away,. To literary festivals and award ceremonies and desert tents and teaching engagements and magazine assignments all over the world. We perch inside his head, as his thoughts range chaotically from his youth to his present, the narrative darting between his failures and fealties, his old affections and new afflictions. It seems to be plotless trek, but one on which we are pleased to hitch a ride, accompanied by this tall, blond, balding and bewildered lesser man of letters, oxymoronically referred to by the narrator as ‘little Less’.
And then there is the last chapter. I do not want to spoil, but it was wonderful, surprising, uplifting and moving – a virtuoso emergence of a hidden plot, shyly replacing Less’s world with the world of narrator. An astonishing sleight of hand that takes this novel into a place that few others dare to go, and which certainly sealed the accolades that have come its way.
There were many fine and surprising things about this thin novel. The slow revealing of the Less himself. The writing – new, fresh, uncluttered, wry, sometimes very funny. The shorts spurts of Fellini-esque experiences in the different continents, beautifully nuanced and understated, like Less himself. Nuggets of wisdom and self-knowledge suddenly appearing briefly on the page as Less travels onwards.
Was it is the best novel of the year? Probably not, at at least to my mind (The Nix was far more worthy, although that may have been last year).
Was it a great and enduring work of fiction? Perhaps.
Was it a fine and satisfying and pleasurable work of literature that I would recommend?
Yes, it was. It was. Definitely.
One of the genres I generally avoid is the childhood memoir of trauma and pain. Not because it doesn’t interest me, but because of the grinding repetitiveness of abusive, neglectful, selfish or drug-addicted parents and relatives. I have read enough of them to find them generally depressing and too drenched with loathing of many stripes.
But this book is truly astonishing, and heralds the arrival of one of the most exciting new SA voices I have read in a long time. I read the first paragraph of the book by accident and it took my breath away, and so I continued over one long day and night to the end. My breath only returned much later.
Chlimigras’s command of words and meaning and metaphor is endlessly thrilling as she recounts a bewildering life to date (she is now 24). Her incomprehension at having to absorb the casual callousness and unkindness of those she loved (and still loves) is so well drawn, so literary, so profoundly expressed that I found myself partially hypnotised and partially sickened by as I watched her grow from scared and confused child to damaged adult.
But it is not really Chilimigras’s bruised history which recommends this book. It is also not the cast of characters (barely hidden by pseudonym, fully formed, flawed and fucked up), some of them them explicitly cruel, and others merely broken on the rack their own weaknesses.
It is more the style in which her chaotic life is splattered across the page, a sort of narrative Jackson Pollack. It brings to mind everyone from Hunter Thomson to Lori Groff to Jack Kerouac to Irvine Welsh. It is the way in which the reader staggers and cries and roots for the author, saying – your life will get better, it will get better, even though we know we are simply throwing optimistic sparkles into the air. We, and Chilimigras have no idea whether her life will get any better, or whether she will ever fully heal.
There is redemption in this book too. Her older sister, who is pseudo-named Soul & Protector, the lifeline to which her hope is tethered. Her wild and drunken friends as she grows into a teenager. The extended Greek family cocooning her as best they can with concern and food. And the author’s own threadbare resilience, resolute even against the worst of her own life’s choices.
This young author has just started, this is her debut. She can go anywhere with this talent. I hope she moves away from memoir and writes great fiction.
But it really doesn’t matter, as long as she keeps writing. Just read the first paragraph.
Things Even Gonzalez Can’t Fix is published by MFBooks. CC writes about sex and relationships for Cosmopolitan and other SA magazines.
Book Review – The Nix by Nathan Hill
Steven Boykey Sidley
Every year I try to read at least one door stop. 500 pages or more. The last few years – 4th of July Creek, The Goldfinch, City of Fire, & Sons, Purity. It is sort of a toxic cure for me, who reads slowly. It is a disciplined commitment of a month or more. A forced marathon of sorts, in a world were ever shorter amusements are endlessly on offer. When I get to the end of these long reads (in this case over 600 pages), I feel as though the accomplishment is as much mine as it is the author’s.
So as usual, I am late to the game. The author of the book, 40-year old Nathan Hill has already been to SA, for the Open Book festival. There have been a number of local reviews. And so I toss my tardy hat into the ring.
Before I review, a couple of factoids. Nathan Hill took ten years to write this, his first novel. After moving to New York in his late twenties he was swamped with rejection from agents and publishers. And then on moving out of tiny apartment in New York to move across town, everything was stolen from his car. Including every word of he had ever written, and all of his backups. He had to get clothes donated by friends. A difficult start for a novelist who then perseveres for TEN MORE YEARS before getting his first publishing deal. That story alone is worthy of its own fiction.
A book of this length needs to sprawl. Breadth is the fuel of such a long tale, the sort of breadth that requires of the author the ability to leap and somersault and reach across time and character and location and pay attention to stitching and borders and tangential excursions and returns. And so it is with this book, not perfect, a little rambly in parts, but overwhelmed by so much brilliance that lapses fade into only minor quibbles. Dickens, said John Irving. This writer is like Dickens. A writer who knew how to sprawl.
And sprawl it does. Over 50 years, backwarding and forwarding, from the small town midwest to Chicago to New York to Norway. It sprawls across past tense and present tense and first person and third person and internal and external monologue. It sprawls across characters who never meet each other and whose lives are full and sad or angry or resigned or shocking or funny. It sprawls across the most poignant of tragedy and true milk-through-nose hilarity. It sprawls across politics and gender issues and sexuality and love and family and betrayal and video game addiction and rough sex and child abuse and a confused America. It sprawls across the English language, acrobatic, virtuosic, at times controlled and assured and at times chaotic and undisciplined. There were times when I thought to myself, mouth agape, is there is anything this author cannot do? It was true that there were parts that went on a bit (the original draft was 1200 pages). There were scenes and characters, while brilliant, which did not push the story forward at all, and seemed like separate short stories gleefully inserted because the author couldn’t bear to kill his literary children.
But by the time I got to the end with its truly face-slapping and a tad labyrinthine reveal and tie-up, I thought, this is is sorcery. It is so glorious and magical and overflowing with, well, the bewildering stuff of life, there was almost a relief when I reached the last page.
So what it is about? the book focusses on two main characters. Samuel Andersen-Anderson, a bored and distracted assistant professor of English in Chicago. And then his mother Faye, who had abandoned the family in the sixties, when Samuel was 11. The entire book is propelled by the story of why she left, and funnelled immutably and combustively into a single epiphanal event in 1968 – the Chicago Democratic National Convention, a fulcrum of American politics and culture, from which the country has never really recovered. Jumping forward, a national incident occurs in the Chicago of 2011 – of a middle-aged woman throws rocks at a Trump-like presidential candidate, to be immediately arrested and charged with felonies of all stripe. It is Samuel’s mother Faye, who he has not heard of in 40 years. Between these two events an entire world unfolds, and the book reaches for the status of Great American novel, a sad and funny and ruthless and satiric and profound story of 50 years of that bruised country, what it was, what it has become and what redemption may yet still gleam on its horizon.
This book is not for everyone; one has to truly love the US (as I do) to really love this book. This book is, for me, everything that fiction should be rash, risky, flawed, ugly, melancholy, enraged, funny, surprising, beautiful and transformative.
There is a long holiday coming up. You have a few weeks. You have no excuse. Run a marathon.