Book Review – The Safest Place You Know by Mark Winkler
This is an astonishing South African novel.
Some time ago I reviewed Winkler’s Wasted, which was a disturbing pleasure to read. The first thing that jumps out on reading this (his third) novel is how different it is – in tone, structure, language, dialogue, characters, narrative. Wasted was urban and bristling. This is something else altogether. Authors dream of this sort of diversity and dexterity – it is a rare gift. It is as though Winkler has seemingly accessed an entirely new writer out of the same space in his head and heart. That is the first astonishment.
The second is the writing. From word to sentence to paragraph to chapter the language soars, sometimes so beautifully as to reach for poetry. Descriptions of simple things – raindrops or dust or a tree or a gesture is wrought from original and exotic material – I often found myself rereading sentences and paragraphs after simply gasping at the language the first time around. There is a danger in this of course, because those chapters (and there were a few) that do not reach the same level of excellence become starkly bland. But I quibble, because the whole far exceeds its parts.
The action unfolds in the early 1980s. Two separate lives, irrevocably damaged by cruel and abusive fathers, are thrown into a strange and poignant embrace on a wine estate near Paarl. The first is a 17 year Afrikaans boy, Hennie, fleeing an act of violence on his family farm, now in the final death throws neglect and drought. The second is a 30-something lawyer, Andy, the estranged heiress to a wine estate, irrevocably damaged and alcohol-enslaved, now returned to the estate on the untimely death of her hated father. The damage wrought by their respective fathers and the subsequent corrosive secrets carried by their children sit a the heart of this story, which unfolds as they both try to communicate, try to comfort each other, try to comfort themselves and try to find a way to leave the past behind. If I can misquote Philip Larkin – they really fuck you up, your fathers. Winkler looks long and deep into those wounds.
The cast is rounded out by the counterpoint of two other key characters. One is the estate domestic helper, Johanna, a white woman deposited reluctantly (and finally with great loyalty) into the coloured community by an act of apartheid madness, and the other a small child of unknown provenance, Charlotte, who arrives mysteriously on the estate, bringing with her a chimeric and other-worldly healing for all. For me this was the only off-key note in the book (I have difficulty with the introduction of magical realism into a beautifully rendered story of tragedy and redemption, but perhaps I quibble again). I will say no more about the plot, it unfolds and refolds with great sensitivity and care, and the character’s voices echo loud after the final page.
I am told there was a reviewer who compared Winkler favourably to JM Coetzee. Perhaps (I am poorly-read in the Coetzee department), but I would simply say that The Safest Place You Know has elevated Winkler into a cadre of uncommon talent, I would take a soft bet that he ends up being one of the great writers coming out of SA in the early part of this century
Book Review – Wasted by Mark Winkler
In keeping with my policy of not reviewing books written by friends (which I violated in the case of Bloomlak’s Continental Shift), let me declare that I have never actually met Mark Winkler, but our paths have crossed occasionally on Facebook. I figure that there is distance enough to write this without bias.
A while ago I reviewed We Are All Completely Besides Ourselves and was faced with the problem of how to review it without giving away the incident on page 77, which was so off-the-charts that the reader had to utterly re-evaluate the characters, the plot, the narrative, everything.
So it is with Wasted. Something happens on page 62 that is similarly shocking, leaving me to have to dance around it as I write this. So excuse the pussy-footing, I don’t want to spoil.
This is a startlingly original book, and a first person voice of long-lingering and searingly poignant originality (I will think about the protagonist, Nathan, for a long time). The first section of the book introduces us to this amusing, eccentric oddball, who lives alone, sleeps with the lights on, has no friends, labours competently in a junior sales position in an ad agency and has a near permanent erection which is relieved often, by hand or happenstance.
His interactions with people are sparse, taciturn, self-deprecating and somewhat bewildered. His internal world broils with sharp and unique commentary and slightly bent self-reflection and off-kilter brain banter. He is, in short, the sort of character to whom the reader is quickly drawn, in a maternal sort of way. We want him to succeed. We want him to make friends, find love. He is kind. He is lost. He visits an older woman friend sick with cancer often, and with unconditional affection. Yes, he is pretty weird, but he is the sort of guy that I have known and am often drawn to – depth masquerading as oddity. There are the smallest hints of what is to come, but I was never fully aware until later, when it happened.
And then page 62. OMG. I sat up in bed when I hit this page and yelped. Nathan does something. And the book becomes something else – a funny and sad and profound investigation into dark matters from which most of us are happily hidden. I can’t say more. I will ruin it.
The writing is sparse and economic and evocative and acute. The secondary characters, are well-salted and mullti-coloured, and at least one of them (a doomed and insightful murderer named Naicker) is clearly the author’s mouthpiece for the great matters of life and death, a technique to which I am always drawn (I am as interested in the authors’ opinions as I am in characters’ opinions).
Winkler is a local author, but the book is not in any sense ‘South African’ other than in its locale (Cape Town) and he stays mercifully away from tropes of race and history and politics that bedevil many other SA novels. This book is not plot driven – there is one, of course, but it plays second fiddle the far more interesting troubled mind and shattered history and truncated future of Nathan Lucius, as complex and tragic a character as I have read in a long time.
Reading Winkler was an uncommon and unexpected pleasure – this book is very different from other literary fare and its brevity belies its depth. Take a deep breath and go on this morally chaotic journey into dark places with Lucius – you won’t forget him soon.
Book Review – City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
944 pages. Really large. Large in ambition and character and plot and language and emotional scope. So large, that a reader’s review of polite length is a daunting prospect – there are just so many moving parts. But given the astonishing final 200 pages (and notwithstanding some of its earlier indulgences), it is worthy of a try.
The book is set in New York between Christmas 1976 and July 1977, and bookended by a shooting in Central Park and the great power blackout that crippled the city seven months later. These two event draw together an astonishing palette of characters – a group of disaffected anarchist/punks, a master fireworks designer, a neglected and love-lorn teenage boy, a fantastically wealthy and dysfunctional uptown family, a petite and pretty dreamseeking big city newbie, a physically handicapped detective, a depressed reporter, a fictional iconic and short-lived punk band, a gay black aspirant novelist and his heroin addicted white artist boyfriend. All of these lives (and many more) are strung together in a unruly tapestry, intersecting in unpredictable ways as the period between the shooting and the power blackout construct a stage in which they careen and bounce off each other, by co-incidence and design. It is a wildly complex and multi-layered plot, sometimes ingenious, sometimes disingenuous, sometime gripping, sometimes stalled in underlying character soul-searching and tangential asides.
This period was a terrible time for New York – it was bankrupt, crime was out of control, buildings were being set alight all over the poor boroughs of the city, the heat of that 1977 summer was wilting – it seemed the end of things in that great city (I remember this well, having just moved to the US). Against this backdrop, Hallberg has constructed a bursting amalgam of literary fiction, detective thriller, love story, historical narrative, psychological study and philosophical treatise on all manner of things, all beautifully rendered in soaring language.
The first part of the book sets up the wide cast of diverse characters, drills their backgrounds deep, with flashbacks and flash-forwards and assorting musings, before the shooting in Central Park happens on a cold New Year’s eve. And then a slowly converging plot that congeals finally into a hurtling, rock hard, sharped edge, page gripping climax over the final 200 pages, with the threat of a terrible tragedy revealing itself and coming hotly into focus (and language suddenly and cleverly shifted from past to present tense).
And what of its length? I think that there is a reason most novels are 350 pages or thereabouts. It is the sweet spot for the medium. A story can be moulded neatly into this package, requiring, what, 10 – 20 hours of the reader’s time? It is a digestible attention span. But 944 pages (which took me 6 weeks to finish)is, quite simply, too long for most tastes, too long for energy to sustain, for the colours of narrative and plot and character to retain the vibrance of the moment. Yes, there are exceptions (Dickens comes to mind, The Goldfinch, &Sons, Infinite Jest). But they are exceptions. Is this? Yes, in many ways it is a great book, painstakingly constructed and tended, but a judicious and merciless edit of 400 or 500 pages would have rendered this a masterpiece. Still, I can’t deny that I felt a sense of a achievement when I finished.
Hallberg was paid $2 mil for this debut novel – a breathtaking advance, a record. Apparently he compared his book to a box DVD set of House of Cards or Sopranos or Breaking Bad – scores of episodes consumed in a single binge watch. He wanted to recreate that experience in reading.
He didn’t quite get there. But it was close enough.
Book review – Quicksand by Steve Toltz
Before I talk about this kinetic, lunatic, uproarious, tragic and brilliant novel, a health warning. I picked up Quicksand at my favourite indie bookstore Love Books, not because I had heard of the book or author (a Booker shortlister for a few years back, as it turns out), but because the back page book description was so compelling that I simply took a chance, relying on the curatorial excellence of Kate Rogan, the bookshop proprietor. I then took the book on a family holiday, and here is the warning – after I gave it to Kate Sidley (my wife) on the plane, she shortly thereafter started howling so loudly and so without decorum or restraint that I feared the air stewards (glancing at her worriedly) would request a return to the airport to have her removed. You will, I guarantee, be undone with helpless shrieking in many of the unlikely scenes and conversations that scattershot this virtuoso act.
But Quicksand is not really a comedy; one’s frequent laughter is black and horrified. It is a deeply poignant and profound character study of one Aldo Benjamin, a character unlike any whom you have ever met in fiction or life, and will be unlikely ever to forget. The book is told in the first person by Aldo’s best friend Liam, who tries to mine Aldo’s compulsive and exhausting aphorisms and pithy observations and trenchant asides and explosive commentaries on everything and anything in order to find fodder for Liam’s dream of writing a novel (although some devious literary trickery also puts Aldo into the first person for a large swath of the book). These ‘Aldoisms’ burst out of every page like tracer fire, and I found myself saying over and over again – god, that’s genius, god, that’s incandescent, god, that’s hysterical, until I had nearly overdosed with giddy surprise.
The book begins with Aldo in a wheelchair, paraplegic and recently out of jail. The first part of this book is how he got to this point, and the second part plots his and everyone else’s reaction to his circumstances. Aldo is as large a disaster of a human being has you can imagine. Every decision, act, attempt, hope, relationship or initiative that he has ever undertaken has been spectacularly ill-advised, all ending in crashing and cacophonous disaster. From primary school to adulthood, his life has been one long, loud, drawn out failure. I wrote a novel a few years ago about a man beset by misfortune, the story of Job updated to an urban setting. But Toltz takes this to entirely uncharted territory. The reader is left just aghast at Aldo’s spectacular and endless fuck-ups, all by his own misstep and poor judgement. And the deft trick played by the author is that you are relieved that you do not know anyone remotely like this, and yet you are deeply seduced by him, caring greatly about his fate with your heart firmly in your mouth.
The book pivots vertiginously between riotous, sad, philosophical, erudite and chilling (there is a description of a prison scene that I wish I had I had never read, because I cannot unread it now, and it will reside unwelcomely and repellently in my head forever). There are long blocks of dialogue between Aldo and Liam which leave the reader utterly exhilarated and exhausted. And it never lets up – page after page after chapter after chapter of high-wire writing – sometimes shockingly insightful, sometimes deeply moving, always fresh and unpredictable and beautifully rendered.
I am aware that this review has not really described what the book is about, and that is not really plot-driven. It is more a stomach-churning journey with the hapless but magnetic Aldo as he ruins every last shred of his life, and the desperate attempts of those around him to temper his excesses, to feed off his rare and raw wisdom and to keep him close even as they avoid their eyes from looking at his bloody and continual train wreck.
There is little I can compare this book to, although the author states his influences – Bellow, Roth, Woody Allen. Toltz tears great new ragged holes in the literature of art, suicide, friendship, sex, violence, psychology, disability and the worst slings and arrows of misfortune. The books is not perfect – there were a few parts which I felt were overindulgent (including Aldo’s overly long discussion with a voice in his head), but against the overwhelming pleasures elsewhere, it seems churlish to complain.
Highest recommendation, and a small bet that Quicksand will be all over the next awards season.
А под грамотным подходом игрока я понимаю игру с холодной головой, четкое понимание правил и наличие стратегии, системы игры. Continue reading
Book Review – A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman
The immigrant novel in the US has a long a proud history. Many of these novels were originally written by pre-war European immigrants battling to find purchase in the cacophony and promise of a burgeoning America. More recently the immigrant novel has been combustively re-invigorated by a Babel of new voices – Amy Tam, Gary Shteyngart, Jumpa Lahiri and Junot Diaz, among others.
Into this august literary group steps Boris Fishman, with A Replacement Life. The protagonist, Slava Gellman, is stretched uncomfortably between two worlds, his unassimilated Russian-Jewish family in South Brooklyn, and his white-knuckled handhold as a junior writer on a celebrated magazine in Manhattan called Century. Gellman’s background story is quickly revealed – he has been in the US since he was a child, his parents having slid semi-legally out of Russia as they released their hold on Jews, and allowed a period of relatively free emigration in the late 1970s and 1980s. The author was born in Belarus, and his life followed a similar trajectory,(he worked as a writer for Vanity Fair) – the odor of authenticity is strong, particular in the descriptions people, places and rituals of the Russian-Jewish enclaves of New York.
Into this milieu Fishman introduces a bursting and rich plot device. Slava, as the only English writer (and culturally competent American) in the family, writes a forged German holocaust reparations claim for his aging and pleading grandfather. The claims are reserved for those who had been in concentration camps or conscripted slave labour – his grandfather had comfortably sat out the war in Uzbehkistan. When Slava balks at the lie, his grandfather says – ‘Who do you think you are? Lenin’s Son? We all suffered in our own way.’ Slava is won over. He writes the claim. And then word gets around, and Slava suddenly finds himself writing scores of fraudulent claims for all the old and fading Russian Jews of South Brooklyn. This deception is the ethical core around which the book is built.
There are several deeply and sensitively explored sub-themes that are woven into this story. He has two woman in his life – a born-and-bred urbane Manhattanite and a unassimilated and curvaceous granddaughter of immigrants, and his fraught attraction to both. The backstory of the horrors visited upon his late grandmother during the liquidation of the Minsk ghetto, painted lurid by small hints and partial memories. His grandfather’s thuggishnes in Russia before the war. The competitiveness of the Manhattan magazine publishing world. America’s continuing allure to foreigners even as it staggers and stumbles (one of the immigrants marvels at his ability to buy a 32 inch TV on a doorman’s salary). And the immigrant’s jail – the freedom of America and their inability to grasp it, weighed down by histories that they cannot shed.
There were times when I was reading this book that I heard Saul Bellow echoing clamourously – long unbroken blocks of musing dialogue, knotted and gnarled ethical dilemmas without clear resolutions, characters bursting out of the page, unheroic, flawed, powerless and deceptively exceptional. One of the joys of this book was the rendering of English brokenly executed by fluent Russian speaking characters – you can hear the steppes in their cadences.
This is a book for a certain kind of reader. It is a deep dive in all respects – characters that you have never met, a plot that is unusual and profound, relationships which ring true even in their foreignness. It was slow seduction for me, I suspect it will linger long.