Book review – Quicksand by Steve Toltz

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.

Book review – A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

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. 

E. L. Doctorow – a tribute

E.L. Doctorow died yesterday.

As a teenager, I had been happily snacking my way through fine mid-level fiction from Alex Haley and James Michener when I stumbled upon Doctorow’s Ragtime. Stumbled upon is not really accurate, my literate mother had, with admirable subterfuge, left it on the table in my room without comment. So I wandered in and emerged a different person. The audacity of it, particularly the mixing of fictional characters with historical ones (Freud, Jung, Houdini, Emma Goldman, Theodore Dreiser), the impossible New York of the 20s, the impudent eschewing of quotation marks in dialogue, the the author’s quiet rage around the politics of race and class left me permanently branded – that a book should so unravel me, that mere symbols on a page could be so transformative- it left me with a hunger for this sort of art that has sustained and thrilled me for decades. It brought me to writing and it made the best of fiction larger and truer than life. I remember going to my mother and asking for more like this – leading directly to Roth and Updike and Heller and a lifelong, fully requited literary love affair with certain kind of writing.

I have read a number of other Doctorow books (I have loved them all), but I will now read Ragtime as my version of a homily in his honour.

Book review – All Involved by Ryan Gattis

Book review – All Involved by Ryan Gattis

I live a few blocks from the beautifully curated Love Books in Johannesburg. Kate Rogan, its inimitable proprietor, has gotten to know my tastes over the years, and a few weeks ago she called and said –  got something for you. She didn’t even bother to describe it, just put it behind the counter a waited for me to come in and collect it. Which, of course, I did.

This is a story of urban ravage (inspired by true events) told against the backdrop of the LA riots in 1993, which were sparked by police beating of Rodney King. I lived and worked in LA at the time, not too far from the violence, and I remember the shock of it, the disbelief at smoke-darkened skies and near hysterical TV presenters and images of graphic mayhem and brutality as I stayed home for fear of the streets that had turned from familiar to menacing. The author, Ryan Gattis, teaches at a University near LA, and this is his 5th novel.

The book’s opening chapter is perhaps the most explosive and shocking I have ever read. It is told in the first person and ends with an account of the breathtakingly brutal beating and murder of the narrator in the mean streets of an East LA Latino neighbourhood, all told from his own perspective from a early stroll walk home from work to his own demise.

Thus starts a series of chapters, each told in the first person by a new character, the thread of the plot passed along and held aloft from different points of view, and narrated in authentic vernacular. I am generally not a fan of books told in the first person, particularly in street slang (it dampens the possibility of beautifully crafted language), but in this case the reader hears the voice of each character ringing true and clear, and thus the story gains this polyphonic texture which would not have been otherwise possible. Moreover, many of the characters are from the same Latino gang – separating the voices into distinct believable personalities within single chapters is a monumental achievement.

The book is less about the riots than about a particular set of crimes that were committed under cover of the riots – as the city burned and the police and firefighters struggled to impose control (in mainly black South Central LA), a particular Latino crew uses the collapse in law enforcement for their own purposes, unleashing a truly scarring set of events – starting with a single gang-related killing and escalating beyond anyone’s control.

Even amongst these young men (and some young women and very young boys) who murder without guilt (and sometimes with a glee), Gattis manages to find some undercurrent of humanity. There are other characters – a nurse, a firefighter, an anonymous member of a government ‘revenge’ troop outside of normal law-enforcement procedures – all of whom paint a complex and multilayered picture of a truly dystopian moment in recent US urban history.

From the unusual ‘plot-by-many-voices’ structure, to the hopeless and violent landscapes of each character’s lives, to the first person descriptions of anger, fear and retribution, this book is well outside of the usual literary fare, and provided me with a reading pleasure well outside of my expectations. FInally, a health warning – this book describes human violence with unflinching urgency and detail – not for the soft-skinned.

Book review – Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Book Review – Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

This is a startling book. It is startling in almost every interpretation of the word. It is startling because it is like nothing I have ever read before – it is like a new species of narrative and a re-invention of the novel form. It startling because it really, really short (perhaps shorter than any novel I have ever read), so short that I felt cheated on the price (this churlishness was quickly banished as the story took hold, softly and without fanfair). This book is startling because there was something on every page which startled me – a sentence, a tangential observation, a clamourous truth, a quote from Rilke, an unruly description.

Jenny Offill wrote her first book in 1999, where it passed largely unnoticed. This one, 15 years later, was noticed by everyone (it was one of the New York Times’ Best 10 of 2014). The praise for an offering this slim (and somewhat disorienting and singularly unusual) has been resounding and unanimous.

There is no real plot here. A 30-something married writing teacher has a child, finds out that her husband is cheating with a much younger woman, flirts with a mental breakdown, convinces him to move out of New York and into the country with her. That’s it. Nothing much more happens, and there is nothing in the way of climax or resolution.

The plot (such as it is) is a slim foundation on which the author has her protagonist scatter a set of small thoughts, railleries, quotes from philosophers and poets, snippets of conversations, fractured descriptions of grief and anger and fear and bewilderment as the she grapples with the uncertainty and fog of her life and circumstances. Even the point of view startles, as the story switches suddenly from first person to third person, rudely forcing the reader to a reluctant distance.

But there is something truly beautiful here – we care deeply for her as she stumbles and unravels and tries and fails and falls afoul of her hopes and insecurities. Even though the structure of this book falls in the invisible gaps between diary and novel and poetry and (possibly)memoir, the narrative and character flourish and bloom quickly and convincingly and the reader thinks of her long after the book is finished, rooting for her amidst her flaws.

It is difficult to properly describe the novel, or more properly, what it is about and why it works. Think rather of a young woman, unsure of herself, sometimes sharp, sometimes inarticulate, stunned into paralysing anxiety by her love for her daughter, unhinged by the disloyalty of her always sweet husband, confused by her well meaning friends, trying to find her balance – her marriage, her career, her daughter, her life.

Department of Speculation makes you imagine you are her.

Book review – Traveling Sprinkler by Nicolson Baker

Book Review – Traveling Sprinkler by Nicolson Baker

The only other book of Nicolson Baker I have read was in 1993. It was Vox, and it made him briefly famous, because the entire book was a single conversation between two young people on a phone sex line. He famously said that in order to research this book he frequented sex lines, often to the point of orgasm. Novel verite, I suppose.

He has written a number of novels and non-fictions since, none of which I have read. This book is also very strange, although nothing like Vox (there is no sex in this one). More importantly this is one the sweetest and most affecting love stories I have read in while, told through the eyes of one of the sweetest and oddest of men you will ever meet. He is Paul Chowder, an ex-bassoon player, a lonely and unemployed poet of very minor repute, bereft of his ex-girlfriend, chasing a hilariously impractical and doomed late life career as composer of doggerel-soaked pop songs (and embarrassingly awful protest songs bemoaning malfeasance and nastiness  everywhere).

Oh, and along the way we discover a great deal about amateur cigar smoking, the mechanics of the bassoon, the diversity of cheap digital home studio software, the lyrics to a great many memorable or forgettable pop songs by various hitmakers, commentary on scores of poems and poets, a long treatise on DeBussy, the politics of drone warfare, a ramble on the joys of driving in an old car, a lecture on the history and genius of the Sears traveling water sprinkler. Quirky doesn’t begin to describe our hope-filled hero. And throughout this book we sit inside his head as he stumbles through the most heartbreaking and puppy-dog approaches to winning his ex-girlfriend back for life, so gentle and earnest and good-natured you just yip with delight and root for him with beating heart.

It is almost impossible not to fall in love with this idiosyncratic and offbeat eccentric as he thinks his weird thoughts and spins his oddly simple and wonderful monologues about all manner of arcana, while optimistically and doggedly working to win back his lost love from the smart and successful doctor with whom she has become entangled.

Join him on his romantic quest in this quiet little journey of introspection and yearning. It will be worth it.

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

This much lauded book by a best-selling and feted literary author (Granta named him one ‘Best 21 American Novelists’ ) has been reviewed a quite a bit on this and other book-sites, mainly positively, but also with some grumbles. So perhaps this is a little late, but I would like to add to the pot.

Sweeping human stories told against the backdrop of war (especially WWII with its moral certainties) come with a yoke, a built in brace of sorts. You are guaranteed that there will be acts of great cruelty and great caring, and they will be amplified by the confusion and cacophony of war in ways that human dramas in peacetime cannot rely. You sort of know what you are getting into before you start, but this is not so much a criticism as statement of genre. Before I get flamed, many a great novel has been nurtured on this fertile ground, but the borders of narrative are fairly sharply drawn, particularly if the story spans the entire time frame of the war.

So it is with this book. A blind French girl child (5 in 1934 when the story starts, and 16 at the end of the war) – a beautiful innocent, protected and treasured by her loved ones and protectors until they sucked into the maw of war, one by one, leaving her alone and scared, facing what she knows must come. A young German boy, an orphan and radio savant, conscripted into the Wehrmacht for his skills, trapped by forces that initially he does not understand, and then cannot resist, finally fighting back with a small act of kindness. And nastiness and cruelties meted out by sundry Nazis of diverse and creative malice. And of course, humanity stripped to its core, with all the cliches that this portends.

Lest this sound a tad harsh, I should soften. It is beautifully written, and in parts soaringly beautifully written, with minutely observed physical descriptions and studied and gentle character development. The story and plot are carefully crafted from many small threads and draped artfully over the long war years and beyond. The inevitable meeting of the blind French girl and the German orphan boy and their graceful entanglement is quiet and powerful. An ancient and priceless diamond carrying the story along with its history and brute power as the Nazis loot European treasures. Survivors living out their days with their pasts overwhelming their presents. The dead remembered by the tiny and sad shreds of their lives – a letter, a key, a photo, a uniform, a model house. A soft and satisfying ending, ringing melancholic and true.

But there were difficulties along the way. It felt too long (over 500 pages). Someone, perhaps the author or his editor, insisted on wildly oscillating chronologies which completely wrecked the flow of the story for me, adding nothing in tension and occasionally confusion and frustrated flipping back of pages. The chapters were very, very short, mostly less than 2 pages (which was quite interesting for a while, and then jangling).

But I perhaps protest too much. I am left with the taste of the characters and the echoes of the story and a light sadness which has not yet left me. By this measure alone this must  go on my recommend list.

Book review – Euphoria by Lily King

A number of people have asked why I always write good reviews, never bad ones. The reason is simple – I only review books that I like. I stay silent on the rest. Nobody gets hurt.  When I am paid to review, then it is open season, but I review on these bookclubs to recommend, not to dissuade.

But then there are some books which sort of land in the middle. A qualified recommendation. Where I am ambivalent, uncommitted. Surely they deserve a mention. Euphoria is one of them. It has generated, well, euphoric raves from sources as diverse as the NYT, Oprah, National Book Critics Circle, Publishers Weekly, Washington Post – to name but a few. I didn’t really get it, but I can see why others may have.

The dominant and very clever conceit in the book is that all of the characters (actually only three – there are few others of any import) are all based on real people – anthropologist Margaret Mead (named Nell in the novel), her husband Reo Fortune (named Fen) and (one) of her lovers, Gregory Bateson (named Bankson). There were others lovers in Mead’s life, including the famous anthropologist Ruth Benedict who makes an occasional proxy appearance in the plot. The book is set (mainly) in tribal villages in the jungle in colonial New Guinea, in the 1930s.

My knowledge of anthropology is paper thin, what little I have was gleaned from eavesdropping on university conversations when I was a student. There is much anthropology in this book, and much that I learned. It inhabits the plot, loud and insistent and is sharply juxtaposed against the three white Western anthropologists and their interpersonal emotional entanglements as they struggle to learn and document the cultures of the tribes of New Guinea. Lily King goes to great lengths to imagine how Mead worked, she has clearly researched widely and manages to inject a great deal of the science into the narrative – the struggle understand why the tribes behave as they do, their approach to interrogation and understanding and scientific method, the constant struggle with Western conceptions of ‘primitive’, the fight against orthodoxies as Mead reveals sexual behaviours understood as shocking or deviant by many in the US – incest, tranvestism, polygamy, lesbianism.

The anthropologists are strongly drawn, especially Nell/Mead. The sense of place is palpable (the jungles Polynesia and its claustrophobic, dangerous and riotous palette). The storyline and plot is strong. The tribes and their ways are riveting. A fine and poignant ending is fashioned,

So why didn’t I love it like the rest of the literary world? I am not sure. It was not that the writing was a little pedestrian at times, it was not that the few named tribal characters were given little depth, it was not that the love story never touched me, I just didn’t look forward every day to sinking into the world that Lily King had determinedly and meticulously created. Just not really my cup of tea, I suppose. Taste is a fickle thing. I suspect I will be in the minority here, so consider this a quiet and irresolute recommendation. 

Book review – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

If I had to list my 10 best books of the last year or so, the following would emphatically be on it, probably near the front – Ben Fountain (Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk), Kevin Powers (Yellow Birds) and Philipp Meyer (The Son).

So having not read anything completely transformative in a while I wonder into my local bookstore to have an undirected browse. I pull out a book in the new fiction stack and guess who shouts breathlessly from the front cover? Fountain, Powers and Meyer . Not polite shouts either. Loud, roaring, hot, adamant shouts. Here is a thing, I think. I tend to filter shouts with a good dose of skepticism. But not from these authors. Not all three of them. Not at the same time. So I buy.

Fourth of July Creek is the debut novel by a young US novelist named Smith Henderson. I apologise in advance for what is to follow – a tsunami of superlatives (which is a little embarrassing – reviewers should have more decorum). Language, plot, characters, sense of place, ending, emotional entanglements, interior dialogues, story arcs, unusual and compelling viewpoints (including a recurring set of questions and answers from an unexplained and invisible character, perhaps even the author himself as he made notes to about the story and its characters). The whole lot just folds together like a great complex, beautiful origami, a near perfect combination of linguistic magic and combustive plot.

This book contains harsh stuff, even though gorgeously rendered. The story unfolds in the rural backwaters of Montana in the early 80s around an alcoholic, damaged and despairingly moral social worker named Pete, employed by the Department of Family Services. From amongst his daily horror lists of neglected and abused children, meth or religion-fucked mountain dwellers and trailer trash we follow a number of stories and subplots. A deranged end-of-days fundamentalist and his terrified little boy, forced to move from crevice to cave in freezing and inaccessible mountains while the father waits for the apocalypse, undone by paranoia and the re-living of a scene of a terrible family violence closely witnessed. A damaged and warped teenaged son of a unredeemable crack and meth addict thrown hopelessly into the juvenile detention system, leaving his tiny malnourished sister to the unprotected depredations of her mother and her friends. Pete’s own teenaged daughter, run away and untraceable, lurching unrestrained into big city prostitution, while Pete drinks himself into oblivion to dull the pain. Pete’s divorced wife, mangled into grief and uselessness under cheap religious homilies.

And unexpectedly, amidst the worst of people and circumstances, Henderson manages to rip open rents of courage and humanity and light, illuminating the dark everywhere else, holding this story aloft, keeping it from descending to the cliched places into which a lesser writer would stumble and fall.

This is an unflinching and deeply caring look a world without simple explanations and without neat endings, more hard than soft, more cruel than kind, but it raises itself up to a of a sort of hope, an strange upliftment for the reader even as he averts his eyes.

Make space in your TBR pile. Put this on top.