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Book Review – Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Book Review – Purity by Jonathan Franzen
I am a bit late to the game here. Given the shield-tempered literary standing of Franzen (Time Magazine cover and all), Purity has been reviewed everywhere on the planet since the middle of last year. I didn’t read any of the reviews, because I loved The Corrections (Freedom less so) and wanted an unencumbered virgin experience (excuse the crossed metaphor).
This turned out to be a uncomfortably uneven book, bouncing from soaringly rendered passages and profound insights and unusual and compelling characters and glorious dialogue and a Rubik’s cube plot to sophomoric musings and embarrassing melodrama and long and lumpy explanations that insult the intelligence of the reader (there are entire pages of plodding musings about love and hate that could have been better rendered as a single line of dialogue). From the best to the worst in barely paragraphs. My friend Helen Moffet, a well known editor and author would have little patience for this – I am sure she would have cut this book in half, and retained it often brilliant core. Perhaps Franzen is too untouchable, too revered, editors would not have dared go into combat with him.
And yet.
When Franzen is good, he is like no other. There were surprises in this book. It is often very funny, which has not been one of his previous calling cards. The opening chapters introduce Pip, our early protagonist, as vulnerable, hostile, complex, acerbic and fucked up a young woman as you are ever liable to meet in fiction whose sharp tongue has the reader cackling, loud and often. Why Pip (her real name is Purity, Pip is her nickname)? Was this going to be an modern Great Expectations? There were early hints but they faded. Perhaps Franzen tired of this thread.
The plot meanders cleverly away from a young Pip in San Francisco (who has fled her wildly eccentric mother to find herself and her missing father), to a flashback to another world in 1980s East Germany where an Assange-like character called Andreas Wolf commits a crime of passion that sets the stage for his notoriety and paranoia to come. And elsewhere the US, a wheelchair bound author called Charles and a love-torn journalist called Leila and the founder of an online newspaper called Tom and a dummy nuclear warhead in Texas and a Wikileaks-type operation the jungles of Bolivia and the streets of Denver, and, and.
What seems like an improbable and inscrutable plot winds it way neatly around characters and motive and ties it all into a cleverly wrapped bundle. The journey that the reader is taken on is head spinning – many locations, characters, scenes, vignettes, storylines, love affairs, emotional earthquakes. I won’t even try to understand why a reasonably minor character, about 3/4 of the way through the book, suddenly changes from 3rd to 1st person, going on to relate a throat-grabbingly brilliant description of a failed marriage.
So what was this book about? There are three characters who compete for the reader’s attention, and whose lives intersect on multiple planes – the confused and opinionated Pip, the jungle-dwelling uncoverer of global malfeasance Andreas, and the investigative online site-owner Tom. And these characters circle and feint. Around their secrets, the secrets of others, the secrets that bind and the secrets that destroy. This book is about just that. The distorting power of secrets.
But oh for the hand of a imperturbable editor. Perhaps Purity, although interesting and worth the read, might then have been a great book.

Book Review – City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg

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

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.