Tag Archives: America

The Amazing Adventure of Kavalier and Clay (2000) – Michael CHABON

I have a great deal of respect for the person Michael Chabon, born mainly out of the fact that he understands the importance of genre fiction, and the role it should play in more mainstream literary fiction. Also, he’s a fan of Doctor Who, which clearly makes him a person of discerning taste. I picked up Kavalier and Clay because it was his Pulitzer Prize winner, and because I needed a big book to take on holiday. It didn’t last the week.

It is 1939, and war is about to break out in Europe. Josef Kavalier has escaped Prague, and ended up in the bedroom of his American cousin, Sam Klayman. Both are trying to escape their lives – Joe, from the terrible state of his home, and Sam, from feelings he cannot quite describe. They pour their insecurities into the Escapist – a comic book that turns into a international phenomenon. But all good things must come to an end, and World War Two is marching ever closer.

Comic books are not just used for set decoration here, or simply as a way of pandering to a new kind of audience, though Chabon has a blinder of an idea in the Escapist. There’s a chapter explaining the entire origin story of him, and it’s one of the best pieces of writing you’re likely to find. Like all good superheroes (well, the ones I connect with), it’s the story of a simple man who has been wronged, and is simply looking for ways to right the wrongs of the world. Like Batman, the Escapist is not a superhero in the sense that he has special powers, rather more a glorified vigilante with a score to settle.

Chabon uses the idea of speculative fiction, and the escapes it can provide for people who feel trapped in their own humdrum lives, as a way of exploring these two characters’ deepest hopes and fears, of how they view themselves, and how others view them. Joe’s background in magic and escapology provide perhaps the perfect jumping off point for these ideas. Despite his having escaped the war, it is his constant struggle to get his brother, Thomas, over to America that provides his raison d’être. And so, in his comics, the Escapist is the man who can free anyone from any kind of tyranny. Of course, for Joe, that will almost always be the Nazi extermination of the Jews – his first attempt at a cover for the comic is the Escapist punching Hitler squarely on the jaw. Perhaps nothing more needs to be said for Joe’s motivations.

For a long time, Sam is a lot harder to work out. He seems like a typical New York kid, enthusiastic, excitable and clearly full of talent, though not for drawing. His imagination is something to marvel at, and the fact that he is able to come up with storyline upon storyline for the comic books his team writes is something to marvel at. Slowly, though, it becomes clear that there is a through line in all of these – every hero needs a sidekick, a plucky young man to help with the day to day life of being a caped crusader. Whether this is because of his repressed sexuality or some kind of deep seeded inferiority complex is never truly answered, though some not very nice people have a red hot go at portraying it as something rather immoral.

Unless you’re reading a Sarah Waters novel, it seems inevitable that gay relationships in historical fiction are doomed to fail. (I know, I’ve just linked you to TVtropes, and yes, you will be spending the next hour of your life surfing it). I don’t really think this is lazy writing on anyone’s behalf, but it has become such a cliche that it takes a good writer to make sure it doesn’t seem silly and tired. Fortunately, Chabon manages to just about get away with it, mainly because the pay off at the end of the novel is worth it. Sam’s relationship with Tracy is beautiful to watch unfold, and they really are an adorable couple. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and the way in which it does is not fatal, but certainly final.

When Joe realises what Sam has given up, and why he has, it really highlights the love these two men have for each other. In a brotherly way, of course. In many ways, it’s difficult to decide which of the two men have sacrificed more in their lives. Joe has left his family behind in a war torn continent, but his own escaping to the war somehow balances it out. No matter what people say about sexuality not defining a person, Sam has given up his only path to happiness in order to fix the problem Joe has created. He denies his own desires for the sake of the woman and son Joe leaves behind in order to exact revenge on the faceless enemy that stole his brother. It’s all very tragic, and really, really depressing.

There’s even a little bit of comic book history, and though I’m not as well versed in it as, say, the history of television science fiction, I know enough to really appreciate that Chabon is clearly quite fond of the medium. Throughout the decades of the twentieth century, the Escapist is used by various people as a superhero of the time. Like all good ideas, he is constantly reinventable (yep, that’s definitely a word), and the forms he takes on are well thought out. The end of the novel highlights just how far the medium has come since those humble days in the 1930s: the book that Joe and Sam are working on is clearly symbolising the birth of the adult graphic novel, an artform that is still not viewed with the proper respect that it perhaps deserves.

As a final note, I did spend a lot of time as I was reading wishing I could read the adventures of the Escapist, because he just sounds so damn cool. And lo and behold, my wishes were answered! Chabon has worked with Dark Horse to bring the Escapist to the page. I’m off to go and check it out – I’m intrigued.

This is not a heavy or difficult read, despite its length. But it is excellent. Not “just” a story about superheroes, it is an insightful and intimate portrayal of two men dealing with their own shortcomings and failures, and finding ways to escape them. And if that’s not the most human thing you can do, I don’t know what is.

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American Dervish (2012) – Ayad AKHTAR

When I wrote a post about what it meant to be Asian, as part of the Man Asian Literary Prize, I lamented the fact that immigrant experiences, and stories of the Asian diaspora weren’t included in the field. I totally understand why this happened, but I have always been fascinated by immigrant stories, and that inherent tension between the culture of one’s parents, and the culture of one’s living space. Which is what made American Dervish such a promising read.

Hayat’s parents are Pakistani immigrants, trying to make a new life in America. His father is a doctor, his mother a housewife. When circumstances force his mother’s best friend, Mina, to move to America and live with his family, nothing will ever be the same again. Introducing him to the world of Islamic mysticism, Mina encourages Hayat’s growing interest in the religion of his homeland, and sets him on a path that could destroy the family.

Hayat, as a young boy struggling to find his own identity, trapped between an overbearing mother and a drunk, adulterous father, finds it easy to confide in Mina, who is clearly very attractive, both physically and mentally. As Hayat moves into puberty, a time that wrecks havoc upon the teenage brain, his own feelings towards her become more and more confused. It’s easy to see why he is attracted to her as a mentor and mother figure – his father is barely home, preferring to spend his nights getting drunk with young white girls, while his mother seems unable to see him as her son, instead pouring her marital problems onto him, despite his not wanting to know.

And then walks in a beautiful woman, willing to pay him attention, to see him as a real person, not just a kid. She shows him the mystic side of Islamic tradition, complete with whirling dervishes, and stories of an all powerful being, able to make your life better if you pray hard, and learn the Qu’ran by heart. One cannot help but wonder if she knew the damage she was doing – teaching religion to vulnerable people, offering them a way out of their unhappy lives, will always have consequences, particularly if the one doing the teaching is blindly unaware of the true limits of their influence.

There are some subtle character developments throughout the novel that show Akhtar as a promising storyteller. Perhaps my favourite is the fact that Hayat’s father is not the insane Islamic fundamentalist we are so used to seeing in Islamic stories. Instead, his refusal to be drawn into the bickering infighting of the Pakistani community, as well as his horror at many parts of the Islamic tradition sit uneasily with his alcoholic, womanising ways. As Hayat slowly moves to a path of dangerous fundamentalism, his father is watching, making sure he never goes too far. And then, when he finally does, it’s not an understatement to say that all hell breaks loose.

It’s funny that, while we all applaud the idea of immigration as a way for people to escape the persecution and bigotry of their homelands, this is not really something that ever happens. More than anything, this novel demonstrates just how ingrained some prejudices are and how, even in a country thousands of kilometres away from the actual conflict, the Arab-Israeli fighting has consequences around the world. Old world prejudices in the new world, are handed down from generation to generation, breeding a new kind of prejudice.

No one, it seems, escapes unscathed from the influence of religion in this novel. Hayat ruins the lives of many people courtesy of his desire to become a hafiz. His mother has spent most of her life blaming her husband’s behaviour on the simple fact that he is a Muslim man – she takes a very view dim of the traditional male/female roles outlined in Islamic culture. His father has been cast aside by the Pakistani community because he dares to call himself an atheist, finding little common ground between his own pursuits as a doctor and the more militant Islamism espoused by the leaders of the community. Mina’s life is ruined – no, that’s not the right word – decimated, by the fact she is ostracised to the point whereby she must reject the man she loves, in order to marry a man who – well, you’ll find out. Nathan, Mina’s Jewish boyfriend, too, finds being a Jewish man willing to convert to Islam for the sake of his love not as easy as he may have expected.

Whether this message was Akhtar’s original intention, or simply the way my views on religion have affected my reading of the novel, I’m not sure. But what is clear is that, in the end, Hayat can only find peace as a non-believer. And despite all that goes on, American Dervish doesn’t strike me as an angry novel. There is a sense of resignation, that it is simply impossible for people to move forward while still clinging on to old ways of thinking, old prejudices, old religions.

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The Orchard Keeper (1965) – Cormac McCARTHY

Cormac Mc Carthy is an author that has interested me greatly for a long time now – I blame No Country For Old Men, which is an excellent film, and you should all see it if you haven’t already. Picador have also reissued his backlist into these gorgeous new covers, making them almost irresistible. I’m aware that The Road is probably, now, his most well-known novel, but I figured I’d start at the beginning, and slowly make my way through his stuff, working up to The Road. Of course, by the time I get there, he may have written another one…

In a small town in rural Tennessee, two men hurtle towards each other, neither aware of the relationship that already exists between them. Marion Sydler is a rum-runner, trading alcohol during a period of prohibition. John Wesley Rattner is a young teenager who unwittingly gets caught up in the rum-running business. Years ago, though, Sydler murdered Rattner’s father in an altercation, something neither man knows.

Hands down the best part of this novel is McCarthy’s grasp of the English language (though some digging around on the internet seems to indicate he is a direct successor to William Faulkner, who I have now added to my list.) I’m struggling to think of an author so in command of the language – his descriptions of both landscape and humanity are collections of words you’d never have thought could or should go together, and somehow, he just makes them work. The sense of place this allows is palpable – each and every scene is vivid in one’s mind, from the colour of the sunlight to the individual leaves on each of the trees. I had intended on highlighting this through a quote, but I couldn’t find just one example. It’s all great.

Characters, too, are given the McCarthy treatment. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is a dearth of female characters, but his men are strong, gruff and isolated. The plot thread dealing with the trade of alcohol highlights the tense relationship between these criminals and the police, and the isolation felt in the wide spaces McCarthy describes simply accentuates the sense of wilderness, of frontier living that these characters so clearly inhabit. The old man, who features heavily in the lives of the two main characters, is withered and tired – he moves slowly and carefully, though it is clear there is a spark of life lingering underneath this exterior. There is a particularly poignant scene near the end where he is forcibly removed from his dog, and his reaction is both hilarious and heartbreaking.

Sydler and Rattner remain closed off to the reader – there is never a hint of their own feelings about their actions. This makes Syddler in particular come of as a raving loony who cares not for anyone else, and since that’s all we have to go by, perhaps that is what we are invited to think. Perhaps he is a precursor to the insane man Javier Bardem plays in No Country for Old Men.

This sense of bleakness and violence – this Southern Gothic feeling for which McCarthy has become well-known – is perhaps no more evident in the murder around which the plot revolves. Sydler’s decision to kill Rattner’s father is the result of a fairly trivial car incident, but the violence and force with which he carries out the murder is so intense, so visceral, it’s hard not to feel that, perhaps, it was unwarranted. But on the road, where no one else can see you, and indeed, where no one else lives, there is no law, no rules governing the relationships between men. McCarthy’s suggestion that we would all revert so quickly to violence is terrifying.

Unfortunately, though, McCarthy’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. His over reliance on descriptors and sense of place means the plot itself does suffer. Fractured in the truest sense of the word, each chapter – indeed, almost each paragraph – is disconnected from the previous, and it is up to the reader to play catch up in trying to fill in the blanks. I had to turn back every now and then to try and work out if I’d missed something vitally important, but as it turns out, that’s simply the way of the book. One cannot help but wonder if a reread might be in order some time in the future to try and piece together exactly how everything joins together.

It’s hard for me to write a concrete, concise essay explaining how I felt about The Orchard Keeper. It is clear that McCarthy has a gift for manipulating the English language for his own purposes, as long as that purpose is describing landscapes. His inability to channel this into a more meaningful plot and set of characters is disappointing, though not enough to put me off eventually picking him up again.

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The Man Who Loved Children (1940) – Christina STEAD

This has been sitting on my shelf for years – I found a rather battered copy in a second hand bookstore, tried to get into it and failed, and since then, it’s languished on my to be read pile. When Melbourne University Press recently reissued it, I bit the bullet, and picked it up again to try and battle my way through it. It only took me about three months, in between exams and essays, but I finally finished it. And boy, I can’t quite believe what I’ve just read.

Samuel Pollit is the head of the family. His wife, Henny, is long-suffering, and seems to rather despise her own husband. And her own children. The gaggle of offspring Sam has amassed around himself adore their father, for he is always here for them, playing with them all hours of the day, seemingly inexhaustible. But something is about to change. The eldest daughter, Louie, is growing up fast, and she is beginning to see behind Sam’s act. And when she finally realises the true nature of her parents’ marriage, nothing will ever be the same again.

It slightly terrifies me that Christina Stead stated she never needed to write an autobiography, because her fiction was her life. The completely dysfunctional nature of the Pollit family presented here is an environment in which no child should be brought up, no matter how much Sam proclaims to love them.

Samuel Pollit is expertly drawn. At first, he comes off as nothing more than a loveable, slightly idiotic buffoon, a man clearly in love with his children perhaps slightly too much. But as Louie grows up, and slowly becomes the focal point of Sam’s anger and rage, we begin to realise that actually, he’s quite unbalanced, and really is not a big fan of women in general. His desire to have lots of children seems to stem from two places – the first, he is in love with the idea of childhood, the idea of innocence in a child. And in the eyes of these innocent child, he can make himself a hero, a father to be idolised with unconditional love. The second, and slightly more creepy place, is the idea that he sees mature women as nothing more than a baby making machine – his refusal to listen to Henny’s pleas for lenience, or indeed, for money to feed and clothe the children, highlights his complete contempt for the female of the species.

Louie – the Christina Stead surrogate character – is born from Sam’s first marriage, to a wife who died soon after Louie was born. As such, her relationship with Henny is not close. And since her father is a raving loony, she feels alone and isolated in the family unit. It is not until she arrives at school that she finds even one friend, and develops a slightly unhealthy attachment to one of her teachers, in an attempt to find a parental figure who will shower her with the love she so desperately requires.

Sam’s slow rejection of Louie as one of his children is directly related to her growing up – both mentally and physically. As she enters puberty, she is drawn to Henny, the only woman in the house, and becomes more interested in her mother’s side of the story, something none of the younger children have ever taken an interest in. It’s overly simplistic to say that it becomes a man versus woman kind of debate, but questions of gender do dominate Stead’s writing. Physically, too, Louie is becoming a woman, and she is constantly reminded, particularly by her father, that she is not an attractive young girl. This is, of course, not good for anyone’s mental health, but for a young girl who already has issues with her parents, this is perhaps even more damaging.

We were talking at work the other day about endings, and how a bad ending can ruin an otherwise excellent novel. This is not the case here – if anything, the last 150 or so pages of The Man Who Loved Children are the highlight. For it is not until the end of the novel that the full horror of Sam’s inability to even vaguely care for anyone other than himself is made clear. The impact this man’s hatred of the two women in his life – his wife, and his eldest daughter – has pushed them over the edge. The animosity between Sam and Henny is no longer under the surface  – they begin to fight in front of the children, and so so in such a manner that would put even Matthew Newton to shame. And as the fighting begins, the children begin to suffer. Louie begins to think that it is all her fault, and takes action to try and stop the fighting. I won’t tell you what that action is, but it is truly shocking, and actually, is a rather perfect ending.

I’m not sure anything I say about The Man Who Loved Children can be topped by Jonathan Franzen’s love letter to the novel in the New York Times from 2010. Having read The Corrections last year, it is clear just how much of an influence Stead has had on his own writing. I’m not sure I quite at the level of adoration Franzen clearly has for Stead, and her novel, but I think I’m probably pretty close. This is a novel that cries to be read, and though written more than 70 years ago, retains a sense of timelessness, perhaps even more pertinent at a time when the functional nuclear family is widely considered to be a myth.

And, on a completely unrelated note, this is the 150th novel I’ve written about here. That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it?

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River of Smoke (2011) – Amitav GHOSH

I was both excited and annoyed when I found this novel on the longlist of the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize. Excited, because I had wanted to read it long before its appearance, but annoyed, because I had planned on waiting until the third in the Ibis trilogy – of which River of Smoke is the second, and Sea of Poppies is the first – had been released, so I could do them all in one go. So it was with some trepidation that I began this novel, hoping I wasn’t ruining a rather anticipated reading experience.

Coming in as someone who has not read Sea of Poppies, it was somewhat dismaying to read the opening sections, which appeared to deal with the events of that novel. Fortunately, that sense of displacement doesn’t last long, and Ghosh pushes us head first into what is the bulk of the novel: the degradation of the relationship between the British and Chinese Empires, the beginning of the First Opium War, and the eventual creation of Hong Kong as a British outpost in South East Asia. And once Ghosh gets the story proper going, though – wow. Perhaps the thing that struck me most about the entire endeavour was that is was clear he has done a vast amount of research into this time period, with even the most basic details of everyday life for this group of foreigners living in Canton clearly and vividly presented.

Ghosh provides an exhaustive list of references at the end, but it is his gift that, apart from one or two passages, you do not feel like you are reading a dry history textbook about the period. He really makes each and every character come alive, and in this instance, I am including Canton as a character. There is a real sense of place here, from the sights and sounds of the bustling boats moored to the docks, to the food consumed at every meal. It is clear Ghosh is something of a gourmand, because he really does go to great pains to make you want to eat the meals provided.

Canton, too, is a place to be celebrated. A truly international trading city, the melting pot of ethnicities who make their living in the shipping industry provide a huge cast of characters and caricatures from which Ghosh can draw. Here are the early signs of globalisation, or internationalisation at work – a combination of early free trade capitalists, bringing their business to an Asian nation that is still unwilling to make full concessions to the new ways they are being strongly encouraged to adopt. It could be anywhere in Asia in the 21st century, but here it is, a good 170 years early. The only mutually understood language by all of these people is a kind of Creole, formed out of the marriage between Cantonese and English, and it is a testament to Ghosh that he not only uses this for huge chunks of dialogue, but makes it easy for his audience to understand.

Our two main characters – Bahram and Neel – are Indians caught up in the opium trade. Bhram is the master of a company that ships opium into China, and Neel is his newly acquired assistant. Between the two of them, we are allowed a glimpse into the ways in which foreigners (by which I mean, the British Empire and the Americans) were conducting the opium trade. On the one hand, they were fully aware of the fact that opium was not a Good Thing, having banned the stuff in their own lands, but they were more than willing to exploit the Chinese market, and sell it there, despite the trade restrictions. I love the indignation of everyone – including Bahram – when the Chinese do an about face, and tell them that, actually, those restrictions will be enforced, and if you don’t comply, heads will roll. Literally. There’s a nice poetic justice to it, though as it turns out, it is not perhaps the best news for Bahram, who is already deep in debt with his investors in India.

I don’t know if Paulette features heavily in the first novel, but in River of Smoke, she seems little more than an excuse for Ghosh to write the letters of Robin Chinnery. I am not really complaining, because these letters are absolutely brilliant, but it does mean Paulette does get sidelined fairly early on in the action. From her promising start as a cross-dressing botanist, to her burgeoning friendship with Fitcher Penrose, a charmingly gruff Scottish botanist, she very quickly disappears off the page, and her name is reduced to nothing more than a destination for Robin’s letters.

But those letters – oh, what a gift they are. There is nowhere else in the novel that highlights the kind of mastery Ghosh has over the English language. Through language alone, he manages to conjur up a (hilariously) camp artist from the 1830s, whose love of men is at once flamboyant and tragic. His quest to find Paulette’s golden camellia sends him on a wild adventure around Canton, meeting a wide variety of people outside of the merchant houses that form the somewhat claustrophobic setting of the other two narrative strands. It also provides him with several potential “Friends”, as he so coyly calls them, and his retellings of his attempts to woo them actually made me laugh out loud on several occasions.

There’s no point in me banging on about how wonderful this novel is any more. Suffice it to say, I’m sold on the Ibis trilogy. I’m sad that I didn’t read them in order, but I will now go out and find Sea of Poppies (once John Murray have given it a better cover), and devour that, too. And I have now joined the long list of people eagerly anticipating the final volume of the trilogy, whenever that may arrive. Needless to say, I hope (and suspect) River of Smoke will make its way onto this year’s Man Asian Literary Prize shortlist.

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Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) – Philip ROTH

I managed to pick this up cheap the other day, and after all the fuss about Roth winning the Man Booker International Prize earlier in the year,  I was curious to know just what kind of author he was. I’ve heard a lot about him from a lot of people, and most of it has been pretty positive. I also didn’t want to commit to starting the Zuckerman series, because I didn’t want to get it wrong. So this seemed like a good starting point.

Alex Portnoy has a problem – his mother. The woman just won’t leave him alone, despite his having passed thirty, and having a rather swanky public service job crusading for human rights. As he tells his therapist about his life, and just how terrible his mother is, he detours and twists to explain just why he can’t seem to have a proper, fulfilling relationship with any woman, and why, maybe, he just doesn’t really care. Or does he?

Portnoy’s Complaint was written more than forty years ago, but I was constantly surprised at just how modern and alive it felt. Turn Portnoy into any of the other minority groups that are now living the American dream thanks to their enterprising parents, and you’ll probably end up with a similar tension and anger that permeates this novel. Portnoy is a very, very angry young man – there’s no doubt about that. He blames his overbearing, smothering mother for the problems he now has with women; he seems to hate white Americans because of their white privilege, while at the same time wanting desperately to be a part of the cool group; he hates being Jewish, because he doesn’t even believe in God. Replace any of these with, say, Muslim immigrants, or Asian immigrants, or African immigrants, and you can see how much of an influence authors like Roth have had on immigrant literature in America.

At the same time, though, there is something deeply, inherently Jewish about Roth’s writing. Alex’s mother issues – which are really family issues more than anything else – stem from this weird relationship he has with his parents and what they represent. They are first generation Jewish immigrants, complete with English studded with Yiddish. (Seriously, there’s a lot of Yiddish in this novel, though I understood about 90% of it, so it doesn’t make anything unreadable.) Despite him being in his early thirties, his parents are still on his back for not having settled down with a nice (Jewish) girl and having some grandchildren. They – his mother in particular – see it as an affront to all they have done for Alex that he doesn’t even have to common decency to provide them with grandchildren.

Of course, whether this is an accurate portrayal of his parents is the ultimate question. Told as a bizarre stream of consciousness to his therapist, there is no reason to trust Alex as a narrator. For all we know, he could be exaggerating everything – his parents may even be lovely people. But I think we can all identify with Alex, even just a little – we all of us have had moments in our lives when, even though we’ve grown up and moved out of the parental house, our parents still get on our nerves for the littlest of things.

Stylistically, too, Roth is masterful. Alex’s voice is carefully balanced between the literary and the conversational, the intelligent and the crude. I love a good bit of (appropriate) swearing in a novel, and Roth does not disappoint. If you are in any way offended by descriptions of masturbation, intense threesomes, or even raunchy descriptions of lady bits, you would be well advised to not read Portnoy’s Complaint. For those of us who do enjoy all of these things, though, there’s a lot to love here. I know some people are mortally offended by swearing, and think it vulgar and unintelligent, but a well timed expletive can be just as devastating and effective as anything else. On a similar note, I’ve never seen the word c**t in print quite so many times as I have in this novel.

I hesitate to compare Roth to a 21st century sitcom character, but if anyone’s seen The Big Bang Theory, there’s an excellent analogy to be made. Alex Portnoy is the precursor to Howard Wolowitz, and all of those slightly messed up, sexually frustrated, mother-issue-laden young Jewish men that are now so popular in, well, pop culture. Portnoy’s Complaint carries its age well – there’s a verve and energy throughout Roth’s writing that makes him fun to read. I’m eager to find more.

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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) – Junot DÍAZ

One of the things I love about second-hand bookstores is that you can find things for cheap that you might have been unsure about buying. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao was one of these, and after it languished on my pile for a long time, I finally picked it up, needing something a little bit different to all the older, translated stuff I’ve been ploughing through lately.

Oscar de León is the latest in a long line of de Leons whose life is less than stellar. He is overweight, boring, depressed, and unloved by almost every girl he meets. To understand why his life is so terrible, our narrator takes us back to the Dominican Republic, and several decades, and tells us the story of the de León family, and what is was that has caused all this bad luck for the family.

Before reading this, I was deeply ignorant of the history of the Dominican Republic. Fortunately, our intrepid narrator assumes every reader has a similar level of knowledge, and fills in the gaps. Tying a family’s history to that of a country has been done time and time again (see The Stranger’s Child, for example), but when you don’t know anything about the history of the country, it becomes even more of an interesting read. Fortunately, the history lesson never overshadows the story of the characters, which is also nice. Díaz is particularly concerned with painting Rafael Trujillo, the insane dictator of the Domonican Republic for much of the century, as just that – an insane man. This sense of irreverence really works – just as Hitler was made fun of in Doctor Who this year, so too is Trujillo ridiculed through his actions in the novel.

I mention Doctor Who for two reasons. The first is that I watch far too much of it for my own good, and the second being that Díaz has peppered this novel with pop culture references like nobody’s business. Superman, Batman, and a myriad of other superheroes get a look in here – and I don’t know whether to be proud or saddened because I understand almost all of them. Pop culture – and comic culture, in particular – references can be cheesy when used by an author trying desperately to be hip, cool and postmodern – and while Díaz is all of those things, it never feels like he’s trying too hard to portray this image. It flows naturally and logically from the voice of the narrator.

I don’t want to tell you who the narrator is – suffice it to say, it is one of the minor characters in the novel – but there’s a lot to be said for the voice. It is postmodern, complete with self-reflexive moments, as well as copious footnotes and asides. We are constantly reminded of the fact that the narrator is relating to us the story of the de León family as told to us by Oscar Wao. He freely admits that there are things within the story he himself does not understand – particularly the question of the fukú, and whether this curse is real.

Oscar himself is somewhat tangential to the main thrust of the narrative Díaz takes us on. More than anything, this is the story of women – particularly the de León family women. Oscar’s sister, Lola, and their mother, Beli, have a fractious relationship, clashing because neither understands the other. Beli, brought up in the Dominican Republic by her father’s cousin, La Inca, cannot fathom Lola’s American ways. Beli, too, has a turbulent relationship with her guardian, La Inca, and their constant fights mean they do not speak to each other for a very long time.

We then jump even further back, and explore the lives of Beli’s family, and the origin of the curse – Oscar’s grandfather, and the “Bad Thing he said about Trujillo.” Once again, Trujillo’s figure looms large, and his effect on the de León family can be seen as some kind of metaphor for his effect on the Dominican Republic on a larger scale. Clearly, Díaz has a bone to pick – and fair enough, really.

This is not just another ethnic novel about the growing Hispanic and Caribbean population of the United States. Díaz concerns himself with universal themes about the relationships between men and women, about the stories of families and how their history informs their current way of life, and about survival. The characters of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao do not get off lightly. They are put through the wringer again and again, but most of them survive. Whether this survival is worth it, though, is something you will have to work out for yourself.

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The Marriage Plot (2011) – Jeffrey EUGENIDES

Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous novel, Middlesex, rightly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 – it’s an excellent novel, and you should all check it out if you haven’t already. But that was eight years ago, which is a long time between drinks. I didn’t even know he’d written anything new until a reading copy turned up at work the other day, which was a pleasant surprise. I finally got around to reading it, and proceeded to lose a whole load of sleep, staying up and reading this rather excellent novel.

It’s 1982, Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate from Brown University. Her obsession with Victorian literature is derided by her classmates – this is the time of Derrida and post-modernism, there’s no room for traditional love stories here. Her boyfriend, Leonard, is having something of a breakdown. And her friend Mitchell has decided that he wants to marry her. As the three of them graduate, they must begin to face the real world, and real decisions that will have a lasting impression on their lives.

The title is a literary term that describes the plot of a whole raft of nineteenth century novels which are concerned with a young woman marrying the right man. Inevitably, they end with the young woman finding her man, and getting married like she should. With the advent of feminism in the 1960s, as well as the increasing divorce rates, it is something of an ironic title. There is one marriage in the novel, though it does tend to subvert the traditional marriage plot. This is not a happy ending kind of novel, either, though there is a sense of hope in the closing pages.

By splitting the characters up for the majority of the novel, Eugenides allows at least two and a half discrete plots to take place. Perhaps most interesting is Mitchell’s, who decides to take a gap year after graduation, and travels to Europe with his best friend with the intention of slowly making their way to India. For Mitchell, religion is something at once to be studied and to be lived. He is ostensibly Christian, though his constant questioning of both his own faith, and others’, means he is not defined by his belief. Indeed, when he finally does make it to India, he volunteers at a charity hospital run by Mother Teresa, though as he soon discovers, doing good in the world is not as easy as it sounds. He is the epitome of the recently graduated university student trying to find himself by travelling the world, and the fact that he fails time and time again at this quest is refreshingly honest.

Madeleine seems the most grounded of the three characters,  and the anchor of the novel, she gets the most point of view chapters. Her falling in love with Leonard is nice, and her feelings of betrayal when he is unkind to her are keenly felt. Her decision to stay with Leonard after finding out about his condition is clearly motivated by good intentions, though whether it is good for her remains another matter. Despite the advice from her hilariously rich parents, (or indeed, perhaps because of it – there’s a lot of parent angst from the three leads) she stays with him because she feels responsible for him. She is a fundamentally good person, and her quirky old-school love of Victoriana is a pleasant contrast to the wall of post-modern pretentiousness that her fellow classmates spout.

Eugenides covers a lot of ground stylistically, too. The Marriage Plot opens as something of a campus novel, complete with weird lecturers, annoying classmates, and drunken hijinks at college. Slowly, though, we shift away to a far wider reaching narrative – both physically and thematically. We travel from Brown University to New Jersey to New York to Paris to Athens to India, and each one is there for a reason. There are echoes of Franzen’s The Corrections here, too, partially because of the wide canvas they both have, as well as the themes of family and love in modern America, but I think Eugenides manages to tie his overseas sections with the overarching American themes better than Franzen managed in his novel.

This novel spoke to me at a particularly personal level – I, too, am about to graduate from university, and so seeing these three characters try and deal with leaving that safe bubble, and moving into the real world was something I really connected with. The speed with which the trio are plunged into real-world issues is frightening – Madeleine doesn’t even make it to her graduation ceremony before something far more important takes place. All of a sudden, the ridiculous conversations she has had with people in tutes about whether love is a construction, about whether life is really real, become shallow and unreal. Her choice – Leonard or Mitchell – cannot simply be based on theories of love and societal constructions of love, it must be done with thinking about the real-life implications of all three people involved.

The Marriage Plot confirms Jeffrey Eugenides as one of the most interesting American writers of our time. From the minutiae of English literary criticism – along with a LOT of references to other texts, to big themes of love, family and religion, he has written another thoroughly excellent novel. Check it out – it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry.

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The Sisters Brothers (2011) – Patrick deWITT

The Sisters Brothers stood out on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist this year for me mainly because it is published by Granta. I’ve only just properly started reading their rather excellent magazine, and it’s nice to see smaller publishers getting attention with prizes like these. I also read very little (read: no) Canadian literature, and while I’m aware this novel probably isn’t indicative of all Canadian literature, it is by a Canadian. And that’s all that matters, right?

Eli and Charlie Sisters (get it?) are on the move. Their boss, the Commodore, has sent them from Oregon Territory to San Francisco, to assassinate Hermann Warm, a man with something the Commodore wants. But their man in San Francisco, Morris, has gone AWOL, and when they discover what he has done, their plans begin to change. Dreams they thought were out of reach suddenly become tangible, though, as the brothers discover, every dream comes at a terrible price.

How far can an author go, pushing the boundaries of his (or her) readers’ desire to connect with characters, no matter how bad they are? This is the question, I suspect, Patrick deWitt sat down and asked himself before writing The Sisters Brothers. I love Dexter – I truly think it’s one of the best TV shows I’ve ever seen – so I have some history with sympathising with serial killers. But deWitt makes it look even easier. Partially, I think, because there are two serial killers here, and you are encouraged to sympathise with the lesser of two evils. It is clear Charlie Sisters is a psychopath, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the word. He kills with almost no thought, and seems to genuinely enjoy it.

Eli, on the other hand, seems as though he has simply resigned himself to this life, as though he would leave it if he could. Of course, he is our narrator, so no doubt he is bending the truth somewhat, and his own acts of violence (of which there are many) are somewhat skipped over, in favour of his telling us he sometimes has trouble controlling his temper, as though that is an excuse. He also seems to fall for every lady he meets, constructing himself as something of a loveably hopeless romantic. The language, too, makes us want to believe in him – rather than taking the True History of the Kelly Gang path of an uneducated narrator, Eli is erudite to the point of formality, and polite to the point of being overbearing.

It also helps that The Sisters Brothers is also hilarious, particularly in the first two thirds or so. Eli’s attempts to chat women up are awkward and painful to read, in a Fawlty Towers kind of way. The brothers’ relationships with their horses cracked me up, too. Hands down, my favourite character is Tub. The horse. Never has an animal character provided me with so man reasons to laugh, and so many reasons to cry. He is also the character I felt least guilty about liking. Eli also has to visit a dentist early on in the novel, and receives this magical new invention called a toothbrush. I didn’t think oral hygiene jokes could be made, but deWitt, to his credit, has provided many. The wonder with which everyone approaches this marvellous tool is, quite frankly, one of the best running gags in all of literature.

The setting is also important, and I think it’s easy to forget that this is set during San Francisco’s gold rush. This was a moment in time when people were moving west in the hope of striking it rich. In many ways, it was the original, and ultimate, get rich quick scheme, and no one seems to be immune from it. The men and women the brothers’ meet on their travels are, with almost no exception, a little unhinged, the promise of golden riches having sent them over the edge. Of course, the question of whether the brothers will also succumb to this desire is the question that takes us into the third act (see, I have learnt something in my English degree), and the results are at once touching and disturbing.

The Sisters Brothers is a clever novel. Patrick deWitt is clearly an author with a great gift, and the amount of time he has spent ensuring his audience sympathises with his frankly criminal main characters is a testament to his abilities. I don’t know whether the rest of the novel is as strong as this central conceit, though not enough to make me not recommend it. This is a fun novel, and marks Patrick deWitt as a talent to watch in the future.

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Less Than Zero (1985) – Bret Easton ELLIS

No doubt, Bret Easton Ellis is most famous for writing American Psycho, a novel that carries an R18+ rating in this country, and I believe is still illegal to buy in Queensland (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). But his first novel, this one, was written when he was still in college, at the obscene age of 21, which rather makes me feel like I’ve achieved nothing in my life, since I’m now somewhat older than that.

Clay has returned home to Los Angeles after his first semester at college on the East Coast. Catching up with old friends, he falls into his past life with ease – going to parties, doing gratuitous amounts of drugs, sleeping with boys and girls. His old girlfriend, Blair, wants to know if they can get back together. His best friend, though, has been busy while he’s been away, getting deep into the LA drug scene, to which he quickly introduces Clay.

It’s difficult to empathise with characters who are so very, very rich, and so very, very oblivious to that fact. To say that all of these kids are spoilt little rich kids would be something of an understatement. They all drive Mercs or Audis, have parties in their giant houses, take a LOT (and I mean, a LOT) of drugs, don’t do any work, and seem to barely attend university. It’s like the whole conspicuous consumption philosophy of the 80s has been distilled into one suburb of LA, and intensified. I appreciate what Ellis is trying to do here, though I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with it in any meaningful way. Some books age well, and some don’t. Less Than Zero is one of the latter. Ellis is really pushing the idea that rich kids are just as disaffected with life as poor people are, which is fine, but the problem is, 25 years later, I like to think we all understand that money doesn’t buy you happiness. We’ve all seen how Paris Hilton and her brigade act – maybe I’m just too used to this kind of thing to be shocked.

Less Than Zero is also very repetitive. A large amount of text is given over to describing conversations where absolutely nothing meaningful or significant is said. Or even though, really.  An aside to this – the novel would have been much shorter were it set in contemporary times. So much time is dedicated to people playing telephone tag with one another, if they’d all had a mobile, I reckon about half the scenes could be cut.

And so we kind of plod along like this for most of the novel, doing drugs, having meaningful silences with friends in restaurants, and generally being bored with life. Then Ellis pulls a fast one, and shit gets weird. In the last third of the book or so, the whole thing gets turned upside down. All of a sudden, important things happen. Julian, Clay’s best friend, turns out to be a prostitute, and him pimp is, shall we say, less than ideal. There’s a sequence between Julian, Clay and the pimp that is deeply unpleasant to read, because of what this man is forcing these two kids to do. And then, just when you’ve recovered from that, we get to a sequence where a 12 year old girl is raped. I just – I don’t know how to talk about that without being absolutely disgusted, so I’m going to move swiftly on.

So why the sudden jump? Perhaps Ellis is highlighting the chance for these things to get out of hand very quickly? It seems like something of a stretch to assume that all people who do drugs are going to go on to become prostitutes or rapists, though maybe that’s the take-home message here. I don’t really know. There’s a tension between the vacuousness of the bulk of the novel dealing with the disillusionment of rich kids who spend all their time partying, and the actual grittiness of rape, murder and paedophilia that are thrown in at the end. Unfortunately, while this may be effect Ellis is going for, it means that you don’t get a chance to fully comprehend the true horror of the sequences at the end.

I don’t have a fundamental problem with novels that deal with rape and drug use – Loaded, for example, is fantastic, as is Bright Shiny Morning. I do have a problem with the way Ellis constructs his novel, and the seemingly arbitrary nature in which he makes links between recreational drug users, and hardcore bad people.

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