Tag Archives: Pulitzer Prize

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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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 Shipping News (1993) – Annie PROULX

A lot of people have read The Shipping News not out of choice, but because it was on the HSC list. So when I tell people I want to read it, people either groan at the memories of discussing how The Shipping News relates to people ‘Retreating from the Global’, or mild interest about an old Pulitzer Prize winner. I just found it in a second hand bookstore – this is edition is so old, Proulx is still credited as E. Annie Proulx.

After Quoyle’s abusive wife dies, he moves back to his hometown in country Newfoundland with his two young daughters, and aunt. Wanting to start anew, his life as a rubbish journalist is not over, however, as he takes up a position at the local newspaper. The staff at the newspaper both help and hinder him in his quest to rebuild his life in small town Canada. Slowly, he learns to love again – love his children, love his life, and even love another woman.

Proulx’s writing style is something of a shock to the system. More than any author I’ve read in a long time, she has clearly and deliberately set out to create a unique writing style. The only other thing of Proulx’s I’ve read is Brokeback Mountain, and having just checked, the styles are completely different. The Shipping News has short, sharp sentences. Just like that one. It’s also very choppy – they don’t quite flow one after another. This is going to sound really pretentious, but it’s kind of like how I’d imagine a cubist would write – small strokes, each highlighting a different angle of the same scene. Does that even make any sense?

Once you get used to the style, this is quite a good novel. Proulx does an excellent job of evoking Killick-Claw, the town to which Quoyle. As someone’s who’s never been anywhere near Canada, I feel like I might be able to picture the town, and just how freaking cold it gets. Seriously, if I know nothing else from this novel, it’s that the weather in Newfoundland’s terrible. And cold. And rainy. It does not sound like a pleasant place to live, to be honest. And Proulx captures that really well – the struggle of all of these ordinary people to live in a place that, really, people shouldn’t be anywhere near. Just as Tim Winton captures the spirit of Australia’s coast, so too does Proulx recreate Canada’s coast with alarming clarity. I assume.

Abuse plays quite heavily into the story, though it’s done quite subtly. I love that Proulx reverses the expectations of having a battered wife deeply in love with her abusive husband, and that Quoyle is the one that is being abused – emotionally more than anything else. And his inability, or perhaps simply refusal, to see what he is putting himself – and his daughters – through actually makes him come off a little pathetic. Of course, it’s not just this part of his life where he comes off as less than ideal – he’s chubby, unhealthy, and is pretty terrible at his job. In fact, the only thing he seems to be really good at is being a father, which he does wonderfully. Too wonderfully, even, as he can’t bear to tell his daughters that their mother is dead, only sleeping for a long, long time.

Of course, once his wife dies, everything changes. A move to another country – to a rather chilly part of Canada, at that – and Quoyle slowly comes out of his shell. It turns out that he has a gift for writing about boats (though not being on actual boats) – and in a port town, his columns about the shipping news are well received. The politics of the newspaper is something of a microcosm of that whole idea of being accepted into a small community as an outsider – though, since Quoyle’s family once lived in Killick-Claw, it’s not quite the usual refrain.

More than anything else, this novel is an exercise in evocation. Evocation of a certain place, and certain people. The plot’s pretty arbitrary, though the overarching theme – that healing and redemption can be found in small town coastal Canada – is used to good effect to create some pretty broken characters who slowly become whole again. Probably not the greatest novel I’ve ever read, The Shipping News nevertheless is a really good read, and (though I actually know absolutely nothing about tuhe subject) an excellent starting point for Canadian fiction. Maybe.

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The Age of Innocence (1920) – Edith WHARTON

As with so many books I read, this had been sitting on my pile for a long time. I had even picked it up and tried to read it some months ago, but just couldn’t get into it. Finally, though, it came up again, and I plunged head first into The Age of Innocence. I don’t know what was stopping me last time, but it certainly wasn’t there this round.

Newland Archer is a new man for a new time. In New York society of the late nineteenth century, there are unspoken codes and restrictions in relation to who you converse with, who you do business with, and where you see these people. One of the rules is that you certainly do not have romantic feelings for your fiancée’s cousin. Alas, Archer has found himself in this exact situation, and everything could very quickly fall apart.

Wharton’s choice to have a male lead character allows her to give us a view of women not tinted by the thoughts of women. If that makes any sense. By having a male think that women should be independent, intelligent, and all that good stuff, we are perhaps more inclined to believe it. I hope that doesn’t sound too off. By having that distance (by not having women talking about women), readers are maybe more likely to pay attention. Or maybe I’m just talking crap. Certainly, in the 1920s, I like to think this theory stands up.

And so Archer’s disposition for intelligent and beautiful women causes him some problems. His fiancée, May, is lovely. But that’s about it. When he meets Ellen, he is drawn to her spunk, her tenacity, and her tortured background. This is what he wants in a woman – not someone who will just lay down and take whatever is coming to her, but someone who will fight for what she believes. Her impending divorce from her husband provides Wharton with enough material to provide a biting critique of New York society at the time (the 1870s), but as with any good historical novel, it seems that she is also talking about her own context.Ellen wants to be free of the history of her failed marriage, but of course, in high society, this cannot happen. And in this way, Archer is drawn to her. Not that May isn’t a lovely person – in many ways, she is more intelligent than Archer gives her credit for. Before they are married, she gives him the chance to back out of the marriage, because she thinks there is another woman. Which, technically, at this stage, there isn’t. But of course, Archer cannot back out of his obligations, and tries to stop seeing Ellen. And yet, he cannot.

New York society is perfectly evoked here, too. Granted, I don’t know much about New York in the 1870s, but Wharton shows us a society so concerned with outward appearances, with social customs and conventions, there is a sense of being stifled the entire time, as is clearly evidenced by Archer’s actions, as well as Ellen’s. Family is vitally important to relationships, and Archer’s marrying into May Welland’s family means he cannot do things he might otherwise have wanted to, and instead must pretend to be friendly with people he may not like, or even offer Ellen advice contrary to what he himself thinks.

The ending is perfect, too. Wharton has chosen to not give us the perfect love story ending, preferring to show us a more, arguably, realistic choice from Archer. He chooses to stay with May until her death, creating a family and life together. The coda at the end gives Archer the chance to rekindle his relationship with Ellen, but as a final act of strength, he decides instead to not see her again, preferring to keep his memory of her alive in his head, content with this idealised image. There is a sense of resignation in the ending, too, as though it simply isn’t possible to break with societal traditions and customs, and that if one were to break, it takes time.

Wharton’s gift is character. It’s been a long time since I’ve read about characters that are so real in their motivations and actions. And it’s not just the three young people involved in the love triangle – the supporting characters are also perfectly pitched somewhere between caricature and reality, allowing both of these to shine through in her desire to critique high society, as well as gender roles in a time of great change in America. A true classic.

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The Hours (1998) – Michael CUNNINGHAM

Just as a warning to anyone who’s reading this: this is a sequel post to the last one, about Mrs Dalloway. As soon as I had finished said novel, I moved straight onto The Hours, hoping that, by still having Mrs Dalloway fresh in my mind, I’d appreciate Michael Cunningham’s answer to it. And I was so right.

The lives of three women are inextricably linked to the famous novel by Virginia Woolf – Clarissa Vaughan, a middle-aged woman living in 1990s New York, who is on her way to visit a dying friend; Laura Brown, a housewife in the 1940s, who is unhappy in her life, despite the appearance of a very happy family; and Virginia Woolf herself, in 1920s Richmond, where she is trying desperately to remain sane, and continue to write. Each of these women will be affected somehow, over the course of this one day, by both Mrs Dalloway, and the events that are about to unfold.

This isn’t just Michael Cunningham’s answer to Virginia Woolf – it is an homage in the best sense. Without resorting to sentimentality about his subjects, and most importantly, without creating a carbon copy of the work, Cunningham has written a novel that celebrates Mrs Dalloway in every sense, from beginning to end. Intricately weaved into the three plots are references to the novel, and you really felt like you are reading an extension of Woolf’s own work. While Cunningham does have his own voice, here, it is so closely matched to Woolf’s, they are barely distinguishable. He creates a more up-to-date kind of stream of consciousness that, while less ambitious that Woolf’s original work, is still a joy to read.

It is in Clarissa Vaughan, nicknamed Mrs Dalloway by her closest friend, Richard, whose story most closely resembles the plot of the original novel. From the partner who has lunch without inviting her, to relationships with her daughter, to events that occurred when she was eighteen, Clarissa is the closest to the original Clarissa. Yet the subtle differences really make this – (new) Clarissa’s parter is a woman, the lunching friend is a famous gay actor, and events at the age of eighteen are subtly reversed, so (new) Clarissa’s teenage affair is with a man – Richard, not a woman. Cunningham does not wish to be seen as a “gay” writer, and in this book, despite dealing with gay people, does not make it the focus of the narrative. Instead, they simply are, and we are to accept this without questioning. Which I assume most people do, anyway.

This is not to say that the other two characters simply fade away into the background – their struggles and hopes are just as strongly present through the book as Clarissa. Laura Brown is this kind of ‘perfect on the outside’ meek housewife, that does nothing but want to please her husband and young son, yet she clearly needs some alone time every now and then. Similarly, the portrait of Virginia Woolf herself as a tortured genius, who has so many similarities to the original Mrs Dalloway, is not too over-done, so it remains believable, and sympathetic.

I’m about to get a bit pretentious – you’ve been warned. This book is pretty amazing. Without Mrs Dalloway, it wouldn’t be anything, but, to read them in sequence, The Hours (a working title of the original) is an amazing, fragile, beautiful tribute to a writer, and novel, whose past is not perhaps the best. Understated and restrained, if all tributes and homages were like this, we wouldn’t cringe every time we heard those two words.

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