Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Brief History Of Seven Killings: Brutal, Mesmerizing, Masterful

Late in Marlon James's amazing Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, a Jamaican character tells an American journalist,
"Jamaica can get shoot through your veins and become like every dark sweet thing that not good for you." 
Not only is that sentence a near-perfect thematic description of this hard-to-put-down 700-page novel as a whole (the allusion to drugs is intentional, of course), but also it's exactly how I feel about the novel itself. This is a novel, and these are characters, that will stick with you for a long time. I don't know if it was "good" for me, per se, but I know I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The closest comparison I can think of to this novel of Jamaican gangsters, CIA agents, double-crossing drug dealers, and one enterprising Rolling Stone journalist is that it's a Jamaican version of the HBO show The Wire. This novel, like The Wire, turns stereotypes on their heads (gangsters that read Bertrand Russell, gay hit men, etc.) in a complex plot where everyone has an agenda and loyalty is a sliding scale. I loved The Wire, but I liked this even more — the characters here are even more complex, there's even more moral shading, and it's a plot with even more scope and reach than could ever be done in a TV show. We go from the mid-1970s Kingston, to the late 1970s Kingston, Montego Bay and Miami, to the crackhouses of mid-80s and early-90s New York City.

That said, the first 300 pages take place over only two days in early December, 1976 in Kingston. We meet several characters — street kids, dons, enforcers, American journalists, CIA agents, Cuban "consultants," an upper class Jamaican woman, politicians, and even a ghost!  The diverse characters, who take turns narrating their own stories in their own voices, are what makes this novel great. The distinction and variety of these voices (James writes his Jamaican characters in Jamaican "dialect," but it's not difficult to read, and you get used to it quickly) really draw you in, which is quite a feat. Sometimes, novels with lots of narrators keep you at arm's length, because you're more invested in some characters than others. Not so here — each of these is interesting for his/her own reasons, and I never started reading a section thinking "Ugh, can't wait to get through this guy's story to get back another."

And but so, the Kingston gangs have close ties to Jamaican politics (if you're going to read this, and I highly recommend you do, do some quick Wikipedia-ing on the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party), and with an election coming up, and a concert (Smile Jamaica), the eyes of the world are on Kingston. The real fulcrum of the plot and what sets everything spinning is a real-life event — an attack on reggae legend Bob Marley at his Kingston home just days before the concert and weeks before the election. This scene and its immediate aftermath are depicted from several perspectives in about 50 I-forgot-to-breathe pages that are truly, unimaginably great. These pages are when I knew I loved this novel. From there, we go 1979 in Jamaica, then to New York and Miami as the gangs team up with the Columbian drug cartels and take over parts of New York. But the attack on Marley looms large through the rest of the novel, even after Marley's 1981 death, literally until the last page.

One word of warning: This book is intensely violent — so it's not for the faint of heart in that regard. And the plot is complex, but certainly not impenetrable. You just have to keep in mind characters' motivations, loyalties, and why you think they're doing what they're doing. Just trust James that things will make sense.

So it's certainly not a novel everyone will be interested in, or like...but I loved it! It just feels like something so cool and inventive and unlike anything I'd read before (which, amusingly, is in stark contrast to most people's impression of Man Booker winners). I'd been trying to talk myself into reading this since it first came out last year, and I'm super glad I did. So if you're on the fence too, just take the plunge. It's an immensely rewarding reading experience.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fates And Furies: A Story of a Marriage...And Then Some

To say Moby Dick is a story about a whale is like saying Lauren Groff's stunningly good new novel, Fates And Furies, is a story about a marriage. It is, sure, but that doesn't do it justice. In 2015, seemingly the year of the Marriage Novel, Fates And Furies is THE marriage novel. I turned the last page of this book, exhaled, and just said, "Wow."

It's the story of Lotto and Mathilde who meet at a college party, fall instantly in love, and marry two weeks later, much to the consternation of Lotto's wealthy mother, who immediately cuts him off.

In New York City, the newlyweds struggle to make ends meet. Naïve, narcissistic, but lovable Lotto tries his hand at acting, but his magnetic personality doesn't translate to the stage quite as easily as he'd hoped. Mathilde works at an art gallery to support her husband. But they're young, they have tons of friends, and they're beside themselves with love for each other. What could possibly go wrong?

This story, though, isn't so much about what can wrong in a marriage, as it is about how much you ever really know about and understand the person you know and understand best in the whole world. It's also about secrets, the internal engine and behind-the-scenes support system that makes a marriage work (or not), and, as most good novels are, doing your best to be able to see the world through someone else's eyes, and not slink away from what you see.

As well, throughout, Groff sprinkles allusions to mythology (the title, duh) to set up a tension of the eternal question of what we choose and the paths we take vs. what's been decided for us. Her writing, as you know if you've ever read her before, is exceptional. Her prose sparkles. It's near-perfect — every word has its place; not a word in excess, not a word too few. And the structure she's chose here only highlights her writing: The first half of the novel is told from Lotto's perspective, the second from Mathilde's. This creates such a richer experience with both these characters than a linear narrative could have.

I haven't decided yet whether this is No. 1 on my favorites of 2015 list yet, but it's extremely close. I really, really loved this book — a fantastic reading experience.

Getting this in the mail last week is a highlight of the year.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance: Evison Does Elderly

Normally, I'd avoid a novel about a 78-year-old woman like, well, a real-life 78-year-old woman in a grocery store line. But a novel about a 78-year-old woman written by Jonathan Evison? I'm all in! And this is great.

Harriet Chance has lived a long and fruitful life, and soon after Bernard, her husband of fifty-plus years, dies, she learns he'd won an Alaska cruise, which he'd never collected, at a silent auction. She decides YOLO, and goes, even after her friend Mildred bails on her, and her two grown (and scheming) children, Skip and Caroline, try to talk her out of it.

Along the way, though, we delve back into Harriet's life in short snippets of story (told in the style of the radio program "This Is Your Life"; "Look at you Harriet, a grown woman!", i.e.) that show her at various formative stages. All this gives context for the real-time action, and the revelation of a secret about Bernard that Harriet discovers not long after she's embarked on the cruise. It's a secret that changes everything...dum dum dum.

But the intriguing thing here is that we soon learn that Harriet harbors her own skeleton(s), and isn't completely blameless. Evison's revelations are carefully placed and tug us along through the narrative at just the perfect times. It's a near-perfectly constructed novel, is what I'm saying.

One of my favorite parts of this novel is how it subtly scolds readers for our (or maybe just my?) stereotypes of and annoyances with the elderly. Indeed, there's even a scene, at a time in the novel when we're at maximum sads for Harriet, when she struggles with her coupons in the grocery store, and the line behind her gets impatient. I'm not going to lie, I was a little ashamed of myself when I read that part.

Overall, though, this is quick, charming, delightful, if often sad, read. As was the case with The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Evison's terrific 2012 novel (soon to be a movie with Paul Rudd, by the way), Evison is fantastic at somehow making his readers happy while reading a sad story. You'll read this quickly, and if you're like me, you'll really dig it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Franzen Strikes Back: On Purity

Purity is Jonathan Franzen's third "major" novel — it's his most structurally complex, robust (or verbose, depending on your POV), and smartest novel yet. It's not his best, nor is it my favorite of his, but it's still pretty awesome — as quick a read as a 550-page novel can be.

What's fun about this novel is its sheer volume of topic. Franzen utterly commands a reader's attention, as he's interesting on just about everything he writes about. Here, Franzen tackles the pressures of fame, parents and kids, socialism, relationships, sex, nuclear disarmament, Internet leaks, trust, journalism vs. new media, Oedipus, art, East Germany.

This is all included amidst a tightly spun, though geographically diverse (Oakland, Denver, Bolivia, East Berlin, New York City, etc.) plot about a 22-year-old woman named Purity, but who goes by Pip. As we first meet Pip, she's talking with her neurotic mother who lives by herself in a cabin in California. Pip, who is rather a hot mess herself, lives in a squat house in Oakland, harbors a secret crush for a married housemate, works as a telemarketer for an alternative energy company, and just wants to find her father, who she thinks can help her pay her crushing $130,000 student loan debt.

After we're introduced to Pip in the first 100 pages, we spend the next 100 pages with a man named Andreas Wolf, who comes of age during the early 1980s in East Berlin. Andreas (as we've learned in Pip's section) runs an organization called The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-like outfit that attempts to "cleanse with sunlight" by revealing secrets. Andreas's section basically describes how he got to be the way he is. From there, the less you know about the plot, the better and more fun your reading experience will be. Franzen masterfully connects these characters, many more, their secrets, and how many of their stories are surprisingly similar. Trust him: What may seem like coincidence initially obviously isn't. Franzen's too good to resort to coincidence.

One of my favorite things about this novel is its self-awareness. You'll no doubt see (have seen?) a ton of articles over the next few weeks that basically say the same thing: "Jonathan Franzen is perceived by many to be a jerk, but jerks can write good novels. And this is a good novel." I don't disagree with that, but Franzen seems to have occasional fun with his critics here, spending a few carefully chosen words on technology (including Twitter, which, as we know, Franzen despises), feminism (which he admires, but wonders if it's about women being equal, or women being better), and even the number of real-world "serious" novelists named Jonathan. All wonderful stuff.

Again, though, even though I really enjoyed this, it's probably my third favorite of his three major novels. At times, it felt bloated, like we went too far back into the history of some of the characters, only to make a minor point. At times, the mighty ego of the Franzen — I mean, you go into reading Franzen knowing will be on full display — got in the way of his story (most notably, during several pages rant comparing the East German Revolution with the Internet, a parallel, that, despite reading several times, I still don't understand completely).

What it comes down to though is that you're going to want to read this. It's a fascinating study of our time. And there truly aren't too many writers working today that are as entertaining to read as The Franzen is.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Six Questions, Six Answers

If the measure of good (or even decent) literature is that which is capable of evoking emotion, well, Go Set A Watchman sure does that. You start with nervous anticipation, you laugh a bit, you're bored at times, you're wistful, you're infuriated, you're sad, you're challenged, you put it down when you're finished, almost with a sense of relief. I can't possibly review this book. No one really can because it's not a complete novel. But I am willing to try my hand at starting with the basics, and moving into some more complicated thoughts on the book. Here is my take on the six most common questions about Go Set A Watchman.  

1. What is Go Set A Watchman? — It's an unedited manuscript that tells a story taking placing 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird.  When Lee submitted Go Set A Watchman for publication, an editor told her to rewrite, but focus on flashbacks to Scout's childhood instead. The rewritten novel is To Kill A Mockingbird. So Go Set A Watchman is essentially a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. We can tell this is true in several places as we read Go Set A Watchman. For instance, in Go Set A Watchman, in a brief gloss-over paragraph of the trial central to To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee tells us Atticus got Tom Robinson acquitted. Obviously, she changed her mind as she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird.

2. What isn't Go Set A Watchman? — Despite some of the marketing and media hype, it's NOT a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. A sequel implies intent that a novel be written to build on the events of a previous novel. That's not what happened here. It was not intended to be a sequel, and it's not.

3. Should Go Set A Watchman have been published? — I have no idea. I'm glad it was, but we'll never actually know for sure what Lee's desires were regarding this "suddenly found" manuscript. As Jeff of Book Riot writes in this fantastic post when Go Set A Watchman was first announced, the tack to take is just to be comfortable reading knowing we won't have definitive answers. The nearest reading experience I can point to to this is David Foster Wallace's posthumous manuscript, The Pale King. Did he want that published? We'll never know. But we're happy it exists, and sad that it could've been so much better.

4. Will reading Go Set A Watchman ruin To Kill A Mockingbird? — No. No it unequivocally will not. You've probably seen all the Very Important Think Pieces, even from respected media outlets like NPR, making the case that the Big Reveal — Atticus is an old grouchy racist now — somehow kills the moral Atticus who is the paragon of empathy and ethics in To Kill A Mockingbird. That's wrong-headed and simple-minded. This isn't a case of Schrodinger's Atticus — you don't kill one Atticus by reading about the other Atticus. Both Atticuses (Atticki?) actually can exist simultaneously and in perpetuity. (So I guess it IS a case of Schrodinger's Atticus.) Remember, Lee went back to the drawing board on Atticus, so keep both Atticuses in your head — it's not cognitive dissonance. I realize it's tempting to let GSAW Atticus redefine TKAM Atticus — especially as Scout delivers lines like "You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave," which is absolutely heartbreaking — but don't. I strongly believe it's not the right way to read this book.

5. Is Go Set A Watchman any damn good?— I don't think this is quite the right question, but it's the most common one. To try to answer: It's pretty solid for a first draft. The too-easy comment I've heard frequently is that this could've been a masterpiece if it had been edited like a "normal" novel. But of course, it did become a masterpiece with an editor! That's what To Kill A Mockingbird is. As it stands, there are some major issues with Go Set A Watchman, just from continuity and "logic of storytelling" standpoint — we're missing some things (possibly things pulled out to form the framework of To Kill A Mockingbird?). And the last 100 pages...well, they're just not good storytelling. Scout has three separate conversations with three characters, Atticus as the denouement, to try to find out why Atticus is racist. While these conversations are philosophically and politically complex (go brush up on the 10th Amendment and Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka), they just don't quite rise to the level of literature.

6. Did you like Go Set A Watchman? —To sum, yes, I liked it, but with reservations — and to be clear, this is a much different question than No. 5. My favorite parts of this novel are three flashback scenes to Scout's childhood and teenage years. All read exactly as if they're torn from To Kill A Mockingbird — they're all really funny, and in at least one case, show us the affable Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird. I can't emphasize enough how much I loved these scenes. The closest analogy I can come up with here, which certainly pales in comparison with this reading experience, is the Curb Your Enthusiasm's Seinfeld reunion episodes — there are extended parts of those where the cast dropped right back into Seinfeld mode. In these three scenes, we're right back to To Kill A Mockingbird, and they're just so great as standalone set pieces. In total, it was a mostly positive reading experience, and I'll certainly recommend it to anyone who is on the fence. I'm very glad I read it. Finally, my thoughts on it mirror the fantastic point made by Book Riot manager editor Amanda when she appeared on CNN International to discuss the book — when the Go Set A Watchman frenzy has died down, it'll wind up as simply a footnote in literary history. To Kill A Mockingbird is now and always will be unassailable.