Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom: Stories are Universal

John Boyne is the consummate storyteller. His last two novels, The Heart's Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky were both brilliant, engrossing reads. I loved 'em immensely. But with his new novel, A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom, he pulls off quite the neat storytelling trick, even for him. 

Imagine a story told over 2,000 years, in about 50-year increments set in locations literally all over the world. But it's the story with the same characters. Only the times and places change. Confused? I was initially too. And a little skeptical.

But it works...mostly. The novel is essentially one guy's life story. The Character, as we'll call him, grows up, marries, has children, endures unimaginable tragedy, marries, suffers more heartbreak, sets out on a quest for vengeance, abandons said quest, reunites with this brother, continues quest, and so on and so on and so on. 

But again, the trick here is that each little segment of story — generally eight pages or so — is set in a new time and place around the world. Boyne spends a few paragraphs orienting you, and reminding you at what stage in the story The Character is in. And and then he just continues, whether he's in Eritrea in 340, China in 1191, or France in 1916.  

I know this sounds gimmicky, and I guess it is. And though it's not 100 percent successful — especially in the first half of the novel, things get a bit repetitive — it works more often than not. In the second half, as the times and places seem more familiar, the story really gains some momentum. It helps too that along the way, we get Bill-and-Ted-like cameos from famous historical figures who flit in and out of The Character's life — his sister marries Attila the Hun, he helps Shakespeare stage Julius Caesar, and there's many more. (Aside: If you're bad with remembering names — in novels or in real life — this is a perfect novel for you, because the characters' names change in each new chapter. It's obvious who each person is from the context, but so, and I can't emphasize this enough, you don't have to remember anyone's name!

This whole thing wouldn't have worked at all if the story he's telling was boring. But it sure is not. It's quite the swashbuckling yarn. This — let's go with the fancy term — bildungsroman has it all: Murder, betrayal, love and loss, a quest for vengeance, war and pestilence, and Donald Trump.  Wait, what was the last one?

Yes, so part of the point of this novel is to really examine the human condition: Have we learned anything in 2,000 years? Have we evolved to be more empathetic? More kind? More reasonable? Smarter? You'd think so, wouldn't you — but maybe not. 

Given how much I loved his last two books, a new John Boyne novel should've been an exciting event, and I should've rushed right out on pub day to buy the hardcover (or have read the ARC two months ago). But in reading about this one, it really did sound a little too strange. I knew I'd read it, but I wasn't stoked. And through the first half, I was like "Oh no, is this like a three-star Boyne novel? I'm so disillusioned!" But thankfully, and this is a lesson on why it's important to not give up on books (wink), the second half is so much more entertaining. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall for conversations between Boyne and his editor about the "rules" for this novel and troubleshooting some of the problems that no doubt came up. What is the narrator allowed to know from his "previous lives"? What does he "remember"? Etc. Those had to be fascinating conversations. And so if you're in the mood for something different, give this one a try. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: Heroes, Animal and Man Alike

In her last novel Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney got me to care deeply about an old woman wandering around New York City on New Year's Eve. I would not have thought it possible, but it worked! I loved that book — and am still a bit gobsmacked about the delta between my expectations going in and how much I liked it. 

With her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, she pulls off this trick again! I should know by now, fool me once, etc. I'll admit it: I picked up her new novel a bit skeptically. The novel intertwines the stories of a hero messenger pigeon and a hero soldier during a little-remembered episode of World War 1. The pigeon parts are, yes indeed, narrated by the pigeon. This has ALL kinds of disaster potential. But I'm here to tell you, it works. It really, actually works. 

So yes, Cher Ami is a pigeon — she's born in England, trained as a homing pigeon, and goes to war to help the Americans. Major Charles Whittlesey is the commander of what becomes known as the Lost Battalion — a battalion of American troops that advanced too far (they were too successful, actually) and got caught behind enemy lines. Cher Ami's and Major Whittlesey's paths cross during the course of the ramp-up to this battle and then the battle itself, both because Whittlesey is fascinated by the pigeon, but also because he harbors a bit of a crush on the pigeons' handler, a soldier named Cavanaugh. 

Cher Ami, for her part, winds up saving their lives. Despite being shot twice, and losing a leg and an eye, she's able to deliver a message to American troops to stop shelling. Their shells were landing on the Lost Battalion's position because the artillery folks didn't know they were so far ahead. 

Along the way, we get a fascinating biography of the contemplative, mercurial Whittlesey (like Cher Ami, who is in the Smithsonian currently, Major Whittlesey and his Lost Battalion are also real), including the mystery (that's not really a mystery) surrounding his death after the war. He's a warrior who often contemplates the insanity of war, specifically, and the peculiarities of humanity, generally. And he's a gay man frustrated he has to hide who he is, especially after he returns home as a war hero. 

Cher Ami is also very introspective — she (she is misidentified as a male, and therefore given a male name — a comment on how gender is a social construct, whether 1910s pigeon or contemporary human) wonders frequently about humans' relations to animals. Why do humans seem to put so much of their expertise in animal terms ("hawk eyes," "strong as a bull," "clever as a fox," etc.), yet see themselves as so superior to animals? All this is to say that the undercurrent of an entertaining, quickly paced novel is a staunchly anti-war, pro-animal philosophy that immensely enriches the reading experience. 

That aspect, along with these fascinating characters, and the elegance of Rooney's prose, make this an incredibly satisfying read. And again, surprising — though it shouldn't have been. I know people are going to hear "parts narrated by a messenger pigeon," and like me, be skeptical. Don't be. This is so good. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Motion of the Body Through Space: Troll-tastic Shriver Takes on Fitness

Professional provocateur Lionel Shriver has written a novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space (I'm purposefully not including a link, because no one should buy this book), positioned as a "send-up of today's cult of exercise." As a runner, I thought it’d be fun or at least amusing to read a novel satirizing the “cult of exercise.” Haha, you got me there, Shriver. Runners ARE a little weird. But there's nothing light-hearted, amusing, or even remotely clever about this. Instead, it's just mean-spirited, mocking, grouchy, and devoid of any parody value whatsoever. I haven't read Shriver before, but I guess that's at least partially her schtick

It's about a mid-sixties man named Remington who has been forced into retirement, and so takes up endurance sports, despite no experience. This new endeavor annoys his wife, Serenata, who used to run and bike, but can't anymore because of a bum knee. Serenata also happens to be one of the most insufferable people in any book I've read in a long time. (To give you an idea of how much I disliked her, at one point in the novel, she injures her knee riding her bike, and I was delighted that this fictional character is in intense pain.) 

Anyway, Serenata is upset at her husband for having a new ambition she doesn't deem worthy of him (she literally tells him that it's "unworthy of him" — what a snob!). She doesn't understand the point, and she frequently compares people who exercise, run marathons, and do triathlons to brainwashed members of a cult — and even, in one memorably horrendous paragraph, to Nazis. (Is this Serenata or Shriver making this claim? Does it matter? That’s not parody or satire. That’s just being an asshole.) 

What's sad is how ridiculous Shriver clearly thinks this new "fad" is, but then she couldn't come up with a more original story to make this point. Old man has late-life crisis, tries to develop fountain of youth. Good one, Shriver — wholly originally. Shriver even names Remington's comely, booby fitness trainer Bambi Buffer, for fuck’s sake! Bambi Buffer! 

It's Bambi who convinces Remington (of course, for her own personal gain in the form of a $1,200 per month fee) that the next natural step after he completes a marathon is to do a "MettleMan" triathlon, which only serves to annoy Serenata that much more. Of course, things don't go well for Remington, and the marriage moves to the brink.

Look, if you’re going to write satire, you owe your reader at least a passable understanding of what you’re satirizing. Amateur athletes do marathons, sure. But no seven-hour marathoner in his 60s is signing up for a full-distance IronMan triathlon, no matter how persuasive his devastatingly beautiful personal trainer is. It's patently ridiculous, to the point of being hilarious. So that's about the only shimmer of satire here. But because Shriver's so mean-spirited the rest of the time, you're not reading this as satire anymore. And beyond that detail, Shriver gets so much else wrong about these sports and the training and the culture she's trying to mock. It’s embarrassing. 

I only finished this because I was enjoying how much I hated it. If Shriver's goal here was to troll people who enjoy running, then kudos to you, Shriver. You done pissed me off good.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Luster: A Brutal, Brilliant, Hilarious Debut about Race, Sex, and Manners

I'll read just about anything Zadie Smith calls "brutal and brilliant," which is how she blurbed Raven Leilani's debut novel, Luster. And she's certainly not wrong. 

It's brutal in its honesty — "unflinching," as the review cliché goes. The novel is about a young Black woman, trying to make her way through love, life, sex, career, and being Black in modern day New York. Sometimes, this narrator, Edie, seems totally overmatched by life, relationships (which she happens to be in with a much-older married man), and not being totally awkward all the time. Other times, however, she seems preternaturally self-aware and understands exactly why the forces seemingly beyond her control are...beyond her control.

And it's brilliant in that on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, this is one the best written novels I've read this year. Leilani's prose is witty and wise, often laugh-out-loud funny, but also profoundly keen and perceptive. It's so much fun to read.

So yes, Edie, our 23-year-old narrator, embarks on an affair with a married middle-aged white guy named Eric. But it's cool — he's in an open marriage, and through a series of odd machinations (job loss, eviction, some light stalking), Edie actually winds up living at his house in the suburbs with his wife Rebecca, and their adopted Black daughter named Akila. It's not the most comfortable living situation, to say the least, but it gives Edie occasion to do what she once thought she was destined for: art. Against all odds, her new suburban home, albeit extremely temporary, inspires her to paint. 

Edie's interactions and relationships with both Rebecca and Akila are really fascinating and well-rendered. Rebecca oddly tolerates her and actually wants to help her, even though she's sleeping with her husband. With the pre-teen Akila, Edie subtly helps mentor her in the ways of Black womanhood. 

Of course, this arrangement can't last, but will it come crashing down in spectacular flames? You'll probably read this novel so quickly, the end will sneak up on you before you even know it.

Comparisons between Luster and another huge hit this year, Kiley Reid's Such A Fun Age, are inevitable. Both are about what it's like to be young and Black, and struggling against a stacked deck. Luster, however, is a bit edgier, a bit more...unconventional. They're both fantastic debut novels so far be it from me to say one is better than the other. I'd highly recommend both. And I'd highly recommend keeping a close eye on Leilani's career — if Luster is any indication, we can expect big things. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Deacon King Kong: Storytelling At Its Absolute Finest

Here we have storytelling at its absolute finest, funniest, sharpest, wittiest, and just downright most fun. James McBride's new novel Deacon King Kong is about a lot of things: Drug dealers, treasure hunts, race, ghosts, and some really mysterious cheese (known as the Jesus Cheese). But you never feel overwhelmed. Rather, you just feel incredibly entertained the whole way. 

The novel's about an old drunk named Sportcoat who lives in a housing project in Brooklyn. He spends most of his time drinking homemade booze (he's dubbed it King Kong) and palling around with his buddy Hot Sausage. The year is 1969, and the mob controls the projects, heroin is the new big thing, and mostly everyone distrusts anyone outside their own race. 

The novel kicks off with drunken Sportcoat trying to assassinate the projects' drug dealer in broad daylight. The dealer is a dude named Deems who was a promising baseball star that Sportcoat himself had coached and mentored, so no one has any idea why Sportcoat did it. And that includes Sportcoat himself, who, when the dust settles, actually has no memory of trying to shoot the kid. He denies he even did it — even though he's now in pretty grave danger of some serious retribution.

And it goes from there. Soon, an Italian mobster named Elefante (because of course he's named the Elephant) gets involved, and through a series of maneuverings, the story morphs into a sort of treasure hunt for a priceless statue. How is Sportcoat involved in this? He's mixed up in everything, often unwittingly. And he's often totally overmatched for the circumstances, yet somehow still bumbles along. (There are some HIGH comedy moments when the mobsters send a hit man to rub out Sportcoat...and these attempts always go awry.)  

Simply put, this is a rollicking, ebullient novel, but with a dead serious undercurrent of racism, race relations, and other issues of addiction and drug abuse. This is easily one of my favorite novels of the year. I loved it. In fact, I think I liked this one even better than McBride's The Good Lord Bird, which won him a National Book Award.