Some of you may know that I’m currently up to my ears in grad school applications. Luckily, posting on The Millions has a salutary effect on me, and also, I just finished a book, so I need to write about it. Jamesland opens with Alice, great-granddaughter of philosopher William James, having an odd waking dream of a deer in her house. Alice fixates on the deer as a portent of a coming change in her life, and the very next day her life begins to change slowly and inexorably. The book does not dwell on the supernatural, though it does have a bemused dialogue with the otherworldly throughout. Mostly it is about three forty-somethings whose social and professional lives are deteriorating and reconfiguring. I’d call it a mid-life crisis, but these characters have that quality, peculiar to Californians, of being youthful, unserious adults. The book is mostly set on the East Side of Los Angeles in neighborhoods that I know well. It was great to read a book that addresses a somewhat larger Los Angeles than usual. Movie stars are around, and Hollywood is nearby, but they are just parts of the great stew of the city, things that are noticed but after a while not accorded any greater importance than things like Griffith Park or the LA River. The only other book that I have read that successfully turns LA’s flashy side into just another bit of peripheral scenery is T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain. Huneven is well-known in Los Angeles as the food critic for the LA Weekly, and the way she writes about food in this book is magnificent. Pete (who along with Helen, a modern sort of minister, are the other two wayward adults) is a former near-celebrity chef who is recovering from a nervous breakdown, suicide attempt combo. His character is both abrasive and charming, the type of person who makes you nervous the moment he steps into the room. As he coaxes himself back into the functioning world, he takes up cooking again, and this is the venue for Huneven’s descriptions of foods. It was nice to see that Huneven did not place this book firmly in the world of food and restaurants in the way that many writers tend to crib from their day jobs. Instead, Huneven manages to weave her knowledge skillfully into the larger narrative. The book itself is a rather satisfying meal, best taken over a few languorous days on a sunny balcony or sitting on a park bench.
It’s a tricky thing, success. How do you write a book to follow your own breakout novel, a title that leapt off shelves and became a phenomenon? That’s a good problem to have, but a challenge nonetheless.
It was the challenge for Christos Tsiolkas after his fourth book, The Slap. It came out in 2008 (2010 in the U.S.), a doorstopper of a novel that told of the fallout from a backyard barbecue where a man slaps someone else’s child. Winning critical acclaim, it sold 1.2 million copies worldwide and made the author a household name in his own country, Australia. Asked if he saw that coming, Tsiolkas has said, “Fuck no…I’d have been happy if it had been 10,000 copies.”
Tsiolkas’s answer to his quandary was to confront the potential for failure head-on. He did that by making it the theme of his fifth and latest novel. Thus we get Barracuda, released this month in the U.S. It’s the story of Danny Kelly, the son of working class Scots-Irish and Greek parents and a promising swimmer at a public school in Melbourne. His talent gets him a free ride at a school he dubs “Cunts College” (it’s all prefects, grand stone buildings, and kids from leafy suburbs). And his talent could take him much further, to golden boy status and the Olympic Games. Except things don’t go according to plan, and failure in the pool is only the beginning of a spectacular fall from grace.
This is a truly fine novel, for reasons I’ll come to shortly. It’s also a great page-turner, drawing a reader in as it alternates between the schoolboy Danny and his older self, an ex-con who lives with the shame of unspeakable past acts. Older Danny (now “Dan”) doesn’t like to swim; he won’t even tell his lover, a Glaswegian named Clyde, that he was a swimmer once. Exactly what has happened Tsiolkas withholds, although he scatters clues like crumbs: “How the very word — swimmer — could lacerate, could remind him of how far he had fallen.”
Young Danny trains like mad and asserts himself by winning. He becomes inseparable from Martin, his waspy rival-come-friend. After winning at nationals (in the under-16s freestyle), he gets a standing ovation from the same schoolboys who initially despised him. Then it’s on to victory in the men’s butterfly. Next up, it’s the Pan Pacific Games in Fukuoka, Japan. Danny is there revealed as an Icarus figure: unaware of his own hubris, he crashes and burns. Later he sinks to the savage act that is the fulcrum of the story and only afterward perceives that his task is to become — quoting David Copperfield, a novel he reads in prison — “the hero of my own life”.
Tsiolkas has crafted a faultless voice for Danny. It’s tersely unpretentious but not without flights of beauty. This makes for taut, sensuous prose, as when Danny disregards his coach’s advice to focus on butterfly, not freestyle: “He knew he could conquer both strokes, it was inside him, it was a revelation written inside him, inked over his muscles, imprinted in his brain, etched into his soul.”
Where The Slap had an ensemble cast and Tolstoy-esque ambitions — it sought to render the whole milieu of the multiethnic, suburban Melbourne that is Tsiolkas’s heartland — Barracuda trains its sights firmly on Danny Kelly. Even so, all the characters are vividly drawn. Especially so Danny’s parents, the rockabilly hairdresser mother who shaves her son’s body hair and the truck-driver father with a social conscience. (“This fucking country,” he says. “There’s no money for health and education, nothing for the arts, but we shovel a shitload to sports.”) The set pieces sparkle with a dangerous brilliance: the weekend at Martin’s Portsea beach house where Danny faces off against a tyrannous, rich grandmother; the opening night of the Sydney Olympics when he tries to avoid the broadcast and the jingoistic hype but ends up glued to the window of a television store.
It’s worth mentioning the sex as there’s a fair dose in the book — Danny’s awakening in prison, then his relationship with Clyde. This is nothing new for Tsiolkas; a passage of Dead Europe, his third novel, was once shortlisted for The Guardian’s bad sex award. Actually, in Barracuda, the sex is worlds better than it was in The Slap, which had a racy tone that at times felt almost lewd, rather like the pervy bits in a Jonathan Franzen novel. (To give an example, Aisha’s dalliance at a conference abroad was as confected as anything in a bodice-ripper.) Barracuda feels truer and, well, tenderer, even when Danny philosophizes on “getting fucked up the arse.” Witness his description of his lover’s skin as being like “the tint of the last days of a leaf in autumn, the dark of ground just touched by rain.”
In the end, it’s not sex but class that gives Danny the greater trouble. Sexuality matters here, but Tsiolkas doesn’t spell out how. That he largely leaves aside questions of coming out is a mark of self-assurance in how he tells this story (he has said that in writing Barracuda he was coming to terms with his own class treachery). This confidence and ease is evident everywhere in the novel; Tsiolkas does not over-explain. We might or might not know that the “stinky TWU t-shirt” worn by Danny’s dad marks him as a member of the transport workers’ union. It might or might not register that the extravagant birthday gift for Martin’s grandmother is a painting by Joy Hester, an Australian modernist. It won’t matter because we feel we know these people.
Of course, Tsiolkas has made this book intensely Australian. The fact that he puts Danny at the Pan Pacifics — the games that mark the peak of his swimming career — brings to mind those different Pan Pacifics once conjured by Baz Luhrmann, in his first film, Strictly Ballroom (1992). There, the sport was ballroom dancing and working class Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) shook things up by dancing the pasodoble with a girl from a Spanish family. Tsiolkas’s Pan Pacific reference could be a nod to Luhrmann or it could be no such thing, but, like the film, Barracuda combines sharp social portraiture with that rare ingredient, a story that speaks to the human condition.
In writing this review, I read the book a second time. I had first read it at Christmas, tearing through it in two days; the novel came out late last year in Australia. Precisely because it is so gripping, it is possible on first reading not to notice just how skillful it is, how intricate the plot and the successive revelations, how deft the handling of point of view and tense.
I am glad I read it again and noticed all these things and more. The experience convinced me of what I had felt initially: this is not only Tsiolkas’s best novel so far, it is the work of a writer at the top of his game. That’s no small success for a book about failure.
Sarah Vowell is most frequently called a popular historian, but really she’s a nerd. In Partly Cloudy Patriot, a collection of her essays, she describes being a nerd as “going too far and caring too much about a subject,” and by her own admission she fits that description. After all, she barfed her way through a long ferry ride just to visit an island prison where an alleged Lincoln assassination conspirator had been jailed while she was researching Assassination Vacation. But she goes on to say that being a nerd is “the best way to make friends I know.” Or, in her case, legions of fans.
Vowell is most specifically a civics nerd, researching and writing about the little known, salient clues hidden in American history. She is something of a patriotic anomaly – an educated cynic whose understanding of how routinely America screws up doesn’t dampen her national pride. It helps that she habitually develops a fondness for her research subjects, whether they be presidential assassins or Hawaiian missionaries, so that even when she’s writing about their detrimental contribution to the American story, you can tell she gave them a fair trial. This double-sided approach – a keen insight into the forces of history combined with an appreciative delight in the coincidental – is so unmistakably her own it might as well be called Vowelling.
In her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes, she Vowells the story of Hawaii’s Americanization – from the first American immigrants in 1820 to the annexation of Hawaii in 1898. Although we hear little of it on the mainland, there is a small but ardent group of Hawaiians who maintain that the annexation was invalid, and don’t consider Hawaii a U.S. state. Not surprisingly, they have something of a point. Annexation was passed by a joint resolution, which, as Vowell says, is what New Jersey would ask for if they wanted Congress to proclaim tomorrow “Bon Jovi Day.”
The decades of American presence leading up to annexation, however, are much more nuanced. The American Board of Commissions for Foreign Missions sent its first batch of missionaries to Hawaii in 1820 to use the influence of “the school, the pulpit, and the press” to civilize, educate, and convert the Hawaiians. Imperialist intentions aside, they enacted a lot of good.
Upon their arrival, there was no written form of the Hawaiian language. Looking to translate the Bible, the missionaries developed the 12-letter Hawaiian alphabet – with its kooky 5/7 vowel to consonant ratio that make half the words sound like yawns – and taught the Hawaiians to read. By 1863, the literacy rate had jumped from zero to 75%, as compared to 63% in Europe, and 40% in the United States (including slaves).
The missionaries started schools and churches, and helped developed the Hawaiian economy. After a brief, rocky assimilation, the missionaries worked closely with the Hawaiian royal family. Generations of Hawaiian kings and queen sought and followed the advice of the Americans (and, a tip: keep a running family tree of those kings and queens while you read, their names are bonkers to keep track of).
All this friendly coexistence, which started out as a few Americans with some helpful ideas, eventually caused a power shift, but it’s hard to say exactly when. Unlike other instances of American helpfulness, no Hawaiians were forced out, shipped off, or disenfranchised (just yet). In essence, the Americans just kept coming in bigger numbers, and nobody stopped to point out that their influence was becoming overwhelming. The missionary ranks swelled, and Hawaii became a favorite getaway for the whaling industry. “The sailors as well as the missionaries, most of them born with 150 miles of Boston Harbor, established a new front of America’s time-honored culture war halfway around the world. ‘Evidently the Pacific was a Boston suburb,’ Earl Derr Biggers wrote in 1925.”
The Hawaiian royals, as far as conquests go, were remarkably pliant. In the 1820s, when the death of his brother made him the heir to the throne, “Kauikeaouli was around twelve years old and the princess was eight to ten. There is much gossip (but no evidence) that by this early age brother and sister were already sleeping together, per the Hawaiian custom.” Custom or no – gross, right? But less than 20 years later, “King Kauikeaouli hired missionary William Richards to tutor him and the other high chiefs at Lahaina in political science,” eventually turning Hawaii into a constitutional monarchy.
By no means am I relaying these facts as a way of absolving American’s eventual takeover. Rather, Vowell’s book makes it clear that the Americanization of Hawaii was uniquely welcomed. It’s a puzzle exactly how much to bemoan annexation, or who to blame for Hawaii’s loss of independence, when the road to it was free of resistance.
By the time Hawaiians did start pushing back, it was far too late. American settlers owned loads of land and high government positions, and they really wanted a naval base. Hawaii’s last queen, Liliuokalani, attempted to organize a resistance, but she was imprisoned and forced to abdicate the throne. It was open-hearted of the Hawaiians to assume that the settlers would educate and modernize their society out of pure generosity, but ultimately naïve. Their history was already too intertwined with that of America to reverse. Perhaps this moment – when they realized their best interests had been undermined while they sat idly by – was when they truly became Americans.
Queen Liliuokalani, on a trip to Washington to lobby against annexation, attended William McKinley’s inauguration. Vowell writes, “I wonder what she would have thought if she had known, witnessing that inaugural parade, that 112 years later, the first Hawaiian-born president of the United States would be inaugurated and in his parade, the marching band from Punahou School, his alma mater (and that of her enemies), would serenade the new president by playing a song she had written, “Aloha ‘Oe.”
I personally think her head would have exploded. “Aloha ‘Oe” is about saying farewell, which she wrote after she took a horseback ride on Oahu and saw two lovers doing just that. It’s a beautiful, elegiac song, and has become an anthem for the lost Hawaii – the simple, independent Hawaii that Americans co-opted. To see a bunch of high school kids playing it on the streets of the U.S. capital definitely would have been weird for her.
The weird eventualities of a complicated past are Sarah Vowell’s expertise. It’s easy to see why she was attracted to this project, where there are no clear villains or heroes, just two worlds colliding to create a third, hybrid world. In her blunt, pithy way, Vowell shows us around that world and lets us draw our own conclusions.
In a much-quoted Guardian interview, the British novelist Rachel Cusk said that following the publication of her divorce’s chronicle, Aftermath, she was unable to write memoir. Trying instead to write a novel she found herself, additionally, “embarrassed by fiction.” “Once you have suffered sufficiently,” she said, “the idea of making up John and Jane and having them do things together seems utterly ridiculous.” Where does that leave a writer, when you can neither invent, nor tell the truth? Transit, along with its predecessor, Outline, seems to be an attempt to solve this problem — and I suspect that whether or not a reader responds to this book ultimately depends on whether she finds Cusk’s solution successful.
Transit pursues Outline’s unusual formal strategy, in which a cagey first-person narrator relates the stories of people she encounters during the novel’s plot, or “plot.” As with Outline, the story is, at best, wispy — our interlocutor, Faye (like Cusk, a divorced writer), has returned to London and bought a run-down apartment in a fashionable neighborhood. She has two children, though we never meet them. They are installed with the former husband while she gets the flooring replaced and deals with unpleasant downstairs neighbors — the central problem of the book. She also has a haircut, goes to a literary festival, tutors an annoying woman, teaches a class, and attends a dinner party.
If this sounds slight, it is. The story serves only to bring the narrator into contact with other characters, all of whom have a story to tell, related in chunks of dialog and third-person exposition. The effect of these stories, essentially novelized dramatic monologues, is both interesting and tiresome. There is interest in what they replace, the silence they fill, as the narrator’s reticence communicates a traumatic past that is finally — though incompletely — revealed by novel’s end. There is also a voyeuristic interest in hearing these voices speak. We have no real reason to care, for instance, about the abusive youth of Julian, the voluble festival co-attendee, yet it is compelling, the same way overhearing a stranger talking on a flight or train ride can be compelling.
But just as that chattering voice behind you can become dull, even maddening, so it sometimes is here with these reported anecdotes. Though Cusk has a good feel for how long to linger before moving on to the next talkative stranger, the book is necessarily hemmed in by its own rules. The book is told from her perspective, yet the narrator cannot or will not divulge too much of herself; the interesting walk-ons quickly walk off stage again, eliminating any conventional narrative drive. For me, the experience of reading Transit was largely the experience of wondering about these constraints — mainly, what purpose do they serve?
For one thing, perhaps, they allow Cusk to write quasi-memoir without any personal shame. By creating a narrator of such fuzzy reluctance, she offloads the confessionality onto these peripheral voices, emboldened to speak precisely by not bearing the burden of the novel’s focus. At the same time, by promoting these extras and crafting the book from their summarized stories, she dodges the embarrassing task of “having them do things.”
In one representative section, the narrator, teaching a creative writing workshop, thinks while gazing out the window at a cloud: “I heard the students speaking and wondered how they could believe in human reality sufficiently to construct fantasies about it.” The workshop continues without her instruction, digressing from a student’s appreciation of his dog, a Saluki, to a several page biographical account of the breeder from whom he purchased his dog, to a history of Saluki breeding and dog training, culminating in an philosophical riff regarding “the unitary self being broken down, of consciousness not as an imprisonment in one’s perceptions, but rather as something more intimate and less divided, a universality that could come from shared experience at the highest level.” Here, our narrator turns away from the window and asks another question that occasions two pages of reported introspection.
This is extraneity elevated to art, an aesthetic choice that strikes me as perverse in several senses. It is perverse in its effect, in the engrossing alienation it creates. It also seems grandly perverse for an author reportedly hostile to fiction, and the artificial demands of invention it imposes on writer and inflicts on reader, to create a book from marginal anecdotes. Read in this light, Transit can, at times, feel like an expression of this hostility, alerting the reader to the arbitrariness of story by telling dozens of arbitrary stories.
It is also surprisingly effective. The accumulation of peripherality works as both a critique of narrative, and as narrative in its own right. Though perhaps narrative isn’t the word, exactly — it’s more of a thematic scaffolding, as experienced by the exquisitely inert and receptive character at the center of the novel. Her receptiveness is sincere, and in the end, I don’t believe that Transit is fundamentally an exercise in formal cleverness. There is a generous spirit behind this storytelling mode, articulated elegantly in the last scene of the book:
What mattered was to learn how to…see the forms and patterns in the things that happened, to study their truth. It was hard to do that while still believing in identity…just as it was hard to listen while you were talking. I had found out more, I said, by listening than I had ever thought possible.
And through this listening, what a reader hears, in the end, is philosophy. I find these novels (a third in this loose trilogy is slated for release in 2018 or 2019) best appreciated as philosophical tracts, full of mini-disquisitions on subjects like representation, literature, authenticity, modernity, hate, anger, and love, among many others. By the end, my reader’s copy was full of little colored flags marking places where I’d admired the clarity of Cusk’s perceptions, trains of thought worked fully through in her smooth and stylish prose. Try this: “The idea — of one’s own life as something that had already been dictated — was strangely seductive, until you realized that it reduced other people to the moral status of characters and camouflaged their capacity to destroy.” Or:
He had come to the conclusion…that up to a certain point his whole life had been driven by needing things rather than liking them, and that once he had started interrogating it on this basis, the whole thing had faltered and collapsed…He was used to being with [his wife]: once she was gone he was left with a need that could not satisfy itself because the cycle of repetition had been broken. But he had started to realise that what he called need was actually something else, was more a question of surfeit, of the desire to have something in limitless supply. And by its nature that thing would have to be relatively worthless, like [a] cheese sandwich, of which there was an infinite and easily accessible number.
The peripheral narrative construction of Transit — the feints and evasions and elisions — is finally peripheral to the central pleasure: spending time with the book’s animating intelligence. The slipperiness of this intelligence — the refusal to express itself in banalities like plot and conflict — can be frustrating at times, but is also integral to its character. It is a perceptual mode that is necessarily elusive, and it builds something up into the air like a tower that is all crossbeams, a tree that is all branches.