John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
At the end of The Snow of the Admiral, the first novella to feature Maqroll the Gaviero, or “Lookout,” the hero finds himself presiding over the remote café of Flor Estévez, “the woman who understood him best and shared the exaggerated scope of his dreams.” Situated high on a plateau, the roadside stop has a dramatic bathroom—patrons, mainly passing truckers, must walk out onto a jerry-built deck and urinate into the ravine below, which is so deep that they can’t hear their pee hitting ground. It is only fitting that an “uncommon urinal” so perched should have such elevated bathroom graffiti, a sample of which succinctly lays out the ethos behind the Gaviero’s adventures: “I am the disordered creator of the most obscure routes, the most secret moorings. Their uselessness, their undiscovered location are what feed my days.” Unlike other epic heroes, Maqroll is armed only with a small collection of treasured books and a confidence that a hidden world of signs will reveal itself to him in due time.
Maqroll’s creator, the Colombian Álvaro Mutis, died last year at the age of 90 in Mexico City after a long career as a television executive, poet and, later, writer of the acclaimed Maqroll novellas, best known to American readers as collected in the NYRB Clasics edition The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. I can think of no better way to honor both the man and his singular hero possessed of an “incurable wanderlust” and a “vocation for defeat” than by quoting the latter’s bathroom graffiti, bits of wisdom written by the Gaviero in his seclusion. Some of these are gnomic: “Two metals exist that prolong life and sometimes grant happiness. Not gold or silver or anything else you can imagine. I only knew they exist.” Some convey practical advice: “Follow the ships. Follow the routes plowed by worn, melancholy vessels…Deny all shores.” And as befitting the long tradition of outhouse scribblings, women do come up, though in keeping with the fundamental gentillesse du coeur that defines Maqroll and his band of conspirators (no matter how shady their dealings), the tone is reverential:
Women never lie. Truth always points from the most secret folds of their bodies. Our lot is to interpret it with an implacable paucity. Many men never can and die in the inescapable blindness of their senses.
Needless to say, there are no phone numbers provided.
The Snow of the Admiral was spun out from a short prose poem. (Maqroll was conceived in poetry, a recurring character in Mutis’ poems before featuring in his prose works.) The novella describes Maqroll’s eerie journey up a fictional South American river and into “the half-light of the immeasurable jungle’s vegetation.” His scheme is to buy timber at a remote sawmill, whose location and very existence are in doubt, then sail it downriver to sell it a higher price.
Maqroll realizes at journey’s beginning that it is bound to end poorly, and thus the drama lies less in the specific plot turns of the disastrous adventure than in the otherworldliness of the tableaus: a nightmarish orgy involving an Indian family and a Slavic “blond giant”; the life-threatening fever contracted from the encounter; the harrowing upstream navigation of the rapids in the barely functioning boat, preceded by a “barbaric” litany recited by its alcoholic captain; the sawmill in the middle of nowhere, no less illusory for being real, a “floating Gothing marvel of aluminum and glass lit by that morguish light and lulled by the gentle hum of its electrical plant”; and Maqroll’s return to the isolated café, where he pauses for several years, spiritually exhausted and nursing a suppurating wound on his leg, a stoic Philoctetes in exile.
Over the next six books, a group of elect gathers around Maqroll, confreres whom John Updike astutely referred to as a kind of Arthurian roundtable: the Lebanese Abdul Bashur, partner in many adventures, the glamorous Ilona, the narrator, a zealous collector of all things Maqroll, and Alejandro Obregón, the expansive artist who seeks to paint the wind that Gaviero the Lookout has “so often watched as it comes toward the sails and then changes direction and never arrives.”
There are schemes aplenty: counterfeit rugs, arms running, gold mining, a timber operation run from the middle of a rain forest, a Panama City brothel staffed by fake airline stewardesses, signal flags to facilitate pirate communications and a Quixotic quest to buy the perfect tramp steamer of one’s dreams. Moreover, casual references to past adventures and doomed schemes, some eventually recounted, some destined to remain untold, are dropped like loose debris from a speeding flatbed truck.
Yet throughout the series, there is an ever-present tension between the limitless fund of stories accreting around Maqroll and his realization that all of his projects “empty into the same mudhole of ennui and bad luck.” Indeed, the serial production of the novellas works in some way to support Maqroll’s fatalistic contention that it’s all one story, that all men act the same, from the grand machinations of petty criminals to the petty machinations of the grand historical figures whom he reads about. (Maqroll’s journal in The Snow of the Admiral is discovered tucked away in a copy of Paul Raymond’s investigation into the assassination of Louis Duc d’Orléans in 1407.)
The recurring character needs to be both sharply delineated and a bit of a blank. The weary but charismatic Maqroll develops a cult of personality even as he refuses to impose his will on the adventures in which he becomes embroiled with “suspicious ease”:
The presence of danger, unspecified but obvious, plunged him into an all too familiar state of mind: ennui, a weary tedium that invited him to admit defeat, to halt the passage of his days, for they were all marked by a kind of venture in which someone else always profited, took the initiative, forced him into the role of the innocent dupe who served other people’s purposes without realizing it.
That word innocent stands out in regard to a man, however duped, is nonetheless so experienced, so thoughtful about life and so well read in history. But as his painter friend clarifies in a different adventure, Maqroll is an innocent in the Russian sense of the word, “which means vigilant servants of truth. And that’s the most dubious state there is for people.”
This “dubious state” perhaps explains Maqroll’s love affair with the past. Maqroll is a historical character, not in the sense of having actually lived but in his near Quixotic belief that he belongs to another, nobler age: “Maqroll’s ability to enter fully into another time, a world so foreign to the present, had often saved him from succumbing to the tribulations brought on by his nomadic calling.” Arrested after a brawl in Canada and asked what he does for a living, he tells that police only that he is “a Chouan lost in the twentieth century.” (A Chouan is a member of the 18th century, pro-royalist reaction to the French Revolution.) He gets a day in the cooler for his impertinence, though his curious admission is in some ways more revealing than the information on his forged Cypriot passport.
Maqroll’s sense of historical displacement, of “living in a time completely alien to [his] interests and tastes,” takes another form in Mutis’ nostalgia for tramp steamers, particularly those pieces of “nomadic sea trash” whose obsolescence only heighten their mythic allure. In The Tramp Steamer’s Last Port of Call, the narrator encounters such a ship in Helsinki, the first of several encounters all over the world with the dilapidated yet dignified vessel. He immediately feels a
…warm solidarity for the tramp steamer, as if it were an unfortunate brother, a victim of human neglect and greed to which it responded with a stubborn determination to keep tracing the dreary wake of its miseries on all the world’s seas.
As with Maqroll’s adventures, the tramp steamer’s demise is evident from the start; it is so covered in grime that its name, Halycon, must be inferred from the few visible letters. That end, when it does come during a storm, is memorable and violent, “like watching a prehistoric beast being torn to pieces by a voracious, inescapable enemy.”
Mutis could never bring himself to finish his hero off so definitively. Death, the one experience exotic enough to rescue Maqroll form his “mudhole of ennui,” is the Gaviero’s constant, tantalizing companion. In The Snow of the Admiral, Maqroll muses: “Perhaps my own death is beginning now. I don’t dare think about this too much.” And over the next six adventures, he is half in love with easeful death; his “nomadic mania” is an extended trial, less a series of discrete tests than a lifelong readying for the right death:
Each of us is cultivating, selecting, watering, pruning, shaping our own death. When it comes, it takes many forms, but its origin, the moral and even aesthetic circumstances that ought to shape it, is what really matters and makes it not tolerable, which is very rare, but at least harmonious with certain secret, profound conditions, certain requirements that have been forged by our being during the time of its existence and outlined by transcendent, ineluctable powers.
Maqroll’s is an “irredeemable odyssey” precisely because it will be redeemed in a different sense — not via a homecoming or a spectacular success, but through a lifelong, moral, and aesthetic commitment to “reckless wandering.” Now does the meaning of Maqroll’s “vocation for defeat” become clear; his is a vocation in the earliest sense, a spiritual calling, the resistance to becoming a protagonist in the “old, tired story of the men who try to beat life.” In a way, Maqroll lives to die.
And “die” he does throughout the novellas, multiple times, in multiple ways, his supposed end recounted by multiple sources of varying trustworthiness (including an account by Garcia Marquez, a good friend of Mutis’s). But a definitive notice proves elusive and he keeps coming back:
Artists and adventurers tend to plan their end so it can never be clearly deciphered by others. It is a privilege that has been theirs since the days of Orpheus the thaumaturge and the ingenious Ulysses…
It is no wonder then that on the scraps of paper collected by his chronicler on which Maqroll writes his adventures, his handwriting resembles Dracula’s Transylvanian scrawl. Like the famed vampire, Gaviero is immortal, and everyone around him knows it: “‘It doesn’t matter that you’ll die one day like the rest of us. That doesn’t change anything. You’re immortal for as long as you live.’”
No one knows why we have brains. We take for granted the brain’s associated functions—emotion, contemplation, special awareness, memory—and yet the reason some life on earth has a brain and other life doesn’t is an unanswerable question. Daniel Wolpert, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, theorizes the fundamental purpose of our brains is to govern movement, something necessary to humans but which trees and flowers can live without.
Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything is a brief and pithy recounting of Foer’s exploration of the fuzzy borders of his brain—a marveling at how and why it’s able to do something quite unexpected. Foer is a science writer and enthusiast of curiosities who’s worked for Discover, Slate, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Esquire. Moonwalking with Einstein is a chronicle of his year training to compete in the U.S. Memory Championships—an arcane competition among adherents to the method of loci, an ancient memory technique that makes it possible to retain great volumes of random information.
According to the theory, more commonly known as the Memory Palace, the human brain is capable of retaining huge amounts of information subconsciously. Details about color, texture, light, smell, and spatial arrangement are all absorbed in an instant, whether or not we’re aware of it. But we lose all the less immediate information, even when we want to remember: telephone numbers disappear, faces lose their names, and the year the Mexican-American War is irretrievable.
According to the method of the Memory Palace, first formulated by the Greek poet Simonedes, hard-to-retain facts can be pinned in place by transforming them into visual icons in an imagined location. Each fact would become a representative image–the more bizarre and lascivious the better. These images would be placed in a childhood home or a college dormitory, any intimately remembered location. In this way memory becomes a process of traveling through a non-sequitur mental landscape instead of a flailing for disappearing facts.
In mid-2005 Foer was a struggling, young writer living in his parents’ house in suburban Washington D.C. trying to make a living as a freelance writer. After a chance visit at the Weightlifting Hall of Fame, Foer started wondering if there was a Hall of Fame for smart people. Some cursory searches led him to the U.S. Memory Championships, where a small and eccentric group of mental athletes compete at memorizing long strings of two-digit numbers, the order of cards in a deck, and matching 99 faces and names after five minutes of exposure.
Ed Cooke, a confident young British competitor with a roving imagination, tells Foer that these seemingly impressive feats are within anyone’s grasp. Even Foer could become a competitor. Foer decides to test the theory and accepts Cooke’s tutelage. As he begins his training routine, picking locations for his own memory palaces and building a network of imagery to associate with various playing cards and number combinations, Foer also intersperses a survey of the brain’s biology and some of its strangest outliers.
He starts with the Greeks who considered memorization an essential part of human learning. “The great oral works transmitted a shared cultural heritage held in common not on bookshelves, but in brains,” Foer writes. One literally internalized philosophers’ arguments, histories, and poems. Knowledge didn’t come through exposure but through rumination and concise mastery born out of recall. Today we know where to look for answers, but the Greeks carried the answers within as instantly recallable memories.
The extent to which we’ve delegated the workings of memory to Google prompts a scary question about our culture. “What we’ve gained is indisputable. But what have we traded away? What does it mean that we’ve lost our memory?” It’s a sensational question and Foer–wittingly or not—proves our memories are mostly constant, and there isn’t actually a dramatic difference in mental capacity between memory champions and everyone else.
Before beginning his memory training Foer visits K. Anders Ericsson, a professor and researcher at Florida State University’s Department of Psychology. Foer describes Anderson as the “expert expert,” most popular for his theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in any field, an idea Malcolm Gladwell helped popularize in Outliers. Anderson and his aids spend three days studying Foer before his training, and again a year later after he has set the U.S. record by memorizing the order of a deck of cards in 1 minute and 42 seconds.
While Foer’s ability to recall numbers has increased more than two-fold, his functional memory—the everyday process that’s not given the luxury of palaces and non-sequitur burlesques—remains largely identical. In fact, Foer recalls taking the subway home after a dinner in downtown D.C. with friends to celebrate his achievement. Upon getting back to his parents’ house he remembered that he’d actually driven to the dinner and had left his car parked downtown without any further thought.
One of the overarching questions in Moonwalking with Einstein, then, is not whether we’ve been impoverished by the fleeing of memory techniques, but rather why memory masters don’t seem to gain any irrefutable benefits from leading their field. Indeed, Foer describes a few people with brains predisposed to having powerful memories in dysfunctional terms.
There is S., a Russian journalist in the late 1920’s who never took notes in editorial meetings and still remembered addresses, names, and instructions perfectly. He was the subject of a seminal neuropsychological study on the brain and memory, and yet he had trouble holding a job and experienced many of the same traits that would later be ascribed to autistic savants.
Then there is Kim Peek, the Utah man who memorized phonebooks and was the inspiration for the movie Rain Man. Peek’s memory didn’t need the rigorous training and discipline practiced by mental athletes. And yet he required a caretaker (his father) all his life and never held a job or moved beyond the thrill of memorizing town populations and mountain elevations.
Foer acknowledges the perversity required to take a normally functioning memory and force it to work more like Peek’s or S’s. At one point he has to stop using the image of his grandmother in his card memorizing routine because the vulgar actions he subjects her to are too disturbing. Cooke similarly excised his mother from his practice, preferring instead celebrities and sports figures who can be contorted, defiled, and penetrated without rippling any darker waters.
In order to memorize faster and in greater volume, one has to push one’s brain to the outer limits of incoherence. To create a record of external order the memorizer must make a non-sequitur carnival of their inner orders, connecting a 5 of Clubs to the image of Dom DeLuise karate kicking Pope Benedict XVI, or a queen of spades to Rhea Perlman anally penetrating ex-NBA star Manute Bol. What rescues these discrepant fantasies is the tie to a rather dull system of real world meanings, which might not have been worth remembering in any case.
What’s most interesting about Foer’s book is not its value as an idea exploration—he well documents how the Memory Palace has already been exploited by salesman and self-promoters—but in the kernel of a confession about his own life. Foer describes Moonwalking With Einstein as participatory journalism, but he never gets very far in describing who he is and what lay beneath the ordered surface of his account as a grown man living with his parents, trying to make a career out of writing stories about the country’s largest popped corn kernel, whilst privately carrying on a year-long project of memorizing random number strings aided by a pair of blackout goggles.
Foer writes in a conversational but distant vernacular, like someone telling a curious story at a cocktail party and all the while talking around the less entertaining truths below the surface. His describes Perlman’s and Bol’s encounter as a “highly explicit (and in this case, anatomically improbable) two-digit act of congress.” It’s belabored for comic effect, but the obfuscation deadens the image itself, scandalizing something that is a natural product of Foer’s creativity.
In this regard, Moonwalking With Einstein fits handily inline with the recent tradition of “big idea” books that take a breezy survey of scientific inquiry and discover some general truisms. In place of George Plimpton’s lyrical self-awareness it has Gladwell’s impersonal concision and Steven Johnson’s sense of portent without quite proving anything. Given enough time, all science writing—no matter how casually or clinically it is presented—winds up being wrong. Likewise, any work of participatory journalism that finds the undertaking more interesting than the author is bound for obscurity. What endures is the record of the human experience not the best scientific explanations our generation—and one’s past—could come up with.
Foer is moving all around some of the most personal ideas in human experience–the intersection of the erotic imagination, nostalgia, lust for new experiences, and the tiny electrical impulses that accompany them. When Foer wonders if the loss of poetic immersion once common in antiquity is debilitating today, I immediately think of Lolita. “I am thinking of aurochs and angels, the secret of durable pigments, prophetic sonnets, the refuge of art. And this is the only immortality you and I may share, my Lolita.”
As with Wolpert’s theory that the brain is necessary for movement, Foer describes the idea that everything we understand in the world is built on the recorded images of the past. This is how we can all have such different experiences of fixed historical events—the election of a president or two hours in a movie theater. This is why both the places that form the locus of memory, and the ghostly signifiers that populate them, are unique to the holder of the memory–always a childhood home or school. And yet all we are ever doing is moving from one place to the other, creating muscle memory for a neuron to send out an electrical pilgrim from one place to another.
When I criticize Foer for being impersonal, it is a product of my own confessional instincts. My own writing is the kind of memoiristic turning of the embers that has become a cliché in an age of blogs and self-published novels by thrift shop dilettantes, who seek to prove themselves by bending the non-sequitur memory into something sensible; an image that will survive with or without its associated deck of cards.
In the same way that science writing winds up being wrong in some way or another, few of my own scraps of memory have been true. There is always some detail wrong. I once described an ex-girlfriend with black hair. “I have brown hair,” she wrote me after reading it. I’d moved across the country for her so hair color was a painful thing to get wrong. Likewise, the details of my childhood, travels, career, who was there during big events in my life—these details are all less there than I think. So too Foer’s mnemonic Greeks, who remembered The Odyssey in the broad strokes but varied the details and line orders while still thinking they had it syllable for syllable.
When I try and pull a specific image through the blurred depth of field time sets in between, I find the need to invent something becomes instinctual, almost thoughtless. This is the spirit moving through Foer’s book, the Albert Einstein who moonwalks down an empty suburban hallway—a figure that never was, now a memory that can’t be erased.
Zach Brennan is staff writer for two health publications in Washington, D.C.The storyline is simple: a Portuguese physician and occasional poet, Ricardo Reis, returns to Portugal after sixteen years in Brazil. First he lives in a hotel and then he moves to an apartment. He loves two women, one is a chambermaid and the other is a virgin with a limp arm. The beginning of the Spanish revolution, and rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar are set in the background. That’s about it for plot.Jose Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, instead, centers The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis on the memories and tangents of the wandering, flawed, bored Reis and his meditations on art, sexual fantasies, and conversations with the ghost of his dead friend and fellow poet, Fernando Pessoa. The tension between storyline and uninhibited details and thought processes of Reis create questions that will not be answered directly by him or the narrative.The book begins with a quote from the title character:”Wise is the man who contents himself with the spectacle of the world.” -Ricardo ReisI thought it was unorthodox to begin a novel with a quote from the title character, so I looked up Reis and found that he was actually a heteronym (a poet develops an imaginary character and personality in order to write in a different style) for the real Fernando Pessoa, an early 20th-century Portuguese poet.So it’s not surprising that the poetic conversations between Reis and Pessoa, now a ghost in Saramago’s novel, concentrate on the metaphysical relationships between the living and dead, the artist and his art, and also parallel what could be Saramago’s own apprehensions about his creative progeny.Pessoa says to Reis, his creation, “We mourn the man whom death takes from us, and the loss of his miraculous talent and the grace of his human presence, but only the man do we mourn, for destiny endowed his spirit and creative powers with a mysterious beauty that cannot perish.”The conversations mix seamlessly with Saramago’s aphorisms, without paragraph breaks or chapters or standard quotation marks or even line breaks for speaker transitions. The sentence structure is similar to the Chilean author Roberto Bolano’s and is easy to wander in and out of like a dream.Reis, like Bolano, is a wanderer who doesn’t seem content trying to describe his reasons for returning to Portugal, nor his relationships with two women, nearly his only contact with the outside world beyond his discussions with Pessoa. This failure of explanation also seems reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose characters don’t quite understand or question why they’ve initially interacted and then fallen in love.The novel takes patience but rewards careful reading, and can be supplemented with a reading of Pessoa’s poems, written as Ricardo Reis, as well as an understanding of Reis’ motto:See life from a distance.Never question it.There’s nothing it canTell you. The answerLies beyond the Gods.
The first thing you may hear about Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, is that it took nine years to find a publisher. The second is that it is brilliant, the winner of multiple literary prizes, and that McBride is, as Anne Enright put it in a 2013 review, “that old-fashioned thing, a genius.” First published in the U.K. by a small independent publisher, Galley Beggar, in 2013, A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing has finally made it to America thanks to another small independent publisher, Coffee House Press.
There is undeniable romance to the misunderstood genius narrative, but I have to admit that the first thing I thought when I began this bracing, unrelenting, and audacious novel was that I could understand why it took almost a decade to find an editor. From page one it’s a tough read, both in terms of subject matter and style. Here’s the novel’s third paragraph, in which the novel’s unnamed narrator, at this point an infant in utero, describes the illness that has befallen her older brother:
I know. The thing wrong. It’s a. It is called. Nosebleeds, headaches. Where you can’t hold. Fall mugs and dinner plates she says clear up. Ah young he says give the child a break. Fall off swings. Can’t or. Grip well. Slipping in the muck. Bang your. Poor head wrapped up white and the blood come through. She feels the sick of that. Little boy head. Shush.
A few broken sentences later, we get the diagnosis: “It’s all through his brain like the roots of trees.”
I don’t mean to sound glib, but from here, things only get worse. To give a brief, vague summary, this book is about a girl born into a diseased situation — literally and metaphorically — and how she uses her sexuality to cope with it. The sentences remain broken and inarticulate throughout the novel, even after the narrator is born, grows up, and comes of age. This novel does not shy away from the world’s cruelty. There were times when I had to look away from the page despite the opaque-ness of the prose. There were times when I was worried for the physical well being of the narrator. There were times when I had to disengage from the story, because the scenes of abuse and violence were too harsh. It’s not the kind of book that makes you cry; it’s the kind of book that shakes you up. While reading this novel, I had several dreams about terrible things happening to my son. Yes, this book actually gave me nightmares. And yet I did not want to stop reading it.
I finished this book a couple days ago and I wanted to write about it immediately, to capture my visceral response. Still, just a few days away from it has given me a chance to wonder, from a calmer place, what is it about this terrifying book that held my attention. The prose, while arresting and utterly unique, is slightly repellant. If I re-read a sentence, it was often to figure out what was happening — although I was surprised by how quickly I adjusted to the novel’s fragmented style. I quickly began to appreciate how much information McBride was available to convey in her short, snapshot paragraphs. In this scene, a classic first-day-of-school scenario is rendered completely new by McBride’s breakneck prose:
I be new girl. I could wish to be dead but for the wrong of it. To have to be saying again again where I come from. Who I am. And I’m from someplace so much littler than this. That redneck culchie. Backward. Farmyard. I am all these things to the great girl face. Those herd. Such bovine swinging heifers. Come don’t hate me. All your walkmans fizz in tune, in time with conversation, point graffitis on the bus, love this one that one. New girl stinks.
Here’s another schoolyard scene, in which the narrator’s brother, who has survived brain cancer but is left with scars, lies to a group of older boys about their origins:
You say, and shock me, a knife did it. Silence. For the first time impressed. They cannot delve you all a sudden.
It’s the word “delve” that brought me up short. It suggests a shovel, a blunt instrument, and the blunt way these bullies are trying to get at the source of her brother’s pain, which is on the surface for everyone to see. “Delve” also has an echo of playground rhymes: one, two, buckle my shoe, three, four, shut the door…eleven, twelve, dig and delve. There is also something striking about “a knife did it.” The phrase is eerie, a reminder of all the surgeries (“going under the knife”) the brother has undergone.
In yet another scene of schoolyard brutality, the brother is unable to defend himself:
Bulged indignated. The bullish face fat with humiliation. Handicap. Handicap. One from the back gets the ball. Kicks and aims. It strikes your face. Bleared with mud. And knock you over. Laughter. Laughter. Never ever will it stop. Not ever again. The bell rings and release for you from that place.
“Indignated,” “bleared,” “release for you” — these word are at their root, the right words, but are jammed to fit the experience, like sawed-off puzzle pieces. Never mind if they’re in the right tense, never mind if they are paired with the right pronouns (or any pronoun), never mind if they are even being deployed correctly. There is no precision in this narrator’s world. No steadiness. Only movement and feeling.
Bits of familiar language seep through. Not familiar in the sense of slang or cliché, but bones-of-the-English-language familiar, half-scraps of Shakespeare and Milton, and the King James Bible, too. The narrator’s mother is deeply, ruthlessly religious, and at once point McBride simply writes the Lord’s Prayer as a single paragraph, a scrap of prayer wedged between two paragraphs seared with the guilt of sexual abuse. It’s striking how well the prayer fits, the words written in one headlong sentence without commas or a breath taken, just the way the narrator would say it.
I could go on about McBride’s prose, but ultimately I don’t think that’s why I kept reading this book. Nor was I compelled by the horror of the story. I had deep sympathy for the narrator, but it was complicated by the narrator’s intensely self-destructive behavior. It’s hard to spend time with someone who is so hell-bent on suffering, who rejects friendship, tenderness, comfort, laughter. But I realized that she does not reject love. The problem is she is so rarely offered it. In the wake of her brother’s illness, her parents have nothing in reserve for her. As a young woman, her uncle sexually abuses her. She’s capable of deep friendships with other women, but she is so full of self-loathing that she runs away from anyone who truly cares. Her brother is the only person she loves unconditionally and who is able to give her that love in return. “I swim to your touch” — that’s the narrator, in utero, already more attuned to her brother’s presence than anyone else in the world, including her mother. It’s this thread of love that sustains the novel and keeps it from becoming an unending tale of misery. It’s also what gives weight and power to the novel’s most beautifully written passages.
A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is already a literary sensation, the recipient of numerous awards, including the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize), for which she competed against several highly-lauded novels, including Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I haven’t read The Goldfinch, but I have read The Lowland and Americanah, and while I have affection for those novels, especially Americanah, they didn’t startle me the way McBride’s debut did. There is something so desperate and prayerful about this book, something so burned-out and raw, that it’s hard to simply recommend. I can only say that it was worth reading, and that I’m grateful that it finally found its publishers.