I'm in the middle of the most recent National Book Award winner The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard. It's an oppressive book both in style and content. Each description comes with an aside or a qualification. When one character, a young Australian soldier, relieves himself on the side of the road during a break in a drive across the Japanese countryside, Hazzard describes it this way: "The young driver, profiting from the hiatus, had meanwhile peed behind bushes." Everywhere there are these odd little inclusions like "profiting from the hiatus." The book is about the occupation of a shattered, destroyed, and conquered place, specifically the Allied occupation of post-war Japan. There is still everywhere the lingering hysteria of war, which Hazzard, like the occupiers she describes, tries to forget or ignore by imposing a false civility on the situation. The interplay of the conquered and the conquerors thus leads to dense language and curious juxtaposition. The Great Fire reminds me a lot of what was probably the first truly difficult book I ever read, Graham Greene's, The Power and the Glory. In that book, the "civilized" is a priest and the uncivilized is the tropical criminality of Mexico. Luis Bunuel once suggested to Alvaro Mutis, purveyor of his own brand of magical realism and author of the incomparable The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, that it is not possible to write a gothic novel that is set in the tropics. Mutis supposedly refuted this by writing The Mansion & Other Stories, though I can't comment because (as of yet) I have been unable to lay my hands on that book. So, at this point, I would have to agree with Bunuel. In order to invoke the tropics one must also invoke the oppressiveness of the conditions there; content dictates style, which brings me back to The Great Fire. Though the book is not set in the tropics, its setting is oppressive, and thus so is the writing. And though I'm only a little ways into the book, it doesn't seem like this is a bad thing.
In the Province of Saints, a first novel by the Irish writer - and Iowa Writers' Workshop grad - Thomas O'Malley is being compared to Angela's Ashes. The subject here is a down-on-its-luck family in an Ireland of the late 70s and early 80s that was still ravaged by sectarian violence. PW says "his sentences have a judicious clarity even as they twist into gnarled shapes; they carry O'Malley's characters though their incomprehension with poise and assurance." Here's one excerpt and another. The book comes out in late August.Xue Xinran was a radio show host in China before she moved to England. Her first book, The Good Women of China collected the stories she heard from women who called in to her radio show. Xinran's first novel, Sky Burial, is fictionalized from a story she heard in her more recent journalistic endeavors. It's about a couple split up by the conflict in Tibet in the 1950s. Scott recently pointed to this review in the SF Chronicle, and PW says, "Woven through with fascinating details of Tibetan culture and Buddhism, Xinran's story portrays a poignant, beautiful attempt at reconciliation." The book is out this week. Here's an excerpt.
● ● ●
I first experienced ennui while solving a crossword puzzle -- no, not the actual feeling of listlessness or dissatisfaction; rather, that’s when I first encountered the word. My adventures in a new tongue had begun, a strange language called Crosswordese, which consists of words used often by crossword makers but rarely experienced in the real world. (By the way, in Crosswordese, a crossword maker is known as a cruciverbalist.) Do you speak Crosswordese? When you lose a button from a shirt and can’t find the sewing kit, do you ask your partner where the etui is kept? Might you sometimes mischievously refer to margarine as oleo? Have you ever stridden into a church just to point out what a great apse it has? I started a life of crossword-solving as a teenager, almost three decades before my first novel, Black Chalk, was published, and I give credit to the world of puzzles for helping foster my interest in language. But crosswords are about more than accumulating words: crosswords are about having fun with words; crosswords are, in fact, about loving words. Among my favorite crossword clues are the following (answers at the bottom of this piece in case you want to solve): HIJKLMNO? (5 letters) Site of unexpected change? (4 letters) Where there’s a Will? (12 letters) See, crosswords encourage you to play with language. And, as a novelist, I get to play in the sandbox of words every day. But more than just aiding in a love of language, more than just encouraging you to have fun with words, crosswords also stimulate skills such as lateral thinking, humor, and synonym use. You could say that crosswords are the ideal training tool for a novelist. But the ways in which puzzles have affected my life as a novelist go deeper than the mere enjoyment of solving crosswords. In my early 20s, having discovered that I absolutely loathed Law (the subject of my college degree and subsequent training, and the area in which my parents wished me to work), I needed to find a job. I had known for some time that I wanted to be a novelist, but at that tender age I think I felt too young to write fiction. (And I know I felt considerably too scared.) So instead of turning to novels right away, I got a job in another area I loved: puzzles. And for years, I edited and compiled all sorts of puzzles -- crosswords, logic problems, word searches, sudoku, riddles, spot the difference...How could all of this fail to leach into my fiction? If Black Chalk reads like a puzzle (and many reviewers have stated as much) then it is as much because of my work in that field as it is because I enjoy challenging myself -- I really do like tormenting myself with plot problems, it seems. As a writer you sit on your own in a small room for a very long time -- and one of the ways I like to keep myself entertained, it turns out, is by constantly pivoting and twisting my plots like the pieces of a Rubik’s Cube until I come across a pattern I find particularly pleasing. It feels to me that staring at the blank page is a lot like staring at a blank crossword grid. When I make up a crossword, I have, say, a theme and 10 or a dozen answers that I want to place in the grid. And when I set out to write a novel, I have a theme and 10 or a dozen plot points or developments that I want to place in the story. And so the challenge, in both cases, becomes one of getting everything to interlock, of making everything work together, a matter of filling in the gaps in the most pleasing way possible. Because, let’s face it, what better way is there than solving puzzles to stave off the feeling of…I’m stumbling for the right word here…It’s something like boredom…Dammit, I’m supposed to be good at synonyms…Ah, that’s it: ennui. ⅄∀M∀H⊥∀H ƎNN∀ ؛∀ℲOS ؛(¡O oʇ\ᄅ H) ᴚƎ⊥∀M :sɹǝʍsu∀ Image Credit: Flickr/Chip Griffin
● ● ●
Today in my mailbox, I found a hardcover edition of Roberto Bolaño's 2666. Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I've become something of a Bolaño-phile in the last year... in fact, I already read the English translation of 2666, the late Chilean author's magnum opus, this summer, in galley form. And so the arrival of the finished book was a pleasant surprise.Superficially, I can report that the dustjacket is a little disappointing; its reproduction of Gustave Moreau's "Jupiter and Semele" appears mildly washed-out to me, and the author's name gets a bit lost. In all other particulars, though - the wonderful, sea-sponge endpapers, the sturdy cloth binding, the great typefaces - 2666 has the look of a masterpiece. (The three-paperback edition is handsome, too.)That said, looking like a masterpiece is pretty meaningless. How the book reads is what matters. While I plan to write at greater length in the next month about the contents of 2666, I noted with some interest an early review from Kirkus, excerpted in the press materials: "Unquestionably the finest novel of the present century - and we may be saying the same thing 92 years from now." This is heady stuff, but once you've read the novel, it doesn't seem hyperbolic; rather, it's an indicator of the high stakes for which Bolaño was playing in this, his last book.Back in May, I wondered if critics were going to recognize the seriousness of the attempt, or whether, Kakutani-like, they would draw an invidious comparison with the more accessible The Savage Detectives. I guess we'll soon find out.
● ● ●