Andrea Levy’s Small Island is a post-colonial novel told from four points of view. Queenie and Bernard, separated by war, are a British couple with a tepid relationship and Hortense and Gilbert are Jamaican, married out of convenience and lured to England by opportunity. The book explores British racism in the 1950s. It’s less overtly ugly than its American cousin, but it nonetheless dictates the borders of the lives of Gilbert, Hortense and their fellow immigrants. Britain, long the colonizer, renowned for her Empire, in Small Island has reached a point where it would like to forget about the past and start from scratch. This time all these people of different colors can stay in their own lands. But, of course, this is not an option. Instructed by centuries of colonialism to believe they are British subjects and stirred up by the global tumult of World War II, immigrants from all over the world resettle in their “Mother Country.” Nearly all of the white folks in the book are like Bernard, dismissive and even affronted by the arrival of darker people on their shores. They stare, heckle, slam doors and on occasion take a swing at these people. It matters not that thousands of Jamaicans fought along side the British during the war. It is telling that most of the British folks Gilbert interacts with think that Jamaica is in Africa. Queenie, however, is the anomaly and perhaps even a cliche since so often these novels of race relations have at their center an enlightened white person. But luckily Levy gives her sufficient depth to carry a large chunk of the novel. What sets this book apart, and what probably helped Levy win awards for it – the Orange prize in 2004 and then this year’s Orange “Best of the Best” – was her ability to imbue each of the four narrators with his or her own voice. Gilbert and Hortense speak with the native rhythm of their home island, Bernard’s voice is pinched and fidgety, and Queenie is the voice of hope and happiness. Though the chapter headings indicate who will narrate each chapter, the voices are so distinctive that this touch is unnecessary.
I have touched upon Stephen King's much maligned reputation from time to time on this blog, and so it was a real pleasure to read a book that reinforced all of the things that I like about his writing. King's aim is, first and foremost, to entertain his reader, to engage him, to reach out from the page and take hold of him. This seems like something that every writer would want to do, but how true is that really? It seems like most writers want to create something that is either "good" or "successful," those being code words for "literary" and "bestseller," respectively. Which writers, however, tell you again and again that they wish most of all to entertain? Few, if any, besides Stephen King have this aim. Read the introduction to Everything's Eventual or any of On Writing or the various non-fiction pieces he has written over the years and you will see that this is true. King entertains by pulling his reader in, by talking to him from the page. If King is really rolling, as you are reading you will feel as though you are being addressed by him. The short story, with its tight structure and limited length, proves to be especially potent when combined with King's desire to take you in. He leads you one way, then another. He steps over the line and gives you gore, but only because it is absolutely necessary, and when you finish a story you feel like you've been for a ride; it's a giddy feeling. And in this book you get it 14 times. I've also always enjoyed King's rapport with his readers. He is not aloof about his writing, and telling his readers about his writing seems as enjoyable to him as writing the books themselves. In Everything's Eventual each story is either preceded or followed by a page explaining how the story came to be. There is no coyness about such things; just as there is no coyness in King's fiction. These stories speak for themselves, they are about what they are about, so what's wrong with a little background info? In fact, I think King recognizes that it is normal for readers to be curious about such things, and, not caring what a critic might think of such a move, he chooses, as he usually does, to indulge his readers. Why, does he bother doing this... any of this? I think it is because he is a born writer who happens to derive joy from a pastime that most people, including many of the most praised writers who ever walked the earth, find lonely and torturous. I love reading Stephen King because, in his typically insidious way, when I read his books it makes me wish that all of my reading were that fun.Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire is jumping to the front of the "Reading Queue" because I have to read it for the book club I run. Also, you may have noticed that the comment function has disappeared. Blogspeak, my comment host, was run out of business by its hosting company and now all of their accounts are in the process of being transferred over to Halo Scan. I hope this happens soon because I miss all of your little voices.
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Want Not craves pride of place with such “sprawling” novels of social commentary as Infinite Jest and Freedom. Surprisingly, though, it turns out not to be a didactic story about reducing, reusing, and recycling. It may be just the opposite, a subversive argument that we are focusing our attention on the wrong sort of waste.
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Sometimes subject matter is secondary. John McPhee, for example, can write about long-haul trucking or lacrosse, subjects I’ve got no interest in, and I’ll read each word and marvel at how he’s able to make the topics so compelling, rich, and human. Kerry Howley’s subject matter, in her potent and consuming debut Thrown, falls into the same disinterest bin as trucking and lax, but she brings such vigor and aliveness, such seductive use of detail and tension, that it’s impossible not to lose oneself in the bloody, funny, brutal, balletic world of mixed martial arts. In other words, I don’t care about cage fighting, ultimate fighting, MMA; Kerry Howley made me care. Bored and disillusioned at an academic conference on phenomenology, Howley, an essayist who’s written for the Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and a graduate of the University of Iowa’s non-fiction program, wanders off for a break from the blowhards. She happens upon a sign that announces the Midwest Cage Championship, and takes a seat in the crowd. She’d never seen a fight before, and is taken in immediately, the blood and spectacle in righteous opposition to the chatter about Husserlian intentionality she’d just fled and academic ivory-towerdom in general. “It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses,” she writes, “such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.” This first fight, witnessed by accident, is a path-changer, and Thrown is the account of Howley inserting herself into the lives of two cage fighters. Sean is an aging jab-eater, a fighter looking at his last chances who moves “like a fat man on hot coals”; Erik is a rising star, tall and lean, “a slippery-fast blossoming prodigy.” Howley gains her place as a “spacetaker,” a step up from a groupie, part of a fighter’s inner posse, with access to most aspects of their living, from the size of their burritos and videogame habits to fraternal feuds, possible parenthood, forehead sutures, and months and months of training for minutes of combat in the octagon. She gets close to Sean and Erik both and masterfully builds tension in the lead-ups to fights--not only will they or won’t they or how well will they do, but will she still be welcomed into the fray. Howley is aware of the fragility of her role, how tenuous the position of spacetaker is--a trusted member of the group can be snubbed at any moment. It’s necessarily a physical book, and there’s sex between some lines: “I lay in bed at night picturing Erik thrown back in the swell, all his perfect plenitude, the pressure of his abundance, the way it would overbrim its boundaries at some unknown date and time. I could only wait, the energy all gathered and damned up in my limbs, for the moment of release I knew to be coming.” These fights for her are orgasm, are ecstasy. What Howley finds during the first fight she stumbles on, and what she chases afterwards is exactly that experience of ecstasy, and she places the sport, and herself as a spectator, in a long tradition of ecstatic spectacle. The Lotus Eaters, the frenzied maenads, spirit questers on peyote. To experience this sort of ecstasy is to be removed from oneself, to be stripped of the body’s tired reminders of hunger, thirst, need. “The categories of sight and sound no longer applied,” Howley writes, “for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear.” So it’s not just the drama of busted elbows, landed punches, and split brows, though Howley’s descriptions of bodies in fight are memorable; something much greater is at stake. There’s epic poetry in the cadence of her sentences, a Homeric sort of rhythm: “When the man in charge ran out of fighters he’d ask the fighters to fight again, and Sean always said yes. He never lost an amateur fight, not once. Thirty times he fought this way.” Howley signals with the elevated language, and with references to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, that what we’re dealing with here is not just two dudes kicking the shit out of each other on a mat, but something on the level of war and wandering of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and perhaps even more elevated than that. It’s a brushing up against the eternal, the infinite, and it’s antithetical to paying bills on time, desk jobs, and high fiber cereal. One of the most striking aspects of the book, and one I found most compelling, is Howley’s disdain for conventional middle-class life. I suspect some will find it offputting when she writes: “I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.” Or “Should I ever decide to spawn a nuclear family and enjoy their dull companionship between bouts of desk-ridden drudgery--to live, that is, in what Sartre called “Bad Faith--I shall return with all due haste to [my hometown]. But until then, I resist the temptation, lest the comfort and simplicity of a conformist life suck me back into its maw.” The fights and her fighters serve as antidote to the “entangling mundanities of the ordinary world.” There’s an electricity here, a welcome and unexpected fervency in opposition to the widespread messages we get regarding rest, weddings, carbohydrates. We’re all of us looking for people to justify and reinforce our own choices (which is why some no doubt will feel scoffed at by Howley), and she justifies hers with a quote from Nietzsche: “A preference for questionable and terrifying things is a symptom of strength.” One’s left wondering what pulls Howley in those directions. Early in the book, she makes short and offhand mention of a fact about her parents which I had to read three times to make sure I understood, and it raised questions the answers to which could only be guessed at. What we know: Howley seeks to flee the self and the battles serve as an expressway to that end. But if fighting is a fleeing, so is storytelling: “All narrators are fiction,” Howley writes. The book is about fighting, yes, about an extreme sport and some of the men involved, who maybe aren’t, after all, Odysseus or Hector, but possessing of a more earthbound sort of humanity and heroism. It’s about the the strong pull of home, the powerful binds of blood, and the press, everpresent, of time. In what we seek, Howley shows us what we fear. We flee ourselves--in fights, in sex, in the light hitting the trees in the late afternoon, in the bottom of a third glass of wine--to find something else, to escape time and entangling mundanities, in an effort, ultimately, to avoid the experience of being alone.
The first thing you’ll notice upon opening Harbors by Donald Quist are the two epigraphs introducing the collection of essays, the first by Alfred, Lord Tennyson and the second by Lucille Clifton. Clifton is a contemporary black American poet, and the former Poet Laureate of Maryland, where Quist spent most of his early childhood years. Clifton is steeped in feminist politics and pushes poetic boundaries, a contrast to the British Victorian embodied by Tennyson. This white European bard held the Poet Laureateship for both Great Britain and Ireland and is lauded for his attention to craft and melodious lines. Beginning with these two poets makes sense. It highlights Quist’s respect for both classic literature, as well as its projected future -- we must know our history in order to understand the future. Like the diverse geographical regions from which his introductory poets hail, Quist always has his feet firmly planted in multiple homelands: Maryland and South Carolina, U.S. and Thailand, the double consciousness of being both black and American. His duality starts at conception, since his mother is black American and his father Ghanaian. This doubleness affects even the identification of the book’s genre. This collection seems more like creative non-fiction because of its use of the author’s name in many of the pieces, but the publisher has labeled the group essays. But these days it is increasingly common to blend/blur/bend genres, so wrestling with how to label this collection is essentially futile. Sadly, many readers may have missed Donald Quist’s first debut short story collection, Let Me Make You a Sandwich, because it was a self-published collection funded mostly by Kickstarter fan pledges. However, readers should investigate Let Me because it also serves as a primer of sorts for Harbors. Where Quist truly excels in Harbors is when he utilizes and creates new forms. “Tanglewood” is written entirely in the risky second person point-of-view. Of course, writers such as Junot Díaz, Claudia Rankine, Pam Houston and others have popularized second-person narration. But despite its quasi-popularity, it’s a gamble, because the narration is difficult to sustain for extended amounts of time. A different kind of POV experimentation occurs in “In Other Words,” where Quist the narrator speaks from both the “I” of Donald as well as the “I” of his wife, “P.” This crafty trick allows the narrator to critique himself with a fine-toothed comb: “He says, ‘Why do I live in this country?’ I ask him what he means, assuming he’s just being dramatic -- Donald is very dramatic.” Occasionally this shifting point of view can be confusing, but whatever messiness it creates, the dazzling results are worth it. The essay “Lesson Plan” begins as a written academic lesson plan similar to what Quist’s narrator, and Quist himself, would use in his own classroom that he heads in Thailand. It ends in “Notes for Citation,” but twice erupts into a Q&A from the narrator’s students. This Q&A may seem rudimentary, but the issues discussed bring racial stereotypes back into focus without settling for easy answers. “Have you sold drugs? --Yes, but that wasn’t why I was arrested. Why were you arrested? --I did something I shouldn’t have done and it’s a lot easier to get arrested in America when you look like me. Why is it easier to get arrested? --Because of racial bias, but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Or maybe it isn’t.” Two of the most touching stories (and more traditional in format) are “Junk” and “Till Next Time, Take Care Of Yourselves, And Each Other.” The first is a moving account of the narrator’s (and his wife’s) decision to clean up his mother’s house before he goes overseas, a task complicated by the fact that the mother is a hoarder. She is also simultaneously dealing with the slow deterioration of her eyesight due to a medical condition. The story tugged at my emotions. I know the mother’s tendency to hold on too long to household items won’t help her hold on to her son. “I might not be able to correct my mother’s junk eyes or clear the mess from her home, but I can pack up my own life in a way that gives my existence order.” I sense (and I suspect readers will as well) that Quist is leaving as a way to control what is essentially uncontrollable -- his mother’s hoarding and slow descent into blindness. “Till Next Time” describes the narrator’s relationship with another important woman in his life, his grandmother Thelma. While she was a woman who smoke, drank and didn’t attend church, she practiced her faith and generosity by advising and assisting random neighbors. After mock-therapy sessions with neighbors Thelma would, “posit a final thought for them to consider as they went on their way, and sometimes I’d notice her visitors appeared a little less sad or angry or scared than they had looked before.” Quist balances Thelma’s (also known as The Old Lady) pseudo-saintly spirit with her penchant for Jerry Springer episodes, illustrating that people are much more complex than we give them credit for. And sometimes, like the Springer Show, the very thing that people denigrate can be extremely therapeutic and necessary to economically disadvantaged people. This review would not be complete without mentioning the stellar “I’ll Fly Away: Notes on Economy Class Citizenship”. First published at The Rumpus, it is required reading for those contemplating the racial and class complexities of contemporary America. This puts Quist in company with other writers meditating on race and citizenship: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rankine, and James Baldwin. But don’t overlook the tender moments of interpersonal connection in this book. Mastering narrative like other transnational writers such as Díaz and Jhumpa Lahiri, Quist captures coming-of-age dilemmas and family dramas with finesse. Yes, there are countless other essays, short stories, and poems out there currently examining the borderlands of human existence and racial identity. But readers should flock to Quist because he illustrates that being a decent human being isn’t simple or easy. Quist articulates not only his geographical, ethnic, and class complexities well, but explores the grey spaces in between with delicacy and verve. In the end, I continue to return to “The Animals We Invent.” As a black American female struggling everyday with growing racial tensions, I find comfort when Quist’s narrator says, “I want to share what I’m learning about the capacity of grace, the difficult but empowering work of allowing myself to forgive without forgetting.” What a beautiful sentiment; what a wonderful place to find shelter.
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