Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth was a big deal when it came out in Australia in 2004. His previous novels had given him a following, but The White Earth was the winner of the Miles Franklin Prize, Australia’s richest literary award, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. The book is a multigenerational tale in which the generations collide. Young William and his mother are cast from their homestead in Queensland when William’s father burns to death in a farming accident. They are taken in by William’s cranky great uncle, John McIvor, who lives holed up in a decrepit mansion on what’s left of what was once a great homestead called Kuran Station. There is still enough land left at the Station to lust after though, and William’s sickly but greedy mother sets out to make sure that William will be the heir to his hermit uncle. The main action of the book takes place in 1992 and is filled with what I understand to be the political questions of that time, mostly having to do with compensating aborigines for the ancestral land that was taken from him. All of this makes old John McIvor something of a crank, obsessed with protecting his land and leader of a fringe organization whose membership has racist tendencies fueled by fears that cityfolk will allow their farms to be taken away. Luckily McGahan provides flashbacks to the life of young John McIvor so we can see how Kuran Station, taken from him when he was young and regained after middle age, became his life’s obsession. Though not as masterful as other books in this same mold and a bit heavyhanded in the use of certain images (men on fire), The White Earth is an enjoyable epic of the struggle for land Down Under.
Jonas T. Bengtsson’s A Fairy Tale — his third novel, but the first available in English — begins as a chronicle of an unusual upbringing. A small boy is being raised by his father in Denmark, and for reasons that are initially unclear, the father keeps them moving from town to town. Early on, the boy is transported through the streets of Copenhagen in the front basket of his father’s bicycle:
My dad stands up in the pedals; I can see his head above me.
“What, then, extraordinary stranger, do you love?” he says and looks down at me.
I know what to reply. “I love the clouds — the clouds that pass — yonder — the marvelous clouds.”
They’re speaking lines from “The Stranger,” a poem by Charles Baudelaire that takes the form of a brief conversation. The poem begins: “Tell me, enigmatic man, whom do you love best? Your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?” and progresses through a series of questions and negations. The stranger replies: he has no parents, no siblings, no friends. Does he love his country, then? No, he is “ignorant of the latitude in which it is situated.” He hates gold and God in equal measure. But he does love beauty, “goddess and immortal,” and the clouds. Beauty and freedom. He’s essentially untethered from human society.
The problem, of course, is that while the boy knows the stranger’s responses by heart, the responses express sentiments that belong to his father, not to him. The boy’s being carried along in his father’s strange life. His father is committed to living outside of mainstream society. He works odd jobs and keeps his son out of school. There are early intimations that the father’s grip on reality is shaky, but he’s genuinely kind and an attentive parent. The boy — we never learn his real name, but let’s call him Peter, which is a name he uses occasionally — knows that they’ll always keep moving, but he knows also that his father will never leave him behind. There are moments of transcendent beauty and joy. Bengttson’s prose is clear and unadorned, and he strikes a fine balance between momentum and careful character development.
In the evenings, Peter’s father tells him a story. It’s a fairy tale about love and exile, but the line between the fairy tale and their real lives is unsettlingly blurred. In their real lives, his father counsels the boy to stay alert and watch for signs of the White Men. Sometimes they move when his father thinks the White Men are close. The White Men aren’t evil, his father tells him, but they don’t know the difference between right and wrong. In the nightly fairy tale, the White Men are helpers of the White Queen.
Every night my dad tells me a little more of the same fairy tale.
The story of the King and the Prince who no longer have a home.
The King and Prince have gone out into the world to find the White Queen and kill her. With an arrow or a knife, a single stab through her heart will lift the curse. They’re the only ones who can do it because the King and the Prince are the last people who can see the world as it truly is. Only they haven’t been blinded by the Queen’s witchcraft.
This uneasy life continues, until catastrophe strikes: a young and charismatic politician draws the father’s attention. She’s a reform-minded populist, a gifted speaker who appears often in the press. Peter’s father goes from interest to obsession to setting out for the capitol building with a knife. He has found the White Queen.
Who will you become? It’s an intriguing question, both in coming-of-age novels and in life. To me, one of the darkest and most interesting aspects of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the slow drift whereby the half-orphaned Theo, unloved and longing for his lost mother, starts to resemble his shady and unreliable father instead. Laura van den Berg sums up the problem beautifully in “Lessons, a short story included in her recent collection The Isle of Youth. The story concerns four teenaged cousins, who have left their survivalist pentecostal parents in the isolated Midwestern settlement of Elijah and set out into a new life of armed robbery:
At first Dana thought leaving Elijah meant getting away from how things were on the farm, but now she thinks the past is like the hand of God, or what she imagines the hand of God would be like if God were real: it can turn you in directions you don’t want to be turned in.
A Fairy Tale is a fascinating and often brutal meditation on alienation and trauma. “What separates man from any other species,” Peter’s father told him one evening, before it all came undone, “is his ability to adapt.” But in A Fairy Tale, adaptation is precisely the problem. We see Peter in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, and it’s clear by the second section that he hasn’t been entirely successful in finding a way to live in the mainstream world. In adolescence and in adulthood, Bengtsson presents him with a cool remove that makes him appear somewhat shell-shocked.
Herein lies the one flaw, in my opinion, in an otherwise virtually flawless novel. The spare coolness of Bengtsson’s prose style is effective, particularly in the almost eerie detachment with which he describes the book’s few moments of overt violence, but this translates at times to a frustrating distance from his narrator. We’re allowed to draw close to Peter in childhood, to glimpse his thoughts and fears, but the adult Peter is something of a cipher, the first-person narration notwithstanding.
By the time we see Peter in adulthood, he’s managed to build a life for himself. But he’s living as a stranger in the world, in a manner eerily reminiscent of his father. He lives under an assumed name and has few ties to society. In Bengtsson’s remarkable novel, past is never entirely behind us.
It’s the little things in train travel that stay with you. It’s not the sweeping vistas or the pastoral villages. After a while, the specific memories of panorama seem to bleed into each other. It’s not the quaint architecture or the run-down graffiti-filled approaches to the stations. It’s not the things that every travel book raves about that linger. It’s the little things which seem to come out of nowhere.It’s being Vienna-bound at the Budapest train station five years ago and, somewhat confused by the vague pointing that passes for traveler’s assistance, winding up unchallenged onboard a train at a platform which quite plainly said Vienna. It’s suddenly cluing into the passengers’ conversations and realizing that the train has in fact just arrived FROM Vienna. It’s scrambling out of the train mere seconds before it pulls away, before it heads off to its actual destination, which, it now becomes quite clear, is in fact Moscow, and, well, not part of my plan.It’s things like that.For every train story that I have, Paul Theroux must have a hundred. But what makes his tales so compelling is context. With a novelist’s eye for setting and ear for dialogue, Theroux presents The Great Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonian Express as travel literature in the purest sense. They are not about the destination. They are about the journey. The ‘getting there.’The Great Railway Bazaar chronicles Theroux’s mid ’70s journey from London, through Europe, and across the vast expanse of Asia, onboard trains with such imagination-firing names as the Orient Express, the Mandalay Express, and the Trans-Siberian. Theroux travels through the former Yugoslavia, through pre-Taliban Afghanistan, and through Soviet-era Russia, throwing the last 30 years of history on its head.The Old Patagonian Express tracks Theroux, a few years later, leaving his Boston home and taking train after train through the U.S., Mexico, Central America, and down through South America to Patagonia, in southern Argentina.If his novelist’s eye gives the book its richness, his sarcasm gives it its edge. Paul Theroux doesn’t suffer fools gladly. When he encounters them, as when he encountered an astonishingly incurious 20-year-old pontificating vegan. He lets loose — pointedly playful to her, a bit more viciously sarcastic to us. It’s not always fair, and the frustrations that come with an extended voyage permeate his observations, but it’s honest in a brutal sort of way, and often terribly amusing.I’ve not yet read any of Theroux’s fiction, despite the presence on my bookshelf of The Mosquito Coast which has been sitting there, unread, for probably ten years. But I rate these two non-fiction accounts as the best travel literature I’ve read so far.I’ve also sampled some of Bill Bryson’s work. Bryson is a different sort of travel writer. Where Theroux has his novelist’s eye and ears, Bryson has the sensibilities of a humorist. His books seem somewhat lighter; they skim the surface more and come off as humorous memoir. His recent works seem more massive, somewhat less flippant. But in Bryson’s case, I would recommend his earlier books which drip with irreverence — sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes glib. But always quite funny.Neither Here Nor There recounts Bryson’s travels through Europe in the early 90s, a journey which in fact re-traces one he made some twenty years earlier. Wound-up by an encounter with a neighborhood of Belgian dogs, Bryson lets fly with a paragraph about why cows would in fact make the best pets, with a punch line worthy of classic Woody Allen. This book may not reach for the same lofty goals as his later works, but it hits its mark. It’s tight, funny and breezy.I guess where Theroux and, to a lesser extent, Bryson, brought travel literature into the modern age is in the acceptance that travel is a succession of small adventures, each one potentially rich in little details, in comically surreal moments. And in embracing these moments as the details which propel the story.My own Central European train journey five years ago hit its surreal zenith on an overnight train from Prague to Budapest. Essentially alone, save for a comatose heap near the window, I happened to be eavesdropping on an altercation in the next compartment. We were in Bratislava, and Slovakian officials were now on the train rousing passengers from their slumber. I could hear an American voice politely assuring the officer that his ticket was for the full journey, and was paid in full. But the booming official, drunk with power, somehow managed to coerce more American dollars out of the passenger.I was next. The intimidating official had a broken arm, slung in a cast. Now, as it happens, I have one arm. (Or more accurately, I don’t have a second arm). Normally in public I wear a creepily lifelike prosthetic arm, rendering me effectively two-armed to any limb-savvy onlookers who happen to be counting. Alone, at night, I had removed it, and it was to this empty space, this void, that the Slovakian official, ready to bleed me of more money, suddenly pointed, then pointed to his own injured arm, then beamed, then pointed back and forth again, gave me the OK sign, and then left me alone to continue my journey.
What is not to love about a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking? If it’s Lemony Snicket’s Christmas children’s book for adults The Lump of Coal, I assure you, it is all lovable – even the copyright page (laid out concrete-poetry style in the shape of Christmas tree). The Lump of Coal tells the story of holiday miracles: not the ones you probably know (“the story of a candelabra staying lit for more than a week, or a baby born in a barn without proper medical supervision”), but the story of (you guessed it), a lump of coal, who “like many people who dress in black… was interested in becoming an artist. The lump of coal dreamed of a miracle – that one day it would get to draw rough, black lines on a canvas or, more likely, on a breast of chicken or salmon filet by participating in a barbeque.”I will hardly spoil the ending by assuring you that these dreams come true – and that the path to them is charmingly illustrated (as were the Series of Unfortunate Events) by Brett Helquist. And that the lump’s adventures are marked by Mr. Snicket’s signature narratorial interruptions of his story for cryptic personal revelations, his idiosyncratic definitions of words possibly not familiar to his audience, and his winning mix of the fantastic and the depressingly mundane. For any of you who know Tim Burton’s The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Other Stories (which includes several Christmas offerings – my favorite, “James,” features a Burton drawing a Santa-suited arm offering a teddy bear to a doubtful looking little boy who has several parallel gashes across one eye; the text reads: “Unwisely, Santa offered a teddy bear to James, unaware that he had been mauled by a grizzly bear earlier that year.”) – The Lump adds another volume to the genre of Edward Gorey-ian cynical, morbid, and eccentric illustrated works that take the form of children’s stories but are really much more for grown ups.(Oh, yes – and a final note: The Lump of Coal is elusive (which in this case means it likes to hide from employees and shoppers in bookstores). An indefatigable Vroman’s employee did managed to find it for me yesterday, but it hid from him for a good fifteen minutes, and this was the second bookstore I’d been to in search of it. At the first, The Stanford Bookstore, not one of the twenty copies in stock could be found.)