Something Pretty, Something Beautiful

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A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

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I didn’t read as much as I would’ve liked this year, but that’s every year, isn’t it? And it’s probably also all of us. I don’t think any similarly book-obsessed person has ever told me that they are really happy with how much reading they’ve been able to get done this year and wouldn’t have wanted to read even one more book. We’re all writing and have day jobs and lives outside of books, and a flood of new releases washes over us every month. It’s usually possible to find some time to read, but never enough. Books accumulate in my apartment much faster than I can read them.

I tried, though. The last piece I published on The Millions was back in August and then I sold a novel, so I decided to take a brief hiatus from this site to concentrate on edits. I finished the first round of edits slightly ahead of schedule but didn’t mention this to my Millions editor (shh!) because what an incredible thing, I thought, to have found an extra month in which to get some reading done. I read compulsively for a week or two, trying to make a dent in the mountain of books that had been accumulating for months on the floor of my office.

But the one flaw in my brilliant plan was a rapidly approaching course of French lessons, which, I realized, would probably be somewhat less painful with a little preparation, so my reading time was eclipsed by studying, and then the next round of editorial notes came in and that, as they say, was that. Back to square one, which is to say back to my usual state of reading mostly on the subway to and from my day job and sometimes in a stolen hour just before bed.

Last month I read a wonderful novel called Scissors, by Stéphane Michaka, published in the United States this year. It is an unfortunate peculiarity of international publishing that while every year countless writers who work in English are translated into French, the reverse is comparatively rare. Scissors is among the few. Michaka’s novel concerns the fraught and ambivalent relationship between a writer very much like Raymond Carver and an editor very much like Gordon Lish, told in a series of first-person fragments from the perspective of the writer, the editor, and the writer’s successive wives, with the occasional Carveresque short story — the fictional writer’s output — embedded in the text.

Michaka is a vastly talented stylist, moving with ease between the distinct voices of several characters and presenting us with short stories that are perfectly plausible as having been written by Carver. And yet Scissors is extraordinary not only for its technical fireworks, but for the humanity and compassion with which Michaka presents his flawed and fascinating characters, in their struggles with alcoholism, with one another, with their work, with themselves. He writes with a light touch, but never trivializes. The book is tender without ever slipping into sentimentality.

This past summer I was greatly struck by My Autobiography, by Charlie Chaplin. A common criticism of the work is that it’s actually two books, with one being much more compelling than the other: there’s a riveting account of Chaplin’s Dickensian childhood in London — young Charlie and his brother Sydney spent their early years in and out of workhouses while their mother struggled with mental illness — followed by a parade of 20th-century celebrities. There’s some merit to this complaint, but to my eye at least, the first half of the book is more than strong enough to carry the second, and I found the second half fascinating in and of itself, both as a social survey of Chaplin’s era and as a portrait of a shy and often uncertain man caught in the grip of a previously unimaginable fame. Even Chaplin’s name-dropping often carries a poignant note:
I remember meeting the beautiful Josie Collins, the English musical comedy star, who suddenly came upon me walking along Fifth Avenue. ‘Oh,’ she said sympathetically, ‘what are you doing all alone?’ I felt I had been apprehended in some petty crime. I smiled and said that I was just on my way to have lunch with some friends; but I would like to have told her the truth — that I was lonely and would have loved to have taken her to lunch — only my shyness prevented it.
Earlier in the year I read Eric Barnes’s latest novel, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful, and have been thinking about it ever since. I reviewed it at length, so won’t go into it too much here, except to say that it stands as proof that some of the best books in this country are being published by the smallest presses, and that his account of a coming of age in working-class Tacoma is absolutely haunting and rings perfectly true.

Renata Adler’s Speedboat has been around since the late ‘70s, but when I read it this summer I had the sense of reading something completely new, that feeling of encountering something that had never been done before, or that had at least never been done nearly this well. The narrator of Speedboat is a young reporter, Jen Fain, and the book unfolds as a series of fragments: conversations, random musings (on the meanings of words, on catchphrases, on the ways in which we understand and fail to understand one another) and character studies, accounts of parties and gatherings, vignettes. The style is loose to the point of seeming randomness, the narrator often most notable by her absence, and yet by the end there’s an unexpected sense of cohesion, and of having somehow drawn closer to the narrator’s soul than would have been possible by more conventional means. I found this novel exhilarating.

More from A Year in Reading 2013

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Motherless Tacoma: On Eric Barnes’s Something Pretty, Something Beautiful


It seems to me that few ideas are as freighted with ambivalence as the idea of home. I don’t mean ambivalence in the sense in which the word’s often misused, as a synonym for half-heartedness, but in the true sense of being pulled in two directions at once. Once you start looking for it in books, you see it everywhere. In Justin Torres’s We The Animals, home is violent and dangerous and a place to run away from, but home is also the protagonist’s brothers, from whom he’s inseparable. In Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, home is a place where it was possible for terrible things to happen and to be covered up; but when the protagonist’s wife suggests to the protagonist’s father, years later, that “[t]hat sure was the Wild West, wasn’t it?” the father flies into a rage and shouts at her not to blame Montana. Or the ache of immigration, documented in books like Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn: home is here and also there, I belong here and also I don’t, home is this country and also that one and I am always somewhere in between.

In Eric Barnes’s haunting new novel, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful, this ambivalence is built into the structure of the book. (Full disclosure: Barnes and I published our first novels with the same small press back in 2009 and met a couple of times at booksellers’ conventions that year.) Barnes’s protagonist is Brian Porter, born and raised in Tacoma. The book is divided into five sets of five chapters, identically titled in all five instances: Now, With Kyle, Tacoma, Driving Away, Returning. The Now chapters are haunted by the past; the With Kyle chapters are suffused with regret; Tacoma is home, to be driven away from and returned to. Home exerts a pull, and it simultaneously repulses.

The novel circles through Brian’s life at various points. He is a motherless boy, a wild teenager, and a haunted man. Barnes has a good eye for the Pacific Northwest, the way grey skies and constant rain can lend a not-entirely-unpleasant melancholy to a place. Brian grows up in a working-class neighborhood, not so much gritty as perpetually damp. His parents were teenagers when he was born, and his mother walked out soon after. His father’s raising him, when he isn’t working, which is most of the time. His friends live in similar situations.

From early childhood onward, Brian is caught between two social poles. Kyle, his best friend, has always been good, in some essential sense of the word. Kyle’s low-key decency puts him at odds with Will Wilson, a sociopath who exerts a gravitational pull on Brian and on two other boys.

Brian spends a great deal of time with Kyle, and a great deal of time with Will Wilson, but never both at the same time. From puberty onward, life revolves around cars, but here is the difference: Kyle “started driving to his after school job when he was twelve, using a beat up car his older cousin had given him.” Will Wilson’s crew, on the other hand, uses cars to play car tag — two cars, a driver and a gunner in each, the teams trying to take each other out with BB guns. Later, there’s another, more dangerous game, in which the driver takes the car up to high speeds and then climbs out the window. Whoever’s in the passenger seat takes the wheel; the first driver slides over the roof — if the car’s going fast enough, he levitates just above the metal — and then into the car through the back passenger-side window, breathless and exhilarated with the nearness of death. “You live your life telling stories,” Barnes writes,
to people in a bar, to the guys you work with, to women you meet. When you’re a kid you tell stories to each other, sometimes only killing time between the next story you’d make. Will Wilson told stories with us and now when I think about him I think that maybe he told the stories with us, about the things the four of us did, only until he got bored of them, and then he started to make a new plan, to start a new story we could later tell.
The question, of course, is how far Will Wilson will go. He pulls Brian and the others further and further out, beyond ordinary teenage recklessness and into the kinds of stories that can mark lives forever. Quietly and methodically beating up other teenagers makes a good story, but not as good a story as arson. Arson’s not a bad story, but it’s less exciting than breaking and entering. The story no one thinks of, because the future seems so abstract, is how they’ll find a way to live with these stories in adulthood.

Something Pretty, Something Beautiful is a remarkable book. Barnes effectively builds the tension of the story with his elliptical structure, and his prose is beautiful. He expertly manages events that in lesser hands would devolve into melodrama. This is a world where the pull of friendship is far stronger than the pull of family, where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts.

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