Friday, December 06, 2013

S., [The Ship of Theseus], by JJ Abrams and Doug Dorst

So this book--is not so much a novel as it is--something else? A project, perhaps? An artifact? An exercise in multi-genre literary enhancement? The sort of set dressing that pervades visual media?

All of the above.

At its most basic, S. is sold as a book. It comes as a book inside a slipcover, sealed in cellophane. The slipcover is black with a large, gothic "S." printed on it--also in black. there is a sticker that holds the book inside the cover, printed with a monkey on the front side, with the names of the co-creators. On the back is an impressive masted ship. These are not random images.

Inside is a book that has been carefully constructed to look like a vintage library book. The cloth cover is drab, the graphics are definitely mid-century. Ship of Theseus, by V.M. Straka. There is even a Dewey Decimal sticker on the spine, listing it as "813.54 STR 1949."

[But this might be an error! Dewey number 813. 54 is for "American literature in English, 1945-1999," but the whole point of the book is that Straka is unknown--but none of the leading "candidates" for being Straka is American. Furthermore, the book was translated by the mysterious F.X. Caldeira. So the call number is wrong for Ship of Theseus (should be somewhere in the 890s perhaps), although it is closer to right for S.  Of course, the number for S. should be "813.55 ABR 2013." Hmmmmm.]

The library motif continues inside, with browned pages, a "stamp" printed on the inside cover "BOOK FOR LOAN" and a replica of due date stamps in the back, showing desultory borrowing from 1957 and ending in 2000. Patrons are instructed to "KEEP THIS BOOK CLEAN"--pencil marks or other defacement to be reported to the librarian.

[I distinctly remember being told by the school librarian at my elementary school that we were expected to wash our hands before reading library books. We were even issued oil skin book bags to carry our books home from school to keep them safe from the weather. Even then, I thought it was nuts--and I continued to read library books at the table while I ate lunch.]

Already, this review has become even more digressive than most of my others. I am chalking this up to the power of the physical object--the book, not just the words inside it, is really the topic of this project. It is a love letter to the book as object.

Take a look at a "typical" page.

The text of the novel "Ship of Theseus" is the work of mysterious author V.M. Straka, a writer of 19 books whose real identity is unknown. The authorship controversy is more popular than the actual novels. Ship of Theseus is his last book--he reportedly died in 1946, in Havana, and some of the last chapter of this book was lost. He may have been killed. The book was originally written in Czech (I think?), and translated by F. X. Caldeira, who wrote an introduction and the footnotes. Caldeira was the sole translator of Straka's works from 1924 on, but never met the writer in person. Caldeira is supposed to be a Brazilian who died in his own home town in 1964.

The margin notes come in five different sets, representing five different time periods.

  1. First are penciled marks and brief remarks, made by Eric at about age 16. He stole the book from the library--so presumably his is the last due date stamped in the back, October 14, 2000. 
  2. Twelve years later, Eric's book is found by Jen Hardway, an undergraduate at the (fictional) Pollard State University, who works at the library. Jen found the book, read a few chapters and returned the book to a library workroom with a note. She and Eric begin passing the book  between them, making notes in blue cursive (Jen) and black block letters (Eric).
  3. Later, Jen switches to yellow, and Eric responds in green.
  4. Still later, Jen writes in purple, Eric in red.
  5. Finally, they both write in black ink.
At any given time on the page, you might be reading from any of these five time periods, plus Caldeira's editorial notations. Add in the original text, and suddenly as a reader, you are keeping track of seven different time streams. 

The timeline is even more complicated, if you accept that Caldeira and Straka exchanged drafts of the work, translating even before the book was complete--and that Caldeira finally ended up reconstructing or inventing parts of the incomplete final chapter.

So what is this book? What has V.M. Straka written that has caused academics to search for his true identity? It intrigued Jen enough that she started corresponding with Eric (the owner of the book) and soon burned through all nineteen of Straka's works.

Good question. What Dorst has done is create a convincing pastiche of early 20th century modernist political literature. Ship of Theseus is, on it's surface, the story of the amnesiac "S," a man who arrives in the Old Quarter of a town identified only as "B--." He is wet, has apparently just come out of the sea, and has nothing but a stack of papers in his coat pocket, marked with the gothic "S." 

[Later, we learn about "Santorini Men," named after the first one discovered on a beach on the Greek island--anonymous, unidentifiable men found murdered, dumped into the sea, and containing only pages from Straka novels in their overcoat pockets. S. is probably a Santorini man who managed to survive--a fact that is not explained to the reader. S's page is folded and wet, soaked into an indistinct mass, marked with the Gothic S. He believes if he could read those pages, he might discover something of his identity and past. He might, if S is a fictionalized Straka--it's perhaps a clue to who S is supposed to be, but one he never solves for himself.]

He lurches through an eccentrically populated town, ending up in a bar where there is a very ominous and unsettling bit of writing describing the brutal form of capitalism practiced in this world: 
Several hundred yards ahead, a recent immigrant who speaks the language only haltingly enters a storefront to return a rented barrel organ. The owner. . .takes the organ from the immigrant, and leans it against a wall along with the eighteen other organs that he rents each morning to other just-as-recent and just-as-tone-deaf immigrants. He holds out his palm for his half of the organ-grinder's take.
The organ-grinder does not yet understand the local currency, so eh hands his cigar box of coins to the owner, asks him via hand gestures and sentence fragments to do the stacking and splitting for him. The owner makes two piles. He pushes the taller stack across the table to the organ-grinder. The shorter stack, which is worth much more (this, apparently, being a city of ancient and flawed arithmetics as well), he sweeps into an open drawer.
The organ-grinder, who understood when he rented the organ that this unscrupulous man would cheat him at any opportunity, has anticipated such a trick and has stashed away a portion of the day's take. Those coins, wrapped inside a handkerchief, are snug in the pocket of the tattered red coat worn by his capuchin monkey….The owner, of course, suspect that the organ-grinder has done this. It's not a new trick to him. Once the immigrant leaves the shop, the owner will direct his slow-witted but strong armed sons to follow the man through the night, as long as it takes, until he gives himself away--perhaps when he ducks into an alley beside a tern and empties the monkey's pockets, at which point the sons will hold him down in the street and crush his wrist bones to dust with led pipes. They will catch the fleeing monkey by it's rope and try to sell the beast inside the tavern. No one will want it, of course. . .Eventually, the brothers--now quite drunk--will go out to the docks, tie something heavy to the other end of the rope, and test how well monkeys can swim.
A spiral of deception and greed, then ends to no one's benefit. The owner gets additional coins, but no further rentals from this man, the man's ability to work is destroyed, and the monkey dies. Only the brutish sons benefit, in that they get to become drunk.

[This is, in miniature, the theme of Straka's work. It is no coincidence that there are nineteen organs to rent--nineteen is a recurring number that stands for Straka's group of radical labor activists, who constitute a group called (confusingly) "The S" in Straka's "real" life. So the Ship of Theseus novel is in some ways Straka's project to document the history of "The S" with it's losses and turncoats. The story of the organ renter is replicated in the larger story of the protests against the arms manufacturer Edvar Vevoda--which is itself a fictionalization of Straka's efforts against arms manufacturer Bouchard.]

S enters a tavern, sees a beautiful woman reading Don Quixote, and then gets shanghaied onto a boat. The boat has nineteen sailors, who all have their mouths sewn shut, but who spend their off duty time writing. Time passes differently on the boat, so when S next lands, several years have passed. He gets swept up into a demonstration against Vevoda which turns deadly. Vevoda's own brown coats plant a bomb to discredit the labor movement. S escapes with four labor organizers (who are versions of Straka's own compatriots). In their attempt to escape, the other four are all killed. Only S survives, and when he returns to the ship, there are only 15 sailors.

The story continues with eerie occurrences, semi-magical locations, and S's own obsession with the woman from the tavern who has several names. S muses on his own identity--will he be able to remember who he is, or is he only who he has become? "Ship of Theseus" is a philosophical conundrum, like "my grandfather's axe"--if you replace all the pieces of the ship, is it still the same ship? ("This is my grandfather's axe--I replaced the handle and my father replaced the head." Is it?) If S replaces whoever he had been with all the actions he takes in the book, does the old S even exist any more?

If is were a "real" novel, really written by a writer named Straka, it's not something that would interest me particularly, because it's a justification of why labor has to take up arms against capitalists, and Straka apparently murdered a fair number of people in his day. It reads like early 20th century political struggles that ended with the recognition of the right to unionize. Important, certainly. Timely again, as "right to work" laws proliferate and union membership drops. It's kind of an extended self-justification, and not a topic I would pick to read myself, even with the eerie fantastical elements.

But that is not the whole story.

There are several other stories superimposed on this one--"Palimpsest upon palimpsest" as the book puts it at one point. The first additional story, chronologically, is that of F.X. Caldeira, the translator of the book. Popularly supposed to be a man, over the course of the book Jen and Eric discover that F.X. is actually Filomena Caldeira, a woman who apparently carried an unrequited love for Straka for decades, despite never having met him. Her footnotes in this volume are eccentric, and are revealed to be coded messages for Straka, published in the belief that his Havana death in 1946 was a hoax and that he might look for her. She passes on some information about who was the mole in "The S" who gave away some of their members. She codes her love for Straka and where she might be found. She "reconstructs" the final chapter of Ship of Theseus to give her doppelgänger a happy ending with S.

Eric tracks her down, as she is still alive and alert, and answers some of Eric's questions. In the course of the Jen/Eric correspondence, she dies, perhaps the last living link to Straka.

There are other stories, all conveyed in the Jen/Eric marginalia. Chronologically, the earliest is the story of Eric, a grad student working on the question of Straka's real identity. There is apparently no locatable  biographical evidence of Straka's existence, and the authorship questions has grown to eclipse the study of the novels themselves. Eric's advisor is a professor named Moody, and he had a relationship with a fellow grad student named Ilsa. By the time the J/E correspondence begins, Eric has been disgraced and expelled from the school. Moody has apparently stolen Eric's scholarship, with Ilsa's help, in order to bring out his own work on the authorship question. Eric acted out, vandalized one of the buildings on campus, and ended up in a mental hospital for a while. Now, he haunts the campus, trying to avoid being reported, while he continues to work on the question of "who was Straka?"

After getting interested in Straka's works, Jen becomes his co-conspirator. She is suffering from a serious case of senior slump, and finds renewed passion in reading Straka's novels and working out Caldeira's embedded ciphers. Her coursework suffers, her parents worry and attempt to intervene. Her interest in Straka gets Ilsa's attention, and there are some threats to her own safety. Jen reports that a barn on her parents' property was burned down, and that she is being spied on and followed. Ilsa suspects her of academic dishonesty and she is called to a disciplinary hearing. J/E interpret this as being orchestrated by Moody to silence them and promote his own theory.

I felt this part was pretty unbelievable. It parallels the way Vevoda chased S, but S really did pose a threat to Vevoda's business model. I'm not sure the stakes of academia are convincingly high to justify such cutthroat tactics. (I'm not convinced they are that high, especially in literature departments, but I don't think Dorst has written this believably enough to cause me to suspend my skepticism.)

The academic espionage continues with Straka artifacts going missing from international archives, and the mysterious death of a French professor soon after his own book on Straka's real identity is published. There is a mysterious "Serin Institute" that starts funding Eric, but it's not clear who they are or why they care about Straka at all.

Jen and Eric parse the text of Ship of Theseus, drawing the parallels between characters and real life Straka associates. They notice the number of them who died from mysterious falls--perhaps Bouchard is still in business and still sending agents to silence them? Are those same agents after J/E? Is "Straka" just the pen name of all the members of "The S," and are the nineteen novels ascribed to him each written by a different person? If so, does this make Filomena Caldeira the real organizer?

Meanwhile, Jen and Eric use phrases of the novel to spark their own conversations, revealing their histories, arranging secretive meetings (in the back row of a theater showing noir films, of course!) and ultimately falling in love. In deliberate counterpoint to the Straka/Caldeira story, J/E get a happy ending. Jen finishes her coursework, doesn't get disciplined, and graduates. She and Eric move to Prague to pursue writing their own book about Straka's identity. Their last marginalia is written with a shared pen, in a shared apartment--sort of a nostalgic activity.

In addition to all of that, of course, are the many pieces of ephemera interleaved in the book. This is where the valentine nature of this product really shows through--all the different types of materials are faithfully reproduced. A campus map drawn on a cafeteria napkin is really on a napkin, one printed with the fictional logo of Pollard State University no less. Business cards feel different from postcards, which are different from the several pages of lined notepad paper. This is not so much a "love letter  to the written word" (as it says on the back of the slipcover), but a love letter to the idea of a BOOK--the physical artifact. The differing colors of ink, the different handwriting styles, the way it physically holds their letters and postcard to each other--this is something that simply cannot be replicated by an ebook.

(There is apparently an ebook, which does allow for erasing the marginalia, if you want a clean copy of the Straka novel for some reason. There is also apparently an audiobook, and I have NO IDEA how they are going to pull that one off!)

So in the end--what do we have? We have a commitment to the idea of the book as a physical object. We have a demonstration of how a book (and writing) can contain multiple time streams, how it conveys and preserves ideas and personalities over time.  It offers explicit and implicit puzzles, recording and enacting (for real readers in real time) how stories can engage us and how we work to solve the puzzles of literature.

I have some questions that I don't have the answers to yet.

  • Does each chapter have a cipher? Several of them are solved by Jen and Eric in the margins, but there are several where they indicate that they suspect a cipher, but can't find the key to unlock it. S.Files22 has catalogued the known ciphers, and is working on finding and solving others, including one using the Eotvos Wheel that comes in the back of the book but isn't used by Jen or Eric.
  • Does the book solve the mystery of Straka? It's clear that J/E have their own belief, but isn't that ambiguous? Is that a solvable mystery within the game of "S."?
  • Were there agents after Jen? Is there a conspiracy of violence to keep Straka's identity hidden, even in 2012? If so, who is it?
  • What happened to the nineteen pieces of obsidian that disappeared from international archives? 
  • Is there some master intelligence behind the happenings of the book?
In the end, it may boil down to the messiness of human effort. Even S realizes that the distinctions between the good guys and the bad guys is blurred. Both have adopted the Santorini Man gambit, leaving their enemies dead with Straka pages in their pockets. One side intended it as a message, the other side adopted it to demonstrate their ability to contaminate the message. By the end of the book, there is no way to tell which is responsible for which murders. Identity is unknowable. 

I suspect this is a message about Straka--his identity is unknowable, but what is on the page can be loved. Not a bad meta-message at all.


In a book as full of explicit puzzles as this, there will of course be internet communities and commentary that will serve as a locus for like minded readers who are examining the mysteries. So far, these are the two most interesting that I have found.

The Eotvos Wheel: what appears to be created in conjunction with the book--ostensibly amateur scholarship on V.M. Straka, with crime scene photographs of the Havana hotel room where Straka [may have] died in 1946, a list of the candidates for the "real" Straka. Interestingly, the blog has a few entries dated 2009, and then lay fallow until new postings began in November 2013, after the publication of the book.

S.Files22: apparently a reader created site which documents many of the idiosyncrasies of the book and is working to find and solve any additional ciphers not revealed in the Eric/Jen notes to the text.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Eleanor and Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Technically, this is a Young Adult novel. Maybe I'm not remembering well, but YA wasn't as sophisticated back when I was reading it. This is a lovely, carefully observed novel, about the way in which we move from strangers to intimates, and vice versa.

Eleanor is the new kid in school. Her mother has recently remarried, her step-father is a violent and controlling drunk, her biological father has done a slow fade from their lives. Eleanor has four younger siblings, and they all share a single small room in a tiny house in Omaha Nebraska.

Park is half-Korean, exotic and out of place in Omaha, sensitive to his oddity. Even his younger brother looks whiter than he does. He hides behind headphones and comic books on the noisy bus ride to school.

The two of them meet when Park takes pity on the new girl, and offers to share his seat on the bus.

Slowly, Rowell builds their budding friendship and growing attraction. Most of their interaction occurs on the bus at first, although they share English and History classes. It is the careful, delicate shifting of their relationship that is the book's amazing talent. Awkwardly, they maintain a six inch space between them, studiously ignoring each other, but eventually finding things that connect them. Eleanor finds herself reading Park's comics over his (metaphorical) shoulder. Park notices the names of songs and bands written on her notebooks.

These characters are placed in families that are also drawn with the same careful specificity. Eleanor's home life bursts with the details of poverty--the bathroom attached to the kitchen, with only a curtain to offer privacy, the safety pins that hold her clothes together since there is no money for new ones. The criminally cheap food her mother feeds them--beans and rice mostly, and the violence that causes all five of the children to learn to be still as statues as the fights happen. I fully believed in her misery and her resentful protectiveness of her siblings.

Park lives a more middle-class existence, with his own room, and only one brother. His father insists on the boys learning martial arts; his mother refuses to allow swearing or girlfriends. Park's house is run by his mother, and smells of potpourri. I liked how Park uncomplainingly went to his grandparents' house for Sunday dinner in nice clothes, he set the table, but he was still in conflict with his parents over his driving, his wearing eyeliner. He feels like a misfit, just differently than the ways Eleanor does. He also experiences Eleanor as not fitting in differently than she does. He thinks she is "trying too hard to be different" and is sensitive to what she wears in ways that she just doesn't seem to be. It makes for some interesting textures in their characterizations.

The book captures the ways teens try to find themselves in the context of their families--what do they accept as normal, what do they chafe against. Exquisitely Rowell describes the growth of the relationship: the electric kick of the first time you hold hands with someone, the fear of being awkward at kissing, the fear of meeting the family, the way you become desperate for some privacy so you don't have to enact your entire life in front of other people.

Some things don't quite ring true: the way that Eleanor and Park are quickly honest with each other feels a bit facile. They never seem to misunderstand each other. They spend a lot of time checking in on their feelings. "Are we okay?" "Are you okay?" "Are you mad at me?" they ask each other repeatedly, and it's not clear why they never feel comfortable enough in the relationship to stop asking that. I found myself doubting that 16 year olds in their first serious, proto-sexual relationship would be that aware of something outside their own feelings.

The plot? Well, there isn't much, which is exactly right. It's about how Eleanor and Park develop their relationship in the context of high school culture, and that is really enough. There is some nasty pranking pulled on Eleanor--ostensibly by Tina, which isn't really well explained. I understand that as the new kid in school, the early gym class pranks might have been pulled, although that one seemed disproportionately nasty (maxi pads colored with red marker stuck all over her gym locker) unless you believe that Eleanor was considered a threat of some kind to Tina. Also not sure why Tina would steal all Eleanor's clothes out of her locker as late into the year as that happened. In retrospect, it felt like a plot device to get Park to see her in her gym suit, kicking their physical relationship up a notch.

Personally, I wish Rowell had dropped Eleanor's body shame a bit. I mean, she's got red hair and untamable curls, she's the new kid, she's wicked poor, gets her clothing from Goodwill, and has to wear that to shreds--isn't that enough? Did you have to make her obsess about feeling fat too? It's not like she gets much food, even, so it just feels like it's normalizing an incipient eating disorder/body dysmorphia.

Finally, there is the climax of the book. All throughout the book, nasty sexual messages have been showing up on Eleanor's books (which are covered with brown paper bags, which is exactly correct). She has been ignoring them, assuming they are by Tina and the Mean Girls. Can you spot the plot? Of course it isn't--it's her nasty rat-faced stepfather, and when she figures this out, she runs away from home. This is the end of Eleanor and Park, because the only place she has to go is to an uncle's house in Minneapolis. The threat was well done and completely credible to me--the way her stepfather insists on dominating family life, the casual cruelty and narcissism he displays, the way Tina turns out to be an ally when things get really serious.

The end of the book felt true--when Park drives Eleanor to her uncle's--it's an opportunity for them to be together and alone for hours, and yet, it's the end of their ability to be together. She isn't going to be able to come back, he's not going to be able to follow her. That bitter experience that the timing is just wrong--if they were only a year or two older, they would be able to go to college together, or possibly elope (which Tina does with her boyfriend in the coda). But by virtue of being just 16, they have to separate. Is it possible to sustain a long distance relationship at that age? Is it wise? Does it hurt too much? Do they have a choice, given how strong their feelings for each other are?

It's a good book. It's worth the read. I would recommend it to my own teen daughters, if this was the kind of book they liked right now. It has a lot to discuss about poverty and privilege, and about respectful relationships. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

It is a truth universally acknowledged by science fiction writers that if time travel becomes possible, there are narrative problems that have to be resolved via reference to the "multiverse"--the idea that at every point where there is more than one possible action to be taken, there is a universe in which ALL possible actions are taken.

This is often explained as a fundamental principle of quantum physics, and I certainly can't prove it one way or another. But the possibility of alternative outcomes is like catnip to writers--as it would have to be. What would happen, one can easily imagine a writer thinking with fingers hovering over the keyboard, if instead of THIS happening, THAT happens instead?

We see it a lot in science fiction--the movie The Butterfly Effect, for example, or the classic Ray Bradbury story "The Sound of Thunder" depend on this idea. There are plenty of other examples--I am personally very fond of the way Terry Pratchett describes it as the "Trousers of Time." That the future travels down one leg or the other, depending on what choices are taken.

What is less popular is to take this science fiction trope, and convert it into literary fiction. But that is what Kate Atkinson does. To date, her Jackson Brodie novels have elevated crime fiction into something more demanding and genre-bending. Here, she takes the life story of Ursula Todd, and repeats it, showing all the different ways she could die, and then returning to the moment of her birth and replaying the story with different outcomes at critical moments.

So, in the beginning, Ursula's mother Sylvie goes into labor as a snowstorm hits, making the doctor and the midwife unavailable. During the birth, the umbilical cord gets wound around the baby's neck, and she dies immediately. In the next chapter, the doctor manages to get to the home before the snow, and saves the baby's life. She survives until about age five, when she climbs out an attic window to retrieve a doll her older brother has thrown out onto the roof, and then slips and falls to her death.

The book then returns to her birth, and reprises the attic scene, but Ursula makes a different choice--either she doesn't go to retrieve the doll (in one iteration), or else she hides her doll so her brother throws her sister's doll out the window instead.

These are not strict repetitions, but variations on a theme--every time we return to Ursula's birth, there are different conversations, different experiences reported. And, brilliantly, even when Ursula's life takes different paths, there are some similar experiences, some fundamental questions that arise over and over.

For example, in one terrible life path, Ursula's older brother Maurice--who nobody likes, not even his parents--brings home from friends from Oxford on Ursula's sixteenth birthday. The grossly physical American named Howie, forces a kiss on Ursula that she finds unpleasant and disturbing. Later, he traps her against the wall in the upper stairway and rapes her. She predictably becomes pregnant, and is such a naive that she cannot understand what has happened or why. She wonders whether there is something in her that Howie could see, something that she herself did not understand about herself, that made him believe that she deserved this treatment. (That is a paraphrase of Atkinson's beautiful writing--don't blame her for my awkwardness.)

Later, after the sad and miserable life that plays out following this rape, Ursula punches Howie when he tries to kiss her, and averts the rape. Her life moves forward, and as an independent woman in her late 30s, she wonders about how she has several love affairs, but never marries, and she repeats the thoughts that came to her at 16 in the earlier life--was there something in her that men could see that made her good enough for a mistress, but not a wife?

Or, twice she begins to self-medicate with alcohol, and wonders if it would be so bad to just die--the first time in her early 20s as she is stuck in a boring shorthand course, the second time after she has retired in her late 50s from a job in the Home Office. One life is much more bleak and appalling than the other, but in both, she remains the same character with the same ideas and thoughts.

I greatly admire Atkinson's writing--I've read everything of hers from Case Histories on--but I can't say I loved this book. To be fair, I listened to it as an book, read by Fenella Woolgar, who I have liked as an actress since I saw her in Bright Young Things. Perhaps it was the narration rather than the writing, but the whole book took so very long for anything to happen. I found Ursula's infancy to be mostly boring, frankly, and so I started to be in the uncomfortable position of rooting for her to just go ahead and die already so something would happen!

Not attractive of me, I know.

I struggled through the first several years, and then things got better. Perhaps I am just bored with the English pastoral scene setting, when I really wanted Ursula to have some relationships and character development. I did like her older sister Pamela and the way they interacted in all the various lives, and even in their childhood, Pamela and Ursula were interesting. Unfortunately, the book felt like it took months to describe the specifics of Ursula's wooden doll for example, and the specifics of Edwardian housekeeping just bored me.

Things got much livelier once Howie showed up, and the sequelae of that horrible experience were enraging. Poor Ursula had no idea what had happened to her, and had no idea that she could become pregnant. When it became obvious, her mother became terribly hateful about it, and poor Ursula didn't understand enough to defend herself. She ended up with an illegal abortion, which she also didn't understand. In a heartbreaking scene, she asked if the baby had been adopted by a nice couple--because she was completely ignorant about the entire process. (Ignorant= innocent in this time period I guess.)

She ended up in a terrible marriage with a violent and deceiving man who ended up killing her in a terrible scene of domestic violence. And in every scene, I was emotionally involved, rooting for Ursula to escape somehow.

Then there what felt like the bulk of the novel--Ursula's years in London during the Blitz. She served as a warden, whose job was to travel to bombed out buildings and rescue the living and tally the dead. This is a moving literary portrait of an important period of British history, but that's not really the novel I thought I had signed up for. So I got impatient. Her various lovers weren't particularly distinguishable from each other, nor were they terribly charming. There were perhaps too many characters, all of whom died in various iterations of war damage, none of whom I found I had much investment in--and neither did Ursula, particularly.

Maybe this was the problem for me--that the character of Ursula wasn't really visible or vivid, and the rest of the many (many many MANY) characters were even less developed. For example--the Todd family has five children: Maurice, Pamela, Ursula, Teddy and Jimmy, along with the parents (Sylvie and Hugh), the cook and maid, their husbands and sons, and an every rotating roster of family dogs.. Jimmy doesn't make any impact at all. and we are told that Teddy is everyone's favorite, but it's not clear why. In fact, if Teddy has any personality other than ownership of a train set, I don't remember it. Maurice is unlikeable, but it's not clear why he is any worse than anybody else--and I have to say that makes me wonder about Sylvie and Hugh. What kind of parents raise a child that they don't like?

Things get worse, as Maurice and Pamela marry and have children--Pamela ends up with five kids herself, and they are indistinguishable too. With all the jumping around in time, the reader has to keep up with so many dates, so many neighbors, so many co-workers and bomb shelter co-habitants, that it just gets hard to care about much of anybody.

This book raises an ontological question about its own existence. Is Atkinson trying to make a point about the nature of fiction? About the nature of religious belief? About the circumscribed choices available to women in the middle of the last century--that no matter how many times Ursula lives her life, she cannot avoid the damned shorthand secretarial course, because women really didn't have that many choices?

Each time Ursula dies, she simply returns to being born--there is no afterlife, no religious meaning. It's not really reincarnation, because she doesn't move through time, she just goes back to her own beginning. Death is cold and black, and then she is born on a cold, snowy night. There is a hint toward the very end of the book that other people also experience this serial living--in the last iteration of her birth story, Sylvie pulls out a pair of surgical scissors and cuts the strangling cord herself, saying "Practice makes perfect." I think Sylvie--and possibly others--have this same cyclical experience of life. Nancy Shawcross (one of the far too many Shawcross children who also mostly make no impression) is molested and killed by a limping tramp at about age 10--but in several iterations, Ursula manages to save her, so obviously she experiences alternative time lines too. We never know if she has the deja vu/precognition experiences Ursula has.

It's a great experiment in plot and genre bending, and it's worth reading. For me, it is fatally flawed because the characters are not engaging enough to make the slog through the period detail worthwhile. Downton Abbey is less fetishistic about the details of Edwardian life (and that's saying something!) while also keeping the story moving.

Two final notes. It appears that this book has been nominated for the Women's Prize (formerly the Orange Prize) alongside Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies--another book rife with period detail, but livelier in it's characterizations. In the end, neither one won--A. M. Holmes won for May We Be Forgiven, which was a complete surprise to me as I hadn't even heard of that book or that the award had been given already.

Also--LIfe After Life is being developed as a movie. I will watch that with interest to see what happens.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

A lovely book, and lovely evocation of what it is like to be a child in a large world with rules a child doesn't really understand. And that applies to the world of adults as much as to the supernatural world that is the actual story.

The unnamed narrator has returned to his childhood landscape in Sussex. Now middle-aged, he is there for a funeral, but cannot bring himself to attend the reception afterwards. He finds himself at the old Hempstock farmhouse, where he slowly recovers the memory of what happened to him when he was seven, and he met Lettie Hempstock, who was eleven and had been for a very long time.

The titular ocean is a duck pond on the Hempstock farm which Lettie called her ocean. Of course, it is too small to be an ocean, because duck ponds are duck pond-sized, and oceans are ocean-sized. So says the narrator's father, and the book is designed to prove that practical view wrong. Because things are so much deeper and broader than they appear on the surface, and the Hempstocks' pond is only one of many such things.

This book has a lot in common with Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching books; the bucolic English setting, the uncanny things that lie beneath the surface of what can be seen, the way that the ordinary world is only a small part of the universe that it contains. Even the vague descriptions of the Big Bad are evocative of the way Pratchett only sketches things that aren't of this world, leaving the rest to the reader's imagination.

There are also "hunger birds" that bear a striking resemblance to the "reapers" from Doctor Who (the episode called "Father's Day").

However, I think this is fair to ascribe to a generic "English fairy tale" common ancestor, rather than any sort of plagiarism. Because on a small island with so much history, there IS a lot that is hidden under the surface, and it's more a cultural sensibility than a specific borrowing.

There are parts of this book that are absolutely stunning, mostly the specifically observed moments rather than the over-arching supernatural elements. The boy's fear and panic when his father dumps him into a cold bath and seems willing to drown him (the book blames this on the Big Bad, but maybe not?) There is a scene of cold-blooded practicality when the boy tries to dig something out of the sole of his foot that made me wince in sympathy and horror. I would have looked away if it had been a movie, but that doesn't work with a book!

My favorite part is probably the end, and the kindness Mrs. Hempstock shows to the middle-aged narrator. Being a child is hard, even when one is already grown up.

Definitely worth reading.

I do have a serious objection to the image on the cover, however. Both the seven year old narrator and Lettie get submerged in the ocean. Neither of them is a twenty-something woman wearing a hospital gown. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

I gotta admit, I was kind of disappointed by this one.

A "Rapture-like event" has happened about three months before the opening of the novel, and millions of people around the world have simply disappeared. It's not generally accepted that this is The Rapture, since many of the taken weren't even Christian, or weren't especially good people even.

But they are gone now, and this is about the people who are left.

There is a short introduction that takes place three months after the event, while people are generally still stunned by their losses and trying to figure out What It All Means in a cosmic sense. Chapter One opens three years after that, after the failure of the world to be destroyed in Biblical fashion. Now those left behind simply have to carry on, however they can.

The plot is slight. The book focuses on the Garvey family, who hasn't actually lost anybody. A neighboring family lost their teen-aged daughter and the mother became unhinged by grief. She joined a cult, one of many that sprung up in the aftermath. Laurie Garvey drove her friend to the compound, then joined the cult herself a year later, leaving her husband Kevin, and two teens, Tom and Jill, to find their own way.

In some ways, the title and the Rapture-like event are really misleading. The book doesn't really grapple with religion at all, which you would think would be the case. I mean, if you are a Biblical literalist, you are going to have to figure out what your religion means. If people were literally taken up into heaven, but they weren't (for the most part) even Christian--what does that do you your understanding of the universe?  Then, when the promised final days apocalypse doesn't happen, how do you reshape your way of life?

The Garveys are not even a little bit religious, and so their "loss" isn't the kind of immediately visceral kind that others in the book experienced. Laurie's friend's daughter disappeared. Laurie lost her own bearings, but we don't even see that, because she leaves her family and joins the cult in the time that doesn't get covered by the narrative.

So the Garveys' stories really aren't tied to this whole Revelation thing either. Which makes their story feel rather banal--Laurie might as well have left for another man, discovered she was gay, run off to find herself, or some other more quotidian type of family disruption. Merely a divorce would have been enough to cause Tom to lose his bearings in college. Jill fell in with a disruptive friend, and her school work suffered. Nothing apocalyptic necessary there either.

It feels like a bait and switch--that the whole Rapture thing is just a device to get to some stories about grief, stories that could have been told perfectly well without the Rapture being invoked at all. Dramatically, I don't think the book actually benefited from this high concept conceit.

Kevin finds himself lonely in the house of his marriage, with wife and older son gone. His teen aged daughter isn't around much, and the friend she invites to stay with them turns into a (brief) sexual temptation that he recognizes as inappropriate. Tom leaves college to follow a charismatic religious figure who turns out to be a serial pederast. His story about shepherding a pregnant "spiritual wife" of the disgraced figure is a blatantly obvious working of the Nativity, but with little or no point to it. Tom is already disenchanted with the leader by the time he gets the job, he's not suffering any spiritual crisis, and the girl is lovely but not really a fully realized character. She's got no real spiritual journey herself, and it's no real loss when she runs off and leaves the baby behind.

Kevin tries to have a relationship with a woman whose whole family disappeared in the rapture, but it doesn't work out. Post-divorce dating stories look a lot like this generally. Jill drinks and sleeps around in adolescent acting out ways, then gives it up as unfulfilling. Honestly--this is the kind of stuff that women write about all the time, and they don't get the kind of build up this book got.

The only plot that skirts religion is Laurie's, but her story is just incomprehensible. Perrotta doesn't really give us any insight as to why this particular woman would join a cult, especially one as fanatical as the Guilty Remnant. The members live together in overcrowded conditions, never speak, smoke constantly, and follow people around town to, I'm not sure, "shame" them for going about their normal lives? It's not clear what the belief system is for this group, or why an upper middle class middle aged woman would leave her family and join them.

The GR offer a sort of plot, in that one of them has been murdered, "execution style." Several months later, a second one is also found dead. There is apparently almost no crime in this particular town, so it's kind of sensational. It turns out that the GR hierarchy (of which there doesn't seem to be much--we don't ever learn who they are or how this gets decided) has decided to order these murders to be committed in the hopes of scaring the general population? Not sure what the end game is here, or how well this plan has been thought out. If GR cult members are getting murdered, why would anybody want to join this cult?

Of course, it's well written, of course there are touches and scenes that are well crafted and even touching. But the same can be said of books by Elizabeth Berg, or Anne Tyler, or any number of other writers. This book sells itself with a Big Idea, then buries the story in favor of a fairly ordinary family drama. I would probably have liked it better if it had been brave enough to understand that was all it was.