Tag Archives: literary fiction

Review: Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

20121019-181015.jpg

The Bigtree Alligator Wrestling Dynasty is in trouble. In the fading resort of Swamplandia!, the family is reeling from Hilola Bigtree’s death from cancer, and as the Chief’s debts mount up, the children each find their own ways to deal with their terror of the unknown and save the park that is their home. But Kiwi has gone to work for a rival theme park, Ossie has found a boyfriend who may or may not be a ghost, and the Chief has gone AWOL, so it’s down to plucky, 13-year-old Ava, her red alligator, and the mysterious Bird Man to enter the swamp and fix their family fortunes. But the swamps are treacherous, and not everything is as it seems…

Told from both Kiwi and Ava’s perspectives, this is a darkly innocent narration. I love Ava’s voice, her bravado and her bizarre frames of reference that only a girl who grew up in an alligator-wrestling theme park could come up with. Lines like: ‘I could feel the secret rolling between the four of us like an egg in a towel.’

Her grief about her mother is expertly woven into the consciousness of a girl who does not know how to express it, manifesting itself not in passages about how she misses her mother, but in nervous tics, a lack of assurance about what to believe, and a desperate search for affection when she meets the Bird Man.

The gator-swamp is an excellent, other-worldly setting that makes it impossible to know what we as readers can and can’t believe in. Perhaps ghosts are real, if they can create such a lasting impression on a family. Perhaps men can commune with animals, if the Bigtree legacy is to be believed. It reminded me of Life of Pi, the way that the line between magical realism and traumatic experience were blurred.

The story of Louis Thanksgiving, that one heartless reviewer on Goodreads who clearly likes her stories flat and dull and obvious from the outset, was brilliant. Like an orphan from a fairytale, Louis was only adopted to serve as cheap labour on a Florida farm. His background is so starved of love and opportunity that the Depression is, to him, a blessing.

Happiness could be felt as a pressure too, Louis realised, more hard-edged and solid than longing, even… in fact he’d been so poor in Iowa that he couldn’t settle on one concrete noun to wish for- a real father? A girl in town? A thousand acres? A single friend? In contrast, this new happiness had angles. Happiness like his was real; it had a jewel-cut shadow, and he could lose it.

And once you’ve followed Louis’ tragic, wasteful, pointless story to its conclusion, you’ve fallen a little bit in love with him too, just like Ossie. Whether or not he is a ‘real ghost’, you are brought face to face with the injustices of poverty, bad planning and a lack of accountability. That’s why we get the ‘unbelievable’ story of Kiwi going to Harvard, because he could never go – the system is rigged so that of course he could never go. It is a notion more fantastic than a 13-year-old alligator wrestler. In its own, dreamy, teenage way, Swamplandia! is as furious as a much more explicitly political book.

A lot of reviewers have criticised this book for being too dark (stupid), for not properly explaining one of the climaxes of the book (stupid, because everything in life comes with an explanation) and for stranding us with an implausibly happy ending. But if you try to pick out what is ‘plausible’ about this book you entirely miss the point – it is getting tangled up in this problem that makes the book so compelling. And I defy you not to care about these kids. I couldn’t put it down.

Rating:
First line: Our mother performed in starlight.
In a tweet: A dark, murky, terrifying tale of adolescence.

Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Didn't spot the bridge until the end of the book!NW takes a cross-section of a community in Willesden, North London, following the lives of four characters who grew up in the same run-down Caldwell estate. Leah and Natalie, childhood friends, have found their friendship strained by the different directions their lives have taken. Leah is content in her job and content in her marriage, except she secretly takes the pill to avoid the baby they both claim to want. Her narration is the most fractured and meandering, merging description and memory, thoughts and senses. In contrast, Natalie (originally Keisha) has thrown off her council-estate roots completely and reinvented herself as a lawyer living on the well-heeled outskirts of their community. But her transformation has left her with an identity crisis, as filling in her various roles as wife, mother and lawyer give her no clue to who Natalie (or Keisha) is. Felix is a young man with a new girlfriend, a pocketful of cash and the world at his feet. It’s the most inspiring and upbeat part of the novel (except we know that it’s not). And Nathan is, for most of them, the spectre of Caldwell – scarred, poverty stricken, and angry.

The narration reflects the consciousness of the characters themselves. It’s the free indirect speech of your A-levels, and then some (Mrs Dalloway is an obvious, and probably conscious, point of comparison). Chapter 37 recurs, out of order, because of its special significance for Leah. Natalie’s life is broken into 185 numbered segments that maybe smack a little of the creative writing class, but which I thought worked rather well. Smith’s writing is meant to evoke the bustle and jostle of London, and it is as dense, as crowded and sometimes as antagonising as London can be.

In fact, reading the novel I ended up with a Leah/Natalie split of my own. One side of me enjoyed the undoubtedly good and sometimes brilliant writing, the sheer joy of a novel that meanders rather than drives, sprawls rather than directs, and the pithy literary asides (‘People were not people but merely an effect of language. You could conjure them up and kill them in a sentence.’)

But the other side wondered whether there isn’t something missing. I’m not saying I wanted a moral of the story, but I did feel like it was a novel supposedly about class that wasn’t actually saying very much. For example, it wants to hate and satirize the middle classes, but while it manages a certain amount of self-aware eye-rolling, you don’t get the sense she really means it. Leah and her husband scoff at Natalie’s success, but they also crave it, and Natalie herself rolls her eyes at herself during one (stereo)typical brunch.

But the Thing that happens that knits the four characters together? That, that is reaffirming a whole load of stereotypes – those who seem to be scammers are, the scarred junkie commits the crime, a phone call to the police will sort it all out, the only victim of gang crime worth mourning is one whose making something of himself. Her Nathan section is the shortest and the one where the character is kept at the furthest remove, as though Smith herself has fallen victim to her middle class squeamishness and couldn’t quite bear the thought of spending too much time with him. But another part of me wonders whether she’s challenging us to look at how our prejudices work? We want to read books about working-class girl done good because it makes us feel more comfortable, as though we don’t hold the prejudices about the Nathans and the Shars that we undoubtedly do.

I don’t know. These aren’t demands that I would make of just any author, or most books. But they are ones that this book made me make! Like Zadie Smith, I had trouble wrapping this book up in a neat little parcel too. There are parts of exquisite craftsmanship next to some rather more difficult aspects (and a few editorial booboos – who carries around a bus ticket in London?). The infrastructure isn’t without its faults, but you can still have a great time. A bit like London…*

Other London-based metaphors for NW are gratefully received, nay, ENCOURAGED.

Rating: 
First line: The fat sun stalls by the phone masts.
In a tweet: A big job for a big city.

Review: Q by Evan Mandery

Q by Evan ManderyIf you could go back in time, would you save yourself from the greatest heartbreak of your life? This is the question that Q asks, in a whimsically postmodern fashion that mostly (mostly) manages to avoid quite straying into Zooey Deschanel territory.

I know I'm setting the movement back, but BAAAAARF.

Now, the first thing to remember is not to panic at the initial premise. Our unnamed narrator is a struggling writer (slightly worried this is thinly veiled metatext) whose own postmodern offering, Time’s Broken Arrow (UH OH) is moderately successful, and who has met the love of his life, the she-doesn’t-know-how-beautiful-she-is (ALERT! ALERT!), quixotically named (OH NO) Q (THIS IS NEXT TO “Z FOR ZOOEY” IN THE ALPHABET OF KOOK). However, it is definitely worth bearing with the fact that on paper this is a Pynchon-romcom mashup (in fact, it is one of those, but I can’t imagine that shifting many copies on the 3 for 2 table). Q is an organic gardener committed to the single organic farm that lives, almost magically protected, in the very centre of New York City. She is beautiful, kind, loving and generous – we seriously stop barely short of butterflies landing on her fingertips and birds singing along with her.

But just before their wedding, our narrator is visited by his future self, and told that they will suffer a terrible tragedy if he continues to marry Q. He believes him. And he commits an act of unforgivable sabotage on the most important relationship in his life. But then, one after the other, more future selves continue to visit him – marry someone else, divorce her, become a lawyer, get a dead-end job, etc. It becomes impossible to see how this could ever end well, but of course, you know our narrator will eventually be able to travel back in time, so perhaps it will never end at all…

Mandery has fun with the time travel stuff, but he also makes fun of its unscientificness – as a future self tries to illustrate the concept on a tablecloth, the waiter complains not about the state of the tablecloth, but his terrible grasp of the sequential fallacy. Because it’s not really about the mechanics of time travel at all. It’s not really even about Q, whose perfection and unflappable faith in her ridiculous rich-property-developer father (if you smell a PLOT DEVICE, you’re not wrong) makes her rather unbelievable. It’s about how you learn to live with your regrets, and the value that lends your moments of happiness.

But perhaps whether you’ll enjoy it boils down to whether you can grit your teeth and bear the following:

…in that apartment, where Q and I shared peanut brittle while watching Casablanca, and completed the Sunday crossword puzzle with jam-covered toothpicks, and made snow angels in a pile of sugar on the hardwood floor, and first made love…

That is your litmus test, right there. If you can cope with our narrator’s middle-class Brooklynite love affair with himself in New York city, then you will find yourself strangely moved by the things that follow.

Rating:
In a tweet: The Time Traveller’s Wife instagrammed.

Death Kit by Susan Sontag

Not an enjoyable novel, perhaps, but a thought-provoking one. Sontag is known for her criticism and philosophy, and it would probably be fair to say that she has a certain cult appeal among adolescent literature students that’s based more on a love of precocious grey-bestreaked intellectuals with exciting love lives as it is an interest in her actual criticism. I guess that probably includes me. Until picking this up in a charity shop over New Year I didn’t even realise she had written novels, and the idea of something as potentially pulpy as a thriller (as this edition was classifying itself) was pretty intriguing. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t your average high-octane Michael Crichton.

Dalton  ‘Diddy’ Harron is your average 33-year-old American bachelor, with a reasonably good job promoting microscopes, an apartment in the city, and an innocuous charm that means he gets on with everybody without really knowing anybody. Or, in Sontag’s words, ‘Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives.’ For he is also barely recovered from a deep depression culminating in a suicide attempt. Taking the train to New York for work, he strikes up a flirtation with a blind girl in his carriage, and while they are stopped in a tunnel, he goes out to investigate and kills a railway worker. These two bizarre events become the points around which Diddy’s world rotates, as he tries to unpick why he killed the railway worker, whether he will fall under suspicion, and whether it even happened – Hester, being blind, can neither confirm nor assuage his fears. The writing is, as has often been described in reviews, very Kafka-esque – Diddy veers between perplexity at his own actions and paranoia at being discovered. Similarly, the difference between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred as he shuts himself and Hester into a suffocating apartment in which vision becomes increasingly unreliable and is certainly no guarantee of truth.

I’m in two minds about this novel. It’s a thriller without any real thrills. The murder occurs relatively early on, and we’re not so much worried about whether Diddy should have done it, or whether he gets caught, as what the point is supposed to be. That seems to me to be the driving force behind the novel – what are we getting at? The ‘visual’ imagery – Diddy’s job working with microscopes, Hester’s blindness, the constant juxtaposition of vision and insight – sometimes seems to be heavy-handed but does feed into this constant question. It is more a rumination on philosophical issues, conveyed through a novel, and I think approached from that attitude, it’s much more successful than if you try to approach it as an entertaining or diverting read. As a narrative, it becomes rather tedious, but Sontag has loftier ambitions. However, it does mean that it’s quite hard to argue with more frustrated reviews like this one on Goodreads, or this from a contemporary New York Times reviewer, who complains that the novel ‘skips, shuffles and snoozes’ over philosophical notions of reality and perception. The revelation at the end isn’t much of a surprise, and if I’m being honest, was something of a relief.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Diddy is tired. Diddy is tiring.