Tagmagical realism

Lucy Wood, Weathering (2015)

WeatheringThree years on from her marvellous story collection Diving Belles, Lucy Wood returns with her debut novel. Let’s not beat about the bush: Weathering is just as marvellous. In fact, it had me from the first paragraph:

Arse over elbow and a mouthful of river. Which she couldn’t spit out. Which soaked in and weighed her down until she was steeped in silt and water, like old tea. But where was her arse anyway, where was her elbow? There was nothing but water as far as she could tell. A stew of water and leaves and small stones and herself all mixed up in it – a strange grey grit. Scattered, then dragged under again, everything teeming, and not sure which way was up or down. Light and dark, light and dark, like a door opening and closing. (p. 1)

I love the rhythm of that prose, and the way it erases the line between character and river. It does so for good reason, too: the character, Pearl, has died; those are her ashes being scattered in the river, apparently still self-aware. They’re being scattered by Pearl’s daughter Ada, who’s returned to the valley to sort out Pearl’s old house; and Ada’s six-year-old daughter Pepper, who never knew Pearl at all. Weathering is the story of how the three generations deal with their sudden change in circumstances.

It’s easy enough to imagine a situation like this being the subject of a straightforward social realist novel – but such a novel would likely have been less interesting and powerful than Weathering. What makes Wood’s book so striking is its sense of what it is to be in that raw landscape. Each of the three protagonists has reason to feel particularly close to the valley: Pearl lived there for years, and of course is now literally part of it. For a wild soul like Pepper, whose life is just beginning, the valley is a place of excitement and colour. For Ada, who thought she’d got away from the valley years ago, it’s dreary and miserable.

Key to Wood’s technique is that she does not allow the valley to become known. For all the vivid descriptions of place, there are no names; this is not somewhere that can be given a label, and thereby given shape. Choppy sentence fragments disrupt the easy flow of understanding; like the characters, we as readers are plunged straight into a new world and have to orient ourselves as best we can.

We can also see this at work in the dialogue, which – like real conversation – is often laden with the unspoken, which can be stifling for Ada, because she finds herself having to be the person others remember, rather than the person she feels she is now; when the village shopkeeper tells her about a collection for ‘old Edwards’, Ada’s emphatic reply of ‘I don’t know who he is’ (p. 35) seems very much like a forlorn attempt to distance herself from the past. As the novel progresses, and Pepper and Ada become more comfortable in their surroundings, so the dialogue and descriptive prose become more conventionally novelistic – but never entirely; the valley will not be tamed.

The title of Weathering has two meanings: being worn away by time, but also holding on, riding out the storm. Ultimately, Wood’s characters experience something of both, as they try to find a place for themselves when the river is the thing that will carry on. Whereas in Diving Belles magic and story lay beneath the surface of everyday life, here it’s the deeper reality of the landscape that pushes through into the characters’ lives.

I want to end with another quotation, which may be tricky, because you really need the momentum of context to understand what Weathering is like.  But here’s a stretch of dialogue between Pepper and a woman on the riverbank, which to me captures something of the novel’s general attitude, as well as showing how amusing Wood’s writing can be:

[…]‘It certainly is cold today,’ [Pepper] said.

‘What are you talking about that for?’ The woman said.

Pepper shrugged. ‘I’m trying to make conversation.’

‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘That.’

‘This is what you have to do. I say, whereabouts do you live and what do you do for a living? And then you tell me. And then I say it’s cold. And then you agree. And then I say I hope the road doesn’t get ice. And then you say you heard the road will get ice. And then I say—‘

‘Christ,’ the woman said. ‘Why do we have to say all that?’

‘I don’t know,’ Pepper said. (p. 108)

Why indeed? Weathering is a novel that says just what it needs to say, in its own idiosyncratic fashion. It cements Lucy Wood’s voice as one that will continue to have my full attention.

Elsewhere

Weathering has been picking up very positive mentions all over the place; here are a few of them:

"It is not, exactly, that I want to go, it is simply that I go"

Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (2006)
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (2010)

KawakamiLet’s say that my relationship with Hiromi Kawakami’s work is evolving. I first read her back in 2013, when The Briefcase was the group read for the first January in Japan. I was going to join in, but – well, I just didn’t get it. Looking back, and to be more accurate, I simply couldn’t see what I was reading. The Briefcase was listed for the IFFP last year (under its UK title, Strange Weather in Tokyo), and I re-read it as part of the shadow judging. This time, I noticed a ritualistic quality to the relationship between the protagonists; that made me feel closer to unlocking the novel, but I still didn’t quite find the key to it.

So, when I saw that an earlier Kawakami novel was lined up as one of this year’s January in Japan group reads, I was a little apprehensive. I needn’t have been, because I really liked Manazuru – to the point that I think I’ll have to revisit The Briefcase some time.

We first meet Kawakami’s narrator, Kei, on a visit to the seaside town of Manazuru; it’s a quiet place, with its own rhythm of life – two hours from Tokyo, but it could just as well be a world away. Something keeps drawing Kei back here: it may have to do with the disappearance of her husband Rei twelve years earlier; maybe Kei could find out, if only she could grasp what seems to be hovering on the fringes of her memory.

Manazuru is a disconcerting combination of the precise and the hazy. Its structure is fragmented, sliding easily between past and present, between reality, memory and fantasy (Kei is followed by a woman-figure who may be some sort of spirit – or even a version of Kei herself – but often seems as real as any of the protagonist’s human interlocutors). But, even as those categories start to blur, the emotional detail remains pin-sharp and striking (a delicate balance achieved by Michael Emmerich in his translation).

Here, for example, is Kei describing how her mother felt about Rei:

She never tried to look at him, at Rei, the man I was married to, except through a sort of fish-eye lens. I don’t mean she saw him from a prejudiced perspective. She was unwilling to regard him as a man with a form. She preferred to peer through her lens at his distorted, bulging toes, or at his ballooning head. Nothing else. She didn’t dislike him enough to look away. She didn’t hate him enough to stare. She chose to keep him indistinct. (p. 46)

Images of bodily form and perception of others recur throughout Manazuru. Kei tells how she always used to feel the edges of her body blurring, until she started her affair with Seiji, a married man (“I don’t blur with Seiji. My shape is always the same, contained,” p. 71); Kei’s relationship with Seiji is constricting and distant in some ways, but it fulfils a need. Kei may have felt close to Rei when they were together; but, reading his diary now, she realises that there was a side of him she didn’t know; looking at old photographs of herself and Rei, their relationship suddenly starts to seem real to Kei, as though it somehow wasn’t previously. Kei comments that her daughter Momo can hurt her more deeply than others can (“she presses, unconcerned, into the softest places,” p. 30) because, knowing that Momo came from her body, Kei is unable to erect her emotional defences. But it doesn’t necessarily work both ways, as Kei finds that the teenage Momo can be distant and inscrutable. So the novel continues, with these nuanced, shifting patterns of emotion.

Kei’s perception of reality is fluid as well: for example, she has a vivid memory of following Rei and seeing him meet another woman – but apparently it’s a false one. In the end, Manazuru is a portrait of a woman lost between the elusive past and the seemingly unreachable future – and whether or she finds her way is open to interpretation.

This review is part of January in Japan, a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Read my other January in Japan 2015 posts here.

Pushkin Press: The Rabbit Back Literature Society

Rabbit Back Lit SocLast week and this, Stu at Winston’s Dad has been celebrating Pushkin Press. Founded in 1997, Pushkin are one of the UK’s leading publishers of translated fiction. I haven’t read many of their books, but, as I’m reading more translations this year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore further. The Pushkin book I’ve been reading is Pasi Ilmari Jäaskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society (2006; translated from the Finnish by Lola M. Rogers, 2013).

In the little town of Rabbit Back, a teacher named Ella Amanda Milana is disconcerted to find her students submitting essays based on copies of classic texts whose plot details have changed Sonya shooting Raskolnikov at the end of Crime and Punishment, for example. At the same time, Ella receives an invitation to join the Rabbit Back Literature Society, an exclusive writers’ club run by the town’s most celebrated author, Laura White. At a party to welcome Ella into the Society, Laura White disappears in an indoor snowstorm – and Ella sets about investigating what happened. She makes use of ‘The Game’, a Society ritual in which members must answer truthfully any question put to them, however painful it is to do so. Ella discovers that a former member of the Society disappeared many years ago – could Ella be next?

There’s a wonderful dissonance to the opening sections of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, as the town and its inhabitants (and Jäaskeläinen’s prose) exhibit a playful theatricality that contrasts with some very real tragedy. On the basis of this, I thought I knew where the book was going to go; I expected a fairly straightforward fantasia, something along the lines of Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Not quite.

As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Rabbit Back is a place which has become infested with story; Laura White’s tales of fantastical creatures have shaped the way in which the town is perceived, by outsiders and denizens alike. White also appears to have had some kind of hold over the members of her Society; and one of the key things about them is the extent to which they have used other people as sources of material for their own writing.

This is reflected in The Game: the idea is not to tell a story in response to a question, but to ‘spill’ – to surrender all the raw, unshaped information one has about the subject raised. It’s all, in a way, reflected in how the novel treats Ella: it is not until well into the book that we start to hear her answers to the challenges she receives through The Game; her emotional responses – such a crucial part of the individual she is – are withheld from us. This is what it’s like, Jäaskeläinen seems to say, when you take away part of someone.

The jarring dissonance of the early section doesn’t carry through to the later parts of The Rabbit Back Literature Society, and it’s hard not to feel a pang of regret about that. But what we have instead is intriguing an exploration of how stories can define us, and what it means if reality doesn’t measure up.

Elsewhere
Some other reviews of The Rabbit Back Literature Society: Beauty in RuinsThe Complete Review; Whimsies & Words.

War Stories: Hassan Blasim and Ben Fountain

Hassan Blasim, The Madman of Freedom Square (2009)
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012)

One thing I feel I ought to do more often as a reader and reviewer is engage with the issues; I tend to think more about how novels and stories work as pieces of fiction, and park the issues they deal with to one side. I probably shouldn’t do that, and certainly couldn’t do that with the stories in the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s collection, The Madman of Freedom Square (translated by Jonathan Wright), because they’re all about how stories shape people’s experiences of war and its consequences.

The opening piece, ‘The Reality and the Record’, illustrates what I mean. After a scene-setting introduction – which explains that refugees arriving at reception centres have the stories they tell to gain asylum, and the stories they keep to themselves, the ones about what really happened to them – we launch into the main body of the story, an account given to a Swedish immigration official by an Iraqi refugee. Our narrator tells how he was kidnapped from his work as an ambulance driver, and forced to appear in a video claiming to be a member of the Iraqi army. He describes how, over the subsequent months and years, he was kept in captivity, sold from group to group, and placed in front of a camera innumerable times, to play all manner of roles.

Stories upon stories upon stories – not just all these fake videos, but the refugee’s account itself, because who would believe such an outlandish tale? Generally speaking, I’d read something like ‘The Reality and the Record’ and praise its aesthetics in using story, the way it resists a definitive interpretation… I can still do these things, but I can’t ignore the emotional impact of Blasim’s portrayal of war as a maze of realities in which a person can so easily become lost. The narrator of the tale’s frame comments at the end that ‘the ambulance driver summed up his real story in four words: “I want to sleep,”’ p.11); those four words say so much.

Elsewhere in The Madman of Freedom Square, we see more characters being damaged and destroyed by war, stories, or both. The narrator of the title story refused to believe tales of two young blond men who left good fortune in their wake, until he was wounded in an explosion and apparently rescued by them; Blasim shows how blurred the line between sanity and delusion may be, and the final sentences are especially chilling. ‘The Truck to Berlin’ is another tale which layers hearsay upon anecdote in depicting what happens to a group of Iraqi men who pay to be smuggled out of the country; in the darkness of the truck, they don’t know what’s happening, or even if they’re actually heading to Berlin as promised – the conclusion is both brutal and powerful.

Dedicated ‘to the Dead of the Iran-Iraq War’, ‘An Army Newspaper’ revolves around a fairly straightforward – but nonetheless effective – metaphor. The now-deceased editor of an army newspaper’s cultural page narrates how he received anonymously-authored exercise books containing the stories of soldiers, and published them – to great acclaim – under his own name. But the books kept coming, until he was besieged. At the story’s close, the editor cries out to the writer who has temporarily brought him back to life, ‘why do you need an incinerator for your characters?’ (p.20). That’s just one example of how Blasim brings home the stark realities of war. Not all the stories in The Madman of Freedom Square are as successful, but the best pieces alone make the book worth buying. I’m very grateful to M. Lynx Qualey of the ArabLit blog for bringing Blasim’s work to my attention.

***

A new novel of the Iraq war comes from US author Ben Fountain, a debut novelist in his fifties. Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is the star of ‘Bravo squad’, who became the toast of America after an embedded Fox News crew filmed them winning a firefight against Iraqi insurgents, and the video went viral. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is set on the final day of the soldiers’ ‘Victory Tour’ organised by the government, when they will be guests of honour at a Thanksgiving Day football game in Texas, before returning to Iraq.

Fountain’s main subject could be summed up, I think, as the gap between the reality of the soldiers’ experiences at war, and perceptions of them at home – it’s all about stories again. The people he meets on the Victory Tour treat Billy like a hero:

They want autographs. They want cell phone snaps. They say thank you over and over and with growing fervor, they know they’re being good when they thank the troops and their eyes shimmer with love for themselves and this tangible proof of their goodness (pp. 39-40).

But for Billy, what he did on that day in Iraq was – well, just something he had to do:

Billy did not seek the heroic deed, no. The deed came for him, and what he dreads like a cancer in his brain is that the deed will seek him out again (p. 40).

Already, new realities are being woven around those three minutes in the life of Bravo squad. Technically, even the name ‘Bravo squad’ is incorrect, but that’s what they’ve been dubbed by the media, and so that is who they now are. Movie rights are being negotiated: Hilary Swank is interested in playing Billy, and the fact she’s a woman is irrelevant in the face of a possible film deal. So, the boys of Bravo are losing control of their destiny, but they’re used to it: ‘manipulation is their air and element, for what is a soldier’s job but to be the pawn of higher?’ (p. 28)

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is one of those books which I had to keep stopping reading to make note of something interesting; I don’t find myself doing that as often as I’d like. I’m still left with a nagging sense, though, that the plot of Billy Lynn is not quite enough to support a novel of this length – but there is a nicely-done sub-plot in which Billy falls for a cheerleader at the stadium, which has the uncertainty and awkwardness of a teenage crush that begins suddenly but may not have the chance to last.

But it’s Fountain’s prose to which I keep returning. One of my favourite sections in the novel comes when Bravo squad are introduced to the footballers and Billy sees behind the scenes: there’s a clear contrast drawn between these enormous men with all facilities on hand, and the soldiers of Bravo squad. As his Victory Tour comes to an end, Billy reflects on the implications of the discrepancy between the image and reality of war:

For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force…Their reality dominates, except for this: It can’t save you. It won’t stop any bombs or bullets (p. 306).

Whether in Fountain’s novel or Blasim’s collection, the stories win – and, so often, it’s the characters who lose.

Links

The Madman of Freedom Square
Hassan Blasim’s website
The publisher, Comma Press.
Interview with Blasim at The Short Review.
Some other reviews: A Year of Reading the World; Mithran Somasundrum for The Short Review; M. Lynx Qualey for The Quarterly Conversation; Alan Whelan for Lancashire Writing Hub.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Interview with Ben Fountain in The Scotsman.
The publisher, Canongate Books.
Some other reviews: Naomi Frisby for Bookmunch; Bite the Book; Boston Bibliophile; Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Sam Mills, The Quiddity of Will Self (2012)

The quiddity of something is its ‘whatness’, the essential aspects which it shares with other things. This contrasts (we learn in Sam Mills’s first novel for adults) with haecceity, which is a thing’s ‘thisness’, the essential characteristics which make it particular. With that in mind, I’d say that the world could do with more novels which have the quiddity of The Quiddity of Will Self; not to mention more novels with equivalent haecceity to The Quiddity of Will Self.

Still with me? Excellent – let’s go!

We start in 2006: a young middle-class layabout named Richatd Smith strikes up a conversation with Sylvie Pettersson, his downstairs neighbour; afterwards, he finds a card which has fallen from her pocket. A week later, Richard decides to return the card – and discovers a man’s body in Sylvie’s flat. It turns out, though, that the body was Sylvie’s – she had been undergoing plastic surgery to change her appearance to that of Will Self. Following a lead on the card he found, Richard finds himself becoming drawn into the strange world of the WSC, a clique of writers with a Will Self fixation, and a penchant for bizarre masked gatherings.

In the subsequent four sections of the novel, we meet Sylvie’s ghost, frustratedly searching for her killer; Richard Smith a year later, when he’s won the opportunity to follow in Will Self’s footsteps by writing in public in a tower block (though more sinister forces are at work than he realises); Mia, a journalist in 2049, who wonders whether the octogenarian Self’s recent death was as straightforward as it appeared; and a present-day writer named Sam Mills working on a novel called The Quiddity of Will Self – but it’s a different Sam Mills…

I won’t pretend to have understood everything Mills is trying to achieve in her novel, nor all the ways in which it’s in dialogue with Will Self’s work – but I found Quiddity a rewarding and intriguing read nonetheless. Themes of identity and obsession reverberate through the book, and the shape of the narrative is especially interesting: each section brings into question the integrity of the previous one, and the story collapses in on itself repeatedly – so, whenever you think you have a handle on it, something will soon be along to change that.

Reading The Quiddity of Will Self made me think of Leo Benedictus’s Prospect article on ‘hindered narrators’ from a couple of months ago. To my mind, Benedictus conflates a few ideas which don’t quite sit together comfortably; but what particularly interests me here is the contrast between narrators ‘with a limited ability to understand the world or write about it’ (which concept shades into narrators with idiosyncratic voices); and those who speak with the Voice of the Author, whatever the character’s name happens to be. It seems to me that the narrators in Mills’s novel (though not necessarily powerless or inarticulate) are all hindered narrators (in that there are fundamental aspects of their world about which they don’t know – but which we, as readers, do); and that Will Self represents the Great Literary Author with the all-encompassing voice – so the characters’ interest in Self may be read as a search for understanding and mastery of the world (in whatever sense).

It’s perhaps difficult to describe The Quiddity of Will Self in a way that doesn’t make it sound like a curio which will only be of interest to lovers of Self’s work – but I do think the book is more than that. It reminds me a little of Christopher Priest’s The Islanders, in the sense that the shape of the novel is important for its own sake; but there’s so much going on, and the energy of the narrative so great, that one can’t help being swept along.

There should be more books like The Quiddity of Will Self. There should also be more books which are nothing like The Quiddity of Will Self – preferably the same ones.

Elsewhere
Sam Mills’s website
Some other reviews of The Quiddity of Will Self: Alan Ashton-Smith for PopMatters; Workshy Fop; Nicholas Royle for the Guardian.

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (2010)

I’ve known of Aimee Bender’s name for a while, but couldn’t have told you where I first heard it, or anything much about her writing. However, I’m always interested in books where the fantastic intrudes on the everyday, and how could I not want to read a novel with such a brilliant title as The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake? So I read it and, happily, was not disappointed.

Rose Edelstein is just about to turn nine years old when she tries a piece of the birthday cake her mother has made and discovers that, underneath the flavours of lemon and chocolate, it tastes hollow: ‘My mother’s able hands had made the cake…but she was not there, in it.’ This is Rose’s first experience of her talent: when she eats something, she can detect the feelings of the person who made it; which is how she knows that her mother is troubled, and how, years later, she can tell that her mother is having an affair.

There are tensions within Rose’s family – her mother and father are not in love as they were; her brother Joseph absorbs himself in school and college work, thereby distancing himself from the others – and the girl’s new ability lays the roots of some of those tensions bare for her. This leads to Rose’s having a troubled relationship with food – at one point, she even wishes that she could have her mouth removed, and takes refuge in factory-made foods, which don’t taste so personal – and this is what makes Bender’s novel so elegant: that its fantastic elements work both literally and metaphorically at the same time.

For example, interpret Rose’s talent literally, and she doesn’t want to eat her mother’s cooking because she can’t bear to taste the sadness with which it was made – and the rest of her eating habits are similarly shaped by this magical ability. But another way of looking at Rose’s situation is to say that she has an eating disorder, and that her attitude to food is how she responds to the tensions at home – the effects on Rose’s relationships with other people are much the same either way. Similarly, Joseph gains the ability to vanish and reappear at will; and this can also be taken at face value, or read as a boy withdrawing into his own little world as a coping mechanism.

This theme of abilities and actions having both literal and representational roles extends beyond the supernatural into the more mundane aspects of Bender’s narrative.  Rose’s grandmother is a distant figure whose relationship to her family is represented in the novel by the parcels she sends to Rose’s household, which are less gifts than cast-offs (‘mailing her life away’, as Rose puts it). Another example is the hobby of carpentry that Rose’s mother takes up: she meets Larry, the man with whom she has an affair, at her carpentry group; and so the hobby becomes both a constant in her life and a symbol of the Edelstein family’s problems. This, perhaps, is why Rose is so keen to hang on to the tatty old footstool that brought her parents together, because to accept a new one made by her mother would be tantamount to approving the affair.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a carefully detailed and nuanced portrait of a family in crisis and a girl trying to come to terms with her situation. It uses fantasy to wonderful effect, making it both tangential and central at the same time. Magical stuff, in more ways than one.

Links
Aimee Bender’s website
An excerpt and interview at Leite’s Culinaria
Chris Kammerud reviews the book for Strange Horizons

Conditions and Consequences: Sean Ferrell and Joshua Ferris

Sean Ferrell, Numb (2010)
Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed (2010)

On the table today, two novels whose protagonists have unusual conditions which put great strain on both their own lives and their loved ones’, and which are used by the novels’ respective authors to explore wider issues.

The titular character of Sean Ferrell’s Numb by is unable to feel pain, or to remember who he was before he stumbled, bleeding, into a circus, of which he soon became the star attraction. We join Numb as he is gearing up for his greatest stunt yet – facing off against a lion. Things don’t work out as they should, though, when the lion collapses at the key moment.  As a result, Numb leaves the circus, along with his colleague Mal, and heads to New York, in search of his fortune, his identity, or… well, maybe even he doesn’t really know.

One’s natural expectation with a story like this is that it will focus on uncovering the protagonist’s past, but Ferrell’s novel isn’t like that. The man Numb is now is of greater interest to the tale than the man he used to be; when occasional clues do appear (never adding up to anything like a solution, though), they feel almost like an intrusion – which, in a sense, they are, because Numb’s greatest interest is establishing an identity for himself in the present.

Identity is perhaps the central issue of Numb the novel, as that subject impinges on each of the main characters in some way. Numb himself has to deal with becoming public property to an extent; his feats of endurance make him famous, land him appearances on TV; he becomes the star of innumerable internet videos, about which he learns only by accident, if at all – in short, Numb’s identity multiplies until there are people out there who’ve never met him, who have a more solid conception of who he is than he does himself. Numb’s situation seems to me summed up best by a passage in which he reflects on the experience of staying at length in a hotel (funded by his agent) – surrounded by luxury, everything he could want at hand, but none of it belonging to him.

Mal also has to deal with the effects of Numb’s fame, though in his case the issue is that he has fallen on hard times whilst Numb’s stock has risen; Mal takes desperate measures in an attempt to claw back his sense of self. Elsewhere, we have Emilia, a model with whom Numb embarks on something of a ‘relationship’, and whose identity appears mutable – she gains gratification from Numb’s inability to feel pain in New York, yet, when Numb meets her later in Los Angeles (where she has moved), Emilia is a much softer, more relaxed character. Then there is Hiko, the blind artist with whom Numb falls in something which is not quite love; she captures the essence of her subjects in her works, but keeps a second, private set of portraits, which sum up her own image of those people – she creates multiple identities of others.

By novel’s end, Numb is on his way to discovering who he is, or at least to becoming comfortable with whatever answer to that question he may choose – and we as readers have experienced an interesting and very entertaining examination of what ‘identity’ can mean.

In The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris, lawyer Tim Farnsworth is betrayed not by his memory, but by his body: Tim’s ‘condition’ is that, periodically, he will start walking, and be unable to stop voluntarily, or control where he goes; no accurate diagnosis nor effective treatment has been found. The novel begins as Tim’s condition returns, and chronicles several years in his life, as he goes in and out of remission.

Broadly speaking (the distinction I’m going to make here isn’t clear-cut), if the effects of the condition in Numb are mostly ‘internal’ (e.g. issues of personal identity), in The Unnamed, they’re more ‘external’. In one sense, this is quite literally so, as all that walking has taken its toll on Tim’s body – but that’s relatively minor in terms of the novel. More significant is what happens to Tim’s relationships and the lives of his loved ones; for example, his wife Jane find’s Tim’s condition dominating her life, as she’s the one who has to collect him from wherever he ends up after one of his walking spell (the staccato flow of the story, as chapters and scenes begin abruptly with Jane collecting Tim from who-knows-where, conveys this sense of disruption beautifully), and even gave up her job to keep an eye on Tim during his previous bout of the condition; later in the novel, the strain of coping with all this drives Jane to drink. Tim’s relationship with his young daughter, Becka, also comes under stress, because she doesn’t understand why he keeps going off as he does.

All this is not to say, however, that Tim’s condition has no psychological effects on him, because it does. These emerge particularly in the final third of The Unnamed, which is where the novel really takes off stylistically. Tim starts to personify his condition as another entity inhabiting his body; or perhaps that’s how it really is – Ferris maintains a wonderful ambiguity over the matter. And the final section, which drops chapters entirely in a reflection of Tim’s now-chronic walking, reveals just how much he has been transformed by his condition. But even Tim finds a peace of sorts in the final pages; one closes the book feeling that Tim’s story has ended in the right place, for all that the conclusion is bittersweet.

Elsewhere
Sean Ferrell’s website
Some other reviews of Numb: Elizabeth A. White; In Lieu of a Field Guide; Boston Book Bums.

Joshua Ferris’s website
Some other reviews of The Unnamed: The Asylum; The Book Lady’s Blog; Reading Matters.

Tony Lovell, ‘The Shell’ (2010)

Stephen Peters is troubled by vivid dreams of a life he doesn’t recognise with an old woman who is apparently his wife; though she’s not his actual wife, Carla, with whom he’s about to go on holiday in the hope that he can relax for a change. But the cares of life are still nagging at him; and those dreams aren’t going away, either. Lovell’s prose flows nicely, but I don’t think the two strands of the story mesh together as strongly as they might.

Rating: ***½

Tim Casson, ‘The Scream’ (2010)

An estate agent finds that people who were once close now seem to be distancing themselves from him, at the same time as a painful growth has appeared on his neck (yet apparently no one else can see it), and he’s showing properties to a mysterious stranger who sells remarkably popular kebabs. These disparate elements are, it seems, connected; but in ways I can’t quite piece together in my mind — though I’ve thought the story over, its parts won’t coalesce into a satisfying conception of “what’s going on”. So, for me, ‘The Scream’ has some interesting ideas, but is less successful as a whole.

Rating: ***

David V. Griffin, ‘Violette Doranges’ (2010)

A senior employee of a philanthropic organisation finds himself with the phone in one hand and the name ‘Violette Doranges’ in his thoughts, as though he’s just had a conversation with someone of that name, though he remembers no such thing, and knows no such person. In the subsequent days and weeks, the name of Violette Doranges crops up again and again; it turns out that she is a glamorous young socialite who moves in similar circles to the protagonist, though they’ve never knowingly encountered each other. Our man resolves to find a way to meet this mysterious woman, but doing so proves harder than he expected.

Early on, I thought I knew where Griffin’s story was going – his protagonist was not going to meet Violette; she’d always be nothing more real than a whispered name to him – and settled down for a dance towards and away from the revelation of Violette’s identity. But it was not to be so: towards its end, the story takes a turn that opens up the possibilities of interpretation, and leaves the tale alive in the mind for quite some time afterwards.

Rating: ***½

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