The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker

Nicholson Baker’s debut novel was first published in 1988. It’s set during an office worker’s lunch hour, and consists of his lengthy thoughts on the minutiae of life, such as why both his shoelaces snapped in quick succession (were stresses caused by tying the laces, or by the laces rubbing against the eyeholes of his shoes?). 

To give you a flavour of the prose, here the protagonist imagines what will happen after he’s bought a rubber address stamp, paid his bills, and taken some chairs for recaning:

Molten rubber was soon to be poured into backward metal letters that spelled my name and address; blind people were making clarinetists’ finger motions over the holes of a half-caned chair, gauging distances and degrees of tautness; somewhere in the Midwest in rooms full of Tandem computers and Codex statistical multiplexers the magnetic record of certain debts in my name was being overwritten with a new magnetic record that corresponded to a figure diminished to the penny by the amount that I had a written out in hasty felt-tip pen on my checks…

The technology fixes Baker’s novel in time to an extent, but in an intriguing way. The protagonist is fixated on the workings of mechanical systems, and of course this is a time when office work is full of them, right down to the frequent use of staplers. There is a real sense of the character interacting with his environment, because what he’s thinking is inevitably tied to the physicality of things. 

I’ve been trying to decide whether The Mezzanine is poking fun at its protagonist’s obsessions, and I’m still not sure. Sometimes it all seems over the top, such as when the character is deciding on the most politic spot to sign his name on a get-well card (not too close to the boss’s name!). Sometimes I just think, this guy is enthusiastic and interested, so good for him. 

Maybe it’s there in the book’s title. The character’s office is on the mezzanine, so when he travels up the escalator, his destination is only part-way up and no further. Looked at another way, he’s found his level, and seems happy with it. Whichever, I’m glad I spent time in his world. 

Published in Granta Editions.

Mid-Year Book Freakout tag

We are coming up to halfway through the year, which is a pretty good time to take stock. For various reasons I haven’t read as much as I usually would (partly through getting stricter at abandoning books, partly through taking more time), but let’s have a look anyway. I found this set of questions on Nina Allan’s blog; here are my answers:

Best book you’ve read so far in 2022. I would have to say Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur), a story collection which had me from the first page to the last. Chung goes straight on to my list of must-read authors.

Best sequel you’ve read so far in 2022. Well, Marseillaise My Way by Darina Al Joundi (tr. Helen Vassallo) is the only actual sequel I’ve read this year. It’s very good, but also kind of a default answer to this question. Perhaps I could add J.O. Morgan’s second novel, Appliance. This is not a sequel to Pupa, but it is definitely a companion piece aesthetically. I will be reviewing Appliance for Strange Horizons, but I can tell you now that it’s excellent.

Most anticipated release for the second half of the year. The first book that comes to mind is Life Ceremony, the forthcoming story collection by another of my must-read authors, Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori). I also can’t leave out Malarkoi, Alex Pheby’s sequel to the wonderful Mordew – sure to be a treat.

Biggest disappointment. I’m chary of calling books disappointments these days, because I know from personal experience that it can be that you’ve just caught a book at the wrong time. So I will say that I’d been looking forward to reading Damon Galgut for the first time, and I was disappointed that I didn’t click with In a Strange Room. Maybe another book, another time. 

Biggest surprise. I’m going to say Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy – not because I didn’t expect to like it (I did), but because it was not on my radar at all until I found it in the publisher’s catalogue.

Favourite new author – debut or new to you. Bora Chung, Russell Hoban, Geetanjali Shree, J.O. Morgan, Nathacha Appanah.

Book that made you cry. I don’t know that any book has made me cry so far this year. Gerald Murnane’s Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs changed how it felt to look out at the world from inside my head. 

The most beautiful book you’ve bought so far. Henningham Family Press always publish beautiful books. The Lost Spell by Yismake Worku (tr. Bethlehem Attfield) is no exception. 

What books do you need to read by the end of the year? Well, the beauty of it is that I don’t need to read anything by the end of the year. What I might like to read is another matter…

Looking ahead, July will be Spanish and Portuguese Lit Month, for which I plan to catch up on some unread Mexican books that I have. August is Women in Translation Month, and perhaps it’s time for me to read the rest of Agota Kristof’s trilogy, after The Notebook (tr. Alan Sheridan). Later on will be the 1929 Club, which would give me a pretext to read Henry Green’s Living and Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel (tr. Basil Creighton). There’s also the Goldsmiths Prize shortlist to come… That’s plenty to be going on with, I think. 

Naked Eye Publishing: Marseillaise My Way by Darina Al Joundi (tr. Helen Vassallo)

This dramatic monologue is the follow-up to Darina Al Joundi’s The Day Nina Simone Stopped Singing, which I wrote about earlier in the year. Once again, the translator is Helen Vassallo of the excellent Translating Women blog. 

In Marseillaise My Way, Al Joundi’s protagonist Noun has left Beirut to make a new life for herself in France. As in the earlier play, a song runs through the piece, representing Noun’s situation. Before it was Nina Simone’s ‘Sinnerman’, which underlined Noun’s complex relationship with her father. Here it’s the Marseillaise, which Noun has to be able to sing as part of her French citizenship test. 

Noun is uneasy about the words and often sings off-key. This represents a wider ambivalence that she feels towards France. She chose France because she thought it was the kind of secular country where she could have the freedoms she was denied in Lebanon. Yet she sees women and girls in France choosing to wear the veil and burka, and she can’t understand why. Experiences like this lead Noun to reflect on the Arab women who fought for freedom in the past. 

The obstacles to Noun gaining citizenship keep piling up, as she has to navigate a maze of bureaucracy. But she remains determined to get there, to sing the Marseillaise her way. Her story is compelling. 

Published by Naked Eye Publishing.

Lanny by Max Porter

In the countryside near London stirs Dead Papa Toothwort, a nature spirit who moves through the different layers of life in the village, and revels in the music of human voices. These curl and overlap strikingly on the page:

Lanny is a dreamy young boy from the village with a wild imagination. Many people can’t work him out, as we hear from his parents, a commuter and novelist who are recent arrivals from the city. We also hear from Pete, a local artist who spends time with Lanny, and seems more on his wavelength than most. 

Papa Toothwort understands Lanny, though: he sees that here is someone with an affinity for nature – someone who would respect the deep tales of old, rather than treating them as tourist fodder. As the novel’s first part ends, Toothwort decides the time has come to reassert himself – and Lanny goes missing. 

The second section is my favourite part of the book, as the prose turns into a collage of voices echoing Toothwort’s passages in the first part. Max Porter explores not just the relationship between his village community and the natural world, but also relations within the village – for example, the way suspicion soon falls (unwarranted) on Pete.

The theatrical third part turns to the question of what Lanny means to those closest to him – whether they’ll be honest about it or not. It’s the feelings in Lanny that remain strongest in my mind, the way emotions twist and unpeel as the novel goes on. 

Published by Faber & Faber.

MacLehose Press: Standing Heavy by GauZ’ (tr. Frank Wynne)

GauZ’ is a writer from Côte d’Ivoire who spent time working as a security guard in Paris. That’s what his first novel revolves around: ‘standing heavy’ is slang for ” all the various professions that require the employee to remain standing in order to earn a pittance.” The prologue describes how immigrant Black men tend to fall into security guarding: it doesn’t need much experience, employers aren’t too bothered about your official status, and it’s a way to avoid being unemployed or on zero-hours. 

Three main chapters chronicle the changing experiences of three Ivoirian security guards. In the 1960s and 70s, Ferdinand is optimistic even as French immigration policy changes. He feels he has a good job, and contrasts himself with the students in his residence, who (it seems to him) argue a lot but never actually do much. 

By the 1990s, Ossiri and Kassoum are security guards in a Paris that takes their work for granted. “Send money back to the old country,” says a billboard, symbolising how much of an industry has built up around immigration. Ferdinand himself is now part of that industry, running his own business subletting security jobs. But everything will change in the aftermath of 9/11, when even the most menial security work becomes seen as too important to be left to Black men. 

In between the main chapters are collections of snippets which represent the observations and thoughts of a security guard. For example, closing time at a store:

At the door, there is always someone swearing on her mother’s life that she will only need two minutes. The security guard is eyed with contempt when he refuses to grant these two-minute stays of execution. It is difficult to accept being snubbed by those one never notices. Here, everything is on sale, even self-esteem.

There’s a dry wit throughout Standing Heavy, which is really well conveyed in Frank Wynne’s translation. But there’s also a poignant side to the novel. To me, the chapters of fragments suggest a certain openness to the work of security guarding, which is not there in the closing image we have of Kassoum at work. By then, there are openings for Black security guards again, but it’s a much more regimented atmosphere. Standing Heavy presents a panoramic view of its characters’ world – it says so much in a relatively small space. 

Links

And Other Stories: Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This short Norwegian novel was a hit in my corner of the blogosphere when the English version was published by Archipelago in 2018. Then, a couple of years later, the And Other Stories edition was shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize. I’m pleased to have finally caught up with it. 

Love was originally published back in 1997, and it’s very much a story of times when people didn’t tend to have communication on tap in their pockets. We meet single mother Vibeke and her son Jon, whose ninth birthday is tomorrow. Both are preoccupied with their own thoughts. 

The structure of Love is striking: within each chapter, the perspective shifts between Vibeke and Jon, but without scene breaks, so their stories merge into and out of each other. This reflects how they live alongside each other: together but separate. It feels as though, even if they were in the same place, they would still be apart. 

For their own reasons, both characters go out. Jon assumes Vibeke must be buying ingredients for for a birthday cake, but she has a work colleague on her mind. Over the course of the evening, mother and son move in similar spaces, even encounter the same characters sometimes – but they remain apart. Love – the idea or absence of it – haunts proceedings.

Ørstavik will often arrange scenes so that Jon and Vibeke are in the same type of environment – different houses or different cars. When these merge together, it flips the sense of the book around: now, even though mother and son are separated physically, they may be closer together in other ways. This plays out with painful clarity at the end, a poignant final chapter to a compelling novel. 

#2022InternationalBooker: and the winner is…

I’m so glad that Tomb of Sand has won the 2022 International Booker Prize. First and foremost, it’s an excellent book, a joy to read.

The International Booker has built up a track record of shining a light on fiction from less commonly translated languages. I hope this win helps bring literature from Indian languages to a wider audience (and that it helps encourage more publishers…).

What I like most of all is that Tomb of Sand got to this position because of people’s passion for it. There is no compromise in the writing, translation, publishing, or indeed the prizegiving. Congratulations to author Geetanjali Shree, translator Daisy Rockwell and publisher Tilted Axis Press for their win, and thanks to everyone at the Booker for a great result!

#2022InternationalBooker: the shadow panel’s winner

Today’s the day: the end of this year’s International Booker cycle, when we find out the official winner this evening. Before then, it’s time for the shadow panel to announce our winner. We chose our own shadow shortlist, and have voted amongst ourselves, awarding the books 10, 7, 5, 3, 2 or 1 points. In the end, there was only one point between the winner and runner-up.

It is my pleasure to announce that this year’s shadow winner, with a grand total of 60 points, is…

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, tr. Anton Hur (Honford Star)

Cursed Bunny was my favourite book on the longlist, a story collection that will stay with me for a long time.

We also want to give an honourable mention to our second place book: Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, tr. Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis Press). I didn’t get to review the book (maybe later), but it was actually my second choice from the longlist, a sprawling tapestry of linguistic exuberance.

Thanks to my fellow shadow panellists Tony, Stu, Meredith, Frances, Vivek, Oisin, Paul and Areeb – excellent companions for this journey, as always.

Now, it’s over to the official judges…

Turtle Diary by Russell Hoban

I wanted to read Russell Hoban: the question was, where to start? Hoban’s website has a handy page of suggested introductions, and I just went for the book billed as “the most accessible” – 1975’s Turtle Diary

Two characters take turns to narrate: bookseller William and children’s writer Neaera. Both are middle-aged, living in London, lonely. They don’t know each other, but there’s one thing that unites them: a concern for the sea turtles at London Zoo. Held captive, these creatures are unable to follow their natural instinct to navigate to the sea. William observes: “Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean that couldn’t be said.”

Neaera and William have a dream to take some turtles from the Zoo, travel to the coast and set them free. What’s striking to me is that, when the pair first come across each other and recognise their shared preoccupation, they are reluctant to join forces. I kept imagining another version of Turtle Diary, a more straightforward tale of ’empowerment’ in which the protagonists get together readily, pursue their goal single-mindedly, and find their lives changed permanently for the better. 

That version of Turtle Diary wouldn’t be as good as Hoban’s. 

Don’t get me wrong: the turtles matter to William and Neaera, the pair go through with a plan, and there are consequences. But the protagonists’ concern for the turtles comes from a deeply personal place: it’s standing in for a more fundamental absence. As Neaera puts it: “The mystery of the turtles and their secret navigation is a magical reality, juice of life in a world gone dry.” This is not necessarily an experience that the characters would want to share with someone else – and setting the turtles free won’t necessarily open up the rest of life. 

I appreciate the knottiness and ambivalence of Turtle Diary: there is hope, but it’s not automatic. Hoban’s writing sparkles… I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like this novel before, and I can’t ask a book for much more than that. 

Published in Penguin Modern Classics.

Homelands by Chitra Ramaswamy: a Shiny New Books review

I don’t read an awful lot of non-fiction, but I was particularly intrigued by the premise of this book… Homelands (published by Canongate) is journalist Chitra Ramaswamy’s account of her friendship with Henry Wuga, a Holocaust survivor. It’s part biography and part memoir, as Ramaswamy finds echoes and points of connection between her life and Henry’s.

I’ve reviewed Homelands for Shiny New Books. It felt a bit strange at times to be passing comment on a living person’s account of their recent life, but hopefully I achieved a good balance in the review. Anyway, Homelands is an absorbing book, and if you like the sound of it I suggest you give it a try.

Click here to read my review in full.

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