How to stress a wrong? By exaggerating and turning things around. Having said so in The Sellout the main character is charged with the possession of a slave and he is trying to improve the self esteem of the African-American inhabitants of Dickens LA by reversed discrimination. He literally brings back the boundaries of Dickens by painting it on the road, he challenges youngsters by advertising for a new private school (costing loads of money) and makes his friend Honorée, the voluntary slave, happy by placing a sign in the bus: give your seat to the disabled, the old and the white. From that moment on the customary aggression in the bus ceases to be. Turning things around and exaggerating works: Beatty leaves no doubt discrimination and racism are wrong. He also shows that there are self-proclaimed victims amongst African-Americans as well, Beatty does not condone them breaking the law. He says things as they are (he refers to African-Americans as blacks and niggers throughout his novel). I can imagine The Sellout becoming a major novel in (African-)American literature. By taking the jiffy out of the situation he stresses the difficult position of many African-Americans. Does this make a good novel? At times. I was promised a novel that would have me laugh my head off. That never happened. I was mostly irritated by the incredible speed Beatty uses to share information with me. I can best compare it to the enormous amount of words your average stand-up comedian uses. In the prologue the overdoses of words and facts made me wonder what on earth I was reading. Later on, when Beatty slowed down slightly, I finally became involved with Dickens, LA. I am afraid I might not have finished if Beatty had kept on the speed. Nevertheless, The Sellout is a novel that confronts and does not easily go away. I would not be surprised if it were to win the Booker, though in that case it might be for its message and less for its literary merits.
Short list 2016
In the eighties it became clear that communist China was not all it had proclaimed to be. The first flaws in its image were shown. Mao and his cultural revolution had managed to ruin the country in stead of improving it. It became clear – even to the average not overly interested or well-informed Western civilian – that a powerful clan had been repressing ‘the people’. Fear, poverty and starvation were omni-present. Madeleine Thien’s main character shares her father’s story with us, the readers. He was a classically trained pianist who after having left China never ever touched a piano again. He was a child of the revolution, oppressor and victim all at the same time. Thien makes a veritable case for Mao and his gang brainwashing the Chinese and turning them weary and frightened, by brutally separating families or by demoting people to meaningless jobs in remote areas. Thien paints a downright sobering and shocking image of the Red Brigades. Mao’s young guards are agitators who have been roused by the officials, in the main time being scared to death to appear to be insufficiently patriotic. They play a mayor part in blaming and shaming sessions that usually end with the violent death of the accused, just the one exception being able to remain his or her dignity. Apart from being a good reflection on China’s turbulent past, Thien’s novel is also exceptionally well written. She combines the magnitude of a county’s past with an almost intimate picture of two families. Though she describes horrible things, she still manages to make us feel close to those families. She is involved with her characters, she makes sure that they are real flesh and blood people. In doing so Thien confronts us with our own humanity. Who are we to blame those not daring to confront the government, would we have dared to be different? Through Thien we experience what it must have been to be one of the people under suspicion, to be one of those people who happen to be on the right side – sometimes forever blaming themselves for not defending their loved ones. Thien’s characters are ordinary people, she does not judge them, she does not absolve them. I loved this novel, it is my favourite for the Booker.
I have a slight problem with Deborah Levy. I find that she writes exceedingly well and structures her novels excellently. For some kind of reason however she fits three to four very complicated characters into one novel. It makes me long for at least one uncomplicated person, someone who goes around carrying normal human baggage. To be clear: I am absolutely convinced that we all go through life with our own personal burdens, In Hot Milk there are just too many people with too heavy burdens. It feels kind of far-fetched and articifial that they all meet in one mere month. In this case Sophia and her mother Rose have travelled to Almera in order to find a cure for Rose. She is a hypochondriac who can hardly walk though there seems to be no apparant reason. She swallows pills for almost any complaint anyone in her fifties might suffer from. Daughter Sophia is continually repressed by her mother and her situation; she does not come around to leading her own life. Sophia being your typical modern twenty-something incapable of making any choice does not help things. I felt rather old reading about her and her going-ons. I kept wanting to tell her to get a grip and go on with her life. Because of the people Sophia meets and a visit to her father in Greece – he is a religious fanatic who has decided to leave his wealth to the church and not his daughters and second wife – she finally starts to see what must be done. Sophia starts to entangle herself from her mother and decides to go on with her life, finally deciding to continue her studies for one. At the end of the novel Levy hints at the true ilness of Rose, one diagnosis Rose had never considered. This diagnosis finally offers mother and daughter the opportunity of normalizing their relationship. As said, Levy writes well and portrays her characters well, I would have loved it if she had added just the one boring plain person.
Sometimes a novel grasps you, right from the start. Could it be the first sentence that sets a dreamy almost fairy tale context: “Once upon a time, before the boys were killed and when there were more horses than cars …”? Followed by a discussion on the ownership of the fourth leg of a racehorse which subtly ends with “He had a hand on her leg”. Thereby effortlessly creating the required tone of intimacy. This intimacy continues throughout the novel. Swift takes us along in what turns out to be the last moment two lovers spend together. He, well-born, about to marry into money, she the maid working for the neighbours. Though born in different classes their relationship, which lasts for seven years, bears in it an element of equality. It might be the independence she shows in not caring about the consequences, it might be the way he grants her his house on this sunday just before he gets married. Or it might be that they were just made for each other in bed.
Swift describes how he gets dressed, than has her move about the house naked and without any sense of shame or urgency. By varying in the length of sentences and by subtly moving between past and present, Swift creates a contemplative almost poetic sphere that fits the moment of saying goodbye. And the knowledge that she, Jane, will go on to work in a bookshop and start writing novels herself, successfully. Jane being the one who looks back Swift can make her look at the people she encounters daily as potential characters in a novel, which they eventually become in one of her novels. Reality and fiction start to intermingle.
As the novel continues Swift changes focus from the lover’s bed to the succesful career Jane has. He has her ponder on novels that influence her, the meaning and role of words, her love of certain words. Mothering Sunday changes from a mere tale about two lovers into a coming of age novel. It evolves into a novel about finding one’s place in society, about making choices, for language and literature in this case. Swift being a talented writer who expertly chooses words, structure and topics makes for a beautiful novel. I loved Mothering Sunday, I can imagine people finding it too dreary, too contemplative though. I enjoyed it immensely. I loved reading about Jane on this one particular Sunday.
ManBooker Longlist 2016
Frankly I do not get why this novel made it to the ManBooker 2016 longlist. It’s structure is hardly original: let’s pretend I’ve found an authentic manuscript belonging to a 17th century murderer and add some reports from doctors and his trial. The murderer reporting quite factually about the events leading up to the murders he commits, makes for historical non-fiction. And yes, MacRae Burnet makes it clear that tenants at large estates had it hard in the 18th century, especially if power-craving factitioners abuse their position. Unfortunately that fact does not really come as a surprise, does it now? The reports MacRae Burnet adds, complement the murderer’s tale with facts he choses not to share. They stress the fact that our young murderer is quite the psychopath. He does not show any remorse for killing three people, does not wonder whether he could have solved his problem without butchering his victims and appears incapabel of using his intellect in order to better his life. On the contrary, he accepts his position in society all too easily, he is submissive. The only thing in his advantage is his love for his mother and sister. And the fact that he prevents a peer from killing a beautiful deer during a hunting party. It’ll not come as a surprise that the ghilly was not amused by this act. I can imagine people who like historical novels to be taken by this novel, I, unfortunately, found it increasingly boring.
ManBooker Longlist 2016
Eileen is a rather detached novel about the cruel youth of an elderly woman. As a woman in her sixties she has come to terms with who she is; she has an astute sense of her minor points and does not try to hide or apologize for them. Her flaws have made her who she is, she is fairly satisfied with how life has eventually turned out. She realizes she has always been something of an outsider, a result of upbringing and character. Her parents would never have won a parenting prize. They are proud of their pretty, cheerful oldest daughter, they have no clue what to do with their younger more introvert child. Their response: ridicule and punish her. Eileen returning home to take care of her father after her mother’s death is considered her duty. Lack of appreciation from her father and a tendency to self-destroy in Eileen make for a disastrous combination. She lives entirely in her own world, at home and at work, not taking care of herself in whatever way. Neither does she have any compassion for the boys being re-educated in the prison Eileen works in: she is too preoccupied with her own troubles.
The arrival of a new colleague changes things. This woman, Rebecca, does not agree with the way the boys are being treated. She blows Eileen away by just paying attention to her and being friendly. One wonders whether she realizes in what way she affects Eileen. Eileen looks upon Rebecca as her saviour, the one who will take her away from her father, her work and her hometown. It takes a disastrous event to make her regard Rebecca as a plain person. The event however does have its effect: Eileen leaves and never returns.
Eileen is a retrospect, coloured by its narrator, a narrator sufficiently honest to admit to her flaws. Eileen furthermore paints a nasty picture of the re-educational institutes in which troublesome boys were put away, closely resembling grown-up prisons. Moshfegh writes beautifully, her imagery is poetic and strong. I enjoyed reading her sentences. At the end the novel as the main character remains slightly too much at a distance.
ManBooker 2016 Longlist
In eight stories David Szalay paints a rather sobering picture of ‘man’. He takes us along in the lives of eight men, each at a different age. They range from adolescent to senior, the latter turning out to be the grandfather of the first. We meet them at moments that are definitely not the highlights in their lives. Admittedly, the editor of the newspaper who has an important scope involving a politician might find that an exhilarating moment, he does abuse his friendship with said politician. With one exception Szalay gives us men as we might encounter them. They are not special, not remarkable, they are just normal. The one exception, a succesful entrepreneur, is about to take his life because he has been humiliated and has ended up broke. All the others just potter on. Recognizable and as such confronting, they are just like us. Szalay does not improve on the world, he gives us what he sees. He does chose however not to select moments of happiness or bliss in those eight lives, which he could have easily done. It is a conscious choice to go for the all too ordinary and describe the sobering moments. The eight stories as a result make for a beautiful slightly depressive read.
Man Booker Prize 2016 longlist
Serious Spoiler Alert!
The Many is about a dead adolescent: Perran. It is not quite clear whether he died from drowning of from swallowing polluted water. The fishing village in which he grew up has been banned from entering the water, the fisherman are no longer allowed to fish beyond a barrier created by a series of old cargo vessels. The fish that are caught are deformed and far too thin. Some 10 years after Perran’s death Timothy moves into his house. At first he hardly talks to the villagers, after a while he kind of befriends one fisher, Ethan, a close friend of Perran’s. Ethan brings Timothy along on his boat, together they pass the barrier and for the first time in ten years bring home a decent – though weird looking – catch. By then Timothy has become obsessed with Perran. He wants to know more about him and does not accept that the village is not willing to talk about Perran. When he persists, they demolish the interior of the house. Next the village is hit by a mysterious flood wave, cracks start to appear in the beach, the street, the houses and the people. This is the moment Menmuir chooses to reveal that Timothy is morning his still-born son. The village appears to be part of a dream Timothy is having in which he is dealing with his son’s death. In this dream he has returned to a village he and his wife once stayed in, when they were still happy. It explains why Timothy has chosen this rather unfriendly place as his escape to the country. The apathy of everybody in the village, the way Ethan starts to fight circumstance, they appear to be an allegory for Timothy’s mourning. At the end Ethan frees himself by diving into the sea, Timothy can finally acknowledge his son’s death. I cannot as yet explain the role of the pollution and the way the village is being controlled by outsiders. Might it be symbolical for the loss of control over body and destiny when a child is still-born? Or for the fact that the save womb turned out to be not save at all? I know for certain that by adding the pollution Menmuir led me astray. He did not write a brutally realistic novel about a fishing community destined to go down, he created an allegorical dream. That he described the grim community perfectly is an added bonus. I doubt whether this novel will be a hit amongst a large audience. It’s magic-realism will not be appreciated by everyone. I needed some time to grasp that the novel is about the death of a still-born child and the ensuing mourning. The dream world becomes superfluous with acceptance of the facts. I have not got a clue by the way what the title means, it might come to me later.
Food Whore proves that a decent blog will not automatically translate into a decent novel. Jessica Tom blogged about food and restaurants for years, I can understand her wanting to take the next step and move on to novels. It has resulted however in rather bland chicklit. Tom follows its rules and uses all its ingredients not adding those spices however that would have elevated the novel to a special level. I summarize: nice girl moves to big city, she is accepted into a prestigious food school. Nice girl does not land the internship she has hoped for but one she did not even enlist for, in one of the cities best restaurants. The New York Times Food critic has secretly arranged this. He has lost his taste and can no longer do his job. He wants nice girl to come along, eat his food and write about it (which she does exceedingly well naturally). Girl is seduced by the power of four star food, designer clothes and the word. After the obligatory catharsis she realizes that there are more important things in life: a New job in an ‘ honest’ restaurant and real friends. At the end she does land the craved for internship, the perfect boyfriend is already lined up. This could have been quit the decent amusing novel if only Tom had known how to write. She has limited sense of words, follows the rules too strictly and her main character is downright annoying not showing any of the qualities that should make her the perfect chicklit heroine. I suspect Food Whore has become a hit in New York because restaurants and chefs might bear a resemblance to real life ones. It cannot have anything to do with the quality of this mediocre novel. The recipes Tom uses in Food Whore are condemned by the New York Times critic: no half-decent self-respecting chef would ever think them up let alone prepare them.
Anne Tyler || Vinegar Girl
Anne Tyler is the author who almost clinically writes about family matters showing her edgy side whenever necessary. Since I like her style of writing I was looking forward to her retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare’s slightly outdated comedy about a shrew who has to find a husband. More than enough family matter to dig into one might say. I fear Anne Tyler was slightly in awe however of the task she was given: retell this exceedingly thin story in a modern way and try to honour world’s greatest playwright in doing so. The task might have been made even more awesome by the fact that others have done just so: think Kiss Me Kate but also the brilliant 2005 BBC-version. In that retelling the scenario writers showed that a thin story can turn out brilliantly if you dare let go. Viewers could enjoy ambitious and acrimonious Katherine on her way to become the second female prime minister, in want of the essential husband who entered in the shape of an impoverished failed lord. The chemistry between actors Shirley Henderson and Rufus Sewell took care of the rest. And there’s my problem. I also had to let go. Not from the Shakespeare original (I think I saw that once on German television featuring Klaus Maria Brandauer oozing charm), I had to let go of the BBC-version. The first part of Vinegar Girl had me wondering why Tyler had chosen to exaggerate her characters: father and Pjotr/Petruccio are caricatures, scientists with no sense of normal life, sister Bunny is the quintessential American adolescent, Kate is an unworldly almost autistic young woman who has dedicated herself to her family and who has strayed from her own path in doing so. Halfway through the novel Kate’s path becomes more important, at that point Tyler has got me. Kate is no longer Pjotr’s way to obtain a green card, Pjotr turns into her way of distancing herself from her family. I do not know whether there’s a format restricting Tyler and the other retelling authors to a mere 150 pages, I do know that I would have loved to have read more about Kate discovering herself. That discovery is interesting and exciting and writing about it makes Tyler shine. That Tyler can be a comedian by the way is shown in the marriage scene which might have been written with the chemistry between Sewell and Henderson in mind.
BBC 2015: Katherine and Petruccio meet