Sunday, July 26, 2015

Get In Trouble by Kelly Link

Imaginative stories about rips in reality

Funny little elves, spaceships, superheroes, superhero sidekicks and sad complex people with two shadows. These are the characters inhabiting Link’s wildly imaginative short stories. The opening story, “The Summer People,” is about “they”, the strange fairy-like creatures living in the house behind teenager Fran’s ramshackle cabin. Fran has inherited their eternal caretaking duties from her mother, who lit out a long time ago. Now Fran feels a yearning to travel. And who should show up on her doorstep but a helpful young schoolmate. So the story is two things at once, an exploration of working class resentment, as well as a classic folklorish tale. The second-to-last story, “Two Houses,” is also haunting, about a mostly female spaceship crew on their hundred year journey and a night when they tell ghost stories.

“The Summer People” is a wonderful story, inventive and lively, with a spine built from classic fairy tales. The reader soon figures out exactly where the story is going but hangs on for the entrancing ride. After that one, for the most part, the stories seemed thin and overlong. It shows you how much narrative power essential folklore has. I was so excited after reading the first one, but after reading the next couple, I grew bored, and I wondered if this was going to be one of those collections in which the first story is stupendous, gripping and exciting, and the rest are passionless puzzles. But I plugged onwards, which was good because the final two stories were much more compelling.

I loved how in almost every story the situation starts off normally, then takes on elements of surreality. Once something surreal is introduced, it is introduced in so commanding a fashion the reader instantly accepts it. The reader truly is enthralled, which is what I am looking for when I read. Each story is also an attempt at world creation, made more difficult when the laws of physics are changed or ignored. Although in many instances, the stories were overlong, and the stakes a little low. Sometimes it was too much like, will he ask me on a date.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'Neill

A girl tries to grow up with no good influences

Thirteen year old Baby is being raised by her heroin addict father, Jules, age 28. After her birth, he fled his small town Quebec home to raise her in a series of flophouses in Montreal. Jules is a charming eccentric who loves his daughter in his own way. However, his own way is not sufficient to keep intelligent Baby out of trouble. After landing in various foster homes (which provide a certain stability, affection and relief), she is thrilled by the attentions of sexy Alfonse, the neighborhood pimp. Once Baby starts working for Alfonse, she begins a chaste friendship with Xavier, a weird fat kid in her junior high class. The situation comes to a head, although at the end, it seems like things are looking up for Baby.

Unfortunately, this book was somewhat at a disadvantage simply because I have recently been reading a string of really first class literature. This novel was enjoyable, however, the story took too long to set up and that long set up was repetitious. The same situation happens over and over – my dad is a junkie, a weird boy likes me. The story is episodic. First this thing happens, then that thing happens. There are some droll descriptions (and some great descriptions of snow and frost) but the only thing really compelling is the eccentric hapless father. So at times I felt I was treading water. However, things start picking up once Baby is consigned to reform school/jail. Even the prose gets more beautiful and the final third was definitely the best part of the book.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

Monologues of fugitives from a vanished world

This book is composed of the stories of four citizens from middle Europe. Some fled, once the Nazis materialized, in order to escape the utter destruction of their world. Others did not. Here the Holocaust is never referred to directly, only obliquely, but the void is made painfully present behind the dreamy weird atmospheric prose and the encyclopedic details of unusual objects. Certain motifs are repeated: Suicides, ski vacations, a man running around with a butterfly net.

Austerlitz was better, I think, more haunting, more skillful. This book grew repetitive, though the warp and woof of the various stories was fascinating – the history of the doomed Manchester seaport, the Grunewald altarpiece. Like Austerlitz, the creepy photographs created a haunting effect. The languid, odd and hypnotic prose style, and its focus on homey details, the detritus of human existence, brings to life a world of unrelievable sadness.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Outline by Rachel Cusk

A story told by a woman’s reactions to the stories of others

The unnamed narrator (unnamed for the most part, that is) travels to Athens to teach a two day creative writing seminar, encountering various people on her journey who tell her their stories. The stories of friends and acquaintances are lengthy, concerning unhappy marriages and heartbreak; the Greek students in the class tell her their writing exercises which are surreal snippets. Meanwhile, as the narrator awaits an important communication about a loan approval, she looks upon seemingly happy families with grief, and her children back in England rely on her as a distant factotum. The novel ends with a sentence about spending the day in solicitude. Or do you mean solitude?

I was completely gripped while reading this spare beautiful book. Out of seemingly nothing, Cusk created a moving story about human beings – human beings and their ignorance maybe. The amazing voice holds everything together, a detached ironic gaze as the narrator encounters one self-absorbed person after the next. Chilly is also the adjective that comes to mind, chilly in grief, although there are some very funny moments. (Not that the narrator would care to notice the absurdity). In some places I laughed out loud at the shocking juxtapositions. The people the writer meets tell their egocentric stories; the narrator typically has a philosophical analytical response. In some ways, this almost seems a religious novel. There is a lot of talk of love and hate, pride and knowledge by suffering.

The word “outline” shows up at the beginning of the book and at the end of the book. Both in relation to men talking. I’m not sure what that means, but men, especially an older sophisticated Greek man, do an awful lot of talking in this book. This novel is about depicting something where it is not. It reminded me of WG Sebald, writing about a thing by never mentioning the thing but making the thing very apparent to the reader. In Sebald’s case, the Holocaust, an entire community gone; in Cusk’s case, a happy family and the assumption of happiness. The reader feels like something big is going to happen, something really huge, but all that happens is that the final person the author encounters (another writer) consumes an entire jar of honey, spoonful after spoonful.

I suppose this is the dreaded writing workshop novel. The workshop itself, however, is laughably short, two classes. Could the students even learn anything? The reader, however, does.