Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Review: Ravelstein, by Saul Bellow

I have a confession to make: When I read what is arguably Saul Bellow’s best-known novel, Herzog, a few years back, I absolutely hated it. Maybe it was my disposition at the time, but I found that book infused with a kind of dick-swinging machismo that I had little patience for. I had written off Bellow as a result – I know, I know, he’s supposed to be one of the great American writers of the 20th century – but decided to give him another chance after reading about his published letters late last year. I chose one of his other novels at random and Ravelstein is what I picked.

Ravelstein was Bellow’s last novel before he died in 2005, and it’s very much an exploration of death by a man nearing the end of his life. It involves the narrator, a writer of some reputation named Chick, who has been charged with putting together a memoir for his good friend Abe Ravelstein, a revered (and often reviled) professor of philosophy at a Midwest college. (The novel’s subject is reportedly based on Bellow’s own good friend, Allan Bloom.) What unfolds is not so much a memoir in the narrative sense as it is an examination of a man’s ideas and lifestyle, and how those two things can conflict or cause friction.

In fact, Ravelstein the person is a paragon of contradictions: physically imposing at 6’6, he is nonetheless a man of the mind, molding the intellects of entire generations of young people at the university where he teaches. While staunchly conservative in his views about education, at least by the standards of late-20th century academia, he is anything but “right wing” in his private life: he is a confirmed homosexual, with a partner named Nikki who is several decades his junior. Ravelstein is by any measure a success in his chosen field, and yet laments on the disappointment of his father for not making it into a certain fraternity while a student. And though he works in the obtusely esoteric world of a university philosophy department, Ravelstein has achieved no small measure of fortune and fame: the novel opens after he has published a book of pop philosophy that has become a runaway international bestseller.

Our narrator Chick, by his own admission, finds the idea of writing Ravelstein’s memoir a daunting task. How to encapsulate a man of such varied interests and viewpoints, a subject of such relentless incongruity? The portrait that ensues begins with a detailing of Ravelstein’s spendthrift ways after he has published his massively popular book, but then becomes a cataloguing of a lifetime of wisdom and bon mots. This is Bellow’s great strength in the novel, the way he’s able to give us a multidimensional view of Ravelstein even as Chick struggles to get the man down on paper. It is a character sketch writ large, full of telling detail and sweeping statements about the man. So many passages of Ravelstein capture him in all his fuddy-duddy, pugnacious glory. For example, this one:

His pupils had turned into historians, teachers, journalists, experts, civil servants, think-tankers. Ravelstein had produced (indoctrinated) three or four generations of graduates. Moreover, his young men were mad for him. They didn’t limit themselves to his doctrines, his interpretations, but imitated his manners, and tried to walk and talk as he did – freely, wildly, pungently, with a brilliancy as close to his as they could make it … They smoked with Ravelstein’s erratic gestures. They played the same compact discs. He cured them of their taste for rock and they now listened to Mozart, Rossini … They sold their collections of the Beatles and the Grateful Dead and listened instead to Maria Callas singing La Traviata.

Or this one:

With a large No Smoking sign behind him, Ravelstein lit cigarettes with his Dunhill flame as he lectured, saying: “If you leave because you hate tobacco more than you love ideas, you won’t be missed.”

We all know professors like this, who snub their nose at changing times and become a quirky model to be imitated by adoring students. Every detail that Bellow provides becomes another brushstroke in that great depiction of the character he has created.

But in the end, this is all that Ravelstein really is – a 230-page character sketch done with panache, but still just a character sketch. There is no doubt that Bellow knows how to make a character come to life and become a universally recognizable entity on the page. (Just look at what he does with Chick’s ex-wife Vela: she is the very model of female vanity, a woman of astounding beauty and practically intoxicated by her own sense of narcissism.) And yet what is missing from this novel is a sense of story, a sense of rising action to tie it all together.

Indeed, what passes for a plot point is that Ravelstein contracts AIDS and begins dying. (It was unclear to me how he got sick. Did he cheat on Nikki?) Even in the bosom of death, Ravelstein continues to defy the expectations on him: he begins smoking again just hours after leaving intensive care, continues spending his money wildly even after materialism has become a moot point. And what passes for thematic integration is that, after Ravelstein has passed away, Chick contracts dengue fever while vacationing in the tropics and nearly dies himself. The disease brings about a bizarre symptom: Chick is unable to tolerate the taste or smell of any food whatsoever. So in other words, he quite literally loses a taste for life after his friend passes away. Get it?

There is a lot that a writer can learn from Bellow, and from this novel specifically. Ravelstein puts on a clinic in terms of making characters real for the reader and capturing details that seem part of an organic whole. And yet, I still would’ve liked to see more narrative, some level of intrigue to string everything together. But again, it might have been just my disposition at the time of reading this book. Ravelstein could be something close to perfection, and I just got hung up on something else.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Small joys for a Friday afternoon

Well, it's the end of another workweek and I figure some of you may be in need of a little distraction. Here in Ontario, we're heading into a long weekend (the government-legislated "Family Day" - formerly known as "Lonely Bachelor Day" around these parts) which I'm especially excited for. It's been a productive week for me - wrote a couple of book reviews, got manuscript copies of my new novel off to a trusted lineup of "first readers", AND I wrote my very first sestina. Fun stuff all around. So to share in my good mood, here are a few Friday-afternoon diversions that I'd thought you'd like. Enjoy!

For your listening pleasure:

Check out this cover of Leonard Cohen's "Who By Fire" by Jenn Grant and rapper Buck 65. Normally I would refrain from encouraging hiphop or its "artists" in any way, but this is actually quite a poignant and moving piece.

Or maybe you're up for a story. If so, let me recommend Anne Enright's reading of John Cheever's creepy and hilarious tale "The Swimmer", read as part of the New Yorker's short story podcast series.

Would you rather an interview? Then check out this fascinating one with Richard Ford, conducted by CBC's Eleanor Wachtel. I was actually in the audience for this one, but it's fun listening to the edited version for the radio.

For your reading pleasure:

Check out this lengthy article from Slate.com called MFA vs. NYC. Pretty American in its focus, but some of the points it makes could apply here in Canada.

And lastly, RR has this great post up on her blog partly reviewing the day she had yesterday and partly reviewing the film Somewhere.

Anyway, have a great weekend everybody. Don't drink anything I wouldn't drink.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Speaking out for copyright

The Writers Union of Canada this very wonderful and heartfelt video to speak out against proposed changes to copyright rules here in Canada. Essentially, the new rules would muddy the waters when it comes to educational publishing and what counts as fair use. I thought I'd share it with you here:

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Review: Remainder and C, by Tom McCarthy

It’s so good to see that some people still believe that the novel can and should be taken in weird and original new directions. This has been Tom McCarthy’s reputation ever since he burst onto the scene with his 2005 book Remainder, which took seven years to find a mainstream publisher but has since been heralded as a masterpiece by the likes of Zadie Smith. His follow-up novel, C, was shortlisted for this past year’s Booker Prize but lost out to the far inferior tome The Finkler Question. (Read my review here.) Reading McCarthy’s books back to back helps one to see the overarching vision that this talented young writer brings to the page. While hardly original in its concept, it is the execution of that vision that makes McCarthy and his work worthy of notice.

If there’s one unifying force that brings both books together, it would have to be the idea of “static residue”. This term is mentioned only once in C but it encapsulates what these novels believe about consciousness and its relation to the human experience. McCarthy has gone on record to say that he has little interest in the Flaubertian notion of a fixed narrator ensconced in humanism’s “sentimental” view of the self and its relation to action. Indeed, both the unnamed narrator of Remainder and C’s protagonist Serge Carrefax have trouble processing at an emotional level what happens to them. They are interested only in the “residue” that experience leaves behind, and how it can be read differently, manipulated or, in some instances, outright hijacked.

This is Remainder’s M.O. right out of the gate. It tells the story of a 30-year-old man who, walking down the street one day, is nearly crushed to death by a mysterious object that falls out of the sky. Even the reader is kept in the dark about the details of this bizarre accident: as part of the narrator’s settlement with the giant corporation that nearly killed him, he’s not allowed to talk about what happened to him in any way – including in the form of the novel we are now reading. It’s a wonderful conceit that gets us around a seemingly ludicrous premise and launches us into the novel’s postmodern twists and turns. The narrator goes through a lengthy convalescence and comes out the other side to find a massive financial pay-out waiting for him, to the tune of 8.5 million pounds. The question then becomes: what on earth does he do with all this money?

One friend, named Catherine, suggests that he uses it to build schools in Africa. Another friend, named Greg, tells him that he should blow it all in a hedonistic romp of cocaine and hookers. But the narrator doesn’t buy in to this simple binary of altruism versus selfishness. He realizes that the accident has done something dreadful to his memories, to his sense of action and its authenticity (or lack thereof). He stews in a kind of Holden Caufield-esque contemplation of phoniness and how it permeates all of human experience. These nebulous thoughts come to a head when he attends a house party one night and, while in the bathroom, grows fixated on a crack he sees in the wall. To his eyes, this crack resembles exactly another crack, one in the wall of an apartment he once lived in. Only, he cannot fully remember living in that other apartment, living in it in a fixed time and place. He can remember other details of the apartment building – the old lady frying liver in an adjacent unit, the young people moving in and out of its hallways. But he is at a loss to situate himself in those experiences in a genuine way.

And thus, what he should do with his money comes on like a revelation: he is going to spend it to reenact that apartment building and everyone and everything in it, right down to the most minute detail. He hires a man named Naz, who is a kind of uber project manager, and together they find a location for the reenactment, hire contractors to build the apartment building, get actors to play the tenants, and coordinate their movements exact to the narrator’s memory of the space. The reenactment is (eventually) a raging success, and so becomes a kind of drug for our narrator. Soon he is interested in devising other, even more complicated reenactments. At first he sticks with another of his own experiences (a mishap while visiting a car repair shop) but then moves on to events that he didn’t even witness (a drive-by shooting in a local gang war) and then to events that are only hypothetical in nature (the robbing of a bank). By the time we get to this point, the reenactments have gotten so elaborate that they’ve lost their sense of the simulated. The bank robbery unfolds without the bank or its customers knowing that it’s a simulation, and thus the line between reenactment and reality becomes blurred to tragic results.

It’s tempting to see this degeneration of a comical simulacrum as a symbol for something else. In one sense, the narrator becomes a kind of perverted artist, growing more and more obsessed with the execution of his visions until he gets lost in the undulating folds of their complexity. But this could also be read as a commentary on the power of money and how it trumps all things in the end, including reason itself. But McCarthy is interested more in the gaps between what his characters experience, the vagueness of their sense of selves as they get lost in a lunatic’s labyrinth plans, than he is in making some overarching statement about life. Some of the book’s devices and themes come off as obvious, but what we’re left with in the end is something wholly entertaining and truly contained within the ludicrousness of its own vision. There is an unmistakable order and system to McCarthy’s madness in this novel, ones that go well beyond spotting the connective tissue of theme.

I can’t really say as much for C. If Remainder is build on an air-tight structure of repetition, then C is the opposite – looser, more expansive, its narrative purposes hidden beneath a flurry of seemingly disjointed epochs. The novel’s protagonist Serge is born in England in 1898 to a father who runs a school for the deaf and dabbles as an amateur inventor in the field of wireless communication. His mother is deaf and possibly a drug addict. His older sister, Sophie, is a brilliant scientist in her own right but gets embroiled in an affair with a friend of their father’s, and this leads to her committing suicide at age 17 in what looks like an accident involving cyanide. Serge is deeply traumatized but strangely unmoved by the death of his beloved sister, and the rest of the novel unfolds in a kind of emotional numbness. Serge serves as a pilot in the nascent RAF during World War I, returns to England after the war and takes up the study of architecture. He falls in with a crowd of cocaine-snorting hedonists during the Roaring `20s, and eventually takes up a position working in wireless communication in Egypt, though he may also be a spy for the British. C is like the inverse of a Dickensian bildungsroman: like David Copperfield, Serge is born with a caul, a literal vale over his eyes; but unlike David Copperfield, he is unable to find a richer meaning, a deeper emotional resonance to the experiences of his life as they unfold.

All that seems to matter in C is the residue that experience itself leaves behind. It acts as a kind of mysterious code embedded into seemingly random events – code that, because of his emotional lethargy, Serge cannot even bring himself to crack. Think of the trystero in Pyncheon’s The Crying of Lot 49, only without the intrigue that the systems and symbols could be eventually deciphered. There is no consistent thread of pure narrative that laces the first page of this book to the last, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: a lot of novels don’t have a unifying sense of story to hold it all together. Yet it seems, at least to this reader, that there aren’t enough clues or entryways build into the text to allow a reader into its deeper meanings. C is at times very engaging and extremely funny. But there are also lengthy stretches of turgid, unfocused prose to wade through. These moments of longueur could be forgiven, but only if there were a story to propel us forward or a character that is truly invested in what happens to him. C has neither, and so it’s easy to get lost in this novel’s many chambers and not really care that you’re lost. And in the end, I wanted to care.

Ultimately, what unites these two books is less than what separates them, and that’s probably a good thing. McCarthy is talented enough to hold multiple complex visions for his fiction in his head at once – and though it is at times hard to see how C is a natural extension on the accomplishments of Remainder, it doesn’t mean that the connections are not there. I look, for example, at other “postmodern” writers from Britain – David Mitchell or Will Self, for example – and can see the long tail of their vision over several books. And so I’ll watch Tom McCarthy as well, to see what pattern, if any, emerges in his future work.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Review: Are You Somebody?, by Nuala O’Faolain

Is it possible that sound can act as a kind of comfort food? If so, then let me say up front that this interview with Nuala O’Faolain on CBC Radio’s Writers and Company is my comfort food. I’ve probably listened to it about 10 times since first discovering it online, and doing so elevates my spirits in a way that few things can. In fact, I strongly recommend that before you read another word of this review of her 1996 memoir Are You Somebody?, you should go and listen to it, too. Yes, I realize the interview is nearly an hour long but it is completely worth your time. When you finish, you can come back here and thank me in the comments area for making your day.

Okay, now that you’ve listened to it, what can I tell you about this big, messy memoir that you couldn’t probably glean from O’Faolain’s winsome, exuberant take on the world, her zest for life and for own story? Yes, Are You Somebody? is probably not the best structured book I’ve ever encountered. It hops around in time and place and doesn’t linger enough on any given person in O’Faolain’s life to give us a full sense of that person’s impact on her. But what so engrosses us in this memoir is not the bare facts of what happened over the course of this Irish woman’s tumultuous life, but the voice in which she shares those events with us. This is writing that does not contain a gram of self consciousness. This is writing that is entirely caught up in the moment of itself, in the truth it is trying to express.

O’Faolain was born into relative poverty in Dublin in 1940, the second of nine children. Her father was famed Irish journalist Terry O’Sullivan, who travelled around the country for long stretches of time and left O’Faolain’s mother – a raging alcoholic, voracious reader and a failure in most aspects of her life – to look after their ever-growing family. O’Faolain came of age in the 1960s, when freedoms and opportunities were beginning to open up for a certain class of people in Ireland, and it was during this period that she began to question her place in the world and what it meant to be an Irish woman living in the middle of the 20th century. Are You Somebody? is in one sense an exploration of a muddled personal identity, but it is also a snapshot of transition for an entire nation. O’Faolain often finds herself caught between two competing worlds: the inchoate freedoms that are slowly opening up for people of her class and gender in Ireland, and the restrictive, suffocating aspects of her past that continue to hold sway over her.

Without a doubt, the guiding principle for O’Faolain throughout her story is an abiding belief in the liberating power of feminism. Often, she sees her own feminism through the prism of what it means to be a writer – not necessarily for herself, but for the women writers she was exposed to during her time both as a student and as a producer for the BBC and Ireland’s national radio broadcaster. Here she is talking about spending time with writer Mary Lavin:

The young writers at Mary Lavin’s house were all men; the women were all women who were going out with the men. If you were a young female, no one asked you what you did, around the pubs of Dublin, or what you wanted to do. They assessed you in terms of themselves. You were welcome if you fitted in. The “literary Dublin” I saw lied to women as a matter of course and conspired against the demands of wives and mistresses. Outside the home, in the circles where academics and journalism and literature met, women either had to make no demands, and be liked, or be much larger than life, and feared.

There are countless passages like this one, each detailing the frustration that O’Faolain feels over what she sees happening to both her mentors and the women of her own generation. What’s interesting is that, despite all this systemic discrimination, O’Faolain never loses her taste for the pure passion of the classics and the sustenance they provide her intellect. This is a feminism that isn’t interested in throwing the baby out with the bath water:

I don’t have any objection to the art made by dead white males. Far from it: The thought that I might have missed this literature – that I might have been born later, when it was decided it was too difficult for young people – fills me with horror. I never think of gender when I’m reading. If questions about it force themselves on me, I have to come out of reading, into this world.

It’s refreshing to see this kind of humanism persist in the work of a feminist who had endured such hardships in her life. O’Faolain never stopped believing in the restorative, didactic and nourishing qualities of art and culture, and Are You Somebody? is as much of a memoir about her encounters with literature as it is about her life.

The other refreshing aspect of this memoir is how bloody funny it is. There’s no doubt that O’Faolain had a number of axes to grind, especially against her careless and profoundly unhappy parents. And yet she never loses sight of the sheer humour contained within the absurdity of their lives. In this passage, she describes her father’s feckless attempts to keep his dwindling family from being ruined outright by his insatiable proclivities:

He moved my mother and my little sister, who were the only family members he still took responsibility for, into what turned out to have been the flat of his mistress. She, presumably, had been moved somewhere else. My mother discovered this one quiet night when she was alone, reading in bed, and the mistress burst through the bedroom door and attacked her with the bedside lamp. It would be funny, if both women hadn’t been so desperately unhappy.

Alas, in the end, even her humour and keen eye for the ridiculous could not save Nuala O’Faolain. In 2008, she was diagnosed with cancer of the brain, lungs and liver, and, not surprisingly, died shortly thereafter. Yet she was able to leave behind one final radio interview, recorded just a few weeks before her death. If the CBC interview above is full of joy, zest and humour, then this interview recorded by Irish national radio is full of the opposite. It captures a woman in the very pit of despair, realizing that the grand party of life, that amazing bracket of noise between two endless periods of nothingness, is about to end. It’s gut-wrenching and extremely difficult to listen to. But I recommend you do so, if for no other reason than it will highlight the intensity with which Are You Somebody? was written, the fiery spirit (quickly fading away) that gave the book life.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Review: The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

I was expecting great things from this novel by British writer Howard Jacobson, not only because it had won the Booker Prize this past year but because it was heralded as one of the few genuinely comic novels to win that award. I love comic novels. And I love to see them get their due when it comes to big prizes and international recognition. It doesn’t happen often enough.

Unfortunately, The Finkler Question disappoints in almost every way imaginable. Is it possible that a comic novel could be so uniformly unfunny? There were certainly moments of levity in this otherwise dark and pessimistic tale, but I guess the reason I never bought into the jokes is because I never bought into the novel as a whole – the characters, the premise or the various Jewish-related themes it reaches for.

The Finkler Question tells the story of Julian Treslove and his friendship with two Jewish men in London who have recently become widowers – Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik. The three men share a lugubrious evening discussing love and death and what it means to lose a wife; and on his way home from the gathering, Treslove is mugged – improbably, by a woman. As she’s forcing him against a glass window and cleaning out his pockets, the woman mutters something at Treslove that he doesn’t quite catch. At first he thinks she said “You, Jules” – a pet name his mother used to call him. But eventually he begins to think that what she really said was “You Jew!” – a case of mistaken identity (Treslove is a Gentile) and an anti-Semitic attack all rolled into one.

It’s bad enough that Treslove’s ruminations about the attack – that he was manhandled by a woman, that he’s confused over what she said to him, and that someone could mistake him for a Jew – go on and on and ON for several overwritten pages. But what’s worse is that this attack precipitates a premise to the story that is so ludicrous, so far-fetched that I felt the need to put the book down lest I toss across the room. (Don’t get me wrong: I have no beef with absurd premises per se, provided they exist believably within the world of the novel. But this is The Finkler Question’s biggest problem: its absurd premise cannot do this because the world of the novel does not exist.) Predictably, Treslove uses the attack as an excuse to adopt and analyze a Jewish identity that he doesn’t even possess. He begins to see his friend Sam Finkler as the embodiment of Jewishness, and thus begins referring to all Jews as Finklers. (Hence the title of the book.)

Meanwhile, Finkler and Libor assume roles upon a kind of quasi-political spectrum: Finkler joins something called the ASHamed Jews, a group that derides the existence of Israel; Libor, in kind, comes to represent a more conservative vision of Judaism, though he’s unwilling to help a woman whose grandson was the victim of an anti-Semitic attack. It also comes to light that Treslove once had an affair with Finkler’s diseased wife. And he also begins a relationship with another “Jewess”, the mysterious and alluring Hepzibah.

I didn’t believe any of it for a second. I could tell there was something profoundly wrong with this novel right from the beginning. The book never seems to settle into a single scene, into a clear-cut time and place – it hops around aimlessly from past to present, from moments of immediacy to ones of pure hypothesis. For the first third of the book, the narrative never finds a comfortable place to sit. Then you begin to realize why. You start to see that this is not an organic story arising naturally out of itself. This is a narrative intended to make massive, multifarious commentaries on contemporary Jewishness – on traditions, religion, the state of Israel, the Palestinian question – and each and every character is merely a prop used toward those aims. No one is a real flesh and blood person; everyone in the text is meant to represent something.

No wonder the humour falls flat. No wonder you find yourself lost in the amateurish maze that passes for Treslove’s inner world. Here’s a man who is 49 years old, and yet he comes to the whole idea of Jews with a kind of childish idiocy – to the point of lending all Jews an infantile sobriquet.

It doesn’t make sense. It wouldn’t make sense in the real world, and it doesn’t even make sense in the half-cocked, poorly constructed world of Jacobson’s novel. And trust me, it isn’t funny. If you’re looking for a comic novel that won the Booker, I’d avoid The Finkler Question. Go check out Vernon God Little instead. Now that novel busted me up.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011