What he said

“‘But I have an admiration for all his other work, for his dexterity and resource in handling langue, for his precision, for his subtlety in conveying the image of Dublin and her people, for his accuracy in setting down speech authentically, and for his enormous humour.’

As a spontaneous appraisal of literary work, this unpremeditated pronouncement was not bad at all, Mick thought. But after all, was he not a well-read man for his age and upbringing, and fearless enough in facing books in which might lurk danger to morals? He was.”
——- Mick Shaughnessy on James Joyce, from Flann O’Brien’s The Dalkey Archives.

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The Atrocity Exhibition, J.G. Ballard

I loved Terence Malick’s Tree of Life – its dreamy impressionism, the making of meaning from disparate fragments.  Ballard, in contrast, reads like Malick on acid.  Fragments invariably turn out to be bits of bone or smashed cars or giant body parts, stitched together in a repetitive narrative of distorted nightmares.  But the meaning is hard to extract.  A doctor at a mental hospital has a mental breakdown is what I think happens, but who knows.

The book is written in vignettes, little set pieces that overlap, with dense visual images, constructed from a singularly repetitive language.  How many times can you use the word junction in a sentence?  Answer: many, many times…  And for junction, read geometry, wound, pilot jacket, plane, pudenda.  A distinct preoccupation with cars and crashes and famous deaths (JFK, Monroe, Jackie Kennedy features heavily).  Flat characterisation overall, females especially – dummy set decorations, each one of them.  He has a male character reflect on a female character as an “elegant bitch”, intruding her sexuality, like all women, at the most inopportune times.  The irony of course being that not a single male character appears able to see women as anything other than highly sexualised fetish objects.

His notes on the fragmented chapters are for the most part the better reading.  Meditations on celebrity and media culture, memory and art.  On the whole though, the book is just too much experiment and too little substance.  One can’t but feel like a lab rat impatiently waiting for the bat-shit-crazy scientist to stop the experiment.

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

After a chance encounter, Roth’s long-time protagonist and fictional alter ego, Zuckerman, remembers an athletic star and all-round golden boy from his school days, a boy affectionately known as “the Swede”.  At a school reunion he meets the Swede’s brother again, and makes the shocking discovery that the man he thought was too blandly wholesome to be interesting had suffered an appalling family tragedy.  The Swede and his beauty queen wife’s angry teenage daughter Merry commits a dreadful crime which ultimately destroys her own life and shatters that of her doting parents.  The book then becomes Zuckerman’s imagined sketch of the events leading up to the tragedy and its appalling aftermath, in which the Swede tries to come to terms with Merry’s actions and his own culpability.

It is a compelling story, skilfully told, thought-provoking, touching, especially in a year of yet another school shooting.  Reviews mention the “elegiac” tone, and at its most straightforward reading it is an elegy for the American dream (trite but true).  It also mourns the immigrant’s doomed dream of assimilation, parents’ futile wishes for their children (for good lives free from suffering) as well as the dream we all share of connection with fellow humans.

And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another’s interior workings and invisible aims?…The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway.  It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.  That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.”

American Pastoral is an elegy for man’s insistence on understanding others, what Roth calls “the Swede’s disorder: the inability to draw conclusions about anything but exteriors.”  Early on Zuckerman muses over the human inability to grasp the truth about another human being, and this sad conclusion is echoed throughout the book.  Zuckerman begins to understand that he never really knew who the Swede was, and the Swede, for all his magnetic goodness, is at first puzzled by the mystery of his wayward daughter and then, brutally, destroyed by the unknowability of everyone around him.  This is beautifully portrayed along several dynamics (family, social circle, lovers) culminating in an ill-fated dinner party set-piece, where the slow burn doom of the preceding chapters at last comes to its smashing conclusion.

Y, Marjorie Celona

Marjorie Celona’s debut novel sports a jaunty letter Y as its title. It turns out to be an unfortunate choice, and not only because it inevitably reduces even the most high-minded reviewer to a snarky “why, indeed” put-down. In 2011, TIME Magazine published a list of the top ten books with one letter titles, which included such celebrated authors as Thomas Pychon (V.), John Updike (S.), Booker winner John Berger (G.) and Booker shortlisted Tom McCarthy (C). It is a handy list to keep in mind for literary drinking games, and, the subjectivity of such lists aside, it is an illustrious peer group for any aspiring novelist to find themselves among.

As a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Marjorie Celona is no doubt familiar with the stakes she raised with her novel’s title. It was a bold move, but not one that pays off. The novel is weak enough on its own terms, but in comparison to the experimental work of Python and the high modernism of McCarthy (and even the steady workmanship of Updike), Celona’s novel utterly fails to impress.

An epigraph opens the book with a pretentious riff on the many meanings of the letter Y. Forks in the road and wishbones are invoked, as well as a rather self-consciously clever-clever assertion that prior to the inclusion of the letter Y in the Roman alphabet “no one was happy.” Despite a heavy handed approach to signs and motifs, the “why” of the title is never satisfactory answered, and ends up feeling arbitrary and contrived. The whole thing smacks of a writing school exercise indulged too far – a random letter of the alphabet, a mysterious newspaper article, a dramatic social issue to reel in the book group people and a clumsy structure that hamstrings the plot from the word go.

The novel tells the parallel tales of the protagonist Shannon, a foundling discovered on the steps of a YMCA, and Yula, her hapless mother in the years leading up to her abandonment of Shannon. It is a lopsided structure, not only because the converging stories are out of sync in time (both clock and story time), but also because Yula, flaws and all, is just much more likeable than Shannon. The novel is set on Vancouver Island and Yula’s story takes place in clammy, claustrophobic woods where ancient trees throw giant shadows over everything. Neighbours live in trailers, amongst the rusted skeletons of discarded trucks. On the question of whether bad parenting is down to nature or nurture, Celona politely picks both, and between Yula’s stunted beginning and her doomed choices the melodrama ratchets up, ending with a midnight car chase and (sigh) a choice a mother should never have to make. Shannon, in turn, is almost impossible to warm to, even though Celona tries every possible sympathy-inducing ploy. Her multiple foster homes, care homes, neglect and abuse is laid on thick, presumably to explain Shannon’s later inability to trust or form meaningful connections. A mix of vulnerability – “a little Marilyn Monroe” – and grunge “a bit like Curt Kobain’s kid”, her sense of alienation and displacement intensifies as she becomes a secretive, a self-harming loner given to truancy. The predictable reunion between Shannon and Yula, when it finally arrives to link the two plot strands, feels forced and flat (perhaps π would have been a better title).
As if the overwrought plotting and the humourless delivery are not enough, Celona taste for obtrusive detail is wearying in the extreme. Again reminiscent of a writing student’s notebook, the reader has no choice but to share this ambling gaze that takes in far too much insignificant detail (the contents of cupboards are frequently listed, without contributing to an understanding of either character or motivation). Even the most transient characters are given vivid physical descriptions, from the “small plump face with a rosebud mouth” of a nurse to the heart-shaped tattoo of a diner waitress. It is like being subjected to someone’s holiday photographs – no matter the skill with which each image is portrayed, after a while one sags under the insistent sensory input.

Y is a seriously flawed novel, but not entirely pointless. There is always the chance that at your next dinner party you’ll be put on the spot to name a novel starting with the second last letter of the alphabet. Let’s drink to that.