Friday, August 23, 2013

Mirror Recognition: Karen Joy Fowler's WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES

If only there were a way to review—or even be aware of—Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves without knowing the premise that drives the story, which the narrator withholds for more chapters than I had thought likely. I tried to read the book that way, taking in its story without seeing it altered by what I knew was coming. Read that way, however, the story isn't particularly engaging. There's a cleverness to the narrative voice, and the events move smoothly, but none of the early characters felt vivid or realized enough for me to even recognize them when they reappeared later in the novel, and, lacking the novel's central organizing problem, the early events sound too much like a standard family drama, lacking a sense that some great doom had befallen everyone, which is what would have helped give the first section some weight.

What's initially untold, though certainly known by most readers, is that the narrator, Rosemary, was, for the first five years of her life, raised alongside Fern, a chimpanzee; Fern was her sister, in some ways her twin, and Fern's disappearance from the narrator's life, and from the life of her family, has left damage, anger, and a hole no one will mention. We find Rosemary in college now, dealing with both memories and suppressed memories of Fern, unsettling new relationships, and the possible reappearance of her brother, who disappeared some years ago on—she believes—a quest to rescue Fern from who-knows-where.

There's much in this novel that is wonderful. Often I paused to marvel at or reflect on certain clever lines, philosophical queries, or scientific observations. The novel is concerned with how we see ourselves and how others see us, and, through Rosemary's first-person narration, we appreciate how little we know of the minds of others or even our own mind and motivations. The story's arc is a fine one, resolving well even while forcing new questions on us, but I often felt that the most interesting aspects weren't allowed room to completely develop. I recognize Fowler's desire to use the secondary characters to delve—at more oblique angles—into the same questions the central relationship delves into, but those efforts felt schematic to me. Even Rosemary and Fern seem too often at arm's-length. Since Rosemary's only memories of Fern are (conveniently) from the time before we tend to form solid memories, the impressionistic (though often precisely described) presence of Fern is understandable, but even when brought close, Fern slips away. (I never felt I could pin down the parents either.) All of this can be justified as serving the question, "Can a human truly know a non-human animal?" but I wanted something more. Perhaps the story felt too incredible, no matter how Fowler worked to keep it grounded in our world—and her delay in talking about Rosemary may have added to that sense that Fern was never completely there.

The novel also moves into practical areas beyond the "merely" philosophical, asking exactly why we should "have dominion" over all the non-speaking animals of the world, and asking, too, what we ought to be doing to save them from our dominion. While I liked that the novel moved in that direction, it felt like an idea that should have saturated the story from its first moments, regardless of the persistent naiveté of the narrator.

The title, by the way, is perfect, as you'll see.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How to Say What Hurts: D.T. Max's bio of David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace has given me some great reading experiences as well as pieces I was compelled to put down and a towering novel I can't convince myself to pick up. (In addition, I enjoying his video and print interviews.) I love his essay on David Lynch, a piece that expresses so well ideas I'd sensed but which had, until that essay, remained inchoate. "Good Old Neon" is a marvelous short story—though, sadly, part of what makes it compelling for me is that I only read it after his death, and it's a story of a suicide. I find the use of footnotes maddening in some of his work, and the heavily footnoted structure (as well as the sheer length and openly professed irresolvedness) of Infinite Jest has kept me from feeling much more than mild curiosity about that novel.

I do feel some personal connection to Wallace. He was, like me, a child of 1962. Like me, he watched way too much television as a kid. He spent some time in Syracuse, where I live, and I'm pretty sure I met him once when he attended by (now defunct) parish church. As a writer—and as a much smarter person than I am—his influences and areas of interest bore little resemblance to mine, though what he wanted from his fiction, if Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, the biography by D.T. Max, is to be believed, was moral consequence, work that mattered because it affected the reader (though he struggled with the tension between "entertaining" the reader and expecting the reader to work).

What I enjoyed about Max's work was hearing how Wallace struggled to find ways through his fiction (less through his nonfiction, it seems to me) to express his deepest hopes and anxieties. What one really needs to see, perhaps, is less the finished works than all the false starts and crumpled pages Max mentions. How did Wallace arrive at that casual-yet-erudite pose in his writing or the piled-on conjunctions at the start of a sentence. By the time we see those moves, Wallace has them figured out and can explain their purpose. Such an exploration would require a different sort of volume, one of pure literary investigation (assuming early drafts of anything survive).

This volume spends a lot of time on Wallace's personal life. Arguably, the information about relationships—with humans, dogs, and harmful substances—is instructive: we see how the relationships inform the fiction and how, problematically, the relationships are one more element of an addictive personality that can's focus enough to produce the fiction. (Wallace isn't an especially slow writer, I think, but given that, when he's cooking, his output is enormous, he ends up with less to show for his years on earth than someone who produces consistently and doggedly, or someone who is more sure of what he means to produce. He does go through long periods in which nothing emerges, even drafts—unless I've misunderstood Max's characterization of those times.) These elements of Wallace's life are so intertwined, it's hard to imagine a successful literary biography of the man that didn't attempt to address Wallace's personal life. His successes and struggles as a teacher of writing were, though, worth more to this reader: most writers teach, and Wallace went at teaching with seriousness and joy, giving his all to the process. Even so, Dix quotes a comment from a Charlie Rose interview that had, when I saw the interview, also stood out to me: teachers learn from their teaching, probably learning more than they impart, but after two or three years, that effect is diminished or halted altogether. I don't think that's true, but for a mind like Wallace's—restless, brilliant, dissatisfied—I can see how even doing this important thing well loses its charm once it's been (as he would have seen it) "mastered."

Such restlessness informed Wallace's approach to fiction as well. Better that, better a dissatisfaction with how one lives and how one writes than the spiritual death that accompanies satisfaction. Unfortunately, Wallace's mental health issues led him to conclude that suicide was the only solution to the profound suffering that left his mind unable to think its way clear. Before that, Max does give readers a sense of Wallace's gifts and his questing spirit—but the book in toto left me unhappy with the project and wanting to read (and talk to) Wallace rather than read his post mortem.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Everyone's damaged: Iain Banks's THE WASP FACTORY

I tried an Iain Banks novel a few years ago, Matter, one of the Culture novels from Banks's SF side. I didn't get far, as I don't care for "court" dramas if they aren't Shakespearean, and a glance at the glossary at the book's rear told me I had a lot of learning to do if I was going to fully appreciate the book's world. As this is one of the elements that keeps me from enjoying Tolkien, a directory to another world didn't entice me.

With Banks's death two months ago, I wanted to give this respected writer another try, so I went with The Wasp Factory, his first novel, a sample of his non-SF side (though the book has a fantastical feel).

This book is a compelling narrative that works for most of its length, has some ragged moments near the end, then makes the mistake at the very end of explaining the message it wants you to have.

Frank Cauldhame was maimed in a way we only have fully explained several chapters into this short novel—though even then, we have to wait for an even fuller explanation. His maiming doesn't seem, at first, connected to the other events of the novel: his odd treatment by this father; the insanity of his brother, who, escaped from a mental institution, is headed home; his own history of violence; the mechanisms and charms by which he holds his world together. All of these elements are interconnected more than they first appear, though some of the connections require a fantastical leap—which is fine, given the narrator's tone. Some components of the story don't feel believable—a rabbit attack which turns into a mini-war stands out, though some of the murders seem to lack logistical logic—but everything and everyone in the novel is so damaged, the quirky plot doesn't come off as quite so unhinged as it otherwise might.

The plot moves between Frank's strange daily activities( enacting his bloody personal religion on his island home, playing by himself on the dunes, getting drunk with a buddy), his preparations for the arrival of his AWOL brother, and the horrifying bits of backstory with which Frank gifts us. We know it's all heading toward a bad scene. In fact, what's odd is how Frank isn't that worried about his brother's potential for chaos. Even when he has truly disturbing phone conversations with Eric, Frank insists that he loves his brother and wants to see him. I don't quite buy it. I also don't buy the relationship with his dwarfish drinking buddy, as Frank comes off as an adolescent; Banks never makes us feel that Frank is of age, and the scenes of him in a bar seem to involve another character.

Frank's father knows that Eric has escaped, but he doesn't know Frank is in touch with him. The obvious crisis toward which the book moves also turns out to move the novel into the foggy past, finally bringing clarity to the event that—in some ways, but not all—triggered everything terrible that would follow.

It's a fine first novel, captivatingly told, though grim going and, again, not managed smoothly at the end.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Unrequited and Requited: Faulkner's THE MANSION

William Faulkner wraps up the Snopes trilogy (The Hamlet, The Town, The Mansion) by veering from low comedy to stirring romance to prison revenge tale in a novel that covers more ground (literally and figuratively) than the previous novels. As with the other books, the events all circle around—when they do not directly address—the rise of Flem Snopes from his low-born station in life to his success as a wealthy bank president and landowner. Snopes himself appears less often in this final novel, but his presence is felt; he has withdrawn into his mansion, but his crafty machinations have affected every character's life, often in profound ways.

The novel takes some time to get going, by my lights, as Faulkner revisits events from the previous novels in circular, recursive form, making this book stall for quite some time. Aside from that slow start, the novel moves adeptly to cover a host of characters, all of whom are heading for a mutual resolution of plot and theme.

The novel's comedic bits work well, and the source of much of the humor throughout is our old friend V.K. Ratliff, at the top of his form here after a weak showing in the second novel. Ratliff's voice is compelling when he takes on the narrative, but also he's allowed to be the heroic figure he seemed set to be back in The Hamlet. He's never quite ahead of Flem Snopes, of course, whose sheer singlemindedness about money and quality of rapacious acquisition make him hard to beat, but he's typically ahead of Faulkner's mock romantic figure, attorney Gavin Stevens. Ratliff's visit to New York City (to attend a wedding we don't get to see) is both hilarious and touching, as this self-sufficient man who handles himself well in any situation is knocked down by the notion of spending 75 dollars on a tie.

Gavin Stevens continues to be a dependable knight, (almost) always sure to do the noble thing, sacrificing his happiness for obscure reasons, remaining absurdly chaste in his relationship with Linda Snopes, daughter of the mythic Eula Snopes from the preceding novels. His quasi-romance is full of both comedy and truly heartbreaking moments, but Faulkner works this story—which consumes much of the narrative—into the overarching tale of vengeance against Flem (whose refusal to act and then commitment to action results in a cousin spending 38 years in jail).

Along the way, we meet a host of amazing side characters, all of them engaged in quests of one kind or another. Faulkner sees something to praise in most of them, as they all resist the pull of the earth (there's a beautiful late passage concerning this) in order to somehow make their mark.