Sunday 22 April 2012

Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" and the Pleasure of the Literary Feast

He arrives early at York Place. The baited gulls, penned in the keeping yards, are crying out to their free brothers on the river, who wheel screaming and diving over the palace walls. The Carmen are pushing up from the river goods incoming, and the courts smell of baking bread. Some children are bringing fresh rushes, tied in bundles, and they greet him by name. For their civility, he gives each of them a coin, and they stop to talk. ‘So, you are going to see the evil lady. She has bewitched the king, you know? Do you have a medal or a relic, master, to protect you?’

This passage from Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall describes Thomas Cromwell’s arrival for a visit with Anne Boleyn, the woman for whom King Henry VIII has engaged in a venomous battle with Catholic Rome to dissolve his first marriage to Katharine of Aragon. Hoping to consolidate the power of the Tudor dynasty, Henry has become fed up with (what he perceives to be) Katherine’s failure to produce a male heir for him.

But enough with the history lesson, for even though Mantel’s book is impeccably researched, its seductive charm stems entirely from Mantel's gifts as a storyteller.  I’ve never watched The Tudors on TV, and the only interest I’ve ever shown in Henry VIII is tapping my toes to that delightful song by Herman’s Hermits. However, I find it impossible not to be spellbound by Mantel’s writing. Take for example, the opening of Wolf Hall:

‘So now get up.’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard. His head turns sideways; his eyes are turned towards the gate, as if someone might arrive to help him out. One blow, properly placed, could kill him now.

There is nothing in this passage that suggests the dry bookishness of “historical novel” to me. Instead, Mantel blends vivid description, economical prose, and present-tense syntax to paint her story in the most intimate of colours. There is a graceful depth to her writing that I can only liken to a canvas that’s been layered with paint until it’s developed a palpable thickness. Every word of this book is significant, yet readable.  Mantel does not achieve this effect by piling up 650 pages of historical details, but by filling these pages with only the right details. The result of her effort is nothing less than a living world populated by the most interesting people you’ve ever met. The critic Diana Athill has even confessed that after reading Wolf Hall, she “can’t think of anything since Middlemarch which so convincingly builds a world.” High praise indeed, and every bit of it deserved.

Now as a caveat to all this gushing, I must admit that I did not fully appreciate the genius of this novel for its first 100 pages. I had a lot of difficulty following the story and kept glancing perplexedly back to its cover, wondering how the book had managed to win the 2009 Booker prize. However, my relationship to the book transformed completely when I learned to consult the “Cast of Characters” that Mantel provides in the book’s front matter. After all, Wolf Hall contains a cast of 95 people with speaking roles, which is enough to make the reader feel as though he/she is wandering around a large dinner party and trying to remember everyone’s name. But taxing as this may sound, all you really need to do when reading Wolf Hall is keep your left index finger wedged in the book’s Cast of Characters section for easy reference. This way, you will avoid making the same mistake I did, and will have a much better opportunity to gorge on this book for the feast of prose it truly is.

And yes, Dear Reader, you shall gorge.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Romantic Comedy Meets Dystopia in Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story"

This book tells the story of Leonard “Lenny” Abramov, a middle-aged, middle-class, painfully unexceptional man living in the United States at an unknown (but probably very near) future moment. While working and vacationing in Italy, Lenny falls madly in love with a Korean girl named Eunice Park, who is less than half his age, height, and weight. Lenny worships Eunice as an idol of youth and sensuality. Eunice, on the other hand, tends to use Lenny as, at best, a sounding board for her family-based anxieties, and at worst, an emotional pincushion for her latent sadism.

Did I mention that this book is a comedy? And a dystopian one at that?

In the world of Super Sad True Love Story, The United States has been taken over by the totalitarian “Bipartisan” government, and its economy is on the brink of collapse due to mounting threats from America’s Chinese creditors. In a desperate attempt to keep their sinking economy afloat, the United States makes endless public appeals for the frugal Chinese market to start developing a first-world appetite for consumerism.

Lenny first meets Eunice at one of the “halfhearted orgies” that his Italian friends host on an almost weekly basis.  He is an introvert, a neurotic, and a hopeless romantic whose favorite activities include meditating on architecture and reading books (or “printed, bound media artifacts,” as they are known in the future). Eunice, on the other hand, is a young woman who struggles to see anything worthwhile beyond the horizons of unabashed consumerism. Lenny works in the field of Indefinite Life Extension, which is to say that he provides “High Net Worth Individuals” with the opportunity to live forever through a complex regimen of vitamin intake, organ replacement, and the injection of nanorobots that enter the body at the cellular level and perpetually rebuild the body’s vital components.

The dominant media technology in Shteyngart's future world is a small, i-Podish device known as an äppärät, which is worn around the neck and projects a holographic cloud of statistics around a person’s body. Among the statistics readily visible in this cloud are the individual’s credit rating, monetary holdings, and sexual desirability (based on feedback gathered wirelessly from other people’s äppäräti). The following passage depicts Lenny entering a bar and having his äppärät deliver quantitative and qualitative proof of his unattractiveness to the opposite sex:

“The bar was filling up with Senior Credit guys in tapered chinos and oxfords. I felt superior to them, but my MALE HOTNESS was swiftly falling to last place out of thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty males… I turned in Annie’s direction with my left lip crinkled in sadness and my brow heavy with empathy, but the word ‘Look away quickly, dork,’ appeared on my äppärät. ‘Hair transplant time for RAG?’ another girl wrote. (‘Rapidly aging geezer,’ according to my electronic pebble.) ‘I can smell the DO from here.’ (‘Dick odor,’ my äppärät helpfully told me.)…The bar was now utterly aflash with smoky data spilling out of a total of fifty-nine äppäräti.”

For all of the cultural insidiousness it satirizes, however, Super Sad True Love Story is at heart an offbeat romantic comedy of the Woody Allen ilk. Shteyngart’s depiction of Lenny and Eunice’s hilariously tortured relationship suggests none of the authorial self-importance that Aldous Huxley indulges when depicting the relationship of Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowne in Brave New World. In contrast to Shteyngart, Huxley does what a lot of dystopian writers seem to do, which is develop an abstract social critique and then translate it into a novel for the purpose of intellectual dissemination. It is not only Huxley’s Brave New World, but Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Orwell’s 1984, and even Wells’ The Time Machine that makes you feel as though the author is leaning over your shoulder and hissing into your ear, “PAY ATTENTION! I’m teaching you something important about the modern world.”

Without doubt, Shteyngart’s social satire creates discomfort about the future of America’s cultural and economic health, but his heavily personal exploration of love, neurosis, and sexuality ensures that his characters and plot remain foremost in readers’ minds. In Super Sad True Love Story, romantic comedy encounters the brute didacticism of dystopian fiction and does not back down. It is to this extent that Shteyngart’s book is a wildly compelling and enjoyable read, not to mention a sophisticated manipulation of literary genre. For readers who need to be reminded of how wonderful the comedic novel can be, I strongly recommend this book.

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Octavia Butler's "Kindred" and the Petulant Male

Kindred tells the story of Dana Franklin, a recently married African-American woman living in 1976 Pasadena, California. On her twenty-sixth birthday, Dana embarks on one of six involuntary journeys back in time to Maryland’s eastern shore in the antebellum South. Her time travelling is provoked by Rufus Weylin, a distant ancestor of Dana’s who is the white son of a plantation owner. Each time she time travels, Dana remains in the past for hours, days, and eventually months at a time. As she struggles to survive amidst the emotional and physical abuses of slavery, she strives to challenge her ancestor Rufus about his racist and misogynist beliefs. However, it is Rufus’ resistance to ethical education that lends the novel much of its narrative force.

As a genre, science fiction allows us to imagine worlds different from the one we inhabit, either by making fundamental leaps in logic or demonstrating how our conventional understandings of “reality” can dissolve under the slightest scrutiny. To this end, Kindred initially offers the reader high hopes for Rufus Weylin’s ethical education. Each time Dana visits him, she saves his life and nurses him back to health. Additionally, she first meets him when he is a very young boy, and builds a very strong emotional (and maternal) bond with him. At first, Rufus seems to listen to Dana’s advice about how to treat other people. Unfortunately, his child-like relation to her also seems to be the very thing that keeps him from maturing in any substantial way. Simply put, Rufus has been spoiled by the expectations of slavery. On a fundamental level, he never matures beyond an infantile, hypermasculine state in which he insists that the world behave exactly as he wishes it to. Time after time, he seems to experience an awakening of some kind, but the moment he encounters the slightest resistance to his wishes, he makes threats, cracks a whip, or commits rape to assuage his frustration. Take for example this exchange between Rufus and Dana, which occurs after a woman named Alice, whom Rufus has raped, runs away with her enslaved husband Isaac:

“Yes,” [Dana] repeated. “How dare [Alice] choose her own husband? She must have thought she was a free woman or something.”
“What’s that got to do with it?” [Rufus] demanded. Then his voice dropped to almost a whisper. “I would have taken better care of her than any field hand could. I wouldn’t have hurt her if she hadn’t just kept saying no.”
“She had the right to say no.”
“We’ll see about her rights!”

In scenes like this, Butler draws a compelling connection between the logic of racism/misogyny and the petulance and entitlement historically rooted in white masculinity. It should be a moot point that this connection is just as applicable to the present day as it is to the antebellum South.

Although Rufus consistently shows that he does not possess the patience or maturity for ethical improvement, Octavia Butler never implies that his outlook is inevitable or – for that very reason – excusable. Rufus is not a passive product of his time; he is clearly aware of what is wrong about his beliefs and behavior, but continues to act selfishly and violently. Sometimes he cobbles together a lame excuse for his actions, but most of the time, he simply acts without justification. To be sure, there are causes both external and internal informing his character, but Butler never allows her readers to indulge in the dubious reasoning of, “Oh, it was just a different time back then. We can’t blame people for not knowing better.” Rufus Weylin is fully capable of love, goodness, and ethical behavior, yet in him is embodied the scariest element of masculine self-improvement – the unavoidable potential for emotional regression, the tendency to revert to simple, unchallenging beliefs at the first sign of frustration. To this end, Butler's story is a masterpiece of ethical inquiry, not to mention a wonderfully entertaining read.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Zadie Smith's "White Teeth" and the Pleasure of Being Told Rather than Shown

At 541 pages, Smith's book is a formidable hunk of tome, but rest assured, I will eventually include shorter books in my posts. That said, Smith's White Teeth is a darkly humorous novel concerning multiple characters of various racial and socio-economic backgrounds. The opening scene depicts the suicide of Archie Jones, a middle-aged London man suffering from depression after a recent divorce.

So where's the humour in that?

Archie's attempt to kill himself via carbon monoxide poisoning is botched when a local butcher discovers Archie's idle car blocking a shop's loading zone. The man gives Archie an earful and eventually shoos him away with scolds like, "No one gasses himself on my property... We are not licensed." Archie, still intoxicated from fumes, parks his car and wanders into a nearby house party. At this party, the 47-year old meets a 19-year old Carribean girl named Clara Bowden and marries her six weeks later.

With a plot that involves love, betrayal, and family quarrels both serious and ridiculous, Smith's book never grows stale. But perhaps it is her development of characters that offers readers the most pleasure. Take for example, her description of a family named the Chalfens:

"Sometimes, when the Chalfens sat round their Sunday dinner, tearing apart a chicken until there was nothing left but a tattered ribcage, gobblingly silently, speaking only to retrieve the salt or the pepper - the boredom was palpable. The century was drawing to a close and the Chalfens were bored. Like clones of each other, their dinner table was an exercise in mirrored perfection...They were still the same remarkable family they always had been. But having cut all ties with their Oxbridge peers...there was no one left to admire Chalfenism itself. Its gorgeous logic, its compassion, its intellect."

If you have ever been to a writers' workshop or read a book on writing fiction, you undoubtedly have heard the golden rule: "Always show. Never tell." But after reading a book like Smith's, you realize that the last part of this rule should read "...unless you're actually good at writing." Smith can info-bomb her readers all she wants because of the sheer power of her narrative voice, which combines all the playful cultural critique of Salman Rushdie with the generosity and prosaic mastery of George Eliot. What is perhaps most impressive about Smith's achievement is that she published White Teeth when she was only 25 years old. It is this fact that accounts for the one truly negative emotion that Smith's novel inspires: envy. This emotion only grows stronger when you glance at the book's back cover and see Smith's face, which is incredibly photogenic.


Her expression clearly says, "Yes, you are going to enjoy this book, because I am an extremely good writer and have been globally recognized as such. Deal with it."

Many aspiring young writers would like to hear about the twenty years of failure Smith had to suffer before she could get published, or about how her first book only came out after the bloom of youth had left her. But such is not the case for Smith. Her talent is undeniable, and if you approach White Teeth with the same generosity and humour she affords her characters, you will be in for an incredible read.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Stephen King's 11/22/63 and the Pleasure of the 600+ Page Novel

Stephen King’s latest novel runs 842 pages and tells the story of Jake Epping, a high school English teacher who learns of the existence of a time vortex that will carry him back to the year 1958. The man who first shows him the vortex, Al Templeton, has determined that anything one changes in the past will remain true when that person returns to the present. Al formulates a plan to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately, Al is dying of lung cancer, and will never make it through the five years that separate the time vortex (which always returns to a specific day in 1958) and Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. The responsibility for saving the president must therefore fall on Jake…

My initial interest in King’s latest book stemmed from an interview that the author gave on CBC’s radio show Q with Jian Ghomeshi. Ghomeshi raved about the book, and I, having just plodded through the cumbersome tundra of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, was more than happy to read something I assumed would be plot-driven. I spotted King’s book at a Coles in London, Ontario, and must have said, “Oh, I’ve been meaning to buy that!” a little too loudly, because my reaction visibly startled a nearby teenage girl who was leafing through a copy of The Hunger Games.

When I opened to the first page of 11/22/63, I knew I would find a lot to enjoy in King’s new book. The opening line bluntly introduces the protagonist with the statement, “I have never been what you’d call a crying man.” The line grabs the reader’s attention with a force that sympathetic critics would credit to great storytelling and unsympathetic ones would attribute to the cheap parlor tricks taught in any amateur writers’ workshop. The latter critics are not entirely wrong: it is perfectly possible that an amateur could have written this opening line. In fact, if we were judging by opening lines alone, Chabon would beat King with this more original and poetic effort:

“Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.”

However, it’s over the course of hundreds of pages that the mind becomes more endeared to King’s style and more irritated with Chabon’s. To help explain why, I will offer an insanely speculative comparison: King’s 11/22/63 reads like it has been repeatedly rewritten from scratch, while Chabon’s reads as though the author has set down an original draft and then edited the hell out of his syntax and phrasing. Here is another example of the latter:

“Rabbi Heskel Sphilman is a deformed mountain, a giant ruined dessert, a cartoon house with the windows shut and the sink left running. A little kid lumped him together, a mob of kids, blind orphans who never laid eyes on a man. They clumped the dough of his arms and legs to the dough of his body, then jammed his head down on top.”

 In short, Chabon's obsession with controlling his language and piling up unnecessary details makes it very difficult for a reader to keep track of the text’s overall arc. The reader doesn’t so much enjoy Chabon’s talent as capitulate to it. The pleasure to be gained from his text stems from admiration more than participation. King, on the other hand, presents only what is crucial to his characters, setting, plot, etc - no small feat for a book over 800 pages in length.

This brings me to a point I’d like to make about the particular pleasure that comes with reading a long novel like King’s. The readers of 18th and 19th century Britain probably knew this pleasure well, but it might not be accessible to as many people nowadays, at least not in its textual form. The most common modern-day equivalent of this long-narrative pleasure, I think, can be found in the genre of premier television that has become associated with HBO. It is a particular enjoyment that comes from an arc that has enough time to wander. In textual form, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections provides this sort of pleasure, as does Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance. The same wandering that makes shorter stories insufferable is exactly what keeps the long narrative fresh and interesting. What matters is that the story continues to develop without becoming repetitive, and that it has a clear knowledge of where it is going (hence the importance of rewriting versus editing).

This long-arc pleasure can be summed up in one of the most interesting plot points of Stephen King’s new text: when the protagonist Jake Epping travels back in time to stop the 1963 Kennedy assassination, he returns to the year 1958, meaning that he must kill five years before his attempt to save Kennedy. The vast majority of the novel deals with how Jake spends these five years, and much of the action has only an implicit connection to the Kennedy assassination. In the fantasies of most readers, revisiting the past often involves returning to a particular night or event – a short trip. But King’s book captures just how uncanny it would be to return to the past on a long-term basis. That is not to say that Jake is trapped in the past; rather, he must willfully choose to spend half a decade knowing how major world events will play out...unless he intervenes.

In the Q interview, Jian Ghomeshi made note of critics’ tendency not only to write off Stephen King as a pulp writer, but to mock his propensity toward extremely long works. King’s reply was that if he could keep his readers riveted for more than 600 pages, he would feel like he’d accomplished something more significant than occupying them for 200. A long novel builds up a residue in its reader’s mind by virtue of its sheer length, and when you turn the final page, this novel leaves something different than a shorter work does, no matter how densely the latter is written. The long novel has a different rhythm, one that goes up and down, perhaps with increasing speed toward its conclusion, as in King’s case.

If you have not recently read a novel longer than 600 pages, I heavily recommend doing so. If the task seems intimidating or burdensome, I think King’s new book will provide the perfect introduction.

Texts & Pleasure


I have started this blog to offer book reviews that celebrate the pleasure of reading. The blog takes its MO from Roland Barthes' The Pleasure of the Text, offering commentary on the specific techniques and forms through which books produce pleasure in their readers. It is my hope that each review will not only provide a thoughtful assessment of specific books, but offer mental tools that can hep readers discover new forms of pleasure in their reading.