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Archive for December, 2008

The Writing Life (1989)

Annie Dillard

Harper Perennial, 68 pages from 617pp

(Paired with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, An American Childhood)

The Writing Life, Annie Dillard’s commentary on the creative act, is a distinctive, deeply personal tract. A short piece – just 68 pages – it nevertheless manages to pack a wealth of detail, both biographical, philosophical and bibliographical that, as the Detroit News said, “has the power and force of a detonating bomb”.

Annie Dillard is an American writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The majority of her work is non-fiction, and is often imbued with the spiritualism that defines her. The defining aspect of The Writing Life is that unlike other memoirs of the craft, Dillard has realised that her interaction with the world at large is as important to good writing as the understanding of the technical aspects of it. To that end descriptions of a flight over the wilderness and her encounter with a brilliant pilot are as important as the details of her writing. Landscape is important. “That island on Haro Strait haunts me.”

She asks: “What is this writing life? I was living alone in a house once, and had set up study on the first floor. A portable green Smith-Corona typewriter sat on the table against the wall. I made the mistake of leaving the room.” Though this anecdote leads into a description of her typewriter exploding, the paragraph ends there leaving a thought unexpressed but implied burning beneath it. This writing life is not leaving that room, it is continuing to work even if the typewriter is exploding. There then exists the contradiction of not leaving the room and understanding the necessity of meeting other people, of living in the landscape and appreciating it. But this is how Dillard’s prose works – it is not surface, it is depth, and one needs to read between the lines to truly appreciate everything that goes on in a writers mind.

There are lines and thoughts here that dazzle, that are true, that if we are to succeed as writers we must be attuned to.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

“There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by.”

All this rhetoric, this codifying is to say the most famous cliché of all: A writer writes. There is no escaping it. If you are not writing every day, if you are not breathing it, sleeping in it, dying with it, then you are not a writer, you are just someone who writes occasionally. A writer is defined by his work but is never satisfied. As Dillard says, “Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and search each object n a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength…. One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.”

Dillard’s book is good on such things. Her wisdom shines through. Every writer should know these things but it is worth reading them, even if it is so you read Annie Dillard, a great writer, deep in thought.

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Ripley’s Game (1974)

Patricia Highsmith

Vintage, 256pp

Tom Ripley, anti-hero of numerous Patricia Highsmith novels, is rather playful in this, the third in the series. Asked by an old friend to find someone to commit “two simple murders”, Ripley settles on Jonathan Trevanny, a slowly dying picture framer, a Brit married to a French woman, Simone. Trevanny first refuses the offer of money, but enticed by the possibility reluctantly agrees. Before he knows how to extricate himself from the situation he has found himself in, he is shooting dead a member of the Italian Mafia in Hamburg. Of course the murders catch up with him, the Mafia arrive in the small town of Fontainebleau, and blood is spilt.

Patricia Highsmith, a Texan who spent the first half of her life in America and Mexico and the second half in Europe, where she died in Locarno Switzerland, was noted for her tales of the macabre. A troubled genius, Highsmith was fascinated with crime and mental illness from a young age and through her reading came to love Kafka and Dostoyevsky, both of whom influenced her work. My copy of Ripley’s Game was paired with Crime and Punishment by Vintage as part of their Classic Twins Series (as Vintage Crime). Notably Highsmith’s sexual orientation was never revealed, though she is known to have had affairs with men and women, and her relationships never lasted long. This ambiguity is evident in her work. Bruno in her first novel Strangers on a Train (1950) is quite probably homosexual, and Tom Ripley (though married to the beautiful Heloise) is at least bi-sexual – his torment of Dickie Greenleaf in the first Ripley novel borders on the sexual, and his marriage to Heloise is clearly a case of possession, rather than sexual feeling. This extra frisson in her novels gives them a psychological depth missing from much crime fiction.

Ripley’s Game is as taut a crime thriller as I have ever read and reveals very quickly Highsmith’s skill as a novelist. There is depth here that is missing from much modern crime thrillers, and it comes across as erudite and knowing. The psychological depth of Trevanny’s situation is expertly handled, and at times you become breathless with excitement. The ending does, a little, become slightly contrived – not enough to spoil the effect of what has come before it – but with what has come before, it was perhaps impossible to create and ending that lives up to it. It is a minor point.

Two more Ripley novels would follow this one – The Boy who Followed Ripley (1980) and Ripley Under Water (1991). Highsmith wrote on average a novel every two years, but the decade gaps between each Ripley adventure suggest that perhaps time was needed to cultivate the right story for her anti-hero, that this character was more than just a character to her. Though this was the third novel in the series it worked well as a standalone novel – you could see the points of information placed there for those following the series, but they do not overwhelm the text – and that most of all perhaps reveals the strength of Highsmith’s creation. He needs no introduction. Ripley simply exists.

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The Hour I First Believed (2008)

Wally Lamb

HarperCollins, 740pp

A few years ago now I read Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much Is True (1998), and found Lamb’s epic novel engrossing and fully formed. It has taken him a decade to finish his next novel, an equally long and epic story, of Caelum Quirk, of his wife, of Columbine, of American history and the penal system, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, chaos theory and the meaning of family. The Hour I First Believed is a massive book that spans generations but is pinned to the relative present by Caelum Quirk’s narration, a singularly complicated individual who at times frustrates the reader and those about him, and at others seems so overwhelmed by the blows that life is dealing him that one had no recourse but to care.

At times the sheer volume of incident threatens to overwhelm this story, combining as it does real events (the school shootings at Columbine, Hurricane Katrina that swept through New Orleans) and the fictional, including the cross-fertilisation of narratives as characters from his earlier novels reappear in this one, being as they are from the same fictional town.

As in his previous novels, working as the scaffolding of his narrative, is ancient myth. In this case it is the myth of the Minotaur and the maze, with Caelum Quirk the lost wanderer, trying to find a way out and make sense of all that has come before. The maze suggests violence – and there is much violence behind this story, hiding in its shadows, but it never swamps the voice. The events of Columbine, which could have been so easily mishandled, is not glorified, recreated or sensationalised – it is something that happens that Maureen Quirk is involved in – and which forever affects the lives of those involved. When Caelum and Maureen leave Colorado to return to his family’s farm, Maureen is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress and this alters their lives forever.

At times some of Lamb’s narrative seems a little contrived, but for the most part he successfully handles the sprawling nature of his tale; it is tamed, processed and understood. The final scenes see Caelum Quirk rising above the maze he has been in, finally seeing the order of it, and understanding the future.

Lamb is one of those interesting American authors whose ambition is great. Let’s just hope it is not another ten years before we see the next novel.

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The Other Hand

Chris Cleave

Sceptre, 355pp

I missed Chris Cleave’s first novel when it was published. He had the misfortune to write a novel concerned with a terrorist attack on London and have it come out the very day such an event occurred in reality. Incendiary was well received if little read. Cleave, a journalist, returned with this novel, The Other Hand, which reveals him to be a writer concerned with the reality of the modern world, unafraid to tackle big themes. What is surprising is that he can find humour in the darkest of situations, and speak with clear precise prose that cuts away all the excess baggage that can sometimes weigh such novels down. He has clear sight, and a good ear.

The Other Hand (called Little Bee in America), deals with immigration and violence in Nigeria. It comments upon suicide and marital infidelity and it also manages to find time to discuss parenthood. All this does not overwhelm Cleave or his narrative. Its story unfolds over chapters that alternate between Little Bee and Sarah. Little Bee has fled violence in Nigeria and after being released from the detention centre seeks Sarah and her husband Andrew, whom she met on a beach in her country – an event the novel continually circles, the impact of it still fracturing the lives of those that were there. To reveal to a reader the events of the beach would be to do this novel a disservice, but because it is so central to the events of this novel, it does hinder what one can say about it.

So I shall say this. Chris Cleave is a good novelist, and The Other Hand at times rings truthfully, with power and simple elegance. A few moments of this novel failed to work, and it had at times the element of contrivance, especially in the last few chapters, and almost threatens to derail and otherwise good read. Thankfully they do not, and by the end Cleave has rescued his narrative. Where I think he works best is in the little details, the comments upon domesticity, and the lives the children live – Sarah’s son becoming Batman, the girls in Nigeria making up their own television play – and in the emotional dilemmas they face. Sarah comes across as a complex, powerful woman whose life is ultimately a series of fronts – things that disguise her true pain from others. She is not honest with any of those she knows, her life divided, and it is only by facing up to her demons is she able to begin the healing process.

I look forward to what Cleave does next. He is shaping up to be one of Britain’s most interesting novelists. A talent to watch.

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We Think the World of You (1960)

J.R. Ackerley

Penguin Books, 158pp

What a delightful little novel this was! I expected little of the story of one man and the dog he cares for whilst his owner is serving time at a local prison, but with such a slim premise Ackerley managed to craft a story of such simple beauty, at times very funny, at others touchingly poignant, and ending with one of the finest last lines I’ve read, and for which it is justly famous.

As noted in my review of his Hindoo Holiday (1932), Ackerley was openly homosexual in an age where such sexuality was still taboo. We Think the World of You is another novel that deals with homosexuality without naming it. It is clear to a modern reader that Frank is in love with the crooked Johnny, and that Johnny is repressed in his feelings.

When Johnny is sent down he asks his friend (possible lover) Frank to take care of his dog Evie. At first Frank refuses but eventually relents and this dog begins to change his life. Ackerley called his tale a “fairy tale for adults”, and like all fairy tales it is a dark heart that beats at the centre. It is a story of frustration and jealousy, and of unrequited love. Evie becomes the white knight that rescues Frank. But Ackerley is a cleverer writer than that. He asks the questions of what next? What happens when the white knight has come and you have been saved? Evie, being loved and cared for, begins to dominate Frank’s life, and Frank realises that what he thought he wanted might not be what he was after at all.

In the biography of Ackerley published by Peter Parker, we learn of Ackerley and how a dog called Queenie transformed his life. Queenie was given to him by his sometimes lover who was going down for burglary. We Think the World of You is therefore more autobiographical than Ackerley first admitted.

When Queenie died he said, “”I would have immolated myself as a suttee when Queenie died. For no human would I ever have done such a thing, but by my love for Queenie I would have been irresistibly compelled.” We Think the World of You was not born out of his grief (Queenie died two years later) but the knowledge that this creature would not survive long infuses Ackerley’s work with an emotional depth. It turns We Think the World of You into a truer tale than Hindoo Holiday (which was supposed to be the true story). This book, I feel, is his true masterpiece.

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A Mercy (2008)

Toni Morrison

Chatto & Windus, 165pp

A Mercy is the new novel from Toni Morrison, though calling it a novel is a stretch, as it barely reaches 165 pages in large print and with lots of space on the page. But this is not a criticism, for anything new from Morrison is always a delight. After the slightly less successful Love (2003), Morrison has written a novel that is being billed as a “prelude” to perhaps her most famous novel, Beloved (1987)

I have read a great deal during this year (2008) and it has to be said that A Mercy is my favourite novel of the year, and perhaps the greatest piece of American fiction in a good few years. Morrison, deserved Nobel laureate, is unafraid to take her fiction into the dark places of human history, unafraid of asking the questions lesser novelists shy from. In A Mercy she has attempted a truly brave thing – to recreate the voices of the 1680s, the sights of it, the brutality of it, and the tenderness. It is to Morrison’s credit that in this she never falters. Each word, as it is with her, is pitch-perfect. (My only complaint is saved for the cover designers who, in the Chatto & Windus designer have a woman standing in faux-slave shoes that look like they’ve been designed by Jimmy Choo and holds herself with sartorial elegance, not at all a 1680s slave).

There is a bleak poetry to Morrison’s language, and this tone is set from the very first words.

“Don’t be afraid. My telling can’t hurt you in spite of what I have done and I promise to lie quietly in the dark – weeping perhaps or occasionally seeing the blood once more – but I will never again unfold my limbs to rise up and bare teeth.”

Her tale is a dark one. It tackles the very beginnings of the slave trade, but is not a polemical novel. It is the story of mothers and daughters, of love and duty, a human story. The novel is split into distinct sections, chapters that have a different narrator, a different point of view, though the principal character is 16 year old Florens, who is uprooted not only from her native Africa but from her family. She is sold into slavery by her mother to settle a debt.

Morrison is very good on the human aspect of slavery, the human cost, and as A Mercy’s Biblical-like language falls out in beautiful cadence, the truth of that title is slowly revealed. We learn that A Mercy is not always so. The final few paragraphs are as powerful as anything she has ever written, they distil this experience into words, a rare achievement, and leave the reader emptied, overwhelmed by the power of this story.

A Mercy may remain the most powerful novel published this year and perhaps for all of the next. A novel such as this comes rarely. It is a jewel to be cherished. A novel to be read more than once. A triumph.

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The White Tiger (2008)

Aravind Adiga

Atlantic Books, 321pp

Aravind Adiga won the Man Booker Prize in 2008 for his debut novel The White Tiger, a deconstruction of poverty in Post Colonial India.

Adiga, on the basis of this novel is a distinctive writer, destined for much success – already his second novel, Between the Assassinations (only available in India at present) is garnering more acclaim than The White Tiger. This book proves an interesting repose to much of the Indian fiction that arrives garlanded on British shores. It is not a story of Old Colonial India, nor of the tourist India, but of its dirty gritty streets, where the divide between rich and poor is so divisive it leads to murder.

The plot of The White Tiger has been much discussed online already, and only a brief précis here will suffice, as stolen from Wikipedia: Balram Halwai is the White Tiger: the smartest boy in his village in the “Darkness” of rural India. The son of a rickshaw-puller, Balram’s family is too poor to allow him to finish school, and instead he has to work in a teashop, breaking coals and wiping tables. However, Balram gets his break when a rich man hires him as a chauffeur, and takes him to live in Delhi. The city is a revelation. As he drives his master to shopping malls and call centres, Balram becomes increasingly aware of immense wealth and opportunity all around him, while knowing that he will never be able to gain access to that world. As Balram broods over his situation, he realizes that there is only one way he can become part of this glamorous new India.

The novel takes the form of a series of letters written late at night by Balram to Wen Jiabao, the Premier of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China. In the letters, Balram describes his rise from lowly origins to his current position as an entrepreneur in Bangalore, as well as his views on India’s caste system and its political corruption.

Balram Halwai proves an interesting guide to this unseen India. He is an obnoxious narrator, an obsequious one, dangerous to know, and perhaps the most reliable of all. A true contradiction of a man.

I will admit to both loving and loathing this novel. I was at first enraptured, then found I didn’t read any more of it for over a week, and then forced myself to finish it off and became enthralled once more. I think it a little overlong and at times a little episodic. At times, though, Adiga’s prose soars. There are scenes of such delight here, the comedy broad and critical, and the plot engaging.

Adiga is one of the writers of 2008 worth watching. If you haven’t read this novel it’s worth it. Whether it should have won the Booker – well, that’s what’s fun about the Booker. It loves to cause controversy.

I would have more to say about this book, and could have written a more interesting account of it, but it’s been over a month and half since I read it and I’ve read so much since.  But it is a good book.  Honest.

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