Monday, April 24, 2023

Reading group: What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

Here's the last of my three belated reading group reports:

Doug suggested this short novel which comes garlanded with huge praise and has won several prizes One day the unnamed American male narrator, cruising in the bathrooms of the National Palace of Culture in Sofia, comes across the compelling hustler Mitka, and there follows a tale of unrequited sexual obsession, of overwhelming desire met by hard-headed manipulation, all told in the incantatory prose which has earned the book such admiration.

Unfortunately, our group was not so captivated. Doug began with a slightly  apologetic air (presumably for having suggested the book), immediately referring to the narrator as 'self-pitying', and almost everyone else nodded in agreement. I wouldn't call the narrator self-pitying, but I did agree that the emotion that came over was not so much the narrator's obsession with Mitka as the narrator's obsession with himself. It was in fact hard to see what is attractive about Mitka: he's thoroughly amoral and self-centred, and is clearly using the narrator's obsession with him to get what he can; we are treated to physical descriptions of him and of their sexual encounters, but these seem plainly, even sometimes mechanistically told: there is little imagistic or metaphorical element in these descriptions to create any emotional dimension the reader can share. Yet the prose otherwise rings with a deep emptiness of yearning, and the overall focus is the narrator's own more general emotional state. 

While there was an initial tendency in the group to dismiss the novel for this, people became more positive as we turned our attention to the second of the three parts, which begins when the narrator's English class at the American College is interrupted by news from home. This prompts an agonised avalanche of memories of a rejecting, homophobic background: the scenes are horrifying and deeply moving, and I for one was in tears as I read. It's clear from now on that what is propelling the narrator's yearnings and his emotional entrapment in a destructive relationship, and perhaps accounting for any self-obsession, is huge, unquenchable grief.

There is no doubt for me that the prose of this book is brilliant, so I was a bit shocked when Mark complained about its long sentences and lack of paragraphing - there can be pages and pages unbroken by paragraphs. Clare and I hotly objected that this formally encodes the unrelenting obsessiveness of the narrator's mentality, allowing the reader to read in such a way that draws them in to share that mentality. Mark stuck to his guns, pointing out that in Lolita, for instance, another book about sexual obsession, there are paragraphs and sentences of decent length. We said that that was because the sensibility of the narrator in that book is cool and calculated (for most of the book): the prose of any first-person narrator - the language, rhythm and cadence created by those technical structures of paragraphing and punctuation - necessarily reflects their mentality. Mark however insisted that this book was unnecessarily too difficult a read.

There does seem to be a current prejudice against long sentences, possibly affected by the culture of soundbites, but this book I'd say is a great illustration of the power of long sentences. Take this sentence at the very beginning of this book:

Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out of them as if to climb back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing autumnal about it; the grapes that hung from vines throughout the city burst warm in one's mouth.

There might be a temptation here, for the sake of immediate clarity and ease of reading, to separate this into two sentences, ending the first after the word 'afternoon' and making the description of the afternoon a separate sentence. But the fact that the author does not do this creates a special alchemy: because he doesn't, the October afternoon becomes more closely linked with Mitka, and its apparent promise (its warmth) yet its deceptiveness with him. And there is a clear sexual note to that final image of the grapes bursting in the mouth, linked to the earlier sentence and Mitka by a semicolon, rather than separated with a full stop.

Having begun the meeting on a somewhat negative note, most of the room ended up vigorously defending this book for its wonderful prose.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Reading Group: A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

In February we met at Clare's to discuss this book of her suggestion. It is one of several novels by Barry about the McNultys and the Dunnes inspired by tales of his own Irish family history, and this book is a sequel to the prize-winning Days Without End. The earlier book features Thomas McNulty and John Cole, who meet in America as exiled young men and form a loving relationship while working as cross-dressing entertainers, but then join the US Army and are caught up in the violence of the Indian Wars and the American Civil War. A Thousand Moons takes place when they are much older, after the end of the civil war, but when the defeated confederates are agitating again. It is related by Winona, the young Native American woman the two men adopted as a child after the desecration of her tribe, the Lakota, in which they took part, and who has been brought up and educated by them tenderly and thoughtfully in a loving home. Caught between that old world of nature and the seasons and the world of structures and words (she works as a clerk for the local lawyer), Winona is both lost and saved - 'They both gave me the wound and healed it, which is a hard fact in its way' and has thus the power to tell her own story in a prose that is both imbued with lyrical depictions of nature and straightforwardly colloquial.

Such paradoxes are at the heart of Barry's fiction, and what he is interested in are the complex subtleties and  fluidity of human nature and identity. His ability to ventriloquise a young Native American woman is a supreme case in point, though right at the start of the novel the colonisation of such an approach is acknowledged. 'I am Winona,' she begins the novel by saying, and then goes on to explain that this is not her original name, which was Ojinjintka (meaning 'rose'): the two men couldn't pronounce it, so they called her by her the name of her sister who was killed, Winona. In this way the men have culturally colonised her, but the naming is a remnant and thus acknowledgement of the genocide in which they took part and for which the way they have cared for her is an atonement.

Their household, composed of an ageing homosexual male couple, a young Native American woman and two freed black slaves, Rosalee and her brother Tennyson, is a microcosm of the blended, accepting society against which the factional world around them is set. That factional world soon encroaches: Winona is raped, possibly by Jas, the young white man who wants to marry her (in spite of social disapproval - 'I was just the cinders of an Indian fire in the eyes of the town'), and as the consequences of this unfold, Tennyson is attacked and left brain-damaged. Dressed as a boy for self-protection, Winona sets out on an aborted mission to avenge him, but in the process meets and falls in love with another young Native American woman. Eventually, Jas is found murdered and the innocent Winona is charged and sentenced to death, and the question of how this will end for her makes the final pages thrillingly tense. 

Like others in the group, I couldn't put this book down, and for me it was less for the plot than for Barry's wonderfully lyrical and astute prose, his empathy and insight into all of the characters. Even the most violent characters have their humane moments, providing a moving and unsettling portrayal of the complexity of human cruelty. As for the plot, we found the final revelation, like that in Barry's The Secret Scripture, manipulated and unconvincing, but again this did not spoil our overall admiration. There was only one dissenter: Ann, who surprised the rest of us by saying she hadn't engaged with the book at all, that she wouldn't have finished it if she hadn't had to for the meeting, and that she found it 'wordy'.

I did have one other caveat. The basic message of the book is that love conquers all. Much as I loved the book, and that message, in the light of Tommy Orange's There There which we read previously and which portrays the ongoing legacy of devastation in the lives of Native Americans to this day, I couldn't escape an uncomfortable feeling that to create this one (probably unusual) instance of atonement and redemption made the book potentially unrealistic, even possibly sentimental, and self-justifying. 

We ended with a discussion about the issue of cultural appropriation in fiction raised by this novel. We strongly felt that if it's done well, with respect and empathy, it is acceptable to step into the shoes of others whose experience is outside one's own. After all, the moral potential of fiction lies in its power as an act of empathy (which this book most supremely is). Speaking as someone who has written plays, I would also point out that it would be impossible for a playwright to write simply from their own experience and identity - a playwright just has to put themself in other people's shoes (and minds and emotions). And, as someone commented, if we stuck to our own experience in writing, historical novels couldn't be allowed: Hilary Mantel, after all, wasn't personally at the Tudor court, and her novels set there would have to be cancelled.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Reading group: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Continuing family matters and catching up with my novel-in-progress after almost two months of illness have gone on keeping me from other things, including the reports of our reading group discussions. I am pleased to say that I have now got to the end of the first, handwritten draft of my novel (I always do the first draft by hand), and now I have a bit of a breather in which to let the whole thing settle in my mind before typing the next (I hope final) draft. This means that at last I can turn to those reports, though I'm afraid that after all this time my memory of the discussions will not be the most detailed, and the reports will therefore probably be brief.

At the end of January we met at Mark's to discuss this new novel by Elizabeth Strout, suggested by Ann. We had all very much liked My Name is Lucy Barton, another concerning the same first-person protagonist (Lucy Barton), and were therefore keen to read this. (In fact Oh William! is the third in the series, which most of us hadn't realised when we chose the book, although it didn't in fact matter that we hadn't read the second.) We were by no means disappointed; in fact we liked and admired this novel even more: we were full of unanimous praise.

In this book, Laura Barton recounts how, while grieving the death of her second husband, she becomes involved in a crisis being experienced by William, her first husband. William's current wife leaves him at the same time that, through family history research, he uncovers an alarming and unsuspected, indeed unlikely-seeming truth about his own mother. This prompts him to feel the need to travel back to Maine, from where his mother came, and Lucy agrees to accompany him. Over the course of these events we are treated to Lucy's reminiscences and meditations, and while little happens in the present time level - although it all leads to a revelation that turns much on its head - the history of Lucy's relationships with both husbands, with her daughters and with William's mother unfolds. And while Lucy's own difficult origins are presented more glancingly than in the previous books, they still movingly underpin the whole novel.

Once again, the thing that most struck us was the way that the plain, easy prose manages to convey huge complexities of emotion and of relationships, to deeply moving effect. The whole experience of reading the book is of being spoken to intimately by someone revealing their deepest reminiscences and thoughts in a conversational, sometimes casually stream-of consciousness manner: 

I think I have mentioned the business about my father because as I was packing for Maine, I thought of William's father...

And another quote: 

I think I have to mention this, although I have said I would not talk about David [her second husband], but I think you should know...

And another: 

I have written about [my own mother] and I really do not want to write anything else about her. But I understand one might need to know a few things for this story.

 However, in spite of this almost rambling, naive-seeming style, the novel is in fact very tightly structured, and the final revelation pulls everything together, bringing all the previously planted clues and indictors into a focussed pattern.

The whole thing seemed so emotionally truthful that some of us felt sure that it must be autobiographical, and this seems to be corroborated by the fact that towards the end there is a discussion between Lucy and another character about the two preceding real-life novels - which in the novel are written by Lucy Barton - and whether she will include the character in her next. However, Clare was sure that it was not autobiographical, and a glance at Elizabeth Strout's biography shows that she did not share the deprived and poverty-stricken background of Lucy's that provides the basic pulse of these novels. Ann made a very interesting and astute suggestion, which was that it is autobiographical in that Lucy Barton is an alter ego for the author. I must say that as a writer that really struck a chord for me: autobiography need not necessarily be characterised by verifiable facts, but can operate on an emotional and psychological level.

In any case, the whole thing seemed extremely real to all of us, and although Mark did then start cavilling about the ending, which he found somehow artificial, no one else agreed with him, and we were very glad to have read the book.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here