Miranda July, The First Bad Man (2015)

MJulyOne of the words that I’ve seen bandied around in newspaper reviews of Miranda July’s novel is ‘quirky’. I can see where this view is coming from, but there are two main problems with it: one is that it’s inherently dismissive (as July herself puts it, it makes her sound like a little girl); the other is that it overlooks the specifics of what the novel actually does.

July’s narrator is fortysomething Cheryl Glickman, who works for a self-defence training company named Open Palm. She has eyes for Phillip, a colleague twenty years her senior; and imagines that certain young children she sees are Kubelko Bondy, a baby she was sent to play with once when she was nine. When Cheryl agrees to have her employers’ twenty-year-old daughter Clee move in, her careful household routine is disrupted – and things change even more when Clee becomes pregnant.

There’s a lot of artifice in the characters’ lives, but it seems to me that this is often a defence mechanism. Cheryl has worked out a system at home for streamlining day-to-day busywork, but the sense is that really it’s an excuse for disengaging. She goes to see a chromotherapist who rents an office for three days of the year, then makes an appointment with a psychologist who uses that office the rest of the time, and turns out to have been acting as the chromotherapist’s receptionist. When Cheryl overhears a conversation between the two, it reveals what a front they’ve been putting up.

The ‘first bad man’ of the title is not a character in the novel as such, but a figure in one of Open Plan’s DVD scenarios, a role taken on by Clee when she and Cheryl act the scenario out. This is an example of how relationships between the characters become performances. Another is Cheryl’s fantasies of Phillip mid-novel, where the lines between reality and imagination blur. Then there’s complicated dance of a relationship between Cheryl and Clee later on. In all, The First Bad Man is quite a powerful novel, whose characters’ eccentricities are central to creating that power.

See also

Reviews of The First Bad Man by Naomi Frisby at The Writes of Woman, and John Self at Asylum.

A round-up of recent reading

A few notes on some of the books I’ve read lately…

EclipticBenjamin Wood, The Ecliptic (2015)

Benjamin Wood’s first novel, The Bellwether Revivals, explored themes of creativity and obsession. He returns to those themes, and takes them further, in The Ecliptic. We first meet Elspeth Conroy in the 1970s at Portmantle, an invitation-only refuge for artists who have become creatively blocked. The arrival of a mysterious teenage musician leads Elspeth’s past to catch up with her – a past we delve into, learning of her development as a painter, and how she ended up going to Portmantle. There’s a running theme of creativity becoming an all-consuming force in artists’ lives, a theme which gains its most powerful expression late in the novel, in quite an unexpected way. I’ll let you find out the rest for yourself…

Irenosen Okojie, Butterfly Fish (2015)

Published by Jacaranda, Irenosen Okojie’s debut is a kaleidoscopic novel which focuses primarily on Joy, who is trying to cope with the death of her mother Queenie. The figure of a mysterious woman appears in Joy’s life and photographs, and Joy finds herself fascinated by a bronze warrior’s head that belonged to her mother. Okojie weaves in other narrative strands, including one set in 19th century Benin, Nigeria (from where the bronze bust originates), and one examining Queenie’s arrival in London from Nigeria in the 1960s. Parallels and connections emerge, forming Butterfly Fish into an intriguing whole.

Raymond Jean, Reader for Hire (1986)
Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter (2015)

The second in Periene’s Chance Encounter series, and rather different in tone from White Hunger. At a friend’s suggestion, Marie-Constance places an advert in the paper, offering to read aloud to others in their own home. Her first client is a disabled boy named Eric; after she reads him a rather macabre section of a Maupassant short story, Eric is disproportionately affected, scared out of his wits. Marie-Constance has this ability, to evoke the deep effect of what she reads in her listeners – as she and others increasingly discover. The prose of Reader for Hire reflects this: the viewpoint stays close to Marie-Constance, so the book begins and ends with her life as a reader; and it feels quite sharply episodic, each chapter its own little story. All in all, a charming celebration of reading.

Hawthorn

Melissa Harrison, At Hawthorn Time (2015)

At Hawthorn Time is, first and foremost, a novel of the modern English countryside: its chapters are headed with field notes, and images of the rural landscape run through its pages. Though the eye of narrative may be focused upon human characters, there is always the sense that they are defined by their interactions with the countryside. Melissa Harrison’s four main characters have different relationships with the country: Jack, a former radical protester, wanders across the land, both in close connection to it and yet somehow apart. Young Jamie is the rural native struggling with the realities of trying to make a living. Howard and Kitty are the urban incomers, whose marriage frays at the seams as they try to find their place. Their lives intertwine with each other and the landscape, heading towards the tragedy that, from the beginning, we know has been coming.

Jonathan Pinnock, Take It Cool (2014)

The last book I read by Jonathan Pinnock was a story collection, Dot Dash. This one is different – a non-fiction account of the author’s search for a reggae singer named Dennis Pinnock. The chapters rotate through three strands: Jonathan’s attempts to contact Dennis and the people who knew him; reviews of Dennis’s singles; and the author’s research into his own family history. Reading this book felt rather like eavesdropping, particularly as I don’t know much about reggae (I didn’t listen to any of the mentioned while I was reading, as I found it interesting to maintain that distance – I guess I can rectify that now). But Take It Cool tells an intriguing story, whatever your immediate interest in its subject matter. Published by Two Ravens Press.

The reader as ghost: Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque

DublinesqueI’ve been asking myself: what is it about Dublinesque? In a previous post, I quoted a passage from Enrique Vila-Matas’ 2010 novel which says that reading can often demand that we “approach a language distinct from the one of our daily tyrannies.” When I’m thinking about how I respond to a piece of fiction, I often start with the language, because that’s what fiction is made from. In Rosalind Harvey’s and Anne McLean’s translation from the Spanish, Vila-Matas’ language seems fairly straightforward; but there’s something about it that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps I’ll have managed it by the time I finish this blog post.

Samuel Riba is one of “an increasingly rare breed of sophisticated, literary publishers” who despairs at “the gothic vampire tales and other nonsense now in fashion.” He closed his publishing house after thirty years, having published numerous great writers, but without having achieved his ambition of discovering a new genius. Now Riba is a recovering alcoholic in search of a direction. There is a temptation here – especially when Riba reflects bitterly on “the falsely discreet young lions of publishing” – to generalise, and view ‘publishing’ as a metaphor, with Riba the ageing man who feels overtaken by the world at large. But I don’t think Dublinesque is quite reducible to such generalities, because literature is too bound up in Riba’s worldview: “he has a remarkable tendency to read his life as a literary text, interpreting it with the distortions befitting the compulsive reader he’s been for so many years.”

A couple of years earlier, Riba dreamed of Dublin, and now takes it upon himself to go there – or, more precisely, the Dublin of James Joyce – and hold a funeral for “the Gutenberg galaxy”. His model is the funeral in chapter six of Ulysses, he visits the city on Bloomsday… the sense of a journey shaped by the forces of literature only grows with the ‘stage directions’ that frame the Dublin-set sections, and the mysterious figures, like the man in the mackintosh from Ulysses, that Ribs keeps glimpsing.

As well as these figures, Riba is haunted by the notion that his life may be the subject of a novel. He’s right about that, of course, though the novelist is not the “young novice” whom he imagines. This means, then, that Riba is haunted by figures of whom he has no idea. Just occasionally, the third-person narration breaks into an ‘I’, a brief reminder of the writer who lies behind Riba. And behind the writer lies the reader; so perhaps this is the sense that’s been eluding me: to read Dublinesque is to be a ghost haunting the novel, with Vila-Matas’ prose providing a subtle balance of distance and closeness that lets us in just far enough. But that only really becomes apparent at the end, when the dream has faded and the book can haunt us.

Nell Leyshon, Memoirs of a Dipper (2015)

Dipper

In that minute when you’re somewhere you oughtn’t to be, when your fingers are touching someone else’s stuff, when you know a key could go in the lock, a door be opened, a footstep come into the room, in that minute you feel it all over your body. You’re alive. The hairs on the inside of your nose are raised. Your ears are moving to help detect any sound. Bits of your body you didn’t know existed are switched on.

– from Memoirs of a Dipper by Nell Leyshon, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

Paulette Jonguitud, Mildew (2010/5)

MildewIncreasingly, I find that the novels I respond to most strongly are those that create their own seamless reality. I’m not talking here about the meticulous re-creation of a historical period, nor the ‘world-building’ of genre fantasy and science fiction, but something that seems to me more fundamental. I mean those times when the language of fiction unites with its subject: then, there’s nothing between me and the work – and I don’t know how far it might reach.

Here, for example, is Mildew, a short novel by the Mexican writer Paulette Jonguitud (translated by the author from her Spanish original, and now published by the ever-excellent CB Editions). It’s a novel that creeps through you, rather like the mildew which begins growing on its narrator Constanza’s body the day before her daughter’s wedding. I didn’t realise until I started thinking back on the novel just how much it had infected my thoughts. Similarly, when Constanza sees the first spot of mildew, it seems a relatively minor inconvenience:

I don’t like surprises and since the last one had been an affair between my husband and my niece, I was not feeling in the mood for another one (pp. 4-5).

Immediately this remark implies an equivalence between the physical changes that Constanza is experiencing and the events of her life. There’s still more conflation when she describes coming across her husband and niece (also named Constanza):

It was after ten that night. I walked in silence through the dining room. I assumed everyone was upstairs. And then I found Felipe and Constanza sitting at the table, their heads close together as though they were sharing a secret, a bottle of wine between them. I did not need to see much more. Those few seconds were enough for me to know that I didn’t belong there. The furniture seemed to know I was there and feel ashamed, I heard the table creak and saw the chairs wanting to tip over to one side. The edge of the wine glasses, my glasses, seemed to shrink when touched by those lips (p. 12).

This paragraph brings in memory, the physical space of Constanza’s house, and (perhaps faulty, but who’s to say?) perception. Mildew’s narrator ranges far and wide through past and present, all without leaving the house – but there’s something claustrophobic about the experience of reading all this range. Maybe it’s the knowledge of how precarious it all is: Constanza makes no secret of how fallible her memory can be; there’s plenty that she doesn’t know, for example about her niece as a person; then there are her visions, such as the mirrors that reflect old memories and occasionally talk back.

There’s no room here for the safely real to end and the imaginary to begin; this is what we feel too as we read Mildew, and start to wonder what sort of grip Constanza has on her own space, her own story. And we might wonder that with dread, because we sense that, when Constanza’s grip loosens, ours can only do likewise.

Alisa Ganieva, The Mountain and the Wall (2012/5)

MTN_WALL_COVER_CMYKThe Mountain and the Wall is both the first novel by Alisa Ganieva, and the first in English translation from the Russian republic of Dagestan. I have to be honest and admit straight away that I’d never even heard of Dagestan until I read this book, so I come to write this review more tentatively than I might usually. In a way, though, that’s quite appropriate; because it seems to me that Ganieva’s novel is very much concerned with hearsay and the limits of knowledge.

The prologue, set at a social gathering, is a cinematic carousel of anecdotes told by a succession of characters, until someone realises a critical fact that nobody knew. In the first chapter, we find Ganieva’s protagonist Shamil visiting a village of goldsmiths, on assignment from a newspaper to write about their traditional crafts – though he soon discovers that these are losing out to cheaper tourist trinkets, which is not the story he’s there to tell. These set the scene for a tale of hidden information, not least of which is the rumour that the government is building a wall to separate off Russia’s Caucasus republics – a wall that we hear plenty about, but never see.

Carol Apollonio’s translation from the Russian moves through a range of different styles, particularly as it quotes from various fictional texts – including a novel which Shamil reads, and about he which he might feel differently if he knew what we find out about its author. In all, The Mountain and the Wall strikes me as a story of characters on shifting ground, trying to find their way with incomplete information – and the ultimate sense is that, to go forward, they need to know where they’ve been.

The Mountain and the Wall is published by Deep Vellum.

Over-exposed

I have a print – you can buy them at the Victoria and Albert Museum – of a photograph of the village street of Thetford, taken in 1868, in which William Smith is not. The street is empty. There is a grocer’s shop and a blacksmith’s and a stationary cart and a great spreading tree, but not a single human figure. In fact William Smith – or someone, or several people, dogs too, geese, a man on a horse – passed beneath the tree, went into the grocer’s shop, loitered for a moment talking to a friend while the photograph was taken but he is invisible, all of them are invisible. The exposure of the photograph – sixty minutes – was so long that William Smith and everyone else passed through it and away leaving no trace. Not even so much of a mark as those primordial worms that passed through the Cambrian mud of northern Scotland and left the empty tube of their passage in the rock.

I like that. I like that very much. A neat image for the relation of man to the physical world. Gone, passed through and away. Suppose though that William Smith – or whoever did walk down that street that morning – had in his progress moved the cart from point A to point B. What would we see then? A smudge? Two carts? Or suppose he had cut down the tree? Tampering with the physical world is what we do supremely well – in the end, perhaps, we shall achieve it definitively. Finis. And history will indeed come to an end.

– Penelope Lively, Moon Tiger (1987), p. 13