Reflections: On Immunity and reading non-fiction

ImmunityI’m a reader of fiction by instinct; I read for experience more than information. This sometimes leaves me with a question when it comes to non-fiction, as happened when my book club chose E.O. Wilson’s The Diversity of Life. The question is: if I can’t assess this book as a work of science (or whatever the book happens to be), what can I fall back on? ‘The quality of the writing’ seems an inadequate answer, not least because it effectively brushes aside the specific nature of a given book.

Eighteen months on, I might now have found an answer, after reading my first non-fiction book of the year: On Immunity: an Inoculation by Eula Biss, the latest essay from Fitzcarraldo Editions. The book starts from Biss hearing about the spread of the H1N1 flu virus, shortly after the birth of her son. The mothers in her social circle discuss whether to vaccinate their children against H1N1, before a vaccine is even available. Biss uses this as a foundation for reflecting on topics such as the different metaphors we use to describe disease and medicine; the perception and reality of risk; and the relationship between immunity and attitudes to the body.

It struck me when reading Biss’ book that here was a kind of writing I hadn’t really come across before. On Immunity is not strictly a scientific text, or a historical account, or a social commentary, memoir, or polemic (though it does have elements of all these things). It feels to me more like a writer responding to an event by thinking her way around a subject; the medium is non-fiction, but it seems to come from a similar impulse as fiction. This (non-fiction that… behaves like fiction? explores like fiction?) is clearly something which has been missing from my reading life, and I want to read more of it. And it also suggests to me that I can still think and write about the experience of reading non-fiction, just as I do with fiction, even if I don’t know about the subject. On Immunity opens up that possibility because the book is effectively discovering its subject as it goes.

So what was my experience of reading On Immunity like? Strangely, perhaps, I found myself less conscious than usual of the effect of language. When I read (for example) Weathering or The Wandering Pine, I was very much aware of the distinct ‘worlds’ being created by the words. It wasn’t like that with Biss’ volume; maybe that’s in the nature of the essay, or at least in the nature of this particular essay. But I did (as I often do with fiction) find myself appreciating how the form of the book contributed to its theme: constantly moving from topic to topic, searching for different angles on the central subject.

These ‘reflections’ posts are meant to be about thinking out loud, and I do feel that I understand my approach to reading non-fiction better. But it’s also clear to me that it will take more reading to bring these thoughts properly into focus; so I expect I’ll be returning to this topic at some point.

Lucy Wood, Weathering (2015)

WeatheringThree years on from her marvellous story collection Diving Belles, Lucy Wood returns with her debut novel. Let’s not beat about the bush: Weathering is just as marvellous. In fact, it had me from the first paragraph:

Arse over elbow and a mouthful of river. Which she couldn’t spit out. Which soaked in and weighed her down until she was steeped in silt and water, like old tea. But where was her arse anyway, where was her elbow? There was nothing but water as far as she could tell. A stew of water and leaves and small stones and herself all mixed up in it – a strange grey grit. Scattered, then dragged under again, everything teeming, and not sure which way was up or down. Light and dark, light and dark, like a door opening and closing. (p. 1)

I love the rhythm of that prose, and the way it erases the line between character and river. It does so for good reason, too: the character, Pearl, has died; those are her ashes being scattered in the river, apparently still self-aware. They’re being scattered by Pearl’s daughter Ada, who’s returned to the valley to sort out Pearl’s old house; and Ada’s six-year-old daughter Pepper, who never knew Pearl at all. Weathering is the story of how the three generations deal with their sudden change in circumstances.

It’s easy enough to imagine a situation like this being the subject of a straightforward social realist novel – but such a novel would likely have been less interesting and powerful than Weathering. What makes Wood’s book so striking is its sense of what it is to be in that raw landscape. Each of the three protagonists has reason to feel particularly close to the valley: Pearl lived there for years, and of course is now literally part of it. For a wild soul like Pepper, whose life is just beginning, the valley is a place of excitement and colour. For Ada, who thought she’d got away from the valley years ago, it’s dreary and miserable.

Key to Wood’s technique is that she does not allow the valley to become known. For all the vivid descriptions of place, there are no names; this is not somewhere that can be given a label, and thereby given shape. Choppy sentence fragments disrupt the easy flow of understanding; like the characters, we as readers are plunged straight into a new world and have to orient ourselves as best we can.

We can also see this at work in the dialogue, which – like real conversation – is often laden with the unspoken, which can be stifling for Ada, because she finds herself having to be the person others remember, rather than the person she feels she is now; when the village shopkeeper tells her about a collection for ‘old Edwards’, Ada’s emphatic reply of ‘I don’t know who he is’ (p. 35) seems very much like a forlorn attempt to distance herself from the past. As the novel progresses, and Pepper and Ada become more comfortable in their surroundings, so the dialogue and descriptive prose become more conventionally novelistic – but never entirely; the valley will not be tamed.

The title of Weathering has two meanings: being worn away by time, but also holding on, riding out the storm. Ultimately, Wood’s characters experience something of both, as they try to find a place for themselves when the river is the thing that will carry on. Whereas in Diving Belles magic and story lay beneath the surface of everyday life, here it’s the deeper reality of the landscape that pushes through into the characters’ lives.

I want to end with another quotation, which may be tricky, because you really need the momentum of context to understand what Weathering is like.  But here’s a stretch of dialogue between Pepper and a woman on the riverbank, which to me captures something of the novel’s general attitude, as well as showing how amusing Wood’s writing can be:

[…]‘It certainly is cold today,’ [Pepper] said.

‘What are you talking about that for?’ The woman said.

Pepper shrugged. ‘I’m trying to make conversation.’

‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘That.’

‘This is what you have to do. I say, whereabouts do you live and what do you do for a living? And then you tell me. And then I say it’s cold. And then you agree. And then I say I hope the road doesn’t get ice. And then you say you heard the road will get ice. And then I say—‘

‘Christ,’ the woman said. ‘Why do we have to say all that?’

‘I don’t know,’ Pepper said. (p. 108)

Why indeed? Weathering is a novel that says just what it needs to say, in its own idiosyncratic fashion. It cements Lucy Wood’s voice as one that will continue to have my full attention.

Elsewhere

Weathering has been picking up very positive mentions all over the place; here are a few of them:

The Vegetarian and Bilbao – New York – Bilbao: Shiny New Books

I have a couple of reviews in the new issue of Shiny New Books, both of novels in translation which I’d heartily recommend to you.

VegetarianFirst up is a Korean novel, The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith). It’s the story of  Yeong-hye, a woman who first stops eating meat, then refuses all food – seemingly with the ambition to renounce her body and become a tree. But The Vegetarian is also as much about the people around Yeong-hye and how they see her. It’s a superb piece of work (with an excellent cover by Tom Darracott – look more closely and you’ll see it’s not just an arrangement of flowers), which I expect will be a strong contender for the IFFP – but it’ll be eligible for next year’s Prize, so we’ll have to wait a while.

(Speaking of the IFFP, Tony and Stu are looking for new Shadow Panel members; I’m planning to join in again this year, and it’s a lot of fun of you fancy having a go.)

Bilbao

One book that might might come up in this year’s IFFP is the subject of my second review: Bilbao – New York – Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe (translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin). On one level, this is a novel about the author’s father and grandfather, both fishermen. On another, it’s about the process by which Uribe (or at least a character with his name) drew on their lives to write a novel, and about the tensions between life and art.

Go and have a look, do check the books out, and be sure to spend some time exploring the Shiny New Books site – there’s a lot of great stuff on there.

“It is not, exactly, that I want to go, it is simply that I go”

Hiromi Kawakami, Manazuru (2006)
Translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich (2010)

KawakamiLet’s say that my relationship with Hiromi Kawakami’s work is evolving. I first read her back in 2013, when The Briefcase was the group read for the first January in Japan. I was going to join in, but – well, I just didn’t get it. Looking back, and to be more accurate, I simply couldn’t see what I was reading. The Briefcase was listed for the IFFP last year (under its UK title, Strange Weather in Tokyo), and I re-read it as part of the shadow judging. This time, I noticed a ritualistic quality to the relationship between the protagonists; that made me feel closer to unlocking the novel, but I still didn’t quite find the key to it.

So, when I saw that an earlier Kawakami novel was lined up as one of this year’s January in Japan group reads, I was a little apprehensive. I needn’t have been, because I really liked Manazuru – to the point that I think I’ll have to revisit The Briefcase some time.

We first meet Kawakami’s narrator, Kei, on a visit to the seaside town of Manazuru; it’s a quiet place, with its own rhythm of life – two hours from Tokyo, but it could just as well be a world away. Something keeps drawing Kei back here: it may have to do with the disappearance of her husband Rei twelve years earlier; maybe Kei could find out, if only she could grasp what seems to be hovering on the fringes of her memory.

Manazuru is a disconcerting combination of the precise and the hazy. Its structure is fragmented, sliding easily between past and present, between reality, memory and fantasy (Kei is followed by a woman-figure who may be some sort of spirit – or even a version of Kei herself – but often seems as real as any of the protagonist’s human interlocutors). But, even as those categories start to blur, the emotional detail remains pin-sharp and striking (a delicate balance achieved by Michael Emmerich in his translation).

Here, for example, is Kei describing how her mother felt about Rei:

She never tried to look at him, at Rei, the man I was married to, except through a sort of fish-eye lens. I don’t mean she saw him from a prejudiced perspective. She was unwilling to regard him as a man with a form. She preferred to peer through her lens at his distorted, bulging toes, or at his ballooning head. Nothing else. She didn’t dislike him enough to look away. She didn’t hate him enough to stare. She chose to keep him indistinct. (p. 46)

Images of bodily form and perception of others recur throughout Manazuru. Kei tells how she always used to feel the edges of her body blurring, until she started her affair with Seiji, a married man (“I don’t blur with Seiji. My shape is always the same, contained,” p. 71); Kei’s relationship with Seiji is constricting and distant in some ways, but it fulfils a need. Kei may have felt close to Rei when they were together; but, reading his diary now, she realises that there was a side of him she didn’t know; looking at old photographs of herself and Rei, their relationship suddenly starts to seem real to Kei, as though it somehow wasn’t previously. Kei comments that her daughter Momo can hurt her more deeply than others can (“she presses, unconcerned, into the softest places,” p. 30) because, knowing that Momo came from her body, Kei is unable to erect her emotional defences. But it doesn’t necessarily work both ways, as Kei finds that the teenage Momo can be distant and inscrutable. So the novel continues, with these nuanced, shifting patterns of emotion.

Kei’s perception of reality is fluid as well: for example, she has a vivid memory of following Rei and seeing him meet another woman – but apparently it’s a false one. In the end, Manazuru is a portrait of a woman lost between the elusive past and the seemingly unreachable future – and whether or she finds her way is open to interpretation.

This review is part of January in Japan, a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Read my other January in Japan 2015 posts here.

“Romance has no place in documentaries”

Ryu Murakami, Audition (1997)
Translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy (2009)

AuditionI first read the ‘two Murakamis’ a couple of years ago. No doubt I’ll be trying Haruki once more at some point; but Ryu’s book was the one I preferred, so he was the author I was keen to read again sooner. Piercing, my first Ryu Murakami, was a welcome surprise: a novel smart and subtle enough to evade the pitfalls inherent in its premise. Audition promises to be something similar – both are short novels built around a violent confrontation between two damaged individuals. However, although it’s the later book of the two, Audition seems to fall into traps that Piercing managed to avoid.

Murakami’s protagonist is Aoyama, who built his fortune making documentaries, but is still haunted by the death of his wife Ryoko seven years previously. In the time since, Aoyama has been able to realise a professional dream of bringing a celebrated German musician to Japan, and made sure to spend quality time with his son Shige; but he’s given no thought to his romantic life – until Shige encourages him to find a new wife.

How to go about it, though? An old work colleague, Yoshikawa, has an idea: hold an audition. Yoshikawa invites potential actresses to audition for a film project (ostensibly based on one of Aoyama’s documentaries, giving him a pretext for being on the interview panel); the film probably won’t get made, but the lucky winner can always be let down gently on that score – and the real prized will, of course, be Aoyama’s hand in marriage. One woman in particular stands out to Aoyama in this process: the beautiful and mysterious Yamasaki Asami – but she may not be quite as innocent as she appears.

Audition spends a good deal of time foreshadowing what is to come, sometimes in very direct terms – for example: “[Aoyama] had no way of knowing the unspeakable horrors that awaited him.” (p. 26). The characterisation is similarly straightforward: Aoyama is fixated on his ideal image of Ryoko, which leads him to become similarly fixated on the vision of perfection that he perceives Asami to be; Asami, for her part, has a troubled past, which leads her to… well, that would be telling. The trouble is that Ralph McCarthy’s translation feels too plain-speaking for this directness to work; there’s not enough of the subtlety which would create the sense of foreboding that the novel is telling us to experience.

Well, okay, let’s leave the build-up to one side. I have no problem in principle with everything hinging on the novel’s final confrontation, as long as that works. It worked in Piercing, but the confrontation there was longer (better able to create tension), and more importantly felt like a contest of equals – two characters who both had the capacity (and the desperation) to do the worst to each other, and no way of guessing who would win out. In those circumstances, it would be quite all right for the characters to appear from thin air, because watching them interact in the moment was powerful enough in its own right.

Audition falls between two stools in this regard: its climactic sequence is too short to generate much momentum on its own, and the characters don’t have enough emotional grounding from what has gone previously in order to substitute for that. Inevitably, there remains a certain amount of interest in finding out exactly how Aoyama’s story will resolve, and a wry ending which points up how absurd the situation has actually become (though it didn’t seem so to the characters involved). But it’s weak sauce, really – especially when I’ve seen much better from Murakami before.

Moving beyond the central narrative, there are some interesting observations elsewhere in Audition; for example, Aoyama watches a marathon, and reflects that his society seems to have become more atomised:

People were infected with the concept that happiness was something outside themselves, and a new and powerful loneliness was born. Mix loneliness with stress and enervation, and all sorts of madness can occur. Anxiety increases, and in order to obliterate the anxiety people turn to extreme sex, violence and even murder. Watching marathon runners on TV back in the day, you got the sense that everyone shared certain fundamental aspirations, but things were different now; it went without saying that each person was running for his or her own private reasons (p. 10).

Passages like this are of course feeding into the novel’s main themes; but they seem too few – and too under-explored – to give Audition the texture that they might. They end up as more of that heavy-handed foreshadowing – reminders of the book Audition could have been.

This review is part of January in Japan, a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Read my other January in Japan 2015 posts here.

“Here I am again : me and a girl and a wall”

howtobebothAli Smith, How to be both (2014)

So much is in the timing: for years I never read Ali Smith (no particular reason; she was just one of those writers I never got around to). My first was Artful, a couple of years ago; I liked it, but it didn’t strike me as a good way into the author’s work. Now felt like a good time to try again: as I want to explore ‘experimental’ fiction (I don’t much like that term, but it’ll do for what I mean), and have resolved to savour the tide of words more when reading, Smith seemed an author I might respond to well. And so it proved.

Perhaps the first thing to make clear about How to be both is which version I read. The novel is in two parts, one focusing on a girl named George who lives in present-day England, the other on the Renaissance Italian painter Francesco del Cossa. The order in which the two halves are presented varies between copies, and you can’t tell from the outside which is which. Alan Bowden asked me on Twitter which version I had; ‘George first,’ I told him. He replied, ‘I can’t imagine reading it that way.’ It’s testament to Smith’s skill that I can’t imagine reading How to be both the other way around (I can see where the connections would be, but so logically does Del Cossa’s half follow on from George’s that the sense of the experience eludes me. I’m sure I’d feel the same had I read the other version – which I fully intend to do one day).

As its title suggests, How to be both is full of duality and mirroring. Both sections collapse the sense of linear time: George’s story moves between her present life, and a few months earlier when her mother was still alive; Del Cossa tells of his life in the fifteenth century, but has also been incarnated as a spirit in the present, where he shadows George. As George also views Del Cossa’s frescoes, the two protagonists observe and are observed by each other, in their own strange loop. So really, both sections come before each other; although I do feel that most of the novel’s emotional weight likes in George’s half. Then again, Del Cossa’s art is intrinsic to making it all happen. You still need both halves to make up the whole.

For all that How to be both dissolves chronological boundaries for the reader, the passage of time remains of central importance to the characters, especially George. She still struggles to comprehend a world in which her mother is no longer alive, and the gap of those few months between life and death is ultimately as vast for George as that between her own time and her mother’s youth in the 1960s – another life that the girl can’t truly envisage. When George’s mother first takes her daughter to see Del Cossa’s paintings in Italy, George can’t see the relevance, can’t see the layers of meaning that her mother can. With time, though, she’s able to do so, thereby bringing the past closer (her intense observation of the artist’s work is what brings Del Cossa’s spirit back); it’s also symbolic of George starting to come to terms with what has happened.

I must mention Smith’s prose, which flows like a river changing course unexpectedly: past and present, dialogue and description, action and reflection merge into one another, always with an unstoppable momentum. After this, Ali Smith goes on to my list of must-read authors – and not before time.

 

 

Strange Horizons review: Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf

WaldorfI have a new review up at Strange Horizons, looking at Widow’s Dozen by Marek Waldorf (published by Turtle Point Press). The book is a collection of eleven linked (or fractured) short stories revolving around the fictitious Bearden County, NY, where something strange has happened to the laws of nature. I won’t say more: I’ll just invite you to check out the full review here.

No would also be a good time to mention that Strange Horizons’ annual fund drive is currently under way; if you like what they do, why not consider making a donation? You might even win a prize in their raffle.