In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass

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“I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.”

Some authors examine characters; Gass dissects them. His writing cuts into the inner workings of the human mind like a scalpel, and even if you don’t enjoy what’s being shown you will recognise it as similar to something deep within yourself.

Reading In The Heart of the Heart of the Country is like staring at a house-fire: the spectacle may be aesthetically beautiful, but it’s ultimately just depressing as it’s the cause of so much misery. Kafka said that “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Normally, I would agree. This short story collection strayed too far from trying to provide narrative satisfaction, though; Gass doesn’t just illuminate the disgusting elements of life, he wallows in them. The result is emotionally numbing. 

The prose is intricately written, with complex sentence structures and occasionally confusing dialect (although Gass knows how to temper his own intelligence based on whether it is appropriate for his characters; many authors lack this self-awareness). A number of the stories here fall into the dreaded short story trope of “middle aged man contemplates the meaning of clouds,” although the first — “The Pedersen Kid” — has an interesting set-up and multiple engaging characters. Things soon settle into monotony, however. Three hundred pages of nihilism is going to be dull no matter how intricate the writing.

Gass said that “these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness.” Regardless of its lack of commercial success, and even if its grotesqueness makes it difficult to love, it’s hard to deny that In The Heart of the Heart of the Country is extraordinarily well written. It will make readers gag, but still feels true to the despicable parts of our world. However, the stories are so relentlessly ugly and cynical that I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was written out of pure spite rather than a desire to engage the reader in a truly meaningful way.

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Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – Review

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan book cover

“Don’t leave me here with my mind, I thought.”

One of the oldest and most interesting tricks in the literary handbook is to make readers ask, “What would I do?”

It’s a bright summer day in London. Something has gone horribly wrong: a child is in danger, and Joe Rose will be forced to make a difficult choice. Nearby, a strange man is feeling the stirrings of an obsession which will tear apart his sanity.

Enduring Love is above all else about the wild speculation we make when it comes to others’ motives. We can’t know what anyone is thinking, and yet live our lives on the assumption that speech and body-language gives us firm ground when it comes to understanding others. They often don’t. Ian McEwan wants us to know how arrogance in your own beliefs about the world around you can result in tragedy.

Using his own twisted version of the famous Prisoner’s Dilemma as the catalyst to this novel, McEwan makes you question how reliable your mind really is. He excels at showing the untrustworthy nature of human thoughts, and the way our emotions colour every interaction; how we stare out at the world and what we see is always distorted by what fills our head at the current moment.

McEwan’s prose is both clinical and dazzlingly beautiful, despite his often gruesome subject matters. He’s not afraid to look at what’s both rotten and interesting about the world, and reading him is like listening to an educated doctor wax lyrical about diseases. He may throw large amounts of scientific information at readers —which at times feels as though he’s doing so just to prove he can — but does so in small enough chunks that it’s satisfying but not particularly difficult to keep up.

Characters in Enduring Love are often shockingly certain about what others are thinking. This, of course, means things end messily, but it’s always a delight to read because each character is acting what they view as rational: “If you just saw thing my way…” With politics and anger so mixed together in our news, it’s important to often remind ourselves that even people we might see as evil are likely the heroes of their own story.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon – Review

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“Forget about what you are escaping from. Reserve your anxiety for what you are escaping to.”

Comic books are on the rise in 1930s New York, and Sammy Clay desperately wants to write them. His cousin Josef—a fresh-off-the-boat refugee from Austria and deeply talented artist—needs money to rescue the family he left behind. Together they create the Escapist, one of the first superheroes in the history of the world. The rest is history.

What a novel. Ambitious, funny, tender, and heartbreaking.

The importance of grasping opportunity shines out from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The protagonists are desperate, and their enthusiasm and frustration make them extraordinarily easy to root for. That’s the nature of underdogs, of course, particularly when they’re unfairly persecuted. Desperate for success and meaning, their struggles emphasise the importance of escapism and compassion in world where injustice can strike anyone. It’s easy to care about Kavalier and Clay because Chabon made two characters that are far from perfect—they’re both greedy in many ways an fairly sneaky—but are deeply endearing.

The narrative is technically told in third person but leaves the impression that the narrator himself is a sort of kindly, thoughtful uncle. Start reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay at midday, and before you know it the sun’s gone down; you’ve been reading in the half-light, squinting to make out letters. You just have to know what happens.

This is a book about the consolations art can give people who are struggling with their place in the world. This is a novel featuring comic books, yes, but it’s about evil and war, and the need for hope in the face of despair.