Middlemarch by George Eliot – Review

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“Character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”

Middlemarch is the perennial favourite of well-read parents everywhere, and my mother was no exception to this. That guaranteed that that I would do everything I could to avoid this book as a sulky teenager, and as adulthood began to creep along I merely forgot it existed.

This year, after reading a number of the looming geniuses of 19th century England (and having discovered that the writing there was, unsurprising to everyone but me, bloody good), an essay by the incredible Zadie Smith went over just how special this book is to her and should be to others. So, I decided to finally give George Eliot a go.

I began reading and thought:

“Okay, so Middlemarch has one of the best written opening paragraphs in fiction. Not a bad start.”

I kept reading.

“Right, so Middlemarch has one of the most gorgeous opening pages in fiction. This is a great start.”

I kept reading.

Three weeks later, after forcing myself to take the novel slowly—I wanted to savour the experience—I was in love with Middlemarch in a way I have been in love with very few books. Yes, that’s a melodramatic way of describing how certain books can make you feel. In my experience, it’s also an accurate one.

The omniscient narrator gives us an all-encompassing view of life which only 19th century novels can pull off with such lightness. I’ve recently become fascinated with authors who can truly create multiple personalities within a single novel; David Mitchell and Susan Barker are great examples of this rare talent, but if they’re chameleons then George Eliot was a shape-shifter.

Young, old, handsome, homely; poor; rich; there’s no one Eliot can’t write fully fleshed. She was absurdly talented at expressing the intricacies and individualities of humanity, and she did so without demonizing those who held views likely extraordinarily different to her own.

This is by far the least plot-driven book to sit on my favourites’ shelf; the actual events are small scale by design. That small acts can have huge implications for those we live with is one of Eliot’s central conceits, but this means it’s difficult to express what makes this book special succinctly. George Eliot describes this feeling of the gap between experience and explanations better than I can, unsurprisingly. Near the end of the novel, Celia asks Dorothea to explain just how a surprising relationships came about:

“Can’t you tell me?” said Celia, settling her arms cozily.

“No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.

 

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.

Enduring Love by Ian McEwan – Review

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“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.

 

Number9Dream by David Mitchell – Review

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A Japanese teenager named Eiji Miyake is searching Tokyo for his father, the man that abandoned him at birth. Eiji thinks he’s cursed, has no money, no street smarts, and no clear plan to follow for either this quest or his life. The city he’s moved to changes from sunny business area to Yakuza infested red-light district—drenched in neon, alcohol, and shadow—at the turn of a street corner. He thinks his father might be a scum-bag. His apartment has cockroaches.

Things are not going well.

Fortunately, he has the help of a cat, a girl with a perfect neck, a crude landlord, and a slimy hacker to keep him sane, amidst intrigue, vivid dreams, and crushing guilt from his childhood that he can push down but never really ignore.

Number9dream is the kind of book that, if it connects with you, you will fall inside it and get happily lost there. The heat of Tokyo, the heartbreak of losing a twin, the desperation to find a parent: you feel these things in your chest rather than your head, the mark of a well-crafted story.

The writing is gorgeous but dense in a way that Mitchell shies away from in much of his other work. I don’t mean dense in terms of difficulty; Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet are more challenging from a stylistic point of view. The density is due to how many of Eiji Miyake’s thoughts Mitchell packs into only one book; you may come away with the impression that you’ve lived a full nineteen-years in someone else’s head. There are tangents and diversions, but ultimately this novel is about what makes this young boy tick.

Number9Dream meanders through strange and difficult experiences, and the writing has page-long paragraphs that immerse you by switching between topics in an instant and ensuring you way attention and stay invested. The absurd and mundane are stirred together, as are reality and dreams: you don’t know when one ends and the other begins, but you’re sure to be surprised when you figure it out.

There’s a desperate search for identity and meaning, and a very twenty-first century rejection of easy answers to difficult questions. Miyake tries to be pro-active and dictate his fate, but the city of Tokyo has other plans for him, and throws him into one bizarre and dangerous situation after another. He doesn’t have an ounce of control, something many might find frustrating in a protagonist—but not me; this kept me interested to see what this novel’s universe, rather than characters, had in store.

According to Wikipedia (an always reliable source), this book draws heavily from Haruki Makumari. I’ve tried Makumari before and found him—specifically his novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—dry and frustratingly vague. The comparisons of Number9Dream to his work, though, have made me think that I overlooked something special, and so I’ll be picking up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle soon. I don’t want to miss out if I could be reading another novel like this one.

Foundation: The History of England [Volume 1] by Peter Ackroyd – Review

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I recently had the realisation that I grew up in England, went to school in England, got a history degree in England… and yet was embarrassingly ignorant about how this country actually formed. I’d absorbed the basics of life since the Tudors, sure—those years had been hammered into my head by patient teachers in between naps—but what about how people had actually settled this land in the first place? Why had the Roman Empire spent so many resources to keep such a small, soggy island? What the hell did Richard the Lionheart actually do, aside from something something Crusades mumble mumble and his brief appearance in Disney’s Robin Hood?

So, I decided to remedy this, and picked up Foundation by Peter Ackroyd. This book has a lot of ambition. It wants to fold a country inside of its pages, and as such it’s light on detail but heavy on content. If fitting the total history of a country onto five hundred pieces of paper—15,000 BC to the modern day—sounds impossible, that’s because it is. There aren’t gaps in content here so much as caverns. That’s acceptable with pop-history, though, and if you crack the spine of this thing with managed expectations you’ll get an impressive outline of how England became England.

There are annoying interjections at times, with Ackroyd making assertions and declarations that scream out for explanation. You’ll be reading about a random Royal or Important Figure, and Ackroyd will casually mention how they boiled they boiled children, or fought a bear, or caught syphilis from a nun (I might be exaggerating the ridiculousness of some of these slightly, but not as much as you might think). And then quickly move on. “Wait!” the reader cries out. “Tell us more about the damn nun!” Nope, back to agriculture we go.

Every issue I had with this book came down to  the same lack of depth, which is extremely unfair of me considering that Ackroyd’s breezy approach to history is why I bothered to pick this up in the first place. There are fascinating details scattered throughout, and Ackroyd is an adept storyteller. His writing occasionally bordered on too melodramatic for my taste, but that may just be because I trudged through enough dry history books during university that I’ve developed a tolerance for dullness.

If you want a crash course in this weird little country of ours, Foundation is a promising place to start. It’s flagrantly unacademic, and as such gets a bit carried away with sweeping statements about some complicated issues, but that’s part of why it stays enjoyable; go in expecting to take some passages with a pinch of salt and you’ll be more than satisfied.

White Noise by Don Dellilo – Review

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“Mainly we looked at people in other cars, trying to work out from their faces how frightened we should be.”

White Noise, the 1980s television obsessed fever-dream of a novel by Don Dellilo, is a confusing read. It has a lot in common with other books from this era — a fixation with pop-culture, for one — but is an original and satisfying read thanks to both its great writing and pointed satire.

In a lot of postmodern novels, a quick way to sum-up the protagonist would be to say that they’re incapable of truly loving someone. That they can’t escape their own head, their own narcissism. Jack, the protagonist of White Noise, isn’t like that. At least, not entirely. That’s part of why this book is much more affecting than other novels which try for a similar tone. Jack’s a caring father and husband; emotionally stunted, yes, with a brain warped by the deeply confusing consumer-obsessed society around him, but we still feel for him because he’s clearly a very confused man who means well. We pity him, too, because like everyone else in this novel he’s searching for meaning, and like everyone else in this novel he’s unlikely to find it.

I found Delillo through a biography of David Foster Wallace, where he was named as one of Wallace’s major influences (overshadowing even Pynchon). That was true; you can see echoes of Wallace’s distaste for television, along with the educated characters who try to communicate with others only to end up talking nonsense.  What I found fascinating, though, was how well this book has aged — it’s over thirty years old, and the absurd plot-lines, characters and humour are still fresh. This can probably be attributed to its ridiculously well-crafted sentences, which make reading even well-trod ideas a treat.

It gave me the feeling that gears were turning inside my own head, whirring and pondering new plot-lines and parables. This confusion was intentional on Dellilo’s part: the reader is trying to to make sense out of senselessness, trying to find music in noise. But there’s nothing there; it’s just static. It’s worth pointing out that White Noise is also hilarious, though. If it doesn’t sound like a comedy, that’s because it’s just funny like Louis CK’s show Louie is funny: it points out absurdities and pointlessness in society and makes you laugh despite yourself. In other words, it’s a black, black comedy.

I kept jotting notes while reading White Noise; it was like a compulsion. Every chapter raised new questions but never handed out answers, and that’s something that I’ve found tiresome and trite in other novels. Dellilo is funny enough that the book never stops being enjoyable, and smart enough that you come away with a lot of interesting ideas, even if it may take a while to piece them all together.

Euphoria by Lily King – Review

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“You don’t realise how language actually interferes with communication until you don’t have it, how it gets in the way like an overdominant sense.”

Margaret Mead was an incredible woman who lived an unconventional life, and pioneered what we today call anthropology; she rocketed the science into the public eye from academic obscurity and disinterest. Euphoria, by Lily King, is partly based on Mead’s time with native tribes near the Sepik River in New Guinea, and her turbulent romantic life there. In this novel, three scientists, one suicidal and the other two damaged in more subtle ways, are trying to unravel the cultures of a number of tribes in New Guinea while battling their own lust, anger, and depression.

Primal human urges are the centre-point of this story and the novel attempts to tackle some big themes, such as what it means to be a human, and how far Western society has really been able to move past what was often considered “primitive” morality systems. This a vivid and often engrossing tale, too, with an intense sexuality and the threat of violence constantly hovering over the events depicted. Unfortunately, King’s interesting observations about the nature of societies are stapled onto a love triangle which feels far more generic yet prominent than the ideas surrounding it.

The writing has some sentences which crackle with real inspiration, but also a number of tics that keep it from being truly stellar. For instance, King has an irritating tendency towards repetition at the end of her sentences, a stylistic flourish that comes across as clunky rather than poetic.

The few moments we spend with tribal characters overshadow the main cast. When anthropology and its capacity to give insight into human nature is at the forefront, King shines; ironically, however, when it comes to exploring individual characters rather than society as a whole, things get iffy.

The characters are multifaceted and engaging to watch bounce off each other. King excels at witty dialogue, and makes you buy a burgeoning romance and another which is on the decline. There are, however, melodramatically tragic back-stories which may as well have had “Freudian excuse” in bold red letters across the pages where they were being explored. It’s not that these back-stories to be unrealistically tragic; in fact, they’re carefully modelled on Mead and company’s biographies. It’s the way they are brought up as a way to explain a character’s actions rather than to help us understand them better. There’s no subtext here, just text, and we are informed how their histories have damaged the people we are reading about rather than being allowed to figure them out for ourselves. This gave a soap opera tinge to an otherwise carefully put together story, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but due to the focus it take this gives Euphoria a tonal inconsistency due to the more fascinating and mostly restrained sections with the native tribes.

There are a number of moments where we are given hints, or outright told, what happens after these characters leave the jungle, and so the ending feels incomplete and anti-climatic due to a rather abrupt ending that left a large number of questions unanswered. Still, there were some vivid descriptions and interesting character dynamics on display in Euphoria. Just don’t expect to come away completely satisfied.

Herzog by Saul Bellow – Review

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“For Christ’s sake don’t cry, you idiot! Live or die, but don’t poison everything.”

Writing negative reviews is difficult for me. I used to wonder why, since many of the most purely entertaining reviews I’d read bordered on mean-spirited. They used sarcasm to cut through bloated novels and reveal the weakness in prose, storytelling and character development underneath the pomp.

The more I read, though, and the more I go back and consider the novels I’ve enjoyed after smart, convincing differing opinions which don’t sway one iota of my love for books others hate, I become less and less convinced of any universally ‘good’ novel. There are only ones which let me feel something that is (I know, barf) true, powerful, affecting.

I have picked up books with stunning prose, well-thought out characters, and exciting dialogue, which for whatever reason never connected with me. Herzog by Saul Bellow is one of these. It’s an honest, erudite, and beautifully written journey with a character I loathe travelling with — and this doesn’t feel by design, like with novels about genuine misanthropics like Notes from Underground.

Herzog explores New York of the 1950s a very particular mind-set: a frustrated, Jewish, middle-class and divorced professor. It feels as though every page of Herzog is stuffed with obscure allusions, metaphysics, ornate descriptions, and even more obscure history. These are stereotypically considered some elements of an “important” book: it wants to encompass a whole world in its pages, its extremely erudite, and it expects you to keep up and not complain. Something in the mixture ruined Herzog’s flavour, however.

I felt pity for Moses Herzog, but not appreciation, because I thought the way he looked at the world — and the way I couldn’t help but feel the novel itself endorsed, through its romanticization of this confused, pathetic man. The revelations and story here certainly feels authentic as a character, but this novel has made me realise that I don’t think authenticity is necessarily a virtue in a writer. For example, Lovecraft was being “authentic” in his portrayal of other races with regard to his own prejudices. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticise those prejudices while still appreciating other aspects of his work.

There were things I liked about the novel, the prose particularly, but some of the views being espoused weren’t just outdated (I read Roth recently and thought he found the humour in his generation’s attitudes to gender) — they were spiteful.

Herzog feels like a satire on misogyny written by someone who didn’t understand his own joke. The presentation of Madeleine (who, had she been a man, would have been twirling her moustache), clearly based on Bellow’s actual ex-wife, is simply bitter to read about in an uncomfortable and uncompelling way. It was like having a stranger on the bus rant about what a monster his ex wife is. Romana, Herzog’s new girlfriend, was kind, but her need to please seemed to come from a place of supplication, as almost an apology for her promiscuity earlier in her life — there was one paragraph where Herzog made that point explicitly. Every female character feels like they have been solely defined by the world around them, and so lack the interesting interior lives afforded to the men.

Bellow once mused that “if you opened up a modern mind with a saw things would tumble out in every direction. You pitch yourself headlong into mental chaos and make your own way from there.” This book is mental chaos, but not in the fascinating, LSD-infused chaos of Pynchon; it’s bitterness and learning in equal measure spurted into the face of the world. But there’s real art here, insightful or funny lines that ultimately failed to move me because of the slog of a novel they were surrounded by:

“He wondered at times whether he didn’t belong to a class of people secretly convinced they had an arrangement with fate; in return for docility or ingenuous good will they were to be shielded from the worst brutalities in life.”

This book was simply so far from my tastes that, despite the strengths of the prose, picking up towards the end filled me with actual dread. It’s strange, though, because even while reading and not enjoying the book at all, I could understand why others might love it. The only novel I’ve had a similar experience with was The Corrections, which was at least self aware about how melodramatic and bombastic it could be. Oh well.

Slade House by David Mitchell

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“Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

Slade House is a lovely looking home. People come from all over to visit, and it has two wonderful hosts. There’s a catch, though: it shouldn’t exist, and the people who enter never leave.

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If you feel like you’ve heard that summary before, that’s the point.

It’s safe to say haunted houses are firmly established as the great places for creepiness in stories. They’re the go-to for ghosts. With Slade House, though, Mitchell veers closer to the fantasy of Lev Grossman than, say, the difficult to comprehend horrors of House of Leaves, which may surprise readers due to the setting.

This isn’t a frightening novel; it’s not really trying to be. It wants to excite, and does so with spellbinding ease. The pages practically turn by themselves. Originally posted to Twitter, it’s tightly-plotted and fast-paced, with some great twists and carefully developed characters.

Mitchell’s eye for convincing details from modern England is sharp, and he smoothly draws you into well-trod ground by taking conventions you think you know and twisting them just enough that your expectations are subverted.

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The prose is less ornate than in previous Mitchell works, but still lively and occasionally profound.

The characters are engaging, of various classes and temperaments, and feel fresh, as they are far outside of the traditional haunted-house-protagonists template. It’s gratifying to watch as these characters navigate Slade House thanks to this uniqueness, as you just don’t know how they will react

For example, an autistic teenage boy on Valium finds his nightmares coming to life. How could that not be fascinating?

So why is it so unsatisfying?

~

Despite its strengths, Slade House is unambitious when it comes to anything outside of of trying to excite the reader. It’s like fast food when you were expecting a three-course meal: still tasty, but lacking in nutrition, and unsatisfying if you were licking your lips in anticipation of prime-rib steak. The narrative and thematic weight which anchors Mitchell’s other books just isn’t here.

It’s difficult to examine why I was left so unsatisfied without going into the ending, so consider this a warning for spoilers.

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Having your supernatural menace be defeated stopped by a never-before-seen hero entirely unknown to the reader is far too close to a Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. Marinus’ appearance may not be surprising to readers who have already finished The Bone clocks, but it’s tonally inconsistent and jargon-loaded.

With such an incredibly powerful protagonist to end with, events which lead up to the character Marinus’ become comparatively pointless. He’s a psychic demi-god, basically; we aren’t relieved when he defeats evil because he expect it.

Normal people don’t matter to the climax of this book. Prior attempts to save themselves without magical assistance were made to seem important, like the dropping of a character’s hairpin, but compared to Marinus’ overwhelming superpowers they simply weren’t.

Any clever solution is shoved aside in favour of psycho-voltage explosions.

The Grayers were particularly fearsome antagonists because their methods were mystical, but their desire for immortality was  understandable. Extraordinary people with selfish motivations being defeated everyday people with extraordinary motivations (i.e. love, peace, and all that jazz) would have been thematically and narratively satisfying.

Instead, we get a psychic showdown. Exciting, but not particularly rewarding.

This ending, put simply, lets out all the novel’s carefully built tension and makes it flop like a deflated balloon.