Nutshell by Ian McEwan – Review

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“It’s already clear to me how much of life is forgotten even as it happens. Most of it. The unregarded present spooling away from us, the soft tumble of unremarkable thoughts, the long-neglected miracle of existence.”

A murder-mystery novel from the point of view of a foetus would have been a concept bizarre enough to get my attention, even if it hadn’t been written by Ian “My Prose is Fucking Immaculate” McEwan. Unfortunately, this novel left me frustrated and annoyed despite some incredible strengths from a stylistic point of view.

The writing is stellar; the characters are generally well-drawn, if slightly flat; however, the potential of an unusual narrator — a young foetus seeing the world from fresh eyes — is disregarded.

Instead of merely brushing aside the issue of an intelligent foetus narrator and jumping joyfully into magical realism, there is the groan-worthy (if slightly tongue in cheek) explanation that his mother listens to a lot of Radio 4 and podcasts. Explaining something which can have no satisfying logical explanation just draws readers out of the world that’s been created; it would have been far better if this hadn’t even been addressed. McEwan should have had trust that the reader would have come on this journey with him regardless of its internal logic, because logic is simply not something most engaged readers pick up literature for. Ingenuity should always trump believability.

Still, I was hopeful for an interesting perspective on the world even if things were off to a stilted start. Then the foetus develops a taste for wine, and rhapsodises on the subject endlessly. He despises bores, and is a fierce proponent of science. He also is apparently very invested in what goes on inside campus colleges in America. That was when I realised that this foetus has the personality of upper-class sixty-eight year old writer named Ian McEwan. It’s frankly bizarre and more than a little lazy.

McEwan’s prose is sparkling as always, flying between topics, but this actually works against the novel. Its basic conceit is one of a helpless infant watching his family collapse into murder, and yet he is always acute and rational about everything that’s happening, draining away any sense of helplessness.

So the dissonant tone was something I couldn’t get over, although it did warrant reflection on other books which did unusual narrative perspectives justice. Flowers for Algernon and The Sound and The Fury, for example, are both heavily described from a mentally underdeveloped point of view, but feel no less complex or rich in subtext because of this: the stilted grammar and spelling used in both acted as a way to make us appreciate the desperation of someone who wasn’t able to communicate effectively. The narrator of Nutshell is trapped inside his own mother, with nothing but kicks as a way to talk to her, yet he never feels alive (and not in a clever meta way as a comment on what it must be like to be a foetus); there’s no true fear or even raw emotion, and so there’s little investment on the part of the reader.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t engaged at points, though. The structure of the novel combines with the as-mentioned intensely readable prose to make the book satisfying to glide through, although I’ll never feel the urge to pick it up again. It ultimately comes across as masturbatory on the part of the author, a writer of incredible ability who simply couldn’t be bothered to stretch himself too far from the norm while still wanting to put on a façade of experimentation.

If an author chooses an unusual protagonist, the difficulties this might entail in regards to prose need to be embraced. Half-hearted an interesting premise with rote stylization is just a waste.

The North Water by Ian McGuire – Review

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“He will not die, he tells himself, not now, not ever. When he is thirsty, he will drink his own blood; when he is hungry, he will eat his own flesh. He will grow enormous from the feasting, he will expand to fill the empty sky.”

Sumner, a disgraced surgeon with a murky history, is aboard a whaling ship bound for the North Sea. He is in desperate need of relief from the horrors and disgrace he endured during a war in India, and seeks escape; as conspirators and murderers work beneath the decks of The Volunteer, however, and with the ship going deeper and deeper into dangerous, icy waters, peace begins to seem like a very distant prospect.

The difficulty of living with modern (delicate) sensibilities in a world where brutality is needed to survive is laid bare in The North Water. As the scale of the crew’s corruption begins to trouble our protagonist, his own demons rise. Fascinating characterisation of a cast who would be easy to despise in a less well-written novel mean that you are never allowed to become numb or bored by their constant struggles and squabbles, despite the almost absurd frustrations characters trudge through.

There’s a heavy dose violence, but the novel rarely tries to shock you with gore. Descriptions of brutalities (which are common) are kept simple, but this directness makes the story feel grounded despite a number of truly mind-wrenching horrors. This also makes it gratifying when McGuire allows himself a bit of indulgence and lets loose a page or two of utterly stunning prose.

From the opening chapter, it’s clear McGuire was heavily influenced by Cormac McCarthy: the curt sentences, the blending of cruel and disturbing subject matter with elevated prose, the near sociopathic characters, the matter-of-fact dominance of nature over man. I love Cormac McCarthy, but his imitators rarely come off well by comparison. When a writer has mastered their craft, any attempt to copy their style often comes across as faintly embarrassing and pity-inducing; it’s like watching someone copy the Sistine Chapel on a bit of cardboard using crayons. Fortunately, McGuire brings a heady dose of introspection which makes his novel feel more contemplative than McCarthy’s almost inhumanly grand epics.

The North Water is, simply put, outstanding. The structure is masterful, edging you towards the climax without cliché trappings typical of page-turners as the foreshadowing and layers of mystery build on top of each other until the final, devastating act. There’s more here than just thrills, however: horror, ingenuity, and redemption are melded by beautiful prose. Pick it up and let the cold sink into your bones.

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster – Review

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“It is easy to sympathize at a distance,” said an old gentleman with a beard. “I value more the kind word that is spoken close to my ear.”

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster has a well-known premise: suspicion between cultures creates a misunderstanding, which creates tragedy, which creates anger, which creates more tragedy, and so on. It’s the sympathetic way the narrator explores the minds of characters from across the spectrum of wealth, class and race in colonized India that sets it apart almost a century on from publication.

The novel is set in the 1920s, when the British Raj has an intense distrust of a native Indian population in the town of Chandrapore. Their suspicion is a self fulfilling prophecy: the natives can tell they are already being charged guilty of some yet to be named crime, and so walk on eggshells; they know they can’t expect any benefit of the doubt if they put one foot out of line of what their new rulers consider ‘proper’ behaviour. Pushback in such a repressive environment seems almost inevitable.

This  distrust creates a gulf which can only be crossed with great difficulty, and it’s the occasionally disastrous attempts at friendship of the native doctor Aziz, a melodramatic but affectionate man, and the tolerant British headmaster Fielding which drive this novel. Aziz is accused of a horrific crime by Adela, a sheltered young British woman who is the soon-to-be daughter in law of Mrs. Moore, whom Aziz greatly admires. They all try to come together with good faith, but suspicions over any interactions between natives and the British create an environment fraught with risk for any who step slightly out of line.

It’s a powerful but slow-paced novel, and around two-thirds of the way in I thought was let down by a lack of commitment to the perspectives of Indians, and though that less time with stuffy Englishmen and more time with frustrated natives would have done the novel some good. The final book (the novel is split into three) addresses this and is the strongest section by far, closing the novel with one of the most hopeful yet heartbreaking chapters I can remember reading. I’m a sucker for any story which focuses on empathy as a theme (hence my recent love for the film Arrival), but there are enough layers here to keep any patient modern reader invested. Just don’t expect a page-turner; this is a slow burn, but it’s worth the effort.

Augustus by John Williams

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“It is fortunate that youth never recognizes its ignorance, for if it did it would not find the courage to get the habit of endurance. It is perhaps an instinct of the blood and flesh which prevents this knowledge and allows the boy to become the man who will live to see the folly of his existence.”

Augustus by John Williams retells the history of Gaius Octavius Thurinus, a young Roman nobleman who was the named heir of Julius Caesar. Stepping into a world of assassination, corruption and war, we read from the perspective of a large number of people as he attempts to remake the world as he sees fit. The world, however, makes those who strive for greatness pay a heavy price.

Despite the enormous power Augustus wields, what makes this novel interesting is the presentation of such an extraordinary person as relatable and sympathetic. This is an undoubtedly smart man who seizes circumstance with great skill, but is ultimately just a man despite pretensions to Godhood; he’s no more powerful or pitiable when left alone with his regrets than anyone else.

It’s impossible for me not to make comparisons with William’s prior novel Stoner, which I finished recently and thought was a masterpiece. Augustus is understandably very different in tone; it’s like taking in a bombastic orchestra after enjoying an intimate show by a single man with a guitar. Yet this still feels like the more warm novel of the two despite the grand scale and bloody subject matter; themes revolve around failure like in Stoner, yes, but there is a stronger focus on friendship and politics, with a warm humanism about the former and exasperation with the latter.

This novel is about Augustus as a man, yes, but is also about the way experience carves a person out of the mountain of their hopes and ambitions, discarding the rubble we used to see as our innate self. In other words: no matter how hard you try, the world and its coincidences and tragedies will shape you far more than you can ever shape it in return.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Review

“We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.”

On a cold night floating on the Thames, Charles Marlow regales his shipmates with the tale of his encounter with Kurtz. This was a man with what many saw as natural greatness, yet on an ivory expedition in Africa he was swept up in corruption and madness.

There are (likely unintentional) echoes of Melville in the heightened language and mangy characters, but where Melville used his beautiful prose to elevate you to the skies, Conrad pushes your face into the dirt. His descriptions of Africa and the long river the characters journey down are so vivid that, much like in The Drowned World by Ballard, heat seems to radiate from the pages. It’s almost enough to make you sweat.

There’s also an impressive tension which permeates the book; while the description of Africa itself is a twisted caricature of the continent, often veering into colonialist wet-dream, cutting dialogue and a constant sense of danger means that character interactions are always fascinating.

The very last section, which isn’t even set in Africa, is the most interesting. This may be because Conrad is far more engaging when he’s writing about people in general rather than specific individuals, as with the latter his tendency for caricature again shows its head (although Kurtz is an exception).

During a scene with Kurtz’s wife, it becomes obvious Marlow will live a life contaminated by the darkness both he and Kurtz immersed themselves in when they went into a foreign land with little sense of danger. Marlow went to Africa just to travel along a snakelike river, but the serpent bit him and the poison will never leave his blood. He saw the continent, and the people inside of it, as something incidental to his own personal journey, and was punished for his naïveté. Conrad makes it clear that corruption and violence never quite leave those who encounter it. The taint will always be in the back of the mind, whispering.

Stoner by John Williams – Review

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“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

William Stoner is a university professor with little ambition who walks through the world as though bracing against a strong and cutting wind. When he sits at a desk, it is too small for him; when he puts on clothes, the cuffs are too tight; after marriage, he discovers his wife is as bad a fit as most everything else in his life. His life is a slow, quiet trudge through ill ease.

This is a novel which is sad and tender, moving you over an emotional cliff face with a gentle touch and then watching you fall with pity.

It’s odd then that it’s such a joy to read.

The charming and meticulous prose surely helps. You can feel the effort and thought put into each sentence radiating from the pages:

“He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.”

Williams has the gift of being incredibly erudite without excluding readers. There are few allusions to outside texts (or at least ones the reader needs to know to understand), and the language rarely uses in obscure words or references. Instead, word choices are so meticulous, and each sentence flows into the next with such delicacy, that this is writing which is simply awe inspiring.

William Stoner is big-hearted in the meek Midwestern way, and thus intensely loveable, so the attachment I and so many other readers have formed with him shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet it’s unusual for a protagonist to be so passive, and  strange how the petty acts of cruelty against him made me angrier than acts of pure evil in other novels. His timidity pushes a theme of isolation and endurance in a cruel world, and this may be what makes small moments all the more affecting.

Other characters are created and carefully cast aside by the author, but never forgotten by the reader. Dave Masters, for example, appears for maybe ten pages at a stretch yet has lodged himself more firmly in my mind than the protagonists from many other novels.

So this book is hardly plot heavy and has none of the hallmarks of what could be considered a page-turner, yet I didn’t want to stop reading. It gives you with the kind of warmth William Stoner longs for in literature and which makes me grateful as a reader, and so now I’ve finished I’ve already ordered another John Williams novel to light the same sort of fire in my chest.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Part 1) – Review

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“He said something enormously charged and meaningful about death, the tone was resigned and laconic, but not without irony, and I thought I will have to remember this, this is important, I’ll have to remember this for the rest of my life, but by the time we were in the car on our way home along the Hardanger fjord I had forgotten.”

The dedication it takes to lay yourself out as freely as Knausgaard does is staggering. He displays parts of his mind that I keep behind a wall from nearly everyone. He’s not unselfconscious – he seems to care deeply for what others think of him – but has merely allowed himself to feel the shame of others’ eyes on his most intimate and shameful details and not shrink from them.

In the spirit of this novel, here’s an embarrassing confession:

I’m intensely jealous, in a stomach-clenching and shamefully angry way that I haven’t felt since I finished Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, of Knausgaard’s ability to write. Not the sweet kind of jealousy that pushes me to work, but the kind that takes over when I’m reading something that’s not just good — it’s something that I could never even attempt.

This is closer to what is normally thought of as a memoir than a novel, but the style borrows heavily from Proust. There is no plot, just a man with a father whose father just died. The prose is what keeps you engaged, as it is somehow both threadbare and grandious at the same time. Knausgaard allows his writing to freely drift from subject to subject, and his lack of devotion to plot allows him to be far more accurate in portray the fluctuating nature of the human mind than nearly any novel could be. It’s as though he’s trying to figure the world out with you.

I picked this up out of curiosity, and if you had told me that I would want to read the whole series (six novels) after finishing, I would have laughed. But every few pages, I found myself thinking the cliche thought that normally pops up only once every dozen novels or so: “I didn’t know anyone else thought this way.” Knausgaard doesn’t shy from unflattering moments and musings. He depicts the selfish inclinations of the human brain in everyday situations without the cloying rationalisation that frequents memoirs or the works of Eggers, and because of that stays absolutely fascinating  even when he’s doing nothing more than describing his day cleaning his dead father’s house.

The Fall by Albert Camus – Review

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“A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.”

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist and Absurdist, lived what many would describe as an eventful life. He fought in the French resistance during World War 2, won a Nobel prize before he was fifty, and essentially founded a philosophical movement which still holds sway today. As his legions of fans over the last century would tell you, although probably not with this phrase, he was an unquestionable badass who lived by his convictions.

It’s therefore striking how often his work focuses on the unexceptional. His characters are not naturally brave and strong; they are ordinary men put in difficult circumstances which are nonetheless everyday: disease, melancholy, death.

The subject matter of The Fall, as with much of Camus’ work, could be fairly called depressing. On the surface, it’s the tale of a fallen socialite with a lot to say about the nature of truth and self-deception. You’re at a bar one night (the novel is a second-person narrative) and a stranger wants to tell you about his life as a judge-penitent. You don’t know him, or have any way of verifying if he’s speaking the truth. He seems arrogant, but intriguing. Do you listen?

After watching a woman commit suicide one day, this man found his mind slowly unravelling. He didn’t try to stop her. He didn’t even move. The world has shown him that he is ordinary and selfish. He’s come to some radical conclusions about the universe in the last few years, so listen up.

Camus’ tone is as witty and dry as ever, and due to the abundant grin-worthy aphorisms this novel almost works as a black comedy. The narrator is so melodramatic and slimy that it’s extremely entertaining if seemingly bleak. Deception is a running theme in his tale, and you question just what you’re being told is true and if that even really matters.

This is the kind of book that doesn’t read well if the reader isn’t willing to grit their teeth and wonder just what the hell the author is trying to get across. Passive readers, much like passive people, don’t have much luck in Camus’ universe. With the short page length, though, it’s worth your time.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon – Review

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“The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”

This seemed like a harrowing if quirky war story. Then things got weird.

I couldn’t decide with how to describe my experience with this novel. It was… unusual. After glancing through the notes I took while reading, I realised that contrasting my early reactions to my later reactions should give a good idea how things went.

Early on:

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Later:

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Much later:

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In the world of Gravity’s Rainbow, kindness is rare and cruelty is common yet absurd. Humans are constantly attempting to transcend both their physical and mental limits through sex, magic, and physics, and almost always fail; put another way, the characters are a variety of horny Icarus’s. Slothrop, an American in London during World War 2 and the protagonist, can predict rocket-explosions with his penis. He doesn’t realise this, but shadowy organisations around him do, and they want him under their control.

Thomas Pynchon, an American, writes better Englishmen than most English writers. He covers every subject imaginable. His prose can be mind-boggingly sharp; he can be erudite, beautiful and very funny all in one paragraph. He is, in short, brilliant. Brilliant people don’t necessarily write brilliant novels, though, and there were moments reading this where I considered that it might just be an extremely well-researched and well-written prank on readers everywhere.

The twisting sentences and obscure references can be extremely confusing, yes, but as with most difficult things, after prolonged exposure you can adapt and appreciate the challenge. I was really, really enjoying the experience; I wanted to love this book. My favourite moments were when the intensity paused and we were just allowed to breath in the sorrow of the confusing world which Pynchon writes with such wonderful prose: the sad fall of Pökler, who began as a well-intentioned scientist but finished utterly corrupted; anything to-do with Roger Mexico and his desperate love for Jessica, an engaged woman; the tragic tale of Byron the  Bulb, an immortal light-bulb (yes, an immortal light-bulb is a character) who appears almost out of nowhere several-hundred pages in for his own chapter, and then is only mentioned once after. However, touching stories like these were often followed by dozens of pages at a time which I read with a grimace and a strong instinct to throw the book out the window.

I realised I had been wrong in my assumptions about why this book is considered so hard to read around three-hundred pages in. It’s not just because of the challenging language; it’s the subject matter, the horrifying, tragic, fucked up subject matter. I’d never been angry at an author for making me read disgusting scenes before, but this book ‘accomplished’ that. The third time I found myself raging internally against Pynchon for writing something so repugnant but still emotionally affecting, I began to wonder whether this book was even worth the effort I was putting into it.

It was putting my mind through a wringer, and for what?

Well, a lot, as it turns out.

Meaning between one page and the next can be elusive. This novel has intentionally broken narrative cause and effect; events drift in a whirling state so that you will be left confused and occasionally frustrated. Because of this, though, it can make you look at the world around you in a fucked-up but fundamentally altered way for several-hundred pages; if that doesn’t appeal to you, fair enough, but if it does, you’ve got a novel ahead of you which you will likely remember for the rest of your life.

To say I had conflicting feelings while reading is an understatement, but I’m glad I stuck with Gravity’s Rainbow. If you have a strong stomach for, well, everything, it’s more than worth the considerable effort needed to finish it. Just expect to feel like your brain is melting and being rearranged in potentially damaging ways at some point.

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe – Review

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“I felt that pressure of time that is perhaps the surest indication we have left childhood behind.”

The Shadow of the Torturer is an interesting but frustratingly inconsistent book. After a morbid tone for over one-hundred and fifty pages, with musings on the universe and the indifference to horrors such as torture which can be habituated during childhood, the narrator suddenly has a ridiculous monster-cart race through the centre of the city with a horny peasant girl. This was not a smooth or enjoyable tone shift.

Every time something in the novel impressed me it was followed by something objectionable: the world is imaginative while the characters feel stale; the setting is fascinating, but the plotting is tedious; the writing is carefully crafted and a joy to read, while the characters are anything but.

Men and women come across as fundamentally disconnected from events that are unfolding around them, and I don’t think this was a narrative trick to make a point. They react with mute fascination and then swiftly move on from whatever trauma has been inflicted on them just to keep the plot rolling; they become horny instantly because Wolfe would like a sex scene, not because it might be an appropriate human reaction.

The universe of The Shadow of the Torturer is fascinating, and the society we’re introduced to really feels like it could have been around for millennia. It ends up seeming like a hollow ruin instead of a city, however, because it’s inhabited by broad caricatures instead of believable people.