Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams – Review

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“They do the work, and he gets all the money. They think he’s a crook, and he thinks they’re fools. You can’t blame either side; they’re both right.”

In Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams, an attempt to explore nature goes very, very wrong. The majority of this novel takes place in a large, isolated valley in the Colorado mountains. Blistering heat and deathly cold bear down on hunters who have gone into the wilderness searching for buffalo (a species, during this novel’s time period, nearly extinct).

The protagonist is William Andrews, a Harvard drop out in the 1870s gone west because of a longing for nature, solitude, and something more intangible. The same naive instincts which pushed him from his warm home leave him unready for this expedition. Things get difficult, and his mind begins to mimic an automaton focused on nothing but staying alive; concerns like companionship and comfort fall away into snowbanks, and his hands grow hard while his head goes numb.

Though written decades before the idea of Neo-Westerns became common, Butcher’s Crossing has many of the genre-trappings: gruff, often immoral characters; a pitiless view of nature; the idea that greed was a far more powerful motivator in the American push westward than any sort of manifest destiny. Williams, however, approaches the time period and gruff figures with his trademark tenderness, and by casting an understanding eye on this band of hunters, and despite some dabbling in nihilism, the novel finds nobility in desperation.

The snow and distance warp the minds of Andrews’ company too, and a strange sense of freeing detachment came over me in a way few books have let me feel. Williams never allows guiltless romanticization, but he captures what drew so many men into this difficult life in the first place: everyday concerns float away from these men, and subsequently from anyone reading. As a result, and this may sound like an odd description given the harsh subject matter, this novel can be deeply relaxing.

If you let your mind focus and absorb the pages describing what should be tedious drudge work, you’ll find yourself falling into an almost meditative state. This is likely the work of Williams’ prose, which is beautiful and smooth; it enhances the atmosphere while rarely drawing attention to itself with stylistic flourishes. The result is a novel which you will drift through faster than most novels claiming to be ‘page-turners’ while still having your mind guided in powerful directions you could never predict.

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.

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.

The Drowned World by JG Ballard – Review

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Robert Kerans lives in a haze. Heat and self-imposed isolation have his brain turning on itself, twisting into patterns foreign to modern civilisation. London seems to be going backwards in time, becoming engulfed by lizards and enormous plant-life. A world which he is too young to remember is being eaten by a world he is eons too late for.

And then there’s that drumming in his ears, calling him South…

One of the things that  intrigued me about The Drowned World was that if it came out now, its basic premise could cause it to be dismissed by as an on-the-nose and melodramatic eco-parable. Yet here it is, a climate change novel from more than fifty years ago. He had the freedom to go full-throttle about a topic many modern fiction writers would never touch with this sense of inventiveness for fear of seeming insensitive.

Ballard’s prose is evocative of eras long past, lagoons and heat and reptiles, and the post-apocalypse he’s created is an intriguing one. It’s more of a world long forgotten than one created by, say, nuclear war. This novel is, however, a product of its time, for both good and bad. There’s an interesting way in which the fading world acts as a stand in for the British empire: good. The only female character is paper-thin: bad. There’s fascinating conjecture on evolution and the primal nature of humanity: very good! It’s at times painfully colonial, bordering on racist: very, very bad.

It’s also painfully uneven. The first half dry, uneventful but occasionally fascinating hard sci-fi. The second half is some sort of absurd and pre-Lynchian fever dream, which an incredibly powerful ending that has some of the best imagery I’ve read this year. If you can grit your teeth and make it through the bumps in the road, the final pages will justify the time you spent with Ballard here.

The next time you’re cold, pick up The Drowned World. It’s an intense experience which will evoke both heat and an age best buried and leave you glad when there’s snow still falling.

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.

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.