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.

 

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.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens – Review

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Learning to Love Dickens. 

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

Until David Copperfield, I had never finished a Charles Dickens book. As a teenager I managed three pages of Great Expectations before throwing it down in a huff. I must have really hated those three pages, because I went the next ten years convinced, not just that I didn’t like Great Expectations, but that I didn’t like Charles Dickens.

This was a fairly stupid thing to believe considering I’d only read around 0.0001% of his total work, but it was one that stuck for a long time. It only took two pages of David Copperfield for me to realize that I’d been missing out. His words can practically produce sparks in your brain.

A young David Copperfield is orphaned and left in the charge of his evil step-father. We watch him run away, come back, fall in love, make some intensely stupid decisions, and, finally, grow up. Think Harry Potter, if instead of becoming a wizard he tries to become a lawyer and novelist. It’s also much more interesting than that last sentence makes it sound.

When older novels are fun, there are normally some hefty conditions. “Fun, but“s, put another way. Classics can suffer from the sheer amount of time that’s passed since their release, and the humour comes across as antiquated and cliche. Dickens, however, is funny, not in spite of the age he comes from but because of it. He saw as much absurdity in the Victorian society as a modern man who time traveled would do.

Money and its numerous stresses keep the novel relevant to our modern bank-and-debt dominated society. There’s a great moment where Mr Micawber gives some basic but much needed financial (Micawber doesn’t listen to himself in this regard), for instance:

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

Tears are shed (frequently). David is almost angelic when he’s young, but the slow creep of maturity mixed with naivete let him be taken advantage of constantly. It’s sad to see him become more aware of predatory ways, but his innocence withers slowly, so it’s like a child learning that Father Christmas isn’t real over the course of decades.

Dickens digs through the archaic aspects of his society and finds the universal struggles of his characters, who are obviously archetypal but bubbling with enough energy and complexity that you have become intensely invested in them by the end of the book. Archaic institutions likes debtors prisons and Doctors’ Commons feel convoluted yet familiar, and while houses made from boats and ridiculous names might come across as over-the-top, but part of the fun of this novel is letting the melodrama wash over you.

It’s gooey and occasionally sickeningly sweet, but in a good way, like chocolate. The bad guys might as well twirl their mustaches and many of the good characters practically have halos, but there are also keen observations about the horrors of industrial life and the nature of modern existence; think Dostoevsky combined with Disney. There’s no denying that’s this is an over the top novel, but it’s bloody fun too if you’ve got some patience.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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“Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.”

The Bone Clocks is a decade-spanning fantasy novel about the lies and justifications that result in evil. It has psychics, dimension hopping, and immortal soul-suckers, but everything turns back to the question of why people hurt each other.

Age and its numerous horrors haunt a large cast of characters, and constant time-jumps means their rapid declines become a worry for the reader too. Years fall away like leaves from a dying tree until, before you know it, the people Mitchell is making you care about are rotting in the ground. This gives the previously mentioned immortal soul-suckers some nice thematic resonance.

The characters are, as should be expected with Mitchell, the sturdiest part of this novel’s foundations aside from the handsome prose. Mitchell can make someone flawed but empathetic, and in this the case, the nastier they are the more fun they seem to be to read. More than once I thought, “How have I grown to love this character? They’re a bastard.” They’re rarely unrepentant bastards, though. Combine this internal intrigue with Mitchell’s sharp sense of humour and it’s easy to stay interested.

Your expectations for each section are adjusted as the stories go on. For example, a war reporter was the narrator in one of strongest parts of the novel, but not because of firefights or battle scenes. His struggles back in rural England were about parenthood, and addressed the fear of losing a child in a way that was visceral. I felt my stomach tense over and over again, and this all informed the rest of the novel (which explores a number of strained parental relationships) in interesting ways.

There’s a seriousness about the fantasy narrative that make moments comic relief welcome. The rude, self-obsessed author was an on-the-nose parody of Martin Amis (Mitchell has denied this… but I don’t believe him), and his desperation and self-pity reminded me of Timothy Cavendish’s farcical appearance in Cloud Atlas; the former’s story was more poignant than the latter, though, due to the sad transformation we watched Hershey go through as he aged.

There’s not a lack of personality on display here, then. The problems come back to the plot and pacing.

The structure is less controlled than in Mitchell’s other works. Only the fifth section delves into this War, which is more disconnected from everyday life than the rest of the novel (even the sixth part’s dystopian future), although Mitchell wisely keeps the stakes in this supernatural conflict low scale, at least relative to most fantasy. There are, fortunately, no feeble references to magical macguffins which might destroy the world: a Capital-W-War is ongoing over the right of a small group of powerful people to prey on the weak for sustenance, and this ties back to the way death looms above human lives. It’s interesting, but rushed. The descriptions are less grounded. Instead of just pushing people away with their minds, or something equally simple (if hokey), “[Horologists] pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it [their] assailants”. It feels as though you’ve been blasted into a parody of the earlier, far more restrained musings on the supernatural.

I’m all for ambitious fantasy, but there has to be a balance which The Bone Clocks never manages. The quotidian and the supernatural are firmly kept apart until the later sections, where they merge unsatisfactorily. This is particularly frustrating as Mitchell excelled at combining the genres in other novels. Still, I don’t think a writer who melded the supernatural and mundane as well as the writer of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet would make a change so obviously jarring without specific intentions in mind. The over-the-top elements could even be read as a challenge to “traditional literature” readers who might normally dismiss a novel solely because of its genre. Mitchell would have known all of these elements would alienate people, even if he was hoping they would meld more smoothly than they did.

When it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work, but for the majority of its pages I was enthralled. It’s flawed, but not much more so than Ghostwritten—Mitchell’s first novel, often cited as his second-best—as that novel had a jarring sci-fi element, which paralleled my problems with this book. This is a roundabout way of saying I’d rather dive into a very flawed but ambitious novel by Mitchell than a more consistent work by 90% of the living authors I’ve read.

On Writing by Stephen King

“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”

Books on writing often start with the strange assumption that the reader is already wonderfully disciplined, and merely needs guidance in regards to adjectives and paragraph structure. King is more helpful. He explains the nuts and bolts of his trade rather than the just the tweaks needed to finished products. He takes the time to dispel myths about the magic of ‘inspiration’ as the cause of good stories, and encourages you to approach the craft in the way of a carpenter: it can be difficult, yes, but once you’ve learned the tools of the trade the most useful thing you can do is sit at your desk every morning.

King’s books do not crave being taken seriously, they merely hope that they are. They embrace some ridiculous premises, and are happy to sit on genre shelves while their creator bathes in money, but if you approach them with trust they are often refreshingly honest portraits of very strange situations. This makes him the perfect person to explain the actual process of fiction writing, as he avoids romantic ruminations which impede serious discussion of what should be, above all else, hard work.

King is above all practical, but also infectiously enthusiastic. His love for the craft shines through, and his focus on the joy of his job makes you able to take him more seriously when he talk about the difficulties.