The Rosie Project – Graham Simsion

An amusing take on not fitting in that raises some good questions.

It was a nice surprise that this book is written from the perspective of Don, a high functioning science academic who must likely has Asperger’s syndrome and therefore finds it difficult to empathise with others or feel emotion. He lives with routinised activities (same menu every week), measuring every minute of time and always emphasising the functional over the emotional.

But he also wants a partner, so he embarks on the ‘wife project’ to find a suitable mate. Through a complex questionnaire for prospective candidates and various activities like speed dating, he inadvertently meets Rosie, who was not a recipient of the questionnaire and is not a good ‘match’ but he falls for her. 

The book then tracks the ups and downs of their first few weeks of the them getting to know each other, with him helping her to get a DNA match so she can discover the identity of her father, until he forces himself to conform in order to win her over.

It’s a funny book, nicely written in the style of Don’s brain, and though it’s a bit predictable in the second half it is readable and raises interesting points.

I guess one of the underlying questions in the book is how far we all have to suppress our natural urges in order to conform. Don probably has Aspergers and is therefore a more extreme case, but perhaps we all do it to degrees, consciously or otherwise. 

And a related question, which the book doesn’t answer – but the sequel might – is whether it’s the right thing to do. Should you adapt to fit in? Or not? Don begins to conform in the second half of the book in order to win Rosie over, which certainly makes it a less interesting read as it goes on, but also makes you wonder whether he’s doing the right thing. I’m not sure there’s a simple yes / no answer.

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“I thought of Uriah and all the black men and women I knew who woke up angry and went to bed in the same state of mind. Life was like a bruise for us back then, and today too.”

Walter Mosley, Charcoal Joe

4321 – Paul AusterĀ 

A colossal exploration of the different paths a person’s life might take, and the role personal circumstance and political events play in shaping that.

4321 is a massive novel, in many ways. Massive in its ambition, telling four different versions of the main character, Ferguson’s, life, which takes different courses depending on circumstances. Massive in its scope, covering Ferguson’s place within and perceptions of major events in the 50s and 60s, like Kennedy, Vietnam and race riots. And massive in its size, at over 1,000 pages.

Ferguson is the son of Rose, who he is close to in all the versions of his life, and his entrepreneurial Dad who owns a TV and electrical goods store. And in a way the direction of his life is determined by their fates, whether they are successful, stay together or even die. Despite the epic political context it’s the minutiae of personal relationships that determines Ferguson’s lives far more than anything else. 

In the end we see one Ferguson going to Princeton, another to Columbia, another moving to Paris and another *spoiler ahead* dying early. Their lives are different. But interestingly not radically so. All of them are wanna-be writers. All combine sport with writing. All have a close relationship with Amy, but in one she’s a girlfriend, another a cousin. 

It’s interesting in this respect that what Auster (so often seen as a postmodern writer) is saying is that there are core traits to Ferguson’s personality that circumstances might shape but will always be there is some way or other.

What 4321 does brilliantly is combine historical sweep with detailed intimacy. The book covers some major events and periods, but because each story is focused on Ferguson and his place within it, we circle around him, gradually honing in on his views, feelings, emotions, strengths and weaknesses, making it a very full and powerful character study. 

Despite being written by Auster now rather than four deviates ago, 4321 really brings to life the experience of being a teenager and then young man, especially in a time of major social change. Ferguson is exploring his sexuality – in one life he’s interested in men, in another not all – and trying to understand his commitments to politics and activism rather than to art or sport.

And despite its length, the book is just so well written too. It has all the trademark characteristics of Auster (see this in-depth review of his New York Trilogy). But the style is different, with long sentences, sometimes up to a page long, exploring things in depth from different angles – just like the book. It’s light on dialogue and big on analysing inner thoughts and external circumstances. 

“One of the odd things about himself, Ferguson had discovered, was that there seemed to be several of him, that he wasn’t just one person but a collection of contradictory selves, and each time he was with a different person, he himself was different as well.”

Paul Auster (channeling Deleuze and Guattari) in 4321

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

This is an incredible book: well plotted, rich, wise and gripping.

It’s the story of the first three or four decades of the life of the unnamed narrator, a black girl from Willesden Green, and her relationship with close childhood friend Tracey, her Mum and the people she meets in her job as a personal assistant to Aimee, a Madonna style superstar.

Both the narrator and Tracey adore dance as young girls and are inseparable, but have very different lives as they grow up. Tracey tries to become a dancer, getting bit-parts in shows but never really making it, ending up a bitter single Mum with four kids and no money. The narrator doesn’t follow her dancing dream, goes to university and ends up working as a personal assistant to Aimee, flying around the world to make Aimee’s life easier and, in particular in the book, to an unnamed country in Africa where Aimee is paying for a new school to be built, Bono philanthropy-style.

Apart from the great writing and characters, to whom there is real depth and complexity, the book explores some strong and clear themes:

Class. Both Tracey and the narrator grow up on the same estate, but one of them stays there and the other leaves. Are they still the same class, of different? Tracey certainly thinks the narrator has changed and got posh. The narrator’s Mum saw Tracey’s family as a different class in the first place. Maybe they were never the same, or class is not the only determinant of life chances.

Upbringing. Whereas Tracey’s Dad was in prison and often missing, the narrator’s Mum is an aspiring intellectual and politician. Not always focused on her daughter, she inculcated a sense of interest and broad aspiration in the narrator that Tracey never had. Hence she went to university while Tracey stayed in Willesden.

Race. the narrator and her family are black, as is Tracey, which is a source of discrimination in her younger years. When she spends time in Africa with Aimee, though, the whole question of race, belonging, nationality and ancestry becomes pertinent. The narrator feels English and is perceived as such, and her experiences there make her question her identity in new ways.

Ambition. There’s a nice contrast between Tracey and the narrator. Encouraged by her Mum, Tracey follows her dream of being a dancer, but ultimately fails and has nothing to fall back on. The narrator doesn’t follow her dream but instead gets a broader education and drifts a bit, leading to more success. Contrasted with the super ambitious and successful Aimee, both are an example of what most people will do.

Early adulthood. What the book does really well, I think, is capture the lack of awareness of self and others people often have in early adult years. The narrator drifts through university without really making the most of it, stumbles across a job with Aimee and fails to notice how ill her Mum is.

“there are things that look like people dressed as dolls, or else dolls made up to look like people. I remember being confused about which it was… When I emerge from the bedroom, I see their eyes are shining in the white darkness, and their heads are turned in all directions. Paralysed – yes! – with terror, I merely return a fixed gaze, wondering if my eyes are shining the same as theirs. Then one of the doll people, slouching against the wall on my left, turns it’s head haltingly upon a stiff little neck and looks straight at me. Worse, it talks. And its voice is a horrible parody of human speech. Even more horrible are its words.”

Thomas Ligotti, Dream of a Manikin