“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

Albert Camus’s great opening to The Outsider 

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Only Begotten Daughter – James Morrow

This is the story of God’s daughter, Julie Katz, born in a test tube to lighthouse-living outsider Murray in twenty first century Atlanta City. It’s a truly original story and a funny, scathing critique of religion.

After his death Julie’s angry because her mother (Gilid) has abandoned her, not to mention made her a deity with divine powers, powers which Murray had warned her not to use because right wing religious zealots will see it as blasphemous – not least Billy Milk and his son Timothy who blew up the clinic where Julie was born right after Murray had visited and picked up Julie in her jar. 

She tries to negotiate a life with her odd ball and eventually alcoholic friend Phoebe, first rejecting her powers and then using them in a newspaper column. Eventually she gives up hiding them and, after revealing herself to the world through a big act, accepts an offer from the devil (called Andrew Wyvern) to go to hell. There she meets her brother, Jesus, who works tirelessly providing hell’s sufferers with a morphine-like drug.

Fed up with hell she gives up her powers in return for life, and finds that a ‘church’ has been established by her former editor – and future husband – Bix, while Billy Milk and his band of zealots are in charge of Atlanta. In the end she tries to help Phoebe fight alcoholism and she is caught and brought for crucifixion…

This really is a good book. Well plotted. Interesting characters. Constant surprises. Full of apt metaphors. It has a religious or parable-like feel to it at times, but it’s so much more than that. It’s literary and weird and sci-fi and fantasy – I don’t know what genre it is.

And it’s a great satire of religion, good and evil are entirely jumbled. Julie’s the daughter of an uncaring God. Julie has powers to do good but doesn’t know if and his to use them. Jesus is in hell. Only three or four people appear to be in heaven. The devil is helping the so-called religious on earth…

Recommended.

Books I’ll never write #1: the role of the coffee shop in US fiction

The diner or coffee shop is a familiar venue with big significance in much contemporary American fiction. So here’s a book I’d like to write but never will: one looking at the reasons why diners play such a big role and what they are used to represent.

You could put a particular focus on American crime fiction, where the coffee shop is well used by the likes of George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Bloc and the like, but they crop up in the likes of Paul Auster or Richard Ford too.

What role does the diner play?

From a plot point of view, the diner is a way for the protagonist to be alone in their thoughts, but also run into other people through which the plot can easily develop. But the diner is less about plot and more about themes.

First, these coffee places often represent the diversity of real-life America, where all kinds of people rub shoulders, no matter what colour or class. In Pelecanos’s Washington Quartet, in particular, it’s about a Greek diner run by Nick Stefanos and Costa, but it’s a multicultural place frequented by Greeks, Italians and African Americans. 

Second, they function as a public-private space: somewhere where everyone can feasibly go, where it’s independent, but in a typically American fashion it’s a private business. There’s a curious – perhaps curiously American – mix of individualism and community.

Third, it is often used to portray a kind of authentic working class America, where people are taking a break from hard work at all hours. Though in principle it could be men and women, in reality it’s often a very male and masculine environment, with women often just working in the place not a protagonist using it. In Stefanos’s diner the people are united by coffee, beer and food, but also by boxing and sports.

I guess that the cafe is used in different ways internationally: as a place of discussion in French literature, for example, or a site of freedom in Naguib Mafouz’s Egypt, which might make a nice point of contrast.

What would I call this book, that I’ll never write? Maybe The coffee spot: the role of the diner in contemporary American fiction.

“Of course we have a waiting list. Don’t believe everything you hear about hell. Next time you run into some anti-hell propaganda, consider the source… And remember, we persecute only the guilty, which puts us one up on most other institutions.”

Andrew Wyvern (the devil) in James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter  

The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolano

In Bolano’s characteristically terse prose this is a great short novel about love, murder and the transience of an individual’s life.

Told from the perspective of three different people, it gradually unravels a story in which a senior but pompous bureaucrat builds an ice rink in an abandoned building with public money for Nuria, a beautiful skater he’s besotted with; a subterfuge that works until a dead body is discovered and the scandal is exposed.

We get the story from the bureaucrat’s perspective (Enric Rosquelles), that of a local entrepreneur (Remo Moran) who has a brief relationship with Nuria and whose ex-wife Lola worked with the bureaucrat, and Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet living in a campsite in the town who knows Moran, the murder victim, and strikes up a relationship with the victim’s friend.

The ins and outs of the murder are secondary. Mostly the book is focused on the people and relationships around ice rink, the campsite and the town, known only as Z.

What comes across powerfully in the book is the randomness and transience of life. Stuff just happens. From an apparently successful political adviser, Enric finds himself stealing public money, in prison and then with a new life. Gaspar drifts to the campsite, meets countless other people who’s lives are temporarily on hold, like the murder victim, and rarely seems to have a clear sense of what’s happening around him. 

This becomes clear in part through the characters and their perspective, but more than anything it is Bolano’s style of writing, where this happens and then that and then that, a sequence of random or unexplained events that creates an atmosphere of existence’s purposelessness.   

The Sellout – Paul Beatty

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. It’s incredible and amusing and confusing in equal measure.

The narrator (unnamed) is brought up by his sociologist father as a social / psychological experiment to see what happens when a child is constantly confronted with being black and poor in modern America. He is traumatised and abused, but hilariously and ridiculously so.

The book (kind of) follows the narrator in his quest to re-establish a black ghetto in LA – Dickens – that has been, as far as he thinks, erased from the map. In the process he begins to re-introduce racial segregation and gets himself a volunteer slave (Hominy). It’s quite hard to know what’s going on most of the way through the book, but the segregation appears to be having a positive effect on buses, at schools, in the streets, until the narrator gets caught and ends up at the Supreme Court accused of offences against the constitution. The narrator has a long-term relationship with bus driver Marpessa, who loves and in infuriated by his crazy schemes.

What’s most striking about the book, quite apart from the originality, is its brilliantly scathing take on race relations and inequality in modern America. The narrator comes down hard and offensively on everyone; the government and police of course, but absolutely everyone, from those unaware of their white privilege to black intellectuals, who are brought to life in the book through the character of Cheshire Foy.

“reading Crime and Punishment changed him, Crime and Punishment was the thunderbolt that crashed down from heaven and cracked him into a hundred pieces, and by the time he put himself together again, Ferguson was no longer in doubt about the future, for if this was what a book could be, if this was what a novel could do to a person’s heart and mind and innermost feelings about the world, then writing novels was surely the best thing a person could do in life, for Dostoyevsky had taught him that made-up stories could go far beyond mere fun and diversion, they could turn you inside out and take off the top of your head, they could scald you and freeze you and strip you naked and thrust you into the blasting winds of the universe, and from that day forward, after flailing about for his entire boyhood, lost in an ever-thickening miasma of bewilderment, Ferguson finally knew where he was going, or at least knew where he wanted to go.”

Paul Auster, 4321

Walter Mosley – Charcoal Joe

Like all of Mosley’s books, this is a page tuner. And like all of his books too, that’s not because of the plot alone but because of the brilliant hard-boiled dialogue.

I can’t really describe the intricacies of the plot in fewer pages than the book itself. Suffice to say it twists, turns and jumps right to the very end. Basically Easy Rawlins is hired by a gang boss named Charcoal Joe to clear the name of Seymour, a postgraduate physics student, who has been accused of murder. In his usual style, Rawlins unpicks what’s going on, finding diamonds, $2m, a few murders, plenty of crooks and even more femme fatelles along the way.

The plot’s good but it’s as much a device as anything, a way for Mosley to explore race and racism in 1960s America. Rawlins is black, as are many of the characters. And on almost every page we see implicit and explicit racism getting played out. Being barred from shops, eyed suspiciously by police, treated unfairly, living constantly on the edge. 

“Life was like a bruise” Mosley writes at one point, echoing the impact that daily racism has on black Americans which Claudia Rankine portrays so accurately in her brilliant Citizen. In fact, Rawlins and the characters we meet in Charcoal Joe are examples of the imprint, both financial and psychological, that racism leaves.

“On TV shows like Westerns this always seemed to work. All you had to do was point the gun at an unarmed man and demand he surrender; he grumbles, puts his hands in the air, and you go home to a pot roast and the plaudits of lovers and friends.

But TV did not take into account forty-plus years of substance abuse and psychological trauma.

Eugene Stapleton’s eyes opened wider than seemed possible and his face glowed red. He reached over to a shelf on his right and grabbed an honest-to-God meat cleaver.

Then he roared.”
Walter Mosley, Charcoal Joe

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.

“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 Auster 

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

The Lola Quartet – Emily St John Mandel

This is as gripping as any crime fiction I’ve read but with such powerful themes of innocence undone and lives unravelling, it’s so much more.

Gavin, Jack, Sasha and Daniel play in a jazz quartet at their Florida high school, and the story follows the fallout after they finish and go their separate ways, revisiting them ten years later. The charismatic and wayward Anna is at the heart of it, after she leaves Florida amid rumours of being pregnant and then steals $120,000 from a drug dealer and goes into hiding. 

Daniel helps in the first place, but leaves her to it after Anna meets a musician who helps her escape and get into hiding. Ten years later Daniel, now an overweight cop with a string of failed marriages behind him, helps when they try to deal with the pursuing dealer once and for all.

Gavin is the main character, a journalist in New York who unravels when he realises that his girlfriend Anna was pregnant ten years earlier and he’d somehow ignored the signs in a bid to move away from Florida and on with his life. A decade later he is keen to know the truth.

Jack was a fine musician but he realised early at music college that he ‘didn’t have the music’ and spiralled into a sad dependence on anti-depressants.

Sasha is the strongest character. She has never left Florida, developed a gambling addiction and works nights in a diner. There’s a great scene later in the book when she tries to win some money playing poker at the casino, with her sponsor on-hand to pull her out when she needs it.

The way the book weaves the lives of these rich characters is fantastic, and just as good is the atmosphere of jazz joints, all night diners, drug dealers, casinos and the sad desperation of a group of people who’s lives have not turned out at all as planned.

There’s such a strong theme, too, of small mistakes having big consequences: Anna getting pregnant, Daniel wanting the baby to be his, Anna stealing the money, Sasha falling into gambling, Jack inadvertently telling where Anna was, Gavin seeing a photo of Anna’s daughter….

A fine, fine book.