‘We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves’ by Karen Joy Fowler

besidesReadable it may be, interspersed with the occasional provocative wit, but overall, Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves left me cold and unengaged.

Rosemary Cooke (our narrator) has a sister. Or did. Fern disappeared from the family around Rosemary’s fifth birthday. And to add to the childhood trauma of loss, her older brother Lowell walked out of the family home in Indiana seven years later – and hasn’t been seen since (although news of his whereabouts occasionally filters through). Now a college student in Davis, California (the place of Lowell’s last reported sighting), a lonely Rosemary grieves for her lost siblings. Only it transpires that Fern was a chimpanzee (apologies for the spoiler).

Inspired by real-life experiments dating from the 1930s onwards, the family ‘twin‑sisterhood’ was part of an experiment conducted  by her psychologist father for five years before being abruptly terminated. Just why never becomes completely clear until towards the end of Fowler’s novel. It’s Rosemary’s culpability (or at least her belief of it) that forms the core – a motormouth child who now prefers silence as an adult and who remembers only snatches of her earlier formative years. But then a simian upbringing is likely to silence most discussions with peers!

Psychology theories abound in Fowler’s book (transpires her father was a professor of psychology in Indiana) as Rosemary looks to justifications and answers. And she is constantly looking for answers. But those answers are in her past.

What starts out as a traditional family narrative soon becomes anything but. And whilst the dysfunctional family is well written, it soon becomes overanalysed – as does the message regarding animal lab testing. Ultimately, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves becomes a labouredrepetitive story as Rosemary looks to understand just what happened when she was five years old.

Shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize (the first year where American authors qualified for consideration), Karen Joy Fowler lost out to Richard Flanagan and The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

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‘The Keepers of Truth’ by Michael Collins

keepers of truthA real page-turner, author Michael Collins combines a 1980s-set murder mystery along with a social commentary on the demise of small-town America as its life-blood, the manufacturing industries, close.

A fascinating hybrid that is both requiem and dissection, The Keepers of Truth is a grimly prophetic story of universal change and the death of the known and the secure. Rusting fire escapes lead to stairways to oblivion and darkness. There are prehistoric-looking machines dragged out into yards, cannibalised of anything of worth, carcasses of industrialism.

Bill, son of a former industrialist who committed suicide rather than witness the closure of his factories in the town, is an aspiring journalist reduced to writing editorial about charity bake-offs and college sports. What he really wants to headline in the slowly dying newspaper, The Daily Truth, is his philosophies on the (unnamed Midwest) town that was once the keepers of industrialism, but which is now a town of trainee managers. Oh happy are ye that inherit the deep-fat fryer! What we do now is eat. It has become our sole occupation… a sublimated longing for our dead machines.

The report that Old Man Lawton is missing changes all that. Locals (including the local police) immediately blame the son, Ronny. But whilst there’s motive, there’s not enough evidence. Bill, with his ageing colleagues, editor Sam and photographer Ed, in their hunt for the truth, become more and more embroiled in the bizarre investigation of few clues.

It’s a trailer-trash hunt of incest, abuse, alcoholism, suicide, emotional breakdowns and paranoia. But it’s also a time-crawling hunt during the intense July heat and drought, a physical boredom of intense severity that threatens the return of bake-off lead stories and the newspapermen surviving on whisky and tuna melts (Sam’s speciality).

The Keepers of Truth is a deeply relevant and pertinent social commentary and a morbidly dark comedy (think Coen Brothers or Collins’ countryman, Martin McDonagh). It’s the American dream turned sour told in long, cadenced sentences that create a rhythmic reading that add to that sense of slightly breathless reading.

It’s a real tour de force.

Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, The Keepers of Truth lost out to Margaret Atwood and The Blind Assassin.

Booker Prize 2016: Shortlist

Madeleine_Thien_interviewed_by_Dietmar_Kanthak_in_Bonn,_January_2015Back in 2014, the Man Booker Prize made the decision to extend eligibility to include American authors (as long as they were writing in English). Such a decision was not unanimously welcomed. But it was to be 2016 before the Booker judges presented the award for the first time to an American: Paul Beatty and his satirical The Sellout.

Having read all six novels shortlisted for the 2016 award, the question remains – was it the right call? Controversy surrounded the list with the exclusion of J.M.Coetzee’s The Schooldays of Jesus and Elizabeth Strout and My Name is Lucy Barton from the 13-novel longlist.

The shortlist:

Paul Beatty: The Sellout
Deborah Levy: Hot Milk
Graeme Macrae Burnet: His Bloody Project
Ottessa Moshfegh: Eileen
David Szalay: All That Man Is
Madeleine Thien: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 Only Deborah Levy had appeared on a Booker shortlist before (in 2012 for Swimming Home) and was regarded as one of the favourites to win. Speaking personally, of all the six novels on the list, her Hot Milk was the one I liked least. Using mother-daughter relationships to explore the nature of the feminine (along with hypochondria), it is a strangely inert narrative. Like the daughter, Sofia Papastergiadis, the story is as listless as the temperatures of the southern Spanish setting.

Less pretentious is Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. But like Hot Milk, it is populated with unlikeable characters. At times drab and slow moving, it’s something of a psychological character study with little of any import taking place until the final few pages.

Whilst shortlisted for the Booker as a novel, All That Man Is, to my mind, is a collection of nine short but interrelated stories. Some enjoyable, some minor.

Three down and three to go – and next on my list is the eventual winner, Paul Beatty with The Sellout. As I wrote in my personal review: Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

It’s just the sort of literary gymnastics that appeals to literary judges – but not necessarily to everyday readers to quite the same extent.

Up until reading my final book on the list, I’d assumed that Graeme Macrae Burnet and his compelling His Bloody Project would have comfortably topped the list.

Set in a remote northern Scottish farming community in 1869, it is a multilayered psychological thriller exploring events leading up to the violent and bloody murder of three members of one family by a 17 year-old neighbour. Absorbing, intricate, His Bloody Project comfortably became the bestseller of the six shortlisted novels.

But Burnet’s magnificent achievement was pipped at the post by Madeleine Thien’s superb Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Magisterial, tragic, profound, enchanting – seven decades of contemporary Chinese history from Mao’s cultural revolution through to the student’s uprising and events at Tiananmen Square.

Booker Prize history was made in 2016 by presenting the award to an American writer – but personally I would have presented it to the Chinese-Canadian author.

‘Vernon God Little’ by DBC Pierre

9780571215164An assured debut novel, Vernon God Little is a rites-of-passage full of sour and coruscating verbal wit that verges on the farcical. Akin to the vicious satire of the likes of Vonnegut, it’s a telling indictment of small town America’s mindless consumer culture and the glorification of dysfunction – with 15 year-old Vernon Little its victim. As the narrator, it’s Vernon and his perspective of his 15 minutes of fame that the story is told.

A gun tragedy at the High School in Martirio, Texas has left 16 students dead, including the perpetrator, schoolboy Jesus Navarro Rosario. But with Jesus dead, the grieving town is left without a sense of closure or justice. Cue Vernon God Little. As the killer’s best friend, he survived, evidence of his guilt. As national media descend on the town, so the Sheriff’s department move on Vernon to prove his collusion.

Vernon God Little is told in five acts, with the first two finding Vernon – like his friend, Jesus, an outsider in the close-knit community – struggling to make sense of what’s happening around him. Accused of being an accessory, the only people he cares about are either dead or appear to be more concerned with fame and worldly goods (his mother misses all legal appointments due to the delivery of a fridge). Cool as he thinks he might be, Vernon in reality is a mere boy way out of his depth of understanding. And it’s about to get a lot worse as news crews swarm into town.

Things do get a lot worse as Vernon makes a run for it and flees to Mexico, but his too brief sojourn sees him arrested, returned to Texas to face trial for 34 murders and, on being found guilty, is sentenced to death.

Farcical or what? Yet beneath that over-the-top course of events is a scathing critique as reality television, fast food, religion, the death penalty all come under Pierre’s comic microscope.

In spite of being in Mexico, Vernon is positively identified for more and more murders across Texas. A reality television programme is introduced where death-row inmates are put on camera as entertainment with television audiences deciding the order of executions – which in themselves are televised.

In Vernon Little, Australian DBC Pierre has created a fabulously confused commentator who is in part an archetypal contradictory adolescent, part mouthpiece for the author’s corrosive opinions.

The high-octane Vernon Little God won the 2003 Booker Prize a rank outsider when the longlist was announced, beating favourite Monica Ali and Brick Lane.

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

a-spool-of-blue-threadThe Pulitzer Prize-winning Anne Tyler treads familiar ground with her 20th novel: the importance of complex family relationships and the struggles by parents and siblings alike to assert their individualities within a shared existence. And, like so many of her earlier stories, A Spool of Blue Thread is set in Baltimore.

A leafy Baltimore suburb is home to the Whitshank family in a large, sprawling house built by Junior Whitshank in the late 1930s. Now, daughter-in-law and ex-social worker Abby rules the roost with an excess of love, energy and irrepressible enthusiasm as she (s)mothers her husband Red and four adult children – even if they have long moved out, married and had children of their own. Or at least three have.

The eldest boy, Denny, is proving to be something of an enigma to Abby and Red. Having dropped out of college, he has adopted an itinerant lifestyle and only occasionally contacts members of the family. Most of the time the Whitshanks have no idea where Denny may be.

A Spool of Blue Thread is a chronicle of the Whitshanks family life told over three generations in four sections. There is little reflection on times past per se – Tyler choses to bookend the present day family story whilst telling Abby and Red’s 1959 courtship and the meeting of Junior and Linnie Mae in the 1930s separately. Family fortunes and misfortunes, jealousies petty or otherwise, death, illness, sadness, joy, changes and constancy all inevitably form part of the Whitshank history. And there’s certainly a twist or two.

But A Spool of Blue Thread is all a bit too hollow, too cutesy and homely as apple pie. Anne Tyler has a reputation for her characterisation yet none of the contemporary Whitshanks are particularly interesting – due in part to the fact that most of them are only walk-on characters. The one-dimensional eldest siblings Amanda and Jeannie are present but have little presence: their husbands – both named Hugh – and children even less so. Denny is the black sheep of the family – but he remains an enigma to us all. As a character portrayal, A Spool of Blue Thread fails badly

Ultimately, it’s wane and tedious. The so-called courtship of Junior and Linnie Mae is diverting enough and Tyler captures the mores of the time beautifully. But overall I just didn’t care enough about any of the characters and this oh-so-white existence in its Baltimore bubble. I’m not looking for melodrama, a breathless narrative or even an overtly political statement, but a little grit here and there would not go amiss. But then that’s not Tyler’s style.

A Spool of Blue Thread was shortlisted for the 2015 Mann Booker Prize but it (thankfully) lost out to Marlon James and A Brief History of Seven Killings.

‘Eileen’ by Ottessa Moshfegh

ottessa-moshfegh-eileenEileen Dunlop, 24, is perversely and gloriously unlikeable. It’s 1964 and Eileen lives in an unnamed New England town with her alcoholic ex-cop father in the squalid, rambling family home. The mother is long dead and the older sister has flown the coup. He survives on gin, she on handfuls of peanuts, the occasional shower and weekly handfuls of laxatives to help purge her body.

Eileen is undoubtedly trapped – the demands from her father and the monotony of her job as a secretary at the local boys’ juvenile prison offer little cheer and even less joy. Yet she does very little to help herself other than daydream about her escape. I couldn’t be bothered to deal with fixing things. I preferred to wallow in the problem, dream of better days.

 As a psychological drama, Eileen is masterful. The unreliable narrator unravels in front of us – a repressed, body-dysmorphic, depressed, naïve young woman who deludes herself into believing that, publically, she is in control. Yet, hiding herself in her mother’s matronly clothing several sizes too big (useful for shoplifting), her own alcoholic binges and erotic fantasies centred primarily round Randy, a prison guard, point to an erratic self evaluation and misinformed sense of self.

The arrival of the charismatic Rebecca Saint John to work at the prison shifts Eileen’s focus. Beautiful, stylish, confident, Rebecca is everything Eileen is not. She is the fillip Eileen needs to break free from her own self-loathing and undermining relationship with her father.

New lipstick and underwear (stolen of course), different clothes from her mother’s wardrobe and an attempt to be more social (within limits) all make their appearance (much to the dismissive amusement of her father). And it achieves the result Eileen wants – a drink with Rebecca after work, a Christmas Eve social. Yet, in these last few pages of the novel, she finds herself in a totally unexpected situation.

Eileen is a character completely out of place. Other than a few months in Boston at college (pulled out to care for her dying mother), she has lived her life in the small coastal New England town. She shows no interest in popular culture, preferring obscure library books, a subscription to National Geographic and the wardrobe of her dead mother. She has stepped out of a Patricia Highsmith novel. (Should the novel find its way to film, Rooney Mara is the perfect fit).

 But the problem with Eileen is that, as a narrative, it’s a little drab and slow moving – something of a tortoise. Eileen is a great character study, a psychological drama centred round the main character. It is not a psychological thriller as suggested by the front cover – nothing of any import happens until the last few pages.

In her debut novel, Ottessa Moshfegh was (somewhat surprisingly) shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. She lost out to the first American winner of the award, Paul Beatty and The Sellout.

 

 

‘The Sellout’ by Paul Beatty

81npfiyubal-880x1404The jury’s out for me as far as Paul Beatty’s 2016 Booker Prize winning novel is concerned.

Technically brilliant, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, savage and outrageous, undoubtedly challenging, yet… Its profane satire is unrelenting, the reading exhausting, the narrative one-dimensional.

A coruscating metaphor for race relations in the US, The Sellout is the story of ‘Bonbon’ Me. An Afro-American living in the City of Dickens on the outskirts of LA, Me is the son of a controversial home-schooling sociologist who is shot in the back by LAPD at traffic lights whilst on his way to the latest Dum Dum Donuts Intellectuals meeting.

It is his relationship with his dead father and the impact of his opinions that is at the centre of The Sellout: essentially what it is to be black and living in a racist country. Me, at the beginning of the novel, finds himself in the Supreme Court charged with reinstating slavery and segregation. The Sellout is the provocative, comically daring explanation of just how he got there.

It’s a mad journey. Littered with the n-word, it’s caustic yet elegant, scathing yet intelligent. No stone is left unturned as Me purchases an inner city farm on the proceeds from the LAPD payout. The ageing Hominy volunteers himself as slave to his ‘massa’ plantation owner and Me is forced to hire a local dominatrix to administer whippings.

When violent and crime-ridden Dickens loses its identity with its boundaries subsumed into greater LA ripe with real estate potential, Me steps in. A painted white line loosely reinstates those boundaries, raising a sense of neighbourhood pride and belonging. The segregation of the local High School, banning white students, is the final act. A media frenzy results (ironically, there never were any white students at the school anyway) and Me is arrested.

Within the scaffold of the plot is a miasma of characters, events, commentaries and references to contemporary racist America. It is satire gone wild – a mix of Swift and Vonnegut. The first 100 or so pages are magnificently and maliciously vitriolic – and at times shockingly funny. But Beatty fails to moderate and change the pace of a book struggling to identify a singular narrative beyond its early pages. The Sellout remains interesting but fails to sustain that initial level of engagement.

 

‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

9781447294818On the front cover of the book are single word quotations from UK newspapers, including ‘astonishing’, ‘devastating’ and ‘extraordinary’. These are all true of A Little Life – and more. Profound, intense, moving, capacious all appropriately spring to mind.

Yet, that’s only the half of it. The reality is that over its 720 pages, A Little Life is also deeply traumatic, emotionally exhausting and, at times, unbearably harrowing. The investment in the characters (and Jude in particular) is such that, on the one hand, you never want the book to end: yet such is the litany of horrors, it needs to be over.

A story of friendship, grief, loss and love, A Little Life is essentially a parable of our time with Hanya Yanagihara choosing to tell the story of the bonds and ties that bind in male friendship over a 30 plus year period: whilst present, women, as friends, wives, mothers and sisters, are essentially secondary.

But this is no macho, beer-swilling, sports-mad strut.

The four central characters, contemporaries and roommates at college in Boston, all become eminently successful in their chosen careers. From a wealthy, mixed-race background, the ever-diplomatic Malcolm studies architecture. Having lost his father at a young age and the only male in a Haitian household, the irascible JB, spoilt by the women in his family, eventually becomes a successful artist via drug and alcohol addiction. Blonde and blue-eyed, Wilhelm has matinee idol good looks that jettison him to success on stage, television and film. But it is the enigmatic Jude who is the central character of the group (and novel).

It is only over a period of time we find out the full story of Jude – an orphan emotionally, physically and sexually abused so profoundly that even as one of New York’s most successful litigators, he cannot recognise his own worth. Trust is almost impossible, even with the closest of friends. A physical relationship: out of the question. His body is so scarred from the abuse as well as his own self-harm (Jude cuts himself to such an extent that his long-suffering friend and doctor, Andy, believes he should be hospitalised), he can never remove any item of clothing in public.

Of the four friends, a special bond exists between Jude and Wilhelm – who himself has lost his parents and a brother who died from hydrocephalus. Yet even Wilhelm cannot ask of his friend that which he knows Jude cannot answer (no matter how much Jude wants to tell him). To Jude, so disgusting and depraved are his secrets, silence is the best option.

And Jude suffers for his silence – but he also physically suffers, unable to walk without intense pain. And it is this constant mix of emotional and physical distress that dominates Jude’s life and the lives of people around him. But their love for him is so profound, their need for his approval so deep, they accept this is part of who Jude is.

In spending 30 years evolving the story over 720 pages, A Little Life demands a great deal of investment from its readers. It puts you through the emotional wringer as Yanagihara addresses issues of social and personal importance of relevance today – abuse, eating disorder, physical self-harm, wealth accumulation, addiction, obsession to the point of madness, the measurement of success, suicide et al.

But in putting them into the minds and bodies of extremely successful men, there’s a very different take. Malcolm and his wife Sophie may be in Shanghai discussing his latest project or Jude and Wilhelm holidaying in Bhutan or JB opening a retrospective at the Witney, but it’s only an intervention that ensures Jude does not starve himself to death or JB self destruct on ice: it is Malcolm who talks of the couple’s decision not to have children.

A Little Life is an extraordinary book. The joy, the pain, the disappointment, the anger, the frustration – they’re all shared. But occasionally that pain is just a little too much and a little distance is required (sometimes I chose not to read for a couple of days). Its rawness and honesty is both its recommendation and its disparagement.

Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, A Little Life as favourite and anticipated to be the first American winner since the change of rules lost out to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.