June Reading: Batuman, Manguso, Teo, Fuller, Milano

I read some good books in June. I’ve already written at length about Annie Ernaux’s The Years in a separate post, so I’ll leave that be. The funniest book I read last month – the funniest book I’ve read in a long time – was Elif Batuman’s The Idiot. I’m talking about regular chuckling out loud on the train, and in bed, enough to annoy anyone travelling alongside me on either vehicle.

It’s half campus novel, half American abroad in Eastern Europe tale – think The Marriage Plot meets Everything is Illuminated, but is better than either of them. Selin, Batuman’s stand-in, turns up to Harvard to study but finds the whole process overwhelming: classes, teachers, roommates, friends, potential boyfriends. The plot doesn’t progress so much as… well, either drift or plod or both. It ends up reading like a Kafka novel leached of moment, as if Selim doesn’t realise she’s supposed to be in a tragedy. And why should she? Unlike a Kafka hero she doesn’t have a goal that she sees herself failing to move towards. Perhaps that’s part of the point of the undergraduate existence: you bundle all personal goals into the uber-goal of getting your degree. Ambition is deferred, dissipated. That sense of life unfolding without trajectory feels accurate.

There’s a funny running gag about an adult education class Selin volunteers at, trying to help people more hopeless than herself with her lessons. She is supposed to be helping Joaquim, a Dominican plumber, with his spoken American.

“The paper is white,” I said, holding up a paper.

He nodded. “El papel es blanco,” he said.

“Right, so repeat after me. The paper is white.”

Papel, es, blanco,” he said, with a serious expression like mine.

“No, repeat the words I’m saying,” I said. “The paper is white.”

After twenty minutes he could say, “Papel iss blonk.” He said it with an expression of great patience and kindness. We moved on to “The pen is blue.” We started with “El boligrafo es azul,” and eventually got to “Ball iss zool.” Then our time was up.

This is the stuff that had me chuckling. (There’s a less good running gag about a Russian-language story Selim has to read in her Russian classes, which I started to skip. This is novel-writing 101. You never expect the reader to put up with more than one of these things.)

Then Selim goes to Hungary for her summer break, volunteering again, to help remote villagers with their American. It’s more of the same: comic characters – which means, essentially, stupid characters – idiots – though treated with greater or lesser degrees of compassion. All comedy is based on cruelty. Even puns have as a butt the hypothetical person who doesn’t know a particular word has two meanings. Batuman is not cruel, however – not needlessly so – and she makes Selim almost as dumb as everyone else.

The mayor thanked us for coming to share our culture and language, and hoped that we would take something away in return. Then he asked whether any of us knew HTML, because his village needed a webpage.

There is cruelty here – as in the ‘papel is blonk’ piece above, and it’s these parts that make me think, anxiously, about Safran Foer’s novel – but there is compassion, too, though it is compassion laced with nostalgia. Once upon a time, we were all a village that needed a webpage.The Idiot can be immensely frustrating in its inability to hook that humour and compassion to anything resembling a decent plot, but then you could probably argue that books like The Marriage Plot make too big a deal of narrative structure and character arcs (like I teach my students on the Creative Writing MA at St Mary’s University) when life, man, doesn’t, y’know, have plot.

The problem with this approach is that you can get away with any old tripe and say it’s true to life. The dribbling formless mess of The Idiot’s narrative is true, at least, to its vision of Selim’s procession out of her late adolescence into young adulthood. It is an anti-Bildungsroman, because she learns nothing. She is no more formed at the end than she is at the start. And yet we stay with her because she sees the world kindly; she has emotional intelligence, if not the other kind. (She has the other kind, too, of course. She just doesn’t know how to make the two kinds work in tandem, no more than Bertie Wooster does.)

Strangely for what is essentially a comic novel, I can’t see myself reading it again. Its hits of humour are too diluted by Selim’s meanderings. Nor, really, can I see it being popular with readers of Selim’s age. Its vision of young adult life is essentially comic-nostalgic. It seems not to buy into the default Bildungsroman position that the journey to adulthood is the most important journey of your life (see, for example, The Secret History); in fact, it relentlessly undermines it.

Another writer I’d not read before was Sarah Manguso, whose 300 Arguments and Ongoingness: The End of a Diary I was send in proof by Picador. The first is a collection of aphorisms. The second is a set of notes on diary-writing, by a writer whose 25-year-long diary-writing habit was knocked on the head by pregnancy and her first child.

Aphorisms are weird. They’re a high-wire balancing act that risks tipping the writer either into banality or meaningless cleverness. They usually begin with paradox, and then stretch it as far as it can go towards tautology without snapping. (An aphorism?) A first glance made me think Manguso wasn’t a very good aphorist, but then I started flicking through, and decided she was pretty good. (Either she put some pretty ropey ones at the beginning, or they’re an acquired taste.) Then, looking at it again, writing this, I was back to my original uncertainty. If my response to a set of aphorisms changes with the weather, can they be all that good? Aren’t aphorisms meant to be miniature carriers for grand immutable truths? Well, perhaps these aren’t that kind of aphorism.

Four, picked from a random page:

Am I happy? Damned if I know, but give me a few minutes and I’ll tell you whether you are.

Everyone consider some part of his own life a universally applicable model, and I’m not exception.

When someone insults you, it will infuriate him if you pretend to misunderstand the insult as a compliment.

Interesting people aren’t interested in appearing interesting.

Are these good? The second seems too obvious, the third is fun but a little bit Hallmark card. The fourth sounds better than it means, if you see what I mean. It’s a nice thought; you want it to be true, but think about it, and it’s clearly not, entirely. And aphorisms should skewer how the world is, not how you want it to be. It’s the first one that reaches me most. It doesn’t lay out its meaning on first reading. It makes you think. It’s an oblique aphorism.

Ongoingness is not extracts from Manguso’s diary, but a reflection on it, and on the process of keeping it. That said, Manguso’s approach seems a little unusual: she constantly reread and even revised her text. At one point, she tells us, she decided that a whole year (1996, was it?) wasn’t any good, and binned it. The book itself does proceed almost aphoristically, in fragments. There is no looking outward to what other writers have said about keeping a diary. Manguso is only interested in what she thinks. The book is predicated onto the seriousness and intensity with which she captures her own thoughts and feelings about the subject.

In this, it takes a similar approach to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which as I said in my review for the Brixton Review of Books, pays no attention to what other writers have to say about her topic. (I’m making the assumption here that Heti’s book is at least part essay, and assuming, too, that part of the essayistic gambit is to open out your thinking to other writers, whether that be a systematic Literature Review or a Montaigne-esque sprinkling of quotations from classical authors.)

Am I generalising in saying this could be a gendered aspect to this, that traditional essayistic/creative non-fiction writing tended to value these external sources because a) the imparting of discrete nuggets of information (facts) is integral to the process and b) it’s a great way of showing off how well read you are; and, further, that these are male traits, while a more modern, more female approach to the form prioritises the value of the personal experience, properly interrogated and accounted for?

Heti, in considering the massive question of whether or not to have children, simply pays no heed to what other people, female or male, have said or written about the subject, though she is willing to listen to experiences of people around her. Similarly, Manguso is only interested in her own experience of diary writing. She’s not interested in giving us the big literary parlour game of Kafka’s Diaries and Woolf’s Diaries and Cheever’s Journals, in the way that writers writing about essay-writing, or about how they manage their personal library, generally trot out the same names. (Not that I don’t like those pieces.)

Manguso’s book is also interesting to set alongside Heti’s, because part of the reason for giving up her diary was the birth of her first child, and the change wrought by this is something she considers:

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

And:

My body, my life, became the landscape of son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am world.

These seem like the sort of sentiments that scared Heti off motherhood. You would like to think that, reading Ongoingness, she would have nodded in understanding, but would have remained unpersuaded she had made the wrong decision. I’m equally convinced by both books. Or, seeing that neither applies directly to me, I feel both equally convincing. Perhaps more by Heti’s – as a book – because it is longer, and she goes deeper. Manguso’s child – I don’t think she says it anywhere explicitly, but it’s obvious – has not just replaced her diary, but also some of the energy and emotion she would have put into writing about her diary.

On to two very good novels by writers I know – not well, but enough to be worth mentioning. Sharlene Teo overlapped with me briefly as a postgrad student at UEA, and I’ve watched at a distance as Ponti developed from a conversation topic to a prize-winner and – eventually – a published novel. Claire Fuller I first met at a party to celebrate the Desmond Elliott longlist in 2015, from which my novel Randall didn’t progress, while her Our Endless Numbered Days, which I’d reviewed in The Guardian, went on to the shortlist and then to take the prize. She was kind enough to come and guest on the Creative Writing MA I teach on, at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, talking about that debut novel, which the students had all read, although she talked, too, about Bitter Orange, her third novel.

Fuller joked in fact about trying not to write a split narrative with this, her third novel, but failing miserably. Bitter Orange actually has three narrative strands: there is a ‘present day’ setting, in which the narrator, Frances, is laid up in bed in some kind of hospital, thinking back over her past. Largely what she thinks about is a pivotal month spent in an English country house, Lyntons, which she has been asked to survey by its new American owner, during which she falls under the spell of an enigmatic couple, Peter and Cara. The third strand is Cara’s story of her childhood and upbringing in Ireland, that she tells to Frances in tantalising dribs and drabs.

As a whole, it is, if we’re playing that game, like JL Carr’s A Month in the Country rewritten by Daphne de Maurier. Though really what it’s most like is Fuller’s other two novels: she really is a distinctive novelist, though part of what is distinctive about her – having taught her novel, which might colour my attitude – is precisely her approach to the past in narratives. She is hugely adept at conjuring the sense of past weighing down her characters, that it will only take a crack in their façade to send plummeting into the present. My only problem with the novel is that she’s so good at this that I spent some of my energy reading the novel trying to second-guess exactly where it is going with the narrative, and what is going to be revealed. Which, naturally, is partly the point, but not all of it.

Ponti is an interesting comparison point. It, too, has three narrative strands, here divided among three narrative voices (all of Bitter Orange is told by Frances). Ponti’s story is shared by a mother, a daughter, and a friend of the daughter. The mother is Amisa, a one-time cult actress known only for a trilogy of low-fi horror films. For, Szu, her 16-year-old daughter in 2003 Singapore, she’s a terrible mother, heartless and uncaring. A friendship grows with a new girl at school, Circe – but Circe’s narrative sections jump ahead to 2020, when she is involved in marketing a remake of the original film. (I was reminded of David Cronenberg’s very average film Map to the Stars, the best parts of which were about Julianne Moore’s character’s attempts to get cast in the role once played by her dead mother in a similar film remake.)

Where Fuller’s narrative flits elegantly to and fro between part and present, taking the reader on an increasingly tightly controlled ride towards revelation, Teo’s is much more ragged. This is not a streamlined book, but that works in its favour. I suppose I’m thinking about these novels in this sense because I spend so much time working with students about narrative: how their novel ideas might usefully develop; what story shape ‘feels right’ for their characters; what journey they want to take their reader on; how efficiently and effectively their story could be told. In contrast to Bitter Orange, Ponti has plenty of sections that feel like they could be cut without damaging the narrative sense and coherence, but then maybe that’s not the point.

The risk with a book like Bitter Orange is that its narrative tricks only work once. You’re not tempted to go back to the start to read it again. Although in fact both Fuller’s previous two novels, Our Endless Numbered Days and Swimming Lessons, do invite this in a way that possibly this one doesn’t. Ponti certainly left me thinking I hadn’t got everything from it that there was to be got – especially about the character of Amisa, and her experience making the movie. It made me want to read it again. Bitter Orange finishes as a – largely – completed jigsaw, and a very pleasing one to finish, while Ponti made we wonder if I’d missed some pieces: if I had, they were in the book, to be found.

Oh, and the book at the top of the pile is Boy Meets Hamster, a young young adult novel written by Birdie Milano, a former undergraduate student at St Mary’s, but not one I taught. It’s also very funny, a raucous comedy set on a summer holiday from hell in a caravan park in Cornwall that does a very good job of knitting its thematic issues (coming out as gay, dealing with disability, and body-shaming) into the prose, so you never feel you’re being lectured. It’s a great first book.

Thank you to Picador and Fig Tree for the review copies of Ongoingness/300 Arguments and Bitter Orange, respectively.

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