This post is built out of my year-long reading thread on Twitter, but expanded.
I started the year with a short Don DeLillo blitz, research for an academic chapter I’m writing. Some of this was rereading, but Americana, his 1971 debut, was one I hadn’t read before. It is strangely split into different parts, as if moving through different tonal landscapes, which is not an approach I associate with this writer.
The opening is a zippy corporate media satire – at times like Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, published three years later – with lots of cynical male advertising executives trying to screw each other over, and screw each other’s secretaries. It then diverts into a long dull suburban childhood flashback, and then goes on a Pynchonesque road trip across the country, fantasmagorical in parts, skippably dull in others.
My conclusion on Twitter was: In the end I suppose I’m just not in the market for these old myths – which, now that I think about it, is basically a paraphrase of the opening line of Apollinaire’s Zone: “À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien.” Unlike for Pynchon’s freewheeling carnival of invention, I got the feeling I was supposed to care for these characters, in their struggle to care about themselves, and there were simply too many unexamined assumptions that don’t align with my own for that to apply. It tries too hard to be cool, to shock, to provoke; it flails around to distract you from the fact it doesn’t know what it wants to mean, but as a debut novel it’s still hugely impressive and quite powerful.
I also zoomed through Great Jones Street (1973) and Running Dog (1978). In all these books DeLillo seems to be pushing against the novel form, wanting to find some other way of getting through than via a standard plot arc. Great Jones Street is interesting because of what it says about celebrity, and about music – which is a subject DeLillo has never really returned to. Running Dog to an extent is interesting about the mystique that arises when art and money converge, but he mishandles the thriller plot he starts off by gleefully satirising. The ultra-hardboiled dialogue boils dry, with pages and pages of interchangeable spooks tough-talking each other in the backs of limousines. There is an impressively destructive ending – as destructive as Great Jones Street, but really you get the sense that he’s given up before we even get there. By ‘given up’, I mean given up trying to find a way to resolve the plot in a way that honours equally his characters, his themes, and any remaining sense of reality/realism/credibility.
More on novel endings later in this post.
After DeLillo I moved onto A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore, which I’ve tried to read at least once before, but didn’t get far into. As with Moore’s best stories it made me absolutely snort with laughter on a regular basis. It also ends wonderfully and movingly and, in a way, thrillingly – doing that thing that I think DeLillo has tried to do, to move outside or above the confines or sphere of novelistic plot: not just giving you what you think deserve from what has come before.
It’s clever in the way it stretches what could have been a fine long short story to over 300pp, but there’s too much stodge: more childhood flashback than is necessary (with Americana, is this a lesson?), even bearing in mind the emotional ballast it contributes to the payoff at the end, and too much compulsive-idiosyncratic detail, delivered by the bucketload. This last is of course a familiar aspect of Moore’s short stories, and perhaps she simply though that the same intensity of narratorial gaze can be endlessly extended without consequence, but it ain’t so.
Lorrie Moore’s short stories work because we can only bear to spend so much time with her characters.
To which her characters would doubtless say, Imagine what it’s like being us!
To which I’d say, That’s not how this works.Continue reading
In going back through my Monthly Reading blog posts for the year I’ve identified 12 books published this year that I more than thoroughly enjoyed, that I think are great to brilliant examples of what they do, and that I feel will frame and influence my future reading. (A thirteenth, The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, is not pictured because I’ve loaned it to someone.)
A quick scan of the books shows me Faber have had an excellent year – four of the twelve – and it’s no surprise that Fitzcarraldo and CB Editions show up, both publishers very close to my heart. (It’s only fair to point out that those books were complimentary/review copies, as was the Heti and the Johnson. All others bought by me.) And a shout-out to Peninsula Press, whose £6 pocket essays are a welcome intervention to the literary scene. Eight women to four men writers. Only one BAME writer. Two books in translation. Two US writers.
I’m not going to write at length again about each book, but rather provide links to the original monthly blog posts or reviews, but I do want to take a moment again to think about Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which seems to stand out for me as a Book of the Year in a more than personal way. In a year that the “difficulty” or otherwise of Anna Burns’ Milkman (which I haven’t read, and very much want to) became a hot topic, I think it’s worth considering just how un-difficult Rooney’s book is, and how that absence of difficulty, that simplicity, that ease-of-reading – allied to the novel’s clear intelligence – is central to its success, both as a novel unto itself, and more widely. You can see precisely why an organisation like Waterstones would make it Book of the Year: it is utterly approachable; it finds an uncomplicated way of narrating complicated lives and issues.
I read Normal People in September, a borrowed copy, but bought it again recently, and was pleased to find that Marianne and Connell drifted back into my life without so much as a shrug. I think it’s a brilliant accomplishment, while I’m also very aware that this is a book aimed squarely at me: white, middle class, educated. I embrace it because it reflects my situation and concerns, and in addition romanticises and bolsters the generation I now find myself teaching at university. I want it to work, and it does, for me.
Yet I am astonished that it does so much with so little. Present tense, shifting close third person narration. Unpunctuated dialogue. A drifting narrative almost without plot, chopped into dated sections.
I wrote here about how I didn’t want to have to buy it in hardback (though I did) and I wrote here about how these anti-technical techniques made the book a potentially dangerous model for Creative Writing students – it looks like you can get away with Not Much – and it is true that Rooney’s book seems to throw a harsh light on some of the other books on my list, sitting with it in that stack. They seem to be trying so hard: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight is so unashamedly intelligent, Will Eaves’s Murmur so oblique and poetic, Tony White’s The Fountain in the Forest so formally inventive (and in a number of different ways), Sheila Heti’s Motherhood so disingenuous in its informality, its seeming-naturalness. (I hope it’s clear that I love these books for the very aspects I seem to disparage.)
By contrast, Normal People seems written at what Roland Barthes called ‘writing degree zero’, by which he meant writing with no pretension to Literature – “a style of absence which is almost an ideal absence of style”. His model for this is Camus’ L’Étranger, and the comparison seems apt, except that L’Étranger is written in the first person. Everything extraneous is taken out. It’s interesting to note that David Szalay’s All That Man Is is written in a very similar way to Normal People, the only real difference being the use of single quote marks for dialogue. Yet they seem a world apart to me. Continue reading
There are some books missing from this photo: Normal People by Sally Rooney, given back to the kind student who lent it to me; The Trick to Time, sat on a shelf in my university office; and In Our Mad and Furious City, donated to the university library – I wanted to get an extract from it straight into the course reader for our undergraduate Writing London module and this was the surest way of doing it.
Let’s start with Guy Gunaratne’s novel. I liked it very much. As with many other readers I was bowled over by the confidence and fluency of its interlocking narrative voices, and the sense that the characters and events, big and small, were coming straight up out of the city and onto the page. It is an easy and impressive read: the individual sections flow swiftly, never getting snarled up, as interior monologues can, and the sense of adjacency between these few characters living out a few days in a north London housing estate matches the theme of frantic, disconnected urban living. We are linked closer than we can know.
I gave it to my 16-year-old son, to try a chapter, just to see how he responded to the writing. Some of the YA fiction he reads is likewise concerned with contemporary social issues: would he buy someone doing the same in a more sophisticated narrative mode, with a wider historical reach? He liked it, though not enough to want to read on right away.
Interestingly, he queried the use of ennet for innit in black British teenager Selvon’s chapters. ‘Why does he do that?’ he asked. It was the right choice, I think: innit is too familiar as a locution, and can seem reductive, even parodic. You want your character to seem ‘street’: you make her or him say “innit,” innit? And Selvon’s ennet is part of his interior monologue; it’s not actually voiced, and in that context it sinks happily into the drift of his thoughts, bobbing up every now and then as a form of semi-digested punctuation.
Gunaratne’s novel was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but not shortlisted, and it has been shortlisted for the Goldsmith Prize. I’d say that sounds about right. His approach is fresh, and structurally lively – on the surface, at least. By skipping around between five or six narrative voices, he jumps about his environment and orbits his central events rather in the manner of The Matrix’s bullet-time – the novel does feel three-dimensional – but two problems emerge.
Firstly, two of his narrative voices belong to elderly people, both of whose monologues focus almost exclusively on the past – the British civil rights movement of the 1960s, and Northern Ireland during the violence of The Troubles. They are interesting, and show real range in the writing, but all this harking back has a braking effect on the narrative.
Secondly, and more generally, the breadth of these different narrative voices also slows down the novel’s movement. The events it describes take place over 24 or perhaps 48 hours or so (writing from memory) and the lead-up to the quite substantial climactic event is so brief as to largely defuse any sense of drama. It’s like a pocket-sized version of Underworld, and it needs, if not a bigger canvas then certainly a longer timeline to make the impact it might – as a novel. It’s brilliant at set-up, character, the ambient noise of a true dream of life, but it’s less good at acts and scenes.
Normal People was also on the Man Booker longlist and not the shortlist, and again that feels about right to me – though I say this without having read any of the ten other longlisted novels. No particular kudos to them, then, but Normal People feels like a brilliant novel that needed a final twist to make it completely outstanding. I wrote at length about it here, but in short: it does character, and dialogue, and environment just as well as In Our Mad and Furious City – albeit far more restrictedly in terms of its social reach, engaging class and gender relations but not race or ethnicity – and it does time much better than that book, showing how people change, and don’t, over months and years. But it is lacking a novelistic backbone, or skeleton.
Furious City’s novelistic backbone is missing too, which Gunaratne tries to make up for with his rushed climax that feels like nothing. The more I read Normal People, on the other hand, the more I felt like it was about to make a killer statement about the novel form – how life simply doesn’t have a shape like novels do, and so the novel form is a lie – but it never quite did. It doesn’t work like a novel, but doesn’t really find a way of making its meandering narrative form seem like a serious conceptual alternative.
Along with Normal People the highlight to my reading month – and surely one of the highlights of my year – was Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince, which I picked up for a quid from a charity shop (having thoroughly enjoyed Catherine Taylor’s piece about it in the Brixton Review of Books) and launched into straight away. Continue reading
I wrote recently about my first exposure to Sally Rooney’s writing, and the dilemma I faced, or conjured, as to whether buy her then-Booker-longlisted novel Normal People in hardback or wait for it in paperback – a debate that wasn’t simply down to price. In the end I was saved my deliberations when a kind student lent me a proof copy of the book. I will certainly be buying it in paperback when it comes out, and I may well be putting it on the curriculum at St Mary’s, Twickenham, where I teach.
The usefulness of Rooney to Creative Writing students – and teachers – is something I will discuss below (and this will involve a spoiler near the end: I’ll give you fair warning) but my general response to the novel is a solid continuation of my thoughts about the extract and early version story I had read in Granta and The White Review: this is a great book, that matches a warm, oblique narrative style to a pair of characters who, while immensely likeable (or ‘compelling’, if you quail at the L-word) are also intensely uncertain about the value or depth of their own qualities: the more time they spend poking and probing at their own selves, the further they get from any definite conclusion, and so they rely on each other – on their relationship with each other – to ground themselves, but seeing as they continually misstep, misspeak and misconstrue, they are always finding that solid ground shifting beneath them.
Thus the warm – we like them – and thus the oblique – they are continually struggling to find the perspective that Rooney offers the reader, from which they can be seen as genuinely likeable.
Again, the first thing to love about Normal People is the characters; the second thing to love is the cool narrative style, that dips into each character’s thought processes, and lets them be themselves, up close and personal, for the reader, but also steps away, and allows the reader to see them at an emotional distance. The mix of this is something Rooney gets absolutely right, and people have talked on Twitter about getting very closely involved in this couple as they read the book. I concur.
A brief introduction, then. The couple are Marianne and Connell, who as teenagers in small-town Ireland develop a secret and passionate friendship that crosses class divisions both in the town (Connell’s mother is Marianne’s family’s cleaner) and in school (where Connell is popular and Marianne is ostracised). The novel shifts locus but not focus when Connell follows Marianne to Dublin to study at Trinity, where they are both high-performing students. The novel is essentially one long on-off/will they?-won’t they? narrative as the two of them repeatedly grow close, sleep together, piss each other off, take other partners and then fall back into each other. The reasons for their separate and individual inability to commit, or trust – each other, and themselves – become clear as the novel progresses, but… Well, I’ll get to the but in a moment.
(If you want to get a sense of how cherished this book might become to future generations of romantically-inclined novel readers, there’s a lovely hint halfway through, when Connell is backpacking around Europe in the summer holidays. In his backpack is “a very beaten-up copy of a James Salter novel”. I think we know which James Salter novel that is, right, people? That’s right, it’s A Sport and a Pastime. People will love Normal People as much as people love that book: take my word for it. Continue reading
I hadn’t read any Sally Rooney until a couple of days ago when I was reminded on Twitter that there was a story in a back issue of The White Review that features the two characters – Marianne and Connell – from Normal People, Rooney’s Booker-longlisted and roundly lauded second novel. (Interestingly, this is from 2016, before the publication of her debut, Conversations with Friends.)
I read it, and loved it.
Then this morning I decided to take the latest Granta magazine (‘Generic Love Story’) into the bath with me for a lazy Sunday morning read, and there she was again, in the form of an actual extract from the book. (You can read it online.)
I read it, and loved it too, and finished with teary eyes.
Although this isn’t the main point of this post, I’ll say briefly that my reasons for loving it are more or less the same reasons other people have mentioned in reviews and online: that Rooney makes you care about the characters, which is perhaps an unfashionable thing; but also she seems utterly contemporary. This comes partly in the depiction of contemporary attitudes – to relationships, to sex – or rather of the contemporary ways of conceptualizing attitudes that themselves are probably as old as the hills; and also partly in the smooth integration of contemporary technology etc into the narrative, but also in the way the prose seems alive to the texture of life today.
One example: in the Granta extract, teenage Connell’s mother puts the kettle on, something that has happened countless times in realist prose fiction since the invention of kettles, or realism, whichever came first, but this time we get this: “She laughed, fixing the kettle into its cradle and hitting the switch.” And I realise that’s the first time I’ve had a writer notice that that’s how kettles work these days. (Perhaps someone else has used it, but I missed it.) And if Rooney is noticing that, then what else is she noticing about modern life? The kettle moment is like a concrete token offered to reader that encourages them to believe that the more intangible things she’s noticing (do young people really think like that about sex?) are credible also.
Now as it happens I’m off out to my local bookshop shortly to buy a book as a present (in fact it may well be a copy of Conversations with Friends) and so I’m asking myself: should I get Normal People? I’m sure I’ll like it. There is also a definite thrill to buying a new book to read straightaway when I’m not exactly short of other books that I either want to read or feel I should.
But… here’s the thing: it’s hardback, and I don’t want to read Normal People in hardback. Nor do I want to have the hardback of Normal People on my shelves.
Why is this?
Well, there are bad and shallow reasons why I might feel this. She’s a female writer is the most obvious one, and I don’t want to accord her the status of hardback author. She’s a paperback writer, to quote George Harrison out of context. Do I think this? I hope not. Or rather: the status thing is true. Not everything is worth buying in hardback. But I hope that my measuring of her worth doesn’t involve sexism.
Let’s take a step back. Continue reading