Time and place. We’re in post-apartheid South Africa, apparently in the largest city, Johannesburg. We’re at the turn of the millennium, early in the new century. The Pickup (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 270 pages) begins with a scene describing a helpless woman and “clustered predators round a kill.” But not to worry, it’s only a modern young white woman, Julie Summers, having car trouble in the midst of a traffic snarl. Her gesture: “hands, palms open, in surrender.” I give up. Help me. They do. Julie Summers is assured of help because she is white and her father is rich. Her social status is that of one who belongs; she is born into privilege, part of the “real” world of Western capitalism. But does she feel that she belongs? Is her world really real? No. So we have, early on, the central theme of the book: identity, or the lack of, belonging and unbelonging. Continue reading →
The boy’s name is Tesfahun. Nestled in the vastness of Ethiopia, he lives among an ancient tribe untouched by modern civilization. His people live an isolated life where revenge killings are required and ruled by superstitions where mingi or cursed babies are thrown into the river for the sake of the tribe.
As friends are forced to avenge the tribe and children disappear in the night, Tesfahun begins to question his people and his beliefs, growing further from his grief stricken mother and hardened father. After his initiation into manhood, Tesfahun discovers a terrible secret about his family and himself. Continue reading →
In Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest (2014), set in a Nazi death camp, the Commander, Paul Doll, has his wife, Hannah, and two daughters living with him in the “zone,” where the smell of rotting flesh from the mass graves functions as a persistent clue that things have gone very, very wrong in the world.
How did the German civilians go about their lives and continue to be human beings in such an atmosphere? That’s the question that must have compelled Amis to write this novel. While no sane person can fully imagine the answer to that question, Amis creates a few plausible stories that people might have told themselves. Continue reading →
Literary fiction about science remains an exception. When C.P. Snow voiced concern in 1959 about “Two Cultures” in reference to the growing gap between science and the arts, it created a stir. Nowadays, no one would debate the notion. It has hardened into fact.
Often, when literary fiction tries to engage with science, it tends toward speculative writing. For instance, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Ian McEwan’s Solar or any of a number of Richard Powers’ novels. They show a hypothetical present or future and ask: “What if?” Continue reading →
The Brothers Carburi (Bloomsbury, 311 pages) tells the story of three brothers who lived in the eighteenth century. Born in the Greek Ionian Islands, which were at the time in possession of the Republic of Venice, “none of the brothers thought of himself as Greek.” The language they most speak and think in is Italian, although many other languages come into play: Greek, Latin, French, and even a smattering of Russian. Oddly enough, in this, a novel written in English, none of the brothers is conversant in that language. Continue reading →
What made Orwell’s 1984 a classic? The language of this high-school required reading isn’t particularly memorable, with the obvious exception of phrases like, “war is peace,” and “ignorance is strength.” The plot swings rustily on an ill-fated romance in the first part. The lovers, Winston and Julia, are unlikable, one-dimensional, selfish anybodies. In the second part, Winston’s torturer O’Brien, like Milton’s Satan, steals the literary stage for a bit, but, even so, his evil nature lacks style, compared to, say, Medea or the Judge. Remarkably, however, I will say, that, as tragedies go, 1984 pulls its hero down lower than any Greek drama or Cormac McCarthy novel that I can think of. Winston Smith ends in total dehumanization when he accepts Big Brother into his heart as his savior.
It may be the bleakest book.
What made the book so popular—beyond its utility to American Cold War propagandists targeting Soviets—is that the literary naturalism brought the imagined surveillance state into reality. The gritty dismal future was made concrete and literal. Fully realized fear powerfully attracts readers. This is your future. Here we are. Continue reading →
Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View of Hills, first published in 1982, Vintage paperback, 1990, 183 pp.
Sometimes I think I’m not a very attentive reader. I didn’t really catch on to the narrative trick of this, Ishiguro’s first published novel, until near the end. Going back for a second reading—all really good fiction deserves, and sometimes demands a second reading—I found all sorts of clues that I missed the first time through. More on the trick later.
I did not discover Ishiguro until recently; the fact that the won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017 makes you stand up and take notice, but plenty of nobelist-writers seem somehow undeserving, while the very best writers are often passed over. Not so Ishiguro; he’s deserving. Continue reading →
J.M. Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg (Penguin Books, 1995, 250 pp.). First published in Great Britain in 1994.
Abbreviations used in this article: FM (Fyodor Mikhailovich [Dostoevsky], AG (Anna Grigorievna [Snitkina-Dostoevskaya], his wife), AS (Anna Sergeyevna, character in Coetzee’s novel), Master (The Master of Petersburg)
Note: Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky was born in 1821; the year 2021 marks the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Continue reading →
Long form art in any medium seems to be losing the battle of immediacy and a novel that demands its reader to devote oneself to be silent and exist has the odds stacked against it. With Rice’s novel Here Lies Memory (Black Scat Books, 316 pages), those who allow themselves to simply be will find a haunting beauty in the lives of the characters, in their pasts and within each carefully chosen word.
The first of an in-progress trilogy about his hometown of Pittsburgh, Here Lies Memory marks a departure for the often avant garde Rice towards a linear, traditional narrative structure though the characters are anything but traditional. Doug Rice studied under John Gardner and it seems the meticulous understanding of character Gardner used has found its place in Doug Rice’s novel. It is within these characters that the sanctity of memory is displayed and this can only be achieved if the writer truly knows and empathizes the very soul of the characters. Here Lies Memory focuses on a mix of multi-racial, multigenerational characters who remain stagnant and, for some, paralyzed by trauma and memory. Continue reading →
In the early pages of the W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, (Modern Library—Random House, 298 pages), in the year 1967, the narrator visits the Antwerp Nocturama. There he comes upon a woebegone raccoon who “sat beside a little stream with a serious expression on its face, washing the same piece of apple over and over again, as if it hoped that all this washing, which went far beyond any reasonable thoroughness, would help it to escape the unreal world in which it had arrived, so to speak, through no fault of its own.” Continue reading →