Posts Tagged ‘hamish hamilton’

I was talking to a friend the other day about how it seems to be baby season, how we have swiftly and surely reached the age where our family, friends and colleagues generate offspring without any scandal – indeed, it is expected. In response to this influx of infants, I found myself saying, ‘I don’t want to have a baby, but I don’t want not to have had a baby.’ And then I mentally slapped myself across the wrist, for I had just paraphrased Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories I had been reading. (Not that I had done very much paraphrasing – many of Davis’s stories are renowned for their brevity.) But the ease with which the words left my mouth signalled to me just the genius of Davis’s plain rendering of people’s interiors. Instead of padding stories out, she trains her storytelling on dilemmas in an intimate, immediate way.

Not all of the situations Davis depicts are as straightforward as the one I parroted, though – time and time again her narrators painstakingly work through problems that seem a little left of the centre show; or they are at the beginning of their workings-out, taking an exploratory path that unearths only a proliferation of other avenues. The collection is remarkably assured right throughout its bulk – over 700 pages, almost 200 stories, the work of more than ten years. It’s a beautiful tome, as well, which  you can slot in right next to Lorrie Moore’s collected stories, if your library is arranged by Pantone colour.

My review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis appears in this month’s Australian Literary Review, the first under the editorship of Luke Slattery. It comes with today’s edition of The Australian. You can see the contents list and the editorial here, or purchase online access to the day’s edition here. Enjoy!

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December 22, 2008

Before the phoenix rises, it must burn. You could say it’s a sort of death the bird goes through, dipping and disintegrating through fire as it does. Nam Le’s The Boat deals intimately with the creep towards death, actual or figurative, and the possibility that something seemingly worthy of immortality might simply be a bird. Whether it’s the life of a story, tortured and guilty on a Vietnamese son’s typewriter, or the life of a mother who wants to die by the sea, Le writes experiences that glow and ignite with incandescent power. The violence of reality spends these lives without regret.

The heart of these stories is large, their scope undeniably ambitious. Hiroshima is beautifully textured with the wonder, vocabulary and privations of a child whose future, we are aware, is the stuff of historical atrocity. I was predisposed to admire and love Halflead Bay, the slow heart of the book, from which I’d heard Le read at MWF. Set in an Australian fishing town, this story, about familial friction and the lassitude of waiting for loss, thrums deeply and long with myriad complex notes. Yet a note on the execution: they are sophisticated and assiduous, but sometimes fall short of feeling lived in. Reading Tehran Calling, where the writing leans towards didactic, I felt like a horse whose rider forgot the reins, except for an occasional graceful whisk to the right or left. Though these stories had many, many virtues, to read them was sometimes to lean against glass and gaze upon the heroism of pain, without much hope of traversing the barrier.

Not so with the titular story, Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice, which had my lungs extrude air with pure emotion (warning: not a great public transport book). The barriers between reader and story here attenuate to the extent that you can press your face as if through evaporated glass, so numinous does Le render catastrophe. This is a story that has had a lot of attention from reviewers and readers. The protagonist is an almost-Le; ‘Nam’, a young man of Vietnamese descent struggling with meter and typing in Iowa when his father arrives, wearing ‘black trousers and a wet, wrinkled parachute jacket that looked like it had just been pulled out of a washing machine.’ It’s a heartbreaking, yet incredibly formal treatment of story, its capacity to exploit and be trafficked, the accomplishment of it, its ownership.

I’ve kind of run out of time. I want to discuss the story Love and Honour a bit more — I think I’ll have to make it a separate post. Some last reflections: I was very attracted to this book, and I finished it, despite its occasional clunkiness and at times extravagant formality. I am still thinking about it and will continue to do so. I admire its scope and ambition. I admire its non-skittishness. I would recommend it above anything else I’ve read lately. I feel like I don’t quite understand it and why I’m so affected by it. I feel strangely unaffected by some of it. But, I don’t know, is the only value of a book to love it resoundingly? Isn’t it best to read a book that makes you think unremittingly?

Anne Elliot has an arrogant father and two sisters who treat her like a scullery maid. More interestingly, she has an old flame, Captain Wentworth, who is now wealthy and will barely speak three words to her. Anne is probably in my top two favourite Austen heroines. She is sensible but her sensibilities are not cloying, and her suffering is intimately shared. Captain Wentworth is as dashing, cruel and agitated a lover as Darcy. Another ‘seemingly unrequited love’ story–I could drink this stuff up with a straw.

‘He was helping me with my faith, yeah? He’s the head of the Cricklewood branch of the Keepers of the Eternal and Victorious Islamic Nation.’
The headmaster frowned. ‘KEVIN?’
‘They are aware they have an acronym problem,’ explained Irie.

In case you’re interested, this is the first Zadie Smith book I ever read, and it’s the only one I have read. I actually read it in February of last year, an entire year ago. Yet my feelings about this book are as fresh as they were then. Some of these feelings pre-date the actual act of reading – I remember my reluctance to read it, because White Teeth is what Jonathan Franzen referred to in Strong Motion as ‘implicating’. Being on the young side of your twenties, sitting on a tram seat, reading this book: you might as well also project the screen of your ipod onto the inner tram wall and show everyone that you are listening to Joanna Newsom and are going home to drink a wine whose purchase price is only slightly but definitely outside your means. You might as well whisper into your fellow tram-traveller’s ear that you are going to see your friend’s band play tonight and are likely to earn a bruise from falling off your bike when riding home afterwards.

Notwithstanding my distaste for being so easily pigeonholed by my reading matter, which is easily a kind of snobbery or at least a manifestation of guilty defensiveness that Smith was my age when White Teeth was published to international acclaim, I finally got on with it. I had two broad reactions to this novel; the first relates to pages 27-520, the second relates to the first and final chapters.

Reaction the first: The wily weaving of Smith’s writing encompasses the doings of a multitude of characters, each as beguiling, funny and complete as a major character should be. White Teeth‘s scintillating dialogue and component predicaments suggest that Smith has equably mastered a coherent vision of the state of migrant culture. Plus, it’s extremely readable – the observational narrative wiggles along without the extraordinary heft with which Salman Rushdie invests his geographically similar postcolonial landscapes. Central to White Teeth are the comings and goings of three families: the (Anglo-Jamaican) Joneses, the (liberal Jewish-Catholic) Chalfens and the (Bangladeshi) Iqbals. The antics of these clans have been prepared in such a way that, despite their ready wit, conflicts of religion and race constantly display their tiny claws. At these junctions there is rarely resolution, a condition that even the patent intelligence and tenacity of Irie Jones, the most compelling of the second-generation characters, cannot displace.

Reaction the second: The main body of the novel is uniformly complex and precise. It is micro-detail at its best, and this is why I found the first and final chapters so disappointing. The first chapter reveals Archie Jones, soon to be patriarch of the London Joneses, within the grasp of (a nonetheless very funny and awkward) suicide attempt. Its tone is that of a short story rather than the opening of a novel; more strident than the remainder and less faithful to Archie Jones than it perhaps should be. However, it certainly serves some literary purposes; it introduces Jones, whose story is the catalyst for those of others, as well as establishing White Teeth’s a patently multicultural setting.

The conclusion of the novel however was what I found most troubling. Each character’s journey collides in a surprising and extremely neat way. Yet this reveals a macro-structure which reduces the effects of the novel’s extreme sensitivity to detail, a kind of reverse resolution. From inspecting the minutiae of the drama, from traversing the streets at pixel-level, we are dragged into a somewhat farcical culmination of these filaments. I’m not sure everyone would react in the same way – there is certainly a level of genius to the hysterical but consummate convergence of the many narrative strands.

Despite these bitter complaints, the greater part of White Teeth constitutes an alluring and accomplished venture. The subjects of science, fanaticism and family are broached with a lightness of touch and a prodigious sense of character that does smith credit and beyond. By the way, in case you’re interested, it’s also one of Time Magazine’s 100 books of all-time.