29. Unaccompanied Minors, by Alden Jones

16 Oct


This post originally ran on Vol.1 Brooklyn.

In the 1980s, I went to an East Coast boarding school that was made notorious by a gang-rape of a drunk girl by a group of boys, a few years before I attended. It happened in the dorms after lights-out, and dozens of kids who weren’t participants knew about it and did nothing, including an eventual friend of mine. He was 14, terrified, and hid under his bed. As a teenager I found this bit of lore noteworthy not because it was surprising but because it wasn’t. The rape and the silence seemed just like what would happen, given the school and the people around me. The surrounding adult hysteria felt distant and insincere.

Looking back, I can no longer summon that youthful brutality but I do remember it, and was startled to find it parsed and made meaningful in the excellent, excellent Unaccompanied Minors, a collection of short stories by Alden Jones. The book won the 2013 New American Fiction Prize, and was published in June 2014 by New American Press. It takes the young and the brutal—anorexic suburban girls, bad babysitters, gay boys paying for sex from boys slightly less fortunate, a drunk party-girl making fun of homeless people, and yes, a girl who sets her friend up to be maybe date-raped—observes them omnivorously and, with the lightest of touches, makes their dramas morally relevant.

(I suppose now would be a good time to say that Alden is a college friend of mine, and I’ve seen earlier versions of most of these stories, and remember the real-life events they’re loosely based on. Reading them as a collection has been a disconcerting experience, full of new insight.)

The opening piece, “Shelter,” starts like this: “We’re in a homeless shelter in Asheville, NC. We think it’s funny. How did all these people in some hellish hickish place like Asheville, NC, get homeless, that’s what we want to know. It’s so crowded we have to sleep on the floor.” The narrator is funny, but she’s also just a little bit of a sociopath. And then the next line dislocates her further: “I’m with this dyke Spike who I met in Ft Lauderdale, FL. She’s got an old white Toyota and a tent where we’ve been sleeping the past month.”

Who is this girl, who is adrift, yet able to carelessly despise people more adrift than she? She clearly doesn’t know. She’s on the road, rootless, uncertain of her sexuality (Spike’s the dyke, not her), following her urges. Wherever she’s from, it doesn’t matter. Where she’s going, she doesn’t care. In the end, she blows off thought in favor of beer, saying, “My brain’s all clear, way too clear for me to handle much less sleep, so I say Spikey, let’s hit the road, let’s drive all night until the 7-11 decides it’s Monday and we can get ourselves a six pack.”

Thoughtless, charming, seeking—she’s a surprisingly complex character (they all are), and as the first perspective in the book, she sets up many themes—self-knowledge and its lack, compassion and its lack, the lack of familial ties, sex as an agent of change.

The second story is about an abortion, that feature of the wealthy suburbs. In the third, “Thirty Seconds,” a little boy drowns in the country club pool, seen from the point of view of his babysitter. “The fact that Johnny Kirk is dead has little to do with me,” the narrator says. Her hours were over, she wasn’t technically in charge of the boy at the time, and overall, she thinks, “I handled it well.” She’s monstrous in her lack of compassion (or possibly denial), but she’s also almost a child herself. And through her eyes we glimpse the milieu that created her and endangered her charge—the distracted, wealthy parents, the unpleasant gender expectations, the bad marriages and venal concerns. This milieu’s children, as Jones wonderfully puts it elsewhere, are “orphaned by leisure and frivolity.”

“30 Seconds” is the only story where the lack of parenting is made overt, but I felt that the silence was deafening. Parents, family, nurture, inform every page by their absence. Either that, or the author’s point is that every kid has to, eventually, invent themselves without help.

Sex is a force that drives the inventing, perhaps because it drags even the self-absorbed into contact with other people, or at least into contact with themselves.  The narrator of “Freaks,”  says that sex “lifted you out of your skin at the same time it put you more solidly inside your body than you ever had been before.” She’s explaining the feeling to her best friend, who is casually described as a “rexie,” despite the life-threatening seriousness of her condition. In this story, the body-embracing girl lives and the body-denying girl dies, a chilling winnowing that nonetheless feels true.

This story also contained a detail that’s emblematic of just how granular and good Jones’s observations are. The anorexic best friend “would pull a stick of gum out of her pocket, place the stick of gum flat on her tongue, and play with the wrapper until it was a mess of little foil-and-paper balls.” Every shade of anorexia is contained in just lying the gum flat. She’s tasting it for as long as she can without chewing it. She’s delaying the moment of taking a bite. Realizing that made  a pool of sympathetic synthetic-sugar-spit puddle on my tongue. I remember those days, too.

The point-of-view matures through different narrators as the collection advances. The sexual power discovered by the narrator in “Freaks” is refined upon by the narrator of “Heathens.” Now she’s an English teacher in Costa Rica, trying to distinguish herself as less clueless and exploitative than the evangelical American teens who come through the town to proselytize. Somehow this leads her to set up one of the evangelicals—a girl in whom she sees herself—on a date that will possibly turn into a date-rape.

Here’s her reasoning (the story is voiced as a monologue from one girl to the other):

“Molly, if you want Jorge I hope, I hope you’ll take him. But it will be more likely that you won’t. He’ll have the condoms, and he has my blessing—but even without those things Jorge might feel he has a right to you. And I’m giving you a chance to take matters into your own hands; this is my gift to you. No one to hide behind, no one to give that cute pout to, Molly. Just you. Deciding what you want and taking it.”

This terrible idea has a kind of power to it—at least, a power I would have recognized as a teenager. I think the narrator is doing the wrong thing, but I appreciate the experimentation, the narrow margins, the raw electricity of the idea. This way, when a character finally makes a good decision, for a right reason (at the very end of the last story), it’s been hard-enough won.

Before the book ends, though, there’s a pivot from stories about primarily American characters to “Sin Alley,” about a gay boy fighting to win the affection of an allegedly straight rent boy, set in Costa Rica with an all Costa Rican–cast. (His victory, naturally, comes at an enormous price in child-blood.)  The story was bridged by “Heathens,” also set in Costa Rica, but still feels anomalous since we’ve made the cultural leap from American suburbs. Ultimately I thought the linkage of such disparate groups by sexuality and danger was one of the book’s most effective surprises.

Unaccompanied minors are created by all kinds of circumstance, but they have this much in common: They were formed by a deficiency of care, and don’t know the first thing about it, and if they’re very, very lucky, hopscotching along the signposts of sex and love, they might figure it out and make it out alive. The title for the last story is a good note to end on: “Flee.” You flee something life-threatening—childhood, in this case—into the future. It’s called growing up.




28. Fear, by Gabriel Chevallier

2 Oct


It’s a central tenet of war literature that the men who were there either can’t or won’t speak about it, which is I suppose why Gabriel Chevallier’s Fear, a WWI memoir recently re-released by the New York Review of Books imprint is so shocking. It stands alone among everything I’ve read about that war (which is quite a bit) in that the author describes it. He strips away that long-preserved mystery (for me) of what it was like to be there.  The descriptions are earthy, precise, and terrifying.

“Little by little we advanced into the active zone, the danger zone. It felt warmer and stuffier, like a place that was lived in; there was a powerful smell of human bodies, a mixture of fermentation and excrement and food that had gone bad. Men were snoring behind the embankments we brushed past, and glimmers of light marked the openings of the dugouts where they lay. We had to keep ducking to avoid the tangles of wires, traverses and plank bridges.”

Chevallier served in the trenches himself, but the book is nominally a novel, the story of a Jean Dartemont, a 19-year-old French student who was an enlisted man for all five years of war, a bright, sardonic intellectual who thinks the war is not “great or noble” from the outset, but goes anyway. He explains “I went against all my convictions, but still of my own free will—not to fight but out of curiosity: to see.”

Later, he describes what it was like to fight, (which he says boils down to running):

“I am lifted up, deaf, blinded by a cloud of smoke, pierced by a sharp smell. Something is clawing at me, tearing me. I must be shouting without hearing myself. A sudden shaft of clarity. ‘Your legs are blown off!’ For a start… My body leaps and runs. The explosion has set it off like some machine. Behind me, someone is shouting ‘faster!’ in a voice of pain and madness. Only then do I actually realize I am running.”

Most war books provide some gruesome detail, a corpse, an eyeball, an experience, a breaking-point. This one does too, plenty of them, but without the relief of such points being of especial significance. The breaking-point, if there is one, is the prolonged effect of fear and the cumulative degradation that war visits on the men who fight. Dartemont spends what feels like a month at the Chemin Des Dames. I’m not sure which battle, but almost half a million people died in one battle there. He describes cowering underground, what a man thinks, where he takes a shit, when he stops shitting. It’s one of the most awful true stories I’ve ever read. I can’t think of a more worthy re-release.

Ironically, the book was first published in 1930 and the publisher shortly thereafter voluntarily suspended sales because of the second World War. It was first translated into English in 2011. I’m happy to discover that Chevallier survived, married, had a child and wrote a lot of French bestsellers. He died in Cannes in 1965. The Internet says these are some photos of him:

741 1239542424_extras_ladillos_1_0 6a00d8345284f669e20133f5643ffe970b-320wi MauriceChevalier31RI

27. I Loved You More, Tom Spanbauer

2 Oct


This post was originally posted on HTML Giant.

I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer starts with a slow burn, like an acid trip, of which there are a few in the book:  There’s a preliminary period of seemingly aimless hanging out, and just when you start thinking nothing is going to happen, the room lights up, your heart lurches, and everything begins to glow.

Other writers have tried to quantify the transformation that occurs reading Spanbauer’s writing, the feeling of truth as opposed to artifice, the sense that now we’re really talking. The closest I can come is that it felt like letting air and light into a dark room. The book’s narrator, Ben Gruneberg says it much better, “When you get close to the vein that’s pulsing truth, when you open that vein, you can scrub your soul clean with the blood.”

Spanbauer is known for his truth-telling and open veins. He’s a gay writer and creative-writing teacher in Portland, Oregon, one of the gang of Portland writers of whom Cheryl Strayed and Chuck Palahniuk are the most famous, and Lidia Yuknavitch is the most beloved to me, personally. (Though, I don’t know if all these people are really a gang, or if that’s an outsider’s perception; I’m calling a Portland School, and assuming Spanbauer is a founder.) His Wikipedia entry says that he’s been living with HIV since the 90s, and his AIDS book, In the City of Shy Hunters is a literary classic.

This latest novel, I Loved You More, published by Hawthorne Press in April 2014, is also a gay coming-of-age story, a living-with-AIDS story, and a story about male friendship, which seems to be mostly autobiographical. In it, Spanbauer’s alter ego, Ben Gruneberg—like Spanbauer, a writer and writing teacher with the same basic points of biography—chronicles his lifelong friendship with a straight male writer, Hank Christian, and the explosive end of that relationship. A bit of Google-digging will reveal a possible candidate for the real-life model of Hank.

On one level, it’s not a particularly dramatic story—a love triangle! featuring three writers! in Portland! and a pot of kale!—and how it all ends is mostly revealed on the first page. Moreover friendship is usually a side-story, not a main event, and devoting a book to the demise of one feels odd. The first section takes place in New York in the late 80s, when Ben and Hank are young writers at Columbia, studying under a fictionalized version of Gordon Lish, and their hanging-out, and the importance Spanbauer imbued it with, took a while to seize hold of me. And then it did.

Part of the alienation and then the magic is Spanbauer’s prose style, which is beatnik-ish in an old-fashioned way, using slang and refrains, a lot of fucking this or fucking that, man. His sentences are unconventional and fragmentary: “That old litany in this strange new place, how it made my heart stop.” Or this description of a leather bar: “In front of us, three men deep. Beyond, the bar is dark. Smoky dark. A foggy night, an ocean of men, dark waves. They have a sound, the waves, here and there bursts of pirate laughter, then no laughter.”

It occurred to me to find this lazy, but later the style felt essential, as did the book’s emphasis on friendship. Ben’s story was one of overcoming everything—his crushing mother and sister, his homophobic father and small-conservative-town upbringing, his early marriage to a woman, his own shame for being gay, his later fear and shame over his HIV+ diagnosis—and thus insisting on everything. When your story is all-wrong, truth is only thing you’ve got, and it comes in its own language, at its own pace, possibly without conventional sentences or the commercial narrative arc insisted on by mainstream book publishing (imagine that!). Ben is a gay man who loves a straight man, and they’re just friends, and not even particularly enlightened friends, but the type who can each get sick (Ben with AIDS, Hank with cancer) and be too shamefaced to even call each other, just like men, for twelve years. Sometimes that’s what love looks like.

Here’s one of Spanbauer’s most searing passages: “Seven years married, spiritually dead is right there again, right in my face, ready to devour me again. No longer a line around me that says this is me, this is my space, and you have to acknowledge this space because it’s sacred and that line has to be there because it took my whole life to set up that line and without it I cannot exist.” [Emphasis mine]

This is a book about taking your whole life to be able to tell your own love story—not the one you are supposed to have, but the one that is yours—and then telling it as truthfully as possible.

After the passage quoted earlier about opening a vein and letting truth pour out, here’s what Ben says next, describing anal sex to Hank (who asked, but possibly didn’t really want to know), on a New York City street, one very early morning a long time ago:

“‘Suddenly,’ I say, ‘my ass sucks in his cock as if his cock is life and I’m a dying man. Fucked me like I’d never been fucked. A fist jammed through my burning ass, reaching up to my heart, holding on tight, cradling me like a baby. Everything is exploding. Merge. There’s no other word for the way I come.’ … Hank doesn’t blink. The way his black eyes look, I know something’s changed.”

It’s a beautiful example of choosing truth over fear—of a character saying the scariest and most raw thing he could. As a culture, we’re scared of sex, we’re scared of being ridiculed when we talk about sex, we’re scared of male penetration, especially a man desiring it (“my ass sucks in his cock” ), we’re scared of emotion attached to graphic representations of sex (“reaching up to my heart”), we’re scared of our infant-selves (accessed during sex!?!), we’re scared of merging, of admitting we felt merge-y, we’re terrified of judgement…. All of that, yet Ben speaks anyway.

Spanbauer is equally, painfully frank on living with HIV, and on sexuality and age. He goes digging for Ben’s worst fear and finds Catholic-boy horror-visions of a worst self twisting in hell—a vision that’s ultimately human, normal and reassuring. The cumulative effect is a bravery high, something that starts slow and becomes ecstatic.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite part, in a book where I had so many. A description of being depressed as having a “charcoaled soul.” Three people fighting and crying outside in the rain. Old people, old bodies, disease being treated with respect. A balding, purple-haired man with a glass eye and tumors getting the girl. This statement about AIDS:  “The way it eats at your brain, when you sit quiet you can actually hear the virus in your head.”

But if I had to pick it’s possibly a funny one, of Ben returning to the East Village in New York City, (the descriptions of New York throughout are superb), and finding so much of it gone and changed. He’s staggering around, remembering a city I remember too, looking with horror at the New York I now know.  He goes back to his favorite bar on the West Side Highway, and sees, “From out of the bones of the building that used to be the Spike, a strange new tower has risen up and out, shiny bright. Another spaceship that’s set its ass smack down on my history. Aliens from spaceships man.” And later, “Aliens man. Billionaire aliens.”

I walk around New York City now and think of Tom Spanbauer often, for his bravery and truthfulness. And then I laugh at the billionaire aliens.







26. Sugar Skull, Charles Burns

24 Sep

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 9.49.46 PM

The last volume in Charles Burns’s graphic novel trilogy that began with X-ed Outone of my favorite works of art of the past few years—ends here with a bzzzz and a whimper.

In it Doug, the Tintin-like protagonist chasing his girlfriend Sarah through alternative dimensions, is older, fatter, sober, and finally ready to grow up, at least a little. Burns neatly wraps up the stories and symbolism behind all the strange elements—the radioactive eggs, Sarah’s confinement in the hive, the depressed father watching TV in the basement of Doug’s childhood house, the man clinging to a log in a river of muck—and that was, for me, a problem.

The power of the earlier volumes relied on interrupting narrative. Doug slipped in and out of dream-states; elements changed dramatically between books one and two; some pages were populated with empty frames and clouds of smoke. In their looseness and weirdness, the books slipped into psychic spaces that realism just can’t. I’m befuddled that Burns chose to tie it all up in a bow in the end.

Sugar Skull mostly takes place in the real-world, with the parts in the hive-world offering obvious counterpoint to Doug’s real-world morality play. The wrap-up offers a legit premise—a young man is unwilling to grow up and becomes an asshole because of it. He’s the guy who, when you strip away the drama, is just stunted and eventually misses the boat on love and life. The guy whose pain is the only interesting thing about him. It feels real, but falls flat. Somehow Burns fails to animate the horror of that position. We’re still watching Doug freak out about girls and eggs, without the meta-data that this is now utterly boring and beside the point.

That’s another way of saying that somehow I feel punches were pulled. There’s a beautiful frame where we see the face of the child Doug abandoned, and the child’s face is both dazzled and sly, and we know that he will grow up to wreak suffering if not on Doug on others, and it will be Doug’s fault. This child is not the end of a story, he’s the beginning. The terrifying thing is not that he’s dead, like the tiny little baby skeleton on the cover suggests, but that he’s alive.

I am sad, because I adore Charles Burns and could live inside his lines forever.

25. Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson

16 Sep


Reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver I found myself standing by my fridge, glass in hand jammed under the ice-maker, gigantic tome in the other hand, still reading. The book was so gripping and fast-moving, it was actually impossible to put down. I don’t think I’d even realized I’d stood up.

And then I read 628 pages and decided not to finish it, so clearly this will be a tale of extremes.

Neal Stephenson books are thrillers, but they’re intellectual thrillers. Quicksilver is the first volume of Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. It’s sometimes called historical fiction, since it’s set in the mid-1600s through early 1700s, but is in fact science fiction, about science in its infancy, when it was still called natural philosophy and was entangled with alchemy. Issac Newton, Leibniz and Spinoza are characters. The book’s breakneck pace is even more impressive considering that it’s stuffed with historically accurate politics, city geographies (London, Paris, Amsterdam, Colonial Boston) and war histories, and makes a genuine stab at elucidating various key moments in the development of mathematics.

The first section concerns a young natural philosopher named Daniel Waterhouse, the son of a Puritan revolutionary in London, as he leaves his father’s sphere of influence (but never entirely) and immerses himself in matters of science. Which naturally become political as well. The mixture of real, recognizable science we use today and total quackery is  delightful, and of course must have been how it was.  A man invents a thermometer on one day and then the next tries to make a dead man’s head produce a universal language. Others try to figure out how our hearts circulate blood by vivisecting a dog, which is depressing even to men of science. A man struggles to create a standardized unit of measure that can be replicated anywhere in the world. (I guess I’d imagined rulers traveling on pack-mules, but this way makes more sense…). It’s immensely pleasurable to see our daily technologies being invented—I feel like kids should read this for school, and then discuss truth vs. Stephenson. As a word geek, I was also in ecstasy over all the etymologies. “Cabal” was once an acronym; realize comes from real, the Spanish currency.

But then there’s the strange conceit that Quicksilver is three books in one volume. So about two-thirds through, Stephenson drops Waterhouse, Newton, etc., for two other characters, a vagabond named Half-Cocked Jack and his sort-of-girlfriend Eliza, a young woman from some made-up islands called Qwyghlm. Jack rescues Eliza from a Turkish whorehouse, and then their adventures speed up to the point of ridiculousness (though some of the action set-pieces are jaw-dropping). Neither character feels realistic in the slightest. There are excruciating passages in verse. Jack has syphylis and is losing his mind, resulting in boring surreal action. Eliza pursues a hokey and bizarre revenge plot against the French aristocrat who sold her into slavery, known for his love of eating extremely rotten fish. (If this is a real detail, it’s not convincing.)

Part of my problem with it, probably, is the difficulty of pulling off a happy-whore character, which Eliza is, to some extent. Stephenson handles it with sensitivity, giving her some power, and a lot of circumstantial outs. But…an incredibly beautiful young woman sold into slavery as a child gives me the rape-horrors; it’s hard to read such a character in the dashing-swashbuckling spirit she’s intended in.

I can sort of understand how Stephenson came up with the radical shift of the second book, since he was going for baroque, but it doesn’t work. And he’s so very, very good at so many things, I can’t understand why he doesn’t see it himself. How could the writer of book one, which had emotions, characters and high stakes, jump into the burlesque and not feel impoverished?

I dunno. Someone tell me. Should I keep going?


24. Paradise of the Blind, Duong Thu Huong

14 Sep


What a strange, wonderful, befuddling book, the first novel of one of Vietnam’s most important contemporary writers, Duong Thu Huong—of course I’d never heard of her, given the provincial habits of Americans regarding writers in translation. (This one is also thanks to the clerk at McNally Jackson. Always trust a man who starts ranting and muttering when you ask him a question about a book, is the lesson here!) I read Paradise of the Blind through, then turned around and started it again, partially for the beauty, and partially because the culture and concerns were so alien, I’d just started figuring it out when the book ended.

The protagonist, Hang, describes herself as “a pale young woman with a lost, worried expression, stooped shoulders, and cheap maroon wool suit. A frightened human being of about eighty-two pounds.” She’s an “exported worker” in Moscow, and the novel takes place mostly in flashbacks, as she takes a train across Russia to visit a communist-party uncle sometime in the 19080s.

Her story, as she starts it, “had all happened long before I was born,” by which she means that her family’s fate was determined long before her birth, when the rise of Ho Chi Minh and the Vietnamese communist government in the 50s forced land reform on the villages, split families, persecuted prosperous peasants, and created divisions in Vietnamese society still reverberating 30 years later. Hang’s family tree is a diagram of those divisions. One aunt is a rich peasant, who was stripped of her property during land reform, but came back much richer, and vehemently set on revenge. Her mother is a small-businesswoman (selling snacks on the street), despised by both the aunt and the communists. The mother’s life was destroyed by her brother’s (Hang’s uncle’s) ties to the communist party, yet the mother continues to love, support and serve him—because he’s older, and a man, as her culture demands. “‘Unhappiness forges a woman, makes her selfless, compassionate,'” the mother tells Hang.

Hang is caught between these forces, frightened by the competing demands of her mother and aunt, but unable to resist them thanks to the culture of self-sacrifice she’s grown up in. For most of the book she’s on a train, being passively whisked on an errand for her uncle, despite that she hates him. The tension in her story is between behaving as a traditional Vietnamese woman should, and making choices for herself. She says at the end of chapter two:

“It was then that I understood why the voice [of a Russian singer] had enchanted me. Like a call, it beckoned me to a kind of love—to revolt, the most essential force in human existence. I wrapped my arms around myself and huddled in a corner of the compartment. If only my mother could feel this revolt, if only her heart could gather a spark from this inferno.”

(I’m just realizing now that this passage is also a subtle way of explaining why the Vietnamese were attracted to communism, as an agent of cultural change.)

As an American reader 30 years later, coming from one of the most individualistic and rootless cultures on earth, I found it hard to empathize with Hang. Her sensitivity, her weeping, her self-loathing and self-sacrifice were alien, and off-putting. “Get off that train! Don’t go!,” I wanted to shout at her. But at the same time, my very negative reaction demanded a closer look. My heart denied her obligations because imagining living with them was too painful. So when I stopped, read, listened, and  accurately absorbed the forces arrayed against her, she became not weak and annoying, but tough and brave.

Duong, the author, was a political dissident in Vietnam, and some of the bravery on display is her own. The Paradise of the Blind is Vietnam, in her telling. Even this title displays the subtlety and reverberating dissonance that makes her prose, and the entire story, so excellent. I find that my brain jumps to “paradise.” The word sets up an expectation that we’re reading about someplace good. And then “blind” is layered. There’s a blind old man in the book who is not an evil character, but simply blind, and in fact a continuous and thus comforting presence in Hang’s slum neighborhood. But if we can overcome the positivity bias set up by the word “paradise,” a place that is paradise only for those who cannot accurately see it, is in fact no paradise at all.

And it’s precisely this that the young Vietnamese must struggle against—a society where all that has been set up to be good, true, idyllic and valued must be exposed and questioned, most especially the Vietnamese traditional heartland, the countryside, the most idealized and thus most difficult to examine.

Hang describes the countryside where her mother is from as “stifling” at times and of “terrifying, unnerving beauty, like a revelation,” at others.

Village life can be described like this:

“An ordinary pond, like the kind at home. A pond lost in some godforsaken village, in a place where the honking of cars and the whistling of trains is something mysterious, exotic. A place where young women bend like slaves at their husbands’ feet. A place where a man whips his wife with a flail if she dares lend a few baskets of grain or a few bricks to relatives in need. A strip of land somewhere in my country, in the 1980s…”

Or like this:

“On clear August nights, the rhythm of pestles pounding young rice rose from every courtyard in the village. The shrill jeer of women’s laughter was enough to shatter these millions of white flowers. As the intoxicating fragrance of cactus floated over the gardens, the villagers studied the moon: what did it mean, this red halo, this silvery sparkle of clouds biting into the intense blue of the sky? In winter, in the deep chill of the night, they could wake in an instant, tear themselves from the warmth of their beds, and run to the cowshed to light a fire or drag a bushel of straw to the buffalo. There are always those who are conscientious and loving, who worship what they do. Devotion like this is impossible to explain. No matter, for it was this love that ensured the survival of an entire way of life.”

Hang is from both those places, the brutal and backwards countryside, and the one tended with love. Understanding her is a gift. The book is a revelation. And I could basically read that prose forever.





23. Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

10 Aug

The UK cover is so much better, as usual

The UK cover is so much better, as usual

“Pat Barker is one of our greatest living novelists and nobody buys her anymore,” a clerk at McNally Jackson told me this weekend, while recommending Toby’s Room. I’ve read Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy several times, and Blow Your House Down, and was glad to be reminded of this wonderful novelist, and to discover that Toby’s Room was another World War I novel, like the Regeneration Trilogy, though not based on historical figures. That the Regeneration Trilogy is based on Sigfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves—incidentally, all men struggling with some degree of homosexuality, long before that was ok—gives it especial power and poignancy for me. Maybe I shouldn’t, but I’ve always read it as history.

Toby’s Room tells an intertwined story about Elinor Brooke, a young female art student, her brother Toby, a medical officer on the front, and Kit and Paul, two other young painters and soldiers who get tangled up in the Brooke family’s affairs, which are of course repressed, secretive and wounded. In an early scene from Elinor’s perspective, Barker writes “She wondered about the curious mixture of poking and prying and secrecy that ruled their lives.”

The secrecy within the family is mirrored, eventually, by the great secrecy of the war. Letters are censored, the official “war artists” (both Paul and Kit, by the book’s end) are not allowed to show corpses, but mainly the men who were there find it impossible to talk about. In a chapter from Paul’s perspective, Barker writes that, “It had become a preoccupation of his—almost an obsession—working out how the war had changed him; other people too, of course. He never managed to talk openly about it…”.

The visible effects of the war that Paul and Kit bring back, are wounds. Paul has a bad knee, Kit an extremely terrible facial disfigurement. Elinor finds work in a war hospital, drawing the wounded. Paul and Kit paint landscapes to paint about the war. At one point late in the book during a conversation about painting, Kit tells Paul that “‘your landscapes are bodies,'” and Paul agrees, “‘the wound and the wasteland are the same thing. They aren’t metaphors for each other, it’s closer than that.'”

Barker draws her underpinnings so delicately, and with such mastery that it’s difficult to pick any one resonance to discuss—they’re everywhere. The characters are haunted by wounds, haunted by corpses, grappling with repressed sexualities; they wish for silence and blindness and by the end must choose to speak and see. Small flashes of humanity are the only antidote to the crippling horror of the war.

I’m probably not doing justice to how gripping and fast-moving the story is, nor to the stunning beauty of Barker’s prose, in which no description fails to echo all that swirls beneath the surface. Elinor’s experience dissecting a cadaver (in an anatomy class taken to further her drawing) has become linked in her mind with a night with a lover “as if it were his body on the slab: familiar, frightening and unknown.”

After a terrible incident in the first chapter, the second begins with this description: “Every window gaped wide, as if the house were gasping for breath. Barely visible above the trees, a small, hard, white sun threatened the heat to come. Mother’s precious lawn had turned yellow, with bald patches here and there where the cracked earth showed through. Elinor chased clumps of pale yellow scrambled egg around her plate….”

I am pleased to re-discover Pat Barker, and I see that there’s another recent novel, Still Life, also about the art college in London during the war, which I’d like to read as well. So thanks, McNally Jackson guy. Wish I’d gotten your name.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.